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

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

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?”

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.

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):

“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.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/21/2017 - 09:40 am.

    It’s not about facts

    It’s significant that the Trumpistas are not devoting their energy to contesting facts — their main efforts are to discredit Mueller (and now Sessions) to devalue the facts by discrediting the source. It’s a power game.

    • Submitted by Patrick Tice on 07/21/2017 - 04:19 pm.

      Winning

      Indeed, it is only about “winning”, as was an election tainted by Russian interference, gerrymandering, fake news, lying on a scale I’ve never seen before, and – a GOP fave – voter suppression. These things delegitimatized the election, and now the same mindset and behavior threatens our ability to perceive reality itself.

  2. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 07/21/2017 - 11:13 am.

    Facts (and polls) are stubborn things

    People will always lean to the side of their bias. But what actually happened beyond that a meeting took place has not been determined. Almost all Hilary supporters believed it was a meeting about her – this is very believable since many still don’t believe she lost fairly. Also as the poll states, many don’t believe the meeting was about Hilary. Again, we know a meeting took place and was set up as opposition research against Hilary – and yes, any candidate and campaign will take opposition information. But did the meeting that occurred actually end up talking about Hilary? So it’s presumptuous to say many that back Trump are not following the facts. There are still things to be proven before any conclusions can be made.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/21/2017 - 11:46 am.

      “[A]ny candidate and campaign will take opposition information.”

      Not like this. Russian sources have offered “opposition information” to previous campaigns (JFK’s, for one), but the offer was dismissed.

      The “both sides do it” argument is just moral bankruptcy. If we’re going to dismiss wrongdoings because someone else did something arguably similar, or would hypothetically have done the same thing, we may as well say that the norms do not apply. If we can’t condemn something because “both sides do it,” we are lost.

      “But did the meeting that occurred actually end up talking about Hilary?” First, why is she referred to repeatedly by her first name, while Trump is referred to by his last name? It’s like the way one might refer to a child. Kind of demeaning, don’t you think?

      Second, it doesn’t matter that Don Jr. didn’t get what he wanted. Nevertheless, he was going to meet with an emissary tied to the government of a foreign power for an advantage in an American election. The fact that he went is the point.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 07/21/2017 - 11:51 am.

      The other foot

      Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Bob, how would you feel about this if, instead of Donald Trump, Jr, it was Chelsea Clinton meeting with the Russians to discuss the “opposition”?

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/21/2017 - 01:39 pm.

        Irrelevent

        She didn’t

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/21/2017 - 01:56 pm.

          Partly Relevant

          A hypothetical question can be relevant. Would sauce for the goose likewise cover the gander?

          It is irrelevant, however, in that it would not prompt a relevant response from the typical Trump supporter. Instead of the simple “yes” or “no” the question calls for, the “answer” would be some tiresome megillah about the Clinton Foundation, e-mails, both sides do it, blah, blah, blah. The question will be avoided in the most painfully transparent way possible. Such is our discourse today.

          So in a sense, you’re right, asking the question is pointless.

  3. Submitted by Misty Martin on 07/21/2017 - 11:24 am.

    How true, Eric.

    Facts indeed are stubborn things, just as one of our Founding Fathers, John Adams said long ago. The truth nor the facts that make up what is truth, cannot be covered up nor swept under the proverbial rug . . . for long, anyway.

    Thanks again, Eric, for writing such enlightening articles. A breath of fresh air into this sometimes dismal political atmosphere, especially in the last six months or so.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/21/2017 - 05:50 pm.

    Donald Trump asked the other day what states are trying to hide by refusing to send detailed voter data information to Trump’s personal “voter fraud” commission? [I use the term “personal,” because any honest inquiry would have the information sent to a normal federal agency, like the Justice Department. Not to the dysfunctional and incompetent Trump White House.]

    I ask: What is Donald Trump trying to hide, with all his bluster about every single investigative and cabinet official who is looking into whether his financial dealings played a role in his facilitating Russian intervention on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election?

    He’s sounding very panicked, that Mueller’s financial experts–especially those expert in money laundering–will find some inconvenient facts that he’s been desperate to keep under deep cover.

