Trump & Credibility

During a discussion of Trump’s untruths, a friend of mine expressed the view that all politicians are the same in that they all lie. While it is true that politicians do lie (as does everyone else), there are degrees of dishonesty. To fail to distinguish between these degrees is rather like saying that all criminals commit crimes and that they (and their crimes) are all the same. While there have been other speakers of untruth like Trump, he seems to be unique among the presidents.

While the Bush administration engaged in a campaign of falsehoods to sell the Iraq war, Trump started his presidency by making false claims about the attendance at his inauguration. In what would be regarded as a pathological level of dysfunctionality in a normal person, Trump also made untrue claims about the weather—something that everyone present could observe and something that is an objective feature of reality. Politicians lying to advance an agenda is normal, albeit immoral, political behavior. Lying about crowd size and weather in the face of objective evidence is something new and terrifying.

It could be countered that Trump is not actually lying. After all, lying is different from making an untrue claim. For a claim to be a lie,  person must believe the claim they are making is untrue and make that claim with the intention that people will believe it. While there are some benign lies, lies also tend to have a malicious intent behind them. As such, there are various ways Trump could be saying these untrue things without lying. One possibility, which is scarier than his being a liar, is that he believes these untrue things and is thus divorced from basic reality. In other people, this would be regarded as a mental illness. In many other jobs, the inability to recognize what is real and what is not would make a person unfit (readers should feel free to think snarky thoughts about philosophers at this point). Another possibility is that Trump is still operating as an entertainer: he is saying untrue things with a benign purpose, to amuse and entertain the crowd. If so, he is playing the role of the nation’s buffoon, telling outrageous tales in the hopes of a laugh. While there are other alternatives, the main explanations seem to be these three: he is a liar, he is mentally ill, or he is a buffoon. I am, of course, not claiming that any of these are true—these are mere hypothesis presented as a matter of academic speculation. I will leave the analyses to experts in each area.

Whatever the explanation, it is evident that Trump is relentless in his untruths. He and his minions have also engaged in a sustained attack on truth, even going so far as to create the concept of “alternative facts.” While it is tempting to dismiss the lot of them as con artists or victims trapped in the shadows of madness, the fact is that Trump is the president and his people have great influence now. As such, it is impossible to ignore them. However, this does not entail that people need to believe them.

In my critical thinking class, I do a section on assessing claims and credibility. The basic idea is that a claim is assessed in terms of the claim’s content as well as the source of the claim. Assessing a claim’s content involves running it against one’s own observations and checking it against one’s background information. While these checks are fallible, they do generate an assessment of initial plausibility for the claim. Obviously, the more a person knows and the better they are at being critical of their own observations, the better will be their assessments. To use an example, people who were present at the inauguration can check Trump’s untruth against their own observations (as well as recordings of the event) and determine that Trump’s untruth was just that.

Assessing the source of a claim is also an important part of the process, which leads to the question of whether Trump should be considered a credible source or not. One factor in assessing credibility is whether the source is biased or not in regards to the claims being made. While being biased does not prove that a claim is false (this inference would be fallacious), a biased source is more likely to lie because of their bias. In regards to bias, Trump is nothing new: all politicians are biased sources when making claims about their policies and plans. As such, Trump’s claims about matters in which he is biased should be regarded with skepticism. Just like claims from any biased source.

When Trump makes claims about areas that fall under fields of expertise, assessing his credibility is obviously a matter of considering his expertise in the area. This would involve considering the usual factors such as his education, his experience, his accomplishments, his reputation among experts, and his positions.

Trump has a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so he is as qualified as others who hold a comparable degree. However, this does not give him much in the way of expertise in other areas, but this could be offset by his experience in his business and being a reality TV show star. However, as he likes to brag, he has no real experience in political office. He also has no experience in other relevant areas, but perhaps he can learn on the job.

He has accomplished various things and certainly made the Trump name into a valuable commodity. However, these do not seem relevant to making claims about such things as immigration, abortion, combating terrorism and so on. But, perhaps he will be able to accomplish things here and thus increase his expertise. In terms of his reputation, he is widely regarded as a non-expert by actual experts in the relevant fields. In terms of positions, this is his first political office—as such, he is rather lacking here.

While previous presidents, like Obama, also started out with deficits in expertise, Trump is the first president to have no experience at all in holding any political office or serving in the military. As such, it is reasonable to regard him as a non-expert when it comes to his current job. While he can make use of the same business expertise that brought the world Trump University and Trump Steaks, government is not the same thing as business, despite this being a beloved talking point. As such, any claims Trump makes about matters outside his expertise (that is, most of his current job) should be regarded as lacking in credibility. At least until he can prove his competence and expertise.

What is most telling against Trump’s credibility is, of course, his relentless spewing of untrue claims. While it would be a fallacious ad hominem to infer that any specific claim he makes is untrue because Trump lies so regularly, his routine embrace of the untrue casts the shadow of doubt over everything he says. As such, any claim Trump makes should be regarded with skepticism and not accepted until adequate evidence is available. After all, a person who lies about something as easy to check as the weather is likely to lie about everything. This lack of credibility fundamentally undermines his moral authority as president: if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters. And a person that cannot be trusted is not a person fit to be a leader.

