Reporter's Notebook

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:

Show 43 Newer Notes

A Third-Party Voter Makes His Case (and I Dissent)

The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. Jim Young / Reuters

A reader in New York writes about the way he is casting his vote. He also asks a question, for which my answer is below.

From the reader:

As a two-time Obama voter and Obama fan, I am not at all enthusiastic about HRC and plan to vote Gary Johnson to register my unease with her. Your views on Trump are well known, but I would like to know: what do you think of HRC, not as an alternative to Trump per se—who’s obviously so much worse—but as an affirmative choice for president?

Put another way, if you set aside the idea of influencing the outcome / blocking Trump and instead focus on voting as an act of affirmation, do you actively support HRC despite her flaws and why? Do you think we should feel good that she will be president? I have seen no evidence of her having “learned” from past ethical missteps or foreign policy misjudgments. My own views are below, and I see three main negatives in HRC.

  1. Her poor judgment and paranoid streak (see: email fiasco) are not just unappealing, but undermine her effectiveness when they blow up in her face. This pattern will continue into her presidency.
FBI Director James Comey testifying on Capitol Hill before the House Oversight Committee on July 7 to explain his agency’s recommendation to not prosecute Hillary Clinton. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Fallows is swamped at the moment, partly to finish a cover story for our upcoming issue, so he passed along a ton of reader email with permission to post. (Thanks to everyone who has written him, as well as the general hello@ account, and we’re trying to post as many of the best emails as we can before Election Day.)

To start us off, a few readers find that the FBI director was put in a very difficult position following his agency’s July announcement that it would not recommend charges to the Justice Department against Clinton for her “extremely careless” use of emails. Comey was then lambasted in public before the House Oversight Committee and increasingly invoked in Trump’s pernicious “rigged” rhetoric on the campaign trail. This Fox News clip is a taste of things as they got started in July:

A reader suggests that Trump won by getting into Comey’s head:

It seems to me that the unfortunate way that Comey handled this situation was definitely a very clear-cut case of “working the refs.” Trump and his campaign have pushed so hard on the idea that everything is rigged—including the FBI—that when these potentially new emails came up, Comey lost his backbone and decided to cover his ass and show The Republicans that he was not rigged. Sort of like a make-up call in a big game.

It is an indictment of our current state of affairs in regards to normalizing Trump that despite the widespread pushback on Trump’s “rigged” talk, it still was not discredited outright enough by EVERYONE. If we had a normal candidate who accepted the system, then Comey would not have been feeling the pressure to prove he was not “rigged,” and he would have followed the 60-day tradition that has been in place for decades even if it meant taking some heat about it down the line.

This next reader has outright sympathy for Comey—pity even, given his apparent weakness in the face of Trumpism:

Fallows makes a number of good points in his thoughtful piece on falling norms. My problem here is that one of the “norms” that has fallen is “equal justice” under the law in this country. The real tragedy here for Comey and the country is the fact that he gave Mrs. Clinton a pass when it is obvious that she violated several laws [or at least federal records rules, which—speaking of the erosion of norms—started to be chipped away by Clinton’s predecessor, Colin Powell]. The idea that she should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear. Opinion writers like Fallows seem to ignore this fact, which is why there is the current situation.

I feel bad for Mr. Comey, but he should have done the right thing in the first place.

Update from a reader who rebuts a sentence above:

“The idea that [Clinton] should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear.” This is, in fact, the problem itself. In a society governed by law, you have to accept the verdict of law. You can criticize it and rail against it, push for legal reforms, but you should not and cannot question its legitimacy itself (one more norm broken).

In this case, if Comey (a Republican) reviewed all evidence and decided that there was not enough to prosecute, our “feelings” and “polls of American people” (unfortunately) don’t matter. A similar parallel is Black Lives Matter, where unless a verdict that is acceptable to the activists is not reached, the jury is racist and the system is corrupt. A more thoughtful viewpoint is that in view of the facts presented, the jury could not / did not reach a “guilty” verdict.

