Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Trump Nation
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An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 34 Newer Notes

What If Trump Is the One 'Rigging' the Election?

Reuters

More readers are building on the projection argument that Fallows outlined in Time Capsule #142: “that ‘projection,’ in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does”—that he accuses people of sins that are far more his own. Reader Tom contrasts Trump’s approach with recent history:

I may be saying the same thing in a different way, but Mr Trump has been engaging in what I’ve thought of as a new style of political attack.

“Rovian politics,” named after Karl Rove, was taking on your opponent’s strengths and attacking them head on to negate their advantage (e.g. “Swiftboating” John Kerry to attack his war record and turn a strength into a weakness).

In “Trumpian politics” you take your weaknesses, exaggerate them, and accuse your opponent of possessing that weakness. Is womanizing a potential weakness of yours? Accuse your opponent of being much worse than you were, making yourself look good (at least in your own mind) by comparison. Temperament? Accuse your opponent of being completely unstable to divert attention. Old enough to be the oldest person ever elected to a first term? Accuse your opponent of being weak and sickly.

By exaggerating your weaknesses and targeting your opponent with the same, you not only attack them with something they consider important but you potentially make yourself look good by comparison.

Sandra notes another example of projection:

A minor thing, but Trump may well have lied about his weight. After the Dr Oz show, the number 267 pounds was floating around. Apparently a few studio audience members said that was the weight that was mentioned from the medical report. It could easily have been doctored before the screening. Plus he added an inch to his height to get himself into the merely overweight category.

So the fat-shamer in chief lies about his weight and probably falls well into the obese category. Weigh-in before the next debate perhaps?

This next reader, Joe, poses a compelling and disturbing question:

Reading the latest entries about Trump’s habit of projection and his latest assertions that the election is “rigged,” I can’t help but draw a horrifying extrapolation: What if Trump’s allegations about Democrats and the media rigging the election are themselves projection?

A reader has a strong addition to our discussion about the dangerous game that Donald Trump is playing with all of “rigged” rhetoric:

I appreciate Fallows’ invocation of Richard Nixon’s resignation when discussing the American norm of a peaceful transition of power. However, there’s another decision by Nixon that seems even more relevant in light of Trump’s allegations about a rigged election.

Earlier this year I read Edward B. Foley’s excellent history of disputed elections in America, Ballot Battles. The book is fascinating on many levels and alarming in its descriptions of the weaknesses in America’s electoral institutions. But I want to focus on one particular election featured in the book: the 1960 presidential contest between Nixon and Kennedy.

Oxford University Press

It’s now generally accepted that Chicago Democrats manipulated the vote totals in the 1960 election in an attempt to help Kennedy carry Illinois. There is also substantial evidence that Lyndon B. Johnson’s political machine in Texas manipulated the vote total in Kennedy’s favor. If Nixon was, in fact, cheated out of those two states and their electoral votes, then he was cheated out of the presidency in 1960.

Political partisans had their suspicions even at the time. After Nixon’s initial concession to Kennedy, his supporters urged him to seek recounts in both Illinois and Texas. But Nixon was convinced that there was no way for him to get a truly fair recount from Texas state officials. And at the time, the Supreme Court's policy was to avoid federal intervention in this type of dispute.

So let’s take a step back and consider this situation. Here we have a politician who is just out of reach of the White House. He has a reasonable belief that the vote totals in two key states were rigged against him, and that the recount process in one of those states would also be rigged against him. On top of everything else, this politician is Richard Nixon, a man whose name has become a shorthand for political dirty tricks. So what does he do?

Incredibly, Nixon did nothing.

Fortune telling machine in New York Lucas Jackson / Reuters

In Time Capsule installment #142, and in a followup item in this thread, I mentioned Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”—blaming his opponents for flaws he very obviously has himself.

Seth Knoepler, a PhD psychologist in California, writes in to give me the Official Perspective:

Since you’re evidently receiving some “completely amateur” opinions, you might as well have a more professional one.

