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.”)
I think I have taken off half my remaining life expectancy in the process, but I watched the second debate this evening and did a million-item tweetstorm in real time. Actually, only 97 items, which you can see in numbered sequence starting here.
But there is one item that genuinely has not occurred before in modern presidential politics, and that in my view deserves genuine outrage. That was Trump’s comment about 30 minutes in that if he were president, Hillary Clinton would be in jail. Here’s one of the YouTube clips I’ve found:
This is wrong. You cannot say this. This is the way tinhorn cult-of-the-personality despotisms work. The fact that this came out immediately and spontaneously from Trump, like his “that makes me smart!” comment about paying no taxes and unlike his memorized “oh, that was locker room talk” responses about his sex tape, makes it more revealing.
“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, told me shortly before Trump won the GOP nomination. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”
In her book My Life With the Chimpanzees, Goodall told the story of “Mike,” a chimp who maintained his dominance by kicking a series of kerosene cans ahead of him as he moved down a road, creating confusion and noise that made his rivals flee and cower. She told me she would be thinking of Mike as she watched the upcoming debates.
During the first debate, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stayed at their assigned lecterns, we didn’t see this as much. Last night, the scenes that Goodall was imagining played out before our eyes: Trump looming up behind Clinton, walking very close into what we’d normally consider her “personal space,” emphasizing the fact that he is physically so much larger than she is. Here is a short GIF of him moving in on her.
But you don’t have to believe me, or her. No less an authority than Nigel Farage, Brexit-campaign leader in the U.K. and now enthusiastic Trump backer, gave an interview in the spin room in which he said that Trump “looked like a big silverback gorilla”—and meant it as a compliment. “He is that big alpha male. The leader of the pack!”
My guess is no, as it replays and sinks in. As a reminder: Trump cannot win just with his revved-up GOP primary base. He needs to attract new supporters, especially from the groups where he now is dramatically weak: among women, non-whites, young people, and highly educated people. Back in her 2000 race for the U.S. Senate from New York, polls suggested that Hillary Clinton was significantly helped rather than hurt when her opponent Rick Lazio did a very mild version of the alpha-male move by walking over very close to her during a debate. Al Gore apparently also lost support by walking up close to George W. Bush during one of their presidential debates that same year. Neither of those amounted to anything, compared with what we saw last night.
I’ll see whether Jane Goodall is within communication range this week, for after-action analysis of what we all saw. For now, I’m betting that it’s one more strike against Trump. Nigel Farage, who can’t vote anyway, is all the more enthusiastic. The majority-female U.S. electorate? There I bet it hurts.
This is a gorilla rather than a chimpanzee, but you get the point:
I may have to adjust the standard sign-off line for the hallowed Time Capsule™ series.
The usual approach is to note how many days are left until the election—as I write, it’s just 28 days and a few hours—and offer two reminders. The first is that Donald Trump still has not released his tax forms, although he effectively conceded last night that he has paid no federal income tax for years. The second is that the Republican establishment, from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on down, has not budged from its endorsement of Trump. He’s fine! Let’s make him the most powerful man in the world!
We now get this refinement from the speaker:
The Ryanesque elegance here is that the party’s senior elected official in the country will no longer “defend” its nominee for president—but he still endorses him. As noted earlier: Trump is a monster! Vote for Trump!
The standard throughout this Time Capsule series has been: what is happening in this Age of Trump that has not happened before in our politics.
Without further elaboration, the outbreak of full-on war between the Republican nominee and the Republican establishment is unlike anything anyone has previously seen. The only possible comparisons illustrate the extremity of what is underway. Those would be the onset of the Civil War, which of course exceeds all other strains in America’s long history, and the idiosyncratic politics that led to a temporary Republican/Bull Moose split in 1912.
Donald Trump’s war on the party that nominated him is a reminder of the institutional nihilism that is at the heart of everything he stands for and does. He believes in himself: “I alone can save you.” He believes in his immediate family. He appears to believe in the greater Trump organization. As for the rest—courts, treaties, tax codes, norms, any idea of the civic or the public—it’s tabula rasa.
Every inaugural speech, by every one of the first 44 U.S. presidents, has struck the theme of peaceful transfer of power, and a regard for institutions whose health and integrity transcend even the deepest political disagreements. The gravest challenge to U.S. institutions obviously occurred as the 16th president, greatest of them all, was being sworn in. Donald Trump now seems very unlikely to become the 45th occupant of the office. He is making it clearer by the moment why he would be so dangerous in command.
More to come on the institutional theme as time permits. The main challenge is keeping up with the flow of material. And I leave you to reflect on the implications of Trump’s word “shackles” in the tweet at the top of this post—rather than “limits,” “constraints,” “gloves,” or even “hobbles.”
One of the few “genteel” aspects of the Republican convention in Cleveland three months ago was Donald Trump’s response, in his acceptance speech, to the boisterous chants of “Lock her up!” that were rising from the crowd. In the opening days of the convention, I heard that chant frequently from crowds outside and inside the arena, alternating with two cruder variants: “String her up!” and “Trump that bitch!”
When the familiar “Lock her up!” cheers began midway during Trump’s big speech, he handled them with what seemed at the time to be very shrewd aplomb. He let the chants run for a few seconds. He gave his in-on-the-joke smile, Ah, I know what you mean!. He paused dramatically, and then he stepped in, responsible-parent style, and switched the verb in a way respectful of democratic procedure: “Let’s … defeat her in November.” You can see the moment at the end of this clip. Much of the rest of the speech was a primary-election-style appeal to the base. But when I heard this passage I thought: wow, maybe he can shift his tone.
That was then. Two nights ago at the debate, Trump made his famous “you’d be in jail” comment, which in substantive terms was the most important moment in the debate. (In terms of imagery and symbolism, the most important moment came when Trump loomed menacingly close to Clinton. I will bet anything that the picture of him doing so, at right, is the image with which we remember the debates and the campaign as a whole.) But “you’d be in jail” was itself a shocking departure from two centuries’ worth of political norms, for reasons Yoni Appelbaum explains here.
