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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 00:17 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 00:17 | SYDNEY

Calling BS on Donald Trump



3 June 2016 12:38

My apologies for lowering the tone, but would it help if I told you that the term 'bullshit' has some academic pedigree, primarily thanks to a famous essay by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt? Here he is on the important distinction between bullshitting and lying:

The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the 'bullshit artist.'

Doesn't that describe Mr Trump pretty well? Trump, when you consider his rhetoric, seems little concerned with truth and falsehood; he's working on a larger and more impressionistic canvas, trying to create archetypes (Lyin' Ted, Crooked Hillary) and set a particular mood. I suppose all politicians do that, but Trump is definitely at the extreme end.

Frankfurt's essay comes to mind in light of an enlightening new profile of Donald Trump in the The Hollywood Reporter. Here's the key passage:

It is hard not to feel that Trump understands himself, and that we're all in on this kind of spectacular joke. His shamelessness is just so...shameless. So how much, I ask — quite thinking he will get the nuance here — is the Trump brand based on exaggeration? He responds, with perfect literalness, none at all. I try again. He must understand. How could he not? "You've talked about negotiation, which is about compromise and about establishing positions that you can walk back from. How much about being a successful person involves...well, bullshitting? How much of success is playing games?"

If he does understand, he's definitely not taking this bait. I try again: "How much are you a salesman?"

Salesman, in the Trump worldview, is hardly a bad word, and he is quite willing to accept it, although, curiously, he doesn't want to be thought of that way when it comes to real estate. But as a politician, he's OK as a salesman. In this, he sees himself — and becomes almost eloquent in talking about himself — as a sort of performer and voter whisperer.

Yes, a performer and a voter whisperer. That's exactly the argument Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has been making about Trump for months now:

Note that Adams concludes no-one can beat Trump. Blogger Jason Kottke, who has also written on Trump the bullshitter, says if Trump is to be defeated, it won't be in the realm of fact:

Much of what I read from people who oppose Trump attempts to counter his rhetoric with facts. That hasn't worked and is not going to work. The truth is not the antidote for bullshit. So how do you defeat the bullshitter? This has been a genuine problem for his political opponents thus far. Frankfurt doesn't offer any advice in the video (perhaps his book does?), and I'm at a loss as well, but I do know that factual refutation will not make any difference. I hope someone figures it out soon though.

Scott Adams has bemoaned the fact that Hillary Clinton's campaign seems to have no idea how to counter Trump, though according to the NY Times, Clinton's latest speech, in which she attacked Trump on multiple fronts, 'came after weeks of study by Clinton aides to determine which attacks by Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals had not worked.' We will see if their research has paid off.

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