The last thing I would want to be accused of is underestimating the malice of Donald Trump and many of his benighted supporters. There’s plenty of it there. No doubt it is often the case that misinformation and propaganda play into the hands of an already inherent set of prejudices.
For those anxious to make sense of the present era, when an ideologically exotic and extreme political party led by a buffoonish authoritarian with a base of infantilized, broadly ignorant supporters attain access to critical levers of power, there are voices from the past that are remarkably prescient, and astonishingly on the money.
The German Lutheran minister and opponent of Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the French Catholic novelist and essayist George Bernanos are perhaps the most useful. For the most part I’ll simply allow their words to speak for themselves here.
We can all agree: it’s complicated out there. A complicated world. One that even a well-meaning citizen may find requires too much day-to-day ingestion of information, and digging for knowledge to sustain with a limited amount of time.
This state of affairs is much too easily exploitable by those who would flourish on the abuse of the insufficiently enlightened.
For that reason, we live in a time that is nearly unprecedented, given the concepts of truth and factuality are themselves under assault, and expertise and competence demonized. This is far in excess of any traditional anti-intellectualism.
Orwellian doublespeak now is the coin of the realm, “Reform” is used to describe its opposite, in other words, the destruction of say Social Security and Medicare.
“Freedom” is routinely hijacked in order to describe subservience to corporate interests and private wealth in the absence of basic government protections of actual freedoms.
Perhaps the best way to think of stupidity for present purposes is the loss or absence of a capacity for critical thinking. This encompasses those who subscribe to nonsense because either ideology or propaganda, or a combination of the two has overwhelmed reason, as well as those who are simply intellectually dull.
It is fairly easy to understand the ideologues themselves, and the naked vested interests acting as their enablers and cohorts. We know for instance that the greed of petroleum interests sufficiently explains their distaste for, and motivation to deny the facts of climate science. If there is truly a climate crisis that endangers us all, only the irresponsible would resist the necessary measures required to address it. So the obvious choice is to simply deny that the crisis exists at all.
We know that the prevailing ideology of the American right idolizes business and entrepreneurship out of all proportion for a healthy, decent society. We know it opposes government investment in the middle class, and the reduction of wealth disparity, while supporting every sort of anti-consumer policy in the interest of keeping more of the nation’s resources in the hands of those with embedded wealth and power. And the needy are regularly demonized as deserving of their fate because of their alleged inherent flaws, and quite ironically, alleged greed.
And we know of course that racism, and America’s currently grotesque anti-immigrant nativism fit neatly with the bidding of these invidious special interests and ideological absolutists.
But what many these days seek to understand I think is: How do these transparently cynical, manipulative, prevaricating and frankly bad people achieve such power? What kind of people would actually cheer them on? How does one best cope with such stupidity, however it is defined?
Bonhoeffer and Bernanos have much to contribute I believe.
Excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s On Stupidity, included in Letters and Papers from Prison:
‘Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.’
‘If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who lives in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.’
‘Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.’
I/n conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupidest person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.
‘But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from peoples’ stupidity. than from their inner independence and wisdom.’
Excerpts from Under the Sun of Satan by George Bernanos:
…the wrath of the Stupid has always saddened me; but today I might also say it terrifies…. The Stupid asked nothing better than not to have to understand anything, and they even used to get together and try not to understand, because the last thing of which a man is capable is to be malicious and stupid all by himself…. Without understanding, they formed spontaneously into herds, not according to any particular affinities…but in obedience to the petty function, which swallowed up the whole of their small lives, allotted them by birth or chance.
The middle classes have almost a monopoly in the fabrication of true stupidity, since the upper classes specialize in a brand of entirely useless foolishness, a luxury foolishness; whereas the lower only achieve rough, and sometimes admirable, attempts at the purely bestial.
Your profound mistake is to fancy that stupidity is harmless, or even that there are harmless forms of stupidity…once you get it going, it smashes everything.
…of one thing I must first convince you: that you will never defeat the Stupid by shot nor steel nor poison gas. For they invented neither shot nor steel nor poison gas, but they know how to use everything which preserves them from the only effort of which they are quite incapable, that of thinking for themselves. They would far rather kill than have to think, unfortunately. And you go on supplying the machinery!