Reporter's Notebook

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

Show 96 Newer Notes

Convention Tenseness: Cleveland Not That Tense, on Day 1

Seven pm Monday evening in Cleveland (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

This is not a systematic or conclusive assessment of conditions in Cleveland. But on the basis of walking around downtown inside and around the venue of the Republican convention, I’m impressed both by the extent of the police presence — I’ve seen (and talked with) detachments from Austin, TX; and Louisville, KY; and the Florida highway patrol; and various California locales; plus the Cleveland cops and the Secret Service — and by their relative calm and good humor. More often I saw groups of police sitting and chatting than looking nervously at groups of passers-by.

For instance, consider the photo above. You might think this was the prelude to some tense standoff. And conceivably tense standoffs might be happening as I type. But in this case, the guy on the right walked around yelling, “If you vote for Trump, you’re a racist! If you vote for Trump, you’re a bitch! If you vote for Trump, you’re a mutha!” A few people — the ones I saw all being young white men — decided to get in shouting matches with him. Most people just walked past, waved, or ignored him. You didn’t get the sense — I didn’t get the sense — of incipient, brewing confrontation.

And in the moment above, the man caught sight of the police walking towards him and immediately raised his hands. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Three of the five cops didn’t say anything as they passed him, and the other two said variants of “and a good evening to you, too, sir!”

So: things could go wrong at this convention. (I’ll confess that I felt a little strange walking around town wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.) But what I saw this evening was surprising for its lack of tenseness rather than the reverse.

Tomorrow is another day.

Bonus: Don King! He’s not speaking from the platform, but he’s still here.

Making America great again!  (James Fallows)


Two of the people whose memorable convention speeches are discussed in the item below. A third speech that is likely to be memorable in one way or another will happen this week in Cleveland. (Sage Ross / Own work. [GFDL via Wikimedia Commons)

A reader argues that Donald Trump, who has free-wheeled his way through his last few major “speeches” (as examined in Time Capsule installments #34, #40, and #43) has a surprisingly tricky road ahead:

I really wish former speechwriters on television would talk about what it is like to write, draft, and edit speeches with a candidate or with a President in more workplace detail. It is my belief that Trump is in a no-win situation for Thursday.

  • If he goes improv and not with a crafted teleprompter speech he loses.
  • Teleprompter with “soaring” language sounding not as his own, he loses.
  • If he tries to do teleprompter and several off-the-cuffs in rotation, he loses.
  • If he goes full on law and order, he loses.
  • If he tries to reach out to women, Latinos, gays, African Americans, and Muslims in one-sentence or one-paragraph only, he loses.
  • He faces an audience of millions of independents and undecideds who are looking for a future-oriented and not a fear-based reason to vote for him.

But he feeds off of crowds reactions too often.

I believe he is going to speak to the crowd in the hall, and go greater than 50% raw meat on Thursday. Dozens if not hundreds of political science papers comparing Thursday to Pat Buchanan’s 1992 speech will be written this fall semester it seems….

Lastly, I think Trump is really really worried about changing his $50 million in campaign loans to gifts. He has to file this, in official writing this week on the Wednesday the 20th, for FEC requirements. I think that is the document that Sheldon is waiting for.

I have seen, in person, a number of very dramatic convention speeches. Barack Obama’s address to the Democrats in Boston 12 years ago, when John Kerry was the nominee and Obama a mere state senator, was notable in real time (and not just in retrospect) as the debut of someone who would be a national figure to reckon with. Teddy Kennedy’s impassioned and ferocious “the dream shall never die!” speech to the Democrats in New York in 1980, in which he theoretically conceded to Jimmy Carter but in reality underscored his disdain for his own party’s incumbent president, was notable in real time as a sign of a party in the midst of a serious cleavage.

And Donald Trump, to the Republicans in Cleveland in 2016???

Robert Bittman (right), deputy to Kenneth Starr as independent counsel, hands a report to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, getting the impeachment of Bill Clinton underway in 1998. Bill Clinton survived; both Starr and Gingrich have gone through subsequent rises and falls; now Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. But how deep a mark did those years leave on her? (Reuters photo)

A reader from the United States who now lives in Europe observes with alarm the recent trend in the polls. He is responding specifically to this item by Ron Fournier, arguing that on fundamentals Hillary Clinton should be enjoying a very wide lead over Donald Trump rather than the very narrow edge that the latest polls show:

We’re going to find out in less than four months if The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has won. (I deliberately put TVRWC in capitals, and not in quotes, because I’ve always believed it’s real. I’m not paranoid. I do believe in the self-organizing properties of complex systems.)

And if TVRWC has won, it will not have won on the battlefield of public opinion. It will have won inside Hillary Clinton’s head. Because it has been there that TVRWC planted the seeds of effective self-destruction, to be fertilized by Clinton’s worst instincts and tendencies. [Referring to the self-protective fear of investigations that may have led to HRC’s email policy, which of course ironically has opened her up to investigation.]

