I’m curious: Why is no one I’ve seen in the press calling these interviews what they are: summonses to come worship Trump on his throne. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry [Update: picked for Energy], Carly Fiorina ... these are all people who spoke ill of Trump, who refused to endorse him or failed to do so in a timely manner. These job interviews are nothing more than the politics of personal humiliation. President-elect Trump is basking in their subjugation and eager to watch them fawn and slobber over his ego in the hopes of reaping a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that they’ll never actually get. This is the act of a petty man, a child holding court on a playground.
In contrast, what did Obama do after barely beating Hillary Clinton in a long and bitter primary battle in 2008? He made her secretary of state, of course—fourth in line for the presidency. Romney didn’t fare as well in his bid for Foggy Bottom:
A photo posted by Shithead Steve ™ (@shitheadsteve) on
Another reader, Dave, fears Obama might be next:
I’m sure you read the “dominatrix” Daily Beast article this weekend. I think the writer is spot on regarding Trump’s character and the basis of his recent actions—parading ex-competitors in to kiss the ring only to be humiliated by being passed over.
I feel sure that Trump is salivating, waiting for his chance to do the same to Obama—and it will take place on January 22nd or thereabouts, as he personally trashes as much as possible his predecessor’s actions, leaving the follow-on to his truly weird and scary cabinet. Anything Obama does now will only appear to be groveling in hindsight. Trump’s current statements on Obama sound like his statements about Romney after dinner with him. Trump’s revenge on Barack will be far more public and more vicious. Like the scorpion vis-à-vis the frog, it is his nature. Unfortunately, we are the victims as well (not just of Trump, reading the latest R proposal on Medicare).
It is what it is. The most important thing Obama has done is to initiate the report on the investigation into the Russian campaign activity. Trump will not touch this, and it is essential that this info is on the record ASAP (hopefully as much made public as possible before the inauguration).
I suspect there is more background on the Russians that will eventually come out. I also cannot believe that given Trump’s past (and present) there will not be more incendiary facts to emerge. Will any of it stick? Who knows. But I do think there is a significant portion of the Republican Congress/backers/etc. that would much prefer a President Pence. He is predictable and manageable from the perspective of the party. If there is any glimmer of hope to Trump not lasting four years, his Waterloo may come from his own house. One can only hope ...
Here’s a big portion of the Trump/Fiorina face-off during the primaries:
Any of the people who ran against him, who are stupid enough to believe that he can be held to his word (in this case, the promise that they will gain appointments if they prostrate themselves before him and apologize), deserves all the humiliation that he lays upon them.
Here’s a despairing email from a “U.S. Marine who has done multiple tours both in Iraq and Afghanistan since I joined the service in 2006, and I have never been more concerned for my country”:
Fallows recently asked whether Donald Trump was a flagrant liar or can he not tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. The scary answer is he doesn’t care what’s true or not, and more importantly, the only thing that matters is himself and how he feels. This is terrifying, because we now have an emotionally unstable man as president who constantly needs attention and is willing to say or do anything to get the attention he feels he deserves.
The United States has fallen into a state of utter political nihilism, where there is no limit to what one party can say or do in order to achieve and maintain power. Worse, there is no meaning other than political theater behind it. The consequences of this political nihilism will be catastrophic and will reverberate down through the decades of the 21st century. If you doubt this, think of climate change, the global economy, and U.S foreign policy concerning NATO and other strategic alliances. Be afraid, be very afraid!
Another reader absorbs the latest:
After reading the latest cycle on the CIA report reaction [“Former Acting CIA Director Calls Russian Interference In Election ‘The Political Equivalent Of 9/11’”], I just finally understood a grim truth: President-elect Trump’s fear that any hint about election manipulation decreasing his sense of grandeur is greater than his concern about the role and process of elections in general. I say grandeur because he won the election, so his grasp is not tenuous; he is defending prestige alone, and that his pride could outweigh his concern for the engine of democracy is a grim truth indeed.
This next reader draws an analogy to, well, a Grimm tale:
Trump has no loyalties. He only wants to be POTUS because he can’t get any richer and see it mean anything. He can’t get any more famous. What else is there? He’s like the wife in “The Fisherman and His Wife.” In the end, she wanted to be God.
Another long-time reader, John, comments on Fallows’s latest note—which points out the plain reality that Trump’s victory was not the historic landslide he keeps claiming it to be:
I’m willing to bet that Trump knows his Electoral College margin was tiny. I’m willing to bet that he knows that there weren’t three million illegitimate voters. I’m willing to bet that he knows Russia was trying to help him. He’s not concerned with facts or evidence; he’s focused on framing the story for his followers. Fact-checking, shmact-checking—that’s something the MSM does and elites care about. Trump is tweeting bald-faced lies to give his followers cover, to give them something they can believe that won’t reduce their faith in him.
Trump and his people play by the reality TV rules. All that’s required is a plausible facade, while we expect adherence to actual facts. How pathetic are we? All that Trump’s followers want is a powerful fiction, something they can sink their teeth into, something with which to taunt us college-educated Atlantic readers. “Oh, you went to college, and you read all those books and took all those science classes, and you got A’s on your report cards? Big whoop, because now all that stuff you learned is meaningless! Facts don’t matter. Our man Donald makes it all up as he goes along, and we love him for it.” They love that we get so frustrated by Trump’s dissembling. The bigger the lie, the more they love The Donald.
Another reader, Jay, also tackles the “landslide” canard—but from the perspective of the popular vote:
Two points occurred to me this week that have not been raised anywhere in media that I have seen:
1. There are many discussion of the popular vote. Clinton’s lead over Trump is now 2.7 million votes. And it is often described this way [by New York’s Jonathan Chait]: “As votes continue to be tabulated in the days since the presidential election, Donald Trump’s deficit continues to grow (now at 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent of the total), while the imagined scale of his triumph continues to swell.”
But no one has pointed out that 7.6 million people voted for third parties. So the number of people who did not vote for Trump is now 73.1 million, compared to the 62.8 million who voted for him. So really, Trump lost the popular vote by 10.3 million. The vote was 54 percent against Trump to 46 percent for. I think it is worth pointing that out. It is also a better description of the potential size of the opposition to his policies.
2. I am a business attorney and work with a lot of small- to medium-sized family-owned businesses. Here’s a thing that most people may not appreciate: There is no job more like the king of a kingdom in modern society than the CEO of a family-owned business. These businesses often operate without boards of directors. The CEO is often the only shareholder or the majority shareholder. Everyone in the company works for him. These CEOs live in a bubble in which everyone they see does their bidding 24/7/365. Companies have no constitution. There are no internal rules, except those the company wrote for itself. The CEO can change anything any time. “You’re fired” is certainly important, but only the tip of the iceberg. A CEO can make any plan, start any project, buy any property, simply by deciding to do it all by themselves.
When the press describes Trump as authoritarian, they are correct, but he didn’t learn it from dictators. He learned it from his day-to-day work environment, where he had essentially unlimited power over a billion-dollar organization.
The best, fun, family-owned businesses try hard to install some character and moral sense into the heirs that might take over. Many require family members to work outside the company for at least five years, before they let them come to work in the family business. Often those family members do well, are successful on their own, and never come back. But those that do have at least learned how to behave in a outside work environment, where their supervisors have the power to give them instructions, and they have to perform. Trump never had any experience like that, as far as I know. I have certainly seen CEOs in this situations who lack moral character, and the result is not pretty. There is no check on their behavior at all. Typically, the spouse and children who are the only ones who might speak up without getting fired, are too afraid to do it. So the CEO rules like Sun-King in their own little kingdom.
My guess is that Trump thinks that being President will be just like his day job. He can give orders and things will get done. I think he will be surprised by the notion that he is limited by the Constitution, Congress, and the courts. “I alone can fix it” is just a reflection of how his world works in the Trump Organization. He has been the only person who gets to make any decisions for more than 30 years. That can certainly warp your sense of self. Mr. Trump’s appears to be the worse for the experience.
One word that I seem to be missing in the stories about the Russians hacking both the DNC and the RNC is “blackmail.” If they have incriminating info from the RNC hack, who did they approach to let them know that this information could be released? They clearly could have incriminating documents and emails that the Republicans do not want to get out, and the Republicans seem to have taken great care to prevent the evidence of Russian hacking to be made public. So what do the Russians know and who is most afraid of what they know?
Speaking of Russian intrigue, Fallows forwarded me the following email from a Canadian former aid worker, calling it “long but interesting”—and it’s hard to disagree:
Since Friday’s reporting on the CIA’s findings of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, I’ve been reflecting with a deep sense of foreboding on what this means for future relationships between Russia and the West. So much will hinge upon how the narrative develops, and that provides no comfort at all.
Bear with me?
