My wise and well-read sister, Joan Turrentine’s recent comment to me produced an “aha” moment regarding Donald Trump’s extraordinary popularity. Joan was observing the way the media — particularly as they critique the presidential debates — influence what the public thinks about the candidates, deciding which ones to focus on, which issues are top priority, and which candidate is a “winner.” She summarized her thoughts by quoting Alexander Pope: “Expert criticism, once destined to teach that which is to be admired — the poet’s art — now presumes to be master.”
Indeed, there are many parallels between the literary critics and their skirmishes in Pope’s day with what passes for political commentary and analysis today. Whether it is poets or politicians, wit and creativity are always at war with conventional wisdom, with the latter’s champions demanding surrender to and conformity with its logic and assessments.
First, we have to recognize that Trump’s popularity with his supporters is not totally manufactured. His success with conservatives is also about truth and having the strength and wit to express that truth in a way that resonates. Clearly Americans are “hugely” frustrated with the elites’ dominance of the conversation; it’s about the public’s distaste for having its views and values “dissed.” It’s about having to put up with so much politically correct baloney that Main Street Americans recognize intuitively is “hugely” at variance with truth and reality. It’s about knowing things are going seriously wrong and wanting someone to say so plainly. It’s about wanting someone who is strong and brash enough to effectively rebut the babble that fills the airwaves on the news, in commentaries, that’s expressed throughout the culture in entertainment, on college campuses, around corporate watercoolers, and in everyday discussions in coffee shops and while waiting in grocery store lines, that even spills into Presidential State of the Union Addresses. People are fed up with demands that they submit and conform to pretentious pseudo-sophisticated nonsense from the elites who presume the superiority of making up their own rules, and who make fun of and treat as ignoramuses those who hold common-sense values in general and Judeo-Christian beliefs in particular.
In short, Trump is someone, in the words of Alexander Pope, “… whose truth convinced at sight we find, that give us back the image of our mind.” Even Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., while acknowledging that Trump is not the most religious or pious of the candidates, appreciates that Trump is willing to “speak the truth publicly” and that he is not a “puppet of major donors.”
All that said, note too that Trump’s popular image is largely the product of the free media attention he has generated. All that attention on him has backfired, though his media critics may be the last to know why.
As Pope reminds us in his enduring masterpiece on literary criticism, An Essay on Criticism, it is essential for critics to know themselves — their judgment, tastes, and abilities. It seems such awareness of their own limitations is too tall an order for today’s bien pensants and public intellectuals (as they like to think of themselves); after all they do have their Ivy League sheepskins. Credentials, yes. Comprehension and common sense, very selective.
One wonders if they have ever considered whether they have enough distance from their own ideology to perceive reality to the degree necessary for any real self-awareness. Given all the blather at the universities about the importance of critical thinking skills, there is little evidence that such skill has been acquired by their graduates in the media, especially when one sees the yawning gap between reality and what the MSM media accept as gospel from our slick-talking Columbia and Harvard-educated President. Little wonder Trump’s unvarnished jabs have them shaking in horror at the barbarian at the gates.
Pope advised critics against their own “blindness” and ignorance about their own defects caused by pride, which leads to poor judgment. They would do well to remember Pope’s warning, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” As one critic writing long before the fateful 2008 election noted: it’s sometimes easier to fall for the pleasing “whole” that covers over multiple flaws than for the imperfect “whole” that is made up of solid “parts.”
There is much to be admired about Trump’s creativity in crudely breaking through the constraints that the mavens of political correctness have managed to impose more and more on political discussion since television invaded our homes. But Trump’s audience includes a large number of those whose taste is reflected by the crudest reality shows; their taste in television programming, whether we like it or not, is not a disqualification for voting. The more important fact, however, is that Trump’s marketing intuition led him to recognize that there is a public that has been ignored for years by the purveyors of conventional wisdom and pseudo-sophistication.
Finally, GOP voters have endured years of the Republican establishment treating conservatives in manipulative and condescending ways; they’ve put up with decades of deceitful bait-and-switch gambits where the GOP establishment talks like conservatives to gain the votes they need to get elected, only to turn around and accede to if not vote for every big government program that progressives can gin up. Now the duplicity of GOP establishment types damning big government on the stump in fly-over country, but doing nothing in the halls of Congress to stop its growth has come home to roost with a vengeance. Establishment Republicans are finding themselves just as naked in the public square as the MSM media; neither is left with the standing necessary to complain about Trump’s playing to and manipulating the Republican base’s frustrations and pent-up anger.