— By Jerry Cates. First draft created on 6 July 2018, first published on 9 July 2018, and last expanded/edited on 10 July 2018. © Govinthenews Vol. 9:7(1).
Jack, the Quintessential Truth-teller…
This 4th of July I was pleased to spend some quality time with an old and very dear friend. Like me, he’s at that age most would call “elderly”. Over his lifetime — also like me — he’s actively participated in a lot of figurative rodeos…
Jack (not his real name) is one of the most gifted restaurateurs in the world. He belongs to a family with more than its share of equally gifted restaurateurs. These good folks work together to provide their customers the best, most nutritious and hearty meals money can buy, in rustic, family-centric settings, at amazingly low prices. What they have done to elevate family dining out in North Texas is beyond phenomenal.
But besides serving outstanding food, they go to great lengths to keep their premises clean, sanitary, and pest-free. That’s how Jack and I became acquainted, over a decade ago. He sought my help with a vexing problem at one of his sites. He appreciated the science I apply to problems like his, and my penchant for permanent solutions. I’ve been a regular consultant of his for several years now.
In one of Jack’s restaurants in Dallas, a problem recently emerged in a large, old storage building that was stuffed to the ceiling with supplies. Large old buildings full of stuff attract pests. Pest problems in such places can start small and expand over time, so nipping them in the bud early is crucial. I called Jack and asked if he, his regional manager, and the restaurant’s general manager could meet to discuss the bud-nipping that needed to be done. Jack agreed. We met on a super-restaurant-busy holiday, because everybody who needed to come would be there.
I informed the assembled group that ordinary, run-of-the-mill measures would not solve this problem. Then I laid out the work they would be required to do or have contracted out. The look on the general manager’s face showed he realized what this would entail. A costly rented container, positioned nearby to hold the building’s contents during refurbishment, would take up precious parking space. Labor and materials would cost $thousands.
Jack looked down, studying my words carefully, then looked up and quipped “All that Jerry mentioned needs to get done, right away“. Without missing a beat, Chuck replied “We’ll get on that immediately“. Then Jack upped the ante. “Chuck,” he said, “Shouldn’t we case the interior walls with new wallboard? That’s essential if we want to make it easy to keep this building clean.”
Chuck knew that would double the cost and the time required to finish the job. All that money would come out of his bottom line, temporarily reduce his restaurant’s profits, and make him look bad — on paper — in comparison with the family’s other restaurants. Yet, he agreed with Jack immediately.
The Art of the Strategic Sacrifice…
Strategic sacrificing done today to make for a long string of better tomorrows is what drives Jack and his family. Sugarcoating problems, trying to work around them diplomatically, or ducking an issue when directness hurts, isn’t his style. Scripture illustrates this trait — in one’s walk through life — as choosing a strait gate and a narrow path over a wide gate and a broad path. Jack’s choices have treated him well, and have blessed his family, his employees, and his customers.
Would that all of us made life decisions that way. Sadly, though predictably, Jack and his kind are rare as hen’s teeth…
Later that day, Jack and I went over some minor problems at another of his restaurants. Afterward, he walked me to my truck. We’d just discussed some fixes there that would cost his family even more money. Like before, he hadn’t hesitated. “We have to do it right,” he’d said to me and his staff. I could see the admiration on their faces. They know his words frame the way he leads his life: doing things right.
As we ambled toward my parking place I told him he reminded me of somebody. “Who’s that?” he asked. I could see he had no idea what I was about to say, so I chose my words with care. “Well, Jack,” I replied, “It always amazes me how quickly you cut right to the chase, without softening the blow. If it’s the right thing to do, you tell it like it is. So… I’ve come to the firm conclusion that you are your family’s version of Donald Trump!”
This literally stopped Jack in his tracks. He hesitated on the sidewalk for a few seconds, a faint smile curling his lips.
“You know what?” he replied after continuing onward, his eyes twinkling as he mulled my words over in his mind, “I really like that guy. In fact, I like that man ten times more now than when he first got elected.”
Here he stopped on the sidewalk, turned to face me, and gestured enthusiastically with his hands.
