Future History Part II: Where Will Trump Rank?

Note: This is a post I wrote on January 9, 2017; at the time, I found it too depressing to publish. With Presidential rankings in the news, I thought it might be interesting to revisit.

 

Donald Trump is obviously going to be one of the worst Presidents in American history, but will he be the worst? In this post, I take a stab at predicting some possible outcomes of his Presidency. Of course, this should all be taken with a grain of salt; in an earlier post, I suggested that he might lose the election by about 200,000 votes, and instead he won it by about -3,000,000 votes. Moreover, it’s tough to determine a President’s legacy in the heat of the moment. I remember thinking back in 2005 that George W. Bush was easily one of our two worst Presidents; with the mellowing effects of time it now seems clear that he is merely one of the five worst. So guessing before Trump even takes office will be difficult. Yet, why not?

The Ceiling:

If we assume that Trump will do even a small fraction of the things he has said he will do (and political history suggests that he will try), or even that he will simply continue to behave as he has so far, then the best thing that could happen to his legacy would be for him never to take office. Perhaps he would decide Washington D.C. is too muggy and resign; perhaps his flagrant conflicts of interest would accidentally infringe on something Republican representatives care about; perhaps Putin would simply text him, “change of plans”.

In that case, the clear historical comparison would be William Henry Harrison, who died on his 32nd day in office. It’s a common misconception that this places him near the bottom of the Presidential rankings, but this is based on the naive assumption that when Presidents do things, those things are mostly good. In fact, many of the Presidents have tended to do mostly bad things. As a result, WHH is really a middle-of-the-pack guy, near the other forgettable do-nothings like Fillmore and Coolidge. Once you get toward the bottom ten or twelve Presidents you’re already looking at guys like Nixon and Hoover, and WHH clearly didn’t cause as much harm as them. So does this mean Trump has hope of being merely forgotten?

Well, not quite. He has already had a poisonous impact on American discourse and incidents of intolerant violence, his election has delivered a blow to American credibility that we (justly) may never recover from, and he has even managed to ramp up the risk of war with China. Harrison did pick horrible President John Tyler as his VP, so that’s a knock on him, but I think you have to put Trump below WHH even now. I’d say he’s down around Harding or McKinley, in the bottom 12 or 13. Verdict: Ceiling = 13th worst President.

 

The Floor:

Given his vindictiveness, pettiness, cruelty, and utter ignorance of the world, Trump might start a nuclear war. In that case he would be our worst President. Depending on the scope of the war, he would also have a shot at becoming the worst person in world history. Verdict: Floor = Worst Human Being of All Time

 

The Likely Scenario:

Of course, it’s impossible to predict exactly what Trump is going to do (I doubt he has a very clear idea himself), much less what will happen outside of his control in the next four to eight years. But a few things seem quite likely:

  • He will oversee a fairly extreme version of Republican dismantling of the welfare state. Since the GOP has the House and Senate, we should expect something like the Ryan Plan to pass, as well as some sort of repeal of Obamacare. How this affects his rank will depend on your political views, i.e. whether you think it’s bad that tens of millions of people will lose health insurance, children will go hungry, inequality will skyrocket, etc.
  • He will be the most corrupt President in modern history, if not ever. So far he has not even bothered to hide his conflicts of interest; he doesn’t even quite seem to grasp the concept of a conflict of interest. I think this is because he doesn’t understand the idea of interests beside his own, but general stupidity would explain it, too. In any case, this would not only be reprehensible on its own merits, but could lead to the kind of deeply distressing systemic corruption described by Matthew Yglesias. But even if it stops short of that—essentially a dystopian kleptocracy with massive inequality and zero first-amendment protections—it would still be on the order of the kind of corruption that always pushes people like Grant, Harding, and Nixon down in the rankings.
  • Many things will stop functioning. He’s staffing everything with ideologues and cronies. I expect something like Bush’s FEMA in virtually every department Trump pays any attention to.
  • He will enable and occasionally enforce massive civil rights / human rights abuses. His immigration policy is essentially ethnic cleansing; his attitude toward Muslims is lightly revised 1930’s anti-Semitism; the company he keeps and the rhetoric he inspires have already set racial politics back decades.
  • He will destabilize the international order. The degree essentially depends on the extent to which the international order is capable of withstanding a hateful idiot at the helm of the world’s most powerful country. Current international context does not bode well for the reign of a man who thinks NATO is a protection racket and views foreign policy as a vehicle for putting his name on hotels in every nation.

I feel confident he’ll do all that. But as the list goes on, it becomes less clear exactly how bad each thing would get, and of course we don’t know exactly what else he might do on top of it—it wouldn’t be surprising if he goes right back to the regulatory atmosphere that caused the Great Recession, for instance. Perhaps he’ll do a good thing, too, although it’s difficult to imagine what it would be.

