Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 44 Newer Notes

'Is Trump a Product of Local TV News?'

Donald Trump has soaked up an astronomical amount of free media over the past year—$2 billion worth as long ago as March and more than $31 million worth from Sean Hannity alone—but an Atlantic reader, Eric, turns our attention local. He wonders if there’s a significant contrast between national and local news when it comes to crime coverage and whether that difference is driving support for Trump:

Something came to mind a few nights ago while I was watching the presidential debates: Is Trump a product of local TV news? I was struck and saw, for the first time, how disconnected the world that Donald Trump was describing seemed from reality in America—not just on the coasts, but everywhere. It got me thinking about his comments in the past regarding minority communities, crime, and social breakdown as a whole. Those don’t reflect the America you’d read in the mainstream media, hear on public radio, or see on network news broadcasts, but they do sound vaguely like one non-partisan news source that I’m familiar with: the local TV news.

I don’t watch much local news, and neither do most people in know, so I decided to look into it a little further. What I discovered was that 57 percent of American adults often get their news through television, with 46 percent saying that’s through local TV news. Considering that local news has become, for the most part, weather, traffic, and sports (40 percent of broadcasts, according to Pew) with crime reports (17 percent) and accidents/disasters (13 percent) in between, it strikes me as understandable that Trump’s “law and order” message has some resonance. After all, if the main source of news is local TV, then nearly a third of the time not dedicated to traffic, weather, and sports is about crime in the local community. Even if crime weren’t rising, the ubiquity of its coverage would give the impression that it’s getting worse.

Six days ago: the debate. Carlos Barria / Reuters

I think this is simple, rather than simplistic:

  1. The people who are for Donald Trump, are for him. And almost nothing he can say or do, or that can be said or revealed about him, will undercut that support. The things that ordinarily would be considered “shocking” or “disqualifying” haven’t eroded belief among his base, and probably won’t.
                                                                                             
  2. But there are not enough of these people to get 270 electoral votes for Trump. There were enough to give him an initial plurality in a huge GOP field, and to keep him coming out ahead as his GOP rivals foolishly attacked one another rather than concentrating on him. But in the general election his core support has remained below winning levels in virtually all honest polls. He has so far seemed to hit a ceiling at around 40% support—sobering in itself, but not enough.
                                                                                             
  3. Therefore he needs new supporters—more women, more blacks and Latinos and Asians, more Muslims, more educated people, more of the young.
                                                                                             
  4. Therefore2, the test of everything Trump does now—the debates, the “Miss Piggy” controversy, the taxes, everything—is whether it brings him anyone new. The question is not the one we mainly hear after debates or Trump flaps: how this affects his supporters. They already support him. The question is whether what he does and says brings in anyone undecided, or new.

    My guess is that is has not.

The main point is: since Trump starts with not enough votes to win, the logical test to apply, in the 36 days that remain, is whether what he does with each speech, each answer in a debate, each tweet, each flux of the news cycle, expands his base. If it doesn’t, he has lost.

The late New York real estate heiress and hotelier Leona Helmsley in 2003. She was famous for saying, before she went to prison, "only the little people pay taxes." Reuters

Following installment #119 in the Trump Time Capsule series, which contrasted Donald Trump’s “they’re freeloaders!” complaint about NATO allies with his own “that makes me smart!” comment about not paying taxes himself, readers weigh in.

1) If this makes Trump “smart,” most people are forced to be dumb. Friend-of-the-site and Congressional veteran Mike Lofgren highlights an aspect I neglected to mention:

An important point that wasn’t emphasized is that among the vast majority of Trump’s supporters, not paying taxes isn’t even an option, regardless of how much they might want to chisel the IRS.

FICA taxes are automatically deducted, and the employer automatically files a W2. The option of setting up tax-exempt foundations, shell companies, and engaging in transfer pricing simply does not exist for these folks.

An ordinary person would resent someone who can get away with various tax dodges; maybe Trump’s supporters have such a masochistic identification with him that it doesn’t matter.  

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2. Only the little people pay. From a reader in California:

With his recent “That Makes Me Smart” comment at the debate, I am reminded of Leona Helmsley, famous for saying, as I’m sure you remember, “Only the little people pay taxes.” I haven’t seen anyone make the connection recently, perhaps I have missed it, but they have much in common.

via @sonnyandthesunsets (thnx @cantina_ )

A video posted by Chill Wildlife™ 🖖🏼 (@chillwildlife) on

I’m helping my colleague Jim Fallows with some housecleaning regarding the massive amount of reader email piling up over Donald Trump. One notes for the record:

I appreciate your Trump Time Capsule serial, but I think you all have missed one. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I am unaware of a presidential candidate ever releasing his (or her) testosterone level before? Since Trump has released so little other health information, the message it sends is … I can’t find the words for it.