And last night, at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump had had enough of “Let’s defeat her.” The crowd chanted “Lock her up! Lock her up!” And the man who would be president said, “Yeah, ‘Lock her up’ is right!”
Nothing like this has happened before. No one like this has come so close to power in the United States. Four weeks from tonight we’ll know how close he came.
Seven days ago, back in the innocent times of early October, I began installment #132 with this paragraph, in its entirety: “Good God.”
That was a few hours after the release (by the Washington Post) of Donald Trump’s now-historic “You can do anything you want” tape. It was one day before some of his GOP supporters began peeling off. It was two days before Trump flatly denied, at the town hall-style second presidential debate, that he had ever “kissed women without consent or groped women without consent.” And it was before the stream of subsequent-day events in which more and more women have come forward to say that in fact he had kissed or groped them; before Trump essentially declared war on the GOP establishment (along with the press and most other institutions); before members of that same GOP establishment retracted their criticism of Trump and crawled back to support him; and before Trump responded to sexual-assault allegations by saying, in effect, that these losers (including Hillary Clinton) aren’t hot enough for him to have bothered with.
I have been offline for three days, for work and family events in in Erie, Pennsylvania, and San Francisco, and now I see that several dozen items’ worth of Time Capsule material has piled up! So I’ve already used the “Good God” chit and am left just to say: only 24 days to go.
And to mention these reactions or analyses that deserve notice:
1. “Why we shouldn’t forgive the Republicans who sold their souls.” That’s the title of a WaPo essay this week by Robert Kagan. He’s someone I’ve disagreed with for years, mainly on foreign policy, and expect to disagree with again. But I have to respect his courage and clarity in laying out the case that Donald Trump’s defects transcend any routine disagreement over policy or values. (Similarly I’ve come to respect the principle-above-party anti-Trump stands of others with whom I’ve differed on nearly everything else, including Max Boot, Bret Stephens, Jennifer Rubin, and Michael Gerson.)
Everyone knows that the Republican party is having operational problems. But the real problem, Kagan says, is not that the party is not falling apart. Rather it’s that the party is holding together, in support for a candidate its leaders know beyond doubt would be a grave danger in office.
Robert Kagan begins his case about failure of responsibility this way:
Of the remarkable things we have learned this election year, the most significant is that the current Republican Party is unfit to lead the country. It has failed the greatest test a political leader or party can face, and failed spectacularly. It has abandoned its principles out of a combination of cowardice and opportunism. It has worked to place in the White House the most dangerous threat to U.S. democracy since the Civil War. ...
These are the people we’re supposed to put in charge of the House and Senate for another two years? Whom we’re then supposed to rally behind in the battle for the White House in 2020? No. Not this group. We know too much. We know all we need to know.
The whole thing is worth reading. Paul Ryan and others in the GOP establishment will try to forget all this starting on November 9. The rest of us should remember.
2. Can’t tell your Trump lineup without a scorecard. As noted back in installment #134, Daniel Nichanian of the University of Chicago has been keeping a running update of the elected GOP officials in several groups: those who “criticize” Trump but still endorse him (the “full Ryan”), those who actually have un-endorsed him, and those who withdrew support after last week’s tape but, incredibly, have crawled back. This last inglorious group includes two plains-state senators—Deb Fischer of Nebraska and John Thune of South Dakota—and two representatives, Bradley Byrne of Alabama and Scott Garrett of New Jersey. The NYT had a story on the crawlback phenomenon, here. And a reader wrote about the illogic of their stance:
Of the many contradictions Republicans are caught in, one less obvious one is the claim that they can manage Trump once he is in office, so vote Trump because Supreme Court or taxes or something. And yet these are the same people cowering in fear of his base. I am sure their spines will regenerate in the warm light of a presidential victory, making them adequate to the task of containing Trump.
3. Michelle Obama speaks. You have probably heard about the power of the first lady’s speech, in New Hampshire, on the implications of Donald Trump’s sexual-assault rhetoric and behavior.
I just saw a clip of the speech now. It truly is remarkable and deserves notice. You can read about it in the WaPo here and NY Mag here. An online video is here. “This isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human decency.” When people talk about the bully pulpit, this is the kind of thing they have in mind.
4. See you in court. After the NYT ran a story quoting two women who said that Donald Trump had groped, ogled, or kissed them, Trump’s lawyers issued an immediate demand for retraction.
The response from David McCraw, the lawyer speaking for the NYT, is a thing of beauty. You can read it here. It ends this way:
We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what those women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.
5. The intel community despairs, again. I’ve mentioned in previous installments that a long line of former CIA directors and other intel veterans have warned against Donald Trump in office, and that Trump has already abused the confidence of briefers who have updated him on world trouble spots.
Now the WaPo carries a story on intel-veterans’ concern that Trump is dismissing out of hand all evidence that Russian officialdom is trying to meddle directly in the 2016 U.S. election:
The former officials, who have served presidents in both parties, say they were bewildered when Trump cast doubt on Russia’s role after receiving a classified briefing on the subject and again after an unusually blunt statement from U.S. agencies saying they were “confident” that Moscow had orchestrated the attacks.
“It defies logic,” retired Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, said of Trump’s pronouncements. ...
“He seems to ignore their advice,” Hayden said. “Why would you assume this would change when he is in office?”
To say it again: Nothing remotely like any of this has happened before. And still Paul Ryan and the GOP establishment say, Let’s make this man president! Remember that on November 8, and long afterward.
To a first order of approximation, everything that Donald Trump has said about his opponents should be understood as projection, in the psychological sense of the term. That is, any defect Trump has complained about in his primary or general-election opponents, is more likely to seem an obvious flaw in himself.
