What Feminist Epistemology Would Say to Donald Trump

By Miranda Pilipchuk

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States in June 2015, the internet has exploded with reports and analyses of the candidate, with a special emphasis placed on the shocking and dramatic statements Trump has made the forefront of his campaign. As of yet, however, there has been relatively little attention paid to what feminist epistemology has to say about Trump, and his shocking and dramatic statements. This blog post is a small attempt to remedy this gap in the conversation, focusing specifically on Trump’s position as an epistemically privileged subject, and how this epistemic privilege shapes Trump’s approach to the truth.

One of the most significant contributions feminist epistemology can make to discussions of Trump is to highlight Trump’s privileged status as an epistemic subject. In “The Speculum of Ignorance,” Nancy Tuana argues that knowing subjects can be either epistemically advantaged, or epistemically disadvantaged. What distinguishes the epistemically advantaged from the disadvantaged is the subject’s social location. According to Tuana, an individual’s “cognitive authority,” or the extent to which they are taken seriously as a knower, “is determined by many factors … criteria that feminists have demonstrated to be imbued with the prejudices of sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and ableism.” Individuals from socially privileged backgrounds are more likely to be taken seriously as knowers than individuals from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, meaning that socially privileged individuals are simultaneously epistemically advantaged, and socially disadvantaged individuals are simultaneously epistemically disadvantaged.

As a white, rich, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled man, Trump occupies both the most privileged social location, and the most advantaged epistemic position. Because of his social location, he is automatically granted a relatively high degree of credibility as a knower. When Trump speaks, his audience is more likely to believe that what he says is truth, and less likely to challenge his right to speak at all. Indeed, Trump has largely marketed himself as the candidate who “tells it like it is,” the one who is willing to speak the truths other politicians are unwilling to admit, and he maintains this discourse even when the validity of his truth claims are called into question. This unwavering affirmation of the truth of his own statements—even in the face of explicit evidence to the contrary—suggests an implicit assumption that whether or not what Trump says can be verified as truth is relatively unimportant; instead, what is important is that Trump has said that it is the truth. At least within the Trump campaign, Trump has become the one who establishes what is labeled as “the truth.”

There are numerous examples of Trump’s questionable truth claims, but two speak particularly well to this discussion. The first comes from April 16, 2015, when Trump tweeted “If Hilary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” The second comes from August 2015, when, in a CNN interview, Trump described Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly’s reaction to the statements he made during the debate by stating “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” There are two major epistemological issues with these examples. First, Trump presumably does not know either Clinton or Kelly well enough to be able to concretely determine if Clinton does indeed “satisfy” her husband, and if Kelly was menstruating at the time. In both cases, Trump made truth claims he had absolutely no way of objectively validating. Secondly, these truth claims have no conceivable bearing on the overall situation Trump was speaking to. There is no logical connection between Clinton’s sex life and her ability to serve as president, or between Kelly’s menstrual cycle and her ability to effectively question presidential candidates. In making such truth claims, Trump not only indirectly established himself as an epistemic authority on two women he has only passing knowledge of, he also shifted the broader American political discussion away from facts that matter to the presidential race, and toward his own desire to “speak his mind.”

In the context of an epistemically privileged position such as the one Trump occupies, the central concern, then, is not objectively establishing what the truth is, but rather defending the right of the epistemically privileged to speak “the truth.” When challenged about his truth claims, Trump has tended to respond defensively, firmly maintaining that he is correct, and blaming his political opponents, the media, or his audience, for either mistaking his meaning, or deliberately misconstruing what he has said. This kind of defensive response to being challenged bears some remarkable similarities to the concept of white fragility. Robin DiAngelo explains white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” By responding defensively to situations involving racial stress, white individuals made uncomfortable by such stress are able to reestablish an acceptable level of comfort without having to actually address the racial realities that initially caused the stress.

Translated into epistemological terms, a corresponding epistemic fragility calls attention to how the world is currently structured in a way that implicitly affirms the belief systems of the socially privileged.  As a member of the most privileged social position, Trump has little reason to examine his belief systems, and thus far, he has shown little willingness to critically engage with his own epistemic position, and his epistemic privilege. In the language of feminist standpoint theory, Trump has very much assumed the standpoint of the privileged rich, white, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled man. By responding defensively to challenges to his truth claims, Trump in effect denies any culpability for speaking falsehood, and avoids taking responsibility for actively seeking the truth, or reflecting on his own relationship to the truth. The option to avoid taking responsibility for the truth is not equally available to individuals occupying all social locations. By contrast, when criticized for using personal narratives that could not be easily verified, Senator Cory Booker responded by documenting and cross-checking his own memories. As a Black man, Booker faces a higher standard of truth than does Trump, and is required to go to greater lengths to maintain his epistemic authority. Trump is able to maintain that he is still the candidate who “tells it like it is,” without having to take responsibility for figuring out what, exactly, “is.”

What feminist epistemology has to say to Donald Trump, then, is this: Trump’s approach to the truth reflects both a large amount of epistemic privilege, and a great deal of epistemic fragility. In defending his indisputable right to speak “the truth,” Trump has simultaneously demonstrated that for him, his right to speak is more important than the truth itself. When it comes down to it, what Trump has defended the most is not the truth, but his own epistemic privilege.

 Miranda Pilipchuk is a graduate student at Villanova University, where she studies feminist epistemology and intersectionality. In addition to her published and presented works on these topics, she is also managing editor at Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy.

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