The Band of Brothers Problem

Every heroic war movie has its inspiring before-the-big-battle Saint Crispin’s Day Speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – Aragon at the gates of Mordor, or the fighter-pilot president leading his ragtag band of bungling fliers against the aliens from outer space (no, really) – but the original is Shakespeare’s Prince Hal – the heavy drinker and general goofball who got sober and became the heroic Henry V – giving that “band of brothers” speech just before the Battle of Agincourt, rallying the troops to go out there and win one for England. The king rallies each and every man to his side. They cheer and go fight for him and with him. They become a band of brothers. The French lose.

The practical problem, however, is managing that transition from goofball to king. That has to have been completed before the inspiring speech. That was the problem when Donald Trump headed to Washington to meet with House Republicans and then Senate Republicans, to rally them to his side. To beat Hillary Clinton in November, not the French in this case, they do have to be on his side, and many of them haven’t been. Many consider him an embarrassing goofball, or just an embarrassment, or worse.

They had to be won over, and Lauren Fox at Talking Points Memo reports that this didn’t go well:

He arrived 20 minutes late.

Then presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump addressed the House GOP’s rank and file in a standing-room-only meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington. He talked in broad strokes about the Supreme Court, trade, tax reform, securing borders, Saddam Hussein and how the media has been unfair to him… and the Constitution…

Fine, but somehow it all went wrong:

“It’s awkward. It’s really awkward,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said when asked what it was like to sit in a meeting when the nominee doubled down on his stump speech line that Saddam Hussein had killed a lot of terrorists. “There is a lack of enthusiasm. You can feel it.”

Kinzinger said that at one point, Trump had used the Saddam story as just one example of how the media has treated Trump unfairly.

Maybe he should shrug that off, because that’s his problem, not theirs:

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) said that members asked about his effect on the House and Senate races. One member asked pointedly about Trump’s comments about Hispanic voters.

“He said Hispanics love him,” Dent said, noting that the polls showed no such thing. “All I can say is that I haven’t endorsed him. I believe he has a lot of persuading to do.”

He certainly does, and he’s not that good at it:

Another Republican in the meeting Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) told TPM that Trump was asked pointedly if he would defend Article I of the Constitution.

“Not only will I stand up for Article One,” Trump enthusiastically stated, according to Sanford. “I’ll stand up for Article Two, Article 12 – you name it of the Constitution.”

Sanford said Trump’s lack of knowledge about how many articles exist, gave him “a little pause.” (The Constitution has seven articles and 27 amendments.)

“There wasn’t a lot of substance, and I think at some point we got to get to substance in the most significant political position in the world,” Sanford said.

Others were willing to cut him some slack:

Blake Farenthold (R-TX) dismissed the flub as little more than a small error.

“He was just listing out numbers,” Farenthold said. “I think he was confusing Articles and Amendments. Remember, this guy doesn’t speak from a TelePrompTer. He speaks from the heart.”

Maybe so, but there was this:

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) said that Trump did a good job at the meeting “laying out a conservative agenda,” but when asked if he still had fears about Trump’s candidacy, Meadows said, “I got an interview I got to run to.” 

Apparently the band of brothers will form at a much later date, if ever, and Josh Marshall explains why:

Everything that happened in that meeting underscores Trump’s extreme ignorance, and just as importantly, his extreme indifference to being ignorant. But the exchange about Hispanic support has a unique significance in the context of that meeting.

Trump was asked – not surprisingly and not unreasonably – what about your unpopularity with Hispanics voters and what about down-ballot races? Trump’s response: No, Hispanics love me!

This is obviously ridiculous on its face. The GOP is generally unpopular with Hispanics and Trump is personally unpopular with Hispanic Americans at a level that is historic and unprecedented. We know this from a limitless trove of public opinion data. As a factual matter, it’s no more ridiculous than the 12th Article of the Constitution Trump pledged to protect, or numerous other examples of Trump nonsense. But it has a particular import here. 

