When the Truth Isn't True

Despite the fact that the US Presidential election is almost a year away, I’m ready for the campaigning to be over. In the last few months, we’ve seen our share of drama, name-calling, schism, and scandal. Same old, same old, right?

Unfortunately, no. If anything, the Republican primary has already been full of unsettling surprises, not the least of which is the disturbing popularity of a man who is anything but conservative. And it’s left many folks—conservative, moderate, and liberal alike—scratching their heads wondering, “Why is Donald Trump so popular?”

In this recent New York Times piece, Justin Wolfers argues that Trump’s popularity stems from his rhetorical style rather than what he’s actually advocating. Trump’s willingness to speak the unspeakable signals to many folks that he’s “authentic”—despite the fact that unspeakable things are often best left unsaid.

In this respect, people are not gravitating toward Trump’s specific positions so much as his willingness to speak flamboyantly and promote positions that are so obviously apolitically correct. They think he’s not like other politicians so he’s trustworthy. The problem, of course, is that Trump is being entirely political. He’s hit on a winning, albeit risky, strategy, and there’s no reason for him to stop.

But as manipulative as Trump may be, the larger concern is that so many people are foolish enough to be manipulated. The real problem is that people generally have a hard time differentiating between what “sounds true” and what is true. And the result is that some folks, like Trump, get away with speaking falsehood because of it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this of “truth-tellers” like Trump:

It is only the cynic who claims “to speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth… . He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which “cannot bear the truth.”

Bonhoeffer’s observation is even more striking when you remember the political and social milieu in which he existed: Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer watched as political leaders leveraged violence, fear, and divine right in order to gain power. Today, we look back at the atrocities of WWII and wonder how it is possible that an entire populace could participate in them.

The simplest answer is that they were convinced they heard “truth” in the Nazi message.

The potential that we could believe something to be true simply because of it “sounds true” is particularly significant for those of us who worship a Savior who identifies Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As Christians, it is essential that we learn the difference between what is true and what “sounds true.” If nothing else, we need to learn the difference so we can protect our own churches from pastors, teachers, and yes, political leaders, who would manipulate us to gain power. We must learn to spot the difference between a person who is actually living out the truth and one who is simply using “truth” for his own ends. We need discernment.

But not that kind of faux discernment that relies on feelings and false instinct. This approach to “discernment” is exactly what men like Trump are manipulating. They’re counting on your suspicion of the establishment. They’re counting on your search for a “truer” explanation of reality. They’re counting on your emotional response to their words rather than your analyzing the content of them. So in order to be discerning in the face of such “truth-tellers,” we must learn to evaluate the effect of their words. According to Bonhoeffer, we must answer these questions:

  • Do the truth-teller’s words set him up as an exclusive source of “truth”?
  • Do the truth-teller’s words mock the poor and weak?
  • Do the truth-teller’s words break trust?
  • Do the truth-teller’s words shame?
  • Do the truth-teller’s words make light of private mysteries and sacred spaces? Does he boldly go where angels fear to tread?
  • Do the truth-teller’s words destroy the bonds of community?
  • Does the truth-teller mock those who disagree with him? Is it their fault for being unable to receive “truth”?

A person who speaks this way–whether he is in your circle of friends, in politics, or in the church–is not telling you the truth. He may use the language of “truth,” but he is manipulative, self-assured, and dishonest. He many not be the “smooth-talker” that we generally associate with falsehood, but he is speaking falsehood nonetheless. And you must not be deceived by it.

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There are 9 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I believe this analysis is pretty much correct. I've heard so many conversations now where people independently of any prompting from me laud Trump's seeming authenticity... because he seems to say whatever comes to mind at the moment.

I get that we're all tired of over-calculating, underprincipled politicians.

Why is it better to have an under-calculating, underprincipled politician?

(But, as Hannah has suggested, there is more calculating going on than meets the eye. Trump mostly knows what he's doing.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Sean Fericks's picture

The last two cycles, people voted for the "real hope and change" guy.  He did not major on specific policies.  He majored on vague populist dribble.

