The Audience for the "Pitch Perfect" Lie

by Michael C. Dorf

My Verdict column for this week continues my praise (begun on the blog here) for the UK Supreme Court's ruling last week invalidating PM Boris Johnson's recommendation to the Queen to prorogue Parliament. I defend the ruling against the charge that courts--whether in the US or the UK--oughtn't to get involved in politics by invoking the limits of the political question doctrine in the US and John Hart Ely's justification of judicial review on "representation reinforcing" grounds. The charge that judicial review is counter-majoritarian or, worse, undemocratic, rings hollow, Ely argued, when the courts intervene to ensure that the People have their say. That, I contend, is what the UK Supreme Court quite expressly did.

My column also points to the irony that the UK--one of the last bastions of legislative supremacy--would embrace full-throated representation reinforcing judicial review at a moment when its pioneer (the SCOTUS) is retreating from it in important respects. I draw a contrast between the prorogation ruling and the US Supreme Court's professed timidity and restraint in last Term's political gerrymandering case. I say "professed" timidity because there are grounds to question whether the current Court's true goal is to stay out of politics, rather than to keep the judicial branch from interfering in political chicanery that benefits Republicans.

That last note leads me to worry that the Supreme Court will prevent lower federal courts from assisting Congress in its current impeachment inquiry if the Trump administration and its allies stonewall, as Rudy Giuliani, Mike Pompeo, and others have already suggested they will. Should that happen, the chief force behind House efforts to investigate will be politics. And that brings me to today's question: If the courts do not assist in compelling responses to subpoenas for documents and testimony--and even if they do--how will the politics play out?

That is a multifaceted question, of course, and I have no crystal ball. Accordingly, rather than attempt to answer the question in all its dimensions, I want to focus on one aspect of the underlying politics: whether Trump and his minions can get away with their apparent strategy of denying the existence of the smoking gun--the readout of Trump's phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky.

In a devastating article in The Atlantic, Marty Lederman and Ben Wittes explain why the phone call readout--even standing alone--shows Trump to be utterly unfit to continue to hold office, having committed a textbook example of what Charles Black authoritatively identified as impeachable conduct, regardless of whether it violates the criminal law. And, of course, the readout of the Trump/Zelensky phone call does not stand alone. As Lederman and Wittes note, perhaps even more appalling than the initial conduct is the fact that Trump and his high-profile enablers like Lindsey Graham and Mike Pence even today insist that the call was innocuous, indeed, that it was, in Trump's phrase, "pitch perfect."

Lederman and Wittes make the case that the risk of a failure of sufficient numbers of Republicans to condemn (or worse, as with Graham and Pence, their active endorsement of) Trump's gross abuse of public power for private ends will be the normalization of Trumpian corruption. They write:
Trump’s public defense of his abuse of power here is a distinct problem quite different from the abuse itself, one that exacerbates the threat to our constitutional system. When vice pays no homage to virtue but is open and proud, it presents a special challenge to accepted morality. If one steals cash, hides it, and denies the theft, the act poses an enforcement problem. But if one steals cash and then, once caught red-handed, publicly defends the act as legitimate, that defense poses a challenge to the norm itself.
Here Lederman and Wittes have indeed identified a severe threat of corruption causing long-term damage to the republic. In defending his behavior, Trump and his apologists could be understood to be saying--to change the metaphor back--that yes indeed the gun is smoking but there's nothing wrong with committing murder. I suspect that Trump, who is, after all, an amoral ignoramus with no real appreciation for the rule of law, democracy, or even basic decency, may really believe that he did nothing wrong--just as he appears to really believe the self-contradictory CrowdStrike conspiracy theory that underwrote one of his illicit requests of Zelensky.

However, consider another possibility (which is not mutually exclusive of the sincere belief that there's nothing wrong with threatening to withhold military aid to a foreign country fighting for its survival in order to obtain dirt on a political opponent): Perhaps Trump called his conversation with Zelensky "perfect" because he rightly anticipates that the vast majority of voters have not read the readout, much less the whistleblower complaint.

One fairly widespread account of why the Ukraine call is getting more traction than the Mueller investigation's revelations did is that the readout and whistleblower complaint are much shorter than the Mueller report, so people have read them, whereas they didn't read the Mueller report. I think that's highly unlikely. I would be surprised if more than 5% of voters have read either the readout or the whistleblower report. By characterizing the Zelensky conversation as "pitch perfect" and "nothing wrong" when it so obviously shows Trump grossly abusing his official powers, he, Mike Pence, and others are counting on and exploiting general ignorance.

Does Trump partake of that same ignorance? Is he a sly manipulating duper or merely one of the duped? In my post on Friday of last week, I cautioned against conceiving of Trump as an evil genius, given that he believes the looney conspiracy theories that drive the most ignorant elements of his base. I stand by that analysis and caution. At the same time, however, we can see that Trump and his allies--whether intentionally or unwittingly--exploit his base's ignorance. The fact that so much of what Trump says can be easily disproved by anyone with a minimally open mind and an internet connection does not mean that the people Trump is trying to reach--who comprise a majority in a typical Republican primary--will look for any evidence that calls into question Trump's description of reality. They believe that Trump's phone call with Zelensky was "perfect" because what they know of it emanates from Trump and his most fawning supporters in the Fox-o-verse.

As for Trump's own internal mental state, just thinking about it is crazy-making. Perhaps the best we can do to try to make sense of a man who appears to simultaneously manipulate public opinion and fall prey to the very nonsense that is the stuff of his manipulations is that truth is unimportant to Trump. He's not a postmodernist. Rather, he's a bullshitter in the sense in which Harry Frankfurt defined the term in On Bullshit:
[An ardent Trump supporter] takes what [Trump] says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description . . . . He construes [Trump] as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet [Trump takes] no interest in whether what []he says is true or false. That is why [Trump] cannot be regarded as lying; for [Trump] does not presume that []he knows the truth, and therefore []he cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that []he presumes to be false: [Trump's] statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that [is] the essence of bullshit.
I want to be a bit cautious here and acknowledge that I don't think Trump is always bullshitting. Often, he's simply lying. What I am suggesting is that when Trump tells a seeming head scratcher of a lie, the kind of lie that is easily disproven and yet that he seems to believe, his belief state is not propositional. Trump is bad at many things, but he's good at bullshitting in the technical sense--at saying obviously false things without regard for their truth value.