As Trump Tightens His Grip on the Nomination, and Loosens It on Reality

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As Donald Trump moves closer to the Republican nomination, his public presentation becomes increasingly deranged, as with this notorious item from last night (as discussed by Emma Green here):

From @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter feed.

Barring the unforeseen, one of the five people now running will become Commander in Chief next year, and most likely one of these two: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. With that in mind, and before I need to go offline for several days on a different project, here is one more  installment from readers on the candidates and the choice.

1) Trump at the WaPo. I mentioned yesterday that if the idea of “being qualified” still applied to presidential candidates, the hour Trump spent with the Washington Post’s editorial board would have instantly and conclusively disqualified him. He displayed real understanding of no topics, and gross mis-understanding of many. He shunted all answers back to the two themes he can discuss: how he is a winner relative to losers like low-energy Jeb and Little Marco; and how big his hands are. If you think I’m exaggerating, read it for yourself.  Trump used to be amusing, in a pro-wrestling way. Now he is manifestly not-normal, in an ominous way.

Why bring this up? A reader who works in the defense industry emphasizes one particular mismatch of Trump’s views and the realities of foreign policy:

At the Post, Trump said, amongst other things:

“I think John Kerry’s deal with Iran is one of the worst things that I’ve ever seen negotiated of any kind. It’s just a horrible giveaway...Well, I think, number one, we shouldn’t have given the money back. I think, number two, we should have had our prisoners before the negotiations started. We should have doubled up the sanctions.….  And I think it’s going to just lead, actually, to nuclear problems. I also think it’s going to be bad for Israel. It’s a very bad deal for Israel.”

Where to start?

First of all, we didn't "give" any money to Iran.  Other countries had been holding Iran's money, at our request, while negotiations were on going.

Secondly, what evidence is there that the other P5+1 members would go along with doubling sanctions?  It was hard enough to get China and Russia on board with sanctions to begin with.  And what evidence is there that Iran would capitulate in the face of increased sanctions?

The goal of the negotiations was the minimize  the threat of a nuclear Iran.  Increased sanctions did not reduce that threat without direct negotiations.  Iran had 164 centrifuges in 2003.  By the time President Obama took office, that number went up to 8,000. Four years later, the number was 22,000.  And all of this happened in the face of brutal sanctions.  For Trump to blithely say doubling sanctions would secure the release of those hostages flies in the face of fact because sanctions failed to do what they were implemented to do to begin with….

So, yes, positions and reasoning like this, in a sane political climate, would disqualify Trump as a candidate.  But we're not in a sane political climate, and I believe something that your friend Mike Lofgren has referred to as "anti-knowledge" has taken root within the GOP.  Thus, ignorance of facts is worn as a badge of honor.

God help us if Trump's elected.

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2) What about mental health? A reader on the East Coast writes:

Question for the psychotherapists out there:  Aren’t there enough statements and actions by Trump that are now part of the public record to enable a professional to render some sort of diagnosis?  Does one really have to have the guy on the couch in an office to get a better sense of him?

I believe that most of Trump’s behavior in this campaign is not strategic or a deliberate effort to win the Presidency.  His constant attacks on Meghan Kelly, which Fox News as labels a “sick obsession”, his predictable personal attack on anyone who criticizes or disagrees with him (almost all of which are gratuitous and, if anything, hurt his chances), his pattern of constantly referring to his wealth, his success as a business man, his intelligence, his constant lying (which seems to be something of a compulsion), his constant referring to his polling numbers and the size of his audiences (much of which is grossly exaggerated), his refusal to acknowledge, contrary to all evidence and the public record, his numerous business failures—all of this suggest a man not in control of his behavior. It also suggests a man who is almost entirely un-self-aware.

There’s just so much material to work from here.   One would think that a competent professional could make a reasonable armchair diagnosis of Trump.

I’ve changed my  mind about this. Earlier I posted some messages from readers asking whether Trump had some identifiable personality disorder. Now I think there’s no point in even wondering about arm’s length medical diagnoses: what matters is what he says and does.

If the Trump who is making these boasts and sending out these Tweets were, underneath it all, the mentally healthiest and most balanced person in America, that wouldn’t make any difference. The statements he has placed on the public record are in themselves grounds for concern. No one whose public statements are this thin-skinned, impulsive, defensive,  and seemingly uncontrolled has any business being in command of the world’s most powerful military force.

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3) “The AIPAC speech represented what I don’t like about Hillary Clinton.” Through the Obama era, AIPAC has essentially become an operating arm of Likud’s interests in Israel and the Republican Party’s in the United States. Peter Beinart makes that case in Haaretz; it was starkly evident during last year’s bitter debate on the Iran-nuclear deal, which AIPAC did its best (and worst) to kill.

