The populist Right’s abandonment of principle has been accompanied by a repudiation of good taste, achievement, education, refinement, and manners — all of which are abominated as signs of effete “elitism.”
It’s not so simple. One of the many things that Williamson doesn’t understand is that “elitism” itself does not mean what he thinks it does in the cultural battle now going on. In fact, the word deflects from the real problems of poverty and even of the rise of the die-hard Trump supporter as a fixture in American politics. But Williamson doesn’t want to address the realities of poor America, particularly poor white America. As Sarah Jones writes in response for The New Republic:
[L]ow wages, a shrinking safety net, subprime mortgages, unattainable health care, impoverished local schools, among all the other locks that trap the poor in place, can and should be pinned to the very system conservatives want to defend. Williamson fixates on the willful stupidity of the poor because he must. If he didn’t, he’d have to indict his own ideology.
The problem, also, is one of how people see themselves, as Williamson does claim, but the cure is not simply making people believe as those of the so-called “meritocracy” believe. The sources of what he decries as the failure of much of white America has roots that go back centuries and no scolding from the successful is going to change that culture. The problem is that the world around many white Americans has changed and they have not changed with it, something that has led to anger, blame and the search of a messiah who can lead them back to the promise land (a messiah they see in Donald Trump). The truth of the matter, as I wrote in the introduction to The Cult of Individualism (2013) is that an “image of American individualism that had once ‘belonged’ to small-town… [Americans] is theirs no longer. America is no longer theirs either, if it ever was.” This is the source of the anger that has led us to Trump, not just poverty itself or diminished chances. It’s a sense of a loss of control. Until Trump, it was a loss of control.
And responsibility for that belongs to us all.