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How Trump and his team get away with 'downright ignoring the facts'

Demonstrators protest against US President-elect Donald Trump before his inauguration on January 20, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images
Demonstrators protest against US President-elect Donald Trump before his inauguration on January 20, 2017, in Washington, DC.

This article is part of a series on the "Future of politics." The series investigates the "Trump effect" on policy, political parties, future candidates, their campaign style and the overall political environment in 2017 and beyond. See the whole series here.

On Saturday afternoon, in his first statement to the White House press corps, President Trump's Press Secretary Sean Spicer said things that were simply not true with regards to the size of the crowds at the inauguration.

On Monday, in his next press availability, Spicer said, "Our intention is never to lie to you." Given the brazenness of the earlier falsehoods, it's hard to believe that was true either.

With its willingness to bend or downright ignore the facts, the Trump administration is actually acknowledging a political truth: in politics, the facts do not matter.

Certainly, when making a case before a congressional committee or just on Facebook, people will state a great number of "facts". Many of those facts will have the benefit of being true; others will be too good to check. But really, people are like football fans watching a replay of a referee's call. They have an opinion of what the outcome should be first and then come up with the facts supporting that opinion second.

This is not a new phenomenon; it is not a product of the internet age and the "fake news" era. People talk about the importance of "facts", but partisans have always only acknowledged the facts that support their side.

At the end of the Reagan administration, the American National Election Study asked people how things had changed on objective measures since President Reagan took office. Most Republicans answered those questions correctly – things like unemployment had gotten better under the Republican president's administration. Most Democrats said things had either stayed the same or gotten worse.

Twenty-seven years later, it was no surprise when a Bloomberg News poll in late 2015 showed a majority of Republicans believed unemployment had gone up under Obama when it had fallen almost three points.

"Trump knows that if he makes America greater than it has ever been, most of the people at the Women's March on Saturday will still say he was a terrible president. He also knows he has supporters who won't leave him regardless of the facts."

It is most likely that people have no idea what the facts are. They are really expressing their partisan political beliefs. The question survey interviewers ask is "Did the unemployment rate go up or down under President Obama?" The question survey respondents answer is "Did you like President Obama?" People have an opinion and then state the facts (or invent the alternative facts) that support that opinion.

The Trump administration knows this and believes it allows them to say whatever they want. Because the facts will not play much of a role in how the public view his administration.

Trump knows that if he makes America greater than it has ever been, most of the people at the Women's March on Saturday will still say he was a terrible president. He also knows he has supporters who won't leave him regardless of the facts. During the primary campaign, Trump memorably said that he could shoot somebody and he wouldn't lose any voters. That's probably not true; many voters would have sought out a different candidate. Still, some would have insisted Ted Cruz's father did the shooting.

Trump may have learned a lot about public opinion from his friend, New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady. On February 5th, Brady will appear in his seventh Super Bowl – a fact everyone acknowledges. His previous trip to the Super Bowl was shrouded with controversy due to allegations that the Patriots had cheated by deflating footballs.

The NFL issued a report filled with statistical evidence claiming to show the Patriots were cheaters. Scientists countered with evidence that the results were consistent with the standard amount of deflation one would expect on a cold night. Whatever your opinion of the Patriots, you can find facts to support that opinion.

Less than one-fifth of Americans believe that Brady and the Patriots did not deflate the footballs. Of course, the exception is New England, where the majority of the public is on the side of their local sports legend. Public opinion on this issue is not about facts, but about supporting your team (or rooting against the Patriots).

Politics is a lot like sports fandom with emotions overtaking reason. It would be great if people took in all available evidence and considered it objectively prior to making a decision. But, when it comes to politics, they simply don't.

And the problem with Spicer's behavior, along with his boss, is the truth it reveals to a polarized country about politics. They smash the noble and necessary fiction that political disputes can be won by the side that can muster the best facts.

Spicer has gone beyond the customary spin to make even the appearance of reasoned debate impossible. That is much more dangerous to the stability of the country than fake news. And, even though this is an opinion column, that's a fact.

Commentary by John Barry Ryan, an associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University. He is the co-author of the book Experts, Activists, and Democratic Politics published by Cambridge University Press. Follow him on Twitter @ryanbq.

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