A Modest Prediction

awful trump pic copy

Last week I wrote about the criminal stupidity of Trump’s blackmail regarding the “big beautiful wall” that, um, Mexico was supposed to pay for. Shutting down the federal government over a pointless demand like this one is indefensible at best, and some might argue is itself an impeachable offense insofar as it violates his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” At nineteen days and counting, this is already the second longest shutdown in US history, and Trump—bluffing or not—has hyperbolically threatened to keep it going for “months or even years.”

Is America great again yet?

From the start the assumption was that this standoff, like previous shutdowns, would eventually end with some sort of negotiated solution. But we are now in a position where no such thing seems possible.

Trump has no leverage with which to negotiate while the Democrats have absolutely no reason to give an inch. (As well they shouldn’t, or—quite obviously—risk encouraging this kind of presidential terrorism in future standoffs.) As we have seen time and time again, the man who sold himself as the master dealmaker is, in fact, one of the worst negotiators ever seen in American public life.

Trump openly confessed to Chuck Schumer what all savvy political observers already knew: he has painted himself into a corner, except that in this case, he can’t just wait for the paint to dry, because it never will. So let’s turn to a better metaphor: he has clambered out onto a high tree limb, and his only plan is to wave a ripsaw and threaten to cut the limb off.

Have a nice fall, Don.

Trump knows that he cannot give in on the wall or the shutdown without paying a steep political price. (The ridicule of Ann Coulter! The contempt of his base! Oh, the shame!) Of course, even that argument is questionable. His base infamously believes anything he says. Pelosi and Schumer could beat Trump like a red-headed stepchild in this standoff and he could still emerge declaring victory and be greeted with an amen chorus from his myrmidons. The right wing media might be more critical, but does that matter?

Apparently it does to Donald, exposing the quivering fear with which he regards the very people who, supposedly, are in his thrall. As someone once said, “I’m not the puppet, you’re the puppet.”

Ironically, immigration hardliners dislike the wall almost as much as its opponents. Despite their venal and un-American animus to immigrants legal and otherwise, the professional xenophobes know the wall is no real solution to their dark nativist desires, and fear that in his pointless fixation on it and his pathological fear of humiliation, Trump will trade away chits that they do care about, such as an extension of DACA, in order to claim a victory in this battle, however moronic.

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

It should not come as a shock to anyone that neither Trump nor anyone with any influence in his administration had any idea what a shutdown would entail. So it goes in the ignoracracy. As a result, they are scrambling to deal with the massive repercussions of this nightmare that they concocted entirely on their own and for no good reason. Time is on Nancy Pelosi’s side, and Trump has no attractive options available to him. Accordingly, he is looking increasingly desperate.

A case in point is the string of lies and non sequiturs that constituted his nationally televised address on the matter, its hysterical fearmongering at odds with the lifeless monotone in which he delivered it. Trump’s skills as a bully and carnival barker do him no good when reading from a teleprompter and trying to sound “presidential.”

(As James Fallows and many others pointed out,the fact that the networks carried the speech at all was highly questionable, especially given that in 2014 all of the Big Three networks declined to carry a speech by President Obama—on the topic of immigration, no less—on the grounds that it was “too political.” It would be easy to say that the media has yet to learn how to deprive this fire of oxygen, but that misses the point completely. As Trump himself would readily brag, he is a ratings bonanza, the same way any natural disaster would be. )

In my view, the speech did the White House no real good in terms of convincing anyone other than those who already agreed with its position. Sadly, the same is true of the response by Pelosi and Schumer, who were eminently more reasonable and fact-based, but unlikely to have changed many minds either. Such is tribalism in America today.

Assuming the next few days bring no dramatic and unforeseen shifts in the standoff, we can therefore look for Trump to resort to the next desperate maneuver, one which he has already floated: the idea of declaring a “national emergency.” In this gambit, he would circumvent both the will of the people (polls show that roughly 60% of Americans oppose the wall) and Congress (where Trump can’t even get enough votes from his own party) in order to carry on his pet project by means of executive fiat. In addition to its pragmatic appeal as a way out of his dilemma, it’s the kind of autocratic option Donald instinctively gravitates to anyway.

Yet many informed people have scoffed at the idea that Trump might take this drastic step.

Oh really?

MANUFACTURING CRISIS

We all know that nothing is beyond the pale for Trump, that he is perfectly willing to do extreme and indefensible things that no previous President in modern times would have contemplated, or gotten away with. Witness the firing of the FBI director, the installation of woefully unqualified acting Cabinet officers, the refusal to release his tax returns, and the impulsive withdrawal of US forces without even bothering to consult the Pentagon, to name just a few. These measures may ultimately be self-destructive, but that does not make them any less norm-breaking.

So there is no reason to think he won’t declare a recklessly unjustified national emergency for his own self-aggrandizing ends. Especially when his only other option is humiliating defeat.

Needless to say, the only “crisis” is one of Trump’s own making, which—unfortunately for him—a plurality of Americans seem to recognize. (Not counting the broader crisis of his residency in the White House in the first place.)

But none of that matters.

The potential for what an out-of-control, criminal president might do is chilling. But there is also a great deal of skepticism about whether he would be able to get away with declaring such an emergency. Regardless, my surmise is that Trump will absolutely play this card, with his characteristic disregard for the consequences, even if it poses great risk to him.

Which it does.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

What I suspect will happen is as follows:

With victory impossible and no compromise that allows him to save face, Trump will cave on the shutdown while portraying his capitulation as heroism.

He will continue to blame the Democrats but claim that he is personally re-opening the government in order to alleviate the pain of the federal workforce and the country at large, even though he is the one who inflicted that pain.

Per above, his disciples will cheer. The GOP will go along with the farce and the right wing media will fall in line and spread the lie.

At the same time, Trump will declare a national emergency and try to use federal troops or other resources to build the wall, diverting funds from other federal resources in the process, improperly if not outright illegally.

This he will depict as a clever maneuver that enables him to go around the “obstructionist” Democrats and deliver on his signature campaign promise despite the triple-thick canopy of bureaucratic red tape, while simultaneously “saving” the country from the Democrat-driven shutdown. (Those commie bastards!) His base will also eat that up, ignoring its fundamental dishonesty and anti-democratic nature.

That declaration of a national emergency will in turn trigger an avalanche of lawsuits and other countermeasures challenging his right to take such action. A gobsmacking legal shitshow will ensue, contributing to what is already a slow-motion constitutional crisis in progress.

I want to be very clear. I am not at all sure the courts will prevent Trump from carrying out such an order, however absurd. They might not. I was quite confident that the Supreme Court—like several lower courts before it—would shoot down Trump’s ridiculous and patently unconstitutional Muslim ban. Instead, five right-leaning justices tied themselves in knots trying to explain why it wasn’t a ban based on religion at all, even as Trump repeatedly insisted it was.

So Trump may prevail in this “national emergency” ruse as well. But it won’t be pretty. And regardless of outcome, the battle could drag on for months.

Ironically, the border crisis will be yet another maelstrom bedeviling this administration, along with the Mueller probe, the emoluments case, investigations by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General, and the coming wave of new investigations by the angry, subpoena-wielding Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. None of which, it goes without saying, is good for Team Trump.

Like they say on the tee-vee, winter is coming.

The Enduring Appeal of Walls (for Troglodytes)

Berlin Wall

During the presidential campaign, Trump’s crowd-pleasing promise to build a “big beautiful wall” along the US-Mexican border was the signature idiocy of his run. From the very start the idea was laughably simplistic, wrongheaded, impossible to implement, and—ironically—sure to be ineffective even if by some miracle it did get built. Which is to say, a perfectly Trumpian idea.

And Trump didn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough to promise the Great Wall of America. Mexico was going to pay for it. Hilarious!

I’ll admit that, when it seemed inconceivable that he would win, I mused to friends that it would almost be entertaining if he did win, just to watch his supporters’ frustration when Trump found that promise impossible to keep.

Sorry for jinxing that, America. My bad.

WALLS AND BRIDGES

Many column inches have already been devoted to the pragmatic problems (obstacles, one might say) inherent in trying to wall off our southern border: the irregular terrain, the mixture of public and private land, the insane expense, the sheer scale and scope of the endeavor, and on and on.

But the impracticality of the border wall is not really the issue. The issue is the absolute irrationality of the hysterical, xenophobic impulse that is promoting this incredibly pointless idea in the first place.

Illegal immigration is at historic lows. The undocumented immigrants already here constitute an indispensable element of the American economy, performing the menial, often backbreaking, low-wage labor that Americans won’t, often in the employ of the very people—the Trump family included—who consistently vote Republican and villainize them. Nor, contrary to what Fox News would have us believe, do we face anything like the refugee crisis that Europe is experiencing, let alone a marauding “caravan” of thugs and drug dealers along with the odd Al Qaeda infiltrator.

So Democrats should stop conceding this “border security” canard to Trump and the GOP. Every time Trump or one of his Republican flying monkeys screeches about “securing the border,” the Democratic response is always prefaced with an obliging concession that yes yes, border security is soooooo important. It even happened—repeatedly—in the great televised Oval Office smackdown where Pelosi and Schumer otherwise handed Trump his ass.

Can we stop this farce please?

At best, Democrats should say, “Yes, border security is important…..BUT YOU AREN’T TALKING ABOUT BORDER SECURITY!” It’s that last phrase that is always missing, the absence of which cedes Republicans points they don’t deserve.

Border security isn’t the issue here in the slightest. Yes, Virginia, we do have an immigration problem, but only in the sense of a broken bureaucratic system that has no mechanism for properly assimilating the desperate migrant people and their children who come to America seeking refuge and a better life, and for policing those among us who would exploit them. But what we don’t have—sorry Lou Dobbs—is an oceanic wave of murderous brown-skinned hordes swarming across the southern border to lace our water supply with meth and deflower virginal white womanhood.

No matter. Immigrants, legal and otherwise, do serve a crucial role for the GOP, in that demonizing and scapegoating a class of people—outsiders of some sort, invariably—is page one of the fascist handbook.

Accordingly, the wall is a solution in search of a problem, and a glaring example of the real issue, which is pervasive and virulent bigotry in this country, encompassing racism, xenophobia, nativism, and various toxic combinations thereof. That is the engine that drives the modern Republican Party (in the service of further enriching its wealthiest members), reaching its apotheosis under Donald Trump.

And that is why the wall has become its singular obsession.

GET YER SNAKE OIL HERE

Here’s the thing about walls. Throughout history they have promised an attractive, literally concrete solution to security, from medieval castle to continental superpower.

But they have never worked.

A wall or any other kind of barrier can serve a role, but it is not a panacea. A deer fence is good, if it’s high enough, and if your problem is deer. An offshore barrier is great in a hurricane, but there is always a storm so big that it can’t be stopped, and it’s useless if what you’re trying to keep out are birds, not rain.

The idea of a border wall is similarly ill-conceived.

It is a paradox of military affairs that it’s easier to defend than attack, but one nevertheless always prefers to be the attacker, as the attacker holds the initiative.  Any defense can be overcome with sufficient time, resources, and determination. As Tim Rogers wrote in Splinter:

“Build a 10-foot wall and I’ll show you an 11-foot ladder,” said Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson during a speech last September in North Carolina. “If somebody is motivated enough to leave Central America and travel the entire distance of Mexico and climb a 10,000-foot mountain, they’re not going to be deterred by a 10-foot wall.”

Yes, if we dropped everything else and devoted all our tax dollars and all our resources and deployed a goodly portion of our entire law enforcement community and our armed forces, we might be able—over several decades—to build and maintain a wall big and formidable enough to stop routine overland border crossings into the US via Mexico. Say, seventy feet high, topped with concertina wire, surrounded by trip wires, minefields, and moats filled with boiling lava, overwatched by armed guards with M-60 machine guns, surveillance satellites, and hunter/killer drones.

The immorality of such measures is self-evident in terms of disproportionality to the threat. It would also be an unforgivably immoral waste of money in light of America’s other pressing needs. (Kind of like India of the 1970s ignoring famine in order to build an atomic bomb.) More to the point, it would likely do nothing except inspire different forms of illegal entry via other access points and by other means. As it stands, a majority of undocumented aliens in the US entered legally and overstayed their visas. (Of those, the largest number come from Canada.

Give those facts, I support the notion of border fencing—or even “aesthetically pleasing steel slats,” as Trump calls them—at strategic portions of the southern border. I just don’t think a magical, continuous, impenetrable wall is called for, possible, or would even do the job for which it is envisioned.

May I humbly suggest that the ultimate solution to our immigration issues is to address the root causes of global inequality, oppression, and greed that drive the mass movements of people fleeing such troubles?

But that sort of nuanced, complex solution—one that requires thought, patience, and a belief in facts—finds little purchase in the dishonest, bare knuckles world of American politics, particularly when one of the two major parties is not interested in a real solution in the first place, only in whipping up its rabid base.

A GOOD GUY WITH A WALL

“Build the wall!” on the other hand, is a perfect tribal rallying cry, a ridiculous, effectively impossible fantasy reflecting the primitive, reactionary thinking of its adherents, not to mention their contempt for logic, justice, the rule of law, the reality of the national security situation, and simple physics. Watching a crowd of mouthbreathing Trump supporters shout it is like something right out of a Leni Riefenstahl retrospective.

The obvious parallel, of course, is guns. Like a wall, a gun is an appealingly simplistic, brute force solution to a threat. But also like a wall, it is not always the solution it promises to be, and in fact, is often lethally counter-productive.

Not being a pacifist, I am not saying there is never a time or place for firearms. (Omaha Beach is a good example.) But as I have written before, the knee-jerk mentality that a gun is always the best recourse—or any recourse at all—is wildly foolhardy, the product of fear, misplaced machismo, and the unrealistic wish for a quick fix. (See Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank? and Blood On Their Hands.)

The same goes for walls, although mercifully, being (mostly) passive in nature, they tend to be less actively destructive. But that does not make them any more useful when deployed in error or to no logical end.

WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION

Let’s review some of history’s most famous walls.

There’s Jericho, of course, brought down by some biblical bebop player.

There’s the Great Wall of China, which may have worked fine in 200 B.C.E., but now is little more than the name of a place to get good moo shu at the mall.

There was the Maginot Line, which stopped the Wehrmacht for all of zero seconds.

There was the ill-conceived Strategic Defense initiative—better known as “Star Wars,” but also dubbed the “peace shield” by its proponents—which was supposed to provide a kind of overhead wall (sometimes called a roof) against Soviet ICBMs. Whatever its ultimate value for Reagan bluffing in Reykjavik, it was never a viable idea in practical or strategic terms. Not for nothing was it derided as a “Maginot Line in space.”

In the present day, Israel famously uses a complex system of border defenses to protect itself, and more controversially, to extend its territory by means of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Trump and Netanyahu are therefore locked in a mutual cheerleading pact, each pointing to the other to justify his own actions on that count.

But if you think the United States should aspire to the security situation of Israel, you’re welcome to it.

The most famous wall of them all, of course, was in Berlin, which—anticipating your complaint—was unique in that it was designed to keep people in not out, the laughable rhetoric of the DDR notwithstanding. But the East German government was partially correct: the Berlin wall was intended to keep people out, because the transit of Westerners to and from the Soviet sector would expose the communist lie about the workers’ paradise. That those migrants were wealthy and free (by Warsaw Pact standards), and the German citizenry behind the walls impoverished and suffering—a reversal of the usual dynamic in a walled city—made no functional difference. Either way, inclusive or exclusive, the impulse behind the Berlin Wall was the same as all the others: a resort to the most primitive of methods to restrict the free flow of human intercourse.

