Taking Back Hyperbole from Trump: “Truthful Hyperbole” is Hyperbolic Projection
While the never-ending debate about whether Trump is a compulsive eight-year-old with a Twitter account or a diabolical media operator rages on, perhaps another focus ought simply to be on his tactics, and how to respond. One of those tactics involves what, in The Art of the Deal, he notoriously called “truthful hyperbole,” which “play[s] to people’s fantasies” and impresses those who “may not always think big themselves.”[i] The assumption here is that your life is bad: think of how much bigger it could be if you win huge at my casino, or how “great” America could be “again.” But such hyperbole—in its actual usage on Trump’s political stage—is couched less in fantasy than in a much more negative, toxic tactic: projection.
Projection, of course, is a term that has been popularized by psychology, in which it is a symptom of narcissism. It works something like this: I’m cheating on my girlfriend, but because nothing can be my fault, I “project” my guilt onto her. Impulsively, I suspect that she is cheating on me: I read her emails, interrogate her, and “trump up” aspects of her behavior. If she accuses me, I have already raised lots of false suspicion, which makes it easy to deflect attention from me onto her. What’s important here is that by means of the negativity of taking what I’m doing and “projecting” it, I achieve a stalemate.
Whether it’s compulsive or diabolical, projection has probably become second nature for Trump from years of practice. According to Trump Revealed, back when he was being sued by the Justice Department for “refusing to rent and negotiate rentals with blacks,” he met Roy Cohn, who urged him to counter sue. Cohn’s tactic: “when attacked, counterattack with overwhelming force.”[ii] The Justice Department had accused Trump of discrimination, so he would accuse them of defamation, which is to say, discrimination against him (because he’s being treated “unfairly”). Furthermore, Trump’s accusations would be even more “big league”: Cohn claimed that the government was “conducting a ‘Gestapo-like interrogation.’” The result was a settlement.
The constant examples of Trump’s projections are well-known, and it’s the hyperbole that often amplifies them. Unlike “whataboutism,” which dilutes an accusation by claiming that everybody’s doing it, what could be called hyperbolic projection shifts an accusation onto the particular person or groups producing it, and bigly. Trump’s braggadocious rubber is everyone else’s glue: critiques – for instance, of his mental fitness – bounce off him (“a very stable genius”) and stick hugely to you (“Sloppy Steve” has “lost his mind”). It’s easy to forget, for instance, that during the election, when Hillary drew attention to his nefarious business practices (like Trump University), for which he was under investigation, he said of Hillary that “everything is a scam, like grifters.” His self-aggrandizement is best achieved when someone is made guilty of his faults, rendering any given opponent the “absolute worst,” “a total disaster,” with “no ideas.” And when it comes to the future, his hyperbolic projections often exceed experience (“the likes of which the world has never seen before”).
Perhaps the most damaging example of hyperbolic projection in 2017 began when it became clear that the electorate had been influenced by fake news stories on social media. When this cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the election, Trump counter-attacked, co-opting the “fake news” slogan. Rather than referring to actually fabricated stories, all anti-Trump news simply became the “most dishonest coverage,” a “total waste of time,” and we began asking whether “truth is dead.” Trump arguably achieved a stalemate with the entire media.
When “truthful hyperbole” projects statements back onto the very sources that produce truthful narratives (whether the reporting of facts or their interpretations), we encounter the concern that has emerged about the status of truth: is Trumpism a form of postmodernism? It is perhaps Nietzsche, largely responsible for postmodernism and for creating new forms of hyperbole, to whom we can first look.
In response to Trumpism, some have claimed that Nietzsche’s “perspectivism is not a relativism” but an affirmation that objectivity resides in the diversity of affects and perspectives; others have claimed that Trumpism is just an inadvertently “bad impersonation” of misunderstood postmodernism. An article by Casey Williams claimed that Trump has hijacked and “weaponized” the postmodern playbook: when Kelly Anne Conway’s “alternative facts” replace actual facts, then “making truth means exercising power.” Williams argues that the solution is to be critical of “how and why [a statement] was made” and of why it might “feel true,” highlighting the critical uses of postmodern theory. As many have shown, however, the claim that interpretations implicate facts is itself an interpretation; at the same time, “fact checking” is not by itself an effective strategy. In both cases, critique brings us to an impasse.
