When future historians look back upon this crazy time in American history, they are unlikely to interpret it as the result of a desire for one-man rule among half of the electorate, meddling by Vladimir Putin, or a resurgence of Jim Crow racism after the election and reelection of the country’s first Black president. Rather, what they are likely to see is that a giant, bombastic, vulgar, shiny object—yarkii, as Putin called him, meaning “colorful” in a gaudy way, though Trump characteristically misinterpreted it to mean “brilliant”—caused our elites to lose their minds.
In an era of declining attention spans and social media-driven news coverage, Trump was the perfect springboard for every pundit on the make. They could wrap him in whatever heuristic they felt most comfortable with—democracy experts explained him as a democracy story, Russia experts as a Russia story, and race experts as a racial story. If Trump’s influence on the country and its politics has been disastrous, and it has, his effect on our elites was that of a chemical bath on a photo negative: He exposed their parochialism, laziness, and stubborn refusal to admit fault.
Unfortunately, many of our elites are predisposed to the unproductive habits of mind that led them to so seriously misread the national mood in 2016 and again in 2020. As to why, I can only surmise. The desire to lead a meaningful life is universal. But among many of those engaged in political life there also exists a deep, psychic need for relevance, to believe that the times in which one lives are as world-historically consequential and perilous as any period in the history of mankind, thus requiring reserves of courage and the same “moral clarity” shown by those who resisted Hitler, waged the twilight struggle against communism, and fought valiantly against the evil of Jim Crow. To believe this, it helps to believe that one’s political adversaries are literal Nazis, Russian agents, and white supremacists, a vainglorious delusion that, for those laboring under it, the events of Jan. 6 seemed to confirm.