In any case, this is already enough stuff to guarantee him a place in the bottom three. He skates past Buchanan (he lost several states to secession, but it’s not clear that many Presidents would have done too much better) and Bush (his disastrous wars were limited to two countries) and joins Andrew Jackson (genocide, economic collapse) and Andrew Johnson (setting back the cause of racial justice for 100 years) down at the bottom. Those are a tough two to beat; they caused a lot of damage. It’ll be tough to beat them—there’s no equivalent to an electoral college bailout when it comes to wreaking moral havoc. In essence, we have to hope that the Trump of lazy incompetence (his business life) overpowers the Trump of hateful cruelty (his political and personal life). That should be just enough to ensure that he is not quite the worst person ever to hold this job. Verdict: Likely Scenario = Hopefully third worst President

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The MVP of Meeting MVPs, Part II

With the NBA season officially underway, it’s time to revisit last year’s post about the connections between MVPs. To get right to it, here is the updated version of the image at the center of everything:

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 2.16.21 AM

We see here every player who has won the NBA MVP award. They’re connected if they ever played on the same team, even if they were together before one or both of them had won—so Westbrook and Durant are connected, even though when they were both on the Thunder Westbrook hadn’t won yet. The thickness of the edges—the lines connecting the players—reflects how many years they played together; the color is more or less based on the team they shared.

Two major things have happened since last year’s post. First, Westbrook won the MVP. This means we’re developing a new little cluster over there on the left. The crazy thing is that this would still have been true if the voters had (correctly) given the trophy to the other major contender, James Harden (I’m from Houston), since he was also on the Thunder. He has a reasonable shot at winning it sometime in the next few years, so that little cluster might still grow.

The second major event is that Derrick Rose joined the Cavs, connecting him to LeBron James. I’m proud to report that, unlike virtually everything else I have predicted on this blog, I pretty much correctly called this one: Last year, talking about how the graph might grow more interconnected with time, I said:

Derrick Rose could be a key player here; often these guys start moving around when they’re a little worse, either because of age or, as with Rose, injury.

It was an obvious thing to guess, but so were a lot of things that didn’t pan out. Anyway, with these two events, our overall interconnectedness has grown quite a bit. Last year 22.5% of MVPs were solo artists; this year, we’re down to 18.8%.

What’s next? I still have hope that we can connect the two major clusters. Step one is for Kawhi Leonard to win the MVP; I don’t really want that, since I dislike the Spurs, but he is the favorite in Vegas at the moment. Step two is for someone from the other cluster to switch teams; again, Rose might play a big role here, a Bob McAdoo for our troubled times. And, down the road, who knows what will happen with Westbrook—it’s hard to imagine that guy ever taking fewer than 20 shots a game for an NBA season. Someday he might have to travel to make that work.

Bonus content: Now that I have a big list of the entire careers of MVPs, I can ask hard-hitting questions like, when did the NBA have the most (past or future) MVPs playing at the same time?

Of course, you could also ask when the NBA had the fewest MVPs, but the answer there is dumb: From 1951-1954, Bob Cousy was the only guy in the NBA who would ever win an MVP, in part because the award had not yet been invented. In the modern era—say, 1980, when they introduced threes— there are two answers, both kind of weird. In 1981, there were six (Kareem, McAdoo, Dr. J, Bird, Magic, and Moses), but only because Bill Walton was in the middle of an injury that lasted two entire years. And then in 1994, you also had six (Ancient Moses, Barkley, Karl Malone, Robinson, Olajuwon, and Baby Shaq), but only because Jordan was on his mysterious baseball walkabout.

Anyway, the answer for most at once is 2010, when there were 12 active MVPs. That year LeBron won it for the second time. Back then, every winner of the 00’s was still around, in various states of collapse (Shaq, Iverson, Duncan, Garnett, Nash, Nowitzki, Kobe). And every winner of the 10’s (so far) had just joined the league (Rose, Durant, Curry, Westbrook). LeBron was the pivot.

We’ve had 11 concurrent MVPs a bunch of times: Once in the 80’s, twice in the 90’s, and four times since then. But today, we’re sitting at just 9, with Nowitzki almost certain to retire before we can boost the numbers much. Still, everyone else is either young enough to play another 5-6 years or is LeBron James, so we’ve got a shot to get back up there—and who knows, maybe Rose will join them all.

The Worst First 100 Days

Trump’s first 100 days have been a unique cocktail of horror and failure, but where do they rank historically? Is he as superlative on this metric as he is on, say, health, or intellect? It’s a tough question to answer, because there are lots of different ways to judge the first 100 days.

