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.”)
No one will ever be able to say, looking back, that Donald Trump was concealing the kind of leader he wanted to be.
His convention speech last night, as discussed in a range of Atlantic coverage, was especially notable for the trait Yoni Appelbaum identifies here: what would be called in any other system a cult-of-the-personality Messianic tone. As Yoni says at the end of his piece:
The most striking aspect of his speech wasn’t his delivery, even though his tone often strayed over the line, from emphatic to strident. It wasn’t the specific policies he outlined, long fixtures of his stump speech. It was the extraordinary spectacle of a man standing on a podium, elevated above the surrounding crowd, telling the millions of Americans who were watching that he, alone, could solve their problems.
And the crowd cheered.
How different is this? Let’s choose two examples from presidents who otherwise usually stand as complete contrasts.
When George W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination in 2000, he observed that the Clinton-Gore 1990s had been economically strong, but he warned that the country was “coasting through prosperity.” (Knowing what we do about what lay ahead for Bush and the world, this speech has an amazing time-capsule quality of its own.) He said that his era’s prosperity and security were due to the sacrifices of his father’s generation, which won a war and came back to build a nation. Then:
Now the question comes to the sons and daughters of this achievement.
What is asked of us?
This is a remarkable moment in the life of our nation. Never has the promise of prosperity been so vivid. But times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character.
Prosperity can be a tool in our hands -- used to build and better our country. Or it can be a drug in our system -- dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty.
Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short, to waste this moment.
So tonight we vow to our nation.
We will seize this moment of American promise.
Barack Obama’s 2008 convention speech was not one of his best. But its theme too was our ability, as a country, to solve our problems, rather than my ability, as leader, to solve yours. In many of his speeches after becoming president, Obama has more clearly developed the idea of America continually becoming a more perfect union, a work that is the shared responsibility of all its citizens through all its generations. But even in this speech he emphasized the obligations of each to all.
Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.
That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.
That’s the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now.
Bush: “What is asked of us?”
Obama: “That’s the promise we need to keep.”
Trump: “I am your voice. So to every parent who dreams for their child, and every child who dreams for their future, I say these words to you tonight: I'm with you, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”
The word “responsibility” does not appear in Trump’s speech. Nor “Congress” or “Cabinet” or “legislation” or other countries’ names, except to complain about them.
More clearly than ever before in this campaign, Trump has told us exactly who he is and how he sees his role. What happens next will reveal something about him but much more about us.
No one looking back can be in the slightest doubt that the Americans of 2016 had the evidence before them, of where this choice could lead.
Months ago I published a note from a reader whose work, in the TV industry, involved exposure to virtually all of Donald Trump’s recorded interviews of the past few years. The reader said that the experience left a deep impression. Sample:
I have now been through dozens of interviews with Trump with a variety of interviewers, and I have never once—not once—heard him discuss anything, any subject of any kind, with any evidence of knowledge, never mind thought. None. Zero. He’s like a skipping stone over a pond. He doesn’t even come close to the level of dilettante.
You’d think at some point, something, anything would have engaged his interest enough to read up on it and think about it, but as far as I can tell, nothing has. Much more so even than George W., he appears to lack anything resembling intellectual curiosity. Maybe he’s faking it, but while understanding can sometimes be faked, you can’t fake ignorance convincingly.
I suggest bearing that assessment in mind as you read the bombshell interview Trump has (inexplicably, by any normal logic) given to David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the NYT. This is the interview in which he:
says he’d make a judgment call on whether it was economically worthwhile for the U.S. to fulfill its treaty obligations to other NATO countries, if Russia were to invade. These treaty guarantees, by the way, have been the bedrock of security in Europe since the end of World War II.
describes the majority of U.S. alliances and relationships as if they were real-estate negotiations, in which “you always have to be prepared to walk.”
when pressed for details on how he would resolve any complex issue, falls back on variations of “we’d make terrific deals” and then treads water when asked to elaborate.
I’m tempted to quote the whole, long, transcript, but here are two illustrations of significant recurring leitmotifs. The first is Trump’s “Yes, but what about ...” problem. He is prepared with a first-round talking point on a range of topics, like “we never win any more” or “we’ll make terrific deals.” But when asked “But what about,” he’s in trouble. For instance:
TRUMP: Well, I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them. You know, we were fighting both of them. I think that our far bigger problem than Assad is ISIS, I’ve always felt that. Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.
SANGER: I think President Obama would agree with that. [Translation: Duh!]
TRUMP: O.K., well, that’s good. But at the same time – yeah, he would agree with that, I think to an extent. But I think, you can’t be fighting two people that are fighting each other, and fighting them together. You have to pick one or the other. And you have to go at –
SANGER: So how would your strategy differ from what he’s doing right now? [“But what about …?”]
TRUMP: Well I can only tell you – I can’t tell you, because his strategy, it’s open and it would seem to be fighting ISIS but he’s fighting it in such a limited capacity. I’ve been saying, take the oil. I’ve been saying it for years. Take the oil. They still haven’t taken the oil. They still haven’t taken it. And they hardly hit the oil. They hardly make a dent in the oil.
The other recurring motif is demonstration of what the previously quoted reader observed months ago. Namely, the absence of more-than-slogan-deep knowledge of anything. Read this exchange and tell me why “a lot of knowledge” is any better than Sarah Palin’s “I read all the papers!”
HABERMAN: You had meetings in the last couple months with James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Did they in any way change your views?
HABERMAN: And what did you come away with from those meetings?
TRUMP: No. I came away with a lot of knowledge. I respect both men.
