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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Daily Trump: Filling a Time Capsule
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People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)

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Trump Time Capsule #129: 'Nobody Says It the Other Way'

Reno, the "biggest little city in the world," in a state whose name Donald Trump wrestled with yesterday D. Ramey Logan, via Wikimedia Commons

Before anyone writes in to point it out: of course a public figure mis-pronouncing a certain place’s name, when visiting that place, doesn’t “matter” in any real sense. It usually just reflects a lack of local spot-knowledge. For instance, I know firsthand that you can make people in Ohio laugh by mis-pronouncing the name of their city Lima. I had thought it was leema, like the capital of Peru. Turns out it’s lyma, like the bean. Oops! And let’s not even get into Louisville.

But Donald Trump’s wading into the Nevada morass does matter, because it’s a perfect small window into the mind and temperament of the man. The brief clip below is remarkable; explanation below, after you take a look.

What’s remarkable here? It’s this trifecta:

  1. Trump is totally wrong. If he had bothered to ask, he could have learned in one second that locals don’t say Ne-VAH-da, with a broad a in the middle. They say Ne-VA-da, with an a like the one in cat or hat. What’s the reason? It’s just how they say it, much as Willamette, Oregon, and Houston Street in New York are pronounced in ways different from what outsiders might assume.
                                                                                                                      
  2. Trump doesn’t know he’s wrong, or care that he might be. Most people understand the difference between what they know, and what they’re assuming or guessing or considering more-likely-than-not. The most sophisticated thinkers in any field, from finance to science to sports and any place in between, try always to wonder about what they don’t know, and about what questions they’re not asking. No less a figure than Donald Rumsfeld memorably summed up this concept when talking about the “Known Unknowns” and so on. By contrast Trump, as you’ll see, is absolutely certain in this thing he’s absolutely wrong about.
                                                                                                            
  3. And still he is a bully and jerk about it. Trump’s approach to this intrinsically trivial point is the same as his approach to everything else: He’s right, you’re wrong, and people who disagree with him are losers. His tone in the clip above is identical to his snap judgment, as reported back in June in installment #26, that a missing EgyptAir flight must have been brought down by terrorists. The weeks have gone on; no responsible official has said for sure what happened; but Trump immediately knew: “What just happened? A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100% wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100% wrong.”

Again, saying Ne-vah-da doesn’t matter. But the combination shown in this clip does: it’s the toxic mixture of ignorance, certitude, and bullying. This is just about the opposite of what you’d like to see in a Commander in Chief. Yet with less than 33 days to go, nearly all “responsible” Republicans from Paul Ryan on down still say, He’s fine! Please make him the most powerful man in the world.

Etching by J.A.J. Wilcox of James Russell Lowell, one of the Atlantic's founders. Five years after this portrait was made, he and the other editors made their first endorsement: of Abraham Lincoln for president. Today his successors have made another endorsement, only the third in the past 159 years. Wikimedia Commons

In previous installments I’ve mentioned editorial statements for Hillary Clinton, and against Donald Trump, from unexpected sources. For instance, the Cincinnati Enquirer, which had endorsed only Republicans for the past century. Or the Arizona Republic, which had never endorsed a Democrat. Or the Dallas Morning News, with nearly as long a pro-Republican history. Or USA Today, which said “don’t vote for Trump” after never before endorsing any candidate.

For the record, I should note the latest in this series. It is our own Atlantic magazine, which today for only the third time in its 159-year history has endorsed a presidential candidate. In 1860, three years after the magazine’s founding, its editors endorsed Abraham Lincoln. One hundred and four years later, in 1964, they made a statement against Barry Goldwater, which meant recommending Lyndon B. Johnson.

Now, with 33 days and a few hours before the election, the magazine has made another endorsement. Like most of the newspaper editorials mentioned above, it is forthright in recommending a vote for Hillary Clinton. But its motivating “this time, it’s different” spirit is deadset opposition to Donald Trump.

