It’s an embarrassing screw up; clearly the passages were lifted, and a half-assed attempt was made to vary them by changing a word or two. Sad thing is, Melania actually did a good job in the delivery. This didn’t have to happen.
It just offers more evidence that Trump can’t/won't hire competent people. He’s ultimately responsible here. With him as President, we’d probably be subject to these kind of embarrassments on a daily basis. Seems he either hires people who are in way over their head, or hires smart people and then refuses to listen to them. What kind of cabinet would he pick as President? It really doesn’t matter; he probably wouldn’t heed their advice anyway …
An interesting but implausible theory from another reader:
Michelle Obama did not write “her” speech. A team of paid political speechwriters did. THAT is Trump’s point with having his wife repeat those words.
It directly plays into his campaign’s narrative that Washington is broken and so too are the stem to stern politicians; matters not the party or even what their highly political wives say, since many political wives and family are just part 'n' parcel of the fragmented, opportunistic and phony process that includes engineered photo ops to sell gullible, voters a damaged bill of goods.
AND Trump, once again, got the insanely stupid media that passes for journalism to give him oodles of free press, while running around with their hair on fire. The man is consistent.
Update: After seeing this epic Rickroll from Melania, I think that reader may be on to something with his “Trump is just trolling the media” theory:
This next reader suggests that Trump has credit-hogging problems of his own:
Trump, facing a crowd that had gathered in the lobby of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, laid out his qualifications, saying, “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ” If that was so, Schwartz thought, then he, not Trump, should be running. Schwartz dashed off a tweet: “Many thanks Donald Trump for suggesting I run for President, based on the fact that I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’”
As an aside, it hurt my brain when Jane Meyer refers to the ghostwriter as “Trump's Boswell,” since the underlying analogy implies that Trump is Dr Johnson. Blasphemy.
Update from another reader, Andy, who has little sympathy for Melania:
Melania Trump went out of her way a few hours before her speech to tell Matt Lauer that she’d had minimal assistance in writing the speech.
She wanted credit for it, and I think she should have it.
Last night the folks on MSNBC very quickly settled on the notion that this fiasco is the fault of everyone concerned except Melania Trump, who was clearly the victim. Bullshit.
If anything, I think it’s more likely that she herself lifted those lines from Michelle Obama’s speech than it being done by a professional speechwriter. She’s been a professional model since 17 and dropped out of college after her first year. I can believe that she didn’t appreciate the problem with what she’d done.
That still wouldn’t excuse the campaign for not catching and correcting this, but it would at least help explain how such a ridiculous thing happened.
A quick skim of the news this morning indicates that the Trump campaign is still in full denial mode—Christie is claiming that that 93 percent of the speech was not plagiarized—so this story is likely to stick around for a while. Fine by me.
Update from reader Daniel C., who sends along new reporting that seems to confirm that theory—that Melania is the one responsible:
I believe Josh Marshall has determined why nobody’s been fired [based on this reporting from The New York Times]. If true, I would hope to see some measured, gentle, and forgiving remarks from a former First Lady, Hillary, about how we are all allowed to make mistakes.
But that the lack of structure within the organization of the Republican party this year means those mistakes go unchecked and snowball into chaos. I suspect the hope with Melania’s convention speech was to bring her into the fold of spokespeople who could make media appearances and raise money, and I’ll be curious to see if this cyclone-in-the-convention-coverage has any effect on that plan.
Yesterday we made a callout for perspectives from readers living outside the U.S. looking into Cleveland this week. First up, a small dispatch from a small nation in the South Pacific:
I’m an American expat who’s lived in the Republic of Palau for the past 20 years. This is a very diverse community, and my friends come from at least 12 different countries. When we start to discuss the Trump candidacy—which most of them can’t believe is happening—I’m embarrassed to admit I’m an American. My country, which I served during the Vietnam War, has gone crazy (as Fallows’ recent cover story relates). I’ve voted in every election since 1964, but this time I have no idea what to do that would really be productive and beneficial, since I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton either. Maybe I’ll vote the Libertarian Party; at least Gary Johnson makes some sense.
