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Sorry, John Adams. For some, facts aren’t stubborn things anymore

Trump and Trumpism are challenging basic assumptions about how important factual accuracy is.

Donald Trump Jr. in an elevator at Trump Tower in New York City.
REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Are facts stubborn things, or stupid things, or things we should believe or disbelieve depending on how they fit our prejudices?

First, it is a fact that Donald Trump Jr. (and two other top members of Team Trump) met with a Russian lawyer (and several others) in June of 2016 after Trump Jr. was promised in advance that the lawyer would provide them with information detrimental to Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s larger effort to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election.

Trump Jr. himself does not deny this, and it was he who made public the email in which this purpose of the meeting was offered. While some (including me) may find this alarming, the fact that this meeting occurred, with this purpose stated in advance by the person setting up the meeting is not in dispute. Even Trump Sr. has confirmed it, while suggesting (despicably?) that any campaign would accept such an offer of Russian help in opposition research.

Public Policy Polling, which conducts automated telephone polls on political topics, recently polled on the question: “Do you believe that Donald Trump Jr. had a meeting with a Russian lawyer about information that might be harmful to Hillary Clinton, or not?”

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Of the full sample who took the poll, 66 percent said yes, they believed such a meeting occurred; 17 percent said they did not believe such a meeting occurred and 17 percent said they were not sure.

The poll also asked respondents whom they had supported in the presidential election. The responses to the question about whether the meeting had occurred were sorted by presidential preference, which showed that the overall sample closely reflected the actual result of the election. When the response to the question about whether the Trump Jr./Russian lawyer meeting occurred were sorted according to whom the respondent had supported for president, it came out thus:

By an overwhelming majority of 86-3 percent, those who had supported Hillary Clinton for president said that yes, such a meeting had occurred. Of those who had supported Donald Trump for president, just 45 percent said that such a meeting had occurred. True, just 32 percent of Trump supporters said the meeting had not occurred, but an impressive 24 percent of Trump supporters said they weren’t sure if such a meeting had occurred.  (Among Clinton supporters, 11 percent said they weren’t sure.)

 The full writeup by PPP of its poll is available here.

Clearly, whether a person is willing to “believe” or at least say that they believe the established fact that such a meeting occurred is highly influenced by whom they supported for president last year. But this is not a matter of mere opinion. It is a matter of fact. The meeting occurred.

Perhaps many Trump supporters who say the meeting didn’t occur actually believe it didn’t occur and others are just saying it didn’t occur because they feel that is the loyal, pro-Trump thing to say. And if you want to muddy the matter further, you could challenge whether online polls are sufficiently accurate to justify such analysis.

But the numbers are impressive, if not too surprising. To my possibly biased eyes, they tend to reinforce something worrisome about the degree to which Trump supporters can accept facts that are verifiably true, even if they are inconvenient to one’s Trumpism.

The famous quote “Facts are stubborn things,” to which I alluded at the top of this piece, comes from Founding Father John Adams who, despite the potential harm to his standing as a leader of the patriot movement in pre-revolution Massachusetts, nonetheless served as the defense lawyer for the officer in command and the eight British soldiers who were charged with murder in connection with the famed “Boston Massacre.”

Adams got the officer off because there was no clear evidence that he had ordered his men to fire into the crowd. Of the eight troopers who fired their guns, six of them were likewise acquitted because there was no convincing evidence that any of them had fired into the crowd.

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Two of the troopers, whom the evidence showed had fired into the crowd, were convicted of manslaughter instead of murder, because Adams was able to show that they had been provoked and attacked by protesters before they fired.

The fuller version of the famous Adams quote from his closing argument goes like this:

“Facts are stubborn things. They cannot be altered by our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions.”

I’m afraid Adams was wrong or at least not completely right. Perhaps facts cannot be altered by our prejudices. But as the story of the Trump supporters’ belief (or at least stated belief) that Trump Junior’s Russian meeting didn’t occur suggests many of us have trouble separating the facts-as-they-are from the facts-as-we-might-wish-them-to-be.

For a surprise closing on that point, in the belief that it’s not only Trumpers who allow their prejudices to get in the way of factual accuracy, allow me to bring up Ronald Reagan’s famous mangling of the Adams quote.

In his farewell speech to the 1988 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan famously said “Facts are stupid things.” It was a slip of the tongue. Reagan meant to say what Adams had said about the stubbornness of facts. But, for many liberals, it entered memory as a Freudian slip, an admission of what many believed was Reagan’s real attitude toward factual accuracy.

Maybe it was, but the usual version of the anecdote is very unfair to Reagan. His remarks were designed to tout the accomplishments of his two terms in office while running down the terrible problems he had inherited from his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter. And some of his facts were more arguable than others. The facts he chose were certainly biased in favor of a rosy view of his accomplishments and a dark view of Carter’s record. Regan began:

“Before we came to Washington, Americans had just suffered the two worst back-to-back years of inflation in 60 years. Those are the facts, and as John Adams said, ‘Facts are stubborn things.’”

That’s right, stubborn things. Reagan got the Adams quote right. And his fact, in that passage, was also accurate. The last years of the Jimmy Carter Administration included the worst inflation in decades. Then Reagan returned to the Adams quote three more times, claiming that the facts proved the successes of his leadership. And he got the Adams quote right the first three times. But on the fourth repetition, he messed up. He said (again referring to the Carter years):

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“People waited in gas lines as well as unemployment lines. Facts are stupid things.”

Of course, he meant to stay “stubborn” as he had on the first three rounds, but when he said facts were “stupid things,” liberals delighted that this Freudian slip divulged Reagan’s disdain for facts. Maybe so. But in our liberal glee at Reagan’s hilarious slip, we may have edited our memories to delete the fact that Reagan immediately noted his error and corrected it. The actual quote:

“People waited in gas lines as well as unemployment lines. Facts are stupid things — -stubborn things, I should say. [Laughter]”

Here’s my confession: I also misremembered. I remembered that Reagan had said “facts are stupid things,” but had forgotten that he got the quote right on the three prior tries and quickly corrected his error on the fourth.

Trump and Trumpism are challenging basic assumptions about how important factual accuracy is. But, for now, I’m sticking by my wonky belief that facts are not stupid things.