Since I had nothing to do with writing this editorial, I can freely recommend that you read the whole thing. To me, it’s a powerful and eloquent statement of what American public life is supposed to stand for, and why those values would be imperiled by a President Trump. I think the final two paragraphs deserve reading with special care.

First this next-to-last paragraph, about how Trump has exploited and perverted genuine economic discontent in the country:

Our endorsement of Clinton, and rejection of Trump, is not a blanket dismissal of the many Trump supporters who are motivated by legitimate anxieties about their future and their place in the American economy. But Trump has seized on these anxieties and inflamed and racialized them, without proposing realistic policies to address them.

Unfortunately, Charlie Chan was not available for an interview with Fox. (Wikimedia)

Whatever happens to him at the polls 34 days from now, Donald Trump has already deeply changed public discourse in America. It’s not just what he says; it’s what a year’s worth of Trump’s performance has legitimized, encouraged, and inured us to. For example: in the pre-Trump era, I don’t recall being at big public events where mainly-male, mainly-white crowds would chant things like “String her up!” or “Trump that bitch!” But that was the background music at this year’s Republican convention in Cleveland.

This is the context for an astonishing segment from a Bill O’Reilly episode this week.

It is fair to treat Fox News as an extension of the Republican Party and the Trump campaign. It is essentially the only news outlet where Donald Trump will appear any more. Sean Hannity essentially functions as an adjunct campaign strategist, even appearing in a Trump ad; and when called on it has said “I am not a journalist.” Roger Ailes is of course the human glue connecting Trump world, the formal GOP, and the news organization he founded and ran until his recent ouster amid sexual-harassment complaints.

Thus it is also fair to think that the “Watters’ World” segment on Fox is a reflection of attitudes in greater Fox-Trump land, and again of the kinds of public discussion Trump has legitimized. Take a look before I say any more about it. It genuinely is worth watching all the way through:

The “comic” premise of the piece is essentially: China, so tricky!! Let’s go see some people with Asian faces and ask them why China so tricky?, and what they (as obvious outsiders to the “real” America) make of this confusing political spectacle, while meanwhile they are eating their perplexing food and cooking up their secret potions.

There are a million things to dislike about this approach, which you can figure out for yourself. The meanest part of the segment is around time 1:00, when Watters mocks two older immigrant-looking people for not answering his questions, when they obviously don’t speak English at all. But before and after that he gets into almost every devious-Oriental stereotype you’ve ever encountered. The only big one left out is the Yellow Peril standby of Asian hordes lusting for white women. It does, though, get into the opposite stereotype—of the exotic, giggly, and “me love you long time” young Asian beauty. See Vox for more.

***

Is this so bad? Can’t I take a joke? Wow, isn’t political correctness run amok, if we can’t even do a light skit?

In this photo from 1997, people identified as "Supermodels Vendela (L), Antonio Sabato, and Kathy Ireland" at a Superbowl promo. Reuters

Today in Vanity Fair, its editor Graydon Carter, who in his Spy days with Kurt Andersen originated the idea of Donald Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian,” has a stinging essay about Trump as the modern incarnation of The Ugly American.

A central episode in this story involves the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 1993. Carter says that to its table Vanity Fair had invited, among others, Donald Trump as “novelty guest,” and Vendela Kirsebom, a Swedish woman then generally known as “Supermodel Vendela.” Over to Carter:

I sat Trump beside Vendela, thinking that she would get a kick out of him. This was not the case. After 45 minutes she came over to my table, almost in tears, and pleaded with me to move her. It seems that Trump had spent his entire time with her assaying the “tits” and legs of the other female guests and asking how they measured up to those of other women, including his wife. “He is,” she told me, in words that seemed familiar, “the most vulgar man I have ever met.”

OK, that’s part of the story. Here’s the rest, which explains something I have wondered about lo these past 23 years:

Sean Spicer on Twitter

Our story so far:

1) This morning, as noted in installment #125, a tweet came out from @SeanSpicer, “strategist” for the Republican National Committee, celebrating the fact that the GOP was about to launch a “Willie Horton-Style Attack” on Democratic VP nominee Tim Kaine. You can see a screenshot of it in the previous installment.

