Donald Trump and the Terrorism Loop

In my most recent post I discussed several explanations of religious terrorism in international relations scholarship. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it is thorough. Bottom line: Terrorism is more common in the Muslim world for a host of reasons, but absent from any scientific study is something inherent in Islam. Although Islam informs many terrorists’ behaviors, the causal factor of terrorism is almost always something else. Unfortunately, the current US administration seems completely oblivious to this. And more unfortunately—and patently obvious—the US seems to be instigating terror.

Indeed, this was not lost on MSNBC reporter Thomas Roberts yesterday when he questioned whether Donald Trump was “trying to provoke a domestic terrorist attack with this Twitter rant because—only to prove himself right?” The fact that a reporter would even ask that question demonstrates at least a basic understanding of how radicalization occurs.

US President Donald Trump ran a campaign on US security. And it is still one of his top priorities. It became George W. Bush’s top priority early on in his administration. But while Bush evolved as a president through trial and a lot of error, ultimately orchestrating one of the most brilliant war moves (the surge), it is less obvious that Trump will evolve. What’s worse, while Obama piggy backed off Bush’s mistakes, eager to avoid repeating them, Trump is doubling down on Bush’s mistakes, magnifying them into potentially deadly catastrophes.

If Trump is concerned with US security then it should heed our warnings. In the words of Professor and Eminent Scholar Simon Serfaty, “A refugee denied is a terrorist made.” This is a quote that stuck with me during a seminar he gave a couple years ago. And while Serfaty was specifically talking about refugees, it is this basic line of reasoning that explains most of what we know about Jihadist terror. And to not heed this reasoning is to invite terrorism anywhere and everywhere.

Poverty, humiliation, desperation, insecurity, and intolerable conditions are some of the reasons people turn to terror in war torn countries. These all represent failures to meet basic human needs. When human beings desperately beg for help, only to be turned away or mocked by the sitting US president, it only reinforces the appeal of terror. If the options are death or shelter, food, and jobs (from terrorists), then the answer is obvious.

Or domestically, if the audience sees the US mistreating people with whom the audience identifies (through ethnicity, religion, or something else), then the perception of honor makes revenge their duty (for example, Timothy McVeigh sought revenge because he believed the US government was murdering right wing and white political dissidents). Trump seems hell bent on mistreating Muslims domestically and abroad. And at some point otherwise reasonable American citizens will feel more allegiance to their own mistreated community than they will to people outside that community who—they believe—share some of the blame.

Terrorism will never go extinct. But we have a pretty good grasp on its causes, and preventing it is often as simple as figuring out the needs of an at-risk population. It’s not fun and consumes a lot of energy and resources, but it is a better method than to double down on the things that cause terrorism in the first place. So to answer Roberts’ question, no Trump is not trying to cause terror to prove himself right (at least as far as I can tell), but he is sure as hell inviting it through an unforgivable ignorance. It’s his job to know these things!

The irony—I would guess—is that one of the explanations for terrorism also explains why Trump makes these mistakes. He feels white America is under threat from an outside other. It is his duty to protect his clan. In other words, there is no hope for Trump. Even if he knew how to stop terrorism he would make the wrong choice. Fear and duty compel us to irrationality, precisely the same way terrorists are compelled to terror. We are stuck in a loop.

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Causes of Radical Jihadist Terrorism

In international relations the concept of terrorism usually always boils down to Islamic radical terror. Few other categories of terrorists operate internationally; therefore, most of the literature centers on violent Islamic Jihad. So what are the causes? How can we make sense of terrorists’ motivations. Below is a quick rundown of the various themes in international relations literature.

First, note that there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. These explanations should fit most definitions. Second, the literature is chock full of many explanations, and the best hypotheses usually include elements of multiple explanations.

A Constructivist Explanation

The constructivist explanation asks, what’s the software in the terrorist’s head? How do they see the world? How is their lens constructed? Constructivism as a theory rejects the concept of objective reality. This explanation is about terror groups’ perceptions. Many terrorists have a negative view of the West, believing the West—specifically the US—is trying to undermine Islam. This lens stems, in part, from their experiences with colonialism, where, often times, traditions and customs were derided by Western mercantilism and religious values. Holy Islamic sites are trampled by filthy, evil Americans. Operation Desert Shield was not to protect the sovereignty of an ally, but to belittle the traditional values of an entire religion. They also see local leaders, such as the Saudi Royal Family, as being in bed with Western colonial interventionism. And because of this, violence is a just response.

