by John Ellis
While reading Michael Korda’s biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, IKE: An American Hero, I was struck by how basic competency is merely the baseline for successful leadership; high levels of sagacity in particular areas are also demanded. Scanning the landscape of generals on hand in the early 1940s, both American and British, and it’s clear, especially in hindsight, that Eisenhower exhibited the unique blend of talents, learned skills, and personality needed for the occasion. Armed with a personality and character that allowed him to navigate the delicate complexities of overstuffed egos and competing national interests combined with his military training, knowledge, and unique career path through the officer ranks, and it’s clear that IKE was the expert for the time. One can’t help but wonder, though, and overlooking certain historical/narrative anachronisms, if Eisenhower would have been merely a footnote to an inglorious history if he had lived and worked now. Unfortunately, the word “expert” has seemingly been struck from the lexicon of the bloc of voters in this country that identify as Republican, or rather, it’s been retagged as a pejorative. Likewise, the words integrity, selflessness, and grace have also disappeared from among the ranks of requisite character traits for those who hold public office. Bullying, effrontery, ignorance, and self-serving pragmatism appear to be the character traits most prized in their leaders by the GOP since at least 2016.
That’s a harsh thesis, I realize. An off-putting one, even, for some. But it’s an important point that I wish more Republicans would grapple with. A ship the size of the United States of America needs captains to steer it that are highly competent, experts even. Checking the right policy boxes isn’t enough, and that’s not to mention the character deficiencies that accompany the political and leadership incompetency demonstrated by many of those whom Republican voters have (or are in the process of) elevating to the highest levels of power. Don’t believe me? Look to Georgia.
There’s a good chance that Republican voters in Georgia will gift Herschel Walker a seat of privilege and power in the U.S. Senate this fall. The fact that they nominated him is enough to make my point. The explicit examples of his character gap and dismal personal ethics are astonishing considering that he won the primary. He’s a liar and a deadbeat dad. Among his documented lies are that he worked for law enforcement (the Cobb County Police Department, to be specific, a claim the CCPD roundly refuted) and graduated from the University of Georgia towards the top of his class (he never graduated). When confronted by Russ Spencer, an Atlanta area TV reporter, Walker lied about lying about graduating from UGA. Worse, possibly, among his lies is that he founded a non-profit aimed at serving veterans. Except, the company, Patriot Support, – a company he didn’t start, by the way, another lie, but only served as a celebrity spokesperson for – is a for-profit company that reached a $122 million settlement in 2020 with the Department of Justice for defrauding the government. (Not that you need my permission, but feel free to look all that up to check my accuracy.)
Ratcheting up the level of contemptibleness in his words and actions brings us to Herschel Walker’s history of domestic violence and his failure to acknowledge or support at least three of his children. This after building his political brand partly on his self-proclaimed, outstanding example as a Black father.
Sadly, politicians lie and embellish their past accomplishments. That’s been going on for as long as there have been politicians. We know this and the politicians know we know this, which is an indictment on our society’s supposed value placed on integrity. But there’s a point where the deceit is so obvious and clumsy as to call into question the candidate’s legitimacy even if they did operate with integrity. Walker’s lies and comments (touched on below) reveal a lack of sophistication and intellectual rigor needed to interact with complex policy issues. And his history of alleged domestic violence and being a deadbeat dad should highlight for voters – especially among a GOP voter bloc that contains many proclaimed followers of Jesus – his ethical unworthiness to serve as a U.S. Senator. But that’s not really the meat of my argument about the existential threat to this country posed by Republicans.
Herschel Walker rarely talks about policy in substantial ways but when he tries his incompetence is alarming. His comments on topics ranging from climate change to school shootings to the pandemic are, when he’s at his best, nothing more than a word vomit. When he’s at his worst, he’s usually flatly promoting debunked conspiracy theories. But let’s focus on when he’s at his best.
When answering a question about school shootings after a domestic terrorist murdered twenty-one people in Uvalde, TX, Walker correctly addressed the need for more funding for mental health services saying, “This has been happening for years and the way we stop it is putting money into the mental health field.”
Even if his answer had been limited to an almost contentless acknowledgment of one aspect of a multifaceted solution to the complex issue of mass shootings, it wouldn’t have been enough. Partial credit isn’t full credit, and we should expect our Senators to have nuanced understandings of complex issues and be able to articulate solutions that reveal that nuanced understanding, even if we ultimately disagree with them. And that expectation still leaves room for quotable, easily digested soundbites. Walker’s soundbite is below basic; it’s like solely describing grass as green. In and of itself, Walker’s lack of content and nuance is bad enough. Add in that it came on the tail end of a largely nonsensical word vomit and the red flags are not only abundant, they’re in danger of being ripped from the flagpole owing to the winds of warning whipping them around. You can read his comment for yourself:
“Cain killed Abel and that’s a problem that we have. What we need to do is look into how we can stop those things. You know, you talked about doing a disinformation — what about getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at their social media. What about doing that? Looking into things like that and we can stop that that way. But yet they want to just continue to talk about taking away your constitutional rights. And I think there’s more things we need to look into. This has been happening for years and the way we stop it is putting money into the mental health field, by putting money into other departments rather than departments that want to take away your rights.”
