Why does Trump just make stuff up in the State of the Union?

Donald Trump’s State of the Union message sounded like a rational if self-serving laundry list of dozens of platitudes and programs — you know, just like every other president’s. Except for one thing: He invented facts that are easily proven false. Why?

The rest of this post is based mostly on the fact checks in The New York Times and Politifact. I’ve indicated the source of my analysis in each case, but the text is my take on that, not theirs.

What Trump got right

According to the Times (first three) and Politifact (last three) these statements from his speech are true.

  • We recently imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods — and now our Treasury is receiving billions and billions of dollars.”
  • Wages were “growing for blue-collar workers, who I promised to fight for. They are growing faster than anyone thought possible.”
  • “When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Just two years ago. Today, we have liberated virtually all of the territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters.”

Politifact says these statements are true:

  • “The United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.”
  • “We have created 5.3 million new jobs.”
  • “Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place.”

What Trump made up

Here are some statements Trump just invented or vastly distorted.

  • “The U.S. economy is growing almost twice as fast today as when I took office, and we are considered far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world.”

The US economy grew at 3.5% in the third quarter and slowed in the fourth quarter. If you seek growth, China, India, Latvia, and Poland grew faster (Times).

  • “My administration has cut more regulations in a short period of time than any other administration during its entire tenure.”

Carter and Reagan cut more regulations (Times).

  • “We have . . . added 600,000 new manufacturing jobs.”

It was 454,000 (Times).

  • “The border city of El Paso, Tex., used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, immediately upon its building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country.

Completely fabricated. According to the Times, “El Paso was never one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, and crime has been declining in cities across the country — not just El Paso — for reasons that have nothing to do with border fencing. In 2008, before border barriers had been completed in El Paso, the city had the second-lowest violent crime rate among more than 20 similarly sized cities. In 2010, after the fencing went up, it held that place.”

  • “We had the case of the governor of Virginia where he stated he would execute a baby after birth.”

Made up. Northam discussed what would happen if the fetus was nonviable — it it was going to die anyway (Times).

  • “Nearly 5 million Americans have been lifted off food stamps.”

The number of people off food stamps since Trump took office is 4.1 million. (Politifact)

Why?

My question on reading these statements is: is there any penalty whatever for the president lying?

Candidates routinely stretch the truth on the campaign trail. Trump does it all the time in rallies and on Twitter. But this somehow seems different — easily verifiable statements, including numbers, that are just made up and then stated in a speech that Trump says is supposed to create bipartisan unity. Democrats have no reason to negotiate based on non-facts.

While there is room for disagreement on policy, there is not room to disagree about whether we have the fastest-growing economy, whether El Paso was crime-ridden and the wall fixed it, or how many people are off food stamps.

I think that once a lie becomes part of president’s story, he attempts to repeat it often enough that it seems like it must be true. The very idea of truth is under assault. Measured numbers are facts, to the extent that facts can be said to exist, and you don’t get to just make up your own.

The broader objective is a consistent effort to persuade voters that they may as well believe in Trump and the lies don’t matter. Of all the things the Trump administration is trying to do, this is the most dangerous. And there is evidence that even Trump’s voters who know he is lying and chaotic aren’t ready to vote for Democrats they disagree with.

What about statements that are partly true?

Here are some statements that Trump made that have a grain of truth in them, even if they’re not completely true. But given the lies, I don’t see how he gets the benefit of the doubt that we might extend to a different politician.

  • “San Diego used to have the most illegal border crossings in our country. In response, a strong security wall was put in place. This powerful barrier almost completely ended illegal crossings.”

Border crossings in San Diego decreased 91% between 1994 and 2018. More people started crossing in Arizona instead (Times). This wall actually worked, but in the midst of all the other lies, you begin to doubt it.

  • “As we speak, large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States.”

More caravans are coming from central America, but many now say they are going to stay in Mexico (Times). Ironically, this may indicate that some of Trump’s draconian policies are working. But of course, he needs to drum up fear to keep the pressure on to build the wall.

  • “We condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime [in Venezuela], whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.”

