Dear Elites (of Both Parties), the People Will Take It From Here, Thanks

I first learned about the opioid crisis three presidential elections ago, in the fall of 2011. I was the domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s campaign and questions began trickling in from the New Hampshire team: What’s our plan?

By then, opioids had been fueling the deadliest drug epidemic in American history for years. I am ashamed to say I did not know what they were. Opioids, as in opium? I looked it up online. Pills of some kind. Tell them it’s a priority, and President Obama isn’t working. That year saw nearly 23,000 deaths from opioid overdoses nationwide.

I was no outlier. America’s political class was in the final stages of self-righteous detachment from the economic and social conditions of the nation it ruled. The infamous bitter clinger and “47 percent” comments by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney captured the atmosphere well: delivered at private fund-raisers in San Francisco in 2008 and Boca Raton in 2012, evincing disdain for the voters who lived in between. The opioid crisis gained more attention in the years after the election, particularly in 2015, with Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s research on deaths of despair.

Of course, 2015’s most notable political development was Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launch and subsequent steamrolling of 16 Republican primary opponents committed to party orthodoxy. In the 2016 general election he narrowly defeated the former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who didn’t need her own views of Americans leaked: In public remarks, she gleefully classified half of the voters who supported Mr. Trump as “deplorables,” as her audience laughed and applauded. That year saw more than 42,000 deaths from opioid overdoses.

In a democratic republic such as the United States, where the people elect leaders to govern on their behalf, the ballot box is the primary check on an unresponsive, incompetent or corrupt ruling class — or, as Democrats may be learning, a ruling class that insists on a candidate who voters no longer believe can lead. If those in power come to believe they are the only logical options, the people can always prove them wrong. For a frustrated populace, an anti-establishment outsider’s ability to wreak havoc is a feature rather than a bug. The elevation of such a candidate to high office should provoke immediate soul-searching and radical reform among the highly credentialed leaders across government, law, media, business, academia and so on — collectively, the elites.

The response to Mr. Trump’s success, unfortunately, has been the opposite. Seeing him elected once, faced with the reality that he may well win again, most elites have doubled down. We have not failed, the thinking goes; we have been failed, by the American people. In some tellings, grievance-filled Americans simply do not appreciate their prosperity. In others they are incapable of informed judgments, leaving them susceptible to demagoguery and foreign manipulation. Or perhaps they are just too racist to care — never mind that polling consistently suggests that most of Mr. Trump’s supporters are women and minorities, or that polling shows he is attracting far greater Black and Hispanic support than prior Republican leaders.

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