Speaking of the Time Capsule, this reader has an apt literary reference:

It seems this passage from Lewis Carroll “fits” your Time Capsule: Alice laughed/said, “One can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen replied, “I daresay you haven’t much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 5)

This scene from Tim Burton’s version of the Carroll classic has a certain resonance with last night’s debate:

This next email is a fascinating followup to the reader who saw a Trump-Pence bumper sticker on a car equipped with The Club and parked at a Hollywood studio—the kind of secure place where a security measure like The Club seems unnecessary at best:

In 1992, my most favorite car ever was stolen from the streets of New York City while protected by The Club. When I reported the theft to police and insurance, I learned that The Club is not a deterrent; it is actually an aid to car thieves. I didn’t grasp the details at the time, but as I was reading your post about the Trump-Pence car, I remembered how my confidence in The Club was disappointed and found this paragraph on Freakonomics:

A pro thief would carry a short piece of a hacksaw blade to cut through the plastic steering wheel in a couple seconds. They were then able to release The Club and use it to apply a huge amount of torque to the steering wheel and break the lock on the steering column (which most cars were already equipped with). The pro thieves actually sought out cars with The Club on them because they didn’t want to carry a long pry bar that was too hard to conceal.

So there’s a pretty rich irony in this whole metaphor: a voter who is frightened by threats that aren’t real, or aren’t statistically significant, trusts a protector who will not provide any meaningful protection, who will, in addition, make the voter more vulnerable. Trump has cheated employees, lenders, stockholders, charities, customers, and now he’s setting himself up to cheat his voters and supporters too.

Another reader replies to the note from Fallows featuring the massive searchable database containing every tweet from Trump:

Thanks for sharing the link! This is awesome! In just two minutes, I was able to answer a question that long bedeviled me: on Planet Trump, what are all the failing media operations? The answer:

The New York Times (the champion by far), CNN, New York Daily News, Glenn Beck/The Blaze, National Review, Manchester Union Leader, Politico, Daily Beast, Des Moines Register, Weekly Standard, The View, Vanity Fair, Bill Maher, Huffington Post, DC Examiner, New York Magazine

Meanwhile the Washington Post only gets a one-time appellation of “phony.” Clearly, the Fahrenthold stories aren’t stinging too much.

Fallows covered the latest from Fahrenthold yesterday. Another reader takes a big step back to try to understand this moment in political history:

Maybe some part of the electorate has always been paranoid. But like your reader [who saw the Trump-Pence bumper sticker] points out, this year seems a watershed. I can see some reasons:

1. LGBT marriage equality: Came SO fast, I don’t think people have processed it yet. As they are struggling to cope with this decidedly liberal agenda, the wedding cake mafia is not helping either. No one likes being held hostage to ideas in their own home/city/country.

The Club™ in action, via Winner International.

A reader in Southern California whom I’ve corresponded with over the years sent several photos with accompanying description. I’m not using the pictures, for the contradictory reasons that they are blurry looking but also clear enough that they might be identifiable. But I’ve seen them and can say that they support the case the reader makes.

Why is Trump popular? The reader says that he is the living human version of that familiar car safety device, The Club™ from Winner International.

Or, that if Richard Hofstadter were rewriting The Paranoid Style in American Politics, he would need a multi-volume special edition to cover 2016. Over to the reader:

I work on a studio lot in Los Angeles. Hollywood is lousy with liberals, so you can imagine my surprise when I pulled in next to a car with a Trump 2016 sticker. [The reader sent a photo.]

I immediately liked the owner of the Trump car, in the same way that I would like the owner of a Clinton car in the Bible belt. Going against the grain like that takes independent thinking, guts.

But what really got my attention was The Club. [A photo of this, too, across the steering wheel.]

I don't know if you remember The Club, but it was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a long steel bar that you stick in the steering wheel. Truly the only way to prevent car theft.

I haven’t seen a car with The Club in a long time, but I saw one today. It was protecting the Trump car. And this, for me, perfectly sums up the Donald Trump supporter.  

To begin with, consider the driver’s morning. To get onto the lot, they had to pass through a security checkpoint. Once on the lot, they were in an officer-patrolled environment. In fact, every inch of this place is monitored with security cameras.

In other words, this is a safe place.

A new archive makes the thoughts of the nominee available and searchable. For instance here, the 63 times he has called someone "lightweight." Trump Twitter Archive

Talk about a time capsule! This is quite an amazing piece of work. Courtesy of a Georgetown grad and former Peace Corps volunteer who now works as a programmer, we now have a searchable archive of 16,000+ tweets from @realDonaldTrump since 2009.

