My fellow chattering-class members are both amused and deeply puzzled by the Donald Trump phenomenon, as most of us were by the George W. Bush phenomenon (before all those corpses in Iraq drained it of its amusement value). How do people who spout what is, to us, obvious gibberish avoid being laughed at?
The answer, it seems to me, is as obvious as it is depressing. What all of us who think for a living really believe in, even more deeply than our most dearly held principles and prejudices, is the Principle of Noncontradiction. If one of us says X, he’s not going to turn around and say not-X (about the same aspect of the same situation) without changing his mind. [And yes, that includes Rortyans and Taoists.]
This is related to a deeper notion: that regardless of what anyone says or thinks, the real world is at least partially knowable, and that it’s therefore possible (and undesirable) to have a false belief. [The Rortyans claim to disbelieve this, but I’ve never been able to understand what they’re trying to say. Rorty may be wrong, but as a writer he’s the opposite of slipshod.]
But that simple commitment to not talking nonsense is a minority taste, outside working hours. Yes, the minority that has that taste is in some ways dominant; since you can’t build either arguments or dams that hold water without observing it, both our lawyers and our civil engineers observe noncontradiction in their professional lives. That applies to anyone who actually has to reason accurately – either to make stuff work or to convince sensible decision-makers – with respect to the things he or she has to reason accurately about. Even people whose stock-in-trade is deception – con artists, stockbrokers, lobbyists – have to observe the rules of arithmetic when it comes to totting up the take. And even a young-earth creationist has to suspend his Sunday beliefs while working as a petroleum geologist.
Most of the time, though, people aren’t at work, and much of what they think and talk about has little if any relevance to practical decisions in their own non-working lives. Freed of the need to think rationally, most people seem to prefer the alternative. (That’s called “sports talk radio.”) And lots of them don’t mind if their politicians act the same way, especially when reciting some self-evident falsehood can be depicted as showing “loyalty” or some other virtue.
The deepest mistake is to regard someone who acts as if he doesn’t give a damn whether anything he says is true, or consistent with what he said yesterday, as stupid. That’s the mistake many liberals made (and some still make) about George W.
As far as I can tell, Donald Trump simply isn’t bothered by holding and expressing utterly inconsistent beliefs about immigration, or for that matter denying obvious facts in the face of the crowd that witnessed them. Of course Trump is going to say the Bible is the most important book to him, and of course his voters are going to expect him to say it: doing so demonstrates piety. The fact that he can’t cite a single verse doesn’t bother him; that’s in a different mental compartment. And it doesn’t much bother most of his voters, either.
From the viewpoint of civic virtue, this is horrifying; as George Bernard Shaw once said, democracy will never be a really practical form of government until the man on the street resents a fallacy as much as an insult. But it is a fact. And if we deal with it by imagining that Trump, or Trump voters, are “stupid,” we’re going to make some very bad predictions.
Update Of course Francis Bacon said most of this first, and better. Too bad his rather Latinate prose is just about half a century too early to be easily read by the average college student.