Of course, this view is marred by difficulties. If you cannot understand terror without understanding how terrorists’ lenses are constructed, then it cannot be a generalizable theory. Furthermore, it’s vulnerable to cognitive biases. You see what you expect to see, and therefore the lenses become more rigid, and it’s difficult to adjust your views with additional information.

A Deep Historical Explanation

This explanation suggests something went horribly wrong in the Muslim and Arab world. This is the Bernard Lewis (What Went Wrong?) approach. At one time the Muslim World was the driving global force for intellectualism. During the middle ages Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic Golden Age. Thanks to intellectually noble Islamic and Arab scholars, many of the Greek texts survived, translated into all the languages of trade. Mathematics and astronomy flourished. And its momentum finally inspired the rebirth of Europe. But the Islamic and Arab world went from the apogee of global leadership to a massive descent over several hundred years. This deep macro, historical explanation explains why Muslim societies still struggle. The effects continue to linger, and terrorism is merely an expression of the intolerable suffering which a quarter of the planet is forced to tolerate as the world moves on without them.

A Twin Motivation Explanation

This is the Clash of Civilizations. You have the near and the far enemies. In the Muslim World Riyadh is near and Washington, DC is far. Terrorism therefore has two motivations. Near enemy terrorists focus on apostate countries (Egypt, for example), heretical countries, and countries deserving of death. Initially al Qaeda focused on the near. Bin Laden’s hatred of the Saudi family as heretics drove him to attack locally. But over time he turned his attention to the West, as the head of the culturally inferior snake. From bin Laden’s, and to a much larger degree ISIS’s, perspective, a civilizational conflict is welcome, necessary, and foretold in the holy texts. Terrorism is merely self-fulfilling prophesy and doing what you must.

A Failed State Explanation

Failed states are states where the governing body essentially loses control of or diminishes its capacity to affectively administer large portions of their territory. Somalia is the best example we have, but also Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Lawlessness and insecurity promote mass human migrations. Refugees and internally displaced persons struggle for basic survival needs. Terror organizations thrive in such environments, sometimes feeding off the insecurities of vulnerable people, able to recruit normal civilians with promises of security, wealth, and immortality. On the other hand they might offer death to people who turn down their recruitment offers. And the government is powerless to stop it. This explanation might be suited for an undeniable reality: Most Islamic terrorists are highly educated, middle class people. Why have so many engineers and medical doctors joined ISIS? Maybe it’s because the fear of losing everything was overcome by people who could give them money, power, and prestige and murder anyone who scoffs at their proposal.

A Strategic Actor Explanation

Essentially this explanation proposes terrorists are cross-benefit calculators. Terrorism serves their strategic goals. For example, terrorists are not aggrieved. They are not injured by the collapse of their civilization. They are proud of their past and want their empire back. And terrorism is an attractive way to accomplish this goal. We can take this further and say terrorists view themselves as superior, and terrorism allows them to aggrandize before a public audience.

A Blame-the-West Explanation

So far I’ve only provided you with internal reasons. But what about external forces? Are we to blame? Don’t take this to mean I sympathize with terrorists or blame Americans or Europeans. No, I’m merely stating the obvious; we do things in the Arab World that harm people. Under this explanation, terrorism is a response to Western Occupations (see Robert Pape). Our foreign policy is venom in the Middle East, and America likes to invade the social space of others and poison everything, especially when uninvited. The American ideal of exceptionalism doesn’t play well on fringes of Muslim world. The US’s relationship with dictatorial monarchs and Israel makes the US a target. And the US needs to get the hell out of the Gulf (see Michael Scheuer).

A Western Role and Globalization

This is an indirect effect on behavior. Basically, Western-driven globalization runs up against conservatism. Conservatism is about keeping traditions. Globalization is a liberal ideal that promotes progress. As the world becomes smaller due to Western-driven globalized efforts and increased international interconnectedness, civilizations’ traditional values are undermined and diminish, and die hard adherents are scoffed at by the international community. The actions of the West trying to leave the past in the past and to forge a more connected world elicit strong reactions from people who were fine with the way things used to be in the good ol’ days.

