Even as the impeachment drama intensifies in Washington, D.C. with bombshells from John Bolton, political passions are swirling around another story: pundits on CNN mocking supporters of Donald Trump as illiterate rubes.
It’s the old familiar comedy-drama: liberal elites versus the people. The conservative press and social media have erupted in outrage and glee, with many predictions that insults and condescension from the left will push many voters into the Trump camp (just like, in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s reference to hardcore Trump supporters as “deplorables” likely helped Trump). But do they have a legitimate grievance — especially when rallying behind a leader who has made insults his trademark?
The CNN segment focused on the kerfuffle over Secretary of State Mike Pompeo challenging NPR host Mary Louise Kelly to find Ukraine on a map. “Never Trump” Republican Rick Wilson joked about Trump’s ignorance and suggested that Pompeo was playing to “the credulous boomer rube demo … that wants to think that Donald Trump’s the smart one, and … y’all elitists are dumb.” Then, he and New York Times contributing opinion writer Wajahat Ali mimicked Trump supporters with rural Southern accents scoffing at “you elitists with your geography and your maps and your spelling” while CNN's Don Lemon laughed along. (He claims he was still reacting to Wilson’s initial Trump joke.)
Much of the conservative reaction to this viral clip is politically calculated faux outrage (the Republican National Committee already has a new “They think you’re a joke” ad). However, I agree the impromptu comedy showed bad taste and poor judgment. Making fun of accents is playing to nasty stereotypes; it’s wrong whether directed at, say, Mexican-Americans or at white “rubes.”
That said, Wilson had a point about a significant part of the Trump base: people who see Trump’s crassness, boorishness and contempt for expert knowledge as reasons to like him, as evidence that he stands with the people against the arrogant, politically correct elites.
Elite contempt for ordinary Americans is to the right what racism and misogyny are to the left: a form of prejudice that is real, but also vastly amplified by a toxic culture of grievance, hypervigilance and victimhood.
This form of grievance politics became a major force on the conservative scene with the rise of Sarah Palin, who sneered, “I’m sorry that I’m not so hoity-toity” when Republican pundits voiced concern about her conspicuous ignorance and disinterest in ideas. Trump and his fans have raised it to stratospheric levels.
Meanwhile, aggrieved conservatives are ignoring rhetoric on their own side that is at least as hostile to their fellow Americans — going back to when Palin referred to small-town and rural areas as “pro-American parts of the country.” (What does that make the rest of us?) Pro-Trump pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter have made a career out of deriding liberals and Democrats as stupid, “unhinged,” “godless” America-haters or lazy parasites. (Remember the “47%” of “takers” during the 2012 elections? And the videos of mostly black Barack Obama voters clamoring for free “Obama money” and “Obama phones”?)
People professing to be offended by the CNN segment include Fox News regulars Jesse Kelly, who penned an essay in 2018 fantasizing about civil war against the liberals, and Mark Steyn, who once described the “blue” voting base as consisting of sexual perverts, “abortion fetishists,” and immigrants who weren’t properly vetted.
Of course, Trump routinely whips up hate against his version of “deplorables”: Democrats, immigrants — including legal immigrants and refugees who he believes shouldn’t be in this country — and the media.
Dear conservatives: respect for fellow Americans begins at home.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.