(I forgot to mention this in the clip above, but here is the tweet that originally set me thinking about this.)
I think the trend towards fatalism in American art is problematic. Our stories about politics and entertainment are very dark.
— GothamGirlBlue (@GothamGirlBlue) July 2, 2017
This Trump Jr. story is interesting for several reasons. My take:
1. Strange though it may seem, I think this actually makes it seem less likely that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia to steal the election. My impression is that Trump Jr. was lured into the meeting without having much prior knowledge. This is based on the email exchange, which reads to me like an amateur who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Here is page 4 (which did not post due to space constraints). pic.twitter.com/z1Xi4nr2gq
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 11, 2017
2. If Russia actually wanted to release anything incriminating they had on Clinton, they wouldn’t do it via the Trump campaign. That would be stupid, since it would automatically make the information seem suspect. Instead, they would distribute it through some friendly-but-seemingly-independent media outlet, and let the Trump campaign pick it up later. Indeed, this is actually what happened with a lot of the Russian-supported anti-Clinton/pro-Trump propaganda that was circulated online during the election. This also makes it seem unlikely they actually gave the Trump campaign any useful information.
3. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the Russians would be unlikely to tell the Trump campaign about their election interference. Rather, they did the election interference independently, and then arranged the meetings with campaign personnel in order to undermine the people’s faith in the electoral process.
This meeting is totally consistent with that. They lured Trump Jr. into a meeting by claiming they had dirt on Clinton, and then didn’t give him anything, knowing how bad it would make him look when it came to light.
In summary, I don’t think Russian operatives would ever work with the Trump people to interfere with the election, simply because many of the Trump people are too incompetent to be trusted with anything like that. The Russian intelligence operatives could handle it by themselves.
My sense is that the Russian plan had two distinct components: one was to influence the election in favor of Trump. The other was to play on the amateurishness and arrogance of the Trump campaign staff to goad them into doing stupid stuff that could be used to undermine them later.
Before you do anything else, read this Andrew Sullivan column. It’s a few months old, but still incredibly relevant in many ways, and it’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.
All done? Good.
The part I loved most was this:
“In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.”
This is a highly significant point. On a superficial level it’s related to what I wrote about here–the fact that so many of America’s problems stem from the high concentration of young, talented, well-educated people in a few cities.
But there’s also a deeper significance to it–the Oswald Spengler quote I referenced here that “the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old [culture] and the appearance of the new one,” applies.
Sorry to reference my own posts, but my point here is that Sullivan has very clearly articulated something I’ve subconsciously thought about but have never been able to express. It’s a fundamental change in the culture of the United States, and it’s something that needs to be understood to ensure a prosperous future for the nation.
We know that Russian Intelligence worked to increase Donald Trump’s election chances by spreading propaganda. And we now know that they also attempted to tamper with US voting systems. And we know that President Trump has long spoken approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we know that Trump campaign personnel met with various Russian officials during the campaign.
All of this looks highly suspicious, and suggests that something was going on between Trump and Russia.
However, there is one thing about the “Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to steal the election” theory that doesn’t add up. Namely, if Russia was covertly influencing the election, why would they bother to tell the Trump campaign about it?
Think about it: there’s no reason for them to have any contact beyond perhaps an initial meeting to lay out the plan. Why keep having these meetings between Trump’s people and Russia’s people? All it did was increase the likelihood of the plot getting exposed.
This is actually the best argument the Trump people have in their favor, as far as I can see. If they were committing such a serious crime, why leave such incriminating evidence?
The “Trump’s campaign is innocent” scenario could be something like the following: sure, they met with Russian people, but it was nothing to do with election-hacking. Trump’s platform and Russia’s interests in promoting a new nationalistic world order just happened to align, and they were hashing out details of what they would do in the event that Trump won. Russia independently carried out their manipulation of the election without the knowledge of the Trump campaign.
Which would be the way to do it, if you were running a remotely competent espionage operation. You don’t tell people stuff they don’t need to know, and from Russia’s perspective, the Trump campaign wouldn’t have needed to know that Russia was attempting to influence the election.
But this leads to the question: why did the Russians meet with them at all? Presumably, Russian officials knew about the plan, even if the Trump people didn’t. And they would therefore know how bad the meetings would look if word of the Russian interference ever came out.
