Do grasshoppers fart? I’m not sure, and I don’t much need to know, but here’s why the question comes to mind.
I was thinking about the death of facticity in the Age of Trump and it reminded me of an exchange from my earliest days in the scribbling trade known as journalism, when I did my scribbling for The Pine Bluff (Arkansas) Commercial. I had written about a false statement by one of Pine Bluff’s politicians and the next time I saw the fellow he told me that my story was no more than “a grasshopper’s fart in the cosmos” to him. I gather that, if grasshoppers do fart, it is a matter of small importance that changes the world not at all, like my story.
I don’t recall the falsehood that gave rise to that exchange, but the metaphors were much more colorful in my Arkansas days than my Minnesota days. That Pine Bluff politician did, however, stop repeating that particular falsehood, which I took to be a good thing.
Having (arguably) misspent my adult life in scribbling trades, I believe that facticity matters. But the Age of Trump has forced us to acknowledge that it matters much less than it should.
I’m having a hard time making my peace with this. I may be in denial about how factitious things used to be, but denial, as the gag goes, ain’t just a river in Egypt. If you’ll indulge me a couple more paragraphs of general endorsement of facticity, I’ll get to something newish down below.
The rise of Donald Trump and his minions has demonstrated that you can lie, often and recklessly and obviously, and refuse to ever retract or apologize for or even acknowledge your lies, and still win a presidential election in the United States of America, as long as you tell falsehoods that 46.1 percent of voters wish were truths. Unlike that long ago Arkansan, Trump doesn’t even change to new falsehoods when the falseness of his old ones has been pointed out.
We have to care
But if we scribblers stop caring about — or writing about — Trumpian deviations from factual accuracy, we might as well stop scribbling entirely. And at this stage in my life, it’s too late to take up a new trade. So here’s one more fact-check:
Trump, who cannot seem to grasp the concept of “good winner,” continues to claim that his margin of “victory” is really much bigger than it was. He has asserted, without producing any evidence that deserves to be taken seriously, that Hillary Clinton benefited from massive voter fraud. He continues to assert, as if this proves anything, that many dead people are still listed on voter registration lists, and millions more undead people are registered in multiple states.
That may be true, but if so it is no evidence at all of voter fraud. Maybe some states do not promptly clear the registration lists of the names of deceased voters or the names of voters who have moved to another state. But that doesn’t mean those voters voted after they died or moved elsewhere. Trump has never attempted to demonstrate that these still-registered dead people voted — only that they are listed on the rolls. And the same applies to people listed on the rolls in two states.
For some reason that someone who understands the president’s casual relationship with facticity will have to explain, he continues to assert this as evidence of fraud. If Trump ever comes up with proof that a significant number of dead people voted for Hillary Clinton, I will retract this paragraph and apologize, something Trump never does.
A narrow margin in N.H.
But there is one more wrinkle that Trump has more recently asserted and that has been amplified by his minions. That wrinkle is a particular slander against one state, namely New Hampshire, a state that was carried by a very narrow, less than 3,000-vote margin by Hillary Clinton.
It didn’t, of course, affect the outcome of the national election. But, for some reason, Trump started asserting, for example in a post-election meeting with senators that was ostensibly set up to hear the senators’ reaction to his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, that he had been defrauded of a victory in New Hampshire where, he said, “thousands” of people were “brought in on buses” from neighboring Massachusetts to “illegally” vote in New Hampshire.
An actual member of the Federal Election Commission immediately and publicly called on Trump to produce whatever evidence he had to back up this claim. So far, no such evidence from Camp Trump has been forthcoming.
But, soon afterward, senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller picked up this falsehood on a Sunday when he was suddenly omnipresent on the political talk shows.
“I can tell you that this issue of busing voters in to New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics,” Miller said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. “It’s very real; it’s very serious.”
Host George Stephanopoulos asked Miller for evidence to back that up. Miller’s idea of “evidence” was to say that it was just widely, widely known and to just keep asserting it and to boast as further proof that “I’m prepared to go on any show, anywhere, anytime, and repeat it and say the president of the United States is correct, 100 percent.”
The number of shows on which Miller is prepared to say something that his boss likes to hear is, of course, pretty good proof that it must be true. But perhaps shy of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And, strangely, no one from Team Trump has shown any interest in producing further facts to prove that busloads of Massachusettsians had ridden into New Hampshire and voted fraudulently for Democrats.
The Monkey Cagers
So three political scientists who contribute to the “Monkey Cage” blog on the Washington Post website volunteered to do some actual research that might shed light on the alarming claim. The three are all based at Dartmouth College, which is, until Trump or Miller can show otherwise, actually in the Granite State of New Hampshire, which might give them an extra iota of credibility on the matter.
And that’s the piece that set off my rant of this morning, because the steps they took to actually investigate the claim were so darn reasonable and based on actual research. Here’s what they did:
They looked to see if there were unusually large upticks in turnout, especially in New Hampshire districts close to Massachusetts, that might suggest thousands of illegal Bay Staters voted there illegally. But no, there weren’t such upticks.
Noting that New Hampshire also had a closely contested Senate race (and Trump had also asserted that the voter fraud operation had cost incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte her re-election), the Monkey Cagers looked for districts in which support for Sen. Ayotte might have shown dramatic downturns that would be consistent with the theory of busloads of Massachusetts Democrats coming in. But no, they couldn’t find any.
New Hampshire allows voters who have recently moved in from Massachusetts, and who might not yet have obtained a New Hampshire driver’s license, to use a Massachusetts driver’s license as proof of identity. And the polling places keep a record of those instances. So the Monkey Cagers looked to see if there was an uptick in voters using Mass. driver’s licenses that could be correlated to any change in support or opposition to Ayotte. They found none.
If the bused-in Mass. cheaters had turned the tide against Ayotte and Trump, you would expect to find that voting places near the Mass. border would be strongholds of support for Ayotte’s opponent (the Democratic Senate nominee, then-Gov. now-Sen. Maggie Hassan). They found:
In fact, New Hampshire towns near the Massachusetts border tended to favor Ayotte, not oppose her.
Their final conclusion:
We find no evidence to support the assertions of large-scale voter fraud that have been forthcoming from the Trump administration.
Because of these results and a total lack of photographic evidence of buses infiltrating New Hampshire on Election Day 2016, we believe that Trump’s claims about a tainted election in New Hampshire are at best unsupported and at worst an intentional mistruth.
Everything tended to undermine
Don’t you just love the tone of that final assessment. “At best unsupported … .” That Dartmouth gang takes facts seriously. They acknowledge that they haven’t literally proven the busloads story false. But they took investigative steps that would either tend to support or tend to undermine the veracity of the busloads-of- voting-fraudsters claim. And everything tended to undermine. So they rate the silly claim “at best unsupported” by the actual evidence.
Don’t you wish our new president and his minions would show similar humility about what they assert. And don’t you wish they would show a similar caution about checking things about before announcing their “findings” to the world.
There was another expression I picked up in my fondly recalled Arkansas years. It was a hunting metaphor for an idea or an effort that wasn’t going anywhere, like the idea that Massachusetts regularly ships “thousands” of illegal voters into New Hampshire by the busful, and somehow they leave no trace. The expression was: “That dog won’t hunt.”