Disrupting the Truth
Disrupting the Truth
Research is important. It’s how we get ever closer to the truth. And truth is self-evident in its importance: it is a mirror we hold up to ourselves that will show us not what we want to see, but what is, in fact, there. But as Trump recited the Oath of Office, Energy Department scientists fearfully hoarded data in anticipation of an agency-wide purge. Obama staffers were doing the same, hiding data relevant to the Trump/Russia investigation. Civil servants and scientists, non-partisan and unused to worrying about presidential transitions, preserved any research they thought at risk in nervous anticipation of President Trump.
It only took a few days for their fears to be validated. The White House not only froze or purged anything related to climate research, the administration also demanded the names of any climate scientists working for the Energy Department. The agency stood up for its employees. While these purges involved climate research, the Trump administration is not just targeting scientists, it is also targeting policy researchers, data collectors, institutions, and the press.
While the climate and energy researchers were shielded by their agencies, the administration was not done, gagging all outgoing communication from the targeted departments, leading to one of the strangest moments of the Trump presidency: his own federal agencies disobeying him through anonymous twitter accounts. Unable to defend themselves publicly, staffers could not resist further institutional changes.
What came next was a week-long freeze of all Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants and contracts, which created panic that $4 billion dollars in research grants would disappear overnight. While the projects were eventually allowed to continue, the White House’s longterm aim for the EPA was revealed in its ‘skinny budget,’ which included a near 40% cut for the agency. Such a cut would cause the agency to ‘implode,’ said one senior EPA official. Washington Post reports even deeper cuts in more detailed budget plans, including laying off one quarter of employees and cutting 56 programs. Similar but less catastrophic cuts hit the Energy Department, with all non-nuclear weapons funding receiving a proposed cut of "only" 18%.
These cuts would normally be objected to by the heads of such organizations, but the President has placed antagonistic figures and non-experts to run both agencies. Scott Pruitt, climate change denier and frequent legal opponent of the EPA, is now leading it. Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas, not a nuclear scientist (as is precedent), and someone who wanted to kill the Department of Energy, is, you guessed it, now the head of it. These agencies are not alone in falling victim to the strategy of installing antagonistic figures to subvert the capacity of the administrative state, but these two agency eliminate any chance of resistance to climate change denial as policy.
Climate Change is far from the only research area being targeted.
Soon after Inauguration Day, the entirety of the White House’s open data website was taken down. Visiting the home page tells us to "check back later," although it’s been several months. Trying to find anything brings up a “no results” page. While the White House had a comparatively small amount of information compared to Data.gov, any loss of data is concerning and damaging to research projects everywhere. The offered excuse, that the website was being updated for the new administration, rings hollow 70 days later.
Collection of new data is also under threat, with systematic attacks against the Census Bureau underway. First, House Republicans proposed a bill restricting collection of affordable housing data, potentially putting human services research at risk. Worse, just hours before this article was set to be published, the Trump administration revealed that the 2020 Census would not ask questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. An entire field of policy research just its most valuable source of data, hobbling policy meant to help the LGBTQ+ community.
The Census Bureau is also under financial threat. The Trump budget would effectively cut funding for the Census Bureau by denying it the budget expansions that are needed three years away from the next Census. The 2020 Census is therefore in danger of being underfunded. The choice to target this agency is not partisan so much as an attack on administrative state capacity, as limiting the Census Bureau’s functions makes both conservative and liberal policy research more difficult and less accurate. Nearly $500 billion of entitlement spending would be at risk of misallocation, due to automatic spending formulas based on the census. American businesses would also be hurt, since they routinely rely on census data for marketing and product development efforts.
The American Communities Survey, a yearly mandatory survey of 3.5 million Americans on a variety of issues, is also under threat. One census official is claiming the proposed budget is a veiled threat saying "to fund the 2020 census, you'll need to cut the ACS." Another source of stress for census workers is budget director Mick Mulvaney, who wants to make the ACS voluntary. Allowing people to refuse answering the admittedly lengthy questionnaire would put the validity of the sample at risk. Most threatened with a weakened ACS would be researchers and data journalists, as data collection is expensive and difficult. In fact, we are barely able to do it ourselves when we need to. Most of us use the ACS in our research, even if it’s just as a control for other variables. Being cut off from this data would cripple our ability to know what is truly going on with the people of the United States. .
The effort to delegitimize truth does not end at policy and science. Trump’s efforts to create his own reality started during his campaign, where he dramatically overstated the differences between unemployment, ‘real’ unemployment, and underemployment. He openly dismissed statistics released by non-partisan researchers in the Department of Labor to exaggerate his admittedly valid point on economic despair in rural America. This changed when, as President, Trump accepted results from the same researchers, now that the results are favorable to him, rather than to his predecessor. In what will surely be a historic press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer joked that Trump did not like the unemployment rate before, but does now, essentially admitting it was for show.
This anti-statistics policy intensified when Trump’s surrogates criticized the Congressional Budget Office for reporting that the American Health Care Act could cost 24 million people their health insurance, insisting the organization’s estimates were “meaningless.” Even New Gingrich called for the "corrupt" CBO to be abolished. This rhetoric is entirely new in Washington. While previous CBO reports have been criticized due to methodology, such as Paul Ryan's assertion that the CBO did not account for future Republican legislation, very few have outright questioned the legitimacy of the institution.
