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.”)
I’ve got to make these shorter and more telegraphic, to have any hope of keeping up.
Twice in the past three days, Donald Trump has “wondered” and said “lots of people are asking” whether the current U.S. president is actually “prioritizing our enemy” rather than defending the United States.
This morning Trump more clearly said that the Obama’s administration had been deliberately assisting the enemy ISIS force. This was via his preferred communications of the Tweet he offered a Breitbart article, which he said showed “he’s right.”
The Breitbart article is based on a memo that was widely discredited by people with knowledge of ISIS and Syria when it appeared last year. See this and this and this.
Trump’s assertions were of a piece with his “birther” crusade during Obama’s first term, and his recent lunatic suggestion that Ted Cruz’s father might have been in cahoots with Lee Harvey Oswald. In all these cases, his approach is to say “there are a lot of questions” and “people are thinking” and “a lot of people want to know,” and use that as support for his wholly unsubstantiated claims.
A presumptive major-party nominee is accusing an incumbent president of aiding and abetting the nation’s enemies. That is, of treason. And when challenged, he says he’s right. A lot of the job of being president involves assessing evidence and deciding what to believe. Donald Trump continues to show us how he approaches that task.
And the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader are still standing behind this man.
Executive summary: what’s most wrong with Donald Trump’s latest statement about Muslim immigrants is not its bias. What most wrong is its stupidity.
A real president, or real presidential candidate, would be informed enough to know that Muslim immigrants to the U.S. have been notable for their assimilation, not the reverse.
A real president would be wise enough to recognize that the major threat to that ongoing process would be making Muslim Americans feel that they are on thin ice, unwelcome, and under suspicion. This is why George W. Bush began his very honorable (and strategically important) outreach to Muslim Americans soon after the 9/11 attacks.
But this year’s presumptive Republican nominee is not informed enough to recognize the first point, nor wise enough to grasp the second.
Now the details.
Time Capsule #24, June 14, 2016. There’s no real assimilation.
Yesterday, in a Fox News discussion with Sean Hannity, who straddled the roles of campaign spokesman and interviewer, Donald Trump said that a ban on Muslim immigrants was justified, because Muslims didn’t assimilate:
Hannity: If you grow up under Sharia law, and as a man, you think you have the right to tell a woman how to dress, whether she can drive a car, whether she can go to school, or whether she can go to work … if you grow up there, you want to come to America, how do we vet somebody’s heart and ascertain if they're coming here for freedom or if they want to proselytize, indoctrinate, and bring the theocracy with them?
Trump: Assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost, I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation — for some reason there’s no real assimilation.
Set aside the “essentialism” of Trump’s suggestion that the most important thing about some second- and third- generation immigrants is their ethnic or religious background. Just as a matter of being in touch with reality, to make the claim is to reveal that you have spent no time asking or learning about this issue, as opposed to dreaming up agitprop.
From a world perspective, the striking trait about Muslim immigrants to the United States has for a long time been how much better they have assimilated than their counterparts in most other nations, notably including all of Europe. In the years after the 9/11 attacks, one terrorism expert after another pointed out the big American advantage over France, Germany, Holland, the U.K., and other countries in this regard. Second- and third-generation Muslim Americans mainly thought of themselves as American, in common with other U.S. immigrant groups and in contrast to many new immigrants in Western Europe.
Extensive surveys taken more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks showed that Muslim Americans had more in common with other U.S. immigrant groups than with any extremists overseas. (For instance, this 2011 Pew study: “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.”) I know first-hand from interviews with counter-terrorism officials in the years after 9/11 that they viewed the continuing integration of Muslims as a huge U.S. advantage. The corresponding danger would be a shift in U.S. attitudes that made Muslim immigrants feel they could not be accepted.
Another illustration of Muslim-American assimilation, from a Gallup poll in 2010:
Where might a shift to an estranged and “other” status for Muslim Americans arise from? And why might Trump be taking the tone? The data displayed in the chart below are a few years old but may suggest a clue. The Republican base that Trump has been appealing to differs from the rest of the country in having a strong anti-Muslim outlook:
A real president or presidential candidate would know enough about reality to understand that assimilation was progressing.
