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How to be a proper 'elitist' in the age of Trump

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

"Elitist," as Time magazine culture critic William A. Henry observed in his 1994 book "In Defense of Elitism," has begun to rival if not outstrip "racist" as the "foremost catchall pejorative of our times."

Henry later passed away, but the malady that he described lingers on. The latest evidence of decline in our regard for the upper crust pops up like cinnamon toast in a new Pew Research Center poll of today's attitudes toward higher education.

More than half -- 58 percent -- of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in the poll say colleges and universities have had a "negative impact" on the country. Only two years ago that attitude was expressed by only 37 percent of identifiers with the Grand Old Party. But that group grew a year ago to 45 percent and by this year became a clear majority.

At the same time, more than 70 percent of Democrats and left-leaning independents remained largely unchanged in their view that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country.

What explains this new wave of anti-intellectualism on the right? In some ways, it is nothing new. "The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself," Ralph Waldo Emerson sniffed in 1837. But much of it also is quite new and not entirely limited to the political right. Many, particularly students, on the left also have corrupted the free exchange of ideas that is the life's blood of intellectual growth.

Part of the distemper on the right may be a backlash to news reports of campus unrest that the conservative National Review tagged the "year of the shout-down." The shouted-down or otherwise shut out for controversially conservative views included Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, Charles Murray at Middlebury College, Heather Mac Donald at UCLA and Claremont and Ann Coulter at Berkeley.

Indeed, colleges teach the wrong lessons when they allow students to use the heckler's veto to muzzle speech they don't like instead of learning better debate and argumentation skills.

But strains of anti-intellectualism mostly on the right have infected American politics for decades, at least since the 1950s era of anti-communist witch hunts by Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who railed regularly against lefties on campuses and in the federal government.

Coincidentally, his notoriously ruthless lawyer Roy Cohn became a mentor to now-President Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign and crusade against "political correctness" also coincided with the sharp rise of anti-college attitudes among GOP voters -- and probably helped to fuel it.

Attacking "elites" in colleges, the courts and news media certainly paid off well enough for Trump to win what McCarthy never did, the presidency. Anti-elitism also helps him to galvanize his seemingly rock-hard political base and tap into his supporters' resentments of liberal elites and anyone else they can blame for economic and cultural changes that have left them and their old way of life behind.

But isn't the deep-pocketed, well-connected celebrity Trump an elite, too? Sure, but he deflected and re-shaped that image by portraying himself as a knowledgeable New York insider who has come to save the rest of us from a system that's been rigged against us. "Nobody knows the system better than me," he famously declared in his Republican National Convention speech, "which is why I alone can fix it."

Sure, a lot of his own voters could hear the malarkey in that pitch. But compared to the other GOP candidates and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, at least he was expressing what was on their minds. Whether he can deliver or not, his base enjoys watching him attack their mutual foes in the fashion of a WWE wrestler, whether the show is rigged or not.

Yet the theatrics of media-driven politics overlook the underlying source of modern class grievances: a disruption of upward mobility that has left today's working class kids of all races who lack schooling beyond high school with fewer opportunities to move up the economic ladder -- or even stay employed at a well-paying job.

When I was growing up, the "elites" of our community were those who commanded the most respect. This usually came through their line of work, whether they were business owners or high-ranking politicians or leading schoolteachers, firefighters, police, artists, clergy or other admirable role models.

But when those who win success for themselves and their families appear to be turning their backs on those left behind, they invite a new level of class warfare that can only divide our polarized political landscape even more.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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