scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Globe Magazine

If the elites go down, we’re all in trouble

Self-proclaimed populists love to blame “over-educated know-it-alls” for the government’s ills. Now the scapegoating has taken a dangerous turn.

Mark Smith for The Boston Globe

SURE, THE INFAMOUS New Yorker interview granted by White House communications-chief-for-less-than-a-fortnight Anthony Scaramucci (long live The Mooch!) was historic, if only for its lasting imagery of Steve Bannon in contortionistic self-pleasure. But I contend that a less noticed interview The Mooch gave during his 11-day tenure was actually far more revealing and important.

During a live stand-up outside the West Wing, Scaramucci insisted to a BBC television journalist that there was nothing to the alleged collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia, but the story was being kept alive by “the elites and the media establishment.”

With eyebrows fully arched, the BBC journalist replied, “What part of Donald Trump is not elite? The business side or the politics side? Or the inheritance side . . . . He’s a celebrity. He’s a billionaire.”


Scaramucci didn’t miss a beat. “How about the cheeseburgers?” he asked. “How about the pizza?”

The fact that Scaramucci, a Wall Street player with an estimated net worth of up to $1.5 billion, was using President Trump’s weakness for fast food as the chief evidence that the real estate mogul and reality TV star is not a member of the elite was simply too much for the BBC’s Emily Maitlis. “Everyone eats cheeseburgers and pizzas,” she shot back, mockery oozing from her voice like grease from a patty. “What are you talking about?”

Scaramucci’s claim was so preposterous it hardly seemed worth a response. But that’s what makes it so revealing.

For decades, many logical, rational people ignored the crusade against elites because it was built on such an obviously illogical, irrational premise. Instead of engaging political opponents in an honest debate about issues troubling the nation, it sought to silence those opponents simply by presenting them as members of an effete, out-of-touch, know-it-all elite.


While the word elite had once connoted wealth and breeding, the right-leaning agitators behind this crusade — many of whom were wealthy themselves — worked to redefine it. They established new proxies for elitism, notably education at liberal Ivy League colleges. When that didn’t suit their purposes, such as in the 2004 presidential election that pitted Yale grad (and decorated veteran) John Kerry against Yale grad George W. Bush, they looked for substitute elite markers that could be just as disqualifying. Those included Kerry’s marriage to an heiress, fluency in French, and fondness for windsurfing.

You’d think the fact that Scaramucci had to resort to cheeseburgers to keep this anti-elite nonsense going would be evidence that the crusade had finally run out of gas. In reality, it is a reminder of just how insidiously successful the blame game against elites has been.

It’s not just that Trump managed to ride his rowdy, anti-elite rallies into the White House, despite being an Ivy League-educated son of privilege whose home bathroom has 24-karat-gold fixtures and who, as a child, sometimes relied on his chauffeur to drive him along his paper route.

It’s not even that Trump appointed the richest Cabinet in history, featuring many secretaries who have absolutely no experience with the departments he has asked them to run (while tapping his wealthy 36-year-old son-in-law to oversee pretty much everything else). Surgeon Ben Carson is running the Department of Housing and Urban Development, despite having no experience with either housing or development. Betsy DeVos is running Education, despite having no experience in public education as an educator — or even as a parent of a public-school student. Scott Pruitt is running the Environmental Protection Agency, despite being so hostile to the agency’s mission that as Oklahoma attorney general he repeatedly sued it. And Rick Perry is running Energy, replacing a man considered by many Republicans as well as Democrats to be perhaps the most qualified energy secretary in US history. During a televised  debate when he was running for president, Perry boasted he wouldn’t waste any time eliminating three federal departments, but stumbled as he tried to remember the name of the third. It was, of course, Energy.


None of this would have been cause for alarm if these appointees had followed the lead of inexperienced Cabinet secretaries in previous administrations and leaned heavily on the deep bench of experts within their departments. Administrations come and go, but the government has always relied on career people with expertise in their subject areas, thanks to their extensive education, training, and hands-on experience.