Marshall thinks Trump blew it:

A predictable and halfway reasonable way to respond might have been, “Look, the border is important and it’s what our core voters care about. But we’ve got a plan to soften that opposition from Hispanic voters over coming months.”

Given everything we’ve seen, that wouldn’t be a terribly convincing response. But it would be a response that at least engaged the reality of the situation. If I were a Republican member of Congress and heard what Trump said, I’d be angry. And I strongly suspect many of them were. If I’m a GOP member of Congress I hear that and think, “Damn, you’ve got zero plan to ensure I don’t lose my job. I can’t even tell if you care. But you definitely haven’t even thought about it.”

That’s one thing to say to an interviewer to rebuff a question or say at a rally to give yahoo supporters something to say on Twitter. But in private, when people’s whose jobs and majorities are on the line need an answer, it’s different.

Trump clearly didn’t understand his audience:

We often say that the GOP has collectively cast anchors from the world of empiricism and the reality based universe others inhabit. But even the biggest numskull in the House, the biggest nonsense spewer, is very, very empirical when it comes to getting reelected. And if they’ve been there for more than one term it’s something they usually know a good deal about, even ones who are incurious and ignorant about most things or generally stupid by most definitions….

You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. Politicians are consummate bullshitters. But they want real answers on this one very specific question. When that’s Trump’s answer, his real answer in private, to a serious and, for some Republicans, existential danger, it’s immediately clear there’s no there there, no net, no back-up plan, nothing but a jackass riffing and talking the way he does when he’s trying to get a mark to sign on the dotted line.

That’s fine about global warming, Putin, ISIS, virtually anything. But politicians need to get reelected. That’s real. I have great confidence that many of the elected politicians in that room weren’t just dumbfounded by the Hispanics response. They were mad.

That, however, was the good meeting. The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan reports on the quite nasty Senate meeting:

Donald Trump’s private meeting Thursday with Senate Republicans – designed to foster greater party unity ahead of the national convention in Cleveland – grew combative as the presumptive presidential nominee admonished three senators who have been critical of his candidacy and predicted they would lose their reelection bids, according to two Republican officials with direct knowledge of the exchanges.

Trump shifted tactics to insults:

Trump’s most tense exchange was with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has been vocal in his concerns about the business mogul’s candidacy, especially his rhetoric and policies on immigration that the senator argues alienate many Latino voters and others in Arizona.

When Flake stood up and introduced himself, Trump told him, “You’ve been very critical of me.”

“Yes, I’m the other senator from Arizona – the one who didn’t get captured – and I want to talk to you about statements like that,” Flake responded, according to two Republican officials.

Flake was referencing Trump’s comments last summer about the military service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict. Trump questioned whether McCain was a war hero because he was captured.

Flake told Trump that he wants to be able to support him – “I’m not part of the Never Trump movement,” the senator said – but that he remains uncomfortable backing his candidacy, the officials said.

Trump said at the meeting that he has yet to attack Flake hard but threatened to begin doing so. Flake stood up to Trump by urging him to stop attacking Mexicans. Trump predicted that Flake would lose his reelection, at which point Flake informed Trump that he was not on the ballot this year, the sources said.

Oops – but Trump threatened to attack him anyway, or none of it happened:

Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign’s chairman and senior strategist, who attended the meeting, disputed the characterization of it as contentious.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Manafort said: “Today’s meeting was positive and productive and these characterizations, attributed to unnamed sources, are wholly inaccurate. The conversation was very positive and substantive. The Members were in total agreement with Mr. Trump of the need to unite the Party and work together to win the Presidency and keep a Republican Congress. Mr. Trump was pleased with the discussion and looks forward to working together with the Republican Party leadership towards defeating Hillary Clinton in November.”

That’s not what Sean Sullivan dug up:

Trump also called out Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) – who withdrew his endorsement of Trump last month, citing the business mogul’s racially based attacks on a federal judge – and said he did not approve of the senator’s action, the officials said.

Characterizing Kirk as a loser, Trump vowed that he would carry Illinois in the general election even though the state traditionally has been solidly Democratic in presidential contests. Kirk did not attend the meeting with Trump.

