Trump & Truthful Hyperbole

In Art of the Deal Donald Trump calls one of his rhetorical tools “truthful hyperbole.” He both defends and praises it as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” As a promoter, Trump made extensive use of this technique. Now he is using it in his bid for President.

Hyperbole is an extravagant overstatement and it can be either positive or negative in character. When describing himself and his plans, Trump makes extensive use of positive hyperbole: he is the best and every plan of his is the best. He also makes extensive use of negative hyperbole—often to a degree that seems to cross over from exaggeration to fabrication. In any case, his concept of “truthful hyperbole” is well worth considering.

From a logical standpoint, “truthful hyperbole” is an impossibility. This is because hyperbole is, by definition, not true.  Hyperbole is not a merely a matter of using extreme language. After all, extreme language might accurately describe something. For example, describing Daesh as monstrous and evil would be spot on. Hyperbole is a matter of exaggeration that goes beyond the actual facts. For example, describing Donald Trump as monstrously evil would be hyperbole. As such, hyperbole is always untrue. Because of this, the phrase “truthful hyperbole” says the same thing as “accurate exaggeration”, which nicely reveals the problem.

Trump, a brilliant master of rhetoric, is right about the rhetorical value of hyperbole—it can have considerable psychological force. It, however, lacks logical force—it provides no logical reason to accept a claim. Trump also seems to be right in that there can be innocent exaggeration. I will now turn to the ethics of hyperbole.

Since hyperbole is by definition untrue, there are two main concerns. One is how far the hyperbole deviates from the truth. The other is whether the exaggeration is harmless or not. I will begin with consideration of the truth.

While a hyperbolic claim is necessarily untrue, it can deviate from the truth in varying degrees. As with fish stories, there does seem to be some moral wiggle room in regards to proximity to the truth. While there is no exact line (to require that would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy) that defines the exact boundary of morally acceptable exaggeration, some untruths go beyond that line. This line varies with the circumstances—the ethics of fish stories, for example, differs from the ethics of job interviews.

While hyperbole is untrue, it does have to have at least some anchor in the truth. If it does not, then it is not exaggeration but fabrication. This is the difference between being close to the truth and being completely untrue. Naturally, hyperbole can be mixed in with fabrication.

For example, if it is claimed that some people in America celebrated the terrorism of 9/11, then that is almost certainly true—there was surely at least one person who did this. If someone claims that dozens of people celebrated in public in America on 9/11 and this was shown on TV, then this might be an exaggeration (we do not know how many people in America celebrated) but it certainly includes a fabrication (the TV part). If it is claimed that hundreds did so, the exaggeration might be considerable—but it still contains a key fabrication. When the claim reaches thousands, the exaggeration might be extreme. Or it might not—thousands might have celebrated in secret. However, the claim that people were seen celebrating in public and video existed for Trump to see is false. So, his remarks might be an exaggeration, but they definitely contain fabrication. This could, of course, lead to a debate about the distinction between exaggeration and fabrication. For example, suppose that someone filmed himself celebrating on 9/11 and showed it to someone else. This could be “exaggerated” into the claim that thousands celebrated on video and people saw it. However, saying this is an exaggeration would seem to be an understatement. Fabrication would seem the far better fit in this hypothetical case.

One way to help determine the ethical boundaries of hyperbole is to consider the second concern, namely whether the hyperbole (untruth) is harmless or not. Trump is right to claim there can be innocent forms of exaggeration. This can be taken as exaggeration that is morally acceptable and can be used as a basis to distinguish such hyperbole from lying.

One realm in which exaggeration can be quite innocent is that of storytelling. Aristotle, in the Poetics, notes that “everyone tells a story with his own addition, knowing his hearers like it.” While a lover of truth Aristotle recognized the role of untruth in good storytelling, saying that “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.” The telling of tall tales that feature even extravagant extravagation is morally acceptable because the tales are intended to entertain—that is, the intention is good. In the case of exaggerating in stories to entertain the audience or a small bit of rhetorical “shine” to polish a point, the exaggeration is harmless—which ties back to the possibility that Trump sees himself as an entertainer and not an actual candidate.

