After watching President Trump’s primetime immigration speech Tuesday, my overwhelming impression was this: Why, oh why, did anyone think it was a good idea to air this on national television?
The most memorable portion of the address came when the president listed off a series of gruesome crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He went into graphic detail, discussing the use of a hammer on one victim and the dismemberment of another. This, he argued, is why America needs a border wall: Undocumented immigrants are dangerous, and their entry must be blocked at all costs.
Except this is false. The data shows that undocumented immigrants are actually considerably less likely to commit crimes; states with more undocumented immigrants actually tend to have lower crime rates.
So the most striking part of the whole presentation was a lie, a recitation of anecdotes designed to mislead Americans about immigration and gin up anti-immigrant sentiment to score political points.
There was no reason this should have been nationally televised. The president was not announcing news of grave national import, like an attack on American soil or a declaration of war. There’s no rule that networks have to air a presidential primetime address. President Obama once tried to deliver a similar immigration address, but the networks turned him down, saying it was overtly political.
Yet they let Trump deliver a propaganda speech, one that likely persuaded very few people and left at least some Americans marginally less informed than when it began.
The networks could have chosen not to air this. They did not. The result was a national embarrassment.
Trump’s speech: just, why?
Political scientists generally believe that presidential speeches are not actually very good at persuading the public. The people who are paying attention have already made up their minds, typically siding with whatever their party says. A speech by a Republican president may get Republicans interested in whatever the president is talking about but anger an equal number of Democrats. The net effect is pretty much a wash.
If you watched this speech, you’ll understand why this almost certainly isn’t an exception. Trump delivered his words in a relentless monotone, boring even those of us who had to pay close attention for professional reasons. Trump, a dynamic speaker off the cuff, just seems to be really bad at reading teleprompters. The only exception was the graphic description of murders, which also happened to be the most manipulative part of the address.
And the content was totally unsurprising. Everybody paying attention knows that Trump wants to build a wall, that he thinks undocumented immigration is bad, and that’s why he was willing to shut down the government. That was the entire speech, minus some details. There was no news value in hearing those things reiterated.
And the details ranged from banal to misleading to outright false. At one point, Trump implied that cracking down on undocumented immigration would end the opioid crisis. This is absurd for any number of reasons: Prescription drugs are a big part of the problem, most heroin comes in through ports of entry rather than being smuggled over the border, and a border wall (Trump’s biggest demand) would be particularly useless in stopping mass drug smuggling.
So in broad strokes, the speech likely persuaded nobody and made no new or particularly compelling arguments. The networks’ decision to air it, if it had any effect on the public, probably on net made the viewing audience less informed.
And the Democratic response was also somewhat pointless. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were about as boring as Trump was, simply reiterating their position that the government should be reopened and the status of the border wall should be determined later. Again, everybody knew that, and likely nobody was persuaded by their monotonous delivery.
There was no point in any of this. It was a waste of our time as a nation at best, and at worst made us a little bit more ignorant and a little bit more bigoted. Network executives need to ask themselves some hard questions about why they chose to air this, and just how complicit they are in the president’s ability to spread lies about immigrants with ease.