Total shock and surprise reigned this morning when we woke up to find that the Associated Press had fact-checked Donald Trump’s Joint Address to Congress and found that almost every big claim made in the speech was false.
His budget plan will offer “one of the largest increases in national defence spending in American history”, he claimed, while actually Congress has raised budgets by larger percentages than the one offered by him (10 per cent) three times in recent years (2002, 2003 and 2008).
“The vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism-related offences since 9/11 came here from outside our country,” he stated, while government information suggests that just over half of those people were actually born inside the US.
“According to the National Academy of Sciences, our current immigration system costs America’s taxpayers many billions of dollars a year,” he continued, while the report actually stated that the children of immigrants “are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors to the population.”
And even when what he said was technically true, it wasn’t the full truth – like his claim that 95 million Americans are “out of the labour force”. That figure includes retirees, high school and university students, and stay-at-home parents who aren’t currently seeking work, so it hardly paints an accurate picture of the unemployment crisis he would have you believe Obama presided over.
He also said borders had been “left wide open” for “drugs to pour in at a now-unprecedented rate”. He’s right about the drug crisis – in 2015, 52,000 people in the US died of drug overdoses alone, more than the 43,000 who died during the 1995 peak of the HIV/Aids epidemic. But heroin and other hard drugs which move across borders are, as Vox points out, only a small part of that: almost two thirds of those deadly overdoses involved an opioid painkiller, for which pharmaceutical companies have to take some of the blame. That problem isn’t going away even if immigration from Mexico and Central America suddenly plummets to zero.
What about the money that’s “pouring in” from Nato, because of “very strong and frank discussions” with Donald Trump the hard negotiator? It’s been widely reported that this sentence was an ad-lib by Trump, absent from the original transcript of the speech. Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams, among others, said that this could best be explained by Trump taking credit for the 28 member states in Nato raising their defence budgets over the last three years or so – many of whom decided to up those budgets before Trump became president. It’s true that few of the member states were keeping religiously to Nato’s defence target of 2 per cent, but recent global events (not least European countries’ concerns about Russia after the annexation of Crimea) have played a part in changing that. It’s doubtful that the rhetoric of Donald Trump was the sole – or even the main – reason for those developments.
We know that this is a trend in Trumpland: The Donald likes to take credit for whatever he possibly can, whether or not the achievement in question is his own. “We’ve saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by bringing down the price” of the F-35 jet fighter, he claimed in his speech this morning, though these cost savings were secured entirely or at least mostly under President Obama (the same President Obama who’s apparently behind all those anti-Trump protests and White House leaks).
“As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens,” Trump told his adoring fans and his fierce detractors. “Bad ones are going out as I speak, and as I promised throughout the campaign.”
If only life and humans were like that, with the good ones and the bad ones and an easily agreed-upon delineation between the two. In reality, the message is very simple and the solution is very complicated. When politicians understand that, rhetoric still has its place. But when they don’t, and so attempt simplistic solutions while pushing patently false claims, things have the potential to go very wrong indeed.