Writings and observations

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Listen to a presidential candidate talk, and you usually won’t get far before you hear about how wonderful Americans are. Or not just presidentials – consider any candidate. A candidate for county commissioner almost always will throw in a reference to how wonderful the people of the county are. It’s partly pandering, sure. But partly too it’s a nod toward the essentially good intentions of most people, toward the possibilities of what a people can make of a country.

This is a thread keenly missing from the dark Tapestry of the Donald Trump message.

We’ve heard plenty about all the people and groups insulted and otherwise denigrated by Trump and his campaign. At this point that roster includes nearly all of us. There’s that new list, for example, of 250 people and groups specifically insulted by Trump; but that’s a partial, since it only includes people insulted on Tweets, as opposed to in speeches, interviews or elsewhere.

Candidates in competitive races will go after some people and groups (the opposing candidate and party, to begin with). But the necessary leavening, to keep the mix from curdling, is to throw in notes of confidence about how terrific the American people – overall, as a people – are as well.

That’s normal and standard in both parties. Hillary Clinton’s theme of “stronger together” could have been adopted by a candidate of either party in most years past.

The sentiment – of a good, strong American people who are equal to the problems confronting them – shows up nowhere in Trump’s acceptance speech. There, he paint the picture of an American living in dytopia, bombarded by crime and economic disaster, in need of a savior. He, of course, is that savior; he will save them all by himself. And not only that, they won’t even need a voice in all this: He is the American people. The American people can, well, just shut up.

He does not understand America. – rs

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When a candidate runs for state or local office, one of the criteria often mentioned or at least reviewed is the depth of their roots in the area: How long they have lived there, or that’s their whole life, then how many forebears did. There’s at least one practical and reasonable reason for this, which is that a person who has lived in a place for many years is likely to know it better than would a newcomer.

Donald Trump is not a newcomer to the United States; he was born in this country and it has been his place of residence all of his 70 years. And while he has lived in the New York City area nearly all that time, he has done business in a number of places around the country. Statistically, based on the numbers, he should meet this criterion: He ought to know the country pretty well, well enough that an ignorance of what the United States is like should not be a disqualifier.

And yet, remarkably, it evidently is. His sense of what the United States is actually like outside of his own bubble of wealth seems stunningly thin.

Listen to his speeches and you hear the false notes repeatedly, something akin to a novelist who has written a scene in a location he hasn’t visited or researched.

One of the biggest such cases came in his Republican acceptance speech, when he spoke about the horrors on the streets of the United States – walking almost anywhere, he seemed to be saying, was worse than navigating a war zone. It’s not true. He spoke of drastically increasing crime from coast to coast; it isn’t increasing, it’s falling, and has been for decades.

On August 23, Trump said of black communities: “Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing. No homes. No ownership. Crime at levels nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we’re fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities. . . . Look, it is a disaster the way African Americans are living . . . We’ll get rid of the crime. You’ll be able to walk down the street without getting shot. Right now, you walk down the street, you get shot.”

Trump’s perception of the community was so wildly far afield from the reality that you have to suspect he’s getting his impression of what the country is like from the movies, or maybe from local television news. It certainly doesn’t come from any actual experience visiting around the country, talking to ordinary people, getting any realistic sense – even if only by statistical research – of what America is like.

I wouldn’t vote for a city council member so poorly informed about his city. – rs

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Donald Trump must be the only candidate for president ever to have spoken favorably of the prospect that another nation would attack us. If that’s not a qualitative disqualifier for the presidency, what is?

Last month, the FBI completed its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her e-mail, and concluded that some mails, possibly including some confidential documents, could have been vulnerable to foreign hackers. (There’s been no clear evidence that any of it actually was hacked.) Separately, servers at the Democratic National Committee were hacked and a number of messages were pulled, and wound up at Wikileaks, which in turn released many of them. A swarm of investigators, both public and private, researched the hack and arrived at a strong probability that a pair of Russian intelligence organizations had broken in.

Trump, while saying he didn’t know whether Russians were behind the hack, added, “If they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do.”

And then: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

This deserves making the point finely. Here we have a candidate for president who specifically said he “hopes” an adversarial government has obtained through theft sensitive documents from the government of the United States.

This stunned, and rightly, officials from both political parties. House Speaker Paul Ryan probably more closely expressed what most Americans were thinking: “Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug. Putin should stay out of this election.”

