Donald Trump gets away with bullsh*t: The magical secrets that help him con the press

Trump simply isn't concerned with the truth of anything he says. He'll elude the media until they understand that

Published December 19, 2015 2:30PM (EST)

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

The reality of Donald Trump's months-long dominance of the GOP primary race has suddenly started sinking in with political elites, as has a new willingness to openly talk about his pervasive lying.

After that, the willingness to start using the word “fascism” was not far behind. The phenomena are related, of course. GOP politics have been based on lies and authoritarianism since at least the time of Richard Nixon. But now it's happening in a new key, in a higher register. The old system for managing the lies, manipulating their salience, directing and redirecting the anger and adoration they arose, that system has broken down badly in the last several years, and it now seems to have broken down irreparably.

Nate Silver makes a crucial point, however, tweeting, “One can coherently argue that Trump isn't 'lying' so much as bullshitting, in the H.G. Frankfurt sense of the term.” Frankfurt's book "On Bullshit" argues that bullshitting is a more radical attack on truth than lying is:

[B]ullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.

Bullshitting is anything but new to politics, of course. So the question really is: how is Trump's bullshitting different? Although David Roberts doesn't use the term “bullshit”, he does keenly see the problem in similar terms. The establishment media “don't mind being properly lied to; it's all part of the game,” Roberts writes. “What they cannot countenance is being rendered irrelevant. Trump is not kissing the ring.” Trump's contempt for the media is all part of the proto-fascist package, of course, as well as being the natural outgrowth of decades of media-bashing.

More on Roberts in a moment, but first a nod to what the alternative might be. Jay Rosen has a sharp analysis of how this breakdown in gatekeeping function reflects institutional problems connected to a vapid notion of objectivity, which he's elsewhere critiqued as “the view from nowhere,” a term he's been using since 2003. If asked “What’s your agenda in covering the campaign?” they would all reply, “No agenda, just solid coverage.” But the one journalist who's perhaps done the best job of accurately portraying Trump, Univision's Jorge Ramos, clearly has an agenda — representing his audience's intense concern for comprehensive immigration reform — and yet, Rosen notes, that doesn't prevent him from accurate, incisive reporting; in fact, it helps guide him in that reporting, which has pressured politicians of both parties:

The example of Ramos shows that knowing what you’re for doesn’t have to mean joining the team or taking a party line. It’s possible to maintain your independence, win trust with your audience, and gain a clear sense of purpose when you’re out on the campaign trail. But you have to break with the pack.

Of course, every news organization can't be Univision, but there other ways to find a different agenda, one that actually connects with what people care about. Rosen links back to 2010 proposal he made for a citizen's agenda approach, one that would start by asking the public, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?” and use that as the foundation to build on. Another approach could be built based on public interest polling of the sort developed by Alan Kay in the 1980s, which I wrote about in October. Alternatives exist. And they provide ways to reconnect media with the broader public they're supposed to serve. But it takes real courage to pursue them.

That said, let's return to the question of how things suddenly got so much worse this cycle with Trump. As Roberts points out, GOP truthiness long predated Trump, but the media's power to restrain it has eroded precipitously. He notes that the right has long been working hard to erode the media's critical power, with constant accusations of bias to stifle critical media judgments on the one hand, while on the other hand developing "a network of partisan think tanks, advocacy organizations and media outlets that provide a kind of full-spectrum alternative to the mainstream."

The result, Roberts says, "has been a kind of fragile detente. A certain style of lying has become more or less acceptable, as long as it follows unspoken rules," rules which Donald Trump is now breaking. Or, to rephrase it in Frankfurt's terms, one framework of bullshit is being challenged by another. Roberts identifies three rules of lying that Trump has broken:

“1.) Lies about policy are fine; lies about trivial, personal or easily verifiable claims are not.” Trump, however, tells both kinds of lies with impunity.

