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Trump’s cognitive deficits

[ 259 ] August 3, 2017 |

Jon Chait flags yet another terrifying transcript of a Trump conversation, this one with the Prime Minster of Austria or Australia or one of them countries.

Tl;dr: PM tries to explain a very simple refugee policy that a 12-year-old of normal intelligence would understand after about 30 seconds of exposition. (This is not hyperbole). Then he tries again. And again. And again. Trump never gives any evidence of understanding anything he’s being told.

What’s the matter with this guy? Some possibilities (these are not of course mutually exclusive):

Trump is so narcissistic that he can’t focus on anything other than himself for more than a few seconds, unless it’s something in which he has a compelling pre-existing interest: a category which apparently includes golf, the genitalia of young women, and not much if anything else.

If we want to try to get technical, this itself comes across as a form of attention deficit disorder: specifically, he often gives the impression of having the attention span of a fruit fly, which of course makes it impossible for him to learn anything (Getting this guy to actually read a three-page executive summary is probably equivalent to trying to get Bart Simpson to do a book report on Being and Time).

There’s a powerful negative synergy at work here, in that his ADD is compounded by his impatience with any subject he doesn’t know much about, which again appears to be basically everything other than a couple or three topics, none of which are germane to the execution of his current job.

In addition, Trump’s narcissism, if that’s what underlies all this, manifests itself constantly as some sort of florid compensation for what appears to be a deep psychic wound or wounds, that he frantically tries to cover up with his continual, extraordinarily socially inappropriate insistence that he is the most talented, impressive, beloved, and admired person he has ever met. The Boy Scout convention incident is typical: Trump insists to reporters that he got a standing ovation that lasted five minutes after he left the stage. (Set a timer and try to applaud for five minutes. A friend of mine who is a historian of the Soviet Union tells me of the agonizing problem encountered by Soviet officials at the end of any Stalin speech, to wit, who was going to be the first person to stop applauding. No doubt North Korea’s elite faces a similar problem today).

If this wasn’t enough, he then invents a completely imaginary phone call from the head of the organization, in which he’s told it was the greatest speech ever given to its members. And this isn’t some one-off incident: Trump does and says things like this all the time.

Trump’s rambling, often incomprehensible style of speech has led to speculation that he may be suffering from early stage dementia (he’s 71, so this isn’t particularly improbable).

People sometimes compare Trump’s mental abilities and deficits to Reagan and Bush II, but this seems to me to be a radical understatement of the gravity of the situation. It’s true that Reagan did seem to manifest some serious cognitive slippage toward the end of his presidency, and that Bush the Lesser was intellectually incurious in the extreme. Peggy Noonan once celebrated the latter quality in a column that is perfect distillation of right-wing anti-intellectualism:

Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He’s normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He’s not exotic. But if there’s a fire on the block, he’ll run out and help. He’ll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, “Where’s Sally?” He’s responsible. He’s not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world. And then when the fire comes they say, “I warned Joe about that furnace.” And, “Does Joe have children?” And “I saw a fire once. It spreads like syrup. No, it spreads like explosive syrup. No, it’s formidable and yet fleeting.” When the fire comes they talk. Bush ain’t that guy. Republicans love the guy who ain’t that guy. Americans love the guy who ain’t that guy.

Yet neither of these men ever exhibited anything close to the complete train wreck that is Trump’s mind, if you want to call it that.

This isn’t some snarky joke about stupid right-wingers: it’s a physiological-political crisis that is rapidly reaching, if it hasn’t already reached, levels that ought to bring the 25th amendment into play.


Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting

[ 131 ] August 1, 2017 |

Here are a couple of representative quotes from the full transcript of an interview the Wall Street Journal did with Donald Trump last week, but which for some not very mysterious reason it declined to publish. Politico, which against all odds has become a useful publication, got ahold of it.

So I deal with foreign countries, and despite what you may read I have unbelievable relationships with all of the foreign leaders. They like me. I like them. You know, it’s amazing. So I’ll call, like, major – major countries, and I’ll be dealing with the prime minister or the president. And I’ll say, how are you doing? Oh, don’t know, don’t know, not well, Mr. President, not well. I said, well, what’s the problem? Oh, GDP 9 percent, not well. And I’m saying to myself, here we are at like 1 percent, dying, and they’re at 9 percent and they’re unhappy. So, you know, and these are like countries, you know, fairly large, like 300 million people. You know, a lot of people say – they say, well, but the United States is large. And then you call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have. So China’s going to be at 7 or 8 percent, and they have a billion-five, right? So we should do really well.

