Crowding Out the Truth

Some want to dance on the quay in the shadow of Notre Dame like Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris” – and others want to walk in the footsteps of Van Gogh in Arles, or visit Franz Kafka’s digs in Prague. Literary cat fanciers show up at Number 17 Gough Square in London, where Samuel Johnson lived from 1748 to 1759, to check out the bronze statue of his cat Hodge – sitting on top of Johnson’s famous dictionary next to a few empty oyster shells, and read Johnson’s words “a very fine cat indeed.”

Everyone has a bucket list. Others show up in Frewin Court, off Cornmarket Street, in Oxford, to check out the Oxford Union Society – the Oxford Union – the famous debating society founded in 1823, where the best and the brightest honed their skills.

This is a matter of values. Some things are necessary to survive in the cutthroat debates there. Muster your facts. Don’t fudge anything – you’ll be called out. Assemble a logical argument – because any and all logical fallacies will be called out. Provide airtight proofs – not wishful thinking or bullshit. Try any wishful thinking or bullshit and you’ll be shamed. Those who value such things have a visit to the Oxford Union on their bucket list. It feels good to be there.

It doesn’t feel good to be here:

Former President Barack Obama reportedly told friends shortly after Election Day he thinks President Trump is a “bullshitter.”

“He’s nothing but a bullshitter,” Obama told two friends in November…

Obama was reportedly describing an election night phone call with Trump in which the new president talked about his “respect” for Obama. Trump for years questioned Obama’s birthplace and frequently accused him of intentionally working to hurt the U.S., including calling him the “founder” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Asked how Obama’s opinion of Trump has changed since he’s been in office, one friend told People: “It hasn’t gotten any better.”

Trump wouldn’t survive a minute at Oxford, but America has different values, and he is president:

Former first lady Michelle Obama also reportedly expressed remorse to visitors in December after Trump’s victory, joking: “I’m going all black for the next couple of years.”

There are many ways to read that, but of course Barack Obama wasn’t big on bullshit. Everyone saw that. Know what you’re talking about or you’ll be shamed:

During Monday’s third and final presidential debate, Mitt Romney attacked the Obama administration for advocating for cuts to the military when some aspects of the armed forces are out of date or undermanned. President Barack Obama challenged Romney’s assertion, lacking knowledge about precisely what forces the military needs and proceeded to explain that the military now has weapons systems like aircraft carriers and submarines.

“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” said Romney. “The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at 285.”

“I think Gov. Romney maybe has not spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama shot back. “We also have fewer horses and bayonets because nature of our military has changed. There are these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Romney was stunned. Mitt Romney wouldn’t have survived a minute at Oxford either, but Donald Trump really is president now, so this was inevitable:

A defiant President Trump on Friday accused former FBI director James B. Comey of committing perjury in his blockbuster Senate testimony and said he was willing to share his version of events under oath with the special counsel overseeing the expanding Russia investigation.

Trump emphatically declared his innocence yet refused to solve a mystery of his own making by stating whether he has tapes of his one-on-one conversations with Comey. Any such recordings could prove which man’s account is accurate, but the president played coy, saying he would wait “a fairly short period of time” to tell the public whether tapes exist, as he first suggested they might in May.

“Oh, you’re going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer,” he told reporters. “Don’t worry.”

That sounded like bullshit, as did this:

During a combative news conference in the White House Rose Garden, the president said Comey’s testimony Thursday was politically motivated, contained falsehoods, and failed to establish that Trump had colluded with Russians to win last year’s election or had obstructed justice in seeking to end the federal government’s probe.

“No collusion. No obstruction. He’s a leaker,” Trump said of Comey, adding: “We were very, very happy, and, frankly, James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said. And some of the things that he said just weren’t true.”

That’s wishful thinking, but there was some logic to it:

Trump and his aides and allies followed a two-pronged rebuttal strategy: They hung onto snippets of Comey’s testimony as categorical evidence of Trump’s innocence while using other elements to try to impugn the former FBI director’s credibility.

Trump wouldn’t survive a minute at Oxford – the proof isn’t proof – and there’s the attitude:

The president, who had followed the advice of his lawyers to refrain from commenting Thursday, was characteristically pugnacious in his presentation Friday and opted mostly to deliver broadsides rather than address the details of Comey’s testimony.