To clinical professionals, “projection” is one of the “mechanisms of defense” which Anna Freud and others have described. These are mental maneuvers which are intended to protect the person from uncomfortable feelings that are associated with particular impulses or ideas. Each defense mechanism results in a perception of reality which has been distorted in some way.

Kurt Andersen on Twitter, on the limits on Donald Trump’s self-awareness.

In installment #142 of the Time Capsule series, I argue that “projection,” in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does.

Projection means deflecting any criticism (or half-conscious awareness) of flaws in yourself by accusing someone else of exactly those flaws. Is Trump’s most immediately obvious trait his narcissistic and completely ungoverned temperament? (Answer: yes.) By the logic of projection, it thus makes perfect sense that he would brag that he has “the greatest temperament” and judgment, and criticize the always-under-control Hillary Clinton for hers.

How can this be? A reader offers an analysis worth considering (emphasis added):

I am writing to comment on “Drug Test,” item #142, and the idea of self-projection as the first rule of Trump analysis. Here’s my completely amateur opinion:

Trump is a man with almost zero ability to empathize or imagine other people’s motives or drives. His ego and narcissism are so oversized they warp all his opinions into reflections of himself. Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs, or desires in others, they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.

In simple terms, one might say his mind is empty of any thoughts that are not self-referential. And so self-projection is simply a consequence of this vacuity.

Wikimedia

One of the strangest things about the Trump phenomenon is that, for something so unprecedented, he’s best understood through the lens of history.

He’s also best misunderstood through that lens. One of the most common historical looks at Trump this year is comparing him to Hitler. (Here’s the most thoughtful and understated effort.) The commonness of this overreach may be the best case for bothering to be precise about what sort of character the Republican nominee is. The problem with the “Trump = Hitler” thesis, after all, is not that it is too difficult to sustain, but too easy; it fails by a long way to take a full measure of the German tyrant. But the reason the argument seems so low-hanging is that Trump has, probably half-unwittingly, turned the demagogy textbook into an instruction manual. Hitler may as well have been offering advice, for example, when he said that “the effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.” (Update on 10/25: My colleague Uri ably analyzes such Hitler comparisons.)

Some readers thought my note on Trump being an “Ur-Fascist” made a similar error, trying to shoehorn a word where it doesn’t belong. The word “fascism,” after all, recalls a specifically European past, and Trump, certainly as he conceives of himself, is American first. So one reader, Kevin, proposes a term that might be a fit better than “Ur-Fascist”:

I may be getting overly formal here, but fascism was a political movement with very definite philosophical underpinnings, most of them failing to resemble any philosophy that Trump and his followers may hold dear. One may say that Mussolini and the other fascist leaders of the 20th century often ignored them, but what actual political leaders of any movement have always kept faith with their philosopher predecessors?

Real fascisms had definite clerical and royalist associations. They attempted, with various degrees of commitment and success, to implement something like Catholic corporatism as a basis for social organization and the economy. It is no accident that actual fascisms were confined almost entirely to Catholic majority countries, most of them Iberian, Mediterranean, or Latin American. (Needless to say, this is one of the many reasons that National Socialism was not a fascist movement.)

All of these tenets, in addition to the obvious absence of any Trump squadristi, argue powerfully that Trump is no fascist—merely an American authoritarian.

It is in fact entirely misleading to turn to any foreign political model to explain Trump when there is a model in U.S. politics, of nearly two centuries' duration, that applies dead on. It is called Jacksonianism, and Trump is the Andrew Jackson of his day.

Jackson’s movement, like Trump’s, arose in reaction to perceived wrenching social and and economic changes in 1820s and 1830s America. Its adherents were the white yeomen who felt left out of the power structure, as opposed to the propertied elites who in many states had a monopoly on the franchise. The other burning issues that concerned the Jacksonians bore a distinct resemblance to those that concern Trump’s followers today—industrialization and international trade; concentration of wealth in the hands of the old Bourbon planters and the budding Northern industrialists; the control of Congress by such elite professional politicians as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C Calhoun. Add to this President John Quincy Adams, whose 1824 election in the House of Representatives over Andrew Jackson, the leader in popular vote, led to cries of a “corrupt bargain”—that is, a rigged election. Sound familiar?

