Sometimes, it’s only when you’re on the outside looking in that you can perceive the real truth of a situation.
This appears to be the case for Max Boot, a conservative pundit who has become disillusioned with the right wing and the Republican Party since the rise of President Donald Trump. Boot has already publicly announced that he was wrong for supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he left the GOP in disgust at its current state. And in a new column for the Washington Post this week, he expressed more regret about his past in the conservative movement — in particular, his engagement in the anti-intellectual rhetoric common on the right.
“I used to think right-wing anti-elitism against the intellectuals — in contrast to the left-wing anti-elitism against the rich — was innocuous and even well-warranted,” he wrote. “While warning of the dangers of populism, I sometimes indulged in this kind of posturing myself. Like a lot of conservative eggheads, I imagined that, even though I lived among the coastal elite, I was expressing the wisdom of the heartland.”
He added: “I now realize that these stereotypes are lazy, stupid and dangerous.”
It’s dangerous, of course, because anti-intellectual rhetoric is a common tool of authoritarians seeking to undermine anyone who could challenge them. Boot noted that Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong all demonized and went after intellectuals they feared. These actions mirror Trump’s attacks on experts and the media, whom Trump calls “the enemy of the people,” echoing Stalin himself.
Of course, intellectuals and commentators aren’t without their faults. Boot himself, as a backer of the Iraq War, would be a prime example of their failings. But anti-intellectualism — denunciations of the “chattering class” — was itself a disturbing trait of the second Bush administration as it devised to bring the country to war, with horrifying consequences. Public intellectuals aren’t above criticism, but a political ideology that denounces them as illegitimate should be feared.
When someone like Trump wields anti-intellectualism and hostility to public figures who can challenge him, it’s a clear sign we’re on a perilous path.
“In the United States, to be sure, it will not lead to Stalinist show trials, a Cultural Revolution or the ‘killing fields,’ but it could conceivably lead to the kind of soft authoritarianism that Viktor Orban has imposed in Hungary,” wrote Boot. “President Trump shows his eagerness to imitate the dictators by calling the news media ‘the enemy of the people’ and denouncing his critics as traitors. The president’s hateful rhetoric encouraged one supporter to mail pipe bombs to prominent liberals and journalists, and could yet spark greater violence.”
He also speculated that Trump’s anger toward the media and others comes not just from cynical political motives but arises from his fragile ego.
“More than a political threat, the chattering classes are a psychological threat: They feed Trump’s insecurities because he knows they view him as a buffoonish ignoramus, not as the ‘‘extremely stable genius’ that he so desperately wants to be,” said Boot.