American Hustle

Earlier this week, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted that the rise of Donald Trump is the logical consequence of what he regards as the right-wing effort to dumb down the United States:

After all, the antiestablishment candidates now dominating the field, aside from being deeply ignorant about policy, have a habit of making false claims, then refusing to acknowledge error. Why don’t Republican voters seem to care?

Well, part of the answer has to be that the party taught them not to care. Bluster and belligerence as substitutes for analysis, disdain for any kind of measured response, dismissal of inconvenient facts reported by the “liberal media” didn’t suddenly arrive on the Republican scene last summer. On the contrary, they have long been key elements of the party brand.

As I read Krugman’s brilliant piece, I remembered Janeane Garofalo’s remarks on a 2009 edition of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

“Fox News loves to foment this anti-intellectualism because that is their bread and butter. If you have a cerebral electorate, Fox News goes down the toilet, you know, very, very fast…They‘re been doing this for years. That‘s why Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch started this venture; it is to disinform and to coarsen and dumb-down a certain segment of the electorate.”

Ailes and Murdoch may be malevolent people, but they’re not stupid; they would not have invested millions of dollars in Fox News if they did not believe there would be a significant return on that investment. Could it be that Ailes and Murdoch did not create an army of misinformed Americans, but merely exploited anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-reality sentiment among certain segments of the American public?

Let’s be honest: hatred of knowledge and wisdom was around in this country long before Fox News: remember the ludicrous Tennessee law that led to the Scopes monkey trial? Murdoch, Ailes and other right-wing reactionaries knew that there was fertile ground for foolishness in the United States, and they served a willing market.

Earlier this year, I got upset after Bill McKibben wrote open letters to President Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, excoriating them for not doing enough on the climate crisis. Why didn’t McKibben follow up those pieces with an open letter to the American people, urging them to smarten the hell up and stop voting for climate-change deniers?

Keep in mind that in a 2001 New York Times piece, McKibben himself observed:

The only way to slow the warming is to reduce our use of fossil fuel — especially we Americans, who use five times more per capita than the average earthling…Yet no American politician can bear to do anything to restrict our piggish use of coal and gas and oil — not to raise energy prices or legislate against the plague of gas-guzzling SUV’s.

Of course “no American politician can bear to do anything to restrict our piggish use of coal and gas and oil” if that politician fears, justifiably, that he or she will be thrown out on his or her rear end by profoundly anti-science voters in their congressional district or state (remember what happened to Bob Inglis in 2010 after he called for strong action on climate change). How about calling upon those anti-science voters to learn a bit about basic physics before they cast their next vote?

Anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-reality voters in the United States bear the most responsibility for fueling an international climate crisis, because they elected and re-elected politicians who ignored inconvenient science. It was those voters who threw President Jimmy Carter–the man who warned us about our irresponsible use of energy–out of office and replaced him with a man who actually believed trees cause more pollution than automobiles. That was before Rush Limbaugh. That was before Fox News.

Murdoch, Ailes and other right-wing media moguls did not create the culture of American anti-intellectualism. They certainly exploited it. They certainly gave it steroids. They certainly profited handsomely from it. However, they certainly didn’t make smart people stupid.

If American culture as a whole cherished science, intellect, education, wisdom and knowledge, Murdoch, Ailes, Trump and other conservative cronies would be paupers, not prosperous. However, certain segments of the American public wanted anti-intellectual media and anti-intellectual politics–and because of that sad reality, we may be facing what Cenk Uygur calls “the deterioration of America.”

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D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.