How Oblivious Elites Missed the Trump Revolution

It took Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders for the Professional Class to finally realize: The rest of the country is incredibly pissed off — and for good reason.

If you’re a longtime print subscriber to Philadelphia magazine, I can probably make some assumptions about you.

These aren’t just guesses. They’re based on subscriber surveys we’ve done. I know, for instance, that many of you are in your late 40s or early 50s (hey, just like me!) and that you’re more likely than not to live in the suburbs (also just like me). Odds are, you’re well educated, possessing not only a bachelor’s degree but potentially a graduate degree, too. (You have me there; I ditched grad school after a semester). And you’re most likely affluent, with a household income many times the median Philadelphia income. (No, I’m not telling you how much I make.)

Now, we’ve got lots of readers who don’t fit the profile above, particularly those Philadelphians who connect with us online or have subscribed to the magazine more recently. But they’re not the problem here.

We are — you and I both. And you don’t need a survey to see that a big chunk of the country thinks we pretty much suck right now.

For the past four decades, America — and Philadelphia has been no exception — has been ruled by a relatively small, affluent group of elites we might call the Professional Class. They — well, we — are the people who went to good colleges and have built successful careers; who live in the most expensive neighborhoods and send our kids to the top-ranked schools; who spend our free time going to pricey restaurants and taking awesome vacations. The problem, alas, is that for the past several decades, they — we — have overseen a society that’s benefited us and our offspring but virtually no one else. And the masses, rightfully, have started to notice.

Loudest among them are the millions who’ve aligned themselves this year with Donald Trump. Now, Trump is interesting in that he mixes economic gripes (lousy trade deals!) with white working-class grievances (hey, get those Mexicans and Muslims out of my country!), creating a racist, anti-elitist cocktail that’s proven pretty damn intoxicating to a lot of people even as it triggers a gag reflex in others. Indeed, one of the more intriguing facets of the Trump phenomenon has been the way his popularity correlates with education level: The more educated you are, the less likely you are to support him; the less educated you are, the more likely you are to see him as a hero and a champion.

But Trump is hardly the only one calling out the Professional Class these days; there are others, including many on the opposite end of the political and, well, human-decency spectrum from Trump. Black Lives Matter has compelled at least some white elites to confront modern-day racism and police violence. Pope Francis has challenged the world, including the United States, to grapple with growing income inequality, while Bernie Sanders has turned the Democratic primary season upside down with his calls for political and class revolution. That Sanders’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, occupies a spot on the Mount Rushmore of elitism has only helped the Bern’s cause.

Here in Philly, the leading champion of the underdog has been none other than our new mayor, Jim Kenney, who not only came to power with massive union support but in his first hundred days has done as much as possible to distance himself from the elitist tendencies of his predecessor, Michael Nutter. Kenney has gone to bat for free universal pre-K and unveiled a $500 million plan to rebuild libraries, parks and rec centers in neglected neighborhoods. “I think this investment will give people in every community a sense of equity and fairness,” the Mayor said, “that we care about them and we value them as citizens.”

Pundits have dubbed this election cycle the “Year of the Outsider,” and they’re undoubtedly right. Yet I can’t help but look at all the energy that’s been unleashed and wonder if something deeper and more profound isn’t going on — if this isn’t one of those once-every-half-century recalibrations of who makes the rules and for whom the rules get made. And thank God for that.

ONE OF THE GREAT journalistic whiffs of the past few years has been the way the media has perpetually misunderestimated (to use George W. Bush’s fantastic phrase) Donald Trump. For months we were told that his popularity was based on name recognition, or that Trump lovers would come to their senses once they got into a voting booth, or that The Donald’s latest xenophobic/racist/misogynistic comment would finally — finally! — do him in.

How did the media miss so badly? My theory is simple: The beltway journalists who cover national political contests looked around at all their Professional Class friends, saw exactly none who thought Trump was anything but a buffoon, and therefore pronounced his popularity a mirage and the issues he was talking about unimportant.

In many ways, the media’s Trump denial typifies the broader obliviousness the Professional Class has shown when it comes to what’s been happening in America. Then again, can you blame us? After all, with the possible exception of a couple of bumpy years at the depth of the financial crisis, life within the Professional Class has been pretty much swell for a fairly long time.

Start with money. We’ve all heard a lot about income inequality in recent years, but a couple of stats are worth highlighting. Between 1979 and 2007, the top one percent of earners in America saw their incomes go up 275 percent, while the bottom 20 percent saw their incomes rise just 18 percent.

But it’s not just economics. The truth is, the Professional Class has gotten much of what it’s wanted in nearly every facet of American life in recent years — from evolving social values to who fights our wars. In the past 15 years, America has sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to fight overseas — but precious few of them have come from wealthy households. Sure, we’re all for a war on terror, a war against al Qaeda, a war against ISIS. But this is something the nanny can handle, right?

In short, America since the 1980s has been a land of opportunity for the Professional Class and a maze of dead ends for most everyone else. One example: Last fall, two researchers at Princeton noted the soaring mortality rate, since 1999, of middle-aged whites who never went to college. (The black middle-age mortality rate is higher still, but at least it’s trending down.) The researchers said they couldn’t nail down the exact reason for the spike, but the leading causes of death — suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse — tell you all you need to know about the level of despair.

Are we really so surprised that people are pissed? Or that they’re turning to those who effectively channel that rage?

