Reporter's Notebook

Trump Nation
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An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note:

Show 118 Newer Notes

It Is All My Fault

Sooner or later this was bound to come out.

Maybe I can parlay this into a Vice Presidential slot? Or at least, package-deal sales to go along with the MAGA red hats and t-shirts?

Or maybe I can sue?

Incumbent Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at left, from the Liberal party (the conservatives, in U.S. terms), and his opponent Bill Shorten, Labour party leader, at a debate this month before the federal election in July. Australian citizens are required by law to vote. Thus the contending parties spend no time at all worrying about either “voter suppression” or “the turnout game.” (AAP / Mick Tsikas/via Reuters)

Last week, in response to a WaPo op-ed titled “We Must Weed Out Ignorant Voters,” I said that I disagreed with that plan  — but that failing knowledge of the mechanics of self-government known as “civics” was indeed something to worry about.

An American reader who used to live and work in Australia, and has an Australian spouse and “two little Aussie-Americans” in the household, writes with this point:

I was writing in response to your blog post on May 22 regarding the idea of disenfranchising low information voters.  

I see from your recent posts that you have been traveling to Australia frequently [yes, most recently on a program for the Lowy Institution] , so you are probably aware that voting is compulsory Down Under. [Also yes. There’s a minor fine for non-compliance, but most people comply, and seem proud of it.]

Few complain about this law, and I believe that compulsory voting has a tremendous moderating effect on politics there.  Until Tony Abbott's PM-ship, social issues were not really mainstream issues there.  His quick and harsh demise can be seen as an indication of the danger there of being so polarizing.

Similarly, the issue of guns is much more rational when you expand the vote and don't rely on getting out your base and suppressing the other side's core faithful.

"The Signing of the Constitution of the United States," by Howard Chandler Christy (Wikimedia)

Over the weekend a Washington Post op-ed titled “We Must Weed Out Ignorant Voters from the Electorate” got a lot of negative attention, including from me. And on reflection I still don’t agree with the surface-level argument of the piece, which is that people who don’t know enough about civics should be denied the vote. There’s too long an American history of struggles over the franchise to welcome an argument couched this way.

But here is the part of the argument that does strike a chord with me. It is the reminder that overconfidence about civics, by everyone, is part of what makes this election cycle an unsettling and potentially dangerous one. Let me explain:


Any exposure to American history offers reminders that public affairs in the country have often been in bad shape. The latest in the very long shelf of Lincoln biographies, A Self-Made Man by Sidney Blumenthal, takes its protagonist only to age 40 but offers a very vivid look at the close-run struggles over economic policy, tariffs and national banks, nation-building and nullification, and of course the extension of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s. The country would have been much worse off if several of those struggles had gone the other way, and of course it nearly came apart during the Civil War. Even beyond that unparalleled emergency, pick your decade and you can pick your crisis in the performance of the American government, the injustices of the American economy, and the cruelties or blind spots of American society. Things have always been dicey.

(Yes, this is the same Sidney Blumenthal you’re thinking of; read this engrossing book before you assume anything about it or him. For the record, he’s a longtime friend of mine.)

Many more solid emails from readers are coming in over the Notes discussion sparked by Molly this week following her appearance on WBUR’s On Point. Here’s Les Carter:

Excellent notes. The media, party leaders, and the majority (so far) of the electorate have summarily dismissed the Trump candidacy because he is a moron and a buffoon, per Don [the radio caller in Kentucky whom Molly excerpted here] and Nick [the Atlantic reader here, along with anti-Trump reader John]. But John’s condescending dismissive attitude is too generalized and does not address the plight of Trump’s voter base. “Probably a Fox News viewer”? Could well be, but the guy's calling in on On Point! And I agree he really was eloquent. [On Point host Tom Ashbrook and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie], with their own agenda, went straight to Trump’s failings and did not discuss caller Don’s plight except to dismiss it on racial grounds.

Now if you examine the issues in the forefront of the media and of politicians, the plight of these men and women isn’t there. I’m pretty liberal on racial and income equality, and on LGBT issues. But contrast how much attention has been given to North Carolina’s HB2 with the economic downfall of the working class, and then contrast how many are affected.

