Who Knew Honesty Could Work? On Donald Trump and Barton Swaim

In a political climate saturated with insincerity and cynicism, Donald Trump’s unfiltered candor—however abrasive—seems like a welcome relief. But the problems with our modern political climate begin with our own unrealistic expectation that politicians care about every facet of our daily lives.

The last eight months have been an education in politics. No one knows quite yet what the lesson is, but it’s clear that Donald Trump—or the phenomenon of Donald Trump—has something to teach us. The talking heads long ago gave up predicting his imminent demise, after time and again he upended not only conventional political wisdom, but also broader cultural assumptions about the level of civility required from would-be public servants.

It’s one thing to take a strident approach to contentious issues like illegal immigration; it’s quite another to mock a woman’s face or sneer at the “failure” of American POWs in being captured. Yet Trump does all this with impunity. In fact, he appears to attract growing numbers of devotees precisely because of his bluster, at least in part. Before Iowa, many erstwhile detractors had almost entirely resigned themselves to a Trump candidacy. His finish there shows that judgment was premature, but it also doesn’t give us much reason to think his campaign will lose steam any time soon. Indeed, his impressive victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina make him the undeniable front-runner.

There are a lot of reasons for Trump’s success, of course. His putative disdain for political correctness is one that is essential to his mystique. To cite but one example, when the political climate of the country is such that students at some of our leading universities agitate for the removal of “unwelcoming” American figures like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, there is bound to be significant blowback. Trump also undoubtedly benefits from the increasing homogenization of political and celebrity cultures. Who needs to curry favor with Lena Dunham types when you’re your own pop icon?

Being Blunt and Abrasive Seems to be Working

It’s clear that rhetorical skill has been critical to Trump’s ascent. Tellingly, the candidate who presumably should be attracting so much of Trump’s Tea Party and Evangelical support, Ted Cruz, has been frequently criticized for his off-putting persona. Trump’s ethos is that of a shrewd, no-nonsense, businessman-patriot. Meanwhile even Cruz’s admirers (of which I am one) are apt to describe him as, by turns, angry and unctuous. Perhaps this is odd given Cruz’s Bible-Belt bona fides—or maybe, paradoxically, it’s because of such bona fides. For all his genuinely anti-establishment standard-bearing, Cruz is clearly the more identifiably political candidate. He calls to mind Stanley Hauerwas’s old quip, “It is unclear whether Texas politicians first started looking like Southern Baptist pastors or Southern Baptist pastors started looking like Texas politicians.”

The fact that old-guard Republicans like Bob Dole have started throwing punches for Trump might seem to validate Cruz’s claim to be conservatives’ Long-Expected Reformer. Still, something about the Cruz persona—the earnestly affected stutter, the knowingly furrowed brow, the soothing tonal undulations—smacks of the same-old-same-old slick politician. By contrast, Trump douses his audience with bucket after bucket of ice-cold bombast—shocking, even painful, but ultimately for many, bracing. (And of course, a similar story could be told of the Democratic ranks. Who would have thought that a socialist curmudgeon could make Hillary Clinton #FeelTheBern? It turns out there’s something remarkably reassuring about a disheveled and flailing septuagenarian standing next to the embodiment of Washington politics.)

So our present situation raises interesting questions about the state of American political rhetoric. What has made this moment so right for Trump? Why are so many Americans attracted to the unfiltered harangues, the garish bravado, and the unapologetic self-promotion of The Donald?

Speechwriter’s Inside Account of Political Life Offers Answers

Barton Swaim’s recent political memoir, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, gives keen insight into these questions. Swaim candidly reflects on his experience as a speechwriter for the former governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Readers will remember Sanford as the rising Republican star whose presidential aspirations abruptly ended when he absconded to visit an Argentinian paramour instead of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Although Swaim focuses on his working relationship with the governor, the narrative never identifies Sanford by name. Swaim does this for two apparent reasons: First, it reflects his commitment (successful, in my view) not to write a disgruntled former-employee’s screed. Second, and more importantly, it allows Swaim to comment more broadly about the country’s political culture. The insights of The Speechwriter extend well beyond the idiosyncrasies of one governor or a single state: Swaim writes of American politics.