And, of course, there was race. Not only did the Jacksonian multitudes fear competition from black slave labor (even though they were dead set against manumission). They were also both fearful and envious of the native population, whose land they coveted. It’s easy to imagine a Trumpian Trail of Tears, this time victimizing Latino immigrants and noncitizen Muslims rather than the Cherokee. Enforcing their expulsions would require a large militarized police force uprooting, dividing, and exiling families, all for the perceived benefit of nativist whites.

Like very many Trumpians, the Jacksonians did not fit neatly along the right-left axis as we understand it today. They were all for expanded government, as long as it benefited them and not the moneyed elites, new capitalists, and nonwhites. While claiming to eschew foreign policy interventionism, they were militaristic and better described as unilateralist than isolationist. For instance, they were gung-ho about invading and annexing adjacent territory that belonged to other nations. President James Knox Polk, who pursued the Mexican War, was a Jacksonian nonpareil.

So perhaps Orwell was more correct than you allow. “Fascist” has for nearly a century been a term of opprobrium hurled indiscriminately by certain leftists to attack any person or idea they find uncongenial. More recently, the word has been adopted by the right, with at least as much imprecision—a sure sign it has jumped the shark.

There is a bit of a contradiction here about whether Trump would or would not have thugs at his disposal, but nonetheless this is a strong case that Jacksonianism is the ism that fits better than fascism.

George S. Patton Military Personnel Records Center, via Wikipedia

In last night’s debate, the Republican nominee said, apropos military policy: “General George Patton, General Douglas MacArthur are spinning in their grave at the stupidity of what we’re doing in the Middle East.”

In most of his speeches Trump mentions those same two generals. Reader Marcus Hall assesses what the reliance on Patton and MacArthur might tell us about Trump:

It is easy to see why these two military legends are attractive to Trump:

1) Both were known as showmen and motivators. This is clearly Trump’s modus operandi as well; he is most comfortable being the showman and motivator. When he isn’t in the granted position of head of the dais, he looks, seems, and acts out of place. (For example, think back to the instance in Flint where the pastor takes the initiative to challenge him as a person.)

2) Both were known to take personal animus against rivals on their own side to extremes. Think of Patton’s constant infighting with Montgomery, and his less than amicable relationship to Bradley after Sicily.

3) Both were known for strident aggressive stances against an enemy without consideration for larger picture effects. MacArthur’s blunders with antagonizing the Chinese after Inchon, and Patton’s immediate post-war desire to go to war with the Soviets before the armed forces and the country (or its non-Russian allies) could even recover from WWII.

4) Both faced disgrace at the hands of the media and at the hands of those who were better able to handle the larger context of events (Eisenhower for Patton, and Truman for MacArthur).

In installment #137, I mentioned Jane Goodall’s prescience in foreseeing primal-dominance moves from Donald Trump if he had a chance to move around in the same debate space with Hillary Clinton. Now a sample of reader reaction. From a woman named Sarah:

You are wondering how Trump’s behavior last night played with women. I can tell you that I and every other woman I know are having a collective freakout right now. Granted, not one of us was going to vote for Trump, anyway—but that’s not the point.

Last night’s debate was a triggering event for pretty much every woman I know. That also seems to be the general reaction online amongst women I don’t know. Whether we were raped, assaulted, harassed, or in an abusive relationship, Trump last night embodied everything we have had to deal with throughout our lives. Some women wanted to jump on stage and throw themselves between the candidates to protect Hillary. Others were afraid he was going to attack her. Many wondered how she could even maintain a train of thought.

Women with young daughters are struggling with how to discuss what they saw last night with their girls. For those of us with sons, it’s a bit easier: 1) Don't be That Guy; 2) If you see That Guy in action, call out his bad behavior.

