In his essay "On Bullshit," precirculated for years as samizdat and published by Princeton University Press in 2005, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt identifies and analyzes a previously neglected species of untruth. It is of the same genre of lying, but unlike its better-known relative it does not seek simply to pass off a falsehood as true. Instead, the bullshitter is the person who no longer considers truth as the anchor of discourse, who speaks without regard for the truth, and who, finally, is unconcerned about whether his interlocutor knows he is speaking untruths or not. "When an honest man speaks," Frankfurt explains, "he says only what he believes to be true." For the liar, it is "indispensable that he considers his statements to be false." But the bullshitter’s eye, Frankfurt argues, "is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."
One need not have heard of Frankfurt, or have grasped his precise technical meaning of bullshit, to associate it with the Republican nominee for president. But is a Frankfurtian analysis sufficient to understand this election?
Princeton’s edition of Frankfurt’s text came out in the wake of the Bush administration’s audacious selling of the invasion of Iraq as a preventive measure against Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction. The case for the war was made by people who had abandoned what around that time was starting to be called the "reality-based community." This term first appeared in a 2004 article by the journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind was interviewing an anonymous Bush aide, widely rumored to be Karl Rove, who went on to explain: "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Here we see a disregard for truth that quite plainly cannot be understood in terms of bullshit. This is not the deviation from truth we expect from a grifter or a con man, nor is it the pathological indifference to truth we expect from a loud-mouthed boaster. It is rather the audacious rejection of truth as a standard by which we all must be judged, by a self-styled Übermensch (or the Übermensch’s spokesman).
Much of the disagreement about Donald Trump among American voters has to do with which sort of character he is: a lowly fraudster or a larger-than-life revaluer of values. It does not have to do with whether or not he is telling the truth. And so, frustratingly to many opponents, simply pointing out that he is speaking falsehoods can do nothing to set him back. In politics, the Bush administration’s manipulations are often said to have inaugurated a "post-truth" era, whose ascendancy has been confirmed by Trump’s campaign. But here we need to distinguish between truth and fact. In one view we have Trump, the bullshitter and con man, who plays fast and easy with the facts, not because he has any grand conception of the truth that he believes might justify his deceptions, but simply because he sees that he can say whatever he wants and get away with it, and this is fun for him. In another view, we have the Bush aide’s understanding of the mission of the president, which involves the realization of higher truths (democracy in the Middle East, for example) that are far more important than whatever particular facts happen to be the case.
That certain claims may be morally true while empirically false is an idea far older than George W. Bush. It is in play in the lexical distinction in Russian between two different sorts of truth — pravda, which in principle must be grounded in fact, and istina, which is somehow higher than fact. This distinction was inverted by the Bolsheviks, who with no apparent irony gave the name of Pravda to the newspaper that didn’t so much report on what was the case as describe what they would have liked to be the case.
A similar transcendence of the merely empirical helps to explain the reaction, in 16th-century Spain, to the fabrications of the Jesuit historian Jerónimo Román de la Higuera, author of the so-called Falsos cronicones, which purported to document the antiquity of the Christian faith in the Iberian peninsula. When it was discovered that he had made it all up, that there had been no martyrs or miracles in Spain in the first few centuries after Christ, Román de la Higuera was not denounced as a fraud, but instead the empirical falsity of his chronicles was taken as a sign of their power to convey a deeper truth. He had succeeded — by invention, by writing, by telling a story — in retrojecting Christianity into Spain’s distant past, which is surely a far greater accomplishment than simply relating facts.
This, again, is not what Trump is doing. He is a mere bullshitter, and what comes out of his mouth has more to do with pathologies of personality than with any real vision of how the world, or America, ought to be brought into line with some super-empirical truth to which he alone has access.
