How do we know if something is true? Our options are limited. We can place our trust in experts, institutions, and publications that, governed by some form of peer review, promise the results of patient study and methodological rigor. Or we can depend on answers derived from our own lived experience.
In his first month in office, President Trump has tried to lay waste to both approaches, forcefully pivoting away from his purported investment in experience-based common sense. In the process, he’s combined two different political and epistemological traditions into one dangerously toxic brew.
Trump began his quixotic campaign for president as the embodiment of a familiar kind of right-wing, common-sense populism. Instead of deference to well-trained scientists, academics, journalists, and even governmental authorities, he touted the true wisdom of “the people.” In place of fancy studies built on research, data, and modeling, he promised plain-spoken, off-the-cuff reports on the state of our world and obvious, practical solutions to our problems. That is, Trump suggested politics was actually quite simple if only one would rely on the kind of basic reasoning which emerges from just going about normal, everyday business using one’s senses and instincts and which—surprise, surprise—tends to run counter to “establishment” conclusions.
Of course, Trump is a Wharton-educated, self-professed billionaire with close ties to the global plutocracy. But by the time he adopted the pose, the populist appeal to common sense was already a time-tested strategy to gain votes on the right, previously used by a long list of Republican pundits and politicians from Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin to Ben Carson, who all offered to apply the infallible, non-political logic of the kitchen table to the management of an ever more intricate and interdependent world. So when asked about global warming, the smart move was to say that it had to be a hoax because we got a lot of snow last winter, or, in response to the financial collapse of 2008, to suggest that if families had to cut spending in hard times, the government should, too. Common-sense truths require no further study to prove themselves correct—or so the theory goes. They are just things that everybody knows, and if they had any sense, would readily agree upon too.
This faith has a long American pedigree. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan often promised “common-sense solutions” on issues from taxation to foreign policy, drawing on folksy aphorisms to make his points. He linked the idea to the founding fathers, and, in particular, to Thomas Paine, who had once promised, in defense of a then-radical cause, to give his readers nothing but “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” By 2009, radio talk-show host Glenn Beck could rewrite the former left-wing icon’s most famous book as a right-wing treatise for our times, and businessman Herman Cain could run for president in 2011 calling himself “the president of the University of Common Sense.” Trump, of course, eschews history. But when he announced that the solution to illegal immigration was building a very big wall along the southern border, it was clear that—the racism of the idea aside—he was speaking in this same faux-practical mode, as if to suggest it was the same as what sensible homeowners do in their own backyards. Trump only turned it up a few notches, as is his wont.