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On Trump's own private reality and the Paris Accord

On Trump's own private reality and the Paris Accord
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump announcing on June 1 his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement.

I certainly am aware that many supporters of President Donald Trump think that “the media” in general is motivated by a general liberal bias, and by hatred of the current incumbent, to constantly criticize everything the president says, does or proposes. Maybe there’s something to it. I’m not in the camp that thinks liberal media bias is a phony concept. But it’s complicated. I’m a liberal, or some kind of lefty. My life experience working for newspapers, and plenty of data that others have unearthed, confirms that most journalists are liberals.

But, at least for those still working in the so-called “objective” paradigm of reporting, a reporter is supposed to keep his biases out of his work and concentrate on facts and presenting a balance of views. The concept of “objectivity is borrowed from the scientific method, which is mostly about always seeking truth, but always remaining skeptical about whether you have found it.

That “solution” to the bias problem in journalism is not scientific and not perfect but it is real and powerful. Value facts — actual, straightforward, verifiable facts very highly. Even, and maybe especially, facts that challenge your own preferred belief. You don’t have to change your opinion every time you hear an inconvenient truth. But you can’t ignore that truth just because it is inconvenient. These rules for thinking and learning apply in fields far beyond reporting.

'Spin' doesn't include outright lying

For many politicians, there may be higher priorities. Journalists are used to getting “spun,” which is a lower-level of dishonesty many politicians and public officials use to seek favorable coverage and/or promote half-truths. But “spin” doesn’t include outright lying or refusing to discuss contrary facts.

There’s never been anyone to rise as high in our public life with less respect for those basic rules than Trump. There are no inconvenient truths in his brain, because he refuses to take note of them. His beliefs – and I’m certainly not talking about religious beliefs here but about earthly issues, policy beliefs and his belief in his own brilliance – form around a set of facts and very, very often a set of nonfacts that allow him to assert whatever suits his ego or stokes up his base. It’s an approach that fundamentally disrupts the usual give-and-take between self-promoting sources and truth-seeking, or at least fact-seeking, journalists. Trump seems to inhabit his own private reality and he is impressively incurious about other versions of reality that are more fact-based.

Writing that paragraph, I had a flashback to a moment surrounding the rise of George W. Bush. Journalist Ron Suskind, writing for the New York Times Magazine, quoted an unnamed Bush adviser (it turned out to be Karl Rove) who said (and this excerpt is listed from the Wikipedia article on “Reality-based community”):

that guys like me [by which Rove meant journalists like Suskind) were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality…."

"That's not the way the world really works anymore," [Rove] continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors …and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of the second President Bush, but he looks a lot better to me now, because his divorce from reality was far less of a final decree than the divorce of Trump.

He rejects the bounds of facticity

The fact-checkers have broken their old norms in order to call out Trump’s lies. To his admirers, this feels like anti-Trump bias. But I don’t blame the fact-checkers for trotting out very strong terms to describe Trump’s lying. Trump doesn’t make mere factual errors. He rejects the bounds of facticity: If it feels good, say it. If it is proven to be false, never bother to acknowledge that, move on to the next thing that feels good and say that. It’s not at all clear to me that he can tell whether he is relating a fact or lying.

During his campaign, he granted a fair amount of media access. And reporters would confront him with some of his falsehoods, but he seldom conceded any ground and introduced us to a number of totally insulting (to the audience as well as the interviewer) techniques for not correcting his myriad errors. Nowadays, he seldom bothers with such interviews.

So, just one example (which is the one that set me off on this rant):

In announcing that he was “canceling” the Paris climate pact (which, of course he had no power to do, since the pact still exists and is still a thing for every country in the world except the U.S., Syria and Nicaragua), Trump threw what I assume was supposed to be a bone to those who wished the United States would remain within the pact. He said that he was willing to negotiate for a better deal that would keep the U.S. in. Here’s the quote:

So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.

