Campaign 2016: Populism vs. Establishment

Campaign 2016 has incongruously pitted a wealthy real-estate scion as the “populist” against a small businessman’s daughter as the “Establishment” choice, raising tough questions about merit and privilege, says Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Establishment as a concept has gotten a lot of use and abuse in the 2016 presidential election campaign. From the start of his race in the Republican primaries, Donald Trump denounced the political Establishment as a bunch of stuffed shirts, elitists who are out of touch with the voting public. They are looking after their own interests at home and abroad, let the public be damned, he said.

The line-up of mealy-mouthed opponents whom Trump faced in debates, starting with Jeb Bush, served as exemplary targets of the longstanding indignation against the powers-that-be, an animosity felt by not only Tea Party adherents but by the majority of rank-and-file party members, which is why Trump did so well.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

There are those who are betting that the populist wave that Trump is riding will pull in traditional blue-collar Democrats as happened when Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has embraced the Establishment’s values and solicited its support, drawing in some anti-Trump Republicans.

Given its political significance this year, Establishment was a key word in my notes for a class yearbook that will be part of the 50th anniversary reunion celebrations of my Harvard College Class of 1967 next May. The second key word was Veritas, Harvard’s one-word institutional mission statement that was cited proudly at so many of our undergraduate gatherings.

I offer these observations to the general public, because the Establishment mindset that I am talking about has roots that go well beyond Harvard, well beyond the Ivy League, to the prestige private and public universities across the United States. Meanwhile, the relevance of Veritas today is particularly keen given the way that both major party presidential candidates are accusing each other of lacking any commitment to truth, indeed calling each other out-and-out liars who have intentionally misrepresented the policy positions of one another.

I do not suppose I am alone in admitting that precisely the Establishment status of Harvard was an important factor in my being drawn to it, alongside its very demanding admission requirements which made that admission letter a kind of personal validation that we were persons of great promise.

How could it be otherwise? The Kennedy presidency showcased not only an alumnus in the Oval Office but a whole constellation of the “Best and Brightest” who took their degrees at Cambridge, Massachusetts, or taught there, or even held deanships there. The glitter, the belief that a meritocracy had assumed its rightful place in democratic, low-brow America, was inescapable during the time of Camelot. The best from our midst was now running the country. The future would be ours to inherit.

Of course, Camelot came to an abrupt halt two months into our freshman year with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. In our sorrow, I do not think many of us initially paid attention to what our “Best and Brightest” were doing under Kennedy, and then under Lyndon Johnson, whom they stayed on to serve. Their policies would cast a pall over our whole generation by setting up and prosecuting the horrific war in Vietnam.

Siding with Power

In 1964, the fraudulent justifications for the Tonkin Gulf resolution that gave us the full-scale war were set out by Harvard men who surely knew better and who willingly sacrificed Veritas for political expediency in gaining congressional authorization and public support so Johnson could escalate the war after his election that year.

President Lyndon Johnson announces "retaliatory" strike against North Vietnam in response to the supposed attacks on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 4, 1964. (Photo credit: LBJ Library)

President Lyndon Johnson announces “retaliatory” strike against North Vietnam in response to the supposed attacks on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 4, 1964. (Photo credit: LBJ Library)

Was it a sacrifice at the altar of personal loyalty to a President or to the principle that the end justifies the means in serving their country? Neither explanation does credit to our university. Neither is significantly different from the lies and prevarication regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction presented to the world by U.S. intelligence services and Departments of State and Defense officers who happened not to be Harvard alumni in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It is often assumed that an Establishment is the status quo, meaning a vigorous defender of received values which opposes change in any direction. At least in my youth I thought there was solidity there upon which you could build your career, your life. I and, hopefully, you also now know better.

Notwithstanding its liberal image in the country at large, the Harvard of my undergraduate years surely had a lot of residual conservatism of the Eisenhower period about it. On the issue that shaped the lives of so many of us back then, the Vietnam War, Harvard as an institution was on the retrograde side of the barricades. Harvard President Nathan Pusey (who was hostile to the anti-war movement) was no Kingman Brewster (the president of Yale who supported anti-war activism by university chaplain William Sloane Coffin).

At Harvard, we were left in the dust by political movements that bubbled up and defined our age, many coming from San Francisco and from public universities.

But this conservatism of my Harvard was otherwise in conflict with the newly launched social engineering concepts of the admissions committee based on the guiding principle of cooptation. Jews were still a relatively new acquisition, while during our undergraduate years the outreach to blacks was just getting under way. Women, Asians, all would follow in due course over the coming decades.