The main page, with selected highlights, is here. The search utility is here. For instance, if you’d like to see all 63 tweets in which Trump calls someone (usually Little Marco) “lightweight,” you can just click here.

You can donate to support the site here. (I have no involvement with it or its creator in any way, except as a citizen grateful for further documentation of our times.)

48 days and a few hours to go. The Republican leadership, minus one former president, is still saying: He’s fine!

Back in 2009, when I was living in China, I was digging into the birther issue. This was before Donald Trump made it his own. But it reflects part of the genius of Trump’s multi-year birther crusade. Let’s think about the fundamental idiocy of the line that the Republican nominee was pushing for many years. Here’s the 2009 post:

I don’t know whether the birthers are petering out on their own. If they’re still around, here’s an additional challenge for them that springs from the glory days of Mad magazine.

A friend has recalled a classic Mad riff from its “Strangely Believe It!” series, produced by comedian Ernie Kovacs in the late Fifties as a knock-off of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It concerned—well, see for yourself, in this detail of a scan of the original page, courtesy of Scott Gosar at TheMadStore.

MadMag.jpg

Because I’ve been on the road talking about my new story on the upcoming presidential debates—read it here! and then subscribe!—I am again falling behind the accelerating reality of the Trump Time Capsule era. Will add several updates at the next opportunity.

Meanwhile: Yesterday afternoon I spent a long time talking with Brian Beutler, of The New Republic, for his Primary Concerns podcast series. We talked about what the “false equivalence” brouhaha reveals and conceals, what the Trump movement shows and doesn’t about the country, what the political press can and cannot do, and other topics with a yin-and-yang aspect to be explored. We ended on the high note of what we’d each learned about the world from growing up, a generation apart, in the same small inland-California town. I enjoyed it and think you’ll find it interesting. It’s here.

Also, the Atlantic’s video team has made a great short video that accompanies my debate article, and for which I do the voice-over. You can see it here and below.

This guy, "D. J. Quacker," shown outside Trump Tower in New York yesterday, wants Donald Trump to release his taxes. So does a former commissioner of the IRS. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

With 61-plus days until the election, Donald Trump remains the only major-party nominee for the presidency or vice presidency of the post-Watergate era who has refused to release his tax returns. Not coincidentally, of all nominees through that period, Trump also has the most complicated and least-publicly-understood personal and corporate finances.

Why is he drawing the line here? Readers offer their hypotheses:

I started my career with a year as an IRS agent before jumping across the desk to work for a “Big Eight” firm (which I think is now the Big Four?).

It’s been a long time since I’ve been doing taxes, but my gut tells me Trump hasn’t filed in the first place.

I remember being involved with clients who had endured bankruptcies, the implosion of complex energy partnerships, and/or the collapse of the real-estate market.

Their partnership K1s would be delayed for so long that we’d sometimes have to file with numbers we ... well... sorta made up. Once the K1s arrived we could always go back and amend, but by providing some form of a reasonable estimate we could show good faith.

However, there were some clients that hated the tax code, and the entire Byzantine process (not to mention our fees). So some of them opted out until something came along and forced their hand to file (e.g., an audit).

A thought for the morning from one of the two people who might become president. This is one of the Tweets that appears to come from Trump himself. How do we know? It’s from his Android phone, rather than the staff’s iPhone or iPad (and they haven’t bothered to all buy Androids yet). Also, Trump always misspells judgment this way. Also, who else would write or say something like this? Something this crass—and also, something this foolish. After all, of the many ways in which Donald Trump might want to invite comparison with Hillary Clinton, brainpower and “judgement” are not his areas of most obvious advantage.

Seventy days (plus a few hours) until the election, with something like the “real” campaign beginning, these thoughts arrive from readers on how the nation, the party, the press, and others reckon with the reality of a candidate Trump.

1. Asking about torture. A reader suggests a line of questioning:

Why don’t journalists ask Trump surrogates to address Trump’s repeated view that he would advocate torture and killing of families of known terrorists? This seems as abhorrent as any of his positions. Maybe I have missed it but I have never, for example, heard a reporter ask Pence whether he supports this extreme position at odds with basic tenets of civilized behavior, Geneva Convention, rule of law,  the reason why we fought WWII, etc.

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2. Why the Berlusconi comparison is so useful. An American reader who has been in Europe writes:

I was in Spain this past week, where the collective question about the U.S. political campaign can only be translated as “WTF?” While I am not familiar with members of the entire political spectrum in Spain, my acquaintances are generally shocked at the recklessness and the intellectual vapidity of one of our leading political candidates.

