President Trump will address the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday evening, after every American broadcast news organization granted him the rare presidential privilege of uninterrupted air time on their networks. This privilege was denied to President Obama in 2014, when he wanted to address the nation about comprehensive immigration reform, and the networks’ decision to give Trump the green light came only hours after he declared via tweet that “The Fake News Media in our Country is the real Opposition Party. It is truly the Enemy of the People!”
There has been a fair amount of hand-wringing from the mainstream press about granting Trump an unfiltered platform to tell lies, as everyone universally expects him to do. CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, tweeted that the address will “hopefully [be] surrounded by fact-checking.” Anderson Cooper defended his network’s decision by saying, “It’s not our job to argue for or against walls…. What is our job is to point out when officials are making their case disingenuously or dishonestly, when they’re making stuff up essentially.”
But Trump’s address is far more serious than a case of misleading people about basic policy facts, like the net migration flows at the border or the efficacy of physical border barriers. Tonight, Trump will bend the facts in service of a years-long racist and demagogic campaign against Latin American immigrants; he will assuredly dehumanize them as terrorists, criminals, and carriers of disease, as he has from the very first day of his campaign in 2015. This kind of rhetoric has led to violence from both vigilantes and the state, and meekly fact-checking his numbers is an insufficient remedy for airing Trump’s Fifteen-Minute Hate.
News executives need only look a few months into the past to see why this is dangerous. As the midterms approached, Trump’s lies and distortions about immigration spiked: In late October, Trump was advancing over 30 falsehoods per day about immigration, according to data compiled by The Washington Post’s fact-checking team. Many of these lies advanced the ludicrous idea that there was a caravan of dangerous people heading towards the US-Mexico border; according to Trump’s tweets, the “onslaught” of migrants included “MANY CRIMINALS.” That was not true.
But many people believed it. And some people acted. Robert Bowers, who shot 11 people to death in a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27, posted obsessively online about the caravan in the weeks leading up to the shooting. His specific belief that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was aiding the caravan in order to foment violence in the United States appears to have directly precipitated his decision to shoot up the Tree of Life synagogue; “Screw your optics, I’m going in,” he wrote online hours before the killings. (Trump also repeatedly suggested that the migrants were being assisted by George Soros.)
Then there was the case of the three men in Kansas who were arrested in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election for a plot to kill Somali immigrants in their homes, in order to “wake people up” about the immigrant threat. At sentencing this year, lawyers for one of the men asked for leniency because his client had been so whipped up by the national discourse on immigration. “The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” they wrote in a sentencing memo.
The immigration-reform group America’s Voice also tracked hate incidents by Trump supporters and staffers throughout the last presidential campaign, ranging from shouted slurs to actual violence.
Whether or not Trump directly incited many of these violent acts can always be debated; maybe these were people who in some cases would have lashed out anyway. But there is no question that Trump is creating an atmosphere of racial hatred and xenophobia, and, as it always has throughout history, violence follows.
Moreover, state violence is an unmistakable consequence of Trump’s rhetoric. His lies have provided a rationale and political support for a wave of mass deportations that has ripped law-abiding families apart, while confining thousands of children to cages. Some of these children may never be reunited with their families, while some have died.
“It’s killing people. These policies are killing people,” said Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who specializes in civil rights and has studied online hate speech. “They’re leading to a level of racialized violence targeting people of color and religious minorities. This is a decision to basically broadcast a racist, hateful speech.”
We know that Trump will continue these outlandish lies tonight; the entire point of his address is to create the impression of a “National Security crisis on our Southern Border” that does not exist. His administration has been advancing the obvious lie that 4,000 terrorists have been apprehended at the US-Mexico border in recent days, and even Fox News demonstrated this was false on Sunday, when host Chris Wallace completely embarrassed White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders by presenting the actual facts. CNBC later found that only six people were apprehended at the southern border for being on the terrorist database, and even that doesn’t mean they were actually terrorists, given the historical unreliability of that list.
Administration officials have at least been shamed into taking a small half-step back—Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen now says “the exact number is sensitive”—but it’s doubtful Trump will feel any such shame tonight; he will almost definitely make the same false claim.
And that gets to another problem with airing Trump’s remarks: it’s that he practices not merely garden-variety political lying but, rather, disciplined disinformation, as the Post’s Greg Sargent has relentlessly pointed out. The key difference is that disinformation campaigns repeat falsehoods long after they have been debunked, even by friendly outlets like Fox News. Fact-checking is powerless in the face of shameless demagoguery.
The networks’ decision to air Trump’s remarks on Tuesday with a few tart chyrons or on-air fact-checks is just not enough to offset the damage. Trump is unworthy of the airtime.
“We’re now at the point where if you don’t understand that the government is out of control, and is aggressively attacking the fundamental values and institutions of this country, then you’re not paying attention,” said Fernandez. “I think [the news executives] understand that. I simply think they have not figured out that the ways in which human-rights violations occur is not just that there are evildoers, but that there are institutions—and particularly in a democracy—whose job it is in times of crisis to stand up, and stand for something. They have not figured out that they are in this unique moment, where history will look back and say, ‘What side were you on?’”