One path is simply to assess the state of the union: How well is the country doing at the end of the first 100 days, compared to before? In these terms, the worst first 100 days surely belong to Lincoln. He had only been in office for about a month when the South attacked Fort Sumter, basically starting the Civil War. Some people would argue that Lincoln bears a lot of the blame for the Civil War, but they’re mostly buried in Confederate graves with the rest of the pro-slavery traitors who lost that war. So although you can’t easily top “descending into civil war” as a catastrophic start, it doesn’t really reflect on how well Lincoln was doing the job at hand.

Another way to look at it is personal success: How well did the President accomplish his goals? The clear worst all time on this metric is William Henry Harrison. During his first 100 days he died, one of the worst professional setbacks you can have. Not only that, his death saddled the nation with his idiot successor, John Tyler, the subject of our nation’s first impeachment hearings, a sitting President not re-nominated by his own party, and the only President whose death was not recognized by Washington, since he had joined the Confederacy.

The thought of Tyler raises another question: Which President caused the most destruction in his first 100 days? This is a tough one to answer, but here are three candidates:1  

  • Rutherford B. Hayes immediately ended Reconstruction as a condition for winning the Presidency at all. Clearly this was a good political move for him (he got to be President), but, as historian Eric Foner argues of Reconstruction in general, “What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.” So Hayes had a big hand in that, which seems pretty bad.
  • Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon during his first 100 days. The ethics of this are debatable I guess, but it was a major blow to him politically, and one reason he was never elected President.
  • My personal choice: During his first 100 days, Nixon started Operation Menu, a secretive bombing campaign in Cambodia. At the very least this killed thousands of people; at worst, it was an important step in Nixon’s general Cambodian policy, which contributed to the rise of people like Pol Pot.

So where does that leave Trump? In terms of sheer destruction, I don’t think he matches Hayes or Nixon. What makes him interesting, though, is his unique blend of horrific policies and political failures:

Horrors

Failures

Of course, these are not comprehensive lists, but this is still a pretty unusual mix of achieving bad goals while also failing in spectacular fashion. He has somehow managed to combine historically destructive outcomes with several high-profile failures to do anything at all. I guess we could consider this some sort of grotesque reversal of an inspirational poster I loosely remember from high school:

PosterCropped.png

Though not scientifically accurate, this inane claim makes an important point. Man’s reach should exceed his grasp; no one reaches more greedily than Trump, and no one has a tinier grasp. I’d say his first 100 days aren’t quite the personal failure of Harrison, or the policy horror of Nixon, but they’re historic nonetheless.


Notes

1. One fascinating case that just misses the cut: Harry Truman, who on his 116th day in office dropped a nuclear bomb on a city.

The Courage of Our Convictions (for Perjury)

It seems pretty likely that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently committed a felony, which is a pretty compelling reason to remove him from his position at the head of our nation’s justice system. Specifically, it appears that he committed perjury by lying under oath. Under any reasonable interpretation, the case against him is pretty straightforward. During his confirmation hearings, he said, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that [i.e., the Trump] campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” But he did have communications with the Russians, in that he met with the Russian ambassador at least twice during the Trump campaign. This sounds a lot like perjury.

In the real world, perjury cases are pretty difficult to prove, which is probably usually a good thing. This article gives a pretty good rundown of the difficulties of pinning a perjury charge on Sessions for this issue. The long and short of it is that language is full of ambiguity. Did Sessions mean that he didn’t meet with the Russians as a Trump surrogate? Did he just forget about the meeting, like an idiot?1  These distinctions matter, from a legal standpoint.

Still, there was one famous case not too long ago in which these ambiguities were widely ignored by our legislative branch. The impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 rested largely on a perjury charge, in circumstances that were also fairly ambiguous—this is where we got Clinton’s famous line that “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”.2 But at the time, a lot of our legislators believed that ambiguities were not important, and that Clinton should be removed from office. Perhaps we should encourage our current Senators and Representatives to take a page from then-Alabama-Senator Jeff Sessions, and find now-Attorney-General Jeff Sessions guilty of perjury.

Fortunately, nine of the Senators who voted Clinton guilty of perjury are still in office. In the House, there are 26 remaining Representatives who cast the equivalent of “guilty” votes on a perjury charge.3   Their names appear below, along with contact information. We can safely assume that they all believe strongly in a very broad interpretation of this law, so it would be very unfortunate if they missed the chance to convict Sessions for meeting with Russian officials and then claiming under oath that he did not meet with Russian officials. To that end, if any of these people represents you (you can check your representative here), or if you have a phone, it only makes sense to contact them and urge them to hold fast to the principles they demonstrated in the Clinton era: find Jeff Sessions guilty of perjury, and do everything they can to remove him from office. To quote a longtime perjury-hawk, “the American people believe no one is above the law.”

