People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)
It’s been a month since an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Mediterranean, en route from Paris to Cairo. This past weekend investigators said they had found the plane’s flight recorders (“black boxes”) but that the devices were badly damaged. Therefore it would take a long time to recover information and begin to interpret it.
No one really knows what happened to that plane—attack? mechanical defect? something else?—and, with the cautionary example of still-missing Malaysia Air 370 in mind, it could be months or years before anyone does.
Thus it’s worth remembering that one month ago today, 12 hours after first news of the crash, Donald Trump said this about it in a speech in New Jersey:
What just happened? A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100% wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100% wrong.
The hardest part of a president’s job is assessing unclear, murky, and contradictory evidence, which is the kind of evidence in most big decisions a president makes. The clearer, easier choices get made by someone else. Real presidents become aware of and burdened by the gap between “probability” and “certainty.” They try to remain aware of the spectrum between choices they must make quickly, even knowing that available information is inadequate, and others where the wisest option is to buy time. John Kennedy kept asking for more time and more options during the Cuban Missile Crisis. George W. Bush rushed with uninformed haste toward his decision to invade Iraq.
Trump was the opposite of deliberative or presidential in rushing toward his conclusion about the EgyptAir crash last month, as he was this month about the ever-more-tangled situation of the Orlando mass-slaughter. Trump immediately declared the shooting an ISIS operation justifying new controls on Muslim immigrants. “It’s war, it’s absolute war!” he said. This weekend Dina Temple-Raston of NPR reported that intelligence officials and investigators had told her they were “becoming increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little — or maybe nothing — to do with ISIS.” In both of these cases, terrorism might end up having been a significant cause. But that’s not clear right now, and it certainly was not during Trump’s immediate spasm of “you’re 100% wrong!” Remember, too, that the Orlando shooting was the occasion for his saying that President Obama was “prioritizing the enemy” by not cracking down on Muslim immigrants. Trump’s responses to both emergencies — Egyptair, and Orlando — might be considered old news, except for this weekend’s reminder of the real-world complexities of each, which real leaders would need to reckon with.
In one case only has Trump publicly reflected on the difficulty of judging complex evidence and probabilities: the decision by Cincinnati zoo officials to kill the gorilla into whose cage a toddler had fallen. This issue Trump addressed with genuine feeling, depth, and expressed awareness of tradeoffs. Other issues, from whether the U.K. should leave the European Union to whether Japan should build nuclear weapons, require no apparent deliberation at all.
Two weeks ago I noted that people might look back on that day as the time when fortune seemed to stop smiling on the Donald Trump presidential campaign:
As of now Donald Trump has enough pledged delegates to be declared the GOP nominee in Cleveland six weeks from now.
But if something else somehow happens, people might look back to this date, June 6, 2016, as a moment when things began to look different.
That could still be true, but I suspect that there will be a strong case for emphasizing June 20, 2016. That was the day on which:
Trump unloaded his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, four and a half months before the general election. (Hint: winning campaigns don’t do this.)
Trump reports revealed that he had a few dozen people working for his campaign nationwide, about the number you’d normally find in any swing-state capital-city headquarters for a real campaign.
Trump’s required disclosures to the FEC were a comic treasure trove that will occupy the press for days to come. In short: Trump has raised hardly any money; and much of what he’s spent has gone to his own relatives, companies, or real-estate holdings, notably Mar-a-Lago (which received more in campaign payments than the entire salaried staff). In addition to fostering the reaction Trump probably most dreads—ridicule—the reports naturally heightened curiosity about what his still-unreleased tax returns might include.
Anything could still happen. But on this day, as the Japanese Showa emperor Hirohito once put it, the “situation has developed not necessarily to our advantage.”
The Tweet above shows the reaction by the presumptive Republican nominee, on landing in Scotland to promote his golf resort, after the historic Brexit vote.
The Leave/Remain electoral map shows why Scotland was the exact worst spot within the United-for-now Kingdom in which Trump could have made this point. If the they in “they took their country back” refers to the whole UK electorate, he is talking about people who voted for what the throngs in Scotland are going wild about, because they opposed it. If they means the Scots themselves — well, yesterday’s vote indeed makes it much more likely that they will take “their country” back by removing it from a UK whose views of the future are so clearly are at odds with theirs.
