Anti-Intellectualism and the 2016 Presidential Race

The Oval Office is up for grabs between Clinton and Trump, and I can’t remember the last time that I, living in a capitalist society, as a consumer, somehow ran out of options. If I can get my beer non-alcoholic and my ice cream fat-free, surely, I can get my presidential candidate non-corporate and scandal-free, right? OK, so maybe this is just a ‘first world problem’, and I should be glad there’s even a semblance of a democratic process in all this.

Still, one can’t help but wonder how did we get here? Trump has no experience in political office and ‘misremembers’ worse than the last Republican president; while Clinton has too much of the wrong kind of experience– e.g. promoting fracking and selling arms around the world.[1] I feel like there used to be standards for this. Perhaps the moral compass of this country has been affected by climate change. The polar ice caps are not what they used to be and neither is the democratic process. Why? Anti-intellectualism. No, I don’t mean ‘democracy’ is in shambles because we lack a certain standard of intellectual capacity. In fact, anti-intellectualism has very little to do with one’s intellect at all. Rather, it is an attitude that expresses one’s masked fundamentalism. We are not as liberal or progressive as we think.

Typically, anti-intellectualism either refers to a disregard for facts, an unwillingness to engage in reasoned debate, or being under the sway of religious emotions. We’ve all been part of conversations where your interlocutor dismisses a reasonable argument simply because it does not agree with their own particular worldview– the person grows more belligerent and territorial in proportion to your use of reason. “How dare you be better informed than I! I who have the power of the Internet at my fingertips!” After all, if Siri said so, it must be true. We live in an increasingly automated world where we rely more and more on AI to do all sorts of things for us, including thinking. And it all feels so natural, as if AI were just an extension of our selves; but the boundaries between our thoughts and what thinks for us has become blurred. Our thoughts are not our own, we merely regurgitate what we find in media– be it on TV, before a pulpit, on clothing labels, in a snapchat– we take whatever fancies our self-interests and toss it into that shopping cart called identity. Identity has become an accumulation of what we consume. And what we consume is artificial. Anti-intellectualism is the consequence of surrendering one’s self to artificial intelligence.[2]

Anti-intellectualism stems from two necessary conditions: capitalism and cynicism. Anti-intellectualism reflects a negative attitude towards deliberation and diversity. It breeds a sense of identity that is territorial and inhibits one’s capacity to empathize and be connected to others. And when one’s values and self-interests become undifferentiable and non-negotiable, it is fundamentalism. And it is the ‘new black’.

The Over-Consumption of Free Speech

Trump’s popularity has been built upon a ‘freedom of speech’ platform that wages war against ‘political correctness’– the man speaks his mind, and people are drawn to this. However, ‘freedom of speech’ in an age of anti-intellectualism has become nothing more than the freedom for sound to endlessly bounce around in an echo chamber. When I think of ‘freedom of speech’ I associate it with freedom of the press, the freedom to dissent, or to conscientiously object to injustice perpetrated by the powerful– you know, the concepts of accountability and open dialogue that guard against tyranny. But this is not how ‘freedom of speech’ manifests itself today; it means something more like the freedom from guilt to excuse oneself when speaking in a tyrannical and bigoted way. “I’m exercising my freedom of speech” sounds more and more like “I’m justifying my stubborn inability to empathize or engage in reasonable debate with a differing opinion”, or it’s simply the shamelessly proud broadcasting of one’s tribal affinity. “Go Red Sox!” is affectively no different from “black lives matter!” or “vote Trump!” Freedom of speech, within the context of advanced capitalism, has become the freedom to advertise one’s personal brand; it is self-serving. But this really just serves corporate interests. Our addiction for self-advertising floods the marketplace of political discourse with content aimed at generating ‘likes’ for profit, not knowledge or truth.[3] Such logic is not sustainable for a healthy democracy. Freedom of speech should build constructive dialogue towards fairer governance and guard against bigotry and tyranny; instead, it tends towards inundating the public sphere with gossip and misinformation in the very service of tyranny.

‘Freedom of speech’ floods the public sphere with information, drowning out what is relevant news in a sea of undifferentiated headlines. Thanks to technology, we now have the means to produce information at a blistering rate. People tweet, Facebook, share and re-share information around the clock. It is not only the media elite that broadcast the ‘news’ anymore, it is literally everyone. We are the creators of what we simultaneously consume: ourselves. Narcissism has never been so profitable, or savory– at least, that’s what Trump would have us believe about Trump Steaks…or his taco bowls.

It becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what is relevant information when there is so much of it to sift through. The premise behind the HBO show ‘Newsroom’ is that a well-informed electorate is vital to a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, not many of us are as informed as we should be. Between Trump hijacking headlines and major news outlets’ tendency to report on spectacle, relevant information is hard to come by for the everyday voter.

Give the Clinton campaign credit here too. They are great at politicking and disseminating troll-worthy taglines to divert attention away from real issues. Clinton tweeted: “@BernieSanders prioritized gun manufacturers’ rights over the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook”. The art of politicking aside, this tweet is, while disheartening, amusingly misleading; but the way in which it is worded does its job: it appeals to voters’ emotions by using a dubious analogy. When a drunken person gets into a car and runs someone over with it, it is not the car manufacturer that is at fault. It is the person using the car irresponsibly who is at fault. Voting in favor of manufacturer’s rights does not equate to the disregard of grieving parents. Sanders is actually on the progressive side of the gun control debate­­– he has voted to ban assault rifles, to expand background checks on gun buyers, supports closing loopholes that enable the illegal purchase of arms, and understands that curbing gun violence requires addressing infrastructure such as education and healthcare.[4] But of course, the Clinton campaign isn’t interested in any of that now are they? What it wants is for this little bit of 140 characters to be reproduced and disseminated as far and wide as possible. To be fair, there are examples of this spread of misinformation coming from all sides and every corner of the Internet.[5] Point being, the consumption of user-perpetuated information has become a form of addiction that keeps us fixated on spectacle without substance.

Anti-Intellectualism is the state of being caught in a matrix of power relations where one’s ability to think becomes completely dependent upon something other than the self. This is what I meant earlier by alluding to AI; perhaps it is infiltrating human existence in ways science fiction has yet to warn us about. We conflate what thinks for us, with our own thinking, all the while internalizing an illusion of authority that simultaneously reinforces one’s false sense of self-autonomy. ‘What thinks for us’ are the institutions that are in the business of manufacturing information– the media, the sciences– that also function to police and enforce norms; or in Marxist terms, those who control the means of producing information. I say ‘information’, and not knowledge, because knowledge is some rare endangered thing not many of us recognize anymore, whereas information is ubiquitous. And that is the anti-intellectual context, an inundation of information that floods the public sphere keeping people from what would threaten the hegemony of the oligarchy: knowledge.[6]

Identity Within Advanced Capitalism

As consumers, we are experts in accumulation. We save, hoard, and collect all sorts of things, simultaneously accumulating and constructing a sense of self-identity or brand- “we are what we buy”. But this identity-building is not something uniquely our own. Rather, it is an identity manufactured and sold to us by corporations that profit off of our never-ending drive to express ourselves. What, where, when, how and why one buys is a pretty accurate indicator of one’s values, and of one’s own sense of identity.[7] This addiction to accumulation reveals how our desires have become increasingly narcissistic rather than empathic. We have stronger desires to learn about the latest trends in fashion, business, technology, and politics that reflect our own interests than we do about issues that affect others, never considering how acting on our own interests could negatively affect others.

As we consume, we fortify the illusion that we are expressing our freedom of self-creation, which taps into a powerful gravitational force that sucks us ever inwards. We seduce ourselves into believing the ‘I’ that is constructed via purchases is an autonomous being expressing individualism because it was constructed from free-market choices. Against the backdrop of capitalism a fundamental sense of identity for the individual is exposed– “I” constitute my own absolute authority because I am self-bought; I am the accumulation of what I have accumulated. Of course accumulation does not only pertain to material goods. We also buy into the different ideas and moral agendas that accompany these products, intentional or not. Regardless of wherever we might be– a shopping mall, in front of a television in the confines of our homes, at church– we are constantly bombarded with choices that tap into our consumer-driven subconscious, we either buy into whatever we’re presented with, or we don’t. During presidential election years this phenomenon is even more pronounced.

Never mind that our society is already constructed by enough binary oppositions– black/white, male/female, straight/queer, rich/poor, so on and so forth, every four years all the ugliness of our binary foundations rises to a boiling point when represented by the ultimate binary: a presidential election that decides an actual winner between two conflicting ideologies. Of course the notion that there could only be two major parties is another can of worms entirely, but certainly represents how our society is entrenched in binary logic.