For several years from 1994 onwards, I was a humanitarian aid worker, researcher, and writer working in and around several of the nastier wars in post-Soviet space—Chechnya, Georgia/Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia/S. Ossetia/Georgia and a few other lesser-known hotspots. For those of us in the international humanitarian community of UN agencies, Red Cross Movement and INGOs, post-Soviet space was uncharted territory fraught with new and lethal difficulties. My job at the time was mostly trying to look at what was working and what wasn’t, and to figure out from that how best to safeguard or expand the space available to humanitarian agencies to assist and protect civilians in these wars, all of which were being fought without humanitarian pretensions. Aid workers were getting killed and kidnapped there like nowhere else before, so of course there was a strong element of self-preservation in trying to figure things out, a precursor to acting on our humanitarian impulse and mandates.
Looking back, my Western upbringing left me poorly equipped for figuring out the “why” of things to the extent needed for getting things done in that spectacularly shitty and opaque environment. My encounters with American diplomats (and, to a lesser extent, European ones) left me convinced that they tended to be even less well-equipped than I was, often arriving on the scene with deep-seated assumptions about Russia and Russians that almost always made bad problems worse and solutions more elusive. (An important aside here: One exception that stood out was Brady Kiesling, a thoughtful young American diplomat with whom I had many positive and enlightening encounters in the Caucasus. Kiesling, as you might remember, would later leave the U.S. Foreign Service over objections to the Iraq war).
With hindsight, I was slow to discover how important it was to my task at hand to try to see things through Russian / post-Soviet eyes. I got nowhere in understanding Russian political and military behaviour as it was being played out in my stomping ground until I delved into Russian history—particularly the pre-Soviet, Stalin, and WWII-eras. This proved essential not because I was soft-headed, inclined to be lenient, or at all interested in justifying despicable Russian political machinations and atrocious Russian behaviour on the battlefield. Rather, it was simply necessary for the purely pragmatic purposes of figuring out how to prevent stupid things from happening, how to work better at solving, and preventing the problems that were otherwise proving so intractable and deadly.
To get to my point: Leaving aside the huge wildcard that is Donald Trump and his appointees, in the coming days, weeks, and months the U.S. in particular, and perhaps the West in general, may well be forging a new relationship with Russia informed by the recent revelations of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. We’ll be swamped with media attempts to get to the bottom of that meddling. I expect that much Bengazi-esque attention will be focused on demonstrating how Obama failed to protect the U.S. from such an existential threat.
I hope, in the reporting that goes beyond Obama’s role, that some serious effort is made at the earliest stage to parse the origins and motivations for the Russian interference, and that it goes well beyond “Putin = BAD,” or reductions to an ascendant Russian nationalism, or to an increasing Russian bellicosity—all of which are valid but grossly incomplete explanations of this other, different kind and scale of spectacularly shitty and opaque environment.
My take on this story is that for it to be told with any accuracy, one needs to delve deep into some of the nuances that underlie such a hostile act, some of which I’ll try to enumerate here:
the reasons for Russia’s profound sense of its perceived abandonment by the U.S. in WWII, with near-catastrophic results;
the ensuing animosity toward the West that persisted and grew through the Cold War;
the Russian sense of deep humiliation in the post-Soviet era as its entire economic system and its political and military might unravelled;
the arguably aggressive, at-best opportunistic stance of NATO in the post-Soviet era—wargaming conflict with an ascendant Russia long before it started to re-ascend, actively recruiting new NATO members and hangers-on in Russia’s backyard, and;
Russian perceptions of the aggregate of Western efforts in the post-Soviet era to promote “democratization” in Russia and its neighbours (by that veritable phalanx of organisations like NDI, IRI, USIP, Open Society Institute, USAID, and a host of others);
the imposition of sanctions on Russian elites and how these fed into Russia’s already pervasive and isolating “us against the world” mindset.
So much grist in all of this for Putin’s nationalist mill, but it goes so much further than just that. But just to reiterate: My intent isn’t to argue for leniency toward Russia or to diminish its actions in any way, but to underscore the need to take Russian perceptions into account when formulating policy directions in the difficult period to come.
The Senate will investigate claims that Russia interfered in the election on behalf of Donald Trump—whether the president-elect likes it or not. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday gave his backing to bipartisan inquiries after the CIA reportedly concluded that not only did Russia meddle in the campaign, it did so with the goal of elevating Trump over Hillary Clinton. ... On Monday, McConnell broke sharply with Trump on the Russia question and in his confidence in the CIA’s credibility. “The Russians are not our friends,” he told reporters at the Capitol…
After Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, respected left-leaning national publications such as The Nation, and an op-ed writer at The Los Angeles Times, described the event as an “electoral college landslide.” Obama’s Electoral College count was 332-206, which wasn’t substantially better than Donald Trump’s at 306-232. And Obama won the popular vote by a margin of less than 4 percent—but still, there were those on the Left who described it as a type of “landslide.” But The Nation went so far as to declare that since Obama won a majority of states, he had a mandate. (Trump won 33.)
So I think the Trump campaign’s desire to call this one a “landslide” is understandable. It doesn’t rise precisely to the level of Obama’s 2012 victory, but it’s fairly close. And a reasonable argument may be made that psychologically and politically, it had the same effect as a landslide.
The Democrats also blew a golden opportunity to take control of the Senate, and 2018 doesn’t look good either, with the Democrats defending 25 out of 33 seats—many of them in Red States that voted for Trump by a comfortable margin. They lost roughly 900 seats at the state legislative level, and they’re down to 11 governors.
The Supreme Court replacement for Antonin Scalia, and most likely replacements for Ginsburg and Breyer as well, will come from Trump’s Heritage Foundation candidate list. At the Cabinet level, Trump is picking a Who’s Who from the Republican anti-Obama brigade, including three generals who told Obama that withdrawing from Iraq so precipitously was a bad idea, and found their military careers abruptly at an end.
“Elections have consequences,” said Obama, and this one was very consequential at all levels and in all three branches of government. The comprehensive and lasting nature of this defeat is gradually being realized by the Left, and it’s causing a great deal of depression and despair. (The Atlantic just posted a story about “a cure for post-election malaise.”)
So although this may not have been a genuine landslide according to the strictest of terms, I suggest it has had the same effect.
Circling back to the nihilism theme, here’s one more reader note (also forwarded by Fallows), this time commenting on Trump’s call to Taiwan and his general contempt for political norms—which eventually leads to “anarchy and nihilism,” according to our reader:
I’m watching, with continued horror, the responses you are getting to your tweets on the Taiwan phone call. I’m horrified at the utter ignorance of key people regarding the dangers of failing to observe norms in international relations. So this is a supplement to my earlier emails to you about the importance of normativity domestically.
To review, there is no concrete, structural, real-world, tangible thing holding our society together. It is a shared consensus on the (slippery) meaning of words, and on the processes by which our institutions operate. Reality check: If humans were instantaneously to disappear from the face of the planet, what would the Constitution really be? A piece of paper with black squiggles on it, functionally indistinguishable from toilet paper. That is the extent of the solid, reliable fundament on which everything inside our borders rests. Everything else is normative, a shared consensus of meaning and consequence.
This is why the “there are no facts” meme that you have been highlighting is so important. If there are no facts, if there is no observable truth to which we strive to adhere, then there is nothing. We have reached anarchy and nihilism, and whoever has the biggest muscle and the biggest gun prevails: the absolute state of nature. We start all over again.
And everything that keeps our lives stable and predictable absolutely depends on observing those norms. The things which feel solid and concrete that we expect when we wake up in the morning—from coffee, to warmth, to having a job, to having a retirement account on which to depend—all of it is absolutely dependent on the observance of those norms. We take the fragility of our lives and of our society much, much, much too much for granted. And the stability which we have come to expect—indeed, to believe is solid—is as fragile as a sandcastle approaching high tide when the norms are disturbed.
And the fragility of domestic norms are ironclad compared to the norms that have developed over the centuries internationally. Communication between countries and foreign cultures is based upon far more fragile, and even less definable norms. There is no constitution, no law books, no Supreme Court, not even a shared language. This is what makes the foreign service establishment SOOO essential, and SOOO important to be cultivated and treasured and respected. Something as (domestically) innocuous as a congratulatory phone call can, internationally, be the basis for withdrawing formal consular recognition. In international diplomatic parlance, the mere placement of an eyelash can have profound meaning and devastating consequences. And the normative fragility internationally can have tremendous, lasting, destabilizing consequences.
I reiterate that we take our stability for granted. We fly from coast to coast. We fly internationally. But look at what happened when stability was shattered in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria. At least with the murderous dictators in power in those countries, the consequences were contained. When we shattered the stability by our interventions, the puss has poured all over the world, and it has destabilized cultures to the point that we have Trump.
Yes. I tie the rise of Donald Trump directly to GWB’s intervention in Iraq. (Yes, we are the strongest power in the world. But we are not omnipotent. Our strength is in our willingness to exercise self-restraint. We were the strongest power in history of the world on the day before the invasion of Iraq occurred. Once we invaded, our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities became blazingly obvious.)
As a species, we have built an elaborate structure of norms to protect us from the absolute state of nature. The absolute state of nature is the only concrete thing which can, with absolute assurance, stop the fall from the dissolution of norms.
