In Art of the Deal Donald Trump calls one of his rhetorical tools “truthful hyperbole.” He both defends and praises it as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” As a promoter, Trump made extensive use of this technique. Now he is using it in his bid for President.
Hyperbole is an extravagant overstatement and it can be either positive or negative in character. When describing himself and his plans, Trump makes extensive use of positive hyperbole: he is the best and every plan of his is the best. He also makes extensive use of negative hyperbole—often to a degree that seems to cross over from exaggeration to fabrication. In any case, his concept of “truthful hyperbole” is well worth considering.
From a logical standpoint, “truthful hyperbole” is an impossibility. This is because hyperbole is, by definition, not true. Hyperbole is not a merely a matter of using extreme language. After all, extreme language might accurately describe something. For example, describing Daesh as monstrous and evil would be spot on. Hyperbole is a matter of exaggeration that goes beyond the actual facts. For example, describing Donald Trump as monstrously evil would be hyperbole. As such, hyperbole is always untrue. Because of this, the phrase “truthful hyperbole” says the same thing as “accurate exaggeration”, which nicely reveals the problem.
Trump, a brilliant master of rhetoric, is right about the rhetorical value of hyperbole—it can have considerable psychological force. It, however, lacks logical force—it provides no logical reason to accept a claim. Trump also seems to be right in that there can be innocent exaggeration. I will now turn to the ethics of hyperbole.
Since hyperbole is by definition untrue, there are two main concerns. One is how far the hyperbole deviates from the truth. The other is whether the exaggeration is harmless or not. I will begin with consideration of the truth.
While a hyperbolic claim is necessarily untrue, it can deviate from the truth in varying degrees. As with fish stories, there does seem to be some moral wiggle room in regards to proximity to the truth. While there is no exact line (to require that would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy) that defines the exact boundary of morally acceptable exaggeration, some untruths go beyond that line. This line varies with the circumstances—the ethics of fish stories, for example, differs from the ethics of job interviews.
While hyperbole is untrue, it does have to have at least some anchor in the truth. If it does not, then it is not exaggeration but fabrication. This is the difference between being close to the truth and being completely untrue. Naturally, hyperbole can be mixed in with fabrication.
For example, if it is claimed that some people in America celebrated the terrorism of 9/11, then that is almost certainly true—there was surely at least one person who did this. If someone claims that dozens of people celebrated in public in America on 9/11 and this was shown on TV, then this might be an exaggeration (we do not know how many people in America celebrated) but it certainly includes a fabrication (the TV part). If it is claimed that hundreds did so, the exaggeration might be considerable—but it still contains a key fabrication. When the claim reaches thousands, the exaggeration might be extreme. Or it might not—thousands might have celebrated in secret. However, the claim that people were seen celebrating in public and video existed for Trump to see is false. So, his remarks might be an exaggeration, but they definitely contain fabrication. This could, of course, lead to a debate about the distinction between exaggeration and fabrication. For example, suppose that someone filmed himself celebrating on 9/11 and showed it to someone else. This could be “exaggerated” into the claim that thousands celebrated on video and people saw it. However, saying this is an exaggeration would seem to be an understatement. Fabrication would seem the far better fit in this hypothetical case.
One way to help determine the ethical boundaries of hyperbole is to consider the second concern, namely whether the hyperbole (untruth) is harmless or not. Trump is right to claim there can be innocent forms of exaggeration. This can be taken as exaggeration that is morally acceptable and can be used as a basis to distinguish such hyperbole from lying.
One realm in which exaggeration can be quite innocent is that of storytelling. Aristotle, in the Poetics, notes that “everyone tells a story with his own addition, knowing his hearers like it.” While a lover of truth Aristotle recognized the role of untruth in good storytelling, saying that “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully.” The telling of tall tales that feature even extravagant extravagation is morally acceptable because the tales are intended to entertain—that is, the intention is good. In the case of exaggerating in stories to entertain the audience or a small bit of rhetorical “shine” to polish a point, the exaggeration is harmless—which ties back to the possibility that Trump sees himself as an entertainer and not an actual candidate.
In contrast, exaggerations that have a malign intent would be morally wrong. Exaggerations that are not intended to be harmful, yet prove to be so would also be problematic—but discussing the complexities of intent and consequences would take the essay to far afield.
The extent of the exaggeration would also be relevant here—the greater the exaggeration that is aimed at malign purposes or that has harmful consequences, the worse it would be morally. After all, if deviating from the truth is (generally) wrong, then deviating from it more would be worse. In the case of Trump’s claim about thousands of people celebrating on 9/11, this untruth feeds into fear, racism and religious intolerance. As such, it is not an innocent exaggeration, but a malign untruth.