Stop Fact-Checking Trump: He Feeds On Your Attention
Donald Trump is brash, outrageous, and unapologetically insulting. And, whatever you think about him, you must admit that he’s good at staying relevant. He’s so good at monopolizing public attention that I can’t stop myself from writing about him. I’d much rather publish about neuroscience, consciousness, or epigenetics (or all three at once). But Trump’s persona is an all-pervading memetic virus that infects anyone with a television or a connection to the internet. As much as I want to ignore and/or rail on the guy, I’m actually quite impressed by his unwavering commitment to staying in vogue. Having said all that, I’m not writing this article just as a commentary on Trump. Instead, I think that many media outlets completely miss the point about him and we owe it to ourselves, to Trump, and to his supporters to understand this point very clearly: feelings don’t care about your facts.
When we are presented with evidence that contradicts our beliefs our brains respond as if our physical safety is threatened
This is more than the inversion of a kitschy platitude (what Ben Shapiro often phrases as, “facts don’t care about your feelings”)— it’s a deep and somewhat disturbing truth about the relationship between reality and personal belief. I don’t want to dive into an epistemological rabbit hole (I’ll save that for future articles), so suffice it to say that no amount of evidence is guaranteed to convince someone that their beliefs are wrong. In fact, our brains respond as if our physical safety is threatened when we are presented with evidence that contradicts our beliefs. And this is particularly true when it comes to political beliefs. While this is interesting, it’s not really that surprising if you’ve ever gotten into an argument with someone about politics, morality, or religion.
The relationship between facts and beliefs is important because it is often vital to our survival; what we believe strongly informs how we behave, and how we behave determines how likely we are to survive. Believe you can fly and you’re unlikely to avoid steep cliffs and deadly falls. Believe you’re immune to poison and you won’t be saved by a healthy fear of snakes and spiders. Unfortunately, within the context of natural selection, this a huge problem for our relationship with facts. If our survival is dependent on our behavior and our behavior is dependent on our beliefs, then our naturally selected predispositions will have a very tenuous connection to the truth. In other words, evolution does not reward accurate perception. By definition, natural selection rewards perceptions that promote survival. And, while these two things may sound the same, survival utility and accuracy are not identical when it comes to perception. For example, visual illusions are powerful and straightforward evidence that humans have a strong tendency for our perceptions to be at odds with reality.
So what does this all have to do with Trump? Well, ever since 2015 I’ve seen hundreds, maybe even thousands, of articles and videos “fact-checking” Trump. As just a few examples:
— Flurry of Trump Falsehoods
— Trump’s speech on border ‘crisis’
— Trump’s Syrian mission-accomplished moment
— Trump just got fact-checked from space, again
—Foreign Interference And ‘Opposition Research’ Are Not The Same
— Trump makes at least 12 false claims with Italian President
— Fact-Checking 4 of Trump’s Claims About the Impeachment Inquiry
— After attacks by Turkey, Trump falsely claims Kurds in Syria are much safer
— President Trump’s claim that ‘when I came in, we had no ammunition’
The nine links above come from nine different sources, but all of these media outlets have the same goal: to call out Trump’s falsehoods. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is very important to keep a strong grip on a coherent and factual reality. But there’s something that makes the fact-checking approach extremely unhelpful: Trump has no intention of telling the truth. This doesn’t mean he goes out of his way to lie (although he might do that). Rather, his strategy and goals simply don’t depend on the veracity of his statements. Instead, Trump is a master of bullshit as defined by Harry Frankfurt in his book, On Bullshit. He writes (emphasis mine):
“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the [truth-teller] is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the [liar] defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth… he pays no attention to it at all.”
You may have heard about the metaphorical game that Harry Frankfurt is referring to here — Trump allies call it “4D chess.” While the vast majority of the anti-Trump resistance plays the game of truth or lies, Trump is playing the transcendent game of bullshit.
Both truth and lies fall subservient to power and persuasion in the game of bullshit. For this reason, a fact-check is an extremely valuable gift to Trump. It doesn’t even matter if what he said was true or false. What matters is that Trump and his statements get associated with the idea of facts. Fact-checks are like an unintentional sleight of hand trick — they draw our attention to a game that he’s not playing. And while we’re focused on sorting out the facts from the falsehoods he continues to make his moves on a completely different playing field. Trump supporters are thoroughly aware of this strategy, which is why they often describe Trumps behavior as “trolling” — a provocative tactic meant to provoke a response or make oneself the topic of conversation.
It’s so easy to get distracted by Trump’s provocations or blatant disregard for the truth. But it’s important to remember that he’s not lying, he’s bullshitting. Every time a publication puts out a fact-check they’re doing two very unhelpful things: 1) allowing Trump to make himself the topic of conversation, and 2) suggesting that Trump is a liar. And, as I described earlier, evidence that runs contrary to our beliefs (especially political beliefs) is often perceived threateningly. So these fact-checks aren’t going to change anyone’s minds — they are likely to make people dig in their heels. Trump allies will see the evidence of his lies as contrary to their beliefs and support him even more, while the anti-Trump resistance will be validated in their evaluation that he is a perpetual liar.
Yes, the majority of Trump’s statements are falsehoods and he certainly does tell lies. But it is clear that much of what he says is more bullshit than untruth. And just like natural selection rewards the utility of perception over its accuracy, bullshit seeks out power at the expense of reality. As a bullshitter, Trump is looking to take control. And there’s no better way of doing that than bullshit. As Pete Buttigieg says,
“It’s a very effective way to command the attention of the media… We need to make sure that we’re changing the channel from this show that he’s created… It’s mesmerizing; it’s hard for anybody to look away.”
Trump may be mesmerizing, entertaining, and attention-grabbing, but it’s time for us to move past the truth-value of his statements and try to focus on more pragmatic things. Maybe you support him, or maybe you think he’s the devil. Either way, do you really want him to fail at the expense of other people? Maybe its possible to bullshit our way to a more prosperous and civil society, but we’ll never know for sure if we continually fact-check every piece of bullshit that comes out of Trump’s mouth.