Reflecting on his first 100 days in office, President Trump said on Friday that he misses driving, that he was surprised at how little privacy he had, and that being president is “more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
What makes the job particularly difficult for Trump is that his every utterance or tweet is subject to microscopic examination as to its veracity. Holding the highest office in the country has been, for its current occupant, a lesson in the difficulties of, and fierce resistances to lying, deception, and bullshit. It has been hard for Trump to adjust to being president because each of those things had been the basic currency of success in his “previous life.”
Trump’s relentless attacks on the news media, repeated on Saturday night at another of his post-election, campaign-style rallies, register his resentment at being called to account when he wanders from the truth into the world of “alternative facts.” “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth,” he told his audience in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, “the media deserves a very, very big fat failing grade.” He added that they were “very dishonest people.”
Yet, not surprisingly, in the course of this attack he could not resist again saying something that was simply not true.
Talking about the New York Times coverage of the November election, Trump told his listeners “They covered it so badly that they felt they were forced to apologize because their predictions were so bad.” As The Times pointed out in its own coverage of Saturday’s night’s rally, “The Times did not apologize for its election coverage.”
No wonder the presidency is hard for our deceiver-in-chief.
Trump’s strategy of governance is premised on the hope that his audiences will take him “seriously but not literally” and that if the volume of falsehoods is great enough it will be hard to keep them all, or indeed any one of them, in view for very long. Yet he is learning the tough lesson that when the president speaks or tweets, literalism is the order of the day and memory is hard to erase.
The media’s coverage of Trump’s 100 days has catalogued the breakneck pace of his departures from the truth. The Washington Post calculates that he has made, so far, 488 false or misleading claims.
They range from his merely petty lies, for example, when he falsely claimed that no one has been on the cover of Time Magazine more than he has to his erroneous claim that the murder rate is the highest it has been in 47 years to, what for me was the most egregious and politically destructive of his falsehoods, namely his tweet alleging that President Obama wiretapped his phones.
However, as we mark the end of Trump’s 100 days it is important not just to note the number of Trump’s false statements or his efforts to finesse them when they are exposed. We also need to attend carefully to the various means through which Trump’s claims have falsified the truth. Were they outright lies, artful dodging of the truth, or just plain bullshit?
The liar, ironically, always pays careful attention to facts and the truth so that he can conceal or contradict them. Immanuel Kant claims that concealment and contradiction of the truth, “vitiates the very source of right.” To be truthful in all declarations, Kant continues, “is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason that admits of no expediency whatsoever.”
In contrast, deception involves the effort to mislead without actually lying. Thus, as the controversy about Obama’s alleged wiretapping unfolded, Trump told Tucker Carlson on Fox News that he used the word “wiretapping” to cover “surveillance and many other things.” He told Carlson that he put wiretapping “in quotes” during his March 4 tweetstorm. “That’s a very important thing” Trump observed. His claims about the power of quotation marks to alter the plain meaning of words were part of an effort to deceive.
Liars are clear and assertive. In contrast, those who deceive lack the courage of their convictions. They often become, like Trump in his tutorial on the meaning of wiretapping, “weasel wordy.”
Careful parsing of words and claims of an idiosyncratic understanding of language is the very stuff of deception, and it sometimes creates real dilemmas for those who employ this tactic.
Beyond lies and deception, many of Trump’s falsehoods and his assault on language are just a form of bullshitting. To take just one example, consider his recent statement that “The first 100 days of my administration has been just about the most successful in our country’s history.”
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has written that bullshitters are indifferent about whether what they say is factually correct or not. Instead, bullshit is characterized by what Frankfurt called a “lack of connection to a concern with truth [and] indifference to how things really are.” The bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
Trump’s lies, deceptions, and bullshitting each in their own way suggests that we cannot take words seriously and that language is a cynical game. They remind us that, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt observed almost 50 years ago, “Truth is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion.”
The first 100 days of Trump’s administration have amply illustrated the danger about which Arendt warned and the importance of the work done by journalists and citizens in not allowing truth “to fall into oblivion.” Yet, if there is any solace in marking this moment, it is that Trump is finding governing by falsehood (and all other aspects of his job) not to be as easy as he thought it would be.