Cooptation of the outlying majority (women) and minorities (people of color) came in spurts. Like so much social engineering, it was in a great hurry and the principle of meritocracy, applied initially, yielded to the overriding principle of inclusiveness.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona. March 21, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona. March 21, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

In that sense, one can draw a straight line from the 1960s to our presidential elections in the 21st Century when voting for a black or for a woman has come to outweigh merit. More generally, those social engineering experiments at Harvard of my day have led to the overthrow of traditional Judeo-Christian values in a headlong rush towards globalization and the Davos culture. Like it or hate it, Harvard was out front in shaping the Political Correctness of today.

With the insights from my study of Russia, I now understand the American Establishment with Harvard in the front ranks as a North American variant of what the Russians call an Intelligentsia, meaning the vanguard of progressive humanity which is enlightened, educated and leads the popular masses forward.

Is this democracy in action? Not at all, because the fundamental implicit principle is elitism and the certitude that this elite knows best what is good for the country. As some well-known political scientists who earned their Ph.D.’s at Harvard have unabashedly explained, the people are lazy, uninformed, absorbed in consumerism and lacking in patriotism, to mention just a few of their alleged deficiencies which militate against their views informing government policies.

My feelings about my alma mater are bittersweet. It was not and is not an unqualified force for good in our country. But then again no human institution ever is.

Are anti-intellectual populists with a distinctively lowbrow prejudice a great improvement on highbrow mandarins who are contemptuous of the people? That is a question which has no definitive answer.

Despite Hillary Clinton current lead in most polls over Donald Trump, when Americans vote on Nov. 8, I will be putting my money on the lowbrow-populist candidate, who just happens to be calling for an accommodating foreign policy that seems more likely to give us four years of peace whereas the Establishment champion and her covey of neocon advisers are spoiling for a fight with Russia and China that may result in the end of civilization as we know it.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

20 comments for “Campaign 2016: Populism vs. Establishment

  1. Peter Loeb
    September 8, 2016 at 07:47


    I wish I could believe that Donald Trump would give us
    “peace”. I actually believe Hillary would give
    us more war or at least advocate for it.

    In fact I believe neither of them.

    Instead, I think that many are searching for reasons to believe
    in the reality of world peace under Donald Trump. I don’t
    believe it. If I turn out to be wrong, so be it.

    (I will vote Green or not at all for President.)

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. Zachary Smith
    September 6, 2016 at 19:25

    Despite Hillary Clinton current lead in most polls over Donald Trump, when Americans vote on Nov. 8, I will be putting my money on the lowbrow-populist candidate, who just happens to be calling for an accommodating foreign policy that seems more likely to give us four years of peace whereas the Establishment champion and her covey of neocon advisers are spoiling for a fight with Russia and China that may result in the end of civilization as we know it.

    I really wish I could see a path to vote for Trump, but on account of his stance on Torture and a couple of other things, I really can’t.

    What the author says about the “elites” strikes me as the truth. Their certainty they “know best” for us peasants may be a problem later this year.

    Obviously there are two possible outcomes for vote totals the coming election. Hillary wins outright, and she moves into the White House is the first one. Given the rumblings I’m getting from news sources, if Trump wins outright, Hillary still moves into the White House.

    The Powers That Be aren’t planting all those stories about the Russians hacking the 2016 election for nothing. It’s my fear they’re setting us up for a repeat of the 2000 election if the “right” candidate doesn’t win. What would the Supreme Court do this time? Four “conservatives” and four “liberals”. Can anybody imagine a majority of them not straining to “save the nation” from the Manchurian Candidate Trump? Putin’s very own secret agent in the White House! They’d invent some new case law if necessary, just like they did in 2000.

    There are thousands of stories out there, so I’m selecting the top result for the search terms – Russians hack 2016 election “homeland”

    U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections

    That’s what Jeff Bezos’ Post had in a story title 22 hours ago.

    Ok, so I’m paranoid, but I don’t believe those elites plan to deal with Donald Trump.

    • Gilbert Doctorow
      September 7, 2016 at 15:34

      Dear Zachary,

      I share completely your sense of outrage over Donald’s remarks on reinstituting waterboarding and torture. I mentioned this and other reasons why I disagree with much of Donald’s platform when I participated in the Russia Today “Cross Talk” show last Thursday, as you will find in the final minutes of the program:

      However, what we are facing on November 8th is a new version of an old dilemma: do you want to be Right or do you want to be Dead?
      Let’s get our priorities straight, and the rest will fall into place.


