In Trump’s America, a little knowledge is all the fairy dust required to transform bigots, sexists, and liars into misunderstood nice guys. Last Wednesday, the president scolded the mainstream media for demonizing Fox News host and accused sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly. “I don’t think Bill would do anything wrong,” Trump said, as allegations of the anchor’s wrongdoing scrolled across the nation’s chyrons. “I know Bill. Bill’s a good person.”
I guess it takes one to know one. This is far from the first time Trump has availed himself of such a defense. My friend lies beyond reproach because I know him to be good seems to hold, for the president and the tribal, secretive members of his administration, an unimpeachable logic.
“Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media,” Trump said of his disgraced ex–national security adviser, who misled the country about his contacts with Russian diplomats. POTUS returned to the primacy of personal connection when he suggested that Rex Tillerson, a reclusive Exxon mogul, would make a sterling secretary of state because “he knows many of the players and he knows them well.”
You might describe the entire Trump operation as a daisy chain of horrible people insisting they know each other well. When Steve Bannon became White House chief strategist, Reince Priebus defended “the guy I know” from his reputation as a fevered ethno-nationalist, declaring him instead a “wise and smart” man. “Don’t make judgments based on what other people say,” Priebus added, after recommending that we model our opinions on his. Likewise, staring down the long list of attorney general hopeful Jeff Sessions’ assaults on civil rights, Sen. Tim Scott staked his support for the nominee on a hazy intuition of “what is in his heart.” Omarosa Manigault dismissed anxieties about the president’s bigotry by averring, “I know Trump personally, and he is certainly not a racist.” When divining the moral character of the people running our country, we are asked to take their friends’ words for it.
The biggest beneficiary of I-Know-Him–ism may be the guy who sits at the head of this odious dinner table, President Trump. Consider how Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner justified joining the campaign of a man whose nativist vision might have kept his refugee grandparents out of the United States in 1944. The idea that Trump is “someone who has ‘allowed’ or encouraged intolerance just doesn’t reflect the Donald Trump I know,” Kushner wrote in an editorial for the New York Observer. He elaborated in Forbes: “If I know somebody and everyone else says that this person’s a terrible person, I’m not going to start thinking that this person’s a terrible person or disassociating myself, when my empirical data and experience is a lot more informed. … What would that say about me if I changed my view based on what other people think, as opposed to the facts that I actually know for myself?” Kushner spends a lot of words defending his defense, but very few persuading us Trump isn’t “terrible.”
Ivanka Trump, too, relies on an empiricism grounded in relationships, rather than pointing to her father’s statements or actions. “What bothers me is how rash people are to make claims as if they knew him and they knew his viewpoint on certain topics,” she said in April of last year, allowing the specifics of those viewpoints to remain mysterious. “My father has an enormous heart and truly loves people—all people.” The first daughter repeatedly batted away news stories about the president’s misogyny by insisting she knows her dad better than we do. “My father is a feminist,” she explained patiently to the Sunday Times of London in July. “He’s absolutely not a sexist,” she corrected CNN’s Gloria Borger in September.* No data, but plenty of conclusions. One imagines her appending her father’s familiar demand for blind faith: He’s the least sexist person you’ve ever seen, believe me.
Of course, I-Know-Him–ism is common wherever powerful people come together to contemplate the allocation of their power. And it is politically effective, appealing to notions of loyalty and affection. When the email-server scandal threatened to engulf her campaign, Hillary Clinton received testimony from President Obama. “I know her; I trust her,” he said. “I wouldn’t be supporting her if I didn’t have absolute confidence in her integrity.” But Obama was then able to point to the results of an investigation that failed to uncover any wrongdoing on Clinton’s part. The difference with Trump’s team is that they treat the intimacy card as the most important one they can play. Not coincidentally, it often feels like the only one in their hand.
Given how much the administration relies on invisible evidence—for environmental policy, for national security—the way it privileges assertion over data should be no surprise. Yet “I know him” speaks to something deeper than a disregard for facts: It reflects the conspiratorial mindset of people for whom there is always a concealed story, a deep state, a precious and endangered truth arising from information few will ever access. And it underscores the extent to which tribal fealty is the operating principle of this White House, whether that manifests in a forced chumminess, or Trump’s sons battening on the income from his presidential brand, or the explicit and implicit goals of America First.
I-Know-Him–ism is yet another avenue for Trump and his minions to overcome a reality unfavorable to them. The president loves to inform reporters that he’s got tremendous people, his plans are going great, the deals will be beautiful and the winning unparalleled. There exist many sophisticated techniques for convincing others of falsehoods; these wiles lie beyond his grasp. He resorts instead to speaking empty words as emphatically as he can. “I know him” does similar work: It abets untruths without bothering to make them seem credible. Its most potent aspect may well be its shadow corollary: I know him … and you don’t.
Meanwhile, for the in crowd, the folks on the listening end who “get” Trump, the refrain may send a deeper message: You know us. This dog-whistled reminder is the scariest part of all. You know that we don’t think sexual assault allegations are a deal-breaker. You know that our definition of a good person can accommodate saying cruel things about Muslims. You know we agree that the voting rights of minorities need restricting.
Trump’s administration is arrogant. It has no patience for experts, moral or otherwise. “What would that say about me if I changed my view based on what other people think?” Kushner asked. It would say that his clannish framework for understanding the world might still admit some light from the outside. But too many of the president’s associates don’t just discount facts; they discount the norms that safeguard fairness and honesty and simply good behavior. On the surface, “I know him” says that evidence doesn’t matter because of secret knowledge. But what it really says is that norms don’t matter because of secret values.
When being on one team or another has the power to make you right or wrong, reality or ethics be damned, who you don’t know matters almost as much as who you do. Pressed about his seemingly friendly relationship with Donald Trump before the election, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demurred. “Well, look,” he stammered at Chuck Todd. “We see each other occasionally at events in New York. But I really didn’t know him very well.” We should all be so lucky.
*Correction, April 10, 2017: This article originally misspelled Gloria Borger’s last name. (Return.)