One of the longstanding and unsettled arguments in civil society is whether skepticism is a virtue or a vice. Skepticism has been called the mark of an educated mind, one of the keys to civic decency and the “beginning of faith.” It has also been called a poison and a “disease of the whole soul.”
These days, with fake news and alternative facts moving through the population like pandemics, skepticism is a necessary tool of citizenship. Politicians have always bent the truth, but now they rip it to shreds without fear of consequences.
A fresh example is the campaign to discredit special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged dealings with Russia. When the investigation began, Mueller was praised all around as the perfect man to lead it. He had earned the reputation of impartiality, objectivity and professionalism.
But as his investigation has moved closer to Donald Trump’s family and inner circle, Mueller is being accused of a vendetta against the president. One commentator on Fox News, along with a Republican congressman and assorted conservative media, even claimed that the special prosecutor should be fired because he is attempting a coup.
Depending on which polls we read and which interpretations we hear, public opinion has been all over the map. In June, 68 percent of Americans were worried that the Trump campaign had ties to Russia. By August, Russian President Vladimir Putin was enjoying rising confidence among Republicans, possibly a reaction to Trump’s positive statements about him.
Last month just before Mueller issued the first indictments in his investigation, the public reportedly had a low level of confidence in him. Immediately after the indictments, public confidence shot back up with Americans approving his handling of the probe by a 2-1 margin.
Earlier this month, Fox News and The Hill reported that Mueller and the FBI were facing “a crisis in public confidence.” Yet another poll this month indicated that it was the Trump Administration facing a confidence crisis with a majority of Americans saying they thought senior members of the Administration had improper contacts with the Russians during the campaign.
Meanwhile, rumors have been circulating that the effort to discredit Mueller and his investigative team are laying the foundation for Trump either to fire the special prosecutor or to pardon the people Mueller has indicated and who may now be cooperating with the investigation.
There is another saying related to skepticism, this one from Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” The atrocity here would be for Trump to take any action at all. He would be wise to allow the investigation to proceed without further comment or interference. Any intervention will be seen, and should be seen, as a de facto admission of wrongdoing. The hysterical warnings of an attempted coup aren’t helping shore up confidence in Trump’s innocence, either.
It would be wise for the rest of us to maintain a healthy skepticism about the rumors, the prejudgments and the attempts to manipulate our opinions. At this stage, in fact, we shouldn’t have any opinions at all. When the investigation is finished, the court of public opinion and, if necessary, other courts as well can render their verdicts based on the evidence, or lack of evidence, the special prosecutor presents.