Out with the old

I watched Obama’s last press conference yesterday and was yet again struck by how calm, thoughtful, fair-minded, moderate, and intelligent he is. And what a very good president he has been.

The economy has recovered under his watch, adding 36,000 jobs per week over eight years. Financial markets have rebounded. He has limited our military adventurism. As he promised, he tried hard to close Gitmo. He presided over the successful raid that ended bin Laden. He can be forgiven for the crime of getting health insurance for 20-30 million people who didn’t have it before. He did all these things and many more in the face of absurd obstructionism and vilification

During the press conference, he repeated that the biggest threat we face is losing sight of who we are as a nation, gently chiding his republican critics who have eviscerated him for not being tougher on Putin, but who now, according to a recent poll, think Putin is more trustworthy and reliable than democrats.

The mercurial and petulant man-baby that will soon replace him is an entirely different animal. The new president will have the nuclear codes and the authority to unilaterally launch a strike at will.

According to Seth Baum, the executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, Trump’s election makes it more likely that humanity will perish in a catastrophic event of some kind, because his intentions are secret. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Baum said Trump’s “tendency toward erratic behavior, combined with a mix of difficult geopolitical challenges ahead, mean the probability of a nuclear launch order will be unusually high.”

It’s the “his intentions are secret” thing we need to worry about most. What Trump says does not actually reveal what he intends, which is the essential characteristic of “bullshit”. Trump is a classic example of a bullshitter.

In his seminal essay, “On Bullshit”, Harry Frankfurt distinguished bullshitters from liars. He said,

Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he 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’s going to be a tense four years. I predict Trump will do away with press conferences entirely, as he needs them no more than he needs daily security briefings. We will not have a chance to compare his performance under that difficult spotlight with that of Obama. He has said he will continue to communicate his thoughts via twitter, and this will have to suffice.

Every morning we will awake to something no one had foreseen. An angry response to a negative restaurant review, perhaps, or perhaps a tweet that ends the world.



One thought on “Out with the old”

  1. I listened to that press conference on the way home in the afternoon. It was striking in the way Obama spoke so clearly, without exaggeration or superlatives and no BS. I was also moved by the grace and brilliance of his mind and sad to consider that he will be history in 33 days at noon. One of the great men to ever have been President.


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