From a reader in the U.S. Navy, stationed in Japan:
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Mr. Fallows’ coverage, but in Trump Time Capsule #42, a reader made a comment regarding ISIS’ goals in France and elsewhere as having specific political ends, and that the attacks were their calculated catalyst. I’m not convinced that ISIS has the ability to coordinate multi-theatre campaign objectives or has the sophistication to influence foreign politics for their own ends—especially as a means to rally support. (Which is not to say world leaders shouldn’t take great care in how they frame the conflict and avoid alienating Muslim communities.)
ISIS’ visceral appeal speaks to a very specific and disturbed audience: one that can only be set loose in a given direction and not tactically employed.
The Atlantic has done an excellent job in its coverage of ISIS, and my preferred theory is that the attacks resemble the flailing of a failing regime. I cannot remember the article, but it concluded the same and suggested these attacks would increase in frequency as ISIS lost more. Fast-forward to today and ISIS is being routed on almost every front, and their attacks are in-turn increasing.
As far as Trump is concerned, I think his support can be explained by the TED talk on “the golden circle,” and this study. [Here’s a clip of the TED talk if you can’t spare the full 18 minutes:
In essence, you can illustrate and factually show Trump’s faults, but he also has his own visceral appeal to a very specific demographic—a demographic that has been raised by certain beliefs and values. They don’t think about his message; they feel his message, or more accurately assign their preferred image to him. When you argue with that audience, you aren’t challenging their political opinions or intellectual arguments; you’re challenging their identity.
Personally, I’m a Democrat and I do not agree with the GOP, at all. I can say that being in the military has surrounded me with Republicans who generally vote with a red crayon. Having said that, many of the Republicans I’ve met within the service are planning to either sit out the election or vote for a third-party candidate, which may be a product of being stationed in Japan. The world tends to challenge one’s views by merely offering an entirely different set and culture. For the others, it has given me a perspective into how a Trump supporters thinks, or more accurately, how they feel.
I sincerely hope this man is never allowed near the title of POTUS, or given any power to wield our military.
For what it’s worth, I have four members of my immediate family who were career military—three of them veterans—and they’re all very repelled by Trump. (My former stepfather, while in the Army, was actually a close mentor to Michael Flynn—the retired general who spoke in Cleveland last night and who was vetted as a running mate—but I have no idea what he thinks of Trump.) If you’re a retired or active-duty servicemember who would prefer Donald Trump as your commander-in-chief to Hillary Clinton, we want to post your views—anonymously if you’re active duty, of course: email@example.com.
This is not a systematic or conclusive assessment of conditions in Cleveland. But on the basis of walking around downtown inside and around the venue of the Republican convention, I’m impressed both by the extent of the police presence — I’ve seen (and talked with) detachments from Austin, TX; and Louisville, KY; and the Florida highway patrol; and various California locales; plus the Cleveland cops and the Secret Service — and by their relative calm and good humor. More often I saw groups of police sitting and chatting than looking nervously at groups of passers-by.
For instance, consider the photo above. You might think this was the prelude to some tense standoff. And conceivably tense standoffs might be happening as I type. But in this case, the guy on the right walked around yelling, “If you vote for Trump, you’re a racist! If you vote for Trump, you’re a bitch! If you vote for Trump, you’re a mutha!” A few people — the ones I saw all being young white men — decided to get in shouting matches with him. Most people just walked past, waved, or ignored him. You didn’t get the sense — I didn’t get the sense — of incipient, brewing confrontation.
And in the moment above, the man caught sight of the police walking towards him and immediately raised his hands. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Three of the five cops didn’t say anything as they passed him, and the other two said variants of “and a good evening to you, too, sir!”
