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.”)
Charles Stevenson, long-time Congressional staffer and author of many books about the politics and policy of national security, writes about Donald Trump’s meeting this morning with Republicans on Capitol Hill:
You may have seen this TPM report about Trump’s meeting with House GOP. I think this part is especially significant:
Another Republican in the meeting who declined to go on the record so he could speak candidly told TPM that Trump was asked pointedly if he would defend Article I of the Constitution.
“Not only will I stand up for Article One,” Trump enthusiastically stated, according to the member in the room. “I'll stand up for Article Two, Article 12, you name it of the Constitution.”
The Republican member said that Trump’s lack of knowledge about how many articles exist, gave him “a little pause.” (The Constitution has seven articles and 27 amendments.)
Besides indicating Trump has little real knowledge of the Constitution, it also shows an insensitivity to the purpose of the question. Article I lists the powers of the Congress, which many Republicans say has been undermined by an overreaching Obama. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that he was being asked about legislative-executive relations and the proper balance between those branches. He didn't know, and probably doesn’t care. Lawmakers should.
For Trump’s “Two Corinthians” reference, suggesting he is as unfamiliar with nuances of the Bible as he is with the Constitution’s, check NPR’s story here. For more on his not-without-its-bumps meeting with Congressional Republicans, see Sean Sullivan’s and Philip Rucker’s Washington Post story here. It includes this gem:
Trump said at the meeting that he has yet to attack [Arizona senator Jeff] Flake hard but threatened to begin doing so. Flake stood up to Trump by urging him to stop attacking Mexicans. Trump predicted that Flake would lose his reelection, at which point Flake informed Trump that he was not on the ballot this year, the sources said.
It’s been nearly 13 months since Donald Trump came down the escalator and announced that he was running for president.
This evening, in Ohio, he gave what was even for him the most off-message, most (literally) deranged-seeming performance of his candidacy, and what would have been in any previous campaign a sign of very serious trouble.
Why this was off-message:
It followed a slightly good, mainly very bad day for Hillary Clinton, in which James Comey, the director of the FBI, scolded her for being “extremely careless” with classified emails. (The slightly good part was Comey’s announcement that Clinton’s carelessness didn’t warrant prosecution.) Rather than focusing relentlessly on what this said about Clinton, Trump broadened the attack to include Comey and his “rigged” investigation — and thus drove the email story from lead position in the news because of all the other things he said and did.
The “Corrupt Hillary and the Star” controversy (see Time Capsule #33) could have been a one-day story, if Trump or his representatives (if they existed) had simply said: “Obviously we meant no offense, to anyone other than the corrupt Democratic candidate — and to make that meaning clear and avoid any misunderstanding, we’re happy to change the image. Because what matters to the American people... [etc etc].” Instead he re-raised the issue, said the only thing he was sorry for was that someone in his campaign had taken down the original six-pointed star image, and thereby made the affair into a multi-day story that cannot gain him any votes or do him any good.
Trump raised a lot of money, and announced that he had done so. But the “process” story from the day’s events became not that but rather the uncontrolled nature of his talk. The NYT headline of the day was, “In a Defiant, Angry Speech, Donald Trump Defends Image Seen as Anti-Semitic.” No matter what your party, you are never, never winning when that’s the main story from your speech.
The half-hour of Trump’s performance was objectively as alarming, in mental-balance terms, as anything we have seen from a major party candidate in modern history. I can’t find an online video of the whole 30 minutes that has acceptable audio quality. But imagine the mosquito clip extended at full length and you have the idea.
I defy anyone to watch these 30 minutes and feel comfortable with the idea of Donald Trump making the countless judgment calls required of a president. This man is not well. But he is the man the GOP is about to nominate for the presidency.
This one has been well-publicized even at the start of a long holiday weekend. Thus I just note its existence, for the long-term record. Here’s the sequence:
On the early morning of July 2, Donald Trump put out the image you see above in his own personal Twitter feed. It showed Hillary Clinton against a background of dollars, with the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” on a red-colored six-pointed star, or badge.
A basic principle of political life, and life in general, is that more things happen via incompetence or screw-up than happen according to devious plan. So the forgiving initial reaction to this Tweet could have been: can you believe how sloppy these Trump people are? Didn’t they stop to think about the way a six-sided star, on a field of cash, could so easily be read as a Star of David, and thus play into a classic anti-Semitic stereotype? [Not to mention: why the hell is a presumptive major-party nominee spending his time on this kind of idiocy?]
