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.”)
If Donald Trump's stated aim had been increase doubts about his mental state and temperamental balance, he could hardly have done better than by putting this out. Especially by doing so a few hours after Tim Kaine’s debut as a normal-seeming person who was comfortable with himself.
Just to say it for the thousandth time: all this evidence about Donald Trump’s neediness and abnormality is in plain sight for everyone to see. And “responsible” Republican “leaders” are still trying to put him in command.
If you’d like to see a marvelous intentional-rather-than-inadvertent parody, please scroll down for “World President.”
There’s a special “debut” category for vice-presidential selections who very suddenly find themselves in the world’s media glare.
VP picks who had mounted serious runs for president don’t quite fit this category. They already knew what it was like to handle big audiences and the press. For example: the elder George Bush became Ronald Reagan’s VP candidate in 1980, but only after running against Reagan in the primary campaign. The same was true of Joe Biden, who had run against Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) for the nomination in 2008 before becoming Obama’s running mate, and had run 20 years earlier too. In electoral politics, Dick Cheney had gotten only as far as Wyoming’s seat in Congress when George W. Bush picked him in 2000. But Cheney was already internationally known as Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff and George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense during the Gulf War.
Then there is the gray zone. Lloyd Bentsen, who ran with Michael Dukakis in 1988, was not well known outside Texas before his famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy!” encounter with Dan Quayle in the VP debate. But he had actually run for president in 1976. (I did my very first Atlantic article about that run.) Al Gore was a relatively fresh face when Bill Clinton chose him in 1992, but Gore had staged a precocious presidential effort four years earlier. Jack Kemp, who ran with Bob Dole against Clinton-Gore in 1996, had run briefly on his own in 1988, and had a national Republican-party and sports-star reputation to draw on. John Edwards had run against John Kerry in 2004 before becoming his (very unfortunate in retrospect) VP pick.
The list of modern-era true-surprise debuts includes:
As you look up and down this list, you can think of better and worse first appearances in the spotlight. Poor Senator Eagleton’s was the most unfortunate, as you can read about here. Agnew’s worked fine at the time; eventually he became on the only VP ever to resign because of criminal charges. Sarah Palin — well, you remember. Both Dan Quayle and Geraldine Ferraro had rough starts, for reasons I’ll let you go look up. Joe Lieberman let Dick Cheney roll right over him in their VP debate.
Tim Kaine’s debut was the best of these I’m aware of, or can remember. (Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech obviously put him on the map, but that was a one-time standalone performance rather than the extended attention that comes with running day after day on a national ticket.) You’ll get the idea about Kaine if you watch the first few minutes below. Points about why I thought it worked, after the jump
The two running mates obviously like and are at ease with each other. Compare this with any scene from the Trump-Pence rollout.
The nominee gave an introductory speech that was actually about her running mate, and then she let him talk. Compare this with the narcissistic spectacle of the “Back to Mike Pence” Trump event just one week ago.
Tim Kaine came across as comfortable with himself, comfortable with Hillary Clinton, comfortable his party’s position and agenda, and happy. Watch even two or three minutes to see how Kaine carries himself as “Happy Warrior.”
Like Pence (and HRC), Kaine was raised in the Midwest. Unlike Pence (or the public HRC), Kaine conveyed a sense of having fun—and with a little twinkle.
He deftly touched every policy and signaling theme the Democratic National Convention might have wanted after the Wagnerian tone of the Republican National Convention. His Marine Corps son is heading off to defend NATO allies—the same allies Donald Trump has said need to pony up if they want protection. He told the members of his hometown Catholic church that he would see them tomorrow morning at 9 a.m., and he talked about the duty of service he had learned from his Jesuit teachers.
And of course the Espanol. When Jon Huntsman was throwing Mandarin into his speeches four years ago, it always seemed like showing off. Neither John Kerry nor Mitt Romney, Francophones both, felt comfortable using that language in front of mainstream U.S. audiences. George W. Bush and (my one-time employer) Jimmy Carter both sort-of spoke Spanish. But Kaine is obviously comfortable with it.
I asked my friend Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican ambassador to China, how Kaine would sound to native-speakers’ ears. He answered (via Twitter):
See Michael Tomasky, who also thought that Kaine did well. Or as his headline put it, “Holy Crap, Tim Kaine Just Killed It in His First Speech With Clinton.”
The election is a long way away. But this was the best day the Democrats have had in a very long while and the first based on actual good news for their side, as opposed to potential bad news on the other—of the variety chronicled in the rest of this thread.
Donald Trump sent out the second tweet, saying people should never be mocked for their heritage, thirteen minutes after the first, in which he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.”
Reality eclipses the ability to comment on it.
Think of the degree of self-knowledge required to be able to do these back to back. Or impulse control. Or ability to deal with complexity.
