Trump’s odd appeal

How a high school student council offers some insight


Source: Facebook

“History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce,” as Karl Marx is reputed to have said.

I’m reminded of the maxim as I mull over the prospects of a second Trump term, though I wonder if the order of the tragedy-farce progression would be reversed if the former president takes power again. The man’s first term was a bad joke and his second seems to promise many truly ugly things. Just see the recent Time cover story for evidence of how bad things might go: using the military to evict undocumented millions, detention camps, immunity for harsh police action (and for himself), stiff trade barriers, and, as noted elsewhere, removal of protections against political retribution for government employeespresidential control of the independent Fed, etc.

So why might Trump win? Well, the hush-money trial in New York is far from a lock, even as it looks damning for Trump, with an accountant testifying that Trump signed checks from a personal account to reimburse his lawyer for the payment to his paramour, Stormy Daniels. Certainly, that trial has had plenty of farcical elements – reminders of a porn star and a Playboy model, marital infidelity, illicit payments, disregard of the law and ordinary decency, etc. It would be a laughable parody, if it weren’t distressingly real.

But it’s not clear whether the evidence produced so far will persuade a jury (beyond a reasonable doubt) that Trump broke the law personally by knowingly falsifying business documents. Did he do that or order that? Or did his minions just do that while he was busy running for president in 2016? Can the prosecutors prove the former? That seemingly boring detail is the pivot on which the case turns.

And, even if the jury does pronounce him to be a felon, it’s doubtful that his legions of fans will decline notably. Even as his sordid history is rehashed — as Times columnist Bret Stephens put it — Trump’s favorability ratings in polls still linger at or above 40%. Despite knowing about much of his seedy and dishonest behavior during his first campaign, his fans backed him then; indeed, evangelical supporters saw him then (and likely see him still) as G-d’s flawed instrument, a sinner who nonetheless would do their bidding on things such as abortion and gay rights. Against all odds, a cousin of mine, for instance, is still posting amazing imagery about the divine embrace of Trump:

Source: Facebook

What is Trump’s secret sauce? Well, the usual suspects are white fear of national ethnic change (of which illegal immigration is actually a small part), rage at economic dislocation (global trade eroding jobs), and social change. Trump is brilliant at exploiting all that, for sure. Unlike the tumultuous and complex present, he invokes a gauzy past in seeking to “Make America Great Again.”

But some part of this is something more subtle and, perhaps, more pernicious – and for that, I must hark back to a small-bore event of over a half-century ago. Bear with me, gentle reader, as I draw your attention to my central New Jersey high school student council election, of all things.

Len E. Carmella, Source: Loomis Funeral Home

In my junior year at the all-male prep school, a most unusual candidate ran for president of that council. Unlike his academically distinguished and sober-minded opponent – a boy who later went on to graduate from Wharton and become a health insurance company vice president – this candidate, Len E. Carmella, was described by a longtime friend as “a showman and an entertainer.” As the friend wrote in our school paper, Lenny sought his identity in applause, “in the warmth afforded all beloved clowns.”

Noting that Lenny’s campaign was marked by “a lack of depth,” this friend pointed to his ability, instead, to “make sweeping gestures and rhapsodize.” And he quoted him on his trenchant platform: “I’m going to be known as the entertainer-king. Every month, there’ll be a Dance, a Movie Night and a folk night. And we’re going to put on three shows, with costumes and everything. Movies, bus trips, anything like that, I’ll give money to. Anything that’s gonna keep them happy, that’ll take their minds off their problems, that’ll keep them entertained, is fine with me.”

Mind you, this was in the spring of 1971, when Nixon was still in office and the Vietnam War was still much on the minds of all of us of nearly draft age. Anything distracting would be welcome and Lenny, if nothing else, was remarkably distracting.

Lenny and some fans

Lenny won. And his time in office was notable for just one major thing, a dance night featuring Bruce Springsteen and his band. Also, at one point, Lenny somehow was photographed strutting in front of a line of dancing girls, certainly an improbable image at our school (one where girls in the halls caused many to gape, stumble and stagger). Few of us are sure to this day of how either thing came to be.

So what’s the connection to events now, 53 years on? Well, if nothing else, Trump is an entertainer, even if a far meaner spirited one than Lenny ever was (though Lenny did enthusiastically and — often with Trumpesque vulgarity — back Trump back in 2016). After all, Trump made his name in “The Apprentice,” where he looked every bit like a capitalistic dark clown. And he continues to entertain even today, grabbing center stage in the news as he faces an astonishing legal onslaught. Even as President Biden claims all sorts of real gains – for helping keep the economy afloat, rebuilding our infrastructure, etc. – Trump dominates the headlines.

Because of his personal style – his autocratic strongman image – Trump is the dominant figure in our politics today, lording himself over other Republicans and Democrats alike. Next to him, Biden looks pallid and old.

“Politicians’ language reflects their dominance orientations,” a writer in The New York Times contended in an unsettling opinion piece. “Mr. Trump uses entertaining and provocative parlance and calls opponents — and even allies — weakgutless and pathetic. Still, neuroscientists monitoring listeners’ brain activity while they watched televised debates found that audiences — not just Mr. Trump’s followers — delighted in the belittling nicknames he uses for his opponents. His boldness and provocations held audience attention at a much higher level than his opponents’ play-it-safe recitations of their policy stances and résumés.”

It’s as if Trump took a page from my high school student president’s handbook (which at times included taking shots at some fellow students). Substance – the sort of bland, by-the-numbers approach that marks Biden and other establishment pols – is nothing to many in the electorate. It’s all a matter of style, a question of keeping the masses entertained. Voters have a hard time with boring (see Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter).

It’s also a matter of offering the middle-finger to those establishment types in both style and content. As the writer John Ganz put it in a conversation in March with Times podcaster Ezra Klein: “Yeah. I think that there is no separating form and content, as you said. That the figure has to represent the middle finger in order to be effective and get the constituency behind them…. But I don’t think it works without the theatrical, outrageous parts of it. And I think that that is part of the reason why people gravitate towards it. I think you speak — you could speak to people, and they may not have very clear ideas about any given policy issue, and yet, what they do believe is that the political establishment sucks, and they like somebody who tells them to fuck off.”

We have a long history of raucous table-pounding figures appealing to voters. Klein pointed to Pat Buchanan, an anti-immigrant firebrand who in many ways paved the way for Trump,  and former KKK head David Duke, who was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature and made an unsuccessful run as a Republican for governor of the state. As Klein put it: “… there has long been demand for a right-wing populist showman in the United States. That demand has been at times unmet. It has been at times suppressed. These people were not given a candidate to vote for in a two-party system. But it never went away. Perhaps it will never go away.”

Oh, and there’s one more thing. At a time of seeming chaos in many quarters – see the many campus protests over the Gaza war – the strongman appeals to many. That’s no small part of the reason Nixon was reelected in 1972, when he ran as the law and order candidate against the dovish and gentlemanly George McGovern. In this, the campus protesters may inadvertently help Trump oust Biden from the White House, as writer David Brooks argues, and that is something that likely won’t go well for their cause.

Sadly, we lost Lenny a few years ago. He had many friends in our high school and later in college at Loyola in Montreal, where one person described him as a “genius at satirical graphics,” sharing his illustrations with staffers at The Loyola News. He was an entertainer and a mold-breaker in a small political way, but he had real talent and basic decency, something that the all-but-named GOP nominee lacked in 2016 and lacks even more now.

Bias vs. disinformation

Can media outlets, such as The New York Times and NPR, maintain their credibility in the Trump era?e

Source: UC Berkeley

Ah, the power of disinformation. It distorts the truth and, sometimes sullies the media that report it. Consider a couple matters that raise issues of bias:

The New York Times, in the recently published  “The Method Behind Trump’s Mistruths,” offers a rich catalog of the former president’s misstatements and distortions – all accompanied by real facts that undercut his claims.

To take a couple examples:

  1. “While Joe Biden is pushing the largest tax hike in American history – you know, he wants to quadruple your taxes.”

In fact, as the piece notes: “President Biden has not proposed quadrupling taxes. In fact, he has consistently vowed not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000.”

  1. “I mean, what he’s doing with energy with an all-electric mandate, where you won’t be able to buy any other form of car in a very short period of time.”

In fact, as noted, “Mr. Biden has not implemented an electric car mandate. The administration has announced rules that would limit tailpipe emissions from cars and light trucks, effectively requiring automakers to sell more electric vehicles and hybrids. It doesn’t ban gas cars.”

Such correctives – and those applied to more than a dozen more misstatements by the former president – are appropriate and helpful. The disgraceful roster of mistruths by Trump should be beneath anyone running for the presidency, much less a former president.

But the Times piece is not called “opinion” or, better, “analysis.” And yet the author offers a lot of both in framing his view of Trump in the opening paragraphs:

“Since the beginning of his political career, Donald J. Trump has misled, mischaracterized, dissembled, exaggerated and, at times, flatly lied. His flawed statements about the border, the economy, the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election have formed the bedrock of his 2024 campaign.

“Though his penchant for bending the truth, sometimes to the breaking point, has been well documented, a close study of how he does so reveals a kind of technique to his dishonesty: a set of recurring rhetorical moves with which Mr. Trump fuels his popularity among his supporters.”

Source: The Washington Post

None of that is untrue, though much is a matter of interpretation – “bedrock of his 2024 campaign” and “kind of technique to his dishonesty,” for instance. Moreover, there’s no attempt to balance any of this with comments from, say, Trump’s spokesman. The author doesn’t present “the other side” from a Trump defender, perhaps from someone who would rationalize away the former president’s claims as just hyperbolic.

Is it fair journalism, nonetheless? Is it a good-faith effort to combat disinformation of the sort that has marked Trump’s career for years, both as a real-estate mogul whose failures are legend and as a politician given to fabrication?

Indeed, would efforts to get another side be an example of “bothsidesism,” an approach that critics rightly say gives credence to falsehoods?

For my part, I see the Times piece as very much on target and factually devastating. But I suggest that labeling it as something other than straight news would be helpful. When such pieces go unlabeled, the media are dismissed by Trumpists as incurably biased.

Sadly, that gives credence to Trump’s attacks on the “fake news” media. Such attacks have driven many on the right, I suspect, to not pay attention to troubling stories about Trump’s business interests and his political plans.

Some turn, I suspect, to Fox News, Newsmax or similar outfits that don’t hold their golden boy to account for his untruths.

To be sure, the Times and others should carry opinionated material. But it’s not straight reporting and shouldn’t be portrayed as such.

Bias – or perceived bias — though, goes further than just labeling. Media outlets can betray their viewpoints both in the stories they choose to cover and those they avoid.