This “didn’t they stop to think??” reaction depends upon the possibility that the star could have been intended to be read as a badge, from a sheriff or marshal, rather than as a Mogen David. For instance, the LA County Sheriff’s office uses just such a badge, as shown below. So does the U.S. Marshal’s service. So conceivably this could have been just another in a series of bone-headed moves rather than anything else.
[Update: Keith Olbermann observes via Twitter that the law-enforcement badges have globes at the six points, while a Star of David, and the image in Trump’s Tweet, do not.]
But then ...
Today, July 3, various reports emerged (starting with News.mic) that Trump’s original “Most Corrupt” Tweet had been lifted from an outright racist site, and that the use of the Star of David was about as accidental as the placement of gorilla imagery or a watermelon in a comparable attack-Tweet about Barack Obama.
So you can take your pick: negligence, or malice. Either a presumptive major-party nominee is spending his time, as he “pivots” toward the general election that happens just four months from now, sending out personally insulting tweets without having anyone check their provenance and implications; or someone in the campaign is doing this on purpose, dog-whistle style. I think the former is more likely, but either one is bad.
For the record, Trump-campaign-manager-turned-CNN “analyst” Corey Lewandoski said he was shocked, just shocked, at the “political correctness run amok” in the reaction to what was a simple sheriff’s star. Other campaign supporters said that of course Trump could not be sending an anti-Semitic signal, since after all his son-in-law Jared Kushner is Jewish, his daughter Ivanka has converted, and thus three of his grandchildren are Jewish as well.
More plausible than either of those explanations is this, from Hot Air:
Whether intentionally or not, Trump’s built a devoted following within the online hangouts of white supremacists. He’s surely aware of it and he hasn’t gone out of his way to discourage it. His denunciations of their support have been largely perfunctory. It may be that one of his racist fans tweeted that image at his account fully intending the symbolism in the shape of the star, then Trump’s Twitter guy saw it and reproduced it without picking up on the symbolism himself….
It reminds me of this kerfuffle from back in November, when Trump stupidly retweeted something from a fan claiming that 81 percent of homicides involving white victims are perpetrated by blacks. In reality, 82 percent of homicides with white victims are perpetrated by whites. It was propaganda designed to reinforce the stereotype that blacks are predators. But whoever was running Trump’s Twitter account that day was too stupid not to see that the numbers were obviously bogus and too lazy not to take three minutes to check them by googling. He got suckered by racist propaganda. I’ll bet the same thing happened here. And it’ll happen again.
In July, 1948, the 33rd President of the United States, Harry Truman, took an overdue step toward equal opportunity, equal dignity, and “more perfect union” with Executive Order 9981, ordering desegregation of the military.
In July, 2016, the aspirant to be the 45th President, Donald Trump, said he would “look into” a step in the opposite direction, by potentially replacing TSA agents who were Muslim and wore “hibby-jobbies.”
The term hibby-jobbies was from a questioner and presumably meant the veil or head cover known as hijab. But Trump did not resist or object to it, as he frequently has with other questions whose framing he dislikes. (He “let it slide,” as CNN put it in a headline.) Instead he said he would “look into” this concept of religion-based scrutiny of public employees.
You don’t have to go back to Harry Truman to see how extraordinary and odious this is — or to the Truman-era War Department film I mentioned yesterday. Eight years ago, John McCain earned boos from a partisan crowd, but increased respect in history’s eyes, for rejecting a questioner’s premise that his then-rival, then-Senator Barack Obama, was really an Arab.
In this cycle, McCain is still a Vichy Republican, officially backing Trump for the presidency.
Yesterday Trump also joked that a small plane overhead might be Mexican, because “they’re getting ready to attack.”
In retrospect it will seem remarkable, and it deserves more notice even now, how even-tempered the Mexican government and most Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Latino-background Americans in general have been about all of this. Think of the likely reaction if a presumptive major-party nominee had been turning against [blacks / Catholics / Jews / Baptists / Asian-Americans / etc ] the repeated off-hand slurs Donald Trump keeps issuing against Muslims and Mexicans.
This one really is a time capsule. It’s a nearly 70-year-old U.S. government film called Don’t Be a Sucker, released in 1947 by what was then straightforwardly known as the Department of War. (Thanks to Daniel Buk for the lead.)
