Tag: Donald Trump

4 lessons from the Trump years

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It’s been a tradition on this blog since its inception to do a kind of presidential postmortem for the outgoing commander-in-chief (see Bush and Obama), assessing both the political takeaways and my personal life during their administration. (I planned to publish this on Inauguration Day, but as the actual end date of the Trump administration is now up in the air I figured I’d just let it fly now.)

On the personal front, the Trump years coincided with a very consequential period of my life. I had a baby. I bought a house. Like everyone else I saw my life transformed by a pandemic. For those reasons alone this epoch will remain very memorable.

As for the politics and public happenings, well, I have hitherto not been secretive about my thoughts on the soon-to-be-former president. But as this exercise is meant to take a bird’s-eye view of things, here are four lessons from the Trump presidency.

1. Hypocrisy is cheap

Accusing someone of hypocrisy is very satisfying. The problem is it doesn’t achieve the intended goal of shaming someone into changing their beliefs or behavior. Instead it does the opposite, making the accused feel defensive and therefore much more likely to double down on their beliefs regardless of the facts—and probably just deploy whataboutism, one of many cheap logical fallacies for people who lack any affirmative argument for their own stance.

Pointing out that Mitch McConnell was a hypocrite for allowing the nomination and vote for a Supreme Court justice in an election year (an election week!) might be true, but so what? Like he cared? Similarly, pointing out Joe Biden’s history of inappropriate sexual behavior and Kamala Harris’s criticism of this before becoming his Vice President are hypocritical to their anti-Trump message was unlikely to sway most like-minded supporters against voting for them.

Perhaps this comes off as pessimistic, but it’s just a realistic understanding of human nature. Politics is people. Accusations of hypocrisy, however tempting, are just not effective for persuading your ideological opponents to help you achieve a political objective.

2. Presidents should tweet more (but better)

Hot take: it’s a good thing Trump used Twitter so actively.

To be clear, I’m not talking about his actual tweets, which were occasionally anodyne but most often downright deranged and completely unbecoming a head of state—so much so they got him rightfully banned from Twitter.

Rather it was the act of tweeting itself that represented a sea change in how to adapt the presidency’s traditional “bully pulpit” to our globalized, tech-infused zeitgeist. Trump wasn’t the first president to use Twitter, but he was the first to weaponize it.

We didn’t have to wait to hear the president’s thoughts filtered through press secretaries and sanitized speeches; we often got it straight from the source, immediately and with vigor. This is a trend outside of politics as well, with celebrities and athletes using the direct nature of social media to cut out meddling middlemen and control their own message as far as they’re able.

The downsides to this change are obvious. It’s not good for anyone—let alone the president—to be Too Online and so easily distracted by, as Spiro Agnew would put it, the “nattering nanobs of negativity” on social media. And when the president uses said bully pulpit to spew insane conspiracy theories, spearhead crusades against opponents (and just as often allies), sling obvious lies, and foment insurrection against his own government (!), it’s easy to see why it’s not worth any of the potential upside.

But with a more salutary person and message behind it, this strategy can benefit more than just a politician’s addled ego. It can show the country and the world that the president is paying attention to what’s happening and intends to use their influence to affect change—hopefully for the better.

Certainly this won’t happen in the Biden administration, as his campaign’s key (and clearly successful) strategy was to remain on the defensive and avoid social media squabbles. But odds are the next president who isn’t a senior citizen will take their tweeting to the next level.

3. Federalism is good

This isn’t something I learned under Trump, but I did appreciate it anew. Federalism is generally defined as the balance of power divided between the federal government and the states. Critics will point to how “states’ rights” has historically been used as a coded justification for perpetuating unjust laws (e.g. slavery, segregation). This is indeed unfortunate for many reasons. But the concept of states’ rights is, on the whole, good, and the proof of this is the 2020 election.

Though I’m sympathetic to arguments against the Electoral College, I think every patriotic American should be grateful our elections are administered and certified by counties and states rather than a centralized national authority. Can you imagine the executive branch being in charge of elections? Especially this executive branch?

When you extend that reasoning to other issues, you can see why it’s valuable for states to act as built-in safeguards against very real autocratic threats against our very fragile democratic system. The reason Trump tried so ardently and pathetically to cudgel Georgia’s Secretary of State into committing voter fraud (to cite one of many documented examples of his malfeasance) is because as president he legally can’t do anything else.

Cheers to federalism!

4. The presidency is broken, but it still matters

I wrote early in this term about the position’s inherent brokenness. A lot of what was controversial about Trump’s actions as president happened not only because of his decisions but because the existing infrastructure around him—or rather lack thereof—allowed it. “Norms”, after all, are only useful as guardrails against wrongdoing until someone abnormal or shameless comes along and completely ignores them.

