Trump the Bullshitter
While campaigning for the highest political office in the United States of America, Donald J. Trump charmed a celebrity journalist with exploits of sexual assault and attempted adultery, wowed his supporters with promises of launching a criminal investigation into his opponent, Hillary Clinton, invited Russia to hack into her email, for good measure, and boasted about not paying taxes.
Quite a few found Trump’s mode of communication refreshing, and didn’t seem at all perturbed by the content. No oblique political talk for this straight shooter, who promised to “make America great again” by “winning.” This would be accomplished, by, among other actions, forcing manufacturers to keep jobs in the U.S., cracking down on “bad hombres,” barring Muslims from entering the country, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and eliminating environmental and business regulatory oversight.
Shortly after his inauguration as the 45th President of the United States at twelve Noon on January 20th, 2017, he began taking action on some of his campaign pledges, but dismissed others. It was not obvious how was one to know which he meant and which were comments tossed off the top of his head. Additional confusion was generated by extraordinary inarticulateness, which seemed to manifest in a rather disorganized management style and vague executive orders implemented in an apparently off-the-cuff style.
Even before he took office, journalists and others were beginning to call some of his claims lies — and that happened after months of not knowing exactly how to make sense of much of what he said, either because it was largely unintelligible or because it was so appallingly incorrect. Problematic statements should, however, have been more accurately called false. It is, after all, difficult to know when someone’s intention is to misrepresent the truth in order to deceive.
Indeed, Trump may have lied, which is morally unacceptable. After all, a lie interferes with another person’s ability to make choices by misdirecting them. For this reason alone, it is fundamentally disrespectful. When the citizenry is lied to en masse, the consequences are nothing short of an erosion of trust in the elected leader. Consider, for example, the inconsistent or outright contradictory claims made about proof of Russian hacking, President Obama’s effectiveness, reinstating torture as a state practice, and various others. These are not suggestive of thoughtful emendations of beliefs. Moreover, it is next to impossible to make sense of the whole of what’s called “Trumpism,” when it contains statements reflective of conspiracy theories, such as the odious birther allegations, and statements that are inconsistent with prevailing scientific thought, such as the rejection of climate change.
It might sound strange to say it, but Trump is not merely a liar. He is also a bullshitter. If it wasn’t clear enough before the election, surely a variety of comments after his win should provide considerable evidence that our new president generally cares very little for the truth. And that makes him morally worse than a liar.
According to philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the decisive distinction between a liar and a bullshitter is that the liar must be concerned with the truth, indeed must be bound by it, in order to attempt to misrepresent it. After all, if someone wants to direct someone away from what he believes is true, he must be purposeful in his efforts. This means, then, to the extent that he believes he knows the truth, he will assert a statement to the contrary — he will declare a false statement.
The bullshitter, on the other hand, is utterly unconcerned with the truth. What he says may or may not be true, but truth isn’t the goal. Instead, the bullshitter has a goal in mind, and will say whatever it takes to achieve it. “Lock her up!” becomes “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons. I really don’t,” and “That plays great before the election – now we don’t care, right?”
Most people would agree that candidates pretty much say anything to get elected, which renders campaign rallies, speeches, debates, town halls, and interviews venues for bullshit. So what, one might object, if Donald Trump did what everybody else seems to do? Well, firstly, two wrongs don’t make a right. To excuse one person’s conduct on the grounds that others do the same thing with apparent impunity is to avoid addressing the original problem. (More on poor reasoning to come.)
Trump As Bullshitter Is An Enemy of Truth
Further problems still remain — two, actually, and they’re related. One is that, if Frankfurt is correct, bullshit demeans any commitment to the truth. Remember that the liar, at least, believes in an objective world, a world in which statements are either true or false. This belief constrains him, guides him in his actions. Not so with the bullshitter.
