The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Some weeks ago, in one of my periodic postings about Donald Trump's lack of fitness to be president of the United States, I dropped a casual remark to the effect that I assumed that none of my readers were misguided enough to take him seriously, or to serve as a volunteer in his campaign. Several commenters took me to task for the remark; "what kind of bubble do you live in?" one asked.
It's a fair question, and fair criticism. It did make me reflect a bit on the "bubble." It is true that, for the first time in my life, spanning more than a dozen presidential elections, a major-party candidate does not have support from a single friend of mine—or even from a close acquaintance. Maybe it's just because I spend most of my time either in the District or Vermont, and finding Trump supporters in either of those jurisdictions is a very difficult task. I suspect, though, that it reflects something more insidious, and that we are really, finally, collapsing into separate camps, each with its own favored newspapers, and websites, and TV news channels, and so on, and across whose boundaries nothing passes.
So in the spirit of constructive engagement, let me ask a couple of questions, regarding things that I really do not understand in connection with Trump's candidacy. I understand many people's hostility to Hillary Clinton, though I don't share it to a great degree, and I understand the desire for "change" in Washington, and the notion that the ruling elites have failed miserably to address many of our problems. And I understand that people can have different, and more Trump-friendly, views than mine on all sorts of policy questions, on everything from immigration to gun rights to international trade and the rest.
I get all that. But here's what I don't get. Trump is unstable—what the Arizona Republic newspaper, in endorsing a Democratic nominee for the first time in its 126-year history, called his "inability to control himself or be controlled by others," and his "reckless … lack of propriety"—and unstable people should not be put in command of our armed forces and our nuclear codes. The U.S. commander in chief has awesome, and virtually unconstrained, power to commit U.S. forces to battle and to dictate to the generals—generals sworn to obey his orders—how those battles should be fought, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons.
For me, the election conversation really starts, and ends, here, before you get to immigration policy, or climate change, or SCOTUS appointments, or international trade, or law and order, or any of the other issues the next president will have to deal with, and I don't understand how Trump supporters get past this point.
So my question is: Which part of that formulation do you disagree with? That he's dangerously unstable? Or that it matters, as a dispositive criterion for choosing a president? Trump has a secret plan to deal with the Islamic State; you trust that he will act reasonably and prudently in pursuit of that plan because …?
I don't mean these as rhetorical questions, and I'm not trying to be snarky or sarcastic. I genuinely cannot imagine an argument in support of putting that kind of power—the power to kill, and to get American soldiers killed—into this guy's hands.
And please, if you do care to respond, I ask that you NOT tell me about how terrible you think Hillary Clinton is. I get that; many of you think she's an abomination. Many of you may even think that she's dangerously unstable and shouldn't be entrusted with the commander in chief's power. Fine; put that all aside. My question isn't "Whom do you like more, Trump or Clinton?," nor is it "Why aren't you supporting Hillary Clinton?" (or Gary Johnson, for that matter). It's a much simpler question, and it's just about Donald Trump. For purposes of this question, it doesn't matter who he's running against; the failings of other candidates don't affect his standing on the one test that matters most of all. If you're a supporter, I assume that you've satisfied yourself that he will exercise the rather awesome and terrifying powers of the U.S. commander in chief in a reasonable manner, and I'm curious as to how you've done that.
And I have a second question: What makes you think that you're not being scammed? This guy's the master of the scam—it has been his M.O. for years. Short of tattooing "CON MAN" on his forehead, how much more obvious could it be? Trump University! The Trump "Charitable" Foundation!! The Trump Institute!!! Every one of them is a con job. You can bet that in a quiet moment, talking with friends, he has a word to describe all the folks who shelled out their hard-earned money for his worthless junk: "suckers." One born every minute, or so I've heard.
So even if you like all his policies, what makes you think he will follow through with anything he promises? Why would you believe that? Don't you think that you're going to wake up one morning during a Trump presidency and smack your forehead with your palm and say, "Damn! He conned us!"? If not, why not?
It's a lousy feeling, the feeling that you've been taken in by a scam, as I can testify from personal experience. I fell for a scam once, more than 40 years ago; the experience seared itself in my memory, and I can recall it vividly to this day. I picked up a guy hitchhiking on Interstate 95; he was going back, he said, to his Army base after a weekend leave. Really good guy; we hit it off, had a really nice, earnest conversation about things, over the course of three or four hours. I ended up lending him 50 bucks—a fair bit of money back in those days, at least for a grad student on a stipend that I think was around $1,800 a year. I think I may have even been the one who suggested the loan, which would enable him, by taking a bus back to base rather than hitchhiking, to be sure to arrive back in time. He promised, of course, to send me a check the moment he got back to his barracks—and he gave me his address in case there was any problem at all. Like a dope, I believed it, at least until I sent him a gentle reminder at the address he gave me—and it was returned to sender as undeliverable. At which point I had my palm-smack-to-forehead moment. Schmuck! You believed him!! Although I suppose in retrospect, 50 bucks was a small price to pay for the lesson in the need for healthy skepticism.
The thing that makes Trump's con job so obvious, to me, is not just his history of scamming people, appalling though that is. It's that even if he were being sincere in all the things he's promising, he's not going to deliver because he's not going to be able to deliver, and he's not going to be able to deliver because he hasn't the faintest idea, and has completely surrounded himself with people who themselves haven't the faintest idea, how to get anything done using the levers of the federal government.
