Tilting at Windmills

The futility of trying to normalize Trump … Dale Carnegie versus Norman Vincent Peale …

2016 isn’t 1968

A lot of people have been comparing 2016 to 1968, and there are some parallels: racial turmoil, angry politics, violence. Just about everyone I know who’s around my age—I was ten that year—remembers a parent saying the same thing, usually in the same words: “I don’t understand what’s happening to this country.” That’s what my mother said to me after Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were killed. America felt violent, unpredictable, and full of unappeasable rage.

This year doesn’t feel, to me, as frightening or out of control. Maybe that’s because I’m older, but there are real differences. Young Americans aren’t being drafted to fight in a distant unpopular war, political leaders aren’t being picked off by deranged assassins, and a once-popular president isn’t taking the extraordinary step of canceling his bid for reelection. Despite Donald Trump’s aspiration to re-create 1968’s law-and-order election (with Trump cast in the unflattering role of Richard Nixon), the violent crime rate isn’t doubling, as it did during the 1960s; it’s halved over the past two decades. When we look back on 1968, we understand that its tumult was mostly a reaction to large and abrupt shifts in societal arrangements concerning race, sexuality, and deference to any sort of authority.

The current year is quite different. Americans are worried not about sudden disruptions but about problems of long standing like wage stagnation, growing income inequality, Islamist terrorism, easy access to military-style firearms, and police brutality. The only really rapid change has been in social acceptance of homosexuals and, now, transgenders, and I’d be very surprised if LGBT issues play much of a role in the general election; Trump just doesn’t feel comfortable discussing them. Otherwise, the issues that voters are worked up about aren’t new. People don’t feel scared so much as fed up. Still, between mass shootings, Donald Trump’s unfriendly takeover of the Republican Party, an endless stream of videos showing police killing African Americans, and (at this writing) two fatal ambushes by African Americans on police, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that parents once again are sharing their anxieties with young children. This time, though, I’d guess they’re putting it in the past tense. Not “I don’t understand what’s happening,” but “I don’t understand what’s happened.”

The futility of trying to normalize Trump

The press really can’t figure out how it’s supposed to cover Donald Trump. In May, Joe Pompeo reported in Politico that Wall Street Journal editor Gerry Baker had admonished editors to be “fair” to Trump because he was a serious candidate, and because many serious people would support his candidacy. Pompeo took this—quite reasonably, I thought—as a sign that Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Journal, was getting behind Trump. But Pompeo’s scoop prompted Alan Murray, chief content officer at Time Inc., to take exception. “Baker’s lecture is totally appropriate, and even necessary,” Murray wrote in an email. “The fact that there’s barely a single person in the press corps who supports Trump, but a sizable segment of the nation [that] does, suggests we have to bend over backward to make sure we give our readers fair coverage.” Margaret Sullivan, press columnist at the Washington Post, wrote in reply that “a considerable amount of bending over has already taken place,” and that those press outlets that called Trump on his many falsehoods were typically answered with “insults and threats.” Sullivan warned against inventing a “false equivalency” between the candidacies of Trump and Hillary Clinton.

False equivalence is precisely what the Wall Street Journal’s Carol Lee and Reuters’s Jeff Mason—the outgoing and incoming presidents of the White House Correspondents’ Association—conveyed in a July op-ed in USA Today protesting the treatment of the press by the two presidential campaigns. First Lee and Mason cited Trump’s refusal to grant access to certain reporters “because the candidate doesn’t like a story they have written or broadcast.” They then continued: “Similarly, refusing to regularly answer questions from reporters in a press conference, as Hillary Clinton has, deprives the American people of hearing from their potential commander-in-chief.” Similarly? Really? The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, and the New York Times’s Paul Krugman wasted no time pointing out that, however exasperating, Hillary Clinton’s stinginess with press conferences (she held precisely zero during the first half of 2016) did not compare with Trump’s forcible eviction of reporters who displeased him. And I mean forcible. In June Politico’s Ben Schreckinger, already denied credentials to cover Trump, purchased a general admission ticket to a campaign rally in San Jose, California—only to be escorted out by security when spotted.

(Disclosure: I know most of the journalists just mentioned.)