“2.) Lies are fine as long as an 'other side' is provided.” But Trump doesn't bother with this at all. “He rarely mentions studies or experts, other than occasionally name-dropping Carl Icahn. He rarely mounts anything that could even be characterized as an argument. He simply asserts.” Which leaves journalists fresh out of fig leaves. “He calls their bluff, forcing them to be with him or against him,” which clearly they can't do using what Rosen calls the “view from nowhere” model they've lived within for so long.

“3.) Nine lies are fine as long as the tenth is retracted.” Call it the face-saving rule. In contrast to the constant flood of lies, “when a politician goes overboard and makes an obviously, verifiably false claim about a matter of recorded fact, the media will browbeat him or her into retracting it and apologizing.” It lets the press feel relevant, even powerful. “But Trump does not back down, retract or apologize, ever, not even for the most trivial thing. He refuses to allow journalists and pundits to validate their watchdog role."

Roberts goes on to make additional significant points — that Trump is basically an opportunist beneficiary, “taking advantage of a faction of the electorate that has been primed to respond to someone like him,” over a period of decades, and that “the social and demographic trends driving the Trump phenomenon are far deeper than Trump himself. They will outlast him.” All that is true, and more. Both Roberts and Rosen deserve to be read and re-read in full.

But I believe that this list of ways that Trump breaks the rules is only a first approximation, primarily because it presents an even-handedness that never actually existed. For example, most of Bill Clinton's presidency was plagued by ongoing rightwing conspiracist obsessions which filtered into the mainstream media. Most of the really wacky stuff (like the “Clinton body count”) never got through to the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post, but those two bastions of the “liberal media” did carry the torch for the Whitewater investigation, as Gene Lyons documented in Fools for Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater. They were instrumental in keeping the investigation alive, most notably by burying the results of the Pillsbury Report, commissioned by the Resolution Trust Corporation, which found the Clintons innocent of any wrongdoing in 1995.

So it's not really true that the media polices “lies about trivial, personal or easily verifiable claims” whether on the left or the right. Indeed, the explosive growth of conspiracies in the 1990s helped to erode the distinction between such lies and lies about policy. Conspiracy narratives question, reinterpret or outright fabricate facts on the one hand and policies on the other. One hallmark of conspiracist thinking is its self-sealing nature: any evidence that appears to refute it is actually just evidence of an even-deeper conspiracy. The conservative embrace of global warming denialism is a major example of how such thinking has thrown the mainstream media into a semi-permanent state of disarray.

Still, the list Roberts offers is a decent first approximation. If not an iron law, it points to strengths and weaknesses of how the media has generally dealt with lies up till now. What's more, it helps illuminate the way that Sarah Palin helped set the stage for Trump. In a broader sense, as David Neiwert touched on recently, Palin was a significant figure in the virulent growth of rightwing populism which Trump embodies today, and which is bringing dangerously close to outright fascism.

Perpetuating “lies about trivial, personal or easily verifiable claims” is hardly the worst or most central thing about a movement tending towards fascism, but it is an inescapable ingredient. The sense of grievance is a root sentiment such movements thrive on, and figures like Palin and Trump are master grievance collectors, who never let inconvenient facts stand in their ways: They simply invent new ones to serve their needs. Trump's breaking of the second lie gets closer to the heart of the fascist direction he's taking us in: the overthrow of all existing institutions, sweeping them aside as forms of weakness and disease.

With these thoughts in mind, we can look back at a scandal plaguing Sarah Palin as she stepped onto the national stage, and see it in a very different light — the Troopergate scandal. It concerned her abuse of office in pursing a vendetta against her former brother-in-law, Mike Wooten, attempting to get him fired as state trooper and letting her husband run wild in the process.

There were two more deeply troubling stories about Palin that the press overlooked at the time. The first concerned her long history of involvement with secessionists in the Alaska Indepenence Party, an excellent account of which appeared here in Salon, by David Neiwert and Max Blumenthal. It's certainly hard to square Palin's self-identification as a “real American” with years of palling around with folks who want nothing more than to leave America forever, but that's exactly what Palin did. The second concerned her life-long association with an extremist religious cult movement, known as the Third Wave movement, or the New Apostolic Reformation. It's part of a wider dominionist movement which seeks to take “dominion” over secular society and government in the U.S. and throughout the world. The mainstream media wouldn't touch reporting on Palin's NAR involvement; for that you had to rely on researchers like Bruce Wilson and Rachel Tabachnick at (See initial diaries here, here and here.)

