Tag Archives: 2016 election

Rigged?

The relationship between the Clinton campaign and the DNC was more incestuous than we thought. Does it follow that the primaries were rigged and the nomination was stolen?


Thursday, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile rocked the Democratic Party when an excerpt from her upcoming book was released by Politico. It begins shortly after the 2016 Convention, with Brazile taking the DNC’s acting chairmanship and promising Bernie Sanders that she’ll “get to the bottom of whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process”. Though the excerpt never again uses the word rigged (and Brazile herself denied Sunday that the primaries were rigged), her strong implication is that the answer is Yes:

By September 7, the day I called Bernie, I had found my proof and it broke my heart.

The basic story she tells is that in 2015 the DNC was deep in debt, the Clinton campaign bailed it out, and in return it got control over many DNC decisions, like who the communications director would be, and veto power over a few other appointments. The memo outlining this agreement has since come out. As Brazile says, it outlines a surprising and ethically questionable degree of incest between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. However, it also includes this paragraph, which Brazile didn’t mention:

Nothing in this agreement shall be construed to violate the DNC’s obligation of impartiality and neutrality through the Nominating process. All activities performed under this agreement will be focused exclusively on preparations for the General Election and not the Democratic Primary.

So the big questions are: In spite of that paragraph, did the DNC violate its obligation of impartiality and neutrality? If so, did it do so in ways that made a material difference? And does this validate the claims Sanders supporters have been making all along, that the nomination was stolen away from Bernie?

How it looked at the time. During the campaign, claims from Sanders supporters that Clinton was rigging the primaries would periodically show up in my social-media feeds, and I’d check them out as well as an ordinary person with access to the internet reasonably could. I never found anything that held up, or that went beyond what I considered normal politics, where candidates are always jockeying for some kind of advantage.

It was clear to me that people at the DNC were rooting for Hillary to win, but I didn’t consider that shocking. If you’re in politics, you have political opinions; nobody is neutral in their hearts. Folks at the RNC were obviously rooting against Trump, too, and would have been much happier nominating Bush or Rubio. (I’m sure if you bugged the umpire’s locker room at a baseball stadium, you’d occasionally hear them talking about players they like and don’t like, because they were all baseball fans before they became umpires.) The question isn’t what DNC officials thought, or even the opinions that they traded with each other in emails they didn’t expect anyone else to see. The question what they did.

Brazile comments on that:

I had tried to search out any other evidence of internal corruption that would show that the DNC was rigging the system to throw the primary to Hillary, but I could not find any in party affairs or among the staff. I had gone department by department, investigating individual conduct for evidence of skewed decisions, and I was happy to see that I had found none.

Most of the theories I kept seeing went far beyond what the DNC would be able to do, even if it was completely suborned. Anything to do with polling places and vote-counting, for example, was way outside their capabilities. State and local election boards run primaries, not party national committees. But any voting irregularity in the Democratic primaries — even if it seemed just as likely to target Clinton voters — became part of the Clinton-is-stealing-Bernie’s-votes lore.

The mainstream press went through the same process I did, which is why only two specific DNC-related actions are getting mentioned in the articles about Brazile’s book:

  • the schedule of Democratic debates seemed tilted toward the candidate who didn’t need debates to get voters’ attention,
  • Hillary’s campaign pushed the legal limits of its DNC  joint-fund-raising agreement, while Bernie’s campaign ignored theirs.

What’s new? Apparently, the Clinton campaign had more control over the DNC’s side of the joint-fund-raising money than we previously knew. That money was supposed to benefit the eventual nominee and the Party’s general-election effort as a whole. For the Clinton campaign to be in control of it was not right, but there are two very different possible levels of not-rightness here.

One possibility, the less toxic one, is that Clinton wanted the general-election machinery (data collection, polling, etc.) set up in a particular way, and didn’t want to wait until September to start doing it. This would be presumptuous, treating the nomination process as a foregone conclusion. But it would not have compromised the primary campaign. If Bernie had won, he would have found general-election machinery in place, ready for his use, but designed according to Hillary’s specifications.

The more toxic possibility is that the DNC’s money got funneled back into Clinton’s primary campaign, and was used against Bernie. If that’s true, that’s a very serious thing and heads should roll. Investigators should start looking for broken laws and start prosecuting people if they find any.

However, there was no evidence at the time that the second possibility was happening, and as far as I know there still isn’t. Brazile does not make that claim, and the documents she points to would seem to ban that, if they were followed. Anyone who wants to investigate that claim should have at it, and I’m willing to be convinced if any actual evidence shows up. But so far I haven’t seen any.

A spark in the gunpowder factory. People who write books often lead with something provocative and maybe a little overstated. It gets people talking about the book and makes it a must-read for anybody who wants to stay on top of the controversy. What Brazile has done in this excerpt, then, is not that unusual. (She does something similar elsewhere, telling a very unlikely story about the possibility of replacing Clinton with Biden after the convention. Throughout, Brazile portrays herself as being uniquely prescient about the coming debacle, despite the times when Clinton had double-digit leads in the polls.)

The problem is that her book isn’t coming out in a vacuum. In addition to debate schedules and other relatively minor things that appear to have actually happened, the pro-Bernie silo on the internet is still passing around charges of pro-Clinton vote-rigging and voter suppression that the evidence just does not support. It is an article of faith in certain circles that Bernie was the true choice of the voters, who had Clinton imposed on them by nefarious means.

It’s worth remembering the official vote totals. In the Democratic primaries as a whole, Clinton got 16.9 million votes, more than 55%. Her margin over Sanders was 3.7 million votes. Claiming that Sanders actually won requires believing in a fraud of the same scale as Trump’s claim that he actually won the popular vote in the general election.

In this environment, using the word rigged tells the conspiracy theorists that they were right all along. The claims Brazile is actually making may be fairly narrow, but the conclusions that people with prior opinions will draw from it are much broader.

The Trump parallel. It’s useful to compare Sanders’ situation on the Democratic side with Trump’s on the Republican side. Both were outsider candidates running against the party establishment, harnessing grass-roots discontent and anger. In each case, the party establishment believed it would be suicidal to nominate the outsider.

Going into the 2016 cycle, I think most observers would have claimed that the Republican establishment had more power than the Democratic. Democrats had a history of previously little-known candidates sweeping in: McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Obama. On the Republican side, nominations more typically went to the next guy in line. The power brokers of the GOP are more obvious and more powerful. No Democratic donor, for example, plays as large a role as the Koch brothers do on the Republican side.

And yet, Trump got nominated and Sanders didn’t. Trump’s path, I think, shows the overall weakness of party establishments in this era. Nobody at the RNC was able to marginalize Trump, or to force out minor candidates who were splitting the establishment vote. Throughout Trump’s rise, we kept hearing about the theory from The Party Decides, in which “invisible primaries” of insiders pick the nominee, and then insiders signal the voters, who ratify the insiders’ choice in primaries.

In 2016 that theory held on the Democratic side but not on the Republican, for the simple reason, I think, that Trump got the votes and Sanders didn’t. You may or may not like the fact that Democratic voters ratified Clinton as the nominee, but they did.

What should happen? To start with, Hillary Clinton has already told us that she’s not running for anything again, so unless laws were broken — and not even Brazile claims that — there’s really nothing to be done regarding her personally.

Obviously, the DNC will need to be extra transparent in the next cycle, and hopefully beyond. No one enters the 2020 cycle in the same commanding position Clinton had four years ago, though, so it’s hard to see how the same mistakes would be made anyway. But there needs to be some process by which we can all assure ourselves that no candidate is getting an unfair advantage from the Party.

Beyond that, there’s a bigger problem that affects the Republicans as well as the Democrats: Parties are open to being dominated by candidates like Clinton, or bullied by large donors like the Kochs, because they are inherently weak in this era. Bernie Sanders represents a different side of this problem: The Democratic Party isn’t something he belongs to (he doesn’t), it’s just a structure for seeking office.

Democrats suffer for this at the local level more than Republicans, because Republicans are more likely to be funded by state-level power brokers like North Carolina’s Art Pope, or by corporations who understand the power state government has to dole out favors. Democrats are more reliant on the star-power of national candidates like Obama or Clinton or Sanders, and the local parties correspondingly get short-changed.

It could be that we are in a transitional period, and parties will eventually go away, or come to mean something completely different. I wish I had something more to say about the coming structure, and whether it will be better or worse.

The Year of “This Can’t Be Happening”

In the 2015 Yearly Sift, I wrote:

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF? … I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

That was the best prediction I made all year. For me, the continuing mystery of 2016 was why anyone was voting for Donald Trump. I believed about him then more or less what I believe about him now: He has no qualifications to be president, and no insights about America that deserve a serious person’s attention. Truth means nothing to him. His life demonstrates no interest in anyone but himself and no discernible moral code. He brings out the worst in his followers, encouraging them to be more selfish, more hateful, and less thoughtful.

So why do so many people want him to be our president?

My first post of the new year flashed back to a post I wrote about the Tea Party in 2011: Working-class voters’ rage is like the famous wrong-way touchdown Jim Marshall scored in 1965. They have a right to be angry and to want to “take our country back”, but they’re trying to take it back from the wrong people. It’s not government and bureaucrats who have been stealing their opportunities, it’s corporations and billionaires. The Tea Party’s success had in fact given power to congressional Republicans who were doing their best to empower those oppressors and keep working people down. In short: They’re running the wrong way.

The only time working people have actually succeeded in taking the country back and bettering their lot was when they got behind a liberal: FDR.

You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.

Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.

I didn’t really expect Trump voters to switch to Bernie, but I thought the case needed to be made.

As for what they were doing with Trump, my explanation (in February) was that Trump was an “opportunistic infection” Republicans had left themselves open to.

All the weapons another candidate might use to take Trump down have been systematically dismantled. Are his “facts” wrong? Mitt Romney already burned that bridge in 2012. Do experts say his proposals are nonsense? There are no experts any more; if you feel a need for expert support, go invent your own experts like the Koch brothers and right-wing Christians do. Are his speeches full of racist dog-whistles? Politically correct nonsense! Racism ended in the 60s, except reverse-racism against whites. And if Republicans had to expel anybody who dog-whistled about Obama, they’d have no party left. Are there echoes of fascism in his giant rallies and cult of personality? In his celebration of real and imaginary violence against hecklers? In his fear-mongering about unpopular ethnic or religious groups? In his implication that specific policies are unnecessary, because all will follow from installing a Leader with sufficient Will? More nonsense: There is no fascism any more, unless you mean liberal fascism or Islamofascism.

With all the legitimate arguments of political discourse unavailable, other candidates were left to fight each other and wait for Trump to go away. And when Marco Rubio recently decided he finally had to take Trump on, the only weapon at hand was to tease him like a third-grader, suggesting that he wet his pants during a debate.