In his column overnight for Fusion, Felix Salmon (with whom I don’t always agree, but do on this) shows why the “what the hell, let’s shake things up, it couldn’t be any worse!” approach reveals a failure of tragic imagination. Structures and relationships take time to build. You can carelessly destroy in moments something that was very hard to create. Trump would presumably understand this about physical structures like office buildings, or golf resorts. It also applies to the economic and political structures that have taken Europe decades to restore after the devastation of World War II. Trump’s offhand comments about “what has NATO ever done for us?” or his cavalier observation that it was time for the Japanese and South Koreans to man up with their own nukes, suggest that nothing could be worse than today’s flawed structures. The Brexit vote reminds us that things can always get worse.
Anyone who has taken a Public Relations 101 course, or perhaps Intro to Abnormal Psychology, might have suggested to Trump that, immediately on his arrival on the most traumatic and important day in decades for and about the UK itself, the theme of his remarks should not be, “What does this mean for me, Donald Trump?” But that’s what the theme was: how great his Turnberry resort would be, and how a weaker pound (suffering the greatest one-day loss of value in its history) was good from his perspective, because it made vacation travel cheaper for visitors from overseas: “Look, if the pound goes down they're going to do more business… When the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly.”
Trump’s immediate reaction to the Orlando shootings was: “Appreciate the congrats on being right.” His immediate reaction to news that shook every market in the world was: Travel bookings will be up!
Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit campaign, revealed less than 12 hours after the vote that a central “factual” basis of his argument — that money being sent to Europe would go instead to the UK National Health Service — was flat-out wrong. This part of “Making Britain Great Again” should not have been believed, because it was never true. Hmmm, what does this remind me of? We could start with “and Mexico will pay for that wall!”
As a political performer, Trump has no peer in his ability to do the unexpected and thus keep opponents guessing and off-guard. But when the real world presents him with events that are sudden, high-stakes, and unexpected, from the physical violence of the Orlando shooting to the structural violence of the Brexit vote, he instinctively responds with the very worst side of him: This must all be about me! Leaders earn their pay in part through their response to the high-stakes and the unexpected. Three weeks before the GOP formally nominates this man, he is showing us who he is.
For technical reasons I’ll explain another time, involving the way search indexes cover our site, I won’t be putting further any entries into our “Thread” structures and will find other ways to link related items. You can see a list of past entries in the Time Capsule thread by clicking here.
Update: the first version of this post had a zillion typos, many of which I have removed. Sorry. Perils of posting on the fly, on the road.
Step away from the Time Capsule business for a few days, and look what happens! Any one of the developments below would be considered a challenge by a normal candidate in a normal campaign year. Herewith a listicle update of where we stand with this unprecedented campaign. (The original Time Capsule thread is here, with items #1-#27. For entries starting with #28, go here.)
1. Brexit Diplomacy. Trump arrived in Scotland as the biggest economic and political news in generation was breaking across the UK, and news that of course was roundly opposed in Scotland itself. His short-term response was a widely ridiculed golf course press conference. “Donald Trump’s Brexit press conference was beyond bizarre” was a Washington Post headline; “At Trump news conference, it’s all about him,” was the headline for CNN.
After the Orlando mass shooting, Trump’s immediate Tweeted reaction began, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” His reaction to the cataclysmic Brexit vote was once again all about him: that his timing was good in being there for the news, that he’d called the vote right and Crooked Hillary was wrong, and that a falling pound would be good for the Scottish golf-resort business:
And when he came home:
We’re all self-interested, and people who run for president have a higher narcissism quotient than most of the rest of us. But we’ve never before seen a public figure like Trump, who can’t even pretend to be concerned about anything beyond “What does this mean for me, Donald Trump?”
2) The missing donations. The Washington Post investigative story out today, by David Farenthold, would mean serious trouble for a normal candidate. Its gist is that Trump has probably been flat-out lying about his promised charitable contributions in recent years.
Now, one possibility is that Trump actually made all his promised donations, and the Post simply failed to track down the recipients. The other possibility is that Trump claimed to be a big donor and never followed through.