Last night Stephen Hayes, of the Weekly Standard, wrote about that morning’s press conference, in which Trump revived the idea that Ted Cruz’s father was involved with Lee Harvey Oswald:
The Republican nominee for president made comments Friday that one might expect from a patient in a mental institution, the kind of stuff you might read on blog with really small print and pictures of UFOs. And yet his remarks barely register as news. There are no condemnations from fellow Republicans. His supporters shrug them off as Trump being Trump.
What we are hearing from a major party’s nominee is not the behavior of a mature, stable, lucid, fully functioning person. All the evidence is on the table, as Trump for now continues his rise in the polls.
Because I have learned to spell out all allusions, I am obviously not calling Trump either a hobgoblin or a “little mind.” I am referring, sarcastically, to the maxim from TheAtlantic’s own Ralph Waldo Emerson on this theme.
And while I’m at it, a little later that morning Trump tweeted this about Tim Kaine:
What’s wrong with this? Exactly the same is true of Mike Pence. It’s not disqualifying for either Kaine or Pence — adjustment to the presidential-nominee’s views is part of running as vice president — but for anyone but Trump it would seem inexplicable to make a point so glaringly vulnerable to a “what about you?” response.
For three days now, Donald Trump has been the official nominee of the Republican party.
For many decades now, almost all major party nominees have released their federal income tax returns, as part of the implied bargain of running for president. The bargain is this: candidates are asking the public to grant them the enormous discretionary powers of the presidency. (Yes, presidents get frustrated by what they can’t do. What they can do is still vast.) In exchange, the public asks to know as much as it can about the person assuming this role.
So major-party nominees in modern times have released some version of their medical records, and their federal tax returns. You can see the returns for presidents going back to FDR here. (FDR’s records, which were released after his death, start in 1913 — which was when the Sixteenth Amendment first authorized the income tax!). Nominees began routinely releasing records before the elections in the 1970s. You can see the history of modern-era Republican returns here.
Donald Trump has flat-out refused to accept this obligation. “Flat-out” in the sense of telling George Stephanopoulos in May that the returns were “none of your business,” your meaning the press’s and public’s; and less directly in saying that the ongoing-audit status of the returns means he can’t disclose them. (No actual tax expert agrees.)
Is there something embarrassing or explosive in Trump’s tax returns? Who knows. Geoff Colvin, of Fortune, suggests that there might be. Many people have speculated that the real embarrassment might be evidence that Trump is nowhere near as rich as he has claimed. Another hypothesis is that returns would show that he has given very little to charities, or has managed to pay no taxes at all. The real point is that all of these remain hypotheses, as long as Trump shirks an obligation that modern-era candidates have recognized. As Colvin says:
Until he releases his returns or offers a plausible reason not to, voters must speculate on why he’s withholding them. None of the potential reasons will be good. Hillary Clinton is in a strong position to pound him on the issue, since she and her husband have routinely released their returns for years (though she may not want to remind voters of her speaking fees from Goldman
Now that he is officially the nominee, the press, his opponents, and for that matter his supporters as well should ramp up insistence that he do what nominees over the past half century have done.
While we’re talking transparency, disclosure, and bargains with the public, it’s worth remembering how revealingly preposterous Trump’s “medical” statement last year was. In case you’ve forgotten, here it is, in full:
This is the way Trump thinks he can handle disclosure. It also shows his taste in “only the best people!” professional assistance. (More about his doctor here.)
Seriously: imagine for one second putting out such a letter about yourself. “Healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”? Well maybe, if you exclude mental health.
I realize that cavils of this sort have been pre-dismissed by Trump’s supporters. But if norms as seemingly unchallenged as the release of tax returns, and of medical reports that don’t seem to be written like infomercial copy, can be brushed aside, that is just a taste of what a Trump administration might bring. Three and a half months before the election, he is showing us who he is.
Bonus: it’s word noting for the historical record the unusual editorial that the Washington Post has just put out, with the headline “Donald Trump Is a Unique Threat to American Democracy.” And just now a lifetime Republican official from Pennsylvania Illinois has put out a resignation statement, saying “A party willing to lend its collective capital to Donald Trump has entered a compromise beyond any credible threshold of legitimacy. There is no redemption in being one of the ‘good Nazis.’”
No one will ever be able to say, looking back, that Donald Trump was concealing the kind of leader he wanted to be.
His convention speech last night, as discussed in a range of Atlantic coverage, was especially notable for the trait Yoni Appelbaum identifies here: what would be called in any other system a cult-of-the-personality Messianic tone. As Yoni says at the end of his piece:
The most striking aspect of his speech wasn’t his delivery, even though his tone often strayed over the line, from emphatic to strident. It wasn’t the specific policies he outlined, long fixtures of his stump speech. It was the extraordinary spectacle of a man standing on a podium, elevated above the surrounding crowd, telling the millions of Americans who were watching that he, alone, could solve their problems.
