Is Donald Trump really as stupid as the press seems to think? And if not, how do we explain the press’s version of countless Trumpian controversies lately?
Take, for instance, the Kovaleski affair. According to a recent Bloomberg survey, no controversy has proven more costly to Trump.
The episode began when, in substantiating his erstwhile widely ridiculed allegation that Arabs in New Jersey had publicly celebrated the Twin Towers attacks, Trump unearthed a 2001 newspaper account in which law enforcement authorities were stated to have detained “a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.” This seemed to settle the matter. But the report’s author, Serge Kovaleski, demurred. Trump’s talk of “thousands” of Arabs, he alleged, was an exaggeration.
Trump fired back. Flailing his arms wildly in an impersonation of an embarrassed, backtracking reporter, he implied that Kovaleski had bowed to political correctness.
So far, so normal for this election cycle. But it turned out that Kovaleski is no ordinary Trump-dissing media liberal. He suffers from arthrogryposis, a malady in which the joints are malformed.
For Trump’s critics, this was manna from heaven. Instead of merely accusing the New York real estate magnate of exaggerating a minor, if disturbing, sideshow in U.S.-Arab relations, they could now arraign him on the vastly more damaging charge of mocking a disabled person.
Trump pleaded that he hadn’t known Kovaleski was handicapped. This was undermined, however, when it emerged that in the 1980s the two had not only met but Kovaleski had even interviewed Trump in Trump Tower. Trump was reduced to pleading a fading memory, something that those of us of a certain age can sympathize with, but, of course, it didn’t wash with Trump’s accusers.
In responding directly to the charge of mocking a disabled person, Trump commented: “I would never do that. Number one, I have a good heart; number two, I’m a smart person.” Setting aside point one (although to the press’s chagrin, many of Trump’s acquaintances have testified that a streak of considerable private generosity underlies his tough-guy public image), it is hard to see how anyone can question point two. Even if he really is the sort of unspeakable buffoon who might mock someone’s disability, he surely has enough political smarts to know that there is no profit in doing so in a public forum.
There has to be something else here, and, as we will see, there is. Key details have been swept under the rug. We will get to them in a moment but first let’s review the wider context. Candidate Trump’s weaknesses are well-known. He is unusually thin-skinned and can readily be lured into tilting at windmills. His reality-television persona is sometimes remarkably abrasive. His penchant for speaking off-the-cuff has resulted in a series of exaggerations and outright gaffes.
All that said, if he ends up losing in November, it will probably be less because of his own shortcomings than the amazing lengths to which the press has gone in misrepresenting him – painting him by turns weird, erratic, and downright sinister.
What is not in doubt is that if the election were to revolve around fundamental policy proposals (what an innovation!), it would be Trump’s to lose. As Patrick Buchanan has observed, “on the mega-issue, America’s desire for change, and on specific issues, Trump holds something close to a full house.”
On out-of-control immigration and gratuitously counterproductive foreign military adventures, he has seriously wrong-footed Hillary Clinton. He has moreover made remarkable progress in focusing attention on America’s trade disaster. Thanks in large measure to his plain talk, the Clintons have finally been forced into ignominious retreat on their previous commitment to blue-sky globalism. For more on Hillary Clinton’s trade woes, click here.
Trump’s hawkish stance not only packs wide popular appeal but, as I know from more than two decades covering the global economy from a vantage point in Tokyo, it addresses disastrous American policy-making misconceptions going back generations.
The standard Adam Smith/David Ricardo case for free trade, long considered holy writ in Washington, has in the last half century become ludicrously anachronistic.
Smith based his intellectual edifice on the rather pedestrian observation that rainy England was good at raising sheep, while sunny Portugal excelled in growing grapes. What could be more reasonable than for England to trade its wool for Portugal’s wine? But, while Smith’s case is a charming insight into eighteenth century simplicities, the fact is that climate-based agricultural endowments have long since ceased to play a decisive role in First World trade. Today the key factor is advanced manufacturing. By comparison, not only is agriculture a negligible force but, as I documented in a book some years ago, even such advanced service industries as computer software are disappointing exporters.
For nations intent on improving their manufacturing prowess (and, by extension, their standing in the world incomes league table), a key gambit is to manipulate the global trading system. Japan and Germany were the early leaders in intelligent mercantilism but in recent years the most consequential exemplar has been China.
In theory China should be a great market for, for instance, the U.S. auto industry – and it is, sort of. The Detroit companies have been told that while their American-made products are not welcome, they can still make money in China provided only they manufacture there AND bring their most advanced production know-how.
