Our Man of Militant Ignorance

Nothing has settled down. Donald Trump has not become presidential in any way anyone uses that word – although he said he could be presidential, and would be – “I will be so presidential. You will be so bored. You’ll say, can’t he have a little more energy?”

Donald Trump says lots of things that just aren’t so. No one seemed to mind that one. Politicians running for office make all sorts of claims. People worry. Politicians tell them not to worry. The future will take care of itself – but now people are worried, and no one is bored. And are we going to war with Syria, and Iran and Russia in that case, and with North Korea, and with China in that case? And why is Trump cutting everything to pay for that damned wall that no one ever believed would solve anything? The Meals on Wheels program costs next to nothing. Big Bird on PBS isn’t busting the budget. Do you want the kids to cry? And defunding the State Department seems unwise – as does neutering the EPA and defunding anything that has to do with science and medicine. And why is Trump tweeting angry nonsense instead of doing the hard detailed work necessary to fix things? Is he easily bored? Does he have Attention Deficit Disorder? Is he in over his head?

No one expected this. Perhaps no one really expected Donald Trump to be presidential, voluntarily – he was just saying what he must have thought was the right thing at the time – but the job would surely make him presidential. He would have to be presidential – he’d have to deal with other world leaders – he’d also have to deal with all the big egos, with specific and often angry constituencies, in Congress. Other world leaders would test him. Facts that he didn’t like would come up – like Vladimir Putin being the nasty fellow everyone had always said he was. Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, turned out to be a nut and a liar – Trump had to fire him. Steve Bannon might be gone soon now too – the blood and soil white nationalist who wants to blow everything up. Some things just won’t do. A new president soon realizes that. There’s a lot to learn. The office changes the man.

That doesn’t seem to be happening. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to want to learn things. Like those who enthusiastically voted for him, he doesn’t trust experts, or even like them. What good are they? They got us into this mess, and only a man not weighted down by expertise can get us out of it. Our intelligence agencies were wrong about the Russians messing with our election – they’re Nazis or something, out to make Trump look bad – and Obama did wiretap Trump Tower – and climate change is a hoax too – and the coal industry will come roaring back too. What do experts know anyway? Trump was fond of saying that he knew more about ISIS than all the generals. He watched all “the shows” – on Fox News, mainly – and said he had a fine mind – the best, really. In his inauguration speech he said he’d end the “American carnage” that so-called “experts” had caused.

Those who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump ate that up. They hate experts too. The other sixty or seventy percent of the county – which includes those who held their noses and voted for Trump because at least he wasn’t Hillary Clinton – have been in a panic ever since. This wasn’t supposed to happen in America.

That was a misunderstanding. That’s America. That had been explained. Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) explored Americans’ curious distrust of people who know more than most Americans know, a culturally-established distrust of experts and expertise. If you’re so smart how come you’re not rich? Maybe there was a time when being well-educated and insightful, and full of ideas, or at least be able to discuss the ideas of others intelligently, or least know there were ideas floating around out there somewhere and they mattered, made you cool – or maybe that was France. Here, more than ever before, that makes you a fool. You’re inauthentic. You’ve lost touch with the real America. Obama, with his degrees and having taught constitutional law and all the rest, had been out of touch with the real America.

A lot of this is all mixed up with our attitudes about where we learn things, which for most of us is in school, from teachers, most of whom are women. Hofstadter is clear on that too. Historically, teaching in America, uniquely, has been a women’s profession. The few men who taught kids were suspect. They were effeminate losers. After all, those who can’t do, teach. That’s why teachers are paid next to nothing. They’re not doing. Hofstadter traces this thinking back through all the years, back to Colonial times. Real men don’t teach.

The corollary is obvious. Sure, you should know lots of stuff, but whatever success you have, whatever you might achieve, will be because of your character, or because of Jesus, or because you were bold. High-school dropouts become millionaires, after all. Most high school dropouts don’t become millionaires, but couldn’t that be because of their moral failings?

Thomas Nichols makes a parallel argument in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University, and he used to teach international relations and Russian affairs at Dartmouth and Georgetown, and he has worked as a defense and security affairs staffer in the Senate, so his frustration is understandable. Cab drivers tell him they know as much about any of this stuff as he does, and that their opinions are as good as his. He’s worried about the country. His book is about America now unable to figure things out, because anyone can claim to be an expert, and does, angrily. Thomas Nichols updates Richard Hofstadter’s argument for the internet age – but the warnings were always there. Donald Trump was inevitable.

Donald Trump is also a problem, and Josh Marshall explores that problem:

It is what we might call “the consensus judgment” that President Trump is a deeply ignorant man and perhaps a profoundly ignorant President. But it is worth stepping back and considering just what this means, the different kinds of ignorance that exist and how they differ.

