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It’s the Stupidity, Stupid: MAGA and American Anti-Intellectualism

In one of the many absolutely brilliant cartoons from the 1980s-era strip “The Far Side” by Gary Larson, a gaggle of white-coated scientists are gazing through a pane of glass at a bunch of people making dopey faces into what, for them, is a one-way mirror. One of the scientists is addressing the others, in words that appear in the caption: “Yes, gentlemen, they are all fools. The question is, what kind of fools are they?”

From its beginnings, MAGA propaganda has labeled the movement the voice of the real Americans, and all opposition to it the carping of illegitimate elites whose power is threatened by this fascist-populist revolt. Many non-MAGA commentators have been partly taken in by this propaganda over the years, condemning the resistance to MAGA as a snobbish attack on “the working class,” which they tacitly assume is identical with the White working class, as if all those millions of Black and Latino farmworkers, postal carriers, chefs, janitors, food plant workers, construction workers, gardeners, etc. didn’t exist. We are told, and sometimes tell ourselves, that we are the ones to blame for MAGA because of the neglect and/or contempt in which we are alleged to hold them, the White “working class.” The constant flow of resistance commentary and memes mocking MAGA “stupidity” is held to aggravate the resentment that fuels MAGA’s twenty-first century, all-American fascism. What is the truth of this endlessly reiterated charge?

In the first place, polling consistently shows that large majorities of White Americans without college degrees voted for Trump and the Republicans in 2016 and 2020. (Whether “White Americans without college degrees” is the same thing as “the White working class” I leave it to the sociologists to debate.) But a majority of all White Americans voted for Trump and the Republicans in both of those elections. And while the numerical base of the MAGA movement may in fact be in the White working class, however that is defined, the January 6 putsch and its aftermath made it blindingly clear that it is not from them that the real fascist threat in America emanates.

The putschists who actually stormed the U.S. Capitol were not working class by and large, much less the “wretched of the earth.” They were not even what Karl Marx might have called a lumpenproletariat. In the main, they were established, middle-class people, real estate agents and business owners, as well as current and former law enforcement and military, a sociological profile that showed in their deferential treatment by the judicial system. So when the resistance is critiqued for allegedly punching down on the White working class, we should take the charge seriously inasmuch as we must devote far more attention in our struggle with fascism to the people with money and social status who actually pose a much greater threat than any resident of a trailer park.

But then, why is there such a persistent tendency — and I have done it myself — to caricature the entire MAGA movement as a bunch of uneducated ignoramuses? Perhaps the answer is to be found in a work of history almost 60 years old, Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. The lens this work offers us immediately clarifies matters. What Hofstadter traces is the development of a free-floating hostility to intellectuals and intellectualism throughout American history. What are intellectuals? I usually take it to mean people who are interested in ideas for their own sake, but to this Hofstadter adds another dimension: such people have a critical and creative turn of mind. He traces the American hostility to them all the way back to the beginnings of English settlement in Massachusetts, in the Puritan colonies at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. These settlements were ruled by what we would now call a theocracy, which in practice meant the Puritan clergy, who according to Hofstadter constituted a kind of religious intelligentsia. Resistance soon sprang up to their dictates, driven by the Protestant spirit of the age, which put great stress on the individual believer’s ability to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, without the need for expensively educated clergy and their suspect learning. Many of us, not just Protestants and not even limited to Christians, may find people like Anne Hutchinson and the Quakers admirable in their resistance to the Puritan clerics, for standing fast by their beliefs in the face of persecution and even hanging. In Hofstadter’s terms, though, this was the beginning of American anti-intellectualism.

Much later, after American independence and the beginnings of self-conscious beliefs about the American national character, there grew up an ideology of Americanism that insisted that we were and are a practical and pragmatic people. We treasured intelligence, but only when it was turned to practical ends, such as by famous inventors like Thomas Edison, or powerful and ruthless businessmen. By contrast, people who were interested in ideas for their own sake were suspected of being impractical dreamers on the one hand, and possibly dangerous subversives on the other.

Hofstadter was writing, of course, in the immediate aftermath of the second “Red Scare,” in which Republican Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee launched a hunt for Communists that broadened into a dragnet for any kind of vaguely leftish dissent and any kind of intellectualism that might make people question the Cold War dogmas of the day. (The first and even worse Red Scare had occurred thirty years earlier, in the aftermath of World War I, when hundreds of dissenters such as Emma Goldman were actually deported.)

Hofstadter wouldn’t be surprised at all by the persistence of anti-intellectualism in our own time. After all, these hostilities have been a force in American life for centuries, now waxing, now waning.  What would startle him, I think, would be the extent to which the struggle “for” and “against” the intellect has become a wholly partisan cause, split almost perfectly along red-versus-blue lines. In his time, Hofstadter noted that there was a great deal of hostility, not just to critically minded intellectuals, but to experts of all kinds. At the time he was writing in the early 1960s, there was a widespread but diffuse resistance to the fluoridation of water supplies, which was done with the aim of improving public dental health, but which many on the paranoid right believed was a Communist plot. Starting later in the 1960s and continuing down to the present day, there has also been a significant degree of left-wing suspicion of expertise, especially medical expertise, which is why we have seen explosive growth in “alternative medicine” and all kinds of quackery. With the onset of the COVID pandemic, of course, this was overshadowed by the much louder right-wing opposition to medically recommended mask wearing spearheaded by Trump himself, and then resistance to the vaccines. There has been a degree of convergence with certain marginal figures on the left such as Robert Kennedy, Jr., but overwhelmingly the violent resistance to medical advice has come from the MAGA right. Equally overwhelmingly, the resistance to this resistance is a “Blue” (partisan Democrat) phenomenon. In one sense, the latter is an encouraging development, because it means that wherever Democrats have control of parts of the federal, state or local government, experts attempting to grapple with the urgent problems of our time from COVID to climate change are assured of official support. But given how entrenched the hostility to both intellectualism and expertise is now within the MAGA-tized Republican Party, any and all attempts to deal with such problems draw fierce hostility in half the country. We have a long fight ahead of us.

I should note, though, that for both Hofstadter and myself, matters are not as black-and-white as this essay may have made them appear. Skepticism of expertise and criticism of the intellectual critics is not always and everywhere unjustified. When Hofstadter was writing, left-leaning intellectuals were greatly heartened by their prominence in the new Kennedy administration. Jack Kennedy was no intellectual himself, but he knew how to play to them, which became an important piece of the romance of his so-called Camelot administration. He did in fact hire many people who were thought to be great experts, most notoriously choosing Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense. This brash young representative of Camelot’s “best and brightest,” with his supposedly objective, data-driven statistical methods of counting and assessing deaths in warfare, became a central figure in the American self-delusion that got us sunk into the Vietnam War and made us believe we were winning it, beginning with the Kennedy administration and continuing on through the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Dissenters who questioned this expertise were initially ignored, and then attacked, but of course, they turned out to be right. We should keep this cautionary tale in mind even in our current period, when anti-intellectualism and the war on expertise have become so powerful as to threaten our national survival, and the struggle to combat them has become accordingly urgent.


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