Maduro’s regime has destroyed the Venezuelan economy and made its people suffer brutally. But was it because he is socialist or because he is a corrupt dictator? Sweden is socialist as well, but it’s not a corrupt dictatorial hellhole.

  • “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”

This is by definition neither true nor false, since it is an opinion. But do we really believe that Hillary Clinton would have taken us to war with North Korea? There is no evidence for that assertion, and counterfactual predictions are impossible to prove in any case.

  • “African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American unemployment have all reached their lowest levels ever recorded.”

They did. Then they went back up (Politifact).

  • “And now for the first time in 65 years we are a net exporter of energy

Might happen next year, but not yet (Politifact).

  • “For years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by friends of ours, members of NATO — but now over the past couple of years, we have secured a $100 billion increase in defense spending from NATO allies.”

Might happen two years from now, but it’s not certain (Politifact).

When you lie, you don’t get credit for your accomplishments

The amazing thing about these half truths is that they contain elements that Trump could actually be proud of. The wall in San Diego did its job. NATO members are on track to spend more. Minority unemployment is way down. And we are still negotiating with North Korea, where a success is possible.

If Trump had done nothing but stick to true statements and accurate statements of his administration’s accomplishments, this speech could have been what it was touted to be — the basis for a start to bipartisan negotiations. I even think that Democrats would be willing to trade a wall for a set of other goals they might have.

But once you have committed to lying, there is no path back to being believed. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton could pivot to working with partisan congresses and actually accomplishing things. Trump burned those bridges long ago. And he can’t lie his way into being trustworthy now.

13 responses to “Why does Trump just make stuff up in the State of the Union?

  1. You are so right! How can they do that???

    It truly does not make sense — his success facts are good enough, why stretch the truth or out-right lie? It doesn’t make sense at all. Why wouldn’t a politician want his presentation be 100% infallible? I would not dare address the public with any information I couldn’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt.

    Having said that, a devil’s advocate might ask : “WHY” they chose those answers if they weren’t true? What intelligent person would do that?

    On the other hand, we know that the Times and Politifact are corrupt and political henchmen for the left. The Times will sell their daughter for a quarter, and are known for egregious fake news.

    It doesn’t make sense to “LIE” on purpose, so did they? Or do we just think they did?

    Like the item on San Diego above. Because legal crossings moved doesn’t mean the barrier story isn’t true. So, a lot depends on how the “truth” is interpreted, or what “excuses” are made to make it appear untrue. It’s like the Times saying the women in white were showing solidarity for the Virginia Governor. Those who don’t know better might believe it. After all, the Times never lies, right? On the other hand it could be an unpublished truth! I wasn’t there. I did not speak directly to any of them. So I can’t really say they did or didn’t. Can you?

    But doesn’t one just have to wonder WHERE their claims came from, and could there be another “version” of the truth? Remember Bush’s “WMDs” that the media told a hundred thousand lies about — every human on the planet knew there were no WMDs … well, except those who hid them — where they were later actually found and proven to exist. Could there really be something to the Media’s recent history of saying and doing anything to get a jab at Trump?

    It is indeed a travesty to lie to the public. How can they do that with a straight face? And, the bottom line is, do we need a fact checker to check the fact checkers?

    Unanswered questions. And, isn’t it a shame that there is no honor or trustworthiness any more? No wonder we’re in such bad shape.

    1. You seem a little loose with your own facts here, Fred. Such as Times and Politifact as “political henchmen for the left” and how the Times will sell their daughter for a quarter and are known for fake news. These are simple smears presented without evidence at all.

      Your case for there being no trustworthiness any more would be more convincing if it had any evidence behind it.

  2. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” But the idea of objective facts has been under attack by the right, as documented by Thomas M. Nichols in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (2017). Early in Trump’s presidency, one of a Trump campaign advisors–a woman named Ronnie, I believe–blithely remarked (paraphrasing), “I’m not sure there’s such a thing as ‘facts’ anymore.”

      1. Right. But I’m referring to a less-known quotation, by a lesser-known woman. Kellyanne maintains–and I believe her–that she meant “an alternative set of facts”: You say the sky is blue, and I say the sky contains ozone. Both facts are true. The other woman was baldly claiming that there is no such thing as objective facts.

