Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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

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Making America Great, 1850s version: the Know-Nothing Party at work. (Wikimedia commons)

Yesterday I noted that Donald Trump was by far the supplest and most gifted TV performer of all the presidential candidates left in the field, yet also by far the most ignorant on foreign or domestic affairs, military or government programs, or the other realities of being President. Hardly anything the man says about public affairs is true; what he doesn’t know, or hasn’t heard of, is astonishing.

Readers weigh in on on why a person as able as Trump should have bestirred himself so little to learn anything about the job he now seeks. First, a reader re-stating the question itself:

The oddest part of Trump (to me) is that we're this far into the game and he hasn't made any attempt to educate himself on any policies. It's as though he's uninterested in them or else thinks he need only bullshit his way through the presidency. I don't think he's stupid. Does he honestly believe he can succeed as president without understanding the job? I cannot make any sense of the man.

Beginning of an answer, from a reader in New York:

I worked with Trump in his real estate empire, and the pattern was very similar. Brilliant front man, barely bothered to learn about spreadsheets or financials. Just wanted us to tell him that a deal would be “great.”

On the “greatness” of the decisions he makes:

When I was reading your latest piece, the one thing that immediately came to mind was Trump as a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: that unskilled individuals rate their competence much higher than it actually is. [JF note: my name for the same phenomenon is the “barroom Einstein effect.”] I doubt this is a particularly novel observation, but [this last debate] really drove it home.

Good thing he didn’t challenge her to a game of Jeopardy! ™ (Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters)

After the latest GOP debate, I noted that Donald Trump was remarkable for his very high-level performance skills, and for his near-absolute lack of knowledge about policy or public affairs. Then readers weighed in to the same effect. Now, more from readers on Know-Nothingism and the Rise of Trump.

I’ve heard from a reader who for professional reasons has carefully studied a very large number of “newsmaker” interviews in recent years. The reader writes that Trump’s cumulative record is remarkable, especially when compared with Sarah Palin’s:

Most liberal folks in my experience have never really listened closely to either Trump or Palin very much but instead rely on superficial appearance and caricature, so I thought I’d contribute the view of a liberal who has actually listened to them very carefully.

In the year or so after the election, I listened to a lot of Palin interviews, and although her range of knowledge is certainly quite limited, she spoke very confidently and enthusiastically about some Alaska-specific issues, one being the oil industry in the state. Another was less important but still fascinating—the myriad complexities of voting and getting votes counted in Alaska. She took obvious pleasure in her mastery of these subjects and pleasure in explaining them to people who didn’t know much about them.

I have now been through dozens of interviews with Trump with a variety of interviewers, and I have never once—not once—heard him discuss anything, any subject of any kind, with any evidence of knowledge, never mind thought. None. Zero. He’s like a skipping stone over a pond. He doesn’t even come close to the level of dilettante.

You’d think at some point, something, anything would have engaged his interest enough to read up on it and think about it, but as far as I can tell, nothing has. Much more so even than George W., he appears to lack anything resembling intellectual curiosity. Maybe he’s faking it, but while understanding can sometimes be faked, you can’t fake ignorance convincingly.

Trump at a rally on March 13. By the way, America is already great again. (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

In these past few days I’ve argued that Donald Trump is an increasingly impressive political performer, whose lack of substantive knowledge on public issues is increasingly obvious. He keeps saying “we’re going to win again” and “it’s going to be great” because that’s all he knows to say about anything involving what a president does. Three installments to this effect are here, here, and here.

For the other side, a sample of reader mail defending Trump. First, from a reader in Europe, a “shake things up” / “intensify the contradictions” argument:

I think I would vote for Trump.
- what American politics needs is radical change. Hillary won't bring that. Bernie is too weak to deliver.
- he would probably really split the Republican Party. Maybe leading to a multi-party system?
- said that Bush lied the country and the world to war.
- does not unquestioningly take the Israeli side.
- he is not a fascist, racist, white supremacist. Wall or no wall.

I wrote back saying: thanks for laying this out, but I disagree for many reasons, among them that Trump does not know anything about either domestic or international policy, choices, problems, goals. The European replied:

I understand. But I believe it is irrelevant. The position of president was never meant to be as powerful as it is today. The country should be rueld by a functioning Senate and Congress.

