“I am the greatest.” — Muhammad Ali
We are what we speak. We are the bodies emerging from our language. We are loud, shy, hesitant. We have trouble finishing our sentences ... or finish them again and again. We are restrained, unrestrained. We aggress through language. We retreat. Our language — using the gambler’s term — is a “tell” to our listeners. We are what we speak. And Muhammad Ali proved that — on the rare occasion — we are right.
But now, in our Oval Office, we have the self-anointed Crown Prince of Hyperbole. Hyperbole is that figure of speech claiming extremity. “My IQ is one of the highest,” Donald Trump tells us (the “one of” seeming to be a concession). Nothing is nuanced for the hyperbolist. The hyperbolist — like those once-a-year Best & Worst issues of magazines — has no middle-ground. There’s no nuance. Others are your friends....or your enemies. “Meryl Streep (is) one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood.” (There’s that pesky “one of” again. I guess that’s what a hyperbolist would call modesty.)
“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me.” All of them! Not many or most: all. This is the man shaping U.S. foreign policy. “The point is, you can never be too greedy.” Nothing is too hyperbolic for the Crown Prince. “My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”
The hyperbolist is unmoderated, bereft of nuance or of any finely calibrated consideration. There is black and there is white; there are no shades of grey, no grey matter. If the world has color, it is only primary color and, in Donald Trump’s case, yellow is eliminated. The only primary colors which matter are red and blue. “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.” Go red! There is no Art in The Deal. Art requires the presence of both history and culture.
Count the number of times the word “very” appears in any Trump announcement. It’s not enough for our current president to indiscriminately hyperbolize; he has to underscore it with the word very. And then, often — as if any additional emphasis were needed — he repeats what he’s said. This is going to be a great victory. Very great. Very. “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. Mark my words.”
Mark my words? Could the words be any more marked than they are? Sadly: yes. Almost every news photo frames our current president pointing an emphatic and underscoring finger. This is a man with hyperbolic body-language.
The vast extremities of the hyperbolist suggest someone manic-depressive. His flips from best to worst occur at an almost bipolar mach speed. We’re told (and re-told) that America will be made Great again. Then — in the next breath (echoing Shakespeare’s King Lear who says, ”the worst is not so long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” — our Crown Prince warns: “I really am convinced we’re in danger of the sort of terrorist attacks that will make the bombing of the Trade Center look like kids playing with firecrackers.”
Americans love the Crown Prince. Just ask him. “We are going to have an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout for the inauguration.” At the same time, “The world is a horrible place.” One develops whiplash going from one hyperbolic extreme to the other. Yet perhaps Americans thrive on whiplash. They seem to require it more and more in their neck-breaking theme-parks and video-game entertainments. And perhaps the Crown Prince is slyer than we’ve give him credit for.
“People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do,” Trump once said. “That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.”
How does it feel to wake daily surrounded by a crude and anxious wordscape of immoderation? Will these be the best or worst of times? I ask the same question hour by hour. We are what we speak. Pray that we may all cherish whatever beauty-of-language we might find. And that we may live to be able to live through this stretch and leave the club-wielding hyperbole to the Visigoths and the Huns.
David Kranes is a playwright, fiction writer and writing mentor living with his wife, Carol, in Salt Lake City.