Trump called Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” and Cruz has his moments. But no other politician of any party approaches Trump’s level of nonstop falsehood on matters large and small. Trump says that Hillary Clinton is secretive and scheming, and she too has her moments. But no other modern politician has matched Trump’s secrecy about his business operations or his taxes. He is hyper-attentive to other people’s weight gains, but is quite pudgy himself. On through the list, as an AP story has usefully catalogued: Trump has said that Hillary Clinton is turning the campaign negative through personal attacks rather than policy. That she’s skating through without offering substantive details. That she’s race-baiting and dividing the country. That she is not as respectful of women as he is. That there’s something wrong with her physical and mental health. And, most of all, that she has bad judgment and a risky temperament.
Whether these and related attacks are a shrewd preemptive strategy against Clinton (“She’s going to say I don’t know policy, so let’s get to her first!”) or simple reflexive “projection” in the classic sense, I can’t say. (My guess, of course, is the latter.) Either way, after the election I think we’ll look back to see the striking correlation between the flaws Trump calls out in his adversaries, and the flaws everyone else sees in him.
With that buildup, here is the latest what the hell? moment from the Trump campaign: his suggestion today in New Hampshire that the candidates take a drug test before the third and final presidential debate. As reported in the NYT:
Escalating his criticism of Hillary Clinton’s debate performances [JF note: And just think about this itself as an example of projection] Donald J. Trump came to a state battling a drug epidemic and suggested without any evidence Saturday that his opponent had been on drugs during their second debate. ...
He continued: “We should take a drug test prior, because I don’t know what’s going on with her. But at the beginning of her last debate — she was all pumped up at the beginning, and at the end it was like, ‘Oh, take me down.’ She could barely reach her car.”
I have no grounds for suggesting that Trump himself needs to be tested for drugs. But if anyone were to suggest that, wild claims like this would be part of the case.
Now 23 days and a few hours until the election. Still no tax information forthcoming from the man with the most problematic financial history of any major-party nominee in modern history. And, we can’t say it often enough, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and most of the existing GOP establishment are all still saying: This man should become commander-in-chief.
No he should not, and they should be held accountable for what they are trying to do.
Update A reader who is a lawyer on the east coast writes in about the “projection” hypothesis:
The projection theory is interesting. What I can’t tell is to what extent Trump is aware that he’s just throwing feces against the wall. How much of this does he believe—rigged election, international media conspiracy, Hilary belongs in jail, etc. To what extent does he believe that attacking the looks of his various accusers is a sound strategy? How delusional is he?
I think it’s impossible to tell. An obviously undisciplined guy, ever since the first debate he’s become completely unhinged, making just about every bad choice he could make in his campaign, shaking off the advice of the campaign professionals, listening to Bannon and the other hardcore crowd (and it’s not clear that they care about winning as much as they care about trashing Hillary).
It’s impossible to tell if he thinks he actually has a reasonable chance to win this election. It appears than none of the GOP “leadership” thinks he can win, the major polls indicate he can’t, the big GOP funders have walked away.
There is a real possibility that what we are seeing with Trump now is mental breakdown, but again, it’s impossible to tell if that’s what’s going on or what we’re seeing is his sociopathic character coming out as the setbacks and pressures mount.
I understand the dilemma that Ryan and the other GOP elected officials and RNC officials face. But at what point, if any, are they obligated to disavow Trump? Perhaps their thinking is that they don’t need to court this sort of controversy within their party, since he’s going to lose anyway.
As noted before, I’m wary of speculating about whether what we’re seeing from Trump amounts to some kind of diagnosable mental disorder. Obviously I couldn’t presume to judge from a distance, and fundamentally it doesn’t matter. Whatever the explanation, his words and actions are unacceptable.
It’s also clear to me that the entire Republican establishment now assumes (and probably hopes) that he is going to lose. Maybe that makes their endorsement of him less damaging: it’s not going to make any difference. But I still think it’s squalid. This is as clear a test of country-before-party as any of us has seen in our lifetimes. And I think the Republican establishment will regret the choice so many of its members are making now.
The greatest threat Donald Trump poses to the republic is that he might become president. With each passing hour and excess, and each new on-the-record witness to his mistreatment of women, the likelihood of that disaster goes down.
But in the past 16 months he has already done profound damage to the democratic process and the civic fiber. This installment is about one still-unfolding form of the damage. The next, #144, will be about another that could be even worse—unless something none of us has foreseen happens in the meantime to crowd it out.
The American fabric of peaceful-transfer-of-power is taken for granted in the U.S. and elsewhere but is more fragile than it seems. As I noted back in installment #139, nearly every presidential inaugural address through U.S. history has emphasized how unusual and crucial this civic ritual is. For an example you might not have been expecting, I give you Richard Nixon, in the opening of his first inaugural address in 1969:
My fellow Americans, and my fellow citizens of the world community:
I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free.
Five-and-a-half years later, in a televised address explaining why he would become the first president ever to resign the office, Nixon again paid homage to rules-above-men, country-above-party. To put that differently: Even Richard Nixon, for all that he did to undercut rule of law, observed the need to support regular civic order, and the primacy of established institutions, in his public remarks. The night before he resigned he said (emphasis added):
In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. [JF note: Well, maybe. But in context you can give him this.] Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.
In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future.
But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.
That statement by Nixon was one of two crucial acknowledgments in modern times of process over person, country over party, by people who (in their very different circumstances) would have preferred to stay and fight. The other, of course, was Al Gore’s decision to accept the Supreme Court’s politically driven decision to stop the Florida recount and effectively declare George W. Bush president in 2000.
Gore had every reason imaginable to challenge Bush v. Gore and the whole circumstances of the election. He was half a million votes ahead in the nationwide popular vote, and for more than a century the popular-vote winner had become president. The Florida secretary of state, who was in charge of the recount, was co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Florida. The governor of the state, Jeb Bush, was his opponent’s brother! The reasoning of the Supreme Court’s ruling was so nakedly results-oriented that the Court itself said that it should not be taken as a precedent in any future rulings.
