Who would you trust more to be America’s commander-in-chief, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?
The correct answer, of course — where by “correct” I mean the one that your fellow New York Times readers and CNN watchers would regard as correct — is Hillary Clinton. That is indisputably the received wisdom. But is it true?
The case against Donald Trump in this regard comes down to two things: 1) his ignorance of world and military affairs and 2) his temperament.
Let’s grant the former. Item: it was pretty clear during that primary debate that he had at best a sketchy grasp of what America’s nuclear triad is.
It took me aback, I admit. But here’s the thing. He now knows all about it. Indeed, in the ensuing months I’d wager that Donald Trump has learned a lot of things. Ignorance is remediable. Is temperament?
That’s a more difficult question. Part of the brief against Donald Trump has been, in the largest sense, aesthetic. He is vulgar. He is unscrupulous. He is thin-skinned.
It is this last quality — Trump’s over-developed sense of amour propre — that has people worried.
I have shared those worries. But they have been mitigated, if not yet been totally dispelled, by Trump’s behavior these past weeks. In his speeches, his rallies, his media appearances, he has seemed to me to grow more circumspect, more good humored, more flexible and resilient than before.
And then there is Hillary Clinton. The brief for her is that she has the “experience” to be commander-in-chief.
But what, when you come down to it, does that experience consist of? That she was a senator? She accomplished exactly nothing in that role. That she was secretary of State? What did she do in that job — apart, I mean, from jeopardizing America’s secrets by deploying a homebrew email server for all of her governmental communications?
She did a lot of globe-trotting, it is true, But as Carly Fiorina said this summer, “Flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.”
There are some who say she is “more hawkish” than Obama and would be a better custodian of America’s interests than he has been or than Trump would be.
I don’t see it. Look at the places in the world where she could be said to have had some influence: Syria? a disaster. Egypt: teetering on collapse. Libya? Even to say the name is to despair. And how about our relations with our rivals, with Russia, say, or with China or Iran? Obama may bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for those serial disasters, but she was America’s first diplomat during his entire first term.
Then there is the state of our relations with our friends: how’s that proceeded? Are relations with the UK, with Israel, with Europe better now than before Hillary was secretary of State? To ask the question is to answer it.
Then there is the ultimate question: Who would you trust more with the awesome responsibility of America’s nuclear arsenal?
Again, the “correct” answer is Hillary. But why?
The best brief rejoinder that I’ve seen to the received wisdom on this fraught topic comes from the commentator-cartoonist Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.
In a column last week called “When Reality Turned Inside Out,” Adams took us back to the dim distant past, viz to July, 2016, “when the public thought Trump was the candidate they couldn’t trust with the nuclear arsenal.” I remember July. But that, as Adams points out, “was before we realized he could moderate his personality on command, as he is doing now. We’re about to enter our fifth consecutive week of Trump doing more outreach than outrage.”
This is true. Which is why, although Hillary has outspent Trump 5 to 1 and although she has practically the entire media in her pocket, her poll numbers have been in free-fall. This morning, the RCP average has her but 0.9 points ahead, i.e., tied, and in most of the all-important battleground states actually behind Trump. “It turns out,” Adams observes, “that Trump’s base personality is ‘winning.'”
Everything else he does is designed to get that result. He needed to be loud and outrageous in the primaries, so he was. He needs to be presidential in this phase of the election cycle, so he is.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has revealed herself to be frail, medicated, and probably duplicitous about her health. We also hear reports that she’s a drinker with a bad temper. Suddenly, Clinton looks like the unstable personality in this race. Who do you want controlling the nuclear arsenal now?
Good question, Scott!
And here are a few more: Which candidate is the worst bigot? The one who wants stronger immigration policies to protect Americans or the one who castigated tens of millions of voters as a “basket of deplorables” who were “irredeemable” and “thankfully not America”? Take your time.
Policy details? “You might remember,” Adams notes, “a few months ago when Clinton had lots of policy details and Trump had few. Clinton still holds the lead in the number of bullet-points-per-policy, but while she rests, Trump has been rolling out policy details on one topic after another.” Immigration. Tax policy. Policing. Regulation. The military.
And let’s not forget child care. Personally, I don’t relish the prospect of paying for other people’s children or elder care — paying for my own is expensive enough — but here’s the thing: Hillary talks about doing things for “the children” etc. Trump actually unfolds a plan. You may like it, you may not like it. But Trump has outlined a full-throated plan that a lot of people like.
I think Adams may be right. Whatever else he is, Trump is “a Master Persuader.” “A year ago,” Adams continues, “I told you that Trump was bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight. His talent for persuasion is so strong that he has effectively flipped the script and rewired the brains of the people watching this show.”
But I’ll bet you still think Trump is “thin-skinned,” primarily because Clinton’s team has done a great job of branding him that way. The label sticks because Trump has a pattern of going on offense whenever he is attacked. But let me give you another framework to see this same set of facts. Specifically, I’m going to tell you how Master Persuaders convert embarrassment into energy. It’s a learned skill.
Adams’s exposition of this ability to “turn humiliation into energy” is interesting. Especially this bit:
You might have noticed that both Trump and I are quick to attack anyone who attacks us. Observers tell me I shouldn’t do that, because it makes me appear thin-skinned. Observers tell Trump the same thing. But observers are missing one important thing: We use the critics to refuel.
If you were an alien from another planet, and you observed a lion killing a gazelle, you might think that lion was angry at its prey. You might think the lion was insulted that the gazelle was using its watering hole. What did the gazelle do to deserve that treatment? Is the lion being thin-skinned?
What do you think?
In the course of his column, Adams quotes one of his own tweets:
That’s the choice all right. Which will it be?