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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Goodbye To The American Century

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Let me rant for a moment. I don't do it often, maybe ever. I'm not Donald Trump. Though I'm only two years older than him, I don't even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America's streets were essentially empty, they've suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that's a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I'm an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.

In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable -- before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke -- and yet in some sense, all too imaginable. Think of it this way: the president who launched his candidacy by descending a Trump Tower escalator to denounce Mexican "rapists" and hype the "great, great wall" he would build, the man who, in his election campaign, promised to put a "big, fat, beautiful wall" across our southern border to keep out immigrants ("invaders!") -- my grandpa, by the way, was just such an invader -- has, after nearly three and a half years, succeeded only in getting a grotesquely small wall built around the White House; in other words, he's turned the "people's house" into a micro-Green Zone in a Washington that, as it filled with National Guard troops and unidentified but militarized police types, was transformed into a Trumpian version of occupied Baghdad. Then he locked himself inside (except for that one block walk to a church through streets forcibly emptied of protesters). All in all, a single redolent phrase from our recent past comes to mind: mission accomplished!

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Celebrating 75 Years On An Endangered Planet

As I turn 75, there’s no simpler way to put it than this: I’m an old man on a new planet — and, in case it isn’t instantly obvious, that’s not good news on either score.

I still have a memory of being a camp counselor in upstate New York more than half a century ago. I was perhaps 20 years old and in charge of a cabin of — if I remember rightly — nine-year-old campers. In other words, young as they were, they were barely less than half my age. And here’s what I remember most vividly: When asked how old they thought I was, they guessed anything from 30 to 60 or beyond. I found it amusing largely because, I suspect, I couldn’t faintly imagine being 60 years old myself. (My grandmother was then in her late sixties.) My present age would have been off the charts not just for those nine-year-olds, but for me, too. At that point, I doubt I even knew anyone as old as I am now.

Yet here I am, so many decades later, with grandchildren of my own. And I find myself looking at a world that, had you described it to me in the worst moments of the Vietnam War years when I was regularly in the streets protesting, I would never have believed possible. I probably would have thought you stark raving mad. Here I am in an America not just with all the weirdness of Donald Trump, but with a media that feeds on his every bizarre word, tweet, and act as if nothing else were happening on the face of the Earth. If only.

A Demobilizing World

In those Vietnam years, when a remarkable range of people (even inside the military) were involved in antiwar protests, if you had told me that, in the next century, we would be fighting unending wars from Afghanistan to Somalia and beyond I would have been shocked. If you had added that, though even veterans of those wars largely believe they shouldn’t have been fought, just about no one would be out in the streets protesting, I would have thought you were nuts. Post-Vietnam, how was such a thing possible?

If you had told me that, in those years to come, the American military would be an “all-volunteer” one, essentially a kind of foreign legion, and that those who chose not to be part of it would endlessly “thank” the volunteers for their service while otherwise continuing their lives as if nothing were going on, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had also pointed out that economic inequality in America would reach levels that might have staggered denizens of the Gilded Age, that three Americans would possess the same wealth as the bottom half of society, that a CEO would, on average, make at least 361 times the income of a worker, and that for years there would be no genuine protest around any of this, I would have considered it un-American.

If, in those same years, you had assured me that, in our future, thanks to a crucial Supreme Court decision, so much of the money that had gushed up to the wealthiest 1 percent, or even .01 percent, of Americans would be funneled back, big time, into what still passed for American democracy, I would have been stunned. That a 1 percent version of politics would essentially pave the way for a billionaire to enter the White House, and that, until the arrival of Bernie Sanders in 2016, protest over all this would barely be discernable, I certainly wouldn’t have believed you.

In sum, I would have been amazed at the way, whatever the subject, Americans had essentially been demobilized (or perhaps demobilized themselves) in the twenty-first century, somehow convinced that there was nothing to be done that would change anything. There was no antiwar movement in the streets, unions had been largely defanged, and even the supposed “fascist” in the White House would have no interest in launching a true movement of his own. If anything, his much-discussed “base” would actually be a set of “fans” wearing red MAGA hats and waiting to fill stadiums for the Trump Show, the same way you’d wait for a program to come on TV.