I’m with Baker and Murray that the mainstream press must make an effort to be fair to Trump, as it must with everyone. Reporters should not feel free to characterize him as a carnival barker or a demagogue or a proto-fascist, and unless they can crack the mystery of whatever product it is that Trump may use on his hair and his face to lend them their unique tints, they should let up about it. (I never said this was going to be easy.) But I think Sullivan is right that reporters shouldn’t satisfy the directive to be fair with the “plague on both your houses” approach favored by Lee and Mason. Certain factual distinctions must be kept front and center. Trump has zero experience in government, whereas Clinton has been a senator and secretary of state. Trump is opposed by a great many leading Republicans, and that’s highly unusual; we haven’t seen anything like it since Goldwater in 1964. Clinton is not opposed by any leading Democrats. Trump has very little in the way of a policy platform, making it difficult to know what—besides tearing up trade deals, building a wall on the Mexican border, and preventing Muslims from entering the country—he would do as president. Clinton has detailed her policy positions extensively, leaving supporters and detractors alike with little doubt about what her presidency would be like. And though both candidates have spoken untruthfully—as all politicians do from time to time—Trump is without question the more mendacious. It’s not even close. As Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote Trump’s best-selling 1987 The Art of the Deal (and holds no known personal or financial grudge against Trump) told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker: “Lying is second nature to him.”

No perfect metric exists for Trump’s and Clinton’s comparative truthfulness as candidates. But in July, Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column, did as rigorous an analysis as I’ve seen. Kessler reviewed his fifty-two assessed Trump claims and thirty-six assessed Clinton claims and found Trump to be more than twice as untruthful as Clinton. Nearly 85 percent of the Trump claims rated “false or mostly false,” compared to 40 percent of the Clinton claims. The disparity was even greater when Kessler limited consideration to his “Four Pinocchio” worst ratings for the most outrageously false statements. By that measure, Trump was more than four times as untruthful as Clinton: 63 percent of Trump’s assessed claims rated outrageously false, compared to 14 percent of Clinton’s. Clinton, Kessler concluded, “has a bell curve of a typical politician. The number of false claims equals the number of true claims, while her other claims fall mostly somewhere in the middle.” (If that sounds a bit harsh, remember that Kessler doesn’t assess any candidate statement unless it already seems potentially questionable.) Trump, by contrast, was off the charts. “There’s certainly never been a major-party politician with Trump’s Four Pinocchios score,” Kessler concluded.

PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times’s Pulitzer prize–winning fact-checking column, keeps a running tally on its ratings for Trump and Clinton, allowing us to gather a second opinion. As of mid-July, PolitiFact’s numbers put the Trump-Clinton disparity even wider than Kessler did, with Trump nearly three times as untruthful as Clinton. Among the campaign statements PolitiFact evaluated, 76 percent of Trump’s were “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants-on-fire,” compared to 27 percent of Clinton’s. And as with Kessler, PolitiFact found the disparity grew much wider when you confined observation to the most outrageously false statements. Here again, PolitiFact’s Whopper Gap was even larger than Kessler’s: fully 19 percent of Trump’s statements were “pants-on-fire” false, compared to only 1 percent of Clinton’s.

When a political reporter says Donald Trump spreads many more falsehoods—and much bigger falsehoods—than Hillary Clinton, that reporter isn’t spouting opinion. He’s reporting verifiable fact.

FactCheck.org, maintained by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, has performed no meta-analysis like Kessler’s nor kept a running tally like PolitiFact. But in December it declared that in twelve years of operation “we’ve never seen [Trump’s] match. He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” In previous years, the website said, “we’ve not singled out a single claim or a single person, and have left it to readers to judge which whoppers they consider most egregious. But this year the evidence is overwhelming and, in our judgment, conclusive. So, for the first time, we confer the title ‘King of Whoppers.’”

What all this demonstrates is that when a political reporter says Donald Trump spreads many more falsehoods—and much bigger falsehoods—than Hillary Clinton, that reporter isn’t spouting opinion. He’s reporting verifiable fact.