But—we, collectively, are having a difficult time shaking off what we saw last night. It was terrifying, frustrating, enraging, and depressing. Other women, perhaps, will shake it off as “all men are like that.” The fact that some women think that this is normal behavior is, in itself, deeply depressing.

Donald Trump mugs for the crowd in front an enormous video of himself at the Republican National Convention. Below, Trump retweets a Mussolini quote from a parody account set up to bait him.

George Orwell said that “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” He’s not wrong. Since Mussolini’s original Partito Nazionale Fascista rule began in Italy in 1922, “fascist” has become an epithet that’s as easy to dismiss as it is to use.

Yet the term remains important as well as loaded, especially in an American election season when an argument has broken out over whether the Republican nominee for president meets its definition. Writing in The Atlantic in January, Gianni Riotta addressed this question, answering that Donald Trump is not a fascist. And he would know; he grew up in the rubble of the original Italian fascism, lived its recent history, and labored under personal threats from groups of lingering fascists during their moments of revival.

Here is how Riotta defines “fascist” and why he thinks it’s overwrought to use it to describe Trump:

Trump will never master the techniques laid out in 1931 by the then-fascist journalist Curzio Malaparte in his Coup D’etat: The Technique of Revolution, which detailed the clear requirements of the fascist manifesto: Seize and hold state power with a sudden attack, coordinated with cunning and force. There is no fascism without this rational, violent plan to obliterate democracy. From Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Mussolini’s speeches on the Palazzo Venezia balcony, fascists told the crowd openly what their goals were and kept a nefarious, disciplined pace to realize them. Mussolini boasted about reducing Italy’s Parliament “to a fascist barrack,” “stopping any antifascist brain from thinking,” and “creating a new Roman Empire.”

Notwithstanding some obvious shades of “make America great again” and “the experts are terrible” in Mussolini’s sloganeering, by Riotta’s definition Trump is indeed not a fascist—that is, assuming that on November 9, Trump is having one of the days when he says he’s inclined to respect the results of the democratic election, and not one of the days when he’s not.

But the debate over the definition of fascism is much richer than Riotta covered. Some readers of his piece quibbled that there are shades of fascism and that Trump sits somewhere worryingly far along:

Perhaps it’s more accurate that Trump is “fascistic” or “with fascist tendencies” (or, more ominously, “proto-fascist”).

Another reader suggested:

Neo-fascist.

Though all the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are off base. Trump is more like Goering in attitude and temperament: pompous, full of himself, and attracted to power.

Fascist-y? Fascist-esque? Generalissimodious?

Clearly the strict binary Riotta lays out doesn’t leave room for people to invoke some of the expressive power of the F-word that Trump seems to compel some to.

How about “Ur-Fascist”?

“Ur-Fascism” is a 1995 essay by the great Italian author Umberto Eco, who was born under Mussolini’s regime in 1932. The essay takes up the challenge that Orwell laid down in 1944 when he called “fascist” nearly meaningless. Even Orwell didn’t propose to abandon the term entirely, merely to “use [it] with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” Eco takes this seriously, and in doing so he provides the loudest response to Riotta’s definition of fascism as explicitly evoking Mussolini’s worldview:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.

Just because the term is mutable does not mean its meaningless. The starting point of Eco’s understanding is, quite unlike Riotta’s, that the modern word has a history in Italian fascism but it need not share precise features with Mussolini’s system. It’s a synecdoche—a part that stands as a symbol for the whole phenomenon of 20th century strongman authoritarianism—in which Italy’s system figures deeply but not definitively.

See if you think Eco was onto something with predictive power in the following passages from his essay. The first:

Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

And here are Trump’s tweets from Election Day 2012, when President Obama won reelection with 332 Electoral College votes over Mitt Romney’s 206 and with a four-point margin of victory in the popular vote:

Or how about this passage from Eco?

Imaginative recreation of Aaron Burr preparing for his duel with Alexander Hamilton. After his service as vice president, Burr got into legal trouble, though not for the crime-in-history’s-eyes of killing Hamilton. What might happen to a post-election non-President Trump?  (J. Mund-Lord painting, via Wikimedia.)