What America needs is direct democracy where people can vote on issues directly, like in Switzerland. There is no place for riots and violence in such a system, because it gets settled with a vote. If the majority agrees, then the rest has to shut it. Even if the decision is very controversial and might limit some people's rights. It happens all the time in Switzerland. But decisions also get reversed in subsequent votes. And with some issues, like repealing mandatory military service, they vote on it every 10-15 years. Always with the same outcome.

The point is that people actually have a direct voice and what the majority decides actually happens. I think in today's America most of the "elite" and the politically left-leaning there is a lack of trust in the people and their ability to make sane decisions.

The result is Trump.

Again, Hilary will not change this. Trump is just so disruptive that it might lead to some actual change.

For the record, I find this unpersuasive, the kind of thought-experiment that might seem “interesting” from Europe but not if you’re in the middle of it here. Still, offered for the record.

Team Kasich celebrating their Ohio win, on an evening that moved the country closer to a Trump-Clinton general election. (Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters)

As this evening’s results move us closer to (probably) a Clinton-Trump general election campaign, here’s a range of reader reactions on Trump. These follow the other items now collected in this thread, and this earlier post about the tabula rasa that is Trump’s public-policy mind. Here we go:

Trump as Muhammad Ali. A reader explains why Trump’s disconnection from any specific policy views might be a governing liability but has been an electoral asset:

I suspect that Trump’s surprising ignorance and lack of policy positions is a feature not a bug. Untethered to facts or positions and thus not having to defend them, he can claim anything and attack anyone from any direction, as the opportunity arises.

His is the Muhammad Ali approach applied to politics:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can't hit what the eyes can't see.”

Let’s leap ahead: what if Trump loses? Several readers have begun worrying about this consequence.

I fear that if/when Trump is beaten back, people will "relax" and forget that the hardest work is still ahead—reaching people who feel so isolated and disempowered, and bringing them “into the fold” of empowered groups that feel they have a true voice in DC. That starts, partly, by not treating people who live in trailers as trash. Poor whites are a safe target in politics, even though their access to power is as limited as that of many minority groups.

Conservatives leaders need to stop taking these groups for granted. Liberals should see them as a group that deserves attention and outreach. This needs to happen after Trump—otherwise we will repeat history in 4 or 8 years.

Also in the what if he loses? category, from an American reader who has lived for many years in Japan:

The likely Republican nominee, after his victories last night (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

Further on the Trump phenomenon, for good and bad.

The left-behinds. A reader argues that Trump has given a voice to people who thought they were unheard and invisible:

I am currently in California looking after my 99 year old mother and consequently watching more television than I’ve seen in a long time. It’s been interesting to see just how blindsided the talking class has been (and to a large degree still is) by the rise of Trump.

Pundits scratch their heads, “Didn’t see that comin’” but I’m sure that you, in your travels across America, are aware that there are many, many people who have been left behind by the “recovery.” A stroll through the WalMart in the city where I live (Santa Fe) tells me that.
Both parties have let our working classes down by sidestepping an inconvenient truth that is self-evident to them: this economy doesn’t need them. They are expendable. I’m not sure I know enough about how other countries feel about work but I know in this country when a man (and I’m concentrating on men here because I am one and because I think this is primarily a male problem) is out of work there is a profound loss of identity. For some time now we’ve had an economy where the role of the breadwinner has been shared by men and women and I think, in the talking classes, men have adapted to this paradigm. I don’t think this is the case for working class men.

Trump Tweet from two years before his campaign kicked off.

We may be past the point where it matters to wonder why Donald Trump does the things he does. Instead we can just note that he does them. As I’ve argued before, his virtuosity in being able to switch almost instantly from bombast to talk-show charm is an important part of his success.

A reader makes what may by now be an obvious point but is still worth reckoning with. He was responding to the post in which I noted Trump’s combination of masterful TV performance and near-total ignorance of the actual job and challenges of being president. Emphasis added:

I'm a clinical psychology doctoral candidate about a year away from graduation, and I think that there's actually a psychological explanation for Trump's ignorance.

Normally I wouldn't diagnose someone without spending time with them in a 1-on-1 interview, or without speaking to people who are close to them and who are reliable reporters, or without some kind of objective data collected from empirically supported psychological tests, but I think it's safe to say that Donald Trump is really and truly a narcissist, in the personality disorder sense.