Jonathan Karl of ABC News drilled down on a couple of key facts, however, beginning with Comey’s statement that Trump had told him that he hoped Comey would let the Flynn investigation go. Trump replied three times, “I didn’t say that.”

Regarding Comey’s assertion that Trump had asked him during a one-on-one dinner in the White House to pledge his loyalty, the president said “I hardly know the man. I’m not going to say, ‘I want you to pledge allegiance.’ Who would do that?”

He would. That’s the classic argument from incredulity – “I cannot imagine how this could be true; therefore, it must be false” – and thus classic bullshit.

It wasn’t working:

Despite Trump’s declaration of “no obstruction,” Democrats on Capitol Hill raised the prospect that he may have obstructed justice, based on Comey’s testimony, and called for additional investigations.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a senior member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said in a statement: “I see firsthand the distinction between the legal and counterintelligence aspects presented by Director Comey’s testimony this week. It is my strong recommendation that the Judiciary Committee investigate all issues that raise a question of obstruction of justice.”

Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), who are investigating the Russia issue on the House Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to White House counsel Donald McGahn asking whether the White House has any recordings or memoranda of Trump’s conversations with Comey or whether any have existed in the past. They asked the White House to produce them to the committee by June 23.

Schiff and Conaway also sent a letter to Comey requesting that he share any notes or memoranda in his possession about his talks with Trump.

In short, don’t be coy about those tapes. Hand them over, now. If you haven’t got them, admit that you’re bullshitting everyone, but there was a lot of bullshit going around:

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded definitively that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election to try to influence its outcome in Trump’s favor. But in his Rose Garden remarks, the president repeated his claim that the probe into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia is merely a creation of his political opponents.

“That was an excuse by the Democrats, who lost an election that some people think they shouldn’t have lost, because it’s almost impossible for the Democrats to lose the Electoral College, as you know,” Trump said. “You have to run up the whole East Coast and you have to win everything as a Republican, and that’s just what we did.”

In fact, Trump lost most of the states on the Eastern Seaboard (he carried Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and a portion of Maine). He won his Electoral College majority by carrying a number of hotly contested states in the industrial Midwest and elsewhere, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Obama was right about this guy, and Gail Collins sees this:

You know, it might be less terrifying if Donald Trump had cannily tried to obstruct justice, plying his FBI director with flattery and carefully scripted suggestions.

At least we’d think he had some control. Instead, we know the country’s being run by a guy who wanders around in an ego-filled cloud, saying whatever the heck pops into his head. It’s a combination of id, ineptitude and bad intent.

On Friday the president denied that he had asked then-FBI director James Comey to go easy on Mike Flynn, the disaster-ridden former national security adviser. “I will tell you I didn’t say that. And there’d be nothing wrong if I did, according to everybody that I’ve read today,” he told a press conference.

He probably meant nothing indictable.

And his reading is limited too, and Collins notes that Trump used this opportunity to:

Brag about having won the election. (“It’s almost impossible for the Democrats to lose the Electoral College, as you know.”) Actually nobody knows that, since the Republicans have a huge advantage in the Electoral College. That hasn’t stopped Trump from saying it constantly.

Brag about meeting with Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia. (“It was truly historic. There has never been anything like it before and, perhaps, there never will be again.”)

 Lash out at Qatar for being “a funder of terrorism at a very high level” about an hour after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called on gulf nations to go easier on Qatar.

Yes, this has gotten absurd:

The bottom line here is that our president appears to be unnervingly loony. Not just in the normal political way, with bad judgment or an overblown sense of importance… He has a minimal ongoing relationship with reality, let alone truth. During Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the fired FBI director said that the first time he met the president-elect, he was so freaked out that when he got back into his car he typed up a memo of everything that had happened, just to protect himself. (“I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting. It led me to believe that I gotta write it down and I gotta write it down in a very detailed way.”)

It sounded believable. There certainly wasn’t any outcry on the part of top Republicans that the value-free bully Comey described wasn’t the Donald they knew. The best defense House Speaker Paul Ryan could come up with was, “He’s new to government.” The seventy-year-old billionaire doesn’t know any better.