And the crowd cheered.
How different is this? Let’s choose two examples from presidents who otherwise usually stand as complete contrasts.
When George W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination in 2000, he observed that the Clinton-Gore 1990s had been economically strong, but he warned that the country was “coasting through prosperity.” (Knowing what we do about what lay ahead for Bush and the world, this speech has an amazing time-capsule quality of its own.) He said that his era’s prosperity and security were due to the sacrifices of his father’s generation, which won a war and came back to build a nation. Then:
Now the question comes to the sons and daughters of this achievement.
What is asked of us?
This is a remarkable moment in the life of our nation. Never has the promise of prosperity been so vivid. But times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character.
Prosperity can be a tool in our hands -- used to build and better our country. Or it can be a drug in our system -- dulling our sense of urgency, of empathy, of duty.
Our opportunities are too great, our lives too short, to waste this moment.
So tonight we vow to our nation.
We will seize this moment of American promise.
Barack Obama’s 2008 convention speech was not one of his best. But its theme too was our ability, as a country, to solve our problems, rather than my ability, as leader, to solve yours. In many of his speeches after becoming president, Obama has more clearly developed the idea of America continually becoming a more perfect union, a work that is the shared responsibility of all its citizens through all its generations. But even in this speech he emphasized the obligations of each to all.
Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.
That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.
That’s the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now.
Bush: “What is asked of us?”
Obama: “That’s the promise we need to keep.”
Trump: “I am your voice. So to every parent who dreams for their child, and every child who dreams for their future, I say these words to you tonight: I'm with you, and I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”
The word “responsibility” does not appear in Trump’s speech. Nor “Congress” or “Cabinet” or “legislation” or other countries’ names, except to complain about them.
More clearly than ever before in this campaign, Trump has told us exactly who he is and how he sees his role. What happens next will reveal something about him but much more about us.
No one looking back can be in the slightest doubt that the Americans of 2016 had the evidence before them, of where this choice could lead.
Months ago I published a note from a reader whose work, in the TV industry, involved exposure to virtually all of Donald Trump’s recorded interviews of the past few years. The reader said that the experience left a deep impression. Sample:
I have now been through dozens of interviews with Trump with a variety of interviewers, and I have never once—not once—heard him discuss anything, any subject of any kind, with any evidence of knowledge, never mind thought. None. Zero. He’s like a skipping stone over a pond. He doesn’t even come close to the level of dilettante.
You’d think at some point, something, anything would have engaged his interest enough to read up on it and think about it, but as far as I can tell, nothing has. Much more so even than George W., he appears to lack anything resembling intellectual curiosity. Maybe he’s faking it, but while understanding can sometimes be faked, you can’t fake ignorance convincingly.
I suggest bearing that assessment in mind as you read the bombshell interview Trump has (inexplicably, by any normal logic) given to David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the NYT. This is the interview in which he:
says he’d make a judgment call on whether it was economically worthwhile for the U.S. to fulfill its treaty obligations to other NATO countries, if Russia were to invade. These treaty guarantees, by the way, have been the bedrock of security in Europe since the end of World War II.
describes the majority of U.S. alliances and relationships as if they were real-estate negotiations, in which “you always have to be prepared to walk.”
when pressed for details on how he would resolve any complex issue, falls back on variations of “we’d make terrific deals” and then treads water when asked to elaborate.
I’m tempted to quote the whole, long, transcript, but here are two illustrations of significant recurring leitmotifs. The first is Trump’s “Yes, but what about ...” problem. He is prepared with a first-round talking point on a range of topics, like “we never win any more” or “we’ll make terrific deals.” But when asked “But what about,” he’s in trouble. For instance:
TRUMP: Well, I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them. You know, we were fighting both of them. I think that our far bigger problem than Assad is ISIS, I’ve always felt that. Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.
SANGER: I think President Obama would agree with that. [Translation: Duh!]
TRUMP: O.K., well, that’s good. But at the same time – yeah, he would agree with that, I think to an extent. But I think, you can’t be fighting two people that are fighting each other, and fighting them together. You have to pick one or the other. And you have to go at –
SANGER: So how would your strategy differ from what he’s doing right now? [“But what about …?”]
TRUMP: Well I can only tell you – I can’t tell you, because his strategy, it’s open and it would seem to be fighting ISIS but he’s fighting it in such a limited capacity. I’ve been saying, take the oil. I’ve been saying it for years. Take the oil. They still haven’t taken the oil. They still haven’t taken it. And they hardly hit the oil. They hardly make a dent in the oil.
The other recurring motif is demonstration of what the previously quoted reader observed months ago. Namely, the absence of more-than-slogan-deep knowledge of anything. Read this exchange and tell me why “a lot of knowledge” is any better than Sarah Palin’s “I read all the papers!”
