In 1963, noted American historian Richard Hofstadter published a book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. The book had been written after Adlai Stevenson, a prominent Democratic politician, twice lost his bids for the US presidency in 1952 and 1956 in contests against Dwight Eisenhower. Republicans had dismissed Stevenson, who was also a public intellectual, a mere “egghead” – a disparaging term for anyone with a cerebral outlook. In his erudite volume, Hofstadter had argued that anti-intellectualism was not just an abrupt development but an integral part of American political life and culture. To that end he had written, anti-intellectualism represented a “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life”.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s significant but not overwhelming victory against Hillary Rodham Clinton in the just-concluded US presidential election, it is well worth invoking Hofstadter trenchant analysis. A string of clichés, which drew upon bigoted tropes, racist imagery and xenophobic rhetoric, characterised Trump’s campaign. Worse still, he proffered a string of simplistic solutions to complex problems of public policy ranging from issues of illegal immigration to global trade.
Sadly, these gestures and nods appealed to a significant segment of the American electorate, sufficient to enable him to secure a victory through the Electoral College though not the popular vote. The reasons that his campaign appealed to a portion of the electorate are complex and can only be explored briefly here. Suffice to say that he successfully tapped into the anxieties of working-class white American men who see a racial hierarchy eroding, who have been buffeted by the forces of globalisation and who seek easy panaceas for their diminished status. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has long sought to prey upon their fears. Reagan, who had a decidedly anti-intellectual bent, had deftly railed against anyone who had suggested that the social and economic woes afflicting American society defied facile explanations. Trump merely represents the apogee of the forces that Reagan had unleashed.
Of course, his own anti-intellectual proclivities and his fondness for proffering unsophisticated solutions for profound socio-economic dislocations in the US found much fertile ground amongst those who feel disordered and adrift in their own land. Not surprisingly, his scapegoating of racial and ethnic minorities, his hostility toward immigrants, illegal or otherwise, and his contempt for any complex policy ideas appealed to a portion of the electorate who are desperately seeking reassurance about their standing in a collapsing racial hierarchy amidst sweeping economic upheavals.