Obama, Home of the Whopper. Thoughts on Trust and the Will to Believe

Trust is a terrible thing to lose. Bitterness and disillusion are its inevitable progeny. In private life, the loss of trust forces a rearrangement of sympathy and affection. In public life, the loss of trust instigates a fundamental realignment of political affiliation.

But what causes a loss of trust? That is not as easy a question to answer as you might think. The simple revelation of mendacity is not enough. Why? In part it has to do with what William James, in a lecture of 1896, called "the will to believe." When it comes to belief, James saw, assent is often determined as much by feeling as by fact. The decision to offer or withhold belief is just that: a decision, a matter of will as much as intellect. "We have the right," James concludes, "to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will."

James was speaking about belief in the matter of religion. But these days, when politics takes on more and more of the burdens of religion, his analysis applies equally to politics. The point is that, in politics as in religion, the wish can be father to conviction. We want to believe X. Evidence against X accumulates like rust upon a load-bearing chain. Up to a certain point, the chain holds. The will to believe provides a powerful inoculation against the corrosive virus of doubt, the calamity of shattered trust. Eventually, however, without reinforcement, the chain breaks and disillusionment follows.

Everyone, supporters and opponents, acknowledges that Barack Obama came to office surrounded by a powerful will to believe. In the run up to the election, and for a month or so afterwards, the press was full of stories about chaps who had "always voted for Republicans" but now were voting for "change." You don't hear much from those folks these days. But for a moment, their -- what to call it? "credulousness" seems impolite, so let's follow James and call it their "will to believe" -- made Obama's claim to be bi- or even post-partisan seem credible.

Then came

  • The Henry Louis Gates affair,
  • Van Jones's exposure and resignation
  • ACORN, the hooker, and the underage Salvadorian girls
  • Yosi Sargent at the NEA,
  • Eric Holder and the Black Panthers
  • etc.

For most late converts, that illusion has now definitively shattered.

"You lie!" said Rep. Joe Wilson the other day as President Obama was addressing Congress about his plans to empower the government to annex health care. Wilson's comment enriched his coffers but drew tuts from Republicans and tut-tuts from Democrats: whatever happened to civil discourse in American Politics? asked the people who brought you BushHitler and kindred examples of politesse.