The rise of modern sophism in the Trump era

Update, March 6, 2017: The conclusion of this column has been updated to reflect a more recent draft of the version published in the March 2 issue.

In ancient Athens, there were two prominent schools of intellectual thought. Philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, made up one school characterized by a devotion to serving justice and seeking epistemic truth. The second school was that of the sophists, a group of rhetoricians known for manipulating public opinion through fallacious language and skepticism of facts. Simply put, sophists were exceptionally skilled at arguing and using any means necessary — even openly flouting the truth — to convince others of their correctness.

Donald Trump and his administration reside in a sophistic world. Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer’s frequent denunciation of the media destabilizes the public’s preexisting ideas of equity and justice, dizzying the American people with messages of racially-tinged urgency and blind nationalism. That is, after all, how President Trump found his way into the White House: he validated people’s fears and feelings without the slightest regard for actual truths.

What the Trump administration must soon realize is that what worked on the campaign trail does not fly in the White House. His voters are now expecting more guidance than charisma, and he is coming up empty-handed. President Trump’s keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference offered no substantial information on how he plans to rework NAFTA or drastically improve our national security. What the public heard was a slew of bizarre assertions and a reminder that, if you didn’t know already, things are still bad.

I had hoped that the tone of Trump’s presidency would shift under pressure to become less antagonistic and more informative, but the opposite has happened. While Trump’s tone during the address to Congress last night conveyed a calmer tone, his administration’s actions have shown otherwise. One of Trump’s advisers stated that the powers of the president should not be questioned. Steve Bannon has called the media the “opposition party.” Major news outlets were barred from attending a White House briefing last week. Trump will condemn federal judges before he utters one word against a murderous, foreign dictator.

President Trump promised to hand the democracy back to the people. The irony here, which I imagine is lost upon the President, is that by ignoring the facts—denying the legitimacy of climate research, falsifying crime and unemployment statistics and misrepresenting historical events—we only isolate ourselves from our own sensibilities, and the stabilizing systems that the world relies on to achieve peace.

Mackenzie Karbon is a sophomore majoring in jazz performance. Here’s That Rainy Day, runs the first Thursday of each month.


Featured photo courtesy Flickr user Gage Skidmore.