Sunday, August 14, 2016

Anti-Intellectualism, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Donald Trump

Friedrich Nietzsche (left) and Donald Trump (right)
  (Nietzsche image taken from Wikipedia; Trump photo credit Martin Schoeller, image taken from Time)
The rise of a buffoon like Donald Trump to be not only the Republican nominee for president, but someone who's even within single digits of Hillary Clinton, and could plausibly be our next president, raises serious questions. Maybe the biggest one is why in the hell anyone who isn't deeply mentally disturbed would take the idea of Donald Trump as president seriously for as much as a second. There are a lot of reasons for that--none of them are good ones, but they're certainly reasons. One is that people see Trump as existing outside of the corrupt, parasitic political Establishment that, like a tick, has swollen up as it sucks our blood, while leaving disease behind in its wake. Another is that Trump is a blatant racist and sexist, and supporting racism and sexism makes sense in America if you're a white male and happen to have no moral compass (or can just conveniently rationalize that institutional racism and sexism aren't problems and the people who try to address them are the real racists and sexists). But there's another one gets addressed less often, if at all, and which is also an important issue to note: anti-intellectualism.

I want to make it clear right away that I'm not endorsing the vapid and shallow thesis from the ever-vapid and shallow Jonathan Chait, that Trump's supporters just happen to be very stupid and were therefore easily conned into voting for Trump. Trump could be called a con man, but I think that focusing on the idea of Trump as a con artist misses a big element of his appeal. A big part of Trump's appeal has nothing to do with what people think he believes or intends to do, but simply how he behaves; Trump didn't get to be the Republican nominee because he made people believe he has a real breadth of knowledge and a profound understanding of the issues that affect them, or that his proposals make sense. Rather, he got to be the nominee for the exact opposite reason--that he speaks of all issues in a simplistic fashion that lines up with his base's views that these issues are, in fact, very simple. The people who came to support Trump already supported the sort of politics he espouses, before he had even come along. The problem is not simply that the people who support Donald Trump, and a large segment of the population in the United States, aren't intellectuals, it's that they are actively anti-intellect.

What I mean by this is that these people have come to hate anything that is associated with intellectualism--speaking in complex terms, taking nuanced positions, challenging "common sense," and "traditional values," etc. I'm not saying this to be condescending, I'm saying it because their hatred is clearly demonstrated. That's what talk about Trump speaking like a "normal person" really means; there are plenty of people who, without being members of some intelligentsia or trying to make themselves sound smart, talk in more advanced terms than Donald Trump does. After all, all of the other Republican candidates did. But the fact his sentences are at a third-grade level of complexity is part of why people like him. So is the fact that he doesn't go into nitty-gritty details about how to best address illegal immigration, the trade deficit, ISIS, or any other issues. That is a big part of the reason Trump has maintained such an appeal despite the fact that he is not very believable on anything--he's changed many of his positions, some of them in this campaign; there's indication even his central topic, immigration, is just more of his big talk with nothing backing it up (he even criticized Obama for how many people he's deported). No one cares, because many of Trump's supporters are attracted to Trump himself, not his platform--and anti-intellectualism is a big reason why. H.L. Mencken once remarked:
When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men...whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men...On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. [Emphasis added]
While Mencken's cynicism about democracy may be overblown, this describes the Trump phenomenon to a great extent. People have not gravitated toward Trump because, as Chait thinks, they're gullible fools, they have gravitated toward him because he reflects their own feelings and beliefs.

I should thoroughly emphasize that this is not about economic class. It is easy for denunciations of anti-intellectualism to end up being subtly or not-so-subtly classist, as of course people who are poorer--and generally therefore less educated--often obviously aren't as well-informed about a lot of topics, aren't as eloquent, and don't have tastes as "refined" as the richer and more educated classes. I am not talking about a level of education or knowledge; I am talking about a certain attitude that exists in people of various different economic statuses. After all, they are currently rallying behind Trump--a billionaire. And I don't see Trump as some imposter cleverly manipulating these people in some Frank Underwood-esque ploy to become president. I firmly believe he is really and truly one of them, as are plenty of other people who have graduated college, like Trump.

