Donald Trump’s poll numbers continue to defy gravity. This requires greater scrutiny. A sacrifice is needed: actually listening to one of Trump’s speeches. And your intrepid correspondent has done this, all 95 minutes of the one he gave in Iowa on November 12th, which can be found here.
If anything, it was worse than I feared.
The first thing to understand is that a Donald Trump stump speech is not what we expect from the genre. It is basically Donald Trump telling a bunch of…Donald Trump stories, the dominant theme of which is what a brilliant and successful, and nice, person Donald Trump is. And just in case you fail to pick up on this, he provides helpful clues such as:
And all of this comes in a speech where a tough-talking Lindsey Graham is derided because, according to Trump, the truly tough guys don’t need to advertise it. Unlike, apparently, the truly brilliant and successful, and nice, ones.
Another key feature of these stories is that there is absolutely no requirement that they are true. For example, Trump spent a lot of time talking about how, in his book The America We Deserve (published in 2000), he warned about Osama bin Laden. In the words of his speech:
I said we better be careful with Osama bin Laden. There’s a guy named Osama bin Laden. Nobody really knew who he was. But he was nasty. He was saying really nasty things about our country and what he wants to do to it. And I wrote in the book [in] 2000 — two years before the World Trade Center came down — I talked to you about Osama bin Laden, you better take him out. I said he’s going to crawl under a rock. You better take him out. And now people are seeing that, they’re saying, “You know, Trump predicted Osama bin Laden” – which actually is true. And two years later, a year and a half later he knocked down the World Trade Center.
The reality is just a smidge different. There is a single reference to bin Laden in his book – here it is:
Instead of one looming crisis hanging over us, we face a bewildering series of smaller crises, flash points, standoffs, and hot spots. We’re not playing the chess game to end all chess games anymore. We’re playing tournament chess — one master against many rivals. One day we’re all assured that Iraq is under control, the UN inspectors have done their work, everything’s fine, not to worry. The next day the bombing begins. One day we’re told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin-Laden is public enemy number one, and U.S. jetfighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan. He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it’s on to a new enemy and new crisis.
Do you see a recommendation to “take him out”? Do you see bin Laden identified as a particular or imminent threat? For that matter, since U.S. jetfighters were laying waste to his camps, is there any suggestion that “nobody really knew who he was”? This only counts as prediction in the Nostradamus school of forecasting.
For Trump, facts are just so last year. It isn’t true that the 5% unemployment rate is a “phoney number” because it counts discouraged workers as employed whereas the real number is “probably 25%, probably 30 or 35%….” It isn’t true that the US needs to increase infrastructure spending since 60% of our bridges are falling down. It isn’t true that “Medicare actually works” and that there is no need to change Social Security, which other candidates are maliciously and needlessly trying to “decimate” by raising the retirement age and cutting benefits. Nor is it true that companies pursuing tax inversions actually “drop the jobs” in the United States, since these transactions don’t, per se, imply any change to their operations or employment patterns.
I could go on but there is really no point, because for Trump and his supporters, apparently none of this matters. The only thing that matters is that “we don’t win anymore” and “the message is, in a certain way, ‘we aren’t going to take it anymore.’” And Trump is going to make it all right because, as he has already told us, his “life has been about victories.”
Policies don’t really matter either, because a Trump speech is pretty much a policy-free zone. The country is in trouble, but the only thing we need to recover from this is “getting smart people to make deals.” And Trump is manifestly one of these – I mean, he wrote Trump: The Art of the Deal, right? – so we don’t need to worry about the details. And if you take this as an insult to your intelligence, then you are obviously not a Trump guy.
But just occasionally something that looks like an actual policy statement will emerge from the fog of Trump’s self-absorption. For example, he began his speech with a ringing endorsement of the ethanol fuel subsidies so beloved of corn-growing Iowans. It doesn’t matter that this is one of the worst examples of special-interest, pork-barrel policies going, which continues to exist only because of the disproportionate role played by Iowa in the nomination process. It also doesn’t matter that this flagrant political pandering undercuts the only real argument for Trump, which is the alleged independence that comes from being a Washington outsider and a self-funded candidate. And from his self-proclaimed imperative that “I got to do what’s right,” even at the risk of alienating people.
Since consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and Trump repeatedly tells us that he has a very big mind indeed, it is clearly not appropriate to look for this in his policies. Like, for example, his laudable opposition to our interventions in the Middle East. But how do we square this with his statement that “we can’t allow people to cut off people’s heads” and “the world wants to kill us”? Or his protestation, repeated many times, that he is “far more militaristic than anyone.” Or his promise that “I’ll take the oil”? It’s a mystery.