In the last election I have heard many, many seemingly intelligent people say that they voted for Trump because everything is corrupt, and they just wanted to blow things up. I think these people fail realistically to account for how little in their lives they can truly count on. International stability and predictability and normativity rest on a hair’s breadth. And the degree to which Trump’s ignorant shenanigans can permanently disrupt international stability (not to mention domestic stability) and the normative structures that maintain what stability there is, is deeply, deeply unappreciated in the response to the Taiwan affair, and, indeed, to the election of Trump.
This is a justification, if not for panic, then for deep, deep, deep concern, and extraordinary intervention.
As I mentioned in this post in late November, and in this followup, and also in a discussion with Diane Rehm on her new podcast series yesterday, Donald Trump’s lies differ from those we have encountered from other national figures, even Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their respective impeachments. The difference is that Trump seemingly does not care that evidence is immediately at hand to disprove what he says. If he believes what he’s saying, at least in that moment, why shouldn’t we?
For the record, the latest entry of this sort is the repeated insistence by Trump and his associates that he won a “landslide” or “major” victory. For instance, this was his transition team’s response to reports of Russian attempts to swing the election in his favor:
Translation: “A long time ago” is actually one month, and “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” is actually one of the least impressive. Here are the facts:
In terms of his Electoral College margin, which will probably end up at 306 to 232, Trump will rank #46among the 58 presidential elections that have been held, or just above the bottom 20%.
In terms of his popular vote margin, Trump will probably end up with the third-worstpopular vote result ever, or if you prefer 56th ranked of the 58 winning candidates in history. (Obviously the 58 elections have produced 45 presidents, some of them winning two terms and FDR winning four.) This ranking is based on Trump’s losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a little more than 2 percent, or a little less than 3 million votes. John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote by 10 percent in 1824 to Andrew Jackson, and also came in second in the electoral vote—but became president when the race went to the House, since none of the four candidates had an Electoral College majority. He is #58 out of 58, in terms of popular-vote mandate for winners. Rutherford B. Hayes, who won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by 3 percent to Samuel Tilden in 1876, is #57. Donald Trump, losing by 2 percent, is #56. Every president except J.Q. Adams and Hayes came to office with a stronger popular-vote mandate than Trump.
None of this changes the fact that Trump ended up ahead in this year’s electoral vote. But the next time you hear Trump, his campaign managers, his transition team, or anyone else call this a “landslide” or “one of the biggest victories ever,” remember the numbers. This is 46th out of 58 in electoral college terms, and 56th out of 58 in the popular vote.
Here is the embed for my discussion yesterday with Diane Rehm:
Update: Some site somewhere must have published an alert saying, More media lies! Nixon was never impeached! At least that is what incoming mail would indicate.
Here’s the full story: As news of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up emerged in 1972 and 1973, impeachment efforts against Nixon gained steam. I remember this clearly because the first-ever articles I did for national magazines were during this time: a story on several members of the House Judiciary Committee for Rolling Stone, and a profile of Nixon’s staunchest defender on the committee, Rep. Charles Wiggins of southern California, for Esquire. (Nixon knew he was doomed when Wiggins turned against him, after release of some of the White House tapes.)
The impeachment process for Nixon was well and fully underway. After extensive televised hearings in the spring and summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three items of impeachment against Nixon (and rejected two others). Events were moving fast; the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon would have to release his long-secret White House tapes; Republican leaders of the House and Senate made clear to Nixon that, in light of the tapes, the full House was going to approve the articles of impeachment against him, and the Senate would vote to convict him and remove him from office. Rather than face votes he knew he would lose, Nixon resigned in August, 1974. You can read the Wikipedia version of the history here; I would add my Rolling Stone and Esquire pieces, but they don’t seem to be online.
So: Bill Clinton was officially impeached by the House in 1998—but the Senate did not even come close to the necessary two-thirds margin to convict him. Richard Nixon was in the process of being impeached in 1974 when he instead resigned before the process could be completed.
That’s the premise of The Choice 2016, Frontline’s superb documentary. The key portion:
With that in mind, here are three reader emails that Fallows forwarded me to post in his stead. (Accordingly I’ve changed them from second-person to third-person.) The first reader writes:
I’m a huge fan of Fallows, but I disagree with his latest note, pushing President Obama to denounce President-elect Trump. Fallows asked, “What the hell does [Obama] have to lose?” I think the answer is clear.
As many commentators have noted, Donald Trump’s principal principle is to listen to people who flatter him and reject people who offend him. Barack Obama, it seems clear, has decided that his best influence on the next four years is to stay on Donald’s good side—to convince him, as Obama apparently did in their Oval Office meeting, that Obamacare needs reform, not repeal; and perhaps to convince Trump to maintain other positive aspects of the Obama legacy.
Obama attacking Trump at this point will cause Trump to attack Obama and the policies of the Obama administration. It would feel good for liberals (including me!), but the real-world consequences could be terrible. All of the attacks on Trump from mainstream media and politicians did not keep him from the presidency. Now that Trump will be president, Obama is trying to maintain a relationship and thereby some sway in Trump’s decision-making.
So what does Obama have to lose? His policies, his legacy, and his chance at influencing the next president.
This next reader is on the same page:
I have to disagree with the notion that Obama should do more and be more visible right now.
I do agree with targeting a memorable farewell address, but otherwise, I don’t think any activity on his part will do any good now, and likely could do harm. We either survive the next four years reasonably intact, or we don’t, and I don’t think Obama can do anything about that now. Trump must be given the rope to hang himself and we must all hope he doesn’t take us all down with him.
To the extent that an in-power Obama fights against Trump, he provides ammunition to the narrative that the establishment is against Trump and won’t give him a chance. A year and a half from now, if he lays out the facts of various Trumptastrophies, Obama can be a more powerful voice towards bringing us back.
Again, I base this on the belief that Obama trying to thwart Trump now is at best pointless, and could well be counterproductive. Remember, baring death, impeachment, or resignation, Trump someday has to hand power over to someone else in a peaceful way. I’m not convinced that this is a given, and as such, having the opposition provide a stellar example might help.
We can still come out of this with Trump being the historically negative example we all expect him to be. To get the other less-than-half of the electorate to see it that way means he has to fail on his own. It is the silver lining behind a dark cloud of a Republican Congress. In two years, there will be an actual record, and there should be no-one to blame but Republicans for it.
Another reader adds some good points:
I could obviously be wrong, but I very much suspect the reason President Obama has been so low-key the past four weeks isn’t just because that’s his style. I think he’s aware of how Trump operates, and that if Obama comes out strongly for something, Trump will have no ability to do anything but come out against it. If Obama’s against something, well then, by gosh and by golly, Trump will just have to be for it.
But that’s publicly. I think Obama knows the best chance of his being able to influence Trump in any way is to stay low-key and speak to him sotto voce. And I’d be surprised if he’s not doing at least some of that now, and will be doing far, far more of it post-January. He taunted Trump way back at that Correspondents Dinner and look where it got us. Now he’s going to try to be The Trump Whisperer, in hopes of keeping the world from blowing up. (And my God I wish that were hyperbole.)
Again, I could be wrong. But I think Obama’s staying quiet, laying low now—despite how horrific this must all be to him, and despite how hard it must be, and how much he must want to speak out—because he loves his country that much, and wants that strongly to do the best he can for the world. It’s why he’s one of the great statesmen our country has ever had, and why I think someday he’s going to challenge Jimmy Carter for the title of Greatest Ex-President Ever.
Update from a dissenting reader, Dennis, via hello@:
A quick response to the first responder who counsels against aggravating Trump: This view displays the height of cowardice. Indeed it’s the sort of response that a bully desires. A whole point of bullying is to silence the opponent.
And let’s face it, Obama’s legacy is already screwed short term. Long term, who knows. I don’t believe there is an arc to history. I’ll leave it to future historians to comment. (And notice we have no control over future historians.)
In the four weeks since the election, which seem like four centuries, Donald Trump has dominated the news and done real strategic and economic damage with his stream of intemperate tweets. For a reckoning of the chaos that his tweets about Taiwan and China have already induced, please see these Atlantic items: by Uri Friedman with Shen Dengli, by David Graham, by Chris Bodenner, and by Isaac Stone Fish, with links to many other analyses. The harm he petulantly inflicted today on Boeing, a company that is perennially the United States’s leading exporter and one of its most important high-tech manufacturing employers and standard-setters, is only the latest and most flagrant illustration.
This is not responsible behavior. This is not normal. This is not something the United States, or for that matter the world, can really withstand from a commander in chief. But this ungoverned, thin-skinned impetuosity is something the “responsible” GOP has decided, to its enduring shame, that it dare not criticize.
One other thing is true of Trump’s destructive outbursts. They come from a person who does not yet exercise any official power. The American-democratic principle of peaceful transfer of power includes the tenet that the United States has only one president at a time. And for the next 44-plus days, that president is Barack Obama.