These two stories would have utterly undermined Palin's “Real American” bullshit shtick, but media gatekeepers helpfully kept them at bay. So we turn, instead, to a story the media did cover, one they couldn't avoid, because it was already out in the open before Palin's VP nomination was announced.

Troopergate culminated in Palin's firing of Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan in early July, after which details began flooding out — staunched slightly by a state legislative report, which was authorized shortly afterwards, and kept much of the information hidden for a few weeks. On Oct. 10, 2008, the report by Steve Branchflower, a retired state prosecutor, was released. It had four main findings, the very first of which was that “Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act,” which states that “any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation” of the public trust.  A second finding said that she had the legal authority to fire Monegan — which Palin then tried to pretend was the entirety of the report. But it also said that Monegan's refusal to fire Wooten was a contributing factor to his firing, which contradicted Palin's numerous claims of innocence.

Despite the crystal clear statement of Palin's violation of the law, Palin herself claimed vindication. "I’m very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing … any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that," Palin lied in a phone interview with Alaska reporters the day after the report was issued.

This was the most audacious lie imaginable, but lying wasn't the heart of what Palin was up to. She didn't want to deny what the report actually said, she wanted to dismiss it entirely. The report didn't matter because it couldn't damage her, because she said that it couldn't. It was a case of “Who are you going to believe, me or your lyin' eyes?” on an epic scale, the epitome of the grifter's art. She even prefaced her remarks by referring to it as “the Tasergate issue,” a bizzare act of bullshit reframing, referring to a minor incident from the divorce proceedings — the couple's son had asked to be tasered to prove he wasn't a mama's boy, and Wooten foolishly did so, using the lowest 'test' setting. It wasn't reported to anyone until divorce proceedings several years later. No one else in official circles considered it remotely central, but Palin's “Tasergate” framing was echoed by her rightwing media fans (Limbaugh, Red State, PJ Media): a good indication of how bullshit spreads.

In passing such sweeping judgments, Palin, like Trump, is a self-styled oracle, a speaker of transcendent truths, on behalf of “real Americans.” Consider how she responded, when the Anchorage Daily News tried to press her on her lying — yes, she lied once again, but it's only a small part of painting her own alternative picture, a coherent narrative in which true and false threads weave seamlessly together:

ADN: Governor, finding No. 1 on the report was that you abused your power by violating state law. Do you think you did anything wrong at all in this Troopergate case?

Palin: Not at all and I’ll tell you, it, I think that you’re always going to ruffle feathers as you do what you believe is in the best interest of the people whom you are serving. In this case I knew that I had to have the right people in the right position at the right time in this cabinet to best serve Alaskans, and Walt Monegan was not the right person at the right time to meet the goals that we had set out in our administration. So no, not having done anything wrong, and again very much appreciating being cleared of any legal wrongdoing or unethical activity at all.

So many lies woven into this narrative! The first two big ones are obvious: first, that Palin did nothing wrong, and second that the report had cleared her. But another big lie — with lots of little ones folded into it — was that she was concerned to have the right people in place “to best serve Alaskans.” Alaska media had already unmasked this lie completely even before McCain named her as his running mate.

When Monegan was fired, it came "out of the blue," according to him. “If the governor was upset with me for one thing or another, it had never been communicated to me,” he said to the Anchorage Daily News the day after he was fired, while noting that Palin's spokeswoman said Palin wanted the department headed in a new direction — but without any details about what that meant. Explanations, which were news to Monegan himself, didn't begin to appear until after the investigation began, and Palin was forced to backtrack on her denials that Monegan hadn't been pressured.

