Former President Donald Trump’s campaign strategy included waging a battle against, in his view, the corrupt Establishment “elites,” which consisted of all Democratic politicians and any media outlets that criticized him. While he is far from the first American politician to run a campaign based on anti-elitist rhetoric, his support of the right-wing Internet conspiracy theory QAnon – whose believers think top Democrats, liberal celebrities, and other American elites run a Satanic paedophile ring – is unique, to say the least.
On the other side of the spectrum, Leftism, a broad political ideology with an emphasis on robust social programs and stringent interventions in free-market capitalism, has been gaining mainstream appeal in America. Popular left-leaning political figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have campaigned against another type of elite class: billionaires, as their very existence points to the country’s unequal distribution of wealth.
These opposing forms of resistance against “elites” largely operate like night and day, especially when their definitions of the “elite” class are not even the same. Yet, there may be similar underlying resentments among supporters of these two ideologies, making their goals of undermining the status quo more alike than what meets the eye.
Trump, QAnon, and the Democratic Elite
Some polls suggest that up to 17% of Americans believe in at least some aspects of the online conspiracy QAnon. While encompassing many different theories, it is mostly based on debunked claims that Democratic elites including President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, and other liberal celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, control the entirety of mainstream news media, and have also somehow organized a Satanic paedophile ring.
QAnon has risen alongside Trump’s presidency and his rhetoric of referring to political, media, and academic elites as “America’s greatest domestic threats.” In fact, QAnon boasts a theory that Trump’s intention of becoming President was to put an end to the so-called Democrat-run child trafficking ring and imprison them all in Guantanamo Bay. Many believers are also convinced that Trump rightfully won the 2020 Presidential election after top Democratic elites “stole” it from him. More recently, QAnon has also incorporated conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement, and many believers participated in the January insurrection at the Capitol Building.
While it’s hard to gauge official numbers, it is presumed that a significant majority of QAnon believers are right-wing Trump supporters. The former President has also not been shy about his high opinion of QAnon, as he has repeatedly re-tweeted posts from believers and has referred to them as “people who love our country.”
Despite largely existing online, QAnon believers have seeped their way into the Republican Party by running for city and state political positions. This includes Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman from Georgia, who is among the many elected Republicans that have expressed support for QAnon. These theories in defiance of the perceived power of liberal elites have even spread across the world, with rising far-right movements in the UK and Germany attracting QAnon support.
Leftism and the 0.1%
While Leftism is a fairly vague term that encompasses a collection of political and economic ideologies, there remains in leftist circles the general consensus that billionaires and ultra-rich elites threaten the wellbeing of middle-class and low-income Americans. Studies suggest that while many billionaires do not appear to be publicly political, they still invest heavily in campaigns that promise to lower their taxes, stagnate the minimum wage, and reduce worker’s unions, all in order to amass wealth at the expense of a disappearing middle-class.
Leftists have been politically active in America for a long time, but the ideology has become more mainstream in part due to the threatening right-wing shift of the country’s entire political spectrum, as well as the rise of popular progressive Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez.
In 2016 and 2020, Sanders campaigned for president on the promise to implement a large wealth tax on the top 0.1% of Americans, provide universal health care, and invest heavily in the lacking social welfare system. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a number of “radical” public policies, one of which includes the Green New Deal, a plan to not only combat climate change, but also to address income and racial inequality which are intricately intertwined with climate justice. Generally, leftists seriously critique the exploitative nature of capitalism on people and the planet, and advocate for a massive redistribution of wealth and power from the billionaire-elite to the working and middle-classes. While both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are members of the Democratic Party, they, among a few others, are considered “progressive radicals” in a fight against the Party’s continued allegiance to neoliberal policies.
Of course, the Left has also faced backlash from right-wing politicians and media. In particular, a non-organized group of mostly peaceful left-wing activists called Antifa – short for anti-fascism – has been labelled as a terrorist group by Republicans and Trump himself. The term Antifa can be traced back to World War II when it referred to grassroots union activists and groups mobilizing against the Nazis. Antifa does not even formally exist in America, but that has not stopped Trump from blaming it for inciting riots and cultural divisions, while simultaneously encouraging the relatively more dangerous rise of white supremacy and right-wing violence.
Bridging the Divide
Trump-supporting QAnon believers and leftists ultimately have different political goals, yet they hold a shared discontent for each of their definitions of the “elite.” Why is this so?
There is a range of theories among political scientists and sociologists as to why and how Trump won the 2016 election in spite of polling that predicted his defeat. Some argue that Trump was able to exploit the economic insecurity of working class and non-college educated Americans to rally against the “elite” class. Studies have indicated that white blue-collar workers have been growing more discouraged in their ability to reach the wealth and happiness promised by the “American dream,” especially since the 2008 recession which saw no repercussions for elite Wall Street bankers. Of course, the irony exists that billionaire Trump, whose campaign was funded by other fellow billionaires, was able to convince working class Americans that he was their best hope of undermining “the system” to take down the elites.
To many, it may seem like working class people voted against their own interests, but it is more complicated than that. A more intersectional theory argues that Trump won due to his weaponization of racist rhetoric that blamed “illegal” immigrants and affirmative action for stealing opportunities away from white Americans. Trump exacerbated racial tensions and framed whiteness as an identity that is being threatened and oppressed. As a result, by implementing draconian immigration policies and ranting about political correctness, Trump convinced white Americans that he could not only restore their “rightful” place in society, but elevate them to a “super-elite” status.
Both of these theories explaining Trump’s win have basis in his exploitation of people experiencing genuine economic hardship by feeding them lies that serve his own political agenda. He has managed to convince many Americans that they are under threat and need to rise above the elite class.
In a similar vein, Leftist politics in America is largely based on the need to redistribute wealth, power, and resources from the elite billionaire and ultra-rich class, to working class people. It argues that the decline in middle-and working class wellbeing can be attributed to neoliberal policies that have seen increased costs of housing, education, and healthcare while simultaneously facing wage stagnation and decaying union power. As such, left-leaning politicians generally believe in investing heavily in social safety nets, implementing a living wage, and providing nationalized health care to ensure that everybody is able to live fulfilling lives without going into debt or facing economic insecurity.
However, for Leftists to attract the white middle-class, it requires engineering a cultural shift in order to “encourage these people to embrace changing racial… norms.” To rally the working class behind its goals, the Left has a difficult road ahead in unifying a divisive country and disrupting the legacy of Trump’s reactionary rhetoric.
Ultimately, QAnon believers and Leftists are both tired of the status quo and acknowledge that the “elites” threaten the wellbeing of everyday Americans. While Trump succeeded in weaponizing this insecurity to rise to political power, the election of President Joe Biden allowed a brief sigh of relief for many Leftists who want radical economic change for the working class. The rhetoric of Trump and QAnon is still ever-present among voters and the Republican Party, but progressive politicians and activists now have a better chance of uniting the working class to fight to undermine the billionaire elite and the status quo.