Transgressive Trump

Ross Douthat has a piece examining how much of the blame for America’s Covid-19 failure should be attributed to Trump. In my view Douthat (and other pundits who are trying to be even-handed) have missed the point. I see two related flaws in Douthat’s evaluation:

1. He implicitly mixes together discussion of the “Great Man” perspective of history with a specific evaluation of Trump. It’s not that Douthat fails to understand the distinction, but many readers will not.

2. He fails to pay enough attention to the transgressive nature of Trump’s behavior.

I frequently argue that presidents are typically responsible for only about 3% of national outcomes, although it varies somewhat from cases to case. Thus I’m skeptical of great man theories of history, while acknowledging some exceptions (such as Hitler.)

It’s true that much of America’s Covid-19 failure was due to non-Trumpian factors, including mistakes in the bureaucracy and at lower levels of government. So Douthat is correct. But if we buy into the theory that presidents have only a limited impact, then we must also evaluate them on the same basis. What has Trump done with his ability to impact 3% of America’s outcomes?

And this leads to the second point, the unprecedentedly transgressive nature of Trump. It’s not a question of Trump getting this or that policy wrong; he intentionally and openly says and does evil things, and then dares anyone to object. That’s perfectly normal for many leaders throughout world history, but it’s also something that America has never seen at the national level.

Trump didn’t just do a poor job reducing Covid-19. He openly and aggressively discouraged attempts to control it, as if he wanted more people to die. There are three plausible ways to reduce the pandemic; masks, tests and social distancing—and Trump fought against all three. Yes, the experts initially misjudged the mask situation, but even after they came around and encouraged mask wearing, Trump continued to mock those who wore masks. This led many of his supporters to oppose mask wearing, as Trump has a cult-like following.

Second, he openly discouraged testing, indicating that he did so because it would make the problem look worse (and by implication hurt him politically.) And third, he often discouraged social distancing.

This is actually part of a broader pattern. On literally dozens of occasions Trump says and does things that are simply unacceptable. Or at least used to be viewed as unacceptable before Trump. For instance, he mocks American soldiers who gave their lives defending the US in WWII. He mocked John McCain for being captured and tortured by the Vietnamese. Those things just aren’t done in America politics. At least not prior to 2016.

But the rules don’t apply to Trump, and he knows it. Trump once indicated that he could shoot someone in the middle of Times Square and his supporters would stick with him.

Some examples:

Trump encouraged the Chinese to put a million Muslims into concentration camps. You just don’t do stuff like that!!

He supported torture.

He praised US war criminals, and used them in his campaign.

He said we should have stolen Iraq’s oil.

He praised the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

He praises vigilante killers that act in his name.

He tries to extort money from other countries.

He praises foreign leaders who are authoritarian thugs, while trashing our democratic allies.

He defends Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.

He violates the law with impunity.

He demands that law enforcement officials be personally loyal to him.

He insinuated that Joe Scarborough may have murdered a young woman.

He corruptly uses the presidency to enlarge his personal fortune.

He tells non-whites to go back to their country.

There are many similar examples of transgressive behavior, more and more each day. At this point, many of his supporters will say none of this matters, and maybe it doesn’t. After all, his administration has sanctions on Russia even though Trump himself would obviously prefer we did not. But this is where I go back to my 3% rule. The fact that Trump is not all that influential, or that life in a big country like America goes on pretty much the same regardless who is president, is not a defense of Trump, any more than it would be a defense of my plumber. Yes, the stock market may be booming (as it was under Obama), but I’m going to judge my plumber on whether my sink leaks, not the stock market. I’ll judge Trump on Trump’s “value added”.

It’s increasingly popular to call Trump a fascist, and there’s some truth in that description. But actual historical fascists had a policy agenda, whereas Trump’s only agenda seems to be Trump. He’s too lazy and uninformed to care about the agendas of Steve Miller, Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro or Mike Pompeo. To me, he’s more like one of those decadent Roman emperors, more Caligula than Mussolini.

I don’t know whether the specific stories of Caligula sending his horse to the Senate or Nero fiddling while Rome burned are apocryphal, but it doesn’t really matter. The stories reflect the way that many ancient emperors exercised power. They relished saying and doing obviously evil things to show their dominance.

These transgressive actions by Roman emperors had the effect of annoying their opponents (“own the libs”), but also humiliating their allies, who had to swallow their pride and defend the indefensible. One may feel a bit sorry for Democratic congressmen who don’t get their polices enacted during the Trump era, but our hearts should really go out to the GOP congressmen who feel they must kiss Trump’s feet. It’s like a Roman orgy where the emperor demands that the people around him abase themselves with disgusting sexual practices, all for the emperor’s amusement. “Eat this and smile while doing so.” With the exception of Mitt Romney, life under Trump must be absolute hell for GOP officials. Many of them privately hope that Biden wins.

Don’t fall for sophisticated pundits who tell you to look past Trump’s “personality” and focus on “the issues”. There’s really only one issue in this campaign—should America re-elect Caligula.

I predict that in November a majority of American voters will say “no”, disgusted by Trump’s behavior, but also predict that Trump will win anyway.

Some of my commenters seem to have trouble with reading comprehension. Watch people put stuff in the comment section such as data on how much testing the US is doing. Sigh . . .



27 Responses to “Transgressive Trump”

  1. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    8. September 2020 at 09:59

    One thing that Trump will likely have achieved is to make almost anything subsequent presidents do look normal by comparison. The US now has both Latin American politics, and a Latin American style constitution. Expect Latin American type outcomes from the US going forward.

  2. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    8. September 2020 at 10:01

    I hardly have the energy to comment—-Scott just loads it on–mixes and matches and bascially just calls him things already proven wrong—“charlottesville” is one of them—(and if you don’t already know that I will not waste time proving it).

    Somehow this person who is more like Caligula than Mussolini–(9/10 for originality)—who is “against” testing—–is President of a country that has tested more per million than any other—-and while he doesn’t matter more than a plumber he still acts “as if” he wants more people to die from Covid.

    He has enhanced his personal fortune—? How? Airforce using his hotels in Britain? Having conventioneers stay in his hotel in DC? Is that worse than preselling an unwritten memoir for 65 million. Yes!

    he extorts—what the hell does that mean? Oh I know—-“germany, pay the share of your defense costs you agreed to”—or I will send some of the troops we have there to Poland—-where he put back strategic air defense policy–which O reversed.

    And so on. But as Scott says “I don’t read what he says”–I just assume what he says.

    Trump never criticizes–he “trashes”. Life is “Hell” for GOP officials—-whatever that means in practice.

    And so on. Caligula at 3%—Scott sure has a lot of TDS for a guy who acts “as if” he wants to kill people with Covid.

    I promise—to me—to not ever comment on Trump again–until after the election

  3. Gravatar of Joseph Joseph
    8. September 2020 at 10:23

    Again, +1 to Michael

    Scott, this is probably one of your worst posts ever. You’ve repeated so many lies here, I hope you will say “sorry” one day. Unlike this guy or Biden who recently repeated the same nazi libel about Trump. Shame on you.

  4. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    8. September 2020 at 10:39

    Your 3% comment reminds me of my favorite stock chart of all time:

    What happened? Microsoft announced that Steve Ballmer would retire within the next 12 months. The stock shot up nearly 10% on the news. At the time MSFT was a $260bn company, so Ballmer was worth -10%, or negative 26 billion dollars. There is nothing I (or 99.9999% of people) could ever do to cause that much value destruction.

    If Trump is only responsible for 3% of outcomes, that’s still potentially hundreds of billions of dollars negative value.

  5. Gravatar of Steve J Steve J
    8. September 2020 at 10:45

    Michael – I started reading your comment and thought wow the US actually leads the world in per capita testing… It then took me about a minute to verify that was false. That doesn’t make me confident in trusting the rest of your comment.

  6. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    8. September 2020 at 11:23

    According to Your World In Data the US is #7:

  7. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    8. September 2020 at 11:38

    “Yes, the experts initially misjudged the mask situation, but even after they came around and encouraged mask wearing,”

    I’m not sure why Scott thinks mask experts are only Americans and the many like Fauci who flipped his position from pre-lockdowns as he also flipped on lockdowns themselves (“they haven’t worked historically”) and flipped on the severity of coronavirus (it will be like a very bad flu season). The previous version of Fauci was correct on all three.

    Why don’t Australian, British, Dutch and Swedish experts count with respect to the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of masks?

  8. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    8. September 2020 at 11:49

    Steve J wrote: “Michael – I started reading your comment and thought wow the US actually leads the world in per capita testing… It then took me about a minute to verify that was false.”

    The U.S. has been either in the lead or tied since April 8th for testing per capita. First with Germany, then at the top until August 17th when tied with the U.K.

    Second graph; click “Tests” and “Per 1,000 people”

  9. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    8. September 2020 at 11:51

    Ali Soufan’s book has brought the “torture” discussion back. So I think it is very important to distinguish using enhanced interrogation tactics in furtherance of gathering intelligence versus using enhanced interrogation in order to elicit false confessions tying Saddam to 9/11. So this is actually very easy argument to make because using any tactic to elicit false confessions is wrong regardless of whether one thinks it amounts to torture or not!!! So letting a detained terrorist play with puppies and kittens in order to get him to lie and say Saddam is responsible for 9/11 is just as morally reprehensible as water boarding that same terrorist to elicit falsehoods!!

