By John Krull
In his first address to Congress, President Donald Trump engaged in a debate.
The contradictions in both the president’s rhetoric and his approach to governing were there from the beginning of the speech.
He started, somewhat oddly, by conflating the last day of Black History Month with the attacks on Jewish cemeteries and community centers across the country and saying that bigotry had no place in American life. But, then, he devoted much of the rest of his speech to arguing that immigrants were bad and dangerous – and used mostly anecdotal evidence to buttress his claims.
He pledged to deliver tax cuts to both businesses – because they’re job creators – and individuals, but also said that he would push for protectionist measures on products made outside of the United States if, in his view, other countries weren’t engaged in fair trade practices. Tariffs and other penalties for foreign-made goods, of course, result in an indirect tax increase for American consumers, who then must pay higher prices for those products.
He pledged U.S. support to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO – but also promised always to put America first.
He said it was time for both parties to come together, but then accused Democrats and Barack Obama of wrecking the economy, world peace and just about everything else.
That’s the way it went for much of the president’s hour-long address. Even though the president’s tone was milder than the bombastic one Americans have become accustomed to hearing, his basic intellectual incoherence remained the same.
Trump first would assert one side of an issue and, soon after, pivot to proclaim his support for the other side – generally without providing much in the way of reasoning or factual support for either side’s position.
It was Donald vs. Donald, in front of a huge audience watching him play every part in his new reality show, the president as star.
Just what the man wanted.
Just what he’s longed for.
No Donald Trump speech would be complete without a few Trumpian whoppers – deviations from reality, fact and truth that almost defy comprehension.
Perhaps the biggest of them Tuesday night was his mindboggling claim that 94 million Americans are out of work right now, which would suggest that nearly 40 percent of Americans are on skid row.
American carnage, indeed.
To get to that number, Trump – or his brain trust – had to lump in every American over the age of 15 who does not have a job. That number includes students, retirees, stay-at-home parents, the independently wealthy who don’t need to work, disabled Americans, Americans who are chronically ill and many, many others who either can’t work or choose not to.
The real number of unemployed Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 7.6 million – about 8 percent of what the president claimed.
And the real unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, which is in the neighborhood of full employment. (Economists disagree about the precise percentage that constitutes full employment, but agree it is less than 100 percent because there always are people between jobs for health, family or other personal reasons. Generally, economists tag the unemployment rate that squares with full employment somewhere between 3 percent and 5.5 percent.)
Perhaps Trump opted to fudge the unemployment rate in so spectacular a fashion because acknowledging the real number would make it difficult for him to argue that his predecessor, Obama, shattered the economy.
Whatever the reason, this and several other stretchers – the money may pour in from other NATO partners, but that cash doesn’t and won’t come to the United States – illustrates what may be the biggest debating point about the Trump presidency.
It isn’t necessarily ideological or partisan. The president said plenty of things Tuesday night that likely will cause concern for both Republicans and Democrats.
But that isn’t the real issue with Donald Trump.
When Lyndon Johnson was president, his critics referred to his penchant for manipulating the truth as a “credibility gap.”
Trump doesn’t have a credibility gap.
He has a credibility Grand Canyon.
Donald Trump spent much of Tuesday night arguing with himself and among the various positions he’s staked out.
It’s an argument he’s going to have to find a way to end if he wants to be a successful president.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.