Ask yourself which possibility seems more likely, considering: a) that Trump touted his intention to give the proceeds from a fund-raiser to veterans groups, but there is no evidence that he did so until asked about it last month by the press; b) that Trump, unlike any other major-party nominee in modern history, has still refused to release his tax records; c) that the Trump campaign’s FEC reports, which he had no choice but to reveal, showed that his campaign had much less money than he had implied, and had paid a surprisingly large share of its outlays to Trump’s own businesses; and d) that Trump is in the middle of a lawsuit over fraudulent business practices (under the “Mexican judge”) at his Trump University.
So, we can’t know yet for sure. The tax returns would tell a lot. But based on the evidence to date, my guess is: he’s been lying about the donations all along too.
3) Momentum works both ways. Earlier today I saw an item I can’t relocate just now, which made what I think will become an increasingly obvious point. Trump’s central argument so far has been: I’m a winner, because I win! We win, and we win, and we WIN! These other peewees are pathetic losers, and we’re going to win all the way to the White House — where we’ll make the country win too.
At least through the seven weeks since he became the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump has been losing, and losing, and LOSING. That doesn’t guarantee that he’ll lose this fall. But it means that the center of his message — I’m a winner, because I win!! — can’t as plausibly be presented outside his own original-base audience. And so far there is no evidence that Trump will gracefully handle what has become the inevitable next question: Why are you so far behind? Why are you losing? Are you … a loser?
4) Pocahontas. He is at this again. Here is why it matters: mocking a very popular female Democratic figure, in terms a lot of people will see as racially derogatory, may have been a great base-rallying technique during the primary elections. As you supposedly “pivot” for the general election — where you need women’s votes, non-whites’ votes, youth votes, and other groups beyond the GOP’s base — this is the kind of thing you don’t do any more. But he keeps doing it.
One last note for the day. The Vichy group of McConnell, Ryan, McCain, Rubio, Priebus, and others still standing behind Trump may think they have no alternative. But if they go ahead and give him the nomination next month, they cannot let him run without releasing his tax returns.
Rather, they cannot decently let him do that. What they actually do, and what they reveal about themselves and their standards, we’ll see.
As explained back in item #18 of this series, I’m using “the Resistance” and “Vichy Republicans” as useful shorthands for, respectively, the GOP figures who are fighting the hostile takeover of their territory, versus those who have acquiesced to a conquering force — which no doubt they’ll criticize once someone else has dealt with it. (And to make this clear every time, of course the analogy does not extend to likening this era’s conqueror, Donald Trump, to the historically unique Hitler.)
Mitch McConnell has been a crucial membership of the Vichy coalition, for two reasons. One is ex officio: as Senate Minority Leader during the early Obama years and now as Majority Leader, he has been the most important single figure in opposition to Obama’s programs, nominations, and general prospects. His historically unprecedented overuse of the filibuster, while still in the minority, was an early indication. His current refusal even to consider a Supreme Court nominee, also historically unprecedented, is the latest example.
The other aspect of McConnell’s importance is temperamental. As a political operator and spokesman, he is the exact opposite of Donald Trump. Trump appears to be all Id, reaction, spontaneity. McConnell, by contrast, barely reveals any emotion and says only what exactly fits the thought-out message plan. When he was a Congressional leader, Newt Gingrich would say one entertaining thing today, and a contradictory but also entertaining thing tomorrow. What Mitch McConnell says is never entertaining, but it is always intentional and planned out.
Thus it is highly significant that McConnell said this morning, in a TV interview with cable channel NY, that Trump was “an entertainer” and that he needed to “become” a credible presidential candidate, not being one yet. From the interview:
McConnell: “Trump clearly needs to change, in my opinion, to win the general election. What I’ve said to him both publicly and privately: 'You’re a great entertainer. You turn on audiences. You’re good before a crowd. You have a lot of Twitter followers. That worked fine for you in the primaries.
“But now that you are in the general, people are looking for a level of seriousness that is typically conveyed by having a prepared text and Teleprompter and staying on message.' So my hope is that he is beginning to pivot and become what I would call a more serious and credible candidate for the highest office in the land.”
How unusual is this? How would you expect the on-message leader of the Senate’s crucial Republican majority to sound about the party’s standard-bearer?
As it happens, there is a way to check! Here is what the same Senator McConnell said about Mitt Romney as he became the party’s nominee four years ago, with Paul Ryan as his running mate:
“Where the current President [Obama] has simply refused to act, Gov. Romney has now pledged to lead. Paul Ryan is an excellent choice, and a confirmation that Gov. Romney is serious about strengthening America's economic future, tackling the deficits and debt that have skyrocketed under President Obama, and returning to a path to solvency and security.
