The Bullshitter-in-Chief

President Donald Trump told a lie. That gets reported almost every day, or more likely several times every day. Some news outlets give us the cumulative total since Inauguration Day. One source has him uttering more than 1600 different lies since he became President.

I find myself almost pulling for more lies. Two thousand would be a nice, memorable number that would be easy to compare as next year’s total begins. I feel a little like I did in a harsh winter a few years back. Snowy day after snowy day. Ice was everywhere. A fall on the sidewalk always seemed imminent. Roads were close to impassable. Then at the end of winter another storm was approaching. The weather reporters said that it might veer north and not hit us, but I felt bizarre because I was welcoming it. If it hit us, we were going to hit an all-time record for the yearly snowfall. If I had to suffer as I had most of the winter, at least it should be a record year.

Having listened to so many Presidential lies, I, again, want this storm of lies to be memorable. To say that the total lies was more than 1,600 is more forgettable than if he gets the total over 2,000.

But as I have been wanting even more lies to get there—he might have to slightly increase the pace, but I had great confidence that he could reach 2,000—I started to remember something I had read a few years back, and I started to doubt whether President Trump really told any lies. So, I re-read Harry G. Frankfort’s marvelous little book, On Bullshit.

Frankfort makes a convincing distinction between bullshit and lies. Lying requires a degree of craftsmanship to get the lie accepted, and it also takes a concern for the truth. “In order to invent a lie at all, [the liar] must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.”

The liar, thus, has a concern for the truth. The bullshitter does not. A bullshitter’s “statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” And since our President does not seem to craft lies as much as utter falsehoods with an indifference to the truth, he is not liar. Stop calling him that! He is a bullshitter.

The bullshitter has more freedom than the liar. The bullshit artist “does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a certain point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, as far as required, to fake the context as well.” Frankfort continues, “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.”

Many wonder how Trump can tell so many falsehoods, or how he can repeat falsehoods that have been repeatedly debunked, or how he can assert things that on their face are blatantly false. Their outrage stems from their mistaken assumption that they are both playing I Spy, when Trump is really playing Pin the Tail (or in this case, Tale) on the Donkey. While a liar and truth-teller are on opposite sides in the same game, the bullshitter is not rejecting the authority of truth, as the liar does. Instead, “he pays no attention to it at all.”

If Trump lied, he would not be as dangerous. Frankfort writes, “By virtue of [not paying attention to the truth], bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are. . . . Through excessive indulgence in [bullshit], which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.”

There may be many causes for Trump’s bullshit—his narcissistic ego may be the prime reason, but there is at least another one. “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Those of us concerned with the truth should give up the notion that Trump will learn what is true and what is not and that the falsehoods will decrease over time. As long as Trump continues to talk about things he knows little to nothing about, the bullshit will continue.

But the bullshit will also continue because many of us simply do not want to grapple with determining what is true. A sizeable portion of the population does not care whether what a speaker says is true or not, much less whether the speaker believes what he says is true or that he knows, like the liar, that it is not true. A sizeable audience is indifferent to how things really are. In other words, this group is content to be fed bullshit, and that almost guarantees that bullshit will proliferate. (To be continued.)

The U.S. Fort Named for the Bumbling Traitor

          I just watched Wanda Sykes’s Not Normal on Netflix. It was taped more than a year ago, but it was timely as she urged that we confront present and past racism. She recounts that when she returns to Virginia she sees off the interstate “a big, giant Confederate flag. Every time I go home and I pass that flag, it hurts me to my core. It fucking hurts. ‘Cause it’s racist. It’s racist and it’s wrong. And I’m sick of this bullshit of ‘Well, that’s part of my Southern heritage.’ Well, your heritage is shitty. It’s garbage. Your heritage is trash. The atrocities that happened under that flag, are you proud of that shit? – Yeah. – What the fuck? There are so many other things about the South that you can be proud of. Right? Moonshine. Dollywood. Come on. You got to love Dolly Parton and Dollywood. Clay Aiken. Come on. Why don’t you tear down those statues and put up a statue of Clay Aiken drinking moonshine, wearing a Dollywood t-shirt.”

