The great theme of the Trump years, the one historians will note a century from now, was the failure of America’s expert class. The people who were supposed to know what they were talking about, didn’t.
The failure began with the country’s top consultants and pollsters. Candidate Trump did almost everything lavishly paid political consultants would have told him, and did tell him, not to do—and he won. The most respected pollsters, meanwhile, predicted a landslide for Hillary Clinton. America’s best and brightest political adepts turned out to know very little about the elections they claim to understand.
Also during the 2016 campaign, an assemblage of top-tier academics, intellectuals and journalists warned that Mr. Trump’s candidacy signified a fascist threat. Timothy Snyder, a historian of Nazism at Yale, was among the most strident of these prophets. “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives,” he warned in a Facebook post shortly after the election. “When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authorities at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire.” Many experts stuck with the fascism theme after Mr. Trump’s election and throughout his presidency. That these cultured authorities couldn’t tell the difference between a populist protest against elite contempt and a coup carried out by powerful ideologues will go down as one of the great fiascoes of American intellectual history.
The fascism charge was only the most acute form of the claim that Mr. Trump was carrying out an “assault on democracy.” Some semantic clarification is in order here. When intellectuals and journalists of the left use the word “democracy,” they typically are not referring to elections and decision-making by popularly elected officials. For the left, “democracy” is another word for progressive policy aims, especially the widening of special political rights and welfare-state provisions to new constituencies. By that definition any Republican president is carrying out an “assault on democracy.” . . .
America’s foreign-policy elite didn’t perform appreciably better. For decades, they had insisted that peace between Israel and the Arab world was impossible without a long-term solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem. It was an axiom, no longer up for debate. Mr. Trump followed through on a promise long made but not kept by the U.S. government to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Foreign-policy experts the world over predicted hellish payback from the Arab world, but the recognition went forward, the U.S. Embassy moved, and the payback consisted of a day’s worth of inconsequential protests.
Meanwhile the administration pressed ahead with a diplomatic push to strike commercial and diplomatic deals between Israel and Arab states. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco announced they would establish formal relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia may do the same. The foreign-policy clerisy, having been wrong about the central question of global diplomacy for the past four decades, predictably ignored these achievements.
Then there are the public-health experts. We are still in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, so it is difficult to write about it with the perspective it demands. Yet political talking points aside, this much is apparent: No nation—or anyhow no nation that values individual liberty and isn’t an island—has managed even to slow the spread of Covid-19 without causing economic ruin and attendant disorder. . . .
The most regrettable part of this class failure is that, with rare exceptions, the experts themselves acknowledge no error. Nothing about the Trump years has occasioned soul-searching or self-criticism on their part. But today’s experts will eventually retire and pass from the scene. A newer, fresher generation of pollsters, academics, think-tank scholars and journalists will care more about the truth than they do about aligning with today’s consensus. They will feel no need to disguise their ignorance by signaling hatred of Donald Trump. And they will not fail to note that their most accomplished and revered forerunners were, at crucial moments, idiots.
Related: The Suicide of Expertise.