As in so many presidential elections, I will support the candidate I dislike least: Clinton. But the pundits and political leaders who have continually dismissed the Trump candidacy as nonviable have failed us all.

Another regular reader and Notes contributor, Mike, also empathizes with Don but defends John against charges of smugness:

I’m generally with your reader response about not consigning the typical Trump voter into being a backwards racist. My own sister (fairly socially liberal) is seriously considering Trump. As she put it, “The choices this year are like picking between being hit in the face with a hammer or a baseball bat.”

A reader emails hello@ to defend Don in Whetstone, Kentucky, a Trump voter who called into WBUR’s On Point to defend working-class support of the presumptive Republican nominee during a segment I highlighted in a note yesterday. (Don’s remarks begin at the 16:45 mark in the embed seen above.) Here’s our reader:

I know that people, including me, feel very negatively towards Trump supporters because of the kind of stuff that has happened at his rallies, for which some of them bear responsibility. But I have to say, I thought the way Don from Kentucky was treated was disgraceful, and a perfect example of the worst element in today’s identity politics. [WBUR host Tom Ashbrook and guest Jamelle Bouie of Slate] pivoted immediately from Don’s sincere argument to a response which basically boils down to “let them eat white privilege.”

A coal train on a siding near the Kentucky state line Reuters

One of the more remarkable features of this election season has been the way Donald Trump’s movement has taken the rest of the country by surprise. When I talk to both Republicans and Democrats about the Trump phenomenon, they ask me over and over, “Who are these people?” His success represents an uprising of a voting segment that was previously politically invisible, perhaps because a lot of educated people in cities and suburbs live in a self-segregated cultural bubble.

I’ve met hundreds of Trump supporters, and they’re too various to generalize about. But in a segment on Republican divisions on WBUR’s On Point yesterday, a man called in who voiced, in particularly pointed and articulate fashion, a lot of the themes I commonly hear from Trump’s base. Don from Whetstone, Kentucky, identified himself as “a hillbilly misogynist racist from down here in Appalachia.” Here’s what he had to say:

Yesterday I quoted a reader about the book The Revolt of the Masses, by Jose Ortega y Gasset, which was published in 1929 but is uncomfortably relevant in the age of climate-change denialism and of Donald Trump.

A reader named Paul, in Texas, objects to the reasoning in a post I cited as a guide to Revolt. This was Ted Gioia’s 2014 essay “The Smartest Book About Our Digital Age Was Published in 1929.”  Paul makes a point I should have seen and stressed:

I object somewhat to Gioia's conflation of feedback concerning taste and feedback concerning facts.

As you note, the digital age seems to have trouble accepting "elite" consensus regarding complex topics such as climate change (and I would add gun control, evolution and tax policy, among many other subjects where the vast majority of scientists, economists, etc., accept certain basic facts that are rejected by large swaths of the public). This is clearly problematic.

Less so, however, are the trends Gioia cites: The reliance on Yelp or Amazon over a professional critic's advice on where to eat or what to buy. These are matters of taste, and in that case, it makes perfect sense for someone to rely on the opinions of those they consider will lead them to an enjoyable experience – which may be the New York Times food critic recommending an excellent place for fine dining, or it may be Yelp reviews leading you to a great greasy dive. If I like trashy horror movies, relying on the LA Times' movie critic is probably not going to help me find my next favorite flick, but perusing the IMDb reviews – or checking my Facebook feed, or asking my brother-in-law – might.

The Sarah Palin of 2016 joins the original 2008 version at a Town Hall in Wisconsin yesterday (Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters)

I made one very bad call about the 2016 election, which I quickly confessed! It was the same bad call most other people made: that Donald Trump’s lack of political experience and knowledge would make him the Herman Cain of this campaign cycle, and he would not get this far in the race. (I’m sticking by my call that he is not going to become president.)