          Maybe, just maybe, Sykes is seeing some progress. A statue of Jefferson Davis, for example, was torn down in Richmond, Virginia. Such a de-pedestalization has not been uncommon in the past few years, but it is remarkable that NASCAR—yes, NASCAR, with its deep Southern good-ole-boy roots— recently banned the Confederate flag, something that could not have been predicted even a few months ago. I was surprised even further when the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Defense both said that they were open to the renaming of at least ten military installations honoring Confederate soldiers. On the other hand, I was not surprised when the Tweeter-in-Chief, apparently blindsiding the Pentagon leaders, slammed the gates on that possibility: “My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!” Our history, Mr. President, undermines our “Greatest Nation” status.

          This military controversy did teach me something. I had not known that some of our army installations were named for Confederate soldiers. Curious, I did an intensive, twenty-minute internet research, and I found that Ft. Bragg in North Carolina honors Braxton Bragg. He fought for the United States in the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War, but, although he opposed secession, he was a Confederate General in the Civil War.

          I don’t know how the North Carolina fort came to be named after Bragg other than that he was born in that state, but I assume that it came at a time when many in the South maintained that the Civil War was not truly about slavery and that instead it was about states’ rights — that it was the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression. This wishful propaganda, of course, was revisionist history. Perhaps we might explore this further another time, but let us not doubt that the South’s core purpose in seceding was to preserve slavery. Historians have demonstrated this time and again. All Americans should be offended by the honoring of those who fought and killed to maintain the enslavement of Americans.

          In addition, it is remarkable that we would honor those who were traitors and committed treason. For example, wouldn’t you be offended to have a statute of Benedict Arnold in your town square? “Benedict Arnold” became synonymous with “traitor” shortly after the American General Arnold defected to the British during our Revolution. We would never erect a monument to that traitor. But Arnold, before his switch, was an American hero and had a major role in the battles around Saratoga and Lake Champlain that helped secure our independence. Benedict Arnold does have a sort-of memorial at Saratoga—a sculptured pair of boots (Arnold was wounded in the leg there) with an inscription that mentions a “brilliant soldier” without giving Arnold’s name. This, however, commemorates his bravery fighting for the new United States. We don’t have memorials commemorating his time battling for the British against the United States for the simple reason that we don’t honor Americans who fought against the United States. Unless, that is, they fought against the United States from 1861 to 1865.

Many of us have not recognized Confederate soldiers as traitors and treasonous, but we should. They made war on the United States. The constitutional Framers carefully defined “treason”: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid or Comfort.” The Confederacy levied war against the United States. Confederate leaders knew they could be charged with treason if they lost the war, just as Revolutionary leaders expected Great Britain to hold them treasonous if the War for Independence failed.

A major issue after the Civil War was whether to charge the leaders of the Confederacy with the constitutional crime of treason. Jefferson Davis was so charged, but he was never tried. United States officials concluded that the desired reconciliation of the country would be harmed by treason trials, and on Christmas of 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a “pardon and amnesty” for treason to “every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion.” A result of Johnson’s proclamation is that we don’t see the Stonewall Jacksons and the Robert E. Lees as traitors, but, of course, they were. And if we saw them as traitors, we might wonder more about why there are so many memorials to them. If Braxton Bragg had been tried for treason, I can’t imagine that we would have a military installation named after him.

We should not honor anyone who fought for slavery and against the United States, but there is another curious thing about honoring Bragg. He was a terrible general. The noted Civil War historian James MacPherson puts Bragg in the “bumbler” category. One summary states: “Bragg is generally considered among the worst generals of the Civil War. Most of the battles in which he engaged ended in defeat. . . . Bragg has a generally poor reputation with historians. . . . The losses which Bragg suffered are cited as principal factors in the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy.” Even in his day the Confederate General was detested: “Bragg was extremely unpopular with both the men and the officers of his command, who criticized him for numerous perceived faults, including poor battlefield strategy, a quick temper, and overzealous discipline.” Jefferson Davis recognized Bragg’s flaws and relieved him of command.

