You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. — Abraham Lincoln
Some people believe that politicians attempt the ultimate fool: all of the people all of the time. Consequently, many observers find politics, and especially political campaigns, to be distasteful at best, and morally offensive at worst. Candidates, it is believed, will say anything to get elected, will engage in ruthless practices to win votes.
Of course, political “dirty tricks” and manipulative rhetoric disguised as argument are nothing new. That’s because they’re effective, inviting you to check your thinking skills at the door. The current master of this technique is the man who ‘has the best words,’ Donald J. Trump.
In a now famous essay, philosopher Harry Frankfurt gives us a thoughtful analysis of “bullshit,” which we can apply to what’s happening in presidential politics. We all, he tells us confidently, can identify bullshit; we’ve all heard it; and we’ve all likely committed our own share, as well. What makes bullshit so interesting in relation to the current discussion is the fact that it reveals much about the level of respect some candidates have for the truth. Or not.
According to Frankfurt, the bullshitter’s defining characteristic is that he, or she, doesn’t care about the truth. That’s because the bullshitter is interested only in achieving the goal at hand. So, if the goal is to win a debate, for example, Donald Trump will say whatever sounds good enough to “win.” If what is said during the course of said debate is true, great. If not, no problem.
For this reason, Frankfurt finds bullshit to be morally worse than lying, insofar as the liar at least respects the truth because the goal is to conceal it — you can’t lie very well if you don’t believe you know what the truth is. Whereas a lie is carefully constructed around a belief about what is true, bullshit reflects no concern at all for it. A liar, on the other hand, must be very concerned with the truth in order to attempt to conceal it, but a bullshitter can effectively utter whatever comes to mind.
Hence, we see at least part of what’s wrong with political campaigning, as its long been practiced — both what’s said and what’s “spun” afterward. Quite often, there is no concern about what’s objectively the case (assuming objectivity can be had), but instead the attitude prevails that campaigning is rough, but is a different game from governing, and as such is justified.
Donald Trump has made inconsistent or downright contradictory statements over the course of his campaign. Is he lying? Sometimes, perhaps. Is he telling the truth? Again, sometimes, perhaps. More likely, he’s bullshitting. He is the guy, after all, who employs the rhetorical device, popularized by Cicero, of saying that he’s not going to say the very thing he is saying. (Say that 10 times, fast!) Prior to the New Hampshire primary, for example, he asserted, “I promised I would not say that she ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground, that she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say it, so I will not say it.”
Consider too the troubling comment Trump made about how the military ‘wouldn’t refuse’ him if he, as president, ordered torture. He later said he would not make such an order, since it would violate the law — but that he’d work to reinstate waterboarding as an interrogation method.
It may be the case that bullshitting is a low-level business negotiation tactic. This, however, does not legitimate it as an ethical practice in any domain, let alone global leadership. Moreover, the psychological tactics — I dare not call what Trump does argumentation, which would involve careful reasoning according to rational principles — used to manipulate may be appealing on the face of it, but they fall apart like tissue paper after one use. A couple of examples of fallacious reasoning will reveal their weakness:
Trump does not defend his positions, he insults whoever critiques those positions: The New York Times has compiled a terrific list of insults Tweeted by The Donald.
Trump makes wild accusations: Mexico “sends” rapists and other criminals to the U.S., but insists he’ll stop that and any illegal immigration by building a thirty-foot-plus wall — and get Mexico to pay for it.
He appears ignorant of important national security concepts: In a debate, it became clear he did not know what the U.S.’s nuclear triad is.
He makes comments suggestive of racial insensitivity, if not outright racism: He did not immediately disavow a white supremacist’s endorsement. During protests at his rallies, his references to the violence that would be done back ‘in the old days’ in response to disruptions is arguably code for how to keep “the blacks” in line. In fact, he seems to incite violence at his rallies.
Trump seems to want to subvert some basic American principles: He maintains that there should be at least a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
Trump fairly regularly denies saying what can be verified: He called John McCain a loser, not a war hero, for being a POW. This was a remark made in response to McCain’s loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election.
Trump purports to care about something — until he doesn’t: Trump called Cruz’s victory in Iowa fraudulent, and demanded a new election. Soon, however, he was over it. There’s plenty of stuff Trump doesn’t care about, and, unless it gets in his way, truth is one of them. At that moment, he either shrugs it off, or attacks the person who points it out.
Despite being upsetting, these examples remind many of us how important careful thinking, and careful articulation of that thinking, is. It reminds us of our commitment to truth, even if we’re not sure what that is.
Curiously enough, one of Trump’s supposed appeals is that he says what he thinks, that he’s honest. Well, it’s true he says what’s on his mind, but that, given what we’ve seen for the past 12 months, should give us pause. Although we may not have an answer to the time honored question — does Donald Trump want to bullshit all of the people some of the time, or some of the people all of the time? — at least we know what it means to contemplate it.
 Frankfurt, Harry, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).