    What financiall facts does Trump have to hide from the American public?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/22/2017 - 06:59 pm.

      Ego

      That he’s not as rich as he says he is.
      When all debts are taken into accounts his assets (like the rest of him) may even be negative.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/21/2017 - 07:15 pm.

    Factoids

    Wikipedia tells me that the term “factoid” was coined by novelist Norman Mailer in 1973 to describe something which appears in print and is repeated enough to become a fact- or “factoid.” Since then, it’s become a term applied to any meaningless or trivial “fact” Trump, Jr.’s meeting with Russians is a “factoid” in the latter sense I think which probably accounts for the divergence in public understanding of whether it actually even happened.

    A “factoid” might still be part of a constellation of a “stubborn fact” if enough of them converge to create a credible and coherent account of a public reality. If other “factoids” in the minutiae of events which surrounded this meeting before, during and after, are assembled like a picture from digital impulses, an image resembling something like the Truth might well yet emerge.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/22/2017 - 03:03 pm.

      Merriam-Webster defines a ‘factoid’

      as:
      ” 1: an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print

      2: a briefly stated and usually trivial fact.”

      The first meaning appears to be appropriate here.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/22/2017 - 11:50 am.

    I’m confused, Jon: Everybody who was named as attending that meeting (and several more who were kept secret by DJT, Jr.) has publicly affirmed that the meeting occurred. And that they were there. I don’t see a “factoid” in that at all. A big bunch of facts, however.

    The fact that many Trumpites are doubtful that the meeting took place says more about their [willed?] ignorance than it does about truths in the public realm.

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/23/2017 - 07:35 pm.

    A big bunch of trivialities

    That a meeting occurred with Trump, Jr. and several Russians and some other people who admit the meeting took place is not the point. That’s a “factoid” in this context which I think here means a “briefly stated and trivial fact” until other possible “factoids” (trivialities) create a context in which these may or may not become meaningful “facts”. Or a “stubborn fact.” Or maybe not. I think it’s significant that John Adams used “stubborn facts” to describe what happened in a trial of these British soldiers versus what the public assumed and was prepared to believe.

    No doubt many members of the public are prepared to prejudge criminal intent in every movement of the Trump family for the past year. I’m not.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/24/2017 - 08:49 am.

    Now Trump DOES deny this…

    According the Washington Post, now Trump IS going to deny that knew what the meeting was about… These guys come from a world of privilege where no one has ever really held them accountable for anything.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/24/2017 - 09:27 am.

    Better late never?

    Republicans have been trying to create a fact-free political and social environment for decades, this is NOT Trump’s unique contribution. Control of “facts” is always a reactionary objective of those who tend towards dictatorial rule. What’s weird is the fact that liberals in America, including the “liberal” media, have simply refused to accept this fact, much less confront it. And frankly, THAT failure is responsible for our current dilemma.

    Back in the 80’s when Republicans said: “Hey, let’s give magic a try” (From Star Wars missile defense to tax cuts Reagan’s agenda was a product of magical thinking) instead of denouncing magic Democrats and American liberals said: “Well OK, let’s see if works… we’re open minded right?”

    That was never going to end well and as Republicans from Gingrich to Rove kept ratcheting up the magic every time it failed, the media and liberals again, instead of denouncing it, normalized it and pretended it might be reasonable policy. We actually get to the point where Karl Rove describes those who don’t rely on magical thinking as the “Reality based community” and the very concept of evidence based policy is controversial. This wan’t Trump’s doing… twas American liberals and Democrats who refused to confront anti intellectualism and magical thinking. It was the pseudo-objective pretense of “un-bias” journalism that pretended anti-science might be science instead of simply denouncing it as irrational or even just unscientific.

    In the end we’ve become victims of liberal denial. The pretense of “normal” politics was a comfort zone that liberals simply didn’t want to abandon. Better to pretend that tyrants are just politicians on the other side the isle than recognize the danger and confront it. We’ve seen this before, it’s like the old frog in the boiling water story. Sure progressive have been sounding the alarm for decades but those alarms were to discomfiting for liberals to hear. So here we are.

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