Paul Ryan's convention speech heralds a post-factual age

Time and again, Ryan mislead, misspoke, and made Demonstrably Misleading Assertions.

Paul Ryan made his big speech at the Republican National Convention last night, and ThinkProgress summed it up best: "An energetic, post-factual speech by Ryan." Time and again, Ryan mislead, misspoke, and made "Demonstrably Misleading Assertions".

If you're interested in the politics of it, he's also been attacked on style – Mother Jones' Kevin Drum recalled Harrison Ford's famous snipe to George Lucas, "you can type this shit, but you sure can't say it" – and doubtless, his "John Galtesque" evocation of the mythical grey, socialist hellhole of Obama's America will win over some. But if Ryan gets away with some of what he said, political discourse in the United States has a lot to answer for.

The most egregious of Ryan's statements was an attack on Obama for failing to protect a General Motors plant in his constituency:

A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.

Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.

The plant's closure was announced in June 2008, over six months before Obama was inaugurated. Ryan probably knows this, because on 3 June, he issued a statement bemoaning the closure.

Given his (completely undeserved) reputation for being a serious, competent man when it comes to fiscal policy, one would expect Ryan to be better when dealing with those matter. Sadly not.

Ryan said "President Obama has added more debt than any other president before him". In fact, as the New Republic point out, by far the largest aspect of this decade's deficit projection is the Bush-era tax cuts – and unlike the bailout and stimulus, those tax cuts are unlikely to be a temporary measure, and certainly wouldn't be repealed by Romney.

Ryan also tried to blame Obama for the US downgrade. S&P, in their rationale for the downgrade, explicitly blame the Bush tax cuts, and explicitly blame Congressional Republicans – of which Ryan is, of course, one – for the failure to scrap them. And more generally, the blame for the fear of a US default in the Summer of 2010 lies exclusively with the Republicans, who engineered the debt ceiling show-down.

Ryan also attacked Obama for not acting on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission, a bi-partisan body, on which Ryan sat, formed to examine the national debt. Obama didn't do a whole lot with the recommendations – but only Ryan actively voted against the report.

If he can't avoid misleading even in the areas where he claims special competence, Ryan certainly isn't going to be a stickler for accuracy in the broader debate. A lightning round-up of various "facts", checked:

  • Ryan said the stimulus "cost $831 billion – the largest one-time expenditure ever by our federal government." As Ezra Klein notes, "the Congressional Research Service estimates (pdf) that World War II cost $4.1 trillion in 2011 dollars. That was the biggest one-time expenditure ever, not the stimulus. Ryan is simply incorrect."
  • Ryan attacked Obama for "raiding" Medicare. Ryan's budget takes the same amount of money from Medicare. Ryan has walked back this part of his budget since pairing with Romney, but has not said where he will make up the savings – and the Romney budget requires extraordinary cuts in non-defence spending.
  • Ryan said that the Affordable Care act would impose "new taxes on nearly a million small businesses." In fact, businesses under 50 employees are exempt from the employer mandate, and at least 1.4m small business are eligible for the health insurance tax credit. The only small businesses which aren't helped by the law are medical device manufacturers, who are subject to a new tax. But there are just over 5,000 of them in the US – rather fewer than a million.

Ryan opened his speech by attacking Obama for the negativity of his campaign, and then proceeded to spend the next half hour doing nothing but attack Obama – largely for things he didn't actually do. It signifies a candidacy, and a presidential race, which has fully embraced the post-truth age. Don't believe me? Even Fox News have called Ryan's speech deceiving, concluding:

Republicans should be ashamed that there was even one misrepresentation in Ryan’s speech but sadly, there were many.

Paul Ryan waves to the people. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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