Trump Time Capsule #108: Bush, Fahrenthold, Kagan

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
George H.W. Bush in his prime, in a famous statue at the George Bush International Airport in Houston (PresidentsUSA)

Without elaboration, here is a for-the-record note of some publicized news of the past few days:

1. George H.W. Bush. For the first time in modern history, a former president of one party has said he will vote for a nominee from the other party.

The president who is taking this step is of course the senior George Bush, who this week reportedly told a crowd of 40 people that he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton. Set aside the ensuing flap over whether Bush “intended” something he said in front of several dozen people to become “public.” (If you want to keep something confidential, you don’t say it in a crowd. You especially understand this point if you are yourself a former U.S. president and vice president plus CIA director, with two sons who ran for the White House and one who made it. And once the news got out, Bush’s spokesmen didn’t even deny it. He just said that Bush’s vote would be “private,” which is code for “the report is true.”)

Ill will between the Bush and Trump empires is no surprise. Just think back to the days of Trump mocking “Low-Energy Jeb,” or of Barbara Bush saying early this year that she was “sick of Trump.” But to the best of my knowledge, this is the first-ever case of a former president from one party saying that he would vote for a nominee from the other party.*

— Even in 1964, the esteemed former Republican president Dwight Eisenhower officially “supported” the highly controversial Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.

— Even in 1972, the beleaguered former Democratic president Lyndon Johnson technically endorsed the controversial Democratic nominee George McGovern, who had built his campaign on opposition to Johnson’s own Vietnam war.

But in 2016, with 47 days and a few hours until the election, we take another step into the unknown.

(*The Bull Moose / Republican tussle between Teddy Roosevelt and W.H. Taft in 1912 was a special case that doesn’t apply. The counterpart to today’s Bush-Trump news would be if Teddy Roosevelt, as a former Republican president, had endorsed Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, rather than endorsing himself for another run at the White House.)

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2. Fahrenthold and the Trump Foundation. This campaign has revealed a lot about our country, much of it unsettling. It is also revealing things both good and bad about our news media, in ways that are changing and unfolding every day, and that I’ll try to say more about sometime soon.

For now I’ll say: it’s impressive to see the NYT’s recent embrace of the “let’s call a lie a ‘lie’” philosophy; it is alarming that CNN has kept right on with Corey Lewandowski as a paid “analyst” while he is still on Donald Trump’s payroll, and it is encouraging for journalism in general and the Washington Post in particular that David Fahrenthold continues his extraordinary work on the Trump Foundation.

The story posted last night, about the foundation’s role in paying off legal claims against Trump’s for-profit businesses, is roughly ten times more dramatic—in evidentiary support, and in clarity of offense—than even the worst allegations about the Clinton Foundation. You can read the details yourself, but here’s a sample from the story:

“I represent 700 nonprofits a year, and I’ve never encountered anything so brazen,” said Jeffrey Tenenbaum, who advises charities at the Venable law firm in Washington. After The Washington Post described the details of these Trump Foundation gifts, Tenenbaum described them as “really shocking.”

“If he’s using other people’s money — run through his foundation — to satisfy his personal obligations, then that’s about as blatant an example of self-dealing [as] I’ve seen in awhile,” Tenenbaum said.

For Time Capsule purposes: through the centuries of U.S. history, various nominees have of course had their swirls of financial controversy. Lyndon Johnson’s rise to wealth was complex enough to occupy hundreds of pages of Robert Caro’s oeuvre. George W. Bush, of course born to a rich and prominent family, benefited greatly from a favorable deal involving the Texas Rangers. Spiro Agnew had to resign as vice president for taking cash bribes while in office. Suspicions that “something” must be awry with the Clinton family’s Whitewater dealings occupied the press and special investigators through much of the 1990s. And so on.

But to the best of my knowledge, nothing ever known or suspected about any previous national-level nominee comes close to what is now on the record about Donald Trump and his foundation.

And still he remains the only modern candidate to refuse to release his tax returns. And still the solons of his party say, He’s fine.

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3. Kagan. Something must have happened yesterday to bring a four-month-old article to broader attention. I received several notes from readers wanting to be sure I’d seen an old WaPo essay by Robert Kagan.

I disagree with Robert Kagan on just about everything. But in the months since he originally published his essay, called “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,”  I think his arguments have come to seem more rather than less relevant. Especially this, with emphasis added:

We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily.

What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.

His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

Please also read Garrett Epps’s essay yesterday, to parallel sobering effect.

All this is part of what the country knows about this candidate, as it considers whether to make him president; and what the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell know as well, as they stand beside him.