“Americans are looking for leadership that has been lacking on the most critical issues facing our country's economic future. The Romney-Ryan team can return much-needed leadership from day one and help bring real recovery to our economy….
“Gov. Romney and Chairman Ryan will be ready on day one to give America the leadership it deserves.”
“Ready on day one” and “much-needed leadership,” versus “you’re a great entertainer.” This from a man who does not say a single word by accident. For more on McConnell’s statement today see the WSJ, WaPo, and TPM.
This one really is a time capsule. It’s a nearly 70-year-old U.S. government film called Don’t Be a Sucker, released in 1947 by what was then straightforwardly known as the Department of War. (Thanks to Daniel Buk for the lead.)
Most of the 17-minute film is a history of Germany’s slide into Nazism, which is powerful but familiar. I think these three segments deserve another look in 2016:
The part from time 2:05 (where the video below is cued to start) to 4:25, in which our everyman-American hero confronts a rabble-rousing speaker who tells him that his jobs, opportunities, and future are being stolen by outsiders.
The two minutes of the video before that, which you can click back on the player to see, presenting one version of America’s view of itself, just after its great victory in war. It’s touching, up-to-date, out-of-date, achingly earnest, and unintentionally ridiculous (in retrospect), all at the same time.
The final two minutes, from 15:25 onward, when the immigrant-American narrator explains the importance of America being a nation-of-minorities.
Obviously this video really is a time capsule from a different era. For instance, it talks unselfconsciously about the triumph of an American fighting force “made of people of all religions and skin colors,” at a time when the U.S. military was still formally segregated. But I was surprised by how many aspects of it still seemed relevant.
In July, 1948, the 33rd President of the United States, Harry Truman, took an overdue step toward equal opportunity, equal dignity, and “more perfect union” with Executive Order 9981, ordering desegregation of the military.
In July, 2016, the aspirant to be the 45th President, Donald Trump, said he would “look into” a step in the opposite direction, by potentially replacing TSA agents who were Muslim and wore “hibby-jobbies.”
The term hibby-jobbies was from a questioner and presumably meant the veil or head cover known as hijab. But Trump did not resist or object to it, as he frequently has with other questions whose framing he dislikes. (He “let it slide,” as CNN put it in a headline.) Instead he said he would “look into” this concept of religion-based scrutiny of public employees.
You don’t have to go back to Harry Truman to see how extraordinary and odious this is — or to the Truman-era War Department film I mentioned yesterday. Eight years ago, John McCain earned boos from a partisan crowd, but increased respect in history’s eyes, for rejecting a questioner’s premise that his then-rival, then-Senator Barack Obama, was really an Arab.
In this cycle, McCain is still a Vichy Republican, officially backing Trump for the presidency.
Yesterday Trump also joked that a small plane overhead might be Mexican, because “they’re getting ready to attack.”
In retrospect it will seem remarkable, and it deserves more notice even now, how even-tempered the Mexican government and most Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Latino-background Americans in general have been about all of this. Think of the likely reaction if a presumptive major-party nominee had been turning against [blacks / Catholics / Jews / Baptists / Asian-Americans / etc ] the repeated off-hand slurs Donald Trump keeps issuing against Muslims and Mexicans.
This one has been well-publicized even at the start of a long holiday weekend. Thus I just note its existence, for the long-term record. Here’s the sequence:
On the early morning of July 2, Donald Trump put out the image you see above in his own personal Twitter feed. It showed Hillary Clinton against a background of dollars, with the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” on a red-colored six-pointed star, or badge.
A basic principle of political life, and life in general, is that more things happen via incompetence or screw-up than happen according to devious plan. So the forgiving initial reaction to this Tweet could have been: can you believe how sloppy these Trump people are? Didn’t they stop to think about the way a six-sided star, on a field of cash, could so easily be read as a Star of David, and thus play into a classic anti-Semitic stereotype? [Not to mention: why the hell is a presumptive major-party nominee spending his time on this kind of idiocy?]
This “didn’t they stop to think??” reaction depends upon the possibility that the star could have been intended to be read as a badge, from a sheriff or marshal, rather than as a Mogen David. For instance, the LA County Sheriff’s office uses just such a badge, as shown below. So does the U.S. Marshal’s service. So conceivably this could have been just another in a series of bone-headed moves rather than anything else.