Voting for a president has the potential for bringing either the best or worst out of an electorate. It’s as if most people forget about how passionate they are about things until presented with a high-stakes either/or decision in the form of a presidential election. Or perhaps people have just lost whatever passion they once had simply because for as long as they’ve been alive, there have only been just two choices: democrat or republican. For three out of every four years, people are generally content with tolerating others and coexisting despite differences, until that fourth year when they’re reminded that things could be otherwise. Suddenly, everyone’s a self-appointed expert in politics because it’s time to cash in on their invested identities. After all, most people vote relative to ‘their own’ interests, right? But what influential forces are informing these interests?

Again, the way in which we accumulate a sense of self-identity via consumerism tends to fortify, inform, and manipulate ‘our’ interests into aligning with corporate and/or two-party political interests. And this is to say nothing of different special interest groups that are also warring for our allegiances. In a society grounded in the binary antagonism of ‘us versus them’, the fight for rights has become reduced to an archaic form of tribalism causing marginalized groups to compete against each other to fight for their slice of the pie. All this is heightened during a presidential election year when a mind-boggling amount of dollars is invested into the U.S. war on democracy at home.

In a capitalistic context, sure, everything can ultimately become commodified for the sake of profit, but it is the inhuman force of accumulation that drives this process, and not a soul is free from its influence. Democracy as a ‘way of life’ gets in the way of democracy as a ‘form of government’; but of course the reverse can be just as poignant. All to say– while pluralism and diversity are ideas we celebrate and encourage, we really have no clue how to relate to them in a way that does not involve commodification– of others or ourselves. Anti-intellectualism reinforces one’s sense of sacred and unquestioned identity, which simultaneously decreases one’s capacity to empathize and identify with others. This in turn influences the competition and struggle between conflicting special interest groups who ironically end up commodifying their own ideology for the sake of broadcasting it. Don’t tell Sanders supporters this, but perhaps revolution really is impossible in a capitalist society. Or is that just cynicism speaking.

Cynicism and Fundamentalism

While necessary, capitalism alone is not sufficient to explain the increasing prevalence of anti-intellectualism. Cynicism, in concert with capitalist forces of accumulation, has fueled the spread of anti-intellectualism. The lack of faith in our elected officials to ‘do the right thing’ has given way to a defeatist attitude of simply accepting what’s coming despite our best efforts to resist, like the early rhetoric behind Clinton’s ‘inevitable’ presidential win. It is often said that cynicism has infected the youth, and that this is reflected in their dismal voter turnout. Those who are jaded by politics tend not to vote, they choose to tap out and not participate. But then those who do not vote have no business complaining about how non-ideal everything is. Sure, #firstworldproblems; but actually no– our problems are serious because they affect and trickle down to other parts of the world. The very people, young people, who have the most potential power to effect change, are the same ones who rarely vote.[8] Of course, our country has laws that actively make it difficult for people to vote, which in turn fuels more cynicism.[9] Sure, maybe the youth are too busy being young and preoccupied with making a life for themselves to worry about ‘petty politics’. It still doesn’t deny the point that they are the ones who make a difference, and will make a difference, being ‘the future’ and all. Too bad we (the ‘grown ups’) are generally indifferent to them making a difference because we’re too preoccupied with our past and present and not their future. And this reflects the anti-intellectual sentiment, being indifferent to the life outside of one’s own that one nonetheless affects (climate change anyone?).

It’s ironic that the distrust and antagonism towards the political process can result in the nomination of someone like Trump whose figure only further exacerbates cynicism in the process. It’s an endless cycle of violence. As distrust, fear, doubt, and contempt towards authority grow, so do cynicism and despair, which in turn only further alienate and disempower people from the sphere of politics. In a word, we are disenchanted. What were we enchanted by before? The American Dream? The belief in ourselves to be able to do anything, to overcome any obstacle, and to succeed? Whatever it was, that strong moral spirit of yesteryear is in drastic decline. But it is also of no use to attempt to return to those good ol’ days; otherwise, we are no different from Trump, who wants to ‘make America great again.’ What version of America was great, and for whom? This is why I am always skeptical of trends in fashion, real estate, and pop culture in general that increasingly embrace a return to what is ‘vintage’. What exactly is it that we are celebrating here or trying to make part of our identities? A return to the past is often an attempt at ‘reformation’, at cultural purification. Intentional or otherwise– it is neo-fundamentalism, the return of a worldview that is incapable of coexisting among others within a pluralistic context. Hipsters all across this country are the new white cultural elite, and perhaps young people should not be so ready to embrace this trend that celebrates the return of a masked supremacist ideology. This is what cynicism gets us when we fall into despair: a far worse situation than the one that currently inspires said cynicism, where there can only be the total surrender to the seductive promise of a return to the glory days.