And none of this would have staggered me faintly as much as one thing I haven’t even mentioned yet. Had I been told then that, by this century, there would be a striking scientific consensus on how the burning of fossil fuels was heating and changing the planet, almost certainly creating the basis for a future civilizational crisis, what would I have expected? Had I been told that I lived in the country historically most responsible for putting those carbon emissions into the atmosphere and warming the planet egregiously, how would I have reacted? Had I been informed that, facing a crisis of an order never before imagined (except perhaps in religious apocalyptic thinking), humanity would largely demobilize itself, what would I have said? Had I learned then that, in response to this looming crisis, Americans would elect as president a man who denied that global warming was even occurring, a man who was, if anything, focused on increasing its future intensity, what in the world would I have thought? Or how would I have reacted if you had told me that from Brazil to Poland, the Philippines to England, people across the planet were choosing their own Donald Trumps to lead them into that world in crisis?

Where’s the Manhattan Project for Climate Change?

Here, let me leap the almost half-century from that younger self to the aging creature that’s me today and point out that you don’t have to be a scientist anymore to grasp the nature of the new planet we’re on. Here, for instance, is just part of what I — no scientist at all — noticed in the news in the last few weeks. The planet experienced its hottest June on record. The temperature in Anchorage, Alaska, hit 90 degrees for the first time in history, mimicking Miami, Florida, which was itself experiencing record highs. (Consider this a footnote, but in March, Alaska had, on average, temperatures 20 degrees warmer than usual.) According to figures compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), not just that state but every state in the union has been steadily warming, compared to twentieth-century averages, with Rhode Island leading the way. Europe also just experienced a fierce heat wave — they’re coming ever more often — in which one town in southern France hit a record 115 degrees. India’s sixth-largest city, under its own heat emergency, essentially ran out of water. The sea ice in Antarctica has experienced a “precipitous” fall in recent years that shocked scientists, while a glacier the size of Florida there seems to be destabilizing (bad news for the future rise of global sea levels). As a NOAA study showed, thanks to sea-level rise, flooding in coastal American cities like Charleston, South Carolina, is happening ever more often, even on perfectly sunny days. Meanwhile, the intensity of the rainfall in storms is increasing like the one that dumped a month’s worth of water on Washington, D.C., one recent Monday morning. That one turned “streets into rivers and basements into wading pools,” even dampening the basement of the White House — and such storms are growing more frequent. Oh yes, and the world’s five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2014, with 2019 more or less a surefire add-on to that list on a planet on which the last 406 consecutive months have been warmer than the twentieth-century average. (By the end of the month of January 2019, that same planet in only 31 days had already set 35 records for heat and only two for cold.) And that’s just to start down a longer list of news about climate change or global warming or, as the Guardian has taken to calling it recently, the “climate emergency” or “climate breakdown.”

In response to such a world, sometimes — an exaggeration but not too much of one — it seems as if only the children, mainly high-school students inspired by a remarkable 16-year-old Swedish girl with Asperger syndrome, have truly been mobilizing. With their Friday school strikes, they are at least trying to face the oncoming crisis that is increasingly our world. In a way the adults of that same world generally don’t, they seem to grasp that, by not mobilizing to deal with climate change, we are potentially robbing them of their future.

In that sense, of course, I have no future, which is just the normal way of things. Our lives all end and, at 75, I (kind of) understand that I’m ever closer to stepping off this planet of ours. The question for me is what kind of a planet I’ll be leaving behind for those very children (and their future children). I understand, too, that when it comes to climate change, we face the wealthiest, most powerful industry on the planet, the fossil-fuel giants whose CEOs, in their urge to keep the oil, coal, and natural gas flowing forever and a day, will assuredly prove to be the greatest criminals and arsonists in a history that doesn’t lack for great crimes — and that’s no small thing. (In those never-ending wars of ours, of course, we Americans face some of the next most powerful corporate entities on the planet and the money and 1 percent politics that go with them.)

