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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: circumstantial evidence

Trump doesn't want us to think for ourselves

Stephen H. Provost

Note: This is a free bonus chapter you won't find in my new book. Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump chronicles the decline of the mainstream media, the rise of Donald Trump and how the two developments have created a new and dangerous reality in the 21st century. It's now available on Amazon.

Donald J. Trump doesn’t want you to read this.

He doesn’t want you to think about it. He doesn’t want you to think, period.

He wants doesn’t want you to consider the evidence and decide for yourself, because if you do, he knows he’s in trouble. There’s a boatload of circumstantial evidence against him, and if we start piecing it all together, he knows he’ll look pretty damned guilty. He knows Robert Mueller is doing just that, but he also knows that the ultimate decisions will be made in the court of public opinion, because our system subjects presidents to political, rather than judicial remedies for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

So, he’s attacking Mueller personally before the special counsel even presents any evidence. He’s seeking to discredit the messenger, just as he does with the press, because he’s afraid of the message.

Trump admitted doing this to the press, CBS journalist Lesley Stahl said, when he told her, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

He’s doing the same thing with Mueller, accusing him of partisan bias and of drawing things out, knowing that the public doesn’t have the same patience as a court does for sifting through mounds of evidence and arriving at a conclusion based on thoughtful analysis. Fatigue sets in and process itself becomes unpopular, so Mueller – as the driving force behind that process – becomes unpopular, as well.

Poisoning the well

A bias against the process can be used as a wedge to open the way for bias against the person, which Trump can use to taint the entire process and to discredit the evidence based on who’s presenting it rather than how strong it is. In logical terms, he’s resorting to an ad hominem fallacy, a baseless form of argument that’s used to distract from the facts at hand.

Why should Trump want to discredit Mueller, who at the outset of this process was lauded by Republicans as well as Democrats as a straight arrow who would act impartially to unearth the facts? Why doesn’t he simply follow the advice of political handlers to let the process play out?

Because Trump is scared the evidence will lead to him. He believes he should be above the law, and he’s exploiting the weaknesses of our system to make that belief reality. If he can get public opinion on his side and retain a majority of his own party in Congress, he knows guilt or innocence won’t matter. Political expediency will. And he’s determined to use that to his advantage.

Think about it

Courts use circumstantial evidence to establish guilt or innocence through reasoning. They lay out a series of facts, connect the dots and ask that juries reach a conclusion based on those facts, whether or not there’s any direct evidence.

Verdicts based on circumstantial evidence are every bit as valid as those where there’s DNA, video, fingerprints or some other form of “smoking gun” to connect the accused to the scene. Frequently, such evidence simply isn’t available. Eyewitness testimony? It’s often unreliable, and can be less worthy of consideration than a healthy dose of circumstantial evidence, because it’s notoriously unreliable.

Despite this, there’s a public perception that circumstantial evidence is less credible than direct evidence. We want to “see for ourselves,” and it’s only when we do that we’re satisfied. We were both satisfied and outraged when we learn that Richard Nixon had erased 18 minutes of White House tapes, even though he retained broad support until close to the time he resigned. We reacted the same way when we saw Ray Rice on video decking his fiancée in a casino elevator. But not before. Such conclusions don’t require thinking or reasoning. They’re based a simple, visceral reactions to sensory input.

Trump wants us to rely on those visceral reactions. He doesn’t want us to think. He wants us to devalue reason as a means of arriving at decisions – specifically, his guilt or innocence. He can't control people’s reasoning, but he can control their reactions to some extent, and he does so by feeding our bias against circumstantial evidence (and the thought process we use to evaluate it) at every opportunity.

Two-pronged attack

Because he’s the president, Trump can take advantage of a powerful bully pulpit to pound home his message continually. He does so through social media, his cronies and his PR machine, who love to repeat it, and through mainstream media outlets, which have to do so because it’s news. In doing so, he makes the very people he wants to discredit (the press) complicit in his efforts.

These efforts amount to a two-pronged attack on our ability to reason and our right of self-determination.

First, Trump encourages us to rely on our emotions in making up our minds. He nurtures and feeds hidden biases against black Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women, Democrats and the press for precisely this purpose. He calls them names to discredit them or make them appear “weak.” It’s not that he hates these people. His personal sentiments toward them are irrelevant. What’s important is that he can condition us to rely on our emotional biases, rather than our brains, to make decisions.

Second, he attacks the evidence itself – and its sources. We should discount that evidence because (he says) it’s “fake news.” Then, he replaces it with his own propaganda – which is itself fake. Because we’re relying on our biases instead of our brains, we’re no longer using the only tool at our disposal to tell the difference. This is why the press is a particular target; if he can cut off the flow of information, the biggest source of temptation to think for ourselves will have been cut off.

He’ll have us right where he wants us. The process is taking too long, which proves Mueller is on a fishing expedition and out to get him. This means any evidence Mueller might find is suspect and, probably, tainted by his own self-interest. It should therefore be discarded in favor of our own biases in favor of the Republican Party, conservatism, nationalism and, most importantly, Trump himself.

That’s reasoning based on assumption, not fact, which is exactly what bias is. We rely on it based on our need for instant gratification in a busy society where we have little time for the kind of analysis that’s necessary to call him on his B.S.

Divide and conquer

This tactic isn’t new to Trump. Hillary Clinton did the same thing when she blamed Republicans for engaging in a vast right-wing conspiracy to bring down her husband – who, like Trump, was accused of womanizing and lying. Clinton denied lying under oath, even as he admitted misleading the American people about the Lewinsky affair. He was impeached in the House of Representatives but acquitted by the Senate, not based on evidence, but on political considerations.

The Democrats controlled the Senate then, just as the Republicans control both houses of Congress now.

Trump is exploiting that advantage, but he’s going much further. Instead of simply relying on politics to save him from one or two serious accusations, he’s striking at the core of our ability to access information, to process it: to reason. Because even if he escapes the Russia probe, he’ll have to deal with other accusations. Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen. Obstruction. Taxes and political donations. His financial interests and his family’s role in all of the above.

He needs us to stop thinking for ourselves, so he’s fueling our own hatreds, fears and biases to divide us as he feeds us his own distorted version of the truth. He’s keeping us at each other’s throats so we don’t realize we have a common enemy: him.

The problem, however, goes beyond Trump. In conditioning us not to think – to accept that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; that Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists; that climate change isn’t real; that his inauguration crowd was the biggest in history – he’s creating a “new normal” that could be exploited by others long after he’s gone.

There’s only one way to stop a steamroller that threatens our right and even our ability to think rationally by dumbing us down and cutting off the flow of information.

Don’t ignore circumstantial evidence. Don’t give in to your biases. When Trump or anyone else asks you to believe something based merely on what he says or your own biases, refuse to simply accept it.

Question. Analyze. Insist on thinking for yourself.