Is Donald Trump a “bullshitter”?

As Evan Osnos writes in his profile of Trump in the New Yorker,

In New Hampshire, where voters pride themselves on being unimpressed, Fred Rice, a Republican state representative, arrived at a Trump rally in the beach town of Hampton on an August evening, and found people waiting patiently in a two-hour line that stretched a quarter of a mile down the street. “Never seen that at a political event before,” he said. Other Republicans offer “canned bullshit,” Rice went on. “People have got so terribly annoyed and disenchanted and disenfranchised, really, by candidates who get up there, and all their stump speeches promise everything to everyone.” By the night’s end, Rice was sold. “I heard echoes of Ronald Reagan,” he told me, adding, “If I had to vote today, I would vote for Trump.”

Although perhaps not “canned”, doesn’t Trump offer much of the same goodie bag? To return to Osnos:

[At a border press conference in Texas, Trump] was asked, “You keep saying that there’s a danger, but crime along the border is down. What danger are you talking about?”

Trump gave a tight, concerned nod. “There’s great danger with the illegals, and we were just discussing that. But we have a tremendous danger along the border, with the illegals coming in.”

“Have you seen any evidence here to confirm your fears about Mexico sending its criminals across the border?”

Another grave nod. “Yes, I have, and I’ve heard it, and I’ve heard it from a lot of different people.”

“What evidence, specifically, have you seen?”

“We’ll be showing you the evidence.”


He let that one pass.

“What do you say to the people on the radio this morning who called you a racist?”

“Well, you know, we just landed, and there were a lot of people at the airport, and they were all waving American flags, and they were all in favor of Trump and what I’m doing.” He shrugged—an epic, arms-splayed shrug.

“They were chanting against you.”

“No, they were chanting for me.”

“What would you do with the eleven million undocumented immigrants who are already here?”

“The first thing we have to do is strengthen our borders, and after that we’re going to have plenty of time to talk about that.”

Trump’s speech – it not deliberately untruthful – is rhetorically whiplashing. From the messaging dictum “answer and transition to message”, Trump makes the leap to don’t answer and transition to message.

Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher at Princeton University, wrote an essay a few years back that attempts to define what constitutes “bullshit”. He works through a comparative method, contrasting bullshit with “humbug”, deliberate misrepresentation, misrepresentation of one’s own thoughts, lying, mindless sloppiness, bull sessions, bluffing, “trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense.” He settles on the following provisional definition:

Both [the bullshitter] and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it…
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit… has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity.
Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. 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. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself…
In short, usage varies on “bullshit”. When Iowa politician Fred Rice says that the other GOP candidates are offering “canned bullshit”, he is making a judgment of the desirability of their policy proposals (low), and also a statement about whether they themselves believe them (they do not). In contrast, Trump is a “bullshitter” by Frankfurt’s tentative definition. People are drawn to him regardless of whether he or his audience believes his statements are true, because they seem to emanate from a speaker whose only calculation is about a lurch towards authenticity.

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