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Donald Trump, reading.
Donald Trump, reading.
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The ultimate reading list for understanding Donald Trump

A guide to the vast story landfill about the presumptive Republican nominee.

Tonight, Donald Trump will take the stage at the Republican National Convention and officially accept the party's nomination for president.

It won't be his first time in the spotlight. From his rise in New York City real estate in the 1980s to his modern remaking of the Republican Party, Trump may be the most written about man in America today. You could spend between now and Election Day reading nothing but stories about him and probably still have hundreds leftover.

To help you sift through this vast landfill, we tried pulling out the best gems and compiling them for this reading list. It's intended to serve as an introductory guide to Trump's persona, his most important policy proposals, and what his rise means for the future of American politics.

If there's more great writing about Trump you think I should include here, email me at jeff@vox.com and I'll look to include it.

I. Vintage Trump: real estate mogul, '80s and '90s tabloid superstar

A Donald Trump hard hat. (Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News archive via Getty)

Donald Trump is the only major party nominee in the modern era with no experience in elected office.

But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a long track record for us to scrutinize. Trump's celebrity in NYC real estate has put him in the spotlight for decades, making him the subject of a number of richly reported feature stories that went deep into his psyche well before he jumped into politics.

1) The most incisive writing I found about Trump's thinking pre-politics came from Mark Singer, who published "Trump Solo" for the New Yorker in May 1997.

Singer, writing after Trump's finances rebounded from the bankruptcy of several of his companies in the early 1990s, spent time at the Trump Organization, watched movies with the Donald aboard his 727 airplane, and interviewed scores of personal friends and colleagues.

The piece really helps you understand the roots of Trump's arrogance — the combination of confidence and bluster that would later become a staple of his presidential campaign:

Everywhere inside the Trump Organization headquarters, the walls were lined with framed magazine covers, each a shot of Trump or someone who looked an awful lot like him. The profusion of these images—of a man who possessed unusual skills, though not, evidently, a gene for irony—seemed the sum of his appetite for self-reflection. His unique talent—being "Trump" or, as he often referred to himself, "the Trumpster," looming ubiquitous by reducing himself to a persona—exempted him from introspection.

2) Back in September 1990, Vanity Fair published "After the Gold Rush," a deep dive into perhaps the low point of Trump's business career, when he faced creditors and bankruptcy proceedings after his big gambles blew up in his face.

This piece, too, looks closely at the formation of Trump's seemingly impenetrable ego. But more than the New Yorker profile, the Vanity Fair piece focuses on how Trump handles defeat through denial:

After the success of The Art of the Deal, Trump’s lawyers began to talk about "Donald’s ego" as if it were a separate entity. "Donald’s ego will never permit us to accept that point," one lawyer said over and over again during the negotiations. "The key to Donald, like with any bully, is to tell him to go fuck himself," the lawyer told me.

3) Back in 1996, writer Mark Bowden spent a weekend with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida estate — "an experience I feel confident neither of us would like to repeat."

Looking back at that weekend in a piece published in fall 2015, Bowden talked about how Trump treated the staff of the estate, providing a useful window into how Trump splits the world into winners and losers:

What was clear was how fast and far one could fall from favor. The trip from "genius" to "idiot" was a flash. The former pilots who flew his plane were geniuses, until they made one too many bumpy landings and became "fucking idiots."

4) Another must-read about the mind of the Donald comes from a vintage interview Trump gave to Playboy in 1990.

The interview is notable not just for how Trump sees himself but also for how his belief in "ego" melds with his interpretation of America:

Q: How large a role does pure ego play in your deal making and enjoyment of publicity?

A: Every successful person has a very large ego.

Q: Every successful person? Mother Teresa? Jesus Christ?

A: Far greater egos than you will ever understand.

Q: And the Pope?

A: Absolutely. Nothing wrong with ego. People need ego, whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc. They have literally outegotized this country, because they rule the greatest money machine ever assembled and it's sitting on our backs.


II. Trump, 2016, and the politics of white racial resentment

Trump.
(Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty)
Johnny Louis/FilmMagic/Getty Images

One of the most frightening aspects of Trump's rise has been his clear appeals to white nationalism. But how is Trump using racial fears to animate his candidacy, and what does it say about broader trends in American politics?

Luckily, a number of writers have taken a microscope to this very question, and their work can really help us make sense of one of the scarier trends of the 2016 election.

1) Donald Trump says "he has a great relationship with the blacks," but the New Yorker's Evan Osnos has a thorough accounting of how Trump "has always weaved in and out of racially charged controversies."

Though written even before Trump refused to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Osnos's catalogue is exhaustive — spanning from Trump's questioning of Barack Obama's birth certificate to his encouragement of supporters who beat a homeless Hispanic man.

Osnos was interviewing white rights groups when Trump's candidacy emerged, and Osnos's story shows that he was uniquely suited to capture how and why those groups thrilled to Trump's candidacy:

When the Trump storm broke this summer, it touched off smaller tempests that that stirred up American politics in ways that were easy to miss from afar. At the time, I happened to be reporting on extremist white-rights groups, and observed at first hand their reactions to his candidacy. Trump was advancing a dire portrait of immigration that partly overlapped with their own. ...

When Trump leaped to the head of the Republican field, he delivered the appearance of legitimacy to a moral vision once confined to the fevered fringe, elevating fantasies from the message boards and campgrounds to the center stage of American life.

2) After a white jogger was assaulted in Central Park in 1989, Donald Trump took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times to call for the reinstatement of the death penalty.

He was widely criticized at the time for fueling racial resentment, a criticism that would resurface throughout his career — as Alexander Burns documents in a long look at "Trump’s instinct for racially charged rhetoric" in the New York Times:

Long before Mr. Trump announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, roiling the 2016 election with his pugnacious style and speeches in which he has branded many undocumented immigrants as rapists and murderers, he had proved himself in New York as an expert political provocateur with an instinct for racially charged rhetoric. ...

