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Trump and the Pride of ‘Holy Ignorance’

They cling to their identity, which is based not on argument but on emotions like loyalty, solidarity with their people, fond memories, and defiance of being told what to do by strangers.

This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe on February 23, 2016

By Garry Wills

All of us Smart Guys were blindsided by the rise of Donald Trump. For a long time we agreed that it could not happen, so it was not happening. If it was, it would soon be over – just a shimmer of summer lightning that the darkness would soon swallow up. We kept waiting for him to do us all a favor by self-destroying. Then he just kept on happening, and we kept blundering about in various stages of denial. Well, now we have to realize that it did happen, and we have no good explanation of it.

Groping about in my daze, I remembered another time when the Smart Guys were blindsided and kept scrambling for explanations. By the middle of the 20th century there was a learned consensus that the age of superstition (read: religion) was over. It had taken a long time, but reason had won out. We had, after all, been enlightened by the 18th century, democratized by the 19th century, technologized by the 20th century. Science was in the ascendant. A study commissioned in 1965 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences predicted that we would be heavily secularized by the year 2000.

But, at just about that time, there was a wave of fundamentalism sweeping the globe, blindsiding all the secular futurists who were then enjoying a vogue. The same American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned in 1987 a Fundamentalism Project, headed by Martin Marty, that would explain why we were veering off the path that promised us a secular year 2000. This was a worldwide study that found secularism itself produced the fundamentalist reaction. People who were told that they were not living up to modern values took that as a guarantee that they were being true to their own people and their own path.

That was especially true, Michael Walzer now argues, of colonial countries emerging from European domination. The very people who worked to liberate these countries had been trained by the European powers, and tried to bring some of the values of modernity to their people, which drove those people into a deeper defense of their native culture and values. That was the fundamentalist resistance that Nehru met in India, Fanon in Algeria, and Jabotinsky in Israel. When told that their attitudes toward women, tribal traditions, and innovation were remnants of a “backward” past, people responded, “It may be a backward past, but it is our past, and no one can take it from us, not even members of our own people.” As Walzer put it, “backwardness came back.” In France, Olivier Roy found the same reaction to modernism when it is felt as foreign. If told that their attitude is ignorant, people respond that it is a holy ignorance, one sanctified by usage, ritual, and family.

Does any of this sound familiar now? “Family values” is a holy phrase to Republicans, not only for opposition to gays but for all ties of loyalty, locality, and shared memories. Republicans who say Donald Trump is backward on women, blacks, Mexicans, and Muslims hear from their constituents that he may be out of intellectual fashion (“not politically correct”), but so are they. He speaks for their past. “My country right or wrong” has become “My era right or wrong.” If it was good enough for my father and mother, and for their fathers and mothers before them, why should anyone disparage it?

This explains why Trump’s followers are impervious to argument. They cling to their identity, which is based not on argument but on emotions like loyalty, solidarity with their people, fond memories, and defiance of being told what to do by strangers. It is the response of the colonized to the liberators who want them to enter a new world by forgetting the old. In other words, if you want to understand Trump’s followers, read Martin Marty, Michael Walzer, and Olivier Roy. It is all a matter of “holy ignorance.”

- Garry Wills, a professor of history at Northwestern University, is the author, most recently, of “The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis.’’

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