People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)
As a reminder, for time-capsule purposes this is an ongoing chronicle of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president could, should, or would say or do.
Daily Trump #4: May 23, 2016, the Vince Foster case. Six months into Bill Clinton’s first term, his lifelong friend and deputy White House counsel, Vince Foster, died of a gunshot wound along the George Washington Parkway outside Washington. All available real-world evidence is that Foster, who was suffering from clinical depression, had killed himself. That was what a special counsel officially determined, in a report issued a year later.
Then and thereafter, conspiracy-theorist madmen have maintained that there must be more to the case. Maybe Foster, who had been working with Hillary Clinton at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, was having an affair with her? Maybe in some general way he Knew Too Much? Let me emphasize that in nearly 23 years no official or investigative body has found any evidence to this effect, at all. Very much like the controversy over Barack Obama’s place of birth, it’s a “controversy” in which all the facts are on one side.
When asked in an interview last week about the Foster case, Trump dealt with it as he has with many edgy topics — raising doubts about the official version of events even as he says he does not plan to talk about it on the campaign trail.
He called theories of possible foul play “very serious” and the circumstances of Foster’s death “very fishy.”
“He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump said, speaking of Foster’s relationship with the Clintons at the time. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”
He added, “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
That is: I don’t bring it up because that wouldn’t be “fair” — so let me bring it up. And, yes, the Post interviewer asked the question, but then Trump responded in the way he did.
What’s wrong with this? It is a near-exact parallel to Trump’s relentless and bogus insistence early in Obama’s term that Obama was not a native-born citizen. Note the overlap between the way Trump talks about Vince Foster now with what he was saying on the “birther” front four years ago:
“A lot of people are questioning his birth certificate,” Trump said. “They’re questioning the authenticity of his birth certificate.
“I’ve been known as being a very smart guy for a long time. I don’t consider myself birther or not birther but there are some major questions here and the press doesn’t want to cover it,” he said.
Side question: Is there anyone you know who actually is very smart, who goes around saying “I’ve been known as being a very smart guy for a long time”? In my experience there is no surer marker of not, in fact, being smart than this kind of barroom brag. (Evidence: I’ve interviewed a significant number of people who have won the Nobel prize or various “genius” awards, been chess champions or precocious elite-college professors, started tech companies in their 20s, etc. None of them talks this way.) Similarly there is no one I know who is really good looking, who goes around saying “I’ve been known as being very good looking for a long time.” Hypothesis: We know that Trump is ill-informed on public issues. The evidence mounts that, while he is clever and cunning in performance skills, he is sort of dim intellectually.
The broader point is that Trump’s discussion of Vince Foster and Obama’s birth certificate is part of a pattern that is familiar in his own speech and thought — but virtually unknown among real presidents or real contenders for the job.
Rumors and conspiracy theories are a perennial part of U.S. political culture. The play MacBird!, in the mid-1960s, was based on the premise that Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination of JFK. You can easily find online the theories connecting both Presidents Bush, father and son, with Saudi figures tied up in the 9/11 attacks. In any era you choose, you will find the counterparts.
What you won’t find is major-party nominees dignifying fringe theories in their national campaigns:
— Richard Nixon was renowned for fighting dirty and tough, but he never said “Well, people are asking a lot of questions about MacBird,” or that LBJ’s becoming president was “very fishy.”
— Bob Dole was doing his best to unseat Bill Clinton in 1996, but he didn’t include Vince Foster in his list of Clinton’s failings.
— John McCain tried to stop Barack Obama from being elected in 2008, and Mitt Romney did his best to keep Obama from being re-elected four years later. But both of them went out of their way to reject birther and “alien” fantasies, Romney specifically distancing himself from Trump’s birth-certificate crusade in 2012.
All major-party candidates in modern times have avoided legitimizing conspiracy theories, until Donald Trump.
What Trump is saying about Foster is utter bullshit, on a par with his lunatic suggestion last month ago that Ted Cruz’s father might have been an ally of Lee Harvey Oswald. A person who could think or say things like these, and in fact repeatedly does say them, is not a person you want judging the complicated issues that come before a real-world president. This person is about to become a major-party nominee.
As a reminder, these dispatches are meant as a chronicle for time-capsule purposes, recorded at a time when no one can be sure that Donald Trump won’t become the 45th President of the United States. They are meant to note the traits that distinguish Trump from the first 44 presidents and from all previous major-party nominees. As more members of his party’s establishment accommodate themselves to Trump, this record is also meant as a reminder of the kind of person they are now deciding to find acceptable.
Daily Trump #5, May 26, 2016. What’s this ‘Gang of Eight’ I keep hearing about?
The most jarring part of Donald Trump’s announcement speech nearly one year ago was what he said about immigrants. You can see the whole thing, which even now is startlingly coarse, in the C-SPAN archives here. The part about Mexicans begins around time 9:00, and is cued in the clip above.
What’s the news? It’s in a great story out today in Bloomberg Businessweek by Joshua Green — longtime friend of mine, Atlantic and Washington Monthly alumnus — that is about Reince Priebus but includes an interview with Trump. In it Trump discloses that he had not actually thought about the immigration issue, or other issues, before diving in head first. From Green’s story, with added emphasis:
“I’m not sure I got there through deep analysis,” he said [speaking of another policy]. “My views are what everybody else’s views are. When I give speeches, sometimes I’ll sign autographs and I’ll get to talk to people and learn a lot about the party.”
