Exploiting the Stupids: The Intellectual Foundation of Movement Conservatism

Exploiting the Stupids: The Intellectual Foundation of Movement Conservatism

 From about the age of 8-12, I read a lot of sci-fi.  Along the way, I stumbled across Robert Heinlein, in particular his novel The Day After Tomorrow, initially published as The Sixth Column.  It was so crudely racist I avoided from then on anything with Heinlein’s name on it.

The plot went like this: The evil PanAsians have conquered America and set up a vicious tyranny.  A few scientists, holed up in a secret lab in the mountains of Colorado, have discovered a powerful weapon that can turn the tide.  They’ve tweaked it so it can kill only “Asians”, leaving white people unaffected.  How to organize a nationwide resistance that can take advantage of it?

The PanAsians, to pacify their subjects, have permitted religious activity to continue, so the scientists organize a new religion.  They use their skills to perform “miracles” that suck in the ignorant masses.  Meanwhile, a cadre is secretly recruited who use the religion as a front in order to disseminate the new weapon and train an underground army who know how to deploy it.  

The crisis arrives when the time comes to kill all the Asians, but it turns out that one of the inner group is a “good” Asian who will be killed as well.  If that’s your idea of a moral dilemma, you’re a lot more twisted than I was when I was hitting double digits.

Later, as I became more politically aware and started noticing the emergence of a cult of William F. Buckley acolytes at my high school in Wisconsin, I could see that Heinlein was on to something.  No, not that we needed a weapon of racist annihilation, but that the conservative mood had an underlying narrative:  We who have discovered the truth are smart, but most people are stupid.  You can tell them almost anything and they will believe it.  By taking advantage of their dumb credulity, smart conservatives can rule.  Incidentally, the same background narrative lurks in the world of Ayn Rand; self-conscious Objectivists are the intellectual elite and their success depends on dropping their scruples about misleading the easily herded crowd.

You might think of it as a form of vulgar Straussianism.  High Strauss holds that the need for virtue is the perennial truth at the heart of philosophy, but most people are not virtuous.  To avoid the wrath of these lesser souls, philosophers have been forced to speak in code.  (Yes, this is a cartoon version, but since we’re talking about the dumbing down process, that’s OK here.)  The vulgar version replaces virtue with smarts.  Most people are stupid, and if smart people treat the masses as if they were smart too they will talk over them and fail.  The path to success is speaking in code, making up lies for the gullible but signaling to those capable of discerning the inner truth that the movement is for them.

(Incidentally, this parallels in certain ways the Leninist strategy of front groups and cadres.  It may be that the Right picked up this trope from their nemesis; I recall Ayn Rand saying this explicitly, although I don’t have a citation.  Can someone help me out?)

Movement conservatism in America cultivated this two-tiered philosophy for decades before Trump came along.  Recall the fictitious stories Reagan told to goose his political career?  Conservative insiders knew they were made up, but that was fine because what difference does it make whether what you say to stupid people is true of false?  They will swallow what you give them if you appeal to their hopes and prejudices.  Do you really think the core neocons of the W Bush era, some of whom actually studied under Strauss, really believed in the Saddam-has-weapons-of-mass-destruction fairy tale?  They weren’t dumb enough to fall for it; on the contrary, they thought they were smart enough to concoct and exploit it.

Which brings us to January 2021.  Movement conservatives realized they could assemble a useful nationwide army of “election-truthers” by creating a myth about millions of fake votes, a vast conspiracy of treasonous or even satanic election officials, etc.  They were sure the stupids, or at least enough of them, would swallow it whole, so why not?

Take Josh Hawley, with degrees from Stanford and Yale.  Is he dumb enough to actually believe what he’s saying?  It’s possible—lots of dummies in those fancy schools—but I wouldn’t count on it.  I think the odds are better than 50-50 he knows exactly what the game is and thinks throwing meat to the stupids is how smart people win.

Just to be clear, for the record, I don’t think most people are stupid, but I do think most of us come to our beliefs through a social process in which the balance of evidence and logic play at most a supporting role.