Long ago, in the mid-nineties, after the teaching career back east and a few years running management training seminars for the giant aerospace corporation here in Los Angeles, mostly explaining to recently promoted nerdy PhD engineers and scientists how not to be total assholes now that they would be managing the work of others, the move to systems was a bit of a relief. These were personnel systems, tied to payroll systems, and to occupational health and safety databases, and to union contract-compliance systems and that sort of thing – the secondary stuff. The corporation’s real systems were all classified – secret satellites and satellite payloads, and odd radar and infrared targeting systems, and stuff that had to do with military command and communication systems that no one at all was supposed to know about – but the secondary systems were fun. Coding was fun. Writing that first Executive Information System was fun. Managers could look stuff up all on their own. Some of them even noticed the hidden jokes and little puns in there. But then it was time to build a data warehouse that allowed for data mining – the search for trends and patterns of data grouping that no one had imagined were there at all.
That was a stretch. Things became philosophical. The human resources data existed in giant tables that grew and grew, the data about the data. That would be the metadata – the corollary to metaphysics – the philosophic or religious organizing principle one step above the physical world. That was more important than the raw data. Take one step back, or perhaps one step up. Don’t get lost in the details. Okay. What’s really going on here? That was always the question.
That’s always the question. That applies to Donald Trump’s America too. Too many things happen too fast. The daily details are overwhelming. Why is Donald Trump out to defeat Hillary Clinton once again? What’s really going on?
Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman and their team at the New York Times saw how this week ended:
President Trump forced the State Department on Friday to commit to releasing at least some of Hillary Clinton’s emails before next month’s election, resurrecting a four-year-old issue in hopes that it would prove as helpful to his political prospects as it was when he defeated her in 2016.
Trailing badly in the polls and eager to change the subject from the coronavirus, Mr. Trump succeeded in compelling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to announce that he would make public the emails even as Attorney General William P. Barr resisted pressure from the president to prosecute Democrats like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., this year’s Democratic nominee.
Those are two data points. Trump wants to prove that Hilary Clinton should never be president, and his attorney general has refused to arrest Joe Biden for treason and throw Biden in jail and throw away the key. And then he wants to hold a big rally:
Still recovering from his own coronavirus infection, Mr. Trump made plans to host hundreds of supporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday for his first in-person event since he tested positive last week, according to three people familiar with the schedule. The rally that he had previously said he wanted to hold on Saturday in Florida will instead be held on Monday, his campaign announced, as the president insisted on getting back on the road despite his illness.
He might drop dead, but he has no choice now:
He lost one of the few obvious opportunities to transform the dynamics of the campaign on Friday when the Commission on Presidential Debates formally canceled Thursday’s second showdown between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden after the president refused to participate remotely.
He said that the debate had to be face to face – no masks, no Plexiglas panels, and no rules about his interrupting anyone any time he wanted. Everyone was on Biden’s side anyway. The Commission on Presidential Debates would have to agree. Biden stepped back and shrugged and the Commission on Presidential Debates gave up. There’s no dealing with this man.
Bill Barr must feel that way:
Battered by an October surprise that Mr. Trump did not anticipate – his hospitalization from a virus that he had played down even as it has killed 213,000 people in the United States – the president appeared intent on Friday on creating an October surprise more to his liking, in this case tarring Democrats by using the instruments of government power at his disposal.
He publicly badgered Mr. Barr this week to indict Democrats connected to the original investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any ties to Mr. Trump’s campaign, naming specifically Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama. But Mr. Barr has told Republicans and others that he planned no major moves in his re-examination of the Russia investigation before Election Day.
Trump had one question. Where are the arrests? He wanted Biden and Obama in jail, now, just before the election, but that wasn’t going to happen:
Three government officials briefed on the investigation said that they had been told that it was unlikely that John H. Durham, the prosecutor tapped by Mr. Barr to lead the inquiry, would produce indictments or any other developments that could affect the trajectory of the election before Nov. 3.
“If that’s the case, I’m very disappointed,” Mr. Trump said on Friday during a two-hour phone conversation with the radio host Rush Limbaugh. “I think it’s a terrible thing, and I’ll say it to his face.”
