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The Sham of Donald Trump’s Straight Talk

How the president exploits our distrust of politicians who talk pretty

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, Canadian singer Shania Twain raised the ire of the American public for telling The Guardian that she would have supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election for his candor. “I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest,” she told the newspaper, asking: “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.”

The irony of Twain’s comments, which she walked back in a series of tweets to the disappointment of our commander in chief, is the legions of lies that march out of his mouth each time it opens. According to The Washington Post’s ongoing tally, as of April 30, 466 days into Trump’s presidency, he’s made 3,001 false or misleading claims. In other words, he’s brought bullshitting to epic new heights, and yet, Twain’s impression of his forthrightness is a common misapprehension.

Like many Americans, the country crooner conflates his crude, simplistic rhetorical style with sincerity. If it doesn’t sound pretty, it’s “telling it like it is,” as the old saying goes. It’s a false equivalency that has a long history in the United States that is tethered, in part, to anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. It is one of Trump’s most effective—and dangerous—political weapons.

David Niose, the author of Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, says the appeal of political folksiness or commonness began in the Jacksonian era. “Andrew Jackson was the first regular guy president and he was a kind of response to the more aristocratic, elitist founding fathers,” he tells me. In the founding era, Niose notes, it was only property-owning white men who could vote, which was a very small segment of the population. Coinciding with Jackson’s arrival, the right to vote was extended to free (white) men in most jurisdictions, which he says “really expanded the base into the more regular guy crowd. Ever since then, folksy politics have always sold in America.”

Examples from American presidential history, he says, include the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story of Abraham Lincoln, born in a humble log cabin to a poor family in Kentucky; Dwight Eisenhower beating Adlai Stevenson twice by, in part, scorning “egghead” intellectuals; and George W. Bush’s proud anti-intellectualism (remember his failed pronunciation of nuclear? One scholar argues he knew how to say it all along) and contrived persona as a down-home Texan rancher, despite being born into extreme wealth like Trump. “It’s all part of what’s become a tradition in American politics of pitching down toward the lowest common denominator instead of trying to present oneself as intelligent and articulate,” Niose explains, “and it seems to be an effective way to run for office.”

Historian Susan Jacoby, author of the best-selling The Age of American Unreason, which was revised and re-released in paperback on its 10th anniversary earlier this year, adds, “The idea that a crude way of expressing yourself means you’re more honest than somebody who speaks decent or good English has a long pedigree in the United States.” It is related to a generalized distrust of experts—academics, media elites, and establishment politicians—who voters often find beguiling, averse to tradition, even morally depraved. What do all three of those professional categories of people have in common? They all “talk good and read them books,” Jacoby cracks.

While folksy speak may have unique resonances in American history, its appeal extends as far back as Ancient Greece, says Elizabeth Markovits, an associate professor of politics at Mount Holyoke and author of The Politics of Sincerity: Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment. Eight months before Hillary Clinton lost to Trump, Markovits wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “Trump ‘tells it like it is.’ That’s not necessarily a good thing for democracy,” in which she highlights the ways Cleon, a demagogue in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, disparages politicians who talk pretty and accuses them of obfuscation and deceit.

In a recent phone interview, Markovits paraphrases what Cleon tells the citizens of Athens: “‘Some politicians will tell you what you want to hear, but we can’t trust them. They use all these big words. Others are plainspoken and you might not like what they’re saying, but you can trust them because they’re not out to win favors.’ So there’s this intimation that the more outrageous this thing you said is, the more it signals the truthfulness of the speaker.” One of the main arguments in her book and commentary is that if someone seems truthful, we care less whether or not there’s factual basis for their claims. “This is what we see with Trump. Because people think he’s being sincere and ‘telling it like it is,’ it doesn’t matter that his facts are wrong or that his ethics are abhorrent.” Markovits calls this phenomenon “hypersincerity,” where the performance of sincerity is a stand-in for factuality or truth.

While there isn’t a necessary link, Jacoby emphasizes, between an uneducated or educated style of speaking and duplicity, she argues that Trump’s crude rhetorical manner, wherein his sentences often go unfinished, regularly muddles his message. “Linguistic confusion,” she says, “leads to confusion in thought.” In Jacoby’s view, the normalization of what she calls “low level speech” will be one of the worst parts of his legacy and have a dark and enduring affect on American culture as a whole, just as Twitter, his preferred mode of communicating with the masses, has.

Jacoby thinks Twitter has helped further erode the clarity and complexity of his—and all of our—thoughts. “When you are limited to 140, now 280, characters to convey your thoughts it encourages the most crass forms of expression.”

If there’s a relationship between form and substance, the deceptive potential of folk-speak (or rather Twitter-speak) in our increasingly complex world is cause for alarm. Trump’s limited vocabulary reflects a limited intellectual capacity that gives way to reductive solutions to big problems and tribal phobias that pit us against one another. Simplicity, perhaps, is the truer language of deception, because nothing ever is truly simple.