2) Three hours later, as blowback began, Spicer put out the tweet you see in the screenshot above. It said that he “never” used the term Willie Horton and that the real factual-accuracy problem was of course with the media, not with him or the RNC.

3) Around the same time, Spicer deleted his original Willie Horton tweet, which then lived on among those who had taken screenshots.

Moral I: In our Modern Internet Age, it’s generally a mistake to strike a huffy “I never said...” “to be clear” “facts are not a strong suit” pose when you’re immediately subject to contrary digital evidence.

4) An alert reader pointed out to me that the contents of Spicer’s original tweet were identical to the headline in the Roll Call article Spicer was sharing with his 32,000+ Twitter followers, and that the Roll Call site can on request auto-populate a tweet with the headline and link from its item.

Thus it’s possible that rather than compose the words “Willie Horton-Style Attack” by himself, Spicer merely wanted to make sure as many people as possible saw them. Great, that’s so much better!

Moral II: If some publication is accusing your campaign of sinking to a nasty race-baiting practice so widely reviled that its originator, Lee Atwater, apologized for it on his deathbed, a shrewd “strategic” response might be: “No, of course we’d never do that.” Or “We’re hoping to heal rather than harm strained race relations in our country.” Or “Once again the press has the wrong.” Or even, “No comment.” Almost anything would make more sense than blast-sharing the story on Twitter to everyone you know.

***

I know that RNC operations are separate from the Trump personal domain. Still, I can’t help thinking: as you watch strategy, organization, and execution in this campaign, it becomes easier to understand how Donald Trump could have lost a billion dollars in just one year.

Sean Spicer, the head strategist and communications director for the Republican National Committee, today on Twitter.

In the language of politics, to call a strategy a “Willie Horton-Style Attack” is to say that it’s race-baiting, vicious, and misleading. The reference is to two notorious ads, “Weekend Pass” and “Revolving Door,” used by George H.W. Bush’s Republicans in 1988 to attack his Democratic rival Michael Dukakis. You can see them and learn more details below. This isn’t something normal people would brag about.

Yet just this morning, via tweet, the “strategist” and communications director for the Republican National Committee, Sean Spicer, announces that the party is about to kick off just such an attack, on Tim Kaine! Good lord.

By definition, this kind of attack strategy has been used before, as have smear campaigns through the history of politics. But the perpetrators used to deny them. The whole point of the “dog whistle” metaphor was that only the intended part of your audience would hear the message you were trying to send. Thus the George H.W. Bush campaign could pretend that the Willie Horton ad was strictly about criminal justice; it’s just coincidence that the criminal whose face they used happened to be a rough-looking black man.

So for Spicer to come right out with a proud-seeming announcement must mean either that he has lost his mind, or that the dynamics of his campaign and party now make this seem a sensible thing to say.

Here’s a screenshot of the original Willie Horton, as seen on TV—and then, why he’s not really “Willie.”

From “Weekend Passes

This quote from Horton after the ad came out underscores its intention:

The fact is, my name is not “Willie.” It’s part of the myth of the case. The name irks me. It was created to play on racial stereotypes: big, ugly, dumb, violent, black—“Willie.” I resent that. They created a fictional character—who seemed believable, but who did not exist.

“Weekend Passes” was produced by a GOP PAC. Here’s the full ad:

I'm at a high school reunion in California, and in theory away from the news, but this can't go without brief mention for the record: the NYT story saying that Donald Trump’s near-$1 billion declared tax loss in 1995 might have kept him from paying any income taxes for 18 years since then.

Back in installment #95, I mentioned that whatever was in Trump’s tax returns must by definition be more embarrassing than his refusal to release them. Otherwise, he would have done what all nominees of the post-Nixon era have done, and provided tax information. In a related item a few days later, readers speculated that what he was trying to hide was the fact that he had managed to pay no federal tax at all.

