Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber
Imagine a hypothetical job applicant. He can’t spell the simplest words, such as “heal” and “tap.” Confused by geography, he thinks there’s an African country called “Nambia.” As for American history, he’s under the impression that Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845, was angry about the Civil War, and that Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, is still alive.
Given the alarming state of his knowledge, you might wonder what job he could get. Unfortunately, he’s not hypothetical, and the job he got, in 2016, was president of the United States.
People sometimes call our nation “the American experiment.” Recently, though, we’ve been lab rats in another, perverse American experiment, seemingly designed to answer this question: Who’s the most ignorant person the United States is willing to elect?
Over the past fifty years, what some of our most prominent politicians didn’t know could fill a book. This is that book.
This book will also examine what brought our country to such a stupid place. We’ll retrace the steps of the vacuous pioneers who turned ignorance from a liability into a virtue. By relentlessly lowering the bar, they made it possible for today’s politicians to wear their dunce caps with pride. Gone are the days when leaders had to hide how much they didn’t know. Now cluelessness is an electoral asset and smart politicians must play dumb, or risk voters’ wrath. Welcome to the survival of the dimmest.
Maybe you’re thinking, “So what? We’ve always had dumb politicians.” That’s undeniably true; as the political satirist Will Rogers said, “It’s easy being a humorist when you’ve got the whole government working for you.” When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I struggled to find a politician I could take seriously. In 1972, our mayor, Ralph J. Perk (his actual name), presided over a trade expo for the American Society for Metals. There was a metals-themed opening ceremony, requiring the mayor to cut a titanium ribbon with a welding torch. As Perk held the fire-spewing tool, sparks flew skyward and set his hair ablaze. The incident, which, thankfully, is available on YouTube, inspired mocking headlines around the world. It also reinforced Cleveland’s unfortunate reputation for flammability: three years earlier, our polluted Cuyahoga River had spontaneously combusted.
Perhaps the hair-on-fire incident was Ralph J. Perk’s version of the Icarus myth, a cautionary tale about what happens when a politician flies too close to a welding torch. Like Icarus, Perk came crashing to Earth. In 1974, Ohio’s voters rejected his bid for the U.S. Senate and chose someone less likely to be flummoxed by technology: the astronaut John Glenn. Perk received hair transplants at the Cleveland Clinic in 1976 to repair the bald spot the torch had created, but by then his political career had been singed beyond repair. He did have one other notable achievement as mayor: Richard Eberling, a man he hired in 1973 to redecorate Cleveland’s city hall, was later convicted of homicide and linked to another murder—the one that inspired the TV series and movie The Fugitive. Perk’s historic role as a job creator for suspected serial killers hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I hope I’ve fixed that.
Perk’s political career collapsed in 1977 with a humiliating third-place finish in Cleveland’s nonpartisan mayoral primary, a result I found reassuring. I believed his downfall proved democracy had a braking system. If a politician was too big a doofus, the brakes would keep us from hurtling off a cliff. But on Election Night 2016, it felt like the brakes were shot.
As the Trump nightmare unfolded, well-meaning people tried to soothe a rattled nation by arguing that he was no dumber than some of our previous dumb presidents. In this valiant attempt to pretend the hellscape enveloping us was nothing new, they cited a bygone commander in chief reputed to be one of our densest: Warren G. Harding. It’s true that our twenty-ninth president would never have been put in charge of designing the next generation of supercolliders. After Harding’s inaugural address in 1921, H. L. Mencken wrote, “No other such complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history.” Mencken should’ve added, “… so far.”
People have pilloried Harding’s campaign slogan, “A Return to Normalcy,” for which he allegedly coined the word “normalcy” when a perfectly good actual word, “normality,” already existed. But, according to Merriam-Webster, “normalcy” first appeared a decade before Harding was born, in a mathematical dictionary published in 1855. Now, it’s true that Harding did our language no favors by popularizing “normalcy,” a word almost as annoying as “impactful,” but he was a slacker compared to Trump, whose mutilation of English could fill a non-word-a-day calendar. Out of fairness, I’ll exclude from discussion the much-mocked “covfefe,” which was probably just a late-night typo, and draw your attention to remarks he made at the Pentagon in 2019, when he seemed to invent a new military term, “infantroopen.” Based on my research, there are no prior appearances of “infantroopen” in any dictionary, mathematical or otherwise.
