Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ more salient in hindsight


I was falling down the Spotify rabbit hole of music the other night when I came across an electro-industrial act called Eat Static. Typified by techno beats interspersed with samples from movies and other media, the U.K. duo picked a gem of an audio embellishment for the track Frozen in Time off their 2015 album Dead Planet.

The track features a sample from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a Department of Defense news briefing on Feb. 12, 2002:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

At the time, the quote became fodder for ridicule on the late-night talk show circuit, inspired the creation of a book of poetry and helped spark the inspiration for a documentary about Rumsfeld.

To be fair, Rumsfeld was distilling his analysis through a previously established method of inquiry known as the Johari window, so it’s not exactly like he was unintentionally freestyling word soup in front of the DoD.

Regardless, his position within the federal government during the context of the George W. Bush administration needing to defend its WMD-based intelligence for invading Iraq after 9/11 lent the quote a life of its own.

What will Trump be quoted for?

As I was listening to the Eat Static track, the contrast between Rumsfeld’s quote and the rhetoric we get from POTUS-elect Donald Trump struck me as stark.

Granted, times have changed since 2002, and the 140-character maximum of Twitter usually turns just about any complex thought into a virtual haiku.

But which Trump quotes will enter the geopolitical canon as “classic”? Here’s a smattering of Trump quotes as listed among the top results from Google search:

All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.

Sometimes your best investments are the ones you don’t make.

Everything in life is luck.

Further complicating the legacy of Trump’s rhetoric will be his penchant for bending the truth, if not lying outright. The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site PolitiFact has a tally of Trump quotes as ranked by veracity, but more than two-thirds fall somewhere between “mostly false” and “pants on fire.”

And that’s a known known.