Saturday, September 24, 2016

Uh-Oh. This Doesn't Look Good For Hillary

The New York Times ran a recent article chronicling 31 lies Donald Trump has told in the last week. Which I might think would hurt him, except for the nature of one lie that jumped out at me. Apparently Trump said that Hillary had 13 phone destroyed with a hammer to keep the messages on them from being found.  The Times said it was only two.

Hot new flash.  When you are accused of destroying 13 phones to conceal their contents, no one is going to be much impressed by the defense that really it was only two.  Thirteen or two is going to make little difference to your average American (myself included).  The important point is that Hillary had phone destroyed to hide their contents.

If Trump raises that point in the upcoming debate -- well, it is going to hurt.  So presumably he will raise it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Advice to Hillary that She Will Never See

Well, it was premature to panic when Trump's ratings went up in May after he secured the Republican nomination and premature to become complacent when then went down in July.  It was also premature to become complacent when Hillary's ratings soared following the conventions, but not as premature.  And it is premature to panic now with Hillary's extended string of bad luck -- but not as premature.

It appears to be the e-mail scandal that is hurting her.  The press has been paying extended attention to that scandal and treating it as a very serious matter, so it can hardly be surprising that the public treats it as a serious matter as well.  In the meantime, there are any number of shocking stories about Trump out there, but none of them has caught on in the same way that the Hillary e-mail scandal has.  Why is that?

I am inclined to think first and foremost that there is just so much stuff out there on Trump that none of it is really sticking because there is always a new bright, shiny object to move on to.  The e-mail scandal, on the other hand, is one thing to latch onto.  Or rather, it is not.  It is actually three or four things going on at once.  One is that Hillary Clinton sent State Department e-mails over a private server, which she was not supposed to do, and which makes them more vulnerable to hacking.  Or maybe it was an attempt to hide them from investigators, and she did, in fact, delete some 30,000 personal e-mails before handing over the public ones.  Also the e-mails include a number of large donor to the Clinton foundation asking for special favors, although there is no evidence that such favors were ever granted.  All of these are separate, but they are similar enough to (understandably) be conflated in the public mind.  There was also the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee, which was not related and did not involve national security or classified documents, but also tends to become conflated because both scandals involve e-mails and electronic security.  Besides, Trump tended more to conflate them by joking that he hoped the Russians had recovered those 30,000 e-mails she deleted.  One comes away with the impression that either Hillary Clinton endangered national security by sending e-mails on a private server that was hacked, or that she is engaged in a massive cover-up of corrupt dealings.  Or both.  

Trump, in the meantime, has any number of crooked dealings in his past, but there are so many that it is hard to focus on any one.

Also, badly organized as his campaign may have been in the past, he has now mastered the importance of message discipline.  His response to any accusation is simply to turn the subject to those damn e-mails.  During the primaries, Trump joked that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and it wouldn't cost him any votes.  Just to be clear, that was purely a joke, and I do not believe that he would every shoot anyone, on Fifth Avenue or anywhere else.  Nonetheless, imagine if Trump did shoot a political or business rival in the middle of Fifth Avenue.  

Some reporter would ask if that made him look "unpresidential."  Given his record, Trump might deny having shot anyone, despite the innumerable witnesses and possibly even being caught on camera.  But if he couldn't get away with denying it, he would say oh yeah, well what about Hillary's e-mails?  Campaign surrogates would say that the United States is a very big country, with some 300 million people.  Out of that vast number, Trump shot exactly one.  But Hillary put all of us in danger by sending State Department e-mails on a private server.  Someone would point out that it is not unprecedented for a President to shoot someone.  After all, Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel.  But no President up till now has ever sent State Department e-mails on a private server.* News stories would solemnly report that new questions were being raised in the Clinton e-mail scandal, setting forth the latest donor to request a favor, with the careful caveat that the favor does not appear to have been granted.  In further news today, Donald Trump shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue.  Others would solemnly purse their lips and declare that both candidates were running into trouble, Hillary over unanswered questions on her e-mails and Trump over shooting a rival on Fifth Avenue.  Though to be fair, if Trump denied the shooting Politifact would no doubt give him a "Pants on Fire" rating for it.