In Sanger and Haberman’s previous interview, Trump was even closer to an “all the papers” answer:
SANGER: One question we had for you is, first of all, since you enjoyed reading about it, is there any particular book or set of articles that you found influential in developing your own foreign policy views?
TRUMP: More than anything else would be various newspapers including your own, you really get a vast array and, you know a big menu of different people and different ideas. You know you get a very big array of things from reading the media, from seeing the media, the papers, including yours.
And it’s something that I’ve always found interesting and I think I’ve adapted to it pretty well. I will tell you my whole stance on NATO, David, has been — I just got back and I’m watching television and that’s all they’re talking about. And you know when I first said it, they sort of were scoffing. And now they’re really saying, well wait, do you know it’s really right? And maybe NATO — you know, it doesn’t talk about terror. Terror is a big thing right now. That wasn’t the big thing when it originated and people are starting to talk about the cost.
Again, please read the whole thing. Congratulations to the two journalists.
On why Trump would have given this interview, effectively blowing up a firecracker in his own hands on the very day he will make his big acceptance speech:
David Sanger is a long-time friend of mine, whose reporting on a wide range of topics I’ve admired over the decades. I don’t know Haberman but also respect her work. For reasons that are probably different from mine — but who knows! — Donald Trump has clearly decided that David Sanger is someone he also respects and whose approval he apparently seeks. In the same press conferences in which he’s called other reporters “You sleaze,” Trump has gone out of his way to compliment David’s work.
By extension Trump would seem to crave respect from Sanger and Haberman and the paper they work for. Why else would he give these two long interviews, for what he must have imagined would be displays of his Metternich-like overview of world affairs? In reality they have backfired, especially this latest one.
While the campaign is going on, its slogan has of course been “Make America Great Again.” In retrospect a more apt one might be: The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Real.
The first convention I remember watching, on television at home as a kid, was the 1964 Republican convention, featuring Barry Goldwater’s fiery “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” speech.
Four years later, in 1968, the Democrats were tearing themselves apart at their Chicago convention, as the country was self-rending as well.
The 1980 Democratic convention was a nightmare, with Teddy Kennedy barely deigning to greet incumbent president Jimmy Carter on the platform after Kennedy’s unsuccessful (but gravely wounding to Carter) campaign against him.
But even 1968 was no match for the personal rancor of this evening in Cleveland, with Ted Cruz’s cold dissing of Donald Trump in front of the delegates who had just chosen Trump.
Again the theme of recent posts has been: conventions and national campaigns don’t “matter” in any profound sense (although they can make a difference in whether you get elected). But if you can’t manage a four-day convention, let alone a four-month national campaign, you’re facing steep odds in managing a very complex national government for four or eight years.
And — except for the effective Mike Pence speech, which began near the end of the 10pm-11pm EDT prime time bloc — this was another chaotically managed convention night. The Skyped-in-looking 90-second video by Marco Rubio was the minor indication. The cold, outright subversion by Ted Cruz — the man whose wife’s looks Trump had mocked, the man whose father Trump had accused of involvement in the JFK killing — was unlike anything on a national campaign stage in modern times. You can read about it in the papers tomorrow. To put it Donald Trump’s terms, the great deal-maker was publicly snookered and humiliated by his beaten opponent, “Lyin’ Ted.”
In normal times this would itself by headline news, but on this day it’s just one more disorderly note. Here’s the bonus: according to the NYT, Trump either does not understand how NATO works, or does not care. Why? Because he says that if he were president, the U.S. might not fulfill its NATO treaty obligation to defend European nations from attack by Russia (whose leader, Vladimir Putin, is the foreign official with whom Trump has seemed most simpatico):
He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back.
For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are the most recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
This is a genuinely big deal. Under Article V of the NATO treaty, all member states are legally bound in a compact of “collective defense” to come to one another’s aid and support. As many European countries did for the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks.
Out of careful calculation, or out of blind ignorance, Donald Trump has essentially overturned a tenet that has underlain U.S. foreign policy through all of my lifetime, and I am not a young guy.
Either Donald Trump has carefully thought this out, or he has absolutely no idea of how the world works or about the job he aspires to hold. This is what we know about the man, three months before the country decides whether to make him commander-in-chief.
On the morning after Donald Trump officially became the Republican party’s nominee, we learned these two things about his approach to the doing that goes with the presidency, as opposed to the being of ultimate-winner status.
I’m not claiming that signs like these will dissuade Trump’s supporters or necessarily change any votes. But they further raise the stakes, and the warning signs, about what to expect if he actually took office.
1) Division of labor. According to Robert Draper’s inside-look piece in the NYT Magazine, which has so far gone unchallenged by the ace Trump communications team, Donald Trump Jr. made the following offer to Gov. John Kasich before Trump Sr. settled on Gov. Mike Pence as the VP pick:
But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
“Making America great again” was the casual reply.
Perhaps I speak for many in saying that I’d be more comfortable with an administration in which John Kasich was in charge of “domestic and foreign policy” that one in which Donald Trump had any role in either. But this is yet another reminder that a major party has chosen a nominee who views the presidency essentially as a beauty pageant or an Oscar contest, which matters only as a prize to win.
Of course every successful politician thinks this way to some degree. But most of them think about other things as well. Illustration: think of a president whose policies you generally disagree with. For me, it might be George W. Bush. For someone else, it might be my one-time employer Jimmy Carter, or perhaps the current president. But whoever you choose and however much you disagree, you will still recognize that the person had policies, and cared about them, and took the job seriously.
Three and a half months before election day, here is another piece of for-the-record data that a person who might become president doesn’t have policies and doesn’t really care about the job.