“Jerry,” he continued, “I’ve always behaved that way where my businesses are concerned, but it’s pained me, in the past, that I had to be politically correct in other venues. Now, though, it’s finally safe in America to tell the truth straight out, laying it all out at once no matter where you are, without sweetening things up to make them sound better. Trump doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He only cares about doing it right, and if what’s right hurts, that doesn’t slow him down one little bit.”
A Distinction Without a Difference…
“Jack,” I responded, “that’s exactly why you and Donald Trump could be brothers.” That’s 100% true, too, even if they might not hit it off in a big way. See, Jack is a big old teddy bear, unlike the Grizzly bear Donald Trump often resembles. I’ve never heard Jack say a harsh word about anyone, and I’ve never seen him use what Trump calls strategic hyperbole. Neither behavioral trait is his style. So though he and Donald Trump are a lot alike, they’re also very different. I asked him about that.
“Jerry,” he said, “I’m just not built the way Trump is, but that’s not a criticism of the guy. I can’t be ugly with people, and in my line of work I don’t have any reason to stretch the truth, strategically or otherwise. That’s just a reflection of how each of us is wired, and the different environments we’re immersed in. The critical thing is we both believe in telling the naked truth when it matters, laying it flat out. So, though we both do the same thing, we do it differently. To my thinking, that difference isn’t what matters.”
See, Jack oversees a huge chain of successful restaurants that operates like a well-oiled machine. There are lots of reasons behind those successes, but at the core is the straight-forward way Jack and his family deals with problems. Honesty and transparency bracket the philosophy that runs the operation.
Like the way Donald Trump runs the White House.
Yeah, right… I realize this conversation won’t run well in Liberal circles, or with the crowd of Never Trumpers in the GOP. “Truth?” they’ll likely reply, “Donald Trump believes in telling the truth? What rubbish!” True, rubbish there is, but — with all due respect to those who disagree — in my mind it wasn’t in anything said in my conversation with Jack, or in my ruminations on that conversation later. For those conversant with Donald Trump’s famous love for strategic hyperbole and see that as a strong negative, though, my conviction on that point will take some explaining.
What follows is the rationale that leads me to think the way I do about Trump. It isn’t written for those who agree with me, but for those who don’t or who are wavering on the issue. I understand where you are coming from. Trump was not my first choice for President… he wasn’t even on my list. When he announced his candidacy I laughed! Then, when it was obvious he was serious about it I actually got angry.
“Why is this idiot throwing his hat in the ring?” I asked. “Don’t we have enough qualified people to run, without having a total jerk like him joining the parade?” I was not a happy camper.
It was only after he began laying out his platform, and sticking to his guns on topics that had resonated with my soul for decades, that I began to see why he might just be the best person for the job. When he won the nomination, I had to admit he’d out-done all the other contenders for truthfulness, guts, courage under fire, and telling it like it is. After the election he went on to do, or at least try to do, everything he said he’d do, doubling down on his promises instead of making wild excuses for setbacks that popped up along the way.
That may not be enough reason for you to support him, especially if you are focusing on certain personal traits of his that the press is slamming him for these days. I’ve studied those traits, and — in some cases despite them, in other cases because of them — today everything about Trump makes me want to support him to the hilt.
I want to tell you why.
Donald Trump, “The Quintessential Strategic Liar…”?
It should already be obvious I prefer to apply the word ‘hyperbole’ to Trump’s rhetorical prevarications. To most of those who don’t care for Donald Trump, though, lying is the preferred way to describe how he plays fast and loose with the truth. The two expressions are rather different. Let me explain the reasoning behind my preference.
Said most succinctly, a lie is a statement used intentionally to deceive. That sounds pretty cut and dry, so when we say “He lied”, we may think we’ve made a very clear, precise, and easily understood charge. That’s almost never true, however, because the act of lying can be performed by using any of up to thirty generally recognized, and widely different, strategies. At one extreme are what we call “little white lies” while, at the other, are the blackest of the black, what some refer to as “The Big Lie“. In between these two extremes lies a raft of distinctly separate shades of gray.
