Expertise and Its Discontents

In the wake of President Trump's disastrous press conference after his meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, and his ham-handed efforts to walk back some of the things he said there, something has begun to dawn on me about his approach to the presidency and why his supporters are still so maniacally devoted to him. It's because they share a distaste, even a loathing, for professionals and experts.

I was watching the PBS NewsHour last night, and I heard the analyst Mark Shields express his dumbfounded feelings as he watched Trump side with the authoritarian Putin while disregarding the evidence provided by his own intelligence people. Shields kept using the word "professional" to describe the intelligence community, and was aghast that Trump would not pay attention to them.

trump and putin.jpg

About the third time he said "professionals," it hit me. That's precisely why Trump was so loath to take their advice—because they are professionals. Because they are experts.

There's a pattern here. Trump is inordinately (and, it appears, unjustifiably) proud of his abilities as a negotiator. Before his anticlimactic summit with Kim Jong-Un last month, he said he didn't need to prepare very much, and he claimed that he would be able to judge Kim's level of sincerity within the first five or ten minutes of meeting him. He attributed this outrageous claim to his "touch" and "feel." Trump has built a career on bluff and bluster and rash "gut-level" decision-making. He likes to think with his gut. Unfortunately, he has not had the same epiphany as John Cusack's character in the movie High Fidelity, who says he has been thinking with his guts all his life, and "I'm beginning to think my guts have shit for brains."

It's not surprising, then, that a man who (over)values his "touch and feel" and his guts' ability to guide his choices would be suspicious of those who can make a legitimate claim to expert status. His professional intelligence agents, for instance. It's not surprising that a narcissist like Trump would be willing to go into a one-on-one meeting with Putin with no advice and likely no preparation, and would then issue an invitation for this dictator to come to the White House without consulting any of his advisors, or else ignoring their strong misgivings about the move. Donald Trump is the only expert Donald Trump trusts, and that makes me fear for the future of our republic.

In this animus toward the "expert class," if I may call it that, as in so many of his other questionable character traits—his fear of immigrants, his racial and religious bigotry, his misogyny, his demonizing of the "Fake News," and his rejection of the conclusions of 90-some percent of scientists who study climate change—he reflects and bolsters the prejudices of his "base."

Base. That's an appropriate word to describe many of Trump's supporters.

The lion's share of Trump's support, it would seem, comes from the so-called forgotten people of Middle America—the same people Richard Nixon called the "silent majority" and Sarah Palin described as the "real America." Like these two predecessors, Trump is skilled at the politics of division. He capitalizes on and stokes the fears and resentments of these red-blooded patriots who, like him, distrust "elites" of all kinds. They love Trump because he is not afraid to bring their beer-and-pork-rinds sensibilities onto the world stage, where he is perfectly willing to alienate anyone who disagrees with him through his crudity and America-first bravado. He speaks for this not-so-silent majority in tones of intolerance, jingoism, and gutter-level trash talk, and they lap it up like milk from a saucer.

Trump did not create this world he reigns over as emperor, but he has done more than most to accelerate its descent into the civil and moral sewer. I speak of the world of create-your-own-reality. A world in which one may pick and choose among sources of information until one finds those that prop up one's self-chosen worldview. A world of alternative facts. A world in which creation science and intelligent design must be given the same weight as evolutionary science, and the oil companies' "scientists" carry more clout than the real thing. A world in which "book learnin'" is held in suspicion and anyone with genuine credentials cannot be trusted. Unless, of course, their conclusions fall in line with Fox News orthodoxy. If they don't, they get tossed on the slag heap with the lamestream media, the tree-huggers, and all those Ivy League liberals.

As each day goes by, it becomes harder to imagine any kind of rapprochement between the two sides pitted against each other in these ongoing culture wars. That which is held up as a point of honor on one side the other side views as the spawn of hell. The heroes of one side are the arch-villians of the other. And the two sides can no longer even agree on one reality. One person who reads this post will consider me a spokesman for Truth and Justice, while another will declare me an Enemy of the State.

It's hard to maintain one's faith in the promise of America when we see such deep tears in the social fabric. Even my wife, who is one of the most peace-oriented, conflict-averse people I have ever known, has concluded that the time for trying to get along is past. Now is the time, she says, to choose sides.

Well, I have chosen my side. I stand on the side of evidence-based science, professional journalism, and honest intellectual inquiry. The side of the experts, I guess you could say. I believe in the coming reign of God, which I understand to mean the triumph in this world of justice, peace, righteousness, and grace. I stand on the side of love—not mealy-mouthed, dishrag love, but tough-minded love that can never rest or be content until everyone is treated with equal respect and dignity.

Here I stand. God help me, I can do no other.