Donald Trump addressed the nation last night to talk about his Wall, and he was “fact checked” by just about everyone. The New York Times fact-check article I saw cited only two overt falsehoods, but there was a list of a half-dozen or more other remarks quoted, and marked “needs context.”
These “needs context” statements are all examples of a “framing lie.”
I’ll give you a framing lie to illustrate how this is done.
Donald Trump was in the White House yesterday, not wearing pants. He did it again today. He’s gone absolutely nuts.
Fact-check this if you like. The bit about the pants is completely true. He had his pants down both days, because he was sitting on the Presidential Toilet, doing the thing Presidents do (presumably) in the Presidential Toilet.
The statement is nonetheless a lie, because I’ve created a misleading and invalid connection between a trivial truth, and a contentious opinion by putting them in the same context, or frame of reference. I’ve used the framing to imply (without actually saying) that Donald Trump is wandering around the Oval Office in his skivvies, which would in fact suggest that he’s losing his mind.
Note that I never actually said that he’s “wandering around” without his pants. I just set it up so that you assumed that’s what I meant. If challenged, I would then blame you. In fact, I may even insult you, and tell you that you are stupid and have a vile and dirty mind. So sad.
That’s how the framing lie works. It is a deception that uses truths to tell a lie.
So let’s take one of Trump’s statements that is, in fact, a whopper of a framing lie, noted merely as “needs context” by the New York Times.
My quick check of the number says it’s about right. Three hundred a week is roughly 15,000 heroin deaths a year, which roughly matches the CDC numbers for 2017. So my next question is: is that a big number? Or is it a small number? We have 300 million people in the country, and that means a lot of people die every day, for a lot of different reasons. Losing 300 students out of a class of 500 is a mind-numbing, catastrophic death toll. Losing 300 people out of 300 million — not so much. How does it compare to ALL deaths, from traffic accidents, school shootings, old age, and everything else? Turns out that the death rate in the US is about 50,000 a week. So roughly a half-percent of all deaths every week in the US are due to heroin overdoses.
Half of one percent.
It’s certainly larger than the number of people who drown in bathtubs. But it’s only half the death-toll by guns, and only half the death-toll by traffic accidents. It’s only two percent of the number of people who die of heart attacks. It really isn’t a very big number.
More relevant is the fact that from 1999 to 2010, heroin deaths hovered at around 50 deaths a week. From 2010 to 2016 it climbed to 300 deaths a week. Other opioids climbed steadily to 300 deaths per week by 2016, and fentanyl shot from 50 to 600 in just three years, from 2013 to 2016.
If I wanted to be snide, I could point out that heroin deaths kicked up the same year the US House flipped to Republican under Obama, and shot up further after the Senate also went Republican, and then went through the roof when Donald Trump started campaigning in 2015 and has continued to increase. Maybe there’s a message there?
But let’s not do that.
Heroin usage (and overdose) has been climbing sharply, but if there’s a real problem, it’s fentanyl, not heroin: death rates from fentanyl are currently twice that of heroin, and growing. That’s ignored by Mr. Trump, of course, because fentanyl is not coming in from south of the border: most of the fentanyl comes from China.
So the first framing lie is that the 300-deaths-per-week from heroin overdose is significant. It’s as if I were to shout at my wife for “wasting” $300 on a new work-dress, while ignoring the $5000 I spent on video games. It’s a deflection. It’s a framing lie that says, “Look over there!” while I pick your pocket.
But the lie gets deeper when we add the “90 percent floods across the southern border.” It may be true, as a fact, but there is a framing lie here, too. Very little of the heroin coming from Mexico would be stopped by the Wall, because the heroin is smuggled directly through Ports of Entry — legal entry-points, complete with guards, dogs, and electronic surveillance — concealed in hidden compartments in cars, false-bottomed luggage, or otherwise. It doesn’t even go through areas where Mr. Trump says we need this Wall. Sending drugs through the desert would be stupid, and the businesses shipping the heroin aren’t stupid. They smuggle it through Ports of Entry, and count on losing a percentage of it to border confiscation, just like a certain percentage of eggs can be counted on to break between the henhouse and the grocery store. It’s merely a business cost. If the drug lords were doing taxes, they would write-off confiscations on their taxes.
So where the heroin comes from is completely irrelevant. It is coming through Ports of Entry, which is where every last bit of foreign trade comes through. Grapes from Chile. Plastic clothes-hangers from China. Brie from France. Heroin from Mexico. Fentanyl from China. Building a Wall does not affect the heroin trade. At all.
Now we come to the biggest framing lie of all. Putting these two statements together invokes the following hidden assumption: if we restrict the flow of heroin into the country, it will fix the heroin problem.
This is the assumption beneath the entire Drug War, and the Drug War failed precisely because this assumption is not true. It is, in fact, completely wrong.
No one is going around shooting up people with heroin against their will. Heroin is taken voluntarily, by people who are numbing their own pain and despair. Yes, they get physically addicted, which means they suffer if they try to stop, and they need more heroin all the time to get the same effect: it’s one of the reasons they end up overdosing. But you cannot get people off painkillers or heroin or any other drug if you don’t figure out a different way to relieve their underlying pain or despair. If you restrict access to their drug of choice, they’ll find another drug. If you make the use painful, they’ll find another drug. If you make it too dangerous to obtain, they’ll find another drug.
If you somehow succeeded in cutting them off from all relief for their pain and despair, they’ll simply kill themselves some other way.
So let’s sum up.
Heroin is not as big a problem as fentanyl: together, they aren’t as significant as death by guns and traffic accidents; building a wall won’t affect the heroin trade at all, and even if it did, it would not affect the problem of a portion of the population voluntarily drugging itself to death.
So let’s go back to the statement:
Every week 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across our southern border.
What does this actually mean? Nothing at all. It’s two unrelated facts, like citing the number of miles of veins in the human body, and the number of calories in a can of Coca-Cola. Two numbers. You can fact check them. They may be accurate.
But the framing says, “This is a compelling reason to build my Wall.”
That is a bare-assed lie.