Profiles in Ignorance: Book Review

Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber (2022), Andy Borowitz. After a couple of frustrating reads on Washington politics, this book was just for laughs. Unfortunately, Borowitz proved to be relatively serious about issues important for Median Voter Guy. Consequently, another book review. Ignorance can be defined in various ways and elected leaders can make horrible errors for a variety of reasons. Most of the people in this book were born to elite and could succeed without much effort. They navigated to politics without relevant backgrounds, but on name recognition. They tended to be arrogant (granted, not an uncommon characteristic in politics), with little intellectual curiosity, willingness to learn, or much interested in the opinions of others. Somehow, the idea of relying on experts did not register. I’ll concentrate on Borowitz’ major offenders, emphasizing good quotes.

Ignorance is lacking in knowledge, education, or awareness, while Borowitz adds “refusal to look things up” (p. 6). Borowitz develops three stages of ignorance, with this rationale: “We’ll retrace the steps of the vacuous pioneers who turned ignorance from a liability into a virtue. By relentlessly lowering the bar, they made it possible for today’s politicians to wear their dunce caps with pride. … Now cluelessness is an electoral asset and smart politicians must play dumb, or risk voters’ wrath. Welcome to the survival of the dimmest” (p. 1). “By elevating candidates who can entertain over those who can think, mass media have made the election of dunces more likely. Fact-free and nuance-intolerant, these human sound-bite machines have reduced our most complex problems to binary oppositions: us versus communists; us versus terrorists; and that latest crowd-pleaser, us versus scientists” (p. 6).

Borowitz points out: “The election of a serially bankrupt, functionally illiterate reality TV host was the logical consequence of the five decades preceding it, which … I’ll call the Age of Ignorance. …The Three Stages of Ignorance: Ridicule, Acceptance, and Celebration (p. 9). During the first phase the dumb guy pretends to be smart. He puts Reagan and Dan Quayle in this group. George W. Bush and Sarah Palin were in the Acceptance Phase as they accepted their non-bright states, claiming to be “one of the people.” Donald Trump became the celebrity dumb guy, with imitators like Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis. Democrats had their own unremarkable-to-dumb contributors, but they were mainly unsuccessful, and a few ended up in jail like Rod Blagojevich. Borowitz claims George W. and Trump were the towering champs of stupidity.

Chapter 1: The First Stage: Ridicule. Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle are featured, called Gallant and Goofus. Reagan had talent before the camera, so he sounded competent and authoritative: “It’s moronic in America,” aka the “amiable dunce.” Quayle’s talents remain unknown. With demonstrations at UC Berkeley, Reagan went after students and faculty and protested “intellectual curiosity.” Christopher Hitchens noted that Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog, but dumb as a stump. He proved that “ignorance is not handicap to the presidency” (p. 16). Like most on the list, there was no evidence that either opened a book. Amazingly, Reagan claimed that most pollution came from plants and trees, leading to the slogan on a tree: “Chop me down before I kill again.”

Reagan believed “Communism=Bad; Government=Bad; Capitalism=Good. Trees=Bad deserves an honorable mention. … Reagan had every opportunity to become well-informed, but his extraordinary talent for closed-mindedness shielded him from unwanted enlightenment” (p. 23). “If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with bull” (p. 26). An editorial noted: “Mr. Reagan is innocent of experience in government, and his speeches suggest he is equally innocent of knowledge” (p. 27). Thus, solutions were to be found that required no homework. This was effective against the Democrat “egghead strategy.”

“Gerald Ford was in some ways Reagan’s opposite: a well-informed man who could come across as a big, lumbering dope” (p. 34). When Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter, his one famous debate line was “There you go again.” Jokes worked wonders against facts. He attracted a host of “morally dubious advisors,” including Roger Ailes, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort. Then Reagan’s line: “Let’s make America Great Again.” He could learn his lines. “Reagan’s ignorance spanned the globe,” (p. 42), meaning he could appear ignorant to world leaders anywhere. He never took responsibility for his failures (remember Iran-Contra, Lebanon, and the Strategic Defense Initiative), leading to being called “Teflon Ron.” The media apparently stopped fact-checking him. There were exaggerated claims of “welfare queens” and other dog whistles. Tax cuts led to spending cuts and the creation of new problems like massive homelessness and increased hunger. Forget AIDS, it only happened to gay people.

On to Quayle, who had Reagan’s ignorance but not his talent. His fate was humiliation. Even before politics he had a reputation as “a corner-cutter, a manipulator, an apple-polisher, a kid who tried to get by on looks and family connections. … An egregious kiss-ass who’d shine a path forward for another toady vice president from Indiana, Mike Pence” (p. 57). Why did Bush pick Quayle in 1988? Apparently, youth, since Bush was 64 and someone theoretically more popular with women. Bush had gaffes, but “Quayle spewed nonsense worthy of Lewis Carroll on opium” (p. 62). Borowitz included many examples like “I have made good judgments in the past. I have good judgments in the future. The future will be better tomorrow” (p. 64). Suddenly Quayle had to face the press not owned by his grandfather. Molly Ivins found him “dumber than advertised.” Quayle liked to compare himself to John Kennedy, leading his opponent Lloyd Bentsen the opportunity: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” later noted as Quayle’s “Roboflop.” Bush would succeed based on Michael Dukakis tank picture and the dirty tricks of campaign manager Lee Atwater. Quayle as vice president was noted for feuding with TV character Murphy Brown—and losing. Then spelling potato “potatoe” (not incorrect but claiming the speller bee contestant was wrong—who would later call Quayle an idiot).

Other nutcases included the John Birch Society which claimed that Eisenhower was a Soviet agent and fluoridating the water was a demonic scheme to drug the entire population. Then there was Joe McCarthy, ruining lives of people he called communists with no evidence. After he was censored by the Senate in 1954, 34% of the people still believed in him.

Chapter 2: The Second Stage: Acceptance. “Before Quayle saunters offstage, we must give him his due: he was the crash test dummy who enabled George W. Bush to take the wheel. Without his groundbreaking work in the field of bar-lowering, would we ever have experienced the Iraq War, the shredding of civil liberties under the Patriot Act, and the catastrophically inept response to Hurricane Katrina?” (p. 86). Like Quayle, Bush used legacy connections to get into college, had family ties to right wingers, avoided Vietnam, was accused of plagiarism, was C students, and had a Machiavellian campaign managers (Karl Rove to Quayle’s Bill Kristol). “Bush mocked knowledge as an affectation of the elites and made ignorance proof of his authenticity. His swaggering pride in how little he knew made Bush the father of the second stage of ignorance: Acceptance. … Conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House” (p. 89).

“Hampered by a slim resume and meager skills, he did what any young man with few prospects would do: he ran for Congress. … His father, possibly hoping that serving would keep W. out of vehicular mischief, provided him with a campaign adviser: Karl Rove” (p. 93). He lost, but apparently his take-away was to be folksy and dumb. Somehow, he was elected governor of Texas in 1994 against Ann Richards. According to Molly Ivins: “Assessing Bush as governor, it appears that he doesn’t know much, doesn’t do much, and doesn’t care much about governing” (p. 100), spending about two half days a week, according to a staffer. Rove convinced Bush to buy a ranchette to appear Texan and cut a lot of wood like Reagan. His knowledge of foreign governments? “Nobody needs to tell me what I believe, but I do need someone to tell me where Kosovo is” (p. 104). Bush became defiant about not knowing anything. A winning strategy: flaunt ignorance. Accept how little he knew. The claim: he was authentic and down-to-earth. Which proved a winning formula against a “know-it-all” like Al Gore. He also stressed not reading books, then made miscellaneous incoherent statement. Bush won, thanks to Florida (with his brother as Governor and an accommodating Supreme Court).

The attack on 9/11 was the event that made him popular: “The only problem with this are Bush’s judgments were bad before 9/11 and worse after” (p. 118). There had been warnings of a pending attack, which he ignored. Bush had found a purpose and “his simplistic binary opposition, us versus terrorists” (p. 120). Attack Afghanistan then find reasons to attack Iraq, without tangible evidence. He did fabricate the “Axis of Evil” (actually, speech writer David Frum) and included Iraq along with North Korea and Iran. Then Bush (and Cheney) claimed Iraq had al-Qaeda affiliations and weapons of mass destruction. Ignore facts and nuance. Those attacks were self-created catastrophes, then came Hurricane Katrina and, later, the financial crisis of 2008. John Kerry was “swift-boated” in 2004.

The second character in Acceptance was Sarah Palin, selected to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008, obviously without adequate background checks. She was governor of Alaska, had some experience as a sports reporter, and looked solid. One McCain staffer called her “a star.” McCain staffers interviewed her by phone, leading to an Alaskan suggesting: “I have been more diligent tracking a moose than anyone seemed to have been in choosing the Republican vice-presidential nominee” (p. 133). She was made more famous by Tina Fey’s impersonations. “With her toxic brew of ignorance and grievance, Sarah Palin was the gateway ignoramus who led to Donald Trump” (p. 131). Palin could have intense concentration only related to a personal vendetta. Borowitz gives multiple examples. “Palin spent most of her time workshopping additional material for Tina Fey” (p. 144). She was good at giving non-answers, somehow focusing on energy in Alaska.

“Palin’s blazing ignorance was such a dominant feature of the 2008 campaign that it tended to obscure a less attention-grabbing reality: her running mate wasn’t that well-informed, either” (p. 152). That was most obvious in understanding to 2008 financial meltdown. In any case, Palin became a celebrity with book deals and a million bucks a year deal at Fox. Showing her grip on history she claimed: FDR caused the Great Depression by signing into law a tariff called Hoot Smalley” (p. 171). She became a darling of the Tea Party. Borowitz gives several of the most nitwit quotes from Tea Party candidates like “legitimate rape” and “I dabbled in witchcraft, but I never joined a coven.”

Chapter 3: The Third Stage: Celebration. Now, even smart politicians must act dumb as homage to their predecessors. “Sarah Palin might have had a hate-hate relationship with American history, but only Trump could refer to 9/11 as ‘7-Eleven’” (p. 177). Only Trump would consider himself an expert in field after field: technology, tax code, war strategy, debt (“nobody knows debt better than me’—hard to argue with), etc. Advisors consistently called him “idiot,”

kindergartner intelligence,” or “f-ing moron.” Kindergartner level was unfair because Trump actually was analyzed and speaks at a fourth-grade level. He served “hamberders” and spelled Prince Charles title “Prince of Whales.”

Tony Schwartz wrote The Art of the Deal for Trump and was amazed he read it. Trump’s reading picked up when he was mentioned. Recurring high praise meant Trump would read on. Presidential briefings became shows with graphs, maps, photos, and any other visual aids. He accused the Baltic countries of starting the Balkan wars. Nepal and Bhutan became “Nipple” and “Button.” These stories go on and on.

It was noted that professional wrestling succeeds because fans want to be fooled. So, Trump could be the pro wrestling champ. He was involved with Vince McMahon and WrestleMania. Does that explain how Trump became famous? He has: “a preternatural talent for bragging, bullying, and, like Ronald Reagan, telling stories of questionable veracity” (p. 190). Trump was brought up by Fred Trump believing life was a zero-sum game with only killers and losers. Trump came to love fame and found it on The Apprentice, where his role was scripted. Show creator Mark Burnett made Trump “out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king” … celebrating “life as a Hobbesian, zero-sum game, each season ending with the elevation of one killer over a throng of losers” (p. 206-7).

Pretending to run for president was part of the job. Along the way were angry rants blaming all the world problems on others, the old “us versus them” strategy. Although there was competition, he competed for “preeminent populist blowhard” (p. 202). Ross Perot was an interesting competitor who ran for president and did well. Borowitz also mentions Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan. The “Trump way” was “a mix of the nefarious and the ignorant” (p. 195). Fact-checking was irrelevant for “Teflon Don,” perhaps making him the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of capitalism” (p. 207). Trump’ political profile went up by questioning Obama’s US birth and starting the “birther movement. Trump followed the Gipper proving “that performing talent could triumph over knowledge and competence” (p. 210).

Trump’s presidential movement became “make America great again,” an old Reagan line. He claimed an outsider was needed and promised a multitude of great things like bringing jobs back and building a wall. Republicans had been going after Hilary Clinton for decades and some combination of Trump’s MAGA movement and stressing Benghazi and emails led to a Trump victory. The presidency started with a inauguration speech rant and Spicer’s claim that Trump’s crowd was larger than Obama’s. Kellyanne Conway introduced “alternative facts.” It got worse, but “his supporters didn’t get their news from mainstream news outlets” … but “were free to choose only the facts they agreed with” (p. 215).

QAnon went from small-time wacko to major conspiracy source. Lasers caused wildfires controlled by George Soros or the Rothschilds. New rightwing members of Congress competed for most unhinged, with amazing stories from Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Tommy Tuberville, Louie Gohmert, Mo Brooks, Rick Scott, Matt Gaetz, and more. Ivy League graduates were among those appearing dumb, like Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, and Josh Hawley. Hawley could have: “the title of Most Ginormous Well-Educated Assclown” (p. 222).

Nixon used a “Southern strategy” and Reagan clamed “government is the problem,” developing a history of white grievance. “Reagan and Trump availed themselves of the same deep bench of sociopathic henchmen, from the corrupt Roy Cohn to the predatory Roger Ailes to the felonious Paul Manafort and Roger Stone” (p. 229).

Conclusions: Democracy’s Braking System. The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett gave Trump a lifeline when he was failing: a story to open the show with, including “Now my company’s bigger than it ever was” (p. 238). It wasn’t true, but that’s entertainment. The audience wanted false stories and it led to the presidency (called by Borowitz “the worst president in US history,” p. 239). The storyteller wins. It proved to be hard to spin January 6, but that outcome is yet to be determined.