Cokie and Steven V. Roberts: Truth as a virtue

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 15, 2017

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

In his book “The Secret War,” British historian Max Hastings describes the different ways that dictatorships and democracies regard intelligence and other independent sources of information.

“The nations that gathered and used information best in the Second World War were those committed to intellectual honesty and the pursuit of truth, while those that failed were the dictatorships to which truth was inherently alien, unacceptable, antipathetic,” he writes. “While democracies do not always trade in frankness, as the modern experience of the 2003 Iraq War vividly demonstrates, at least most of their citizens are reared to regard truth as a virtue, while those of dictatorships are not.”

Hastings’ point is deeply relevant in the Age of Trump, where the principles of “intellectual honesty” and “truth as a virtue” are undermined every day. The president and his supporters don’t just offer “alternative facts,” they dispute the concept that facts exist at all, that truth can be determined by trained professionals — economists and scientists, journalists and intelligence agents — conducting unbiased inquiries.

As the dictators of WWII discovered, when truth is “inherently alien,” when leaders make decisions based on mythology or theology or just plain stubbornness, they are doomed to failure.

Trump is not Hitler or Tojo. But in countless instances, from climate change to immigration, he is failing to learn from their mistakes — pushing policies that are motivated by politics and prejudices, not reality. Here are just three particularly egregious examples:

• Voter fraud. Trump keeps arguing that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton. He’s even appointed a commission to validate his delusion of massive voter fraud, which has been thoroughly debunked by election analysts from both parties.

Professor Justin Levitt of the Loyola Law School tracked every “specific credible allegation” of voter fraud since 2000 and found 31 cases — out of more than 1 billion votes cast.

That and many similar studies led The Washington Post to editorialize: “President Trump’s claim that 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in last fall’s elections is as evidence-based as the assertion that space aliens are bombarding the planet Earth with marshmallows.” Even Wyoming’s secretary of state, Republican Ed Murray, told the Post: “I have not experienced any secretary of state who has expressed any concerns or worry about fraud.”

• Health care “choice.” The White House is backing a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz that would end Obamacare requirements that individuals buy insurance or pay a penalty, and that insurers offer policies with certain standard benefits. This is “what freedom looks like,” Vice President Pence told Rush Limbaugh.

But every health care economist, conservative and liberal alike, comes to the same conclusion: “Consumer choice” might make a good political slogan, but would be “inherently destabilizing” as actual policy, Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation told Politico.

Under Cruz’d proposal, healthy people would buy cheap policies or none at all, while sick people would purchase more extensive coverage. As a result, premiums would skyrocket, especially for policyholders with expensive pre-existing conditions. “I think that really would be the definition of a death spiral,” said Tara O’Neill Hayes of the conservative think tank American Action Forum.

• Steel tariffs. Trump is contemplating increased duties on imported steel as a way, he says, of preserving American jobs and protecting national security. Experts strongly agree that such a move would accomplish neither objective.

Trump’s argument about national security is “intellectually dishonest,” says the Post, because the country’s security is not jeopardized by importing steel; most of our leading suppliers, from Canada to South Korea, are strong allies. More seriously, protecting steel jobs would raise the price of goods that use steel, like cars, and trigger a backlash against American-made products and services.

“If he actually pulls the trigger, it could be highly disruptive to world trade,” Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who has advised Trump, said in The New York Times. “It’s not even going to really work in terms of helping American workers.”

Experts are far from perfect, but an administration that rejects their advice and regards fact-finders as “inherently alien” is making a huge mistake.

“Informed analysis will sometimes be wrong,” Douglas Elmendorf, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, told the Wall Street Journal, “but I’d rather bet on informed analysis than ignorant guesses.”

In Trump’s White House, impetuous ignorance is “winning,” to use the president’s favorite word. Informed analysis and the public interest are the losers.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at