Trump and the Bullshit Death Spiral

"Bullshit is a greater enemy to the truth than lies are." So writes Harry Frankfurt, in his essay "On Bullshit". I've had cause to think about this line in light of the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, and the way that bullshit and lying can become deeply entwined for the serial bullshitter. Perhaps it is worth first taking a step back and looking at Frankfurt's distinction between bullshit and lying.

Lying is intentional deception. The liar needs to know the truth, and deliberately speaks falsely in order to bring about a belief in that falsehood. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not know or care whether what s/he says is true or false. Both the liar and the bullshitter care about the effects of their words, but the liar possesses knowledge of the truth, while the bullshitter ignores it entirely.

At first glance, it might seem that this makes lying the worse activity. After all, the liar knowingly disregards the truth; it is an intentional act, and it is at least possible that the bullshitter might speak the truth. Not so, argues Frankfurt.

Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, 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.

While instances of lying may be more harmful than instances of bullshit, it does not undermine the value of truth in the same way that bullshit does. The liar has to know the truth in order to lie, and so one is required to remain in the habit of caring about the way the world really is. The bullshitter, however, consistently undermines the value of the truth. Not only are particular truths not important to the bullshitter, but the the truth itself is not important.

I was thinking about the passage quoted above when listening to some recent remarks by Donald Trump. The first was his claim that he had never met Putin, which is clearly at odds with his remarks that he had. The second was his claim that the NFL sent him a letter complaining about the debate schedule, which the NFL immediately denied. In the latter case, Trump is clearly lying, and in the former, at least one of those remarks is a lie.

What's interesting about these lies is the way in which they differ from what you might call, 'normal political lies.' They are not of great political importance, they are made by Trump directly (rather than intermediaries or third parties), and they are easily checked factual assertions. The use of such lies is one of the factors that has led Ezra Klein to call this a campaign between a normal politician, and an abnormal one.

Frankfurt gives us the diagnosis. Trump has shown an ease with bullshit, particularly in the promise of "deals" that will solve America's problems. Frankfurt himself looked at Trump's use of lies and bullshit, and a simple search for "Trump bullshit" brings up several examples of writers applying Frankfurt's analysis to Trump. What I think has gone underappreciated, however, is the way in which bullshitting makes lying all that much easier.

Trump's casual lying in the Putin or NFL cases, which has baffled political observers (particularly since avoiding the "gaffes" seems so easy) is symptomatic of a general disregard for the value of truth. While there is an important conceptual distinction between lying and bullshitting, the latter makes the former easier. The liar recognizes the value of truth, but values it less than what s/he will achieve through the lie. A politician, for example, might think that winning an election is more important than being truthful, and so, is willing to deceive others into believing a falsehood. As bullshit diminishes the value we place on truth, it is more easily outweighed by other other values. Let's call it the "bullshit death spiral" - the more you bullshit, the easier it is to lie and to bullshit, ad infinitum.

This is not to say that we should demand "normal political lies" in place of the more brazen Trump-lies. It is, to say, however, that we should be mindful everywhere of how bullshit undermines the value we place on the truth. While, in normal cases of political misrepresentation and lying, we value victory over the truth, the ubiquity of "fact checkers" suggests that we do still value the truth. The age of bullshit, of which Trump is the apotheosis, threatens a fundamental, though perhaps fragile, value.