His anti-intellectual proclivities and unsophisticated solutions for the US’s socio-economic issues were favoured by many. But they will soon realise his rhetoric consisted of mostly empty promises that cannot be fulfilled now or in the foreseeable future.In 1963, noted American historian Richard Hofstadter published a book called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. The book had been written after Adlai Stevenson, a prominent Democratic politician, twice lost his bids for the US presidency in 1952 and 1956 in contests against Dwight Eisenhower. Republicans had dismissed Stevenson, who was also a public intellectual, a mere “egghead” – a disparaging term for anyone with a cerebral outlook. In his erudite volume, Hofstadter had argued that anti-intellectualism was not just an abrupt development but an integral part of American political life and culture. To that end he had written, anti-intellectualism represented a “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life”.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s significant but not overwhelming victory against Hillary Rodham Clinton in the just-concluded US presidential election, it is well worth invoking Hofstadter trenchant analysis. A string of clichés, which drew upon bigoted tropes, racist imagery and xenophobic rhetoric, characterised Trump’s campaign. Worse still, he proffered a string of simplistic solutions to complex problems of public policy ranging from issues of illegal immigration to global trade.
Sadly, these gestures and nods appealed to a significant segment of the American electorate, sufficient to enable him to secure a victory through the Electoral College though not the popular vote. The reasons that his campaign appealed to a portion of the electorate are complex and can only be explored briefly here. Suffice to say that he successfully tapped into the anxieties of working-class white American men who see a racial hierarchy eroding, who have been buffeted by the forces of globalisation and who seek easy panaceas for their diminished status. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has long sought to prey upon their fears. Reagan, who had a decidedly anti-intellectual bent, had deftly railed against anyone who had suggested that the social and economic woes afflicting American society defied facile explanations. Trump merely represents the apogee of the forces that Reagan had unleashed.
Of course, his own anti-intellectual proclivities and his fondness for proffering unsophisticated solutions for profound socio-economic dislocations in the US found much fertile ground amongst those who feel disordered and adrift in their own land. Not surprisingly, his scapegoating of racial and ethnic minorities, his hostility toward immigrants, illegal or otherwise, and his contempt for any complex policy ideas appealed to a portion of the electorate who are desperately seeking reassurance about their standing in a collapsing racial hierarchy amidst sweeping economic upheavals.
Given his utterly dubious record as a businessman who has gone through four bankruptcies, has hired and maltreated illegal immigrants and has failed to pay a range of clients, there is little or no reason to believe that he has any policy ideas that can actually ameliorate their conditions. More to the point, the racial hierarchy that had long characterised American life has inexorably weakened and simply cannot be restored. Consequently, those who found his rhetoric appealing will soon discover that it consisted of mostly empty promises that cannot be fulfilled now or in the foreseeable future whether at home or abroad. Worse still, if he actually delivers on some of his stated commitments such as the abrogation of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” in popular parlance) or the sweeping tax cuts for the wealthiest, those who voted for him with such exaggerated hopes may find themselves to be worse off than before. Of course, they will also discover that his outlandish plan for building a vast wall across the southern border of the country, designed to end all illegal immigration from Mexico and points further south, is little more than a chimera.
Nor should they derive much comfort from his bizarre foreign policy stances. Not a single foreign policy goal that he has outlined is likely to enhance America’s national security in a very troubled and uncertain world. Instead, were he to follow through on his professed goals, they are likely to upend well-established policies that have underpinned the global order and have well-served the US for the past several decades.
Even a quick survey of some of his key stated policy preferences for Asia should cause much alarm. Among other matters he has suggested, quite incorrectly, that Japan has not shouldered its fair share of a common defence burden. To induce the Japanese to spend more on national security he has hinted that the US might withdraw its nuclear umbrella from Japan. Regardless of how one views the utility of nuclear deterrence, such a policy shift could have seismic consequences for the security of northeast Asia. Japan, which is increasingly fearful of the assertiveness of the People’s Republic of China, may well feel compelled to develop its own nuclear deterrent. This, in turn, could precipitate South Korea to pursue a similar course. These choices, in turn, would only provoke the misgivings of China and thereby destabilise a region already fraught with significant tensions.
His feckless remarks about re-negotiating the US-Iran nuclear agreement is also a reason for much concern. The US-Iran nuclear accord, reached after exceedingly complex and painstaking negotiations, was an important regional arms control milestone and an important step toward a broader US-Iran diplomatic rapprochement. Ending this agreement without suggesting a viable alternative could amount to an important setback in America’s relations with this significant regional power in the Persian Gulf.
Closer to home, any in India who have taken comfort from rhetoric that has conflated Islam with terrorism should not be so gleeful. He has yet to articulate any policy position that would either contain or degrade the rise of ISIS. Instead, his counterterrorism bombast has served two purposes. It has fed nativist, anti-Muslim sentiment in the US and has concealed a complete absence of practical policy options designed to meet the challenge of the emergence of ISIS.
Trump’s election has validated the sentiments of a section of the American electorate that is profoundly anti-intellectual and refuses to grasp the complexity of the issues that have altered their once-familiar milieus. However, the proposed solutions that he highlighted in the campaign and that have catapulted him into office will soon prove to be little more than hollow promises. For those who put their stock in him, a very painful awakening awaits.
Sumit Ganguly holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington and is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.