The Trump Doctrine #2: the War on Expert-Opinion

Forget his beef with the media, President Donald Trump’s war on professional expertise has started. Though should be stated that ultimately in a liberal democracy the problem lies with the people of said society: Their inherent right to freedom of speech, voicing of opinions and regarding opinions of real people as valuable information has led to a diminishing in the value of expert-opinions. But we’ll get to that later. There is obviously a  lot to cover when it comes to the way in which Donald Trump campaigned on fact-free information; be it the unemployment rate or the polls or the value of his businesses; fact-checking organizations early on have given him very low scores when it comes to truthful speech.

Aside from the fact that tempering with economic data or lying about statistics can prove harmful both in the short-term as in the long-term, lying about real challenges such as climate change, terrorism, poverty and crime rates has even before Trump started to run for public office found its narrative in an alternative reality from which new policies were enacted with devastating consequences. But conservative groups draw a lot of public support from alternative realities; take the continuing War on Drugs for example, and the War on Terror. This last one has stimulated the growth in xenophobia among the population, stimulated the growth of militant Islamophobic groups, and the ideology of white supremacy.

Since 9/11, and over the course of the beginning of the 21st century, the phenomenon of politically motivated violence, or terrorism, has come to be inextricably linked to the religion of Islam. As so far in the West this has to do with the conditioning of the phenomenon itself: the facts indeed point out that in recent years terrorism in the United States and Western Europe are mostly linked to violent actors who themselves identify with the religion of Islam and have as much contributed to the image problem Islam has in the West. However, the notions coined by Trump that “Islam hates us” or by Dutch politician Geert Wilders who argues that “Islam is at war with the West” are completely ignorant of the fact that the vast majority of victims of terrorism are muslim.

This image problem for Islam has consistently grown. Since 9/11, politicians took on anti-immigrant positions critiquing the religion of Islam, though this has evolved to a general spread of Islamophobia among populations in recent years due terror-attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom. As much credit can be given to the Trump administration for inciting hate-speech, commercial advertising media channels such as CNN and Fox News contributed to this on a daily basis through their sensationalist business models for political news. Only in recent years, CNN and Fox News got shut down by religious scholar Reza Aslan and political comedian and commentator Jon Stewart over the framing done by media outlets. Both media-individuals took on the premisse that opinion-makers in the news media took on anti-muslim rhetoric by consistently suggesting that Islam is a violent religion. The result of this rhetoric can be seen today with the nationwide support for the Muslim Ban, also widely supported among European nations. In short, before Trump, the media and politicians have used each other, each on their respective sides, for their own purpose: new scopes and agenda-setting.

So, what’s going on here — How has this media-political symbiosis on the muslim narrative changed since President Trump has taken office? Although otherwise may be suggested, generally, President Trump has a very bad relationship with the media and the press. Trump’s relationship with the media is bad not because he’s Trump (the media actually love him due to his ratings), but because he has been denying information brought forth by the press during the election campaign and has continued governing in the same manner, speaking in terms of “dishonesty” now that the media has started to play its inherent role that it has in a liberal democracy: reviewing policies enacted by the government and criticise these policies when needed. And President Trump is having none of that.

Trumpism does not only mean that making up random facts is a way of ventilating one’s opinion, but that said opinion should be used as policy. Not because they think that opinion can be used as a fact, but because Trump’s worldview corresponds with the goal of said policy: banning Muslims from the United States.

Where in the eyes of the outsider the Muslim Ban is just a clear xenophobic policy that has no teeth and is just baseless incompetence, in fact, the Muslim Ban is the most real policy one can enact should said policy-makers believe that the West is actually at war with Islam. Take Steve Bannon. President Trump campaigned on an anti-immigrant policy with regards to Syrian refugees (the rest of the Republican ticket was pretty much alike) which was generated by a fear of ISIS. Contributing to the anxieties that feed the ideology behind Trump-Bannon’s xenophobic Islamophobic policies, again, are not based on the knowledge that muslims are the main victims of terrorism. It is not worldview that Islam could potentially, in future events, have a conflict with the West. It is the worldview that, at this very moment, not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today, in the present world, the religion of Islam is at war with the West.

The grounds for enacting the Muslim Ban didn’t start with Trump. Trump may be ratings gold for the commercial advertising media, but reporters have only recently started to stick to their individual journalistic integrities. CNN’s Jake Tapper and Fox News’ Shepard Smith have been very vocal lately when it comes to the falsehoods professed by the White House, but public distrust reaches further than the commercial advertising media. Other symptoms in a lack of trust in credentials and institutions and the fracture of commonly held truths can be found in the anti-vaccine movement: parents of children who are not educated as medical professionals but had just enough education to believe that they can challenge established medical science. Or climate change deniers who choose to listen to the smallest of minorities while 97% of scientists argue climate change is real and man-made. Ultimately, for commonly held truths to be generally accepted the views of those with the right credentials should always be taken in consideration, no matter what some obscure page on the internet says.

The premisse that opinions from random people online or Hollywood-stars or musicians are as valuable views from experts who’ve studied in their specialized field for decades is true in today’s world and has even got a name: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Tom Nichols writes in this piece  about the bias people have when they’re incompetent and when they fail to recognize their own lack of skill and the extent of their inadequacy and when they fail to accurately gauge skill in others. President Trump can be seen as the embodiment of this psychological diagnosis on people’s behavior in contemporary society and the general distrust vis-a-vis the institutions such as the media.

This is dangerous. As President Trump’s distrust of the media comes from a distorted worldview concerning muslims, refugees, the religion of Islam; and he doesn’t believe in the generally acknowledged social division of labor in the executive government (Trump “knows more about ISIS than the generals”), Trump may well not believe in the functioning of democracy with it checks and balances. Which brings me to the general point of this piece: Trump’s war on the media is in fact not a war on the media itself, but a war against those who oppose his administration’s worldview. Bannon has already called the media as “the opposition party” while at the same he promotes Trump’s White House policies through Breitbart (the conservative weblog formerly owned by him).

Trump’s view of the media therefore is not that it should not exist (Trump says he believes in freedom of speech), but he doesn’t want the media’s worldview to conflict with his views and has therefore banned big news outlets like CNN, the New York Times and Politico from his White House Press Room. To what extent Trump will further crack-down on media organisations remains to be seen, but recent developments should remind the observer of times when kings and churches controlled the news and the spread of information in the 14th through 16th centuries’ Europe. The difference with the 21st century is that the media corporations behind the 24 hour news channels have become very powerful forces. Yet, a prospective conflict between President Trump’s political party holding power and the commercial advertising media corporations should worry even the starkest Trump-policy justifiers out there. When U.S. President Trump’s administration gets filled with people who do not acknowledge climate change as man-made, who do not acknowledge the rise of fascism in Russia and Europe as a threat to world peace as much as ISIS, who do not acknowledge the importance of education and science to the progress of humanity, then the only powerful force society can count on for the next four to eight years is the commercial advertising media. As a democratic society, we now have a drastic urge to give value back to expert-opinions. If we don’t, informed yet overconfident and self-absorbed incompetent opinions will do away with credentialism. Meaning even the opinions of a complete charlatan like Trump’s will be valued at the same rate as that of an expert. 

MAKE EXPERT-OPINIONS VALUABLE AGAIN

Commercial advertising media — however this term may conflict with their journalistic ends — have a responsibility to fulfill. Yes, opinions of actresses and actors and comedians and musicians matter, as does the opinion of the average guy on the street. But if the public does not get sufficient access to the knowledge of society’s experts, people’s worldview will remain shallow and their opinions on important matter unsubstantiated.

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