It's not a trivial problem. That's the thing about the Constitution: Presidents (unlike, say, chief executives of privately held corporations) can't just snap their fingers and get things done (except, terrifyingly in this case, in their role as commander in chief; see Question 1). All of Trump's promises—to "overhaul the Tax Code," to"unleash America's $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves," to "deliver safe neighborhoods … all across this country [and] to make our communities safe again from crime and lawlessness," the whole lot of them—will require navigating a very complex world of law-making and law-applying, comprising 435 representatives, 100 senators, countless interest groups clamoring for their preferments, enormous federal agencies with complicated agendas of their own. We can all wish, perhaps, that it weren't so; but it is so.
And while it is true that this affects all presidential candidates, all of whom make sweeping promises to do this or that, and then, when they get into office, are unable to just snap their fingers to get them done, there is a difference here: We have never, in the history of this country, had a major-party presidential candidate who knew less about how governments at any level function and actually get things done than Donald Trump. This ain't Ronald Reagan, folks, who had spent eight years figuring government out as governor of California. It is fantasy to think that Trump is going to somehow miraculously figure it out. Trump will be very lucky if Congress and all those interests and bureaucrats don't play him like a violin—implementing his agenda? Hard to imagine.
A cautionary tale: Trump is not the first snake-oil salesman or con man to seek high elected office. A few weeks ago, I read the first of the four volumes of Robert Caro's sensational biography of LBJ, entitled "The Path to Power," covering Lyndon Johnson's boyhood and early political career (up to around 1940) in Texas. Caro's book is peopled with all sorts of amazing characters I had never heard of or knew next to nothing about (John Nance Garner; Johnson's father, Sam Ealy Johnson; Sam Rayburn; Herman Brown, a founder of the Brown & Root engineering and construction company; political operative Alvin Wirtz), a dozen or so of whom get full-blown mini-biographies inside of the overall narrative of LBJ's life.
One of these characters was Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel. O'Daniel was a salesman for the Burrus Mills Flour Co. who started, in the late 1920s, hosting a Burrus-sponsored half-hour radio show, featuring "hillbilly music" (by a group called the Light Crust Doughboys, which for a time included Bob Wills, later to become one of the legendary founders of Texas "swing"), songs that O'Daniel wrote and some religious homilies. He was, apparently, terrific at it—H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine called his on-air persona "Will Rogers and Dale Carnegie and Bing Crosby all rolled into one"—and the O'Daniel show became a statewide sensation. In 1935, he took some of the money he had made and started his own flour business—Hillbilly Flour (whose slogan, "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy!," strikes me as a little more upbeat than "You're fired")—and began broadcasting as Pappy O'Daniel and the Hillbilly Boys.
He was Texas's first real statewide media star. In 1938, he ran for governor. The story is that Carr Collins—an insurance magnate, radio station owner and seller of Crazy Crystals, minerals that allegedly acted as a laxative when drenched in water—suggested to O'Daniel that running for governor would be a great way to market his flour. Pappy introduced the idea to his radio audience by reading a letter, supposedly from a blind listener, urging the broadcaster to enter the gubernatorial race. O'Daniel told his listeners that he'd run, but only if they wanted him to, and that they should send in a postcard giving their view on the question. On his next show, he announced the results: "Yes" carried the day, 54,499 to 4.
So Pappy and the Hillbilly Boys hit the road. His "platform" consisted largely of the Ten Commandments, and one central promise: a $30-per-month pension for every Texan older than 65. His campaign rallies—which drew, to the amazement of political observers, enormous and frenzied crowds—featured a few words from the candidate, often including one of his homespun poems, a pitch for his Hillbilly Flour and a whole lot of free barbecue and music by the Hillbilly Boys. Nobody—certainly not any of the other 11 (!) candidates— took him seriously for two seconds, until he beat them into the ground, garnering over 50 percent of the vote in the 12-man field.
Way to go, Pappy! Rich guy becomes media celebrity and parlays that into a position as chief executive.
Sound familiar? [Back in February, Jesse Walker, over at Reason, had a terrific piece on the Pappy/Trump parallels.]
But here's the thing: Pappy never got anyone a pension. He was—surprise!—completely incapable of manipulating the levers of power at his disposal to get anything of substance done as governor. Other promises he had made from time to time on the campaign trail—to eliminate the poll tax and capital punishment—fell by the wayside as well. [You can read more about O'Daniel here at the Texas State Historical Association, and at Wikipedia here.]
It's sad, really; a lot of people, played for suckers. A universal pension of even $30 per month would have alleviated a great deal of misery in Texas, and the state almost certainly had enough money to pay for it. The immense East Texas Oil Field—5 billion barrels of oil, more oil than the geologists' estimates of total global petroleum reserves at the time—started pumping out oil in 1930 and 1931, and by the time of Pappy's triumphant entrance into Austin, there was lots and lots of money pouring into Texas.
But Pappy had no idea how to pull it off and failed to get much of anything done, because it turns out getting governments to get things done is a complicated business, requiring some cajoling, some threats, some compromise, the assembling of coalitions and all the rest. [And just to complete the tale, the senior citizens of Texas did, of course, eventually get those government pensions. It's called Social Security, which began its payouts in 1940, and it took someone—many people, actually—who actually understood how governments work to make it happen.]
So that's Question 2: Assuming you can get past the commander-in-chief problem, what makes you think that the outcome of Trump's presidency would be any different from the outcome of Pappy O'Daniel's governorship?
I'm looking forward to reading your responses.