From attacks on evolution to denunciations of the “ivory tower,” anti-intellectualism has a long and contemptible history in the United States. It is now killing Americans.
For months we have known about the global threat posed by the coronavirus. Yet, led by a president who consistently rejects empirical realities, the White House dithered. The cost of that dithering is now apparent, with the number of infections increasing exponentially, millions of people newly unemployed, and countless health care workers confronting a pandemic underequipped and overwhelmed.
This is not just a Donald Trump problem, however. To be sure, Trump is astoundingly ignorant and uniquely incompetent among modern U.S. presidents, and his mendacity and ineptitude will result in thousands of unnecessary deaths. But the problems afflicting us today point to a larger rot in American political life.
For decades the Republican Party has railed against expertise, painting it as a conspiratorial assault on so-called “conservative” values and the millions of Americans who embrace them. According to this reactionary worldview, experts, academic and otherwise, are not learned individuals seeking truths. They are, rather, left-wing subversives attempting to undermine the nation from within.
Whether it is the scientific community peddling the fantasy of global warming or professional historians challenging America’s most enduring myths, these experts, the right insists, are not to be trusted. Their findings are political, not empirical, the product of an elitist disdain for the hard-working Americans who populate the nation’s heartland.
Spiro Agnew, the former Maryland governor who became vice president to Richard Nixon, captured the views of many in 1969 when he dismissed intellectuals as “an effete corps of impudent snobs” dedicated to “national masochism.” Reactionaries half a century later see them little differently.
Disavowing basic standards of evidence and the entire premise of rational discourse, today’s anti-intellectuals — whether elected officials, evangelical Christians, or the army of right-wing hacks masquerading as journalists — do not counter empirical claims by pointing to evidentiary flaws or fallacious reasoning. Instead, they level ad hominem attacks and speak assuredly of liberal bias, the “deep state,” and leftist demagoguery.
This anti-intellectualism has always been harmful. It has enabled imperial adventurism abroad, interfered with sound policymaking at home, and prevented a coordinated global response to the existential climate crisis.
But the danger we see now is unlike any we have seen before. Public health specialists began warning about a possible pandemic shortly after Chinese started contracting the illness in December. Yet the White House, Republican legislators, evangelical leaders, and much of the Fox News commentariat responded by dismissing or minimizing the threat and charging Democrats and various experts with pushing “fake news” and stoking a new “hoax.” To one Fox Business anchor, COVID-19 concerns were an “impeachment scam” designed to “demonize and destroy” President Trump. Another Fox personality, Sean Hannity, pronounced the virus a “political weapon” being used to cudgel the president.
That same Donald Trump, meanwhile, has in recent days attempted to rewrite history, claiming in the face of numerous documented remarks downplaying the threat that he always knew this would be a pandemic. Adding insult to injury, he scored himself a 10 for his bungled handling of the crisis.
Millions of Americans, for whom evidence has long been little more than a distraction, have done a similar about-face. Initially following the president’s lead, for weeks they pooh-poohed the impending calamity and refused to follow public health experts’ counsel. Only later, when it was perhaps too late, did many of them start acknowledging the critical importance of "flattening the curve" by social distancing.
Whether their belated response will be enough to fend off the worst ravages of the pandemic remains to be seen. In the meantime, the shameful legacy of anti-intellectualism is needlessly killing thousands of Americans.
Scott Laderman is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota Duluth. His most recent book is “The ‘Silent Majority’ Speech: Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Origins of the New Right.” He wrote this for the News Tribune.