  10. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    8. September 2020 at 11:55

    @ Steve J

    I know and knew you are technically correct. However, the countries with more are Israel (277569 vs 266637), UAE (777000),Singapore, 353000, Bahrain 683000, Denmark 484000, Luxembourg, malta, 465000, Andorra, Channel Islands, faero Islands, 2mil, Caymans 546,000, Bermuda 774, Monaco, 1 mil +

    So we are 14th—if you think that changes the nature of my point–thats fine.

  11. Gravatar of Jason Verlen Jason Verlen
    8. September 2020 at 12:11


    I agree with everything you say about Trump. My problem is the imbalance provided re trump’s craziness. For example … there are sites that say Trump has lied a million times since being President. Ok. But how many lies were told about Trump during 2 years of Russiagate? That imbalance asks a fundamental question – do all of Trump’s lies and craziness make him worse than the folks against him who lie with impunity about him and never acknowledge it… they only talk about Trump’s lies. It isn’t just Russiagate either. There are many examples. So I look at this situation and it is not clear at all who is worse. Further I watched Joe Biden in PA and he says he is not going to shut down fracking. There are previous speeches this year when he says he is. Which is the lie? I like Biden, I hate fracking, but the complete lack of objectivity re Trump bothers me.

  12. Gravatar of steve v steve v
    8. September 2020 at 12:14

    Hi Scott, let’s stick to the facts.

    What Trump actually said was:”I Could Stand In the Middle Of Fifth Avenue And Shoot Somebody And I Wouldn’t Lose Any Voters”

    Even Trump knows he couldn’t shoot someone in Times Square and get away with it.

    Steve V.

  13. Gravatar of rob2b rob2b
    8. September 2020 at 13:04

    So why are all of you bozos here? Scott is consistent in his positions about Trump and economics…sometimes to a tiresome extent. But the comments are full of people who basically don’t agree with Scott’s view of reality. If you can’t agree about what is real and what is not, there is not much point in debate…cause it ain’t debate.

    Imagine the Socratic dialog in which “Socrates asks questions that help the disciple see the contradictions and inadequacies in his opinion”. But then the disciple says no you are wrong Socrates (and ignorant and foolish and biased). There is not much of a way to go forward.

    These diciples need a new teacher.

  14. Gravatar of Steve J Steve J
    8. September 2020 at 13:37


    It goes more to the nature of Trump defenses. If you are going to defend Trump it seems best to avoid the things that cause TDS – like exaggeration. I think the driver of TDS is the lack of acknowledgement of Trump’s flaws from his defenders. I am in the group that believes we should call almost all politicians spineless liars. So when I see defenses of Trump (who doesn’t even reach the level of a spineless liar because he is merely a salesman who has no values to be spineless about) using his same techniques it does cause derangement. I don’t mind people voting for Trump and for many people that choice makes complete sense. But I do mind people who say they like Trump. That is what makes me question what has happened to US culture.

  15. Gravatar of Bill White Bill White
    8. September 2020 at 14:59

    Great post.
    Also, we need an attorney general who knows that voting twice is not legal.

  16. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    8. September 2020 at 15:43

    Bill White: if a dead man can vote once, a live man should be able to vote twice.

    Trump as Hitler, then Trump as Caligula.

    I think at the heart of the DC globalist establishment horror at Trump is not his galaxy-class boorishness, but the tariffs on China.

    Check out who owns ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, ESPN.

    The Atlantic, and the manufactured story about Trump’s disregard for US soldiers.

    Establishment DC wants the NBA (No Balls Association) approach to China.

    Biden has said he will end “unilateral” tariffs on China.

    Not a good time to be Jimmy Lai.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. September 2020 at 16:24

    Michael, You said:

    “is President of a country that has tested more per million than any other”

    LOL, I predicted you’d say this right in the post!

    Steve V, Yeah, I’m wrong again. 🙁

  18. Gravatar of Cartesian Theatics Cartesian Theatics
    8. September 2020 at 16:52

    Generally I agree, although I hardly blame him for covid ineptitude. We could have done so much better if we had even a modicum of cultural commitment to innovation left in this country. Instead we let vague, crappy, lumbering bureaucracies decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of people. Also, remember when we had those debates about what types of masks actually work? Boy that sure went to zero. As long as you have a cloth vaguely on your face you’re fine. Clearly this is largely about soothing the masses and finding a political group to beat up on.

    Trump has set us on a high-variance, accelerationist path, which I’m afraid is what most people on both sides want. Nothing significant has ever happened to my generation, so we don’t have a sense of real down-side. We’re like children. We play with fire, and bleed just to see what it feels like. We’re in love with the idea of not knowing where it leads. And does anyone really know? It still seems possible that the ultimate lagacy of Trump will have been exposing the dangers of the far left before it was too late. He has kept us out of more wars than most recent presidents, and he’s not proposing multi-trillion dollar energy plans (aka jobs programs) that will very likely be a net-negative impact on the environment. Can we seriously estimate the risk of the green movement that is becoming anti-growth, anti-innovation, and anti-capitalism? What happens when they spend 5 trillion dollars and it doesn’t help?