But by early March, I thought I knew what the right anti-Trump argument was: He’s a con man. Tear down his image as a master businessman and replace it with the more accurate view that he’s a predatory parasite. The Trump supporters hadn’t been horrified by his attacks on Mexicans or Muslims or the disabled or Megan Kelly, because they didn’t identify with any of those people. But the victims of Trump U and Trump Tampa and all the other Trump business scams do look like them.

Up until now, arguing with Trump supporters has been like telling your 17-year-old daughter that her 29-year-old boyfriend is no good for her: It’s obvious to you, but everything you say just reinforces the me-and-him-against-the-world mystique that has been driving the relationship from the beginning.

… You know what finally gets through to the 17-year-old? Meeting her boyfriend’s previous three teen-age girlfriends, the ones he dumped when they got pregnant. They look just like her — or at least they used to, before the single-mom lifestyle started to drag them down. Realizing that he told them all the things he’s telling her … that starts to mean something.

And that’s the message that’s emerging: Not that Trump is crude (which he is) or racist (which he is) or a proto-fascist (which he is) or unprepared for the presidency (which he is) or any of that. But he’s a con-man, and he hasn’t been conning Mexicans or Muslims or Megyn Kelly (who is too smart to fall for his bullshit). No, his career is all about conning the kind of people who support him now.

By September, he had been nominated, and his core supporters seemed impervious to any argument, including the con-man one. So I assembled a bunch of articles about who they were and what they might be thinking (especially Arlie Russell Hochschild’s account of their “deep story”) in “Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going“.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour.

Ultimately, though, no matter how hard I tried to understand them, I just couldn’t respect anyone so misguided and misinformed as to want to turn the country over to an ignorant huckster like Trump. That frustration boiled over in my election-eve post “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation“.

When did avoiding political correctness become a blanket excuse for being an asshole?

When Trump waves his arms around to make fun of a disabled man, when he suggests that Natasha Stoynoff isn’t attractive enough to assault, when he critiques Hillary Clinton’s butt in front of thousands of cheering fans, when he says that an Indiana-born Hispanic judge can’t be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican“, when he taunts a bereaved mother of a decorated Muslim-American soldier — that’s not “politically incorrect”. He’s just an asshole.

One my many failures of foresight this year was that I did not at all foresee Trump winning. The week after the election, I was in the Midwestern town where I grew up, asking “How did my home town become Trumpland?

All those people who stayed here without a family business to inherit, how did the town look to them? The promising kids who move away and never come back. The good jobs going to foreigners and to corporate climbers who are spending a few years in the sticks in hopes of returning to headquarters at a higher level. The acres of mansions that you can’t figure out who lives in them. How do they feel about all that?

The word that popped into my mind was colonized. Like this wasn’t their town any more.

But as much as I might (at times) empathize or sympathize with those Trump voters who don’t fit into one of the deplorable categories (racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe, Islamophobe), I’m left with the belief that they’ve done something stupid for both the country and themselves. Because whether my con-man argument convinced any of them or not, it’s true. The people who voted for him are the marks, and when his presidency starts to have real effects on the country, even they will see it. As I wrote last week in “How will they change their minds?

Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters. … Eventually people catch on, even if they don’t begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don’t have to believe the “liberal media” when the news is happening to you and the people you love.

… Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It’s something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them.

That’s a story I intend to keep following in 2017: What effects are Trump’s actions having on the people who voted for him, and are any of them starting to notice?

How did my home town become Trumpland?

[OK, I said I wasn’t going to do a Sift this week, and mostly I’m holding to that. But this single article just popped out.]

On the morning of Election Day, my wife and I cast our ballots in New Hampshire and then started driving west, heading to Quincy, Illinois, where I grew up. I didn’t think I was on a research trip. I just thought we would be visiting friends and that I would give a talk at the local Unitarian church.

We listened to the early returns on the radio, then stopped for the night in Erie, Pennsylvania. I went to bed comparatively early, around midnight. Ezra Klein had just explained why there probably weren’t enough uncounted Democratic votes in Wisconsin to erase Trump’s lead, and I decided I didn’t need to see any more.

At least Illinois was a blue state, called for Clinton shortly after the polls closed. But it differs from Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan mainly in that Chicago is a bigger city than Cleveland, Milwaukee, or Detroit. Once you get past the Chicago suburbs, you’ll find rural areas and small towns just like the ones that made Trump president.

Small towns like Quincy. It has roughly 40,000 people, a population level that has been fairly constant since it was a Mississippi riverport boom town in the 1840s. It is a small regional center, the biggest town for a hundred miles in any direction, and it dominates Adams County, which has a total population of 67,000. The vote totals from Adams County look like this:

Trump      22, 732
Clinton      7,633
Johnson    1,157
Stein              248

The people I had come to see are all liberal Unitarian Universalists, and their problems put mine in perspective. Like most Democrats, I felt kicked in the stomach by the election results. Trump’s victory didn’t feel like an ordinary defeat; even nearly a week later, it feels like a rejection of everything I believed America stood for. I have been looking at my country, wondering what had happened to it and where it might be headed. But my friends in Quincy are looking out their doors and feeling surrounded by the Trump signs in their neighbors’ yards. They weren’t surprised to see their town go Republican (and truthfully, neither was I), but Trump? Their neighbors?

If I were a real journalist, I would have spent my week interviewing local Trump supporters at random and telling you what they said. But to be honest, I didn’t have it in me. And over the last few months I’ve seen a number of such interviews on television and learned relatively little from them. (Some different language is being spoken, and I can’t crack it. Wednesday morning, during breakfast back at the hotel in Erie, I overheard a table of people telling each other that Hillary was corrupt, but Trump just wanted to do what was right for America. I don’t know how anyone can look at Trump’s long history as a con man and come to that conclusion, but I suspected that asking that question wouldn’t have gotten me an enlightening answer.)

Instead, I did what I usually do in Quincy: I walked. It’s a very walkable town, much of it unchanged since I was a boy. But some of it has changed, and as I walked I thought about that in a new way.

By now, Quincy has exported most of two generations of intellectual talent. At my high school reunions, people mostly fall into three groups: the few who inherited local family businesses and are doing fine; a much larger group that got a college education, moved away, and are mostly also doing quite well; and a third group of probably about the same size that didn’t go to college, stayed, and are surviving. (The people who don’t survive, I suppose, don’t show up at reunions.)

Like any regional center, Quincy requires trained professionals — the town’s biggest employer is the local hospital — which it mostly imports. A few years ago, when I was coming home often and spending far too much time with my parents’ doctors, those doctors were mostly Asians. (The doctors I remember from growing up were old white men with names like Brenner and Johnson.) When I would read articles in the local paper about my old high school, the prize-winning kids would often not have the Germanic names of old Quincy families, but names I associate with China or India.

In the mid-20th century, Quincy was a manufacturing center. My Dad worked in one of the factories, which had been owned by a local family; the corporate headquarters was one building over from the manufacturing plant. The company has long since been sold to ADM, headquartered in Chicago 300 miles away. I doubt it employs nearly so many people now, or that the high school graduates who work there make enough money to own a house and send their children to college. Most of the town’s other factories are either gone completely or are shadows of their former selves.

One other striking difference from the town of my youth is the subdivisions of McMansions on the east side of town, in areas that I remember as fields. When I saw them starting to go up, I was incredulous: Who in Quincy could afford them? I knew there were old families with old money, but surely not this many of them. But strangely, every year, there were more of them and they got bigger.

Eventually somebody explained it to me: Outsiders were retiring here. Quincy has a comparatively low cost of living (thanks in part, I imagine, to my high school classmates working for not much money), and low construction costs. If you sell your three-bedroom in St. Louis or Chicago, you can afford to build your dream house in Quincy.

I’ve known all this for a while, but I had never put it together before. This time, as I walked I wondered: All those people who stayed here without a family business to inherit, how did the town look to them? The promising kids who move away and never come back. The good jobs going to foreigners and to corporate climbers who are spending a few years in the sticks in hopes of returning to headquarters at a higher level. The acres of mansions that you can’t figure out who lives in them. How do they feel about all that?

The word that popped into my mind was colonized. Like this wasn’t their town any more.

Trump supporters have been telling us this for a while, of course. They’ve been saying “We need to take our country back.” But I had always interpreted that as metaphor, having something to do with gay rights and racial integration. But maybe they very literally feel like the natives in a colonial empire.

I don’t know why we’re having this conversation.

In order to persuade Trump voters, I’d have to understand them first. Believe me, I’ve tried.


For months I’ve been imagining the closing argument I would post the day before the election: a devastatingly persuasive case why voters should choose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

To a large extent I’d be preaching to the choir, of course, since most of my regular readers already agree with me. (That’s true for just about all bloggers.) But I’m sure a lot of them have friends or relatives who are undecided or leaning towards Trump. My convincing analysis would be something they could forward or quote, or maybe it would just help them marshal their thoughts before making some argument of their own.

It was a pleasant fantasy. But now it actually is the day before the election, and I have to admit failure: I can’t hope to convince Trump voters, because I can’t understand them. I can’t fathom why we are even having a national conversation about making Donald Trump president. Why did anyone ever think that was a good idea?

I’ve tried to understand. I’ve spent months listening to the Trump supporters I happen to run into, watching interviews with them on TV, reading books and articles about them, and even quieting my own revulsion as I listen to Trump so that I can look deep inside myself for something that responds to his message.

I got nothing.

As guys with erectile dysfunction often say: This doesn’t usually happen to me. I didn’t support John McCain or Mitt Romney, but I understood how other people could. (In 2012 I wrote an article claiming that Romney could win if he’d run as a problem-solver rather than an ideologue. I even included a campaign speech he could give.) Sure, I often thought “I don’t agree with that” or “I don’t think that’s true” when I watched McCain or Romney. But with Trump it’s different. All I can think is “What the hell is wrong with that guy?”

So I have no idea what his supporters are thinking. I can repeat some words back to you, but I can’t grasp why anyone believes them.

“Politicians have screwed this country up. Maybe it’s time to give one of our top businessmen a chance.” This could be the start of an interesting national conversation, if Trump were a top businessman. But he’s not, he just plays one on television. [1]

Yes, I know, Trump is rich. [2] But that’s because he was born rich. He inherited a New York real estate empire from his father, and the last few decades have been good to the New York real estate market. On the other hand, just about everything he’s done on his own, outside his father’s shadow — the bankrupt casinos, the failed airline, the mortgage company he opened just before the real-estate bubble popped — has been a disaster. Romney was right about Trump: “A business genius he is not.”

Now, I have to admit, he did pull off one good trick: He turned inherited wealth into celebrity, and then turned celebrity back into wealth (by charging people for the right to put his name on things he had nothing to do with). But you know who else has mastered that maneuver? Paris Hilton. Strangely, no one ever tells me that Paris Hilton should be president.

