Bullshit Nation

This is bullshit. In his seminal analysis of the concept, philosopher Harry Frankfurt identifies lack of regard for the truth as the essential core of bullshit. Our country today is what it looks like when people in power and their supporters in the electorate have lost regard for the truth. According the the Washington Post’s running tally, Trump made more than 16,200 false or misleading claims in the first three years of his presidency. It’s important to understand that these are not just lies. Trump’s shamelessness and habit of doubling down on demonstrable falsehoods clearly indicate a lack of concern for the truth. Trump is a bullshitter.

Twenty years ago we impeached a president for lying about a sexual peccadillo. That president was contrite, ashamed, and roundly rebuked by political opponents and allies alike. Bill Clinton lied. But liars at least have enough regard for what is true to try to hide their divergences from it. Bullshit, as Frankfurt argues, is far worse. The bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth. He may care about short run personal advantage, making himself feel important, being the center of attention, winning the next election. But in the bullshitter’s mind any of these or other things can completely eclipse a basic regard for what is true.

Immanuel Kant took a hard line against lying. He was worried that the liar undermines the ability of others to function as autonomous rational beings. Lying attacks the root of our thinking and in so doing objectifies the people we lie to. But lying operates as a means of manipulating others only in a general environment of truthfulness. Lying is a limited and surgical strike on truthfulness. Bullshit, on the other hand, is a hand grenade indiscriminately tossed into the social fabric of truthfulness. Enough bullshit undermines regard for the truth generally. Deviancy with regard to truthfulness gets defined down. Bullshit becomes the norm and people, thwarted from their nature as more or less rational truth seekers, sink into cynical, confused skepticism. A prominent bullshitter, like Mr. Trump, does far more damage to the social fabric than any mere liar can. For he leads his followers into a general disregard for the truth. Thus, we have a bullshit nation.