little green footballs

Bullshit! Or, How to Frankfurt a Trump

Thu, Jan 26, 2017 at 2:36:02 pm

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As I mentioned in my recent post, "How To Nussbaum a Trump", others have pointed out the relevance of Harry Frankfurt's analysis of bullshit to Trump's rhetoric, and a few have alluded to how he might be the first post-modern President. However, given how "truth-challenged" his administration appears to be in its opening week, I thought it might be worthwhile to develop those themes in a little more depth.

Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus at Princeton, is best known among philosophers for what are called “Frankfurt cases”: apparent counterexamples to the widespread assumption that an agent is morally responsible for what she does only if she can do otherwise. Frankfurt cases might be relevant to understanding Trump insofar as they imply that he (like anyone else) should be held morally responsible for his words and actions even if he is incapable of speaking or acting otherwise (as he well might be). But more relevant here is a distinction Frankfurt developed in 1985, and later published in his accessible little book entitled “On Bullshit” (2005). It was this book (or at least its title) that inspired Jon Stewart to interview Frankfurt on The Daily Show, thereby elevating (or lowering?) him to the role of “public intellectual” for a brief period.

Bullshitters might use the terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ and ‘right or ‘wrong’, but they don’t do so seriously. “On Bullshit” is not among Frankfurt’s best work, but it’s about as readable as analytic philosophy can be. It’s also just plain fun to read a book by a highly respected professor that is copiously sprinkled with ‘bullshit’. The book’s framework can help to explain the sort causal disregard for truth and justification (or evidence) that Trump has demonstrated at least since his “Birther” years (2011-2016). The fundamental idea is this: we need to distinguish bullshitters from both people with merely false beliefs and liars. Anyone can be mistaken, and reasonable people will usually modify their beliefs once they are aware of their falsity.

Take, for example, Zeke Miller, the reporter who mistakenly reported last week that a bust of MLK Jr. had been removed from the oval office; learning of his mistake, he immediately corrected his report. Liars, by contrast, are usually aware of the their statements’ falsity, and - for that very reason - intentionally try to hide it. So they recognize and “respect” (in the sense of fear) at least the particular truth they are trying to hide. But bullshitters have no respect for, or even fear of, the truth. The concept is not on their radar screen. Bullshitters might use the terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ and ‘right or ‘wrong’, but they don’t do so seriously. Think of Trump’s multiple exclamations of ‘wrong!’ during the debates with Clinton. He made no attempt to follow up with any evidence that might justify his charge, and thereby demonstrate at least a modicum of respect for truth. Rather, he seemed content to merely express his disapproval… and perhaps to do so in a way he thought his followers might find entertaining or pleasing in some other way.

The failure to take truth, evidence, or epistemic rationality seriously suggests a close kinship between natural bullshitters like Trump and far more intellectual “post-modernists”. Unlike contemporary modernists, many of whom regard objective truth as a mere ideal, but one towards which we can make progress by adopting at least apparently reliable belief-forming processes, post-modernists (of a certain stripe) reject the notion of objective truth outright, preferring to promote the value of sincerity instead. Sincerity, on such a view, is the best one can hope for, epistemically speaking.

Trump seems to use his expressions of belief like a carpenter uses his tools: to build his base of support, or to manipulate a situation. Now, a significant number of Trump’s followers cite his penchant for “speaking his mind” as their main reason for voting for him, and downplay the importance of what he says being true or justified, or even of his beliefs being consistent with their own. (This was evident in Tom Ashbrook's interview of Trump supporters on On Point this morning.) Clearly, such followers value sincerity over evidence, which they seem quite comfortable without, and I see no reason to doubt their judgment that Trump is sincere (at least some of the time). Surely it would be difficult if not humanly impossible to express such wildly unjustified beliefs as that climate change is a Chinese hoax, or that most undocumented Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, or – for many years – that Obama was born in Kenya, without holding those beliefs sincerely.

On the other hand, Trump seems not to value sincerity for its own sake. Rather, what ultimately matters to him seems to be neither truth, nor evidence, nor sincerity, but rather the practical consequences of expressing a belief. That is, Trump seems to use his expressions of belief like a carpenter uses his tools: to build his base of support, or to manipulate a situation (for example, to strike a deal or make an ally). In this he may appear to more closely resemble a pragmatist than a post-modernist. However, pragmatism, a philosophical outlook pioneered by William James, John Dewey, and Charles Pierce, takes the concept of truth seriously enough to bother redefining it in terms of the practical consequences of holding a belief. Bullshitters don’t care enough about truth to bother redefining it, and since Trump keeps reconfirming the observation that he is a bullshitter, I think we can safely avoid placing him in the lofty company of James, Dewey, or Pierce.

I want to stress that identifying Trump as a bullshitter in no way directly impugns his policy positions. Even the most dedicated bullshitter may (at least inadvertently) speak the truth, or have a good policy idea. Neither should we assume that most of Trump's supporters value his sincerity merely for its own sake; many may also take it as a sign that he will keep his policy promises.

Finally, although Trump often invites insults by insulting others, arguing that we should reject his policies merely because he is a bullshitter would be to commit an ad hominem fallacy, and so to imitate him. However, when Trump argues that we should accept his pronouncements and policies just because he is trustworthy or reliable, then it is not fallacious at all to point out that he is neither. And the more bullshit he spouts, the less we should regard him as either.