Lies, bulls**t and gaslighting: A field guide to Trump's reality-warping mendacity

We all know Trump lies a lot. But unless the media understands his methods and techniques, he'll keep winning

Published February 24, 2019 12:00PM (EST)


Donald Trump lies. A lot. This isn’t news. In December 2015, PolitiFact bestowed its annual “Lie of the Year” award on “the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump," and it wasn’t even close:

In considering our annual Lie of the Year, we found our only real contenders were Trump’s -- his various statements also led our Readers’ Poll. But it was hard to single one out from the others. So we have rolled them into one big trophy.

That was more than three long years ago, before a single vote had been cast in the Republican primaries. But now, with the 2020 race is off to the earliest start ever, the media has yet to adequately adapt to the sheer magnitude, intensity and sweep of Trump’s mendacity. The fate of our democracy may hinge on that failure.

It’s not that Trump's lies are so strong, but that our system is so weak, reflected in its inability to cope with Trump’s often see-through mendacity, which takes three distinct forms: ordinary lying, bullshitting and gaslighting. Ordinary lying involves intentional false claims about the world. Bullshitting involves intentionally false claims and representations about oneself, a chaotic mix of true and false claims. (Salesmen do this all the time.) Gaslighting involves manipulating reality — not just with words, but also with actions — to undermine others’ ability to trust their own judgment and believe in their own sanity. (Abusers, cult leaders and dictators do this all the time). The aim is to redefine reality however they wish. Trump’s claim that “Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it” was his most succinct, over-the-top gaslighting quip of the 2016 campaign.

Looked at another way: A liar knows he's lying, while a bullshitter thinks everyone is bullshitting, and that if they think they aren't they're only bullshitting themselves. A gaslighter thinks he's uniquely entitled to gaslight everyone — and they're lucky to have him do it.  The mentality of the bullshitter dismisses even the possibility of knowing the truth, and justifies all manner of what-aboutism, to avoid responsibility. The mentality of the gaslighter goes further — truth is whatever the gaslighter claims it is, and no one else has any say at all. Global warming is a Chinese hoax.

These last two mentalities are what sets Trump apart, but they defy description merely in terms of lying (or, more innocently, “false statements”). Recognizing these substantially different kinds of lying is essential in cutting through the overloading blur of falsehoods that Trump and his minions constantly spew. But ​the media so far has made only limited progress in dealing with the first of these, despite some early awareness that much more was going on.

For example, although this wasn't the main focus of PolitiFact's award to Trump, the site offered a succinct description of one major aspect of his method:

Trump has "perfected the outrageous untruth as a campaign tool," said Michael LaBossiere, a philosophy professor at Florida A&M University who studies theories of knowledge. "He makes a clearly false or even absurdly false claim, which draws the attention of the media. He then rides that wave until it comes time to call up another one."

Yet, three-plus years later, the media has yet to figure out how to deal with Trump, even as they keep counting up record-breaking totals of false and misleading claims. The Washington Post’s fact-checker recently added the category of “bottomless Pinocchio” for three- or four-Pinocchio statements repeated 20 or more times. But as long as fact-checking runs parallel to “straight reporting” it will continue to have limited utility for countering prodigious liars like Trump.

Somewhat more promising was a late December New York Times piece, “Deciphering the Patterns in Trump’s Falsehoods,” by fact-check reporter Linda Qiu. She highlighted important aspects of how Trump operates — strategies he relies on repeatedly. For example, under “Repetition and Inflation,” Qiu noted:

Mr. Trump refuses to correct most of his inaccurate claims, instead asserting them over and over again. They become, by sheer force of repetition, “alternative facts” and staples of his campaign rallies and speeches ….Yet Mr. Trump does not rely on repetition alone. He also embellishes talking points to amplify his achievements.

For a classic example of the latter consider Trump's ever-expanding claims about new steel mills, which grew more outrageous over time to the point where he said they were “opening up literally on a daily basis.” (This hardly needs to be said, but that wasn't true.)

Under “Shifting and Deflecting,” Qiu noted: “In the face of controversy or criticism, Mr. Trump has defended initial falsehoods with additional dubious claims,” citing a series of shifting false claims about Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels.

Two other categories were “Misleading Vagueness and Fanciful Details” and “Inventing Straw Men,” particularly the media.

