Raising Questions over telling the truth. How Donald Trump’s discourse distorts the meaning of inquiries (in addition to everything else)

After a long year in the spotlight, we have had plenty of opportunities to study Donald Trump’s approach to discourse and truth. For sure, his willingness to disregard facts has legitimately alarmed many, especially now that he speaks with the strength of the presidency. However, perhaps an aspect of his discourse that has gathered less attention is his predilection for raising questions over expressing a position.

An illustration of what I mean here happened this week, as Trump was leading yet another charge against the media. This time, Trump chose to directly state that “the media do not report on Islamic terrorism” (which is demonstrably false) and then he hinted at some hidden reasons for it, which, to our best guesses, was something along the lines of “the media do so to weaken my presidency” (which is also false, although a bit murkier to debunk). Although the news media rightly cringed at hearing such blatant lies, we should realize that Trump has led that same charge for months, although he has mostly chosen to do so by raising questions, such as “why don’t the media report on Islamic terrorism?” In fact, looking back on the campaign, it seems that most of what he said was done through vague and evasive questions rather than assertions.… Continue reading

What makes someone a conspiracy theorist?

One thing that many people have noted about Donald Trump is that he seems particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories. It is seldom made clear in these discussions, however, exactly what a “conspiracy theory” is, or what particular mental habits make people vulnerable to them. I thought, therefore, that it might be an opportune time to republish a small excerpt from my Enlightenment 2.0 that attempts to explain this. Basically, a conspiracy theorist is someone who falls victim to confirmation bias. He or she sees a pattern in the world, develops an account of the pattern, but then fails systematically to consider, much less investigate, any evidence that would contradict this account. Instead, he or she simply observes more and more instances of the pattern, treating each one (fallaciously) as more “evidence” of the account.

Conspiracy theorists serve as an excellent example of the phenomenon that Keith Stanovich refers to as dysrationalia.… Continue reading

Thoughts on President Trump

A great deal has been said already on this topic, but let me point out a few things that have not received much attention.

First off, allow me to admit that I was completely surprised by the result. Congratulations to Andrew Potter for having called it correctly a couple weeks ago, but until last night I thought he was wrong. Mainly that’s because I believed all the stuff about the importance of the “ground game” in turning out the vote. I thought Trump’s inability to put together a coherent campaign organization was going to hurt him more than it did.

Also, I should note that this outcome is a huge victory for political science over punditry. Political science tells us that things like debate performances and “gaffes” don’t matter very much, but that electoral outcomes are driven by a very small number of “macro” factors – foremost amongst them is a desire for alternation of the parties in power.… Continue reading

Trump and electoral reform: connecting the dots

I did two media pieces this week, the first an article opposing electoral reform for Policy Options, the second a panel discussion on Donald Trump on TVO’s The Agenda. There is actually a connection between the two, but I didn’t have enough time on the TV show to explain it. And so let me do so here.

First, electoral reform. The point I’m always trying to make in this debate, which is very difficult to get across without being misinterpreted, is that there is a family of recognizably “democratic” voting systems, all of which have advantages and disadvantages, but none of which is more inherently democratic, or fair, than the others. This is why most academic experts, when they debate the merits of the various systems, tend to talk about extremely pragmatic and consequential considerations, not fundamental democratic principles. In other words, the type of discourse engaged in by Fairvote Canada is, in my view, rank demagoguery.… Continue reading

Fascist in the literal sense of the term

Several years ago, during a municipal election in Toronto, someone was running around plastering stickers on newspaper boxes and telephone posts throughout downtown that said “Let the police choose the mayor!” I recall having seen them at the time and thinking to myself, “wow, that’s actually fascist – not just as a figure of speech, or a term of abuse, but literally fascist.” (I suspect, but am not sure, that this was the election in which Rob Ford won the mayoralty.)

The problem, of course, is that “fascism” has been vastly overused as a term of political abuse – particularly during the ‘60s – so it has lost all force. We have become overly used to people calling others “fascist” whenever it looks as though they might have to do anything that they don’t want to do. The result is that we lose track of the actual meaning of the term.… Continue reading

Police shootings are a gun control issue

With the civil unrest that has erupted in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, along with all of the news coverage and commentary that has accompanied it, I am surprised how few Americans see the connection between police shootings and the absence of gun control in the United States. By now it has become fairly clear to everyone that school shootings are an inevitable byproduct of the proliferation and easy availability of guns. But Americans have not been as quick to draw the connection between police shootings and the fact that so many American civilians are armed. There has been a lot of lamentation about the “militarization” of police forces, but surprisingly few commentators have pointed out the simple fact that American police are constantly afraid of getting shot. It may not be at the forefront of their minds, but it is something that informs every aspect of how they interact with the public.… Continue reading