The NYT report, by David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner, and Megan Twohey, is worth reading in full. Also see this analysis in Bronte Capital, by John Hempton, of what the report might mean. Here is an important abundance-of-caution detail in the NYT about the bona fides of its claims:

The NYT today

37 days until the election.

I intend it as a kind of homage to Trump’s own online habits that I am posting this in the middle of the night East Coast time.

Donald Trump, in the middle of last night

Late in her losing primary campaign against Barack Obama eight years ago, Hillary Clinton put out her “3 a.m. phone call” ad. The idea was that real presidents have to deal with crises at short notice and with very high stakes. According to the ad, then-Senator Clinton’s greater experience meant that she’d be better at making those 3 a.m. decisions than the relative-rookie Obama would be. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you found that persuasive. If you preferred Obama, as I did, you were less impressed.

What does Donald Trump do at 3 a.m.? To judge by the social-media record, he sends out tweets—and real, “from the Id” personal tweets himself, rather than higher-road ones from his staff. The usual giveaway is the “Twitter for Android” label you see on Tweetdeck and other platforms, versus “Twitter for iPhone” from his staff.

Mnemonic clue: You can’t take the id out of Android. Thus a sequence of Android tweets about “Miss Piggy,” the former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, last night.

Donald Trump last night

Judge for yourself what this says about Trump’s temperament, whose excellence he mentions in most speeches and at this week’s debate. For instance, this is how it came up at the debate:

Fidel Castro in 2004, a few years after Donald Trump's organization reportedly did business in his country while the U.S. embargo still applied. Claudia Daut / Reuters

Just for the record:

1) Cuba. Kurt Eichenwald today documented in Newsweek that Trump companies did business in Cuba during Fidel Castro’s regime, which according to Eichenwald’s documents was an intentional violation of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

The embargo was a stupid and self-defeating policy. But it was the law, which Trump’s organization, by all appearances, intentionally broke. Dealing with Cuba, in those days, was a bright-line taboo. You could get in trouble for having Cuban cigars. You were breaking federal law if you spent any U.S. money there. Yet this is what (apparently) the Trump organization went ahead and did—even as Trump gave speeches to Cuban-American groups about the evils of Castro and the need to keep him isolated.

In other years, this would be big news all on its own.

2) Foundation. In the latest installment of David Fahrenthold’s extraordinary saga in the Washington Post, he has revealed that the Trump Foundation, already surrounded by numerous “self-dealing” controversies, never had legal authorization to raise funds as a charity. As the story reports:

Under the laws in New York, where the Donald J. Trump Foundation is based, any charity that solicits more than $25,000 a year from the public must obtain a special kind of registration beforehand. Charities as large as Trump’s must also submit to a rigorous annual audit that asks — among other things — whether the charity spent any money for the personal benefit of its officers.

No further annotation. This is what is on the record about the man the GOP establishment still says should be commander in chief, with 39 days to go.

The USA Today logo.

USA Today came into existence early in Ronald Reagan’s first term. Since then it has covered eight presidential races: Reagan-Mondale, Bush-Dukakis, Bush-Clinton, Clinton-Dole, Gore-Bush, Bush-Kerry, Obama-McCain, and Obama-Romney.

In none of those contests, with their significant differences in politics and personalities, has its editorial board expressed a specific preference for or against a candidate. Just now, in its ninth race, it has.

The editorial it has placed online, under the headline “Don’t Vote for Trump,” begins:

In the 34-year history of USA TODAY, the Editorial Board has never taken sides in the presidential race. Instead, we’ve expressed opinions about the major issues and haven’t presumed to tell our readers, who have a variety of priorities and values, which choice is best for them….

This year, the choice isn’t between two capable major party nominees who happen to have significant ideological differences. This year, one of the candidates — Republican nominee Donald Trump — is, by unanimous consensus of the Editorial Board, unfit for the presidency.

It goes on to make the case in detail.