And yet, Gore said: The Court has spoken; I accept the results. His statement on December 14, 2000, is all the more remarkable with the passing years:
Over the library of one of our great law schools is inscribed the motto: “Not under man, but under God and law.” That’s the ruling principle of American freedom, the source of our democratic liberties. I’ve tried to make it my guide throughout this contest, as it has guided America's deliberations of all the complex issues of the past five weeks.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.
I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.
This is the context in which to view Donald Trump’s willfully destructive “Election is rigged!” complaints, as he descends to an irretrievable position in the polls. The rhetoric of illegitimacy of course has a history in our politics. In recent times, Rush Limbaugh and others made much of Bill Clinton’s failure to win an absolute majority of votes. (Although Clinton won easily in 1992 and 1996, Ross Perot kept him from going over 50 percent of the popular vote either time.) The logic of “birtherism,” with Trump as its most prominent exponent, was that Barack Obama had an illegitimate claim on office.
But Trump’s increasing drumbeat of assertions that the only way he could lose the election is if it is “rigged”—too many of “those people” voting in the big cities, the heavy hand of Carlos Slim changing the results, God knows what else—is different, and dangerous. You can read wrapups of what he is doing here and here and here and here, and in a tweetstorm here.
You can read a dissection of why it is so dangerous, by political scientist Shaun Bowler, here. The essence of Bowler’s argument is that democracies depend on the losing party accepting, if grudgingly and painfully, the results at the polls. If not, everything else comes into question:
In the aftermath of a loss, there is plenty of kindling for irresponsible politicians to set fire to. They could stoke the feelings that remain temporary in ordinary times, transforming them into civic unrest and even civil disobedience. Most politicians who lose elections recognize this potential for mischief, and so they ordinarily make a creditable run at helping to keep matters calm.
A textbook example is provided by President George Bush Sr., whose concession speech included the following statement: “Here’s the way we see it and the country should see it—that the people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system. I just called Gov. Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign.”
In making this statement, President Bush signaled that the election was over and he lost fair and square.
What Trump is doing is new. And it’s bad. Other people have not done this.
And while Paul Ryan said today that he was “fully confident” in the election process and rejected the “rigged” suspicions, he still supports Trump for president.
The very hardest thing about being president is that almost all of the choices you get to make are no-win, impossible decisions. Let civilians keep getting slaughtered in Syria? Or commit U.S. forces without being sure who they are fighting for and how they might “win”? Propose a “compromise” measure—on health insurance, gun control, taxes, a Supreme Court nominee, whatever—in hopes that you’ll win over some of the opposition? Or assume from the start that the opposition will oppose, and begin by asking for more than you can get? Choices that are easier or more obvious get made by someone else before they are anywhere close to the president’s desk.
These decisions are hardest when life-and-death stakes are high and time is short. In 2003, invade Iraq, or wait? In 2011, authorize the raid on bin Laden, or not? In 1962, when to confront the Soviets over their missiles in Cuba, and when to look for the possibility of compromise.
The more I’ve learned about politics and the presidency, the more I’ve been sobered by the combination of temperamental stability and intellectual rigor these decisions demand. Stability, not to be panicked or rushed or provoked. Rigor, to understand what more you need to know, but also to recognize when you must make a choice even with less information than you would like.
This is an issue I’ve discussed before, in installments #26 and #129 and several more. I keep coming back to it because it’s so important, and because this crucial measure is one on which Donald Trump keeps demonstrating that he is flagrantly unfit. What’s hardest for any president would be simply impossible for him, as he reminds us yet again today.
Almost immediately on hearing news that a GOP office in North Carolina had been firebombed, Trump put out the tweet you see above. Meanwhile the Charlotte Observer, a real newspaper close to the scene with actual reporters, quoted police this way:
Hillsborough police said somebody threw a bottle of flammable liquid through the window of Orange County’s GOP headquarters, setting supplies and furniture ablaze.
Somebody, from people concerned with facts and evidence. Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems, from the man asking to be put in charge of the countless judgment calls a president makes each day. This was the same judge-and-jury, rush-to-judgment thinking style that Trump displayed years ago with the “Central Park Five.”
This man demonstrates each day that he has reflexes rather than judgment and would be dangerous in any responsible role. And the supposedly “responsible” leadership of his party, to their shame, continues to say: Put him in command!
Styles of thought aren’t necessarily inherited. But in this case …
With two and a half weeks to go, the debate phase of the competition is at last at its end. In real time last night I did an endless tweet-storm commentary whose beginning you can find here and that wound up this way:
Most of what I thought, I said at the time. But to summarize:
1) Predictability. To my relief, most of the expert forecasts I quoted in my debate preview piece matched what actually occurred.
The match-up really did turn out to be an extreme contrast at every level—intellectual and rhetorical styles, bearing on stage, what each candidate talked about and didn’t. The things Jane Goodall foresaw about Trump’s primate-dominance moves actually took place, when he was free to roam the stage in debate #2. As his fallen rivals from the Republican primaries had predicted, Trump faced much greater challenges in these head-to-head debates than he had in the crowded-podium prelims. Back then, he could chime in with an insult whenever he wanted and otherwise just stay quiet and roll his eyes. In the head-to-head round, especially the last debate, he struggled to fill his allotted time with details on any topic and fell back on slogans from his stump speech. Also predictably, Hillary Clinton was as prepared as she could be and barely put a foot wrong.
Most impressively of all, Hillary Clinton’s 100-percent-completely-foreseeable “Take the bait, please!!” strategy—foreseeable enough that I said in the article that this is what she would do—worked marvelously well.
