Epistemological Apathy and Egomania: The Not-so Mysterious Case of Donald J. Trump and the Implications for American DemocracyBryant William Sculos I Politics & Government I Analysis I September 29th, 2016
Over the past several months, there have been a number of articles written exploring how to typologize Donald Trump ideologically. Is he a fascist? Is he a conservative? A populist? A liberal? A sexist racist xenophobe? Some irrational combination of all of them? A cursory look at the comments sections of Internet new sites, the blogosphere, and social media shows that there are a variety of preferred terms used by people responding to the incalculably racist, bigoted, hateful, and often wildly outlandish or incoherent comments and policy proposals of firebrand Republican Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. Most of these labels, while probably accurate, are vulgar and not worth repeating here, but two of them stand out as potentially having a great deal of accuracy and indeed political significance. Trump is often referred to as either an asshole or a bullshitter (which is equivalent to being "full of shit" for the purposes of this essay), and sometimes he is referred to as both at the same time. Assuming that these "expert" political commentators do not genuinely believe that Donald Trump's body is full of male bovine feces nor that he is an exceptionally large anus, these labels likely refer to more sarcastic idiomatic meanings. What the creative masterminds who use these epithets (again, however accurate they are) likely don't realize is that these terms refer to rather well-defined concepts in contemporary philosophy and sociology, specifically developed by Harry G. Frankfurt and Aaron James respectively.
In their respective books, On Bullshit and Assholes: A Theory, Frankfurt and James offer specific conceptualizations of "bullshit" and "assholes." Taken together, looking at the political campaigning of Donald Trump, it becomes quite obvious that, strictly technically speaking, Donald Trump is a bullshitting asshole. As such, I argue, Trump is not so much unique as he is a manifestation of what our contemporary social condition produces, and as such Trump exists as an extreme caricature of an increasingly cold, narcissistic, self-righteous capitalistic mentality that must be a central concern for all of us as we aim to move beyond the present towards an emancipated and habitable future.
Theorizing Bullshit and Assholes
According to Harry G. Frankfurt (1988), bullshit is an epistemological category that, though not itself a product of modernity, has become a hallmark of it. Bullshit is not a lie. It is a deception based on a complete apathy towards the truth. For the bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. Beyond the traditional binary of honesty and lying, bullshit is a category of knowledge that is defined by its emphatic disconnect from knowledge itself (125). In order to be honest, one must know the truth (or at least have the intention of speaking what one believes to be the truth). To lie, one must also know the truth. In the case of lying, one needs to have a sense of the truth in order to effectively avoid speaking it. "There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit. Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed" (127).
The question as to what produces bullshit is a complicated one, and for Frankfurt, it could have any number of sources. In all of the examples he gives (any situation where a person is expected to know more than they do, a situation where one could benefit from seeming like they know more than they do, or more academically in the anti-realist or postmodern philosophical critique of Truth), bullshit typically has a social source-but it is a social source that is directly channeled through agents. It is not that the bullshitter does not know that they are full of it; they do. The origins of bullshit lay in the social relations that incentivize and normalize bullshitting (Frankfurt 1988, 132-133).
Aaron James (2012) takes a similar approach to Frankfurt's in his typology of assholes.[i] In his recent book Assholes: A Theory, James explicates various types of assholes, all sharing these basic qualities:  systematic enjoyment of special advantages,  due to a deep-seated belief in their own superiority, and  belief in their own superiority to such a degree that they ignore any potential obligation to justify their special advantages to others (5).
The asshole…sees no need to wait for special circumstances to come his way in the normal course of things. The asshole feels entitled to allow himself special advantages as he pleases systematically, across a wide range of social interactions….He rides people with wearing comments-veiled criticisms, insinuating questions, or awkward allusions to topics not normally discussed in polite company. He is often rude or more often borderline nasty….More important, the asshole gains special advantages from interpersonal relations, not by stroke of continuous luck, but because he regards himself as special….If one is special on one's birthday, the asshole's birthday comes everyday. (James 2012, 15-16)
The asshole is thus a special kind of elitist, but they aren't born that way-though some certainly have psychopathic traits. More relevant to my argument here though, according to James, assholes are created, created by a culture of self-centered hyper-individualism that allows people-and indeed encourages people-to feel that they are superior (James 2010, 88-100). It is the most extreme version of when your Mom told you in grade school 'not to worry about what other people think'. Assholes internalize this sentiment to the extreme, taking it to mean that they deserve respect to the point of servility, simply because of how great they believe they are. For the asshole, there is a complete lack of perspective, self-reflection, and humility. The asshole may feign these traits, but according to James, in most cases they wouldn't even bother. After all, who cares if people think you're an asshole if you know you are better than they are?
