The Atlantic recently published a piece claiming that Trump described Americans killed in was as ‘losers’ and ‘suckers.’ Trump has denied these claims and his supporters have rushed to defend him. As would be expected, people trend to believe or reject the claims based on their ideology rather than on considerations of the evidence. I will endeavor to assess the claims philosophically.
In support of the claims is the fact that the Atlantic is a credible source that engages in careful fact checking. The story has also been corroborated by other news outlets. Trump and his supporters deny the claims. From a critical thinking standpoint, this dispute comes down to an assessment of relative credibility of the Atlantic and Trump. Looked at objectively, Trump lies regularly and the Atlantic carefully fact checks its claims. As such, this is a major plus in favor of the Atlantic. Trump’s supporters will certainly assert, without evidence, that the Atlantic is fake news—but the burden of proof is on them to respond to the evidence in favor of the Atlantic’s credibility. If the Atlantic is fake news, they should be able to present a body of evidence establishing this. An obvious problem is that trump’s supporters tend to reject any claims unfavorable to Trump as false while those who loath Trump will tend to accept such claims because of there dislike of Trump. For those between these extremes, the Atlantic would presumably win the credibility battle.
Counting against the Atlantic is the fact that it has a known center-left bias. As such, the Atlantic does have a motivation to be critical of Trump and this lowers its credibility. Trump and his supporters are, obviously, biased in Trump’s favor—which lowers their credibility. As such, it comes down to assessing the relative bias and its impact on the credibility of each source. Once again, Trump’s supporters will tend to see the Atlantic as utterly biased against Trump and those who loath Trump will take him as utterly biased. Those in the middle would seem likely to favor the Atlantic here.
Also counting against the Atlantic is the fact that the sources are anonymous—at the time of this writing, no one has come forward to identify themselves as a source. As such, we must rely on a double argument from authority: the claims are supported by the claimed expertise of the author in assessing the anonymous sources and the expertise (broadly speaking) of the anonymous sources. Since we do not know the identity of the sources, we cannot assess their credibility ourselves and must rely on the credibility of the author. While some might be tempted to reject anonymous sources out of hand, this would be an error—anonymous sources have a legitimate role in reporting in cases in which the sources could be harmed if they were identified—and Trump would certainly take action against anyone under him who revealed negative facts about him. While the use of anonymous sources does not count against the credibility of the claims, their identification and confirmation would greatly increase credibility. And, of course, their identification and disconfirmation would reduce the credibility of the claims. Having a recording of what Trump said would also have a large impact on the credibility of the claims; although one should consider the possibility of technological trickery.
Counting favor of the claims is Trump’s confirmed negative claims about veterans and, most especially prisoners of war. Trump famously attacked former POW John McCain, asserting that he likes people that were not captured. Trump also has an established history of disrespecting veterans, soldiers and the military. Trump’s seemingly complete focus on defining all interactions as transactional is consistent with the claims attributed to him, as is his well known cruelty and lack of empathy. The claims attributed to Trump are completely consistent with Trump’s character and his past claims, which increases the credibility of these claims about him. As such, it is reasonable to believe that the article is accurate. This leads to the question of whether it matters.
While it might seem impossible, there are still some people who are undecided about whether to vote for Trump in 2020. If they believe these claims, see them as wrong, and remember them in November, they might be influenced to not vote for Trump. It is possible that some Trump supporters might believe the claims and be influenced by them. But it seems more likely that his supporters will have one of two responses. Those who believe that disrespecting America’s war dead is wrong will refuse to believe the claims, asserting (without evidence) that they are fake news. That is, they would seem to have epistemic defects. Those who do not care about the morality of his claims might believe them or not—but either way it would have no effect on their voting decision. Such people would seem to have a defect in their ethics—unless, of course, they embrace ethical egoism. On this view, the war dead who sacrificed for their country would be foolish for their sacrifice. They should have focused on their own self-interest rather than making sacrifices for others. For those who accept the virtue of selfishness, Trump would have (allegedly) said what is right and good: altruism is for suckers and losers. But one should not say such things out loud, since the suckers might learn of it.
Given the available evidence, it is reasonable to believe that Trump said the claims attributed to him. But even if these claims are believed, they will have minimal impact on the election—Trump’s base has shown that there seems to be nothing he can do or say that would cause them to stop supporting him.