What else is he good at? He’s good at getting government subsidies. He’s good at avoiding taxes. He’s good at stiffing the small businessmen who work on his projects. He’s good at scamming middle-class people out of their money. If that’s the kind of stuff you admire in a businessman, then I guess Trump is your guy.

But the businessmen I admire see into the future. They change our lives by creating new products and new ways of doing things. They build opportunity for others. They bring prosperity to their communities, and enrich lots of other people, not just themselves. [3]

Donald Trump has never done any of that.

He’s also never done anything remotely like being President of the United States. And whatever you think of government service, President is not an entry-level job. We need somebody who can go in already knowing the major players, the major issues, and the nuts-and-bolts of how government functions. That’s not Trump, as you can see whenever anyone pushes him past the slogan level. [4]

I think Trae Crowder (a.k.a. the Liberal Redneck) nails something here:

Look, it’s like this. Think of your football team. Imagine y’all have been bad for years and years — not a stretch in my case. And imagine they fire the coach, and they come to you as a fan base and they say, “Look. You’re gonna love this new guy. He promises we’re gonna win twice as many games. We’re gonna score all kinds of points. He’s gonna go get our touchdowns back from the Mexicans. It’s gonna be awesome.”

You’d be like “Hell, yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. So where’s he coming from? Where’d he coach at before this?”

And they’re like, “Oh, actually he’s not a football coach. He’s a European soccer coach with the emotional intelligence and fingers of a fucking six-year-old. Also, he rapes.”

You’d be like, “What the fuck? No. Why would we do that? That would be an embarrassment to our program, to everything we stand for. No.”

Wouldn’t you?

“He’s not politically correct.” When did avoiding political correctness become a blanket excuse for being an asshole?

When Trump waves his arms around to make fun of a disabled man, when he suggests that Natasha Stoynoff isn’t attractive enough to assault, when he critiques Hillary Clinton’s butt in front of thousands of cheering fans, when he says that an Indiana-born Hispanic judge can’t be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican“, when he taunts a bereaved mother of a decorated Muslim-American soldier — that’s not “politically incorrect”. He’s just an asshole.

“He’s one of us.” You were born filthy rich? You attended expensive private schools? You’ve spent a bunch of your life hanging around with supermodels in Manhattan nightclubs? No? So how exactly do you feel similar to Donald Trump or imagine that he identifies with you?

Not only don’t I think Trump is “one of us” (whoever you think “we” are). I wonder if he even knows any of us, other than as flunkies he can boss around.

“But Hillary is so awful!” Really? Did you happen to watch the Benghazi hearings on TV?

This was like the eighth investigation of Benghazi, so by then every little detail had already been analyzed to death. And to hear folks like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tell it, Hillary had practically murdered those four guys with her bare hands. So a Republican-controlled House committee finally gets Clinton right where they want her: testifying under oath on national TV, where they can finally make her answer for every horrible thing she did.

And you know what? They didn’t lay a glove on her.

That’s a typical Hillary Clinton “scandal”. Fox and Breitbart and so forth are really good at ginning up wild charges and whipping their audiences into frenzies of rage. But when someone has to back those claims up with real evidence … there never was any.

Now we’re watching the same thing happen with her emails. (Remember how we got into the emails? That was where Republicans were going to find the smoking gun that nailed her for Benghazi. Seen it yet?) Again: lots of wild charges, lots of rage. Actual wrongdoing? Not so much.

For comparison, Trump faces a real court case that he managed to put off until after the election: his Trump University fraud. (He’s going to lose that lawsuit, because he really did defraud those people.) You know whose family foundation is a seething pile of corruption? Trump’s, not Clinton’s. Whose friends in the media have been hushing up scandal? Trump’s. His wife broke those immigration laws that he supposedly cares so much about enforcing. And the guy he tapped as the head of his transition team — the guy who is going to staff the new administration, in other words — is Chris Christie. Christie staffed his own administration in New Jersey with people who just got convicted of felonies.

What else could you be thinking? I can’t guess. Maybe you’re for Trump because you like being on the same side as the KKK and Vladimir Putin. Maybe you think American politics needs more playground insults like “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hillary”. Maybe you enjoy being told that you that you didn’t just see what you saw or hear what you heard. Maybe you’re sick of political spin and would rather hear a candidate tell whopping lies instead.

I know, I’m grasping at straws here, because I really don’t understand.

Donald Trump as President of the United States? I’ve got nothing to say. Why are we even having this conversation?


[1]  To get a sense of just what a manufactured character the “Donald Trump” of The Apprentice is, listen to the men who manufactured him: the show’s editors.

Setting up story beats to justify the contestant that Trump ultimately fired required editorial gymnastics, according to the show’s editors. Manipulating footage to invent a story point that did not exist organically is common in reality TV editing, although with The Apprentice, it proved a tremendous feat.

“We’d often be shocked at whomever Trump chose to fire,” Braun explained. “Our first priority on every episode like that was to reverse-engineer the show to make it look like his judgment had some basis in reality. Sometimes it would be very hard to do, because the person he chose did nothing. We had to figure out how to edit the show to make it work, to show the people he chose to fire as looking bad — even if they had done a great job.”

[2] Though probably not as rich as he says he is. He claims to be worth $10 billion, but some estimates place his net worth at less than a billion. You have to wonder why he has systematically avoided revealing anything (like tax returns) that could give us a clearer idea of his actual wealth.

[3] For enriching other people, look at Sam Walton or Bill Gates. Lots of ordinary folks are millionaires because they got close to those guys early in their careers and then hung on to their stock options. But the most frequent story you hear from people who have worked with Trump over the years is that he cheated them somehow.

[4] Take his signature issue, immigration: Do we need a “deportation force” to round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants and force them to leave? Or do we just focus on the “bad ones”, as President Obama is already doing? Trump says different things at different times, because he’s never really thought about how any of this works.

A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault

“It’s only been a week,” Liz Plank tweeted. “But we’ve all aged a year.”

Despite how ugly it’s been, though, the last ten days of the presidential campaign does have one redeeming feature: Sexual assault is being discussed in a setting where the whole country is listening.

I’m not naive enough to think that everyone is going to “get it” now and take a more enlightened attitude. (As someone once told me, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”) But men who are open to understanding the topic better might be paying attention now. Women who had repressed thinking about it, or comparing experiences with other women, might now be having those thoughts and conversations. Teens and even younger boys and girls might be learning that things they had come to accept as normal, or even OK, are really not.

I believe the country as a whole is getting a powerful lesson about four things:

  • how ubiquitous sexual assault is,
  • the myths so many of us believe about it,
  • why women often don’t tell anyone about it,
  • the tactics men use to get away with it.

#notokay. Twitter is famous for insults and snark, but the most powerful hashtags are the ones that gather testimony. Shortly after Trump’s Access Hollywood tape came out, author Kelly Oxford tweeted:

Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.

Last I checked, that had been re-tweeted more than 13 thousand times. Oxford reported that over the next weekend tweets came in at the rate of 50 per minute. On October 9, her Twitter feed got more than 20 million views.

Eventually she created the hashtag #notokay to move the discussion off her personal feed and open it to more than just first-assault stories.

This is something that pre-internet journalism couldn’t do. A 20th-century reporter could uncover one paradigmic story, or at most a handful of them, and tell those stories in a way that invited readers to identify or empathize, maybe adding a statistical claim that X% of women have had similar experiences. But there was no way to capture the sheer avalanche of testimony. Scrolling down the responses to Oxford’s original tweet, I was struck by their unity-in-diversity. The settings are infinitely varied: a bus, up against a door at granny’s, a couch at home, a bedroom at an aunt’s house, a Halloween party, a friend’s apartment, at work, at the supermarket. The perpetrators are strangers, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, cousins, uncles, teachers. Each tweet has its own unique details, yet pounds the same theme like a hammer.

And the hammer doesn’t stop. A TV news segment or a newspaper feature has to end, so you can leave with a feeling of being done. But a viral tweet defeats you; at some point you just decide to quit reading, knowing that there’s more and will always be more.

Liz Plank took that insight one step further and raised this question:

Trying to find ONE woman who has never experienced a man sexually touching her without their consent.

Scrolling through that hashtag, I still haven’t found the “I’m the one” tweet.

Myths. The typical folk explanation of sexual assault is simple: A man’s libido overcomes his impulse control. From there it’s a short trip to a long list of standard excuses and explanations:

  • virility. I just have such a strong sex drive, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by it.
  • it’s a compliment. You’re just so sexy, how could I stop myself?
  • it’s your fault. Your skirt is so short; your jeans are so tight; your neckline is so low. When you just put it all out there like that, what do you think is going to happen?
  • it’s inevitable. Boys will be boys. You can’t expect us to control ourselves all the time. (Or, as Trump put it on Twitter: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”)

and so on.

This is worse than just “objectification” of women, because we would never tolerate similar thinking about actual objects: If your drive for acquisition overcomes your impulse control, you’re a thief, period. The strength of your greed does you no credit; you’re not complimenting the wealth of the people you steal from; it’s not their fault for having such nice stuff or displaying it so attractively; and we don’t give in to the inevitability of theft whenever valuable objects are visible to people who might desire them. When it comes to object-lust, self-control is the price of staying in civilization; if you can’t muster it, we’ll lock you away.

But beyond moral considerations, that libido vs. control frame loses its explanatory power when you pay attention to women’s stories, or to the complexity of the male psyche. All women (or very nearly all) get victimized, not just the sexy, popular, or flirtatious ones. Sometimes it’s specifically the unpopular women, the ones no one is looking out for, who get assaulted. Sometimes it’s girls too young to understand what they’re supposedly “asking for”. Sometimes men are seeking dominance rather than pleasure. Sometimes it’s about asserting control over a woman whose self-assurance seems threatening. Sometimes it’s part of a man’s internal process that has nothing to do with the victim at all: Maybe assaulting a stranger is a man’s way of taking revenge on his spouse, or on the women who won’t go out with him. Maybe he’s been humiliated by his boss and wants to humiliate someone else to feel less helpless.

Another myth is that all men do it, or would if they were brave enough. At the very least, they wish they could do it and envy the men who do; so when they get together and trade “locker room talk”, they brag about real or imagined assaults the way Trump did with Billy Bush.

I remember believing something similar in junior high. (Maybe the worst thing Trump has done to me personally is make me remember junior high.) To see up a girl’s skirt or down her blouse, or to touch her somewhere we weren’t supposed to — it was a game: They defended the “goal” while we tried to “score”. To put it in a childish terms, it was like Yogi Bear trying to steal picnic baskets while the ranger tried to stop him. But imagine being an older Yogi, looking back at what once had seemed like youthful highjinks and realizing: “Oh my God, I was a bear. People must have been terrified.”

The earlier we can get that message to boys and young men, the better. And in some cases we are.

