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Opinion: Trump isn’t partial to facts — and he can’t be beaten by them

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It's hard to know what the point was, really.

The US President's nationally televised speech was yet another example of a tried-and-true Trump tactic: drop hints everywhere that this is going to be huge, never-seen-before, I-might-declare-a-national-emergency or then-again-I-might-not, grab everyone's attention — and then fail to deliver.

Donald Trump's first address to the nation from the Oval Office was supposed to change the debate and maybe even finally get the President his wall. In the end, Mr Trump said nothing new and it was a bit of a fizzer.

Like a year seven student writing his first persuasive piece for English class, Mr Trump threw out "facts" and "statistics" to add authority to his case. As usual, he sent the fact-checkers into overdrive. No, drugs will not kill more Americans than the Vietnam War. No, Democrats did not "request" steel instead of concrete. It's an all-too-familiar cycle.

On CNN, charismatic anchor Chris Cuomo railed at the President's — and Democrats' — refusal to deal in "facts". It was, he said, "amazing how everyone's trying to forget the history here". As though history itself is a series of incontrovertible "facts" to be recounted in order.

Cuomo's comments and the coverage of Mr Trump's speech once again revealed a widespread belief that "facts" and his failure to use or understand them will be Mr Trump's downfall.

If we just get the facts right, if we just explain it to people in the right way, the logic of this goes, then people will stop being racist and sexist and homophobic and they'll stop voting for Mr Trump. It is facts, surely, that will save America.

Trump stops short of declaring national emergency over funding for border wall

Facts aren't Trump's priority

Mr Trump, as we well know, isn't particularly partial to "facts". He didn't care about them in 1989 when he took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for a group of innocent teenagers, and he doesn't care about them now.

The problem is, Americans — and particularly the American media — still don't really know how to deal with Mr Trump's continuous lies and his willingness to double down on them when they're exposed. As hard as it is for many to believe, Mr Trump is not acting in good faith.

That's why when some networks agreed to carry his speech live on Tuesday (local time), so many insisted that they simply must run a parallel "fact check". It's why major outlets like the New York Times and NPR published "Fact Checks" on his statements almost the second he'd finished speaking. They've been doing that since he declared he was running for president, with, it has to be said, not much effect.

Mr Trump knows he's lying. He doesn't care. His supporters know he's lying. They don't care either.

There's no indication that's going to change any time soon. Brandishing "facts" at the President like a weapon simply doesn't work.

An effort to be 'presidential'

His usual approach to "facts" aside, Mr Trump did try to use his speech to reframe the debate about the wall. Adopting the language of Democrats who speak not of a "security" but a "humanitarian" crisis at the border, Mr Trump portrayed his desire for a "physical barrier" between the United States and Mexico as a fatherly attempt to protect the vulnerable. The United States is facing, as Mr Trump read awkwardly off the teleprompter, a "crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul".

Some commentators will no doubt label these grave statements and a focus on "heart" an effort to be more "presidential". But just as in his use of "facts", Mr Trump is still Mr Trump.

The United States is in the midst of a crisis of the heart and soul, but it's not because of immigration — illegal or otherwise.

The President's arguments for the wall — and the ardent support of his base — remain racist and divisive. America, Mr Trump said, has "run out of space". The President's graphic depictions of violence committed by illegal immigrants tapped into a long history of racism in America. His claim that a "flood" of immigrants threatens the lives of all Americans is one he has used before, and one that has enormous cut-through with his base.

But will it work with everyone else?

Who was Trump's audience?

During his speech, Mr Trump often seemed unsure who he was talking to — sometimes it was the base, sometimes it seemed to be House Democrats, and then sometimes those Americans who remain unconvinced that a wall is even necessary. In this case, it's the last two he needs, and not the first.

In a country so deeply riven by violence, his graphic depictions of rape and murder committed by "illegal aliens" must surely ring hollow to those he needs to convince. When the President demands to know "how much more American blood must be shed" most Americans know that when it comes to shedding blood, they're pretty good at doing that to themselves. Mr Trump could just as easily have been talking about domestic gun control measures, which Democrats are, once again, trying to pass in the House. But he wasn't.

Mr Trump suggested again that in America, rich, successful people build walls not "because they hate the people on the outside but because they love the people on the inside". Does anyone really believe that as a "fact"? Rich people build walls because they're afraid of the people outside. Mostly, they're afraid of other Americans outside of their walls. Many of whom have guns.

Mr Trump was trying, once again, to shift that fear onto a vulnerable and undeserving group of people.

It's not even clear that worked, this time.

Mr Trump hasn't convinced House Democrats, or those ambivalent Americans.

So the President will once again retreat to his base. He'll return to his enclave in the White House or Mar-a-Lago, read the bad reviews and rail that he didn't want to do it anyway, it was his advisers who led him astray. Enraged yet again, he will lash out — in who-knows-what direction.

The cycle continues.

Emma Shortis is a research officer at the Social and Global Studies Centre at RMIT University.

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