Anti-Intellectuals Rule

09.14.15 5:08 AM ET

How the ‘Party of Stupid’ Birthed Trump and Carson

Decades of Republicans leveraging racism plus pandering to the dumb and incoherently angry explains not only the success of the billionaire—but also the neurosurgeon.

At the start of the cycle, conservative soothsayers boasted of the “deep bench” on the right; governors of purple states, with proven records, were the headliners. Worries that a handful of first-term senators in the mix might suggest a lack of seriousness about the real work of governance were brushed off by pointing to Barack Obama as precedent.

Now the party’s rising stars are two men who have exactly as much experience in government as they do interest in making government work. Their fealty to the Republican Party is almost as recent as their decision to run for president. Carson was a registered independent until 2014, and Trump flaunts his pan-ideological predilections to this very day.

Conservatives like to paint liberals as slaves to sentiment. The “bleeding hearts” sobriquet also connotes eyes too misty with tears to see the hard truths: We legislate based on immigrant sob stories and vote for presidential candidates to salve our own guilty consciences. Trump’s politically incorrect shtick is just another way of calling out this supposed divide: “We’re tired of the nice people,” he says, and by saying it creates a truth if it didn’t exist before.

For his part, Carson has been eager to prove his soothing bedside manner is an interface, not a core value. His youthful Democratic sympathies were Kool-Aid-induced; Reagan “reprogram[med]” him: “He sounded like a logical person and my mind changed.”

Since the neocons first uncracked themselves from the Ivy League, the conservative movement has masqueraded as the “think, not feel” wing of American politics. But their courtship of nativists, segregationists, and other grievance-seekers has led to this Trump/Carson moment. Not the party of ideas, but the party of stupid, where even smart, successful people have to pander to the dumb and incoherently angry.

According to CNN, 75 percent of those supporting candidates with no previous electoral experience are attracted to “their views on the issues.” I suspect that respondents selected that answer because they couldn’t just grunt.

Trump’s distaste for policy specifics could fill dozens of white papers that he’d never read. The fact that Carson justified his damning of Obamacare as “worse than 9/11” because the 9/11 attack was “an isolated event” speaks to his ignorance about terrorism as much as it does about the effects of the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s the thing: Trump and Carson are winning a huge slice of the GOP base because of that prideful ignorance, which to voters signifies not just a rejection of the establishment or elites but a release from the hard work of having to think.

Let me be clear: To say Carson and Trump are anti-intellectual doesn’t mean they are dumb. Far from it.

Trump, especially, has shown a genius—a high-level forethought, not some native street smarts—in how he communicates his… oh, let’s call it his “vision.” Carson, too, has crafted his brand to appeal to those tired of ideas and arguing and philosophical debates. Given Carson’s smooth affect, his marketing handiwork is, ironically, a less subtle product than Trump’s; it shows the seams from where Carson has had to forcibly rip out the parts of his intellectual history that evince a deviation from the full-throated anti-establishmentarianism the Republican base now demands. (Forget his much-discussed turnaround on abortion: what about endorsing death panels, affirmative action, and eliminating for-profit insurance companies?)

Both Trump and Carson are brilliant in leveraging their extraordinary professional success as bait to voters whose principal complaint hinges on a nagging sense of failure. Audiences aren’t flocking to these brutalist polymaths for their ideas. Indeed, in a party already thirsty for innovative policy approaches, Trump and Carson stand out for the pride they take in their xeriscape platforms: empty places, where occasional quasi-insights drift by like tumbleweeds, unmoored from experience or data.

Trump’s screechingly casual approach to information is especially appalling. An anecdote in a recent Rolling Stone profile charts the route from Trump’s complete ignorance on the heroin epidemic in the Northeast (“You know New Hampshire has a huge problem with heroin? Why do ya s’pose that is?”), to his query of the reporter for information (“I tell him that it probably has to do with OxyContin and school kids raiding their parents’ medicine chests”), to his airy reference in a speech minutes later: “It starts probably with OxyContin, from what I’m hearing.” The conclusion implies, among other things, that this is a subject he may have discussed more than once.