What do news editors even mean when they talk about being fair? Ideally, they mean maintaining an open mind, weighing all sides, and not imposing irrelevant or gratuitous judgments. Less loftily, in everyday newsroom practice being fair often means not provoking any powerful sources who might cut you off. To withhold or downplay the simple fact that Trump is demonstrably more mendacious than Clinton might be “fair”—in the appeasing sense—to Trump, to his campaign staff, and to the many serious people who the Journal’s Gerry Baker reportedly said support Trump. (I’m a bit stumped as to who, besides Murdoch, Baker had in mind.) But it wouldn’t be fair, in the truer sense of that word, to the reader, to whom all reporters owe their absolute primary allegiance. It wouldn’t be fair because it would be suppressing important news.

And the Uriah Heep Prize goes to . . .

One of the worst ways a journalist can respond to Trump is to apologize for failing to anticipate his ascendency. “I was surprised by Trump’s success,” David Brooks wrote in April, “because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata—in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.” Henceforth, Brooks pledged, he would “go out into the pain.” Even for a political columnist who’s been evolving lately into some sort of lay cleric, this seemed a bit much. Making predictions has always been the most worthless part of political punditry, and looking backward you’ll find political columnists no better able than anyone else to glimpse the future. But for Brooks to chastise himself for failing to predict a freak occurrence like Trump’s primary success must win the Uriah Heep Prize for false humility. Trump was, as Politico’s Jack Shafer has noted, a Black Swan event. He was the novelty candidate who broke through. You might as well expect yourself to predict when the roulette ball lands on 22. Do you want to inhabit a universe in which Donald Trump can be foreseen? I don’t.

Not that I want to deny credit to the people who saw more in Trump than the rest of us. One of these was Washington Monthly contributing editor Matthew Cooper, who in June 2015 reported in Newsweek that Trump’s fierce opposition to trade agreements and to any cuts in Social Security and Medicare reflected strongly held, if widely ignored, views of the GOP base. Another was the political scientist Norman Ornstein, who in August 2015 wrote in the Atlantic, “The desire for an insurgent, non-establishment figure is deeper and broader than in the past.” But all Cooper and Ornstein were really saying was, “This guy may do better than you think,” at a time when Trump was already leading in the polls. Neither envisioned Trump capturing the nomination in the primaries. Cooper suggested Trump might get 5 to 10 percent, “perhaps dimming the chances of other anti-establishment candidates such as Cruz.” Ornstein got closer, suggesting the nomination might go to Trump . . . or it might go to Cruz, or “an establishment figure” like Bush or Kasich.

Why did Cooper and Ornstein hedge their bets on the candidate then beating the Republican field and, on occasion, Clinton, in national polls? Because they understood that Trump wasn’t just an assemblage of three or four political stances that appealed to the white working class. He was also a flesh-and-blood person who, on a regular basis, voiced opinions that prompted more or less constant speculation that his candidacy would crater.

Let’s review. Trump spoke rudely about John McCain’s POW history; about New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski’s disability; about Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle; and about Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s ability, as a Mexican American, to be a fair jurist. Trump said wages were too high (he later changed his mind); he defended torture, using that word, “torture”; and he praised Saddam Hussein for the efficiency with which he killed terrorists.

In American politics, any hint of sympathy for overt racial prejudice typically causes a political career to combust spontaneously. In 2002, Trent Lott had to resign his post as Senate majority leader after he said, at a 100th birthday party for fellow Republican Strom Thurmond, that if Thurmond had won his segregationist campaign for president in 1948, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.” Yet Trump got away with handling white supremacist supporters with kid gloves. He chided his own campaign for taking down a tweet recycled from one such group. Asked on CNN about pro-Trump robocalls in Iowa featuring “white nationalist” William Johnson, Trump was entirely blasé. “I would disavow it,” he said, “but nothing in this country shocks me.” When pressed, he replied irritably, “How many times you want me to say it? I said, ‘I disavow.’ ” Trump used that same perfunctory construct, “I disavow,” at least twice more when asked about an endorsement from David Duke, as Washington Monthly contributing editor Nicholas Confessore reported in the New York Times. The phrasing struck Richard Spencer—a Trump enthusiast who runs a group committed to “the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent”—as a sort of verbal wink. “There’s no direct object there,” Spencer told Confessore. “It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?” And so it is.

