Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy

Brooke Gladstone, in her new book, The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic of Our Time, claimed that the election of Donald Trump reflects fundamental flaws in human nature and in the very ideas of democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.

Brooke Gladstone

To her credit, she doesn’t take her argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to empower gatekeepers to filter the news and opinions available so the rest of us aren’t exposed to anything the gatekeepers consider fake.

Many others, in fact, do go that far, so I will try to sum up her argument and then engage it.   Here’s her argument:

  • Truth is subjective Everybody lives in their own unique reality.   Since our ability to understand is limited, we make decisions based on stereotypes.   All human beings are emotionally committed to stereotypes and experimental psychology shows that our brains react negatively to whatever challenges our stereotype.
  • Knowledge of facts is not enough Any given set of facts is subject to multiple interpretations.  We the people filter facts according to own various assumptions and biases.
  • Appealing lies beat inconvenient truths John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill claimed defended free speech by claiming that truth would defeat falsehood in a free and open encounter.  This is bogus.   We the people don’t have access to full information about important public issues, nor the time or ability to evaluate it if we did.
  • Democracies foster demagoguesSince we the people cannot make rational decisions, we tend to prefer demagogues who offer us appealing fantasies rather than intellectuals who tell us inconvenient truths.

Here’s my answer.

The expression that “truth is subjective” or “we all live in different realities” is highly pernicious.

It’s true that we all have our own unique experience of reality.  As Gladstone notes, humans can’t imagine what it is like to experience the world as a bat or a bloodhound does.  But a human, a bat and a bloodhound all live in the same actual world.  We are all burned by fire and drown in water.   If our perceived reality is wrong, the real reality will sooner or later catch up with us.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell distinguished between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description.   Most of us are good at understanding things that affect us directly and of which we have first-hand knowledge.

When I was reporting on Eastman Kodak Co. for the Democrat and Chronicle, the changes in the Kodak formula for the annual workers’ bonus were highly complicated.  But when I wrote about them, I would get many phone calls from rank-and-file Kodak employees who understood them very well.   Knowledge by acquaintance is usually reliable and complete.

The problem is in knowledge by description.   Our sources of information on public issues are not necessarily complete.  If we’re working full time or have family responsibilities, we don’t necessarily have a lot of time to sift information.   And, as Gladstone wrote, we each have own own filters for judging information.

The Founders of the American republic were not naive.  They did not think that the farmer as his plough or the carpenter at his bench were able to evaluate the details of complex and abstract issues such as the tariff.

What they did think was that ordinary people had the ability to judge who in their community was the wisest and best-informed, and would listen to those wise leaders.

Ordinary people have the ability to answer Ronald Reagan’s famous question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”    The philosopher John Dewey noted that he didn’t have the ability to make shoes, but he did know whether his shoes fit or not.  By analogy, even those who don’t have the ability to formulate wise public policies understand whether policies are working well or not.

I don’t deny that people can be manipulated by propaganda, as we were, for example, in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and as we now are being manipulated, in my opinion, concerning lead-ups to conflict in Ukraine, Syria and Iran.  We eventually see through propaganda, but, by then, the damage has been done.

Gladstone quoted James Fenimore Cooper on the susceptibility of democracies to demagogues.  Cooper was a Federalist who believed the franchise should be limited to an educated landowning gentry (a view that I’m pretty sure Gladstone herself rejects)

It’s true enough that the public at large can be misled, but so can elites, whether selected by heredity, wealth, education or position in government or society.  So can dictators, emperors and absolute monarchs.

History shows that narrowing the franchise is no defense against paranoia, misinformation or wild conspiracy theories.

The benefit of a broadly representative electorate is that all the people affected by governmental policy have a say in policy and, when policy fails, there is immediate feedback.


Brooke Gladstone wrote this about Donald Trump’s supporters:

… in their eyes, America was changing in ways that threatened their universe racially, culturally and economically, depriving their children of the secure future that was their birthright.  Meanwhile, every four years, they saw traditional candidates from both parties issue empty promises and then vanish in pursuit of secret deals.  [snip]

Trump’s rhetoric underscored what his supporters already believed, that the politicians, professors, scientists and coastal elites who wept great salt tears over immigrants and minorities didn’t care about, didn’t see, the coming catastrophe.

