In his 1987 comedy film, “Raw,” Eddie Murphy jokes about an argument with fellow comedian Bill Cosby about Murphy’s use of profanity. According to Murphy, Cosby’s son Ennis watched Murphy’s stand-up special and told his dad of Murphy’s foul language. Ennis was a fan; Cosby was not. Being an elder statesman in business, Cosby called Murphy to express his outrage at Murphy’s cursing ― what Cosby called, in Murphy’s elaborate recounting of it, “filth, flarn, filth, flarn filth!”
Eddie Murphy was offended. He had managed to “put some jokes between the curses” he argued. No audience would pay for a “curse show,” where a comedian walks out on stage, drops some profanity, grabs his crotch, then collects a check. To focus on Murphy’s foul language was to miss his command of the craft and the relationship a comedian cultivates with the audience, he said.
The same is true of Donald Trump and lying. Yes, he lies ― constantly, badly and ridiculously ― but the assembled lies create a whole that is greater and more awe-inspiring than the parts. Massive lies for mass audiences are a tool of what author and political scientist Corey Robin calls “reactionary populism.” He writes in “The Reactionary Mind”: “From revolutions, conservatives also develop a taste and talent for the masses, mobilizing the street for spectacular displays of power while making certain power is never truly shared or redistributed. That is the task of right-wing populism: to appeal to the mass without disrupting the power of elites or, more precisely, to harness the energy of the mass in order to reinforce or restore the power of elites.”
The grand lie is necessary, not just to preserve the fiction, but to protect the profits. But how do we confront it?
Consider some of Trump’s most flagrant lies: that the “real” unemployment rate is 42 percent, not 4.9 percent; that inner-city crime is reaching “record levels”; that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese; that he witnessed thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers; that millions voted illegally in the last presidential election; and that the Obama administration was supporting al Qaeda in Iraq.
“Lies” doesn’t quite capture the distance between these statements and truth. Staid, boring, newspaper language has gotten editors tied up in knots. What do you call a lie that causes you to pause and rewind? What do you call a claim that is so patently and verifiably false that you feel insulted for even being expected to debate it? What do you call a sudden shift in position that demands that you ignore both your “lying eyes” and the official record? “Brazen dishonesty” does not quite do it. Neither does saying that he goes “beyond lying.” It’s not even “bullshit,” which is a lie thrown off carelessly, with no power dynamic at play.
Hip-hop has a better word for it: fuckery.
From George Orwell To Mitch McConnell
Fuckery is ascendant in our time, and while Trump is not its inventor, he is its most effective practitioner at the moment. The urban dictionary defines fuckery as “absolute bullshit; utter nonsense; something rather suspicious that can bring forth uneasy, angry and irritated feelings.” It’s a lie that is told, not just to achieve an objective, but to demonstrate the power of the person telling the lie relative to those affected by it. Fuckery creates a wall between the person or group telling the lie and the people hearing it. Fuckery throws down a gauntlet: It is too big to ignore, yet so absurd that it promises to debase anybody who grapples with it. It makes a mockery of the very idea of truth.
Thanks to writers like George Orwell, we are usually on the lookout for political language that says one thing, but implies another. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” hence the need for euphemisms, “question begging” and what he calls “sheer cloudy vagueness”. Fuckery reinterprets Orwell and defends the indefensible in the least-imaginative way possible. Why? Because the audacious lie creates the “spectacular display of power.” The speaker is so powerful he doesn’t need to bullshit.
Trump is not the only practitioner. Consider Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) obstruction of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland. For McConnell and other Republicans to completely block the confirmation process was outrageous. McConnell’s claim that he obstructed so that the “American people have a voice” is ridiculous. But for McConnell to say that the American people won’t tolerate Democrats obstructing Trump while he is currently obstructing Obama is pure fuckery.
Newt Gingrich is another serial offender. In the summer of 2016, he suggested that America recreate the controversial and discredited House Un-American Activities Committee to monitor potential terrorists. Orwellian doublespeak would require that the organization get a new name, a spruced-up image, and a vague mandate, while essentially performing the same old duties. But the rules of fuckery say no, that does not demonstrate power. So, the McCarthyite institution gets the same McCarthyite name and you are dared to challenge it.
While the Orwellian villain buries the lie, the purveyor of fuckery performs it grandly, extravagantly, and “bigly.” And then tells you he said “big league.” The performance is in pursuit of what they deem some greater truth.
