Smart vs. Stupid: The Battle for What's Left of the American Mind

What with millions of people cheering the rise of Donald Trump, Britain voting to leave the European Union, and yet another Danielle Steele novel at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, smart people everywhere are understandably concerned about the prospect of stupid people taking over the world. Everywhere, it seems, stupid people are asserting their right to make idiotic decisions, just like the smarty-pants elites they despise.

It’s an alarming trend, to be sure. Throughout history, stupid people have always outnumbered smart people, but smart people have always been able to outwit them, mostly by keeping them busy doing jobs they hate. When the job they hate disappears, however, the moronic masses must focus their rage on something else, and that’s when things tend to go south. When stupid people get mad, they start lopping off smart people’s heads, thereby disabling the mechanism by which smart people exert their overwhelming dominance. If history has taught stupid people anything, it’s that smart people tend to lose that smug look on their face when their head is rolling around in a basket.

Unfortunately, after all the smart people are decapitated, someone has to decide what to do next. Smart people are good at deciding, but if you get rid of all the smart people—by, say, creating a political system that discourages anyone with half a brain from participating in it—the deciding gets left to people who are ill-equipped for the task. In America, this vacuum of intelligence in politics has led to the rise of Donald Trump, whom many people view as an inconceivably stupid candidate for president—an ignorant, racist buffoon who thinks the word sexism is “kind of hot”—but who, in reality, is just smart enough to be dangerous.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, of course. The framers of our Constitution created several safeguards to prevent an angry mob of morons (otherwise known as voters) from derailing democracy. Unfortunately, all of the founding fathers were smart people. What their collective brainpower could not foresee was a wave of technological change that would “democratize” information by making it accessible to twelve-year-olds who are at least smart enough to answer “no” to the question: “Are you under 18?”

But even if they could have envisioned such a thing, who could have predicted that flooding the world with information would create an underclass of proudly ignorant idiots who, besides being utterly clueless about the most basic facts of civic life, have no idea how dumb they are?

Well, actually, lots of people have made that prediction. Einstein, for one.

The fact is, Americans don’t like smart people, and never have. Only 34% of people age 25-29 in this country have a college degree. Why? Because going to college is just the sort of thing that makes people smarter, and if you live in America, being smart puts you in the distinct minority. Walk into any bar in America and start betting people that you can solve a Rubik’s cube faster than they can say the Pledge of Allegiance, and trust me, you will quickly discover how outnumbered you are.

In America, this streak of disdain for smart people and lofty ideas used to be called “anti-intellectualism.” But these days, anti-intellectualism has morphed into something quite different, something that might more accurately be termed “pro-idiocy”—or, when it affects older people who ought to know better, “dumbass dementia.”

The chief feature of this new mental mindset is the enthusiastic celebration of ignorance—a specialized form of non-thinking that replaces the pleasures of contemplation with beer, pizza, football, and guns. With a whoop and a holler and few chugs of Bud, ignorance enthusiasts are able to reach an almost Zen-like state of detachment from the world of ideas, quieting all synaptic activity with a blissful fog of nostalgia for a time when humans co-existed peacefully with dinosaurs and America was beloved by all.

In the old days, anti-intellectuals used to spend their time battling bright ideas—by pointing out, say, that the sun obviously goes around the Earth, and if you don’t believe us, kindly step over to the guillotine. Nowadays, anti-intellectuals don’t bother refuting ideas they disagree with; instead, they amuse themselves by embracing nonsense and encouraging people who spout it. The stupider the idea the better, because the whole point of supporting and spreading ignorance is to short-circuit the only asset smart people really have: their over-active, hyper-educated, oh-so-superior brains.

Take Donald Trump’s proposal to build an 1,100-mile wall along the Mexican border to keep all the Mezzican rapists and murderers and terrorists where they belong: in line at the border crossing from Tijuana to San Diego. Many smart people have wasted their time by taking this idea seriously and pointing out how spectacularly ridiculous it is. Such efforts miss the point entirely. In the new world disorder, the stupidity of Donald Trump’s wall is its biggest asset, and the more smart people who sniff and sneer at the mind-melting logic behind it, the more attractive it becomes to the cheerful mob of morons who support it.

That makes no sense, you might think. But just thinking that it makes no sense betrays a mind that’s trying to make connections, to create meaning out of the madness, and minds like that have difficulty grasping the elusive nuances of nonsense. Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican presidential ticket perplexes a lot of smart people because it seems insane, as if half the electorate has lost its marbles and is looking for them in the gobsmacking gobbledygook that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth, which even he admits is not entirely connected to his brain. Why would a bunch of unemployed, uneducated white people think a born-and-bred billionaire is their savior? Because it’s a crazy idea that—as they always say in the movies—just might work! In the movies, as everyone knows, the crazy person is the only one who really knows what’s going on—the only one who has the guts to tell people The Truth. And it is the hope and dream of everyone who couldn’t get a high-school diploma that The Truth is not as complicated as it seems—that, in fact, things will somehow work out in the end, because they must!

In the next few months, Democrats will spend a lot of time arguing that no, things will not magically work out in the end—that the only way things will work out is if a lot of smart people put their heads together and try to figure this thing out, one complex, nuanced, multi-faceted clusterfuck at a time. And even then things may not work out, because it’ll all be too little too late. Things may already be so messed up that no one can fix them, they’ll say, but we have to try. The world is a complicated place, they’ll say, so don’t expect too much too fast—don’t expect miracles. Cleaning up a mess like this takes time, so be patient, and vote for Hillary.

Donald Trump has a different message. He is the only candidate in this election who is willing to stand up and tell people precisely what they want to hear: That everything is going to be okay. Trust me, he’ll say, everything is going to work out. Sure, things are apocalyptically screwed up now, but that’s because a black guy is in office and I’m not president yet. Trust me, the solution is easy: All we have to do is close our borders, throw out everyone who doesn’t sunburn easily, nuke the Middle East, and chant “U S A! U S A!” until God gives in and starts leaving bricks of gold on everyone’s doorstep, which can be redeemed for sweet-smelling piles of cash or a shit-ton of bitcoin, whichever you prefer.

Boom, boom, boom—problem solved.

It’s nonsense, of course. Stupid doesn’t even begin to describe it. But that doesn’t matter. What Donald Trump understands that a lot of smart people don’t is that there are angry mobs of people out there who are sick and tired of being told what they need to do to get along in this world—obey the law, get an education, cut back on the meth—and want to see some heads rolling around in a basket. They want blood: spewing, spraying streams of it. They want revenge. They want to inflict a world of hurt on anyone and everyone who is not hurting as much as they are.

They also want climate change not to be real, for trickle-down economics to work, and for their first lady to be a former swimsuit model. They want all of these things and more, because that’s what America is for: heaping all your hopes and dreams on its back, then yelling at it when it runs too slow.

But most of all, people want to be reassured. They want to be told that everything is going to be all right—that the bogeyman is going to go away, that evil will not triumph, and yes, everyone who has faith and works hard can be filthy stinking rich beyond their wildest dreams. They want Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” only this time they want it to gleam like a diamond while they drink Perrier from the tap, breathe air infused with opiates, and sleep restfully knowing that America is once again kicking some global ass.  

Donald Trump is the only candidate stupid enough to promise it to them. All we can hope is that he doesn’t really believe it. Otherwise, heads really will roll, if they don’t explode first.