That calls for a bit of recent history:

Without making a direct comparison, it is worth remembering that each of the last three Presidents came to office with a steep learning curve about the modalities of the presidency and many aspects of the challenges and issues they would face. Clinton, Bush and Obama were each, in different ways, pretty green. Bush’s father, since he had served in Congress, as head of the CIA and especially because he had served as a fairly active Vice President for the previous eight years, came in knowing quite a lot about the specifics of the Presidency.

Some of the difference with Clinton, Bush and Obama (let’s call them CBO) is that they had good staff or at least knowledgeable staff who could help them to understand what they didn’t know and advise them on the almost infinite number of details they could never hope to understand in depth. But there’s another key issue. You don’t become President by being excessively humble. Yet CBO each had a sense of what they did not know. At a bare minimum, they didn’t advertise it when they learned something they later realized a lot of other people knew.

That’s not Trump:

What is endearing, terrifying and hilarious about Trump is not simply his ignorance, really his militant ignorance, but his complete lack of self-awareness about his ignorance. Trump told a reporter for The Wall Street Journal that his understanding of the problem of North Korea changed dramatically after hearing ten minutes of history from the President of China. Needless to say, Trump didn’t need to admit this. But neither was it candor.

In fact, that was an in-your-face militant statement:

So far the Trump Presidency has been a sort of Mr Magoo performance art in which the comically ignorant Trump learns elemental or basic things that virtually everyone in the world of politics or government already knew – things that the majority of adults probably know. Health Care: “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” North Korea: “I felt pretty strongly that they had tremendous power. But it’s not what you think.” There are perhaps half a dozen examples equally stark.

In other words, President Trump is open about his discoveries and even eager to share them but universally projects his previous state of comical ignorance onto the general public or whomever he is talking to.

In other cases, this would make sense. If Trump discovered that humans could fly if they hold their nose, close one eye and say “Shazam!” I’d want to know. Because that’s awesome! And I wouldn’t think worse of Trump for not knowing it before – because this is new and amazing information. But learning that health care policy is complicated is a different kind of discovery.

Still, that’s useful:

Remaining ignorant is probably a good adaptive strategy for him because it allows him to pretend that everything is obvious, that he can solve any problem and generally act like he can do anything – in a way, this allowed him to become President.

In fact, those who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump ate that up. Experts don’t matter. Everything is obvious, but it’s more complicated than that:

What is key is to understand that this is not just ignorance. Ignorance is just the first stage of Trump’s fairly advanced problem. He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance. This is compounded by a seeming inability to understand that everyone else isn’t equally ignorant to him. Those of us who are parents know the wonder of discovery experienced by small children. They find out there were things such as dinosaurs or close primate relatives called lemurs. As loving parents we indulge them, sometimes feigning ignorance of things we actually already knew to support a child’s joy in discovery.

But Donald Trump is a seventy-year-old man. And not a terribly nice man.

His ignorance is not endearing. We don’t need to lie to him to make him feel good about himself. Still it is good to understand his condition. Ignorance is just lack of information. But there’s something wrong with Trump’s brain – maybe cognitive, perhaps simple entitlement or just broad spectrum derp – which appears to make it genuinely impossible not to project his own ignorance onto everybody else.

Trump may be out to prove that Richard Hofstadter and then Thomas Nichols were right about America. His own ignorance is ours – it was there all along.

Still, there’s this curious nugget from the New York Times:

So much of this is new to Mr. Trump that only after he publicly accused Mr. Obama of having wiretapped his telephones last year did he ask aides how the system of obtaining eavesdropping warrants from a special foreign intelligence court worked.

Half of America – and the secondarily accused British intelligence services – were in an uproar about that for two weeks. Trump had no idea what he was talking about. Obama had done him wrong – he was sure about that. He later, much later, asked his aides if Obama could really do that sort of thing. They apparently said no. He’s said little about that since, but the New York Times is charitable:

For any new occupant of the White House, the early months are like a graduate seminar in policy crammed into every half-hour meeting. What made sense on the campaign trail may have little bearing on reality in the Oval Office, and the education of a president can be rocky even for former governors or senators. For Mr. Trump, the first president in American history never to have served in government or the military, the learning curve is especially steep…

But he arrived at the White House surrounded by advisers who, like him, were neophytes to governing. His White House chief of staff, chief strategist, senior adviser, counselor and national economic adviser have no prior government experience of consequence. Nor do his secretaries of state, Treasury, commerce, housing or education.

Maybe that’s not so charitable – he chooses those who know next to nothing for key positions – but there is what he didn’t do:

He delayed his vow to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem after King Abdullah II of Jordan rushed to Washington to warn him of a violent backlash among Arabs. He abandoned his intention to bring back torture in terrorism interrogations after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told him it was ineffective.

He has not appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, ripped up or renegotiated the nuclear agreement with Iran, reversed Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy or terminated his predecessor’s program permitting younger unauthorized immigrants to stay.