So: things could go wrong at this convention. (I’ll confess that I felt a little strange walking around town wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.) But what I saw this evening was surprising for its lack of tenseness rather than the reverse.
Tomorrow is another day.
Bonus: Don King! He’s not speaking from the platform, but he’s still here.
A reader argues that Donald Trump, who has free-wheeled his way through his last few major “speeches” (as examined in Time Capsule installments #34, #40, and #43) has a surprisingly tricky road ahead:
I really wish former speechwriters on television would talk about what it is like to write, draft, and edit speeches with a candidate or with a President in more workplace detail. It is my belief that Trump is in a no-win situation for Thursday.
If he goes improv and not with a crafted teleprompter speech he loses.
Teleprompter with “soaring” language sounding not as his own, he loses.
If he tries to do teleprompter and several off-the-cuffs in rotation, he loses.
If he goes full on law and order, he loses.
If he tries to reach out to women, Latinos, gays, African Americans, and Muslims in one-sentence or one-paragraph only, he loses.
He faces an audience of millions of independents and undecideds who are looking for a future-oriented and not a fear-based reason to vote for him.
But he feeds off of crowds reactions too often.
I believe he is going to speak to the crowd in the hall, and go greater than 50% raw meat on Thursday. Dozens if not hundreds of political science papers comparing Thursday to Pat Buchanan’s 1992 speech will be written this fall semester it seems….
Lastly, I think Trump is really really worried about changing his $50 million in campaign loans to gifts. He has to file this, in official writing this week on the Wednesday the 20th, for FEC requirements. I think that is the document that Sheldon is waiting for.
I have seen, in person, a number of very dramatic convention speeches. Barack Obama’s address to the Democrats in Boston 12 years ago, when John Kerry was the nominee and Obama a mere state senator, was notable in real time (and not just in retrospect) as the debut of someone who would be a national figure to reckon with. Teddy Kennedy’s impassioned and ferocious “the dream shall never die!” speech to the Democrats in New York in 1980, in which he theoretically conceded to Jimmy Carter but in reality underscored his disdain for his own party’s incumbent president, was notable in real time as a sign of a party in the midst of a serious cleavage.
And Donald Trump, to the Republicans in Cleveland in 2016???
A reader from the United States who now lives in Europe observes with alarm the recent trend in the polls. He is responding specifically to this item by Ron Fournier, arguing that on fundamentals Hillary Clinton should be enjoying a very wide lead over Donald Trump rather than the very narrow edge that the latest polls show:
We’re going to find out in less than four months if The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has won. (I deliberately put TVRWC in capitals, and not in quotes, because I’ve always believed it’s real. I’m not paranoid. I do believe in the self-organizing properties of complex systems.)
And if TVRWC has won, it will not have won on the battlefield of public opinion. It will have won inside Hillary Clinton’s head. Because it has been there that TVRWC planted the seeds of effective self-destruction, to be fertilized by Clinton’s worst instincts and tendencies. [Referring to the self-protective fear of investigations that may have led to HRC’s email policy, which of course ironically has opened her up to investigation.]
I’m waiting to see where the polls settle out after the two conventions. I’m not discounting that Clinton may be trailing Trump at the end of the month, even given any margin of error.
Trump’s ground game had better be as weak, and continue to be as weak, as some would now have us believe. And Clinton’s ground game had better be better than Obama’s.
Meanwhile, a view of what might be ahead in Cleveland. A reader suggests:
For the record: I want to note Trump’s penchant for grinding his heel in the faces of his defeated opponents, q.v. his treatment of Chris Christie.
Will he feel compelled to mention the absence of the Bushes? Romney? McCain? How can he not? How will he treat the NeverTrump delegates? (There won’t be a motion to make the nomination unanimous, at least before the call of the states is complete and perhaps not even then?)
You haven’t won until your opponent acknowledges you are better (more: amazing? fantastic?) than he. Even your supporters can’t get off without acknowledging you are better than they, can they? Else, your victory depended on them, no?