Moreover, once someone begins bullshitting, it quickly becomes difficult to know what that person actually means by what he says — what he values, what he takes to be true. At the very least, trust is eroded. It’s like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but worse. In an elected official, particularly one who holds the highest office in the country, trust is essential: trust that this person will do his best to tell citizens the truth; trust that this person will clearly and consistently articulate his values; trust that this person will do his best to keep promises made.
Many Trump supporters say that he’s a plain talker who tells it like it is, a disruptor of conventions who won’t get mired in the clubby atmosphere of politics as usual. Would that this were the case. You can’t tell it like it is if you don’t care how things really are, but simply present yourself as caring in order to get what you really want. You can’t be a disruptor of conventions if you’re ignorant of what they mean and how they work — and, anyway, you don’t actually care. If you’re a bullshitter, remember, Frankfurt tells us, you are “unconstrained” by a concern with the truth, which makes bullshit “a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
The conventions Trump has disrupted, moreover, largely include observances of ethical standards. Think about it this way: If Trump drove a car onto a freeway, he wouldn’t lawfully merge into traffic: He wouldn’t look or signal. He’d just move into the lane he wanted. If someone else were already there, they’d have to give way to avoid being hit. That’s not disruptive; it’s plain rude. Worse yet, dangerous, and, in this case, illegal. So, for example, Trump refused to say he would accept the outcome of the election, opting instead to ‘keep us in suspense’. He dismisses concerns that his business interests could influence his political decision-making and policy advancement, though still unknown because he won’t release his taxes. When he turned over his business interests to his sons, he did not suddenly develop amnesia. He still knows, for example, that he has a financial investment in the Keystone Pipeline project, which he recently revived. His motivations can’t be determined, which is a significant reason for him to follow the standard practice of divestment. Yet he has refused. At best he has ignored advice on this topic; at worst, he’s contemptuously dismissed it.
This contempt is manifest in his refusal to respect standard rules of reasoning. Mr. Trump is not a careful thinker, which makes sense if he’s not interested in the truth. For when a concern for the truth guides your thinking — even if you’re not interested in studying theories of truth — you work within boundaries. Moreover, these boundaries are generally accepted as objective, ones that any rational person could also follow.
Trump As An Enemy of Truth Is An Enemy of Reason
These basic boundaries are rational principles, such as the principle of non-contradiction. In logic, the principle can be straightforwardly expressed as follows: A statement and its negation cannot be true at the same time. So, for example I cannot simultaneously maintain, “I am in Los Angeles,” and “It is not the case that I am in Los Angeles.”
When we reason, or when we merely make a set of claims, we aim toward avoiding contradictions. Deriving a logically correct conclusion, for example means you can’t deny its truth without contradicting at least one of the beliefs that led you to it. Here are two examples:
The moon is made of blue cheese or green cheese. The moon is not made of blue cheese. So, it’s made of green cheese.
Boston is in Rhode Island or Massachusetts. Boston is not in Rhode Island. So, Boston is in Massachusetts.
In both examples, the form of the reasoning guarantees the truth of the conclusion. In the first example, this fact is not affected by the actual falsity of the first and third claims. If the moon is made of one of two types of cheese, and if the moon is not made of one of them, it must be made of the other. The key word here is “if.” When we reason, particularly when we’re interested in seeing where the form leads us, we assume the evidence is true.
The superior reasoning is found in the second example. That’s not simply because we have a form of reasoning that is airtight. After all, we have that in the first example. Here, however, the first two sentences are actually true. It is true that Boston is in one of the two named states. It’s also true that it’s not in Rhode Island. As we can see, deductive reasoning, as it’s called, aims at certainty.
Another mode of logic, inductive reasoning, enlists experience to guide us. As such, it does not provide us with the same sort of guarantee deductive reasoning attempts to achieve. It does, however, have significant advantages. As the foundation of scientific reasoning, induction expands our knowledge. Here, the rules that guide our reasoning are rooted in the principle that nature is uniform. For example, the “law” of gravity won’t allow us to levitate one day, but not the next.
The scientific consensus on climate change (or as one journalist has nicely put it, climate disruption) provides us with a way of thinking about this point. As far back as the 19th century, scientists theorized, based on levels of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere, that CO2 emissions could make the climate warmer. Concomitant with this theorizing was the first Industrial Revolution, which produced not only more such emissions, but also facilitated conditions for improved agriculture and increases in population.
Fast-forward to the late 20th century, when digital and other technological improvements made large-scale climate mapping possible. Not only that, but analytical tools geologists brought to bear on, for example, Artic ice core samples, facilitated more sophisticated understanding of climate shifts. What scientists had hypothesized about climate warming, as far back as the late 19th century, is now considered to be fact. What makes empirical reasoning less conclusive than non-empirical, or deductive reasoning, is that it is open to revision in a way deduction is not. So, the more scientists learn about Earth, the more robust its conclusions will be. It’s essentially a process of increasing rationality.
Unfortunately, neither mode of reasoning seems to be apparent to the 45th President of the United States. If it’s true that Mr. Trump produces a fair amount of bullshit, then, at least in those moments, he’s not interested in truth. Moreover, if he’s not interested in truth, then his thinking won’t likely be guided by the principles of reasoning enlisted in formal and scientific reasoning. Therefore, if it’s true that Mr. Trump produces a fair amount of bullshit, then his thinking won’t likely be guided by the principles of reasoning enlisted in formal and scientific reasoning.
Perhaps this is why he is so enamored of conspiracy theories, and why he makes outlandish claims without ever producing even a semblance of evidence. His most recent outburst, one of many, is just an example: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Lest we forget, this comes from the President of the United States, the man vested with enormous power, access to state secrets, and the country’s moral authority.
Trump’s lack of interest in, or respect for, the truth is exhibited not only by the sort of bullshit discussed above, but also his willful ignorance. Although it is true that no president can sufficiently know everything required for sound policy and other judgments, it’s also true that many not only appreciate this fact, but also attempt to be as knowledgeable as possible. Not so, Mr. Trump. During the campaign season, for example he displayed an appalling lack of even the most basic foreign affairs, military organization, and even global business knowledge. He claimed that, as president, he would surround himself with the “smartest” and “best” — even most fabulous — advisors.
Unfortunately, this has not turned out to be the case. Take, for example, his Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. She may be well intentioned and have some good ideas, but she does not have the sort of academic, experiential, or professional knowledge to head a department crucial to our nation’s future. She doesn’t even seem to grasp that historically black colleges were not — de facto could not — be ‘school choice pioneers.’
“Ignoramus” is likely the only word that appropriately evaluates the speaker of this comment: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” That was our president marking the start of African American History Month. His ignorance is not limited to Rich White Guy Privilege. It is panoramic. Take, for example, his comment on healthcare. “It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.” In fact, probably anyone who has had to deal with insurance and hospitals and illness and death knows this is the case. Indeed, anyone who’s been even minimally thoughtful knows this — unless you’re the 45th President of the United States.
Nevertheless, Trump has declared himself to not only know plenty of important things, but also be the most knowledgeable. Consider, for example, his 2016 claim to be his own foreign policy consultant: “I’m speaking with myself, No. 1, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. … My primary consultant is myself.” This “very good brain” is apparently so good, it can do things like nobody else:
- Nobody’s stronger than me.”
- “Nobody has better toys than I do.”
- “There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.”
- “Nobody loves the Bible more than I do.”
- “Nobody builds walls better than me.”
- “Nobody is better to people with disabilities than me.”
- “Nobody’s fighting for the veterans like I’m fighting for them.”
- “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality than I have.”
- “There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”
- “There’s nobody more conservative than me.”
- “There’s nobody that respects women more than I do.”
- “Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump.”
- “There’s nobody that understands the horror of nuclear better than me.”
- “Nobody even understands it but me; it’s called devaluation.”
- “There’s the sale of uranium that nobody knows what it means. I know what it means.”
