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If this was a businessman simply blathering about his wares, Donald Trump might be excused.
Donald Trump vs the truth
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Donald Trump vs the truth
Donald Trump uses a press conference after yet another primary win to rebut claims by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney that he is "a fraud".
But it wasn't, which is what makes Trump's performance so breathtaking. An artful sleight of hand, this was Trump's considered response to a savage attack days earlier, when GOP grandee and former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney denounced the New York billionaire as a failed businessman – "a phoney ... a fraud".
Piles of bottled water, bloodied raw steaks, wine and magazines were displayed to refute Romney's claim that Trump Water, Trump Steaks, Trump Wine and Trump magazine were embarrassing failures for the candidate who claims to be a businessman with the Midas touch.
Trump's water company is defunct – what he brandished in Florida on Tuesday was water from a non-related Connecticut bottler, who specialises in personalised or private labels on bulk orders.
The meat? Trump Steaks last sold in Sharper Image outlets across the US in 2007. What Trump displayed was the produce of Bush Brothers, a non-Trump entity. The candidate didn't even have the manners or the smarts to remove the Bush Brothers labels from the slabs of meat.
And the wine? Trump's son, Eric, is named as the president of Trump Winery. But online, there is this terse disclaimer: "Trump Winery is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed, or affiliated with Donald J Trump, the Trump Organisation or any of their affiliates."
The magazine was a quarterly that folded in 2009. When Trump threw a magazine to someone in Tuesday's crowd, it was a copy of The Jewel of Palm Beach, which is offered to guests at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
You'd think Americans were blessed that Trump's assault on national politics coincides with the maturation of a relatively new journalistic pursuit – fact-checking. But that Trump surges onward in the primaries is proof that the US indeed might have entered a new political dimension, a parallel universe in which old political sensibilities and conventions, and notions of tradition and elites are becoming redundant.
Fact checkers struggle to keep up. Marvelling at Trump's economy with the truth, Politico.com sought to correct Trump's own self-portrait:
- Trump didn't write the "No. 1 selling business book of all time". As best can be estimated, Trump's The Art of the Deal sold maybe 1 million; Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People sold more than 25 million.
- Trump is of German descent, not Swedish.
- He's probably not worth the $US10 billion he claims – more likely the $US4 billion estimated by Forbes; or even the $US2.9 billion estimated by Bloomberg.
Central to Trump's lies is how they are told.
Attempting to get to the bottom of one of his most outrageous utterances – that "thousands and thousands" of Arabs held rooftop parties in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from the World Trade Centre, to cheer the September 11 attacks – Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler threw up his hands while writing of efforts by a TV reporter to nail the lie while interviewing Trump. "This exchange demonstrated the folly of trying to fact-check Donald Trump," Kessler wrote.
After 12 years in the business of winnowing truth from falsehood, Factcheck.org claims that Trump is utterly in a league of his own – "he stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong".
Protester punched at Trump rally
RAW: A protester who was punched in the face at a Trump rally is arrested.
Trump had the nerve to demand an apology from the fact checkers who debunked the "US Muslims celebrate 9/11" lie.
Usually, Factcheck.org honours the lie of the year. But such was Trump's performance in 2015 that, for the first time, they recognised the liar above any particularly egregious untruth, bestowing on Trump the title King of Whoppers.
One of the more memorable descriptions of the Trump style of political speech came from commentator George Will – "think of a drunk with a bullhorn, reading aloud James Joyce's Finnegans Wake underwater".
In the Lingua Franca column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lucy Ferriss also resorts to Irish literature for her reference point: "As with the claim that Molly Bloom's soliloquy is the longest sentence in the English language, calling Donald Trump's explosion of language a sentence, stretched the meaning of the word 'sentence'."
An analysis commissioned by The Boston Globe found that Trump speaks to voters as if they are fourth-graders. A dissection of candidate speeches by Professor Mark Yoffe Liberman, of the University of Pennsylvania, for Thinkprogress.org, found that Trump's favourite word is "I"; his fourth most favoured word is "Trump", and when he ventures beyond one-syllable favourite words, he opts for simple two-syllable words, like "very" and "China" – "his only three-syllable favourite word is 'Mexico'".
Taking up a challenge by Slate.com to diagram a 285-word sentence uttered by Trump, Ferriss describes just a portion of it as carrying "a compound noun clause modified by an adverbial clause as its predicate; moreover, it drags along an adjectival clause that has no fewer than five sub-clauses hanging from it, just one of them carrying two noun clauses in the object position, followed by a whole architecture of complex adverbial clauses".
Ferriss concludes: "This is not fancy syntactical footwork on Trump's part. It's just bad rhetoric."
But where Ferriss sees madness in Trump's method, Professor Stanley Fish, of Florida International University, detects the language of the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who he describes as "one of the smartest men who ever lived".
Acknowledging that Trump does everything that a politician ought not do – disparage war heroes, ridicule the disabled, demean women, flaunt his wealth – Fish describes the Trump style: "There are no formal preambles; he just jumps in with a topic, that he then abandons within seconds. He never quite manages to make a point because on the way to it something else had occurred to him. He offers asides [often jibes at his rivals] that become the main path, but only till another aside diverts the path again. He interrupts himself to say something about his hair, or his hotels, or his apartment houses. He tells you that he went to [prestigious American business school] Wharton School. He reads from the polls. He recalls conversations with friends. He beats up on the press. And he does all these things in no particular order and with an apparent unconcern with either the coherence or relevance of what he's saying."
But if Trump is not Forrest Gump, who is he and what's his game?
Describing what Montaigne called as his "minute-to-minute" method, Fish explains the philosopher's objective in the Huffington Post: "The idea is to enter into a relationship of fellowship, not mastery, with your audience. You're not a superior intelligence leading your auditors by the nose; you're testifying to a shared experience; you're telling it like it is just as you see it."
Trump is incoherent, his scattergun streams of verbiage interrupted by half phrases that hang without meaning or relevance.
But more outlandish than anything he might say, is the willingness with which his audiences swallow it all – without so much as a glass of water. It's impossible to follow him, if you are looking for precise, policy-specific meaning; but maybe it's the balm effect of his speeches that rallies audiences looking for a gut reaction to all that is wrong in the lives and their worlds.
Barton Swaim, author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, writes in The Washington Post: "For probably the great majority of people who follow politics, the result is alternately comical and horrifying. But for people who have grown weary of politicians using vague and convoluted language to lull or impress their listeners, to preserve their options and to avoid criticism, Trump sounds refreshingly clear and forthright."
In the case of all of Tuesday's self-adulatory self-promotion, Trump's repeated boasts about the "great" deals he can cut seemed justified – the whole extravaganza was more infomercial than press conference; and the national TV networks, whose business is getting people to pay for advertising, gave the airwaves to Trump for all of it and for free. Nice work, Donald.
Tongue in cheek, The New York Times described Trump's marketing of Trump as "the most brazen display of meat in an American presidential campaign since last Thursday's Republican debate" – during which Trump assured millions of viewers he was well-endowed; for him, there was "no problem" with the size of what American males describe as their junk, package, and schlong among other descriptors.
And as the cameras lit on those misrepresented steaks and wine and water of uncertain provenance, CNN commentator Van Jones couldn't help himself. Bringing together the themes of language and truth during an on-air panel discussion, he declared: "There he goes – lying about his meat, again."