Believing the Unbelievable

[This piece ran in newspapers in my very red congressional District, VA-06, in mid-March, 2017.]


These are unhappy times in America. But of all the distressing news items I’ve come across, the one that disturbed me most was this: according to the polls, when asked which side they found more credible in the conflict between what the media report and what President Trump says, about four out of five Republicans declared they believe Mr. Trump.

Is it not disturbing if a large component of the American public – more than 80% of the members of one of America’s two major parties – will believe their leader even over the evidence of their own eyes, or of simple common sense, or the testimony of those who likely to know the most?

Consider the matters over which the accounts of Trump and the media conflicted in the weeks prior to the poll.

  • Trump asserted that the crowd for his Inauguration Day was one and a half million strong, and the biggest ever. The media reported that it was maybe one-third that size, a fraction of the size of Obama’s– and the National Park Service pictures support the media’s report.
  • After the Inauguration, Trump described how the weather almost miraculously cleared, and the sun broke out, just in time for his speech. The media reported that no, it rained throughout his speech. Of course a great many Americans saw on TV that the rain was indeed falling.

As the old comic line has it: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

  • Mr. Trump has claimed that he would have won the popular vote, and not just the Electoral College vote, if only millions of votes had not been cast illegally for his opponent. As with so many of Trump’s bold assertions, he offered no supporting evidence for this claim – a claim emphatically denied by secretaries of state and election officials (both Republican and Democratic) from across the nation.
  • For months, Trump denied that the Russians had meddled in our election, despite the unanimous conclusion of all 17 American intelligence agencies – and the intelligence services of various other nations — that this was the case. Even though Trump finally conceded that point, he has continued to dispute that the Russians were working to help him win—despite the FBI and the CIA both agreeing that this was indeed the Russians’ goal.

On all these matters, the story Trump preferred conflicted with the story the evidence showed, and so Trump and the media came into conflict. Then, as Trump declared the media “the enemy of the people,” the overwhelming majority of Republicans declared that it is Trump, not the media, who should be believed.

If that is really what they believe, that is downright scary: it would imply that many Americans have lost the ability to draw reasonable conclusions from evidence presented.

But perhaps that’s not what these Republicans really believe. Maybe, in their response to the pollsters’ question, what they are really saying is something like, “I still support Trump, and I’m not about to tell some pollster something that will help make Trump look bad.”

I hope that’s what they meant, because it would be reassuring if these Republicans still can discern what’s true, and can recognize this president’s lack of truthfulness.

But even that is not altogether reassuring—not if it’s OK with a great many Americans to have a president who feels compelled to make things up whenever the truth – about crowd size, about his electoral victory, or whenever – does not suit his purposes, or satisfy the needs of his vanity. And who meanwhile works consistently to deny the legitimacy of other sources of public information and judgment besides himself—like the press, the intelligence services, the judiciary, scientists, (and now, apparently, the highly respected Congressional Budget Office).

If we have a president who disputes the evidence that is right in front of our eyes, imagine the danger we would face if/when we as a nation must make some momentous decision – about war or peace, for example – on a matter where, the relevant information being publicly unavailable, we need to rely on what the president tells us.

Any American patriot should understand that this all represents a fundamental threat to the system our founders gave us.

Our founders gave us a government that is supposed to operate by “the consent of the governed.” But what they had in mind is informed consent. A public trained to give misinformed consent, however, helps drive the American system of government in the direction of the tyranny our founders sought to prevent.

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