Is a 'Trump Time Capsule' Too Fatalistic?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Puffing a pipe rather than fighting the world’s fight. (“Raleigh’s First Pipe,” Wikipedia.)

A reader objects to the concept of the Trump Time Capsule series:

Thank you for your thorough documentation of Trumpisms and Trumpeting with your “Time Capsule” journal. However, I think you and The Atlantic make a grave error in its title. 

Calling it a “Time Capsule” puts the readers—and you—in a helpless position. To psychologically frame the greatest American political disaster unfolding in decades as if it has already happened makes Trump into something inevitable, something historical, something unstoppable.

This is more than a quibble. I think it points to the essence of our societal failure in the YouTube age of watching instead of acting. The media is complicit in this mass mindset more than anything, covering news and politics in ways that do not seek to inform proactive citizens, but create content for the entertainment of passive consumers. To cover Trump as a proverbial trainwreck and not a current political and cultural crisis which will affect Americans and policy for years to come represents the failure of the soundbite Tweet-bloid media that gave Trump his unprecedented clout.

Your valuable reporting is not a time capsule. The neon Trump sign is not yet affixed to the White House facade. Trump is a demagogue of now. The Atlantic should inform, not observe, and especially not in the past tense. If the media stops giving Trump millions of free advertising for his controversial one liners and starts covering who he is and what he stands for—as the Times did today on his failed casinos—only then will the celebrity windbag deflate. No time capsule needed.

I understand the point. Response below.

***

As the campaign has ground on, Donald Trump has changed from entertaining oddity to genuine menace. Lest there be any doubt: I believe him to be less qualified by background and knowledge than any other major-party nominee in U.S. history, and more dangerous by temperament than anyone who has previously been this close to power. I have disagreed deeply with some American presidents — George W. Bush, to choose an obvious example, with his Iraq war policy, the torture regime and Guantanamo, and economic management. But I never doubted for a minute that Bush took the job seriously and was doing his best.

Nothing about Trump is serious. It would be a grave failure of American democracy, which would be laughed at and worried about in every corner of world, and a serious (though likely not fatal) threat to its ongoing viability for Trump to gain power.

So I’m not just puffing a pipe and sipping a sherry as I contemplate the slide toward the abyss.

The question is how journalism can be most useful, in these circumstances. I don’t think anything the Atlantic publishes is going to shake Trump’s support among his enthusiastic base. There are a certain number of states he is going to carry. The points of potential leverage are, first, the Vichy Republicans (Ryan, McConnell, Priebus, Rubio, et al), to try to demonstrate the danger and the historical stain they’ll bear for accommodating Trump; and everyone else, to demonstrate the stakes. Those are the audiences I have in mind.

This is the most useful way I, personally, know to lay out the case. And meanwhile, I’m trying to make a record, for later on, of what it was like while there was a chance he could succeed.  This started on a whim last month. We’ll see how and whether it should continue or evolve.

***

Another reader has a different objection—and agreement:

#18—I would give Trump a pass on the accusation of racism in his reference to Warren as “Pocahantas.” 

He’s not characterizing her ethnicity.  He’s making a sarcastic comment about her alleged effort to use her fractional ethnic heritage (whether real or fictional) to get favored treatment in admissions to college or law school (I forget which).  His point is that she’s not really Native American.  It’s immature and silly, but not really racist.  Of course, I have no doubt that Trump is a racist.  Who knows what he really thinks, but words and actions are all we ever have to go on.
 
#19—How many things are wrong with Trump’s tweets following the tragedy in Orlando?  There’s the narcissism: the self-congratulatory pat on the back while at the same time claiming he doesn’t want the pat.

There’s the immediate assumption, before any meaningful investigation or facts, that this is “radical Islamic terrorism” (ignoring the possibility that this was just one fucked-up, angry mentally unstable guy).  

There’s the nonsense about the ban, which would have been irrelevant here since the perpetrator was US born and a citizen.  

There’s the attack on Obama as being weak and ineffectual, which, even if true, would have been completely irrelevant to this situation.

There’s the beyond absurd complaint about Obama refusing to refer to “radical Islam”.  Obama and others have explained the tactical reasoning behind the language they use and don’t use so many times that there can be no doubt that most Republican elected officials know why he doesn’t use those terms.  When they criticize him for this they’re just being dishonest and playing politics.  Is Trump aware of the thinking behind the Administration’s choice of language?  He should be.  

There’s the “it’s just the beginning”, which is designed to create fear.

Finally, there’s his reference to “toughness and vigilance”, as though our intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies aren’t there already.  (Meaningless words, anyway.)
 
More generally, two aspects of this are highly offensive:  First, that Trump is spouting off even before all of the facts are in.  Second, that he’s exploiting this tragedy for his own personal political gain.  I note that that’s different than exploiting the event to make a political point, such as to advocate for gun control.  Some may consider that inappropriate, but it’s certainly less offensive than what Trump has done here.