Armed with a Ph.D. in English from Edinburgh, Swaim took up speechwriting with romantic notions of wordsmithery: “The speechwriter, I felt, was a person whose job it was to put words in the mouths of the powerful, who understood the import and varieties of political language and guided his master through its perils.” As one might imagine, however, his ideal was soon lost in “one great blizzard of verbiage,” often intended to obfuscate more than anything else. Swaim found himself grinding out statements on every conceivable issue that “said something without saying anything. It would get the governor on record without committing him to any course of action.”

Most often Swaim achieved ambiguity through superfluity—padded phrases that fill out a press release without adding real content. “Law enforcement” becomes “state and local law enforcement”; citizens and political opponents are solemnly warned against “rushing to judgment” and “making accusations in the absence of evidence”—all words spoken with the intent to avoid substance. Other times, Swaim observes, the superfluity simply evoked desirable feelings in a constituent, rather than actively dissembling. By larding sentences with extraneous words and phrases—an “in large measure” here, a “Given the fact that” there—he said, “you’ve turned a perfunctory note into a heartfelt letter on which some time was spent.” It’s the impression—the feeling—that matters, not the meaning.

Swaim’s confession is insightful and often entertaining, even if it’s not altogether new information. He largely confirms common opinion: Most politicians trade in platitudes and ciphers. Then, when questioned further, they refer to their first equivocation as if the issue were long settled. If necessary, they snow the questioner under yet again with more of the same—or, in William Gibbs McAdoo’s colorful phrase, assail their audience with “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”

This is a grim view of politics, of course, but a distressingly valid one. Swaim contends, however, that the cause is generally misunderstood. The problem is not so much duplicity or cynicism as it is the unnaturalness of much of our political speech. Most people, he argues,

don’t appreciate the sheer number of things on which a politician is expected to have a position. Issues on which the governor had no strong opinions, events over which he had no control, situations on which it served no useful purpose for him to comment— all required some kind of remark from our office.

The necessity of having to generate so many statements on so many subjects, day after day, “fosters a sense that you don’t have to believe your own words. You get comfortable with insincerity” and detachment. Ultimately, words become political tools separated from their meanings. The unnaturalness of our rhetoric hollows it out.

Should Politicians Be Expected to Care as Much as You Do?

Now, this is very suggestive. Swaim does not spin out the implications, but the thrust of his analysis challenges a common assumption of our politics: that government can and should care about your personal well-being as much as you do. We expect from our politicians the solicitude of a country doctor. Why shouldn’t a presidential candidate care deeply that every American household has high-speed Internet access by 2020? Why shouldn’t he just be delighted to visit personally with the good folks of every last one of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties? As Barack Obama famously explained his criterion for Supreme Court nominees, the signal requirement of justice is empathy.

One is reminded of Senator Phil Gramm’s response to a government child-care booster who claimed to love the senator’s children as much as he did. “I am very pleased to hear that,” Gramm replied, “What are their names?” If Swaim is right, our political expectations have led us to an impasse in which we expect increasingly remote politicians to care genuinely about more and more in our daily lives. Yet, as James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, a great strength of extended republics is that they insulate and remove representatives from local interests (enabling dispassionate consideration of the common good). But Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw that American democracy would drift toward an administrative state that increasingly concerns itself with life’s mundane details. What eventually emerges is a contrived politics in which distant politicos are expected to have the affection and interest of a local magistrate. The upshot, as Swaim demonstrates, is an unnatural form of rhetoric that breeds insincerity and, if unabated, cynicism.

Into the midst of this mess jumps Donald Trump. Eight months into his campaign, one is tempted to call it all political genius—the work of a master entertainer, a purer strain of what everybody’s already been selling. But that’s too easy. It forgets the political self-immolation Trump committed time and again as he seized the national stage. If it had been foreseeable that his iconoclasm would prove so effective, rest assured, plenty of politicians would have been mocking Grandma’s blue hair. Yet in reality, “straight talk” is mostly just another cliché deployed by bet-hedging poltroons who have cultivated the habit of saying both more and less than they really believe. Contrast a man who parades around saying things the only possible virtue of which is that—if even for a moment—it’s what he actually thinks.

This is not to say that Trump isn’t an exhibitionist. Clearly he is. Still, he’s an exhibitionist who has made abrasive honesty one of his main stunts because, in our present political culture, candor is as electrifying as a trapeze act. Barton Swaim’s excellent book helps us think more clearly about why that’s the case. Now we have to do the hard work of figuring out what might be done about it.

An earlier version of this essay referred to the “late Senator Phil Gramm.” We are happy to report that Sen. Gramm is still with us, and we apologize for the error.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!