BTW: Have you heard the audio of Howard Stern asking Donald and Ivanka and one of the sons to multiply 17 by 6? The nation is in a LOT of trouble!
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….
He’ll engage in that kind of disagreement with a hostile interviewer, like a network correspondent, because for whatever reason, he isn’t trying to curry favor with them and realizes that his real audience is not the correspondent, but the viewing audience. But in all other situations, he will never object to a “friendly” statement or question; his need for immediate acceptance is too great.
A raucous political rally is addictive enough for any “normal” politician; it gives them energy and it comes through in their performance. Like musicians, theater actors or athletes, a good politician will feed off the energy of a great crowd. For a narcissist like Trump, this is the emotional equivalent of mainlining heroin. He is savvy enough that he realizes, on an intellectual level, that the TV audience for his rallies dwarfs the in-person audience. But in that moment, on an emotional high, he can’t help himself but to pander to that in person audience and give them what they want and build that feedback loop. He’s making it up as he goes to fit the in-person audience of a particular rally
The irony is that he is falling into a trap that snared many a politician when the TV era started. In person, a lot of those fiery Southern politicians of yesteryear were amazingly effective political speakers (think Huey Long). They could play on emotions and make their constituents laugh and cry and leave the rally fired up, like they just left a great tent revival. But on TV, that same speech came across as grotesque, exaggerated and cartoonish. TV favors the subtle and the soundbite. Trump, despite all of his media savvy, is allowing himself to fall into this same trap.
The problem is capacity—and advisors. Another reader:
I’ve come to the conclusion that Trump just isn’t very smart—shrewd about some things—but not particularly smart. And he is absolutely convinced he’s the smartest guy in the room at all times. He has these rallies, his fans love the performance, and he believes that everyone giving him advice about shifting his style and tactics is wrong because he’s smarter than them, he’s been successful thus far and the fans love him….
After all, who are the folks he acknowledges as advisors? His kids? Among the three adult ones, there isn’t an iota of political experience or knowledge. Ben Carson—seriously? Is there a single, respected and experienced political operative in the inner circle?
Brexit is not an omen. One of many readers emphasizing that the Brexit vote in the UK was not (contrary to Trump’s assertions) an omen of his success four months from now:
Re Brexit, but its worth pointing out that the electorates of the US and the UK are very different. While the categories don't align, whites make up 92% of the population in the UK (and probably more like 94% of the voting population) but only 64% of the population in the US (and maybe 70% of the electorate)….
Somewhere like England, Trump could gin up a lot of white support without having to worry about also moving a lot of minorities to vote against him because there just aren't that many minorities to vote. In the US, the non-white electorate is nearly an order of magnitude larger, and as you point out, the comparison may not be terribly apt.
Another way to put it: In the US, the electorate is pretty evenly split between white women, white men and minorities (36-33-31, based on 2012 and given current trends). In the UK, it's 47-47-6. In Britain, a Trumpian UKIP candidate could write off minorities and only have to win 54% of the white vote to prevail. In the US he'd have to win 73%.
Now, let's assume a candidate in the UK looks to win by writing off minorities and only winning 50% of white women (there is no way that Trump comes close to winning 50% of women, by the way). In the UK, he'd only have to win 56% of the remaining white male vote. In the US, to build the same coalition, he'd have to win 98% of white males: basically every single one. This is simplified, but it's pretty close to the coalition Trump is setting himself up for. It's not a winning hand.
And more on the UK/US difference. Another reader:
If the UK had had some version of our electoral college, the Brexit would likely have failed. (Or at least Scotland and Northern Ireland would perhaps still be part of the EU.)
Trump's success should scare the living hell out of anyone with an understanding of world history, not to mention American history. (And the Constitution.) And one never truly knows how any election is going to go until it's over. But while Trump's support is unsettling—especially if one considers there might be some kind of Bradley effect in...uh, effect—our electoral college makes his changes extremely unlikely. It's awfully hard to look at the maps of Obama's wins and figure out which states Trump could flip, while it's not that hard to look at those maps and figure out which Clinton might be able to flip.
