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 85 Newer Notes
Jonathan Erns / Reuters

In the Time Capsule thread (now up to #66), I’ve been chronicling some of the ongoing words, deeds, and gestures that the Republican party has decided to swallow from its nominee. This parallel “Trump Nation” thread is mainly for reader reaction to the spectacle of 2016, and in particular what the “responsible” GOP is showing about itself.

Trump himself is beyond criticism or judgment. What we see is who he is. But I think that people looking back at our time will be much harsher in their judgment of the Republican “leaders” who are trying to have it both ways.

The Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader of the Senate, senators like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, governors like Chris Christie and the now-trapped Mike Pence, figures from the past like Rudy Giuliani — every one of these people knows what is wrong with Donald Trump, and every one of them will be telling us as of November 9 that they were never really with him, they always saw what was wrong, how did this ever happen? But for now, every one one of them is saying, Vote for Trump!

You can understand, sort of, their constraint. If they come out and say, Vote for Hillary Clinton, in the short run they might infuriate substantial portions of their own electoral base. And if the longer run, if she does win, then every “liberal” thing she does, starting with her Supreme Court appointments, can be thrown back at them. Oh, there’s your President Clinton with her Bolshevik on the Court. Happy now? Oh, there’s your President Clinton, with …  

You can understand it. But to say it’s “understandable” is not to say that it’s right, or even smart. I think they’re making a mistake not just from some lofty historical perspective but in how they will look in the relatively near future. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination eight years ago, and the vastly better known Hillary Clinton did not, because she had joined most senior members of her party (including Joe Biden and John Kerry) in being wrong in a hugely consequential choice, the Iraq war, and Obama had been right.

A reader says you can extend that analysis to the choice of backing Trump:

As I’ve watched the way that Trump has been able to overcome unforced error after unforced error that should, and used to, effectively mean the end of a viable campaign, I’m interested in the box that this puts the GOP elite.  Most seem to be trying to thread the needle in the Paul Ryan mode—I support the nominee, but I speak out not too forcefully on the most egregious statements.  

What we may be seeing is the real-time development of another Bush Iraq War moment. In this scenario, it will seem obvious to anyone after an easy win by Clinton that they should have publicly called out Trump and said they were bound by conscience not to support him.

This raises an interesting question.  In this scenario, who takes the role of Obama, who got used his anti-war position to jump start his road to the White House?  It was a huge risk for a little known Senator, but the payoff was huuuuuuuge!

Right now you can probably rule out the Bushes or Romney or just about every elected GOP bigwig. Does it just leave Kasich?

Or, with all his complications, Cruz.


A reader who is a veteran lawyer on the West Coast writes about Donald Trump’s argument that he can’t/won’t release his tax returns while they’re under audit by the IRS. (A reason that the IRS itself dismisses.)

The reader suggests that in this case, at least, Trump may have thought many moves in advance:

1. I agree with what you are saying about Trump’s tax returns. Of course I also agree with the IRS (i.e., he is free to release them; the audit is irrelevant to that question).

2. But there is ONE way in which the audit is relevant to the release, and vice versa: If Trump releases returns while they are still auditable or being audited—which, of course, every other candidate has done in the past—then the nation’s tax professionals, seeing them and poring over them, are likely if not certain to make public suggestions about things the IRS should look into, or how the IRS should look into them, that might actually lead the IRS to take a look at, or do, something the IRS might not otherwise have done.

3. The nation’s tax professionals might even detect tax fraud that the IRS might miss. That’s a criminal matter—not a back taxes or penalty matter. Which of us would be surprised if they did, in Trump’s case?  (Remember the IRS caught Nixon on tax matters while he was still president; it didn’t help his situation.)

4. Not to mention that if the tax professionals make their suggestions to the IRS privately, then there is the possibility of their earning an actual reward if as a result the IRS is alerted to something that leads to the IRS collecting more tax from Trump than the IRS would otherwise have done.

5. My own suspicion is that the ranks of the nation’s tax professionals probably contain individuals, hostile to Trump or to tax cheats, who ARE aware of tricks the IRS has not yet suspected or at least fully caught up with (there are always new tricks) among taxpayers with really complex returns.

6. At a minimum, the IRS would have a greatly expanded army of volunteer auditors in Trump’s case!

Of course, these are all problems that Trump should have thought of before he became a candidate. Perhaps he did, hence the unequivocal nature of his stonewalling. And if Russia really wanted to prove that they are not partial to Trump, and if his returns were filed by his team or are kept by the IRS in electronic form, then the Russians could release his returns for him.  Somehow I doubt that will happen.


