Trump was doing something far worse.
Lying, as defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is an act undertaken intentionally to obscure the truth. Liars look at the truth and go in the other direction; but in doing so, they recognize implicitly that there is such a thing as the truth and such a thing as its opposite.
Trump, however, often operates without any connection to the truth. For him, truth is not an enemy so much as an irrelevance. As a real estate developer and cultural figure, his routine spouting of falsehoods could be comparatively harmless, even entertaining. As president, however, his disregard for the truth could easily become disregard for democratic norms and the rule of law.
Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” was first published in an obscure literary journal in 1986, and it became an unlikely bestseller when it was republished as a book in 2005. It surged to prominence once again during the 2016 election, as a handful of commentators — including the New Republic’s Jeet Heer, Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria and Frankfurt himself — turned to Frankfurt’s distinction between lying and B.S. to parse Trump’s attenuated relationship with facts.
“It is often uncertain whether Trump actually cares about the truth of what he says,” Frankfurt wrote for Time magazine in May. “. . . For example, on May 5, 2016, Trump tweeted: ‘The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!’ This could hardly be anything other than bulls—. Does he have any real evidence about where the best tacos are, or was he just making it up? Does he really love Hispanic people? Both assertions come across — at least to me — as little more than hot air.”
Trump’s claim about illegal voting is emblematic of his disconnection from the truth — with far graver implications than taco bowl tweets. Significantly, when pressed on Trump’s statements, press secretary Sean Spicer failed to provide any evidence of voter fraud in 2016. Instead, he emphasized Trump’s “belief” that fraud had occurred, as if the belief itself were enough to obliterate fact and make it so. Trump was asserting — and his press secretary was defending — the right to make up whatever reality he chose. Likewise, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the unforgettable phrase “alternative facts” doesn’t merely resist the accusation that Spicer lied to the press corps; it also insists that Spicer and Trump have somehow created a new category of reality, marshaling themselves in opposition to the existence of knowable truth.
In an essay I wrote for Lawfare in late November, I suggested that Trump’s habitual disregard for the truth raises serious questions about his presidency: How will it affect his ability to carry out the duties of his office? And what is the relationship between disregard for truth and disregard for law?
By sitting in the Oval Office, Trump is coming up against an intricate system of responsibility and consequences. To put it bluntly, the world behaves as if the president’s words mean things. This is perhaps most acute in the area of law, which — despite the reputation of lawyers for fast talking and forked tongues — is a highly systematized structure of meaning used to evaluate the merit and relevance of facts and arguments, and which imposes consequences based on a certain ascertainment of truth.
In the Lawfare essay, I speculated that Trump’s flouting of the truth would render him characterologically incapable of honoring his presidential oath, which requires the president to “faithfully execute” his office and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” — both duties that demand a basic level of respect for the concepts of law and of meaning. Now, of course, Trump has sworn that oath. Yet we can’t know whether he will be any more faithful to his pledge than he was to the reality of the weather on Inauguration Day.
Both truth and law provide constraints on human action, binding us to the facts of the world and to certain agreed-upon norms of behavior. In that way, they limit our freedom, yet they also create the shared space within which we interact with one another. But if you get to define whatever you do as, say, not sexual assault, it really doesn’t matter how many women may think you’ve sexually assaulted them — or even if you have previously described how you “grab them by the p—y.” You can redefine all that as “locker room talk.” Similarly, if the president can decide whether it’s raining and how many people are lining the Mall, then we are not speaking to government (and government certainly is not speaking to us) in the regulated language of law, which holds people and institutions accountable according to mutually understood systems and rules.
Particularly worrisome is the president’s ability to order the implementation of policy that flouts facts. Think of Trump’s proposed investigation of the supposedly massive voter fraud that he claims denied him the popular vote. This could play out several possible ways, all of which are concerning. Perhaps the Justice Department will end up conducting an investigation on a premise that almost everybody knows to be a fiction. Or perhaps the investigation will not manifest, either because Trump has no actual intention of pursuing it — in which case the president of the United States has shown his promises to be empty — or because the Justice Department refuses. If the investigation does not go forward because of resistance from the department, or if the investigation does go forward but finds nothing (because there is nothing to find), Trump will be putting public servants in the extremely unenviable position of having to stand up to the president to perform their work with integrity.
As with Spicer and Conway, these employees will then be forced to decide whether to support Trump’s disregard for the truth or stand in opposition to it. Spicer’s and Conway’s decisions, at least, are clear.
In a sense, Trump and his post-truth team have embraced the same post-structuralist critique of the notion of stable truth that the American right has railed against for the past 30 years. Shortly after the election, Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes defended his false claims about illegal voting by asserting that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” She was arguing, however incoherently, that Trump supporters and opponents are each entitled to their own versions of what is true.
But this comparatively democratic vision of a world without truth is not quite what Trump seems to have in mind. He wants to make up the “alternative facts” and impose them on the rest of us, as well. And so Spicer not only berated the press for accurately reporting attendance at Trump’s inauguration, he also provided the administration’s version of reality and angrily demanded that reporters adhere to that reality.
It’s a cliche these days to say that government control over what constitutes truth is foundational to the uglier forms of political domination. After Conway proposed “alternative facts,” George Orwell’s “1984” — in which a totalitarian government systematically erodes its subjects’ ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood in service of total loyalty to the party line — soared to No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Likewise, quotes from the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose early study of fascist and totalitarian governments focused closely on the manipulation of truth in the service of political power, have begun to circulate regularly on Twitter in response to the latest desecrations of fact by the Oval Office.
In the simplest terms, a conception of truth outside what the government tells us to be so is foundational to democracy because it allows us to stand up against power. It’s also necessary to lay the groundwork for any kind of democratic deliberation among citizens. After all, if we cannot persuade one another to agree with reference to some shared system of meaning, the only thing left is to compel agreement through force. There’s a potentially dangerous relationship between sustained disregard for truth in political leaders and authoritarian coercion.
I am not predicting that Trump will prove himself to be a dictator or an extralegal president. The United States is still equipped with an independent judiciary, and Trump’s disrespect for truth aside, it seems unlikely that the courts will face a sustained, consciously illiberal onslaught from the new administration — though Trump’s willingness to ignore the truth will probably test the willingness of the judiciary to grant its usual deference to the executive in certain areas of the law.
But it’s clear that there is a foundational incompatibility between our president and some of the duties of the office he holds.
The question we now face is whether our shared understanding of truth, and the structure of law that rests on it, can hold up under a presidential cavalcade of B.S. I wouldn’t venture a guess at this stage. But I would argue that, precisely because the United States as yet remains a democracy governed by the rule of law, it’s our shared responsibility to insist on the existence of facts and the force of law as the language of democratic government — and that just as the president is not above the law, he is also not above the facts.
Put another way, there exists a world outside of Trump and apart from and larger than his fabrications. It was there before he became president. It will, hopefully, be there after his presidency, too.