Finally, there’s the question of institutions that are supposed to represent impartial expertise, from elite universities and media to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the F.B.I. Trump’s detractors, including me, often argued that his demagoguery and mendacity did a lot to needlessly diminish trust in these vital institutions. But we should be more honest with ourselves and admit that those institutions did their own work in squandering, through partisanship or incompetence, the esteem in which they had once been widely held.
How so? Much of the elite media, mostly liberal, became openly partisan in the 2016 election — and, in doing so, not only failed to understand why Trump won, but probably unwittingly contributed to his victory. Academia, also mostly liberal, became increasingly illiberal, inhospitable not just to conservatives but to anyone pushing back even modestly against progressive orthodoxy. The F.B.I. abused its authority with dubious investigations and salacious leaks that led to sensational headlines but not to criminal prosecutions, much less convictions.
The C.D.C. and other public-health bureaucracies flubbed the pandemic reaction, with (mostly) good intentions but frequently devastating consequences: “If you’re a public-health person and you’re trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is, and that is something that will save a life,” the former National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins acknowledged last month. “You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way they never quite recovered.”
Trump and his supporters called all this out. For this they were called idiots, liars and bigots by people who think of themselves as enlightened and empathetic and hold the commanding heights in the national culture. The scorn only served to harden the sense among millions of Americans that liberal elites are self-infatuated, imperious, hysterical, and hopelessly out of touch — or, to use one of Trump’s favorite words, “disgusting.”
A few readers might nod their heads in (partial) agreement. Then they’ll ask: What about the election denialism? What about Jan. 6? What about the threat Trump poses to the very foundations of our democracy? All disqualifying — in my view. But it’s also important to stretch one’s mind a little and try to understand why so many voters are unimpressed about the “end of democracy” argument.