Notes

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 #147: ‘Scion’

Eric Trump yesterday, a scion and thus namesake of the new hotel brand. Chris Keane / Reuters

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.

***

People know the famous chef José Andrés  as, well, a famous chef. I had a chance to get to know him a few years ago in strange circumstances in Beijing.

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.

Joining a few friends for a casual dinner last night. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“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.)

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.

The Republican nominee, soon after news came in of a crime in North Carolina.

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 …

Then-VP Al Gore in December, 2000, with then-wife Tipper and daughter Sarah, a few days before the Supreme Court issued its politically driven Bush v. Gore ruling that halted the vote recount in Florida and effectively declared George W. Bush president. Gore said that he disagreed with the ruling but would respect the outcome—as George H.W. Bush said when losing to Bill Clinton eight years earlier, and as other candidates have done when acknowledging that a rival had won. Donald Trump begs to differ. Reuters

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.

Famous NBC news photo of Donald Trump’s longtime physician Dr. Harold Bornstein, who certified that a President Trump would be “unequivocally the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Trump is now suggesting that Hillary Clinton might be abusing drugs. NBC

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.”

What???

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.

These women, at a rally in Charlotte this evening, are for Donald Trump. Most female American voters are not. Mike Segar / Reuters

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.)

The nominee greeting his people last night in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Mike Segar / Reuters

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.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

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.

Donald Trump early this morning

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.

Early today

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.

Six a.m. today

***

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.”

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:

NYT headline at noon on October 10

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!

At the debate. Rick Wilking / Reuters

In my current cover story on the debates, I quote noted primate expert and anthropologist Jane Goodall:

“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!”

See for yourself, in this incredible on-scene video via Ben Smith of BuzzFeed.

***

While this behavior presumably made Trump feel more dominant and also pleased people like Farage who already supported him, will this help him win the election?

The debate tonight. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

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.

That’s enough for now. 29 days to go.