In contrast, exaggerations that have a malign intent would be morally wrong. Exaggerations that are not intended to be harmful, yet prove to be so would also be problematic—but discussing the complexities of intent and consequences would take the essay to far afield.

The extent of the exaggeration would also be relevant here—the greater the exaggeration that is aimed at malign purposes or that has harmful consequences, the worse it would be morally. After all, if deviating from the truth is (generally) wrong, then deviating from it more would be worse. In the case of Trump’s claim about thousands of people celebrating on 9/11, this untruth feeds into fear, racism and religious intolerance. As such, it is not an innocent exaggeration, but a malign untruth.

 

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17 Comments.

  1. First, I like that you’re pointing out his technique, and how long he’s been using it.

    However, I think I might want to help you understand just how ancient this technique is in the west given our many-thousand-year-old culture of oath-making.

    You will notice rather quickly that traditional westerners rely upon exaggeration in order to make the point that “this small thing if done by all of us will lead to tragic consequences”. Conservative thought, which has its origins in the limits imposed by Anglo Saxon Oath that all men must give at maturity, meaning that men cannot say something false or misleading, but can make use of exaggeration to illustrate intertemporal effects of behavior. In other words use of hyperbole is no different from the use of Greek Fable, or Germanic Fairy Tale, or Shakespearian Drama, and no different from Michelangelo’s use of oversized hands, feet, and head, of his sculpture of David.

    The use of exaggeration to illustrate a fundamental truth, is very different from misleading. It is in fact an exceptional means of communicating moral principles: that which we permit of one, will result in this bad of many.

    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute
    Kiev, Ukraine

  2. Curt,

    Thanks. I do understand that hyperbole is ancient-I did quote Aristotle in the post. 🙂

  3. Doris Wrench Eisler

    As covered in this essay, content and consequences intended or otherwise determine the ethicality/morality of hyperbole use. Circumstances have a strong bearing: most of exaggerate occasionally to some degree and for various objectives, but hyperbole as part of court testimony would be gravely unethical. A prominent politician and presidential candidate should know that his use of hyperbole is unethical and dangerous when it tends to discredit and even criminalize a whole domestic minority. Especially when he well knows that prejudice already exists and can be easily inflamed. But if Trump genuinely doesn’t know what he has done, he is unfit for public office in a case of culpable naiveté. If he is aware and thinks he can get away with it, that’s a whole lot more malign but redundant.

  4. My bad mike. You are making the same point. (Making the rounds trying to counter this meme just as you are. Misjudged your post. I’m guilty. -cheers) 🙂

  5. Hyperbole in matters of fact is not truth. Even allowing for degrees of exaggeration it is always actually lying. Most people are taught that before they reach the age of seven. Used as a deliberate tool in political argument it is, as noted in comments on your first blog, a formal fallacy of ancient and quaint character. (Look up the meaning of ‘baculum’; no doubt someone will make an apt connection with Trump.)

    Any grain of truth in Trump’s arguments should be smothered with a large pinch of salt. If he resorts to hyperbole now, whatever damage will he cause if/when in office?

  6. “In Art of the Deal Donald Trump calls one of his rhetorical tools “truthful hyperbole.” He both defends and praises it as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” As a promoter, Trump made extensive use of this technique. Now he is using it in his bid for President”

    So, you’ve gotten around to that phenomenon of literature and philosophy, that is Trump’s The Art of the Deal. (it’s not an accident that the title bears a resemblance to PT Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting…the coincidence is no coincidence at all.)

    The unreliable narrator is a device in fiction. It’s where the narrator can be untrustworthy, and not as well behaved as narrators are classically expected to be. Knowing the narrator may be a little dishonest can make a text more interesting; the reader has to second guess what they’re being told; they have to fill out the gaps and make corrections. They settle into what they believe to be a consistent dishonesty. Then what can happen is the unreliable narrator can lay one on them that shows they were far more unreliable than first expected. Trump’s Truthful Hyperbole is one of those moments.

