The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To some conservatives, ‘elite’ is just a word that means ‘them’

Matt and Mercedes Schlapp at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on Feb. 24, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Few things unite conservatives more than expressing a deep disdain for “the elites” — a vague term with no clear definition beyond “them.”

But critics of this talking point often note that few people seem to embody elitism more than some conservative critics of that very concept. A popular example is President Trump — an Ivy League-educated, billionaire executive who resided in a New York City penthouse before entering the White House.

The latest examples of wealthy, highly educated, influential people bemoaning elites are the Schlapps — arguably one of the most powerful conservative couples in Washington.

In response to comedian Michelle Wolf's bit Saturday at the White House correspondents' dinner, the couple — Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications — tweeted about why they walked out of the event.

The two doubled down in a New York Times profile published Tuesday, saying they find “elites” to be among the biggest problems in the current political climate.

What many, particularly on the left, find most problematic about their statements is that there are few conservative couples in Washington considered more elite than the Schlapps.

Income at the couple's lobbying firm has surged to more than $1 million since Trump took office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The two came to Washington decades ago with graduate degrees and stints at competitive universities — George Washington University (her) and the University of Notre Dame (him) — before becoming part of the Republican establishment as White House staffers with President George W. Bush. And according to the Times, the Schlapps just purchased a $3 million home in Alexandria, Va., to accompany their 30-acre property in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

When it comes to power, education and wealth, by nearly every account, many would say the Schlapps are elites. They would say the same for Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, former Breitbart executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon and other individuals promoting the populist message that helped get Trump elected.

But Trump's base — particularly white working-class Americans — doesn't see it that way.

According to Joan C. Williams, author of  “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” conservatives' idea of “elites” isn't as much about credentials as it is about people seen as devaluing working-class Americans.

In an essay for the Harvard Business Review in November 2016, the law school professor explained why so many Americans viewed Trump's presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, as elite in ways they did not attribute to Trump.

Clinton, wrote Williams, “epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.”

Similar attacks are often aired on conservative talk radio, in speeches on campuses and by highly educated GOP lawmakers who depend on working-class voters in middle America to send them back to Washington.

Critics of the Schlapps' use of the word “elite” see hypocrisy when people like the Schlapps play down their status. But the couple — like Trump — say they don't profess to be in a world that they are not.

“I mean, I’m not trying to act like I’m driving a garbage truck in Des Moines,” Matt Schlapp told the Times.

They do seem to know that if they are going to keep the support of those who sent Trump to the White House, they have to “hate” the people those people “hate” — even if they look a lot like them. For the Schlapps, that means being vocal about their disdain for the “Washington elite” — even if that comes through, as the Times reported, in a tweet sent in “a limousine en route to an exclusive after-party organized by NBC/MSNBC.”

Michelle Wolf is defending her White House correspondents' dinner routine. Here's how other comics have reflected on their controversial acts. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)