Professor Harry Frankfurt begins his classic essay, “On Bullshit,” with an acute observation: our culture is filled with a fair amount of bullshit. We all contribute a little, and we all believe we can recognize it when we see it. Because of this confidence, we have paid little attention to bullshit in any theoretical way. Frankfurt’s essay attempts to remedy this problem by providing a theory of bullshit.
What is the difference between bullshit and lying? For Frankfurt, the critical difference between the two is the importance of truth. The lie is dependent on the truth. After all, one cannot craft an effective lie without knowing the truth. Therefore, the liar is not free to say whatever he pleases; the truth constrains the liar, limiting what can be said.
In contrast, the bullshitter is not constrained by, nor concerned with, the truth. He is not consciously seeking to hide the truth, like the liar, “[h]e pays no attention to it at all.” Bullshit is not concerned with conveying the truth, nor with hiding it. What the bullshitter is hiding is his own disregard for the importance of truth, that the truth or falsity of his statement imposed no constraint on it being uttered. What matters is the efficacy of the statement in constructing a narrative or reality. In the absence of respect for facts and truth, any reality can be constructed if there is a willing audience.
It is important to recognize that bullshit need not be sloppy or impulsive. As Frankfurt notes, the advertising and public relations industries, as well as the realm of politics, “are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” These industries use standards, focus groups, and statistics designed to enhance the effectiveness of their bullshit. Instead, the key aspect of bullshit is a carelessness with facts and an indifference to the way things really are.
Donald Trump–Bullshit or Truthful Hyperbole
Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their timely new book, argue that Trump’s most notorious norm-breaking behavior has been lying, labeling his habit of deceit as “brazen” and “unprecedented.” (p. 197-98). I agree that Trump’s rhetoric has exhibited an extraordinary amount of deceit; however, ‘lying’ insufficiently captures the the purpose and danger posed by Trump’s rhetoric.
One theory to explain President Trump’s penchant for deceit was put forward by Frankfurt in May 2016. In the article, he applied his theory of bullshit to then-candidate Donald Trump. A clear case of bullshit, for Frankfurt, was a statement by Trump in which he claimed he would deport all eleven million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Trump probably wasn’t lying, but seeking to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his audience. Trump wanted to be seen as the kind of politician who would carry out immigration policies like the one he pronounced, even if not exactly that exact policy. Whether or not he had authority, or actual intention, to deport million of people was irrelevant.
Donald Trump, not one to shy away from explaining his own brilliance, put forward another theory. Trump has long engaged in what he calls “truthful hyperbole,” exaggerating or distorting the truth to achieve a goal. But is this a sufficient explanation of his political rhetoric? Take a recent example: During recent trade talks between Canada and the United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maintained that Canada did not have a trade deficit with the United States (which is true). President Trump insisted, however, that Trudeau was mistaken: “I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know…I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’”
Is this ‘truthful hyperbole’ in Trump’s sense? No. Trump was not exaggerating the truth for some effect or to establish a better negotiating position—he wasn’t aware of the facts. The president said what it suited him to say at that moment; whether it was true or not was of no consequence.
The example above was not cherry-picked, it was par for the course. President Trump does not just engage in bullshit once-in-a-while. According to the non-partisan fact-checking group Politifact, roughly 70% of Trump’s statements have been false (not including “half true” statements). The Washington Post recently estimated that President Trump has told over 3,000 demonstrable lies, roughly 6.5 a day. While Politifact and the Washington Post do not distinguish between a lie and bullshit, the statistics show that engaging in lies and bullshit is a (the?) central element of Trump’s rhetorical style.
Bullshit, Authoritarianism, and Demagoguery
The distinction between lying and bullshit provides a more nuanced analysis of Trump’s rhetorical style and political strategy. However, the statistics, and Frankfurt’s analysis, do not provide an answer to another fundamental question: What is the purpose of President Trump’s bullshit? Is Trump engaging in reactionary bullshit, narcissistic bullshit, or is there a more nefarious ideology or purpose behind the bullshit?
Some have observed that lying, and even plain-old bullshit, insufficiently capture President Trump’s rhetorical style. I will explore two examples below, which I believe converge toward a coherent description of Trump’s rhetoric.
Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale, has written a timely book on propaganda and mass communication. Stanley is interested in the ways seemingly rational and reasonable language can be used to undermine the very ideals it is put forward to defend. Propaganda, in his view, is the mechanism by which citizens are deceived about their own best interest, or deceived about the threat and interests of other groups.
Take Trump’s statement that “millions and millions of people” voted illegally in the 2016 election, something Trump has repeated countless times since the election and has always been bullshit. How can we explain this statement? Anyone, most especially President Trump, could discover the falseness of this claim. However, if were true it would be a national emergency–and that’s the point.