Is it any wonder given all the attention it is getting that large numbers of people are now convinced that sending State Department e-mails on a private server is the worst offense a candidate can possibly commit,  They may conclude that Trump may be a crook, he may have built his business empire on fraud, he may be utterly corrupt and make no distinction between personal and public interest, he may not know or care a thing about policy, he may appeal to prejudice and hate, he may have a wildly unstable temperament and lash out wildly at personal insults, he may even wonder why we can't use our nuclear arsenal, but at least he never sent State Department e-mails on a private server.  We have to focus on what is important here.

So what can Hillary do about all this?  My advice is, learn a lesson from Trump about message discipline.  He has committed so many outrages that no one can keep up with all of them, and any attempt to raise all will make most people's eyes glaze over.  So do a bunch of polls and focus groups to find of of all the dirt there is on Trump, which offends people most.  Which one really has legs? So next time someone asks her about those blasted e-mails she should deflect the question back to whatever scandal on Trump gives the most offense.  And she should instruct all her campaign surrogates to keep raising the same issue.  And she should get Democrats everywhere to also start talking about it at every possible opportunity.  

And funny thing, but before long whatever Trump scandal turned out to have the most mileage will be in the news.  And once the news media get going, it is very difficult to stop them (as Hillary knows all too well).  So hurry up, Hillary.  There isn't much time left.

*And that would, in fact, be true.  While in the early 19th Century a President's Secretary of State was practically his designated successor, the Secretary of State to become President was apparently James Buchanan, who, of course, served long before e-mails were invented.

Why It Might Not Be Wise to Portray Trump as a Con Man

Hillary Clinton has been running an anti-Trump ad that shows one of the many people Trump has stiffed.  This one was an architect who designed one of his club houses.  First a bunch of Trump people ganged up and refused to pay more than a third of bill.  So he sent a bill for that amount, but Trump again refused to pay more than half.  He complained that Trump thinks he can only win by making the other guy lose.  The sub-text here is clear -- Trump is not on the side of the little guy, and he doesn't keep his promises.

There's just one problem with the ad.  I don't think it will hurt Trump with people inclined to favor him.  Why not?  Because supporters are apt to see another subtext.  Trump drives a hard bargain, and he wins.  The other guy knuckled under.  That is just the sort of person they want for a leader.

You see, Trump supporters are the sort of people who think in terms of Us and Them.  And not just that but people who think it is immoral to give any ethical consideration to Them because it means a lack of commitment to Us.  So who are They?  Well, foreign countries, clearly.  And illegal immigrants.  Muslims.  Those liberal elitists who look down on the white working class.  And the Republican leadership who sold out to the Democrats.  And probably others, too.  In fact, it is best to be a bit vague on who they are because it allows each listener to fill in the blanks for himself.  Basically They are anyone who is not one of Us.  It is pointless to worry about distinctions among Them like the difference between Mexicans and Arabs, Muslims and atheists, Communists, socialists, and fascists, because the mere fact that you are parsing such fine distinctions among Them is proof enough that you aren't one of Us.

And then consider how this looks to someone who thinks They have no ethics whatever and have been taking unfair advantage of Us for a long time, at least since Obama has been President.  Again, it doesn't matter whether They are China selling cheap goods, Mexico sending in illegal immigrant, Iran making a nuclear deal or allies not paying their fair share.  Nor does it matter whether They are Democrats who always seem to get their way in government showdowns or the Republican leadership that keeps caving, illegal immigrants stealing US jobs or black people crying racism whenever they don't get their way.  Nor does it matter whether these perceptions are factually accurate.  The point is, you want someone who knows how to fight dirty to champion Us against Them.  And who could be a better champion than a man who first tricked some sucker into accepting a third of the payment he proposed and then chiseled that down to half.  Now there is someone who could stand up for Us and give Them a taste of their own medicine.