WSJ: We were in West Virginia yesterday.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Oh, you did? Was that a scene, though? Huh?

WSJ: That was a scene, yes. (Laughter.)

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Biggest crowd they’ve ever had. What did you think?

WSJ: I thought it was an interesting speech in the context of the Boy Scouts.


WSJ: They seemed to get a lot of feedback from former scouts and –

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Did they like it?

WSJ: It seemed mixed.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: They loved it. (Laughter.) It wasn’t – it was no mix. That was a standing –

WSJ: In the – you got a good – you got a good reaction in –

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I mean, you know, he writes mostly negative stuff. But that was a standing ovation –

WSJ: You got a good reaction inside the arena, that’s right.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: – from the time I walked out on the stage – because I know. And by the way, I’d be the first to admit mixed. I’m a guy that will tell you mixed. There was no mix there. That was a standing ovation from the time I walked out to the time I left, and for five minutes after I had already gone. There was no mix.

WSJ: Yeah, there was a lot of supporters in the arena.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: And I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them, and they were very thankful. So there was – there was no mix.

MR. BAKER: Sir, can I ask you about taxes?

I would bet everything I own that the description of that phone call — if it even happened, which it probably didn’t — is false. What I wouldn’t want to bet on is whether Trump is lying or simply delusional.

Anyway, the whole thing is indescribable. Read at your own risk.

It’s a town full of losers

[ 132 ] July 31, 2017 |

Over-under on how long Kelly lasts in his new job?

Washington (CNN)New White House chief of staff John Kelly was so upset with how President Donald Trump handled the firing of FBI Director James Comey that Kelly called Comey afterward and said he was considering resigning, according to two sources familiar with a conversation between Kelly and Comey.

Both sources cautioned that it was unclear how serious Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security, was about resigning himself.

“John was angry and hurt by what he saw and the way (Comey) was treated,” one of the sources said.

You can’t really call it a leak if the bucket has no bottom.

. . . this person pretty much has to be the replacement for Spicer/Mooch. Because this novel sucks so bad, her name is Katrina, of course.

Hey stats people

[ 45 ] July 31, 2017 |

Based on extrapolation from two data points, how long is Trump’s next press secretary/Director of Communications/Minister of Truth going to last?

Black versus white household income over the past 50 years

[ 117 ] July 30, 2017 |

I outline here what ought to be the astounding fact that, more than a half century after the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the creation of affirmative action, etc., America has achieved exactly zero progress in improving the economic status of African Americans relative to that of whites:

In 2015 — the most recent year for which data are available — black households at the 20th and 40th percentiles of household income earned an average of 55 percent as much as white households at those same percentiles. This is exactly the same figure as in 1967.

Indeed, five decades of household income data reveal a yawning and uncannily consistent income gap between black and white Americans across the economic spectrum. Fifty years ago, black upper-class Americans had incomes about two-thirds those of white upper-class Americans, while the black middle class — those in the 60th percentile — earned about two-thirds [note: this should be three-fifths] as much as its white counterpart. Those ratios remain the same today.

I also engage in some groundbreaking historical research, uncovering the previously unknown fact that Martin Luther King’s civil rights efforts were not limited to one speech in August of 1963:

It is important to remember the extent to which the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was focused on economic injustice. Indeed, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who planned the March on Washington that culminated with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, organized the event primarily to highlight and protest what they called “the economic subordination of the American Negro.”

And Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which he was organizing at the time of his murder, was an even more explicit argument that racial and economic justice are inextricably linked.

Still, leftists should avoid snark about white economic anxiety, which is just as real as racism:

None of this is intended to minimize the legitimate anxiety felt by white families at a time when wages for low-wage workers have declined and middle-class incomes have stagnated, even as the economy has boomed and upper-class incomes have soared. Between 1980 and 2014, the post-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of the population grew by 21 percent, while that of the top .01 percent grew by 424 percent.

