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The question of what Donald Trump “really believes” has no answer

It is a category error.

Donald Trump raises his right hand as he speaks in 2016.
“A tremendous hand. Larger than average.”
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Donald Trump says he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. Legions of fact-checkers have found no evidence for this claim. Now Trump says he opposed the war in a secret phone call to Sean Hannity. There is, of course, no way to verify this; only Hannity knows for sure. Zack Beauchamp runs down all the latest claims and counter-claims here.

What gets somewhat lost in the media coverage of this back and forth is that there is no answer to the question of whether Trump opposed the war in 2003. In fact, the question itself is a category error — one the media and political class cannot help making toward Trump.

The question presumes that Trump has beliefs, "views" that reflect his assessment of the facts, "positions" that remain stable over time, woven into some sort of coherent worldview. There is no evidence that Trump has such things. That is not how he uses language.

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind.

For most people, words are both representations and tools; for Trump, they're only the latter

In every human social interaction, there are two kinds of communication going on. There are the words themselves, with their shared meanings. And there are the countless signals and cues being exchanged — tone, expression, body language, and bearing — about social dynamics and hierarchy.

Every interaction is both an exchange of semantic information and a dance of social positioning, even those, as in science or academia, that strive to be purely the former.

To all appearances, Trump is engaged solely in the latter form of communication, and only in a narrow way: He treats all social interactions as zero-sum games establishing dominance and submission. In every interaction, someone is going to win and someone is going to lose, be with Trump or against him.

Trump pointing to his own head in front of an American flag.
"Who’s on top? This guy, that’s who."
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

He’s not unique in treating social interactions this way, but he is notably unusual in his near-total blindness toward the first kind of communication. Even to call him dishonest, to say he "lies," doesn’t quite seem to capture it. The whole notion of lying presumes beliefs — to lie is to say something that one believes to be false, to knowingly assert something that does not correspond to the facts.

It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water. That’s why he gives every indication of conviction, even when, say, denying that he has said something that is still posted on his Twitter feed.

Or denying that he said something that he in fact said on live television, in front of millions of people, just minutes earlier:

Social and moral norms regarding honesty mostly have to do with the semantic form of communication. One’s words are supposed to correspond with, or at least not mislead about, the facts as one understands them. But Trump simply doesn’t view what he’s engaged in as an exercise in articulating and defending beliefs about factual states of affairs. He is as blind to that function of communication as human eyes are to infrared light.

What he’s doing is trying to establish dominance — to win, in his words. That’s what he uses words for. That’s how he sees every interaction in which he is involved. He is attuned only to what the words are doing, whether they are winning or losing, not to what they mean.

Trump’s semantic blindness helps explain his history and tactics

This point helps explain why Trump cannot ever admit a mistake or an error. He can only process accusations — of dishonesty, of cruelty — as social gambits, not as factual claims. To him, the demand that he apologize or admit error is nothing more than a dominance play. Apologizing is losing.

It helps explain why Trump has focused so much on trade, and why he sounds so much stronger and more confident talking about it than on almost any other subject. It’s not that he knows anything about it. He doesn’t. It’s just that he sees all international relations — trade deals, climate deals, NATO, whatever — as zero-sum contests, negotiations in which the only relevant question is who will dominate, who will win. And he gets that. It’s his whole life!

It helps explain why Trump has such a long and rich history of defrauding investors, refusing to pay contractors, using his charitable foundation as a piggybank, and declaring bankruptcy to escape debt. Contracts and promises are just plays in the game, not words that carry meanings or create obligations. You sign them or say them when you need to, to win whatever negotiation you are in, and then they are gone like smoke.

Trump
"Hey, it’s just a piece of paper!"
Don Emmert / AFP / Getty

It helps explain why Trump can rant on about border walls, taking Iraq’s oil, banning Muslims, and deporting all the undocumented immigrants, despite every policy expert deeming those ideas ludicrously impracticable. Some in the media simply can’t help treating these as commitments to develop and implement actual policies in the actual world. But Trump does not, perhaps cannot, evaluate them in that way.

To him, they are displays, projections, word strings useful for establishing dominance and tribal solidarity in particular contexts. They are utterly immaterial to what he might actually do in office, when dominance might require different word strings.

It helps explain why, as Vox’s TV critics Caroline Framke and Todd VanDerWerff have both pointed out, Trump performs so much better in front of an audience. He riffs until he finds the word strings that get cheers and shouts. The display of strongman bravado and the resulting adulation are the point, not the meanings of the words.

Say what you want about the tenets of US conservatism, dude, at least it’s an ethos

So to ask whether Trump opposed the Iraq War, as though he had a considered view on the Iraq War that is subject to discovery, is a category mistake. Trump said words about the Iraq War at various points — whatever words he felt, in the moment, would project an image of power and control. When different words with different meanings felt that way, he said those words. Whatever position on the Iraq War feels that way in the future, he will adopt that one.

There is no real, stable belief underneath it all, no true answer to the question of what Trump believed, or believes, about the Iraq War. It’s like asking whether a rainbow was "really there" before the water droplets, light, and observers lined up just right. That’s not how rainbows work.

Moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt got at some of this in his celebrated book On Bullshit. Bullshitters don’t lie, he said, so much as treat the truth as irrelevant, orthogonal to their purposes. But even Frankfurt’s bullshitters are, on some level, choosing to bracket considerations of truth value. That implies they are aware of such considerations; they know what they’re doing.

There’s no evidence that Trump is aware of them at all. He’s a bullshitter who doesn’t know he’s bullshitting, because he doesn’t know that there’s any other way to communicate.

Donald Trump is wrong that fighting climate change will cost millions of jobs and hurt the economy.
"What smell? I don’t smell anything."
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

And that is the scariest thing about him. Leaders who lie at least have real beliefs that can be uncovered and used to predict their behavior. People who simply do not have beliefs as such are impossible to predict and easy to manipulate. They are unable to make credible commitments, build trust, or pursue opportunities for mutual benefit.

Putting people like that in a position of great power always ends in disaster.


Donald Trump hates lies, but can't tell the truth