Journalism has its the canonical Five W’s: who, where, when, what, and why. The first four might require a bit of digging. Who killed the Archduke? A fellow named Gavrilo Princip did. Where? Sarajevo in Bosnia. When? June 28, 1914. With what? A gun. The answers to those four can provide a neat little lede paragraph explaining the event that kicked off what we now call World War I.
The answer to the fifth W – why? – presents a qualitatively different challenge. To take our assassin Gavrilo again, why did he kill the Archduke? The conventional short answer is that he belonged to a Serbian secret society, the Black Hand, seeking to free Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian rule, and the Black Hand thought the assassination could bring about that political change.
It’s a decent enough second paragraph. But it’s wildly over-simplified (and may be wrong altogether). Books have been written – thousands and thousands of pages – trying to unpack that particular why.
Of course, the whys of a conspiracy will always be difficult to fathom. But the same is true of all kinds of whys. In early November, Hilary Clinton lost – and Donald Trump won – the 2016 presidential election. Since then, oceans of ink have been spilled trying to answer the question why. For some, it was Comey, Russian hackers, and fake news. For others Candidate Trump had a more resonant populist message compared to the warmed-over 90’s liberalism of Candidate Clinton.
In all, though, dozens if not hundreds of answers to why have been put forward and none is truly satisfactory (or ever liable to be). A hundred years from now, there may be some conventional wisdom for why Trump won, but it will likely always remain an open question.
The late, great sociologist Charles Tilly, in his short and fascinating book Why?, explains how confounding this three-letter word can be. For Tilly, the ways in which we give reasons and try to understand them can be complex to the point of frustration. Stated reasons, often, barely even make a pretense of offering an adequate causal account. Yet, asking the question is a necessary part of seeking to understand our world and the people who live here.
Why the Archduke was assassinated is a question for the ages. Right now, though, we’ve got to get ready to answer a new series of “why” questions that can be generally characterized as “why-did-President-Trump-do-X?” questions.
The recent call with the Taiwanese president presents a good example. Trump broke years of precedent to speak directly to the leader of a country with whom we have no diplomatic relations, the Democratic Republic of China. Its rival – the People’s Republic of China – professed upset. The obvious question: Why did Trump do it?
The answers are all over the map and underscore the general difficulties of providing explanatory reasons, particularly when dealing with an actor as enigmatic as Trump. One possible explanation is that he believes that U.S. policy is tilted too much in favor of the People’s Republic and he wants to re-balance the relationships. Whether that’s right or wrong (an open question), let’s call that explanation the good-faith public policy answer. In other words, he did what he did because he believes that it’s the best public policy for the United States.
Another possible answer, though, is that the Trump Organization has business interests in Taiwan and Trump was seeking to curry favor with the government in that country, i.e. a selfish commercial reason unrelated to the general welfare of the country. A third possibility is that Trump simply made – or received – the call without even knowing that he was deviating from long-standing U.S. policy. We’ll call this the pure ignorance reason.
A corollary potentially related to many of these, particularly ignorance, is that someone in Trump’s circle knew full well that this was an anomalous thing to do and tricked him into doing it for that person’s own reasons (also hidden from us). This could also apply, for example, to a commercial reason if an associate with some Taiwanese business interests inveigled Trump into making the call. (I’m looking at you, Bob Dole.)
To summarize regarding the Taiwan call, we have answers to “why?” that run the gamut from Trump thought (1) it was good policy and in our country’s best interest, to (2) it was in his personal commercial interest, to (3) someone with an agenda made him do it, to (4) he had no idea why he did it. And, as we’ve seen so far, don’t expect cogent – let alone truthful – answers from Trump or his people after the fact.
As Charles Tilly pointed out, the reasons why anyone does anything are almost always more complex than they might appear at first glance. For Trump, figuring it out will be even tougher. Yet, we have to continue to ask this question: “Why, President Trump?”