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.

9 thoughts on “Willful Ignorance: Why Facts No Longer Matter

  1. In Donald’s last speech he mastered the white double-speak of reframing racism as patriotism. People are not racist, folks, they love their country… etc. This was the scariest speech thus far, because it offers his supporters a comfortable out. I have had no luck in dissuading anyone from voting for Trump as far as I know but the only angle I see is to shame them for supporting mass deportation and to appeal to their patriotism– aren’t we a nation of immigrants? Do we really think all Mexicans are rapists (I live in a place with a lot of Mexicans). Do we really think all Syrians are terrorists? An emotional argument. But we ought to also work in this post fact world to chip away at the Hillary hate. It is irrational and not based in fact. If there were not so much Hillary hate, Trump would not have a chance. I have made progress on this point and convinced people who were intent on sitting out the election to vote for HRC because Trump is a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen, or already happening. Just some thoughts.

    1. In just the last month, a few of my Trump-loving acquaintances have admitted to me that they’ve changed their minds and are now going to begrudgingly vote for Clinton because Trump has gotten “too scary”. They may not like her, but they’re voting for her now. I care not one iota that they don’t like her, at least they’re still going to vote and help keep Trump out.

      1. yes I agree that we have to get Hillary elected first and then think about what Trump has tapped into. But make no mistake. Trump is a wake-up call. We need a viable second party.

  2. You ought to read, if you haven’t already, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest piece on the Atlantic website — “How Breitbart Conquered the Media” where he writes: “… white grievance, no matter how ill-founded, can never be humiliating nor disqualifying. On the contrary, it is a right to be respected at every
    level of American society from the beer-hall to the penthouse to the newsroom.”

  3. You do a good job of explaining why Trump’s supporters are thoroughly fed up with the injustices off our rigged economy. Since the only choices they have are between Trump and Clinton, who is seen as representing our dysfunctional unjust economy, why do you ascribe their choice of Trump to willful ignorance of his character flaws?

  4. What strikes me as particularly powerful about this essay was the effort to come to grips with both the social experience and cultural perspective of the white working class along with their willingness to discount Trump’s evident flaws through the thesis of “willful ignorance.” Most critics simply adopt a top-down thesis of mass manipulation to explain the views of Trump’s supporters. The essay implicitly points to the ways working-class communities can construct their own counter-elite perspective, albeit one inflected by long-term traditions of authoritarian disciplinary individualism and a racism that fantasizes that minorities lack that same self-sufficient individualism. Michelle Lamont’s “Dignity of the Working Class” already in 2000 detailed this toxic cultural perspective. Of course, this cultural view gained important social legitimacy from right-wing media and Republican leaders.

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