Republican culture of irrationality supports Trump’s lies, manipulations

Published 7:50 am Saturday, April 1, 2017


Contributing columnist

The dishonesty of the Trump presidency endangers our nation in two ways. First, Trump continues to be what he’s been all his adult life: a serial liar. As a result, he is quickly losing credibility at home and abroad. Second, as evidenced by his administrative appointees and proposed budget cuts, he is suppressing information about, and planning for, the global instability threatened by climate change. These two behaviors are supported by a culture of irrationality embedded in the Republican base.

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We are all familiar with the long and growing list of Trump’s lies. One of the most shameful examples went on for the five years he publicly proclaimed that President Obama was born in Kenya and therefore not a legitimate president. This was a cynical ploy to attract national  attention and win support from racists who could not accept a black president.

Another lie blew up in his face March 24, with the collapse of the GOP health care bill. Just days before his inauguration, Trump repeated his promise that, instead of Obamacare (which left 27 million uninsured), “We’re going to have [health] insurance for everybody” (NYT, Jan. 15). This echoed what he said on 60 Minutes early in his campaign: “I am going to take care of everybody.  . . . Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now (under Obamacare)” (Sept. 27, 2015).

Trump had to know he was promising the impossible. It would require increased taxation and government involvement, both anathema to his party. It was also inconsistent with his promise to lower taxes while greatly increasing the budget for what he falsely labelled our “depleted” military.

So it was no surprise that his American Health Care Act would, according to the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, increase the number of uninsured from 27 million to 51 million. By ending the taxes that enabled Obamacare to expand coverage, Trumpcare would also shower hundreds of billions in tax cuts to wealthy investors, health insurers and drug companies.

In its potential for catastrophic harm, Trump’s worst lie is his repeated claim that climate change is a “hoax.” He knows better. In 2009, Trump and his children signed an open letter in the New York Times to President Obama saying “We support your effort to ensure meaningful and effective measures to control climate change … Please allow us, the United States of America, to serve in modeling the change necessary to protect humanity and our planet.” As recently as the spring of 2016, Trump applied to the Irish government and to the Clare County Council for permission to build a seawall to protect his golf course from “global warming and its effects.”

Trump’s recently announced budget would cut climate change research and preventive programs throughout the federal government, including a 31-percent reduction at the EPA. As Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, made clear at a press conference on March 16: “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward — we’re not spending money on that anymore; we consider that to be a waste of your money.”

This is irrational. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a statement (AAAS) cosigned by 17 other scientific organizations, has said that at least 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that “climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”

Sure, 97 percent is not 100 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, ‘only’ 98 percent of scientists in the AAAS “say they believe humans evolved over time.” No scientific theories are ever proven once and for all. They all remain hypotheses subject to revision. But 97-98 percent agreement is an overwhelming consensus.

Rational adults (and governments) don’t step blindly into the future. They try to predict and plan accordingly. To predict, we rely on generalizations based on past experience, and we test these generalizations by how accurately they predict the future. Science is a refinement of this commonsense rationality, using mathematics and instruments of observation. Rejecting science is irrational, and eliminating it from government planning is dangerous folly, like driving blindfolded.

Trump and the GOP have doubled down on irrationality. Not only do they reject climate science in its present state; they also want to block the government from even considering rapidly developing events (such as melting ice-caps) that could further support  the warnings of climate scientists.

A powerful obstacle to rational behavior is what social scientists call “motivated reasoning (or cognition).” All of us have a tendency to reject alleged facts that threaten our most deeply held values and beliefs. For Trump, calling climate change a “hoax” is an effective lie because so many Republican voters want to believe it. Changing the human behavior that causes global warming involves major government interventions in markets, something abhorrent to conservative Republicans (and to investors in fossil fuels).

But it isn’t just laissez-faire capitalist dogma that makes Republicans prone to deny scientific facts. There is also a traditional distrust of scientific and intellectual elites among white evangelicals — a dominant part of the Republican base. They made up 25 percent of all voters in the 2016 election, and 81 percent of this group of voters went for Trump.

According to the Pew Forum, 59 percent of evangelicals believe that the Bible is the “Word of God, literally true word for word.” As Christopher Douglas points out, this leads them to reject mainstream Biblical scholarship, as well as evolution (the central theory of biology today), and also “the secular university as a site of neutral science and objective scholarship.”