Facts don’t speak for themselves

Facts don’t speak for themselves.

Whenever anyone says they are “fact-checking” something, don’t believe it’s some sort of litmus test on the validity of what someone says. It’s just another way of framing assertions about the world, and it’s usually devoid of serious critical thinking about the topics at hand.

For example, when Donald Trump said the inner cities have never been worse, it’s probably possible to show that’s not the case. Maybe the murder rate is lower than it was in 1961. Or the jobless rate is lower than it was in 1958. Or the poverty rate is lower than it was in 1979. Whatever.

Media outlets love to do this—point out little “facts” that show Donald Trump is wrong. “Fact-check.”

But when Trump says the inner cities have never been worse, he doesn’t mean literally worse on every measure. He doesn’t even mean worse on most measures. He means that from his perspective, and (he probably thinks) from the perspectives of many other people, the inner cities have never been worse. It’s all a matter of perspective.

If I say my life has never been worse, who is to tell me I’m wrong? If I feel that way, it’s true. My friends can say, “Look, you’re making more money now than you ever have.” Or “Your new baby is happy and healthy – things have to have been worse.” But those things are just facts. Facts alone carry no weight. Facts must be interpreted. That’s the point of debates.

The inner cities have never been worse. That’s not a statement of fact. It’s a statement of opinion. And everything we say is a statement of opinion. Even facts like “the earth is spherical” are meaningful only insofar as they inform some further claim we’re trying to make (what’s the point of just saying “the earth is spherical”?).

Trump’s opponents try to damage him by pointing out these little facts that he supposedly gets wrong. But the problem for her is that 1) Trump doesn’t care, and 2) neither do his supporters. What Trump and most people care about that the inner cities are horrible and hellish. That’s it. Pundits hold up little flashcards showing him to be wrong, but he’s only wrong insofar as people don’t agree with him. For the media to prove him “wrong” in this regard, they essentially need to convince people that inner cities are not horrible. That’s a tough battle to fight.

Some lessons here for you, as you try to win debates and negotiations in your own life and work:

  • Focus on what your opponents believe and frame facts in that way.
  • Pose your arguments not in terms of this-is-true-about-the-world-and-you-simply-cannot-not-believe-that, but rather in terms of this-is-how-I-and-others-feel. The latter is more powerful than the former.

Like it or not, Trump is a strategic mastermind

I once explained my rationale (alongside my accurate election predictions) for believing that Donald Trump is not an idiot, but a strategic mastermind. He plays the fool just enough to incite scandal and dominate the news cycle, yet he maintains enough semblance of integrity in the eyes of his supporters to convince them—a good one-fourth of voters—that he’s 100% serious about “draining the swamp.”

Finally others are picking up on this. In today’s RCP, Bill Murray explains how the media is being played by Trump—especially his tweets:

As Michael Barone, the longtime co-editor of The Almanac of American Politics and senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, points out, “Early on, he [Trump] realized that by sending out a tweet early in the morning, that was very provocative, very in violation of political correctness, he could dominate an entire news cycle.” What’s more, Trump knew he could feed the media’s “addiction” to anything remotely resembling “breaking news,” all to his benefit.

This failure of U.S. broadcast media to use proper news judgment in covering Trump is among the gravest professional sins the industry has committed in recent memory because it fails to recognize the manipulation involved. George Lakoff, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, asserts that Trump’s tactics are “all strategic” in nature, “not crazy,” as many observers believe.

Lakoff has written several books on political speech and is an expert on the concept of idea framing, which has become an influential technique in the art of political persuasion. He asserts that Trump’s tweets embody one of four strategic communication tactics: preemptive framing, diversion, deflection and trial-ballooning.

I tell everyone who tells me Trump is an unhinged idiot to look beyond the commentary, look beyond the narrative. Look at the facts and the actions. Trump orchestrated a campaign the defied all odds. This takes genius. He successfully navigated multiple PR nightmares that would have meant the career end for any other politician I can imagine. This takes genius.

If you start to see Trump through this lens, you’ll be better at critiquing his policies, which fly under the radar—he’s reforming government massively while the media can’t stop talking about Russia and his “crazy” tweets. This is what we ought to be concerned about. Who cares if he’s an idiot. Who cares what he might possibly do to us if he keeps acting this way. What is he doing to us here and now?

Whether you believe his policies are helping or hurting, there’s no excuse for ignoring them in favor of the juicier, yet slowly crumbling, Russian-collusion narrative. Then it’s you who’s being played.