With policy research limited and non-partisan organizations sidelined, the last source of information left to contradict the Trump administration is the press. After years of criticizing the media for its alleged lies on the campaign trail, he had began using “Fake News” on anyone in the press he did not agree with, reusing a term that was meant for the kind of news articles that helped spread misinformation during the election. Trump went further after taking office, mostly taking questions from sources he agreed with while sidelining mainstream media. For example: while Sean Spicer's initiative to Skype in reporters from around the country is innovative on its face, it is mostly used to provide a platform for far-right sources such as the Federalist Papers Project, who willing to defend Trump on anything he says or does.
The most egregious example of press treatment comes from Secretary of State Tillerson. The State Department rarely speaks to the press anymore, not even during the release of the all-important human rights report. Meetings with foreign dignitaries usually result in questions being directed towards Rex and his visitor, both usually smiling for pictures without ever saying anything, to an ever louder and more aggressive chorus of "thank you’s” to drown out the press. Most recently, Tillerson traveled with only one reporter, from conservative leaning IJR, breaking decades of norms.
With all of this in mind, it's important to remember one crucial fact on Trump's dismissal of institutional, academic, and journalistic truth: the fact that he is the culmination of Republican attitudes towards research and the press going back decades.
Presidential criticism of the press has existed as long as this country has existed, but President Eisenhower was the first to call the press liberal, “to wild reaction”. His vice-president, Nixon, would take this attitude much further, declaring the press to be his personal enemy. Ever since then, Republican figures have dismissed the 'liberal media'. This is not just a Republican issue, as former President Obama famously battled with Fox news. It is, however, important to concentrate on Republicans as they are the party in power, and to reflect on the long history of conservative media offering alternative facts.
The conservative media began to drift away from the mainstream in 1987, after the FCC revoked the “Fairness Doctrine,” which mandated broadcasting both sides of any controversial topic. Conservative talk radio experienced massive growth, with early pioneers such as Rush Limbaugh gaining notoriety in questioning the non-conservative version of the truth. The establishment of Fox News and the proliferation of internet news sources further divided political discourse between left and right.
A study conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review shows that the greatest ‘drift’ away from the center ground has been by these right-wing sources, with pioneers of the alt-right like Breitbart leading the next generation of alternative truths. Further, many of the Trump administration’s actions have been consistent with the ideology of these right-wing outlets, as if the Fairness Doctrine were being removed from the act of policy research. With this context in mind, Trump’s behavior is less an aberration of Republican policy, and more of an unfiltered culmination of it. Many of Trump’s actions, including shots against the Census Bureau, have simply been the fulfillment of Republican policy objectives going back for years.
By targeting non-partisan research and data-collecting in the Federal Government, Trump is both fulfilling Steve Bannon’s promise to “dismantle the administrative state” and his newfound adherence to Republican orthodoxy.
Presidents have never gotten along with inconveniently objective truths or fact checkers, but not since Nixon have we seen such systematic action against them. The demarcation between what the administration defends and what research suggests is the truth is wide enough to be called “a menu of realities from which to select” (Keith Olberman).
The consequences of allowing this to continue are clear: policy without factual basis. While the Muslim Ban remains a great example of this, so too is Trump’s Executive Order undoing Obama’s climate legacy. The order is fake policy because it goes against scientific consensus and refuses to acknowledge the impossibility of bringing coal back. Policy without logical backing is fake policy, just like news without a source is fake news. The enactment of this fake policy, which will lead to real environmental degradation, is especially counter to consensus, as half of Americans now believe that global warming is a serious issue.
The truth is, without resistance to this agenda, we will keep hearing Orwellian stories like The Department of Energy banning use of the phrase "Climate Change", or the EPA chief siding with chemical companies against his own agency's research. We will have more congressional hearings based on climate change denial instead of actual lawmaking. If this administration furthers hostility against research, we may see a brain drain. It sounds ridiculous, but consider the fact that Republicans have already ended public research on gun violence. Truth, the unbiased mirror we hold to ourselves, is slowly being painted over.
How do we stop research eradication and data dumping? One can always march, which is what the March for Science aims to do. Besides that, we need to keep publishing objective and rigorous research, no matter which party suffers from the results. Lastly, we need to foster trust between ‘experts’ and the people, who’ve been hurt by overly optimistic predictions of the effects of free trade, or who feel forgotten whenever economic growth numbers are praised. How to do that, however, requires further research.
Austin Kabbaz Szabo is the Senior Spring Media Editor for GPPR and designer of the GPPR Spring website and images. Originally from Los Angeles, he is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at the McCourt School in Georgetown. He has a B.A. in Political Science and Classical Civilizations from Loyola Marymount University, where he was a Senior Editor for Asia Media International and led the university's Archeology Center. While at McCourt, he interned for the Vera Institute of Justice, where he found himself a passion for comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform. He’s also passionate about women’s rights and ending income inequality, and dreams of living in an truly liberated world. He loves archery, baking, and awful music.