Making sense of right wing anti-elitism

Ian Dunt made some pretty disparaging comments about a certain Brexit backing pub tycoon earlier today. Julia Hartley Brewer had the following response: 

"Can someone remind me of the name of the multimillion pound company that Ian Dunt started and how many thousands of people he employs? Asking for a friend..."

This would be uninteresting, until you remember that Hartley Brewer is very much part of the 'ordinary people against the elites' brand of social conservative. What's more, the pairing is quite common. Right wing populists rail against the 'elites' yet have no problem with supporting some pretty wealthy and influential people; indeed at times use that wealth as something impressive and worthy of deference. The ultimate example of this is perhaps support for Donald Trump (who Brewer herself does not support), but it's quite a familiar pattern of engagement.

How can we make sense of this? One explanation is just to see it as a straight contradiction. There is probably something in this, as I suspect an awful lot of arguments in what we now call 'debate' are essentially epiphenomenal. They don't reveal people's real motives, are generally ex post facto rationalisations, and whether or not they remain effective or are dumped in favour of a different rationalisation has little impact on what the speaker (and to some extent audience) believes. At most they are about riling up supporters and detractors alike.

But there is a kind of consistency of this anti-elite rhetoric, although only if we appreciate what is actually understood by the term 'elite' by the populist right. What constitutes elite status is about education, profession and political disposition more than wealth or power per se. Elite status in this worldview is held by academics, civil servants, members of the judiciary, and those who work in international non-private institutions. In other words, they are the (generally liberal) professional classes who work in the legal, economic and political administration of the modern state and the international framework within which it operates. When coupled with a belief that the problems with the world stem from institutional order, rather than common sense action, this makes sense both of the anti-elite rhetoric of the populist right and some of their preoccupations. In Britain, the elite are judges, civil servants, liberal and left wing academics and of course the EU. This is a classic crisis of modernity type of thinking. What is opposed is institutional rationality and rule by process, in favour of the common sense thinking of the every day.

In this context, who would best represent the sentiments of this anti-elitism? Figures who make no particular claim to technical or specialist knowledge, and no claim to acumen in law, politics or statescraft. People like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, or even Jacob Rees Mogg, provided he presents his education in terms of obscure rather than technical knowledge and his social status as aristocratic rather than professional upper middle class. This could easily go alongside wealth or power (particularly when coupled with conspiracy theories about power really being held by a specific, different group of people). Indeed, it can easily be accompanied by deference to wealth and power, provided it is achieved in the right way, and with the right attitude. And the particular appeal of this type of thought now would make sense: we have seen both a massive shift in the economy to the type of jobs which give a premium to education, and a cultural ascendancy of the attitudes of those who have this. Right wing populism can appeal to those who have lost either socially or economically from this change. This may go some way to explaining who, exactly, counts as members of the ‘elite’ in this worldview.

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