At Milwaukee rally, Trump’s facts launch flights of fancy

A mix of real and made-up numbers with no context

MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at UW Milwaukee's Panther Arena. Trump, who is the third president to face impeached, now faces an impending trial in the Senate. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at UW Milwaukee's Panther Arena. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

He promised to protect people with pre-existing conditions, while his administration pursues a lawsuit to throw out the Affordable Care Act that protects people with pre-existing conditions.

He insisted unemployment had hit the lowest point in history at 3.3% — ignoring that it was less than half that toward the end of World War II.

He bragged that annual household incomes were up by $10,000 since he took office. Census bureau data peg the number at $1,400.

Donald Trump’s Milwaukee campaign visit Tuesday night was his standard farrago of cheerleading braggadocio, fear-mongering fiction and all-around mockery, to the cheers of a boisterous crowd that applauded his boasts and laughed at his nicknames for Democrats who were that same evening holding their latest debate before the contest that will determine which of them will get to face him in November.

Republican lawmakers including  Sen. Ron Johnson, who gave a brief interlude about halfway through Trump’s speech, tend to focus most heavily on the administration’s economic record in making the case for his re-election. Yet for the first 25 minutes or more, the president whom a New York Times columnist once called “Donald the Dove” instead basked in stories of his own telling about military exploits under his administration, culminating with the recent assassination of Iranian General Gassem Soleimani.

When he did turn to the economy, one key to Trump’s performance appeared to be just enough restraint to know when to stay at least within grabbing distance of the facts and when to willingly embark on flights of fancy.

There were some exceptions — like his boasts about the unemployment rate in his first three years in office or inflating the growth in household incomes by a factor of seven. But typically when he reeled off a number, it showed up in reliable references somewhere close to what he claimed.

Take the boast of “a $40 billion trade deal with Japan — and a lot of it has to do with farmers” — a pitch to  Wisconsin’s agricultural base.

Indeed, that’s the estimate that has been bandied about in press reports on the overall value of the trade agreement announced in September in Japan. It will phase in a $7.5 billion reduction in Japanese tariffs on American farm products while the U.S. cuts tariffs on imported Japanese manufactured goods.

Yet, according to Japanese media reports, opposition lawmakers question the Japanese government’s own claim of $37 billion in Gross Domestic Product gains. 

Trump also  launched into a putative coming domestic manufacturing boom without bothering to explain how that would square with the presumed new surge of Japanese imports that the agreement would make possible. 

Or consider his claim of 7 million new jobs in his first three years, 1 million of them in manufacturing: “Nobody thought that was possible.”

The numbers are about right, but the accomplishment falls short of the last three years President Barack Obama was in office.

Repeatedly Trump lauded his own administration for the continued economic expansion that has been underway since the middle of Obama’s first term — framing it as a sea change rather than a continuation of a trend that started under his predecessor.

“As we begin the year, our economy is booming, wages are rising, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling and America is the envy of the entire world!” Trump said to cheers.

Indeed, wages, more easily measured in weekly earnings, have been creeping up — roughly 1% in the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, continuing a trend that began under Obama. Poverty is down, by about half of a percentage point, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, continuing a decline that started back in 2014. Yet the decrease seems hardly to suit the adjective “plummeting” by any objective measure.

Those and other data points fed Trump’s  message about an economic boom — one that took no note of data such as the recent uptick in mass layoffs reported to the state. (Interestingly, Trump also made no mention of FoxConn, the electronics manufacturer lured to Southeastern Wisconsin with a Trump-enhanced fanfare and the promise of thousands of high-salary jobs but that instead has produced persistent disappointment.)

While economic indicators rise, crime has been falling even longer — since 1993, the Pew Research Center reports. The center also points out that public perceptions are at times wildly at odds with the data, with 60% of people thinking erroneously that crime had risen in 2018 compared with the previous year.

Such nuances were absent inside the Panther Arena as Trump caromed from taking credit for the continued economic expansion to railing against the Affordable Care Act and economic regulation. On that theme exaggerated claims about the difficulty of disposing of economic compact fluorescent light bulbs and hyberbolic and unsupported accounts of malfunctioning high-efficiency dishwashers, faucets, and showers veered into a Seinfeld-esque stand-up routine.

In  a much darker tone, Trump  turned to an invented, massive crime wave by undocumented immigrants, extrapolating without evidence from a pair of arrests, one in Milwaukee and one in Madison.

By the end of his talk, he had swung back into classic campaign mode, drawing more cheers with promises to “make America wealthy,” “proud,” “safe,” then finally, “and yes, great.”

As he left the stage to cheers, the loudspeakers came up with music from the Rolling Stones.

The song was, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.