- “Nobody knows more about trade than me.”
- “Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.”
- “I know the H1B, I know H2B. Nobody knows it better than me.”
- “Nobody knows more about taxes than I do.”
- “Nobody knows more about debt than I do.”
- “Nobody knows the system better than me.”
How are these superlatives possible — literally possible? How can someone who eschews truth and knowledge (at least when it doesn’t serve his interests) be so…amazing? We can chalk these claims up to hyperbole so as to dismiss them, but the fact of the matter is that anyone who cares about truth, and who cares about careful reasoning, will find it is impossible to take seriously anyone described in the preceding paragraphs. Yet, those of us who care deeply about what it means to reason well and be guided by carefully thought out ideas about the truth are, frankly, horrified.
One who respects the truth and is committed to the aims and practices of good reasoning tends to display certain dispositions, including intellectual humility, accountability, curiosity, and consistency. Surely these are qualities we want in leaders who are elected to serve our interests, not their own.
From what he has repeatedly said, Donald Trump thinks of the world not in terms of truth and falsity, but in terms of winners and losers. Winning seems to have to do with popularity — or at least notoriety — self-aggrandizement, and money. Losing seems to have to do with, among other things, paying taxes if you can get away with not doing so; not doing everything you can to make money, even if that means cheating contractors and bullying them into accepting cut-rate remuneration, not personally enriching yourself when a company you own declares bankruptcy, and choosing to put country before self.
Moreover, Trump’s version of winning is not the result of seeking and finding the truth. Instead, it is bound up with whopping errors in reasoning, the most common of which is the personal attack (ad hominem). Person A makes a claim, asserts a position, or offers an argument. Trump does not address the claim, position, or argument, but instead ignores it in favor of attacking Person A. The goal of the ad hominem is to demean or discredit Person A. The psychological effect on the audience — those who fall for this tactic — is to dismiss Person A’s initial claim.
Winning also seems to involve some sort of strength, or at least the assertion of it. Strength, in turn, seems to involve blind aggression, bullying, and attacking anyone who disagrees with him. This attitude toward life is, however, limited. Think, for example, about Thomas Hobbes’ hypothetical state of nature, in which life is a ‘war of all against all,’ is ‘nasty, brutish, solitary, and short.’ Evidence suggests that Mr. Trump has, shortsightedly, brought this thought experiment to life.
Our social contract, the Constitution of which is its founding document, does not lend itself to Mr. Trump’s relentless disrespect of truth and reason. The Founding Fathers, in fact, revered rationality. European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant directly or indirectly influenced their thinking. The rise of the scientific revolution enjoined faith in human reason and thinking independent of religious dogma. Some of the most extraordinary minds from the 16th through the end of the 18th century produced moral, epistemological, metaphysical, economic, political, educational, and scientific thought the world has ever known. Today, Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, spends time feuding with Arnold Schwarzenegger over “The Apprentice” and promoting conspiracy theories that are, by their very nature, devoid of the sort of evidence or plausible connections any careful thinker would accept.
If it’s true that the 45th President of the United States is a bullshitter when convenient, then he is an enemy of the truth. If he is an enemy of the truth, then he is an enemy of reason. Finally, if he is an enemy of reason, he is an enemy of the founding principles of our democracy — he is the enemy of the people.
 Read essays on this claim, including ones found at The Washington Post, Philosophy Talk, The Conversation, The New Republic, Lawfare, CNN, Salon, and my own website. Prof. Frankfurt also wrote an essay for Time, in which he argues that Trump is a bullshitter.
 Frankfurt, Harry, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
 The terms “reason” and “rationality” can be used in a variety of ways. Here, the focus is on carefully working out what one takes to be the truth. It is a process of reasoning, which follows methodological and evaluative rules. Christine Korsgaard provides us with nice discussion of rationality.
 There have been a number of interesting articles and essays on taking Trump literally (and so not seriously), seriously (but not literally), and both. See, for example, the BBC News, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.