If he does, which seems unlikely, Barr will shrug:
The president has been consumed for months with the hope that the Durham investigation would provide him evidence that the Russia inquiry was an effort to smear him. He has told advisers he hoped for indictments of top former Obama administration national security officials or even Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden themselves. Short of that, he hoped for a report with the imprimatur of the Justice Department detailing their actions in 2016, according to people briefed on the conversations.
Beyond his public comments, the president has also conveyed to Mr. Barr, directly and through surrogates, that he wanted “scalps,” according to two government officials familiar with the conversations.
Barr did shrug, but Big Mike snapped to attention:
While Mr. Barr defied the president’s desire for pre-election action, Mr. Pompeo bowed to Mr. Trump’s wishes a day after he publicly chastised the secretary of state for not cooperating. Mr. Pompeo told Fox News that he would release at least some of Mrs. Clinton’s emails from when she was secretary of state and using a private server.
“We’ve got the emails,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We’re getting them out. We’re going to get all this information out so the American people can see it.”
He made no effort to suggest that releasing them was unconnected to the political campaign. “We’re doing it as fast as we can,” he added. “I certainly think there’ll be more to see before the election.”
He’s glad to look like a fool. He’ll reverse everything:
While Mr. Pompeo made a name for himself as a Republican congressman from Kansas excoriating Mrs. Clinton over the email issue, the State Department under his leadership concluded just last year that while she had risked compromising classified information, she did not systematically or deliberately mishandle it.
The FBI declined to recommend charges against Mrs. Clinton in 2016 but made its decision public, contributing to the political liability for her. It ultimately cost her in the final days of the campaign when the investigation was briefly reopened after the discovery of emails on the laptop of an aide’s estranged husband and then quickly closed again when no further evidence of wrongdoing was found.
There’s nothing there, but there is Fox News:
Despite defeating Mrs. Clinton four years ago, Mr. Trump and his conservative allies have continued to obsess about her emails. Leading the charge has been the conservative group Judicial Watch, which has sued repeatedly to force the State Department to hand over emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server, including ones she exchanged with Mr. Obama.
Although Mr. Trump heads the executive branch and has long said he wants the emails disclosed, the government has refused to hand over the emails to Judicial Watch, arguing that they contain classified or privileged materials. This has angered many of Mr. Trump’s allies, particularly commentators on Fox News.
The head of Judicial Watch, Tom Fitton, has lobbied Mr. Trump directly in the Oval Office to push the State Department to disclose more of Mrs. Clinton’s emails in a timely fashion.
Why? Who cares at this point? That would be the faithful few:
Hyperconscious of news reports that his health was not as good as his aides had said earlier in the week and eager to get back to campaigning, Mr. Trump has been eating a steady media diet of comfort food in recent days, making the most of soft interviews with some of his most supportive media personalities. The interviews have also served as a way for the president to capture the attention of supporters while he was otherwise sidelined.
After two telephone interviews with Fox networks on Thursday, he appeared on Friday for two hours on the radio show hosted by Mr. Limbaugh, a conservative whom Mr. Trump presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year.
The event was billed as a virtual rally, replete with Mr. Trump’s typical walkout song, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” and Mr. Limbaugh tried to create the kind of adulation that the rallies give the president.
“We love you!” Mr. Limbaugh said.
But then things got weird:
Mr. Trump conceded that he was not in “great shape” when he fell ill with the coronavirus. Then he said something that contradicted an earlier claim that he thought he would have gotten better even without medicine: After he was treated, including with an experimental antibody cocktail produced by Regeneron, “I recovered immediately, almost immediately,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “I might not have recovered at all from Covid” without the drugs.
For days he had been saying this was nothing. He never really needed any medicine, much less any time in any hospital. He had been defiant and conquered Covid by the sheer force of his will. Anyone could do that. Anyone who got sick from this thing, or who died of it, was a wimp. It was a matter of character. Only cowards and fools get sick from this, and now he says he had been at death’s door because of this. Why even bother to comment?
And there’s this:
The White House was planning to placate Mr. Trump’s desire for an in-person event as soon as possible by spinning off one already being held elsewhere on Saturday in Washington by Candace Owens, a Black supporter of the president who has urged Black voters to leave the Democratic Party.
Mr. Trump is to greet the supporters from one of the White House balconies, far from his audience, people close to the planning said. All attendees were to be required to wear masks on the complex as well as submit to a temperature check and fill out a questionnaire.
