It is with the heaviest heart that I must inform you Ross Douthat has written a column defending the ruling class, only not the current one, but the one from 50 years ago, when everything was Fine. It is titled “Why We Miss the WASPs,” and it is very bad.
The piece is not some sort of dispassionate, objective discussion of WASPs and their demise. It is part lament for their decline and part advice to the new “ruling class” on how best to improve and perpetuate itself—the unexamined assumption being that we must have a ruling class. It does not occur to him that there is an option beside “good ruling class” and “bad ruling class.”
For Douthat, WASPs were the former. He pays lip service to describing their bad points—a bit of racism here, some anti-Semitism there—but says their “virtues included a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel going — a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success.” Service, of course, means being a well-paid diplomat abroad, as well as fighting in World War II. They may have had their problems, he says, but “The WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive.”
His examination of the WASPs’ “bigotry” is baffling enough—“for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile,” he writes—but Douthat’s conclusions betray much deeper racist assumptions. He waves away the evidence of WASPy racism to say that you don’t have to like everything about them to feel “nostalgic for their competence.” Competence at what? Upholding white supremacy? Do you think a black woman in 1960s Connecticut would have had much to say for WASPish competency—or, for that matter, a black woman in modern Connecticut, where poverty rates for black and Hispanic people are three to four times those of white residents?
The piece also deploys the classic rhetorical technique of ascribing a view to The People at Large—“We miss the WASPs”—in order to spend a column explaining that view, without really providing any evidence that “we” do miss WASPs at all. His evidence for this supposedly widespread pining for the old days of America’s white aristocracy: Another middle-aged bloke wrote a thing dissecting the “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment” in remembrances of Bush, and another middle-aged bloke wrote another thing saying something similar—that Bush was “last president deemed ‘legitimate’ by both of our country’s warring tribes,” per Douthat. This is not really the same as crying for WASPs to step in and rule again, but whatever, still enough to base a column on for the New York Times Opinion Section.
It’s especially funny and sad that Douthat would claim that “we” miss the WASPs, given that he himself is a WASP–a “a semi-desiccated Ivy-educated WASP,” according to his fruitful Twitter account. (His family converted to Catholicism, but as Douthat wrote in a reply, “Not even the sacrament of confirmation can erase hundreds of years of New England ancestors.”) This is a very strange and embarrassing thing to do, to claim that what Americans are missing is More People Like Me. This is like if I had a columnist job at the New York Times and used it to decry the end of British rule in America in 1776, or to argue that Americans are crying out for a president with a La Croix problem. “America Needs Leaders Who Own Tuxedo Cats,” by Libby Watson.
But how WASPy he really is doesn’t matter all that much, since Douthat has been enamored of this ruling class since he was just a nubile young lad, as he demonstrated in his book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, an excerpt of which was reprinted in the Atlantic back in 2008. Douthat recounts the thrilling episode in which he and another young Yale lad were invited to William F. Buckley’s Connecticut compound to go sailing and—what luck! What glorious blessing!—swim naked with the elder racist:
“I’d swim, sir,” I said. “I would swim, I really would like to. But I’m afraid I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”
It had taken me so long to reach this conclusion that Buckley had already begun to climb the ladder, and now he regarded me with unconcealed amusement. “Well, neither did I. After all, it’s quite dark out there. And we’re all men here, you know.”
When he was gone, Jaime and I sat for a moment in silence, the dinner settling in our stomachs and the wine rising to our eyes.
“You aren’t actually going to go swimming, are you?” he asked me.
“Aren’t you?” I demanded.
“I don’t really like to swim very much in general.”
“Well, Jaime,” I said grandly, “neither do I, honestly. But you know, I think there comes a time in a man’s life when he has a chance to say to his grandchildren, I once went skinny-dipping with William F. Buckley, Jr. And this, Jaime, this is that chance.”
It doesn’t do to dwell in too much detail on what might go into an op-ed writer’s personal psychology when they’re Posting, but I do think it’s very telling that young Douthat was so clearly captivated by proximity to the old, white, male, Ivy League, conservative ruling class, and the way their rule expresses itself. Earlier in that chapter, Douthat describes visiting Buckley’s New York apartment for dinner (“a special treat,” for his first day at the National Review) and “gawking” at “the gimlet-eyed butler; the cooks and maids murmuring, in Spanish.” Even the younger, non-New York Times column-having Douthat was mesmerized by not just wealth and opulence, but by power and dominance, manifested in having Help—non-white, of course. The admiring way he describes this tells you everything you need to know about how he saw the ruling class then and the reasons he exalts it now.
Douthat’s pining for WASP rule is racist, of course: Presenting the era of WASP dominance as some sort of gilded age of benevolent aristocracy marked by empathy and care for the “lower” classes is straight-up insane. It’s helpful of him to demonstrate it so methodically in this op-ed. But the rest of his career up to this point has been doing that work for him, too, from his salivating desire to brag about his proximity to Buckley’s naked paunch in the Atlantic to his 2012 praise for Ann Romney’s (“a quasi-WASP by birth and breeding”) rhetoric of the “noblesse oblige”:
Instead, it’s an argument for Ann Romney’s husband that could have been made on behalf of the old white Anglo-Saxon ruling class with whose Social Registered members he shares so many qualities. You don’t have to love him, the more effective parts of her speech implied, or relate to him, or even always necessarily agree with him. But you can trust him with the presidency, because he’s suited to public service, and he was born and raised and trained to do this job.
Pining for an era of white rulers with our best interests at heart—who don’t have to do any work to actually prove that they have anyone else’s interests at heart, because “birth and breeding” alone will bestow you with the seal of WASPish benevolence—is racist. What he’s talking about is literally a form of white supremacy, just one that he considers more palatable. It’s helpful, really, for those of us who have been arguing since Trump was elected that his differences with the conservative elite are stylistic and not substantive. This is white supremacy, just in boat shoes.