Still, I can’t help but wonder: Was the Paris climate accord really the best the planet could do (even before Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would pull out of it)? I mean, at 75, I think to myself: Where, when it comes to climate change, is an updated version of the Manhattan Project, the massive government research effort that produced (god save us) the atomic bomb?  Or the Cold War version of the same that so effectively got Americans onto the moon and back? It was possible to mobilize at a massive level then, why not now? Imagine what might be done in terms of renewable energy or global projects to mitigate climate change if the governments of Planet Earth were somehow to truly face the greatest crisis ever to hit human life?

Imagine being the Chinese government and knowing that, by 2100, parts of one of your most populous regions, the North China Plain, will likely be too hot to be habitable. Grasping that, wouldn’t you start to mobilize your resources in a new way to save your own people’s future rather than building yet more coal-fired power plants and exporting hundreds of them abroad as well? Honestly, from Washington to Beijing, New Delhi to London, the efforts — even the best of them — couldn’t be more pathetic given what’s at stake.

The children are right. We’re effectively robbing them of their future. It’s a shame and a crime. It’s what no parents or grandparents should ever do to their progeny. We know that, as in World War II, mobilization on a grand scale is possible. The United States proved that in 1941 and thereafter.

Perhaps, like most war mobilizations, that worked so effectively because it had a tribal component to it, being against other human beings. We have little enough experience mobilizing not against but with other human beings to face a danger that threatens us all. And yet, in a sense, doesn’t climate change represent another kind of “world war” situation, though it’s not yet thought of that way?

So why, I continue to wonder, in such a moment of true crisis are we still largely living on such a demobilized world? Why is it increasingly a Trumpian planet of the surreal, not a planet of the all-too-real?

 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

 

The 47 Minutes That Told Us Everything About Trump

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Recently, I did something rare in my life. Over a long weekend, I took a few days away and almost uniquely — I might even say miraculously — never saw Donald Trump’s face, since I didn’t watch TV and barely checked the news. They were admittedly terrible days in which 50 people were slaughtered in New Zealand.  Meanwhile, the president indulged in another mad round of tweeting, managing in my absence to lash out at everything and everyone in sight (or even beyond the grave) from John McCain, Saturday Night Live, and the Mueller “witch hunt” to assorted Democrats and even Fox News for suspending host Jeanine Pirro’s show. In his version of the ultimate insult, he compared Fox to CNN. And I was blissfully ignorant of it all, which left me time to finally give a little thought to… Donald Trump.

And when I returned, on an impulse, I conjured up the initial Trumpian moment of our recent lives. I’m aware, of course, that The Donald first considered running for president in the Neolithic age of 1987.  He tried to register and trademark “Make America Great Again,” a version of an old Reagan campaign slogan, only days after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election to President Obama.  He then rode that president’s “birth certificate” into the post-Apprentice public spotlight amid a growing wave of racism in a country founded on slavery that has never truly grappled with that fact.

Still, the 47 minutes and eight seconds that I was thinking about took place more recently. On June 16, 2015, Donald and Melania Trump stepped onto a Trump Tower escalator and rode it down to the pounding beat of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” (a song the singer would soon demand, without success, that the presidential hopeful not use). A minute and a half later, they arrived in the Trump Tower lobby. There, a clapping Ivanka greeted her father with a kiss on each cheek — the first signal of the corporatist, family-style presidency to come. Then, The Donald stepped to the microphone and promptly launched his run into fake-news history.

Sometimes, the only way to go forward, or at least know where you are in the present, is to go back. Yes, Donald Trump garnered much news with his announcement that day and was already visibly having the time of his life, but no one in or out of the media then thought he had a shot at being president. Even he was only burnishing his brand. As Michael Wolff reported in his book Fire and Fury, even on election night 2016, almost a year and a half later, with the possible exception of Steve Bannon, no one in the Trump camp, including The Donald, had the slightest expectation of his winning the presidency. All of them were just burnishing their future brands.

