This post originally appeared at History News Network.
I owe a great debt to Donald J. Trump. Let me explain.
Eight years ago, in 2008, I wrote a book called Just How Stupid Are We? It was a cry de coeur. The theme was summed up by my provocative title, though I never intended it to be taken literally. I didn’t mean voters are stupid. My point was that our politics are often stupid and that’s because millions of people know so little about politics they can be taken advantage of by manipulative politicians.
Exhibit A was a frightening statistic buried in polling data about the Iraq War. On the eve of the war a majority of Americans thought that the reason we had decided to topple Saddam Hussein was because they believed that “Iraq played an important role in Sept. 11.” Actually, he hadn’t played any role at all, of course, as even the Bush administration eventually acknowledged.
I concluded that if the American people couldn’t get the most basic facts right about the most important events of our recent history – 9/11 and the Iraq War – it was unlikely they can be counted on to get the facts right about the run-of-the mill matters that usually come up in political debates. And that meant they probably cannot be trusted to get the facts right about much of anything. That’s alarming. If you believe a majority of Americans are politically ignorant it’s hard to make the case that our democracy really works. Voters in a democracy have to know what they’re talking about, after all, right?
And yet it appeared that Americans don’t. A majority don’t know there are three branches of government, don’t know there are 100 United States senators and cannot name the chief justice. Most have no clue who represents them in Congress or which party controls Congress.
The book was a minor hit, ending up on the Amazon bestseller list. An interview I did on CNN that was posted to YouTube drew more than a million hits. I even appeared on The Daily Show and got a chance to kibitz with Jon Stewart. When I mentioned that I wanted to relay some statistics Stewart interrupted, “Please. There’s nothing my audience craves more than statistics,” causing the audience to break up in laughter. But Stewart’s ribbing aside, the audience seemed truly shocked by my statistics.
Alas, my 15 minutes of fame ended and people forgot all about me and my book. I never succeeded in getting a national conversation going about the cost of gross public ignorance. Just six months after the book was published, Barack Obama was elected president. In the heady mood that greeted that historic event it didn’t occur to people that we had a problem. We’d just put the first black man in the White House. How bad could things be?
The election of 2016 has provided the gloomy answer. Lying, it turns out, is a proven success formula. Trump has shown repeatedly that he can manipulate millions by regurgitating half-truths and outright lies to voters who know so little about the way the real world works that they find it plausible he’s telling them the truth and everybody else is lying. As one recent study found, 48 percent of his supporters disbelieve the federal government’s basic economic statistics (like the unemployment rate). That leaves them sitting ducks for the wild conspiracy theories he keeps peddling.
But there are grounds for optimism. Every day it’s becoming more apparent that Trump’s going to lose. That suggests voters are beginning to catch on to his deceptions. And he lost the third debate, according to scientific polls (the ones he cites on his Twitter feed above that show he won the debate were unscientific). But is he losing because of his lies or because he’s proving to be the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 of candidates, regularly bursting into flames? It’s not hard to imagine a slicker version of Trump actually winning. And that should scare the hell out of thoughtful voters. Unlike the Korean company’s fire-prone phones, politicians can’t be banned.
Alas, the pool of thinking Americans is small, as Adlai Stevenson recognized long ago when he was running for president. One day, as the uncorroborated story goes, he was getting into his car when a supporter called out to say that all thinking Americans were behind him. “That’s not enough, Madam. We need a majority.”
But a growing number of Americans have had their eyes opened to the reality of American politics. That’s the one positive legacy Trump is likely to leave. After what we’ve been through during this election it’s hard to believe that the mainstream media and the people who turn to them for news will quickly forget how close a call we had.
Our democracy needs fixing. And that means addressing the problem with low information voters I set out to draw attention to eight years ago. That’s why I’m grateful to Donald Trump.
So thank you, Donald. And I really mean that sincerely!