But over that same time, black working- and middle-class households have seen their incomes stagnate in exactly the same fashion as those of their white neighbors — and from a base that was and thus remains little more than half as large.

A genuine populist movement would unite working- and middle-class Americans of all backgrounds, rather than dividing them by exploiting false beliefs about the supposed loss of white economic privilege.

You want it darker

[ 197 ] July 28, 2017 |

‏Verified account
Trump says that he’s okay with police being rougher on arrested suspects, such as hitting their head on police car. Crowd of police cheers.
11:33 AM – 28 Jul 2017

A few thoughts:

This is what Richard Nixon would have sounded like in 1970 if you subtracted 40 IQ points.

That the cops cheered is a lot more disturbing than what the sociopath in chief ranted.

It never occurs to upper class white criminals that advocating for police brutality might actually not be in their own self-interest, at least in theory.

Also, WTF?

Gaming out a Trump impeachment

[ 210 ] July 27, 2017 |

It seems more likely than not that 17 months from now the House will be in the hands of the Democrats. The first order of business, assuming martial law hasn’t been declared by then, will be to decide whether to impeach Donald Trump.

This post isn’t about whether Trump deserves to be impeached as a legal and political matter — obviously he’s completely unfit to be POTUS in every conceivable way, and this is the only constitutional mechanism for removing such a person, short of operationalizing the 25th amendment.

The question at hand, rather, is: Will it be a good idea to do so? The variables here are many, and their intersection complex. To mention just a few: Will there be any chance whatsoever of the Senate convicting him? Will an impeachment proceeding be a good way of forcing the administration to disgorge evidence regarding its various and multiplying scandals? Will there be a backlash from the majority of the American people, as we saw with Bill Clinton’s impeachment (obviously the situations are very different, but . . .)? In the alternative, will such a proceeding harden both opposition and support for Trump, pushing the country further down the road toward metaphorical or literal civil war, or, even worse, increasing incivility in our public discourse? Will the Democrats have enough votes to force a trial in the Senate, assuming the process gets rolling in a serious way? Will this lead to several thousand op-ed pieces penned by aging boomers about how they watched the Watergate hearings on live TV? (I’ll handle this one: Yes).

Many other questions can and should be asked as well. Have at it, noble commentariat of a TOP 100 BLOG(tm).

Honor and dignity

[ 107 ] July 27, 2017 |

Scaramucci called into CNN after his financial disclosure report was published hours earlier. Although the form was public information, Scaramucci still felt it was leaked.

“Why don’t you honor the job?” Scaramucci told New Day anchor Chris Cuomo. “Remember Joe Paterno? What would he say? Act like you’ve been there before. Act with honor and dignity and respect and hold the confidence of the presidency and his office.”

The call into CNN followed the leak of Scaramucci’s financial disclosure form. Scaramucci tweeted – then deleted – a call for the FBI to investigate the leak, calling it a “felony.” He tagged White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Then, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza tweeted that Scaramucci really wanted the FBI to “investigate Reince for leaking.” Scaramucci then denied the report, writing, “Wrong! Tweet was public notice to leakers that all Sr Adm officials are helping to end illegal leaks.”

Joe Paterno was a conscious child rape enabler, who was directly responsible for the rapes of dozens of children.

Higher education and the robber barons of the new gilded age

[ 36 ] July 26, 2017 |

Erik’s post about the manful exertions of the Koch brothers to save the youth of Utah from the tentacles of communistic propaganda in the guise of economic research reminded me of a project that seems worth undertaking: A survey of exactly what has happened to college and university endowments over the past 50 years.

Here are a few stats.

Between 1966-67 and 1980-81, the per-student value of American higher ed endowments fell by almost half, from $10,422 to $5,418 per student (all figures in 2017 dollars). This was a product of two factors:

Enrollment almost doubled.

The combined real value of higher ed endowments actually declined slightly.

The second factor was in turn a product of two developments: First, the period between the mid-60s to the early 80s was a really bad time for American financial markets. Between 1966 and 1981 the S&P 500 produced a cumulative overall return of -15% (this is with all dividends re-invested), and bonds got slaughtered in the 1970s as well. Second, to a significant extent rich people weren’t feeling the love for universities during this time, and didn’t open up their pocket books as a result.