2) You’re not fired. A Trump aide has taken the fall for the plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech on Monday night, as discussed in installments #44, #45, and #46. Rather, she has taken the fall without taking a fall. Here is the heart of the statement from Meredeith McIver, an “in-house staff writer for the Trump organization,” which you can read in full here:
That passage in Melania Trump’s speech obviously does not matter at all in any real-world sense. What matters, as argued here, is the rapidly mounting accumulation of clownishly incompetent rookie errors, by a man whose campaign is premised on “bringing in all the best people” but who in practice apparently relies on a little circle of political-novice cronies and immediate-family members.
To reinforce the why-this-matters point, the presidency is almost-infinitely harder to manage than a presidential campaign. If Trump and his team are having this much trouble in what should be a triumphal convention week, God save us during a world financial or military crisis.
Even with John Kasich’s help.
I’ve written several times that Melania Trump should be spared the blame in this case. But bear in mind that (a) her insistence that she’d written the speech on her own, which seems not quite true; and (b) she herself would have known perfectly well where those sentences came from, since she had personally selected them and read them to the speechwriter in the first place. So on Monday she stood before a live audience of tens of millions, and read parts of a speech that she knew better than anyone else had been lifted from Michelle Obama.
The path not taken: Would have been so great to imagine the reaction if she’d actually said in the speech, “As one woman I admire, Michelle Obama, once said...”
Barring any “repurposed material” surprises from Eric Trump in his speech tonight or Ivanka in hers tomorrow, here endeth the Trump-family-speeches chronicles.
The highlighted passages match phrases Trump Jr. used in his speech tonight (I don’t yet see an online version of the full text).
It appears from still-ongoing late-night Twitter traffic that the author of the American Conservative article, Frank Buckley, might have been involved in Trump Jr.’s speech and recycled his own words. In any case, he has said cryptically that the situation “wasn’t stealing.” That would make it different from the Melania Trump / Michelle Obama situation, and more in Jonah Lehrer-type territory.
But if you were giving a major prime-time speech, 24 hours after your stepmother ran into a buzzsaw for misappropriated material, wouldn’t you be a little bit careful about this? Wouldn’t you say, “What one writer has called” or “It has been said” or something of that sort? Wouldn’t you think: OK, before anything else, I can’t keep the plagiarism story going?
And for what it’s worth, as someone who has written both magazine articles and political/presidential speeches, I’ll say that this is something you don’t do this way. You don’t recycle, without attribution, things you’ve written and let someone else present them as his or her own words. At least I haven’t done it myself or previously known of people doing this.
Is this incompetent? Entitled? I don’t know. More details to come. But on a night in which we had one featured prime-time speech about Lucifer, and another about the plight of the avocado industry, this is one of the hardest-to-believe aspects of all. Why even risk controversy of this sort, when it would be so easy to avoid?
Political process stories usually matter more to the politically obsessed tribe of reporters and operators than to anyone else.
But the recurring series of mis-steps by Team Trump in the weeks since their candidate clinched the GOP nomination, culminating in last night’s plagiarism episode, potentially matter in a broader way. Here’s why, in the simplest bullet-point form I can muster:
This is not about Melania Trump herself. She did a creditable job in challenging circumstances. The only thing she did wrong on the speech was to (foolishly) tell Matt Lauer of Today that she had written it herself. No sane person would expect her to have done so. It’s her bad luck that what would normally be a routine white-lie turns out to be immediately and consequentially untrue, as in some sitcom nightmare.
In the world of national-level politics, what just happened is a really big mistake. Joe Biden’s famous “repurposing” of Neil Kinnock’s childhood story came during campaign speeches, not a formal convention address. (And remember, publicity about the episode played a big part in driving Biden out of the 1988 presidential race.) You just don’t do things like this if you’re a competent political organization — and if someone does it and gets caught, that person takes the blame, presumably by being fired.
If Trump ends up not firing anyone, the possibilities would seem to be: Maybe he’s not tough enough to discipline his own? (But really? For the man whose trademark phrase was “You’re fired!”?) Or maybe the author is someone he can’t fire, such as the most writing-connected member of his inner circle, his son-in-law Jared Kushner? Or maybe he’ll pretend this didn’t happen or is not an error? That just lets things fester, as opposed to resolving the story as quickly as possible — which is what anyone with actual experience in politics would have tried to do.
This is one of a series of things competent political organizations don’t do. You don’t have the candidate call into a live TV interview show while someone else is giving a major televised convention speech on the candidate’s behalf (as Trump did last night). You don’t turn the big unveiling of a vice-presidential pick into a rambling off-topic riff, as Trump did with Mike Pence last week. You don’t announce speakers for your convention without first checking whether they want to appear, as the Trump team apparently did with Tim Tebow. You don’t deliberately or thoughtlessly piss off your own party’s governor of the perennially most important swing state, as Trump has done with John Kasich of Ohio.
These are not the “rules” of politics in some crusty, due-to-be-overthrown sense. They are signs of basic operational competence. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by a plagiarism controversy, or a spat with the host-state governor, or a Tebow-type flap. These are the equivalent of not getting your permits before breaking ground on a building, or of screwing up the plumbing plans.
It is manifestly possible to win a primary election campaign despite throwing out the rulebook and running a communications strategy based on TV interviews and Twitter. We know it’s possible because Donald Trump has just done it.
It is conceivable that the same operating strategy — one guy and his family and his friends, operating on his gut — will also work in a general election. But it’s not obvious that it can or will. Running a nationwide campaign is much, much harder than the intra-party process Trump has just been through. And based on the evidence of the past few weeks, Trump and his team have consistently stubbed their toes and made rookie errors each time they face a new challenge. The flap over Melania’s speech, for which someone should have been fired by now, is just the latest illustration.
