Outsmarted

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Rick Perlstein is a historian and the author of "Nixonland" and "The Invisible Bridge."

Way back in 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald figured out something very shrewd about right-wingers. He discovered, and described, an emerging social type: the reactionary pedant.

It comes in Chapter One of The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald introduces his dramatis personae. Our narrator, Nick Carraway, is chatting away aimlessly with his sophisticated cousin Daisy Buchanan and her equally sophisticated friend, Jordan Baker. Embarked upon his second glass of a “corky but rather impressive claret,” Nick remarks that the conversation has grown a bit too recherché for his taste: “You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy. Can’t you talk about crops or something?” He “meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way”—by Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, whom Nick had known when both attended Yale.

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”


“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.


“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”


“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”


“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently.


“This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”


“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.


“You ought to live in California—” began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.


“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “—And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”


There was something pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.

In a novel that precisely deploys status markers, every detail here matters. Nick, blithe, ironic, and self-possessed, is perfectly comfortable making light of his preference for intellectually uncluttered chitchat. Tom Buchanan, not so self-possessed, has to rush in to demonstrate that he is smart too—though 1925 readers would immediately understand he is actually stupid, because he’s biffed the names of two real-life thinkers: Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920), and the eugenicist Madison Grant, inventor of “Nordic theory” and author of the equally alarmist The Passing of the Great Race (1916).

However, contemporary readers don’t have to boast familiarity with the contents of 1920s bookstores to grasp that this guy is a clown—or to recognize the type. Think Spiro Agnew, braying about the downfall of America at the hands of “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” in speeches scripted for him by William Safire. (Safire dropped out of college to take a job with a gossip columnist. He later got a job as the resident conservative op-ed sage at the New York Times, and also published an “On Language” column in the Times magazine. In both capacities, he never let the world forget he knew a lot of six-syllable words.) Or William F. Buckley, whose rebarbative vocabulary conned a generation of liberals into believing conservatism was a “movement of ideas.”

Liberals want to make you feel stupid, but—na na na!—it’s actually liberals who are stupid: this trope is a commonplace of conservative rhetoric. If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans: that’s the title of a 2007 book by Ann Coulter. Rush Limbaugh boasts that he performs his program “flawlessly with zero mistakes” with “half my brain tied behind my back.” “We outnumber the stupid people” was one of the slogans of Herman Cain, the pizza magnate who ran for the Republican presidential nomination on a “9-9-9 plan” that sought to replace all federal taxes with a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate income tax, and 9 percent national sales tax. Then there is Donald J. Trump, whose favorite word, besides “sad,” is “smart,” and who explains he doesn’t need to attend to intelligence briefings because, “You know, I’m, like, a smart person.” ...




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