Why would we honor someone who fought to maintain slavery, was a traitor, and was a bad and unpopular military leader? The only answer might be that it is because he was so inept, and Braxton Bragg thus helped the United States to win the Civil War. Surely that is a curious reason, to say the least, to have a Ft. Bragg.

Real Americans and Trump

Real Americans I know have had a shot and a beer sitting at the bar of a neighborhood tavern after work. Has Donald J. Trump ever done that?

Real Americans I know have sung along with both Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. Has Donald Trump ever done that?

Real Americans I know have seen Citizen Kane, Easy Rider, and all the Toy Story movies. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know eat hot dogs at street fairs, medium rare steaks, sushi, perogies, asparagus, barbecue, haddock, and cotton candy. Does Trump do that?

Real Americans I know have read maybe an Andrew Jackson biography, The Great Gatsby, Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Michael Connelly detective novels. Has Trump read anything besides tweets and perhaps the crawl on Fox News?

Real Americans I know have at least tried to dance a foxtrot, the Texas two-step, a square dance, a waltz, the swim, the electric glide (or is it slide?), and perhaps, once, the macarena. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know own guns and fishing rods, hunt deer and turkeys, fish for smallmouth bass and speckled trout, and support universal background checks to purchase a gun. And Trump?

Real Americans I know have bought milk and eggs at the local store. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know have a lively sense of humor. Does Trump know how to laugh?

Real Americans I know both go to church and pray regularly. Does Trump?

Real Americans I know have proudly served in our country’s armed forces. Trump?

Real Americans I now have dressed up for Halloween and worn a goofy mask. Can one imagine Trump doing that?

Real Americans I know have read the Constitution. Trump?

Real Americans I know have worked two jobs to make rent or mortgage payments. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know don’t take credit for the accomplishments of others. And Trump?

Real American men I know are laconic and self-effacing. And Trump?

Real Americans I know want both secure borders and secure elections. And Trump?

Real Americans I know have waited in lines for tickets, airplanes, buses, and passport control. When did Trump ever do that?

Real Americans I know have donated money to Meals on Wheels, Doctors without Borders, a neighborhood food bank, the Red Cross, or other charities that they do not control? Does Trump do that?

Real Americans I know volunteer at their church, synagogue, or mosque, at a soup kitchen, in the local library, at little league, at the library, in a tutoring or literacy project, or somewhere? Has Trump ever done that?

Real Americans I know do not claim a “natural ability” to practice medicine and science. Trump?

Real Americans I know want to know more and are curious about many things. And Trump?

Real Americans I now have suffered from racial and ethnic bigotry. And Trump?

But, unfortunately, real Americans I know also are ignorant of history, lack empathy, are inarticulate, lie, bullshit, are self-centered, have their egos easily bruised, are vindictive, are afraid of “others,” and speak without thinking.  Donald J. Trump does do that.

Postmodernist Trumpism (concluded)

I am not trying to say that post-modernism has caused the increasing stack of conservative falsehoods or the acceptance of them. It is almost always impossible to say precisely how trends take root. Ideas often seem to percolate from multiple sources at the same time. But the postmodernistic idea that something is true only if it is true to the individual has escaped academia, entered the general air, and descended on many of us. Harry Frankfort, the philosopher of bullshit, maintains that cultural conditions and epistemological beliefs can help spread bullshit. It proliferates where it is denied that “we can have reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things really are.” In other words, bullshit builds on pillars of postmodernism.

Of course, we get falsehoods on many different topics—often about personalities in popular culture, for example—and there is bullshit throughout the political spectrum. It is not bullshit, however, to believe that never before have we had a president who has provided so much bullshit so regularly. And perhaps we have never before had so many people not just willing to accept it, but to desire it.