That Trump wasn't bounced in the first round is amazing and frightening. But our stupid, outdated, anti-democratic electoral college is, for once, acting like a bulwark against disaster.
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.
A different hypothesis, from a reader in the aerospace industry:
Thanks for keeping such a “logbook” of Trump’s behavior! After watching him for months I’m coming to the same uneasy conclusion as a lot of people and I’m curious if you think it is nuts:
He doesn’t want to be President. This has all been personal brand-building and performance art. Indeed, he never even expected to win the nomination and now he’s actively finding ways to “throw” the election. Say it ain’t so, Shoeless Donald!
If you view his behavior in that context it starts to look deviously rational instead of unhinged. But I can’t decide if devious makes more sense than unhinged. What does Occam’s Razor say?
To take the second possibility first: it is elegant to think that this is one big The Producers-style farce that got out of hand, but to me that seems too elegantly rococo an interpretation. I think he’s just being himself, instant by instant and through the whole arc of his campaign.
That’s my main reaction to the first possibility too. The effect might be to shore up and rev up the already-convinced. But I don’t know whether that’s a conscious long-term strategy so much as an instinctive response by Trump in front of his crowds. And as a purely practical matter, it’s hard to see how it could be as effective in a general election as in a GOP primary. That’s because these performances by Trump seem likely to rev up as much of his opposition — among Latinos, blacks, women, young people, etc — as they do of his base. But we’ll see.
For early items in the “Trump Nation” thread, you can go here. For recent ones, go here.
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:
In light of Mitt Romney's announcement that he will vote for neither Trump nor Clinton, I'm wondering if you need to make an addition to your "Resistance" or "Vichy" Republican categories. This is a man who aspired to the presidency, but now when the phone rings at 3 a.m., demanding a decision to deal with a crisis, he rolls over and goes back to sleep.
May I suggest "Pilate Republicans?" (Of course with the same type of disclaimer regarding Jesus as your disclaimer about Hitler.) By washing his hands and withholding his vote for Candidate A, Mitt is casting half a vote for Candidate B.
Sure, I will give him partial credit but it's hard not to imagine that he clearly (if privately) would prefer a Trump loss to a Clinton loss. And yes, he, as an individual voter, does have the luxury of opting out since Hillary pretty much has a lock on Massachuesetts. But if he didn't want to be influential, he wouldn't be holding a press conference. And many of those he wants to influence are voters in swing states.
Actually, "Pilate" Republicans would really be a subset of "Resistance" Republicans. But a real resistance hero would take the political risk, and may even ameliorate it by announcing he was maximizing his vote to insure a Trump loss, without even mentioning Her.
I’m glad to have an archive of all of this. I look forward to a future where people would not believe this could have occurred except for such efforts.
For early items in the “Trump Nation” thread, you can go here. For recent ones, go here.
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.
I was struck by Trump’s statement today that his former opponents in the primaries should either endorse him or be “banned” from running for office. This reinforces something I’ve been thinking about regarding Trump.
Many of his supporters (and Trump himself) admire him for being willing to say what he’s thinking even if “politically incorrect.” I find nothing admirable in this trait, which I suspect is more about lack of impulse control than a principled decision to be blunt. As we become mature adults, we come to understand that there are times when you shouldn’t say what you’re thinking. Speaking out will be contrary to your own interest, or it will hurt others, or both. Remaining silent is often just good judgment.
In this case, Trump’s statement doesn’t do anything to help his campaign. Even if he were to successfully bully or shame Rubio, Cruz, Kasich or Bush into endorsing him, it’s not going to add votes to his column. In fact, his whining about not getting their endorsement makes him look weak or desperate. And, in possibly further alienating sitting Republican Senators and other Republican officials, he’s unnecessarily further damaging a relationship that, were he to be elected President, he will surely need at some point.