Update another reader writes:

I think you and all other reporters have missed one essential point regarding Mr. Trump's tax returns. That is, even if there was some justification for withholding returns under audit, that does not explain the refusal to provide returns for older years.

My understanding is that years before 2009 are not under audit, and it might be very helpful if someone would point this out or ask Mr. Trump to produce those returns. He won't, but at least it might help show than his stated reason is bogus. Possibly some journalist has done this but I have not seen it.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

I think this is very interesting: a reader who knows Russia and Ukraine, on how he reads the unfolding “Putin angle” news.

I’m a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, now a naturalized citizen of the United States. I also was a Bernie Sanders voter in the primary, who will be voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election.

This is probably the weirdest year of my life politically. On the right, the anti-immigrant and antisemitic fervor is really a choice cut of hate. The apparent mutual interest of Russia and the Trump campaign has meant that on both the right and left, there is legitimate critique. However, it has also meant there’s a home for a very familiar panic about Eastern Europe and, honestly, people using the critique as cover for rank bigotry who were interested in that bigotry long before Trump and Russia were even a story. Lastly, the DNC e-mails specifically regarding Sanders’ religious views and raising it as an issue with voters WITHIN the Democratic electorate, was a dispiriting reminder that despite what has been a pretty nice life, given enough opportunity bigotry can have a house anywhere, even among friends.

However, I’m writing today to provide context for Russia’s actions, from my own experience. When Russia invaded Ukraine, they did it while putting their arms up and saying it wasn’t them, even as it was clear to everyone that it was. There were the anecdotes, of course, about the Russian military insignia of the people coming into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine being torn from their uniforms. Regardless of the truth of those anecdotes—of basically Russians barely modifying their own uniforms, doing the least amount of work to seem not like the Russian army—they got at what is a reality: the transparent cynicism of Russia, the tendency to do the terrible thing and tell the whole world they’re not doing it until they’re years deep into a conflict they can’t escape.

I wanted to mention that because in the recent stories, there’s been this emerging picture of Russia as a legitimate threat to the United States, run by a chessmaster. Russia is not a legitimate threat, and Putin is not a chessmaster. Russia is a transparently desperate country. The sanctions and financial freezes have spread Russia thin. They’ve impacted the oligarchs that run the country. They’ve impacted its long-term capacity to use war as an economic plan and perpetually hold sovereign states as territories on a whim. They’ve reduced its capacity to control its client states.

The well is running dry. And what they’re doing is the same thing they did in Ukraine. The world was getting away from them, they had something they could not control or overwhelm, so they went in to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and tried to take it through brute force—all the while putting their hands up in the air and denying they had anything to do with it. Even now, in Putin’s speeches, it is clear he is coming not from a position of strength, but one of great weakness, asking essentially for a mercy that he does not currently deserve, seeing things like the banning on the basis of doping as signs of additional punishment.

So Russia may be behind the DNC hack. We may be seeing this fight because they’re desperate to elect the man they resemble the most, because it’s the only way out of it they see for themselves. It’s not prowess or intelligence though; it’s desperation and lashing out. Putin took the spirit of the Russian people and defaced it for years, replacing it with militarism and the use of the church as a prop for the state. This was sustained by capital, by investment. And it just isn’t there any more. Robbing the people of their spirit, the rulers of the country now have lost the capacity to fund the things that occupied the void. Their enterprises in Ukraine and Syria look more like past recipes in Chechnya, Georgia and elsewhere for forever war. It’s only a matter of time before the client states, the installed rulers, are once again challenged but do not find the support they once had. It is just history cycling.

But to be clear, Russia is not a danger to us so much as it is a danger to itself. A smarter government would have figured out a way other than the invasion of Ukraine, other than perpetually hostile acts such as this hack. A smarter government would not be in a position where it basically has to cut all its own domestic programs to fund wars that will go on forever. A more gifted politician wouldn’t be in a position of accumulating strikes against themselves while demanding mercy. I think this is already the view President Obama holds, as documented in his statements on Russia with Jeffrey Goldberg.

I think this election was and remains a choice between being governed by fear and being governed by perspective, between seeing monsters all over and understanding where we all really are respective to one another. Russia’s latest transparent ploy, even as its consequences are currently being felt deeply, will eventually be seen for the desperate and unsophisticated acts they are. Donald Trump’s series of transparent ploys, his perpetual financial and moral bankruptcy, will be seen the same way, the desperate, angry flicker of a flailing movement unable to navigate a changing world. And we will live this coming January in the same country as this past January—a fractured place working to rebuild itself, to be better than its past, and hopefully a little smarter.