For Comey’s part, according to officials close to him, he felt both a sense of obligation to Congress and “a concern that word of the new email discovery would leak to the media and raise questions of a coverup”—though not as much “raise questions” as throw fuel on the Trump dumpster fire already raging for weeks.

This next reader, a lawyer in L.A., while no apparent fan of Trump, points a finger at the Clintons and their deep establishmentarianism:

As far as Comey, the entire process was politicized, and I suspect a careful review of the government’s prosecution history for these offenses will show that Clinton was the only one who was not prosecuted for her security breach. A FOIA request could show that. One can be a Democrat, and all that, or simply despise Trump for being the unaccomplished heir that he is, but can one really argue that Billary do not enjoy unprecedented treatment from their capture of the Democratic Party, or that the capture did not lead to her nomination and the FBI’s decision not to prosecute?

Another lawyer, on the other hand, blasts Comey:

In northern Wisconsin recently: two deer, same species, different hues. Read on to learn what they have to do with the campaign. (Reader photo, with permission.)

Yesterday I mentioned a social-media analysis showing that 35 percent of active Trump supporters on Twitter (versus less than one-tenth of one percent of Clinton supporters) followed prominent “white nationalist” Twitter feeds, like @DrDavidDuke.

Now readers respond. First, what I’ll simply call a dissent, from a reader in South Carolina:

Your article on White Nationalists is disgusting and irresponsible and does not even rise to the level of journalism.

I am a Trump supporter and surprisingly NOT a Russian bot, a white nationalist, or an anti-Semite. I vote for Trump not because I think he’s a great politician, but because I cannot allow Hillary Clinton destroy America with her failed and deadly policies.

I vote for Trump to keep Hillary out. Plus, it is obvious to me and many others that Trump cares deeply about America as a country—Hillary cannot say the same.

Quit reducing patriotic Americans who cannot abide the thought of Hillary Clinton in the White House to ridiculous stereotypes. We are people who love America and do not wish to see it destroyed by her harmful policies. Disgraceful piece of work. I will no longer be reading the hate-mongering that goes on at The Atlantic.

Noted. After the jump, a different sort of response from a successful advanced-tech entrepreneur in the industrial Midwest who sent in the photo at the top of this item.

From Demographics Pro

Vehement Trump supporters abound on Twitter. That much is obvious to anyone who has used the service. Who exactly they are, and how broad a swath of society they represent, has been harder to pin down.

Are they largely Russian bots, as some reports have suggested? Are the angriest ones really just a handful of activists, racists, and anti-Semites, who through nonstop posting in multiple accounts exaggerate their true numbers? (Though even a very few would be enough.) Are they in any kind of coordinated activity, or mainly working as loners?

A social-media analytics firm called Demographics Pro has released an analysis of 10,000 Trump supporters who are active on Twitter, and 10,000 Hillary Clinton supporters. It then matched those accounts with a list of 10 active, major white-nationalist Twitter accounts. (The company describes the way in which it chose and classified such sites here.)

What were the results? They’re shown on the chart above. Of the 10,000 Clinton followers, a total of 16 followed one or more of the major white-nationalist accounts, the likes of @DrDavidDuke and so on. Of the 10,000 Trump supporters, a total of 3,549—well over one-third—followed the white nationalists.

Following an account doesn’t necessarily make you an adherent. I follow @DrDavidDuke myself, along with several others on the list. But the disproportion here, while it doesn’t answer all questions about Trump Twitter world, suggests something about its nature.

A similar Demographics Pro analysis, of the overlap between conspiracy-theory sites and Trump supporters, is here.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, one year after The Atlantic’s founding, “mattered” in American history because of the ideas they advanced. (Stephen Douglas held onto his seat in the Senate; not long afterward Lincoln began his campaign for the presidency.) Is it possible that the Clinton-Trump debates of 2016, or Year 159 of The Atlantic’s history, will also matter? (Robert Marshall Root painting, via Illinois Periodicals Online)

In my my article on this year’s presidential debates, I pointed out that these high-drama election-year rituals seem important to mere citizens and journalists. But political scientists have long claimed there’s no proof that they’ve actually changed presidential election results.