And yet, in the spring of 2019, those largely forgotten 47 minutes are worth another look because, in retrospect, they provide such a vivid window into what was to come, what’s still coming. They offer the future president not naked at last, but naked at first, and so represent an episode of revelatory wonder (and, had anyone then believed that he might actually win the presidency, of revelatory dread as well)

The Candidate Naked as a Jaybird

Having taken another look at that first speech, I now think of the Trump era so far as the 47-minute presidency. It’s nothing short of wondrous just how strikingly that de-escalatory ride and the Trumpian verbal strip tease that followed before a cheering crowd revealed, point by point, the essence of his presidency to come. And by the way, it was certainly indicative of that future presidency that the audience (reporters aside) listening to him in the lobby of Trump Tower seems largely to have been made up of out-of-work actors being paid $50 a pop to cheer him on. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the email sent out by Extra Mile Casting to recruit those extras read in part: “We are looking to cast people for the event to wear t-shirts and carry signs and help cheer him in support of his announcement. We understand this is not a traditional ‘background job,’ but we believe acting comes in all forms and this is inclusive of that school of thought.”

And given what would happen, never has an audience been bought more cheaply or effectively.

It’s hardly news today that Donald Trump would prove a unique candidate in American presidential history. On that first day, the most uniquely unique aspect of his speech (and, in the age of Trump, I offer no apologies for such an over-the-top superlative) was the utter, even brutal, honesty with which he presented — or perhaps the better word would be displayed — himself to the American people. To paint an even more honest picture, the one thing he might have done was ride that escalator up, not down, to his announcement. After all, his would be an escalation presidency of the first order. In crisis — and when is The Donald not in crisis? — it’s in his nature to escalate.

So bear with me here as I take us back almost four years to look once again at how it all began, at the way in which, after those 47 minutes, you could have turned off your TV, blocked out all those cable news talking heads, and never looked at the man again. After all, by then you knew everything you truly needed to know (except one thing that I’ll return to below) in order to grasp the Trumpian moment to come. In that sense, I think it’s fair to say, without a hint of Trump Tower-style exaggeration, that The Donald was the most honest presidential candidate we’ve ever had.

Honesty may be an odd label to slap on such a man. After all, he lies incessantly. He misstates regularly. He creates false facts anytime he needs them and then sticks with them forever — and he did just that, with alacrity and aplomb, on his very first day. In some sense, almost everything he says might be considered a lie of sorts, but the lying, misstating, absurd claims, and over-the-top pronouncements are done so nakedly, are so easy to debunk (or, if you prefer, like much of his base, to accept as reality), that they might almost be considered another form of honesty. They are, at least, a form of Trumpian revelation and so nakedness.

The general rule of politics is, of course, that the one thing you don’t do is offer yourself exactly as you are, warts and all (or even all warts) and naked as a jaybird for everyone to see. But Donald Trump did just that. In those first 47 minutes and eight seconds, he undressed in front of America. And nearly four years later, it’s worth looking back to grasp just how clearly his future presidency could be viewed in that first naked moment of moments.

King Toot

In a sense, all you needed to know was this. In that announcement speech, it took him barely two minutes to make it to the Mexican border, where he remains today. Nor should it have taken long for any viewer to grasp a few other things about him: he wasn’t a man for scripts, but was a man for insults; the Trump brand was far more crucial to him than the American one; he wouldn’t just interrupt you or anyone else, but also himself; he was ready to use blunt, everyday language never before associated with presidential candidates, no less presidents, in public (“They talked about environmental, they talked about all sorts of crap that had nothing to do with it”); there were no claims too big (or false) for him to make, especially when it came to himself and his effect on the world; he had already perfected his own unique version of incoherence, or stream-of-consciousness speaking, into a vibrant art form (that, in another sense, couldn’t have been more coherent); and he had an ego, invariably on display, as big as… well, not just the Ritz but perhaps his then-still-under-construction Trump International Hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House — and all of that was obvious even before he mentioned that “great, great wall” of his.