I believe this to be true of the United States. I hope one day it will be true for the Ukraine; that it will escape not just the specter of this war, but its older history of corruption as a necessary fact of life. And I hope in time it will be true for Russia itself, either through the reform of its current leaders or through their eventual displacement by those who want something more for their people than desolation and war. It was possible for Iran. These realities do change with the work of people who do not give up their hope even when it seems no one in power has much time for it.

I will be casting my vote this November for perspective, up and down the ballot, rather than for a Republican Party and a nominee that can only see a wolf at every door who wants to convince you that his own barking is coming from the outside. I will be describing, at the onset of whatever panic, this same world to my friends that occupy it with me, where our understanding is the antidote to our fear, where the strength of our country is in our knowledge of it.

Last week in Cleveland. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

In response to recent items on what Donald Trump is doing, four readers offer views on why.

1) Id laid bare. In response to Time Capsule #54, “They Applauded for Me,” a reader says:

Today’s Trump™ Time Capsule reminded me of another example of unaware self-revelation.

Some 50 years ago I worked with a guy who volunteered at a meeting the statement, “I don’t get New Yorker cartoons.” He said it not without pride, as though it were somehow a badge of honor. There was no visible rolling of eyes and we went smoothly on with the meeting, but the remark explained much in my later encounters with him.

In Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Daniel Goleman recounts in the preface a story of a woman talking about how much her family loves her, and how funny her mother is. If she was saying something that her mother didn’t like, her mother would just pick up what was at hand and throw it at her. “And once, we were eating dinner, so what she picked up was a knife and threw that at me,” told as a humorous anecdote.

Trump is id laid bare, so far as I can tell, and appeals directly to those controlled by the id.


2) Big versus little lies. This next reader email is very long but builds to a worthwhile point.

Dodge City High School Marching Band, “the Pride of Southwest Kansas.” (Red Demon Football on Youtube.)

Western Kansas, where Deb and I have spent time over the past month, is the heart of Trump Nation in one sense: Trump and the GOP will almost certainly carry this area, and the whole state, this fall.

But if you compared the daily texture of economic, educational, civic, and cultural life in cities like this, with the America-in-the-ashcan end-times tone of political discourse in general, and of the past week in Cleveland in particular, you would wonder about the contrast.

The tension between these two basic assessments of 21st century America, and the ways in which each might selectively be true, was the theme of my March issue cover story, and of our on-scene reports from around the country over the past few years collected here. It’s also been part of our previous reports from Kansas here, here, here, and here, with more to come.

Deb Fallows has a new installment up this morning. It’s about Dodge City High School: home of two successive Kansas State teachers-of-the-year; source of civic pride; locus of ethnic diversity exceeding that of many big cities; and home, among other things, to a fishing team. You can read her report here, and I hope you will.


In a series of posts, I’ve been arguing that the well-publicized chaos of the Republican National Convention provides cautionary evidence on how the Trump organization might handle the scaled-up challenge of running a national campaign.

A reader on the West Coast says there is another possibility (and extends the kayfabe analysis from a previous reader ):

I’ve been enjoying the past few days of convention meltdown because I love the idea that we may be watching a Donald death spiral. However, a new theory struck me this morning: This might all be a trap (if I’m wrong it’s because I’ve watched too many episodes of Game of Thrones). Here it is:

Theory: Some or all of the chaos at the Republican convention is intentional / staged.

Evidence: According to NPR, Cruz didn’t go off script. That is, Trump knew what he was gong to say and he let him go up there anyway. Therefore this is no surprise slap in the face as it’s being portrayed.


  • Attention: Trump has consistently shown an ability to profit from attention, and chaos drives more attention. Everyone will be paying attention to his speech tonight.
  • It makes it all about Trump: For instance, Cruz overshadowing Pence is being portrayed as a problem, but if you’re creating a cult of personality, it’s actually a feature not a bug. Now Trump can ride in as the savior.
  • Lowers expectations: You remember how W played this to great effect. In other words, a moderately good speech turns into the turnaround of the century.
  • Sets a trap: Trump can use all the attention on the horserace (which is a media obsession) to paint himself as the outsider candidate: “All the media cares about is the soap opera, meanwhile I’m gonna make America great again! Let’s get rid of these jokers who have been driving this country into the ground.” For a public that hates the political class, the right speech tonight could be a big breakout moment. Bonus is that Hillary will look totally wooden when she pulls off an organized convention. Old narrative: well organized conventions are key to a successful presidential bid. New narrative: conventions are the band camp for political losers

I hope I’m wrong, but worry I hear the Rains of Castamere playing in the background.

