Calling a Moron a Moron
Last week, when a Fox news poll showed 39% of Americans surveyed believed Trump was doing a good or excellent job, I sent a tweet saying two in five Americans are morons. I'm basically a nobody on Twitter. I don't think I have even a thousand followers. So I was taken by surprise at the vehemence of the reaction to my name-calling tweet -- both from people I know, and from people I don't. An actual friend of mine sent me an email saying insulting people is ineffective, and a friend of a friend on Facebook wrote a post saying people aren't morons just because they disagree with me.
That is certainly true. I spend most my time in Texas and Utah, and a lot of time outside urban areas, so I am well aware how many people disagree with me, including many of my friends. In fact, practically everybody I know disagrees with me about something. So I tried to explain to the friend of a Facebook friend my view of what makes someone a moron. I used newly confirmed EPA head Scott Pruitt as an example. Pruitt is a lawyer who wants to shrink the power of the federal government and let states fill the vacuum. Pruitt, I asserted, is a moron, but it's not because he thinks power should be shifted from the federal government to the states for enforcing laws designed to prevent water pollution -- even though that policy view is idiotic; he's a moron because he claims there is meaningful debate in the scientific community about the significance of global warming.
Those who criticized me for saying two out of five Americans are morons did so for two different reasons. One group of critics said name-calling is ineffective; if you are trying to change someone's mind, calling him or her a moron is not likely to work. Call this the practical criticism.
The other group said "moron" is the wrong word. The people who think Trump is doing a good or excellent jobs may be mistaken, or they may be victims of confirmation bias, or they may be bigots. But they aren't morons. Call this the semantic criticism.
The root of the word moron means foolish. It once meant an adult with the intelligence of a child, and has come to mean someone who is a dolt or ignoramus. Is there a better word to describe someone who denies climate change, or who believes there were thousands of Muslims in Brooklyn celebrating the fall of the twin towers on 9/11, or who insists President Obama was not born in the US, or who thinks there is moral equivalence between the US and Russia? There might be other words that are as accurate, perhaps some of them are less pejorative. But all these propositions are false, and anyone who holds to them is a fool, which is to say, a moron.
Now this leaves the question of whether anything is gained by calling foolish people morons. The fallacy of the practical criticism, however, is that it rests on the delusional premise that people who hold moronic beliefs are persuade-able, if only we could identify a less alienating word. Yet that premise is not only false, it is pernicious, because it leads to a catastrophic political strategy.
What the right wing has proved over the past eight years, if nothing else, is that demonization works. It works in two ways: first, by throwing red meat to the base, it keeps them engaged. From Rush Limbaugh's bilious rants to President Trump's incendiary tweets, the goal is not to persuade, but to energize. People voted for Trump not because they agreed with the specifics of his policies -- the only specific he articulated was the wall, and even that specific lacked specifics when it came to explaining how exactly he would get Mexico to pay for it. They voted for him because they hated or distrusted Hillary, and the hate or distrust was nurtured by constant, incessant demonization.
Second, the great historian Edmund S. Morgan explained how slavery survived and coexisted with a political commitment to freedom and liberty because poor whites saw themselves as more like wealthy slave owners than like poor black slaves. Poor white people viewed themselves as white, rather than poor, and therefore allied themselves politically with people who had no interest in their actual economic well-being. Indeed, the roots of white poverty and its persistence are very much tied to the stubbornly held view that poor whites are more like rich whites than they are like poor blacks or hispanics. Demonizing the enemy is a method of cementing alliances between people who have little else in common other than agreeing on who the "others" are. Republicans recognize this phenomenon and execute it masterfully. There is a hard core of racists in America who didn't care that the Republicans were doing nothing to help them economically, as long as those Republicans kept saying no to President Obama, whom they viewed as illegitimate.
One can point to many reasons Trump defeated Clinton, but not a single one of those factors would have mattered if the Democratic base had showed up on November 8th. The second most important goal in politics is to persuade the people in the middle. But the principal objective is to get the people on your side to vote. You do that by firing them up. That's why Trump holds hangar-filled rallies even as the White House is in chaos -- because cultivating the base is a winning strategy. Being nice, being reasonable, trying to tell people they are mistaken but not fools -- things the Democratic Party has been doing for decades -- is a strategy that elevates decorum over results. Some people would rather play nice and lose. Republicans would rather play dirty and win. Given those options, the Republicans have it right. You want results? Then energize the base. You want to energize the base? Then you don't hold back because you are worried about offending the middle. You speak the truth. You say Bannon is a white nationalist; Miller is a Muslim-hater; Trump might be an anti-Semite and he sure seems to be a racist, and he's without question a dangerous and lying narcissist.
And then you say that if you're ok with people like that running the country, then you're never going to vote for the people I'm voting for anyway. That fact alone doesn't make you a moron. But it does liberate me to tell you that you are when you espouse moronic views.