The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump

The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump

A stirring and incisive manifesto on America's slide away from truth and reason. Over the last three decades, Michiko Kakutani has been thinking and writing about the demise of objective truth in popular culture, academia, and contemporary politics. In The Death of Truth, she connects the dots to reveal the slow march of untruth up to our present moment, when Red State an...

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Title:The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
Author:Michiko Kakutani
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Edition Language:English

The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump Reviews

  • Kyle

    Simply put, this is essential reading if you want to understand, at least in part, the political chaos caused by technology, and perpetuated by those who harness its power for authoritarian purposes.

  • Gary Moreau

    The truth is this: If you like literature, this is the best book you’ve read this year. If you don’t like Trump, this will be the best book you’ve read since he descended the gilded escalator. And if you don’t like the tone of modern politics, it is the best book you’ve read in a couple of decades. It’s informative, extremely well written, and there is no personal mud slinging. It’s a book about literature and will tell you more about the politics of today (and literature) than any pundit could

    The truth is this: If you like literature, this is the best book you’ve read this year. If you don’t like Trump, this will be the best book you’ve read since he descended the gilded escalator. And if you don’t like the tone of modern politics, it is the best book you’ve read in a couple of decades. It’s informative, extremely well written, and there is no personal mud slinging. It’s a book about literature and will tell you more about the politics of today (and literature) than any pundit could begin to.

    The underlying point of the book is that the attack on truth began in the 1960s with the emergence of postmodernism. The author, however, does not just assert that truth, as most contemporary politicians would. She documents it; because, to her, the truth is still the truth, and it’s still important. And as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” (I actually had lunch at a private table for four with him one time but he, sadly, did not use that quote. He did, however, talk about the outrageously high cost and lack of access to health insurance. Circa 1990!)

    I am now a retired/involuntary gig economy resident of Michigan, so I understand how Trump got elected. (His opponent was actually denied, but that’s another story. Not as in cheated, but denied nonetheless.) What has amazed me ever since, however, is how stable his support appears to be. Orwell, whose 1984 I reread recently for context, could not have imagined, in his most creative moment, the current disregard for truth and honesty.

    There is, nonetheless, a logical explanation, and this book provides it. It won’t make you feel any better, but it will make you feel a little less like you are wandering in the wilderness.

    And, as you would expect from such a renowned literary critic, the writing is superb. It definitely made me yearn for those Sunday mornings several decades ago when I would rush out to buy The New York Times, a couple of croissants, and my wife and I would spend the morning in bed reading. (I lived in New York at the time—sans children, obviously.)

    As one who truly enjoys the literary in literature and appreciates the value of words, and one who lived in China for a decade and resides in a necessarily bilingual household, my favorite line was, “Precise words, like facts, mean little to Trump, as interpreters, who struggle to translate his grammatical anarchy, can attest.”

    A truly spectacular book that should be number one. You will cringe at times, laugh at others, but end up with a much better understanding of why life in America feels so surreal at the moment.

    The book reminded me of the fact that during the entire time I was growing up my parents, both veterans of World War II, now deceased, refused to tell any of their children which candidate they voted for. I have no idea to this day if they were Democrats or Republicans. That, in their minds, was personal, a right to privacy they had both fought for.

    Later, in the 1960s, I was a teenage boy not looking forward to receiving my draft notice and being shipped off to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. I watched Walter Cronkite religiously to get the latest news. And while it was never good he signed off each night, “And that’s the way it is.” Nobody bothers with that kind of truth any more. And that is a loss we all pay for.

  • Krista

    As the former chief book critic of

    , Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michiko Kakutani has apparently spent the past three decades noting and commenting on the decline of “objective truth” in American literature and public life – and while she approves of this postmodern paradigm as it relates to art, she has been horrified to watch as disestablishmentarianism has migrated from a necessary Leftist pushback against the military-industrial complex to an alt-right, “drain the swa

    As the former chief book critic of

    , Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michiko Kakutani has apparently spent the past three decades noting and commenting on the decline of “objective truth” in American literature and public life – and while she approves of this postmodern paradigm as it relates to art, she has been horrified to watch as disestablishmentarianism has migrated from a necessary Leftist pushback against the military-industrial complex to an alt-right, “drain the swamp” anti-intellectualism which has found its apex in the current alternate facts, fake news, lies tweeting president. Quoting from sources as diverse as Hannah Arendt's