  19. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    8. September 2020 at 18:43

    Cartesian, everyone agreed the wars were super dumb in 2016, so nobody was going to start a new war like Iraq or Afghanistan. Obama listened to Bush appointee Gates about Afghanistan because he didn’t want Afghanistan to undermine his domestic agenda…so I don’t like what Obama did in Afghanistan but he inherited a bad situation from Bush and, yes, made it worse. And Republicans equating Libya with Iraq and Afghanistan is just dumb but it shows how good the Republican smear machine is at what it does which is obfuscate and muddy the waters. Frackers are going bankrupt while Trump is president and Tesla is(was) soaring while Trump is president so I wouldn’t worry about energy one way or the other. The Democrats voted for Biden because they rejected Bernie and Elizabeth Warren even though the media was head over heals for Warren. So Democrats behaved responsibly but it’s not good enough for most Trump voters because it is no longer about politics it is about tribalism.

  20. Gravatar of Underscore Underscore
    8. September 2020 at 19:02

    “He praised the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.”

    “And I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis or white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally” – Donald J. Trump

    “He defends Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine”

    A significant majority of Crimeans wanted their region to join Russia. It was not an invasion, it was a liberation. Putin being a terrible leader doesn’t change that.

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. September 2020 at 19:12

    Underscore, You said:

    “A significant majority of Crimeans wanted their region to join Russia.”

    LOL. So that makes it all right? In 1938, a majority of Sudetenland residents were Germans. I suppose that invasion was also justified?

    And you are notably silent on the Eastern Ukraine.

  22. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    9. September 2020 at 07:30

    yes, caught exagerating.And on purpose too! As if the Faero Islands matter in ranking. If I had said first among all countries with population greater than 10 million or third (or 4th) among countries with population greater than 500k—would my point really be any different? You know we have been increasing our testing considerably. The funny thing is I believed readers would know this–so I got sloppy and forgot about the literalists.

    Therefore, everything you said was right because I did not count the Caymans in my ranking.

  23. Gravatar of Jonathan Jonathan
    9. September 2020 at 15:20

    “And I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis or white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally” – Donald J. Trump

    Remind me again who the “very fine people” were? Most of the Trumpistas point to one rally participant’s self-declaration of not being a neo-nazi/white supremacist that was quoted in a New York Times article to work themselves into a lather of righteous rage over Trump’s comments being “misrepresented.” That participant was actually a member of an extremist militia, but let’s not let facts get in the way of moralizing on behalf of the Dear Leader. Or, more obviously, what were the groups that participated in the rally?

    Scott’s Caligula point is spot on–Trumps supporters see him as “owning the libs,” but in this in so many other situations he is humiliating his own supporters by forcing them to adopt what would normally be seen as indefensible or immoral positions. I doubt he cares much either way about neo-nazis, but this situation provided a perfect opportunity for him to show his dominance over his own supporters.

  24. Gravatar of Jg Jg
    9. September 2020 at 16:33

    Scott is rich , and he lives in a bubble. That’s how he describes his life. He forgot one thing. He complains constantly. No gratitude. Typical Red Guard atheist mentality.

  25. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    10. September 2020 at 07:34

    I don’t think you focus enough on how awful Biden and Harris are, but I accept your reasons. That said, it is remarkable to me that third parties are shrinking in America when our two major parties are putting up such historically awful candidates.

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. September 2020 at 08:59

    Carl, Biden is an utterly normal Democratic politician. Only people with political blinders on fail to see that. Trump is the transgressive politician, Biden and Harris are normal.

    Unfortunately, I now live in an America where 90% of people have political blinders on and can’t see things for what they are.

    Of course Biden will be a lousy president, of course he’s unqualified to be president. But he’s still 100 times better than Trump.

  27. Gravatar of Jg Jg
    10. September 2020 at 09:42

    Scott is very smart. He is a ball of contradictions. As I mentioned before in A prior post , but I will add one Additional issue in this comment – On his blog he previously said he does not trust the veracity of the main stream media, yet he trusts them enough to list unending critiques about trump and irrespective of source confirmations or source contradictions. Scott is very very nice. He responds to a violent antifa video by claiming other side does it too – so what?. He is indifferent towards political violence as long As the perpetrators are part of the Red Guard. Scott is very very tolerant . He calls trump a transgressive and in the same breadth he approves of Biden and by default the libs approval of the destruction of millions of innocent babies. Are the anti-trumpers virtuous to turn a blind eye to the killing of all babies including black babies in NYC whose numbers exceed that of black newborns in NYC? Libs are very very compassionate and caring people.

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