All right, you may say, and it is understandable if people applaud when Trump stiffs the banks and other high rollers who really are Them and really do deserve it to some degree.  But this architect is the little guy Trump claims to champion.  Isn't he one of Us?

To this I assume most Trump supporters would agree that, okay, Trump was kind of unethical with this guy, and he really shouldn't have done it, but just think what those skills will look like when deployed against our enemies.  Or, put otherwise, there is no reason to believe that the architect is one of Them, but neither has he quite established sufficient credentials as one of Us to have any special claim on our sympathies.  This was, after all, simply an arm's length business deal and not something that gives the architect any special claim on Trump's loyalty.  Or maybe we should use more chilling language -- it wasn't personal strictly business.  If you want to make Trump supporters outraged about their hero's lousy ethics, you have to make it personal.  Instead of Trump is an unethical businessman, the subtext has to be, Trump is a sociopath with no loyalties to his supporters.

That's why I think this story would have a lot more legs than the architect.  This was the story of a kid band that sang songs like, Deal from strength or get crushed every time.”  The band and their adult manager were faithful Trump supporters who played at one of his rallies. Naturally he showed his gratitude by failing to pay them.  It wasn't a large amount, only $2,500, but presumably that is a lot more money to a kiddie band than to Donald Trump.  Instead he offered to allow them to make up the money by giving them a free table to sell their CD's.  Of course, he didn't keep that bargain either, although it would not have cost him any more than a little space at his event.  And when they failed to learn their lesson and foolishly agreed to fly to Iowa to play at another rally, Trump wouldn't even reimburse their travel costs.

So how is this different from the architect story?  Obviously both are about Trump chiseling the little guy.  But I see two differences.  One is that here Trump is cheating children, and mistreatment of children trips a lot of triggers.*

The other is that these aren't just some random guy he is dealing with at arm's length.  These are supporters who went all out for Trump and got the shaft.  They have clearly established themselves as belonging to Us (i.e., Trump supporters), but he treated Us just as badly as he promises to treat Them. It needs a bit more subtext, but that basic point is that it isn't just Them that Trump plays for suckers. He is trying to play Us for suckers too.

*Something similar occurred to me when Trump joked that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn't hurt his support.  My comment at the time was that he probably could get away with shooting a person, but if he was ever caught strangling kittens that would be the end.  And just to make clear, I have no evidence whatever that Trump strangles kittens.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Very Quick Personal Note

Both this blog and my other blog Obscure But Superficial are experiencing an unprecedented boom in traffic, apparently coming from Russia, of all places.  Who are these Russian fans of mine?

The Perils of Populism

Bernie Sanders fans may just have handed the general election to Trump.  Granted, it is a bit early to tell.  I say and maintain that there is nothing quite like the sight of a political party committing ceremonial self-disembowelment on the national stage to convince most people not to vote for it. The question is whether this week's Democratic Convention count.  After reading articles and watching video clips, I personally thought expressions like "massive internal strife," "chaos," and "tensions . . . hit a fever pitch" somewhat exaggerated compared to the video clips.  The clips showed booing in parts of speeches -- and cheers in other parts by the same speaker.  It will depend, I suppose, how persistent they are, and how rowdy the demonstrators outside get.  And how it is spun in media reports.  And how shocking it seems by the very stayed standards of nominating conventions for the last 30-plus years.

All of which leads me to the Atlantic article I have been wanting to comment on for some time, How American Politics Went Insane.  The author is tiresomely even-handed, blaming it all on the process and the breakdown of the procedural mechanisms for negotiation, compromise, and getting things done.  He tries not to place the blame on one side or the other, yet somehow all his actual, real-world examples of extremism getting out of hand were on the Republican side.  Well, Sanders followers are working to catch up.