Others went further. William Inboden, a National Security Council member in the George W. Bush administration, described Trump’s remarks as “tantamount to treason,” and “Trump’s appeal for a foreign government hostile to the United States to manipulate our electoral process is not an assault on Hillary Clinton, it is an assault on the Constitution.”

Or, as veteran reporter Carl Bernstein said on CNN, “Today we have reached a tipping point in this election. This is a disqualifying event for a president of the United States. … It ought to be apparent to all, and the Democrats should be able to make the case, that he is manifestly unsuited to be the president of the United States because of his recklessness with the national security.”

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Habits can be hard to break, and for Donald Trump the habit of wringing personal profit wherever he can seems to be just too irresistible.

The most recent case, involving relatively few dollars but a clear problem of profiteering, had to do with his latest book, Crippled America (or Great Again, in the paperback). On May 10, a Trump campaign that by them was floated in large part by external donations, made an unusual purchase at Barnes & Noble books: For more than 3,500 copies of Crippled, at full price.

In a stateent, “A spokesperson for the Republican nominee told The Daily Beast the books were purchased “as part of gifting at the convention, which we have to do.” Sure enough, delegates in attendance at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July were given canvas tote bags, stamped with the Trump slogan, and filled with copies of Crippled America, as well as Kleenex and Make America Great Again! cups, hats, and T-shirts. Delegates were also given plastic fetus figurines.”

That full-price purchase is highly unusual. At that kind of volume, Trump surely could have gotten a deep discount from B&N, or if not from it then from his publisher. But if the campaign bought the books at such a discount, Trump personally wouldn’t profit from the sale. That presumably means money going from campaign donors into Trump’s personal pocket.

Presumably. There’s a catch here: This kind of personal profiting from a campaign, by a candidate, is forbidden under federal election law. So we’ll have to wait and see how the money ultimately is accounted for. But a profit scheme by Trump seems to have been the original idea.

That case at least went through an outside publisher. A great deal of Trump spending since the start of his campaign has gone directly to Trump companies.

The Daily Beast reported on February 29 that “Between June 16, when he announced his candidacy from the lobby of Trump Tower, through the end of 2015, the Trump campaign spent $2.2 million patronizing Trump businesses. The majority—$2 million—was spent on Tag Air Inc., where Trump is CEO.”

There is, of course, much more: “The Trump campaign also made 34 visits to Trump Cafe and Trump Grill, restaurants in Trump Tower where you can eat Ivanka’s Salad (diced tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, mediterranean cured olives, feta cheese and romaine lettuce with greek dressing…$18) the Gold Label Burger (our premium blend of Angus short rib, sirloin and Kobe brisket…$19) and Mr Trump’s Mother’s Meatloaf (a family recipe, served with mushroom gravy…$13.50).
And paid $90,000 in in-kind rent to Donald J. Trump, Trump CPS LLC, and Trump Plaza LLC. Rent and utilities were also doled out—to the tune of nearly $74,000—to Trump Restaurants LLC and Trump Tower Commercial LLC.”

A case could be made that if Trump wants to spend his campaign’s money on his own businesses (which he does not exclusively but heavily), in effect wasting a good deal of it, that it’s between Trump and his backers.

But it raises some real questions about what might happen if Trump were elected. What sort of spending patterns might we see at the White House, and around the federal government?

We might have gotten one clue back in 2011, when Trump was also mulling a possible White House bid. In a conversation in that period with the chief executive of NBCUniversal, the two discussed what would become of Trump’s show The Apprentice if he ran and won. One of the ideas: Host the show from the White House.

The reportage about that conversation is a little thin, so I’ll not try and hang it on Trump too tightly. But it has a place here, because after all the other self-interested things Trump has done in the last year, the account at least sounds perfectly credible. – rs

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The question had arisen before, but it blew up at the Democratic National Convention after former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had this to say in urging a presidential vote against Donald Trump: “Let’s elect a sane, competent person.”

With that implicit assertion that Trump is neither sane nor competent, the question of Trump’s mental condition semi-officially became a public topic of discussion.

