Reporter's Notebook

Trump Nation
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An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note:

Show 99 Newer Notes

Why (Oh Why!) Trump Does and Says What He Does

Boris Johnson, the UK’s new Foreign Minister, who shares a New York City birthplace with Donald Trump and a tonsorial flair as well. (Toby Melville / Reuters)

In response to this item last week, about Donald Trump’s occasional shift from arresting, can’t-not-watch spontaneity to unsettling, am-I-really-watching-this?? apparent loss of control, readers weigh in on the explanations.

It’s harder than it looks. A reader says that the strain is showing:

It takes an extraordinary talent to run for president (let alone be president!). It is a level of stress and demand that could break most people, even most high-performing people. In Trump, we actually have little evidence that he is extraordinary. Yes, he has an extraordinary level of narcissism and an extraordinary knack for entertainment and self-promotion. But in terms of the qualities, talents, and temperaments that get tested in a national presidential election, he is far from exceptional.

Combine this with the fact that his limitations (and struggling poll numbers) are being exposed on a national stage—which must at some level, even for Trump, be causing cognitive dissonance and a challenge to his delusional self-regard—and the campaign is simply starting to break him.

We may not witness a full “breakdown,” but I think we’re seeing early warning signs. People fight off breakdowns every day and there is no reason to think it couldn’t happen to a presidential candidate, especially one so ill-equipped to the task.


‘Craves attention — and acceptance — like normal people crave oxygen.’ Another hypothesis:

Let me be roughly the 10,000th reader to attempt to explain Trump (which is a fun parlor game, but less fun when talking about one of two people who will be the next leader of the free world, but I digress).

Trump craves attention like normal people crave oxygen, but he also craves acceptance. He’s started several controversies by promising to “look into” or “look at” patently crazy or racist ideas (like the lady who wanted Trump to force TSA agents to take off their “hibby jobbies”).  I bet Trump would never actually force the TSA agents to take off their hijabs. But he is incapable of politely telling the woman that her idea has no merit, a task that any skillful politician learns to do….

The 2016 dream team? The Donald and the Newt yesterday in Ohio. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

In response to the previous item about last night’s genuinely deranged-seeming half-hour discourse by Donald Trump, readers offer two opposing interpretations.

First, from a reader who works in the tech industry, and is originally from Europe:

I think you’re missing something, and the thing you’re missing is that his strategy is not to try to convince “independents” or even folks like us, but instead to mobilize the non-voters of his own tribe. His belief is that this will be good enough, so no need to compromise with the enemy.

Once you see it in that context, his speech makes complete sense. Specifically, to your points:

  • Everybody knows Hillary is crooked, so no need to waste time on that. Instead, hammer in on the two-speed justice system, something which resonates, because it is sadly true.
  • The star controversy activates the “anti-PC” receptors of his crowd. Also, backing down on anything is a sign of weakness and a victory for PC, so he has to be seen as resisting it. He doesn't care if it offends you. In fact, it’s great if it does. That’s all part of the game.
  • None of his crowd cares what the NYT prints. Just not a factor.
  • It’s gibberish except for his crowd, which just needs the right triggers lined up. The precedents for this kind of rambling speech are truly scary...

We can only hope that this “energize everyone in his base to go vote” strategy will fail, but sadly Brexit shows how it can succeed, and we misjudge this at our own peril.

I really have no idea how to bridge this gap. Maybe it’s just not possible, and we are stuck doing the same thing on our side, which may well end up in a civil war. Or maybe, your “local” take will save us—people will simply disregard the federal nonsense while working locally—but sadly, even though it produces tasty micro-brews, it won’t help solve larger problems.

My response, plus another reader’s interpretation, after the jump.

Adelman’s book on Reagan.

1) On aldermen. Kenneth Adelman and his family have been long-time good friends of our family. He is an even longer-term Republican. Ken worked in the Nixon and Ford administrations and had two senior positions under Ronald Reagan: as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and as deputy to Jeanne Kirkpatrick as ambassador to the U.N.

Ken Adelman broke with the George W. Bush administration, and with his friends of many decades Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld, over the Iraq war. But still he is no one’s idea of a Democratic party loyalist.

Thus I found it significant that he was quoted as you see below in a Daily Beast story yesterday about Republican national-security veterans who had drawn the line at Trump:

“Not only am I not voting for Donald Trump, but also I am not voting for any Republican who endorsed or supported Trump—be it for Senate, House, alderman, or county clerk. And yes, I will vote for Clinton, simply because to not vote, or to vote Libertarian, would be a half-vote for Trump,” said Ken Adelman, U.S. arms control director during the Reagan administration.


