Accountability for Trump

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A thought for the morning from one of the two people who might become president. This is one of the Tweets that appears to come from Trump himself. How do we know? It’s from his Android phone, rather than the staff’s iPhone or iPad (and they haven’t bothered to all buy Androids yet). Also, Trump always misspells judgment this way. Also, who else would write or say something like this? Something this crass—and also, something this foolish. After all, of the many ways in which Donald Trump might want to invite comparison with Hillary Clinton, brainpower and “judgement” are not his areas of most obvious advantage.

Seventy days (plus a few hours) until the election, with something like the “real” campaign beginning, these thoughts arrive from readers on how the nation, the party, the press, and others reckon with the reality of a candidate Trump.

1. Asking about torture. A reader suggests a line of questioning:

Why don’t journalists ask Trump surrogates to address Trump’s repeated view that he would advocate torture and killing of families of known terrorists? This seems as abhorrent as any of his positions. Maybe I have missed it but I have never, for example, heard a reporter ask Pence whether he supports this extreme position at odds with basic tenets of civilized behavior, Geneva Convention, rule of law,  the reason why we fought WWII, etc.

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2. Why the Berlusconi comparison is so useful. An American reader who has been in Europe writes:

I was in Spain this past week, where the collective question about the U.S. political campaign can only be translated as “WTF?” While I am not familiar with members of the entire political spectrum in Spain, my acquaintances are generally shocked at the recklessness and the intellectual vapidity of one of our leading political candidates.

Spaniards tend to respect the U.S. Even those who view the U.S. as a malign force think of it as an incredibly capable country filled with smart (if misguided) people. Mr. Trump’s success is not something they can easily reconcile.

I write that as a preamble to my response to the Black Trump Supporter who chastised you for your coverage of Trump. [JF note: It was from a man named Jamie Douglas, here.] In criticizing your coverage, he points out problems afflicting America and African Americans, in particular. He makes some valid points about the relative (a term to be stressed) success of Black Caribbean and Nigerian immigrants compared to African Americans with long family histories in this country. Smarter people than I will engage on this point. I will only point out that his observations are not reasons to support Donald Trump.  They are, at best, reasons to punish Democrats and to “stick it” to those Blacks with whom you’ve disagreed over the years. [JF: I assume this is the impersonal “you,” like on in French or “with whom one has disagreed...” in English. Rather than meant for me!]

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Even the reference to immigration (“Illegal immigration has badly hurt the employment prospects and cultural standing of black Americans. I cannot see how any serious person could argue otherwise,” [as the Black Trump Supporter wrote]). I happen to agree that immigration (legal and illegal) has hurt the employment of working-class and unskilled Americans, Blacks included. I believe that the broad studies that focus on wages miss the other reasons that employers select low-skilled laborers (working conditions and deference to authority, for example).

But  Mr. Douglas doesn’t support his argument with facts, only rhetoric. So, while I can accept his assertion regarding employment (because of my own research and educational background in economics), I nearly spit out my coffee when he mentioned “cultural standing.”  

Look, African Americans have a lot of problems in this country and continue to deal with issues of institutionalized racism, individual racism, police brutality, plus all of the other problems shared by the poor. But if someone would like to define “cultural standing” for me and then explain, not only how that standing is low for African Americans but how it is worse since the Civil Rights Era due to unchecked immigration, I am all ears!

Which brings me back to my opening remarks. As I explained to my Spanish friends, you have to understand the depth of Trump’s support in two ways: The first is his exceptional, if unconventional, rhetorical skills and brand management. When I compare him to Berlusconi, they get it immediately.

The second, and this is where I believe Mr. Douglas comes in based solely on what was published in your Note, is that Americans don't “do policy,” by and large, as an electorate. They “do feelings” and “teams.” Sometimes you vote for your team and sometimes you vote against the other team.

Mr. Douglas’s opinions are perfectly valid as opinions. In fact, I suspect we’d agree on more than few things. They are not, however, reasons to support Trump based on anything one could reasonably argue that a Trump presidency would do (see current back-pedaling on Immigration Policy). Rather, they are reasons to support Trump as a sharp stick in the eye of those with whom you’ve disagreed for many years. Maybe you can’t prove them wrong (hell, that would take actual policy work) but you can make them lose. And on November 9th, that will be good enough. On January 20, 2017, however, and for the years after, it won’t nearly be enough.

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3. The candidate of the future. The preceding note says that the end of the Trump candidacy won’t be the end of Trumpism. Another reader to similar effect:

I was curious to see where Mr. Trump would take [his campaign]. Unfortunately, he seems to be stuck on neutral. That is unfortunate.

But he epitomizes the future. The Celebrity as candidate. What is unresolved is the neglected portion of poor working-class whites who found a channel. The Republican Party neglected them. They will still be there.

I thought he had a chance if he was able to get 30 percent of the black vote. I thought that was achievable. Now it seems remote.

