We Always Knew Who Trump Was
What I recall from reading the news in the early years of Trump’s candidacy and presidency
From the early days of Trumpism, before and after the man was elected, I took a lot of notes. Many of the details have resolved themselves and are no longer actionable items of political protest, but the broader-brush issues are still important to think about.
Now that the administration is history, each of us who lived through the administration should contemplate how history should be told. I am certainly not the only one who should tell it— others surely have more important and interesting perspectives than mine — but, at the same time, it is my responsibility to do some of the work. Here, I’ve organized some pieces of the narrative, in case it remains of some interest to anyone else.
It Was Obvious Who Trump Was During His Campaign
His candidacy and his presidency was always about racism. Trump began in 2011, Sam Sanders explained, with
a racist lie: birtherism. He launched his campaign for the presidency calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. His first major policy initiative was travel restrictions on Muslim-majority nations that felt a lot like a travel ban on people with darker skin. His supporters cited “economic anxiety” as their motivation, but they were driven by racial animus. Former KKK leader David Duke endorsed Trump twice for president.
During the 2016 campaign, “Trump showed us who he was gleefully, constantly,” Ezra Klein wrote in Why We’re Polarized.
He mocked John McCain for being captured in Vietnam and suggested Ted Cruz’s father had helped assassinate JFK; he bragged about the size of his penis and mused that his whole life had been motivated by greed; he made no mystery of his bigotry or sexism; he called himself a genius while retweeting conspiracy theories in caps lock.
He “campaigned as an unaccountable leader,” Jennifer Mercieca wrote. The people to whom he swore unaccountability were “established leaders in his party, the media, fact-checkers, political correctness or common standards of decency.”
And, while he wanted Americans to approve of him and support him, he didn’t promise accountability to voters in return. He was happy to take from them, and he didn’t give back. In his 2020 reelection campaign, the Republican Party didn’t even write a platform, stating that its goal was simply to continue supporting Trump. At that point, there was no platform of political ideas to which Trump could have pledged accountability.
Addressing Republican voters, Paul Waldman wrote for the Washington Post:
there’s only one party that is so vigorously undermining core democratic institutions in this way. You may not like what Democrats stand for, but they aren’t engaging in widespread official vote suppression, chanting that should their candidate win her opponent should be tossed in jail, promising to prevent any Republican president from filling vacancies on the Supreme Court, suggesting that they’ll try to impeach their opponent as soon as he takes office, cheering when a hostile foreign power hacks into American electronic systems, and trying to use the FBI to win the election.
What I Believed in 2016
On the day of the 2016 election, I blogged my own argument for why no one should vote for the man. This, more or less, is what I wrote.
Were he to be elected president, he would be uniquely unqualified. Presidents Taft and Hoover had been at least high-ranking government officials, and every other U.S. President had been a high-ranking military officer or an elected official, but Trump had never been any of those things. He had never touched politics before. In September 2016, he said he would fire the military generals, something that is not actually within the U.S. president’s power, because “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”
Actually, Trump was a real estate and casino mogul who had endured multiple bankruptcies. He also was famous for yelling “You’re fired!” at hopeful young people on a reality TV show, and he owned a beauty pageant at which he reportedly creeped around backstage. Unlike most other presidential candidates, he had never released his tax returns. At the time of the election, he was already scheduled to stand civil trial for “misrepresentation, breach of contract, and taking advantage of seniors” and “fraud and racketeering” in two lawsuits related to a seminar series he called “Trump University” and which was not actually a university.
In the 1970s, he and his father faced “one of the biggest lawsuits ever brought by the Justice Department for housing discrimination against black people.” (The Trumps settled, agreeing to change their rental practices, though they did not admit wrongdoing.) In 1989, Trump purchased full-page newspaper ads to advocate for the death penalty for five black and Latino teenagers who were later exonerated after a different man confessed; Trump never apologized to them.
In his presidential campaign, he pledged to ban all Muslims from entering the US. When criticized, he responded: “What I’m doing is no different than FDR” (i.e. putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during WWII). He said that torture was an acceptable form of interrogation.
He promised to deport 11 million Latinos currently in the US (a project as obviously impractical as unethical) and to build a wall between the US and Mexico and somehow force Mexico to pay for it (though this would be about twice Mexico’s military budget, so it was not money that was sitting around to be stolen). When asked to speak on what he would do for African-Americans, he repeatedly made offensively stereotypical comments about “inner cities,” said that black people are “living in hell,” and pledged to bring back the “stop-and-frisk” policy (allowing police officers to search anyone for weapons at any time, a practice that had already been deemed unconstitutional). He mocked a disabled reporter while campaigning in 2015. The American Nazi Party and the KKK expressed support for his candidacy. In the final days of his campaign, he published an attack ad naming Jewish financial professionals George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein in a tradition of anti-Semitic rhetoric.