***

As a reminder, in the “things that have not happened before” category, this follows: the Arizona Republic, endorsing a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time ever; the Dallas Morning News, doing the same thing for the first time in modern history; similarly for the Cincinnati Enquirer; similarly for major business leaders and many others.  Noted for the record with just over 39 days to go, and early voting underway.

Just after Monday night’s debate, Donald Trump said that moderator Lester Holt had done “a great job. Honestly, I thought Lester did a great job.” You don’t have to take it from me. You can watch the CNN video below.

Three days later, right now as I type, Trump told a crowd in New Hampshire how rigged the debates had been and, in particular, how biased and unfair the “great” Lester Holt was: “I had to put up with the anchor and fight the anchor all the time on everything I said. What a rigged deal.”

***

Is this an example of what is known in writer-land as “keyboard courage”—of Trump’s being genial to people face-to-face and then excoriating them from a safe remove? Has he forgotten what he said less than 70 hours ago? Does he think no one will remember? Does he not notice or mentally process the contradiction himself?

I have no idea. I will contend that no one like this has ever gotten this far in U.S. politics before, and by “no one like this” I mean someone who seems either entirely unaware or entirely unconcerned by the disconnect between what he says and the world of observable truth. This is what Harry Frankfurt famously called not lying but bullshit. (Update David Roberts takes a good stab at explaining the inexplicable, here.)  

***

Bonus note: today the once-respectable former governor, former ambassador to China, and former “moderate” presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has announced that he will vote for Trump.

Governor, really? This is the time you make that call? With Trump still stonewalling on his taxes, on the heels of the “Miss Piggy” debate, and with rock-ribbed Republican publications like the Arizona Republic and the Dallas Morning News declaring for Hillary Clinton and against Trump? The likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have walled themselves in, but no one was asking you to declare. Wow.

“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in a famous dissent. Donald Trump begs to differ. (Wikimedia Commons)

After Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, he was asked on Fox News about his views on NATO and other American alliances. He gave his familiar “they’re freeloaders” answer:

The fact is we are protecting so many countries that are not paying for the protection. When a country isn’t paying us and these are countries in some cases in most cases that have the ability to pay, and they are not paying because nobody is asking….

We’re protecting all of these countries. They have an agreement to reimburse us and pay us and they are not doing it and if they are not going to do that. We have to seriously rethink at least those countries. It’s very unfair.

This has of course been a repeated theme in his speeches and interviews. Another example: after the Democratic convention, Trump told John Dickerson on Face the Nation, “I want these countries to pay for protection”—“these countries” being the usual range of U.S. allies.

On Monday night, in his debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump essentially acknowledged that he might not be paying any federal tax himself. Here was the remarkable passage:

CLINTON: Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

TRUMP: That makes me smart.

That makes me smart. Among the several hundred people watching the debate at the site where I saw it, there was an audible gasp at this line.

Everyone tries to minimize taxes. But not many “normal” people manage to avoid them altogether, or even contemplate doing so. Most Americans, regardless of politics, resent the rigged nature of our public systems and look for ways to corner-cut annoying obligations (“Yeah, yeah, juries are really important, but I’d just as soon not get picked”). But most still recognize some basic obligations we all bear—school taxes even if we don’t have children, paying for highways or emergency relief even in places where we don’t live—to keep the system going as a whole.

You might call this mutual burden-sharing part of Making America Great Again. You could call it “the price we pay for civilization,” if you were Oliver Wendell Holmes. Or “paying for protection,” if you were Donald Trump.

***

I’m not sure Trump would recognize any tension between his own outraged demand that allies start paying their way, and his reflexive response that “it makes me smart” for him to avoid paying his own way. And I realize that his committed supporters might embrace both sentiments at the same time: Those foreigners are screwing us! And, at least one shrewd guy figured out how to keep the IRS from screwing him!

But I can imagine this staying on as a reminder of the gap between Donald Trump’s economic/civic role in society, and that of most of his supporters. It was one of several related moments in the debate—significantly, all of them coming in unprompted responses rather than the usual lines from his speeches: