by Joel Bellman
Never in my lifetime — never in American history — has a president been as dangerously ignorant as this one, his disastrous incompetence on full display throughout the coronavirus pandemic. If you wonder why fewer and fewer Republicans accept the theory of evolution, consider the intellectual trajectory of Republican presidents from Reagan to Trump. The evidence is clear: Darwin was wrong.
This is not to argue that the Reagan era represented a high-water mark of scholarly statecraft, even compared to today’s idiocracy. Reagan wasn’t as dopey as he was depicted, but to the dismay of critics and the delight of supporters, the former actor was always happy to reprise the role of genial simpleton to enhance his populist appeal, a persona that Donald Trump, too, has embraced with gusto.
Reagan and Trump successfully exploited a longstanding trend that historian Richard Hofstadter examined in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), written at a time when what used to be called the Radical Right appeared ascendant. America’s populistic culture has always venerated the common man and his common judgment, Hofstadter observed, noting that, “Here the politician expresses what a large part of the public feels,” in resenting their increasing dependence on the experts to navigate the complexities of the modern world.
As Mark Twain quipped, history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. And here, Hofstadter could almost have been describing today’s MAGA-capped demonstrators in the know-nothing Right, marching to “liberate” their states at gunpoint in the midst of a deadly pandemic from the strictures of contagion control. “[H]e can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain-truster, or the mad scientist,” Hofstadter writes, “and by applauding the politicians as they pursue the subversive teacher, the suspect scientist, or the allegedly treacherous foreign-policy advisor.”
At Hofstadter’s writing, the Goldwater debacle lay just ahead, and complacent liberals heaved a sigh of relief at his landslide defeat. But by 1980 the conservative movement had recovered from Watergate and revived its fortunes. The revolution may have been delayed, but when Ronald Reagan assumed office it was definitely televised.
Then as now, liberal intellectuals were aghast at the dumbing of America. In Trivializing America: The Triumph of Mediocrity (1983), Norman Corwin — poet, essayist, and the leading dramatist in radio’s Golden Age of the 1940s — wrote, “The ultimate in trivialization is to reduce the capacity and will of people to think for themselves.” Two years later, media theorist and cultural critic Neal Postman, writing in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), similarly decried an age “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act….”
With the onset of the worst pandemic in a century, and the very real possibility of a global economic collapse, the folly of our long anti-intellectual indulgence has now become clear. “Bread and circuses,” the Roman poet Juvenal wrote of his era’s cynical panderings to a distractable populace. But 2000 years later, thanks to the pandemic, even bread is in short supply and circuses, like every other public gathering, have been banned.
Author Harlan Ellison, in a collection of essays published the same year as Postman’s book, may have put it most memorably — and bleakly — when asked by a reader what it would take to knock the fools and dupes out of the box. Forget it, he told her. “Apart from hydrogen,” Ellison explained, “the most common thing in the universe is stupidity.”