One afternoon, while reporting for a book on girls’ sexual experience, I sat in on a health class at a progressive Bay Area high school. Toward the end of the session, a blond boy wearing a school athletic jersey raised his hand. “You know that baseball metaphor for sex?” he asked. “Well, in baseball there’s a winner and a loser. So who is supposed to be the ‘loser’ in sex?”

Fortunately, this week many admired and imitated athletes came forward to say that the Trump/Bush conversation is not normal locker-room banter. Like LeBron James:

What is locker room talk to me? It’s not what that guy said. We don’t disrespect women in no shape or fashion in our locker room. That never comes up. Obviously, I got a mother-in-law, a wife, a mom and a daughter and those conversations just don’t go on in our locker room. What that guy was saying, I don’t know what that is. That’s trash talk.

Even Trump’s friend Tom Brady walked away from a microphone rather than defend him on this.

Why don’t they tell? One of Trump’s main defenses against his accusers has been: Why didn’t they say anything at the time? If these incidents have been happening for decades, why is this all coming out only now, just a few weeks before the election?

In particular, he wondered about People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff whose account of being shoved up against a wall and forcibly kissed by Trump while she was at Mar-a-Lago to interview Donald and Melania about their first anniversary seemed (to me) particularly compelling. He challenged her at a rally Thursday in Ohio:

I ask her a simple question. Why wasn’t it part of the story that appeared 12 years ago? Why didn’t they make it part of the story … if she had added that, it would have been the headline.

Picture what Trump is assuming: If Stoynoff had made such a claim against Trump, with no witnesses or physical evidence, her editors would have simply believed her, and would have been willing to put their magazine behind her in a battle against a famously litigious billionaire. Weigh the likelihood of that scenario against the explanation Stoynoff had already published before Trump spoke:

Back in my Manhattan office the next day, I went to a colleague and told her everything.

“We need to go to the managing editor,” she said, “And we should kill this story, it’s a lie. Tell me what you want to do.”

But, like many women, I was ashamed and blamed myself for his transgression. I minimized it (“It’s not like he raped me…”); I doubted my recollection and my reaction. I was afraid that a famous, powerful, wealthy man could and would discredit and destroy me, especially if I got his coveted PEOPLE feature killed.

“I just want to forget it ever happened,” I insisted. The happy anniversary story hit newsstands a week later and Donald left me a voicemail at work, thanking me.

“I think you’re terrific,” he said. “The article was great and you’re great.”

Yeah, I thought. I’m great because I kept my mouth shut.

Notice that the idea of making the assault part of the story never comes up; it’s not even suggested by Stoynoff’s colleague.

Liz Plank created the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport, which is another assemblage of testimony like this:

Because I was a medical student and he was the attending surgeon

Because he was my landlord. Because I was 21 and feared homelessness. Because my father told me to figure it out myself.

Because it was easier to pretend it didn’t happen than to face the police, the courts and my perpertrator.

But maybe the best explanation of why women don’t report sexual assault is watching Trump trash the ones who reported on him, which Plank wrote about in “Donald Trump is giving us a master class in #WhyWomenDontReport“.

While I was on set Wednesday night with Chris Hayes, [Trump spokesperson A.J. Delgado] said, “If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.”

Any reasonable woman?

Was it reasonable for Jessica Leeds to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Lou Dobbs tweet her personal phone number and address, exposing her private information to his hundreds of thousands of followers? Was it reasonable for Natasha Stoynoff to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Donald Trump suggest she was too ugly for him to be interested in sexually assault her?

Trump said his accusers are “doing [it] probably for a little fame. They get some free fame. It’s a total set-up.” But who exactly wants this kind of fame? Are any women out there watching Jessica Leeds or Natasha Stoynoff and thinking “I wish people would pay attention to me like that”?

And that brings us to men’s tactics.

Tactics. Between the debate Sunday and the first wave of new accusers coming forward Wednesday, Liz Plank used Trump’s debate performance as an example of the tactics of abusive men. She listed

  1. Humiliation. Trump’s pre-debate press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton wasn’t about seeking justice for them. It was about humiliating Hillary Clinton.
  2. Deflection. Trump minimized his behavior as “locker room talk”, and quickly segued to “ISIS chopping off heads”.
  3. Intimidation. He threatened to put Clinton in jail, and loomed behind her “in a way that almost made me feel unsafe for her”.
  4. Gaslighting. In other words: creating an entire alternate reality to make victims question their own perceptions and memories. For example, Trump asserted that it was Clinton, not him, who owes President Obama an apology for the birther movement. “So if you feel like you’re going insane during this election, that’s Donald Trump gas lighting you over and over and over.”

What we’ve seen since just bears this out. He’s been heaping humiliation on the women who have accused him. (They’re “horrible, horrible liars” who he obviously couldn’t have assaulted because they aren’t attractive enough.) He’s been deflecting his own guilt onto Bill Clinton (whose accusers should be believed even though Trump’s shouldn’t). He’s threatened completely ridiculous lawsuits against The New York Times and People for publishing women’s accounts of his misconduct. And (completely without evidence) he has gaslighted the nation by putting forward a theory that makes him the victim of a conspiracy involving the global financial elite and the entire corporate media. (He’s not a sleazeball who abuses women, he’s a messianic hero who suffers these outrageous attacks in order to save the common people. He’s not blowing an election Republicans might have won, he’s going to be defrauded at the polls.)

But the important thing to remember for the future is that this is not an isolated incident and Trump is not a unique character. Lots and lots of men do this kind of thing. They do it to anybody. They do it because they can. They have a standard list of excuses for doing it. They have tactics for getting women to shut up about it and men not to believe the women who don’t shut up.

The thing to remember the next time you hear something like this is that you’ve heard it before. It’s all part of the pattern.

Best Responses to the Trump Video

It seemed like everybody had to comment. These people just did it better than the rest.


By now all the people who want to — and probably a lot who never wanted to — have seen the video of Donald Trump talking to Access Hollywood co-host Billy Bush in 2005, apparently without realizing he was being recorded. The Washington Post released the video Friday, Trump released what has been oxymoronically described as a “defiant apology” late Friday night, and the resulting firestorm dominated the news shows leading up to last night’s town-hall debate with Hillary Clinton. Many big-name Republicans who had tolerated Trump’s previous outrageous statements finally withdrew their support. [1] Trump’s running mate Mike Pence has not withdrawn his support, but has kept Trump at arm’s length, saying

I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them. [2]

When asked about the video by Anderson Cooper early in Sunday’s debate, Trump dismissed it as “locker room talk”, a phrase he apparently wanted to leave vague, but Cooper (to his credit) insisted on unpacking: Was Trump saying that he did or didn’t do the things he bragged about, like kiss women without their consent or “grab them by the pussy”? After several attempts to get away with a general affirmation of his respect for women, Trump finally claimed that he had not done those things, i.e., that he had been lying to Bush. So Trump’s defense is that he is not a sexual abuser, he just likes to impress other guys by claiming to be one.

Cooper did not explore the trying-to-have-sex-with-a-married-woman confession in the video, so (as far as I know) Trump has not had to say whether that really happened. [3]

Obviously, there are many angles from which to react to this series of events. I’ve picked out a few that I found more insightful than the rest.

Best debate tweets. 

Erin Chack: Scary Halloween costume idea: Dress up like Trump, go to a party, and stand 3-5 feet behind successful women.

Jake Beckman posts a similar image with this caption:

Here’s the debate where Donald Trump tries to not look like a sexual predator.

And Erin Judge chimes in:

Every woman watching has had a creepy dude pace behind her.

Aren’t you guys supposed to be religious? Naively, you might think that the people who would abandon Trump first over stuff like this would be the family-values folks, particularly evangelical Christians. But the reverse seems to be true: Even as elected Republicans head for the exits, evangelical leaders like Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell Jr. are standing by Trump.

The best comment I’ve seen on that is the image on the right. If looks to be a illustration from the Bible story of the three men in the fiery furnace. During the Babylonian Captivity, three young Jewish men refuse to bow down to a golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar, and are miraculously saved from his punishment.

The image has been annotated by having one of the kneeling men say, “He’s going to appoint pro-life supreme court justices.” In other words: If you want to bow down to the ruling power, you can always find some reason to do so. In the actual Bible story, the three heroes do not discuss Nebuchadnezzar’s policies before deciding what to do.

How abusers talk after they’re caught. In a tweet storm captured by Valerie on Storify.com, Leah McElrath responded to Trump’s “defiant apology” by taking it apart phrase-by-phrase and framing it as

an eerie replica of psychological manipulations made by abusers after episodes of abuse.

What McElrath hears in Trump’s video is less an apology than an attempt to make his accusers doubt themselves and their experiences. For example

“these words do not reflect who I am” = the reality you just experienced didn’t actually happen (gaslighting)

and

“We’re living in the real world” = I’m sane and you’re crazy

His contrast between himself and Bill Clinton, who “has actually abused women” translates to “the abuse you experienced wasn’t *really* abuse”.

McElrath’s interpretation explains Trump’s bizarre demeanor throughout this video: He is glowering and angry, not contrite or ashamed.

After reading McElrath, I see the apology video as an expression of the essence of a privileged and entitled attitude: It is up to me to judge whether or not I have done wrong, and if so, what I must do or say to make it right. Anyone who won’t accept the atonement I have assigned myself and move on is being unreasonable, and if they persist I will be forced to get angry with them.

Where have you guys been? Liz Plank does the 2016ish video series on Vox. (I got several of the tweets above via her retweets.) In this video, she raised the question: “The GOP is standing with women, but what took them so long?

Dear GOP dudes who are suddenly realizing that Donald Trump is a flaming misogynist after more than a year of women telling you that he is, in fact, a flaming misogynist. Thanks for joining us and welcome to the club, or, as other people call it, planet earth. … So what was the moment that gave it away for you?

My favorite part of her video on this is her response to the line from Trump’s apology: “Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.”

Anyone who knows you? You go out of your way to demean women. That’s your thing. That’s your brand. It’d be like saying that Mr. T doesn’t pity the fool.

How this looks if you’re black. CNN’s Van Jones went off on an epic rant, though not on CNN.

What if a black man — Candidate Obama in 2008, say — had been caught on tape talking about forcing kisses on women, groping their genitals, and trying to tempt married women into infidelity? To begin with

If Donald Trump were black, the very first word used to describe him would be thug. … The fact that we’re talking about “locker room banter” … what locker room you in?

If he were black, we’d be talking about crime.

Let’s just be very clear: Donald Trump has confessed to a sex crime. … When black people do stuff, we quickly rush to criminality. When white people do stuff, it’s like “OK, well, this is frat-boy behavior.” Whereas with us it’s thuggish behavior. … If I were to go up to Donald Trump and grab Donald Trump’s crotch and try to kiss Donald Trump, I would go to jail. I would be arrested. That’s called sexual assault. It is a crime.

