A Philosopher's Blog

Trump & Credibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2017

During a discussion of Trump’s untruths, a friend of mine expressed the view that all politicians are the same in that they all lie. While it is true that politicians do lie (as does everyone else), there are degrees of dishonesty. To fail to distinguish between these degrees is rather like saying that all criminals commit crimes and that they (and their crimes) are all the same. While there have been other speakers of untruth like Trump, he seems to be unique among the presidents.

While the Bush administration engaged in a campaign of falsehoods to sell the Iraq war, Trump started his presidency by making false claims about the attendance at his inauguration. In what would be regarded as a pathological level of dysfunctionality in a normal person, Trump also made untrue claims about the weather—something that everyone present could observe and something that is an objective feature of reality. Politicians lying to advance an agenda is normal, albeit immoral, political behavior. Lying about crowd size and weather in the face of objective evidence is something new and terrifying.

It could be countered that Trump is not actually lying. After all, lying is different from making an untrue claim. For a claim to be a lie,  person must believe the claim they are making is untrue and make that claim with the intention that people will believe it. While there are some benign lies, lies also tend to have a malicious intent behind them. As such, there are various ways Trump could be saying these untrue things without lying. One possibility, which is scarier than his being a liar, is that he believes these untrue things and is thus divorced from basic reality. In other people, this would be regarded as a mental illness. In many other jobs, the inability to recognize what is real and what is not would make a person unfit (readers should feel free to think snarky thoughts about philosophers at this point). Another possibility is that Trump is still operating as an entertainer: he is saying untrue things with a benign purpose, to amuse and entertain the crowd. If so, he is playing the role of the nation’s buffoon, telling outrageous tales in the hopes of a laugh. While there are other alternatives, the main explanations seem to be these three: he is a liar, he is mentally ill, or he is a buffoon. I am, of course, not claiming that any of these are true—these are mere hypothesis presented as a matter of academic speculation. I will leave the analyses to experts in each area.

Whatever the explanation, it is evident that Trump is relentless in his untruths. He and his minions have also engaged in a sustained attack on truth, even going so far as to create the concept of “alternative facts.” While it is tempting to dismiss the lot of them as con artists or victims trapped in the shadows of madness, the fact is that Trump is the president and his people have great influence now. As such, it is impossible to ignore them. However, this does not entail that people need to believe them.

In my critical thinking class, I do a section on assessing claims and credibility. The basic idea is that a claim is assessed in terms of the claim’s content as well as the source of the claim. Assessing a claim’s content involves running it against one’s own observations and checking it against one’s background information. While these checks are fallible, they do generate an assessment of initial plausibility for the claim. Obviously, the more a person knows and the better they are at being critical of their own observations, the better will be their assessments. To use an example, people who were present at the inauguration can check Trump’s untruth against their own observations (as well as recordings of the event) and determine that Trump’s untruth was just that.

Assessing the source of a claim is also an important part of the process, which leads to the question of whether Trump should be considered a credible source or not. One factor in assessing credibility is whether the source is biased or not in regards to the claims being made. While being biased does not prove that a claim is false (this inference would be fallacious), a biased source is more likely to lie because of their bias. In regards to bias, Trump is nothing new: all politicians are biased sources when making claims about their policies and plans. As such, Trump’s claims about matters in which he is biased should be regarded with skepticism. Just like claims from any biased source.

When Trump makes claims about areas that fall under fields of expertise, assessing his credibility is obviously a matter of considering his expertise in the area. This would involve considering the usual factors such as his education, his experience, his accomplishments, his reputation among experts, and his positions.

Trump has a degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, so he is as qualified as others who hold a comparable degree. However, this does not give him much in the way of expertise in other areas, but this could be offset by his experience in his business and being a reality TV show star. However, as he likes to brag, he has no real experience in political office. He also has no experience in other relevant areas, but perhaps he can learn on the job.

He has accomplished various things and certainly made the Trump name into a valuable commodity. However, these do not seem relevant to making claims about such things as immigration, abortion, combating terrorism and so on. But, perhaps he will be able to accomplish things here and thus increase his expertise. In terms of his reputation, he is widely regarded as a non-expert by actual experts in the relevant fields. In terms of positions, this is his first political office—as such, he is rather lacking here.

While previous presidents, like Obama, also started out with deficits in expertise, Trump is the first president to have no experience at all in holding any political office or serving in the military. As such, it is reasonable to regard him as a non-expert when it comes to his current job. While he can make use of the same business expertise that brought the world Trump University and Trump Steaks, government is not the same thing as business, despite this being a beloved talking point. As such, any claims Trump makes about matters outside his expertise (that is, most of his current job) should be regarded as lacking in credibility. At least until he can prove his competence and expertise.

What is most telling against Trump’s credibility is, of course, his relentless spewing of untrue claims. While it would be a fallacious ad hominem to infer that any specific claim he makes is untrue because Trump lies so regularly, his routine embrace of the untrue casts the shadow of doubt over everything he says. As such, any claim Trump makes should be regarded with skepticism and not accepted until adequate evidence is available. After all, a person who lies about something as easy to check as the weather is likely to lie about everything. This lack of credibility fundamentally undermines his moral authority as president: if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters. And a person that cannot be trusted is not a person fit to be a leader.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 28, 2017 at 7:06 am

    “All men have a priori assumptions in terms of which they approach the facts that confront them.” Cornelius Van Til

  2. DH said, on January 28, 2017 at 10:03 am

    I listen to talk radio frequently; and I read the Wall Street Journal. I also like to listen to NPR radio, mostly for the podcasts but they frequently spill over onto the news. And I read blogs like yours, and occasionally things like the New York Times. My participation in Facebook is very limited – I sometimes have “groups” associated with my classes, but I don’t really do social networking the way so many others do. Once in a while, my wife will show me something on her feed, and I’ll poke around a little, but that’s it.

