This is the first post in a multi-part series where I will examine some of the factors that have lead us here. There may be some inconvenient and painful truths asserted in the coming articles, but I shall try to do my best to explain what I consider to be the origins of what I shall call Trumpism. It should be noted at the outset, however, that I am not seeking to explain Republican voters writ large, or anything of the sort. A large portion of the voters who cast ballots for Trump were doing so for no other reason than party loyalty. These are lifelong Republicans who voted for the Republican candidate, just as they have always done. They were not going to vote for a Democrat, and certainly not Hillary Clinton. This series seeks to explain the gestation and expansion of a political climate that has embraced Trump in spite of the typical Republican/Democrat split, not because of it.
Contrary to what many may believe, Trump isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Much of the groundwork for his dramatic rise in politics was laid over the previous decades. Early after Trump’s win, much was made of economic uncertainty as an explanation, perhaps the underlying explanation. I don’t completely reject this idea. Indeed, I do believe that some amount of economic uncertainty played a part in some voters deciding to pull the lever for Trump. However, I think writing the whole thing off as the product of people being scared of their economic future does a disservice to understanding just what exactly happened. Further, I don’t think that economic uncertainty, as it has been bandied about, is an accurate description of the feeling of the voters. But there will be more on that in later posts. Simply put, I think economic uncertainty was the final brick in the wall.
The first bricks were laid then, under the umbrella of a liberal backlash. This liberal backlash came not just from diehard social conservatives, but from even former Democratic voters. The roots of this liberal backlash can be traced back to a decades long campaign of anti-intellectualism, and a growing racial resentment among older white voters. Add in to the mix a disdain for identity politics, and you have the makings of the first bricks in the wall.
The roots of modern American anti-intellectualism stretch back to the middle of the last century, at least. To be sure, anti-intellectualism has operated at some level in American politics since the 18th Century; but the modern adaptations of this thought really begin with the age of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Communism, like any other form of ism that threatens the established order, was pinned on nearly everyone who had political opinions that opposed the growing post-war military industrial congressional complex.
The political order in the United States has almost always been the haves versus the have-nots. Indeed, Madison addresses as much in Federalist 10, where he discusses factions and how the driving cause of them are differences in wealth and property. Yet, even though for much of the existence of the United States, political actors were, and largely remain, the independently wealthy; it was not until the post-war period that American politicians really began to seek ways to funnel public money into private businesses. Often, at least at the time, this was done in the name of national security – the advancement of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Opponents of either prong (or both) of this shift in American politics were labeled as, at the very least, sympathizers. Often they were blacklisted in their professional fields.
But the Red Scare did not only target Hollywood, a target that is still distrusted by a large portion of conservatives and statists who are fearful of their influence on the minds of the youth. While the anti-Hollywood propaganda has always smacked of anti-Semitism, there is another portion of the backlash against those who influenced the minds of the youth. This backlash began during the Vietnam War when college campuses began to be the epicenter of many protests. Now, it was not just the Jewish elite in Hollywood who were poisoning the minds of the American youth, but it was also the college professors and the people who were in the halls of higher education. If McCarthy planted the seed of this anti-intellectualism by going after the creative minds of the entertainment industry, the conservatives of the Johnson and Nixon eras nurtured this growing crop into a distrust of any independent thought at all.
While rhetoric against the so-called experts in the ivory tower began, modestly, in the Wilson era, it was during the period immediately following the assassination of Kennedy that the microscope was turned on colleges and universities. Suddenly, there was a plethora of literature that supposed that students were being taught by Communists, and their sympathies were being peddled as education. Even now, one need only turn on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh to hear diatribes against higher education as a liberal indoctrination scheme.
This anti-intellectualism has not only wrought a distrust for so-called alternative schools of thought and independent thinking, but it has found a good deal of success in challenging the fundamentals of observable sciences. This can be found in the growing acceptance that economists who point out that cutting revenue and increasing spending will increase, not decrease, the budget deficit and lead to stagnation of wages for the working classes are serving up liberal propaganda. It can be found in the assertion that climate science is a Chinese hoax bent on harming American steel companies. The result is that a large portion of the American public is not only dismissive of the humanities as a waste of time, but that they are able to proudly proclaim that there is a global conspiracy among scientists, the educated, liberals, et al, that seeks to only destroy American hegemony. Or maybe they seek to establish FEMA camps. Or God knows what.
It is an exercise in futility to try to get a rational, fully coherent explanation as to what ends this supposed intellectual conspiracy is really working for. Further, this acceptance as facts as fluid has lead to the ability for people to assert that alternative facts are a thing, and that they should be given the same amount of respect as actual facts. The success in this anti-intellectualism has given way to a deep and pervasive sense of confirmation bias.
Fake news is indeed a problem, but the peddlers of fake news are overwhelmingly from a conservative stance. Liberals are, of course, not insulated or immune to the phenomenon, but studies have found that those who are more likely to question what they have read are more likely to have liberal political leanings. This isn’t an accident or a coincidence. Conservative media has, for decades, carried within it the direction to accept what you are told by the outlet. You never see the New York Times or the Washington Post telling readers to ignore that which they can see with their own eyes. However, recently Fox News ran a segment on Tucker Carlson with the text at the bottom reading “What You Think Is Happening Often Isn’t.” In other words, don’t trust your mind, trust us.
To sum all that up, this anti-intellectualism has been incredibly successful. A political party has, through the use of media that confirms their own biases, managed to convince a growing share of the electorate that the only truth can come from that same political party. Any assertion to the contrary of the party is then necessarily opposed to the party, and by extension the country, which of course is only made up of real Americans who reject the so-called globalist-elite-socialist-Islamist-whatever-ism-you’re-afraid-of-this-week-ist groups, and do so for your benefit, not because they have an agenda of their own.
Next time I examine racial resentment as the second ingredient in the first bricks of the wall.