When the Boy Cries Wolf

We the people are drunk on exaggeration. Like, literally wasted.

OK, not literally. Maybe we are afraid others will not believe us or appreciate the magnitude of a story unless we inject a little juice. Whatever the cause, we have stripped powerful words of their punch.

Our hyperbole extends beyond everyday conversation. In February, for example, CNN’s 2016 presidential election coverage boasted that an article offered “Literally everything you need to know about #SuperTuesday.” Really? Literally everything? I couldn’t possibly come up with a question Wolf Blitzer failed to answer?

We are beginning to see unintended consequences for our embellishments. Consider what I call “The Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome.” We use frightening, apocalyptic terms to describe people or events that do not warrant such descriptions. In the process, we deplete our cache of intense language and have nothing fitting to say when we genuinely need to sound the alarm bells.

There are plenty of examples of this, but the Affordable Care Act provides a pretty solid case in point. The law’s similarities to former Republican presidential nominee and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s health care agenda did not prevent Republicans from laying it on thick. They decried it as unconstitutional, despite it being upheld by the Supreme Court. Former Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson described it as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” while former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin falsely and repeatedly assured it would lead to “death panels.” I have grown so accustomed to hearing President Barack Obama described as a socialist that sometimes, I forget he literally is not.

Some might argue that over-the-top accusations in American politics are as old as Jefferson and Adams. Fair point. But that does not eliminate a crucial question: how will we know we are facing legitimate concerns or crises when we loosely label so many things as such?

I have a hard time imagining a Donald J. Trump presidency, but I also had a hard time imagining him as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Given the nature of his campaign so far, I am not optimistic about either scenario.

Despite Mr. Trump’s recent shift to a more conciliatory tone, many Republicans and Democrats seem to share my view, with prominent conservatives and liberals alike calling him a fascist, racist, and sexist demagogue. Valid as these charges may be, we have heard them before. Democratic Senator Robert Byrd said President George W. Bush reminded him of Hermann Göring, while Vice President Al Gore, employing another Nazi allusion, referred to certain Republicans who defended President Bush and the Iraq War as “brownshirts.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has accused President Obama of “demagoguery,” and several FOX News commentators have ironically claimed the first African American president is a racist.

It is unusual that figures from both parties are coming together to assert Mr. Trump is not only unappealing but downright dangerous. Respected politicians of many stripes are scared at the idea of him leading our country, and they are scrambling for the right words to convey the threat he poses.

Unfortunately, they have already used so many of the right words at the wrong times, leaving us with warnings that sound woefully similar to warnings past. We are out of words when we literally need them most.