Donald Trump rates high in polls on “tells it like it is.” And yet he seems to just make stuff up on the fly. How is this possible? Based on my extensive study of bullshit, I think I’ve got a handle on why: he’s a type of bullshitter we haven’t seen much of in America.
While liars say things they know are untrue, bullshitters say whatever they think will work best and have no interest in whether their statements are true or not.
My own version of bullshitter is different:
A bullshitter is a person who wastes the reader’s time with meaningless words.
Some people fit both definitions, some only one, some neither. Trump is a bullshitter in the Frankfurtian sense, but not in mine. And that’s why he’s so dangerous: he clearly and convincingly communicates without regard for the truth. He’s turned my communications principles to evil purposes.
The diagram below shows the four types of bullshitters based on these two definitions. In the short sections that follow, I analyze each one and describe what to do if you encounter one at work.
The Babbler: identify and avoid
Babblers don’t care about the truth and are lazy in how they express themselves: both Harry Frankfurt and I would call them bullshitters. Think of Dilbert’s Pointy-haired Boss — he has no idea what he is talking about and is happy to deploy jargon that he himself does not understand.
How to identify: They use lots of big words, but half the time, you have no idea what they’re saying.
Why they’re dangerous in authority: You can’t figure out what they want, since they don’t know themselves.
How to deal with them: Collaborating with a babbler will waste your time and hurt your career. If you can’t avoid them, respond to their bullshit with clarity, and document every communication with email.
The Demagogue: fact-check and fight with clarity
Demagogues like Donald Trump are true believers — in themselves. Frankfurt would call them bullshitters, but I’d call them skilled communicators (and I identified Trump’s batshit candor early on).
How to identify: You can tell exactly what they’re saying, but it doesn’t jibe with the facts.
Why they’re dangerous in authority: Demagogues are extremely convincing, since they communicate on an emotional level. They effectively manipulate people who aren’t diligent about facts.
How to deal with them: First, challenge factual errors — do not allow any lies to go unchallenged. Anyone going up against a demagogue needs equal skill in communicating without bullshit, which is one reason that Trump is going to give Hillary Clinton (and any ordinary politician, for that matter) a lot of trouble.
The Bamboozler: challenge with clear thinking
If you’ve met an unscrupulous salesperson, they’re probably a bamboozler. They embrace the old saying “If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit.” In other words, they effortlessly interchange lies and jargon to get what they want. Since they are out-and-out liars, Frankfurt would not call them bullshitters, but because they fool you with fuzzy language, I would.
How to identify: You feel like you’re about to get taken.
Why they’re dangerous in authority: Bamboozlers are the least dangerous of bullshitters, because you can usually see through their lies. If your organization has a leader like this, you are in an amoral company — quit, as soon as possible.
How to deal with them: Keep your guard up at all times, and just say no. Challenging a bamboozler is as pointless as punching a marshmallow — they’ll just absorb the challenge and keep lying. Annoy them enough and they’ll leave and bother someone else.
The Storyteller: tap their creativity
What do you call someone who lies, clearly and persuasively? A storyteller. So long as you don’t imagine them to be telling the truth, storytellers are entertaining. Neither Frankfurt nor I would call a person like this a bullshitter.
How to identify: They’re fascinating.
Why they’re dangerous in authority: Storytellers rarely get authority, since they’re transparent liars.
How to deal with them: Put them into a creative job, like advertising. But keep an eye on them, since you might have to remove the lies from their creative work before using it.