He says he learned that voters were disgusted with Republican leaders and channeled their outrage. I asked, given how immigration drove his initial surge of popularity, whether he, like Sessions [Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama], had considered the RNC’s call for immigration reform to be a kick in the teeth. To my surprise, he candidly admitted that he hadn’t known about it or even followed the issue until recently. “When I made my [announcement] speech at Trump Tower, the June 16 speech,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Gang of Eight. … I just knew instinctively that our borders are a mess.”
Everything about the GOP struggle over immigration concerned whether the “Gang of Eight” was a step in the right or the wrong direction. The gang was an informal alliance of four Republican and four Democratic senators. On the Democratic side, senators Bennet, Durbin, Menendez, and Schumer; and on the Republican side, senators Flake, Graham, McCain, and crucially Marco Rubio. If you were a “reform”-minded Republican (and most any Democrat), you supported this effort to revamp immigration laws, including finding a “path to citizenship” for some already-present illegal/undocumented immigrants. If you were from the Tea Party, you blasted Marco Rubio for being involved at all.
But either way, you would have heard of it. Donald Trump, who has made “the wall” and the threat of uncontrolled immigration the emotional center of his campaign, did not know what the Gang of Eight was. He is the only person running for the nomination in either party of whom this could possibly be true. Even Ben Carson was informed enough to talk about the Gang of Eight back in 2014.
As a first approximation, it is fair to assume that Donald Trump does not know anything about public policy. Anything. Including about the issue that is the main point of his campaign. It is almost impossible to convey how far this is outside the range of even the least-brilliant or dutiful “normal” politicians. Instinct always matters, but going purely with the gut is the route to sorrow in public affairs.
For comparison, please check out this previous item on why Sarah Palin, the closest apparent comparison, actually was much better informed than Trump. We are entering the realm of “Chauncey Gardner,” the simple-minded gardener whose blurtings are treated as meaningful, in Being There. This is the person who would be making judgment calls as president, including about the use of force and nuclear weaponry. This is the person the Republican party is preparing itself to accept.
As a reminder, here is what Trump said on immigration and border issues in his announcement speech. From the C-SPAN transcript:
When do we beat Mexico at the border? They are laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically.
They are not our friend. Believe me, they are killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems. It’s true. And these are not the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best. They are not sending you [points]. They are not sending you [points again].
They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people…
We have no protection and we have no confidence. We don’t know what’s happening. It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast [APPLAUSE]
Daily Trump #6: May 27, 2016. Drought? What drought?
The rains of the past El Nino season have slightly offset the disastrous multi-year drought in California, which is the worst in the state’s recorded history. Just in case you skipped through that previous sentence too quickly: for as far back as weather records have been kept, there has never before been as long or severe a shortage of rainfall as what California has endured since 2012. (Tree-ring records show prolonged droughts in much earlier eras, some lasting for centuries.) Some reservoirs in northern California have been partly refilled by the recent rains; most in the south are still very dry. The water supply is nowhere close to back to normal, and what the new “normal” might be no one can say.
Everything about life in California has been affected by the drought. Governor Jerry Brown has turned to it in all of his recent State of the State messages, both as an emergency to confront and as a parable for the state’s future. For instance, here is the way he spoke about it in this year’s address (emphasis added):
One of the bright spots in our contentious politics is the joining together of both parties and the people themselves to secure passage of Proposition 1, the Water Bond. That, together with our California Water Action Plan, establishes a solid program to deal with the drought and the longer-term challenge of using our water wisely.
Our goal must be to preserve California’s natural beauty and ensure a vibrant economy – on our farms, in our cities and for all the people who live here. There is no magic bullet but a series of actions must be taken. We have to recharge our aquifers, manage the groundwater, recycle, capture stormwater, build storage and reliable conveyance, improve efficiency everywhere, invest in new technologies – including desalination – and all the while recognize that there are some limits.
Achieving balance between all the conflicting interests is not easy but I pledge to you that I will listen and work patiently to achieve results that will stand the test of time. Water goes to the heart of what California is and what it has been over centuries. Pitting fish against farmer misses the point and grossly distorts reality. Every one of us and every creature that dwells here form a complex system which must be understood and respected.
This is the way a leader sounds if he has invested the time to understand an issue; if he recognizes the stakes in dealing with it seriously; if he is willing to take on the complex work of finding areas of agreement, including among groups with deeply conflicting interests; and if he is willing to begin a process that cannot possibly be completed on his watch but which his state cannot afford to delay. You can agree or disagree with Jerry Brown’s water policies or other aspects of his leadership. (I’m generally an admirer.) Either way, no one can doubt that he is giving this his all.
Here, by contrast, is the way a shallow narcissist sounds if he knows nothing about the issue, doesn’t care to learn, and is just shooting off his mouth with the latest thing he heard:
As Jerry Brown pointed out in his speech, there is a tradeoff between environmental and immediate economic interests, when it comes to managing water or other natural resources. (To provide enough river flow for fish to survive, some water is sent straight to the sea, in streams and rivers, rather than being diverted for irrigation or residential/commercial use.) But as Brown also pointed out, the farmer-vs-fisherman tension isn’t the real problem — very much as immigration is not the real problem when we wrestle with the rich-vs-poor economy or the stagnation of median incomes.
That’s something a real leader has the intelligence and discipline to understand, and the backbone to try to explain. The way Trump has approached this issue is beneath contempt.
Again my purpose is to lay down a real-time record, at a point when none of us can be sure that the man capable of saying such things will not be president, of the kind of person he is. This is the man more and more of the Republican party is deciding they can accept — including, today, Senator “Little Marco” Rubio, who not long ago was promising to pay any price and bear any burden to keep what he called a “con man” away from the presidency.