Other Basic Explanations

Education Levels

While terrorists tend to be educated, there’s a strong correlation between low education and effective recruiting. Uneducated people are more likely to accept jobs of terror.


Similarly, although the literature has not yet reached a consensus, it could be that extreme poverty plays a role. On the other hand, the Arab World is significantly more wealthy than Sub-Saharan Africa, and we don’t see many Namibian terrorists.


While it’s debatable how oil plays a role in terrorism, it’s undeniable that it does.


This one might be slightly controversial, but some terrorists might be lashing out after being humiliated. Bin Laden was mocked by the Saudi Royal Family and stripped of his citizenship. He was then exiled to Sudan (and he really hated the Sudanese culture and climate). He carried this humiliation around with him as a driving motivator to attack Saudi Arabia. When this was impossible, he turned his attention to the Saudis’ most trusted ally, the US.

Mental Illness

This one is especially liked in the American Conservative Parties. And it is certainly the most controversial on this list. But there could be some merit to it. For example, forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond once analyzed bin Laden (not in person), finding the terrorist leader probably had a messiah complex. Furthermore, he was pathological—a psychopath. Similarly, political psychologist and psychiatrist Jerrold Post argues terrorists tend to receive pleasure as their kill count increases. This is a symptom of a personality of dissociation. Of course, dissociation is not inherently a mental illness. Surgeons must dissociate themselves from their patients’ pains. We don’t want doctors holding scalpels to flinch every time they cut into someone. But the ability to dissociate from pain in order to gain pleasure from killing people is concerning.

So There You Have It

There could be any number of other explanations, and none of them are mutually exclusive. If you have any additional ideas, feel free to let me know.

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Expanded Probability of Falling Victim to Jihadist Terror in the US

My last post laid out data collection and methodology to determine the probability that an American will be injured or killed by an Islamic terrorist. The answer was, based on the most previous seven years of data, you would have to live about 10,000,000 years in order to have about a 90% chance of  falling victim to Jihadist terror. This number is given the assumptions that all other factors remain constant.

If you’re interested in the methodology and the math, check out the post.

But a common criticism of this model is that I left out the 9/11 attacks. Surely they will skew the y-axis, but it’s not in good form to ignore data points. I left these out for a couple reasons. First, the 9/11 attacks were sufficiently in the past. But more important, terrorists are no longer spending $500,000 to plan single, spectacular attacks. They are going cheap. Even bombings are going out of style. Kalashnikov rifles and stolen trucks are much more in vogue. I find it unlikely we’ll see another 9/11-style attack (even dirty bombs are quite meaningless in terms of casualties, which will probably be the 3rd part of this series).

So I repeated the methodology, this time capturing the previous 20 years of data, picking up casualty figures for 9/11. I ran the same simulation, and my results are not that much different—relatively speaking, of course—from my first simulation.


Prob Casualty of Jihad Terror by Years2.jpg

In order to approach a 90% chance of falling victim to Jihadist terror in this updated model, you will have to live about 1.5 million years. The number we’re really interested in is 50%. To have a 50-50 shot of becoming a victim, you’ll need to live about 480,000 years. But remember, this model assumes there will be a 9/11 style attack every 20 years or so, so this number is probably hugely inaccurate. Personally I feel more comfortable with the first version of the model.

Either way, the probability of being injured or killed by an Islamic terrorist in the US during your lifetime is extraordinarily low. Of course these numbers are not meaningless when they aren’t zero. When the chance of being murdered is more than zero people respond in predictable ways, even if you’re more likely to win the lottery.

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Probability of Falling Victim to Jihadist Terror in the US: A Correction and Update

The other day I made a blog post pointing out the extraordinary unlikelihood of a person becoming victim to a Jihadist terrorist attack in the United States. I regret to write that I got the math wrong somewhat. The intuition was good, but I realized my model had statistical certainty when that is impossible when talking about probabilities. Therefore, I went back to my model and fixed it.