    , David Foster Wallace's

    , and Donald Trump's own

    , Kakutani's

    is scholarly, logical, and angry. Here's the thing: For a book that decries polarisation and bipartisanship and the algorithms that ensure we only read news stories online that align with what we already believe, there's nothing neutral about Kakutani's treatise; she is preaching to her choir and dismissing everyone else as “alt-right trolls” and “dittoheads”; nothing here would be persuasive to anyone who believes that mainstream media has a liberal bias, and

    since she spent her career at

    (which isn't to say that I fundamentally disagree with what she writes here). This is a quick read, divided into nine essays, and I've decided to let Kakutani do most of the talking here in excerpts I selected as demonstrative of either her points or her tone. (Two notes: I am a Canadian and have read this book only as an interested bystander. And since I read an ARC, it is probably particularly egregious that I have quoted such big chunks; these passages may not be in their final forms, but they do reflect the book I read.)

    Despite making comparisons between Trump's misinformation techniques and those of Hitler and Lenin, Kakutani ends on a hopeful note; pointing out those citizens who are pushing back against threats of despotism and urging her readers to join in: “It's essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend upon to subvert resistance.” American citizens must also protect the institutions that their founding fathers put in place to uphold democracy: the checks and balances of a tripartite political system, education, and a free and independent press. This

    an angry book, and while Kakutani laments the modern echo chamber of thought, I can't see this making much of an impact with those outside her own silo. Four stars is a rounding up.

  • Kusaimamekirai

    I have a very close friend who is highly intelligent and whose opinion I value. I had mentioned to him something about the basketball player Kyrie Irving and his quote that having flown around the world multiple times as an NBA player, he believes the earth is flat. I was incredulous that a highly educated man such as Irving who attended Duke University could believe this. My friend however had a slightly different view on it. “Well, we live in a post truth world now. You and I may believe that

    I have a very close friend who is highly intelligent and whose opinion I value. I had mentioned to him something about the basketball player Kyrie Irving and his quote that having flown around the world multiple times as an NBA player, he believes the earth is flat. I was incredulous that a highly educated man such as Irving who attended Duke University could believe this. My friend however had a slightly different view on it. “Well, we live in a post truth world now. You and I may believe that the earth is round but it is his experience and belief that it isn’t.”

    This idea of “post truth” is at the heart of Michiko Kakutani’s book where she lays out a well reasoned case that rather than living in information bubbles, we are actually living in information silos. Where once access to demonstrably false information put out by a handful of, at best unhinged, at worst manipulative, people was somewhat contained, it now spreads like wildfires and finds its way into custom tailored newsfeeds. Dissenting opinions or any that may challenge or worldview are noticeably absent as nothing motivates clicks more than fear or outrage. Whether that fear or outrage has any legitimacy or not is inconsequential to, as my friend alluded, how it makes you feel. Or more succinctly, if I feel its true, it is.

    Kakutani spends a large part of this book tracing the roots of deconstructionism and how it has brought us to this moment in time where objective truth seems to be devalued. Rather than trying to fight established and scientifically verifiable facts, one can now just prevaricate and do so with such speed and volume that a kind of fatigue to fight these lies creeps in that Kakutani describes as:

    It is to be sure a frightening age we are entering. One where as Kakutani suggests, artificial intelligence and other technological advances may lead to a day where video and audio can be so deftly altered as to the point where we will be unable to trust our own eyes. Before that day however, we as human beings still possess the ability to filter information if we choose to step out of our silos and choose to verify what we hear, rather than let fatigue and exhaustion choose for us. The question raised by this book is, will we?

  • Marks54

    “The Death of Truth” is a short book that reads like a long essay. The author, Michiko Kakutani, is a well known literary critic and former chief book review editor of the New York Times. She is (or should be) a legend to anyone interested in reading good books and being highly and critically discerning about the books that one reads. It is not necessary to agree with all that she writes, although that may well happen. It is difficult to be a discerning reader and not pay attention to what she t

    “The Death of Truth” is a short book that reads like a long essay. The author, Michiko Kakutani, is a well known literary critic and former chief book review editor of the New York Times. She is (or should be) a legend to anyone interested in reading good books and being highly and critically discerning about the books that one reads. It is not necessary to agree with all that she writes, although that may well happen. It is difficult to be a discerning reader and not pay attention to what she thinks about a book.

