Polman: Donald Trump's fact-free marketing of fear
CLEVELAND – I knew it would be a long night when Donald Trump launched his acceptance speech with a promise to speak "honestly," telling the crowd, "There there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else."
As if. When a con man offers to sell you Arizona land with a view of the ocean, it's best to guard your wallet.
Trump's inspiration was clearly that canny fearmonger of 1968, Richard Nixon. Trump borrowed heavily from Nixon's "law and order" template — he bellowed, "I am the law and order candidate!" — but, perhaps more importantly (and oh so predictably), he emulated Nixon's well-honed gift for shameless lying. Not that Trump actually needs any help in that department, from anyone.
And by the way, it's a bit rich that a guy with a record of mob ties and a looming trial for his fraudulent university, has the gall to parade himself as the candidate of law and order.
If credibility still means anything, if we still have any standards, then his portrait of a dark America begs to be challenged. It's hard to know where to begin.
He harangued a lot about "the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation," about the "lawlessness that threatens their communities." What he didn't say — and this is what the FBI stats say — is that violent crime has steadily fallen over the past 25 years, and that crime today is much lower than it was in '68 when Nixon campaigned for law and order.
He was particularly incensed that a "border-crosser" had recently killed a young woman in Nebraska. He assailed the "nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records (who) are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens." What he didn't say — and this is from a Department of Homeland Security study — is that you have a far greater chance of being killed in this country by a white citizen. Between 2010 and 2014 a grand total of 121 people released from immigration custody were later charged with murder. That's roughly one-thousandth of a percent of all the undocumented immigrants in America.
Another Trumpian scare: Syrian refugees. In his words, "there's no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they came from." Truth is, we've had a vetting system since 1980.
Multiple federal intelligence and security agencies vet the refugees, and the process for each one typically takes one to two years.
Trump also riled up the crowd with Clinton's supposed legacy of "death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness." In his version of history, Clinton is the reason we have ISIS, because "in 2009, pre-HIllary, ISIS was not even on the map." The truth is that ISIS was birthed in Iraq in 2006 — three years before Clinton became Secretary of State. It was a byproduct of George W. Bush's disastrous American invasion. And even though it's true that ISIS gained steam during the Syrian civil war, Secretary Clinton had pushed at the time — unsuccessfully — for the delivery of arms to rebel forces.
During his speech, the lies and cons took a number of forms. Early in the speech he took a stab at substance, promising to "outline reforms" that would bring America "millions of new jobs and trillions of new wealth." He said, "these reforms...I will outline tonight." But somehow he never got around to the outline. As usual, hewing to the Great Man Theory of History, he simply said, "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it" — just like he vowed to erase crime by dint of his Oval Office presence. Someone outside his fawning family cocoon should remind him that there are three branches of government and the separation of powers.
Did his speech resonate beyond his credulous fan base? Can he craft an electoral majority with his magical thinking? We'll soon find out. But it appears that he has long prepared to test that proposition.
As he boasted nearly 30 years ago in a best-selling book, "I play to people's fantasies....That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole."
I call it something else.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.