What's Wrong With Donald Trump? Are There Flaws?
Let's leave aside today's Rolling Stone interview with Bruce Springsteen that saw the rock icon declare Trump's candidacy "a tragedy for our democracy" and the candidate himself "a moron, basically." I can't imagine there's a DWT reader who doesn't already know that. In the video above, you can watch ABC News' Brian Ross reporting on Trump's financial entanglements with Russia. Another huge batch of retired high-ranking military officers didn't need to see it before signing onto a joint statement about Trump's unfitness for the presidency. Trump, said Army General Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO, "doesn’t do his homework. There’s nothing in Donald Trump’s background that shows us he’s anything other than totally consumed by self-interest." 15 of the retired officers but up the money to make this video about why they trust Clinton and why they don't trust Trump. Rear Admiral Jamie Barentt provided the context: "This is one of the most consequential elections we've ever had. On the one hand we have Hillary Clinton, who has had so much experience, understanding, good judgment, level head, great relations with our allies. On the other hand: Donald Trump, who's consistently shown himself to be belligerent, impulsive, a bully..."
There are two New Yorker pieces published this week that I want to call your attention to, one by Evan Osnos on what we can surmise about Trump's first term from his own statements, and the other by Jelani Cobb on how Joseph McCarthy is the model for Trump's relations with the media.
Trump's connection to McCarthy, one of there arch-villains of American history-- which makes Ann Coulter such a devotee-- is through the slime-bag fixer they shared, notoriously corrupt and dishonest attorney (disbarred) Roy Cohn. Cobb, in pointing out that Trump has shown himself to be a mendacious demagogue, has a "hostile relationship with facts" and accuses him of being "the second coming of Joseph McCarthy. Trump and McCarthy share not only the kindred traits of demagogues-- bombast and the manipulation of public fear in the service of their own ends-- but a curiously close, almost familial resemblance. McCarthy’s hallucinatory anti-Communism was facilitated in part by a kind of swaggering masculinity that he deployed to differentiate himself from his patrician G.O.P. colleagues. He distorted his record of military service to portray himself as a fearless fighter against unambiguous evil. As with Trump’s, McCarthy’s world view was defined by a hypertensive, conspiratorial outlook... Trump’s Presidential campaign has been a miasma of conspiracy theories, virtually from the outset. Yet those parallels-- disturbing as they may be-- are surpassed by the similarities between Trump and McCarthy’s relationships with the press."
McCarthy’s demagogy was essentially enabled by a symbiotic press corps that was both frustrated by the senator’s pervasive dishonesty and beholden to him as a source of public interest and, therefore, newspaper sales. As David Oshinsky points out in A Conspiracy So Immense, his biography of McCarthy, the version of “objective” journalism in which the media simply reports the statements made by public figures, irrespective of their veracity, is uniquely vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues and serial liars. As Oshinsky writes,Onset reminded his readers that "many of Trump’s policy positions are fluid. He has adopted and abandoned (and, at times, adopted again) notions of arming some schoolteachers with guns, scrapping the H-1B visas admitting skilled foreign workers, and imposing a temporary “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has said, 'Everything is negotiable,' which, to some, suggests that Trump would be normalized by politics and constrained by the constitutional safeguards on his office... Many from Trump’s party say they do not expect him to fulfill some of his most often stated vows." But as Osnos showed "campaigns offer a surprisingly accurate preview of Presidencies. In 1984, the political scientist Michael Krukones tabulated the campaign pledges of all the Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter and found that they achieved seventy-three per cent of what they promised. Most recently, PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking site, has assessed more than five hundred promises made by Barack Obama during his campaigns and found that, to the irritation of his opponents, he has accomplished at least a compromised version of seventy per cent of them."
Quite often, then, the reporter becomes a conveyor belt for material he knows to be false. He is helpless because the system inhibits him from imparting his version of the truth. In McCarthy’s case this objective approach was particularly frustrating. “My own impression was that Joe was a demagogue,” a newsman remarked. “But what could I do? I had to report-- and quote-- McCarthy. How do you say in the middle of your story ‘This is a lie’? The press is supposedly neutral.”Strip away the default male pronouns, and this is similar to the situation that confronts the media covering Donald Trump in 2016-- and precisely the kind of enabling that Chris Wallace’s refusal to fact-check during the Presidential debate he will moderate might resurrect. One McCarthy-era Kansas newspaper took to printing parenthetical corrections next to false statements by the senator-- an approach that has found favor again in the Trump era. At the same time, the sheer volume of untruth McCarthy generated and the challenges of fact checking in the analog era of news reporting insured that a significant number of his lies made their way into print and were accepted as valid by a portion of the public susceptible to his manipulation. McCarthy struck back at journalists-- in one instance literally, slapping and kicking Drew Pearson, a syndicated columnist-- who did challenge his feverish distortions, labelling them dupes or knowing participants in Communist conspiracies. It should also be remembered that McCarthy’s disastrous feud with Edward R. Murrow was prefaced by an attempt to intimidate the CBS anchor away from critical coverage of McCarthy’s anti-Communist broadsides. Instead, the effort prompted Murrow to create a television segment pulling together McCarthy’s most transparently demagogic and embarrassing moments, which was rapturously received by the public.