    So when I read the Wall Street Journal and listen to conservative talk radio, I read articles about the diversity of Trumps cabinet choices, and how he seems to have selected a group that have very strong opinions that are not aligned with his own; they talk about that kind of leadership versus that of surrounding yourself with sycophants. I read about the objectives and the pitfalls of his presumed trade policies, with varying opinions about the historical perspective of high tariffs and trade wars, and of how this risk is mitigated somewhat by the appeal to the American workers in places like Pennsylvania who helped him win.

    You probably don’t spend much time listening to the talk radio shows I do – but I have to tell you that during the primaries the opinions were all over the place for Trump. Glenn Beck, for example, was very outspoken about the potential dangers of a Trump administration, nearly every other host I listen to supported someone other than Trump during the campaign. What united them all was the idea that the “Hail Mary” of a Trump administration could possibly be a win for this country, but we just didn’t know – but that he could never be worse than the serial lying, self-empowering, scheming Hillary Clinton.

    So now there is a cautious acceptance; policies and approaches are debated hotly – there is no one who blindly supports him, but they all voice their support in terms of being at the ready in case he goes way off script and begins violating the constitution or actually acting in the way the left seems to believe is what he is going to do.

    On the other hand, I have gotten so tired of NPR that when the news or some political talk show comes on, it is not long before I have to just roll my eyes and turn it off. There is virtually NOTHING of any political value, despite the names of the shows. The other day Maxine Waters was being interviewed, and all she could talk about was how much she despised the man, how he would never gain her respect, how (in broad terms) this country is doomed, how he is a liar, how he uses foul language, etc., etc., etc. It was clear that I expect that from my sister, who responds emotionally to everything, but from an elected US representative who is charged with making the laws of this country, I would expect less vitriol and more intelligent debate and opposition.

    From NPR and the New York Times and CNN and Facebook, the focus of nearly every news cycle these days appears to be about the size of the crowds.

    Who cares? (Well, you do, apparently, but I don’t).

    On the other hand, I am very interested in things like the latest statements by Mitch McConnell, who is standing firm against changing the filibuster rules in the Senate. He is taking a Constitutional stance in opposition to Trump, who wants to follow Harry Reid’s example of triggering the nuclear option in the Senate to protect the president against filibuster. McConnell and I agree that the power of the president should be limited by Congress, and the 2/3 rule is an important safety measure, Reid and Trump believe that the President’s path to accomplishment should be made more efficient. The left does not seem to really understand the Constitutional impact of this kind of check – but they are radically behind it when it comes to Reid and Obama, and just as passionately against it when it comes to Trump. Ho-hum.

    Back in the 1960’s, Muhammed Ali used to go around saying he was “The Greatest”. Not too much different from Trump in that regard. No one cared – we cared about whether or not he could knock out Joe Louis in the ring, which he both did and failed to do. In the end. He never stopped calling himself “The Greatest”, but he did tremendous things for the sport of boxing, he made huge strides in race relations and against religious intolerance, and donated millions to foundations dealing with Parkinson’s disease, and ended up being recognized as a great humanitarian before his death.

    With a nod to the differences between a statesman and an athlete, I have to say I still don’t care. In fact, I think Trump is refreshing. It’s kind of nice to be able to listen to a guy like Trump and say, “Yeah, yeah, I know he’s exaggerating – I know he is self-aggrandizing – I know he’s a blowhard” and get over it. Nor do I ascribe to your belief that ” if a leader cannot be trusted to be honest about minor and basic facts, then they certainly cannot be trusted in regards to far more serious matters”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all just advertising. “Tide is the best laundry detergent ever!” Everyone knows how to take that statement. On the other hand, we just emerged from eight years of the WORST kind of lies from Obama, Clinton, Reid, Kerry and that administration – couched in serious diplomacy and carefully worded press releases – lies about the tax implications of Obamacare, lies about involvement in the Middle East, lies about “resets” with Putin, lies about foundation expenditures, lies about back-room deals and extortion masquerading as policy support, and lies about the massive successes of policy, which also can be checked like the weather. And outlets like NPR and CNN and blogs like yours scraped and bowed and said, “Isn’t he wonderful”? in hushed tones – and talk radio and the Wall Street Journal trotted out facts from BOTH sides and presented intelligent discussions about the issues, not the awesomeness of the leaders (or the awfulness of the Republicans).

    I initiially found your Philosopher’s Blog to be an interesting place to read about and discuss philosophical issues, but at this point I think it should be re-named, because it is misleading. It is yet another left-wing rant by someone who puts up a bunch of credentials to prove he is right, but who does not address real issues of importance to this country. As such, it’s no less tiring than NPR or Maxine Waters or Michael Moore, spouting the same tired old stuff without a single serious take on a political, economic, or even philosophical issue. If I hear one more “Trump is a liar, here’s a new analysis”, I think I might just scream.

    So I’ll check in from time to time – but I’ve removed this blog from my “quick-links” dashboard. I will seek true philosophical discussions elsewhere.

    • WTP said, on January 28, 2017 at 4:03 pm

      There goes another satisfied customer!

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 6, 2017 at 6:18 pm

        Well, satisfaction guaranteed or your money paid for this free blog will be returned.

        • WTP said, on February 7, 2017 at 6:55 am

          Don’t change the subject.


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