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.”)
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 ….
Noted for the record, just before action begins in Cleveland for the Republican convention: groups of people lining up for and against presumptive nominee Donald Trump.
For: The NY Times has this list of the planned speaker lineup for the convention.
Night 1: A Benghazi focus, followed by border patrol agents and Jamiel Shaw, whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant. Senator Tom Cotton, Rudy Giuliani, Melania Trump, Senator Jodi Ernst and others.
Night 2: A focus on the economy: Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship; Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas; Michael Mukasey, the former United States attorney general; Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a vice-presidential possibility; Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader; Tiffany Trump; Donald Trump Jr. and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Night 3: Pam Bondi, Florida attorney general; astronaut Eileen Collins; Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker; Senator Ted Cruz of Texas; Eric Trump; golfer Natalie Gulbis; and the nominee for vice president. [Indiana Gov. Mike Pence??]
Night 4: former quarterback Tim Tebow; Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee; Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma; Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman; Gov. Rick Scott of Florida; Peter Thiel of PayPal and other ventures; Thomas Barrack, a real-estate investor; Ivanka Trump; Donald J. Trump.
Against: Some 145 prominent investors, managers, inventors, and entrepreneurs from the tech industry signed an open letter denouncing Trump and his policies, published today in Medium. There are some notable big-public-company absences — no current senior executives of Apple or Facebook or Google or Microsoft — but if you know anything about the origins of the tech business you will take the list seriously.
The co-founder of Apple is there, Steve Wozniak; and the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar; and the co-founder of Slack, Stewart Butterfield; and Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet” for his role as co-creator of TCP/IP; and all-purpose entrepreneur and inventor Peter Diamandis; and Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter; and investors Vinod Khosla and Chris Sacca; and many others.
Part of their argument:
We have listened to Donald Trump over the past year and we have concluded: Trump would be a disaster for innovation.
His vision stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy — and that provide the foundation for innovation and growth….
We believe that America’s diversity is our strength. Great ideas come from all parts of society, and we should champion that broad-based creative potential. We also believe that progressive immigration policies help us attract and retain some of the brightest minds on earth — scientists, entrepreneurs, and creators. In fact, 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, traffics in ethnic and racial stereotypes, repeatedly insults women, and is openly hostile to immigration. He has promised a wall, mass deportations, and profiling.
Sharply differing views of America’s past and future are coming into focus in this election. Years from now people will ask about our era, Which sorts of Americans were making which sorts of choices? These two lists provide a useful snapshot and shorthand. They deserve attention now and study later on.
Among the challenges the Trump campaign has raised is one for the press. Reporters are most comfortable sticking to the “I’m just reporting” mode: This candidate says X, that candidate says Y, and it’s up to you, the voter, to decide which you prefer. What’s up to me, the reporter, is just to let each side have its say.
Even in the best of circumstances, this pose of willed neutrality has its limits and distortions (as chronicled here over the years). The 2016 campaign offers nothing like the best of circumstances, in that one of the two remaining major candidates simply invents, fantasizes, re-writes, distorts, omits, and generally lies about great portions of his utterances each day.
(How can I say that? Two quick illustrations from last night’s speech in Ohio. Donald Trump baldly asserted that after the murders of police officers in Dallas, political-correctness-minded people were “calling for a moment of silence” for the killer. That did not happen. To be more precise, there’s no evidence that it occurred. Trump also repeated his claim that he had opposed the Iraq war even before it began. He did not. He keeps saying it, but it is not true. Each day brings its own fresh supply of flat-out falsehoods.)
The natural tendency for the mainstream press — and believe me, this is by far the most comfortable place to be when doing a newspaper story or TV or radio report — is to avoid saying, “One of these people is lying.” Instead you want to lay out both sides and hope the contrast doesn’t need to be spelled out. But in a campaign like this, the result of this structural even-handedness can be to “normalize” the side that is lying. “Mr. Trump says there is no drought in California and that it’s all a fiction by environmentalists. Scientists in California disagree. We’ll leave it there.”
Thus the occasion for today’s time-capsule entry is a series of three items showing the press resisting “normalization.”
