James Fallows
James Fallows
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More +
  • Trump Time Capsule #102: ‘Nervous Mess’

    Pastor Faith Green Timmons speaking with the candidate yesterday in Flint. When he was no longer in the pastor's presence, Trump said that at the moment depicted here she was a "nervous mess." Evan Vucci / AP

    We could be entering the Era of Hourly Time Capsules, in part because I need to make up for the past few days away from The Internet.

    To note this for-the-moment highly publicized episode before it gets sandblasted from public memory by whatever is about to happen next: Yesterday, in Flint, Michigan, Donald Trump revealed a trait that is strikingly recurrent in his own behavior, and strikingly different from what I can recall from any other presidential nominee.

    That trait is the combination of his bombast about women when they are not present, and his reluctance or inability to confront them face-to-face.

    The man is a bully, and like most bullies he is a coward.

    I don’t know of any other nominee in modern times of whom that was so clearly true. (Richard Nixon gave all the signs of not being physically courageous, but he rhetorically he did not show the stark contrast between being nasty-behind-their-back / polite-to-their-face that Trump does with women who challenge him.)

    This is something I discuss in my current cover story, involving the three distinct moments in the primary season when Trump looked worst in live exchanges:

  • Normalizing Trump: Hear the Podcast, Watch the Video

    Because I’ve been on the road talking about my new story on the upcoming presidential debates—read it here! and then subscribe!—I am again falling behind the accelerating reality of the Trump Time Capsule era. Will add several updates at the next opportunity.

    Meanwhile: Yesterday afternoon I spent a long time talking with Brian Beutler, of The New Republic, for his Primary Concerns podcast series. We talked about what the “false equivalence” brouhaha reveals and conceals, what the Trump movement shows and doesn’t about the country, what the political press can and cannot do, and other topics with a yin-and-yang aspect to be explored. We ended on the high note of what we’d each learned about the world from growing up, a generation apart, in the same small inland-California town. I enjoyed it and think you’ll find it interesting. It’s here.

    Also, the Atlantic’s video team has made a great short video that accompanies my debate article, and for which I do the voice-over. You can see it here and below.

  • Trump vs. Clinton: When Polar Opposites Debate

    The Republican candidate's strategy is domination and humiliation. How will Hillary respond?

  • Photo Illustration by Justin Metz*

    When Donald Meets Hillary

    Who will win the debates? Trump’s approach was an important part of his strength in the primaries. But will it work when he faces Clinton onstage?

  • Trump Time Capsule #101: Pepe the Frog

    Mock 'The Deplorables' poster. From left: Roger Stone, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Eric Trump, Mike Pence, The Man, Pepe the Frog, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr., Alex Jones, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Trump Jr. said he was "honored" by the grouping. Donald J. Trump Jr. on Instagram, via Tina Nguyen in Vanity Fair

    Remember the episode of “the Star,” reported back in installment #33? It was only two months ago, but it seems forever.

    Remember this?

    Way back in July, Donald Trump retweeted an item showing Hillary Clinton awash in a sea of cash, with the message “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” emblazoned on a six-sided star. Criticism quickly arose about the overlap with classic money-hungry anti-Semitic imagery, much as if Trump had used an image of blacks eating watermelon or Mexicans dozing under their sombreros. Fairly quickly Trump took the rare-for-him step of actually deleting his tweet. But even then his campaign’s reaction was outraged innocence. Anti-Semitic? What are you talking about?? Why would you think it’s a Star of David? It’s so obviously a sheriff’s badge! The real racists are the ones who think anything else!

    That’s what this weekend’s “Pepe” episode reminds me of.

    As a reminder: Hillary Clinton set the stage with her tin-eared comment about the “basket of deplorables.” Then the stylish and unembarrassable Trump ally Roger Stone responded with the Expendables-knock-off movie poster you see above, which Donald Trump Jr. then shared on Instagram, as shown below:

    Donald J. Trump Jr’s comment on the poster, via Tina Nguyen.

    Why is this like “the Star”? Because of Pepe the Frog.