2) Pilate Republicans. A reader from Texas suggests an addition to my taxonomy of Republican members of The Resistance — those who like Ken Adelman are publicly standing up against Trump — versus the Vichy team, those like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell (and Marco Rubio and Reince Priebus and Jon Huntsman etc) who still officially support him. The reader writes:

Next month in Cleveland! (Curt Teich Postcard Archives-Lake County Illinois, Public Domain,)

A reader who works in a big-city law firm thinks I missed the point in Trump Time Capsule #30. The theme of that installment was that Mitch McConnell, the relentlessly on-message leader of the Senate Republicans, had declined to call Donald Trump a “credible” presidential candidate—and that his refusal was significant.

The reader writes:

What McConnell said is merely stating the obvious, and his comment was about Trump’s ability to win the election, not about his qualifications to be President.

What I found more interesting is McConnell’s refusal last week to respond to a question about whether Trump was qualified. His silence “spoke volumes,” as they say. Can you imagine any other campaign in our lifetimes where one of a major party’s leader wasn’t willing to affirm the suitability of the party’s Presidential candidate? That’s unprecedented.

The fact is that any intelligent, reasonably well-informed, sensible adult, having watched and read about Trump, knows to a certainty that, political ideology aside, he’s absolutely unfit for the office. I have no doubt that McConnell knows that, Paul Ryan knows that, every Republican Senator (with the possible exception of Jeff Sessions) knows that. But they’re stuck with him.


Maybe a new motto to put on those red hats?  (Wikipedia)

Following previous items in this thread, readers weigh in on why Donald Trump may be saying the things he does, and why his supporters are still with him.

1. On Crying Wolf. In yesterday’s item, a reader noted that reflexive, excessive use of terms like “stupid” or “bigoted” had weakened their meaning — and made it hard to signal that someone like Trump really is different from, say, Sarah Palin (who knew much more about policy than Trump does).

A reader who now serves as a mayor in a state Trump is almost certain to carry writes this:

Reading the prior note about how our terms have lost power due to overuse, it occurred to me that when Trump is called racist or sexist or hateful of a religion…that is not hurting him with many of those who are inclined to vote for him.  

Those who have supported him since the start of the Republican primary are likely to be only more attracted to any candidate identified as racist. At the very least, they are people who don’t find racism as a disqualifying thing.

He started the campaign calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and the reaction calling him “racist” endeared him to those who actually like being identified as having racist views. It jump-started his campaign, immediately connecting with people who were sitting out there holding hateful views about Hispanics.   Maybe some supporters shy away from identifying themselves with the term, but they don’t back off of self-evident racist policy and social views.  They are who he says he is.

His attitude toward women?   Same concept applies.


The namesake of this ill-fated zeppelin, the Hindenburg, played a part in the drama mentioned in the first reader’s letter. (Wikipedia)

Who knows where things might be headed with the Trump campaign? Here is a note from a reader reflecting on what could happen if Trump wins, and another on what might occur if Trump loses.

If he wins. As mentioned before, I think “Vichy Republicans” is a useful shorthand for the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, John McCain, etc who are accommodating themselves to the power of the moment rather than siding with the Resistance — but who will race one another to say, “Oh, we were against him all along” if and when he goes down. But despite the usefulness of the Vichy/Resistance distinction, of course no one can be likened to Hitler.

In this first reader note, a postgrad political science student from Germany wrestles with how the historically unique evil status of Hitler deflects attention from similarities in vulnerable political systems:

I like your stance on what ‎you call the Vichy Republicans, because you are right: The individuals in question are making an historic mistake by supporting an historically unqualified short-fingered man, and whatever the outcome of the 2016 U.S. DemocraZy Games is, history will judge them… [Cutting various compliments, for which I’m grateful.]

Looking at historic precedents, folks have tried to compare Trump to Hitler. I think there is some truth to this, given his Nazi-esque predilection for scapegoating minorities, his love for white essentialism and his capability to use fear and not vision and the painting of a country in ruins as the basis of a campaign.

It seems to me that it is only a question of time until Trump proposes that Muslim Americans carry an "M" in their passports the way Jews had to have a "J" in their passports in the early years of the Third Reich…

But what I think is a more dire truth to the Hitler-Trump comparison is how he could actually come to power. When Hitler was elected it was not the case that an entire country yelled “Sieg Heil” with fanfares and right arms in the air. Instead, a lot of sane, reasonable and non-fanatic people thought “he cannot be taken serious,” or “he will never win (but I am to frustrated to vote against him anyhow,” or “he is crazy but he does have a point,” or “maybe he will at least bring a change,” to, ultimately, “let’s give him a try, he can’t make matters worse anyhow.” The rest is history.‎

My fear is that a lot of Americans think the same way about Trump, underestimating the danger he poses and the actual shot at the presidency he has, despite temporarily bad poll numbers. I really hope he will lose in November.