So, rather than exhibiting an admirable quality of bluntness, Trump once again shows that he is merely immature and lacking in judgment.
For previous items in the “Trump Nation” thread, you can go here.
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.
2. From another reader, a shorter note about the role of “thinking” in politics:
As you recently noted, Trump is apparently always “thinking” very carefully about what will turn his audience on.
Bush and Rove were just the latest in a long list of politicians and operatives who have understood that there are times when a righteous war against a certifiable Bad Guy will make many people feel good or at least better in a way that nothing else will. So far Trump has had no trouble finding plenty of takers for his own, much more theatrical bellicosity - Mission (almost) Accomplished on steroids, as it were.
3. On levels of complexity in political discourse and motivation:
As a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology, I might add a little to the last writer who mentioned the distinction between "stupid" and "evil." While most angles on the Trump constituency are focused around some amalgamation of low information voters and those who don't "think," recent cognitive neuroscience research tells the opposite story.
It's not that people who buy into seemingly absurd premises don't think enough, it's that they simultaneously have elaborately thought out and yet tortuously simplistic justifications for Trump's policy positions. This is how one can take something as complex as fiscal policy or the global economy and reduce it down to base elements of race and gender delineating winners and losers.
It takes a lot of "thinking" to contort something as odious as sexism or racism into a valid justification for limiting immigration or economic opportunity. It's this same carefully crafted in-group/out-group distinction that allows people to similarly dismiss Trump calling women pigs and dogs as "rejecting political correctness" , assuredly something no one would accept if it were uttered about one's mother, sister, or daughter.
As a prime example, I note the case of John McGraw, the 78 year old North Carolina man who punched a Trump rally protester as he exited the building escorted by security. When asked about the incident, McGraw mentioned a possible link to Al-Qaeda and that the next time "we might have to kill him."
This is the mindset of an intricately constructed worldview in which political protesters could be sleeper cell terrorists. It takes a large amount of mental effort to jump through the logical hoops necessary to assume that society can easily be made great again and yet be so precipitously close to falling over the cliff of peril.
This is a feature, not a bug, in the Trump campaign.
4. Finally, on the interlacing roles of expression, and reflection, in making up what we think of as intelligence:
In your recent conversations regarding Trump’s intelligence, I think most of it has to do with how he expresses himself. For example, his limited vocabulary, coining words that he should know better than to use – a famous word is “bigly” – and his very simple ways of expressing relatively complex ideas regarding commerce and conflict, impact our assessment of his intelligence. [JF note: As I understand it, there is a reasonable chance that Trump intended to say “big league” as opposed to “bigly.” Still...]
I know liberals who have thought GW Bush was stupid, largely because of how he expressed himself, as well as his failure to explore his errors. Bush’s failure to reflect concerned me more than any sense of his presumed intelligence.I am much more confident in President “I screwed up,” than I was with President “Mistakes were made.”
Reagan, too, was given to expressing his ideas in uncomplicated ways. Some would suggest that this indicated a talent for communication, not a deficiency in sense or judgement. No one spoke of Romney as unintelligent (nerdy, awkward, maybe, but these are not intellectual flaws). And I know many republicans who seem to believe that democrats are either stupid or naïve.
It does go both ways, and all you have to do is listen to the patronizing tone many republicans take on foreign policy pronouncements, “their” turf. Sarah Palin remarked last week on President Obama’s stupidity, but Obama’s intelligence and patriotism are often impugned.
My assessment of intelligence is related to one’s willingness to learn. The Atlantichas covered the work of Carol Dweck in the past. Her research on growth vs fixed mindset is more related to efficacy, but I believed that it is also useful in understanding an individual’s willingness to learn new skills and information.