What will this pervasive political falsehood and bullshit culture do to our country? For example, isn’t it likely that the proliferation of bullshit and its acceptance will also lead to more people believing that there is no reliable access to an objective reality and no way of knowing how things truly are? And if that happens, haven’t we entered a bullshit spiral from which we might never escape?  

Gary Kasparov has said: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” (Quoted by Michiko Kakutani in The Death of Truth.) I doubt that Trumpism has that conscious goal. But it certainly can have that effect.

Postmodern Trumpism

If Trump lied, he would not be as dangerous as he is as a bullshitter. Frankfort writes, “By virtue of [not paying attention to the truth], bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are. . . . Through excessive indulgence in

[bullshit]

, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.”

There may be many causes for Trump’s bullshit—his narcissistic ego may be the prime reason, but there is at least another one. “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Those of us concerned with the truth should give up the notion that Trump will learn what is true and what is not and that the falsehoods will decrease over time. As long as Trump continues to talk about things he knows little to nothing about, the bullshit will continue.

The real issue is not why Trump excretes so many falsehoods, it is why so many people accept, even desire, his bullshit. This is where postmodernism comes in. In a postmodernistic world, we don’t have to go to the trouble of ascertaining what is true because what matters is what is true for me. Many of his supporters surely know that what Trump says is not only false but errant bullshit, but he says what the Trumpistas want to believe. The important thing is that what he says feels true to his audience. And if it feels true to them, then it is true. Postmodernism, once a leftist phenomenon, has found its zenith in a conservative world.

The appeal and power of accepting falsehoods because they feel right, because they are true for me, should not be underestimated. We might think that when everybody has their own truth individuals are separated from each other and the world is atomistic. It is true that in the postmodernist world I don’t have to engage with those who hold other truths and I can remain segregated from them, but believing in falsehoods also brings people together. What Lawrence Wright, in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, wrote about a new religious movement has broader applicability: “Belief in the irrational is one definition of faith, but it is also true that clinging to absurd or disputed doctrines binds a community of faith together and defines a barrier to the outside world.”

Wright’s insight helps explain our modern world. Many who believe that we should distinguish truth from non-truth in order to formulate policies and action have their own faith in rationality. They are surprised that as the breadth, depth, and frequency of Trump’s bullshit became increasingly apparent that Trumpistas have not fallen away. These rationalists see the falsehoods as a negative for Trump, but in fact they are a source of the president’s strength. His falsehoods have produced a feeling that such utterances must be true, ought to be true, are at least emotionally true. As a result, they have bound his supporters together, helping to define a needed barrier with the rest of society.

Something like this postmodernism has also affected some who do not support Trump. I have several friends, not Trump supporters, who have said that whatever you think about the president, you have to concede that he has kept his promises. I begged to differ, although a bit more forcefully than that. I referred them to the factchecking website Politifact’s Trump-O-Meter which tracks 102 promises made by candidate Trump in 2016.  It reports that he has kept 18% of his promises, broken 17%, compromised 11%, and the rest are “stalled” or “in the works.” This hardly indicates that he has kept his promises unless keeping less than one in five looks like a promise-keeper to you.

But all promises are not equal. Perhaps he has kept the important ones. All may not agree on what should fall on this list, but Politifact’s list of Trump’s top five promises concludes that only one has been kept, and that was to suspend immigration from terror-prone places. Two are rated as compromises: “Everybody is getting a tax cut, especially the middle class” and “The Trump Plan will lower the business tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, and eliminate the corporate alternative minimum tax.” (These ratings raise the question: Can you compromise a promise or is a compromised promise a broken promise?)

The other top Trump promises, according to the fact-checkers, were to repeal and replace Obamacare and to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. Politifact lists both these promises as stalled. That begs the question of how long a promise can be stalled before it is broken. But whether the stalled characterization is correct, it seems clear that these promises have not been kept.