A real president would realize that the greatest danger was saying or doing things that would make this group of Americans feel suspect or unwelcome.
The pace of uninformed, embarrassing, and objectively disqualifying statements from Donald Trump is picking up. The most recent tiny example that would be huge for anyone else: last night in Dallas, Trump spoke to a crowd at Gilley’s, a country-music bar and dance hall so famous that there was a whole movie about it back in the 1980s. That was Urban Cowboy, with John Travolta and Debra Winger, set in the original Gilley’s, near Houston. That site is now closed, but there’s a new Gilley’s in Dallas. The movie was based on an Aaron Latham story in Esquire about Gilley’s and the oil-boom culture of that era.
One of the things that made Gilley’s famous was its “mechanical bull” that daring riders, male and female, would try to stay aboard as it bucked and reared. It was such a central part of the Gilley’s saga that a dramatic climax of the Urban Cowboy was Winger doing an ostentatiously sexy ride aboard the bull while Travolta looked on and steamed. That was a long time ago, but it was during Trump’s conscious lifetime, and if he had ever heard of Gilley’s, he had heard of the bull.
Thus the oddity of Trump telling the crowd at Gilley’s that he was excited to ride “that horse.” As Mac McCann writes today in the Dallas Morning News:
Trump is laugh-out-loud funny. Referring to Gilley’s mechanical bull, Trump suggested he ride “that horse,” but added, “The problem is, even if I make it, they’ll say I fell off the horse and it was terrible.”… He asked the crowd, “Do we have fun at Trump rallies?” And the crowd erupted in the affirmative.
It was fun. It wasn’t politics.
The whole column is worth reading, but just to stick with the “horse”: Of course it doesn’t matter at all. But similar tiny notes of being out of touch with pop culture became big problems for other candidates. One example was incumbent President George H.W. Bush apparently not knowing what a scanner was when he visited a grocery store. Another was presidential candidate John Kerry being ridiculed for something he apparently never even said: “Who among us doesn’t like Nascar?”
Suppose Kerry — or Dan Quayle or Al Gore or either of the Bushes — had made the bull/horse mixup? The mocking op-ed columns practically write themselves, with a different angle appropriate for each politician. (Gore and Kerry: out of touch elitists. The elder Bush: fake Texan? The younger one: “Rarely is the question asked, Is our children learning?” Quayle: potatoe. Etc). But with Trump, it’s just the 19th-oddest event of a normal campaign day.
Because Trump’s outlier status is becoming better established, I’m going to slow the pace of documenting the examples, even as the examples start piling up faster. His special status is beginning to sink in. I recommend two columns today on this point. One is by Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, looking back on why he so badly underestimated Trump’s chances. (I’ve gone through the same exercise, but Drezner reckons with the man we’re seeing in the general election campaign.)
If Republican voters had nominated a typical candidate, a governor or former governor who had won office in a big state by straddling the center and the right, that man would be ahead of Hillary Clinton right now.
But instead the voters went for Trump, who has never run for nor held office, dodged the draft, and spent the last year insulting Mexicans, P.O.W.s, women, the disabled, Muslims, you name it, while saying George W. Bush lied us into war with Iraq and implying Ted Cruz’s dad had a hand in the Kennedy assassination. Then there was the part where he bragged about his genitals before ranting that he would order soldiers to commit war crimes and “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” This week he cast the troops in Iraq as thieves, threw his support behind an unconstitutional proposal to deny Second Amendment rights to citizens on the no fly list, invited Kim Jong Un to Washington, hinted that President Obama supported ISIS, denied press credentials to the Washington Post after the paper reported this insinuation, and then turned around and tweeted that a Breitbart.com article proved he was right about Obama all along.
This is not a good man. This is not a stable man. It is in the self-interest of no rational person to have him near the situation room.
Again, the point is beginning to register: the GOP is preparing to nominate a historically unprecedented, and totally unfit, candidate for the presidency. As that becomes conventional wisdom, I’ll record more selective highlights and less of the daily scrum.
