On Trump

Ten years ago, Harry Frankfurt, a philosophy professor (emeritus) at Princeton, came out with a very slim volume entitled On Bullshit. It was basically just the republication of an essay he’d written about 20 years earlier, but it got a fair amount of attention when put in book form. What struck me about it at the time was the contrast Frankfurt drew between bullshit and lying.

This is the crux of the distinction between him [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Donald Trump’s recent success in the race for the Republican nomination strikes me as the apotheosis of Frankfurtean bullshit. The truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him. Not that I haven’t run into people who spout at least as much bullshit as Trump—I’m sure you have, too—but I’ve never seen this level of bullshit when the stakes and the attention are so high.


Last week, Leon Wolf got some attention by describing Trump’s candidacy this way:

Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things – yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.

Chaff is a good word, but chaff is a form of lying, not bullshit. Here’s Frankfurt again (with emphasis by me), in a paragraph that seems to be written specifically for Trump:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. 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 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.