Are Elites to Blame for Trump’s Political Success? Yes, According to a New York Debate Audience
The nonprofit debate organization Intelligence Squared facilitated a remarkable spectacle Tuesday evening: two elite conservative media pundits arguing that the failures of their social and economic class are responsible for the rise of Donald Trump — and for his winning by a large margin.
Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist and host of “The Federalist Radio Hour,” began by sounding like historian and author Thomas Frank. Frank’s latest book, “Listen, Liberal,” accused Democrats of ignoring the plight of the working class.
Trump “is neither a disease nor a symptom,” Domenech said. “He is a beta test for a cure. Americans are turning to him because he represents the breakdown of the post-Cold War left/right politics of the nation, a breakdown that has been happening in slow motion for the past two decades, fueled by a dramatic decline of trust in America’s elites.
“Imagine you are one of the millions of middle-aged, unemployed, white Americans with a high school degree,” he continued. “There are today seven million men in prime working age who have dropped out of the labor force. That’s 15 percent. That’s higher than ever — than since the end of the Great Depression. There are millions more who know people personally experiencing this kind of pain as a brother, as an uncle, as a son. Moved from unemployment to disability, you will receive sufficient benefits to subsist, around $1,200 a month, which is enough to pay for the alcohol and the drugs that help you self-medicate.
“Your life is essentially one marked by hopelessness, desperation and anxiety. You are statistically unlikely to ever re-enter the workforce and alone among all demographics the likelihood of suicide is rising for you. The things that make life not only endurable but happy are: religious faith now lost to you, family which is fractured, community which is disintegrated, and work which you find hard to come by. The TV screen flickers with images of people living lives you could never hope to emulate. Your situation is bleak and while our soma today is better it is still not a replacement for the pursuit of happiness. Your tomorrows look dark, but the past, even the grimy parts of it, look like gold. And then a golden-haired man comes on TV, a man who represents a vision of what you might hope your life could be like, a man who is a traitor to his class, who defies the elites, who is rich and successful, who comes from the world of the elites but is strong enough to reject them and their lives and he tells you it’s not your fault.
“It’s not your fault that your life is the way it is. He tells you it’s the fault of immigrants and bad trade deals and wasteful, pointless wars based on lies. He tells you the problem with the elites is not that they are too conservative or that they are too liberal, but that they are stupid and don’t care about you. He tells you with confidence that he alone can make everything great again and you listen. In the absence of the failures of the elites, could Donald Trump succeed? The answer is no. Our elite leadership class sowed the wind and Donald Trump is the whirlwind they’ve reaped.”
Arguing against Domenech, Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post’s “Right Turn” blog took a swipe at her opponents for taking a position she would expect from such members of the “unhinged left” as Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky.
Rubin failed to convince her audience, however. At the end of the hour-and-a-half exchange, the share of the audience inclined to blame elites for the rise of Trump rose 26 points, from 32 percent before the debate to 58 percent afterward. The share of the audience that disagreed with the motion rose only 6 points, from 27 percent before the debate to 33 percent afterward.
Nine percent of the audience remained undecided, far fewer than the 44 percent share who weren’t sure before they heard the arguments.
Joining Domenech was Timothy Carney, senior political columnist at the Washington Examiner and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Accompanying Rubin was Bret Stephens, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for “Global View,” the paper’s foreign affairs column. John Donvan, a regular correspondent for ABC’s Nightline, moderated the debate.
Intelligence Squared recently won the praise of Harvard historian Jill Lepore, who in a September issue of The New Yorker described the organization’s programming as “fantastic.”
Read a full transcript of the debate here.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.Wait, before you go…
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