Chamber Person Represents Phone Number for D.C. Office Other Contact Info
Senate John McCain Arizona (202) 224-2235 https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact-form
Senate Mike Crapo Idaho (202) 224-6142 http://www.crapo.senate.gov/contact/email.cfm
Senate Chuck Grassley Iowa (202) 224-3744 http://www.grassley.senate.gov/contact
Senate Pat Roberts Kansas (202) 224-4774 https://www.roberts.senate.gov/public/?p=EmailPat
Senate Mitch McConnell Kentucky (202) 224-2541 http://www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=contact
Senate Thad Cochran Mississippi (202) 224-5054 https://www.cochran.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-me
Senate Jim Inhofe Oklahoma (202) 224-4721 https://www.inhofe.senate.gov/contact
Senate Orrin Hatch Utah (202) 224-5251 http://www.hatch.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact?p=Email-Orrin
Senate Mike Enzi Wyoming (202) 224-3424 http://www.enzi.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/office-locations
House Don Young Alaska at-large 202-225-5765 http://donyoung.house.gov/
House Jim Sensenbrenner Wisconsin 5 202-225-5101 http://sensenbrenner.house.gov/contact/info.htm
House Hal Rogers Kentucky 5 202-225-4601 https://halrogers.house.gov/office-info
House Chris Smith New Jersey 4 202-225-3765 http://chrissmith.house.gov/contact/
House Joe Barton Texas 6 202-225-2002 https://joebarton.house.gov/
House Lamar S. Smith Texas 21 202-225-4236 http://lamarsmith.house.gov/
House Fred Upton Michigan 6 202-225-3761 http://upton.house.gov/contact/zipauth.htm
House John Duncan Tennessee 2 202-225-5301 http://duncan.house.gov/
House Dana Rohrabacher California 48 202-225-2415 https://rohrabacher.house.gov/contact/offices
House Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Florida 27 202-225-3931 https://ros-lehtinen.house.gov/contact-me
House Sam Johnson Texas 3 202-225-6673 http://samjohnson.house.gov/
House Ken Calvert California 42 202-225-1986 http://calvert.house.gov/contact/
House Bob Goodlatte Virginia 6 202-225-5431 https://goodlatte.house.gov/
House Ed Royce California 39 202-225-4111 http://royce.house.gov/contact/stopby.htm
House Frank Lucas Oklahoma 3 202-225-5565 https://lucas.house.gov/contact-me
House Rodney Frelinghuysen New Jersey 11 202-225-5034 https://frelinghuysen.house.gov/contact-us/
House Walter B. Jones Jr. North Carolina 3 202-225-3415 https://jones.house.gov/contact-me
House Frank LoBiondo New Jersey 2 202-225-6572 https://lobiondo.house.gov/contact-me
House Mac Thornberry Texas 13 202-225-3706 http://thornberry.house.gov/contact/
House Robert Aderholt Alabama 4 202-225-4876 https://aderholt.house.gov/
House Kevin Brady Texas 8 202-225-4901 http://kevinbrady.house.gov/contact/
House Kay Granger Texas 12 202-225-5071 http://kaygranger.house.gov/contact-kay
House Pete Sessions Texas 32 202-225-2231 https://sessions.house.gov/contact
House John Shimkus Illinois 15 202-225-5271 https://shimkus.house.gov/
House Steve Chabot Ohio 1 202-225-2216 http://chabot.house.gov/contact/
House Mark Sanford South Carolina 1 202-225-3176 https://sanfordforms.house.gov/contact/

(Note: If you don’t immediately see any useful contact information in the linked sites, try scrolling down to the bottom of the page. A lot of these guys hide their office locations and phone numbers down there.)

Notes


1. This line of defense hinges on the idea that Sessions completely forgot meeting the ambassador of Russia, the country that was then all over the news for its suspicious involvement with the Trump campaign that Sessions was heavily promoting. In other words, Sessions is arguing that he is too stupid to be the Attorney General, rather than too criminal. 

2. Clinton was right about this. He made a present tense statement, “There’s nothing going on between us”, which was true at the time he said it. Compare Sessions’s claim that he meant he never met with the Russians “as a Trump surrogate”, which is not what he said. 

3. I’m referring to everyone who voted “Yea” on Article I of H.Res.611, as recorded here. It appears to me that Article II also dealt with a perjury charge, but since it failed I ignored it. 

Donald Trump is the Fattest President in 100 Years

Is Donald Trump the fattest President in 100 years? This is, in some ways, not an important question, and it’s cruel to shame people about their weight. Yet, Trump himself thinks it’s very important to judge people on the basis of weight, and he would clearly be infuriated to learn that everyone knows he’s the fattest President in 100 years, which might distract him from killing us all and ruining the world for a little while. So let’s investigate this.

