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The GOP’s Murderous Anti-Intellectualism

The twenty-first century’s version of the Know-Nothing Party has taken the wanton disregard for knowledge to dizzyingly destructive heights.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Future generations will be astounded to learn that in the face of a deadly and unprecedented global pandemic, it became controversial to adopt simple and long-standing public health protocols—and that, indeed, such measures were strenuously resisted by people who were predominantly members of the Republican Party. History will record that they risked their lives and those of their loved ones out of sheer partisan pig-headedness.

It’s too easy to blame this situation entirely on Donald Trump’s stupidity, willful ignorance, and incompetence; the Republican transformation into a modern version of the nineteenth-century Know-Nothing Party has been underway for decades. When Trump denies obvious factual truths and arbitrarily rejects the views of scientists and other experts, he is playing to a party that has been doing just that for many years on a variety of issues.

Since time immemorial, pseudo-populist demagogues and right-wingers have pandered to the uneducated and least sophisticated members of society. They know that a quality education will tend to make people dismiss the wrong-headedness and excessive simplicity of the conservative worldview, because education encourages critical thinking, open-mindedness, and truth-seeking. Therefore, conservatives and Republicans have long denigrated college professors, intellectuals, and others among the well-educated class in order to undermine and dismiss their ideas, as well as higher education itself.

Even those belonging to the conservative intelligentsia have used anti-intellectualism to pursue their agenda. William F. Buckley, the longtime editor of National Review magazine, said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the phone book than by the Harvard faculty. And like a comedian who will retell the same joke forever as long as it keeps getting laughs, Buckley repeated his line whenever the occasion seemed to call for it. Ironically, Buckley rose to fame largely due to his degree from Yale University, and throughout his life he exaggerated his intelligence by frequently using obscure multisyllable words and Latin phrases.

Buckley wasn’t the only one to trade on his Yale degree to belittle knowledge and education even at the highest levels of government. Giving the commencement address at Yale in 2001, George W. Bush, also a graduate of the university, bragged about his modest academic achievements: “To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students I say, you, too, can be president of the United States!”

Although Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan also adopted anti-intellectualism as a political strategy, for them it was just a cynical way to cater to widespread distrust of expertise and learning as a brand of elitism. As president, they routinely deferred to experts, scientists, and other intellectuals in developing and implementing their policies. Nixon famously reached out to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a professor of government at Harvard and well-known Democrat, to work for him in the White House. According to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, he used the columnist George Will, who studied at Oxford and holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton, as a sort of emissary to the intellectual community. And George W. Bush had as his vice president Dick Cheney, a man who had pursued a doctorate in political science at the University of Wisconsin, where his wife, Lynne, got a Ph.D. in British literature.

Bush once explained that he intentionally adopted an anti-intellectual image after losing a race for Congress in Texas in 1978: “Kent Hance [who won the election] gave me a lesson on country-boy politics. He was a master at it, funny and belittling. I vowed never to get out-countried again.”

The problem is that adopting faux populism and anti-intellectualism for purely political purposes eventually leads practitioners to take their own rhetoric literally and denigrate expertise as something to be distrusted per se. This is why the great conservative philosopher Russell Kirk rejected populist rhetoric as a path for conservative victory, even though the populist message might overlap with the conservative program to some extent. As he explained in a 1988 lecture at the Heritage Foundation:

Populism is a revolt against the Smart Guys. I am very ready to confess that the present Smart Guys, as represented by the dominant mentality of the Academy and of what [sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger] call the Knowledge Class today, are insufficiently endowed with right reason and moral imagination. But it would not be an improvement to supplant them by persons of thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence.

In a forthcoming article in Public Opinion Quarterly, political scientist Eric Merkley explains how populism and anti-intellectualism lend themselves naturally to the rejection of scientific expertise. As Republicans have tied themselves to the pseudo-populist Tea Party movement over the last decade, as well as to evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians, their trust in scientific expertise has fallen. According to a 2019 article in Public Opinion Quarterly, in 1973 more Republicans had a great deal of trust in scientists than did Democrats (41 percent of the former, 35 percent of the latter). But by 2016, those percentages had reversed. The latest data from Pew show that 43 percent of Democrats have a great deal confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public, while only 27 percent of Republicans do.

Anti-intellectualism also makes people far more susceptible to crackpot conspiracy theories—and such woolly speculations in turn further encourage them to distrust experts and expertise. According to recent psychological research, those on the right are much more likely than their counterparts on the left to endorse conspiracy theories, thanks in part to their affinity for anti-intellectualism.

The propensity of those on the right to adopt an anti-intellectual, unscientific, pseudo-populist point of view is what’s led many of them to accept a highly skeptical, dismissive attitude toward the Covid-19 virus—ignoring the severity of the danger or even disbelieving its existence altogether and refusing to adopt protective measures such as social distancing or wearing masks. These attitudes were very much reflected in the conservative media. Research shows that the higher one’s consumption of such media, the more likely people were to reject the scientific consensus regarding the nature of the virus and how to minimize its spread. As the political scientists Matt Motta, Dominick Stecula, and Christina Farhart recently wrote:

Our analysis suggests a clear relationship between right-leaning media consumption and pandemic-related public health beliefs. Right-leaning outlets were more likely to make inaccurate claims about the origins and treatment of COVID-19, and people who self-reported consuming more right-leaning news were subsequently more likely to express misinformed views. In turn, misinformed individuals were more likely to think that public health experts over-estimated the severity of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, consumers of Fox News were particularly susceptible to incorrect and dangerous ideas about the nature of the pandemic. Studies have long shown that Fox consumers tend to be less well-informed and more ill-informed about policy issues. This effect is compounded when one includes consumers of the website, which is an even more gaudy source of misinformation than the Fox cable channel.

Two recent academic studies have looked specifically at the Fox News effect on coronavirus knowledge and misunderstanding. “The Persuasive Effect of Fox News: Non-Compliance with Social Distancing During the Covid-19 Pandemic” found that increased Fox News consumption significantly reduced people’s willingness to stay at home during the pandemic.

Misinformation During a Pandemic” exploited differences in perspective between two prime-time Fox shows, one hosted by Sean Hannity and the other by Tucker Carlson. Early in the pandemic, Carlson took a much more serious approach to it and warned of its danger. Meanwhile, Hannity was dismissive, asserting that it was no more of a problem than the seasonal flu and that it was possibly just a Democratic hoax invented to embarrass Trump. The researchers found that the greater the exposure to Hannity’s show, the more likely people were to become infected and die.

There are many other ways in which the anti-intellectualism of Republicans and conservatives is life-threatening. They tend to be highly skeptical toward the existence of global warming, which will have catastrophic effects on weather systems, sea levels, and flooding. They also frequently associate themselves with those who won’t allow themselves or their children to be vaccinated, and refuse to accept any evidence linking gun ownership to mass shootings. They even delude themselves that public opinion polls showing a forthcoming defeat for Trump and Republicans in Congress are simply wrong based on nothing except faith-based disbelief.

Like today’s Republicans, the Know-Nothing Party was obsessed with keeping out foreigners, was highly susceptible to insane conspiracy theories, and strongly promoted a fundamentalist Protestant view of the world. It rose briefly to prominence in the mid-1850s, but quickly collapsed due to its unserious approach to policy and its unwillingness to address the overriding issue of the day, slavery.

It’s too soon to predict that the party of Trump will collapse under a similar weight of unseriousness in dealing with life-threatening issues such as Covid-19 and global warming. But as the virus spreads among Trump supporters, a reckoning may finally force upon conservatives an acceptance of reality and a reliance on experts to save them from disaster.