Here are a few of the oft-repeated explanations for the rise of Donald Trump: racism; economic anxiety; his supposed outsider appeal; America isn’t great anymore. As the inside-the-beltway crowd and the media grapple with reasons why the Donald’s message (if you want to call it that) has resonated with millions of American people, it seems they are missing the point. The real story here – what Trump’s risible and horrific place in American politics truly reveals – is that a large swathe of Americans are deeply, deeply uninformed.
Sure, it’s not the most popular thing to say, to point your finger at America and exclaim “you’re an idiot!” But, it’s statistically borne out, particularly on the right. Intelligence and complexity haven’t exactly been hallmarks of the party whose last president was George (“Is our children learning?”) W. Bush and had Sarah (“‘Refudiate”) Palin as a vice presidential candidate in 2008; and Palin has really upped her stupid game during this election cycle. For example, while a surprising 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was enshrined as the country’s religion in the constitution, a staggering three-fourths of Republicans believe the same.
But, to be fair, American ignorance is far from a partisan phenomenon. Many Americans know shockingly little about geography and basic science – I mean, one in four Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth. Beyond that, many Americans also have incredibly warped views about public policy. As another illustrative example, on average Americans believe that 28% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid; the real number is approximately 1%. As for Americans’ knowledge about foreign policy and global affairs, the statistics are equally troubling.
And so when Trump gets on stage and drones on in that strange stream of consciousness way that most closely approximates how a professional wrestler tries to rally a crowd, saying that President Obama has gutted the military, uninformed people believe him, even though the White House proposed a 7.8 percent increase in the base Defense Department budget between 2015 and 2016. Facts simply don’t matter anymore; perception is reality.
One of the big winners of the 2016 campaign so far has been the prescient 2005 Mike Judge movie Idiocracy, which envisions America 500 years in the future, dominated by rampant consumerism, minding-numbing entertainment, and, well, idiots. When the protagonist of the film, played by Luke Wilson, wakes up after being cryogenically frozen for 500 years, he comes to in an America so stupid that the once average Joe is now the smartest person in the country. Although, that intelligence doesn’t do much for him – when he tries to reason with his fellow Americans he’s told that he’s “talking like a fag.” Is it just me, or doesn’t this seem like something you would hear about happening at a Trump rally?
Protester at a Trump Rally: Net migration from Mexico last year was zero.
Trumpeter: Listen to this [insert gay, racist slur].
In Idiocracy, the president is a porn and wrestling star and believed to be the smartest person in the country. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s pretty eerie how much of it mirrors our culture and politics – in an exaggerated way, of course, Trump is only a reality TV and wrestling star. Trump appeals to our basest and often most vile instincts, and the cretinous future Americans in Idiocracy are treated by their politicians and celebrities in much the same way. If you don’t agree with someone else’s views, “knock the hell out of ‘em.” All of our problems can be blamed on others: Mexicans, Muslims, the Chinese. Uninformed voters are easily persuaded by demagogues willing to exploit their anxiety and fears by telling them exactly what they want to hear. This is a point that Bill Maher has been harping on for years, frankly calling Americans “dumb and uneducated.”
Trump says “we aren’t winning anymore.” Well, for many Americans that’s true. Real wages have hardly moved for most Americans over the last five decades, while the rich, particularly the top 1%, get richer and richer. After Wall Street sent the economy into a tailspin, most of the income benefits of the recovery have gone to the 1%. At least Trump is sort of willing to discuss this, which is more than you can say for most of the Republican candidates, but he diagnoses the problem with no understanding of macroeconomics, mostly blaming bad trade deals. But to his supporters, Trump is a guy who builds things, he makes money, he knows how to win! Sadly, the fact that Trump is a member of the upper echelon of the top 1%, inherited millions of dollars, and has greatly benefited from the system that he decries, is completely lost on his supporters.
The Donald has pointed out all of this out himself, noting after winning the Nevada caucuses, “I love the poorly educated.” Indeed, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote, “The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree.” Trump is really the result of the cultivation of ignorance by the Republicans over the last eight years. From President Obama’s birth certificate, to the inane, interminable Benghazi investigations, to Planned Parenthood supposedly peddling baby parts, many of the issues the GOP used to rally the base since President Obama came into office in have one thing in common: they were based on nothing. They were flat out lies. Trump’s moment at the center of American politics reveals a tragic reality that has been central to the Republican platform for decades. For many on the right, ignorance results in electoral bliss.
Trump has called American’s Common Core educational standards a “disaster.” Leaving aside his surface-level policy analysis, Trump is right to point out that the U.S. educational system is struggling. By most measures, we are no longer “winning” in education. The only way to combat demagogues like Trump, who exploit ignorance and anxiety, is through enlightenment. Ultimately, Trump’s rise should engender a reaction, a sense of compulsion to inform and educate the citizenry, and it should show politicians on both sides of the aisle the danger of cultivating ignorance. Right?
Eh, doubt it. There have been periods in U.S. history when Americans collectively responded to rank extremism and ignorance. In response to the Soviet’s launching Sputnik, the entire U.S. education system was reformed, with a heavy emphasis placed on the sciences. Yet, with such a deluge of escapist entertainment available and anti-intellectualism seemingly on the rise, American culture and politics are more and more resembling the satirical world of Idiocracy. So, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if a wrestling and porn star is the GOP’s nominee in the next election cycle.
Hulk Hogan 2020!