The God-King is elevating a long-simmering war on expertise. (More)
“Nobody knows the system better than I do”
So declared the God-King on CNN last April. It was just one of a laundry list of things that he claimed to know “better than anybody,” “more … than any human being on Earth,” “maybe in the history of the world.”
He declared himself the world’s foremost authority on everything renewable energy to taxes, from social media to ISIS, and even Sen. Cory Booker:
If Cory Booker is the future of the Democratic Party, they have no future! I know more about Cory than he knows about himself.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2016
And of course he knew more about the ins and outs of government:
I think nobody knows the system better than I do.
I am a person that used to be establishment when I’d give them hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when I decided to run, I became very anti-establishment, because I understand the system than anybody else.
Nobody knows the system better than I do.
Nobody knows politicians better than Donald Trump.
Except health care, because “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” but “in a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care.” Yes, really.
But when the wheels started to fall off, that was because he’s a babe in the woods:
“Of course there needs to be a degree of independence” between federal law enforcement and the White House, [House Speaker Paul] Ryan said. But he added, “The president’s new at this. He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between [the Justice Department], FBI and White House. He’s just new to this.”
So which is it? Is the God-King the foremost authority on everything – except stuff “nobody knew” – or an ignorant naïf still learning about the complex job of the presidency?
“A new Declaration of Independence”
The answer, of course, is that it’s both, or neither, and he never said that, and if he did then we should have taken him “seriously” instead of “literally.” Because he offers “alternative facts.” In short, he creates reality to suit him and anything else is “fake news.”
And you should take that both seriously and literally, Tom Nichols explains in his new book The Death of Expertise:
While expertise isn’t dead, however, it’s in trouble. Something is going terribly wrong. The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance. It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography; they don’t, but that’s an old problem. And really, it’s not even a problem, insofar as we live in a society that works because of a division of labor, a system designed to relieve each of us of having to know about everything. Pilots fly airplanes, lawyers file lawsuits, doctors prescribe medication. None of us is a Da Vinci, painting the Mona Lisa in the morning and designing helicopters at night. That’s as it should be.
No, the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: no longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.
Nichols writes about how rejecting expertise has shifted from skepticism to righteous rage:
Doctors routinely tussle with patients over drugs. Lawyers will describe clients losing money, and sometimes their freedom, because of unheeded advice. Teachers will relate stories of parents insisting that their children’s exam answers are right even when they’re demonstrably wrong. Realtors tell of clients who bought homes against their experienced advice and ended up trapped in a money pit.
What I find so striking today is not that people dismiss expertise, but that they do so with such frequency, on so many issues, and with such anger. It may be that attacks on expertise are more obvious due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the undisciplined nature of conversation on social media, or the demands of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. But there is a self-righteousness and fury to this new rejection of expertise that suggest, at least to me, that this isn’t just mistrust or questioning or the pursuit of alternatives: it is narcissism, coupled to a disdain for expertise as some sort of exercise in self-actualization.
It’s not just Trump voters. Look at the legions of self-appointed campaign and P.R. geniuses who flocked to the media to trash the Democrats’ new slogan: “A Better Deal.” Never mind that Democrats spent weeks poll-testing the new slogan in battleground districts. Data-schmata. Data geeks said Trump would lose, remember?
Hold on, the mail room clerk needs my Blewberry for a moment….
“Who do I call to tell Democrats about messaging?”
That question came from a first-time visitor to our county Democratic Executive Committee. Did he have experience in political campaigns, public relations, or advertising? Nope. He was a retired plumber. That’s not a criticism of plumbers. If we had a leaky pipe or a backed up toilet, he’d be the guy to call. And if offered a suggestion on how to do his job, he might trot out the tradesman’s bromide: “I charge double if you watch and triple if you help.” And he would be right to say that, because he would be the expert.
I graduated from theatre school, but anyone who goes to a movie or watches TV is an expert on acting, directing, and pretty much everything else. I’ve published several novels, but there’s no shortage of people willing to tell me how to write … in two-line, incomplete-sentence reviews on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I graduated cum laude from law school and practiced appellate law for eight years, but everyone thinks they know what the law is … or what it should be.
So I wasn’t in the least surprised that a retired plumber, visiting a county Democratic Party meeting for the first time, would ask who to call to “tell Democrats about messaging.” As Vice Chair, I nodded and smiled and said our job was grassroots get-out-the-vote work. I also wasn’t in the least surprised that he never came back.
Rather than keep trying to type with a toothpick, I’ll give the Blewberry back to the Squirrel …
“Would it be worse than what we’re doing now?”
… Thank you. By the way, my Blewberry’s keys are just fine for squirrel-sized paws. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, experts.
The Washington Post’s Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve wrote about that yesterday:
THE BIG IDEA: Donald Trump, the first president in American history to take office with no prior governing or military experience, has appointed someone with no professional communications experience to be White House communications director.
Making his debut on the Sunday shows, former hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci said his new boss still does not accept the consensus of professional analysts and case officers across the intelligence community that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“He basically said to me, ‘Hey, you know … Maybe they did it, maybe they didn’t do it,’” Scaramucci said on CNN.
These two things are not unrelated. Trump has repeatedly dismissed the knowledge and wisdom of experts while elevating nonexperts who lack relevant experience into important jobs across the federal government. This gets less attention than other story lines, but it has been a hallmark of the president’s first six months in power.
He appointed the woman who planned his son’s wedding to direct Department of Housing and Urban Development’s office for New York and New Jersey and a guy with no science degree to be the director of research, education, and economics at the Department of Agriculture. As Deppisch and Greve write:
It starts at the top: No one not named Trump seriously believes that the president’s daughter and son-in-law could have gotten their plum West Wing jobs if not for nepotism.
Jared Kushner purportedly proposed to Russia’s ambassador the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin last December, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring by the U.S. government.
The president, for his part, didn’t want any professionals from the government, including the Russia expert on the National Security Council, to sit in on his meeting with Vladimir Putin. The Russians also reportedly recommended that a note taker be present, but Trump refused.
And the God-King’s defense of systemic and systematic ignorance?
The president defended his lack of specific policy knowledge during a rally on the eve of the Wisconsin primary in 2016. “They say, ‘Oh, Trump doesn’t have experts,’” Trump said. “You know, I’ve always wanted to say this: … The experts are terrible! They say, ‘Donald Trump needs a foreign policy adviser.’ … But supposing I didn’t have one, would it be worse than what we’re doing now?”
Well yes, it can get a lot worse. But in phrasing the question that way, the God-King appeals to the narcissistic ignorance of Americans, as Nichols explains:
Americans have increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic system can provide. This sense of entitlement is one reason they are continually angry at ‘experts’ and especially at ‘elitists,’ a word that in modern American usage can mean almost anyone with any education who refuses to coddle the public’s mistaken beliefs. When told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism is a lot harder than it looks, Americans roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame experts, politicians and bureaucrats for seizing control of their lives.
Don’t bother to learn stuff, and for damn sure don’t trust people who have. Just whine and gripe and insist that ‘they’ could fix this if ‘they’ would just listen to … you.
We’re becoming a nation of “the regulars” at Donald E. Westlake’s O.J. Bar & Grill. Drunks debating whether the Indy 500 is so-named because it’s run on Independence Day and this will be its 500th year – actually the race is run on Memorial Day weekend, in Indianapolis, over 500 miles – makes for great comic relief.
But it doesn’t make for great public policy.
Photo Credit: Cover Detail image from Carnegie Council
Good day and good nuts