The account of procedural problems is dull and ultimately not very helpful because it ignores the real problems in outlook that underlie the procedural problems.  The most valuable part is the one that actually gets to the real underlying problem:
[B]etween 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.
Clearly, Donald Trump is the classic politiphobe candidate.  But Bernie Sanders has been stirring the same pot, insisting that he will launch a political "revolution" that will sweep away resistance to his agenda.  Sanders, it should be added, is no Trump.  But comparisons to Ted Cruz are not altogether unreasonable.

Cruz's game has been to stake out a position that he knows is not politically possible to pass, make a highly conspicuous show of standing up for it, do everything in his power to prevent any sort of constructive deal and then, when Republicans are forced to cave and seek an alliance with Democrats, proclaim his ideological purity and denounce his colleagues for not joining him.  Cruz differs from Trump in having actual principles and genuinely believing in what he stands up for.  But it is also clear that his goal is not to win the legislative battle, but to be defeated and gain applause from the base.

If Donald Trump wins in November, and especially if revulsion against Trump leads to Democrats taking at least one house of Congress in 2018, would Sanders play a similar game?  Certainly it was the game he played when pitching to his followers in the primaries. But, as he is making clear now, he never actually meant to carry it all the way into the general election.  But now Sanders is  learning, as have so many Republican leaders, that he who rides the tiger fears to dismount.  Once you stir up people's ugly passions, they are not so easy to un-stir.  

All of which makes the point as to why populism, despite its exaltation of the common people and claim to champion popular interests, is profoundly dangerous to democracy.  I outsource to Jonathan Chait:
Populism can . . . be defined as a certain kind of political style. Populists believe the government has been captured by evil and/or corrupt interests, and that it can be recaptured by a unified effort by the people (or, at least, their people).  . . . . Populists make their case in plain terms, and often argue that the problems themselves are simple, which explains why only corruption has prevented their easy resolution. . . . When you are arguing that there are no simple solutions, and that the non-simple solutions you favor will take a long time to work, you’re proving that you’re the opposite of a populist. 
In other words, populism is the ideology of "politiphobes."  It denies that meaningful policy disagreement exists and sees the only obstacle to implementing simple, common sense solutions (i.e., their personal preferences) is the corruption of underhanded politicians.  It rejects the difficult decisions and complex tradeoffs that are part of the ugly reality of policy making.  It demands what is not doable and then rages at politicians when they inevitably fall short.  And it rejects the essential skills needed to make democracy work, "accepting disagreement and dissent as normal, and learning to be a gracious loser (or winner)."*

And, in the final paradox, both Trump and Sanders demonstrate the dangers of corrosive cynicism and how close extreme cynicism can be to dangerous naivity.  Republicans who believe our current system is so corrupt that Trump would be an improvement over what we have now have reached well past a healthy skepticism of our current leadership to a mindless cynicism, coupled with an extraordinary willful blindness as to just how bad Trump can be.  And Sanders supporters  who really can't tell the difference between Clinton and Trump may give us the opportunity to find out.

*I should add that I believe this is a lot of the appeal of conspiracy theories as well.  Conspiracy theories allow believers to avoid having to deal with the difficult choices and complex trade-offs that are necessary to real world policy and instead believe that if only those evil conspirators would stop what they were doing, all our problems would disappear.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Lure of Despotism and Its Failure

Look, I understand to some degree Donald Trump's appeal, which is to say, the appeal of setting aside democratic norms in favor of an elective despotism.  Democracy is hard.  It requires habits and discipline that are difficult to learn and easy to forget such as acceptance of dissent as normal, recognition of the need for that seeming oxymoron, a loyal opposition, and a willingness to be gracious both in victory and defeat.  Democracy is best seen, not as something people desire for itself, but as an uneasy compromise, not as good as a dictatorship by Us, but infinitely preferable to a dictatorship by Them.

