The past five years have been replete with conservative hand-wringing about the dire influence of coastal elites over the American public. Donald Trump’s ascent in the 2016 Republican primary was a function of his being the right kind of elite — the kind willing to amplify the rhetoric common in right-wing media. Other Republicans, those who had worked in politics and built coalitions to win elections, were reticent to embrace Trump’s nativism and his burn-it-down approach, out of concern that doing so would harm their electoral chances and thanks to a more sophisticated understanding of how our systems work. What Trump showed was that leaning into that rhetoric could win a national election, and what he created was a Republican electorate that largely expected it.

What emerged was an odd sort of alternative elitism. At his rallies, Trump would often proclaim that he and his supporters were the real elites, the cream of the American crop representing what the country was supposed to be, better than some jerk writing for The Washington Post. It was a sort-of ironic formulation, given who we generally consider to be “elite,” but like so many things in the Trump era it captured an actual sentiment. Trump supporters often viewed themselves as better Americans than his opponents, as more patriotic if not more pure. If “elite” simply means “the best,” they were, in their own understanding, the American elite.

This idea that there are good, valid Americans and bad, tainted ones permeates a lot of the current conversation. A poll released in February found that most Republicans see Democrats not as political opponents but as enemies, a group that poses a danger to the country. Most Republicans say they believe that Joe Biden only won election last year because of voter fraud, an obviously ridiculous assertion for which there’s no evidence — but one that overlaps with a sense that the political left is dangerous, dishonest and toxic.

In November, 81.3 million Americans voted to elect Biden president, nearly 10 percent more than the number who voted for Trump. The conservative Heritage Foundation has identified voter fraud associated with the 2020 election — one case in which a guy in Michigan forged his daughter’s signature to submit the ballot at her request. The vote was not counted. And that’s it.

That so many more voters rejected Trump than supported him poses a bit of a conundrum for those who believe that they are the true political elite. How does one reconcile the un-Americanness of the left with the idea that so many more Americans preferred the candidate representing that position? One answer that’s newly in vogue: Those voters are somehow not worthy of voting, muddying up and misdirecting the system.

In the past seven days, the conservative National Review has twice presented arguments against the broad exercise of the franchise. On March 31, there was Dan McLaughlin’s argument against mandatory voting. On Wednesday morning, Kevin Williamson’s step further: Maybe the system would be better if fewer people voted.

Democrats, Williamson begins, are of the opinion that more people voting is a good thing. But why should we think that?

“Why shouldn’t we believe the opposite?” he writes. “That the republic would be better served by having fewer — but better — voters?”

The word that carries that latter sentence — and, really, the entire article — is “better.” What does it mean to be a “better” voter? What test does one apply to make that evaluation? Williamson never answers this directly, understanding that he doesn’t need to. He knows and his readers know what he means, as surely as Trump supporters knew what Trump meant when he proclaimed at his rallies that they were the elites.

Williamson means people like Kevin Williamson. He certainly doesn't mean just anyone.

“One argument for encouraging bigger turnout is that if more eligible voters go to the polls then the outcome will more closely reflect what the average American voter wants,” he writes. “That sounds like a wonderful thing … if you haven’t met the average American voter.”

This is just so grossly disdainful, and in a way that reflects the sort of elitism that Trump claimed to reject. It’s centered on an idea similar to the one Trump promoted, though, that some people know better and others don’t. Here, though, Williamson offers the idea in service of constraining the vote to people who pass his unstated quality test. (He does at one point argue that the voting age should be raised to 30, certainly a reflection of where he stands.)

He makes a number of frankly weird arguments in defense of his position, such as comparing unqualified voters to unqualified doctors, which is simply the inverse of arguing that anyone should be allowed to fly a F-16 over foreign airspace since we don’t keep people from walking around shopping malls.

“We could verify eligibility at the polls rigorously and easily, if we wanted to, just as we have the ability to verify who is eligible to enter the country or to drive a car,” he writes at another point, later adding that “even a little bit of fraud or improper voting is something that should be discouraged and, if possible, prevented.”

Of course, we do rigorously validate identity at the polls in a way that almost entirely eliminates fraudulent voting. We also enforce having a license to drive a car, but that doesn't prevent people from driving without one — something that almost certainly occurs far more often than people vote illegally. The added threat of legal consequences for driving without a license serves as an effective control on the number of people who do so. And many people have to drive. Most people are not going to risk a federal jail sentence by adding a few extra doctored ballots into an election, so it simply doesn't happen very often.

Late in the piece, Williamson presents his examples of voters who simply don't take their responsibility seriously — and, by implication, don't qualify as “better voters.” It is because voters in Pennsylvania don't approach their task with vigor, he writes, that “the Philadelphia city council has not been drowned in the Schuylkill River.”

Do we even need to call out the subtext to all of this? Williamson, like McLaughlin the week prior, is responding in part to the law passed in Georgia that will impose new requirements on voters seeking to cast absentee ballots, among other things. That change, advocates in the state fear, will disproportionately affect those without the time and money to obtain the necessary identification allowing them to do so. However easy the state makes it to meet that requirement, there will always be a hurdle to overcome — the sort of bureaucratic hurdle that often lands more heavily on the poor and, by extension, people of color.

“We expect people, including poor and struggling people, to pay their taxes — why shouldn’t we also expect them to keep their drivers’ licenses up-to-date?” he writes. “If voting really is the sacred duty that we’re always being told it is, shouldn’t we treat it at least as seriously as filing a 1040EZ?”

This is a conflation of requirement and ease, and an ironic one. You have to pay taxes, and the 1040EZ exists specifically to make it as easy as possible, hence the name of the form.

But you get his point, given the broader context of the piece: Barriers are fine if they prevent the wrong sorts of voters from voting. It was the motivating rationale for literacy tests that blocked Black voters from casting ballots in the South 75 years ago. That non-White Americans vote so much more heavily Democratic means it’s difficult to extricate systems that disadvantage Democrats from ones that disadvantage non-Whites, and vice versa. The result is that partisan motivations can often seem like racist ones.

Sixty-four years ago, it was simpler to figure out where the National Review was drawing the line. As the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley, wrote in 1957:

“It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own. NATIONAL REVIEW believes that the South’s premises are correct.”

The White voters in the Jim Crow South were better voters — that’s all. They were the deserving elites, the real Americans with the superior culture.

History echoes.