The bright side of the change is that I’m off to report on more encouraging topics for a while, starting in Kansas and Texas. See you in this space as circumstances warrant, or if Trump somehow starts to become “normalized.”
Update For reasons presumably related to the pace of posting from the road, in this case Powderly, Kentucky, the original version of this post somehow was missing the explanation of why it was strange for Trump to talk about a “horse” — and why if you were a non-Texan who had ever heard of Gilley’s you would have heard of it for the mechanical bull. That explanation is now back in.
Time Capsule #25: June 19, 2016. Doing a good job.
Last week Donald Trump explained why it didn’t matter to him or his supporters that he has offered no specifics on how he would achieve his impossible-sounding goals, from making Mexico pay for The Wall to winning so much we get tired of winning.
“My voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care,” Trump said. “They know you’re going to do a good job once you’re there.”
That is, faith in Trump’s powers to resolve all knotty problems through great deals surmounts the boring details of how politics, budgets, and diplomacy actually work. A similar faith in Trump’s ability to laugh his way past usual realities underlies his general-election prospects. Sure, you might think he faces obstacles with blacks, Latinos, women, and other groups the RNC thought it needed in order to take the presidency—in addition to his own lack of knowledge and experience, and his temperamental instability. But look how he keeps winning!
For more than a month now Trump has been in the position of presumptive nominee; items #1-#24 in this series illustrate what kind of “good job” he has done in that role. Today comes a fascinating new piece of tangible evidence: how he is handling the strategic economics of a modern national campaign.
Doing a good job as a candidate means, among other things, being aware of the huge financial obligations of today’s politicking: How you raise money, how you carefully husband it, how you spend it when and where it is most useful and save it everywhere else.
The chart above, from Mark Murray of NBC, is one indicator of how things are going. Four years ago, an incumbent president and his well-funded challenger were in a tight advertising race in what both sides had identified as possible swing states.
This year, all the ad-spending in those swing states has been by Hillary Clinton and her allies. Trump’s forces have not put up anything. Either he doesn’t have enough money, or he hasn’t understood how and when and where to spend it, or he has no ads prepared, or something else. He has also apparently ignored the professional-politicians’ lesson of the past few cycles, which is that opposition advertising in May and June, when a nominee has emerged but before he or she has been officially chosen at the convention, can powerfully brand a candidate in a way very hard to shake once the “real” campaigning begins in the fall.
To get all the provisos out of the way: Of course skill in running a campaign is not the same as skill at being president. Of course money is the ruination of modern politics. Of course ads can be an insult to the collective intelligence. Of course [name a hundred other points]. But you can’t be a good president if you don’t get elected. And in this, the first sample of how Trump might handle the complex management challenges that go with political leadership, early results look bad for him. He said: Don’t sweat all the details, I’ll do a great job. In fact he’s doing a terrible job.
The previous entry noted that Time Capsules would shift to a slower schedule, documenting less of the daily chaos and highlighting the more remarkable developments. The difference that Mark Murray has documented is remarkable.
It’s been a month since an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Mediterranean, en route from Paris to Cairo. This past weekend investigators said they had found the plane’s flight recorders (“black boxes”) but that the devices were badly damaged. Therefore it would take a long time to recover information and begin to interpret it.
No one really knows what happened to that plane—attack? mechanical defect? something else?—and, with the cautionary example of still-missing Malaysia Air 370 in mind, it could be months or years before anyone does.
Thus it’s worth remembering that one month ago today, 12 hours after first news of the crash, Donald Trump said this about it in a speech in New Jersey:
What just happened? A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100% wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100% wrong.
The hardest part of a president’s job is assessing unclear, murky, and contradictory evidence, which is the kind of evidence in most big decisions a president makes. The clearer, easier choices get made by someone else. Real presidents become aware of and burdened by the gap between “probability” and “certainty.” They try to remain aware of the spectrum between choices they must make quickly, even knowing that available information is inadequate, and others where the wisest option is to buy time. John Kennedy kept asking for more time and more options during the Cuban Missile Crisis. George W. Bush rushed with uninformed haste toward his decision to invade Iraq.