Yet in keeping with the way President Trump disparaged and disregarded the various intelligence agencies in his own government, many of his Cabinet secretaries have frozen out — or forced out — highly experienced specialists within their departments. Team Trump has sought to discredit these career, non-politically appointed officials by accusing them of being plotting Obama administration holdovers and calling them “deep state” actors. That’s the term long favored by conspiracy theorists to suggest a cadre of shadowy permanent-government elites.


Even before Trump took office, his transition team sought to isolate scientists at the Energy Department who had attended climate change meetings hosted by the United Nations. At EPA, Pruitt has put climate experts on notice while working to carry out Trump’s planned 40 percent cut of the agency’s main scientific branch. At the State Department, Secretary Rex Tillerson, another outsider with only private-sector experience, has reportedly shut out all but a sliver of the specialists on his org chart.

While most of us were ignoring the long anti-elite crusade that began as a cynical attempt to paint opposing politicians as arrogant East Coast dilettantes, it morphed into a far more dangerous jihad against expertise at any level of government. To put it in Gilligan’s Island terms, they have taken the Professor and repackaged him as Thurston Howell III.

That helps explain Trump’s response to Vladimir Putin’s expulsion this summer of hundreds of American diplomats and embassy staff from Russia. Bizarrely, the American president thanked the Russian dictator, saying these professionals aren’t needed anyway and the expulsion will save the United States money. (Wrong on both counts. Career foreign-service officers are entitled by law to reassignment.) Yet somehow Trump faced absolutely no blowback from a Republican Party that historically viewed Russia as America’s most dangerous foe. Maybe the diplomats don’t like cheeseburgers.

Of course, the establishment elites are not blameless. Over the years, many of them made confident predictions, about everything from free trade agreements to Middle East strategy, that turned out to be disastrously wrong. After all, it wasn’t just Trump who brilliantly tapped into anti-elite sentiment in the 2016 campaign and turned it into electoral success. So did Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian socialist who managed to win 23 primaries and caucuses and 13.2 million votes.


Still, we have reached a dangerous point when an administration whose party controls the White House, both houses of Congress, and two-thirds of the state legislatures can scapegoat thousands of highly experienced government scientists, diplomats, and intelligence specialists, tossing them all into a basket of deplored elites.

It’s time to wage a new war in defense of expertise in government. And if it’s too late to prevent the word elite from being used as a weapon, it’s time to embrace it and redefine it as something good.

Thomas Jefferson. globe staff illustration

THIS TENSION IN AMERICAN POLITICS is as old as this country — and actually older than the English word elite itself. From the start, it’s been bedeviled by some crazy contradictions.

In the early days of the nation, Thomas Jefferson and his supporters accused both Alexander Hamilton and John Adams of being elitist, though they opted for terms like “monarchist.” (Elite, from the French word meaning “to select,” didn’t gain traction in English until the 1820s.) The irony was pretty rich. Jefferson, a slaveholding, French-wine-fetishizing aristocrat who lived on a mountaintop plantation, was calling out both Hamilton, an immigrant born penniless and out of wedlock, and Adams, a farmer’s son who cut his own hay. Yet it worked, helping Jefferson oust incumbent Adams from the presidency in 1800.

In pedigree and attitude, Adams’s oldest son, John Quincy, was the definition of an elite, though one acutely aware of his noblesse oblige. As president, his progressive agenda was at least a half-century ahead of its time. It never got out of neutral.

During Adams’s failed reelection campaign of 1828, Andrew Jackson, a coarse, uneducated war hero (and Indian tormenter), was able to tar the incumbent president as an out-of-touch elite. (Jackson was born poor but had become a wealthy slaveholder.) The Adams camp predicted doom if Jackson won. After thousands of anti-elite supporters got trashed on whiskey punch at Jackson’s inaugural party, smashing White House crystal and damaging damask furniture, Adams’s people clucked their we-told-you-so’s. (It’s worth noting that Donald Trump, who almost never extols any previous occupant of the Oval Office, makes an exception for Jackson. “There hasn’t been anything like this since Andrew Jackson,” Trump said not long after his own populist-fueled win. “What year was Andrew Jackson? That was a long time ago.”)