According to his fake medical records, released by handing a grifter a piece of paper on a TV show, Trump is 6’3″ and weighs 236 pounds. This would give him a body mass index (BMI) of 29.5, just shy of the range considered obese (which starts at 30). Where would that place him among U.S. Presidents? Well, it’s tough to get reliable data about weight for Presidents before about WWII, but we can be pretty certain that William Howard Taft was fatter; Wikipedia tactfully notes that “Taft is remembered as the heaviest president; he was 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 m) tall and his weight peaked at 335–340 pounds”. Taking the upper end of that estimate, Taft’s peak BMI would have been about 47.4, which would make him “very seriously obese” according to the Wikipedia BMI page. Trump is nowhere near that, so that gives us a clear limit—104 years ago, there was definitely a fatter President.

What about the intervening century? Only two people strike me as contenders; everyone else was pretty obviously thinner than Trump. Some guy looked into Presidential BMI a few years ago; that writer doesn’t cover everyone, and I think a few of his findings are a little off, but I think he’s close enough on most Presidents that we can safely rule them out. (Harding and Coolidge, the two post-Taft guys he leaves out, were not obviously overweight, either). But for two Presidents I wondered if he was correct.

The first is Bill Clinton, who according to a Phil Hartman impersonation loved to eat fast food. But a quick glance at some photos indicates that he was thinner than I remembered. Here he is in his famous Arsenio Hall appearance; he looks reasonably svelte. In this New Republic article about his health habits, the highest weight they mention is 216 lbs, which, given his 6’2″ height, would indicate a peak BMI of 27.7—overweight, but still shy of Trump.

The other guy is Lyndon Johnson, who is listed in the blogpost above as weighing 200 lbs. But LBJ’s weight fluctuated a lot; he was naturally kind of paunchy but vain enough to diet constantly (and sometimes, apparently, to wear a girdle). One book puts his peak weight as high as 220 lbs; another as “more than 240”. LBJ is usually listed as 6’3.5″ tall (I suspect he was measured very carefully so Lincoln could keep the height record, at 6’4″), so with a weight of, say, 245 lbs, that would give him a maximum BMI of 30.2.

Does that mean LBJ takes the crown from Trump? Is Trump merely the fattest President in the last half century? Not necessarily. Trump’s height and weight records are probably lies. I’m saying that not just because they are claims that Trump made, and not just because any sane person would clearly have released actual medical records if he wasn’t lying, but because the empirical evidence suggests it. Weight changes over time and is difficult to estimate from afar, but Trump’s claim to weigh 236 lbs was met with some healthy skepticism, as in this Washington Post article. It seems plausible that he weighs at least a little more, perhaps in the 240-250 range. But amazingly, the better case has to do with his height. As that article shows, photos of him standing next to other people strongly suggest that he is not 6’3″; Politico also found his driver’s license, which says that he’s 6’2″. Apparently he gets quite angry when people say that he’s 6’2″, but there you have it: Donald Trump is 6’2″. He’s not 6’3″; he’s 6’2″. To be clear: That’s 6’2″ for Donald Trump’s height, which is not 6’3″, and instead is merely 6’2″.

So, even if we don’t change the weight, adjusting to his actual height gives him a BMI of 30.3, nudging him into the obesity range and just past peak-fatness LBJ. When you consider that he probably actually weighs more, the case is that much stronger; at just 240 lbs, he’s up to 30.8. It seems safe to say it: By BMI, Trump is the fattest President in 100 years.

One question remains: Is BMI a good way to measure this? It’s a famously limited metric; a person in great shape might weigh a lot because of muscle mass, so you often get misleading results—e.g., peak Barry Sanders reads as obese on this metric, which is clearly not correct. Could it be that Trump is actually really healthy? After all, in the ludicrous doctor’s note he released during the campaign, the author claims that, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the Presidency.” Is there something to this?

No. Obviously not. To find a healthier President among the other 44 you have to go back… one, to Barack Obama, who is 16 years younger and still plays basketball on a regular basis. Is this answer a coincidence, or perhaps too partisan? Well, you could also go back… two, to George W. Bush, who is also younger than Trump even though he left office almost a decade ago, and who famously liked to work out all the time. Even Bill Clinton, who is also younger than Donald Trump, was jogging to those McDonald’s. Trump apparently loves fast food just as much, and in that Dr. Oz appearance with the fake medical records, we have this exchange:

OZ: How do you stay healthy on the campaign trail?

TRUMP: It’s a lot of work. When I’m speaking in front of 15 and 20,000 people and I’m up there using a lot of motion, I guess in its own way, it’s a pretty healthy act. I really enjoy doing it. A lot of times these rooms are very hot, like saunas, and I guess that is a form of exercise and, you know?

He thinks public speaking is a form of exercise, because he moves his arms around and it is sometimes hot in the room. This is not a man who works out, or, indeed, fully grasps the concept of working out. So, while it is possible that the use of BMI unfairly maligns the fitness of some Presidents, it clearly barely scratches the surface of Trump’s unhealthiness.

