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politics

Trump's Trouble with Numbers Is America's Problem Now

The new administration's insistence on exaggeration and fuzzy math is a bad sign for the next four years.

by Harry Cheadle
Jan 25 2017, 8:26pm

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Back when Donald Trump was just a guy who put his name on skyscrapers, casinos, and steaks, no one needed to worry too much about his habitual exaggerations. Braggadocio comes with the territory for being famous and getting richer by playing a rich guy on TV—the public didn't want Trump to be humble any more than they wanted Paris Hilton to be bashful. He was persistently on-brand before being on-brand was really a thing. That meant, for instance, badgering Forbes in an effort to get the magazine to revise its estimates of his net worth upward. (Forbes said Trump was worth $3.7 billion at last count.) It meant being "obsessed" with the ratings of The Apprentice, according to a former NBC PR man. It meant showing up at a struggling school in the Bronx and handing out a fake million-dollar bill.

In the course of this on-brandness, Trump could, well, exaggerate sometimes. When journalist Tim O'Brien challenged him on his net worth, it led to a lawsuit during which Trump was forced to admit that his sense of his worth was based on his own feelings. When The Apprentice's ratings dipped, Trump told that PR man to keep telling reporters it was a number-one show. And he actually only gave that Bronx school $200.

None of these things really hurt anyone (well, the parents at the school were disappointed). Trump might have been a billionaire, or so he insists, but he wasn't a particularly powerful one. He was on the fringe of American life, a sideshow, a hype man, the type of dude who gets roasted on Comedy Central—where, incidentally, he demanded that no one make fun of him for having less money than he said he did.

This fuzzy math, however, is going to matter a lot more now that Trump is the most powerful man in the country—and the consequences could be more far-reaching and severe than many people think. 

The federal government does a lot of things, but a major function involves tracking the basic facts of American life: how many people live in a certain place, how many of those people are out of work, how much money a bridge will cost to build, how much the IRS collects in taxes, how many pollutants are floating in our air or swimming in our water. Public officials use those numbers to make policy, journalists use them to report on various problems facing the country, average citizens can look them up if they're curious about something. Sometimes there are debates about the relative importance of certain numbers, but a great deal depends on people more or less agreeing about basic facts.

When a basic fact challenges Trump, he tends to reject it. He did some routine number-stretching during the campaign, regularly exaggerating the sizes of the large crowds he attracted to emphasize how hugely, big-league popular he was. And this habit has continued after his win: On Monday, he sent his press secretary Sean Spicer out to tell the media that more people had attended his inauguration than Barack Obama's. This sparked more debate about crowd size and invited coverage that was unflattering to Trump, but it also indicated just how insistent this administration is going to be when it comes to defending the president's assertions.

The size of a crowd is not really going to affect public policy either way. What matters more is Trump's subsequent insistence that millions of people voted illegally. On Tuesday, Spicer told the White House press corps that the president "believed" this to be true, but didn't offer any evidence. When reporters pointed out that if this were true it would be a huge scandal that should be investigated, Spicer demurred and didn't say if there were plans to investigate. Everyone, including mainstream outlets like CNN, pointed out how truly ridiculous all this sounded—but on Wednesday morning, Trump showed how far he was willing to go, calling for an investigation (via tweet) into this supposed voter fraud. 

These accusations closely follow right-wing claims that it's easy for fraudsters to vote multiple times because millions of people are registered to vote in more than one state. But it's not illegal to merely be registered to vote in two different places (as White House adviser Steve Bannon reportedly is), and the fear is that crackdowns on voter fraud will just make it harder for poor people, particularly minorities, to vote, giving Republicans an electoral advantage. The millions of phony votes may just be a "belief" of Trump's, but that belief may have real-world consequences. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Trump has indicated that he thinks the unemployment rate might be "42 percent," which is based on a faulty understanding of how unemployment is measured. When Spicer was asked on Monday what the unemployment rate is, he didn't even say, instead talking about how the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) puts out "several versions" of that number. But the unemployment rate is a very specific statistic that measures the percentage of people who are actively looking for work but haven't found it, and according the the BLS, it's currently 4.7 percent. It's right there on the federal agency's website. (Since his election, Trump has also exaggerated the number of undocumented immigrants with criminal records.) 

So, will Trump and his administration ignore his own government? Will certain true information that has been put out by the federal government be taken offline, a la the White House's order that the EPA remove its climate change page? Will federal employees be put in the awkward position of having to contradict their boss when he exaggerates or else follow along in his untruth? (Spicer in particular is already in a pretty miserable position; he wouldn't say when asked if he agreed with Trump about the alleged voter fraud.)

The numbers that the federal government tracks aren't fungible like the value of Trump-owned properties. They monitor realities—they are how we judge a policy's success or failure, the basis for conversations about the direction America should take. The danger isn't that the president keeps exaggerating, it's that people start thinking the government's numbers are just as suspect as Trump's. 

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.