In an article on the anatomy of Trumpism, my friend Brad Littlejohn makes some trenchant observations about the anti-intellectual and anti-establishment message embodied by the disgruntled radicalism behind Donald Trump’s political ascendancy.
The movement that has given Trump his momentum has invested the Common Man with a kind of salvific significance at a time when Americans are deeply distrustful of intellectual and institutional authorities, including the media, academic scholars, economists and scientists. “In place of these discredited authorities,” Littlejohn observes, “the Movement embraces the wisdom of the common man and the neophyte.” He continued:
“With the center clearly corrupted, one must look to the periphery for purity; experience is a liability, and inexperience an asset. The most trusted figures of all are those who, untainted by prior experience in government or credentialed expertise, can articulate in the most fearless and undiluted terms the common sense of the common man, heightening as much as possible its contrast with the voice of the Establishment. Around such trusted figures, promising to clean house and govern autocratically by their own individual vigor and insight, personality cults rapidly develop, fuelled by the invigorating language of liberty even while quietly evacuating it of much of its traditional meaning. The personal leadership of the demagogue, who speaks after all for the common man, is in many cases to replace the heavy-handed, inefficient, and compromise-ridden rule of law.”
Because he capitalizes on this type of cynical anti-institutionalism, Trump’s inexperience and anti-intellectualism (the latter of which I diagnosed in my earlier blog post ‘Donald Trump Offers Politics for the Simple-Minded’) are not liabilities to his political ambitions but assets. He offers to politics what George Whitfield was to religion when the latter embodied Wesley’s dictum “plain truth for plain people.”
Americans Should “act for themselves”
American culture routinely goes through seasons of favoring this type of cynical anti-intellectualism and radical anti-institutionalism.
In his book The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch shows how the late 1790s America went through a period in which common people were deeply cynical of established authorities. “From the Revolution onward,” he writes, “republican equality became the rallying cry for a people who challenged every kind of political authority.” Nor was this levelling process limited to political authorities. Hatch shows that by the 1790s, the authority of lawyers and doctors were both being challenged. There was a push for “democratic, personalized, and simplified law” as well as a populist concept of medicine.
Hatch tells the story of Samuel Thomson, a practitioner of natural remedies who urged that Americans must throw off the oppressive yoke of physicians. Thomson also condemned clergymen and lawyers, urging that Americans “should in medicine, as in religion and politics, act for themselves.” Significantly, Samuel Thomson appealed to the private judgment of the masses against these authorities: “people are certainly capable of judging for themselves.” Thomson’s practice thrived among religious dissenters, whose religious inclinations had already prepared them for this type of anti-institutionalism. (For more about the religious implications of American anti-institutionalism, see the section “A Pioneer Theology” on page 211 of my book Saints and Scoundrels.)
Keep It Simple Stupid
The simplification of complexity to which Americans were prone in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was injected with a large dose of pragmatism, which actually became a formal philosophical movement by the 1870s. This pragmatism eschewed abstraction and intellectual sophistication, looking instead for results.
This type of pragmatism undergirded the “scientific management” principles of factory reformers like Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), who were able to increase economic productivity through explicitly marginalizing teleological questions about what it means to flourish as a human being. These pragmatic principles were mediated to America’s educational system via psychologists like B.F. Skinner, the ideological architect behind much of the Common Core curriculum.
Throughout the series of articles about American pragmatism that formed the genesis of this blog (hence the title “Unpragmatic Thoughts”), I have been trying to show that a hallmark of the pragmatic orientation has been to evacuate questions of ultimate meaning as we address only the question “What works?” When one becomes animated by this type of radical pragmatism, the result is to gloss over the ambiguities and confusions that are inextricably bound up with life in the real world, and instead to propose grand narratives that reduce all problems to a single cause or set of causes. Within the calculus of this reality-is-simple paradigm, compromise becomes delegitimized while opposing opinions are demonized.