State Senator Bill Perkins, a Democrat who at the time was president of the tenants’ association at Schomburg Plaza, the Manhattan apartment complex where several of the defendants lived, said he was horrified to see Mr. Trump emerge as a contender for the presidency. A framed copy of Mr. Trump’s 1989 newspaper ad hangs in Mr. Perkins’s Harlem office as a reminder, he said, of an ugly moment in the city’s recent past.

3) But accusations of Trump's regard for minorities go back to even before the Central Park jogger. And as Vox's Dara Lind documents in the most extensive accounting I could find, Trump has been getting accused of racism since as early as 1973:

The very first time Trump appeared in the New York Times's pages ... was because he was being sued for racial discrimination. In 1973, the Trump Management Corporation — run by 27-year-old Donald Trump — was sued by the Department of Justice for violating the Fair Housing Act. Specifically, Trump's company was accused of refusing to rent to or negotiate with black tenants, changing the terms of leases based on race, and lying to black applicants about whether apartments were available.

4) Trump's flirtation with racialized politics has been well-established for decades. But why, then, did the Republican Party become the right vehicle for Trump's politics of racial resentment?

One convincing answer comes from the New Republic's Jeet Heer, who traced the origins of Trump's tactics to the Republican Party's "Southern strategy" in the Reagan years.

Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity.

... Far from being a "cancer" on Republicanism, or some jihadi-style radicalizer, he’s the natural evolutionary product of Republican platforms and strategies that stretch back to the very origins of modern conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s.

5) But Heer's piece, while persuasive, may not be able to answer why Trump's racialized rhetoric has now found a place in the Republican Party — as opposed to, say, 10 years earlier.

And at Slate, Jamelle Bouie provides a compelling explanation for the new force that opened the door for Trump's politics of white racial resentment — Barack Obama:

For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism, however, Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. ...

The Obama era didn’t herald a post-racial America as much as it did a racialized one, where millions of whites were hyperaware of and newly anxious about their racial status.

6) Heer and Bouie mostly describe the historical trends from a bird's-eye perspective. But for an understanding of how Trump's supporters themselves see race in politics, there's no better person to read than the Atlantic's Molly Ball, who synthesized her days on the campaign trail into this depressing narrative:

It is a sentiment I have repeatedly heard from the dozens of Trump supporters I have met over the past eight months I have spent covering his campaign. More complicated than the overt bigotry of, say, the Ku Klux Klan, it is a form of racial resentment based on historic white entitlement and a backlash to the upsurge in leftist identity politics that has marked American politics in the age of Obama.

III. Trump: authoritarian, strongman, demagogue?

Donald Trump shares many beliefs with the traditional right wing of the American political system. Constitutional conservatism is not one of them.

Since nearly the beginning of Trump's campaign, numerous writers have identified his strongman impulses — and disregard for constitutional norms — as one of its key features.

But this is an easier characterization to assert than prove. So here's a look at some of how the best writers have tried to unravel the relationship between Trump and what appear to be his authoritarian tendencies.

1) Back in March, Vox's Amanda Taub wrote what may be the definitive feature story about Trump and authoritarianism.

In the piece, Taub chronicled the rise of a new and distinct constituency for authoritarianism in America — a constituency that has thrilled to Trump's rise. Taub drew on the work of political scientists and pollsters to support the premise:

Not only did authoritarianism correlate, but it seemed to predict support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator ...

Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians' fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics

2) One of the political scientists Taub interviewed, Matthew McMillan, published a separate story in Politico also chronicling the research connecting Trump's rise to a growing body of American authoritarians:

Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. And because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will continue to grow.

3) Of course, political science is just one way of looking at Trump's strongman approach. Following Trump and his supporters around the campaign trail, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi may have done a better job than any of distilling the essence of Trump's authoritarian appeal:

Trump's basic argument is the same one every successful authoritarian movement in recent Western history has made: that the regular guy has been screwed by a conspiracy of incestuous elites. The Bushes are half that conspiratorial picture, fronts for a Republican Party establishment and whose sum total of accomplishments, dating back nearly 30 years, are two failed presidencies, the sweeping loss of manufacturing jobs, and a pair of pitiable Middle Eastern military adventures – the second one achieving nothing but dead American kids and Junior's re-election.

4) Meanwhile, at New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan takes a more philosophical/historical approach to this same question, grounding Trump's rise in ancient Greek philosophy, Plato's theory of tyranny, and the Founding Fathers' fear of too much democracy:

The inclusion of previously excluded voices helps, rather than impedes, our public deliberation. But it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.

5) Vox's Ezra Klein puts his finger on just why this is so unnerving: Trump, unlike any of his Republican presidential rivals, appears freed from the institutional constraints that normally give us a sense of what our politicians will do:

[Trump] seems more dovish than neoconservatives like Marco Rubio, and less dismissive of the social safety net than libertarians like Rand Paul. But those candidates are checked by institutions and incentives that hold no sway over Trump; his temperament is so immature, his narcissism so clear, his political base so unique, his reactions so strange, that I honestly have no idea what he would do — or what he wouldn't do.

6) The New York Times's Ross Douthat argues that there may be a silver lining to Trump's authoritarian rise: It's showing how we need to guard against the strongman in politics, in case one comes along who is more adept than Trump and can actually win the White House:

What Trump is doing, then, is showing us something different, something that less fortunate countries know all too well: how authoritarianism works, how it seduces, and ultimately how it wins.

But — God willing — he’s doing it in a way that’s sufficiently chaotic, ridiculous and ultimately unpopular that he will pass from the scene without actually taking power, leaving us to absorb the lessons of his rise.

