The speed and spin of the news cycle makes it difficult to grasp the true absurdity of much that Trump and his administration does. Many commentators think this is intentional: as long as we are constantly off balance, egregious mind-breaking absurdities start to feel normal. Eventually people give up trying to track down facts and careful analysis. Everything seems partisan and hysteria is exhausting. Everything starts to run together. So we tune it out and eventually forget.
Plenty of experts have pointed out that this is how freedom and democracy dies (see Tim Snyder’s article and book). It is absolutely crucial that we remember how awful this stuff is, even if the news cycle has moved on.
So the Vim has made a list. It serves two purposes.
- It serves as a reminder of how dangerously abnormal the leaders of American government are right now. When you feel complacent, revisit this list, get motivated, and get active.
- Political conversations are crucial parts of change. Please see A Guide for Talking to Trump Supporters for the reasons behind this claim. You need to engage your fellow citizens in discussion. In order to have good discussion, you need to know your stuff. You can reference this list when you need to give evidence for your resistance to Trump. Being able to cite specific examples of Trump’s damaging actions is rhetorically effective. Much of what follows is fairly nonpartisan. So the list is here to help.
There will always be 12 examples on this list. We curate it with two criteria in mind:
- What is the most absurd stuff Trump and his administration has done? What is the stuff that the human mind is unable to grasp? What, when considered all by itself, is utterly disqualifying?
- What have we the people forgotten that we shouldn’t and cannot afford to forget?
1. The Birther Controversy
Though maybe Trump didn’t start birtherism, he was an unabashed supporter and face of the movement from 2011 to September of 2016, when, in an amazing and brazen act of Trumpian revisionist history, he declared that not only was he to credit for putting the racist conspiracy theory to rest, but that Hillary Clinton should be held responsible as its original author. The absurdity of such a statement obscures the fact that Trump is admitting that he was completely wrong about something he championed for years. His supporters claim that Trump is brilliant, and yet his pretext for entering politics was a monumental factual error.
All of this spectacle is meant to distract from the fact that Trump supported a racist theory that had been debunked before he took up its mantle. As part of a racist conspiracy meant to delegitimize our first black President, he played an active and prolonged role in promoting the conspiracy. It was Trump’s whole political persona for quite some time. This absurdity is disqualifying on both moral and evidential/epistemological levels, as it simultaneously promotes racism and indulges in the worst conspiracy thinking. It is enough to show that Trump does not have the disposition or character to be President.
2. Not Releasing Taxes
Presidential candidates release their tax returns. It is a good tradition and norm. Trump did not so much refuse to release his but constantly shrugged off the question with claims about a “routine audit.” We were meant to ignore the fact that audits don’t prevent people from releasing their taxes. Plus, Trump could have easily released taxes from prior years. But we got nothing. Now that he is in office, it is guaranteed that he won’t release them (voluntarily). He says only reporters care (not true—it’s even a bipartisan wish to see those taxes). It is difficult to comprehend how ridiculous that claim is. But that aside, if no one cared, why not just release them?
What makes this so absurd is that there has never been a president whose tax returns we have needed to see more. Two reasons why. 1) A major part of Trump’s appeal was his wealth. The document that would prove his wealth is hidden from voters. And with plentiful evidence that Trump is not as wealthy as his says, his tax returns would be much appreciated. Everything points towards it being a con. 2) Russia. Trump has plentiful ties to Russia, a hostile country that wanted him elected. He resists the implication that Russia interfered on his behalf. If he is innocent, why so much nervous lying? Trump also warned investigator Mueller against looking into his financial information. Why so defensive? All of this makes it astounding that he got away with not releasing any tax returns.
3. Trump University
It is difficult to fathom the absurdity of this story. Remind yourself here and here. The man who now appoints the Secretary of Education has an eponymous scam university. (The utterly absurd appointment of Betsy Devos, a person whose only relevant qualification is large campaign contributions to Republicans, is a separate absurdity.) All throughout the campaign, there was an ongoing lawsuit against Trump. He claimed that he would not settle, but when he was elected, he agreed to pay $25,000,000 to the victims. The president-elect of the United States, just before taking office, settled a lawsuit against him for $25 million. And it was because Donald Trump, the newly-elected champion of the working man, was ripping off poor and desperate people. He was using his name, an exaggerated image of success, and unceasing lies to con people into trusting him.
Keep in mind that Trump never apologized for this scam. Plus, he never apologized for saying that Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not preside over the case because of the judge’s Mexican heritage—a statement Paul Ryan called “textbook” racism. Remember also the absurdity of Mitch McConnell’s reaction to it on Meet the Press.
