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Elite pedigrees are normal for the right’s phony populists

The problem is that these pretend populists are talking about “real Americans” in service of a guy — Trump — who clearly hates Americans.

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Pete Hegseth, host of “Fox & Friends,” is pictured at the National Council of Young Israel Gala in New York City on March 31, 2019.

Michael Brochstein, Sipa USA/TNS

If you were surprised to learn there are scores of secret diners dotting the American heartland, where teachers and construction workers sit down to have regular-Joe conversations over bacon and eggs about the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, you are not alone.

But that’s what a Fox host, Pete Hegseth, said to an approving crowd at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, last weekend.

Hegseth insisted, very earnestly, that the people he sits down with at these diners for his regular Fox segments — presumably the real Americans — aren’t talking about “esoteric things” that “the Ivy League talks about or MSNBC talks about.”

“They’re talking about the Bible, and faith, and prayer, and their family, hard work, supporting the police, standing for the national anthem, the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, the 10th Amendment.”

Suffice it to say, the idea that anyone, whether a waitress or a tax attorney, was talking about the 10th Amendment, i.e., the fairly esoteric topic of states’ rights, over breakfast at a diner, struck many as highly unlikely.

But no matter, Hegseth wasn’t going for accuracy. Populism doesn’t care about accuracy.

He was, like so many of the televangelist-populists on the far right who’ve fashioned themselves in Donald Trump’s image, merely playing red-meat Mad Libs with a captive audience, knowing all too well it wouldn’t care if the final sentence ultimately made any sense.

Hegseth, like Republican Sens. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, Ted Cruz, of Texas, and John Kennedy, of Louisiana, regularly put on these tired, anti-intellectual, populist performances meant to cast the left as out-of-touch, overly educated elites and the right as the keepers of real America.

But, as many have pointed out, their anti-elite screeds often neglect to mention their own elite pedigrees. Cruz, who likes to slam the Democratic Party as “the party of wealthy elites, Big Tech and Big Business” when he’s not jetting off to the Cancun Ritz-Carlton to escape a deadly snowstorm in Texas, attended Princeton and Harvard.

Hegseth also went to Princeton and Harvard.

Hawley, who once held a $50,000 per plate fundraiser with billionaire Donald Trump and yet rails against the “cosmopolitan elite” for serving only the “wealthy and well-educated,” went to Stanford and Yale.

Kennedy, who slammed the “cultured, cosmopolitan, goat’s milk latte-drinking, avocado toast-eating insider’s elite” at a Trump rally in Louisiana, went to Oxford University. The one in England.

To be clear, these guys didn’t invent populism — not even the phony kind that they and Trump have dined off of for years.

Nor is it controversial, or even all that interesting, to suggest that liberals can seem out of touch with voters at times. It’s a well-worn trope for a good reason (explained in detail in the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) and one that’s often acknowledged by heartland and rust belt Democrats, like Rep. Tim Ryan, of Ohio.

Talking this way has been historically useful for conservatives, the way talking about “the backward rubes in the square states” has been useful for liberals, even if both are really only talking about one wing of each party, Democratic and Republican. There are, after all, elites and underprivileged in both.

I don’t think the problem is Hegseth’s degrees, Hawley’s fundraiser, Cruz’s vacation or Kennedy’s avocado aversion.

It’s that these pretend populists are talking this way about “real Americans” in service of a guy — Trump — who clearly hates Americans.

Trump incited actual violence against Americans who disagree with him. He spent his political capital attacking half of America as the enemies of the people, and then repeatedly lied to the other half, the half that actually likes him.

He put his own supporters in harm’s way by continually denying the severity of the pandemic and refusing to mask up. He undermined America’s greatest and most important democratic institutions and encouraged his followers to do the same. He tried to break America and is still trying.

It’s hard to make the case that the left isn’t focused on issues that Americans care about when your guy is focusing on lies and conspiracy theories, punishing his detractors and leading Americans down a very dark, dangerous, self-destructive path that’s literally ruined lives.

Their pedigree isn’t the real hypocrisy — you can be well-educated and also believe political leaders are too elitist. The real hypocrisy is in supporting an ex-president who cares little about those so-called “diner” issues and nothing for Americans themselves who are both hurting and hurting each other, thanks in no small part to him and his politics of personal gain. What could be more out of touch than that?

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.