Jun
01

Lying is company policy

By

The tech reference is a bit dated now, but I used to say that if you wanted to know what Sean Hannity thinks before he thinks it, beat him to his fax machine in the morning.

On Monday it might be “Oceania is at war with Eurasia; Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.” If on Tuesday the message in the tray is “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia,” he’ll switch to saying that without blinking an eye, and maybe without even noticing.

It is something we have all noticed of eager authoritarian followers. He is a loyalist. Whatever Big Brother says he repeats to prove his fealty.

That, Matthew Yglesias suggests, is a defining characteristic of the Trump White House:

When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.

He is a man more interested in loyalty (to himself) than in personal integrity. Or the truth. “On Bullshit,” by Harry Frankfurt of Princeton’s Department of Philosophy (1990-2002), describes the break between the truth-teller trying to paint a picture of reality, the liar who knows the truth but hides it to deceive, and someone like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye 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.

Truthful hyperbole” was how in “The Art of the Deal” Trump explained what in real estate is known as “puffing.” Property descriptions like “diamond in the rough” (read: falling down), “charming” (overly decorated), or “cozy” (cramped) might be more bluntly described as deceptive marketing. Yet Trump’s endless self-promotion regarding the size of his inauguration crowd and electoral college win, etc., are not simply puffing but transparently false. Something else is going on here besides pathological narcissism, and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen seems to have hit on it:

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

But Yglesias adds that repeating the Master’s lies serves a similar function for rank-and-file authoritarian followers. Lieutenants repeat the bullshit to demonstrate loyalty. Followers use it as a shibboleth to display their membership in the tribe:

… Trumpian bullshit serves not only as a test of elite loyalty, but as a signifier of belonging to a mass audience. One chants, “Lock her up,” at a rally not to express a desire or expectation that Hillary Clinton will serve jail time for violating an obscure State Department guideline, but simply because to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community these days requires the chant.

The big, beautiful wall that Mexico will allegedly pay for, the war on the “fake news” media, Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate, and now the secret tape recording that will destroy James Comey are not genuine articles of faith meant to be believed in. Their invocation is a formalism or a symbol; a sign of compliance and belonging. The content is bullshit.

Yglesias writes something Sean Hannity knows in his gut without thinking: “The loyalist is just supposed to go along with whatever the line of the day is.” The danger is that constant repetition of bullshit — sold as “alternative facts” — will break down the public’s cognitive ability for discerning truth from fiction. That ability is a prerequisite for the maintenance of democracy and liberty, which is why it has been supported from the founding of the republic. But for authoritarians, critical thinking skills are a threat to control. Thus, courses in public schools that develop them among the masses must be suppressed. Is it any wonder that access to public colleges is shrinking particularly in states controlled by Republican lawmakers?

Also disturbing is the number of supposed political leaders willing to debase themselves in service to their liege lord by repeating his bullshit. There is a seemingly endless rogue’s gallery of cable news interviews by official spokespersons and surrogates eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the leader and/or their tribe through public betrayal of the truth. Is repeating bullshit bullshit?

Frankfurt distinguishes liars from the bullshitter in lines prior to “For the bullshitter…” above. He writes:

A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Trumpian bullshit is how many are so short on integrity as to be willing to repeat it, whether as proof of loyalty or just to “catapult the propaganda.” As Frankfurt observes, the bullshitter has no care for the truth. Trump is an “I say what’s on my mind” kind of guy, Yglesias observes. The truth values of any of it is irrelevant. But many of those willing to repeat it (Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are two examples) may yet know what they are saying is untrue. Trump is bullshitting. His surrogates are lying because lying is company policy.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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