Willful Ignorance: Why Facts No Longer Matter
During this seemingly endless presidential campaign, I have felt obligated to join what seems to be a particular “truth squad.” This squad is dedicated to pointing out how Donald Trump is a congenital liar who will say anything to get what he has wanted for decades: the acclamation of enough voters to win the Presidency. Yet, I am starting to appreciate that this is probably a fool’s errand that I should have never embarked on. The people who support Trump, by and large, do not care just how flawed a candidate he is, let alone how he has no respect for the truth and refuses to apologize for it. They choose to be “willfully ignorant,” about his failing on the truth front as well as just about every other seemingly damning flaw about him; not just as a candidate, but as a businessman, a citizen, and even as a human being.
Half of Trump’s supporters may well be a “basket of deplorables,” as his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has called them for their racism, xenophobia, sexism and so on. But an even larger number of his adherents are sticking with him not because he is standing up for white people, but because they are thoroughly disgusted with the current political leadership that they feel has failed to address the key challenges to our society in the face of dramatic economic, social, and cultural change. The supporters who are not racist and misogynist are actually the more interesting ones here. They know better but choose not to rely on that awareness of their candidate’s flaws. They want to make a statement about how desperately they want change that they are willing to put such a flawed human being into the highest office in the land. Now, that is some extremely willful ignorance.
The early 20th century philosopher William James drew from his friend, colleague, and critic Josiah Royce, to talk about how willful blindness was, at its core, a manifestation of excessive individualism where people who knew better refused to express sympathy for others so as to promote a sense of community and inclusion. In this sense, Trump supporters are quintessentially willfully ignorant: they knowingly choose not to know that Trump is perpetually lying and they do this so that they can insist that there is no need for us, as a society, to express sympathy for others and engage in collective action to attack our shared problems. Instead, they act as if excessive individualism (as demonstrated by Donald Trump’s entire life) is American to the core, it is our most valued tradition, and we must get back to that if America is going to be great again.
The willful ignorance about others makes building the wall to keep out others all the more appealing. It leads to opposition to “political correctness,” where we express concern for others who suffer discrimination and unfair treatment based on race, gender, or national origin. It prizes the mythical ideal of the self-sufficient self who creates his own livelihood, most especially through an independent, small business. It denigrates public works broadly construed. It is, of course, as hypocritical as Trump himself expecting the government to stand up to create the circumstances for this mythical ideal to be realized, whether it is by protectionist trade policies, harsh immigration restrictions, repeal of anti-discrimination laws, etc. You could say there is a willful blindness about what it would take to “Make America Great Again” to match Trump supporters’ willful ignorance about how their candidate represents the worst hypocrisies of excessive individualism.
Therefore, it is probably a mistake to try and convince even the non-racist Trump supporters that he is lying and misleading the public or that he is a real danger to much of what is good about this country. They will not have any of it. They got their candidate and are sticking with him. They are using him as much as he is using them. They seem to be supporting him as much to shock people as to genuinely support his wild ideas. They want to totally “disrupt” politics as usual so as to get the radical change they hope will follow once Trump is in office and they can insist on it.
The ultimate form of willful ignorance is the willingness to look the other way when you are playing with such explosive political dynamite: both for Trump and his supporters. On the one hand, Trump shamelessly panders to the “basket of deplorables,” without considering how that can end up legitimating some of the worst impulses in our society and seeing them imposed on us via a Trump government that is left with no choice but to satisfy its rabid base. On the other hand, his supporters are willing to put him in office just to make their statement, even if it is at risk of rewarding his decades of unethical, illegal, self-serving behavior and having that become the basis for how we are governed.
It is a fool’s errand to use facts to convince the willfully ignorant, but they must be stopped from installing Trump atop our political system. If not by persuasion via an appeal to facts, then by political mobilization that stirs people to oppose him on more emotional grounds. Rallying others to the cause of standing up for what is good about this country would be one place to start. Appealing to people’s sense of shame over being represented by someone like Trump is likely to prove more effective than trying to persuade them on factual grounds.