Why populism is the greatest con in American politics

Is Donald Trump a plutocrat in populist's clothing? Martin Amis defends rational thought over anti-intellectualism—which might just be the greatest con in American politics.

Martin Amis: Is snobbery due for a comeback? Well, not—I don’t mean class snobbery. All that rubbish is, at least in England, it’s more or less a thing of the past. But I think intellectual snobbery has been much neglected and I was pleading for more care about how people express themselves, and more reverence—not for people of high social standing, but for people of decent education and training.

Populism relies on a sentimental and, in fact, very old-fashioned view that the uneducated population knows better in its instincts than the over-refined elite. That leads to anti-intellectualism, which is self-destructive for everyone.

I mean, this is as old as democracy, you know: should you get the able-est and most intellectually agile leader, or should you get the most average leader? This was discussed in Rome in classical antiquity.

And in every other developed nation brain has won the battle over instinct. It’s ridiculously old-fashioned to think that there’s some core instinct that is going to be wiser than an analytical and rational approach. “I go with my gut,” you know. Bush Jr. took us into Iraq. He said, “I went with my gut,” which was watched with approval by probably the majority of Americans.

Now, in every other nation brain has won over gut but in America it still splits the nation, and the idea that Donald Trump has cast off these shackles and we can go back to being brutes again is a terrible prospect. “Telling it like it is.” What does that mean? I never know what he’s going on about when he says that: “I tell it like it is,” and his supporters say, “He tells it like it is.” Tells WHAT like WHAT is?

In fact, since his mendacity rate is about 80 percent at the best of times he’s telling it how it ISN’T.

And what that means, decoded, “telling it like it is,” is being a blundering loudmouth who gives voice to the sort of low grumble in the common mind. I can see no virtue in that. And it’s profoundly hypocritical because his policies do not favor the working man. He’s a plutocrat to his core, and those are the policies he’ll follow. It’s an act, populism. Always an act.

There is no substitute for thinking—although modern-day America may have you believing otherwise. Novelist Martin Amis attributes the recent surge in anti-intellectualism to the populist politics sweeping the United States. "Populism relies on a sentimental and, in fact, very old-fashioned view that the uneducated population knows better in its instincts than the over-refined elite. That leads to anti-intellectualism, which is self-destructive for everyone." The rejection of rationality and analysis is something politicians can easily capitalize on, and Amis refers to President Trump as a plutocrat in populist's clothing. "It’s profoundly hypocritical because his policies do not favor the working man... It’s an act, populism. Always an act." Are the American people being conned, and is a return to elitism the answer? Martin Amis is the author of The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017.

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