In the 20th century, the anti-elite train picked up steam in response to the massive, rapid expansion of the federal government under Franklin Roosevelt. Historian Richard Hofstadter argued in his 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that resentment against elites was an important driver behind the years of support that Senator Joe McCarthy enjoyed for his red-baiting witch hunts. If rural congressmen couldn’t challenge all the pedigreed urban experts who had taken the reins of government during the New Deal, they could secretly delight in seeing these elites squirm under relentless questioning by McCarthy during Senate hearings.

Again, it’s worth noting the connections to the present day: Roy Cohn was McCarthy’s chief strategist in the 1950s. By the 1970s he was serving as Donald Trump’s trusted tutor in the dark arts of manipulation, teaching him how to win even when you’re losing — and how to get the common man on your side. Cohn biographer Nicholas von Hoffman tells me few people were as good as Cohn at caricaturing the elite establishment while also being part of it. Cohn was an opera lover who had a yacht and a Rolls-Royce.

The year after Hofstadter’s book came out, Ronald Reagan went after urban elites in a big way. In his “A Time for Choosing” address during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run, Reagan defined the central question of the election as “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Reagan’s indictment was a bit too early, coming so soon after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who had tapped enough of his former Harvard professors as advisers to make Washington feel like Cambridge on the Potomac.

By the time of Reagan’s election in 1980, though, the nation was ready to embrace his anti-elite, limited-government argument. When he said, “Government isn’t the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Reagan was hewing to a playbook that the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks had been carefully building to discredit the Washington establishment. His watershed election came at the conclusion of a decade draped in malaise. From the best-and-the-brightest-fueled quagmire of Vietnam to the corrosive lies of Watergate to the economist-defying persistence of stagflation, the ’70s had seen the wisdom of elites take a well-deserved hit.

Reagan was also a realist, though, making deals that undercut his limited-government agenda. After two terms, he left the federal government markedly larger than he had found it.

Although the anti-elite argument is typically pushed by Republicans, it does not break cleanly along partisan lines.

Reagan’s successor, George Bush, was accused by Democrats and Republicans alike of being an out-of-touch elite. Witness the infamous supermarket scanner incident early in Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign, when his alleged amazement at scanners that were already in wide use was seen as evidence of his disconnect from the experiences of average Americans. Never mind that this whole incident was thoroughly debunked. The baggage remained because it fit the image of Bush as a patrician, East Coast elite.

Guilty as charged. As the son of a US senator from an established New England Yankee family and a graduate of both Phillips Academy, Andover, and Yale, George Herbert Walker Bush was unquestionably a member of the elite. But so what? He also happened to be the best-prepared president to enter the Oval Office across the 20th century.

Whatever you think of Bush as a president overall, the world was fortunate that when the Soviet Union fell, it did so on his watch. It is almost inconceivable that the incredibly destabilizing collapse of one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers could have taken place without triggering widespread bloodshed. It’s also no accident. Catastrophe didn’t happen in large part because of the sound, confident judgment of this elite president, aided by his elite secretary of state, Jim Baker (the product of one of Texas’s most influential families), and his elite national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (a West Point grad with a PhD from Columbia).

People forget the intense pressure that Bush was getting from both Republican and Democratic leaders to be more assertive in claiming American victory as the Evil Empire was starting to unravel. Thankfully, Bush had the good sense to keep his focus on intense, behind-the-scenes statesmanship. He knew that any short-term gains from peacocking almost certainly would have led to instability and bloodshed, by either forcing the hand of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev or seeing him toppled in a coup.

“As a politician, it would have been so easy to jump up and down to say ‘America won!’ ” argues historian and Bush 41 biographer Timothy Naftali. “And that would have been the dumbest thing to do strategically.”

