Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 79 Newer Notes

Selling Fear and Anger: The Why and How of Trump

Last week in Cleveland. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

In response to recent items on what Donald Trump is doing, four readers offer views on why.

1) Id laid bare. In response to Time Capsule #54, “They Applauded for Me,” a reader says:

Today’s Trump™ Time Capsule reminded me of another example of unaware self-revelation.

Some 50 years ago I worked with a guy who volunteered at a meeting the statement, “I don’t get New Yorker cartoons.” He said it not without pride, as though it were somehow a badge of honor. There was no visible rolling of eyes and we went smoothly on with the meeting, but the remark explained much in my later encounters with him.

In Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Daniel Goleman recounts in the preface a story of a woman talking about how much her family loves her, and how funny her mother is. If she was saying something that her mother didn’t like, her mother would just pick up what was at hand and throw it at her. “And once, we were eating dinner, so what she picked up was a knife and threw that at me,” told as a humorous anecdote.

Trump is id laid bare, so far as I can tell, and appeals directly to those controlled by the id.

***

2) Big versus little lies. This next reader email is very long but builds to a worthwhile point.

Dodge City High School Marching Band, “the Pride of Southwest Kansas.” (Red Demon Football on Youtube.)

Western Kansas, where Deb and I have spent time over the past month, is the heart of Trump Nation in one sense: Trump and the GOP will almost certainly carry this area, and the whole state, this fall.

But if you compared the daily texture of economic, educational, civic, and cultural life in cities like this, with the America-in-the-ashcan end-times tone of political discourse in general, and of the past week in Cleveland in particular, you would wonder about the contrast.

The tension between these two basic assessments of 21st century America, and the ways in which each might selectively be true, was the theme of my March issue cover story, and of our on-scene reports from around the country over the past few years collected here. It’s also been part of our previous reports from Kansas here, here, here, and here, with more to come.

Deb Fallows has a new installment up this morning. It’s about Dodge City High School: home of two successive Kansas State teachers-of-the-year; source of civic pride; locus of ethnic diversity exceeding that of many big cities; and home, among other things, to a fishing team. You can read her report here, and I hope you will.

***

In a series of posts, I’ve been arguing that the well-publicized chaos of the Republican National Convention provides cautionary evidence on how the Trump organization might handle the scaled-up challenge of running a national campaign.

A reader on the West Coast says there is another possibility (and extends the kayfabe analysis from a previous reader ):

I’ve been enjoying the past few days of convention meltdown because I love the idea that we may be watching a Donald death spiral. However, a new theory struck me this morning: This might all be a trap (if I’m wrong it’s because I’ve watched too many episodes of Game of Thrones). Here it is:

Theory: Some or all of the chaos at the Republican convention is intentional / staged.

Evidence: According to NPR, Cruz didn’t go off script. That is, Trump knew what he was gong to say and he let him go up there anyway. Therefore this is no surprise slap in the face as it’s being portrayed.

Why:

  • Attention: Trump has consistently shown an ability to profit from attention, and chaos drives more attention. Everyone will be paying attention to his speech tonight.
  • It makes it all about Trump: For instance, Cruz overshadowing Pence is being portrayed as a problem, but if you’re creating a cult of personality, it’s actually a feature not a bug. Now Trump can ride in as the savior.
  • Lowers expectations: You remember how W played this to great effect. In other words, a moderately good speech turns into the turnaround of the century.
  • Sets a trap: Trump can use all the attention on the horserace (which is a media obsession) to paint himself as the outsider candidate: “All the media cares about is the soap opera, meanwhile I’m gonna make America great again! Let’s get rid of these jokers who have been driving this country into the ground.” For a public that hates the political class, the right speech tonight could be a big breakout moment. Bonus is that Hillary will look totally wooden when she pulls off an organized convention. Old narrative: well organized conventions are key to a successful presidential bid. New narrative: conventions are the band camp for political losers

I hope I’m wrong, but worry I hear the Rains of Castamere playing in the background.

For analytical completeness, it’s worth comparing this possibility with “Trump’s Razor,” as explained most recently by Josh Marshall at TPM.  (Premise of the razor: “Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts.”)

My life experience inclines me to razor-style, as opposed to trap-style, interpretations of most events. But no one knows anything for sure right now.

Ted Cruz addresses the Republican convention. (Jorge Bueno / Wikimedia commons)

Readers respond to this stage in our national pageant.

Is it all just kayfabe? From a reader in the Northwest:

Maybe it’s time to stop looking to political pundits to analyze Trump, because politics is the wrong lens? Trump isn’t a politician; he’s a performer. Maybe we should be asking directors and producers to explain what we are witnessing: drama, and nothing more.

Why did he let Cruz speak in primetime without a guarantee of an endorsement? Political ineptitude, or dramatic genius? It was a pro wrestling moment. Betrayal, treachery, defiance! What better way to set up a scene of triumphant revenge! Are Cruz, Christie, Pence, and his own family unwitting or semi-witting extras in Trump’s improvisational “kayfabe”?

Is this all just a corollary to PT Barnum’s quote about bad publicity: “There’s no such thing as bad drama?”

***

It’s getting out of hand. This reader is less amused:

One of the many concerns with watching a man like Trump edge closer to becoming the most powerful man in the world is the growing feeling that there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. And that we’ve seen this before. And that this is something new and unbelievable. And frightening. Mostly frightening.