From the embroidered, hearsay nature of Trump’s answers to concrete questions, I would say he treats facts like gossip—except I’m sure he takes gossip more seriously than facts. Trump knows he is expected to have some command of issues beyond “deals,” and so he clings to one or two more-or-less certain applause lines like a sticky-fingered child. Witness these excruciating exchanges with a slumming Hugh Hewitt, in which Trump dismisses questions about the intricacies of Middle East foreign policy with a koan-like recitation, “The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated.” He says this even when the question is about Hezbollah, or al-Baghdadi—or, points for trying, the “Quds.”

Such rote memorized factlets have all the substance of cotton candy, and when he stretches them to apply to topics outside his limited scope of knowledge, they tatter and fall apart embarrassingly. Or, what would be embarrassing, if it were not for the fact that Trump has been able to rely on the underlying distrust his supporters have for experts.

Carson is not much better. If Trump’s shameless doubletalk (to evangelical voters, especially) suggests he thinks his supporters are suckers, Carson thinks his are rubes. His compulsory campaign tome is punctuated with what should be hackle-raising condescension, or at least revealingly faulty logic: “If you know all 26 letters of the alphabet, you are on your way to reading.” Perhaps he thought he was writing an audiobook script.

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In a saner or at least more deliberative world, Carson’s debate-ending “zinger” about being the only person on stage to have separated Siamese twins would be treated as a howler of a gaffe, along the lines of Admiral Stockdale’s retrospectively winsome admission, “Who am I? Why am I here?” One thing (neurosurgery) has nothing to do with the other (the presidency), and to pretend the skills are transferable is an insult—mostly to neurosurgeons.

Carson has a predictable defense to his nonchalant naiveté: “There’s nobody who knows everything,” after all. He’ll delegate, just like how when he “runs into a kidney problem… will call in a renal specialist!” But he’s giving comfort to the patient by only taking the analogy halfway. The real parallel wouldn’t be a surgeon calling in for help on a single complication, it would be having a really smart diplomat trying to figure out how to run an ER.

There’s a difference between being anti-intellectual and being dumb; there’s also a difference between having a governing philosophy and being smart. Scott Walker, for instance, has a more-or-less coherent approach to governing (do less and less of it). But he appears to be impersonating an honest-to-goodness dumbass, incapable of answering the simplest questions without sinking into the rhetorical version of Zeno’s paradox. He gets halfway to a definitive opinion, then halfway again, forever splitting the distance between himself and, it seems, the nomination.

Walker, like all the other Republican politicians with a résumé that matches the job opening, has been reduced to playing dumb. Is it an accident that the first major candidate to drop out was also the one with the longest gubernatorial résumé?

How did we get here?

You can’t spend 40 years tacitly making racists feel welcome in your party and expect the intellectual atmosphere not to suffer, or for that anti-intellectualism to stay bounded with race.

Not only does the GOP’s history of leveraging racism, if not explicitly endorsing it, explain Trump’s success (as numerous commentators have pointed out), it also explains Carson’s rise—and not just as embedded in the sideways condescension of considering Carson “not like the others.” Carson appeals to the same anti-intellectual, anti-government, anti-idea, anti-democratic set of biases the GOP establishment has been cultivating for decades.

Bigotry entered into the conservative movement’s DNA like a virus, altering the intellectual inheritance of the party of Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol. Where once it meant something to declare certain attitudes or policies too ugly or hateful to take seriously, much less include in debate, there is now a movement that can’t afford to call out bald ignorance and gross sexism for fear the most ardent banner-carriers might get offended. They say it’s the left that is governed by political correctness, but the deference paid to the sensitivity of Trump’s followers is as oppressive as any campus trigger warning.

“There is just something about him,” one fan of Carson’s said early on, as if he was “appointed by some higher power to do this.” Anti-democratic sentiments don’t come much more clearly expressed than that.