President Trump’s Unreality Show

Either the President of the United States is a knowing liar or he is very easily duped. Neither is a comforting thought.

Today, President Trump engaged in some grade A demagoguery to stir up xenophobia to help justify his tough stance on border security.  Via WaPo Trump answers critics of family separation policy with Americans ‘permanently separated’ from family by illegal immigrants.

Seeking to counter the intense criticism of his border policies, Trump invited families of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants to tell their stories of being “permanently separated” from loved ones.

“These are the stories that Democrats and people that are weak on immigration, they don’t want to discuss, they don’t want to hear, they don’t want to see, they don’t want to talk about,” Trump said at the White House.

First, yes, it is utterly tragic for anyone to be murdered or killed by another person.  I can also understand why a family member would be outraged if a loved one was killed by someone who was in the country illegally (since it would be easy to play counter-factuals).  But to use such examples is just stoking xenophobia and is not an adequate basis for making public policy decisions.  It is yet another example of Trump demonizing immigrants.

But much, much worse is his engagement with fantasy to bolster his position:

“Sixty-three thousand Americans since 9/11 have been killed by illegal aliens. This isn’t a problem that’s going away; it’s getting bigger,” he said. “Sixty-three thousand, and that number they say is very low because things aren’t reported. Sixty-three thousand, and you don’t hear about that.”

There is a really, really good reason you don’t hear about that.  It is because it isn’t true.  As Snopes notes:

According to data provided for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 260,743 homicides in the United States from 2002 through 2016 (the most recent year available.) It thus seems mathematically impossible that undocumented immigrants, who make up roughly 3 percent of the population, would have committed just under a quarter of all homicides in the United States during that time period. The bogus figure appears to have originated in a May 2006 post by Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa complaining about the “Day Without An Immigrant” campaign calling attention to the contributions of immigrants to U.S. community.

Even if one gives an expansive definition to “have been killed” to include things like drunk driving or accidents, the number is utterly nonsensical.  It is the kind of thing a xenophobe and a racist says to gin up anti-immigrant fervor. It is a conscious lie or a sign of a gullibility that demonstrates pure incompetence.  This is your crazy, drunk uncle claiming that because he saw it on the internet, it must be true.  This is insidious coming from the President of the United States.  Any educated person should be able to look at things like homicide stats, drunk driving stats, and just the general conditions under which people in the US are killed each year and work out that the numbers don’t add up.

Like I said in my post This Moment in Time, “A big part of this present moment is the degree to which supporters are comfortable being lied to.”

Who can defend this in any legitimate manner?

As an friend of mine I have know for many years said in the comments of that post:

So why lie? Not to convince, which is the purpose of having a dialogue among citizens and representatives in a democratic society, or where the rule of law compels people to make the most persuasive case about the proper interpretation and application of the law. Instead, it is the lie spoken to dominate — to demonstrate that you can say that the moon is really the sun, or that the Great Leader shot a hole-in-one his first time at the tee, and no one can really challenge you on it. Lies are not occasional, when they are expedient; they are a consistent, necessary tool for continually reminding people of who has power, and who does not.

While I just cited the use of the lie as a tool of domination in a totalitarian autocracy, it’s actually worse in a democracy. You may support the liar, and dismiss the lie as a personal pecadillo, or “just the way politicians talk” (a claim that’s always the last refuge of the politically and morally lazy). If you adopt this position, you have said to the person sitting next to you, in a restaurant, your place of worship, your workplace, the airport, your school, or the family gathering, that the compact among all of us is broken. There is no common interest. There is no shared reality. There are no agreed-upon standards for deciding the relative merits of arguments. You, through the mouth of your clan chieftain, speak. Others listen, and submit to the lies the way they must submit to your decisions, however cruel and unnecessary.

And, as noted in the quote, don’t kid yourself that “all politicians lie.”  Yes, politicians spin, and dissemble, and shade the truth (as do most humans), but most are not boldly contradicting reality.  Sometimes they are wrong, hopeful, and/or naive (“If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor”), sometimes they mean it when they say it, only to have to take it back later (“Read me lips:  no new taxes”), and sometimes they are self-serving in their accuracy while leaving out the broader truth (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”).*  And I do not want to re-litigate these quotes here, as that is not the point.  I think Obama actually thought people could keep their doctors (or, at least he hoped that would be the case).  I think Bush really did plan not to raise taxes.  And, technically, Bill Clinton appears not to have had coitus with Monica Lewinsky.  Yet, I can also understand why people have interpreted all of those as lies over the years.  But all of these, regardless of one’s views on the infamy of any of these utterances, are in a different universe than telling a crowd a made-up stat so as to deflect from the horrible policy of family separation as well as to stoke fears of foreigners.

The president, on this fact, is either an idiot or a liar of the worst sort.

