Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” pt. 3: Trump

Another in the series of posts applying Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit”. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend it.

Every week or so Donald Trump tweets something ridiculous, outrageous, or just plain trollish, and it drives people crazy. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to find these messages distasteful, and I usually do, but the reaction is usually way out of proportion. You could pick many examples, but the big one at the moment is this:

One of the reasons Trump (intentionally) drives people crazy with this kind of tweet is simple: he’s bullshitting, but they’re taking take it seriously. He knows how burning the US flag is constitutionally protected, and how successfully implementing this idea is completely infeasible. He’s a blowhard, not an idiot.

To recap what Frankfurt means by bullshit, it’s speech unconnected to truth value. A liar is still concerned with truth value. He wants his statement to be taken as true when it should not be. A bullshitter isn’t concerned with truth value one way or the other. (Note: bullshit is not necessarily always a bad thing. It depends on context. A lot of pleasant bonding conversation we engage in is bullshit, because in that case conveying truth is not the point and we don’t count on it. I think of how many amusing tall tales I’ve heard in bars through the years.)

Trump’s opponents get so riled up because they think he means what he says. He does this to agitate them, and it works. He’s both a lot more clever and a lot less ideological than they think. People will be able to respond more effectively when they realize he’s not serious about every bad idea he suggests.

It’s unbecoming and improper of a president-elect to bullshit on so grand a scale. Politicians bullshit frequently. They have to talk about a lot of things they aren’t experts on. It comes with the territory. But they shouldn’t go out of their way to do it. Trump is about to become the most powerful man in the world. That is serious business. He should not be trolling on Twitter. But his opponents have enough to be concerned about—his bullheaded rejection of the clear economic consensus about trade, his total lack of understanding of international relations, etc.—without adding nonsense to the pile.

It’s not just Twitter. During his campaign he said a lot of outrageous things. It’s not likely most of his supporters really thought he would impose a blanket ban on Muslim immigration, as if that were possible to get past Congress and the courts anyway. They knew that was bullshit. His opponents didn’t seem to. Merely suggesting it is a very bad and un-presidential thing to do and the fact that he did should worry us. But don’t think he’s going to do it. Focus on the things he can do.

This will be an especially difficult year for the media. The media model is designed for reporting news, and is not well-equipped to deal with bullshit. Presidents have told the truth and have lied, and the media can cover these things straightforwardly. A politician talking through his hat so consistently is confusing. Do they report it straightforwardly, taking the statements at face value when large parts of their audience know better? Do they ignore the more outlandish claims? Do they tell the reader “He said this but nobody could seriously think he meant it so let’s stop here”? What will rival outlets do? Sponsors pay for readers and viewers, not maturity. I said an especially difficult year because I expect they’ll adjust eventually. This assumes he doesn’t start acting presidential soon, although I would love to be wrong on that assumption.

So I’m not accused of ignoring the harm of inflammatory rhetoric, yes, even the mere fact of suggesting these kinds of policies, however unrealistic, is an antisocial thing for a person in his position to do that could give aid and comfort to the even more antisocial fringe. The point is that with better bullshit detectors we could stop being kept off balance by nonsense like this flag burning tweet, and focus on the times when he means it.


UPDATE: A little extra from a Washington Post article about a forum of campaign people, quoting Trump’s first campaign manager:

“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

Advertisements

The reports of the NFL’s death are greatly exaggerated

I keep seeing the meme all over sports media that NFL television ratings are down, as if this is a big deal, tied to scandals and hypermasculinity. I have little use for that line of thought, and there’s a better one.

In a recent interview with Peter King, Brian Rolapp, Executive VP of Media for the NFL, offered a few reasons for the ratings drop. First, presidential election years always have a dip in ratings. This is fascinating! Maybe the explanation is people getting serious once every four years, but I doubt it. The explanation that fits with my priors (and thus the clear frontrunner, right?) is that politics and sports are substitutes. Politics deals with serious issues, but many people consume it as entertainment. They pick teams and get invested in them in the way they do with football. This election was pretty unusual, too, which almost guarantees getting more eyeballs, even for neutrals, which means less attention left over for football.

Another point I thought was interesting was that the number of viewers hasn’t declined, they’re just sticking around less. This makes sense too. If the games are not fun to watch—neither is your team, the outcome is not in doubt—there are a practically unlimited number of alternative things to watch without moving out of your spot. The random variation in game quality week-to-week and year-to-year isn’t under the NFL’s control anyway. This is a big challenge for the NFL, and indeed for any media enterprise. By the way, college football ratings are not down. I think the identification people have with college teams is a lot stronger than with NFL teams, and the markets are not the same. There is a lot less parity in college football anyway, and there always has been, so bad games don’t turn people off as much.