    • Steven A
      September 9, 2016 at 22:04

      I agree that Trump’s position on torture is just awful. One thing that may be said in response in addition to Gilbert Doctorow’s good point about priorities, is that the CIA and Congress will resist efforts to reinstitute torture, so there is some basis to hope that a Trump presidency would not actually be able to implement such a change (if indeed he is serious about it). At least this is the take-away from Kelley Beaucar Vlahos’s article in the September/October 2016 issue of The American Conservative (“The Return of Torture? CIA and Congress Oppose Trump’s Push – but the public may not”, pp. 34-37):

      “If this is more than red meat for the base – if Trump is serious about turning back time to the days after 9/11, when the White House lawyers wrote the infamous ‘torture memos’ to help ensure government officials could not be charged with war crimes for the way they were interrogating detainees – then he better prepare for some real bureaucratic resistance, Beltway-style. He’ll find a much more complicated landscape in official Washington today, one filled with lawsuits, never-ending investigations, a number of high-level military and CIA officials wary of scrutiny, and political winds in the nation’s capital that appear – at least for now – to favor keeping things the way they are” (p. 35).

      Vlahos finds two reasons in particular (other than moral revulsion) as background for this resistance:
      (1) As expressed by former CIA Director Michael Hayden, “If any future president wants the CIA to waterboard anybody, he better bring his own bucket, because CIA officers aren’t going to do it. Multiple investigations, grand juries, presidential condemnations, and congressional star chambers have a way of doing that to you” (p. 35).

      (2) Post-9/11 experience has shown that torture has been notably ineffective compared to other means toward the goals of (a) apprehending terrorists or (b) preventing terrorist attacks (contrary to Trump’s claim that it “works”).

  3. Herman
    September 5, 2016 at 20:24

    Trump said some very sensible things early on about Russia and NATO. I wonder, though, if he will lose his nerve and in the desperate attempt to win, compete with Clinton in describing just how exceptional we are, and he will be remembered as just another politician trying to win. A shame, if he does, because his maverick positions, as defined by our opinion leaders, will be forgotten. He would be a loser who put out thoughts about the emperor being naked and those thoughts just might find fertile ground.

    As to those who will vote for Stein, or Johnson or whomever, they are voting for Clinton and appear just too embarrassed to admit it.

    • Brad Owen
      September 6, 2016 at 05:26

      No. A vote for Stein, or Johnson or whomever is a vote for Stein or Johnson or whomever. The bought-&-paid-for leadership of the Democratic Party is squarely responsible for sponsoring & cheating for Clinton…them, and they alone, will have to answer to their Maker for their criminal deeds. The ignorant people are responsible for voting for Clinton…or throwing the dice for Trump.

  4. M.
    September 5, 2016 at 17:23

    Haven’t both major parties been the parties of Wall Street, the Israel Lobby and the Military Industrial Complex for many decades now? If we are really concerned about humanity, and “civilization as we know it,” wouldn’t a Jill Stein presidency be better?

  5. Chris Jonsson
    September 5, 2016 at 17:10

    Gilbert Doctorow, you made a point in your article with which I humbly disagree.
    Your statement “the lies and prevarication regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction presented to the world by U.S. intelligence services and Departments of State and Defense officers who happened not to be Harvard alumni in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.” in inaccurate, unless there’s information I may have not been privy to.
    My understanding of what took place was that the orders for war with Iraq came from the top of our government. Dick Cheney and his buddies from the Watergate era were itching to finish what they had started under Nixon and developed under Reagan. Cheney and Bush hadn’t learned anything from what led up to the forced resignation of president Nixon. False intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was manufactured in the White House. Security agencies were ordered to shop for back up documentation securing their case for an Iraqi oil war. When the dubious messenger for WMD confirmation was discovered to be a fraud, blame went to National intelligence agencies, not the executive office where it belonged. Harvard smug arrogance struck again, leaving a world of hurt and hate for us to deal with into infinity.

  6. Jean Ranc
    September 5, 2016 at 17:01

    Well said! to all of you gentlemen above…especially Gilbert Doctorow…but this “depression baby” who’s seen it all since FDR came to power in 1933 and lifted our family out of the Oklahoma dustbowl to Colorado (where my father administered CCC camps)…has now come back to the land in New Hampshire which has just put Johnson-Weld on the November ballot so I can vote for this anti-war team: 2-term state governors, who actually know how how govern (fancy that!). As a “lowly” 1955 Oklahoma State-brand “populist” then 1979-81 Dartmouth Dept. of Psychiatry clinically-trained psychologist, who practiced in now potty-mouthed NC: UNC Dept. of Psychiatry, I can spot a demagogue-bully-psychopath when I see one: a vacuum, who sucks up everything around him & spews it all out…sometimes even the truth about Russia, for example…but as a loose cannon, multi-faced nut-case, he’s even more dangerous than Hillary the Hawk and her neocon comrades.