From the opening moments of the first debate, she sent out a a nonstop stream of provocations, subtle or obvious, all tailored to wounding Trump’s vanities. The topics ranged from his not really being rich, to being a man of the beauty-pageant world, to not paying taxes, to being a chronic liar, to generally being preposterous. Sooner or later in each debate, usually sooner, it worked! Trump simply could not resist the bait. He would go off on exactly the tirades the Clinton campaign was hoping to evoke from him. You saw it again last night: for the first 30 minutes or so, he was so stately as to seem semi-sedated. Then she began teasing him, and she got him to snap and interrupt.
So from an unprecedented and potentially unpredictable confrontation, we saw the behavior many people anticipated from each candidate. Very carefully prepped Belichick-type execution of a precise plan from one side. On the other side, wild slugging by someone who might as well have had a bucket over his head.
2) Moderator. Given Fox News’s stake in this race—Sean Hannity as unapologetic campaign booster for Trump, Roger Ailes drifting between the organizations—the pre-debate question about moderator Chris Wallace, of Fox, was which part of the now-split Fox consciousness he would represent. The movement-activist part, which has made Fox essentially the only “news” outlet on which Trump will appear in recent weeks? Or the actual-journalist part, as Fox’s Shep Smith and Bret Baier usually illustrate and as Megyn Kelly sometimes does—for instance, when memorably dressing down Karl Rove while the Ohio vote was being counted four years ago?
Congrats to Wallace, who conducted most of the debate as if it were an actual interview on substance; who reminded candidates of the question he had originally asked, when they drifted afield; who (like Anderson Cooper in round two) was polite in tone while maintaining control of the discussion; and who improvised in a non-gimmicky way by ending the debate with an “unexpected” call for a brief closing statement. Of course this was one of the many contingencies Hillary Clinton had fully prepared for; of course it was one of many developments to which Donald Trump had given no advance thought. So she reeled off a practiced-seeming one-minute wrapup, and he gave what appeared to be random highlights from his rally speeches. Imagine the debate planning that would have Trump use the final few seconds of his final debate appearance thus: “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education.”
3) The tyranny of the “deficit nightmare.” My one criticism of Wallace’s debate-management is the one Paul Krugman lays out in more detail here. I will bet—oh, let’s say, a trillion dollars—that when someone looks back on the 2016 campaign and asks, “What’s a major long-term danger that got shockingly little attention in the campaign?” the answer is not going to be “the federal budget deficit.” But Wallace hammered on this exaggerated threat in two extended discussions. I bet that the answer is going to be climate change and sustainability in all forms. Unless I missed it, no question from any of the moderators was on this theme.
Of course public services must pay their way in the long run. But the hold that deficit-hawkery has on “respectable” discussion these days is quite remarkable.
So, for Chris Wallace: if you’d swapped even one of your deficit questions for a climate one, it would have been an even better job. Still, well done overall.
4) HRC’s worst moment. It occurred an hour in, when Wallace asked her a perfectly straightforward question about “pay for play” criticisms of the Clinton Foundation, and she started talking all around the topic as if she was trying to avoid the question or had something to hide. On the merits as I understand them, most of the “pay for play” with the Clinton Foundation is stuck in the realm of “lingering questions” and “gives rise to questionable appearances,” rather than of anyone having nailed down a quid-pro-quo. Smoke rather than fire. This is quite a contrast to the netherworld of the Trump “Foundation,” as David Fahrenthold of the WaPo has plumbed it. But she sounded as if she were talking around the issue, in the way her critics assume her always to do.
In context, this didn’t “matter,” because so much else was going her way, and because Trump jumped in after a minute with a standard over-the-top accusation that the Clinton Foundation was “a criminal enterprise.” This in turn gave her a chance to start talking about his objectively shady-seeming foundation. So it didn’t change the flow of this debate, but it would be better if she could resist talking this way. (Sample at end of this item, along with the full video.)
5) Trump’s worst moment. I was about to say there’s no contest here, but actually there is. One of his off-hand remarks was abysmal as a matter of substance; the other joins the parade of catastrophic touches of style.
The substance offense was of course Trump’s refusal to say that he would “accept” the results of the election, if he lost. The whole concept of “peaceful transfer of power” depends on the group that loses an election willingly accepting their defeat. Back in installment #143 I laid out the contrasts between Trump’s emerging stance and the previous centuries of our history. You can also read Peter Beinart on our site and TheAtlantic’slive-blog team, and practically anything else in print or online today.
And Trump’s stylistic touch? Of course it is “such a nasty woman.” It was much worse in context than in seems on the page, both because of the way he said it (hint: You’ll see it in Democratic ads) and because of what brought it on. It was in response to this from Hillary Clinton, with emphasis added to what was presented as a quick little throwaway dig:
Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund...
Bait offered. Bait taken! As I’ve argued repeatedly, the temperamental demands of the presidency are even more exacting than its intellectual and physical-stamina requirements. One of our candidates repeatedly shows that he has the temperament we expect people to be growing beyond by the time they reach middle school.
And Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and the whole tattered supporting cast still say, Make this man president!
Here endeth my 2016 presidential-debate coverage. And not one millisecond too soon.
For reference, here is the way the “pay to play” discussion evolved. Points to note: Wallace’s attempts to get an answer to his question; Clinton’s talking-around the question; Trump’s crude overplay of his hand:
WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, during your 2009 Senate confirmation hearing, you promised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with your dealing with the Clinton Foundation. ...
Can you really say that you kept your pledge to that Senate committee? And why isn’t what happened and what went on between you and the Clinton Foundation, why isn’t it what Mr. Trump calls pay to play?
CLINTON: Well, everything I did as secretary of state was in furtherance of our country’s interests and our values. The State Department has said that. I think that's been proven.
But I am happy, in fact I’m thrilled to talk about the Clinton Foundation, because it is a world-renowned charity and I am so proud of the work that it does. You know, I could talk for the rest of the debate—I know I don’t have the time to do that.