Uri Berliner, source: The Free Press

Troubling examples come in a scathing piece about National Public Radio in the conservative outlet, The Free Press. In it, longtime NPR staffer Uri Berliner bemoans the lack of “viewpoint diversity” in the outlet’s news operation. Because of its groupthink, Berliner suggests, stories are not being done that should be.

Criticizing NPR’s coverage (or lack of coverage) of the COVID-19 lab leak theory, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and allegations that Donald Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, he contends that “politics were blotting out the curiosity and independence that ought to have been driving our work.”

To detail one example, NPR paid little mind to the Hunter Biden laptop story in the fall of 2020, even though, Berliner argues, “(i)ts contents revealed his connection to the corrupt world of multimillion-dollar influence peddling and its possible implications for his father. The laptop was newsworthy. But the timeless journalistic instinct of following a hot story lead was being squelched. During a meeting with colleagues, I listened as one of NPR’s best and most fair-minded journalists said it was good we weren’t following the laptop story because it could help Trump.”

The NPR veteran also lambasts the lack of conservative voices on staff, saying that “people at every level of NPR have comfortably coalesced around the progressive worldview.” He backs that up with a look at the Washington offices: “Concerned by the lack of viewpoint diversity, I looked at voter registration for our newsroom. In D.C., where NPR is headquartered and many of us live, I found 87 registered Democrats working in editorial positions and zero Republicans. None.”

That observation begs the question: can a Democrat fairly cover a Republican, and vice versa? I would argue yes, but it’s also helpful if one can find more stripes than one in a news organization. If nothing else, the lack of variety means one risks everyone moving in lockstep, in questions not being asked. Even the Times has bona fide conservatives writing for its opinion pages.

A lack of intellectual diversity, Berliner contends, shapes NPR’s work and is costing listenership. “An open-minded spirit no longer exists within NPR, and now, predictably, we don’t have an audience that reflects America.” 

“Back in 2011, although NPR’s audience tilted a bit to the left, it still bore a resemblance to America at large,” Berliner writes. “Twenty-six percent of listeners described themselves as conservative, 23 percent as middle of the road, and 37 percent as liberal. By 2023, the picture was completely different: only 11 percent described themselves as very or somewhat conservative, 21 percent as middle of the road, and 67 percent of listeners said they were very or somewhat liberal.”

“We weren’t just losing conservatives; we were also losing moderates and traditional liberals,” Berliner argues.

Media outlets will lose their audiences if they don’t reflect them and speak to them in their journalistic work. That doesn’t mean pandering and certainly doesn’t mean reporting untruthfully or incompletely.

Finding the truth is a messy matter and giving charlatans platforms to spout unchallenged misstatements – as the right-leaning media often do – is not good journalism, of course. It’s the media’s job to hold officials and would-be officials to account, to call out their shortcomings and misstatements — but to do so in appropriate ways.

Sources; AFP/Getty Images, via CNBC

Later this year, I suspect we will see Trump and Biden square off in debates, at least if major news organizations get their way. And we can expect many misstatements to be aired, probably more from the former president than the current one. Will fact-checking help? Will partisans simply dismiss that? And can it be done in real-time, as the contenders rail against one another?

Politicians who shun facts have made a mockery of the most cherished journalistic tenets. Sadly, they could drag sound journalistic organizations down to their level, hurting all of us. The smartest outlets shouldn’t fall for that.

All the President’s Men

The list of people sullied by their connection to Donald Trump grows

AP Photo, via NPR

Why do so many people in Donald J. Trump’s orbit get sullied? Some have gone to jail, while others continue to fight charges related to misdoings on his behalf.

The list is extraordinary. It includes Steve BannonPeter NavarroMichael CohenPaul ManafortGeorge PapadopoulosRick GatesAllen Weisselberg and Roger Stone, whose 40-month sentence Trump commuted. Others face prosecution and have been financially ruined (think of Rudy Giuliani and the $148 million judgment against him). Still others, such as former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, have accepted plea deals to testify in cases against Trump.

Of course, some 1,350 people have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that Trump fomented. More than 800 have been sentenced, according to CBS News, with about two-third getting jail terms ranging from several days to 22 years. Trump calls them “hostages” that he vows to free.

The Shvartsmans and, in tie, their lawyer. Source: AP via The Detroit News

Now, two more names can be added to the roster — even if their connection is tangential. Two Florida men have pleaded guilty to insider trading in a company connected to Trump Media & Technology Group. Brothers Michael and Gerald Shvartsman may face up to four and three years in prison, respectively, and must forfeit $22.8 million in ill-gotten gains.

The pair had been tipped that Trump Media planned to go public by merging with Digital World Acquisition Co., a shell company seemingly created for that purpose, and they traded in DWAC securities and told others to do so, driving up its stock price. While the men were not acquainted with Trump, they were linked to DWAC, according to a richly detailed account in The Washington Post. They profited by its connection to Trump.

DWAC had raised $300 million in an initial public offering in the fall of 2021 after its then-CEO, Miami financier and Trump pal Patrick Orlando, had told people Trump Media was knocking on its door. This was despite the company denying the existence of such discussions in legal filings, according to regulators. DWAC paid $18 million to settle charges related to those denials.

For his part, Orlando wound up tarnished, as well. After he was driven out of DWAC, he claimed in a lawsuit that he was shortchanged when Trump Media merged with the shell company. He unsuccessfully tried to block the merger.