Another policy issue he’s spoken about is climate change. While explaining his opposition to the Green New Deal, Walker made the jaw dropping claim, “Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then now we got to clean that back up.”
Read that again. And again. While reading it for the third time, keep in mind that the man who uttered it may very well carry the title of Senator in front of his name in a few months.
Even if you’re opposed to the Green New Deal, and I’m not arguing either way because I know very little about climate change, his answer should trouble you. It’s reminiscent of the answer to a question in 2007 at a beauty pageant by Miss South Carolina Teen. She was unfairly and cruelly turned into a national joke. Herschel Walker? His ignorance has earned him his party’s nomination to serve as a Senator.
Herschel Walker is just one example of the unqualified candidates that Republicans have elevated to a position of power, or in Walker’s case, threaten to. It should go without saying, but the men and women tasked with making decisions for this country (or your state, county, city, etc.) should clear a baseline for competency, at the least. Frighteningly, though, and as I wrote above, the qualifications for holding public office appear to be not only lowered but replaced with what were once considered negative character traits. There’s a part of me that wants to paste and copy the first two paragraphs of this article at this point because my fear is that my takedown of Herschel Walker will generate a defensiveness that takes readers eyes off the ball, so to speak. My thesis isn’t about just one man. It’s about an overall trend that’s gaining traction among Republicans: the willingness to ignore quality character traits and competency for the sake of winning a cultural war. That’s dangerous because what’s left of this country after all the “winning” is going to be a poorly managed nation that has little standing on the world stage and that is wracked by problems exponentially multiplying owing to the lack of policy expertise needed to keep the “ship” on course. The rejection of “experts” is part and parcel of this problem.
Out of all the controversial articles I’ve written, the one that earned me the most negative feedback (by far) from family and friends is an article calling for epistemic humility; an article asking us to recognize that we are not experts in every field. In fact, in many fields, especially those that are highly technical and specialized, we are so ignorant of the basic questions (not to mention the answers) as to render our opinions automatically invalid and not worthy of being entertained in the public square (I try to be consistent – see footnote #3). That I dared say that there are times when we should silently listen, learn, and submit was a bridge too far for many. The democratization of knowledge has rendered the existence of experts unpalatable. Based on Republican voting habits, it appears that self-professed conservatives have descended to the low stage that almost completely devalues competence, principles, and integrity in favor of a demagoguerish tribalism that has bullishly scoring points and punishing dissenters as its supreme values. The good of the community is subservient to a self-serving definition of flourishing that views power and privilege as a zero-sum game. The thought process, then, becomes, who cares if the candidate understands things like economics, history, political theory, statecraft, ethics, philosophy of war, etc. so long as he or she champions my narrowly specific cultural concern and is willing to punish those in disagreement?
I have ceased to be astonished by the epistemic hubris exhibited by many, but I am no less troubled by it. Elevating incompetence to the halls of power is dangerous and poses an existential threat to this country. Beyond opening the floodgates for demagogues and those whose sole desire is to construct their own kingdom, it’s creating a vacuum of competency at the highest levels of power.
If you are a Republican, please hold the line. Do not vote for candidates who are incompetent and/or lacking in the character traits that you would expect in your kid’s babysitter. For one thing, your integrity is at stake. For another thing, the elevation of unqualified people to positions of power because they check off enough of the “right” policy boxes on the voter guide poses an existential threat to this country. Much more should be demanded of leadership than merely expressing agreement on certain policy issues.
In Part Two, I’ll tackle the growing chorus of calls from prominent Republican politicians and talking heads to turn this country into a theocracy. In other words, the explicit, open embrace of Christian nationalism.
(Postscript: I am not a Democrat. Responding by pointing out the incompetence and lack of character traits in Democrats is not a legitimate way to answer me. Besides the fact that whataboutism is a bad look for you as well as an invalid argument, my audience with this article is clearly Republican voters and not Democrats. The competency and/or character issues with fill-in-the-blank-with-a-Democrat does not undermine my thesis directed to my specific audience.)
 While I believe that higher education is a good standard upon which to make some base assumptions about an individual’s abilities and qualifications (especially if that individual is about to operate on me), I do not believe that college degrees necessarily confer epistemic authority on people. Nor do I believe that not having a college degree disqualifies Mr. Walker from serving as a U.S. Senator. He lied about it, is my point.
 He blames it on mental health issues. If true, that still doesn’t justify his actions and it’s still (should be) disqualifying for holding public office.
 You’ll be hard pressed to find where I’ve expressed public opinions and beliefs about climate change because I try to be consistent in my calls for epistemic humility. Climatology is an incredibly complex field and I’ve only read articles and blogposts about it. My interaction with it is not enough to warrant expecting others to listen to my thoughts and opinions on it.