Is Trump worse than a liar?
Midway through the annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA last week on “Maintaining Intellectual Integrity in the Age of Trump,” Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens tried to summarize his in-depth analysis of President Trump’s dicey relationship with the truth.
“If I had to sum it up in a single sentence,” he said, “this would be it: Truth is what you can get away with.”
When I heard that, a light bulb went off. I thought of a book I read years ago, “On Bullshit,” by former Princeton professor and moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt.
One of the key insights in the book is that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,” Frankfurt writes. “Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
In other words, for the bullshitter, the truth is not just what he gets away with, but what he gets away from. A person who lies, Frankfurt writes, is “responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it.” 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…”
Trump’s dismissal of facts has been so blatant that the media has had no compunction calling out his lies. In his lecture, Stephens noted that the term “lies” is so serious that his paper prefers less loaded, more factual terms like “falsehoods.”
And yet, as serious as lying is, when I reflect on Frankfurt’s insights, I can see how a bullshit artist like Trump could be even worse than a liar– and more dangerous.
Liars are rational. They lie deliberately, parsing their words carefully, knowing what they’re hiding. A bullshitter, Frankfurt writes, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
Why is this so dangerous? Because when you are so untethered from facts, you create your own reality. In Trump’s reality, there is no sense of proportion, no possibility of shame, no need for knowledge. There is only the need to feel like a winner, to be on top, to intimidate your opponent. For this purpose, bullshit is the blunt instrument of choice.
Liars are rational. They lie deliberately, parsing their words carefully, knowing what they’re hiding.
Think back to Trump’s now infamous White House press conference of Feb. 16. He’s toying with the press, insulting and mocking them. He’s not slyly dissembling, as liars do. He’s unleashing one piece of bullshit after another. When he bullshits about his chaotic administration being “a fine-tuned machine” or CNN being “very fake news,” it’s as if he’s crushing a winner down the line in a tense tennis match.
When you crave the ecstasy of winning, the stronger the enemy, the greater the ecstasy. After vanquishing 16 Republican rivals and the formidable Clinton machine, Trump is now aiming his bullshit artillery at the mainstream media. The fact that he may be undermining a pillar of civil society in the process does not really register in his “I’m winning” reality.
In Trump’s mind, he already has won the ultimate contest of becoming the most important person on earth. That means he can call his own rules and his own truth. It means he can get away from the facts and get away with it.
The danger going forward is that Trump will continue to wallow in this alternate reality, drifting even further from the tedious and demanding responsibility of running the country.
We’re already seeing the signs. Instead of engaging with Congress to prepare for the complex task of shaping legislation, Trump is signing executive orders he hardly reads, having loud phone calls with world leaders, jousting with the “opposition” press and appearing at campaign-type rallies, all marks of a happy-go-lucky bullshitter in chief.
It’s still possible, of course, that despite all the bullshit, some good can come out. Trump may deter evil regimes, support key allies, negotiate better deals, destroy ISIS and add millions of jobs. If he gets out of the way, some members of his team may score a few policy victories.
But let’s be frank – for any initiative that will demand deep and grounded thinking from the man on top, it will be touch and go. Trump’s style, which was ideal for the drama of campaigning, is poorly suited for the taxing work of governing.
Trump has brought his bullshit ways into the White House, creating a chaotic reality show that chronicles his alternate reality. As long as he keeps believing in this reality, and getting away with it, all we can expect is that, for better or for worse, the show will go on.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.