Most of the 17-minute film is a history of Germany’s slide into Nazism, which is powerful but familiar. I think these three segments deserve another look in 2016:
The part from time 2:05 (where the video below is cued to start) to 4:25, in which our everyman-American hero confronts a rabble-rousing speaker who tells him that his jobs, opportunities, and future are being stolen by outsiders.
The two minutes of the video before that, which you can click back on the player to see, presenting one version of America’s view of itself, just after its great victory in war. It’s touching, up-to-date, out-of-date, achingly earnest, and unintentionally ridiculous (in retrospect), all at the same time.
The final two minutes, from 15:25 onward, when the immigrant-American narrator explains the importance of America being a nation-of-minorities.
Obviously this video really is a time capsule from a different era. For instance, it talks unselfconsciously about the triumph of an American fighting force “made of people of all religions and skin colors,” at a time when the U.S. military was still formally segregated. But I was surprised by how many aspects of it still seemed relevant.
As explained back in item #18 of this series, I’m using “the Resistance” and “Vichy Republicans” as useful shorthands for, respectively, the GOP figures who are fighting the hostile takeover of their territory, versus those who have acquiesced to a conquering force — which no doubt they’ll criticize once someone else has dealt with it. (And to make this clear every time, of course the analogy does not extend to likening this era’s conqueror, Donald Trump, to the historically unique Hitler.)
Mitch McConnell has been a crucial membership of the Vichy coalition, for two reasons. One is ex officio: as Senate Minority Leader during the early Obama years and now as Majority Leader, he has been the most important single figure in opposition to Obama’s programs, nominations, and general prospects. His historically unprecedented overuse of the filibuster, while still in the minority, was an early indication. His current refusal even to consider a Supreme Court nominee, also historically unprecedented, is the latest example.
The other aspect of McConnell’s importance is temperamental. As a political operator and spokesman, he is the exact opposite of Donald Trump. Trump appears to be all Id, reaction, spontaneity. McConnell, by contrast, barely reveals any emotion and says only what exactly fits the thought-out message plan. When he was a Congressional leader, Newt Gingrich would say one entertaining thing today, and a contradictory but also entertaining thing tomorrow. What Mitch McConnell says is never entertaining, but it is always intentional and planned out.
Thus it is highly significant that McConnell said this morning, in a TV interview with cable channel NY, that Trump was “an entertainer” and that he needed to “become” a credible presidential candidate, not being one yet. From the interview:
McConnell: “Trump clearly needs to change, in my opinion, to win the general election. What I’ve said to him both publicly and privately: 'You’re a great entertainer. You turn on audiences. You’re good before a crowd. You have a lot of Twitter followers. That worked fine for you in the primaries.
“But now that you are in the general, people are looking for a level of seriousness that is typically conveyed by having a prepared text and Teleprompter and staying on message.' So my hope is that he is beginning to pivot and become what I would call a more serious and credible candidate for the highest office in the land.”
How unusual is this? How would you expect the on-message leader of the Senate’s crucial Republican majority to sound about the party’s standard-bearer?
As it happens, there is a way to check! Here is what the same Senator McConnell said about Mitt Romney as he became the party’s nominee four years ago, with Paul Ryan as his running mate:
“Where the current President [Obama] has simply refused to act, Gov. Romney has now pledged to lead. Paul Ryan is an excellent choice, and a confirmation that Gov. Romney is serious about strengthening America's economic future, tackling the deficits and debt that have skyrocketed under President Obama, and returning to a path to solvency and security.
“Americans are looking for leadership that has been lacking on the most critical issues facing our country's economic future. The Romney-Ryan team can return much-needed leadership from day one and help bring real recovery to our economy….
“Gov. Romney and Chairman Ryan will be ready on day one to give America the leadership it deserves.”
“Ready on day one” and “much-needed leadership,” versus “you’re a great entertainer.” This from a man who does not say a single word by accident. For more on McConnell’s statement today see the WSJ, WaPo, and TPM.
Step away from the Time Capsule business for a few days, and look what happens! Any one of the developments below would be considered a challenge by a normal candidate in a normal campaign year. Herewith a listicle update of where we stand with this unprecedented campaign. (The original Time Capsule thread is here, with items #1-#27. For entries starting with #28, go here.)
1. Brexit Diplomacy. Trump arrived in Scotland as the biggest economic and political news in generation was breaking across the UK, and news that of course was roundly opposed in Scotland itself. His short-term response was a widely ridiculed golf course press conference. “Donald Trump’s Brexit press conference was beyond bizarre” was a Washington Post headline; “At Trump news conference, it’s all about him,” was the headline for CNN.
