On Hearing President Trump In Person -- And Not Hating It
And on Analyzing My Own Indoctrination
Today is a new low for an America that is being dragged through every humiliation, in its re-christening as a thoroughgoing Banana Republic.
I’ve long argued that symbolic degradation of the US is part of the psychological war being waged against us. No President checks his watch multiple times at a military funeral without that act being scripted. No Vice President organically departs from talking points to repeat herself randomly, and to create the trademark “word salads”, devoid of linear meaning, that Vice President Harris produces. That public, symbolic demonstration of meaninglessness at the highest levels of our government, is itself central to the script.
And the abuse of our grand jury process, in the effort underway now to imprison the leading opposition candidate for the Presidency of the United States, is not about the actual grand jury process.
A Georgia Grand Jury handed down an indictment on August 14, 2023, presenting President Trump and his colleagues with felony racketeering and conspiracy charges, among other charges. This drama of President Trump’s indictment now — the fact that he must detour from the campaign trail for appearances before prosecutors, or must divert energy from speech preparation and consulting with campaign staff, to spend time with lawyers to prepare their responses to these charges — is itself the symbolic drama.
Again, speaking as someone who was in the background when both Vice President Gore’s and George Bush Jr’s lawyers were instructed to find ways to locate the votes to get their Principal over the top, and when both campaigns sought to coordinate their efforts closely with grassroots get-out-the-vote organizations and with state level leadership figures on both sides — I am appalled that one accusation presented in the indictment, was that President Trump — essentially tried to do a similar thing.
The description of what is requested for the months ahead should resonate with anyone who has studied the history of show trials: there will be a trial requested for within the next six months — that is, during peak campaign season — and the goal is for all of the defendants to be tried together.
That’s how Premier Stalin and Chairman Mao presented their show trials and public confessions, in 1936-1938 and in the 1950s, respectively, as well:
“Fulton county district attorney Fani Willis said that all 19 defendants would be tried at the same time and that she would be asking for a trial within the next six months.”
What this is about is not criminality but about the timing of a targeting that demonstrates the subversion of our democracy. The opposition leader, fewer than five months before the Iowa caucuses, is drained of the time, focus and resources to make his case to the American public. He must worry about trying to stay out of jail, even as precious dates are cancelled from the campaign calendar. This is exactly what happens in banana republics. The opposition leader is imprisoned or indicted under inflated charges while he or she is on the campaign trail.
Whatever becomes of this indictment, no future opposition leader will dare to challenge a contested election, as I noted earlier. With the indictment on August 14 2023 of many of President Trump’s colleagues as well (also as in the 1930s and 1950s in the Soviet Union and in China), a precedent has been established that non-legacy, that is, non-”anointed” candidates, will not be able to find help for their campaigns, as speechwriters, lawyers, fundraisers and campaign staffers will fear future lawfare.
Here I disclose that I actually went to hear President Trump in person — last month, at an event in his private Trump National Bedminster Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. I was given the opportunity to attend by a friend, and, while I hesitated, it was only for a moment. No real journalist should give up the chance to hear a former President, and current candidate for that job, in person.
So I agreed, and Brian and I set out.
That experience took me aback as it made me rethink many of my reflexes — reflexes that even I recognize have been engineered by propaganda and repetition, as I too am only human; reflexes engineered in me to make me “hate Donald Trump.”
First of all, the physical setting, to which we arrived a day before the speech, as we were hosted overnight, led me to question some preconceptions. I’d been conditioned to believe that the Trump Inc empire was about poor taste. As I reflected on my cultivated aversion to the man and the brand, I realized that a huge part of the animosity directed at him was a class-based dog whistle system. People “with taste” — that is, the global elite, the liberal elite — “us” — were asked to hate and disdain someone who had been labelled as a “vulgarian” (indeed, a “short-fingered vulgarian”) since the days of Spy magazine.
All of the coverage with which I had been familiar, showcased the apparent crimes of Donald Trump’s bad aesthetic taste. He was a parvenu, was the implication. Not “our kind.”
