In the past few weeks, even before nearly the entire country went on lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, Donald Trump has been addressing the country in daily press conferences. With all due respect—all due respect—they’re bananas. He contradicts his experts, denies the observable realities we’re all experiencing, and jovially pats himself on the back for his great handling of the situation. Part campaign rally, part authoritarian strongman exhibition, and part flagrant fabrication, they’re a daily reminder that “unreliable” is Trump’s most consistently redeeming quality.
There is, of course, profound astonishment among Trump’s opponents that anyone could watch or read his daily pressers, or follow his equally banana-candy Tweets [I’m not linking to those], and not come to the conclusion that Trump is both deeply unhinged and profoundly unfit to lead the country during this global crisis. So why hasn’t that happened?
My answer is that Trump’s supporters are getting everything they need from him during this crisis to confirm what they thought about him when he was running for President: that he’s utterly sincere, and therefore, completely trustworthy.
If you know anything at all about me, you won’t be surprised to hear that I think rhetoric can shed some light on the situation.
In rhetoric, sincerity has long been a subject of much discussion. For more than 2000 years, theorists of rhetoric, including Aristotle, Cicero, and Hermogenes, have argued for the importance of sincerity in effective speaking. Hermogenes, for example, writing in about 165AD, ranks sincerity as one of the foremost goals of persuasive speaking because it convinces an audience that the speaker is someone who is really, deeply committed to an issue, even if they may happen to be wrong.
According to Hermogenes, one shows sincerity by being spontaneous (or at least, by appearing spontaneous). Spontaneity appeals to people’s sense of truth because an orator appears to have “really suffered and is moved and is overcome by emotion and does not know what they are saying” (89). For a good [sic] example of appearing sincere by appearing spontaneous in pop culture, you can spend some of your quarantine time watching the 1998 movie, Bulworth.
I don’t want to lose the thread here. A speaker who appears sincere comes across to audiences as authentic and trustworthy, even if the audience knows they’re wrong or lying! That’s Trump’s appeal. The sincerity is what commands trust, not the words coming out of the speaker’s mouth. True facts coming from a speaker who seems insincere are far less effective than out-and-out lies from a true believer.
It’s fairly easy to observe this dynamic in action. For example, a common critique of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign was that she was “market-tested.” In 2017, for example, David Remnick reviewed Clinton’s post-campaign book, What Happened, for The New Yorker. Remnick writes, “Clinton’s previous books … were more brand burnishment than human expression; they were performances of virtue or anecdotal enumerations of her travels and accomplishments before an upcoming campaign, everything rendered in cautious, sometimes disingenuous, market-tested prose” [my emphasis].
Andrew Bacevich strikes a similar chord is in his new book, The Age of Illusions. In reflecting on Bernie Sanders’s appeal in 2016, Bacevich writes, “‘Feel the Bern’ spoke to people in ways that Clinton’s market-tested campaign slogan, ‘Stronger Together,’ did not. Sanders was neither warm, nor fuzzy, nor particularly eloquent. Even so, he conveyed a sense of tell-it-like-it-is authenticity.”
These are two published examples of the “market-tested” critique from left-leaning writers. Unpublished examples from left, right, and center (accompanied by varying levels of vented spleen about Clinton) are legion. It’s worth noting that these examples are both rendered in relatively uncontroversial terms—neither Remnick nor Bacevich feel the need to defend their assertions, and in fact both are relatively amenable to Clinton. Nevertheless, “market-tested” is a widely-accepted commonplace about Clinton, so it doesn’t really require much qualification. It’s banal.
It’s also damning for a public speaker.
Hermogenes, again: A person who is not speaking spontaneously appears to be “a person who is sober and knows what they are doing and has planned this out and who desires to slander his opponent. We do not believe this kind of person, because they do not speak spontaneously or vividly” (89). Consequently, “Someone who speaks spontaneously seems to be very convinced of what they are saying, but someone who seems to have planned out their remarks is not equally convincing” (89).
Anything Clinton said, wrote, or produced was subject to the accusation that she only said it because it had been approved in a lab somewhere to appeal to the most potential voters. By contrast, although far less factually truthful than Clinton, Trump appeared more trustworthy to a lot of voters because he was obviously not market-tested. He was off-the-cuff and spontaneous, and therefore, sincere and authentic.
Flash forward four years to a global pandemic. Every day, Trump trots out in front of the cameras to put on a show—one he wants you to know gets the best ratings!—and he performs as spontaneously as ever. So the facts are wrong. So the sentiment is callous, tone-deaf, or hostile. So he doesn’t actually make any logical sense. It doesn’t shake his supporters’ faith because it proves that he “really suffered and is moved and is overcome by emotion and does not know what he is saying.”
In fact, his bananas pressers may even make his supporters more committed. I mean, what good are the best facts if the doctors and scientists standing around him won’t even commit to misrepresenting them in all sincerity, right? But Trump…well, Trump is totally committed.
Sincerity has become, in a lot of circles, the most important attribute of a leader (mostly on the right, but not only on the right). So the more Trump lies, the more incomprehensible he is, the more ridiculous he sounds, the more sincere and authentic he seems. And that’s how he keeps people committed even when he’s telling them lies that their own eyes can see.
Cecil W. Wooten, III. Hermogenes’ On Types of Style (University of North Carolina Press, 1987).