The American Psychiatric Association forbids its members, the nation’s psychiatrists, from offering diagnoses of public figures who they personally have not even met. It’s an understandable rule; few of us would like to be so analyzed from a distance, and long-distance analysis inevitably is going to be far from perfect. The origins of the rule, which lie partly in the 1964 presidential election, help prove the point. That year a magazine polled psychiatrists on whether Barry Goldwater, who was being being caricatured as loony, was mentally fit for the presidency; 1,189, who had never met the man, wrote back to say they thought not. Goldwater’s long and quite respectable service in Congress in the years after made for a strong counter to their estimate.

Okay. Fine. Still, and all that said.

“Donald Trump is not of sound mind,” conservative pundit (not psychiatrist) Stephen Hayes opined in the Weekly Standard.”The most common amateur diagnosis of Trump is narcissistic personality disorder, a condition characterized by an ‘inflated sense of their own importance,’ ‘a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others,’ and ‘a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism,’ the Mayo Clinic said [in describing the condition]. … He boasts of his own unparalleled magnificence. He creates and promotes wild conspiracy theories. He tells easily disprovable lies. He fails to finish sentences before he gets distracted by unrelated thoughts. He appears to fly into a wounded rage at mild criticism.”

Hayes has lots of company. In the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday psychiatrist Matthew Goldenberg recited: “A former dean of Harvard Medical School tweeted that Trump “defines” narcissistic personality disorder. New York Times columnist David Brooks has said the GOP nominee “appears haunted by multiple personality disorders.” Entrepreneur Mark Cuban was cruder, calling Trump “batshit crazy.” Trump’s coauthor for “The Art of the Deal,” Tony Schwartz, labeled him a “sociopath.” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker found Trump’s behavior reminiscent of a brain injury.”

Goldenberg declined to offer his own analysis. He points out, for example, that most diagnoses of mental illness start with how a person is functionally impaired – and Trump seems to be able to function just fine, to the point of being nominated for president.

But he also said this: “Perhaps the most important reason to skip a psychiatric assessment of Trump is that it just isn’t necessary. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know that there’s something seriously wrong with the candidate. The lessons I learned in preschool, kindergarten and elementary school — not in medical school, residency and years of psychiatric practice — are what tell me that Trump is unfit for the job. My core values as an American — not my professional training — are what make me concerned about a Trump presidency.”

You don’t need to put a clinical name on it, in other words. You just need to describe it for what it is. – rs

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Over the course of the campaign, Donald Trump has questioned the religion of a lot of people.

Some of them are his opponents.

“We don’t know anything about Hillary [Clinton] in terms of religion,” he said at one gathering of evangelical leaders in New York on June 21. “Now, she’s been in the public eye for years and years, and yet there’s no — there’s nothing out there. There’s like nothing out there. It’s going to be an extension of Obama but it’s going to be worse, because with Obama you had your guard up. With Hillary you don’t, and it’s going to be worse.”

Actually, quite a bit is on the record about Hillary Clinton’ religious background. As NBC summarized, “Clinton is, in fact, a practicing Methodist who knows her Bible well and speaks often about the important role faith plays in her life. In her books, and occasionally on the campaign trail, Clinton has talked openly of how she turned to faith in times of hardship, including during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the death of her best friend, Diane Blair, in 2000.”

Senator Ted Cruz, who is extremely open about his religious beliefs and is the son of a minister, came under similar attack. In January, NBC reported, Trump told a group of Baptists, “Just remember this, in all fairness, to the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay?”

Speaking of the similarly openly devout Ben Carson, he remarked, “I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

He may not know a lot about Presbyterians either, since the Presbyterian church described as his says he is not an “active member.”

Then there are other people he has gotten crosswise with. President Obama he has famously tried to have tagged as a Muslim. (Obama was a church-going Christian in Chicago for many years.) And of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney he asked – in Salt Lake City, of all places – “Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?”

The point of this recitation is not simply to recount yet another collection of outrages. It is that Trump, in trying to poke at people where they’re sensitive, is taking flippantly at best the seriousness with which many people take their religious beliefs – including, from widespread available evidence, all of those evidently devout people he has attacked in the course of his campaign. I personally have no problem with irreligion; we have the right in this country to believe in no religion at all, as well as any one in particular, and if Trump chooses to be an unaffiliated (for meaningful purposes), he’s at liberty to do that.

But a person running for public office making a practice of attacking other people over their religion is another matter. A small-town mayor or county commissioner should never be allowed to get away with it, and few local communities probably would put up with it. A president most certainly should not do such a thing.

