Incited by Trump and his enablers, Trump supporters attacked the capitol of the United States. While this is mostly a matter of law and politics, it does raise issues in both epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and ethics. I have been working informally on epistemic epidemiology and this provides an ideal case.

While Trump, his enablers and some of his supporters know that the election was not stolen, some of his followers seem to honestly hold this belief. This raises questions about the specific defects in their belief forming mechanisms. As with cancer, one must inquire whether the defects are localized (beliefs about Trump) or widespread. One must also wonder about the seriousness of the defects. Given that these people violently attacked the capitol, it is likely that most suffer from broad and serious epistemic defects.

I hold the view that these people must have epistemic defects because the evidence against their view is widespread and strong. There is also the fact that even a bit of reflection will reveal that their beliefs cannot be true. As one example, Trump’s legal team was well on its way to a hundred law suits about the election but suffered defeat after defeat (sometimes in the courts of Trump appointed Republican judges). Trump’s legal team was also careful to never make accusations of widespread fraud in court, since lying in court has consequences. A rational thinker would conclude that Trump had no evidence—otherwise it would have been presented in court.

As a second example, there is the paradox of the vast conspiracy. To claim the existence of a widespread conspiracy against Trump, the conspiracy theorists had to keep expanding those they claimed were involved—this seems to now go all the way to Vice President Mike Pence. The paradox is that they need to claim a huge conspiracy but if that conspiracy is so huge then Biden would have won simply by the conspirators voting for him. Given the lack of evidence for their beliefs, one must wonder why they believe. While there are many factors at play, the main one is their acceptance of sources that lack rational credibility.

There are two types of credibility: rational and rhetorical. A bit oversimplified, rational credibility means that you should believe the source and rhetorical credibility means that you feel you should believe the source. The difference between the two rests on the difference between logical force and psychological force. Logical force is objective and is a measure of how well the evidence given for a claim supports the claim.

Psychological force is subjective and is a measure of how much emotional influence something has on a person’s willingness to believe a claim. This is assessed in practical terms: how effective was it in persuading someone to accept the claim? While the logical force of an argument is independent of the audience, psychological force is audience dependent. What might persuade one person to accept a claim might enrage another into rejecting it with extreme prejudice. In the case of Trump’s followers, they believe him and his enablers—though these people have no rational credibility.

One reason that Trump’s followers believe him is that they are duped by an appeal to authoritarian “reasoning.” The error occurs when a person believes a claim simply because it is made by the authoritarian leader they accept. It has this form:

 

Premise 1: Authoritarian leader L makes claim c.

Conclusion: Claim C is true.

 

The fact that an authoritarian leader makes a claim does not provide evidence or a logical reason that supports the claim. It also does not disprove the claim—accepting or rejecting a claim because it comes from an authoritarian would both be errors. The authoritarian could be right about the claim but, as with any fallacy, the error lies in the reasoning.

An authoritarian leader type is characterized by the belief that they have a special status as a leader. At the greatest extreme, the authoritarian leader believes that they are the voice of their followers and that they alone can lead. Or, as Trump put it, “I alone can fix it.” Underlying this is the belief that they possess exceptional skills, knowledge and ability that exceed those of others. Trump has the view of himself and many of his followers agree with him: they accept his claims because he is the authoritarian and they are psychologically inclined to believe what he says because he says it.

There is also the fact that Trump is the (now impeached for the second time) President: even those who might not be authoritarians would be inclined to believe what he says because he is the President. While this is poor logic, it is understandable.

The fact that they also hear the same lies echoed by his enablers reinforces their belief through repetition. While repetition proves nothing, people tend to believe what they hear multiple times. People also tend to believe what they want to be true and reject evidence to the contrary.  His supporters, like most people today, also live in relatively isolated bubbles—dissenting views rarely make it into the bubbles and those that do tend to not survive. Unfortunately for Trump’s supporters (and everyone else), these bubbles are filled with lies.  Combining all these factors provides a preliminary sketch of some of the epistemic defects of Trump supporters and how this helped lead to the assault on the capitol.

 

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