There has always been a disturbing strand of anti-intellectualism in American life—the very title of Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book—but never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity, such lack of intellectual curiosity and disregard for rigorous analysis (despite his untested boast that his IQ is “one of the highest,” certainly higher than Obama’s and a host of other worthies’).
“The experts are terrible,” Donald Trump said during his campaign. “Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have.” It is hardly surprising, then, that his administration is over-stocked with know-nothing fundamentalists. Across the board, he has appointed amateurs who are hostile to science and sport obscurantism as a badge of honor. Accordingly, the policies they have adopted are as stultifying as they are noxious. The contempt for evidence-based research was immediately apparent in Trump’s original wish list of budget proposals, which would significantly defund the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, and even the Census Bureau. Government websites at the White House, the EPA, and the Departments of State, Agriculture, Interior, Labor, Education, and Energy have been scrubbed of previously posted scientific positions that would contradict the new policy program. Advisory councils have been eviscerated or abolished—the Justice Department’s National Commission on Forensic Science, no less!—and government scientists have been muzzled and forbidden from attending national forums or international conferences. The administration is obstructing the collection of data and the publication and discussion of research, as if in expectation that inconvenient truths will magically melt away.
True, antagonism toward the knowledge elite is not a monopoly of the hard right. Pol Pot’s hatred of bourgeois professionals led to the killing fields of Cambodia. Mao Zedong set the Red Guards on millions of members of the cultural elite, unleashing immeasurable suffering. It is also true enough that many authoritarian regimes in our time display contempt for reason, scientific knowledge, and intellectual expertise: witness the Turkish government’s decision to strike evolution from the school curriculum, or Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s campaign to close the liberal Central European University. But none of these incursions against reason has such encompassing power and reach as that of the American government. Nor will their destructive effects likely be as vast and enduring as the Trump administration’s.
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