Video: Donald Trump's ideology of violence


IV. Sexism, Donald Trump, and the female vote

trump rally Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Early head-to-head polling from a Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton matchup has found the two running essentially equally among male voters.

That's not the same story among women. Trump has massive, off-the-charts unfavorability ratings among women voters, to the point where some observers think the deficit is almost guaranteed to cost him the election.

Why might women voters hate Trump? Some observers have argued that Trump is a rampant sexist whose derision toward women explains his entire personality. I'll let them count the ways.

1) Trump's penchant for sexist barbs has come up again and again throughout the campaign, and nobody has been more attentive to calling out his misogynistic statements over the course of the campaign than Emma Gray, executive women's editor of the Huffington Post.

While some writers have looked at the long history of Trump's sexist rhetoric, Gray has been particularly helpful for zeroing in on Trump's offensive litany of remarks to women over the past year alone:

According to Trump, Rosie O’Donnell has a "fat, ugly face." Bette Middler has an"ugly face and body." Hillary Clinton couldn’t keep her husband "satisfied." Megyn Kelly is a "bimbo" who objectifies herself because she once posed for GQ. Carly Fiorina could never win an election, because of her face.

And now, as his Twitter feed implies, all America needs to know about Heidi Cruz and Melania Trump is that one of them is younger and hotter according to some men on Twitter.

2) In a brutal column at Slate, Franklin Foer argues that Trump's hatred of women isn't just an important part of his personality but the single most important variable for understanding everything else about him.

Foer's devastating, emotional, acerbic piece is really a must-read for anyone looking to zero in on the roots and extent of Trump's misogyny— and how it helps explain the presumptive Republican nominee:

There’s one ideology that [Trump] does hold with sincerity and practices with unwavering fervor: misogyny.

We have been collectively blithe about this fact. On its face, Donald Trump’s hateful musings about women and his boastful claims of sexual dominance should be reason alone to drive him from polite society and certainly to blockade him from the West Wing. Yet somehow his misogyny has instead propelled his campaign to the brink of the Republican nomination. Each demonstration of his caveman views—about Megyn Kelly’s menstruation, about Carly Fiorina’s face, about the size of his member—produces a show of mock-horror before Trump resumes his march to the nomination. It fits a familiar pattern. Trump rose to fame on the basis of our prurient interest in his caddishness and amusement at his vulgar provocations.

3) If Foer's is the best piece for capturing the essence of Trump's misogyny, then the Daily Beast's Marlow Stern may have written the best catalogue of its disparate parts.

Writing after Trump called Rosie O'Donnell a "fat pig" on a national debate stage, Stern took a deep look back at Trump's decades-long record of sexism — dating back to the 1970s:

The Donald’s way with words when it comes to women was on full display in his 2004 tome Trump: How to Get Rich, where the then-host of the NBC reality competition seriesThe Apprentice shared a number of sexist remarks about his show.

"All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me—consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected," he bragged. "The early victories by women on The Apprentice were to a very large extent dependent on their sex appeal," wrote Trump, later adding, "I believe we’re all equal except women still have to try harder and they know it. They will do what they have to do to get the job done and will not necessarily be demure about it."

4) Not to be outdone, BuzzFeed reporters Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott listened to hours of tapes of the Donald gabbing with radio show host Howard Stern. (I don't envy the assignment.)

The tapes were littered with Trump's sexist remarks, each one of which would likely spell a massive public relations disaster for a normal presidential candidate:

Months after [Princess] Diana was killed in an automobile accident in 1997, Trump told Stern he thinks he could have slept with her, saying she had "supermodel beauty." In a different interview in 2000, Trump said he would have slept with her "without hesitation" and that "she had the height, she had the beauty, she had the skin." He added, "She was crazy, but these are minor details."

... Trump also said of Carmen Electra, "The boob job is terrible — they look like two light posts coming out of a body."

5) How might Trump's sexist comments translate into a big penalty in the November general election?

Vox's Kay Steiger talked to a range of political scientists, including gender studies experts, to learn about how gender affects voters' decisions at the ballot box:

This is what Trump means when he says Clinton wouldn't even be in the race if it weren't for her gender — that her gender has given her a leg up in what would otherwise be a résumé of someone who is unqualified. This is bound to rub some women the wrong way. ...

Victoria Budson, the founder and executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, put it this way: "Trump doesn’t seem to be looking at the history. Every election since 1964, more women than men have voted. Trump’s unfavorability rating is 70 percent among women."

She says there's a reason Trump's remarks might resonate with women voters, perhaps even Republican women. "Most women have had experiences that they would identify as sexist. I think this activates those memories and reflections," she said.

V. Donald Trump and the party he conquered

Donald Trump has only been a registered Republican for a few years. It's taken almost as much time for him to completely refashion the party of Lincoln in his own image.

There have been endless attempts to synthesize the relationship between Trump and the party he conquered. I've read through dozens of them, and here are the sharpest insights I could find from political scientists, reporters, and pundits trying to wrestle with the ideological origins of the Trumpian revolution.

1) Douthat, of the New York Times, says Donald Trump has exposed that many key elements of the Republican Party — particularly its voters — were never really as invested in ideological movement conservatism as had long been assumed.

Douthat says Trump has destroyed two ideas of what the Republican Party's voters want: 1) a slightly recast version of George W. Bush's presidency ("Bushism 2.0"); and 2) "true conservatism," which wanted to "avoid both anything that savored of big government and anything that smacked of compromise."

When Donald Trump knocked first Jeb Bush and then Marco Rubio out of the Republican primary campaign, he defeated not only the candidates themselves but their common theory of what the G.O.P. should be — the idea that the party could essentially recreate George W. Bush’s political program with slightly different domestic policy ideas and recreate Bush’s political majority as well.