With this nostalgia for days past, it is not simply the continual shift of politics towards the right, but a continual regression or gravitational pull towards a core or center. It is difficult to resist the allure of ‘better days past’. We tend to romanticize and fetishize selected memories we most identify with, creating a narrative for ourselves based on these; hence we are always trying to recapture some lost essence, which keeps us fixated on the past, simultaneously inhibiting us from moving towards the future. On a larger scale, the binary struggle between the two-party establishment and actual progressives reflects the binary between center and periphery, between power aggregated in one place and those on the margins fighting for justice. This is because fundamentalism is re-establishing itself as the norm thanks to anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism and its rejection of reasonable discourse reveals itself as a phenomenon that not only inhibits one’s capacity for empathy but also simultaneously establishes one’s self as the absolute center of one’s existence. This applies as well to herd mentality and identity politics; individual and group desires begin to perfectly mirror one another. The individual becomes the unchallenged authority on all things, because the individual is free to create their own brand of information, which is merely mimicry. This is why Trump is so deft at deflecting critical questions, because his worldview is one and the same with the brand that bears his name. Every answer for Trump is ultimately self-referencing– this is symptomatic of fundamentalism. Clinton is a fundamentalist because of her capitalism; consider all her political positions and you will come to the conclusion that she is fundamentally incapable of adopting a worldview that does not cater to corporate interests.[10] But perhaps I’m just cynical.

Anti-Intellectualism: Active Disregard for Ethics

It is an interesting case where postmodern pluralism, its emphasis on freedom, and the proliferation of diversity and a multiplicity of different worldviews, simultaneously breeds an indifference to this freedom. The celebration of diversity has empowered individuals to pursue their own forms of self-expression. However, this freedom of self-expression has regressed into a narcissistic form of individualism where one dismisses worldviews that do not conform to one’s own. It is great that we have all sorts of disparate movements aimed at progressing social justice issues, but can these disparate movements break free from tribal tendencies that cause them to fight for their slice of the pie, and rather than see justice from a moralizing stance, see if from an intersubjective and ethical one? Being indifferent to other worldviews has become an ideology that people increasingly, collectively, and unconsciously internalize. Again, this is symptomatic of anti-intellectualism. To put it in the philosopher Charles Taylor’s terms, modern man suffers from secular near-sightedness, unable to see past his own secular presuppositions. ‘Secularization’, based on the unwavering belief in ‘reason alone’ has become sacralized to the point where its logic becomes increasingly undifferentiated from the logic of fundamentalism. The dismissal of all competing worldviews as a fundamental worldview then introduces the possibility for a demagogic figure like Trump to come along and manipulate this anti-intellectualism to his advantage. Something the previous Republican president did rather effectively, in fact.

When I consider the ramifications of anti-intellectualism, I recall the war on Iraq and the obfuscation of facts and intentions that accompanied it. The Bush regime somehow pulled off an unjust war while riding the wave of the public’s hyper-patriotic emotions in the wake of 9/11. It is now widely accepted and understood that the Iraq War was unjustified. So how is it that so many people supported it? Obviously there are many factors involved in understanding how the Iraq War unfolded. I am not suggesting that anti-intellectualism was solely responsible for it; I am saying that anti-intellectualism is the phenomenon that conditions the acceptance of what is without adequate justification. It is the disregard for ethics in favor of moral self-interest.[11] I once heard counterterrorism expert Malcolm Nance sarcastically comment during one of his book talks in NYC that the invasion of Iraq was as if we declared war on Mexico after Pearl Harbor. What is terrifying about Trump is one can imagine him saying something just as ridiculous, but in all seriousness, and being dismissive of criticisms against him. Of course, Clinton would not say such a thing; she’s more adept at keeping secrets while spinning alternative narratives that conceal the truth of whoever she might really be.

Anti-intellectualism expresses a disregard for ethics. Crudely stated, it is secular fundamentalism. The justification for one’s beliefs and actions are rooted squarely in one’s non-negotiable and unchanging sense of identity or tribal allegiance, others be damned. Neocons believe in the identity of this country as the world police, neoliberals believe in an unregulated market, republicans in this, democrats in that, and never the twain shall meet. Hence, perpetual conflict, war, and injustice.