After the Orlando mass shooting, Trump’s immediate Tweeted reaction began, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” His reaction to the cataclysmic Brexit vote was once again all about him: that his timing was good in being there for the news, that he’d called the vote right and Crooked Hillary was wrong, and that a falling pound would be good for the Scottish golf-resort business:
And when he came home:
We’re all self-interested, and people who run for president have a higher narcissism quotient than most of the rest of us. But we’ve never before seen a public figure like Trump, who can’t even pretend to be concerned about anything beyond “What does this mean for me, Donald Trump?”
2) The missing donations. The Washington Post investigative story out today, by David Farenthold, would mean serious trouble for a normal candidate. Its gist is that Trump has probably been flat-out lying about his promised charitable contributions in recent years.
Now, one possibility is that Trump actually made all his promised donations, and the Post simply failed to track down the recipients. The other possibility is that Trump claimed to be a big donor and never followed through.
Ask yourself which possibility seems more likely, considering: a) that Trump touted his intention to give the proceeds from a fund-raiser to veterans groups, but there is no evidence that he did so until asked about it last month by the press; b) that Trump, unlike any other major-party nominee in modern history, has still refused to release his tax records; c) that the Trump campaign’s FEC reports, which he had no choice but to reveal, showed that his campaign had much less money than he had implied, and had paid a surprisingly large share of its outlays to Trump’s own businesses; and d) that Trump is in the middle of a lawsuit over fraudulent business practices (under the “Mexican judge”) at his Trump University.
So, we can’t know yet for sure. The tax returns would tell a lot. But based on the evidence to date, my guess is: he’s been lying about the donations all along too.
3) Momentum works both ways. Earlier today I saw an item I can’t relocate just now, which made what I think will become an increasingly obvious point. Trump’s central argument so far has been: I’m a winner, because I win! We win, and we win, and we WIN! These other peewees are pathetic losers, and we’re going to win all the way to the White House — where we’ll make the country win too.
At least through the seven weeks since he became the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump has been losing, and losing, and LOSING. That doesn’t guarantee that he’ll lose this fall. But it means that the center of his message — I’m a winner, because I win!! — can’t as plausibly be presented outside his own original-base audience. And so far there is no evidence that Trump will gracefully handle what has become the inevitable next question: Why are you so far behind? Why are you losing? Are you … a loser?
4) Pocahontas. He is at this again. Here is why it matters: mocking a very popular female Democratic figure, in terms a lot of people will see as racially derogatory, may have been a great base-rallying technique during the primary elections. As you supposedly “pivot” for the general election — where you need women’s votes, non-whites’ votes, youth votes, and other groups beyond the GOP’s base — this is the kind of thing you don’t do any more. But he keeps doing it.
One last note for the day. The Vichy group of McConnell, Ryan, McCain, Rubio, Priebus, and others still standing behind Trump may think they have no alternative. But if they go ahead and give him the nomination next month, they cannot let him run without releasing his tax returns.
Rather, they cannot decently let him do that. What they actually do, and what they reveal about themselves and their standards, we’ll see.
The Tweet above shows the reaction by the presumptive Republican nominee, on landing in Scotland to promote his golf resort, after the historic Brexit vote.
The Leave/Remain electoral map shows why Scotland was the exact worst spot within the United-for-now Kingdom in which Trump could have made this point. If the they in “they took their country back” refers to the whole UK electorate, he is talking about people who voted for what the throngs in Scotland are going wild about, because they opposed it. If they means the Scots themselves — well, yesterday’s vote indeed makes it much more likely that they will take “their country” back by removing it from a UK whose views of the future are so clearly are at odds with theirs.
In his column overnight for Fusion, Felix Salmon (with whom I don’t always agree, but do on this) shows why the “what the hell, let’s shake things up, it couldn’t be any worse!” approach reveals a failure of tragic imagination. Structures and relationships take time to build. You can carelessly destroy in moments something that was very hard to create. Trump would presumably understand this about physical structures like office buildings, or golf resorts. It also applies to the economic and political structures that have taken Europe decades to restore after the devastation of World War II. Trump’s offhand comments about “what has NATO ever done for us?” or his cavalier observation that it was time for the Japanese and South Koreans to man up with their own nukes, suggest that nothing could be worse than today’s flawed structures. The Brexit vote reminds us that things can always get worse.