The ability to synthesize novel ideas or new skill sets says a great deal about individuals. One problem that many people who are employed in low-skilled occupations that later are outsourced or disappear, is that whether for lack of interest or lack of opportunity, they had not thought to acquire new skills. Does this mean they are unintelligent? No. It means that they were not interested or sufficiently foresighted to understand that tomorrow might require different information than today provided. Somehow, their plan was to win (or survive) and that didn’t work out. Lacking the interest in a Plan B, they were stuck.
The same is reflected in my understanding of Trump. He is not doing much differently now than he ever did. He speaks without much thought or reflection, because that has worked for him in the past. He is mostly skilled at expressing himself in terms of his personal interpretation of wealth and therefore, success. And it may work with some voters.
My concern with Trump is that he doesn’t seem to have information that a President ought to have at his or her disposal, or at least, he doesn’t express his knowledge base in public fora. He has not explained how his policies will work. He does not indicate that his understanding of the global economy is more than transactional, and his foreign policy interests appear to be limited. His vision is that America will win, win, win. He has not explained what he has learned so far, how he will achieve his vision, how he will work with others on a global scale. Maybe has a plan for doing this, but he has not shared any inkling of this plan with the voters, and some of us need that information.
What has he learned, as an American, an adult, a man, a father, a business person, and how does this presumed growth translate into his potential leadership? The answer to that question is much more interesting and useful to me than how “intelligent” Trump may or may not be.
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:
What can we expect after Trump loses the November election? Yes, I do believe that he will lose because I believe that there are enough voters with enough intelligence to sufficiently dread the consequences of a Trump win. I suspect that in the privacy of the voting booth not even the Senate Majority Leader or the Speaker of the House will vote for him despite what they are saying publicly.
So when he loses, what does his past behavior lead us to expect from him?
Of course, we should expect him to go to court, all the way to the Supreme Court. He will claim that the election was “rigged” against him, etc., etc. It will be as if one of the hypertrophied personae of professional wrestling were to try to rekindle the Bush-Gore court fight of 2000. The main difference this time will be that there won't be a gentleman Al Gore present to halt the match in order to save the union. One can imagine that Trump will try to summon the resources of the GOP to support his fight.
The story line of this court case will, naturally, feature the ethnicity of all the judges who rule on it. Will any of them be Mexican? Or Muslim? When this case lands in the Supreme Court, will it be paralyzed in a 4-to-4 tie? I like to imagine that the distinguished justices, ladies and gentlemen all, will also have the wisdom and decency to save the union.
On this last point, the Supreme Court was lastingly shamed by the results-oriented politicking of its Bush v. Gore decision. (You don’t have to believe me on this: turn to the dissent from the redoubtable Justice John Paul Stevens, who said: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”) If the reader’s scenario came to pass, I would like to imagine, with him, that the current Supreme Court, in its full eight-member majesty, would decide it was time to re-assert its role as “impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
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:
The dissenting opinion in your “Does Trump Think?” column (part three) was misguided in a lot of ways but brought up an interesting point. There’s something that I think could inform how people who think Trump is truly dangerous (like myself) choose to engage with the situation.
Liberals (in general—not you or your readers in particular) have a hard time reconciling why Trump supporters can’t see how truly vacuous and without substance he is. Obviously the primary responsibility for this lies with those supporters, but we could be playing a much bigger part in bringing them to the light if our credibility weren't somewhat shattered. And we made that bed.
Republicans for about 25 years have thrown knee-jerk insults at Democrats that all relate to elitism and common sense. Liberals’ complement to this tendency is to insult the intelligence of conservatives. Ronald Reagan was stupid, George Bush was stupid, and Sarah Palin was stupid. George Bush made bad decisions and was not ridiculed as ineffective or poorly informed but as an absolute imbecile. (I read a somewhat silly study where someone had attempted to estimate presidential IQs by statements in the public record and Bush was on the low end of presidents with a 135—which is borderline genius level IQ.)