Taken together, a bullshitting asshole would be a personal who consistently speaks without regard for the truth, in a way that is insulated by an inflated sense of their own worth, entitlement, and superiority. Let us turn to the recent evidence Donald J. Trump has provided us in order to decide if he fits this categorization.
Typologizing Donald Trump
One of the key areas that Donald Trump is clearly bullshitting about-in a purely technical sense-is immigration. Trump has said on a number of occasions that his plan is deport as many illegal aliens present in the United States as can be rounded up and then construct a gigantic wall along the US-Mexico border, regardless of the cost (which he plans to somehow pass on to the Mexican government). Ignoring the fact that he has presented no evidence or speculation about how he would get the Mexican government to pay for this massive construction project nor where the funds for the mass deportation initiative would come from. Trump is completely ignoring the vast evidence (which we have no way of knowing that he is even aware that this evidence exists, due to his apparent apathy towards evidence in general) that tells us that the most common way that people who end up in the US without legal documentation is by overstaying their legally obtained entry visas. Though it is important to note that this is fairly old data, but the Pew study this information comes from makes it clear that more than 40% are not crossing the Rio Grande. If the goal of Trump's immigration plan is anything more than to excite the xenophobic crypto-fascists (who have, in his view, too long been silenced in this country), we can assume the goal is a more secure state and a more open employment market for US laborers, a common neoliberal argument. More recent data suggests that there is currently a reverse migration wave occurring due to the downturn in the US economy, meaning that Mexican immigrants are leaving the US in greater numbers than are entering. Does Donald Trump know this? Does he care whether he knows?
In a related instance of epistemological bullshit, Donald Trump has continued to refuse to acknowledge that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. This is not mere lying, because we can't be sure that Trump neither knowingly believes that Obama isn't a Muslim nor do we have any evidence that Trump cares about whether it is true or false.
We can see this particular brand of bullshit in several recent events: James brings up Trumps earlier leadership of the "Birther" movement when Barack Obama was elected and even when he was running for re-election in 2012, but this tendency, while it has become a more subtle part of Trump's campaign, has not dissipated. When confronted by a supporter during a campaign rally who suggested that getting rid of Muslims was a crucially important issue and explicitly stating that the current President was one of those Muslims, Trump refused to correct the supporter. Trump has continued to refuse to state clearly that he knows Obama is not actually a Muslim.
More recently, Trump has taken multiple positions on a few issues, including abortion and transgender bathroom use. In a matter of forty-eight hours Trump changed his position on abortion at least three times. For most of his public life Trump has been pro-choice, but as he began to drift towards the precipice of reactionary politics, he drastically shifted his position suggesting that abortion should be made illegal and women who have abortions should be legally punished. Apparently he meant the doctors…apparently he meant that states should decide…apparently he has no ungodly idea what he thinks. He doesn't seem to care either, and more fantastically, neither do his millions of supporters-which includes one or two women I believe. On transgender bathroom use, he has also changed his tune, now saying that this issue should be resolved by the states.
Beyond Trump's proclivity for bullshit, he also evinces characteristics of James' asshole typology (something James explicitly states, though he focused narrowly on Trump's "moralizing" about Barack Obama's birth certificate, which makes sense because when the book was written Trump had not ascended to the GOP's top spot) (James 2012, 67).
Towards the beginning of his primary campaign Trump took the bold step of criticizing Senator John McCain's status as a war hero due to surviving as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, because as Trump says he "likes people who weren't captured…." There is certainly a smug superiority to this claim, especially coming from someone who has never served in the military. There was also a refusal to provide justifications-only the rationalization that he was kidding, but the basic premise was accurate.
After that lovely comment, Trump kicked Univision journalist Jorge Ramos out of a briefing because Ramos refused to be silenced by Trump's bloviating. Trump characterized Ramos as being overly-emotional, but kicking a reporter out of a press conference is nearly unheard of for a Presidential candidate. Trump never apologized nor did he say much beyond asserting his completely unjustified authority to remove reporters he doesn't like for whatever reason he wants. This is the epitome of unjustified entitlement and refusal to respond to the concerns of others.
