President Donald Trump is under attack for a private speech on Wednesday where he admitted to making up details about the U.S.-Canada trade balance in a conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. According to Trump, Trudeau told him that Canada does not have a trade deficit with the U.S.—which is true—but Trump insisted otherwise. “I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know,” Trump said during the fundraiser in Missouri. “I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’”
“Bragging about lying to an ally,” lamented Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. “How stupid. How Trump.” Jesse Ferguson, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton, tweeted, “President of The United States brags to his donors that he lies to foreign leaders of allied nations.” “When people try to tell you that Trump doesn’t lie,” wrote Mother Jones’ Mark Follman, “remind them that Trump told a bunch of his donors straight-up that he does, even to the leader of one of our closest allies.”
But these characterizations of Trump as a liar aren’t quite accurate, or at least don’t provider the full picture. Trump’s comments illustrate instead that he’s a full-fledged bullshit artist. There’s a difference: Lying involves conscious deception, whereas bullshitting is a more insidious attempt to blur the lines between truth and falsehood.
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,” the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote in his 2005 book On Bullshit. “Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off.... He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”
In 2015, I drew on Frankfurt’s work to argue that Trump, then in the early stages of his presidential campaign, had all the characteristics of a bullshit artist: He not only frequently made false statements, but was indifferent to whether they were false or not. In doing so, he undermines the very idea that the truth is relevant or even knowable.
Trump’s remarks in Missouri confirm that the bullshitting campaigner has become the bullshitting president. According to audio obtained by the Post, Trump said, “Trudeau came to see me. He’s a good guy, Justin. He said, ‘No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please.’... I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know.... I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’... I said, ‘You’re wrong, Justin.’ He said, ‘Nope, we have no trade deficit.’ I said, ‘Well, in that case, I feel differently,’ I said, ‘but I don’t believe it.’ I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, ‘Check, because I can’t believe it.’ ‘Well, sir, you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber.... And when you do, we lose $17 billion a year.’ It’s incredible.”
There are several layers of untruth here. There’s the initial statement to Trudeau about the trade deficit, which Trump knowingly makes up (“I had no idea”). But Trump lied again when he said his lie turned out to be true. As the Post notes, “The Office of the United States Trade Representative says the United States has a trade surplus with Canada. It reports that in 2016, the United States exported $12.5 billion more in goods and services than it imported from Canada, leading to a trade surplus, not a deficit.”
In telling his story, Trump implied that his gut instincts are so good that he can, while talking to another world leader, invent facts that turn out to be true. That was perhaps the biggest fiction of all in his speech, and it is squarely aimed at his hardcore Republican supporters. It’s hardly an accident he said this at fundraiser.
After the Post broke the story, Trump responded with a tweet on Thursday morning that reiterated the lie about America has a trade deficit with Canada:
Before he became president, Trump’s bullshitting could be dismissed as a campaign tactic. That he continues to bullshit as president indicates that it’s more than a strategy; it’s a pathology. Trump doesn’t know how not to bullshit. This may stem from his career in real estate, where a certain poetic license is the norm, or perhaps he learned it from his father (a real estate developer himself). And now that he’s in politics, it means he’s always in campaign mode and never really governing.
Frankfurt’s paradigm is helpful in explaining why refuting Trump’s fibs on a case-by-case basis, as fact-checkers exhaustively do, has its limits. Trump is waging a more holistic war against a shared, objective set of facts, and it requires an equally holistic counterattack.
Trump’s bullshitting is integral to his success in fomenting tribalism and polarization. He has created a political movement where his followers will believe whatever he says, no matter how patently false, and disbelieve whatever his opponents say, no matter how objectively true. Only 20 percent of Trump supporters, for instance, believe that his lawyer Michael Cohen paid hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels, even though that is an undisputed fact: Cohen has admitted as much.
Trump’s continued B.S. as president illustrates how he’s willing to sacrifice broader policy objectives for his short-term political needs. It’s also turning the president into an laughingstock globally. “The Donald and I, we are winning and winning in the polls,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a speech last June. “We are winning so much, we are winning, we are winning like we have never won before. We are winning in the polls. We are, we are. Not the fake polls. Not the fake polls. They’re the ones we’re not winning in. We’re winning in the real polls. You know, the online polls. They are so easy to win. I know that. Did you know that? I kind of know that. They are so easy to win. I have this Russian guy. Believe me it’s true, it’s true.”
Trudeau and Turnbull know they can ignore Trump’s bullshit. Probably every world leader does. The fact that the words of an American president now count for so little, and are so easily laughed at, is nothing to brag about.