Trump's first week: facts vs fiction

12:49 pm on 27 January 2017

By Phil Smith* @piripismith

Opinion - Donald Trump promised to do many things in his first week in office. Phil Smith looks at the good, the bad and the sheer falsehoods of the US president's first seven days.

no caption

In his first week, Donald Trump issued a slew of Executive Orders. Photo: AFP

Franklin D Roosevelt popularised the idea that a president's best hope of action is during his or her first 100 days in office. On the campaign trail Donald Trump frequently promised to achieve most of his agenda almost instantly - on day one, even in hour one.

It's now the end of week one, so how well did he do?

Sound and Fury

If dominating the news equals success, then Mr Trump passed with distinction, but only in the Trumpverse does attention equal achievement. In reality almost nothing can be done in the first week. Most substantive change requires legislation and funding. Governing is harder than it looks.

What the new president did was issue a slew of Executive Orders. These are symbolic, like a sod-turning ceremony months before the actual workmen turn up at a building site, but his fans will happily acclaim these photo-opportunities as evidence that Mr Trump 'gets things done'.

If pleasing supporters equals success, then Mr Trump succeeded. He withdrew from a trade deal that didn't exist yet (pleasing isolationists and nationalists), he froze non-military government hiring (pleasing budget hawks), he invited states to sabotage Obamacare (pleasing the anti-Obamas), and re-instituted rules to defund charities that mention abortion (pleasing the Christian right, while surely leading to deaths in the developing-world).

These are Potemkin achievements. Similarly, ordering a wall to be built (the Mexican funding promised), ordering pipelines built (without congressional approval), and ordering an investigation of imagined voter fraud (without any evidence), are all just posturing for the audience. Given time, the sound and fury will solidify and impact real people, but as yet it is only frightening noise.

Dystopia welcomes careful drivers

Mr Trump did have achievements this week, but they are dubious honours. His executive orders confirmed what his cabinet picks promised - that his incendiary rhetoric is not just for effect. He shows no intention of governing for the centre; he doesn't do moderation.

He now has real power, and whether or not he intended to, his first solid outcome this week was to cause fear and distrust among many. Women, minorities, Muslims, the media, immigrants. Anyone not like him.

The president's second success this week was threatening the nature of reality, something which is usually the job of fictional characters.

Paging Mr Orwell

Last year at the Republican Convention Newt Gingrich slapped down a journalist's inconvenient evidence by saying "I see your fact and I raise you my belief". That was the harbinger.

This week Mr Trump repeatedly demanded that black is white; evidence, science and reality be-damned. A candidate who insists that 1+1=3 is bizarre, a president who does so is destabilising. Regardless of the Orwellian echoes, such lies are no longer told by a person, but by a government. Mr Trump's various assertions this week were pitifully inconsequential in themselves but were instantly institutionalised, defended by lieutenants who are now part of the machinery of state.

In support, his spokespeople doubled down with demonstrable falsehoods, employed doublethink, argued that Mr Trump's claims were "alternative facts", asserted that you can tell the truth and "disagree with the facts", and suggested that the president's beliefs were evidence. They added weight to his reality with threats to the press.

"In Newspeak there is no word for science"

The Orwellian theme reverberated when agency staff and scientists were instructed to stop communicating with the public. While the order leaked from the Department of Agriculture was quickly rescinded, there were also reported blackouts on Health, Parks, and Transport.

The move appeared co-ordinated and seemed aimed at environmentally concerned agencies who might disagree with the president's fact-beliefs about climate change. The EPA was reportedly told science would now be politically vetted before public release, and ordered to remove mentions of climate change from its website (though the latter order was also partially retreated from).

It's been quite a week. Attempting to alter reality to fit your own beliefs and insecurities is an ambitious project for any president. It is breath-taking, it is chilling, but it is not an achievement.

*Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs