It’s official. Donald J. Trump rose his scaly right hand up beside his face, his oily fingers pressed firmly together, squinted his eyes together once more, and swore his oath to serve as President of the United States of America. The lights blazed against his crumbly gelatinous cheeks that hung on to the rest of his face, his second saggy chin fluttering in the January breeze. A baby too young to know what she was witnessing sat on her father’s shoulders, her tiny fingers wrapped around a miniature American flag, her nose blushing red from the cold.
To us leftists, this is a gruesome circus, a four-year carnival run by a mad anger-spewing clown. To the upcoming generation, this is normal. This is what all future experiences will begin to take shape around. This is the first reference point of reality.
Reality, as it turns out, is going to be commandeered by a reality television star, a diehard anti-intellectual whose most fervent supporters wave banners of their proud illiteracy. It was anti-intellectualism that won the election. It won the debates, the culture war, the propagandistic battle of blame and paranoia. Obama’s successful 2008 campaign won major advertising prizes not for the content of what he was selling, but for the branding and packaging of his message. Trump won his presidency with hats. A slogan on a hat won control of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
Political campaign slogans are mantras of anti-intellectualism. They always have been. They hijack all meaningful discourse and cognitive aptitude, and summarize political leaders and the movements behind them into catchphrases and rhymes. Make America Great Again. I’m With Her. Stronger Together. Lock Her Up. “Lock her up” has the same luster as the rock ’n roll anthem “Lick It Up”—by its syllabic nature it demands to be chanted over and over. “Yes we can” rolls off the tongue like a pseudo-positivity event with Tony Robbins. “Better dead than Red,” the anti-communist slogan, is more of a morbid Sesame Street rhyme than containing any serious ratiocinative acumen. “Love Trumps Hate” clearly isn’t true. Even casting Trump as the figurehead of all our political miseries is intellectually lazy—he’s a symptom of a failing system, on both sides of the aisle. It’s easy to demonize him for all our future pettiness when the same tepid air blows across our backs. The degrees of fanaticism require anti-intellectualism to keep their doctrine afloat, something every ideology is inherent of—it needs to follow their chosen narrative while always blaming the angry god for the storm and drought.
It was the first election cycle where we heard anything about fake news, as if it was a new fad that came blazing into the scene. It’s another rising narrative that has branched from the growing trend of conspiracy theory thinking and the democratization of news, blogging, and social media platforms. There was of course pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that high-ranking members of the Democratic Party were part of a child-sex ring and satanic ritual abuse in the basement of Washington D.C. pizza parlor, Comet Ping Pong. When Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old from North Carolina, went to Comet Ping Pong to “self-investigate,” firing three shots into the pizzeria with an AR-15 style rifle, he was as definitively entrenched in ideology as an ISIS gunman storming into a marketplace.
Fake news, no matter how absurd, is dangerous. But the capital’s own paper, The Washington Post, can be astonishingly lazy and inept themselves. In late November they ran a piece headlined “Russian propaganda helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” an unfounded report that claimed some 200 alternative news outlets were publishers of Russian propaganda. Stories like this rapidly discredit journalism as a serious necessary avocation—without facts we’re all just anarchist memers with muffin crumbs stuck in our neck beards.
The alt-right is rooted in meme culture on websites such as 4chan and 8chan, where users can post anonymously, creating their own virtual echo chambers of white nationalism. There are thousands of them, herds of stinking neckbeards hunched behind their glowing screens, drawing up images of Pepe the Frog with Trump hair, and naming their most disliked mainstream Republican politicians as ‘cuckservatives,’ coming of course from ‘cuckhold,’ the porn term for when a white woman gets fucked by a black man in front of her white husband. So the alt-right is rooted in anti-intellectualism, in willful and shameless misinformation, in cartoons of frogs and masturbatory ennui.
In Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, he offers us the explanation that this brazen illiterate fundamentalism stems from the early American conflict between the value of formal education and a literal interpretation of the Bible.
In response to the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century for example, American evangelicals took more of a literalist interpretation of the Bible. Before this, churches tended to be in favor of the advancements of scientific thinking. In Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, he explains that because of the intensification of debate around slavery, many Protestant churches split into northern and southern branches. Southern branches took a much more literal interpretation of the Bible, from its littered references of the proper treatment of slaves—“slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5)—whereas northern branches adopted an interpretation-based approach to their teaching, leaning on the “inspired Word of God” instead.
There was, of course, the few who tried to warn us. Eighteen years after Thomas Paine published his revolutionary and prominent work, Common Sense, he was then widely vilified for his trenchant attack on Christianity in The Age of Reason, and some fifteen years later died penniless with six people attending his funeral. People don’t like to be told their favorite tale is a myth. Separation of church and state was more than a novel concept at the time—and maybe still is. After all, there is not a single open secularist serving in the House or Senate today, and yet, every several months one of the old-crusty-fat-ones is caught touching little boys.
We simple plebeians shouldn’t hesitate our curiosities. This is a common sentiment demagogues hold towards the inquisitive masses—the voting class is seen more as a mob of drooling troglodytes to herd and sway with bluster and magnetism. In a letter to Maxim Gorky in 1919, Lenin adjured Gorky “not to waste [his] energy whimpering over rotten intellectuals.” Spineless spongey highbrows had to be indicted simply on the grounds of contesting demagoguery, even if done so only in private conversation. Look at Apostolic preachers who dance and spew their unreason under traveling tents, their mission shoving along like a carnival, full of spectacle and wild-eyed theatrics. Look at Pokémon Go, which has literal flocks of humans shuffling around aimlessly like pigeons, their necks down, their flaccid exasperation for life itself dwindling away.
American politics is much the same. It’s Monday Night Football. American Idol. It’s The Apprentice bloated to the size of an international superpower. Serious political literacy is needed now more than ever, not just to oppose Trump’s impulse for fabrication of fact, but to hoist up the legitimacy of our cause—of equal rights, action on climate change, affordable education and healthcare, to create a radical left as the most legitimate left and the most legitimate governance.