There’s a Jon Stewart-era “Daily Show” clip in which the erstwhile host pokes fun at the feigned idiocy of Fox News’s Gretchen Carlson, who later left the network and won a sexual harassment settlement. Although Carlson graduated from Stanford University with honors, she played the dumb blonde every morning on Fox & Friends. Among other incredulous moments, Carlson would often claim she needed Google or a dictionary to look up words she most certainly knew, such as ignoramus and czar. As Stewart quipped, Carlson was probably “dumbing [herself] down to connect with an audience [she thinks] sees intellect as an elitist flaw.”
Carlson’s performative stupidity continues to be the norm for many Fox anchors (for others, like Sean Hannity, it might not be an act), which illustrates less that Fox News’s audience is dumb per se (no argument here) but that the on-air personalities and producers think their audience is dumb. In other words, Fox News doesn’t respect its viewers.
The Trump Republican Party behaves the same way. After Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) announced he’d object to Joe Biden’s Electoral College certification, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had to one-up Hawley by bragging that he had corralled several senators to object alongside him. These guys are not stupid. Both Cruz and Hawley are products of elite education. Like Carlson, Hawley is a Stanford grad who went onto Yale Law School. Cruz is an alumnus of Princeton and Harvard Law.
They both know that Biden won. They both know that their stunt had zero chance of success. It was all grandstanding in the hopes of endearing themselves to Trumpists and perhaps securing an endorsement from Trump later on. So Hawley gave a fist salute to Trump’s supporters just hours before they stormed the Capitol, and Cruz spoke in his usual oily way about his solemn duty to obstruct a free and fair election.
Both these guys were offering false hope to Trump’s most militant and delusional partisans who had no idea, or at least no inclination to acknowledge, that Congress cannot unilaterally pick the president. But Hawley and Cruz made their judgment that debased appeals to the ignorance of Republican hooligans would serve their long-term political interests. There is contempt here for their voters. The unwillingness to level with people conveys disrespect for their intellect as if they were children who must be humored or indulged.
The same phenomenon remains on display with COVID-19. Republicans are in a race to the bottom to sound the most anti-science, the most hostile to public health officials, the most vulgar in childish name games (“Kung Flu”), and the most all-around militant in their opposition to mask-wearing and social distancing.
This pandering to the lowest-common dominator has consequences. The ongoing death toll from COVID needs no further elaboration. And while Hawley and Cruz did not want the fascistic riot, they were damaging the country by undermining faith in our elections and institutions and stoking malignant conspiracy theories.
Even in the aftermath of the uniquely American-white-nationalist maelstrom, Cruz and Hawley were not contrite. They returned to their seats and voted to oppose the certification of Biden’s election in two states. The next morning, they commenced Act II. Cruz attacked liberal champion and right-wing bête noire Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And Hawley whined that a “woke mob” was infringing on his First Amendment rights after a publisher canceled his book deal in protest over his seditious conduct. These types of feuds — right-wing performative outrage at alleged victimization by woke liberals — play well with the resentful ideologues that power the Republican Party.
And so sadly we will continue to see more of the Republicans’ dumbed-down pandering. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a rare voice of party sanity, consoled his colleagues on the night of the riot: “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.” Several Republican senators and more than half of the GOP’s House caucus still voted to block Biden’s victory.
If you respect your constituents, you tell them the hard truth. Most Republicans, however, evidence no respect for their constituents. But, frankly, most of their constituents have given them little to respect. Republican politicians play dumb because it works.
Khelil Bouarrouj is an activist who writes about LGBTQ issues.