… You have somebody running for president of the United States, who has confessed on tape to committing sex crimes, and people are talking about it as if there’s something wrong with the language. We’re talking about him using “lewd speech”. I don’t care about the speech. I’ve heard those words before. What I care about is the activity, the deed that he is describing.

What if Obama had had five children by three women, as Trump has?

If [Trump] were a brother, they’d be talking about the breakdown of the black family and all sort of stuff. What’s wrong with this man? Second of all, can you imagine if Barack Obama had been caught on video saying … he’s grabbing people’s crotches, he can kiss anybody he wants to, he’s a star, he’s a celebrity, he can do whatever he wants to, they like it. It would be over. We would be talking about the breakdown of values and what’s wrong with black men, and black male violence and all that sort of stuff.

To people who are sick of women “playing the gender card”, Jones asks:

What if Hillary Clinton were going around grabbing people’s crotches? Would we having this conversation or would she be on the first ship to Mars? … No black man in America could be in this situation without the entire universe coming down on the whole black community, number one. And number two: No woman could even think about going around grabbing nobody’s crotches and bragging about it, male or female.

Whose locker room? Like Jones, lots of men have a problem with describing the Trump video as “locker room talk”. Lots of men have come forward to say something like “I don’t hear that kind of talk in locker rooms.” But actually, this is a hard case to make either way, because there is no Locker Room Today that establishes national standards.

What we mean by “locker room” is groups of men talking to each other in ways they wouldn’t if women were present. And almost by definition, each of those groups is unique. For all I know there could be groups of serial killers who get together to trade stories about their latest kills. I personally don’t find myself in such groups, but really, who knows?

But we should at least pay some attention to professional male athletes, who spend large chunks of their lives hanging around with other men in literal locker rooms. AP collected several of their comments, like this one from Kansas City Chiefs receiver Chris Conley

Have I been in every locker room? No. But the guys I know and respect don’t talk like that. They talk about girls but not like that. Period.

This matches my personal experience of crude man-to-man talk: You’ll hear comments that objectify women (“Whoa, check out that butt.”) or fantasize about sex (“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”) or make exaggerated claims about a man’s own attractiveness (“I could totally nail her. She’s into me. You can tell.”). But even in a locker-roomish environment, I’d find it creepy and over-the-line to hear somebody brag about forcing himself on a woman the way Trump did. I don’t believe most men would confront a guy who talked like that — and I won’t claim that I would, because I think that’s a situation you have to experience before you can be sure what you’d do — but at a minimum I would expect the other guys in the room to quickly change the subject, or back away and find excuses to be somewhere else.


[1] The New York Times is keeping a list of them. For the most part, the Republicans rejecting Trump were never gung-ho about him, but previously had not been willing to take a stand against their party’s nominee. The explanation of 2008 nominee Senator John McCain is fairly typical:

I thought it important I respect the fact that Donald Trump won a majority of the delegates by the rules our party set. I thought I owed his supporters that deference. But Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.

In return, Trump has declared war.

On Twitter, Mr. Trump attacked the Republicans fleeing his campaign as “self-righteous hypocrites” and predicted their defeat at the ballot box. In a set of talking points sent to his supporters Sunday morning, Mr. Trump’s campaign urged them to attack turncoat Republicans as “more concerned with their political future than they are about the country.”

Someone must have pointed out to Trump that if McCain, Rob Portman, and Kelly Ayotte do get defeated and he himself somehow wins, he’ll face a Democratic Senate. But it’s not clear he cares about that.

[2] Trump, in turn, backhanded Pence during the debate. After moderator Martha Raddatz read him something critical Pence had said about Russia’s actions in Syria, a position apparently at odds with what Trump had just said, Trump’s response was bizarrely cold and abrupt: “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.” Try to imagine President Obama saying that about Joe Biden.

[3] By several accounts, the unnamed married woman discussed in the video was Billy Bush’s co-host, Nancy O’Dell.

Investigative Reporters and Donald Trump: the 9 Best Articles

Introduction: Why we need reporters to investigate Trump

Typically, voters judge a candidate on three scales:

  • character or public image. Do we like this person, identify with him or her, and trust this candidate to understand our lives and our problems?
  • philosophy or policy. Do we agree with what the candidate proposes to do? Do we trust his or her overall approach to governing, so that we have confidence in the candidate to handle problems we can’t foresee?
  • record in public office. Does he or she have a voting record in Congress that matches that professed philosophy and those policy proposals? Or experience running a state, a cabinet department, or a major city that demonstrates basic competence, expertise in major policy areas, or an understanding of how government works?

Occasionally a candidate passes these tests in some non-standard way. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, had never been elected to anything before running for president in 1952. But his experience as commander of the allied forces in Europe during World War II gave him defense and foreign policy experience, as well as proving that he could manage a large, complicated enterprise.

Donald Trump, though, is unique in that his claim to the presidency is based almost entirely on his character. He has no record in public office, and much of his record in business is closed to public examination.

His political philosophy has changed many times over the years, if he can be said to have one at all. (He has been both a Democrat and a Republican, has been both for and against abortion rights, is both hawkish and isolationist on foreign policy, and now appeals to Evangelical Christians without ever repenting all the bragging he did about his sexual conquests.) His proposals are vague. (He will be “tough” with other countries and “put America first”.) They waver from week to week. (Will he deport all undocumented immigrants or just the bad ones?) And many of his supporters don’t believe he will do the things he talks about doing. (Maybe his wall will be virtual. Maybe Mexico won’t pay for it.)

But despite all that, he is Donald Trump. His name is on those big buildings. We’ve been seeing his picture on magazine covers and watching him on TV for decades. Unlike any previous presidential candidate, he is a brand. Attach Trump to something and our impression of it changes: Trump Tower, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump University.

So how does that translate to President Trump and the Trump administration?

Precisely because he is a brand, it can be hard to separate Donald Trump, the man and potential president, from the character Donald Trump we’ve seen on TV. Maybe they are the same, or maybe they are as different as Martin Sheen is from the President Bartlett character he played so convincingly on The West Wing. (Would Sheen react to a crisis as calmly and wisely as Bartlett did in scripts that Sheen had read and memorized before the cameras powered up? I have no idea, but I’d hate to bet my country on it.)

That’s why we need reporters to examine Trump, his life, and his record more than we’ve ever needed them to check out a candidate before. Most of the reporters who have written about Trump have not risen to that challenge. Some simply repeat his statements, or those of his campaign managers and surrogates, without bothering to find out what’s true or false. Others repeat scurrilous charges about him without gathering evidence to back them up. Neither of those kinds of articles is what we need.

I’m also not talking about analyzing the Trump phenomenon: who his voters are, how his movement either does or doesn’t fit into the recent history of the conservative movement, whether his authoritarian appeal represents some kind of danger to democracy, and so on.Those questions may be interesting in their own right, but answering them involves speculation rather than reporting.

What I’ve tried to assemble here is the best reporting about Trump, written by journalists who have taken the time and made the effort to investigate rather than simply call him names, or recite his legend, or psychoanalyze him, or navel-gaze to determine his historical significance. All in all, I think these investigations paint a devastating picture, but it is a portrait based in fact, rather than the fantasies of his political enemies.

Finally, a note because I’m sure someone will ask: I’m not including the NYT’s article Saturday about Trump’s taxes, because I don’t feel like we have the whole story yet. He could have avoided income taxes for 18 years, and he hasn’t denied the report, but we still can’t say that he definitely did. We also don’t know whether the $900 million loss in the story is real or the product of creative accounting. I have the feeling there’s another shoe that still needs to drop.

Also, there’s no Trump U story on the list, because there’s no singular article about it. Documents collected for the lawsuit against Trump were released to the public, and many news outlets covered what they said.

So here, in no particular order, are the best nine:

1. Newsweek’s “Donald Trump’s Many Business Failures, Explained

If Trump’s claim that he can be an effective president rests on his business record, that record deserves some scrutiny. Kurt Eichenwald explains:

Trump’s many misrepresentations of his successes and his failures matter—a lot. As a man who has never held so much as a city council seat, there is little voters can examine to determine if he is competent to hold office. He has no voting record and presents few details about specific policies. Instead, he sells himself as qualified to run the country because he is a businessman who knows how to get things done, and his financial dealings are the only part of his background available to assess his competence to lead the country. And while Trump has had a few successes in business, most of his ventures have been disasters.

The successes primarily come from the investments and contacts he inherited from his father, Fred Trump.

Trump boasted when he announced his candidacy last year that he had made his money “the old-fashioned way,” but he is no Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg, self-made billionaires who were mavericks, innovators in their fields. Instead, the Republican nominee’s wealth is Daddy-made. Almost all of his best-known successes are attributable to family ties or money given to him by his father. … So to sum it all up, Trump is rich because he was born rich—and without his father repeatedly bailing him out, he would have likely filed for personal bankruptcy before he was 35.

His casinos went bankrupt. He bought Eastern Airlines and renamed it the Trump Shuttle before giving it to his creditors when he couldn’t pay its bills. Then he moved towards being a brand rather than a businessman.

Beginning in 2006, Trump decided to take a new direction and basically cut back on building in favor of selling his name. This led to what might be called his nonsense deals, with Trump slapping his name on everything but the sidewalk, hoping people would buy products just because of his brand.

Trump Mortgage started just in time to lose money in the real estate bubble. GoTrump.com failed as an online travel service. Trump Vodka. Trump Steaks. All failures.

But by licensing his brand to developers, and helping them use that magical name to convince middle-class people to make downpayments on condos that were never built, Trump managed to walk away with a profit on deals where everyone else lost: Trump Hollywood, Trump Ocean Resort Baha Mexico, Trump Tower Tampa. Finally, there is the outright fraud of Trump University.

But if he’s such a bad businessman, you might ask, why is he so rich? The answer is that no one knows how rich he actually is. He claims to be worth more than $10 billion, but refuses to release any information that might validate that. In reality, he may be worth little more than what his father left him.

2. The USA Today’s “Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills

One admirable thing about billionaires like Bill Gates or Sam Walton is that they made a lot of other people rich too. If you worked for Bill or Sam back in the day and kept your stock options, you’re probably a multi-millionaire now. But with Donald Trump the exact opposite is often true: Signing a contract with Trump has been a good way to go broke.

Steve Reilly goes through court records to document a pattern of lawsuits against Trump and his businesses.

The actions in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years. In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources. Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether.

In the individual cases, Trump’s lawyers usually claimed that the work was substandard in some way. But in the aggregate that suggests a different problem:

[T]he consistent circumstances laid out in those lawsuits and other non-payment claims raise questions about Trump’s judgment as a businessman, and as a potential commander in chief. The number of companies and others alleging he hasn’t paid suggests that either his companies have a poor track record hiring workers and assessing contractors, or that Trump businesses renege on contracts, refuse to pay, or consistently attempt to change payment terms after work is complete as is alleged in dozens of court cases.