Meanwhile, TMTG’s shares continue to slide. Once worth as much as $79.38 each, the shares closed on April 3 at $48.81. For those keeping track, this amounts to a 38.5% slide for people who bought at the peak. No doubt, this is gladdening the hearts of short-sellers, folks who expect to cash in on the stock price’s fall. As The New York Times reported, citing financial data company S3 Partners, TMTG’s shares are the most shorted stocks in the country. (Short-sellers borrow shares and sell them into the market, hoping to buy them back later at a lower price, before returning the shares to the lender and pocketing the difference as profit, as the newspaper reported).

Are all the people associated with Trump and his new company victims of what Trump loudly calls “witch-hunts?” Are they all targets of persecution by vindictive partisans and the deep state that Trump promises to dismantle?  Some of his followers, infused with a religious fervor, as The New York Times suggested, certainly see it that way. “He’s definitely been chosen by God,” Marie Zere, a commercial real estate broker from Long Island, told the newspaper. “He’s still surviving even though all these people are coming after him, and I don’t know how else to explain that other than divine intervention.”

Ah, the power of rationalization. The list of prosecutions that Trump faces is extraordinary, ranging from charges of election interference and misuse of classified documents to paying out hush money to silence a porn star who claimed they had had sex (that trial is set for mid-April). Of course, he’s already been found liable in civil cases related to business fraud (a $454 million judgment) and sexual abuse ($83 million).

But can all these prosecutions and court actions be baseless, merely the mechanizations of the deep state in revolt against a noble people’s avenger? And, in the face of all of them, how can so many voters be polling in support of Trump against Biden in six of seven crucial swing states, as The Wall Street Journal has reported?

Really, are all these voters blind? Do they not read? Have newspapers been so decimated that former readers don’t have access to the news anymore? Of course, in this age of the Net, such voters must be aware – at least marginally – of the news about their golden boy. The Net makes the news more widely available than ever.

But, stunningly, Trump’s devotees set that all aside. They disregard reports of how Trump sunk a deal to fix the southern border crisis so he could weaponize the issue against Biden. They ignore his record of business failure and his legal woes. They forget his two impeachments. They appear to see only a righteous avatar, a man who speaks to their anger, their fury at social and ethnic change, in some cases their racism. Recall his phrase: “I am your retribution.” And no amount of evidence will persuade them about his deep flaws.

Source: The New York Times

As longtime political consultant Mark Mellman has written, “People don’t change their minds easily, especially about matters wrapped up with their identities.” He cited cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier, who holds that “Any message that clashes with our prior beliefs…is overwhelmingly likely to fall on deaf ears.” 

Before November, still more of the president’s devotees may join the ranks of those who’ve already fallen on their swords for him. Will he manage to avoid a similar fate before the Republicans convene in Milwaukee in July? How much more debasement will our political culture face thanks to him? Unless Trump succeeds in delaying his hush-money trial set to begin April 15, the former president’s resume could soon include a new entry: felon. Will that be enough to disqualify him for the GOP or voters?

Will economics matter in November

Social issues — together with some economic factors — could decide the fate of Team Biden

Source: Investopedia

Economics, we were taught in grad school, assumes that people will act rationally and in their self-interest. But do they always? And do they always act on valid information? Beyond that, can other factors outweigh economic ones?

The coming election may test some common economic assumptions. And it may be decided on matters entirely apart from household finances.

By most Big Picture indications, the U.S. economy is faring pretty well. As President Biden has repeatedly noted, the unemployment rate has been below 4% for the last 26 months, the longest such stretch in more than 50 years. That is a stunning contrast to the 14.7% jobless rate of April 2020, when Covid shut down much of the economy.

And, to take a couple more key indicators, wages have grown substantially since January 2021, when Biden took office, with the 12-month moving average of wage gains starting at 3.4% that month and rising to 5.4% in February 2024 (with an uptick a year ago to 6.4%). By contrast, inflation has slipped to a 3.2% annual rate so far this year, down from its annual high of 7% in 2022, and falling well below the gains in pay most workers are enjoying.

Even in manufacturing – a long-declining sector – employment recently has been topping 12.96 million each month, the largest number since the fall of 2008. While still a far cry from the 17.9 million jobs in the sector we saw in 1990, it’s a healthy gain from the 11.4 million of the worst Covid period in early 2020.

But it is also true that we live in a split-screen economy. Behind the big numbers are unsettling realities that many Americans are having trouble coping with, factors that could outweigh the macro achievements that Team Biden points to. As a friend noted, things are pretty good for the upper middle class and above. Below that, not so much.

Mortgage rates and housing prices are too high for many folks to afford homes, for instance. And high prices, coupled with high loan rates, even put cars out of reach for some — certainly the electric cars that the administration is incentivizing.

“Anyone who wants to buy a house or a car faces a double whammy of higher prices and far higher rates,” The Wall Street Journal noted. “Few are even bothering to apply for a mortgage, with applications for loans to buy a home in the past year at their lowest since 1995. Those who have already achieved the American dream are fine, but it’s getting further away for those still reaching for it.”

And, while inflation rates are coming down, the price of groceries isn’t dropping. Sticker-shock at the cash register continues to be the kind of in-your-face reality that American shoppers face regularly. “Average annual food-at-home prices were 5.0 percent higher in 2023 than in 2022. For context, the 20-year historical level of retail food price inflation is 2.5 percent per year,” the USDA reported. “Price growth slowed in 2023 compared with 2022, when food-at-home prices rose by 11.4 percent.”

