Fareed Zakaria says that Donald Trump is a bullshitter. Is he?

CNN host Fareed Zakaria took the feud between CNN and Donald Trump to a new level yesterday, describing Trump as a “bullshit artist.” I’ve reviewed the literature on bullshit, including my own past analysis, and I agree. Trump’s bullshit passes (or perhaps, fails) the sniff test.

Here’s the clip:

What is bullshit?

I’ve tried to be precise about bullshit. My definition is as follows:

Bullshit is communication that wastes the reader’s time by failing to communicate clearly and accurately.

Obviously, I’m describing written communication, but the key element here is a failure to communicate clearly. You can compare that to the description offered by Harry G. Frankfurt, the author of On Bullshit:

This is the crux of the distinction between [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. . . .But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality. . . . The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him . . . his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. . . .  unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Bullshit is in the mind of the consumer

To unify these concepts, consider them from the reader or listener’s perspective. You begin reading or listening and some little devil starts stirring in the back of your mind. You begin thinking “I can’t figure this out. Something’s not right. This person isn’t making sense. I think they’re full of crap.”

This may happen because the speaker has no interest in the truth, as Frankfurt says.

It may happen because the speaker uses passive, jargon-filled bloviation in place of clear communication, which is what I’m railing against.

Or it may happen because a politician has no actual idea what’s going on, and is making shit up and changing it as they go along. That’s the behavior that caused Zakaria to label Trump a bullshit artist.

Either way, if you begin to suspect they’re feeding you a load of crap, you say to yourself, “This is bullshit.” And I think Frankfurt, Zakaria, and I would all agree: if you suspect it’s bullshit, it probably is.


Conclusion: Donald Trump, is, in fact, a bullshit artist. As the Mythbusters would say: CONFIRMED.

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  1. Agreed. He’s a veritable cornucopia of BS. Why do you think so many people don’t have, or can’t hear, the voice in their head that says “that’s a load of crap”? Is there any possible role for the media in pointing out “that’s a load of crap”, when it doesn’t seem to matter? People find his particular load of crap compelling (for reasons I cannot fathom).

  2. Ok I think this is a semantic argument, but this blog is dedicated to semantics, so here is my take…
    The purpose of bullshit, at least as I understand it, is to convey expertise without conveying meaning.

    What Trump does is the exact opposite of bullshit — when he is confronted with something he doesn’t know, he actually flails around like a kid who hasn’t done his homework. It is really clear that he doesn’t know what the nuclear triad is or that the Crimea is in the Ukraine– whereas a practiced politician can finesse that kind of thing with bullshit. Bullshit is what MOST politicians use so they can’t get pinned down to a position– because getting pinned down is usually a zero sum game– you win a voter but you also lose a voter. “Political correctness” is also a kind of bullshit– which Trump rails against.

    This is why Trump is refreshing (to some) and has succeeded thus far: he doesn’t bullshit AT ALL — he opts for simple declarative sentences, aggression, and brazen lies.
    Bullshitting and lying are not the same thing. Sometimes we call lying bullshitting (or a bullshit word like prevaricating) because it isn’t as hostile–which is what Zacaria is doing.

    Trump’s single redeeming quality is his complete lack of bullshit — his unfiltered quality, that some have called his “authenticity”. This is the secret of his success, and it completely transformed the Republican primary– devastating the carefully constructed bullshit rehearsed answers of career politicians like Marco Rubio.

    We pretty much always know what Trump is saying at the time–even if he is contradicting himself, or riffing, or fumbling for an answer, or clearly lying– even if he later retracts it and claims he was only joking. This is why his campaign is always having to bullshit and clean up his mess *after* Trump speaks– because Trump doesn’t bullshit.

    1. Fascinating analysis. I think you’re onto something.

      Perhaps your description aligns with Zakaria’s that Trump is a “bullshit artist” — but not a bullshitter.

      1. I think that’s a fair analysis re: “bullshit artist”.
        But only if you look at the totality of Trump’s behavior in the election– he says something clearly–“Russia is not going into Crimea!”/”we are going to build a wall!”– I think he means these things at the time but then his campaign later contradicts/retracts/clarifies it with spin/bullshit on Twitter or through surrogates -and then he looks like a “bullshit artist”.
        Those clarifications are the result of his campaign desperately spinning– which didn’t happen much with Lewandowski. Trump is an ignorant liar–someone for whom the truth does matter — but he doesn’t care if he breaks his word. He isn’t trying to obfuscate–he is trying to deceive and manipulate.
        A bullshitter would say something on immigration that left you unclear on where he/she really stands or what he/she is going to do– but would hopefully make you feel that he/she is on your side.
        Trump doesn’t do that. He is uniquely willing to say things that no politician would ever say.
        In civilian life he probably just stands behind his lies, ignorance, or negotiating positions and dares anyone to call him on it–which they likely never do.

  3. I think, btw, that one problem with your definition of bullshit is that it also encompasses nonsense. Nonsense wastes a Reader’s time and fails to communicate clearly and accurately — but it is not bullshit.

    1. If the nonsense is not intentionally nonsensical, I’d call it bullshit. If the person creating it knows they are talking nonsense, then it’s just nonsense.

  4. “The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him . . . his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. . . . unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”

    Having read Art of the Deal, I think he fits Frankfurt’s definition of bullshitter. He doesn’t have intellectual curiosity. He’s unconcerned with the truth. He’s often able to “win” because he is less concerned with reputation than his opponent. To him, all publicity is good publicity, and he will offer daily scandalous pronouncement on top of scandalous pronouncement just to manipulate the media (and media watchers — even those with short attention spans).

    He wastes my time, but apparently others can’t get enough of him.

    He’s also a liar. “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts…I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration–and a very effective form of promotion.”

    He takes big risks for the fun of it. He leaves others holding the bag and still thinks he’s won. He can walk away from this campaign and still think he’s won — everyone knows his name, and he’s made some high-powered friend. To his fans, he’s a hero. He’s been able to shaft enemies. He might be closer to building in Russia. He might get another TV show — even try out being a televangelist. The opportunities for him are endless. He will win. The real question is: who’ll lose.

  5. Yes but would you want this man, this Bullshit Artist, this ignorant contemptible liar and clearly unstable person as President of the United States?

    I wouldn’t