Qiu’s story was helpful, but it would have had much greater impact if integrated into the Times style guide for all Times reporters to rely on — a step that remains unthinkable under existing, outmoded journalistic conventions.

Neither “bottomless Pinocchios” nor Qiu’s helpful pattern-identification provide much insight into what Trump is doing (the why behind the patterns), nor a way to incorporate any insights into existing journalistic practice. “If the president says it, it’s newsworthy,” still seems to be almost universal media practice, with no way to deal with the fact that if this particular president says it, odds are quite good that it’s a lie — or at best a falsehood based on willful ignorance. And simply repeating a falsehood — even one identified as such — only helps to spread it, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff has long warned.

The “View from Nowhere” style of journalism, as famously described by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, gains its presumed authority precisely from not making such elementary judgments, judgments that beat reporters make all the time in deciding whom to regard as a reliable source. Crime reporters, sports reporters, health and lifestyle reporters, restaurant reviewers — you name it — if a journalist has a beat they’ve made judgments about who’s worth listening to and who isn’t. It’s the only way they can do their jobs. Yet when it comes to the most consequential reporting there is, all that goes out the window. We can’t afford that anymore. We need a frank accounting of the lies we’re being told and the reasons behind them, starting with Trump, the most blatant, over-the-top example.

As indicated above, ordinary lying involves intentional false claims about the world, while bullshitting involves intentionally false claims and representations about the bullshitter themselves. H.G. Frankfurt’s classic book “On Bullshit” put it this way:

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

Or, to put it slightly differently:

[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 describes a lot of what salesmen, promoters, con men and hustlers like Trump do. LaBossiere’s description of how Trump had "perfected the outrageous untruth as a campaign tool" is relevant here. Yes, he told lies, but that’s not really the main point. The point was how much attention they drew — and how that attention helped Trump overwhelm his Republican primary opponents.

But there’s much more to bullshitting than that. In September 2016, as the general election campaign heated up, I wrote about Trump bullshitting about opposing the Iraq War. In the GOP primary, he falsely and elaborately claimed to have been a leading opponent: 

“I’ll give you 25 different stories” citing his opposition to the war, Trump falsely boasted during the September 2015 CNN debate, elbowing aside Rand Paul, who actually had been opposed to the war but could not get a word in edgewise.

But in his general election speech in September, Trump completely reversed himself, saying, “Nobody cared too much about what I said, I was doing business,” which led me to conclude:

There's a crucial lesson here: It's important to not focus exclusively on the specific lies that Trump is telling in the moment, without also taking note of the broader lies he's telling about himself in how he's presenting himself. The fact that Trump continues to lie repeatedly about opposing the Iraq War, despite repeated debunking, exemplifies his trait of being a pathological liar. But the fact that he's completely reversed his positioning speaks to his more fundamental nature as a bullshitter.

We’ve seen this repeatedly in the ways Trump has changed his stories over the months and years — about the border wall, the Russian investigation, the Stormy Daniels payoffs Qui cited in her Times story. The list goes on. If unchanging “bottomless Pinocchios” highlight the epitome of Trump as an ordinary liar, the ever-shifting, mutually-contradictory nature of his lies about these continuing subjects highlights how he operates as a bullshitter, which is actually much more important.

Indeed, focusing on Trump’s lies misses the point almost as much as focusing on what he’s saying. His words should not be noted without comparing them to the truth. And his lies should not be noted without comparing them to what he’s trying to accomplish by telling them. Simply pointing out the lies does little good in illuminating what’s going on — either what Trump is up to or why. Nor does it help distinguish him from those he may attack. Lying is far more ubiquitous than bullshitting on the scale that Trump does it, and Trump’s bullshitting style lets him lie about opponents from multiple different contradictory perspectives.

Yet the media has come to normalize Trump’s bullshitting, talking about how his stories “evolve” over time, just as journalists themselves have “evolved” to take his mendacity for granted, even as they hold others to higher standards. Thus they’ve effectively become part of Trump’s team, even as he continues to excoriate them.

