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 42 Newer Notes

What the Hell Is Wrong With Evangelicals Supporting Trump?

A reader writes:

I was pleased to see you say “God bless these principled Christians” in response to the Liberty United Against Trump statement [that opposed Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., for continuing to support Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape and wave of women alleging sexual assault]. I hope you remember that they are still very conservative evangelicals who chose to attend Liberty University and who probably disagree with you about abortion, gay marriage, evolution, and a whole host of other topics. In other words, they’re the people Democrats spent years accusing of being the extremists destroying the GOP and the country.

The religious right is starting to look pretty good next to Donald Trump, eh? Glad to see the Trump campaign can sow harmony and understanding, despite his best efforts to spread discord. But maybe this also should be a time for Democrats to reflect on their many years of crying wolf.

I wish I could agree with the reader—that the evangelical right is finally taking a principled stand against a nominee who is not just a threat to our democratic system but also norms of human decency often aligned with “values voters”—but, unfortunately, this is the sad reality:

Nearly two-thirds of likely evangelical voters, 65 percent, said they support Trump in a nationwide survey released Tuesday by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute [PRRI] — this after the airing of an 11-year-old video in which he was recorded lewdly bragging about having made sexually inappropriate advances to married women. Likewise, a survey released Monday by the religious polling group Barna reported that Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 55 percent to 2 percent among likely evangelical voters in next month's general election. Such support has been remarkably consistent since Trump emerged as the Republican nominee — hitting a high of 78 percent in a July survey by the nonprofit Pew Research Center's Project on Religion & Public Life.

Details from online Oxford University astrophysics course, showing how a supernova puffs itself up into a giant fireball before it explodes and dies. Hmmm, why does this image come to mind? (Oxford)

Over the past three days, as the Trump campaign has condensed into a tight ball of fury, recklessness, and recrimination, I’ve again been away from the Time Capsule beat. Partly this has been because of some unexpected last-minute article-writing duties. (Be on the lookout for our December issue! And before that, the new November one, just out now. And with the holiday season ahead, subscriptions make a great gift!) Partly it has been because of a planned and unexpectedly fascinating immersion with members of the Purpose Built Community network, this week at their national conference here in Birmingham, Alabama (where long ago I celebrated my 19th birthday while working as a reporter for The Southern Courier).

Some catch-up notes before tonight’s final debate:

1) Death with Dignity. Tim Miller, who was communications director for Jeb Bush’s doomed presidential campaign and has worked for other Republicans, has a wonderful essay in The Ringer called “Donald Trump is on a Presidential Death March We’ve Never Seen Before.” It addresses a part of politics that is vastly more agonizing for participants than it seems from outside: losing, in public, in a way that has no real counterpart.

When a baseball batter strikes out in a crucial bases-loaded, two-outs situation, or a basketball player misses a free throw or a quarterback throws an interception, it hurts. But there’s always the next game or the next season, and anyway you’re getting paid. When an actor misses out on an Oscar or Emmy—hey, you’re breaking my heart.

Chey Cobb, a reader in San Diego, writes:

I’m just tuning in to your time capsule of Donald Trump and I’m finding the commentary from Fallows and your readers to be insightful instead of frightful. Thank you.

“The Media” seemed to have been too polite at the onset of Sir Trump’s parade of hate and lies. It seemed like the major networks were all too afraid of rocking the boat; they were afraid to call Trump out too strongly. The Media worried too much about ad revenue if they didn’t give live airtime to empty podiums and feature the latest Trump statement in their crawlers. Besides, it was Real Reality TV! And it was Free! Life imitating artifice.

We, the public, got very little reporting of substance because that doesn't sell well during prime TV viewing periods. There was very little of what I call “true” journalism being done on TV. I saw very little of the Walter Cronkite, Edward Murrow, Orla Guerin, and Christiane Ananpour type of journalism. Does the journalistic code of ethics not matter anymore? Will excellent reporting end up being an oxymoron? I’m glad The Media have finally founds their spine, but I fear it may be too late.

