The roots of Donald Trump’s anti-intellectualism

Trump has taken anti-wonkiness to new levels, and his high level of support echoes populist sentiment of yesteryear and follows a decades-long slide in trust in traditional institutions.

Willis Glassgow/AP/File
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Nov. 24, 2015. , file photo, The Republican presidential nominee has taken anti-intellectualism to new heights.

Donald Trump seemed irritated. Hillary Clinton – during their Monday night debate – had just mentioned that 50 Republican national security experts have signed a letter declaring Trump unfit to be commander-in-chief.

In reply, Mr. Trump said he’d been endorsed by the border patrol union and “over 200” retired admirals and generals. Then he went after the experts and their claim to policy superiority.

“I’ll take the generals any day over the political hacks that I see that have led our country so brilliantly over the last 10 years with their knowledge. OK?” said Trump, his voice sharpening. “Because look at the mess that we’re in. Look at the mess that we’re in.”

The moment was perhaps symbolic of Trump’s whole approach to the policy substance of a presidential campaign. It’s not just that he seems uninterested in details and unclear about such issues as “no first use” of nuclear weapons. It’s that he actively denigrates wonkiness as unimportant.

In that Trump may be following the lead of GOP candidates before him. The party has long positioned itself as “aw shucks” regular folks against the effete egghead Democrats.

But Trump has taken the approach to new levels. His support indicates there are many voters who approve. That’s perhaps reflective of a decades-long slide in trust in traditional US institutions, which hit new lows in the Great Recession and its aftermath. It also echoes populist strains from the 19th century.

“He’s going full-bore anti-intellectual, and it might work,” says Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, in an email on the subject. “It clearly resonates with his base and may reach beyond that. People are pretty fed up with ‘experts’ these days.”

Common sense vs. study

Anti-wonkiness has long been an aspect of Trump’s public persona, of course. But in a political campaign that is based at least partly on actual problems and proposed solutions, it’s an aspect of his personality that’s become particularly apparent.

In an interview with the Washington Post this summer, Trump said he has never had to read very much because he can reach right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense.’ ”

Trump told the Post that he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He said that when he draws conclusions people immediately know he has done the right thing.

“A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time,’ ” said Trump.

In Monday night’s debate, Trump’s disdain for intellectualism and the grind of mental work met head-on with Mrs. Clinton’s focus on study and training. NBC’s Benjy Sarlin and Alex Seitz-Wald called it a battle of instincts versus preparation.

“Preparation won in a major way,” they wrote in the debate’s aftermath.

Clinton was so prepared that she was prepared for an attack on her preparation. At one point, Trump made an aside to Clinton about how she had “decided to stay home” in recent days while he was out holding events in urban areas.

Clinton turned the jibe around. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did,” said Clinton. “And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”

A party's populism

To some extent the Republican Party may have only itself to blame for Trump’s attitude. In many ways he is the apotheosis of the GOP’s long focus on candidates who try to seem longer on perceived “authenticity” and regular-person common sense than on academic smarts.

Max Boot, one of the most notable of the foreign policy experts who signed the #NeverTrump pledge, made this point in July in a New York Times opinion piece.

“It’s hard to know exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the ‘stupid party,’ ” the piece begins.

Perhaps it began in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower, in reality a razor-sharp mind, ran against noted egghead Democrat Adlai Stevenson. (Ike beat him twice.) Then there was Ronald Reagan, an amiable conservative who beat Jimmy Carter, a former officer in the demanding nuclear arm of the US Navy.

George W. Bush, addressing a Yale commencement, joked, “To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, ‘Well done.’ And to the C students I say, ‘You, too, can be president of the United States.’ ”

Trump’s anti-intellectualism far surpasses any of his predecessors, Boot says. Teddy Roosevelt may have written more books than Trump has read. But the party still has some soul-searching to do, in this expert’s view.

“Mr. Trump is as much as a symptom as a cause of the party’s anti-intellectual drift. The party needs to rethink its growing anti-intellectual bias and its reflexive aversion to elites,” Boot writes.

Anti-intellectualism also has populist roots. Distrust of experts and intellectual elites, and a disparagement of their proposed solutions to national problems, could be traced back to the late 19th century and the populist revolt of small farmers and businessmen against the elite-backed gold standard and tight money policies. Back then, Democrats were the populists. Seeing an opportunity, the GOP began to pry them away in the 1960s.   

After all, most Americans aren’t intellectuals, if education is used as the measure. Only about 39 percent of Americans between 25 and 64 have a two- or four-year college degree. That means 60 percent of the nation doesn’t.

And Trump’s right about one thing: Experts can be wrong. Really wrong. The best and brightest security minds of the ‘60s thought it was a good idea to get the US deeply involved in Vietnam. Experts supported financial deregulation and the liberalization of Fannie Mae lending standards – partial causes of the Great Recession. Experts were sure Great Britain would never vote for Brexit.

“The key to the argument is to attack not knowledge per se, but shallow, fashionable consensus masquerading as knowledge,” writes SMU’s Wilson. “Of course, I don’t have much confidence in Trump’s ability to neatly draw and explain this distinction.”

Decline of confidence

In the end, Trump’s anti-intellectual bias may cause at least a plurality of Americans to decide they want the better-prepared Clinton to run the country. Or not. More voters may opt for the unknown disruptions a proudly unprepared candidate might bring to Washington.

After all, Trump’s rise has occurred while Americans overall trust in the major institutions of the nation has continued to fall. That could be interpreted as falling trust in the experts and wonks that have long made the government, banks, schools, and justice system run.

Gallup notes that confidence in key US institutions has remained very low since 2007. That year, the percentage of voters who said trusted 14 institutions, including Congress, the news media, and the military, dipped from 38 to 32 percent. It’s remained near that bottom ever since.

“Each institution has its own specific probable causes for this situation,” writes Gallup’s Jim Norman. “But the loss of faith in so many at one time, while Americans are becoming more positive in other ways, suggests there are reasons that reach beyond any individual institution. The task of identifying and dealing with those reasons in a way that rebuilds confidence is one of the more important challenges facing the nation’s leaders in the years ahead.”

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