He’ll make definite comments from the balcony. Perhaps he’ll wear a uniform – high riding boots and snapping the air with his leather riding crop and all the rest – with his chin out and strutting around a bit.
But several Trump aides privately expressed concern about the message that the event will send and what Mr. Trump might end up saying to the crowd.
He doesn’t seem to care. He is who he is, but Paul Waldman thinks that’s the problem:
The president is quite plainly not willing to try almost anything. His answer to his current political predicament is to do exactly what he’s been doing, only more. It seems clear that as Election Day approaches, he’ll be caught in an insane cycle in which he thinks the way to pull victory from the jaws of defeat is to double down on everything that’s driving voters away from him.
Any sane adviser would tell Trump to do a couple of things right now. Use the fact that he contracted covid-19 to show empathy with the millions of American families that have been affected by the virus. Do something, anything, to convince voters that he won’t be such a force for discord and division.
But it’s more than that:
Those advisers would tell him to find the most high-profile way to do those things, to reach the whole electorate. So think about how bizarre it is that Trump has rejected the idea of participating in a virtual debate with Biden.
If there are no more debates, that would be perfectly fine with the Biden campaign. But Trump is the one who needs something dramatic to happen in the race’s closing days; a debate is one of the best opportunities to make it happen. Some aides have struggled to get Trump to understand that a debate, which is likely to draw more than 60 million viewers, is far more impactful than a rally that airs exclusively to a Fox News audience of less than 4 million.
So Trump is spending his time calling in to Fox programs, rage-tweeting madly, berating members of his own cabinet, and trying to convince people that Hillary Clinton framed him for the Russia scandal in 2016.
It’s as though he’s doing everything possible to push away wavering voters and reassure his most rabid supporters that they should still love him…
In short, he’s doing everything wrong:
A more experienced politician who had been through many races might have thought more expansively about strategies that could work at a time like this. But Trump only ran for office once. His formula in that race was to capture the nomination by appealing to the ugliest impulses within his party, and then win the general election by continuing to play on fear and resentment. Instead of working to win voters across the center, he found a latent Trump vote to activate.
Despite the extraordinary confluence of coincidences that allowed him to win with that strategy – and despite the fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes – Trump obviously believes that his 2016 strategy not only was perfect in its brilliance, but also is the only way for him to win. The very idea of persuading people who don’t already support him seems beyond his ability to consider. So even as evidence mounts that the strategy is failing, he can’t think of anything else to do.
That may be the metadata here, and as Politico notes, that has consequences:
A barrage of barbed comments in recent days shows how markedly the calculus of fear has shifted in the GOP. For much of the past four years, Republican politicians were scared above all about incurring the wrath of the president and his supporters with any stray gesture or remark that he might regard as not sufficiently deferential. Now, several of them are evidently more scared of not being viewed by voters as sufficiently independent.
This is far from an insurrection. Republicans in the main aren’t outright repudiating Trump. But they are effectively rolling their eyes in exasperation with him, and especially his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
And here’s some of the underlying real data:
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas acknowledging in a Friday interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he’s “worried” about the election, which he warned could be a “bloodbath of Watergate proportions” for his party, depending on how voters view the pandemic and economy on Election Day.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell telling reporters Thursday he has not been to the White House in more than two months, since Aug. 6, because he doesn’t have confidence that Trump and his team are practicing good coronavirus hygiene. McConnell said, “My impression was their approach to how to handle this was different than mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
Sen. Martha McSally, running behind in her bid to keep her Arizona seat, refusing to say at a debate with challenger Mark Kelly – despite being pressed repeatedly by the moderator – whether she is proud of being a backer of Trump. “Well, I’m proud that I’m fighting for Arizonans on things like cutting your taxes…” she filibustered.
Sen. John Cornyn, still ahead in polls but facing a tougher-than-usual race in Texas, told the Houston Chronicle that Trump did not practice “self-discipline” in combating the coronavirus, and that his efforts to signal prematurely that the pandemic is receding are creating “confusion” with the public. Trump got “out over his skis,” Cornyn said.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican in a historically Democratic-leaning state, said this week that Trump has been “incredibly irresponsible” through words and actions “to ignore the advice of so many of the folks in the public health, epidemiol infectious disease community.”