The cases that produce a public record may be just the tip of an iceberg. No one knows how many short-changed contractors decided that taking whatever Trump offered in payment was better than fighting his lawyers.

Edward Friel, of the Philadelphia cabinetry company allegedly shortchanged for the casino work, hired a lawyer to sue for the money, said his son, Paul Friel. But the attorney advised him that the Trumps would drag the case out in court and legal fees would exceed what they’d recover.

The unpaid bill took a huge chunk out of the bottom line of the company that Edward ran to take care of his wife and five kids. “The worst part wasn’t dealing with the Trumps,” Paul Friel said. After standing up to Trump, Friel said the family struggled to get other casino work in Atlantic City. “There’s tons of these stories out there,” he said.

The Edward J. Friel Co. filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 5, 1989.

Says the founder’s grandson: “Trump hits everybody.”

Paul Friel tells a more detailed version of his family’s story in this video.

3. David Fahrenthold’s investigation of the Trump Foundation and Trump’s (lack of) charitable contributions

This isn’t just one article, but a body of work that has been unfolding in The Washington Post over months.

Throughout his career, Donald Trump has recognized the brand-building power of charity. One stereotypic image of rich people — particularly those who were born rich, as Trump was — is that they only care about themselves; they suck money out of society and give nothing back. But a wealthy heir or businessman can banish that image by announcing that he’s going to give big contributions to help veterans, or a children’s hospital, or some other worthy cause. Rather than a parasite, he looks like a saint.

So if you’re rich and worry about your image, generosity can be a good investment in public relations. But there’s one way to make it an even better investment: What if you could get all the publicity associated with big gifts, but not actually have to pony up any of your own money, or any money at all?

That seems to be what Trump has consistently done over the years: make well-publicized announcements of gifts that never actually materialize, or are paid for by someone else. In that sense, his gifts to charity are like his business dealings with contractors (described in the previous article); after he gets what he wants from the deal, the rest is negotiable.

In the course of the current campaign, Trump or his surrogates have talked about tens of millions of dollars or even more than $100 million that Trump has given away. Ordinarily when a campaign makes claims like that, they’re happy to provide the details, because it’s one more chance to focus a reporter’s attention on a story that makes their candidate look good. But when Fahrenthold pressed the Trump campaign for details about the $6 million Trump had supposedly raised for veterans groups (instead of attending a Republican debate where Megyn Kelly could have questioned him again), they were oddly unhelpful.

The real start of it was the fundraiser that Trump had for veterans in Iowa in late January. He said he’d raised $6 million — and then he toured around Iowa and New Hampshire handing out big novelty checks to local vets groups. But then Trump stopped. And he hadn’t given away anywhere near $6 million. That started us looking. We found that Trump seemed to have stockpiled a lot of the vets money in this oddball Trump Foundation, which had no staff and very little money. In fact, for a long time, it seemed the Trump Foundation had actually *made* money on the vets fundraiser, because it had given out far less than it had taken in from other donors (who expected it to quickly pass on their donations to vets groups). 

The vets saga ended strangely: Trump’s people said he’d given the $1 million [which he personally pledged] secretly. We checked. That was false. Trump hadn’t given the $1M away at all. Then, he finally did, in the middle of the night. Then Trump held an angry press conference where he denounced the media for, in effect, forcing him to explain what he’d done with the money other people had entrusted to him, the money in the Trump Foundation. That made us more interested. 

For any other candidate, you could just check Schedule A of his or her tax return. But Trump won’t release his tax returns either. If Trump wouldn’t provide any details, though, maybe the charities would. So Fahrenthold started contacting charities that Trump had some connection to, then branching out from there. He found very little. Only in the last few months — after Fahrenthold started checking up on him — has Trump started giving money to charity again.

And then there’s the Trump Foundation. Since 2008, Trump has put virtually none of his own money into his foundation. (Over the previous 20 years, he donated a total of $5.4 million, not “tens of millions”.) Instead, he has collected contributions from other people and corporations, and has spent a lot of it on himself or his business interests. He used hundreds of thousands from the foundation to make charitable contributions that settled court cases against himself or his companies. (That’s illegal.) He used $30K to buy two portraits of himself in charity auctions. (Trump’s people won’t say where the paintings are, but one or maybe both are hanging in Trump businesses. If so, if the portraits weren’t themselves used for some charitable purpose, that also is illegal.)

Fahrenhold exposed another likely illegality this week:

Donald Trump’s charitable foundation — which has been sustained for years by donors outside the Trump family — has never obtained the certification that New York requires before charities can solicit money from the public, according to the state attorney general’s office.

… The most important consequence of not registering under the more rigorous “7A” level was that the Trump Foundation was not required by the state to submit to an annual audit by outside accountants. In such an audit, charity-law experts said, the accountants might have checked the Trump Foundation’s books — comparing its records with its outgoing checks, and asking whether the foundation had engaged in any transactions that benefited Trump or his busi­nesses.

In recent years, The Post has reported, Trump’s foundation does appear to have violated tax laws in several instances.

More disturbing yet is the appearance that he has used money from the Trump Foundation to squash fraud investigations into Trump University. He has paid a $2,500 fine for the Foundation making a $25,000 contribution to a PAC supporting Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who coincidentally decided not to investigate Trump U. This would fit a larger pattern. Trump gave $35K of his own money to Texas AG (now Governor) Greg Abbott, who also didn’t investigate Trump U. And the Trump Foundation contributed $100K to another foundation that is suing New York AG Eric Schneiderman, who is suing Trump U for fraud.

In short, for the last 8 years or so, up until the last few months, Trump not only wasn’t giving to charity, he was using other people’s charitable contributions to benefit himself. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway justified this by claiming — falsely — that the Foundations money “is his money”. The whole point of giving money to a foundation, or any charity, is that it’s not your money any more. And when the Foundation is under your control but is funded primarily by other people, then it’s really not your money.

4. Trump’s Politifact File

Fact-checking sites have some leeway about which statements they check, so small differences in the aggregate statistics don’t necessarily mean anything. But Donald Trump’s file is unique: 35% of his checked statements are rated False, and another 18% get the even lower Pants On Fire rating, which is reserved for statements that “make a ridiculous claim“. By a wide margin, no other major political figure so regularly says things that are provably not true. (So much for the claim that he “tells it like it is”.)

By contrast, 10% of Hillary Clinton’s checked statements are rated False and 2% Pants on Fire, a rate similar to Republicans like Paul Ryan (9%/3%) and John Kasich (13%/5%).

But the numbers don’t really capture it. It’s worthwhile to dig into some of his more ridiculous statements, like

and so on.

5. Newsweek’s “How Donald Trump’s Company Violated the United States Embargo Against Cuba

In 1998, it briefly looked like the U.S. embargo against Cuba might come down. If it did, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts wanted to be ready to move in fast. So it sent somebody to Havana to investigate the business possibilities. That in itself violated the embargo.

6. The Washington Post’s “Trump: A True Story

This is Fahrenthold again, this time teaming with Robert O’Harrow Jr. The question in this article is Trump’s honesty, and the unique opportunity to compare what he said while under oath in 2007 to what he had previously claimed when not under oath.

In Trump Nation: the art of being the Donald author Timothy O’Brien estimated Trump’s net worth at less than $250 million, rather than the $5 billion he then claimed, and made several other statements Trump was offended by. So he sued. Big mistake.

By filing suit, Trump hadn’t just opened himself up to questioning — he had opened a door into the opaque and secretive company he ran. … The reporter’s attorneys turned the tables and brought Trump in for a deposition. For two straight days, they asked Trump question after question that touched on the same theme: Trump’s honesty.

The upshot is that Trump isn’t very honest, and tells a different story under oath than he does otherwise. Thirty times, they forced an admission that what he had said previously was not true. When not under threat of perjury, Trump exaggerated his success, quoted numbers he knew to be wrong, blamed other people for his mistakes, and “made authoritative-sounding statements without any proof behind them.” Under oath, he had to back off.

The article makes me wish Trump were speaking under oath now. BTW, Trump’s suit against O’Brien was dismissed, and the author he hoped to ruin had his legal fees picked up by his publisher.

7. The Daily Beast’s: “DOJ: Trump’s Early Businesses Blocked Blacks

In 1973, Donald Trump was still learning the real estate business from his father Fred. They were both sued by the Department of Justice for violations of the Fair Housing Act.

According to the DOJ, a former super at Trump’s Highlander complex claimed that he would also attach a coded piece of paper to let the “central office” know that an applicant was black. He added that a number of supers in Queens used a “phony lease” to enable them to refuse apartments to people of color. The super’s assistant backed up his story about the code and said she was told, “Trump Management tries not to rent to black persons.”

… In its lawsuit, the DOJ listed more than half a dozen cases in which a black person would try to rent an apartment at a Trump-owned building and would be denied; but when a white person—often a “tester” from New York’s Urban League—would inquire about vacancies, they would allegedly get offered an apartment in the same building.

The Trumps settled with DOJ in 1975, but by 1978 DOJ had them back in court for non-compliance with the consent decree. Reporter Gideon Resnick concludes: “the ugly details of this early clash with the Department of Justice shed light on alleged systemic discrimination at the heart of the Trump real estate empire.”

8. The New York Times’ “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private

Trump’s public interactions with women have gotten a lot of attention, from decades ago to this week’s continuation of his feud with a former Miss Universe. But The Times Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey tried to find out what it was like for a woman to deal with Trump one-on-one, in private. So they interviewed dozens of women who had known him over the years.

The picture they paint is complex and fascinating. His father Fred comes off as a classic sexist, and Donald revolted against him by promoting women to prominent roles in his businesses. But Donald also carried forward other parts of the sexist paradigm:

He simultaneously nurtured women’s careers and mocked their physical appearance. “You like your candy,” he told an overweight female executive who oversaw the construction of his headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. He could be lewd one moment and gentlemanly the next. … [I]n many cases there was an unmistakable dynamic at play: Mr. Trump had the power, and the women did not. He had celebrity. He had wealth. He had connections. Even after he had behaved crudely toward them, some of the women sought his assistance with their careers or remained by his side.

9. Newsweek’s “How the Trump Organization’s Business Ties Could Upend U.S. National Security

Kurt Eichenwald describes the impossibility of disentangling the Trump Organization from its “deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians and even criminals”.

If Trump moves into the White House and his family continues to receive any benefit from the company, during or even after his presidency, almost every foreign policy decision he makes will raise serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires.

In the earlier Eichenwald article, he explained how Trump’s business strategy changed in 2007, when he began his TV career and decided to profit from fame and branding rather than building.

Rather than constructing Trump’s own hotels, office towers and other buildings, much of his business involved striking deals with overseas developers who pay his company for the right to slap his name on their buildings.

The problem is that these local partners are often deeply (and sometimes corruptly) involved with local politicians and political parties, or have financial interests in the local defense industries. (Eichenwald cites examples from Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, India, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, and other countries.) Even if there is no corrupt intent on Trump’s part, his political decisions will affect his financial interests.

