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The Myth of the Smug Liberal

In the dawn of the Trump era, there is no stereotype more lazily deployed than the condescending coastal liberal who lives in his own bubble.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The most irritating media trope to emerge in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election is the idea that it was a rebuke to “condescending” liberals who live in our own “bubbles.” Steve Schmidt gave us a preview on MSNBC even before the race for the White House was decided. “The people who are for Trump are not embarrassed to be for Trump. This is a fiction of New York City,” the former Republican political consultant told us early on election night. “This is a fiction of the New York City, Acela Corridor imagination, who are embarrassed for these people. This is part of the condescension.”

It’s not just Republican talking heads. All fall, Michael Moore had been sounding a similar alarm, suggesting that anyone who lived in an Eastern city or had never worked an assembly line could not possibly understand the plight of his old Michigan neighbors. The environmental journalist Rob Hoffman, in a Politico piece headlined “How the Left Created Trump,” blamed the election of Trump entirely on “liberal America’s smug style of debate” and “unmitigated social activism.” He berated “liberal America’s unwillingness—still!—to bend to its Republican counterparts,” even as he conceded that Trump’s victory “could have irreversible environmental consequences.” One might consider this the environmentalist’s equivalent of asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” But for Hoffman the bigger problem is, somehow, “liberal America’s unwillingness to compromise, or even show magnanimity in the face of all its victories on social issues.”

J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy—about whom so much commentary has now been written that a foreigner would be forgiven for thinking that at least two-thirds of all Americans are hillbillies, and that the rest of us do nothing with our waking hours but, well, condescend to them—informed us in a New York Times op-ed that liberals might revere the military, but it’s Trump voters who actually join it.


The next millionaire media celebrity who wants to tell me that I’m living in a bubble has to agree to trade his digs for my 700-square-foot rental, and the cozy mountain of debt that comes with it. Growing up, we were so poor at times that we drove around in a secondhand station wagon with a leaky gas tank that my father bought for one dollar. His strategy was to pour a little gasoline in the tank just before we had to go anywhere, throw the gas can in the back seat, then drive like hell. Hillbilly enough for you?

We know what it’s like to be poor, and even desperate. So do most of us “smug liberals” so disparaged by those rip-snorting radicals of the left and the right. By my junior year in high school, I was paying the mortgage on our family home, with the money I made writing articles as a stringer for the local paper. One summer we couldn’t afford to pay the heating bill, so we took showers by sneaking into the hotel where my father got occasional work as a night clerk. My mother and sister worked as chambermaids at the same hotel.

Yes, members of my family have served in our armed forces. Sorry, Mr. Vance. They also work as police officers, firefighters, nurses, EMT paramedics. For that matter, we tend to get married and stay married, and most of us profess to believe in God. (I spent much of my childhood in an evangelical church, where I first became a born-again Christian.) Some of us even voted for Trump, and most vote Republican at least on occasion. We argue about this, but I think we all manage to get through it without anyone feeling condescended to.  

I got to see a lot of family at Thanksgiving. This year our gathering was also a celebration of the life of my late Uncle Bruce, a man who memorized the eye chart to join the Army because he was essentially blind in one eye. He fought in Korea nonetheless, and used the G.I. Bill when he came back to get an education, before coming back to New Jersey to work in business and become a Republican town councilman. After he suffered two falls and slipped into dementia, my cousins and I worked for months to shepherd him through our byzantine system of care for the aged. My sister and I had just done the same thing for our late, impecunious father—a veteran of the Marines.

None of this should come as a surprise. The whole idea that liberals live nowhere but in their own bubbles has become such a commonplace that it was turned into a (pretty funny) Saturday Night Live sketch. Yet at last count, well over 65 million Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, which would make for a helluva lot of bubbles across this country. But then, it’s always easier to invent figments like “the Acela Corridor imagination” to explain the people who don’t agree with you.

Yes, Democrats make them up as well. Witness “basket of deplorables,” or “clinging to their guns and Bibles.” But we were the ones whose candidate ran on the slogan, “Stronger Together.” It wasn’t us who went to rallies in shirts that read, “Trump That Bitch,” or shouted, “Lock her up!” We were the ones who wanted to talk about how we could all move forward, not who we could demonize or deport. Our candidate was the one with the laundry list of practical, immediate ideas about how to help Americans knocked flat by the global economy, instead of some vague palaver about how one man alone could fix the modern world. So who, exactly, is living in the bubble?

There is something more pernicious going on here, part of the longer right-wing project to label anyone in the opposition as somehow deracinated, unnatural, unconnected to “the homeland.” In this country, it dates back at least to the widespread gay-baiting that went hand-in-hand with McCarthyism, when Sen. Everett Dirksen promised to purge “the lavender lads” of the State Department. You can trace its lineage through Barry Goldwater wishing “we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea,” George Wallace’s denunciation of “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and Newt Gingrich’s infamous list of “contrasting words” to use against Democratic candidates, which included “bizarre,” “decay,” “traitors,” and “sick.”

The reality is that, far from being insulated, we have the same concerns and problems as everyone else. In my family, most of us pulled ourselves up by working hard, getting all the education we could, and taking full advantage of those government programs built by all of us. Most of us have, I think, paid back that debt we owe to our democracy, not least by recognizing that almost all of us have it tough sometimes, and that we must do what we can to help each other.

Is it really so condescending that we should vote for the candidate who would keep in place the footholds and safety nets that helped us? Or does the real condescension come from the likes of those who would infantilize white working class voters, making out that they cannot help but vote against their own interests if they even suspect that someone, somewhere is looking down on them?

Far from gloating over our social activism successes, my main preoccupation on election night was what my wife and I were going to do for health care. We’ve been on Obamacare since she lost her job over a year ago, one more downsizing victim to a merger of international conglomerates. She’s since applied to over a hundred job listings in different fields, but has managed to wrangle only a handful of interviews, and the unemployment ran out months ago. Since I am self-employed and have a pre-existing condition, I don’t know if we can replace our current health plan with anything at all, once the Affordable Care Act is repealed. We are a few years away from retirement—though now, thanks to Speaker Paul Ryan, who knows if the Medicare we paid into all these years will still exist when we get there?

I expect we will be scraping by, like everyone else. And as for the Acela, I don’t think we’ll be taking it any time soon, even if we do reside in the Arrogant East. Instead, when I go to see relatives, I tend to take another mode of transportation, called “the train”—usually the lumbering Amtrak Northeast Regional, running slower than the train ran a hundred years ago. I have yet to see Mr. Schmidt crowding into the café car there, but if I ever do, I promise to buy him a beer. Domestic, of course.