Nothing in recent political history allowed for the possibility that a candidate could check off even one item from this far-from-complete inventory and expect to survive. George Romney eliminated his chances in 1968 by making a mildly flippant comment about being “brainwashed” by the military about Vietnam. Ed Muskie doomed himself in 1972 by appearing to weep over an attack on his wife in the Manchester Union Leader (though the tears may have been melting snowflakes). Joe Biden was driven from the Democratic primaries in 1988 for plagiarizing a British politician’s speech. Such bêtises, real or imagined, were trivial compared to Trump’s. Yet Trump sailed on.

Have you ever seen the great 1952 film Breaking the Sound Barrier? A British test pilot breaks the sound barrier by reversing the controls at the last minute. Set aside for a moment the historical truth that the sound barrier was actually broken by an American, Chuck Yeager, who did not reverse the controls, and who pronounced the film—in Tom Wolfe’s memorable paraphrase—“an utter shuck from start to finish.” Just concentrate on the film’s ingenious narrative conceit that the way to achieve an impossible task is to break every rule. Trump is that fictional British test pilot, only this time he’s an American real estate developer.

Dale Carnegie versus Norman Vincent Peale

Trump thinks that he keeps himself out of trouble by never apologizing, or so the Boston radio host Howie Carr reported Trump telling him earlier this year. “Whatever you do, don’t apologize,” he said. “You never hear me apologize, do you? That’s what killed Jimmy the Greek way back. Remember? He was doing okay ’til he said he was sorry.” That might be good advice for David Brooks whenever he feels a St. Francis of Assisi impulse coming on. But is it good advice for everyone else? Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder was an oddsmaker who lost his job as a CBS sports commentator in 1988 after he told a reporter (on Martin Luther King’s birthday!), “The black is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way,” and a lot of other pseudoscientific racist nonsense. Snyder apologized, abjectly, the same day, then repeated the apology at least twice before CBS fired him. Trump apparently thinks Snyder might have brazened it out, but I don’t remember harboring any doubt, even before Snyder apologized, that his much-reported remarks had finished his career in broadcasting.

One can’t deny, though, that the never-apologize thing seems to work for Trump. In this Trump shows himself to be a true follower of Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. I recently read Peale’s 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking back to back with Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I don’t know that Trump has read either book, but Peale was his pastor for many years at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, and Trump’s father, Fred, who paved the Donald’s way in real estate, once took a Dale Carnegie course. I’d always thought of the Peale and Carnegie books as offering the same sort of advice, but on inspection they are very different books, as the titles ought to have alerted me. Carnegie is all about pleasing other people through various types of manipulation, and as such he’s a big advocate for the strategic apology. Peale is all about pleasing yourself, and he demonstrates no interest at all in the topic of apology. (The words “apology” and “apologize” each appear only once, in passing reference to an apology that Peale deemed a distraction.) Immovability, a hubristic flaw to avoid at all costs in Carnegie, is a Churchillian virtue to strive for in Peale. The only real overlap between Carnegie’s book and Peale’s is that they both describe Jim Farley, Franklin Roosevelt’s gregarious patronage chief and postmaster general (and later board chairman of the Coca-Cola Export Corporation), as representing the beau ideal of the temperament that guides you to success. Carnegie and Peale both knew Farley, and were utterly dazzled by him. But I digress.

It surprised me to observe that Carnegie’s book, written by a con man desperate to make a buck, struck a tone that seemed more elevated than Peale’s, written by a man of God. But, of course, the two books were written for very different audiences. Carnegie’s was a book for overenthusiastic extroverts who needed a bit of calming down; Peale’s, for depressive introverts who needed a shot of self-confidence. Shakespeare made Peale’s case better than anyone, including Peale, in a scene from Henry V in which the arrogant Dauphin is trying to shore up the tremulous king of France: “Self-love, my liege, is not so great a sin / As self-neglecting.”

According to Gwenda Blair’s 2000 book The Trumps, Fred Trump took his Dale Carnegie course after he was already very successful, in an unsuccessful attempt to overcome shyness. His children teased him about it. Donald Trump quotes Carnegie from time to time, but who can doubt that he’s a Peale man through and through? Never mind that he’s exactly the wrong personality type to benefit from its homilies. No one will ever accuse Donald Trump of self-neglecting.

Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is the labor policy editor at Politico, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and the author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.