When reading the news surrounding President Trump’s and many of his fellow Republicans’ efforts to discredit the 2020 presidential election results, Princeton University philosophy professor emeritus Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book, On Bullshit, jumps to mind. In Frankfurt’s telling, the bullshitter rejects the conceptual separation between falsehood and truth. As Dr. Richard Gunderman pointed out in a perceptive September 2020 review of On Bullshit, although the bullshitter “believes that it is not possible to distinguish the false from the true,” he still proceeds to make “assertions about the way things are.”
The Trump era of American politics has been teeming with such steaming bullshit, technically speaking. Mendacious tweets are sent forth and speeches riddled with mistruths are given. Some of these tweeters and speakers have come to convince themselves that the verity—or lack thereof—of their messages doesn’t matter. Objective truth and falsehood are no longer meaningful and distinct concepts in the minds of many. The President of the United States has been at the vanguard of this most unfortunate development.
As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch pointed out in a National Affairs essay in 2018, Donald Trump has reigned over “a national-level epistemic attack” on American political culture. He calls it “a systematic attack, emanating from the very highest reaches of power, on our collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.” Truth doesn’t matter. Nor do the typical processes for figuring out the truth of matters. Fight and showmanship are everything.
Which brings us to Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) and their recent announcements regarding the January 6th certification of the Electoral College results. Are Hawley and Cruz bullshitters, or not? And why does the answer to that question even matter?
Last Wednesday, Senator Hawley issued a statement regarding the Congress’s upcoming January 6th validation of the Electoral College results. In sum, Hawley will be voting against certification, as he captioned his tweet: “Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard. I will object on January 6 on their behalf.” Not to be outdone for their devotion to Trump, Cruz and ten other embarrassing Senators (and Senators-elect) released a statement on Saturday announcing their intention to vote against certification and their proposal for an Electoral Commission to investigate fraud. They do so for the same reasons cited by Hawley: Many Americans are concerned about fraud—concerns that leading figures like Trump, Hawley, and Cruz have manufactured and fomented themselves.
The obvious rebuttal here is that those millions of voters have already been heard. Indeed, they’ve been heard in our courts of law, where time and again, judges—including Trump appointees—rejected baseless claims of widespread electoral fraud. Mr. Hawley and Mr. Cruz know this. The Dispatch’s ever incisive David French tweeted in response to Hawley’s announcement: “This guy is no Tommy Tuberville (who has a shaky grasp on basic civics). He’s a constitutional lawyer who knows his objections are without any legal merit whatsoever. He has cynically stoked doubt then uses the doubt he stokes to justify yet another cynical, fruitless act.”
There’s the rub. Mr. Hawley is not a genuine bullshitter. Nor is Mr. Cruz. They know better. They still understand and recognize the existence of objective truth. The senators do not only have top-notch credentials (Yale and Harvard Law Schools, Supreme Court clerkships); they also are genuinely intelligent men. Both had successful careers as litigators before becoming state attorneys general and then U.S. Senators. Cruz was a masterful debater, and Hawley published a Yale University Press full-length biography of Teddy Roosevelt when he was only 28 years old. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy called Hawley’s book an “uncommonly incisive biography” of Roosevelt and “a signal scholarly accomplishment.”
Mr. Hawley and Mr. Cruz are quite capable of separating fact from fiction. They are not bullshit artists. So why are they pulling this 2020 election schtick? The obvious answer is that Senators Hawley and Cruz, like so much of the Republican Party these past four years, still lack the requisite courage to effectively stand up to Donald Trump and others’ incessant bullshit.
Fortunately, no matter what Senator Hawley, Senator Cruz, and the other spineless sycophants do on January 6th, President Trump will be citizen Trump come January 20th. As the Trump era fades, some bullshitters, in both parties, will remain on the political stage. But most of those still in Washington will be folks like Senators Hawley and Cruz, people who understand the concept (and the value) of truth but who have failed to stand up and speak up for truth due to political considerations and raw ambition. B.S. has not been the most common frame of discourse in Washington; a desire to enable and appease has. Why does this matter, and what ought it mean for the future of the GOP?
In the coming years, I hope to God that Americans do not politically reward those like Senator Hawley and Senator Cruz, who have proven spineless in the face of Trumpian B.S.-ridden onslaughts of misinformation. The Republican Party ought to elevate politicians who have been less willing than Hawley and Cruz to trumpet the President’s most dangerous and silly lies. People like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, and Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland come to mind. Even those like Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Mike Lee (R-UT), who have enabled certain aspects of Trump’s mendacity and depravity in the past, deserve plaudits and consideration for higher office for their stated willingness to stand up for the Constitution and truth on January 6th.
By all means, the GOP should learn the lessons of Trump, such as by thinking more critically about politically potent issues like immigration and the social alienation and economic decline that has been hampering lower- and working-class whites. But to be a self-respecting party once more, the GOP should elevate folks who have proven at least a little resistant to all the undemocratic B.S. these past few years.
Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz are making this move on January 6th for the sake of their respective political futures. It should instead be their political undoing.