4. Conflicts of Interest
What’s important not to lose sight of is that Trump has chosen not to divest himself of his businesses and he has chosen not to put his business in a blind trust. Don’t let anyone tell you that it would be too burdensome for Trump to divest. First, it’s a small sacrifice to become President of the United States. Second, it isn’t like the burden would fall on Trump. He would hire some lawyers and walk away quite wealthy. Third, as a former President, neither he, nor his family, will ever want for anything. Though ethicists advised putting his company in a blind trust for the duration of his tenure—which would involve handing it over to an independent third-party—he decided to let his kids run it (more like a peek-a-boo trust). And now his children are in the administration.
But why are conflicts of interest a big deal? To take one example, from the perspective of 99.9% of Americans, US foreign policy is a black box. We have a rough idea who is in the corridors of power and we know something about what happens overseas, but the whys and wherefores are largely unknown. And now we know that at least one of the decision factors will be, “Sending troops here could hurt my hotel/golf course/resort in Y-istan.” We can reasonably disabuse ourselves of whatever trust we had in Trump having America’s best interest at heart when making foreign policy moves. The reasons for this pile up everyday. Trump has a track record of putting profit above principle. Remember, Trump said, “I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.”
In the past, his conflicts of interest prevented him from talking about plans in the Middle East. Here you can hear Trump mention that he can’t give then-Breitbart radio host Bannon a straight answer about his plans re: ISIS and Turkey because he’s got “a little conflict of interest.” But now as President we have someone who’s fine with anything as long as it’s legal in a position to make legal money by distorting US foreign policy to his financial advantage. Trump’s role models (i.e. foreign autocrats like Putin) have gotten quite good at it. Trump has followed their lead in many ways. Every indication is that vast self-enrichment will be (and has been) one of them.
Spend some time thinking about the Trump International Hotel in DC to get a sense of the absurdity.
5. KKK Support
The KKK officially endorsed Donald Trump for President. White supremacists and neo-Nazis the country over saw Trump as their guy, the guy who would fight for their values. Somehow, Trump did not hemorrhage support when white supremacists started publicizing their admiration. As a general rule, if you are given two candidates, and the KKK strongly favors one, it is a good idea to opt for the other. Somehow, about 63,000,000 people got that wrong. Even if a voter likes Trump for reasons other than the KKK-friendly aspects of his platform, the fact that there are KKK-friendly aspects of his platform at all should be enough to break their support. And it isn’t like these aspects are on the periphery of the platform. They are the core.
Here is the moment to remember. Watch Trump’s exchange with Jake Tapper about the KKK. With this and plenty other moments, white supremacists got the message loud and clear: Trump cannot politically afford to welcome their support explicitly, so he equivocates and reads prepared remarks dispassionately. It communicates acceptance and endorsement. As much as a conservative might dispute this interpretation, it is an undeniable matter of fact. That is how Trump is received. It is dog whistle politics at its finest.
None of this has been more obvious than in Trump’s remarks after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Watch Trump’s notorious “on many sides” comment. He equated the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists with those who protested the racism. Again, the message was loud and clear. Trump has a long history of courting racists. Now, sitting in the most powerful position in the world, is a man who repeatedly criticizes and mocks others and yet cannot bring himself to denounce Nazis and the KKK.
6. Tweets about 3-5 million Illegal Votes
Trump famously scandalized the media when he professed his agnosticism regarding the legitimacy of the American electoral system. As the peaceful transition of power is one of liberal democracy’s hallmarks, such calling into question was an affront to democracy itself. It should have been disqualifying. These remarks were not made after a serious study of any likely threats to electoral integrity, but rather a prudential judgement that he probably just wasn’t going to win. Here we see that protecting pride takes precedence over respecting basic American institutions.
Of course, Trump won and gave his blessing to American Democracy. That was until November 27, when he tweeted:
Notice that in his continued pursuance of narcissism over principle, Trump manages to kill three birds with one Tweet: promote conspiracy thinking, stoke racial disquiet, and steamroll over objective reality to clear a path for the needs of his narcissism. Impressive.
Despite the swift refutation (as if its dubious provenance weren’t enough), Trump fell victim of WashPo’s recidivism watch when he mentioned this to Congressional members in late January. Congressional members, however, aren’t exactly rubes when it comes to elections. They see through the hat Trump is talking through. The impressiveness of the this absurdity is that Trump either actually believes this patently obvious falsehood or he is oblivious to others’ minds or he is simply always speaking to his base, regardless of who is in the room. Of course, it need not be only one.
This lie isn’t without real, dangerous consequences. Now we have the Election Integrity Commission.
