I think about this line a lot in regards to the current administration, but in reverse. Just when things look like they might possibly improve—with North Korea or the economy or my opinion of his presidency—Trump starts a trade war with important allies and pardons Dinesh D’Souza on top of his usual Twitter trumpery, and things snap back to reality.
His central thesis is something I’ve thought about for a while: that the job of being president has become too big and darn near impossible. Long gone are the days when the president could go hiking with John Muir for long stretches without an entourage (Theodore Roosevelt) or go on a golfing vacation during a natural catastrophe without getting excoriated for callousness (Eisenhower).
The unwritten job description has bloated so much that our collective expectations for the position have become absurdly high. Dickerson interviews lots of former White House staffers from recent administrations and captures a visceral sense of the ever-increasing workload and expectations they and their presidents had to deal with.
Though this problem has been growing since the latter 20th century, I noticed it acutely during Obama’s terms, which coincided with the emergence of social media as a new means of instant mass communication and the exacerbation of an already vacuous news cycle.
Here’s Dickinson on what Obama had to deal with immediately before and after the secret meetings about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011:
an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya.
Obama is a smart guy who is capable of compartmentalizing, but this is an insane workload. And that was just one week. Missing are all the speeches after mass shootings, campaigning, and other attendant trappings of the modern office.
And then came Trump:
The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.
If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.
So far Trump has upended a lot of the assumptions we’ve laid on the office of the president. In some ways this has been bad and downright nefarious (*insert about 724 scandals here*), but in another way I think it could be a blessing in disguise.
The presidency needed to change. That would have been true even if Clinton had won. Now that we’re stuck with this new reality, I think it should compel us to rethink a lot of what we’ve come to expect from the presidency.
Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to help with hurricane relief if he’s just going to swoop in for a photo-op.
Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to have a fully formed position on every domestic and foreign issue.
Maybe we shouldn’t treat the occupant of the presidency like the country’s surrogate daddy or CEO who’s untouchable by the rule of law.
This does not excuse Trump’s inexcusable behavior, which is well documented on this blog. Instead, we can view it as the straw that finally broke the presidency’s back. We ought to take this opportunity to reset our expectations about the office.
Dickerson has some ideas on how to do that: among them a non-pliant Congress, a strong Cabinet, empowered White House staff, a patient news media, an understanding public, and a self-possessed president.
If that lists strikes you as unrealistic or even absurd, you’re half right. Things change whether we expect them to or not. Here’s hoping changes to the presidency come to good.
My library has shelves of free discarded magazines, so I grabbed a few that looked visually interesting and thought I’d have some fun with collage. And I really did. These are all from the February 2017 issue of Fortune. (See more magazine mashups.)
Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.
Trump’s Razor: when presented with competing hypothetical answers to the question of Trump’s behavior, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.
Which means: Once you realize the possibility that Trump is deeply compromised, his behavior makes so much more sense.
And this, for me, is the root of our present crisis. Beneath the “America First” president totally uninterested in defending America’s democratic integrity, the businessman running a chaotic and vapid administration, the “deal maker” with no poker face whatsoever, the demagogue with no ideology but himself—beneath all that is a man in a (presently) invisible prison of his own making. Who also happens to be president of the United States.
Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.
Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)
He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.
Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent bookSo You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?
Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”
(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)
Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.
Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.
Notes & Quotes
Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
“When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
“Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
Errors suck up attention and energy
Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
“A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics
A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.
Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:
When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.
He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.
Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.
Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:
Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.
…and then zooms out on its larger implications:
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?
Dear lord I hope not.
A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.
And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.
I keep thinking about George Will’s idea that Trump is like chemotherapy for the GOP: “a nauseating but, if carried through to completion, perhaps a curative experience.” Will wrote that column before the election, assuming Trump would lose. The curative experience he expected was for the GOP to realize its error in nominating, in his words, a “venomous charlatan” and finally reform its ways. (LOL)
But what he wrote still stands, even with Trump as president. The curative experience has come not from Trump’s defeat, but from how people have reacted to his success. “Trump is a marvelously efficient acid bath,” Will continued, “stripping away his supporters’ surfaces, exposing their skeletal essences.”
We’ve gotten to see the skeletal essences of many people energized by Trump’s election. Some see in Trump only what they want to see, and others see him for what he really is and say so, even when politically risky. Commentary editorJohn Podhoretz, commenting on Charlottesville, is one of the latter:
The president’s refusal to name the evil in our midst is the behavior of a man whose moral sense is stunted — if he has a moral sense at all. This is what I feared would be the case when he became president.
Perhaps those who say I have an obligation as a conservative to support Trump should wonder what their moral obligations require.
The last year or so has been very clarifying. David Frum, Bill Kristol, Ross Douthat, John Podhoretz, David French, and other conservative pundits I previously opposed to varying degrees (and still might on some issues) have revealed themselves to be principled thinkers, criticizing Trump early and often, even when doing so during the election exposed them to attack from their right flank. I respect them for standing tall then and sticking with their principles now.
If we make it through all this alive, we’ll be stronger for it.
Remember in 2008 when Dick Cheney, when confronted with polls showing two-thirds of Americans opposed the Iraq War quagmire, responded with So?
I thought about that when I read this part of the Washington Post‘s story on Obama’s struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault:
In early September, Johnson, Comey, and Monaco arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.
The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.
“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.
Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.
So? went McConnell. With apologies to “Make America Great Again”, the most important slogan of the 2016 election was “When they go low, we go high”. It’s a beautiful sentiment that is also a recipe for failure when your opponents are the Dick Cheneys and Mitch McConnells of the world, who go low like their lives depend on it.
If the investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump administration’s collusion proves substantive, I predict the only thing we’ll hear from McConnell, Ryan & Co is one big fat So?
The American Health Care Act will throw 23 million people out of health coverage and gut Medicaid in order to give the rich a massive tax cut they don’t need. So?
Trump has mishandled classified info, failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, threatened the FBI director, and so much more they’d be pissed about if he were a Democrat. So?
Learned a lot from Susan Douglas’s Listening In: Radio And The American Imaginationabout the development of radio technology and culture, and their impact on 20th century America. Also learned, in a tidbit about Franklin Roosevelt’s crusade against newspapers, that he sounded a lot like another ostensibly anti-media president:
Privately, the president in 1940 ask the new FCC Chairman, Lawrence Fly, “Will you let me know when you propose to have a hearing on newspaper ownership of radio stations?” Publicly, through his press secretary, Steve Early, Roosevelt told broadcasters that “the government is watching” to see if they air any “false news.” Radio, Early warned, “might have to be taught manners if it were a bad child.” Network executives understood “false news” to be news critical of the administrations policies.
Trump has clearly obstructed justice, which are grounds for impeachment.
But good luck getting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to care.
If President Hillary Clinton had done this Congress would have impeached her quicker than Trump can tweet something asinine, and deservedly so.
This all continues to be insane. It’s like being in a car with a drunk driver. I don’t care whose idea it was to let him drive; I don’t care about his protests that RelaxI’m fine and You’ll thank me later for driving—I just want to get home safely, whatever it takes.