Precisely 100 years ago, H.L. Mencken wrote:
As democracy is perfected, the office [of president] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. . . . On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
Now it is. Just in time for Donald Trump to mishandle a lethal pandemic and inflame an incendiary racial crisis. The cost in lives, and to our national spirit, has yet to be reckoned.
“How,” asks Stephen Walt, “could a serious country possibly choose as its leader a narcissistic, manifestly unqualified self-promoter with a long track record of failure and deceit?”
The answer, in great measure, is that too many Americans stopped caring about capacity or knowledge, and so elected an uncredentialed ignoramus. But Donald Trump is merely the apotheosis of a growing disdain among Republicans for the intellect, experience, wisdom, and respect for expertise essential to governance.
Historically, American anti-intellectualism has been as bipartisan as ignorance. But by trafficking for decades in a pseudo-populist contempt for perceived elites, the GOP wound up creating a political Frankenstein monster: an American idiocracy governed by an idiot.
The earliest, and most deserving, target of anti-elitism as politics was liberal academe. In the 1960s, the ferociously intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. propagated this semi-playful hyperbole: “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.”
But such tropes, as Buckley implied, soon influence our broader view of government. Speaking on behalf of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan asked voters to decide “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Never mind that, as the well-read Reagan well knew, the fathers of our revolution were an intellectual elite—the idea took hold. “We will never have the elite smart people on our side,” Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in 2012, “because they believe they should have the power to tell you what to do.”
“The war on academia bleeds into a war on the very idea of expertise,” writes Zack Beauchamp in Vox. Scapegoating experts as the enemies of ordinary people has polarized perceptions of learning itself, instilling a belief “that liberal elites are conning you, that they’re less competent than an ordinary person. . . . The very idea of nonpartisan knowledge production is obliterated.”
Tom Nichols, the conservative academic who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College, addressed this phenomenon in his 2017 book The Death of Expertise. Too many Americans, Nichols argues, prefer magical thinking to the fruits of education or experience. A primary cause is that the complexity of modern life engenders feelings of helplessness among those who feel threatened by increasingly unfathomable forces—and the sophisticated experts who propound them. As it grows harder to comprehend subjects such as climate change, global trade, or virology—let alone our fraught and divisive experience of race—such people may seize upon contentions, however bogus, that facilitate believing whatever they wish.
This rejection of established knowledge and historical perspective serves as a psychic equalizer, enabling the angry and insecure to assert their autonomy from an effete and alien elite. As hostility displaces humility and curiosity, public discourse devolves from reasoned debate to vituperation, vilification and misinformation.
This devolution is particularly acute in shaping our views about politics, decoupling our biases and delusions from the need for objective verification. In this swampland of subjectivity, beliefs justify themselves simply by existing, creating a thickening fog of incomprehension wherein expertise competes with bunk. The result is a pernicious intellectual populism in which anyone’s opinion, no matter how groundless, is equal to those rooted in assiduous research and analyses. All one needs to validate an assertion is to express it.
Little wonder that an increasing number of Republicans—59 percent, per a 2019 Pew Research survey—believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect on American life. This attitude, in turn, accelerates a craving for simple answers, and a resentment of those who refute them. Writes Nichols: “When people are told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism or stimulating economic growth is a lot harder than it looks, they roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame elites for seizing control of their lives.”
In theory, the Internet should breed a more informed populace with widening access to knowledge. Instead, Nichols argues, it has become a sorcerer’s apprentice in swamping genuine learning with nonsense. “The digital age,” he contends,
has simply accelerated the collapse of communication between experts and laypeople by offering an apparent shortcut to erudition. It has allowed people to mimic intellectual accomplishment by indulging in an illusion of expertise provided by a limitless supply of facts. But facts are not the same as knowledge or ability—and on the Internet, they’re not even always facts.
Moreover, this accretion of junk is ripe for manipulation. Says Nichols:
The Internet . . . is less a library than a giant repository where anyone can dump anything. In practice, this means that a search for information will rely on algorithms usually developed by for-profit companies using opaque criteria. Actual research . . . requires the ability to find authentic information, sort through it, analyze it, and apply it. But why bother with all that tedious hoop jumping when the screen in front of us presents neat and pretty answers in seconds?
Such intellectual sloth helps proliferate conspiratorial thinking and undifferentiated outrage. Nichols describes the process:
Facts come and go as people find convenient at the moment, making arguments unfalsifiable and intellectual progress impossible. And unfortunately, because common sense is not enough to understand or judge plausible alternative policy options, the gap between informed specialists and uninformed laypeople often gets filled with crude simplifications or conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and little patience for boring, detailed explanations. They are also a way for people to give context and meaning to events that frighten them.
Inevitably, such theories thrive by creating their own cul-de-sacs of irrefutability. The absence of proof signifies the conspirators’ diabolical cleverness; all who deconstruct the theory are agents of the conspiracy. Paranoia suffocates logic.