The London games don’t help with domestic viewership either. Obviously they help with European exposure, but there’s only so much football a viewer can watch in a day. If your team plays in London (at 9:30am Eastern time/6:30 am Pacific time) you’re not likely to watch the rest of the games, and if your team doesn’t play in London you’re not likely to watch that game.

One year does not make a trend. I know media people have to talk about something, but we don’t have to take everything at the same level of seriousness.

Election 2016 thoughts

A presidential election is surely big enough to merit comment, so here’s what I’m thinking so far. I’m still digesting it. Consider it a public notebook. All of this is from a non-partisan standpoint. I drafted this a few days ago, didn’t add much, and finally figured it was time to pull the trigger.

First, I believed there were more “closeted” Trump voters than the polls showed—social desirability bias is real—but I was still surprised when Trump won. I thought it would be Clinton by a hair.

An explanation I’ve been telling myself for a few months now, I don’t know how seriously, was that Trump decided to run on a lark, probably just to promote his brand, and after winning a couple primaries by tapping into something began to see how far he could ride it. I don’t think he has a coherent mental framework that motivates his support for various policies. For all the fear of what his administration will mean for various groups, I doubt he has a lot of ideas he takes seriously one way or the other. I can’t imagine the day-to-day reality of being president will suit him, nor can I imagine voters giving him a second term, even calibrating for the fact that he won a first. There are secular economic trends at play that nobody is going to stop. Overturning Obamacare will be difficult with only 51 Republican senators. The mid-term elections could put more Democrats back into Congress. And it remains to be seen how much the Republican Party establishment will want to cooperate with the newcomer.

One of the biggest points is the protest vote against elites. It’s not part of the left’s self-image that they are a big part of “the system”. They tend to identify with underdogs. But Hillary Clinton is as close to royalty as the US has. The entire Democratic Party leadership treated the 2016 campaign as her obviously due turn. All living former and current presidents opposed Trump, as did the rest of the Bush clan, the Beltway Republican class, Hollywood, a sitting Supreme Court Justice, etc. At a broader level, the left controls so much of the cultural narrative that it’s like the air they breathe, no longer noticeable to them. The elites range in opinion from ignoring the rubes in flyover states to white hot contempt, and it came back to bite them when somebody at least pretended to take them seriously. I note with disappointment the first round of reaction articles doubling down on the contempt. It may be emotionally comforting, but will not help.

I can’t speak to Wikileaks’ end game (if they have one), but the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and the Clinton Foundation were not pretty. Maybe everything at that level runs that way, and maybe in the grand scheme of things that’s acceptable, but there’s no hiding how distasteful it is to the average person.

It was obvious that the media were all-in for Clinton, and this ended up hurting her campaign. Most minds were probably made up when the news broke that Donna Brazile passed debate questions from CNN to Clinton’s camp ahead of time, but that was very illustrative. Trump did and said plenty of things to jump on fairly, but I know the man on the street saw it as much more than that. There were hints that Texas might have been competitive, for example, that were unbelievable and undermined media credibility. He said rude things to Alicia Machado, but when voters got a deeper look at her and it wasn’t helping she was dropped. It looked like they were out of touch at best and propagandists at worst. Plus, Hitler comparisons in the less-serious media, the kind that get shared all over Facebook, stop working when applied to, say, the relatively moderate Mitt Romney. You can only cry wolf so many times.

Trump’s understanding of economics is woeful, but it’s fairly common across the political spectrum. Honest-to-goodness free trade has very few supporters (outside of economics departments), and the insincere appeals to its merits by cronyists might be worse than no support at all. Politicians of all stripes are guilty for setting this stage.

Trump has some nightmarish supporters, no doubt about it, but lumping all of his supporters in with the fringe only made them angry and blunted the power of further smears. Nobody was going to reach my immigrant grandmother by telling her she was a misogynist xenophobe in voting for Trump, not the clever people at The Atlantic, and certainly not the hacks at Slate. I don’t deny racism and misogyny exist and motivate some people, but I think most Americans are not racists or misogynists and resent being labeled as such. Trump’s leaked comments about women were incredibly crass, but running against a Clinton took a lot of the power out of that angle. His statements about Muslims were shocking but were gradually walked back, and those plans were impossible anyway.

At the very least I’m glad the campaigning is done.