But that isn't all.  Democracy is ugly.  It airs out its dirty linen in the most distasteful manner that tends to undermine respect. New scandals always seem to be breaking out.  As the saying goes, two things you never want to see made are laws and sausages.  When lawmaking takes place in public, you get to see all the petty, spiteful, self-serving activity that goes into it, all the actors who seem more interested in advancing their partisan interests -- or, worse, their personal egos -- than the public good.  Factions,  petty squabbles, procedural tricks, and countless other distasteful matters are carried on in full public sight.  And, worse, when things take place in private, the public can only assume that politicians are hiding something worse than the ugliness on full display.  Besides, the democratic process is demonstrably inefficient.  Important goals get tied up in petty procedural squabbles and important work remains undone.  In times of deep ideological divide (as we have been experiencing) the inefficiency becomes much worse.

In times like this, people tend to lose faith in democratic institutions like Congress or their state legislature and admire authoritarian institutions like the military or the police, which are presumed to be disinterested patriots above petty, personal motive.  Or they long for a nice dictator to cut through the red tape and get things done.  Dictators, its is assumed, by eschewing the cumbersome democratic process, can exercise real efficiency and make the trains run on time.

There is just one little problem with this theory.  It isn't true. Dictatorships, as well as armies, police forces, and other inherently authoritarian institutions in a democracy, are just as petty, just as given to self-serving motives, and just as prone to factions and self-serving behavior as any democratic legislature.  The difference is that these things take place in private so the public doesn't see them.

I seem to recall a quote from one of the Founding Fathers to the effect that he was not concerned about efficiency in government because all the efficient governments he knew were despotic, but if so, he was wrong.  Free governments vary greatly, from grossly inefficient and incompetent to as good as can be expected in an imperfect world,*  but despotic government are always grossly incompetent and inefficient.  Any account of the Soviet Union is staggering in the degree of incompetence an inefficiency on display.  The Czars were also notorious in that regard, as were the Turkish sultans.  Nazi Germany is likewise proving to have been wildly inefficient.  After the conquest of Saddam Hussein's government, the US was able to lay bare the nature of his regime by studying the documents of his government and the pathology and incompetence is staggering.**

There are reasons why despotism always leads to inefficiency.  A leading one is that when institutions are kept from any outside scrutiny, they invariably become corrupt, sclerotic, and incompetent.  The only way to make government efficient is to subject it to openness and accountability.  Another is that under despotism, people invariably fear giving their leaders unwelcome news.  The result is that leaders live in a fantasy world.***  Yet another is that despotic leaders tend to fear and distrust any person or institution that is too competent as a possible threat and therefore deliberately set out to undermine any show of competence.  And finally, despots have serious internal security problems and are always setting up countless rival internal security organizations, each designed to infiltrate and undermine the others.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued by a blogpost I saw (no longer linkable) which postulated that bureaucratic orderliness is synonymous with the rule of law, and that snarling of the bureaucracy is the inevitable result of despotism.

In short, any sort of despotism is incompatible with efficiency.

But if despotism invariably breeds inefficiency, inefficiency also breeds despotism.  At the time the US was founded the Baron de Montesquieu, the political scientist who most influenced the Founding Fathers, had postulated that any government over a large territory was inherently despotic.  (This was one of the reasons many Americans so feared a strong federal government).  He acknowledged in exception in cases of a confederation, in which a large number of locally self-governing territories joined under a single partial government.  Montesquieu, it should be noted, distinguished between monarchy, meaning one-man government under the rule of law, and despotism, meaning one-man government run arbitrarily.  He considered liberty to be compatible with  monarchy, but not with despotism.  Perhaps one can see, then, why large territory and despotism went together.  Technology being what it was in the 18th century, there was a limit to how large a territory could be and still be efficiently administered.  In a confederation of self-governing sub-states, each local government is answerable to the population it governs and therefore prevented from being despotic.  In a monarchy of manageable size, local rulers are answerable to their bureaucratic superiors and can bound by laws and subject to administrative punishment for illegal or oppressive conduct.  In a territory under a single central government, but too large for efficient oversight, the central rulers have little choice but to appoint local official and leave them to their own devices.  These viceroys are accountable to neither the local population nor the central government and act as local, petty despots who are invariably despised.

