Battlefield communications in World War I sometimes left something to be desired. Hence a famous British anecdote of a garbled word-of-mouth message. As transmitted, the message ran, “Send reinforcements, we are going to advance.” Superior officers at the other end, however, were puzzled to be told: “Send three and four-pence [three shillings and four-pence], we are going to a dance!”
Similar miscommunication probably helps explain the European media’s unreflective scorn for Donald Trump. Most European commentators have little or no access to the story. They have allowed their views to be shaped largely by the American press.
That’s a big mistake. Contrary to their carefully burnished self-image of impartiality and reliability, American journalists are not averse to consciously peddling outright lies. This applies even in the case of the biggest issues of the day, as witness, for instance, the American press’s almost unanimous validation of George Bush’s transparently mendacious case for the Iraq war in 2003.
Most of the more damning charges against Trump are either without foundation or at least are viciously unfair distortions. Take, for instance, suggestions in the run-up to the election that he is anti-Semitic. In some accounts it was even suggested he was a closet neo-Nazi. Yet for anyone remotely familiar with the Trump story, this always rang false. After all he had thrived for decades in New York’s overwhelmingly Jewish real estate industry. Then there was the fact that his daughter Ivanka, to whom he is evidently devoted, had converted to Judaism.
In appointing Jared Kushner his chief adviser, he has chosen an orthodox Jew (Kushner is Ivanka’s husband). Then there is David Friedman, Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel. Friedman is an outspoken partisan of the Israeli right and he is among other things an apologist for the Netanyahu administration’s highly controversial settlement of the West Bank. Trump even wants to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This position is a favourite of the most ardently pro-Israel section of the American Jewish community but is otherwise disavowed as insensitive to Palestinians by most American policy analysts.
Many other examples could be cited of how the press has distorted the truth. It is interesting to revisit in particular the allegation that Trump mocked a disabled man’s disability. It is an allegation which has received particular prominence in the press in Europe. But is Trump really such a heartless ogre? Hardly.
As is often the case with Trumpian controversies, the facts are a lot more complicated than the press makes out. The disabled-man episode began when, in defending an erstwhile widely ridiculed contention that Arabs in New Jersey had publicly celebrated the Twin Towers attacks, Trump unearthed a 2001 newspaper account broadly backed him up. But the report’s author, Serge Kovaleski, demurred. Trump’s talk of “thousands” of Arabs, he wrote, was an exaggeration.
So far, so normal for the 2016 election campaign. But it turned out that Kovaleski was no ordinary Trump-hating journalist. He suffers from arthrogryposis, a malady in which the joints are malformed. For Trump’s critics, this was manna from heaven. Instead of merely accusing the New York real estate magnate of exaggerating a minor, if troubling, sideshow in U.S.-Arab relations, they could now arraign him on the vastly more damaging charge of mocking someone’s disability.
Trump’s plea that he hadn’t known that Kovaleski was handicapped was undermined when it emerged that in the 1980s the two had not only met but Kovaleski had even interviewed Trump in Trump Tower. That is an experience I know something about. I, like Kovaleski, once interviewed Trump in Trump Tower. The occasion was an article I wrote for Forbes magazine in 1982. If Trump saw my by-line today, would he remember that occasion 35 years ago? Probably not. The truth is that Trump, who has been a celebrity since his early twenties, has been interviewed by thousands of journalists over the years. A journalist would have to be seriously conceited – or be driven by a hidden agenda – to assume that a VIP as busy as Trump would remember an occasion half a lifetime ago.
In any case in responding directly to the charge of mocking Kovaleski’s disability, Trump offered a convincing denial. “I would never do that,” he said. “Number one, I have a good heart; number two, I’m a smart person.” Setting aside point one (although to the press’s chagrin, many of Trump’s acquaintances have testified that a streak of considerable private generosity underlies his tough-guy exterior), it is hard to see how anyone can question point two. In effect Trump is saying he had a strong self-interest in not offending the disabled lobby let alone their millions of sympathisers.
After all it was not as if there were votes in dissing the disabled. This stands in marked contrast to other much discussed Trumpian controversies such as his disparaging remarks about Mexicans and Muslims. In the case of both Mexican and Muslims, an effort to cut back immigration is a central pillar of Trump’s program and his remarks, though offensive, were clearly intended to garner votes from fed-up middle Americans.
For a start Trump’s frenetic performance bore no resemblance to arthrogryposis. Far from frantically flailing their arms, arthrogryposis victims are uncommonly motionlessness. This is because relevant bones are fused together. As Catholics 4 Trump pointed out, the media should have been expected to have been chomping at the bit to interview Kovaleski and thus clinch the point about how ruthlessly Trump had ridiculed a disabled man’s disability.
The website added: “If the media had a legitimate story, that is exactly what they would have done and we all know it. But the media couldn’t put Kovaleski in front of a camera or they’d have no story.”
Catholics 4 Trump added that, in the same speech in which Trump did his Kovaleski impression, he offered an almost identical performance to illustrate the embarrassment of a U.S. general with whom he had clashed. In particular Trump had the general wildly flailing his arms. It goes without saying that this general does not suffer from arthogryposis or any other disability. The common thread in each case was merely an embarrassed, backtracking person. To say the least, commentators in Europe who have portrayed Trump as having mocked Kovaleski’s disability stand accused of superficial, slanted reporting.
All this is not to suggest that Trump does not come to the presidency unencumbered with baggage. He is exceptionally crude – at least he is in his latter-day reality TV manifestation (the Trump I remember from my interview in 1982 was a model of restraint by comparison and in particular never used any expletives). Moreover the latter-day Trump habit of picking Twitter fights with those who criticize him tends merely to confirm a widespread belief that he is petty and thin-skinned.
Many of his pronouncements moreover have been disturbing and his abrasive manner will clearly prove on balance a liability in the White House. That said, the press has never worked harder or more dishonestly to destroy a modern American leader.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, therefore, as he sets out to make America great again. The truth is that American decline has gone much further than almost anyone outside American industry understands. Trump’s task is a daunting one.
Eamonn Fingleton is an expert on America’s trade problems and is the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity (Houghton Mifflin, Boston). A version of this article appeared in the Dublin Ireland Sunday Business Post .