Donald Trump is often called a liar, but such a judgment is facile, both far too generous and gravely mistaken, underestimating the enormity of the shit that’s coming down from the president and his administration. Politicians lie. But Trump is not a politician, he’s a shyster businessman, and the shyster businessman (”shyster”, possibly from the German scheisser, “one who defecates”) doesn’t lie, he bullshits. Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt explains “the crux of the distinction” in his little masterpiece On Bullshit (2005):
“Both [the bullshitter] 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 … The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central concern 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.” Frankfurt chillingly concludes: “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
A greater enemy still when, like Trump-speak, the bullshit is weaponised, and when its credibility is enhanced by the speaker’s so-called “authenticity” or “sincerity” (which, as Frankfurt also observes, is itself bullshit).
We have always had liars in the Oval Office, but a virtuoso bullshitter like Trump? His presidency is looking to be sui generis. The “better of two evils” position that many voters adopted – I fear that it constitutes not only a fundamental category mistake but also a perilous moral miscalculation. For while a liar can be either a realist or an idealist, a bullshitter is always a nihilist, and this particular bullshitter is a bully-in-chief stalking the domestic and international playground just looking for fights.