Truthful Hyperbole

Some 62 million people believed the promises of Donald Trump. As a result, he is now our President. For those who took his words literally, his fabrications, exaggerations, and lies seemed disqualifying. So why did so many citizens vote for him? Well, I may have an answer. In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump explained his personal formula for success. He claimed to be a purveyor of fantasies: a self-styled promoter capable of creating any storyline that could win support for his interest. But he never considered himself a liar. For him, closing the deal on his terms justified whatever fantasy or artful untruth he might concoct. “People,” he felt, “want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.” I question whether his use of hyperbole was truthful. But his supporters called it “not politically correct.” They did not equate his “shtick” with what other politicians have done in the past, that is, simply to tell voters what they wanted to hear. No, he spoke to their hearts and did so with more pizazz than the other candidates. In fact, the press, political opponents, and much of the country totally underestimated the self-promotion talent of this man. At every turn, he deflected the press from his preposterous hyperboles, artfully reframing any critique into one of his self-serving fantasies and often turning the focus on his opponents’ alleged weaknesses or personal flaws.

Sometimes his so-called “counter punches” were less a response to criticism than an attempt to create a false equivalency in misbehavior. For example, he could almost make his bankruptcies and questionable financial dealings disappear by focusing attention on his opponent’s alleged “pay for play” or mishandling of classified documents. Underneath these allegations was a disregard for the facts: his opponent never benefited financially when an associate contributed to a charitable foundation; and, although use of a private server was against the security protocols of the Administration, there was never any intent to divulge classified documents. While demeaning his critics and rivals, he was loudly promoting his vision to save America from its failings, many of which were outlandishly exaggerated. The fantasy he created was that only he could save America from a poorly run government and from the dangers of bad trade deals, foreign Muslim terrorists, and undocumented immigrants. He successfully captured every news cycle with his reframing, deflections, attacks, and his fantastical world view of a declining America on the precipice of collapse. Truly, his performance was awesome. His supporters did not accept the claim of his adversaries that they were being duped. Quite the contrary, they accepted his kabuki-like performance as a plausible way to disrupt the navel watching of a gridlocked government and its failure to appease their fears and address their needs.

In his first press conference, the President confessed “I guess I am a politician now.” Actually, he surpassed the politicians he so readily demeaned: “I give them money and they do what I want . . . I own them.” Now he can keep his money and engineer whatever change he wants with the stroke of a pen. Even the disruption he has brought to his first month in office is a sign of his success. Millions of Americans are pleased to see the “establishment” so shaken by his tweets, his appointments, and his executive orders. But millions more are seriously concerned by what he has set in motion: the deconstruction of government institutions dedicated to our general welfare; and his unsettling allusions to a withdrawal of America from the world order it has worked so hard to establish and lead. How has he become such a focal point of this division in our society and of concern amongst our allies? I think part of the answer rests with his “truthful hyperbole.” It is not possible to articulate any sensible strategy based upon exaggerated and/or inaccurate premises. Any salesman or self-promoter can win a sale or gain trust with a good pitch, however disassociated from reality. But it is not possible to develop a successful strategy to create good paying jobs or reduce crime by deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. Most of these immigrants work in the agricultural and domestic sectors where their low wages provide a bare subsistence for their families. They, like many immigrants before them, take the jobs most Americans shun and, as studies indicate, stay clear of the law and possible deportation. So any strategy to save American jobs or decrease crime by deporting undocumented immigrants is aimless. It has no chance of achieving its objectives.

Likewise, banning Syrian refugees in order to protect Americans from terrorists is another aimless strategy. No Syrian has ever been involved in any terrorist action against America—in fact, no foreign national has been so involved since 911. Moreover, the multi-year vetting of immigrants is designed to assure that these refugees present no danger to Americans. In fact, they are merely trying to escape the horrors of persecution and war. The problem with these strategies is that they are justified by “truthful hyperboles,” which, like “alternative facts,” are simply falsehoods. Worse, however self-characterized, they are unadulterated lies. If the President is successful in deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and closing our borders to Syrian refugees, he will indeed fulfill campaign promises. But he will have also added immeasurably to the misery of immigrant and refugee families—fellow human beings who present no more danger to us than other Americans.

Refugees and immigrants are not the only victims of the President’s policies. American jobs and quality of life will also suffer. He seems to believe the future of energy is in coal, oil, and gas exploration and not in pursuit of renewables. He is willing to pollute our air and water to make us independent of foreign oil. But he ignores the fact that renewable energy is one of the fastest growing industries in America. Solar energy has already reached a price point that is competitive with energy produced from hydrocarbons. My home, for example, is powered 100% by renewable energy sources; and my monthly energy bill is actually less than it was before I converted from hydrocarbons. If the President merely took the lead of his predecessor who enabled the tripling of solar energy production during his term, President Trump could move us much closer to energy independence without the pitfalls of pollution.

His further justification for the path he has chosen is another “truthful hyperbole.” He says he “will bring back jobs” to oil and gas producers and, most especially, to the collapsing coal industry. But it is the price of oil that triggers exploration and increased production. If America increased production, it could create a glut in the market, forcing a fall in oil prices and a drop in production. Recently, as the oil market has recovered from an historic low point, fewer than expected jobs were created; for the resources to turn up the spigot were already in place. Although the energy market has contributed greatly to job growth since the Great Recession, its volatility makes it an unreliable anchor for any job growth strategy. And the 12,000 coal miners currently out of work are dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands of workers now employed in the renewable energy industries. For example, California has over 500,000 people employed in its renewable energy infrastructure, of which solar is an ever-growing part. The President’s energy strategy will not create the number of jobs he promised. Besides, reprising the past at the expense of our future is not a worthwhile strategy.

In the President’s usage, “truthful hyperbole” is literally an oxymoron. Moreover, the way in which the President lavishly articulates it in tweets and demagoguery is as problematic as the term itself. When hyperbole inserts falsehoods into the public discourse, discord is sure to follow as truth struggles to free itself from misrepresentation. The President’s offensive tweets or press conference rebukes will only serve to heat up those struggles. The only truth here is that his strategies for making America great again are based upon false premises. Not even the verbal art of a huckster or the glitz of high office can bury that truth for long. But in the meantime our democracy may suffer. I felt the same way two years ago when I raised the same concern with respect to our legislators (reference “Words Have Meaning”). The use of provocative language without regard for the truth debases the public forum, demeaning both America and its citizens.

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