Not Taxing the Rich Is What’s Radical

David Leonhardt of The New York Times points out that not taxing the rich is the radical idea:

Imagine for a moment that a presidential candidate made this speech:

My fellow Americans, I’m here today to tell you about my economic plan. Each year, I will require every middle-class family across this great country to write a check. We will then pool the money and distribute it to the richest Americans among us — the top 1 percent of earners, who, because of their talent, virtue and success, deserve even more money.

The exact size of the checks will depend on a family’s income, but a typical middle-class household will hand over $15,000 each year. This plan, I promise all of you, will create the greatest version of America that has ever existed.

You would consider that proposal pretty radical, wouldn’t you? Politically crazy. Destructive, even. Well, I’ve just described the actual changes in the American economy since the 1970s.

Economic output — known as G.D.P. — per person has almost doubled over this period. But the bulk of the bounty has flowed to the very rich. The middle class has received relative crumbs.

If middle-class pay had increased as fast as the economic growth, the average middle-class family would today earn about $15,000 a year more than it does, after taxes and benefits. Instead, that middle-class family effectively forfeits the money to the rich, year after year after year….

The extreme redistribution of income — upward — has multiple causes. Some of them, like technological change, stem mostly from private-sector forces. But government policy plays a crucial role. Tax rates on the wealthy have fallen sharply. Labor unions have been undermined. Big companies have been allowed to grow even bigger and more powerful. The United States has lost its lead as the most educated country in the world.

More often than not over the past 40 years, our government has helped the rich at the expense of everyone else. As a result, economic inequality has reached Gilded Age levels.

In the face of these trends, the radical response is to do nothing — or to make inequality even worse, as President Trump’s policies have. It’s radical because soaring inequality is starting to threaten the basic fabric of American life. Many people have grown frustrated and cynical. Average life expectancy, amazingly, has fallen over the past few years.

Over the sweep of history, the main reason that societies have declined, as the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have written, is domination “by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people.” The name of Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s book on this phenomenon is, “Why Nations Fail”.

It’s worth keeping all of this in mind when you hear critics (or journalists) describe the economic proposals of the Democratic presidential candidates as “radical.” They’re not radical, for the most part. The proposals are instead efforts to undo some of the extreme economic changes of recent decades and to ensure that most Americans workers — not just a narrow elite — fully benefit from economic growth.

The proposals also happen to be popular, broadly speaking. On social issues, like abortion and immigration, the country is deeply divided. But clear majorities support higher taxes on the wealthy, higher taxes on corporations, more education funding and expanded government health insurance. No wonder: Americans don’t resent success, but they do resent not receiving their fair share of economic growth.

The coming primary campaign will be a good time for the candidates to hash out which specific ideas make sense and which don’t. So far, the agenda looks pretty good. Elizabeth Warren has a plan to increase workers’ power within companies — and help them get larger pre-tax raises. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris want to lift the after-tax pay of the middle class and poor. Kirsten Gillibrand and others support reducing major living costs, like child care and education.

Perhaps most important, some Democrats have begun pushing for a wealth tax — to reverse the upward redistribution of the past 40 years. Warren has proposed an annual 2 or 3 percent tax on large fortunes. Bernie Sanders has proposed a big increase in the inheritance tax.

These wealth taxes are a classic example of policies that are less radical than their opponents claim. Do you know who already pays a wealth tax? Middle-class Americans. It’s called the property tax, as Noah Smith of Bloomberg Opinion has noted. Every year, homeowners pay a percentage of their house value in tax. A house, of course, is the biggest asset that most families own. If middle-class families can pay an annual tax on their main source of wealth, wealthy families can, too.

The United States as we have known it — optimistic, future-oriented and more powerful than any other nation — cannot survive the stagnation of mass living standards over many decades. I’m glad to see that some political leaders understand this and are trying to recapture a core feature of American life….

