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The Bullshitter-in-Chief

Donald Trump’s disregard for the truth is something more sinister than ordinary lying.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

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.

Trump says, over and over again, that he won one of the greatest Electoral College landslides in history. It’s not true, it’s obviously not true to anyone who bothers to look it up or remembers any past presidential elections, and it’s not even remotely clear why it’s important. But Trump keeps on saying it.

This is just how Frankfurt defines bullshit:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

This is a perfect portrait of a typical Trump statement. His assertions about policy matters are often so garbled as to make it nearly impossible to work out what he’s even trying to say in order to evaluate its truth or falsity.

The reason is that Trump is often completely indifferent to accuracy. His administration, like all administrations, sometimes tries to sell the public on something or other using tactics that are at times deceptive. But where he breaks from the mold is in the sheer quantity of things he seems to say for no reason at all, utterly outside the context of a planned sales pitch.

The annals of Trumpdown are simply littered with this kind of casual, fundamentally pointless falsehood:

None of this is useful in moving the ball forward on any kind of policy goal. And indeed, Republicans on Capitol Hill and even in the executive branch typically groan about these outbursts of Trumpian bullshit that throw their work into chaos and tend to at least temporarily derail the GOP’s substantive goals. But Trump not only keeps bullshitting, he tends to demand that his team offer a zealous defense of whatever bullshit he happens to spout on any given day — putting staffers and legislative allies in the untenable position of defending the indefensible.

The function of bullshit in the Trump regime

Trump launched his term in office by dispatching White House press secretary Sean Spicer to deliver an inaugural press briefing dedicated to disputing clear photographic evidence about crowd size.

It seemed insane, and one popular interpretation was that Trump had, in fact, lost his marbles and simply couldn’t stand the blow to his ego implied by mocking media coverage. But George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen argues that this kind of thing can serve a strategic role.

The key issues are trust and loyalty. By asking subordinates to echo his bullshit, Trump accomplishes two goals:

  • He tests the loyalty of his subordinates. In Cowen’s words, “if you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid.”
  • The other is that it turns his aides into members of a distinct tribe. “By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration.”

Both of these things allow Trump to do a better job of operating in a low-trust environment. All presidents face a mild form of a principle-agent problem in which their subordinates’ interests are only imperfectly aligned with their own. In the past, presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy tended to solve this by selecting White House staffs full of longtime personal loyalists.

In more recent years, ideological polarization of the parties has produced what Richard Skinner calls the “partisan presidency” — White House teams are made up primarily of generic party operatives who have deep party ties that transcend their personal connection with the president. This works for a president like George W. Bush or Barack Obama because the president himself is also a long-term party loyalist who does not perceive there to be a huge divergence between the party’s priorities and his own.

Trump is clearly not a longtime Republican Party loyalist, so he can’t rely on this solution. In part, he is reaching for a personal presidency — installing, for example, his son-in-law in a senior advisory position. But an old-school personal presidency wouldn’t work for Trump. For one thing, he needs the support of congressional Republicans, which means he needs people they trust on his team. But beyond that, unlike Ike or JFK, Trump has no experience in politics or government, so a team of pure personal loyalists would have no idea what they’re doing.

He needs to operate in the context of a mostly partisan presidency, even though he knows most of the members of his party would probably prefer to see Mike Pence sitting in the Oval Office. Throwing out a constant stream of bullshit simultaneously helps the president assess whom he should regard as loyal, and also serves as a filter to increasingly bind a growing circle of politicians and political operatives to him and his family.

Post-totalitarian bullshit

Frankfurt initially wrote his essay in 1986 (it found a lay audience on the internet in the early 21st century and was published as a book in 2005) largely as an amusing observational piece about life in comfortable capitalist liberal democracies. He did not, primarily, have the practical conduct of politics in mind — though he did suggest that bullshitting about politics is a particularly common form of bullshit, he regarded it primarily as a recreational habit of citizens rather than as a governing tactic.

Eight years earlier, the Czech dissident (and later president of his country) Václav Havel wrote on a similar theme of truthlessness in “The Power of the Powerless,” taking as his backdrop the very different situation of what he called “post-totalitarian” communist dictatorships in Central Europe.

He considers the case of the grocery store manager who places in the shop window a sign emblazoned with the slogan “workers of the world unite.” The poster would have been delivered from headquarters along with the vegetables and placed in the window “simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.” As Havel writes, the display of the sign surely communicates something, but it equally surely does not communicate a desire to see unity among the world’s workers:

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace."