A milder version of these factors can be seen even in democratic governments.  The rampant corruption in the Grant Administration, for instance, appears to have resulted at least partly from Grant's authoritarian, military style of administration and failure to abide the the normal bureaucratic division of labor, i.e., its snarling of the usual bureaucratic orderliness.  McCarthyism made State Department officials fear to give accurate reports to their superiors.  Although their fear was merely for their careers and not for life or liberty, the result was nonetheless to undermine the quality of information that made its way up the chain of command. And George W. Bush was notorious, both for cutting himself off from unwelcome news and for administrative incompetence.

Which leads to the subject of Donald Trump.  The article begins:
We’re all aware of the movie supervillain cliche, coldly murdering his top lieutenant while seething, “You have failed me for the  last time!” You see that, and you’ve got to wonder: Who are these stupid henchmen? Why would anyone work for that asshole? 
In real life, people don’t want to work for that asshole, particularly not when they have better options. 
Obviously, operating in the US, and without the power of the state, Trump is at the milder end of the despotism scale.  Barred from murdering his top lieutenant, he settles for strict non-disclosure statements and sues employees who break them.  He also promotes rivalries among employees on a "divide and conquer" theory, and tends to favor yes-men who tell him what he wants to hear.  In short, denied a the opportunity to be a true despot, Trump nonetheless rules in the most despotic style he has available, with the resulting -- and predictable -- distortions and inefficiencies.  He may very well win the election despite all that.  But, as I have commented countless times before, if he can't even run a campaign, what sort of job will he do running a government?  My answer would be, as despotically inefficient a job as our institutions permit.

*And, incidentally, despite libertarian theories of the perfectly efficient private sector driven by perfect markets, really "as good as can be expected in an imperfect world' is as good as can be expected from the private sector, either.
**To the extent that it made me think Hollywood understands evil overlords better than we give it credit for.  (Cue jokes about Hollywood having lots of evil overlords, known as "producers."
***Following the movie The Last Emperor, I read an abbreviated translation of the Last Emperor Pu Yi's autobiography, which contained an extraordinary example.  Under the despotic Dowager Empress Cuxi believed that Europeans had no knees!  (My father believes this was an excuse that exempted them from kneeling in the presence of the emperor).  As a result, when China's highest ranking officials were planning support for the Boxer Rebellion, someone suggested that if they pushed Europeans over with a stick, they would be unable to get up!  Needless to say, it did not work.

Trump: The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Sure enough, Donald Trump's fear-mongering speech is swinging public opinion in his favor.  The latest polls show him nearly pulling even with Clinton.  Nate Silver now shows his chances of winning at 42.3%, with the critical swing states of Ohio, Florida and Iowa all narrowly trending Trump and Nevada too close to call.  Whether this is merely a convention bounce or a permanent trend remains to be seen.  Panic may premature now, just as it was when Trump had his post-nomination bounce.  But we are getting into the home stretch when every little jiggle of the polls really does mean something.

But I will reiterate my view that even if the US really is in as much peril as Trump claims (which it is not), the last thing it would need would be to put Trump in charge, because Trump is utterly and absolutely unqualified to be President.  His complete unfitness for the office, whether in knowledge, temperament, or ethics, is what his opponents should be hammering on just as much as the Republicans focused on bashing Hillary.  Is our country in peril?  Then don't turn it over to a man who knows and cares nothing about any important issue facing it, who can't concentrate more than a few minutes on any subject except his own self-aggrandizement, and who hasn't shown himself competent to run a campaign, let alone a government.  Is our system rife with crony-ism?  The don't turn it over the the biggest crony of them all.  Is Hillary corrupt?  Then don't prefer instead a man whose corruption reaches unprecedented heights.  Is Hillary wrong?  Well, at least she is wrong within normal parameters.

Trump is not a normal candidate.  This was acknowledged in the primaries, but is largely forgotten now.  He is being treated as a perfectly normal candidate as the polls above show.

