Paranoid distrust of “elites” is a centuries-old tradition in the US. Donald Trump and his ambassador to Germany are its newest messengers.
Germans were shocked this week when Richard Grenell, the new US ambassador to Germany, gave an interview. Shocked, because he gave it to Breitbart, a bullhorn of the populist far-right. And because of what he said: “I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe.”
Nothing about the utterances of America’s top diplomat in Germany is what establishment types would call “diplomatic.” And that is the point. It is why Donald Trump dispatched Mr. Grenell to Germany. For America’s allies to grasp this message, they must understand the tradition it is steeped in.
In a more revealing interview on KCRW Berlin, a radio station, Mr. Grenell said that his target is not lefties per se. Rather, it is “the elites.” Those nefarious people are not defined by their wealth (otherwise Mr. Trump would count as one of them). Rather, they are intellectuals who are spread throughout academia, the press, politics and culture. And they are up to no good.
Heroically opposing them is the “silent majority,” Grenell elaborated. And who is that? People who work hard (elites apparently don’t), and “who are so busy that they’re not able to sit in a chatroom and click and comment on political stories all day.” People who are salt-of-the-earth and “real.”
These images harken back through more than two centuries of American history. That was the thesis of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” a seminal essay written in 1964 by Richard Hofstadter, also known for “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” From the Jacksonians and the Know-Nothings in the 19th century to the McCarthyists and the Tea Party of the 20th: There have always been movements who make hay from the anti-elitist paranoia that runs through American life.
What’s new is that a blatant outgrowth of this tradition is in the White House. The last president comparable in anti-elitist paranoia was Andrew Jackson. He defeated and succeeded John Quincy Adams (son of Founding Father John and elitist archetype). Likewise, Trump defines himself against Bushes, Clintons and Obamas (to him they’re all the same elitists).
Mind you, if Messrs. Grenell or Trump had an accident, they would be screaming for the nearest expert to treat them. To run their army, they want the top brass; for their investments, the top fund managers. In private life, they love elites. It’s only in public life that they disparage them.
To them, the whole of postwar Germany’s political culture is a provocation. Its institutions since 1949, and Europe’s since the 1950s, have been deliberately set up to be elitist, out of an understandable distrust of populist mobs. The so-called liberal world order relied on elitist niceties and shibboleths.
That elitism is what Messrs. Trump and Grenell have set out to deride, expose and belittle. And they know that paranoid anti-elitism is also endemic in German society. The establishment in Berlin should think hard about the most appropriate response.
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