For these progressive taxes to be enacted, the Democrats will have to take the White House and the Senate in 2020 and hold onto the House. The Senate will be competitive, but the Republicans probably have the edge, given the particular states that will have Senate races.

Meanwhile, Republicans want to eliminate the estate tax, which they recently weakened. As of this year, it only applies to estates worth more than $5 million.

On a related note:

On Tuesday, a pair of baffled [Fox News] anchors referred to [talk about higher taxes on the rich] as a movement “against capitalism.” It is a dubious assertion, because by that definition the U.S. has only been a capitalist country since the 1980s, when Reagan knocked the top tax rate even lower and conservatives convinced enough legislators that “a rising tide lifts all boats” was a substitute for economic policy. But in their efforts to find an explanation for why so many people are turned off by unfettered, unregulated, and unaccountable capitalism, they turn to Charles Payne of Fox News Business. His explanation: Schools have brainwashed kids with lessons about “fairness.”

Putting the Government Shutdown in Context

If you want to understand why our partial government shutdown is now the longest in history, all you have to do is read this one article in The New York Times. Its title is “In Business and Governing, Trump Seeks Victory in Chaos”.

Throughout his career, the supposed master of negotiation has followed the same pattern over and over again. Make demands, ignore advice, refuse to compromise and don’t worry about any damage done. All that matters is being “the winner”:

Quote:

Three decades ago, [Trump] waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become [Trump’s] third Atlantic City casino. Executives at [his] company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.

The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil [Trump] fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.

As president, [he] has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, [he] has insulted adversaries, undermined his aides, repeatedly changed course, extolled his primacy as a negotiator and induced chaos….

“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for [him] in the 1980s …

[The president] briefly seemed to follow a more conventional approach for a president seeking consensus: encouraging his party leaders in Congress to negotiate a deal. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, shepherded a compromise in December that would have kept the government open and put off negotiations over a wall and other border security measures.

[Trump] was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception [he] could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.

He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business …

His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed [Trump’s] business ventures only to come up shortchanged.

And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning…

“I think he was always a terrible negotiator,” said Tony Schwartz, co-author … of The Art of the Deal.

That book, published in 1987, was intended to be [Trump’s autobiography]. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of [Trump] as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched [Trump] seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.

Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, [Trump’s] “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.

“If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used a hammer, deceit, relentlessness and an absence of conscience as a formula for getting what he wanted”…

In recent weeks, … his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney … pursued a rather standard tactic in ending the impasse over border security and a wall: He tried to find middle ground between the $1.3 billion to which Democrats had once agreed, and the president’s demand for $5.7 billion. But upon learning of Mr. Mulvaney’s efforts, [Trump] snarled in front of a crowded room that Mr. Mulvaney had [“fucked it all up”] …

During his years in business, [Trump] earned a reputation as someone whose word meant very little. When a commitment he made no longer made sense, he walked away, often blaming the other party with a fantastical line of reasoning.

To win financing from Deutsche Bank to build a Trump Hotel in Chicago, for example, [he] personally guaranteed $40 million of the debt. When he could not make his payments during the 2008 financial crisis, Deutsche Bank executives were open to granting him more time to repay the loan, a person briefed on negotiations later recalled.

But before a compromise could be reached, [Trump] flipped the script. He filed a lawsuit and argued that the bank had helped cause the worldwide financial meltdown that essentially rendered [him] unable to make his debt payments. At the time, Deutsche Bank called the lawsuit “classic Trump.”

The bank eventually settled…. [Trump] expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill….

From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, [Trump] left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.

The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued him for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.

That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. [Trump] recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”

[Trump] has claimed [absurdly] that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them…

During his years in business, [Trump] rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.

Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.

His wealthy father helped bail him out. But [Trump] blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.

In describing the border wall, [he] has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.

End quote.

Our president has taken 800,000 federal workers and thousands of contractors and private businesses hostage. The Democrats in Congress have done what they can to reopen the government. They have also told the president that they will negotiate border security once everyone is back at work and being paid. Either the president or Congressional Republicans (without the president’s involvement) can end the shutdown. But they have to be willing to see reason and give up their hostages first.