Trumpism is, however, being helped along by master propagandists who understand very well that, by treating facts as something to be actively made, one may eventually change the way truth is understood. (Let us not, here, consider the specter of social constructionism, of whether changing the way truth is understood is the same thing as "creating a new truth.") The activists of the so-called alt-right have been working for years to change public discourse through a concerted campaign of internet trolling. Their goal has been the creation of "meme magic," that moment when an idea that they have promoted online makes the leap from virtuality to reality.
And what better character to symbolize this leap than a frog? In early September, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted an image of his father in an ad for an imaginary action movie called The Deplorables, alongside a cartoon character many would recognize as Pepe the Frog. Pepe had been introduced some years earlier as a harmless anthropomorphic amphibian, with the catchphrase "Feels good, man," but more recently it has been co-opted by the alt-right as a mouthpiece for anti-Semitic and racist meme-mongering. Within days, Hillary Clinton’s campaign would argue that "that cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize."
The alt-right was predictably ecstatic. In an interview with the philosopher Peter Ludlow (aka Urizenus Sklar) at the website Alphaville Herald, the notorious alt-right activist Andrew Auernheimer (aka weev) explains of the effort to bring Pepe into public consciousness: "We drove these people insane, a plague of frogs was upon them for a year, and suddenly they are screaming in public about a cartoon frog." When asked by Ludlow about the usefulness of this tactic, Auernheimer replies: "There didn’t even need to be a discussion. It’s obvious that journalists need to be bullied, and it’s also obvious that you need a consistent signature."
This is all frivolous and deadly serious at once. Trump has been helped by the power of online trolls, a force we have been complaining about for years but whose ability to influence political reality has been greatly underestimated. Academic bourgeois liberals are busy signaling their virtue and affirming one another’s truisms on Facebook. Meanwhile, potent new right-wing memes are being grown in digital petri dishes. Trump’s campaign serves as a vector for whatever is going around, without any real knowledge or understanding of where it comes from. And the Clinton campaign is wasting its time denouncing outrageous tweets that it for the most part does not understand, rather than presenting anything like a coherent political platform of its own.
We are living through a strange political moment, in which the extreme right seems to have a monopoly on irony, while those on the left are straight-facedly trading dogmas among themselves. Alt-right activists, though they would hate to admit it, share more of the spirit of Abbie Hoffman than they do of the Young Republicans I first encountered in the Reagan era. They go about their work with a smirk and evidently get intense pleasure from it. As Auernheimer tells Ludlow, when asked about the sincerity of his commitment to the global white supremacy, "I’m just trolling."
Yet if their meme magic does, in fact, help to put an ethnonationalist into America’s highest office, we cannot expect that his will be an ironic presidency. The alt-right is vastly more clever than your typical brute skinhead of a generation ago, but in the end it does not matter whether the ideas it is inserting into political discourse are put forth in the spirit of irony or with utter seriousness. The effect is the same: harm to marginalized communities. This indifference to both irony and sincerity is of a pair with the indifference to fact. It is enough to get a bit of information out there, whether ironic or serious, whether grounded in empirical reality or not, for it to have a shot at becoming part of political reality.
Trump is a bullshitter, but the forces that have buoyed him go well beyond bullshit. His connection to whatever was left of the GOP has been severed, and he has drifted irretrievably into the arms of the alt-right, the gutter conspiracy-mongers who speak of a great global cabal, and the crowds that whoop and holler in agreement when this conspiracy is evoked, with barely a clue as to what is being claimed, let alone as to the standards of evidence that might be brought to bear to confirm or refute those claims. It is not that they have consented to buy into bullshit, but rather that they find themselves ensorcelled by an idea of truth independent of and superior to the facts. This is the same idea that turned the pseudohistorian Román de la Higuera into a popular hero, and that enabled Pravda to pretend to be delivering istina for the better part of a century. It is a powerful idea, and dangerous, and it speaks to something basic in the hopes and expectations of a political community.
Justin E.H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy at the University of Paris Diderot. His new book, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, was published by Princeton University Press in May.