Trump Time Capsule #133: Modern Manchurian Candidate

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, in 1962. That movie, and the Richard Condon novel it was drawn from, imagined foreign attempts to direct the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. Yesterday the U.S. government said that Russian hackers have been deliberately trying to change the outcome of this year's race. (Wikimedia commons)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here are some things that happened yesterday that in any other election year would have been major developments in themselves. But yesterday, October 7, the Day of the Tape, most didn’t even make news programs:

1. Russia trying to tamper with the election. That is what the U.S. government has come out and claimed, for instance via a WaPo story with the headline, “U.S. government officially accuses Russia of hacking campaign to interfere with elections.” Sample:

“The U.S. intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” said a joint statement from the two agencies. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.”...

“Today was just the first step,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the homeland security committee. ... “Moscow orchestrated these hacks because [Russian President Vladimir]Putin believes Soviet-style aggression is worth it. The United States must upend Putin’s calculus with a strong diplomatic, political, cyber and economic response.”

The possible Russian interference would range from something that’s already happened (the hacks of DNC and other email accounts, with releases timed for political damage); to something that might be happening now (interference with registration rolls); to something really alarming (directly tampering with election-night results); to something even worse. That worst-of-all prospect is seeding long-term doubt about the legitimacy of the election itself. Of course this is ground that Trump himself has shamelessly prepared with his “It’s all rigged!” talk from early on (for instance, see installment #68).

Other countries have always had interests in the outcome of U.S. elections. For decades historians have suspected (and recently may have confirmed) that Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign secretly worked with the South Vietnamese government to torpedo peace talks to end the Vietnam war, in hopes of further damaging Hubert Humphrey’s campaign. The Manchurian Candidate, as a novel in the late 1950s and a movie in the early 1960s, was about Soviet/Chinese rigging of a U.S. election. And of course the U.S. has long interfered in other countries’ politics.

But nothing like this level of attempted interference in U.S. elections has been suggested before. This is new. If it were not for everything else, it would be major news, and it deserves real attention whenever the political version of the O.J. chase is over.


2. The Central Park Five. Back in 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were convicted of raping and beating nearly to death a white woman in her 20s who was jogging in Central Park. The case was known as the Central Park Five, and it was one of Donald Trump’s first forays into the realm of “public policy” issues. His position, as stated in a famous full-page ad, was that the five were all guilty and should be put to death.

Headline on Trump’s famous ad.

Members of the group were indeed convicted; they served many years in prison; and then, in 2002, they were all proven to be innocent. Someone else confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence established that the original five had nothing to do with the crime.

What’s significant here, apart from the obvious miscarriage of justice and the years of their lives these people spent behind bars? It distills several traits that are so familiar from Trump, and would be so dangerous in a president:

Rush to judgment (as noted in installments #26 and #129, Trump is instantly and absolutely sure about matters where the evidence is still murky, and where wiser people suspend judgment); prideful and pigheaded refusal to admit error (as pointed out yesterday by Vox, CNN, and my colleague Matt Ford, Trump even now refuses to apologize to the Five, after they have been conclusively cleared and the City of New York has paid them millions in atonement); racism (this was a classic “menace from urban thugs” episode, which Trump did his best to inflame).

In normal years, a nominee would have to say something about his refusal to apologize to innocent people, who if he had his way might have been put to death. This year it hardly makes the cut.


3. Why should I practice for the second debate, when I did such a great job at the first one? Just read this story, also in Vox, about how Trump has approached the task of preparing for something he has never done before: a one-on-one town hall-style debate. Good lord. Unlike many other items in the past 36 hours, this is not disqualifying in any ethical or civic sense. But it suggests someone who lacks even the faintest grasp of the hard work that is required for the actual job of being president.


So much more has happened in the past 24 hours, which at the moment seems likely to be marked as the day Trump’s chances to become president came to an end. But this is all I can stand right now.