Trump (also) proved that many professional True Conservatives, many of the same people who flayed RINOs and demanded purity throughout the Obama era, were actually just playing a convenient part.

2) With a slightly different lens, Vox's Matt Yglesias argues that Trump is actually a pretty good heir to Bush — both fundamentally less interested in strict adherence to Hayekian economic dogma and more vested in assertions of nationalistic identity politics.

Douthat places an emphasis on how Trump breaks with the Bush vision of the Republican Party. Yglesias makes the case that, if formally opposed, Trump is actually a better reflection of the underlying idea of Bush's presidency than his Republican rivals:

Donald Trump is not a friend or ally of the Bush family and its important faction of Republican Party donors and operatives. But in terms of the mass party membership, the shift from the Bush-led party of 2000 and 2004 is less a change in ideology than a shift of points of emphasis.

In an important sense, Trump is following a political trail that W blazed — becoming the first (and so far only) Republican Party politician to follow the template of populist nationalism that the only successful GOP presidential candidate of the past 30 years rode to the White House. ...

That's where identity politics and nationalism come in. Instead of pledging to Make America Great Again, Bush nostalgically offered to Restore Honor and Dignity to the White House.

3) At New York magazine, Jonathan Chait cuts through a lot of the confusion surrounding attempts to put Trump on a left/right ideological spectrum within the Republican Party.

The correct way to view Trump, Chait argues, is instead as a force exposing the divide between the raw feeling undergirding conservative politics and the buttoned-up terminology Republican politicians created to channel those sentiments.

...The conservative movement has succeeded for decades by channeling racial resentment, nationalism, and authoritarianism into traditional policy proposals that can be justified in white papers on foreign policy, welfare, crime, taxes, and so on. Trump has made a mockery of this whole process, substituting boundless faith in his personality for a policy architecture constructed over generations. Conservative intellectuals understand and care about these ideas. They have articulated serious reasons for, say, restricting immigration levels, but Trump grasps the embarrassing reality that most Republican voters are driven by base animus toward immigrants. The rupture he’s opened does not divide one set of ideas from another. Trump has simply pitted the Republican brain against the Republican brain stem.

4) Meanwhile, Vox's Dylan Matthews situates Trump's rise within the context of a sublimated (but never eliminated) school of right-wing thought: paleoconservatism.

Trump isn't a perfect fit for this wing of the Republican Party, Matthews argues, but is in general part of its distinct blend of nationalism and distance from the Club for Growth element of the party. This piece is particularly helpful to disabuse the notion that Trump represents a complete aberration within conservative politics:

The paleoconservatives were a major voice in the Republican Party for many years, with Pat Buchanan as their most recent leader, and pushed a line that is very reminiscent of Trumpism.

They adhere to the normal conservative triad of nationalism, free markets, and moral traditionalism, but they put greater weight on the nationalist leg of the stool — leading to a more strident form of anti-immigrant politics that often veers into racism, an isolationist foreign policy rather than a hawkish or dovish one, and a deep skepticism of economic globalization that puts them at odds with an important element of the business agenda.

5) What long-term impact will Trump's nomination have on the Republican Party?

At the Atlantic, David Frum worries that a third-party candidacy — even if the necessary route — will ultimately reveal how little the GOP leaders really need to depend on truly ideological conservatives. That, Frum says, could fundamentally change the average Republican politician's political calculus, potentially permanently recasting the party in Trump's image:

A "true conservative" independent race for president may offer anti-Trump Republicans a way to vote their consciences without endorsing Hillary Clinton. But it may also expose "true conservatism" as a smaller factor in U.S. presidential politics than it’s been regarded as since the advent of the Tea Party. And it will leave the instrumentalities of the GOP in the hands of people who were willing to work with Trump, and whose interest post-Trump-defeat will be in adapting his legacy to the future rather than jettisoning it.

6) In the New Republic, however, Brian Beutler conjures a much sunnier vision of what a Republican Party resurgence could look like after Trump's purging fire.

The idea may sound ... optimistic. But Beutler lays out an intriguing vision of a successful GOP coalition, one that retains its core commitments on markets and growth without a total surrender to its more extremist elements:

A Republican Party that accepted the testimony of American minorities who see Republican activities (like vote suppression, opposition to LGBT equality, and so on) as driven by bigotry could stop doing them. If it also pursued more modest economic-policy goals, shaped by a recognition that the New Deal consensus won’t be undone (and certainly not all at once), a cosmopolitan-friendly Republican Party could appeal to middle- and upper-middle class minorities, gays, lesbians, and young professionals with a more modest conservatism of lower middle-class taxes, and somewhat less business regulation, rather than the current platform of radical regressivism and fealty to the one percent. This kind of platform would attract large numbers of Democratic voters who aren’t doctrinaire progressives, especially as the Democratic Party continues to move left. The GOP would still be conservative, just no longer radical.

7) Before this campaign, political scientists Matt Grossmann and Dave Hopkins had argued that the GOP was a party centered on a common ideological identity, while the Democratic Party was built around appeals to different social/demographic groups.

That analysis no longer holds, Ross Douthat says:

Donald Trump blew this model up. Yes, Trump has adopted conservative positions on various issues, but he’s done so in a transparently cynical fashion, constantly signaling that he doesn’t really believe in or understand the stance that he’s taking, constantly suggesting a willingness to bargain any principle away ...

Perhaps Trumpism can be understood as a coup by the G.O.P.’s ideologically flexible minority against the conservative movement’s litmus tests; indeed to some extent that’s clearly what’s been happening.