Conclusion: No matter how you look at it, Trump is the fattest President of the last 100 years. Spread the word.

 

 

P.S.: He’s also 6’2″.

Future History

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the best historical comparisons for Clinton and Trump as potential Presidents. For Clinton, I think it’s clear that she’d fit right into the legacy of Bill and Barack–the expected center-left progress characterized by a lot of little policy achievements, ordinary failures, and one or two big signature moves. At worst, I see her as someone like Jimmy Carter, well meaning and competent but stymied by forces outside the President’s control. At best, the guy who comes to mind is Teddy Roosevelt: Too hawkish (though, like her, also a better diplomat than he often gets credit for) and hilariously wonkish (he was so into managing everything that he got involved in arguments about new rules for football and the spelling of words in English), but a tireless worker, an advocate for fair play, and a brilliant politician and institutional architect.

teddyspelling
Where micromanagement leads.

For Trump, the ceiling and floor are somewhat difficult to imagine. For the former I guess I can see a case for a Coolidge-like Presidency, where his utter inattention allows things to just sort of chug along while people of color are the victims of constant terrorist violence and the economy careens toward the Great Depression. At worst I can see him incorporating a sort of greatest-hits of the worst things Presidents have ever done–Watergate is a nice model for his paranoia about election rigging; Wilson’s casual stance toward the re-emergence of the KKK is basically already underway at Trump Campaign headquarters; the Alien & Sedition Acts look like the basis for his position on freedom of the press and libel laws; Harding’s notorious corruption is low-hanging fruit for a guy who literally goes on trial for fraud later this month; and given Trump’s cavalier stance on nuclear weapons, he could end everything by revisiting the Cuban Missile Crisis, except this time swapping out Robert F. Kennedy for Donald Trump, Jr.

If I had to tie Trump to just one President, though, I think I’d go with Andrew Jackson: A populist who combined violent racism with distrust of elites, financiers, and government involvement in the economy. The latter stuff led Jackson to cancel the central bank charter in the U.S. and generally issue policies now thought to have contributed to the Panic of 1837, one of the worst economic recessions in American history. The violent racism, of course, led to the Indian Removal Act, which in turn led to the Trail of Tears.

These kinds of things seem like they’re in play in a Trump Presidency. He rails against money in politics, corrupt insiders, and “this Janet Yellen of the Fed” in particular. It’s easy to imagine him deploying his angry incomprehension of economics to put his thumb on the scales (he has basically indicated that he would like to do this) and essentially wage a destructive war against the modern economy. Certainly his utterly indefensible use of anti-Semitism is partly about its historical role as the socialism of idiots. But it also points to Trump’s real campaign emphasis, the racism. He has based his career on a sort of modern-day Mexican Removal Act, with a Muslim ban thrown in for good measure. It’s important not to be too haphazard with a comparison like that; the Trail of Tears was a human catastrophe, an ethnic cleansing that killed thousands. I don’t think Trump is going to march immigrants through the snow until they die. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he advocates ethnic cleansing—the definition of the term varies depending on where you look, but it’s basically the removal of an ethnic or religious group from a territory with the aim of making it ethnically homogenous.1 Trump does not explicitly advocate for the violence that often accompanies ethnic cleansing, but the purging, deportations, and vision of purity are  right in his wheelhouse, and on a scale that our country has not seen in decades (perhaps a scale large enough that, practically, it would require Internment Camps, along the models pioneered by enthusiastic Trump supporter Joe Arpaio, thus checking off another of our Worst Hits).

I think America would survive a Trump Presidency; we survived Jackson’s, and that was in an era where a national collapse was much more thinkable than it is now. But I also think it would do lasting, terrible damage, to the white people duped by a man who understands their problems even less than he cares about them, and even worse to the people of color who would experience the worst of a history most of us thought we were done repeating. I used to wonder how on earth we still had Jackson on our money, given all that he did. I chalked it up to some combination of historical ignorance and apathy. I still think it was that—but, apparently, for a lot of people it was also a kind of aspiration.


Notes

1. It’s kind of chilling, when you read different definitions of the term “ethnic cleansing”, how closely they echo Trump’s ideas. On Wikipedia, it’s “the systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous.” The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it, even more aptly, “the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups.”  In the Oxford English Dictionary (that link is behind a paywall), it’s “The purging, by mass expulsion or killing, of one ethnic or religious group by another, esp. from an area of former cohabitation.” Wikipedia has some more legal definitions here. It’s fair to say that Trump is not explicitly calling for terrorist violence, but he does favor ethnically and religiously targeted mass expulsions of people (especially Mexicans and Muslims), and I think it’s pretty clear that this is based on the misguided dream of homogeneous American whiteness that underlies his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Tremendous Disaster

For Donald Trump, much of the world breaks down into two categories: Things that are tremendous, and things that are disasters. In total, he used these two words 65 times over the course of his three debates with Hillary Clinton.1 By comparison, Clinton said “disaster” once, and never called anything tremendous.2  Political writers have spent a lot of time trying to hash out the tenets of Trumpism (“Surely it’s not just the racism and sexism”), so it can’t hurt to try and see the world according to the terminology preferred by the man himself.