[Update: Keith Olbermann observes via Twitter that the law-enforcement badges have globes at the six points, while a Star of David, and the image in Trump’s Tweet, do not.]
But then ...
Today, July 3, various reports emerged (starting with News.mic) that Trump’s original “Most Corrupt” Tweet had been lifted from an outright racist site, and that the use of the Star of David was about as accidental as the placement of gorilla imagery or a watermelon in a comparable attack-Tweet about Barack Obama.
So you can take your pick: negligence, or malice. Either a presumptive major-party nominee is spending his time, as he “pivots” toward the general election that happens just four months from now, sending out personally insulting tweets without having anyone check their provenance and implications; or someone in the campaign is doing this on purpose, dog-whistle style. I think the former is more likely, but either one is bad.
For the record, Trump-campaign-manager-turned-CNN “analyst” Corey Lewandoski said he was shocked, just shocked, at the “political correctness run amok” in the reaction to what was a simple sheriff’s star. Other campaign supporters said that of course Trump could not be sending an anti-Semitic signal, since after all his son-in-law Jared Kushner is Jewish, his daughter Ivanka has converted, and thus three of his grandchildren are Jewish as well.
More plausible than either of those explanations is this, from Hot Air:
Whether intentionally or not, Trump’s built a devoted following within the online hangouts of white supremacists. He’s surely aware of it and he hasn’t gone out of his way to discourage it. His denunciations of their support have been largely perfunctory. It may be that one of his racist fans tweeted that image at his account fully intending the symbolism in the shape of the star, then Trump’s Twitter guy saw it and reproduced it without picking up on the symbolism himself….
It reminds me of this kerfuffle from back in November, when Trump stupidly retweeted something from a fan claiming that 81 percent of homicides involving white victims are perpetrated by blacks. In reality, 82 percent of homicides with white victims are perpetrated by whites. It was propaganda designed to reinforce the stereotype that blacks are predators. But whoever was running Trump’s Twitter account that day was too stupid not to see that the numbers were obviously bogus and too lazy not to take three minutes to check them by googling. He got suckered by racist propaganda. I’ll bet the same thing happened here. And it’ll happen again.
It’s been nearly 13 months since Donald Trump came down the escalator and announced that he was running for president.
This evening, in Ohio, he gave what was even for him the most off-message, most (literally) deranged-seeming performance of his candidacy, and what would have been in any previous campaign a sign of very serious trouble.
Why this was off-message:
It followed a slightly good, mainly very bad day for Hillary Clinton, in which James Comey, the director of the FBI, scolded her for being “extremely careless” with classified emails. (The slightly good part was Comey’s announcement that Clinton’s carelessness didn’t warrant prosecution.) Rather than focusing relentlessly on what this said about Clinton, Trump broadened the attack to include Comey and his “rigged” investigation — and thus drove the email story from lead position in the news because of all the other things he said and did.
The “Corrupt Hillary and the Star” controversy (see Time Capsule #33) could have been a one-day story, if Trump or his representatives (if they existed) had simply said: “Obviously we meant no offense, to anyone other than the corrupt Democratic candidate — and to make that meaning clear and avoid any misunderstanding, we’re happy to change the image. Because what matters to the American people... [etc etc].” Instead he re-raised the issue, said the only thing he was sorry for was that someone in his campaign had taken down the original six-pointed star image, and thereby made the affair into a multi-day story that cannot gain him any votes or do him any good.
Trump raised a lot of money, and announced that he had done so. But the “process” story from the day’s events became not that but rather the uncontrolled nature of his talk. The NYT headline of the day was, “In a Defiant, Angry Speech, Donald Trump Defends Image Seen as Anti-Semitic.” No matter what your party, you are never, never winning when that’s the main story from your speech.
The half-hour of Trump’s performance was objectively as alarming, in mental-balance terms, as anything we have seen from a major party candidate in modern history. I can’t find an online video of the whole 30 minutes that has acceptable audio quality. But imagine the mosquito clip extended at full length and you have the idea.
I defy anyone to watch these 30 minutes and feel comfortable with the idea of Donald Trump making the countless judgment calls required of a president. This man is not well. But he is the man the GOP is about to nominate for the presidency.
