What does mass self-delusion look like? Here’s one definition: When a foreign leader asks about aid from the U.S., and America’s president responds with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” and asks for an investigation of his political rival — and tens of millions of the president’s supporters bleat in unison, “No quid pro quo!”
How can we explain the lengths to which defenders of President Donald Trump are going in their desperate efforts to deny the undeniable? It exceeds the normal boundaries of partisan loyalty, as the ghost of Richard Nixon would testify. It exceeds common sense. Is there really one human being on Planet Earth who actually believes that America’s casino mogul of a president leaned on Ukraine because he was “concerned about corruption”?
While this level of self-delusion feels new in our politics, it wasn’t unpredictable. In fact, some conservative thinkers predicted it a decade ago, decrying a growing phenomenon in their movement that they dubbed “epistemic closure.”
More on that in a moment.
Here’s the thing about the current impeachment debate surrounding Trump: At its core, little of it is actually all that debatable.
This isn’t like the proceedings against Nixon, whose crimes were mostly hidden and unproven until the end. The aforementioned smoking-gun conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was publicly revealed, in writing, by the White House itself.
And this isn’t like the proceedings against Bill Clinton, which involved behavior irrelevant to his official duties. A president putting an ally at risk for personal political gain is as officially relevant as it gets.
The particulars are out there for all to see: The administration suddenly suspended military aid to Ukraine, aid it needs to resist Russian aggression. Then, during at least one president-to-president call, Trump made it as clear as he could have without benefit of a flowchart that the price for getting that aid back was for Ukraine to investigate the business dealings of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son — and to be very public about it. Quid, meet quo.
If leveraging U.S. military aid and compromising America’s national security for the sake of a campaign bumper sticker doesn’t meet the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard, what does? Allowing any president to get away with this makes every future president significantly more dangerous.
You expect partisans to rally around their leaders, to a point — but only to a point. Some (including Al Gore) believe Gore’s loss in 2000 was the result of Democrats staying home in disgust over Clinton’s behavior. Republicans stuck by Nixon only until enough evidence piled up to make arguing his innocence untenable.
Trump passed that point long ago — and yet most Republicans in Congress and many across America still have his back. It would be one thing if this could be chalked up exclusively to partisan cynicism, but a great many of them seem to actually believe their increasingly convoluted arguments for his innocence. Why?
According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “epistemic closure” is the principle that, “If a person S knows p, and p entails q, then S knows q.” In other words, if you know that today is Saturday, and you know that Saturday is part of the weekend, then you know that today is part of the weekend.
The political version of the term arose in 2010 via Libertarian writer Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, who defined it as a kind of ideological bunker — “a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course Fox News.” Any evidence disputing the “reality” promoted by those sources, he wrote, was being “dismissed out of hand (by conservatives) because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.”
Or to put it in the philosophical framing of the term: If a person S knows that p is information provided by a non-conservative source, and S knows that all information provided by non-conservative sources is false, then S knows that p is false.
Since the Reagan era, some (not all) conservatives have increasingly dealt with inconvenient facts by creating their own factual universe, constructed among pundits and right-wing think tanks and promoted on Fox and its ilk.
In this universe, supply-side economics works, Barack Obama is a foreigner and millions of illegal aliens stole the popular vote from Trump. Each of these things is demonstrably untrue — unless your entire frame of reference is an alternate universe that exists to make them true.
This is more than lying, and more than the so-called “echo chambers” of self-perpetuating biases that both parties have. This is an enclosed information loop that has locked out inconvenient facts for so long that to let them in now would be unthinkable. This may explain how otherwise rational people can shrug off the foreign-policy equivalent of someone being gunned down on Fifth Avenue.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This item was updated to clarify the ideological alignment of the Cato Institute.