  • Trump Time Capsule #100: An Interview That Would Have Made News in Any Other Year

    Donald Trump in Baltimore, after his CNBC interview Mike Segar / Reuters

    An uncatchable-up-with amount of news has happened in the three days since installment #99. So I’ll start the regrouping process with something simple: a single incredible interview.

    Early this morning, Donald Trump did a long phone-in session with CNBC, which you can see in full below. The questioners made Matt Lauer look like the Grand Inquisitor, as you will see if you take a look.

    For instance, one of the early questions, from Joe Kernan, starts with the premise that businesses and business leaders are unfairly maligned in America today. What does a successful business leader like Trump think about that?

    Through the rest of the interview, Trump reeled off several dozen surprising, unsubstantiated, completely wrong, and otherwise weird statements, none of which the interviewers challenged him on. Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star provided a convenient summary of a few:

    Via Daniel Dale on Twitter

    And that’s just the start. Beyond the ones Dale mentions were Trump’s (fantastical) claim that “China could solve the problem with North Korea in one day, if they wanted” (actually they couldn’t). Or that Matt Lauer had been much tougher in questioning him than he had with Hillary (unt-uh).

  • Mark Fainstein

    Erie's Unlikely Benefactor: Its Casino

    Legalized gambling is a familiar part of the modern American landscape. But an innovative scheme in a lakeside city in western Pennsylvania shows new possibilities for putting casino revenue to positive public use.

  • Cattle Drives in Down East Maine

    A cowboy with his herd in Maine, en route to Turkey. courtesy Quoddy Tides

    Last night my wife Deb put up a report called “Little Town, Big Art.” It’s about how a surprisingly ambitious effort in The Arts—painting, sculpture, photography, drama, music, festivals (like the Pirate Festival underway this weekend), etc.—had given a very small place a much larger economic and cultural presence than it would otherwise have.

    Here is a follow-up note on a less artsy aspect of that same place, Eastport, Maine. As I mentioned in this item, “The World Comes to a Tiny Town,” one of the ways in which this part of Down East Maine was connected to the world was by shipping pregnant cows across the Atlantic, mainly to Turkey. That business has become yet another casualty of the horrific warfare in Syria and its spillover effects into Turkey.

    Bob Godfrey of Eastport, one of whose careers has been as a photographer, sends an email about the kind of surprise the pregnant cattle brought to his town:

  • Trump Time Capsule #99: Editorials

    Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, at a Trump rally. Scott Audette / Reuters

    Through any campaign, candidates have ups and downs in their editorial-page treatment. The concentration of these four editorials in the past 24 hours seems unusual and is worth noting as a possible press recalibration.

    1. Tampa Bay Tribune, “Feds should investigate Bondi-Trump connection.” This is of course about the apparent pay-to-play connection of Donald Trump’s donations to the Florida Attorney General’s campaign, and her then deciding against an investigation of Trump university. The editorial begins:

    Federal prosecutors should investigate whether there is any connection between the decision by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office not to pursue fraud allegations against Trump University and a $25,000 campaign contribution he gave her. Since Florida prosecutors will not touch this mess, the Justice Department is the only option. The appearance of something more than a coincidence is too serious and the unresolved questions are too numerous to accept blanket denials by Bondi and Trump without more digging and an independent review.

    The Washington Post also has an editorial on this theme, “The Pam Bondi case shows that Trump is more hustler than businessman.” What is already known in this case—flow of money, favorable government treatment, exact cause-effect not yet proven—is so much starker than what is suspected in the many Clinton Foundation episodes that it is overdue for extra attention.

    ***

  • Trump Time Capsule #98: The Classified Briefing

    Now-retired Army general Michael Flynn, testifying as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency two years ago. He accompanied Donald Trump to the recent classified briefing. Flynn has kept quiet about what he heard there. Donald Trump has not. Gary Cameron / Reuters

    Last night, at the “Commander-in-Chief” forum, Donald Trump characterized what he had heard from intelligence officials in a classified briefing, and said why he believed the briefers agreed with his political perspective and shared his disdain for the current administration.

    I am not aware of any previous nominee ever having done anything of this sort.