Anyone who has taken a Public Relations 101 course, or perhaps Intro to Abnormal Psychology, might have suggested to Trump that, immediately on his arrival on the most traumatic and important day in decades for and about the UK itself, the theme of his remarks should not be, “What does this mean for me, Donald Trump?” But that’s what the theme was: how great his Turnberry resort would be, and how a weaker pound (suffering the greatest one-day loss of value in its history) was good from his perspective, because it made vacation travel cheaper for visitors from overseas: “Look, if the pound goes down they're going to do more business… When the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly.”
Trump’s immediate reaction to the Orlando shootings was: “Appreciate the congrats on being right.” His immediate reaction to news that shook every market in the world was: Travel bookings will be up!
Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit campaign, revealed less than 12 hours after the vote that a central “factual” basis of his argument — that money being sent to Europe would go instead to the UK National Health Service — was flat-out wrong. This part of “Making Britain Great Again” should not have been believed, because it was never true. Hmmm, what does this remind me of? We could start with “and Mexico will pay for that wall!”
As a political performer, Trump has no peer in his ability to do the unexpected and thus keep opponents guessing and off-guard. But when the real world presents him with events that are sudden, high-stakes, and unexpected, from the physical violence of the Orlando shooting to the structural violence of the Brexit vote, he instinctively responds with the very worst side of him: This must all be about me! Leaders earn their pay in part through their response to the high-stakes and the unexpected. Three weeks before the GOP formally nominates this man, he is showing us who he is.
For technical reasons I’ll explain another time, involving the way search indexes cover our site, I won’t be putting further any entries into our “Thread” structures and will find other ways to link related items. You can see a list of past entries in the Time Capsule thread by clicking here.
Update: the first version of this post had a zillion typos, many of which I have removed. Sorry. Perils of posting on the fly, on the road.
Two weeks ago I noted that people might look back on that day as the time when fortune seemed to stop smiling on the Donald Trump presidential campaign:
As of now Donald Trump has enough pledged delegates to be declared the GOP nominee in Cleveland six weeks from now.
But if something else somehow happens, people might look back to this date, June 6, 2016, as a moment when things began to look different.
That could still be true, but I suspect that there will be a strong case for emphasizing June 20, 2016. That was the day on which:
Trump unloaded his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, four and a half months before the general election. (Hint: winning campaigns don’t do this.)
Trump reports revealed that he had a few dozen people working for his campaign nationwide, about the number you’d normally find in any swing-state capital-city headquarters for a real campaign.
Trump’s required disclosures to the FEC were a comic treasure trove that will occupy the press for days to come. In short: Trump has raised hardly any money; and much of what he’s spent has gone to his own relatives, companies, or real-estate holdings, notably Mar-a-Lago (which received more in campaign payments than the entire salaried staff). In addition to fostering the reaction Trump probably most dreads—ridicule—the reports naturally heightened curiosity about what his still-unreleased tax returns might include.
Anything could still happen. But on this day, as the Japanese Showa emperor Hirohito once put it, the “situation has developed not necessarily to our advantage.”
It’s been a month since an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Mediterranean, en route from Paris to Cairo. This past weekend investigators said they had found the plane’s flight recorders (“black boxes”) but that the devices were badly damaged. Therefore it would take a long time to recover information and begin to interpret it.
No one really knows what happened to that plane—attack? mechanical defect? something else?—and, with the cautionary example of still-missing Malaysia Air 370 in mind, it could be months or years before anyone does.
Thus it’s worth remembering that one month ago today, 12 hours after first news of the crash, Donald Trump said this about it in a speech in New Jersey:
What just happened? A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100% wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100% wrong.
The hardest part of a president’s job is assessing unclear, murky, and contradictory evidence, which is the kind of evidence in most big decisions a president makes. The clearer, easier choices get made by someone else. Real presidents become aware of and burdened by the gap between “probability” and “certainty.” They try to remain aware of the spectrum between choices they must make quickly, even knowing that available information is inadequate, and others where the wisest option is to buy time. John Kennedy kept asking for more time and more options during the Cuban Missile Crisis. George W. Bush rushed with uninformed haste toward his decision to invade Iraq.