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13 Comments.

  1. Kevin Henderson

    Buffoon. But he thinks he’s clever. The good news is several million people think he is unfit to be a leader, but then so did possible millions before with previous presidents.

  2. This may be an inevitable result of western democracy.

  3. The question is weather a collective intelligence of a group of people is higher or lower than average of individual persons of this group. In my opinion it is lower. That’s why only political lairs have the chance to get elected in western democracy.Second question is weather a majority of people will produce morality and wisdom. Obviously it does not. Majority is nothing but a number. What makes human society special is intelligence, wisdom and morality. If the majority has nothing to do with intelligence or wisdom and morality, it’s just a number. If it is against the intelligence or wisdom and morality, it will make things worse as we see in USA.

  4. Dr Kevin Dutton of Oxford University a specialist in Psychopathy has put Trump on the psychological spectrum as 171 whereas Hitler comes out as 169. The extreme psychopath is extremely skilled in winning people over to his or her point of view, and additionally gaining their confidence to the extent that they will believe this person, is extremely gifted and adept at almost everything. Unfortunately this is not always the case as it often turns out that many psychopaths appointed to high office seem to have little or no organising skills. Their talent lies solely in persuading other people to think of them as exceptionally talented, whatever the circumstances. In this connection truth and fiction are used by the psychopath interchangeably such that whatever the viewpoint, it is one which will be likely to further their so-called progress. What Trump gets by one way or another is attention which he loves, and truth or falsehood are his weapons both of which he uses in a corrupt manner. This attitude of mind has most likely prevailed throughout his life and overall he has been so far as I know successful in business ventures and is a millionaire many times over. There are those who claim that his business acumen is not that trustworthy and the inherited wealth which he had from his father could have been better employed. I am accordingly most interested to follow his progress, whereas normally American politics and situations do not rate particularly highly in my interests. Who knows, he may turn out to be one of those psychopaths who really can lead, and organise in a constructive and beneficial way for the benefit of others as well as themselves. Presently it seems to be just a matter of wait and see.

  5. The Banality of Evil.

    President Trump seems to exhibit those elements which result in what can be termed evil:-

    “It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth and can be radical.” Arendt, H. “A Daughter of Our People”: A Response to Gershom Scholem. In The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Books, 1994, p 391-396.

    In that sense there probably does not seem to be much potential for improvement, but hey, using Trumps methods this provides an insight into the ethics and integrity of american businessmen.

  6. President Trump was elected by people,not by corruptive and media-made proClinton electorship.
    Media hate him because he is not politically correct which means smooth-talking liar.

  7. Right-wing conservatives and Christian militants who want an America that is based on the superiority of one race and religion will be on the Trump-Brannon bandwagon. Anyone who wants an America that is based on religious freedom and ethnic pluralism with respect for all races and cultures will be opposed to Trump. They will also be opposed to the worldview of those who are his closest advisors and to the disinformation and lies that demean the Presidency. Terrorism can be used as an excuse for extreme measures taken in seizing control of issues that should be open to debate. The battle is waged and it is not going to end anytime soon.

  8. Kevin Henderson

    The fact that Trump was elected is evidence that a significant portion of Americans live in fear of what they do not understand. Trump’s credibility is not important to the ones who are scared of strangers and people who do not look like them or believe what they believe.

    Without hesitation or any credibility, Trump could easily command the religious right to arms and pursue theocratic justice they believe they deserve.

  9. Dave said: “President Trump was elected by people,not by corruptive and media-made proClinton electorship. “

    Looking from outside the USA all sides in the political divide seem to accept that Donald Trump is the properly elected president of the USA.

    It does seem though that if reports from many sources are to be believed Trump has not arisen out of the body politic but out of what Hannah Arendt describes as the Social realm where Arendt saw personal discrimination as a necessary factor, but equally saw discrimination expressed within the public realm (politics) as a dangerous thing:

    “The question is not how to abolish discrimination, but how to keep it confined within the social sphere, where it is legitimate, and prevent its trespassing on the political and the personal sphere, where it is destructive.” Arendt, H. In The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Books, 1994, p.231-246

    Trump’s actions as reported so far seem to echo the simile “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” and so attach less value to individuals than objectives.
    “There is indeed only one principle which announces, with the same uncompromising clarity as the principle that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” the diametrically opposite maxim for political action. It was expressed almost incidentally in a lonely phrase of one of the loneliest men of the last generation, Georges Clemenceau, when he suddenly exclaimed during his fight in the Dreyfus Affair: “L’ Affaire d’ un seul est l’affaire de tous” (“The concern of one is the concern of all”).” Arendt, H. Essays in Understanding 1930-1954 Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism; Schocken Books: New York, 1994. p. 283-284 Available at: https://ia800504.us.archive.org/4/items/HannahArendtEssaysInUnderstanding19301954/%5BHannah_Arendt%5D_Essays_in_Understanding,_1930-1954.pdf

