One of the first priorities of demagoguery is the fostering of ignorance. Lies require collaboration from those who are being lied to, and for a propaganda machine to be effective it needs a special kind of public ignorance.
This can happen in societies that otherwise seem to be sophisticated and highly advanced scientifically. Invariably the case of Germany in the early 1930s is cited as proof. That, however, carries the danger of false analogies and misses what is immediate and novel. Propaganda and the nurturing of ignorance have moved on apace since the Nazis and Joseph Goebbels.
The Trump White House is demonstrating in its own innovative ways just how far habitual lying can clear the way for the triumph of ideology over truth. This can’t be simplified by charging Trump himself with being a pathological liar. His administration has invented a new and distinctly American propaganda machine that is built on lies. But not enough attention has been given to its willing partner in this exercise: a carefully nurtured kind of public ignorance that it can exploit.
One reason this isn’t being discussed is that politicians are rightly wary of insulting any constituency by calling it ignorant. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” was a disastrously patronizing misjudgment. But in the context of the Age of Trump, ignorance is not actually a pejorative term, it’s a description of a set of beliefs in which knowledge and truth are less persuasive than prejudice and fear.
This process began long before Trump decided to run. Years of talk radio diatribes fueled by Obama-phobia and Fox News harangues prepared the soil and then Breitbart, the alt-right, and fake news softened it further. Trump understood this better than anyone and harvested its fruits.
In fact, the bedrock beneath this process was much older and a uniquely American phenomenon, a widespread consensual ignorance. There is a strain of dogmatic religious activism here that does not exist to anything like the same extent in other advanced democracies. It uses religion—or misuses religion—to resist or rollback changes in social behavior and to suggest who the alien “other” should be.
This consensual ignorance involves accepting a set of ordained beliefs while at the same time rejecting others that are not ordained, no matter whether they are based on facts. What begins as a theological system easily slips into a secular one: the habit of denying what is an inconvenient truth or of simplifying a complex exterior world into stereotypical threats.
This is not the ignorance of unlearned knowledge—it’s more potent than that. It’s a tutored ignorance, and in its most basic form it’s anti-scientific.
And that is why the present and future influence of Vice President Mike Pence needs to get close attention.
“The Bible tells us that God created man in His own image, male and female; He created them,” Pence has said. “And I believe that God created the known universe, the Earth, and everything in it including man, and I also believe that some day, scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides an even remotely rational explanation for the known universe.”
Pence also argued that evolution should not be taught in schools without a parallel commentary of Biblical explanations as being equally valid.
With Pence in the White House it could be that control of the most scientifically advanced country in the world has now fallen into the hands of people to whom science is an enemy. The EPA’s website has already been purged of any references to Obama’s climate action plan and carbon pollution as a cause of climate change. Universities across the nation have teams working to safeguard masses of government data that contradicts White House dogma before it, too, is wiped.
That’s why this is a good moment to consult the man who, more than any other, had to struggle with how to argue that the advance of science was not a threat to the Christian faith, Charles Darwin.
The idea that when Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859 he provoked outrage from Biblical literalists is nonsense. Victorian Britain was a scientific powerhouse, science teaching was a key part of the drive toward universal public education and one branch of science in particular, paleontology, was assembling through the evidence of fossils a picture of the Earth’s evolution that already made the idea that our planet was only 6,000 years old risible. In the introduction to his book Darwin reviewed the work of 34 scientists who had paved the way for his breakthrough theory of natural selection.
Nonetheless the popular press took the opportunity to stir up a circulation-building debate between two sides cast as the sacred and profane. Cartoons appeared in which Darwin was half-man and half-ape, even though his revelatory theory, the tree of life, was more about the evolution of butterflies than about homo sapiens.
Darwin was very careful to accept why Victorians might have problems grasping the scale of what he had revealed.
“The belief that species were immutable productions was almost unavoidable as long as the history of the world was thought to be of short duration… the chief cause of our natural willingness to admit that one species has given birth to clear and distinct species is that we are always slow in admitting great changes of which we do not see the steps.”
After the first edition of On The Origin of Species had been subjected to review by his peers and publicly debated, Darwin incorporated some of the responses in later editions. One clergyman, Charles Kingsley, spoke for many who had no problem reconciling Darwin’s science with the work of the Creator. Darwin wrote of Kingsley: “he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Diety to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.”
Darwin himself was an agnostic. Whether he actually believed that the hidden architecture of life that he had described for the first time had divine origin doesn’t really matter. He was not a dogmatic scientist. He was open-minded and prepared to concede to those like Kingsley if they were not dogmatists and were comfortable that their own beliefs were not under threat—and recognized that science was an engine of social progress.
Darwin recalled that Sir Isaac Newton had been attacked for “the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity” by people who saw it as subversive of religion. Darwin himself was the beneficiary of a long-established British tolerance for unsettling scientific ideas. Science had not yet locked itself into the confines of a profession with its own hierarchy. From Newton onwards there were as many gentlemen amateurs probing for scientific truths as there were vocational scientists at work in England—and some of them were clergymen.
All of which makes it strange that anyone today would think it reasonable to persist, as Pence does, with the idea of “intelligent design.” Indeed, Darwin saw that idea coming and dealt with it dismissively: “It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the ‘plan of creation’ ‘unity of design’ etc and to think that we give an explanation when we only re-state a fact.”
All along, Pence has been very careful not to make a specific denial of evolution. His classic evasion came in a 2009 interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC:
Matthews: “Do you believe in evolution, sir?”
Pence: “I embrace the view that God created the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that’s in them.”
Matthews: “But do you believe in evolution as the way he did it?”
Pence: “The means, Chris, that He used to do that, I can’t say.”
That’s what intellectual cowardice sounds like as a politician dances within the boundaries of his base, and it becomes much more consequential now that that man is at the heart of White House policy making—Pence is the essential conduit between Trump and the agenda of Congressional Republicans. He is also the quiet agent of the religious right, supported by fellow believer Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
This movement may sail under religious colors but its agenda reflects the way that religion has become a euphemism for atavism. Buried within the code of “Make America Great Again” there was always the promise of restoring a repressive social order.
When so-called fundamentalists and evangelists embrace a crotch-grabbing sexual predator they display a shameless level of cant but it doesn’t seem to bother them. Is this really theology or a return to a kind of muscular Christianity based on a 1930s model of a white man’s world? Whatever the truth, the primary targets are clear: Planned Parenthood, abortion clinics, voting rights, gun regulations, any extension of LGBT rights, and even roll back gay marriage.
There is no Darwin-like tolerance of opposing beliefs here. No open debate with enlightened values. The Christian right movement in this country has reached the level of an intrusive crusade, sensing that its moment has come, and is bent on policing the personal choices and lives of others, particularly women.
Trump’s White House may be in chaos but that chaos hides the long game that Pence has the patience and guile to pursue. The continuing barrage of propaganda and outrageous lies still finds a ready audience among his constituency, where the mainstream media has no credibility. Consensual ignorance provides its own extensive comfort zone where yesterday has a lot more to recommend it than tomorrow.
Whether or not Pence really believes the earth is only 6,000 years old is immaterial. His version of intelligent design is really not about Old Testament divine creation but a new social order—or, rather, an old social order that was supposed to be long extinct.