As president, Obama has often been at his best in moments of national trauma, stress, or confidence-destroying emergency. I am thinking, for example, of one of his very greatest speeches: his “Amazing Grace” eulogy and exhortation after the gun massacre last year in Charleston, South Carolina.
Our current exposure to Donald Trump is a moment that even experienced Republicans will say—carefully off the record—represents a confidence-destroying emergency. (How do I know this? Like most reporters, I have heard first-hand—but of course not from anyone willing to be quoted. This is the party of Lincoln.) A man whose temperament makes him manifestly unfit to command the vast military, surveillance, investigative, and enforcement powers of the U.S. government stands mere weeks away from assuming that command.
There is nothing Barack Obama can do about the transition scheduled for January 20. But in the meantime he is the president, and he needs to be present— and visible, and heard from. So far he has been deferential to a fault, letting the chaos emanating from Trump’s Android phone disrupt markets and alliances. His latest major press conference was on November 14, more than three weeks ago. (Trump, of course, has not held a press conference since the election, and none at all since July.)
Obama’s lowkey approach is no doubt an extension of his statesmanlike invitation to meet Trump just after the election, and their strained handshake at the White House. It’s in keeping with “no drama Obama.” He has never been known for seeking confrontations.
But if he thinks that America stands for values different from Trump’s daily outbursts, if he thinks the institutions of the country can survive the tantrums of the man scheduled to control them, if he thinks democratic norms and limits deserve defense, if he thinks the United States can find a steady path in the world despite a most unsteady leader—and we assume that Obama believes all these things, and may even have thoughts about the path forward—then let’s start hearing from him. Why not another press conference tomorrow? And then one a week after that. And then maybe we’ll all take a week off for Christmas and Hanukkah—but other presidents have given post-holiday greetings, and he could too. And remember hearing about Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest speech, his farewell address, three days before John Kennedy was sworn in? As his next rhetorical target, Obama could set for himself the goal of topping that to give the most-influential ever farewell address.
Everything Barack Obama has stood for, Donald Trump—not yet in office—is doing his best to discredit. For the next 44 days, Obama will still be the most powerful person on Earth, so he might as well sound that way. Remind us of what the country is, what it should stand for, how it can find a steady path ahead.
As the current saying goes: What the hell does he have to lose?
This morning, straight off the plane from Shanghai, I was on The Diane Rehm Show with Margaret Sullivan, much-missed former Public Editor of the NYT who is now with the WaPo, and Glenn Thrush of Politico. We were talking about how to deal with the unprecedented phenomenon that is Donald Trump, related to the “Trump’s Lies” item I did two days ago.
You can listen to the whole segment here, but I direct your attention to the part starting at time 14:40. That is when Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump stalwart, joins the show to assert that “this is all a matter of opinion” and “there are no such things as facts.”
You can listen again starting at around time 18:30, when I point out one of the specific, small lies of the Trump campaign—that the NFL had joined him in complaining about debate dates, which the NFL immediately denied—and Hughes says: Well, this is also just a matter of opinion. Hughes mentions at time 21:45 that she is a “classically studied journalist,” an assertion that left Glenn Thrush, Margaret Sullivan, Diane Rehm, and me staring at one another in puzzlement, this not being a normal claim in our field.
It’s worth listening in full. This is the world we are now dealing with.
Public trust in institutions is very low (all-time low?), and trust in the media is particularly low. Following the advice of James Fallows will make your core readership feel righteous and satisfied and dare I say smug, but it will further erode everyone else’s trust in you. To Trump supporters, it will look like a partisan attack by the liberal media, but there’s probably no hope of winning them over anyway, so let’s put them aside for now. To many other people—regular folks who simply don’t have time or skills to weigh evidence and evaluate sources—it will just look like opposing assertions.
Instead, what if instead of making this “illegal votes” episode a story about a “tweet” or a “lie” or even a liar, the media made it a story about a serious and dangerous claim by our president-elect? What if you actually doubled-down on the “normalizing” and gave Trump every opportunity to back up his claims with evidence? What if you refused to move on from this very serious issue and instead demanded that he explain seriously and at length why he believes that three million illegal votes were cast, and why they were cast only for Clinton?
What if you refused to move on from this one tweet for several weeks? What if the media did that for every dangerous claim made by this (elected) administration, baseless or otherwise? Don’t accuse him of lying. Instead, force him to use his platform to either back it up or back down. Don’t try to shoot him; give him a rope to hang himself with.
This next reader favors the opposite approach—ignore Trump’s antics and conspiracy theories whenever possible:
One major problem not being addressed is why any news media needs to put something like Trump’s tweet reaction to the recount on the front-page or at the head of their news feed? If the claim has no evidence, then what’s news here? What is there to report? I can read the damn tweet on my own; what do I need you or the NY Times to add to it? If Trump’s claim has “no evidence,” then go ask the guy if he has evidence—and then come back to me, the reader, and report some news on that.
Another reader favors the “go ask the guy” approach but dialed way up to 11:
While reading the Ned Resnikoff quote (and essay) that Fallows linked to, here’s a scenario that played out in my mind. In an interview or press conference, an exasperated reporter says something like, “Why should the American people believe anything you have to say, given the kind of outrageous lies you’ve told over and over again? Ted Cruz’s dad was involved with the JFK assassination? Obama is the founder of ISIS? These are baseless and absurd claims. Why should any foreign leader take you seriously? Why should we in the press take your words seriously? Your outrageous lies are very similar to the type employed by autocratic rulers, who try to cause confusion, infecting people with the feeling that the truth cannot be known. We in the press reject that notion, and we see your lying as an assault on facts and reality, and we're not going to put up with it!” I’m not a good dramatist, but you get the idea.
My hope is that the moment could be something that would reverberate through the press corps and maybe through the entire body politic. It would be an emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Perhaps, this is wishful thinking, but I feel the press and the larger American public need this type of jolt.
That reader continues:
The current overall approach from the media seems to gloss over Trump’s BS approach, moving on to things like his policy positions. But who cares about his policy positions if you can’t really believe what he says? If he really is lying to cause confusion, rather than communicate, then his words about policy or almost anything else don’t matter. This is a do-not-pass-go situation. At this point, Trump has to prove his good faith—that he actually wants to use words to communicate ideas, not to attack the notion that we can know reality in a shared and meaningful way. If he doesn’t, some kind of consequence has to occur— maybe really hostile coverage. I’m not sure what the answer is, but to proceed with covering him as if he were a normal president would be a dangerous charade, normalizing his BS.
By the way, I also think that the press should aggressively confront the Trump transition team and Congressional supporters about Trump’s conspiracy theories and outrageous lying. What do Pence, Ryan, McConnell, et al., think about his conspiracy theories and outrageous lies? Do they believe that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can actually agree upon facts and reality? Do they believe that this is important to our democracy? Do they not think that Trump’s lies are undermining these important beliefs? If they continue to support his lying, there should some consequence for them as well.
I feel like a line has to be drawn—a line dividing those who support a reality-based community versus those who are hostile to it. The Fourth Estate should be an ardent defender of reality-based communication and decision-making. It is essential to what they do, and without it, they and our democracy die.
Along those lines, a retired Foreign Service officer is “deeply concerned about the international implications of Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud”:
Embassy staff in China or Russia are bound to be told, “It doesn’t look like your governmental system is doing so well, does it? See, your future President is saying that your elections are rotten with fraud.” What could our people then say? For the sake of truth and the honor of the country, they can’t agree; but to disagree is to call their future boss a flagrant public liar. That he is in fact such a liar is, in that situation, beside the point. Our ability to advocate for our country is being recklessly endangered simply to satisfy Trump’s vanity.
Your reader makes an important point about refusing to label Trump but learning how to deal with him and his personality traits. Ironically, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owns a newspaper, The Observer, that wrote an opinion article in January 2016: “How to Deal With a Narcissist: 5 Secrets Backed by Research.” It now seems like a cry for help. We now know why there are reports of Kushner being quiet when Trump talks. It’s one of the five strategies outlined in the piece. I also found an article from Psychology Today when trying to deal with a narcissist in my life: “8 Ways to Handle a Narcissist.”
A prominent person in the tech industry remarks on how the Trump is trying to play us:
Great blogging from Fallows and your readers on how the media can deal with Trump. Trolling, fake news, his lying—very serious issues for the media. I believe he and his folks are doing a lot to point “fire” when they want to distract from something else. For example, KellyAnne and the Romney thing take the heat off the conflicts of interest [here’s a link to the latter]. Trump saying something moderate on global warming or Obamacare, then, his minions/Republicans working behind the scenes destructively. Friends are reporting to me that they’re getting calls, a Trump recording, telling them to ask their representatives to push to repeal Obamacare. This is absolutely one of the hardest politicians the media has ever seen and he has an astonishing ability to manipulate.
Another reader, Mike, tries to keep us all focused on what really matters:
In addition to Fallows’ Time Capsules, I have collected a small list of similar resources:
Of course, this barely scratches the surface. I mean for Christ’s sake, he still hasn’t released his tax returns!
Many of these stories pop up and then fade away with the next news cycle (usually brought on by whatever new inane thing Trump has tweeted), so it seems to me like nothing really sticks: he is The Teflon Donald. He peddles paranoid conspiracies with a pathological persistence, and when journalists do their job, he hits back with claims of a “biased”, “rigged”, “phony”, “failing” media. This is, as they say, problematic.
This next reader thinks that even Fallows isn’t going far enough in “calling it like it is”:
In the spirit of your own blogging, in addition to using the words Lie and False and Cruel and Amoral, etc., when they fit, please use the word Propaganda. This is an intentional pattern and strategy of our Propagandist-in-Chief. Please stop calling it “a furry creature that barks and chases squirrels up trees” and start calling it a dog.
Another suggestion for the media comes from reader Greg:
I believe journalists should stop using the word “tweet” to describe the tweets that Mr. Trump so often issues. Now that he is President-elect, his tweets carry far more significance than just the off-the cuff rants of an impulsive campaigner, as was often the way they were characterized in the past year. Calling these soon-to-be-presidential statements “tweets” only reinforces the tendency to not take his comments so seriously. But these are now presidential pronouncements. They express policy, positions. If Mr. Trump is going to continue to use Twitter as a major form of communication, then give these communiques (another good word for them) the gravitas they deserve. If The Atlantic still feels a need to source them to “Twitter,” then do it a final sentence or somewhere else in the story.
Another suggestion comes from another reader named Mike:
It would be interesting to see a new Time Capsule series focused on one issue: who in the media is vying to be the next Judith Miller and Matt Cooper. Both of these individuals were totally played by the GW Bush administration and wittingly played along for their own career success. I’m sure you remember the whole Iraq war thing. Sadly, I have no doubt that a new generation of reporters have no concern for truth or hard investigative work. They are too busy fluffing their nest today. Not to mention all the financially focused, false-news web sources that have exploded in number.
Investigative journalism needs to call out its own pretenders. I believe that should be a guideline for the media in reporting on the upcoming liar-in-chief administration.
This last reader, Rob, proposes an extremely unlikely but interesting scenario:
Donald Trump has upended the political and ethical norms of American presidential campaigns. This has been said so often and has been true for so long that observers may be numb to it. The list of unprecedented acts and statements is long and varied. [Fallows assiduously chronicled them here.] None of these acts are strictly speaking illegal. Yet they are shocking nonetheless because, taken together, they reflect his view that he may do anything that is strictly speaking legal to advance his narrow personal interests. That is, Mr. Trump has implicitly rejected the idea that extra-legal social, political, and ethical norms support our democracy and enable it to function even when the nation is deeply divided.
If Donald Trump the norm-destroying candidate were to become Donald Trump the norm-destroying President, the consequences for the stability of our democratic governing institutions could be grave. Freedom will not flourish where the conduct of those in power is regulated by law alone. Those who want to “give him a chance” implicitly hope, even if they don’t necessarily expect, that the weight of the office will transform Mr. Trump into someone more attentive to the importance of long established norms.
But hope is not a plan, especially when the stakes are so high. So I am proposing that the House of Representatives prepare, and have at the ready from Day 1 of the Trump administration, draft articles of impeachment that will do what Donald Trump may be unwilling to do: enforce norms rooted in fundamental constitutional commitments.
I have drafted templates (modeled on the Articles of Impeachment of Bill Clinton) and appended them [in my email]. My examples highlight two constitutional principles worthy of protection through threat of impeachment. The first three articles deal with the potential for Mr. Trump to use his office for financial gain, either his own or that of family members or business associates. The last article deals with the potential for Mr. Trump to use the vast powers of the executive branch to impose costly, embarrassing, and disruptive investigations on his political enemies and critics.
Both kinds of abuse of power may not be strictly “illegal” in the sense of violating any governing statutes, and they are unlikely to be within the reach of courts to prevent. For that reason, it is all the more important for Congress to rise in defense of them.
I am not naive. I recognize that the House of Representatives (and the Senate) are presently in the control of the same party as Mr. Trump. The House is not going to impeach the President on the first day of his administration, and it shouldn’t. But that is not a reason to refuse to prepare them. In fact, there are several reasons to prepare the articles even if they remain in a drawer during the entirety of the Trump administration.
First, the act of publicly preparing the draft articles themselves will serve as a marker of important constitutional norms that Mr. Trump transgresses at his and the nation’s peril. Drafting model articles of impeachment will inform not only the President himself, but also those in his administration. There are constraints on the President built into the deliberative process within the executive branch. Articles of impeachment pre-drafted by members of Congress could strengthen the hands of those in the administration who see public value in restraining the self-serving impulses of the President. And, of course, drafting articles of impeachment would inform the public as well, providing a baseline against which to judge Mr. Trump’s choices.
Second, publicly preparing the draft would itself be a valuable assertion of Congress’s role in regulating the outer edge of what is a vast area of discretion committed to the executive branch. Defining the boundaries of permissible executive discretion is not a job only for the President or the Supreme Court. The President always has an interest in advancing the power of his own office. And transgressions that affect the political culture writ large may well prove out of the Court’s reach. Congress has an institutional interest in overseeing executive branch abuses. Under the unprecedented circumstances we face, with this incoming President so cavalierly expressing a willingness to abuse the powers of his office, it is especially important for Congress to declare its readiness to police the conduct of the President himself.
Third, sometimes the credible threat of deploying power is all it takes to encourage better conduct. For example, the President possesses the veto power. But he will commonly issue a veto threat, after careful internal White House deliberation, in an effort to encourage Congress to take a better course of action. Likewise here, a credible impeachment threat may be all it takes to encourage President Trump to take a better course of action.
Fourth, it is no secret that the President and many members of the Republican congressional delegation do not see eye to eye on matters of policy and personal conduct. By declaring their intention to police the President on matters of constitutional principle related to his personal conduct, the Republican leadership would be able to maintain separation from a President they have reason to fear may disappoint for lack of experience and competence across a wide array of his responsibilities. Republican members of Congress may not wish to tie their political fortunes so tightly to this President. If some meaningful number of Republicans could stand on Constitutional principle and endorse the drafting of potential articles of impeachment, Congress would be credibly threatening actual impeachment should Mr. Trump not alter his behavior.
I recognize the irony of proposing an act that runs contrary to a political norm (Congress threatening an incoming President with impeachment) in defense of political norms in general. But the damage from the election and transition process is substantial. And Mr. Trump has shown almost no indication that he is approaching his new and rather awesome responsibilities with a respect for the dignity of the office and the power it carries. Scolding the cast of a Broadway show via Twitter, and baselessly asserting that his opponent’s popular vote lead is the product of “millions” of fraudulent votes suggests that this President-elect has learned precisely the wrong lesson: that indulging his petty, self-serving impulses works. The only institution with the authority to declare that he is wrong is Congress.
Yesterday from China, I did a long item on the utter inadequacy of standard press practices in the face of a person like Donald Trump. Everything about “balance” and “objectivity” as news standards rests on a benefit-of-the-doubt assumption about public figures, and about the public audience. For the public figures, the assumption is that they’re at least trying not to lie, and that they’d rather not get caught. For the public audience, the assumption is that they’ll care about an ongoing record of honesty or deception. But those assumptions do not match the reality of Trump.
You can read the whole thing here. The summary is:
Unlike other public figures we’ve encountered, Donald Trump appears not even to register the difference between truth and lies. He lies when it’s not “necessary” or even useful. He lies when disproof is immediately at hand. He shows no flicker in the eye, or “tell” of any kind, when he is caught in a flat-out lie. Richard Nixon looked tense and sweaty when saying “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton went into his tortured “it depends what the meaning of is is” answer precisely because he was trying to avoid a direct lie.
Trump doesn’t care. Watching his face for discomfort or “tells” is like looking at an alligator for signs of remorse.
Thus the media have to start out with the assumption that anything Trump says is at least as likely to be false as true. He has forfeited any right to an “accurate until proven to be inaccurate” presumption of honesty. Thus a headline or framing that says “Trump claims, without evidence, [his latest fantasy]” does more violence to the truth than “Trump falsely claims...”
Now, two readers write in with detailed practical tips. The first, from a reader outside the U.S. with experience in publishing, is mainly about journalistic practices. This reader correctly refers to Trump’s behavior as narcissistic, without assuming any underlying medical diagnosis. The reader’s predictions and advice:
The mania for reporting every false or outrageous tweet as major news will eventually fade as everyone, including the public, gets tired of it. Smart people also know it’s a diversionary tactic and most people will eventually catch on. Smart people also know they’re lies, even if those persons are too partisan or embarrassed to admit it. Most people will eventually catch up on that front too. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. There will be some settling down around the time of the inauguration, followed by a steady slide. People only have so much patience for temper tantrums. Narcissists get old and ugly, especially when overexposed to sunlight.
In the meantime, less scrupulous members of Congress and appointed officials will use the diversions for their own ends. There must be continuous vigilance directed at these people as well and it might be up to the hometown media to be vigilant. It’s a great opportunity for ambitious young journalists to make a name for themselves, even if it’s stories about how Congressman Whosit rolled over and played dead. It is necessary to keep them honest. The hometown reporters will be the first to notice when someone is living beyond their expected means.
