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In the aftermath of the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville which caused the murder of Heather Hayes, Donald Trump has issued contradictory statements. Diana Popescu argues that on top of the moral harm done by not condemning white supremacy unequivocally, Trump’s reaction to the events engenders an epistemic harm of further radicalising his supporters, widening the gap between the different ideological sides.

It was with the relief of not hitting rock bottom but a notch above it that we witnessed Donald Trump explicitly condemn racism in relation to the murder of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester against at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally on August 12 2017. The statement, given 48 hours after the events took place, addressed widespread criticism at Trump’s omission of racism and white supremacy in his original statement. However, in another turnaround of what the US President is pleased to call his official position, Trump again blamed ‘both sides’ on August 15, which for many annulled the explicit condemnation of racism and white supremacy the day before. Morally speaking, this retraction seems equivalent to the initial statement – plus the impunity of repetition. However, Trump’s fluctuation further adds an injury to truth. Drawing on Willard v. O. Quine’s theory of truth as coherence I will show Trump’s oscillation represents not only a moral harm, but also an epistemic harm that deepens with each swing.

Trump’s initial response to the August 12th attack looked like an even-handed condemnation of hatred ‘on many sides’, yet contained a false equivalence between white supremacists and counter-protesters. This false equivalence did not go unnoticed not only by liberal media outlets which severely criticized it, but also by white supremacists and their sympathizers who read the absence of a direct accusation as an indirect form of support. These predictable reactions might make it seem that Trump’s initial statement was just as good (or bad) as no statement at all, with each side merely reading in it a confirmation of their own previous beliefs. For liberals, the statement would be one more confirmation that Trump is a racist catering to his electoral base of “deplorables”. For white supremacists holding strong beliefs that Antifa and BLM are violent, the statement equally seamlessly fits in with their narrative of Trump ‘telling it as it is’.

These two groups do not, however, exhaust the possible ideological perspectives on the matter. Specifically, being racist does not automatically entail believing that white supremacist terrorists are just as bad as non-violent protesters for racial equality (as the statement implied). For this group of people, the declaration Trump made on August 12th was not just new information, but information of the type that contradicted some previously held beliefs. Their now inconsistent set of beliefs might look like this:

  1. That Trump is trustworthy;
  2. That white supremacist terrorism is worse than BLM and Antifa activism;
  3. That ‘many sides’ (white supremacist, BLM and Antifa) were to blame for the murder at Charlottesville.

Why is this contradiction important, and how will those faced with it proceed? In the Web of Belief, a book meant to respond to “an age when it is popular to distrust whatever is seen as the established view or the Establishment” (the 70s), W.v.O. Quine and J.S. Ullian provide some answers. According to the view of truth presented there, human knowledge consists of an internally coherent and layered set of beliefs, which touches empirical experience only at the margins. Contradiction is, then, the main motor of truth, as it pushes us to revise our knowledge so as to restore coherence in the web. The decision over which conflicting beliefs to drop depends on the trust we place in them. We work our way through their supporting justifications in order to decide how consistency can best (i.e. most parsimoniously) be restored.

The process of revision is subjective, and can lead to changes anywhere in the web of belief. Sometimes, we discount our immediate experience to make better sense of the world: the perception that space and time are distinct is less authoritative than Einstein’s famous equation, the perception of the sun moving around the earth is dismissed on faith in Copernicus, etc. Nor is science the only authority from which epistemic trust can be derived – indeed, Orwell’s 1984 can be seen as an attempt for political authority to become the core epistemic authority, replacing self-evident truths at the core of our web of belief. Less dramatically, some have, on faith in Trump, denied seeing fewer people in a photo from his inauguration compared to one from Obama’s, despite the former showing an obviously smaller crowd. The (in)famous expression “alternative facts” can be understood in this light as meaning “facts leading to an alternative explanation”, one Trump supporters accept despite their immediate perception on trust in political authority.

Coming back to the group above, individuals faced with the inconsistent set will have to decide which beliefs to drop in light of the trust they place in previous beliefs about white supremacy, as opposed to Trump’s statements. Some might choose to retain their belief that Trump is trustworthy and retain (3) by giving up (2), while others might join the liberals in retaining (2) and giving up their belief that Trump is trustworthy. The choice is subjective, although as the example of the crowds shows, most people who still entertained (1) by August 12th must have placed at least enough trust in Trump to tilt the scales of plausibility in favour of (3) over (2).

The statement on August 14th introduces a new contradiction for the sub-group who has revised their beliefs by retaining trust in Trump over their impression there is a moral asymmetry between the two sides following the August 12 statement. This contradiction, which also affects those convinced of the symmetry between white supremacy and Antifa/BLM from the start, might be between the beliefs

  1. That Trump is trustworthy;
  2. That Trump was initially mistaken in thinking white supremacists, BLM and Antifa were equally responsible;
  3. That ‘many sides’ (white supremacist, BLM and Antifa) were to blame for the murder at Charlottesville.

Restoring consistency now means choosing between the two former beliefs and the newly introduced statement. That not everyone will choose to update their web of belief to include (2) over (1) and (3) is once again supported by evidence from the ‘emperor’s new crowds’ example above. As Alan Labinovitz’s notes, for people who have bought Trump’s narrative long enough, protecting their “investment” of trust also means protecting Trump as a trustworthy authority, especially in relatively low-stakes cases. Since the investment will only grow by repeating the process, giving up the web of Trump’s proposed explanations becomes ever more costly, meaning “we should expect his supporters to deny reality… because the coherence of their worldview depends on it.” Retaining coherence, Quine would argue, will prompt Trump supporters to find alternative explanations for (2) in line with the rest of their web of belief, e.g. that he was forced to issue the statement by the Establishment he is fighting, against his actual beliefs.

If the August 14 statement seemed like “too little too late”, the August 15 retraction further entrenches Trump supporters in both their racist opinions and their faith in Trump, by re-iterating (3) in a way that makes any residual doubt over where Trump’s actual intentions lie vanish. Supporting beliefs of the “Establishment made him do it” variety, ushered in to explain away Trump’s August 14 statement, are similarly vindicated in a vicious circle of misplaced trust.

Whatever the political gamble behind his remarks on the violence in Charlottesville, the epistemic outcome is the emergence of an ever increasing gap between Trump supporters and the rest. This is so not only because Trump seems to be legitimising white supremacy, but also because his contradictory remarks screen out weak believers, making it ever more costly for those who trust political authority to give up on him so late in the game. From differences over which authorities to trust come differences over which beliefs to keep in the face of contradiction, and as Quine would argue this can sometimes cut all the way down. The fact-checking devices of the “liberal media” will become ever more useless against strong believers in Trump’s narrative: the more the chain of contradictions goes on, the easier it will become to reject the claims of political and ideological adversaries, the media, scientists and even direct observation.

Charlottesville-1520268” by Mark Dixon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Diana Popescu – LSE Government
Diana Popescu is a doctoral candidate and Fellow in Government at the LSE. Her research is on theories of justice, discrimination, social exclusion and the Romani minority in Europe.