HABERMAN: You had meetings in the last couple months with James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Did they in any way change your views?
HABERMAN: And what did you come away with from those meetings?
TRUMP: No. I came away with a lot of knowledge. I respect both men.
In Sanger and Haberman’s previous interview, Trump was even closer to an “all the papers” answer:
SANGER: One question we had for you is, first of all, since you enjoyed reading about it, is there any particular book or set of articles that you found influential in developing your own foreign policy views?
TRUMP: More than anything else would be various newspapers including your own, you really get a vast array and, you know a big menu of different people and different ideas. You know you get a very big array of things from reading the media, from seeing the media, the papers, including yours.
And it’s something that I’ve always found interesting and I think I’ve adapted to it pretty well. I will tell you my whole stance on NATO, David, has been — I just got back and I’m watching television and that’s all they’re talking about. And you know when I first said it, they sort of were scoffing. And now they’re really saying, well wait, do you know it’s really right? And maybe NATO — you know, it doesn’t talk about terror. Terror is a big thing right now. That wasn’t the big thing when it originated and people are starting to talk about the cost.
Again, please read the whole thing. Congratulations to the two journalists.
On why Trump would have given this interview, effectively blowing up a firecracker in his own hands on the very day he will make his big acceptance speech:
David Sanger is a long-time friend of mine, whose reporting on a wide range of topics I’ve admired over the decades. I don’t know Haberman but also respect her work. For reasons that are probably different from mine — but who knows! — Donald Trump has clearly decided that David Sanger is someone he also respects and whose approval he apparently seeks. In the same press conferences in which he’s called other reporters “You sleaze,” Trump has gone out of his way to compliment David’s work.
By extension Trump would seem to crave respect from Sanger and Haberman and the paper they work for. Why else would he give these two long interviews, for what he must have imagined would be displays of his Metternich-like overview of world affairs? In reality they have backfired, especially this latest one.
While the campaign is going on, its slogan has of course been “Make America Great Again.” In retrospect a more apt one might be: The Dunning-Kruger Effect Is Real.
The first convention I remember watching, on television at home as a kid, was the 1964 Republican convention, featuring Barry Goldwater’s fiery “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” speech.
Four years later, in 1968, the Democrats were tearing themselves apart at their Chicago convention, as the country was self-rending as well.
The 1980 Democratic convention was a nightmare, with Teddy Kennedy barely deigning to greet incumbent president Jimmy Carter on the platform after Kennedy’s unsuccessful (but gravely wounding to Carter) campaign against him.
But even 1968 was no match for the personal rancor of this evening in Cleveland, with Ted Cruz’s cold dissing of Donald Trump in front of the delegates who had just chosen Trump.
Again the theme of recent posts has been: conventions and national campaigns don’t “matter” in any profound sense (although they can make a difference in whether you get elected). But if you can’t manage a four-day convention, let alone a four-month national campaign, you’re facing steep odds in managing a very complex national government for four or eight years.
And — except for the effective Mike Pence speech, which began near the end of the 10pm-11pm EDT prime time bloc — this was another chaotically managed convention night. The Skyped-in-looking 90-second video by Marco Rubio was the minor indication. The cold, outright subversion by Ted Cruz — the man whose wife’s looks Trump had mocked, the man whose father Trump had accused of involvement in the JFK killing — was unlike anything on a national campaign stage in modern times. You can read about it in the papers tomorrow. To put it Donald Trump’s terms, the great deal-maker was publicly snookered and humiliated by his beaten opponent, “Lyin’ Ted.”
In normal times this would itself by headline news, but on this day it’s just one more disorderly note. Here’s the bonus: according to the NYT, Trump either does not understand how NATO works, or does not care. Why? Because he says that if he were president, the U.S. might not fulfill its NATO treaty obligation to defend European nations from attack by Russia (whose leader, Vladimir Putin, is the foreign official with whom Trump has seemed most simpatico):
He even called into question whether, as president, he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of NATO the assurance that the full force of the United States military has their back.
For example, asked about Russia’s threatening activities that have unnerved the small Baltic States that are the most recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
This is a genuinely big deal. Under Article V of the NATO treaty, all member states are legally bound in a compact of “collective defense” to come to one another’s aid and support. As many European countries did for the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks.
Out of careful calculation, or out of blind ignorance, Donald Trump has essentially overturned a tenet that has underlain U.S. foreign policy through all of my lifetime, and I am not a young guy.
Either Donald Trump has carefully thought this out, or he has absolutely no idea of how the world works or about the job he aspires to hold. This is what we know about the man, three months before the country decides whether to make him commander-in-chief.
On the morning after Donald Trump officially became the Republican party’s nominee, we learned these two things about his approach to the doing that goes with the presidency, as opposed to the being of ultimate-winner status.
