Facts, truth, math, and Donald Trump

Given Donald Trump’s uneasy relationship with facts (and a few other flaws), we all wonder how he has managed to maintain rock-steady approval from about 40% of Americans for the past four years.

I was unwillingly forced to think about this question while listening to the current episode of the podcast Words Matter; guest Paul Begala, whom you may remember from the Bill Clinton years, observed that lying doesn’t matter to Trump’s base. He gets the facts wrong, they say, but he always “tells it like it is.” He always tells “the truth.” What sense does that make? Well, I was suddenly brought back to a couple of conversations I had had with a former student of mine who was a proud Republican. He (of course it was a “he”) once asked me whether I thought there was a difference between facts and the truthI was puzzled by the question, saying without much thought that there was no difference.

Later I realized that of course there is a difference. But what does a Trump supporter — let’s call him Mark to preserve anonymity — what does Mark mean when he claims that Trump always tells the truth? Obviously it’s not so. But of course any teacher has to start by meeting students on their own terms before trying to take them somewhere else. So I tried to figure out what Mark really meant.

Begala’s explanation — and I’m wildly paraphrasing here from memory — is that Trump confirms Mark’s prejudices about Blacks, immigrants, gays, etc., and therefore is “telling it like it is.” It’s okay that he’s a liar because he is our liar. Mark doesn’t articulate this point of view, which would be especially offensive in a math class (math, as I observed in my post of June 29, deals with perfect universal truths). Begala observes that your typical Trump supporter looks at lies as minor factual errors, such as confusing Slovenia with Slovakia, so they are of no importance. I shudder to think that this is so, but it probably is.

PS: In the interest of both facts and truth, I need to explain two things:

  • I don’t initiate discuss political discussions with my students (a comfort of teaching math is that politics can be easily avoided), but I am willing to engage a student in such conversations provided they have already developed thought-through views, and provided the conversations are not in front of the whole class.
  • Mark here is actually a composite of two different students. Neither was a devotee of math, but one was actually an intellectual (of the social studies persuasion). The other… well…

Categories: Life, Math, Teaching & Learning