Bush 41’s expertise at that crucial moment in world history saved incalculable lives. If that’s what you get with elite experience, sign me up for more. (Then again, if there had been no Bush 41, there would never have been a Bush 43, a presidency whose mistakes ended up needlessly costing so many lives.)

Interestingly, the elite tag isn’t uniformly applied — not even within families. Though he had an even more privileged upbringing than his father, Bush’s eldest son, George W., was for some reason never weighed down with the scarlet E. (His born-again Christianity and recovery from alcoholism may have helped.)

Despite his privilege, George W. came to the presidency with far less relevant experience than his father. Bush 41 had been a vice president, ambassador to both the UN and China, congressman, CIA director, and war hero. Bush 43 served less than six years as Texas governor, a position that state’s constitution makes weak.

Unlike Trump, Bush 43 sought to compensate for his lack of experience by surrounding himself with people who had decades of it. Yet his inexperience and incuriosity allowed him to be rolled when the most dominant members of his national security team — Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s top deputy, Paul Wolfowitz — pushed a mistaken war.

Then, in a case of astounding hubris, this team of Washington veterans deliberately put in charge of the Iraqi occupation a man who spoke no Arabic, had no experience in the military or running a large organization, and had never even visited Iraq. That man, Paul Bremer, who was very accomplished in other ways, once told me his inexperience with Iraq seemed to be part of the appeal for Bush’s team. They saw him as not being “infected” by the “defeatist” attitudes in the State Department that questioned whether democracy was possible in the Arab world.

In a conversation with Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who served 27 years in the State Department, including as undersecretary of state for Bush 43, I mention the apparent bias against experience behind the Iraqi occupation appointment. “Look how Iraq turned out,” Burns replies. “The occupation of Iraq was a disaster. It only began to turn around when two career people were appointed, an ambassador who had lived his life in the Arab world, and a general” who had earned his PhD from Princeton, he says. “The surge worked in large part because we had two very experienced, highly competent, elite people in Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus.”

Burns, who served both Republican and Democratic presidents, is now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He says he’s appalled by the way Trump has disparaged the vital role played by career foreign service officers, acting as if a public servant has to be in uniform to warrant respect. “My goodness, look at the wars that were stopped in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. We did magnificent things in both places to save people’s lives,” Burns says. “Who brought them about? Richard Holbrooke. Madeleine Albright. Career people with great expertise. Why wouldn’t you want to rely on people like that?”

mark smith for the boston globe

SO THE FIRST STEP in mounting our defense of elites is to remind people of all the lives that expertise in government has saved, and all those its absence has cost.

As glibly as people toss around the “elite” hand grenade, trying to take out not just big-name national candidates but also no-name scientists and experts doing important work in the trenches, it’s essential that we remember how serious this war really is. There are enormous consequences for us all when we can’t, or don’t, lean on tested people steeped in knowledge to guide the government.

In 2000, the Brookings Institution surveyed a cross section of 450 historians and political science professors and asked them to rank the top achievements of government during the second half of the 20th century. Look closely at each of the top 10 achievements — from rebuilding Europe after World War II through the Marshall Plan to reducing polio and other diseases through the development of vaccines to ensuring safe food and drinking water through a host of enforcement measures — and you’ll find the fingerprints of elite expertise on each one.

“Many of the people who today are denouncing experts were children at the time of the Apollo mission,” says Naftali, the historian. “They were proud to see America put a man on the moon. Do they think that would have been possible without expertise?”

In mounting this defense, it will also be important to expose the empty hate and coded bigotry behind some of the anti-elite rhetoric. Occasionally when people come out against elites, what they are really saying is they prefer a time when women or gays or Jews or any number of other minorities knew their place. Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore — who had been suspended twice, for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument and for refusing to recognize same-sex marriage, in defiance of the US Supreme Court — just won the Republican primary runoff in the race to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat. He boasted that he came out on top in the preliminary election because voters rejected “silk-stocking Washington elitists.” It’s not entirely clear which group he was mocking with that comment, but it’s a safe bet he wasn’t really talking about hosiery.

