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January 14, 2017
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Donald Trump’s interview with the Washington Post editorial board is totally fascinating. My antipathy to The Donald is pretty well known at this point—over the last few months, I’ve compared the Republican frontrunner to Batman villains, a psychotic vigilante, the mood slime from Ghostbusters II, and, most horrifyingly, an Aaron Sorkin creation*—but he is undeniably a charismatic and convincing persona. A charlatan, surely. But one with some innate political skill.

Trump is almost certainly, as Dilbert author Scott Adams has noted, a “master persuader.” Zach Abramowitz explains Adams’ thinking: Trump’s “skill set in language, hypnosis (yes, Trump is a hypnotist), and persuasion is so strong that [he] can get people to do what [he] want[s] in the board room and on the election trail. … Trump might look like a loud, dumb lucky racist, but if you put on Master Persuader goggles, all of his moves appear methodical and calculated.”

And you get a sense of some of this in the way Trump handles himself in the meeting with the Post editorial board. Consider this opening gambit, after Fred Hiatt asks Trump if he wants to start out:

I’ve been treated very, very badly by The Washington Post, but, you know, I guess — and I’m your neighbor, I’m your neighbor right down the road, in fact we’re actually giving a press conference there in a little while, I think your people are going to be there. And by the way, Bob Costa is an excellent reporter, I’ve found him to be just an excellent reporter. I should tell you, because I have to give you the good and the bad. Not that he does me any favors, because he doesn’t, but he’s a real professional.

There’s an interesting one-two punch here. He begins by whining (“I’ve been treated very, very badly”) before highlighting a loose kinship (“I’m your neighbor”) and then complimenting the Post‘s ethics (“not that he does me any favors”) and highlighting the good work of the guy who is covering him (“Bob Costa is an excellent reporter”). It’s a fascinatingly calculated response, one designed to both demand sympathy and flatter his host.

It’s also incoherent, and in that very incoherence it feels true: he speaks how people think, as if he’s kind of noodling through it on the fly. In a normal election cycle this sort of thing—which inevitably results in him, say, offering to pay the legal bills of folks who assault protestors at his rallies—would get him into trouble. But, as we’ve seen, 2016 is not a normal election cycle.

Another thing that might get a normal politician into trouble is the fact that Trump doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, but his style of speech and the conviction with which he says things allow him to bluster through. Consider this response to a question about Trump’s desire to tighten libel laws in a way that would almost inarguably damage freedom of the press:

TRUMP: What I would do, what I would do is I’d – well right now the libel laws, I mean I must tell you that the Hulk Hogan thing was a tremendous shock to me because – not only the amount and the fact that he had the victory — because for the most part I think libel laws almost don’t exist in this country, you know, based on, based on everything I’ve seen and watched and everything else, and I just think that if a paper writes something wrong — media, when I say paper I’m talking about media. I think that they can do a retraction if they’re wrong. They should at least try to get it right. And if they don’t do a retraction, they should, they should you know have a form of a trial. I don’t want to impede free press, by the way. The last thing I would want to do is that. But I mean I can only speak for – I probably get more – do I, I mean, you would know, do I get more publicity than any human being on the earth? Okay? I mean, [Editor’s note: Trump points at Ruth Marcus] she kills me, this one – that’s okay, nice woman.

Ignore the rambling about retractions and such and just look at what Trump is trying to do here: conflate his annoyance with reporters not writing what he tells them to write with Hulk Hogan’s victory over Gawker. Of course, Hogan didn’t sue Gawker for libel or slander or defamation: he sued them for violation of privacy. This is an entirely different thing. And then he follows up that non sequitur by pointing to one of the attendees, criticizing her, and then saying she’s a “nice woman.”

This response is totally incoherent. I can’t say that strongly enough. Trump doesn’t really seem to know what he’s talking about. And it doesn’t matter! I mean, do you think the following exchange on nuking ISIS will do anything to damage him with his fans?

RYAN: You [MUFFLED] mentioned a few minutes earlier here that you would knock ISIS. You’ve mentioned it many times. You’ve also mentioned the risk of putting American troop in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS?

TRUMP: I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me. That’s putting [MUFFLED]…

RYAN: This is about ISIS. You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS?

[CROSSTALK]

TRUMP: I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?

That’s. Incredible. Read it again. Go on, I’ll wait.

To summarize:

Donald Trump, would you nuke ISIS?

Well, Rubio attacked me first, I respond to attacks I don’t initiate them.

That’s not an answer.

YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL BEAUTIFUL WHAT ARE YOUR NAMES?

This is the man who wants to be commander in chief! He answers a question about nuclear war with a series of nonsense responses followed by a ham-handed attempt at flattery to change the topic altogether!

But this is why he gets away with what he does. Because you know what topic isn’t returned to after that? Nuking ISIS. Donald Trump is charmingly incoherent. And, thus far, it has redounded to his benefit.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I write a piece a week for the Washington Post’s website in the opinion section.

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