Transport a conservative intellectual forward through time from 1982 to 2022 and one of the first things he'd notice is that his present-day counterparts talk an awful lot about class.
Specifically, conservatives today are fond of claiming Democrats are the party of over-educated professionals who constitute the American ruling class, while Republicans are arrayed on the side of the working class — with politics functioning as a form of class warfare between the two groups.
Few conservatives thought that way 40 years ago, though there were precursors to it. Republicans in the era of Reagan liked to place the GOP on the side of "average Americans," whom they portrayed as possessing basic decency and common sense lacking among the liberals who'd been running the show in Washington since the New Deal and been corrupted more recently by the moral decadence the 1960s counterculture.
That politically potent (if ideologically mild) form of populism has been intensified by demographic developments over the intervening decades and their interaction with the electoral coalitions of both parties. The GOP is increasingly the party of people living outside the biggest metropolitan areas and lacking a college degree, whereas the Democrats are increasingly dominated by highly educated urban professionals. This change has encouraged Republicans to portray electoral politics in America as a contest between top and bottom, haves and have-nots, influencers and underdogs, arrogant snobs and disrespected masses — with the GOP consistently fighting on the side of the latter.
Is this true? The recently revealed words and deeds of Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, suggest rather clearly that the answer is no.
Ginni Thomas is a lawyer and a conservative Republican who has worked in high-level jobs in Washington for decades — including at the U.S. Department of Labor. She's also founded lobbying groups to push for conservative policies. A passionate supporter of former President Donald Trump, she became outraged by news of his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 election and expressed her anger and anxiety in a series of texts to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
In those texts, the contents of which were disclosed last week in a story for The Washington Post, Thomas encouraged Meadows to do everything he could to ensure Trump remained president, and indulged in numerous election-related conspiracies, including some derived from QAnon — an offshoot of evangelical Protestantism that's been cross-pollinated with Glenn-Beck-style hyper-rationalism to produce an unfalsifiable belief system about hidden networks of pedophiles and behind-the-scenes efforts to thwart them led by prominent Republicans, including Trump.
QAnon, which polls show is affirmed by nearly one-fifth of the American population and especially widespread among members of the Republican base, is a quintessential down-market faith. Yet there was Ginni Thomas, a well-educated, very well-connected woman — someone married to a Supreme Court justice and deeply ensconced in the interpersonal and institutional ecosystem of the nation's capital — dashing off texts to the president's chief of staff, who took time out of his jam-packed days to respond respectfully to her missives.
If Ginni Thomas isn't a member of the American elite, then no one is. Yet she is a member of the American elite who genuinely affirms the beliefs of those very far from the commanding heights of the country's political, economic, and cultural institutions.
That tension points toward the complicated intellectual and organizational history of the American right. Back in the 1970s, conservatives set about challenging the power and influence of institutions dominated by ideological liberalism, above all, the media, the courts, and the universities. Taking on this liberal establishment required the creation of a counter-establishment of think tanks, institutes, academic programs within universities, media companies, and other ventures. Over the following decades, these efforts began to bear fruit, with the right's counter-establishment challenging the hegemony of liberalism on multiple fronts.
But of course, any establishment, no matter its ideological makeup or practical intent, will be led by elites — by people possessing the education, practical experience, specialized knowledge, and distinctive skills necessary for success. The leading institutions of the modern right — Fox News, the late Rush Limbaugh's radio show, The Federalist Society, The Heritage Foundation, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal — have invariably been led by just such people.
They are the country's counter-elite — and Ginny Thomas is undeniably a member in good standing.
What does her embrace of the Republican base's most demotic superstitions tell us about the character of the contemporary right — and the character of contemporary American politics more generally?
It tells us, among other things, that the real political fault line today isn't between a progressive-liberal elite establishment and those over whom it rules, who are increasingly willing and eager to challenge and deny its legitimacy. The real political fault line is between competing establishments and elites — one on the left, the other on the right.
Tucker Carlson might spend his evenings leading what sounds like class warfare against an entrenched progressive establishment of left-wingers, but he's a television star watched by millions who makes a small fortune in his job. He's as much a member of America's cultural and political elite as anyone. The same goes for the Republican leadership in Congress and Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents — and also for their spouses, especially when they take part in politics on the highest levels, as Ginni Thomas has chosen to do.
It might make political sense for Republican politicians to pretend they're engaging in class warfare on behalf of the downtrodden. But in reality, they're one set of elites waging a battle against another set of elites by LARPing as class warriors. It's a shtick.
That doesn't mean Thomas is faking her belief in QAnon-adjacent conspiracies about the 2020 election. But it does mean that affirming those beliefs does nothing to demonstrate she's doing battle against the establishment. She is the establishment. Or at least one of them.