Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election represents the triumph of the idiocracy. Trump is America's fool-king, proudly ignorant and a living example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Trump's supporters appear to be in love with him. They worship him as though he were their personal road to salvation and happiness. Trump's voters were seduced by "fake news" and all too easily manipulated by Russian agents operating on the internet.
Trump's idiocracy did not blossom overnight. The seeds were planted over decades. They grew and flourished in the right-wing echo chamber provided by Fox News and other media outlets. Researchers have shown that people who consume Fox News programming actually know less about current events than people who do not watch any news programs at all. Shorter version: Fox actually makes its audience stupider.
This points to a broader phenomenon. In America, today's conservatives (as a group and an ideological movement) hold science, empirical reality, intelligence, education and expertise in disdain. Writing at the Harvard Business Review, Joan Williams highlights how this manifests in the form of a deep hostility toward "experts" and "professionals":
One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
Michèle Lamont, in "The Dignity of Working Men," also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite.
Unfortunately, the idiocracy (and kakistocracy) that has won over the American right reflects a broader failing. American voters are largely unsophisticated, ignorant about matters of public policy, politically disengaged and often hold incorrect beliefs about basic facts across a range of important topics.
But in this moment there is also a profound paradox. Technologies such as the internet have made instantaneous information widely available. Yet true knowledge remains elusive and experts are often mocked and dismissed by the public.
How did this cultural trend take hold? What are its implications for politics in particular and society in general? How did this war on expertise in America take hold? What role do the internet and social media have in this dynamic? Is Donald Trump a symptom of a larger cultural crisis regarding respect for intelligence and learning? Can the human brain positively adapt to the onslaught of information brought about by new media?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Tom Nichols, who is the author of five books on international relations. Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and also teaches at the Harvard Extension School. He is a fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York.
Nichols' new book is “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.
How did the American people arrive at this moment where an ignoramus such as Donald Trump has become president?
Narcissism. Actually, for all of our talk about how people are "suffering" and these are "tough" economic times, and the so-called economic anxiety of the white working class -- which, again, as an old-school conservative I’ll be the first to admit is a nice way of saying "racism" -- I think we actually are a very affluent society where a lot of things around us happen almost by magic now.
People look around and they say, “Well, sure, flying an airplane -- how hard can that be? How hard can negotiating a nuclear arms treaty be? The world works. We’re at peace. Terrorism is awful, but the U.S. is highly competent.” For most people 9/11 is a distant memory. I think that they just look around and they see that things pretty much work even though their lives don’t seem to. The second thing I would add is how the internet helps to create a sense of relative deprivation.
I didn’t coin this, and I wish I had. One of my friends calls it the "HGTV Effect." Where you’re living in Ohio in maybe a one-floor or two-bedroom, three-bedroom, one-bath, 1950s kind of house, and you’re watching your 40-inch television and you’re saying, "How come I don’t have granite counter tops? Those mooks do. These are just working people on some TV show, and they’ve got a brand new granite and steel kitchen. I’m deprived, I’m poor." It’s amazing to me what people now consider deprived.
Donald Trump surfed that. He exploited that feeling. He said, “There are people out there that are screwing you out of having the golden toilets that I have. And I’m going to get even with those people, because I know what they’re up to, and I’m going to screw them over and get yours for you.” People are dumb enough to believe it because they don’t understand how the economy works, they don’t understand how society works, they don’t understand the basics about the relationship between education and jobs, none of it. It’s basically they look up from the television, or their phone, and they say "Where’s my money?" And that’s how we got here.
I think Trump is remarkably sophisticated. And I think folks who laughed at him totally missed the boat. As you point out, Trump is selling aspiration, he’s selling dreams.
This is the one place I’d part company with you. I think Trump comes from an aspirational background where no matter how rich he gets, no matter how many skyscrapers he gets, he still has that annoying sense of insecurity about being from Queens. I think he understands that kind of annoying resentment -- a nose-pressed-up-to-the-glass feeling. I don’t think he actually intended to win.
I don’t think he did either.
This is when people attribute too much agency to Trump. If he were that conscious and that competent, his administration would not be the mess it is now. His whole goal was not to win. It was to lose by a little, declare the election a fraud, and then pump up his brand into the trillion-dollar stratosphere by being the shadow president of the United States with no actual responsibilities.