I’m not claiming that signs like these will dissuade Trump’s supporters or necessarily change any votes. But they further raise the stakes, and the warning signs, about what to expect if he actually took office.
1) Division of labor. According to Robert Draper’s inside-look piece in the NYT Magazine, which has so far gone unchallenged by the ace Trump communications team, Donald Trump Jr. made the following offer to Gov. John Kasich before Trump Sr. settled on Gov. Mike Pence as the VP pick:
But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
“Making America great again” was the casual reply.
Perhaps I speak for many in saying that I’d be more comfortable with an administration in which John Kasich was in charge of “domestic and foreign policy” that one in which Donald Trump had any role in either. But this is yet another reminder that a major party has chosen a nominee who views the presidency essentially as a beauty pageant or an Oscar contest, which matters only as a prize to win.
Of course every successful politician thinks this way to some degree. But most of them think about other things as well. Illustration: think of a president whose policies you generally disagree with. For me, it might be George W. Bush. For someone else, it might be my one-time employer Jimmy Carter, or perhaps the current president. But whoever you choose and however much you disagree, you will still recognize that the person had policies, and cared about them, and took the job seriously.
Three and a half months before election day, here is another piece of for-the-record data that a person who might become president doesn’t have policies and doesn’t really care about the job.
2) You’re not fired. A Trump aide has taken the fall for the plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech on Monday night, as discussed in installments #44, #45, and #46. Rather, she has taken the fall without taking a fall. Here is the heart of the statement from Meredeith McIver, an “in-house staff writer for the Trump organization,” which you can read in full here:
That passage in Melania Trump’s speech obviously does not matter at all in any real-world sense. What matters, as argued here, is the rapidly mounting accumulation of clownishly incompetent rookie errors, by a man whose campaign is premised on “bringing in all the best people” but who in practice apparently relies on a little circle of political-novice cronies and immediate-family members.
To reinforce the why-this-matters point, the presidency is almost-infinitely harder to manage than a presidential campaign. If Trump and his team are having this much trouble in what should be a triumphal convention week, God save us during a world financial or military crisis.
Even with John Kasich’s help.
I’ve written several times that Melania Trump should be spared the blame in this case. But bear in mind that (a) her insistence that she’d written the speech on her own, which seems not quite true; and (b) she herself would have known perfectly well where those sentences came from, since she had personally selected them and read them to the speechwriter in the first place. So on Monday she stood before a live audience of tens of millions, and read parts of a speech that she knew better than anyone else had been lifted from Michelle Obama.
The path not taken: Would have been so great to imagine the reaction if she’d actually said in the speech, “As one woman I admire, Michelle Obama, once said...”
Barring any “repurposed material” surprises from Eric Trump in his speech tonight or Ivanka in hers tomorrow, here endeth the Trump-family-speeches chronicles.
The highlighted passages match phrases Trump Jr. used in his speech tonight (I don’t yet see an online version of the full text).
It appears from still-ongoing late-night Twitter traffic that the author of the American Conservative article, Frank Buckley, might have been involved in Trump Jr.’s speech and recycled his own words. In any case, he has said cryptically that the situation “wasn’t stealing.” That would make it different from the Melania Trump / Michelle Obama situation, and more in Jonah Lehrer-type territory.
But if you were giving a major prime-time speech, 24 hours after your stepmother ran into a buzzsaw for misappropriated material, wouldn’t you be a little bit careful about this? Wouldn’t you say, “What one writer has called” or “It has been said” or something of that sort? Wouldn’t you think: OK, before anything else, I can’t keep the plagiarism story going?
And for what it’s worth, as someone who has written both magazine articles and political/presidential speeches, I’ll say that this is something you don’t do this way. You don’t recycle, without attribution, things you’ve written and let someone else present them as his or her own words. At least I haven’t done it myself or previously known of people doing this.
Is this incompetent? Entitled? I don’t know. More details to come. But on a night in which we had one featured prime-time speech about Lucifer, and another about the plight of the avocado industry, this is one of the hardest-to-believe aspects of all. Why even risk controversy of this sort, when it would be so easy to avoid?
Political process stories usually matter more to the politically obsessed tribe of reporters and operators than to anyone else.
But the recurring series of mis-steps by Team Trump in the weeks since their candidate clinched the GOP nomination, culminating in last night’s plagiarism episode, potentially matter in a broader way. Here’s why, in the simplest bullet-point form I can muster:
This is not about Melania Trump herself. She did a creditable job in challenging circumstances. The only thing she did wrong on the speech was to (foolishly) tell Matt Lauer of Today that she had written it herself. No sane person would expect her to have done so. It’s her bad luck that what would normally be a routine white-lie turns out to be immediately and consequentially untrue, as in some sitcom nightmare.