Even so, my knowledgeable and non-conservative friends say that Trump has kept his promises. When confronted with the information showing that he has kept few of them, my friends reply that the specific things he promised do not really matter. The attitude he projects about immigration, Obamacare, taxes, and the like show that he is keeping his promises. My friends are really saying that the truth of promise-keeping does not matter as long as it feels as if promises have been kept. How post-modern of them!

(Concluded January 15)

Postmodern Trumpism

If Trump lied, he would not be as dangerous as he is as a bullshitter. Frankfort writes, “By virtue of [not paying attention to the truth], bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are. . . . Through excessive indulgence in

[bullshit]

, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.”

There may be many causes for Trump’s bullshit—his narcissistic ego may be the prime reason, but there is at least another one. “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Those of us concerned with the truth should give up the notion that Trump will learn what is true and what is not and that the falsehoods will decrease over time. As long as Trump continues to talk about things he knows little to nothing about, the bullshit will continue.

The real issue is not why Trump excretes so many falsehoods, it is why so many people accept, even desire, his bullshit. This is where postmodernism comes in. In a postmodernistic world, we don’t have to go to the trouble of ascertaining what is true because what matters is what is true for me. Many of his supporters surely know that what Trump says is not only false but errant bullshit, but he says what the Trumpistas want to believe. The important thing is that what he says feels true to his audience. And if it feels true to them, then it is true. Postmodernism, once a leftist phenomenon, has found its zenith in a conservative world.

The appeal and power of accepting falsehoods because they feel right, because they are true for me, should not be underestimated. We might think that when everybody has their own truth individuals are separated from each other and the world is atomistic. It is true that in the postmodernist world I don’t have to engage with those who hold other truths and I can remain segregated from them, but believing in falsehoods also brings people together. What Lawrence Wright, in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, wrote about a new religious movement has broader applicability: “Belief in the irrational is one definition of faith, but it is also true that clinging to absurd or disputed doctrines binds a community of faith together and defines a barrier to the outside world.”

Wright’s insight helps explain our modern world. Many who believe that we should distinguish truth from non-truth in order to formulate policies and action have their own faith in rationality. They are surprised that as the breadth, depth, and frequency of Trump’s bullshit became increasingly apparent that Trumpistas have not fallen away. These rationalists see the falsehoods as a negative for Trump, but in fact they are a source of the president’s strength. His falsehoods have produced a feeling that such utterances must be true, ought to be true, are at least emotionally true. As a result, they have bound his supporters together, helping to define a needed barrier with the rest of society.

Something like this postmodernism has also affected some who do not support Trump. I have several friends, not Trump supporters, who have said that whatever you think about the president, you have to concede that he has kept his promises. I begged to differ, although a bit more forcefully than that. I referred them to the factchecking website Politifact’s Trump-O-Meter which tracks 102 promises made by candidate Trump in 2016.  It reports that he has kept 18% of his promises, broken 17%, compromised 11%, and the rest are “stalled” or “in the works.” This hardly indicates that he has kept his promises unless keeping less than one in five looks like a promise-keeper to you.

But all promises are not equal. Perhaps he has kept the important ones. All may not agree on what should fall on this list, but Politifact’s list of Trump’s top five promises concludes that only one has been kept, and that was to suspend immigration from terror-prone places. Two are rated as compromises: “Everybody is getting a tax cut, especially the middle class” and “The Trump Plan will lower the business tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, and eliminate the corporate alternative minimum tax.” (These ratings raise the question: Can you compromise a promise or is a compromised promise a broken promise?)

The other top Trump promises, according to the fact-checkers, were to repeal and replace Obamacare and to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. Politifact lists both these promises as stalled. That begs the question of how long a promise can be stalled before it is broken. But whether the stalled characterization is correct, it seems clear that these promises have not been kept.

Even so, my knowledgeable and non-conservative friends say that Trump has kept his promises. When confronted with the information showing that he has kept few of them, my friends reply that the specific things he promised do not really matter. The attitude he projects about immigration, Obamacare, taxes, and the like show that he is keeping his promises. My friends are really saying that the truth of promise-keeping does not matter as long as it feels as if promises have been kept. How post-modern of them!