Trump was the opposite of deliberative or presidential in rushing toward his conclusion about the EgyptAir crash last month, as he was this month about the ever-more-tangled situation of the Orlando mass-slaughter. Trump immediately declared the shooting an ISIS operation justifying new controls on Muslim immigrants. “It’s war, it’s absolute war!” he said. This weekend Dina Temple-Raston of NPR reported that intelligence officials and investigators had told her they were “becoming increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little — or maybe nothing — to do with ISIS.” In both of these cases, terrorism might end up having been a significant cause. But that’s not clear right now, and it certainly was not during Trump’s immediate spasm of “you’re 100% wrong!” Remember, too, that the Orlando shooting was the occasion for his saying that President Obama was “prioritizing the enemy” by not cracking down on Muslim immigrants. Trump’s responses to both emergencies — Egyptair, and Orlando — might be considered old news, except for this weekend’s reminder of the real-world complexities of each, which real leaders would need to reckon with.
In one case only has Trump publicly reflected on the difficulty of judging complex evidence and probabilities: the decision by Cincinnati zoo officials to kill the gorilla into whose cage a toddler had fallen. This issue Trump addressed with genuine feeling, depth, and expressed awareness of tradeoffs. Other issues, from whether the U.K. should leave the European Union to whether Japan should build nuclear weapons, require no apparent deliberation at all.
Two weeks ago I noted that people might look back on that day as the time when fortune seemed to stop smiling on the Donald Trump presidential campaign:
As of now Donald Trump has enough pledged delegates to be declared the GOP nominee in Cleveland six weeks from now.
But if something else somehow happens, people might look back to this date, June 6, 2016, as a moment when things began to look different.
That could still be true, but I suspect that there will be a strong case for emphasizing June 20, 2016. That was the day on which:
Trump unloaded his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, four and a half months before the general election. (Hint: winning campaigns don’t do this.)
Trump reports revealed that he had a few dozen people working for his campaign nationwide, about the number you’d normally find in any swing-state capital-city headquarters for a real campaign.
Trump’s required disclosures to the FEC were a comic treasure trove that will occupy the press for days to come. In short: Trump has raised hardly any money; and much of what he’s spent has gone to his own relatives, companies, or real-estate holdings, notably Mar-a-Lago (which received more in campaign payments than the entire salaried staff). In addition to fostering the reaction Trump probably most dreads—ridicule—the reports naturally heightened curiosity about what his still-unreleased tax returns might include.
Anything could still happen. But on this day, as the Japanese Showa emperor Hirohito once put it, the “situation has developed not necessarily to our advantage.”
The Tweet above shows the reaction by the presumptive Republican nominee, on landing in Scotland to promote his golf resort, after the historic Brexit vote.
The Leave/Remain electoral map shows why Scotland was the exact worst spot within the United-for-now Kingdom in which Trump could have made this point. If the they in “they took their country back” refers to the whole UK electorate, he is talking about people who voted for what the throngs in Scotland are going wild about, because they opposed it. If they means the Scots themselves — well, yesterday’s vote indeed makes it much more likely that they will take “their country” back by removing it from a UK whose views of the future are so clearly are at odds with theirs.
In his column overnight for Fusion, Felix Salmon (with whom I don’t always agree, but do on this) shows why the “what the hell, let’s shake things up, it couldn’t be any worse!” approach reveals a failure of tragic imagination. Structures and relationships take time to build. You can carelessly destroy in moments something that was very hard to create. Trump would presumably understand this about physical structures like office buildings, or golf resorts. It also applies to the economic and political structures that have taken Europe decades to restore after the devastation of World War II. Trump’s offhand comments about “what has NATO ever done for us?” or his cavalier observation that it was time for the Japanese and South Koreans to man up with their own nukes, suggest that nothing could be worse than today’s flawed structures. The Brexit vote reminds us that things can always get worse.