And even then, since Congress only applies its accountability powers selectively and on partisan terms, anti-corruption laws that do exist are rendered moot if those in charge of enforcing them lose their nerve. As such, Americans are very often at the mercy of executive action.

(As fake Abraham Lincoln says in Lincoln: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”)

Thus the presidency becomes what its occupant makes of it—for good and ill. There were many examples of this during the last four years, but the response to Covid-19 was the perfect synecdoche for all of them. This was an instance where lack of executive action proved severely costly in lives and livelihoods.

Covid-19 really was the perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to shine. He’s very anti-China, very germaphobic, and very enthusiastic about closing borders and keeping out foreigners. Even unpopular leaders in other countries saw their approval ratings rise due to their strong responses to combating the coronavirus, and yet Trump’s cratered and most likely cost him reelection.

It’s important to point out that the economic and medical devastation related to Covid-19 in the United States is not solely Trump’s fault. We know lots of factors contribute, as even other countries that were much more responsive have struggled to contain it. But his indifference, even contempt, toward basic preventative public health measures and the idea of helping anyone who didn’t profess sufficient fealty to him indicated severe myopia at best and destructive nihilism at worst.

This abdication of leadership has contributed to (as of today) over 375,000 American deaths and a record-high 81 million votes against him in 2020. Combine that with all the ways Trump chose to actively wield his executive power for ill—or for his own financial gain—and he becomes the perfect archetype for the kind of person who should never be in any position of power, let alone the presidency.

Grand Old Covfefe

The Trump presidency was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. I largely agree with everything David Frum wrote about the good that came out of this administration. To ignore that is to deny reality, which is something I’ll leave to the “Trump won the election” mob.

I sincerely hope this is the last time I feel compelled to write about Trump, either Donald or any other. I’m sick of his depravity, stupidity, the braggadocio mixed with impotence, and most of all the malice. Over the last few years I have called him (or quoted someone calling him) a cancer on the republic, chaotic and vapid, playing havoc with our lives, a “marvelously efficient acid bath”, and more.

Over and over again I have, sadly, been validated. Words from “Your Obedient Servant” from Hamilton come to mind (directed, notably, at another American insurrectionist):

I stand by what I said
Every bit of it
You stand only for yourself
It’s what you do
I can’t apologize because it’s true

Trump will soon be gone from his presidential perch. But even then he will remain the summum bonum of the GOP, what was once a functional conservative party but is now, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “a paranoid, delusional personality cult.”

I greatly respect the conservatives and Republicans who have dissented from this delusion, who have seen Trump for what he is and proclaimed such at great cost. These people retain the conscience of the once Grand Old Party, but unfortunately not the control.

Playing havoc

Jay Rosen, writing back in May about the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19, remains accurate:

To wing it without a plan is merely the best this government can do, given who heads the table. The manufacture of confusion is just the ruins of Trump’s personality meeting the powers of the presidency. There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives.

Four months old

The Boy just turned 4 months old and is absolutely perfect. He is starting to roll over, has recently discovered his own feet, and is super chubby and smiley.

So you can imagine my reaction when I read “The Youngest Child Separated From His Family at the Border Was 4 Months Old” in the New York Times:

Constantin was ultimately the youngest of thousands of children taken from their parents under a policy that was meant to deter families hoping to immigrate to the United States. It began nearly a year before the administration would acknowledge it publicly in May 2018, and the total number of those affected is still unknown. The government still has not told the Mutus why their son was taken from them, and officials from the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment for this story.

In Constantin’s case, it would be months before his parents saw him again. Before then, his father would be sent for psychiatric evaluation in a Texas immigration detention center because he couldn’t stop crying; his mother would be hospitalized with hypertension from stress. Constantin would become attached to a middle-class American family, having spent the majority of his life in their tri-level house on a tree-lined street in rural Michigan, and then be sent home.

Now more than a year and a half old, the baby still can’t walk on his own, and has not spoken.

The Trump administration and its sycophants are a cancer upon the republic.

Just when I think

Just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this, and totally redeem yourself!

Dumb & Dumber

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.

The broken presidency

I love John Dickerson for the Slate Political Gabfest and his presidential history podcast, and now I love him for his recent cover story in The Atlantic about how the office of the presidency is broken and was so way before Trump:

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.

Magazine Mashups: Google searches its fortune

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’s Razor

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.

— Thomas Friedman

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.

Happy Presidents Day, everyone!

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

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 book So 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.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(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

Ursula Le Guin on the ‘media golem’

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.

Or: just don’t look.

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.

Trump: a “marvelously efficient acid bath”

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 editor John 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.