I’ve been meaning to write a piece urging you to ignore all campaign advertising. Collectively they are massive falsehoods. If some of the “facts” within them are in some defensible sense technically “accurate,” it doesn’t matter, because you can’t tell which ones they are. The odd claims that aren’t false are mostly just fuzzy promises of better days if the candidate or group sponsoring the ads gets power.
If this is an overly harsh generalization, it isn’t by much.
I decided to go ahead and let fly with my anti-ads screed today because I just watched one by the Donald Trump for President campaign, and it illustrates pretty well the generalization above about the general dishonesty of campaign ads. The ad is below.
Perhaps you are saying: Wait a minute. Donald Trump isn’t running for president this year. That’s correct, but if you watch the ad to the bottom you’ll see that it’s nonetheless paid for by the Donald Trump for President Campaign. It doesn’t end by asking you to vote for Trump; it ends “Vote Republican.”
If one were to make the silly mistake of treating such an ad as making an actual “argument” based on “facts,” the argument is that things were horrible until Republicans took over all branches of the federal government and have been great ever since.
At least that’s how stupid the makers of the ad think you are. Or maybe I should say how “gullible.” Or maybe I should say, like almost all TV ads, this one isn’t rooted in facts and logic. It is eyewash, brainwash, mouthwash.
It’s hard to actually “fact-check” an ad like this, although it purports to contain some facts, but the facts, while technically “accurate” in some sense, are distorted by being taken so far out of context as to be some category of falsehoods. The “argument” about how terrible things were until Trump came to the rescue relies heavily on jobs numbers. The first “fact” we hear is that new jobs have been created during the previous May, and the unemployment rate has fallen to an 18-year low. Those sound like “facts” and they sort of are, but in the larger sense they are lies or at least deceptions. This is how ads work.
The ad’s first “fact” comes from a newsreader on a CNN program called “New Day” announcing that new jobs created in May have driven unemployment down to its lowest level in 18 years. This is the beginning of the use of “true lies” to make the case for the continuation of Republican stewardship of the economy.
It’s technically true that during 2018 U.S. unemployment reached its lowest point in 18 years. But it’s some form of a lie because in the context of the ad script, it’s used to tout Republican stewardship. The last time unemployment was lower was the year 2000, at the end of eight years of Bill Clinton in the White House. Clinton, if you’ve forgotten, was a Democrat.
So, to restate, the argument for keeping power in Republican hands is that the last time unemployment was this low, a Democrat was president.
Soon after Republican George W. Bush took over the Oval Office, unemployment rose, at first modestly, and then drifted back down, not quite to the level he inherited from Clinton. But in December of 2007, the beginning of the eighth and last year of Bush’s presidency, the so-called housing bubble burst, wiping out trillions of dollars in value — which led to sharp drops in consumer spending and a general semi-collapse of the U.S. economy, leading to the disappearance of 8.4 million jobs, and a massive spike in unemployment from about 4.6 to 8.6 percent. It was the worst U.S. economic disaster since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Democrat Barack Obama inherited that mess when he became president in 2009, with the financial mess ongoing. In 2010, unemployment hit a peak of 9.6 percent and has gone down every year since, from 9.6 to 4.9 percent at the end of 2016, when Obama left office, and down further, to 3.6 in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (That would be six years of declining unemployment under Obama and two under Trump.)
I should say, with due modesty, that I am not a sophisticated economic thinker, and I do not know how much credit or blame the occupant of the Oval Office should get for economic ups and downs. My hunch is it’s probably less than they do get. And it’s true that during 2018, the unemployment rate is the lowest since Clinton days. But the drop in unemployment leading to this happy number occurred much more under Obama than under Trump. I emphasize that because the ad is supposedly arguing about the urgency of keeping Republicans in power.
Here is a Bureau of Labor Statistics chart of the unemployment ups and downs during the years we’ve been discussing.
You would have to be delusional, pretty full of yourself, or a colossal liar, or all three, to think that the main turning point in this story was when Donald Trump took over in 2017.
But, according to the Trump ad, it’s all about him and leads to the vital urgency of maintaining Republican control in the elections that are now one week away.
It would be more honest to say that the economy grew impressively during the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, crashed dramatically during the tenure of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, improved steadily during the last six years of the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, (although Republicans controlled Congress during part of that stage), and has continued to improve during the going-on-two-years that Republican Trump has been in charge.
But some of us do not quite trust Trump to be more honest when it comes to claiming credit or avoiding blame for himself or his party.
If you feel like it, watch the Trump ad again, with the above facts in mind. Fifteen seconds in, you’ll see a graphic of how awful things were in January 2010 (unemployment rate 9.7!) but no mention of the fact that Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress from 2001 to 2007, when the collapse started. (Republicans also controlled the Senate during much, but not all, of the George W. Bush presidency.)
It also doesn’t mention that, after rising during 2017, the first year of the all-Republican lineup in Washington, the Dow Jones average and the Standard and Poor 500 have declined so far in 2018.
But, if you go back and watch the ad again, you’ll see that other than gauzy images of happy (white) American families portrayed by actors, and nonspecific claims by the unseen (female) narrator, there are actually only two facts in the whole ad — an ad for the importance of keeping Republicans in charge in Washington — and one of those is the one I mentioned two paragraphs up: that unemployment hit 9.7 percent in January of 2010, when George W. Bush was president and Republicans controlled the U.S.House.