Anyone who has taken a Public Relations 101 course, or perhaps Intro to Abnormal Psychology, might have suggested to Trump that, immediately on his arrival on the most traumatic and important day in decades for and about the UK itself, the theme of his remarks should not be, “What does this mean for me, Donald Trump?” But that’s what the theme was: how great his Turnberry resort would be, and how a weaker pound (suffering the greatest one-day loss of value in its history) was good from his perspective, because it made vacation travel cheaper for visitors from overseas: “Look, if the pound goes down they're going to do more business… When the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly.”
Trump’s immediate reaction to the Orlando shootings was: “Appreciate the congrats on being right.” His immediate reaction to news that shook every market in the world was: Travel bookings will be up!
Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit campaign, revealed less than 12 hours after the vote that a central “factual” basis of his argument — that money being sent to Europe would go instead to the UK National Health Service — was flat-out wrong. This part of “Making Britain Great Again” should not have been believed, because it was never true. Hmmm, what does this remind me of? We could start with “and Mexico will pay for that wall!”
As a political performer, Trump has no peer in his ability to do the unexpected and thus keep opponents guessing and off-guard. But when the real world presents him with events that are sudden, high-stakes, and unexpected, from the physical violence of the Orlando shooting to the structural violence of the Brexit vote, he instinctively responds with the very worst side of him: This must all be about me! Leaders earn their pay in part through their response to the high-stakes and the unexpected. Three weeks before the GOP formally nominates this man, he is showing us who he is.
For technical reasons I’ll explain another time, involving the way search indexes cover our site, I won’t be putting further any entries into our “Thread” structures and will find other ways to link related items. You can see a list of past entries in the Time Capsule thread by clicking here.
Update: the first version of this post had a zillion typos, many of which I have removed. Sorry. Perils of posting on the fly, on the road.
Step away from the Time Capsule business for a few days, and look what happens! Any one of the developments below would be considered a challenge by a normal candidate in a normal campaign year. Herewith a listicle update of where we stand with this unprecedented campaign. (The original Time Capsule thread is here, with items #1-#27. For entries starting with #28, go here.)
1. Brexit Diplomacy. Trump arrived in Scotland as the biggest economic and political news in generation was breaking across the UK, and news that of course was roundly opposed in Scotland itself. His short-term response was a widely ridiculed golf course press conference. “Donald Trump’s Brexit press conference was beyond bizarre” was a Washington Post headline; “At Trump news conference, it’s all about him,” was the headline for CNN.
After the Orlando mass shooting, Trump’s immediate Tweeted reaction began, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” His reaction to the cataclysmic Brexit vote was once again all about him: that his timing was good in being there for the news, that he’d called the vote right and Crooked Hillary was wrong, and that a falling pound would be good for the Scottish golf-resort business:
And when he came home:
We’re all self-interested, and people who run for president have a higher narcissism quotient than most of the rest of us. But we’ve never before seen a public figure like Trump, who can’t even pretend to be concerned about anything beyond “What does this mean for me, Donald Trump?”
2) The missing donations. The Washington Post investigative story out today, by David Farenthold, would mean serious trouble for a normal candidate. Its gist is that Trump has probably been flat-out lying about his promised charitable contributions in recent years.
Now, one possibility is that Trump actually made all his promised donations, and the Post simply failed to track down the recipients. The other possibility is that Trump claimed to be a big donor and never followed through.
Ask yourself which possibility seems more likely, considering: a) that Trump touted his intention to give the proceeds from a fund-raiser to veterans groups, but there is no evidence that he did so until asked about it last month by the press; b) that Trump, unlike any other major-party nominee in modern history, has still refused to release his tax records; c) that the Trump campaign’s FEC reports, which he had no choice but to reveal, showed that his campaign had much less money than he had implied, and had paid a surprisingly large share of its outlays to Trump’s own businesses; and d) that Trump is in the middle of a lawsuit over fraudulent business practices (under the “Mexican judge”) at his Trump University.
So, we can’t know yet for sure. The tax returns would tell a lot. But based on the evidence to date, my guess is: he’s been lying about the donations all along too.
3) Momentum works both ways. Earlier today I saw an item I can’t relocate just now, which made what I think will become an increasingly obvious point. Trump’s central argument so far has been: I’m a winner, because I win! We win, and we win, and we WIN! These other peewees are pathetic losers, and we’re going to win all the way to the White House — where we’ll make the country win too.