Charles Stevenson, long-time Congressional staffer and author of many books about the politics and policy of national security, writes about Donald Trump’s meeting this morning with Republicans on Capitol Hill:
You may have seen this TPM report about Trump’s meeting with House GOP. I think this part is especially significant:
Another Republican in the meeting who declined to go on the record so he could speak candidly told TPM that Trump was asked pointedly if he would defend Article I of the Constitution.
“Not only will I stand up for Article One,” Trump enthusiastically stated, according to the member in the room. “I'll stand up for Article Two, Article 12, you name it of the Constitution.”
The Republican member said that Trump’s lack of knowledge about how many articles exist, gave him “a little pause.” (The Constitution has seven articles and 27 amendments.)
Besides indicating Trump has little real knowledge of the Constitution, it also shows an insensitivity to the purpose of the question. Article I lists the powers of the Congress, which many Republicans say has been undermined by an overreaching Obama. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that he was being asked about legislative-executive relations and the proper balance between those branches. He didn't know, and probably doesn’t care. Lawmakers should.
For Trump’s “Two Corinthians” reference, suggesting he is as unfamiliar with nuances of the Bible as he is with the Constitution’s, check NPR’s story here. For more on his not-without-its-bumps meeting with Congressional Republicans, see Sean Sullivan’s and Philip Rucker’s Washington Post story here. It includes this gem:
Trump said at the meeting that he has yet to attack [Arizona senator Jeff] Flake hard but threatened to begin doing so. Flake stood up to Trump by urging him to stop attacking Mexicans. Trump predicted that Flake would lose his reelection, at which point Flake informed Trump that he was not on the ballot this year, the sources said.
Here’s something that doesn’t “matter” but still is delightful. Ivanka Trump gives a preview of what the attending delegates and accompanying press horde (complete with an Atlantic team including me) will see in person next week in Cleveland, and what the rest of the world can see on TV. Emphasis added:
“It's not going to be a ho-hum lineup of the typical politicians,” daughter Ivanka Trump said more than a week ago. “It's going to be a great combination of our great politicians, but also great American businessmen and women and leaders across industry and leaders across really all the sectors, from athletes to coaches and everything in between.”
All the way from athletes to coaches! (H/t Ari Ofsevit.)
Or, this could be a knowing homage to the Dorothy Parker line about a “striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”
Here is something that does matter. I don’t have the time or fortitude to re-watch the Trump performance this evening in Westfield, Iowa. You can find the whole tape here (the Man himself comes on around time 1:48.00). But on real-time viewing it was notable.
Less than four months before the general election, a near-nominee is riffing as if the only audience that matters is the GOP base. Highlights:
Starting around time 2:10:00, “who’s going to pay for that wall?” “I can’t hear you, who’s going to pay??” You can sense him feeling for something that will rev the audience up. And let the record show: past and present leaders of Mexico have made clear that of course they are not going to pay for any such wall. But for Trump it’s a go-to routine to get a cheer.
Around time 2:13:00, a solution to the knotty and tragic Syria problem. “In Syria, we’ll build safe zones, and we’ll get other people to put up the money.” How? How the hell? Never mind. Literally the next sentence was, “Because soon we are going to owe $20 trillion, with a T …”
Starting at time 2:14:00, Trump repeats his claim that he was against the Iraq war from the start. This is not true, and every time he says it he needs to be called out on its falsity. To Trump’s credit, he turned against the war faster than some others, once it started going bad. Before it started, he was not among those — those like Barack Obama, like Al Gore, like a handful of Republicans in Congress, like Brent Scowcroft and other conservatives and realists — who warned that it would be a grievous mistake.
Just in case there is any doubt here: Donald Trump was not against the Iraq War when the debate was being held and the decision was being made.
At time 2:15:50, Trump makes his claim that America has grown so dysfunctional that people were asking for “a moment of silence” for the man who murdered five police officers in Dallas. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I am not aware of any real-world evidence for that claim. Translation: I believe he is yet again making this up.
Right after that, Trump goes into his “we never win any more” riff, about how the United States is an all-fronts failure.
Lord knows that the United States has more than its share of grave economic, social, racial, public-safety, civic-culture, educational, infrastructure, and other problems, as both the 43rd and the 44th Presidents discussed very soberly this afternoon in Dallas. But if you’re talking in crude “we win” / “we lose” terms, you have to ask: OK, which major nation is “winning” more often, in more ways, than the U.S. now?