Despite an already existing following, thanks to his promotion of the Obama “birther” conspiracy theory, his adoring base did not yet exist. For him, however, it already did. It was, you might say, born ahead of its time. His first two words in that speech were “Wow. Whoa.” His reference point: the crowd of hired actors in front of him. “That is some group of people. Thousands.” Of them, he would momentarily say — no need to wait for the crowd controversy over his inaugural address more than a year and a half later — “There’s been no crowd like this.” But first, of course, just 20 words in, there had to be a plug for his brand. (“It’s great to be at Trump Tower.”)

And it didn’t take 30 seconds for the first insult du jour of his presidential run to make its appearance. Yep, there was that crowd, Trump Tower, and then naturally the matter of sweat and air conditioning. (“And, I can tell, some of the candidates, they went in [to announce their candidacies]. They didn’t know the air-conditioner didn’t work. They sweated like dogs… How are they going to beat ISIS?”) This was assumedly the first of what would be many insulting references to Republican senator and candidate Marco Rubio’s propensity to sweat, assumedly during his announcement of his candidacy that April. Though The Donald had barely begun, in what would be his typical fashion, he had already connected not blood, sweat, and tears, but air conditioning, sweat, and ISIS in the fashion in which he’s connected seemingly disparate things ever since.

And as Dr. Seuss might once have said: That was not all! Oh, no, that was not all! Those listening, at $50 a pop or not, quickly found themselves on the sort of high-speed train ride you can have in significant parts of the world — there are 27,000 kilometers of it China — but not in the United States, unless you’re at a Trump rally.

Just over two minutes in and the candidate-to-come had already zipped past China and Japan (“…they beat us all the time”) and arrived at that Mexican border. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” A minute later, he leapt to the Middle East and “Islamic terrorism,” claiming “I’m in competition with them” because, he insisted, ISIS now had the Iraqi oil that “we should’ve taken” after the invasion and occupation of that country. With that oil money, he claimed, they had built “a hotel in Syria.” (Okay, it was, in fact, in Mosul, Iraq, and they didn’t build it, they took it over, but no matter.)

A headlong dash across the Iraqi border into Iran somehow brought him to American nukes (“Even our nuclear arsenal doesn’t work”) and next thing you knew you were ripping past the U.S. gross domestic product, which, he swore, was shockingly, unbelievably “below zero.” (He evidently meant growth in the GDP, not the GDP itself, not that that was true either.) And none of it — ISIS, Iraqis, Mexicans, Muslims, failing nukes, or even sweat and air conditioners added up to much of anything compared to “a disaster called the big lie: Obamacare. Obamacare.”

And that, mind you, was just the first nine minutes of his announcement, the rest of which — from China envy to Saudi love — similarly proved a remarkably apt outline of the presidency (and president) to come. But don’t let me forget one more thing: at the heart of that speech, as at the heart of everything else in the years that followed, was you-know-who and you-know-whose brand and business.

From those first moments, Donald Trump was always King Toot (as in, tooting his own horn). Yes, in that speech he plugged making America great again, mentioning the phrase, in whole or part, nine times. And it was indeed a brilliant slogan for him to adopt.  It allowed him to say something all too real that no other politician of that moment dared to say: that America wasn’t then the most exceptional or indispensable or greatest country on Earth; in those initial moments, that is, he inaugurated himself as our first genuine declinist presidential candidate (or at least the man who could save us all from further decline).  And whether as a repeated slogan or four words on a red cap, he rang a bell, loud and clear, in the white American heartland.

Still, read that speech now and you won’t doubt for a moment that his truest slogan wasn’t MAGA at all, but MTGAAA (Make Trump Great Again and Again and Again). In that sense, at the first rally of his presidency, he offered a remarkably forthright picture of what was to come.