This points strongly to the conclusion that the Russians suckered Trump, or at least Trump’s people. They knew it would make them look bad when these meetings came to light, and so would undermine the American people’s faith in the entire government and the electoral process.
If this is the case, Trump and his personnel, rather than being willing pawns of a Russian plot, are actually naïve victims who fell into a Russian trap.
Personally, I find it hard to imagine the people working for Trump were that unbelievably easy to trick. But it’s hard to see any other explanation.
Here’s a rarity for you, readers: I’m going to agree with Donald Trump about something. In February 2016, then-candidate Trump said “It takes guts to run for president.”
He’s right. In fact, it takes guts to run for anything these days; since every political contest is seen not only as having huge national implications, but as being the front line in the battle between Good and Evil. It tends to make people… passionate.
The Georgia 6th district election is the latest example. The most expensive Congressional election in history, it drew national attention. Trump tweeted his support for Republican Karen Handel before the election, and tweeted congratulations when she won.
Everyone viewed it as a proxy battle in the national contest between Trumpism and anti-Trumpism. Everyone, that is, except Rep. Handel and her Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. They both tried to keep their campaigns focused on local issues.
The district is historically Republican, so it stands to reason that Handel’s strategy would be–no pun intended–conservative. But Ossoff, rather than shying away from the national fight, should have fully embraced it and positioned himself as the bold lone warrior–the last line of defense against tyranny.
Hyperbolic? A bit, sure. But in political campaigns as in military ones, “Fortune favors the bold”.
One reason Trump’s campaign did so well is that he was willing to take political risks and say shocking things that most politicians would never dare utter, but that riled his core supporters into a frenzy.
This strategy is, of course, risky. Trump alienated a lot of people–probably the majority of people, in fact–with his statements, but the people who liked them really, REALLY liked them.
Trump’s campaign created the following cycle, which it used continuously from its first day to its last:
- Trump says something outrageous
- Press and politicians react with horror
- Trump refuses to back down.
- This galvanizes Trump’s core supporters
This strategy made sense, because Trump was the underdog. When you are the underdog, you have to take big risks, because it’s the only way to change the calculus that has made you an underdog in the first place.
The central gamble of Trump’s campaign was that it was worth it to alienate moderates in order to get a really fired-up core of supporters. It worked. (Barely.)
Now: what did Ossoff do to try to whip his supporters into a frenzy? As near as I can tell, not much. I knew little about Ossoff except that he was the Democrat in Georgia who people thought might pull off an upset. That’s nice, and if I had lived there, I would have voted for him. But that’s it–there was nothing I heard about the man himself that made me think, “Ossoff is the only one who can save America!”
Ossoff portrayed himself as a generic, clean-cut Democrat. That would have worked if he’d been in a Democratic-leaning district. But as it was, he should have been more willing to embrace the theme that he was fighting to save the last bastion of freedom on Earth, rather than to make things more fair for the people in the 6th district.
People might say that I’m just Monday Morning Quarterbacking, and I guess that’s a valid criticism. But all we know for sure is that the Democrats lost an election they thought they could win. Again. Maybe my ideas on campaign strategy won’t work, but at this point its fair to say that what the Democrats have been doing isn’t working either.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?”
Like so many things Trump says, this makes no sense. But I think I know what he meant.
I think he is alluding to the Nullification Crisis–a conflict between the Federal Government and South Carolina during Jackson’s presidency. The stated reason for the crisis was that South Carolina claimed they didn’t have to abide by Federal tariff laws. The real motives were a bit deeper, and are an obvious prelude to some of the issues that sparked the Civil War.
Jackson himself wrote: “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object.” It was sort of a trial run for the South, which would later use similar states’ rights-style arguments as a reason to preserve slavery, ultimately leading them into conflict with the North.
Trump, of course, knows none of that. But Stephen Bannon, an admirer of Andrew Jackson, probably does know it, and Trump vaguely remembered him saying something about it once. Of course, he couldn’t remember specifics, like that it was about the issue of Federal vs. State power, or that it led to Southern states claiming they had a right to preserve slavery. He just remembered “Andrew Jackson” and “something that led to the Civil War”.
(I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect Bannon is one of those guys who argues that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but was instead about “states’ rights.)
