by Jacob Levy Niskanen Center edited by O Society June 5, 2019
In response to the bizarre politics the day, the Oxford Dictionaries selected as the word of the year “post-truth,” a term that highlights how far we’ve come in the years since Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness” for his comedic coverage of the George W. Bush administration. “Truthiness” requires a claim to feel true or seem true; it connotes a concern with at least the appearance of validity “post-truth” lacks. “Post-truth” is a declaration of baffled uncertainty about how contemporary politics and politicians relate to the facts of the world, with Donald Trump as exhibit A.
The renowned and curmudgeonly philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay, On Bullshit, is a frequent point of reference for people struggling to grasp Trump’s barely comprehensible volume of untruths. This also applies to that old standby term, “gaslighting,” derived from the play and movie adaptations about a husband seeking to manipulate his wife into doubting the evidence of her own senses with constant subtle denials of the truth. I suspect gaslighting doesn’t capture much of Trump’s mendacity. Bullshitting does somewhat better, but it masks some of the most dangerously authoritarian elements in Trump’s contempt for truthful speech.
Frankfurt’s “bullshit” (apologies, but I have to keep using the word) is characterized by the speaker’s indifference as to whether a claim is true—indeed, as to whether there is any truth of the matter at all. The liar or the fraud knows that there is a truth of the matter, and aims to deliberately conceal it. Neither is true of the bullshitter, who is making noise for some purpose that is orthogonal to the truth. Sometimes it is to make an impression as a knowledgeable authority, in which case the bullshitter does at least want to create the impression that there is a truth of the matter and that he knows it. So there is a deception at the level of impression, though not necessarily at the level of the claim; the pompous bullshitter might accidentally speak the truth, but still be guilty of bullshit.
But sometimes even that impression is irrelevant. The useless noise that makes up commentary in the “spin zone” on television news after a presidential debate involves flacks and spokespeople saying things and denying things. Not only is the speaker unconcerned with the truth of the speech, but everyone knows this. The whole thing is done with a wink and a nudge, as much as a carnival barker’s narration about the performers. Maybe the trapeze artists really are twins; maybe they really are from Italy. But neither fact matters at all for whether the barker says those things; the barker is just going for patter that sounds good. And the audience knows that, and doesn’t care; it’s all part of the show. The same is true for the winking bullshitter in the spin zone.
Donald Trump bullshits. He’s a New York real estate developer whose image involves calculated exaggerations of the stereotypes of both New Yorkers and real estate developers. Braggadocio and patter come with that territory. He’s also a thin-skinned counterpuncher who will lash out in response to criticism and slights. When he suggested that Ghazala Khan had been silent during her husband’s address to the Democratic National Convention because, as a Muslim woman, she wasn’t allowed to speak, he didn’t have any idea, and didn’t care, whether that was true. He was throwing anything he could think of at the Khans, because they had dared to criticize him. As he often does, he surrounded the inflammatory accusation with verbal shrugs and winks: I don’t know, maybe, people are saying. He often speaks like this in his rallies.
But an untruth like this is different:
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
There are no winks or nudges. And I have no doubt Trump knows this claim to be untrue. It’s not bullshit; it’s a lie, even though it comes with a spin-zone indifference to whether anyone believes it. It’s also not gaslighting. It’s too big, too obvious, and too free of any evidence. Some people will believe it, because they believe everything Trump tells them; but the people disinclined to believe him won’t believe this for a second. It doesn’t throw his opponents off-balance, or make them doubt themselves.
Why lie? Why call into question the legitimacy of the election that he won? Riling up nativist and racist populist anger isn’t especially tactically useful at this moment.
To understand this kind of political untruth, I think we have to look to theorists of truth and language in politics; Frankfurt’s essay was only tangentially that. But the great analysts of truth and speech under totalitarianism—George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is. Sometimes—often—a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.
Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid “2+2=5.”
‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’
‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’
Being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear you’re powerless; it also makes you complicit. You’re morally compromised. Your ability to stand on your own moral two feet and resist or denounce is lost. Part of this is a general tool for making people part of immoral groups. One child makes a second abuse a third. The second then can’t think he’s any better than the first, the bully, and can’t inform. In a gang or the Mafia, your first kill makes you trustworthy, because you’re now dependent on the group to keep your secrets, and can’t credibly claim to be superior to them.
In totalitarian and authoritarian politics, there seems to be something special about the lie, partly because so much of politics is about speech (and especially public speech) in the first place. Based on the evidence of his presidential campaign, I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively, and he relished the power to make his subordinates repeat his clearly outlandish lies in public. Every Sunday he provided fresh absurdities that Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and Kellyanne Conway repeated on the talk shows. They didn’t persuade anyone who were strategically important to persuade; the audience for Meet the Press isn’t low-information, undecided, working-class voters, and the kinds of people who did watch those shows knew the claims were false. But making his surrogates repeat the lies compromised them; that tied them to him. And it degraded them, and made clear where power lay.
One of the many things that frightens me about the immediate future is this: the possibility that Trump now thinks everyone is his subordinate. He clearly wants his inner circle to be people he can make say things they know to be untrue. But he seems to love the prospect of expanding that circle: the more he can break establishment figures, from Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney, or the establishment conservative media, the greater his power will be. Why would he want people to believe an absurd lie like the one about millions of illegal voters? If we did, he’d up the ante. It’s more likely that what he wants is to test the loyalty and fealty of an ever-growing number of potential Chris Christies, seeing whether he can make them—and us—repeat a lie. He is strengthened by people who either fear him or crave a position with him more than they love the truth.
We hear a lot about the distraction problem. Trump’s more outrageous statements eat up the news cycle and distract from hard news, like his massive conflicts of financial interest, or his massive fraud in the Trump University case. And it is important not to allow manufactured drama to conceal real-world misconduct. But insisting on the difference between truth and lies is itself a part of the defense of freedom. Orwell, Arendt, and Havel teach us the power to tell public lies and to have them repeated is evidence of, and a tool for the expansion of, a power that free people should resist and refuse. That is not a distraction.