While such an arrangement may promise good short-term profits (nicely fattening up those notorious executive stock options), the trade-deficit-plagued American economy is immediately deprived of badly needed exports. Meanwhile the long-term implications are devastating. In industry after industry, leading American corporations have been induced not only to move jobs to China but to transfer their most advanced production technology. In many cases moreover, almost as soon as a U.S. company has transferred its production secrets to a Chinese subsidiary, these “migrate” to rising Chinese competitors. Precisely the sort of competitively crucial technology that in an earlier era ensured that American workers were not only by far the world’s most productive but the world’s best paid have been served up on a silver salver to America’s most formidable power rival.
Corporate America’s Chinese subsidiaries moreover are expected almost from the get-go to export. In the early days they sell mainly to Africa and Southern Asia but then, as they approach state-of-the-art quality control, they come under increasing pressure to export even to the United States – with all that that implies for the job security of the very American workers and engineers who developed the advanced production know-how in the first place.
Almost alone in corporate America, the Detroit companies have hitherto baulked at shipping their Chinese-made products back to the United States but their resolve is weakening. Already General Motors has announced that later this year it will begin selling Chinese-made Buicks in the American, European, and Canadian markets. It is the thin end of what may prove to be a very large wedge.
Naturally all this has gone unnoticed in such reflexively anti-Trump media as the Washington Post. (A good account, however, is available at the pro-Trump website, Breitbart.com.)
For the mainstream press, the big nation-defining issues count as nothing compared to Trump’s personal peccadillos, real or, far too often, imagined.
This brings us back to Kovaleski. Did Trump really mean to mock a handicapped person’s disability? On any fair assessment, the answer is clearly No. As the Catholics 4 Trump website has documented, the media have suppressed vital exonerating evidence.
The truth is that Trump’s frenetic performance bore no resemblance to the rigid look of arthrogryposis victims. Pointing out that Kovaleski conducted no on-camera interviews in the immediate wake of the Trump performance, Catholics 4 Trump has commented:
Shouldn’t the media have been chomping at the bit to get Kovaleski in front of their cameras to embarrass Trump and prove to the world Trump was clearly mocking his disability? If the media had a legitimate story, that is exactly what they would have done and we all know it. But the media couldn’t put Kovaleski in front of a camera or they’d have no story…..But, if they showed video of Trump labeled “Trump Mocks Disabled Reporter,” then put up a still shot of Kovaleski, they knew you, the viewer, would assume Kovaleski’s disability must make his arms move without control.
According to Catholics 4 Trump, in the same speech in which he presented his Kovaleski cameo, Trump acted out similar histrionics to portray a flustered U.S. general. Meanwhile, on another occasion, he used the same wildly flapping hand motions to lampoon Ted Cruz’s rationalizations on waterboarding. Thus as neither the flustered general nor Ted Cruz are known to be physically handicapped, we have little reason to assume that Trump’s Kovaleski routine represented anything other than an admittedly eccentric portrayal of someone prevaricating under political pressure.
Perhaps the ultimate smoking gun in all this is the behavior of the Washington Post. On August 10, it published a particularly one-sided account by Callum Borchers. When someone used the reader comments section to reference the alternative Catholics 4 Trump explanation, the links were deleted almost immediately. As Catholics 4 Trump pointed out, the Post’s hidden agenda suddenly stood revealed for all to see:
This demonstrates that the Washington Post is aware of evidence existing that contradicts their conclusions, and that they are willfully attempting to conceal it from their readers. If Borchers and WaPo were honest and truly wanted to report ALL of the evidence for and against and let the readers decide, they would have to include the video of Kovaleski and the video of Trump impersonating a flustered General and a flustered Cruz. Any objective report would include both evidence for and against a certain interpretation of the Trump video.
What are we to make of the various other press controversies that have increasingly dogged the Trumpmobile? For the most part, not much.
One recurring controversy concerns how rich Trump really is. The suggestion is that his net worth is way short of the $10 billion he claims.
He has come in for particular flak from the author Timothy O’Brien, who a decade ago pronounced him worth “$250 million tops.” Although O’Brien continues to pop up regularly in places like the Washington Post and Bloomberg, his methodology has been faulted by Forbes magazine, which, of course, has long been the ultimate authority in such matters.
What can be said for sure is that even the best informed and most impartial calculation can only be tentative. The fact is that the Trump business is private and thus not subject to daily stock market assessment.
