The War on the Brains of the Right
There's an old story about a campaign stop for Adlai Stevenson, who ran against Eisenhower as the Democratic Party's candidate in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson had a reputation as an intellectual and an idealistic "liberal," and one of his supporters gushed that "you have the vote of every thinking person." To which Stevenson replied, "That's not enough, we need a majority."
Because the majority of voters don't think. Get it?
This is one of my favorite political stories because it reminds us of the historical moment when Democrats stopped trying to be the party of the common man and adopted a pretense of condescending superiority. (The common man returned the favor by voting for Eisenhower in a landslide. Twice.)
I was reminded of this incident because the Trump campaign is attempting an equally condescending inversion of that attitude. Donald Trump is attempting to win a majority by appealing to the unthinking man.
This aspect of his candidacy has come to the forefront in the past few weeks, but especially since Trump's embarrassing interview last week with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. It wasn't just that Trump demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge of the players and issues in the Middle East. Candidates have had early disastrous interviews like that before, including George W. Bush (which I don't think would be widely accepted as a reassuring example). What was more troubling was Trump's assurance that he didn't need to know, that he could wait to get up to speed on the issues the day after the election—though we're supposed to vote for him anyway before then.
What is disturbing about Trump's most ardent supporters is that they bought this.
Not only did they buy it, but they have bought into and are repeating a much more dangerous line of attack: the Trump's ignorance is superior to knowledge. It's been building for a little while, but this outlook was encapsulated for me in a Twitter comment directed at another political commentator who is skeptical about Trump.
@jimgeraghty Hewitt is a herb. You're from the same herb fabric. Bunch of book nerds who only ponder for a living.
— MR Jr. (@MikeRinaldiJr) September 4, 2015
"Herb" is presumably short for "herbivore," as opposed to the tough-guy "carnivores" who are brave enough to insult people on Twitter. So take that, Mr. Thinkety-Think-Think. We don't need pansies like you who with all of your books and knowledge and facts.
Of course, having a detailed knowledge of the Middle East is not sufficient to make you a good leader. Joe Biden is widely regarded as an expert in foreign affairs, despite being, as former Secretary Defense Robert Gates put it, "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." A leader with a lot of factual knowledge can still be foolish (like Biden) or indecisive (like Jimmy Carter) or blinkered by a blame-America-first ideology (like President Obama). But without a base of knowledge, you're still pretty darn likely to be wrong. Knowledge is the necessary first step, and more important than one's state of knowledge at any point in time is the belief that knowledge and thinking are important.
But Trump's defenders have launched a wider campaign against the conservative punditry—a war on the brains of the right.
Along with many friends and colleagues, I have found it grimly amusing to find myself dismissed as an "establishment" "elitist" motivated by contempt for the working man. None of this is based on our actual personal history or body of work. It is based only on the fact that we make a living thinking about politics, and therefore cannot be uncritically positive about a guy who is praised by Paul Krugman for being right about economics.
Note that this is not the old "RINO" charge—Republican in Name Only—which criticizes establishment leadership types like Mitch McConnell for failing to live up to the principles the party claims to stand for. If that were the complaint, the mercurial Mr. Trump, who has been all over the board on every issue, certainly wouldn't measure up. Instead, this is an attack on anyone who asks questions that are inconvenient for the Great Leader and his supporters.
Over the weekend, this has become on open war, set off by Jonah Goldberg's broadside against the anti-intellectualism of the Trump phenomenon.
Conservatives have spent more than 60 years arguing that ideas and character matter. That is the conservative movement I joined and dedicated my professional life to. And now, in a moment of passion, many of my comrades-in-arms are throwing it all away in a fit of pique. Because "Trump fights!"...
It is entirely possible that conservatives sweat the details of tax policy too much. Once in office, a president must deal with political realities that render the fine print of a campaign pamphlet as useful as a battle plan after the enemy is met. But in the last month, Trump has contemplated a flat tax, the fair tax, maintaining the current progressive tax system, a carried-interest tax, a wealth tax, and doing nothing. His fans respond, "That shows he’s a pragmatist!"
No. It shows that he has absolutely no ideological guardrails whatsoever....
If you want a really good sense of the damage Donald Trump is doing to conservatism, consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare. Opposition to socialized medicine in general has been a core tenet of American conservatism from Day One. Yet, when Republicans were told that Donald Trump favors single-payer health care, support for single-payer health care jumped from 16 percent to 44 percent.
By the way, Goldberg wins the contest for what to call Trump's most dogged advocates: the "Trumpenproletariat." There have been many other suggestions. I put forward Trumpthers, in tribute to their love of conspiracy theories. Others have suggested Trumpkins, Trumpalumpas, and Trumpalos (a reference to Juggalos, the famously lowbrow fans of a music group called Insane Clown Posse). But Goldberg's suggestion captures something more fundamental. Karl Marx coined the term "lumpenproletariat" to describe a section of the lower classes that were too uneducated, unthinking, brutish, and "degenerate" to ever embrace the great socialist message, and who would therefore have to be pushed down and suppressed by the Communist revolutionaries. It became the Communists' way and explaining why educated middle-class revolutionaries who claimed to be in favor of "the working class" were so often hated or ignored by actual workers. But the Trumpenprols embrace the role Marx assigned them, stridently proclaiming their unthinking closed-mindedness.
Goldberg's article prompted a Twitter campaign against National Review under the hashtag #nrorevolt, which has become a cesspool of outright appeals to "white power" and antisemitism.
This illustrates what happens when you try to bash out the brains of the right. The thing about a movement based on big ideas like individual rights, the rule of law, constitutional government, and so on, is that these big ideas are universal. If free markets are good for white people, they are good for black people, for Asians (as Pacific Rim countries have demonstrated definitively over the past few decades), and for everybody else. The big ideas that make up the intellectual canon of the right are universal ideas about human nature that apply to everyone.
But if you've decided that's just for book nerds who like to ponder, what do you base a movement on other than ideas, reason, and evidence? You base it on blind appeal to emotion. In politics, this is also known as prejudice: the idea that political power should only be held by people "like me," while people who aren't like you are the cause of all problems and should be pushed down or kept out. In politics, the opposite of ideology is tribalism. Hence all the people using the #nrorevolt hashtag who proclaim themselves partisans of the cause of "blue-collar whites."
No, I don't think Trump intended to become the favorite candidate of the "white power" crowd, nor do I think he is directly responsible for his misfortune in being endorsed by David Duke, (which Trump has tepidly repudiated). I think he only intended to champion the cause to which he has devoted the rest of his life: the praise and public glorification of Donald Trump. But by fashioning a movement based on adulation of a strong leader, with few questions asked about what he knows and where he stands, and then basing his campaign on the most crudely populist anti-immigration rhetoric, he gave the tribalists an opening.
The only good news is that tribalism, while having a certain primeval appeal to the unthinking, is profoundly unpersuasive to those who don't already embrace it. It is unpersuasive precisely because it is not based on universal ideas that can be embraced by those outside the tribe. Believe me, the 17th time you call us "cuckservatives," it does not gain any power or eloquence. In fact, far from broadening their movement, the Trumpenprols are repelling just about everybody else within the right.
That's why I think this will blow over as the primaries approach and actual votes get counted. But now would be a good opportunity for the political right to affirm its rejection of blind tribalism and recommit itself to the quest for a sound basis in universal ideas.