What your book is about, in part, is that knowledge, information and expertise are totally different things. We are at a moment where people can literally Google any information they want. But they don't have the context to understand it, nor do they necessarily have the expertise to evaluate it.
The commodification of knowledge has vulgarized our taste in knowledge, the same way that the fast food revolution vulgarized our taste in food. We’ve become childlike in our expectations of how we learn things. I think back to political campaigns that I started following as a child before I could vote. There were vastly more complicated discussions and debates then. By comparison, Trump made it fun.
Do you think that helps explain the appeal of conspiracy theories?
Yes -- they are fun. Yes -- it's empowering. It tells you that you are one of the people who has the secret knowledge of what is really going on. It makes you feel superior to other people. It makes you feel good; it's self-actualization. Conspiracy theories also pop up during times of great change or trauma. Moreover, it’s a way of making a very scary world comprehensible. It is too scary to think that just 19 guys can get on an airplane with box cutters. The world can’t be that random. It is much more comforting to say George Bush and Dick Cheney and a bunch of really clever people were behind 9/11 because then that can never happen again. It makes you feel better about yourself and subsequently relieves you of any responsibility.
That’s a really important point. It’s a lot easier to say there’s a conspiracy than to look in the mirror and hold ourselves accountable for the collective debasement of our civic and political culture. That’s challenging.
I think one of the things that was shocking to me about this electoral cycle is how much people are lying to themselves in both parties, and on both ends of the spectrum. I really am a conservative. The people that argue with me endlessly in person and on Twitter about how great Hillary Clinton really was are delusional. This was a choice between two really bad candidates. I voted for Clinton, and I argued for voting for Clinton as being the less bad, more system-preserving choice.
Not every decision you make has to be a completely great decision that wins you a trophy for being virtuous.
People have always been wedded to their own prior assumptions and beliefs. Now they have immediate feedback on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. The idea is a projection of themselves. The public can argue with experts and convince themselves they have equal expertise.
What you find is that they’re not really wedded to a particular view, they’re wedded to the notion that they are the peer of the person they’re talking to. That’s what’s really important to them.
Do you think our brains are equipped to deal with the onslaught of technology, and the way the internet, for example, can circulate propaganda, lies and false information?
I think that most people, if they properly develop their own internal compass, can nullify lots of propaganda.
It is one thing to say "I know Alex Jones is full of crap!" But to know how full of crap he is you’re going to have to sit down and you’re going to have to read a newspaper. You’re going to have to make a decision about what you’re looking at. You’re going to have to turn the TV off for a minute and think about whether or not what you just heard makes sense to you as a human being, and people just won’t do it. I don’t know how to make them do it. This is where I become a kind of annoying elitist. I think in a lot of those cases where people are just aggressively, willfully stupid, there is no way to break through that, and I don’t know what to do about it.
Being an expert means knowing what you don’t know. With the internet, you just find what you want and there’s no context, there are no footnotes, there are no end notes.
Absolutely right. This is where technology is a problem. The way we surf the internet is, in fact, reordering the neurons in our brain. Children are now learning not to read, they’re learning to search and scan and take visual cues off a screen. It makes their tolerance for reading lower and lower and lower. I’ve taught at a half a dozen universities, and the one thing I’ve noticed is that the students' capacity for sustained reading has been dropping, practically in a straight line.
Is this moment, with the rise of Trump and all the horrible things he represents, a backlash against the Enlightenment?
I think that's hyperbolic.
For example, we understood that putting men in space is a big deal. That’s hard. It’s amazing that any of them live and we hope these guys get home. I think now we’ve become so inured to it. Even in the ’70s, we did. I can remember we were driving dune buggies around on the moon. We stopped going because it got boring. We will go through another period where lives are extended, or certain diseases are overcome, or new types of rapid travel are invented. People will again see the merits of science and reason and that all those things are very difficult. This is where I become pessimistic. I am hopeful that it doesn’t take a war, or another Great Depression, or a pandemic, to remind people that experts are really important.
I think when it ends it’s going to be an immensely sobering experience. But it’s also going to be a traumatic and socially divisive experience, even worse than the one we Americans are living through now.