Gerald Ford’s failed effort against inflation, source: Wikipedia

Such inflation, it has been said, had a lot to do with turning Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford into one-term presidents. While the average inflation rate under Biden has been far lower than the others experienced (9.9% on average under Carter and 8% for Ford), Biden’s 5.7% average rate so far has him tied with the rate that obsessed Richard Nixon in his day – hardly a welcome comparison for Team Biden.

And inflation hits some folks far harder than others. Those on the lower end of the economic scale – historically more likely to vote Democratic – are those struggling the most. Many may not realize that presidents have little power over inflation, a challenge that falls to the independent Federal Reserve. But they keenly understand the cash-register effect and that could drive them to seek a change, especially since inflation during the Trump years averaged just 1.9%.

So, if one asks whether a voter is better off now than he or she was four years ago – a line that got Ronald Reagan elected over Carter in 1980 — the answer will vary. Are most voters in Michigan, Ohio and other swing states better off? Unquestionably, they are better off than when Covid raged, but aside from that aberration, are they faring well enough to reward Biden with a second term? Have they been aided enough by the billions Biden pumped into the economy to prevent a repeat of recession after the two-month downturn of early 2020?

Beyond questions of economics, though, social issues such as immigration and abortion policy may weigh heavily, along with the age of both candidates and perceptions about their mental capacities. Will voters recall that Trump quashed bipartisan efforts in Congress to fix the southern border problem, or will they just hear his often-racist podium-pounding on it? Will they react to Republican efforts to bar abortion, even to the extent of curtailing IVF procedures, as the Alabama Supreme Court sought to do before state lawmakers hastily decided to put in protections? Will they consider Trump’s questionable thinking processes, which may far overshadow Biden’s gaffes, as well as Trump’s many self-induced legal woes?

Source: LA Times

Indeed, provided he stays out of jail, will those legal woes help Trump with his backers, as they play into his victim narrative? They certainly keep him in the headlines.

Voters have an extraordinary ability to overlook flaws in the candidates they pin their emotions on. The passion that MAGA enthusiasts feel for their candidate blinds them to his legal and personal flaws, it seems, and their depth of commitment far exceeds the feelings that Biden generates among his backers. Will such passions, coupled with a mixed bag of economic realities, be enough to put Trump back into office?

Moreover, given the distortions of the Electoral College system, where each vote in a less populous and more socially conservative state counts more heavily than each one in more urbanized states, the coming election is hardly assured for the man whose team can claim a lot of credit for restoring a healthy U.S. economy. It’s no wonder the polls put the contenders pretty close to neck and neck. The coming few months promise a lot more drama and, one hopes, better things for voters in time for November.

Just what do we want in a President?

A look at what drives Trumpism and its potential for the fall election

Bret Stephens, source: New York Times

It’s funny how important things often come in threes. At the base of today’s triptych is Donald J. Trump, the likely victor in tomorrow’s sweep of primaries. All the matters that popped up today deal with the mystery of the man’s appeal and his potential second term. They are worth probing.

First, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens offered some interesting insights on what drives Trumpism – a source of wonder for anyone with half a brain, a sense of history and respect for responsible and responsive government. How can this boorish, immoral, often-unhinged would-be autocrat seem so inspiring to so many people?

Stephens, in a conversation with a colleague, offers the following:

             “He’s a raised middle finger at all the people whom his supporters see as a self-satisfied, self-dealing cultural elite. The more that elite despises him, the more they love him. That’s why any good analysis of the Trump phenomenon has to begin with an analysis of the Us phenomenon, if you will: Where did those of us who were supposed to represent the sensible center of the country go so wrong that people were willing to turn to a charlatan like Trump in the first place? I have endless theories, but here’s another one: We tried to change the way people are instead of meeting them where they are. Neocons (like me) tried to bend distant cultures in places like Afghanistan to accept certain Western values. Didn’t work. Progressives tried to push Americans to accept new values on issues like identity, equity, pronouns and so on. That isn’t working, either. Trump represents a complete rejection of all that. For every American he scandalizes, another one feels seen, heard, reflected and understood by him.”

Source: USA Toda

There’s a lot there. To unpack it, consider the “basket of deplorables” phrase that Hillary Clinton deployed to disastrous effect in September 2016. Speaking of half the Trump supporters, she said: “They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.” The deplorables phrase was quickly snapped up proudly by such supporters, who took to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with it. Clinton even mentioned it in a book as contributing to her loss.

As Stephens suggests, the more the elites loathe Trump (and his supporters), the more his backers love him. The more they are pilloried by those of us who have benefitted from such forces as globalism, economic change and the need for education, the more Trumpists dig in behind the lead critic of such forces. The more they are accused of racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc., the more they will bask in such traits, wearing such qualities all the more brazenly.

Source: KRCR

The second development has to do with the national Supreme Court and its ruling that Trump can remain on the ballot in Colorado, despite the state Supreme Court’s ruling striking him from it because of his role in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. The decision was not surprising, of course, given that the Colorado ruling was a 4-3 one to begin with and, as a cynic might suggest, the conservative majority on the national court includes three Trump appointees.

But it was surprising that the national court’s decision was unanimous as the justices agreed that individual states don’t have the right to bar candidates from federal offices, noting “especially the Presidency,” although they may do so for state offices. The majority held that federal legislation would be needed to determine who would be disqualified under section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which bars insurrectionists from holding office. Interestingly, the justices dodged the question of whether Trump had engaged in insurrection.