Ezra Klein isn’t so sure of that:

Donald Trump understands, better than any politician I’ve ever seen, that the question isn’t whether you’re winning the argument – it’s whether you’re dominating and driving the coverage of the argument. And that is his strategy in responding to former FBI Director James Comey’s searing testimony. Trump means to take back control of the storyline. But he doesn’t intend to win the argument, or even offer a persuasive counterargument or narrative of events. Instead, his strategy is to crowd out coverage of Comey’s arguments and force the media to cover bullshit.

That means that Donald Trump is a bullshitter, not a liar, and Klein turns to Harry Frankfurt’s classic book On Bullshit – with Klein noting “that bullshit distinguishes the liar, who is trying to persuade us of a false truth, from the bullshitter, who cares little for persuasion so long as he is achieving his other ends.”

Klein suggests that we should not consider the contradictory things Trump is asking us to believe:

Trump’s first point is that Comey is a liar (and, since he was testifying under oath before the Senate, a perjurer). It is not just Trump making this case. White House staff has said that Trump, among other things, never asked for Comey’s loyalty, and that the ex-FBI director is making his story up. No one really believes this, but then, that’s not the point.

Trump’s second point is that even though Comey is a liar trying to frame Trump, his testimony is believable as a complete and total vindication for Trump, though what Trump is being completely and totally vindicated of is unclear.

Trump’s third point is that Comey “is a leaker.”

This is not a debate at the Oxford Union:

It would be a mistake to think of what Trump is doing here as persuasion. He is not trying to offer a more consistent or credible account of events than Comey did. He is not marshaling evidence that disproves Comey’s testimony, or offering alternative explanations for the interactions Comey recorded.

No fair-minded person would look at Comey’s testimony and the White House’s pushback and see anything of value in the latter. Trump isn’t crafting believable lies or arguing with how Comey understood events or even trying to convince observers of an alternative timeline.

Yes, he’s bullshitting, and Klein sees why:

By accusing Comey of perjury – an explosive accusation, particularly given that Trump proffers no evidence – Trump is trying (and, if this morning’s headlines are any evidence, succeeding) in wresting the story back from Comey’s testimony. A liar tries to replace the truth – which is hard. A bullshitter tries to crowd out the truth – and that’s a lot easier. Trump is a bullshitter.

And there’s this:

By claiming “total and complete vindication,” Trump is giving his loyalists a talking point to use. Again, he is not trying to persuade anyone he has been vindicated – he does not mount any argument in that direction whatsoever. Instead, he is simply hoping that the words “total and complete vindication” get repeated continuously. So those who want to believe in his innocence can, and those who want to prove their loyalty to his regime have a way of doing so.

And there’s this:

By accusing Comey of leaking, Trump is, again, creating a storyline his defenders can use to crowd out the important questions raised by Comey’s testimony. It is genuinely unclear what it means to say Comey leaked – after all, he is simply offering his account of events, and at this point, he is doing so in public. This isn’t leaking as it is usually understood. But then, the point here is not to offer an actual argument about leaking. The point here is that outlets friendly to Trump need a new direction to take the story or else they’ll have to keep covering Comey’s comments. Trump is giving them that new direction – it’s “Trump versus the leakers.”

The man is sly, and Klein sees why:

Lies are an effort to win an argument. Bullshitting is an effort to dominate coverage of an argument, to crowd out the truth, to distract the media with topics you prefer. Trump is very good at bullshitting. And since he doesn’t have a good counterargument to offer against Comey, he’s falling back on what he knows.

It’s worked so far, hasn’t it? Matthew Yglesias addresses that:

Critically, though bullshit plays a genuine functional role for the Trump regime, there is no particular reason to believe its adoption as Trump’s primary rhetorical mode is a strategic choice. Trump is wildly unfit for the presidency in obvious and well-known ways, including, critically, a total lack of knowledge of or interest in any area of public policy.

Trump lacks the knowledge to govern, the patience to learn how to govern, or the humility to admit it. Consequently, he bullshits, telling Time that he “only needed a short time to understand everything about health care” and the Economist that his tax cut plan doesn’t benefit the rich because “I mean I can tell you this, I get more deductions, they have deductions for birds flying across America, they have deductions for everything.”