Sometimes, however, bullshitting is not enough. In May 2016, Emily Crockett wrote a brilliant analysis of Trump's interview with Megyn Kelly. "Trump is often compared to a playground bully," she wrote, but there was a better word: "They’re not 'bullies.' They’re abusers," She elaborated on one of the key elements of that kind of abuse:  

There's the gaslighting, when they scrupulously deny they did anything wrong and avoid taking responsibility until they make you question your grip on reality: I never said that. I never did that. It's your fault. I'm the victim here. ... Trump followed this script more than once in his interview with Kelly. "I've been responding to what they did to me," he said when asked about his bullying tactics.

In short, Trump’s signature claim to be “a counter-puncher” is simply an act of gaslighting. He is always the victim, according to his account, So he’s always "counter-punching," even if he throws the first five, 10 or 20 blows.

Others wrote about Trump’s gaslighting as well, as I summarized in October 2016, after the "Access Hollywood" tape came out and Trump responded with a gaslighting non-apology:

At the Texas Observer, Andrea Grimes wrote about the Trump campaign’s gaslighting in defense of Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama in her convention speech. And at the New Republic, Brian Beutler wrote about Trump’s gaslighting in trying to disavow his role in pushing birtherism, and his attempts to shift all the blame onto Hillary Clinton or her aide Sidney Blumenthal instead.

Trump’s gaslighting non-apology was expertly analyzed by Leah McElrath in a Twitter thread, translating Trump’s mendacious text into plain English:  

  1. "I'm not perfect" = Your expectations I behave like a human being are unreasonable
  2. “I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not” = You fell in love with me so it’s your fault
  3. “this more than decade old video” = It was a long time ago, why the fuss? You’re so unreasonable.
  4. “these words do not reflect who I am” = The reality you just experienced didn’t actually happen 
  5. “I said it … I apologize” = Get over it already, I said I’m sorry, you’re being hysterical

As I noted then:

Four crucial dynamics were highlighted here: self-excusing, blame-shifting, gaslighting and normalization of the abnormal or aberrant behavior. In a broad sense, all those interrelated dynamics could be used to describe Trump’s performance as a whole, but McElrath’s specificity is what makes her analysis particularly valuable and unusual.

This is the kind of analysis needed to make sense of gaslighting, the end result of which is to try to destroy anyone else’s ability to make sense of the world, at least not without the blessing of the gaslighter themselves. It is the ultimate power-grab: An attempt to steal the ability to make sense of anything at all.

As the Trump-Russia probe expanded, so did the media’s reliance on legal and intelligence experts who could help them make sense of complex and sometimes controversial developments. Somehow, the media has no problem employing teams of such experts to inform its coverage of some of the most contested news stories of the day. Strikingly, the explosion of Trump’s mendacity, and clear evidence of more complex processes in need of decoding — bullshitting and gaslighting — has produced no similar addition of expertise in making sense of these challenging developments.

This is particularly striking, since gaslighting isn’t just characteristic of abusers, it’s characteristic of “super-abusers” as well: cult leaders and dictators, who are the subjects of other disciplinary approaches as well. Trump’s border wall “emergency” is typical of the way authoritarian leaders define or delineate convenient enemies. No one doubts the reality of a rising authoritarian threat around the world. Yet virtually nothing is done to develop a capacity to make sense of that threat here at home, where we face it most immediately.

This isn’t to say I think Trump is a dangerous dictator about to extinguish democracy. I’ve long been sympathetic to political scientist Corey Robin’s argument that Trump is a weak leader. But I would go farther than that: Our whole political system is weak, and potentially headed toward state breakdown. Our collective inability to cope with Trump’s mendacity is reflective of that broader weakness, as described for example in Peter Turchin’s landmark book “Ages of Discord” (Salon review here).

The systemic failure we’re now experiencing is why ideas like the Green New Deal, Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, Medicare for All, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a 70 percent top marginal tax rate are suddenly surging in popularity — even among Republicans — and why they could well shape the Democratic primary campaign and America’s future. Unless, that is, Trump’s firehose of mendacity triumphs once again, aided by the media’s hapless complicity, its incapacity to adapt and adequately report what’s going on.  

The ultimate power of the gaslighter is to make it impossible for his targets to imagine a reality different from the one he imposes.  While Trump is far too weak to pull this off on a massive scale, as a successful fascist dictator might, he has already done significant damage and may do much more. With the media’s unwitting complicity, he may be strong enough to prevent a coherent shared alternative vision from emerging. That is the crucial battle at the heart of the coming election cycle.

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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