Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Amazing, Horrifying Age of Exaggeration

Published in The Wall Street Journal on October 27, 2020


Exaggeration is the oldest tendency of American humor. Politics, too. Think of Mark Twain and Huck Finn’s “stretchers,” or of H.L. Mencken’s railing against charlatan politicians and “the booboisie.” The genre of tall tales—America’s naive gigantism—began with John Henry and Paul Bunyan. It has come to gorgeous flower in the time of Donald Trump.

This is a golden age of American exaggeration. Gaudy, reckless overstatement, whether deployed in self-glorification, in vilification of enemies or in ideological hyperbole, has become the style of American public life on both sides of the political divide.

Once upon a time, as in Mencken’s work a century ago, exaggeration was fun; not so much now. Exaggeration has been militarized. It has been fanaticized. One meme after another gets puffed up and sent into combat, transformed into ideology and, in the case of a few choice exaggerations, sanctified in the minds of the faithful. It is politics as holy war.

You might expect a crisis as serious as that of 2020 to impose restraint: a spirit of sobriety, a style of narrative temperance. In a bad time, reckless exaggeration ought to be condemned as a sin against clarity and the common purpose. But it’s something of a civil war that Americans have on their hands, and so, addicted to their own righteousness as if to cocaine, they have abandoned restraint and made themselves at home in a madhouse of hyperbole.

Overstatement is Donald Trump’s natural style anyway. He exaggerates more shamelessly than the Wizard of Oz. His enemies return the favor and exaggerate him in the opposite direction, so that every day on Facebook and Twitter he’s a psychotic, he’s the anti-Christ, he’s Hitler, he’s the Tasmanian devil. The Trump artillery lobs back rhetoric that abuses Joe Biden as a corrupt, obtunded geezer infected with the socialist virus. Mr. Trump sums up the Bidens as “a crime family.”

Exaggeration is a symptom of self-importance and insecurity. Yet to describe either Mr. Trump or his enemies on the left as “self-important” is a wistful understatement. One might as well refer to New York City as the community across the river from Fort Lee, N.J.

The left’s exaggerations have a different tone and metaphysics from Mr. Trump’s carny-barking. The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” to cite one case, sets forth an invidious theory about slavery and race in America that obscures an essential truth of the country by exaggerating and distorting it to the point that it becomes, in effect, false. That’s the trouble with exaggeration. It turns a kernel of truth into a fancy lie. The first casualty of ideology is historical accuracy.

The subject of race has generated an idiom of exaggeration: The phrase “white fragility,” for example, has taken its place as the neurotic little sister of those twin brutes, “white supremacy” and “white nationalism.” All three terms—resonant, self-confident and self-evident to the minds of the believers—are irresponsible overstatements that started out as modestly accurate perceptions. Now, in their exaggerated form, they have become, shall we say, privileged stereotypes.

Exaggeration may also take the form of minimization, an effect that went to work over the summer in the phrase “overwhelmingly peaceful,” which was attached as a ritual epithet to “protests” or “demonstrations.” Americans were asked to accept the oxymoron of overwhelmingly peaceful riots. The Orwellian phrase, manifestly untrue, told Americans to ignore the flames, the ruined businesses, the rocks and bottles, the abandoned police precinct, the lasers aimed at cops’ eyes with intent to blind them.

Cartoon generalizations often work. Now and then they are costly. Hillary Clinton discovered that in 2016, after her crack about the “deplorables.” So, too, racial stereotypes of white people (claiming to know their very thoughts, conjuring the snakes of bigotry and meanness hidden behind their ice-blue eyes) are no more valid than hatefully generalized projections about blacks, Mexicans, Walloons, Uighurs or anyone else.

It isn’t an accident that the exaggerations of the 1960s and the exaggerations of the age of Trump—of the baby boomers in their youth and their dotage—are similar. They call to each other across the years. Both express themselves in the form of what might be called narcissistic generalization—an overstatement of grievances, needs, desires, hatreds, fears, impulses and indignations emerging from the emotions of the self-important and self-cherishing collective.

Politics in a democracy is by definition a circus of exaggeration; it deals always in the dynamics of competitive myths. You can’t get your party’s myth up and running without exaggerating a little: You can’t have saints or demons, heroes or villains, without hyperbole to make them vivid. Exaggeration is the yeast that makes the story rise.

It’s also true that electoral politics involves a Doppler effect. The waves of exaggeration intensify, rising in pitch, as the election draws near. After the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, with the crisis of election past, the Doppler waves normally recede and, soon enough, the constitutional process of acceptance sets in, bringing relief, possibly hope. But 2020 is much crazier than other election years. We’ll see.

Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”

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