Just to be clear about it, moves like these don’t represent “a fresh approach” or “shaking things up” or “being authentic.” They represent incompetence.
Now, why this should matter to people other than the insiders. If managing a general-election campaign is, say, 10 times more complex than running in the primaries, actually serving as president is roughly one million times harder than that. (Won’t go into the reasons now, but some of them are here, and others three decades earlier here.)
In short: success as a campaigner obviously does not guarantee success as a president. Robert Redford’s final words in the McGovern-era film The Candidate are one of many reminders. But if you can’t even handle the complexities of running your own party’s convention, how on Earth can you begin to juggle the complexities of the entire Federal budget; and dealings with the Congress; and the foreign crises that crop up each day; and filling the thousands of politically appointed positions in the executive branch; and right on down an endless list.
You can ignore most “process” stories if you’re not a politically interested person. But these are process stories that cumulatively matter. If a potential commander- in-chief is repeatedly wrong-footed by the challenges of a week in Cleveland, God save us if you try to deal with the whole government.
The, umm, overlaps between Melania Trump’s speech about her husband this evening, and Michelle Obama’s speech about her husband eight years ago, don’t “matter” in any cosmic sense. Anyone with experience in politics, or life, has to cut Melania Trump some slack for the performance she put on. Speaking publicly in what is not your first language, or even your third or fourth, is very hard. A candidate’s spouse is not the candidate. While Melania Trump willingly took on the role of being Donald Trump’s wife, she didn’t necessarily sign on for being a national political spokesperson, or reading (without plagiarism-checking) what the candidate’s staffers served up.
Still. In the world of national politics, three things about this episode make the Trump campaign look seriously bad.
Number one: political speechwriters (I was once one) can’t be prideful about much. But avoiding outright plagiarism is one of those few stubborn points of pride. Sure, some sentiments are so tired and familiar that you can type them in your sleep. “I see an America ….!” But that’s just lazy and unimaginative writing; it’s cliche, rather than plagiarism. Telling your candidate’s “personal” story in phrases that come from another person’s life (as Melania Trump apparently just did) is something else. It’s something you just don’t do. Or if you do succumb, and you’re caught, you have to know that there will be trouble. Cf: younger Joe Biden’s “borrowing” from the UK politician Neil Kinnock’s speeches, which led to his dropping out of the 1988 presidential race and hurt him badly for years.
To put it more plainly: I was never the world’s greatest speechwriter. But I understood from beginning to end that if I ever came up with something that was obviously plagiarized, that would be it, and I’d be looking for a new job.
Number two: personal phoniness, on two levels. One is the surface level: a spouse purporting to describe her adored husband, in words some other wife had used to describe her spouse. The other is the follow-up, with Melania’s remarks to Matt Lauer of Today that she had written the speech by herself.
Number three: startling incompetence. What kind of crappy campaign organization is so incompetent as to let the candidate’s wife, give her debut speech before a national audience, with passages that are trivially easy to match to a preceding speech? Here’s a way to answer. No one has ever studied the political organizations I worked for, candidate Jimmy Carter’s campaign team in 1976 or his White House team after that, as examples of airtight management. But even we were smart enough never to let anything remotely like this happen to us, let alone with the most important speech of the potential-first-lady’s career.
The cynical line about Donald Trump has been: due to a variety of unforeseeable circumstances, he ended up getting the Republican nomination. But nonetheless the reality that he knows nothing about policy or politics, and has taken no steps toward campaign success in normal terms, will soon catch up with him. And this entirely needless blunder, on a very big rollout night, is another indication.
Signs of successful adjustment? There are exactly two:
Trump and Melania, in their respective ways, could sincerely (if as lightly-as-possible) embrace, admit, and apologize for their error. We all make mistakes. Trump would probably be enhanced by admitting this one.
Forthwith identify and fire the staffer who was responsible for this unacceptable screwup — “unacceptable” in that people who do this cannot last in big-times politics.
Will we see one or the other? Who knows. But this was a genuinely bad mistake — simply as a matter of campaign management major figures cannot indulge in easily provable plagiarism — and the important question is how Trump world responds.
I said that these Time Capsules would be on hold through the conventions. But that was before I read Jane Mayer’s “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All,” in The New Yorker. (As John Boyd and many others have taught us, adaptability is all — Boyd being on my mind just now because I spent yesterday in his original home of Erie, Pa. For reinforcement on this theme we could turn to the Atlantic’s own R.W. Emerson with his cautions against “a foolish consistency” etc. But mainly we should turn back to Jane Mayer’s piece.)
Do not let the sun set on you today — or, depending where you are, let the sun rise tomorrow— before you read this article.
Short version: Tony Schwartz, the person who actually wrote Trump’s famous The Art of the Deal, and who probably knows him better than anyone not in his immediate family or currently in his employ, considers him a sociopath. Which is the title Schwartz said he would give The Art of the Deal, if he could rename it. And that’s far from the most noteworthy part of the article.
Here is a sample, which sheds light on the deranged-seeming discourses by Trump discussed in dispatches #40 (“Back to Mike Pence”) and #34 (“I Don’t Like Mosquitos!”) The premise of those items is that Trump’s inability to sustain a thought or argument for more than a few seconds might indicate that something is wrong with him. Schwartz says that in fact this is who Trump is:
“Trump has been written about a thousand ways from Sunday, but this fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It’s implicit in a lot of what people write, but it’s never explicit—or, at least, I haven’t seen it. And that is that it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . ” Schwartz trailed off, shaking his head in amazement. He regards Trump’s inability to concentrate as alarming in a Presidential candidate. “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time,” he said.