Pressure on members of Congress will help to keep pressure on the president, in turn ensuring that they act as a check and balance. The media can then report White House news indirectly from that angle, even if they can’t get a direct angle.
Members of Congress who act as a check and balance on the president will see their stars rise, especially if they are accessible to the media. The Narcissist in Chief isn’t the only person in Washington with an ego. It will start first with the Never Trumpers, especially those with nothing to lose, who are near retirement. Then the younger ones will want some of the glory. Again, an indirect conduit to White House news. They can use their authority to demand information, reducing the media’s research costs.
The bulk of the front-facing media attention will be on members of Congress, especially if the Narcissist in Chief refuses access, out of necessity. The Narcissist in Chief will react accordingly when he is no longer the center of attention and possibly dig a very deep inescapable hole for himself. Most of his attacks are projections, so that’s your first place to look.
A Deep Throat will come forward within a year, if not sooner. This leads me to a related point: As long as Melania Trump remains in Trump Tower and the Secret Service has two floors, it will be difficult to get information out of Trump Tower. Perhaps NYC will get tired of the security costs and hassles and that will change.
There will be a renaissance in investigative journalism. Ah, back to the glory days of Watergate.
FOIA, FOIA, FOIA. Did I mention FOIA? Shoe leather. Digging through court and registry files. You may also end up having to order transcripts of court hearings. SEC filings.
Cultivate the people who were around the failed businesses.
Keep a sharp eye on what the foreign press is covering. They’re watching what he’s doing in their countries and what their governments are doing to cultivate the U.S. president.
Get to know the people at the ACLU and other civil rights groups. They will uncover legislative initiatives the media might overlook and incidental findings that aren’t immediately relevant to the cases they’re litigating so they won’t come out in court. Some of this will be quite juicy.
We’ll probably see a continued increase in paid media subscriptions, as the media is seen as the only hope of keeping feet to the fire. Many more will come after people have paid off Christmas bills, if they didn’t receive them as gifts. Proposed Social Security and health insurance reforms will be big drivers of this. Baby Boomers and older seniors will be the ones buying the subscriptions initially. They’ll be frightened and Lord knows they don’t need any more tchotchkes for the house. Attention to issues that immediately affect that demographic will bring eyeballs to your sites. And a younger demographic will be wondering how they have to reorient their investment and life strategies. That’s the next wave: people needing in-depth analysis. What will they do with the new education paradigm for their kids?
Fake news sites will enchant for a while until the fake news hits too close to a subject the reader knows something about. Their credibility will be shot with the majority of the public before the end of the four-year term ...
Maybe I can have a bit of fun with an unrelated prediction here too. Now that no one is coming after their guns, the NRA will have a fundraising shortfall. It will be interesting to see what they do to make themselves relevant again.
I’ll keep this handy to compare against the unfolding news.
Next, a reader with mental-health experiences writes to point me toward what has become a very popular post on Medium, “Coping with Chaos in the White House.” It is by N. Ziehl and is adapted from an earlier Facebook post by the same writer.
The Medium post is a 10-point checklist, which I encourage you to read for yourself. Unlike most analysis of Trump’s behavior at TheAtlantic or other major press outlets, it’s based on a “medicalized” discussion of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. Again, I am explicitly not making any such medical assumptions. But if you assume that the list applies to the behaviors Donald Trump has unambiguously shown, I think you’ll find its items very useful. Samples:
1) [This behavior] is not curable and it’s barely treatable. He is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours…
2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this…. If you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.
4) Entitlement is a key aspect.... As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office… This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents…
8) People [with these traits] often foster competition for sport in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations… He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.
And, some final how-to advice for media and citizens as we enter this new terrain:
10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Unfortunately we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the president, but don’t circulate his tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? do you enjoy the outrage? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.
We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.
A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies. Is there any way for democratic institutions to cope? This is our topic in the post-Thanksgiving week.
Being back in China in the U.S.-election aftermath naturally leads to thoughts about how societies function when there is no agreed-on version of “reality,” public knowledge, or news.
We take for granted that this was a challenge for Soviet citizens back in the Cold War days, when they relied on samizdat for non-government-authorized reports and criticisms. Obviously it’s a big issue for China’s public now. But its most consequential effects could be those the United States is undergoing, which have led to the elevation of the least prepared, most temperamentally unfit, least public-spirited person ever to assume the powers of the U.S. presidency.
The United States is seeing both a chronic and an acute new version of this public-information problem. The chronic version, recognized but nowhere close to being solved, is the rise of separate fact-universes into which different segments of society silo themselves—occurring at the same time as the “normal” news media are struggling against economic and other pressures.
The acute version is the emergence as president-elect of a man whose nature as a liar is outside what our institutions are designed to deal with. Donald Trump either cannot tell the difference between truth and lies, or he knows the difference but does not care. Tiniest example: On a single day during the campaign, Trump claimed that the National Football League had sent him a letter complaining that the presidential-debate schedule conflicted with NFL games (which the NFL immediately denied), and then he said the Koch brothers had begged him to accept their donations (which they also flat-out denied).
Most people would hesitate before telling easily disprovable lies like these, much as shoplifters would hesitate if the store owner is looking at them. Most people are fazed if caught in an outright lie. But in these cases and others, Trump never blinked. As part of his indispensable campaign coverage this summer, David Fahrenthold (and Robert O’Harrow) of The WashingtonPostoffered astonishing documentation of Trump being caught in a long string of business-related lies and simply not caring.
The news media are not built for someone like this.
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt. For instance: Bill Clinton survived “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he was damaged then, and lastingly, when the truth came out. To close the loop, knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies.
None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.
How can the press gird for action? Here are three early indications from the news:
1) Call out lies as lies, not “controversies.” In covering Trump’s latest illegal-voting outburst, TheWashington Post and TheLA Times took the lead in clearly labeling the claim as false, rather than “controversial” or “unsubstantiated.” The Post used the headline at the top of this item, and the one below on another fact-check report:
The LAT also took this approach in an online story:
By contrast, the version I’ve seen from the NYT takes a more “objective” tone—there’s “no evidence” for Trump’s claim, much as there was “no evidence” for his assertion that Ted Cruz’s dad played a part in the JFK assassination.
What’s the difference? The NYT said that the claim had “no evidence.” The Post said it was false. The Times’s is more conventional—but it is also “normalizing” in suggesting that Trump actually cared whether there was evidence for what he said. I think the Post’s is closer to calling things what they are.
A long-experienced figure in the news business sent me a note about the contrasting Post and NYT stories:
It’s not that Trump cited no evidence, it’s that the claim itself is groundless. Reading The Times, you would think that Trump broke a debating rule.
Now look at the two ledes, emphases mine.
WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald J. Trump said on Sunday that he had fallen short in the popular vote in the general election only because millions of people had voted illegally, leveling his claim — despite the absence of any such evidence — as part of a daylong storm of Twitter posts voicing anger about a three-state recount push.
President-elect Donald Trump spent Sunday ridiculing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign for joining a recount effort in Wisconsin, ending his day on Twitter by parroting a widely debunked conspiracy theory that her campaign benefited from massive voter fraud.
Subtler, perhaps, than their respective headlines, but one reflects the essential truth whereas the other is merely fatuously accurate.
2) Fighting for Reality Itself. I highly recommend this new essay by Ned Resnikoff at the Think Progress site. It explains the chaos-generating logic of Trump’s seemingly illogical stream of nonstop lies big and small, which Resnikoff traces to reality TV, to Breitbart and Steve Bannon, and to Vladimir Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov. It also lays out very different responsibilities for the press and public institutions from what they have assumed their duties to be. A sample about the media:
If the United States is to remain a liberal democracy, then Trump’s non-linear warfare needs to fail. Politics needs to once again become grounded in some kind of stable, shared reality. It’s not clear how that could happen. But there are at least a couple of steps that anti-authoritarians can make right away...
Journalists need to understand what Trump is doing and refuse to play by his rules. He is going to use the respect and deference typically accorded to the presidency as an instrument for spreading more lies. Reporters must refuse to treat him like a normal president and refuse to bestow any unearned legitimacy on his administration.
They must also give up their posture of high-minded objectivity — and, along with it, any hope of privileged access to the Trump White House. The incoming president has made clear that he expects unquestioning obedience from the press, and will regard anyone who doesn’t give it to him as an enemy.
Seriously, please read and reflect on this essay. Also, please read Michael Tomasky’s latest essay in TheDaily Beast.
3) Dealing with this kind of man. While I was chronicling Donald Trump’s lies, outbursts, and attention-failures in the Time Capsule series, I received a large amount of mail offering medical hypotheses for why he might behave the way he did. I suspect the same is true of most other reporters who have written about him. And like most other press operations, while the campaign was underway TheAtlantic deliberately decided not to “medicalize” any discussion of Trump’s behavior. Most of us are not doctors; even the doctors who were writing to us had not dealt with Trump firsthand; and from a civic point of view, the real issue was the behavior itself, not whatever label you might attach to it.