Trump was the opposite of deliberative or presidential in rushing toward his conclusion about the EgyptAir crash last month, as he was this month about the ever-more-tangled situation of the Orlando mass-slaughter. Trump immediately declared the shooting an ISIS operation justifying new controls on Muslim immigrants. “It’s war, it’s absolute war!” he said. This weekend Dina Temple-Raston of NPR reported that intelligence officials and investigators had told her they were “becoming increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little — or maybe nothing — to do with ISIS.” In both of these cases, terrorism might end up having been a significant cause. But that’s not clear right now, and it certainly was not during Trump’s immediate spasm of “you’re 100% wrong!” Remember, too, that the Orlando shooting was the occasion for his saying that President Obama was “prioritizing the enemy” by not cracking down on Muslim immigrants. Trump’s responses to both emergencies — Egyptair, and Orlando — might be considered old news, except for this weekend’s reminder of the real-world complexities of each, which real leaders would need to reckon with.
In one case only has Trump publicly reflected on the difficulty of judging complex evidence and probabilities: the decision by Cincinnati zoo officials to kill the gorilla into whose cage a toddler had fallen. This issue Trump addressed with genuine feeling, depth, and expressed awareness of tradeoffs. Other issues, from whether the U.K. should leave the European Union to whether Japan should build nuclear weapons, require no apparent deliberation at all.
Time Capsule #25: June 19, 2016. Doing a good job.
Last week Donald Trump explained why it didn’t matter to him or his supporters that he has offered no specifics on how he would achieve his impossible-sounding goals, from making Mexico pay for The Wall to winning so much we get tired of winning.
“My voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care,” Trump said. “They know you’re going to do a good job once you’re there.”
That is, faith in Trump’s powers to resolve all knotty problems through great deals surmounts the boring details of how politics, budgets, and diplomacy actually work. A similar faith in Trump’s ability to laugh his way past usual realities underlies his general-election prospects. Sure, you might think he faces obstacles with blacks, Latinos, women, and other groups the RNC thought it needed in order to take the presidency—in addition to his own lack of knowledge and experience, and his temperamental instability. But look how he keeps winning!
For more than a month now Trump has been in the position of presumptive nominee; items #1-#24 in this series illustrate what kind of “good job” he has done in that role. Today comes a fascinating new piece of tangible evidence: how he is handling the strategic economics of a modern national campaign.
Doing a good job as a candidate means, among other things, being aware of the huge financial obligations of today’s politicking: How you raise money, how you carefully husband it, how you spend it when and where it is most useful and save it everywhere else.
The chart above, from Mark Murray of NBC, is one indicator of how things are going. Four years ago, an incumbent president and his well-funded challenger were in a tight advertising race in what both sides had identified as possible swing states.
This year, all the ad-spending in those swing states has been by Hillary Clinton and her allies. Trump’s forces have not put up anything. Either he doesn’t have enough money, or he hasn’t understood how and when and where to spend it, or he has no ads prepared, or something else. He has also apparently ignored the professional-politicians’ lesson of the past few cycles, which is that opposition advertising in May and June, when a nominee has emerged but before he or she has been officially chosen at the convention, can powerfully brand a candidate in a way very hard to shake once the “real” campaigning begins in the fall.
To get all the provisos out of the way: Of course skill in running a campaign is not the same as skill at being president. Of course money is the ruination of modern politics. Of course ads can be an insult to the collective intelligence. Of course [name a hundred other points]. But you can’t be a good president if you don’t get elected. And in this, the first sample of how Trump might handle the complex management challenges that go with political leadership, early results look bad for him. He said: Don’t sweat all the details, I’ll do a great job. In fact he’s doing a terrible job.
The previous entry noted that Time Capsules would shift to a slower schedule, documenting less of the daily chaos and highlighting the more remarkable developments. The difference that Mark Murray has documented is remarkable.
The pace of uninformed, embarrassing, and objectively disqualifying statements from Donald Trump is picking up. The most recent tiny example that would be huge for anyone else: last night in Dallas, Trump spoke to a crowd at Gilley’s, a country-music bar and dance hall so famous that there was a whole movie about it back in the 1980s. That was Urban Cowboy, with John Travolta and Debra Winger, set in the original Gilley’s, near Houston. That site is now closed, but there’s a new Gilley’s in Dallas. The movie was based on an Aaron Latham story in Esquire about Gilley’s and the oil-boom culture of that era.
One of the things that made Gilley’s famous was its “mechanical bull” that daring riders, male and female, would try to stay aboard as it bucked and reared. It was such a central part of the Gilley’s saga that a dramatic climax of the Urban Cowboy was Winger doing an ostentatiously sexy ride aboard the bull while Travolta looked on and steamed. That was a long time ago, but it was during Trump’s conscious lifetime, and if he had ever heard of Gilley’s, he had heard of the bull.