It’s preposterous to suggest that the U.S. military is not incomparably the strongest in the world. The U.S. recovery has been unfair, and slow — but it’s been faster and stronger than just about anywhere else. The U.S. range of alliances in most regions of the world is stronger than it has been in decades. (Countries from India to Vietnam to Indonesia to Japan and South Korea are more tightly knit to U.S. strategic interests than in a very long time.)
If “we lose, lose, lose” is Trump’s argument today, what language would be left if, for instance, today’s international-court ruling had been a sweeping rebuke of U.S. policy — rather than of China’s, as it actually was? If he’s talking this way on a day when the U.S. stock markets reached a historic peak, and the U.S. dollar is at recent-record highs against most other currencies, imagine what he’d say during a stock market and currency crash? (Before you point it out: a stock-market rise does not mean a healthy economy. But you know how a stock-market crash would be interpreted.)
Why bother to point this out? Because it does bother me, and should be noted for the record, that we’ve reached a point where we barely notice that a likely nominee is simply making things up, about his own past and about the realities of the world around him.
For the record, in closing out the day’s events: I agree with Matt Ford’s Atlantic item and other assessments that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was wrong to say, in her role as Supreme Court Justice, things about Donald Trump similar to what I’ve been saying here in my role as guy with a blog.
Institutional roles and responsibilities matter (as she obviously recognizes). The rest of us are citizens, participants, reporters, advocates. Only nine U.S. citizens — eight at the moment, thanks to our Senate — have the life-tenure power to direct the might of the state in ways that affect everyone else.
President Obama doesn’t say every single thing that’s on his mind about race right now — he’ll probably come closer, once he leaves office, but the difference in public roles is the crucial point. Serving flag-officers in the military do not publicly utter every thought they think about their civilian masters; teachers don’t say everything they like and dislike about a child; coaches try not to say every thing they think about the refs. We are all supposed to recognize the constraints that come with certain roles.
If Ruth Bader Ginsburg would like to speak just as freely as any of the rest of us, it would be more seemly to give up the life-tenure powers virtually none of the rest of us possess. (I’m against life tenure in any position of public responsibility, because I think it tempts people to forget the difference between what is interesting / convenient / pleasing to them personally and what is in the public’s best interest in that role. But that’s for another time.)
Among the challenges the Trump campaign has raised is one for the press. Reporters are most comfortable sticking to the “I’m just reporting” mode: This candidate says X, that candidate says Y, and it’s up to you, the voter, to decide which you prefer. What’s up to me, the reporter, is just to let each side have its say.
Even in the best of circumstances, this pose of willed neutrality has its limits and distortions (as chronicled here over the years). The 2016 campaign offers nothing like the best of circumstances, in that one of the two remaining major candidates simply invents, fantasizes, re-writes, distorts, omits, and generally lies about great portions of his utterances each day.
(How can I say that? Two quick illustrations from last night’s speech in Ohio. Donald Trump baldly asserted that after the murders of police officers in Dallas, political-correctness-minded people were “calling for a moment of silence” for the killer. That did not happen. To be more precise, there’s no evidence that it occurred. Trump also repeated his claim that he had opposed the Iraq war even before it began. He did not. He keeps saying it, but it is not true. Each day brings its own fresh supply of flat-out falsehoods.)
The natural tendency for the mainstream press — and believe me, this is by far the most comfortable place to be when doing a newspaper story or TV or radio report — is to avoid saying, “One of these people is lying.” Instead you want to lay out both sides and hope the contrast doesn’t need to be spelled out. But in a campaign like this, the result of this structural even-handedness can be to “normalize” the side that is lying. “Mr. Trump says there is no drought in California and that it’s all a fiction by environmentalists. Scientists in California disagree. We’ll leave it there.”
Thus the occasion for today’s time-capsule entry is a series of three items showing the press resisting “normalization.”
1) A long, thoroughly reported piece by Nicholas Confessore in the NYT, on how Trump has deliberately courted white racial resentment against blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and others. The story doesn’t pussy-foot around by saying, “Critics wonder whether ….” It comes right out about what he is doing:
In countless collisions of color and creed, Donald J. Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility. Defying modern conventions of political civility and language, Mr. Trump has breached the boundaries that have long constrained Americans’ public discussion of race.
