Since May, James Fallows, national correspondent at The Atlantic, has been recording the moments in which Donald Trump acted like no other presidential candidate before him in the form of a Trump Time Capsule. "People will wonder about America in our time," he wrote in his first entry. "It can be engrossing to look back on dramatic, high-stakes periods in which people were not yet sure where things would lead, to see how they assessed the odds before knowing the outcome." Fallows talks with Bob about what it was like to write the Time Capsule and why looking back helps us look forward.
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BOB GARFIELD: On Sunday, September 2nd, 1666, Samuel Pepys took up his quill and scratched this entry in his diary.
READER: Jane called us up about three in the morning to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose and slipped on my nightgowne, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Marke-lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off and so went to bed again and to sleep.
BOB GARFIELD: He went back to bed because it was a fire, no big deal. He had no idea that the orange glow he saw would become a defining event in history. The Great Fire of London raged for three days, destroying 70,000 of the city's 80,000 homes.
James Fallows, national correspondent at The Atlantic, wanted to capture that moment of not knowing what would happen, even as the Trump campaign unfolded. So he began recording events in an ongoing feature he called the Time Capsule. There are 152 entries, including #73, titled, “The Second Amendment People.” Quote, “Today, August 9th, 2016 was the day the Republican standard bearer made a joke in public about his Democratic rival possibly being shot to death” and #7, titled, “The Judge We Believe is Mexican,” in which Trump questions the ability of an Indiana-born judge to adjudicate a case against him, and #98, the classified briefing in which Donald Trump characterized what he had heard from intelligence officials in a classified briefing. Documented by Fallows, why? Because it was, to say the least, outside the norm.
JAMES FALLOWS: You should know that I'm marking this down as somebody who does not want Trump to become president, but I'm not marking it down to persuade anybody or to try to mobilize any votes, but rather to record for the long run what the United States knew about this man while deciding whether or not he would become our president, as, as we have now decided.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, apart from everything else that the Capsule represents, Jim, it's very convenient [LAUGHS] as a journalistic tool because instead of having to take every outrage as it crops up during the campaign and be freshly outraged and kind of gin up a premise for a story, you have this ongoing structure that you don't have to kind of justify as news value. It's kind of a neat journalistic trick, no?
JAMES FALLOWS: In retrospect, that became apparent to me. When I started out doing this, I did - had no idea whether I’d just do it for a week or two or how long it would go on. But exactly what you're saying became evident to me, that it was a way to record things that I wanted to say something about without having to get all worked up about them, just say, okay, this happened today, this hasn't happened before in American history, and one exception is in 1820 and that's why it was different in 1820. But it, it was the way I could journalistically come closest to encompassing what was of interest to me during the campaign in a structure that I hoped would be interesting to readers.
BOB GARFIELD: Start unpacking. What's in there?
JAMES FALLOWS: These things fall into several categories. The one standard I wanted to set up at the beginning and continue all the way up until episode 152, which was the last one three or four days ago, was to say, these are things that are either unprecedented in a literal sense or just beyond the normal range of what we ask of or expect from presidents or things that would have stopped previous nominees in, in their tracks. In an example - I can't remember which installment this was - when Donald Trump very early on made fun of John McCain as a loser for having been captured in Vietnam and Trump saying he prefers people who don't get captured, you know, that’s the kind of thing that would have been a major flap for previous candidates, and Trump, as we know, just sort of rolled right through it. And so, the idea was to avoid the dulling effect and the inuring through repetition to the things that Trump did and said to try to record them real time.
To give you an example of one very early one, when, when Trump went out to California, my home state, and announced to great fanfare there was no California drought, and this was all sort of a, a plot by environmentalists. If you know anything about California, the main fact of its existence in the past five years has been the historic and devastating drought. And so, I just thought, it's worth noting this is something a normal person would not say.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems like Trump put us through some sort of homeopathic therapy, where he was playing with so many little bits of poison that he stopped being –
JAMES FALLOWS: [LAUGHS] He, he built up our immunity.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah.
JAMES FALLOWS: I think among the many postmortem exercises we’ll all be going through is how it was that Donald Trump ended up getting a majority in the Electoral College, though not in the popular vote, doing dozens of things any one of which could have and has stopped previous candidates, whether it was the way that people in the press got used to it, was it something about the fact, as we had an Atlantic article, saying that people who supported him took him seriously but not literally; they knew this was just kind of a performance like in pro wrestling.
BOB GARFIELD: In the coming days, we will see endless postmortems and endless wringing of hands over exit polling to find out where the pundits got it wrong, where the Democratic Party got it wrong, and so forth. But as you look at the items in your Time Capsule, is it your sense that this creates a template for a future election or whether it is just kind of a one-off? You know, finally the United States has found out that, to one degree or another, it can happen here?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that these results could not have happened without the one-off very idiosyncratic personal history and performance skills of Donald Trump, so it won't happen again in exactly this way. But, like many people, I think I am much less confident or certain of the resilience and stability of our democratic checks and balances than I would have sounded a day or two ago.
BOB GARFIELD: So Jim, to bring this around to where we began, when you first undertook this project, the idea was to collect the ephemera of an election so that at some point our future selves would be able to look back and see not only what took place but what our reaction was to it. As we speak, it's the day after the election. I'm wondering if you believe now that the Time Capsule will have some sort of cultural, political, anthropological value.
JAMES FALLOWS: I can't have any idea of whether anybody will ever look at this again, in a month, in a year, in, in ten years, but I wanted just to record rigorously in real time, so that I wouldn't know when writing it whether this was the thing which knocked Trump off his game, whether we’d look back on this as a minor thing, whether we’d remember it at all, so that you had something that is almost impossible to get in any kind of historical writing or journalism of writing when you don't know how the story is going to turn out.
There's an example I will use very cautiously, which is William Shirer's Berlin Diary, and I use it cautiously because I am explicitly not saying this is like the rise of the Nazis but I am saying the historical value of that is what it was like day by day in the early 1930s in Berlin, as things were changing. We know now how it turned out. He didn't know that when writing it. And I wanted also to record things when none of us knew what the end of the story was going to be, how it seemed, felt and changed us in real time.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you going to continue the Time Capsule during the course of the Trump presidency?
JAMES FALLOWS: I, I do not dare think that far ahead, right now, 12 hours after the results have come in.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim, thank you very much.
JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure, thank you, Bob.
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BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows is the national correspondent for The Atlantic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’re aware that some of you may find this episode a little unsatisfying because we failed to give full expression to the anxiety twisting most of our listeners’ entrails. Well, we do have something like that in the form of an editorial meeting recorded Wednesday morning, called, “Now What?” It's pretty much a primal scream, and you can find it at onthemedia.org.
But the fact is we have to move on because next week and the one after that, we have to keep probing and exposing and monitoring the stress test of the American experiment. This is our reckoning, and we’ve all got some work to do.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Paige Cowett. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari and Leah Feder. And special thanks to [LAUGHS] Elliott “Samuel Pepys” Burgess. Our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.