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Trump and Palin exist in an alternative universe of knowledge denial

Welcome to the know-nothing GOP reality show, where ignorance equals votes from the all-important Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists

Randall Stephens
Wednesday 20 January 2016 17:26 GMT
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(Getty Images )

His hands grasping the podium, Donald Trump was subdued last night in Ames, Iowa. He spoke in strangely hushed tones as he introduced the celebrity mama grisly, and former vice presidential candidate for the GOP Sarah Palin.

Palin roared into a rambling speech. To her it was a dose of hard, honest truth. To anyone familiar with the rules of grammar and syntax it sounded like a drunken rant.

She hit on the familiar theme that has become her trademark. Trump was the right man for the presidency because he told unvarnished truths, he was a successful businessman, he thumbed his nose at elites, and he could kick ass. He would support the military. “He is from the private sector. Not a politician,” she said, followed by, “can I get a hallelujah?!”

When Palin and Trump mock the media, rail against the establishment, or challenge intellectuals, their supporters shout back a hearty, ear-shattering “HALLELUJAH!!” Millions of Americans believe, perhaps as never before, that the wisdom of experts, the pronouncements of career politicians in DC, and the accumulated knowledge of science are wrong and worth fighting against. Intellectuals and weak officials had made the USA ineffective and insecure.

“To win that war” on terrorism, Palin shouted from the stage to Tea Partiers in a Nashville banquet hall in 2010, “we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” In Iowa last night she elaborated a little more to shouts of support: “Are you ready for a commander-in-chief . . . you ready for a commander-in-chief who will let our warriors do their job and go kick ISIS' ass?”

Diplomacy is more about chest thumping and fist shaking, and the promise of carpet bombing, than it is about knowing anything about other cultures, societies, and the complicated dynamics of geopolitics. Why would anyone want to venture into all that boring, academic work, when a good old ass-kicking would do the trick?

Trump and Palin apply this same populist, plain folk logic to almost every political issue, from immigration to the economy. Build a wall around the southern border, Trump blusters, and make Mexico pay for it. Palin assures her supporters that anyone who can manage their own household finances could manage the US economy.

In this alternate universe of knowledge denial: vaccinations cause autism; homosexuals can be “repaired” and made straight; global warming is a hoax; and God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.

Why does knowledge denial thrive in the US as it does? In large part it has something to do with the shouting-head, conspiracy theory political culture that the Republican Party, the Tea Party, AM radio shows, and Fox News have fostered. There is another major cause as well. Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists - accounting for roughly 22 per cent of the nation’s population - have embraced anti-intellectualism as few other large groups could. Millions of right wing believers educate their children in their homes with fundamentalist curriculum, live in a kind of isolated parallel culture in their churches, and send their teenage sons and daughters to Christian colleges and universities that help complete the circle.

Trump, a thrice-married, prophet of mammon, has positioned himself very well with evangelicals and all those who think conventional wisdom is bunk. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll has showed that Trump has garnered 42 per cent of evangelical support.

Commenting on Palin yesterday, Trump said, “When I heard that she was going to endorse me, I was so honored. You have no idea how honored.” Indeed. With high favorability ratings among the faithful, Palin is the perfect pitchwoman for Trump and his populist, know-nothing GOP reality show.

Randall Stephens is a Reader in History and American Studies at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard University Press, 2008) and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, co-authored with Karl Giberson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).

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