Will this election put an end to the War on Expertise in this country?

Probably not, but wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

In honor of our ongoing War on Expertise, I bring you a link to a post of mine from two years ago, which featured a This American Life story about Bob the Electrician, and his deluded belief that if he couldn’t understand the Theory of Relativity, that meant that it was bunk.  Because everyone everywhere all the time should be able to understand everything, so one person’s as good as the next when it comes even to the trickiest of intellectual or policy questions.  It doesn’t matter if some of us have devoted our lives to the study and mastery of some forms of knowledge, nor if we actually do this for a living.  From my post on July 15, 2014:

To summarize:  Bob takes a year-long self-funded sabbatical to study physics and prove that Einstein had it all wrong.    [Reporter Robert Andrew] Powell tries to get real physicists to read the paper that Bob produces over the course of the year, which turns out to be quite a chore because it turns out that Bob is kind of like the old joke about asylums being full of Napoleons:  there are thousands of cranks around the world who believe Einstein’s theory–and by extension all of modern physics–is wrong, and they are a plague upon real, working, university- and U.S. government-affiliated physicists in much the same way that Holocaust Deniers, Constitutional Originalists, and Lost Causers are to historians; climate change denialists are to real climate scientists; and anti-vaxxers are to real physicians.  In sum, these cranks have no confidence whatsoever in expertise or in the value of the credentials that real historians, scientists, or doctors have.  But yet, they crave their respect and demand to be acknowledged by the experts.

Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign has been a Bob the Electrician campaign, composed of an ongoing set of assertions and Tweets that expertise doesn’t matter.   Like Bob and his fellow delusional amateur scholars, Trump also craves the respect and attention of those whose expertise he disdains.  Those political pundits who counted him out?  Losers!  Those career political consultants and operatives who orchestrate every major political campaign except his?  Overpaid, useless hacks who didn’t do his primary opponents any good except when it came to spending their money.  To be fair, up to this point it looks like he was right.  He won the primary without those losers, didn’t he?  And he can’t stop talking about his past victories–not until the political and media establishments bow to him and proclaim him the real expert.

(It’s not like this is a new phenomenon:  after all, the John McCain campaign eight years ago had that truth-teller from Toledo, Joe the Plumber, on his side, not to mention Sarah Palin.  But in defense of the McCain campaign:  Joe the Plumber was a media creation meant to symbolize it’s appeal to the working class, and Palin had been elected mayor and governor before her selection as McCain’s VP.)

But in spite of this long flirtation with the absence of expertise, I’m betting that Trump wrong in the long run of the general campaign.  The news today that the Trump campaign is sending Omarosa Manigault to Philadelphia today to respond to Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy ideas.  Seriously.  Not only does this say something about Trump’s judgement that a reality TV star from the previous decade with zero expertise in foreign policy or the State Department would be tasked with this responsibility.  I think it also says something about Trump’s inability of the foreign policy establishment to take his telephone calls, let alone to act as campaign surrogates.  When you can’t get John Bolton on the line to speak for your patently reckless and dangerous foreign policy positions, it’s time for a global rethink.

It makes more sense to send an actor who once played Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, or Ronald Reagan.  But they’re probably not taking Trump’s phone calls either.  After all, they’re experts in something–acting, for example–and when you’re an expert in something, you’re generally very willing to acknowledge the limits of your expertise and to yield the floor to the real experts.  

It says a lot about Trump that he sees no limits on his own expertise.  (It also says a lot about Scott Baio’s acting chops, but at this point it just feels mean to beat up on the guy.)


14 thoughts on “Will this election put an end to the War on Expertise in this country?

  1. Somehow, your post reminded me of this, about someone who did have expertise:
    Here come I, my name is Jowett.
    All there is to know I know it.
    I am Master of this College,
    What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!

