Editor’s Note: In the spring of 2016, James Fallows, the senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, began what he called a series of “time capsules” that could, in the future, provide a key as to what Americans were thinking during the election campaign–as Trump began his march to the presidency. He finished with 152 of the “time capsules” just before the vote. This site will publish one of the capsules every week or so and that should bring us to the doorstep of the 2020 election.
What follows is the fifth “time capsule.” All the material shown, except my introduction, is copyrighted by The Atlantic Monthly and there is no intention here to claim editorial credit for any of it. If you wish to read the entire series in one sitting, go to http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/all/2016/05/the-daily-trump/484064/
The most jarring part of Donald Trump’s announcement speech…was what he said about immigrants. In a great story…in Bloomberg Businessweek by Joshua Green — longtime friend of mine, Atlantic and Washington Monthly alumnus — that is about Reince Priebus but includes an interview with Trump. In it Trump discloses that he had not actually thought about the immigration issue, or other issues, before diving in head first. From Green’s story:
“I’m not sure I got there through deep analysis,” he said [speaking of another policy]. “My views are what everybody else’s views are. When I give speeches, sometimes I’ll sign autographs and I’ll get to talk to people and learn a lot about the party.”
He says he learned that voters were disgusted with Republican leaders and channeled their outrage. I asked, given how immigration drove his initial surge of popularity, whether he, like Sessions [Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama–soon to be Attorney General], had considered the RNC’s call for immigration reform to be a kick in the teeth. To my surprise, he candidly admitted that he hadn’t known about it or even followed the issue until recently. “When I made my [announcement] speech at Trump Tower, the June 16 speech,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Gang of Eight. … I just knew instinctively that our borders are a mess.”
Everything about the GOP struggle over immigration concerned whether the “Gang of Eight” was a step in the right or the wrong direction. The gang was an informal alliance of four Republican and four Democratic senators. On the Democratic side, senators Bennet, Durbin, Menendez, and Schumer; and on the Republican side, senators Flake, Graham, McCain, and crucially Marco Rubio. If you were a “reform”-minded Republican (and most any Democrat), you supported this effort to revamp immigration laws, including finding a “path to citizenship” for some already-present illegal/undocumented immigrants. If you were from the Tea Party, you blasted Marco Rubio for being involved at all.
But either way, you would have heard of it. Donald Trump, who has made “the wall” and the threat of uncontrolled immigration the emotional center of his campaign, did not know what the Gang of Eight was. He is the only person running for the nomination in either party of whom this could possibly be true. Even Ben Carson was informed enough to talk about the Gang of Eight back in 2014.
As a first approximation, it is fair to assume that Donald Trump does not know anything about public policy. Anything. Including about the issue that is the main point of his campaign. It is almost impossible to convey how far this is outside the range of even the least-brilliant or dutiful “normal” politicians. Instinct always matters, but going purely with the gut is the route to sorrow in public affairs.
For comparison, please check out this previous item on why Sarah Palin, the closest apparent comparison, actually was much better informed than Trump. We are entering the realm of “Chauncey Gardner,” the simple-minded gardener whose blurtings are treated as meaningful, in Being There. This is the person who would be making judgment calls as president, including about the use of force and nuclear weaponry. This is the person the Republican party is preparing itself to accept.
As a reminder, here is what Trump said on immigration and border issues in his announcement speech. From the C-SPAN transcript:
When do we beat Mexico at the border? They are laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically.
They are not our friend. Believe me, they are killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems. It’s true. And these are not the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best. They are not sending you [points]. They are not sending you [points again].
They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people…
We have no protection and we have no confidence. We don’t know what’s happening. It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.