Maybe the status quo remains. For now. But not much longer. The pivot is being made historically from the statesman/politician to business leadership. The building of corporate transnationalism and the inability of the nation-state to adequately manage this change bodes for severe transformation. I am unsure of how it will play out.

However, anger and frustration is building in the heartland. At least from Nashville, Indianapolis and Tennessee. The less affluent are my clientele. I give them access to a piece of the American Dream. I resell big box stuff.

My clients are the New Americans: Africans from different parts; Latinos, of which I am now adapted as a dual citizen of Costa Rica; and from other parts. I sell to the New Native Americans: natives of all types and parts of the country. And all is not well. The economy is well enough at this moment to keep the lid from popping off. Let the next economic downturn happen, and I am unsure of how it will play out.

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4. Take a stand. Earlier this month I quoted a reader who said that stricter measures were needed to shun or ostracize the Vichy Republicans, the people like Paul Ryan or Pat Toomey who beyond question know what is wrong with Donald Trump but who still officially stand with him. In reply I explained why I thought the most sensible thing someone like me could do is simply to lay out the record, making clear who knows what as the campaign unfolds.

The reader isn’t buying it, and is back for more:

I appreciate your including my message of August 11 (below) in your “Trump Nation” posting of August 12, including your detailed response. [Various other complimentary set-up remarks...]

At the same time, I wonder if you are entirely satisfied with where your response leaves the issue, since it appears to have some limitations.

For one thing, the idea that supporting Trump will be “be part of [the] record” for Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others seems really inadequate as a means of motivating them to denounce Trump. Were they to do so, they would risk serious and immediate professional and personal consequences; given the nature of Trump’s supporters, even violent attack would be possible. The prospect of some general taint on their record, with unspecified consequences, is a very weak deterrent.

Certainly Eisenhower, in the case you cited, did not sustain any obvious damage for his cowardice in 1953; he was triumphantly re-elected in 1956 and had an honored retirement.  

As well, this concept fails the test of justice. As you and others (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center) have documented, real people are suffering now from Trump’s effects on the country—let alone the potentially world-historical evils that would result from his election.  (McCarthy, whom you mention, did not have the nuclear-launch codes.) Yet your concept leaves those who are supporting him, and who are thus complicit in these evils, with no immediate punishment at all.  

And finally, deferring a reckoning in this way really seems, with respect, to let those who have so forcefully denounced these scoundrels (the word is not too harsh, given the indictment presented) off the hook. If you are right in describing their conduct as despicable, then they should be publicly despised—and that despisal should be ongoing and constantly reinforced. After all, the fact that other and better people might save the country from the worst results of their bad conduct by defeating Trump on November 8 does not reduce their culpability.

And those most involved in making the case against them would seem to have an obligation, if they take their own words seriously, to lead the continuing effort to shame them, especially since these critics have access to public fora with which to do so.  

The mark of dishonor you correctly believe should attach to Ryan, McConnell, and others will not appear on its own, nor will it be applied by God like the fabled mark of Cain. It will take real effort to resist the tendency, on November 9, to “let bygones be bygones.” And those of us who believe, as I do and as you and others seem to imply, that such an attitude would be a real error have to look to you, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, and others to use your voices to avert it and to continue to hold these people to account. I realize that commentators who take such a position toward figures with major institutional political power risk consequences to themselves; but that would seem to be the price of the stand you and others have so honorably taken.

I hope you will reconsider the approach you outlined on August 12 in favor of a more active position toward those in prominent positions who surely know better, but who are continuing to do nothing to prevent the damage Trump's candidacy is causing, and the far worse damage it threatens in future.

To respond briefly: Yes, I think it contemptible that the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton (along with most incumbent GOP senators); Chris Christie and Mike Pence (along with most incumbent GOP governors); and other people who clearly know better are abetting Trump in this campaign and increasing the chance he might actually win office. In my view, they will always deserve the contempt they are earning with this Vichy-like accommodation—and Republicans and conservatives who have stood against Trump will always deserve respect for their stand (even from those who disagree with them on many other fronts).

But in practical terms, I don’t know what more someone in the press who is opposed to Trump is supposed to do. Does Paul Ryan spend one second worrying about what I think? Does Mitch McConnell spend one nanosecond? Chris Christie might feel bad that his fellow Springsteen fan Jeff Goldberg is calling him one of the “hollow men.” He doesn’t care if I say so.

I made a similar point to this reader, when saying that I would quote his followup. He replied this way:

To be clear:  I’m not suggesting that you should take some kind of public lead in a political sense (for example, in trying to remove Trump’s enablers from office).

Rather, I simply hope that you and others who have been so prominent in making the case against the enablers’ behavior should not drop the issue on November 9, regardless of the outcome of the election. If that’s what you mean by “laying out the case in public,” that may be the most you can do.

Fair enough. As I say, it’s 70-plus days until the election, and then a whole national history beginning the next day.