With only one month to go until the election, 12 women had accused him of sexual assault. He had made sexual comments about his daughter on-air in 2004 and 2006; in 2005 he was caught on tape joking about groping women; and he made a crass, sexist comment about a Fox News debate moderator in 2015. In a March 2016 interview with Chris Matthews, Trump advocated outlawing abortion and said he would punish women who have abortions (though typical anti-abortion proposals suggest punishment for doctors, hardly ever for girls and women).
Despite having had a high-profile extramarital affair in the late 1980s, telling an interviewer in 1990 that he did not believe adultery was a sin, and having married for the third time, Trump said he would sign the “First Amendment Defense Act” which would allow discrimination against unmarried people who have sex as well as against couples in same-sex marriages. Trump said he believed the question of same-sex marriage, though it had already been settled by the Supreme Court, ought to be returned to each state to decide for itself, and he picked a vice presidential candidate who had always opposed gay rights at every turn.
In the days before the election, he said he would cut all funding for renewable energy research and development, which would have prevented compliance with global treaties like the Paris Agreement which the US had signed just six months previously and would have affected existing American jobs insofar as $1.5 billion was already being spent annually in this area.
A Politifact analysis during the campaign found that 91 percent of his statements were false. His campaign staff forbid him to use his own Twitter account in the days immediately leading up to the election, fearing that he would only say things that would hurt himself.
Only two of the 100 largest U.S. newspapers endorsed him over Hillary Clinton, and one of those two outliers was owned by Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire donor to his campaign. Meanwhile, Trump repeatedly threatened, if elected, to jail his opponent, a behavior normally associated with dictators, and he also threatened, if not elected, that he would not accept the election results.
It Got Worse
That’s what I remember worrying about on Election Day 2016. Of course, my blog post about his failings did not sway the election. Trump was elected, and his presidency was worse than I imagined.
A Political Problem
After he was elected, “working in the news felt like looking into a funhouse-mirror version of the country’s most primordial urges,” Sophie Kleeman wrote.
Trump began his presidency as his usual brash, irrational self. Finally, on the last day of February 2017, one month into his term, he gave an hour-long speech that a White House official described (anonymously, to a reporter) as “nationalism with an indoor voice.” In other words, he was still racist, but miraculously the baby had finally settled down for a hour-long nap. On this day, reporters and commentators generally received him like “a toddler who deserves a cookie for not having a conniption in church,” rewarding him for a mere reduction in “volume” despite no change in “policy,” Renée Graham wrote. He had successfully read from a teleprompter and gone “60 minutes without calling anyone or anything ‘fake’ or ‘failing.’” People lauded the speech as “the love child of the Gettysburg Address and the Sermon on the Mount,” Graham said, and reacted to his momentary change in tone as if “his presidency [had] turned a corner into civility and responsible governing.” It had not.
By May 2017, it was clear that “anyone who shows any independence or stands up to this president is summarily fired” (as Jesse Berney wrote in Rolling Stone), meaning that no one in the federal government could hold him accountable. He was claiming unitary executive power over all the watchdogs and even over those who merely expressed dissenting opinions. He continued to fire his own people at a record-setting rate compared to past presidents.
That same month, Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, called Trump “encyclopedically ignorant”, a trait that was devastatingly paired with, as conservative columnist George Will put it, Trump’s “stratospheric self-confidence.” Trump didn’t have a political philosophy. Instead, as Stephen Collinson wrote for CNN, he simply had a persona of “indignation, impulsiveness and a prickly desire to protect his own self image,” attitudes that “seem to largely dictate how he conducts his business as president.”
Even if the problem wasn’t clear to Trump’s indefatigable supporters, it was clear to the rest of the world. In June 2017, a global opinion poll found that the proportion of people worldwide who trusted the U.S. President to do the right thing in world affairs had rapidly slipped from two-thirds (at the end of Obama’s presidency) to one-quarter.
A Moral Problem
Trump certainly had no “eloquence and public spirit in the service of shared ideals.” More fundamentally than that, he lacked basic empathy in times of crisis. As David Faris wrote in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, though most adults know “not to respond to crisis by starting fights, reopening old wounds, or making someone else’s tragedy about them[selves],” Trump was “so devoid of feeling for his fellow humans that he reliably has exactly the wrong reaction to every single event that captures the public’s attention.”
In Corey Robin’s 2017 update to The Reactionary Mind, he wrote: “Amid the vast desert of deprivation that is the Trumpian self, there appears to be no room for anyone else.”
“Trump has made open and violent racism acceptable. Perhaps even worse, I fear, is that he has made it acceptable not to have values at all,” philosopher Susan Neiman said (interviewed by Chauncey de Vega). This normalization might negatively affect “young people who are already uncertain about whether or not any value but power and money is real,” she worried. Progressives, Neiman advised, should learn to use “strong moral language…reflectively and well.” Shying away from talk of values “leaves the most powerful concepts we have in the hands of those who are least equipped to use them thoughtfully.”
Much of the past administration’s legacy is not in the hands of ordinary Americans to correct, but one thing we can all do is strengthen our language around our own values. That is the best takeaway I have for today.