To recap how the basics of the model were constructed, first I obtained a list of every Jihad-inspired act of terror on US soil since 2010. Next I summed all deaths and injuries to obtain the total casualty amount. Next I divided this by 7 (the model accounts for 7 years of data) to get the average casualty count per year. Next this number was divided by 325 million (the approximate US population) to give us the probability that any person will be the casualty of a Jihadist terror attack in the US. As an extra step I next subtracted this number from 1 to give us the survival probability. All of these numbers are below.

Total deaths: 74
Total injuries: 420
Total casualties: 494
Average casualties per year: ~74.6
Probability of casualty: 0.0000002171
Probability of survival: 0.99999978

In order to determine how long a person would have to live in order to approximate a probability of 1 (or 100%), I took the casualty probability and assigned the year count as the exponent. So for one year casualty probability the exponent would be 1. For 20 year casualty probability the exponent would be 20. And so on.

But this model proved very time consuming, and it ate up a hell of a lot of computer resources (try running hundreds of millions of equations all at once). So I next assigned the exponents in 10s of thousands of years, beginning with 10,000 years.

This might sound crazy. No one lives 10,000 years! But trust me (you can do this yourself); even at 10,000 years the casualty rate is 0.002169073 (or about 1 person out of 500). In other words, you would have to live 10,000 years to have a probable casualty of 1/500. I finally assigned exponents in 10,000 year intervals up to 10,000,000 years. This meant I only had to do 1,000 equations simultaneously.

I’ll get to the results in a minute. But first, let’s get this model’s assumptions out of the way. They’re pretty straightforward. Assume all other things (casualty rates, population size, terrorism rates, etc.) remain constant. We cannot tell the future. It could be Jihadist terrorism increases or decreases. Terrorists could adopt more sophisticated methods. Right now they seem to be going cheap—rifles (between $500-1,000 a pop) and driving trucks into crowds (this could be free if they steal a truck). It’s unlikely they will revert back to spending half a million to plan a 9/11 style attack. And bombs are sort of out of vogue. They are dangerous to the operator, they can be expensive, and in order to be effective you need to know more about chemistry than what you read on the Internet. That’s not to say there won’t be bomb attacks, but even if they did, no bombing in the US has ever killed more than a handful of people (save the Oklahoma City Bombing, which was not a Jihad-inspired bombing). In perspective a bombing last September injured 34, killing none. The Orlando Night Club shooter killed 49, injuring 53. Rifle attacks and truck attacks are much more efficient ways to kill people than bombs.

The Results

Prob Casualty of Jihad Terror by Years.jpg

In order to approach a 90% likelihood of falling victim to Jihadist terror, you would have to live more than 10,000,000 years. To have a 1% chance, you would have to live about 47,000 years.

This is a small part of a much larger project I’m working on, which I will continue to report on here. For now, however, take solace in the essential impossibility of being a victim of Jihadist terror in the US. And for any critic who condemns me for not including 9/11, I feel you. And the next part of this project will go back to 2000 to see how the probability changes (I can assure you it will pretty much stay the same).

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Trump Turned My University into a Liar and a Criminal Organization

Trump’s executive order last week temporarily restricting refugees and travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries has turned my university into a liar and a criminal organization—if you take it literally.

My university has a statement on the Office of Institutional Equity & Diversity website—indeed it’s part of our official mission statement. Officially we

ensure equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex (including pregnancy), political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, disability, religion, or veteran status in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions.

Despite the fact that we are a public university, and thus an extension of the state, this statement is still on our website, and, indeed, we still stand by this statement.

But this makes us liars

Legally we cannot enforce our own statement on equal opportunity. Due to Trump’s executive order we officially cannot host new international students from seven countries, especially due to their religion and national origin. While few new students are going to be incoming during the next four months, some do come as part of various study abroad programs. And because we are part of the government, whatever the government says is what we are bound by. This means our diversity statement is a lie.

And it also makes us a criminal organization

I’m stretching the truth a little, but mild hyperbole is justified. While we’re not facing imminent arrest, we are in non-compliance of a direct order from the President of the United States. Our diversity statement directly contradicts Trump’s executive order. Despite being an arm of the US government, we proudly accept students from any religion and any national origin.