Yet equally crucially, the regime itself does not post these signs in the hopes of convincing anyone of anything, or of conveying any kind of meaningful information about the world. The sign — the slogan itself — is mere bullshit. But according to Havel, it serves an important function:

The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don't want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security.

Trumpian bullshit involves the transplantation of the kind of social and political role that Havel envisioned into a society that is much closer to the one Frankfurt lived in. Nobody in America is coerced into parroting the Trumpian line, and indeed, elements of the media that lie outside the Trumposphere appear to be prospering and flourishing under his regime.

But it is still true that Trumpian bullshit serves not only as a test of elite loyalty, but as a signifier of belonging to a mass audience. One chants, “Lock her up,” at a rally not to express a desire or expectation that Hillary Clinton will serve jail time for violating an obscure State Department guideline, but simply because to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community these days requires the chant.

The big, beautiful wall that Mexico will allegedly pay for, the war on the “fake news” media, Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate, and now the secret tape recording that will destroy James Comey are not genuine articles of faith meant to be believed in. Their invocation is a formalism or a symbol; a sign of compliance and belonging. The content is bullshit.

Bullshit as a coping mechanism

Critically, though bullshit plays a genuine functional role for the Trump regime, there is no particular reason to believe its adoption as Trump’s primary rhetorical mode is a strategic choice. Trump is wildly unfit for the presidency in obvious and well-known ways, including, critically, a total lack of knowledge of or interest in any area of public policy.

Trump lacks the knowledge to govern, the patience to learn how to govern, or the humility to admit it. Consequently, he bullshits, telling Time that he “only needed a short time to understand everything about health care” and the Economist that his tax cut plan doesn’t benefit the rich because “I mean I can tell you this, I get more deductions, they have deductions for birds flying across America, they have deductions for everything.”

As Frankfurt writes:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.

Nobody, needless to say, could actually have predicted Trump’s ascension to the presidency. But Frankfurt’s 30-year-old analysis perfectly forecasts the consequences of electing a profoundly ignorant man to the most powerful political office in the world — an unprecedented explosion of bullshit.

The president bullshits because he is ignorant. But his aides, in order to manipulate Trump into governing in ways they find reasonable or ideologically congenial or both, must echo his bullshit to prove their loyalty. This winds up creating substantial levels of second-order bullshit as flunkies pony up an outlandish series of pro-Trump claims — claims that are then echoed in a large and vibrant ecosystem of pro-Trump media.

This sphere of bullshit ultimately ends up encompassing not only flunkies like Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway but aides such as Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein or National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who entered Trump’s service with sterling reputations yet inevitably find themselves fronting for one form or another of flimflam.

Trump’s bullshit is contagious

For somebody who is so poorly informed, Trump is by all accounts a voracious news consumer. Shane Goldmacher reports for Politico that on a typical morning, “Trump reads through a handful of newspapers in print, including The New York Times, New York Post, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal — all while watching cable news shows in the background.”

He watches, most of all, to see who is defending him zealously. The Washington Post reports that in the wake of Comey’s firing, Trump “sat in front of a television watching cable news coverage of” the firing and “noticed another flaw: Nobody was defending him.” As a result, he was “irate” and “pinned much of the blame on Spicer and [White House Communications Director Michael] Dubke’s communications operation,” even as allies of Spicer and Dubke complained to the press that it was unreasonable to expect them to have a surrogate strategy to roll out when Trump had given them no advance notice of the move.

But the president doesn’t want a well-planned communications strategy; he wants people who’ll leap in front of the cameras to blindly defend whatever it is he says or does.

And because he’s the president of the United States, plenty of people are willing to oblige him. That starts with official communicators like Spicer, Conway (who simultaneously tries to keep her credibility in the straight world by telling Joe Scarborough she needs to shower after defending Trump), and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But there are also the informal surrogates. Trump is tapping Callista Gingrich to serve as his ambassador to the Holy See, an honor that Jonathan Swan reports he was initially reluctant to grant “because he likes seeing her husband Newt defending him on TV.” When reassured that there would be a satellite link for Newt in Rome, Trump agreed.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes embarrassed himself but pleased Trump with a goofy effort to back up Trump’s wiretapping claims. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who certainly knows better, sat next to Trump in an Economist interview and gave him totally undeserved credit for intimidating the Chinese on currency manipulation. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross hailed a small-time trade agreement with China consisting largely of the implementation of already agreed-upon measures as “more than has been done in the whole history of U.S.-China relations on trade.”