Let Them Eat Cake, But Raise Their Taxes

Newly-elected Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC) is the youngest person in Congress. She is becoming very well-known. Last week, she was asked about funding the Green New Deal, the plan to eliminate U.S. carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels within ten years. This is what she said:

Once you get to the tippie-tops, on your $10 millionth dollar, sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60% or 70%. That doesn’t mean all $10 million dollars are taxed at an extremely high rate. But it means that as you climb up this ladder, you should be contributing more.

Right-wingers immediately screamed that a tax rate that high would be the equivalent of slavery. They didn’t bother to point out that she was referring to the “marginal” tax rate, the percentage at which income over a certain threshold is taxed. That’s very different from taking 60% or 70% of someone’s entire income.

The economist Paul Krugman explains why the 60% or 70% marginal rate is an excellent idea:

The right’s denunciation of AOC’s “insane” policy ideas serves as a very good reminder of who is actually insane.

The controversy of the moment involves AOC’s advocacy of a tax rate of 70-80 percent on very high incomes, which is obviously crazy, right? I mean, who thinks that makes sense? Only ignorant people like … um, Peter Diamond, Nobel laureate in economics and arguably the world’s leading expert on public finance…. And it’s a policy nobody has ever implemented, aside from … the United States, for 35 years after World War II — including the most successful period of economic growth in our history.

To be more specific, Diamond, in work with Emmanuel Saez — one of our leading experts on inequality — estimated the optimal top tax rateto be 73 percent. Some put it higher: Christina Romer, top macroeconomist and former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, estimates it at more than 80 percent.[

Where do these numbers come from? Underlying the Diamond-Saez analysis are two propositions: Diminishing marginal utility and competitive markets.

Diminishing marginal utility [i.e. the value of something at the margin] is the common-sense notion that an extra dollar is worth a lot less in satisfaction to people with very high incomes than to those with low incomes. Give a family with an annual income of $20,000 an extra $1,000 and it will make a big difference to their lives. Give a guy who makes $1 million an extra thousand and he’ll barely notice it.

What this implies for economic policy is that we shouldn’t care what a policy does to the incomes of the very rich. A policy that makes the rich a bit poorer will affect only a handful of people, and will barely affect their life satisfaction, since they will still be able to buy whatever they want.

So why not tax them at 100 percent? The answer is that this would eliminate any incentive to do whatever it is they do to earn that much money, which would hurt the economy. In other words, tax policy toward the rich should have nothing to do with the interests of the rich, per se, but should only be concerned with how incentive effects change the behavior of the rich, and how this affects the rest of the population.

But here’s where competitive markets come in. In a perfectly competitive economy, with no monopoly power or other distortions — which is the kind of economy conservatives want us to believe we have — everyone gets paid his or her marginal product. That is, if you get paid $1000 an hour, it’s because each extra hour you work adds $1000 worth to the economy’s output.

In that case, however, why do we care how hard the rich work? If a rich man works an extra hour, adding $1000 to the economy, but gets paid $1000 for his efforts, the combined income of everyone else doesn’t change, does it? Ah, but it does — because he pays taxes on that extra $1000. So the social benefit from getting high-income individuals to work a bit harder is the tax revenue generated by that extra effort — and conversely the cost of their working less is the reduction in the taxes they pay.

Or to put it a bit more succinctly, when taxing the rich, all we should care about is how much revenue we raise. The optimal tax rate on people with very high incomes is the rate that raises the maximum possible revenue.

And that’s something we can estimate, given evidence on how responsive the pre-tax income of the wealthy actually is to tax rates. As I said, Diamond and Saez put the optimal rate at 73 percent, Romer at over 80 percent — which is consistent with what AOC said.