  3. “…once a lie becomes part of president’s story, he attempts to repeat it often enough that it seems like it must be true.”
    That’s the point. It was Goebbels of the Third Reich who said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it…” The public of my age group has gotten accustomed to presidential lying all the way back to Nixon. We’ve grown numb to the discomfort one feels when you discover you’ve been lied to. We’ve become so busy and distracted trying to make a living and relate to others that we almost don’t care that we’re being deceived, and deception is at an all-time high. I’d like to see the Times and Politifact put as much energy into dissecting news items and fake ads on Facebook as they have this.

  4. The short answer is he’s a politician (now).

    It was interesting that NOR just ran a story that had what they reported that he said was mostly true. A few quibbles, but it was very favorable.

    I would like us to go deeper. Yeah, X is true, but Y is more important and Z is how you address them.

  5. Blatant and obvious lying does make sense for Trump in many ways. First, a percentage of the population will believe him and repeat the lie without checking. Secondly, when a paper like the NY Times fact-checks, it cements the belief in his base that they are “fake news” or “corrupt henchmen for the left”. That’s good for Trump. Thirdly, it induces fatigue in the opposition. They can’t keep up with the lies, just when they think we’ve reached the bottom, it goes deeper. Soon they give up caring. That’s intentional. Lastly, it’s a classic bully tactic. Yes, I lied, yes it’s obvious…. what are you going to do about it, wimp? This is very difficult to counter especially if you can convince a large percentage of your followers that any opposition to these lies are themselves lies.

  6. I’ve wondered whether the human brain is hard-wired to believe something “true”, if it’s repeated enough. In childhood, we first start learning about “truth” (facts, or the facts others want us to know) thru rote memorization and repetition (recite those multiplication tables 100 times….); this kind of learning occurs long before we begin to use reason (logic, fact checking, empirical observation, comparing diverse perspectives, etc….) to determine what’s “true”. Much of early childhood is a kind of conditioning (thru repetition) to accept certain beliefs as “true”; often, we continue holding on to those core beliefs, despite the counter-arguments of reason.

    So, if Trump tells himself something enough times, does he himself actually come to believe it as “true” (Initial “lying to self” becomes “delusion”). If Trump (or any other public figure) knowingly tells a lie enough times on camera, will many people (including many initial doubters) eventually endorse it as “true”?

    1. And I like Andy’s comment that “It producces fatigue in the opposition.”. Overwhelmed and fatigued: We want to fight back but don’t know which of a thousand atrocities to target; we may feel dizzy (from the overwhelm), nauseous and too exhausted to continue fighting. Pre-existing cynicism about government corruption may exacerbate hopelessness and exhaustion, further disempowering the opposition.

      Classic bully tactics, whether in the school yard or in politics. Is Trump a bumbling, narcissistic monkey….or is he a master strategist who could write “The Guide to Becoming a Dictator in 10 Easy Steps”?

  7. It is interesting to see George W. Bush included in your list of Presidents who could work with “partisan” Congresses. I think W has been the biggest beneficiary if the Trump presidency, having been almost normalized after being labeled “Worst President Ever” and the biggest liar since Nixon by the resistance of the first decade of the century. One supposes his unlikely friendship with his successor has helped his rehabilitation.

    In regard to the main theme of your column, Trump is by nature an exaggerator. The W administration used to talk about creating their own reality to much mockery. However, real estate developers are in the business of literally doing just that, and Trump s first and foremost a developer. Politicians are a lot like builders. FDR created his own reality out of the Great Depression. Reagan created his own reality out of the despair of the post-Vietnam era.

    That’s what leaders do. They set the mood of the masses, evoke emotions that set in motion Keynesian animal spirits.

    Trump plays fast and loose with the facts to create an emotional reality that matches his vision of the facts on the ground. In then 90s we called it spin. Trump is perhaps the Galen of spin doctors, but he dopes it himself instead of through surrogates.

    The 30+% of Americans who believe him won’t check his facts. Most of the rest won’t either. Those who loathe him are the ones who most relentlessly fact check every stat he utters.

    Debunkers will change few minds on either side. When it comes to politics, people don’t think, they feel. Facts don’t work on emotional positions.

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