Back in the carefree days of early June 2016, before Brexit, before Trump got into power and before COVID-19, right-wing British politician Michael Gove said these words: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best, and getting it consistently wrong.”
Gove was railing at the time against a large number of experts on economics and business who had pointed out that Brexit was unlikely to be as easy and wondrous as the hard right of the Tory Party had been claiming.
The anti-expert line has been used many more times by Conservative MPs and by the right-wing media that supports them. In relation to Brexit alone there have been attacks on the judiciary, civil servants and universities.
It is amazing that Michael Gove and Tory chums who pushed this line could keep a straight face. Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and a great many of their cronies went to elitist boarding schools and the University of Oxford. While they may not have been the brightest of students, they were taught by world-class experts and rubbed shoulders with those who would become experts in law, medicine, economics, climate science and a wealth of other critical disciplines.
How these privileged rich men, who had the most advantageous educations money could buy, thought they could get away with pushing an anti-expert and anti-intellectual narrative to the public is an interesting question. While we are not party to private conversations that happened behind the scenes, we can examine the links between those men and other powerful and privileged people who undermined expertise in order to manipulate and dupe the wider public.
Pushing for Brexit — and later for the most extreme of Brexits — was only one thing the anti-expert narrative was employed for in recent years. Getting Trump into power and supporting him amid widespread criticism was another key mission supported by anti-expert messaging. Attacks on climate scientists and the denigration of their expertise is another. That disinformation campaign has been going on so long that it seems highly likely that Brexiteers and team Trump learned from that.
Similarly, the anti-vax campaign has been going on for a considerable time, and the way that deliberate disinformation gets picked up by the essentially well-meaning and recirculated online wouldn’t have escaped the notice of political manipulators.
If we consider the links between those pushing anti-expert narratives in the UK and US, we can see that we have not merely been seeing isolated incidences, but orchestrated actions driven by clear strategies.
Dominic Cummings, the manipulator who delivered Brexit for the hard right of the Tory Party, previously advised Michael Gove. During which time he expressed extreme and scientifically flawed ideas about the inherent cognitive abilities of rich people compared to poor people. Cummings ultimately became the most powerful advisor to Boris Johnson, who he helped become the UK’s prime minister.
Cummings and his Vote Leave campaign organisation was aided by Aggregate IQ (AIQ), which has been associated with Cambridge Analytica, which was subsequently exposed for numerous attacks on democracy and closed down. The relationship between Vote Leave and the allied data harvesting and voter targeting operations was depicted in the Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War and has been discussed in many media articles, including by The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr.
Since Cambridge Analytica was exposed there have been attempts to distance Cummings from Cambridge Analytica by claiming that there is no connection between Cambridge Analytica and AIQ. However, the connection has been emphasised by whistleblower Dr Christopher Wylie.
The vice-president of Cambridge Analytica was far-right propagandist Steve Bannon, and Robert Mercer was a major investor. Mercer and Bannon also have been key figures within Breitbart, a far-right website. That site was not only among the first conservative outlets to support Trump’s candidacy, but it also has incessantly pushed both Brexit and white nationalist narratives.
Mercer also aided Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign group Leave.EU and funded Trump’s campaign to be president. Bannon was appointed to lead Trump’s campaign and after the election became chief strategist and senior counsellor to Trump.
Much of the microtargeting enabled by AIQ and Cambridge Analytica for both the Brexit campaign and Trump’s electoral campaign appears to have been focused on the psychologically susceptible, allowing xenophobia, racism, misogyny and sheer ignorance to be exploited.
Like Trump, Breitbart is fond of using the term “so-called” prior to the word expert. For example, in this article, published just six months ago, the word experts is in inverted commas in the headline and within the text, where they also used the term so-called experts twice. In this article, they used inverted commas when describing UN Special Rapporteurs as ‘human rights experts’.
Breitbart has routinely peddled the narratives of Brexit propagandists Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, both of whom appeared in a photo taken with Donald Trump at Trump Tower shortly after the 2016 US election.
In the UK we have some dusty old publications that are not quite as blatant as Breitbart in pushing anti-expert and xenophobic narratives, but that doesn’t make them any less effective at what they do. The link between Boris Johnson and The Spectator is that he edited it. Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings is married to Mary Wakefield, who is the commissioning editor of The Spectator. Johnson also has had a long working relationship with The Telegraph, which is no stranger to pushing anti-expert messaging. Michael Gove has written for both The Telegraph and The Spectator and his wife works for the Daily Mail, a tabloid which Wikipedia has deemed an unreliable news source.
Some might say, why worry about the anti-expert and anti-intellectual output of these right-wing outlets. My answer is it is not only manipulative to divide societies in such a way, but it is dangerous. If citizens don’t feel they can trust experts who have made significant contributions to their fields and to society, we have problems. As the Coronavirus pandemic has shown, we ignore medical advice at our peril.
The beliefs, in relation to COVID-19, of some of those mentioned above demonstrates very clearly why we need real experts, rather than just power-hungry manipulators who used their university years to lay the foundations of political careers. The first instinct of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings appears to have been to grab at the notion of ‘herd immunity’ rather than introduce measures to limit spread, such as social isolation and lockdowns.
In the absence of a vaccine, for a society to have any chance of herd immunity the majority would need to get the virus, which obviously would kill a lot of people. After much criticism from experts, Boris Johnson pivoted from this position and moved towards a policy of social distancing and self-isolation. The U-turn was slow to come, however, and both Johnson and Cummings appear to have since developed symptoms of the disease themselves.
Donald Trump’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic has been nothing short of fatally ludicrous. His first approach was to play down the significance of the virus, comparing it to the “common flu”. And he suggested, rather egocentrically, that his political opponents were spreading hysteria about the “hoax” pandemic.
Trump’s preoccupation has often been with the stock market rather than his society’s health, perhaps due to his concern that negative economic indicators will hinder his re-election chances. Trump has, on a number of occasions, suggested the pandemic will end rapidly via some kind of miracle. On February 10th he told a campaign rally in New Hampshire: “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” More than a fortnight later he was still pushing the miracle line: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
He has repeatedly called it “the Chinese virus” or “the China virus”, as though by anchoring it to a distant place his responsibility to the people of America is diminished. Trump has repeatedly shared ‘hunches’ about the disease, which have no foundation in scientific reality. These hunches have related to the trajectory of the disease and vaccines as well as death rates. He promoted an anti-Malaria drug as a treatment, much to the exasperation of medical experts.
Trump has, for years, spoken incessantly about “America First”, but his prioritising of business above people over the months suggests that for him America First relates to economics more than the wellbeing of citizens. Last week he tweeted, in full caps, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Fortunately, Trump has not waited that long before opting for a policy U-turn. Having been told by experts that the virus could kill 200,000 US citizens, Trump has finally moved towards accepting the need for an extended shutdown.
In addition to the biological pathology that we subject ourselves to when we listen to self-interested ignoramuses like Trump, rather than experts, there is an ever-present societal danger in allowing our experts to be denigrated. In Nazism there was also an attack on experts. Scholars, clinicians and other highly educated professionals fled Nazi Germany to avoid persecution by the regime.
It took those areas blighted by fascism many years to overcome the anti-intellectual pathology that had infected their societies. If it is possible to find silver linings around the dark cloud of COVID-19 yet, one could be that it has hindered the ability of political ideologues to attack our experts. It is the clinicians, research virologists, epidemiologists, pharmacologists, experts in food production and experts in poverty who will keep members of our families and communities alive. Along with many unsung heroes who right-wing politicians suddenly recognise as key workers, including shopworkers, hospital porters and cleaners.