1) A long, thoroughly reported piece by Nicholas Confessore in the NYT, on how Trump has deliberately courted white racial resentment against blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and others. The story doesn’t pussy-foot around by saying, “Critics wonder whether ….” It comes right out about what he is doing:
In countless collisions of color and creed, Donald J. Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility. Defying modern conventions of political civility and language, Mr. Trump has breached the boundaries that have long constrained Americans’ public discussion of race.
Mr. Trump has attacked Mexicans as criminals. He has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants. He has wondered aloud why the United States is not “letting people in from Europe.”...
In a country where the wealthiest and most influential citizens are still mostly white, Mr. Trump is voicing the bewilderment and anger of whites who do not feel at all powerful or privileged.
But in doing so, Mr. Trump has also opened the door to assertions of white identity and resentment in a way not seen so broadly in American culture in over half a century, according to those who track patterns of racial tension and antagonism in American life.
2) An item by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post, under the headline “One of the candidates is actively trying to divide the country.” This is presented as an opinion item rather than a news-analysis piece like Confessore’s, but it urges readers to move past hand-wringing about “extremists on both sides” to concentrate on Trump’s flat-out appeals to racial/tribal divisions, which are unlike anything the other side is doing. Sargent writes that:
… most observers, including neutral, non-ideological, and non-partisan ones, would not even quarrel with the idea that Trump is running a campaign that is explicitly about unleashing white backlash. For months, this has been widely, openly agreed upon by pretty much everyone who is paying even cursory attention.
Yet oddly enough, this widely accepted acknowledgment of Trump’s explicit efforts to foment racial division is not being meaningfully brought to bear on the current debate over the two candidates’ responses to police-community tensions…. Clinton has repeatedly tried to acknowledge that the police and those protesting their use of force both have legitimate grievances; Trump has not done this to anywhere near the same degree.
3) Another item in the NYT, this one by Jim Dwyer, on a group of scholars, writers, and historians who are normally apolitical but have decided to take a stand against Trump. They have worked with the filmmaker Ken Burns to produce videos for a Facebook page called “Historians on Donald Trump.”
One of these writers, Ron Chernow, spoke with Dwyer:
Mr. Chernow, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose “Alexander Hamilton” was a principal source for the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” said he had been struck by Mr. Trump’s lack of reference to the founding documents of American history, or to presidents like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The only historical movement that Mr. Trump alludes to is a shameful one — ‘America First,’” Mr. Chernow said, recalling an isolationist political organization at the time Nazi Germany was taking power across Europe.
Why do these matter, and deserve note for the long-term record? Because they demonstrate the way in which the press is trying to adjust to the new realities created by a man like Trump.
A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
Christopher Hitchens and I weren’t close friends—I was a lesser planet in his orbit. Every so often I felt the rhetorical lash of his published words on my back, and then I tried to make him feel mine, and you can guess who got the better of those exchanges. They usually had to do with Iraq. We both supported the war, but I supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way, while Christopher supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way. The more I saw of the war, the deeper my despair became. Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat.
I know of many friendships that ended in those years, including a few of mine. But something strange happened between Christopher and me. For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.
Sometime this week, you might walk outside in broad daylight, look up at the sky, and see a luminous orb as bright as a full moon. Only it wouldn’t be the moon. It would be something far more explosive: the dazzling aftermath of a cataclysm hundreds of light-years away.
You’d be seeing the light from a supernova—the final, powerful flash of a dying star.
Or … you might see the regular old sky. Supernovas are nearly impossible to predict. But astronomers have recently started discussing the rare possibility with a bit more enthusiasm than usual, thanks to some odd behavior elsewhere in the Milky Way. If the supernova did show up tomorrow, it would be the celestial event of the year, perhaps even the century, leaving a cosmic imprint in the sky for all to see.
By doing nothing to ensure that Trump’s trial gets at the truth, the chief justice is taking a side. And the Democrats are just watching him do it.
As they press their impeachment case against President Donald Trump, the Democrats need help from Chief Justice John Roberts. And they’re not going to get it unless they ask for it.
