New York Times (Opinion)
By David Leonhardt
May 31, 2017
Three decades ago, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay that would eventually become widely read — and that today offers insight into President Trump. The work was called, “On B.S.” (Well, not quite, but this is a family newsletter.)
Matthew Yglesias of Vox published a long reflection on Frankfurt and President Trump yesterday, and it began like so: “Donald Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true, often shamelessly so, and it’s tempting to call him a liar. But that’s not quite right.”
A lie is a conscious effort to mislead someone, usually in the service of persuasion. But Trump often isn’t trying to persuade. He is instead creating a separate language meant to distinguish his allies from his enemies. A Trump lie, Yglesias writes, is “a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly.”
It’s a smart essay, and I encourage you to read it. But I do think the B.S. Theory of Trump gives short shrift to one aspect of his lies.
Even if they are not meant to persuade, they are typically intended to distract people from reality. That is, his untruths about the House’s health care bill aren’t merely intended to distinguish his supporters from his opponents. They are also intended to obscure the reality that the bill would deprive millions of people of health insurance.
His untruths about his tax plan, immigrants, voter fraud, crime and many other subjects serve a similar purpose. They attempt to create enough confusion about basic facts that Trump’s preferred policies, and his kleptocratic approach to government, can start to sound sensible. In reality, those policies would benefit the affluent (starting with his own family) at the expense of most Americans.
In this way, Trump’s untruths resemble classic lies. They aren’t merely unconcerned with truth. They are opposed to it. A crucial response, insufficient though it may be, is to document the falseness of his statements with simple evidence.
Speaking of which: Kate Shaw, a legal scholar, writes in today’s Times about how federal judges have held Trump accountable for some of his lies about immigration, and Avik Roy touches on some of his lies about health care.
Yesterday’s newsletter focused on Trump’s abandonment of European allies, and Ross Douthat, Tom Friedman and the Editorial Board all offer takes on that topic today.
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