    So looking at the new president from that perspective, i.e. Public realm (politics), Social realm and then Private realm (individual and household), there has been no statesmanlike action exhibited by President Trump because most of the actions reported so far have emanated from the Social realm which, using Arendt’s definitions could explain the widespread difficulties in accepting what is happening because expectations are out of line with reality. This aspect then appears to also reflect a situation reported by Danah Boyd:

    “Ironically, in a world in which we have countless tools to connect, we are also watching fragmentation, polarization, and de-diversification happen en masse. The American public is self-segregating, and this is tearing at the social fabric of the country.” http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2017/01/10/why-america-is-self-segregating.html

    And again Arendt from within her perspective observes:
    “What equality is to the body politic—its innermost principle—discrimination is to society. Society is that curious, somewhat hybrid realm between the political and the private in which, since the beginning of the modem age, most men have spent the greater part of their lives. For each time we leave the protective four walls of our private homes and cross over the threshold into the public world, we enter first, not the political realm of equality, but the social sphere. We are driven into this sphere by the need to earn a living or attracted by the desire to follow our vocation or enticed by the pleasure of company, and once we have entered it, we become subject to the old adage of “like attracts like” which controls the whole realm of society in the innumerable variety of its groups and associations. What matters here is not personal distinction but the differences by which people belong to certain groups whose very identifiability demands that they discriminate against other groups in the same domain.” Arendt, H. In The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Books, 1994, p. 237-238

    In Arendt’s terms the Social realm is replacing the Public Realm (or body politic) as well as intruding quite dramatically into the Private realm, which in that sense, as the erosion continues, will create additional risks. Although many may interpret the incursion of the social realm into the public realm as what Trump was elected for (commercial focus), that interpretation would be wrong in the holistic context of Arendt’s concepts.

    The comment on the banality of evil may now be seen as interpreted from that same Arendt perspective. The American people have chosen their president, will he adapt to his new role in life or will he adapt the role to himself ignoring any constraints of office. If only the later, then irrespective of the legitimacy of Trumps position or political suasion, Arendt’s writings would continue to have relevance.
    To now refer back to examples of reports of past behaviour exhibited in things like the Obama birther debate, similar sudden tactical reversals of argument or plain Freudian slips and couple them to the wider political divide and angst; Is there potential that an outcome in all of this could result in a certain conditioning of acceptability:
    “Unpredictability is not lack of foresight, and no engineering management of human affairs will ever be able to eliminate it, just as no training in prudence can ever lead to the wisdom of knowing what one does. Only total conditioning, that is, the total abolition of action, can ever hope to cope with unpredictability. And even the predictability of human behavior which political terror can enforce for relatively long periods of time is hardly able to change the very essence of human affairs once and for all; it can never be sure of its own future. Human action, like all strictly political phenomena, is bound up with human plurality, which is one of the fundamental conditions of human life…” Arendt, H. The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern. In The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Books, 1994, p.294.

    To be entirely political neutral this sense for ‘political terror can enforce’ in the above quote read ‘political rhetoric can make acceptable’.
    1. Arendt, H. The Human Condition, 1958.
    2. Arendt, H. Essays in Understanding 1930-1954 Formation, Exile and Totalitarianism; Schocken Books: New York, 1994. Available at: https://ia800504.us.archive.org/4/items/HannahArendtEssaysInUnderstanding19301954/%5BHannah_Arendt%5D_Essays_in_Understanding,_1930-1954.pdf
    3. Arendt, H. Eichmann In Jerusalem; Viking Press: New York, 1964. Available at: http://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/arendt_eichmanninjerusalem.pdf
    4. Arendt, H. Responsibility and Judgment; Schocken Books: New York, 2003. Available at: https://ia800501.us.archive.org/13/items/HannahArendtResponsibilityAndJudgmentSchocken2003/Hannah%20Arendt%20-%20Responsibility%20and%20Judgment-Schocken%202003.pdf
    5. Arendt, H. The Life Of The Mind; Harcourt Inc., 1978. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/TheLifeOfTheMindByHannahArendt/The%20Life%20of%20the%20Mind%20by%20Hannah%20Arendt_djvu.txt
    6. Baeher, P. and Arendt, H., (Eds.), The Portable Hannah Arendt; Penguin Books, 2000.
    7. Arendt, H. The Origins of Totalitarianism.

  10. Repeating something many times does not make it true. Convincing many other people to believe something does not make it true. Wishing that something was true does not make it true. Facts can be ignored or dismissed, but that does not make them go away. Reality has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. You can insist that it is sunny, but if it is raining and you do not have an umbrella, you are going to get wet. Unfortunately, whether they were lies, delusions, or performance pieces, we will all end up paying for Trump’s untruths.

  11. Why you guys do not understand very simple fact that it is democratic procedure when one nation has enough of political establishment represented by Media acceptance,which means small group of smart money guys? Clintons are one of them.Do they care for US citizens? Nooooooooo Do they care about our safety?Noooooo.
    Do they care for our values? Nooooooo. Does Trump? Yes.

  12. Trump is a polemicist. He is argumentative. This is just his style. This turns a lot of people off.
    They are use to being lied to.

    Nor can you try to take everything he says literally or look for discrepancies. You need to see the whole, not break it down into sentences. People are not use to this style.
    They are use to being lied to.

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