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.)