(Concluded January 15)

Postmodernist Trumpism (continued)

          At its inception, literary postmodernism had little effect on the broader world, but it is not surprising that postmodernism spread. The deification of the subjective is comforting and appeals to basic human impulses. It fits into an “I’m ok/you’re ok” world. It tells me that what I believe is valid. It comforts because it relieves me of the often difficult job of finding facts, of ascertaining the truth, or grappling with determining what is good science, history, or journalism. In a world where knowledge is simply socially constructed, I do not have to abide by the standards of good historical, scientific, sociological, or anthropological inquiry. I don’t have to grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of sets of data. I can just stop with my inquiry once something feels right for me. The postmodernist death of objectivity as Stanley Fish says, “relieves me of the obligation to be right.” (Quoted in Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth.)

          Postmodernism is also comforting because it means I don’t have to grapple with information or views I don’t like and the conflicts, external and internal, that they can cause. My belief is as true as yours. Discourse, analysis, research is all a waste of time. My life is easier. I don’t have to think one of the hardest thoughts: Do the facts indicate I must change my mind? I never have to confront what T.H. Huxley said about science: “The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” Leisure increases and life is simpler without a responsibility for discerning or establishing facts.

          As the lure of this thinking spread outside of academic halls and became divorced from literature, there have been consequences. It helped lead to movements that affect health and safety. It has put down pavement for the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. For these people who reject overwhelming scientific evidence, as an infectious disease expert said recently, “Science has become just another voice in the room. It has lost its platform. Now, you simply declare your own truth.” In spite of the statement attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in the postmodern world you are entitled not only to your own opinion, but also to your own facts.

Postmodernism and its initial spread was the creation of anti-authoritarians and leftists, but now the philosophy is imbedded in a Trumpian conservative movement that rejects expertise and research, accepts “alternative facts,” concludes that actions based on gut reactions are better than carefully considered positions, and is regularly based on and spreads falsehoods. I doubt that Trump, while he has all these characteristics, is a product of postmodernism. The postmodernist is like Trump in not caring about objective truth. Postmodernists, however, do seek and care about their own personal and subjective truths. So, for example, the anti-vax mother who heard about one study linking vaccines and autism finds ways to reject all the information debunking that study as well as the information revealing the real dangers in not having a child vaccinated. She clings to her personal truth no matter what the evidence. She cares about her own beliefs. She seeks her own subjective “facts” and will not entertain thoughts or information that question them.

Trump, however, is not even seeking personal, subjective truths. He simply does not care about any kind of truth. Harry G. Frankfort seems to have anticipated our president in his marvelous little book, On Bullshit, which makes a convincing distinction between bullshit and lies. Lying requires a degree of craftsmanship to get the lie accepted, a skill that recognizes truth. “In order to invent a lie at all,

must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.”

The liar, thus, has a concern for what is true. The bullshitter does not. A bullshitter’s “statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” And since our president does not craft lies as much as utter falsehoods with an indifference to the truth, he is not a liar. Stop calling him that! He is a bullshitter.

The bullshitter has more freedom than the liar. The bullshit artist “does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a certain point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, as far as required, to fake the context as well.” Frankfort continues, “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.”

Many wonder how Trump can tell so many falsehoods, or how he can repeat falsehoods that have been repeatedly debunked, or how he can assert things that on their face are blatantly false. They haven’t recognized that while a liar and truth-teller are on opposite sides of the same contest, the bullshitter is not even in this game. Trump does not grapple with the authority of truth, as the liar does. Instead, as with any bullshitter, “he pays no attention to it at all.”

(continued January 13)

Confessions of a Sometime Public Defender–The Question

          “How can you defend the guilty?” This is The Question I have been asked many times. Sometimes my answers have been platitudinous: To function properly our legal system requires defense of all, guilty or innocent. Sometimes my answer has been facetious: A defender prefers representing the guilty. If the client is innocent and acquitted, it is merely the system working. If the client is guilty but found not guilty, it must mean that the defender is a really good attorney.