Completely unsurprisingly this wasn't Trump's last contribution to his increasingly well-deserved label "asshole." During the August 7th republican primary debate Trump made a very gentlemanly reference to debate host Megyn Kelly's menstrual cycle with regard to her emotional state when asking him questions. He said "she had blood coming out of whatever." When asked about the clear implication of his comment, Trump accused anyone of thinking that he was talking about her being on her period as having a sick mind (Yan 2015). Again, he immunized himself from any criticism. These example provide evidence for the systematic requirements of James' typology. Trump seems to be the sociological asshole, par excellence.
In the most recent incident of Trump's egomania, in his GOP nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, regarding the many many problems facing America (which of course he wildly exaggerated), he claimed "I alone can fix it." While it very may well be in his power to solve the problems he has invented in his own mind and convinced millions of people are real, the kind of megalomania that is takes to assert that one can solve the problems alone is further evidence of Trump's well-earned asshole status.
These systematic episodes of completely unjustified elitism, condescension, and refusal to subject himself to the complaints of others (including his victims) and pervasive and outright refusal to engage in the now minimally popular practice of "being a good person," Trump evinces nearly all of the traits of James's various typologies of assholes (e.g., the boorish asshole, the smug asshole, the presidential asshole, the corporate asshole, the asshole boss, the self-aggrandizing asshole, and the category where James actually places Trump, "the self-aggrandizing asshole with a thin moral pretext")(James 2012, 37-67).
Why Should We Care About Bullshitting Assholes?
Why does any of this matter? Why does it matter that the nominee for one of the two major parties in the United States is a bullshitting asshole? After all, it is likely that "bullshitting asshole" is a socio-philosophical label that applies to many politicians, so why does it matter? It matters because these categories, however humorous it might be to write an entire essay with them, are politically dangerous and antithetical to democracy. Democracy, especially representative democracy-even one that doesn't work all that well for most people-requires some degree of interpersonal trust among the people and between the people and politicians. People listen when leaders speak, and if we come to realize that these leaders are assholes who don't care about the truth or their constituents, it can either breed apathy or resentment. Apathy or resentment towards the current system can either be turned into further apathy or it can be deployed for extreme political movements. While Occupy Wall Street was certainly a nascent positive example of this, the Tea Party or the recently emboldened Trump-supporting white supremacists (see David Duke) can hardly vouch the same credentials in regard to fighting against injustice. Bullshitting assholes in power are dangerous.
Maybe Trump is a fascist, but it seems to be more immediately problematic that even if he isn't, he's likely to be a very dangerous President (I'd need another whole article to detail the similar, though not identical, dangers of Hillary Rodham Clinton's risk to the poor in the US and around the world given her corporate neoliberal history as well as her hyper-militaristic foreign policy approach-but that's for another time and place).
Bullshit and assholeishness in political leaders are not conducive to democracy, whether we agree with Hardt and Negri (2012) that representation immediately and inherently separates the people from power, or we accept Chomsky's (2013) more moderate position that representation, when done properly, can produce a lot more justice and equality than we are used to at the moment. Chomsky's position is that effective representation can indeed make peoples' lives better while we wait for or work for revolutionary change like Hardt and Negri's autonomist revolution. Bullshitting assholes are a reflection of the ideological structures that undermine both reform and revolution by normalizing a corrupt notion of representation and mystifying the true relations of production and hierarchy that must be the target of revolution.
Thus from this admittedly crude analysis of an admittedly crude figure, there are insights for a twenty-first century democratic-socialist strategy. Combined with the rich resources of Critical Theory, democratic-socialist strategy must begin with a demystifying strategy in service of human emancipation. Furthermore, it must include the practice of pointing out who the bullshitting-assholes are as well as where they come from. While these are certainly pathologies; there's no reason to believe they are naturally occurring.
Capitalism and other instantiations of oppressive hierarchy like racism, sexism, heterosexism and others continue to exist primarily because most people fail to see their continued functioning (even as they experience them), and when they do acknowledge these oppressions, they locate those instances in individual behavior and not the social structure. While we can still focus on individual manifestations of bullshitting and assholeishness, we must also being to see them as structural characteristics as well: systemic bullshit and assholeish systems.