What breeds this sort of anti-intellectualism, though? The answer comes from an unlikely place: the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in great detail about the development of morals in society, determining two fundamental strains of morality, master morality and slave morality. Master morality reflects the values associated in ancient times with the aristocracy: valuing individuality, honesty, integrity, and strength, similar to, say, the ideas of chivalry later on. Slave morality, according to Nietzsche, developed as a reaction, based on ressentiment, of those excluded from the aristocracy, who were weaker than the aristocrats:
The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values—a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge. While every aristocratic morality springs from a triumphant affirmation of its own demands, the slave morality says "no" from the very outset to what is "outside itself," "different from itself," and "not itself: and this "no" is its creative deed.
Thus the values of the aristocrats become what the slaves are opposed to.

While it is not appealing to favor aristocrats over slaves, as Nietzsche arguably does, the analysis fundamentally stands: we have absolutely seen traits that are different turned into evil traits in the mind of the mob, for instance--as Nietzsche noted--with the antisemitism that viewed the Jews, with their distinct religion, culture, and achievements, as a threat to society, culminating with the Holocaust.

Fundamentally, we have people who are not intellectually inclined, to begin with. In the same schools, in the same classes, it is not hard to find the kids who are excited about learning, who like to read, who are interested in math, or science, or literature, and so forth--the "nerds" and "bookworms," in other words--and to contrast that group with the kids who just aren't that way. The non-nerdy kids aren't necessarily stupid, but they do have different interests. We all know the instances of "nerdy kids" getting bullied; why are they targeted in particular? For one thing, they get more respect from teachers because they do better in school, which creates resentment. For another thing, they are a minority, and they clearly differ from the majority--in a way that threatens them with feelings of inferiority. If someone gets better grades than you and seems to know more than you, it is not surprising that you might feel threatened by them.

We are seeing the same sort of thing in the adult world right now. Not shockingly, the people who achieve the most--not in terms of simply accumulating money, but in terms of prestige, awards, respect, etc.--are intellectually inclined people. People who are more intellectual are also readier to challenge "traditional values," established norms, etc., that the less intellectually inclined cherish as ways to make sense of the world. In good times, in a healthy society, the citizenry might as a whole look to the most intellectually inclined of its members with admiration and appreciation, but we are not in a healthy society. Our society is riddled with real problems, and people want a scapegoat. They have found many--blacks, immigrants, Muslims--and intellectuals. They are sick of people who speak differently than they do, don't abide by the same conventional wisdom, don't share the same interests or hold the same moral values. So naturally they turn to the furthest thing from an intellectual they can find, and that is Donald Trump.

The phenomenon precedes Donald Trump by a great deal, and goes far beyond him. Perhaps the first president in the modern era to openly stoke anti-intellectualism was Ronald Reagan, who, for instance, belittled scientists for saying cars threaten the environment when Mount St. Helens emits, by his estimation, far more sulfur dioxide than all the cars in America (experts, of course, pointed out the absurdity of the statement, but that wasn't the point). Certainly we saw the same thing with George W. Bush, who mockingly accused his 2004 opponent John Kerry of finding "nuance" with the situation in Iraq, drawing out the word in a distinctly French fashion to emphasis Kerry's supposed intellectual elitism. With a past like this, it's not surprising we ended up with Donald Trump.

The problem in America is not that we have people who are simply stupid. The problem is that we have people who actively despise intellect itself, valuing feelings over facts. Donald Trump is one of those people, and his success is the product of a trend. The only viable solution is to get to a point where people are not looking for a scapegoat; we all know that bullies are often motivated to find victims by their own victimhood at home. Not everyone can, or should, devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. But when those who do become scapegoats, troubled waters lie ahead.

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