The moral of this saga, Trump vs. Reality, (which continued in increasingly petty ways) is that in the relation between reality and Trump’s narcissism, reality is the second-class citizen. Insofar as it compliments Trump, it’s a welcome handmaiden; if it isn’t, Trump won’t hesitate to consort with more congenial alternative facts.
7. Wiretapping Claim
The wiretapping saga began on March 4, 2017 when Trump tweeted:
This was simultaneously an accusation against Obama, a self-exoneration (“Nothing found.”), and a historical blunder (McCarthy was going after them reds, not oranges). Like many of Trump’s actions, this absurdity would have been disqualifying ante Trumpem. But for a man whose lifeblood is conspiracy theories, and for a time that’s conspicuously post-truth, this is sadly run-of-the-mill. O tempora, o mores, indeed.
Think about it this way. Trump has more access to information that anyone in the world. If there are top secrets, Trump knows them. Yet when asked by Tucker Carlson on what basis he was making a Watergate-level accusation, Trump cited a somewhat-related story by the New York Times and another by Breitbart. So, the man to whom the CIA and NSA report ‘found out’ he was wiretapped by watching the news. The improbability meter is in the red zone with that claim. And he obviously didn’t think to check with the heads of his intelligence agencies, because both Comey and Clapper swiftly denied this. And keep in mind, if he had actual evidence, he could have solved this immediately by declassifying the materials and exposing the Obama administration for the totalitarian globalist front that it is.
Not only is the logic of what’s going on here askew, but it’s a total debasement of the American Presidency. Trump, upon seeing news about FISA court warrant applications made during the Trump transition, decided it would be a good idea to make seriously sinister accusations of Obama and tweet these findings to his millions of followers. Again, it’s Watergate-level accusation made without paying attention to the original source, without reasoning through the situation, and without consulting people who would know. It’s the most powerful man in the world using his pulpit to whimsically invent serious-as-a-heart-attack conspiracies and spread them to millions of people. As absurd as this is, we have somehow moved on.
8. Jobs for his Children
Many people take some solace in Jared and Ivanka’s presence. There was a lot of a priori speculation about how they would be a calming, perhaps rational and liberal(-ish?) voice in the White House. Whether that is true (and it appears it isn’t), the issue is obscuring another: how absurd it is that Trump appointed his children to positions in the White House in the first place. Not children with policy and diplomatic experience (which would be understandable but still problematic). Not children who have demonstrated any knowledge of policy or diplomacy whatsoever. But children who are…his.
Let’s think a bit about what makes this all absurd, legal issues (largely) notwithstanding. First, I humbly aver that the problems America face require qualifications beyond simple blood relation to the President. It appears that the skills needed to be married to Ivanka can be applied to solving conflict in the Middle East, managing the opioid crisis, and fixing the government. Plus, Kushner is a crappy businessman, the apparent selling point for inclusion in this administration. Second, Trump promised to surround himself with “the best people.” Those people, so it seems, happened to be related to him. Quite the coincidence. This shows Trump’s deep ignorance about the issues or a disregard for the American people. Either he doesn’t know that he and his family need experts in charge or he doesn’t care. Both are disqualifying (if that word means anything anymore). Third, nepotism is dangerous and damaging. Autocrats concentrate power in their families. It is something America absolutely must resist and we don’t each moment the Trump family runs the country. Trump may well be setting us on a slippery slope. Fourth, as concerns about conflicts of interest abound, Trump is brazenly mixing government and business. He is bent on profiting from the presidency and doing the same for his family, a perversion of what the office should be. Yet we have accepted or forgotten this absurdity.
9. Calling Erdogan
A short time into Trump’s term, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pushed a vote for a referendum that would dramatically change the Turkish Constitution. It would expand the power of the president. There are reports that Erdogan was involved in arresting dissidents and protesters. He prevented people from publicizing critiques of the referendum. Government resources were used to advertise in favor. The vote was close. But after he won, there was evidence of tampering with the results. International election monitors pointed out the “unlevel playing field” and widespread government-backed disinformation. According to many, it was a pseudo-democratic action to move a country closer to theocratic autocracy.
Trump quickly called Erdogan to congratulate him on the victory. It was an affront to American values of liberalism and fair elections. (Even if you think the Turkish vote was fair, Trump didn’t know and didn’t wait to look at the evidence.) It is unsurprising, however, because Trump sees Erdogan as a figure to emulate. He is a man who jails journalists, aspires to political dominance, and shows disregard for checks and balances and democratic institutions. The fact that Trump made this call was tragically underemphasized at the time. It is a perfect glimpse into Trump’s values.
