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?
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)
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.