Of course, Harding’s bad reputation stems from more than one iffy word. His presidency birthed a profusion of controversies, most notoriously the Teapot Dome corruption scandal, long considered second only to Watergate in its infamy. (Proof that Watergate was worse: “dome” never became a suffix.) But how much blame Harding should shoulder for Teapot Dome has been debated. In 2004, Watergate celeb John Dean published a biography in which he argued that Harding “had done nothing wrong and had not been involved in any criminal activities.” Whether you agree with that verdict or not, it’s hard to get too worked up over Teapot Dome once you’ve seen a president urge a mob wearing fur pelts and face paint to storm the Capitol.
When you review some of Harding’s presidential initiatives, comparisons to Trump seem even less apt. Harding supported a federal anti-lynching law and proposed a commission to investigate not only lynching but the disenfranchisement of Black voters. On October 26, 1921, he advocated racial equality in a major civil rights speech in Birmingham, Alabama. “Whether you like it or not, our democracy is a lie unless you stand for that equality,” he declared. For a guy Mencken called a nitwit, he was far more enlightened than the person who, in the aftermath of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, said that there were “very fine people on both sides.” (It’s also possible that Mencken didn’t think one’s support for racial equality was desirable, since his posthumously published diary revealed him to be racist, anti-Semitic, and pro-Nazi. In other words, a very fine person.)
One quality Harding and Trump have in common: neither excelled at monogamy. But, even here, Harding wins. In 2014, the Library of Congress released letters he wrote to his lover, Carrie Fulton Phillips, containing florid passages such as this: “I love you more than all the world and have no hope of reward on earth or hereafter so precious as that in your dear arms, in your thrilling lips, in your matchless breasts, in your incomparable embrace.” It’s hard to imagine Trump writing something so heartfelt to Stormy Daniels, or a sentence that long.
I’ve saved the best about Harding for last: unlike our forty-fifth president, he knew his limitations. He once lamented, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Though this comment would be a far more accurate assessment of Trump than “stable genius,” I can’t picture the Donald engaging in such introspection—or, as he might say, introspectroopen.
Although Harding has the dubious distinction of being smarter than Trump—pretty much the dictionary definition of faint praise—both belong to a tradition that we Americans shouldn’t be proud of: our habit of installing dim bulbs in the White House. There’s a long history of anti-intellectualism in American life, a point that the historian Richard Hofstadter seemed to be making in his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It wasn’t a good sign when the eloquent abolitionist John Quincy Adams lost the 1828 presidential election to the homicidal maniac Andrew Jackson. (“Old Hickory,” who was neither stable nor a genius, challenged more than a hundred men to duels. He killed only one, but still.) Over the next thirty years, the nation endured a presidential clown parade. In 1856, ex-president Millard Fillmore ran for the White House under the banner of a new, nativist party, the exquisitely named Know-Nothings. Fillmore and his running mate, Andrew Jackson Donelson (the homicidal maniac’s nephew), believed that there was nothing wrong with America that persecuting all its German, Irish, and Catholic immigrants couldn’t fix. As dumb as Fillmore sounds, the winner on Election Day might have been even dumber: James “Old Buck” Buchanan. Though Buchanan failed to avert the Civil War, he sprang into action to defuse a military confrontation with the British over the shooting of a solitary pig in Canada. (This skirmish actually happened; google “Pig War.”) The following year, the American people seemed to say, “Enough of this bullshit,” and elected Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, our Statue of Stupidity has held her torch high over the years. But she’s held it even higher over the past fifty, during the so-called Information Age. By elevating candidates who can entertain over those who can think, mass media have made the election of dunces more likely. Fact-free and nuance-intolerant, these human sound-bite machines have reduced our most complex problems to binary oppositions: us versus communists; us versus terrorists; and that latest crowd-pleaser, us versus scientists. Interestingly, Hofstadter thought that the first televised presidential debates, in 1960, were a positive development, because they benefited John F. Kennedy, who, he believed, combined intelligence with on-screen command. But the historian didn’t live to see how TV, tag-teaming with its demented henchman the internet, could boost candidates who were geniuses about those media and dopes about everything else. What happens when you combine ignorance with performing talent? A president who tells the country to inject bleach.
