So the media is examining itself again lately. Pundits are asking, “Why is the media so afraid of calling Trump a ‘liar’?”
Donald Trump is a liar.
For anyone who has been following the Republican presidential campaign for the past few months, this statement will not elicit much surprise. But then again, that’s also true if you’ve been following the direction of Republican presidential campaign rhetoric over the past several years.
When Trump claimed that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheer when the Twin Towers were felled, he was lying, because thousands of Muslims in New Jersey didn’t cheer when the Twin Towers fell.
He is not stretching the truth when he says the Obama administration wants to take in 250,000 Syrian refugees. He is lying.
He was not, as ABC News put it, making “questionable comments” when he retweeted the racist claims of a neo-Nazi that black Americans are overwhelmingly responsible for homicides in America. He is peddling made-up racist claims about black Americans.
When he said that there should be a database of American Muslims and that US mosques should possibly be shut down, he wasn’t misquoted. He was quite clearly playing on xenophobic fears.
Some have argued that Trump’s intentions are unclear. Maybe he truly believes he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on 9/11.
And maybe some of Trump’s best friends are black or Mexican. Instead he’s just playing on fears about immigrants, Muslim terrorists, and black criminals, like countless politicians before him.
But this is a dodge. It’s been consistently pointed out, by reporters and fact checkers alike, and often directly to Trump, that he is saying things that are verifiably untrue. That Trump keeps repeating them is all we need to know about his intentions.
I think it is great that some in the media are finally calling him out. Being “fair” does not mean being wrong. If Person A — and I don’t care who it is — says something that a reporter can confirm is patently untrue, then the reporter should say so in his or her reporting.
Not that it matters. On CNN this morning, there was a remarkable panel. I only heard it on the radio and I missed the beginning, but the CNN moderator had two regular people — both Republicans — in the studio. And the issue was Trump. One of the people was clearly a Trump fan — he said he built the Truckers for Trump website, among other things. And this guy insisted that Trumps “Thousands of Muslims Dancing in New Jersey on 9/11” claim was absolutely true. The CNN moderator pushed back and explained that CNN and every single major and local news organization looked into it, and it was absolutely untrue that there was “thousands” of Muslims. And the Trump supporter snapped back, “But you’re wrong. We know there were thousands. We know it.”
And that, to me, explains the psychosis of Trump followers. And that, to me, is the Trump phenomenon. For perhaps the first time in electoral politics, we have an identifiable block of voters who are more drawn to the narrative than the truth. See, it just doesn’t matter to them that Trump lies. As long as he is sticking it to whoever — gays, people from other countries, minorities, women, Democrats, the media, etc.
But I have had issues with calling him a liar. To me, a liar is someone who knows what the truth is, but says the opposite. Trump, I believe, doesn’t know what the truth is… and, like his followers, he doesn’t care. Again, it is the narrative.
Fortunately, as I was formulating this “not liar” theory, I read this:
Trump is something worse than a liar. He is a bullshit artist. In his 2005 book On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt, emeritus philosophy professor at Princeton University, makes an important distinction between lying and bullshitting—one that is extremely useful for understanding the pernicious impact that Trump has on public life. Frankfurt’s key observation is that the liar, even as he or she might spread untruth, inhabits a universe where the distinction between truth and falsehood still matters. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care what is true or not. By his or her bluffing, dissimilation, and general dishonesty, the bullshit artist works to erase the very possibility of knowing the truth. For this reason, bullshit is more dangerous than lies, since it erodes even the possibility of truth existing and being found.
The contrast Frankfurt draws between lying and bullshit is sharp. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,” Frankfurt observes. “Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off. … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”
Frankfurt’s analysis works extraordinarily well in explaining why Trump is so unfazed when called on his bullshit. Trump’s frequent response is to undermine the very possibility that the truth of his claims are knowable. When asked why there are no videos of “thousands and thousands” of Muslim-Americans cheering the 9/11 attacks, Trump told Joe Scarborough that 2001 was so far in the past that the evidence has disappeared. “Don’t forget, 14, 15 years ago, it wasn’t like it is today, where you press a button and you play a video,” Trump said in a phone interview on yesterday’s Morning Joe. “Fourteen, 15 years ago, they don’t even put it in files, they destroy half of the stuff. You know, if you look back 14, 15 years, that was like ancient times in terms of cinema, and in terms of news and everything else. They don’t have the same stuff. Today you can press a button and you can see exactly what went on, you know, two years ago. But when you go back 14, 15 years, that’s like ancient technology, Joe.”
This claim—that he’s telling the truth but that there can be no proof of it—is in some ways more insidious than the initial falsehood. It takes us to a post-truth world where Trump’s statements can’t be fact-checked, and we have to simply accept the workings of his self-proclaimed “world’s greatest memory.” In effect, Trump wants to take us to a land where subjectivity is all, where reality is simply what he says.
Yes, that’s it! A bullshit artist!
Now, to be sure, Trump is not the only one (see Carly Fiorina on the Planned Parenthood video), nor the first one (see anti-vaxxers and birthers, who counts Trump among their legions). But Trump is the best, by far. And why is he so good at hucksterism?
His background as a real estate developer—a job that requires making convincing sales pitches—is one clue. But Frankfurt’s book offers another suggestion: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about,” Frankfurt notes. “Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.” As a businessman-turned-politician, Trump often seems in over his head on policy discussions. Maybe that’s the core reason why he’s so given over to bullshitting.
This of course explains the polls and Trump’s apparent resiliency. As Ben Carson’s poll numbers have plummeted lately, Trump’s have gone up. However, the real beneficiaries of Carson’s drop have been Rubio and Cruz. This suggests to me that there IS (believe it or not!) a ceiling to Trump’s numbers, i.e., even if there is a sucker born every minute, there still is a finite number of suckers out there at any given time.
But I still don’t hold out much hope for Trump. And here’s why: National polls are not helpful.
There are two reasons for this:
(1) Most people in the nation are not really paying attention. Sure, people tune in to watch the debates…. as entertainment. But unless they are in Iowa, they don’t really feel the need to make up their minds yet. Even in New Hampshire, it is too soon for people to settle on one candidate or another. In the last two elections, over 60% of all New Hampshire voters didn’t make up their mind until the week of voting. So, national polls are virtually meaningless. Trump is famous and gets a lot of TV time and press. He’s the most known commodity.
(2) Most polls ask… “if you were to vote today, who would you vote for?”. And if a person answers “Uhhhmmmmm [6 second pause]…. Trump, I guess”, that is recorded as a “Trump”. In other words, we don’t get the enthusiasm of the voter.
(3) Trump only has 25-35% of the the Republican vote among registered Republicans. And roughly 35% of people in the country are registered Republicans. That means that within the voting age population, Trump has 25 to 35 percent of roughly one-third of the country. Or, put another way, 8-10% of voters. That is NOT a lot. And certainly gives a lot more room for others to take over the field.
So, listen. Trump is not going to be the GOP nominee. I still say Rubio. It could be Cruz. But Trump will fall eventually, just as Gingrich and Huckabee and Bachmann did last time.