This kind of bullshit, like Trump’s, couldn't possibly be intended to actually convince any kind of open-minded individual. It’s a performance for an audience of one. A performance that echoes day and night across cable news, AM talk radio, and the conservative internet.

The growing bullshit zone threatens reality

Havel’s post-totalitarian bullshit would be reinforced and undergirded by a state-controlled media apparatus. In Peter Pomerantsev’s evocative phrase about media and society in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in such a place, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”

Trump’s America is, obviously, not like that. The United States lacks a major state-run broadcast agency, and PBS television is more likely to show you old episodes of British TV shows than government propaganda. America has a large and vibrant independent media sector that is, if anything, prospering financially as a result of Trump’s ascension to power.

What we have instead is Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and other talkers — a constellation of conservative-themed commercial mass media outlets that decided during the 2016 primary that ratings were more important than ideology and that now serve as a nonstop amen chorus for the White House.

Slate’s Will Oremus wrote on May 10 that “Fox News is covering James Comey’s firing from an alternate reality”:

No one familiar with the network's popular prime-time opinion shows will be surprised to know that they responded to the news unanimously with full-throated Trump boosterism. But even a jaded Sean Hannity viewer might have been brought up short by just how hard he spun the Comey firing throughout the course of his 10 p.m. show. The FBI director had been blasted by Hillary Clinton supporters for publicizing the agency’s investigation into her emails at the height of the presidential campaign — a criticism echoed in the memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Trump used to justify Comey’s dismissal. Yet Hannity suggested that Comey’s real failing was that he let Clinton off the hook. The host called him “a national embarrassment” who “has failed you, the American people, on a spectacular level” by not going after Trump’s election rival more aggressively. Hannity closed his show with what he called “the most important question of the night”: With Comey gone, will Clinton finally face the criminal prosecution she deserves? All three members of his expert panel proceeded to agree that she was a felon who should be indicted, though they differed on whether that would actually happen.

Bill Kristol, the veteran conservative operative and longtime proprietor of the Weekly Standard, told a Mediaite podcast that the tenor of Fox’s Trump coverage is “ridiculous, honestly, and depressing.”

National Review’s Kevin Williams has been in a long-running Twitter feud with Hannity, in which the more thoughtful and more ideology-oriented writer calls the radio host and television personality a “sycophant” who is also “dumb and dishonest and has no self-respect” (he is not wrong).

Rush Limbaugh opened his May 15 show, by denouncing all interest in the Comey story as just a feeble effort to take down the president, arguing that “the real Watergate comparison here would be Barack Obama ordering the FBI to spy on Republican campaigns, maybe not just Trump’s.”

CNN long ago sidelined its normal roster of conservative pundits in favor of reliable Trump defenders Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany. George Will lost his contract with Fox News in favor of a new gig on MSNBC. Trump critic Bret Stephens is gone from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page and over to the New York Times, while over at the Journal, you can read Daniel Henninger explain that the Clintons are to blame for Comey’s firing.

In the United States of Bullshit, anything can happen

For Trump, the constant bullshitting serves as a highly effective filter. Senators like John McCain and Ben Sasse, who’ve overwhelmingly voted with Trump when it counts, have nonetheless refused to echo his bullshit — proving their integrity to the world and their disloyalty to Trump. But formerly obscure figures such as Lord and Nunes who’ve proven their subservience to Trump are on the upswing, while other longtime players in conservative politics are debasing themselves on Trump’s behalf.

“Since his selection as vice president,” Abby Phillip writes at the Washington Post, “[Mike] Pence has been unflagging in his loyalty and deference to Trump. But in return, the president and White House aides have repeatedly set Pence up to be the public face of official narratives that turn out to be misleading or false.”

The upshot is a conservative movement and a Republican Party that, if Trump persists in office, will be remade along Trumpian lines with integrity deprecated and bullshit running rampant. It’s clear that the owners and top talent at commercial conservative media are perfectly content with that outcome, and the question facing the party’s politicians is whether they are, too.

The common thread of the Trumposphere is that there doesn’t need to be any common thread. One day Comey went soft on Clinton; the next day he was fired for being too hard on her; the day after that, it wasn’t about Clinton at all. The loyalist is just supposed to go along with whatever the line of the day is.

This is the authoritarian spirit in miniature, assembling a party and a movement that is bound to no principles and not even committed to following its own rhetoric from one day to the next. A “terrific” health plan that will “cover everyone” can transform into a bill to slash the Medicaid rolls by 14 million in the blink of an eye and nobody is supposed to notice or care. Anything could happen at any moment, all of it powered by bullshit.

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