Having attended a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire earlier this week, Scot Lehigh of the Boston Globe was not terribly impressed with the candidate, the message, or the supporters. “After listening to Trump for more than an hour,” Lehigh reported, “I came away struck by one thing: how little of substance he’d actually uttered.” Instead, the Globe columnist observed, Trump’s message was “a populist stew of braggadocio, bluster, and bombast, seasoned with resentments he and his backers share.”
And those resentments run deep. Lehigh noted that the key issue repeatedly mentioned by Trump’s supporters—and the issue that drew some of the loudest applause—was the GOP frontrunner’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This proposal strikes many as strange, especially with Trump promising he’ll make Mexico pay for it, but what’s truly bizarre is that it would resonate so much with voters in New Hampshire—a state that borders Canada, not Mexico, and a state where Hispanics comprise only two percent of the population.
With all the serious issues facing America and the world, the irrationality of Granite State voters enthusiastically embracing an offbeat anti-immigrant proposal that would have little direct relevance in their lives may seem puzzling. As I’ve argued elsewhere, however, anti-intellectualism is at the root of much of the dysfunction in America today, and nowhere is it more evident than in the political realm. There can be no doubt that it explains why New Hampshire voters would allow themselves to be distracted by talk of a border wall being built (for free!) over two thousand miles away.
The simplistic vilification of foreigners is just one aspect of the Trump candidacy’s anti-intellectualism, a characteristic that also reveals itself through the rejection of civility and maturity—with comments about Carly Fiorina's appearance, the mocking of a reporter's physical disability, and a menstrual reference while complaining about another reporter, to name just a few examples. It is a cultural and political milestone that voters have bestowed frontrunner status upon the man who declares his adversaries “losers” and “lowlifes.” Though the realm of politics has rarely been a noble profession in America, this kind of behavior by a leading candidate reflects low levels that few would have previously imagined.
But apparently such is the mindset of a huge swath of Americans today, in the Granite State and elsewhere. The unfortunate truth is that the political arena has become little more than another avenue of entertainment, perhaps best described for many as yet another of the endless image-oriented choices that accompany modern living, like our television tastes and our social media profiles. In America today, political choices might have more to do with one's personal image than any hope or expectation of shaping policy. If you're white, angry, and not particularly concerned about anyone who's not white and angry, Trump's your man. And you're not alone.
Not surprisingly, Lehigh reported that Trump supporters repeatedly cited Fox News, which has been shown to be the news outlet with viewers who are the least informed, as their source for news and information. Trying to digest the Trump rally experience, Lehigh described the phenomenon this way: “Here you found yourself thinking that his campaign has been a match made in political heaven: a marriage between a consummate egotist aching to be seen as a hero and a credulous crowd hungry for a savior.”
That statement is poignant, because there can be no question that an anti-intellectual political environment is fertile ground for demagoguery. The simplicity of us-versus-them rhetoric, the cult of personality, the use of fear—it's all textbook, and it's starting to look familiar.
None of this is to suggest that American political campaigns have traditionally been highly intellectual enterprises. Candidates have always packaged their substantive platforms with catchy slogans and emotional appeals—that's politics as usual—but today we find that the substance itself is often little but emotionally charged mush. Trump, the oversized personality and brash bully, will "make America great again" by building a wall and making the Mexicans pay for it, and if you don’t believe him you must be one of those “losers.” And he's the frontrunner.
America has seen anti-intellectual politics before, lots of it. George Wallace comes to mind, and certainly George W. Bush was no intellectual, and Reagan in many ways epitomized image over substance. But we'd be hard pressed to find anyone as brash, self-aggrandizing, and overtly anti-intellectual as Trump who has been a front-running presidential candidate for a major party. And his candidacy comes in the wake of Tea Party successes in recent state and local elections that hardly encourage optimism for those concerned about the level of discourse in politics. (Matt Bevin, just elected governor of Kentucky, defended cockfighting in the midst of his campaigning.)
So even if Trump fades as many predict, clearly a large portion of the electorate is hungry for exactly what he offers. With other candidates across the country succeeding by taking stands that deny evolution and climate change while vilifying foreigners and beating the drum of militarism, there's little to suggest that the anti-intellectual trend is just a passing phase. This can't bode well for the direction of American society.
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Trump photo by Gage Skidmore