I’m waiting to see where the polls settle out after the two conventions. I’m not discounting that Clinton may be trailing Trump at the end of the month, even given any margin of error.

Trump’s ground game had better be as weak, and continue to be as weak, as some would now have us believe. And Clinton’s ground game had better be better than Obama’s.


Boris Johnson, the UK’s new Foreign Minister, who shares a New York City birthplace with Donald Trump and a tonsorial flair as well. (Toby Melville / Reuters)

In response to this item last week, about Donald Trump’s occasional shift from arresting, can’t-not-watch spontaneity to unsettling, am-I-really-watching-this?? apparent loss of control, readers weigh in on the explanations.

It’s harder than it looks. A reader says that the strain is showing:

It takes an extraordinary talent to run for president (let alone be president!). It is a level of stress and demand that could break most people, even most high-performing people. In Trump, we actually have little evidence that he is extraordinary. Yes, he has an extraordinary level of narcissism and an extraordinary knack for entertainment and self-promotion. But in terms of the qualities, talents, and temperaments that get tested in a national presidential election, he is far from exceptional.

Combine this with the fact that his limitations (and struggling poll numbers) are being exposed on a national stage—which must at some level, even for Trump, be causing cognitive dissonance and a challenge to his delusional self-regard—and the campaign is simply starting to break him.

We may not witness a full “breakdown,” but I think we’re seeing early warning signs. People fight off breakdowns every day and there is no reason to think it couldn’t happen to a presidential candidate, especially one so ill-equipped to the task.


‘Craves attention — and acceptance — like normal people crave oxygen.’ Another hypothesis:

Let me be roughly the 10,000th reader to attempt to explain Trump (which is a fun parlor game, but less fun when talking about one of two people who will be the next leader of the free world, but I digress).

Trump craves attention like normal people crave oxygen, but he also craves acceptance. He’s started several controversies by promising to “look into” or “look at” patently crazy or racist ideas (like the lady who wanted Trump to force TSA agents to take off their “hibby jobbies”).  I bet Trump would never actually force the TSA agents to take off their hijabs. But he is incapable of politely telling the woman that her idea has no merit, a task that any skillful politician learns to do….

The 2016 dream team? The Donald and the Newt yesterday in Ohio. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

In response to the previous item about last night’s genuinely deranged-seeming half-hour discourse by Donald Trump, readers offer two opposing interpretations.

First, from a reader who works in the tech industry, and is originally from Europe:

I think you’re missing something, and the thing you’re missing is that his strategy is not to try to convince “independents” or even folks like us, but instead to mobilize the non-voters of his own tribe. His belief is that this will be good enough, so no need to compromise with the enemy.

Once you see it in that context, his speech makes complete sense. Specifically, to your points:

  • Everybody knows Hillary is crooked, so no need to waste time on that. Instead, hammer in on the two-speed justice system, something which resonates, because it is sadly true.
  • The star controversy activates the “anti-PC” receptors of his crowd. Also, backing down on anything is a sign of weakness and a victory for PC, so he has to be seen as resisting it. He doesn't care if it offends you. In fact, it’s great if it does. That’s all part of the game.
  • None of his crowd cares what the NYT prints. Just not a factor.
  • It’s gibberish except for his crowd, which just needs the right triggers lined up. The precedents for this kind of rambling speech are truly scary...

We can only hope that this “energize everyone in his base to go vote” strategy will fail, but sadly Brexit shows how it can succeed, and we misjudge this at our own peril.

I really have no idea how to bridge this gap. Maybe it’s just not possible, and we are stuck doing the same thing on our side, which may well end up in a civil war. Or maybe, your “local” take will save us—people will simply disregard the federal nonsense while working locally—but sadly, even though it produces tasty micro-brews, it won’t help solve larger problems.

My response, plus another reader’s interpretation, after the jump.

Adelman’s book on Reagan.

1) On aldermen. Kenneth Adelman and his family have been long-time good friends of our family. He is an even longer-term Republican. Ken worked in the Nixon and Ford administrations and had two senior positions under Ronald Reagan: as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and as deputy to Jeanne Kirkpatrick as ambassador to the U.N.

Ken Adelman broke with the George W. Bush administration, and with his friends of many decades Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld, over the Iraq war. But still he is no one’s idea of a Democratic party loyalist.

Thus I found it significant that he was quoted as you see below in a Daily Beast story yesterday about Republican national-security veterans who had drawn the line at Trump:

“Not only am I not voting for Donald Trump, but also I am not voting for any Republican who endorsed or supported Trump—be it for Senate, House, alderman, or county clerk. And yes, I will vote for Clinton, simply because to not vote, or to vote Libertarian, would be a half-vote for Trump,” said Ken Adelman, U.S. arms control director during the Reagan administration.