Every single coherent analysis of Trump’s “I-was-elected-to-represent-the-citizens-of-Pittsburgh-not-Paris” speech (and even my own incoherent one) noted that there is no mechanism for such a renegotiation and no need either. Each country (including the United States, but only on the signature of former President Obama) pledged to all of the other signatories to take certain steps to try to reduce its carbon emissions, and each nation designed those steps for itself.

No mechanism or need for renegotiation

There is no mechanism for one of the signatories to renegotiate its plan, no one to negotiate it with, and really no need, since there is also no enforcement mechanism to reward or punish those who keep or don’t keep their commitments. If Trump wants to pollute more than Obama had promised it would, he can just do less to save the world. He doesn’t need anyone’s permission and there is no technical sanction, just the obvious loss of trust and confidence that the world will have in U.S. leadership on environmental sustainability.

So, back to reconciling with reality, does Trump not know this is how the Paris Accord works? Did no one tell him? Was he busy tweeting during that part of the briefing? Who does he plan to negotiate with? What does he expect in return for coming back into the accord that anyone can give him?

Has he answered these questions to anyone? I haven’t seen his answers. Has he even given anyone an opportunity to ask those questions? Did no one on his team have an opportunity to tell him that — great negotiator that he is — that particular skill has no application to this “deal?” Do his admirers know that his offer to renegotiate is meaningless? Do they care?

Trump’s modus operandi is to say or do something that raises many basic questions, then not answer those questions, then (while journalists and others are seeking to get him to answer) move on to something else that raises more questions.

I’ve searched Article II of the Constitution, in which the presidency is created and described. It’s pretty unhelpful but does say that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

It seems to leave it up to the president to decide what information to give and when it is necessary and expedient to give it.

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Comments (13)

The emperor

…as they say, has no clothes. The emperor, of course, sees no need for them, since he’s the emperor, and whether actually true or not, he believes his world view and his word to be the equivalent of the truth and/or the law, whichever is more convenient. For me, that’s pretty close to a clinical diagnosis of divorce from reality, but I’m not a mental health professional, so I don’t state it with absolute conviction.

Leaving aside the possibility of mental illness on Mr. Trump’s part, I think we’re looking at, as they also say, the government we deserve. Trump was elected by an apparently vindictive and ill-informed minority of voters (a phenomenon perfectly acceptable under our Constitution) but a majority of the anachronistic electoral college (also acceptable under the Constitution), so his presidency will be a historical oddity even if he turns out to be some combination of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. It’s fair to say that I don’t expect that to be the case. It’s also fair, I think, to cast a cold eye of suspicion at the Trump campaign, but even more, to be at least as critical of the millions of voters who chose not to exercise even the most minimal of citizen responsibilities. In a very real sense, we have an egomaniac in the Oval Office because millions of voters, both potential and actual, chose not to cast a ballot. They were aided in the avoidance of citizen responsibility by vigorous efforts on the part of Mr. Trump’s party to keep as many people from voting at all as they possibly could.

Trump is a minority President with the same sorts of issues that mega-wealthy CEOs often have: the belief that the world revolves around them and their particular concerns, whatever those concerns might be; the insecurity that goes with the suspicion, rigorously suppressed, but hiding there, nonetheless, that they may not have actually earned all their material (and in this case, political) wealth; and vigorous autocratic tendencies that may give lip service to the concept of debate and democracy, but don’t really want to see democracy practiced unless it supports their preconceived notion of what the outcome should be.

My hope is that we’ll recover from a president whose selfishness and habitual lying could easily wreck the economy and the country, but it’s only a hope. The people who voted for Trump aren’t going away to an alternate universe, and will still be around in 2020. Some might be persuaded by a more effective and more responsible message from one or both political parties, but many don’t care about political parties of any kind, and are more influenced by media coverage and sound bytes than substantive policy proposals. Therein lies one of the fundamental failures of the American political universe as well as our educational system.

