The best way to describe Trump in 2020 is that he deals out quite a bit of bullshit.
I have been making my way through Rage by Bob Woodward. Based on my reading of Fear in 2018, I must say that there is not much that is surprising.
But the discussions about Trump in the book as many of his cabinet members attempt to quell his darker tendencies is illuminating always.
Here is the central passage we will be talking about in this post here. This is in chapter 10, when James Mattis, the acting U.S. Secretary of Defense, meets Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence:
“What the hell is going on?” Coats asked in a private sidebar conversation with Mattis after one session. In just one example, Trump wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and South Korea. There was a rush. Instantly. “Get them out!” Trump had commanded.
“That’s crazy,” Mattis said to Coats. “That’s dangerous.”
Coats was troubled by the absence of a plan or a consideration of the human dimension—the impact on the troops, the allies, the world—or a sense of the weight of the office.
“The president has no moral compass,” Mattis replied. The bluntness should have shocked Coats, but he’d arrived at his own hard truths about the most powerful man in the world.
“True,” Coats agreed. “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
Keep in mind that, after two years serving, neither of the two men in this passage are still in their operating position.
After reading Fire and Fury and after reading Fear and now reading Rage, this to me is the central problem of Donald Trump. In real estate I suppose (I’ve never done what he does), the central idea is that going with your gut, your intuitions, does a lot for making a deal. The content of what you say in the room is totally irrelevant. If you can “make the deal,” then you’ve won.
And one could even make the case that running for the presidency on a campaign trail gives plenty of room for intuition that bodes well if you can make a ploy with a sound byte that the news media can take up and bolster your reputation (or infamy).
But the differences in job requirements between running for president and actually being president are so wide.
And the best way I know to bring about this difference is to talk about bullshit.
I recently finished Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit, a dense but brisk 74 page book on the subject. Most rigorously, Frankfurt is concerned with the difference between lying and bullshit. Short story short, a liar knows the score, and is playing the game by the rules on the table, but is taking the same degree of facts and using them to his or her own advantage.
A bullshitter plays no game by anyone’s rules, and spouts opinions to move his or her mouth.
Oftentimes a person who bullshits is doing so because they must be called upon to give an opinion over which they have no expertise in. This is what separates a politician from, say, a scientist.
Where a good scientist will admit that he or she knows little on the subject in question, and will refrain from making even an educated guess, a politician must convey a knowledgeable foundation on everything. This is despite the fact that much of the presidential calling is in building a robust cabinet that functions well together. A good president will be attentive to the proper counsel, should the need arise.
Even cheesy films like Thirteen Days (2000) starring Kevin Costner attempt to convey the experience of being in a position of power while guided by your closest confidants.
Hell, Star Trek, The Next Generation features a democratic Jean-Luc Picard as he travels through space on the U.S.S. Enterprise. He relies on his crew to give him the best action to take given the circumstances.
But Trump is no team player, and may have never been a team player.
Oftentimes he is seen disregarding and dismissing his own team for what he believes to be people unwilling to do as he has instructed. This next passage is in chapter 5 of Rage.
“Peter,” Trump said, “I need you to take charge of negotiations on steel.” Trump said that U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross were weak negotiators and that Navarro needed to be tough, hard-line.
Trump added, “Not to mention my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.”
Navarro appeared to be flattered by Trump’s remark and said he would be happy to take over the negotiations.
Once Byers returned to the Pentagon, he asked Mattis for a private meeting. They met alone the next day.
“What’s on your mind?” Mattis asked.
There was an interchange in the Oval Office involving the president that I should tell you about, and it’s very uncomfortable, Byers said.
“Brad, don’t you worry at all,” Mattis said. “Just tell me what happened.”
The reason Donald Trump does not work with his own cabinet members (and why his upper level administration has continued to be a revolving door) is not only does he not use diplomacy and leadership with a solid moral foundation, but he may not even understand what those terms even mean.