In the world of national-level politics, what just happened is a really big mistake. Joe Biden’s famous “repurposing” of Neil Kinnock’s childhood story came during campaign speeches, not a formal convention address. (And remember, publicity about the episode played a big part in driving Biden out of the 1988 presidential race.) You just don’t do things like this if you’re a competent political organization — and if someone does it and gets caught, that person takes the blame, presumably by being fired.
If Trump ends up not firing anyone, the possibilities would seem to be: Maybe he’s not tough enough to discipline his own? (But really? For the man whose trademark phrase was “You’re fired!”?) Or maybe the author is someone he can’t fire, such as the most writing-connected member of his inner circle, his son-in-law Jared Kushner? Or maybe he’ll pretend this didn’t happen or is not an error? That just lets things fester, as opposed to resolving the story as quickly as possible — which is what anyone with actual experience in politics would have tried to do.
This is one of a series of things competent political organizations don’t do. You don’t have the candidate call into a live TV interview show while someone else is giving a major televised convention speech on the candidate’s behalf (as Trump did last night). You don’t turn the big unveiling of a vice-presidential pick into a rambling off-topic riff, as Trump did with Mike Pence last week. You don’t announce speakers for your convention without first checking whether they want to appear, as the Trump team apparently did with Tim Tebow. You don’t deliberately or thoughtlessly piss off your own party’s governor of the perennially most important swing state, as Trump has done with John Kasich of Ohio.
These are not the “rules” of politics in some crusty, due-to-be-overthrown sense. They are signs of basic operational competence. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by a plagiarism controversy, or a spat with the host-state governor, or a Tebow-type flap. These are the equivalent of not getting your permits before breaking ground on a building, or of screwing up the plumbing plans.
It is manifestly possible to win a primary election campaign despite throwing out the rulebook and running a communications strategy based on TV interviews and Twitter. We know it’s possible because Donald Trump has just done it.
It is conceivable that the same operating strategy — one guy and his family and his friends, operating on his gut — will also work in a general election. But it’s not obvious that it can or will. Running a nationwide campaign is much, much harder than the intra-party process Trump has just been through. And based on the evidence of the past few weeks, Trump and his team have consistently stubbed their toes and made rookie errors each time they face a new challenge. The flap over Melania’s speech, for which someone should have been fired by now, is just the latest illustration.
Just to be clear about it, moves like these don’t represent “a fresh approach” or “shaking things up” or “being authentic.” They represent incompetence.
Now, why this should matter to people other than the insiders. If managing a general-election campaign is, say, 10 times more complex than running in the primaries, actually serving as president is roughly one million times harder than that. (Won’t go into the reasons now, but some of them are here, and others three decades earlier here.)
In short: success as a campaigner obviously does not guarantee success as a president. Robert Redford’s final words in the McGovern-era film The Candidate are one of many reminders. But if you can’t even handle the complexities of running your own party’s convention, how on Earth can you begin to juggle the complexities of the entire Federal budget; and dealings with the Congress; and the foreign crises that crop up each day; and filling the thousands of politically appointed positions in the executive branch; and right on down an endless list.
You can ignore most “process” stories if you’re not a politically interested person. But these are process stories that cumulatively matter. If a potential commander- in-chief is repeatedly wrong-footed by the challenges of a week in Cleveland, God save us if you try to deal with the whole government.
The, umm, overlaps between Melania Trump’s speech about her husband this evening, and Michelle Obama’s speech about her husband eight years ago, don’t “matter” in any cosmic sense. Anyone with experience in politics, or life, has to cut Melania Trump some slack for the performance she put on. Speaking publicly in what is not your first language, or even your third or fourth, is very hard. A candidate’s spouse is not the candidate. While Melania Trump willingly took on the role of being Donald Trump’s wife, she didn’t necessarily sign on for being a national political spokesperson, or reading (without plagiarism-checking) what the candidate’s staffers served up.
Still. In the world of national politics, three things about this episode make the Trump campaign look seriously bad.
Number one: political speechwriters (I was once one) can’t be prideful about much. But avoiding outright plagiarism is one of those few stubborn points of pride. Sure, some sentiments are so tired and familiar that you can type them in your sleep. “I see an America ….!” But that’s just lazy and unimaginative writing; it’s cliche, rather than plagiarism. Telling your candidate’s “personal” story in phrases that come from another person’s life (as Melania Trump apparently just did) is something else. It’s something you just don’t do. Or if you do succumb, and you’re caught, you have to know that there will be trouble. Cf: younger Joe Biden’s “borrowing” from the UK politician Neil Kinnock’s speeches, which led to his dropping out of the 1988 presidential race and hurt him badly for years.
To put it more plainly: I was never the world’s greatest speechwriter. But I understood from beginning to end that if I ever came up with something that was obviously plagiarized, that would be it, and I’d be looking for a new job.
