One theme of the Trump era, first in the campaign and then in the White House, has been the degree to which the president, his administration, and his supporters have rejected expert advice. Be it on climate change, healthcare, or foreign policy, they appear extremely suspicious of, if not openly hostile toward, “know-it-all” intellectuals telling them what policies best solve certain problems.
This contempt for expertise has prompted a broader national discussion about the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in American political thought. Some pundits even declared that we were living in the early stages of a real-life Idiocracy, a reference to Mike Judge’s 2006 film about an ordinary man who wakes up several hundred years in the future to find the country has devolved into a moronic dystopia where Carl’s Jr. is the only restaurant and the most popular movie in America is just a 90-minute closeup of a butt.
These analogies are partially valid — Trump did attempt to nominate Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl’s Jr., to his cabinet — but they also miss a critical point: anti-intellectualism in America is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around since before the country even existed.
I was recently looking for a new book to read in my spare time when I spotted Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter was one of this country’s preeminent historians. He wrote extensively on the political and social history of America and served as a mentor to many other great scholars, among them Eric Foner, whose writing on race and political history is equally prescient for the modern era.
Hofstadter is perhaps best remembered today for his essay “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” first published in Harper’s magazine in 1964, the same year that Anti-Intellectualism came out. The essay has become something of a favorite citation for those looking for parallels between our current politics and the American past. Hofstadter’s motivation for writing both the essay and the book was based on the hysteria he observed in the country during the early years of the Cold War when Wisconsin Senator Joeseph McCarthy employed scare tactics to incite a national panic over possible communist infiltration of the government.
In Anti-Intellectualism, Hofstadter traces the origins of anti-intellectual rhetoric back to the pre-history of America. He describes in great detail how the religious refugees who fled England for the new world and their evangelical descendants were in large part responsible for developing and incubating this particular strain of non-thought. In other words, anti-intellectualism isn’t just a passing fad, nor is it an unintended consequence of some aspect of our modern epoch. Rather, it is deeply woven into the fabric of the American society.
Applying this to the nominal subject of this blog, it’s not hard to see how anti-intellectualism has become something of a virtue in discussing Iran. For the common civilian, this usually boils down to simple statements like, “Iran thinks the U.S. is the Great Satan,” or Iran is run by “mad mullahs.” Who needs some jackass with a Ph.D. talking about the long and complex history of Persian nationalism, or the inner workings of the Iranian government and its various political rivalries, or America’s role in the 1953 coup d’etat that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government to reimpose a friendly dictator? It’s far easier just to label them all fanatical zealots who hate America and move on, isn’t it? Iran hates America. Always has, always will. Didn’t you see the sign?
This is clearly what Donald Trump believes. The decertification of the Iran deal this past week was based entirely on these kinds of falsehoods, misconceptions, and oversimplifications. In explaining his rationale — if you can even call it that — for decertification, Trump cited the money being “given” to Iran as a result of sanctions relief, its now supposedly easy path to a nuclear weapon, and topped it all off by accusing it of being a “terrorist nation.”
But again, these ideas aren’t unique to Trump. They are ALL things we’ve heard before. There was a belief among opponents of the deal that Iran would use any financial gains from the removal of sanctions to fund global terrorism. This, of course, ignores the fact that the money was Iran’s to begin with — the U.S. was simply returning it — and neglects any consideration that Iran might have other economic priorities besides senseless violence. Also, there are still plenty of people out there who are convinced that Iran is already cheating or will eventually cheat on its commitment to a deal. All this because they’re Iranians, and that’s what Iranians do.
If Congress reimposes sanctions on Iran, I have no doubt they will be motivated by similar biases or prejudices. The Republican Party has, at this point, all but given in to the cult of the untruth, and there are at least a few Democratic legislators who have demonstrated a willingness to embrace misrepresentations of the deal’s intent.
Will they, unlike Trump, be willing to listen to the unending chorus of experts urging the United States to stick to the deal as written, or will they succumb to their natural inclination toward willful ignorance? If history is any indication, I’d bet on the latter.