The Flat Earth Society was founded in the United States in the 1950s, but flat earth theories date from the mid-1800s. They hold that the earth is a disk. Some hold the Bible says the earth is flat. Others say we need to rely on our senses rather than scientific theories. They consider NASA pictures and modern astronomy fake and part of a conspiracy. A Canadian Flat Earther claims to have almost fallen off the earth near Fogo Island off the coast of Newfoundland. Never mind that humans have known the earth is round since at least the 6th century BCE.
If you are a business executive preparing to launch a $20 million satellite into orbit, or NASA preparing to send a voyage to Mars, would you want a Flat Earth Society member to design your flight trajectory? Of course not. The same thing is true of most government policy. Issues are best addressed by applying facts, science, analysis, and, yes, debate over objectives and alternatives.
We now have a president, an administration, and a Trump base that exhibit all the characteristics of “flat earthers,” individuals and organizations who simply rely on gut instincts, their senses, unfounded beliefs, and close-minded ideology. Facts, science, analysis, and intelligent debate often appear not to play an important role in Trump’s government.
For starters, the President lies, holds delusional theories, misspeaks, makes stuff up (“alternate facts”), castigates real facts he does not agree with as “fake news,” and often does not understand the issue he is addressing. If he really believes some of the things he says, it is exponentially more worrisome. We may as well call him Flat Earther-in-Chief for his obvious aversion to fact, science, truth, and honesty.
Disgraced EPA Director Scott Pruitt made it clear early on that anti-regulatory effort, not science, was going to drive environmental policy. The White House still has no senior science advisor after 18 months. When the intelligence community presented an assessment on Russian election interference, the president criticized his agencies, not the Russians. With the recent indictment of 12 Russian military officials for election interference, the president still claims, contrary to the obvious, that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt.”
Trump’s denigration of the truth does not bother his base because many are also flat earthers. They believe things like fraudulent votes gave Clinton her popular vote victory in 2016, Russians did not interfere in the 2016 election, climate warming is a hoax, unemployment rose under Obama and recovered only under Trump, and Obama (still!) is a Muslim born in Kenya. Many of these people are not bad people. They simply believe disproven conspiracy theories and other falsehoods.
To be clear, in a democracy voters do not need to know much about anything to vote. It is a right. They can vote by instinct or prejudice. While an informed electorate helps a democracy thrive, it is undermined when officials govern with bias based upon poppycock notions and factually suspect ideology.
When delusions and serial untruths are matched with insults, bigotry, racism, xenophobia, hate, misogyny, attacks on a free press, and disrespect for the rule of law – as Trump did on July 5th at a Montana “rally” – we have demagoguery and a threat to our democracy. Responsible Republicans understand this. Conservative writer Max Boot cited the Montana rally as a factor in his leaving the Republican Party. Senior Republican Steve Schmidt turned to Democrats as the only party that now respects “truth, the rule of law, and our allies.” None other than George Will urged the electorate to vote for Democrats in the fall as the only potential check on Trump.
The challenge the nation faces is to demand that Trump and his government bring science and facts into the debate over public policy; to insist that decency and truth be reflected in the President’s statements and actions; and to get the flat earthers out of government, including President Trump if he cannot demonstrate he is little more than an unfit, untruthful, narcissist.
David Darby retired after 50 years of working in state, national, and international public policy. He lives in Billings.