Donald Trump, laying hands, Christians
Then President Donald J. Trump participates in a prayer with African American Leaders and Pastor Paula White in the White House on February 27, 2020. Photo credit: Trump White House Archived / Flickr

Subjecting piles of unsanitary material to deep analysis.

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Is there any real difference between a liar and a bullshitter? Harry Frankfurt, who spent the better part of his career teaching analytical philosophy at Princeton, thinks there is. Frankfurt suggests that even liars respect the truth — that’s why they spend so much time evading it. 

In contrast, the Bullshitter doesn’t care enough about the truth to acknowledge it one way or the other. His only concern is self-promotion, and he is determined not to let the facts get in the way of his ultimate objective, which is to be the center of attention. The Bullshitter’s primary objective, as Frankfurt sees it, is to convince the rest of us that the truth is irrelevant and doesn’t really matter. The fact is that to the Bullshitter, nothing matters, except his own narcissistic vision, which often seems to operate on steroids.  

Frankfurt, who is now retired at the age of 94, notes that the archetypical Bullshitter, having lost all contact with reality, ultimately becomes victim of his own folly. Unfortunately, the rest of us may find ourselves unwittingly dragged into his particular form of insanity. 

Frankfurt originally explored these ideas in an essay that appeared in the Raritan: A Quarterly Review in 1986. He later included it in an anthology of essays, The Importance of What We Care About, published by the Cambridge Press in 1988. By then Frankfurt’s ideas had already become a popular subject for debate among knowledgeable philosophers. A decade later, the essay hit the general public and created a sensation when it was published as a stand-alone book. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 26 weeks. George Reisch and Gary Hardcastle, who later edited Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to get perfect results every time, an anthology of essays about Frankfurt’s essay, noted that Frankfurt’s slim volume was well on its way to outsell just about every other book touching on contemporary philosophy. 

While Frankfurt’s damning analysis comes across as a near-perfect description of a certain ex-president, Reich and Hardcastle note that the book actually caught the public’s attention in 2005, nearly a decade before Donald Trump made headlines by bankrupting his casinos and dragging Atlantic City, NJ, into a financial abyss.  

Chris Christie caught the mood of the moment when at the town hall meeting announcing his own candidacy he recalled asking Trump about the national debt. Christie said Trump’s answer was simple: “Don’t pay it.”

Even without Trump, Washington, DC, was already awash in bullshit. The issue back then was the Republican administration’s obsession with going to war in Iraq. That would eventually unleash a series of blunders and egregious human rights violations by the CIA that ultimately destabilized the Middle East and opened the way for violent Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS. No one seemed to care at the time and the disasters that followed were quickly disassociated from the mind-set that had made them possible.

To get the public on board with the Bush administration’s decision to go to war, Vice President Dick Cheney (“We have to work the dark side”) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld felt obliged to panic the American public into thinking that it was in in imminent threat of annihilation, thanks to Saddam Hussein’s ultimately fictional “weapons of mass destruction.”  

War was the objective regardless of whether it actually made sense and the rush to “shock and awe” was facilitated by the fact that Americans, still enraged at the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center, wanted revenge whether it made sense or not. Saddam looked like a good target even though saner heads knew that he had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. 

Donald Trump, displays fast foods

Trump welcomed visitors to the White House with food from Domino’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King. Photo credit: Trump White House Archived / Flickr

When a few sane heads, notably former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson and the deputy US military commander in Europe, Gen. Carlton W. Fulford, reported that there was good reason to believe that the reports of weapons of mass destruction were false, they were ridiculed in Congress. The identity of Wilson’s wife, an active CIA agent, was leaked to columnist Robert Novak and publicly revealed in an attempt to silence Wilson. At the time, Jon Stewart, who was then host of The Daily Show, asked Frankfurt if he thought America would ever clean house and get back to “truth-telling,” or would we simply keep piling bullshit on bullshit? Frankfurt indicated that he expected the latter. 

Trump and a slim majority of Republicans in Congress appear determined to prove that  Frankfurt’s assessment is even truer today than it was nearly two decades ago. Following Trump’s recent statements, it is pretty obvious that the only declaration that Trump has made  that is even marginally credible is his boast that he could shoot anyone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. 

Endangering America’s nuclear secrets, lying about elections, politicizing the Supreme Court, flirting with demented militia groups, white supremacists, and QAnon — none of it makes any difference to Trump. He has his own objectives, and the rest is just window dressing. The fly in the ointment is that to get to where he wants to go, he needs to convince the rest of us that none of this really matters.