For analytical completeness, it’s worth comparing this possibility with “Trump’s Razor,” as explained most recently by Josh Marshall at TPM.  (Premise of the razor: “Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts.”)

My life experience inclines me to razor-style, as opposed to trap-style, interpretations of most events. But no one knows anything for sure right now.

Ted Cruz addresses the Republican convention. (Jorge Bueno / Wikimedia commons)

Readers respond to this stage in our national pageant.

Is it all just kayfabe? From a reader in the Northwest:

Maybe it’s time to stop looking to political pundits to analyze Trump, because politics is the wrong lens? Trump isn’t a politician; he’s a performer. Maybe we should be asking directors and producers to explain what we are witnessing: drama, and nothing more.

Why did he let Cruz speak in primetime without a guarantee of an endorsement? Political ineptitude, or dramatic genius? It was a pro wrestling moment. Betrayal, treachery, defiance! What better way to set up a scene of triumphant revenge! Are Cruz, Christie, Pence, and his own family unwitting or semi-witting extras in Trump’s improvisational “kayfabe”?

Is this all just a corollary to PT Barnum’s quote about bad publicity: “There’s no such thing as bad drama?”


It’s getting out of hand. This reader is less amused:

One of the many concerns with watching a man like Trump edge closer to becoming the most powerful man in the world is the growing feeling that there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. And that we’ve seen this before. And that this is something new and unbelievable. And frightening. Mostly frightening.

There are so, so many rational arguments against him and none of them matter despite many of them being of the utmost importance. Years of over-the-top mudslinging have made us all numb to criticism of his very real faults. It’s not that there are Teflon politicians. It’s just that there are people who don’t care about the charges made against them. They care about ratcheting up the attack even more so that they look good by comparison. So here we are, scraping from the bottom of the scum pond for rhetoric to hurl.

It’s a certainty that the people chanting “lock her up” believe simultaneously that she deserves to be locked up, and that they are engaging in the same type of hyperbolic arguments that they think are being made against Trump. Like Mr. Goldberg’s assertion that Trump = Putin, which I can’t even tell whether it is hyperbole or not. Or Donald Trump: Sociopath?

Yet I think that none of this is effective. In fact, all of it contributes to the success of the Republican call for change, which is made more effective because the change is being proposed in the form of a very, very much non-politician. Who wouldn’t want change in such a toxic election?

I just hope someone can come up with an idea on the Democrat side, something that everyone can rally behind. Things are getting desperate.


Mary Altaffer / AP

For any normal candidate in any normal year, an interview like the one Donald Trump has just given to David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times would cause the kind of earthquake that could change the entire course of a campaign.

Mitt Romney and his “47%” comments? Pshaw. Barack Obama and “they get bitter and cling to guns and religion” or the fiery Rev. Jeremiah Wright? They’re nothing. Sarah Palin “I read all the papers!”? Forget it. Almost every paragraph of Trump’s interview has material that should at a minimum be more controversial, and on the merits should be far more disqualifying, than any of those flaps, all of which stayed in the news for months and are still remembered years later.

I’ll have more about this interview in the Trump Time Capsule thread; I strongly encourage you to read the full transcript for yourself. (And on the “these people can’t even manage a four-day convention” theme, think of the message discipline that leads to this interview coming out on this day.)

For now, here’s a reader’s hypothesis on why Trump can allow himself to say such stupefyingly ignorant things:

Re Time Capsule #48, may I suggest a context in which to place Trump’s statements about NATO?

A reader, Robert Henry Eller, reflects on the past 48 hours of cock-ups in Cleveland:

The art of the spiel ain’t what it was, if indeed it was ever anything else, outside the guild of craftsmen. Plagiarizing is, as Fallows asserts, something you don’t do. But before the past year, so was reckless lying, or name calling, or most things Trump has been doing.

I’ve noticed there a meme out now, growing in popularity, which asserts that Trump is deliberately being controversial, because the media will pick up controversy and run with it, giving Trump more free media time. For example, following this meme, Melania’s plagiarism resulted in her speech being watched and listened to by orders of magnitude more people than if there had been no controversy.

After the Jane Mayer article, I don’t buy this, because I don’t think Trump is capable of such deliberation. But that doesn’t mean whatever he’s doing, from whatever motivation or accident, isn’t effective. In fact, corporate news profitability focus means Trump doesn’t have to be intentional at all. Intention might even be counter-productive.

A handful of readers react to the monumental facepalm of the Trump campaign’s handling of Melania Trump’s speech last night. This reader rightly sympathizes with her:

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.

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.

Seven pm Monday evening in Cleveland (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

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.

Making America great again!  (James Fallows)