I’m just tuning in to your time capsule of Donald Trump and I’m finding the commentary from Fallows and your readers to be insightful instead of frightful. Thank you.
“The Media” seemed to have been too polite at the onset of Sir Trump’s parade of hate and lies. It seemed like the major networks were all too afraid of rocking the boat; they were afraid to call Trump out too strongly. The Media worried too much about ad revenue if they didn’t give live airtime to empty podiums and feature the latest Trump statement in their crawlers. Besides, it was Real Reality TV! And it was Free! Life imitating artifice.
We, the public, got very little reporting of substance because that doesn't sell well during prime TV viewing periods. There was very little of what I call “true” journalism being done on TV. I saw very little of the Walter Cronkite, Edward Murrow, Orla Guerin, and Christiane Ananpour type of journalism. Does the journalistic code of ethics not matter anymore? Will excellent reporting end up being an oxymoron? I’m glad The Media have finally founds their spine, but I fear it may be too late.
There may not be much “true” journalism on TV this election, certainly not on cable news, but there has been a ton coming from legacy papers. The finance blogger Barry Ritholtz has an excellent post this week making the case that print newspapers—those dinosaurs we thought were going extinct, starting with the Craigslist meteor—could turn out to be the deciding factor in defeating Trump. And of course that defeat would be just deserts for a man who has ignorance and contempt for a free press and routinely threatens journalists and their institutions. Here’s Ritholtz:
Print quietly returned to its roots of investigative journalism and deep dive reporting. The Washington Post assigned two 20-person teams to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with orders to look into every phase of their lives. Other newspapers have similarly put reporters to work beyond the campaign trail.
However, there is a significant difference between the public figures of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
She had been a government figure for decades: starting in Arkansas when Bill Clinton became governor, then in the White House as First Lady, then New York’s Senator, and eventually Secretary of State. The FBI had done repeated background checks on her—that was before the endless Benghazi hearings and email investigation and other witch hunts that so far have found politically damaging soundbites but little in the way of criminality. Decades of that so-called “vast right wing conspiracy,” now known as alt.right media, had dug into every little tidbit of her life, creating a parade of conspiracy theories (HILLARY KILLED VINCE FOSTER!).
Ritholz also lists 10 examples of “blockbuster reporting from (mostly) old school print journalists.” One of them, of course, involves The Tape—the Access Hollywood footage showing Trump bragging about sexual assault in the foulest ways. If you’re interested in the backstory of The Tape, this piece from CNN describes how the footage got into the hands of David Fahrenthold, the future Pulitzer winner at the WaPo who had already been digging deep into Trump’s charity charade. A producer at NBC, which runs Access Hollywood, dug up the footage and brought it to the other producers, who were all set to air their own footage when they suddenly got scooped by Fahrenthold. Badass. And a big win for newspapers over tabloid television.
Back to our reader:
Maybe true journalism was missing because The Media never gave themselves permission to seriously think about the real-life repercussions of a Prez Trump. They never thought to point out the very real dangers of letting hate spew for entertainment’s sake.
The U.K. made the same mistake with their “Leave/Remain” vote that resulted in Brexit. Their media and promoters of the “Remain” camp never clearly stated the true consequences of leaving the EU—like, that their money will be worth less because other nations won't trust them anymore, or that mass deportations won't happen overnight. Their media just continually said Leave would be bad and Remain would be good while fascists spouted hate and fear and made promises of a golden future. Everyone underestimated the power of riling up the masses by appealing to their ignorance. The ultra-positive Remain polls probably lulled some voters into just sitting on their sofas on election day.
This election makes me wonder if we all underestimate the amount of ignorance and hatred in our countries (UK and US). I sometimes fear that there are far more of “them” than we care to even consider. They have been there all along: our neighbors, our workmates, our employers, and so on, but no one else gave them such a large and engaging voice before. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and they have been emboldened by their numbers. They believe that theirs is a true and just cause, and they have the fervor of fanatics. Their concerns have been legitimized now, so they must be addressed—no matter how ignorant. I fear it will take decades to undo this mess, no matter who wins.
If you have any thoughts on the battle between Trump and the press, drop us a note. Update from a reader, Kevin:
Credit snobbery? I remember [David] Broder’s staggeringly idiotic comment that after the Clintons left, the grownups were back in charge. That sort of Washington insularity is, I’d posit, much more a characteristic of the press, which likes to imagine itself the true inheritors of the First Amendment and distance itself from the electronic upstarts (from radio on). Trump is, of course, a creature of television (all image, celebrity, and fevered claims) with policies supplied from the sensationalist world of Breitbart. I imagine Broder sputtering at the prospect of covering Trump, worse than at the prospect of the young upstart from Illinois upending the insider pal of the serious, John McCain, in 2008.
But history is a boomerang, as Ralph Ellison argued, and after two-dozen years Hillary Clinton is the grownup. She burnished that image against a Sanders campaign that was often covered—and sometimes saw itself—as an idealistic children’s campaign. Willy Loman might say that she’s liked, but not well liked. In 2016, that’s good enough.
Another reader, Daniel:
I think those who bemoan the lack of serious reporting on Trump’s rise early in the campaign and the awful real-world consequences of electing him once he became the nominee ... miss the larger point: The people who support Trump do not lack information about who he is, what he is done, or what he represents. These folks have heard it and read it all and they DON’T CARE.
WHY they don’t care is a subject for another piece entirely, but suffice it to say, earnest editorials in the mainstream press during the primaries were not going to sway Trump supporters away from their chosen champion.
But such editorials are probably having some effect on the swing voters in the general election. Not a single major newspaper—roughly half of which endorsed Romney in 2012—has endorsed Trump. (Well, unless you considerThe National Enquirer a major paper.) Here at The Atlantic, we did our small humble part on behalf of Not Trump.
All 22 major US white supremacy orgs. endorse Trump but none of the 1382 major US newspapers endorse Trump. pic.twitter.com/CIVpeseGHO
Many more of your smart emails are coming in over Trump and what he means for the election, the GOP, and the country. The first one comes from reader Reid, who describes a familiar outlook that is more relevant than ever, as Trump’s campaign continues to implode while taking the Republicans down with him. (Sarah Palin’s “going rogue” in 2008 seems quaint by comparison.) Here’s Reid:
The fact that the GOP isn’t pushing back on Trump’s attack on the election is appalling and reprehensible to me. McConnell’s silence stands out in particular. The GOP is dead, and the GOP is certainly dead to me (and that is not a good thing for our country).
I once had a theory: People like Christie, Pence, McConnell, and Ryan, by supporting Trump, would place them in position to prevent Trump from doing stupid things if he were elected. The reasoning here is: If they openly opposed and antagonized Trump, there would be zero chance that Trump would cooperate with them. (They probably had a 10 percent chance of controlling him or getting him to cooperate if he viewed them as loyal supporters.) These justifications seem somewhat compelling to me, even though they are also a bit dubious and awfully close to easy rationalizations that mask personal ambition and realpolitik, because they put the country first.
