When Donald Trump was criticized after his campaign launch for suggesting that most Mexicans who entered the United States illegally were “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime,” his response was not what you might expect. Confronted with data showing that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes, most politicians would refine or retract their comments.
Not Trump. After a few days of trying to rationalize his comments, Trump seized upon a different strategy. A few weeks after his campaign announcement, a woman named Kate Steinle was shot to death in San Francisco by a person in the country illegally who had been deported numerous times. Steinle became the worst-case example of what immigrants could do and, for Trump, a regular part of his campaign rhetoric. Over time, that strategy extended outward, with Trump inviting the parents of those killed by undocumented immigrants to share the stage with him at his rallies. At his joint address to Congress last month, Trump invited the father of a young man killed by an undocumented person to sit with first lady Melania Trump in the gallery — as he announced a new program within the Department of Homeland Security that would put a focus on crimes committed by those in the country illegally.
None of this changed the underlying data, of course. There’s still no evidence that people in the country illegally or otherwise are responsible for a surge in crime. But Trump had stumbled onto a remarkably effective tool: countering broad analysis and data with isolated anecdotes.
On Monday, Trump held a listening session at the White House focused on the Affordable Care Act and the Republican efforts to repeal the bill, which is known as Obamacare.
“The press is making Obamacare look so good,” the president said at the outset, according to the pool report. He added, “The fact is, Obamacare is a disaster.”
To demonstrate that point, Trump had invited about a dozen people who were presented as “victims of Obamacare.” A woman from Arizona whose premiums increased. A young man, a Democrat, who opposed the bill out of concern that abortion would be funded. A man from Tennessee whose premiums rose so quickly that he debated going on his wife’s insurance. None of the situations are ideal — but all offered only a small slice of the picture.
Over the past two months, a number of Republican members of Congress have faced far more than a dozen constituents angry about the prospect of an Obamacare repeal. Independent assessments estimate that between 6 million and 15 million people would lose coverage under the Republican replacement bill. Other analysis indicates that cost increases under the Republican bill would disproportionately affect Trump’s core base of support.
The response from proponents of the bill has broadly been to dismiss this analysis. On Sunday, a slew of Republican leaders and administration officials appeared on the political talk shows to discuss the replacement legislation. In several cases, those officials expressed skepticism about the estimates of how many would lose coverage — and, preemptively, about the upcoming analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which will probably show something similar. Or, more accurately, about the CBO in its entirety, which will no doubt come up in future analysis of future legislation.
It’s by no means uncommon for politicians to pick out isolated stories to bolster the case for a policy. But the combination at play here of dismissing objective analysis in favor of isolated scenarios is very, very Trump.
We can run through example after example. (Or, if you wish to note the irony, anecdote after anecdote.) Trump claims, without evidence, that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election; a few examples of fraudulent votes and an unrelated report are offered as proof that it may have occurred. Trump claims that his phones were wiretapped during the campaign; with no evidence to bolster his case, news reports about unrelated surveillance become the evidence that this is probably true. Trump gave very little to charity before running for president but cites a grudging donation last year as evidence of his generosity. On any number of occasions, Trump’s explanation for presenting something as fact was that “many people say” it’s true.
Much of this anecdotal rebutting is done by Trump aides rather that Trump himself. White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed during Monday’s news briefing that there was “no question that there have been a number of reports” about alleged wiretapping. Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway went on TV on Monday morning to explicitly state that her job wasn’t “having evidence.” Which it isn’t, in the Trump White House. Her job is to rebut critiques of the president, and her preferred method, like her boss’s, is to point out isolated ways in which the critique leveled at him might be leveled at other people, too. To offer an anecdote to rebut a trend.
It flows outward from there. CNN’s Trump advocates talk nearly as much about what president Barack Obama did as what Trump is doing. On social media, any story about Trump that can be viewed at all negatively is met with a prepackaged rejoinder. Social media’s perfect for this, of course; Twitter is a natural talking-point regurgitation machine. Whattabout Obama’s vacations? Whattabout this lady arrested for fraud in Texas? Whattabout this crime committed by an illegal immigrant? The inability to engage in robust debate on social media coupled with willfully false data and a general skepticism about the media has made the tactic particularly effective in this political moment. Trump, more than any other politician, is a product of and a participant in the world of social media political debate. It’s only natural that he’d embrace its trademark rhetorical process.
The big question is the extent to which Trump realizes that he’s stacking the deck in his arguments. When he presents undocumented people as criminals or Obamacare as uniformly being a disaster, is he aware that this is rhetoric, or is this actually his belief? If it’s the former, that’s one thing, leaving open the possibility that his decision-making is based on sound analysis. If it’s the latter, that becomes less likely.
There’s at least one reason to suspect that Trump might sincerely consider expert analysis and data unreliable: the results of the election themselves. Polling suggested that Trump would lose the election and, although it was correct that he lost the popular vote, polling in key states meant that he defied the odds. If the experts said he was going to lose based on the data but Trump kept hearing from people that he would win, why should he trust the experts? Why trust the data? Why isn’t it just as valuable to pick out this one story as evidence that I’m right, just as I was right before Nov. 8?
The answer is that relying on isolated examples allows someone to reinforce their beliefs as opposed to confronting the reality of a problem. That’s why it’s a tremendously effective tool for politics. It’s not, however, a good tool for crafting policy.