As a student of Edith Wharton, though, and of New York City social history, I had always been skeptical of this line of attack. For a hundred and fifty years, the New York elite who are already established have been fighting tooth and nail against the generational ascendancy of “new money.” They always revile it.
The old Dutch families fought off the ascendancy of the robber barons, as Wharton documented in her New York Stories, which spanned the years 1891-1934; and then the children of the robber barons, a generation later, sought to fight off the newly minted heirs and heiresses who were the children of sewing machine fortunes and retail and film fortunes — the children of immigrants. That class-driven battle raged right up into the pages of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 Bonfire of the Vanities. Was Donald Trump’s purported bad taste, an actual moral crime? I was never fully persuaded.
But at Bedminster, I was moved, before I even heard the man, by the decisions made by his team, about the physical surroundings. This elegant private club — and you can have your legitimate questions about the very existence of elegant private clubs — was not a monument to ostentation or showy excess. It was, rather, built to remember and celebrate a moment in America in which America was perfect to some people. Everywhere you looked — the rolling lawns edged with untouched wilderness, in the heart of New Jersey; the spacious blue swimming pool, ringed with quiet guest rooms; the fountains in classical shapes, and the plantings that provided old-school decoration around them; the clocks that looked straight out of 1915, that studded the outdoors gathering areas; the architecture that invoked a 1920s American vernacular — white clapboard and grey stone; clocktowers overlooking campus-type quads; ivy and tennis courts, and a soft wind blowing — all of it gave me a pang.
I recognized this landscape, these buildings, this moment in the American dream.
This was America between the wars, before the Depression. It was Jay Gatsby’s Long Island — it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vision; it was the life for which that writer had always longed. It was the green light at the end of the dock, the future toward which Gatsby was always racing and for which Fitzgerald himself was always longing; it was the imaginatively perfected, if not real, America that Fitzgerald initially saw: affluent, gorgeous, dreaming, unspoiled.
Now, you can deconstruct that vision all you want. You can point out the lynchings and segregations of the the 1920s; you can point out any number of flaws in our nation at that time. But I recognized this vision — many Ivy League universities were built up at this same time period, using this same romantic iconography — and there are not only crimes in our past, though the crimes are real; there were hope and innocence and idealism for our nation, and for all of our people, in our past too.
Trump’s choices in this miniature world he had created — were not vulgar. They were aspirational, and they encapsulated a memory of an aspirational America. I felt that the physical surroundings, whoever had actually drafted and executed them, helped me to understand his thinking a bit better.
We found ourselves, the following day, at the event itself. This event too was a surprise. It was a small, fairly private gathering, hosted and attended by leaders of the Jewish community, in a well-appointed but not over-the-top dining room.
These were not the Jewish readers of The New York Times, or the inhabitants of the Upper West Side. These were not the liberal Jews from whom I descend.
These were stalwarts of the few Zionist organizations left in America; and they were representatives of the orthodox communities, including one of the most orthodox. The women around me were not dressed in showy, revealing cocktail gowns, as in Las Vegas. Rather they were modestly dressed, as Orthodox Jewish women choose to be; with long sleeves and ankle-length gowns, their hair covered by wigs or scarves. The secular men wore suits, but those from the ultra-orthodox community wore the traditional black suits and hats, and were bearded.
I was surprised to see that it was this ultra-Jewish community that so passionately welcomed this President — a man so often depicted as racist, a white supremacist, and so on.
There appeared the man himself. He was welcomed, and he took his place at a low, informal podium. For a moment I had an eerie experience: this man — the target of white-hot hatred from everyone in my former life — was standing about ten feet away from where we were seated.
There was his height, more notable in person than on camera; the characteristic slight swagger in his body language; there was his dark blue suit, his signature red tie, and his face, itself so familiar from the media that it all felt a bit surreal. His formerly orange hair was more muted and more silvery, and a less unusual shape. His formerly orange complexion was also toned down. He did look more statesmanlike than previously, and more appropriately his age. Whoever was advising him, those were effective choices.