...It’s worth recalling that McCarthy’s demise came about not as a result of his disingenuous use of anti-Communism as a cudgel against his Democratic opponents but because he continued lobbing those grenades once the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected. There is an operative lesson here for both Republicans and the media. Demagogues are incapable of maintaining an allegiance to interests other than their own. And those who are most responsible for showing the public exactly who they are might well be those who’ve previously benefitted from their presence.
When Trump talks about what he will create and what he will eliminate, he doesn’t depart from three core principles: in his view, America is doing too much to try to solve the world’s problems; trade agreements are damaging the country; and immigrants are detrimental to it. He wanders and hedges and doubles back, but he is governed by a strong instinct for self-preservation, and never strays too far from his essential positions. Roger Stone, a long-serving Trump adviser, told me it is a mistake to imagine that Trump does not mean to fulfill his most radical ideas. “Maybe, in the end, the courts don’t allow him to temporarily ban Muslims,” Stone said. “That’s fine-- he can ban anybody from Egypt, from Syria, from Libya, from Saudi Arabia. He’s a Reagan-type pragmatist.”Take action... for real:
William Antholis, a political scientist who directs the Miller Center, at the University of Virginia, pointed out that President Trump would have, at his disposal, “the world’s largest company, staffed with 2.8 million civilians and 1.5 million military employees.” Trump would have the opportunity to alter the Supreme Court, with one vacancy to fill immediately and others likely to follow. Three sitting Justices are in their late seventies or early eighties.
...As President, Trump would have the power to name some four thousand appointees, but he would face a unique problem: more than a hundred veteran Republican officials have vowed never to support him, and that has forced younger officials to decide whether they, too, will stay away or, instead, enter his Administration and try to moderate him. By September, the campaign was vetting four hundred people, and some had been invited to join the transition team. An analogy was making the rounds: Was Trump a manageable petty tyrant, in the mold of Silvio Berlusconi? Or was he something closer to Mussolini? And, if so, was he Mussolini in 1933 or in 1941?
Michael Chertoff served both Bush Presidents-- as a U.S. Attorney in Bush, Sr.,’s Administration, and then as Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. He was one of fifty senior Republican national-security officials who recently signed a letter declaring that Trump “would be the most reckless President in American history.” Chertoff told me that he has been approached for advice by younger Republicans who ask if joining Trump, after he has already been elected, would be regarded as patriotic, rather than political. “I think anybody contemplating going in will have to have a very serious look in their own conscience, and make sure they’re not kidding themselves,” Chertoff said.
Trump’s Presidential plans are not shaped by ideology. He changed parties five times between 1999 and 2012, and, early on the campaign trail, he praised parts of Planned Parenthood (while opposing abortion), vowed to protect Social Security, and supported gay rights (while opposing same-sex marriage). He is governed, above all, by his faith in the ultimate power of transaction-- an encompassing perversion of realism that is less a preference for putting interests ahead of values than a belief that interests have no place for values.
...Some of Trump’s promises would be impossible to fulfill without the consent of Congress or the courts; namely, repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes, and opening up “our libel laws” that protect reporters, so that “we can sue them and win lots of money.” (In reality, there are no federal libel laws.)... However, Trump could achieve many objectives on his own. A President has the unilateral authority to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, to order a ban on Muslims, and to direct the Justice Department to give priority to certain offenses, with an eye to specific targets. During the campaign, he has accused Amazon of “getting away with murder tax-wise,” and vowed, if he wins, “Oh, do they have problems.”
...Modern Presidents have occasionally been constrained by isolated acts of disobedience by government officials. To confront terrorism, Trump has said, “you have to take out their families,” work on “closing that Internet up in some ways,” and use tactics that are “frankly unthinkable” and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” General Michael Hayden, a former head of the C.I.A. and of the National Security Agency, predicts that senior officers would refuse to carry out those proposals. “You are required not to follow an unlawful order,” he has said.
