The convergence of being the first black President in an increasingly polarized country flooded with right wing political activist spending in the 24 hours news cycle made Barack Obama unquestionably the most criticized President in U.S. history. The attacks came from both sides, as Obama was labeled everything from a neoliberal to neoconservative to a socialist to a corporatist by prominent political opponents and TV personalities.
In fact, the only thing supporters and critics of the former President seem to be able to agree on is his intellectual acumen. When liberals used to critique George Bush, and when they critique Donald Trump today, the frame them as anti-intellectual doofuses. The George Bush being unable to correctly pronounce words was really the fulcrum of liberal political comedy (i.e. late night take shows, SNL) until it was finally up ended by our current President, considered an ever bigger doofus.
When conservatives critique Obama, on the other hand, their line of attack is the polar opposite. Rather than present him as incompetent they present his as super competent, to the point of possessing the capacity to mastermind the decline of America. The conspiracy theory of the day is that Trump was so dumb he thought he could carelessly seek the aide of the Russians without anybody figuring out and punishing him. The conspiracy theory of the Obama days was that he hated America and was cunningly acting out a sophisticated agenda to lessen its power and influence. Or was it that he was an evil socialist genius hell bent on bringing Marx’s vision to Washington DC? I lose track.
The attacks on Obama are a microcosm of a broader attack on intellectuals as a whole. Increasingly, Republicans despise the entire institution of post-secondary education, arguing it’s nothing more than a mechanism by which powerful liberals brainwash our children into believing left wing ideology. Liberals are seen as elitists, gathering in intellectual circles while blue collar Americans are getting their hands dirty doing actual work.
This sentiment is growing, not shrinking, and with rust belt becoming the most pivotal place in which a politicians has to win votes, it’s going to be one of the two biggest factors in the election in 2020 and potentially beyond. The other is star quality.
Obama had both star quality and intellectual prowess, but he was the exception and not the rule. Very few individuals can combine cool demeanor, good looks, and immense social appeal with an impressive intellectual prowess. To illustrate, let’s examine Obama and his successor. Both had star power, Trump from being a celebrity billionaire and Obama from his incredible oratory skills never before seen in American politics. Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and went on to teach Constitutional Law for 12 years, 8 as a Senior Lecturer. He became the first President to ever publish a peer reviewed article in an academic paper.
Donald Trump postsecondary accolades are a little slimmer. He graduated from the Wharton School with a B.S. in economics. A fine program, to be sure, but far from elite education most expect from the leader of the free world.
So while Donald Trump lacks the intellectual prowess, he clearly has the star power. Arguably more star power than any President in history. The effects are two-fold. First, other celebrities are beginning to think they, too, can run for President and win. Notable names include Mark Zuckerberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Second, it’s become even more advantageous to not be one of those highly educated elitist in Washington DC.
As a result, the lane is open for a celebrity on the left to challenge Trump for the Presidency and, considering Trump’s historical unpopularity, they would stand a good shot of winning from the get go. If a celebrity were to capture the Democratic nomination and win, it’s not inconceivable for the Presidency to turn into even more of a popularity contest then it is now. Even a run from someone like Al Franken, who is Harvard educated, could lead to the perception of anti-intellectualism because of his former career in comedy.
Donald Trump’s Presidency has come with a lot of firsts, but being a celebrity isn’t one of them. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford are the two most notable examples. But both Reagan and Ford were also well schooled in politics before they ran for office, both being ideologues who cared deeply about policy and spent their time studying. Donald Trump is not that, as evidence by the fact that he prefers his daily press briefings to be broken down into bullet points so he doesn’t have to read the whole thing.
Trump has a unique mix of celebrity and legitimate anti-intellectualism. By that I mean not that Trump is stupid, but that he despises the institution of intellectual thought and isn’t interested in academics. This anti-intellectualism was a big part of what endeared him to the blue collar crowd, most notably in the rust belt. The question now becomes will Democrats have to adopt a similar anti-elitist message of their own to defeat Trump in the Midwest, and if so will this pave the way for The Apprenticization of the American Presidency?