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The Memo: Elites' misdeeds fuel public distrust
Populism and anti-elitism have been two of the biggest forces shaping American society in recent years - and they are being stoked again this week, in ways big and small.
The emergence of the omicron variant of COVID-19 is sapping the patience of a population that has already been dealing with the pandemic for almost two years.
Americans are now grappling yet again with new guidelines, as recommendations shift around booster shots and masking.
The process, by its nature, is sure to invite more skepticism of medical experts. Shifting scientific guidance - as well as political polarization, demagoguery and willful misinformation - has fueled public confusion and exasperation since COVID-19 first hit home in the United States in early 2020.
"Here we go again," was the lead headline of the website of Fox News on Thursday afternoon, which complained that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading expert on infectious diseases, was advising even Americans who are fully vaccinated to "follow another health protocol."
But it's not just the pandemic that is feeding into anti-elite sentiment.
The basic premise of populism - that there are rarefied elements of society that operate under different, more lax rules than the rest of us - has been buttressed by three big stories this week.
CNN finally moved to suspend anchor Chris Cuomo earlier this week. It did so after it emerged that the anchor had helped his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), more extensively than previously known while the elder Cuomo tried to fight off allegations of inappropriate behavior with women, including groping.
The media star's help for his politician brother appears to have included working his own sources to gather information about potentially damaging stories, and suggesting edits to statements that the then-governor might make.
It would be hard to come up with a more concise encapsulation of elite thinking than the comment attributed to Chris in his testimony to investigators.
"There is no division between politics and media," he is reported to have said. "We all know each other."
Meanwhile, on a much more sinister and macabre scale, erstwhile socialite Ghislaine Maxwell is currently on trial in New York, accused of helping procure underage girls for serial abuser Jeffrey Epstein. Some of the victims say Maxwell participated directly in the abuse herself.
Maxwell, the daughter of a deceased UK-based media baron, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Other family members have suggested she is being made a scapegoat for prosecutors who were deprived of the chance to hold Epstein accountable for his crimes when he killed himself in August 2019.
However Maxwell's case turns out, Epstein himself was able to get away with predatory behavior for years with minimal consequence. Any reasonable person understands this ability stemmed partly from his wealth and partly from his high-powered connections, who included such notables as former President Clinton, former President Trump and the United Kingdom's Prince Andrew.
A third case before the courts shines a light on a less grave but more celebrity-based form of elitism.
Testimony is ongoing in Chicago in the trial of actor Jussie Smollett, who is accused of organizing a hoax attack upon himself in January 2019.
Smollett also pleads innocence.
But prosecutors allege that, in a city where the most impoverished residents face horrifying violence on a daily basis, Smollett wasted up to 3,000 hours of Chicago police time. They say he organized the fake attack because he was annoyed that a death threat he had received in the mail was not being taken seriously enough by the producers of his TV show.
The Cuomos, Epstein and Maxwell, and Smollett have all ultimately faced consequences of some kind. But their capacity to act under the radar for so long is sure to feed even more public skepticism of the connected, the wealthy and the famous.
Though it may seem, in some ways, a large leap from those cases to distrust of government or medical expertise, at another level they are all details in one large canvas.
"The thing that needs to be borne in mind is that there has been a very clear and significant decline in trust in all major institutions in the United States, government being the most notable one," said Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University. "It is the media, it is physicians, it is the church, it is corporations. We have seen it all across the board."
The problem, of course, is that a reflexive, damn-them-all anti-elitism also creates fertile ground for misinformation profiteers and grievance peddlers to prosper.
When it comes to COVID, for example, it is true that some leading voices in both the medical and media establishment were too dismissive of the idea that the virus could have emerged from a Chinese lab.
But it is also true that the single biggest drag on the United States' progress against the virus has been vaccine hesitancy - an attitude that has had disastrous staying power despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the vaccines are effective.
In the broader sweep of recent history, there have been several major instances where the elite consensus turned out to be wrong and the consequences were catastrophic - the war in Iraq and the spate of Wall Street deregulation that led to the financial crisis of 2008 being two prime examples.
But the distrust fostered by such missteps also opened the door to demagogic political figures who have brought their own ills with them - the most notable example being Trump's incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
There is no easy way out of the conundrum.
But the anti-elitism that has marked recent years isn't going anywhere. The preponderance of elite misbehavior makes sure of that.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.