Given that reason’s primary role is to justify our beliefs after we have already committed to them—that is, given that reason is our worldview’s PR representative—the result is that our beliefs are remarkably resilient. They can accommodate challenges of all sorts. This is because, again, reason, which is pretty stern and unyielding, is not primarily a gatekeeper.
The literary figure of Don Quixote exemplifies the resiliency of worldviews. Convinced that he is a knight-errant, he sees everything through the lens of chivalry and wonder. He is convinced that the windmills in the distance are dragons. When he receives empirical proof that the dragons are actually windmills—specifically when he charges the “dragons” and crashes headlong into a structure composed of wood and nails—he is not dismayed. He does not abandon his interpretive framework. Instead, he accommodates his worldview to the new data. How? Simple—he determines that a wizard cast an enchantment to transform the dragons into windmills. Such a conclusion is internally consistent with all the assumptions that shape his worldview. With those assumptions firmly in place, his reason is deployed to explain the seeming discrepancy that a windmill is not a dragon.
I’ve been studying these epistemological curiosities for decades. But what has lately compelled me to think about them much more carefully (and disconcertedly) is the Trump phenomenon. Specifically, the Trump supporter. In the past, like much of the scholarly work I do, my epistemological investigations seemed a bit like an academic game. I’ve used them to compose some pretty decent journal articles and conference presentations; they work well at inducing intellectual trauma in my students. But with the rise of the Trump supporter, all this shit has become painfully real.
The worldview of a Trump supporter is the political equivalent of Don Quixote’s spectacular interpretive-rescue operations. Except you would need to replace Quixote’s idealism with the Trump supporter’s apocalyptic—and apopletic—anger and fear. I have never encountered a worldview more resilient than that of a Trump supporter.
Examples: When the video was released showing Trump brag that he “grabs ‘em by the pussy,” I thought that was it; his campaign is over. Hardly. When Trump criticized the father of a slain purple-heart soldier, I figured he was sunk. Not even. With each lie, outrage, and absurd tweet, I thought Trump was finished. And Trump seemed to agree with me when he proudly declared, “I could shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Through it all, Trump supporters rallied around their candidate. Nothing could deflate their support. Nothing. They created a political worldview that could accommodate any and all challenges. And here’s a little prediction: even if the absolute worst happened to Trump—say he was impeached for collaborating with the Russians to influence the election—Trump supporters will remain Trump supporters. They will find a way to refute and/or accommodate the accusations.
A change of political opinion rarely results from a specific political claim or argument. That’s why political debates hardly ever occasion changes of mind. These debates occur on the periphery of political worldviews. They are defensive and antagonistic; the goal is to win, not to be open-minded. This is why Richard Rorty identifies the poet—not the philosopher—as the fashioner of the public self. The poet represents experiences and emotions that get to the heart of who we are. The philosopher merely marshals evidence to support an argument, the truth of which was assumed at the outset.
For the first twenty-four years of my life, I was a Republican—not just a Republican, but a Rush-Limbaugh listening Republican. Obviously I changed my mind. How? Much of it had to do with going to graduate school in the liberal arts, which cultivated my sense of empathy. I decided that the GOP was hardly the political party of compassion. I became a Democrat.
A few years ago, I lived in London with my family for six months. As a result, I became even more liberal. Why? Not because of any political argument. I didn’t read one book on politics while I was there; I didn’t even think much about politics during that time. Instead, I lived in a city where over 300 different languages are spoken. I also spent time in Ireland, Austria, France, and Italy. I experienced what it was like to live as a European—not as an American. I saw the world differently.
You cannot un-know what you know; you cannot un-experience what you experienced. What I experienced and came to know in graduate school and in London seeped into the heart of who I am. My experiences touched the core of my worldview. And then they spread to the periphery of that worldview, manifested in specific political opinions. I’m nearly certain that nothing you can say can change these opinions, and I can do a pretty good job defending them. But if you capture the attention of my moral imagination and intuition, or if I have a profound experience of some sort—in short, if something touches the core of who I am—then all bets are off.