Mr. Trump’s staff appear to have abandoned the use of the term “alternative fact” for the time being, if not the notion that it could refer to something meaningful and true. That’s a good thing, because it was being used of what students of critical thinking would designate mere assertions, claims to be accepted solely on the authority of the person making them.
Consider a couple of the prominent examples.
First, the size of the crowd that witnessed Mr. Trump’s inaugural. This, like for example the size of General Lee’s army at the Battle of Gettysburg, is in the nature of an historical fact. Nowadays journalists help determine, in real time, the facts that later become part of history. The determination of such facts is rule driven. Historians and journalists follow generally the same set of rules: corroboration of evidence, with either opportunity to observe or acknowledged expertise or both, proven reliability of sources, impartiality, etc.
Certainly Mr. Trump had opportunity to observe the inaugural crowd. But if his claims meet any of the other criteria for acceptance as historical facts, his spokesmen have not raised it on his behalf. We’re left with the mere assertion of a casual, and moreover interested, observer – albeit one then assuming great authority.
Many writers also consider the claim that Mr. Trump actually won the popular vote an alternative fact, as well as the further claim that election officials nationwide certified the validity of some 5 million votes that should not have been validated. At least Trump admits it would take an investigation to prove it, and so does not assert it solely on the authority of his position.
The results of elections, like for example the results of a census, or of headcounts that are used in the distribution of public funds, are official facts. These determinations are the legal duty of the responsible officials; they fix the legal duties and rights of individuals and the public as a whole. Further, the governing laws establish, to a greater or lesser extent, the rules under which the officials are to make these determinations. So official facts are also rule driven rather than arbitrary, and the rules come ultimately from elected legislative bodies. As such, they are essential to a government of laws, not men.
Would Mr. Trump really like to say that thousands of public officials and many more tens of thousands of civic-minded volunteers at the polling places did not perform their duties lawfully? Given the preponderance of Republican office holders at the state and municipal levels, this assertion impugns a lot more of his friends than his enemies.
While Captain Jean-Luc Picard can command the crew of the Starship Enterprise to do, even the President of the United States cannot command historical and official facts to be. Saying it doesn’t make it so, no matter who you are. Some writers seem to think that Mr. Trump is just manipulating the media when he makes such assertions. Maybe. I’d hate to think he’s actually living in an alternative reality.
Another even less flattering interpretation is that he and his people don’t care about what the facts are, but only what the people believe. No comment on that for now.
Originally published in Marx’s Political Economy on February 2, 2017.