Lies with a side of bullshit

Back in the mid-aughts, this author received a little philosophical tract as a holiday gift from one of his siblings that had the snicker-inducing title, On Bullshit. At the time, the booklet was being marketed heavily as a novelty item by one of the major retail bookstores (there used to be such things). The gift’s title was meant to serve as a wry commentary on the perceived quality of my political beliefs.

After my sense of insult passed, I eventually got around to reading the essay. It was surprisingly insightful and has profoundly shaped my thinking over the years. I recommend it to anyone professionally or personally interested in the tactical use of truth. (Click here if you didn’t chase the first link but now want to read it.)

As I recall, Harry Frankfurt argued that bullshit is not the same thing as lying. A lie is designed to misrepresent the truth. In order to tell a lie, you have to know what the truth is and understand the harm the truth will cause. Bullshit has no regard for whether a claim is true or not. The bullshitter’s only interest is in getting you to think a certain way or agree to a certain proposal. All claims will be used by the bullshitter, whether they are true or not. I believe Frankfurt went on to argue that the bullshitter is a greater enemy of truth than the liar, because the liar’s efforts to conceal or distort the truth at least acknowledge that the truth has strength and value.

Donald Trump has forced a lot of people to think about the difference between bullshit and lies since his entry into politics. Frankfurt himself has decided that Trump is a bullshitter. During the campaign, many journalists warned that it was “wrong-headed” to consider bullshitting Trump to be a liar. It should be clear to any reasonably honest and intelligent observer who has been awake to the world around them that Trump routinely lies and bullshits. (If you have any doubt on this point, we can’t help you.)

Here at RAGEPATH, we don’t really care whether bullshitters are worse than liars. Both do intentional and self-interested violence to the truth. The very premise seems farcical – like being asked to declare whether serial killers are worse than mass murderers. (If we had to develop a methodology for judging among them, we would suggest using bodycounts.)

We do, however, think there’s a relevant distinction between lies and bullshit. Lies are told to obscure the truth because the truth is known by the liar to be harmful. Bullshit is spoken in the moment, saying whatever truth or falsehood is necessary to achieve a short-term objective. If this is a legitimate distinction between lies and bullshit, then Trump’s lies provide a road map to his biggest secrets.

The untruths that Trump has told with the most consistency over the longest period of time are more than mere bullshit. Whenever Trump stands by a lie, despite suffering real costs for doing so, we have evidence of a lie that matters. Trump, who is clearly willing to bullshit when it serves his interests, must be really covering something up when he sticks to a lie to his own disadvantage.

Here at RAGEPATH, we have a lot of explaining to do. We’ve dug deep into Trump’s lies and secrets. We’ve found a lot of remarkable things. We’re currently grappling with how best to present those findings to you, the public, in a way that satisfies our three key goals: clarity (you should understand the truth), persuasiveness (you should believe the truth), and transparency (you should be able to verify the truth).

Please stay tuned. We think we’ll have a lot more to share shortly.