This article was written on 25 Nov 2018, and is filled under Actualities, Media, Politics.

How Trump’s Followers Construct Alt-Truth from Lies, Part 1: A Deep Story for Shallow Deception

I first began to think about this topic early in the 2016 presidential campaign. At that time, no one took Donald Trump’s run for office seriously. Most commentators didn’t think even Trump took his candidacy seriously. There was nothing extraordinary about him as a person. He was, as my father would have said, “Common as dirt.” He was crude, inarticulate, ignorant. He was a bully, a lecher, a braggart. He had no political experience at all; he had never run for office, held office, or studied politics. Moreover, he denigrated rather than cultivated the press, overplayed rather than underplayed his wealth, and made a point of insulting rather than seducing significant electoral groups. But most obviously, he lied. He lied continually to everyone about everything.

A politician who lies—how unusual! Trump’s lying was about the only characteristic of his campaign that was conventional and expected. Trump’s lying is quite mundane. Nevertheless, the question of why Trump’s followers continue to support him despite his obvious, continual lying may be a critical one.

Despite his continual, outrageous lies, Trump gained supporters, and his supporters stuck with him until the election, and what commentators call his “base” continue to stick with him today. As a rhetorician, I was baffled by this phenomenon —and in this I was not alone. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and into Trump’s presidency, commentators, bloggers, editors, and scholars tried to understand why his followers continued to support him despite his almost daily lies. Their explanations included references to confirmation bias, constructionist cognitive habits, mass delusion, and other causes and conditions. But, to my mind, the most insightful were those who assumed that his supporters knew very well he was lying. One of these, Dara Lind, writing for Vox, said on September 27, 2016: “His supporters may not believe everything he says—in fact, they often say they don’t even think he believes everything he says. . . . The literal things he says matter less to them as facts than as signals that he’s on their side.”1 By saying that what matters to his supporters is that Trump is “on their side” here, Lind means that what matters to them most is not who he is but who he is not. She says that Trump supporters

. . . believe in a “deep story” in which the politicians in charge now consistently put the needs of others — coastal elites, “welfare”-receiving African Americans, immigrants, and refugees — ahead of their [his supporters’] own needs. They believe that . . . everything he says that upsets and provokes those people is more proof of how big a threat they find him.2

So, Lind’s view is that Trump’s supporters accept him not because they believe his claims but because his outrageousness expresses their rejection of our world.

Lind believes that the nature of Trump supporters’ rejection of present reality is told in the “deep story” they read beneath the surface of Trump’s often confused and confusing words. If to us he often speaks mere gibberish, to his supporters, Trump is telling the truth, the “deep” truth—he’s just not telling it literally. In an article in Contemporary Sociology, Arlie Russell Hochschild asks this question: “But how does Trump, or any other charismatic leader, lay claim to being—and get received as—the messenger of a social group’s deep story?” Hochschild’s answer: “By intuitively sensing and inhabiting a preexisting, recognizable cultural paradigm for conveying emotion.”3 Hochschild describes this cultural paradigm, which he calls the “secular rapture,”

. . . as metaphorical thinking about real events on earth. Well-paid, union-protected, plentiful, secure blue and white collar jobs have come to an end. With laws allowing abortion and homosexual marriage, transgender people using their chosen bathroom, and a rise in the religiously unaffiliated, a former cultural world has also come to an end. In light of the shrinking proportion of whites in the American population, their demographic world is approaching an end, too.4

For Lind and Hochschild, therefore, Trump’s followers read his lies figuratively in relation to an apocalyptic vision they already accept—one of a cherished order that has already fallen but they long to restore.

When backed into a corner, Trump himself has reinforced the view that his lies are really tropes. For instance, when he claimed at a news conference that President Obama was the “founder of ISIS,” initially he reiterated several times that “He is the founder in the true sense,” but later he said that it was a “joke.” Similarly, when he said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” when first pressed about it he said, “I hope they do” find the emails; but he later said to Fox News, “Obviously I was being sarcastic, and a lot of people really smiled and laughed. It was said in a sarcastic manner, obviously.”5 Trump very often claims that his lies are only sarcastic remarks.