Such pragmatism descends into what Littlejohn (in the context of his discussion of radicalism) describes as “a failure to understand the inexpungible uncertainty and complexity that bedevils human social and political affairs, and the attempt instead to solve all the problems in one fell swoop by appeal to simple, clear, and undeniable principles.” This type of keep-it-simply-stupid approach “prefers to operate at the level of broad, sweeping, generalizations…” To quote again from Littlejohn:
“Details can be easily postponed to be dealt with later; what matters is grasping the big picture of what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. This truth, even if only a minority have grasped it, is not complicated or difficult to discern—that is indeed one of its recognizable hallmarks, and the introduction of nuance, complexity, or doubt is one of the surest signs that one has been tainted by the Establishment. As certitude of the Common Wisdom takes hold of the movement, the Movement develops an ironclad shell of defense against any attacks, which actually serve only to strengthen it. Given the obviously self-serving character of the Establishment, attacks by any of its representatives (whether political leaders, scholars, or reporters in the media) on the Movement and its anointed leaders simply serve as proof that the Movement has hit a raw nerve, has discovered some deception. The Movement’s certainty of its own truth and righteous cause increases with every contradiction from ‘above,’ and as internal criticism is mere evidence of defection to the enemy motivated by self-interest, it can no more gain a hearing than external criticism. Attempts by the Establishment to reassert its power and stamp out the menace of the Movement are recognized as the persecution which every righteous movement must expect, and so only succeed in confirming its confidence and even adding recruits to its number.”
The political ascendancy of a reality TV star who oozes a no-nonsense-common-sense-keep-it-simple pragmatism, may represent the full flowering of America’s evolution from a Republic to a mass Democracy, as well as our long-lasting love-affair with unprincipled pragmatism.
It is significant that as more public figures make news by offering Trump their endorsement, their recurring explanation is “at least he knows how to get stuff done.” When asked whether it matters that Trump is unpredictable, grossly insulting, and prone to over-simplify the issues, the response is the same: “at least he knows how to get things done.”
I understand the appeal of this type of no-nonsense pragmatism. The last thing Americans want is a “do-nothing president”, even though that is perhaps what our nation (to say nothing of the world) actually needs. Imagine what the Middle East would be like now if America had been blessed with do-nothing presidents in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The problem with the worst presidents (I’m thinking here of men like Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt) were not that they were do-nothing presidents, but precisely the opposite. Indeed, the worst leaders in history knew (sometimes tragically) how to get things done.
Getting things done, knowing the means to accomplish ends, being pragmatic—these qualities are only as good as the ends being pursued. Within a strongly teleological orientation, the principled pragmatism of someone like Richard Hooker or Edmund Burke can actually be a hedge against radicalism, as Littlejohn has astutely shown, or as I tried to demonstrate in the chapters of my book on William the Silent and Burke. However, without a clear notion of the telos or end to human flourishing, and without a framework in place for adjudicating between competing notions of the common good, pragmatism can become a cover for intellectual laziness. That seems to be what is happening in Donald Trump, whose common sense pragmatism eschews complexity, assiduously avoids abstraction, and appeals to the worst elements of American anti-intellectualism. As I observed in my earlier article ‘Donald Trump Offers Politics for the Simple-Minded‘,
“When Donald Trump speaks to the American people in a way that has been observed to be “brash, blunt and direct — and speaking at the level of a fourth grader”, he is echoing what the Americans want to hear. Because we are pragmatists at heart, we want simplicity rather than abstractions; because we are egalitarians at heart, we want someone who sounds like ‘one of us.'”
None of this is to say that Donald Trump would necessarily make a bad president, or that under certain conditions (i.e., times of national emergency) the qualities I am criticizing might actually be strengths (in a limited and very qualified sense). But if this is the kind of hard medicine America needs right now, let’s go into it with our eyes open and with discernment about the types of cultural disorders he embodies.