But just briefly, the Clinton Foundation made it possible for 11 million people around the world with HIV-AIDS to afford treatment, and that's about half all the people in the world who are getting treatment. In partnership with the American Health Association ...
WALLACE: Secretary Clinton ...
CLINTON: ... we have made environments in schools healthier for kids, including healthier lunches ...
WALLACE: Secretary Clinton, respectfully, this is—this is an open discussion.
CLINTON: Well, it is an open discussion. And you ...
WALLACE: And the specific question went to pay for play. Do you want to talk about that?
CLINTON: Well, but there is no—but there is no evidence—but there is ...
TRUMP: I think that it’s been very well ...
WALLACE: Let’s ask Mr. Trump.
CLINTON: There is a lot of evidence about the very good work ...
TRUMP: It’s been very well studied.
CLINTON: ... and the high rankings ...
WALLACE: Please let Mr. Trump speak.
TRUMP: ... and it’s a criminal enterprise, and so many people know it.
“Light” events are some of the heaviest lifting in political life. Comedy is hard to begin with, and for the kinds of people involved in politics, jokes are vastly more difficult to write or deliver than “substantive” remarks. And for presidents or presidential aspirants, we’re talking about a special kind of joke. These eminent figures need to come across as “modest” and self-deprecatory, but only up to a humble-brag point. (That is, just enough so the audience and reviewers will say, “Oh, isn’t it charming that he’s willing to laugh at himself!”) Real comedy often includes a “what the hell!” willingness to say something that will genuinely shock or offend, which national politicians can’t afford to do. The White House Correspondents Dinner, the Gridiron, the Al Smith Dinner—any event like this is hard (as David Litt, a former member of the Obama speechwriting team, explains in a very nice item just now).
But you’ve got to do it. And to seem to “enjoy” it. And to maintain the closest simulacrum you can to a “genuine” smile or laugh, when others are making fun of you.
Last night at the Al Smith Dinner, which is the subject of Litt’s essay, Donald Trump could perform only a tiny handful of the basic moves. In the process he spectacularly reinforced a crucial point about himself, even as Hillary Clinton was demonstrating an under-appreciated implication of one of her familiar traits. Let’s go to the tape and see what he didn’t do, and what she did.
The clip below is cued to begin as Trump takes the stage, nearly an hour and a half into the whole elephantine pageant. (Reflect for a moment: you’re sitting there for the first 90 minutes, eating while in formal wear and on camera and purporting to socialize, realizing that a high-stakes performance is ahead at the end of the night.)
For the first eight or ten minutes, things are going more or less OK for Trump. As you can see:
Around time 1:25:45, he begins a semi-obvious but good-spirited riff on self-deprecation itself. (Modesty is my greatest quality, etc.)
Around 1:26:30, he gives a kind of charming routine about his “perfectly formed hands.” Bonus here: Through the GOP primaries, he seemed to have absolutely zero sense of humor about his petite digits. This is progress!
Around 1:30:45, a mean-edged—but nothing like what’s coming—bit about Hillary Clinton and Rosie O’Donnell.
Then, starting at 1:32:00, a genuinely funny joke about his wife Melania’s plagiarized speech. This was perfectly delivered and would count as a classic of public-event self-deprecation—except that he’s not making fun of himself. He’s making fun of her. (And then has her stand up in a way that sort of compounds the offense, although she takes it graciously.)
From 1:34:00 onwards he goes off the rails, and seems to imagine that he is at a true-believer rally where the crowd is shouting “Lock her up!” In fact, this crowd, at a religious-charity event, in what he thinks of as his town, starts to boo.
For convenience here is the same clip again, this time cued to begin when Hillary Clinton takes the stage around time 1:41:30. I’ve watched her presentation twice now and think it deserves a careful look. Some guideposts:
The first minute or so is standard “earnest” intro. But then:
At 1:43:00 an effortless, quick offhand remark about “my rigorous nap schedule.” This is straight from Self-Deprecatory Political Humor 101. You show awareness of a wisecrack about you, and you also show that you can just laugh about it. She follows it with a not-quite-as-artful (because it’s not quite as funny to her) crack that she usually “charges a lot” for this kind of speech.
Starting at 1:44:20, a nice little sequence of religio-political-gender humor, first with the “miracle” of her getting through the debates, and building to the “stained-glass ceiling” (without spelling out that she is of course talking about the patriarchal Catholic church).
Almost immediately after that, following an interlude for a mayor-versus-governor New York politico joke, at 1:45:15 onward she has another very artful minute-long stretch. In quick succession it touches these items: “baskets” of people; pantsuits; Trump’s interrupting her at the debates; and “peaceful transfer of power.” Anyone who has labored in these fields will recognize this passage as both skillfully written and impressively delivered.
At 1:47:00, the “Statue of Liberty is a four, maybe five tops” line.
Then at 1:47:45, “And I’ve been to three!” which again is Self-Deprecation 101.
At 1:49:35, a joke at her own expense (“This counts as a press conference, right?”) followed immediately by one at Trump’s expense (it’s too bad that Mike Bloomberg isn’t speaking, “because we’d all be curious what a [real] billionaire has to say.” Bada-bing!) And right after that the meanest but most deserved joke of the entire speech, about Rudy Giuliani. The cut-away to a glowering Giuliani shows that he has even worse poker-face control than Trump.
At 1:51:00, what starts as classic self-deprecation, about Trump’s call for a drug test before the debate, and builds to a surprisingly serious “joke.” I won’t spoil or belabor this, but it’s worth watching for yourself.
Skipping over some other riffs, including a nice one about the “Muslim ban,” we come to my favorite little morsel of deadpan delivery. It starts at 1:53:50. The punchline involves “a hearse.”
What trait of Trump’s did last evening reinforce? It’s one I emphasized in my October-issue piece: that he has one speed, he is exactly and only who he is, and while he can momentarily shift registers sooner or later he comes back to one persona. That person cannot really laugh at himself, or even feign to for very long. That person is angry.