I was surprised to see how beloved he was by the ultra-orthodox rabbi who welcomed him, and who gave the blessing - in Hebrew and in English, as I recall. I was surprised too to see how comfortable President Trump seemed, surrounded by Hebrew prayers, by rabbis in felt hats, by an award that evoked the decorations around Torah scrolls. He seemed extremely familiar with this community, and very much at home.
I heard from their remarks, why they so loved him. He had, in their view, staunchly defended the State of Israel. These were people who remembered how we had been run out of Europe, and had been massacred. While I did not share their politics regarding Israel’s policies, I too was moved at my coreligionists bearing the bloody history of Europe so vividly in mind as they enumerated the ways in which Team Trump had, in their view, “stood with Israel.”
Then President Trump himself spoke. I did not record his remarks so my summary here is impressionistic.
First, he struck me as being much smarter in person, than he appeared to be in public events, as they were filtered through the national media. For over an hour, he spoke, departing from notes, often in long, detailed, extemporaneous riffs. His intelligence struck me as being strongest in perceptiveness and intuition, as many successful businessmen’s and women’s intelligences are, as opposed to being detail-oriented, or theoretically analytical. In other words, like other effective business leaders, he grasped both the essence of, and the leverage points in, a conflict or a predicament, quickly and accurately, and acted accordingly with decisiveness.
This set of reflexes and habits was mocked in legacy media as stupidity — I recalled that news outlets had made fun of him for asking for a one-pager from his staffers, rather than a massive briefing book.
But as I listened to him, I explored those stories within another context. In business, and in media, if someone can’t explain a pitch in a one-page summary, it is just not actionable. I understood why his leadership style would demand this kind of executive summary, and given the list of achievements that he also shared with us, I could see how my liberal policy-wonk “tribe’s” tendency (against which we all struggled in the Clinton era) to theorize, to pontificate, and to exhaust a reader with policy details, could actually lead to a weaker performance from, and could even generate more confusion for, any Commander-in-Chief.
President Trump segued into a long list of his achievements. There was a certain pathos when he did so, as it was clear that he used speeches to list achievements that he felt the legacy media had elided altogether.
In his list of accomplishments from his prior tenure as President, he impressed me as being extremely street-smart about geopolitics. In anecdote after anecdote, he described a geopolitical conflict that threatened the United States, and then, his quick action to give our country the upper hand. For instance, he described Mexico’s reluctance to keep mentally ill or criminal people from crossing our borders. He told the story of how he threatened to withdraw aid from Mexico, and then described the fact that he immediately obtained the outcome he had sought. Similar stories recounted his pushing back on what he saw as irrational, excessive demands for money or military help from Europe, or his resisting global treaties that he thought weakened the US.
He described moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, for instance, and recognizing that city, against international opposition, as the capital of Israel — as well as his administration’s recognizing as part of Israel, the long-contested Golan Heights.
In each case, I recalled how the media had portrayed what he had done: he was a bully, a unilateralist, a child, a thrower of tantrums.
But while I did not agree with all of the outcomes in his list - the Golan Heights recognition as being part of the State of Israel, for instance, arguably violated international law — I felt, to be frank, again, a pang.
He was a bully. But I saw, I’ll confess, as he spoke, that he had been our bully — menacing, intimidating and threatening others on the world stage, with financial or military carrots and sticks, on behalf of what he saw as the wellbeing of the United States of America, and her inhabitants.
As I listened, I realized that I missed having someone in that role on the world stage.
You can dislike such a figure personally. But when I reflected on where we were now — with more accommodating and “gentlemanly” figures, such as Anthony Blinken (whom I knew in the Clinton era — “one of us”) trotting, hat in hand, head bowed, to supplicate at the feet of tyrants around the world, who all enjoy abusing the United States in their pronouncements; now, with our prestige, power and global reputation in tatters, endangering us all existentially — I felt a certain nostalgia for a President who — okay, I’ll say it: Put America First.
I thought, as he spoke, about how I had been trained to “hate” him. He pointed out that he was a rare US President in that he had not started any war. And he said that he had brought our men and women in uniform, home.