There are more, but this one is telling:
After Trump abruptly called off talks on a new economic recovery plan this week, a number of Republicans publicly broke with Trump’s strategy. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection, went so far as to call Trump’s move a “huge mistake.” Rep. John Katko of New York, who represents a district Hillary Clinton carried, made clear he “disagrees” with the president. And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a top Trump ally who is locked in the toughest race of his political career, urged Trump to come back to the negotiating table. In the face of the uproar, Trump did reverse course, though a deal remains highly uncertain.
That’s because he can reverse course again, and he probably will, and some in his party have had enough of this nonsense. They got tired of being afraid of this jerk:
In the past, Trump has been able to effectively end the careers of people who drew his ire. Former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, an occasional Trump critic, was in a tough primary challenge in 2018 when Trump weighed in decisively against him in the closing hours. The New York Times said Sanford’s loss proved that, “having a conservative voting record is less important than demonstrating total loyalty to Mr. Trump.” Later, Jeff Sessions, trying to return to the Senate from Alabama after losing Trump’s confidence as attorney general, learned the same lesson.
One thing that’s changed, operatives in both parties say, is that there is now strength in numbers. A growing roster of Republicans are stepping sideways or ducking from the camera to make sure they are not captured in the same frame as Trump. In addition, Trump is simply too consumed by the resident chaos all around his West Wing in the closing weeks of his own reelection campaign to carry out punitive measures against GOP disloyalists.
Suddenly, they’re free. They can go back to being decent honorable pleasant men and women once again. They might even be useful to the nation once again.
How did they get sucked into this? Matt Bai suggests this:
It’s not that Trump and Biden don’t have ideological differences that matter; they do. Biden’s embrace of tolerance, of climate science, of federally guaranteed health care and American engagement in the world – all of that contrasts sharply with Trumpism.
It’s not that there isn’t an argument to be had about basic competence, either – especially after the gross mishandling of a pandemic that Trump once grimly predicted might claim 60,000 American lives, and that is well on its way to taking four times that many.
But the candidates’ specific policy differences don’t seem as defining as they might have in past elections. Because underlying all of it is the disconcerting sense, at least among a majority of the electorate, that Trump isn’t simply a bad president.
He’s just bad, period.
Step back. That’s the metadata:
We’re really not accustomed to asking basic questions about a president’s essential decency. The United States has had presidents whom history judges as deficient in character, for one reason or another – Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton.
But these were statesmen whose obvious failings as people had to be judged against their equally obvious devotion to country and desire to do good in the world.
That’s how they’re remembered even now – as well-intentioned and tragically flawed. Recent biographies of Nixon, the most reviled president of the 20th century, portray him as haunted and pathetic, but not inhumane.
Trump is singular in this way. In 2016, a majority of voters surmised he might not have the right temperament for the job. But some critical segment of voters distrusted his opponent even more, and they might have thought that Trump would at least grow in office. It was the same delusion that beguiled many of those who went to work for him – that somehow Trump could be improved and transformed.
But that’s not how things work. He was never going to change. No one really can. Now we pay the price for thinking otherwise:
Here we are, nearly four years later, and the electorate seems to have reached a consensus that Trump is the first truly bad person to have occupied the office in memory.
Time and again, almost inexplicably, he fails to summon a modicum of evident decency or compassion – a curious trait that was sharply underscored last week by his apparent willingness to expose everyone who serves him to a potentially lethal virus.
Four years of Trump’s Caligula act have made this much painfully clear: If you were drowning alone in a lake, this president is pretty much the last guy you’d want on the dock.
And then there’s the other guy:
Biden and his advisers have understood all along that this was the only issue that really mattered. They’ve never allowed the campaign to veer off into standard arguments over left and right.
Biden has premised his campaign on a restoration of American goodness – an idea he nicely embodies, and one for which Trump, a channeler of fear of rage, has no answer.
Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush were turned out of office after one term for mismanaging crises. We talk about them now as worthy public servants who failed to meet the moment.
It’s an admiration that Trump will never be afforded. History, like the voters, will judge him graceless and unfeeling.
That’s the metadata here. This man is the first truly bad person to have ever occupied this office. Take one step back. Don’t get lost in the details. Okay. That’s what’s really going on here. But of course that can change, and will.