On December 28, 2016

Trump’s fact-free assertions create gulf in civic debate

By Jon Margolis, VTDigger

Vermont, they say, is a well-educated state. Whatever that means. The criteria for what qualifies a person as “educated” are debatable and subjective, so let’s stick to objective, empirically verifiable information: Vermont has one of the highest college graduation rates in the country.
According to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the financial news web site 24/7 Wall Street, 35.7 percent of Vermonters who were 25 and older in 2014 had college degrees. Only six states ranked higher.
But here’s an interesting twist. Vermont is the poorest of the “well-educated” states. Not that Vermont is poor. Its per household median income ($59,494) is higher than the whole country’s $56,516 (in 2015, as calculated by the Kaiser Family Foundation). But the other top 10 states in college graduation rates were richer.
All of which proves nothing. But it could suggest that Vermont tends to produce or attract (or both) a relatively high percentage of people who value education for its own sake. Not that Vermonters don’t understand the financial value of a college degree. But Vermont’s culture includes a robust regard for pursuing knowledge because it’s fun as well as useful, for appreciating the arts, for cultivating the life of the mind.
This is hardly universal. But it is visible — in the graduation rates, in the high percentage of artists, writers, and crafts-people, the regional theaters, the summer concerts, the lively and (mostly) civil public policy debates, and the strong support for public schools (though not in the state’s parsimony toward higher education).
As it has in Western Civilization for the last few hundred years, this respect for learning includes a commitment to reason, to rationality, to the scientific method – systematic observation, measurement of what can be measured and careful assessment of what can not, basing conclusions only on that “empirically verifiable information.”
Not that Vermonters always scrupulously adhere to this standard, especially in political debate. But they rarely behave as if it does not exist.
And here, as much as anywhere, may lie the reason for the gulf between most Vermonters and the looming presidency of Donald J. Trump.
It isn’t just politics or ideology. In Vermont and elsewhere, many Republicans are just as apprehensive about the next four years as are Democrats. In Vermont and elsewhere, liberals would not have felt nearly as ill-at-ease had Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama four years ago, and by any objective standard, Romney is more conservative than Trump. Nor is it simply that Romney did not make racist or sexist remarks, insult anyone’s religion, ridicule the handicapped, or make statements raising questions about his commitment to democratic norms and constitutional rights.
It’s also that neither Romney nor his Republican predecessors suggested that empirically verifiable evidence was irrelevant. Like other politicians of both parties, they may have spun or even distorted that evidence to try to make it support their arguments. But they did not ignore it. They never stated that something was true simply because they said it was true, as though their word, like the king’s or the priest’s, was definitive.
Trump does. It isn’t so much the things he says that are false. In politics, that’s neither new or unusual. What is new and unusual is the blithe assertion of “fact” without any attempt to support the assertion, or even any apparent awareness that supporting the assertion is necessary.
In this context, what is interesting about his recent (post-election) claims that the New York Times “sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their BAD coverage of me” or (on Sept. 28) his assertion that Hillary Clinton “has received $100 million in contributions from Wall Street and hedge funds,” is less that they were wrong than that he made no effort to demonstrate they might be right.
Often during the campaign Trump “supported” his statements by saying he had “heard” that something had occurred, or that “a lot of people are saying” something was true, as though this hearsay (actually, alleged hearsay) amounted to evidence. Trump acts as though he need cite no authority, being it. In his own mind, he seems to think that he need only assert to prove. Observation? Measurement? Assessment? Evidence? Not necessary. Trump, like the king or the priest, determines what is real.
Perhaps because so much attention was paid to the racism, misogyny, and hints of authoritarianism in some of Trump’s remarks, little has been paid to this intellectual haughtiness, the disdain for logic and rationality which approaches what George Orwell called “disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”
But that haughtiness, the indifference to the standard rules of discourse, seems to be one reason the coming era creates such angst among people who value education and therefore expect empirically verifiable information in politics.
Such as Vermonters, who are more likely than voters elsewhere to have graduated from college and less likely than voters in any other state to have voted for Trump. (And it makes no difference, for the nonce, whether their angst is overwrought and over-dramatized, which is possible. The point here is to explain their fear, not assess it.)
Tiny Vermont, with a rookie moderate Republican governor, will not take the lead in resisting the initiatives of the new administration. Huge California may. Its veteran center-left Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown recently said that if the Trump administration shuts down satellite collection of climate data, “California will launch its own damn satellites.”
California may just have the resources to do that. If it does, it might find an ally across the country in tiny Vermont. Freed of the burden of insisting on empirically verifiable information, Trump and his appointees reject the scientific consensus about human-caused global warming. Incoming Vermont Governor Phil Scott does not, and neither does Julie Moore, his appointee as secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
One of Moore’s missions will be to clean up Lake Champlain, a task she said has been complicated by the “more intense rain” caused by global warming. For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing Vermont to move faster on keeping phosphorous pollution out of the lake. If the Feds now tell Vermont not to bother, will the state comply or fight back?
Meanwhile, before all those educated (or at least rational) folks in Vermont get too full of themselves (as they tend to do) perhaps they should ponder the possibility that they are the ones behind the curve, that Trump and his allies are the wave of the future. All that scientific method/empirically verifiable fact stuff may have made representative democracy and individual freedom possible. But there are many signs (Trump’s election being only one of them) that its day has come and gone.
Maybe even in Vermont.

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