Read the whole thing. Thanks to Tony Schwartz and Jane Mayer.
This is the person one of our major parties is about to choose as its nominee, and whom the Vichy Republican establishment has decided to accept.
An American who has lived and worked in Asia for several decades writes:
You might cast a future net in a future note to capture commentary from overseas business people (like me) who despise U.S. tax policy and, like the generals in the NYT story, generally lean conservative but who are horrified at the prospect of even the Trump candidacy.
I've lived overseas 23 years and I've never seen such universal concern over the daily damage he's doing to the national brand, which we all leverage consciously or not. When the diplomats, bankers, manufacturers, sales execs, and tech guys are all on the same side of an argument, something is seriously out of balance.
I’m about to arrive in Cleveland (via the Kent State University airport, which is close to Team Atlantic’s hotel and is one of the Cleveland-area airports that is still operating under the convention-era Temporary Flight Restriction security rules). There I’ll mainly be reporting for an upcoming print-magazine story but also weighing in online as appropriate. I will plan to resume the Time Capsules when the conventions are over, and in the meantime making capsule-like observations passim in convention coverage. We are into new territory.
On the way this era in politics is being registered internationally, we’d be happy to get your accounts. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I been overseas on a total of four U.S. presidential-election days. By far the most memorable was 2008, in Beijing. The Chinese public and officialdom was anything but pro-Obama. Chinese officials would generally vote GOP for the U.S. if given a chance. (Chairman Mao once said something like: Go for the Republicans; they’re predictable.) They’d liked the two Presidents Bush, despite observing the financial chaos at the end of GW Bush’s term. A continuation of GOP rule would hold fewer surprises. They’d heard of John McCain for years and barely had any idea of who Barack Obama was. And there was barely concealed incredulity that the United States would actually choose a non-white as its leader.
So they would have voted McCain-Palin, if they could. But as news of Obama’s win sunk in, even in China, over the following weeks there was some astonishment and then grudging respect for the idea that a democratic political system could will this kind of change in direction.
Voters in the Republican Party have obviously now willed a change in their direction. We’ll see if the country is doing so too. Let us know how it looks from afar.
Finally for now, a similar view-from-afar from an American living in Europe. This arrived after the attacks in Nice:
ISIS' goal in France is to bring the French Right to power, and precipitate a broad and violent response against the large French Muslim population, which will of course engender further radicalization in Muslim countries.
ISIS is also currently out to get Trump elected in the U.S., encouraged by his threat to put pressure on the U.S. Muslim community, and ban Muslim travel and immigration to the U.S. Tens of thousands of students come to the U.S. to attend university.
Of course, given Clinton's own neo-conservative proclivities, ISIS is probably now in a win-win situation regarding the U.S. Presidential elections.
Although it hardly takes a fortune teller to realize ISIS' goals, and the consequences for us if we indulge them in our response, I'd say there's a better then even chance we take the bait.
What Patrick Healy and Helene Cooper of the NYTreport today is highly unusual and deserves attention. The unusual aspect is active-duty general officers (a) speaking about party politics this directly, if anonymously, during the heat of an election campaign, and (b) doing so to criticize a Republican rather than a Democratic candidate. (In my experience senior flag officers are not as politically conservative as the military as a whole, but overall they are conservatives.)
Yes, of course, senior military officials have been politically aware and involved since the days of Gen. George Washington. But as with so many things touched by Donald Trump, what is happening here is outside the normal range.
The officers who spoke with Healy and Cooper were responding to Donald Trump’s speeches about finally getting serious in the war against terror. His recommended steps include bringing back waterboarding (“I love it! I think it’s great!”) and intentionally killing the family members of suspected terrorists (rather than doing so as “collateral damage” from targeted strikes):
At the Pentagon, interviews with more than a dozen top generals revealed alarm over many of Mr. Trump’s proposals for the use of American power, even among officers who said privately that they lean Republican…. A number of top-ranking admirals and generals said the military is governed by laws and rules of engagement that are far stricter than politicians may realize.
And justifications that troops would be “following orders” are unlikely to sway war-crimes courts, they said.
“We remember the Nuremberg trials,” said Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, now retired, who was in charge of training the Iraqi Army in 2003. “Just following orders is not going to cut it.”
To be clear about this: senior active-duty military officers are warning that a man who could become president might give orders that would expose them to war-crime prosecution later on. For time-capsule purposes, this is part of the public record just days before the Republican party officially makes this man its nominee, and three-and-a-half months before the country decides whether to make him Commander in Chief.
(I’m not using a picture with this installment, because the obvious ones on the “just following orders” theme would be too heavy-handed.)
I am aware that the pace of these entries is picking up unsustainably, but that’s because the news is too. Also, we’re about to launch some new convention-coverage threads, about which I’ll say more soon.
I am again impressed by and grateful to the crew at C-Span, which has promptly put up a full, high-rez version of the Trump-Pence announcement ceremony that ended not long ago. You can see the whole thing via C-Span here.
You would probably need to see the whole thing, from Trump’s entry 10 seconds into the clip to his baton-pass to Pence 28 minutes later, to assess the claim I’m about to make. But here it goes: I think this event rivals and even surpasses his “I hate mosquitos!” speech, described here, in raising concerns about Trump’s basic fitness to govern, at the temperamental and emotional level.
