top of page

Epistemic Chaos, Noetic Disarray And Deadly Trumpanzee Fairy Tales

You know all that crap that flooded out in books and essays and interviews about Trump before he was defeated. I imagine there will be 100 times more than that coming out once he's gone from the White House-- from people who worked for him and, of course, in the court cases against him and his family and his unspeakable cronies. Who's going to keep track of it all? One person who I am certain will-- and will do it well-- is Peter Wehner, a Republican who worked for Reagan and both Bushs, currently writes for the NY Times and The Atlantic and is a vice president and senior fellow at the Ethics and Pubic Policy Center. His Atlantic essay today, Trump's Most Malicious Legacy would serve as decent good intro.

Wehner began with a quote from Obama, who warned last month that "We are entering into an epistemological crisis. Wehner pointed out that this "crisis didn’t begin with the Trump presidency, but it rapidly accelerated over the course of its term-- and the situation has, if anything, grown worse in the aftermath of the presidential election. A large majority of Republicans tell pollsters they believe the 2020 election was rigged and fully half believe Trump won-- even though he only got 74,221,849 votes (46.9%) compared to Biden's 81,284,062 (51.3%) and 306 electoral votes compared to Trump's 232. Each won 25 states but 7 of Trump's are sparsely populated rural states with just 3 or 4 electoral votes. Every state where Trump has gone to court to overturn the results, his evidence-free assertions were thrown out as meritless, some 3 or 4 times. Normal people hear Trump's complaints and see them for what they are: "hallucinatory."

And Wehner sees this as the basis of "Trump's most enduring legacy-- a nihilistic political culture, one that is tribalistic, distrustful, and sometimes delusional, swimming in conspiracy theories. The result is that Americans are disoriented and frustrated, fearful of and often enraged at one another. Donald Trump didn’t invent misinformation and disinformation; they have been around for much of human history. But Trump-- by virtue of his considerable skills in this area, aided by social media and capitalizing on “truth decay” and diminishing trust in sources of factual information-- exploited them more effectively than anyone else has in American history.

“It was unthinkable before Trump for anyone to run this kind of disinformation campaign from the White House against the American public,” according to Jonathan Rauch, the author of the forthcoming book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. As a result, we live in an era defined by epistemic chaos and noetic disarray, one in which a large portion of the population embraces falsehoods and fairy tales and thinks of them as “alternative facts.”
The deceit being dispensed by Trump & Company is hardly universal, but it is extensive, which is why defeating Trump was essential if we’re going to move away from perspectivism as the interpretive theory in our politics. But objective reality as a concept-- truth as something that exists independent of affect, independent of subjective narratives, independent of whatever a partisan information silo claims is true-- has been badly damaged. Among the most urgent tasks facing America, then, is to strengthen our regard for what Plato called episteme over doxa, true knowledge over opinion, reality over fantasy.
Disinformation flourishes in a profoundly polarized society, which America most certainly is. How to depolarize our society is its own challenge, of course, especially when Americans have been subject to Trump’s relentless disinformation campaign for the past half decade. As president, Biden will turn down the temperature of our politics; any person replacing Trump would. But Biden seems particularly well suited-- temperamentally and based on the political culture that shaped him-- to calm our politics.
Believing that the toxicity in our politics will quickly and easily be drained would be silly; in fact, in some quarters, things will get worse. (We see this in Trump supporters who are migrating from Fox News to Newsmax and One America News because Fox was deemed insufficiently pro-Trump, as startling as that seems.) But not having a president who wakes up every morning thinking of ways to divide Americans by race, region, and religion, by class and party, will be a move in the right direction.
...“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command,” George Orwell wrote in his masterpiece 1984.
For four long years, that important axiom was denied by the president of the United States and almost everyone in his party. But last month, more than 80 million Americans declared that enough was enough. What many of them were saying with their vote-- what I was trying to say with my vote-- was that it’s time to reaffirm that stones are indeed hard, that water is indeed wet, that objects unsupported do fall toward the Earth’s center. That two plus two does make four.

Wehner ended his essay with Keats' most famous quote, something my 8th grade English teacher, Mr Fulmer drilled into out heads as a matter of course: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty.' The line’s meaning is elusive, but Keats seemed to be saying, at least according to some of his interpreters, that truth is not just a philosophical concept; it has an aesthetic quality as well. And beauty itself is tied to truth, to transcendence, to the way things really and truly are. To live one’s life aligned with truth-- especially when standing for truth has a cost—is to live a life of integrity and honor. But is that something we even talk about these days? Maybe the road out of the epistemic crisis that Barack Obama correctly identified runs not simply, or even primarily, through the realm of politics or social-media reforms, as important as they are. Perhaps the path requires us to order our lives well, remind ourselves and others to love what is worthy of our love, and affirm that 'one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.' We won’t get there tomorrow. But each of us can begin to take steps on the journey tomorrow, a journey out of mist and shadows toward the sunlit uplands."

He sounds a lot more optimistic than I am. But he also seems to feel-- I left that part out-- is that Democrats need to give in to Republican demands and that Biden needs to hire Kasich and people like that.

"I Beg Your Pardon" by Nancy Ohanian



bottom of page