T-Day: Your Final Thoughts on Trump Before Voting

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today is finally Election Day, mercifully. Our tireless politics team is live-blogging events throughout the day and into the night. Over the past several weeks, scores and scores of your emails have poured in, covering a wide array of campaign topics, so here’s one final roundup of your smart opinions and analyses as the polls open this morning. (They’re already closed in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, the first vote in the nation, and in that tiny hamlet Clinton beat Trump in a landslide, 4-2—a harbinger, we hope.)

Most recently we had a roundup of reader reaction to the Comey aftermath, and a new reader makes an interesting point here:

FBI agents ran to the nearest reporter to leak about potentially damaging material about Clinton. IRS employees, some of whom certainly had access to and knowledge of Trump’s tax returns, never said a word. Maybe they’re all secret Trump supporters, or maybe IRS employees demonstrated more integrity than our nation’s supposed best and brightest law enforcement agents.

Another reader similarly wonders:

Why is there no MSM coverage of Trump having to face Judge Curiel on November 28 over fraud and racketeering charges for Trump University? [Though it’s important to note they’re civil suits.] If this were about Clinton, it would have been a shark fest descending on her.

This next reader quotes Fallows in “2016: The Year Latinos Saved America?,” a note from Saturday on the surge of early voting in Nevada (subsequently boosted by a Hispanic voting surge in other parts of the country, most crucially Miami-Dade County):

“Latino Americans have long had higher-than-average rates of service and sacrifice in the U.S. military. In 2016, they may be defending American freedoms in another way.”

Amen! I hope Nevada early voting is truly a bellwether for a landslide of revulsion toward Trump. Assuming Wednesday brings a reason to celebrate with a burst of adrenaline from a near-death experience, I hope we have the maturity to reflect on the two big questions from this horrible experience:

1. What is wrong with our political system that we nominated two such untrustworthy candidates?

2. How do we protect America from current and future versions of Trumpism?

David Frum’s argument that we can’t afford to tear down the very institutions that protect America from fascism and despotism is worth emphasizing in all the post-election analysis. As Bill Maher rightly pointed out on Friday:

1) Democrats must share the blame for crying wolf by grossly exaggerating their descriptions of Bush, McCain, and Romney, so when a truly horrific candidate emerged, it sounded like typical Democratic bluster, and

2) The Mormons got it right early-on, saw Trump for who he is, and took a stand. They showed courage to speak the truth when GOP politicians showed self-serving cowardice and hypocrisy by putting their self-interest ahead of America’s interest.

Regarding the Mormons’ principled stand, here’s the rest of Bill Maher’s rant against Evangelicals supporting Trump despite his deeply un-Christian character (a topic previously tackled by readers):

For more on Trump’s character, a reader in San Diego writes:

Thank you for fodder for excellent conversations! I have a theory about Donald Trump that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else, and it’s about the fact that, before the election campaign, he’d only seen the highly scripted and edited versions of himself on TV. Maybe he doesn’t recognize himself because he’d never seen himself portrayed as he really is.

For a big dose of scripted Trump, check out the “best firings” compilation from The Apprentice seen below. (One of Trump’s early quotes is ominously ironic: “The problem is that Bradford made an impulsive decision—a stupid, impulsive decision. Frankly, if you were running a company and made that kind of a decision, you destroy that company, instantaneously.”)

Back to our reader in San Diego:

All through his life as a celebrity, Trump’s appearances have been either scripted or edited to show him in the best light—or at least a humorous light. His anger was his tool, but it was always shown as a strength of character, not as a flaw. Then, during the campaign, Trump expected to be shown in the same manner and was dismayed to see his true self. He really doesn’t recognize himself. To him, The Media have edited all of his appearances to make him look bad on purpose. That’s the only reason I can come up with to explain his constant insistence that he didn’t “say/do/act like that.”

Trump’s supporters have fallen for a man who is only as real as a storybook. Reality TV is built upon layers and layers of pretense: scripted storylines, production staff who stir the pot in order to create tension, sequences of events are edited for a better arc, and so on. The viewers know this, but still they are certain that a person’s “true” character is being revealed.

It’s like looking at Photoshopped pictures of fashion models; you know it’s not a true representation of the person, but you still expect the person to look like the picture. Then, when you see him/her at the airport, you’re surprised he’s/she’s not as gorgeous.

Another reader on the era of reality TV:

Decades ago I pursued a journalism degree, at the University of Montana J-school, followed by a master’s in print journalism in Stanford’s communication department. Throughout I was drilled in the catechism of our ancient craft. I learned that the three purposes of journalism are to inform, to persuade and to entertain—in that order. A couple of my most prescient professors issued dire warnings that we must protect our trade against the tendency toward frivolity, or entertainment.