Let’s begin with the more straightforward category, the disasters. I went through all three debates and did my best to figure out what exactly he found disastrous. Table 1 shows the results, organized first by things that were mentioned more than once, and then by the order in which they were mentioned. For future convenience (you’ll see), I have also numbered the disasters, in that column on the left.

Table 1

Row Thing Mentions as a disaster Debate
1 Obamacare 5 2,3
2 NAFTA 4 2,3
3 Clinton as a senator 3 2
4 Clinton’s tax plan 2 2,3
5 Libya (specifically Clinton’s role) 2 1,2
6 the Iraq War 2 1,2
7 our inner cities 2 2,3
8 Aleppo 2 2,3
9 a government investment in solar energy 1 1
10 our energy policies 1 1
11 Clinton’s regulations 1 1
12 the way the U.S. left Iraq 1 1
13 a theoretical single-payer plan 1 2
14 “almost everything she’s done in foreign policy” 1 2
15 education in the inner city 1 2
16 jobs 1 2
17 Clinton’s plan to give amnesty 1 3
18 Clinton’s trade plan 1 3
19 Clinton’s open borders plan 1 3

Most of these are fairly comprehensible, if not exactly accurate or defensible. He’s hammering a policy unpopular with his base, one of the only famous deals in one of his only core policy areas (trade), and Clinton in general. At times he arguably overreaches, as with Disaster 14. He also likes to describe hypothetical disasters, as in Disasters 4, 11, 13, and 17-19, which refer to his understanding (to put it generously) of Clinton’s proposals; none of these things are actual disasters, because they haven’t happened (and, like 17 and 19, are not always real proposals), but he emphatically believes that they would be disasters, if they existed. This arguably describes his relationship to “the inner city” as well: I would be surprised if he were thinking of any actual places when he used that term, but then again, what could possibly be more frightening—more disastrous—than whatever inner city lives in Trump’s imagination? Still, overall this is a pretty coherent realm of political belief—these are more or less the things any Republican candidate would criticize, if not always this aggressively.

Now here are the things Trump described as tremendous, laid out the same way:

Table 2

Row Thing Mentions Debate
1 the hate in Clinton’s heart 3 2
2 the impact of stop and frisk on NYC 2 1
3 our budget deficits 2 2
4 our economic machine 2 3
5 his tax reductions 1 1
6 new jobs (from his tax cuts) 1 1
7 jobs created by the wealthy 1 1
8 the job the wealthy will do creating jobs 1 1
9 his own income 1 1
10 our country’s problems 1 1
11 the money saved building his post office hotel 1 1
12 the success of his club in Palm Beach 1 1
13 the “service” we’re providing our military allies 1 1
14 the stamina needed to be President 1 1
15 Clinton’s commercials about him 1 1
16 our country’s potential 1 2
17 his respect for women 1 2
18 the numbers of taxes he pays 1 2
19 the success we could have if we did a sneak-attack on Mosul 1 2
20 how he’s doing on the small donations 1 2
21 the wealth under our feet (from natural gas) 1 2
22 the number of people offended by Justice Ginsburg’s statements about Trump 1 3
23 the respect of the people he’d nominate as judges 1 3
24 gun violence in Chicago 1 3
25 the numbers of nuclear warheads in Russia 1 3
26 the money Clinton takes (“from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so horribly”) 1 3
27 the jobs he’ll create 1 3

The first thing you’ll notice is just that this is a much longer list—which is even more surprising when you consider that Trump actually says the word “disaster” more often than the word “tremendous” (33 and 32 times, respectively). The difference is that while the disasters are reasonably coherent, allowing the word to collect around a few key areas, the tremendous things are all over the place. Even those top few items typically reflect instances where Trump happened to say the word a few times in quick succession—the three mentions of Tremendous 1  (T1) occurred within the same few sentences, and include basically a stutter (“She’s got tremendous — she’s got tremendous hatred”). In fact, I’d say that everything in the top four is essentially an instance of meaningless repetition:

  • “But stop-and- frisk had a tremendous impact on the safety of New York City. Tremendous beyond belief.”
  • “They’ll pay off our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”
  • “Because we have a tremendous machine. We will have created a tremendous economic machine once again.”