The Republican speeches at AIPAC this week were predictably pro-Netanyhau and anti-Obama, Trump’s childishly so. (For which the new president of AIPAC apologized, the day after Trump had appeared and received a standing ovation.) Bernie Sanders composed what I considered an excellent speech for AIPAC about the route to sustainable peace in the Middle East; unfortunately he wasn’t able to deliver it in person. Since (according to Sanders) AIPAC declined to let him speak by video, as some previous Republican candidates have done, he merely issued the written text. Nonetheless the speech deserves notice: It was in the spirit of what Kevin Rudd, then prime minister of Australia, called his “true friend” (zhengyou) address to the Chinese government in 2008, in which he said that genuine, respectful friendship required pointing out uncomfortable areas of disagreement as well as the comforting platitudes.

With the exception of defending the Iran deal, Hillary Clinton pretty much stuck to the comforting themes before AIPAC. That is where a reader in Minnesota picks up, and explains why, as a Democrat, he is having a hard time with her:

I just read your post which began with the Safire quote describing Ms. Clinton as a congenital liar. [This was William Safire of the NYT, using that term for then-First Lady Hillary Clinton twenty years ago.]

I speak to many of my friends, family, and colleagues about today’s political mess, and most have never described Ms. Clinton as a congenital liar.  However, most of my circle of acquaintances (including some staunch Clinton supporters) have admitted / concluded that Ms. Clinton will say and do whatever it takes to become President, regardless of the effect on everyday working Americans or her comments’ relationship to any objective truth.

Those who support her while admitting the above claim that she simply deserves the office——but have never been able to provide a cogent argument as to why she, and she alone, deserves to be President.  Those who do not support her are quite worried that she will actually expand upon the NeoCon expansionism, warmongering, and international intervention behavior of the Bush Administration.  I have come to believe this is correct, and very troubling.

Ms. Clinton’s speech to AIPAC left little doubt that she intends to demonstrate that she is far less cautious and far more interested in expanding our global influence and international interventions than the arguably over-cautious President Obama.

You and I have traveled extensively over the years.  I just returned from Indonesia, where the American election is gaining a lot of attention, and not in a very positive way.   

As I continue to watch and study the behavior of all the candidates, it seems that Ms. Clinton would become the most internationally aggressive of all (with the possible exception of the certifiably sociopathic Ted Cruz).  If the Brussels attacks are significant in any way, it seems that they signal (among many other things) that continued expansion and pro-Israel blind support cannot possibly bring us any closer to peace and security——and are more likely to bring the opposite result.

I fear a Clinton Presidency for these and many other reasons——and I don’t believe I am the only thoughtful person who would have to think long and hard about what I will do if we end up with a Clinton vs. Trump election.

Writing in Bernie Sanders name may be dysfunctional and perhaps even wrong------but I cannot imagine any other choice that would allow my conscience to remain at peace.

I have come to expect that almost every politician tells the occasional (if not the regular) lie——except for your former boss and my favorite President of my lifetime.  [JF note: This would be Jimmy Carter.] Lying is not something that I fear nearly as much as the pursuit of international expansionism, warmongering, propping up tyrants, and our ongoing meddling in far too many foreign nations’ internal affairs.

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4) “Nothing has given me such hope in years.” Another reader from the Midwest, who I believe also thinks of herself as a Democrat, is similarly dissatisfied but sees reasons for hope in the Trump campaign:

Academics and their groupie pundits have talked about the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle/working classes for years, but politicians have been helpless to do anything except change the subject.

One thing for sure, neither the Republicans nor Democrats are able to reform themselves.  Only something like a meteor  hitting them from the outside (a/k/a Trump) can start a re-alignment.  The Sanders campaign has its own role, playing the dead canary warning Democrats of toxic times ahead.

And they deserve it.  Ever since President Reagan broke PATCO as the first, most destructive wave of steel and auto plant closings surged, Republicans have been recklessly caught up in unsolvable wedge issues and Democrats mired in narrow single-issue ‘movement’ politics, each feeding on each other.  Meanwhile, the economy lost its productive muscle and began its decades-long tilt (descent) towards finance and oligarchy.  

Maybe it takes a demogogue to shake things up.  It would be wrong to think all these Trump supporters are racist deadbeats, as too many liberals are quick to judge.  One Trump supporter on TV explained, “the Blacks have their programs, the immigrants have theirs, why not some help for us.”  Representing laid off 50 year olds now working part-time, underpaid jobs this sentiment looks more like common sense than racism to me.

And who knows? Maybe the clash in Chicago [at the cancelled Trump rally] will lead to that long-sought-after-serious ‘talk about race’ that politicians talk about but never describe.  You can’t get closer than thousands of white middle/working class Trump supporters standing in line for an arena rally facing a polygot collection of mostly middle/working class minority and immigrant students worried about their own futures. Close body contact of a volatile and dangerous type.  

Which way all this will go is unclear.  No one's going to beat Trump calling him racist and xenophobic.  Only  someone equally as bold and icon-shattering as Trump can compete.  Few policy wonks qualify.

