How Donald Trump’s Opponents Missed what was Right in Front of Them

How Donald Trump’s Opponents Missed what was Right in Front of Them February 14, 2017
a katz / Shutterstock.com
a katz / Shutterstock.com

Hidden from the Learned, Revealed to the Simple:

How Donald Trump’s Opponents Missed what was Right in Front of Them

The age of Rule by Amateur is upon us. When the singularly inexperienced Donald Trump defied the commentariat and dethroned the political professionals last year, he did so with resounding support from people without college degrees. Like any coastal snob, I’m discomfited by this triumph of the inexpert over the specialists. But it also occurred to me recently that the man I call the son of God once praised his Father “because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and revealed them to the simple-minded.” Which has led me to wonder: what things? Do Trump’s supporters know something that we eggheads are missing?

Now, Christ can’t have meant that the less educated are somehow more divine. To hear the rather patronizing reverence with which some commentators now speak of “normal people” or “the real America,” you could almost think that red states are populated by plainspoken saints whose homespun piety gives them privileged access to the godhead. But Christianity, when not reduced to Hallmark platitudes, takes a less romanticized view of humanity — even of its disenfranchised classes. St. Paul reminds us that so far as the Bible is concerned, “there is no one righteous. No, not one.” That includes the poor, the hungry, and yes, even the intellectually unremarkable. They are blessed, not holy. We are obliged to respect the simple-minded, not to cater to them unthinkingly.

Still, it strikes me as significant that Jesus praised the uneducated after wrangling with a crowd that refused to see what was right under their noses. At the beginning of the chapter in question (Matthew 11), the followers of John the Baptist ask the sensational Nazarene if he is the Messiah. Christ replies, “go back and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk.” It’s as if he’s saying, “look for yourself, dummy: what do you think?” Later he rebukes his listeners for getting so hung up on petty technicalities about his eating habits that they disregard his salvific miracles. As often in the Gospels, Christ’s detractors get tangled in subtle minutiae and ignore the major events in front of them.

Before 2016, I might have thought this was an unfair caricature of erudite pedantry. I’m no longer so sure. As I’ve written elsewhere, I abhor Trump. But the expert arguments against him were honeycombed with complex reasoning and data manipulation that flatly contradicted the obvious facts on the ground.

For instance: one could cogently argue that Trump’s trade isolationism is reactionary madness. But his opponents had the dubious habit of crunching numbers to defend an economy that was clearly anaemic. When Trump observed that GDP growth under President Obama never exceeded 3 percent, analysts at Politifact responded by splitting hairs. If you count by quarters rather than years, they observed, Obama saw infrequent periods of 3.4 percent growth. This ludicrously delicate recalibration was probably unimpressive to a Middle America saddled with skyrocketing debts and healthcare premiums. When workers are abandoning a hopeless job hunt en masse, you are unlikely to console them by citing the fact that unemployment is therefore technically down. No statistic in the world will convince people they’re not hungry when they’ve been tightening their belts for eight years.

By the same token, reasonable minds can differ about how to handle the tragically fractured Middle East. But however you slice it, Syria is in rubble after Obama’s phony “red line” emboldened the murderous Bashar Assad. A radical Iranian regime is quietly stockpiling uranium after our toothless nuclear agreement. And Islamist terror attacks are riddling Europe. It just won’t fly to pretend, as Obama’s administration did, that the world is growing “more secure” or that the Iran deal “succeeded exactly as intended.” After CBS reporter Major Garrett dared to point out one of the deal’s glaring flaws, pundits like Bill Maher and Dana Bash insisted that Garrett was really motivated by racism and spite. They seemed ready to offer any rationale except the simplest one: that the agreement actually is a farce. Any fool could see that.

But the learned couldn’t. In our revulsion at Trump, we intellectuals used our cleverest casuistry to obscure the patent circumstances to which his campaign was a response. But the simple-minded aren’t stupid, and they weren’t fooled by mental acrobatics. Without the luxury of sophisticated obfuscation, they had no way to deny the problems they plainly saw and felt. As might be expected in a postlapsarian world, they chose what could become a disastrously counterproductive solution. Trump has his own problems with honesty. But he pointed out issues readily apparent to his constituency, to which the intelligentsia had gone willfully blind.

If elites are to have a restraining influence over the next four years, we must learn the humility to hear what the common man is saying. Basic empirical realities are supposed to be the starting points from which scholars reason, not the inconveniences we explain away. We might have worked with the rest of the country to come up with a better answer than Trump to the challenges on the ground. But we simply wouldn’t, and so couldn’t, see those challenges: they were hidden from us and shown to the simple-minded. Perhaps, with some grace, we will now be given eyes to see.

Spencer Klavan is either a gentleman or a scholar, depending on whom you ask. He studies Ancient Greek literature at Oxford University and writes when the spirit (or a deadline) moves him.


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