If he plays tough with India, will the government assume it has to clear the way for projects in that “aggressive pipeline” [of Trump Organization projects in that country] and kill the investigations involving Trump’s Pune partners? And if Trump takes a hard line with Pakistan, will it be for America’s strategic interests or to appease Indian government officials who might jeopardize his profits from Trump Towers Pune?

A conflict over a Trump property in Dubai led to a Twitter-feud between Trump a Saudi prince, whom he called “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal”. If he were president, it’s hard to see how this wouldn’t become problem between the two countries.

Sovereign wealth funds, which invest the money accumulated by oil-rich governments, sometimes make financial deals with the Trump Organization. In Azerbaijan, the Trump Organization partners with a company controlled by the son of the transportation minister, who might have laundered money for the Iranians.

Trump has said he will deal with these problems by turning the business over to his children while he is in office. This might work if the business were something simple and small, like a restaurant or a hardware store. But how can he avoid knowing whether a Trump Tower gets built in some foreign capital? Or not hear when a Saudi prince or Russian oligarch threatens to cancel a loan?

Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going

Long-term, is there anything progressives can do to cool them off or win them back?


The most fascinating character of the 2016 election cycle isn’t Donald Trump, it’s the voter who has identified with Trump and stuck with him in defiance of all previous conventional wisdom. Again and again during the Republican primary campaign, Trump said and did things that in any other cycle would have been career-destroying gaffes. And whenever his opponents waited for the resulting wave of voter anger and shame to wash him away, his popularity grew.

That tactic has been less successful in the general-election campaign: Trump’s Judge Curiel and Captain Khan attacks both hurt him, and while the double-digit lead Hillary Clinton built after the conventions has receded, she still seems to be ahead. But even this outcome, if it holds, leaves many progressive bewildered: How can 40-45% of the electorate imagine turning the country over to an inexperienced, unstable, hateful, and — let’s be blunt about it — ignorant man? What can they possibly be thinking?

So the most interesting question of 2016 is not what to do about Trump, because the answer is obvious: beat him. If he loses, he will probably be too old and too disgraced to trouble us again in 2020 or beyond. But the voters he has awakened and given a political identity will still be here. Particularly if they buy into Trump’s ego-saving excuses about skewed polls and voter fraud, or if he starts an alt-right Trump News to continue pandering to their worst fears, they may come out of a 2016 defeat more alienated, more angry, and perhaps more violent than before. (If the country is so far gone that voting no longer works, what’s left but guns?)

Obviously, not everybody in that 40-45% sees themselves as part of a Trump movement. Many are simply Paul Ryan Republicans who can’t face another four years of Democratic rule, with all that would mean for the Supreme Court, taxes, regulations, and other long-term issues. Many voters of all stripes are disgusted with their general-election choices, and will happily line up behind someone completely different in the next cycle.

But what if 10-20% are enthusiastic Trump supporters and will be looking for another Trump-like candidate in 2020? (After all, somebody is showing up at his rallies and cheering wildly. Crowd size and enthusiasm may not be reliable predictors of victory — just ask Bernie Sanders — but they do mean something.) If they are sufficiently alienated and angry, and if they include (and make excuses for) an even smaller violent element, 10% is more than enough to destabilize a democracy.

So who are they? What do they want? Do they have legitimate grievances the rest of us can or should respond to? And if we do respond, is there any hope of soothing their anger and welcoming them back into more orthodox political channels?

Who are they? Non-college whites. A lot of good work has been done on this question, painting their portrait in both statistics and narratives.

In the primaries, the core of Trump’s support came from whites without college degrees. Look at the exit polls from the Ohio Republican Primary, the only one won by John Kasich. Overall, Kasich beat Trump and Ted Cruz 47%-36%-13%. Those results were virtually the same across both genders and all age groups. The Republican electorate was overwhelmingly white (94%), but although Trump did worse among non-whites (28% rather than 36%), the finishing order was still Kasich-Trump-Cruz.

Hidden in that apparent homogeneity, though, were two very different Republican Parties having two very different primaries. Among those who never attended college, Trump beat Kasich 47%-34%. They tied 41%-41% among Republicans who had taken some college courses but not graduated. Those with bachelor’s degrees went for Kasich 52%-31%, and among those with postgraduate degrees it was no contest at all: Kasich beat Trump 60%-25%.

That educational divide preceded Trump, and was already apparent in a Pew Research survey conducted over a year ago. On many issues, college Republicans were split, while non-college Republicans were united. For example: asked whether immigrants strengthen or burden the country, college Republicans narrowly said strengthen, 44%-42; non-college Republicans decisively said burden 62%-26%. Other questions created night-and-day differences. Was South Carolina right to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds? College Republicans said yes 56%-37%; non-college Republicans said no 57%-36%. College Republicans liked elected officials who make compromises, 52%-46%; non-college Republicans preferred those who stick to their positions, 64%-33%.

If Trump does lose to Clinton, it will probably be because of his inability to hold college-educated whites, who Mitt Romney won by 6% in 2012.

Who are they? Not who you think. The Washington Post published a lengthy summary of an even longer report from Gallup, based on 87,000 interviews. The gist was that common stereotypes of Trump voters are false: They’re not poor whites who have lost their jobs to Mexican immigrants or Chinese competition.

According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.

Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

They also don’t live in neighborhoods that are being overrun by immigrants.

Although Trump voters tend to be the most skeptical about immigration, they are also the least likely to actually encounter an immigrant in their neighborhood. …

[Jonathan] Rothwell [the Gallup economist in charge of the survey] finds that people who live in places with many Hispanic residents or places close to the Mexican border, tend not to favor Trump — relative to otherwise similar Americans and to otherwise similar white Republicans.

Among those who are similar in terms of income, education and other factors, those who view Trump favorably are more likely to be found in white enclaves — racially isolated Zip codes where the amount of diversity is lower than in surrounding areas.

In other words, when they cheer his attacks on immigrants and foreigners, Trump’s supporters are reacting not so much to their own experiences as to the experiences they imagine people like them are having. They are not poor, but worry that their children will be. They are susceptible to absurdly negative stereotypes of immigrants because they don’t know any actual immigrants. They live in communities disproportionately afflicted with health problems related to despair: depression, substance abuse, and suicide — even if they are not depressed, addicted, or suicidal themselves.

Their “deep story”. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild reports on her five-year study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. (The article gives us a taste of her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land.)

When I asked people what politics meant to them, they often answered by telling me what they believed (“I believe in freedom”) or who they’d vote for (“I was for Ted Cruz, but now I’m voting Trump”). But running beneath such beliefs like an underwater spring was what I’ve come to think of as a deep story. The deep story was a feels-as-if-it’s-true story, stripped of facts and judgments, that reflected the feelings underpinning opinions and votes. It was a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need.

To Hochschild, this underlying narrative explains the attraction of otherwise baseless conspiracy theories like Obama’s Muslim faith, government plots to confiscate guns, and so on. People believe such things not because the objective evidence is compelling, but because they are looking for stories that externalize their inner experience. [1]

What the people I interviewed were drawn to was not necessarily the particulars of these theories. It was the deep story underlying them — an account of life as it feels to them. Some such account underlies all beliefs, right or left, I think. The deep story of the right goes like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? [2] As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

I checked this distillation with those I interviewed to see if this version of the deep story rang true. Some altered it a bit (“the line-waiters form a new line”) or emphasized a particular point (those in back are paying for the line-cutters). But all of them agreed it was their story. One man said, “I live your analogy.” Another said, “You read my mind.”

Political correctness. To college-educated liberals, one of the most mysterious aspects of right-wing discourse is the rage against political correctness, as if it were a problem on the scale of illegal drugs or the lack of good jobs. To liberals, PC is just a way of talking that shows respect for people and groups that have traditionally been disrespected. So if adult females in the workplace want to be called women rather than girls, or if I have to learn how to use words like cisgender and transgender, it doesn’t seem like that big a sacrifice. I grew up saying that hard bargainers jew people down, but decades ago I learned that Jews don’t like that expression, so I dropped it. It just didn’t seem like that much to ask of me.

So how does this attempt at courtesy become an issue of such portent that it is “ruining our country” (as Ben Carson put it)? Why do white working-class men need a Trump to defend them from this terrible scourge?

Melinda Selmys of the blog Catholic Authenticity proposes an answer.

My tentative hypothesis, which I think is probably true in at least some cases, is that the objection to political correctness is not actually so much a knee-jerk defense of racist or sexist attitudes as it is an inarticulate objection to classism.

Classism is problematic, in that every intelligent person on the left knows that it is bad, bad, very bad – but none the less, leftist discourse is constantly, profoundly classist. Discussions of how to end oppression, including the oppression of poor, marginalized, and less educated people, are routinely carried on in language that can’t even [be] parsed by someone with a high-school reading level. As a theoretical category of social problem, the poor and underprivileged are given great respect. But when an actual person who can’t spell very well, speaks in a regional dialect from a lower-class area, and can’t express himself very articulately tries to argue that he also needs protection from oppression, he’s often dismissed as an “entitled” white man who doesn’t understand the systemic barriers endured by marginalized groups.

Let me illustrate with an analogy: Imagine you’ve recently moved to a foreign country, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get the language right. Your accent is awful, your nouns have the wrong genders (inanimate objects have genders?), your verbs the wrong tenses, and whenever you try to use an idiom, you end up saying something ridiculous. [3] The natives might respond to your mistakes in a variety of ways.

  1. They can ignore your screw-up and respond as if you had correctly expressed what you obviously mean.
  2. They can correct you politely, and then respond to what you mean.
  3. They can correct you sharply, as if you are an idiot child, and refuse to acknowledge your meaning until you can manage to express it properly.
  4. They can ridicule you for saying something so stupid.
  5. They can put the worst possible construction on what you say, and use that interpretation to reinforce their negative stereotype of visiting Americans, i.e., that we’re all assholes who constantly insult them and then try to wriggle out of the situation by lying about our command of their language.

If you experience a lot of 1 and 2, you’re likely to see the natives as patient and kind. If 3 and 4, you’ll be wary of them and inclined to shut up even when you have something worth saying. (Later, you’ll resent feeling muzzled. You’re every bit as smart as these people, and you’d run rings around them if they had to speak English.) If 5, you’ll probably conclude that they are the assholes; they know perfectly well what you mean, but they’re misconstruing you for their own hostile purposes.

Most working-class white Americans are — let’s be clear about this — native speakers of American English, so the analogy isn’t perfect. But serious political discussion in this country is dominated by professional-class people who use language in a college-educated way. The talking heads on TV, the columnists in newspapers, and almost all our politicians are college-educated people who sound like college-educated people. [4] Even the ones who don’t — James Carville comes to mind — often seem to be doing a man-of-the-people shtick rather than just talking.