I think that Donald Trump's ignorance is a manifestation of his narcissism. Trump hasn't bothered to educate himself about outside issues because, to him, everything he says is automatically true. Why learn about something that you believe you've already mastered?

Let’s stop to note Trump’s relevant quote today on Morning Joe. Who does Trump rely on for foreign-policy guidance, he was asked? “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” Back to the reader.

Imagine going through life with the conceptual framework that you simply cannot be wrong. Facts would cease to matter, and education would largely be irrelevant, because you're the one who determines what is and isn't true. In fact, people who claim to have expertise would become the enemy because they would provide information that would exist outside of yourself. If everything you say is the ultimate, universal truth, than anything that exists outside of yourself must be deception.

I think that Trump earnestly believes every single thing that comes out of his mouth, and that the reason his beliefs seem to change is because his reality is fluid.

When Trump claimed that he had refuted David Duke he really believed it, because in his world he is infallible. When, in the reality the rest of us share, he clearly did not refuse David Duke's endorsement and instead said that he doesn't even know who David Duke was, that was also true, because he believed it to be true.

For Donald Trump there's no need to convince him that, as in George Orwell's novel 1984, 2+2=5, because for him 2+2 equals whatever he currently believes it equals. He seems earnest because he really is an earnest guy, and he refuses to work on his ignorance because he deeply, genuinely  believes that he's right, about everything, all of the time. I think that he feels attacked because he lacks the capacity to understand that the rest of us don't subscribe to his own version of reality.

Making Italia Great Again (Wikimedia)

Readers weigh in about this next stage in American democracy. Previous entries are all collected on the page you’re reading now.

Trump did save me a lot of money! From a male reader who now lives in New Jersey, who ends up arguing that I should “vote for Bozo,” ie Trump:

First, to establish some anti-Trump bona fides:

I moved to the Lower East Side (and then the Upper West Side) from Florida in 1979. I very quickly learned to loath Trump as a blight upon the city.

And why is Trump different from Hitler? Hitler wrote his own book; Trump hasn't read his. (In fairness, the same could be said of Hillary.)

I must add, though, that Trump did save me a lot of money. I figured, if a billionaire like Trump can't afford a decent hairpiece, why should I waste my money? So I'm bald. Or, as my wife puts it, gleefully bald.

Finally, we can take it as a given that Trump will be a terrible, horrible disaster of Biblical proportions [allusion to Ghostbusters] as President…

So, why not worry?

Two reasons. First, the US does not have the systemic weaknesses of Italy, Germany, and Russia after WWI. [JF note: Yes, agree, this is under-appreciated point. The Weimar Germany of the 1920s was a disaster economically and in its first fledgling days as a democracy, soon to perish democratically and in other ways under Hitler.]

Second, Obama -- even with the whole-hearted, full-throated, rapturously unskeptical support of most of the media, nearly all of academia, and two years of legislative majorities -- was unable, in the end, completely to "fundamentally transform" America. And Trump (Trump!?) is supposed to be able to do so with all three of those groups against him (and the courts besides)? Not happening.

That's why, if I'm faced with a choice between, on the one hand, a candidate calling for a "people's revolution" [JF: I’m guessing this is Bernie Sanders] or one who is both a congenital liar and the willing tool of anyone who has  a million or so bucks to spare [guessing this is HRC] (either of whom would have nearly the same level of support from my betters as Obama) and, on the other, a reincarnation of Bozo sans the red nose, I'm voting for Bozo.

And you should, too.

Thanks for the advice but: Nope, not sold.

Hillary Clinton in Florida after her victory there this week. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

In contrast to Donald Trump’s theme, I’ve been saying all along that America Is Already Great Again™. But his campaign is certainly making the country even greater in one specific way, which is the volume of interesting and impassioned correspondence that is coming in about the man, the era, and the implications.

I’ll keep doling these out in regular increments, combining them thematically where possible. Today’s assortment starts with a question about his most likely general-election opponent:

OK, Trump’s an outlier, but why is Hillary Clinton considered equally beyond the pale? From a reader in California who was in grade school when Hillary Clinton became First Lady:

I have noticed that the Trump supporters you quote on your blog have a common disdain for Clinton. It's almost like their support for the TV actor is linked to her at least in part.