This is the kind of thing that simply had to be called out, because it is the kind of thing that can lead to real ugliness and danger for the group of people being lied about.

Also:  we can all pretend like he was just referring to MS13 when he talked about “animals” but the reality is that impugns all immigrants (especially those from developing countries) on a near daily basis.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Hal_10000 says:

    It’s not even the lies, necessarily. That would be bad enough but what makes it worse is that he’s using those lies to stoke prejudice, hatred and fear. He’s using those lies to turn Americans against each other and against The Other. He claims that everyone is lying and he is the only avenue for truth. It’s conspiracy-theory-level BS (and let’s remember, Trump *is* a conspiracy theory crank on thinks like Obama’s certificate and vaccines). This puts him on a level deep below the lies you cite above, which were self-serving at worst. Putting aside whether they were lies or not, they were not being used to terrify the American public.

  2. @Hal_10000: It is pretty horrible and is usually the kind of nonsense one should expect from people like Alex Jones, not POTUS.

  3. Hal_10000 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The Jones comparison occurred to me as well. Jones is a bit more repulsive but Trump has actual power.

  4. Kathy says:

    [..]either an idiot or a liar of the worst sort.

    Not mutually exclusive.

  5. Hal_10000 says:

    Note: The WaPo figures out how that number came about. Basically, about a quarter of the prisoners in federal custody are illegals. Therefore King assumes they commit a quarter of the murders, a quarter of the rapes, a quarter of the assaults. This is all kinds of nonsense.

  6. PT says:

    yup all around. He cranks the reprehensible up to 11 to disappointingly thunderous applause. Que disappoint.

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    Reagan lied in a crazy way, but many of his lies were cheaply nostalgic and heroic rather cheaply fearful. You had to be hard-up to believe in Reagan’s America, but at least it was vaguely positive. Trump’s what happens when you spend time believing in Reagan’s America. The mask is torn away and it’s just this orange empty thing. Reagan was also far away–movies give you distance. He wasn’t a big star. He was just a familiar sight. But Trump is reality television. Context doesn’t matter. You don’t have place your lies in any sequence that makes sense.

  8. PT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    brain fight

  9. Jax says:

    Next time he pulls a stunt like this, ALL of the other major networks should show a competing event where all of the families of people killed in gun violence or school shootings show up.

  10. Yank says:

    The president, on this fact, is either an idiot or a liar of the worst sort.

    Why not both?

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Yank: One certainly does not exclude the other.

  12. TM01 says:


    But we all know that the blood of all the dead children is on the hands of those Russian NRA Terrorists!

    So now we can’t talk about the effects of illegal immigration, or worse, the sanctuary cities who literally let those criminals go?

    Are we just supposed to continue the lie that illegal immigration is a victimless crime?

    And when Trump uses the word animals when asked specifically about gangs, it should be pretty obvious who he’s talking about. Trying to expand that to anything else makes you look like an idiot or a list. Or both

    The confirmation bias is strong here.

    You Never Trumpers look dumber every day.

  13. wr says:

    @Modulo Myself: “You had to be hard-up to believe in Reagan’s America, but at least it was vaguely positive.”

    Except for the strapping young bucks and welfare queens in Cadillacs buying T-bones with food stamps. And the bold freedom fighters fearlessly defending El Salvador against those commie priests and nuns.

  14. teve tory says:
  15. MarkedMan says:

    Sometimes I wonder if it is right to call Trump a liar. To lie you must know what the truth is. Trump exists in an eternally angry spew of words, lashing out with whatever happens to tumble out of his mouth. In his world there is no recognition or interest in whether they are true, false or anywhere in between. So how did Republicans elect such a person? That’s an easy one. Starting in the time of Reagan and metastasizing with Gingrich, the “good” Republicans remained silent while their party narrative moved farther and farther into a meaningless churn of lies. I honestly can’t think of a single Republican issue in the past couple of decades that wasn’t barnacled to the sinking point with lies.

    As any but the willfully blind realized long ago the Republican Party of the past five decades constantly dog whistles to racists and white supremicists. But there is also an odder form of dog whistling that some party leaders engage in: they dog whistle truth. They will occasionally mutter something about how it is not “productive” to say that Obama was a secret Muslim or that “the earth may be warming but we don’t know if people have anything to do with it.” They want to signal to their reality-based constituents that they are really on their side but are too afraid to, well, actually be on the side of reality. It is a sad revelation of the state of the Republican Party that they feel they must, in the words of Churchill, surround truth with a bodyguard of lies.

  16. @PT: Indeed.

  17. All,

    I get that there are thing from the past (like the welfare queen bit) that we could talk about in term of veracity, as well as racist themes. But I honestly do not think that Trump and Reagan fit in the same category.