Me too. But another reader writes about what his loss might mean:

A happy tableau we will not witness again: Donald Trump with now-deposed, then-campaign manager Corey Lendowski after a win this spring. (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

I am on the road again, now in southwestern Kansas with my wife Deb. As the Trump campaign runs into more obviously Hindenburg-like territory, I’ll try to catch up with some reflections on what the Trump era has meant, whatever might be the future of his candidacy.

Let’s start with some responses on “does Trump think”?

1. Consider Nick Saban. Someone who will be voting for the first time writes:

I just graduated from high school, and for people my age this is generally the first election anyone has paid attention to. Rather an interesting way to get introduced to politics.

A reader on the latest “Does Trump Think?” installment pointed out that, in his view, the other readers (and you) considered yourself the high-and-mighty, looking down on Trump and his supporters with disdain. This is a legitimate danger, and certainly is the case from time to time.

Yet, that doesn’t suddenly nullify the fact that the presidency requires a certain set of skills that Trump hasn’t been shown to possess. Nick Saban’s an incredible coach; you think he’s great because of his ability to pump up his team with pep talks? Maybe he gives amazing speeches, but that’s entirely unrelated to his ability to study the next opponent, choose his starters, pick plays, decide what to drill, etc.

Above all else, the President of the United States has to be nice. [JF note: What the reader calls “nice” is what I think of as an advanced ability to imagine how an adversary might be thinking and feeling, so as to give offense only when that is exactly what you intend to do.] Why? World leaders are surprisingly fickle people (like all of us), and the slightest offense can hurt the United States abroad and at home. Trump is like the guy at the movies who yells “NO!” when the protagonist’s lover dies. Sure, he’s saying what he thinks, but that doesn't mean everyone needs to hear it.

2. Liberals crying wolf. A reader says that liberals have sneered so much at “uninformed” conservatives that they’re out of terms for a person who really doesn’t know anything:

Following the previous items in this series, a clinical psychologist from a big Southern city writes:

GOP convention photo, 2016 (Wikipedia)

In your coverage of Trump’s candidacy, the discussion of how his mind works is fascinating. I’ve been interested in this and thinking about it for a while. I agree with the reader who wrote, “I am afraid that Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.”

I suggest that the relationships that his speech is organized around are consistently what I would call “Doer and Done-To” relationships. [JF note: Also famous in Lenin’s distinction, “who / whom.”]

Trump exploits the choreography of Perpetrator-Victim theatre to position himself as the one his listeners should align with and trust to lead them to escape the Done-To position and enjoy the privileged Doer position. Of course, there are many in America who also experience life largely through this lens and find in Trump someone they can relate to on a deeply felt emotional level.

And, there are also many in America who can reasonably assert they have been Done-To in one way or another. Not all of them aspire to simply switch positions with the Doers (“Winners” in Trump’s immature view of what constitutes a functional society) and have their turn “at the top.” But many do.

The ongoing symbol of circa-2016 GOP (Wikipedia)

In response to last night’s item on whether Trump’s rally speeches, interview remarks, and Tweets should be understood as conveying ideas of any sort, as opposed to being pure acts of tribal/resentment signaling and emotion, readers offer further analyses.

It is about addiction. From a reader in the tech industry:

Your reader who compared Trump’s need for attention to drug addiction made a very important point, but I think it applies at a much more basic, fundamental level.

Since the Tea Party and movement conservatives began to push the Republican Party past rational boundaries and into the realm of bark-at-the-moon crazy, politicians and pundits have been throwing chunks of bloody red meat to the base voters.

But a problem arose. Once a level of outrageous rhetoric was achieved, it no longer provided the “hit” that the people or the media wanted. Someone had to come along and up the ante to kick-start the next round of howling anger. You got “death panels,” you got “Obama’s a Muslim,” you got “Mexicans are rapists”—it just has to keep escalating.

And Trump saw this clearly, so he came out and one-upped everybody. And now he’s on round two, and he knows instinctively he needs to one-up himself. Stand by: Round three will start about September …


‘Thinking’ as cultural dividing line. From a reader who grew up in the South:

I have a reaction to the first reader you quote in “Does Trump Think?” The reader states, “His listeners are not looking for meaning. Instead, they are thrilled by the emotion of his speeches."

I grew up in the Deep South, surrounded by the white blue-collar culture that we describe now as the Trump base vote. I recognized my inner Yankee and got out after high school. I suspect that people who didn’t grow up as I did don’t realize the extent to which “thinking” is a cultural dividing line—specifically the kind of analytical thinking that us college-educated, blue-state elite prize as the professional approach to problem solving.

“Bozo’s Circus,” from the Bozo the Clown oeuvre. Hmmm, why does this image keep coming to mind this year? (Wikipedia)

In response to recent Time Capsule entries, readers suggest that I am missing the obvious point: that neither Trump nor his audience expects his statements actually to mean anything. I think the three comments below point toward an emerging, important insight about the spectacle of Trump-era politics.