Sometimes I gave a third answer that was slightly less facetious: The defender wants to represent the guilty because there is a lot less pressure. It feels much worse to have an innocent client go to jail than a guilty one.

No matter what my answer has been about defending the guilty, the looks on the questioners’ faces never indicate that they are satisfied with the response. The Question, however, is one asked only by those outside the public defender business. We did not discuss it among ourselves, and I only occasionally reflected on The Question.

          There is no one answer to The Question because there are many different components to the public defender’s job. Defenders spend the overwhelming amount of their effort in the plea-bargaining process, not trials. The goal is to get a more favorable plea or sentence than would occur without the defender’s efforts. The defender knows that almost always the client is going to be punished. The issue is how and how much. I was like most defenders who know that the criminal justice system is awful in many ways. Our sentencing laws are often ludicrous; prisons are terrible places; prosecutors are arrogant; judges are often dim. It is (usually) easy in the plea process to try to help even the bad people in such a bad system.

          I did not romanticize those charged with crimes. I met many people who I thought should be punished. Even so, when I saw the system operate, I saw its many, many flaws, and it was seldom a moral challenge to try to help those caught up in it.

This was fueled by my anti-authoritarian nature. I believe in a strong government, but we must have checks on the government’s power. We must try to ensure that when the government exercises power, it is doing so properly. Danger lurks if we don’t. The government’s ability to fine, imprison, and even execute is among its most awesome powers. When, as happens so often in our criminal justice system, the government seeks to impose its will on the outcast and the poor, we need to have someone pushing back against the government. Defenders act in the deeply conservative traditions of our country by trying to check governmental power. I could defend not just because I was defending an individual but because I was fighting the government. And that also meant defending the guilty.

          The person asking The Question about defending the guilty, however, is not asking about plea bargaining. They are really asking, “How can you defend someone whom at trial you know to be guilty?” How can you work for an acquittal of someone who has committed a crime and very well may commit more crimes?

The questions seem to imply that this must be a common situation, but obtaining a not-guilty verdict for one who was guilty seldom occurred. Few who admitted their guilt to me went to trial. Mostly those who said they were guilty wanted to get the best plea bargain possible.

Clients going to trial almost always maintained their innocence. I did not simply accept what they said. Often the defendants who told me they did not commit the charged crime related stories that struck me as bullshit. If I had to make the decision, those guys were guilty. But they said they were not, and it was not my job to pass judgment on them. And every so often that farfetched, remarkable story had truth in it. They were entitled to have someone fight for them because even if all the indications were to the contrary, they might not be guilty. My duty was to present the best possible case for them, and let the jury decide.

(concluded July 17)

Related Post: May 29, 2019

Promises in the Wind (concluded)

No matter what reasons you might give for the lack of fulfillment of many the Trump’s promises and no matter whether you agree with Poltifact’s categorizations of compromised, stalled, or in-the-works promises, only a fraction of the President’s pledges have been kept. Even so, educated, knowledgeable, historically and politically astute friends maintain that Trump is keeping his promises. That disconnect makes me think back to Ronald Reagan. Reagan was politically popular even though polls often showed widespread disagreement with many of his specific proposals and policies. Even so, Reagan was able to project an overall message that resonated with many. Ethan Bronner in Battle for Justice: How the Bork Nomination Shook America examines this phenomenon and finds this lesson: “People would go with you if they were attracted to the feel of your campaign, even if they disagreed with many aspects of it.”

Something similar is happening with my friends, and I assume for others. Trump’s promises projected a feel. His speech announcing his candidacy was important not for its promises but for an attitude. Trump said that existing politicians could not make America great again because “they’re controlled fully by lobbyists, by the donors, and by the special interests, fully.” The public does not want the usual “nice” person in office because “they’re tired of being ripped off by everybody in the world.” America is no longer a winner. “We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.” The world has taken advantage of the United States. America, battered, stands alone. For example, Mexico is “laughing at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.”