Enter Trump. “In the Trump era,” writes Beauchamp, “[Buckley’s] vision has linked up to Trump’s swamp-draining, deep-state-blaming political style to produce a form of right-wing populism that treats the very idea of nonpartisan expertise as deeply suspect. . . . This is not a bug in Trumpism, but rather a feature. The idea that all elites—not just intellectual elites, but bureaucratic ones too—are untrustworthy has been central to the president’s political message from day one. ‘Drain the swamp’ and the war on the ‘deep state’ have served to position Trump as the ethical people’s champion; he puts his unqualified daughter and son-in-law in the White House because it’s important to have people who are, first and foremost, loyal to Trump.”
Trump’s contempt for knowledge unleashes a related pathology which makes him as dangerous to our climate as he is to public health: the comprehensive incomprehension of his own intellectual deficiencies that melds him with his followers.
Not only is Trump ignorant of his ignorance but, as George Will put it, “he does not know what it is to know something.” Hence our president’s most destructive lie: his claims of universal expertise.
Repeatedly, Trump has claimed some variant of “nobody knows more than I do” regarding a multitude of complex subjects: fiscal policy, the Federal Reserve, trade, tariffs, global warming, geopolitics, fighting ISIS, military strategy in general—and, most recently, epidemiology and law enforcement. Even for a self-proclaimed genius, Trump’s range impresses.
That’s the problem. Perceiving the infinity of all they can never know, true geniuses are disinclined to overstate their gifts. By contrast, Trump is a classic exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for two psychologists who demonstrated that the less knowledgeable and competent you are, the more you believe in your own superlative abilities. Such benighted folks, wrote Dunning and Kruger, not only “reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the . . . ability to realize it.”
Deaf to the voices of attainment and experience, Trump daily subjects America to his staggering incapacities. The few capable advisers whom he hired have been replaced with sycophants who survive by indulging his groundless and dangerous conceits—condemning us to a president whose actions grow ever more unhinged.
In place of reason, he treats his followers to that staple of a stunted worldview: a mind-numbing series of conspiracy theories. One of the latest—that antifa fomented the disorder following George Floyd’s videotaped murder—is patently false; another, Obamagate, is so diabolical that it not only defies refutation, but comprehension. Not even our genius of a president can explain it.
This exemplifies a lynchpin of Trump’s quest for re-election: the deliberate destruction of our shared belief that verifiable truth is the foundation of political discourse. As our societal agreement about credible sources and objective fact crumbles, so does our capacity to resist baseless theories, political quackery, and rank demagoguery. This fact-free environment provides Trump with a credulous audience unwilling, or unable, to perceive his constant lies and lethal grandiosity—or to comprehend his subversion of our democratic institutions and traditions.
Trump’s intellectual Lotusland has a chorus of charlatans—Breitbart, Limbaugh, Fox News—whose counterfactual fulminations cement a class system of the mind that separates those addicted to fabulism and propaganda from those who are not. Like other class systems, this perpetuates itself, enhancing the danger that the Trump presidency will prove to be not an aberration but a prototype.
But with COVID-19, Trump’s ignorance turned deadly. Trump did not spawn this pandemic; his inherent character, and the credulity of his loyalists, have simply made it worse—with no certain end in sight.
Many leaders—like those in Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand—managed to control the spread of COVID-19 by promptly heeding the advice of public health experts. Not Trump. He rejected expert counsel while encouraging true believers to ignore the risks, displaying, as usual, impatience with briefings from those who know more than he does—meaning everyone. And, as usual, others paid the price: had he acted sooner, according to modelers at Columbia University, he could have prevented the vast majority of American deaths.
Instead, Trump and his supporters ginned up yet more conspiracy theories—among the most perverse of which is that deep state actors both spawned the disease and exaggerated the death toll. Here Nichols was especially prescient: “Just as individuals facing grief and confusion look for meaning where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience.”
Now we have a national racial and civic crisis that requires from our president a deep and nuanced understanding of its causes and dangers—not only the willingness to lead, but to listen, to learn, and to speak across our divides of experience and understanding. God help us.
None of this suggests that America should be run by unelected experts—far from it. Rather our democratically elected leaders often need the advice of experts to help them govern wisely. But grasping this requires a mass cognizance incompatible with fetishizing ignorance. Nichols warns:
Too few citizens today understand democracy to mean a condition of political equality in which all get the franchise and are equal in the eyes of the law. Rather, they think of it as a state of actual equality, in which every opinion is as good as any other, regardless of the logic or evidentiary base behind it. But that is not how a republic is meant to work, and the sooner American society establishes new ground rules for productive engagement between educated elites and the society around them, the better.
Lamentably, that’s not where matters stand. “Like anti-vaccine parents,” Nichols concludes, “ignorant voters end up punishing society at large for their own mistakes.”
And so they have. Come November, we will find out what we’ve learned.