An aside: What if we take into account the reality that markets aren’t perfectly competitive, that there’s a lot of monopoly power out there? The answer is that this almost surely makes the case for even higher tax rates, since high-income people presumably get a lot of those monopoly rents.

So AOC, far from showing her craziness, is fully in line with serious economic research. (I hear that she’s been talking to some very good economists.) Her critics, on the other hand, do indeed have crazy policy ideas — and tax policy is at the heart of the crazy.

You see, Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy, based on the claim that tax cuts at the top will have huge beneficial effects on the economy. This claim rests on research by … well, nobody. There isn’t any body of serious work supporting G.O.P. tax ideas, because the evidence is overwhelmingly against those ideas.

Increasing marginal rates as income rises is called “progressive” taxation. It’s fair and practical. Republicans are against it, preferring a “flat” tax, where all income is taxed at the same rate. A flat tax let’s the rich keep more of their income. They say it’s fair and simple, but that’s not why they’re for it.

Start the Impeachment Process Now, Part 2

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, now famous for recently proclaiming “let’s impeach the motherfucker”, and political activist John Bonifaz present the case for the House of Representatives to immediately begin the impeachment process:

[The president] is a direct and serious threat to our country. On an almost daily basis, he attacks our Constitution, our democracy, the rule of law and the people who are in this country. His conduct has created a constitutional crisis that we must confront now. 

The Framers of the Constitution designed a remedy to address such a constitutional crisis: impeachment. Through the impeachment clause, they sought to ensure that we would have the power, through our elected representatives in Congress, to protect the country by removing a lawless president from the Oval Office.

We already have overwhelming evidence that the president has committed impeachable offenses, including, just to name a few: obstructing justice; violating the emoluments clause; abusing the pardon power; directing or seeking to direct law enforcement to prosecute political adversaries for improper purposes; advocating illegal violence and undermining equal protection of the laws; ordering the cruel and unconstitutional imprisonment of children and their families at the southern border; and conspiring to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments.

Whether the president was directly involved in a conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election remains the subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But we do not need to wait on the outcome of that criminal investigation before moving forward now with an inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives on whether the president has committed impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” against the state: abuse of power and abuse of the public trust.

Those who say we must wait for Special Counsel Mueller to complete his criminal investigation before Congress can start any impeachment proceedings ignore this crucial distinction. There is no requirement whatsoever that a president be charged with or be convicted of a crime before Congress can impeach him. They also ignore the fact that many of the impeachable offenses committed by this president are beyond the scope of the special counsel’s investigation.

We are also now hearing the dangerous claim that initiating impeachment proceedings against this president is politically unwise and that, instead, the focus should now shift to holding the president accountable via the 2020 election. Such a claim places partisan gamesmanship over our country and our most vulnerable at this perilous moment in our nation’s history. Members of Congress have a sworn duty to preserve our Constitution.  Leaving a lawless president in office for political points would be abandoning that duty.

This is not just about [the president]. This is about all of us. What should we be as a nation? Who should we be as a people? In the face of this constitutional crisis, we must rise. We must rise to defend our Constitution, to defend our democracy, and to defend that bedrock principle that no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States. Each passing day brings more pain for the people most directly hurt by this president, and these are days we simply cannot get back. The time for impeachment proceedings is now.

Begin to Impeach the Motherfucker

Leading Democrats in Congress say they should wait for the Mueller investigation’s findings before talking about impeachment, even though they don’t know what the Mueller findings will be or when the investigation will end. Meanwhile, we have a president who is unfit to serve another day.

David Leonhardt of the NY Times makes the case for impeaching him now:

The presidential oath of office contains 35 words and one core promise: to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Since virtually the moment [the president] took that oath two years ago, he has been violating it.

He has repeatedly put his own interests above those of the country. He has used the presidency to promote his businesses. He has accepted financial gifts from foreign countries. He has lied to the American people about his relationship with a hostile foreign government. He has tolerated cabinet officials who use their position to enrich themselves.