Sometimes Trump almost seems to be deliberately combining the capital flaws of all our previous Presidents.  Someone on a comments thread accused GW Bush of being:

  • More egotistical than Johnson
  • More vindictive than Nixon
  • Stupider than Ford
  • Less competent than Carter
  • Lazier than Reagan
  • Less honest than Clinton
(They probably had some unfavorable comparison to his father, but I don't remember what it was).  Well, in the clear light of hindsight, this is grossly unfair to Bush.  (Also to Ford, who was not stupid at all).  But it is a perfect description of Trump.  Consider:
  • More egotistical than Johnson.  Check.  Even his supporters would presumably not dispute this.
  • More vindictive than Nixon.  Again, check.  He has been openly threatening to use the power of the federal government against personal enemies if elected.
  • Stupider than Ford.  This one calls for some qualifications.  First of all, Ford got the unfair reputation of being stupid, but it was never true.  As for Trump, I certainly don't think he could have gotten so rich by being stupid.  But, as with Ben Carson, intelligence is not indivisible. Carson is literal brain surgeon, but that doesn't mean he knows anything about public policy, any more that than even our best any most brilliant President (choose for yourself which one) was qualified to perform brain surgery.  Trump is obviously highly intelligent in terms of exploiting all publicity to his advantage and capitalizing on name recognition.  In terms of parting fools from their money, he is a rare genius.  But in terms of his knowledge of public policy, he is a world-class ignoramus.  So, yeah, take whatever President was least conversant in public policy, and Trump is considerable less knowledgeable.
  • Less competent than Carter.  Let anyone who doubts this just look at the utter hash he has made of his campaign.  Granted, he easily coasted to victory in the primary despite his utter lack of a campaign structure, and my win the general election as well despite this deficiency.  But if he can't even manage a campaign, consider how well he will manage a government.
  • Lazier than Reagan.  This one, too, calls for some qualification, because it again raises the question of how Trump could have gotten so rich by being lazy.  Reagan was a notoriously disengaged, hands-off manager.  Trump certainly seems willing to work hard in terms of giving speeches, pressing the flesh, and the like.  But in terms of the nitty gritty work of actually learning about policy, Trump has made amply clear that he has no interest whatever in doing this.  In fact, he apparently intends to let his Vice President set all domestic and foreign policy while he works at "Making America great again," presumably by making speeches to adoring audiences.  There is a certain trade-off to be made in levels of engagement.  One reason for Carter's legendary incompetence appears to be that he failed to recognize just how much more difficult and complex the US government is than the government of Georgia.  As a result, he failed to delegate enough and took on more than he could handle.  Ronald Reagan, by contrast, delegated too much and let his advisers run out of control.  It led to a different kind of incompetence.
  • Less honest than Clinton.  Trump has taken lying to unheard-of heights.  Politifact rates his statements as 4% true, 10% mostly true, 15% half true, 16% mostly false, 37% false, and 17% pants on fire.  In other words, over half the things he says are completely and utterly false, and 70% are at least mostly false.
As for George W. Bush, in the clear light of hindsight, his capital flaw was his incuriosity or, if you prefer, his willingness to ignore the evidence and go with the gut.  He knew in his gut that Saddam Hussein just had to be involved with Al-Qaeda, just had to have a huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and just had to have re-started his nuclear program.  And he knew in his gut that we just had to be welcomed as liberators and that removing Saddam Hussein just had to work a democratic and US friendly transformation in the Middle East.  If there was no evidence to support any of these beliefs, that was simply the result of incompetence by our intelligence agencies or Saddam's skill in covering his tracks.  This certainty was matched by Bush's confidence that there just couldn't be an insurgency in Iraq when our intentions were so good.  Such confidence in his gut in the absence of any evidence proved disastrous.  But here again, Trump is more incurious, more fact-challenged, more confident that his gut instincts are superior to facts and evidence, whatever you want to call it, than GW Bush.

What is Obama's capital flaw?  Some might say when he first ran for President that it was his lack of experience, as he was only a freshman Senator.  Trump, by contrast, has no experience in government whatever, so he compares unfavorably to Obama in that regard.  

