How the stupid party created Donald Trump

August 1, 2016

by Max Boot

“…the joke’s on the Republican Party: After decades of masquerading as the “stupid party,” that’s what it has become. But if an unapologetic ignoramus wins the presidency, the consequences will be no laughing matter.

Even if we can avoid the calamity of a Trump presidency, however, the G.O.P. still has a lot of soul-searching to do. Mr. Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of the party’s anti-intellectual drift. The party needs to rethink its growing anti-intellectual bias and its reflexive aversion to elites. Catering to populist anger with extremist proposals that are certain to fail is not a viable strategy for political success.”–Max Boot

It’s hard to know exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the “stupid party. It is not an accusation that could be hurled against such prominent early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes.

But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower — a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower — “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.”

The John F. Kennedy Presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the thinking men and women of America.

Rather than run away from the anti-intellectual label, Republicans embraced it for their own political purposes. In his “time for choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan said that the issue in the 1964 election was “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant Capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Richard M. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and the “hard hats,” while his Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, issued slashing attacks on an “effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

William F. Buckley Jr. famously said,I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.” More recently, George W. Bush joked at a Yale commencement: “To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students I say, you, too, can be President of the United States.”

Many Democrats took all this at face value and congratulated themselves for being smarter than the benighted Republicans. Here’s the thing, though: The Republican embrace of anti-intellectualism was, to a large extent, a put-on. At least until now.

Eisenhower may have played the part of an amiable duffer, but he may have been the best prepared President we have ever had — a five-star general with an unparalleled knowledge of national security affairs. When he resorted to gobbledygook in public, it was in order to preserve his political room to maneuver.

Reagan may have come across as a dumb thespian, but he spent decades honing his views on public policy and writing his own speeches. Nixon may have burned with resentment of “Harvard men,” but he turned over foreign policy and domestic policy to two Harvard professors, Henry A. Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while his own knowledge of foreign affairs was second only to Ike’s.

There is no evidence that Republican leaders have been demonstrably dumber than their Democratic counterparts. During the Reagan years, the G.O.P. briefly became known as the “party of ideas,” because it harvested so effectively the intellectual labor of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary. Scholarly policy makers like George P. Shultz, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett held prominent posts in the Reagan administration, a tradition that continued into the George W. Bush administration — amply stocked with the likes of Paul D. Wolfowitz, John J. Dilulio Jr. and Condoleezza Rice.

In recent years, however, the Republicans’ relationship to the realm of ideas has become more and more attenuated as talk-radio hosts and television personalities have taken over the role of defining the conservative movement that once belonged to thinkers like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and George F. Will. The Tea Party represented a populist revolt against what its activists saw as out-of-touch Republican elites in Washington.

There are still some thoughtful Republican leaders exemplified by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who devised an impressive new budget plan for his party. But the primary vibe from the G.O.P. has become one of indiscriminate, unthinking, all-consuming anger.

The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be.

Mr. Trump doesn’t know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds. He can’t identify the nuclear triad, the American strategic nuclear arsenal’s delivery system. He had never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote. He thinks the Constitution has 12 Articles rather than seven. He uses the vocabulary of a fifth grader. Most damning of all, he traffics in off-the-wall conspiracy theories by insinuating that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It is hardly surprising to read Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Mr. Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal,” say, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life. Trump even appears proud of his lack of learning. He told The Washington Post that he reached decisions “with very little knowledge,” but on the strength of his “common sense” and his “business ability.”

Reading long documents is a waste of time because of his rapid ability to get to the gist of an issue, he said: “I’m a very efficient guy.” What little Mr. Trump does know seems to come from television: Asked where he got military advice, he replied, “I watch the shows.”

Mr. Trump promotes a nativist, isolationist, anti-trade agenda that is supported by few if any serious scholars. He called for tariff increases that experts warn will cost millions of jobs and plunge the country into a recession. He claimed that Mexican immigrants were “bringing crime” even though research consistently shows that immigrants have a lower crime rate than the native-born. He promised that Mexico would pay for a border wall, even though no regional expert thinks that will ever happen.

Mr. Trump also proposed barring Muslims from entering the country despite terrorism researchers, myself included, warning that his plan would likely backfire, feeding the Islamic State’s narrative that the war on terrorism is really a war on Islam. He has since revised that proposal and would now bar visitors from countries that have a “proven history of terrorism” — overlooking that pretty much every country, including every major American ally, has a history of terrorism. Recently, he declared that he would not necessarily come to the aid of the Baltic republics if they were attacked by Russia, apparently not knowing or caring that Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty obliges the United States to defend any NATO member under attack.

Last week, Mr. Trump even invited Russia’s intelligence agencies to hack the emails of a former secretary of state — something impossible to imagine any previous presidential nominee doing. It is genuinely terrifying that someone who advances such offensive and ridiculous proposals could win the nomination of a party once led by Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote more books than Mr. Trump has probably read. It’s one thing to appeal to voters by pretending to be an average guy. It’s another to be an average guy who doesn’t know the first thing about governing or public policy.

The Trump acolytes claim it doesn’t matter; he can hire experts to advise him. But experts always disagree with one another and it is the president alone who must make the most difficult decisions in the world. That’s not something he can do since he lacks the most basic grounding in the issues and is prey to fundamental misconceptions.

In a way,the joke’s on the Republican Party: After decades of masquerading as the “stupid party,” that’s what it has become. But if an unapologetic ignoramus wins the presidency, the consequences will be no laughing matter.