Asked later in the day about Trump’s comments, Kirk declined to comment other than to say, “I guess he lit me up.”

And he no doubt smiled, because angry name-calling deserves no other response, and there was a lot of that:

Trump also singled out Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who has refused to support Trump and has emerged as perhaps the most vocal advocate for a third-party candidate. Sasse declined to speak with reporters as he left the meeting.

“Senator Sasse went to today’s meeting ready to listen. Senator Sasse introduced himself to Mr. Trump, and the two had a gracious exchange,” said James Wegmann, the senator’s spokesman. “Mr. Sasse continues to believe that our country is in a bad place and, with these two candidates, this election remains a dumpster fire. Nothing has changed.”

Yes, after that gracious exchange Sasse walked away from the burning garbage fouling the air. This was not going well, but Trump had a tease:

In his discussion with senators, Trump claimed that he had inside intelligence about Hillary Clinton’s vetting process for Supreme Court vacancies and that he knew the names of two people the presumptive Democratic nominee is considering nominating, two Republican officials said. But Trump would not reveal those names.

I know something you don’t know, I know something you don’t know, and I’m not gonna tell you! Ha, Ha!

That may not be effective persuasion beyond the fifth grade. Trump may not know how to rally these troops, or any troops, and again, Josh Marshall suggests why:

Part of making sense of the current Trump campaign is understanding that Trump is continually trying to take the hyper-aggressive bullyboy tactics he learned from his father in the New York City real estate world and apply them to national politics. That style might fairly be described as sell, sell, sell and attack, attack, attack… It’s largely about getting inside other people’s heads with over-the-top aggression that knocks them on their heels and leaves them unprepared to fight back. Some of this is simply what I’ve called “dominance politics”, an idea I’ve developed in various posts over the years, and which I described back in March as being based on “the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others.” Trump is the master of a certain kind of ‘dominance politics’ and that’s made him the master – in a very deep sense of the word – of a certain part of the electorate. But the general election electorate is a different animal. And in his interactions with that wider swath of the public and even with fellow Republicans we’re seeing another pattern I noted about a month ago: “the inherent turbulence faced by a bullshit-based candidate making first contact with an at least loosely reality-based world.”

That is what Trump faced here:

Trump went over to the Senate side and apparently focused on picking fights with Senators who weren’t supporting him enough. He got in one of these tussles with Sen. Jeff Flake, one of his biggest critics. Bear in mind that Senators are both more electorally threatened by Trump – they run statewide, not in gerrymandered districts – and have more stature (ego?) to stand up to him. Trump apparently threatened to lose Flake his election if Flake didn’t fall in line (not good). Flake pointed out that he wasn’t running for reelection this year (very good).

Like I said, life’s hard. Especially when you’re stupid.

And then there’s the setting:

So much of Trump’s whole way of approaching, or rather attacking life is, as I’ve said, sensing the crowd, sensing the audience and either telling them what they want to hear or knocking them off their stride with unpredictable, aggressive tactics. You can do that in a sit-down with a fellow mogul over lunch where you go from 0 to 60 with over the top tactics they’re not expecting or used to. But that’s an immediate, almost intimate encounter; you can likely only pull it on the same person a limited number of times. (Remember, only one major bank, DeutscheBank, will do business with Trump. He’s shut out at all the rest.) But the stage Trump is now is quite a different one. There are a lot of people out there and people have a lot of time to watch. Trump has passed himself off for decades as a great philanthropist. Only under the hot glare of presidential election scrutiny has that claim been revealed to be more or less baseless. …

A great salesperson can say something so magnificently and convincingly that you believe because you want to believe even if it makes no sense at all. Salespeople tell stories, beautiful or horrifying ones. Trump can say Hispanics actually love him. But in his meeting this morning with House Republicans he was talking to people who have been inundated by evidence and have an existential need to know the truth. The standard-issue bullshit is just no easy match for that audience under those circumstances. 