Chris Christie caught the mood of the moment when at the town hall meeting announcing his own candidacy he recalled asking Trump about the national debt. Christie said Trump’s answer was simple: “Don’t pay it.” That might be expected from a New York real estate promoter who has a reputation for playing fast and dirty with the law, but, as Christie pointed out, for anyone hoping to become a national leader it predicts national disaster. No one who understands finance doubts that Trump’s approach would have cratered the US economy. But then, for Trump, as for most bullshitters, nothing really matters, except of course Trump.

To some, Trump is like the Pied Piper of Hamlin in reverse. Instead of leading rats out of the city, he is encouraging the extreme right to come to Washington.

The fact that critical US documents concerning secret continental defense in the event of nuclear war might be exposed to America’s potential nuclear enemies? Who really cares? As Trump allegedly put it to a writer visiting Mar-a-Lago, when revealing a classified document, “This is secret. … When I was president, I could have declassified it. Now I can’t, you know, but this is still secret.” 

Why did Trump need to hold on to highly classified documents and then lie to the FBI about having them? It’s not likely that even he would stoop to selling them to the Russians or Chinese. No. The importance of the documents was that they constituted proof that the person possessing them had once been important enough to have them. That he also ran the risk of inadvertently exposing national defense secrets to hostile foreign agents? That wasn’t even on Trump’s radar. The only thing that mattered was Trump.

When it comes to bullshit, however, Trump is not alone. To some, Trump is like the Pied Piper of Hamlin in reverse. Instead of leading rats out of the city, he is encouraging the extreme right to come to Washington. 

We have the “Freedom Caucus” tea-party goers in Congress who refuse to admit the January 6 attack on Congress was nothing less than a failed attempt at insurrection or who discount the violence that took place as an isolated incident that can be overlooked. Like the average bullshitter, they insist that election denial and a little violence against the nation’s Capitol don’t really matter. 

Violating the law doesn’t matter. Violating the Constitution, trashing American institutions, politicizing the judiciary, none of it really matters to these people. Nothing matters, if, in the end, they get what they really want.

It is here that the extreme Republican right deviates from Trump’s brand of bullshit. Trump cares about Trump. What the extreme Republican right wants is to hold on to what it already has. Their prospects don’t look good. Faced with a rapidly changing American demography in which white Americans of Western European ancestry may in the future only be first among equals in an ethnically diversified society that draws its inspiration from a variety of different cultures the inequalities that have characterized American society until now are doomed to end sooner or later. Right-wing Republicans are hoping it will be later.  

Ancient Greece had its sophists — essentially intellectual mercenaries — who sold their knowledge to the highest bidder. We have a right-wing political machine willing to sell its influence in Congress to a handful of billionaires purchasing influence with Dark Money. America’s traditions, rule of law, democracy, freedom, none of it really matters to these people. What does matter is money. 

It is no secret that a fraction of the Earth’s population in North America and Western Europe have been living off an inordinately large portion of the planet’s resources for the last several centuries while the rest of the planet slumbered in primitive underdevelopment. With much of the rest of the world’s population suddenly awakening and becoming aware of what modern life has to offer thanks to mobile phones and the internet, the kind of inequality that has sustained Western privilege until now will ultimately become unsustainable.

Nevertheless, if you count yourself among the wealthy, you want to hold on to what you have. That means holding off a more equal division of resources for as long as possible.

That — not freedom — is the ultimate goal of the pro-Trump, extreme-right faction in Congress. There is nothing new in this. Feudal barons raped and pillaged through the Dark Ages with much the same objectives in mind. To them, the rest of us were serfs, peasants, expected to do as we were told. 

That began to change with the signing of the Magna Carta, which stipulated that even the king must answer to the law. It is the law that is under attack today. The bullshitters say that the law doesn’t really matter. In any case, if one has enough money, it’s always possible to buy enough members of Congress and to install loopholes that ensure that the law needn’t apply. This is the message that Trump attempted to give Christie when he said not to worry about New Jersey’s debt. 

America’s forefathers had a different vision for where they wanted us to go. They saw the New World as a second chance over the horrors of Europe. To them, starting over made it possible to experiment with the notions coming out of the Age of the Enlightenment. Our forefathers fought to preserve our rights in the Constitution and the rule of law. The bullshitters insist that none of that matters anymore. It’s our turn to decide which side in this debate we want to be on.


  • William Dowell

    William Dowell is WhoWhatWhy's editor for international coverage. He previously worked for NBC and ABC News in Paris before signing on as a staff correspondent for TIME Magazine based in Cairo, Egypt. He has reported from five continents--most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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