This list goes on and on, because it has to, and the damage spreads:

The president bullshits because he is ignorant. But his aides, in order to manipulate Trump into governing in ways they find reasonable or ideologically congenial or both, must echo his bullshit to prove their loyalty. This winds up creating substantial levels of second-order bullshit as flunkies pony up an outlandish series of pro-Trump claims – claims that are then echoed in a large and vibrant ecosystem of pro-Trump media.

This sphere of bullshit ultimately ends up encompassing not only flunkies like Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway but aides such as Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein or National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who entered Trump’s service with sterling reputations yet inevitably find themselves fronting for one form or another of flimflam.

It seems that sensible people, manipulating Trump into governing in ways that are halfway reasonable, which they pull off now and then, briefly, have to humor the guy. That means saying absurd stuff in public, over and over – to keep the big guy calm. They have to seem to believe the absurd stuff, to keep the big guy calm. They end up looking like fools, or worse:

The loyalist is just supposed to go along with whatever the line of the day is.

This is the authoritarian spirit in miniature, assembling a party and a movement that is bound to no principles and not even committed to following its own rhetoric from one day to the next. A “terrific” health plan that will “cover everyone” can transform into a bill to slash the Medicaid rolls by 14 million in the blink of an eye and nobody is supposed to notice or care. Anything could happen at any moment, all of it powered by bullshit.

Still, there is reality, and Philip Bump covers that:

President Trump’s declaration that the Thursday testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey was a “total and complete vindication” despite “so many false statements and lies” was the sort of brashly triumphant and loosely-grounded-in-reality statement we’ve come to expect from the commander in chief. It was news that came out a bit later, news about plans to file a complaint against Comey for a revelation he made during that Senate Intelligence Committee hearing meeting that may end up being more damaging to the president.

CNN and Fox first reported that Trump’s outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, plans to file complaints with the inspector general of the Justice Department and the Senate Judiciary Committee about Comey’s testimony. At issue was Comey’s revelation that he provided a memo documenting a conversation with Trump to a friend to be shared with the New York Times.

That might be a problem, because there’s a danger in trying to turn bullshit into reality:

As the news broke, I was on the phone with Stephen Kohn, partner at a law firm focused on whistleblower protection. We’d been talking about where the boundaries lay for Comey in what he could and couldn’t do with the information about his conversations with the president. Kohn’s response to the story about Kasowitz, though, was visceral.

“Here is my position on that: Frivolous grandstanding,” he said. “First of all, I don’t believe the inspector general would have jurisdiction over Comey anymore, because he’s no longer a federal employee. The inspector general’s job is to investigate wrongdoing by employees of the Justice Department, which Comey is no longer, thanks to Trump – though the IG would have the ability to investigate an allegation of criminal misconduct.”

“But, second, initiating an investigation because you don’t like somebody’s testimony could be considered obstruction. And in the whistleblower context, it’s both evidence of retaliation and, under some laws, could be an adverse retaliatory act itself.”

In short, if there’s no evidence that Comey actually violated any law, that would trigger punishment, for obstruction of justice:

“The constitutional right to go to the press with information on matters of public concern, as long as you’re not doing it in a way that will bring out classified information,” Kohn said, “the reason why that is protected constitutionally is that the courts – including the U.S. Supreme Court – have ruled that the public has a constitutional right to hear this information.” In other words, it’s constitutionally protected speech.

That’s the danger in trying to turn bullshit into reality – reality fights back. Don’t take your bullshit to court. The same rules apply. Muster your facts. Don’t fudge anything – you’ll be called out. Assemble a logical argument – because any and all logical fallacies will be called out. Provide airtight proofs – not wishful thinking or bullshit. Try any wishful thinking or bullshit and you’ll be shamed – or in this case, charged with obstruction of justice on new grounds.

And be careful of other things:

The hard-charging New York lawyer President Trump chose to represent him in the Russia investigation has prominent clients with ties to the Kremlin, a striking pick for a president trying to escape the persistent cloud that has trailed his administration.

Marc E. Kasowitz’s clients include Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to President Vladimir Putin and has done business with Trump’s former campaign manager. Kasowitz also represents Sberbank, Russia’s largest state-owned bank, U.S. court records show.

A bullshitter tries to crowd out the truth – but that really isn’t that easy. That’s something one learns in competitive debate. That’s something some people never learn. Visit Oxford. It’s a fine place.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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