During the last days of the Ancien Régime, French Queen Marie Antoinette frolicked in a fake rural village not far from the Versailles Palace—the Hameau de la Reine (“the Queen’s hamlet”). “Peasant” farmers and herdsmen were imported to interact, albeit carefully, with the royal retinue in an idyllic amusement park. The Queen would sometimes dress up as a milkmaid and with her royal train do a few chores on the “farm” to emulate the romanticized masses, but in safe, apartheid seclusion from them.
The French Revolution was already on the horizon and true peasants were shortly to march on Versailles, but the Queen had no desire to visit the real French countryside to learn of the crushing poverty of those who actually milked cows and herded sheep for a living. It is hard to know what motivated the queen to visit the Hameau—was it simply to relax in her own convenient and sanitized Arcadia, or was it some sort of pathetic attempt to better understand the daily lives of the increasing restive French masses?
The American coastal royalty does not build fake farms outside of its estates. But these elites, too, can grow just as bored with their privileged lives as Marie Antoinette did. Instead of hanging out with milk maids in ornamental villages, our progressive elites, at the same safe distance from the peasantry, prefer to show their solidarity with the dispossessed through angry rhetoric.
Take the case of Colin Kaepernick, the back-up quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who makes $19 million a year (or about $20,000 per minute of regular season play). He has been cited by National Football League officials in the past for his use of the N-word, yet he refuses to stand for the pregame singing of the national anthem because he believes that his country is racist and does not warrant his respect. His stunt gained a lot of publicity and he now sees himself as a man of the revolutionary barricades. A number of other NFL athletes, as well as those in other sports, have likewise refused to stand for the national anthem to express solidarity with what they see as modern versions of the oppressed peasantry. But Kaepernick and his peers make more in one month than many Americans make in an entire lifetime. Still, for these members of the twenty-first-century Versailles crowd, the easiest way of understanding the lives of the underclass is expressing empathy for them for no more than a minute or two.
Lately, the entire Clinton clan has created a sort of Hameau de la Reine of the mind. Chelsea Clinton, for example, is married to hedge-fund operator Marc Mezvinsky (whose suspect Greek fund just went broke), and she once made over $600,000 for her part-time job as an NBC correspondent. She serves in a prominent role and is on the board of the non-profit billion-dollar Clinton Foundation, which has been cited for donating an inordinately small amount of its annual budget (often less than 15 percent) to charity work, while providing free jet travel for the Clinton family and offering sinecures for Clinton political operatives in between various Clinton campaigns. Explaining why she works at the Clinton Foundation and for other non-profits, Chelsea confessed, in Marie Antoinette style, that “I was curious if I could care about [money] on some fundamental level, and I couldn’t.” She cared enough, though, to purchase a $10.5 million Manhattan apartment not long ago rather than, say, rent a flat in the Bronx.
Her father, the multimillionaire Bill Clinton, is on the stump raking in huge amounts of campaign cash and reifying his liberal fides with accusations of racism against others. At one recent fundraiser, he claimed that he had found proof of Donald Trump’s encoded racism in the trite campaign slogan “Make America great again.” But the real problem with Trump’s signature catchphrase is not its supposed racism, but its banality—and it was borrowed, almost verbatim, from Bill Clinton’s own populist rhetoric from his previous campaigns. Even Marie Antoinette did not try to avoid the guillotine by crying that others also had followed her example of enjoying a fake peasant village.
At a private fundraiser among New York elites, Hillary Clinton also damned the purported illiberal nature of Trump’s supporters and said they were “not America.” She suggested that half of his supporters were haters of America’s victimized—or that nearly one-quarter of the entire country commits race/class/gender thought crimes: “To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” At least Hillary did not tell the “deplorables” to eat proverbial cake.
President Obama from time to time flees to his own Hameau de la Reine. He has developed a chronic tic of channeling easy empathy for The Other—and not by vacationing in the south side of Chicago instead of Martha’s Vineyard, but by issuing serial blanket condemnations of middle-class Americans for their purported insensitivity to the less fortunate. In 2008, for example, before a private group of hip San Francisco millionaires, he famously caricatured the working classes of Pennsylvania who voted against him as clinging to their “guns and religion.” Now, as a lame-duck President, Obama once again feels liberated to return to his rhetorical hamlet where he can act like a champion of the victimized by blasting America’s middle classes for their cultural shortcomings.
After golfing much of the time during his recent Martha’s Vineyard vacation, he went on a tour of Asia. In Laos, Obama immediately unleashed a number of accusations against his fellow Americans. “Typically,” Obama intoned, “when people feel stressed, they turn on others who don’t look like them.” (The adverb “typically” recalls Obama’s use of the word “typical” during the 2008 campaign to describe his own grandmother—who scrimped to send him to Hawaii’s most prestigious prep school—as a “typical white person.”)
Obama went on to delight his foreign audience: “If you’re in the United States, sometimes you can feel lazy and think we’re so big we don’t have to really know anything about other people.” Perhaps Obama sought to compensate for his own sense of insularity about the world, given that he knows no foreign languages and regularly mixes up national and world geography. America, to name a few of his gaffes, does not have 57 states; Hawaii is not in Asia; the Falklands are not the Maldives; and Austrians do not speak Austrian.
Obama’s supporters also play-act in their own hamlets. To walk the streets of downtown Palo Alto and Menlo Park in Silicon Valley is to bump into billionaire thirty-somethings dressed in torn jeans, T-shirts, and flip-flops—our the modern version of the bonnets and homespun costumes of Marie Antoinette’s Hameau.
Multimillionaire rappers also feel yearnings to reconnect with the hood to cultivate their grassroots fides. The cover of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” displays the corpse of a dead white judge on the White House lawn—with crude crosses scrawled over his eyes—surrounded by young African Americans who are shown displaying wads of cash and toasting his honor’s demise.
President Obama cited Lamar Kendrick, whom he invited to the White House, as his favorite rapper of 2016. By such praise, Obama can channel his street cred and find inner resonance with a romanticized life quite different from his own at the White House. At the same time, he, like Marie Antoinette, does not have to go so far as to visit the inner-city landscapes which inspire such trendy artwork and cheap anti-police lyrics (such as Kendrick’s childish “And we hate po-po.”)
There’s a key difference between today’s elites and those of the Ancien Régime—and it has nothing to do with money or privilege. Instead, Marie Antoinette’s bunch knew that their periodic stints as peasants were farcical, and, as a result, they did not take themselves too seriously. In contrast, our grim visitors to the American Hameau are a far angrier lot. They are convinced that a few cheap slurs or fuming public gestures will, for a moment or two, make them one with the people—unaware that they are as ridiculous as the French royals, but with far less Gallic style and panache.