Of course my uni is not alone

I don’t think its accurate to say universities pride themselves in being diverse. Not being an asshole is not a question of pride. Being inclusive is just the right way to be. We don’t turn away students unless we have a justifiable reason—poor academic history or potential danger to other students. And I don’t think a single public university in the US is going to turn away students for religious or national purposes. Besides, doing so greatly tarnishes their reputation as centers for higher education.

Concluding thought

I study in and work for the graduate program in international fucking relations. This directly affects almost 9% of the students in our program (we went through the list today, and 9% come from these seven countries) and countless others who are afraid to apply or accept their Fulbright Scholarships. I cannot tell you how difficult the last few days have been for these students. It’s not just that they can’t go home; it’s also that they are afraid Trump will continue to ramp up the rhetoric. We wish the best for our students, but it’s difficult to focus on your studies when you’re legitimately afraid.

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Shocking Consciences: Things Aren’t as Bad as They Appear

For the last couple days—well, since Friday, anyway—my social circle, which is comprised mostly of college students, military members, and academics, has been shocked by the direction this country is going. When I say shocked, I mean their consciences have been horrified. Even apolitical friends are coming out supporting the fringe Left. Issues they long thought achieved suddenly become issues they fight to achieve. Environmental issues; gender issues, including family planning; LGBT issues—they have been thrusted back years, if not generations, or so they believe. I’m here to tell you all: Don’t fret. All is not lost. This is completely understandable, explainable, and predictable.

Given thousands of years of data (yes, we really have that much) on how societies change, the good news is that we are always shifting to the left, even if an outlying reactionary movement pulls us to the right here and there. That is societies are constantly liberalizing. Even highly traditional societies in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab World are slowly drifting to the left. With each new generation, emancipation is always emerging. Things once considered normal are now ghastly unpopular today. Take for example race issues in the United States.

shifting political beliefs.jpg

Note: This graph is not to scale. It is merely a model to illustrate my point.

Refer to the model above. The red line represents the median voter. It is essential that someone running for office gets support from the median voter (although Trump won without the median voter’s support). Social and political realities are clustered around the MV. The error bars on the model represent the full range of political beliefs, from the far left to the far right.

In my model I’m using beliefs about race among voters (obviously blacks couldn’t vote in 1800, so keep that in mind). In 1800 only the fringe Left supported emancipating slaves and outlawing slavery. But society shifted left, and by time slavery was outlawed the median voter supported emancipation. Within a generation only the fringe Right supported going back to slavery. By time the Civil Rights Act was signed, essentially no one supported slavery. Indeed, the Civil Rights Act defied the median voter, but Johnson knew the society was shifting that way. Today essentially no one supports going back to separate but equal (despite what sensationalist news stories claim). The median voter certainly wouldn’t accept such a policy. A segregationist policy would shock the consciences of the median voter, destroying any hope of that political party remaining in power to continue these practices.

Usually the voting preferences of the median voter acts as a control over the decisions of lawmakers. The fact that Trump and some members of the GOP are defying the median voter means that what happened to Clinton in 1994 has been forgotten by Trump. Once again, when you shock the consciences of the median voter you lose their support.

we can apply this to any social issue. Environmental politics is shifting drastically to the right—towards unthinkable extremes—but the median voter is relatively constant on the left. In fact, there might be a counter reaction from the median voter to shift further left. Trump has said he wants to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Considering that only 19% of voters approve of this, and the vast majority of voters support abortion rights in at least certain circumstances (this number has held constant for 40+ years), taking away this right would certainly shock the conscience of the median voter. LGBT rights are relatively fledgling and, in many cases, not fully achieved, but the trend towards emancipation defies the current GOP position.

Even if Trump were successful in appointing justices to SCotUS that turned back the clock generations, the Court cannot take away the voting rights of citizens. The median voter will still hold considerable power in future elections, putting considerable pressure on the GOP to liberalize. In fact, the liberalization of the GOP, which has been occurring since its foundation, is precisely what the Alt-Right is fighting against. Unfortunately for the Alt-Right, it is on the fringes and will never convince a liberalizing median voter.