Yet Anna North believes that “It’s possible that Mr. Trump does not know what sarcasm is,”6 and he probably doesn’t intend to be sarcastic. More importantly, his supporters probably don’t take his lies as sarcasm, but as plain truth that sophisticates just don’t “get.” Linguist John Haiman distinguishes “plain speaking” from “unplain speaking,” and he writes that “plain speaking” is saying exactly what’s on your mind. Haiman uses Forrest Gump as an example. There is no subtext or implied meaning to Gump’s words. “Unplain speaking,” in contrast, is an entire category including politeness, metaphor and sarcasm. Haiman says “its hallmark is what you say isn’t what you really think.” In an interview, Haiman said that “’People say about Donald Trump that he says it like it is. . . .’ His words are simple, his praise or scorn is unambiguous, and he shows little delicacy or politeness. ‘Sarcasm and irony are not his big thing.’”7 In other words, Haiman believes, to his followers Trump speaks quite plainly about the world he perceives.

Russian scholar Anna Gornostayeva examines the pervasive use of irony throughout the campaign by candidates and entertainers, especially Trump, for whom, she says, “irony is an inherent trait in his style of speech.”8 Gornostayeva points out, however, that “Ironic utterances may be intended as well as unintended. If the author did not try to convey an ironic message but the addressee found one, this utterance contains unintended irony.”9 Gornostayeva goes on to says that unintended irony is the result of an audience’s interpretation of an utterance through one genre when it should be interpreted through another. I believe that Trump’s followers do hear his speech as ironic and “deep,” but that this irony, for the most part, is unintentional, and that reading it as intentional is the result of a genre mistake. But what genre is it that his supporters are imposing on Trump’s political words that would allow them to hear them as comforting, harmlessly ironic, profoundly “deep” lies? Neal Gabler has described one of these possible genres:

There is [a] . . . terrifying explanation as to why the truth doesn’t seem to matter [to Trump’s supporters]. It has less to do with Trump . . . than it has to do with infotainment — with the idea that a lot of information isn’t primarily about education or elevation, where truth matters, but entertainment, where it doesn’t.10

This kind of irony is similar to what Dana Cloud described in her study of “reality television” as the “irony bribe”:

The irony bribe corresponds to the paradoxical epistemology of reality television; viewers can regard the program as “real” and “not-real” and therefore worth viewing and worthless at the same time. . . . [The] irony bribe wins viewers to participation in an ideological discourse by tempting them not only with the fantasy . . . but also with the pleasures of [others’] reaction against [viewers’] taking the fantasy seriously.11

Trump was a reality TV host before he was a presidential candidate, so it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that his followers simply continue to interpret him as a candidate in the same way they interpreted him as a reality television host—especially when he speaks from unconventional platforms like Twitter. And it is also not too far-fetched to suggest that his followers take pleasure in making the rest of us squirm by making us think they take him literally. Yet it’s doubtful that Trump intends this because it’s doubtful that Trump himself understands that different genres have different performative functions. For instance, he seemed genuinely surprised that after he tweeted that he was banning transgender Americans from serving in the military, the generals did nothing because they never received an official directive.13 So, if Trump’s followers confuse the genre expectations of reality TV with those of political discourse, Trump probably isn’t intending them to. Nevertheless, although such a theory might account for his supporters taking the occasional tweet or offhand remark as ironic, it can’t account for his followers’ existential fervor for his presidency. Moreover, it doesn’t address the “deep story” referred to by Lind and Hochschild, the greater context in which his followers embed Trump’s every remark.

Commentators describe Trump as a leader who thinks he is telling the truth but who in fact lies constantly to followers, followers who know he lies but believe he does so intentionally in order to ironically convey the “deep” truth that they understand but others do not. Perhaps such extraordinary acts of interpretation require an extraordinary theory to account for them.

One Comment

  1. Henry Sussman
    November 25, 2018

    Stephen Yarbrough initiates this two-part piece with a rhetorical analysis of the several senses in which the current President and his PR apparatus play loosely with and/or entertain several conflicting notions of truth-telling. Implicit between the lines of his exploration of how the truth is currently faring in the media and on the street stands an inquiry of far more venerable provenance: how philosophers have struggled with this issue since antiquity.