There’s no turning back now, however, not to the Hillarys and Jebs, the Pelosi’s and McConnels.  Nothing in the public sphere has given me such hope for years.

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5) “I feel no passion for the Democratic field.” In a less hopeful vein, a Democrat in Texas weighs in:

I volunteered for Obama in 2007-08 and voted for him twice, and think he has been a great success under difficult circumstances. Not perfect, but still very good and even historic in many ways that you’ve written about. I’m in my late 40s and he is without a doubt the only president who has ever aroused strong emotions and with whom I feel a genuine connection.

I feel nothing like that for either of the Dem candidates this time. Many of my friends are passionate Bernie supporters. I just don’t get it and have found myself resisting arguments with my friends. To me, he is Ralph Nader with a ‘D’ next to his name. As one of your other readers stated, I fear he would be a very ineffective president who would damage liberalism for a long time. I question his temperament and particularly his ability to withstand adversity (these are particular areas of strength for Obama). Bernie becomes irate, defensive, even whiny, when subjected to tough questions by reporters, and his incessant complaining about media coverage is just annoying. What will he do as President when the Tea Party Congress craps all over his proposals, or when Putin or Bibi attempts to humiliate him publicly?...

I wish Elizabeth Warren were running because our choices are uninspiring. I have very mixed feelings about Hillary even though I voted for her in the primary. Bottom line for me is that despite her flaws, I think she will be a reasonably effective president. I worry about her coziness with Wall Street and her judgment in moments of crisis, domestic and international.

I did not like her recent hawkish speech to AIPAC and worry that she will squander the good will Obama has managed to build in the Islamic world. She seems to struggling a little to adapt her sometimes dated political rhetoric to the current landscape (example: her unfortunate comments about the Reagans and AIDS, her awkward attempts to address mass incarceration and the Black Lives Matter movement).

I would like to see our home grown Dems here in San Antonio, Julian and Joaquin Castro, move into more prominent roles in the future as I think they have great potential. But I’m not sure a VP slot makes sense this cycle. I can see a lot of older white voters hesitant to vote for ticket that includes a woman and a Latino.

I’m also very curious to see what Obama’s post-presidential career looks like. He’s still pretty young and I can’t imagine him idle for long, nor can I imagine him following Clinton’s path of creating a foundation. I think he has much more to contribute.

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6) The nightmare of strong women. A male reader sends this list:

Hillary Clinton is far from the first strong woman in public life to be slandered relentlessly by her political opponents and those offended by feminine leadership. Let us take a brief tour.

Wu Zetian (624 - 705) was the only female emperor of China. Despite being a strong ruler who governed well, her reputation as a scheming, ruthless woman willing to do anything to gain and keep power overwhelmed her accomplishments.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 - 1204) was Queen of France, then Queen of England, and the mother of three kings of England. She was highly educated, and played an important role in the political and military struggles during the latter part of Henry II’s reign as King of England. In the popular imagination, however, her reputation was formed by fanciful stories of her leading a group of decadent nobles in scandalous sexual practices, and a vicious rumor that she had murdered one of Henry’s mistresses.

Isabeau of Bavaria (1370 - 1435) became Queen of France at the age of fifteen when she married Charles VI. Caught up in vicious power struggles when Charles’s mental illness left him unable to rule, Queen Isabeau was accused of about every crime possible, including adultery and witchcraft. This reputation lasted until 20th-century historians reviewed the evidence and discovered that she was intelligent, well-educated, pious, devoted to her children, and an effective ruler in her husband’s place.

Catherine de Medici (1519 - 1589) was Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and played a leading role in the Byzantine power struggles among the French nobility during the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. Though clearly no better or worse than the Bourbons and Guises and other rivals for power, Catherine—as not only a woman but a foreigner, being the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici of Florence—got most of the blame for a host of poisonings, assassinations, and political back-stabbings.

Catherine the Great (1729-96) ruled Russia for more than thirty years. Compared with other Russian emperors, she was clearly above average as a reformer and a supporter of Enlightenment ideals. Like her male counterparts, she took lovers, but the stories told about her falsely accused her not just of licentiousness, but of perversion. These slanders culminated in the rumor that she died from a stroke suffered while attempting to have sexual intercourse with a stallion.

Empress Dowager Cixi of China (1835 -1908) was a remarkable woman who began her imperial career as a lowly concubine but ended up as the mother of the heir to the throne and, as Regent, the nominal ruler of China for decades. Surrounded by powerful factions in a dying empire, Cixi successfully navigated among them but was slandered as vicious, sexually perverse, manipulative, extravagant, power-hungry, and so on.

So is Hillary the devious, lying, scheming, ambitious, ruthless harridan that the Republicans say she is? Sure. And do you know the story of the servant girl that Cixi murdered by throwing her down a well?

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Thanks for the messages, see you in a few days, and Happy Easter.