NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton, the Democratic US presidential nominee, recently described supporters of her opponent, Donald Trump, as a “basket of deplorables.” It was neither a tactful nor an elegant phrase, and she later apologized for her remark. But she was more right than wrong. Trump has attracted many supporters whose views on race, for example, are indeed deplorable.
The problem is that many of these deplorable voters are also relatively uneducated, which makes Clinton’s remark look snobbish. Alas, the United States has too many relatively uneducated people.
Among developed countries, the US ranks low in terms of literacy, general knowledge, and science. Japanese, South Koreans, Dutch, Canadians, and Russians score consistently higher. This is at least partly the result of leaving education too much to the market: those with money are highly educated, and those with insufficient means are not educated enough.
So far, it seems clear that Clinton appeals to better-educated urban voters, while Trump attracts mainly less-educated white men, many of whom in earlier generations would have been Democrat-voting coal miners or industrial workers. Does this mean that there is a link between education – or the lack of it – and the appeal of a dangerous demagogue?
One of the most remarkable things about Trump is the extent of his own ignorance, despite his high educational attainment, and the fact that he seems to benefit from flaunting it. Perhaps it is easier for a loud-mouthed ignoramus to convince large numbers of people whose knowledge of the world is as slight as his own.
But this is to assume that factual truth matters in the rhetoric of a populist agitator. Many of his supporters don’t seem to care much about reasoned argument – that is for the liberal snobs. Emotions count more, and the prime emotions that demagogues manipulate, in the US and elsewhere, are fear, resentment, and distrust.
This was also true in Germany when Hitler came to power. But the Nazi Party in its early days did not find the bulk of its support among the least educated. Germany was more highly educated than other countries, on average, and the most enthusiastic Nazis included schoolteachers, engineers, and doctors, as well as provincial small businessmen, white-collar workers, and farmers.
Urban factory workers and conservative Catholics were, on the whole, less susceptible to Hitler’s blandishments than many more highly educated Protestants. Low educational standards do not explain Hitler’s rise.
Fear, resentment, and distrust ran very high in Weimar Germany, after the humiliation of wartime defeat and amid a devastating economic depression. But the racial prejudices whipped up by Nazi propagandists were not the same as the ones we see among many Trump supporters today. The Jews were seen as a sinister force that was dominating the elite professions: bankers, professors, lawyers, news media, or entertainment. They were the so-called back-stabbers who prevented Germany from being great again.
The Trump supporters are showing a similar animus against symbols of the elite, such as Wall Street bankers, “mainstream” media, and Washington insiders. But their xenophobia is directed against poor Mexican immigrants, blacks, or Middle Eastern refugees, who are perceived as freeloaders depriving honest (read white) Americans of their rightful place in the social pecking order. It is a question of relatively underprivileged people in a globalizing, increasingly multi-cultural world, resenting those who are even less privileged.
In the US today, as in the Weimar Republic, the resentful and the fearful have so little trust in prevailing political and economic institutions that they follow a leader who promises maximum disruption. By cleaning out the stables, it is hoped, greatness will return. In Hitler’s Germany, this hope existed among all classes, whether elite or plebeian. In Trump’s America, it thrives mostly among the latter.
In the US and Europe, today’s world looks less scary to more affluent and better educated voters, who benefit from open borders, cheap migrant labor, information technology, and a rich mixture of cultural influences. Likewise, immigrants and ethnic minorities who seek to improve their lot have no interest in joining a populist rebellion directed mainly against them, which is why they will vote for Clinton.
Trump must thus rely on disaffected white Americans who feel that they are being left behind. The fact that enough people feel that way to sustain such an unsuitable presidential candidate is an indictment of US society. This does have something to do with education – not because well-educated people are immune to demagogy, but because a broken education system leaves too many people at a disadvantage.
In the past, there were enough industrial jobs for less-educated voters to make a decent living. Now that those jobs are vanishing in post-industrial societies, too many people feel that they have nothing more to lose. This is true in many countries, but it matters more in the US, where putting a bigoted demagogue in charge would do great damage not only to that country, but also to all countries trying to hold onto their freedoms in an increasingly perilous world.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.