Hofstadter thought things started going downhill for us in the 1720s, when the preachers of the Great Awakening upstaged the learned clergy of the Puritans with bizarre theatrics: “fits and seizures… shrieks and groans and grovelings.” Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, argued that this dumbing-down process exploded during the nineteenth century, when we started reading fewer books because we were going bonkers over two wild new inventions: photography and the telegraph. Clearly, ignorance in America has had kind of a running start. Since this trend has been centuries in the making, why am I even bothering to single out a few dimwits from our recent past? I’m writing this book as a concerned citizen, reporting a ghastly multicar pileup to other concerned citizens. Just as a Stephen King novel might inspire you to bolt your doors, perhaps these political horror stories will rouse you to action. Alternatively, if someday alien scientists are picking through the rubble of our fallen civilization and happen upon a tattered copy of this book, maybe it’ll help them piece together what went wrong.
Since I’ll be arguing that politicians’ ignorance has been surging over the past five decades, I should clarify what I mean by ignorance. The dictionary defines it as “the lack of knowledge, education or awareness.” That works for me, only I might add “the refusal to look things up in the dictionary.” When discussing a politician, I’ll refrain from using words such as idiot, imbecile, cretin, or any other equally tempting term that impugns mental capacity rather than knowledge. I might say “dunce,” because that connotes a failure to do one’s homework, a problem that has plagued a few recent presidents. I also like “ignoramus,” which the dictionary defines as “an utterly ignorant person.” Ignoramus is a word you don’t hear much these days, which is too bad because it applies so well to so many. If, in writing this book, I somehow bring the word ignoramus back into vogue, I’ll consider my work on this planet done. (A caveat: If other people have called a politician an idiot, imbecile, cretin, etc., I’ll be obliged to quote them. The historical record must be preserved.)
I’ll resist the urge to speculate about a politician’s IQ or cognitive health. I might be dazzled by a person’s ability to remember the nouns “person, woman, man, camera, TV” and repeat them on command, but, as a non-neurologist, I’m not qualified to say what this monumental achievement says about one’s acuity. Neither will I try to assess a politician’s mental stability, since I think it’s safe to assume that most people who run for president are, to some extent, out of their fucking minds. Instead, I’ll ask: During their time in public life, what did these politicians know? Did they have sufficient mastery of math, science, history, geography—and, since I’m being picky, the English language—necessary to govern? When briefed, could they learn? At the very least, did they know not to stare at a solar eclipse?
My preference that politicians be educated probably brands me as an elitist. I’m fine with that. I consider myself the Ted Nugent of elitism. But being an elitist doesn’t make me a snob—hear me out, there’s a difference. When I say “educated,” I want politicians to have the knowledge required to do their jobs well, or at least not to get us all killed. I don’t care where, or even whether, a politician went to college. Harry Truman wasn’t a college graduate, and he probably took some solace in knowing that a predecessor of his, George Washington, wasn’t, either. It’s possible to become a great president with no more than twelve months of grade school—an educational background that Abraham Lincoln, being honest and all, would have had to disclose on LinkedIn.
I don’t care much about the grades a politician got in school because they’re not a reliable predicter of governing ability. Franklin Delano Roosevelt somehow managed to lead the nation out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II despite his C average, a GPA that today would keep him from getting an interview at McKinsey.I What made Roosevelt a successful president, among other gifts, was his intellectual curiosity, which enabled him to absorb vast amounts of information necessary to resolve unprecedented crises. When severe drought created the Dust Bowl, he had a lot to learn; he couldn’t fall back on his high school experience at Model Dust Bowl. I want the president of the United States to be intellectually curious for a simple reason: I think the person running the country should be smarter than I am. We’ve just lived through the alternative, and it was only good for the liquor industry.