And then there are the structural issues:

Presidents rarely get to threaten senators – it’s one of the enduring problems of presidential management of Congress. Most senators will be there long after the president is gone. Popular presidents can withhold benefits and support. That can be key. But they have few real cudgels at their disposal. Trump doesn’t seem to know that. But knowing things isn’t usually his mode of operation. Remember, attack, attack, attack – but if you’re going to threaten a senator with electoral defeat, make sure your threat isn’t laughable and be absolutely sure he’s actually up for reelection. My sense is that Trump’s racket works much better at close quarters, with only a limited number of eyes watching and with people more interested in being amused than having any real skin in the game or whatever racket he’s currently running.

That’s not the case here:

What worked for a couple decades in New York City, with a bemused public, an assortment of sycophants and a barbed but generally pliant tabloid press does not work nationwide. If Trump were interested or capable of learning, I think he could actually give Clinton a run for her money. But he can’t. It’s not in his DNA. It’s not who he is. He has one game. And it has limits.

Chris Cillizza adds this:

I get that Trump ran a very successful primary campaign against Washington and the Republicans who call it home. But, the primary is over. The targets now can’t be Jeff Flake, Mark Kirk or any other Republican. Trump needs GOP elected officials not only on board but enthusiastically so as he tries to rapidly build a national fundraising operation and scale up his paltry voter identification and get out the vote operations. Trump may not like Flake – he clearly doesn’t – but Flake has something that Trump doesn’t have in Arizona: a tested and able political organization. And, as of today, there’s no way in hell that political organization is going to work for Trump this fall.

That means the big picture is this:

There’s no discernible strategy here. It looks from afar like pure political pique and ego; Trump doesn’t like the idea that some Republicans are blanching at the idea of supporting him, so he tries to bully them into support or, at the very least, submission.

It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. Most political people know this. I would suspect most people on Trump’s payroll know this. It appears, however, that the man at the top of the campaign still doesn’t get it.

That seems to be true, and leads Nancy LeTourneau in a different direction:

Let’s be honest – Donald Trump is definitely not a team player. A cursory look at his business, entertainment and political careers tells us that, other than family, his litigious bullying means that he usually goes it alone. That’s why we’ve seen so much upheaval among his campaign staff. He tends to be drawn to the most unsavory of characters (Roy Cohn and Paul Manafort) as mentors/partners. But mostly he likes people he can bully…

So now we’re at the point in the 2016 presidential race when all eyes turn to who Trump will pick for the ultimate team-player spot – vice president. Yesterday Sen. Bob Corker wisely withdrew from this contest and it looks as if Sen. Joni Ernst has as well.

What I find interesting is that two of the guys who still seem to be in the running know a thing or two about being a bully themselves – Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie. I’m sure they are both smart enough to know what it means to play on “Team Trump.”

And that makes them the wise men:

I suspect that they both think that they are smarter bullies and can out-Trump him. That’s what narcissists usually assume. But I also suspect that they have calculated that if Trump actually makes it to the White House, he won’t last long. Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell have already suggested that there are “Constitutional remedies” if he were to veer off course. In other words, he would be impeached and his vice president would be the man left standing. Neither Gingrich nor Christie wants to be Trump’s lapdog permanently. They want to be president and see Donald Trump as a way to get there.

That’s the band-of-brothers concept turned on its head, but there was that recent New York Times interview with this:

Presented in a recent interview with a scenario, floating around the political ether, in which the presumptive Republican nominee proves all the naysayers wrong, beats Hillary Clinton and wins the presidency, only to forgo the office as the ultimate walk-off winner, Mr. Trump flashed a mischievous smile.

“I’ll let you know how I feel about it after it happens,” he said, minutes before leaving his Trump Tower office to fly to a campaign rally in New Hampshire.

But the only person who could truly put any doubts to rest seemed instead to relish the idea of keeping everyone guessing, concluding the recent conversation with a you’re-on-to-something grin and handshake across his cluttered desk.

“We’ll do plenty of stories,” Mr. Trump promised enigmatically.

Oh, he was just kidding… or he wasn’t. Keep ’em guessing. But there will be no band of brothers. The happy few aren’t happy at all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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