It’s not often that you get to watch what conservative author Tom Nichols has called “the death of expertise” unfold in real time.
But that’s exactly what happened Wednesday as Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee sneeringly grilled a panel of law school professors as the academics, using facts, precedent and history, justified the case for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
“No offense to our professors. But please. Really? We’re bringing you in here today to testify on stuff … that we already know, out of the classrooms that maybe you’re getting ready for finals in, to discuss things that you probably haven’t even had a chance to [read or watch],” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., scoffed during his opening statement, the Washington Post reported.
The target of Collins’ criticism, Stanford University Law School professor Pamela Karlan, forcefully hit back at the Southerner’s attempt at mansplaining.
“Here Mr. Collins I would like to say to you, sir, that I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearing because I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts,” she clapped back. “So I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts.”
But that was the M.O. for the panel’s GOP lawmakers who, in the absence of an actual defense of Trump’s impeachment-worthy attempt to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, resulted to the time-honored tactic of trying to tear down the witnesses.
“All I got to say is, if you love America, mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to Harvard or Stanford law school.” Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, quipped, apparently unaware of how hard it is to walk 10 feet on Capitol Hill without running into someone who holds a degree from either of those institutions.
That included U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a Stanford law grad who groused, according to the Washington Post, how much he disliked his time there.
Gaetz also heaped scorn on Karlan, telling her that, from “the ivory towers of [her] law school,” that she could not see that she was condescending to “the actual people of this country.” By which, I suppose, Gaetz meant Trump voters. But no matter. The fight over who qualifies as an “Actual American” could fill an entire column.
The attacks Republicans launched against the trio of academics called by the committee’s Democratic majority carried echoes of the same criticisms hurled at the career diplomats who appeared before the House Intelligence Committee two weeks ago.
There, the son of immigrants who fled the Soviet Union, and who’d taken shrapnel for his country, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, appallingly had his patriotism questioned. The military once was sacred to the GOP. No more, it would seem.
Another witness, career diplomat and United States ambassador, William Taylor, came under fire from Trump himself as a “Never Trumper,” though Taylor had gone to pains before the panel to stress his neutrality.
There’s always been an ugly strain of know-nothingness at the heart of American life. And it’s one of the great contradictions in our national character.
Because as much as we urge our children to work hard, to go to school, push them to achieve, and to make a better life for themselves, there’s still an unalloyed disdain for those who actually make it there.
In Trump’s America, though, this tendency has been weaponized, and deployed for political ends.
Thus, American heroes such as Vindman, Russia expert Fiona Hill, former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, are assailed as emissaries of the “deep state,” instead of being celebrated for their service, and hailed as the very best that our nation has to offer the world.
I’ve written before of Nichols, a former U.S. Senate staffer and Naval War College professor, whose slender 2017 volume “The Death of Expertise,” should be required reading for every American.
In it, Nichols makes a clear and compelling case for the damage done to our culture by the unsupportable insistence that everyone is as smart as everyone else; that expert opinion is meaningless and that any attempt to dismiss such an argument claims is just “elitism.”
“The bigger problem is we’re proud of not knowing things,” Nichols writes. “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of any public policy issue, is an actual virtue.”
Which brings me back to Gohmert gratuitously dumping on Harvard and Stanford, which used to be held up as aspirational places that would help our children reach that golden future we exhorted them to stretch their arms out toward.
Which is not to say that the experts I’m arguing we should respect don’t sometimes punch themselves in the face.
From the fatally false arguments about weapons of mass destruction that led us to war in Iraq to Karlan’s own ill-chosen remarks Wednesday about Trump’s youngest child, Barron Trump, this habit is undoubtedly bipartisan.
The real shame is, though, that America needs more of the kind of sober and well-informed discussion that unfolded before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The hours-long session was a free master class on American political history and the Constitution. Instead of shouting at the academics, GOP lawmakers should have listened for a few minutes. Who knows? They might even have learned something.