Before you read The Atlantic’s profile of Michael Anton, the National Security (NSC) official who aspires to be “the leading voice of intellectual Trumpism,” and before you read in the Times about “renegade autodidact” Stephen Bannon, whose Plato-reading past is cited just sentences before he misattributes Tolstoy’s most famous line in a failed bid to demonstrate erudition, be sure to read Rick Perlstein’s recent meditation on the cult of smartness. Perlstein’s essay, which wends through autobiography, legal history, recent controversies in social science, and a careful reading of The Great Gatsby, skewers the tendency to link intelligence with moral worth—to obsess over “who is sophisticated and who is simple,” which is “entirely irrelevant to the only question that ends up mattering: who is decent and who is cruel.”
Although Perlstein offers a sharp description of the “reactionary pedant” (represented in The Great Gatsby by Tom Buchanan), his real warning is directed not against pseudoscientific race theorists—whether the fictional ones of Fitzgerald’s novel or the real ones of Trump’s White House—but against contemporary liberals. This is a both a tougher subject and a more useful one, partly because it is so easy to succumb to the temptation Perlstein criticizes. If the politically well-intentioned are currently inclined to obsess over smarts, it’s because so much of what is wrong with American politics is also so gobsmackingly stupid.
But Perlstein raises the challenging question of whether the frame of smart/stupid is really the right way to think at this perilous moment. He proceeds by asking a series of questions about the weight we commonly assign to intelligence. Isn’t it true, he points out, that what gets counted as intelligence is not only “frequently ideological,” but is also less amenable to quantification than we think? And isn’t intelligence often a poor guide even in utilitarian calculations about ability? (A great mind offers no sure protection against catastrophic error.) Questions like this accumulate as the essay builds, in its concluding passage, to a set of sobering political reflections. Membership slots in the intelligentsia, inherently scarce to begin with, are easy to resent not only because the status attached to them is so powerful, but because the subtle operations of privilege and ideology in their bestowal are so often obscured. Exclusion from that club, Perlstein writes, makes the excluded “easy pickings for political con men”—as well as easy targets of elite mockery, which sets the cycle in motion all over again.
There is far more to digest in the piece, but the foregoing should indicate its effectiveness in drawing a distinction that will be important to remember in the coming years: Epistemic failures are not always failures of intelligence. I myself wrote a post-election essay trying to think through the rise of “horizontal dishonesty” in the Trump era, a crisis which is certainly epistemological in nature. One could add to this a number of other epistemic failings closely associated with Trump’s ascent: the failure to imagine how vulnerable populations would be affected by Trump’s policies, the failure to take his lies and manifold self-contradictions seriously, the failure to heed the warnings of experts and others in possession of authoritative knowledge. But greater intelligence is not, strictly speaking, necessary in order to overcome these failings. Indeed, while the task of civic education involves a substantive body of knowledge (about laws, history, political culture, and so on), it is also crucially concerned with these epistemic virtues, which do not ultimately reduce to the possession of intelligence. For that reason, I think the most defensible version of the familiar post-election lament—“We have to do a better job educating voters!”—shies away from an outright accusation of stupidity.
If people have become “easy pickings for political con men,” it’s not only, or not solely, because they are incapable of knowing better. And as the Times and Atlantic profiles show, at least some level of intellectual firepower did not save the likes of Bannon and Anton from something far worse than falling for Trump’s con. It seems (in a perverse way) to have strengthened their resolve to come up with a principled justification for it. Surely that deserves far greater scorn.