You can never tell which of these lies, vulgarities, or oversimplifications will hit you particularly hard. I’m surprised by how much this “no drought!” claim infuriates me. That’s probably because I have known all my life the role water plays in the West, and have recently seen how hard people there, from Governor Brown on down, have been wrestling with these sere new realities. And then to have some showboat ignoramus blow in and say: No, the answer’s simple! Someone’s cheating you! … I won’t complete that thought but will just say: this is the man who could be the next president. And, to any future readers checking in after the world knows who’s won, this is how it looked in real time.
It’s increasingly evident that something is seriously wrong with Donald Trump. That would be his own business, and his own problem, except for the chance that he could become the next president and thus be in position to command major regulatory, investigative, and military powers. As a reminder, during this period when Trump could still become president, and when more and more of the Republican party is deciding to deem him acceptable, the items in this series are for-the-record notes of things he does and says that no real-world president would or should.
Daily Trump #7: May 27, 2016, the “Mexican” judge.
Reid Epstein of the WSJ has a riveting account of Trump’s speech yesterday in San Diego. Epstein’s account is the more powerful because he is so obviously trying to keep it deadpan, and let the facts and words of Trump’s statements speak for themselves.
The three crucial facts the story conveys are: 1) that Trump spent a full 12 minutes of his speech, an eternity in rally-time, in a personalized complaint about an ongoing fraud lawsuit against his Trump University; 2) that he did not argue the merits so much as dismiss the legitimacy of the suit and the judge hearing it, and in fact threatened retaliation against the judge; and 3) that among his complaints was that the federal judge was “Mexican.” That judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana, received his undergraduate and JD degrees from Indiana University, and has spent his entire life and career in the United States. That career includes working as an assistant U.S. Attorney in California and as a drug-offense prosecutor there.
Samples from the story:
“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd of several thousand booed….
To the San Diego crowd, Mr. Trump argued that Judge Curiel should be removed from the case because he is biased against him. The evidence Mr. Trump presented: Rulings against him and the fact that Judge Curial was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. The Senate confirmed Judge Curiel by a voice vote in September 2012 [that is, with no recorded opposition]….
Mr. Trump also told the audience, which had previously chanted the Republican standard-bearer’s signature “build that wall” mantra in reference to Mr. Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, that Judge Curiel is “Mexican.”
“What happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine,” Mr. Trump said.
Judge Curiel was born in Indiana….
“I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m telling you, this court system, judges in this court system, federal court, they ought to look into Judge Curiel. Because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace, OK? But we’ll come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I’m president and I come back to do a civil case? Where everybody likes it. OK. This is called life, folks.”
What’s wrong here? Why is this something that would be considered out of bounds for real-world presidents or serious contenders? In ascending order of importance:
- The temperament question. Before a crowd of cheering thousands, with the GOP nomination all but assured, Trump still cannot resist taking the bait and rebutting any perceived slight. Can you imagine Dwight Eisenhower behaving this way? Lincoln? Reagan? FDR of course joked about criticism of “my little dog, Fala.” But he joked, to huge laughs and applause, in a wry little turn as opposed to a genuinely angry tirade. It is striking how rarely we hear actual humor of this sort from Donald Trump, as opposed to “comic” insults.
- “Mexican.” Trump was careful to say that there’s nothing “wrong” with being Mexican (when, again, he was referring to a person of completely American background). But in a rally where people are chanting “build the wall!” this was not a mere by-the-way comment.
Imagine a comparison: suppose this case went to the Supreme Court, and Trump got a ruling against him written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And suppose he then said, “she happens to be, we believe, a Jew, which is great, I think that’s fine. Actually, though people don’t like to talk about it, three of the Democrat appointees on the Court who voted against me are Jews. Nothing wrong with it, I’m just saying.”
Aspirants to lead a big, diverse nation cannot talk this way. Richard Nixon did in private, but that was considered a scandal when it came out on his White House tapes. Political campaigns have long used various degrees of racial coding and shading. But we have seen nothing comparable to Trump’s public crudeness from a presidential nominee since at least the time of George Wallace, who in 1968 carried the deep South and won a total of 46 electoral votes.
- Contempt for the system. Individual Americans can feel, and say, that “the system is rigged” — judicially, electorally, economically. Complaints about unfairness are very frequently the basis of political campaigns, as in different ways we see in the Sanders, Trump, and other movements this year.
But when the results of an established process turn against them, presidents and presidential aspirants must defend the process. That’s the difference between rule-of-law and rule-of-men. Richard Nixon disagreed with the Supreme Court’s rulings against him but did not question their legitimacy or say he would try to get back at the Justices. Al Gore had far better logical and jurisprudential grounds for questioning the ruling in Bush v. Gore, but while he made clear that he bitterly disagreed, he of course complied. He did not mention the ethnicity of the Justices or say that they should be “looked into.”
A president cannot suggest, as Trump is doing here, that his personal interests or vendettas come ahead of the systems of democratic government that a president is sworn to “preserve, protect, and defend.” I am not aware of any institution, tradition, or system that Trump has ever placed above his own interests or impulses. The speech in San Diego is the latest stark example.
This is outlier behavior and must not be “normalized.”
This “Trumpcast” podcast, by Jacob Weisberg of Slate and Peter Sagal of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me (the podcast was produced by Andy Bowers’s Panoply Media), is very interesting on the challenge for journalists like Weisberg, and satirists/comedians like Sagal, of trying to treat candidates “evenly” when one of them, Trump, is simply different from anyone who has received a nomination before. Thanks to reader Karen W for the tip.