Donald Trump would be the first Commander-in-Chief with no prior experience in public office or at high levels of the military. As a candidate, he has said that he would not trust American intelligence officials (“the people that have been doing it for our country”) and declared, “I know more about isis than the generals do.” Once he became the nominee, Trump received his first batch of top-secret information. During a national intelligence briefing at his offices in New York, he was accompanied by retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a senior adviser who reportedly kept interrupting the briefing with questions and comments until Christie asked him to calm down. (The campaign denied that account.) Trump later told a television interviewer that the briefers’ “body language” indicated that “they were not happy” with Obama.
Intelligence professionals faulted Trump for publicly discussing, and politicizing, a classified briefing. Several national-security officials told me that a determining factor in any President’s approach would be his response to a shock-- say, a crippling power outage that might be terrorism or might not. “Would he or she be impetuous?” Jim Woolsey, a Trump adviser who served as director of Central Intelligence from 1993 to 1995, asked. “One thing you can be pretty sure of is that the first report is almost always wrong, at least partially. When the President of the United States says, ‘I just got a report-- the United States military forces are under attack,’ it is very hard for anybody to stand in the way of that.”
In Trump: Think Like a Billionaire (2004), Trump wrote that others “are surprised by how quickly I make big decisions, but I’ve learned to trust my instincts and not to overthink things.” He added, “The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience.” He prides himself on vengeance and suspicion. “If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck!” he wrote, in 2007. “Be paranoid,” he said in 2000.
For many years, Trump has expressed curiosity about nuclear weapons. In 1984, still in his thirties, he told the Washington Post that he wanted to negotiate nuclear treaties with the Soviets. “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” he said. “I think I know most of it anyway.” According to Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton, Trump encountered a U.S. nuclear-arms negotiator at a reception in 1990 and offered advice on how to cut a “terrific” deal with a Soviet counterpart. Trump told him to arrive late, stand over the Soviet negotiator, stick his finger in his chest, and say, “Fuck you!” Recently, a former Republican White House official whom Trump has called on for his insights told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”
...Trump’s overarching argument to voters has been, in the end, economic: as President, he would draw on his business experience, “surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” and lead Americans to greater prosperity. Some aides did not help fortify that proposition: Trump fired his first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who manhandled a female reporter, and then forced out his chief strategist, Paul Manafort, after Manafort was weakened by allegations of unreported lobbying and secret cash payments from leaders in Ukraine. (Manafort has denied these allegations.
To understand whom Trump trusts to put policy vision into practice, I contacted Stephen Miller, his national director of policy, who serves as a fiery warmup speaker at Trump rallies. Miller, who is thirty-one, worked for Michelle Bachmann, of Minnesota, and, later, for Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, a prominent Republican critic of free-trade deals and illegal immigration. Miller has been described by Politico as “a deeply unsettling figure, even to many in his own party,” in part because of his writings in college and high school. While attending Duke University, Miller accused the poet Maya Angelou of “racial paranoia” and described a student organization as a “radical national Hispanic group that believes in racial superiority.” Miller asked me to speak to several of Trump’s advisers on the economy and trade.
For economic advice, the campaign enlisted the Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore, who co-founded the Club for Growth, a conservative lobbying group. At fifty-six, Moore is amiable and unpretentious, “a little bit scatterbrained,” by his own description. (During the 2000 campaign, he forgot to mark on his calendar an invitation to brief the candidate George W. Bush, foreclosing the prospect of a job in the White House.) In 2012, he helped Herman Cain, the former C.E.O. of Godfather’s Pizza, develop his “9-9-9” plan, which would have narrowed the tax code to three categories, capped at nine per cent.
Moore visited Trump on his plane, and, during a series of meetings, he and others crafted an economic plan based on the cornerstone of supply-side economics: cut taxes to encourage people to work and businesses to invest. “That’s basically the theory there,” Moore said. “This is the signature issue for conservatives since Reagan went into office. This has been the battle between the left and the right. The liberals say tax rates don’t matter”-- for stimulating growth. “We say they do.”
Trump’s team focussed, above all, on reducing the business tax rate. Moore said, “What I recommended to him is this should be your stimulus to the economy-- do this in the first hundred days.” Economists’ reactions have been mixed. Paul Krugman, the left-leaning Nobel laureate, argued that the supply-side argument was refuted by a basic fact: job growth has been higher under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than under George W. Bush. Moore counters that Reagan achieved job growth through tax cuts.
The other half of Trump’s economic thinking is his view that “we are killing ourselves with trade pacts that are no good for us.” As President, he would have the legal authority to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the North American Free Trade Agreement, to impose tariffs on categories of goods from China, and-- if the World Trade Organization objects to his actions-- to withdraw from the W.T.O., just as President Bush withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, in 2002.