2) Pilate Republicans. A reader from Texas suggests an addition to my taxonomy of Republican members of The Resistance — those who like Ken Adelman are publicly standing up against Trump — versus the Vichy team, those like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell (and Marco Rubio and Reince Priebus and Jon Huntsman etc) who still officially support him. The reader writes:

Next month in Cleveland! (Curt Teich Postcard Archives-Lake County Illinois, Public Domain,)

A reader who works in a big-city law firm thinks I missed the point in Trump Time Capsule #30. The theme of that installment was that Mitch McConnell, the relentlessly on-message leader of the Senate Republicans, had declined to call Donald Trump a “credible” presidential candidate—and that his refusal was significant.

The reader writes:

What McConnell said is merely stating the obvious, and his comment was about Trump’s ability to win the election, not about his qualifications to be President.

What I found more interesting is McConnell’s refusal last week to respond to a question about whether Trump was qualified. His silence “spoke volumes,” as they say. Can you imagine any other campaign in our lifetimes where one of a major party’s leader wasn’t willing to affirm the suitability of the party’s Presidential candidate? That’s unprecedented.

The fact is that any intelligent, reasonably well-informed, sensible adult, having watched and read about Trump, knows to a certainty that, political ideology aside, he’s absolutely unfit for the office. I have no doubt that McConnell knows that, Paul Ryan knows that, every Republican Senator (with the possible exception of Jeff Sessions) knows that. But they’re stuck with him.


Maybe a new motto to put on those red hats?  (Wikipedia)

Following previous items in this thread, readers weigh in on why Donald Trump may be saying the things he does, and why his supporters are still with him.

1. On Crying Wolf. In yesterday’s item, a reader noted that reflexive, excessive use of terms like “stupid” or “bigoted” had weakened their meaning — and made it hard to signal that someone like Trump really is different from, say, Sarah Palin (who knew much more about policy than Trump does).

A reader who now serves as a mayor in a state Trump is almost certain to carry writes this:

Reading the prior note about how our terms have lost power due to overuse, it occurred to me that when Trump is called racist or sexist or hateful of a religion…that is not hurting him with many of those who are inclined to vote for him.  

Those who have supported him since the start of the Republican primary are likely to be only more attracted to any candidate identified as racist. At the very least, they are people who don’t find racism as a disqualifying thing.

He started the campaign calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and the reaction calling him “racist” endeared him to those who actually like being identified as having racist views. It jump-started his campaign, immediately connecting with people who were sitting out there holding hateful views about Hispanics.   Maybe some supporters shy away from identifying themselves with the term, but they don’t back off of self-evident racist policy and social views.  They are who he says he is.

His attitude toward women?   Same concept applies.


The namesake of this ill-fated zeppelin, the Hindenburg, played a part in the drama mentioned in the first reader’s letter. (Wikipedia)

Who knows where things might be headed with the Trump campaign? Here is a note from a reader reflecting on what could happen if Trump wins, and another on what might occur if Trump loses.

If he wins. As mentioned before, I think “Vichy Republicans” is a useful shorthand for the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, John McCain, etc who are accommodating themselves to the power of the moment rather than siding with the Resistance — but who will race one another to say, “Oh, we were against him all along” if and when he goes down. But despite the usefulness of the Vichy/Resistance distinction, of course no one can be likened to Hitler.

In this first reader note, a postgrad political science student from Germany wrestles with how the historically unique evil status of Hitler deflects attention from similarities in vulnerable political systems:

I like your stance on what ‎you call the Vichy Republicans, because you are right: The individuals in question are making an historic mistake by supporting an historically unqualified short-fingered man, and whatever the outcome of the 2016 U.S. DemocraZy Games is, history will judge them… [Cutting various compliments, for which I’m grateful.]

Looking at historic precedents, folks have tried to compare Trump to Hitler. I think there is some truth to this, given his Nazi-esque predilection for scapegoating minorities, his love for white essentialism and his capability to use fear and not vision and the painting of a country in ruins as the basis of a campaign.

It seems to me that it is only a question of time until Trump proposes that Muslim Americans carry an "M" in their passports the way Jews had to have a "J" in their passports in the early years of the Third Reich…

But what I think is a more dire truth to the Hitler-Trump comparison is how he could actually come to power. When Hitler was elected it was not the case that an entire country yelled “Sieg Heil” with fanfares and right arms in the air. Instead, a lot of sane, reasonable and non-fanatic people thought “he cannot be taken serious,” or “he will never win (but I am to frustrated to vote against him anyhow,” or “he is crazy but he does have a point,” or “maybe he will at least bring a change,” to, ultimately, “let’s give him a try, he can’t make matters worse anyhow.” The rest is history.‎

My fear is that a lot of Americans think the same way about Trump, underestimating the danger he poses and the actual shot at the presidency he has, despite temporarily bad poll numbers. I really hope he will lose in November.

