The American spirit is about aspiration. We don’t talk as much about this as being uniquely American, but our society embraces the idea that we should encourage our youth to aim high. We can be anything we want to be. The problem is this, that idea has two parts to it: We can be anything we want to be, if we work hard to achieve our goals. It seems like the second part is too often overlooked. Donald Trump is a perfect symbol of this mistake.
In the internet age, we’re all experts. Some of us feel comfortable disagreeing with a strong consensus amongst climate scientists, others feel comfortable disagreeing with biomedical scientists and physicians about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. And others feel comfortable commenting on politics and society without any formal training in politics or sociology or anthropology…(yes, I’m targeting myself right there). Trump didn’t start this, but it’s hard to imagine his rise without it.
When I think back to my childhood, and the steps that somebody might advise me to take if my goal was to become President of the United States, I imagine it would have been something like this: get good grades, go to college, major in political science, go to law school, get a job in the public sector (some kind of prosecutor), run for local office, run for state office, run for national office, run for president. In the pre-Clinton era, the path would have undoubtedly included military service. Above all, the advice would have been to stay out of trouble. Have no skeletons in my closet at all. Politically active celebrities were asked routinely about their thoughts on running for office, and routinely said that they had too many skeletons in their closets.
In some ways, I think we focused too much on the staying clean part, and forgot about all the experience and work that our previous presidents put into their paths to the White House. It seems like preparing for the White House started to become more about keeping clean, and less about actual training for the job. As if all Bill Clinton did to become president was not inhale (or get good at lying about inhaling).
From where I sit, this feels like another battle lost in the war on expertise. I’ve written about this before (see “No more experts!“), and it continues to worry me. When people think about Al Gore’s work, at least since being Vice President, they probably think about his work on the environment, but I wish his book The Assault on Reason were somehow required reading for every citizen, especially those with political aspirations. It sold a lot of copies, and sat at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list for a few weeks, but it’s rarely talked about. It described key examples of places where we’ve moved away from expertise, and taken this we-know-better view of things. Even with things like parenting, where we routinely hear politicians (mostly conservative politicians), claim that parents know what’s best for their kids. Even better than people who spend their lives studying what’s best for kids. Granted, I think being a parent teaches us a lot, and I think most of us know our children very well, but there’s no formal training required to be a parent. There’s no licensing. There’s not even a test to take before leaving the hospital (if you had your kid in one) with this thing that you have no preparation for whatsoever.
As with most things, none of this is simple, and there’s always other sides to consider. Although I see a bit of a partisan divide on how this is playing out right now, and like to throw shade on right-leaning folks who seem to prey on ignorance these days, I wonder if the left is really to blame here. What do lefties want? More power to the people? Isn’t fighting for the little guy part of being a leftie in American politics? Strong unions to help the workers rise up. Groups like the ACLU fighting to protect the rights of the little guy who gets pushed around by the majority. Tax the rich to help the poor. Give everybody the chance to go to college. We want to elevate the little guy. We want the little guy to feel empowered. And now we have lots of little guys who feel really empowered. So empowered that they could be president, without even trying.