May 11, 2018

2016 Election Book

Of 2016 election books there is no end.  My preference is for minute-by-minute (second-by-second even better) descriptions inside the Clinton campaign on election day.  That stuff is like crack cocaine. The dawning horror of anchors and anchorettes that Trump would be president are likewise as rich a repast as you’re going to get in the world of politics.

But there’s also the other side of the equation: how Trump won.

Part of it I think is due to how the presidency is an entry-level job now given the Obama and Trump wins.  Since resume is irrelevant and past performance precludes getting elected, it makes the campaign the end all and be all. 

A simple theory is that the person with the most media during a campaign wins.  Obama won in ’08 by hacking the media via charm and leftism, while Trump won in ’16 through outrageousness.  But that doesn’t really explain how Bernie Sanders ended up a stone’s throw from the Democrat nomination.

Part of the common denominator might be shamelessness.  Bernie promised free tuition without paying for it, Trump promised to make Mexico pay for a border wall.  Shamelessness helped Bill Clinton win in ’92 as well, since any candidate with an embarrassment gene would’ve bowed out due to scandals.

Amanda Carpenter has a new book saying that Trump's gaslighting was the  feature, and ground zero was birtherism.

I think birtherism won him the nomination in that it was the precipitating thing that gave him instant appeal to about a third of the Republican electorate.  Birtherism allowed me to rule out voting for him immediately, which felt odd: the very issue that knighted him was what repulsed me, not because I think there's anything racist about it, but because it showed a casual disinterest in facts, which doesn't seem a promising thing in a president.

But the gaslighting he did was effective as Carpenter's book attests:
The most surprising thing [about 2016]? How Trump’s political playbook has been hiding in plain sight all this time. He keeps everyone, not just Republicans, spellbound in a rote and methodical way. Donald J. Trump is president, but he’s also a professional gaslighter.

Trump’s birtherism gambit is a textbook example of the technique he uses again and again. Let me walk you through the steps. The very first thing he does is stake a claim over political terrain other candidates consider risky but has a lot of potential. This is Step One. Remember, Trump is a real estate man at heart. He knows how to find an empty building that might look unsavory but can be developed into something valuable. In this case, it was birtherism.
             
When Trump started dipping his toe into the conspiracy waters in 2011, the birther fervor, which had broken loose during President Barack Obama’s first presidential election in 2008, had mostly died down. Sure, it was something Republicans still cracked jokes about, but no one was seriously willing to indulge in it for more than a laugh. Most considered birtherism a nonproductive waste of time, if not totally racist. Conservatives, by and large, thought it was only something promoted by liberals to make Republicans look like stupid tin-foil-hatters.
             
Fast-forward a few years later. Along comes Donald Trump, calling himself a Republican and on a mission to become the biggest birther in America. But Trump didn’t go full birther at first. No, no. He had to create some interest. He started slow, by raising questions about what other people were saying and thinking. This is Step Two of his gaslighting method. This is how Trump slyly both advances and denies the very claim he has staked out in Step One. See how this works. “Everybody that even gives a hint of being a birther . . . even a little bit of a hint, like, gee, you know, maybe just maybe this much of a chance, they label them as an idiot,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America on March 17, 2011. Trump wasn’t exactly coming out and saying he was a birther, but he was using his platform to express sympathy toward the large number of birthers who could be watching. He was advancing the narrative without committing himself to it. Gear up the presses! “Is Donald Trump a Birther?” asked Inside Edition. His gaslighting was catching. He got everyone to start asking questions about birtherism. He didn’t have to answer them to make his point. You see, when Trump is gaslighting, he rarely tells an outright lie. When pressed, he avoids specifics but keeps everyone chattering away with speculation on the topic.
             
The press egged him on, as did the Democrats who thought birtherism would help them by drawing sympathy to President Obama. Obama’s re-election campaign even sold T-shirts and mugs mocking the movement. Trump made himself available for all kinds of high-profile interviews on the subject, denying all the while that he was a real “birther.” He just had a lot of questions about it, you see. “Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate? There’s something on his birth certificate he doesn’t like,” he told the women of The View on March 23, 2011. On March 28, 2011, he told Fox News, “I’m starting to wonder myself whether or not he was born in this country.” Do you see how this advance-and-denial step works? He was only “wondering” about Obama’s citizenship. When this step is carried out correctly, it generates lots of attention. It induces intrigue, laying the groundwork for a much grander narrative. Then he did something that you will learn to recognize as Step Three of his method; he created suspense to keep the media’s interest in him and the subject. Trump promised evidence would come out “soon” to support his inquiries. He told Morning Joe on April 7, 2011, “His [Obama’s] grandmother in Kenya said, ‘Oh, no, he was born in Kenya and I was there and I witnessed his birth.’…