But none of these justifications seem valid now (if they ever were valid). Trump is aggressively attacking the validity of the election and decrying the lack of support from the GOP—which turns his supporters against the GOP. McConnell or Ryan’s pushback will carry little weight with Trump supporters. It also seems clear that Trump views Ryan (at least) as disloyal. That basically means Ryan has almost no chance of working effectively with Trump.
There’s one other possibility that comes to mind to justify their continued support: If they renounce Trump now, I’m thinking that just feeds the Trump’s narrative the the GOP wasn’t supporting him sufficiently all along. Still, even if this is true, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure the GOP is in an effective position to push back against Trump’s refusal to accept the election results.
Earlier this year, a part of me felt the Republicans should have abandoned their party, leaving Trump behind and other Republicans who wanted to support him—while forming a new party. This move could rid themselves of everything bad about the party (e.g., racism) and with Trump as the figurehead, creating a blank slate to build a new party, one that would could appeal to minorities and also working- and middle-class voters. It was an opportunity with the long game in mind. The pain in the short term would be intensely painful (e.g., losing the White House, maybe even losing seats Congress). But it’s not like the route they've chosen will avoid any of those things either!
Instead, the GOP leadership has lost all credibility in the process. I don’t and won’t see them as credible leaders and re-builders of the party. I feel like they’re in a worse position than if they tried to create a new party. And it would be even worse still if Trump wins.
Another reader, Steve, suggests that the GOP should’ve seen this sort of “rigged” rhetoric coming after Trump’s sustained Birtherism—and now their chickens have come home to roost:
Much has been said and written about the possibility of Trump and his followers refusing to accept the legitimacy of a Clinton victory. Is this that different than most of these same people’s reaction to Obama’s election? Trump himself made Obama’s ineligibility a years-long vocation.
This next reader, Robert, takes a longer historical view and finds that Trump—enabled by the cowardly GOP establishment—runs counter to America’s aspirational goal of “a more perfect union”:
When our founders framed up a country based on democracy—“All men created equal,” freedom of speech and the rest of it—they pointed us in the direction of idealism. The personal hypocrisy for some of our wig-wearing, slave-owning forefathers must have been pretty thick, but hypocrisy is always the risk of idealism.
Donald Trump represents the opposite: brutal honesty. Because he is richer and more powerful than women at parties or contractors working on his buildings, he takes what he wants, sex, money, favors from politicians and whatever else he desires. This is, in truth, the way the world works. Trump is a poster child for what you can get away with if you are rich and powerful and a celebrity.
The fragile but enduring premise of our country is that we will perpetually strive against the brutal reality of the world toward something better, fairer, and more just. This has been a spectacularly successful experiment, so far but progress has been slow to retrograde for the past several decades, especially for people in rural America. Trump represents a repudiation of the founding ideals, but his appeal is only possible because the previous leaders have so poorly succeeded at the promise of making things better for everyone.
Update from a reader in Chicago, Victor, who points to more examples of how the Republican Party is reaping what it sowed:
I think one of the problems the GOP has with refuting Trump’s claims of a rigged election is that the GOP has been using the bogeyman of election fraud (of which there is none to really speak of) to disenfranchise voters all over. If they now say that the elections are fair, their base—which has been fed the lie of fraud for about 10 years—is not going to have it.
I think the party has put out so many patently false narratives to their base using non-traditional media (like mailers, surrogates etc) that it would be difficult for them walk all those back without losing the base. I mean things like Obama is a Kenyan, Obama is a Muslim, there is massive voter fraud in the cities, Obamacare can be repealed, etc etc. I am sure the people pushing these did not themselves believe that those things have come home to roost. Now when the “leaders” come out saying that the elections are actually fair, the base does not believe them.
Can we call these guys leaders anymore? People like Ryan and McCain? They are not leaders. They can and do say things regularly that contradict their own statements from 1-2 months ago to keep themselves politically viable. This election has exposed the spinelessness of the GOP elite like nothing else has. We always talked about the hypocrisy of the GOP, especially when it comes to “Christian Morals,” that I never expected them to be spineless too.
Even more spineless, and soulless, is the very public support of Trump by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University. In the following clip from CNN, Falwell tries to squirm away from Trump’s sexual immorality and criminality by claiming that “we’re not electing a pastor” and “render unto Caesar” and “who am I to judge?”—attempting to appear like he’s just a humble ordinary citizen, not one of the most prominent evangelical voices representing the world’s largest Christian university he inherited from one the most famous evangelical leaders of the 20th century.
[The student group Liberty United Against Trump says] that the Republican presidential nominee “is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose.” … “We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell’s endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history,” according to a tweet from the group’s social media coordinator Tyler McNally.
Here’s the group’s full statement, which was signed by more than 200 students:
I am proud of these few students for speaking their minds. It is a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out.
Joel Schmieg says he doesn’t know exactly what he wrote that made Jerry Falwell Jr. cut his article out of the Liberty University school newspaper. He just said that the school’s president told his editors his story criticizing Donald Trump couldn’t run. … [Schmieg’s piece condemned Trump for bragging about sexual assault and condemned premarital sex, which is banned at Liberty.] Still, Schmieg said Falwell, who has endorsed Trump and stumped for him at the Republican National Convention, squashed the piece anyway. He said “everything controversial” gets sent to Falwell first.
Perhaps someone should send Falwell the Lord’s prayer too, says reader Tom:
Falwell makes an amazing theological statement at about 1:20 in the CNN Erin Burnett clip: “It’s not up to me to forgive anybody. I’m not, I’m not Jesus. Only Jesus can forgive and He can forgive anybody.”
This is clearly at odds with the Lord’s prayer, the only prayer that Jesus taught. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Did any Liberty students notice this?
Update from one more reader, Ken in Santa Barbara, who circles back to the central character in this horror show:
Once it was apparent that Trump would get at least 35% of the primary vote with no one strong opponent, it should have been obvious the party was doomed. They would have to choose between supporting Trump’s candidacy and alienating enough traditional GOP voters (who might stay home, and not vote down ballot), and opposing him and enraging his supporters (who would also abandon the down ballot GOP candidates). Principled Republicans could quit the party to form a new one, but that basically gives control of the party to maybe a third of the members, many of whom have no loyalty to the GOP anyway.
If the leaders (especially Ryan) had any courage, they would not negotiate with the extreme right wing of the party and make a deal with Democrats to get enough votes for the speaker. They would end their adherence to the Hastert Rule and stop relying only on GOP votes to pass legislation. This would allow compromise that would be in their best interest, and would drive the Trumpists out of the party. Even though they would have a smaller GOP, it would still be better than starting over.
