An American Tragicomedy: On Andy Borowitz’s “Profiles in Ignorance”

By Bill ThompsonFebruary 16, 2023

An American Tragicomedy: On Andy Borowitz’s “Profiles in Ignorance”

Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber by Andy Borowitz

AT LEAST one US president, Warren G. Harding, was sufficiently self-aware to recognize his limitations, declaring, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Would that today’s exalted incompetents were as sensible.

With political idiocy at an apparent nadir, humorist Andy Borowitz asks an all-too-salient question in his new book: “Who’s the most ignorant person the United States is willing to elect?” His answers are hilarious — and appalling.

Borowitz realized that what some of our highest-profile politicians of the past 50 years didn’t know could fill a book. So he wrote it. Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber (2022) is his compendium of witlessness in high office. “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” wrote Saul Bellow. And in some quarters, that need seems bottomless.

Borowitz is the creator of “The Borowitz Report,” a satirical take on the news, and the inaugural winner of the National Press Club’s humor award. His most recent national tour, Make America Not Embarrassing Again, concluded as Donald Trump was being booted from office.

By laying out his Three Stages of Ignorance — ridicule, acceptance, and celebration — Borowitz details a staggering array of obliviousness, lending his penetrating gibes to the estimable tradition of political mockery championed by Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and H. L. Mencken.

His core argument is as damning as it is persuasive: over the past five decades, with notable exceptions, the Republican Party appears to have believed that the best way to serve the interests of the American people was to nominate an incurious, poorly read, and unprepared person for the presidency — this with puppetmasters in the wings to minimize the damage but compounded by twits in Congress. As a result, what he calls “Democracy’s braking system” risks being overwhelmed. “It’s going to take more than money to fix the damage that ignorant politicians have inflicted on our country and the world,” he writes.

If Trump is Borowitz’s exemplar of willful ignorance, Ronald Reagan is the granddaddy: a president who laid the groundwork for the Tea Party and Trumpism. “Today, more than four decades after he entered the White House and took his first nap, his disciples worship him like a prophet, an oracle, the Yoda of cluelessness,” Borowitz says, insisting Reagan was more responsible for the elevation of unawareness than for the fall of communism.

Reagan’s penchant for fabricating facts and inventing quotes became the platinum standard for American politicians, as were his malaprops, tortured sentences, and ignorance of world affairs. His imperviousness to any information that undermined his worldview was already apparent when he was governor of California. “He did not know how budgets were prepared, how bills were passed,” wrote Lou Cannon, former senior White House correspondent of The Washington Post. “[H]e didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing, or how he was supposed to spend his time.” And he “didn’t know that South America contained different countries.”

Though George W. Bush was a mere pretender, his own gaffes were Olympian. Borowitz savages him accordingly. “Bush mocked knowledge as an affectation of the elites and made ignorance proof of his authenticity. […] Politicians and their advisers now realized that they could flaunt ignorance instead of hiding it.”

Sarah Palin provided the template for this new crew. She believed that Great Britain’s armed forces were commanded by the Queen. “She didn’t know the difference between England and the United Kingdom,” nor had she ever heard of Margaret Thatcher. Palin couldn’t recall “why North and South Korea were separate nations.” She thought Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11 attacks. She was confused by the distinctions between municipal, state, and federal governments — after having been a mayor and governor. She had no clue “what the Fed did.”

For her part, Marjorie Taylor Greene began by spouting old-school conspiracy theories but soon expanded into certifiable nuttiness, at one point insisting that the “California wildfires were caused by lasers, fired from outer space,” all under the control “of the Jewish banking family the Rothschilds.” No less unhinged was Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, who once asked a Forest Service deputy chief if “there [is] anything that the National Forest Service or [Bureau of Land Management] can do to change the course of the moon’s orbit or the Earth’s orbit around the sun? Obviously, that would have profound effects on our climate.”

Offering, in part, a comedic slant on Chris Hedges’s 2009 Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Borowitz allows each of his targets to be hoisted by their own petard of actions and utterances — not only those who thought themselves of presidential timber, but also a corps of world-class bumblers (Palin and Dan Quayle among them) embraced as fonts of wisdom.

Democrats aren’t let off the hook. But their missteps and ill-advised proclamations seem tame in comparison. “[W]hile Democratic dopes have wreaked their share of havoc, the scale of their destruction doesn’t equal that of their Republican counterparts,” writes Borowitz, more livid than amused. “Once Democrats gin up a two-trillion-dollar war to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, ignore and then politicize a virus that causes nearly a million needless deaths, and attempt a violent overthrow of the U.S. government, I’ll get cracking on a book about them.”

Borowitz is keen to note that he is pillorying deficiencies of knowledge, not intelligence. Well, much of the time. He doesn’t expect politicians to have doctorates in philosophy or history. But he does, like the mindful among us, expect a level of expertise necessary for politicians to do their jobs well. Curiosity about the world is an added bonus. Today, this smacks of wishful thinking, “like leaving the landing lights on for Amelia Earhart,” as the late PBS commentator Mark Shields put it.

Trump sent expectations to the basement. Typical of the quotes Borowitz deploys on Trump’s aversion to advice and reading is this quote attributed to his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn: “It’s worse than you can imagine … Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”

Trump’s doggerel was, and remains, boundless. He said climate change was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” but cautioned against efficient lightbulbs as an ecological remedy, claiming that they caused cancer. His grasp of history and geography was equally vapid. Trump said that the Spanish flu Pandemic of 1918–20 ended World War II. He thought Andrew Jackson fought in the American Civil War, that “Colorado bordered Mexico,” that “Finland was a part of Russia, and that Belgium is a city.”

When confronted with leaders and aspirants who are about as bright as a small appliance bulb, our prospects dim. Some politicians only play at being dumb, knowing that much of the American electorate regards the appearance of being brainy as the political kiss of death. They are confident that this dodge will shield them from the fallout of embracing unpopular opinions. It’s ignorance as an art form and, too often, the key to getting elected or reelected.

Borowitz also slams the familiar bogeymen of social media, the internet, and political hobbyists for their contributions to the dumbing down of discourse. But what most concerns him about our inability to slow down the growth of ignorance is the electorate and its largely irrational engagement with politics, which renders even “the best-educated among us capable of voting like dopes.” None of us are immune to the national disease.


Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.

LARB Contributor

Bill Thompson is the author of Why Travel? A Way of Being, A Way of Seeing and Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat (2021).


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