There are no promises here, but in this opening salvo Trump projected a tone or a feel. His promises have been consistent with that tone. For many that feel is what was promised and is being kept no matter what the score is on specific promises. It may be overwhelmingly likely that Trump will keep only a minority of his promises, but it does not matter to many because what he does and says all seem consistent with that feel he has communicated to so many in the country. If we think that what he promised was that feel and don’t look at the specifics of his pledges, then it feels as though he has been keeping his promises.

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Promises in the Wind (continued)

Many presidential promises require the action of Congress. Trump does not have the constitutional authority to enact the tax plan that he promised. It requires congressional passage. Perhaps we can conclude that a president is hypocritical in making promises that are not entirely in his control, but many, if not most people, know this when the promise is made and reasonably conclude that the promise really is, “I will work for the enactment of a law that will do this.” On some level the promise is broken if the promised law is not enacted, but this broken promise is not as bad as other unfulfilled promises if the president has worked sincerely and diligently for the passage of the promised legislation.

More blameworthy are Trump’s promises where a president has no role or authority in their implementation. For example, Trump said that he would sign an executive order that would require convicted cop killers to be executed. No president has the authority to do this. The sentences for killing state and local police offers are determined by state law. The president does not have authority over state criminal laws. The federal government does have a death penalty, but not one that imposes that sentence on cop killers. Even if the federal government could constitutionally authorize executions for the murder of police officers (and that is a big if), it would require legislation passed by Congress, and the president has proposed no such legislation. Instead, he said that he would sign an executive order to accomplish this death penalty, but the president does not have the constitutional authority to decide how and when crimes are to be punished. (Dare I say that that only happens in dictatorships.)  Furthermore, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution forbids the automatic imposition of the death penalty for any crime and that juries must weigh aggravating and mitigating factors to decide whether a death sentence should be imposed. A mandated death penalty for cop killings is unconstitutional. In other words, Trump made a promise that would require him to take an unconstitutional action.

This promise of executions for cop killers may have just been empty words. Trump may never have had this as a policy goal; perhaps he made the statements merely because the statements appealed to his supporters. If so, however, it falls into the hypocritical category. If he was sincere, he had to be ignorant of presidential limitations and the basic structure of separation of powers and our federal system. If the promise fell into this latter category, how should this death-penalty promise be considered? My view: A person in authority or seeking authority should comprehend the limits of that authority. The promise that the maker knows or should know cannot be fulfilled is the equivalent of being hypocritical. The adage is appropriate here: Ignorance is no excuse.

Politicians may also backtrack on promises claiming that circumstances have changed since the promise. For example, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 proclaiming that he had kept us out of the Great War. Less than a year later he was asking Congress for a declaration of war, but he said that the continuing destruction of neutral shipping by Germany now made war necessary. A politician may acknowledge that he promised to build a dam, but he no longer would support the new dam. He might say that when he made the promise the dam would have cost $1 billion and now it be $2 billion. The dam no longer makes sense, he says, and it will not be built.

Surely promises should not be followed if changed circumstances make a once wise promise unwise, but in judging the broken promise, we should not just accept the changed-circumstances rationale. With that dam, for example, we should question the cost estimates. Were the numbers sound or the product of ignorance or fabricated for the politician’s purposes? If the promise-maker knew or should have known that the estimates were not truly sound, then the promise and its breaking was hypocritical or ignorant. However, even if the numbers are solid, it still may be hard to determine if the new circumstance is the real motivation for the change. The politician may have promised a dam he did not intend to build and seizes the fig leaf of valid numbers to explain a result he always intended—no dam.

Trump’s promises so far, however, have not fallen into the category of not-fulfilled-because-of-changed-circumstances. They probably won’t in the future either because it seems unlikely that Trump would ever admit that he had not kept a promise.

(concluded on August 20)

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