All We Know is That We Don’t know

Of the many malign effects that the Trump regime has had on modern civilization (a term one uses advisedly at the best of times), one of the most alarming has been the degradation of epistemology. For the average person, the question of how one knows what one knows is, quite literally, an academic matter.

Philosophers may wring their hands over gaps in epistemic closure, but most people just muddle through even when things go radically wrong. But now the very principles and institutions of government in the oldest and most heavily armed republic on earth have been subjected to assault by Mr. Trump and his coterie of abettors.

The virtue of these principles and institutions, to the extent that they had any, was that they provided a space in which matters of state could be subjected to radical consideration and negotiation.

Since January, however, and arguably before, the coin of the realm has become rank assertion, usually conveyed in 140 characters or fewer. But in recent days, one is happy to report, a new commitment to logical consistency has been in evidence, at least in terms of Mr. Trump’s frontline media representative.

On Thursday, the redoubtable Sarah Huckabee-Sanders battered her way through another press briefing with the airy exuberance of a dyspeptic parking inspector. Much of the talk surrounded Mr. Trump’s threat to cause a government shutdown if congress did not provide him with funding for fondest of pet projects: the Mexican border wall. Long gone are the days when Mr. Trump could have his brain’s pleasure centers stimulated by chants of “build that wall” evinced by his promises that it would start on the first day of the his administration and that Mexico would pay for it.

The latter claim was put paid to by the something that Mr. Trump might have learned in any basic course on macroeconomics (had he ever bothered to sit throuhgh one). Mr. Trump seems to have failed to understand that tariffs and taxes are paid by the (American) importers of good goods, not the (Mexican) exporters. As such, his favorite plan for recouping the costs of the “big, beautiful wall,” according to the more plausible estimates between 20 and 60 billion dollars, in fact amounted to a tax on US industries.

More than 200 days into Mr. Trump’s presidency, he seems just as far from realizing his promise as when he began. Reports from inside the White House, as usual anonymous but nonetheless plausible given other facets of his behavior, suggest that Mr. Trump is furious about the lack of progress on his signature project, and thus it was not surprising that in the course of his meandering speech in Phoenix last Tuesday, he threatened to shut down the government if his demands for funding from Congress for the wall were not acceded to.

The reasons for Congress’s failure in this regard are various. In fact, the House of Representatives, currently dominated by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, already passed the requisite legislation. But in the Senate neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly sanguine about the project.

For Republicans, the central problem is that the wall is obscenely expensive. For Democrats (by and large) it is simply that it is obscene. While the former may cast some cost-free positive votes for the project, the fact that budget matters are (at least for the moment) subject to the 60 vote threshold.

Earlier in the year, Republicans did change the Senate rules to make confirmation of judicial nominations a matter of a simple majority. This was a momentous step, to be sure. But to do this for budgetary matters would be something else entirely. Such an action would either be a catastrophic miscalculation, or the expression of the belief that the party’s current majorities are meant to be permanent in nature. The danger to the Republic of the second mode of thinking need not be explained.

Mr. Trump seems to believe that blame for the government shutdown will fall upon the Democrats, as it fell on the Republicans during their obstructionist shenanigans during the previous administration. But with public opposition to the wall running at around 60%, and with the wall itself closely identified with Mr. Trump himself (whose popularity is running in the mid-30s) it seems unlikely that blame for the wall will reach the party that controls neither branch of Congress nor the presidency.

The question at this point seems to be to what degree will annoyance toward the president spill over on to his fellow Republicans. This is the problem of the Trump administration writ large for the Republican Party. In most cases, their response has been to keep their collective heads down and hope that their electoral fortunes will be buoyed by achieving the fundamentals of their legislative agenda (most importantly showering more money on the top tenth of a percentile of the income distribution). But, as has so often been the case, Mr. Trump’s importunate and inopportune public utterances threaten to upend the Republicans’ finely balanced apple cart.

And so we return to Ms. Sanders and the question of knowledge. In the course of a typically fraught encounter with the White House press corps, Ms. Sanders was asked repeated questions along the theme: doesn’t Mr. Trump’s current position amount to strong arming the American taxpayers into paying for the wall.

Ms. Sanders is famous (or more properly notorious) for her signal lack of knowledge about what goes on with her boss and his people. Often times her response to questions is, “I haven’t talked about that specifically with the president.” Under normal circumstances what follows is an offer to find some information and to get back to the questioner. For Ms. Sanders that’s simply the end of the conversation. Her other approach is to simply mouth some boilerplate, such as, “The president is serious about moving forward” with x, y, or z.

Finally, Ms. Sanders was asked the president’s apparently having stopped saying that Mexico would pay for the wall meant that that claim had been abandoned. Ms. Sanders responded, “He hasn’t said they’re not, either.” And it was here that we had another of those fascinating moments in which basic issues of knowledge become matters of contention.

Perhaps this was not on the scale of Kellyanne Conway’s assertions about alternative facts, or even Mr. Trump’s repetition of the long-debunked story that General Pershing had executed Muslim rebels using bullets dipped in pigs blood. But still it is the kind of assertion that beggars belief.

But Ms. Sanders, it must be said, spoke out in favor of a fundamental logical principle. Mr. Trump began with the assertion P: Mexico will pay for the wall. The fact of the matter (as Ms. Sanders reminds us) is that he has not asserted ~P (not P, for those of you who don’t follow logical notation): Mexico will not pay for the wall. In fact, all he has done (in effect) is to assert ~~P (not not P). As any first year student of logic could tell you (and we assume that Ms. Sanders is fully conversant in this discipline), P and ~~P are really the same thing.

In these days of storm and stress, it has been tempting to think that all of civilization’s traditional nostrums and verities are melting into air. Both Republicans and Democrats have retreated to nightly rituals of affirmation (on Fox and MSNBC respectively) in order to maintain the strength and will to persist.

Given the dangers that confront us, from North Korea to political extremism to the prospect that the government will be shutting down for no good reason whatever, it is at least comforting to know that the representatives of the current administration remain committed to those ways to doing and thinking that are fundamental to the responsible exercise of power.

Photograph courtesy of Ninian Reid. Published under a Creative Commons license.