Donald Trump and the Rhetoric of Honest Lying

Just last week, Canadian country music artist Shania Twain gave an interview to The Guardian in which she praised Donald Trump’s honesty. “I would have voted for him,” she said, “because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want bullshit. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?”

Twain has since walked back her apparent endorsement Trump, saying she doesn’t share his values, but it’s notable that she did not take back her claim that he’s honest. As a scholar of rhetoric, I’ve studied and written about Trump’s rhetoric a considerable amount in the past few years. In particular, I’ve studied Trump’s lying, and Twain’s off-the-cuff comments about Trump’s honest are fascinating given how much of his lying there is to study.

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for a little over 15 months now. For most of that time, he or people in his administration have been under Federal investigation for various forms of lying, fraud, mistruth, and/or collusion.

Two of the country’s most respected journalistic outlets — The Washington Post and The New York Times — have felt compelled to publish long, comprehensive accounts of Trump’s personal lies. According to The Washington Post, Trump told more than 2000 “exaggerated, dubious or false claims” in his first year in office. That’s more than 5 lies per day in office, if you include days he didn’t make any public comments.

The man and his administration are ranked by a variety of outlets — left, right, and center — as one of the most untruthful presidents the United States has ever elected. And his Presidency extends a decades-long reputation for the same sort of strained relationship to truth. Which raises the question, how does Trump-the-proven-serial-liar still strike people like Shania Twain as authentic, transparent, and “honest”?

The study of rhetoric offers us some potential answers.

Two rhetorical concepts in particular help explain Shania Twain’s sense of Trump as honest and can actually help explain Trump’s reputation as a straight shooter more generally. One concept is hyperbole and the other is parrhēsia.

Hyperbole is a relatively familiar concept, but it’s important because it is a key ingredient to Trump’s “honesty.” Hyperbole is the intentional use of wildly exaggerated statements. Rather than say “I strongly dislike Jim,” for instance, someone might say, “I wouldn’t spit on Jim if he was on fire.” We generally do not believe that someone would sincerely watch Jim burn up without doing anything. But that’s the point of hyperbole — it is not supposed to be taken literally. The exaggeration is so over-the-top that it would be ridiculous to take it as serious.

To say something is hyperbolic isn’t the same as saying it’s untrue. Hyperbole is plainly a lie in some ways, but it also brings out the important emotional dimensions of a claim. “I dislike Jim” may be technically true, but “I wouldn’t spit on him if he was on fire” tells us a different kind of truth about the emotional depth of dislike.

Trump, of course, is a master of the best, most tremendous, yugest hyperbole. In The Art of the Deal, he even announces that “truthful hyperbole” is one of his signature forms of self-promotion. Since he entered politics, some of his allies have echoed this self-assessment, arguing that accusations about Trump’s lying are better described as truthfully hyperbolic.

Hyperbole doesn’t tell us the whole truth about Trump’s lying, though. For instance, it certainly explains some of his wild exaggerations of the truth, but it doesn’t explain his outright, obvious lies — about his wealth, for example. For this, a more useful rhetorical concept is parrhēsia (pronounced: par-rhay-see’-ah).

Parrhēsia is an Ancient Greek concept that means, roughly, “frank or fearless speech.”In general, rhetorical scholars agree that parrhēsia refers to speaking blunt truths to power even in the face of potentially serious consequences. A common example is a royal advisor speaking freely to the King, even if it could potentially result in the advisor’s torture or death.

There is something romantic about this notion of parrhēsia. Americans in particular seem to appreciate the underdog quality associated with speaking truth to power, and many of our most prominent celebrities, politicians, and journalists adopt the style of someone speaking hard truths to the King.

But in a democracy, parrhēsia actually refers to something slightly different.

In a democracy, the citizens are supposed to hold the majority of power because they vote. We don’t have a King. Ideally, elected officials are citizens’ representatives, not “leaders” in the royal sense. In America, and in democracies all over the world, then, parrhēsia refers to a person—a politician, celebrity, or journalist — speaking tough truths to citizens, even at the risk of facing negative consequences (like not being elected).

In short, parrhēsia requires (1) frank or candid speech, (2) risk or danger for the speaker, (3) an unwavering duty to society, and (4) the expression of fundamental truths. Taken together, these characteristics of parrhēsia signal the speaker’s virtue.

It’s tempting to ask if Trump is a parrhēsiastes — the person speaking truth to power — but that’s actually beside the point. The point is that people who exhibit the traits of a parrhēsiastes—frankness, fearlessness, duty, and deep truth—are often seen as particularly honest. And Trump seems to exhibit those traits, whether or not he actually is.

We might ask, what of the parrhēsiastes who is so often wrong?

This is where Trump represents an especially interesting combination of hyperbole and parrhēsia. His constant use of hyperbole makes him seem emotionally transparent — and maybe incapable of maintaining a lie, even in his own self-interest. He knows he’s not telling the factual truth, but he seems to be telling the kind of emotional truth associated with hyperbole.

And as a consequence, Trump appears to be a model parrhēsiastes who speaks hard truths because he can’t help himself. If he lies, it’s only because he’s trying to communicate some deeper truth than mere technical truth can convey. In Trump’s case, it doesn’t seem to matter for some people if what he says is factually true because he gives the impression that he speaks from an honest place.

In this way, parrhēsia — particularly in combination with hyperbole — can help explain why Trump is so persuasively “honest” to people like Shania Twain. And it also helps explain why pointing out Trump’s habitual deception doesn’t do much to convince his supporters (Canadian or otherwise) that he’s an irredeemable liar.

Ryan Skinnell is editor of Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump, published by Societas.

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