    • Brad Owen
      September 6, 2016 at 04:15

      I’m with you on the judgement of Trump. He can give several positions on a policy issue in a day…is that called “being mercurial”? I think he’s just as dangerous (in a different way) as Clinton. I can’t believe ANYTHING he says (even Hitler had a non-aggression pact with Stalin…he ended up invading USSR in the biggest battle of the biggest war the World had ever seen). I’m sending Stein money (a symbolic 27.00 per month) and voting Green from now on…it’s time, the World has gone too far in un-regulated capitalism, in “un-regulated behavior” in general.

  7. Zucco
    September 5, 2016 at 15:12

    Democrats have represented the “lesser evil” for progressives since Johnson. Boy how things have changed since the Dems were taken over by Wall Street, the Israel lobby, and the military industrial complex.

  8. Steven A
    September 5, 2016 at 11:42

    As someone who has never previously voted for a Republican presidential candidate, who voted for Bernie, and whose intellectual development has long been rooted in the left (but who has also long been drawn to causes and outlets that undercut the usual left-right divide – men’s rights, peak oil,, The American Conservative, and Alex Cockburn), this year I will be casting my own vote for the “low-brow populist” – first and foremost for the reason Doctorow states in his last paragraph. And I recommend that others who care about the survival of humanity do the same.

    • Gregory Herr
      September 5, 2016 at 16:40

      Kind of a reinforcement of what you say:

    • exiled off mainstreet
      September 5, 2016 at 19:14

      I’m following a similar path. As a dual citizen ex-pat I still can vote in my former state. I was seriously thinking of Stein because my former state, if in doubt, would mean Trump was way ahead overall, and I still think Stein should get as many votes as possible (though my view is the opposite of Chomsky’s whose views themselves may change as more comes out against the Clintons): I think that in doubtful states, one should definitely vote for Trump, while in sure states it might be better to vote for Stein. The harpy is so odious, however, as a war criminal in Libya and an exponent of World War III on behalf of her favourite jihadis in Syria, and a long-time advocate of the so-called trade pacts which replace the rule of law with corrupt corporate tribunals in the areas of regulation that I think a vote for Trump is, in fact,likely warranted even in safe states. As indicated by this responder, actual human survival is at issue. The Clintons, whose record of lies and obfuscations date back to the Yugolavia destruction, are simply poison. Even those who claim they are better on global warming are whistling past the graveyard as is revealed by their neoliberal record in support of treasonous “trade” agreements. The fact that many left commentators such as John Chuckman, Eric Zuesse and Stephen Lendman have come to similar conclusions indicates troubles for Clinton. I also suspect that the polls are skewed, not intentionally, but by the methodology of assuming a similar turnout to last time. Put simply, the demonisation of Trump, which appears less convincing the more he is out there (i.e. his fairly successful appearance with Pino Nieto, the Mexican president, is a dog which won’t hunt) Many traditional Democrats will choose not to vote when faced with the proven reality of corruption, war crimes, McCarthy-type demonisation of Russia, and the real threat of armageddon which they pose to humanity. Those that do vote may vote in surprising numbers for Stein or even Trump, and those now telling pollsters they’ll vote for Johnson may decide to vote for Trump against the Harpy at the last minute..

      • Steven A
        September 7, 2016 at 20:57

        I’m just catching up now, but thanks to both of you for including additional references I wasn’t aware of. Larudee I’ve just now skimmed, and I look forward to seeing what Chuckman and Lendman have to say. If any are interested, I posted a bunch of references that may be of interest to people here under one of the articles on Clinton’s American exceptionalism speech, here on the Consortium News site.

        Exiled off mainstreet – I much appreciate your thoughts. Of course, “normally,” a third party candidate like Stein would show somewhat better in pre-election polls than in the actual election, as panic to vote for “the lesser evil” sets in at the last minute. But I do get the feeling that this effect may be much diminished this year (and might even be reversed, as you suggest), as a lot of people realize that applied to Clinton, the whole “lesser evil” premise is bunk. My limited experience so far is that “the threat of armageddon” issue (which tops the list of my own concerns) is not widely perceived by most who were in the Bernie camp, but that when presented with it many are receptive. Most haven’t expressed outrage that I intend to vote Trump (in a state that will likely go for the harpie).

