Dean Obeidallah: How the GOP weaponized ignorance
Political satirist Andy Borowitz has published a new book, "Profiles in Ignorance: How America's Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber," which may surprise some readers. Unlike his New Yorker column, The Borowitz Report, this book is not cast in the vein of genial or gentle humor. It's a stinging indictment of how the Republican Party has, by design, devolved from at least somewhat reasonable or coherent discussions of politics and policy to full-on celebration of idiocy.
This article first appeared in Salon.
I spoke to Borowitz for a recent episode of "Salon Talks" about his deeply researched book on the GOP's long arc into paralyzing dumbness. He shared his insight on the GOP's "three stages of ignorance," which come with laugh-out-loud moments when he quotes actual words spoken by leading Republicans to make his point. Consider this legendary utterance from former Vice President Dan Quayle: "I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future. … The future will be better tomorrow."
But it was Donald Trump, of course, who weaponized idiocy in a way that went from being amusing to literally deadly, especially with Trump's mishandling of the COVID pandemic and the election lies that led to the Jan. 6 attack. Remarkably, there are now numerous Republicans with Ivy League degrees — or even two degrees, like Ron DeSantis — who deliberately play dumb to connect with the GOP base. All is not lost, however: Borowitz shares a few concrete ways that reasonable, intelligent people can reach at least some Republicans. Watch or read our conversation below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
This book is not exactly satirical. It's substantive, though often funny too. Did you debate doing a book about the profiles in ignorance and making it truly satirical?
It was a departure for me, because I'm known for doing fake news. I'm known for making up stories. I think I wanted to try something a little different because the news has gotten so ridiculous recently. The idea of doing satirical news has become very, very difficult. With Donald Trump, I would wrack my brain trying to come up with something ridiculous that he might do, and then 10 minutes later he would do that thing. So the news wasn't fake anymore, it was just early. And that I found frustrating.
I was on tour a couple of years ago — I did a standup tour called "Make America Not Embarrassing Again." I got into the topic of ignorance a little bit and I had this throwaway line where I was talking about Sarah Palin and her interview with Katie Couric where she couldn't name a single Supreme Court decision that she disagreed with, other than Roe v. Wade, of course. And I thought, you've got to be able to come up with something, like Ali v. Frazier or something, just pull something out of your ass. And I realized that was significant because Sarah Palin was the gateway idiot who led to Donald Trump. And that got me thinking about this whole rise of ignorance in America.
I went back in time and really focused on the last 50 years, which I call the age of ignorance. And I think that's where, although we've always had dumb politicians in our country, ignorance has really reached critical mass. You don't need to be satirical when you have comedians like Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle writing the jokes for you. You really don't. You can't top them, really.
You write about ignoramuses and argue that they're attracted to the Republican Party, or so it seems. Democrats, by contrast, have eggheads. You mentioned Adlai Stevenson, Al Gore, even Mike Dukakis. Is there something about the parties that naturally self-select?
I think both parties started in a similar place. If you go back to ancient history before either of us was born, to the 1950s, and you look at Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, both of them were actually big readers. Harry Truman didn't go to college, but he read like crazy. He read every library book in Independence, Missouri. Ike on the other hand, was also a huge reader, but he kept it a secret. He thought it was going to hurt his image. He acted like he just played golf all the time, but Ike stayed up every night until 11 o'clock reading. I think reading is actually a really good measure for determining how knowledgeable somebody is.
I'm a little bit hesitant to say that the Democrats are the party of smart people and the Republicans are the party of ignorant people. But I think the Republicans caught on a little bit sooner to the fact that this whole projection of anti-intellectualism was a vote-winner, and they really made it their brand. The Democrats were a little bit tempted by that too. I mean, certainly Bill Clinton was looking at Ronald Reagan and saying, "Now, he's got a real winning message. How can I dumb down my message a little bit?" So the Democrats haven't been immune to it, but the Republicans really are untouchable when it comes to this movement. They are really the vanguard.
Are you suggesting that Donald Trump didn't bring home 11,000 documents to Mar-a-Lago because he wanted to read them? That's not why he had those documents there?
This shows you how bad I am at predicting events. I never thought that, of all the things Donald Trump would steal from the White House, reading material would be among them. Never. I mean, silverware, yes. Maybe some extra bottles of ketchup, I don't know. Reading material, never in a million years.
We've always had dumb politicians, but in the last 50 years, ignorance has really reached critical mass.
They were begging him to read stuff when he was there. One trick they used with Donald Trump, and this isn't made up — nothing in the book is made up — but one trick that the National Security Council would use, whenever they had a really important memo they wanted him to read, they would put the word "Trump" in as many paragraphs as possible, hoping that would catch his eye. He really likes that word. I don't think it succeeded, but it was worth a try.
You describe three stages of the "profiles in ignorance." The first one is ridicule. Tell us a little bit about ridicule.
First of all, I should say: Nothing in this book is just my opinion. As you point out, it's very thoroughly documented. It's all facts. That doesn't mean it's totally serious. It is hilarious because, and I'm not taking credit for it, I'm quoting very funny people.
