Generally, inaugural addresses are not designed to be fact-checked. But President Trump’s address was nothing if not unique, presenting a portrait of the United States that often was at variance with reality. Here’s a guide to understanding whether the facts back up his rhetoric.
“Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.”
Trump engages in some sleight of hand here, equating “politicians” with “Washington.” The suburbs around Washington are among the richest in the United States, largely because of the federal government (which attracts people with college or advanced degrees). People either work for or lobby the federal government, and that was especially enhanced by the post-9/11 growth in defense and security contracts.
Among the 25 most populous metropolitan areas, the D.C. metro area has the highest median income in the nation — $93,294 versus a U.S. median of $55,775 — though growth has slowed in recent years, in part because of reductions in defense spending. Indeed, income in the D.C. area has grown essentially at the same rate as the rest of the nation since 2006, including a dip in median income during the Great Recession.
There is no empirical evidence that the D.C. area got rich off the rest of the country, as Trump suggests.
“You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
No matter how you measure it, the “movement” was not as historic as Trump proclaims it to be.
Trump is a minority president, in terms of the popular vote. He lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes to Hillary Clinton. Clinton had the largest popular vote margin of any losing presidential candidate, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. (Sam Tilden, however, in 1876 beat Rutherford B. Hayes by 3 percent in the popular vote, while losing the electoral college, compared to 2.1 percent for Clinton.)
Trump’s electoral college win, meanwhile, was a squeaker. Trump had narrow victories in three key states (and narrow losses in two others). He won Michigan by 10,704 votes, Wisconsin by 22,177 votes and Pennsylvania by 46,435 votes. So if 39,659 voters in those states had switched their votes, 46 electoral votes would have flipped to Clinton — and she would have won 278-260.
Overall, according to a tally by John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, Trump ranks 46th out of 58 electoral college results.
“Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities … and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Trump repeats a problematic talking point about crime and poverty in “inner cities.” It’s unclear what he means by “inner cities,” which is not a category by which crime or poverty is measured.
In 2015, 13 percent of people lived below poverty level inside metropolitan statistical areas, according to census data. That is on par with the national poverty rate in 2015, which was 13.5 percent. Overall, the poverty rate has remained relatively flat under Obama.
As we have repeatedly pointed out, violent and property crimes overall have been declining for about two decades, and are far below rates seen one or two decades ago. Homicides have spiked in major cities in 2015 and 2016, but the rates remain far below their peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”
Trump mixes up several things here. He seems to be referring to free-trade agreements in the first part of his sentence, though he ignores the fact that many U.S. industries also benefit and grow when they are able to sell products overseas.
As for subsidizing the armies of other countries, Trump appears to be referring to military bases that the United States has overseas. A 2013 Senate report found that the United States spent $10 billion a year on bases abroad, with 70 percent focused on three countries — Germany, South Korea and Japan. Germany is the center of European defense obligations, while the troops in Japan are the core of U.S. projection of power in Asia. The troops in Korea deter an attack by North Korea. Given a defense budget of more than $500 billion, the cost of maintaining these bases is a mere pittance.
The United States doles out about $6 billion a year in foreign military financing, with most of it going to just two countries: Israel and Egypt. But this money comes with a catch — most of it must be spent on U.S. hardware, creating jobs for Americans.
As for the “very sad depletion” of the U.S. military, this is hyper-exaggeration. One can argue about whether the military budget should be boosted, but there is no question that the U.S. military is stronger and more capable than any other nation’s. The website Globalfirepower.com ranks countries based on 45 factors, and the United States tops the charts. Here’s one small statistic: The United States has 19 aircraft and helicopter carriers, as of the end of last year; no other country has more than four.
“[We’ve] spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”
Trump appears to be referring to U.S. involvement in military adventures, such as the 2003 Iraq invasion he supported, and possibly foreign aid.
Foreign aid amounts to less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget, with about $18 billion going to economic and development aid and $8 billion for security assistance. Even the Marshall Plan advanced by President Harry S. Truman, designed to stabilize Europe after World War II, was only a little over $100 billion in today’s dollars.
So Trump only gets to “trillions and trillions of dollars” by including wars. The Iraq war is estimated to have cost $1.7 trillion through 2013, though one estimate says that the cost will rise to $6 trillion through 2053, primarily from paying the interest on the debt incurred to wage the war because the Bush administration chose not to raise the taxes to pay for it. But we doubt Iraqis would say the war made the country “rich.”
Contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, the United States is far wealthier than other nations. According to the International Monetary Fund, the United States has a gross domestic product of $18 trillion, one-third larger than that of China, the nearest rival and a frequent target of Trump’s attacks.
A Pew Research Center analysis found that the vast majority of Americans are either upper-middle income or high income; many Americans who are classified as “poor” by the U.S. government would be middle income globally.
“One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.”
Trump again engages in hyperbole, attributing all of the decline in manufacturing to foreign trade.
The number of U.S. workers engaged in manufacturing is now about 12.3 million, up from 11.5 million in 2010, after the Great Recession hurt many manufacturers. But that’s still a decline from about 17 million in the 1990s.
Some analysts calculate that between 1 million and 2 million U.S. jobs were lost after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2000. But economists believe the biggest factor in the decline in manufacturing is automation, not jobs going overseas. Another factor is decreased consumer spending on manufactured goods. A new report by the Congressional Research Service notes that “employment in manufacturing has fallen in most major manufacturing countries over the past quarter-century,” so the U.S. experience is not unusual.
“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”
Trump continues to attack companies that ship jobs overseas, and has promised to keep jobs in the United States. But Trump has had a long history of outsourcing a variety of his products as a businessman, and he has acknowledged doing so.
We know of at least 12 countries where Trump products were manufactured. Further, Trump products transited other countries through the packaging and shipping process — meaning that workers in more than 12 countries contributed to getting many of Trump’s products made, packaged and delivered to the United States.
“We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.”
“Welfare” is a broad term and can apply to people who are working but receiving some government assistance. If someone is receiving means-tested assistance, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not working.
Not all people eligible for welfare collect benefits. When they do, many of the benefits are contingent on the recipients working or actively searching for jobs, as a result of an overhaul of welfare signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. And even low-income families receive some level of public assistance.
According to the 2012 U.S. Census, about 23 percent of U.S. households with at least one person with a job received means-tested benefits.
Meanwhile, Trump is apparently unaware that participation has declined in means-tested programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).
Caseloads in the TANF program have declined over the past 15 years, from about 2.4 million families to 1.6 million families. After its post-recession peak in 2013, the number of people receiving food stamps has declined. In October 2016, there were 43.2 million people participating in the program, compared to 47 million in October 2013.
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