And what do we see about Hillary Clinton? That a trait of hers that is always taken for granted, and frequently sneered-about, is actually of great consequence. Namely: that she works, that she tries, that she practices, that she prepares—and as a result of all these things, she improves.
We know about the “naturals” in politics—JFK in one way, Ronald Reagan in another, each of the past two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Obama, with their very different approaches. Hillary Clinton has often remarked (and no doubt rued) that she is not as “natural” or “gifted” in these public-presentation skills as Democratic presidents #44 and #42. No doubt there is enormous gendered baggage that comes along with these contrasts: the “naturally charming” FDR versus the “hard-working” Eleanor, on to the Bill/Hillary comparison now.
Conceivably Barack Obama makes his dryly effective comic appearances without “trying” as hard as Hillary Clinton has to. But she reminded us last night that what matters is the result. Presumably she tried very hard; demonstrably she did very well, while also demonstrating mastery of a skill she hadn’t displayed this clearly before (high-stakes deadpan comedy).
The most graceful performers—Federer, Jordan, Simone Biles, Fred Astaire, FDR—make the result of endless hard work seem effortless. Hillary Clinton can’t conceal the effort. But, as in the old line about Ginger Rogers, she has demonstrated command of ever more graceful moves.
Seventeen days and a few hours until the election. For the first time since Richard Nixon, no tax returns or plausible health information forthcoming from a major party nominee. It now appears that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the “responsible” leadership of their party will ride out this disaster to the end, all the while contending, as they still officially do, that Donald Trump is the best choice as our next president.
Late to this for family reasons, but catching up on an actually astonishing development:
Through the campaign, Donald Trump at times seemed more intent on promoting his business interests than in advancing a political campaign. He took time off this summer to fly to Scotland and tout the opening of a new Trump golf resort. He turned what was billed as a major campaign announcement into a promo for his new DC hotel. A surprisingly large share of the money he’s raised for his campaign’s expenditures has gone to his own businesses (notably Mar-a-Lago).
That is why today’s story, in Travel and Leisure, is so piquant and O. Henry-like. What Trump might have imagined would further burnish his personal brand may in fact be poisoning it. T&L reports that Trump’s new hotels will no longer carry his name!!! Instead they’ll be called “Scion.” Groan, given the actual scions, but fascinating in its own way. From T&L:
Amidst reports that occupancy rates at Trump Hotels have slipped this election season, the company has announced that new brand hotels will no longer bear the Trump name.
The newest line of luxury hotels, geared towards millennials, will be called Scion, the company said.
Wait till this sinks in: the name that Donald Trump thought was his greatest asset, the basis of his claims of wealth, is now such commercial baggage that they’re keeping it off his buildings.
But I think he deserves long-term attention as probably the first “public” person to take personal and commercial risks in a forthright stance against Trump. Shortly after Trump’s “they’re sending rapists” speech, José Andrés said he would not open a restaurant, as previously agreed, in Trump’s new DC hotel. Trump immediately sued him back.
Would that some part of José Andrés’s backbone had been transplanted into the Speaker of the House.
With the arrival of vaccines, compassion for COVID deaths began to dry up, sometimes replaced by scorn.
After Andreea’s mom died of COVID-19 in April, the harassment started. Noxious messages started coming in after she wrote a Facebook post letting friends and family know about her loss.
One person messaged her to say they couldn’t believe her mother hadn’t protected herself. Andreea has since deleted most of the other messages, but she remembers people saying things like “I can’t believe your mom was an anti-vaxxer” and “I can’t believe she didn’t understand that COVID could kill you.” “Instead of people saying that they were sorry for my loss, they would question my mom’s medical choices. It became all about her vaccine status. It was incredibly hurtful,” Andreea, a language instructor, who asked to be identified by only her first name in order to prevent further harassment, told me.
SNL’s inaugural episode of 2022 turned to dark, and often awkward, absurdity to explain our exasperating moment.
Saturday Night Live’s first episode of 2022 attempted to make up for the strange, empty show that ended 2021 amid the rise of the coronavirus’s Omicron variant. The cast was back, the masked audience was back, and the show, as they say, went on. But it couldn’t escape the world outside of 30 Rock’s doors.
This season has thus far blended thin political fare with dour-noted escapism, as though the pleasure of putting on a live show is more about continually agitating a bruise than finding true comedic relief. Like so many of its viewers, SNL has been waiting to turn a corner, to move past a scenario with little to laugh about. Last night’s episode felt like one long exasperated sigh. As James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden wretchedly joked in the opening presidential address, “People got vaccinated and the pandemic got worse.”
As patience with the pandemic wanes, leaders in widely vaccinated democracies are deploying a new political strategy.
Updated at 10:09 a.m. ET on January 18, 2022
Politicians rarely set out to piss off their constituents, much less admit to doing so. So when French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his desire to antagonize France’s unvaccinated citizens into receiving COVID vaccinations, observers and many ofhisrivals were appalled, and some were a bit confused. Macron is up for reelection in April, and a quarter of his country remains unimmunized.
But what looked like a risky move for Macron could prove to be a more politically shrewd calculation, not because of whom it alienates, but rather because of whom it doesn’t. In France, and in other democratic countries around the world, the unvaccinated make up a relatively small segment of the population. Macron and his peers in countries such as Australia and Italy have calculated that condemning this group could be more politically effective than pandering to it. Even world-famous celebrities such as tennis star Novak Djokovic, whose unvaccinated status dashed his hopes of defending his Australian Open title, have become the targets of politicians’ ire. By taking a tougher line on the unvaccinated, Macron and other democratically elected leaders facing elections this year may be courting an energetic new voter base: the vaccinated, and ever more impatient, majority.
I thought I was done dating. But after moving across the country, I had to start again—this time, in search of platonic love.