The present situation can be explained. As society continues to liberalize, people who hold traditional—often religious—beliefs about society feel as if their identities are being erased by society. This terrifies people more than the threat of death. For religiously inclined voters, death is often a transition, but to have that promise taken away by a society that rejects those religious claims means that the devout must react harshly to save their identities and thus their salvation. Fundamentalists fearing for their salvation will attempt to force society back to their position. But given a long enough timeline they will (literally) die off, and their more liberalized progeny will reject the unthinkable positions of their parents and grandparents.

In other words the median voter’s shift towards the left predicts a strong reaction from people who feel their ontological security—and thus their very salvation—is under assault.

Cheer up, friends. The findings from all available research into political psychology, political and social sciences, and hard statistical analyses are on your side. In the words of Tracy Turnblad, Link Larkin, Penny Pingleton, Seaweed J. Stubbs, Edna Turnblad, Wilbur Turnblad, Motor Mouth Maybelle, Velma Von Tussle, and Amber Von Tussle, “You can’t stop the beat!

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What the Hell Happened to Our Fake News?

Being a skeptic is not trite, but it’s also not difficult. Simply put, don’t believe anything until you have a good reason to believe it. This is true for almost all claims. While it’s unreasonable to expect evidence for claims like “I have a pet hamster,” religious claims, political assertions, and wild accusations demand evidence and, in many cases, demonstration prior to acceptance.

During the most recent US presidential election I incorrectly assumed most voters would dismiss preposterous #pizzagate stories and their ilk as nothing more than Onion-esque comedy. Previously I chuckled at stories claiming the democrats were trying to marshal Sharia in Florida. I smirked when “ABC News” (dot co) alleged Hillary Clinton was paying actors to protest at Trump rallies. Who would believe these stories, especially when the sources are so ridiculously and obviously fake? Skepticism is easy.

As we know I was wrong. Many, many people believed these stories. An entire election was in some ways swayed because of fake news (although let’s not put all the blame on gullible voters). And post-election the problem has imploded, forcing Trump, religious pundits, and, well, everyone to acknowledge that fake news is a problem. Unfortunately, the laws of cognitive dissonance have stolen fake news criticism from skeptics.

The laws of cognitive dissonance per Leon Festinger (in no particular order)

  1. When confronted with truths that contrast with our beliefs we will either double down and deny the truth and hold onto our beliefs,
  2. or accept the truth and change our beliefs,
  3. or work the truth into our preexisting set of beliefs.

Number three appears to be what Trump and religious pundits are doing.

Recall Trump’s first post-election press conference where he attacked CNN and Buzz Feed News as “fake.” While Buzz Feed is strictly an entertainment website with left-leaning stories (and a lot of “facts” that don’t pass simple scrutiny), CNN is a strictly center entertainment news source.

Let me back up a second. CNN is not the Agence French Presse or the British Broadcasting Corporation or National Public Radio. CNN is concerned with selling adds more than providing substantive information. CNN’s job is to entertain us with sensational stories so that we tune in or click a headline. It’s important to understand the limits of CNN’s merit as a news organization, but CNN is—hands down—a much better source of correct and balanced information than Info Wars, Natural News, or RT. But to call CNN fake is problematic and dishonest.

Today I stumbled across this blog post by the Friendly Atheist. Apparently the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has usurped the “fake news” accusation and lobbed it at a man who simply called his husband his husband. (Here is the press release where Donohue does this). The way he phrases it is very strange too. “The Catholic League does not tolerate fake news.” It’s as if he’s saying “You can always trust the Catholic League. Nothing we ever say is fake.”

I want my fake news back

Trump and Donohue (and scores of others) have been forced to accept fake news sources exist. For Trump, rather than accept that fake news propelled his campaign, he has turned fake news accusations back on a legitimate—albeit sensational—news source. He has worked the fledgling anti-fake news phenomenon to his advantage.

Donohue has taken the condemnation of fake news sites and worked it into his anti-same-sex-marriage beliefs.

Neither accepts the reality of fake news unless it gives them a narrative advantage.

This is frustrating, simply put. Both Donohue and Trump are influential enough that they can turn idiots into pseudo-skeptics who believe a news source must be fake simply because someone they admire calls it fake. From personal conversations I’ve had with friends, family members, and students, it appears more people believe CNN is an actual fake news organization.

Am I going to have to spend the next few years defending legitimate sources? What’s next—is Mike Pence going to call Nature a fake peer-review science journal?

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