Daily Trump #8, May 29, 2016, Illegal immigrants have it too easy
Yesterday at the Rolling Thunder mass motorcycle rally here in Washington — which I could hear while at The Atlantic’s offices half a mile away, but didn’t attend — Donald Trump said, “illegal immigrants are taken better care of than our veterans.”
This is not true, and no one who has thought about it for more than one second could imagine otherwise.
A wide range of preferences and programs are designed to favor military veterans, as an incentive to ongoing recruitment and as recognition of past service. For instance: nearly 30% of the total federal workforce, and as many as half of new federal employees, are veterans. By definition, the proportion of known illegal immigrants in the federal workforce would approach zero.
Well over a million veterans and their families have attended college with GI Bill-type benefits enacted since 9/11. For most scholarship or aid programs of any kind, proof of citizenship or legal residency is required.
The VA hospital system has had numerous, serious, well-publicized problems. On the other hand it exists (unlike some notional Illegal Immigrants Hospital System), and before the recent scandals it was often studied and cited as a model of progressive medical practices. Many millions of veterans receive medical care through the VA. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for Medicaid, Medicare, treatment under Obamacare exchanges, or most private insurance coverage and generally rely on emergency rooms or cash-up-front treatment centers.
Veterans can go to their congressional representatives or the press for redress of grievances. Illegal immigrants by definition have a very limited range of rights, and few ways to assert them.
I would go on, but it’s kind of an insult to public intelligence to treat this as a serious claim. (“Donald Trump said yesterday that two was a larger number than five. Let’s examine why this is not true….”)
It was a pure statement of grievance, fitting Trump’s skillful-but-dangerous pattern of expertly reading, and then pandering to, the audience in his immediate range and in position to cheer in response.
As always, the point of these updates is not to dissuade any current Trump supporters or to suggest that the accuracy of Trump’s claims is the basis of his appeal. Rather the purpose is time-capsule chronicling of what is known about this person, at a time when the Republican party is lining up behind him and he might become president.
How do we put in perspective Donald Trump’s angry criticism of reporters, collectively and by individual name, at his press conference today? The clip below begins with one notable early moment. The final 10 minutes of the conference are more or less all in that same vein.
When I compare today’s performance with others I have seen myself or have heard of, the closest matches are discouraging. One is to the only vice president ever forced to resign because of corruption, Spiro Agnew. (John C. Calhoun also resigned as VP, but that was over policy differences.) The other is to the only president ever forced to resign, Agnew’s ticket-mate Richard Nixon.
Every politician, above all every president, gets angry at the press. I had a whole chapter to this effect in Breaking the News. In essence the point was: every politician can list all the things he does that aren’t strictly posturing, favor-trading, dissembling, or compromising. But the posturing and dissembling inevitably dominate the news.
At the same time, many politicians also enjoy hanging out with, sparring with, and picking up intel from reporters. It’s always a complex relationship.
From time to time politicians let the anger out. But those in-public outbursts, especially by presidents or major-party candidates, have been treated as exceptions, memorable precisely because they are rare. The two most famous cases illustrate the point.
One was a speech by then-VP Spiro Agnew in Houston in 1970, lamenting the media’s tendency to oversimplify. In retrospect, it’s an argument carried out at a very high level. For instance: “Subtlety is lost, and fine distinctions based on acute reasoning are carelessly ignored in a headlong jump to a predetermined conclusion. Life is visceral rather than intellectual.”
If you spoke this way at a current political rally, someone in the crowd would yell, “Booorrrr-innng!” [More from the speech below.] And yet even this formally phrased critique was remarkable enough that it still stands out, 46 years later, as a prominent case of a politician really letting it rip against the press.
The other was a breathtakingly bitter crack by then-President Richard Nixon, already standing on the banana peel of Watergate, at a White House press conference soon after the “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973. (The person at whom Nixon snaps in this clip is Robert Pierpoint of CBS, whom I happened to know.)
So, this Nixon was remarkably angry, and let it show. But to put it in perspective: this was one of the most famously bitter moments in the entire public career of a famously bitter man, at a time of near-existential personal crisis for him. (Another was “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more,” when he thought his public life was over after he lost the race for governor of California to Pat Brown in 1962.)
Yet even these Nixon and Agnew moments, still notable many decades later, pale in their anger and crudity compared with a string of comments Donald Trump reeled off today, when the only pressure on him was not real crisis but the routine annoyance of press questions.
So we know that the best temperamental comparisons for Trump are to two people eventually forced from office — and we know that Nixon, in particular, made these cracks under vastly greater pressure than anything being applied to Trump right now. We know this about Trump, at the moment when much of the Republican party is deciding to line up behind him — and the lining-up goes on.
Near the end of today’s conference, Trump was asked whether the snarling at the press conference was a fair sample of how he’d deal with the press if he were president.
A little more of the famous Agnew speech. It’s interesting to compare this with Trump’s “you’re a sleaze.”
Sometimes it appears that we're reaching a period when our senses and our minds will no longer respond to moderate stimulation. We seem to be reaching an age of the gross, persuasion through speeches and books is too often discarded for disruptive demonstrations aimed at bludgeoning the unconvinced into action.
The young--and by this I'd don't mean any stretch of the imagination all the young, but I'm talking about those who claim to speak for the young--at the zenith of physical power and sensitivity, overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants. Subtlety is lost, and fine distinctions based on acute reasoning are carelessly ignored in a headlong jump to a predetermined conclusion. Life is visceral rather than intellectual.
