The Threat of Truth
The ascendancy of Donald Trump and his predilection for lies has given birth to what many political philosophers have termed the “post-truth era.” Setting aside the claim that he actually won the 2020 election for the moment, one can quickly point to other well documented lies, like he knew nothing of the hush payments to his mistresses just before the election (we all saw the signed checks on television), that he graduated first in his class from Wharton, that he was named Michigan’s Man of the Year, that the noise from wind turbines causes cancer, that the head of the Boy Scouts called him to say his speech was the best one ever given to the organization, that a hurricane confined to Florida would endanger Alabama, the list of easily demonstrated falsehoods is a mile long. As a result, Democrats and Republicans who voted for Biden continue to ask themselves, why do people believe him when he says the 2020 presidential election was stolen? This question has been growing more and more ubiquitous as the Select Committee January 6 hearings have proceeded.
The answer to the question requires some exploration into the nature of belief, a task that will also demonstrate why this essay is for the “choir” because, quite simply, those who voted for Trump simply will not believe it. This essay explains why. Over centuries, volumes have been written on the subject of how humans come to believe something is true, but I’m going to utilize a concise essay entitled “The Fixation of Belief” written by an underrated nineteenth century American philosopher by the name of Charles Saunders Peirce. Peirce identified four methods by which things come to be believed as true, and we’ll take a look at each in turn.
A first step, though, is to recognize an intertwined connection between doubt and belief. Doubt, according to Peirce, is “an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves.” Belief, on the other hand, is a “calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid.” The first method by which many individuals come to believe something, then, Peirce referred to as “tenacity,” or a steadfast insistence that a thing is true “because I believe it.” It is the deliberate act of dispelling doubt to arrive at a calm and satisfactory state. This being the case, it was actually the ceaseless exhibition of lies from Donald Trump, prompting doubt in the process, that moved people to ever more tenaciously cling to their belief in him. For Peirce, tenacious, steadfast belief produces the desired end, i.e., destroying doubt.
Said Peirce, “as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false.” What is more, we will dwell on “all which may conduce to that belief and learn to turn with contempt and hatred from anything that might disturb it.” Although he knew nothing of Donald Trump, his first category for belief describes many Trump voters well. Still, the first method by which we come to believe something to be true is obviously unsophisticated and inherently opens up individuals to believing falsehoods, like the election was stolen. But the more education one acquires, the greater the likelihood that an individual will move on to one of the three remaining methods for determining what is true.
The second method can be described as a move away from individual tenacious belief to beliefs fixed in the authority of community. The essential difference can be put this way: it is not true because “I believe it,” it is true because “we believe it.” This second method was corroborated a little more than a 2 century later by the Nobel laureate Richard Thaler’s work concerning the human desire for social acceptance, a motivation stronger than economic self-interest. Communities will produce correct doctrines that are reiterated ceaselessly, taught to children, and defended in a myriad of ways, most often through the creation of institutions “which have as their object to keep correct doctrines before the people.” If others whom I know and respect believe a thing, I should believe it, too.
According to Peirce, wherever there is an aristocracy or any association of individuals whose interests depend on certain beliefs, there will be an institution or institutions created to perpetuate those beliefs. Although we hate to admit it, the United States now has an aristocracy more wealthy, more greatly removed from the lives of ordinary people, than any previous society, certainly more removed than the aristocracy that controlled England during the 18th century, a society from which we fought to separate ourselves. Today’s aristocracy, like England’s in the 18th century, requires messaging to legitimate massive inequality. The Republican Party gradually became the institution to play that role, buttressed by corporate media and social media. Enriching the super-wealthy is not a platform that resonates with ordinary voters, so the messaging was designed to trigger passions: fear, hatred, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia. The Republican Party began to support any issue that might result in votes from ordinary people, thereby empowering America’s aristocracy. As an example, you must look hard to find a Republican politician, at least at the national level, and likely at all levels, who is pro-choice or who supports common sense gun control.
One of the primary architects of the American constitution, James Madison, argued that a democracy cannot survive if passions are aroused among citizens. For good or ill, the government he played such a large role in creating, was designed to avoid precisely what today’s Republican Party tries to propagate. In the process they have created a large group willing to profess that a thing is true because they happen to believe it.
It is worth noting here that by 1776, the established Church of England served as the primary institution for reiterating what the aristocracy determined to be essential beliefs. While it is largely forgotten now in the 21st century, America’s insistence on the separation of church and state was every bit as much about undermining an institution that perpetuated beliefs legitimating massive inequality and monarchical power, as it was about personal freedom. Today, while evangelical churches regularly cross the line of separation, it is the rise of huge monopolized corporations that have emerged as major messaging agents in American society. More on that soon.
Keep in mind that the first two methods for determining if something is true have nothing to do with facts, evidence, or validity. The first is a kind of arbitrary individual decision, and the second is a decision buttressed by others in a community. One requires tenacity, the other requires simply acquiescing to authority in the interest of social acceptance. But Peirce notes that ideational institutions are not perfect and that there will be individuals who notice that different ideas prosper in other countries, and that it is a mere accident of birth that they have been taught to believe as they do, giving rise to doubt.
Doubt will always result in inquiry, and so for these individuals a new method for determining truth had to be adopted. Peirce called the third method “a priori,” which for philosophers means reasoning from theoretical deduction rather than from empirical study or observation. Let natural preferences emerge unimpeded by messaging agents and then let individuals discuss those preferences. Conversing together, they will gradually develop beliefs they take to be in harmony with natural circumstances. 3 They will believe what they determine to be “agreeable to reason.” It’s important to note that while this third method requires greater intellectual sophistication, it does not mean that what individuals utilizing this method believe is based on observed facts or experience, but rather is something “they are inclined to believe.”