Today, I think we have arrived at a point where, at best, these go in reverse order, or at worst we are almost entirely in the entertainment realm. It began, perhaps, with choosing an actor as our president. It ends up with a reality television star as candidate: a person only capable of entertainment, with a dash of persuasion, but zero information. The disturbing part is how readily the public was brought along. I realize myriad factors are at play, but how sad that we have an election that was “informed” almost completely by entertainment.

Back to the real world of information, here’s a thorough debunking of Trump’s talking points on the stump—“25 outright lies in a single speech”:

One of Trump’s greatest rhetorical strengths is interrupting people with pithy and withering insults. That may have worked against “low-energy Jeb” and “Little Marco” and others in the primaries, but it probably didn’t work in the one-on-one debates of the general election, as reader Todd argues:

I might be too late getting to this, but I think an under-discussed tactic of Clinton’s was that she studiously ignored Trump’s interjections during the debates. My recollection is that in the GOP debates, the other candidates generally allowed Trump to stop their train of thought as they responded to his snipes. Clinton didn’t do this. She just kept pushing on, saying what she wanted to say and ignoring Trump. I feel that this decision was vitally important, keeping her on long-form answers where she has the advantage on Trump and not getting bogged down in trading barbs, which is Trump’s territory.  

Clinton rigorously prepped along those lines, of course, and many are have remarked on her “listening woman face.” (My colleague Rosa has covered this territory with readers.) Here’s another reader on a key moment in the Trump-Clinton debates:

Over the course of the presidential debates, Trump repeatedly said that he’s “smart” for exploiting tax loopholes and that he’s “entitled [to do so] because of the laws.”

Much has been written about this in a vaguely indignant way that doesn’t really name the core offense, and I think the problem is that we’re all partially persuaded by this idea that it’s smart to behave in a way that makes money. But there really is a moral failure at play in this dynamic. Let’s look at a comparable example: a middle-class family that chooses to eat all of their meals at a local homeless shelter.

There’s no law prohibiting such behavior, and for a family of four this would be a “smart” way to save money. But the overwhelming majority of people would, I think, be horrified by such an idea and far too humiliated and embarrassed to do such a thing. It’s not clear to me, though, that Trump would respond this way. As it stands, he has effectively argued that this middle class family is “entitled” to eat at the homeless shelter because the law doesn’t explicitly prohibit it.

The vast majority of your emails have been critical of Trump rather than Clinton, but here’s a pretty standard critique of Clinton, from a reader in Kansas:

I disagree with Fallows that Hillary Clinton’s “experience” as U.S. senator and secretary of state was meaningful. I tune in to C-Span often. I read the NYT, The New Yorker, NY Review of Books, Slate and Salon; I listen to NPR almost as a religious devotion. All of these outlets (C-Span is neutral of course) have been cheerleading for Clinton for years. But I can’t recall any of them actually enumerating her accomplishments as Senator or SoS, identifying any “value added” attributable to her while she held  those positions. What controversial positions did she stake out and take the lead on in the Senate? Was her time in the Senate any more impressive than other Democrats who shared her basic policy views like, say, Al Franken? How, precisely how, did she distinguish herself?

To me, she was just biding her time, schmoozingly building her resume for the single goal she has targeted since college: POTUS.  I think the same holds for her tenure at SoS. What—specifically what—value did she add to policy-making on such areas as our approach in Libya (no, not Benghazi), Syria, Ukraine, the European refugee tragedy, to name a few? It’s one thing to prefer her clearly over Trump—no contest, really—but to rhapsodize her “experience” as senator and SoS? I just can’t see the empress’s clothes.

For a much longer and thorough series of criticisms of Clinton, and the Clintons more generally, check out the “Lesser Evil” episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, featuring my old Atlantic and Dish colleague, Andrew Sullivan:

A reader, Lee, recommended that episode after seeing this curated list from my boss Matt Thompson. Lee was “hooked from beginning to end”:

The “Lesser Evil” episode is a relentless takedown of both candidates—in the interest of building the case that voting for Hillary is the only viable option. Frankly, I had stopped thinking so critically of Hillary because Trump is so dangerous. While I still can’t agree with the “Hillary is evil” argument, the extended criticism of her in the first half of the episode was both necessary and reasonably thoughtful. (It also has some crossover appeal; I can imagine Limbaugh-inclined relatives listening and reconsidering Trump, or at least their NeverHillary stance.) And then that first half was totally overshadowed by their articulation of the incredible threat Trump and his rhetoric pose to so many aspects of Western democracy, leaving Hillary as the only sane choice.

This next reader is opting out of that choice:

I see nothing positive in either candidate. Trump is unfit by temperament. Clinton is unfit by ideology. It’s like having to choose between a train engineer with no experience and an experienced engineer who will take you to a place you don’t want to go. One might get you in a train wreck; the other surely will take you where you don’t want to go.