This defense of elite expertise will also demand some self-policing. We must make sure the ranks of the elite in the public square are filled with good people who have relevant experience. That also means sending out to pasture all those genuine Thurston Howells who love jetting off to Davos and talking to Charlie Rose but whose level of usefulness is completely out of whack with their level of confidence.

During a reporting trip to the Middle East on the eve of the Iraq War, I had lunch in Cairo with two retired Egyptian diplomats. I had a full list of the people from various walks of life whom I would meet with during my time in Egypt, but the head of the government press office insisted I take this meeting with two “distinguished” former diplomats. Lunch was at an exclusive club with waiters in full Nubian dress. At one point, one of the retired diplomats leaned in close to me and self-assuredly pronounced what was motivating the “Arab street.” I remember thinking: This guy wouldn’t know the Arab street if he tripped over it.

Most of all, this defense of elite expertise will require a lot of deep soul-searching to explore where and why it has led us astray in the past.

Jake Sullivan grew up in a middle-class family in Minneapolis, attending public high school. Following the American ideal of meritocracy, he used his brains and talent to go to Yale University, become a Rhodes scholar, and return to Yale for his law degree. He served as a senior foreign policy adviser in the Obama administration and was Hillary Clinton’s chief foreign policy adviser during the 2016 campaign. Only 39 years old at the time of the election, he was considered a shoo-in to become her national security adviser after she assumed the presidency.

Of course, that never happened. While others in the Clinton campaign have busied themselves pointing fingers, Sullivan has used the soul-crushing experience to ask hard questions of himself and the people around him.

“Why did the establishment consensus satisfy itself that most things were more or less OK,” he asks, “when most people didn’t feel that way and, in fact, there are a number of indications to suggest that things are not mostly OK?” Having grown up in a middle-class Midwestern family, he recognizes an important gap between the lives of the elites in his current circle and the “lived experience” of average Americans. “People look a generation ahead and don’t believe their kids are going to do as well as they did. And that produces a profound sense of insecurity.”

While Sullivan doesn’t buy the premise behind the anti-elite campaign, he has come to see the pressing need for elites in the corridors of power to diversify their ranks. “I do believe the circle has narrowed too much, and the people in it look and think too much like each other,” he tells me. “We need to find a way to broaden those experiences.”

As Americans, we should all be concerned that every current member of the Supreme Court went to law school at either Harvard or Yale. That’s far too fine a sieve. Sullivan recognizes this, and he is currently a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School.

This lack of experiential diversity has made elite expertise more vulnerable to attacks like the one Trump and members of his team are waging against the “deep state” experts in the government. “They’re taking a large, incredibly professional and talented pool of public servants and telling them, ‘You guys are adversaries rather than partners,’ ” Sullivan says. “That, to me, is incredibly dangerous.”

Yet if elites don’t expand their circle, they won’t be able to deepen their understanding of what’s really going on in the country. Trump and Bernie Sanders both connected with voters less because of the solutions they were offering than because of their talent at channeling regular people’s fears and frustrations, Sullivan says. “As long as those of us who think Trump is a menace cannot understand why people are attracted to him, we are not going to succeed politically.”

Before she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Harvard professor, and ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power was an immigrant kid from Ireland growing up in Georgia. “If I had stayed in Georgia and not gone off to Yale and Harvard Law School and been blessed to have this amazing but, in its way, removed education, maybe I would be better at selling our climate change policies to the skeptics I grew up with,” she tells me. “We’ve got to find a way to translate these important issues into terms that can build public support in red and blue communities.”

The trick will be managing to prevent the conversation from getting immediately shut down because people don’t want to be lectured to by some member of the elite. That means learning to listen more than lecture, and somehow figuring out how to take the sting out of the word elite.

Power acknowledges that last part won’t be easy. “No one in modern history has probably wanted to self-identify as being part of the elite, since it’s heard as saying, ‘I’m a snob.’ ” However, she adds, “people do strive to be expert.”

So let’s get started. I’ll bring the cheeseburgers.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.