The problem is stupidity.
There are evil people in the White House, sure, but they’re outnumbered by the deeply stupid ones — dilettantes and pseudointellectuals like Bannon (who seems to be both), empty suits like Priebus, and of course the president himself, who by all accounts is too dumb to sit through briefings or comprehend ideas beyond grade-school level.
‘Ohhh you elitist jerk! Intelligence and goodness are orthogonal!’
Too-easy response: would you want a stupid doctor examining your daughter, or a stupid contractor building your house? These people need to be smart in order to do complicated things well — ‘goodly,’ as they say (I hope).
Let’s go further, though.
Intelligent people can be betrayed by their feelings, their ‘cognitive biases,’ same as anyone else. Obviously! And equally obviously, ‘smart’ folks can’t claim moral superiority — you can start with little more than the Golden Rule and live a good life, and the road’s littered with corpses left behind by ‘intellectuals.’ But intelligent folks, folks who can read critically and argue, who can handle irony and work through complex lines of reasoning and think dialectically, are much less susceptible (on average) to bad ideas.
Racism, for instance, is stupid — but you can learn that racism is stupid, and more importantly make yourself robust against it. Not through tribal-identitarian rituals (which just teach a kneejerk response to unfashionable forms of bigotry while blinding you to fashionable ones) but by introspecting about your racist beliefs and thinking through their consequences.
Censorship’s stupid too: morality aside, it doesn’t work (censored ideas grow more potent), and since the power to censor changes hands regularly, it’s short sighted to boot — next time around it’ll the other side silencing you. Those who advocate for censorship do so because they can’t think beyond the satisfactions of the moment, and can’t reason their way out of distaste. Empathy at a distance is a learned skill, and by developing that skill you begin to make yourself robust against your terror at unwelcome thoughts and expressions.
Why do intellectuals fall for bad ideas? Because they’re scared to make use of their faculties — they crave status, fear exposure, succumb to parochialism, or are just lazy.
The stupidity of the Trump White House bothers me because, even if Trump’s people are exactly as (im/a)moral as Obama’s, high-level thought can’t survive in that environment. Their organization is dysfunctional because so many people in it are too stupid to work together, for the future, at short-term cost to themselves. The best opportunity for the Republican/conservative agenda in more than a decade has been pissed away because the White House can’t play smart.
Which is merely quite bad right now, but will be a disaster when an actual external crisis hits. That’s the risk: the White House, the federal government, is not robust against calamity. You look at it the wrong way and it wobbles and falls.
Ignorance is our natural state, but willful ignorance is a sin. The president trusts Fox News and the Breitbart mis/disinformation machine for his daily news, even though he’s got the entire intelligence community ready to do that work for him. Why?
Because actually doing his job is too hard. Because he’s too stupid and too scared to keep up with the work.
So was GW Bush, of course — but Bush had principles, a compass (however faulty), and a deeply held sense of noblesse oblige. He was a cretin but he knew what the job was, more or less, and seemed to know his limitations. And like Obama, Bush was a voracious reader — you don’t suppose that’s a coincidence, do you?
Stupidity makes you cruel because it keeps you afraid. It makes you violent because it blinds you to better solutions. Stupidity makes you weak, because it keeps you from seeking out the interesting challenges that make you strong. It makes you boring because it shuts out all but the most obvious desires.
Lionel Trilling spoke of a ‘moral obligation to be intelligent.’ I look at Trump and his gang of second-raters and for a second I know just what he means.