In his first address as president, Donald Trump broke one of his broadest promises even before he had finished. “The time for empty talk is over,” Trump declared near the end of a speech that was empty of specifics and chock full of exaggeration, outright falsehoods, and ugly campaign-style rhetoric.
Fact-checkers at NPR and the Washington Post had a field day compiling and refuting all the distortions in Trump’s dire depiction of the state of the country and his full-throated attack on government policies maintained by administrations of both parties for decades. Exhibit number one: Trump’s signature campaign message that “millions and millions” of Americans are out of work and countless factories shuttered because of jobs shipped overseas owing to unfavorable trade agreements.
At NPR, diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen noted the passage in a recent speech by Secretary of State John Kerry attributing 85 percent of job losses in U.S. manufacturing not to trade, but technology-driven automation. In the Post, Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee similarly noted that economists blame job losses on automation above all along with some decline in consumer demand for manufactured goods. But they also pointed out that despite the historic downward trend, manufacturing jobs actually increased a bit since 2010 from 11.5 million to the current level of 12.3 million.
Trump promised to get Americans “back to work,” but the current 4.7 percent level of unemployment is the lowest since November 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Trump’s “Buy American” and “Hire American” remedies for joblessness ignore the importance of export-driven job growth and fly in the face of the Trump Organization’s outsourcing of Trump-branded goods.
Trump’s “I have a nightmare” speech, as one wag termed it, pivoted off the supposed economic devastation to an alarmist picture of crime- and drug-driven “carnage” in the nation’s “inner cities.” Trump’s overwhelmingly white audience surely recognized the geographic term as a dog-whistle reference to racial and ethnic minorities. But Trump’s supporters need to know, as Kessler and Lee pointed out, that violent and property crimes overall have been declining for the past two decades. Homicides spiked in some major cities in the last two years, true, but the rates remain “far below” the peaks from the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
Inner cities are “trapped in poverty,” Trump declared, but the poverty rate of 13 percent in metropolitan area is roughly the same as the 13.5 percent national average, according to Kessler and Lee. And they responded to Trump’s promise to “get our people off of welfare” by noting that the number of people on the two major means-tested programs – Temporary Assistance for Needed Families (TANF) and Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) – has actually declined over the past 15 years from 2.4 million families to 1.6 milllion.
Trump described failing schools as “flush with cash,” but NPR’s education correspondent Eric Westervelt noted a study by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showing that 31 states are spending less per pupil today than they did in 2008. Trump similarly conjured up a false picture of “trillions and trillions” of dollars in U.S. military assistance and foreign aid. As Kessler and Lee pointed out, those programs amount for a tiny fraction of U.S. spending. Trump can get to “trillions” of dollars only by counting the cost of the Iraq war.
So many lies in such a short speech: 1,600 words. The “tens of millions” he claimed for his movement actually numbered far fewer than those who filled the National Mall all the way to the Washington Monument for Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. A side-by-side photo showed vast empty space for Trump’s swearing-in; later, photos showed many of the parade-viewing bleachers mostly empty.
Just as disturbing as the falsehoods were the many subjects that Trump never even touched. Surprisingly, he said nothing about health care: no promise to repeal Obamacare, nor any suggestion of how to ensure universal access to health care, as Trump has promised but not congressional Republicans. He did not mention climate change nor any other environmental issue. For all his supposed concern about the “forgotten” working class, Trump did not mention workplace safety, workers rights, or the minimum wage.
Trump’s glancing plea for tolerance “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice” included not even a pro forma promise to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws. Women's rights, nothing; LGBT rights, same. The LGBT page was gone from the White House web site well before the day was done.
Trump promised to “reinforce old alliances” barely a week after he had jolted the United States’ European allies by describing NATO as “obsolete.” He promised to “unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism” (capitalized in the original) and “eradicate [it] completely from the face of the Earth.” The crowd cheered, but the promise was as devoid of specifics as the many he made regarding domestic policy.
Apart from substance, the speech was also totally lacking in style: all platitudes and bombast, barked in Trumpian bursts rather than delivered. “America will start winning again, ” he promised, “winning like never before. ” George Will, the conservative and staunchly Republican columnist, pronounced it the “most dreadful” inaugural address ever. In the Trump era, the assessment can be stated more succinctly: sad.