Peirce explains: “Take, for example, the doctrine that man only acts selfishly—that is, from the consideration that acting in one way will afford him more pleasure than acting in another. This rests on no fact in the world, but it has a wide acceptance as being the only reasonable theory” (as already noted, Thaler’s 21st century work disproves this long held theory, but it remains steadfastly believed nevertheless). While this third method “is more respectable from the point of view of reason” than the first two, it nevertheless “makes inquiry something similar to the development of taste.” In other words, three of four methods for determining what to believe have nothing to do with whether a thing is actually true or false. And, as Peirce demonstrates, once a belief has been established, all mental activity ceases. This explains why one Trump blunder after another, one egregiously blatant lie after another, has virtually no effect in changing the opinion of his followers.
There is a reason why we have never before witnessed a phenomenon like the current “post-truth” era. It is because before Donald Trump, American politics were premised on the fourth method by which people choose to believe something. Peirce called it “science,” but it may more accurately be called, simply, evidence. He added, further, it is “the only one of the four methods which presents any distinction of a right and a wrong way.”
Prior to Donald Trump, the American government functioned as if it owed citizens at least an attempt at demonstrating that a policy decision was made on the basis of evidence. The rationale for the Iraq War is a good example. The government insisted that there were “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, and Colin Powell was put on television to show blurry photos of what we were to believe were weapons that were located in warehouses or on massive covered trucks and trailers. None of this was true, of course, but at that time in history an evidential basis for policy was still required. When Donald Trump broke the nuclear weapons treaty with Iran, on the other hand, his message to the American people was that it was a “bad deal,” feeling no compulsion to demonstrate with evidence why it was bad. Same with the Paris Climate Accord, it was a “bad deal.”
Back to the fourth method. Human fallibility is inescapable, according to Peirce, and therefore a constant source of doubt, that unsatisfactory state. Through the ages, this has led to a search for truth determined not by human thinking, but by some “external permanency, by something on which our thinking has no effect,” thus avoiding human fallibility. Centuries ago humankind arrived at a method, which, if used, everyone would arrive at the same conclusion. It’s called science, according to Peirce, and it is no accident that the Republican Party, doing everything possible to enrich the wealthiest among us, would inevitably have to go to war with science.
Like it or not, there are real circumstances, sometimes very easily demonstrated, that exist completely independent of our opinions about them. Choosing to believe a pandemic is a hoax, or that climate change is a hoax, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or that they don’t cost lives and livelihoods. Obviously, policy that responds to real circumstances is preferable to policy founded on false beliefs, but policy that responds to real circumstances will often cost those who have the most in society, i.e., the 4 super-wealthy represented by today’s Republican Party. This explains why Republicans prefer policies based on false beliefs. But because false beliefs don’t occur naturally, they must be manufactured.
To accomplish this, the super-wealthy created their own news messaging network (Fox), formed “think tanks” (e.g., the Cato Institute) and recruited well-credentialed, “fast-track” scholars (e.g., Thomas Sowell). A fast track scholar is willing to deliver whatever message the super-wealthy want the American public to believe, e.g., trickle-down economics is good for everyone, disproportionate levels of poverty among racial groups is the result of racial shortcomings, immigrants are being ushered into the country to replace white voters, public schools are brainwashing our children, etc., in exchange for huge incomes that they would never see in an entire career as a scholar working in the academy.
Think tanks and fast track scholars will see their books purchased by the super-wealthy in numbers that elevate them to bestseller lists, and their journal-length articles and essays, unburdened by blind peer review, will go straight to Fox news and AM radio talkers. The messaging consists of whatever will deliver votes for Republicans. It really doesn’t matter how far the messaging strays from the truth, or for that matter, the degree to which it strains all credulity, (for example, Democrats are pedophiles, or Democrats give away free crack pipes)—it is designed for those who will believe it regardless of whether or not it is true. To be sure, it is targeted at what is far and away the nation’s very largest voting bloc, that is, uneducated whites, for without their support the Republican Party, representing only the super-wealthy, could not win elections.
As a consequence, there are only two possible futures for Republicans, given inevitable and rapidly shifting demographics–one is that they change their focus and begin to represent ordinary Americans. There was considerable sentiment in the party for this route after Romney lost to Obama in 2012. But it was rejected in favor of the only other option: dismantling democracy and orchestrating an authoritarian takeover, likely one modeled after Russia where there is a pretense of democracy, controlled elections, etc., but where concentrated power will ensure that the super-wealthy enjoy ever greater fortunes at the expense of the vast majority of the population. This plan is already visible in the attempt to discredit elections, in widespread attempts to block people of color from voting, in school gag laws, in the support of Putin and other dictators by prominent Republicans, AM radio talkers, and the Fox messaging machine.
The recent overthrow of Roe v. Wade is more evidence that Republicans have turned to authoritarianism. Previously, despite heavy Supreme Court majorities, Republicans didn’t dare take the political hit by doing something so unpopular. The fact that they have done so now is a pretty clear indication that they no longer care about elections.
Both sad and frightening, Peirce capably demonstrated that a large portion of the population will believe things that are simply not true, even in the face of abundant contrary evidence. The more noise that surrounds their lives, the more doubt that appears as a result, the more intensely they will cling to erroneous beliefs, like the 2020 election was stolen. That insight into the human condition reveals the fragility of democracy, and the very real possibility of an America defined, instead, by fascism.