Journalists fact-checking Donald Trump’s rallies and Twitter feed often end up looking silly, and they don’t understand why.
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Nelson, the bully, tells Bart his “epidermis is showing”, causing him to get confused, lose his balance, and fall. Nelson turns to his friend and says, “You see, ‘epidermis’ means your hair. So technically it’s true; that’s what makes it so funny.” There’s another joke hidden here–epidermis really means ‘skin’. Nelson is trying to sound smart, but failing.
The people who fact check President Trump’s speeches are like the guy who, thinking himself more clever than the show’s writers, watches that scene and announces, “Actually, epidermis means skin,” oblivious to the underlying joke.
Last week at a speech at the Turning Point USA student action summit in West Palm Beach, Florida, President Donald Trump made a joke about bald eagles flying into wind turbines. The line was meant to get a rise from his audience, made up of young conservatives skeptical of renewable energy.
Trump said: “A windmill will kill many bald eagles… After a certain number, they make you turn the windmill off, that is true. By the way, they make you turn it off. And yet, if you killed one, they put you in jail. That is OK. But why is it OK for these windmills to destroy the bird population?”
Journalists and self-appointed “fact checkers” predictably went nuts, with CNN and other networks calling it Trump’s continuing “war on windmills.” “No, Mr. Trump — ‘windmills’ are not going to ‘destroy the bird population.’ Here’s what will,” a writer at Electrek.com indignantly proclaimed.
The truth is, Trump was echoing one of his typical routines. It’s a line he’s tested in front of audiences for years and knows it will get the desired reaction. During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, PolitiFact.com fact checked him for virtually the same thing.
“There are places for wind but if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles,” Trump said in 2016. “You know if you shoot an eagle, if you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles. … They’re killing them by the hundreds.”
PolitiFact.com rated this as “mostly false” because wind turbines only kill around 100 eagles each year.
The symbolic image of wind turbines decimating the bald eagle population is red meat for conservatives who already claim wind power is more expensive and less efficient than fossil fuels. And it is true that wind turbines present a threat to the local bird population. Anyone listening to Trump’s speech knows he chose the bald eagle because it’s a symbol of America and a protected bird, not because wind turbines are specifically more deadly to eagles. No one cares if windmills kill pigeons.
These “fact checkers” miss the point. Trump isn’t attacking wind turbines because he has some specific beef with wind energy, he’s attacking them because they are a symbol of left-wing support for renewable energy. As the left and the Democratic Party generally made a political issue of attacking fossil fuels and pushing for alternatives like solar and wind power, conservatives and Republicans rallied around fossil fuels, especially “clean coal” sources like fracking.
During the Obama administration, conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh routinely attacked President Obama’s renewable energy initiatives. Trump is continuing this line of criticism in his attacks on wind turbines, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was repeating something he heard on talk radio or Fox News years ago. This is all part of his effort to rally his base.
Trump is first and foremost a showman and entertainer, not a politician. The guy was on WWE, for crying out loud. His rallies have more in common with stand up comedy routines than traditional policy speeches. It’s about taking something with a kernel of truth (in this case that wind turbines kill eagles) and exaggerating it and framing it to get a rise out of his audience. Conservatives “get it” while liberals cringe.
By insisting on taking Trump’s every statement literally, these journalists and fact checkers play right into his hands by showing they don’t get the joke. They are the annoying guy who spoils The Simpsons by pointing out Nelson’s inaccuracy. After over three years of listening to Trump speak, you’d think it would be obvious by now, but that would take some self awareness they apparently lack.