I’m not getting on the train. I am not casting a vote for president for the first time in 50 years. Since I’m in California, my non-vote will not matter. But I will be able to look myself in the mirror and say that I followed my conscience.

In response to Fallows’s note “A Third-Party Voter Makes His Case (and I Dissent),” a reader sighs:

Third-party voters in the U.S. seem confused about a two-party system. In a two-party system, factions coalesce into two parties before the election. In a parliamentary system, factions coalesce into two parties after the election.

Which system is better? I have no idea. However, voting third party in a two-party system makes no sense except to satisfy the pique of the third-party voter, a kind of narcissism and not at all honorable. The problem for third-party voters is not Clinton or Trump, it is the system itself.

This next reader would agree:

This election isn’t about Clinton, it isn’t about Trump, and it sure isn’t about your New York reader’s feelings, sentiments, ideas, or sense of self. You either get democracy, or you get not democracy.

One of only two people will be president-elect on Wednesday morning: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. There is effectively no other option for voting, no matter who else is running. You can either help Trump win, or you can help Clinton win. You don’t get any other choice.

This morning, I was conceding to the Bernie die-hards (in absentia, since I can’t stand to talk to any of them at this point) who won’t vote for Clinton, that I suspect Sanders would be in a better position against Trump at this point. We certainly wouldn’t have to put up with Comey.

But it simply doesn’t matter, because it’s no longer an option.

This is the problem with pseudo-intellectualism—or bullshit, in simple language.  People don’t know when to stop. They always think there’s a but, when there’s only a binary.

There’s much more on the subject in the reader thread “The Hunger for a Third Party in 2016.” This next reader suspects Trump will go third party himself:

I thought it was interesting that in Chris Bodenner’s note “The Trap the GOP Should Have Seen Coming,” he quotes several people who contend that the GOP should have abandoned the party to Trump and started a third party. But, as James Glassman has said, it’s nearly impossible to do that in America at the moment.

I contend that the way forward is to convince Trump to start the “T” Party and take his core followers with him (35% of the GOP), allowing the party to rebrand itself in a more contemporary way that focuses on small government, low taxes, state’s rights, and a strong military. If they leave behind their xenophobic, so-called “values” issues, they could appeal to the 40% of Americans who are registered Independent.

Why would Trump start the 3rd party? Because he won’t want to leave the national stage. The adoration and “many people who say” he is great would persuade him he couldn’t lose. Because he is mad at Republicans who backstabbed him. Because he doesn’t do “math.” Because nothing would appeal to his ego more than having a party that was all about him ... or should I call it a cult?

One other hand, this reader doubts that Trump will be able to mount any political comeback if he loses today:

All he wants to do is to win so much that he will get sick of winning, but you can't do that from the political sidelines, especially after having lost to a woman. When his base finds out that he was lying all along about “the wall,” and that he has no real power now, they are not going to start a revolution on their own without a leader. And they are not going to start a revolution with a leader who himself lost their cause. It is going to end with a whimper and not a bang.

The only permanent threat to democracy will be if the Democrats don’t realize that they got off easy, and if the Republicans don’t think it wasn’t their fault. Unless the Left can figure out how to appeal to the white working class, the whole thing will just happen again next time. The Republicans, embarrassed at being a permanent minority party, will try to whip up their base again, and the Democrats will represent “the system” that the base is angry at.

Our hope with the Time Capsule series was to create a comprehensive collection of Trump’s most egregious acts of unprecedented, norm-shattering behavior for members of the Republican mainstream to reflect upon and avoid in the future. A long-time reader, Jack, appreciates Jim’s efforts:

As a retired USAF veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I would like to offer my kudos to James Fallows for his admirable contributions. His insight, opinion based on fact, and the manner with which he delivered them is, without a doubt, a credit to your publication.

And another reader, Steven, wants to see Fallows continue the Notes series even if Trump is soundly defeated today:

Thank you to James Fallows for his Notes. His blogging has served as a form of lifeline as I was starting to wonder if I was alone in my thinking. Fortunately, I realize that is not the case. Unfortunately, I also realize that even after the election is over, we have not heard the last of Trump or his followers. More importantly, I fear we have not heard the last from his pretend followers more interested in achieving their life long goal of minority rule, namely the cynical GOP leadership who put power (disguised as party) over country.

The easiest path for them to follow is to continue with their damaging obstructionism now targeted against Clinton. This one issue, combined with continued gerrymandering and voter suppression, is the ONLY thing the disparate factions of the GOP can agree on and is the only glue that seems to hold them together. They appear ready, willing, and able to whip that mule to victory or total defeat.

Please consider continuing your Notes series after the election, as I suspect we will continue to see things we have never seen before as our democratic institutions continue to be attacked. You may also consider rebranding it using a different title. Either way, Fallows’s brave voice of clarity and reason will be needed to serve and defend the Republic.