Number two: personal phoniness, on two levels. One is the surface level: a spouse purporting to describe her adored husband, in words some other wife had used to describe her spouse. The other is the follow-up, with Melania’s remarks to Matt Lauer of Today that she had written the speech by herself.
Number three: startling incompetence. What kind of crappy campaign organization is so incompetent as to let the candidate’s wife, give her debut speech before a national audience, with passages that are trivially easy to match to a preceding speech? Here’s a way to answer. No one has ever studied the political organizations I worked for, candidate Jimmy Carter’s campaign team in 1976 or his White House team after that, as examples of airtight management. But even we were smart enough never to let anything remotely like this happen to us, let alone with the most important speech of the potential-first-lady’s career.
The cynical line about Donald Trump has been: due to a variety of unforeseeable circumstances, he ended up getting the Republican nomination. But nonetheless the reality that he knows nothing about policy or politics, and has taken no steps toward campaign success in normal terms, will soon catch up with him. And this entirely needless blunder, on a very big rollout night, is another indication.
Signs of successful adjustment? There are exactly two:
Trump and Melania, in their respective ways, could sincerely (if as lightly-as-possible) embrace, admit, and apologize for their error. We all make mistakes. Trump would probably be enhanced by admitting this one.
Forthwith identify and fire the staffer who was responsible for this unacceptable screwup — “unacceptable” in that people who do this cannot last in big-times politics.
Will we see one or the other? Who knows. But this was a genuinely bad mistake — simply as a matter of campaign management major figures cannot indulge in easily provable plagiarism — and the important question is how Trump world responds.
I said that these Time Capsules would be on hold through the conventions. But that was before I read Jane Mayer’s “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All,” in The New Yorker. (As John Boyd and many others have taught us, adaptability is all — Boyd being on my mind just now because I spent yesterday in his original home of Erie, Pa. For reinforcement on this theme we could turn to the Atlantic’s own R.W. Emerson with his cautions against “a foolish consistency” etc. But mainly we should turn back to Jane Mayer’s piece.)
Do not let the sun set on you today — or, depending where you are, let the sun rise tomorrow— before you read this article.
Short version: Tony Schwartz, the person who actually wrote Trump’s famous The Art of the Deal, and who probably knows him better than anyone not in his immediate family or currently in his employ, considers him a sociopath. Which is the title Schwartz said he would give The Art of the Deal, if he could rename it. And that’s far from the most noteworthy part of the article.
Here is a sample, which sheds light on the deranged-seeming discourses by Trump discussed in dispatches #40 (“Back to Mike Pence”) and #34 (“I Don’t Like Mosquitos!”) The premise of those items is that Trump’s inability to sustain a thought or argument for more than a few seconds might indicate that something is wrong with him. Schwartz says that in fact this is who Trump is:
“Trump has been written about a thousand ways from Sunday, but this fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It’s implicit in a lot of what people write, but it’s never explicit—or, at least, I haven’t seen it. And that is that it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . ” Schwartz trailed off, shaking his head in amazement. He regards Trump’s inability to concentrate as alarming in a Presidential candidate. “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time,” he said.
Read the whole thing. Thanks to Tony Schwartz and Jane Mayer.
This is the person one of our major parties is about to choose as its nominee, and whom the Vichy Republican establishment has decided to accept.
The new Netflix film is a think-piece trap—shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
The U.S. could have hundreds of thousands of fewer births next year than it would have in the absence of a pandemic.
By now, the pandemic has disrupted Americans’ daily lives for nearly as long as a baby typically spends in the womb. This means that many children conceived in mid-March are weeks away from joining us in this disorienting new world, but just as notable are the children who won’t be joining us—the babies who would have been born were it not for the ongoing economic and public-health crises. These missing births, which could end up numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S., will make up what’s been called the “COVIDbabybust.”
One would think that a baby bust would take at least nine months to reveal itself, but traces of one seem to have already appeared. As Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has noted, births started to decline in California and Florida during the summer. That’d be too soon, though, to reflect a drop in conceptions during the pandemic, or a rise in abortions or miscarriages (which tend to happenearlier on in pregnancy). Three possible explanations, Cohen told me, are errors or lags in states’ data on births, large numbers of pregnant people moving during the pandemic and giving birth in another state, or a large, unexpected drop-off in births that was already going to happen regardless of the pandemic.
Stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions.
Over the summer, parts of the United States seemed to have a grip on the pandemic. New York and much of the Northeast, for instance, recorded relatively few new infections. The pandemic gloom was taking a less heavy toll than it had in its first months, partly because warm weather made restrictions on indoor activity more bearable.
That sense of control was illusory. As the seasons have changed, the virus has resumed its exponential spread. The public’s willingness to follow health guidelines also feels more tenuous. After months of sacrifice, many people seem simply to lack the will to keep up their social-distancing efforts.