Thus the oddity of Trump telling the crowd at Gilley’s that he was excited to ride “that horse.” As Mac McCann writes today in the Dallas Morning News:
Trump is laugh-out-loud funny. Referring to Gilley’s mechanical bull, Trump suggested he ride “that horse,” but added, “The problem is, even if I make it, they’ll say I fell off the horse and it was terrible.”… He asked the crowd, “Do we have fun at Trump rallies?” And the crowd erupted in the affirmative.
It was fun. It wasn’t politics.
The whole column is worth reading, but just to stick with the “horse”: Of course it doesn’t matter at all. But similar tiny notes of being out of touch with pop culture became big problems for other candidates. One example was incumbent President George H.W. Bush apparently not knowing what a scanner was when he visited a grocery store. Another was presidential candidate John Kerry being ridiculed for something he apparently never even said: “Who among us doesn’t like Nascar?”
Suppose Kerry — or Dan Quayle or Al Gore or either of the Bushes — had made the bull/horse mixup? The mocking op-ed columns practically write themselves, with a different angle appropriate for each politician. (Gore and Kerry: out of touch elitists. The elder Bush: fake Texan? The younger one: “Rarely is the question asked, Is our children learning?” Quayle: potatoe. Etc). But with Trump, it’s just the 19th-oddest event of a normal campaign day.
Because Trump’s outlier status is becoming better established, I’m going to slow the pace of documenting the examples, even as the examples start piling up faster. His special status is beginning to sink in. I recommend two columns today on this point. One is by Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, looking back on why he so badly underestimated Trump’s chances. (I’ve gone through the same exercise, but Drezner reckons with the man we’re seeing in the general election campaign.)
If Republican voters had nominated a typical candidate, a governor or former governor who had won office in a big state by straddling the center and the right, that man would be ahead of Hillary Clinton right now.
But instead the voters went for Trump, who has never run for nor held office, dodged the draft, and spent the last year insulting Mexicans, P.O.W.s, women, the disabled, Muslims, you name it, while saying George W. Bush lied us into war with Iraq and implying Ted Cruz’s dad had a hand in the Kennedy assassination. Then there was the part where he bragged about his genitals before ranting that he would order soldiers to commit war crimes and “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.” This week he cast the troops in Iraq as thieves, threw his support behind an unconstitutional proposal to deny Second Amendment rights to citizens on the no fly list, invited Kim Jong Un to Washington, hinted that President Obama supported ISIS, denied press credentials to the Washington Post after the paper reported this insinuation, and then turned around and tweeted that a Breitbart.com article proved he was right about Obama all along.
This is not a good man. This is not a stable man. It is in the self-interest of no rational person to have him near the situation room.
Again, the point is beginning to register: the GOP is preparing to nominate a historically unprecedented, and totally unfit, candidate for the presidency. As that becomes conventional wisdom, I’ll record more selective highlights and less of the daily scrum.
The bright side of the change is that I’m off to report on more encouraging topics for a while, starting in Kansas and Texas. See you in this space as circumstances warrant, or if Trump somehow starts to become “normalized.”
Update For reasons presumably related to the pace of posting from the road, in this case Powderly, Kentucky, the original version of this post somehow was missing the explanation of why it was strange for Trump to talk about a “horse” — and why if you were a non-Texan who had ever heard of Gilley’s you would have heard of it for the mechanical bull. That explanation is now back in.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whomever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.
President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.
In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?
The new president has a daunting list of foreign-policy challenges. Among the biggest will be managing a longtime ally.
Joe Biden begins his first full day as the 46th president of the United States today with as daunting a list of foreign-policy challenges as almost any of his predecessors. After four years of Donald Trump, the new administration must overcome skepticism about America’s ability to deal with the great tests facing the world, including the rise of China as a 21st-century superpower, the spread of nuclear weapons, and the onslaught of man-made climate change. To this list can be added a new issue: patching up the transatlantic alliance.
Last month, with Biden’s inauguration just weeks away, the European Union and China pushed a new economic agreement over the line. The actual terms of the China Investment Agreement remain unclear—the text is still to be finalized—but the broad outline is simple enough: a deeper trading relationship based on common and apparently enforceable standards. According to the EU, the deal ties Beijing to a new “values-based investment relationship” that will protect labor and environmental standards, and help root China in the rules-based global order. This is Europe fulfilling the global role it has cast for itself as a “regulatory superpower,” exporting and defending its values through its economic size.