I remember thinking — Wow, so he did. Aren’t we - meaning we, the Left, or Independents, or Americans in general — supposed to like that? To want that?
Same with his mention of the Abraham Accords. Like bringing our men and women in uniform home — this was, objectively, a Big Deal. Remember the unattainable goal of “peace in the Middle East”? Well, this accord was truly an achievement, no matter what personal animosity anyone might hold.
I realized that my “hatred” was based on conditioning, repetition and propaganda. It was also a fact that this guy remained in many ways — to me personally — unlikable.
But I also know perfectly well that Presidents who present as very likable, can be total sociopaths (that is how they get so good at that presentation of being charming). I know too that anyone who is that close to power, is going to become at some point obsessive, or aggressive, or a bully, or a seducer, or will find him or herself in some way damaged, distorted, or flawed in character.
Liberals, and legacy media, I realized, who since 2016 have focussed my attention on the “toxic narcissism” or “psychopathology” of President Trump, or on his other supposed character or “mental health” flaws, really have not hung around with a lot of leaders of nations. There is not one of them who cannot be diagnosed with some personality disorder, or some severe moral failing.
I realized that I had been told that President Trump was unlikable, indeed hateful, for so long that aversion was my conditioned reflex; almost Pavlovian.
There were two issues, though, on which President Trump misjudged, in my opinion, if he wishes to be reelected by a wide enough margin to overcome electronic voting machines’ hostile or unverifiable algorithms. One issue is the “woman issue.” When President Trump mentioned Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he said something offhandedly, and without presenting evidence, such as, “She doesn’t know anything.” This got a huge wave of laughter and applause from the friendly audience; but it reminded me of my “issues” with President Trump that will not go away if he does not take certain steps to repair the damage caused by the past.
In his dismissive tone, he sounded to many women, no doubt, including me, like that 70-something guy in the most senior role at your firm at your first job, or the guy running your college or your graduate school, who will never ever ever treat women, and especially not young women, meritocratically. It felt old-school, and not in a good way.
This of course echoes other appalling earlier mis-steps from President Trump related to gender, from “blood coming out of her wherever” to the infamous “grab them by the p—y.”
I found later, though, that in many cases, President Trump’s worst moments are actually phrases taken out of context by the press. The full Megyn Kelly quote is:
‘“Certainly, I don’t have a lot of respect for Megyn Kelly. She’s a lightweight and y’know, she came out there reading her little script and trying to be tough and be sharp. And when you meet her you realize she’s not very tough and she’s not very sharp.” Then, came the kicker: “She gets out there and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.”’
President Trump asserted later, after a media firestorm saying that he was referring to menstruation, that he did not mean to refer to menstruation. “Trump himself has insisted that he did not, in using the word “wherever,” actually mean to suggest that Kelly was on her period. Rather, as he later told the Today Show and CNN’s Jake Tapper, he meant that she was so angry that she seemed to be bleeding from some other orifice—like, say, a nose, or an ear.” And arguably, his quote was indeed not directly saying what the media universally claimed it said.
I myself had a similar experience of systematic distortion from the media and from the opposition - I advised Vice President Gore during his own campaign to showcase his policies as a potential Presidential candidate, rather than acting most prominently in the supportive Vice Presidential role. This common-sense advice was distorted everywhere in the media as my allegedly giving him “lessons in being an Alpha male,” whatever that means.
The same decontextualizing by the media was in play in the horrible “grab them by the p—-y” video from 2005, that surfaced during the 2016 campaign. Most of the media I read implied that Trump stated that his fame allowed him to “grab women by the p—y”. As I have explained at other times to his supporters, this alleged quote was the reason that I, a rape survivor, could not bring myself to vote for him.
Not until I took another look recently, though, did I see that the full quote was: “[T]hey let you do it […]. Grab them by the p—-y.”
‘“Trump: […] And when you’re a star, they let you do it. [Italics mine] You can do anything.
Bush: Whatever you want.
Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”’
Now, this is still not a nice thing at all for a man to say; it is not what any self-respecting woman wants to hear from any man.
It’s gross and vulgar and demeaning and offensive — it is all of the things.
But — if I am being scrupulously honest — the actual quote is not exactly the same quote as the one that was presented to the world as being that of an unrepentant and violent sexual predator.
Why do I bring these uncomfortable subjects up? Because candidates are surrounded by yes-men and yes-women, who want to pretend to the Principal that there is no problem with that person’s persona or with the public perception of that person. And I am pointing out that the Trump campaign and the candidate himself, have to face real damage done, through accurate reporting or not, when it comes to women voters. This damage must be addressed if he is to win over the female suburban swing voters in battleground states, without which no candidate can win the Presidency of the United States. There are lots of constructive, positive ways to do so.
The second issue on which President Trump needs a better message than the one I heard, is regarding the environment. He made a disparaging joke about liberals buying up oceanfront properties, and implied that, hence, global warming is not a serious concern. Again, his audience roared with approval, but I knew that this message would not do well outside of private walls. The second reason I could in the past never vote for President Trump (or for Republicans in general), was due to this sort of casual disregard for the real trouble, however you may define that trouble, in which our planet finds itself. Even if President Trump offers a mixed portfolio of fossil fuels and renewable energies, or provides a different set of policies than the reviled “Green Agenda,” with which he proposes to protect our planet, he needs to signal that he is actually serious about fighting environmental degradation, if he is to, first of all, sound consistently like a serious person, and second, to bring over the independents and even Democrats whom he needs in order to win.
And why am I bothering to point out these two shortcomings in his otherwise disturbingly impressive presentation?
I will just say it (I have to, as you recall, since I promised the Universe that I would write what I most feared to write, if I might only survive my recent illness).
I am bothering because, while I must remain nonpartisan, as an objective observer of the terrible crisis in which the United States finds itself, I believe that a ticket of two reviled outsiders — okay, I will go there: a Trump-RFK Jr ticket (again, I promised to write what I am most afraid to write) — is the one chance we have at this historical moment, at circumventing the murderous plans that the WEF and The WHO have for us.
Some leadership pairings solve existential personality problems. When Al Gore and his wife joined Bill Clinton and his wife on the campaign trail, many voters sighed with relief. Bill Clinton was all Id, and here was a grown-up to balance him out — a Superego. Together they made a comprehensive leadership team.
The same sigh of relief was experienced by many voters when the adolescent-seeming George Bush Jr was joined by VP prospect Dick Cheney. I personally think Mr Cheney is an appalling character, but at the time he was presented as the VP pick, I saw the genius of placing someone whom voters read as being mature and steadying, next to the mouthy Texan boy wonder.
I hope both candidates’ teams will consider, for the good of the country, what I am recommending, with nonpartisan concern for our very survival as a free nation, here.
I hope everyone will reflect in general on whom they are being asked reflexively to hate, or to dismiss, or to disdain; and reflect deeply on why that might be.
President Trump accepted his award, and thanked the black-clad men and modestly-dressed women around him, and left.
I went to take a picture with Brian. We stood against a beautiful formal fountain; against the profusion of dahlias and ivy that clustered around it; as a reddish-gold sun set over the pristine, elegiac landscape.
I mused, as we went back to our room, amid the crickets’ voices that sounded and the velvety night that deepened — on President Trump’s life choices. He was leaving one beautiful, profitable property, to go, no doubt, to another; he had a beautiful wife and young family at home.
He was 77 years old.
And yet he was running for re-election, with all of the rigors that that entailed; with the risk, now a certainty, of legal challenges, if not worse. If he had just faded into obscurity as a private citizen, for sure he would not be facing a Grand Jury indictment, as he is right now.
So I wondered a month ago, as wind soughed softly on on that warm New Jersey evening: why is he doing this?
As he often notes himself — he has a great life, and he does not need to run again.
And I could not help, though it was against every conditioned reflex of many years, considering:
Maybe he is doing this because he loves his country.