    The book is concerned with the assaults that have come to characterize the Trump Administration, ranging from the theatre surrounding the Press Secretaries that have worked for the President, to the Twitter Feed of the President, to the various public falsehoods that regularly issue in Washington DC and are catalogued by the press, to the emotional and more often than not baseless and hyperbolic attacks that issue from the President towards those with whom he disagrees. We all know about this and Kakutani is highly critical of the evolving norms that seem to focus on making claims and other statements that do not seem intended to be subjected to standards of truth or falsity - what Harry Frankfurt analyzes in his book, “On Bullshit”.

    Kakutani’s book is interesting not for new points that she raises. Indeed, if one follows the mainstream press and is concerned about these issues, he or she will feel right at home. The perspective she adopts is also clear - Kakutani is deeply critical of the attack on truth and sees it as a threat to American democracy. She provides a rich context for these developments, showing that they have been around in American literary life for quite some time. She goes into some detail on deconstruction as practiced by Derrida, Foucault, and others, and how the parlor games of left intellectuals have been adopted, intensified, and put to practical use (weaponized) conservative extremists. I had noticed this too before reading this book, but am reassured by her analysis.

    An interesting focus on part of the book is on the rebirth in interest in dystopian fiction, especially of a political variant, since the 2016 election. For example, Orwell has seldom sold more copies, especially 1984 and Animal Farm. She also brings up the renewed interest and relevance of Huxley’s Brave New World, which is a very different view of how civilization ends in tyranny than that of Orwell. By juxtaposing Orwell and Huxley, Kakutani hints at ways in which the current assault on truth and reason may differ from prior attacks. I hope she develops these ideas further.

  • Mark

    I broke my rule about not reading books with Trump in the title for the ARC of this very solid extended essay by Michiko Kakutani. I particularly liked the way she incorporated her extensive reading in fiction and non-fiction to provide examples and commentary on today's politics and how we got here. Also, good footnotes provide a guide to further reading. My big reservation is that the only people who are likely to read this book are very unlikely to learn anything new. This can be read in one

    I broke my rule about not reading books with Trump in the title for the ARC of this very solid extended essay by Michiko Kakutani. I particularly liked the way she incorporated her extensive reading in fiction and non-fiction to provide examples and commentary on today's politics and how we got here. Also, good footnotes provide a guide to further reading. My big reservation is that the only people who are likely to read this book are very unlikely to learn anything new. This can be read in one sitting unless it depresses you too much.

  • Kent Winward

    There is a certain amount of hubris in Kakutani's take that the world and politics revolves around literary trends and theories. As much as I want to buy in whole hog, the hubris is the downfall of the book. Maybe I'm getting old and cynical, but it seems much more likely (and realistic) to me that literary trends are usually in response to changes in the political and social world, not the instigators of the change. Trump seems more a product of reality television than post-modern, relativistic

    There is a certain amount of hubris in Kakutani's take that the world and politics revolves around literary trends and theories. As much as I want to buy in whole hog, the hubris is the downfall of the book. Maybe I'm getting old and cynical, but it seems much more likely (and realistic) to me that literary trends are usually in response to changes in the political and social world, not the instigators of the change. Trump seems more a product of reality television than post-modern, relativistic thought as evidenced by our literature.

    So much more is going on that Kakutani can see through the literary-lens glasses.

  • Marc Gerstein

    Immediately below is my preliminary 4-star review. Having finished now (after a more careful re-read from the start), I find it necessary to cut the rating to 3 for reasons discussed in the second part of the review.

    * *

    Halfway through but I feel I want to put some things out there right now (and by the way, although I’m early post publication, I’m reading a purchased — pre-ordered — ebook, not the holder of an ARC copy).