8) But in a defense that his existing model largely holds, Hopkins downplays Trump's ideological deviations, noting that Trump is just one candidate and that ideological movement conservatism might still make a ferocious comeback after his candidacy:

It's difficult to conclude that Trump single-handedly disproves the existence of fundamental asymmetries between the parties. If Trump is not a doctrinaire conservative, neither is he a conciliatory moderate, and he is not running on a laundry list of detailed policy initiatives directed toward individual social groups, as is common practice among Democrats. (Indeed, Trump could hardly constitute better evidence in favor of our conclusion that many Republican supporters are motivated by broad rhetorical themes, not policy specifics.) ...

If Trump, who lacks a loyal faction within the party's elected officeholders, loses the election, the Republican Party will retreat and regroup to consider its future and the lessons of the campaign—and many of the loudest voices within the party will unite in declaring that Trump was indeed a deeply flawed nominee.

Next time, they'll say, let's nominate someone different—a true conservative.

Video: Conservatives hate Donald Trump


VI. Does Donald Trump have a coherent foreign policy?

Trump speaking at AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It's perhaps the most recognizable part of Donald Trump's campaign: He wants to "Make America Great Again."

But how? As Trump's views on America's place in the world have come into focus over the course of the campaign, a ton of digital ink has been spilled over Trump's foreign policy doctrine — with some pundits trying to figure out if one really exists at all.

1) Perhaps the most salient feature of Trump's foreign policy is his insistence that America is getting screwed all over the globe by both allies and enemies, and that we need to toughen up in response.

We've gotten no better distillation of how Trump wants to deploy American power than his March interview with the New York Times's David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman:

In Mr. Trump’s worldview, the United States has become a diluted power, and the main mechanism by which he would re-establish its central role in the world is economic bargaining. He approached almost every current international conflict through the prism of a negotiation, even when he was imprecise about the strategic goals he sought

... Throughout the two conversations, Mr. Trump painted a bleak picture of the United States as a diminished force in the world, an opinion he has held since the late 1980s, when he placed ads in The New York Times and other newspapers calling for Japan and Saudi Arabia to spend more money on their own defense.

2) Max Boot, a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, patiently runs through each of Trump's proposed remedies to this ailment and explains why they're exceedingly likely to exacerbate America's problems:

[Trump] said that he would solve the North Korea nuclear problem by getting China to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Given that China's leaders are unwilling to sanction North Korea, it is exceedingly unlikely they will murder its leader at President Trump's request.

...The anti-American backlash would grow greater still if Trump carried out his threat to ban Muslims from entering the United States and to seize Syrian or Iraqi oil fields — an undertaking that would require a long-term American military occupation.

...Trump would also alienate America's oldest allies in Europe and Asia if he carried through on his repeated threats to renegotiate or terminate the agreements under which U.S. troops have been based abroad for decades.

3) Boot may be one voice, but he's a reflection of a much broader conservative foreign policy establishment that once saw the GOP as the best possible vehicle for its ideas.

At Politico, Michael Crowley documents how these hawkish conservative elites have reacted with revulsion to Trump's attacks on the pillars of Republican foreign policy.

Donald Trump calls the Iraq War a lie-fueled fiasco, admires Vladimir Putin and says he would be a "neutral" arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians. When it comes to America’s global role he asks, "Why are we always at the forefront of everything?"

Even more than his economic positions, Trump's foreign policy views challenge GOP orthodoxy in fundamental ways. But while parts of the party establishment are resigning themselves or even backing Trump's runaway train, one group is bitterly digging in against him: the hawkish foreign policy elites, including many of those known as neoconservatives.

4) Boot and many of the neoconservatives think Trump is a heretic with a foreign policy outlook that's deeply at odds with their values. But perhaps they're giving him too much credit in suggesting he has a unified worldview at all.

Vox's Zack Beauchamp looks at each of the central promises of Trump's foreign policy, and finds the common throughline is that ... Trump is really just all over the place, with no seeming unifying principle to speak of:

Trump's ostensible dovishness on Middle Eastern wars, and his claim to represent tough-nosed dealmaking, does not exactly square with his plan to send in oil companies to forcibly remove the region's natural resources. ...

These wild contradictions in Trump's apparent worldview, the policies that veer between radically realist and outright colonialist, are what make his foreign policy so difficult to read.

It's part of what makes him ultimately highly unpredictable: His decision-making and calculus is so all over the map that it's simply not possible to anticipate how he'd behave in office.

5) Another entry in the "Trump is completely lost" on foreign policy genre comes from Slate's Fred Kaplan, who calls the Donald's foreign policy "a mess of contradictions."

Kaplan's piece, which would be hilarious to read if it weren't also so frightening, pivoted off what was supposed to Trump's first major foreign policy address — but that Kaplan describes mostly as an incoherent, rambling disaster:

There were the bombastic pronouncements with no basis whatsoever. "The world is more dangerous than it has ever been." (Think about that claim for one minute, and you’ll see how absurd it is.) About ISIS, he said, "They’re going to be gone if I’m elected president, and they’ll be gone very, very quickly." (What does this mean? Is he going to scowl at them? Nuke them?) ...

Finally, he lent credence to the suspicion that he’s never read a history book.

6) Similarly, former Vox editor Max Fisher argues that it's much too easy to overcomplicate the message about what is far and away the biggest problem with Trump's foreign policy views — his simple, stunning ignorance:

The issue is not just that Trump has very strong opinions on the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions relief despite seeming to have no idea what is actually in that deal.

Worse, it is that Trump seems to literally not understand the purpose of sanctions. If he does understand them, he is unable to carry that understanding through a complete thought before calling for policies that are not just mutually exclusive but that also lead to contradictory ends.

Trump wants to sanction and punish Iran, but he also wants to open up more trade with it, all within the same paragraph. This is the reasoning of a person who lacks something more fundamental than detailed policy knowledge — he lacks an understanding of how foreign policy itself, at a fundamental level, functions.

