How does Donald Trump get away with it?

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.







Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

6 thoughts on “How does Donald Trump get away with it?”

  1. I think I missed something in the article about Trump and Jorge Ramos. What are the obvious facts that he's denying to the crowd that witnessed them?

  2. The educated Germans of the Weimar Republic voted in Adolf Hitler. The experienced Romans of the late Republic voted in Julius Caesar. The Russian peasants of 1917, in the only free election they ever got, did not vote in Lenin: he had to mount a coup afterwards against the SR winners. This last electorate must have been the most ignorant in the entire history of elections. But unlike the others, they could see who was on their side.

  3. An extract from the seminal monograph "On Bullshit" by Harry G. Frankfurt (longer extract at Language Log):

    When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

  4. Let me take this one step further: there is no relationship between a belief that is true and a belief that is useful.

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