    To set limits on his expertise, Trump would have to be self-reflective, and he’s not.
    [Loved the Hemingway shout-out in your first sentence!]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to Google Omarosa Manigault. That is an odd choice. You are right, John Bolton would be the obvious person to tap for that exercise. If he is not picking up the phone, Trump is in deep doo-doo as that other George Bush would say.

    Have you read this essay by Masha Geesen about Trump’s supposed Putin connection. Her reflection on Imagination in politics is really helpful. I don’t think that Trump is going to win, but its all going to be a lot closer than we expect. http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/07/26/trump-putin-fallacy-failure-of-imagination/


    • I love Masha Gessen–her book on Pussy Riot was great.

      This morning, Trump is calling for a foreign power to spy on Hillary Clinton!!! That’s his national security plan. American First!


      • What the hell ever happened to Pussy Riot, anyway?!? I’ve lost track, to the point of almost forgetting. Was the quiet “walkout” of the Mockba delegation at Wells Fargo last night part of the evolving strategy here? And I’ve been wondering why everyone has been dancing widely around why Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy, anyway, besides obviously assuming that Mme. Clinton won’t target it with a drone?

        The tag line that got me in today’s NY Times coverage was by one of the quiet walkout people occupying a media tent in the parking lot to the effect that “The Whole World is Watching….” as if it was 8/31/68 at Michigan and Balbo, or something, which it obviously was not. Senator Ribbicoff would testify to that if he was alive. It’s really very quiet in most of Philadelphia this week.


  3. Pingback: “I’m No Expert, but . . . .” | From Pine View Farm

  4. In the absence of Bolton and the like, can you be confident that Omarosa Manigault is not the most knowledgeable person about foreign policy in the Trump campaign?


  5. My head spins. A few years ago a physicist friend told me about the self-taught science cranks who plague his field (astronomy) — all I can think is that they are frightened of the whole idea of science, want to assert control over it themselves, but simultaneously want the affirmation of real scientists. But what Trump did today by encouraging Russian hackers and presenting this “TV Star” (I also had to look her up) as his foreign policy voice leaves me slack-jawed. Why isn’t the entire Republican Party having a hot rage meltdown over this?

    Pussy Riot, as far as I know, has broken up as a band but its members continue their political activism, mostly from the safety of the West.


    • It’s dumbfounding in a year characterized entirely by rolling stupidity, day after day, from the Trump campaign.

      I hope this goes on, and on, and on. And I hope the President includes something about this in his speech tonight.


  6. Blame AN Whitehead — real innovation always comes from outsiders, not from the inside-the-box rigid thinkers of a discipline!

    People on the left (maybe “assumed-left” in a soft sense would be appropriate?) also had a decent run with these ideas for half a century before Trump showed up.

    And while that craziness was fun and felt empowering, especially to 18 year olds, it’s fairly clear that the idea that no one can be an authority on anything, ever, really hurt educators who actually held the least authority in objective terms. (No field can ever keep up with the wisdom of Tumblr memes!)

    OTOH, I still think political pundits are spoiled creepazoids (not the same thing as “losers”) so I won’t lose sleep over anyone saying they’re not ace thinkers contributing to society.


    • To be sure, the rejection of expertise is non-partisan. The far left and the far right are both given to anti- or ascientific views. (I would say that the misuse of history seems to come more from the right than the left, though.)

      Many like to blame leftist deconstructionists and Marxist literary critics for the destabilization of Truth and Objectivity, but let’s face it: the unitary concept of One Truth has been under attack since at least the twelfth century. The Reformation and the Enlightenment both opened the door still further for the notion of multiple possible truths. By the time deconstructionists argued that the nature of truth was consensual rather than objective, the horse had left the barn long ago.


  7. At the secondary level, I think a lot of ed-reform is essentially anti-expertise. “We’re all learners” sounds nice until you realize it carries the assumption that experts in a field are “hoarders of knowledge” and intellectually calcified. And anyway, everything’s on Google these days so why bother with curricula and disciplinary expertise? Gah.

    Liked by 1 person

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.