A president mindlessly attacking people over matters of religion would open a can of explosives that might not ever be resealed – at least until after the damage is done. – rs

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Ask a Donald Trump supporter why, and one of the answers almost sure to come out – right up top – relates to the candidate’s image and things he has said about himself. It goes something like this: “He’s paying for his own campaign, so he’s not in anybody’s pocket. He’s not beholden to anybody. He can say exactly what he thinks, and he does.”

And every time he says something that make many people gasp, the point seems driven home all the deeper.

But the premise – that the campaign is completely self-financed – isn’t true, and never has been. And as for non-campaign financial obligations, Trump is deep in the hole. The truth is the exact opposite of Trump’s carefully-crafted image.

It is true that much of the money for the campaign in the primary season came out of Trump’s pocket. What many supporters didn’t realize was that he listed it on campaign finance reports as a loan, which means that contributions in the future could be used to pay him back. When headlines about that started to hit, he said he would change that designation from “loan” to “contribution”, so that he could not be repaid. Problem is that the paperwork to accomplish that apparently has never been filed with the Federal Elections Commission. That presumably means any contributed money (from other contributors) left unspent could wind up back in Trump’s own accounts. We’ll eventually see how all that settles out.

On March 7, Trump said, “I’m self-funding my campaign. I’m not taking money. … I’m not taking. I spent a lot of money. I don’t take.” But according to federal reports, as of January 31, his campaign had in fact pulled in $7.5 million in non-candidate donations, and that was just the beginning.

Moving into the general election season, his campaign finances and those of the national Republican Party have become increasingly intertwined. In itself, that’s not unusual in either party, but it means Trump’s boasts about self-funding have become meaningless. Tens of millions of dollars have been raised in the last three months – the Trump campaign has become a substantial fundraiser – and it has become an increasingly conventional one. Trump may hate the work of fundraising, but his campaign has been pulling it in much the same way other candidates do. He’s not really any different.

Other than that, because of concerns that Trump might drag down other Republicans, the national Republican leadership has been (according to numerous recent reports) redirecting a lot of the pooled money toward congressional and other races, and away from Trump’s. The risks are high in either actually doing that or not doing it, and the issue isn’t settled. But increasingly, many of the people who thought they were donating to support Trump’s presidential campaign may find some of their dollars went to other purposes. Trump’s campaign finances have become a more complex problem than for any presidential candidate in decades. So much for the simplicity of self-funding.

And that’s just the campaign finance.

Last weekend the New York Times released results of an extensive investigation into Trump’s finances, and found he owes the staggering amount of at least $650 million, more than twice the debt listed on his personal disclosure form filed with the Federal Election Commission.

After spending more than a year blasting the economic and lobbying practices of China and the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, especially in connection with opponents Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, Trump seems in fact to be referring more to himself than to them. “Notably, one of these [Trump building projects] – a Manhattan office building which Trump partly owns -‘“carries a $950 million loan,’ according to the Times. Goldman Sachs and the Bank of China are two of the building’s four lenders.”

And it goes on from there, at great length. Actually, no one (maybe even Trump) seems to know exactly what he owes in debt, or to who. As the Times concluded, if Trump were elected president, the country could for the first time ever have a president with business ties and debt obligations so extensive the country realistically has no idea what he owes to whom.

Anyone who thinks Trump would arrive at the White House free of obligation to special interests, has the reality twisted 180 degrees. – rs

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Is the weekend after the appearance of naked Donald Trump statues in a number of American cities a good time to point out that the whole concept of rape plays a major role in the Trump presidential campaign?

Probably as good a time as any.

Because it does play a significant role, in ways large and small, this use of rape and sexual assault as an emotional frame for his politics.

It began on day one of his campaign, within the first three minutes of his announcement speech, when he started talking about Mexican rapists crossing the border and heading north.

In October, he told a strange story intended to make a point of some kind about Syrian refugees, and as the Truthout site put it, “In essence, he described Syrian refugees as snakes and America as a naïve woman. Again, it’s the framing of foreign men as a sexual threat and the damsel-in-distress imagery for the nation. He capped it off in a May 2016 speech when he said, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.”

Rape is, of course, a political subject in the United States and understandably so. Some activists speak of a “rape culture.” There are specific complaints based in hard statistics about such matters as the numbers of rape kits which go untested. But these are not part of Trump’s conversation.