7) Is there a compelling case to be made in defense of Trump's foreign policy?

The most coherent one I could find was written by Conrad Black in National Review. It argues that Trump represents a sensible middle ground between the adventurism of George Bush and the alleged abandonment of allies by Barack Obama:

On the left, [Trump] was a dangerous, uncompromising jingo-nationalist who would destroy alliances with unilateralism and blunder into wars without thinking them through. ... On the right, his policy was deemed a mere isolationism.

But Trump’s speech was sensible and plausible, a middle course between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Those who disliked it described it in pejorative adjectives, and supporters also gave only adjectival approval. In fact, it was sensible and plausible, a middle course between George W. Bush’s impetuosity and exaltation of inapplicable idealism over practicalities on the ground, and Obama’s feckless irresolution that has often had the character of telling America’s allies and adversaries to change roles and places, as in an after-dinner game of charades.

8) If less bullish on Trump's actual plans, Rosa Brooks argues persuasively in Foreign Policy that his candidacy is exposing serious holes in the elite consensus around foreign policy.

Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and former senior adviser for the US State Department, doesn't endorse Trump. But she makes the case that he's raising real, important, and unanswered questions that foreign policy experts have to acknowledge are trickier to dismiss than might otherwise seem the case:

In his inimitable way, Trump is offering a powerful challenge to many of the core assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy elite. And if mainstream Democrats and Republicans want to counter Trump’s appeal, they need to get serious about explaining why his vision of the world isn’t appropriate — and they need to do so without merely falling back on tired clichés. ...

Trump’s vision of the world — and his conception of statecraft — isn’t one I much like, but it reflects a fairly coherent theory of international relations. It’s realist, transactional, and Machiavellian — and it demands a serious, thoughtful, and nondefensive response.

VII. Muslims in Trump's America

Donald Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering or visiting the United States.

When he first announced his proposed ban after the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attacks in December 2015, the proposal was front-page news for weeks.

But then, as with so much else concerning Trump, the news cycle moved on. And Trump's radical plan stayed.

So here's a recap — and a reminder — of the danger of Trump's proposed Muslim ban and its impact on America's relationship with the world's second-largest religion.

1) Vox's Dara Lind has a thorough analysis on Trump's "war on Muslims," noting that Muslims supplanted Mexicans as the villains in the billionaire's story over the course of the campaign.

Lind's piece draws on extensive research about nativism in America, and looks at some frightening work documenting a rise in Islamophobia over the past several years in the US:

Trump's attacks on Islam — and on Muslims themselves — are also internal to his campaign success. As the political establishment (and political press) has become frankly desperate to stop paying attention to him, he's started replacing some of his anti-Latino rhetoric with anti-Muslim rhetoric to maintain the media's attention.

This strategy succeeds for a reason: The US is witnessing the quiet rise of Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim attitudes and fears are more widespread, and more intensely felt, than they have been anytime since the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — and have possibly even gotten worse.

2) You can hate Trump's proposal, but it would probably stand up in a court of law, according to Temple law professor Peter Spiro.

Writing in the New York Times, Spiro argues that the courts have a well-established precedent of giving a "blank check" to the executive branch to regulate immigration:

Contrary to the conventional understanding, President Trump could implement the scheme on his own, without Congress’s approval. The Immigration and Nationality Act gives the president the authority to suspend the entry of "any class of aliens" on his finding that their entry would be "detrimental to the interests of the United States." President Obama has used this to the better end of excluding serious human rights violators.

3) Not so fast, says University of Michigan law professor Richard Primus. Writing in Politico, Primus argues that Spiro is just flatly wrong as a matter of law — the executive branch couldn't mandate such a capricious, arbitrary edict with no purpose:

It is a basic rule of constitutional adjudication that the government must always have a valid purpose for the actions it takes. That rule applies in every sphere of action, even in those, like immigration, where the political branches get a lot of latitude. An action taken for no valid purpose is itself invalid.

And the Supreme Court of the United States, as we know it in 2015, is not going to accept the claim that a flat ban on entry into the United States by any member of a religious group with a billion members of every imaginable race, nationality, and political orientation is a law motivated by a valid purpose.

4) Legal or illegal, Trump's Muslim ban idea is extremely dangerous. That's the view of the Intercept's Glenn Greenwald, who forcefully argues that Trump's rhetoric has already caused harm to American Muslims — and will continue to do so even if Trump never becomes president:

Trump does not need to win, or even get close to winning, for his rhetoric and the movement that he’s stoking to be dangerous in the extreme.

...Even if he fails to win a single state, he’s powerfully poisoning public discourse about multiple marginalized minority groups: in particular, inciting and inflaming what was already volatile anti-Muslim animosity in the U.S.

5) We should note that Trump's proposed Muslim ban is only one part of a bigger plan: He's also called for implementing a system to register and track Muslims in the United States.

As Vox's Matt Yglesias wrote at the time, the idea is "pretty clearly unconstitutional and morally repugnant":

It comes at a time when Trump continues to ride high in the polls and has repeatedly benefited from past controversies over his own outlandish and often racist statements, and when Republican politicians most certainly are pushing the envelope on anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies in a way that was alien to the George W. Bush–vintage Republican Party's response to 9/11.

Trump's particular statement is mostly just the political clown show in action, but it's part of a larger context that is frightening to American Muslims and genuinely threatening to America's entire geopolitical strategy over the past 15 years.

6) Part of Trump's rhetoric on Muslims has also extended to saying that Muslims are not helping fight terrorism. And as Vox's Zack Beauchamp points out, that's total bullshit:

Trump's claims are false. The statistics are clear: In the US, Muslim communities have been extraordinarily forthcoming with the police in terrorism cases.

