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tell it like it is

“Tell it like it is” is a common phrase used by politicians who want to highlight their own supposed candor.

Politicians who are “straight shooters” like to say that they “tell it like it is” without sugar coating any tough issues.

Of course, the idiom is widely used outside of politics too. Merriam Webster defines the term to mean “to say what the facts are: to speak about unpleasant things in an honest way.”

The phrase may have been popularized by the 1954 Roy Milton hit, “Tell it like it is.” Since then stars from Aaron Neville to Heart have also performed “Tell it like it is.”

The phrase is closely associated with Malcolm X. In a 1964 speech at the founding of the Organization of African Unity, Malcolm X told a cheering crowd:

Don’t you ever think that just because a cracker becomes president he ceases being a cracker. He was a cracker before he became president and he’s a cracker while he’s president. I’m going to tell it like it is. I hope you can take it like it is.

Just a few years later, “tell it like it is” became a catchphrase for supporters of the pro-segregation governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Wallace’s fans often yelled “tell it like it is, George” at political rallies.

By the 1970s, the phrase was so widely used and so well-known that it could be used ironically. A 1973 New York Times piece accusing Richard Nixon of dishonesty ran under the headline “Telling it not quite like it is.”  The article, a response to a radio speech by the president, opened:

President Nixon is on reasonably firm ground in contending that many of the anti‐poverty and other social programs created by Democratic administrations in the 1960’s failed in practice. But the way Mr. Nixon made the case was so partisan and selfserving that he probably was not too persuasive to those considerable number of people who still need convincing.

Voters tend to value politicians who tell it like it is. In 2016, a Washington Post exit poll found that 78 percent of Trump voters admired Donald Trump for what they called his ability to “tell it like it is.”

In the same poll, 63 percent of Trump’s supporters said they liked that he was a political outsider.

At the same time, some pundits complain that “telling it like it is” is just a convenient way to push overly simplistic policies. Writing in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Markovits said that politicians who pose as truth-tellers are often peddling divisive, destructive ideologies.

She compared Trump to the ancient Greek politician Cleon:

Both Cleon and Trump disparage the wordiness and thoughtfulness of others. Both claim to be brave enough to stand up to the establishment and lead ordinary people back to greatness. Trump’s calls for expelling Muslims, building walls, expanding the use of torture, and murdering the families of ISIS fighters are still not equivalent to Thucydides’ indictment of Cleon as the “most violent man in Athens,” but there’s been enough violence associated with Trump’s rhetoric and campaign that someone has already made a video compilation.

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