Several journalists have called Donald Trump a BSer. So has the professor who wrote the book on BS. (More)

“Indifferent to whether what he is says is true or false”

When I say “the professor who wrote the book on BS,” I mean that literally. Harry Frankfurt is a professor of philosophy and he wrote a book titled On Bullshit. So he’s the expert on bovine fecal rhetoric, and he thinks Donald Trump shovels a lot of BS:

The distinction between lying and bullshitting is fairly clear. The liar asserts something which he himself believes to be false. He deliberately misrepresents what he takes to be the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, is not constrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. In making his assertion, he is indifferent to whether what he is says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. It is, rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.
However, it is often uncertain whether Trump actually cares about the truth of what he says. This makes it unclear whether his assertion is a lie or merely bullshit. Since a person does not lie unless he makes an assertion that he himself takes to be false, we cannot properly say that he is lying if he actually believes what he says.
On the one hand, Trump makes false assertions, which he surely knows, or knows he could easily ascertain, to be false. On the other hand, he makes statements of whose truth he is uncertain – and he is indifferent to the fact that he doesn’t actually regard them as true. In the first case, he is telling a lie. In the second case, it’s bullshit.

Here’s a video of Frankfurt discussing his research on BS:

“This has been Trump’s mode all his life”

The Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria wrote about Trump’s BSing last week:

This has been Trump’s mode all his life. He boasts – and boasts and boasts – about his business, his buildings, his books, his wives. Much of it is a concoction of hyperbole and falsehoods. And when he’s found out, he’s like that guy we have all met at a bar who makes wild claims but when confronted with the truth, quickly responds, “I knew that!”

Take, for instance, the most extraordinary example, his non-relationship with Vladimir Putin. In May 2014, addressing the National Press Club, Trump said, “I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.” In November 2015, at a Fox Business debate, he said of Putin, “I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes.”

Did Trump really believe that you could say something like that on live TV and no one would check? Did he think that no one would notice that the 60 Minutes show consisted of two separate prerecorded interviews, with Putin in Moscow and Trump in New York? (By that logic, I have gotten to know Franklin Roosevelt very well because I have run some clips of him on my television show.)

In fact, Trump was bullshitting. He sees himself as important, a global celebrity, the kind of man who should or could have met Putin. Why does it matter that they did not actually meet?

And that’s the key distinction. In Trump’s worldview, it doesn’t matter whether he has ever actually met Putin. What matters is Trump sees himself – and wants voters to see him! – as “the kind of man who should or could have met Putin.”

Reality is simply irrelevant to a BSer, Zakaria explains:

Harry Frankfurt concludes that liars and truth-tellers are both acutely aware of facts and truths. They are just choosing to play on opposite sides of the same game to serve their own ends. The B.S. artist, however, has lost all connection with reality. He pays no attention to the truth. “By virtue of this,” Frankfurt writes, “bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”

“Things that are beyond his personal expertise”

Why does Trump BS so often? Part of the answer may be habit; in his real estate career, shoveling BS was a standard sales and negotiating tactic and caveat emptor (“Let the buyer beware”) was both the social and sometimes the legal standard of accountability. But CUNY LaGuardia philosophy professor Eldar Sarajlic highlights another reason:

Frankfurt concludes his essay by asking why there is so much bullshit nowadays. He gives two possible answers. First, he says that bullshit is “unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what is he talking about.” Second, bullshit springs from various forms of contemporary skepticism “which deny that we have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.”

The first answer could plausibly explain Trump. He has put himself into circumstances that oblige him to speak about things that are beyond his personal expertise. As we can witness from his media appearances, his knowledge about public policy, foreign affairs or broader culture is meager, to say the least, and he compensates by producing bullshit. The second answer is perhaps too “academic” for Trump and his supporters. It is not very likely that he or anybody close to him at this point engages in such epistemic or metaphysical exercises.

I beg to differ. Trump supporters often all-but admit their candidate is BSing, with phrases like “It was hyperbole!” or “How can anyone know for sure?”

“It took a party of liars”

Indeed Trump has played that same gambit himself, as the New Republic’s Jett Heer explains:

Frankfurt’s analysis works extraordinarily well in explaining why Trump is so unfazed when called on his bullshit. Trump’s frequent response is to undermine the very possibility that the truth of his claims are knowable. When asked why there are no videos of “thousands and thousands” of Muslim-Americans cheering the 9/11 attacks, Trump told Joe Scarborough that 2001 was so far in the past that the evidence has disappeared. “Don’t forget, 14, 15 years ago, it wasn’t like it is today, where you press a button and you play a video,” Trump said in a phone interview on yesterday’s Morning Joe. “Fourteen, 15 years ago, they don’t even put it in files, they destroy half of the stuff. You know, if you look back 14, 15 years, that was like ancient times in terms of cinema, and in terms of news and everything else. They don’t have the same stuff. Today you can press a button and you can see exactly what went on, you know, two years ago. But when you go back 14, 15 years, that’s like ancient technology, Joe.”

This claim – that he’s telling the truth but that there can be no proof of it – is in some ways more insidious than the initial falsehood. It takes us to a post-truth world where Trump’s statements can’t be fact-checked, and we have to simply accept the workings of his self-proclaimed “world’s greatest memory.” In effect, Trump wants to take us to a land where subjectivity is all, where reality is simply what he says.

A similar gambit to destroy the possibility of objective historical knowledge can be seen in a controversy over a Civil War memorial plaque at a Trump golf course in Sterling, Virginia. The plaque reads: “Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’” When informed by The New York Times that historians called the plaque a fiction because there is no record of a battle fought on that spot, Trump petulantly responded: “How would they know that? … Were they there?”

Trump is hardly the first to employ that BS-defense tactic. Consider the typical conservative response to studies that show in-person voter fraud is ridiculously rare, like this reader comment at a recent NBC article:

So just how do they find voter fraud? Is this simply not a problem, or is it a situation that could be a large problem, but we don’t identify it well?

Indeed Heer argues that a long history of such arguments, by GOP officials, paved the way for Trump:

But Trump’s propensity to bullshit shouldn’t be seen as an aberration. Over the last two decades, the GOP as a party has increasingly adopted positions that are not just politically extreme but also in defiance of facts and science. As Michael Cohen argues in the Boston Globe, the seeds of Trump’s rise were planted by earlier politicians who showed how far they could go with uttering outright untruths which their partisans lapped up. This can be seen most clearly in the climate denial which so many leading candidates have given credence to. Or consider the way Carly Fiorina concocted a story about an imaginary Planned Parenthood video. It took a party of liars to make Trump’s forays into outright bullshit acceptable.

Trump is simply the logical next step from Rep. Steve King’s BS about immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes”, or former Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) saying his BS statistic about Planned Parenthood was “was not intended to be a factual statement,” or Mitt Romney pollster Neil Newhouse declaring “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

Indeed it goes back to this stunning Bush-era quote in a New York Times article by Ron Suskind:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Suskind has never said so, but that quote is widely attributed to Karl Rove and Trump is merely following a well-worn GOP path …

… paved with BS.


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