Unless something extraordinary happens – perhaps turning on any one of several Trump legal woes that all seem, oddly, to entrench Trumpists even more deeply — this decision suggests that we will see a Trump-Biden rematch in November. That prospect looks troublesome for Team Biden, in large part because voters seem to see Biden as much more enfeebled by his age (81) than they do Trump (77). Of course, both men are prone to mixing up facts and faces (Trump recently confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi and suggesting Barack Obama was still in office, and President Biden confusing the presidents of Mexico and Egypt). Experts say such verbal stumbles aren’t necessarily signs of a loss of mental acuity, though Joe Q. Voter may disagree, at least in Biden’s cas

Allen Weisselberg, source: Rolling Stone

The third development involves Trump’s dishonesty and the hold he, nonetheless, commands on some associates. Some go to the mat for him, lying or refusing to cooperate with investigators, even when that means jail terms. The latest is former Trump chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, with his guilty plea for lying under oath in the Trump civil fraud trial that will cost the former president $455 million. Weisselberg faces five more months in jail after the 100 days he served in an earlier case, but he can console himself with a $2 million severance payment Trump provided on the condition that he not cooperate with law enforcement unless forced to.

In that case, Trump seems to have purchased an underling’s loyalty. An exceptional number of Trump associates and supporters have been convicted of or faced various charges, with many going to jail without such payouts, though. Former aide Peter Navarro, who devised a plan to overturn the 2020 election, recently got four months in jail for ignoring a subpoena to testify in Congress about the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Of course, some Trump loyalists turned against him. Former longtime attorney Michael Cohen is perhaps the best known because his testimony was instrumental in Trump’s most costly civil fraud trial. But others have owned up to missteps they made on Trump’s behalf.

Trump’s support among the undereducated is well-documented. He even bragged about this in 2016, saying “I love the poorly educated.” But just why he appeals to people who should know better is a mystery as profound as that of his appeal to a broader base of Republicans. Along with the support his associates provide, his backing among college-educated white GOP members doubled to 60 percent over the last year, according to polling by Fox News.

What do they see in the man? How can they back him in spite of – or perhaps because of – his broad array of legal problems? How do they fall for his victimization narrative?

I’m reminded of a day in 1992, when I spent time with Trump visiting one of his then-bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City for a story for BusinessWeek. He was in financial ruin, his empire controlled by others for the benefit of his many creditors, and his reputation in New York City real estate was in the toilet. And yet, as he strode through the since-sold (and renamed) Trump Taj Mahal, gamblers reached out to touch him for luck, one begging him to autograph her slots-playing hand. No matter the reality that he was a wreck financially, he looked to them like a god, much as he does now to those at his rallies.

Part of this may be narcissistic self-delusion on his part. He casts himself publicly – and perhaps in his mind — as paradoxically godlike (“I alone can fix it”) and as a victim, perhaps much as his followers see themselves as victims of social and economic change. But it also may all be good acting of the sort that he honed on his years on “The Apprentice,” the show that elevated his tough-guy image for a national audience. For all his many verbal flubs, he is an extraordinary performer, one who even managed to disguise ill-health during and after his time in the White House.

Source: Whyvert

If one believes he is the alpha, perhaps he is the alpha, at least to his devotees. The analysis I find most intriguing – albeit the most unusual and entertaining – is research related to animal behavior.

As Wikipedia notes, psychology researcher Dan P. McAdams pointed to the dominance behavior of alpha male chimpanzees such as Yeroen, the subject of a study of chimp social behavior by primatologist Frans de Waal.  McAdams describes the similarities: “On Twitter, Trump’s incendiary tweets are like Yeroen’s charging displays. In chimp colonies, the alpha male occasionally goes berserk and starts screaming, hooting, and gesticulating wildly as he charges toward other males nearby. Pandemonium ensues as rival males cower in fear … Once the chaos ends, there is a period of peace and order, wherein rival males pay homage to the alpha, visiting him, grooming him, and expressing various forms of submission. In Trump’s case, his tweets are designed to intimidate his foes and rally his submissive base … These verbal outbursts reinforce the president’s dominance by reminding everybody of his wrath and his force.”

Primatologist Dame Jane Goodall compared Trump’s behavior with that of other male primates. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: Stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks,” Goodall said. “The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”

The comparison has been echoed by political observers sympathetic to Trump, Wikipedia recorded. Nigel Farage, a Trump backer, said that in the 2016 United States presidential debates where Trump loomed up on Clinton, he “looked like a big silverback gorilla“, and added that “he is that big alpha male. The leader of the pack!”

Sadly, in all his reasonableness and moderation, as well as his frailness, Biden looks like someone the alpha chimp can stomp at will. Just how the two will compare in face-to-face debates (assuming that Trump doesn’t hide from them, as he has in the primaries), will be a telling spectacle, I suspect. Will America go for sober, thoughtful and measured, albeit it physically challenged, or will it go for a more ape-like manner? What will that choice say about our country?

An American Abroad

Filderstadt Bonlanden

For a couple weeks, I’ve been visiting a small town in southern Germany, Filderstadt Bonlanden, a short drive from Stuttgart. With its hilly and winding narrow roads, red-roofed village homes and larger buildings that date back several centuries, it’s idyllic.