At least through the seven weeks since he became the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump has been losing, and losing, and LOSING. That doesn’t guarantee that he’ll lose this fall. But it means that the center of his message — I’m a winner, because I win!! — can’t as plausibly be presented outside his own original-base audience. And so far there is no evidence that Trump will gracefully handle what has become the inevitable next question: Why are you so far behind? Why are you losing? Are you … a loser?
4) Pocahontas. He is at this again. Here is why it matters: mocking a very popular female Democratic figure, in terms a lot of people will see as racially derogatory, may have been a great base-rallying technique during the primary elections. As you supposedly “pivot” for the general election — where you need women’s votes, non-whites’ votes, youth votes, and other groups beyond the GOP’s base — this is the kind of thing you don’t do any more. But he keeps doing it.
One last note for the day. The Vichy group of McConnell, Ryan, McCain, Rubio, Priebus, and others still standing behind Trump may think they have no alternative. But if they go ahead and give him the nomination next month, they cannot let him run without releasing his tax returns.
Rather, they cannot decently let him do that. What they actually do, and what they reveal about themselves and their standards, we’ll see.
As explained back in item #18 of this series, I’m using “the Resistance” and “Vichy Republicans” as useful shorthands for, respectively, the GOP figures who are fighting the hostile takeover of their territory, versus those who have acquiesced to a conquering force — which no doubt they’ll criticize once someone else has dealt with it. (And to make this clear every time, of course the analogy does not extend to likening this era’s conqueror, Donald Trump, to the historically unique Hitler.)
Mitch McConnell has been a crucial membership of the Vichy coalition, for two reasons. One is ex officio: as Senate Minority Leader during the early Obama years and now as Majority Leader, he has been the most important single figure in opposition to Obama’s programs, nominations, and general prospects. His historically unprecedented overuse of the filibuster, while still in the minority, was an early indication. His current refusal even to consider a Supreme Court nominee, also historically unprecedented, is the latest example.
The other aspect of McConnell’s importance is temperamental. As a political operator and spokesman, he is the exact opposite of Donald Trump. Trump appears to be all Id, reaction, spontaneity. McConnell, by contrast, barely reveals any emotion and says only what exactly fits the thought-out message plan. When he was a Congressional leader, Newt Gingrich would say one entertaining thing today, and a contradictory but also entertaining thing tomorrow. What Mitch McConnell says is never entertaining, but it is always intentional and planned out.
Thus it is highly significant that McConnell said this morning, in a TV interview with cable channel NY, that Trump was “an entertainer” and that he needed to “become” a credible presidential candidate, not being one yet. From the interview:
McConnell: “Trump clearly needs to change, in my opinion, to win the general election. What I’ve said to him both publicly and privately: 'You’re a great entertainer. You turn on audiences. You’re good before a crowd. You have a lot of Twitter followers. That worked fine for you in the primaries.
“But now that you are in the general, people are looking for a level of seriousness that is typically conveyed by having a prepared text and Teleprompter and staying on message.' So my hope is that he is beginning to pivot and become what I would call a more serious and credible candidate for the highest office in the land.”
How unusual is this? How would you expect the on-message leader of the Senate’s crucial Republican majority to sound about the party’s standard-bearer?
As it happens, there is a way to check! Here is what the same Senator McConnell said about Mitt Romney as he became the party’s nominee four years ago, with Paul Ryan as his running mate:
“Where the current President [Obama] has simply refused to act, Gov. Romney has now pledged to lead. Paul Ryan is an excellent choice, and a confirmation that Gov. Romney is serious about strengthening America's economic future, tackling the deficits and debt that have skyrocketed under President Obama, and returning to a path to solvency and security.
“Americans are looking for leadership that has been lacking on the most critical issues facing our country's economic future. The Romney-Ryan team can return much-needed leadership from day one and help bring real recovery to our economy….
“Gov. Romney and Chairman Ryan will be ready on day one to give America the leadership it deserves.”