This is obviously a silly undertaking, but it illustrates the point that a person who we reflexively insult and call an absolute idiot is probably an incredibly intelligent and competent man who just didn't do his best work as president.) Sarah Palin is another case of a clearly intelligent and savvy woman who was woefully unprepared but ridiculed as stupid. [JF note: as I wrote many times during his tenure, I thought that George W. Bush was not “stupid” in any normal sense. Rather I thought he had a combination of ignorance, in the sense of not being broadly informed; lack of curiosity, which limited his ability to correct the ignorance problem; and a desire to be, or at least seem, decisive, rather than risk seeming “hesitant” or “vacillating.” The combination was toxic in the rush toward war in Iraq.]
We have now cried wolf. Someone has now come along who is so obviously completely without the mental equipment to do this job and our criticism falls on deaf ears. We have taught his supporters that we can't be trusted to make that assessment objectively.
3. And finally, a reader on different standards for racism and sexism, and on the line between what is considered “stupid” and what is called “evil”:
Trump and his followers say they feel silenced. They’re not wrong. I mean, their First Amendment rights are clearly still intact, but apart from that, it’s certainly true that one of the most likely things you’ll encounter if you try to say something racist is the command to hush.
What happens when the command to hush fails? Well, apparently what happens is that polite society screws up its nose and then says, airily, “You don’t mean that.”
“You don’t mean that” is what you say to your toddler when he says he hates Uncle Bob. It’s what you say to your 15-year-old daughter when she tells you she’s moving out. In short, it’s what you say if you want to silence and patronise.
But the fascinating thing about this new form of attempted silencing is that it actually helps racist people rather than hindering them. Trump doesn’t have to dog-whistle; he can just whistle and then a bunch of well-meaning people will explain that he didn’t actually mean to whistle per se, he only wanted the attention.
So much dodging around the idea of racism! Trump doesn’t mean that; he’s just saying it to make people talk about him. His followers don’t really believe that of their own accord; they’re being led astray. It’s okay, none of these people actually think. I mean, wouldn’t it be dreadful if they could think, and they chose to think that?
It’s instructive to look at the differences between the way we treat racism, in this regard, and the way we treat sexism. It’s much rarer for sexism to be classified as something perpetrated only by stupid people.
That’s because we view racism through the lens of class. Racism is seen as being primarily perpetrated by poor people, whereas sexism implicates rich and poor alike. This happens, I think, because rich white people can avoid black people much more easily. [JF note: through spelling details and other touches, I think this note is not from an American. I think that people raised in the U.S. would know that the more precise phrasing would be, “rich white people can avoid poor black people more easily — and can avoid poor whites as well.”) Rich people can take advantage of a societal structure that pushes black people away for them. [JF: again, I would add “poor.”] They don’t have to put any effort in, and can thus absolve themselves of any responsibility.
If we truly believe ourselves to be thinkers, who judge the world after careful consideration rather than knee-jerk reactions, we should question this classism that drives the way we paper over racism.
Trump’s supporters are not just being blindly led. Like many capitalist Americans, they like the idea of a world in which there are “winners” and “losers.” They like that world even better if they, and people who look like them, are given an automatic leg up towards the “winner” category. That’s not exactly stupid. It’s just evil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the past half century, the number of bathrooms per American has doubled.
American exceptionalism takes on many forms, both flattering (our immigrant-founded start-ups) and unfortunate (our health-care prices). But perhaps no part of life in the United States is more unambiguously exceptional than this: We have so many damn bathrooms.
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”
In April 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of black protesters without a permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. A statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, criticized the march and other demonstrations.
This prompted King to write a lengthy response, begun in the margins of the newspaper. He smuggled it out with the help of his lawyer, and the nearly 7,000 words were transcribed. The eloquent call for “constructive, nonviolent tension” to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement. The letter was printed in part or in full by several publications, including the New York Post, Liberation magazine, The New Leader, and The Christian Century. The Atlantic published it in the August 1963 issue.
Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Matias is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power.