Thomas B. Edsall
Thomas B. Edsall

The election of President Trump has coincided with a reaction among Republican voters against open-mindedness, open borders and an open society in general — not to mention a growing hostility to cognitive elites.

Take a recent survey showing a fundamental shift in the attitude of Republicans toward the value of higher education.

Between 2010 and 2017, the Pew Research Center asked voters whether colleges and universities have a positive or negative effect “on the way things are going in the country.”

From 2010 to 2015, solid majorities of Republicans and Democrats agreed that institutions of higher learning had a positive effect on America. In 2010, Republicans were 58-32 positive and Democrats 65-22. For Democrats, this pattern grew stronger over time, reaching 72-19 in the most recent polling in June.

That was not the case for Republicans, who flipped from positive to negative on college education.

In a survey that was conducted from Aug. 23 to Sept. 2, 2016 — a month after Trump accepted his party’s nomination — Republicans’ positive assessment of colleges and universities fell to 43 percent, while negative assessments rose to 45 percent. By June of this year, 58 percent of Republicans had a negative view of higher education and 36 percent a positive view.

Wariness toward homegrown cognitive elites now parallels suspicion of foreign-born entrepreneurs, including those who generate jobs and wealth for Americans.

On July 10, the Department of Homeland Security proposed the dismantling of a federal regulation that would have encouraged more entrepreneurs to build start-ups and to finance high-tech ventures in the United States.

The otherwise little noticed Homeland Security action on the International Entrepreneurship Rule infuriated the high-tech industry. Bobby Franklin, the president and C.E.O. of the National Venture Capital Association declared in a statement:

At a time when countries around the world are doing all they can to attract and retain talented individuals to come to their shores to build and grow innovative companies, the Trump Administration is signaling its intent to do the exact opposite.

Gary Shapiro, the president and C.E.O. of the Consumer Technology Association, issued a similar statement:

Imagine if we had sent half of Silicon Valley’s immigrant entrepreneurs away. The 44 immigrant-founded billion-dollar start-ups now in the U.S. have created an average of 760 American jobs per company. Without these immigrant entrepreneurs, it is unlikely America would stand as the beacon of innovation that it is today.

Countless analyses have demonstrated that Trump won the election by combining support from traditional Republican voters with a surge in backing from constituencies that contemporary economic and cultural developments have left behind.

But Trump did not campaign against economic elites. Instead, he built a fire under animosity toward what has been called “the creative class” by Richard Florida, the demographer; the “plutonomy” by three analysts at Citigroup; and the “cosmopolitan class” by Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale.

In recent decades, this class has become increasingly influential in setting cultural standards and in shaping contemporary values. Its success has provoked deepening resentment, to say the least.

“The New Elite marry each other, combining their large incomes and genius genes, and then produce offspring who get the benefit of both,” Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Coming Apart,” wrote in the Washington Post:

Far from spending their college years in a meritocratic melting pot, the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them — which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege.

Chrystia Freeland, a journalist-turned-politician who is now Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, described this class during President Barack Obama’s first term as

hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition — and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a trans-global community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home.

Simon Kuper, in a May Financial Times essay, captured the sources of this resentment among the less well educated:

Picture a coffee shop in a big city almost anywhere on earth. It is filled with stylish, firm-bodied people aged under 50 drinking $5 coffees. Fresh from yoga class, they are reading New Yorker magazine articles about inequality before returning to their tiny $1.5 million apartments. This is the cultural elite.

Trump, Kuper explains, labels this constituency

“the elite” but not all class members are rich. Adjunct professors, NGO workers and unemployed screenwriters belong alongside Mark Zuckerberg. Rather, what defines the cultural elite is education. Most of its members went to brand-name universities, and consider themselves deserving rather than entitled. They believe in facts and experts. Most grew up comfortably off in the post-1970s boom. Their education is their insurance policy and, so almost whatever their income, they suffer less economic anxiety than older or lesser educated people. Their political utopia is high-tax, egalitarian, feminist and green.

The reaction against this class, which found expression in the 2016 election, has proved deeply troubling in some quarters.

Richard Florida, in an email to me, was harsh in his assessment of consequences of the current anti-elite reaction:

The United States is the first advanced nation since Japan and Germany during World War II to turn its back on progress and liberalism.

In doing so, the United States threatens its status as “the most innovative, most knowledge driven, most powerful nation on earth,” according to Florida:

The political backlash from this divide can kill us. It is the only thing that can hold back our cities and stop talented and ambitious people from coming here.

In a new book, “The Road to Somewhere,” David Goodhart, the head of demography, immigration and integration at Policy Exchange, a British think tank, describes the political divisions that emerged here and in the Brexit election in Britain. Both became struggles between what he calls “somewhere” people and “anywhere” people.

Anywhere folks, according to Goodhart, who is himself a member of the anywhere class (though writing from the perspective of the United Kingdom) “dominate our culture and society” armed with college and advanced degrees:

Such people have portable “achieved” identities, based on educational and career success which makes them generally comfortable and confident with new places and people.

The anywhere voter values “autonomy, mobility and novelty” while giving much lower priority to group identity, tradition and patriotic expression. They view globalization, immigration, self-realization and meritocracy as positive concepts.