One reader writes (emphasis added):

I enjoyed your piece on Trump’s Gilley’s goof-up. But you overlooked the most recent and well-publicized example of a politician being pilloried over such a faux pas: Ted Cruz’s infamous comments about the “basketball ring” he made during his final campaign push in Indiana. These tin-eared attempts to pander to hoops-loving Hoosiers were a widely covered part of Cruz’s failed efforts to unseat Trump as GOP leader in the primaries.

Now why Ted is expected to know all about basketball (which is, after all, the 2nd most popular spectator sport in the U.S.) and Donald is given a pass for not knowing the bull (when we all know that he is more familiar with “bull” than any other person alive) is an interesting question. I am sure Trump was quite aware of Debra Winger at the time of Urban Cowboy. And he was clearly aware of the device, which is why he commented on it in the first place.

I am afraid that Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.

A Trump rally in some ways resembles a rock concert, where the crowd cheers at one point in the program for the angry song, later for the big ballad, and goes crazy at the end when the singer does his biggest hit (in Trump’s case, the Mexican Wall bit). His rhetoric is so transparently pure rhetoric, so layered with dog whistles and emotional words that modify no actual nouns or verbs, that his listeners are not looking for meaning. Instead, they are thrilled by the emotion of his speeches, which are only possible because has liberated himself from the usual quotidian purposes of language.

By speaking all the time in the style of a commercial’s tag-line, he has escaped even the expectation that his words will have a meaning when written down or recorded. This is why so many supporters can say they disagree with what he says, but love him for saying it “like it is.” He captures a feeling that goes beyond rational thought. It is the political equivalent of the incoherent swearing a man does when he hits his thumb while trying to hammer a nail: It’s an outburst of urgent emotion with no logical structure.

I appreciate your work on the Daily Trump and its opposite, American Futures.


A second reader with another perspective:

I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, about four years sober. It just occurred to me that the entire Trump campaign to date makes more sense if you look at Trump as if he were a drug addict—only instead of being addicted to drugs, he’s addicted to attention.  

Thanks to our friends in Japan. This makes it all worthwhile:

Most of the Japanese writing merely says “Trump” (トランプ, Toranpu), or “President.” Though the TV screen at time 0:17 nicely says “Trump is God”(トランプ・イズ・ゴッド), and the closing credits say  トランプ 万歳 . This is “Trump Banzai!” or  “May Trump Live Ten Thousand Years!” (It also appears at time 0:56.) You would normally say Banzai! to the emperor.

If Trump made this the official campaign video I would consider voting for him.

Thanks to my friends at the U.S. Studies Centre in Sydney for the tip.Thanks to Mike Diva for the video.

We know now how the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 turned out, and that they were the beginning of the end for the Red-baiting career of Senator Joe McCarthy. Neither McCarthy (right) nor his nemesis Joseph Welch (left) could have known it at the time. (Wikipedia)

For several weeks I’ve been running a Trump Time Capsule series, chronicling things Donald Trump has done and said that in normal circumstances would be considered disqualifying for a presidential candidate. I’ve thought it valuable to compile this record at a time when we don’t know whether Trump actually might become president. Last night I posted a complaint from a reader who found this approach too passive and detached.

Now, some reader response. First, two brief messages supporting the approach. One reader says:

I think the reader who finds the time capsule fatalistic fundamentally misunderstands its purpose. It exists not to serve as a record of the development of a certain event (Trump's election) but to prevent that event by portraying his behavior in an objective context to demonstrate how much of a mistake electing him would be. Therefore, it actually plays a very active role in the attempt to slow or halt his rise to power.

And the other says he’s glad for time capsules, because:

I for one want to be able to show my children that we all didn’t lose our minds in 2016.

I think a lot of people feel helpless with the rise of Trump. I certainly do. I have college-educated friends who sincerely believe everything Trump says, and nothing anyone does or says seems to change that. The attack has only reinforced the polarization of America, and anyone who has any conservative principals risks getting labeled a Trump supporter.

Trump scares the hell out of me and I feel powerless to stop him. Ignoring him didn’t work, laughing at him isn’t working, arguing against him never seems to work. How do we move past this nonsense?


Now a longer historical perspective, from reader Mark Bernstein, who is head of a small tech company and was a one-time guest blogger here. He writes:

One of the hardest challenges to understanding history is remembering—and believing—that people in another time did not always know how things would turn out. They knew something about what was possible and what was likely; in some cases, they knew more than us. But often, they didn’t know what would happen, and it can be hard for us to really believe that because we know what did happen.  

We know, for example, that Joe McCarthy was a knave and that by 1954 his force was nearly spent. But people in 1954 didn’t know that “McCarthyism” was about to become a proverbial story with which to scare the children.  [Cont.]