“Stories that should be good, are bad. Stories that should be bad, are horrible,” President Donald Trump complained in December. But that tweet wasn’t just the latest entry in an endless series of gripes about the press—it revealed something essential about this president’s relationship to facts, and the experts who produce them. For Trump, praise is truth, criticism a lie. Reality itself, like everything else in Trump’s world, is negotiable.
Over the past two years, Trump and his enablers have accomplished something even more dangerous than trying to run a government on gut feeling and conspiracy theories. They have, by attacking sources of authoritative knowledge beyond the president himself, inoculated a huge swath of the American public against ever being informed about anything, providing millions of Americans with a resistance to learning that will long outlive his administration.
Presidents going to war with news organizations is not new. (I am old enough to remember I Don’t Believe The New York Times bumper stickers, popular among conservative voters during the Richard Nixon years.) Trumpism itself, with its disdain of the educated and of professionalism, is just another strain of the populism that lies dormant in the bloodstream of every democracy, a disease that strikes at times of injury and stress, as it has in other moments in U.S. history.
What makes Trump different is that he has not only attacked the idea of expert knowledge, but treated experts, along with the venues through which they communicate, as hostile to the interests of the American voter. He has called experts “terrible” and smeared the free press as “enemies of the people,” literally lifting a phrase from Soviet totalitarianism.
More ominously, he has asserted that only he can serve as the arbiter of truth. From vaccines to trade wars to nuclear arms, Trump claims that he knows better than anyone else. His staff encourages this fantasy; as the economic adviser Peter Navarro said last year, “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.” This is not expertise but sycophancy.
Trump’s rejection of expertise is reckless, but it is also clever. It forecloses any unwelcome input from experts, especially because they are likely to appear only in media Trump has already anathematized. In his circular rationalizations, experts are not experts, because real experts would always agree with him.
Experts will always have plenty of ways of communicating their ideas and information, including professional journals, monographs, conferences, and books. But those venues offer experts ways to communicate with one another. The media is how they communicate with the public, and Trump is trying to poison the wells of knowledge and communication at the same time.
No president can succeed in smothering the critical faculties of an entire country. Even now, a majority of Americans do not believe Trump’s ever-changing stories about his involvement with Russia. But when his administration finally implodes, it will leave in its wake an abandoned constituency that will remain as a kind of neutron star, dense and impenetrable. Experts and politicians alike will be dealing with this remnant of the Trump era for decades to come.