        Some additional interesting reading (not repeating any I gave before):

        Philip Giraldi, “It’s all about Russia: Hillary and the neocons know who to blame for Trump,” The Unz Review, September 6, 2016:

        Pepe Escobar, “Could Trump pull off a post-party coalition?”, The Vineyard of the Saker, August 18, 2016:

        Karen Kwiatkowski, “Can the Deep State be cured?”, August 19, 2016:

        “Something dangerous is happening in the American media” Editorial, The National Interest, August 31, 2016:

        Cindy Sheehan, “I led the anti-war movement against George W. Bush 11 years ago. Hillary Clinton is hardly better,” Independent Journal Review, August 30, 2016:

    • Bob
      September 8, 2016 at 18:11

      As a grey haired old lefty, I feel at war with myself over the same issues that you raise. It’s like I suddenly no longer believe what I long believed. If peace in the world is my priority, how do I vote for a neo-con like Hillary, while I have no patience with the orange blow-hard? I’m glad that you feel resolved. I’m hoping to get there.

      • Steven A
        September 9, 2016 at 23:01

        I relate completely. Since I first consciously had the thought (which I date to the Monday after the RNC) that I may well actually do the unthinkable and vote for Trump, I’ve been plagued by moments of doubt. Yet now I do feel that I am resolved on this course of action.

        I don’t know if it’s even possible to “make America great again” (in an economic sense, if the idea is even meaningful) in what is evidently this terminal phase of Empire, but I cannot conceive of a universe in which the Establishment that Hillary Clinton represents would do other than drive us off the fast-approaching cliff. Trump shows an aptitude to lead, which will be absolutely essential in times of crisis. How it will play out of course I cannot say. I was listening to an interview with Lew Rockwell the other day (“Should we like Trump for the enemies he has made?” – or some similar title), and he referred to Murray Rothbard’s having once said that it takes a demagogue to effect significant change to the system. I think there may be truth to that. Similarly, the fact that Trump is Republican and to a great extent self-financing add to his potential to achieve positive change (emphasis on ‘potential’). Certainly I get the feeling that he wants to do great things for his country and not just for the sake of the party he nominally leads. And even if all optimism on these scores is misplaced, at least he is likely to move us away from the reckless brinksmanship with nuclear-armed Russia.

        Apropos to this, while I won’t be sporting a “make America great again” hat, my car will soon be sporting the messages “Pick a fight with Russia – Hillary 2016” and “The gravest threat to all humanity – Hillary 2016” – from the catalogue of (founded by the excellent Scott Horton, host of formerly Antiwar Radio and now The Scott Horton Show).

  9. F. G. Sanford
    September 5, 2016 at 07:28

    We could have had the stars by now, such dreams were Camelot,
    The plot that Mars would soon endow awakened other schemes-
    In mists the fruit of Avalon still tempts those reveries,
    The legend King’s demise is framed in truth that went unsought.

    A nation mourns, but cannot name the crime that still impedes-
    Upon the thorns of ruin’s blame impostors cull the grief,
    Mythologies distort belief, and evil this way blows,
    The dying throes of Camelot now foster callous deeds.

    Urania’s Mirror mapped the stars, imaginings untold,
    Ignorance unstrapped by myth astrologers subvert,
    Claims pervert the science now and Camelot recedes,
    Charlatans usurp the throne and travesties unfold.

    Merlin’s quest embarked upon the search for Veritas.
    Be damned the magic spells remarked and name the metaphor-
    An Irish Prince would shed his life by drawing out The Sword
    In Stone, the truth that he explored embodied Caritas.

    The King is gone but legend frames a legacy incised.
    Pretenders fawn but cannot match that solitary deed.
    Immersed in greed and calumny, the Sword of Truth abstains,
    None can draw it from the stone by infamy disguised.

    The blood of murdered kings remains to stain the parchment’s creed,
    A need that still foreshadows things forbidding prophets warned,
    The justice scorned still blemishes with deep and darkened doubt,
    Pretenders fear the truth will out, repression then displaces greed-
    Rebellion born of treason’s womb is child to the deed.

    Yep, you can bet your a** they’re all scared to death.

    • Joe Tedesky
      September 5, 2016 at 13:35

      Among the many other things that brought us to where we are now, the JFK assassination in my opinion would mark where the dark state really did finally take over. More Americans should kneel during the National Anthem to protest these patriotic imposters until they are driven out of office. The world would love to experience an America that is what it says it is. Nice poem F.G.

    • incontinent reader
      September 5, 2016 at 23:35

      FG – Brilliant.

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