How can I say this? Watch and see what you think. In brief:
The speech is a series of feints, in which Trump will briefly mention Pence’s name, or say “Now back to Mike Pence,” and then within seconds surge off on another riff about how great Trump’s own businesses are, how ahead-of-schedule and under-budget his new hotel in Washington is going to be, how big and beautiful The Wall will be, how crooked Hillary is, how terrible NAFTA and the Iraq War were. These last points are notable because Mike Pence, standing just off-stage, was a strong supporter of both NAFTA (plus the TPP) and the Iraq War.
For better and worse, I am not aware of any other free-flow performance like this at a major general-election event since Ronald Reagan’s painfully rambling “I remember driving down the California coast one day” closing statement during his second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. (More about this after the jump.)
It’s another series of feints or riffs, involving the Telepromptered script. Trump will dutifully read for a few seconds, in schoolboy-under-duress mode — and then look up, brighten, and give a gloss or improvisation about what he has just said. These departures are clearly more enjoyable for him, but are usually off-message and sometimes even anti-message involving Pence. (For instance, that Crooked Hillary’s bad judgment about Iraq should disqualify her from office. Which means about Pence … ? )
Trump offers a number of “principal” reasons for choosing Pence. One of them is that he “looks good.” Another, explained at greater length, is that Indiana’s economy under Pence has been so great, while the national economy under Obama has been so terrible. In fact, Indiana’s recovery has exactly paced that of the economy as a whole, and the state’s manufacturers have been a particular object of the Obama administration’s support rather than indifference or hostility. (Eg Obama’s recent visit to Elkhart, to check out the progress of the RV industry.)
The morning after an attempted coup in Turkey — a country that is a NATO ally, where U.S. nuclear weapons are based, which is at the center of international tensions over refugees and the struggles within Islam and dealing with ISIS and dealing with Syria — Trump’s comments, as potential commander in chief, were, in toto: “So many friends in Turkey. Great people, amazing people. We wish them well. A lot of anguish last night, but hopefully it will all work out.”
Beyond these and other detailed points is the fact that the First Joint Appearance With the Veep is one of a small number of established message-sending moments in a national campaign. The next big ones will come at the convention, with Pence’s speech and then Trump’s. More will come during the debates, and then with a handful of requisite Big Policy Speeches in the fall.
So one of these handful of formal-event moments has just passed, but turned into another Trump rally-to-the-base performance rather than anything else. The reason this matters more than the mosquitos! speech is that the circumstances of this event were so different, as was the opportunity to be seized or missed. When this campaign is over and we know the results, we can judge which of these interpretations of Trump’s performance is more plausible:
That the rules of general-election campaigning (and not just victory in a multi-candidate scrum within one party’s primaries) have so fundamentally changed that Trump’s riff-and-ramble approach is the effective one for these times; or
That we’re seeing, in these early days of Trump’s general election mode, the reasons why his message and appeal could not extend beyond the base.
For more, please watch the speech. And on the bright side, it took them only a day to get rid of the old logo.
On the Reagan-Mondale debate, you can see the way Reagan drifted off at the end of his second debate, starting at time 1:22:15 below.
Even though Reagan was on his way to a landslide re-election victory, this debate registered at the time as an embarrassment for him and a win for Mondale. Historical assessments have suggested that this was a rare, early public display of the changes that Reagan’s incipient Alzheimer’s disease was beginning to cause. From a sympathetic account, which starts with Reagan’s brilliant use of the “highway” story in a speech in 1976:
This 1976 triumph is the source of the muddled Pacific Coast Highway time-capsule story of eight years later! This is where he was trying to go, in the ’84 debate. It’s horrible.
What happened? It’s impossible, yet tempting, to imagine that in ’84 he went off script, flashing back to the big moment of ’76, that he thought he was really there again, that he re-lived it all in front of us, then start realizing it was all nothing a waking dream and started trying to come back to reality.
When experienced standup comics start bombing, it’s said that they tend to grab the first eight-minute routine that ever worked for them and just do it. They can’t help it; they go back to what worked once. Reagan hadn’t bombed in the debate — he would go on to win the election handily — but maybe he thought he had? (Anyone watching today would think so too.) So he went straight to one of his greatest hits.
But in real life, and even more depressing, Reagan and his ’84 people had clearly come up with this reprise of an old bit, deeming it a safe, tried-and-true thing that he had a chance of pulling off, as spaced as he was. He didn’t pull it off, but I guess they thought it was their best shot.
Grim stuff. Can there be any real doubt anywhere about Reagan’s rapidly diminishing mental competence during his presidency? He fell asleep in public, responded to questions via coaching from his wife, etc.
This is all well known — yet there’s a way in which none of it mattered. Literally. It didn’t matter. Reagan was fulfilling some entirely other national purpose, nothing to do with executive function, and I now realize that, at this point in my life, and no matter how long I live, his presidency will never seem long ago to me. Such is the nature of memory that for me, as for him, it’s all back there in the past, reality and impressions mingled, all still happening.
Until this week, three episodes of choosing a vice presidential nominee stood out in post-World War II history as the clumsy ones:
1972, when Democratic nominee Senator George McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, but had to swap him out for Sargent Shriver after news of Eagleton’s treatment for mental illness emerged;
1988, when George H.W. Bush, then finishing eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, chose young Sen. Dan Quayle—only to see Quayle immediately engulfed by hostile press questioning about his Vietnam-era record and other problems, followed by a very weak debate performance against his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.
2008, when Sen. John McCain, who was looking to shake things up and pull off a “game change,” chose Gov. Sarah Palin as his VP candidate. That led to a short-term polling boost but many longer-term problems.