Trump supporters, as described by Gladstone, are not deceived.  They see things as they are.

I’m glad of the trend toward greater racial equality and I’m of two minds about current cultural changes.   But I think it is important to be aware that the U.S. economy is changing in ways that harm the majority of Americans, black and white, and that the established leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties are indifferent to this.   Donald Trump speaks to this.

The trouble with Donald Trump—one of the troubles—is that he attacks intellectual and government elites while empowering financial and military elites that are the main sources of our problems.   He articulates the anger of many Americans about how they’re falling behind, but he does not offer solutions.

Right now the Trump administration is in trouble.  Trump himself is unpopular and members of his own administration seem to be setting him up for impeachment.  Assuming he makes it to 2020, Democrats will have a good chance of replacing him, but that will do them no good if they continue with the failed policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The lesson of Donald Trump is that people will prefer a candidate who offers false hope to one who offers no hope at all.   And that is reality!


Q&A: Brooke Gladstone on the media, Trump and truth, an interview by Janice Yi for Columbia Journalism Review.

Essential Insanity by Ian Welsh (2008)

The Facts Are True, the News Is Fake by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for INCERTO.

The  Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter (1964)  [Added 5/25/2017]

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5 Responses to “Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy”

  1. Edward Says:

    Gladstone is basically making an argument for the status quo, for the “haves”. The “have-nots” and those whose story is not allowed in the “news” will not be as satisfied with the gatekeeper’s decisions. There needs to be a mechanism for societies to address problems and change. Central to that is being able to have public discussions of issues. The problem is even worse for non-Americans in countries that are dominated by the American empire.


    • philebersole Says:

      To be fair to Gladstone, she doesn’t advocate gatekeepers, although it seems to me that this is a logical conclusion of her critique.

      Many self-described liberals do, but she isn’t one of them.

      What she advocates is trying to engage with people who live in different “realities” than your own and seeking consensus, meanwhile trying to stick to the facts as you understand them.

      But her previous analysis would make this seem like an exercise in futility.


  2. Edward Says:

    It sounds like her book is more or less about the subject of media bias, but she leaves out many important topics. Robert Parry, for example, has written about the demise of watchdog journalism after Reagan became president. FAIR has spent decades documenting problems. The Reagan administration axed the Fairness Doctrine. Would a network like FOX news that is affiliated with a political party have even been legal in the past? How has the press enabled our wars? How do corporations and the state influence the press? What do other countries do? Papers like the NYT do not print corrections when they are caught in an error. There is a bias against groups like Palestinians. Reporting is slanted towards certain topics and away from others such as student or worker issues. How much accountability do news outlets face. How has greed warped the industry? Does Gladstone try to discuss media bias in a systematic, comprehensive way? She seems to assume the only problem is corrected the errors of Trump supporters.


    • philebersole Says:

      Yes, this is my main criticism of her book, which is good in many ways. She writes as if Donald Trump’s demagoguery and delusional world-views are unique in American history and came out of nowhere.

      I think the result, and maybe the purpose, of treating Donald Trump as if he represents some sort of discontinuity in American politics is that the goal of the so-called Resistance then becomes putting things back the way they were before Trump was elected—that is, reproducing the conditions that produced Trump in the first place.


  3. Edward Says:

    Yeah, I think the situation with Donald Trump is more complicated then the simple narrative we are often given of Trump the cartoon villain, destroying everything good and pure. Yes he is horrible, scary, and amoral on many issues such as the environment. However, the larger problem. IMO, are vested interests that control politics in this country and are preventing needed reforms on a living wage, health care, war, and other issues. How does Trump fit into this situation? It isn’t obvious to me what will happen, but just the fact that parts of the establishment are at odds with each other, in a perverse way restores some checks and balances; it probably makes these people more careful.


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