Donald Trump understands, better than any politician I’ve ever seen, that the question isn’t whether you’re winning the argument — it’s whether you’re dominating and driving the coverage of the argument. And that is his strategy in responding to former FBI Director James Comey’s searing testimony. Trump means to take back control of the storyline. But he doesn’t intend to win the argument, or even offer a persuasive counterargument or narrative of events. Instead, his strategy is to crowd out coverage of Comey’s arguments and force the media to cover bullshit.
A bit of set-up is useful here. Matthew Yglesias recently wrote a brilliant essay arguing that Donald Trump is a bullshitter, not a liar. Yglesias is using “bullshit” as a technical term, working off Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s seminal book On Bullshit, which distinguishes the liar, who is trying to persuade us of a false truth, from the bullshitter, who cares little for persuasion so long as he is achieving his other ends. As Frankfurt writes:
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.
At 6:10 am on Friday, Trump broke his silence on Comey’s testimony. And in doing, he provided an object lesson in how he uses bullshit, rather than arguments or even lies, to achieve his goals.
Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication...and WOW, Comey is a leaker!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2017
Step back and assess the contradictory things Trump is asking us to believe:
- Trump’s first point is that Comey is a liar (and, since he was testifying under oath before the Senate, a perjurer). It is not just Trump making this case. White House staff have said that Trump, among other things, never asked for Comey’s loyalty, and that the ex-FBI director is making his story up. No one really believes this, but then, that’s not the point.
- Trump’s second point is that even though Comey is a liar trying to frame Trump, his testimony is believable as a complete and total vindication for Trump, though what Trump is being completely and totally vindicated of is unclear.
- Trump’s third point is that Comey “is a leaker.”
It would be a mistake to think of what Trump is doing here as persuasion. He is not trying to offer a more consistent or credible account of events than Comey did. He is not marshaling evidence that disproves Comey’s testimony, or offering alternative explanations for the interactions Comey recorded.
No fair-minded person would look at Comey’s testimony and the White House’s pushback and see anything of value in the latter. Trump isn’t crafting believable lies or arguing with how Comey understood events or even trying to convince observers of an alternative timeline. He’s bullshitting, and he’s doing so with a few goals:
- By accusing Comey of perjury — an explosive accusation, particularly given that Trump proffers no evidence — Trump is trying (and, if this morning’s headlines are any evidence, succeeding) in wresting the story back from Comey’s testimony. A liar tries to replace the truth — which is hard. A bullshitter tries to crowd out the truth — and that’s a lot easier. Trump is a bullshitter.
- By claiming “total and complete vindication,” Trump is giving his loyalists a talking point to use. Again, he is not trying to persuade anyone he has been vindicated — he does not mount any argument in that direction whatsoever. Instead, he is simply hoping that the words “total and complete vindication” get repeated continuously. So those who want to believe in his innocence can, and those who want to prove their loyalty to his regime have a way of doing so.
- By accusing Comey of leaking, Trump is, again, creating a storyline his defenders can use to crowd out the important questions raised by Comey’s testimony. It is genuinely unclear what it means to say Comey leaked — after all, he is simply offering his account of events, and at this point, he is doing so in public. This isn’t leaking as it is usually understood. But then, the point here is not to offer an actual argument about leaking. The point here is that outlets friendly to Trump need a new direction to take the story or else they’ll have to keep covering Comey’s comments. Trump is giving them that new direction — it’s “Trump versus the leakers.” Head to the front page of Fox News this morning and you see how eagerly this is being taken up:
Lies are an effort to win an argument. Bullshitting is an effort to dominate coverage of an argument, to crowd out the truth, to distract the media with topics you prefer. Trump is very good at bullshitting. And since he doesn’t have a good counterargument to offer against Comey, he’s falling back on what he knows. The question is whether we let him.