Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > Thank You Donald Trump. Seriously. Thank You.

Oct 20, 2016

Thank You Donald Trump. Seriously. Thank You.

tags: ignorance

Donald Trump's Misleading Twitter Feed (see below)

Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

I owe a great debt to Donald J. Trump. Let me explain.

Eight years ago, in 2008, I wrote a book called Just How Stupid Are We. It was a cri de coeur. The theme was summed up by my provocative title, though I never intended it to be taken literally. I didn’t mean voters are stupid. My point was that our politics are often stupid and that’s because millions of people know so little about politics they can be taken advantage of by manipulative politicians. 

Exhibit A was a frightening statistic buried in polling data about the Iraq War. On the eve of the war a majority of Americans thought that the reason we had decided to topple Saddam Hussein was because they believed that “Iraq played an important role in September 11.” Actually, he hadn’t played any role at all, of course, as even the Bush administration eventually acknowledged. 

I concluded that if the American people couldn't get the most basic facts right about the most important events of our recent history – 9-11 and the Iraq War – it was unlikely they can be counted on to get the facts right about the run-of-the mill matters that usually come up in political debates. And that meant they probably cannot be trusted to get the facts right about much of anything. That’s alarming. If you believe a majority of Americans are politically ignorant it’s hard to make the case that our democracy really works. Voters in a democracy have to know what they’re talking about, right? 

And yet it appeared that Americans don’t. A majority don’t know there are three branches of government, don’t know there are 100 United States senators, and cannot name the chief justice. Most have no clue who represents them in Congress or which party controls Congress.

The book was a minor hit, ending up on the Amazon bestseller list. An interview I did on CNN that was posted to YouTube drew more than a million hits. I even appeared on The Daily Show and got a chance to kibitz with Jon Stewart. When I mentioned that I wanted to relay some statistics Stewart interrupted, "Please. There’s nothing my audience craves more than statistics,” causing the audience to break up in laughter. But Stewart's ribbing aside, the audience seemed truly shocked by my statistics.

Alas, my fifteen minutes of fame ended and people forgot all about me and my book. I never succeeded in getting a national conversation going about the cost of gross public ignorance. Just six months after the book was published Barack Obama was elected president. In the heady mood that greeted that historic event it didn't occur to people that we had a problem. We'd just put the first black man in the White House. How bad could things be?

The election of 2016 has provided the gloomy answer. Lying, it turns out, is a proven success formula. Trump has shown repeatedly that he can manipulate millions by regurgitating half-truths and outright lies to voters who know so little about the way the real world works that they find it plausible he’s telling them the truth and everybody else is lying. As one recent study found, 48 percent of his supporters disbelieve the federal government’s basic economic statistics (like the unemployment rate). That leaves them sitting ducks for the wild conspiracy theories he keeps peddling. 

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