Is Trump a Liar or a BSer?

Is Trump a Liar or a BSer? June 1, 2017

Matthew Yglesias makes a similar argument to the one I’ve been making for a year now, that while I call Trump a liar, the reality is that he doesn’t even consider the question of whether anything he says is true or not. Yglesias says it’s more accurate to call him a BSer.


Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar.

But that’s not quite right. As the Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt put it in a famous essay, to lie presumes a kind of awareness of and interest in the truth — and the goal is to convince the audience that the false thing you are saying is in fact true. Trump, more often than not, isn’t interested in convincing anyone of anything. He’s a bullshitter who simply doesn’t care…

As Frankfurt put it in his groundbreaking essay “On Bullshit,” “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”

Frankfurt attempts to give the term definition that distinguishes the bullshitter from the liar, with the most salient distinction being that the liar is genuinely trying to trick you.

“The bullshitter,” by contrast, “may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be.”

The liar wants to be seen as the one telling the truth. The bullshitter just doesn’t care. That’s Trump. During the course of the 2016 campaign, he said over and over again that America is “the highest-taxed nation in the world,” which isn’t even remotely close to being true. But he kept saying it, despite having been called out repeatedly, and then he said it again in a recent interview with the Economist.

Trump says, over and over again, that he won one of the greatest Electoral College landslides in history. It’s not true, it’s obviously not true to anyone who bothers to look it up or remembers any past presidential elections, and it’s not even remotely clear why it’s important. But Trump keeps on saying it.

This is just how Frankfurt defines bullshit:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Exactly what I’ve been saying all along. He just does not care about truth or falsehood, only about whether a given claim supports his purposes or does not. That is the only standard by which he judges a claim. If it’s good for him, it is obviously, undeniably true; if it’s not, it’s clearly, incontrovertibly false. And if what is good or bad for him changes, as it often does, he will take the exact opposite position and insist that it must be true even if he said it was false just a few minutes ago. But is there a further reason for this behavior? Yglesias thinks so. It’s a loyalty test.

Trump launched his term in office by dispatching White House press secretary Sean Spicer to deliver an inaugural press briefing dedicated to disputing clear photographic evidence about crowd size.

It seemed insane, and one popular interpretation was that Trump had, in fact, lost his marbles and simply couldn’t stand the blow to his ego implied by mocking media coverage. But George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen argues that this kind of thing can serve a strategic role.

The key issues are trust and loyalty. By asking subordinates to echo his bullshit, Trump accomplishes two goals:

* He tests the loyalty of his subordinates. In Cowen’s words, “if you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid.”

* The other is that it turns his aides into members of a distinct tribe. “By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration.”

Both of these things allow Trump to do a better job of operating in a low-trust environment. All presidents face a mild form of a principle-agent problem in which their subordinates’ interests are only imperfectly aligned with their own.

But it also then pushes anyone who isn’t motivated by loyalty, like career civil servants and intelligence operatives, to do things like leaking information because they view this behavior as being quite dangerous. And they’re right, it is. There’s a lot more, it’s a really long article. I suggest reading the whole thing.

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