The three stages of ignorance are ridicule, acceptance and celebration. Ridicule came first. That was when dumb politicians had to pretend to be smart. It was still important, we thought, for our politicians to be knowledgeable. Then after that, we moved into the acceptance phase, where dumb politicians felt it was OK and even cool to appear dumb. That's George W. Bush, the guy you want to have a beer with. And now we're in a phase, which is really the most horrifying phase, where smart politicians pretend to be dumb because they think that wins votes. You have very well-educated guys, like Josh Hawley, the world class sprinter, and Ron DeSantis, who talk nonsense because that's what they think their voters want to hear.
But ridicule — let's start with ridicule. There was an era a long time ago, say 50 years ago, where we still expected politicians to know stuff. The Republicans discovered in the 1960s, after the Kennedy-Nixon debates, that it was important to have somebody who was good on TV. Because Kennedy cleaned Nixon's clock on TV. Not on the radio, because on the radio they both sounded knowledgeable. So the Republicans reverse-engineered this and thought, well, instead of finding a politician who's knowledgeable and making him good on TV, let's just find somebody who's really good on TV and then make it appear as though he knows stuff.
And that was the beginning of Ronald Reagan. They recruited Ronald Reagan, who was at that point a has-been TV host. I mean, he'd hosted the "General Electric Theater." They hired this guy, Stu Spencer, who was a really shrewd campaign manager. And he hired — this is not made up! — some UCLA psychologists to basically, "Clockwork Orange"-style, load Reagan with information.
It was barely convincing. I mean, he would get up there and do talking points and seem like he had memorized the script, which of course he was really good at, since that's what he did for a living. But he won the California gubernatorial race by a million votes, and that really set the whole thing off. Because at that point the Republicans realized, we just have to find people who are good on TV.
Now, this backfired in 1988, because they thought they had that guy in Dan Quayle. They were convinced Dan Quayle was the best-looking guy in the world. Dan Quayle thought he was better looking than Robert Redford. That was his humble opinion. The problem was, Dan Quayle, unlike Reagan, could not fake being smart. Reagan, when he didn't know an answer to something, would just do a wisecrack. He'd say, like, "Well, there you go again," something like that. Quayle just got really, really upset. Nothing is worse than a guy who doesn't know the answer to a question and makes it really apparent that he doesn't know and is pissed off that he doesn't know. That was Dan Quayle. He just imploded every time his knowledge, or lack thereof, was tested.
Then you get into acceptance, with George W. Bush. He's asked by a radio host who the president of Chechnya is, and he goes, "I don't know. Do you know?" And they start spinning this. Instead of going, "We have to teach you more," a light bulb goes off. And that's the next stage. Share a little bit about that, please.
Well, this is where Karl Rove, who was really the Stu Spencer of George W. Bush — or Bush's brain, as he was called — lucked out, because he started with George Bush being a candidate much in the mold of Dan Quayle. Their ignorance was very similar. Their backgrounds are very similar. They were in the same fraternity, Quayle at DePauw in Indiana and Bush at Yale. And they were both knuckleheads. But the difference was, Dan Quayle would get asked these questions and then freak out.
George W. Bush would get asked questions and he would say, "Maybe I don't know that. Maybe I don't have to know that." He would sort of embrace his ignorance. And he said, "I don't have to know everything. I'm going to surround myself with people who know things." That sounds familiar, because Trump said the same thing. "I'm going to surround myself with good people, the best people." The problem is, those people didn't know shit either.
George W. Bush, just a few weeks before invading Iraq, did not know who Sunnis and Shiites were. I mean, he literally did not know. He was informed about this by some Iraqi exiles at the White House, and he said, "I thought the Iraqis were all Muslims." I mean, this was weeks before invading Iraq. While the book is funny, it also has a tragic side because we see the consequences of ignorance. It's not just all, ha ha ha. I mean, a lot of people die because politicians don't know stuff. And that's a problem.
But George W. Bush really turned ignorance into an asset. Because he didn't know anything and was like, "I'm like you. You don't know much either, do you? So I'm the kind of guy you'd want to have a beer with." That became so famous. That poll was commissioned not by an actual polling company, but by the marketing department of Sam Adams beer. So we've been living with this incredible political wisdom courtesy of the Sam Adams brewery. Well done, America.
Sarah Palin was the gateway idiot who led to Donald Trump. And that got me thinking about this whole rise of ignorance in America.
Sarah Palin, as you say, began to show us glimmers of what the GOP is today: the the celebration of ignorance and the trolling. Like, I'm going to stick it in your face and I'm going to gin up hate against people on the other side. Is that fair?
It's totally fair, because what you find, and this is true in other countries too, is that when facts and information disappear, hatred and prejudice fill the void. It's easier. Learning about geopolitics is tricky and complicated. Learning about economics, people's eyes glaze over. But if you say something like, "There are rapists coming over from Mexico," or, "Barack Obama wasn't born here," that's easy stuff to grasp. There is a very nefarious side to ignorance, which is, what fills that void? In the case of Sarah Palin, her own campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, who was John McCain's campaign manager, when he finally sat down with her after she'd been selected, he came to the horrifying conclusion, and this is a direct quote, "She doesn't know anything." And it's true.