As a Dem-supporting independent, I don’t really care. They are toast no matter what.
More readers are building on the projection argument that Fallows outlined in Time Capsule #142: “that ‘projection,’ in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does”—that he accuses people of sins that are far more his own. Reader Tom contrasts Trump’s approach with recent history:
I may be saying the same thing in a different way, but Mr Trump has been engaging in what I’ve thought of as a new style of political attack.
“Rovian politics,” named after Karl Rove, was taking on your opponent’s strengths and attacking them head on to negate their advantage (e.g. “Swiftboating” John Kerry to attack his war record and turn a strength into a weakness).
In “Trumpian politics” you take your weaknesses, exaggerate them, and accuse your opponent of possessing that weakness. Is womanizing a potential weakness of yours? Accuse your opponent of being much worse than you were, making yourself look good (at least in your own mind) by comparison. Temperament? Accuse your opponent of being completely unstable to divert attention. Old enough to be the oldest person ever elected to a first term? Accuse your opponent of being weak and sickly.
By exaggerating your weaknesses and targeting your opponent with the same, you not only attack them with something they consider important but you potentially make yourself look good by comparison.
Sandra notes another example of projection:
A minor thing, but Trump may well have lied about his weight. After the Dr Oz show, the number 267 pounds was floating around. Apparently a few studio audience members said that was the weight that was mentioned from the medical report. It could easily have been doctored before the screening. Plus he added an inch to his height to get himself into the merely overweight category.
So the fat-shamer in chief lies about his weight and probably falls well into the obese category. Weigh-in before the next debate perhaps?
This next reader, Joe, poses a compelling and disturbing question:
Reading the latest entries about Trump’s habit of projection and his latest assertions that the election is “rigged,” I can’t help but draw a horrifying extrapolation: What if Trump’s allegations about Democrats and the media rigging the election are themselves projection?
Is it so hard to imagine that Trump himself might want to rig the election? Or, more likely, that he could believe that Roger Stone or WikiLeaks or Putin’s Kremlin have a plan to do it for him? I’m not sure I believe this, or even that Trump believes it, but it does present a cautionary illustration.
If Trump’s “rigged” allegations are projection, then the recent response to them would play into his hands. Gore et al stepped aside despite reasonable arguments he should have won, and I (a Gore supporter) agree with that. But what if there were an actual, serious effort to steal this election—more than just, as in 2000, a close election with a few irregularities? Then Trump would certainly point to pre-election comments like Fallows’s as affirmation that the loser should step aside, that even Clinton supporters were on record saying so.
In fact, this kind of pre-emptive defense is part of the Trump playbook. Recall the Trump University scam, where instructors routinely harassed students into giving glowing evaluations, which were later used in court to try to undermine those who accused him of fraud.
I’m not sure what the answer is, though perhaps it’s something like Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s nuanced statement (reported in the NYT) that it’s irresponsible to question the integrity of elections without evidence. In any case, this example illustrates the challenge of dealing with demagogic candidate like Trump (or a dirty trickster like Roger Stone) who seems to have no respect for our political system. Demanding that they play by “the rules” only works if those rules can be rigorously enforced. But rigorous enforcement also gives them a stick to exploit against their opponents, if decency doesn’t hold them back.
Speaking of a possible Russia connection, another reader, Peter, notes a historical irony:
A large bloc of Trump’s supporters believe that the election will be fraudulent if Clinton wins, and a large bloc of Trump’s supporters see Russia in a favourable light. That means that it is the Republican base who doesn’t believe in democracy and is impressed with the strength of Moscow. Who would have thought that the most credible attempt of a Communist takeover of the U.S. would come from Republicans.
Of course this is a complete 180 from four years ago:
Back to Peter:
Perhaps more seriously (hopefully), there are two larger questions. One is if the Republican party can / will / should split in two, and if so, into what parts? The argument against them splitting in two is that the American political system is so geared to a “two party” system that any and all permanent non-majority parties are banned to the political wasteland. The argument in favor of them splitting in two is that the the current party has absolutely no working definition of what a “conservative” is.
Post 2016, “conservative” will have lost all meaning. Currently it means “family values” and supporting sexual abuse and a complete lack of religious faith. Currently it means “American ideals” and a disrespect for democracy and a praise of authoritarians and former Communists. Currently it means “small government” and massive spending. It had already taken to mean both isolationism and empire building.
The word itself means a resistance to change, but in practice it means complete radical change. There seems to be little point to having a “conservative” party when the word no longer means anything. Right now it’s just the “I hate Hillary” party. Except for when the Republicans unite in their daily “two minutes of hate,” they have nothing to do with each other.
The other question is: Why can’t the Democrat left ever figure out how to talk to the white working class? They are some of the very people who they are claiming to help, but since before Reagan, they were written off. This whole Trump thing could have been prevented in the first place if the Democrats knew how to talk to a third of his base. But with the white working class largely anti-union, it may be a bigger trick than it should be.
If you disagree with any of these readers or just want to add to the discussion in general, drop us a note anytime. Update from a reader who poses a question: “Doesn’t asking his supporters to patrol polling centers and challenge ‘suspicious looking people’ or whatever already count as attempting to rig the election?” Another reader:
Consider the stated Trump desire to jail Clinton as an effort to put his opponents on record as opposing jailing the loser (now almost certainly him). Is it possible he has done any jail-worthy deeds with taxes, charities, or Russian money-laundering for which he would like preemptive immunity? I swear I am not projecting ...
Earlier this year I read Edward B. Foley’s excellent history of disputed elections in America, Ballot Battles. The book is fascinating on many levels and alarming in its descriptions of the weaknesses in America’s electoral institutions. But I want to focus on one particular election featured in the book: the 1960 presidential contest between Nixon and Kennedy.
It’s now generally accepted that Chicago Democrats manipulated the vote totals in the 1960 election in an attempt to help Kennedy carry Illinois. There is also substantial evidence that Lyndon B. Johnson’s political machine in Texas manipulated the vote total in Kennedy’s favor. If Nixon was, in fact, cheated out of those two states and their electoral votes, then he was cheated out of the presidency in 1960.
Political partisans had their suspicions even at the time. After Nixon’s initial concession to Kennedy, his supporters urged him to seek recounts in both Illinois and Texas. But Nixon was convinced that there was no way for him to get a truly fair recount from Texas state officials. And at the time, the Supreme Court's policy was to avoid federal intervention in this type of dispute.
So let’s take a step back and consider this situation. Here we have a politician who is just out of reach of the White House. He has a reasonable belief that the vote totals in two key states were rigged against him, and that the recount process in one of those states would also be rigged against him. On top of everything else, this politician is Richard Nixon, a man whose name has become a shorthand for political dirty tricks. So what does he do?