There are so, so many rational arguments against him and none of them matter despite many of them being of the utmost importance. Years of over-the-top mudslinging have made us all numb to criticism of his very real faults. It’s not that there are Teflon politicians. It’s just that there are people who don’t care about the charges made against them. They care about ratcheting up the attack even more so that they look good by comparison. So here we are, scraping from the bottom of the scum pond for rhetoric to hurl.

It’s a certainty that the people chanting “lock her up” believe simultaneously that she deserves to be locked up, and that they are engaging in the same type of hyperbolic arguments that they think are being made against Trump. Like Mr. Goldberg’s assertion that Trump = Putin, which I can’t even tell whether it is hyperbole or not. Or Donald Trump: Sociopath?

Yet I think that none of this is effective. In fact, all of it contributes to the success of the Republican call for change, which is made more effective because the change is being proposed in the form of a very, very much non-politician. Who wouldn’t want change in such a toxic election?

I just hope someone can come up with an idea on the Democrat side, something that everyone can rally behind. Things are getting desperate.

***

Mary Altaffer / AP

For any normal candidate in any normal year, an interview like the one Donald Trump has just given to David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times would cause the kind of earthquake that could change the entire course of a campaign.

Mitt Romney and his “47%” comments? Pshaw. Barack Obama and “they get bitter and cling to guns and religion” or the fiery Rev. Jeremiah Wright? They’re nothing. Sarah Palin “I read all the papers!”? Forget it. Almost every paragraph of Trump’s interview has material that should at a minimum be more controversial, and on the merits should be far more disqualifying, than any of those flaps, all of which stayed in the news for months and are still remembered years later.

I’ll have more about this interview in the Trump Time Capsule thread; I strongly encourage you to read the full transcript for yourself. (And on the “these people can’t even manage a four-day convention” theme, think of the message discipline that leads to this interview coming out on this day.)

For now, here’s a reader’s hypothesis on why Trump can allow himself to say such stupefyingly ignorant things:

Re Time Capsule #48, may I suggest a context in which to place Trump’s statements about NATO?

A reader, Robert Henry Eller, reflects on the past 48 hours of cock-ups in Cleveland:

The art of the spiel ain’t what it was, if indeed it was ever anything else, outside the guild of craftsmen. Plagiarizing is, as Fallows asserts, something you don’t do. But before the past year, so was reckless lying, or name calling, or most things Trump has been doing.

I’ve noticed there a meme out now, growing in popularity, which asserts that Trump is deliberately being controversial, because the media will pick up controversy and run with it, giving Trump more free media time. For example, following this meme, Melania’s plagiarism resulted in her speech being watched and listened to by orders of magnitude more people than if there had been no controversy.

After the Jane Mayer article, I don’t buy this, because I don’t think Trump is capable of such deliberation. But that doesn’t mean whatever he’s doing, from whatever motivation or accident, isn’t effective. In fact, corporate news profitability focus means Trump doesn’t have to be intentional at all. Intention might even be counter-productive.

A handful of readers react to the monumental facepalm of the Trump campaign’s handling of Melania Trump’s speech last night. This reader rightly sympathizes with her:

It’s an embarrassing screw up; clearly the passages were lifted, and a half-assed attempt was made to vary them by changing a word or two. Sad thing is, Melania actually did a good job in the delivery. This didn’t have to happen.

It just offers more evidence that Trump can’t/won't hire competent people. He’s ultimately responsible here. With him as President, we’d probably be subject to these kind of embarrassments on a daily basis. Seems he either hires people who are in way over their head, or hires smart people and then refuses to listen to them. What kind of cabinet would he pick as President? It really doesn’t matter; he probably wouldn’t heed their advice anyway …

An interesting but implausible theory from another reader:

Michelle Obama did not write “her” speech. A team of paid political speechwriters did. THAT is Trump’s point with having his wife repeat those words.

Yesterday we made a callout for perspectives from readers living outside the U.S. looking into Cleveland this week. First up, a small dispatch from a small nation in the South Pacific:

I’m an American expat who’s lived in the Republic of Palau for the past 20 years. This is a very diverse community, and my friends come from at least 12 different countries. When we start to discuss the Trump candidacy—which most of them can’t believe is happening—I’m embarrassed to admit I’m an American. My country, which I served during the Vietnam War, has gone crazy (as Fallows’ recent cover story relates). I’ve voted in every election since 1964, but this time I have no idea what to do that would really be productive and beneficial, since I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton either. Maybe I’ll vote the Libertarian Party; at least Gary Johnson makes some sense.

From a reader in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Japan:

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Mr. Fallows’ coverage, but in Trump Time Capsule #42, a reader made a comment regarding ISIS’ goals in France and elsewhere as having specific political ends, and that the attacks were their calculated catalyst. I’m not convinced that ISIS has the ability to coordinate multi-theatre campaign objectives or has the sophistication to influence foreign politics for their own ends—especially as a means to rally support. (Which is not to say world leaders shouldn’t take great care in how they frame the conflict and avoid alienating Muslim communities.)

ISIS’ visceral appeal speaks to a very specific and disturbed audience: one that can only be set loose in a given direction and not tactically employed.

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….