Lying, it turns out, isn’t anywhere near as simple as it looks.
To know exactly which variation might apply to a particular statement, one has to dissect its content, and the history and character of the one who uttered it, with great care. It is clearly disingenuous to lump little white lies with Big Lies, and treat them as equals, as many journalists, newscasters, pundits and politicians tend to do these days. But, just as important, I believe we’d all agree that one should take pains to avoid calling a statement a lie when, in fact, it was either not used intentionally or specifically to deceive, or was said satirically or in jest.
A similar complexity also applies, to some extent, to the use of hyperbole. One big difference between the two is that lying almost always has negative connotations. Hyperbole, by comparison, is more often viewed in neutral or even positive terms.
So what exactly is hyperbole all about?
This English word is derived from the ancient Greek word ὑπερβολή, a construct based on two roots: ὑπέρ, which means ‘above’ and βάλλω, meaning ‘I throw’. These, in combination, mean ‘I exaggerate’. In writings and speech, hyperbole refers to the use of rhetorical exaggeration in figures of speech. In rhetoric, it is sometimes referred to as auxesis (αὔξησις), which means ‘growth’ or ‘increase’ and, with specific reference to hyperbole, is the intentional overstatement of a point, its importance, or its significance.
In historical human interaction, hyperbole has had a crucial role in both poetry and oratory, effecting emphasis, evoking strong feelings, and creating strong impressions. When used as a figure of speech, it is rarely, if ever, meant to be taken literally.
When evaluating whether a particular person is lying or speaking hyperbolically, one first has to assess the person under evaluation. It is no secret why Trump loves hyperbole. He’s mastered its use as a satirical, even jocular stratagem when speaking informally to groups. He also doesn’t hesitate to make crucial points sharply, succinctly, but hyperbolically, by loosely sprinkling his oratory with loaded terms his audience recognizes as expressing sentiments he can’t easily express any other way.
The Influence of Perceived Trajectory…
Which term one prefers to apply to Trump’s exhortations is likely influenced most by how one views the trajectory of Trump’s life, and of his administration as president of the United States. Those in the ‘hyperbole’ camp see that trajectory as having led him in the past, and now leading the USA in the present, toward prosperity. They also see that trajectory focused on restoring the tenets of freedom and liberty that our nation’s founders envisioned. To this camp, the consequences of the overall trajectory of Donald J. Trump’s life are entirely positive.
By comparison with other recent presidents — for example, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — the overall trajectories of their lives have led those gentlemen toward personal prosperity (and for Bill Clinton, toward national prosperity as well, though in Obama’s case, toward national poverty) for themselves, while focusing on destroying our founders’ visions of freedom and liberty. The overall trajectory of George W. Bush’s life, sadly because he claims to be a conservative but is anything but, has achieved personal prosperity for him and his family, yet brought America to the brink of fiscal destruction and opened the gates for the likes of Obama to take the reins and — had he been given full authority to do so — finish our nation off for good. See, trajectory matters. And the way I see the trajectory of Trump’s life, it is overwhelmingly good for America. But my view on this is obviously not the only, and not even the majority view today.
Ironically, those who hiss ‘Liar!!’ at every hyperbolic pronouncement from Trump’s lips see that trajectory as doing the exact same thing, but with wholly negative consequences. They tend to view individual prosperity as selfishness (which it could be, but usually isn’t), unilateral USA prosperity as a repudiation of globalism (which it definitely is), and the restoration of the founders’ visions as promoting racism (which, objectively viewed in post-slavery America, it clearly isn’t) and nationalism (which, done right, is a robustly healthy sentiment, but done badly can be grossly unhealthy).
That latter camp, being comprised mostly of globalists, socialists, and anarchists, has several big things going for it. In a perfect world, the triple ideals of globalism, socialism, and anarchism have a kind of adolescent philosophical attraction, so to those with few real-world experiences, with little or no grasp of the raw realities of life, the allure can be overwhelming. Globalism, socialism, and anarchy together comprise, as some would say, a big-tent, i.e., inclusive, utopian ideal. It’s hard not to be tempted by that if you don’t realize it describes an impossible dream.