The Tragedy And The Swamp
In his 1872 book, “The Birth of Tragedy,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes about this performance in pursuit of some higher truth or “reality.” “The Birth of Tragedy” is a kind of post-mortem examination of Greek tragedy that accuses a number of people and perspectives of killing the genre with their emphasis on logic and rationalism at the expense of a more spiritual collective experience. Nietzsche argues that the forces that Greek tragedy explored ― fate, tragic flaws, capricious gods ― were too vast for intellect or achievements to overcome, so through performance, the spectator and the actors confronted them as one, almost like a religious revival. They created what Nietzsche calls a “living wall” against the forces of evil and rationality.
Tragedy’s “living wall” is fuckery’s phalanx. Rather than a growing and inclusive experience, it demands confrontation or concession. There can be no compromise.
Fuckery borrows from tragedy in another way that distracts from this need for confrontation. Aristotle outlined the elements and rules of tragedy back in the fourth century B.C., arguing that there were six main elements. In order of importance, they are plot, character, diction, thought, melody, and spectacle. Plot is the “life and soul of tragedy,” according to Aristotle. The other elements contribute in important ways, but for Aristotle, “plot is the end and purpose of tragedy” and spectacle is “the least artistic of all the parts.” Fuckery flips this hierarchy.
In fuckery, plot becomes marginal and malleable, while spectacle is grandiose and “big league.” This makes it perfectly reasonable for Trump to flout nepotism laws, after running as a reform candidate. There is no contradiction between Trump’s claim that he is independent and does not owe anyone any favors and the reality that he is hundreds of millions in debt. Nothing wrong with draining the swamp of one set of millionaires and replacing them the richest, most well-connected Cabinet in history. Those are all elements of plot that can be dismissed. What matters is the ‘yuge-ness’ of it all: the pageantry, the size of the crowds, the shock and awe. Fuckery reverses Obama’s maxim of “audacity of hope” and finds hope in audacity itself.
To our detriment, the public’s fixation on the spectacle of Trump distracts from the underlying plot. Trump should not be given credit for his “refreshing” use of Twitter, as a recent New York Times piece argued. Ivanka Trump’s belief in climate change does not change the fact that Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, does not, or that Trump called climate change a “hoax invented by the Chinese.” Meeting with comedian Steve Harvey cannot compensate for Ben Carson’s lack of experience in Housing and Urban Development.
These make for interesting memes or headlines, but they are just part of the show. What are the stakes for a Dreamer facing deportation based on information they provided for their college application? What does it mean to live in a community deemed a war zone by the current administration? These are the kinds of questions that must be asked, because they help to illustrate the true stakes. The spectacle of the president lying about dress sales can easily distract from this.
A Mockable Offense
The power of Trump’s fuckery will be boosted by his ascension to the Oval Office, given that a key driver of the effectiveness of fuckery is the power of its propagator. In this sense, a political establishment that normalizes his fuckery out of “respect for the office” ultimately demeans it. The office of president has a number of expectations and requirements that Trump seems unwilling and unable to meet. Highlighting the shortcomings of the man doesn’t diminish the office. Removing those expectations does.
Fuckery is a capital offense in hip-hop. Artists, labels and hangers-on get away with all kinds of things they shouldn’t, but there is no spectacle large enough, no “establishment” legitimate enough, and no fan important enough to defend fuckery once it’s been identified. The past is not past, it is prologue in hip-hop, so overnight conversions are viewed with extreme skepticism. An artist that transforms into a gangster overnight like Hammer in 1994 or Ray J in 2011 is mocked and dismissed unless they can provide some extraordinary evidence to support their extraordinary claims.
Also, standards are not adjusted to accommodate those in power, so when Ray Benzino’s group Made Men received an extraordinarily coveted 4.5 mics rating from The Source for their debut album, putting it on par with Biggie Small’s “Ready to Die” and higher than Jay Z’s “Reasonable Doubt,” fans immediately called bullshit. But it was more than bullshit. It was fuckery, because Benzino was known to have close ties to the magazine, which explained why the album received the rating. Fans trusted their “lying eyes” ― or ears ― and The Source’s credibility took a hit. Standards remained high. Made Men was not normalized. And fans that defend wack music are still judged accordingly. We need to take the same approach to voters.
The Source took a hit because it committed a mockable offense ― and was mocked. It was not, however, “fact checked.” That would have given Made Men’s 4.5 mic rating an air of legitimacy. And when Trump tweets that interest in his inauguration is so big league that Washington has sold out of dresses, he should also be mocked.
Instead, the media makes a mockery of itself by by calling Lord & Taylor and inquiring as to whether they still have dresses. (The shocking finding: They do.) When Trump claimed he could never have participated in a golden shower ritual with Moscow prostitutes because he is a “germaphobe,” the media fact-checked the claim by noting that urine is, in fact, sterile, followed by fact-checks of the fact-checks, noting that urine may be sterile in the bladder, but isn’t by the time it flows out. By engaging with this fuckery, the media is instead pissing all over itself.