Me too. But another reader writes about what his loss might mean:

A happy tableau we will not witness again: Donald Trump with now-deposed, then-campaign manager Corey Lendowski after a win this spring. (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

I am on the road again, now in southwestern Kansas with my wife Deb. As the Trump campaign runs into more obviously Hindenburg-like territory, I’ll try to catch up with some reflections on what the Trump era has meant, whatever might be the future of his candidacy.

Let’s start with some responses on “does Trump think”?

1. Consider Nick Saban. Someone who will be voting for the first time writes:

I just graduated from high school, and for people my age this is generally the first election anyone has paid attention to. Rather an interesting way to get introduced to politics.

A reader on the latest “Does Trump Think?” installment pointed out that, in his view, the other readers (and you) considered yourself the high-and-mighty, looking down on Trump and his supporters with disdain. This is a legitimate danger, and certainly is the case from time to time.

Yet, that doesn’t suddenly nullify the fact that the presidency requires a certain set of skills that Trump hasn’t been shown to possess. Nick Saban’s an incredible coach; you think he’s great because of his ability to pump up his team with pep talks? Maybe he gives amazing speeches, but that’s entirely unrelated to his ability to study the next opponent, choose his starters, pick plays, decide what to drill, etc.

Above all else, the President of the United States has to be nice. [JF note: What the reader calls “nice” is what I think of as an advanced ability to imagine how an adversary might be thinking and feeling, so as to give offense only when that is exactly what you intend to do.] Why? World leaders are surprisingly fickle people (like all of us), and the slightest offense can hurt the United States abroad and at home. Trump is like the guy at the movies who yells “NO!” when the protagonist’s lover dies. Sure, he’s saying what he thinks, but that doesn't mean everyone needs to hear it.

2. Liberals crying wolf. A reader says that liberals have sneered so much at “uninformed” conservatives that they’re out of terms for a person who really doesn’t know anything:

Following the previous items in this series, a clinical psychologist from a big Southern city writes:

GOP convention photo, 2016 (Wikipedia)

In your coverage of Trump’s candidacy, the discussion of how his mind works is fascinating. I’ve been interested in this and thinking about it for a while. I agree with the reader who wrote, “I am afraid that Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.”

I suggest that the relationships that his speech is organized around are consistently what I would call “Doer and Done-To” relationships. [JF note: Also famous in Lenin’s distinction, “who / whom.”]

Trump exploits the choreography of Perpetrator-Victim theatre to position himself as the one his listeners should align with and trust to lead them to escape the Done-To position and enjoy the privileged Doer position. Of course, there are many in America who also experience life largely through this lens and find in Trump someone they can relate to on a deeply felt emotional level.

And, there are also many in America who can reasonably assert they have been Done-To in one way or another. Not all of them aspire to simply switch positions with the Doers (“Winners” in Trump’s immature view of what constitutes a functional society) and have their turn “at the top.” But many do.

The ongoing symbol of circa-2016 GOP (Wikipedia)

In response to last night’s item on whether Trump’s rally speeches, interview remarks, and Tweets should be understood as conveying ideas of any sort, as opposed to being pure acts of tribal/resentment signaling and emotion, readers offer further analyses.

It is about addiction. From a reader in the tech industry:

Your reader who compared Trump’s need for attention to drug addiction made a very important point, but I think it applies at a much more basic, fundamental level.

Since the Tea Party and movement conservatives began to push the Republican Party past rational boundaries and into the realm of bark-at-the-moon crazy, politicians and pundits have been throwing chunks of bloody red meat to the base voters.

But a problem arose. Once a level of outrageous rhetoric was achieved, it no longer provided the “hit” that the people or the media wanted. Someone had to come along and up the ante to kick-start the next round of howling anger. You got “death panels,” you got “Obama’s a Muslim,” you got “Mexicans are rapists”—it just has to keep escalating.

And Trump saw this clearly, so he came out and one-upped everybody. And now he’s on round two, and he knows instinctively he needs to one-up himself. Stand by: Round three will start about September …


‘Thinking’ as cultural dividing line. From a reader who grew up in the South:

I have a reaction to the first reader you quote in “Does Trump Think?” The reader states, “His listeners are not looking for meaning. Instead, they are thrilled by the emotion of his speeches."

I grew up in the Deep South, surrounded by the white blue-collar culture that we describe now as the Trump base vote. I recognized my inner Yankee and got out after high school. I suspect that people who didn’t grow up as I did don’t realize the extent to which “thinking” is a cultural dividing line—specifically the kind of analytical thinking that us college-educated, blue-state elite prize as the professional approach to problem solving.