To be fair, I made a very good call two cycles earlier concerning the Trump of that era, Sarah Palin. As soon as her selection was announced as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, I wrote in this space (in the middle of the night, from China) that despite her then-red-hot popularity she would be a huge liability for the ticket. Why? Because running for national office is a lot, lot harder than it looks. And if you come to it with no experience, you are simply guaranteed to make a lot of gaffes.

Let’s go to the charts. Here’s what I wrote when McCain announced her as his choice:

Unless you have seen it first first-hand, as part of the press scrum or as a campaign staffer, it is almost impossible to imagine how grueling the process of running for national office is… The candidates have to answer questions and offer views roughly 18 hours a day, and any misstatement on any topic can get them in trouble. Why do candidates so often stick to a stump speech that they repeat event after event and day after day? Because they've worked out the exact way to put their positions on endless thorny issues -- Iraq, abortion, the Middle East, you name it -- and they know that creative variation mainly opens new complications.

You can see where I am going with this, after Trump’s misadventures of the past week:

As Donald Trump moves closer to the Republican nomination, his public presentation becomes increasingly deranged, as with this notorious item from last night (as discussed by Emma Green here):

From @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter feed.

Barring the unforeseen, one of the five people now running will become Commander in Chief next year, and most likely one of these two: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. With that in mind, and before I need to go offline for several days on a different project, here is one more  installment from readers on the candidates and the choice.

1) Trump at the WaPo. I mentioned yesterday that if the idea of “being qualified” still applied to presidential candidates, the hour Trump spent with the Washington Post’s editorial board would have instantly and conclusively disqualified him. He displayed real understanding of no topics, and gross mis-understanding of many. He shunted all answers back to the two themes he can discuss: how he is a winner relative to losers like low-energy Jeb and Little Marco; and how big his hands are. If you think I’m exaggerating, read it for yourself.  Trump used to be amusing, in a pro-wrestling way. Now he is manifestly not-normal, in an ominous way.

Why bring this up? A reader who works in the defense industry emphasizes one particular mismatch of Trump’s views and the realities of foreign policy:

At the Post, Trump said, amongst other things:

“I think John Kerry’s deal with Iran is one of the worst things that I’ve ever seen negotiated of any kind. It’s just a horrible giveaway...Well, I think, number one, we shouldn’t have given the money back. I think, number two, we should have had our prisoners before the negotiations started. We should have doubled up the sanctions.….  And I think it’s going to just lead, actually, to nuclear problems. I also think it’s going to be bad for Israel. It’s a very bad deal for Israel.”

Where to start?

First of all, we didn't "give" any money to Iran.  Other countries had been holding Iran's money, at our request, while negotiations were on going.

Secondly, what evidence is there that the other P5+1 members would go along with doubling sanctions?  It was hard enough to get China and Russia on board with sanctions to begin with.  And what evidence is there that Iran would capitulate in the face of increased sanctions?

E.J. Dionne’s new book, on the path toward Trump.

The personal-insult war underway last night between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz brings the campaign down to a level hard to imagine even in the days of “Little Marco” and “small hands.” If the concept of being “qualified” for the presidency still had any salience, Trump’s astonishing meeting with the Washington Post editorial board this week (transcript here) would have instantly and conclusively removed him from the race. It was not his inability and/or refusal to engage any point of substance that was so remarkable—and so much worse than with, say, Sarah Palin or Rick Perry. Rather it was his seventh-grade-locker-room obsession with “size” issues, as Conor Friedersdorf very convincingly demonstrates.

How did we get here? One of the most useful explanations I’ve seen is from E.J. Dionne in his new book Why the Right Went Wrong. I’d urge you to read it yourself — but if you’d like an overview, here is a discussion I did with him last month, at the Kentucky Author Forum in Louisville. A video version has just gone up on the Kentucky Educational Television site, with a good description of E.J.’s argument by Patrick Reed.