    (In the modern era, nominees have gotten classified briefings to keep them up to date on crucial issues. Some have deliberately delayed or declined the briefings, precisely so they wouldn’t need to constantly remember what information was classified and thus shouldn’t be mentioned in public, and what was safe to discuss.)

    According to a story by NBC, two former heads of the CIA share the view that Trump has crossed yet another line. As Ken Dilanian and Robert Windrem report:

    Former CIA and NSA director Mike Hayden, who opposes Trump, told NBC News that in almost four decades in intelligence “I have never seen anything like this before.” [JF note: Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general, is no one’s idea of a political lefty, and is in the camp of national-security conservatives who oppose Trump.]

    “A political candidate has used professional intelligence officers briefing him in a totally non-political setting as props to buttress an argument for his political campaign,” said Hayden. … “The ‘I can read body language’ line was quite remarkable. … I am confident Director Clapper sent senior professionals to this meeting and so I am equally confident that no such body language ever existed. It’s simply not what we do.”

    Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director who was President George W. Bush's briefer and is now a Hillary Clinton supporter, said Trump's comments about his briefing were extraordinary.

    “This is the first time that I can remember a candidate for president doing a readout from an intelligence briefing, and it’s the first time a candidate has politicized their intelligence briefing. Both of those are highly inappropriate and crossed a long standing red line respected by both parties,” he said.

    ***

  • Trump Time Capsule #97: Dallas, Richmond, D.C.

    Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, at a rally last month in Boston. A newspaper that almost always endorses Republicans has chosen him over Donald Trump. Brian Snyder / Reuters

    A for-the-record note of developments in the past few days that, again, make this GOP nominee different from his predecessors:

    1. Dallas. The Dallas Morning News is as reliably conservative and Republican an editorial-page operation as you will find anywhere in America. Never once in my entire lifetime, and long before that, has the paper ever endorsed a Democrat for president. The closest it came was in 1964, when it declined to pick a favorite between incumbent Lyndon Johnson, obviously a Texan himself, and Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was headed toward a crushing defeat.

    Never once in my lifetime—until yesterday, when it came out with an editorial saying “We recommend Hillary Clinton for president.” That was the followup to the preceding editorial, “Donald Trump is no Republican.” If you don’t know Texas or the Morning News, it may be difficult to grasp what a huge step this is for the paper’s editors to take. But they took it, to their credit. I say “to their credit” because of the ongoing theme in this space, that people will look back to see who knew what about Donald Trump, at which stage of the campaign, and which stands they took in response.

    How the DMN endorsement begins:

    There is only one serious candidate on the presidential ballot in November. We recommend Hillary Clinton.

    We don’t come to this decision easily. This newspaper has not recommended a Democrat for the nation’s highest office since before World War II—if you’re counting, that’s more than 75 years and nearly 20 elections. …

    But unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has experience in actual governance, a record of service and a willingness to delve into real policy.

    Resume vs. resume, judgment vs. judgment, this election is no contest.

    Both installments are worth reading in full.

    ***

  • Trump Time Capsule #96: ‘Putin Has an 82 Percent Approval Rating!’

    Donald Trump saying (falsely) "I was against the Iraq war," and Matt Lauer listening respectfully, in tonight's "Forum" Mike Segar / Reuters

    I’ve just now watched the hour-long “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC, moderated by Matt Lauer. Three points that deserve note for the record:

    1. Iraq. Donald Trump led off by claiming, falsely, that he opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and that this is an important sign of his good judgment:

    TRUMP: Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. From a — you can look at Esquire magazine from ’04. You can look at before that.

    This claim is false. It is not true. It is a fantasy or a lie. Donald Trump keeps saying it. It keeps being false.

    There is absolutely no public evidence, whatsoever, of Donald Trump having given any caution about invading Iraq before the war began. By contrast, there is evidence of his saying before the war that the invasion might be a good idea. For reference, a piece I did back in February. And this damning one from BuzzFeed about the same time, with audio of Trump talking with Howard Stern about the war. See this from Vox too. Even NBC’s own fact-checking department called Trump out on the lie just after the forum.

