Trump and Truth

This sign recently appeared in one of my neighbor’s yards:

I don’t know these neighbors. And, seeing as they’re Trump supporters, I have no interest in getting to know them. Normally, I wouldn’t notice a campaign sign at all. I don’t generally take political advice from cardboard signs. It’s not clever or humorous or insightful. But it did catch my attention because of the irony. It’s almost more irony than I can handle.

I think most people probably get the irony, but, just in case, I feel like I should spell it out. There are two ways the sign could be interpreted. It could be saying that most normal politicians BS us, but Trump is one of the only ones that is sincere. The other is that the sign could be acknowledging that Trump’s time in office has been filled with BS, but if he’s elected in 2020, it will stop. He’ll get serious, so to speak. Either way, the sign is complete bull. Trump spews more BS than anyone I’ve ever heard. He always has. It didn’t start with his career in politics. It might be the only genuine talent the man has. If Trump is elected in 2020, it won’t eliminate the BS, but instead create much, much more of it.

(I’ll pause for a moment here to address something some readers might have noticed. This is a somewhat awkward topic for me to write about. I never use the S-word. So, I’ll keep using “BS” and “Bull” instead. I hope you can still follow me.)

The fact that there’s an ironic sign in my neighborhood wouldn’t be worth writing about on its own. However, this irony highlights something important that doesn’t seem to get as much attention as it should, Trump’s BS. Everyone talks about his lies. They crow about the fact-checkers catching his untruths, as if that matters. John Oliver has a bit on his show where he shows Trump making two contradictory statements, then has a celebration because, “We got him.” It’s funny because catching him in a lie is no big deal, and that’s because what he’s doing isn’t really lying. It’s BSing.

I know that may sound weird to many people. “Of course Trump is a liar,” they’ll say. He says things that are not true all the time. But there are many ways to make untrue statements without lying. Some of the more obvious are telling stories, repeating misunderstood or misheard information, or simply making a mistake. Bull is its own special category of untruth. It has some similarities with lying, but it’s a different kind of activity.

Harry Frankfurt wrote the book on BS, literally. It was released in 2005, and is one of the few pieces of real philosophy to spend time on the bestseller list. In the book, he makes two important distinctions between lying and BSing. One is that lying necessarily has a connection to, and respect for, the truth. BS, on the other hand, is completely disconnected from truth.

[The] 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 for truth- this indifference to how things really are- that I regard as the essence of [BS].

(pages 33-34)

The other is that, while both are intended to mislead, lying is intended to mislead about the statement being made whereas bull misleads about the the BSer’s intentions, motivations, or personality.

The [BSer] may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

(page 54)

In other words, the BS artist doesn’t care if the statements are true or not. And she may not even know if they are true or not. Truth is beside the point. The bull is successful as long as it distracts, confuses, or hides something about the speaker as a person (or group, businesses BS us all the time).

If this is true, and I believe it is, it means that Trump is not primarily a liar. He is a BSer. If he were lying, he’d be very bad at it. The internet has made straight-up lying pretty difficult. There are just too many ways to fact-check. But it has made bull extremely easy. A person can say anything they want, and someone on the internet will repeat, amplify, and justify it. It’s a BSer’s dream come true, and has created the perfect conditions for Trump’s particular brand of awfulness.

We need to stop acting like Trump is a liar and trying to counter him by exposing his falsehoods. He is supremely unconcerned with truth; it doesn’t matter how many “lies” are uncovered. It won’t work to be clever, hit him with the best zingers. The only real way to battle bull is with sincerity.

As I mentioned, sincerity has become difficult in the 21st century. Everyone is constantly curating their image, presenting what they think makes them look best, in a way BSing. We all need to find a way to be honest and true, to be sincere, and stop adding to the pile of bull. Then the BS of Trump, and those like him, will be exposed for the fraud that it is.

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