Donald Trump's Epistemological Netherworld

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File

A supporter holds a sign while waiting for President-elect Donald Trump to arrive at a rally, Thursday, December 8, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Get ready, America: You're traveling into another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind, a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are those of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead, your next stop ... the Trump presidency.

OK, maybe it's not quite the Twilight Zone. But the dimension we're entering is one where the president of the United States doesn't just live in an alternate reality, he exists in a place where there are no facts, where knowledge is for stupid people, where the most unqualified person ever to occupy the country's highest office can declare with his words and actions that he has contempt for the very idea that he might try to figure out what's going on and what he ought to do. It's a world where there is no relationship between cause and effect, between past and present. All that matters is him and his will.

We can see it in the controversy currently gripping Washington, about the fact that our intelligence agencies have concluded not only that Russia injected itself into the 2016 election (which we knew), but that they did so with the intention of helping elect Trump (which many already suspected). Upon hearing the news, the Trump transition put out a statement saying, "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on and 'Make America Great Again.'"

These three sentences are a wonderfully concise encapsulation of Trumpism: an ad hominem attack against someone who contradicted him, followed by an obvious lie, then wrapped up with a slogan.

Let's focus for the moment on Trump's evident contempt for the the intelligence community. Any consumer of intelligence, particularly the president, should have a healthy skepticism about its conclusions. But Trump isn't displaying skepticism here; he's just dismissing it out of hand, on the basis that he doesn't trust the people who are giving him this information. He doesn't have information they don't possess, he doesn't have a critique of their logic or their methods, he just says that they're not to be believed. He's using exactly the same method of evaluation conservatives have been taught to use on the media: if you don't like what they tell you, just say "You can't believe anything The New York Times says because they're a bunch of liberals," and then retreat to the welcoming cocoon of Fox News and talk radio.

Now obviously, the conclusion that the Russians were intentionally helping Trump get elected is unwelcome news for him, so he has every reason to play it down. But a different president might say, "It's troubling whenever Americans get hacked, which is why I'm going to beef up cybersecurity" or some such. Yet Trump has consistently defended Russia against these allegations, often alleging that it's impossible for anyone to know what's going on. During one of their debates, Trump said Hillary Clinton "doesn't know if it's the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking." Yes, maybe it was John Podesta himself who gave his emails to WikiLeaks. Who knows?

In an interview aired Sunday on Fox News, Trump insisted that there is no way to know who committed any hack, because "there's great confusion. Nobody really knows." And then: "Personally, it could be Russia. It—I don't really think it is. But who knows? I don't know either. They don't know and I don't know." Asked why he has rejected the daily briefings previous presidents have gotten from intelligence officials, Trump said he didn't need them, because "I'm, like, a smart person." He called climate change "a big scam for a lot of people to make a lot of money" but insisted, "I'm still open-minded. Nobody really knows."

Into that knowledge vacuum, Trump moves with his own reality, one in which facts as discrete, objective objects are utterly absent. And as usual, his supporters are enthusiastic participants in this journey to an epistemological netherworld. At a Friday rally, the crowd started its traditional "Lock her up! Lock her up!" chant at the mention of Clinton's name, upon which Trump said, "That plays great before the election—now we don't care, right?" He might as well have said, "I didn't mean a thing I said to you before, but it doesn't matter because you're so gullible." The cheers didn't stop.

If you're one of the people in what an anonymous George W. Bush aide (widely suspected to be Karl Rove) contemptuously called "the reality-based community," this is utterly baffling. Isn't he telling them that everything he told them before was baloney? And aren't they going to be angry about that?

What you miss if you ask these questions is the three levels Trump has traversed since he began campaigning: the facts, the message, and the meta-message.

For instance, when Trump promised that he would bring back all the factory jobs that have been lost over the last few decades in the industrial Midwest, many journalists dutifully debunked him on a factual level, noting that those jobs have been mostly lost to automation, not to bad trade deals or stupid politicians, and that's something that can't be undone. But those are just facts. Trump's promise also had an underlying message, which is that Trump has unique economic abilities possessed by no one else (ridiculous, but still somewhat amenable to refutation). Then there was a meta-message, that America as it exists today is a nightmare, and the answer is to reverse time to the 1950s or so, when white men were strong providers who led their households and society as a whole, and everyone else knew their place. Trump's power lies not in the facts, but in the message and the meta-message.

Or to take another example, when Trump said that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, the factual claim was a lie, but underneath it were a message (Muslims hate America) and a meta-message (Trump is a tribal leader who will fight for "us" against "them," whichever "them" you might happen to hate and fear). The factual claim didn't have to be true for some voters to be thrilled by the message and the meta-message.

So it isn't just that Trump is a more prodigious liar than any of the previous 44 men who occupied the presidency, though he most certainly is. Not only does he refuse to accept facts he doesn't like, he's made clear that he isn't interested in facts or knowledge at all. He doesn't want them, and he doesn't much like people who do. What matters are the meta-messages that drove his campaign, the most heroic vision of himself that his spectacularly insecure mind can conjure up. That's what will drive him, no matter whether the facts suggest a different course. And we'll all be pulled along.

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