Truth, Trust, and the Constitution


The idea underlying freedom in the United States is government by the consent of the people. Most of us have been exposed to this somewhere along our educational path. I suspect, however, that very few have really thought about what it means. To truly understand what it means, you have to start with the previous post. Consent rests on a foundation of trust. And trust lies on a deeper ground of truth or facts.

Consent always applies in practice to some form of commissive: a promise to do something. In a high level of generality in the context of government, it means to obey the law, pay your taxes, and, even, understand why you are doing what you are doing. This goes back to Jefferson’s admonition about the need for an educated citizenry.

I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power. (Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820.)

Commissives, in turn, respond to some form of request or obligation, except in cases where the intention to act is entirely self-generated, but this latter instance does not apply to the context of government. Nor in this case does it usually respond to some individual directive from somebody; actions as a citizen almost always come as the result of some declaration that established a duty or duties.

Consensual action in this case requires that the actor hold the declaration as valid. This means that the utterer of the declaration has the authority or legitimacy to stand behind it and, further, that the reasons for it are valid (true). We obey the Constitution of the United States because we have accepted the reasons behind it and the authority of the myriad of people that have used it as a basis for other laws and rules. Occasionally as times change and the actions no longer do produce the originally intended outcomes, we change the Constitution itself. Behind this generally unquestioned authority lays a context of trust in the intentions of the Framers, those who have followed in implementing it, and those who have interpreted it when necessary.

Trust, itself, rests on assessments of the validity of the authority of anyone who asks you to do anything meaningful to you. Trust is built by examining the truthfulness of such a person or institutional power. Truthfulness is measured by several indicators, 1) how well the assertions being made fit reality, and 2) how well have previous promises been satisfied. In many cases, individuals cannot independently validate a specific assertion or fact because they lack access to proper grounds, and must resort to another source. For facts about the workings of the material world, science is the proper alternative because it has proved to be the most reliable in this context.

For facts about the social world or the lived world, no single such source exists. Journalists and their media have historically served this purpose. They were a trusted source of facts that could be used for the necessary personal assessments of the validity of the requests being made by people whose authority was established ex officio, that is, by the powers inherent in their office, but not necessarily in the person him- or herself. The discredited or disempowering of the journalistic media is often one of the first acts of an elected or unelected leader aiming to usurp more power than the office was intended to hold.

A second way is to examine the actual history of the person holding the office. Do his previous actions, taken as a whole, provide evidence of his or her trustworthiness? Our present president falls far short of this test. It is clear that President Trump holds ‘truth” in contempt. Comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 are fully warranted. The claim of alternate facts is equivalent to Orwell’s idea of “Newspeak.” It’s worth a short diversion to read Orwell’s own words from his Appendix to 1984.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. (Emphasis added)

One important difference, Donald Trump is not subtle. Not are those close to him. Lies abound. Lies about brute facts. Those who accept these lies do so at their own peril. Again, looking at Orwell’s work, these falsities are traps designed to capture the minds of the citizenry, first, then their souls, and finally, their bodies. If and when the hoi polloi begin to catch on, it is too late for them; freedom will have disappeared. Some people in America have already begun to find a solution through drugs to the inner distress that comes from an utter sense of disappointment and despair. There is a big difference, however, between these drugs and, soma, the drug of Huxley’s Brave New World that was given to keep people from rising up. Soma does not kill. Sales of 1984 have jumped since the election. It is now #7 on Amazon’s best seller list.

If evidence of not telling the truth is insufficient, there is further evidence that President Trump has a long record of failing to keep his promises. The details of these failures were made public during the campaign. Such failures are essentially just another form of lie, in this case, about the validity of one’s intentions. We have come, in America, to have a healthy skepticism toward promises made during political campaigns, but, in Trump’s case, the promises to do it single-handedly defy the accompanying cry, “believe me.”

I do not expect the President to change his strategy, which put him into the White House. This puts a lot of weight on the two other countervailing parts of our tripartite system of governance. There is little we, as citizens, can do to influence the courts. They are explicitly designed to be independent. We can work on our legislators at all levels. It is probably fruitless to influence the ideologies that place them in one of the other major political parties, but perhaps they will respond to an argument based on this and many other similar essays and opinions elsewhere. Trust is essential. Without trust, the Constitution, to which many have taken an oath to protect and abide by, is but a lifeless piece of paper. Ironically, it protects the same people that would allow it to lose its legitimate power. Even if a plea to support one side or the other of a specific issue is unlikely to prevail, perhaps a plea to speak truth to power and build and maintain trust might filter through.