WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 19: (L-R) U.S. President Donald Trump, Microsoft CEO Stya Nadella and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos attend a meeting of the American Technology Council in the State Dining Room of the White House June 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Donald Trump went after the owner of the Washington Post last week, Jeff Bezos, who also just happens to be the main shareholder and CEO of the online retailing behemoth, Amazon. Bezos built Amazon from a minor online book seller into a major player in the U.S. retail market. In the process he became rich, among the richest people in the world with a level of wealth that makes our billionaire president, Donald Trump, look like a piker. Trump, himself, bragged during the 2016 presidential campaign that he was worth close to $10 billion but Forbes Magazine, an independent observer, estimated it at closer to $5 billion then and around $3.8 billion today (after losses on his retail real estate holdings due in large part to Amazon’s impact on brick and mortar stores).
Whether from envy of Bezos’ own success as measured by the vast wealth gap between them or because Bezos’ Washington Post has been a major critic of Trump’s presidency, the man in the Oval Office recently took to twitter to vent his spleen against the offending super billionaire’s main asset, Amazon. Inveighing against the Washington Post, Trump turned his fire on Amazon in terms of the deal it has with the United States Postal Service, an organization deep in the red because of legal requirements imposed on it by Congress despite the collapse of regular mail in the face of the email revolution.
The USPS has turned to package deliveries to make up some of its structural shortfall and Amazon is its major source of business, giving the online retailer negotiating clout with the USPS that smaller shippers lack and thus the ability to get better terms than its smaller competitors. Along with this advantage, Amazon long enjoyed the ability to sell items without charging local taxes the way a brick and mortar store has to do because it is located in the particular area where its patrons buy. Thus such sited stores must add the cost of local taxes to the price of goods sold while Amazon had long managed to avoid that, thus being able to undersell sited competitors.
In recent years that has changed however and it appears that Amazon now collects and pays state taxes in some 45 of American states, bowing to the political pressure from those jurisdictions (though more local jurisdiction sales taxes are probably still not as broadly collected, partly reflecting the complex logistics of doing that which all add to the costs of doing business). Nevertheless, ignoring such complexities and in a typical Trumpian lather over something (The Washington Post’s ongoing criticism of him and his administration most likely, given his twitterized linking of that to the Amazon issue), the alpha male president now occupying the Oval Office, attacked Amazon for getting too good a deal from the USPS and not paying its local taxes.
But it turns out that Trumpstore.com, the official Trump organization website, scores even worse in this department, “collects sales taxes only on goods shipped to two states — while Amazon collects sales taxes in 45 states” according to the Huffington Post. If so, it points up a high level of hypocrisy on the part of our president . . . or else a lack of knowledge concerning his own operations (not impossible given Trump’s tendency to eschew detail). On the other hand, it may also just reflect his lack of interest in the truth. At the least it suggests hypocrisy. A friend of mine noted that hypocrisy and lying are not so far apart, that the former is just a subcategory of the latter and so this must be seen as more evidence of Trumpian insincerity. But is hypocrisy lying? And is it as bad? There is no outright biblical prohibition that I know of on being hypocritical although much in the Biblical text would seem to frown on such behavior. At the least, the Ten Commandments (which aren’t even ten when you set out to actually try to count them — in some parts of the Bible they seem to include more but sometimes fewer than ten) don’t seem to contain an outright prohibition against being hypocritical. On the other that time honored listing of shalts and shalt nots doesn’t actually forbid lying per se either, only “bearing false witness” which means testifying against others, presumably in a venue in which one’s testimony ought to be true, not false (and thus a lie). So only certain instances of lying would seem to be off limits!
At the least, it would be hard to make a case, based on the “official” moral standards of the West, that Donald Trump, in attacking Amazon for not paying enough taxes should not be telling others to “do as I say, not as I do.” On the other hand, there is a clear and explicit prohibition against lying in normal human contact in the West (and, I would argue, in other human communities) that doesn’t rest on Biblical sanction and from that perspective, lying would seem to be something we should hold against anyone, including a president. While lying itself can be seen as a bad thing within the context of most if not all human cultures, however, being hypocritical, while it may sometimes involve lying to defend oneself against charges of hypocrisy, is not to actually lie in the usual sense of THAT term so maybe Mr. Trump is home free on that score?
Lying, speaking falsely with the intention to mislead one’s interlocutors, is best understood, in any case, as being forbidden by social “rule” which most (perhaps all) human societies share. But why is lying (or any other frowned upon act) wrong then, if it’s merely about social convention? What if we decide not to follow THAT convention? The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out that if everyone lies all the time we could not work together because we could never trust anyone and trust is necessary for community. A community of creatures like us, rational beings (because they make their decisions in a reasoned way) must therefore operate on the assumption that others are honest in what they say and this leads to the logical conclusion that lying is something to be eschewed — if not in every case (as Kant would have had it) then at least in most ordinary cases. If we cannot trust, we cannot work in tandem with others, a prerequisite for successful social organization. By definition, lying involves telling the truth even if doing so doesn’t seem to serve our best interests. After all, if we only had to tell the truth when it served our interests, no one would ever have to worry about whether he should lie or be honest in any given case.
But Trump seems to be an exception to this standard, at least in light of his personal history. He is someone who apparently lacks the usual recognition shared by most people that there is a rational dynamic which rejects the practice of telling lies. Why? Perhaps it goes to the question of truth itself. If truth-telling (the opposite of lying) is grounded in the expected effectiveness of what one says (as I think it is), if truth is a valuation we ascribe to statements about the world to reflect the degree of reliability we can place in them, then a man like Trump, who has learned that bullshitting is effective, at least in his case (because blustering and telling fibs gets him what he wants, even if he doesn’t quite grasp why) may simply see no need to worry about telling the truth. If people accept what he says by acting with the equivalent of belief in his words, because they want to rather than because they actually recognize a reliable relation between his words and the world — which seems to be what happens in Trump’s case (he seems able to sniff out the main desires of large numbers of people in order to play to them) — then he obtains the effect he wants (getting others to support him or act as he wants them to) without having to worry about expressing truthful statements. Thus a pragmatic account of truth as a function of sentential reliability explains Trump’s apparent success with lying despite Kant’s belief that lying is irrational. In Trump’s case it apparently isn’t.
Where others in society depend on being taken, by their fellows, for honest claimants, Donald Trump does not (and perhaps never had to) worry about that dimension of how others see him. Given the circumstances of his birth and upbringing, he seems never to have learned that sort of lesson and so has gotten by quite effectively on a currency of bullshit and bombast and so might well ask himself why should I start now?
The question, however, is how long he can continue to play this game at the pinnacle of American society where he is constantly in the public eye (which he loves in any case) AND is, at the same time, faced with various institutional pressures for at least some degree of truth-telling. ‘You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but,’ as the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln famously said, ‘you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.’
If President Trump has gotten by so far by at least fooling enough of the people all of the time (or so it seems) can that last? And will it? What happens to the Trump presidency if and when things go sufficiently awry in the world of real events and his cohort of willful believers begins to seriously contract? Trump’s presidency rests on a narrow plurality in a few states which gave him an electoral victory. How many can he afford to allow to peel off before that plurality is too narrow to support a presidency like his, which is increasingly embroiled in events he can no longer control? Can the Trump presidency maintain its equilibrium on an increasingly viscous foundation of rhetorical malarkey?
As Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller tightens the investigatory screws, as he is now doing, and crises around the world begin to wear on Americans’ patience, will those who have subscribed to his rhetorical excesses and truth bending continue to do so? They may love him today but will they still love him tomorrow?