“Ready on day one” and “much-needed leadership,” versus “you’re a great entertainer.” This from a man who does not say a single word by accident. For more on McConnell’s statement today see the WSJ, WaPo, and TPM.
This one really is a time capsule. It’s a nearly 70-year-old U.S. government film called Don’t Be a Sucker, released in 1947 by what was then straightforwardly known as the Department of War. (Thanks to Daniel Buk for the lead.)
Most of the 17-minute film is a history of Germany’s slide into Nazism, which is powerful but familiar. I think these three segments deserve another look in 2016:
The part from time 2:05 (where the video below is cued to start) to 4:25, in which our everyman-American hero confronts a rabble-rousing speaker who tells him that his jobs, opportunities, and future are being stolen by outsiders.
The two minutes of the video before that, which you can click back on the player to see, presenting one version of America’s view of itself, just after its great victory in war. It’s touching, up-to-date, out-of-date, achingly earnest, and unintentionally ridiculous (in retrospect), all at the same time.
The final two minutes, from 15:25 onward, when the immigrant-American narrator explains the importance of America being a nation-of-minorities.
Obviously this video really is a time capsule from a different era. For instance, it talks unselfconsciously about the triumph of an American fighting force “made of people of all religions and skin colors,” at a time when the U.S. military was still formally segregated. But I was surprised by how many aspects of it still seemed relevant.
In July, 1948, the 33rd President of the United States, Harry Truman, took an overdue step toward equal opportunity, equal dignity, and “more perfect union” with Executive Order 9981, ordering desegregation of the military.
In July, 2016, the aspirant to be the 45th President, Donald Trump, said he would “look into” a step in the opposite direction, by potentially replacing TSA agents who were Muslim and wore “hibby-jobbies.”
The term hibby-jobbies was from a questioner and presumably meant the veil or head cover known as hijab. But Trump did not resist or object to it, as he frequently has with other questions whose framing he dislikes. (He “let it slide,” as CNN put it in a headline.) Instead he said he would “look into” this concept of religion-based scrutiny of public employees.
You don’t have to go back to Harry Truman to see how extraordinary and odious this is — or to the Truman-era War Department film I mentioned yesterday. Eight years ago, John McCain earned boos from a partisan crowd, but increased respect in history’s eyes, for rejecting a questioner’s premise that his then-rival, then-Senator Barack Obama, was really an Arab.
In this cycle, McCain is still a Vichy Republican, officially backing Trump for the presidency.
Yesterday Trump also joked that a small plane overhead might be Mexican, because “they’re getting ready to attack.”
In retrospect it will seem remarkable, and it deserves more notice even now, how even-tempered the Mexican government and most Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Latino-background Americans in general have been about all of this. Think of the likely reaction if a presumptive major-party nominee had been turning against [blacks / Catholics / Jews / Baptists / Asian-Americans / etc ] the repeated off-hand slurs Donald Trump keeps issuing against Muslims and Mexicans.
This one has been well-publicized even at the start of a long holiday weekend. Thus I just note its existence, for the long-term record. Here’s the sequence:
On the early morning of July 2, Donald Trump put out the image you see above in his own personal Twitter feed. It showed Hillary Clinton against a background of dollars, with the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” on a red-colored six-pointed star, or badge.
A basic principle of political life, and life in general, is that more things happen via incompetence or screw-up than happen according to devious plan. So the forgiving initial reaction to this Tweet could have been: can you believe how sloppy these Trump people are? Didn’t they stop to think about the way a six-sided star, on a field of cash, could so easily be read as a Star of David, and thus play into a classic anti-Semitic stereotype? [Not to mention: why the hell is a presumptive major-party nominee spending his time on this kind of idiocy?]
This “didn’t they stop to think??” reaction depends upon the possibility that the star could have been intended to be read as a badge, from a sheriff or marshal, rather than as a Mogen David. For instance, the LA County Sheriff’s office uses just such a badge, as shown below. So does the U.S. Marshal’s service. So conceivably this could have been just another in a series of bone-headed moves rather than anything else.