Mr. Trump has attacked Mexicans as criminals. He has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants. He has wondered aloud why the United States is not “letting people in from Europe.”...
In a country where the wealthiest and most influential citizens are still mostly white, Mr. Trump is voicing the bewilderment and anger of whites who do not feel at all powerful or privileged.
But in doing so, Mr. Trump has also opened the door to assertions of white identity and resentment in a way not seen so broadly in American culture in over half a century, according to those who track patterns of racial tension and antagonism in American life.
2) An item by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post, under the headline “One of the candidates is actively trying to divide the country.” This is presented as an opinion item rather than a news-analysis piece like Confessore’s, but it urges readers to move past hand-wringing about “extremists on both sides” to concentrate on Trump’s flat-out appeals to racial/tribal divisions, which are unlike anything the other side is doing. Sargent writes that:
… most observers, including neutral, non-ideological, and non-partisan ones, would not even quarrel with the idea that Trump is running a campaign that is explicitly about unleashing white backlash. For months, this has been widely, openly agreed upon by pretty much everyone who is paying even cursory attention.
Yet oddly enough, this widely accepted acknowledgment of Trump’s explicit efforts to foment racial division is not being meaningfully brought to bear on the current debate over the two candidates’ responses to police-community tensions…. Clinton has repeatedly tried to acknowledge that the police and those protesting their use of force both have legitimate grievances; Trump has not done this to anywhere near the same degree.
3) Another item in the NYT, this one by Jim Dwyer, on a group of scholars, writers, and historians who are normally apolitical but have decided to take a stand against Trump. They have worked with the filmmaker Ken Burns to produce videos for a Facebook page called “Historians on Donald Trump.”
One of these writers, Ron Chernow, spoke with Dwyer:
Mr. Chernow, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose “Alexander Hamilton” was a principal source for the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” said he had been struck by Mr. Trump’s lack of reference to the founding documents of American history, or to presidents like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The only historical movement that Mr. Trump alludes to is a shameful one — ‘America First,’” Mr. Chernow said, recalling an isolationist political organization at the time Nazi Germany was taking power across Europe.
Why do these matter, and deserve note for the long-term record? Because they demonstrate the way in which the press is trying to adjust to the new realities created by a man like Trump.
Critics are letting their disdain for the president blind them to geopolitical realities.
When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Far from making Americans crave stability, the pandemic underscores how everything is up for grabs.
Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.
This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic—coinciding as it has with the surge in Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and the decline of Bernie Sanders’s—marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken.
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
Local officials and health-care workers are losing faith in the national response, and struggling to improvise their own solutions.
The federal government’s stockpile of medical supplies, gloves, and masks is nearly exhausted, President Donald Trump admitted at a White House briefing on Wednesday. Meanwhile, individual states are scrambling, bidding against one another for the equipment they need.
“The coronavirus pandemic is a damning indictment of this country’s health-care system,” Joseph Kantor, the assistant state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health, told me. “The richest country in the world is scrounging around for ventilators” and personal protective equipment.
Kantor is one of a dozen health professionals across the country with whom I spoke this week. Taken together, those conversations reveal a federal government that has failed to protect, supply, and prepare the country and its cities. These health-care workers are looking with horror at the chaos in New York City, as evidence of what can happen to a vibrant city in the absence of national strategy and preparedness. As they struggle to avoid a similar crisis, they’re losing faith in the federal government, and resorting to their own improvised solutions.
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
Updated at 4:40 ET on March 30, 2020.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
The Trump administration has just released the model for the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. We can expect a lot of back-and-forth about whether its mortality estimates are too high or low. And its wide range of possible outcomes is certainly confusing: What’s the right number? The answer is both difficult and simple. Here’s the difficult part: There is no right answer. But here’s the simple part: Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.
Epidemiologists routinely turn to models to predict the progression of an infectious disease. Fighting public suspicion of these models is as old as modern epidemiology, which traces its origins back to John Snow’s famous cholera maps in 1854. Those maps proved, for the first time, that London’s terrible affliction was spreading through crystal-clear fresh water that came out of pumps, not the city’s foul-smelling air. Many people didn’t believe Snow, because they lived in a world without a clear understanding of germ theory and only the most rudimentary microscopes.