The Rich Are Different from You and Me

A Speechwriter’s Credo?

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.”

A peculiar view from someone who professes to be suspicious of consensus and skeptical of popular opinion

Whatever the words, equating worldly success with superior intelligence is silly—and Trump’s flailing in office reminds us of that fact. Smarts are no doubt helpful in accumulating wealth in our casino-like economy, but I suspect that ambition, ruthlessness, and a high tolerance for risk-taking are even more important. Luck also helps. And if modern economic history is any measure, ambitious people do stupid and reckless things all the time.

I don’t begrudge the rich their success; I just don’t think they should be revered for being rich.

Because they can’t bear the idea of being associated with him in any way, Swaim thinks liberals will never praise the good things Trump does. But Swaim, magnanimously, can’t bring himself to criticize liberals for that lack of intellectual honesty. And why not? Because he feels the same way about giving credit to liberal politicians when they do the right thing. “I find it hard to write exactly what I think about a political topic when doing so would seem to put me in a category I don’t wish to be in,” Swaim confesses about his unwillingness to acknowledge the good his political opponents do.   

I would go on, but he makes me weary.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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