Even if we can avoid the calamity of a Trump presidency, however, the G.O.P. still has a lot of soul-searching to do. Mr. Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of the party’s anti-intellectual drift. The party needs to rethink its growing anti-intellectual bias and its reflexive aversion to elites. Catering to populist anger with extremist proposals that are certain to fail is not a viable strategy for political success.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

11 thoughts on “How the stupid party created Donald Trump

  1. Hey, Mr. Max Boot… for the past century or so your country has been run not by politicians but by faceless groups who, as the comedian George Carlin put it, arrange elections just to give millions of Americans the impression that every so often they have a choice. Carlin added “you have no choice… (because) they own you… they have got you by the balls…” (adapted).

    So please do not go on about Democrats and Republicans… both are derided by increasing numbers of your countrymen/women…

    The Bernie Sanders phenomenon has opened a small window of hope of a peaceful change… let us just see how it pans out…

  2. All politicians, great, not so great and downright disgraceful, are at the mercy of the ever-changing tide of history that sweep them into and out of office.

    Even a great statesman like Winston Churchill who saved Great Britain, (and some argued Western Europe as well), could be voted out of office almost immediately after WWII.

    Only the US of A at this abysmal juncture in its history could and would produce a probable president like Trump. It is more a contemporaneous reflection of the country and its decrepit masses as it is of the person it would chose as its next president.

    Inspite of China’s residual pride and Russia’s diplomatic shenanigans the rest of the World will have to live with whoever the American people chose as their president.

    We in Malaysia may even be thankful if Trump’s presidency, (as a gesture of housecleaning of the Obama presidency), could speed up the peaceful regime change here.

  3. I have nothing good to say about Trump – so i’ll desist insofar as him being the GOP candidate.

    What truly astonishes me is the level of support he gets from the so-called ‘born-again’ evangelicals – who despite having some really good pastors and laity – seem to be enamored with his crudity, vulgarity and asininity. I don’t know what Bible they read, but it certainly ain’t the same one, that the rest of us Christians read and profess.

    While it is taught that we are not to judge others, sometimes it becomes difficult when we see those claiming to share our Faith idolizing something like that. Is God truly dead?

    It’s as if the wealth-health theology is true (to me it’s pure unadulterated bunkum). Or that we should actively fight the Devil to cast him into Hell. ‘Old’ dead-dogs like me have been taught that we can never beat Satan at his own game, but only to resist and desist – yet remain resolutely standing at the End (most difficult). Perhaps the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs were never required reading for them, never mind the Gospels..

    Hasn’t it been said that the Devil is actually an Ignoramus? After all Evil no matter how ‘strong’ lacks Sophia (wisdom). So yes, Trump lacks Sophia.

    I’ll leave ‘Crooked’ Hillary for another day.

  4. Many contemporary Americans have woken up to start despise liberal intellectuals such as Max Boot, who may have ton of knowledge and have mastered the art of writing, but are shamelessly dishonest. The lacking of intellectual honesty is appalling among the lines written by Max Boot: anti-illegal immigrant becomes anti-immigrant, asserting American culture become nativism, putting American interest as priority becomes isolationist, promoting trade favoring Americans becomes anti-trade, and illegal Mexican as criminal become Mexican as criminal. There are many insightful positions Trump takes are twisted as stupidity.

    As to Malaysians, I think it is better for us to see the stories of all sides of American politics because any side is high-octane power player capable of blinding our eyes. Here are another sides of stories helping us not being blinded:

  5. “The Bernie Sanders phenomenon has opened a small window of hope of a peaceful change… let us just see how it pans out…”

    Oh please, let’s stop with all these distractions.

    Bernie would be the first to say (and has) that most of his ideas are just (Roosevelt’s) New Deal ideas dressed up for a different generation.

    Hard core Bernie Busters are just as myopic and ignorant as Trump supporters.

    I would argue that the best thing about Saunders run was he forced the DNC into a progressive stance it seemed to have abandoned for a more center left position which really was not conducive for any meaningful “choice” in democratic elections.

    The problem with Trump….well one of the many problems with Trump is that he makes the Establishment candidate (Hillary) a rational choice.

    Ever since the GOP embraced its religious nutjob base, “conservative” politics has gone down the drain. Tump is the logical conclusion of the misogyny , bigotry and ignorance that the GOP has wilfully cultivated in the working class white demographic of the country and ’em chickens. they be coming home to roost.

    And Shiou stop lying about Tumps position.

  6. The Bernie phenomenon is more than a distraction… and it certainly is full of New Deal ideas and language…and why not?… the US needs a New Deal once again because, for the second time, the working class has been crushed… because the establishment has all the loot… much like it did on the previous occasion…. the difference this time is that there is not the power of a united coalition of Unions, Socialists and (yes!) Communists that made up the rumble that moved FDR to action…

    If the Sanders phenomenon rekindles that need of a united front of the American working class, the US might have a second peaceful way out… in this respect the Green Party are in tune with Sanders…and why Bernie did not switch will be talked about for a long time…

  7. The American right wing and their hero :

    Anti-immigrant, pro-gun, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, etc.
    “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”.

  8. Isa, I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean that Bernie Saunders was a distraction merely that the prescriptive rhetoric about the Saunders phenomenon was. As you said, his ideas are cyclical, its not really about change but rediscovering abandoned policies.

    As I said, Saunders has already contributed to redefining of the DNC and by endorsing Hillary given credibility – depending on whom you ask – to Establishment politics.

    Will those changes work ? Only political will , will determine that and it would be more productive if Bernie supporters continued their work after the elections then going back to waiting for the next political messiah.

    Trump is a throwback too but others have articulated the danger of his ideas far better than me.


  9. Why this bad mouthing of Trump. Take 80% of the issues since the campaign began Trump has been on the side of reacting. Even the current issue of the Khan statement is a case in point.The MSM is asking the wrong questions all the time.

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