He did not seek a recount in Texas. He did not denounce the vote counting process and recount process in Texas as “rigged.” He didn’t even seek a recount in Illinois, since Illinois by itself could not provide him the additional electoral votes needed to win.
Nixon later explained his reasoning for this inaction in his 1962 book, Six Crises. He worried that, “The bitterness that would be engendered by such a [recount] maneuver . . . would, in my opinion, have done incalculable and lasting damage throughout the country.” He also wrote that, “It is difficult enough to get defeated candidates in some of the newly independent countries to abide by the verdict of the electorate. If we could not continue to set a good example in this respect in the United States, I could see that there would be open-season for shooting at the validity of free elections throughout the world.”
The problems with the 1960 election and recount process are so manifest that Edward Foley concludes that “the 1960 presidential election must be viewed as a failure of American government to operate a well-functioning democracy.” The fact that this view is not widely shared should be attributed to the selfless act of a man who is otherwise (and not without cause!) pilloried for his subversion of American democratic ideals.
And that brings us back to Trump. Whereas Nixon had actual grounds to suspect vote-rigging, Trump has none. Whereas Nixon declined to challenge the election results after his supporters raised legitimate concerns, Trump is now spreading disinformation before the votes have even been counted. And whereas Nixon would not press his legitimate grievances for fear of dividing the country, Trump is using his lies to lay the groundwork for possible violence.
Nixon did more damage to the presidency and the popular image of American government than any other politician in the 20th Century. Trump hasn’t even been elected president, and yet he may have already done more damage than Nixon.
It’s worth noting one of the strongest ties between Nixon and Trump: Roger Stone. Stone is a Nixon acolyte—complete with a large tattoo of the president on his back—known for his “dirty tricks” on behalf of Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972. In his 2014 book Nixon’s Secrets, Stone forcefully argues that Kennedy stole the 1960 election:
During this primary season, Stone was one of Trump’s close advisors and henchmen (you probably remember him as the guy who threatened to send Trump supporters to the hotel rooms of RNC delegates) and he reportedly remains in close contact with Trump’s team. It would be no surprise if Stone’s deep resentment over the 1960 election is fueling the “rigged” rhetoric coming out of the Trump campaign right now.
In Time Capsule installment #142, and in a followup item in this thread, I mentioned Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”—blaming his opponents for flaws he very obviously has himself.
Seth Knoepler, a PhD psychologist in California, writes in to give me the Official Perspective:
Since you’re evidently receiving some “completely amateur” opinions, you might as well have a more professional one.
To clinical professionals, “projection” is one of the “mechanisms of defense” which Anna Freud and others have described. These are mental maneuvers which are intended to protect the person from uncomfortable feelings that are associated with particular impulses or ideas. Each defense mechanism results in a perception of reality which has been distorted in some way.
As can be seen, for example, in “The Choice: 2016,” the recent Frontline documentary, Trump grew up in a family that was dominated by his almost unbelievably driven, perfectionistic father, a man who with both his words and his actions created a world in which you either dominated others or were hopelessly, humiliatingly dominated. In such a world, any flaw or imperfection represents a weakness which, sooner or later, will be catastrophically exploited by people who see the world as the same Darwinian struggle that you do. Someone like Trump must “defend” himself against the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that would accompany any acknowledgement of his human fallibility by denying that he is in any meaningful way flawed—by insisting that “he alone” out of hundreds of millions of Americans is smart, strong, and ruthless enough, and without any exploitable flaws or weaknesses.
Each defense mechanism has its own idiosyncratic characteristics. Projection has the advantage of implicitly acknowledging the reality that someone is flawed in a certain way, while at the same time protecting the person from the uncomfortable feelings that would be precipitated by acknowledging that he is, in fact, that person.
And another person with a professional perspective:
Your correspondent writes, “Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs or desires in others they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.”
A different description might be:
Trump is aware that there are other views of reality than his own. The narcissistic project is to argue, charm, bully the world into accepting his view of reality, including but also going beyond his grandiose view of self. Insisting on this view leads others to mistake his aberrance for lying.
Now you know.
I agree about the excellence of PBS’s The Choice, available for streaming online. One of its messages is that each of these nominees has had a surprisingly consistent life story and affect over the decades. In the case of the GOP’s nominee, it means the man we now behold.
Although The Choice doesn’t explicitly address this point, it implicitly undercuts the idea the outbursts and excesses of Nominee Trump reflect any age-related distortions of his personality. He appears to have been this way for a long time.
In installment #142 of the Time Capsule series, I argue that “projection,” in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does.
Projection means deflecting any criticism (or half-conscious awareness) of flaws in yourself by accusing someone else of exactly those flaws. Is Trump’s most immediately obvious trait his narcissistic and completely ungoverned temperament? (Answer: yes.) By the logic of projection, it thus makes perfect sense that he would brag that he has “the greatest temperament” and judgment, and criticize the always-under-control Hillary Clinton for hers.
How can this be? A reader offers an analysis worth considering (emphasis added):
I am writing to comment on “Drug Test,” item #142, and the idea of self-projection as the first rule of Trump analysis. Here’s my completely amateur opinion:
Trump is a man with almost zero ability to empathize or imagine other people’s motives or drives. His ego and narcissism are so oversized they warp all his opinions into reflections of himself. Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs, or desires in others, they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.
In simple terms, one might say his mind is empty of any thoughts that are not self-referential. And so self-projection is simply a consequence of this vacuity.
One of the strangest things about the Trump phenomenon is that, for something so unprecedented, he’s best understood through the lens of history.
He’s also best misunderstood through that lens. One of the most common historical looks at Trump this year is comparing him to Hitler. (Here’s the most thoughtful and understated effort.) The commonness of this overreach may be the best case for bothering to be precise about what sort of character the Republican nominee is. The problem with the “Trump = Hitler” thesis, after all, is not that it is too difficult to sustain, but too easy; it fails by a long way to take a full measure of the German tyrant. But the reason the argument seems so low-hanging is that Trump has, probably half-unwittingly, turned the demagogy textbook into an instruction manual. Hitler may as well have been offering advice, for example, when he said that “the effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.” (Update on 10/25: My colleague Uri ably analyzes such Hitler comparisons.)
Some readers thought my note on Trump being an “Ur-Fascist” made a similar error, trying to shoehorn a word where it doesn’t belong. The word “fascism,” after all, recalls a specifically European past, and Trump, certainly as he conceives of himself, is American first. So one reader, Kevin, proposes a term that might be a fit better than “Ur-Fascist”:
I may be getting overly formal here, but fascism was a political movement with very definite philosophical underpinnings, most of them failing to resemble any philosophy that Trump and his followers may hold dear. One may say that Mussolini and the other fascist leaders of the 20th century often ignored them, but what actual political leaders of any movement have always kept faith with their philosopher predecessors?
