Are 'Elites' to Blame for the Rise of Donald Trump?

Who is at fault for the Donald Trump phenomenon? An audience of New York elites attended a debate on Tuesday night in Manhattan and ultimately delivered a surprising verdict. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens began his opening argument at the Intelligence Squared U.S. event by noting that those sitting in the crowd at the Kaufman Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side are themselves the so-called elites. How many had traveled to Europe in the last five years? How many had graduate degrees? How many knew whether Sancerre was red or white wine?

As the majority of the audience raised their hands, he said, "I hate to break it to you, but you are the elite."

Would a group of elites then go on to acknowledge that they were, in fact, to blame for Trump?

Intelligence Squared U.S., a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that hosts a series of Oxford-style debates, this week kicked off its latest season with a timely discussion on the current election. The motion being debated: blame the elites for the Trump phenomenon. To decide the winner, the audience voted on the motion twice, once before the debate and then after. The team that swayed the most voters won.

Tim Carney, senior political columnist at The Washington Examiner and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, argued for the motion. Stephens and Jennifer Rubin, author of The Washington Post's "Right Turn" blog, argued against.

Carney offered up a more specific (and less audience-encompassing) definition of the elites than Stephens: "the people in power and in elected office who have been in charge of the country for the last couple of decades." And he and Domenech made the argument that the Trump phenomenon is, in fact, their fault.

"It's a lot more than just racism and misogyny," said Domenech. "It's a rejection of Republican orthodoxy that's been around for a long time when it comes to the economy. It's rejection of Republican foreign policy, explicitly over and over again."

Carney pointed to figures like George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. He also called out GOP primary presidential candidates. "Whom do we blame for Donald Trump being the nominee? The people who could have beaten him," he said.

The opposing team contended that some nebulous group of elites are not responsible for Trump's ascendance but instead the voters themselves as well as conservative media hosts and political figures who have over the years pushed the Republican base increasingly to the right, floating outlandish conspiracy theories, placing blame in the wrong places and fueling an extreme distrust in the truth.

"One couple blame the people who are responding to [Trump's] message of intolerance, bigotry and fake victimization. They're the ones who are primarily accountable. If you want to find another culprit, I would offer you the parade of demagogues who have emerged in the ether of certain cable news shows, certain radio shows," said Stephens.

"I do hold the voters responsible, but they've had some help along the way," said Rubin.

The Intelligence Squared debate hit on a number of ongoing discussions surrounding Trump's surprising takeoff this election cycle. Business Insider's Oliver Darcy in August published a series of mea culpa interviews with conservative media figures contemplating their role in the shift of a section of the Republican Party's base away from the truth. The Washington Post's Dave Weigel this month pointed out that it's not the media or the candidates who should be held accountable for voters' lack of policy knowledge but instead the voters themselves.

Before the debate, some 41% of the audience voted they were "undecided" on whether elites were to blame for Trump's rise, a high number according to the debate's moderator, ABC news correspondent John Donvan. After the debate was over, more than half sided with Carney and Domenech, saying, yes, elites are at fault. 

"To say that the elites don't deserve the blame...is to say that the people failed their elites," Carney closed. "Did the elites fail the people, or did the people fail the elites?"

Last night, it was the elites that took the blame.

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