Many factors help explain America’s abject failure to contain the pandemic. A good number of them can be traced back to Donald Trump. But many democracies with able leaders, such as Germany and Canada, are also struggling to contain the virus, so pointing to the president’s lies and incompetence isn’t sufficient.
“We are on an absolutely catastrophic path,” said a COVID-19 doctor at America’s best-prepared hospital.
Perhaps no hospital in the United States was better prepared for a pandemic than the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
After the SARS outbreak of 2003, its staff began specifically preparing for emerging infections. The center has the nation’s only federal quarantine facility and its largest biocontainment unit, which cared for airlifted Ebola patients in 2014. The people on staff had detailed pandemic plans. They ran drills. Ron Klain, who was President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar” and will be Joe Biden’s chief of staff in the White House, once told me that UNMC is “arguably the best in the country” at handling dangerous and unusual diseases. There’s a reason many of the Americans who were airlifted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February were sent to UNMC.
In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, the French government has introduced new legislation that threatens the very freedoms it vows to defend.
The beheading of the middle-school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 by a young man enraged by Paty’s showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to vow that France will never flinch in its defense of freedom of expression. In the name of upholding the core values of the French Republic, however, Macron’s government and members of his party have introduced new legislation that effectively restricts them. Unless the proposed laws are modified or scrapped, France will soon be a far less free country than it is now.
Three new pieces of legislation aim to make the French more secure by restricting democratic rights. A bill that sets the research budget for French universities for the next decade, adopted by France’s Senate on November 20, targets student protests and took a stab at academic freedom. The bill includes a provision criminalizing on-campus gatherings that “trouble the tranquility and good order of the establishment” with a fine of up to 45,000 euros and a prison term of up to three years. An amendment requiring that academic research hew to the “values of the Republic” was scrapped only at the last minute, after strong pushback by scholars who feared that its intent was to restrict freedom of inquiry.
At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
The question shouldn’t be whether the president can pardon himself but whether he can grant himself a pardon—and those are not the same thing.
As Donald Trump’s tenure in office comes in for its landing, a major question is whether the president—facing questions about liability for offenses including bank and tax fraud—can pardon himself.
This might seem like the right operational question, but it is imprecise as a constitutional one. Article II of the Constitution says that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Did you catch that? The president has the power not to pardon people, but “to grant … Pardons” (emphasis added). So the question is not whether Trump can pardon himself. It’s whether he can grant himself a pardon.
There is no perfectly safe way to gather. That said, here’s how to make the holiday less dangerous.
Most years, in the anxious days before Thanksgiving, I write a health-related FAQ. It’s meant to be fun, reminding us of the timeless risks that spike every year around this day, such as Salmonella poisoning and fires from exploding turkeys.
This year is different. On Thursday, the CDC advised Americans not to congregate with people outside their immediate household. If anything, the advisory understated the risk at hand, saying that “travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19.” Travel does increase your risk. It should have read: Do not travel.Do not gather. Effectively, Thanksgiving is canceled. Just wait one year, and then have a basically normal holiday. If everyone in the United States did this, we’d likely save thousands of lives.
Fox News acknowledged Trump’s loss. Facebook and Twitter cracked down on election lies. But true believers can get their misinformation elsewhere.
When Fox News called Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden shortly after the polls closed there on Election Night, right-wing social media erupted in fury. Fox is the most conservative of the nation’s major news outlets, and its aggressive Arizona call—which most other national outlets did not follow for days—left true believers on the right feeling betrayed. On the social-media app Parler, which has been gaining popularity among supporters of President Donald Trump, posts alleging electoral irregularities mixed with assorted hashtags decrying Fox itself: #BOYCOTTFOXNEWS, #DUMPFOXNEWS, #FAKEFOXNEWS, #FOXNEWSISDEAD, and #FOXNEWSSUCKS. Throughout Election Day, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been cracking down on a flurry of allegations about voter fraud in Arizona; the platforms quickly applied warning labels to new posts containing false or disputed information and reduced the distribution of groups spreading them. In response, pro-Trump influencers exhorted their followers to congregate on Parler, which tells users to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”
Counting every person in the country is already a massive challenge, but the census was no match for this year’s chaos.
In the coming months, after years of ground-laying, controversy, and anticipation, the United States will finally complete an imperfect civic process that, though heavily compromised by geography, logistics, and partisanship, will affect the life of every single American for years to come. Also, the country will inaugurate a new president.
The 2020 census, which ended its data-collecting operations last month, seems destined to become one of the most telling artifacts of this very strange year. As a census taker, I got a front-porch view of what happens when a 230-year-old national rite runs headlong into a country all but at war with itself and its institutions. Throughout six weeks of door-knocking in dense New York neighborhoods and Georgia backwoods, I got a good look at 2020 America—not only its demography, but also its deep mistrust of government and diminishing faith in the common good.