There is no phrase that irritates me more than “common sense.” It’s a meaningless catchphrase that never actually says anything, a placeholder for “I wish I had something to say here.” I want to talk about that phrase along with Stephen Miller’s use of the term “cosmopolitan” in attacking a CNN reporter who asked him a question about immigration.
Both “common sense” and “cosmopolitan” have a history and they are intrinsically tied to ignorant nationalism and anti-intellectualism, both of which are key traits of Trump’s base. Jeff Greenfield traced the history of the term “cosmopolitan,” which has long been used as a pejorative for well-educated people who are open to new people and new experiences, as opposed to inward-dwelling tribalists who fear outsiders and demand things like racial and ethnic purity.
So what is a “cosmopolitan”? It’s a cousin to “elitist,” but with a more sinister undertone. It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality. (In this sense, the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine might have been an early American cosmopolitan, when he declared: “The world is my country; all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”). In the eyes of their foes, “cosmopolitans” tend to cluster in the universities, the arts and in urban centers, where familiarity with diversity makes for a high comfort level with “untraditional” ideas and lives.
For a nationalist, these are fighting words. Your country is your country; your fellow citizens are your brethren; and your country’s traditions—religious and otherwise— should be yours. A nation whose people—especially influential people—develop other ties undermine national strength, and must be repudiated.
One reason why “cosmopolitan” is an unnerving term is that it was the key to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to purge the culture of dissident voices. In a 1946 speech, he deplored works in which “the positive Soviet hero is derided and inferior before all things foreign and cosmopolitanism that we all fought against from the time of Lenin, characteristic of the political leftovers, is many times applauded.” It was part of a yearslong campaigned aimed at writers, theater critics, scientists and others who were connected with “bourgeois Western influences.” Not so incidentally, many of these “cosmopolitans” were Jewish, and official Soviet propaganda for a time devoted significant energy into “unmasking” the Jewish identities of writers who published under pseudonyms.
What makes this history relevant is that, all across Europe, nationalist political figures are still making the same kinds of arguments—usually but not always stripped of blatant anti-Semitism—to constrict the flow of ideas and the boundaries of free political expression. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has more and more embraced this idea that unpatriotic forces threaten the nation. As Foreign Policy put it in 2014:
“The new theme of Russian politics [is] the conflation of loyalty to the Kremlin with patriotism. It says much that dissidents at home, from journalists failing to toe the official line to protesters on the streets, are castigated either as outright ‘foreign agents’ (every movement, charity, or organization accepting foreign money must register itself as such) or else as unknowing victims and vectors of external contamination — contamination, that is, from the West, whose cosmopolitanism and immorality Putin has come to see as an increasing threat to Russia’s identity.”
This is very important, I think. Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin comes from their common use of ignorant, nationalistic populism to manipulate people. It’s a fake nationalistic fervor, of course. While Putin talks grandly about the glories of Mother Russia, he is busy exploiting its resources with a corrupt oil industry that has made him, by many estimates, the richest man in the world. His net worth may be as high as $200 billion, though it’s hard to get an exact count. And he would sell out his country, and has already sold out his people, to increase that number.
The same is true of Trump, of course. While he manipulates people by engaging in anti-immigrant rhetoric and attacking China and Mexico for “stealing your jobs,” he has his own products made in China, Mexico and many other countries. And while he talks about keeping out immigrants that might take the job from an American, he demands visa exceptions to bring in more foreign workers for his golf resorts because, he absurdly claims, he can’t find Americans to be cooks, waitresses and maids. Funny, every other golf resort manages to do it.
In that same press conference, Stephen Miller got into an argument with Glenn Thrush of the New York Times and invoked that other annoying phrase when Thrush asked him for evidence that low-skilled immigrants are taking jobs from Americans:
Miller: Let’s also use common sense here, folks. At the end of the day, why do special interests want to bring in more low-skilled workers? And why historically—
Thrush: Stephen, I’m not asking for common sense. I’m asking for specific statistical data.
Miller: Well, I think it’s very clear, Glenn, that you’re not asking for common sense, but if I could just answer your question.
Thrush: No, no, not common sense. Common sense is fungible. Statistics are not.
David Graham correctly ties that phrase to the deep vein of anti-intellectualism in American culture:
The recourse to “common sense” is probably not accidental, especially for a student of political movements like Miller. Nearly every contemporary politician is guilty of falling back on the phrase, but for centuries, populist movements in particular have invoked common sense as a justification for policy goals and as an antidote to expert opinion. Like President Trump, the people invoking it have often done so, as Sophia Rosenfeld writes in her book Common Sense: A Political History, as part of “a populist style of conservatism that celebrated authoritarian governance alongside the traditional ways, values, and language of ordinary people.” (This would have been a much simpler, and faster, story about the Thrush-Miller exchange had I trusted my gut, rather than falling into the trap of seeking out expert opinion.)
Even the specifics of the exchange between Thrush and Miller fit the historical pattern: Common sense has frequently been deployed in service of xenophobic and nationalist concepts, and it has often used elite journalists—say, New York Times reporters—as convenient foils. And when you start hearing a lot about “common sense,” it’s often a sign of national crisis, or at least of a serious effort to undermine faith in national institutions—which few people would dispute.
“Common sense has … served to underwrite challenges to established forms of legitimate rule … in the name of the special kind of intuition belonging to the people,” Rosenfeld observes…
Time and again, the Trump administration has embraced solutions that it has labeled common sense, but which are either highly disputed, wholly counter to expert consensus, or flat wrong. This has been true on immigration, on protectionism, on industrial policy, climate change, and a range of other issues.
Exactly right. Ignorant populism (as opposed to a genuine, thoughtful populism that is far more common on the left) relies on the anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter so accurately identified half a century ago. It tells people who are ignorant and uneducated that they have some special intuition, the “wisdom of the people,” that those “experts” don’t have because all they have is “book learning.” These are phrases used to justify ignorance and elevate it above knowledge and thoughtfulness. They are, to use Mencken’s phrase, “soothing to their macerated egos.”
And it makes them easily exploited. Tell them that they are the true repositories of wisdom and they don’t have to listen to “experts” and “scientists” and those prone to this mindset are putty in your hands. You can tell them anything, be as hypocritical as you want, lie on a daily basis, and they will continue to cheer you on and attack, sometimes violently, anyone who dares to point out that the populist emperor’s clothes were made in China too.
This is why Trump continually nominates totally unqualified people for jobs in his administration, because he dismisses the importance of expertise and knowledge. He flies by the seat of his pants and lurches from position to position because he has no idea what he’s talking about on practically everything, and he’s fine with those in his administration doing the same thing. Thus we get Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Betsy Devos, Sam Clovis and so many others in positions they have no qualifications for whatsoever.