SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Should I even write this? A reflection on Trump, Trudeau, and trade

Usually, a reporter’s job goes something like this: New information emerges. We describe it, evaluating the accuracy and significance of that information. Story by story, truth accumulates.

Say, for instance, a US president makes some remarks about his country’s trade balance with Canada. Simple: We’d explain the president’s ideas, present facts that support or challenge his reasoning, and explain the context and the potential significance of his comments. Run a chart, and bam—we’re done.

But in the age of Donald Trump, things just don’t work that way anymore—as I discovered when I attempted to write a story about today’s hubbub over Trump’s comments describing a previous meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Trump’s style of communication is a bug in the reporting system. At almost every point in the task sequence described above, the process crashes.

First, I thought I might try to describe the event. In the vaguest terms possible, I might write, “US president Donald Trump voiced his views on trade with Canada in remarks he made at a fundraiser Wednesday night.”

But what did Trump actually say at the fundraiser? The transcript reads like Larry David’s impression of George Steinbrenner recalling a Gertrude Stein poem on an Econ 101 class taught by Abbott and Costello. See for yourself. He muddies surpluses, deficits, and pronouns to the degree that his argument is unintelligible.

Trump begins:

Trudeau came to see me, he’s a good guy, Justin. He said, no, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please. Nice guy, good-looking, comes in — Donald, we have no trade deficit — he was very proud, because everybody else you know were getting killed with our, so he’s [unintelligible]. I said wrong, Justin, you do. I didn’t even know. Josh, I had no idea. I just said, you’re wrong. You know why? Because we’re so stupid. [Unintelligible, laughter] And I thought they were smart.

I said you’re wrong, Justin. He said, Nope, we have no trade deficit. I said, Well, in that case, I feel differently, I said, but I don’t believe it. I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, Check, because I can’t believe it.

Here, Trump seems to be saying that Trudeau claims that Canada runs no trade deficit with the US. Trump says he’s wrong, implying that Trump believes Canada does import more from the US than it exports—i.e. that the US runs a surplus with Canada.

But wait. Trump says that he didn’t know if that was true, but told Trudeau he was wrong anyway because “we’re so stupid” and “I thought they were smart.”

Then he says they both dispatch aides to figure out the answer. He proceeds to quote somebody, declining to indicate who is addressing whom:

Well sir you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber. But when you do we lose 17 billion dollars a year. It’s incredible. So you’re in good hands.

These remarks are so vague and self-contradictory that paraphrasing the president’s comments seems inadvisable. I don’t know how to tell readers what Trump thinks is going on, or his opinion of the trade balance, or what he thinks Trudeau’s views are. Who is telling who, “you’re in good hands?” No idea.

Many outlets took a crack at giving a factual representation of the event, explaining Trump’s comments roughly this way: Trump fibbed when he told Trudeau that the US ran a deficit with Canada, and Trump then conceded that he was wrong.

This makes sense. Knowing Trump’s well-known view that bilateral trade is always zero-sum, and that net importers are being exploited, that’s probably a fair interpretation, particularly given Trump’s tweet this morning addressing the issue:

But, again, this isn’t what happened in Trump’s remarks. Trump actually said the opposite—that he was making it up when he contradicted Trudeau’s claim that the US has no trade surplus with Canada. How do you help the reader understand the views and actions of the most important man on the planet when what he actually said completely contradicts what he seems to have meant?

Complicating this all the more is that the US runs both a trade surplus and a trade deficit with Canada, depending on what measure of trade you’re looking at.

  • If you look at goods and services, US runs a surplus and Canada runs a deficit
  • If you look only at goods, the US runs a deficit and Canada has a surplus
  • If you look at goods minus energy and wood products, the US has surplus and Canada runs a deficit

So both Trump and Trudeau could be right or wrong, depending on the metric.

It’s common these days to bemoan the rise of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” But Trump’s presidency has given rise to a phenomenon that’s perhaps even more alarming than malicious, partisan fiction.

The problem is not just that Trump trades in untruths (though he obviously does). It’s that he refuses to make himself understandable; his language resists attempts to depict his views accurately. That might be the result of ignorance. Or it might be that being vague all the time makes it a lot easier to argue that you’re always right.

Trump is often unintelligible. But we really need the president of the United States to be intelligible. World order depends upon it. So the media does the work of clarification for him. It’s our job to render information accurate and comprehensible to the reader.

The vicious journalists’ dilemma of the Trump presidency is that you can choose either accuracy or sense-making, but not both. The trust the American public invests in its media is already low. As long as bringing people the news requires reporters to apply their own biases in order to understand what the president is even saying, that trust will only plunge further.

It’s admirable for reporters to want to write clear, objective news about Trump. But his use of language makes that impossible, and it’s weakening our collective ability to inhabit a shared reality. Tribalism is what follows. After all, there’s no hope of coming together on what should be if you can’t even agree on what “is.”

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