Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.
When Donald Trump said this in his Inaugural Address last Friday, I was okay with the point about inner-city poverty. The tombstones comparison was just about within the bounds of rhetorical-artistic licence too. But ‘an education system flush with cash’? Really? Documented cuts to public education funding in many US States make that hard to swallow. And for all the evidence that the US public education system is under-performing in certain respects, it’s completely false and bizarre to claim that it deprives its students of ‘all knowledge.’ Imagine all those high school graduates going around literally knowing nothing at all!
With these two claims, the Greek and Roman rhetorical device of hyperbole immediately sprang to my mind. This is often translated as ‘exaggeration’, and that’s a fairly useful rendering of the technical rhetorical term. But the common Greek meanings of ‘excess’ or ‘extravagance’ also help us here. (The verb ὑπερβάλλω [huperballō], of which hyperbole is a cognate noun, often means to overshoot a mark).
And it turns out that Trump is very familiar with the term. In his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, he says this:
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.
Lots of journalists and bloggers have linked this passage to Trump’s whole approach to political rhetoric and campaigning. But as the philosopher Mike LaBossiere pointed out in an excellent post as far back as December 2015, Trump’s notion of “truthful hyperbole” is a logical impossibility. A hyperbole is, by definition, not true.
Despite its inherent deceptiveness, Trump is right to recognize the great rhetorical power of hyperbole to influence the psyche. Ancient Greek and Roman orators used both mild and quite extreme examples of rhetorical exaggeration a lot, although it was clearly wise to be sparing with the hyperbolai in any one speech. Cicero was a master of the device. Here he is on Mark Antony’s greed (Philippics 2.67):
What Charybdis is so greedy? Charybdis, do I say? If there ever was a Charybdis, she was only one animal. No: the Ocean, heaven help us, could hardly have swallowed up so many things, so widely scattered, in such distant places, and so quickly!
Charybdis was a huge, terrifying ship-guzzling whirlpool of a sea monster but it becomes insignificant when compared to Antony’s oceanic voraciousness. It’s very entertaining stuff.
Ancient writers on rhetoric betray a good deal of ambivalence about such hyperbolic tactics. In his treatise On Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses hyperbole only in the context of metaphors and similes (3.11). One might say of a man with a black eye that ‘you would have thought he was a basket of mulberries.’ The purpleness of the black eye makes the comparison to mulberries apposite. But the great exaggeration of moving from one bruised eye to ‘he was a basket of mulberries’ is obvious. Interestingly, Aristotle feels that the use of hyperbole is ‘adolescent’ (meirakiōdeis: or perhaps ‘puerile’). This is because hyperbolai convey a certain ‘vehemence’ and they are mostly spoken by people who are angry. (Aristotle cites an example from a speech by Homer’s Achilles). Aristotle thinks it is inappropriate for an older man to use hyperbole.
In his Education of the Orator, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian sounds a little Trumpish when he describes hyperbole as ‘appropriate exaggeration of the truth’ (decens veri superiectio, 8.6.68). But if you look at this next passage, it’s much less clear that he would classify many of Donald’s recent uses of the device as ‘appropriate’ (8.6.73-4):
A certain sense of proportion is necessary. Though every hyperbole surpasses belief, it must not be beyond all reason; there is no surer route to cacozelia (bad taste, affectation). I feel it distasteful to report the many faults arising from this trope, especially as they are by no means unfamiliar or obscure. It is enough to remind the reader that hyperbole is a liar, but does not lie to deceive. We must therefore consider all the more carefully how far it is appropriate to exaggerate a thing which is not believed. The attempt very often raises a laugh. If that is what was aimed at, it comes to be called wit; if not, folly.
Appropriate hyperbole announces its own lie and (as with the Cicero passage above) it can be used knowingly to humorous effect. But if we exaggerate excessively and without trying to be funny, we end up looking like an idiot. It’s certainly not appropriate to make out that an extreme hyperbole does in fact represent the truth.
Quintilian goes on to observe that hyperbole is popular in ordinary non-rhetorical speech too. He snobbishly singles out ‘uneducated’ and ‘country people’. He points out that ‘everybody has a natural desire to exaggerate or to minimize things, and no one is satisfied with the truth. It is pardoned, however, because we do not vouch for what we say.’
This perhaps helps us to identify what has happened in modern political-rhetorical discourse. The hyperbolic but inconsequential banter and ‘bullshit’ which we go in for in ordinary conversation has found its way into the very serious and consequential realm of politics. ‘Telling it like it is’ is actually ‘telling it like it is not’.