A reader in the tech business offers an uncomfortably plausible scenario on what might happen beginning November 9:

What comes after the campaign of 2016?  It now appears likely that Hillary will win, that Trumpism will be soundly discredited, and that people will soon forget that the contest ever seemed close. Losing campaigns are always harmless in the rear view mirror: no one has family stories about working for Joe McCarthy or Charles Lindbergh. That’s why we need the Time Capsule.

But, after the campaign is over and the election lost, Trump faces trouble unprecedented in American history*. It’s conceivable that Trump could face civil or criminal prosecution on several fronts: federal income tax evasion, mail fraud connected with Trump University, fraud connected to his charitable foundation, espionage associated with Wikileaks, illegal lobbying associated with Russia.

(* Well, there’s Aaron Burr. Warren Harding died in office. Eugene Debs wound up in prison, but he wasn’t quite a major party candidate, his offense—if offense it was—occurred years after the campaign, and his red-scare prosecution is not something of which the country has been proud.  I can’t recall another example.)

We can easily imagine that some of these matters might arrive in federal or state court in the coming years. Whatever the outcome of those cases, Trump supporters will believe that the charges are Hillary Clinton’s personal retribution. And, next time the Democrats lose the White House, they will call for matching prosecutions of the losing candidate. “Lock Her Up” may have awful echoes.

As you know, this mirrors one of the defects that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Romans didn’t want every private complaint to stop public business, so you couldn’t bring suit against officials until their terms expired.  Toward the end of the Republic, this meant that anyone could expect to be sued as soon as they left office, which meant that people had to find ways to stay in office indefinitely. Losing a big election meant endless litigation, possibly ending in death or exile.

As things stand, I fear creating the expectation that every losing presidential candidate will face prosecution.  

One escape hatch could be a pre-emptive pardon. I was not a fan of Ford’s pardoning Nixon, but the national interest might be stronger here than it was after Watergate. History has been kinder about another precedent, the decision not to prosecute officials of the purported Confederacy. The question then becomes, is it preferable for Clinton to pardon Trump, or for Obama?  

YouTube screencap

A reader highlights him:

As David Sims wrote in his piece “Alec Baldwin’s Scarier, Nastier Donald Trump,” Alec Baldwin gave us a very funny Trump, and a somewhat darker characterization than we normally see from Saturday Night Live. However, it is not the darkest or best Trump impression to emerge in this election season, and it clearly borrowed from the one that is.

Earlier this year, comic Anthony Atamanuik appeared as Trump in a number of appearances on comedy shows, often debating Bernie Sanders (as portrayed very humorously by James Adomian). While Baldwin’s had elements of Darrell Hammond’s goofy Trump, it is indeed closer to Drunk Uncle or Archie Bunker. Atamanuik, by contrast, is nonchalantly ghoulish—an uncensored peek into the dark heart of the Trump id as we fear it to be, if that were then blown up to full size and presented without any other element of Trump’s personality. Baldwin’s use of “Gina” was pioneered by Atamanuik’s Trump, who repeatedly asserted that Gina was the enemy. With Atamanuik, this is just getting started, as he will casually promise to kill everyone, repeatedly tell young women that he can buy them and even tell one she has soft skin which he could remove if he wanted.

I was blindsided by this routine when I happened to see a version of this mock debate on Comedy Central’s show At Midnight. It feels like genuinely dangerous comedy and was clearly the inspiration for SNL to go a bit beyond their glitz and goofiness in the characterization of a man who may truly be a hollowed out shell animated only by primitive drives.

Watch for yourself below. I caught the first seven minutes and it’s truly packed with talent and blunt dark humor that doesn’t feel petty. (For example, Baldwin’s Trump referring to Lester Holt as “jazz man” and “Coltrane” felt cheap and lazy, compared to Atamanuik’s inspired riff on “white power”—watch here as a standalone clip.)

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

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

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

Six days ago: the debate. Carlos Barria / Reuters

I think this is simple, rather than simplistic:

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

    My guess is that is has not.

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