How do you know what’s real or true?
That question once vexed philosophers, who spent inordinate amounts of mental energy devising methods to ferret out fundamental facts. René Descartes, for example, knew he existed because he thought, thus his famous formulation: Je pense, donc je suis. That is, I think, therefore I am. From that certainty, he built his self-centered system of truth outward.
The civic world could use a little René-like ratiocination in light of President Trump’s determined efforts at deflection. As others have observed, his defensive playbook basically reduces to that old childhood ricochet retort: I know you are, but what am I?
Russia intervened to help elect Trump? Well, Trump and legal wingnut — um, wingman — Rudy Giuliani pursue a wild-eyed conspiracy theory that Ukraine intervened to help Hillary Clinton.
A rough transcript of their telephone call reveals Trump prodding President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to launch an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his troubled son Hunter, who got a lucrative retainer for serving on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas enterprise. Pushing a foreign government to help produce dirt — or even harmful headlines — on a political rival fairly defines sleazy conduct; the House has now opened an impeachment inquiry based on that call. But witness the Trumpian jujitsu: It’s the Bidens who have engaged in untoward behavior, and Trump who is trying to uncover it.
The president, who froze $391 million in aid to Ukraine some days before the call, appeared to be using money to leverage some political skullduggery. Trump’s rejoinder? No, that’s what Joe Biden did when, as vice president, he told Ukrainian officials that $1 billion in expected US aid would not be forthcoming unless they fired a prosecutor who Trump has falsely alleged “was after his son.” Left unsaid: Biden made that threat as part of a broader US and Western effort to push Ukraine to go more aggressively after corruption, not to help or shield his son in any way.
No matter. Trump smears both Biden and his son as “stone-cold crooked.” On Thursday, it was China who should be investigating the Bidens, in the world according to Trump. Hunter Biden’s efforts to capitalize on his father’s prominent position in the US government is certainly unseemly, but he hasn’t been credibly accused of any wrongdoing. Assertions to the contrary are baseless.
The president abused the national interest by trying to make our Ukrainian policy an instrument of his reelection campaign. But the president contends that the House impeachment point man, Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, committed “a criminal act” that “may even be treason.” Schiff’s crime? Translating Trump’s telephone remarks into mob terms — an obvious, if unwise, parody.
It’s all rot, preposterous allegations, groundless assertions, and conspiracy theories. Still, there’s a brazen brilliance to Trump’s noxious nonsense. Pre-Trump, who would have imagined an American president could establish a bizarre, evidence-free counter-narrative that would gull, or at least sow doubts in, a substantial portion of the electorate?
The solution, an optimist might once have hoped, is a political version of Descartes: Thought. Analyze his charges logically, and Trump’s conspiratorialist castle collapses, and not just for want of a factual foundation. The extended structure is rife with internal contradictions.
But reflection is no match for purblind partisanship.
Maybe the careful accumulation and weight of evidence over time. Maybe the seriousness that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated, her measured and civil comportment in contrast to Trump’s outrageous charges and name-calling.
Maybe some asymmetrical restraint. If Democrats ultimately opt for censure, rather than impeachment, it would be a powerful counter to the charge that their inquiry is all part of a continuing effort to overturn the last election.
Or maybe, in a nation where pugnacious partisanship increasingly seems to overwhelm truth, nothing at all.