In a CNN interview that aired on June 30, Donald Trump made a move that by many accounts should have come as a great surprise to the talking heads and Op-Ed columnist tracking his every move: he touted his intellectual pedigree. Proudly referring to his uncle John G. Trump as a “top professor” at MIT and a “genius,” Trump went on to note how he himself is “smart,” helpfully clarifying, “like, really smart.” The boast was repeated July 21 at a speech in South Carolina, tucked inside a digression so hermeneutically claustrophobic that Slate challenged readers to try to diagram it.
In the context of the unrelenting bombast that is Trump’s campaign, perhaps it is unsurprising that these comments failed to significantly raise eyebrows in even the most right-wing corners of the blogosphere. After all, when one’s reputation seems founded on the singular principle of “telling it like it is,” it is hard to spend too much time dissecting the meaning of, er, “it.” Yet it remains noteworthy that the only media outlet to take note of Trump’s shocking revelation seems to be the Boston Globe, which, in the august tradition of fussy college-town snootiness, reported Trump’s “smart genes” with just a hint of snark in an Aug. 31 article.
To an outsider, it is starting to feel alarmingly like the Republican Party is losing its anti-intellectual edge. Surely Trump’s brains-bragging should be raising the ire of a great swath of the GOP base, dedicated as they are to populist appeals directed at mass dopiness. One remembers with just a hint of nostalgia how then-Sen. Scott Brown made a splash in his 2012 Massachusetts campaign – and attracted Tea Party support – by repeatedly maligning his opponent as “Professor Warren.” (That’s “Sen. Warren” now.) Brown drew clamorous reactions on both sides when he interrupted Warren at a UMass Lowell debate to smirkily announce, “I’m not a student in your classroom.”
And even if the GOP base seems to have turned over a new leaf – one that is probably actually a photovoltaic cell cooked up by some egghead at Princeton -- surely those pundits who bemoaned, as Columbia professor Todd Gitlin did, the Bush years’ “renaissance of anti-intellectualism,” must be relieved to find a Republican so eager to pull every poindexter out of his family closet and position himself as a forbidding brainiac himself. Right?
But no. It seems that anti-intellectualism has just up and left the building, and no one seems to care. Am I the only one who wistfully remembers the run-up to the 2012 election, when the tea party showed up at rallies with misspellings and grammatical errors on their signs? The New York Daily News reported diligently on the prevalence of “teabonics,” a neologism we could charitably call racially problematic that their website helpfully defined as “a new dialect of the English language created by sign wielders at Tea Party protests.” Digging even deeper in the dustbin of history, we find the ashes of the 2008 McCain-Palin Ticket, ignited by the eagerness of the masses to embrace Palin’s gee-whiz common-sensing, just before it was extinguished by the lamestream media’s obsession with gotcha-journalism.
So what gives here? Given that their front-running candidate seems to be attracting the most base impulses of the Republican base, shouldn’t his most valiant supporters be driven to piques of rage over the name-checking of Professor Trump? And shouldn’t the Donald be taking great precautions to scrub all signs of academic history from his Ivy-burnished resumé? What the hell, in other words, is happening to anti-intellectualism in American life?
I suppose it is possible there is enough time left in the race to November 2016 for America to find its soul become anti-intellectual again. But I admit it: I’m becoming doubtful. This is not only because Americans on both the left and the right seem to have had a change of heart (or I guess I should say “mind”). It’s because I never really believed Americans were that anti-intellectual in the first place.
Though there have unquestionably been episodes of anti-intellectualism over the past 100 years or so – and, full disclosure, I would have to place Palin’s career high on that list -- Americans were also, at many moments in the 20th century, inclined to celebrate the nation’s democratic culture as a hotbed incubating genius and intellectual accomplishment. Americans took great pride in their enjoyment of popular songs about “college boys” and celebrated the new “co-ed,” even if they tended to celebrate her perkiness over her studious discipline. They enjoyed both academic lectures and displays by the likes of Mascot, the mathematical horse, at traveling Chautauquas. Women sought greater prestige by demanding acknowledgment that their domestic duties were better described as “household engineering.”
Far from being shunned, Albert Einstein, basically the smartest person in the world, became a household name in the 1910s and 1920s, and Americans tried to pretend he was just like us: he liked baseball, enjoyed freedom, and once he even counted his change wrong. Americans’ embrace of Einstein wasn’t so weird, Popular Science Monthly argued, because “we have over a million and a half readers of the popular scientific magazines – over three and a half million if engineering and technical magazines are included.” And those who found Einstein’s math a bit abstract could enroll in workers’ educational programs, where working-class women and men could become smart. Like, really smart.
Even the most educated Americans found themselves celebrated at key points in American history. During the height of Jim Crow segregation, The Crisis dutifully reported on ordinary African Americans who earned doctorates. When the Depression hit, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” – many Columbia graduates, though a bit before Todd Gitlin’s arrival – were the toast of the town. They were even considered a little sexy, as Chicago Tribune leeringly described how “debutantes hang on their exposition of the quantitative theory of money, the law of diminishing returns, and the intricacies of foreign exchange.” During the putatively anti-intellectual 1950s, the decade that spawned the much-maligned egghead, Americans sought intellectual stimulation alongside more corporeal enjoyments: “Drugstore book racks,” Newsweek announced, “once the undisputed home of Mickey Spillane, now also shelter the paperbound works of Plato, Shakespeare, Freud, and St. Augustine.”
Could it be that in spite of the hand-wringing that accompanies the dirtiest tricks of politicians during election years, Americans have just as often been drawn to brainpower, genius, and even ivy-educated elites as they have been to the common sense appeal of their favored politicians? Might the excitement many feel when Americans look stupid reveal something more insidious about class, privilege, and educational inequality than a deep vein of anti-intellectualism that structures every aspect of American life?
It remains to be seen, of course, to what depths the Republican primary, let alone the Trump campaign, will sink. And it is certainly possible that we will find celebrations of stupidity experiencing a resurgence once we move closer to the general election. But I nonetheless advise caution to those who might find in every outpouring of idiocy signs of an ascendant anti-intellectualism. History teaches us that Americans aren’t always as predictable (or dumb) as they are made out to be. But either way we shouldn’t lose hope. After all, if the Ivy league gave us Donald Trump, a little dose of anti-intellectualism might be just the tonic we need to get us through the next ten months.