It’s a perfect place, it seems, for Donna and me to usher into the world our eighth grandchild, born in a hospital nearby on July 24. This angelic child is the third for our son, who will be based here for a couple years. We’re lucky to be here to lend a hand until nearly summer’s end

But, because it is so pleasant here, it’s also disconcerting, and much of that has to do with the news from home. As a regular reader of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Atlantic, CNN and local news outlets from Colorado, I’ve been delighting in German village life while being fed a steady of diet of mayhem and tumult from home and elsewhere. The diet sharply contrasts with the pleasant day-to-day reality in this bucolic stretch of Europe.

Just today, for instance, I read about the U.S.’s dismal record in health problems among American women, a piece headlined “The Tragedy of Being a New Mom in America.” A bit earlier, I read of the rising death rate among the homeless in Colorado via “Deaths of people who are homeless in Denver surge 50% since last year.” And, of course, the news about Trump’s legal woes and the peculiar ostrich-like attitude among his supporters has flowed nonstop. For one example, see “Trump’s 2024 Campaign Seeks to Make Voters the Ultimate Jury.”

And, if I look a bit further, there’s the constantly refreshed news about the seemingly intractable gun violence at home. There’s also antisemitism, drawing attention anew because of the death penalty sought in Pittsburgh, an occasion for a trying debate with an anti-death penalty friend. Also making fresh headlines: climate change continues to ravage much of the world, getting plenty of attention among U.S. news outlets.

Die Evangelische Kirchengemeinde Bonlanden

Jarringly different from the delights of this charming area, parts of which date back to the 12th century, all this news is very depressing. Outside of our bubble here, is this the sort of world – and is the U.S. the sort of country – our grandchildren should inherit? G-d willing, they will live to see and surpass the year 2100 (hard as that is to imagine) when they’ll be just a few years older than we are now. What will America look like then? The rest of the world?

Recently, we visited an American family that has been in orderly, clean and perhaps suffocatingly well-regulated Germany for about five years. As they look at developments at home, they are working hard to extend their tour here still more, at least until their young boys go off to college in the United States and perhaps longer.

Given the unceasing political turmoil, increase in gun violence, rises in homelessness and other problems at home, it’s easy to see why. And somehow following the never-ending cascade of troubling news from home while in this lovely cocoon here makes it all worse. The cultural clash is painful.

When I first taught in China a bit more than a decade ago, reading the news from the U.S. was curiously heartening. The candor in American news seemed so much better than censorship and, despite the problems then, I could believe that problems have solutions. I recall telling students in Beijing that I found the “Occupy Wall Street” movement invigorating because young people could freely speak their minds. Of course, all that was pre-Trump, and one could have confidence in some leaders at least.

Now, however, it’s hard to escape a feeling that my homeland is hurtling toward a future that is nothing my grandchildren should ever experience.

Nobles home in Filderstadt Bonlanden

Here in Germany, the perspective I have on American news is troubling. Some of the challenges are global, of course, and even this pleasantness isn’t immune (consider the sweltering heat in Italy, not so far away). But, sadly, much of it reflects distinctly American dysfunction — Trump is far from the only would-be authoritarian in the world (dare I call him “fascist” in this much-reformed national home of Nazism?).

But the support he commands in the face of his astonishing legal woes may reflect a level of ignorance particular now to the U.S., a herd-mentality not dissimilar to the national madness that beset Germany less than a century ago. And guns, of course, are especially problematic in the States. Even as homelessness afflicts many countries, I’ve seen none of the tents here that are ubiquitous in Denver.

Seen from afar, nowadays, America tragically seems like a place one wants to stay away from, at least until and unless it can resolve its problems. For one, Trump will fade over time (whether he’s elected again or not), but Trumpism has taken root in the GOP and amid much of the public (carrying on traditions that hearken back to American Nazism, the John Birch Society and the rest of the once-fringe ultraright). And, barring a miraculous change in politics, gun violence seems likely only to worsen, along with homelessness. Climate change seems likely to stir deadly weather, even in my beloved Colorado mountains, which are highly vulnerable to fire.

The bottom line in this slice of semirural European delight: it’s hard to be optimistic about home. Taking a breather from the news from the States could help my attitude, of course. But the reality remains and, alarmist as the media can seem, they do seem to be getting far too many things right in this most disturbing summer.

Outsiders Shine a Light on America

As far back as the 1830s, it was clear that an outsider could look at America in a fresh, independent and novel way. Back then, the keen observer of American culture was Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political scientist, historian and politician whose four-volume “Democracy in America” praised much about the burgeoning country, but also noted its flaws.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville pointed to equality as the great idea of his era, and he thought that the United States offered the most advanced example of equality in action, as the History website summarized his work. “He admired American individualism but warned that a society of individuals can easily become atomized and paradoxically uniform when ‘every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd.’” Trenchantly, Tocqueville also took note of the irony of the freedom-loving nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans and its embrace of slavery.

Now comes Helen Lewis, a British staff writer for The Atlantic and former deputy editor of England’s New Statesman magazine. She reports on the abundant irony, as well, in just one state, Florida. While exploring various aspects of the state’s odd culture, she casts that irony in timely political terms in a piece headlined “How did America’s Weirdest, Most Freedom-Obsessed State Fall for an Authoritarian Governor?: A journey through Ron DeSantis’s magic kingdom.”

To Lewis, Florida is “America’s pulsing id, a vision of life without the necessary restriction of shame. Chroniclers talk about its seasonless strangeness; the public meltdowns of its oddest residents; how retired CIA operatives, Mafia informants, and Jair Bolsonaro can be reborn there.” To her, the state is “the Australia of America: The wildlife is trying to kill you, the weather is trying to kill you, and the people retain a pioneer spirit, even when their roughest expedition is to the 18th hole.”

