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Opinion Salt-of-the-earth GOP senator humiliates a ‘smug, rich liberal elitist’

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri just attacked your humble blogger as a “smug, rich liberal elitist” who is part of a movement that has “utter, open contempt for the people of the heartland.”

The cavalier ease with which Hawley, a leading intellectual light of the new “conservative nationalism,” reached for this charge points to the hollowness of the “anti-elite” posturing you often hear from such conservatives, and to its truly ugly intent and meaning.

Briefly, Hawley posted a link to a piece by a research scientist who maintained the administration had punished his department for producing information it didn’t like, and moved it to Kansas City, Mo. Hawley pretended that this scientist was displaying contempt for Missouri, when, in fact, he was lamenting the administration’s anti-science posture. I described this as “phony pastoral posturing,” meaning Hawley was oozing laughable bad faith in conjuring up invented elite disdain for the heartland and in posing as its defender.

To which Hawley responded:

This little exchange says something revealing about our current moment. I grew up on the far west side of Manhattan in the 1970s. My father had aspirations as an actor, but he spent many years on and off as a nighttime cabdriver. I feared for his safety.

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My mother did ultimately become a writer of advertising copy, and there were times when there was some extra money around. But not that much; our domestic peace was often badly marred by my father’s serious mental illness, brought on in part by a horrific childhood tragedy that I won’t detail here.

I went to all public schools. One was Bronx High School of Science, which perhaps smacks of (meritocratic) elitism, but in reality it was filled with poor kids from all over the city. I got into Brandeis, but decided against going, in part because of the student loan debts it entailed, and graduated from a city university. I worked my way up in journalism the old-fashioned way.

I grew up surrounded by working class blacks and Hispanics (back then there were still working people in Manhattan) and gays at a time of their extreme marginalization. We went to Seders at my mother’s parents’ house in Queens — they were descended from Jewish immigrants — and also decorated an annual Christmas tree in keeping with my father’s Catholic upbringing. But there was no god in our house.

The reason I bring all this up is because I’m skeptical that this type of middle-class background — like that of millions of other Americans — is the kind of less-than-elite background Hawley would regard as virtuous.

Hawley often rails at elites who, he claims, have contempt for the “great American middle,” because it’s supposedly at odds with the elite cosmopolitan “consensus” favoring globalization and immigration.

Yes, Hawley has broken with his party’s plutocratic bent in narrow ways, staking out a limited economic populism that allows a bit of space for acting to protect people from the depredations of unchecked capitalism. But many progressives like myself agree that regional cosmopolitan-vs.-noncosmopolitan economic disparities are a serious problem that requires a robust response, that market rules need to be restructured to curb the power of major corporations and boost worker power, and that trade deals should be revamped to raise labor standards so workers here and elsewhere benefit. Is that “contempt for the heartland”?

Indeed, as Will Wilkinson notes, Hawley’s “great American middle” is in reality code, an effort to recast the minoritarian America of “nonurban whites” who fundamentally reject this country’s “multiracial, multicultural national character” as the American mainstream.

This “great American middle” apparently does not include the large majorities who hold allegedly “elite” positions such as favoring the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants and opposing further immigration restrictions.

That great middle has no apparent room for the tens and tens of millions of Americans who believe we have expansive moral obligations to some of those outside our borders (majorities favor allowing Central American refugees to try for asylum), or to future generations who will suffer from climate change (majorities see it as a crisis and see the need for sacrifices to combat it, and favor rejoining the Paris climate deal).

Where in this great middle is there room for the popular majorities who believe we should sacrifice some of our sovereignty to act in international concert to solve such problems, and thus actually align with the supposedly “elite” positions claimed by Hawley?

Hawley can reach for the “elitist” charge so easily because it’s largely performative. It’s centered on a conception of middle class virtue that lives or dies on being from “the heartland” — rural and exurban Red America — and on holding the suite of conservative nationalist values that are actually being rejected by a vast swath of the real American mainstream.

Liberals and conservatives share basic common values, but leaders like Donald Trump use fear to exploit their differences for political gain. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Jem Spectar: Want to close America’s rural-urban divide? Digital infrastructure is the key.

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