Over the weekend, Donald Trump bragged in signature style that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Lefties are calling the statement a lie. But it is no such thing. In the typical case, a lie is a false statement made with the intention to deceive. In the typical case, one who lies knows the truth, but misrepresents it to his audience out of a desire to deceive them. But no one knows the truth-value of Trump's braggadocious conditional. It could be true, but neither Trump nor anyone else has any evidence of its truth. Although verifiable in principle, it is not practically verifiable.
When lefties call a statement a lie which is not a lie should we say that they are lying about what it is?
Was Trump exaggerating when he made his remark? That's not right either.
I think what we have here is a species of bullshit in the sense pinned down by a noted philosopher. According to Harry Frankfurt, a statement is bullshit if it is
. . . grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit." (emphasis added)
Professor Frankfurt has a fine nose for the essence of bullshit. The bullshitter is one who 'doesn't give a shit' about the truth value of what he is saying. He doesn't care how things stand with reality. The liar, by contrast, must care: he must know (or at least attempt to know) how things are if he is to have any chance of deceiving his audience. Think of it this way: the bullshitter doesn't care whether he gets things right or gets them wrong; the liar cares to get them right so he can deceive you about them.
Now if the bullshitter does not care about truth, what does he care about? He cares about himself, about making a certain impression. His aim is to (mis)represent himself as knowing what he does not know or more than he actually knows. Frankfurt again:
. . . bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing too is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong. (emphasis added)
When did the Age of Bullshit begin in American politics? Perhaps with the inauguration of Bill Clinton. But it really gets underway with Barack Obama. Obama is the shuck-and-jive precursor of Trump. So let's recall some of his antics.
As Frankfurt points out, the essence of bullshit is a lack of concern for truth. But truth and consistency are closely related notions. Two statements are consistent (inconsistent) just in case they can (cannot) both be true. Now I do not know if there are any cases of Obama contradicting himself synchronically (at a time), but there are plenty of examples of him contradicting himself diachronically. He said things as a senator the opposite of which he says now. Victor Davis Hanson supplies numerous examples in Obama as Chaos:
. . . when the president takes up a line of argument against his opponents, it cannot really be taken seriously — not just because it is usually not factual, but also because it always contradicts positions that Obama himself has taken earlier or things he has previously asserted. Whom to believe — Obama 1.0, Obama 2.0, or Obama 3.0?
When the president derides the idea of shutting down the government over the debt ceiling, we almost automatically assume that he himself tried to do just that when as a senator he voted against the Bush administration request in 2006, when the debt was about $6 trillion less than it is now.
The problem here is not merely logical; it is also ethical: the man is not truthful. Truth, falsity, consistency, inconsistency pertain to propositions, not persons. Truthfulness, deceitfulness, lack of concern for truth and consistency -- these are ethical attributes, properties of persons. Obama the bullshitter is an ethically defective president. When Nixon lied, he could be shamed by calling him on it. That is because he was brought up properly, to value truth and truthfulness. But the POMO Obama, like that "first black president" Bill Clinton, apparently can't be shamed. It's all bullshit and fakery and shuckin' and jivin'. There is no gravitas in these two 'black' presidents, the one wholly white, the other half-white. Everything's a 'narrative' -- good POMO word, that -- and the only question is whether the narrative works in the moment for political advantage. A narrative needn't be true to be a narrative, which is why the POMO types like it. Hanson has Obama's number:
But a third explanation is more likely. Obama simply couldn’t care less about what he says at any given moment, whether it is weighing in on the football name “Redskins” or the Travyon Martin trial. He is detached and unconcerned about the history of an issue, about which he is usually poorly informed. Raising the debt ceiling is an abstraction; all that matters is that when he is president it is a good thing and when he is opposing a president it is a bad one. Let aides sort out the chaos. Obamacare will lower premiums, not affect existing medical plans, and not require increased taxes; that all of the above are untrue matters nothing. Who could sort out the chaos?
[. . .]
The media, of course, accepts that what Obama says on any given day will contradict what he has said or done earlier, or will be an exaggeration or caricature of his opponents’ position, or simply be detached from reality. But in their daily calculus, that resulting chaos is minor in comparison to the symbolic meaning of Obama. He is, after all, both the nation’s first African-American president and our first left-wing progressive since Franklin Roosevelt.
In comparison with those two facts, no others really matter.