A reminder about the word “lie”

Last year, I wrote this posting about the use of the word “lie” and how it relates to the political process.
I am adding some comments based on what is happening in the USA about now.
It is quite clear to me, based on a careful reading of his interviews, pronouncements, speeches, and tweets, that Donald Trump, a significant percentage of the time, talks bullshit. Not just standard-grade bullshit. Fine, fragrant, weapons-grade bullshit.
Many of his comments consist of assertions and statements that are clearly false, and can easily be shown to be false with only a minimal amount of analysis.
A good recent example is the claim that the singer Jackie Evancho saw her album sales “skyrocket” after she agreed to sing at Donald Trump’s Inauguration. However, as a careful reading of this article makes clear, there is next to no factual basis for this claim, based on an analysis of sales of her most recent album. This analysis by Billboard points out that the sales bump of her most recent album can easily be explained by the normal Christmas sales spike, and none of her previous albums have re-entered the charts, which is what one would expect if an artist gets a general sales boost.
Many people who dislike or despise Trump are now in the habit of labelling every utterance he makes as a lie.
It is far from clear that Donald Trump is lying. My own opinion is that, in keeping with a man whose entire business career and public persona to date has been based on self-aggrandisement and hype, he has long ago mastered the art of talking bullshit. During the election cycle, his opinions on the same issue would change, seemingly often daily. He would pick up and drop issues at random. Unlike most campaigning politicians, who usually have a tightly scripted collection of static talking points (the “stump speech”) that they give at most of their events, Donald Trump could, and often did, talk about almost anything at his events. This, of course, assured continual media attention (if you are a media organization, a Donald Trump event would be infinitely more likely to generate new soundbites than a Hillary Clinton event).
But does Donald Trump actually say things that he knows are untrue? My take is…probably. However, I strongly believe that a lot of the time he is, to use an old phrase, simply Making Shit Up. He says what he thinks will get him attention at any point in time, preferably something that will confuse and distract opponents, often without even thinking about it in advance. He also likes to use Twitter, since Twitter allows him to talk in short soundbites without having to engage with any questioners or interlocutors. For him, Twitter is the perfect communication channel. It is easy to use, simple, and scrutiny-free.
These kinds of scattergun, confusion-inducing communication tactics rely more on bullshit than outright lies. This passage from Harry Frankfurt’s book “On bullshit” summarizes the difference:

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point
occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller
of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the
truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie
at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie,
he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand,
a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His
focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a
certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths
surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well,
so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must
submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of
the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less
deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and
independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and
imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar
notion of the “bullshit artist”.

Lying requires too much sustained attention to detail for a person like Donald Trump. Once you start lying, you have to remember exactly what lies you told in the past in order to avoid tripping over your own past falsehoods. I doubt that Donald Trump has the patience or focus for that, and, as a narcissist habitually surrounded by sycophants who rarely contradict him, he probably never had to face the level of scrutiny that he will now start to experience.
So…this is a long way of saying that I believe that most of what Donald Trump talks in public is BS and tosh. However, I have yet to see evidence of sustained lying. I simply think that is beyond him at present.


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