    First depressing aspect: that Trump is still just proudly blasting out a lie.

    Second, more depressing aspect: that NBC’s Matt Lauer did not even pretend to challenge him—not even by saying, “Wait a minute, why should a 2004 Esquire article matter, when that was a year after the war began?” Lauer, what were you thinking? If you knew this and didn’t say anything, why on Earth not? And if you didn’t know it, what were you doing in this role?  

    ***

  • What's in Those Tax Returns? Some Informed Guesses

    This guy, "D. J. Quacker," shown outside Trump Tower in New York yesterday, wants Donald Trump to release his taxes. So does a former commissioner of the IRS. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

    With 61-plus days until the election, Donald Trump remains the only major-party nominee for the presidency or vice presidency of the post-Watergate era who has refused to release his tax returns. Not coincidentally, of all nominees through that period, Trump also has the most complicated and least-publicly-understood personal and corporate finances.

    Why is he drawing the line here? Readers offer their hypotheses:

    I started my career with a year as an IRS agent before jumping across the desk to work for a “Big Eight” firm (which I think is now the Big Four?).

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been doing taxes, but my gut tells me Trump hasn’t filed in the first place.

    I remember being involved with clients who had endured bankruptcies, the implosion of complex energy partnerships, and/or the collapse of the real-estate market.

    Their partnership K1s would be delayed for so long that we’d sometimes have to file with numbers we ... well... sorta made up. Once the K1s arrived we could always go back and amend, but by providing some form of a reasonable estimate we could show good faith.

    However, there were some clients that hated the tax code, and the entire Byzantine process (not to mention our fees). So some of them opted out until something came along and forced their hand to file (e.g., an audit).

  • Trump Time Capsule #95: Simple Logic

    Protestors in Washington this May, demanding that Donald Trump release his tax returns. James Lawler Duggan / Reuters
    1. Donald Trump has taken heat, and will take more, for refusing to release his tax information.
    1. It logically follows that whatever is in the tax returns would make him look worse than his stonewalling does.

    No other conclusion is possible, unless you assume that neither Trump nor any of his advisors has any sense of what looks good and bad in a campaign. That’s a possibility, but it doesn’t ring true as the explanation in this case. And the “they’re under audit” excuse is bullshit, according to none other than the I.R.S.

    This simple one-two logic has been underestimated in press discussion of the issue so far.

    ***

    The premise of this series is to record, in real time, things about the Trump era that are outside previous norms. Here’s why the tax-return issue qualifies:

    • Post-Nixon presidential and vice-presidential major-party nominees who have agreed to release their tax returns before the election: Gerald Ford (summary statement), Bob Dole, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Mike Dukakis, Lloyd Bensten, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence.
                                                                                                                                                          
    • Nominees who have refused: Donald Trump.
  • Trump Time Capsule #94: Pay to Play

    Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, at the center of a "pay-to-play" controversy involving Donald Trump, speaking at the Republican National Convention in July. Mike Segar / Reuters

    Over the weekend I mentioned signs of the press beginning to “normalize” Donald Trump. This was especially so in equating “doubts,” “questions,” “clouds,” and the “atmosphere of entitlement” that surrounded Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, with the actual offenses, lawsuits, bankruptcies, unpaid contractors, anti-trust settlements, bogus-visa issues, and other legal problems surrounding Donald Trump and his enterprises. Paul Waldman of the WaPo has an eye-opening catalog of them here.

    This is a for-the-record placeholder note on the past few days’ developments in two related areas: what is known or alleged about Trump-enterprises, and how coverage increasingly equates them to “doubts” and “questions” about the Clintons.

    1. Yesterday Paul Krugman did a NYT column called “Clinton Gets Gored” on this pattern of “normalizing” Donald Trump through press coverage. The column was notable because the unnamed/“sub-tweeted” object of much of his complaint was the news operation of the same paper in which it appeared.

    The Times is the greatest and most admirable news operation in the United States, perhaps in the world. But in my view, and apparently Krugman’s as well, from the “Whitewater” era through today its political coverage has applied an unusual presumption of crookedness to the Clintons, out of proportion to their many real-world failings. You can read Krugman’s argument, and this fascinating online discussion between Norman Ornstein and Roger Cohen.

