Not too long ago, I was visiting a friend’s house for a holiday gathering. The conversation in the room turned to politics as it tends to do in times of crisis, and after an hour or so of back-and-forth about the current status of Trump’s damaging presidency, something occurred to me. Not one person in the room bothered to ask me what my expert analysis might be. After all, and not to toot my own horn, but I was the only human in a room filled with a dozen or so people who had earned an advanced degree in political science, and I’ve been writing about politics professionally or semi-professionally for 30 years.
You’d think someone would’ve bothered to pick my brain rather than what actually went down — a dozen people who only follow politics for the hour they spend half-watching cable news, monologuing at me about something I’ve been studying since the late 1980s. Perhaps if one of these people had asked me a question, I might’ve been able to enrich their understanding of what the hell’s going on. Put another way, it was like being the only surgeon in a room full of loudmouths quoting WebMD (spoiler: on WebMD it’s always cancer).
It felt a lot like a live-action version of what occurs online. And in that regard, it’s hurting not just our politics, but America itself.
One of my conservative “Never Trump” friends, Tom Nichols, published a best selling book titled “The Death Of Expertise.” Without a doubt, it’s one of the most important and timely volumes in recent memory given how the internet age has spawned entire generations of self-identified experts who actually aren’t experts at all. Instead, we’re faced with countless participants in the online dialogue who petulantly refuse to accept the views of professionals with years if not decades of formal training and experience in, specifically, areas like politics and history.
There are way too many participants in the daily shovel-fights online who have no business gaming out important issues and policy matters — people who don’t have any sense whatsoever of the history of the presidency, the functioning government at various levels, or the framing of our founding documents. Even our president, an incompetent and corrupt political novice, thinks he knows how politics works, but, in reality, he’s only operating based on a Fox News understanding of politics, which is not unlike coaching the USA Olympic wresting team based on a professional wrestling understanding of the competition.
Likewise, Donald Trump’s disciples believe they’re earnestly supporting a president who will return America to the 1950s version of a white-skinned patriarchal utopia, when everything was allegedly clean and wholesome. No trans people in bathrooms. No black lives mattering. No sluts lining up for elective late-term abortions. And everyone believed in God. That’s the myth they’re seeking: “making America great again” is about the 1950s.
Yet like the pathetic Uncle Rico character in Napoleon Dynamite, white Republicans are obsessed with jamming their eBay-purchased time machines between their legs to be magically flung back to a place where things made sense to them. Trump is that shoddy, non-functioning time machine, and he works about as well as the one in the movie. And here’s where the lack of expertise comes in: they think this is achievable by electing increasingly far-right and, in the case of Trump, maniacally unspooled crazy people to run the country.
These non-experts sincerely believe Trump will somehow make it happen. No historical or political science citations provided. They don’t appear to realize the president who led the government throughout most of 1950s was a moderate Republican named Dwight Eisenhower whose signature domestic policy achievements didn’t include internment camps or appeasing white supremacists. Eisenhower created the interstate highway system; he endorsed de-segregation of the federal government; he enhanced the social safety net launched by FDR; and he spearheaded a successful space program. That’s not to say he was perfect or even a great president. He wasn’t. The point is merely to remind ourselves how the ’50s weren’t spawned by radical populism, or by repealing health coverage, or by poisoning drinking water, or by forming awkward alliances with dictatorships like Putin’s Russia. Presidential historians will tell you that Ike would be summarily labeled an apostate and ejector-seated from the modern Trump-Republican Party faster than he could say “I-95.” (Historians, by the way, will also remind us that the 1950s were excellent for white men, and pretty much white men alone.)
The point here is that an earlier version of Trump’s brand of extremism and necrotic screechery didn’t make the 1950s the Happy Days outlier it was. Indeed, the proto-Trump of the 1950s was Joe McCarthy, who, after embarrassing the nation, was formally censured by the U.S. Senate and died of alcoholism before the decade was out. Years of progressive policies (not to mention an all-hands-on-deck global cataclysm during the previous decade) led to the relative prosperity of that time. Resurrecting the ’50s is impossible and totally impractical. Elements of its stability and prosperity can be achieved again, but there’s no precedent or passable theory indicating that Trumpism, of all things, will somehow deliver such a patina to modern America.
The history of the previous century tells us the radicalism displayed today by Trump was anathema to 1950s America.
There’s an entire generation of Millennial Trumpers, the alt-right, who simply don’t understand how politics works, historically or otherwise. On the other end of the Trumpism demo are Baby Boomers who ought to know better, given that some of them existed in the 1950s. They ought to be aware that a version of a proto-Trump didn’t create the 1950s the first time around. How, then, could such a character resurrect those conditions, especially knowing that none of Trump’s policies reflect the politics of Eisenhower or the Democratic Congress at the time? Prove the formula, Trumpers. It can’t be done unless there’s a re-upping of interest in expertise, both in terms of how we can achieve certain conditions and why we should or shouldn’t pursue those goals, whatever they might be. And then we can talk. Until then, it’s all masturbatory.
One last thing. There’s a similar phenomenon on the left, but not nearly as prevalent. (My holiday dinner experience, though, involved an entire room of liberals.) The point is everyone could use some work in this regard. There’s an Herculean shift that has to occur if the insanity of 2018 politics is to be rolled back and cured. Making shit up — concocting a WebMD version of politics or a professional wrestling version of a presidency isn’t how it’s done. How do I know this? History (and a bit of common sense) has proved it. Knowing our limits and deferring to expertise, on the other hand, will begin the process of reconnecting the wheels of the discourse with the appropriate rails. History has painfully and catastrophically illustrated what’ll happen if we don’t.