The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

The Canons of Trump

For obvious reasons, I have been following the news, and the news as refracted through social media, very closely since mid-spring. Unavoidably, this has meant that I have been subjected to a much higher than usual dose of Trump nonsense, and nonsense Trump takes. He says and does stupid and terrible things on a near-constant basis, which are then surrounded and amplified by a fog of overinterpretation. There is much less there there than meets the eye.

Over the last four painful years, I have developed some rules of thumb for making sense of Trump news. Most of them are designed to keep me from overthinking things. I offer them up in the spirit of helping us make it to November, and to help in the process of driving Trump and Trumpism from public life.

Trump Speaks Only to His Base

“MAGA loves the black people” is not meant to persuade African-Americans that they should be Trump supporters. It is meant to persuade Trump supporters that they are not racist. The optics of driving off peaceful protesters with tear gas are not bad, in his view, because his supporters want peaceful protesters driven off with tear gas. Suspend all your normal reactions as a citizen or as a human being; they are not a useful guide to how he and his base think. Corollary: when Trump talks about suburbs under siege, remind yourself that this is what people who don’t live in suburbs think people who do are afraid of.

Dominance Politics

Josh Marshall: “[T]he entirety of Trump’s political message is dominance politics. … Trump attacks, others comply and submit.” David Auerbach: “[F]or him, the only acceptable outcome is the one where he wins and you get screwed. … Trump always defects because he wants to maximize how much worse you do than him–not because he wants to maximize his own payoff.” Trump always pushes the button.

The Cruelty Is the Point

Trump’s policies are unnecessarily cruel, not by accident but intentionally. Tearing migrant children from their parents is his signature policy, precisely because it is so terrible. Trump’s natural meanness is a perfect fit for supporters who want their government to violate human rights. (Source: Adam Serwer)

The Stupidity Is Also the Point

Most Americans are not idiots. But most Americans devote very little attention to politics. Nuking hurricanes and injecting bleach are astonishingly terrible ideas. But they sound plausible enough to someone who is barely listening. Trump is an idiot savant of political communication because his limited intelligence matches many people’s limited attention. His inability to formulate complex thoughts comes across as authenticity.

Trump’s Razor

Josh Marshall: “[T]he stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts” is probably correct. Too many examples to list, but nothing tops, “If we stopped testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.” Trump doesn’t believe that tests make him look bad by finding cases; he believes that tests make him look bad by causing cases.

Ten Minute Increments

Maggie Haberman: “He will say whatever he has to say to get through ten minute increments of time.” Trump does not think ahead. There is no long-term plan when he speaks. He likes rallies where he can riff and ramble for as long as he likes. He likes friendly interviews. In any other situation, when he is being pressed for any reason, he will say anything that comes to mind that seems like it will make the immediate problem go away. His notorious word salad is one coping mechanism; so is making big but impossibly vague promises.

Trump Is a They, Not an It

Kenneth Shepsle’s “Congress is a ‘They,’ Not an ‘It’” argues that it is a category mistake to attribute intentions to a multi-member body. Legislators voting for a bill may not share the same purpose, or even the same understanding of what it does. Reader, I am here to tell you that the same thing is true of the shambling mess of rage, impulses, and distractions that is Donald Trump. A Trump tweet might reflect his own deliberations, but just as often is something he saw on Fox, or someone said to him on the phone, or something that Dan Scavino wrote.

From God to Fox to Trump

There is a close correlation between whatever is on Fox News and what Trump says and tweets, often in real time. If something seems like a non sequitur, look for a source upstream.

Trump is Chaff

Leon Wolf: “Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things – yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.”

Low-Pass Filter

A low-pass filter blocks signals that change quickly, only significant long-term changes get through. This is the opposite of how the press and social media work. Social media amplify things that are already being shared widely right now, and journalists compete online by trying to be first. But most Trump tweets, quotes, and leaks are noise. It’s okay to ignore the latest bit of chaff; anything important enough to pay serious attention to will be repeated, many many times.

Trump Doesn’t Want to Be President, He Wants to Be King

Trump’s vision of leadership isn’t so much authoritarian as medieval. He wants people to bow down and praise his royal splendor, his brilliance, his feats of prowess. He doesn’t have a cabinet or political allies; he has courtiers and nobles. He doesn’t understand or care how bureaucracy works, even when he would be far more effective working through it. His daily routines are straight out of Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Henry VIII.

Toddler in Chief

Daniel Drezner: “I’ll believe that Trump is growing into the presidency when his staff stops talking about him like a toddler.” Drezner (now in book form) gets at two points. First, Trump behaves like an ill-behaved small child: bad temper, poor impulse control, short attention span, demands for praise, constant need to be the center of attention. Second, his staff see their job as nannies.

The White House is a They, not an It

Jay Rosen: “There is no White House. Not in the sense that journalists have always used that term. It’s just Trump— and people who work in the building. That they are reading from the same page cannot be assumed. The words, ‘the White House’ are still in use, but they have no clear referent.” Other administrations worked hard to send a unified message. Not this one. Trump doesn’t even tell his own staff clearly what his policies are, and he frequently changes his mind, so the presumption that a statement from a White House official–even from Trump himself–reflects official policy does not hold.

Working Toward Trump

Historian Ian Kershaw observed that (especially in contrast to the workaholic Stalin) Hitler was just about the last person you would expect to be able to lead a bureaucracy capable of waging a world war and carrying out the mass murder of six million. He was lazy, easily bored, and cultivated administrative chaos. Instead of waiting for clear and specific orders, his supporters “worked toward the Fuhrer”: they tried to anticipate policies he would approve of. (More detail here.)

Dignity Wraiths

Josh Marshall: “Rosenstein’s public reputation, which was formidable, has been destroyed. He now joins a legion of Trump Dignity Wraiths, men and women (though mainly men) of once vaunted reputations or at least public prestige who have been reduced to mere husks of their former selves after crossing the Trump Dignity Loss Event Horizon.” Corollary by Josh Barro: “[Trump] has stripped only the dignity from people who surrendered it willingly.”

To the Cornfield

The Twilight Zone: “They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because, once displeased, the monster can wish them into a cornfield or change them into a grotesque, walking horror.” Trump takes every revenge he can on those who criticize or undercut him. His underlings live in fear of his displeasure, praise him elaborately in public, and generally abase themselves to avoid being sent to the political cornfield. As a result …

The Republican Party is a Personality Cult

The phrase is Ezra Klein’s, but William Saletan said it first: “Donald Trump is the GOP’s warlord. The Republican Party is officially a failed state.” On the one hand, Trump is the GOP: Never Trumpers and Trump critics have been effectively sidelined and deligitimized as not real Republicans. On the other hand, the GOP is Trump: the official 2020 platform of the Republican Party is, in its entirety, “the President’s America-first agenda.”