There are also, of course, assault allegations women have made against Trump; until they’re resolved, in the spirit of innocent until proven guilty, they’re just allegations.

But the use of rape as a concept, as a bludgeon to make people fearful and defensive, is bad enough by itself when the user is someone seeking to become president of the United States. – rs

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One of the Donald Trump outrages from this year – from only a few months ago – centered on the Republican National Convention, at which the new nominee proclaimed himself the candidate of law and order.

That was what he said in his acceptance speech, at least. In the weeks before, the story was different.

Go back to March and April, when the battle for the Republican nomination was coming near its end but wasn’t yet wrapped. The NeverTrump forces were frantically pursuing their options, and among other things reviewing the possible ways a Trump nomination might be blocked at the convention itself.

In the event, the effort failed – at that point Trump had the votes he needed to prevail, and was able easily to bat the challenge back.

But in between, before the convention, the anti-Trump effort looked serious. And that prompted him to warn Republicans what might happen if he were well ahead at the convention and hit a roadblock: “I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous, many, many millions of people. … I think you would have problems like you’ve never seen before. I think bad things would happen, I really do. I believe that. I wouldn’t lead it but I think bad things would happen.”

That scenario was never brought to the test, but what if it was? Trump was already on record as raising the prospect of riots if he did not get the nomination. True, he did not call for riots. But he got about as close to doing that as you could have without being totally explicit.

The National Review opined, “By any reasonable standard, he has long since disqualified himself for high office — or any office frankly. This latest threat about riots is Mafia talk, plain and simple. “Nice convention you’ve got there. Be a shame if anything were to happen to it.””

As the NR said, this is Mafia talk, coming from a man who would be president. We’ll come back around to that soon. – rs

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Donald Trump’s ventures into conspiracy theories go back a few years, at least back to birtherism – his role in propagating the notion that Barack Obama was born not in Hawaii but somewhere else, Africa presumably. Where doesn’t really matter because the point was to try to delegitimize the Obama presidency. For most people, the effort failed early on for the same reason most extravagant conspiracy theories do: They involve so much incredible effort and coincidence that in the real world, there’s no way they could be made to happen. Conspiracies aren’t that easy to pull off, and in fact are damned difficult. There’s a good reason most people ascribe to incompetence that which a few insist came out of conspiracy.

The New Yorker, reviewing some of Trump’s forays into the realm of the tin-foil hats, noted that “birtherism is only the best-known among Trump’s large collection of creepy political fairy tales. You’ve probably heard the one about vaccines and autism. He even pushed that during a Presidential primary debate, on national television. Do you really believe that Obama won the 2012 election fairly? Wrong. Fraud. (At the same time, it’s Mitt Romney, total loser, who let everyone down.) Bill Ayers, not Obama, wrote “Dreams from My Father.” There is no drought in California, and the Chinese, outwitting us per usual, invented the concept of global warming to undermine American manufacturing. And so on.”

A good deal of this comes out of his association with Alex Jones, a conspiracy-minded radio talk show host who has hosted Trump several times. Trump has been a guest on the show; his close friend and ally Roger Stone has appeared on it repeatedly. What is Jones selling these days? A sampler from some of his recent tweets: “Election rigging: How she’ll do it”, “Hillary’s Trail of Death,” “Soros behind Muslim takeover of West,” and so on. His growing media operation, Infowars, is more or less ConspiraciesRUs.

So he does know his way around that world when he said of Trump, as he did to the New Republic, “There’s no way the Trump people would have reached out to me a year and a half ago, if he wasn’t aware of the work. He’s been what you call a ‘closet conspiracy theorist’ for 50 years. I think he’s been a chameleon in the system, and now he sees the time to strike.”

Reality has trouble making its way into Trump’s consciousness, but conspiracy theories seem to have an easier path.

The New Yorker continued, “Does Donald Trump actually believe any of this? Or is he laughing up his sleeve as apoplectic fact-checkers throw themselves into the thankless work of disproving his absurdities? To cover himself, he prefaces his more outlandish remarks with disclaimers like “I hear” or “A lot of people think.””

When he said, as he did this week, that a President Trump would not be willing to rely on American intelligence resources, he left open the question of who he would rely on. But by now we have a pretty good idea. – rs

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