To shield himself from accountability for all of this — and for his unscrupulous presidential campaign — he has set out to undermine the American system of checks and balances. He has called for the prosecution of his political enemies and the protection of his allies. He has attempted to obstruct justice. He has tried to shake the public’s confidence in one democratic institution after another, including the press, federal law enforcement and the federal judiciary.

The unrelenting chaos that Trump creates can sometimes obscure the big picture. But the big picture is simple: The United States has never had a president as demonstrably unfit for the office as Trump. And it’s becoming clear that 2019 is likely to be dominated by a single question: What are we going to do about it?

The easy answer is to wait — to allow the various investigations of Trump to run their course and ask voters to deliver a verdict in 2020. That answer has one great advantage. It would avoid the national trauma of overturning an election result. Ultimately, however, waiting is too dangerous. The cost of removing a president from office is smaller than the cost of allowing this president to remain.

He has already shown, repeatedly, that he will hurt the country in order to help himself. He will damage American interests around the world and damage vital parts of our constitutional system at home. The risks that he will cause much more harm are growing.

Some of the biggest moderating influences have recently left the administration. The defense secretary who defended our alliances with NATO and South Korea is gone. So is the attorney general who refused to let Trump subvert a federal investigation into himself. The administration is increasingly filled with lackeys and enablers. Trump has become freer to turn his whims into policy — like, say, shutting down the government on the advice of Fox News hosts or pulling troops from Syria on the advice of a Turkish autocrat.

The biggest risk may be that an external emergency — a war, a terrorist attack, a financial crisis, an immense natural disaster — will arise. By then, it will be too late to pretend that he is anything other than manifestly unfit to lead.

For the country’s sake, there is only one acceptable outcome, just as there was after Americans realized in 1974 that a criminal was occupying the Oval Office. The president must go.

Mr. Leonhardt then discusses reasons to impeach him. He has used the presidency to enrich himself, even making decisions favoring his business’s foreign customers. He has obstructed justice. He has subverted our democracy, just one example being his violation of campaign finance laws by directing the payment of hush money in at least two cases. 

Practically speaking, the next step is for the House of Representatives to form a committee charged with drawing up articles of impeachment. Holding hearings and confirming the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors would take some time. The time to start is now. 

So perhaps newly-elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib should have said “Let’s begin the process of impeaching the motherfucker” instead of what she actually said in that bar Thursday night. That would have been more precise. And I think we can all agree that calling him a “motherfucker” was too kind.

A Big Reason Why There Is a Monster in the White House

One of the 2016 election’s least reported stories was how a certain candidate benefited from starring in a “reality” TV show for the 14 years before he ran for president. The program was The Apprentice, sometimes known as Celebrity Apprentice. It was created and produced by a man named Mark Burnett, now the head of MGM Television. Burnett is the subject of an article in The New Yorker written by Patrick Keefe. Here are excerpts regarding the program’s star performer.

Trump had been a celebrity since the eighties, his persona shaped by the best-selling book “The Art of the Deal.” But his business had foundered, and by 2003 he had become a garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six [the New York Post‘s gossip page]. “The Apprentice” mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success…. [Mark Burnett’s] legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world. “I don’t think any of us could have known what this would become,” … a producer on the first five seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me. “But Donald would not be President had it not been for that show.”

Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which falsely presented Trump as its primary author, told me that he feels some responsibility for facilitating Trump’s imposture. But, he said, “Mark Burnett’s influence was vastly greater,” adding, “ ‘The Apprentice’ was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.” Schwartz has publicly condemned Trump, describing him as “the monster I helped to create.” 

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But … Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, … the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. 

“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” [one of the show’s editors] told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” [One of the producers] recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”

Trump maximized his profits from the start. When producers were searching for office space in which to stage the show, he vetoed every suggestion, then mentioned that he had an empty floor available in Trump Tower, which he could lease at a reasonable price. (After becoming President, he offered a similar arrangement to the Secret Service.) When the production staff tried to furnish the space, they found that local venders, stiffed by Trump in the past, refused to do business with them.