So when a working-class person talks politics, professional-class people tacitly assume the discussion should happen in their language and be judged by their standards. [5] And the worker’s “mistakes” are often slapped down hard: Either he is an idiot who should shut up and let smarter people talk, or his ignorance of the currently approved vocabulary shows that he is some kind of reprehensible person: a racist, a sexist, a homophobe.

So it should be no surprise that a lot of working-class whites (or even professional-class whites whose degree is in a technical field rather than a liberal art) cheer when Donald Trump bullies and insults the people they feel have bullied and insulted them.

What can we do with this? Understanding someone doesn’t mean you have to give in to them, and often you just can’t. For example, politically correct language was invented for a good reason: Traditional ways of speaking can institutionalize traditional injustices. (Who would you rather have running your department: a man or a girl?)

Also, the way the world feels to a group of people, as compelling as it may seem to them, is not necessarily how the world is. Your deep story might embed assumptions that are unfair or untrue. Hochschild’s line-cutting metaphor, for example, contains an assumption of entitlement: I was in line first. And (as Hochschild explains), a lot of the “advantage” of the line-cutters comes from the self-imposed restrictions of the line-standers: They find it dishonorable to take government hand-outs like food stamps or welfare, even when they qualify. So they face a choice between dishonor and falling behind people who don’t share their scruples. That sucks for them, but it’s really not the fault of blacks or refugees or career-driven women.

If we can’t just agree with Trump voters, we still can do somethings with these insights:

  • Look for legitimate grievances where we can make common cause with them.
  • Frame our proposals and arguments so as not to alienate them unnecessarily.
  • Disrupt right-wing attempts to manipulate them.

So, for example, working-class whites who live in dead-end communities (like factory or mining towns after the factories and mines close) have a real problem we should be able to sympathize with. But since climate change and cheap natural gas are real, we can’t just bring back the coal industry and the mining jobs that it used to provide. And if “making America great again” means recreating the manufacturing economy of the 1950s, we can’t do that either. But we need to recognize that our current low-growth, low-opportunity economy is creating a real sense of hopelessness — and not just for inner-city non-whites.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour. When working people have money, they spend it and create jobs for other working people. But past a certain point, money at the top just stays at the top. The 1% may want you to identify with them, and to think of their taxes as your taxes, but you really have more in common with black and immigrant workers than with the Kochs and Waltons.

The problem isn’t that late-comers are cutting the line, it’s that the people already seated have shut the doors.

When we design government programs, whenever possible those programs should change the landscape, rather than require people to form new relationships with government and ask it for help. When I went to a state university in the 1970s, for example, I benefited tremendously from subsidies that were invisible to me. My parents paid the price the university charged, not noticing or caring that it was artificially low. That’s how we should make college affordable again, rather than by asking “needy” students to prove that they qualify for government help. I freely and guiltlessly use public parks and libraries and highways because they belong to all of us; it would feel completely different if I had to apply for government aid to defray the cost of membership in private systems.

We can focus our attacks on the demagogues and propagandists who create right-wing conspiracy theories, rather than the low-information voters who believe them. The believers need our instruction, not our ridicule.

And finally, we can listen to the Trump voter’s concerns with more forbearance, even the ones we see as misstated, self-serving, or based on misconceptions. To the extent that our verbal or analytic abilities are superior, we could help them refine what is legitimate in their complaint and express it accurately, rather than humiliate or stereotype them.

I realize this forbearance can turn into what is called tone policing — making oppressed groups tiptoe around the too-easily-offended sensibilities of their oppressors, sometimes to the point that they have to apologize for noticing their own oppression. [6] But I suspect that what most annoys a Trump voter isn’t the black or woman or immigrant who asks for better treatment; it’s the fellow white or man or native speaker of English who is holier-than-thou because of his newly discovered PC superiority to the unwashed masses who still use the bigoted old words.

So I close with this modest suggestion: If you are confronting non-PC talk as an ally of traditionally oppressed groups rather than as a victim of oppression, dial down your outrage. Correct the speaker lightly, and give a generous construction to what he probably meant. Explain rather than reprimand. Remember: Even if whiteness or masculinity give them other advantages, people who sound like hicks, have limited vocabularies, and never got the benefit of a liberal education are also a despised class. They need allies too.


[1] If you’ve ever known someone with full-blown paranoia or depression, or experienced it yourself, you’ve seen how outward-projection-of-inner-reality works.

The fundamental fact of a paranoid’s inner life is a feeling of danger. Fleshing out the details of the plot against him is actually a soothing experience, because if the danger is out there somewhere, then it might be managed somehow. So he can’t accept your argument that his delusion is baseless and he is actually safe. Even if you convinced him, he would need to uncover a different threat, because he is in danger. That’s the one sure thing he knows.

Depression follows a similar pattern: The depressed person knows that he sucks and his life is hopeless, and so he constantly generates narratives that elaborate on that knowledge. If you argue down one story, he’ll just have to find another.

Same thing with politics: You mean Obama isn’t a Muslim? Well, he must be a Communist then.

[2] Probably the same way J. D. Vance (the similarly father-abandoned white-working-class author of Hillbilly Elegy) paid for Yale. In his book, Vance discusses how surprised he was to discover that if you can get accepted and qualify for financial aid, a rich school like Yale will probably cost you less than a run-of-the-mill university. One disadvantage of growing up surrounded by non-college-educated people is that quite possibly no one will tell you this, so you won’t bother to apply.

[3] One of my friends tells the story of a Russian, who at the end of a big meal proudly showed off his command of English by announcing that he was “completely fed up”.

[4] Going to college at Michigan State didn’t just teach me things, it changed my accent. The Midwest, where I grew up, has two white accents: an educated one that is the model for TV announcers, and a rural/working-class one that resembles lower-class Southern or Appalachian accents, and shows up in a lot of country-western songs. I suspect that Trent Lott, who grew up as a sharecropper’s son but speaks in the educated Southern accent now, had a similar undergraduate experience at the University of Mississippi.

[5] That’s what classism is: the assumption that the manners and habits of your class define what is right and proper.

[6] The Daria theme song either expresses or satirizes such tip-toeing:

Excuse me. Excuse me.
I’ve got to be direct.
If I’m wrong, please correct.
You’re standing on my neck.
You’re standing on my neck.

About the Foundation

Somehow, we have a pay-for-play scandal without either pay or play.


[You can think of this article as a sequel to “About Those Emails“.]

Most of the articles about the possible conflicts-of-interest involving Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation dive right in to some set of details: Somebody wrote an email to somebody else, and then something did (or did not) happen, maybe (or maybe not) because of some other consideration.

But before we go there, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and observe how bizarre this whole controversy is: It’s being billed as a pay-for-play scandal, but two essential items are missing:

  • pay: No one has yet postulated any credible mechanism by which money from the Clinton Foundation gets back to the Clintons. A considerable sum ($4.3 million, according to The Washington Post) has flowed from the Clintons to the Foundation, but nothing in the other direction.
  • play: There are no specific examples of a Foundation donor receiving some inappropriate government concession [1], and no examples of someone who was denied something, then contributed to the Foundation and got it.

None of the Clintons — not even Chelsea — draws a salary from the Foundation or gets reimbursed for expenses. The Foundation doesn’t own mansions the Clintons live in or fleets of cars or planes to take them places. It doesn’t fund their political campaigns or buy their books or pay them speaking fees. It just does charitable work, spending a remarkable 88% of its money on programs and only 12% on overhead.

So trying to bribe Hillary Clinton by giving money to the Clinton Foundation is a lot like trying to bribe the mayor of your town by giving money to the local United Way drive, or to the hospital that has a wing named for his family. You can hope that the mayor hears about your donation and thinks good thoughts about you, but you’re not paying him off in any meaningful sense.

On the “play” side of the so-called scandal, two recent developments have been presented by the media as raising suspicions, when it’s not clear why they should: State Department emails released by a conservative organization, and an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s schedule as Secretary of State by the Associated Press.

Paul Waldman of the WaPo’s Plum Line blog summarizes what we learned from the emails:

Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.

The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.

Judicial Watch presumably highlighted the worst examples it could find, and came up with these (summarized  by Waldman):

  • A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. [Top Clinton assistant Huma] Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.
  • Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.
  • The Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose country had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded to Band that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.

Unless you find it unusual or inappropriate for a Secretary of State to meet with the crown prince of an important ally in the Middle East, there’s literally nothing to see here.

Then we get to the AP article.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.

That sounds really damning. I mean, 85 out of 154 is more than half. But there’s a problem with AP’s whole project. By limiting themselves to counting “people from private interests”, AP right at the start eliminates the vast majority of Clinton’s meetings, which are necessarily with people in the U.S. government or foreign governments. If you look at her whole schedule, those 85 donors are not 85 out of 154, they’re 85 out of well over a thousand.

And who are they? As Matt Yglesias points out, all the specific examples AP comes up with seem to be people the Secretary of State ought to be meeting with: Nobel Prize winners, people running charitable operations in foreign countries, and so on. Yglesias acknowledges the potential for sinister conflicts of interest when the State Department dealt with Clinton Foundation donors, but says the real story is that a major news organization invested a lot of time in this story and didn’t find anything.

Conceivably, there still might be a scandal here, among the people Clinton didn’t meet with: You could imagine equally deserving people who didn’t get through the door because they weren’t Foundation donors. But again, AP does not produce examples. If they looked for such people, they appear not to have found any.

There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. [AP reporters] Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.

… The real news here ought to be just the opposite [of a scandal]: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.

So let’s summarize: While Hillary was Secretary of State, rich and influential people gave money to the Clinton Foundation. That money went off to plant trees in Malawi or install solar panels in Haiti or construct playgrounds in Los Angeles, and in no way made it back to Bill, Hillary, or Chelsea Clinton. In exchange for your contribution, you could call up Huma Abedin and ask for the State Department to do you a favor, but as best anybody can tell, unless you had that service coming anyway you wouldn’t get it. Or you could ask to meet with Secretary Clinton, but unless you had legitimate State Department business to discuss with her, you wouldn’t get in.

That’s the pay-for-play scandal.


[1] The example that sticks in everybody’s mind is the one involving Russian interests buying Canadian uranium mines. For complicated reasons, the U.S. State Department had to sign off on that deal, along with nine other government agencies that weren’t under Clinton’s control. People interested in the sale donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation — mostly well before the sale was negotiated — and the sale went through.

That sequence of events sounded suspicious when Peter Schweizer called attention to it in his book Clinton Cash,  and over the last year and a half a lot of effort has gone into trying to make something out of it. But no one has been able to add anything substantive to the story; the juiciest details in the book turned out not to be true, and the author eventually admitted that he had no direct evidence of wrongdoing. Paul Waldman summarizes everything that was known about this as of April, 2015, and PolitiFact discussed it this June. I don’t know of any developments since.

Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage

 

Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.


Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.


[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.