When you hear a word as idiosyncratic and exaggerated as “tremendous”, you might expect it to play a part in Trump’s standard hyperbole, like in the first bullet point. “Tremendous beyond belief”is just the kind of absurd overreaching that he loves; it fits nicely with another of his rhetorical tics, the claim that various things are “like we’ve never seen”. But I think the other two examples may be more telling, in the sense that they are incoherent nonsense. “Our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous”—this is not the statement of a man who knows how high the budget deficit should be, or has been, or is right now. This is not even the statement of a man who can think of a second adjective on the fly.

On that front, the beginning of the third bullet point is incredible: “Because we have a tremendous machine”.3 Trump, as if becoming cognizant of this statement only after it leaves his mouth, quickly amends this tremendous machine we have to a tremendous economic machine that we will have. But why did he say it in the first place? After all, he never said “machine” at any prior point in any of the debates, and it is not exactly a germane or meaningful word here. In fact, the only time the word came up at all in the debates was earlier on the night of this weird sentence, when Clinton mentioned that Trump called Machado “an eating machine”. But I think that’s just it: He’s saying “machine” more or less out of nowhere because someone else said “machine” earlier on.

As David Roberts has pointed out, it’s important to understand that Trump doesn’t really use language to communicate existing ideas that he has; instead, he simply “riffs until he finds the word strings that get cheers and shouts.” I think Trump has a stock set of words that come tumbling out almost at random, albeit often centered on some broad theme (trade, or hombres); Trump then becomes aware of these words at the same time we do, and begins to try and wrestle them into some sort of coherence by cobbling them together using some of his other words, or perhaps simply repeating the same ones (“our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”) It makes sense that he would mix his own language with random words and phrases from others (like the time Clinton said, “If Trump was talking, he’d probably say something like ‘repeal and replace'”, and then Trump finished his very next turn with the phrase “So I think we’ve got to repeal and replace”). It’s all just stuff he’s hearing.4

This explains some of the difficulty of parsing the list of tremendous things. For one, they’re so repetitive that they accidentally become recursive. After saying that his tax cuts will create tremendous jobs (T6), Trump later argues: “Well, I’m really calling for major jobs, because the wealthy are going create tremendous jobs. They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.” (T7-8) Here are the word “tremendous” and the word “job” used not only to describe the thing that will be created (“tremendous jobs”) but the quality of the creation (the wealthy will do a “tremendous job” creating “tremendous jobs”). And tremendousness may have a positive connotation, but it’s also just an intensifier, so in T10 our country’s problems are tremendous, but in T16 our country’s potential is tremendous. Trump is pretty frequently tremendous (T9, T11, T12, T20), but so are Russian nuclear armament (T25) and gun violence in Chicago (T24). And as this last one shows, the tremendous can intersect with the disastrous—after all, Chicago has an inner city.

So what does this tell us about Trumpism? I think, like every other deep dive, it doesn’t give us any new clarity about his political commitments, because those have been flagrantly obvious from the outset of his political career—xenophobia, sexism, nationalism, and self-aggrandizement. But I think digging into his language even just a little reveals something we tend to gloss over too easily: Trump is a profoundly stupid man. This is not his most problematic feature; the bigotry, narcissism, short temper, and mean spiritedness are much more alarming. But he also does not know how to produce coherent sentences or express his ideas with more than two overlapping, imprecise, hyperbolic, occasionally self-contradictory terms. Smart, well-informed people can generally do that. You don’t need a tremendous intellect to be able to string together a few dozen meaningful sentences; you just can’t be a disaster.

 


Notes
1. I got these counts by looking up transcripts and performing simple word searches. I include the word “tremendously” in the count for “tremendous”. I did all of the counting/searching in this post by hand, so it might be a little off here and there, especially because Trump’s language is often pretty difficult to parse.  

2. She said, “When President Obama came into office, he inherited the worst economic disaster since the great depression.” 

3. Reading this, I was reminded of a strange anecdote I once read about a woman whose corpus callosum had been severed. When this happens, the right and left halves of the brain can’t communicate with each other. A doctor showed her left eye a picture of a nude woman, and she laughed, even though she said she couldn’t see anything; the issue is that the half of the brain that can see out of the left eye was no longer connected to the half that produces language, so she couldn’t express what she had seen. The doctor asked her why she had laughed, and her answer was, “Oh doctor, you have some machine!” I’ve always remembered that sentence, because it’s so strange, a snap response from a brain in which the function of language has literally been severed from certain kinds of perception and self-knowledge. I’ve never heard anything like it, until now. 

4. This might also explain the only other use of the word “machine” during the debates—later in the same turn, Trump said, “But that being said, we will create an economic machine the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.” Now that he himself has said “machine” a couple of times, this appears to him to be a term people use to describe the economy. Once uttered, his own words simply enter the universe of stuff he has heard and can now repeat.