The presidency of Donald Trump is something of a walking test of epistemologies, between what we can broadly call “conservative” and “liberal,” although that schema is horribly reductive in important ways. Trump notoriously loves to hurl the charge, “fake news” at any reporting he does not like, going so far as to proclaim himself the sole arbiter of truth.
This nonsense began on the first full day of his presidency, when Sean Spicer claimed, absurdly, from the lectern at his first press briefing as Trump’s press secretary that Trump’s inauguration attracted the largest audience of any presidential inauguration ever, a statement that photographic evidence showed to be obviously false. Following up the next day, a CNN anchor asked spokesmodel Kellyanne Conway why the president had instructed his press secretary to utter an obvious falsehood, to which Conway responded that he had offered “alternative facts.”
This be “conservative” epistemology. Facts apparently appear on a buffet from which one can choose any that one finds the most succulent, and order the chef to cook any that don’t appeal. Liberals, by contrast, in a connection that is somewhat peculiar but tenacious, making its first obvious appearance via philosopher John Locke, who articulated both western liberalism in The Second Treatise of Government, and the epistemological theory of empiricism — the proposition that the best way to understand the universe is to accept the information that arrives via one’s five senses, suitably enhanced via instruments one has good reason to think improve perception without distorting it unduly, and follow that information wherever it leads — in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, tend to be dedicated empircists. Liberals are as much human as “conservatives” and thus as prone to what we call “confirmation bias,” the bad habit of choosing to believe evidence that confirms what one already believes, but empiricism usually comes with a relatively firm commitment to continuing investigation indefinitely, which has the salubrious effect of producing yet more evidence, such that the right answer usually emerges, even against a human preference for a wrong answer, given sufficient patience and persistence.
From the moment Trump announced his candidacy, broadly, “conservatives” cheered him as a great champion for a beleaguered nation, while liberals sounded the alarum about the likely horrors of having an entirely unqualified, “reality TV” star as president, especially when the candidate, in his announcement, lodged scurrilous accusations at Mexican immigrants and proposed to prohibit the admission of all Muslims into the country.
This debate continues into the present, with notionally liberal sources, or anyone who is committed to empiricism, regardless of political beliefs, keeping a running total of Trump’s lies, which grows daily, while his dedicated supporters continue to echo his charge that such reporting is “fake news.”
Reality, as the old saying goes, has a liberal bias. The good/bad thing about reality is that it doesn’t care what you think about it. If you describe it wrong, it’s going to give you a wake up call that will likely be quite rude. For whatever reason, “conservatives” rarely get close enough to very obvious, real world tests of their empirical claims to have to suffer very irrefutable refutations. One of the few good examples is “abstinence only” sex education, a perennial “conservative” favorite. The idea is that teaching teens real information about sex and sexuality will only encourage them to have sex (as if they needed encouragement), so the best approach is to lie to them about it. Overwhelmingly, the evidence indicates that this approach fails miserably by every metric.
But now, Trump himself has backed into a very different sort of test that blends the empirical with the political in a fascinating way. Several of Trump’s most vocal, most obnoxious supporters liked him especially because of his always idiotic suggestion to build a wall at the border with Mexico, as the solution to a non existent “crisis” at the border. First, the idea that some “crisis” exists at the border with Mexico is itself an empirical question, with most experts, including some who worked for Trump, saying there is none.
Since late December, the question of providing federal funds to pay for the building of his wall has suddenly become a major issue for Trump. A large part of the problem is Trump’s apparent total inability to recognize that, however much he may abjure empiricism in favor of his vivid fantasy life, many other people remain dedicated to empiricism and are only too happy to compare Trump’s fantastic claims to the evidence they see around them and point out the many, glaring inconsistencies between the two.
So Trump refused to sign a continuing appropriations bill on December 21, making a shut down of unfunded federal agencies inevitable. Since Trump had said loudly less than two weeks before that he would be happy to shut down the government to get his wall, blame for this shut down fell on him and remained on him as long as it persisted.
Various observers noted that Trump’s newfound concern for an alleged emergency on the border erupted only after Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the November 2018 elections. Most observers saw the outcome as a rejection of Trump and his agenda, as people who had been ignoring the presidency or willing to give Trump a chance realized just how bad a president he is and showed up to vote their displeasure in droves. No one really knows what Trump is thinking, insofar as we can describe his mentition as “thinking” at all, but it seems finally to have dawned on him six weeks after the election that he was losing any momentum he may ever have had as president, so he seized on the “emergency at the border” idea as a way to get it back.
Now, after countless stories of federal employees standing in lines to get free food, and choosing between critical medical treatments and rent for over a month, finally the combination of an implacable Speaker of the House of Representatives in Nancy Pelosi, the shut down of a major airport because of lack of air traffic control personnel, and the arrest of one of his most ardent supporters, persuaded Trump to agree to a bill that will reopen the government for three weeks with seemingly ominous hints of more drastic measures he wants everyone to think he might take then to get funding for his wall.
This is where the epistemological test/idiot detector part comes in. To the empiricists in the crowd, this was just the inevitable outcome of the stupid fight Trump picked with the wrong people at the wrong time. With no real evidence to support his claim that some “emergency” existed at the border — no events occurring that would lend support to the claim — and a new Speaker of the House from a very safe district who had a new, highly energized majority, many of whom saw their elections as repudiations of Trump, he had about zero leverage to negotiate with. Anyone with a brain knew he would capitulate before long.
But his brave, “conservative” supporters, ever willing to cling to their precious ideology in the face of all countervailing evidence, have now denounced the president for his inevitable capitulation. They are outraged, OUTRAGED! they tell us, that Trump caved to those wimpy liberals by signing an appropriations bill, no matter how short term, without money for the idiotic wall.
The “conservative” rank and file continued to spin out their fantasy versions of what the next step will be.
And even “conservative” “leaders,” who should know better, continued with the fiction that the wall will surely happen, and soon.
That is, the idiot detector worked admirably. So many idiots to detect.