While many see Trump’s rise and even Sanders’ rise, not as anti-intellectualism, but as purely symptomatic of a growing frustration with establishment government, and certainly to some degree that is true, Trump is something much more sinister. The current discontent with the establishment was summed up nicely by a smart conservative friend of mine when he said, “People are getting tired of business as usual in politics and want change. I truly believe that the lack of term limits, and the creation of career politicians that are more worried about their next fundraiser or election instead of doing what’s right, is the cause of what we are seeing now.” But let’s evaluate this idea by analyzing both Trump and Sanders.
We’ll look at Bernie Sanders first. Sanders is a mostly economic phenomenon. His supporters are comprised of largely young, student loan-laden voters who have come to realize that our politics have rigged our economic system to favor the wealthy; to their exclusion. Our system capitalizes profits and socializes losses, something that became painfully clear during the subprime mortgage crisis and the subsequent extensive bank and corporate bailouts of the last decade, and they see Sanders as a catalyst to shake that construct apart. But being frustrated in the status quo does not an anti-intellectual make.
Trump’s rise is much more than simple frustration with the establishment. His brand of political populism in the Jacksonian sense is often a fairly clean inverse of anti-intellectualism. As wonderfully documented in Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant book, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” we know that this phenomenon ebbs and flows throughout our history, and here we are again.
But instead of a true salt of the earth populist like Jackson, today we have the billionaire Trump.
Trump is the perfect poisonous mushroom sprouting from the great pile of crap that was and is the rise of the Tea Party as the dominant Republican identity. These are the xenophobes, the homophobes, the conspiracy theorists, the racists, the birthers, the anti-science (read global warming deniers), the religious zealots, and other malcontents coalescing under a Gadsden flag umbrella and whipped into an angry frenzy by 24/7 “fair and balanced” nonsense and propelled by YouTube ranters and misinformed bloggers. Trump is the absence of critical thinking. He’s the antithesis of reasonable discussion. He’s the personification of the comments section of any Fox News article about anything social or political.
In a nutshell, Trump is a creation of the GOP’s inability to keep its fringe on the fringe, and the party is all but lost as a result.