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.
Through history, philosophy has had a long tradition of valuing questions over answers. From Socrates in Greece to Eastern philosophy, it was thought that answers stop the reflexion, while questions exalt the pursuit of knowledge. The smart man gives answers; the truly wise man asks questions.
But if anything, Trump style is a complete perversion of this ideal. For him, questions are not meant to elicit further knowledge, they are meant to eschew it. In his speeches and tweets, raising questions is meant to promote immediate emotional responses such as disgust and anger, while completely disregarding the notion that questions are to be answered. As soon as a question is raised, the inquiry stops and the audience is meant to stick to their initial response and conspiracy ideas. In a way, the mere fact that a question can be raised now suffices to prove that a wrong existed, actual answers being seen as irrelevant or even misleading at this point.
Thus, far from propelling the debate forward, Trump’s style of questioning is meant to discourage examining the facts, and thus for the public to remain in the grip of its ignorance and prejudices.
But Trump is not the first to use this technique in his speeches, since populists from both side of the spectrum, elected officials and radio-hosts alike, have long discovered that definite statements call for fact-checking and rebuttals, in a way that questions and innuendo do not.
It is time to realize what is going on, and to stop praising those who “just ask questions” as straight-talkers who bravely challenge the status quo. Asking questions should only be praised if (a) there is truly an aim of seeking an answer, and if (b) one is willing to abide by this answer, once it is found. As it stands, raising questions has become too opportune a way to disparage other views without ever having to develop one yourself.
For years, philosophy classes have forcefully taught generations of young Quebeckers, in CEGEPs, that Socrates was the smartest man in Athens. For him, raising questions was a way to guide everyone else toward hidden truth and higher justice. But we must now acknowledge that in lesser hands, constant questioning can have very different goals and results. Donald Trump’s style of questioning is meant to both hide his ignorance of the issues and manipulate his audience. And this should matter to us, because while Socrates was never Athens’s ruler, Trump is president.
Whether we stand on the left or the right of the political spectrum, we should all come together in denouncing Trump’s rhetoric, not just for its content, which is often unapologetically racist and false, but also in all those cases in which no true assertion is offered, and yet a strong message is conveyed. For sure, the use of the phrase “alternative facts” rightly sounded an alarm in the media in the past few weeks, but so should Trump’s long time habit of raising insidious questions. In some ways, his recent assertion that the media do not report on Islamic terrorism, although a blatant lie, could be seen as an improvement over months of conveying the very same sentiment, without ever bothering to express it directly, and thus preventing a full rebuttal.