In Bush’s case, the Quayle choice ended up as part of a winning ticket. In McGovern’s and McCain’s, the slate would probably have lost no matter who was the VP. And there’s a whole poli-sci argument about whether VP picks make any difference at all in the November outcome, which I won’t get into.
The range of other choices include some that clearly did no good electorally — Al Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman in 2000, for instance — and others that look worse as the years go by, given the VP-candidate’s subsequent life arc. John Edwards, as John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, leads this list, followed by Palin. Dick Cheney, GW Bush’s choice in 2000 and 2004, probably was one of the many factors that allowed Bush to squeak into the White House, because of Cheney’s then-reputation for foreign-policy experience and his dominance of Joe Lieberman in the VP debate. But from my perspective he was one of the worst-ever VP choices, because of what he actually did in office (and afterwards).
When matched against the run of past nominees, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana seems less impressive than most in electoral terms, and average-to-better on the experience front.
Electorally, a very conservative white man from a very conservative Midwestern state does Trump no obvious good with the Latino, African-American, female, young, college-educated, or environmentalist blocs of voters with whom he trails badly. Beyond that, Pence actively hurts with LGBT groups because of his involvement in Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. He may hearten some Republican conservatives, but the need to do that is itself a trouble sign for a Republican nominee.
On the other hand, in terms of experience, Pence has incalculably more than Trump himself and as, as a long-time Congressman and now a governor, he has as much or more formal experience as many other recent VP candidates.
As for his instantly highlighted stark differences with three of Trump’s main campaign themes — Trump claims (falsely) that he was against the Iraq war, while Pence was strongly for it; Trump is against NAFTA and the TPP, while Pence is for them; Trump has renewed his calls for limits on Muslim immigration, while Pence has resisted — this kind of Pres/VP tension has happened before. Any experienced politician knows how to present it as a sign of healthy creative tension etc. Famous example: Candidate George H.W. Bush had strongly denounced candidate Ronald Reagan’s tax-cut plans as “voodoo economics,” when Bush was fighting Reagan for the 1980 GOP nomination. But after Reagan won, Bush loyally and effectively signed on as advocate for those tax cuts on the campaign trail as as Vice President.
So the result of this stage of Trump’s general-election campaign seems more positive than most of his other steps in the past two months. What may distinguish it in a bad way is the process — which in turn matters if it reflects on Trump’s ability to cope with complexities of national-level operations. In specific:
Trump was left without the top-tier of possible running-mates to choose from. You can imagine the electoral and/or experience advantages that different people from this list might have brought: Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Nikki Haley, Rob Portman, Jeb Bush, Susana Martinez, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, Tom Ridge, John Thune, Condoleezza Rice, Scott Walker, and so on.
Each has weaknesses as well as strengths — but the real point is that as soon as you see the list, you're reminded of the reasons none of them would run with Trump. Instead by all appearances he was left with a finalists group of Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Pence, of whom Pence was the least obviously damaged, do-minimal-harm choice.
Trump’s Apprentice reality-show competitions were done in public. Vice-presidential choices are done in semi-secret. That’s mainly to protect the dignity (and retain the enthusiasm) of those who were not chosen—not a big concern on The Apprentice. This process was done practically in public, more Apprentice style. That doesn’t matter on the merits but is one more proxy of the difference between how presidents have to operate and what Trump has done.
Trump was going to announce his selection formally at a press conference, which he then delayed because of the truck massacre in Nice. No one could fault that judgment on the merit. Jill Lawrence of USA Today explained why Trump’s reasons for doing so once again set him apart:
“Donald Trump’s campaign manager may have just lost the presidential race for him, and it only took five words.
“ ‘He emotionally reacted to it,’ Paul Manafort told Chris Cuomo on CNN, explaining why Trump postponed a press conference to announce his vice presidential pick...
“There are many, many ways those five words may come to haunt Trump, starting with this: They crystallize his approach to pretty much everything — including campaign strategy, policy-making, the press, the Constitution, people who criticize him, political rivals and foreign leaders. They are Hillary Clinton’s ‘Daisy’ ad. All she needs to do is run those five words as a continuous loop against video of nuclear weapons and mushroom clouds.”
To spell this out, national leaders need to be able to convey emotion, and to show that they understand the emotional forces affecting their constituents. But they are not supposed to act emotionally. You don’t want a president prone to blowing his or her top.
The campaign-insider reports on the back-and-forth of choosing Pence, and whether Trump was trying at the last minute to back out, to me are significant and unusual in one particular way. Namely: that the only advisors Trump truly seems to heed and confide in are his own children.
Of course every leader pays particular attention to his or her own family. Of course Trump’s children are experienced adults, with good educations and in some cases their own accomplishments. It’s only natural that he would listen to them. The remarkable fact, and the difference from past major-party figures, is the seeming absence of long-term peers who can tell a leader, “Look, you’re about to screw this up.”
The lore of the White House is that by definition a president cannot make new “friends” once he gets there —and from the moment of his or her elevation, it becomes harder and harder for anyone ever again to tell him uncomfortable truths. So every successful president needs to start out with a group of people who are reliably honest in that way. It’s not evident that Trump has any, apart from his kids.
The inside-campaign detail that the Clinton forces had negative ads about Pence up and running before the Trump team had even changed its own website to mention Pence’s new role. Again, this doesn’t matter in itself. But it’s an illustration of the countless ways in which running a general-election campaign is harder and more complex than running in the primaries. And, unfortunately, running a White House is a thousand times harder than that.
And when we’re talking about basic competence in the fundamentals of campaigning ….