    I’m not a Trump lover at all (I voted for Hillary), but Chapter 1 is a Trump

    Immediately below is my preliminary 4-star review. Having finished now (after a more careful re-read from the start), I find it necessary to cut the rating to 3 for reasons discussed in the second part of the review.

    * *

    Halfway through but I feel I want to put some things out there right now (and by the way, although I’m early post publication, I’m reading a purchased — pre-ordered — ebook, not the holder of an ARC copy).

    I’m not a Trump lover at all (I voted for Hillary), but Chapter 1 is a Trump Derangement Syndrome disaster that leaves me embarrassed; i.e. that my disdain for Trump paints me as one who would associate with that mindless rant. I really, really wish Kakutani would revise the manuscript simply by deleting Chapter 1 and then renumbering the other chapters. Seriously. Chapter 1 is that bad.

    Once Kakutani stops with the amateurish political diatribe and goes back to her own wheelhouse, as a serious cultural critic (literary in her case), the work picks up steam and starts to deliver on the premise of the title, The Death of Truth. It’s not an easy read, which is not surprising since Kakutani is not an author but a critic and as such delivers points in a crisp condensed manner rather than in the elaborately drawn out way one might expect of a scholarly writer. But if you can hang with it, there’s a lot to think about.

    The topic itself is a powerful and important one (I don’t usually pre-order but did so here) and I’m impressed with the perspective Kakutani brings to it; not just a chronicling of every major liar out there or essays about how subjectivity is now king. Instead, its a well-argued discussion of how this springs from larger societal developments reflected in other ways, particularly developments in the arts.

    As another reviewer said, this is a short work that seems readable in one sitting but at the halfway point, I decided that this would be better appreciated by slowing down and, as another reviewer suggested, taking time to think in between chapter readings.

    My rating is based on my half read and, of course, is subject to change when I finish. I took away a point because of the sophomoric Trump obsession that cheapens what otherwise looks to be a valuable and insightful dissertation. (This Trump derangement syndrome is real and is making it too easy for his critics to get lazy and think they accomplish something if they just find creative ways to say Trump sucks. Kakutani fell for it in Chapter 1, which is why I wish she’d delete it, and perhaps kill the sub-title.)

    * *

    OK. I’m finished now. There are terrific insights here about how and why notions of objective truth are badly damaged nowadays. I don’t dispute anything Kakutani says and appreciate how she broadened my thinking on the subject. Unfortunately, though, her insistence of maintaining the tie to Trump (understandable, perhaps, as a potent selling point for the book) limits the work to much less than it could have been.

    The Trump obsession (accompanied by nods to other well-known bad guys such as Putin and Hitler) seems to have blinded Kakutani to the “truth” that falsehood flourishes with comparable valor even when supposed good guys are pulling the strings. I live in New York City, where our current Mayor and City Council President (and, it seems, next-mayor-wannabe) bill themselves as “progressives.” Their tweets and media soundbites abound in goodness. But to those mired in the day-to-day reality of life in this city, their connection to truth is every bit as strained as anything that has come out of Trump and those around him.

    Yes, lies can seen as valuable tools in the hands of those we assume disseminate evil. But the merchants of good peddle falsehood with equal vigor and effectiveness.

    The biggest thing that Kakutani misses, in my opinion, is the role of complexity. Even for the most objective, well-intentioned, diligent and intelligent speaker addressing an audience that really wants to know, truth can be hard to discern, very hard, and often not possible given the current state of our investigatory resources.

    Kakutani herself walked right into this trap even in this book, when she made a reference to how banker misconduct in connection with the 2008 financial crisis went unpunished. It got less than a full sentence as I recall. Kakutani just stated it apparently assuming her audience (presumably educated urban and probably left leaning folks who read the NY Times where she spent most of he career) knew this to be a well established fact. There are many who do assume this, But is it? Really? Does Kakutani know what a derivative is? Does she know why mortgages are securitized? Does she know what securitization is? What does she know of the process of appraisal? What does she know of the sort of modeling done by the army of “quants” (not people with political or economic agendas but most likely physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. majors who love the creativity of developing numerical models to describe and forecast the real world) who developed the models that supported what the bankers were doing?

