Trump Time Capsule #123: Tweets at 3 a.m.

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

Late in her losing primary campaign against Barack Obama eight years ago, Hillary Clinton put out her “3 a.m. phone call” ad. The idea was that real presidents have to deal with crises at short notice and with very high stakes. According to the ad, then-Senator Clinton’s greater experience meant that she’d be better at making those 3 a.m. decisions than the relative-rookie Obama would be. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you found that persuasive. If you preferred Obama, as I did, you were less impressed.

What does Donald Trump do at 3 a.m.? To judge by the social-media record, he sends out tweets—and real, “from the Id” personal tweets himself, rather than higher-road ones from his staff. The usual giveaway is the “Twitter for Android” label you see on Tweetdeck and other platforms, versus “Twitter for iPhone” from his staff.

Mnemonic clue: You can’t take the id out of Android. Thus a sequence of Android tweets about “Miss Piggy,” the former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, last night.

Donald Trump last night

Judge for yourself what this says about Trump’s temperament, whose excellence he mentions in most speeches and at this week’s debate. For instance, this is how it came up at the debate:

TRUMP: Well, I have much better judgment than she does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she has, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

I have a much better—she spent—let me tell you—she spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an advertising—you know, they get Madison Avenue into a room, they put names—oh, temperament, let’s go after—I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament ...

What it means in operational politics is, he can’t let anything go. The controversies that are objectively most damaging to him, with the groups he most needs to reach—women, Latinos, blacks, Muslims, educated voters worrying about knowledge and judgment—are ones he himself keeps reviving from one news cycle to the next:

  • He couldn’t let the “Mexican judge” issue go, and he kept it in the headlines for a couple of weeks.
  • He couldn’t let the Captain Khan story story go, with similar effect.
  • He still can’t let his invented claim of prescient views on Iraq go, guaranteeing that he’ll keep getting questioned about it.
  • He still can’t really let birtherism go.

And manifestly he cannot let the Alicia Machado story go. This means that with 39 days until the election, and early voting already underway, he has guaranteed that a significant fraction of the remaining time will feature a story likely to irritate: Hispanic voters in general (“Miss Housekeeping”); people sensitive about their weight (“Miss Piggy”); women in general; men and women who don’t like to hear women talked about in this way; and people wondering what kind of decisions a president will be making at 3 a.m. Quite the masterful campaign strategy.

Chessmaster, or pawn?” was for a long time a question about Obama. “Dumb, or dumber?” is the emerging question about Trump.

And I hate to say it again, but it’s still true: Republican officials from the Speaker of the House on down are still saying, He’s fine! Let’s make him Commander in Chief!

***

For family reasons, I expect to spend a few days Away From Political News. Thank goodness! So the time capsules will have to take care of themselves for a while. But after this outburst, I almost feel as if additional evidence—about self-control, about views of women, about basic fitness for command—might just be piling on. We know who this man is.