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:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
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.”