A few days ago, I was asked on CNN to make sense of one more case in which Donald Trump had said something demonstrably false and then explained it away with a caustic tweet and an indignant interview. I replied that there was a pattern here and a term for a person who did this kind of thing: a “bullshit artist.” I got cheers and boos for the comment from partisans on both sides, but I was not using that label casually. Trump is many things, some of them dark and dangerous, but at his core, he is a B.S. artist.
Harry Frankfurt, an eminent moral philosopher and former professor at Princeton, wrote a brilliant essay in 1986 called “On Bullshit.” (Frankfurt himself wrote about Trump in this vein, as have Jeet Heer and Eldar Sarajlic.) In the essay, Frankfurt distinguishes crucially between lies and B.S.: “Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point. . . . In order to invent a lie at all, [the teller of a lie] must think he knows what is true.”
But someone engaging in B.S., Frankfurt says, “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all . . . except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.” Frankfurt writes that the B.S.-er’s “focus is panoramic rather than particular” and that he has “more 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.’ ”
This has been Trump’s mode all his life. He boasts — and boasts and boasts — about his business, his buildings, his books, his wives. Much of it is a concoction of hyperbole and falsehoods. And when he’s found out, he’s like that guy we have all met at a bar who makes wild claims but when confronted with the truth, quickly responds, “I knew that!”
Take, for instance, the most extraordinary example, his non-relationship with Vladimir Putin. In May 2014, addressing the National Press Club, Trump said, “I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.” In November 2015, at a Fox Business debate, he said of Putin, “I got to know him very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes.’ ”
Did Trump really believe that you could say something like that on live TV and no one would check? Did he think that no one would notice that the “60 Minutes” show consisted of two separate prerecorded interviews, with Putin in Moscow and Trump in New York? (By that logic, I have gotten to know Franklin Roosevelt very well because I have run some clips of him on my television show.)
In fact, Trump was bullshitting. He sees himself as important, a global celebrity, the kind of man who should or could have met Putin. Why does it matter that they did not actually meet?
Or look at the issue that fueled his political rise, birtherism. Trump said in 2011 that he had sent investigators to Hawaii and that “they cannot believe what they’re finding.” For weeks, he continued to imply that there were huge findings to be released. He hinted to George Stephanopoulos, “We’re going to see what happens.” That was five years ago, in April 2011. Nothing happened.
In fact, it appears highly unlikely that Trump ever sent any investigators to Hawaii. In 2011, Salon asked Trump attorney Michael Cohen for details about the investigators. Cohen said that it was all very secret, naturally. Trump has said the same about his plan to defeat the Islamic State, which he can’t reveal. He has boasted that he has a strategy to win solidly Democratic states this fall, but he won’t reveal which ones. (Even by Trump’s standards, this one is a head-scratcher. Won’t we notice when he campaigns in these places? Or will it be so secret that even the voters won’t know?) Of course, these are not secret strategies. It’s just B.S.
Harry Frankfurt concludes that liars and truth-tellers are both acutely aware of facts and truths. They are just choosing to play on opposite sides of the same game to serve their own ends. The B.S. artist, however, has lost all connection with reality. He pays no attention to the truth. “By virtue of this,” Frankfurt writes, “bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”
We see the consequences. As the crazy talk continues, standard rules of fact, truth and reality have disappeared in this campaign. Donald Trump has piled such vast quantities of his trademark product into the political arena that the stench is now overwhelming and unbearable.