How can we tell if a politician is intellectually curious? Reading habits are a good place to start. Truman might not have gone to college, but as a kid he tried to devour every library book in Independence, Missouri. As I profile presidents, I’ll examine how much they enjoyed, or even tolerated, the act of reading. Why? Well, there’s something called the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), an intelligence summary that, true to its name, lands on the president’s desk every day. It’s true to its name in another way: It’s literally brief, often just a page or two. Yet to some recent recipients it seemed like War and Peace.
To believe that Trump’s presidency came out of nowhere, without warning, is the political version of creationism. I, on the other hand, believe in devolution. The election of a serially bankrupt, functionally illiterate reality TV host was the logical consequence of the five decades preceding it, which, with apologies to Edith Wharton, I’ll call the Age of Ignorance. How did the bar for our political figures fall so far? To better understand this heinous half century, I’ve divided it into the Three Stages of Ignorance: Ridicule, Acceptance, and Celebration.
During the Ridicule stage, ignorance was a magnet for mockery, a serious flaw that could kill a political career. Consequently, dumb politicians had to pretend to be smart. I’ll profile two politicians who navigated this perilous stage with radically different outcomes: Ronald Reagan, whose gift as a TV performer helped hide his cluelessness, and Dan Quayle, who shared Reagan’s cluelessness but not his knack for hiding it.
During the Acceptance stage, ignorance mutated into something more agreeable: a sign that a politician was authentic, down-to-earth, and a “normal person.” Consequently, dumb politicians felt free to appear dumb. In this stage, I’ll profile George W. Bush, who made ignorance his brand, and Sarah Palin, who made it her business model.
Finally, during the Celebration stage—the ordeal we’re enduring right now—ignorance has become preferable to knowledge, dunces are exalted over experts, and a candidate can win a seat in Congress after blaming wildfires on Jewish space lasers. Being ill-informed is now a litmus test; consequently, smart politicians must pretend to be dumb. I’ll profile the ultimate embodiment of this stage, Donald J. Trump, and Trump wannabes such as Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis—who, despite being graduates of our nation’s finest universities, strenuously try to outdumb him.
The solidly Republican cast of this tragicomedy might prompt you to ask (especially if you’re a Republican): Haven’t Democrats done a lot of dumb crap? Yes, bucketloads. Democrats have been caught on tape smoking crack (Marion Barry) and trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat (Rod Blagojevich). And we shan’t forget the Four Horndogs of the Apocalypse—John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and Andrew Cuomo—who, though seemingly endowed with functioning brains, let a different body part do their thinking. But while Democratic dopes have wreaked their share of havoc, the scale of their destruction doesn’t equal that of their Republican counterparts. Once Democrats gin up a two-trillion-dollar war to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, ignore and then politicize a virus that causes nearly a million needless deaths, and attempt a violent overthrow of the U.S. government, I’ll get cracking on a book about them. Until then, I’ll recognize them for what they are: supporting players in our national pageant of stupidity, but not towering icons like George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump.
After reading these profiles in ignorance, you might decide that the bar couldn’t possibly go lower. Well, sorry. The bar can always go lower. On the plus side, history doesn’t move in a straight line. After the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, the Dark Ages must’ve seemed pretty bleak—but, before you knew it, it was the Renaissance, and everyone was singing madrigals and painting frescoes. The lesson is clear: while the bar can always go lower, it can also go higher, as long as you’re willing to wait a few centuries.
But I’m not recommending that we sit around waiting for our present Dark Ages to pass. Given what’s at stake—things I’ve grown partial to, like a habitable planet—we need to find an off-ramp from this idiotic highway before it’s too late. In my last chapter, I’ll explore a possible route.
One final point. For the past twenty years or so, I’ve written a column in which I’ve made up news stories for the purpose of satire. In this book, I’ve made nothing up. All the events I’m about to describe actually happened. They’re a part of American history. Unfortunately.
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