But by then, Monegan's replacement, Charles Kopp, had already come and gone. Kopp had been the police chief and, formerly, the acting city manager of Kenai, and was seen as "a rising star in Alaska's Christian conservative movement," whose appointment would help sell Palin as McCain's VP choice. But there had been a sexual harassment complaint against him, which Kopp first denied, backed up by Palin who said, “He was cleared of the allegations,” — although a letter from the city attorney told the complainant, “As a result of our investigation, Chuck Kopp was removed immediately from his supervisory role relating to your position.” Kopp quickly stepped down, after just 11 days on the job, as it came to light that Palin had been contacted by the complainant via email before Kopp's first day on the job. It was also revealed that Kopp received $10,000 severance pay, while Monegan received none.

So the idea that Palin's concern was how “to best serve Alaskans” was pure bullshit on its face, in light of what was already known by late August. Yet she brazenly reasserted this bullshit explanation for what she had been doing. But Palin's subversion of the public good in this particular case was entirely typical of her approach to public office, as described in a critical email, written by Wasilla resident Anne Kilkenny shortly after Palin's candidacy was announced and widely circulated online. The continuity of Palin's narcissistic approach to governing was quite clear, Kilkenny recalled:

Palin fired most of the experienced staff she inherited [as mayor]. At the city and as governor, she hired or elevated new, inexperienced, obscure people, creating a staff totally dependent on her for their jobs and eternally grateful and fiercely loyal — loyal to the point of abusing their power to further her personal agenda.

But, in Wasilla, at least, it all turned out okay for Palin in the end: During her mayoral administration, most of the actual work of running this small city was turned over to an administrator. She had been pushed to hire this administrator by party power-brokers after she had gotten herself into some trouble over precipitous firings, which had given rise to a recall campaign.

But by saving Palin from herself as mayor of Wasilla, the state GOP only fueled her further. Here's how a Time reporter, Nathan Thornburgh, described Branchflower's “Troopergate” report:

[T]he Branchflower report still makes for good reading, if only because it convincingly answers a question nobody had even thought to ask: Is the Palin administration shockingly amateurish? Yes, it is. Disturbingly so.

The 263 pages of the report show a co-ordinated application of pressure on Monegan so transparent and ham-handed that it was almost certain to end in public embarrassment for the governor....

Not only did people at almost every level of the Palin administration engage in repeated inappropriate contact with Walt Monegan and other high-ranking officials at the Department of Public Safety, but Monegan and his peers constantly warned these Palin disciples that the contact was inappropriate and probably unlawful. Still, the emails and calls continued — in at least one instance on recorded state trooper phone lines.

Yet, Palin was still claiming it was all because she “had to have the right people in the right position at the right time,” and that meant Charles Kopp!

A CBS News report from the campaign trail neatly captured Palin's bullshitting at its essence, with her self-flattering re-imagining of the report completely replacing the actual report itself:

As she boarded her campaign bus this morning, Sarah Palin denied the conclusion of a state ethics report, which found the Alaska governor abused her power when she pressured subordinates to get a state trooper fired.

Asked by a reporter if she abused her power, Palin shook her head and said, “No.”

She added, “And if you read the report, you’ll see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about replacing a cabinet member. You got to read the report, sir.”

So, it wasn't Palin who was selectively plucking the pieces she liked out of the report — it was those stupid, ignorant reporters from the lamestream media who were doing that! Amazingly enough, the matter was dropped within days.

At the time this all went down, it may have seemed quite banal, the story of a small-time grifter who suddenly got hot and hit a streak of lucky scores that took her all the way to the top. There was nothing terribly consequential in any of it — unlike the stories the media dutifully ignored. And yet, in the process, Palin violated all the laws of lying that were in place at the time, the same laws that Trump is violating, causing utter havoc today. Palin should have acted like an inoculation, she should have activated the media's defenses. She had nothing at all going for in the Troopergate scandal. The press should have held the line on her lies.

But they didn't. It may have seemed tawdry and trivial at the time. But if you take care of small things, big things often take care of themselves. It's too late for that now with Trump, of course. But who knows what future evil could be prevented simply by getting the small stuff right? No bullshit!

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By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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