The campaign is now over; Trump is set to assume enormous power; and the world and the country need to understand how to deal with him. A reader with professional expertise in this field has sent a note on how journalism should prepare for Trump, especially in thinking about his nonstop string of lies.
Again, to be clear, this reader is not “medicalizing” Trump’s behavior or recommending that the press do so. But there are common-sense meanings for terms to describe behavior, which we can use without relying on a medical diagnosis. We can say someone seems cruel without saying he’s a psychopath; that he seems amoral without claiming he’s a sociopath; that he seems moody or depressed without implying a clinical diagnosis. And in common-sense terms, anyone can see that Trump’s behavior is narcissistic, regardless of underlying cause. I turn it over to the reader:
Now that he is poised to assume power, I (and a lot of others) are feeling some urgency around holding his worst tendencies in check and preventing him from following through on his noxious campaign challenges.
It troubles me to observe that so far the news media are having trouble when they deal with him directly. I am seeing good investigative reporting on his conflicts of interest, for instance, but it looked like the NY Times just sort of rolled over when they interviewed him in person.
Nobody seems to realize that normal rules do not apply when you are interviewing a narcissist. You can’t go about this in the way you were trained, because he is an expert at manipulating the very rules you learned. It’s clear to me that reporters (and anyone else) who will deal with DT directly need to take a crash course in handling someone displaying these behaviors.
The Times got in trouble by trying to make sense of his words. It’s an easy mistake for people in a word-saturated medium to make, but anyone who’s dealt with a narcissist knows you never, ever believe what they say—because they will say whatever the person they are talking to wants to hear. DT is a master at phrasing things vaguely enough that multiple listeners will be able to hear exactly what they want. It isn’t word salad; it’s overt deception, which is much more pernicious.
But the Times fell for it. I’m watching the same mistake get made over and over again, but I don’t know how to help journalists get out of the trap. If we are going to survive the days ahead, someone needs to teach reporters the difference between naming narcissism—[JF note: which, to emphasize, there is no point doing]— vs. dealing effectively with a narcissist.
There's a ton of information out there about how to deal with narcissists. I would really like to see journalists get as interested in the topic—and adept at the strategies—as abused spouses are. We need to somehow widely disseminate ideas for dealing with it.
From the inbox, an engineer who is directly involved in the technology for tabulating votes in a number of states sends this report on the historically unusual gap between Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead and Donald Trump’s electoral college margin. (Andrew McGill has been covering this issue for us since the election.) The engineer wrote over the weekend with this summary:
It looks as if Hillary Clinton will top the popular-vote margin in percentage points of President Carter in 1976, also JFK in 1960, three elections in the 1880s and James Knox Polk in 1844. And I should include the 2000 election as well.
That is, he said, a total of seven people will have taken the presidency with a winning margin that is smaller, as a proportion of the popular vote, than Hillary Clinton will probably end up having over Donald Trump, in defeat.
Now, the background, in a note from this same reader a few days earlier:
I work in the election industry—on the counting side, not the political side. When I went to sleep on election night, Trump’s lead was a million votes and climbing. This was not my preferred outcome, but I accepted the selection of the people—only it wasn’t, as it turns out.
My calculation today gives Clinton a 2.5 million vote margin when everything is counted. (Vote-by-mail states count slowly—more paper handling for mail-ins. California has three million uncounted ballots, one million in LA County (3 to 1 for Clinton) and another half-million in San Diego County (3 to 2 for Clinton).) She may also pick up more votes in other vote-by-mail states out west—think Oregon, Washington, Colorado.
The narrative on election night was all how Clinton turned victory to defeat, her campaign overconfident, her voters staying home, and her herself unable to best perhaps the least capable candidate ever nominated by a major party.
The numbers in Florida and California just do not support that evaluation. In both places, turnout was up over 8 percent. She pulled a 930K vote lead in counties covering 58 percent of the state’s voters, counties where Obama ran up a 770K margin that enabled him to win a 70K victory in 2012. Her lead failed because Trump himself ran up a million vote margin in the remaining rural counties, beating Romney’s numbers by 350K. Hilary lost Florida, but she and Trump engaged the voters.
In California, she will nearly double Trump's tally, and out-poll Obama (the 2008 and 2012 version) by about three percentage points. She will receive nine million plus votes in California. These are the votes pushing her national total two million and more votes past that of the President-elect.
She will not be inaugurated two months hence, not in virtue of a pitiful campaign. She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes not very good, but she received support from enough of the republic to win the office in any universe not governed by an 18th century compromise with the slave-owning aristocrats of the Carolinas and Virginia.
She has 2.5 million more votes than the person who will be inaugurated. That is not a close margin.
This is what a democratic crisis looks like.
We all know that the electoral college is the established system for choosing presidents. (Though the National Popular Vote compact is a way better idea for a modern nation—and is what we would expect and recommend for any other nation.) We all know that if there were no electoral college, the campaign dynamics would have been different and the popular vote total might have been different too. We know as well that this is different from the 2000 election, in which a change in the outcome in even one state would have changed the electoral college result, in favor of the popular vote winner, Al Gore. The dynamics now are different.
But as the reader says, this is quite a disproportion. On the one hand, we have a result swung by a tens of thousands of votes in three crucial states. On the other hand, we have enormous impending changes in international and domestic policy. Americans would not regard the result as normal or proportional if they observed it anywhere else.
As a study of oratorical styles, this is genuinely worth watching, even if you don't understand a word of Italian. Spend even 30 or 40 seconds and you will see what I mean. Or for a highlight skip to the passage from 0:50 to 1:50.
The speaker’s enunciation is so emphatic and precise, his wording so blunt and simple, and his argument so straight-ahead that even I, who last coped with Italian many years ago, can follow just what he is telling us. Oversimplified, the message is: make Italy great again! (And specifically its navy.) But again the real message has nothing to do with a particular language. It involves personal carriage, facial expression, stance of dominance, and interaction with crowd. I am sorry I had not taken time to watch this before. (Thanks to John Kenney for the lead.)
In the time since the election, I have been otherwise-engaged about 20 hours a day: writing an unexpected article for the next issue; discussing my article in the current issue, about China, on various shows (including Brian Lehrer here, Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal here, and Charlie Rose here); traveling for Atlantic and other events about the next stage of American re-invention (e.g., here and here and here); and reflecting, though not sleeping.
I see that several thousand emails have arrived in that time. With this latest article done and with press junkets on pause for the moment, I’ll start sharing some of the reaction that has come in, plus positive news from familiar places like Erie, Sioux Falls, San Bernardino, and Fresno. All this in a buildup to what I expect will be a necessary declaration of Email Bankruptcy at the end of the year and a clean start on many fronts.
Thank you to readers for the hundreds of messages that have been pouring in daily. In most of the time since the election, I have been in transit for a long-scheduled set of American-innovation events in the mountain west, Cheyenne and Laramie in specific; and trying to write a completely unscheduled article for the magazine; and absorbing the psychological and intellectual effects of what our country has just done to itself. I had not expected that I would ever again feel as paralyzed, withdrawn, and downcast as I did after my father died eight yearsago. But that expectation was a failure of tragic imagination on my part. I was wrong.
The main thoughts I’ve made public since the election were immediately afterwards, early Wednesday morning on not much sleep, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. You can listen to it here. I’ve also just done a talk with Kai Ryssdal for Marketplace, probably for tomorrow’s show.
I hope you will read carefully this note from Joseph Britt. I sent Mr. Britt an email saying that I would like to quote from his message, and that I assumed he would prefer—as is our default practice—that I not use his real name. His reply wins my great respect:
It’s kind of you to make that suggestion. Not an easy call in these times.
But where is it written life should be easy? Use my name. Say, “Joseph Britt in Wisconsin, who has worked on campaigns and in government for Republican politicians...”
So here is Joseph Britt in Wisconsin, who has worked on campaigns and in government for Republican politicians. I leave in one of his setup points about me, because it provides context.
You mentioned on Twitter not wanting to continue the “Time Capsule” series, which is fine. TheAtlantic, however, should pick it up, using a team of writers of which you could be one if you chose. America is heading into uncharted territory as I write this, both as a nation and in our relations with the wider world. The path we walk should be documented in a systematic way.
I wanted to say something about the election results that may be obvious, perhaps too obvious to be much remarked upon.
In TheAtlantic and other publications, I have read in recent days long essays about people who supported Donald Trump, who had previously voted for Barack Obama or hadn’t voted at all, who were nostalgic for the imagined world of their parents’ generation, or who for whatever reason had so little hope for the future they were willing to trust in the remarkably general promises of a man who made his fortune putting up hotels and golf courses.
Journalists struggling to understand Trump’s support have been keen to describe—or have these people describe themselves—their feelings, in considerable detail.