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
At least one human life has already been lost as a direct result of the widespread obsession with turning the sex of one’s unborn child into an explosive (often literally) spectacle. In October, an Iowa woman was killed when her family inadvertently built a pipe bomb as part of their gender-reveal party—a gathering at which expectant parents dramatically and colorfully announce the sex of their baby.
The methods for doing so seem to have started out as benign, if stereotypical—cutting into a cake to reveal either blue or pink frosting, say. But in the past couple of years, some kind of communal madness has taken hold, and many of these feats of gender performance have gotten more elaborate, more public, and more dangerous—putting lives and entire ecosystems at risk. Last year, a father-to-be started a 47,000-acre wildfire in Arizona when he shot a rifle at an explosive target full of blue powder (It’s a boy!), causing $8.2 million of damage, according to the Arizona Daily Star. The latest instance of a gender reveal gone wildly wrong, as The New York Times reported on Friday, involved a plane that stalled and crashed while crop-dusting a Texas field with 350 gallons of pink water in honor of an unborn female child. No one was killed in either incident, but someone easily could have been. Othergender-reveal-relatedexplosions, and one reveal involving an alligator, have also placed people in harm’s way.
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side
Images above: A protestor holding a sign that reads “Abortion Is Freedom” and protestors holding anti-abortion signs
In 1956, twoAmerican physicians, J. A. Presley and W. E. Brown, colleagues at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, decided that four recent admissions to their hospital were significant enough to warrant a published report. “Lysol-Induced Criminal Abortion” appeared in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. It describes four women who were admitted to the hospital in extreme distress, all of them having had “criminal abortions” with what the doctors believed to be an unusual agent: Lysol. The powerful cleaner had been pumped into their wombs. Three of them survived, and one of them died.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
Things were getting bad even before the 2016 election, but somehow, within just a few years, they have gotten worse. In an environment of intense partisan warfare, each side believes it has a claim to lead the nation based on its own set of values. Each side understands that it has more to gain from aggrievement than achievement, and each side beholds the other with contempt. Meanwhile, the republic seems to be unraveling. A culture of anxiety and depression has spread far and wide as people face health crises without access to affordable care. An opioid epidemic ensnares ever larger numbers of the alienated and desperate; among certain groups, life spans are actually shortening. Some of those who aren’t harming themselves are harming others in mass shootings; many of the killers are infected with an ideology of white supremacy. Also, the prisons are full. The economy, at least, seems to be in decent shape for now, but income inequality continues to widen. Jobs are plentiful, which is good, because it often takes more than one to support a family. But the economic energy of a rich country has not eased the strains on our political institutions—money flowing to politicians has only hardened the gridlock. Congress still can’t get anything done. Tax cuts have left the country short of money to address national problems. The gulf between needs and capacities is glaring. Everyday scenes sometimes resemble New Yorker covers designed by Pravda: In Manhattan, the Harvard Club’s elegant dining room backs onto West 45th Street, where men and women sleep beneath damp cardboard in the warm glow of the club’s windows.
Unmet hype created a viral clash between Drake and the audience at Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, but it might just work in his favor.
Editorial writers, assemble—there’s been another demonstration that civility in America is dead! Drake, the Canadian rapper, actor, singer, and, as of last week, marijuana entrepreneur, took to the stage last night at the Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, a music festival in Los Angeles. He played a few songs. The crowd grumbled so much that he left. To summarize, the biggest rapper in the world was booed off stage at a big rap concert—a telling story about toxic buzz storms, the vagaries of coolness, and Drake’s special relationship with the phenomenon of public shaming.
The footage of Drake’s exit feels like a scene in a biopic—a scene you’d watch through your fingers so as to avoid the protagonist’s nightmare from replaying in your own dreams. He’s performing the final lines of his song “Wu-Tang Forever,” but they sound lonely and weak, rapped by inertia. Faint woos and scattered claps reply. Drake walks in a tight circle. He addresses the crowd with the pre-confrontation politenessthat a boss might use to broach the subject of Juuling in the office: “You know, I’mma tell you, like I said …”
The gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol—it’s the false promise of civility.
Joe Biden has fond memories of negotiating with James Eastland, the senator from Mississippi who once declared, “I am of the opinion that we should have segregation in all the States of the United States by law. What the people of this country must realize is that the white race is a superior race, and the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Recalling in June his debates with segregationists like Eastland, Biden lamented, “At least there was some civility,” compared with today. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition; the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Our grasp on what it takes to sustain a democracy is slipping.
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. The subject was citizenship and the preservation of America’s political institutions. The backdrop was the threat posed to those institutions by the evil of slavery. Lincoln warned that the greatest danger to the nation came from within. All the armies of the world could not crush us, he maintained, but we could still “die by suicide.”
And now, today, we look around. Our politics are paralyzing the country. We practice suspicion or contempt where trust is needed, imposing a sentence of anger and loneliness on others and ourselves. We scorch our opponents with language that precludes compromise.
The three leading GOP defenses of the president contradict one another.
Give Mac Thornberry this much: Unlike some of his Republican colleagues, he was at least trying.
On Sunday the Texas Republican appeared on ABC’s This Week, where he tentatively offered a message on the impeachment inquiry, which enters its public phase with hearings this Wednesday and Friday. Thornberry sought a middle course.
“I believe that it is inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival,” he said. “I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.”
Debatable, but coherent. But from there, things went off the rails. First, Thornberry inadvertently compared President Donald Trump to a rapist or murderer while critiquing the procedure House Democrats have used (though perhaps he is not far off). He then offered the defense that Trump couldn’t be impeached because the abuse of power in the Ukraine scandal is his standard operating procedure. “There’s not anything that the president said in that phone call that’s different than he says in public all the time,” he said.