Anti-intellectualism is an enduring feature of modern Republican politics, and accordingly, conservative intellectuals have taken up the job of justifying this state of affairs. Historically, their claims have glommed onto some great deep truth that the putatively dim-witted right-wing politician grasps, but which has eluded the liberal elites. (“For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy,” wrote Irving Kristol. “He, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesman for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”)
Yet the defense that worked on behalf of Joe McCarthy or George W. Bush or Sarah Palin seems inadequate to the task of defending Donald Trump, whose lack of ordinary decency is so plain it requires some stronger argumentative method. Riding to the rescue is right-wing pundit David Gelernter on The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Gelernter does not argue that Trump is secretly intelligent, or that the voters are clever to grasp his innate reservoir of knowledge that the intellectuals fail to see. Instead he argues that Trump “is a typical American,” and therefore “what the left hates about Donald Trump is precisely what it hates about America.” This defense of Trump is the logical endpoint and the moral nadir of decades of right-wing anti-intellectualism.
Let’s start by temporarily granting the ludicrous premise that Trump represents the average American. Even if true, Gelernter’s syllogism — Trump is the average American, therefore Trump-haters must also hate the average American — overlooks an obvious point: You can feel kinship with and affection for an average American without wanting one of them to be the president of the United States.
Indeed, most average Americans recognize that the presidency would be too difficult a job for a person of their skills and training. The average American, if somehow thrust into the presidency, would probably work hard to learn about policy and listen closely to what their advisers told them. Very few average Americans would ignore or berate their advisers, refuse to read even dumbed-down briefings they were given, and divide their waking hours between binge-watching Fox News, calling Fox News personalities to solicit any insights they did not get to on the air, and golfing.
In any case, it’s pretty obvious that the personality traits that the left detests in Trump are not that he’s just like most Americans. The degree to which Gelernter whitewashes Trump’s sins in order to transform him into an everyman is apparent if you inspect his list of the Trumpian qualities that supposedly enrage the liberal elite. “The leftists I know do hate Mr. Trump’s vulgarity, his unwillingness to walk away from a fight, his bluntness, his certainty that America is exceptional, his mistrust of intellectuals, his love of simple ideas that work, and his refusal to believe that men and women are interchangeable. Worst of all, he has no ideology except getting the job done. His goals are to do the task before him, not be pushed around, and otherwise to enjoy life.”
This is quite an account of Trump’s character. “Bluntness” is an odd description of a pathological liar, whose deceits are so prodigious that not even his spokespeople attempt to defend them as correct, and indeed who boasted in his own book that he uses lying as a tactic. It’s even more strange to credit Trump’s “certainty that America is exceptional” when Trump himself denies any such thing. Trump favorably compares foreign dictators to Americans presidents, and defends their brutality by dismissing America as equally murderous. (“You think our country’s so innocent?”) Trump has even explained that he abhors the term “American exceptionalism”:
“I don’t like the term. I’ll be honest with you. People say, ‘Oh he’s not patriotic.’ Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. We’re exceptional; you’re not. First of all, Germany is eating our lunch. So they say, ‘Why are you exceptional? We’re doing a lot better than you.’ I never liked the term.
“And perhaps that’s because I don’t have a very big ego and I don’t need terms like that. Honestly. When you’re doing business — I watch Obama every once in a while saying ‘American exceptionalism,’ it’s [Trump makes a face]. I don’t like the term. Because we’re dealing — first of all, I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. We’ve given them so much. On top of taking it back, I don’t want to say, ‘We’re exceptional. we’re more exceptional.’ Because essentially we’re saying, ‘We’re more outstanding than you. By the way, you’ve been eating our lunch for the last 20 years, but we’re more exceptional than you.’ I don’t like the term. I never liked it.
“When I see these politicians get up [and say], ‘the American exceptionalism’ — we’re dying. We owe 18 trillion in debt. I’d like to make us exceptional. And I’d like to talk later instead of now. Does that make any sense? Because I think you’re insulting the world. And you, know, if you’re German, or you’re from Japan, or you’re from China, you don’t want to have people saying that. I never liked the expression.
And I see a lot of good patriots get up and talk about Amer — you can think it, but I don’t think we should say it. We may have a chance to say it in the not-too-distant future. But even then, I wouldn’t say it because when I take back the jobs, and when I take back all that money and we get all our stuff, I’m not going to rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. Let’s not rub it in. But I never liked that term.”
The rest of Gelernter’s thumbnail sketch of Trump’s personality type consists of polishing his grotesque character flaws into ordinary, lovable foibles. Trump’s abusive bullying? That’s just “vulgarity.” His rampant infidelity and serial sexual assault? Nothing more than an all-American belief that men and women are not interchangeable.
Most comical is Gelernter presenting Trump’s business style as a can-do commitment to “getting the job done.” Trump’s business method consists of relentless fraud and theft. He habitually refuses to pay contractors for services rendered, cheats on his taxes, misleads investors, and works closely with gangsters.
Gelernter might defend these practices, but they are definitely not ordinary. Call me idealistic, but I think most people in this country have some lines they would hesitate to cross in the pursuit of wealth.
Gelernter’s op-ed is in keeping with a conservative tradition of conflating the traits of their party’s leader with that of the public as a whole. The problem they face is that the leader at the moment is not merely a dope, like Bush or Palin, but also ostentatiously immoral. Trump’s defenders would now having us believe that the average American is a bigoted, dishonest, bullying crook. Who hates America now?
This post has been updated with the correct spelling of David Gelernter’s last name.