Even Nietzsche, though, never argued that referential descriptions (or “valid designations”) have no function[iii]: if someone who is poor claims to be rich, Nietzsche would say that person is misusing “fixed conventions” for potentially “selfish” or “harmful” purposes that may threaten our “life-preserving” impulses (even if Nietzsche is wary of such a “pleasant” impulse).[iv] In other words, that person is lying in order to gain some advantage. It’s our explanation of truths, which expresses their coherent meaning and value, that is “poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.”[v] In short, there are facts (e.g. “counting” and “calculating,” most often associated with science), but they have no meaning until they are “interpreted” – that is, inevitably saturated by poetic and rhetorical embellishment. Presuming that a bare fact has meaning is actually “the stupidest of all possible interpretations of the world.”[vi]
With that in mind, maybe the focus ought to be on reclaiming hyperbole from projection, since it is the negativity and deceit of projection that is harmful. But what is hyperbole, really? Hyperbole takes something invisible, unappreciated, or nuanced and amplifies it so that we notice and care about it. It steps beyond literal truth, but in the way that all figurative language doesn’t say what it means (e.g., “my love” is not literally a “red red rose”). It serves to embellish; it is often pithy, but impactful because of extremes of scale. It is the linguistic equivalent of wanting to be more than it is.
Hyperbole has a rich history of drawing attention to the unseen. When Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” he uses hyperbole to call attention to the faith of the poor. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space,” he accentuates the self-sufficiency of his troubled mind. When Nietzsche writes that we must bear the “heaviest weight” of living each moment “innumerable times again,” he urges us to appreciate and affirm the novelty of every second of life. Such parabolic, poetic, and aphoristic occurrences of hyperbole are not inherently malicious.
Trump’s hyperbolic projections, however, inflate his greatness to a degree proportional to the worthlessness of his enemies whom he has “counter-attacked.” This inverse correlation takes many forms. He may project his putative faults onto others to alter public perception, exaggerating a lie (his state of the union had the “highest number [of viewers] in history”). Other times, he’ll distort by premising a hyperbolic claim in an already embellished fact that “feels true,” but only to inflate his importance: for instance, if the economy is doing well in some respects (e.g., a lower black unemployment rate), Trump will claim that it’s the best it’s ever been, then claim that it’s so because he, and not some other “worthless” president, is in charge. Even Trump’s America, with its rigged system, can only be great again if it is awful now, and because Trump “alone can fix it.” In the logic of Trumpian hyperbole, the only thing that is insufficiently seen or appreciated—that can justify hyperbole—is Trump.
Perhaps it is the case, then, that Trump’s apparent appropriation of postmodernist insights can be seen through the lens of his hyperbolic projection: it was only by making an enemy of the media itself that Trump could project his own shortcomings and faults onto the sources that make those shortcomings apparent. Trump may not be a diabolical postmodern genius, but there is still a tactic being deployed. Hyperbole, therefore, has to be severed from projection. If the news reports facts, those facts are not “fake,” they just lack meaning and value until they are interpreted by affected readers; likewise, if the news provides opinions, those opinions should be based in said facts, rather than in outraged reactions to Trump (which would only be hyperbolically projected back in a vicious cycle). This concerns the question of what should be reported, and how those reports can be interpreted. But is that all there is to it?
News stories involving our actions rather than our passions may accumulate and resonate with one another to justify the amplitude of hyperbole—and the magnitude of positive emotion— needed to act constructively and creatively in our hyperbolic age. There are countless news stories originating from local, regional, and state levels – which really have nothing to do with Trump – whose cumulative force might just warrant hyperbole by pundits, artists, preachers, and political orators. These are informative stories which testify to the tremendous fortitude, trust, cooperation, optimism, and achievement of Americans. The many stories of the fight against climate change, for example, involve local and state governments working together with the private sector. So do stories about civic reforms, high levels of trust in local governments, and modest economic gains throughout communities and small cities in “Trump country.” Even a hidden local story here or there may deserve amplification, like the story that state officials in New York coordinated with the private sector to use new UAS (unmanned aircraft system) technology to provide hurricane disaster relief for Puerto Rico. There are also, of course, trends in the global landscape, like decreases in disease and increases in education, which Nicholas Kristof insisted made 2017 the best year in human history. These stories still acknowledge problems, but facilitate action by emphasizing solutions. In this regard, greatness does not emanate from the magnified Trump-center. It emerges from the unseen goodness of innumerable movements at the periphery. Bigly.
[i] Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz Trump: The Art of the Deal, Chapter 2
[ii] Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher. Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President, Chapter 4
[iv] Nietzsche links this type of lying to the “war of all against all”; in this sense, the misuse of designation would return us to a Hobbesian state of nature.
[v] Nietzsche, “Truth and Lies in a NonMoral Sense.”
[vi] Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #373