On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced he would be taking his first official run at the White House. From the iconic Trump Tower in New York City, Trump told his supporters, “We are going to make our country great again.” He added, “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
Republican optimists preached patience as Trump gained momentum. Just wait, they said, this would all blow over. There is no way he can win the nomination. Well, now it’s not only possible – it’s likely. Today – a day known as Super Tuesday – Trump is poised to sweep nationwide wins and solidify his position as the Republican front-runner. If that happens, the Republican “establishment” will be in outright panic. As Philip Rucker and Robert Costa wrote in the Washington Post, “At a moment when Republicans had hoped to begin taking on Hillary Clinton . . . the GOP has instead become consumed by a crisis over its identity and core values that is almost certain to last through the July party convention, if not the rest of the year.”
This is a horrible thing to have to say about one’s own country, but Trump’s rise to prominence makes one thing abundantly clear: America is full of ignorant people who are more concerned with one’s personal image than substantive policy positions. It seems that if you’re white, angry, Christian, and not particularly concerned about anyone who’s not white, angry, and Christian, Trump’s your man. And you’re not alone.
The Donald’s status as the front-runner for the Republican nomination comes at almost a perfect storm of ignorance. Consider the fact that, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 61 percent of Americans believe that there is “solid evidence” of climate change, and less than half believe that it is a major threat; 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; consider that only one in three Americans know how many women serve on the Supreme Court; or consider that only half know the current Senate’s party balance. And then consider the fact that the base of Trump’s support is comprised primarily of working-class whites with low levels of education, and the rise of an egotist like Trump becomes less shocking.
Trump’s wager throughout his campaign has been simple: exploit the American public’s ignorance by saying something wildly offensive (and factually incorrect); watch as the media pounces with wall-to-wall press coverage; boast about the size of the campaign crowds and the attention the campaign is receiving; and then wash, rinse, repeat. This spray-and-pray media strategy assumes that the message will find a receptive audience, even if it alienates millions more in the process. And thus far, Trump has been right.
Part of the blame, thus, belongs to the media. Trump has blustered about the country pandering to loud, illiterate, credulous people without offering anything remotely similar to a platform or a plan. And throughout this campaign, he has dominated the media landscape without spending much on paid advertising. In the run-up to Super Tuesday, for example, Hillary Clinton and her allies are spending $4.1 million on ads in 11 states; Bernie Sanders is advertising in five states at $3.3 million; Marco Rubio’s Super PAC is advertising in eight states at $1.2 million; and Ted Cruz’s campaign is advertising in five states at $185,000. Donald Trump, by contrast, “hasn’t spent a single cent on ads in Super Tuesday states.”
In a recent essay in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi lamented the decline of cable news. He makes a relevant point: “We in the media have spent decades turning the news into a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games . . . When you make news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.” The unfortunate truth is that the political arena has become little more than another avenue for entertainment.
But we’re still left with a demand-side problem: the populist stew of braggadocio and bluster, seasoned with xenophobia, racism, and resentment, is exactly what Trump’s supporters want. It is, as Scot Lehigh aptly remarked, “a match made in political heaven: a marriage between a consummate egotist aching to be seen as a hero and a credulous crowd hungry for a savior.”
None of this is to suggest that American political campaigns have traditionally been intellectual enterprises. America has a perennial ethos of ignorance, leading to plenty of anti-intellectual presidents. George W. Bush come’s to mind; the most famous in recent history, however, is probably Ronald Reagan, who entered office “grossly ill informed” and stunned policymakers by how little basic information he commanded. But it is difficult to identify anyone as brash, self-aggrandizing, and overtly anti-intellectual as Donald Trump.
That says something profoundly uncomfortable about our country. Anti-intellectualism has swamped our political culture. And to a far greater extent than previous outbreaks – for example, the rise of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the 1970s – fundamentalism and an infrastructure of know-nothing-ism has merged its policies, its tactics, and its fate with a major American political party: the Republicans.
Featured Image Credit: Donkey Hotey on Flickr (via creative commons license)[Editors Note: It has been nearly an entire year since the last post from Of Politics and Men. For that I am deeply sorry. There is a lot that I still want to accomplish here, and I want to thank you for returning. It is hard to believe that the site is almost four years old. But it deserves better; and you deserve better. Hopefully, this post is the start to a successful year. Thanks for reading – Vox]