Alexander George, writing for the NY Times column The Stone, characterizes President Trump as Our Forger-in-Chief. Trump’s continual assault on the tools of rational thought and civil deliberation undermines our ability to distinguish fact from fiction and thus is a clear and present danger of the sort seen before only in authoritarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany of the 1930s.
“Alexander George (@AlexanderGeorge) teaches philosophy at Amherst College. He runs Ask Philosophers, a website where anyone can pose questions to philosophers.” As such, he makes philosophical arguments about Trump’s “poisoning the well” of our sources of knowledge: science and the news media. I want to make the case differently. Please indulge my one-time, teen-age aspiration to be the Great American Novelist as I outline my crime thriller The Presidential Poisoner.
I would begin by researching what is known about the psychology of poisoners. A Psychological Profile of a Poisoner appeared in Psychology Today in 2012 with the subtitle Serial Murder By Subterfuge. Here are excerpts.
Killing someone with poison, by it’s very nature, requires careful planning and subterfuge, so it comes as no surprise that poisoners tend to be cunning, sneaky, and creative (they can design the murder plan in as much detail as if they were writing the script for a play). Male or female, they tend to avoid physical confrontation and, instead, rely on verbal and emotional manipulation to get what they want from others.
Convicted poisoners also tend to have a sense of inadequacy, for which they compensate through a scorn for authority, a strong need for control, wish-fulfillment fantasies, and a self-centered, exploitive interpersonal style. Often either spoiled as a child or raised in an unhappy home, some experts liken the poisoner’s personality to an incorrigible child whose immature desire for his/her own way leads him/her to try to control and manipulate the world. It’s as if the poisoner never grew up and is determined to take what s/he wants just as a child would from a candy store. Developmentally stunted, other people are viewed without empathy and the poisoner’s internal compass is guided instead by greed or lust rather than morals. And, because poison is often not detected initially, the power and control poisoners experience with success tends to increase his or her confidence in future endeavors.
Given that 1 out of 5 verified murders by poisoning is never solved, it’s hard to draw a definitive psychological profile of the typical poisoner. Those who’ve been caught and convicted give us some clues - clever, sneaky, emotionally immature, methodical, and self-centered. Many of them are amazingly skilled at pretending to be something they’re not - a doting husband, caring nurse, or devoted friend. Behind the mask, though, lies a psyche that is propelled by childish needs and unencumbered by moral restraints.
Then the task as novelist is to imagine a poisoner operating on a national and even international scale. Because the poisoner in this piece of fiction has a “psyche that is propelled by childish needs and unencumbered by moral restraints”, it is easy to imagine how such an individual would crave adulation and approval of the masses. It is just as easy to imagine how such an individual would be easily manipulated by some foreign power with motives inimical to our national security.
What could actually be poisoned on a national scale that could bring down our country? Try the food supply. We live almost day to day in dependence on the integrity of our production and distribution of food via grocery stores big and small, general and special. What if we collectively came to believe that all our food stuffs were no longer safe to consume? What nation-wide mayhem would ensue? You think lines at the gas pump were disturbing? Try hundreds of millions of people fighting for the last scrap of safe food on nearly empty shelves. And all this could be done just by an authority figure claiming that the food supply was unsafe - with no credible supporting evidence. You don’t have to poison a well in order to get people to avoid it.
And that brings us back to the present. Trump and his advisors and supporters are in the process of poisoning the well of our knowledge. If that well cannot be trusted, then the people will no longer drink from it. The foreign power, as in my novel, does not have to directly confront us to do us profound damage. That hideous strength just needs to make us believe that our well of knowledge is poison.
Alexander George, after his philosophical analysis, explains.
There is a lesson here about the lurking dangers of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and that of his minions. Citizens in a technologically advanced liberal democracy must rely on its scientific community to deliver disinterested information upon which to base their decisions about the policies they would have their elected representatives enact. Citizens are also highly dependent on a probing press to help them judge the performance of their elected representatives. Trump, first as a national candidate and now from the pulpit of the presidency, has not ceased to deny and denigrate the findings of scientific bodies concerning the rate and causes of climate change. In addition, he regularly calumnies individual members of the press and vilifies entire news organizations. They are dismissed as purveyors of “fake news” — a label Descartes’s skeptic might have been delighted to apply to the allegedly untrustworthy deliverances of our sense organs.
This behavior is not merely offensive and outrageous. The real problem is that it is dangerous: It poses an existential threat to our democracy. These attacks poison the wells of reasoned public discourse, a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. The problem is not merely that we are being fed a falsehood here, a lie there, though that would be problem enough. The issue is rather that by destroying the citizenry’s confidence in the institutions of science and the press, we risk being deprived of the tools needed to assess what to believe and want. If we cannot trust what vetted scientists or professional journalists tell us, then we will have been rendered rationally impotent. It is damaging to be fed falsehoods or to be outright lied to, but it is utterly debilitating to be deprived of the resources by which to sort fact from fiction.
Descartes’s skeptic is a traitor to knowledge: His threats are not directed piecemeal but instead to the entire enterprise of coming to know how things are. The assaults on science and the press by Trump and his followers are not local eruptions of deceit and mendacity but a well-poisoning assault on public rational discourse, a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.
Perhaps I should retitle my novel Putin’s Presidential Poisoner.
Notes and credits
New York Times: The Stone
A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research.
That Hideous Strength “(subtitled A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups) is a 1945 novel by C. S. Lewis, the final book in Lewis’s theological science fiction Space Trilogy. … The story involves an ostensibly scientific institute, the N.I.C.E., which is a front for sinister supernatural forces.” I recommend it as being still relevant 72 years later.