WHY THE PROFESSIONAL CLASS ruled the way it has isn’t easy to pinpoint. Is it somehow connected to the dashed idealism of the ’60s? Our cynicism about government and institutions in the wake of Watergate in the ’70s? The ever-growing number of college graduates, which has made everything — and everyone — so much more competitive? Whatever the cause, by the time the ’80s arrived, the cultural message many of us were getting was clear: No need to worry about the world around you; just go get yours.

And so go and get we did. You can see it not only in the careers many of us chose — the financial industry boomed, while interest in public service faded — but also in the policies elites have supported, many of which put a premium on economic efficiency.

Take NAFTA. I have vivid memories of watching Al Gore and Ross Perot go toe-to-toe over the trade agreement on Larry King’s show back in 1993. (Larry King! Miss you, Larry!) In my mind, the match wasn’t even close — Gore wiped the floor with Perot. The vice president, the quintessential Professional Classer, patiently explained how NAFTA would grow the overall economic pie and therefore be good for everyone, while Perot — a yokel in billionaire’s clothing — kept talking about “that great big sucking sound” of jobs leaving America. A quarter century later, Perot turns out to have been more right than not. Some economists now estimate that NAFTA cost America about 700,000 jobs and suppressed wages and benefits for other workers.

For an example a little closer to home, take Ed Rendell. Now, I’ll say for the record that I’ve always been a fan of Ed’s; the jolt of energy he gave Philly back in the ’90s laid the groundwork for much of the city’s recent revival. But I’ll also admit that Rendell’s signature achievement — “standing up” to the unions and helping right the city’s financial ship — has begun to look a little different to me in recent years. I have no doubt that some economic right-sizing was called for, but as we cheered Ed on, I don’t remember a whole lot of conversation, at least in my crowd, about how exactly a city worker’s family was supposed to cope with less-robust wages — or perhaps no wages at all.

The result of all this — the shift in attitudes, the shift in policies, the shift in the economy — has been deepening economic segregation. Increasingly, the I-Got-Miners live separate and apart from the Too-Bad-You-Didn’t-Get-Yoursers. Not only are our neighborhoods more economically homogenous than ever, but as a recent New York Times piece noted, we’re increasingly likely to marry people within our own station. Love may be blind, but apparently it can still sniff out a J.D. degree.

There are, I think, at least two consequences of this growing separation. The first is something I alluded to earlier — a general blindness among the Professional Class to the struggles of the rest of America. The other is related to that — a failure to appreciate what you have, or, worse, an ever-present anxiety that you still don’t have enough, or that your kids will never, ever be able to repeat your level of success.

A few months ago, my daughter came home from school and asked if we could hire a tutor to help her with SAT prep, as most of her friends’ parents were doing. I love my daughter more than I can possibly say, and I’m enormously proud of who she is and what she’s done. But at that moment, something stirred inside me. Was it the money, the thought of another $1,500 check written in the name of keeping up? Maybe. But it wasn’t just that. It was also a sense of good old-fashioned unfairness. Like all diligent Professional Class parents, my wife and I have tried hard to lay the foundations of a successful life for our kids. We read to them the minute they emerged from the womb, exposed them to theater and art and culture, sent them to private schools. But now, when she was being asked to compete against millions of kids across the country, the message she was getting was that those advantages weren’t enough.

But here’s the thing: My daughter was right, at least from a tactical perspective. She understands, either consciously or unconsciously, that she isn’t really competing with all those kids at the big public high school down the street. In the world we’ve made for her, she has a huge head start on them already. No, she’s going up against her fellow Professional Class kids for one of the few remaining seats at the elite table, and in that game, 40 or 50 SAT points can make a massive difference.

We hired the tutor. And yes, I am the world’s biggest hypocrite.

IN THEIR COVERAGE of Trump, the media like to point out the irony of a platinum-plated billionaire leading a populist insurgency. But I wonder: Is it really so ironic? Hasn’t Trump always had his finger on the pulse of the working class?

In the late ’80s, I worked at a small magazine in Atlantic City, which means I had a pretty decent seat for Trump’s first star turn, as a boy-wonder developer erecting skyscrapers and casinos. What was obvious if you walked around his gaming halls, though, was that Trump wasn’t playing to the one-percenters. In their glitz and garishness, Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal and Trump’s Castle were a working stiff’s idea of a rich person’s life. Trump says he likes to play to people’s fantasies. That requires understanding what those fantasies are — and appreciating how far people are from achieving them.

In one of his victory speeches a couple of months ago, as he was ticking through the various groups who’d supported him, Trump — a Penn grad — seemed particularly proud that he’d won “the poorly educated.” He then added, “I love the poorly educated.” Does he? Well, I suspect he does, as long as they’re voting for him. But what might matter more is that he’s noticed them. And they’ve noticed being noticed.

Look, let me be clear: Donald Trump is an asshole. At best, he exploits people’s fears for his own gain. At worst, he’s the most dangerous public figure of my lifetime. But you have to allow him this: He’s given voice to the anxieties of a vast segment of the population that many of us haven’t thought too much about while we’ve been debating which of Michael Solomonov’s restaurants we like best.

Trump hardly agrees on anything with Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter (not to mention the Pope and Jim Kenney), but they’re all responding to the same basic phenomenon: A lot of people feel like they’ve been getting screwed for a fairly long time. And it’s hard to tell them they’re wrong.

And so maybe all those people also have a similar message for those of us in the Professional Class — a message about our leadership and stewardship these past few decades. It’s a line Trump himself would love: “You’re fired.”

Published as “The Oblivious Elites” in the May 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.