In an essay in the Times Literary Supplement (August 11; subscription required), Barton Swaim confesses that he has long been “mildly irritated” by the term “intellectual honesty.” That is not surprising coming from a speechwriter for South Carolina’s former governor Mark Sanford, an anti-government fiscal conservative whose ambition is only exceeded by his lack of shame. Swaim, whose name could easily be taken from an Evelyn Waugh novel, wrote a well-received memoir, The Speechwriter, of his time serving the mercurial Sanford. Sanford is famous, of course, for pretending he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” when in fact he was with his mistress in Buenos Aires. Despite the scandal, Sanford managed to serve out his term as governor and then get himself elected to Congress.
In the TLS, Swaim writes that he was prompted to reassess the term “intellectual honesty” by the election of Donald Trump, whose rise to the presidency has resulted, he says, in too much caterwauling from respectable pundits and commentators. Such unanimity makes Swaim “weary.” He doesn’t think Trump is a threat to democracy. Our constitutional system, he’s confident, is too strong for that. Besides, Swaim is “suspicious of consensus,” afflicted “with that writerly perversity that can’t quite be happy in any overwhelming majority.” (One wonders if his iconoclasm persists when he assesses the presidency of Ronald Reagan.)
As Swaim understands it, the consensus of enlightened opinion is that Trump isn’t “smart enough to understand the complexities of political life.” Having done time in the political netherworld, Swaim wants us to know that he is “not so sure” that is the case.” Why? “The idea that a stupid man can achieve the highest levels of success in a modern economy—extreme wealth, celebrity, the presidency—strikes me as itself pretty stupid.”
Curiously, although Swaim’s essay is larded with irony, there is not a hint of irony in that statement; it is more like a catechism response. It is also a peculiar view coming from someone who professes to be suspicious of consensus and skeptical of popular opinion. After all, the idea that Trump’s wealth and fame somehow make him uniquely qualified to be president was the judgment made by a great many of the more than 60 million Americans who voted for him, and who are now enjoying the spectacle of their man jawboning with a nuclear-armed North Korea. “I alone can fix it,” crowed Trump the campaigner, claiming that his “success in the modern economy” was obvious evidence of his superior intellect and talents. “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.”