Anyway, since by the 1960s a non-trivial number of institutions had begun to depend on endowment income to fund a non-trivial portion of their operating expenses, this trend was becoming a big problem, budgetarily speaking.

Luckily for university administrators and the deeply tenured neo-liberalism prosperity was just around the corner: for the past 35 years higher ed endowments have been on quite a tear. The total value of those endowments is at this moment probably about $550 billion, which is to say 8.5 times greater, in constant dollars, than it was in 1981. This works out to $27,500 per student.

Now this wealth has been, to put it mildly, far from evenly distributed: a few institutions have made out like robber barons, and a couple of hundred others have done OK, but the vast majority of American higher ed gets little or nothing in the way of endowment income.

There’s a lot to say about all this, but what I’m wondering/blegging at the moment is: are there any historical studies that focus specifically on the role the original gilded age captains played in funding the American higher ed system at that time? Obviously several of these people (Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Mellon, Stanford etc.) decided to throw a lot of money at the colleges and universities of the time. Why and to what effect?

I’m asking because it seems clear that something at least somewhat similar has been going on for the last three or so decades, with all kinds of implications for the production of knowledge (or “knowledge”) within the contemporary American university. Thoughts and suggestions on the subject?

The crack-up

[ 156 ] July 22, 2017 |

140 characters at a time.

“The devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked.”

Thomas More

Revolt of the masses

[ 414 ] July 20, 2017 |

This New Yorker profile of Trump supporters in western Colorado is yet another entry into the quasi-anthropological task of trying to figure out how an astonishingly ignorant and increasingly demented old man who is a raging narcissist etc. etc. etc. could be elected president of the United States. It draws a picture of Trump’s base as made up in large part of people who harbor a deep sense of alienation and marginalization, and who see themselves as revolting against The Establishment, especially the media establishment:

Last October, three weeks before the election, Donald Trump visited Grand Junction for a rally in an airport hangar. Along with other members of the press, I was escorted into a pen near the back, where a metal fence separated us from the crowd. At that time, some prominent polls showed Clinton leading by more than ten percentage points, and Trump often claimed that the election might be rigged. During the rally he said, “There’s a voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories.” He pointed in our direction, describing us as “criminals,” among other things: “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing! They’re doing everything, these people right back here!”

The attacks came every few minutes, and they served as a kind of tether to the speech. The material could have drifted off into abstraction—e-mails, Benghazi, the Washington swamp. But every time Trump pointed at the media, the crowd turned, and by the end people were screaming and cursing at us. One man tried to climb over the barrier, and security guards had to drag him away.

Such behavior is out of character for residents of rural Colorado, where politeness and public decency are highly valued. Erin McIntyre, a Grand Junction native who works for the Daily Sentinel, the local paper, stood in the crowd, where the people around her screamed at the journalists: “Lock them up!” “Hang them all!” “Electric chair!” Afterward, McIntyre posted a description of the event on Facebook. “I thought I knew Mesa County,” she wrote. “That’s not what I saw yesterday. And it scared me.”

Before Trump took office, people I met in Grand Junction emphasized pragmatic reasons for supporting him. The economy was in trouble, and Trump was a businessman who knew how to make rational, profit-oriented decisions. Supporters almost always complained about some aspect of his character, but they also believed that these flaws were likely to help him succeed in Washington. “I’m not voting for him to be my pastor,” Kathy Rehberg, a local real-estate agent, said. “I’m voting for him to be President. If I have rats in my basement, I’m going to try to find the best rat killer out there. I don’t care if he’s ugly or if he’s sociable. All I care about is if he kills rats.”

After the turbulent first two months of the Administration, I met again with Kathy Rehberg and her husband, Ron. They were satisfied with Trump’s performance, and their complaints about his behavior were mild. “I think some of it is funny, how he doesn’t let people push him around,” Ron Rehberg said. Over time, such remarks became more common. “I hate to say it, but I wake up in the morning looking forward to what else is coming,” Ray Scott, a Republican state senator who had campaigned for Trump, told me in June. One lawyer said bluntly, “I get a kick in the ass out of him.” The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own. The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. This had always seemed fundamental to Trump’s appeal, but people had been less likely to express it so starkly before he entered office. “For those of us who believe that the media has been corrupt for a lot of years, it’s a way of poking at the jellyfish,” Karen Kulp told me in late April. “Just to make them mad.”

