It’s hard to know exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the “stupid party.”
Stupidity is not an accusation that could be hurled against such prominent early Republicans as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root and Charles Evans Hughes. But by the 1950s, it had become an established shibboleth that the “eggheads” were for Adlai Stevenson and the “boobs” for Dwight D. Eisenhower — a view endorsed by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which contrasted Stevenson, “a politician of uncommon mind and style, whose appeal to intellectuals overshadowed anything in recent history,” with Eisenhower — “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.” The John F. Kennedy presidency, with its glittering court of Camelot, cemented the impression that it was the Democrats who represented the thinking men and women of America.
Rather than run away from the anti-intellectual label, Republicans embraced it for their own political purposes. In his “time for choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan said that the issue in the 1964 election was “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant Capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Richard M. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and the “hard hats,” while his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, issued slashing attacks on an “effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
William F. Buckley Jr. famously said, “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.” More recently, George W. Bush joked at a Yale commencement: “To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students I say, you, too, can be president of the United States.”
Many Democrats took all this at face value and congratulated themselves for being smarter than the benighted Republicans. Here’s the thing, though: The Republican embrace of anti-intellectualism was, to a large extent, a put-on. At least until now.
Eisenhower may have played the part of an amiable duffer, but he may have been the best prepared president we have ever had — a five-star general with an unparalleled knowledge of national security affairs. When he resorted to gobbledygook in public, it was in order to preserve his political room to maneuver. Reagan may have come across as a dumb thespian, but he spent decades honing his views on public policy and writing his own speeches. Nixon may have burned with resentment of “Harvard men,” but he turned over foreign policy and domestic policy to two Harvard professors, Henry A. Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while his own knowledge of foreign affairs was second only to Ike’s.
There is no evidence that Republican leaders have been demonstrably dumber than their Democratic counterparts. During the Reagan years, the G.O.P. briefly became known as the “party of ideas,” because it harvested so effectively the intellectual labor of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary. Scholarly policy makers like George P. Shultz, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett held prominent posts in the Reagan administration, a tradition that continued into the George W. Bush administration — amply stocked with the likes of Paul D. Wolfowitz, John J. Dilulio Jr. and Condoleezza Rice.
In recent years, however, the Republicans’ relationship to the realm of ideas has become more and more attenuated as talk-radio hosts and television personalities have taken over the role of defining the conservative movement that once belonged to thinkers like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and George F. Will. The Tea Party represented a populist revolt against what its activists saw as out-of-touch Republican elites in Washington.
The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be.
Mr. Trump doesn’t know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds. He can’t identify the nuclear triad, the American strategic nuclear arsenal’s delivery system. He had never heard of Brexit until a few weeks before the vote. He thinks the Constitution has 12 Articles rather than seven. He usesthe vocabulary of a fifth grader. Most damning of all, he traffics in off-the-wall conspiracy theories by insinuating that President Obama was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It is hardly surprising to read Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter for Mr. Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal,” say, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”
Mr. Trump even appears proud of his lack of learning. He told The Washington Post that he reached decisions “with very little knowledge,” but on the strength of his “common sense” and his “business ability.” Reading long documents is a waste of time because of his rapid ability to get to the gist of an issue, he said: “I’m a very efficient guy.” What little Mr. Trump does know seems to come from television: Asked where he got military advice, he replied, “I watch the shows.”
Mr. Trump promotes a nativist, isolationist, anti-trade agenda that is supported by few if any serious scholars. He called for tariff increases that experts warn will cost millions of jobs and plunge the country into a recession. He claimed that Mexican immigrants were “bringing crime” even though research consistently shows that immigrants have a lower crime rate than the native-born. He promised that Mexico would pay for a border wall, even though no regional expert thinks that will ever happen.
Mr. Trump also proposed barring Muslims from entering the country despite terrorism researchers, myself included, warning that his plan would likely backfire, feeding the Islamic State’s narrative that the war on terrorism is really a war on Islam. He has since revised that proposal and would now bar visitors from countries that have a “proven history of terrorism” — overlooking that pretty much every country, including every major American ally, has a history of terrorism.
Recently, he declared that he would not necessarily come to the aid of the Baltic republics if they were attacked by Russia, apparently not knowing or caring that Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty obliges the United States to defend any NATO member under attack. Last week, Mr. Trump even invited Russia’s intelligence agencies to hack the emails of a former secretary of state — something impossible to imagine any previous presidential nominee doing. It is genuinely terrifying that someone who advances such offensive and ridiculous proposals could win the nomination of a party once led by Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote more books than Mr. Trump has probably read. It’s one thing to appeal to voters by pretending to be an average guy. It’s another to be an average guy who doesn’t know the first thing about governing or public policy.
The Trump acolytes claim it doesn’t matter; he can hire experts to advise him. But experts always disagree with one another and it is the president alone who must make the most difficult decisions in the world. That’s not something he can do since he lacks the most basic grounding in the issues and is prey to fundamental misconceptions.
In a way, the joke’s on the Republican Party: After decades of masquerading as the “stupid party,” that’s what it has become. But if an unapologetic ignoramus wins the presidency, the consequences will be no laughing matter.
Even if we can avoid the calamity of a Trump presidency, however, the G.O.P. still has a lot of soul-searching to do. Mr. Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of the party’s anti-intellectual drift. The party needs to rethink its growing anti-intellectual bias and its reflexive aversion to elites. Catering to populist anger with extremist proposals that are certain to fail is not a viable strategy for political success.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.