She had never heard of Margaret Thatcher. She thought that the queen of the U.K. commanded the armed forces. She didn't know who attacked us on 9/11. She thought it was Saddam Hussein. This was somebody John McCain chose to be one heartbeat away from the presidency. I actually found her defeat, in the most recent election [as a candidate for Congress], really encouraging. I really feel that her status as a national joke may actually have caught up with her. Wouldn't that be wonderful? We say history doesn't move in a straight line. This book tells a story that's pretty horrifying. But wouldn't it be wonderful if we're actually due for a correction? You can be dumb as a politician in this country, but not that dumb. That would be amazing.
Finally, you get to the celebration phase, and this is something. The celebration of idiocy and how dangerous it is. Donald Trump ushered in that celebration.
Donald Trump actually doesn't have to make much of an effort. He is one of the most deeply ignorant presidents, probably the most ignorant, in our history. On the internet, especially on Twitter, it's so easy to call somebody an idiot or a moron. I'm sure you and I have been called that many, many times — today already. But I really prefer the term "ignoramus" because ignoramus literally means somebody who doesn't know things. And Donald Trump does not know any school subject well, even the areas of his so-called expertise, like business and construction and renovation. He doesn't know about that either. I have a lot of quotes from people who worked for him who said he was completely at sea when it came to that stuff.
But what's really horrifying about this stage — there are two kinds of ignorant politicians we're dealing with now. We have Marjorie Taylor Greene, who comes by ignorance very naturally. I mean, she's the one who says that I personally have a space laser — which I wish I had! I wish I could operate a space laser. That is such a flattering assessment of me, to think that I could operate such machinery. I barely can get on Zoom, and she thinks I can do a space laser. So she comes by it naturally. Lauren Boebert comes by it very naturally. Louie Gohmert, people like that.
Marjorie Taylor Greene says that I personally have a space laser — which I wish I had! That is such a flattering assessment of me, to think that I could operate such machinery. I can barely get on Zoom.
But then there are these super-educated guys like Ted Cruz, Princeton grad, Ron DeSantis, Josh Hawley. These guys know better, and yet they're making really dumb decisions because it appeals to this populist sense that we don't want smart people running the show. To me, the celebration phase is the most heinous phase, because we have people who really know better who are acting like dopes, and it's hurting us. It's endangering us.
How do you think that impacts the base? When Donald Trump would say things like, "I know more than the generals. I know more than the doctors," the way I interpret it is that his base, who loves him, is like, "Oh yeah, I know more than the experts too. I'm glad he's finally saying the truth." And I'm not saying you should question experts. But there are people who are like, "No, in my gut, I feel you're wrong. I have no empirical, objective data to back that up. But because I disagree with you, I don't care that you have a PhD and you've spent your life working in this field." During the pandemic, we saw how dangerous that was.
During the 2008 election, a British documentarian went out and interviewed voters in West Virginia and was asking them about Obama. Obama wasn't very popular in West Virginia. One woman said, "I'm not going to vote for him because he's a Muslim." And the interviewer said, "Well actually, ma'am, he is a Christian." And she said, "I disagree." I mean that is where we are — we've elevated everyone's opinion to the level of fact. That is very dangerous. But here's the thing. If we're going to believe in democracy — and I hate to be an optimist, but I am kind of an optimist — we can't totally give up on the idea of Americans learning stuff. We can't just say, "Well every Republican is an idiot and uneducable, and they can't be taught the truth."
Donald Trump does not know any school subject well, even in the areas of his so-called expertise, like business and construction and renovation.
One thing that I came across from researching the book is — you remember trickle-down economics, the Republican gospel that you cut the taxes of the rich and then the poor, magically, somehow get rich too. Doesn't work. It's been disproved a million times. I think, though, that trickle-down ignorance has been a roaring success, because we're social animals and we're actually very compliant.
I mean remember during the "War on Terror"? We actually paid attention to Tom Ridge when he had that ridiculous color-coded chart and said, "We're up to orange today." We actually listened to that. So when our leaders say things like, to pull an example out of thin air, "I really think that drinking bleach could knock out the coronavirus just like that," a certain number of us will say, "Well he's really important, he's the president, so that must be true." So these people have an enormous responsibility, obviously. What they say has enormous power.
If ignorance is trickling down, the only thing I can think of is that knowledge has to somehow push up. We've got to work locally and get involved locally and try to make our towns and communities better. Elect local politicians who are well-informed, get engaged in democracy in a way that reaffirms our belief in democracy. And then hope that will eventually spread upward.
We tend to nationalize every problem. We're on Twitter constantly. We think it's all about Trump and Pelosi and Biden and all this stuff. We take ourselves off the playing field when it comes to our little community, our town. Yet that's probably where the best democracy is happening right now, at the local level. And it's probably the thing that we ignore the most, unfortunately.
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