The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Objective information has less of a place in an intuition-based presidency

President Trump reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

It’s easy, in this moment, for important details to be quickly washed out of a news cycle. Last week, there was furious debate over tariffs being imposed by President Trump, a decision that faded into the background even more rapidly than it emerged. But that flurry of activity also yielded one of those details that’s worth highlighting and considering more broadly.

Trump’s move on tariffs was advocated strongly by Peter Navarro, director of the office of trade and manufacturing policy. Imposing new taxes on the import of steel and aluminum was controversial and apparently spurred Trump’s chief economic adviser to resign. Navarro, though, was all-in.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Navarro gave the credit for the plan to his boss.

“This is the president’s vision,” he said. “My function, really, as an economist is to try to provide the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition. And his intuition is always right in these matters.”

This, in a nutshell, is the operating philosophy of the Trump administration. What Trump says is correct and it is incumbent on those around him — even those engaged in theoretically objective analysis like economists — to reshape reality to conform. Sometimes that means making false statements. On other occasions it means making it impossible to establish what’s true and what isn’t.

On Tuesday, the advocacy organization Public Citizen released a list of 25 instances in which the Trump administration has curtailed research into or blocked information about various controversial issues. The list includes:

  • Ending a study of the health effects of strip-mining mountaintops for coal.
  • Halting research into offshore drilling.
  • Stopping a rule that would make federal contractors report safety violations.
  • Removing information about climate change from government websites.
  • Ending an effort to collect information about gender pay disparities.
  • Overhauling the information collected by the Census Bureau.
  • Trimming down data on national crime incidence.
  • Blocking data collection on student loan payments.

The report doesn’t include other noteworthy examples of the administration withholding information, such as when senior adviser Stephen Miller reportedly rejected a report that showed a net economic benefit from allowing refugees to resettle in the United States.

What’s the point in, say, removing information about climate change from a government website? The science behind the idea that humans are contributing to a warming climate isn’t seriously contested, as pages on the EPA and NASA websites have made clear for years. The debates over if and how to address climate change, however, are intensely political, and Trump comes squarely down on the sides of “never” and “not at all” in those debates. Trump has denied that climate change is happening and denied that, if it is, human activity is involved. So government websites reshape themselves to comport with that view.

Sometimes the changes have more practical effects. Blocking research into the health effects of mountaintop-removal coal-mining means that there will be no federally available data suggesting that this practice might be harmful to surrounding communities, if that’s what the study were to show. That means that opponents of the practice can’t point to that research to suggest that the practice be curtailed, which makes it less likely that the practice would actually be limited. For a president who has repeatedly insisted on protecting the coal industry, that’s a positive.

This is a strategy that the gun lobby has used to great effect. A law passed in 1996 effectively prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from investigating gun violence in the United States, meaning that there is a dearth of research about its causes and effects — or even about measures that might reduce violent incidents. There have been repeated efforts to overturn that rule, without success. (When Trump was inaugurated last year, one group of gun violence researchers noticed climate change information being taken off government websites and rushed to protect what limited data the government had.)

It is, of course, the case that presidents from different parties have different priorities and embrace different data sets to bolster their arguments. What seems different under Trump is precisely what Navarro isolated in his comment: The administration is working to bolster his intuition, not his informed beliefs. Trump announced his candidacy by declaring that immigrants from Mexico brought crime with them, which data showed repeatedly was not the case. But Trump felt that it was true instinctually, it seems, so now we have regular emails from the White House cherry-picking incidents that blame immigrants for criminal behavior. And at no point since has Trump deviated from that argument on the perils of immigration.

The problem is that it can become impossible to have a rational debate over important policy issues. The famous line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts breaks down if objective facts are suppressed or unavailable. If there are no agreed-upon facts, all that’s left is opinion. But even when there are facts that could inform decision-making, willfully ignoring them in favor of trusting the president’s gut makes changing Trump’s view nearly impossible. How do you reason with someone’s instincts?

This tendency, of course, is why Trump loves social media. On Twitter, there’s no intermediary that insists on contextualizing and correcting the arguments he makes. He can speak from his intuition and let Navarro et al. scramble to rationalize it after the fact.

On Tuesday, Trump traveled to Southern California to view prototypes of the wall he wants to see along the border with Mexico. Research shows that the wall won’t do much to curtail drug smuggling, since most drugs come in through existing checkpoints anyway. In places where border barriers are already in place, apprehensions of those seeking to enter the country illegally continue. The wall would cost billions of dollars, and Mexico, despite Trump’s campaign-trail assurances, is not going to foot the bill.

That analysis aside, Trump’s intuition says we need a wall. And so here we are.