Trump observed, and is utilizing the same.

Don Johnson's picture

That someone like Bonhoeffer is cited in support of truth.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

jreeseSr's picture

The general population of America has lost its ability and worse its desire to "evaluate" information or candidates to measure against a given list of "principles". The truth is the average American could read "conflict of visions" (Sowell) and not really come into alignment with one side or the other..We are persuader by "sound bytes"  of popular talking heads and will follow them to the sea.  We deserve to be here for we have ceased to be a thinking people.

Trump will destroy the Republican party whether he wins or loses the nomination for he will lose the general election if he wins the nomination and the Party is split eternally, If he loses the nomination his ego will require him to be the spoiler and lead his angry crowd to parts unknown..either way the Grand Old Party is done for..


Darrell Post's picture


I don't think the outlook is necessarily that grim. Much of Trump's support is the celebrity status he enjoys. This support crosses party lines. A recent impromptu poll done at a Trump event in Iowa revealed that half of his support came from people who had never voted before in the GOP caucus.

But outside of the celebrity status, some are drawn to Trump because he is willing to overturn tables and throw chairs. It is hard to see how he lasts deep into the primary process. There is a reason this is a process and not a national primary day. Also keep in mind that many states are 'closed' primaries or caucuses, meaning one would have to register as a Republican to receive a GOP ballot.

Trump is already trailing in the first state to vote, and his lead in New Hampshire, the second state, could easily erode. All the national polling is pretty meaningless as the state by state results from the first four states (IA NH SC NV) shape the opinions of the GOP electorate going into the March 1 Super Tuesday states.

The way this looks to be shaping up is for Cruz to win IA, then Rubio wins NH. Then Cruz in SC, followed by Rubio in NV. The others quickly melt away as they won't have the funding and network to stay competitive in the list of a dozen states that votes on March 1. Also note that March 1 includes a strong contingent of deep south states, making the path for a moderate (Christie, Kasich, Bush) to gain any traction.

So on March 1, its all Cruz and Rubio, with a slight edge to Cruz. Then as the month of March plays out, the states more favorable to Rubio vote, and he pulls it out in the end.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Fortunately, being wrong about some things doesn't make us wrong about everything.

Jim, on death of GOP. You might be right, though I'm praying not. Then again, maybe it has to die before something better can rise up. But I'm not optimistic that something better would.

Some would argue the GOP actually died with Reagan and it's just taking this long for the corpse to cool.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Don Johnson's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Fortunately, being wrong about some things doesn't make us wrong about everything.

But that isn't the way he is cited. He is cited as a saint whose opinions have value. He may have said things that were true, but he said much that was in error and his theology and philosophy were extremely suspect. Christians don't help other Christians by quoting him as a legitimate Christian authority.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

jreeseSr's picture

Darrell,,, I do hope your analysis to be correct..I would tend to lean more to Cruz, but could accept Rubio. I believe Rubio is less principled than CRuz but more electable in a general as he would be seen as a GOP Kennedy....young, progressive, with the added humble beginnings. May also bring more Latinos to the fold. His association with the "gang of 8" will hurt him in the primaries but help him with moderates..It worries me that he likes the "good life" and is willing to "stretch" to get it, but maybe I am paranoid. My ideal candidate :

1. Small less intrusive government that respects the other authorities of (a)Personal priesthood( Individual) (b) Family and (c) Church.

2. Less global intrusion in the name of "Righteousness".  "The tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots"-P Henry... Theirs not ours ! Yes Saddam Hussein was a "bad man" but a great counter balance to theocracy of the area..No "W" everyone does not deserve Democracy...only those willing to die for it !

3. Fiscal responsibility  : We may be too late for this out side of a 5-7% consumption tax for ten to fifteen years earmarked to the deficit in addition to a flat income tax tied to a "balanced budget" ammendment... neither party has the courage to embrace this !


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