And she notes that it’s no surprise that the two top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, Gov. DeSantis and former President Trump, both call the state home. They fit in smoothly in a place that she says “has come to embody an emotional new strain of conservatism.” She quotes Miami-based author Michael Grunwald saying: “The general Republican mindset now is about grievances against condescending elites, and it fits with the sense that ‘we’re Florida Man; everyone makes fun of us.’ ” Lewis adds that criticism doesn’t faze Florida men, but just emboldens them.

Helen Lewis

Lewis’s observations struck me as spot on because I’ve recently spent time in two corners of the place, Sarasota and Orlando. In the former, I visited relatives of my wife who live in a gated community that is a haven for retirees – one of many such guarded places in the state. It boasts palm trees, lovely ponds sometimes frequented by alligators, a couple pools and lots of paddle ball-playing oldsters who like the mix of independence and security, as well as the chances to hang out with mostly white middle class folks that such a homogenous place can offer. As for Orlando, I spent several days with grandkids at the Walt Disney World Resort, a place Lewis says “flatters its customers the way Florida flatters the rich, by hiding the machinery needed to support decadence. You absolutely never see Cinderella smoking a joint behind her castle, or Mickey Mouse losing it with a group of irritating 9-year-olds.”

Disney World, Lewis writes, “only underlines how the state is one giant theme park. She quotes Grunwald saying: “This is not a place that makes anything, and it’s not really a place that does anything, other than bring in more people.” She adds, “Having brought in those people, what Florida never tells them is no, nor does the state ask them to play nicely with the other children.” She quotes Grunwald again: “We’re not going to make you wear a mask or take a vaccine or pay your taxes or care about the schools.” (Indeed, I came down with COVID-19 in Florida and had a devil of a time persuading a doctor to give me the new drug Paxlovid. Masks were rare.)

Lewis points out various contradictions about Floridians, noting how they value freedom but call for government help when reality intrudes. “In Florida, no one wants to hear about the costs or the consequences,” she writes. “Why else would people keep rebuilding fragile beachfront homes in a hurricane zone—and expect the government to offer them insurance?” 

The central irony in Lewis’s work is that this state so eagerly embraces two GOP politicians who would do more to take power and rights away from individuals – or businesses — than any Democrat would dare to. Both Trump and DeSantis would much like to restrict voting and would curb abortion rights, for instance. Both slam “woke” culture, attacking diversity efforts in academia and business. Indeed, DeSantis recently one-upped Trump by stripping away the independence of state-funded New College of Florida, in Sarasota, as he installed cronies and right wingers such as Christopher Rufo (an out-of-stater famous for attacking critical race theory) on its board.

More than anything, though, DeSantis’s headline grabbing action at Disney World has defined him for a national audience. The governor drove legislation that ended the autonomy that Disney has long exercised over its 39-square mile tract of land near Orlando. He took control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which governs the theme parks, hotels and other amenities in the area, appointing a board to oversee municipal services. He did this to punish the Disney Co. CEO at the time for criticizing the “Don’t Say Gay” law of March 2022 that limited what public school teachers could teach.

As the Orlando Sentinel recently editorialized: “…the governor’s ego had been bruised, by tepid criticism from Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek, aimed at DeSantis’ hateful attacks on LGBTQ+ people. And though DeSantis loves to chant ‘freedom,’ he’s clearly established that freedom only covers himself and those who follow the same track. For everyone else, retribution is as swift as a whip crack.”

And, as Atlantic writer Lewis put it: “DeSantis is a politician who preaches freedom while suspending elected officials who offend him, banning classroom discussions he doesn’t like, carrying out hostile takeovers of state universities, and obstructing the release of public records whenever he can.”

As I wandered about the Disney resort parks along with thousands of others in this spring-break month, I was struck by how un-Republican DeSantis is. Disney brings in millions of visitors, employs 77,000 “cast members” in its parks, and is responsible for countless other jobs in and around Orlando. It is an economic machine without parallel. So why would any politician, much less a Republican, want to tamper with that?

Beating up on gay and transgender people and on the “woke” culture that encourages toleration seems to be a common trope for right wing politicians these days, though. DeSantis seems to be calculating that railing against Disney and other “woke” companies, as well as political stunts such as busing migrants to more liberal states will garner attention for him in the culture wars. Economics and old-fashioned GOP ideology be damned; it’s all about winning the votes of conservative straight white people who feel threatened by folks of different sexual orientations (and by diversity in all senses).

Firing back at DeSantis, Disney announced that in September it will host a conference promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the workplace. Run by the Out & Equal organization, the event is expected to draw some 5,000 people, according to the Miami Herald. The paper reported that the meeting will include dozens of corporate sponsors such as Apple, McDonald’s, Uber, Walmart, Hilton, Amazon, Boeing, Cracker Barrel and John Deere, and several government agencies, including the State Department and the CIA, which will have booths at the conference.

Disney World has committed to host a second annual meeting of the group in 2024, possibly just as DeSantis makes his bid for the White House. Slamming Disney yet again at that point could play well for him with the culturally conservative folks he needs to steal away from Trump. And, certainly, his attacks would grab more headlines. But will that tune play well for most American voters, the ones who have accepted gay marriage? The ones who voted for Obama and, more recently, for Biden? The ones who still flock to Disney World? The contest will be fascinating.