Real fascisms had definite clerical and royalist associations. They attempted, with various degrees of commitment and success, to implement something like Catholic corporatism as a basis for social organization and the economy. It is no accident that actual fascisms were confined almost entirely to Catholic majority countries, most of them Iberian, Mediterranean, or Latin American. (Needless to say, this is one of the many reasons that National Socialism was not a fascist movement.)
All of these tenets, in addition to the obvious absence of any Trump squadristi, argue powerfully that Trump is no fascist—merely an American authoritarian.
It is in fact entirely misleading to turn to any foreign political model to explain Trump when there is a model in U.S. politics, of nearly two centuries' duration, that applies dead on. It is called Jacksonianism, and Trump is the Andrew Jackson of his day.
Jackson’s movement, like Trump’s, arose in reaction to perceived wrenching social and and economic changes in 1820s and 1830s America. Its adherents were the white yeomen who felt left out of the power structure, as opposed to the propertied elites who in many states had a monopoly on the franchise. The other burning issues that concerned the Jacksonians bore a distinct resemblance to those that concern Trump’s followers today—industrialization and international trade; concentration of wealth in the hands of the old Bourbon planters and the budding Northern industrialists; the control of Congress by such elite professional politicians as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C Calhoun. Add to this President John Quincy Adams, whose 1824 election in the House of Representatives over Andrew Jackson, the leader in popular vote, led to cries of a “corrupt bargain”—that is, a rigged election. Sound familiar?
And, of course, there was race. Not only did the Jacksonian multitudes fear competition from black slave labor (even though they were dead set against manumission). They were also both fearful and envious of the native population, whose land they coveted. It’s easy to imagine a Trumpian Trail of Tears, this time victimizing Latino immigrants and noncitizen Muslims rather than the Cherokee. Enforcing their expulsions would require a large militarized police force uprooting, dividing, and exiling families, all for the perceived benefit of nativist whites.
Like very many Trumpians, the Jacksonians did not fit neatly along the right-left axis as we understand it today. They were all for expanded government, as long as it benefited them and not the moneyed elites, new capitalists, and nonwhites. While claiming to eschew foreign policy interventionism, they were militaristic and better described as unilateralist than isolationist. For instance, they were gung-ho about invading and annexing adjacent territory that belonged to other nations. President James Knox Polk, who pursued the Mexican War, was a Jacksonian nonpareil.
So perhaps Orwell was more correct than you allow. “Fascist” has for nearly a century been a term of opprobrium hurled indiscriminately by certain leftists to attack any person or idea they find uncongenial. More recently, the word has been adopted by the right, with at least as much imprecision—a sure sign it has jumped the shark.
There is a bit of a contradiction here about whether Trump would or would not have thugs at his disposal, but nonetheless this is a strong case that Jacksonianism is the ism that fits better than fascism.
The age of Jackson, like today, produced a vulgar, furiously clannish outsider railing against a dynastic presidential opponent, upending the political categories that had calcified among elites in the ’90s (in this case, the 1790s). Jackson went much further than Trump’s mere quipping that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and still not lose voters; Jackson, known for dueling, killed at least one opponent, who had already shot him in the chest.
Jacksonianism did not die with its namesake, not by any means. It has been an important part of American political culture since, acting as a sort of raw animal nature that rises up when it senses attack and lashes out without regard for the sort of moral or moralizing (depending on how you see it) principles that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the like worked so hard to codify (if not always live by). The immediate aftermath of 9/11, for example, was a moment of Jacksonian ascendancy.
But if the major factor preventing Trump from being rightfully described as a fascist is that he is American, it begs a question: Without going all HUAC, or all Birther, how American is Trump? More than he resembles Hitler or Mussolini or Franco or even Berlusconi, Trump is of a piece with Eastern European rulers like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—an opportunistic autocrat with an animating anti-immigrant agenda.
Another reader points out that for practical purposes, we may be being too stingy, rather than too loose, with the word “fascism”:
The only elements missing from the fascist classification is efficacy. If a fascist can only be recognized after they’ve successfully attained power, it truly is a meaningless term.
Part of why Trump is shunned by his fellow members of the Western billionaire class is that he is not, like them, a plutocrat. He’s an aspiring oligarch. Moreover:
Trump demonstrates no interest in what the written Constitution says, let alone much knowledge of it.
Talking about how he would pursue trade negotiations, Trump has made clear that he sees the full faith and credit of the United States as a chip to be bargained away at the earliest opportunity.
And he interprets acts of violence against Americans as personal vindication to be used for political gain.
The word for all this is cynical, which happens to be the catchword that Eastern Europeans in Russia’s orbit use for the flavor of politics that has taken over since the pollyannaish early ’90s.
Another reader, Brian, writes in about why it makes sense to define the word “fascism” expansively in the modern day:
I think that it is easy to put too fine a point on the definition of fascism. For one thing, while it was a recognizable and fairly uniform political movement in early part of the 20th century, it was also driven by authoritarian and charismatic leaders and those leaders’ preoccupations, insecurities and bêtes noires affected its political content in the various countries.
There is also the fact that we are looking at fascism today after 80
years of study, discussion, and historical analysis, and the U.S. in
2016 is very different politically and economically from Italy or
Germany in the ’20s and ’30s.
But I would argue that if, say, Konrad Adenauer could have read
today’s U.S. press from prison after the Night of the Long Knives, or in
his house in Roendorf, he would find much of what he read about Trump chilling and all too recognizable—perhaps more in the Mussolini vein, but frightening all the same.
Just because a term has been overused—and “fascist” is no doubt pretty threadbare—does not mean the patterns in the carpet can no longer be made out.
One point that should not be so absent from this whole discussion: America matters more to the world today than even Germany did in the middle of the 20th century, specifically because it is so powerful. Just American inaction today can wreak more havoc than many countries’ worst intentional mischief.
Academics, history buffs, literary types, and other nerds could probably discuss ad infinitum what words and trends best fit Trump (and let’s! Write to us). But in truth, Trump is likely some combination: a Jacksonian with Ur-Fascist qualities, or vice versa, or something. He’s a little of this scary and a little of that scary.
James Joyce, being a tad simplistic but touching on an important idea, wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Trump, meanwhile, is behind the lectern every night, singing his virulent lullabies.
In last night’s debate, the Republican nominee said, apropos military policy: “General George Patton, General Douglas MacArthur are spinning in their grave at the stupidity of what we’re doing in the Middle East.”
In most of his speeches Trump mentions those same two generals. Reader Marcus Hall assesses what the reliance on Patton and MacArthur might tell us about Trump:
It is easy to see why these two military legends are attractive to Trump:
1) Both were known as showmen and motivators. This is clearly Trump’s modus operandi as well; he is most comfortable being the showman and motivator. When he isn’t in the granted position of head of the dais, he looks, seems, and acts out of place. (For example, think back to the instance in Flint where the pastor takes the initiative to challenge him as a person.)