America will be fine, but for this:

Karen Hughes, who was White House counselor to President George W. Bush, said no president can be fully informed about all the issues that will confront him.

“Obviously, most presidents aren’t nuclear scientists,” she said. “What is important is that the White House provides a disciplined process for the experts to present their views, which are often differing. The president’s role as the chief executive and decision-maker is to listen to, question and probe the expert recommendations, and then apply informed judgment to the decision.”

A militantly uninformed man cannot apply informed judgment, and then there was this:

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal… Over the last week, several members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees have reviewed intelligence reports related to those requests at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.

Even the Republicans looking into Susan Rice “unmasking” the names of Americans in NSA intercepts when she was Obama’s National Security Advisor said that’s what she was supposed to do – that was part of her job. She did nothing wrong. Who knew? It seems everyone knew.

And then there’s Michael Tomasky:

Everyone, including The Daily Beast, took note of the president’s six-flip-flop Wednesday. And it’s true that every one of those huge reversals was in the direction of sanity. He embraced NATO, kind of. He recognized that the North Korea-China thing is complex. He acknowledged that Janet Yellen is a serious policy person. And so on.

I guess this is growth. But let’s be real here: This is “growth” in the most remedial sense possible…

Here’s a metaphor for you. Having Donald Trump as president is like the Dallas Cowboys hiring as their head coach a guy who’d never even coached a Pop Warner team. Who knew nothing about different defensive coverages. Nothing about stunts. Nothing about offensive formations. And then somebody sat him down after he was coach and told him these things, and he said ‘Gee, nobody knew that all this was so complicated.'”

Perhaps he’ll grow into the job, and Jonathan Chait says he sort of has:

Donald Trump ran an ethno-nationalist cult-of-personality presidential campaign, in which his status as a (real) nonpolitician and (imaginary) business genius would allow him to transcend and solve every policy problem. He has retained the ethno-nationalist themes, while abandoning, one by one, almost every other populist element differentiating him from the generic Republican brand.

The idea is that the office did change Trump. He didn’t become presidential, but he did become a Republican:

As he has come into contact with a concrete agenda, every heterodox promise has given way to conventional GOP positions. Trump’s pledge not to cut Medicaid while replacing Obamacare with a terrific plan that would include “insurance for everybody,” with better coverage than they have now, turned into endorsement of a conventional Republican plan that would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and throw tens of millions of people off their insurance. He has oriented his domestic policy around traditional Republican priorities: deregulation, especially of the financial sector and fossil fuels, and regressive tax cuts. Report after report finds chief executive officers streaming into the White House and essentially dictating policy.

The economic-nationalist elements of Trump’s agenda have all either quietly disappeared or been reversed outright. He has ignored his loud promise to renegotiate NAFTA. He has admitted that China, another longtime bête noir, is not, in fact, a currency manipulator. He came out in favor of the Export-Import Bank, after Boeing’s CEO educated him on it (“Instinctively, you would say, ‘Isn’t that a ridiculous thing?'” he told The Wall Street Journal. “It turns out that lots of small companies are really helped!”) and turned his ballyhooed lobbyist ban into Swiss cheese. On economic policy, Trump has become a conventional party man whose ideas reflect the agenda of the lobbyists and wealthy individuals who have his ear…

The ideological distance between Trump’s economic policy and foreign policy and George W. Bush’s has collapsed…

It has:

H. R. McMaster, Trump’s chief national security adviser, is formulating plans to send tens of thousands of ground troops to Syria for an extended campaign to destroy ISIS and allow for reconstruction afterward – i.e., an occupation. That is an astonishing turn for a president who has not only presented himself as an original opponent of the Iraq War, but endlessly lamented the sums spent on the war and the occupation, which he said could have been used for rebuilding the United States. Indeed, Trump used his imagined status as farsighted Iraq War opponent to beat back every attack on his manifest ignorance of foreign policy, during both the primary and the general election. There is no telling whether Trump will follow McMaster’s plan; but the mere fact that he has ceded so much authority to a conventionally hawkish interventionist, after having ridiculed his party’s neoconservative wing, shows how far he has lurched already.

In fact, Donald Trump became George Bush, and then he became the real thing, a pre-Bush Republican:

Trump’s ethno-nationalism reverses a trend in the Republican Party: Beginning with Bush, it had repudiated its Southern strategy and attempted to craft a racially inclusive message that would broaden the constituency for its oligarchic economic agenda. Bush and his ideological heirs sought to compromise on immigration while taking seriously minority concerns about discriminatory law enforcement. Trump has reversed Bush’s aspiration for a racially inclusive party completely, while rediscovering his economic blueprint.

Well, that’s something. That’s not good, but it’s something. Combine that with a bit of proud all-American militant ignorance and it’s even worse – but this had to happen. America does have a culturally-established distrust of experts and expertise. We were warned. We might as well embrace it. Actually, there’s no choice now. Maybe there never was.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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