Spaniards tend to respect the U.S. Even those who view the U.S. as a malign force think of it as an incredibly capable country filled with smart (if misguided) people. Mr. Trump’s success is not something they can easily reconcile.

I write that as a preamble to my response to the Black Trump Supporter who chastised you for your coverage of Trump. [JF note: It was from a man named Jamie Douglas, here.] In criticizing your coverage, he points out problems afflicting America and African Americans, in particular. He makes some valid points about the relative (a term to be stressed) success of Black Caribbean and Nigerian immigrants compared to African Americans with long family histories in this country. Smarter people than I will engage on this point. I will only point out that his observations are not reasons to support Donald Trump.  They are, at best, reasons to punish Democrats and to “stick it” to those Blacks with whom you’ve disagreed over the years. [JF: I assume this is the impersonal “you,” like on in French or “with whom one has disagreed...” in English. Rather than meant for me!]

***

Last night, in Time Capsule #88, I noted the deafening silence of Republican officialdom, after Hillary Clinton delivered her calmly devastating indictment of Donald Trump’s racist themes.

After this frontal attack on their own party’s chosen nominee, the rest of the GOP leadership said ... nothing. The cable-news Trump advocates were out in force, but senators? Governors? Previous candidates? Wise men and women of the party? Crickets.

A reader who is not a Trump supporter says there’s a logic to the plan:

I think you might be missing the GOP strategy here regarding Sec. Clinton’s bigotry speech, and the fact that no Republican came forward to defend Donald Trump. Republicans know that she spoke the truth—the indefensible truth about Donald Trump—and they want to squelch any discussion about it. That’s what they are doing.

Because they don’t want this speech on the airwaves, debated on panels, over several news cycles, with more and more of the dirty laundry getting debated in the mainstream news cycles, leading the Nightly News with dramatic music. Screaming headlines. Any any—ANY—statement by a Republican will trigger that discussion that no GOPer wants.

The mainstream news guys are sitting there at their email boxes, waiting, waiting, for statements, so they can write a piece on it. Benjy Sarlin mentioned it on Twitter, which you probably saw. [JF: I have now] And a couple of other journos, agreed.

But without some outraged statement from Ryan, Cruz, anybody, the mainstream journos have nothing to write about, there is no news cycle, no panels, no screaming headlines, no multi-news cycle. Just a Wow! Clinton gave a rough speech!” End of story. And that’s the strategy. Bury this story. And it’s working.

That’s how the GOP handles this kind of story. And it works just fine, every time. The mainstream journos can't find a both-sides hook, and they are nervous about this alt-right stuff anyway, so the story dies. Journos fear the brutality of GOP pushback. So it goes. Every. Time.

Contrast that with the non-story about the Clinton Foundation. Every GOPer was sending out a truckload of statements to keep that story going. Chuck Todd has stated in the past that he—they—have no choice but to write about whatever the GOP is upset about because they all put their shoulder to the wheel. And the GOP always has something for journos to write about. Controversy! And no fear of brutality from the Democrats. That’s how that goes.

That’s why we hate the media. Still. Even more than ever.

The candidate in Virginia today Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Last night, in chapter #81 of the Trump Time Capsule series, I argued that Donald Trump’s recent “outreach” to black voters amounted to talking about African Americans as a problem group, rather than to them as part of the “us” of America.

Reader Jamie Douglas, who is black, writes in to disagree. I am leaving in some of the complimentary things he says about non-Trump articles I’ve written, because they provide context for what he doesn’t like in my recent political coverage. After his message I’ll summarize why I see things differently.

Over to Jamie Douglas:

I’ve read many of the articles you published about the new China.  I lived in Sichuan and Guizhou for several years (from about 2000-2005) and your articles, I felt, focused on things that Americans really needed to understand about where China was and is headed.  Other journalists spent way too much time in Beijing writing about the machinations of the Communist party, and in doing so, they missed the real story.

I’m not writing today about anything related to China. Rather, what concerns me is your coverage of Donald Trump. I’m a black American from New York. My parents immigrated to Brooklyn from Grenada in the 1960s. And I wholeheartedly support the Trump campaign.

You’ve made it clear that you think Trump would be a disaster and that he has to be stopped. Trump inspires strong feelings, and from what I knew of you, I would have been shocked had you not been strongly opposed to his campaign.

I’m surprised, though, by how willing you are to do the easy thing and focus on Trump’s many gaffes, his off-putting braggadocio, and his very nontraditional tactics. There is a bigger story here and I’m still waiting for a journalist of your stature to address it. I believe that someone capable of writing something as honest and introspective as, “What Did You Do In the Class War, Daddy?”  is very much able to produce a similar piece honestly analyzing Trump’s appeal and the visceral dislike that you and your colleagues in the media feel for him.  

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