And what about his trade policy? He obviously isn’t wild about China, to whom he claims we are “losing” $505 billion a year. Now, leaving aside the fact that this is last year’s trade deficit with the entire world, and not just with China, it is also a tad bizarre to claim that exchanging imported goods for little green promises to pay (ie, US dollars) is equivalent to “losing” $505 billion. I mean, “losing” kind of implies that we got hosed, whereas I would have thought that a guy who repeatedly brags about his ability to “do a number” on his creditors would more readily identify the Chinese as the losers in this exchange. But it is a little difficult to know what Trump believes about trade when he claims that in his presidency “China’s not going to take our jobs anymore,” but then immediately reassures us that “I’m a free trader.”
But spotting an inconsistency in a Trump policy is actually the good news. Usually, we don’t have enough detail to do this. For example, he informs us that he is going to quickly repeal Obamacare and replace it. With what? Your guess is as good as mine. He tells us that Christians have not done a good job protecting their religion in America and that “we are letting the government take it away.” What does this mean? He doesn’t exactly say, although apparently a Trump presidency is going to mean “a lot more ‘Merry Christmases.’” That is certainly the type of consequential change that I am looking for out of Washington.
And then there is Trump’s signature issue: illegal immigration. More than a signature, virtually the only note that this little Johnny can sing. Which means that he has to make it responsible for nearly all the ills of our country, like when he talks about illegal immigration and then neatly segues into “you wonder why we are debtor nation…$19 trillion!” I guess he never said that illegal immigration is a major cause of our Federal government debt, but that is clearly what his supporters heard.
So, with a Trump speech, we get stories (true or not). We don’t get much policy specifics, and when we do, they are frequently misguided or contradictory. We get the pandering and the misdirection. But what’s the big deal? All politicians are guilty of this to some extent, although rarely on the scale practiced by Trump, who is used to building large and gaudy. But with him we get a bonus. We also get the truly surreal.
For example, take the more than 10 minutes Trump devotes to a dissection of the autobiography of Ben Carson, complete with an elaborately choreographed demonstration of the response of belt buckles to thrusting knives. Watching this, it is difficult not to conclude that Trump has more than a few screws loose. It is also difficult not to cringe at the prospect of a President Trump having a similarly bizarre moment on the world stage. The United States could join the ranks of Uganda under Idi Amin.
Nominating Trump would be electoral suicide for the Republicans. As this recent article points out, Trump has only middling support among Republicans in general and appalling numbers with non-Republicans; unless his supporters think that they can win this election on their own, Trump is a terrible choice for 2016. But it would be even worse than this. Choosing Trump as the candidate, and the buffoonery that would doubtlessly ensue, would cement the Republican reputation as the “stupid party.” This would have long-lasting repercussions.
The good news is that, as the article also points out, Trump’s 25-30% poll ratings don’t mean much. Although Trump loves to point to these numbers – in fact, his speeches and debate performances are largely a repetition of them – he obviously doesn’t realize that they equate to about 6-8% of the overall American population, which is about the same percent that thinks the moon landings were faked.
More importantly, poll results at this time are notoriously squishy: exit polls show that only roughly one-third of caucus participants and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have historically made up their minds one-month in advance of the events, with fully a third waiting to the last week to choose. Similarly, reviews of Google searches show that voters don’t start their electoral homework until shortly before the paper is due. With Iowa and New Hampshire about two months away, there is plenty of time for Republicans to come to their senses. And plenty of banana skins, almost all of them self-peeled, for Trump to slip on.
Weybridge, United Kingdom
I Wish that I Had Said That…
“Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard,” Al Pacino as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman, reminding us that we largely choose our lives and why we often choose badly
 In the headline unemployment figure, it is true that discouraged workers are not included. But they are dropped out of the denominator, not the numerator. And, of course, the Bureau of Labor Statistics produces other unemployment numbers (notable the U6 measure) that adjusts for this and other indications of underemployment, such as part-time workers who would like to be full-time ones. The end result is an unemployment rate of about 10%. Bad enough, but nowhere near the 25-35% quoted by Trump.
 A “tax inversion” is a merger between a US company and a non-US company in which the surviving company elects a corporate domicile outside of the US. The objective is to reduce the rate of taxation on the non-US operations of the US company by avoiding the “worldwide” taxation applied to a US-domiciled company. The tax treatment of the US operations of the company remains exactly the same, so there is no change in the company’s incentive to “drop the jobs” (or not) in the US.
 The US global trade deficit in 2014 was $508 billion. The deficit with China represented a lot of this (about two-thirds), but not all of it. Accuracy does matter.
 Self-identified Republicans are about 25% of the population. Hence, at 25-30% poll rating among them equals about 6.25% to 7.5% of the overall population.