While we should be concerned about the social roots and political reproduction of these traits, we need to remember that for those of us that are even somewhat aware of these things: Individual behavior matters. Trump shows us that. Individuals matter, not because if we simply change a few people the world would be entirely different, but rather because in a hyperindividualistic society, even if we accept that solidarity-based collective action is the only avenue for systemic change, individual still need to decide to get involved (though this use of the term decision here is not to imply this is a choice made "outside" or "beyond" ideological social conditioning). Individuals are also sources of persuasion. They can inspire and drive mobilization. It is not just about us making our choice to get involved (or not), but also our capacity and indeed moral responsibility to persuade others to join us.
Additionally, scholars on the Left should be interested in individuals. In their social contexts, individuals provide avenues for critical scholars and social critics an opportunity to point to the social origins of individual behaviors and societal norms. Why is Trump an asshole? Why is he so full of shit? Why are politicians so often assholes? Why are they so often full of shit? What produces, and indeed encourages, incentivizes, and normalizes, these characteristics? What is the relationship between people who possess this characteristics and the social, economic, and political context from which they emerge and inhabit? What makes Trump, Trump, and why should we care so much?
What makes Trump well, Trump, is not that he is unique but rather that he is a caricature of the latent beliefs and urges that contemporary neoliberal capitalism encourages. Trump is the embodiment of the alienated cruelty, apathetic reified epistemology, and insulated self-centered elitism that characterizes a nearly purified form of a capitalistic mentality; a mentality that identifies success with being a bullshitting asshole who has a lot of money.
We live in world where being a bullshitting asshole is increasingly the norm, whether we're talking about Trump, Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian, or anyone on a show that begins with "Real Housewives of…"(not to say that these examples all fit this typology in identically egregious or dangerous ways). Maybe the past was just as bad for different reasons. Maybe it was exactly the same, but that is irrelevant. What matters is that we pick up our shovels and extricate the bullshit from our politics, and perhaps the shovel could even be useful to deal with the assholes too-though I think simply raising more compassionate people who are driven by more (or something completely other) than profit and fame would be more humane that pitchforks, torches, and shovels aimed at our plutocratic elites. A society long built on and by bullshit and assholes will not be just; nor will it be sustainable. We are thus left with a choice: we can either organize with and vote for (and probably be or become over time) bullshitting assholes or we can choose to care about truth, honesty, one another, and the world we inhabit-but it is impossible to do both.
The real problem is not that there are people like Trump who embody something akin to the Platonic Form or Weberian ideal-type of a bullshitting asshole, but rather that everyday people are increasingly encouraged to get closer and closer to that character-type, often times just to make a living (or so they are led to believe). Though Trump has yet to attempt to co-opt their music, Green Day may have preemptively written the best slogan for Trump's campaign: "Nice guys finish last [and most Mexicans are drug-smuggling rapists]." We need not-and should not-accept this conclusion. Let us hope and act in a way that moves the truth a bit closer to "Bullshitting assholes finish last." Whether there is or will be a dialectical moment soon where people notice, name, and reject the bullshit and the assholes and build a mass resistance to them and the systems that (re)produce them remains to be seen, but the continued normalization-and indeed glorification-of assholeishness and bullshit does not bode well for that goal.
Bryant William Sculos is a contributing writer with The Hampton Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at Florida International University, whose research uses Critical Theory as a basis to explore the relationship between capitalism, democracy, and global justice. His work has been published in New Political Science, Class, Race and Corporate Power, Political Studies Review, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, and New Politics. Bryant is also an at-large member of Socialist Alternative-CWI in the US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Frankfurt, Harry G. 1988. "On Bullshit" in The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
James, Aaron. 2012. Assholes: A Theory. New York: Doubleday.
Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. 2012. Declaration. New York: Argo Navis.
Chomsky, Noam. 2013. On Anarchism. New York. The New Press.
Though this article was written prior, while it was under revision, Fareed Zakaria released a brief editorial making the claim that Trump mirrored Harry Frankfurt's concept of "bullshit." His short analysis can be read here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-unbearable-stench-of-trumps-bs/2016/08/04/aa5d2798-5a6e-11e6-831d-0324760ca856_story.html?utm_term=.8db96bc6e9d0
In fact, James cites Frankfurt's essay on bullshit as an inspiration for writing a book about such a controversial and crude concept.