In fact, every person I have personally spoken to who supports Sanders or one of the Republicans mentions her almost immediately when asked why they prefer their candidate of choice.

Nearly all my life (I was 10 years old in 1992) I have heard of the horrors and evils of this woman.  Yet, since I was a child and now into my mid-30s I haven't understood exactly why she is so hated.  Do you have insight?  What about this woman is so distasteful beyond basic partisanship?  She seems like the only “serious” candidate to me and if she truly is that awful I would really like to know why!

Twenty years ago: first lady Hillary Clinton with her book It Takes a Village. (Jeff Mitchell / Reuters)

I am on the road without time to do any set-up (or, sigh, to finish several pending posts on aspects of modern America that are more encouraging than the presidential race). So, unadorned, further reader thoughts on the rise of Trump and “she’s just as bad!” bitterness against Hillary Clinton:

The culmination of a long pattern. A reader in the northeast argues that in this as in many other matters, the GOP’s tone in 2016 is the logical result of trends underway for many decades:

A number of readers have already commented on the “Hillary hatred” phenomenon, but I think a few further points can be added on this topic:

First, it is not only the Trump supporters who invoke a caricature of Hillary as a “congenital liar” and/or “tool of Wall Street.” This is very widespread among Republicans generally. It is perhaps most commonly used, as seen with the “vote for Bozo” reader, to justify continuing to vote Republican virtually regardless of the candidate.

Second, the “congenital liar” label has been applied to Hillary for years. Trump’s emergence as the GOP frontrunner now puts Republicans like “vote for Bozo” in an especially awkward position. The rationale that they can’t vote for Hillary because of her dishonesty is blown to pieces by Trump’s epic dishonesty. To quote Republican columnist David Brooks, Trump is “perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetimes. All politicians stretch the truth, but Trump has a steady obliviousness to accuracy.” If you can’t vote for Hillary because of her dishonesty, then you can’t possibly vote for Trump.

Third, Hillary Clinton is hardly the only Democrat to whom this line of thinking is applied by Republicans. Indeed, virtually every nationally successful or effective figure in the DP in the past 25 years has been described by the GOP and GOP-friendly media as having character flaws that fundamentally disqualify them from holding office.

Obama was harshly attacked in this way starting in 2008, once it became apparent that he could win the election, and this has steadily escalated to the point where the GOP establishment now paints him as an essentially illegitimate president—refusing to consider his nominees or take up his budget proposal. Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Kerry, and Tom Daschle have all faced smears and concerted vilification. Liberals often seem surprised by this.

How can anyone describe Obama, a moderate, center-left Democrat, in such extreme terms? This misses the point that these leaders are vilified and dismissed as illegitimate precisely because they are moderate. Portraying them as extreme won’t stick, and thus a different strategy is needed to raise their negatives.

This is Newt Gingrich’s gift to America. If Sanders is the Democratic  candidate (which looks unlikely at this point), my prediction is that he will be spared the character/ personal barrage directed at Hillary and others. It won’t be needed, because he can be effectively attacked as a Socialist.

The late NYT columnist William Safire, in 1996. After he wrote a column saying that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was a “congenital liar,” then-President Bill Clinton said that he would like to punch Safire in the nose. Hilarity ensued when Safire was given a set of boxing gloves when he appeared on Meet the Press.  (Ho New / Reuters)

Again with minimal set-up, let’s go straight to reader views on why so many people can sound so angry about Hillary Clinton. In the previous installment, we heard from readers who said that the anti-HRC reaction boiled down mainly to sexism. Today, assenting and dissenting views.

Let’s remember the history. A reader scolds me for amnesia:

HRC as "congenital liar" is actually a quote from William Saffire.  Surely you knew that:  [From January 1996]

“Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar.”

Ah, yes, it comes back to me now. On the other hand, to chafe the reader, I also remember that the influential-at-the-time Republican columnist for the NYT was actually William Safire.  

She’s too much of a moderate. From a female reader on the West Coast:

I have been supporting Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but only in part because I share his Social Democratic policy proposals. Just as important to me are what I see as some ways in which Secretary Clinton in the past has acted or voted that are evidence of the weaknesses that political moderates can get lost in.