This picture of the election system, as beset by millions of illegal voters, is used to push for voter identification laws. On the surface, presenting identification when you vote is not an absurd idea. In fact, those supporting the policy likely believe they are strengthening democratic norms. Yet the reality constructed by Trump leads them to support a policy designed to fix a non-existent problem. It is not a useless exercise, however; it has the benefit of making those opposed to a national voter identification law look weak while consolidating Trump’s own base.
Stanley suggests that President Trump engages in this form of propaganda, and has been successful weaponizing mass communication to enhance his power. President Trump was not merely engaging in bullshit, but a kind of authoritarian and populist bullshit. Stanley agrees that “Trump is…openly insensitive to reality. But he is not carelessly insensitive.” Trump’s bullshit is purposive, consolidating power by “sketch[ing] out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups.” Trump’s bullshit about “inner cities” filled with poverty and violence, notwithstanding falling rates of violence and crime for over a decade nationally, is about constructing a narrative of fear and pairing it with an emphasis on law and order. By creating a new reality, one in which the United States is weak and vulnerable, Trump is shaping the value systems of his base. If you believe millions of people voted illegally, that the United States is plagued by minority and immigrant violence, or shackled to unfair trade deals with foreigners, you are more likely to be in favor of tough on crime laws and anti-trade.
Similarly, Professor Bob Bauer compelling argues that President Trump is practicing “demagoguery of a high order,” the key element of which “is the manipulation of language to attract and maintain popular support in service of the demagogue’s unbound self-interest.” The demagogue is “indifferent to facts when facts—like any other obstacle, impede achievement of his goals.” Critically, Trump’s demagogic bullshit is more than just words; it is cultivating an environment conducive to greater attacks on institutions. For Bauer, Trump is not simply the most recent politician to engage in negativity or personal attacks. Rather, Trump’s rhetoric–his bullshit– is specifically designed to undermine institutions while simultaneously offering himself as the only solution to such failing institutions.
Whether called authoritarian or demagogic, Stanley and Bauer are referring to the same rhetorical behavior. Trump’s use of bullshit to undermine democratic institutions and to create feared out-groups has one overriding theme: a populist authoritarian narrative. As the political scientist Yascha Mounk observes, Trump “leaves little doubt about the fact that, like other populist leaders around the world, he desires to make state institutions that have a long history of independence subservient to his whim.” This is true of the key law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the Department of Justice, but also other government agencies not seen as politically loyal to the president. In some cases, the President has even appointed people to head agencies, like the EPA and DOE, who are openly hostile to their core mission.
Authoritarian Bullshit and the Importance of Truth in Liberal Democracies
President Trump is engaging in something beyond “truthful hyperbole.” Moreover, simply calling the president a liar or propagandist insufficiently grapples with the purpose of Trump’s rhetoric. While some of the bullshit may be a reflection of his personal goals or narcissism, a disconcerting amount of it is of a authoritarian character and directed at democratic institutions. There are many examples, but his continual attack on central institutions of a democratic society are as clear a sign as any.
The democratic theorist Robert Dahl observed that in any democracy, there is often a substantial gap between actual and ideal democracy (p. 30). Democracies are not static; countries often undergo democratization or de-democratization, edging closer or farther from the democratic ideal over time. Dahl identifies several criteria of an ideal democracy, one of which is relevant to this blog: enlightened understanding. For Dahl, enlightened understanding means members of the polity have equal and effective opportunities for learning about policies and their consequences (Dahl, p. 37). Levitsky and Ziblatt note that while President Trump “did not pay much of a price for his lies,” our political system has taken a major hit, precisely because Trump’s bullshit has undermined the ‘enlightened understanding’ Dahl was talking about. How can a representative democracy function if leaders and institutions are distrusted and citizens don’t have the means to debate, and influence, policy? (Levitsky and Ziblatt, p.199).
Likewise, Hannah Arendt outlined the political threat posed by excessive lying and the destruction of truth:
“The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”
Arendt’s wisdom is even more salient with respect to demagogic bullshit. The complete destruction of truth is unlikely, except perhaps in some totalitarian nightmare. But it can be eroded enough to harm democratic institutions and norms.
This is the threat posed by President Trump’s bullshit. Andrew Sullivan astutely compares Trump with Recip Tayyap Erdogan in Turkey or the Fidesz party in Hungary. The first step in dismantling or undermining Liberal democracy for these populist authoritarians is not a coup or the suspension of elections, but an attempt to erode truth and reasoned debate by attacks on core democratic institutions.
The erosion of truth will contribute to de-democratization and a further drift away from the ideal democratic state, in Dahl’s terms. Andrew Sullivan argues that Trump is not consciously trying to destroy Liberal democracy, as “he doesn’t even know what [that] is.” But, as he notes, while Trump’s ignorance seems like a net positive, it may not be. Liberal democracy is vulnerable to more than a smart and calculating enemy; an ignorant authoritarian can be just as dangerous.