Party of the People exemplifies Republicans’ populist bait and switch.
The latest conscript in the Republican Party’s war on higher education is pollster Patrick Ruffini’s Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP. Ostensibly a book about polling, voter outreach and political realignments, it is actually a thinly disguised, ahistorical and poorly argued attack on college — and a naked attempt to stoke resentment and distrust.
Ruffini claims he’s appalled by Donald Trump, but much like other Republican beneficiaries of the #NeverTrump movement, he nonetheless sets out to harness the wreckage Trump made of his party and the country. Ruffini proposes a realignment of U.S. politics by dividing Americans into college-educated “cosmopolitans” — a cringy antisemitic dog-whistle Ruffini uses as the anchor of his us-versus-them framework — and a purportedly “multiracial populist” coalition that has grown even more disgusted with college-educated Democrats than they were with the country club Republicans of days gone by.
Ruffini is far from the first Republican to promote this realignment theory. Ambitious Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, among others, have proclaimed the working-class transformation of the Trump GOP, and prominent rightwing intellectuals like Harvard constitutional law scholar Adrian Vermeule have placed — dare I say it — an elite sheen on the argument. While attempting to dazzle with charts and graphs, Party of the People is premised on discredited tropes and filled with ridiculous caricatures. While that’s dismaying enough, far more vexing is the possibility that political reporters and pundits may seize on Ruffini’s book as evidence of a phenomenon they are perpetually straining to prove: that the two political parties are essentially an even electoral match, but the GOP has its finger on the pulse of the heartland, while Democrats are over-educated, self-absorbed, virtue-signaling hypocrites.
The cliche of latte-sipping liberals is an old one, but Ruffini builds on it to depict his college-educated cosmopolitans as a sneering “aristocracy.” The “‘hollowing out’ of the middle class,” Ruffini contends, is not due to income inequality, tax cuts for the wealthy or rapacious CEOs, but rather to “middle-middle-class kids earning college diplomas and becoming richer,” then imposing their out-of-touch, woke ideology onto everyone else against their will. In this framing — which is increasingly commonplace in Republican circles, even among Ivy League-educated senators — “elite” is defined by ideology and taste, not wealth.
The divide between “elites” and traditionalists, according to Ruffini, is stark and unbridgeable. Only those in the “elite bubble” watch Succession, for example, while those without college degrees watch Yellowstone. Not only will the two sides never Netflix and chill together, but, Ruffini warns more ominously, Democrats better beware of the pitfalls of their Roy family-obsessed base. Roger Friedman, Ruffini alerts us, warns that Yellowstone’s popularity “could spell trouble in elections.” If you, like I, wondered who this esteemed political analyst Roger Friedman is, I’ll spare you the Google: He’s a former Fox News columnist who now runs an entertainment gossip blog called Showbiz 411.
While no one contests that Trump won 64% of white voters without college degrees, Ruffini faces a much greater challenge in supporting his claims of “multiracial” support. He persistently uses passive voice and verbal sleights of hand that whitewash Trump’s racism, minimize Trump’s assaults on democracy and accuse Democrats of having equally reprehensible problems, like being “pulled left by cosmopolitan elites” on issues of crime and immigration. “Trump himself often did little to disabuse the GOP’s critics, from his extremely poor response to the Charlottesville protests in 2017 to the events in Lafayette Square in 2020,” Ruffini writes in a breathtakingly euphemistic description of Trump’s embrace of Nazis and authoritarian crackdown on racial justice protesters. “But,” Ruffini goes on, “liberals have their own inconvenient truths to contend with,” including their supposed inability to explain why Trump did “better among Black voters than respectable establishment Republicans.” Ruffini provides no data to back up his statement, which happens to be misleading at best — Trump actually did worse than every Republican nominee since 1965, except for John McCain and Mitt Romney (who both ran against Barack Obama) — but Ruffini elides this inconvenient truth.
Trump did make real gains with some pockets of Latino voters, some of whom genuinely embrace GOP ideology. But Ruffini omits the widely reported evidence that Spanish language media and social media were bombarded with election disinformation. He also relies on patronizing stereotypes to explain Trump’s improvement with a demographic he built his campaign demonizing— claiming that Latino voters are prone to embrace strongmen, have a “deep moral aversion toward government handouts” and don’t like people “who game the [entitlement] system.” (As supposed evidence of the latter, Ruffini writes that, during his own visit to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, “a picture was making the rounds [on Facebook] of a Tesla parked in front of the food stamp office.”)
Elsewhere, Ruffini strains to relieve Republicans of their responsibility for engaging in deliberately racist campaigns. In discussing Obama’s candidacy and presidency, Ruffini passively observes that “Internet conspiracy theories abounded that he was not born in the United States or was secretly a Muslim” — no mention of the fact that they “abounded” largely because Trump was one of the most vociferous purveyors of these racist lies. Ruffini also manages to construct a history of Republican presidential politics in the 1960s and ’70s, describing white voter ire as “directed at welfare recipients and campus rioters,” without mentioning the Southern Strategy to mobilize white voters by fomenting racist fears on issues like crime and social safety net programs.
Near the end of the book, Ruffini finally admits that, to truly appeal to Black voters, Republicans “still have history to overcome.” It’s here that Ruffini finally uses the phrase Southern Strategy — but in scare quotes — writing: “The belief that Republicans benefited from a ‘Southern Strategy’ of appealing to anti-Black southern whites is firmly ingrained and remains a barrier to winning more voters today.” Ruffini later adds that “admitting some fault for the ‘Southern Strategy’ could be a symbolically crucial first step toward building a bridge to the Black community,” as if there were forces other than the Republican Party itself that conceived of and carried out that same Southern Strategy. After more than 200 pages spent glorifying conservatives’ so-called multiracial populist coalition, Ruffini finally concedes, “while Republicans might take heart in the fact that Black conservatives realigned in 2020, fewer Black voters called themselves conservatives than had in 2016.”
Ruffini’s anti-“cosmopolitan” thesis leads him to open contempt for his readers. “If you are reading a book like this one, the chances are that you have a college degree and are also part of this disconnect,” he writes. Noting that college graduates read more books and travel abroad more than their non-degreed counterparts, he insinuates that both pastimes reflect a sense of elite superiority and entitlement. But rather than advocate for working people to have better pay and more leisure time — in which they could do things like read and see the world — he rehashes outdated tropes against “government handouts” and lauds CEOs for union-busting. He extols how, under the leadership of former CEO Howard Schultz (a multibillionaire), Starbucks “does right by shareholders by resisting efforts of its employees to unionize and closing down stores that do.”
In September, Trump attempted to one-up Joe Biden after the president walked the picket line with striking United Auto Workers union members in Michigan. But Trump’s much-ballyhooed visit was the opposite of working-class solidarity, as he was invited by management to drop in on a nonunion auto parts supplier. Just like Trump’s purported outreach to autoworkers, Ruffini’s claim to represent the interests of working people is a sad ruse.
Ruffini might snicker at “elites” who read books, but his own is nothing but a blueprint for the next Republican bait and switch.
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Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist, MSNBC columnist and author of Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency,and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind and God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. She has been a reporting fellow with Type Investigations and her work has appeared in numerous outlets, includingThe Washington Post, Talking Points Memo, The New York Times, Politico, Insider, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, The Nation, The New Republic and many others.