State of the Union - 2018

When Trump gives the State of the Union next January (assuming he is still around) will there be outright laughter from the audience as he takes credit for things he did not do, blames others for his own failures, and flat out lies about his accomplishments? I might actually watch next year.

State of the Union

I doubt he will give a speech (there is no requirement that the report on the state of the union be a speech to Congress). He probably will do it in some kind of writing prepared by whatever henchmenare still there.

It's pretty clear to those

It's pretty clear to those who DO know details about the Paris accords and other major national and international issues that Donald Trump does not take the time to get his facts right, even when he doesn't simply make them up out of thin air and his own desires.

The real problem is that his fervent supporters--and they are fervent!--ask no more of him than that he appear to be making "true" certain promises he made to them in the 2016 campaign. One: to withdraw from the Paris accords. All they see is that he did it, so they're happy.

The great majority of his electors don't understand the accords (the voluntary nature of what's promised; the true climate crisis behind the agreements). They want to be able not to worry about what they may be doing, personally and collectively, to harm the earth. Trump gave them that the other day. So they're happy.

My Trump-supporting sister in Orange County, CA emailed me a link yesterday to a Breitbart article that interpreted a WHO report (there isn't any scientific research anymore being done by or published on the EPA or Interior websites, where Trump's minions have pulled it all down and hidden it from the public, so WHO is as close to "scientific" as Breitbart can get). The article reassured readers that the US has the cleanest air of all countries in the world (somehow they missed Sweden and Norway), and coal-fired energy is great for us. They added a coda on how good it is for the environment that we send lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Helps trees and plants grow!

My college-grad white sister was ecstatic, because that assurance was all she needed to nod in agreement with Trump that the international community is out to get us and we don't need to do anything to help the environment, which is absolutely not in any trouble. Whew!

That's what we're facing; these people will re-elect the man.

Can we see a link please

Can you please provide a few “details about the Paris accords and other major national and international issues” that you think Trump and his supporters don’t know? Also, can you provide a link to that WHO report that your sister referred to?

Another enjoyable article, Eric . . .

I had to laugh out loud (hope my co-workers didn't notice TOO MUCH, as they all LOVE Trump) when I read the last paragraph under the sub-title " 'Spin' Doesn't Include Outright Lying" about how you were not a big fan of former President, George W. Bush, but that he looked a lot better to you now because of President Trump. I have had similar discussions with my oldest son, who pretty much feels the same way that you do.

Once again, excellent writing!!! Always a bright spot in my day (or week . . .) to read your latest article. Keep up the good work! Thank God, America still has freedom of the press. Long may it last!!!! Fake news - Ba Humbug!

Bush vs Trump

Bush may have believed that he could create his own reality -- that is, determine what constituted reality, but he did acknowledge the concept of reality.
Trump, on the other hand, is a pure solipsist.
To him, the universe is bounded by his own 'very good brain' .... there IS no reality independent of him.
Whether solipsism constitutes schizophrenia (or some other mental disorder) is a question I'll leave for other mental health professionals who believe in the medical model of mental health.
To me it's sufficient that he behaves in a way that is a threat to all of our lives. The solution is not curing him; it's preventing his actions from causing harm. That's what the Constitution is for.

Moral issue

Eric's reference to the comment attributed to Karl Rove (I had assumed it was V.P. Dick Cheney, but close enough) reminded me about how "Nietzschien" it sounded and does sound. I happened to be reading something (written 30 years ago) which included this quote from Nietzsche:

“A great man- a man whom nature has constructed and invented in the grand style-what is he?. . . if he cannot lead, he goes alone; then it can happen that he may snarl at some things he meets on the way. . . he wants to ‘sympathetic heart, but servants, tools; in his intercourse with men he always intent on making something out of them. He knows he is incommunicable: he finds it tasteless to be familiar; and when one thinks he is, he usually is not. When not speaking to himself, he wears a mask. He rather lies than tells the truth: it requires more spirit and will. There is a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal.”