The two prime examples for me are her talk about “super predators" in supporting the changes that led to mass incarceration, and her vote for the Iraq war. In both cases I think she did these partly as a way of influencing Reagan Democrats to come back to the Democratic Party fold. The “super predator” meme is a concession to implicit bias and the vote for the Iraq war to me represented giving in to the fear of being labeled soft on defense.

Until recently, the most famous Scottish-American could well have been Scrooge McDuck. Now there’s a new title holder. The millions of Americans who share this heritage, including me, reflect somberly upon the shift to the Trump brand. Here is Mr. Trump back in the motherland a few years ago, at some golf course ceremony. (David Moir / Reuters)

A reader who is a mental-health professional in Australia responds to speculation in some previous posts (notably here) that Donald Trump’s public persona meets many of the criteria of actual mental disorders: (Emphasis added in his note.)

I am responding to the comment made by a clinical psychology doctoral student… I think that your reader made a very compelling case in their first paragraph as to why we can’t “safely say that Donald Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder”; namely that this requires extensive quantitative and qualitative assessment over a period of time with the individual’s personal engagement. Also, it's hard enough for those with NPD to seek help, without thinking they're going to be compared to this whole mess!

However, they missed one incredibly important reason why he probably doesn’t have a personality disorder: Trump’s narcissism is part of the product he’s selling.

Trump is one of the world’s most successful salespeople of a personal brand, a reality TV star and an American politician. Self assured attention seeking is the key to success in all these arenas. Trump’s had a long history of seeing how much people like him when he shows no doubt.

I think people are struggling to determine how much of what Trump does is a performance. But, the difference between performance and self-perception is vital. The lack of empathy is a performance of his non-PC persona. His disinterest in listening to experts is part of his ‘Übermensch of the people’ act. His desire to be seen as exceptional and to be admired by others is ultimately no different from that of any other presidential campaign pitch.

I would argue, however, that Trump’s inner world, how he really perceives himself and relates to others remains very much a mystery. That aspect, the self-perception, is crucial to diagnosing personality disorders. You would know better than I, but I imagine there is much about a politician’s inner world that we don’t see from the public performance.

Trump should not be subjected to armchair diagnoses. Not just because it’s a cheap shot, not just because it’s a profound misunderstanding of clinical psychology and an injustice to those who do suffer from personality disorders, but because the claim that Trump is mentally ill is too easy and too comforting.

E.J. Dionne’s new book, on the path toward Trump.

The personal-insult war underway last night between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz brings the campaign down to a level hard to imagine even in the days of “Little Marco” and “small hands.” If the concept of being “qualified” for the presidency still had any salience, Trump’s astonishing meeting with the Washington Post editorial board this week (transcript here) would have instantly and conclusively removed him from the race. It was not his inability and/or refusal to engage any point of substance that was so remarkable—and so much worse than with, say, Sarah Palin or Rick Perry. Rather it was his seventh-grade-locker-room obsession with “size” issues, as Conor Friedersdorf very convincingly demonstrates.

How did we get here? One of the most useful explanations I’ve seen is from E.J. Dionne in his new book Why the Right Went Wrong. I’d urge you to read it yourself — but if you’d like an overview, here is a discussion I did with him last month, at the Kentucky Author Forum in Louisville. A video version has just gone up on the Kentucky Educational Television site, with a good description of E.J.’s argument by Patrick Reed.

Dionne starts this book by saying, “The history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal,” and he goes on to connect that 50-year pattern (since the Barry Goldwater days) to the fury of today’s GOP.  Wave after wave of conservative leaders, Dionne says, have promised their base that they finally can produce sweeping rightwing changes to undo the Democrats’ handiwork. Wave after wave of conservative leaders is unable to do so. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can’t undo Obamacare; John Roberts turns into Earl Warren (from the right’s point of view); and a one-time Tea Party darling like Marco Rubio sells out on an immigration deal. Everyone’s a RINO! So it’s time to double down. This road leads to Cruz and Trump.

Again, for the full version consult this very illuminating book. Also consider the video below. [CB note: Watch here if the video doesn’t appear.] Thanks to our friends in Kentucky for putting on this forum.