Far from securing the 67-vote majority needed to remove Trump from office, Democrats are desperate to flip a paltry four Republican senators just to be able to call witnesses. The conventional wisdom is that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who pledged an acquittal before the trial even began, can use his party’s numerical advantage in the Senate to keep Americans from seeing any further evidence showing that Trump solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election. The Democratic impeachment managers seeking to remove the president have all but accepted their own helplessness, as if there were no one but McConnell to whom they can appeal for basic fairness.
While public attention is focused on the Senate, the president is making controversial policy moves.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, said days after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Emanuel’s point was that a moment of cataclysm meant a chance for big structural reforms that wouldn’t be possible in moments of calm.
But there are other ways to take advantage of a crisis, as the Trump administration is demonstrating right now. Even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.
It isn’t, as has sometimes been claimed, that Trump wanted to be impeached, or that the impeachment is somehow a brilliant Machiavellian distraction he has orchestrated. The president has made clear that he wants the trial over as quickly as possible. But as long as it’s going on, the White House is using the crisis as best as it can.
The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.
On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm.
At the bottom of the hill, Dobson veers off the trail and stops in a shady clearing. This seems like a promising spot. She kicks away the dead oak leaves and tosses a square frame made of PVC pipe onto the damp earth. Then she unscrews a milk jug. It holds a pale yellow slurry of mustard powder and water that’s completely benign—unless you’re a worm.
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
1. The Disappearance
At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator.
With the recent victory, the association has shown signs that it cannot defend its amateurism model for much longer.
College-sports fans have generally become desensitized to the cognitive dissonances of the NCAA’s amateurism policies. The rules, which prevent the payment of cash or other “extra benefits” to student athletes or their families, are necessary to retain the purity of amateur competition, according to the association. Without such restrictions, supporters argue, NCAA sports would devolve into just another minor league of professional sports, with capitalism becoming the athletes’ sole driving source of loyalty to their university. These guidelines usually operate in the public consciousness as a low hum—background noise that doesn’t distract from the compelling sporting events that audiences allow themselves to enjoy. But every now and then, the humming erupts into a roar. And in those moments, viewers are forced to confront the system they have embraced. Odell Beckham Jr. delivered one of those moments last week.
False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Donald Trump faces the diciest moment of his presidency, a Senate impeachment trial, with a pair of distinct handicaps: shattered credibility and a West Wing that is broken into fiefdoms and often clueless about his intentions. Both were years in the making; neither seems easily fixed.
From the outside, these can seem like two different problems. But in many ways, they’re one and the same. False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Start with a president who is a solitary decision maker and who has swept aside early staff efforts to vet the material he sees. Trump now absorbs information, innuendo, gossip, and calumny wherever he finds it. He’s getting it from random Twitter feeds and old friends, from overseas autocrats and pro-Trump talking heads. He’ll repeat rumor as fact without naming the source.
And a resulting acquittal verdict would present Americans with something far worse than a constitutional crisis.
On the opening day of the impeachment trial, the Senate, in a party-line vote of 53–47, approved an organizing resolution establishing the ground rules for the trial and rejecting efforts by Democrats to compel the testimony of witnesses and the production of documents not included by the House in its impeachment inquiry. However, the resolution allows Democrats to renew their motions to subpoena witnesses and documents after House managers and the president’s defense lawyers have completed their opening statements. The fateful battle over witnesses will thus begin in earnest next week.
In December, Donald Trump became only the third U.S. president to be impeached. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell succeeds in his intention to prevent any witnesses from testifying, Trump will become the first president to be acquitted by an unconstitutional impeachment process.
Some female Republicans are choosing to embrace Trump—but does Trumpism have a place for them?
When CNN’s Manu Raju asked Senator Martha McSally of Arizona whether she’d vote to “consider new evidence as part of the impeachment trial,” the Republican, flanked by two staffers, barely looked up as she called Raju a “liberal hack.” She then repeated the insult theatrically. About an hour later, McSally registered the domain name LiberalHack.com and began the sale of “liberal hack” T-shirts. A short time after that, she was rewarded with an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show, where she said: “You know, these CNN reporters, many of them around the capital, they are so biased. They are so in cahoots with the Democrats, they so can’t stand the president, and they run around trying to chase Republicans and ask trapping questions. I’m a fighter pilot. I called it like it is.”