But, as is often the case with Trump, the actual fact of the lie isn't the biggest issue; rather, the broader ideology underlying it is. In this case, it's the idea that Muslim communities are uniquely and collectively responsible for Islamist terrorism.

7) In a smart piece in the Week, Paul Waldman takes Trump's rivals to task for not doing more to denounce his Muslim ban in stronger terms:

And how have Trump's opponents reacted to the river of hate that gushes forth every time he steps up to a microphone? With the utmost care. "I disagree with that proposal," Ted Cruz said about excluding Muslims from the United States. "Donald Trump is unhinged. His 'policy' proposals are not serious," said Jeb Bush.

What we have there are varying degrees of disagreement, but about the worst any of them can bring themselves to say is that Trump's ideas are nutty. Not that he's a bigot, not that he's using the politics of hate, not that he's falling in line with a sordid history of racism.

Islamophobia in America goes much deeper than Donald Trump


VIII. Inside Trump's wild campaign operation

Trump's campaign is unlike any we've seen in the history of modern American politics.

Trump has a bare-bones staff and has refused to pay for political advertisements. He's skipped debates when he felt mistreated by the hosts, and hurls strange insults at his rivals when he does attend.

But what's the view like from inside Team Trump? Here are the best pieces that give us a window into the Trump campaign team.

1) If I were to recommend only one piece about Trump's campaign operation, it would be the Wall Street Journal's "Behind Donald Trump's Attack Strategy."

Reporter Monica Langley spent days with Trump on the campaign trail, both aboard "Trump Force One" and in New Hampshire, and she came away with a close-up view of how Trump operates and thinks:

While his attacks and policy pronouncements often appear to be off-the-cuff, hours spent interviewing Mr. Trump and watching him behind the scenes show how he plots them, most often alone in his jet as he flies to early primary states.

Ten minutes before landing, he grabbed paper, scrawling five points—15 words—on what to say before his next adoring crowd. ... His jotted items: "SELF-FUNDING SUPER PACS," "NOW BLOCK SYRIAN REFUGEES," "2ND AMENDMENT," "HILLARY CLINTON A DISASTER," "STOCK MARKET." ...

A key to his unscripted approach is his conversational style of speaking extemporaneously, incorporating the day’s news and gauging the crowd’s reaction. "Without a photographic memory, you can’t speak without notes," Mr. Trump said. "My memory is one of the greats."

2) Another great look under the hood of Trump's campaign came long before anyone, including the writer, even believed it would get off the ground.

BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins's "36 Hours on the Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump" involves a trip to New Hampshire, an impromptu flight to Trump's Palm Beach resort, and a squabble over an airplane bill. Coppins's thesis — that Trump isn't really running for president — may have proven incorrect, but he produces a number of insights about Trump that feel remarkably prescient:

Trump’s lavish lifestyle and his brash proclamations that everything he touches is the best, the greatest, the most incredible — all of it contributes to an illusion of electability within his inner circle.

And yet, among the chorus of "Yes, Mr. Trump"s and "You were great, Mr. Trump"s that tumble out of his yes-men at even the faintest prompt, the Donald can still hear the din of guffaws coming from a political class that long ago stopped taking him seriously. And it’s driving him crazy.

3) New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman also has a really fun profile from within the bowels of Trump's campaign operation, including this look at how Trump comes up with the epithets he deploys against his rivals:

I asked him about the lines that have become his signature. In most other campaigns there are speechwriters (and pollsters) for this. But there is clearly no team of comedy writers squirreled away downstairs.

"I’m the writer," Trump said. "Let me start with Little Marco. He just looked like Little Marco to me. And it’s not Little. It’s Liddle. L-I-D-D-L-E. And it’s not L-Y-I-N-G Ted Cruz. It’s L-Y-I-N apostrophe. Ted’s a liar, so that was easy."

4) Politico published a must-read about Trump's campaign operation, which unearthed a conference call the candidate held with New York political consultants a few weeks before Christmas 2013.

Politico's Eli Stokols and Ben Schreckinger produce some quotes from Trump's early planning stages that, as they note, sound downright "prophetic" — with Trump boldly promising to be able to shake up the race without spending a dime on paid advertising:

To the GOP county chairs and assemblymen there in Trump Tower’s glass-enclosed conference room overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park, Trump’s aspirations seemed far-fetched and the plan itself sounded downright implausible.

"He said, ‘I’m going to walk away with it and win it outright,’" a long-time New York political consultant recalled. "Trump told us, ‘I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.’"

5) But this may give Trump too much credit. In the New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells floats the possibility that Trump essentially lucked into his electorate success and has rewritten the rules of the campaign almost by accident:

There’s probably no organizing genius to the Trump campaign. But maybe there’s a kind of accidental genius. That Trump had opted out of the machinery of the modern campaign freed him to chase a group of voters who were traditionally hard to reach.

IX. Donald Trump and the media

trump and the media (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the search for whom to blame for Donald Trump's successful takeover of the Republican Party, one group may get fingered more than any other: the media.

It's not clear how fair that attack is. But there's no doubt that the Washington, DC, press corps has been obsessed with Trump — and that many see the glut of coverage as a crucial factor powering his bid.

How has Trump manipulated the media, and how has the media enabled Trump? Here are the best analyses I could find of that question.

1) At the New York Times, Nicholas Confessore and Karen Yourish have a devastating breakdown of the head-spinning amount of free coverage Trump has received. This is a good summary for anyone new to the topic of Trump's media blitz.

Mr. Trump is not just a little better at earning media. He is way better than any of the other candidates.

Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign. Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer, says that Mr. Trump "has no weakness in any of the media segments" — in other words, he is strong in every type of earned media, from television to Twitter.