2) Both were known to take personal animus against rivals on their own side to extremes. Think of Patton’s constant infighting with Montgomery, and his less than amicable relationship to Bradley after Sicily.
3) Both were known for strident aggressive stances against an enemy without consideration for larger picture effects. MacArthur’s blunders with antagonizing the Chinese after Inchon, and Patton’s immediate post-war desire to go to war with the Soviets before the armed forces and the country (or its non-Russian allies) could even recover from WWII.
4) Both faced disgrace at the hands of the media and at the hands of those who were better able to handle the larger context of events (Eisenhower for Patton, and Truman for MacArthur).
5) Both had authoritarian tendencies supposedly in defense of freedom.
6) Both are seen as the epitome of the “masculine” general—the ones who take action and get the job done, rather than the kind of general who sees complexity and takes a more complicated approach (Patton v. Eisenhower and Bradley, or MacArthur v. Ridgeway).
7) Both had great strengths but fatal flaws that ended (or almost ended) their careers. Patton’s consideration of PTSD as cowardly is particularly insightful, as some of Trump’s comments seem to indicate a similar attitude.
Trump’s use of these particular generals fits in line with both his own, and his base supporters’, attitudes towards conflict, war, and masculinity. These men chose to see events in binary paradigms and reacted accordingly—hero/coward, friend/enemy, good/bad—with deliberate elimination of room for something in-between or more complex. With Trump, if something’s good, it is The Greatest. If something is bad, it is totally The Worst. His choice of dichotomy helps make issues simpler and condenses them for people who don’t want to spend a lot of time (or can’t spend a lot of time) determining complexity, or who don’t want to be bothered with complexity. It makes for great bumper stickers, but usually terrible policies, especially when it comes to larger picture actions.
I keep wishing a moderator would ask Trump “What then?” when he states his preferential policies on numerous fronts. Ally with Russia against ISIS! (What then? What if Russia does what is has so far, and really refuses to take on ISIS because they are a useful bogeyman?) Not get involved in ousting dictators about to commit atrocities! (What then? Sit back and allow the atrocities to continue?) etc. There are debates to be had and points to be made in favor of Trump’s preferred choices, but no one seems capable of following up a question to get to his next steps and plan B, C, and D in case his preferred plan doesn’t work.
MacArthur’s plan if the Chinese entered the Korean War was to go nuclear, period. It wasn’t much of a plan, although it fit MacArthur’s small picture needs of tactically dealing with an in-theater enemy. When the issue became clear that MacArthur’s plan B was so poor of an alternative, Truman removed him.
However, no one has bothered to figure out Trump’s plan B to even judge how good or bad it is (and Trump himself probably doesn’t even have a Plan B because he believes all his Plan A’s are The Greatest). This is one of the tells that shows more than just about anything else that he isn’t qualified to be President. Plan A’s fail all the time. Having a workable plan B, C, D, and E is the difference between an Eisenhower and a Patton, a Ridgway and a MacArthur.
In installment #137, I mentioned Jane Goodall’s prescience in foreseeing primal-dominance moves from Donald Trump if he had a chance to move around in the same debate space with Hillary Clinton. Now a sample of reader reaction. From a woman named Sarah:
You are wondering how Trump’s behavior last night played with women. I can tell you that I and every other woman I know are having a collective freakout right now. Granted, not one of us was going to vote for Trump, anyway—but that’s not the point.
Last night’s debate was a triggering event for pretty much every woman I know. That also seems to be the general reaction online amongst women I don’t know. Whether we were raped, assaulted, harassed, or in an abusive relationship, Trump last night embodied everything we have had to deal with throughout our lives. Some women wanted to jump on stage and throw themselves between the candidates to protect Hillary. Others were afraid he was going to attack her. Many wondered how she could even maintain a train of thought.
Women with young daughters are struggling with how to discuss what they saw last night with their girls. For those of us with sons, it’s a bit easier: 1) Don't be That Guy; 2) If you see That Guy in action, call out his bad behavior.
But—we, collectively, are having a difficult time shaking off what we saw last night. It was terrifying, frustrating, enraging, and depressing. Other women, perhaps, will shake it off as “all men are like that.” The fact that some women think that this is normal behavior is, in itself, deeply depressing.
I read your Trump Time Capsule #137 with interest. For what it’s worth, way back in the day I was an Anthropology major, albeit not in primates. So I know a tiny fraction more than the stereotypical man in the street.
We have a rather long history, in the United States, of electing the taller of our two candidates for President, at least when the difference is immediately visible. My thought that this is, at least somewhat, a matter of security. People who want to feel secure tend to feel so around a father figure—not all fathers, obviously, but the sort of father that Jesus had in mind when he used that analogy to describe a loving God.
But while Trump is taller than Clinton, is that dynamic in play here? Obviously it slips partly because someone looking for security is going to think Mother Figure vs Father Figure. How that part plays out depends a lot on what specific kinds of fears they are working from.
But the other factor is, would you want Trump, or anyone like him, as your father? How many women voters would feel more secure with a father who spoke of them in the terms Trump used about his daughter on that tape? I’m guessing not many.
Those dominance rituals only work if you have correctly tapped into the reasons why they work. Trump hasn't.
George Orwell said that “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” He’s not wrong. Since Mussolini’s original Partito Nazionale Fascista rule began in Italy in 1922, “fascist” has become an epithet that’s as easy to dismiss as it is to use.
Yet the term remains important as well as loaded, especially in an American election season when an argument has broken out over whether the Republican nominee for president meets its definition. Writing in The Atlantic in January, Gianni Riotta addressed this question, answering that Donald Trump is not a fascist. And he would know; he grew up in the rubble of the original Italian fascism, lived its recent history, and labored under personal threats from groups of lingering fascists during their moments of revival.
Here is how Riotta defines “fascist” and why he thinks it’s overwrought to use it to describe Trump:
Trump will never master the techniques laid out in 1931 by the then-fascist journalist Curzio Malaparte in his Coup D’etat: The Technique of Revolution, which detailed the clear requirements of the fascist manifesto: Seize and hold state power with a sudden attack, coordinated with cunning and force. There is no fascism without this rational, violent plan to obliterate democracy. From Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Mussolini’s speeches on the Palazzo Venezia balcony, fascists told the crowd openly what their goals were and kept a nefarious, disciplined pace to realize them. Mussolini boasted about reducing Italy’s Parliament “to a fascist barrack,” “stopping any antifascist brain from thinking,” and “creating a new Roman Empire.”
Notwithstanding some obvious shades of “make America great again” and “the experts are terrible” in Mussolini’s sloganeering, by Riotta’s definition Trump is indeed not a fascist—that is, assuming that on November 9, Trump is having one of the days when he says he’s inclined to respect the results of the democratic election, and not one of the days when he’s not.