The quiet in the streets of D.C. today was a fitting end to the noisiest political era many Americans can remember.
Donald Trump’s presidency concluded not with mutiny in state capitals or an attempted attack on his successor, but with a calm, conventional ceremony in an otherwise quiet city.
Walking through Washington, D.C., today, the silence in the streets was the sound of a country not quite ready to exhale. It was a fitting end to the noisiest era of American politics that many Americans can remember.
If this had been a normal Inauguration Day, in a normal year, the National Mall would have been covered with hundreds of thousands of shivering people hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president. The streets of the capital would have been packed with out-of-towners ready to pay $25 a head to visit the Spy Museum, and lining up at sidewalk vendors’ tables to buy Kamala Harris–themed merch. But the only civilians I saw downtown during the ceremony were a few committed joggers and a clutch of Joe Biden supporters lingering outside the White House. The showing was so small that journalists seemed to outnumber the revelers; I watched as reporters interviewed the same handful of attendees, over and over again.
What should have been a week-long celebration of the resilience of American democracy has turned into a dark circus. Instead of citizens lining Pennsylvania Avenue to cheer and greet a new president, all of downtown Washington, D.C., is an armed camp. Soldiers patrol the streets while workers clean excrement off the walls of the Capitol, a perfect tableau for the end of the short and ghastly age of Trump.
We are expecting far too much of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris if we think they can fix all of the damage Donald Trump did to the republic. Presidents and vice presidents are not wizards. They cannot rewind history. They cannot single-handedly make us better people.
However, I do believe that Biden can inspire the American people to regain one of the most important virtues Trump destroyed: seriousness, our understanding that ideas, actions, and words matter.
Hopefully one day, getting vaccinated will mean you no longer need a mask. But not yet.
Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at email@example.com.
Dear Dr. Hamblin,
I’m still confused about what our lives will be like after we are vaccinated. As I understand it, it will still be possible to get the virus, but hopefully the course won’t be as severe or life-threatening. And we are going to have people who won’t even get the vaccine. Do you foresee us still wearing masks for the next year or two? I hate to even type this question.
New London, New Hampshire
I can’t wait to stop wearing masks. I want to go out without a mask so badly that I’ve been dreaming about it. That’s how far the pandemic has lowered the ambitions of my dreams.
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
The president is returning to a freshly renovated White House—and it includes an unusual display.
Here’s a little quiz. Take a look at the picture of the photo above, which shows the newly redecorated Oval Office that is occupied by Donald Trump. What’s unusual in this scene?
As a helpful hint, here’s a close-up of the area you should be looking at:
Is it the Remington bronze statue known as “The Bronco Buster” on the right, which many presidents have displayed? No. The portrait of Andrew Jackson just above the statue, which has survived the departure of Jackson-fan Steve Bannon? No. The bust of Lincoln, on the left? Beneath the portrait of Jefferson? No, and no—although it would be instructive to know the thoughts of the third and the 16th presidents as they gaze on the 45th.
Trump leaves behind a wounded nation, and it will take time to heal.
So what if he was bad at it?
The five years of the Trump era—which began with his descent down the gilded escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 and are ending with a massive military presence in the nation’s capital to protect the transfer of power to his successor—brought a sustained assault on self-government. This assault was most often futile, almost always buffoonish, and, as the conversion of the seat of the federal government into an armed fortress demonstrates, unquestionably real.
Throughout the Trump era, some have argued that Trump’s incompetence rendered his authoritarian aspirations inconsequential.
“Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks,” wrote the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in October, describing the president as a “noisy weakling.” Douthat has since re-evaluated his position, but for a long time he was the most articulate proponent of the argument that Trump was not as dangerous as his opponents believed.
The new president must not repeat Obama's mistakes.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, the nation was facing concentric crises: the immediate, house-on-fire disaster of rolling bank closures; the broader economic depression; and, beyond that, deeply entrenched problems that the depression had highlighted, including elderly poverty. Roosevelt’s first 100 days addressed the first two crises with historic directness. He reopened the banks and directly employed thousands of Americans through measures such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Then, near the end of his first term, he signed the Social Security Act, which has reduced senior poverty and become one of the most popular federal programs in the United States.
President Joe Biden also faces concentric crises, which move outward toward the future as you unpeel them: the biological threat of the pandemic, the economic recession, and, beyond that, the entrenched problem of child poverty. He also has to contend with the problem casting a shadow over the whole century, the existential crisis of climate change.