Critical Thinking Guide: President Trump’s First National Address

Tonight, President Trump will address the nation during prime time (9pm EST). Major networks will carry the speech. The Democratic leadership will rebut the speech afterward. The speech is expected to focus on the following claims from the President:

  1. There is a national security crisis at the southern U.S. border.
  2. The crisis is the result of an historic wave of illegal immigration through that border outside of checkpoints and border crossings.
  3. Only the President’s oft-repeated “wall” can solve the problem.

This is a brief guide to thinking critically about the claims of the President.

Baseline Statistics on President Trump’s Honesty

President Trump’s honesty when he makes claims has been assessed independently by a number of fact-checking organizations. Typical information gleaned from these analyses is as follows:

  • President Trump lies about 70% of the time he utters a claim. For instance, PoltiFact’s Trump Scorecard indicates 444 claims that were mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” out of a total of 638 evaluated (and fairly distinct) claims. He repeats a lot of his false claims over and over.
  • The Washington Post Fact Checker tracks false claims vs. time and found that as of Dec. 30, in the first 710 days of his presidency, he has made a whopping 7645 false claims… that’s an average of about 11 per day, and that’s an increase over time. He utters more false claims per day now than he did in the first half of those 710 days.

Helping You Navigate Claims

Things to watch out for:

  • The President is an adept liar and propagandist. Watch out for logical fallacies typical of his style:
    • The Either/Or Fallacy: the misleading argument that there are only two solutions to a complex problem, and you have to choose one or the other.
    • The Ad Hominem Attack: making personal attacks on opponents, which distracts the audience from thinking critically about your actual substantive claims.
    • The Straw Man Fallacy: defining your opponent in base and simple terms so that it’s easier to attack them or knock them down. For instance, painting all people who attempt to cross the southern border as “murderers” or “rapists,” or in general “criminals”. See the Washington Post’s cheat sheet to understand the real demographics of people currently attempting to enter the U.S. through the southern border (below).
    • Cherry Picking: selectively only emphasizing a minority of data to portray the majority. For instance, the President likes to cite the few cases of violent crimes by illegal immigrants, even though that population commits such crimes at a rate less than that of U.S. citizens.
    • Appeal to Emotion: using language intended to make you angry or sad, which then by-passes your critical thinking mechanisms to evaluating the real claim.
    • False Equivalency: describing two things as if they are the same, when they are not. For instance, claiming that migrants seeking asylum is the same as illegal immigration (these are highly distinct things, especially in the eyes of the law). Another example would be equating all illegal immigration to southwest border illegal immigration. In fact, most illegal immigration is done by overstaying a visa, and the single largest culprits in that category are from Canada, then Mexico.

The above are a few ways the President, or any skilled propagandist, will attempt to deceive you by short-circuiting your slower and more careful critical thinking mechanisms. Remember, the burden is on the President to justify that (1) there is a national security crisis, a physical threat to the U.S. due to unique circumstances at the southern border, (2) that the attempts by people to enter the U.S. illegally are the primary means of implementing this threat and (3) that the numbers of illegal immigrants, people who cross the border without the intent of seeking asylum or other legal means, can be stopped by spending $5.7 billion to construct about 200 miles of wall.

The Washington Post has already cataloged a cheat sheet to help you unwind the 20 mostly likely claims the President will make or repeat tonight:

Keep this resource handy if you choose to listen to what I believe will largely be a misleading propaganda speech intended to shore up support from his base, but otherwise attempt to mis-inform the general public (based on the data from his past behavior).

Update

Here are links to the President’s speech and the rebuttal by Democratic leadership:

Here is the Washington Post Fact Checker’s evaluation of the president’s claims: claim evaluation from Jan. 9, 2019.

Resources