All well and good. Rural white voters and voters at a loss in the face of economic and social change are certainly an important story, because of their critical marginal influence in electorally significant states. They may have pushed Trump over the top, but they are not the most important reason he seems about to become President.
Alone among systems of government, democracy imposes duties on the ruled as well as the rulers. It doesn’t work if those duties are shirked by too many people. People of means—coincidentally the traditional core of the Republican Party—have a special interest in maintaining standards of ethics and probity in candidates for national office, for without lawful and universally accepted authority no property is safe.
The Republican Party supported a war hero and veteran legislator for President in 2008. It backed a legitimate businessman and successful governor in 2012. This year, it fell in behind Trump. About as many Republicans voted for Trump as for Romney four years earlier. The great majority of these were not distressed working-class voters. They weren’t threatened by minorities or by globalization. They were—are— people who have lived easy lives, never wanting for anything save the most garish accoutrements of great wealth.
They knew Donald Trump was ignorant and dishonest, and it didn’t matter to them. They knew he was a sex predator who fathered children by various women, and it didn’t matter. Cheating on his taxes, cheating on his wives, consumer fraud, the bogus charity, the sponsorship of the Russian intelligence services, the anti-Semitic associates, cheating contractors who had done work for him, the picking on individuals before massive rallies, the insufferable racism, the continual running down of America—none of that mattered.
No, the only thing that mattered to Republicans of means once Trump was nominated by the Republican Party was that he had been nominated by the Republican Party. Loyalty to party took precedence over loyalty to American democracy, its mission, and traditions. What counted—all that counted—was that Trump had been chosen to lead Our Team.
What a pathetic thing is decadence. Millions of Republicans as comfortable and secure as any people who have ever lived, who owe everything to the historic miracle that is the United States, chose to go along with a presidential candidacy shot through with moral degeneracy and contempt for the public good. They had other choices in the primaries; they were warned by their own former leaders what Trump represented. They voted for him anyway, hoping to give their team a win in the game, the shallow entertainment that is all they think of politics.
They have put this Republic that has been the light of the world for 240 years in danger. They have put freedom in danger. Years of easy prosperity and soft living have taught them that America could be taken for granted. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Stimson, Eisenhower, Reagan might just as well be random groups of letters to these people, stifled by material wealth and physical sensation.
They will have second thoughts, these comfortable Republicans of means. They will flake off from Trump long before the sad nostalgists and struggling rural voters who actually believe his promises of magic. They will lower his approval ratings. But they made him President, and gave him a Congress full of cyphers, slackwits, and doddering old men to work with. What a price our country and the world will pay, and for how long they will pay it, because those Americans most richly blessed failed so completely in their duty as citizens.
“Democracy doesn’t work if its duties are shirked by too many people.”
Once again, Trump tried and failed to strike a deal on Saturday.
President Donald Trump is trapped. He shut the government to impose his will on the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. That plan has miserably failed. Instead, Trump has found himself caught in the trap he supposed he had set for his opponents.
Now he is desperately seeking an exit.
Trump attempted Exit One on January 8.He spoke that evening to the nation from the Oval Office, hoping to mobilize public opinion behind him, pressing the Democratic leadership of the House to yield to him. That hope was miserably disappointed. Surveys post-speech found that Trump had swayed only 2 percent of TV viewers. In the 10 days since the speech, Trump’s approval ratings have dipped to about the lowest point in his presidency. The supposedly solid Trump base has measurably softened.
[Please see Updates at the end of this post.] I don’t know who the young man in the MAGA hat in this photo is. And I don’t care to know.
His name, which the internet will inevitably turn up, really doesn’t matter. It matters to his parents, of course—and to his teachers. I hope they will be reflective, and I know they should be ashamed: of this smirking young man and the scores of other (nearly all white) students from a Catholic school in Kentucky. Today, on the National Mall in Washington, they apparently mocked, harassed, and menaced a Native American man who had fought for the United States in Vietnam and who today represented both the U.S. and his Omaha nation with poise, courage, and dignity.
Starting the process will rein in a president who is undermining American ideals—and bring the debate about his fitness for office into Congress, where it belongs.
On January 20, 2017,Donald Trump stood on the steps of the Capitol, raised his right hand, and solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He has not kept that promise.
Instead, he has mounted a concerted challenge to the separation of powers, to the rule of law, and to the civil liberties enshrined in our founding documents. He has purposefully inflamed America’s divisions. He has set himself against the American idea, the principle that all of us—of every race, gender, and creed—are created equal.
A delightful “Weekend Update” appearance from John Mulaney and Pete Davidson gave a jolt of energy to an otherwise uninspired episode.
Pete Davidson has been largely absent from Saturday Night Live for the past couple of months. The 25-year-old comedian has had a tabloid spotlight trained on him since June 2018, when his engagement to the pop star Ariana Grande became the story of the summer. Davidson, whose comedic approach is raw and personal, would often stop by SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment to joke about the volatility of his relationship, which eventually collapsed. In November, he apologized to then-incoming Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw for mocking the veteran’s combat injury on the air. Less than a month later, Davidson posted on Instagram about feeling suicidal, alarming people enough that a police officer was sent to the SNL studios to check on him.
The senator from Massachusetts announced she was running for president on New Year’s Eve—and then had the field largely to herself.
CLAREMONT, N.H.—Elizabeth Warren wants the look on her face to be funny. It’s somewhere between stern and confused and disappointed, complete with fists briefly on her hips, like she’s playing a mom in a commercial who just found an adorable kid making a mess on the floor.
That’s how the senator from Massachusetts responds late Friday when I ask her what she thinks will happen if the rest of the Democratic primary field doesn’t follow her lead and put talking about the economy at the center of their campaigns.
“I don’t know how anyone could not talk about the economy—and corruption!—and diagnose what’s wrong in America today. I just don’t know how they could do it,” she said, then added with a little snark creeping in to her voice, “Good luck …”
Insights into the little-studied realm of last words
Mort Felix liked to say that his name, when read as two Latin words, meant “happy death.” When he was sick with the flu, he used to jokingly remind his wife, Susan, that he wanted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played at his deathbed. But when his life’s end arrived at the age of 77, he lay in his study in his Berkeley, California, home, his body besieged by cancer and his consciousness cradled in morphine, uninterested in music and refusing food as he dwindled away over three weeks in 2012. “Enough,” he told Susan. “Thank you, and I love you, and enough.” When she came downstairs the next morning, she found Felix dead.
During those three weeks, Felix had talked. He was a clinical psychologist who had also spent a lifetime writing poetry, and though his end-of-life speech often didn’t make sense, it seemed to draw from his attention to language. “There’s so much so in sorrow,” he said at one point. “Let me down from here,” he said at another. “I’ve lost my modality.” To the surprise of his family members, the lifelong atheist also began hallucinating angels and complaining about the crowded room—even though no one was there.
Strategists considered sacrificing older pilots to patrol the skies in flying reactors. An Object Lesson.
The U.S. Navy recently asked Congress for $139 billion to update its fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Unlike “conventional” submarines, which need to surface frequently, nuclear submarines can cruise below the sea at high speeds for decades without ever needing to refuel. Defense planners expect that the new submarines will run on one fueling for the entirety of deployment—up to a half century.
The advantages of nuclear submarines over their conventional cousins raise a question about another component of the military arsenal: Why don’t airplanes run on nuclear power?
The reasons are many. Making a nuclear reactor flightworthy is difficult. Shielding it from spewing dangerous radiation into the bodies of its crew might be impossible. During the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear apocalypse led to surprisingly pragmatic plans, engineers proposed to solve the problem by hiring elderly Air Force crews to pilot the hypothetical nuclear planes, because they would die before radiation exposure gave them fatal cancers.
Dr. Sherman Hershfield woke up one morning and was surprised to find himself behind the wheel of his car. Somewhere between his Beverly Hills apartment and his practice in the San Fernando Valley, the silver-haired physician had blacked out. Somehow he’d avoided a crash, but this wasn’t the first time. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he admitted.
Apart from his frequent blackouts, Hershfield was in fine health for a man in his 50s. He was tall and lean, ran six miles a day, and was a strict vegetarian. “I believe a physician should provide exemplary motivation to patients,” he once wrote. “I don’t smoke and have cut out all alcohol.” Hershfield specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and for decades had helped patients with brain injuries learn to walk again and rebuild their lives. Even with his experience, Hershfield didn’t know what was wrong inside his own head.
Readers consider whether Congress should subpoena the president's translator.
While questioning the interpreter about the substance of Trump and Putin’s talks would constitute a breach of norms, “pretending now that the old rules can function as intended is not only delusive, but dangerous,” David Frum wrote. “Subpoena the interpreter now.”
Alas, a brief cold spell does not undo decades of scientific fact.
It’s something of an annual tradition for the president. On Sunday morning, as the eastern half of the country endured driving snow and frigid winter winds, Donald Trump asked on Twitter how climate change could be real if it was so cold outside.
“Be careful and try staying in your house,” he said. “Large parts of the Country are suffering from tremendous amounts of snow and near record setting cold. Amazing how big this system is. Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!”