Grand Junction, like a lot of places, has been ravaged by the sort of hyper-capitalism shading off into outright grifting that Donald Trump’s whole career exemplifies perfectly. (I suppose this is what people who munch in quiet self-satisfaction on sopressata sandwiches while listening to NPR would call “irony.”). Voting for Trump because you sense (often correctly) that the system is in many ways rigged against people like you is the political equivalent of mailing yourself a letter bomb, but at least it makes the liberals mad. And striking back against people who, in your view, dedicate their lives to making you feel bad about yourself is an eminently predictable behavior.

A friend of mine explains it like this:

People resent being told they are stupid, and that their long-held values are silly and wrong.

There are a huge number of people in this country, in all parts but certainly more heavily concentrated in the middle, that believe in “traditional American values.” This is set of views that has gone largely unchallenged for most of their lives, and upon which they honestly believe this country is based. The key tenet is being “normal”:

-Christianity is normal, and so is quiet agnosticism. All the different kinds of Muslims (Muslim Muslims, Hindu Muslims, Sikh Muslims) are not normal and are maybe violent. Jews are not normal, but are smart and non-threatening, although you need to watch them. They have never actually met a Muslim or a Jew.

-They don’t believe they are racist at all. They judge people by how they act, not how they look. If all blacks dressed and acted like the ones in the Olive Garden commercials, they would be totally fine with them. But the saggy pants and all the jewelry and bright colors and filthy rap music and whatnot – that isn’t normal. If they want to be accepted, why don’t they just act normal? They don’t know any black people, beyond maybe someone they say “hi” to at work.

-They know some people are gay, but it isn’t normal. It’s fine if they want to do that, but they shouldn’t flaunt it in public and make everyone uncomfortable. And they shouldn’t be putting it on tv or movies like it is normal and just as good as regular relationships, because it isn’t. They know some gays, but they aren’t invited to the bbq this weekend because there are going to be kids there.

-They think the whole trans “debate” is the silliest thing they have ever heard. What, boys are girls now, or vice versa, or whatever they want? And that’s supposed to be normal? And my daughter is going to see some weirdo’s dick waggling out in the bathroom because he feels like he is a girl? Not normal. Not fucking ok.

Especially over the past decade or so, these people have increasingly been told that their deeply-held views are not only wrong, but make them bad people. And, being humans, their reaction isn’t to rethink their lifelong worldview and change their attitude, but rather to dig in and say “fuck you.” They know they are “supposed to say” that they are ok with gay marriage, and black lives matter, and all that, because if they don’t they are going to be called stupid, redneck racists by people on TV and in print media. So they have changed what they’ll say out loud, or at least to whom they will say it, but haven’t changed their beliefs. And Hillary and the democrats are exactly the kind of people that would judge them harshly for their views, and Donald Trump and the republicans are the kind of people who don’t. So they are voting republican, no matter how big of a clown Trump is, because at least those people don’t piss all over my fundamental sense of self.

For such people, a culturally conservative white Christian is what sociologists call an “unmarked category,” and what they themselves think of as a real American. And a lot of real Americans are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it any more — even if it means voting for Donald Trump.

This would be funny to watch from another country, or better yet planet

[ 116 ] July 19, 2017 |

WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Wednesday that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision “very unfair to the president.”

In a remarkable public break with one of his earliest political supporters, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Sessions’s decision ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel that should not have happened. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Mr. Trump said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times, the president also accused James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in May, of trying to leverage a dossier of compromising material to keep his job. Mr. Trump criticized both the acting F.B.I. director who has been filling in since Mr. Comey’s dismissal and the deputy attorney general who recommended it. And he took on Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel now leading the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Mueller was running an office rife with conflicts of interest and warned investigators against delving into matters too far afield from Russia. Mr. Trump never said he would order the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, nor would he outline circumstances under which he might do so. But he left open the possibility as he expressed deep grievance over an investigation that has taken a political toll in the six months since he took office.

Asked if Mr. Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Mr. Trump said, “I would say yes.” He would not say what he would do about it. “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”

Here’s the actual interview, or parts of it. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

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