And the most visceral practitioners of life are those who characterize themselves as intellectuals. Truth is to them revealed rather than logically proved. And the principal infatuations of today revolve around the social sciences, those subjects which can accommodate any opinion, and about which the most reckless conjecture cannot be discredited. Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim, rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated, and a contemporary antagonism known as "The Generation Gap."
A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals. [applause]
I think there’s actually a reason to keep laying this out, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s look at a genuinely impressive moment of Donald Trump in the public eye.
Daily Trump #10: June 1, 2016. The tragedy of the gorilla.
In the same press conference yesterday at which he angrily lambasted the press, and resented even being questioned about money he had raised for veterans groups, Donald Trump seemed thoughtful and reflective when asked about the gorilla episode at the Cincinnati zoo. He didn’t have to be told what the episode was about or the tradeoffs involved. (For anyone reading this after summer-2016: a child fell into the enclosure of a beloved gorilla from an endangered species, and zoo officials finally decided to shoot the gorilla to rescue the child.)
That is Trump at his best, explaining his reasoning and judgment in a way anyone could follow and respect, even those who might disagree.
Less than 24 hours later, this passage from Michael Wolff’s story about Trump in the Hollywood Reporter was making the rounds:
“And Brexit? Your position?” I ask.
“The Brits leaving the EU,” I prompt, realizing that his lack of familiarity with one of the most pressing issues in Europe is for him no concern nor liability at all.
“Oh yeah, I think they should leave.”
It is hard not to feel that Trump understands himself, and that we’re all in on this kind of spectacular joke.
Many average U.S. citizens can be perfectly functional and happy despite not having heard of the “Brexit” — the proposed British exit from the European Union — just as many average citizens can do just fine never having heard of the “nuclear triad” on which U.S. deterrent strategy is based. But (and it’s embarrassing to spell this out) please remember that (1) anyone who has actually read an international-business story in the WSJ, the FT, the Economist, the NYT, and so on in the past year would have seen the term, just as anyone who had read about the modern military would have come across the “triad”; and (2) anyone responsible for U.S. international business and strategic dealings, and for understanding the macro forces on the U.S. economy in the year ahead, should be aware of this serious potential change in a regional economy even bigger than that of the U.S.
As this goes on, it’s not really about Trump any more. We know exactly who and what he is. He’s a genuinely-charming-at-times salesman and schmoozer with sub-Palin-level knowledge of public affairs, more on a par with “Chauncey Gardiner” of Being There. He instantly knows all about the gorilla, and next-to-nothing about the international economy. This isn’t his fault. It’s who he is and what he does.
Nor do I think that a litany of Trump’s knowledge-holes or judgment-lapses will make any difference to his already-committed supporters. It’s part of what they like about him.
But the people who I hope are thinking about how they’ll look in history’s eyes, are the leaders of a major political party now lining up to declare this man acceptable. Not one of them can pretend later on that they didn’t know what they were signing on for.
This is all over the news, so I’ll just note its existence for the record.
Trump Time Capsule #11: June 2, 2016. “Mexican heritage.”
On the very day that House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had denounced candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigrants, announced his support for Trump as presumptive nominee, Trump himself escalated his criticism of the federal judge hearing the fraud case against Trump University. In an interview with Brent Kendall of the WSJ, Trump said that judge Gonzalo Curiel should be removed from the case because of his ethnicity:
In an interview, Mr. Trump said U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the litigation given that he was “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyers’ association. Mr. Trump said the background of the judge, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants, was relevant because of his campaign stance against illegal immigration and his pledge to seal the southern U.S. border. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” Mr. Trump said.
I note this mainly for the historical record of what was known about Trump as the party prepared to accept him, but let me underscore these points:
This is the man Paul Ryan has decided to get behind, on the very day Ryan got behind him.
Even before Trump purified his objection so that it was about the judge’s ethnicity, Jeffrey Toobin had a powerful item on the New Yorker’s site on why Trump’s previous comments were so odious and outside-normal-bounds.
Thanks to TheAtlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum for pointing me toward the ringing decision by federal judge Leon Higginbotham on why his own racial identity, as an African-American, and his involvement in civil-rights causes should not automatically disqualify him from hearing discrimination cases. (David Graham has an Atlantic item about it here.) That ruling was followed by many others, and is in direct opposition to Trump’s claim, as is the American idea itself.
Part of what is so horrible about Trump’s relentless insults to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is the recognition that he has sort of gotten away with it. Gotten away? Here’s what I mean: I think if he had been on the verge of saying that a Jewish judge should be disqualified because he was Jewish, a Catholic because she was Catholic, a black because he was black, or a woman because she was a woman, even Trump would have hesitated and been afraid of the backlash.
No one is going to change Trump’s mind at this point, nor peel off his most committed supporters. But the “responsible” Republicans lining up behind Trump, from Mitch McConnell to Marco Rubio to Jon Huntsman to Ryan himself, should be called out and asked: You’re supporting this? People are going to be remembered, in the long run, for how they lined up on Trump 2016. You’re sure about this?
I strongly encourage you to watch this CNN clip from Jake Tapper’s latest interview with Donald Trump:
Trump Time Capsule #12, June 3, 2016. I’m Building a Wall
You may think you’ve heard it all about this dispute; you may think there is no conceivable juice to be wrung from Trump’s complaints about federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is hearing the fraud case against Trump University; you may think this is asked-and-answered, and tedious.
If you watch the brief clip, I think you’ll be surprised. I was. For context:
Trump has just come off a solid week of being criticized high and low for racist comments about a judge’s “Mexican heritage”;
He has heard a million times that Judge Curiel, despite his “heritage,” is impeccably American, having been born, raised, and schooled in Indiana and then having worked as a prosecutor in California;
Even the Republicans who have most recently endorsed Trump, notably Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and John McCain, have publicly lamented his anti-Latino tone; and yet...