Nietzsche did not write about political philosophy nor did he in any of his writings suggest that his work had any political implications. They were about art, culture and morality and the lack of any firm foundations for morality in Western culture. Nietzsche was a great thinker who remains underrated and mostly misunderstood partly because of his controversial statements like "God is dead" and the like.

But Rove's comment sounds like something someone who's been reading and misunderstanding Nietzsche might say. It doesn't follow that George W. Bush believed that or that he would have agreed if he even understood it. If you're a Machiavellian, the first rule is never to let the people know what you're really thinking or really believe. And we have a President who speaks and acts like he might really believe that as President he can now truly create his own reality regardless of moral, ethical or legal constraints. He's a true Machiavellian. I wonder if it's not a mistake to try to understand the President's attitude and behavior as some psychological aberration rather than a moral one. It seems to be we face a moral, social and cultural crisis when a significant number of the voting electorate either cannot see through a politician's obvious and many lies or if they can do not care about the implications.

Applies to others

Trump’s “beliefs …form around a set of facts and very, very often a set of nonfacts that allow him to assert whatever suits his ego or stokes up his base.” Can’t this be said about Clinton as well? Please be honest… My point is that it is quite possible that all the things liberal media is saying about Trump is true but they kept ignoring the same things in Obama and Clinton and that means that their (media’s) credibility is questionable, to say the least.

Now to Paris accord example. Re-negotiations… If my friend (or my enemy) and I agree to meet at noon and I changed my mind, I can renegotiate to 1 p.m. even though there is no mechanism for that… just because it was voluntarily non-binding agreement to begin with. So if the world wants America to be a part of this again, it WILL renegotiate.. and if not, it’s just fine, as Trump said. So what’s wrong here? Why is it an example of Trump’s lies or being out of touch? So, at least in this case, he does seem to know how it works (no penalties, no enforcement, no incentives) so he did what he promised… And, by the way, why should we lead on environmental issues if we didn’t on security ones?

Confession good for the soul...

It was refreshing to read many lines in this article I agree with enthusiastically!

Thank you for the admission of you being a "liberal" or some kind of "lefty." I agree with that! That is obvious for even the casual observer.

The realization that most of the media are "liberal" as well was a gracious verification of truth. At least you are not a denier.

The evaluation of the Climate Deal sounds to me as confirmation that it was simply "symbolism over substance" all along.

And the often (almost weekly) repeated "Trump Lies" is also something that I agree with totally. I am very disappointed in the behavior and deportment of this president. However, considering the alternative, this was my only option.

My observation is I have never seen the term "Obama lies" or "Clinton lies" in other articles. For many observers there is a close correlation between the lies of Trump and these two public figures. Of course, the dems have never been subject to such scrutiny as Trump and never had to react to the same degree because of their allies in the press. The "adoring press" seems to apply only to Democrats - maybe because of the unintended bias. Some would say intended bias.

Also - Trump is not a professional politician and has never been able to lie as effectively as the professionals.

Thanks for the article and I can hardly wait for next weeks Trump instalment.

Third attempt

“reporter is supposed to keep his biases out of his work and concentrate on facts and presenting a balance of views.” “Value facts — actual, straightforward, verifiable facts very highly. Even, and maybe especially, facts that challenge your own preferred belief. You don’t have to change your opinion every time you hear an inconvenient truth. But you can’t ignore that truth just because it is inconvenient. These rules for thinking and learning apply in fields far beyond reporting.” I can’t agree more… and will add that you can’t ignore the truth just because it feels offending… And even if the opposite opinion is wrong, there is no way to find out unless that opinion is presented and listened to.

ilya and ron

Kind of like Lebron and Kyrie - so last year. My advice. Don't bet on it.

Kind of interesting side note...

Rove's thinking here is actually quite similar to Karl Marx. Whereas Rove says:

"...we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors …and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Marx said:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."

This idea of making the reality that others will study turned out to be central feature of Leninism and later Stalin. It was also a central feature of Hitler's ideology. At any rate, it never ends well.