Reading this analysis by Chris Cillizza of Trump’s Friday appearance with Chancellor Angela Merkel and I am inspired by this part:
In the first line of his answer, Trump said the word “no collusion” three distinct times. He went on to say “no collusion” twice more before he was finished responding.
The effect of this repetition is clear: Whether you like it or not, it drives those two words — “NO COLLUSION” — into your brain. Sort of like “Make America Great Again.” Or “Crooked Hillary.” Or “Lyin’ Ted.” Or one of the myriad other pejorative nicknames Trump has bestowed on his political opponents.
Cillizza gives Trump the benefit of the doubt as to whether he’s doing it purposefully or just really believes it and repeats it in his Rain Man patter.
I don’t. Trump knows exactly what he is doing. He is bullshitting. And he may just be the greatest bullshitter this country has ever seen.
A Princeton Professor wrote an essay on the nature of bullshit. It’s not lying, but it kind of is. It’s not bluffing, but it kind of is. It’s a long and worthy read for us word nerds and stoner philosophers. Here’s the part that’s got TRUMP all over it in big gaudy gold capital letters (emphasis mine).
It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing too is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.
Phony is the alternate spelling of Trump. From his name on buildings he does not own, books he did not write, and now, as president swearing to an oath he does not keep, Trump is the distilled essence of bullshit.
I’ve seen various incarnations of bullshit in my fifty years. As a child growing up in Nampa (motto: that smell means you’re home!), Idaho, I attended a school field trip to the sugar beet factory. Look, kids! Factory machinery! Piles of sugar beets! Sugar!
But it was when we ended up in the packaging room that my first lesson on the nature of bullshit was realized. There were pallets of various bags – different brands of sugar – ready to be loaded onto the factory machinery. The tour guide explained how the shifts would rotate in brand one, then brand two, then brand three, and so on, to fill them up with sugar. Any questions?
Of course I had questions. “So, you mean that all these different bags of sugar are getting filled with the same sugar?”
“Well, yes,” was the reply. “Sugar is sugar.”
“Yeah, but when mom takes me shopping, we always buy the generic sugar, because it is cheaper, but you’re telling me it’s the same?
“Yes, all the bags of sugar are the same.”
“So, how come the other sugars are more expensive if they are exactly the same?”
“Well, that’s their brand,” the guide said, as if that made any sense to me at the time.
Later, I came to learn that a “brand” is essentially the conceptualization of a product’s reputation. Brand X may be more reliable, higher quality, or longer lasting. Branding need not necessarily be bullshit.
But in the case of sugar, the brand is 100 percent bullshit. It’s the same molecule derived from the same source processed and bagged in the same facility. There is zero difference between generic and brand name sugar, aside from packaging and advertising, which must be bullshit, because there’s no difference to promote.
This brings me back to Trump. Recently, it was revealed that back in the 1980s, before he was known by anybody, he called in to a reporter for Forbes using his bullshit persona, John Barron. Worth only a few million dollars, Trump/Barron spun a bullshit tale about actually owning all his father’s wealth. The bullshit was successful in getting Trump posted in the Forbes’ 400 Richest Persons list.
With that bullshit established, Trump used it as collateral to get financing he couldn’t get with his meager millions and reputation for poor business. Getting the financing allowed Trump to establish more bullshit, like that he was a shrewd real estate developer, or a casino mogul, or a steak empresario, or a business negotiation genius.
Sure, it’s all bullshit, but Trump’s savant skill is being so ego-driven and bereft of shame and empathy that he’s already built six more piles by the time anyone realizes the first pile is bullshit. Trump is like the world’s longest-operating bullshit ponzi scheme.
In this respect, it’s perfectly understandable how Trump has an “only Nixon could go to China” chance of unlocking the Korean stalemate. The Kim family has been bullshitting for three generations now. Their threat of becoming a nuclear state is perfect bullshit, because they know and we know and they know we know they can never actually use a nuclear weapon without quickly ceasing to exist. Trump, in a “never bullshit a bullshitter” moment, called Kim on his bullshit. Kim doesn’t have any more bullshit to follow up with, and knows Trump has plenty of bullshit to follow up with, so he’s forced to make nice with South Korea.
Trump also understands the “give the people what they want” nature of bullshit. You can’t bullshit someone with something they don’t want to hear. Bullshit, to be successful, must appeal to something real. Trump’s wall is bullshit, but the fear among some (white folks) that immigrants are coming to take jobs, commit crimes, and plant “anchor babies” is real. Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department are bullshit, but distrust of law enforcement and disgust with bureaucracy are real.
This aspect of bullshit I didn’t learn until my twenties. I was playing in a band with two guitar players. One was a musical prodigy, the type who’d practice 12 hours a day. The other was a long-haired, good-looking guy who could barely cover the most basic classic rock songs. The latter guy had just joined the band and we were all trying to figure out why we weren’t making much headway in the local music scene.
The problem was that the prodigy, the designated lead guitar player, was shy on stage, crouched over his guitar, huddled by his amplifier. He could play, note-for-note, Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the crowds appreciated it, but they’d just sit in their chairs watching him play.
On break, the new guy talked about how sad it was that such an amazing guitar player was generating no energy. “Dude, you’ve got to just come out there like you’re a god,” he explained. “Listen, I want you to stay off the stage for the first song of the next set and watch what I do.”
We got onstage as a three-piece. The new guitar player asked if me and the drummer knew “Tush” by ZZ Top. We did, so he counted it off. He played the basic blues riff, somewhat competently, but as he played, he was gyrating his hips and thrashing his long hair. When he got to the solo, he put the guitar between his legs, did windmill motions like Pete Townsend, simulated humping the mic stand, and so on.
The crowd went wild. The dance floor packed. Me and the drummer tried not to make faces as we listened to this garage-band performance on guitar. Musically, it wasn’t horrible, but it was light years away from our guitar player’s abilities. The difference was this: our guitar player was talented but played like he didn’t believe it; the new guitar player was awful, but played like he believed he was talented.
A confident bullshitter beats a timid truth-teller every time.