The trouble with that ‘in defence of Trump’ column

In purporting to deliver a disinterested appraisal of the US president’s first year, Heather Du Plessis-Allan creates a perfect storm of misinformation, argues Branko Marcetic.

A lot of people will hate the column in yesterday’s Herald on Sunday column, which purported to explain “why Trump’s first year hasn’t been that bad”, for a lot of reasons. Not least that it exemplifies two of modern media’s most obnoxious tendencies – a thirst for click-inducing contrarianism and a striving for a self-defeating style of faux-objectivity – which together create a perfect storm of misinformation.

Heather du Plessis-Allan’s column is trailed on the front page of Sunday’s paper as “In defence of Trump: Why The Don ‘aint so bad”, (as an aside, that “‘aint” is a horrible typo). But the argument itself is framed, crucially, not so much as a defence of the president but as simply an objective recounting of facts that point to why Trump may well cruise to victory in 2020. In the process of doing the latter, it contorts the facts so heavily it winds up doing the former.

“Firstly, business loves him,” we’re told, and “the American stock markets are at record highs. That kind of sentiment gives businesses the confidence to expand and invest, and it means ordinary Americans get jobs and pay rises.”

This will be news to, say, the thousands of workers at the Walmart-owned Sam’s Clubs stores who turned up to work a few days ago only to learn they were out of a job. Or the hundreds more Carrier workers who lost their jobs to offshoring last week and held a press conference to tell the world they felt “angry” and “forgotten.” Or the employees of numerous other companies that have been sending jobs outside of the US, making a mockery of one of Trump’s central campaign pledges. It also might surprise those who have looked at the statistics and seen that the job numbers in Trump’s first year, while not bad, have been the lowest since 2011.

No matter. Trump, we learn, also “passed radical tax reform legislation when no one thought it was possible” and “the Supreme Court finally cleared his controversial Muslim travel ban.” Regardless of our personal view about these policies, we’re told, they “make him a winner in the eyes of his voters.”

Except Trump’s travel ban has only been temporarily allowed and remains in legal jeopardy, chiefly because of the president’s own ineptitude. Meanwhile, the tax bill is hated by not just most Americans, but Trump’s own supporters, many of whom will see their taxes eventually go up.

Even so, we learn, Trump has “huge support” from the public – 87% of Republicans – and his supporters exhibit “very little voter regret.”

But of course, Republican voters don’t decide elections. Self-identified independents – the largest voter bloc in the US – do, and they aren’t big fans of the president. And in fact, many Trump voters do exhibit regret. Rural voters have significantly turned against Trump, and he’s lost support in every state in the country, including Trump strongholds like West Virginia.

And it’s not hard to see why. Trump has reneged or not delivered on most of his core campaign promises – keeping jobs in the US, building a wall and ending Washington corruption, for example – and the “wins” he has racked up, such as the GOP’s tax reform, royally screw over his own supporters. It’s little surprise elections late last year saw a surge of support for progressive candidates around the US linked directly to voter disgruntlement with Trump.

You won’t read any of this in yesterday’s Herald column, because in the paper’s haste to craft a contrarian reckon, it ended up trading facts for Trump’s own talking points – “Jobs are back!”; “The stock market is booming!”; “Trump’s winning all the polls!” – that ironically paint him in the exact, fallacious way he wants to be seen: as a successful, competent and well-loved figure who is making America win again.

This wouldn’t have been possible had some weight been given to the actual effects of Trump’s policies. The awful nature of the Trump-championed tax reform bill, for instance, isn’t some petty, immaterial detail that we should wave away when we look back on Trump’s first year. It’s both a symbol of his failure as a political leader – betraying his voters and abandoning his own political agenda for want of a big “win” that eluded him the whole year – and a reason for the voter dissatisfaction that’s currently rippling throughout the US.

Normally, horse-race coverage that ignores the actual material effects of a politician’s actions is merely annoying. But when the figure is someone as extreme Trump – who’s not only emboldened white supremacists around the world, but is carrying out policies that are quite literally hastening the extinction of life on earth – avoiding such an approach to writing takes on a particular moral urgency.

Instead, yesterday’s column is the worst of every world. It avoids substantive issues in favour of horse-race-style coverage; it paints a misleading picture of Trump’s actual political support and poll numbers; and it avoids judgement over Trump’s policies, presumably to give the appearance of objectivity. In doing so it ends up crafting a narrative that is subtly complimentary towards him. I’d be tempted to call it fake news – but I don’t want to parrot Trump’s talking points.


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