    Part of Kakutani’s casual departure from objective truth on this topic (a departure so casual, I doubt she realizes it should even be tested for accuracy) seems attributable to Kakutani herself being influenced by some of the cultural forces she describes. But even beyond that is the complexity of the topic itself. It may be generations before any of us can confidently explain what happened and why, (Even now, there are things about the 1930s depression that can be debated.)

    Complexity is not just limited to things like this, Take something that many of us wrestle with every day; diet and nutrition. Are fats good or bad? Are carbs good or bad? Etc. Answers constantly change as we learn new things.

    And what we “know” now may later be seen as nonsense. We can go on and on. Are video games bad for kids or do they enhance certain cognitive skills? Is a higher minimum wage good for low income workers (more money) or bad (fewer jobs)? Etc., etc. etc. in every walk of life.

    It’s important when discussing a topic like truth to avoid getting so wrapped up in a specific agenda (such as anti-Trump) that we refrain from naively accepting a whole different set of falsehoods, something that is remarkably easy to do considering how difficult it often is to identify truth. Missing this was an important shortcoming in the book.

  • BlackOxford

    Epistemology - learning what it means to be reasonable - has become fashionable once again. With any luck this might prove to be Donald Trump’s most important achievement: a backlash against the reality (largely his) of fake news. Unfortunately

    is yet more fake news not a way to beat it.

    More formally, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, of what constitutes a fact, and logically therefore about what constitutes an anti-fact, that is a lie (see

    Epistemology - learning what it means to be reasonable - has become fashionable once again. With any luck this might prove to be Donald Trump’s most important achievement: a backlash against the reality (largely his) of fake news. Unfortunately

    is yet more fake news not a way to beat it.

    More formally, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, of what constitutes a fact, and logically therefore about what constitutes an anti-fact, that is a lie (see here for some explanation of epistemology and its current problems:

    ). It doesn’t take much epistemological analysis to determine that Trump lies, more or less continuously, about everything he encounters - events, people, issues, decisions, statements, whether these are politically relevant or not. These lies are endorsed and disseminated by tame media like Fox News and Breitbart which have their own commercial agenda. This much is obvious.

    But what is much more difficult to establish is the epistemological structure, as it were, of the human beings who hear these lies, cheer them and act on them - in the way they vote; their behaviour toward opponents, and minorities; and in their expressed opinions about the rest of the world. The presumption of a book like Kakutani’s is that these people have been duped, and that by demonstrating that the motivation for their actions is a pack of lies, the era of Trumpian mendacity can be checked. Essentially, lack of discriminatory power brought about by inadequate education is Kakutani’s key issue. Therefore better analytical education, she believes, is the solution.

    This presumption, and its purported solution is, however, in Kakutani’s own terms, wrong. The people who adhere to the Trumpian ideology know well that the President lies. They know that Fox and Breitbart have their own interests in these lies.

    The fact that Trump lies has about as much political import to them as the barometric pressure or the population of an ant colony. If photographic evidence shows that Trump’s inauguration had much smaller crowds than claimed, if numerous women have prima facie valid claims for sexual harassment despite his denial, if his closest advisors were obviously involved in relationships on his behalf with the Russians and nefarious others: it does not matter at all to the folk who support him. He has said this over and over again during his campaign and his presidency. And his supporters cheer him and themselves when he says it.

    To observe, therefore, that Kakutani’s book is preaching to the choir is not a very profound insight. But it does reveal the essential flaw in her epistemological analysis. People, all people, have interests. Interests are what defines the things which are not only important but the things which can be and will be seen, heard, recognised, and generally allowed into one’s cognition. Interests are also the motivating force for reason; it is they, not some arbitrary logic like that proposed by Kakutani, which defines the reasonable. Kakutani, like many before her, tries desperately to separate what is factual from what is of interest; she aspires to be ‘objective’ in the way that facts and truth are established. For her, recognising interests is equivalent to the terrible heresy of

    She doesn’t quite know what she means when she uses this term but she’s sure it’s the reason Trump is in the White House and Putin is in the Kremlin.