This very afternoon, Tapper asks him, “If you are saying he cannot do his job, because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?” And Trump answers with: “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican! We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” Thus obviously the judge would be aggrieved.
To his credit Tapper persists in pointing out that the wall would have no effect on a person already in the United States because he was born here. Note the incredulity on Tapper’s face at the end of the clip when he tells Trump, “He’s not a Mexican. He’s from Indiana!” (I wish only that Tapper had thought to say, “He’s not a Mexican. He’s a Hoosier!”) Even considering everything we’ve seen and heard recently, I found this a remarkable 68 seconds of video. Judge for yourself.
Once again, why bother recording any of this? I have no illusion that Donald Trump will change his mind or his views, nor that his core supporters might be peeled away. This is who he is, and it’s part of what some people like about him.
But it is worth being 100% eyes-open about the man that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jon Huntsman, Nikki Haley (so far), Reince Priebus, and other leaders of the Republican party are declaring acceptable as a potential commander-in-chief. As I write this, we can’t be sure that Donald Trump won’t end up as 45th President of the United States. But there should be no confusion — now, or when we consider this time in retrospect — about what his supporters are signing on for.
There is too much going on to catch up with fully, so let me mention a case that is not about something Donald Trump said or did but rather about something that didn’t happen.
Trump Time Capsule #13: June 4, 2016. Crickets.
- On June 2, Hillary Clinton gave a speech attacking Donald Trump’s qualifications to be president, in unusually blunt and dismissive terms. Right off the bat she said, “Donald Trump’s ideas are not just different, they are dangerously incoherent. They are not even really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. He is not just unprepared, he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability, and immense responsibility.” It went on from there.
- In all previous happenings of the known political world, the party subject to such attacks would have been ready to respond. While Clinton was still speaking, the “Let’s set the record straight!” emails from GOP HQ would have been pouring in. As soon as the speech was over, worthy-seeming surrogates would have crowded the cable news shows to say how unfair the criticism was, how sound and thought-through Trump’s policies were, how he had the experience and judgment for the challenges ahead.
- In the actual Trump-era political world, the candidate himself put out one of his trademarked Tweets, shown above. (Which the Clinton campaign was obviously prepared for. They instantly pounced on Trump’s “no basis in fact” and conclusively rebutted it.) And people tell me that Fox commentators have been talking about crooked Hillary — I haven’t watched. But … that’s it.
From the party as a whole? Nothing. Crickets.
To the best of my knowledge, not one Republican Senator has stepped up to say: “Secretary Clinton’s criticisms are unfair. Donald Trump is the man for the job.” Not Mitch McConnell or Marco Rubio or John McCain.
Not any prominent Representatives. Not Paul Ryan or Kevin McCarthy or any of their committee chairmen.
Not any governors (though we should check on Chris Christie).
Not any former Republican Secretaries of State or Defense or Treasury, or former Republican nominees or presidents, or national security advisors or trade negotiators.
Not Reince Priebus or anyone from the party establishment. No one.
Nor has any party leader chimed in to support his attack on Gonzalo Curiel, the “Mexican” judge from Indiana. (Update The never-disappointing Alberto Gonzales, White House counsel and Attorney General for GW Bush, has now weighed in to support Trump on the “Mexican” issue. Read that, then please see Garrett Epps’s Trumpo delenda estabsolute demolition of the “Mexican” dispute.)
Many Republicans have continued attacking Hillary Clinton. But as far as I’m aware, no prominent party official has stepped up to say: She’s wrong when she says that Donald Trump is completely unfit for the job he seeks. (The Sunday shows tomorrow are still ahead, but they will be three days late — an eternity in modern news-cycle time.)
And yet: almost all of these people are preparing to accept Trump as their nominee and have said they “support” him.
You could say it’s “clever” for the Republican establishment to go through the motions of supporting Trump, while making it 100% clear that they know he’s toxically unqualified. I don’t really understand why they think that’s wiser than saying: No, here I draw the line. Maybe later on they’ll explain. For now this note is just to record the state of affairs and of public knowledge, six-plus weeks before the convention.
Jake Tapper’s full interview with Donald Trump, aired today, is an important part of the time-capsule process, of recording what was known about the presumptive GOP nominee as the party lined up behind him. But let me point out one very brief segment.
Trump has claimed that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, was against the Iraq war. Tapper, to his great credit says, What’s the evidence for that? It goes from there:
“I haven’t been asked that question before,” Trump says, of Tapper’s request for proof that he was against the war before it started going bad. “Nobody’s said that to me before.”
That is flatly, completely, and 100% untrue.
It’s a big, fat, easily disprovable lie. It’s hardly the most consequential thing he has gotten wrong, but in its baldness it is amazing.
Back in February, at a Town Hall on this same CNN network, Anderson Cooper asked Trump about a 2002 interview with Howard Stern (!) in which he appeared to support the war. You can see it here.
Set aside Trump’s explanation of his 2002 comment: he wasn’t a politician, he hadn’t given it great thought, once the war started he turned against it earlier than his Republican opponents did. Fine. That doesn’t change the reality that what he just told Tapper is a plain and easily demonstrable lie. He had been asked the question, and more than once. This wasn’t even the first time he’d been asked the question on CNN itself.
If you’re interested, there has been a slew of other coverage on this theme. For instance this item by me, plus Politifact, the NYT, BuzzFeed, and the Huffington Post. Maybe, since Trump has no detectable campaign organization, no one made him aware of this. But we know for a fact that Anderson Cooper asked him this very question, to his face, on national TV less than four months ago.