But the debate over the definition of fascism is much richer than Riotta covered. Some readers of his piece quibbled that there are shades of fascism and that Trump sits somewhere worryingly far along:
Perhaps it’s more accurate that Trump is “fascistic” or “with fascist tendencies” (or, more ominously, “proto-fascist”).
Another reader suggested:
Though all the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are off base. Trump is more like Goering in attitude and temperament: pompous, full of himself, and attracted to power.
Fascist-y? Fascist-esque? Generalissimodious?
Clearly the strict binary Riotta lays out doesn’t leave room for people to invoke some of the expressive power of the F-word that Trump seems to compel some to.
How about “Ur-Fascist”?
“Ur-Fascism” is a 1995 essay by the great Italian author Umberto Eco, who was born under Mussolini’s regime in 1932. The essay takes up the challenge that Orwell laid down in 1944 when he called “fascist” nearly meaningless. Even Orwell didn’t propose to abandon the term entirely, merely to “use [it] with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” Eco takes this seriously, and in doing so he provides the loudest response to Riotta’s definition of fascism as explicitly evoking Mussolini’s worldview:
It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.
Just because the term is mutable does not mean it’s meaningless. The starting point of Eco’s understanding is, quite unlike Riotta’s, that the modern word has a history in Italian fascism but it need not share precise features with Mussolini’s system. It’s a synecdoche—a part that stands as a symbol for the whole phenomenon of 20th century strongman authoritarianism—in which Italy’s system figures deeply but not definitively.
See if you think Eco was onto something with predictive power in the following passages from his essay. The first:
Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
And here are Trump’s tweets from Election Day 2012, when President Obama won reelection with 332 Electoral College votes over Mitt Romney’s 206 and with a four-point margin of victory in the popular vote:
We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
The Trump campaign’s messaging seems to have internalized this warning as advice:
The next entry from Eco is … well:
Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
There are many instances of Trump living up to this prediction, the most unsettling being when he spoke about his health on air with fellow TV charlatan Dr. Oz, who mentioned Trump’s slightly higher than average testosterone levels to studio applause. But the moment that most seared itself into public consciousness came in a primary debate with Marco Rubio:
Next up from Eco:
Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
Trump recently said that there’s a reason for keeping Middle Eastern refugees out of the country beyond national security; it’s a “quality of life” issue, you see! This on top of proposing to create a national force big enough to deport more than 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States (meaning he would like to have an armed federal force at his command). That on top of suggesting that the solution for black and Hispanic Americans “living in hell” in inner-city neighborhoods is to institute a national Stop and Frisk policy, which was struck down in New York because the way it was carried out constituted a breach of black and Hispanic New Yorkers’ constitutional rights. After it ended, crime did not go up. Nobody was raped in Central Park because of it—though if someone had been, you can bet Trump would have been behind newspaper ads seeking the death penalty for five juveniles—four black and one Hispanic—who were innocent.
Here’s the last of Eco’s truly Trump-resonant elements of Ur-Fascism:
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.
In July, Trump tweeted this since-deleted image:
Oh, and Trump had spent years accusing the first black president of engaging in a massive coverup of the fact that he had been born in Kenya and could not legitimately hold his office—in between accusing him of being a secret Muslim.
The genius of Eco’s answer to Orwell’s question—a question sadly also at hand in 2016 America—is that he grasps that it was the very contradiction and slapdashery in Italy’s authoritarianism that made its name stick to the larger idea. What the eyes of history have recognized at the core of Mussolini’s system is “… a rigid discombobulation, a structured confusion. Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.”
Nobody would argue the tenor of the campaign has improved since January, when Riotta’s essay came out. Since then, Trump has even gone as far as to question the democratic system—“the election is rigged!”—most ominously by signaling supporters to stake out polling stations in districts where he’s not likely to find much support. Trump has taken on so many of the characteristics of an Ur-Fascist, the strong case is that rather than being a hurled epithet, the label simply fits. (Disagree? Or want to make further connections between Trump and Ur-Fascism? Drop us a note.)
Umberto Eco died in February of this year. But like all the greatest authors, his writing will always feel immediate. Early on in “Ur-Fascism,” he writes:
I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.
A reader in the tech business offers an uncomfortably plausible scenario on what might happen beginning November 9:
What comes after the campaign of 2016? It now appears likely that Hillary will win, that Trumpism will be soundly discredited, and that people will soon forget that the contest ever seemed close. Losing campaigns are always harmless in the rear view mirror: no one has family stories about working for Joe McCarthy or Charles Lindbergh. That’s why we need the Time Capsule.
But, after the campaign is over and the election lost, Trump faces trouble unprecedented in American history*. It’s conceivable that Trump could face civil or criminal prosecution on several fronts: federal income tax evasion, mail fraud connected with Trump University, fraud connected to his charitable foundation, espionage associated with Wikileaks, illegal lobbying associated with Russia.
(* Well, there’s Aaron Burr. Warren Harding died in office. Eugene Debs wound up in prison, but he wasn’t quite a major party candidate, his offense—if offense it was—occurred years after the campaign, and his red-scare prosecution is not something of which the country has been proud. I can’t recall another example.)
We can easily imagine that some of these matters might arrive in federal or state court in the coming years. Whatever the outcome of those cases, Trump supporters will believe that the charges are Hillary Clinton’s personal retribution. And, next time the Democrats lose the White House, they will call for matching prosecutions of the losing candidate. “Lock Her Up” may have awful echoes.
As you know, this mirrors one of the defects that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Romans didn’t want every private complaint to stop public business, so you couldn’t bring suit against officials until their terms expired. Toward the end of the Republic, this meant that anyone could expect to be sued as soon as they left office, which meant that people had to find ways to stay in office indefinitely. Losing a big election meant endless litigation, possibly ending in death or exile.
As things stand, I fear creating the expectation that every losing presidential candidate will face prosecution.
One escape hatch could be a pre-emptive pardon. I was not a fan of Ford’s pardoning Nixon, but the national interest might be stronger here than it was after Watergate. History has been kinder about another precedent, the decision not to prosecute officials of the purported Confederacy. The question then becomes, is it preferable for Clinton to pardon Trump, or for Obama?
As David Sims wrote in his piece “Alec Baldwin’s Scarier, Nastier Donald Trump,” Alec Baldwin gave us a very funny Trump, and a somewhat darker characterization than we normally see from Saturday Night Live. However, it is not the darkest or best Trump impression to emerge in this election season, and it clearly borrowed from the one that is.
