By: Jared Marcel Pollen
Some time ago, likely in a moment of procrastination over some more important task, I found myself browsing through a cache of old interviews from The Daily Show (the Jon Stewart era). One such interview was with Mike Huckabee (2015), which I’d remembered watching live years earlier. Huckabee was promoting his apologia, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy–– another puritanical installation in the great conflict between the provincial interior and the cosmopolitan coasts. After likening Beyoncé to a stripper and mocking the Harvard faculty, Huckabee posed a question: “If your car breaks down in the middle of the night on a country road, who do you want coming by? An MBA in a Beemer, or do you want a couple of good ol’ boys in a pickup truck, with a toolbox in the back?”
These “would you rather” scenarios are a common trope in the culture war. The most famous is probably William F. Buckley’s claim that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the phonebook than by the Harvard University faculty. Huckabee, who grew up in Arkansas and was educated at a Baptist University, might be able to claim membership in the heartland, but Buckley (a Yale man) certainly couldn’t have, no more than most Republicans in the House of Representatives can today.
With decades of this stuff piled high in the American consciousness, the mental conditions required to give rise to a populist like Trump should have been obvious. These kinds of sentiments, aside from being very stupid, are also very insidious, and highly corrosive to the idea of an informed society. For populism’s great peril is in its mawkish insistence on normalcy as a kind of authenticity––on there being a “real America.” And more still, that this authenticity is somehow measured by, say, how much gravy one has coursing through one’s veins. It also produces rip currents of anti-intellectualism and vulgarity (and by vulgarity I don’t mean profane, but simply that which is “of the common people”). The apotheosis of this has been reached (one hopes) with the 45th president of the United States, who is less a portrait of someone with an anti-intellectual posture than someone living an anti-intellectual existence.
Populism is an old trick. It’s been around since the earliest democracies. Plato, Aristotle and all the classical thinkers wrote about it and rightly condemned it, understanding that it would naturally end with a demagogue. And it should come as no surprise that they regarded the most threatening aspect of this kind of politics to be its disdain for the educated. One of the best dramatizations of this in the ancient world is Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Written during a lull in the Peloponnesian War, it’s considered one of the playwright’s lighter, apolitical comedies.
In short, it concerns an old man (Strepsiades) and his son (Pheidippides), who has squandered the family’s savings on expensive equine-related hobbies. When the wolves are at the door, Strepsiades asks his son to enroll in The Thinkery, run by Socrates, so that his son may learn how to inflate weak arguments and outwit his creditors. When his son refuses, Strepsiades enrolls himself in the academy, where Socrates and his students measure the distance fleas jump by tracking their prints in wax, sit high up in swings so that they can better examine the heavens, and press their faces to the floor so that they can better examine the earth. When Strepsiades proves incapable of learning the new school of knowledge, Pheidippides finally enrolls in his father’s place. After being shown how easy it is to come to prominence in Athenian society through the practice of Inferior Argument, Pheidippides becomes a devotee and one of the most talented students in The Thinkery. However, instead of helping the family dodge its debts, Pheidippides turns on his father and beats him one evening over the dinner proceedings––claiming that if fathers have the right to beat their sons, then sons should have the same right as well. The climax of the play is when Strepsiades returns to burn down The Thinkery, chasing Socrates and his students off the stage.
The play is about many things; generation gaps, the insolence of youth, fear of new ideas and intellectual trends. More than anything though, it is a comment on the perception of the educated class in a democratic society. While it can be argued that Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds was ironic, the laughter it likely received from its audience was not. Even at a time that we regard as the golden age of intellectual activity in the ancient world, the Athenian masses were far from enlightened. Public opinion of Socrates was low––so low in fact that it eventually led to his execution for being a “corruptor of the youth” (Plato would later cite The Clouds as one of the possible reasons for this).
For perspective, The Clouds was performed at a time when Athenian politics was under the influence of Cleon, a bullying and choleric demagogue who came to prominence through his hatred of the nobility and his contempt for the Spartans. Known for trying to persecute his political enemies, Aristophanes had himself been a target of Cleon’s wrath. Indeed, the plays that surround The Clouds––The Knights and The Wasps––are both vicious satires on the statesman, and there is also a brief interlude in The Clouds where a member of the chorus (standing in for the playwright) disrupts the performance to condemn the audience for their continuous support of the politician.