Did Trump not remember? Does he assume no one else would? Does he not even recognize the contradiction between what he’s just told Tapper and what the tapes with Cooper reveal? Does he think that if he believes what he’s saying, everyone else will too?
None of these explanations, or others, is reassuring. The point for now is that the man the GOP is lining up to support calmly told a flat-out lie he should have known would be trivially easy to disprove, and didn’t seemed fazed a bit.
Update this parallels another flat-out, clearly disprovable Trump lie today about his position on Libya, as explained here.
Time Capsule #15, June 6, 2016, Donald Trump Has No Campaign
As with item #13 in this series, “Crickets,” this one is about something that didn’t happen rather than something that did.
It’s now been nearly five weeks since Donald Trump appeared to clinch the Republican nomination, with his win in the supposed Ted Cruz stronghold of Indiana. While the Democrats have continued to scrap since then, Trump has enjoyed a long period in which his attention, organization, message, and drive could shift toward the general election in November, and what it will take to overcome (presumably) Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s thematic message and personal demeanor through this time have not fully matured into inclusive “Presidential” mode, to put it mildly. The latest remarkable example, breaking via Abby Livingston of the Texas Tribune as I type this entry, is the letter from Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela, from a heavily Latino district in southern Texas, to Trump saying “you can take your border wall and shove it up your ass.”
But two stories today illustrate a different important development, or rather the lack of one. That is Trump’s apparent indifference about putting together the sort of organization that is always necessary to run a nation-wide general election campaign.
Why do you need more than one visible and voluble candidate, with his millions of social-media followers, to become president? Because managing a general-election campaign is more like coordinating a vast military operation than like running a viral-marketing campaign.
Issues come up faster, and in more complexity, and with higher stakes and more pitfalls, than any one person can possibly handle. You need people other than the candidate to talk about foreign policy (and within that, Asia and Europe and the Americas and terrorism and Israel-Palestine and ...), and about budget policy, and about economic trends, and about the latest gaffe or rumor or comment from friend or foe.
Of the 50 states plus DC that will cast electoral votes, some are in range for the GOP and some are not, and knowing exactly where and how to spend time and money, and what the local political networks are, and what issues are trending and hurting, is a big, complicated process that requires a lot of region-by-region sophistication and info. The relevance and power of “data analytics” for targeting voters and raising money was a huge part of Barack Obama’s success in 2008 (as Joshua Green described for us) and has only grown more important.
Speaking of money: Money, money, money. Trump’s not going to self-fund, and he can’t do all the events or court all the donors himself.
Turnout. You need actual people working city by city.
Logistics. When I was traveling on a general-election campaign back in 1976, my greatest respect was for the “advance” teams that had to line up back-to-back events each day around the country. It’s really hard; it’s a hundred times more complex and visible these days than it was back then; it can’t be run ad-hoc.
Candidate-wrangling. Campaigning is really, really tiring. Someone needs to protect the candidate, and when necessary play the “candidate-whisperer” role of saving him/her from his own worst instincts and impulses. It is not 100% obvious that anyone is in a position to save Trump from himself in this way.
Endorsements, surrogates, joint appearances, alliances. These are important and also a PITA to arrange. Every official is important in his own eyes, they all need to be flattered and respected and brought on board.
Donald Trump did better than almost anyone (including me) thought possible in the primaries, but they were a different game. The main axes of operation were the mass rally, at which Trump excelled; and the multi-participant, scrum-like chaos of the “debates,” at which he also excelled. His skills still matter, but it’s a different sort of challenge now.
Sample of the first, which has the headline “Donald Trump does not have a campaign”:
Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem….
Veteran operatives are shocked by the campaign’s failure to fill key roles. There is no communications team to deal with the hundreds of media outlets covering the race, no rapid response director to quickly rebut attacks and launch new ones, and a limited cast of surrogates who lack a cohesive message.
Aides appeared unprepared for the Trump University story last week, despite knowing in advance that unsealed court documents would reveal explosive allegations of fraud….
The absence of a response to the Trump U story left the candidate to fill the vacuum with a torrent of demagoguery against the federal judge overseeing the case, Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump said was biased by his “Mexican heritage” despite his Indiana birthplace.
Sample from Rutenberg, under the headline “The Trump Show, a Hit for Now, Faces a Test in the Fall”:
It’s time to stop calling Donald J. Trump’s presidential operation “the Trump campaign.” It would be far more accurate to call it “Trump Productions Inc.”
Mr. Trump is not running a campaign in the modern sense — or what was the modern sense until about yesterday. Rather, he oversees a prolific content production studio that has accomplished what every major media conglomerate is trying to pull off with mixed success.
As with anything about Trump, no one can be sure what will happen next. But in for-the-record spirit, five months before the presidential election, Donald Trump is in a position different from any other modern nominee, in his apparent disdain for the mechanics of building a campaign. From this point, either:
He’ll win nonetheless, once more demonstrating his power to rewrite the fundamental rules of politics;
He’ll lose, reinforcing the relevance of those rules;
He’ll change course, after the apparent slippage of the past few weeks; or
Somehow, someone else will end up as the nominee.
Right now #2 seems most likely to me — but the reason for a real-time chronicle is that no one can be sure.
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
At least one human life has already been lost as a direct result of the widespread obsession with turning the sex of one’s unborn child into an explosive (often literally) spectacle. In October, an Iowa woman was killed when her family inadvertently built a pipe bomb as part of their gender-reveal party—a gathering at which expectant parents dramatically and colorfully announce the sex of their baby.