There may not be much “true” journalism on TV this election, certainly not on cable news, but there has been a ton coming from legacy papers. The finance blogger Barry Ritholtz has an excellent post this week making the case that print newspapers—those dinosaurs we thought were going extinct, starting with the Craigslist meteor—could turn out to be the deciding factor in defeating Trump. And of course that defeat would be just deserts for a man who has ignorance and contempt for a free press and routinely threatens journalists and their institutions. Here’s Ritholtz:

Print quietly returned to its roots of investigative journalism and deep dive reporting. The Washington Post assigned two 20-person teams to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with orders to look into every phase of their lives. Other newspapers have similarly put reporters to work beyond the campaign trail.

However, there is a significant difference between the public figures of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Many more of your smart emails are coming in over Trump and what he means for the election, the GOP, and the country. The first one comes from reader Reid, who describes a familiar outlook that is more relevant than ever, as Trump’s campaign continues to implode while taking the Republicans down with him. (Sarah Palin’s “going rogue” in 2008 seems quaint by comparison.) Here’s Reid:

The fact that the GOP isn’t pushing back on Trump’s attack on the election is appalling and reprehensible to me. McConnell’s silence stands out in particular. The GOP is dead, and the GOP is certainly dead to me (and that is not a good thing for our country).

I once had a theory: People like Christie, Pence, McConnell, and Ryan, by supporting Trump, would place them in position to prevent Trump from doing stupid things if he were elected. The reasoning here is: If they openly opposed and antagonized Trump, there would be zero chance that Trump would cooperate with them. (They probably had a 10 percent chance of controlling him or getting him to cooperate if he viewed them as loyal supporters.) These justifications seem somewhat compelling to me, even though they are also a bit dubious and awfully close to easy rationalizations that mask personal ambition and realpolitik, because they put the country first.

Created by a reader, Alan Tobey

But none of these justifications seem valid now (if they ever were valid). Trump is aggressively attacking the validity of the election and decrying the lack of support from the GOP—which turns his supporters against the GOP. McConnell or Ryan’s pushback will carry little weight with Trump supporters. It also seems clear that Trump views Ryan (at least) as disloyal. That basically means Ryan has almost no chance of working effectively with Trump.

There’s one other possibility that comes to mind to justify their continued support: If they renounce Trump now, I’m thinking that just feeds the Trump’s narrative the the GOP wasn’t supporting him sufficiently all along. Still, even if this is true, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure the GOP is in an effective position to push back against Trump’s refusal to accept the election results.

Earlier this year, a part of me felt the Republicans should have abandoned their party, leaving Trump behind and other Republicans who wanted to support him—while forming a new party. This move could rid themselves of everything bad about the party (e.g., racism) and with Trump as the figurehead, creating a blank slate to build a new party, one that would could appeal to minorities and also working- and middle-class voters. It was an opportunity with the long game in mind. The pain in the short term would be intensely painful (e.g., losing the White House, maybe even losing seats Congress). But it’s not like the route they've chosen will avoid any of those things either!

Instead, the GOP leadership has lost all credibility in the process. I don’t and won’t see them as credible leaders and re-builders of the party. I feel like they’re in a worse position than if they tried to create a new party. And it would be even worse still if Trump wins.

Another reader, Steve, suggests that the GOP should’ve seen this sort of “rigged” rhetoric coming after Trump’s sustained Birtherism—and now their chickens have come home to roost:

Much has been said and written about the possibility of Trump and his followers refusing to accept the legitimacy of a Clinton victory. Is this that different than most of these same people’s reaction to Obama’s election? Trump himself made Obama’s ineligibility a years-long vocation.

This next reader, Robert, takes a longer historical view and finds that Trump—enabled by the cowardly GOP establishment—runs counter to America’s aspirational goal of “a more perfect union”:

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 it’s 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?