Earlier this year, comic Anthony Atamanuik appeared as Trump in a number of appearances on comedy shows, often debating Bernie Sanders (as portrayed very humorously by James Adomian). While Baldwin’s had elements of Darrell Hammond’s goofy Trump, it is indeed closer to Drunk Uncle or Archie Bunker. Atamanuik, by contrast, is nonchalantly ghoulish—an uncensored peek into the dark heart of the Trump id as we fear it to be, if that were then blown up to full size and presented without any other element of Trump’s personality. Baldwin’s use of “Gina” was pioneered by Atamanuik’s Trump, who repeatedly asserted that Gina was the enemy. With Atamanuik, this is just getting started, as he will casually promise to kill everyone, repeatedly tell young women that he can buy them and even tell one she has soft skin which he could remove if he wanted.
I was blindsided by this routine when I happened to see a version of this mock debate on Comedy Central’s show At Midnight. It feels like genuinely dangerous comedy and was clearly the inspiration for SNL to go a bit beyond their glitz and goofiness in the characterization of a man who may truly be a hollowed out shell animated only by primitive drives.
Watch for yourself below. I caught the first seven minutes and it’s truly packed with talent and blunt dark humor that doesn’t feel petty. (For example, Baldwin’s Trump referring to Lester Holt as “jazz man” and “Coltrane” felt cheap and lazy, compared to Atamanuik’s inspired riff on “white power”—watch here as a standalone clip.)
Local pandemic restrictions have devolved into a confusing, ineffectual mess.
Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it weren’t the one I’d make.
The new Netflix film is a think-piece trap—shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
Cynical public speech aimed at winning political power has consequences.
Three weeks after the conclusion of the 2020 presidential election, many Republican members of Congress find themselves boxed in. Some have privatelycongratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for their historic win. But publicly, most Republicans have remained silent, while others have actively encouraged President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of mass voter fraud.
The situation these Republicans face is one that many southern members of Congress would have recognized during the aftermath of the 1860 election. Southern congressmen had spent years stirring up anger and promoting fear of their opponents, and were so successful that by 1860 they had lost control of their message. Abraham Lincoln’s election caused a mass movement among white southerners to leave the Union. Even though they knew that the claims being embraced by their constituents were conspiratorial and overblown, many southern members of Congress felt they had to get on board or be left behind.
“We are on an absolutely catastrophic path,” said a COVID-19 doctor at America’s best-prepared hospital.
Perhaps no hospital in the United States was better prepared for a pandemic than the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
After the SARS outbreak of 2003, its staff began specifically preparing for emerging infections. The center has the nation’s only federal quarantine facility and its largest biocontainment unit, which cared for airlifted Ebola patients in 2014. The people on staff had detailed pandemic plans. They ran drills. Ron Klain, who was President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar” and will be Joe Biden’s chief of staff in the White House, once told me that UNMC is “arguably the best in the country” at handling dangerous and unusual diseases. There’s a reason many of the Americans who were airlifted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February were sent to UNMC.
The U.S. could have hundreds of thousands of fewer births next year than it would have in the absence of a pandemic.
By now, the pandemic has disrupted Americans’ daily lives for nearly as long as a baby typically spends in the womb. This means that many children conceived in mid-March are weeks away from joining us in this disorienting new world, but just as notable are the children who won’t be joining us—the babies who would have been born were it not for the ongoing economic and public-health crises. These missing births, which could end up numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S., will make up what’s been called the “COVIDbabybust.”
One would think that a baby bust would take at least nine months to reveal itself, but traces of one seem to have already appeared. As Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has noted, births started to decline in California and Florida during the summer. That’d be too soon, though, to reflect a drop in conceptions during the pandemic, or a rise in abortions or miscarriages (which tend to happenearlier on in pregnancy). Three possible explanations, Cohen told me, are errors or lags in states’ data on births, large numbers of pregnant people moving during the pandemic and giving birth in another state, or a large, unexpected drop-off in births that was already going to happen regardless of the pandemic.
Stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions.
Over the summer, parts of the United States seemed to have a grip on the pandemic. New York and much of the Northeast, for instance, recorded relatively few new infections. The pandemic gloom was taking a less heavy toll than it had in its first months, partly because warm weather made restrictions on indoor activity more bearable.
That sense of control was illusory. As the seasons have changed, the virus has resumed its exponential spread. The public’s willingness to follow health guidelines also feels more tenuous. After months of sacrifice, many people seem simply to lack the will to keep up their social-distancing efforts.
Many factors help explain America’s abject failure to contain the pandemic. A good number of them can be traced back to Donald Trump. But many democracies with able leaders, such as Germany and Canada, are also struggling to contain the virus, so pointing to the president’s lies and incompetence isn’t sufficient.
At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, the French government has introduced new legislation that threatens the very freedoms it vows to defend.
The beheading of the middle-school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 by a young man enraged by Paty’s showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to vow that France will never flinch in its defense of freedom of expression. In the name of upholding the core values of the French Republic, however, Macron’s government and members of his party have introduced new legislation that effectively restricts them. Unless the proposed laws are modified or scrapped, France will soon be a far less free country than it is now.
Three new pieces of legislation aim to make the French more secure by restricting democratic rights. A bill that sets the research budget for French universities for the next decade, adopted by France’s Senate on November 20, targets student protests and took a stab at academic freedom. The bill includes a provision criminalizing on-campus gatherings that “trouble the tranquility and good order of the establishment” with a fine of up to 45,000 euros and a prison term of up to three years. An amendment requiring that academic research hew to the “values of the Republic” was scrapped only at the last minute, after strong pushback by scholars who feared that its intent was to restrict freedom of inquiry.
“I’m more than just my store,” my father told me. And yet, for nearly his entire adult life, all of his decisions had argued the opposite.
The first time I looked at my father’s Yelp reviews, I choked up. They were not all positive, and of course I read the worst ones first. My dad, Frank, runs a high-fidelity audio-video store in San Francisco and also repairs the brands he sells. One reviewer gave him one star, noting that his turntables had sat in the shop for five weeks, untouched. It brought me back to all the school nights when we stayed at the store until 9 p.m. so he could finish a job that was overdue. Another guy complained that when he called, my dad picked up blurting, “What do you want? I’m vvvvvveeeerrrryyyy busy.” I remember hearing him do that once when I was a kid. He was on hold with the bank or a supplier, and the second line kept ringing. I was aghast. “Well, I hope you are sooooooooo busy that people do not EVER go to your store,” this reviewer wrote.
More people than ever are hospitalized with COVID-19. Health-care workers can’t go on like this.
On Saturday morning, Megan Ranney was about to put on her scrubs when she heard that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. That day, she treated people with COVID-19 while street parties erupted around the country. She was still in the ER in the late evening when Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris made their victory speeches. These days, her shifts at Rhode Island Hospital are long, and they “are not going to change in the next 73 days,” before Biden becomes president, she told me on Monday. Every time Ranney returns to the hospital, there are more COVID-19 patients.