There is moreover a special complication almost unique to the Trump business — the value of his brand. In Trump’s own mind, he seems to think of himself as a latter-day Cesar Ritz – albeit he projects less an image of five-star discretion as high-rolling hedonism. That the brand is a considerable asset, however, is obvious from the fact that he franchises it to, among others, independent real-estate developers. That said, it is an intangible whose value moves up and down in the same elevator as The Donald’s personal standing in global esteem.
All that said, in a major assessment last year, Forbes editor Randall Lane put Trump’s net worth at $4.5 billion. Although that is way short of Trump’s own estimate, it still bespeaks world class business acumen.
Another controversy concerns the country of origin of Trump campaign paraphernalia. After he disclosed that his ties were made in China, his criticism of America’s huge bilateral trade deficit with China was denounced as hypocrisy.
Again there is less here than meets the eye. It is surely not unprincipled for someone to argue for laws to be changed even while in the meantime he or she continues to benefit from the status quo.
Warren Buffett, for instance, has often suggested that tax rates should be raised for plutocrats like himself. In the meantime, however, he continues to pay lower rates than many of his junior staff and nobody calls him a hypocrite. By the same token, many Ivy League-educated journalists privately criticize the legacy system under which their children and the children of other graduates of top universities enjoy preferential treatment in admissions. Few if any such parents, however, would stand in the way of their own children cashing in on the system. Should they?
Perhaps Trump’s most egregious experience of press misrepresentation was sparked when he archly urged Russia to hack into Clinton’s personal server to discover her missing emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press!”
This was sarcasm laid on with a trowel but the press, of course, wasn’t buying it. Yet it is not as if sarcasm is new to American politics. No less a figure than Abraham Lincoln had a famously sarcastic tongue and the press laughed along with him. When someone complained of Ulysses Grant’s drinking, for instance, Lincoln rushed to the defense of the Union’s most successful general. “Can you tell me where he gets his whiskey,” Lincoln asked. “Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.”
Then there was Harry Truman, the man who declared himself in search of a one-handed economist. When he was not making fun of dismal scientists, he found plenty of other opportunities for caustic wit. After he was presented with the Chicago Tribune’s front page saying “Dewey Defeats Truman,” for instance, he commented: “I knew I should have campaigned harder!”
As for Trump, his wit is clearly a major draw with the ordinary voters who flock to his meetings. Yet little of it is ever recycled in the press. In the case of the Russia hacking joke indeed, many commentators were so humorless as to mutter darkly about a threat to national security. At Slate, Osita Nwanevu interviewed a lawyer to see what could be done to arraign Trump on treason charges. (The answer was nothing.) Meanwhile at Politico, Nahal Toosi and Seung Min Kim reported that Trump’s crack had “shocked, flabbergasted, and appalled lawmakers and national security experts across the political spectrum.” They quoted Philip Reiner, a former national security official in the Obama administration, describing Trump as a “scumbag animal.” Reiner went on to comment: “Hacking email is a criminal activity. And he’s asked a foreign government – a murderous, repressive regime – to attack not just one of our citizens but the Democratic presidential candidate? Of course it’s a national security threat.”
Countless other examples could be cited of how the press has piled on in ways that clearly make a mockery of claims to fairness. All this is not to suggest that Trump hasn’t made many unforced errors. His handling of the Khizr Khan affair in particular played right into the press’s agenda. As Khan had lost a son in Iraq, his taunts should have been ignored. By challenging Khan, Trump was charging the cape, not the matador. The matador, of course, was Hillary, and she was actually highly exposed. Trump, after all, could have simply confined his riposte to the fact that but for her vote, and the votes of other Senators, the United States would never have entered Iraq, and Khan’s unfortunate son would still be alive.
Where does Trump go from here? Although it is probably too late to get the press to fall into line in observing traditional standards of fairness, Trump can make it harder for the press to deliver cheap shots.
He needs to stake out the high ground and get a serious policy discussion going. The debates should help but the first one is still more than a month away. In the meantime one strategy would be to compile detailed, authoritative reports on trade, immigration, and other key issues. While such reports would not reach everyone, in these days of the internet they would find a useful readership among an influential, if no doubt relatively small, cadre of thoughtful constituents. They could thus work indirectly but powerfully to change the tone of the campaign. Certainly such an initiative would be hard for the mainstream press simply to ignore – and even harder completely to misrepresent.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony . He interviewed Trump for Forbes magazine in 1982.