    ***

  • New Hope for the Devil

    The devil you know: young Tasmanian Devil at a sanctuary near Port Arthur James Fallows

    No, despite the title, this is not a U.S.-politics item.

    Three years ago I did an Atlantic piece called “Maybe the Most Unforgettable Place Ever,” about the removed-from-time Australian island of Tasmania. It mainly talked about the chillingly beautiful restored prison camp at Port Arthur, of which I can still recall almost every scene and detail. The name Port Arthur also has modern political significance. After a mass-shooting slaughter there in 1996, of the sort that happens repeatedly in the United States but was considered a national trauma in Australia, the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard dramatically tightened gun-ownership laws. No remotely comparable killing has happened in Australia since.

    Another theme of our Tasmania report was the tragedy of the devils. As I said in the story:

  • Trump Time Capsule #93: ‘God Is the Ultimate’

    Offered without comment. This video is from several months ago, early in the campaign. But I hadn’t seen it before, and it is timeless. You will not regret investing 52 seconds in watching it.

    The interviewer is David Brody, of Christian Broadcasting Network. I first learned about the video via Liam Donovan. Fitting the Time Capsule theme: I genuinely can’t imagine a previous nominee answering the question this way.

    Back to things requiring some comment tomorrow, when it will be exactly nine weeks until the election and the “real” campaigning begins.

    ***

  • James Fallows

    The World Comes to a Tiny Town: Eastport's Lesson in Globalization

    Even the most remote-seeming corners of America can find themselves in the middle of quick-moving global trends.

  • Trump Time Capsule #92: ‘How the Media Undermine American Democracy’

    The print edition of the NYT that arrived at my house two days ago, saying something very different from what the "same" story was saying online.

    Twenty years ago I published a book called Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. The Atlantic ran an excerpt as a cover story, called “Why Americans Hate the Media.”

    The main argument was that habits of mind within the media were making citizens and voters even more fatalistic and jaded about public affairs than they would otherwise be—even more willing to assume that all public figures were fools and crooks, even less willing to be involved in public affairs, and unfortunately for the media even less interested in following news at all.

    These mental habits of the media included an over-emphasis on strife and conflict, a fascination with the mechanics or “game” of politics rather than the real-world consequences, and a self-protective instinct to conceal limited knowledge of a particular subject (a new budget proposal, an international spat) by talking about the politics of these questions, and by presenting disagreements in a he-said/she-said, “plenty of blame on all sides” fashion now known as “false equivalence.”

    I could explain it more, or I could suggest you go read the article.  (It’s free, but it never hurts to subscribe!)

    Through the rise of Donald Trump, I’ve been watching to see how these patterns of mind might reassert themselves, particularly in the form of normalizing Trump.

  • Eastport Update: Electric Power From the Sea

    Downtown Eastport, from above, on our previous visit James Fallows

    Early in 2014, I wrote a magazine article about the 1,300 residents of Eastport, Maine, with the title “The Little Town That Might.” The theme was that this tiny settlement, on the farthest extreme of Down East Maine just one mile across a strait from Canada’s famous Campobello Island, was trying in every conceivable way to invent a viable economic and cultural future for itself.

    It had invested heavily in its very deep-water port (because of the Maine fjords, it is the deepest on the U.S. Atlantic coast) to handle shipments to customers around the world. It was making itself into an arts and tourism center, including whale-watching and other eco-tourism activities along its spectacular coast.

    Head Harbour Light, at the far eastern tip of Campobello Island near Eastport (James Fallows)

    It was becoming a major salmon-farming locale, in addition to its lobster and scallop industries. An indefatigable group of local citizens pursued plans to redevelop beautiful-but-tattered buildings downtown. And on through a list that you can read about in that article and a number of accompanying posts.

    ***

    There was one more element in the portfolio of Eastport ambitions: a plan to generate electricity from the powerful currents of its Passamaquoddy and Cobscook Bays, which feed into the adjoining and famously tidal Bay of Fundy.