The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
When I have written about the dangers of Donald Trump, I often get a response that runs like this:
Yes, Trump sounds like an authoritarian, and he has said some pretty crazy things. That's not good. But you're overlooking an obvious problem: Trump only says he would do troubling things, while Clinton has actually been involved with troubling things. With Clinton, it seems like there is an endless stream of new stories of questionable, unethical or otherwise troubling things she has actually done or been involved with in government. With Trump it's only words. Shouldn't we be more worried about what Clinton has actually done instead of what Trump only has said?
I'm not convinced, and I thought I would explain why.
First, the most obvious reason why Trump has never done troubling things in government is that Trump has never worked in the government before. He has never served in any government office. He has never made a government decision. He has never been present when things went wrong and he had to figure out the best way forward. So yes, Trump has no record of actually making bad decisions in government. But that's because he has no record of making decisions in government at all.
Favoring Trump on that basis is like saying that a sports team in preseason must be good because they are undefeated.
Of course, Trump has a record outside government service. In trying to judge a candidate who has never been in office before, but has instead been in business, you might reasonably ask questions about his character to make good guesses about how he would be in elected office. Possible questions might include: Is he an honest businessman? Does he pay his bills? Does he treat people with respect? Does he keep his personal promises? Does he hire honest advisers? Does he make business decisions carefully based on a review of the relevant evidence? Can he take criticism? Has he paid his taxes properly?
The answer to every question for Trump is not only "no," but "hell no." Is he an honest businessman? No, he has engaged in major scams. Does he pay his bills? No, he is known for not paying his bills. Does he treat people with respect? No, he belittles and mocks every opponent and he has been accused by many women of sexual assault. Does he keep his personal promises? Not his marriage vows, at least, as it appears he has cheated on all of his wives. Does he hire honest advisers? No, his closest advisers have been famously dirty and unethical. Can he take criticism? No, he is remarkably thin-skinned and feels compelled to attacks all critics. Does he make business decisions carefully based on a review of the relevant evidence? No, he makes his big decisions based on gut instinct. Has he paid his taxes properly? Well, he doesn't want you to know: He has steadfastly refused to release his tax records.
So Trump has no government record to criticize, but the signs point to him being just about the worst kind of person to exercise government power.
In contrast, Clinton has a very long record in government service to scrutinize. As Trump likes to point out, Clinton has been in and around government for 30 years. Her long record, and her long being a political target, means that there is a vast body of records to scrutinize and problems to try to associate with her.
And even then, a surprising amount of the criticism of Clinton is about things that happened when she was in government service when there is no obvious case that she was at fault for them. And how much of the constant drip of new stories over the last few months about Clinton's record are from WikiLeaks releases, which the the U.S. intelligence community believes are the work of Russian-government-sponsored hackers who broke into U.S. computers and are now releasing Clinton-related records with intent to influence the U.S. elections?
It's also worth marveling at how Trump is the Teflon presidential candidate. No matter what terrible thing he is shown to have done or said, nothing seems to stick in the public consciousness for more than a few days. Trump himself has expressed astonishment at this. As he put it, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." Just to pick an example, did you know that Trump is scheduled to face trial in federal court in just three weeks for perpetrating a massive fraud scheme that the Attorney General of Trump's state has condemned as "a fraud from beginning to end"? Probably not. No one seems to care.
Why is that?
Here's my pet theory. I think the reason is that Trump has a deeply ingrained public persona that is tremendously likable. To be clear, I'm not saying that persona is accurate. To the contrary, the truth appears to be the opposite. Trump is, as he might put it, a "nasty man."
But if you want to know why Trump gets away with everything, remember that Trump has been a U.S. icon for three decades. Trump is a symbol of success to a lot of people. He's brash, he's confident and he has made a ton of money in business. He's so charming that he has all the models chasing after him. The name "Trump" means wealth, success, money and power. And it has meant that for decades in a uniquely accessible way. Trump isn't snooty or out-of-touch. Instead, he's seen as a down-to-earth guy who took risks and won big. The Acela crowd can laugh at how there is (or was) Trump vodka, Trump steaks, Trump shirts, and Trump everything. But there's Trump everything because "Donald Trump" is a genuine brand to a lot of people. To a lot of people, Trump is gold.
I suspect that the Trump brand offers at least part of the explanation for why Trump gets away with things no one else could. His persona is so deeply ingrained that it's hard to redefine him. Once you're an icon like that, you get the benefit of the doubt even when the evidence is massive that it's all a con.
One last thought. Some commenters responded to my earlier post by saying that if I vote for Clinton and she wins, I cannot criticize anything she does in office. I couldn't disagree more. I hope all of us can agree that no matter who we vote for—in this election, or in any election—we should applaud or criticize government officials based on what they do rather than based on whether we thought they were the best qualified candidate. A vote for a candidate isn't a free pass, just like a vote against a candidate can't signal a commitment to oppose everything that person does if elected. When the election is over and the governing begins, we need to put our votes aside and treat the elected official as a representative of all of the people.