But interviews with Trump’s trade advisers leave no doubt that this is a kind of theatre-- a bluff, which, they believe, will achieve their aims without actual tariffs. In 2006, Dan DiMicco, the former C.E.O. of Nucor Corporation, the largest steel producer in the United States, which has faced heavy Chinese competition, self-published a book called “Steeling America’s Future: A CEO’s Call to Arms.” Long before most Republicans foresaw the political backlash against free trade, DiMicco wrote, “Shame on our government leaders if they refuse to provide us with a level playing field on which to compete.”
DiMicco, a blunt, barrel-chested New York native, used his position at Nucor to publicize his argument in television interviews, and Trump contacted him. “We had a discussion about China back then, about trade, cheating, and all those issues,” DiMicco told me. Now a member of Trump’s Economic Advisory Council, he has visited Trump in New York, and he prides himself on offering unconventional advice. To deal with China, he says, the United States should act like an aggressive patient at a dentist’s office: “Here’s how the patient deals with the dentist: sits down in the chair, grabs the dentist by the nuts, and says, ‘You don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you.’ ”
Peter Navarro, Trump’s senior policy adviser on trade and China, is a business professor at the University of California at Irvine. He does not speak Chinese, and he is at odds with many mainstream China scholars, but he has directed documentaries, including Death by China, and written books such as The Coming China Wars. During a lull at the Republican National Convention, Navarro told me that he argues for the need to “balance the trade deficit.” He said, “If you simply do that, it sets in motion a process where you grow faster, there’s more employment, that pushes real wages up, and that floods the government coffers with tax revenues, and then you’re able to pay for the infrastructure and social services and defense, which have been neglected.” He added, “You focus on the trade deficit and good things happen. That’s the philosophy of Donald Trump.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit, an economic-and-geopolitical-analysis firm, has ranked the prospect of a Trump victory on its top-ten risks to the global economy. Larry Summers, the Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary, predicts that, taken together, Trump’s economic and trade policies would help trigger a protracted recession within eighteen months. Even if Trump stops short of applying tariffs, Summers told me, “the perception that we might well be pursuing hyper-nationalist policies would be very damaging to confidence globally and would substantially increase the risk of financial crises in emerging markets.”
If Trump followed through on tariffs, the effects could be larger still. Mark Zandi, a centrist economist who has advised Republicans and Democrats and is now the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, a research firm, forecasts that Trump’s trade plan could trigger a trade war that would put roughly four million Americans out of work, and cost the economy three million jobs that would have been created in Trump’s absence.
But Trump would not need to take any of those steps to have an abrupt effect on the economy. His belief in the power of the threat, which he has used in private business, takes on another meaning if he is the leader of a country with national-debt obligations. In May, Trump, whose businesses have declared bankruptcy four times, said, “I’ve borrowed knowing that you can pay back with discounts,” and “if the economy crashed you could make a deal.” The notion that he might try to make creditors accept less than full payment on U.S. government debt caused an outcry. Under criticism, he clarified, to the Wall Street Journal, that U.S. “bonds are absolutely sacred,” but the incident left an enduring impression on the financial community.
Anthony Karydakis, the chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak, an asset manager, told me that a Trump victory is now generally regarded as “a major destabilizing development for financial markets.” He went on, “If he ever even alludes to renegotiating the debt, we will have a downgrade of U.S. debt, and that event will cause a massive exodus of foreign investors from the U.S. Treasury market.” In 2011, when feuding in Congress delayed raising the debt limit, the stock market fell seventeen per cent. This would be a far larger event. “The rating agencies could not ignore the comment,” he said. “The cornerstone of the right to raise sovereign debt is the willingness and ability of the government to service it normally and fully.” He added, “The markets have no patience for stupidity or ignorance. They get scared.”
For more than a year, Trump has encouraged supporters to regard him as a work in progress-- “Everything is negotiable”-- and the ambiguity has ushered him to the threshold of power. But envisaging a Trump Presidency has never required an act of imagination; he has proudly exhibited his priorities, his historical inspirations, his instincts under pressure, and his judgment about those who would put his ideas into practice. In “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire,” he included a quote from Richard Conniff, the author of “The Natural History of the Rich”: “Successful alpha personalities display a single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world, an irrational belief in unreasonable goals, bordering at times on lunacy.”
Trump’s vision, even his “irrational belief in unreasonable goals,” was never a charade. In the early decades of this century, Americans have sometimes traced our greatest errors to a failure of imagination: the inability to picture a terrorist, in a cave, who is able to strike; the hubris to ignore extensive State Department predictions of what would come of the invasion of Iraq.
Trump presents us with the opposite risk: his victory would be not a failure of imagination but, rather, a retreat to it-- the magical thought that his Presidency would be something other than the campaign that created it.