I’m tired of watching Americans baffle the world with repeated displays of callous, uninformed derision at the expense of its own improvement.
What if we’re all wrong about Donald Trump? What if he has no intention of becoming president, but is holding a mirror up to warn America of what it’s becoming, instead?
Think about it.
His antics are so over the top. Only an actor or comedian can be that over the top, right? An actor or comedian with an intelligent wit, who recognizes American culture’s continued lean away from intellectual leisures and toward easy entertainment. An entertainer who resonates with Everyman and simultaneously gives a *wink wink* to those among us who are gluttons for information.
Trump hammed it up during the Republican presidential debate earlier this month. He’d clearly rehearsed the beginning of the routine, including the smirky victory sign he flashed the crowd shortly after stepping onstage. His performance was so bold that the next morning, as I was taking part in a thoughtful exchange on Facebook (it was, really!), the thought occurred to me that we may all be unwitting participants in the playing out of an Aesop-style fable. During the debate, Trump threw some important issues in our faces:
- Unapologetic, misogynistic behavior is a form of bullying that we see every day
- Money rules today’s political realm, and the people who have the most set the rules and the tone
- Knowledge doesn’t count for much in the showbiz world of politics, therefore, there’s no need to prepare for things like debates
I was hopeful, but when Trump stuck to discussing “policy” after he treated Megyn Kelly so terribly, I knew I was being delusional. So, why did I allow myself to fantasize about Trump acting as a disguised crusader for moral good? Frankly, it’s because I’m tired of watching Americans baffle the world with repeated displays of callous, uninformed derision at the expense of its own improvement.
America has a rebellious streak that runs through the core of the country’s founding. After the Declaration of Independence had been drawn up and signed, it became increasingly important for each individual to show that this was a republic made up of shepherds instead of sheep. Under English rule it had been traditional to instill the importance of family obligation—a matter of life and death in 1776—by naming each generation after the previous one. In the years after 1776, people started to make up their own names for their newborn children. Once the British shackles had been cut off, the standard used for measuring status depended upon a person’s willingness to disregard the paternalistic elite.
Despite all of those individual displays of rebellious individuality, an elite ruling class managed to take root over the next 200 years. That rebellious streak has persisted as a sign of patriotism, but it often feels as though this streak runs in cycles, moving from being a watchdog for corruption to a deranged paranoia and back again. The paranoia side of the cycle reaches its peak when it’s time to elect a new president, which is the only explanation I can find for why Trump has enough supporters to have survived the first cut of GOP primary candidates.
Sure, Trump is entertaining to watch. The irony of his character is the stuff of legend. He’s an Ivy League-educated son of a millionaire real estate developer, who entered the family business and turned his father’s millions into billions. These facts alone should make Trump a far cry from the people’s candidate. But Trump has spent decades in the spotlight, showing off his gaudy, unrefined gluttony for wealth, women, and games. While his pedigree isn’t a match for the Everyman, his grown-ass-man-who-does-what-he-wants swagger is the embodiment of Hollywood’s Everyman Strikes It Rich storyline. His brash attitude is a good bedfellow for America’s renewed brand of populism, which thumbs its nose at the connected, the refined, the highly educated, and the intellectually curious—all ideals that the Trump PR machine raises its leg upon.
Once, while visiting a distant member of my husband’s family, we had our dinnertime conversation open with, “Why can’t we have a president who’s like us? Why does it always have to be someone with a bunch of fancy law degrees?”
We generally try to steer clear of political talk with certain relatives on both sides of the family because today’s assumption of identity politics is painful. In this case, however, we tried to explain the usefulness of knowing about things like judicial process, economic theory, and basic diplomacy skills. The person at the other end of the table couldn’t be swayed, and why should she have been? Since the 19th century, Americans have shown such little respect for intellectual pursuits that it’s practically been branded into our public school system.
Daniel J. Rigney, who was a sociologist at St. Mary’s University in Houston, came up with a simple theory for American anti-intellectualism based on Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-intellectualism In American Life, which won a 1964 Pulitzer Prize. Rigney breaks the idea of anti-intellectualism into three parts:
- Religious anti-rationalism: Emotion and warmth are of the heart—and are therefore good. Reason is cold and unfeeling; it deals with facts and evidence—not the heart—and therefore, is bad.
- Populist anti-elitism: Anything having to do with “old money” or perceived cronyism is to be viewed with suspicion.
- Unreflective instrumentalism: Knowledge is worthless unless it immediately leads to monetary or material gain, or rewards that are tangible.
Interestingly, these three subsections manage to strip their adherents of empathy as they shrink away from anything that is unknown or attacks such sentiments. Since we began to stand upright, humans have continued to evolve into bottomless vessels of potential. Universally, we’ve been able to reason and argue our way through many of the grand questions of humanity. There are the high-level questions that have been making the rounds from the beginning:
What does it mean to be human?
Do those things apply to all humans?
If so, should all humans be treated equally?
Then there are the lower-level questions that appeal more to our instinctual and territorial needs:
If all humans are equal, why do we perceive each other so differently?
What does that mean for me?
Does that perception mean someone can decide that I’m “doing” life the wrong way?
Does that make that person better or more powerful than I am?
Does that give them the right to take my place and do life the correct way?
If so, then how are all humans supposed to be equal?
How do we know the hierarchy of life if we are not equal?
That last question is the rub: How do we know?
It’s a scary thought that I saw in action the night of the first GOP debate, and I suspect we’ll see it again in the faces of those who end up in the general election debates. As we slide further into a warm, yet isolated hole of anti-intellectualism, we slide further into fear. Social media has made it easier to voice our fears and fight our perceived enemies without having to actually learn about them or possibly discover that a diverse range of ideas is not so dangerous. This approach has made it impossible to have a lively, two-sided debate that involves listening, responding, listening some more, and then learning. Or at least empathizing.
While many people found that first debate to be high in entertainment value, I couldn’t find anything but more reasons to be frustrated. I didn’t even get around to listening to the candidates’ latest versions of their robotic, rhetorical platforms before blowing up at an old friend on Twitter who used my lament of the state of contemporary rhetoric as an excuse to tell me that “my” party and its candidates suck ass.
Donald Trump is currently being lauded for bringing the rehearsed tone of the electoral conversation back to reality, but at what expense? On the surface, he may be the most visible candidate fighting the status quo, but when I hold that idea up against 150 years of contempt for the uncomfortable push toward greater understanding, I wonder if he’s actually fighting to keep the status quo in check.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.