    Paradoxically, one might think, this abhorrence of relativism is shared with Kakutani by Trump’s evangelical and conservative ideological supporters. They too want a firm epistemological foundation; and they believe they can get it by the articulation of one or more basic doctrines - the inerrancy of scripture, the necessity for complete personal freedom, the benefits of unlimited competition, the non-existence of something called society or any of a number of other ideological or religious premises. This establishment of fundamental premises is the only path available toward absolute, irrefutable, non-relative truth according to their way of thinking. And they’re right, that is the only way to be absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure of what the truth is: define it beforehand. Otherwise one must simply muddle through with continuous nagging doubt, an uncomfortable and, one might say in our current culture, an unmanly state of mind.

    But certainty and psychic ease come at a cost. Obviously diverse premises lead to diverse versions of what constitutes the truth, of facts, of signal versus noise. Evangelicals do not start with the same fundamental truths as economic neo-liberals, or radical nationalists. For the moment at least the competing versions of truth are not as important in American politics as the principle on which they all agree: Truth is fixed, certain, immutable, eternal and necessary for personal and social well-being. This is the basis of the populist alliance which Trump has created so skilfully. And Kakutani has decided that she will join it unwittingly using her own version of the truth.

    It may not be obvious but this principle of absolute truth is in fact a religious concept. It is correlated with the explicitly Christian doctrinal idea of faith, that is to say the firm, ‘reasonable’ belief in eternal salvation. Faith is an epistemological principle invented by Paul of Tarsus as the foundational principle of his new religion of Christianity. This principle is arguably the most important contribution of Christianity to world culture. It provides a rationale for calming the apparent chaos of the world around us by simply removing large chunks of reality from our perception. If things don’t matter, they will not be perceived. If one is ‘tempted’ by distractions outside the realm of the doctrines of faith, one is urged to intensify one’s faith.

    Intense faith is what the various components of the Trump alliance (and terrorists of all sorts) share. Trump’s lies are either irrelevant or they are contributing toward a greater good, of which even he may be unaware, according to Trumpists. Arguing against such a state of mind has never had much success for obvious reasons: the argument cannot be heard. Kakutani’s use of the principle of faith to undermine faith is consequently absurd.

    So faith in absolute, invariable truth is the poison which creates and not the antidote which cures fake news. The only workable solution to the proliferation of fake news involves in the first instance the recognition of the interests represented by apparently unreasonable behaviour. Lack of apparent reason in someone else is indistinguishable from an inability in oneself to appreciate alien purpose when it is confronted. The idea of error is entirely dependent upon what one’s aims are. Ultimately, the effect of establishing the criteria of ‘objective’ truth is the exclusion of whole sets of human interests which then cannot be discussed politically. In other words, Kakutani’s solution is to intensify the problem we are experiencing at present.

    I don’t know what the purpose of Trump supporters is. I suspect there are many, one of which, perhaps, is merely to be heard. This in itself could explain a great deal. I nonetheless do find them annoying because they don’t appear to consider it their responsibility to go beyond their pervasive nihilism and articulate what they’re really after. So there well could be an educational aspect to the situation because ostensibly unreasonable people may not have the ability to effectively articulate their reasons. If so, however, education in being able to listen articulately, especially among politicians, may be the most important parallel pedagogical task. Hearing the intentions of others, particularly others we abhor, is probably the most taxing political as well as social skill one can hope to develop. It is nevertheless the foundation of all epistemology. Kakutani has been listening to the wrong folk.

    Postscript: Several people have written privately to me expressing an important issue with my review. What if, they remark, the purposes of some Trump supporters are morally unacceptable? Indeed, I have no doubt that this is the case, as it would be among any political group. One of the most important aspects of any political system, and the explicit purpose of the US party system, is the marginalisation of extreme and generally unacceptable purposes. The Trumpist alliance, I have no doubt, includes some, perhaps many, whom the vast majority of Americans would consider of questionable integrity. However, unless one is willing to conclude that half the American eiectorate has become politically insane (although a credible possibility), the bulk of Trump voters are expressing political views which while not extreme or evil have not been incorporated into political discussion. In fact it seems likely that the extremists have been attracted to the alliance of faith among disaffected voters and not the source of it. This doesn’t reduce the culpability of faith as an epistemological principle but rather makes it more urgent to make the consequences of this principle clear.

    Postscript 17Sept2018: an interesting piece putting some context on the epistemological problem of Trump:

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