More than two hundred thousand people applied for one of the sixteen spots on Season 1, and throughout the show’s early years the candidates were conspicuously credentialled and impressive. Officially, the grand prize was what the show described as “the dream job of a lifetime”—the unfathomable privilege of being mentored by Donald Trump while working as a junior executive at the Trump Organization. All the candidates paid lip service to the notion that Trump was a peerless businessman, but not all of them believed it…. Fran Lebowitz once remarked that Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” and [one contestant] was struck, when the show aired, by the extent to which Americans fell for the ruse. “Main Street America saw all those glittery things, the helicopter and the gold-plated sinks, and saw the most successful person in the universe,” he recalled. “The people I knew in the world of high finance understood that it was all a joke.”

This is an oddly common refrain among people who were involved in “The Apprentice”: that the show was camp, and that the image of Trump as an avatar of prosperity was delivered with a wink. Somehow, this interpretation eluded the audience. [An editor] marvelled, “People started taking it seriously!”

The show was an instant hit, and Trump’s public image, and the man himself, began to change. Not long after the première, Trump suggested in an Esquire article that people now liked him, “whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre.” [A Trump publicist said] that after “The Apprentice” began airing “people on the street embraced him. All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking. He was a hero.”

The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals. The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.

Originally, Burnett had planned to cast a different mogul in the role of host each season. But Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” … Producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms. “We cleaned it up so that he was his best self … I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited… We didn’t have to change him—he gave us stuff to work with.” 

By the time Trump announced his campaign, ratings for “The Apprentice” had fallen, and the show had been repackaged as “The Celebrity Apprentice.” The contestants were now D-list celebrities… Still, everyone gamely pretended to take it seriously….

Burnett’s reluctance to discuss the Trump presidency is dismaying to many people involved with “The Apprentice,” given that Trump has succeeded in politics, in part, by borrowing the tropes of the show…. When Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, he did so in the atrium of Trump Tower, and made his entrance by descending the gold-colored escalator—choreography that Burnett and his team had repeatedly used on the show. After Trump’s announcement, reports suggested that people who had filled the space and cheered during his speech had been hired to do so, like TV extras, for a day rate of fifty dollars. Earlier this year, the White House started issuing brief video monologues from the President that strongly evoke his appearances on Burnett’s show. Justin McConney, a former director of new media for the Trump Organization, told New York that, whenever Trump works with camera people, he instructs them, “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice.’ ”

I asked [a psychologist] what kind of personality profile he might have prepared for Trump as a candidate for the show. He said he would have noted “the energy, the impulsiveness, the inability to articulate a complete thought because he gets interrupted by emotions, so when he speaks it’s all adjectives—‘great,’ ‘huge,’ ‘horrible.’ ” What made Trump so magnetic as a reality-television star was his impulse to transgress, … and it is the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world. “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined—it’s so macabre that you have to watch it,” he said. “And you keep waiting for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”

There has likely never been a man who, in his own lifetime, has been as widely spoken and written about as Donald Trump. Politics has never been so spellbinding. “It’s the reason people watch a schoolyard fight,” [the psychologist said]. “It’s vicariously watching someone act out and get away with it.” Burnett once remarked that “Lord of the Flies” is so absorbing because all the characters are suddenly transported into a world in which “the rules are changed, and convention, law, and morality are suspended.” It’s an apt paraphrase of the Trump presidency.

What Most of Us Expected

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post reminds us of what we were afraid of. It’s like Scrooge’s Christmas Future only it’s very much present:

When the new year begins next week, President [T] will have an acting chief of staff, an acting secretary of defense, an acting attorney general, an acting EPA administrator, no interior secretary, and no ambassador to the United Nations. The officials originally in all those positions have either been fired or have quit in various measures of disgust or scandal. His former campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, national security adviser and personal lawyer have all pleaded guilty to crimes. His campaign, his transition, his foundation and his business are all under investigation. The United States’ allies are horrified at the chaos [T] has brought to our foreign policy. The stock market is experiencing wild swings [more like precipitous losses] as investors are gripped with fear over what might be coming and what [T] might do to make it worse — a situation alarming enough that the treasury secretary felt the need to call up the CEOs of major banks to assure them that everything is under control.