Dionne starts this book by saying, “The history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal,” and he goes on to connect that 50-year pattern (since the Barry Goldwater days) to the fury of today’s GOP.  Wave after wave of conservative leaders, Dionne says, have promised their base that they finally can produce sweeping rightwing changes to undo the Democrats’ handiwork. Wave after wave of conservative leaders is unable to do so. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can’t undo Obamacare; John Roberts turns into Earl Warren (from the right’s point of view); and a one-time Tea Party darling like Marco Rubio sells out on an immigration deal. Everyone’s a RINO! So it’s time to double down. This road leads to Cruz and Trump.

Again, for the full version consult this very illuminating book. Also consider the video below. [CB note: Watch here if the video doesn’t appear.] Thanks to our friends in Kentucky for putting on this forum.

Until recently, the most famous Scottish-American could well have been Scrooge McDuck. Now there’s a new title holder. The millions of Americans who share this heritage, including me, reflect somberly upon the shift to the Trump brand. Here is Mr. Trump back in the motherland a few years ago, at some golf course ceremony. (David Moir / Reuters)

A reader who is a mental-health professional in Australia responds to speculation in some previous posts (notably here) that Donald Trump’s public persona meets many of the criteria of actual mental disorders: (Emphasis added in his note.)

I am responding to the comment made by a clinical psychology doctoral student… I think that your reader made a very compelling case in their first paragraph as to why we can’t “safely say that Donald Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder”; namely that this requires extensive quantitative and qualitative assessment over a period of time with the individual’s personal engagement. Also, it's hard enough for those with NPD to seek help, without thinking they're going to be compared to this whole mess!

However, they missed one incredibly important reason why he probably doesn’t have a personality disorder: Trump’s narcissism is part of the product he’s selling.

Trump is one of the world’s most successful salespeople of a personal brand, a reality TV star and an American politician. Self assured attention seeking is the key to success in all these arenas. Trump’s had a long history of seeing how much people like him when he shows no doubt.

I think people are struggling to determine how much of what Trump does is a performance. But, the difference between performance and self-perception is vital. The lack of empathy is a performance of his non-PC persona. His disinterest in listening to experts is part of his ‘Übermensch of the people’ act. His desire to be seen as exceptional and to be admired by others is ultimately no different from that of any other presidential campaign pitch.

I would argue, however, that Trump’s inner world, how he really perceives himself and relates to others remains very much a mystery. That aspect, the self-perception, is crucial to diagnosing personality disorders. You would know better than I, but I imagine there is much about a politician’s inner world that we don’t see from the public performance.

Trump should not be subjected to armchair diagnoses. Not just because it’s a cheap shot, not just because it’s a profound misunderstanding of clinical psychology and an injustice to those who do suffer from personality disorders, but because the claim that Trump is mentally ill is too easy and too comforting.

The late NYT columnist William Safire, in 1996. After he wrote a column saying that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was a “congenital liar,” then-President Bill Clinton said that he would like to punch Safire in the nose. Hilarity ensued when Safire was given a set of boxing gloves when he appeared on Meet the Press.  (Ho New / Reuters)

Again with minimal set-up, let’s go straight to reader views on why so many people can sound so angry about Hillary Clinton. In the previous installment, we heard from readers who said that the anti-HRC reaction boiled down mainly to sexism. Today, assenting and dissenting views.

Let’s remember the history. A reader scolds me for amnesia:

HRC as "congenital liar" is actually a quote from William Saffire.  Surely you knew that:  [From January 1996]

“Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar.”

Ah, yes, it comes back to me now. On the other hand, to chafe the reader, I also remember that the influential-at-the-time Republican columnist for the NYT was actually William Safire.  

She’s too much of a moderate. From a female reader on the West Coast:

I have been supporting Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but only in part because I share his Social Democratic policy proposals. Just as important to me are what I see as some ways in which Secretary Clinton in the past has acted or voted that are evidence of the weaknesses that political moderates can get lost in.

The two prime examples for me are her talk about “super predators" in supporting the changes that led to mass incarceration, and her vote for the Iraq war. In both cases I think she did these partly as a way of influencing Reagan Democrats to come back to the Democratic Party fold. The “super predator” meme is a concession to implicit bias and the vote for the Iraq war to me represented giving in to the fear of being labeled soft on defense.