"No one in this world, so far as I know ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." H.L. Mencken
At The Baffler, prompted by mainstream liberals’ disdainful reaction to Trumpism, Angela Nagle provides a concise history of elitist contempt for the common folks:
As we veer into a brave new age of right-wing populism, a restive mood of contempt for the masses has seized the opposition. Demoralized liberals, still reeling from the debacle of the 2016 presidential ballot, are salving their wounds with reveries of metaphysical superiority.
I’ll admit to having been (temporarily) “demoralized” and “reeling” after the election, but I flatly deny having indulged in “reveries of metaphysical superiority”; my reaction to Trump’s victory was (and is) a simple WTF?
Ms. Nagle thinks that liberals are missing the populist boat:
You’d think the disenchanted forces of Anglophone liberalism would now embrace viable left populisms of the economic variety as an antidote to the confrontational, xenophobic cultural populism of the right. But you would, of course, be wrong.
In but one representative sample of the growing allergy to ordinary people within contemporary liberalism, HBO pundit Bill Maher airily informed Trump campaign spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway during a pre-election interview that her candidate was gaining popular support “because people are stupid.” The tone was strikingly similar in outlets of respectable liberal opinion. In response to the rise of the populist right in Britain and the United States, Foreign Policy magazine ran a title-says-it-all essay under the headline “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses.” One History News Network contributor weighed in during the early phase of the GOP primaries with the anguished cry, “Just How Stupid Are We?”
Nagle then treats us to some wonderfully entertaining quotations from “misanthropic intellectuals” through the years:
T.S. Eliot called newspaper readers “a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass.” D. H. Lawrence argued for going to the root of the matter: “let all schools be closed at once,” he proposed, since “the great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.” Aldous Huxley wrote, “universal education has created an immense class of what I may call the New Stupid.” W.B. Yeats wrote, “Sooner or later we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes. Since about 1900 the better stocks have not been replacing their numbers while the stupider and less healthy have been more than replacing theirs.” Flaubert wrote, “I believe that the crowd, the mass, the herd, will always be detestable.” Ezra Pound, later a notorious enthusiast of fascism, regarded humanity as a “mass of dolts” and Virginia Woolf bemoaned “that anonymous monster the Man in the Street.” Mass society was, in her scandalized judgment, “a vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff . . . occasionally wobbling this way or that as some instinct of hate, revenge, or admiration bubbles up beneath it”… Kurt Cobain, now revered for his sensitivity and progressive cultural politics said, “Humans are stupid. I’m ashamed to be human.” Comedian Bill Hicks, who likewise rocketed to national fame in the nineties, delivered stand-up punchlines like, “We’re a virus with shoes.” 1
I’m surprised that Ms. Nagle omits such notorious misanthropes as H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain (in his later years), but I would remind her that even the Lord God Himself, the infinitely patient Creator of Heaven and Earth, had some misanthropic moments:
“The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, ‘I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth…’”
Granted, the LORD saw that we were evil, not stupid; but either way, the human race comes off pretty poorly. Whatever one thinks of what I will call the “misanthropic principle,” you have to admit there’s a good deal of empirical data in its favor.2
Angela Nagle is surely correct that it is not polite to call people “stupid,” but the problem with her article is that she offers no other explanation of why so many people could have been duped, hoodwinked, temporarily insane, possessed by demons, or otherwise prompted to vote for Donald Trump. Whatever the economic pains and frustrations of working-class white people, their self-defeating willingness to vote for a billionaire huckster and to take seriously his patently insincere expressions of concern for them remains inexplicable.
To be clear, I’m not saying that all Trump supporters are stupid; I’m just saying that, until someone comes up with a better hypothesis, we’ll have to work with the one we’ve got.
1 I don’t know where I was while Bill Hicks was rocketing to fame in the 1990’s; I’ve never heard of him, but I do love the “virus with shoes” quote.
Let’s add to this litany of misanthropy some recent books like IDIOT PROOF by Francis Wheen, IDIOT AMERICA by Charlie Pierce, and (going back further) DUMBTH by Steve Allen. Let’s not forget that American conservatives in particular have complained for decades about the “dumbing down” of America and its educational system—so why should anyone now be surprised that Americans are dumb enough to vote for Donald Trump, or scandalized by the admission that such votes confirm the widespread failure of public education?
2 I was going to take credit for coining the clever phrase “misanthropic principle,” until I googled it and discovered that others had long since beaten me to it; it’s even the title of a song by a group called Strung Out.