    There is one upside to the Truthful Hyperbole, is nothing he says can be taken to be true. And from his perspective, he can feign innocence. And that he has told you he is a liar, and you should take everything he has to say as lies, he is being truthful, though not in an conventional sense, but maybe as truthful as a liar can be.

    Theodore Cruz delights in lying too. Some of his tactics are very similar to Trump’s. He baits journalists with patent dishonesties, then if they fall for the bait, instead of responding to the substance of their questions he accuses them of attacking him; another example of liberal bias in the media. The only time he’s genuinely unnerved and defensive, is when questioned why he never, never ever never, speaks Spanish in public. (this is especially entertaining if his interlocutor looks like they’re about to break into Spanish) It’s not that he can’t speak Spanish; you can be sure he can speak it smooth as the devil. It’s that his greatest deception, has been to convince his base, that he is not a Latino.

    I hear Cruz may be vice president on Trump’s ticket. They’re like two characters from a western; frontier opportunists. Trump the snake oil salesman, and Cruz the well groomed lawyer/town mayor/unctuous pastor. If untruthful, they are authentic.

  7. Curt,

    Friendly fire can happen in any war, even the Meme Wars. 🙂

  8. Video of people cheering and dancin were shown on national T.V it was printed in the papers of the rejoicing. The fact of the way this ideology feels against the west and the very fact the horror was carried out along with Trump being vindicated several days later should blow holes in your theory

  9. Beyond Godwin’s Law | Theo-Logical - pingback on March 18, 2016 at 11:25 am
  10. Roger – Let’s see a link to that famously absent video.

  11. Mildred M Fischer

    Overactive liar–one after the other. Don’t be so stupid to believe the rhetoric that comes from this egotistical psychopathological trickster who touts his wealth and has delusional fantasies of being omnipotent and is obsessed with the grandiose and extravagant things of actions–such as building the wall on the southern border and having Mexico pay for it. That man can fool many of the People all the time, but some of the People cannot be snookered with Trump’s hooey.

  12. I must have missed everyone here’s best selling book. I love to listen to pseudo intellectuals claim they have the answer to Trump or have figure out his viewpoint. Like the article above these comments have proved to be pointless dribble and not worth the pixels they take up(including this comment). To coin a popular internet/societal phrase –You all are the Worst–Plato

  13. P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

    H.L. Mencken: “No one every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

    D. J. Trump: “Wow, what a business plan! It’s yuuge!”

  14. The Murder of Truth | Talking Philosophy - pingback on November 4, 2016 at 8:02 am
  15. There is a cult of shifting responsibility to false totems in this White House. It is led and directed by a President that refuses to accept blame or responsibility, feels constantly threatened, and engages in what he called in the “Art of the Deal” as “truthful hyperbole.”

    Think of the term “truthful hyperbole;” Trump states this is just “an innocent form of exaggeration.” It really is a rhetorical tool he uses to both spread disinformation (read…lies) and to try and deflect his audience’s attention from reality. In effect, to suck them into TrumpWorld, a wilderness of mirrors where alt truth from the alt right posit an alt reality.

    It’s a cheap negotiation trick, like the one where you tell a series of half-truths to get the marks to nod in agreement with you as you con them into signing up for that basement condo with a view. You only get about 30-40% of the marks to sign, but that’s enough to keep you going.

    With Trump the problem was he got elected, and the same “truthful hyperbole” that he habitually engages in does not work on the larger stage where you must govern. Unless you appoint people that are first class managers and visionaries (he has not in most cases) you get hoisted on the petard of your own lies.

    Long term use of this “truthful hyperbole” scheme leaves one with no appreciation for truth. It leaves them with a sense they can say anything and not be called out by their listeners. It degenerates into paranoiac behavior as fewer and fewer people are accepting of what the truth spinner is saying.

    At some point we all have to eat what we shoot. Trump has wounded, mangled, and killed the truth so often that it is almost impossible for him to dine at his own table. So it’s dirty for dirty time and again until he spins out.

    Good luck America. Make better choices.

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