Despite all the sentiment about the U.S. being post-racial, secular, egalitarian, and what-have-you, despite the appearance of being a multi-culturally sensitive and forward-thinking nation, Trump’s political narrative suggests that a lot of Americans are closeted bigots, sexists and racists. Clearly, there are Trump supporters of the Klan variety who are unabashedly so, and then there are so many who, like Trump himself, lack the critical distance to realize their own racism. As a nation we clearly do not have an adequate grasp of the concept of ‘race’– just take the Disney film Zootopia for example; box office returns suggest that Americans, if not a vast majority of critics, are scientific racists. My life partner and I are an ‘inter-ethnic’ couple that understand full well that a fox and rabbit cannot procreate because they are different species, whereas we can because we are the same species– human. Zootopia confuses its message by implying that racial differences are distinctions of species, and this could not be further from the truth. I am not suggesting that there is a correlation between fans of Zootopia and Trump, I am simply suggesting that we may not be as self-aware, progressive or liberal as we think we are. Just as Zootopia carries with it an implicitly racist message, everything Trump says contains traces of backwards fundamentalism that advertises itself as progressively American.

 . . .

Anti-intellectualism has corroded the democratic process. Trump’s candidacy has been won without recourse to anything resembling a reasonable democratic process– debate, consistent arguments, or communicating facts. He has gotten to where he is now because something extra-political about him appeals to the anti-intellectual kind of worldview that has become the norm. He speaks his mind, and changes it as need be for the sake of personal gain.

Just because Trump enjoys taco bowls does not mean he identifies with Mexicans or any of their interests; and just because he enjoys talking about building a wall does not mean he does not identify with Mexicans either. All his rhetoric in regards to Mexico, good or bad, only ever refers back to his own ego; it’s all about what Trump can do, what he can build. Sure, he says a lot of racist things, but he’s not so much a racist as he is a Trumpist first. He says Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” For all his hateful and racist rhetoric, there’s always a point to all of it and it stems back to his business acumen. He’s creating a need. For what? For Trump! He realizes, and I think we are all coming to grips with this dark reality, that he fills a need felt by American voters. To be clear, Trump does not represent an anarchical ideology, or the absolute absence of any guiding principles. There is a guiding logic to his madness, and he traces it back to himself. He is his own man, proud in his self-made brand and identity. Something, for better or worse, nearly anyone can either relate or aspire to.

Abstract: In this article I explore what ‘anti-intellectualism’ is and how it has influenced this year’s presidential race. I distinguish between common-sense definitions of anti-intellectualism and suggest that anti-intellectualism is not any of these attitudes per se, but a phenomenon that conditions them. It is  a consequence of capitalism and cynicism. I begin with an analysis of how ‘free speech’ has devolved into inundating the public sphere with information, which makes it difficult to sepaI consider the relationships between ‘free speech’, cynicism, and anti-intellectualism, and how these undermine the democratic process. Throughout this article I show how capitalism has empowered the infiltration of anti-intellectualism in the public sphere.


[2] To be clear, I’m not merely referring to AI in terms of technology, but as a larger phenomenon that includes institutions like the media that are in the business of manufacturing information. More on this below.

[3] There are exceptions, of course, such as certain programming on NPR.

[4] See Sanders’ campaign website. Meanwhile, during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the U.S. made twice as much in arms sales to foreign countries (most with sketchy human rights records) than the Bush regime did in total- many countries whose governments donated directly to the Clinton Foundation! She pays lip service to gun control while profiting from arms sales to corrupt regimes elsewhere in the world ( Oh yea, she supports the use of drones too.

[5] Sanders’ critique of Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War is another example of reducing a complex narrative into a black and white issue. Though, despite a charitable reading of that particular part of Clinton’s voting history, one cannot help but wonder if her decision was ultimately naive, in trusting Bush, or hawkish towards public sentiment at the time. Ultimately, she is currently on the wrong side of history on this issue.

[6] Knowledge, as opposed to information, is something that results from reasonable debate, but I would add a Foucaldian caveat that it is also something created within a context of risk and ‘conflict’.

[7] Factors like where one lives, access to points of commerce, marketplace diversity, etc. Facticity sets limits on one’s capacity to construct an identity.

[8] Of course, we can argue whether or not voting actually ‘represents’ anything or whether representation is at all possible.

[9] Voter registration laws, closed ballots, redistricting maps, etc.


[11] In case it needs clarification, crudely formulated, ethics describes judgments based on particularities relative to context, while moral judgments are based on universal, or non-negotiable, principles.

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