Despite his hatred of the elite, Cleon was himself a member of the aristocracy, as all populists are. This is part of the con. Virtually every populist of note, past or present, has been of the class they supposedly despise. Nigel Farage, Silvio Berlusconi, Andrej Babiš, Geert Wilders, to take a few Europeans. Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, to take a few Americans. The list goes on. But none are as egregious as the man whose primary residence is a gilded tower in the center of Manhattan claiming to be a representative of “the forgotten.” The cognitive dissonance this requires is astounding. How many times do we have to hear that “Washington is broken,” or that politicians are “out of touch” before we believe that the only solution is to move a blundering aristocrat of subnormal ability into the White House? And that this is somehow a closer approximation of the common that is so desperately wanting in our politicians?
Part of Trump’s success at masquerading as a champion of the underclass is that he managed (through no virtue of his own) to uncouple class snobbery from the manners and taste that usually accompany it. (This must be what Sean Hannity meant when he characterized Trump as a “blue collar billionaire.”) The simple folk of Huckabee’s America might not be able to identify with Trump’s affluence, but they can indeed identify with his appalling use of language, his resentment, his glaringly repressed insecurity, and his total lack of education. For as anti-elitist as some Americans can be, this antipathy never quashes their desire to get paid. Polls reveal that an astonishing number of classifiably poor Americans believe they will soon become rich. Intellectual elitism on the other hand, is not sought after as doggedly––or at all. The moneyed snob is still enviable, whereas the intellectual snob is always insufferable. Thus, like all useless celebrities who are vaulted simply for their image of wealth, Trump and his brand of populism represent an ascension to power without any of the competence or literacy required for it.
At its best, populism presents itself as the injection of “common sense” into politics. This can be read right into Rousseau’s idea of “the general will” (i.e. the collective instincts of the populace are likely truer and straighter than the wisdom of any governing body). This is a view peculiar to politics. No one is a populist when it comes to open-heart surgery, or cancer research, or legal representation. And if your plane breaks down on the runway, would you want a couple of good ol’ boys in a pickup truck to come inspect it? The main problem with common sense is precisely that it’s common, and what is apparently regarded as “common” is often nothing more than a linkage of nauseating symbols, and the belief that the less experience one has, and the less one knows, the more capable one is likely to be.
The common sense that is supposedly so lacking from political leadership is in fact not common sense at all. For common sense requires some capacity for irony. The Australian poet Clive James described it best when he said that a sense of humor “is just common sense, dancing.” The same can be applied to irony, which is the tyranny of common sense, and it is an invaluable tool for navigating the nonsense of political life. One of the many things that made George Orwell so brilliant, according to Lionel Trilling, was his “common sense” refusal to ignore the ironies of the revolutionary socialism he’d fought so earnestly for in Spain.
No one who possesses even a shred of this ability could look at Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, et al., or Donald Trump, and see anything representative of whatever the ordinary is supposed to be. Or watch, without flinching, as Mitch McConnell says that the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court should be confirmed as quickly as possible, despite his previous standard (under Obama) that the Senate should not consider nominations during an election year.
Irony should be the price of entry for politics. Yet in practice, politics seems to require the deliberate removal of irony, which in turn makes people stupid and governments potentially dangerous. The capacity to see contradictions in one’s own position is the first thing that should be assessed with any candidate––and anyone who lacks it should be immediately treated as suspect. Perhaps introducing a little more of this kind of common sense into our discourse might also mean valuing a little more of the intellectual snobbery that populism defines itself against. At least then, the “forgotten people”––for their own sake––could drop the insane illusion that another privatizing, corporate-tax-cutting plutocrat is the president they’ve been so desperately waiting for.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, 3:AM Magazine, Salo Press and Potluck Magazine, among others. He is also the author of the collection of short stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness, available from Crowsnest Books. He currently lives in Prague.
Image: The Demagogue (1941), painting by José Clemente Orozco (1883 – 1949) via wikipedia