And, oh yeah, the government is shut down.

This, my friends, is exactly what we were afraid of when [T] somehow managed to get elected president two years ago. This is what we warned you about.

To give you a flavor of the president’s mind-set, here’s what happened over the weekend with regard to the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, widely regarded as the sanest of [T’s] national security team and one of the few original members of [T’s] Cabinet who did not show himself to be incompetent, corrupt, or both. The president’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria because of a single phone call with the president of Turkey was apparently the last straw for Mattis, who has watched in dismay as Trump has set about to degrade the alliances that have shaped U.S. foreign policy for the last seven decades. So Mattis tendered his resignation, saying he’d depart in two months to give the president time to find a replacement. And then . . .

President [T], who aides said has been seething about news coverage of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s pointed resignation letter, abruptly announced Sunday that he was removing Mattis two months before his planned departure and installing Patrick Shanahan as acting defense secretary. . . .

[T] decided hastily to remove Mattis in reaction to negative news coverage, according to senior administration officials, one of whom said the president was eager to retaliate against Mattis and show up the widely respected former general. Another official said [T] and other advisers suspected Mattis of being part of a campaign to stoke negative coverage about the president.


Nothing says “well-oiled machine” like that distinctly [T-pian] combination of paranoia and vindictiveness.

Meanwhile, the government shutdown is expected to last into the new year, a shutdown that is happening because a bunch of Fox News and talk-radio hosts criticized the president for not being tough enough in fighting for his ludicrous border wall. [T], always deeply insecure and eager to feed his base’s endless rage and desire for conflict, responded quickly to the accusation of weakness. “He spends ever more time in front of a television, often retreating to his residence out of concern that he is being watched too closely,” reports the New York Times.

Two years ago, as we were still trying to wrap our heads around the idea that [T] was actually going to be president of the United States, it was not uncommon to hear the hopeful prediction that things wouldn’t work out as badly as we feared. The weighty responsibilities of the office would turn [T] serious, sober, “presidential.”

That has not occurred. If anything, [T] has shown himself to be even more of a despicable human being than he appeared then, and utterly incapable of growing into the office. He is just as petty, just as impulsive, just as narcissistic, just as dishonest and, perhaps, even more corrupt than we realized. Not only does he seem to be using every available opportunity to exploit the presidency to enrich himself and his family, but a recent, meticulously documented nvestigation showed that [T], his father, and his siblings engaged in a years-long scheme to commit tax fraud on an absolutely massive scale, a story that, in the endless waves of White House madness, has been almost forgotten. And he continues to jealously guard his tax returns, to the point where any reasonable person would conclude that the information contained therein must at a minimum shock the conscience, if not providing evidence of outright criminal behavior.

It is true that [T] has not yet started World War III. And if you’re a Republican, he has done many things that pleased you, such as cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, or slashing regulations that protect workers, consumers, and people who enjoy breathing air and drinking water. If you thrill to the sight of immigrant children being ripped from the arms of their parents, then this presidency has been a joy. Indeed, just about the only fear about [T] that hasn’t come to pass is the conservative worry that he would be ideologically unreliable.

But in so many ways, he has shown himself again and again to be not just as bad as we thought, but worse. As as we look forward to the next two years, we must realize that there will be no stability, no settling down, no period of calm. The best we can hope for are brief moments when the lunacy pouring from the White House is more comical than terrifying. But most of the time, they’ll probably be both.

[Merry Christmas to all for whom it’s relevant and deserve one, and Happy Holidays to everyone else who isn’t horrible — LWF]