The ugly elitism of the American right

The ugly elitism of the American right

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Fox News will likely never face any real consequences for the biggest scandal in American media history. But will Republican voters understand who is really underestimating them?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Hate and Apathy

It’s time to talk about elitism.

Last month, I wrote that the revelations about Fox News in the Dominion Voting Systems case have shown that Fox personalities, for all their populist bloviation, are actually titanic elitists. This is not the elitism of those who think they are smarter or more capable than others—I’ll get to that in a moment—but a new and frightening elitism of the American right, a kind of hatred and loathing of part of the right -wing media and political leaders for the people they claim to love and defend. Greed and cynicism and moral poverty can only explain much of what we learn about Fox; what Dominion’s confrontations reveal is a shocking, dehumanizing version of elitism among people who make a living by presenting themselves as the only truth-tellers ordinary Americans can trust.

I am, to say the least, no stranger to accusations of elitism. When I wrote a book in 2018 titled The Death of the Expert, a study of how people have become so narcissistic and so messed up by cable and the internet that they believe they are smarter than doctors and diplomats, I was regularly tagged as an “elitist.” And the truth is: I a.m an elitist, I believe that some people are better at things than others.

But even more than talent and ability, I actually strongly believe that some opinions, political views, personal actions, and life choices are better than others. As I wrote in my book at the time:

Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that every person’s opinion about anything should be accepted as equal to the opinion of others. This is the credo of a fair number of people despite being obviously silly. It is a flat assertion of actual equality that is always irrational, sometimes funny, and often dangerous.

If that sounds elitist, so be it.

Here in, elitism is opposite of populism, whose followers believe that virtue and competence reside in the common wisdom of a vague coalition called “the people.” This disastrous and romantic legend is frequent danger in liberal democracies and constitutional orders founded, first and foremost, on the natural rights of individuals rather than what raw majorities think is right at any given time.

However, it is now used by the American right elitist meaning “people who think they are better than me because they live and work and play differently than me.” They get angry that people—including me—look down on them. And again, truth be told, I am do look down on Trump voters, not because I’m an elitist but because I’m an American citizen and I believe that they, as my fellow citizens, have made the political choices that have done the most damage to our system of government since the Civil War. I refuse to treat their views as simply part of the normal left-right axis of American politics.

(As an aside, note that insecure whining about being “looked down upon” is wildly asymmetrical: Trump voters have no problem viewing their opponents as traitors, pervertsand, as Donald Trump himself once put it, “human excrement.” But they respond to criticism with a kind of hurt, as if others must accept their emotional well-being. Many of these same people were happily adopted “Fuck your feelings” as a rallying cry but don’t expect it to be a slogan that works the same way.)

In 2016, I believed that good people make mistakes. In 2023, I cannot dismiss their choices as mere mistakes. Instead, I accept and respect the human agency that led Trump supporters to their current choices. In fact, I am insist in recognition of that agency: I’ve never agreed with people who dismiss Trump voters as robotic simpletons mesmerized by Russian memes. I believe that Trump supporters today are people who are making a conscious, informed, and morally flawed choice to continue to support a sociopath and a party full of seditionists.

I have argued with some of these people. Sometimes, I mock them. Mostly, I have refused to engage they But regardless of my feelings about the abhorrent choices of Trump supporters, here’s something I haven’t seen Fox hosts do in years: enjoyed any of the people I disagree with.

Unlike people like Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, I never told anyone—including you, readers of The Atlantic—anything I don’t believe. What we see on Fox, however, is lies on a grand scale, done with a mocking hatred for the audience and a cool indifference to the damage being done to the country. Fox, and the Republican Party it serves, has for years relentlessly pandered to its viewers, pleading with viewers about how they deserve to distrust others, pounding the desk about the corruption of American institutions, and yelling into the camera about how liars they are. and traitors must pay.

Fox’s stars did all this while talking privately to each other and rolling their eyes with disdain, admitting shamelessly that they were lying through their teeth. From Rupert Murdoch came downtop Fox personalities admitted to feeding the rubes all red, rotting meat to keep them off the Fox alms trail to Long Island and Connecticut.

You can see the same kind of contemptuous elitism in Republicans like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Elise Stefanik. They don’t care about voters—those hoopheads back to the country needing to calm idiotic rhetoric against trans people and “critical race theory.” These politicians are raised to be leaders, you see, and getting a few votes from the hayseeds at home requires a little performance art now and then, a small price to pay so that the sons and daughters of Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Stanford, could live in the imperial capital and rule as they deserved and by right.

A few years ago, I was at a meeting of one of the committees of the National Academy of Sciences. The conferees asked me how scientists—there were Nobel Laureates in the room—defend the goal of knowledge. Stand up, I told them. Don’t hesitate to tell people they are wrong. One panel member shook his head: “Tom, people don’t like being embarrassed.” I said, “I agree, but what they hate more is to be enjoyed.

I believed it then, but we are now testing that hypothesis on a national scale. I hope I’m not wrong.


Today’s news

  1. President Joe Biden suggested the third budget of his presidency in Congress.
  2. Russia used more than 80 missiles, including some of the most advanced aerial weapons in its arsenal, in a large-scale attack on Ukraine’s infrastructure.
  3. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is on treated for a concussion after a fall.


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Evening Reading

An abstract image of green liquid pouring from a dark portal.
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; Getty

We Program ChatGPT In This Article

By Ian Bogost

ChatGPT, the internet’s popular AI text generator, has taken on a new form. Once a website you could visit, it’s now a service you can integrate with software of all kinds, from spreadsheet programs to delivery apps to magazine websites like this one. Snapchat added ChatGPT on its chat service (it suggested that users could type “Can you write me a haiku about my friend Lukas who is obsessed with cheese?”), and Instacart plans to add a recipe robot. More to come.

They will be more unique than you can imagine. Instead of a big AI chat app that delivers knowledge or cheese poetry, the ChatGPT service (and others like it) will be an AI confetti bomb that sticks to everyone. AI text in your grocery app. AI text your workplace-compliance courseware. AI text in your HVAC how-to guide. AI text everywhere—even later in this article—thanks to an API.

Read the full article.

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watch We don’t live in the country much Poker face (streaming on Peacock) illustrates. But, in a strange way, we must ask, writes our critic.

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If you want a funnier defense of elitism—okay, a downright funny and entertaining one—check out Joel Stein’s 2019 book, In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book. I must admit that I liked it in it (Joel interviewed me, naturally, as a defender of elitism), but it’s also a sly exploration of the culture war that erupted after Trump redefined select people meaning anyone he does not like, except when he uses the same word to refer to himself and anyone who likes him.

Stein spoke to many people, including Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, who has yet to light the fire of his self-cancellation. (When Stein visited him, however, you could see it coming.) Stein even sat down with—wait for it—Tucker Carlson. When Stein realizes that Carlson is slapping James Joyce’s classic Ulysseshe said, “I want to throw Tucker into the sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.”

A writer who can make Tucker Carlson laugh while riffing on James Joyce is a writer you want to read.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.