The end result is the totally rambling and nonsensical quote above. But I think on this one, it’s pretty easy to trace Trump’s incoherent babble back to the primordial Bannon-stew that spawned it.
“I want to use another word for him other than charisma, because it doesn’t seem the right one for me. I always thought charisma was a positive trait, someone people turn to and smile.”
She’s not alone. Several people to whom I’ve told my theory disagree that Trump has charisma.
So, first, I should define what I mean by “charisma”. I’m using Max Weber’s definition:
“[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”
Interestingly, Weber defined charisma as something that originated more with the followers rather than the leader. As the Wikipedia article puts it:
“In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers. The validity of charism is founded on its “recognition” by the leader’s followers.”
That’s my first reason for arguing that Trump has charisma: he’s able to inspire devotion from his followers independent of any specific thing he says or does, but simply by being him.
Now it’s true that Trump’s appeal is definitely not even close to universal. Many people find the mere sight of him repulsive. That argues against the idea that he has charisma. At the very least, shouldn’t people not be repulsed by him if he’s so charismatic?
I’ll admit: part of the reason I say he’s charismatic is that otherwise, it’s hard to see what enabled him to beat not only Clinton, but also all the other Republican primary contenders.
His policies were (and are) vague and change depending on the day, he had no political experience, he had a bad temper, and he had scandals like the Trump University case hanging over him. And all that was before the Access Hollywood tape.
He wasn’t even the most extreme conservative in the primary–that was Senator Ted Cruz. So it’s not even possible to argue that his ideological purity was what got him through.
You might argue, as Thingy does, that Trump’s appeal to racist and ethno-nationalist elements was what propelled him to victory, rather than charisma.
This is very plausible. After all, we know that racist and nationalist groups did endorse Trump. So maybe that was the key to his success.
My counter-argument is that Trump isn’t the first politician to appeal to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Patrick J. Buchanan famously ran on a nationalist platform that attracted the support of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other such groups. Buchanan had a strong-ish primary showing, but never got close to the Republican nomination; let alone the Presidency.
(Ironic historical trivia note: Buchanan ran for and ultimately got the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000. During the Reform party primary, Buchanan was labelled a “Hitler lover” by one of his rival Reform party candidates…. Donald Trump.)
Buchanan was a veteran political operative who had previously worked for Richard Nixon. And his nationalist message in the 1990s was very similar to Trump’s message in 2016. The major differences were that Buchanan’s policies were more detailed, and his speeches were much better-written than Trump’s.
Yet Buchanan never had the kind of electoral success that Trump did. Why not?
One possible explanation is luck. Maybe Buchanan had stronger primary opponents; or maybe the increase in sheer number of primary opponents worked in Trump’s favor.
Let’s say that hypothesis is correct and that Trump just got lucky and drew a better hand than Buchanan did in the primaries. It was still a one-on-one contest in the general election.
“Well, that’s easy to explain,” you say. “Trump lost the popular vote! He only won the election due to a convoluted set of rules about apportionment of Congressional seats being equal to the number of Electors. He won on a technicality.”
True, but even so, it’s kind of amazing that he could even get close enough to be able to win the Electoral College. This is why I resort the charisma theory–because it’s the only thing that explains how he was able to win both the general election and the primaries. Plus, charisma has a strong historical track record that makes it very compelling as an explanation for an election outcome.
All that said, there are other terms that you could use besides “charisma”. “Showmanship” is one that some people have suggested to me. “The gift of the Blarney”, as they say in The Music Man, is what I always think of.
Actually, The Music Man isn’t a bad analogue for Trump. It’s about a con man who gets money by convincing people the youth are being corrupted, and they need to pay him to organize a band to keep them from going bad.
The concept of someone whipping people into a frenzy and profiting off of it is nothing new–this being perhaps the most remarkable example:
This is the thing about Trump (Donald, I mean; not the guy on Trackdown.): He so clearly fits this specific stock-character mold that I think at some level, it became part of his appeal. People like to see a larger-than-life character like that, even when they sort of know he’s lying to them.
Trump may have started out as a property developer, but his real skill lies in entertainment and promotion. He learned some things from his time as a TV star, and he knows how to put on an entertaining show for his audiences.
Call it charisma, call it showmanship–call it a cult of personality. Ultimately, Trump’s one notable talent is his ability to make the crowd look at him.