This is what people mean when they equate Donald Trump with a bullshitter. It’s not just that he seems like he is rejecting diplomacy from the likes of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. It is that, even if we could lock the three up in a room (preferably not in one of Donald Trump’s hotels) for hours, perhaps days, we still could not be sure if Donald would understand how to do diplomacy in the first place.
Bob Woodward’s concern in 2018 was straightforward: let’s hope we don’t have a crisis on our hands.
Well we’ve got one now.
The difference between America with a bullshitting president in times of (relative) stability, versus times of crisis, is that bullshit may have no meaning in the telling, but it has a lot of significance in the outcome.
And it seems as though Donald Trump’s bullshit does not work against a virus. It is disheartening and, often, frustrating, to have a president who flip flops on the most basic of tenets in fighting off the pandemic. Personal Protective Equipment has been shown in the past to keep us safe(r) from respiratory viruses. That is why doctors have worn them.
At a fundamental level, on repeated occasions, Trump cannot seem to even give us a foundational acceptance of this reality. He might release a statement saying that masks are important, but presidential rallies for reelection feature a loose guidance on wearing them, despite the fact that these people are standing shoulder to shoulder in order to present a “better looking” event.
From there, the embarrassing comments about hydroxychloroquine and shooting disinfectant into our bodies are well known by everyone, and they are comments I will not utter here.
Why Does Bullshit Work?
On page 50 of Frankfurt’s book, he has an interesting passage which I will repeat here:
“We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire. The problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit is generally more benign than our attitude toward lying is an important one, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.
But to be honest, I think Frankfurt is right on the money with this short paragraph. Citizens of the United States may have become so cynical over the lack of the democratic process with what we vote for every four years, that to us we had been voting for liars.
The assumption with Trump was that a bullshitter was just a tad less bad than a liar
What Frankfurt has to say on this matter is the opposite: bullshitters are more dangerous than liars. Where a liar feels that reality at least is necessary in order to find the truth claims and turn them, a bullshitter does not have to agree that any such reality is possible.
Many of the policies that President Trump has attempted, whether it is an executive order, or in ordering troops out of South Korea, is reliant on a reality of America that either no longer exists or never existed. The isolationist view Trump was raised on by rich Americans in the baby boomer years has little effect in a world where America’s military is designed to ensure the capitalist process remains structurally sound.
So on the supply side of the equation, his cabinet members have a difficult time trying to carry out Trump’s wishes for government, because Trump has little to no fundamental understanding or awareness of geopolitics.
On the demand side of things, from the American people, it seems so bizarre what he can get away with. The number of women who have come forward about Donald Trump’s sexual misconduct has risen to 26. Granted, the allegations need to be verified in some way, but they should be rigorously investigated.
Compare the moral state of Trump’s behavior with that of any career politician and it is night and day. I was under the impression that people viewed the moral make up of a man or woman as distinctly important for the role of the highest position in the free world. If for nothing else, a history of ethical priorities indicates a skill in and of itself. The skill resides in prudence and rigor, the ability to focus on issues, and to carry them out without getting carried away at the very least. For citizens the comparison is obvious: if you are desperate for power inside the bedroom, how can you see the larger diplomatic issues around the world in as clear and objective a manner as possible?
What is shocking is that women, and well-educated women, continued to vote for Donald Trump even when they knew that Trump was not a moral man. Their excuses were that he was a member of the Republican party. Or that he stood with issues they stood with, like in the case of being pro-life, for example.
But now it is unclear where the Republican party stands after the wake of a bullshitter. Because of the bullshit reality, Republicans all down the line have had to reestablish their bona fides. Are they an old world conservative? Are they a corporate, business Republican? Are they a Tea Party candidate?
Bullshit seems to work at its onset, but it can turn out to be toxic and rotten on a long enough time scale.
It still stands whether people truly believe that bullshit is worse or better than lying. Unfortunately, the time for games is over, had it ever existed. If there was something people wanted to prove with the Trump presidency, they’ve done so. Now it’s time to get back to reality, as Eminem always sez.