Donald Trump's position as the Republicans' presumptive nominee has created a series of articles, spanning the breadth of the internet, from writers and pundits wondering how they got it all wrong in believing that his initial popularity was a fad that would fade before the voters came to their senses and nominated someone less cartoonishly awful.
(For what it's worth, I don't know that pundits should beat themselves up that much over it, as that was almost surely what would have happened if Trump hadn't gotten a couple of lucky breaks.)
New York magazine's Jonathan Chait's submission to the round of self-examination makes up in click-baity-ness what it lacks in analytical acumen or basic self-awareness.
"Here’s the factor I think everybody missed: The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots," Chait writes. "Far more of them than anybody expected."
After many paragraphs talking about everyone else's lack of foresight, Chait painfully admits he must include himself in the ranks of the wrong.
"It was simply impossible for me to believe that Republican voters would nominate an obvious buffoon," he adds, before concluding that he will now have to revise his high opinion of the intelligence of Republican voters in light of this new information.
Boldly asserting that your main flaw is that you were too generous to others certainly takes some cojones, I will give Chait that. And heaven knows the Facebook shares number on his piece suggests that there's a wide audience of liberals who want to hear that our main problem is we're so smart we mistakenly think others are, too.
But as pleasurable as it is to hear that people who disagree with you are just idiots, this easy dismissal of the intelligence of millions of people lacks for intellectual rigor, which is deeply unfortunate for someone trying to posit that their problem is they're just too smart for the little brains of the world.
The problem with calling people stupid is that it's satisfying, but ultimately meaningless. For one thing, it's nearly impossible to measure it. It's easy to dismiss Trump as a buffoon, but his likely retort to that is hard to argue: He did manage to score the nomination of a major political party and rally millions to his side, which is more than Chait has done with himself.
The problem is "intelligence" is hard to define, and therefore hard to measure. I, for instance, am good at a lot of things that require intelligence: Pithy jokes, analyzing politics, explicating movies and TV shows, Mario Kart, bar trivia. But put me in front of a computer and ask me to program in Python, and I would seem like a screaming moron.
This isn't because I lack in native intelligence, but simply is a measure of where I chose to put my energies. That, in turn, is a measure of things that are far more meaningful than this abstract notion of intelligence: My priorities, beliefs, and desires.
All of which is to say that the reason Chait misread Trump voters is not that he overestimated their intelligence, but that he simply didn't understand what their beliefs and desires are.
None of which is to defend people who voted for Trump. I have little doubt that most of the are small-minded, petty people who take special delight in his racism and misogyny. In fact, if you follow the online communities of Trump supporters, it's impossible to conclude anything else. Many of them delight in calling the opponents "cucks", a gross term derived from racist porn. They are the worst.
But once you understand their values system, then voting for Trump makes perfect sense and isn't really stupid at all. The main clutch of Trump supporters are white men who openly enjoy the sense of superiority and various social privileges they get from being white men. (Surely Chait can understand that desire to feel superior to huge groups of people.) They like racist jokes and want to believe women were put here as a servant class just for them. They believe in "English only" and oppose immigration because it's pleasing to be automatically privileged by something as arbitrary as where you were born.
(Female Trump supporters are fewer in number, but those that exist are not stupid, either. They just like Trump's racism so much that they put up with his misogyny.)
It's ugly, but it's not particularly opaque. These folks wanted to stick it to the Republican establishment they believe isn't doing enough to stand up for white and male dominance. Say what you will, but in nominating Trump, they successfully achieved what they set out to do.
And sure, the Trumpian strain of bigotry does churn out an astonishing array of false beliefs, beliefs that are so contrary to reality that it's hard not to wonder if you have to be short a few cards in the deck to believe them, such as the "birther" conspiracy theories and that Mexican immigrants are all coming here to rape and murder us. These beliefs are false, and it's tempting to dismiss them as the hobbyhorses of people who are straight-up stupid.
But the reality is that holding false but self-serving beliefs is surprisingly common, and intelligence is no prophylactic against it. Liberal enclaves, like the ones that Chait no doubt lives in, are absolutely brimming with smart people who believe false things: That vaccines are dangerous, that it's unhealthy to eat GMOs or gluten, that Bernie Sanders still has a chance.
I doubt anyone would deny that Chait himself is an intelligent man, but he just published a lengthy article devoted to a false but self-serving belief that Trump voters are morons.
Chait also, as blogger Stephanie Zvan pointed out, holds a false belief that is quite popular with Trump supporters: That "free speech" is under serious threat because of the dread "political correctness".
"In Chait’s writing, the urge to protest speaking and writing that treats marginalized groups as less deserving of rights and basic human decency is a powerful force that will stifle free speech, tear our political and educational institutions apart, and concentrate power in the hands of a small group of complainers," she notes. It's a belief that Chait holds fiercely to, despite a yawning lack of evidence that white dudes holding reactionary views struggle to get their voices heard in 21st century America.
The mythological beast of "political correctness" that keeps Chait living in terror, Zvan argues, "looks very much like the hideous yoke to which Donald Trump so bravely refuses to bow."
Trump has openly campaigned on the promise of standing up to "political correctness", airing out all manner of bigoted opinions that used to be kept to whispers out of fear of liberal reaction. It's exactly the strike for "free speech" that Chait has been demanding, and now he's complaining about it. Under the circumstances, Chait should be a little more careful about who he starts accusing of stupidity.