Trumping Experts and Russia

Watching the political class melt down on Twitter and in the media in the wake of President Trump’s Monday press conference with Vladimir Putin, I could not help but notice the stark difference between the blue-checked elite and normal people.

Nearly every “influencer” seemed hysterical. But regular people, in person and on Twitter, were more impressed by the outrage than by Trump’s own words. Some asked things such as, “What? Are we supposed to bomb Russia?” Others seemed completely unsurprised by Trump’s comments (it is almost as though they had been paying some attention to Trump over the last few months). As it often does, the common sense of things differs from expert opinion.

Why do expert elites seem so often to lack common sense? Experts would say it is because what we call “common sense” is wrong and normal people are not properly educated. But history most often shows us otherwise. From this most recent show, to the Strzok hearing; from the expert police who couldn’t stop a known threat in a school shooting (whom they watched enter the school!), to the pundit class that misunderstood the American electorate in 2016, why do the experts lately seem so ineffective and, well, stupid?

For one thing, knowledge of anything useful is entirely unnecessary to becoming an expert today. In fact, it usually hurts to know something useful. Only a particular kind of knowledge is useful. To become an expert member of the ruling class, you have to be clever at pleasing your boss and good at pretending.

Some friends describe it this way: we live in a let’s pretend world.  They meant this in the way of the old (irony alert!) Russian political joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” What keeps this going is pretending, including pretending the joke is just a joke.

But how did it come to this? Being a military man, I have a theory. It stems from the progressive’s grip on the bureaucracy, the thing instituted to harness expertise to rule us all better. Given that the military is a giant bureaucracy, and given that no one bothers us (since conservatives adore us and liberals love government), the military has plenty of unthinking experts. We got to this point through something like this:

First, we lost our grounding in human nature and started to believe we could do a lot more than we can (a normal human impulse). Then we made too many laws and regulations to control life too precisely (this naturally follows from a lack of skepticism).

After a while we have so many rules, laws, and regulations, that no one can really know, follow, or enforce all of them. This leads to arbitrary enforcement of rules based on whatever is hot at the moment. In the regular world, we might say making too many laws makes people lawless. In the military, we call this “command emphasis.”

After a while, one realizes that the rules do not matter; what matters is the rules one’s boss cares about. Pretty soon, one’s boss becomes the only legitimate authority. We get the rule of superiors instead of the rule of law (which for some, is the whole point).

In the realm in which one’s superior rules, one’s job is to please one’s boss. At first it is for the boss’s sake; eventually it is for one’s own sake (because we all want to be the boss). Whereas acting out of self-interest is natural, in a bureaucracy, the tyrannical impulse in all of us twists an otherwise good or neutral part of us. Government bureaucrats tend to believe that taking care of themselves, above whatever the purpose of the office is, is the profession.

We don’t really know we are doing all of this, because we learn all sorts of methods along the way to dress it up in euphemisms. We learn that it is good to highlight the good and hide the bad. After some ethical fading, this no longer feels unethical; it is part of the job—a necessary component of taking care of one’s career and one’s subordinates.

Once we realize that the rules don’t matter and the appearance of performance outweighs actual performance, we are most of the way there. Everything in a bureaucracy is about one’s own career, so we support the status quo. Change is disruptive and a threat to us. In the military, careerism is a given. It isn’t even talked about as if it is a bad thing.

And with careerism, supporting the status quo, and lying to promote oneself comes credentialism and special jargon. Like any guild, bureaucracies engage in protectionism. After all, how can you have a career if there is no profession? You have to have the right degrees and certificates to join the club—things that show you’ve been properly educated to pretend. You have to speak the language and demonstrate your familiarity with the code. Jargon begets jargon, and after a while, the code takes on a life of its own.

Soon no one any longer knows what all of the words mean. But you had better not say so! The fiction of expertise is maintained by never questioning. Everyone starts nodding along to whatever is said so long the jargon elevates them as experts above others. The special schools and training grounds become nothing more than training in the proper speak. Everyone must pretend to keep the whole thing going.

It isn’t hard to see how actual intelligence or honesty (a necessary component of real knowledge) get in the way of this. For those who possess these things, such an environment is stifling and unbearable; most leave of their own accord. The system finds and purges the rest. Pretenders cannot co-exist with those who won’t pretend.

Over time, all this pretending leads to calcification and intellectual bankruptcy. Worse still, the pretending depends on highlighting how superior expert knowledge is to common sense, never mind if common sense seems to work most of the time. There cannot be experts without expertise. The result is a deadly combination of stupidity and pride.

So why are our elite so wrong so much of the time? Why do they sneer and scoff at common sense? Largely because they are professionally bred to be that way. Progressive government and the large-scale private institutions inspired by it, has been around for a while, and it seems to make everything like this.

In foreign policy, we call it the “national security apparatus”—the guild consisting of public policy education, think tanks, the military, and other government offices, defense contractors, consultants, and academic chairs. In that guild, successful foreign policy is unnecessary; proper education and experience in the bureaucracy are a must.

Foreign policy experts are particularly dumb as a result, but we’ve been at the process of weeding thinkers out of politics like this for a long time now. Like most of those blue-checked elites on Twitter and those talking heads on TV, the experts don’t actually have to prove themselves right about anything. They just have to pretend that they are right and protect the system that says they are.

Common sense says Trump went to Russia to talk to some bad people and to try to avoid war. That’s a good thing. While he was there, he didn’t start a fight. That makes sense. To move forward, Trump was ironically unconcerned with honor or pride.

Instead, he spoke plainly about the interests that we share. He spoke honestly about our own problems (it might surprise the experts, but not everyone trusts the U.S. intelligence community). In an attempt to persuade, he avoided hypocrisy and admitted our common failures.

To build a working relationship, he avoided insulting or damaging rhetoric. Because what would be the point? Whether or not Putin’s government spied on us, what are we going to do about it now that will actually yield something good for our country? Deterrence only works with the threat of war, and war with Russia really isn’t an option at this point.

The political personalities who lost it over the Trump-Putin summit seem to have no answers beyond “Russia bad! Call them out!”  To them, this is the paragon of elite, expert opinion, largely because everyone else in their world is saying it. But these are just empty words with no political value, idealism devoid of prudence. Thankfully, common men and women, with common sense, know better.

Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images

About Bill Kilgore

Bill Kilgore is the pseudonym of a writer serving in the United States military. It should go without saying that the views expressed in his articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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