Those in the first camp see through the second camp’s naive idealism, though, and embrace instead the workable, tested rubric of pragmatism; they believe history makes it clear (which it does) that, in our imperfect world globalism will never, ever be achieved, that socialism — though tried over and over again with disastrous results — has never, ever worked, and that anarchism is a perfect recipe for the total destruction of orderly human intercourse.
As I see it, on one hand we have realists who champion prosperity, freedom, individuality and nationalism because those ideals are achievable, and have a history of working and advancing humanity. By comparison, on the other hand we have idealists who push socialistic agendas despite a burgeoning history that proves they always, without exception, lead to depravity, degeneracy, and destruction of order.
To me, the distinction between the two is rather stark, and mirrors the choices Jack faces every day in the administration of his family’s restaurants. He walks the strait and narrow, because — as a realist — he’s learned from hard-won, painful experience that’s the only sure road to success.
Trajectory, then, matters, but it is also important to realize that the analogy goes deeper than simply describing the gate and the roadway, it also defines those who travel those disparate pathways. Scripture states that the strait and narrow is found only by the few, like my dear friend Jack. Most people, unfortunately, are enamored more by the wide gate and broad street. If you are in the first camp, this means you must not be overly troubled by the fact that your group is small; that’s just the way it is, and as realists we need to accept that.
Those in the second camp, however, should pause to recognize that numbers aren’t everything; just because the crowd is on your side doesn’t make your ideals superior, because the crowd almost always moves in the wrong direction. But there is something else both camps need to recognize, too. In the historical context those who walk the strait and narrow always succeed in the end, while the crowd always loses the game.
Unintentional (?) Purveyors of Deceit…
As we travel through life, we must constantly assess what is true and what is false. Today, in the midst of the information explosion, making good assessments requires careful study. Lots of sources of ‘information’ contend for our attention. Some are good, others not so much. The nature of Donald Trump’s presidency is something all thinking people wonder about.
The very fact that more negative than positive material is being generated about him implies, all by itself, that he’s on the right track. But we shouldn’t take that fact, alone, as objective evidence. Let’s dig into some of these sources and see what we find.
PolitiFact, a non-partisan blog begun by the Tampa Bay Times in 2007, tracks Donald Trump’s “honesty” in its Donald Trump’s File. According to their tally on 7 July 2018, only 5% of Trump’s statements they’ve checked were wholly true. By comparison, 47% were wholly false and, of those, 15% were “pants on fire” false; plus, another 22% were mostly false. That sounds really bad, until you study the statements they’ve analyzed, many of which — including many in their “pants on fire” category — appear trivial at best.
Some criticism has been leveled at PolitiFact for their willingness to do fact-checks of statements that are difficult if not impossible to analyze objectively. That criticism is deserved, but it doesn’t go far enough. Many of the statements posted here were clearly said partly or fullly in jest. The is puzzling that the editors of PolitiFact cannot see the importance of making that distinction, but the loss is theirs. Failing objectivity, the thrust of PolitiFact’s postings is without value, a fact any thinking person must realize. Subjective opinion is worthless as a measure of truth. Had PolitiFact injected serious objectivity into their work, and left out Trump’s clearly jocular and satirical statements, it could be more enticing.
I would love to be able to refer to a reliably objective analysis of the utterances and writings of America’s politicians. This isn’t it. Still, many politicians, pundits, and journalists gladly parrot its findings as a means of painting Trump as inherently dishonest. He may actually be that, though my research suggests he may, instead, be one of the most honest politicians on the planet today.
But PolitiFact is not alone.
Projects, a blog published by the Toronto Star newspaper and edited by the newspaper’s Washington Bureau Chief, Daniel Dale, explains the purpose of its listing of Trump’s false claims in these words:
“The Star is keeping track of every false claim U.S. President Donald Trump has made since his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. Why? Historians say there has never been such a constant liar in the Oval Office. We think dishonesty should be challenged. We think inaccurate information should be corrected. And we think the sheer frequency of Trump’s inaccuracy is a central story of his presidency.
