Don’t be Fooled by Trump’s Use of Studied Sincerity


The video below is a dramatization (although not much of one) of “common sense” and part of its infrastructure, namely, “sincerity.” Donald Trump has been trying to capitalize on this deep-seated American value where “common sense” or “plain talk” or “telling it like it is” is glorified as the highest form of discourse. John McCain in 2000 termed his campaign tours as the “Straight Talk Express.” Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” and the rhetorical technicalities of Bernie Sanders continue this effort to convince people that they are authentic and lack any pretenses. The Norman Rockwell image of the common man standing up to speak plainly is burned into our psyches and is an iconic image of communicative authenticity.

Well, I’m here to point out the dangers and the potential damage of this rhetorical shell game called “straight talk.” Trump is the worst perpetrator of this myth and he is successfully fooling millions into believing he is actually worth listening to. The assumption that one is “telling it like it is” or doing nothing but “talking straight” is a dangerous myth that weakens the quality of decision-making and directs attention away from substantive issues. Of course, for Trump directing attention away from substantive issues is just the point. Since he does not know anything about foreign policy, governance, or macroeconomics he has to redirect the conversation. Thus, he has spent his time trying to convince the populace that he is “sincere”.

Political communication is organized around language and symbols of various types so it is particularly important that we attend to words, their meaning, and how they are used. Otherwise we are confused about the state of political discourse and are likely to come to poor decisions. The myth of straight talk directs attention to a preferred ethical stance related to sincerity rather than the quality of reasoning. Sincerity is, of course, important because we do not want to believe our leaders or communicative partners are lying or manipulating us. But sincerity doesn’t have anything to do with the quality or truth value of what we are saying. You can “sincerely” say something stupid and inaccurate.

But it gets worse. Performing sincerity is designed to convince the listener that the source of the message is not only being truthful but also complete. The implication is that everything of importance and relevance is being said and nothing is left out. The speaker is providing all relevant information and nothing else is pertinent. This blunts the listener’s responsibility to pursue additional information. So when Trump says, “the economy is in terrible shape” (which it certainly and clearly is not) he wants you to accept that statement on the basis of his sincerity and not facts.

And it gets worse again. Convincing someone you are being sincere and speaking “straight” is designed to relieve the source of the message of any further responsibilities. The implication is you no longer need to inquire any further or challenge anything I have to say because I have “laid it all out.” It’s a way of saying a speaker is not responsible for what he says, and thereby sealing him from criticism, because he has fulfilled his responsibilities.

More than a few times I’ve heard people whom I know can barely pay their bills characterize the billionaire narcissist Trump as “telling it like it is” and a “man of the people.” To describe Donald Trump as “like the average guy” – meaning a sincere absence of artifice and symbolic trickery – means you have been thoroughly co-opted by the candidate’s studied sincerity.

Language and symbols are central to political communication, but so is critical inquiry. If leaders and political figures are going to be held responsible for their words, which is crucial to the democratic political process, then the capacities of the subject population must not be limited; it must be possible for them to interrogate leaders and satisfy truth challenges. Trump has skillfully convinced many to substitute his calculated sincerity for thoughtful critical inquiry. This can be dangerous and we have seen historical precedents for this danger.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on May 9, 2016, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Political Parties and Elections and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Don’t be Fooled by Trump’s Use of Studied Sincerity.

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