He billed himself as a businessman of the first order for a country desperately in need of economic resuscitation — and his would indeed be a business presidency, if you mean his (and his family’s) businesses. That first speech would be larded with references to, and praise for, those very businesses and, of course, himself. He assured listeners that he was worth no less than $8,737,540,000 (though not according to Forbes) and that he wasn’t even bragging about it. (“I’m not doing that to brag, because you know what? I don’t have to brag. I don’t have to, believe it or not.”)

It took just 12 minutes for him to make it to his golf courses and then to his most recent book. (“I have the best courses in the world… Now, our country needs… a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.”) No matter that Tony Schwartz, its ghostwriter, would later denounce him as “incapable of reading a book, much less writing one.”

In fact, no subject he raised that day seemed to lack a reference to the monuments, with their giant golden letters, that he had already erected to himself. The Saudis (“I love the Saudis. Many are in this building”), the Chinese (“The biggest bank in the world is from China. You know where their United States headquarters is located? In this building, in Trump Tower. I love China”), you name it and he linked it to his businesses. In, for instance, a passing discussion of the country’s sagging infrastructure (still crumbling almost four years later) — “It’s like we’re in a third world country,” he’d say that day — he promptly focused on his hotel-to-be in the nation’s capital.  (“You know, we’re building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Old Post Office, we’re converting it into one of the world’s great hotels. It’s gonna be the best hotel in Washington, D.C.”)

The emoluments clause in the Constitution? Don’t make me laugh. From the first second, Donald Trump couldn’t have made it clearer that, were you to vote for him, you would be putting his business and no one else’s, including yours, in the White House. Again, it was a rare moment of honesty, even if few truly took it in (or, at that moment, cared).

The Bankruptcy King in Person

All of this is, of course, ancient history, but as a document that first speech is anything but yesterday’s news. In many ways, it remains tomorrow’s headlines in a media world that, so long after, still can’t get enough of him. Had any of us truly been paying attention to more than the circus quality of the former ringmaster of The Apprentice taking his moment in the electoral sun, we might have noticed that Donald Trump was — give him credit — a strangely open book, no ghostwriters in sight. He’s remained so ever since.

That June 16th, he displayed himself nakedly — except for the orange hair — before that audience of reporters and hired actors, as well as the rest of America, and he’s never put on a stitch of clothing since. His initial TV moment was not a once-in-a-lifetime but a first-in-a-lifetime performance by a man in the process of creating a genuine what-you-see-is-what-you-get presidential run and presidency.

As I mentioned, however, there was an exception to everything I’ve written above, as there usually is to all rules in life. One thing was missing from his speech, as it would be from all of the speeches, tweets, and rallies to follow. The single hidden factor in the Trump presidency (even if, like everything else about the man from bone spurs to Roy Cohn, it was always in plain sight) contradicted his endless presentation of himself as the ultimate businessman and dealmaker for a floundering and foundering America.

Donald Trump wasn’t actually a successful businessman at all, not in the normal sense anyway. He was an economic magician (or, in classic American terms, a con man) who regularly ground business after business — a set of casinos (at a time when other casinos were thriving), hotels, an airline, and a series of other endeavors ranging from Trump Steaks to Trump Vodka to Trump University — into the dust of bankruptcy or failure. What made him such a magician was that, in case after case, his greatest “business” skill proved to be jumping ship, dollars in hand, leaving those who trusted him, had faith in him, believed in him holding the bag.

He had a history of screwing anyone who relied on him, whether we’re talking about the investors in his Atlantic City casinos or a bevy of small business types and others who worked for him — plumbers, waiters, painters, cabinet makers — and were later stiffed. In other words, Americans elected a bankruptcy king as their president and character will tell.

There really are no secrets here. In the end, Donald Trump clearly cares about nothing but himself (and perhaps his family as an extension of that self).

So read or listen to that first campaign speech again. Reintroduce yourself to Donald Trump presenting himself with naked honesty — with that single exception — and then consider the future for a moment. Whether in his first or second term (should he win again in 2020), if things start to head south economically, count on this: He’ll repeat his well-documented history and jump ship, leaving the American people, including that beloved base of his, holding the bag.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).

IMAGE: Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for president, June 16, 2015.