Maybe they’ll say something different when this year’s results are in. At face value, it certainly appears that the first Clinton-Trump debate—a month ago today—marked a clear shift in Hillary Clinton’s favor and against Donald Trump.

Below is a screenshot of the timeline for the “polls-plus” prediction of the election’s outcome, from FiveThirtyEight. I’ve added the big black arrow to mark the first debate. The thinner vertical lines to the right are the other two debates, each one of which went badly for Trump and, from this chart, seemed to reinforce Clinton’s lead.

As a reminder: debate #2 was the town hall, in which Trump loomed up behind Clinton like a lurker, and #3 was the debate of “such a nasty woman” and “keep you in suspense” (about accepting election outcome).

The screenshot below from the NYT’s “Who Will Be President” tracker shows something similar. Again, the black bar marks the first debate.


For one more way to look at this question, which is less immediately obvious in graphic terms but cumulatively more convincing, please check out this recent tweet-storm by the U. Michigan economist Justin Wolfers.

"Who's that, behind me? Oh, it is you again, Mr. Trump!" The candidate with some employees at his golf course, yesterday in Florida. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Yesterday, in installment #148 of the time capsules, I contrasted circa-2008 videos of a (comparatively) thoughtful-sounding Donald Trump with the splenetic buffoon we see today, and asked, What happened?

Readers offer three hypotheses.

1) You’re fooling yourself. There’s no change. From a reader in California:

I differ with your take on Trump’s comments about the movie. (Caveat: I have a serious problem watching film at all.) I’m not interested in cinematography, never mind Trump’s views of same. However, your statement, “For any rich person to say these things about the movie would be something,” is simply mistaken. Trump isn’t saying anything about “the movie.” He’s riffing on his own self-absorbed impressions of wealth, women, and personal relationships. He makes one bland remark about the camera’s emphasis on the extent of the table ...

In sum, “this other Trump” is not by a stretch another Trump. He’s the same Trump, but at the time one who wasn’t running for POTUS.

FWIW, what struck me about Trump’s “Rosebud” comments was not his assessment of Citizen Kane as a film itself but rather his allusions to the distancing effects of wealth. Through the past year, we’ve heard him say “I’m really rich!” (or used to, back in the “self-funding” days). We still hear him say “I’m so smart” and “I have the greatest temperament.” It’s a different tone in these clips.

David Moir / Reuters

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

So wrote W.H. Auden in his immortal poem September 1, 1939. Today, two weeks before Election Day, is nowhere near as dark. Liars with buildings that grope are still a scourge, but America’s anti-authoritarian immune system seems to be working: Donald Trump’s poll numbers look dismal and he was humiliated by his elite peers at the Al Smith Dinner. The admittedly lame neologism Trumplosion has been coined.

But we should not be incautious; the votes aren’t in yet. The philosophy of rational pessimism dictates that we assume the worst, so we can only ever be surprised positively. And even if the teetotalitarian at the top of the Republican ticket loses big on November 8, we still have to reckon with the meaning of Trumpism and how it could still threaten social stability and U.S. democracy. The latest Atlantic reader to reckon with this, Hannah, continues our discussion over “Ur-Fascism”:

So much has happened in the last week that by now this must seem like a blast from the past, but I wanted to bring in another attempt at articulating the fascist minimum, and to respond to/rebut/complain about your reader Kevin’s email about fascism in the Trail of Tears note. In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton, one of the foremost scholars in the field, gives a list of essential characteristics of a fascist movement. Paxton’s list overlaps to a certain extent with Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, but it places more emphasis on the coherence of the group identity:

Kellyanne Conway strains her talents to justify her boss’s preemptive refusal to accept Election Day results by comparing it to the 2000 contested recount in Florida and somehow putting the blame on Gore:

A reader, Don, digs in:

Kellyanne Conway deliberately conflates challenges to a voting count, resulting in statutorily sanctioned recount processes, with Trump’s allegations of fraud and “rigging.” The former is a legitimate process to ensure that the votes have been counted accurately. No one disputes that, if the Electoral College result turns on a very close vote in one state (a la Florida in 2000), a recount would be legitimate and appropriate. Conway has set up a straw man here.