For a long time, many Republicans talked about Obama's teleprompter problem.  By this they meant that he was just an empty suit, reading lines from a teleprompter and not actually knowing what he was talking about.  Their main reason for this assumption was that Obama genuinely did stumble in debate and in more spontaneous formats.  But this was because Obama tended to over-think in those situations, rather than because he was uninformed.  With practice, he got a lot better at the more spontaneous give-and-take of debate. There was some truth in the accusation, though, that Obama was an empty suit who made people feel good about themselves without actually committing to anything, and that he thus let people project their aspirations onto him without actually standing for anything.  That necessarily meant that once in power he would disappoint.  Well, Trump has a teleprompter problem, but it is exactly the opposite.  He thrives in the spontaneous give-and-take of debate, but is not cut out for reading speeches from a teleprompter.  On the other hand, he really is uninformed.  Obama's opponents falsely accused him of reading speeches off the teleprompter without understanding them.  When Trump reads speeches off the teleprompter, he really doesn't understand them.  He has taken clear and definite, though not very practical, positions on immigration and trade.  As for other issues, he really doesn't have a position, but instead channels, not people's aspirations, but their resentments.  

So Trump is less experienced and more of an empty suit than Obama.

Clearly Trump has capitalized on corruption as Hillary Clinton's capital flaw.  But given the stories that have come out about his business practices, it is clear that Hillary is a babe in the woods by comparison.  Indeed, he seems to have no concept of the public interest as separate from his private interests.  Looking back for a point of comparison to the level of corruption Trump is promising, there is really none in US history.  Historically, our most corrupt administrations are considered to have been Warren G. Harding and Ulysses S. Grant.  But the corruption in the Harding Administration appears to have been limited to his Secretary of the Interior and not implicated the President or his appointees in general.  Grant, by contrast, ran an administration rife with corruption from top to bottom, but he personally was honest.  The only point of comparison I can think of for Trump is patrimonialism, i.e.,  "a type of rule in which the ruler does not distinguish between personal and public patrimony and treats matters and resources of state as his personal affair."  Those seem to be the terms in which Trump thinks, although I have some confidence in our institutions and their ability to prevent the worst abuses.

Throwing in other candidates in recent times, Trump seems to exceed all their flaws as well.  He is certainly less qualified for office than Sarah Palin.  I hearken back to when Paul Krugman said that anyone claiming to believe all the Republican doctrine would have to be either completely clueless or completely cynical.  He classified Romney as cynical with Bachman, Perry and Caine as clueless.  He ignored Trump's brief, ill-fated run.  At the time, I said Trump was cynical, but might manage a two-fer by being clueless as well.  Well, now we have our answer.  He is more cynical than Romney and more clueless than Bachman, Perry and Caine combined.  

The only recent candidate I have trouble comparing him unfavorably to is Ross Perot, with his insane, paranoid rantings about Republicans disrupting his daughter's wedding and circulating doctored photos of her.  The whole thing was so out there as to sound like true, clinical insanity.  And I am not yet ready to say that Trump is as clinically paranoid as Perot.  But, at the same time . . . Well, there is his flirtation with the birthers.  And with Alex Jones.  And his utterly bizarre stories about Ted Cruz's father having something to do with Lee Harvey Oswald (the main reason Cruz refused to endorse him).  So he might be giving even Perot a run for his money.

So there is my assessment of Donald Trump.  He combines all the worst features of our recent Presidents and candidates, and even of some harking back.  He is:
  • More egotistical than Johnson
  • More vindictive than Nixon
  • Stupider than Ford (who really wasn't stupid)
  • Less competent than Carter
  • Lazier than Reagan
  • Less honest than Clinton
  • More reality-challenged than G.W. Bush
  • More of an empty suit than Obama
  • More corrupt than Hillary (or Harding, or Grant . . . )
  • Less qualified than Palin
  • More clueless than Bachman, Perry or Caine
  • More cynical than Romney
  • And almost as paranoid, in the true clinical sense, as Ross Perot
And he stands almost a 50/50 chance of being our next President.