The methods for doing so seem to have started out as benign, if stereotypical—cutting into a cake to reveal either blue or pink frosting, say. But in the past couple of years, some kind of communal madness has taken hold, and many of these feats of gender performance have gotten more elaborate, more public, and more dangerous—putting lives and entire ecosystems at risk. Last year, a father-to-be started a 47,000-acre wildfire in Arizona when he shot a rifle at an explosive target full of blue powder (It’s a boy!), causing $8.2 million of damage, according to the Arizona Daily Star. The latest instance of a gender reveal gone wildly wrong, as The New York Times reported on Friday, involved a plane that stalled and crashed while crop-dusting a Texas field with 350 gallons of pink water in honor of an unborn female child. No one was killed in either incident, but someone easily could have been. Othergender-reveal-relatedexplosions, and one reveal involving an alligator, have also placed people in harm’s way.
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side
Images above: A protestor holding a sign that reads “Abortion Is Freedom” and protestors holding anti-abortion signs
In 1956, twoAmerican physicians, J. A. Presley and W. E. Brown, colleagues at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, decided that four recent admissions to their hospital were significant enough to warrant a published report. “Lysol-Induced Criminal Abortion” appeared in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. It describes four women who were admitted to the hospital in extreme distress, all of them having had “criminal abortions” with what the doctors believed to be an unusual agent: Lysol. The powerful cleaner had been pumped into their wombs. Three of them survived, and one of them died.
The gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol—it’s the false promise of civility.
Joe Biden has fond memories of negotiating with James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi who once declared, “I am of the opinion that we should have segregation in all the States of the United States by law. What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Recalling in June his debates with segregationists like Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility,” compared with today. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition; the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Things were getting bad even before the 2016 election, but somehow, within just a few years, they have gotten worse. In an environment of intense partisan warfare, each side believes it has a claim to lead the nation based on its own set of values. Each side understands that it has more to gain from aggrievement than achievement, and each side beholds the other with contempt. Meanwhile, the republic seems to be unraveling. A culture of anxiety and depression has spread far and wide as people face health crises without access to affordable care. An opioid epidemic ensnares ever larger numbers of the alienated and desperate; among certain groups, life spans are actually shortening. Some of those who aren’t harming themselves are harming others in mass shootings; many of the killers are infected with an ideology of white supremacy. Also, the prisons are full. The economy, at least, seems to be in decent shape for now, but income inequality continues to widen. Jobs are plentiful, which is good, because it often takes more than one to support a family. But the economic energy of a rich country has not eased the strains on our political institutions—money flowing to politicians has only hardened the gridlock. Congress still can’t get anything done. Tax cuts have left the country short of money to address national problems. The gulf between needs and capacities is glaring. Everyday scenes sometimes resemble New Yorker covers designed by Pravda: In Manhattan, the Harvard Club’s elegant dining room backs onto West 45th Street, where men and women sleep beneath damp cardboard in the warm glow of the club’s windows.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
The socialist president claimed authoritarian powers in the name of the popular will. But average citizens were fed up with arbitrary rule.
Evo Morales has been attacking Bolivia’s democracy for many years. Since coming to office in 2006, the socialist president has concentrated ever more authority in his own hands, denounced the opposition in aggressive terms, and placed loyalists in key institutions, from the country’s public broadcaster to its highest court.
Like many populists on both the left and the right, Morales claimed to wield power in the name of the people. But after weeks of mass protests in La Paz and other Bolivian cities, and the rapid crumbling of his support both within law enforcement and his own political party, it was his loss of legitimacy among the majority of his own countrymen that forced Morales to resign yesterday.
She’s been bringing a steady stream of men back to my house, and her behavior is testing my patience.
I am the mother of three adult children who moved out of the family home to start their own lives. I lived alone for more than five years and I never had a problem with empty-nest syndrome. I cannot stress enough how much I loved the solitude.
Four months ago, my 33-year-old daughter moved back in with me (with her dog!!!) after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, whom she lived with in another state. Of course, if my children need shelter, my home is always open, so it was only natural that I would welcome her and her dog.
The problem is that she has an, ahem, active social life. Since she moved into my home, there has been a steady stream of men coming over and spending time in her bedroom. They usually only stay an hour or two, but this weekend I woke up to find a man leaving my house. While I am angry and upset, I tried to be rational and explain that my home is my sanctuary, and that I don’t appreciate all the men she has coming and going like it’s Grand Central Station, and that I really don’t appreciate her having men stay overnight, especially without my knowledge or permission.
The 45th president of the United States is uniquely unfit for office and poses a multifaceted threat to our country’s democratic institutions. Yet he might not represent the most severe challenge facing our country. The structural failures in our democratic system that allowed a grifter into the White House in the first place—this might be our gravest challenge. Or perhaps it is the tribalization of our politics, brought about by pathological levels of inequality, technological and demographic upheaval, and the tenacious persistence of racism. Or maybe it is that we as a people no longer seem to know who we are or what our common purpose is.
Last year, Cullen Murphy, our editor at large, and I began a conversation with Danielle Allen, the author of a matchless book on the meaning and promise of America, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, about the causes of this dispiriting moment. Allen, who is the James Bryant Conant University Professor and the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, told me that our system of self-governance has been in crisis for a long time, since well before the dark night of Trumpism. Disenfranchisement and self-disenfranchisement; the radically uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity; institutions so dysfunctional that it would be irrational for citizens to invest in them; the rise of the technocracy—all of these threaten to place the American experiment in permanent eclipse.