Thirty-seven minutes after sitting down to lunch, Francesca and I hugged goodbye in a strip-mall parking lot. We were both fairly certain, I think, that we would not be seeing each other again. The high-school classmate of a friend’s friend’s husband, she’d been such a promising friendship prospect: She was a professional violinist and fellow New Yorker who was writing her dissertation on pollen. But I was awkward, smiling too much and saying things like “That’s so funny” in lieu of actual laughter, while Francesca (not her real name) was overworked and seemed full of derision for Bozeman, Montana, the town to which I had just moved, and from which she and her husband were determined to flee.
Recently I met the astronomer Pascal Oesch, an assistant professor at the University of Geneva. Professor Oesch and his colleagues share the distinction of having discovered the most distant known object, a small galaxy called GNz-11. That galaxy is so far away that its light had to travel for 13 billion years to get from there to here. I asked Professor Oesch if he felt personally connected to this tiny smudge on his computer screen. Does this faint blob feel like part of nature, part of the same world of Keats and Goethe and Emerson, where “vines that round the thatch-eves run; to bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees”?
Oesch answered that he looks at such distant smudges every day. Sure, they’re part of the universe, he said. But consider the abstraction (thought I). A few exhausted photons of light from GNz-11 dropped on a photoelectric detector aboard a satellite orbiting Earth, produced a tiny electrical current that was translated into 0s and 1s, which were beamed to Earth in a radio wave. That information was then processed in data centers in New Mexico and Maryland and eventually landed on Professor Oesch’s computer screen in Geneva. These days, professional astronomers rarely look at the sky through the lens of a telescope. They sit at computer screens.
For such a familiar celestial body, the sun is still very mysterious—but we’re getting closer to it than ever before.
Kelly Korreck is still thinking about the time her spacecraft flew into the sun, how one moment, the probe was rushing through a stormy current of fast-moving particles, and the next, it was plunging somewhere quieter, where the plasma rolled like ocean waves. No machine had ever crossed that mysterious boundary before. But Korreck and her team had dispatched a mission for that exact purpose, and their plan worked. For the first time in history, a spacecraft had entered the sun’s atmosphere.
“This is a totally cool place to go—well, I guess, hot place to go,” Korreck, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told me. “We’ve touched plasma and gas that actually belongs to the sun.”
A nationwide standard of voting rights now seems like a pipe dream.
The decision by Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin to block their fellow Democrats from passing new federal voting-rights legislation clears the path for years of tightening ballot restrictions in Republican-controlled states. It also marks a resounding triumph for Chief Justice John Roberts in his four-decade quest to roll back the federal government’s role in protecting voter rights.
Roberts as much as anyone set in motion the events that have led to this week’s climactic Senate confrontation over voting legislation. In a series of rulings over the past 15 years, the Supreme Court, often in decisions written by Roberts himself, has consistently weakened federal oversight of voter protections and struck down federal regulations meant to reduce the influence of money in politics. Almost all of those decisions have unfolded on a strict party-line basis, with the Republican-appointed justices outvoting those appointed by Democrats.
A progressive law in the nation’s largest city seems to be a step too far for national Democrats.
Last week was a momentous one for voting rights in America, and not just because of President Joe Biden’s urgent (if unsuccessful) plea for Congress to pass legislation protecting access to the ballot. More than 800,000 people in New York City gained the right to vote with the enactment of a new law allowing legal noncitizens to participate in municipal elections.
The law represents one of the biggest single expansions of voting rights in recent years, as well as an enormous victory for immigrants in the nation’s largest city. But Americans didn’t hear about it in Biden’s speech in Atlanta. Nor would they know about it from listening to congressional Democratic leaders who have championed both the party’s election overhaul and liberal treatment of immigrants. Indeed, few prominent Democrats seem interested in discussing New York City’s law at all; over the past two weeks, I asked a range of party leaders—members of the city’s congressional delegation, the chairs of the congressional Hispanic, Black, and Asian American and Pacific Islander caucuses, the White House—to weigh in on the law and whether immigrant voting rights should be a topic of national debate. Hardly any would agree (or, officially, make time in their busy schedules) to speak on the issue.
The new variant seems to be our quickest one yet. That makes it harder to catch with the tests we have.
It certainly might not seem like it given the pandemic mayhem we’ve had, but the original form of SARS-CoV-2 was a bit of a slowpoke. After infiltrating our bodies, the virus would typically brew forabout five or six daysbefore symptoms kicked in. In the many months since that now-defunct version of the virus emerged, new variants have arrived to speed the timeline up. Estimates for this exposure-to-symptom gap, called the incubation period, clocked in at about five days for Alpha and four days for Delta. Now word has it that the newest kid on the pandemic block, Omicron, may have ratcheted it down to as little asthree.
If that number holds, it’s probably bad news. These trimmed-down cook times are thought to play a major part in helping coronavirus variants spread: In all likelihood, the shorter the incubation period, the faster someone becomes contagious—and the quicker an outbreak spreads. A truncated incubation “makes a virus much, much, much harder to control,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me.
During the holiday week, I spent a frigid afternoon standing in a long line outside the local library to pick up a rapid COVID test. Lines for essential goods are a pretty good sign of failed public policy. When food runs low, there are bread lines. Where gasoline is in short supply, there are gas lines. But there I stood, nearly two years into a pandemic, shivering inside a depressing metaphor of state failure. As I bounced from foot to foot to stay warm, I asked myself: How on earth did this happen?
America’s miserable—and miserably timed—testing shortage was a policy choice. The FDA has continually slow-walked the approval of rapid tests for development. The Trump administration was utterly uninterested in any COVID policy outside the vaccines. The Biden administration and Democrats didn’t announce bulk orders of rapid tests until the Omicron wave had already swept through the country. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, approved more kits and prioritized their manufacture and distribution, giving their citizens access to millions of free tests throughout the past year. America lacks the test abundance of the U.K. and Canada because instead of choosing abundance, we chose scarcity.