Throughout my lifetime, there has been a rough divide nationally between the Republican and Democratic parties when it comes to presidential candidates. The Democrats have been the party of ideas, intellectualism and detailed policy prescriptions. The Republicans, on the other hand, are the anti-intellectual party of the common man.
The two presidential elections of the 1950s illustrate this divide. Adlai Stevenson was the brilliant egghead with a detailed knowledge of policy and the workings of government. Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, was the competent everyman who cared little for academics and intellectuals.
Although the truth was far more nuanced (Eisenhower was a smart, highly organized tactician), the public images suited the Republican Party well as they managed to exploit the anti-intellectual image over and over again until Americans now have an honest-to-God proud anti-intellectual in the White House.
Republicans have consistently appealed to the uneducated electorate, be that Richard Nixon’s silent majority or Trump proclaiming “I love the poorly educated.” The problem is that they have played this card so often and so skilfully that instead of having a president pretending to be a know-nothing friend of the common man, the U. S. now has a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool leader who proudly displays his wide-ranging ignorance.
This trend towards anti-intellectualism gained speed with the elevation of Ronald Reagan to the office of president. Although clearly more experienced and knowledgeable than the current incumbent, Reagan was not the best and the brightest. The stories are legend of his mistakes, failures and screw-ups. Yet he, or those next to him, had the good sense to choose capable, competent individuals to run his administration.
The Republicans savored the successes achieved by touting anti-intellectualism and doubled down on this approach with the selection of George W. Bush as their candidate in 2000. Bush proudly purported to be an anti-elite everyman notwithstanding his lifetime of privilege. As Jim Hightower once said of Bush’s dad, he “...was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”
In fairness, George W. Bush was not the stupid man that many portrayed him to be. Whatever one’s intellectual shortcomings, it still takes some brains to pick up an M.B.A. from Harvard.
Many voters supported him simply because he seemed like the kind of guy they could sit down and have a beer with. Voters who thought things through realized that they didn’t need a drinking buddy; they needed someone more intelligent and experienced than themselves to lead the country. Sadly, there weren’t enough of the latter to keep Bush away from the levers of power.
What this history of anti-intellectualism has wrought is an electorate that decries political experience and academic enquiry and is willing to vote for anyone who trashes the elites. What those voters don’t seem to realize is that such a knee-jerk reaction is not helpful to them but instead consistently results in Republican presidents who do little more than serve the rich.
This approach has delivered big time to the wealthy but at the same time has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots to the point where the uneducated voter has no respect for political experience whatsoever and is willing to vote in the least experienced, least knowledgeable, least competent and least truthful candidate based solely on his faux-populist appeal.
The Republicans have unthinkingly reaped what they have sown over the years in the person of Donald Trump. Right wing conservatives have gotten the tax cuts they wanted from Trump but now, too late, they have come to realize that they have let loose an anti-intellectual bull in the political china shop. His nativist, anti-free trade, know-nothing approach threatens the entire world economy.
It remains to be seen if congressional Republicans are prepared to put a stop to the dumpster fire started by President Trump, admit the hypocrisy of their anti-intellectual approach and show Mr. Trump the door. Given that this would mean the decimation of their ranks in Congress, it seems unlikely but if they choose not to act, America’s future appears bleak indeed.