Remember also that Erdogan’s bodyguards beat American protestors on American soil during a visit. Trump said nothing about it.
10. Effect on Intelligence Agencies
Under Trump, the US’s intelligence agencies have undergone an unprecedented stress test. The icy relationship between them and Trump seems to have begun when the latter refused to acknowledge intelligence community’s consensus that the Kremlin orchestrated the DNC hacks. Going beyond a mere lack of acknowledgement a broad intelligence consensus, Trump accused the agencies of partisanship and incompetence. From this time onward intelligence leaks have become common (not a good leak to spring).
Trump also skips intelligence briefings, and when information is presented to him, he needs to have his name mentioned as often as possible. He needs bullet points and pictures. Seemingly oblivious to the optics, the day after he fired Comey for “this Russia thing,” he shared classified information about ISIS with a Russian ambassador. In sum, Trump’s relationship with our intelligence agencies seems to obey the same principles as his relationship with the press: if you’re loyal and flattering, you’re good. If not, you’re an enemy. As Daniel Larson wrote at The American Conservative, “Trump exacerbates his lack of preparation with his disdain for expertise and his tendency to reward flatterers, so that he remains poorly informed or thoroughly misinformed about major issues” (honestly, this quote about foreign affairs could apply equally to health care, immigration, and tax policy).
When you consider how much we need the intelligence agencies (and by ‘we’ I mean the President), Trump’s attitude is dangerous. In short, as Commander-in-Chief it’s incumbent on Trump to be humble to knowledge and knowers, but petty arrogance is all that’s on show.
11. Calling Media “enemy of the people”
Trump isn’t big on freedom of expression. (Open up the libel laws! Out with thee, flag burners!) One of his more well-known variations on the theme was calling the press “the enemy of the people”. Many articles discuss the history of the term “enemy of the people.” I encourage you to read those, but the gist can be understood by listing who has used it: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Chavez. Though conservatives frequently point out that those who make the Hitler analogy have thereby lost the debate—and more generally, that such comparisons are the emanations of leftist echo chambers—the point is that this phrase and the way of thinking it encapsulates wouldn’t even occur to a person who values freedom of the press. Sure, Trump probably didn’t get the phrase while boning up on autocratic tactics of leaders he admirers. But it’s a cold comfort to say that Trump came up with the phrase independently, for who knows how many of the above mentioned leaders did as well and from what internal autocratic impulse it comes.
It bears mentioning that the press (or at least the press at which Trump is aiming) is obviously not the enemy of the people.
12. Listing Crimes of Immigrants
Famously, Trump kicked off his 2016 campaign stoking racial anxiety by referring to the raping, drug-dealing Mexicans. Listing crimes of immigrants was a go-to rally tactic of his. Note that by no means was Trump interested in these stories as lurid particulars; he wanted those listening to make generalizations. He was interested in parlaying racism to a Presidency. By no means was this limited to pre-election rallies. In his first joint address to Congress, Trump announced the creation of a new office in the Department of Homeland Security, VOICE, Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.” (Not by all the media of course, such reporting is a staple of the Breitbart diet.) All this is a famous abuse of empathy, and in exploiting it, Trump has some notorious bedfellows.
Honorable (?) mentions
- Trump didn’t seem to know that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is dead.
- Flynn sits at the center of Trump’s suspicious connections to Russia. Russia interfered with the election on Trump’s behalf, an act that could be classified an act of war. And yet Flynn was appointed to be in charge of national security. Read this.
- Rick Perry didn’t know what the Department of Energy does and infamously forgot the agency’s name when listing agencies he would eliminate. Trump appointed him as Secretary of Energy.
- After a terrorist attack in London on June 3, 2017, Trump tweeted an attack of Sadiq Khan, saying that the mayor had told Londoners that there is “no reason to be alarmed.” The quote was taken grossly out of context. That, along with Trump’s attempt to use the attack to gin up support for the travel ban, was absurd.
- Conflating the judicial branch with the legislative, he thought judges deal in bills.
- Immediately after firing Comey for the Russia investigation, Trump welcomed Russian diplomats and media into the White House and proceeded to divulge highly sensitive intelligence to them.
- On Andrew Jackson: “tough”, “big heart”, ‘really angry about the Civil War’ (a war that began 16 years after his death).
- After criticizing Obama incessantly, Trump took almost weekly trips to his Mar a lago resort, trips which required taxpayers to dump millions of dollars directly into Trump’s business. He also held important diplomatic meetings there, in the dining room among club guests.
- He thinks Lincoln’s membership in the Republican party is historians’ arcana.