    Further, all you are doing is giving supporters of Trump a safe haven. First, if he really is like Saint Ron, then, well: awesome! Second, you are providing evidence to the contention that the libs always call Reps racists and liars and therefore the criticisms of Trump are just a new version of the same old thing and re not sincere expressions of a truly deviant president.

    I think Trump is uniquely problematic. Reagan wouldn’t be cozying up to Duterte, Erdogan, and Kim while starting fights with the G7 and Mexico. Reagan would not be actively undermining the post WWII economic system. Reagan would not be holding overtly racist and xenophobic rallies. Reagan would not have a Stephen Miller guiding immigration policy. Reagan would not have established “tender age” detention centers. I get that there have always been racial problems with a lot of GOP rhetoric and policies. I get that the statement that “Tax cuts pay for themselves” is not true. But that is not true in a way that is not the blatant, fearmongering lie that I am talking about here.

    I think that even if one hated the Reagan administration, one has to see the difference.

    If we want to deal with the very real problems with the current administration, saying he is like Reagan is both inaccurate and incredibly counter-productive.

  18. @TM01:

    And when Trump uses the word animals when asked specifically about gangs, it should be pretty obvious who he’s talking about. Trying to expand that to anything else makes you look like an idiot or a list. Or both

    The profound problem with this contention is that while yes, in context, he was referring to MS13, the reality is that he talks as if all immigrants could potentially be such a person.

    Plus, the way he is treating people at the border is pretty much like animals. As the cliche goes, actions speak louder than words.

    Defend it all you like, but from his press conference to announce his candidacy to the rally I am citing, he conflates immigrants with criminals.

    You are here defending lies in the name of denigrating fellow human beings.

    I notice you didn’t even try to defend Trump’s ridiculous claim. You seem to like his rhetoric and to have no trouble being lied to. Why is that?

  19. Modulo Myself says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Reagan cozied up to the likes of Rios Montt, so I’m not certain there’s a huge difference there.

    I do think that Reagan’s delusional lies offered some sort of ambient decency for those dumb enough to look hard for it. Trump doesn’t do that, simply because conservatives and Republicans are either terrified of decency and empathy or incapable of it.

    The big thing to me is that the Reagan lies were on the ascendant. If you look at America in the 80s, there’s more crime and AIDs. Conservatives legitimately believed that liberals would either die or repent. That’s not happening now. Imagine telling a gay couple with two kids in Park Slope that some grifter evangelical church in Missouri filled with idiots, child molesters, and cheats represents the future of America.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But I honestly do not think that Trump and Reagan fit in the same category.

    If I have given the impression I thought otherwise then the fault is mine. As much as I dislike Reagan he would never have sanctioned torture, nor the barbarism and overt racism that the current day party has devolved into under Trump. And, putting policy aside, although Reagan frequently lied, he was more decent then not. And I don’t mean this as damning by faint praise. All Presidents have extremely difficult decisions to make and not a one scores 100% on the decency side.

    It is true that actions have consequences. In bringing up Reagan and Gingrich (who I feel is significantly higher on the Trump scale) I’m trying to point out that inactions have consequences too. The failure to tackle Reagan’s lies enabled Gingrich’s much worse ones, which in turn enabled Bush’s lies that led to war. Excusing or ignoring torture under Bush led inevitably to the exodus of decent people from the party and an influx of those that were perfectly fine with torture. And all of these things were steps on the path to the moral catastrophe that is Trump.

    FWIW, I believe the Republican Party has too many vile people in it and is now irredeemable. The most likely scenario is that over the next 10-20 years it will whither and die and the Democrats will split into two factions (“Conservative Democrats”?). Eventually one of them will drop the “Democrats” from their name and we will return to a two party system.

  21. MarkedMan says:

    It’s also worth mentioning that the slippery slope path I outlined above could apply to any entity, including Democrats, Liberals and Progressives. I lump myself into that last category and so it is important that I call out the things I see that might take us down such a slope. For example, the ridiculous campus thought police constantly on watch for someone to say the wrong thing or for signs of “cultural appropriation” (itself a ridiculous concept) could turn out to be a phase that the young’uns are going through or it could be the start of a non-religious religious police. As a progressive, it is more important that fellow progressives call it out as nonsense then that Republicans do.

  22. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “I think that even if one hated the Reagan administration, one has to see the difference.”

    I agree entirely. I just hate the whole Saint Ronnie thing. But he was just a president who did some good and some awful things. Trump is trying to destroy the country, whether because he’s a Russian asset or simply because he’s as bad as any human on earth I don’t know.

  23. grumpy realist says:

    @wr: I don’t think that Trump is actively trying to destroy the country; it’s that the only thing that counts for him is his own ego. He’ll be perfectly happy if the US inadvertently goes to pot because of the actions Trump takes up to support himself.

    Like all narcissists, in fact.