Let’s bear in mind that no one would even be having this conversation if it weren’t for two facts: (1) Trump is claiming, without any evidence whatsoever, that the Democrats—apparently in conjunction with the biased media—are somehow “rigging” the election; and (2) Trump has a history of being an immature whiner, a terrible loser, a bad sport, making similar allegations in other situations, including his claim that his television show was “screwed” out of Emmy Awards.

He is truly a pathetic creature, and all of this would be funny if there wasn’t a real danger that he could actually win the election or, if he loses, irresponsibly set off a wave of violence (in the worst case scenario) and a loss of confidence in our electoral processes by a significant portion of the population (in the best case scenario).

Speaking of a “history of being an immature whiner, a terrible loser, a bad sport,” check out Trump’s tweet-storm right after the 2012 election (when Obama decisively beat Romney 332 to 206 in the Electoral College and 51 percent to 47 percent in the popular vote—a margin of nearly five million votes—with zero claims of voting irregularities by the Romney campaign or any other legitimate party):

Our previous note explored why such a high-percentage of evangelical Christians continue to support an amoral candidate like Trump, especially in the wake of “grab ’em by the pussy” and the cavalcade of accusers coming forward. This next reader, Holly, passes along one of those “Fwd: FW: FW:” emails you’ve probably gotten from an older relative. She writes:

Hello, The Atlantic! Love the magazine. Thanks for all your work. I have pasted below a copy of an email my father-in-law sent out to his family. It is one of those “crazy” chain emails he will often forward to his sons, thinking he is enlightening them, but this one is WAY over the top and pertains to the discussion of evangelicals and Trump.

My in-laws live in Texas and have become increasingly conservative in the last 20 years. There are some, on that side of the family, who believe Christianity IS at war with Islam. This email speaks to those people when it says, “Maybe God understands we need a ‘war leader’ at this moment in time. Maybe God understands if we don't win this election, America is dead. It’s over.”

I found the email shocking as it revealed how these Christians can overlook Trump’s “aggression” and “crudeness” because that is what it “takes to win.” Did you in the media know that you unleashed the “dogs of Hell?” The email totally disses Romney and Ryan AND Ford. LOL!

Actually, my husband and I found this email disturbing and disappointing. I hope you find it an interesting window into the Christian conservative’s ability to vote for Trump.

The email:

Hope you don’t mind me sharing this with you. Personally, I think it hits the nail on this head. If you feel the same about this, please pass it on. Knowing that Franklin Graham, James Dobson and so many others are on the same page with us. Please let’s encourage everyone we know to get out and vote. God has blessed this Country and we need to do our part now.

Thanks for listening to me so early this morning, but my heart is so heavy over this election. We have kids, grand-kids that will suffer from our actions if we don’t stand strong now.

This may be the best and most honest political promotion statement you will ever read. It decidedly does not brush objections aside.

You hate Hillary? READ it.

You hate Trump? READ it.

You think there’s no choice? READ it.

And, read it with your grown-up hat on. We’ve all been dealt huge responsibility with this election. The first step toward accepting responsibility is accepting it, and the first step toward accepting it is recognizing it.

READ THIS. Read every single word. It’ll take you about three minutes. Be sure to read to the end by taking a few minutes and read all of it!

Are you sickened and despondent with the current campaign and upcoming presidential election?

I consider myself a conservative and do truly believe our country is at a political/economic/moral/social crossroads. I need to let you know I could/would never vote for Hillary Clinton to lead this country. To me, she represents everything that is wrong with our current political structure.

If you find yourself in a similar state of mind, please read the following article:

A message about Donald Trump.

Here’s a famous joke about God and how he talks to us.

When The Rowboat comes for YOU

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.