The inspiration for the name of this page is President Donald Trump. In this series, by consulting friends and referring to historical precedent I attempt to find words, existing or of our crowd-sourced invention, to describe aspects of the Trump phenomenon.
What do you call it when someone tells indiscriminate lies? The sort of lies that don’t even help the person telling them? The sort of lies that can be disproven in real time? What do you call it when the liar continues to tell the same lie to the face of the individual who had just debunked their claim?
If you were to follow philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s lead you would call it bullshit . Frankfurt’s 1986 essay On Bullshit (later published in 2005 by Princeton University Press) seeks to define the concept of bullshit. Frankfurt defines bullshit as being unique from a lie or falsehood. The distinction is in the claim or action’s relationship to the truth. In short, a lie or a liar is beholden to reality. The liar makes false claims knowing that they are false in order to obscure an unflattering truth. A lie can be exposed as such. To preserve the lie more lies must be told. However with lies being tethered to truth in opposition, maintaining this web of lies becomes impossible. The knot unravels. Similar can be said of bullshit except there is no tying, just piling on. Bullshit holds no relationship to truth. Bullshit exists in utter indifference to what is real or isn’t. Where a lie can be unraveled, bullshit can take whatever form it needs. Much like actual bull feces, Frunkfurt notes, it is devoid of nutrients or anything valuable. A bullshitter can just keep shitting when confronted with reality. Reality is irrelevant (1).
Picking a single example of bullshit when it comes to Donald Trump is no more difficult than drawing breath. One of the most familiar instances of this is the Birtherism conspiracy. For those residing under rocks, during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign there were claims that Obama was not born in the United States but in Kenya, thus disqualifying him from the presidency. This claim of course is outright false and can be proven via government records and birth certificates. Trump at the time and on through Obama’s presidency was a leader in this field of conspiracy. In easily falsifiable conspiracies such as this there are three general categories of believers. There were people who were simply misinformed, there were those who knew it was not true and saw the benefit in being ambivalent regarding the theory’s truth, and those who did not care if it was true. Trump fit through door number three, a bovine rectum. Trump’s twitter feed was filled with wild claims to knowledge about Obama’s birth that would either be debunked or be entirely unfalsifiable themselves. Even when Obama relented and released his long-form birth certificate, Trump and other birthers claimed it was a fake. Trump went so far as to say he had personal investigators who found the truth (2). Needless to say he never released those revelations, because it was bullshit. Truth had nothing to do with it. It was an unyielding moving of the goal posts to where no amount of empirical evidence would ever be enough to debunk the claim.
If only it were so easy to stop at bullshit. Trump’s bullshit has a distinct quality. As opposed to bullshitting for the forces of good or evil, Trump bullshits for himself. The classic historical example of such Trumpian bullshit is the mystery surrounding his net worth. The Trump shtick relies on himself being viewed as a successful businessman. To Trump, his net worth is the easiest scoreboard to point to. The issue is that he claims the scoreboard reads something it doesn’t say. Trump keeps the scoreboard where only he can see it. It is no secret that Trump’s claims are dubious at best. Consider the following from the February 2016 article from the National Review regarding journalist and Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien’s statements regarding Trump’s net worth:
In 2004, O’Brien had co-authored a piece for the Times detailing Trump’s financial woes — he had recently filed for the third of what would be four Chapter 11 bankruptcies — and quoted anonymous sources who reported that Trump’s wealth was not nearly what he claimed; in fact, it was in the hundreds of millions, they said. (Contemporaneous reports in the Washington Post and Time magazine suggested the same.) Trump, meanwhile, notoriously unreliable in his own estimates, offered figures ranging from $1.7 billion to $9.5 billion. In TrumpNation, O’Brien cited those numbers, alongside “three people with direct knowledge of Donald’s finances” who estimated his wealth was “somewhere between $150 million and $250 million.” Trump denied it, in his usual colorful fashion: “You can go ahead and speak to guys who have four-hundred-pound wives at home who are jealous of me, but the guys who really know me know I’m a great builder.” (3)
Trump responded to O’Brien with a $5 billion lawsuit.
Not that the truth of the matter concerns Trump. Rest assured that if Trump really were worth $10 billion, he would claim he was worth $20 billion. If he were worth $20 billion, he would say $40 billion. It is an infinite regression of self-aggrandizing bullshit. That sentence serves as the definition for the word or phrase that this essay is searching for, an infinite regression of self-aggrandizing bullshit.
Upon settling on this definition for the phenomenon I was seeking to describe, I posed the question to social media in search for suggestions. My mother responded suggesting “cockalorum” which is a word for a self-important little man. This would no doubt describe the subject of this piece and the agent who would engage in the behavior being described. However, it was not quite it. A friend reminded me of a passage in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions where Vonegut remarks to another character that his penis is 5 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. The character responds that his penis is 800 miles long and 100 miles in diameter, but nearly all of it is in the fourth dimension. This captures the spirit of Trump’s infinite regress of self-aggrandizing bullshit, a gigantic claim characterized in such a way that evidence can not prove it false. Trump’s birther investigators found their proof in the fourth dimension. The phallic aspects of this passage only resonates further considering the prominence of candidate dick size during the 2016 Republican Primary.
With this, I have settled on Character Phallacy – the infinite regression of self-aggrandizing bullshit.