2) But at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver has demonstrated that Trump's media coverage — though gargantuan — may really be more a response to public demand than anything else.

In fact, Silver finds that the media may not even be covering Trump enough relative to the audience's hunger to hear his voice:

Even before his imbecilic comments about Sen. John McCain this weekend, which came too recently to be included in this data, Trump was receiving far more media attention than any other Republican ...

And yet, the public is perhaps even more obsessed with Trump. Among the GOP candidates, he represented 62 percent of the Google search traffic over the past month, having been searched for more than six times as often as second-place Bush.

So if the press were going purely by public demand, there might be even more Trump coverage.

3) What to make of this puzzle? The most nuanced piece I've seen for saying the media enabled Trump comes from NPR media critic David Folkenflik.

Folkenflik isn't naive about the commercial constraints on the media, and he acknowledges that the audience created the market demand that the press then met. But he makes a persuasive argument that this defense lets the media off much too easily:

The media greatly enabled Trump, embracing the spectacle to give him vast swaths of real estate on air, online and in print.

Such blanket coverage sent television news ratings soaring. Several cable news hosts told me they felt they had lost control of their programs as executives demanded live feeds of Trump to continue to fuel increased audiences.

Trump also found he could drive coverage without rallies and without interviews. A single tweet to his millions of online followers often sent the news cycle shuddering in a different direction. Obviously, journalists report on the events unfolding in front of them. In this instance, however, Trump's stagecraft overwhelmed news judgment.

4) If Folkenflik has the best entry in the "media created Trump sweepstakes," the best counterargument may come from Politico's Jack Shafer.

Shafer isn't just making a contrarian argument for the sake of doing so. He understands that the media showered Trump with tons of free coverage, but then argues that this linear narrative gives Trump too little credit for his successful exploitation of the traditional rules of reporting:

Trump may yet turn out to be a fairly conventional American populist when it comes to his policy views, but he’s already proved revolutionary in his ability to create—and then manipulate—the media platforms that enable his politics. His breakthrough idea was to cash in on his four decades of media exposure with a political message that uniquely combined victimhood, bragging and patriotic obfuscation.

5) Back in November 2015, my colleague Dylan Matthews had thoughts on this as well.

Rather than reach for the simple "the media created Trump" narrative, Matthews dissected how news anchors' obligation to cover a leading presidential candidate collided with their commitment to inform their viewers (the occasion was Trump's spewing of verifiably false rumors about Muslim Americans celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey):

Generally speaking, TV news shouldn't be in the business of making its viewers believe stuff that isn't true. And in any other context, that'd be enough to keep the likes of Trump off the air. But TV news is also in the business of covering leading politicians, particularly ones the polls indicate are likely to get a major party's nomination for the presidency. So not covering Trump feels actively irresponsible. The result is the jumble ABC News presented Sunday, wherein a frustrated interviewer is forced to entertain the candidate's lies and try to rebut them in real time, knowing that defusing each and every falsehood is impossible. It's a mess of a television program. But what else is ABC to do?

6) Similarly, the Washington Post's John Sides says we need a middle ground that doesn't wholly blame the media for Trump but that doesn't absolve the industry of guilt, either:

In fact, the news media collectively write the narrative. In so doing, they make many, many choices about how much to cover events and candidates during a campaign, and how to cover them.

Those choices have consequences. They've certainly had consequences for Donald Trump.

X. Trump's tiny little fingers

trump fingers (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"I guarantee you, there's no problem."

With six simple words, Donald Trump brought his penis size into the Republican presidential debate. He did so to parry an attack from rival Marco Rubio — remarkable in its own right — implying Trump had small genitalia because of his allegedly small fingers.

Why did Rubio start saying Trump had small fingers in the first place? Well, no Donald Trump reading list would be complete without a discussion of Donald Trump's tiny little fingers. So here goes.

1) In 1990, Spy Magazine began calling Trump a "short-fingered vulgarian," mostly just to get a rise out of the Donald.

In a hilarious piece in Vanity Fair this fall, former Spy writer Graydon Carter discussed the surreal origin of that epithet and how it spawned a tradition that's lasted to the current day:

Like so many bullies, Trump has skin of gossamer. He thinks nothing of saying the most hurtful thing about someone else, but when he hears a whisper that runs counter to his own vainglorious self-image, he coils like a caged ferret. Just to drive him a little bit crazy, I took to referring to him as a "short-fingered vulgarian" in the pages of Spy magazine. That was more than a quarter of a century ago. To this day, I receive the occasional envelope from Trump. There is always a photo of him—generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers. I almost feel sorry for the poor fellow because, to me, the fingers still look abnormally stubby.

The most recent offering arrived earlier this year, before his decision to go after the Republican presidential nomination. Like the other packages, this one included a circled hand and the words, also written in gold Sharpie: "See, not so short!" I sent the picture back by return mail with a note attached, saying, "Actually, quite short." Which I can only assume gave him fits.

2) Vox's Libby Nelson tracks the "little finger" epithet from its origins to the 2016 campaign, when Marco Rubio made it part of his attack on Trump. She also shows why the whole flap actually is important: not because Trump has small hands, but because he is so overly sensitive to defending their size:

Before we get any further into the saga of Trump's hands, here's one important note: It is not at all clear that Trump's fingers are, in fact, unusually short. But what matters is that Trump himself seems to believe short-fingeredness is a terrible accusation that must be refuted.

3) A vignette in Mother Jones from Tim Murphy on Trump's short fingers runs through many of the same details as the stories above, but this opening riff seemed too good to leave out of any Trump writing roundup:

For Achilles, it was the heel. For Samson, it was the hair. For Beast, twas' beauty. Donald Trump may appear impervious to the sharpest Republican barbs, but he has one proven weakness over the course of his four decades in overly public life: stubby fingers.


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