Ever notice how Trump and his followers purport to oppose “the elites,” and yet Trump acts like the most pompous elite around? “I’m richer than you,” “I’m the smartest,” “I have the best words.” In a North Dakota campaign rally Trump literally said to the audience
“We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are…”
He went on to tell his audience, his supporters, that they are in fact the elite, the “super elite.” Clearly there’s more than one type of elite, and this needs to be elaborated on.
In his book In Defense of Elitism, Joel Stein differentiated between “boat elites” and “intellectual elites.” Boat elites are rich, cut-throat, exploitative, often narcissistic, and look out for their own self-interest, often at the expense of others. Donald Trump is a good example of this. Intellectual elites, on the other hand, are smart connected people of moderate success who dumb people despise for being smarter than them. Trump supporters are mostly neither type of elite, but because they hate people smarter than them so much, they align themselves with Trump’s boat elite, fantasizing about being one someday.
The boat elite are the rich people who think they are rich 100% as a result of their own genius and industriousness, and that people who aren’t as successful are that way because they are inferior. They ignore how much luck and chance have to do with success, and they ignore the fact that they often had head-starts and privileges contributing to their success that others didn’t get.
Intellectual elites usually recognize where they had privileges others didn’t benefit from. They know they’re smart and oppose confident ignorant people, but they desire to educate the masses and help lift them. Intellectual elites are usually successful but not wealthy. They are much better about knowing what they know and knowing what they don’t know. The Dunning-Kruger effect which is particularly crippling for the low-information masses is much less crippling for them, and they know this. For this reason they respect experts and science and believe that ignorance shouldn’t get to rule public policy just because it is popular.
Populists from the Left and Right tend to attack intellectual elites. That is essentially the nature of a populist; they tell the populace that it is smarter and more qualified than it really is, and they use its blind outraged against intellectuals as a vehicle to obtain political power. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are examples of populists (though, Bernie Sanders is in fact a much better, more compassionate person than Trump).
Populists often become political elites, those who trade favors to other elites to increase their power and enrich themselves. This is a bit simplistic though. Someone can be both a politician and elite without being unethical. I mention political elites just to acknowledge that there are politicians who give politics a bad name through their frothing self-interest. Trump supporters purport to oppose these types of elites, yet in practice they only dislike the political elites on the other team, ethical or unethical. Because of their ignorance, their support of boat elites, and opposition to people smarter than them, they end up supporting the dumbest and most narcissistic elites while weakening the elites that would actually improve things for everybody.
Don’t mistake me as saying there is a perfect line demarcating all of these types of elites, there isn’t. A person could be a combination of all types of elite. The point is that not all ways of being an elite are bad, and many are actually quite good and beneficial. Intellectual elites are often the experts we rely on to advise and make decisions we are completely unqualified (as a result of our ignorance) to make ourselves. That isn’t to say an expert in one area is qualified as an expert in every area. A good expert knows when they are out of their area of competence. Additionally, none of this is to say experts are never wrong, they often are wrong. They are just far less often wrong on the subject of their expertise than laypersons are. The biggest problem is that laypersons are often convinced their ignorance should carry the same value as expertise. That idea is what a good intellectual opposes.