Cult of MAGA: The Crisis, The System, The Enemy and The Bullshit
Stephen Law unpicks Donald Trump's disregard for truth and what it reveals about the cult of Make America Great Again.
In The Art of The Deal, Trump claimed that the decorative tiles in the children's room at his Mar-a-Lago resort were made by Walt Disney personally. When Trump's butler asked him if that was really true, Trump replied, “Who cares?”
Trump is a bullshitter. Harry Frankfurt’s little classic On Bullshit points out that the liar and the honest person have at least something positive in common: a focus on the truth. The honest person says what they believe is true; the liar what they believe isn’t true. But bullshitter, says Frankfurt,
“…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.”
It is said we live in a ‘post-truth’ culture, and bullshit, in Frankfurt’s sense, is a part of that culture. Many accuse Trump of being a master of bullshit, casually firing off statements to self-aggrandise or manipulate, uninterested in whether or not they’re true.
While Frankfurt’s characterisation of bullshit is intriguing, I think it’s too narrow. A lot of what rightly gets called bullshit is propagated by folk who do care about truth. For the most part, believers in astrology, demons, guardian angels, or spiritualist communication aim to believe what’s true. To suggest that anti-vaxxer or Christian Science parents (who forego orthodox medical treatment in favour of prayer) don’t care about whether their belief is true seems absurd given that they are prepared to bet their child’s life on it.
So what about the Make America Great Again movement backing Trump? While Trump often seems uninterested in what’s true, I think his followers, for the most part, do care about truth. Yet I still consider the MAGA movement a kind of bullshit movement, alongside wacky conspiracy theories and religious cults. In order to understand why it’s a bullshit movement, we’ll need a more encompassing conception of bullshit than Frankfurt’s.
In my book Believing Bullshit: How Not To Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole, I outline eight key warning signs that we are imprisoned in a bullshit belief system. There’s no single common denominator when it comes to bullshit: different belief systems tick different boxes. But before getting into why MAGA is a bullshit movement, I want briefly to explore why our current political landscape provides such fertile soil for bullshit political movements to take root. I’ll focus on two key reasons, which I call The Crisis and The System.