Somewhere voters, in Goodhart’s description, are

more rooted and have “ascribed” identities — Scottish farmer, working class Geordie, Cornish housewife — based on group belonging and particular places, which is why they find rapid change more unsettling. One core group of Somewheres have been the so-called ‘left behind’ – mainly older white working class men with little education.

Most are neither bigots nor xenophobes, according to Goodhart, and they generally accept the liberalization of “attitudes to race, gender and sexuality,” but this acceptance has

been more selective and tentative, and has not extended to enthusiasm for mass immigration or European integration.

One of the more interesting findings that came out of the 2016 election in the United States — a finding that reinforces Goodhart’s thesis — is that voters who never left, or remain close to, their hometowns tended to vote for Trump, while those who moved away were inclined to support Hillary Clinton.

Among voters for Clinton, 27 percent lived in their hometown and 43 percent lived 2 hours or more away from their hometown; among Trump supporters, 36 percent lived in their hometown and 37 percent lived 2 or more hours away.

James Stimson, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, sent me his own critical assessment of this phenomenon:

Give a randomly selected group the choice, stay or go, and those who choose to go will be profoundly different from those who stay. And thus when we observe the behavior of those who live in distressed areas, we are not observing the effect of economic decline on the working class, we are observing a highly selected group of people who faced economic adversity and choose to stay at home and accept it when others sought and found opportunity elsewhere.

Those who choose to leave such communities and find their fortune elsewhere are, in Stimson’s view,

ambitious and confident in their abilities. Those who are fearful, conservative, in the social sense, and lack ambition stay and accept decline.

Given that, Stimson says:

I don’t see them as once proud workers, now dispossessed, but rather as people of limited ambition who might have sought better opportunity elsewhere and did not. I see their social problems more as explanations of why they didn’t seek out opportunity when they might have than as the result of lost employment.

Stimson then poses another question: “Should the Democratic Party cater to these voters?” His answer is an unequivocal no:

The [rural] working class was once mainstream America, the most common and typical of all of us. It is now the residue of failed social mobility, when most have been mobile. After decades of social mobility, that residue is now more distinctive, it is those who are not willing to grab the ring, but rather to remain in the hometown and fear change and others. These people should be Trump voters.

While Stimson’s analysis is harsh — criticizing as it does many hardworking men and women whose loyalties to family, friend, community and church may supersede personal ambition — he captures a crucial element of contemporary politics. This is the potential of an angry electorate to provide a key base of support to a politician like Trump who capitalizes on resentment, intensifies racial and ethnic hostility and lies with abandon as a means to his ends.

While Trump pulled out an Electoral College victory by mobilizing resentful voters and turning out more traditional Republicans, there are significant questions about the continuing viability of his coalition.

William Frey, a demographer at Brookings who just published a paper “Census shows nonmetropolitan America is whiter, getting older, and losing population,” wrote in response to my email inquiry:

“I think that ‘somewhere people’ are a fast shrinking sliver of the American population.” As the economy changes, Frey argued,

younger people, millennials and upcoming generations are increasingly moving to where the jobs are, and are more comfortable with diversity and global connectivity.

If Democrats have one thing to be grateful for, it’s Trump’s failure to live up to his campaign promises on health care and taxes, at least so far.

In practice, Trump is going in the opposite direction, pressing for a radical alteration of health care policy that directly conflicts with the interests of millions of his supporters, and for legislation catering to the demands of the wealthiest Republicans for reduced tax burdens.

On Nov. 7, 2016, the day before the election, Trump declared:

We will massively cut taxes for the middle class, the forgotten people, the forgotten men and women of this country, who built our country.

As was widely pointed out during the ongoing Congressional debates over legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump promised at least five times during the campaign that he would not cut Medicaid. These promises included a tweet on May 7, 2015:

Democrats, then, have both demographic trends and Trump’s abandonment (for now) of the moderate and lower income wing of his coalition to boost their prospects in 2020 — and perhaps in the 2018 midterms. Even where Trump has begun to address the demands of his supporters — a reduction in unauthorized southwest border crossings — his success is due more to his anti-immigrant rhetoric than any substantive policy initiative.

American politics has become fluid and volatile. Income differences have been supplanted by cultural and social practices closely linked to levels of educational attainment. Political partisanship is now firmly linked to race, with whiteness defining one of the two major political parties. Religiosity has taken on new meaning — if one can call it that — with devout churchgoers supporting an avowed libertine. In that sense, both sides agree that morality has become a matter of personal discretion. Partisans impute evil to their adversaries, and the meritocratic elect have barred the gates.

Trump has intuitively exploited this chaos. He is not at the end of his string, not by a long shot. His life demonstrates his will to win. His vulnerabilities and his pathologies are also astoundingly clear. While his critics are convinced that Trump the chameleon is masquerading as the protector of the left behind, he has in fact tapped into vast anger over immigration, which has shot up over the past 50 years — and there is no good reason to believe that this anger will dissipate by 2020.

The question that remains is whether President Trump can continue to exploit the fissures he opened as candidate Trump. The answers history provides are not altogether reassuring.