Donald Trump could get the nuclear codes: How anti-intellectualism is killing American democracy

Only in a country where inequality is skyrocketing and corporate media runs amok could this happen

Published February 29, 2016 10:58AM (EST)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Jay LaPrete)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Jay LaPrete)

Following Donald Trump’s landslide victory in Nevada, Etan Cohen, writer of the cult-classic movie "Idiocracy" -- which tells the story of a future United States that has been devoured by stupidity, where crops are irrigated with a gatorade-like sports drink and the presidency is held by a brutish professional wrestler -- wrote on Twitter: “I never expected 'Idiocracy' to become a documentary.”

As with many classic satires, the silliness of "Idiocracy" was established on an underlying truth about America. Throughout its history -- from the “great awakenings” of the 18th century, when the evangelical movement was born, to the climate change denialism of today -- there has been a constant strain of anti-intellectualism that has long played a part in our politics. Indeed, those enlightenment elites that we like to call the founding fathers framed a broadly undemocratic government for the very reason that the uneducated masses, in their minds, could not be trusted to govern responsibly. “The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government,” said Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the most undemocratic of the founding fathers. “Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

More than two centuries removed from the ratification of the Constitution, and we live in a very different world and a very different America. Those who advocate for more democracy like to believe that the majority of people are smart enough to know when a demagogue is exploiting their fears, anxieties and inner prejudices. The rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders has given many of those who are inclined towards more democracy hope that if enough people unite, the country could become a fairer and more just society, rather than a de facto plutocracy. And there is good reason to reject the elitist attitude that the founding fathers had more than 200 years ago -- after all, we live in a society where every child receives a mandatory education; even if, admittedly, the quality of education varies greatly depending on the child’s socio-economic upbringing.

However, the simultaneous rise of Donald Trump, who declared after his big win in Nevada that he loves the “poorly educated,” seems to countervail this optimism. It is becoming more and more likely that Trump, who easily surpasses the vulgarity of any president or presidential candidate in modern history, will be the Republican nomination, and could actually become -- dare I say -- the president of the United States of America. America’s perennial ethos of ignorance has landed us plenty of anti-intellectual presidents, the most famous in recent history being Ronald Reagan, who entered office “grossly ill-informed.”

But no other modern politician has managed to capture the presidency through sheer crudeness and bravado; even George W. Bush, who was relentlessly mocked for his inarticulateness, appears elegant and graceful compared to Trump (and other contemporary Republicans, for that matter). Indeed, Trump, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013, would be the first professional wrestling president -- or, better yet, the first reality TV president. In other words, he is a reflection of America’s consumerist culture. He has fame and money, and fame and money are worshipped more than anything in popular American culture.

This goes a long way in explaining why he is seemingly unstoppable. It can’t just be attributed to his fear-mongering rhetoric -- which is nothing new (just YouTube a George Wallace speech) -- even if it has helped him capture many votes from angry, undereducated whites who fear America’s changing demographics. Never, for instance, has a right-wing populist like Trump received such endless coverage from the mainstream media. Never has a national politician gotten away with all of the terrible things that have come out of his mouth -- from his comments about Mexicans and Muslims to his incredible disrespect of Sen. John McCain. Only a man with great fame, who attracts “yuge” ratings, could manage all this. And in our capitalist society, the corporate media is desperate for ratings, which bring in big spending on advertising. Combine that with Trump’s (unearned) reputation as a great businessman — an occupation that is worshipped in the USA — who can “make deals,” and there you have it.

But could Trump, who has the worst favorability ratings out of all the presidential candidates, really hoodwink the majority of voters into electing him president? Are Americans truly that credulous?

Consider the fact that only 61 percent of Americans, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, believe that there is “solid evidence” of climate change, and less than half believe that it is a major threat. (Trump, meanwhile, has joked in the past that climate change is a hoax created by China.) Consider the 42 percent of Americans who believe that “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago,” according to a Gallup poll; or that only one in three Americans know how many women serve on the Supreme Court, or that only half know the current Senate’s party balance.

When one realizes how ill-informed so many Americans are, the rise of an ignoramus like Trump becomes less shocking. Still, even with his dominance in the GOP primaries,  him winning in a general election is still somewhat inconceivable (perhaps it will become less inconceivable as the months carry on).

For those of us on the left, democracy is the ideal form of government -- but without an informed, educated, and active populace, it can quickly mutate into a dangerous form of tyranny. This is why greater economic equality is of such great importance; in a society where so many people work endlessly just to survive, and are left with no leisure time to educate themselves, stay informed, or even vote -- and are engulfed in mindless entertainment in the meantime -- there is little hope for democracy, and a good chance that someone like Trump could get his hands on the nuclear codes.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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