Obama, however, did finally produce his birth certificate on April 27, 2011, after Trump stoked questions in the press over it for six weeks straight. In doing so, Obama lectured the press for having their priorities wrong. He pointed out that he was in the middle of a big budget debate with Republicans but “the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re gonna have to make as a nation, it was about my birth certificate.” Without saying exactly who was responsible, Obama vented about the “carnival barkers” and “sideshow” that had been created. The people who pushed “just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts,” Obama said. “I have been puzzled at the degree to which this thing just kept on going.”

A rational person would have thought the story would end there. But Trump had no interest in rationality. The issue was too politically fruitful to let go of so easily. Besides, Trump had found other GOP politicians who were willing to play along. In October 2011 Texas governor and then–2012 presidential hopeful Rick Perry had dinner with Trump. No one knows for certain what they talked about, but pretty soon after that Perry was on the birther bandwagon, happily taking cheap shots at President Obama. Perry told CNBC, “It’s fun to poke at him a little bit and say, ‘Hey, how about—let’s see your grades and your birth certificate . . . it’s a good issue to keep alive.” It sure was. For Trump.

In 2013, ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked Trump if he had taken birtherism too far. Trump said, “I don’t think I went overboard. Actually, I think it made me very popular, if you want to know the truth, OK? So, I do think I know what I’m doing.” That’s exactly why he kept stoking the fire. In 2014, Trump was still pushing it. He tweeted: “Attention all hackers: You are hacking everything else to please hack Obama’s college records (destroyed?) and check ‘place of birth.’” (Note: this wouldn’t be the only time Trump called on foreign hackers to help him cast aspersions upon a political opponent, either.) What did all this do for Trump? A poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University in May 2016 found that 77 percent of those who supported Trump believed President Obama was “definitely” or “probably” hiding important information about his early life.
             
In September 2016, Trump summoned the national press corps to his newly opened Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., with the tantalizing promise that he would make a “major statement” regarding the circumstances of Obama’s birth. Reporters had long grown tired of the birther shtick and resented being marched into the hotel, calling the charade an “infomercial” for his property. But Trump had a way of guilting them into it. Medal of Honor recipients would be attending, reporters were told. Before Trump’s remarks, there would be a serious discussion about national security. Trump was giving the media a dare. Would reporters turn down a major event with decorated veterans? If they skipped it, Trump would accuse them of not respecting the military…
             
At the end of the event, Trump made his long-awaited statement regarding President Obama’s birth certificate. Here he would unveil Step Four and Step Five of his gaslighting method. The discrediting of his real opponent and the declaration of victory. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” he said. “I finished it. I finished it. I finished it, you know what I mean. President Obama was born in the United States period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.” That was it. Trump tossed the conspiracy off as an unfortunate incident propagated not by him, but by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. That’s Step Four, the discrediting. “Finished it,” he said. He won. Trump told the world that the single most defining issue of his political career-to-be was someone else’s mishap that he fixed. That’s Step Five, the victory. Reporters who covered the issue for five long years were exasperated.
             
STAKE A CLAIM: Trump finds a political issue or action that competitors are unwilling to adopt and that will ensure a media frenzy. Such as: “President Obama is not a U.S. citizen.”

ADVANCE AND DENY: Trump casts the issue into the public realm without taking direct responsibility. He does this by raising questions about or discussing what other people are saying, reporting, or thinking. Tabloids, YouTube videos, tweets from unknown origins, and unverifiable Internet news stories are often used as sources.

CREATE SUSPENSE: He says evidence is forthcoming that will soon get to the truth of the matter. Trump can remain in this mode for weeks, months, or even years.

DISCREDIT THE OPPONENT: If critics gain traction, Trump attacks their motives and personal character.

WIN: Declare victory.
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He won ugly.  But I have to say that I'm hard-pressed and chagrined to realize today that I can't think of one thing a President Rubio would've done better than Trump as potus from a policy standpoint.  And probably a lot less right.  From North Korea to Iran deal to the economy, judges, tax changes, rolling back extraneous business regulation, etc... the dude has produced despite his poor character.  But it's still perilously early of course. Having Trump as potus is like having a sumo wrestler walking a tight rope.  You brace...

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