Not Everything Trump Says Is A Lie

A Philospher Made Some Classical Distinctions

IN PLACE of what print journalists refer to as President Trump’s lies, cable commenters have a less formal term. Trevor Noah of the Comedy Channel and Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo of CNN just say “bullshit.”  If that sums up Trump’s usual performances, then press briefings and most interviews are bull sessions, with consequences I will suggest in a couple of minutes.

But they are not the same — lying and bullshitting.  For perspicuous analysis of the distinction, let us consult a philosopher. (Classical philosophy excels in definitions.) In 2005 Felix G. Frankfurt, retired Princeton philosophy professor, wrote an article that became a tiny book that became a bestseller called “On Bullshit.” It began, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” We all recognize it, but what exactly is it?

In a benign and almost humorous form, there is the bullshit of the politicians who proudly declaim we have the greatest nation in history, created under divine guidance, and so forth.  Frankfurt says of such a Fourth of July orator: “He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history.  What he cares about is what people think of HIM.” Namely, that he is a patriot who believes in God, etc.

In classic form, Frankfurt explores first what bullshit is not and then what conditions are both necessary and sufficient to produce it. 

It is not lying. Frankfurt writes: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth.  Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” The bullshitter, therefore, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” 

This was written 11 years before Trump emerged from New York celebrity show business to run for president. But it was weirdly predictive. We elected a president whose utterances are primarily about himself.

Trevor Noah in his mockery of Trump’s Fox interview with Chris Wallace in July said of the president: “He’s more interested in saying he’s right than actually being right.” That is a good summation of the Frankfurt theory.

It follows that Trump would be defensive when somebody questions his “alternative facts” (a phrase made famous by his political consultant Kellyanne Conway), though most news stories, at U.S. video speed, leave no time for the cross examination, if any.

Trump will not stand corrected. For example, regarding covid-19 Trump told Wallace, “I think we have one of the lowest – maybe the lowest — mortality rates in the world.” Wallace confronted the president on this, and Trump called to an aide off-camera for a piece of paper with a line graph  (“a bullshit chart,” Noah called it.) Wallace glanced at it and said it was missing relevant nations. Trump said no, he should do his homework. 

He tried the same thing with a graph in the Axios interview by Johnathan Swan, who questioned his assertion that the U. S. death rates were “lower than the world.” Swan looked over the chart and said, “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.” The president responded, “You can’t do that.”

Trump avoids correction in press briefings by picking a fight, ignoring a question, or walking out. Or he just bullshits through. The scrum of West Wing reporters seldom rebut his facts as do aggressive interviewers like Wallace or Swan in rare hours of one-on-one.  

One example of briefing interplay: an official transcript shows at 18 minutes into the July 21 briefing a reporter said, “You’ve been saying for months, the virus would simply disappear. And now you’re saying that it’s likely to get worse before it gets better (note: that became the headline). If it does keep getting worse, if Americans keep dying, are you responsible for them?”

The premise of the question was incoherent, but so was Trump’s response: “Well, the virus will disappear. It will disappear. I always like to say, as you know, either way, when you look at it, the governors are working with me. I’m working with the governor. We’re working hand in hand. I think we’re all responsible. I view it as a team. Very good relationships with the governors, very, very good relationships. I could say I’m fully responsible, but you know, one day we had a virus come in and I closed the borders, did a lot of things that were very good. In fact, Dr. Fauci said we saved tens of thousands of lives when I closed the border and nobody wanted to do it. I wanted to do it.”

I am not aware that anybody asked when Anthony Fauci made such an uncharacteristic comment or, for that matter, that anyone bothered to evoke responses from representative governors. There is no time for that.

Lenore Taylor, editor of the Australian Guardian, saw a full Trump press conference on television for the first time during an American visit. Her reaction: “I realized how much the reporting of Trump necessarily edits and parses his words, to force it into sequential paragraphs or impose meaning where it is difficult to detect.” 

This, she wrote, “helped me understand how the process of reporting about this president can mask and normalize his full and alarming incoherence.”

The philosopher Frankfurt said of Trump in a May 2016 issue of Time magazine: ““It is disturbing to find an important political figure who indulges freely both in lies and in bullshit. What is perhaps even more deeply disturbing is to discover an important segment of our population responding to so incorrigibly dishonest a person with such pervasively enthusiastic acceptance.”

The segment, I am sure, includes people who would perform like Trump if they had the power. They respond positively to the pervasive cable coverage of politics as entertainment. It’s fun to watch the liberals squirm. 

More serious defenders of Trump say, well, all presidents lie. Eisenhower lied about the U2 spy plane downed by the Russians, saying it was a weather plane. Kennedy lied when he disappeared upon discovery of Russian missiles in Cuba, saying he had a bad cold. These were lies in the national interest. Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman” was in his own interest, but it too is brought up in the Republican defense.

Heather Cox Richardson, who wrote a history of the Republican Party, is by occupation (history professor) a truth seeker, and so she is irritated by the Republican defenders — Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio in particular. His questions in hearings don’t seek truth but seem to be intended to evoke video clips that can be used in campaign ads, she says in her daily “Letter From An American.”

Trump does tell lies, reading things handed to him by campaign strategists or personal lawyers. But mainly he talks bullshit, which is not theoretically lying — though its instances are included indiscriminately in journalistic lists of “lies.” 

We have never had a president who bullshits constantly. And it hits the TV-led news constantly because, as I said, politics is treated as entertainment, which attracts viewers, who attract advertisers. 

News commentators, even Rachel Madow, call their programs “shows.” This is no accident, and neither is the title of the recent book by Jonathan Karl, the ABC White House correspondent: “First Row At The Trump Show.” The longtime Trump follower said in a half hour with Julie Mason on POTUS Radio that he deliberately did not use “lies” in connection with Trump because that is such a harsh word. 

Thoughtful reporters do participate in Trump’s press briefings, but when he’s on a roll these shows are less like news conferences and more like bull sessions. The audience — reporters — is a creative participant in any show, actors will tell you. 

Frankfurt wrote, “What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what the say.”

That’s the president for you. And though journalists have memories and, as in the “worse before it gets better” session confront him with simple contradictions, Trump is unfazed. They seldom try deeper questioning.

Another angle on Trump’s bullshitting is the “moron” defense (Rex Tillerson and Kellyanne’s daughter both used that word about Trump). He’s just a businessman from New York City.  He doesn’t know things. Some evangelistic supporters will say all you need to know is Jesus. Some conservative commentators will say colleges teach nothing but liberal dogma. Trump says the intelligence agencies are run by conspirators. And Trump fans love the way he says what’s on his mind. 

Frankfurt in is book said: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life.”

Regardless, said Frankfurt long before Trump arrived on the national scene, the bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

So how could journalists avoid taking roles as actors in the Trump show? Some advocate restraint of live TV coverage of Trump and stick to reporting based on the news judgement applied to most other politicians. But a new body of younger journalists reject this traditional objectivity in favor of outright moral clarity since they will say objective truth is inaccessible. 

Frankfurt closed his little book with his opinion of “anti-realist doctrines” that have a bearing on the issue of objectivity in journalism. “Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”

But, “Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”

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Not Everything Trump Says Is A Lie

A Philospher Made Some Classical Distinctions

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