Matthew Yglesias · Tuesday, May 30, 2017, 9:40 am
Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar.
But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care.
In Trump's own book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, our now-president describes himself in a way that Frankfurt could hold up as the quintessential example of a bullshitter. Trump writes that he’s an "I say what’s on my mind" kind of guy. Pages later, he explains that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily an honest guy.
"If you do things a little differently," he writes of the media, "if you say outrageous things and fight back, they love you." The free publicity that results from deliberately provoking controversy is invaluable. And if a bit of exaggeration is what it takes, Trump doesn’t have a problem with that. "When," he asks "was the last time you saw a sign hanging outside a pizzeria claiming ‘The fourth best pizza in the world’?!"
When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.
In his first and best-known book, The Art of the Deal, Trump writes a passage that is one of the most remarkable ever set to paper by a future American president. It’s deeply telling about Trump’s views on the distinction between integrity and loyalty. Trump sings the praises of Roy Cohn — Joe McCarthy’s infamous legal attack dog later turned Trump mentor:
Just compare that with all the hundreds of “respectable” guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty. They only care about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite. Roy was the kind of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed long after everyone else had bailed out, literally standing by you to the death.
Trump, ironically, would not stand by Cohn’s deathbed as he perished of AIDS; instead, he disavowed his friend. For Trump, loyalty is a way to size up those around him, suss out friend from foe. It is not a quality he cares to embrace in his personal life. Now president, it’s the same in his political life.
The two passages taken together illuminate an important facet of Trump’s personality, and of his presidency. He’s a man who doesn’t care much about the truth. He’s a man who cares deeply about loyalty. The two qualities merge in the way he wields bullshit. His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test.
Trump’s tactics, in a different context, would be understood as typical authoritarian propaganda — regimes often propound nonsense more to enforce expectations on their citizens than because they are expecting anyone to actually believe it. The United States isn’t the kind of place where that can work. There’s a free and vibrant press and political debate operating wholly outside the world of Trump’s bullshit. But by filling the heads of his fans — and the media outlets they consume — with a steady diet of bullshit, Trump is nonetheless succeeding in endlessly reinscribing polarization in American politics, corroding America’s governing institutions, and poisoning civic life.
Harry Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit
As Frankfurt put it in his groundbreaking essay “On Bullshit,” “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
Frankfurt attempts to give the term definition that distinguishes the bullshitter from the liar, with the most salient distinction being that the liar is genuinely trying to trick you.
“The bullshitter,” by contrast, “may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be.”
The liar wants to be seen as the one telling the truth. The bullshitter just doesn’t care. That’s Trump. During the course of the 2016 campaign, he said over and over again that America is “the highest-taxed nation in the world,” which isn’t even remotely close to being true. But he kept saying it, despite having been called out repeatedly, and then he said it again in a recent interview with the Economist.