[Update: Keith Olbermann observes via Twitter that the law-enforcement badges have globes at the six points, while a Star of David, and the image in Trump’s Tweet, do not.]
But then ...
Today, July 3, various reports emerged (starting with News.mic) that Trump’s original “Most Corrupt” Tweet had been lifted from an outright racist site, and that the use of the Star of David was about as accidental as the placement of gorilla imagery or a watermelon in a comparable attack-Tweet about Barack Obama.
So you can take your pick: negligence, or malice. Either a presumptive major-party nominee is spending his time, as he “pivots” toward the general election that happens just four months from now, sending out personally insulting tweets without having anyone check their provenance and implications; or someone in the campaign is doing this on purpose, dog-whistle style. I think the former is more likely, but either one is bad.
For the record, Trump-campaign-manager-turned-CNN “analyst” Corey Lewandoski said he was shocked, just shocked, at the “political correctness run amok” in the reaction to what was a simple sheriff’s star. Other campaign supporters said that of course Trump could not be sending an anti-Semitic signal, since after all his son-in-law Jared Kushner is Jewish, his daughter Ivanka has converted, and thus three of his grandchildren are Jewish as well.
More plausible than either of those explanations is this, from Hot Air:
Whether intentionally or not, Trump’s built a devoted following within the online hangouts of white supremacists. He’s surely aware of it and he hasn’t gone out of his way to discourage it. His denunciations of their support have been largely perfunctory. It may be that one of his racist fans tweeted that image at his account fully intending the symbolism in the shape of the star, then Trump’s Twitter guy saw it and reproduced it without picking up on the symbolism himself….
It reminds me of this kerfuffle from back in November, when Trump stupidly retweeted something from a fan claiming that 81 percent of homicides involving white victims are perpetrated by blacks. In reality, 82 percent of homicides with white victims are perpetrated by whites. It was propaganda designed to reinforce the stereotype that blacks are predators. But whoever was running Trump’s Twitter account that day was too stupid not to see that the numbers were obviously bogus and too lazy not to take three minutes to check them by googling. He got suckered by racist propaganda. I’ll bet the same thing happened here. And it’ll happen again.
Critics are letting their disdain for the president blind them to geopolitical realities.
When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
Far from making Americans crave stability, the pandemic underscores how everything is up for grabs.
Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.
This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic—coinciding as it has with the surge in Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and the decline of Bernie Sanders’s—marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken.
Local officials and health-care workers are losing faith in the national response, and struggling to improvise their own solutions.
The federal government’s stockpile of medical supplies, gloves, and masks is nearly exhausted, President Donald Trump admitted at a White House briefing on Wednesday. Meanwhile, individual states are scrambling, bidding against one another for the equipment they need.
“The coronavirus pandemic is a damning indictment of this country’s health-care system,” Joseph Kantor, the assistant state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health, told me. “The richest country in the world is scrounging around for ventilators” and personal protective equipment.
Kantor is one of a dozen health professionals across the country with whom I spoke this week. Taken together, those conversations reveal a federal government that has failed to protect, supply, and prepare the country and its cities. These health-care workers are looking with horror at the chaos in New York City, as evidence of what can happen to a vibrant city in the absence of national strategy and preparedness. As they struggle to avoid a similar crisis, they’re losing faith in the federal government, and resorting to their own improvised solutions.
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
Updated at 4:40 ET on March 30, 2020.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
The Trump administration has just released the model for the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. We can expect a lot of back-and-forth about whether its mortality estimates are too high or low. And its wide range of possible outcomes is certainly confusing: What’s the right number? The answer is both difficult and simple. Here’s the difficult part: There is no right answer. But here’s the simple part: Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.
Epidemiologists routinely turn to models to predict the progression of an infectious disease. Fighting public suspicion of these models is as old as modern epidemiology, which traces its origins back to John Snow’s famous cholera maps in 1854. Those maps proved, for the first time, that London’s terrible affliction was spreading through crystal-clear fresh water that came out of pumps, not the city’s foul-smelling air. Many people didn’t believe Snow, because they lived in a world without a clear understanding of germ theory and only the most rudimentary microscopes.