If Trump is a serial liar, why call this a list of “false claims,” not lies? The short answer is that we can’t be sure that each and every one was intentional. In some cases, he may have been confused or ignorant. What we know, objectively, is that he was not telling the truth.”
As mentioned earlier, I am a big fan of objective research, but that this is not. That’s too bad, because it would be good to see an unbiased study on this subject prepared with the Canadian perspective. This source, however, is worse than PolitiFact, if that’s even possible. A patent bias in the Projects blog is established in the blog’s statement of purpose, which begins with the crass assertion that “Historians say…” thereby coloring everything the blog posts as “yellow journalism”. There was a time when that species of newscraft — which Joseph Campbell decried in his day, and which is characterized by published materials that present little or no legitimate well-researched news, but instead feature misleading but eye-catching headlines, exaggerations, scandal-mongering, and sensationalism — was frowned upon in America.
That day, sadly, is past.
The Newest Age of Yellow Journalism…
Today practically every news outlet in America majors in the nefarious craft of full-blown yellow journalism. That opening statement, using the words “Historians say…” falls victim to two logical fallacies. Any journalist worth his or her salt was taught, at some point in their education, that they should always avoid the historian’s fallacy, and the fallacy of argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam. Serious journalists should never permit these fallacies to invade their work, yet today we find both infecting the news we read and hear, as today’s biased journalists preach to their respective choirs.
Preaching to the choir, by the way, is not what real journalism is about either. Real journalism documents reality — the good, the bad, the ugly, and all in-between — objectively and uncritically. Canons of behavior exist that every serious newspaper, journal, and news-reporting organization ostensibly subscribes to and requires the journalists they employ to obey. While these codes may differ in wording, all share the six common elements of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability. Today every one of those six elements is regularly violated in every news outlet in America, without exception, and with impunity.
Being cast as part of a broader ethical system applicable to writers in general, the ethics of journalism is guided by principles that limit harm that unbridled news reporting could cause. Those principles prohibit, for example, the publishing of certain details, such as the names of minor children, victims of crime, and other information not materially related to the news story that could damage reputations or harm businesses. As with the six elements of the journalist’s accepted canon, the principles of limiting harm are regularly ignored by every news outlet in America, without exception — again with impunity.
Yes, journalists do write opinion pieces, too, but they cannot call that journalism, because it isn’t. Today, though, practically all that is called “news” is in actuality nothing but subjective opinion that regularly violates every canon and principle of journalistic behavior in the book. The canons of legitimate journalism have been cast aside while pure sensationalism is allowed free rein. Nothing provides greater justification of Trump’s frequent use of the term “Fake News”. It should, in many cases, be labeled “Fraudulent News”. That’s not the way journalism is supposed to work.
True, the history of journalism in America shows that this is not the first time the craft has sunk to such unsavory depths. That, however, is no excuse. Whether what masquerades as legitimate journalism today is, at the moment, the absolute worst ever is hard to gauge, but one can be excused for suspecting it has never been worse than it is at this time in history.
Internet Blogs Masquerading as Objective Research Tools…
Practically everyone knows, these days, that you cannot trust “stuff” you read on the Internet without first checking the credentials of the posting organization and the author. Today, with even the “best” journalists so willing to stray into unprincipled writing, even if the credentials are impressive, you still can’t trust what is posted without critiquing what you read from every angle.
Having a blog published by a respected newspaper, or that is operated by respected editors and journalists associated with a respected institute of higher learning means nothing. It pains me to write this, but practically all behave like the worst yellow journalists of times past. In this day and age journalists are permitted to let their agendas drive their writing. Add to that a thoroughly polarized social and political climate and you have a recipe for unbridled and undisciplined wordcraft of the worst possible kind.
Let’s examine more closely what Projects asserts “Historians say...”: (1) …there has never been such a constant liar in the Oval Office, (2) the sheer frequency of Trump’s inaccuracy is a central story of his presidency, and (3) Trump is a serial liar. Again, the long list of “lies” posted on the Projects blog (they gleefully claim the number, as of 7 July 2018, has reached a total of 1,929) includes many that appear trivial to laughable. As with Politifact, objectivity has been thrown out the window in favor of something that is blatantly unbalanced.
While some historians may have publicly claimed to believe that nobody before Trump has been such a constant liar, it’s likely as many others honestly believe that no Oval Office occupant before Trump has ever been more truthful or transparent. The idea that the frequency of Trump’s inaccuracy is a central story of his presidency is absurd to those who are wowed by the Trump Administration’s successful implementation of needed tax cuts, vast reductions in job-killing government over-regulation, and the impressive drop in workforce unemployment paralleled with a sharply rising GDP, that marks his first year and a half in office.
Oh, and lest we forget, what about his willingness to attack politically awkward and mechanically difficult issues like illegal immigration head-on?
It is true, however, that Donald Trump is a master of Strategic Hyperbole (most news outlets prefer the expression Strategic Lie). As Matthew Yglesias writes in a recent article published on Vox.com, he wrote about his strategic use of hyperbole in The Art of The Deal. He admitted, in a sworn deposition, to exaggerating about certain matters for effect. And he’s willing to exaggerate and use hyperbole today, if he feels doing so is best for the country. Then Yglesias writes the following:
“Every politician I can think of has, at some point, said something that isn’t true. But almost all of them seem to mostly adhere to at least defensible interpretations of the facts. They do so to avoid obtaining a reputation for dishonesty, in part because they fear that obtaining a reputation for dishonesty would hurt their future efforts at communication.
Trump, thus far, has avoided this penalty. He says untrue things. The falseness of his statements is revealed and reported on. And then his future pronouncements are nonetheless treated as deserving the same presumption of truth that we grant to normal people.
That’s a big mistake. Presidents naturally end up making representations about things where the facts are not fully knowable to the public. When Trump does that, we need, as a country, to remember that our president is a huge liar.”
So, to Yglesias, as long as a politician manufactures what he terms “…at least defensible interpretations of the facts,” that’s ok, even if they are lying. And he’s right. I mean, that’s the way today’s journalists write and speak the news. By today’s journalism standards, it doesn’t matter how flimsy the politician’s “interpretations of the facts” may be, if the politician and journalist are on the same side of the aisle, politically and socially, the journalist will publish those interpretations uncritically. This grants the benefit of the doubt and protects that politician from “obtaining a reputation for dishonesty that would hurt their future efforts at communications.”
Maybe journalists should be more concerned about their future efforts at communications, instead of serving as willing, uncritical parrots for politicians who manufacture “defensible interpretations of the facts” out of whole cloth to justify their otherwise absolutely indefensible positions and statements. Journalism used to champion objectivity, truth, and honesty. No more. Nowhere.
… More to Come…
- Bailey, Ronald. 2016. Trump: The Art of the Lie. Reason.com
- Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit. 2017. Why we Lie: The Science Behind our Deceptive Ways. National Geographic June 2017
- Chadwick, Ian (undated blog). Chapter 18: The Subtle Art of Lying. The Municipal Machiavelli
- Charney, Noah. 2016. The Art of the Lie: The Art Forgery Guide to Donald Trump’s Tall Tales. Salon.com
- Common Cause (undated): The Art of the Lie: Trump’s Historic First Year Failure on Government Integrity and Accountability Issues.
- Dale, Daniel: Projects – Every False Claim Donald Trump has Made since Inauguration. Toronto Star
- Fahrenthold, David, and R. O’Harrow, Jr. 2016. Trump: A True Story. The Washington Post
- Gubar, Susan. 2018. The Strategic Lies of Oncologists. New York Times
- Mathews, Andrea. 2017. The Art of the Lie. Psychology Today
- Politifact: Donald Trump’s File. Politifact, 1100 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1300B, Washington, DC 20036
- The Economist. September 2016. The Art of the Lie. Post-Truth Politics.
- Yglesias, Matthew. 2018. The Raging Controversy over Whether to Call Trump’s Lies “Lies,” Explained. Vox.com
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