I think we all know how that played out.

When I was stationed in Germany in the mid to late 1980s I visited both East and West Berlin frequently, right up to the month before the wall came down. (Some of my best friends were lucky enough to be present for the event.) At the time it was still an occupied city controlled by the major Allied powers, and American, British, and French soldiers like us had the right to travel to all four quadrants, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement instituted at the end of World War II.

Let me tell you, it was a surreal sight to see.

To watch a state so helpless to govern without that kind of unabashed brutality toward of its people, so terrified of the outside world, so bereft of humanity, that it would erect an enormous miles-long concrete monument to its own awfulness was unforgettable.

I sure didn’t think that thirty years later I’d be witnessing the rise of that same mentality in my own country.

HULK SMASH!

While we’re on the subject, can we stop for a moment and note that this week a second migrant child—an eight-year-old boy—died in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol as a result of contemporary American immigration policy?

In the wake of this tragedy DHS did step up its medical protocols. (That sound you hear is the barn door belatedly closing.) But Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen also issued a statement that surely ranks as among the most dishonest and despicable ever released by the Trump administration, which is saying something. “Our system has been pushed to a breaking point by those who seek open borders,” Nielsen said. “Smugglers, traffickers, and their own parents put these minors at risk by embarking on the dangerous and arduous journey north.”

What a vomit-inducing lie. The only reason CBP is overwhelmed is because the Trump administration—at the urging of that odious homunculus and Hair Club for Men reject  Stephen Miller—instituted a “zero tolerance” / no triage policy for border crossers, to include asylum seekers, a policy that mandated detaining every apprehended migrant as well as taking children from their parents. To now cry that DHS is overwhelmed is the height of arrogance and dishonesty.

It is astounding to observe the yogi-like contortions of people like Nielsen and her bosses who seek to blame migrants for their own plight and for the jackbooted treatment that Miller has devised for them in our name. Chief among these is the battle cry that “They’re breaking the law!” by coming to the US without papers. This from people who won’t acknowledge that we stole this country from its original inhabitants in the first place.

That strict devotion to law and order miraculously vanishes, of course, when it comes to any of President Trump’s demonstrable lawbreaking, from felony campaign finance violations to conspiracy with a foreign power to defraud the United States, crimes which are greeted with a dismissive wave of the hand and the excuse that “these are minor violations” and that “everyone does it.” (Neither statement true, it ought to go without saying.)

It’s almost enough to make one forget Nielsen’s other howler of the week, her cavewoman-like pronouncement to Congress, “We need wall!” Perhaps, besieged as she is by the president, and now without the protection of her mentor John Kelly, she felt the need to demonstrate her neanderthal bonafides.

We don’t need to get into the Chinese finger-trap debate over “open borders,” an inherently deceptive phrase that the right uses to gin up fear within its base and beyond. It’s only common sense that any functional nation can and should have reasonable, civilized, yet effective border controls. Call me naive, but I think that can be done without turning the United States into an armed camp of nativist maniacs.

But as noted above, the Trumpian desire to build a wall, like the desire to ban Muslims from entering the US, to slash even legal immigration, and generally to betray the moral foundations of this country, is not driven by a legitimate crisis of any kind. It is driven by bigotry, nativism, and fearmongering plain and simple. Hateful though it is, some of that sentiment is at least genuine, and some of it cynical and employed only as a wedge issue for partisan gain, and I’m not sure which is worse.

SHUTDOWN CORNER

After McConnell and Ryan patiently explained to him that they didn’t have the votes to fund the wall, Trump was briefly prepared to do the pragmatic thing and punt, for now…..until Coulter, Limbaugh, Doocy, et al said “jump” and he bolted from his seat, squealing “How high, milord?”

The right wing media and Vlad Putin must have a complicated custody arrangement for Trump’s testicles.

And so he reversed himself (no, you say!!!), dragged Congress back to Washington, and is currently holding his breath—and governance hostage—until he gets what he wants.

It was only weeks ago that Trump swore on national television that he would proudly own any shutdown and would not blame the Democrats.

Paging Captain Renault: Trump is blaming the Democrats.

Even without that airtight video evidence, Trump’s attempt to pin the blame on the Democratic Party is comical. The GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress (to say nothing of a growing majority of the federal judiciary), yet it blames Pelosi and Schumer for governmental dysfunction?

The pettiness of Trump’s Christmastime shutdown—equal parts self-destructive and just plan destructive—is shameless, not to mention his wanton disregard for the general welfare he swore to protect. Its only point, of course, is to please his disciples by showing his symbolic commitment to the wall, even if it means amputating their collective nose to spite their collective face. How many federal workers—Trump supporters included—will go without paychecks at Christmas and beyond because of our infant-in-chief’s temper tantrum?

The shutdown is especially galling in light of the fact that the Trump administration has spent only a tiny fraction of the $1.7 billion already allocated for border walls. And to what end? As McConnell and Ryan conveyed to him, and as every other sentient politician knows, Trump does not have the support even within his own party to fully fund the wall, and he’s not going to be in a better position when the Democrats take control of the House on January 3, 2019.

But of course Trump Nation has generously overlooked other, related promises…..chiefly, that Mexico would pay for the wall, an assurance our fearless leader deployed almost daily on the campaign trail. So why is the American taxpayer now being asked to pony up $5 billion dollars to fund it? (The $5 billion figure is itself a joke, as the wall would cost much more—three to five times as much according to reliable estimates.)

I have previously addressed Trump supporters’ immunity to their hero’s blatant flip-flopping (The Death of Hypocrisy), a blindness best explained in terms of a literal cult (Drinking the Flavor-Aid). So at this point it’s not at all surprising that they are unmoved his bald-faced failure to extract penny one from Mexico, or to be embarrassed about it, any more than they are by his aforementioned lawbreaking. But it remains a towering monument to the bullshit slung by this consummate flim flam man.

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi cut Trump down to size by quipping that the big beautiful wall is not only not being paid for by Mexico, but has now been downgraded to just “a beaded curtain.” Ouch.

Trump thought Christmas Day would be a great time to tweet some more about his would-be wall, including the boast that it would require an Olympic athlete to scale it. (Attention: Mexican Olympic team.) For sheer absurdity, that quote was right up there with the town hall in New Hampshire in 2015, when Trump was gushing about how no one would be able to scale his theoretical wall, and was suddenly struck with the fatal flaw in his plan:  “Once they get up there there will be no way to get down….Well, maybe a rope.”

DECLARING VICTORY AND GOING HOME

And so here we are as we await the arrival of 2019. Nativism is an old and poisonous strain in the American bloodstream, and—apparently—it never goes away. It lives side by side with our self-flattering image of our country as a nation of immigrants, a melting pot that welcomes all, exemplified by the big green lady in New York harbor.

Masha Gessen, who knows a thing or two about fleeing repression, recently said that she finds it openly offensive when progressives cite the value of immigrants as part of their pushback against Trump’s xenophobic policies. The reason we ought to let these people into our country, she argues, is not because we benefit from immigration—although we do—but because it’s the right and humane thing to do.

She is correct, of course; Masha is rarely wrong. But that idealistic argument is not likely to find much purchase in a country such as ours that is demonstrably rife with bigotry and selfishness, where even the tangible benefits of immigration are not enough to convince millions of people to open their minds (let alone their hearts) on the topic of what Fox would call “fucking foreigners.”

Given the mess Trump is making of the US of A, it’s a wonder anyone wants to come here any more at all. Andy Borowitz presciently foresaw this way back in 2014, when he wrote, “GOP Succeeds in Making America a Place No One Wants to Sneak Into.”

Mission accomplished, guys. To borrow a phrase.

And now, for want of a border wall, the entire US government has ground to a halt.

So what’s the way out of this idiotic game of chicken that Trump has forced on us, given his juvenile sensitivity to humiliation? Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Waldman suggests what might be the best possibility:

(I)f there’s a glimmer of hope, it might lie in Trump’s willingness to describe any result, even the most abject defeat, as a spectacular win for him that was only possible because of his limitless brilliance. As depressing as it is, that’s what we might have to count on.

Tune in next week when Nancy Pelosi prevails, Trump folds, and then declares victory. And Republicans across America believe him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Requiem: Is This America?

Homeless man in Trump shirt by Justin copy

As I’ve written before, the usual tone of this blog is one of sputtering outrage.

I don’t apologize for that. These pages are aimed squarely at the choir, a communal primal scream of reassurance that we’re not crazy, a humble attempt to connect with like minds, to catalog the madness, and—I hope, in some small way—to contribute to the resistance, if that’s not too laughable.

Also: just to vent.

In other words, I am embracing everything that the Internet is criticized for, shouting into the echo chamber-wise. I’ll own that.

But the opposition is known to read this blog on occasion, and when they do, that underlying anger really strikes them, or so I gather from some of the comments I’ve received. (Spoiler alert: they don’t approve.) To me, of course, it is not “anger” at all, except in the righteous sense….what my Buddhist friends call “wrath.” But I can see how it comes across.

Recently someone even had the temerity to say I was long-winded. Can you imagine? Working on my 25,000 word rebuttal now.

So in this Christmas season, I want to take a more reserved stance for a change. (Don’t get used to it.)

THE NAMING OF THE SINS

I am angry, but I am also filled with sorrow.

Sorrow over a travel ban based on religious belief, no matter how gymnastically its defenders in the courts and media say it isn’t (though not the administration itself, which gleefully announces its      bigotry)….

Sorrow that we are forcibly taking small children from their mothers and fathers, lying about the rules that allegedly “demand” that we do so, housing these children in cages, denying them human contact, and disappearing them into a bureaucratic black hole from which they may never be reunited with their parents….

Sorrow that one such seven-year-old child died of dehydration and exhaustion in the custody of the US government. I’ve heard all the excuses the administration and its supporters have made for that. But there is no excuse for that….

Sorrow (and my stomach turning) at the sight of US law enforcement agents firing CS gas across the border at indigent, barefoot children, and at the demonization of refugee families fleeing violence and anarchy for which the US bears significant blame in the first place, and at blaming these desperate, ragged people for their own plight and their own suffering….

Sorrow at the vilification of immigrants legal and otherwise full stop, a process grounded in nothing but mindless hate, and a betrayal of the most basic principles this country claims to stand for…..

Sorrow at the obliteration of anything resembling a coherent foreign policy, and as result, the incalculable damage to American security; at the wanton smashing of diplomatic relationships carefuly cultivated over more than seventy years; at the abdication of American leadership, at the abandonment of loyal allies, and at the toadying to dictatorships and police states and the encouragement of despots….

Within that, sorrow at the toleration—and tacit endorsement—of the brutal murder of a journalist, and not just one, in the larger picture. Sorrow at the transformation of the United States into a satellite state of the Russian Federation and the gobsmacking, overt subservience toward its leader….

Sorrow at the absolute celebration of Dickensian greed, the con game perpetrated on the good people of this country, the shameless implementation of a Robin Hood-in-reverse economic policy that mortgages the future of our children and grandchildren for the enrichment of an already obscenely rich few….

Sorrow at the wanton despoiling of our air and water in exchange for mere pieces of silver, and the ostrich-like denial of settled science in order to squeeze out those short term profits, even if it means the destruction of the very planet itself….

Sorrow at the inexplicable elevation of this godawful family—stinking like a fish from the head down—to the very pinnacle of public life, and at the endless Mummers Parade of criminals, grifters, gangsters, and swine they have brought with them and installed in positions of power as public “servants,” very often with the unabashed intention of destroying the very agencies they command. The steady exodus of these same cretins in disgrace—and sometimes in shackles—one after another, speaks to the kind of people this administration attracts….

Sorrow at the underhanded subversion of democracy, a campaign that, as George Packer points out, is perhaps the most dangerous threat of all in that it obliterates our fundamental means of remedying all these other problems….

Sorrow at the steady drumbeat of attacks on the rule of law, on a free press, and on free speech in general. Sorrow at the destruction of truth and objective reality itself as common metrics, and the endorsement of shameless deceit and hypocrisy as the new normal….

Sorrow at the divisiveness roiling our nation, though I continue to reject the wildly disingenuous false equivalence that “both sides are equally to blame.” (Fine people on both sides, you know.) In other words, sorrow at the resurgence of racism, misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia, and at how eagerly so many of our countrymen have thrilled to this appeal to the basest and most vile human instincts. In so doing they have revealed the ugliest possible face of our country, one that we all wanted to pretend wasn’t there—the racists and bigots included—but that has reared its head with a vengeance, giving the lie to our self-flattering delusions of collective enlightenment.

I say “our” because we as Americans are all culpable. We cannot slough responsibility off on our government, which after all, is supposed to represent the will of the people, even if it pointedly does not at the moment. But even that does not absolve us. These episodes are a permanent stain on the United States of America and on all of us as citizens thereof.

So when I see all this, all I can ask myself is:

Is this America?

There is certainly a dark, Zinn-ish view of our history that betrays no surprise over what we are experiencing, and I concur that it did not spring fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead.

That is precisely what alarms me.

Because, as many wise observers have noted, this poisonous excuse for a president and the havoc he has wreaked is merely a symptom of a deep sickness, not its cause.

MISSISSIPPI GODDAM

I guess I didn’t do a very good job of being calm and reasonable. In these times, it’s frankly beyond me.

That was particularly so in this incredible week—yet another one—that saw a stunningly reckless foreign policy decision that caused the Secretary of Defense to resign, the acting Attorney General defy his own ethics office regarding his duty to recuse himself in the Mueller probe, and a government shutdown loom purely because of a presidential temper tantrum over the mythical border wall.

And the coming weeks and months don’t promise a respite or a reversal. Very much the contrary.

In keeping with the motto “steal from the best,” I’ve stolen the title of this essay from an episode of Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series about the US civil rights movement, titled “Mississippi: Is This America?,” directed by Orlando Bagwell. (Special thanks to series producer Jon Else, at whose knee I learned my trade.)

It’s a fitting burglary, in light of Mississippi’s recent election to the US Senate of crypto-segregationist Cindy Hyde Smith (not even so crypto, really), an election that saw a rich New York businessman come to the Deep South and cackle about her black opponent—Mike Espy—to a cheering, jeering, nearly all-white crowd, asking, “How does he fit in in Mississippi?”

It’s also fitting in general to reach back to the civil rights movement at a time when the backlash to that movement is alive and well and indeed reached a new apotheosis. At the same time, the movement provides inspiration and hope that the proverbial arc of history does indeed bend toward justice……but only when people are willing to fight and struggle and sometimes even put their lives on the line.

That episode of Eyes on the Prize in turn drew its title from a speech by legendary activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic Convention, which she concluded with these words:

Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Her question continues to echo to this day.

HARK

The black church, of course, played a huge role in the civil rights movement, and as I write this—at Christmastime—the specter of religious faith hangs over the present moment. I long ago gave up the Christianity in which I was raised, but its ritual and ceremony and mythology are still with me, especially this time of year. Tim Minchin, the most cutting atheist of them all (now that Hitchens is gone), said it best about Christmas:

And yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism
To the commercialization of an ancient religion
To the Westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I know that many of those on the other side—Trump supporters, that is—are far more literal and devout in their religiosity than me (as incongruent as I find that with support for Trump). But apostate though I am, I am still moved by the sheer poetry of words like these:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

It’s all myth, but it’s still beautiful, flooding my hippocampus and taking me back to my childhood. I suspect I am not alone in that. It breaks my heart—especially right now.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all. These days, best wishes for the new year are more than just an anodyne phrase. Let us endeavor to make 2019 truly a brighter tomorrow.

********

Photo, taken on the streets of NYC, by Justin Schein

Special thanks to Nancy Kates for educating me on the origin of this essay’s title

 

“She Worked for Me”

Aretha

In the three and a half years since he descended that golden staircase to begin his marathon defecation on American democracy, Donald Trump and his retinue have given us some memorable phrases.

“Fake news.” “Alternative facts.” “Bigly.” “Covfefe.” “I like people who weren’t captured.” “Little Rocket Man.” An attack on our country.” “Very fine people on both sides.” “A 400 pound guy sitting on his bed.” “Failing New York Times.” “You’re the puppet.” “The likes of which.” “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” “Shithole countries.”

And of course, “Lock her up.” Just to name a few.

But I’d like to focus on one particular phrase of recent vintage, even if it is unlikely to pass into posterity the way some of those others seem destined to.

It came in Trump’s statement on the passing of Aretha Franklin.

But first, a quick recap of the week that was….

WEED IS LEGAL NOW, RIGHT?

Trump had another bad week, which is getting to be a habit to say the least. Mueller’s noose continued to tighten, Nancy Pelosi made him cry, the National Enquirer flipped on him, a Russian spy confessed to infiltrating the NRA, and the incoming New York State AG announced she plans to carry his severed head around Manhattan on a pike. There were even signs of tiny fissures in the Republicans’ Great Big Dike of Denial (let’s not get our hopes up), and Trump himself was forced to utter the dreaded “i” word aloud to the press, while privately telling confidants that he is indeed worried about the possibility of being chucked out of office like yesterday’s fish. Hell, he couldn’t even get an ambitious young right wing shitbag like Nick Ayers to sign on for what would normally be considered one of the most desirable jobs in Washington (nor could he lure Chris Christie off his private beach). As of now, it looks like the job of White House Chief of Staff will have to go to Jared, as all jobs eventually must. On the bright side, young Mr. Kushner comes to the position already of the verge of being indicted, so that will save time.

Yeah, not the greatest week ever.

Most notably, of course, President Donald J. Trump is now an unindicted co-conspirator in felonies for which his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is going to federal prison for three years.

In any other era, with the normal rules were in effect, that alone would likely be game over for the administration. But as you may have noticed, the normal rules ain’t in effect. Not by a longshot.

Trump of course dismissed the Cohen payoffs as “peanut stuff,” gave himself another A+ for his performance thus far as president, and counter-factually announced (via Twitter, natch) that Cohen’s confession “Totally clears” the President. Thank you!”

I don’t know what they’re smocking in the West Wing, but it would make Jeff Sessions mighty mad if he were not back at work at the Keebler tree.

THE PARTY OF LAW AND ORDER

At any rate, I am delighted to report that Trump is, by almost any measure, weaker now than at any point in his presidency, except insofar as he is a cornered rat and therefore more dangerous than ever.

Responding to the floodwaters rising around their standard-bearer, Republican legislators were left to scoff—unconvincingly—that Trump’s implication as an unindicted co-conspirator isn’t really a big deal. (Who hasn’t paid off some mistresses to fix a presidential election?) Some who are on their way out the door—like Orrin Hatch—ceased even pretending to believe in the rule of law, brazenly announcing that even if Trump is indeed guilty of federal crimes, they just don’t care.

But the ability of Republicans to dismiss Trump’s crimes and defend him with a straight face (“He gave rich people a huge tax cut!”) is not likely to stand up to scrutiny for very long. At the risk of looking foolish if we are in the same place six months from now, it does feel like the sheer of momentum of criminal revelations is building and beginning to make Trump’s self-erected statue wobble perilously.

It goes without saying that there’s a world of difference between a clerical error in campaign bookkeeping—as some, like Rand Paul and Kevin McCarthy, have shamelessly tried to characterize Trump’s actions—and a deliberate, covert, coordinated effort to defraud the American electorate on the eve of a presidential election to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money to silence a parade of mistresses. Coming as they did hot on the heels of the Access Hollywood tape, the payoffs arguably suppressed information that might well have tipped the election (Michael Lewis and The Undoing Project notwithstanding). Former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal—a conservative, it’s worth noting—described them as the most significant campaign finance violations in American history, and it’s hard to disagree.

So no, this is not jaywalking we’re talking about, much as the GOP would like us to believe otherwise. Hey, some might even say it’s worse than using a private email server.

JUST THE TIP (GET IT?)

For his part, now that Michael Cohen has been convicted, Trump—with characteristic chutzpah—claims that the transactions were a private matter unrelated to the election, even though another one of his lawyers, a former US Attorney for the SDNY and oh yeah Mayor of New York City, went on Fox and said the opposite. Donald Trump didn’t go to law school, but Rudy Giuliani did, and he ought to know better.

Giuliani later compared Trump’s offense to a parking violation, which is ironic for a guy who treated jaywalkers like ax murderers when he mayor. Mr. Former Tough Guy Prosecutor is suddenly very forgiving of criminal activity…..perhaps because he knows he is guilty of some himself and fears the reckoning that is coming.

So we can dispense with the idiocy and dishonesty of Trump’s defenders with one simple question:

If the payoffs were neither illegal nor related to the election nor any big deal, why did Trump lie about his knowledge of them, on camera, on Air Force One no less?

Having initially insisted that he didn’t have know about Cohen’s actions (using his patented Roy Cohn deny-deny-deny strategy), Trump has now been forced to deal with incontrovertible evidence that he not only knew about the payoffs, but directed them. We already have him on tape discussing the hush money with Cohen; this week it was revealed that our fearless leader was also the heretofore unnamed third party present when Cohen and National Enquirer boss David (wait for it) Pecker discussed this preemptive “catch-and-kill” strategy as far back as 2015.

Sometimes it’s not so good to have been in the room where it happened. (Aaron Burr: re-think your goals.)

Trump’s new position, as of this week, is that the payoffs weren’t illegal, and he didn’t order them anyway, or if he did he didn’t know they were illegal, and it was Cohen’s fault for following his orders when he shouldn’t have.

Got all that? Don’t worry, no one else did either. It was among Trump’s least convincing bullshit storms ever, which is saying something. For a famously bold liar, he is starting to sound a lot like Ralph Kramden.

But deceit is Trump’s go-to move—his only move, really—even if he is doing a worse-than-usual job of it in the face of mounting evidence implicating him. He is the scorpion carrying the Republican Party frog across the river, if a scorpion could have a combover. (That frog is named Pepe, by the way.)

The laughable GOP efforts to downplay this turn of events, on the hand, are just another sorry chapter in the Republican Party’s pathetic surrender to this contemptible grifter and its willful destruction of its own brand. But far from achieving the desired effect of stanching the bleeding, the Republicans’ continuing defense of Trump is nothing but slow-motion seppuku. For we all know—as does the GOP leadership—that this week’s revelations are hardly the last of Trump’s crimes that they are going to have address. On the contrary: hush money to porn stars and Playboy centerfolds is only the tippy top of a giant iceberg looming in the North Atlantic, directly in the path of the SS Individual-1.

ANOTHER BRICK IN THE HEAD

I promise I’m going to get to Aretha. I do. But you think the Queen of Soul comes out onstage right away? Let’s have some more opening acts.

The best theater this past week was the rare sight of a public, face-to-face rebuke of the fake president right there in his own Oval Office, with the cameras rolling. Nancy Pelosi kept her cool and showed why she’s the boss—and likely secured her second Speakership—as a flustered Trump repeatedly interrupted and mansplained and basically behaved like a dick. (Stop the presses.)

Pelosi and Schumer also got Trump to go full Colonel Jessup and embrace the Code Red of the looming government shutdown. Generally, one doesn’t want to take credit for something that will leave millions of government employees without paychecks at Christmastime, but remarkably, Trump did.

I watched the whole thing, and while I enjoyed seeing a pair of senior Democrats take the ignoramus-in-chief to task on national television, I have no doubt that the xenophobes and nihilists who comprise Trump’s Twelfth Man came away thinking him the winner, and admiring him even more for his (insane) commitment to building their big, beautiful racist wall. Everything in America is a Rorschach test these days, and a case study in confirmation bias.

That said, it’s clear that even Trump thought he lost that round, based on reports that he left the meeting throwing file folders and yelling at his staff. (Also known around the White House as “Tuesday.”)

And hey, anyway, what happened to that promise that Mexico was gonna pay for the wall? Conveniently forgotten I suppose. In the words of Gomer Pyle, surprise surprise surprise. Since getting his ass handed to him (by—gasp!—a woman), the closest a humiliated Trump came to addressing that broken promise was a characteristically ridiculous tweet with some baffling math about how his new trade deal with Mexico equates to a check from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with “para el muro” in the memo line.

But the mere fact that he even tweeted that suggests he knows people are talking about that famous, fatuous claim, and he feels the need to defend it, however poorly.

The irony, of course, is that even if you think the lunatic, laws-of-physics-defying quest to build a wall to keep brown people out of America is worth shutting down the government over, it’s comical to believe that Trump will keep his promise to own that decision.

Donald Trump said live on national television that he would not blame Schumer and the Democrats if there is a shutdown.

Donald Trump will blame Schumer and the Democrats if there is a shutdown.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Which brings us back to Aretha.

I recently wrote about the death of another pop music icon, David Bowie, and the ways in which freshly deceased pop stars are typically met with a posthumous wave of adulation (fat lot of good that does them). The great Aretha Franklin was no exception.

Except in the aptly named White House.

“I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well,” Trump told his Cabinet in remarks widely circulated soon after her death. “She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific—Aretha Franklin—on her passing. She brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come.”

Let that sink in a moment.

“She worked for me.”

Really??? That’s the central point of Trump’s so-called tribute to Aretha?

It’s not even remotely true, of course, but the real significance is what the comment says about Trump, and by extension, the people who support and admire him.

Aretha Franklin played some concerts at Trump hotel/casinos. That is hardly “working for” Donald Trump. That’s like saying Picasso was an employee of the Prado, or Prince was in the NFL because he played at the Super Bowl. Or me claiming the Fire Department “works for me” because they came to check a gas leak in my building.

Trump’s insistence on that framing of his brief path-crossings with Aretha Franklin speaks to his infantile desire to be the boss of everybody…..even in their own obituary, which, as with all matters on heaven and earth, he somehow managed to make about himself.

As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, Trump cannot conceive of any higher compliment than being graced with his presence. In Trump’s mind, everyone lives only to serve him and bask in his wonderfulness…..and that goes double for women and people of color. (That same disrespect was reflected this week in his clash with Pelosi.)

To give it the most generous possible interpretation, if Trump was merely acknowledging that he had met Ms. Franklin in person (as he did when memorializing G.H.W. Bush) he could have stopped with “a person I knew well.” That was a lie itself, but at least it wasn’t also a despicable racist dig that placed himself in the superior position and Aretha in a servile one.

His disrespect for the Queen of Soul is of a piece with his well-documented contempt for African-Americans in general, and African-American women in particular. Would we expect any less from a rich, obscenely entitled 72-year-old right winger, raised in privilege by a father who played footsie with the Klan and was sued by the federal government for racial discrimination bad enough that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it?

NIL NISI BONUM

We know that Trump is very bad at the ceremonial aspects of his job, particularly when it comes to honoring other human beings or comforting his fellow man in times of grief, and the reason why is clear: because he lacks even the tiniest kernel of human empathy. He relates to others only as servants to his own mythical magnificence. His discomfort with sickness and death and inability to display—or even fake—normal human compassion as consoler-in-chief is yet another way he is manifestly unfit for the duties of the office he unaccountably holds.

Trump’s epoch-shattering pettiness and his astonishing unwillingness to set aside personal differences even when honoring the dead (see also John McCain) is a stark genetic marker of his malignant narcissism. The best he’s done—at George H.W. Bush’s recent funeral—is quietly sulk because he’s not the center of attention…..and in that case only because the Bush family cleverly managed to hem him in with some jiu-jitsu. If Trump fits the famous description of a person who wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral, all I can say is that there are millions of Americans who are with him on the latter count at least.

Even without the pointed barbs that characterized McCain’s funeral—the same weekend as Aretha’s, as it happened—Trump inevitably suffered by comparison at Bush’s memorial as he sat petulantly in the front row while the nation listened to tribute after tribute to the basic personal decency of “41.” (Though we ought not to forgive or forget the role the Bush dynasty played in giving us Trump in the first place, from Willie Horton to the invasion of Iraq.) I don’t exactly know how any of that fits in with Trump’s refusal to recite the Apostles’ Creed. I suspect he thinks Apostles Creed is Carl Weathers’ grandson.

GIFTED AF

Trump, of course, is not alone in his condescending attitude toward a group of people he is wont to call “the blacks.” Playing right into one of the worst and oldest stereotypes of dumbass white people, Fox infamously misidentified Aretha when it broadcast news of her passing, running a photo of Patti LaBelle.

I don’t have the column inches—or patience—to list all of Trump’s public displays of racism (for starters, see: NFL), but one of the worst and most telling of them remains his attacks on the so-called Central Park Five, the young black men convicted of assaulting, raping, and brutalizing a white female jogger in 1989. The five men variously spent from six to thirteen years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. (A serial rapist imprisoned for other crimes confessed and was proven to be the attacker.) Back in ’89, Trump, then just a private citizen and douchebag-about-town, took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York state, with the Central Park jogger case the obvious subtext. (Just in case you thought racism, birtherism, and sticking his big fat nose where it doesn’t belong were new things for Don.)

But much more shocking is the fact that as recently as 2016 Trump continued to insist that the Central Park Five were guilty and ought to be in prison, even though they’ve been indisputably proven innocent and another man confirmed as the perpetrator.

I don’t even know where to begin with that demonstration of unmitigated racism, barbarity, and wholesale contempt for justice and the rule of law. I can only say that it’s appalling that it hasn’t gotten more attention, even as I understand that “outrage fatigue” has never gotten an aerobic workout like the one the Trump era is giving it.

So compared to shit like that, Trump’s megalomania and racism in insulting Aretha Franklin is neither surprising nor near the top of the list of his worst moments. But it’s still galling, especially when deployed in reference to an artist of her gifts.

As a recording artist, live performer, and pure singer, Aretha looms over the soul, R&B, gospel, and rock landscapes so pervasively that it’s hard to imagine contemporary pop music without her influence. You hear it in every melisma and virtuoso multi-octave swoop, from Christina to Whitney to Alicia to anyone else you care to name. But it wasn’t just technical brilliance that set Aretha apart; it was something ineffably transporting. They didn’t call her “the Queen of Soul” just because of her genre.

I am now officially a character from a Steely Dan song:

Hey nineteen, that’s Aretha Franklin

She don’t remember the Queen of Soul

Hard times befallen the soul survivors

She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old….

(Things white people do: quote the most sterile, uptight, male Caucasian rock band of all time in paying tribute to one of the earthiest African-American female vocal goddesses ever to hit a high C.)

Clearly, Aretha’s gifts are beyond Trump’s ability to comprehend or comment upon. (Hell, Milli Vanilli’s gifts are beyond that.) I don’t think anyone expected soaring, poetic rhetoric from the Donald in memorializing one of the greatest and most influential singers of the past century, but what he did say was even worse than I anticipated. Once again, every time I think he’s hit rock bottom, Trump has managed to surprise me by beginning to dig.

That’s why “She worked for me” has stuck with me, amid all of Trump’s other appalling turns of phrase. It’s no news flash that Donald Trump is a racist, a misogynist, and a small, small man. But every once in a while we get a perfect little economic encapsulation of all those things.

So there you have it. Trumpism—your one-stop shop for racism, sexism, classism, and narcissism.

Rest in peace, Aretha. When comes such another?

*********

Español advisor: Odette Cabrera Duggan

Drinking the Flavor-Aid (and Yes, I Mean Flavor-Aid)

President-Trump-Touts-Foreign-Policy-Accomplishments-on-Asia-Trip-Washington-USA-15-Nov-2017 copy

Who says there’s a war on Christmas? This year it came early. Sing hallelujah!

These days every week brings what feels like a month’s worth of news by pre-2016 standards, but even within that this past week stood out. We had barely begun to absorb the horrific images of US law enforcement agents firing CS gas at barefoot refugee children when the bizarre tale of Paul Manafort’s deceit overtook it, accompanied by the intrigue surrounding Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, and Julian Assange, and then that was obliterated by Michael Cohen’s surprise court appearance where he dropped an atomic bomb with his confessions about Trump’s business dealings in Russia.

We also saw the putative leader of the free world continuing to refuse to hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accountable for the grisly murder of a US-based journalist, a grinning lynching enthusiast win a US Senate seat in Mississippi, GM make a mockery of Republicans’ fake concern for “ordinary working people,” and lest we forget, Trump turn in his take-home test to the special counsel, containing what promise to be numerous potentially presidency-ending lies. As Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith might say, give ‘em enough rope….

But Mike Cohen made them all footnotes.

Post-midterms, it is clear that the Mueller probe is accelerating—or perhaps more accurately, now playing some very big face cards Bob has been heretofore holding close to his chest. It can’t come soon enough.

IN TODAY’S PERFORMANCE, THE PART OF JOHN DEAN WILL BE PLAYED BY MICHAEL COHEN

The Cohen plea reveals that—surprise!—Trump baldly lied to the American people over and over again during the presidential campaign in insisting that he had ABSOLUTELY NO business connections, arrangements, or other interests in Russia, when in fact he was trying to negotiate a multi-hundred million dollar real estate deal to build a “Trump Tower” in Moscow. As the cherry on top, we also learned that, in hopes of currying favor and enticing other oligarchs to buy apartments there, he planned to give Vladimir Putin the tower’s $50 million penthouse as a goodwill gesture (sometimes known as a “bribe”).

Ever since Russiagate first began, a lot of people have joked that even if there were proof of Trump and Putin exchanging a bag of cash, the GOP and Trump’s base would not admit any conspiracy between the two.

Does this do it, guys?

We now understand why Trump has been so blatantly, bootlickingly solicitous of Moscow, an enduring mystery for the past three years. Though several journalists have been laying out the financial case for months now, plea documents with the special counsel’s signature on them really drive the point home. A huge piece of the puzzle has thus fallen into place. Now that we have this definitive answer, much of the rest of Russiagate is pretty easy to grasp.

We don’t yet know the extent or details of Trump’s collaboration with Russia in illegally trying to swing the election—collusion, as it is commonly known—but little of it promises to be good news for the Trump family. The bombshell Guardian report that Manafort visited to Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy during the 2016 campaign was especially stunning. If this were a spy movie and two of the key players met IN PERSON like that, you’d walk out of the theatre in disgust before the credits even rolled. But you don’t have to have read many le Carré novels to think that the “accidental” disclosure that Julian Assange has been indicted was no accident at all, and the German authorities’ raid of Deutsche Bank—Moscow’s go-to drycleaner for money-laundering and Trump’s personal ATM when no one else would loan him any more cash—on the same day as Cohen’s court appearance was no coincidence.

For those who have scoffed that there was no collusion—including a certain orange-hued lunatic in Washington—the Moscow Tower revelations suggest that the truth might be even more astonishing (and damning) than anyone imagined. If Trump would lie about his business dealings with Russia—and no one was remotely surprised that he would—would it be any surprise to learn that he would also secretly conspire with the Kremlin to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, hack into the DNC server (or at least obtain the fruit of that hacking), and otherwise utilize covert Russian help to help win the election?

We didn’t really need the Cohen plea to tell us that. Everyone knows Trump is not above such skullduggery. Even Trump supporters—even Trump himself—have not argued that he’s above it. The most they have argued is that he didn’t actually do it. But every day brings more evidence that he did, and why.

DOTS, CONNECTED

As Rachel Maddow reported in a widely admired segment last Friday, the secret Moscow Tower project and the case for collusion appear to be inherently connected. In short:

Trump was secretly trying to make a real estate deal with the Kremlin worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to be financed by the phenomenally shady state-controlled Russian bank VTB, while shamelessly claiming to the American people that he had no business dealings in Russia whatsoever. (Nota bene: That alone ought to be a presidency-ending revelation.)

In order for that to happen, however, sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to the annexation of Crimea had to be lifted. On the campaign trail, Trump was therefore actively advocating for the lifting of those sanctions without giving the real reason why.

Having thus compromised Trump and achieved that kind of control over him, Moscow then set about in earnest helping get their asset elected. In light of that, it’s all but impossible to believe that Trump and his campaign were not also actively involved in that effort as well.  (It is no coincidence that the first member of the Trump administration to get in hot water, his then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, did so for lying both to Congress and the FBI about secret contacts with the Kremlin surrounding that very issue.)

This story promises to hit with even more force when it is delivered by the special counsel, which will likely begin this week as the Mueller team delivers documents related to both Flynn and Manafort.

But while we await that, let us ponder the significance of the fact that Donald Trump told the biggest and most profound lie in the history of American presidential politics. Difficult as it is to fathom, the question we are faced with is: does it matter? In other words, why don’t Trump supporters care abut something as indisputably wrong as this?

AS I LAY LYING

There are many things about Donald Trump that—to any thinking person—would disqualify him from being president. His despicable values. His goldfish-like attention span. His brazen misogyny. His habit of openly insulting African-American women. (Subset of previous flaw, overlapping with “his wanton racism” in the Venn diagram of Trumpian awfulness.)

But all of those are things that, to some people, are features, not bugs. Those people are cretins, but nevertheless: they don’t consider those traits demerits. “He’s an iconoclast! He tells it like it is! He’s not PC! He’s a red-blooded man!” et cetera. We’re all familiar with the excuses used to forgive—or even applaud—his shortcomings.

The same cannot be said of lying.

No one can credibly say that baldy lying to the American people—repeatedly, shamelessly, in ways that gravely endanger national security and compromise the legitimacy of a presidential election—is OK. So his supporters are left with two responses:

1) “It’s not a lie.” This option requires willful denial of reality, as it’s not just Cohen’s word that must be overcome, but the documentary evidence that the special counsel has assembled to support his plea.

2) “OK, it’s a lie, but it’s not a big deal.” Per above, that assertion is patently false in the worst possible way. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is a very big deal for the ostensible leader of the so-called free world to bluntly deny to the American people that he was in cahoots with a hostile foreign power, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

This disingenuous shrug of an argument is usually buttressed (cough cough) with the claim that “all politicians lie.” Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t, but not all lies are created equal, and this one is about the biggest lie imaginable. Careers, liberty, and indeed lives have been lost over far smaller falsehoods. Imagine if Hillary or Obama yada yada yada…..

Trump himself has essentially adopted option #2, dismissing the revelations as trivial while adding a twist that is the most dishonest of all, the kind in which he specializes: pretending he never lied in the first place.

I don’t think I’ve yet heard a journalist confront him with his untold previous claims that he had no business in Russia and ask him to defend them. If they did, I suspect he would continue to act as the newly revealed facts are so petty as to not be of any significance. He’s flagrantly wrong, of course, as shown by the glaring flaw inherent in that stance:

If these business relationships with the Russian government were no big deal, WHY DID HE GO TO SUCH EPIC LENGTHS TO HIDE THEM?

And not just once or twice, but consistently, every chance he got, in full-throated, how-dare-you tones of absolute outrage? If it was all “very legal & very cool” as he now claims (very legal?), why bother to lie at all? Why didn’t he just say, “Yeah, I have business in Russia; I have business all over the world. So what?”

To say that now is not the same thing.

There’s a big, barreling answer to that “So what?” The conflict of interest baked into that sort of foreign entanglement is self-evident, and the emoluments clause (not to mention common sense) makes it explicit.

But even beyond that, business arrangements with a foreign power become a much bigger deal when you hide them……and you hide them because you know they’re wrong and damaging if not outright disqualifying. And—here comes the irony—hiding them and lying about them makes them even more disqualifying because of the potential for exploitation and extortion by those foreign powers, who now who have leverage over the President of the United States.

And that, in terms of compromise of national security, is a Grand Canyon-sized problem, no matter how much Trump’s craven defenders try to downplay it.

One of Trump’s most consistent defenders, Alan Dershowitz, did admit last week that Cohen’s confessions “could suggest that Trump wasn’t telling the public the whole truth about the Moscow deal.”

Ya think? That kind of laughable spin says it all about the sad twilight of Alan Dershowitz, but it says even more about the denial that Trump’s supporters are in. “Wasn’t telling the whole truth” suggests some slight shading of the facts, typically by omission. But what we’ve seen from Trump since the moment these Russian allegations first emerged have been full-throated, indignant, howls of denial and scorn for the very accusation.

The closest our grifter-in-chief has come even to acknowledging his lies is some classic Trumpian gaslighting. Shouting at the press over the sound of Marine One’s helicopter blades, he tried to have it both ways, insisting—OJ-like—that Cohen is lying and he didn’t have any deals with Russia, but even if he did, it wouldn’t have been untoward.

As Jennifer Rubin wrote in the WaPo: “Trump’s shocking insistence Thursday that he was ‘allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign’ seems to leave open the possibility that he did not comprehend the ramifications of working with the Russians to feather his own nest and get him elected.”

Too bad ignorance is no defense. If it was, Donald Trump would be the most well-protected man on earth,

D-FENCE

So unless one is willing to sign on for citizenship in cloud cuckoo land, we are left with the escapable conclusion that there is no real defense for Trump’s lies about his business dealings with Russia.

How, then, do his defenders shrug those lies off?

I have been asking myself questions like that for more than two years now. Only in the past week or two have I begun to have any semblance of understanding.

Chris Hedges recently published a piece in Truthdig called “The Cult of Trump.”

He didn’t mean it metaphorically.

Hedges outlines the dictionary definition of a cult and the ways in which Trump and his followers meet it:

Cult leaders arise from decayed communities and societies in which people have been shorn of political, social and economic power. The disempowered, infantilized by a world they cannot control, gravitate to cult leaders who appear omnipotent and promise a return to a mythical golden age. The cult leaders vow to crush the forces, embodied in demonized groups and individuals, that are blamed for their misery. The more outrageous the cult leaders become, the more they flout law and social conventions, the more they gain in popularity. Cult leaders are immune to the norms of established society. This is their appeal. Cult leaders demand a God-like power. Those who follow them grant them this power in the hope that the cult leaders will save them.

The cult leader grooms followers to speak in the language of hate and violence. The cult leader constantly paints a picture of an existential threat, often invented, that puts the cult followers in danger.

The cult leader does not take his or her statements seriously and often denies ever making them, even when they are documented. Lies and truth do not matter. The language of the cult leader is designed exclusively to appeal to the emotional needs of those in the cult.

Cult leaders are narcissists. They demand obsequious fawning and total obedience. They prize loyalty above competence. They wield absolute control. They do not tolerate criticism. They are deeply insecure, a trait they attempt to cover up with bombastic grandiosity. They are amoral and emotionally and physically abusive. They see those around them as objects to be manipulated for their own empowerment, enjoyment and often sadistic entertainment. All those outside the cult are branded as forces of evil, prompting an epic battle whose natural expression is violence.

In other words, Trumpism is a literal cult.

Once I began to think of it that way, I felt a little bit better.

Of course, this diagnosis doesn’t appreciably change the perilous situation in which we find ourselves. Indeed, in some ways it makes it much scarier. But it relieves me of the self-imposed duty to TALK SOME SENSE INTO THESE MOTHERFUCKERS! YOU BENIGHTED SUCKERS! DO YOU NOT SEE WHAT A SHAM, WHAT A HYPOCRITE, WHAT A MONSTER YOUR HERO IS?????

Trump supporters, I can hear you saying how self-righteous, sanctimonious, and holier-than-thou I am being, and you’re not wrong. It’s just that thou art so easier to be holier than.

Like many Americans, I have long been frustrated by the impossibility of having a rational argument with most Trump backers—a phenomenon I have written about several times in these pages (see The Death of Hypocrisy and Things Trump Supporters Have Taught Me). This impossibility, of course, is largely a function of Trump’s Orwellian campaign to obliterate objective reality as a metric universally agreed upon—what we used to quaintly call “the truth.”

Viewing Trumpism as a cult is the next logical step in that progression. I highly recommend it: it will save you a fortune in Zoloft.

That is why Trump playing exponentially more golf than Obama does not move his supporters. Nor his blowing up deficit, nor cozying up to dictators, nor trashing the Iran deal and making a ludicrously worse one with North Korea, nor Ivanka’s private email server—and Jared’s, and Reince’s, and Stephen Miller’s—and her claim that she had no idea that was a problem. None of it does. And neither will the revelation of his blatant lies about the Moscow Tower project.

KULTURKAMPF

Hedges quotes the famous psychoanalyst Joost A.M. Meerloo, in his acclaimed 1956 book The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing:

“Logic can be met with logic, while illogic cannot—it confuses those who think straight. The Big Lie and monotonously repeated nonsense have more emotional appeal in a cold war than logic and reason. While the enemy is still searching for a reasonable counter-argument to the first lie, the totalitarians can assault him with another.”

The cult leader, unlike a traditional politician, makes no effort to reach out to his opponents. The cult leader seeks to widen the divisions. The leader brands those outside the cult as irredeemable. The leader seeks the omnipotence to crush those who do not kneel in adoration. The followers, yearning to be protected and empowered by the cult leader, seek to give the cult leader omnipotence. Democratic norms, an impediment to the leader’s omnipotence, are attacked and abolished. Those in the cult seek to be surrounded by the cult leader’s magical aura. Reality is sacrificed for fantasy. Those who challenge the fantasy are not considered human. They are Satanic.

I admire Hedges’ work, although I’m not sure he would return the compliment. A scathing critic of mainstream liberalism, he decries the “smug, self-righteousness of this crusade against Trump,” one that he believes contributes to this cycle of madness. At least on that count, I am sure I fit squarely within the demographic he derides. For my money, the credibility of a critique like that is undermined by some of his other arguments, like his recent defense of Julian Assange, which portrayed the Wikileaks founder as a valiant defender of transparency and antagonist to oligarchy while conveniently ignoring the ways in which he has eagerly served as a bagman for Vladimir Putin.

But fair play: Hedges’ framing of Trumpism as a literal cult is the most accurate characterization of the current moment that I have yet read.

Hedges quotes Meerloo again:

“(The dictator) sees no value in any other person and feels no gratitude for any help he may have received. He is suspicious and dishonest and believes that his personal ends justify any means he may use to achieve them. Peculiarly enough, every tyrant still searches for some self-justification. Without such a soothing device for his own conscience, he cannot live. His attitude toward other people is manipulative; to him, they are merely tools for the advancement of his own interests.”

Behavior that ensures the destruction of a public figure’s career does not affect a cult leader. It does not matter how many lies uttered by Trump are meticulously documented by The New York Times or The Washington Post. It does not matter that Trump’s personal financial interests, as we see in his relationship with the Saudis, take precedence over the rule of law, diplomatic protocols and national security. It does not matter that he is credibly charged by numerous women with being a sexual predator, a common characteristic of cult leaders. It does not matter that he is inept, lazy and ignorant. The establishment, whose credibility has been destroyed because of its complicity in empowering the ruling oligarchy and the corporate state, might as well be blowing soap bubbles at Trump. Their vitriol, to his followers, only justifies the hatred radiating from the cult.

TRANSUBSTANTIATION, ANYONE?

On the subject of cults, we just passed the 40thanniversary of the Jonestown massacre, an episode that gave us the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But as numerous scolds have noted, the poisoned drink Jim Jones’ followers quaffed down in the Guyanese jungle was actually Kool-Aid’s cut-rate competitor Flavor-Aid (much to the consternation of Kraft Foods). In that regard, Kool-Aid is a victim of its own success, like other brand names that are so dominant that they have become “genericized,” like Thermos, Xerox, Band-Aid, and Velcro. (Fun fact: once upon a time, refrigerator, aspirin, and zipper were also brand names.)

For those who want to get into the weeds, Chris Higgins mounted a vigorous argument against the whole phrase in the pages of the Atlantic six years ago, taking in Ken Kesey, the science of neologisms, and the evidence that there were in fact some Kool-Aid packets mixed among the Flavor-Aid. (For completists only.)

Whatever the drink, the phrase has never been more apt for American life than right now, so it’s equally fitting for our Trumpian post-truth era that its genesis is grounded in inaccuracy.

What distinguishes a cult from a religion anyway? Only the size of its following and its seniority—a favorite point of Bill Maher. Neither Mormonism, with its magic underwear, nor—even newer—Scientology, with its souls of dead aliens, are arguably more wacko in their beliefs and more destructive in their histories of violence than numerous older, more established religions. (I’m looking at you, Catholicism.)

Notably, Hedges himself is a recently ordained Presbyterian minister.

A cult represents a kind of mass psychosis, typically affecting a small, self-selecting group, like the Branch Davidians, or the People’s Temple, or others who immediately come to mind when the term is invoked. But cults can also be large, and secular, like the thrall in which Nazism held the German people from 1933 to 1945. (For sheer visual display of blind obedience, nothing in human history approaches the images in Triumph of the Will.)

I don’t mean to suggest that every last German was a true believer. But enough of them were.

Likewise, from the start I have contended that should the republic—and the planet— survive, future generations will look back on Trump’s reign as a time of similar mass hysteria in the United States, the way we now look back on McCarthyism or the Salem witch trials. (Trump regularly cites both, but he has the protagonists completely backward.)

I am not saying that all Republicans or even all Trump supporters are in the grip of this cult any more than every German was, though many of them plainly are.

So what of these other “conservatives” (though the term no longer applies), those who retain enough rational thought to recognize what an abomination Trump is yet support him anyway, usually in some Faustian bargain to advance their partisan agenda: judicial appointments, deregulation, tax cuts, gun rights, take your pick. What of the Mitch McConnells, Paul Ryans, and—yes—Susan Collinses of the world? I don’t have the psychiatric qualifications to proclaim them completely cult-free, but they do strike me as driven primarily by pragmatism, opportunism, and—to be blunt—cynicism rather than by true faith in our Dear Leader, even if they keep their candid opinions about him behind closed doors.

I have addressed this in the past. We can dispense with the fiction that supporting Trump is justified by some utilitarian calculus, given that the “benefits” are—in direct contradiction to the conservative argument—empirically terrible. Ironically, the Faustian bargain contains no positive tradeoffs at all, but only a compounding of horrors: “Support this monster, because in exchange we get children tear gassed and caged, the rich further enriched at the expense of the poor, global impunity for dictators, and the planet destroyed!”

In some ways then, these people are worse than the cultists in that they cannot be excused by reason of mental incapacitation. They are quislings and collaborators who will one day face history’s harshest verdict.

IF THE GLOVE FITS

Yet another tributary of Trumpism are those public figures who may not exactly meet the definition of a cultist, but whose personal pathology makes for a toxic mix with the rule of our insane clown president. Giuliani is a prime example, as is Dershowitz.

Bill Maher coined the term “smart stupid person” in relation to Dr. Ben Carson, describing someone who is highly accomplished in one very exacting field—like neurosurgery—but a raging ignoramus in another—like politics, or where the pyramids come from. Dershowitz is a different animal, however, in that he is at once objectively intelligent and yet maddeningly obtuse even in his own métier. In that sense, his watercarrying for Trump is well in character: he has long lent his preening talents to the defense of the indefensible while trying to maintain a charade of principle. Ask the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.

By way of a timely reminder, this week Dershowitz also figured in a blockbuster story in the Miami Herald, detailing how in 2007 the Republican US Attorney in Miami at the time, Alexander Acosta, made an unconscionable plea deal to help Trump’s buddy Jeffrey Epstein avoid proper prosecution for serially raping and sex trafficking underage girls, as well as shielding his potential accomplices. (Ahem.) The sweetheart deal to which Acosta agreed—which also hid the deal from his victims, and provided laughably comfortable jail time—grew out of a vicious and well-funded campaign of pressure led by Epstein’s lawyers, among them Dershowitz and Ken Starr (!), with later help from another crypto-Trump protector, Manhattan DA Cy Vance. One of Epstein’s victims even alleges that she was made to have sex with Dershowitz himself.

Alex Acosta is now Trump’s Secretary of Transportation.

The author of the Herald piece, Julie K. Brown, writes that as such, Acosta currently “oversees a massive federal agency that provides oversight of the country’s labor laws, including human trafficking. Until he was reported to be eliminated on Thursday, a day after this story posted online, Acosta also had been included on lists of possible replacements for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned under pressure earlier this month.”

So much for the high ground, Alan.

THE PATH FORWARD

Understanding the pathology of Trumpism is critical to developing a strategy to defeat it. At the end of ”The Cult of Trump,” Hedges points out that the mere destruction of this man and breaking of the fever of his followers will not solve our long term problem.

We must lime the soil from which he sprung.

Hedges writes that it is folly “to reduce a social, economic and political crisis to the personality of Trump,” or refuse “to confront and name the corporate forces responsible for our failed democracy.” Even more than Trump and his cult, it is the aforementioned enablers who represent the deeper and more long-lasting threat, for it is they who created the conditions that allowed him to rise, and who even now excuse and protect him.

Our only hope is to organize the overthrow of the corporate state that vomited up Trump. Our democratic institutions, including the legislative bodies, the courts and the media, are hostage to corporate power. They are no longer democratic. We must, like liberation movements of the past, engage in acts of sustained mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation. By turning our ire on the corporate state, we name the true sources of power and abuse. We expose the absurdity of blaming our demise on demonized groups such as undocumented workers, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, liberals, feminists, gays and others.

Hedges believes the Democratic Party is irredeemably compromised and cannot be the conduit for this change. I don’t agree. But one thing is clear.

As there is no reasoning with Trump’s true believers, at least not unless or until their spell is broken, our focus ought to be not only on destroying his morally bankrupt cult of personality, but also discrediting the “mainstream” right wing criminality that abetted his rise, and leaving both on the ash heap of history.

**********

“Holier-than-thou” joke—courtesy of “Taxi.” 

Time May Change Me: David Bowie Gets Revisionized

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One evening not long after David Bowie died, my daughter—who was five at the time—looked at me across the dinner table and said absolutely guilelessly:

“Daddy, did you know David Bowie?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because you sure talk about him a lot.”

Ouch. The mouths of babes.

The departure of an icon always triggers a tsunami of nostalgia, regret, and kind feelings from the general public, with casual fans—and often even non-fans—suddenly realizing (or at least declaring) how much they loved the dearly departed. So it was, inevitably, with Bowie…..and more so than most, because he had successfully kept his liver cancer a secret from the public for the eighteen months since he was diagnosed. As a result, the collective shock at the announcement of his demise and the usual period of grief, mourning, and tribute were all intensified.

But even accounting for that, the outpouring of acclaim and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments speak to the outsized role Bowie played in Western pop culture for more than 40 years, and just how profoundly he affected the lives of his fans and society at large. For he truly did bestride this narrow world like a colossus, albeit one in platform boots and an orange mullet.

Almost as soon as Bowie’s death was announced, an ad hoc memorial—flowers and murals and offerings and the like—appeared outside the building where he lived on Lafayette Street, near Houston. I hadn’t even realized he lived there, a place I had walked past a bazillion times; in contrast to other downtown celebrities, I never saw him buying toothpaste at Duane Reade. (I did see Joe Jackson grocery shopping at the Dean & DeLuca on Broadway and Prince once. Only a rock star would do his everyday shopping at Dean & DeLuca.)

Bowie was also subjected to an especially severe case of what I call the Tito Puente Effect.

At the beginning of the movie Stripes there is a throwaway bit in which Bill Murray’s slacker character gets an earful from his irritated girlfriend over laying around the house all day doing nothing but playing Tito Puente records. In response, Murray deadpans: “Tito Puente is gonna be dead, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to him for years, and I think he’s fabulous.'”

This kind of emergence of bandwagon-jumping arrivistes claiming longtime allegiance to the deceased was especially egregious with an artist as groundbreaking and transgressive as the former Mr. David Jones.

There was also little doubt that a commercial rush to capitalize on Bowienalia would ensue: exploiting the recently deceased is of course de rigueur in all the arts, and pop music especially (and especially crassly). Morrissey— one of Bowie’s many descendants—said it well in the Smiths’ “Paint a Vulgar Picture’:

At the record company meeting
On their hands a dead star
And oh, the plans they weave
And oh, the sickening greed

Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track and a tacky badge

Best of! Most of! Satiate the need!
Slip them into different sleeves
Buy both, and feel deceived

More honorable—and highbrow—was the recent exhibition “David Bowie Is, a brilliant survey of all things Bowie that opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013—three years before Bowie died—and subsequently toured the world, drawing wall-to-wall crowds and wrapping up with a month-long run at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year. My wife and I went on a Tuesday morning (we don’t have jobs) and it was packed.

But all this posthumous love obscures an important aspect of David Bowie’s life and career. The fact is, Bowie was a disruptive figure who—in his early years especially—inspired as much confusion, anger, and backlash as he did praise. Sic semper with the great innovators. We would do well to remember that, and the lessons that oft-repeated phenomenon carries for us…..

PEOPLE STARED AT THE MAKEUP ON HIS FACE

From the start Bowie was impossible to miss: musically, visually, culturally. I think I first became aware of him when “Young Americans” was a number one hit in the US in 1974, when I was eleven. He was one of the only stars to emerge in the hippie era who retained his cred after 1976 and the arrival of punk, because of course, he was one of its progenitors, and he continued to evolve and innovate long after punk burned out. I distinctly remember seeing him on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979, playing “The Man Who Sold the World,”“TVC-15,”and “Boys Keep Swinging,” with the eye-popping duo of Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias singing backup. For an American teenager not well-versed in the avant garde, it was suitably mind-blowing. On the first song, Bowie had to be carried to the microphone because he was wearing a costume that looked like a tuxedoed nesting doll; on the second, all three singers were wearing skirts; on the third, Bowie’s head was superimposed on a marionette.

But I didn’t really become a Bowie fanatic until I was a college freshman, thanks to my roommate, who introduced me to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That LP came out in 1972; when I started listening to it in 1981 it was still in essence a contemporary record. (To give you some of idea, that’s the same interval between now and the xx’s first album in 2009.) I wore my copy out, soon followed by “Aladdin Sane,” and maybe the best of them all, “Hunky Dory.”

I would also like to put a plug in for “David Live,” a 1974 double LP recorded at the Tower Theater in Philly, and in my humble opinion unjustly disparaged, even by Bowie himself. (Special mention to the 1990 Rykodisc CD reissue, which included Bowie’s great cover of the Ohio Players’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.”)

By my sophomore year “Let’s Dance” came out—the most musically accessible album of his career—marking the apotheosis of Bowie’s commercial success through a perfect storm of catchy, chart-topping hits, his most mainstream reinvention of himself, and the inescapable advent of MTV, for which a performer with his visual and theatrical sense was tailor-made. For me it marked the moment when I began to act all snooty about johnny-come-lately Bowie fans. (I was nineteen, with all of two years of serious Bowie-listening under my belt.)

Bowie would do some astonishing work in the 33 years that followed, but typical of most rock & rollers, that commercial pinnacle largely marked the end of his (uh) golden years. But no matter. By 1983 his place in the pantheon was long secure.

Looking back now, it’s simply inadequate to say that he led the way in glam rock, prefigured punk, and pioneered ambient music in collaboration with Eno. Bowie’s influence as a songwriter, recording artist, and performer is so pervasive and wide-ranging that it is almost impossible to pin down, threaded as it is into so much of the pop music landscape. Along the way he also delved into not only film and theater, but costume and set design, video art, painting, dance, mime, graphics, fashion, you name it. It’s almost impossible to catalogue the always-innovative, ceaselessly searching work Bowie did over the course of six decades, or to reiterate the unparalleled range of his work in so many different fields, or attest to his towering influence. I can’t do justice here to the sheer range of his artistic exploration, but just as a sampling, he played John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway and the title role in Brecht’s play Baal; narrated “Peter and the Wolf”; starred in a one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time (Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth), and kissed Ann Magnuson, Susan Sarandon, and Catherine Deneuve in the vampire movie The Hunger, while featuring in other films ranging from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, to the Bridge Over the River Kwai-esque Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, to Zoolander.

His dance card was full.

And it takes nothing away from Bowie’s vast body of work to say that in his long, protean career, one of the best things he ever did was “Little Fat Man Who Sold His Soul” on Ricky Gervais’s “Extras.” Name me another mega-famous avant garde rock star who has such a light comic touch and good sense of humor about himself.

But in light of all this—the stellar career; the posthumous adoration and tributes; the sold-out memorial museum show that gave Bowie the same treatment as Picasso or Manet or King Tut (I think he would have appreciated that one) —it’s easy to forget that David Bowie was not always a beloved figure embraced across Western society. What self-respecting rock star was?

DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR PRESIDENT NIXON?

When I first became aware of Bowie around 1974, I distinctly remember hearing a DJ on my local Top 40 station in Washington DC playing “Young Americans” and then snickering to his audience, “That was David Bowie, a guy who takes the ‘L’ out of ‘flag'”

I’d like to say it’s the kind of remark that would be unheard of today, or at least get the DJ fired, but it really isn’t, at least not in big chunks of red state America. Anecdotal though it is, it’s a slur that represents how Bowie was viewed by a lot of mainstream America at the time…..and not just by “rock & roll is the devil’s music” troglodytes and other outliers. (This was a DJ on a Top 40 station in a major metropolitan area, the nation’s capital no less.) After all, an enormous part of Bowie’s impact was the transgressive nature of his gender-bending look and manner, so it was no surprise that it triggered homophobes and neanderthals of all stripes, from those afflicted with virulent gay panic to those who reflected the more conventional and commonplace bigotry of the era. The very things that his fans loved about Bowie were the same things that pissed off parents and squares and meatheads. That’s the point of youth culture.

But there were other examples of Bowie as the target of anger and abuse.

Also in ’74, some aging Beatles fans were put out that John Lennon collaborated with Bowie on “Fame” (and also Bowie’s cover of “Across the Universe”), revealing a generation gap even within the baby boomers. Conveniently, they seemed to forget how the Fab Four themselves were scorned and ridiculed when they first appeared—both by the older generation and by some retrograde youngsters too—specifically for their “girly” long hair.

Three years later, Bowie’s baroque appearance on a 1977 Bing Crosby Christmas special, dueting with Der Bingle on a mashup of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth”—still one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on American network television—caused legions of Crosby’s fans to freak the fuck out. (Crosby himself had nothing but praise for Bowie.)

The next year, when Bowie appeared alongside an septuagenarian Marlene Dietrich in the film The Last Gigolo (1978)—her last screen performance—there was a similar outcry from the movie star’s fans, asking how she could possibly appear with “that freak.” Highly ironic, to say the least, given that Dietrich was herself a famously rule-breaking, cross-dressing bisexual, albeit from an earlier era that was duly scandalized by her behavior, but remained largely in willful denial about it. (Making it both more and less transgressive.) Like Bing, Dietrich—if I recall correctly—laconically dismissed the objection, praising Bowie for his daring and originality. As he had already transmogrified into the Thin White Duke and begun the famously inventive “Berlin period,” it’s hard not to see Bowie’s collaboration with Dietrich as part of that process. (Even if, as the story goes, they filmed their scenes separately and never met.)

I cite these examples only as reminders that David Bowie did not walk out of Brixton and into superstardom without some pushback, which is easy to forget in the warm glow of his demise and the attendant adulation. One has only to look at an artist like Boy George, who came along ten full years after Bowie and was likewise barraged with homophobic slurs—even as Bowie lit up the charts with “Let’s Dance”—to be reminded of how inhospitable the general public was toward transgressive artists in popular culture. (By that time Bowie was so acceptable to the mainstream that he was in an ad for Pepsi, co-starring Tina Turner, and using his song “Modern Love” with new lyrics advertising the soda.)

And it’s not limited to homophobia, though it’s certainly virulent in that arena. Accordingly, bear with me as I venture far afield to talk about a few other public figures who would seem to have little or nothing in common with Bowie, but actually represent similar—and similarly instructive—manifestations of this phenomenon.

THE SCREEN DOOR SLAMS

Strange as it may seem, when I consider Bowie’s legacy, one of the artists who I think most about is Springsteen.

I’ll admit it’s a leap. One could hardly name two more different rockers, in almost every way. But it’s not such a strange comparison as it seems.

At their core, both are about a yearning for freedom…..whether it’s the personal, sexual, artistic, space alien glam rock freak flag freedom of Bowie, or the wings for wheels, lonely cool before dawn, spot out ‘neath Abram’s bridge freedom of Bruce, where everything that dies someday comes back. In that regard, both embody very different but unmistakably allied visions of the very beating heart of rock & roll.

(For a rare intersection of the two, check out the obscure cover of “Growin’ Up,” included as a bonus track on the CD re-release of “Pin-Ups,” part of that same 1990 Rykodisc initiative.)

Bruce may be the most misunderstood and misappropriated artist in all of rock—far worse than Bowie. Homophobes and squares and general philistines may have rejected Bowie, but at least they knew what they were rejecting: it was there front and center in eyeshadow and skintight neon-hued bodysuits for all the world to see. But with Bruce, the message was easier to miss, coming as it did wrapped in a masculine, all-American, cars-and-chicks Jersey boy package. Trojan Horse style. (If the horse had a 396, fuelie heads, and a Hurst on the floor.) To attend a Springsteen concert is to be smacked in the face with this fact. The humanism was always there in Bruce’s work from the very beginning, but as it became more overtly and unmistakably political—channeling Woody Guthrie—a significant number of his fans, cultural commentators, and political figures who wanted to align themselves with him clearly missed the point. (Or if they got it, were annoyed by it.)

The ultimate example of course is  “Born in the USA,” a heartbreaking song of betrayal and despair written from the perspective of a Vietnam vet that got usurped and turned into a fist-pumping jingoistic anthem. That’s an essay in itself. It didn’t help that it was the title track of the album that would be his big commercial breakthrough—Springtsteen’s “Let’s Dance.” But that was 1984, when Bruce was not yet a household, no-surname-necessary name (“Born to Run” and the twin covers of Time and Newsweek notwithstanding), and the general public didn’t really have a firm grasp of who this artist was. I think now, 34 years later, everybody knows where Bruce stands, and even “Born in the USA” is better understood. Which doesn’t stop idiots and assholes from appropriating it.

But while Bruce lost some of his right wing fans as his progressive politics became more apparent, weirdly, a much larger swath of them remained loyal to him as a musician while denigrating his activism, often in sneering terms (along the lines of, “Shut the fuck up and play ‘Rosalita’”). Personally, I don’t get that—it’s a strange kind of S&M Misery-style fan/artist relationship…..kind of like the George R.R. Martin fans who send him death threats for not writing fast enough.

There are other politically conservative Bruce fans who are less openly hostile, and somehow just ignore the disconnect, or have some rationalization for it. But that can get pretty weird too. How Chris Christie can square his undeniably genuine passion for Bruce’s music with a political bent that is diametrically opposed to everything his hero stands for is a mystery of cognitive dissonance for the ages.

But Bruce’s arc is unusual in that it represents the reverse of the usual path, going as it does from love to anger (in some quarters). For most public figures in the arts or entertainment who find themselves embroiled in controversy, it’s the other way around.

FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY

Today, Muhammad Ali is venerated as a national hero; not so much in 1966 when he refused to be drafted and go fight in Vietnam. Many people have conveniently forgotten—and young people may have no idea—that back then Ali (still called Cassius Clay by many, who sneered at the name he took when he converted to Islam) was widely, widely attacked for that stance. I can tell you that in my Army family he was certainly not beloved.

It took many years for the wounds of that war to scar over (I won’t say heal) before Ali’s actions came to be seen as a brave stance of civil disobedience. In retrospect, when he quipped “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” Ali succinctly encapsulated multiple tragedies of the 1960s, and the hypocrisy of sending a disproportionate number of African-American young men (along with a lot of poor whites, immigrants, and others) to kill for the government of the United States that was actively oppressing that same community.

When I look around today, not much has changed.

(As with much history, however, the actual facts are tediously at odds with the myth. Evidence suggests that Ali never actually said those famous words any more than Cary Grant ever said “Judy Judy Judy.” He is reported to have said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” but even that is in question. But screenplay-ready quip or no, his refusal to be drafted and the reason why is the point. We are in “print-the-legend” terrain here.)

The inescapable contemporary comparison is Colin Kaepernick.

A president* who cynically pardoned Jack Johnson (two cheers) intermittently continues to carry on an equally cynical, demagogic campaign of racist attacks on NFL players who respectfully kneel during the national anthem to protest the epidemic of police killing of young black men. (Kaep himself, I’ll remind you, has been blacklisted by the league and hasn’t played a down in two years, despite certainly being among the 64 best quarterbacks available, if only as a backup. His civil suit against the NFL is pending.)

I’ve written elsewhere about the disgusting anti-Americanism of Trump’s racist attack on these NFL players’ protest, as have many others, so no need to rehash it here. (The same goes for the NFL owners’ own craven, shortsighted, greed-driven submission to the ogre-in-chief.) But I will say that as a veteran, I am appalled and insulted at the dishonest, shamelessly partisan Republican argument that this protest by NFL players somehow “disrespects” the troops, or is in any way un-patriotic. It is anything but. The people who are most upset about this issue typically are more motivated by their animus toward wealthy African-American professional athletes than by any sort of twisted patriotism, although the two are historically intertwined, as Ali’s story shows.

The point is that—agree with them or not—Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Malcolm Jenkins, and the other leaders of this protest have taken a brave and bold stand, and for their courage and integrity are enduring widespread abuse, unfounded attacks on their loyalty to country, death threats, and the like.

Someday they will all be as venerated as Muhammad Ali is today.

WE CAN BE HEROES

So wtf does that have to do with David Bowie, who was never a particularly political artist, at least not in the conventional sense?

A lot.

It’s easy to lionize people in retrospect. In the present tense, it’s harder to recognize heroes and trailblazers when we see them, and harder still to laud them for their boldness and courage and vision. Luckily, posterity is a lot wiser than we are.

Let’s go back to Morrissey one more time:

At the record company meeting
On their hands—at last—a dead star
But they can never taint you in my eyes
No, they can never touch you now

Actually, they can. More than ever, in fact. Consciously or otherwise, the mainstream society to which Bowie gave two fingers up (he was English, you know) would now like us all to believe that it embraced him from the start.

But don’t believe the hype.

Bowie is not here to defend himself, so we have to do it for him, in his honor.

Every artistic rebellion traces the same path, from iconoclasm, to co-opting by the mainstream, to mere fashion, to ho-hum absorption into the main body of culture, and ultimately to farce, until you’ve got Johnny Rotten doing butter ads and Snoop Dogg hosting the reboot of “The Joker’s Wild.”

So while I couldn’t be more pleased at the way Bowie has taken his rightful place in the pantheon—not just musically, but across our entire Western culture—part of what made him so great, and part of what we should remember when we honor him, is how brave he was, and the abuse and attacks he withstood without batting so much as a glittery, mascaraed eyelid.

Rest in peace, David Bowie, and thank you.

 

Omar Comin’

BAD TWEETY BIRD-final3

Yikes! So much news to digest in the past week or so, I don’t know where to begin.

Oh wait—yes I do. Let’s begin with how the American people told Donald Trump to go fuck himself.

I BELIEVE IN YESTERDAY

Any surfer will tell you that among the most tedious and eyeroll-inducing conversations in the sport is how big the surf was when you weren’t there. (“You shoulda been here yesterday.”) So it was with the Blue Wave, which Republicans wanted us to believe hadn’t materialized, but only got bigger and bluer as the week rolled on. It is now clear that Democratic gains in the midterms were the party’s biggest since 1974 in the immediate aftermath of Watergate….and this in the face of odds badly stacked against them, to include active voter suppression by other side. The GOP, meanwhile, which was clinging to the consolation prize of increasing its slim majority in the Senate, now looks like it will have gained a paltry one to two additional seats, with Mississippi still awaiting a runoff. This with the most advantageous electoral map in a generation.

The implications of the Blue Wave are myriad, but let’s focus on how this beatdown has affected the man on whom it was, by his own admission/braggadocio, a de facto referendum (at least until he lost and decided it wasn’t).

After the midterm embarrassment, an impulsive Trump wasted no time in firing Jeff Sessions, as he’s wanted to do for months, a blatant step toward shutting down the Mueller inquiry which is inexorably closing in on him.

Of course, firing Sessions and installing a shameless, pre-compromised toady might itself be considered part of a pattern of obstruction of justice, one of the very things that Mueller is investigating. In that regard, it is yet another in a series of unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds that began in May 2017 with another firing, when Trump impulsively shitcanned Jim Comey.

Some people never learn.

One thing we can’t say about new acting AG Matt Whitaker is that he didn’t warn us. Even before he became Sessions’ chief of staff, Whitaker spoke enthusiastically about how the Mueller probe could stopped by starving it of funds. It is now evident that he was actively auditioning for a job in the Department of Justice with comments like that in a series of rabid, Mueller-attacking appearances on Fox News. But even Whitaker himself didn’t imagine Trump would making him acting AG. Reportedly, he was hoping for a job as a mere DOJ staff lawyer. As Trevor Noah said, that’s like applying for a job as a cashier at Ross Dress for Less only to be told, “Forget cashier; you’re Ross!”

Even without his should-be-disqualifying remarks about Mueller, Whitaker is an almost laughable choice as an interim AG, a guy who makes Ronny Jackson or Harriet Miers look overqualified by comparison. He is a Bigfoot-believing religious zealot who hawked toilets for guys with extra big dicks, thinks only Christians should be judges, and was on the board of a fly-by-night Florida-based company dedicated to bilking would-be inventors, currently under investigation by the FBI (an agency that now reports to him). Generally speaking, it’s a bad sign when you see headlines that read, “Acting AG under fire for alleged Bigfoot, toilet, time travel scams.

That said, Whitaker is undeniably in keeping with Trump’s pattern of putting people in charge of organizations that they have sworn to destroy: see also Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, et al.

Whitaker is such a demonstrably unqualified, blatantly partisan pick that it has prompted a surprisingly strong backlash against the White House, which gives you some idea of just how terrible and clumsy this choice was, considering the rogues gallery I just mentioned. (Andy Borowitz, predictably, had the best take, writing ”Trump Fires Don Jr., Names Stephen Miller New Son.”) With a straight face, Trump subsequently told Fox’s Chris Wallace that when he chose Whitaker he didn’t know about his virulent criticism of Mueller—when it is plain that is his chief qualification—and that he “wouldn’t intervene” if Whitaker chose to curtail the Mueller probe.

Such a relief.

Next up, Geppetto insists he won’t interfere with Pinocchio’s autonomy.

QUISLINGS, AMERICAN STYLE

Conservative legal scholars ranging from Neal Katyal to George Conway (as in, Kelly’s hubby) to Bush administration torture enthusiast John Yoo have all weighed in on the improperness—if not outright unconstitutionality—of Whitaker’s appointment.

When you’ve lost John Yoo, you know you’re in trouble.

It’s true that Whitaker’s appointment may be not just ill-advised but actively illegal, but so what? We all know that the GOP-controlled Senate will rubber stamp him if necessary. Regardless, he should by all rights recuse himself due to the prejudicial comments he is on record having made, but the odds of that are an Elvis Costello-like less than zero. On the contrary, Whitaker’s whole appointment is predicated on the notion that he would never recuse himself, but rather, act as Trump’s eyes and ears on the Russiagate inquiry (to the extent he can) and, ultimately, stop it at all costs.

But as transparently hamhanded and shamelessly jackbooted as Whitaker’s appointment was, the question of how much damage he can do remains an open one.

Numerous legal experts such as Ben Wittes have opined that it’s probably too late for Whitaker—or anyone else—to stop the freight train that is the Mueller probe. What the GOP-controlled Senate and Fox Nation do about the results Mueller eventually returns is a separate matter, and an entirely political one. Others—like former US Attorney Harry Litman—are less sanguine, noting that only his own conscience (gag) can stop Whitaker from illegally providing Trump intel about what is going on inside the investigation, to include grand jury activities.

I have to believe that the famously smart and strategic Bob Mueller has anticipated this moment and made the necessary twelve-dimensional chess moves to protect his investigation, especially given the despicable unwillingness of Mitch McConnell and the GOP-controlled (for now) Congress to do so. Mueller and his team of “killers,” as Bannon called them—a compliment, in Bannonspeak—are infinitely smarter and more experienced than Trump and his legal team, whose few rational voices—Emmett Flood, presumably—are likely drowned out by their boss’s bombast. John Dean, who ought to know, is among the many observers who thinks that Mr. Mueller might already have sealed indictments ready to go, just in case. We know that he has made the strategic move of passing off cases and sharing information with the SDNY and state AGs, the latter of which will help outflank any attempt at self-pardon by our lawless ruler.

For let us not delude ourselves. The Republican Party will not stand up and challenge Trump over this slow motion Saturday Night Massacre, nor over the installation of an obvious puppet with a mandate to obstruct justice and protect Donald Trump. Last year’s tough guy posturing by the likes of Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley warning Trump not to fire Sessions (“There will be holy hell to pay”) is nothing but a bitter joke.

If it wasn’t clear already, the Republican Party will not ever do anything to stop Trump, either now or in the future, no matter what conclusions or evidence Robert Mueller returns, the rule of law be damned. He could uncover a video of Trump signing a blood oath of loyalty to Vladimir Putin in exchange and the GOP would still do nothing but shrug.

See the world-beating cynicism of Mitch McConnell. See the McCarthyite fearmongering and servile bootlicking of Ted Cruz. See the empty rhetoric and desire to have it both ways of Jeff Flake. (Time will tell if Flake sticks to this new claim that he will join Senate Democrats in blocking all of Trump’s forthcoming judicial nominations until legislation is passed protecting Mueller.) And anyone who expects the newly elected junior senator from Utah, a fresh face named Mitt Romney, to be a bulwark against Trumpism is living in a fantasy world.

As I’ve said, the Republicans don’t WANT to stop Trump. Why should they? He has provided them unprecedented cover to foist their hateful agenda on the nation and entrench themselves in power in defiance of the will of the majority. The midterms represented an incensed electorate beginning to reassert itself, which naturally alarms the GOP greatly. We can expect Republicans to continue to do everything in their power to try to suppress a properly functioning democracy. The lesson the GOP took away from the midterms wasn’t that Trump is a drag on their party—though he is—but that he is the ONLY thing they have left.

Paging Dr. Faust, Dr. Faust, white courtesy phone…

PANIC IN THE WEST WING

The Whitaker appointment is merely the most glaring evidence that, in the wake of the midterms, Trump is melting down over the imminent threat that Democratic control of the House represents—a threat not only to his presidency, but to the vast criminality at the heart of all things Trump. That is a road that ultimately leads to prosecution, the destruction of his business empire and family fortune, and even imprisonment. Disgrace and ignominy go without saying. Among the rot and skullduggery waiting to be exposed are not only felony campaign finance violations and conspiracy with hostile foreign powers to gain control of the presidency, but decades of tax fraud, money laundering, graft, corruption, bribery, extortion, and other malfeasance, much of which has already been uncovered, but has yet to sink in with the general public.

Trump clearly hears Robert Mueller’s footsteps approaching…..and for all you fans of The Wire, Bob’s whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.”

In light of that, the slavish obedience of his base and the willingness of the morally bankrupt and thoroughly compliant GOP leadership to protect him is about all Trump has going for him right now. Any crack in that seawall, no matter how small, is rightly terrifying to him.

We’ve all been beaten over the head with the reminder that it is DOJ policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted, that impeachment is the proper mechanism to remove a chief executive involved in serious wrongdoing. That policy has never been tested, but no matter. Robert Mueller may well respect it, or he may not. But even if he does, massive criminal indictments await Trump when he leaves office, which he eventually will one way or another. (Unless it’s feet first. Twelve Diet Cokes a day take their toll.) Barring a Trump-triggered Armageddon—which I’m not ruling out, once the endgame begins—or the announcement of Year Zero and the establishment of a police state under our newly decalred president-for-life, which is also not off the table IMHO, Trump will return to private life with a Wile E. Coyote-style sixteen ton weight of criminal charges ready to come crashing down on him.

It is very ironic that a man who rode into the White House to chants of “Lock her up!” will himself likely become the first American president to go to prison.

MILITARY INTELLIGENCE

Numerous reports have detailed Trump’s foul post-election mood (even by Trump standards). But behind-the-scenes reportage wasn’t really necessary, as anyone could see how bad things were just by following what he did and said publicly, beginning with the aforementioned firing of his Attorney General and installation of a ridiculous replacement.

A brief review:

Trump got in a pissing contest with CNN and banned Jim Acosta from White House press briefings; tried to pass off a doctored video to support that move; claimed the midterms were “close to complete victory” for him; variously called female African-American reporters Yamiche Alcindor of PBS and Abby Phillip and April Ryan of CNN “racist,” “stupid,” and a “loser;” blamed California for being on fire; spun an imaginary Finnish tradition of forest raking (førstrakken, as they call it); and took the word of his Saudi business partners over our own CIA when it comes to Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific murder, plus the usual daily barrage of batshit crazy tweets of course. (He did pause to give himself an A+ for his performance as president thus far.)

Oh, and also, Ivanka used a private email server to do government business, because, you know, there hadn’t been any real publicity indicating to her that that would be problematic.

But for whatever reason, several of Trump’s most prominent missteps following the midterms had to do with his fraught relationship with the armed services, which remains one of the most puzzling aspects of his brief political career.  (For a thorough survey, see this piece in the Washington Post by James Hohmann).

The trouble began when he didn’t realize it would look bad to let a light rain deter him from joining every other major world leader on a visit to a World War I cemetery full of fallen US Marines who died in the battle of Belleau Wood. Then, after pouting like a petulant child among the rest of the world leaders (except when he lit up at the sight of Vladimir Putin), he compounded the error upon his return to the US by choosing to skip the regular presidential visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day.

But Trump was just getting started.

Every week seems to bring a new, headslapping low from Donald J. Trump, but I must say that the sight of a draft-dodging, lifelong libertine who never served his country a day in his life bloviating that JSOC didn’t catch Bin Laden fast enough still managed to surprise me.

For a guy who claims to “love” the military and to have done so much for it (spoiler alert: he doesn’t and he hasn’t), Trump sure does insult servicemembers a lot.

Of course, as has been widely pointed out, neither JSOC nor the military at large was charged with finding UBL; the intelligence community was. But as we know, facts have never been Trump’s strong suit. Not that that is even the point: he would be equally out of order had he criticized the CIA for this alleged tardiness. But it is a reminder that the man currently in control of the nuclear codes doesn’t have the faintest idea how the national security apparatus actually operates.

In any event, one would think that THIS sort of thing, at long last, would cause at least some of Trump’s hardline pro-military followers to turn on him. Perhaps it has, but if so only in numbers disproportionately small for the crime. In the main, Trump Nation batted not an eye at the McRaven brouhaha, any more than it did over Trump’s shameful insulting of John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”), or disrespect toward the late Captain Humayun Khan and his Gold Star family, or telling the mother of Sergeant La David Johnson who had been killed in Niger that her son knew what he was getting into, or his suggestion that vets with PTSD are weak, or that his generals—not he, the commander-in-chief—bears the blame for ordering the misbegotten raid in Yemen that killed Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, or any of Trump’s other appalling dustups with the armed forces.

This lack of response is very telling, for here is another dirty little reality at the heart of Trumpism and its Kool-Aid besotted adherents. That demographic tends to idolize and deify the US military to an almost unhealthy degree—which is typical of fascism, of course. They would savage any other politician who dared disrespect a McCain or a McRaven in even the most passing way, let alone hurl insults like this. But for Trump these same rah-rah gung-ho people will viciously turn on those genuine heroes without so much as blink…..all proof that, as Chris Hedges recently wrote, what we are dealing with is a literal cult. Not a metaphorical one—a literal one.

I say this as someone with the military in my marrow. (I won’t bore you with my CV or pedigree; you can read about it here, if you’re interested.) But that is precisely why I am disgusted by Trump’s self-aggrandizing politicization of the military, and contemptuous of the mindless, dangerously uncritical valorization of the professional of arms that he both traffics in (when convenient) and foments among his jingoistic disciples.

The right’s fetishization of the armed services is a very worrying development, one that is symptomatic of a diseased and dying empire. It began—admirably, or at least benignly—as a justifiable response to the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans, but it has morphed into a grotesque charade that serves as poor substitute for genuine citizenship and shared sacrifice. (See Colonel [Ret.] Andrew Bacevich on this subject; no one has said it better.) The GOP has weaponized this pantomime patriotism very effectively, even though it has even less claim to being the party of strong national security than the Democrats do. (I refer you to the pointless, deceitfully ginned up, criminally destructive, and self-destructive, war in Iraq.)

And nobody has played this con game better than Trump.

But so psychotic is the cult of Trump that if he points a stubby finger at anyone, even a decorated SEAL admiral with 37 years service who oversaw the most chest-thumpingly satisfying US military mission since the Doolittle raid, his faithful will quickly absorb—or manufacture—the narrative that it is somehow the bemedaled warrior who is the turncoat, the failure, the coward, rather than Trump.

Luckily, Admiral (Ret.) McRaven seems more than capable of defending himself.

That Trump repeatedly goes after bonafide war heroes says something about the depths of his malignant narcissism and megalomania, especially coming from a man with four academic deferments and a medical one for alleged “bone spurs” that mysteriously vanished when the draft did.

I don’t begrudge those who tried to avoid going to Vietnam, but I have no truck with those who, like Trump, dodged the draft while vocally supporting that war (see also: George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rove, Giuliani, Gingrich, et al), and have beaten the drums for other wars since then, let alone made a practice of maligning their fellow Americans who did serve. Ask John Kerry about that.

Some pundits have theorized that the deeply insecure and glory-hungry Trump can’t stand the sight of genuine giants and feels the need to try to bring them down. To that point, it’s also worth remembering that another regular target of Trump’s infantile ire, Robert S. Mueller III, is himself a Marine officer and combat veteran of Vietnam, Bronze Star and Purple Heart and all.

Curiouser and curiouser.

SOME GAVE NONE

As absurd as it was, Trump’s attack on Bill McRaven was not the thing that stunned me the most this past week, military affairs-wise. No, that honor goes to this quote from unnamed White House aides, attempting to explain why their boss—who has managed to visit his golf courses on 150 different days, or about 25% of his presidency—has not yet visited US forces deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere overseas for that matter, something that was routine for every one of his predecessors of both parties in the modern era.

Here’s their explanation:

“One reason he has not visited troops in war zones, according to his aides, is that he does not really want American troops there in the first place. To visit, they said, would validate missions he does not truly believe in.”

This might be the worst, most transparently dishonest and irrational statement to emanate from the White House since the midterms, which is saying something. Talk about an absolute inability to grasp the role of Commander-in-Chief!

I know this trope has become hackneyed, but imagine if Obama had…..

Never mind. Not worth it.

Trump himself told Chris Wallace that he’s just been “unbelievably busy,” which I guess is true if you consider getting to work at 11 a.m. and having nine hours of TV time a day “busy.” Incredibly, he also—again—blamed Robert Mueller for the time-consuming “phony witchhunts.” Meanwhile, insiders report that Trump is simply afraid for his life, saying that people in those war zones “want to kill him.” (Why he is not afraid at home is another question.)

In any case, there is a saying among veterans, relating to our fallen comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country: “All gave some, but some gave all.”

True true. But some gave none.

Maybe his bone spurs are acting up.

********

“Bad Tweety Bird,” Illustration by Steve Bernstein

 

 

 

Potemkin Democracy

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Well, that didn’t last long.

We had less than 24 hours to absorb the epic import of the Democratic Party regaining control of the US House of Representatives before the raging id with a combover that pretends to be President of the United States threw the country into chaos again by firing Jeff Sessions.

The two events are, of course, inextricably connected.

It didn’t take a psychic to understand that Trump’s inflammatory / batshit rhetoric in the run-up to the midterms—the caravan of ISIS-infiltrated bloodthirsty barefoot children, the evil gun-grabbing Democratic mob, the press as the “enemy of the people,” etc—was a sign of panic and desperation at the thought of losing his Congressional firewall. Once that happened, the almost immediate firing of Sessions laid his strategy bare, and his fears as well.

It’s very simple. Trump is rightly terrified of the Mueller probe and is acting hastily to shut it down. (Indeed, it’s very possible that he has already been subpoenaed and indictments are on the way, including one for Don Jr., a backstage drama to which we the people are not yet privy but is secretly motivating our mad king’s frantic actions.) With the Democrats in control of the House and able to ramp up the investigative pressure, he is now beginning to be cornered, and like the rat he is, more dangerous than ever.

So once again this week we were smacked in the face with a reminder that we are not living in normal times. Even as the punditocracy opined on the significance of the Democratic takeover and how the chess match would proceed from here, Trump quickly reminded us that he is playing rugby, not chess. (And the dirty kind of rugby, too, where you step on a guy’s balls with your cleats while he’s down.)

To wit:

The election returns were barely in when, with his characteristic Roy Cohn-protégé manner, Trump threatened “a warlike posture” if the Democrats dared do their job and exercise oversight over him. For anyone who’s spent even five minutes in grade school, it was the transparently desperate act of a craven bully trying to bluff his foes into not hitting him where he knew it would hurt him the most.

You don’t scare us, Cadet Bone Spurs.

But at the same time, Trump was anything but bluffing in reminding just how nasty he could be. Indeed, he preemptively went full Pearl Harbor even before the day was out.

Thus the ongoing constitutional crisis in which we have been living for the past two years has dramatically escalated. It’s about to be D-Day for the Democratic Party and the resistance and the rule of law full stop.

LET’S GO SURFING NOW

But first and by way of prologue, it is only right and proper that we take a moment to acknowledge the blue wave.

We waited two long years for this past Tuesday.

Despite whiny arguments from wounded Republicans that it wasn’t a “blue wave”—and similar lamentations from disappointed Democrats who had unrealistic expectations—the midterms were by any measure a stark repudiation of Trump. That is especially so given the structural disadvantages the left faced, including a daunting electoral map and a no-holds-barred, Orwellian opposition that controlled the presidential bully pulpit and had no compunction about lies, voter suppression, and outright fraud. Also, it didn’t hurt the GOP to have a televised ministry of propaganda that doesn’t even pretend to be “fair and balanced” anymore.

Up against all that we still managed to take back the House and win several crucial governorships which are essential for long term Democratic gains. Let us not underestimate the significance thereof.

Like many progressives, I have been hoping for just such a development ever since the encouraging results of special elections in Virginia and elsewhere almost exactly a year ago. (See Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons (and Limits) of Virginiain these pages last November 10, 2017.)

Which is as it should be: for all their fanaticism, hardcore Trumpers are outnumbered by reasonable Americans something like 7 to 3.

To restate what everyone ought to already fully understand, Trump now faces a whole new ballgame of legislative opposition and oversight to which he is woefully unaccustomed and unsuited—as opposed to the supine and slavish obedience of the last two years. (I am particularly pleased to see Devin Nunes go.)

Predictably, Mitch McConnell’s blatantly self-serving warning to Democrats not to be too aggressive in investigating Trump because it will hurt them in the next election smacks of Brer Rabbit. Mitch also needs some remedial vocabulary training on the difference between “harassment” and “oversight,” which PS, is Congress’s goddam job.

But above all the midterms were a reassuring sign that some sanity still prevails in parts of the United States, and that the system of checks and balances and a mechanism for the expression of the will of the people continues to function, more or less. There is still a long battle ahead, but this was a major victory. Which is precisely what drove Donald crazy.

THE LESSONS OF Y2K

Another welcome sign was the rise of a whole new generation of fresh progressive candidates, including unprecedented numbers of women and people of color, and strong showings—and even some outright wins—in places Democrats had no business even making a contest of it. A gay governor in Colorado? A hijab-wearing Muslim woman in Florida? A Democrat almost winning a statewide race in Texas? A black lesbian with a Yale law degree in Georgia (three things that are anathema to the Confederacy)? And here in New York City, Max Rose—a young, combat wounded former US Army infantry officer and proud Democrat—who flipped a Congressional seat in bright red Staten Island. (Hoo-ah.)

On CNN, Van Jones called the new Democratic Party “younger, browner, cooler.”

Sounds like a sitcom on the CW.

Yes, there were places that continue to be retrograde—most prominently Iowa, which inexplicably is OK with the human skidmark that is Steve King; Florida, which maintained its spot as a strong contender for the most fucked up state in America (step up your game, Maine); and Georgia, where I spent a significant chunk of my first 22 years and therefore for me is close to the bone.

Brian Kemp might be the most appalling figure in this election cycle, not counting King, Seth Grossman, and that Holocaust denier in Illinois. If in in any other country we saw the official in charge of overseeing the election running in it, we would fully understand the corruption in play and snicker at the sight. Yet here it is right in our faces and much of America either can’t see it, or worse, is totally fine with it.

More power to Stacey Abrams for refusing to concede and insisting on a fair accounting, given the outright criminal behavior of her opponent. At least someone learned the lessons of Florida 2000 (and Merrick Garland, and Russiagate.) No more playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules when the other guys have gone full Gillooly.

That said, we are about to witness what the GOP would have said and done had the Gore campaign contested the vote count in Florida in 2000. In retrospect it is now painfully clear that Team Gore should have done so, but spilled milk: few people understood eighteen years ago that a slow motion coup was beginning in which the old rules of decorum and even democracy itself would no longer be in effect.

(Note to right wing readers, if that is not an oxymoron: please don’t launch into your usual schoolyard retort the US is a republic, not a democracy. That tired Fox News talking point is the ultimate bad faith argument. We all understand that what we are discussing is a form of government that derives its mandate from the public, and—theoretically—elects leaders according to the will of the majority in one fashion or another. Everything else is semantics aimed purely at misdirection and distraction. Also, the dictionary definition of “republic” is a representative democracy, so piss off.)

I support the Abrams campaign’s stand-and-fight strategy 100% . But for those who criticize Al Gore for not doing likewise almost two decades ago, we’re about to see just how bitterly the Right would have fought back, with every dirty name and dirty trick in the book. But Kemp—who belatedly resigned as Georgia’s Secretary of State (bit late, dude), and then only in order to begin the transition process—better hope the recount goes his way or he will be out of both jobs. Boo hoo.

Regardless of how it shakes out, Kemp is destined to join a long line of Peach State abominations like JB Stoner, Lester Maddox, and Newt Gingrich in the Georgia Hall of Shame (which shares office space with the Confederate Preservation Society).

IT TAKES A POTEMKIN VILLAGE

In my 2006 film Land of the Blind, a political revolutionary played by Donald Sutherland scoffs at the democratic process, saying, “If voting could really change anything it would be illegal.”

It’s an old line and I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I put it in that character’s mouth for a reason. In that storyline, he is living in an unnamed autocracy where that may be true. In the real world United States of 2018, we’re not quite there yet, although we’re getting closer all the time.

In the Western world, modern authoritarians have largely abandoned the jackbooted techniques of a Pinochet or a Marcos or a Franco, or at least learned how to hide them better. What they have constructed instead is even more sinister: a sham “democracy” with the illusion of freedom. The classic absurdist example is the dictatorship in which a Saddam, Idi Amin, or Kim Jong-un gets 99.99% of the vote. Savvier autocrats are able to achieve the same results with a process that looks superficially more legit still ensuring that your vote is just a charade.

In contrast to an overt police state where the cowed public knows it has no rights and no say, in this kind of sham democracy the state manufactures consent and maintains control by making the public think they have a voice when they really don’t.

Sound familiar?

The prime example of this sort of Potemkin democracy is Vladimir Putin’s Russia (which his protégé and designated bum boy Donald Trump is eagerly seeking to emulate). It’s a far more sophisticated but no less oppressive kind of autocracy than a clumsy old school one….indeed it is more insidious precisely because of that very sophistication. And make no mistake: beneath that veneer it is no less brutal or violent.

Other key elements include the illusion of a free press when it is in fact state-controlled (see Russia Today) or at least allied (see Fox News), and the token tolerance of genuine dissent, but laughably marginalized. Like the fake vote, the effect is actually worse than total abolition of free expression in that it contributes to the state’s grip on power by serving as cover and camouflage. (I don’t want to look sophomoric and quote Zizek, but it’s an example of when “resistance is surrender.”)

The United States is not quite in that league yet, but it’s not for lack of trying by the Republican Party.

MOUTHS OF BABES DEPARTMENT

In the US, autocracy already has a leg up thanks to the antiquated and anti-democratic Electoral College, which the GOP is using to maximum advantage. How anachronistic and destructive is it? An anecdote:

On the eve of the elections my wife and I were talking to our seven-year-old daughter about the midterms, because she is still traumatized by 2016, when she was only five. (At least in our part of the USA, her entire generation of kids—girls especially—is super politicized. Watch out, patriarchy.)

In the course of our conversation she casually said something about “more people voting for Trump than Hillary two years ago.” I clarified that, actually, more people voted for Hillary.

She got an extremely confused look on her face and asked how that could be. I gave her a rough explanation of the Electoral College and she was HORRIFIED.

“How can THAT be how we choose our president?” she asked, wrenched.

Good question.

From the anti-democratic chokehold of the Electoral College, to the absurd degree of gerrymandering of Congressional districts, to the shameless effort to gin up hysteria over the myth of voter fraud, to the manipulation and distortion of the census, to the dysfunction of the Supreme Court confirmation process, American governance is profoundly broken. Worse, this is not an accident but deliberate sabotage by the Republican Party.

The forces of autocracy, plutocracy, and nascent authoritarianism—which is to say, the Republican Party—undeniably want to minimize (if not totally obliterate) the value of your vote. For more than thirty years they have waged a relentless campaign to do so.  (Far longer, if you want to go back to the days of the poll tax, literacy tests, the anti-suffragette movement, and so forth. But let’s confine ourselves to the modern era.)

So the fact that this blue wave wasn’t Waimea-sized shouldn’t be surprising, and not merely because of anti-democratic deckstacking. The results reiterated what we all learned on November 8, 2016 and have been confronted with daily ever since: tens of millions of our fellow countrymen legitimately thrill to the poisonous racism, misogyny, and malignant cult of personality of Donald J. Trump.

Taken together, those two factors—the active GOP campaign of disenfranchisement and the neo-fascist impulse of 30% of the electorate—make any Democratic gains impressive.

And yet these midterms still managed to express some semblance of the public will, sort of, which is how democracy is supposed to work……and that is precisely the thing that presents an existential threat to Donald J. Trump.

LET YOUR FREAK FLAG FLY

Which brings us back to Trump’s morning-after freakout.

First of all, there was his marathon press conference. (For a guy who thinks the press is the enemy of the people, Donny sure likes to talk to them.) Trump lost his shit, behaving even more impulsively and erratically and dishonestly than usual, which is saying something, including hopelessly petty belittling Republicans who lost their races (to his mind, by not sufficiently embracing him, though the numbers debunk that) and an Alice in Wonderland attempt to spin the preivous night as an overall GOP win.

But the undeniable lowlight was his sputtering shitfit aimed at his frequent antagonist Jim Acosta of CNN, who tried to get a straight answer to a simple question (about whether Trump was demonizing immigrants) and for his trouble was screamed at and called “a rude, terrible person.” (Project much?) To say it was unpresidential is a laugh; it was unpresidential even by the abysmal standards—such as they are—of President Trump. 

Notwithstanding Trump’s pathetic spin, the midterm shellacking and the legal threat it represented were clearly eating at Donald’s black little coal-lump of a heart. And although we had just seen American democracy in working order a little bit the night before, it was also a reminder that millions of our countrymen love this guy for this very behavior, and would follow him right off a cliff. (And drag us all with them.)

Acosta wasn’t the only reporter that Trump went psycho on. Among others, the leader of the free world also told Yamiche Alcindor of PBS—who is African-American—three times that she was asking a “racist” and “insulting” question. (See previous note re projection.)

But the Acosta thing took the cake.

The administration subsequently pulled Acosta’s White House press pass—again, the sort of thing that happens in a banana republic—and then tried justify it with a lie about Acosta being physically aggressive with the female White House intern dispatched to take the mike away from him. (Yes, in the Trump era presidential press conferences have devolved into WWE events.) The official White House statement about the incident was full of huffy language about how Donald Trump would not tolerate such unchivalrous behavior!

First of all, the idea that Acosta did anything at all wrong—from asking a perfectly legitimate question to behaving in a perfectly civil manner as an intern tried to grab the mike right out of his hand—was a blatantly obvious smoke-and-mirrors attempt to obscure the real issue of the president’s abhorrent behavior. The truth is apparent to anyone who watched the actual event.

Secondly, the reason offered for his excommunication was knee-slappingly ridiculous.

Trump banning Acosta was already the mark of a fascist. Pretending it was to defend a woman’s honor—from the pussy grabber-in-chief, no less—tells you just how stupid he thinks his supporters are. About that much he is right. (Just for extra Stalinist fun, the White House also shared a doctored video purporting to show Acosta shoving the intern.)

So if I may, a modest proposal to the legitimate media:

Stop giving oxygen to this greasefire.

As long as Jim Acosta is banned, no self-respecting reporter should attend any further press activities held by this White House, no matter whether it’s Trump, Sanders, or any other official presiding. If Trump administration press briefings turn into kabuki plays in which only Fox, Breitbart, and InfoWars send reporters, they will cease to be newsworthy events. I am all for depriving this administration of the platform to spew its lies and propaganda.

Come on, Fourth Estate, this is your moment.

ALAS POOR JEFF (I KNEW HIM, HORATIO)

But the press conference proved to be just the appetizer to a main course of rotten fish that was already  on its way out of the kitchen.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, but whoever was in charge of resetting the clocks in the White House at the end of Daylight Savings Time really screwed up, because Trump thought it was Saturday night.

In finally firing his Attorney General and longtime whipping boy Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—the only Confederate monument he has been willing to take down, as one wag quipped—Trump really gave the game away.

In the general public we are not privy to everything that is going on behind the scenes with the Mueller inquiry, its negotiations with the White House, the secret orders issued to Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of the shitshow. But in retrospect, the fanatical push to get Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and the hysterical fearmongering ahead of the midterms can be seen for what they were: evidence of Trump’s terror at the vise that is closing on him.

Deranged and megalomaniacal though he is, Trump knows better than anyone the ocean-sized graveyard of skeletons in his many many closets, and the kind of legal jeopardy he is in if proper investigations into his misdeeds are allowed to advance, and if new ones begin. With the Democrats about to be in control of the House, he didn’t even bother to try to play it cool; instead, like the guiltiest looking criminal you ever saw on Law & Order, he hit the panic button, which also happened to be wired to Sessions’ ejector seat.

For a guy whose catchphrase is “You’re fired,” nothing has done more damage to Trump than firing Jim Comey, and firing Jeff Sessions may prove to be a close second or even the new champ.

In Part Two of this essay—coming soon—we will look at this treacherous new phase of the cold civil war in which we find ourselves engaged……

 

The Politics of Insanity

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The arrest last week of a fanatic pro-Trump Floridian named Cesar Sayoc for mailing fourteen pipe bombs to prominent critics of Our Fearless Leader prompted an immediate and predictably divisive reaction in the American body politic.

That debate had barely begun when a rabid, AR-15-wielding anti-Semite named Robert Bowers—enraged by Trump’s depiction of a “caravan” of allegedly dangerous migrants headed toward our southern border—slaughtered eleven Jews in the midst of worship in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the worst mass murder of Jews in American history. Bowers left messages on social media blaming Jews for abetting what Trump called the migrant “invasion,” and after a gunfight with police continued to spout anti-Semitic invective even as Jewish doctors treated his wounds.

In assessing these tragedies, the left called Trump out for the role played by his incendiary rhetoric, his hyperventilating demonization of his enemies, and—most pointedly—his open encouragement of violence by his supporters. The right blithely dismissed any connection, suggesting that both Sayoc and Bowers are mentally ill: “crackpots,” whose actions can’t be blamed on Trump.

In my essay last week, Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System, I staked out my position on the question. You can guess what it was.

And by the by, overshadowed by these two crimes was a third that completed the week’s appalling trifecta: the cold-blooded murder of two African-Americans by a white killer in a Kroger supermarket in Jeffersontown, KY, near Louisville. That’s what life in the US in 2018 has come to: a horrific, homicidal hate crime like that barely even makes the news. The Jeffersontown killer, a man named Gregory Bush, murdered those two people only because he had failed to gain entry to a predominantly black church shortly before. Had he succeeded, we might have had twin racially-motivated mass murders in a synagogue and a Christian church in the same week.

Is America great again yet? Wake me when it is.

I don’t know the respective mental states of Mr. Sayoc, Mr. Bowers, and Mr. Bush; medical doctors will determine that, or at least offer informed opinions. But as these three men make their way through the criminal justice system over the coming months, we will wrestle with the issue that the GOP instantly gravitated to, one that could get a lot thornier still if more acts of right wing violence take place (which seem to me more likely than not, were I a betting man):

Where is the line between homicidal acts driven by mental illness and political terrorism as carried out by admittedly violent but nonetheless rational actors?

There is no better case study than that of Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber.

MAKING A MURDERER

Ted Kaczynski was an academic prodigy who skipped two grades and entered Harvard at age 16. A shy, introverted boy from a provincial Polish-American family in a working class Chicago suburb, he was badly out of place at the Fair Harvard of the late 1950s, then still a bastion of East Coast wealth and privilege. But for Kaczysnki, the truly lethal turn came when he was plucked out of the student body to be part of a grossly unethical behavioral experiment conducted by Dr. Henry Murray, one of the most famous and accomplished psychologists of the time (and still—shockingly—esteemed by many in his field to this day).

During World War II Murray had been a lieutenant colonel in the OSS, conducting work on interrogation and torture/counter-torture techniques as part of agent assessment and training. After the war his research continued, secretly funded by the newly-founded CIA, which was looking for any possible edge in the Cold War, to include what is colloquially called “mind control” and “brainwashing.” As part of this particular Murray experiment, the still-teenaged Ted Kaczynski—along with 21 other young Harvard men likewise chosen for their “outcast” profiles—was subjected to inhumanly savage psychological abuse designed to destroy the individual’s sense of self.  There is also speculation that he was dosed with LSD without his knowledge in conjunction with the CIA’s infamous MK Ultra program.

It is undeniably true that of the 22 young men subjected to Dr. Murray’s Manchurian Candidate-style experiments, only Kaczynski went on to become a serial killer. So even as appalling and unethical as it was, that experience can’t be definitively tagged as the Rosetta Stone of his murderousness. But it damn sure didn’t help.

What was it in Kaczynski’s background, DNA, or life experience that triggered him and not the others? Books have been written on the matter. (I recommend Alston Chase’s Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber.) A gut-wrenching incident of months-long hospitalization and forced separation from his mother in his infancy, followed by a permanent change in his personality and demeanor, is considered another strong contributor.

We do know that after Dr. Murray french fried his brain, Kaczynski slipped slowly into homicidal obsession even as he graduated from Harvard, earned a PhD in mathematics at Michigan, and became one of the youngest professors ever at UC Berkeley. (His journals show his first recorded homicidal thoughts while he was still an undergrad.) Walking the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s, young Prof. Kaczynski was filled with contempt for the hippies and left-wing student radicals who surrounded him, and who likely viewed the laughably square young mathematician the same way. It’s doubtful any of them imagined that within his tortured mind plans were germinating for acts of violence far more memorable than anything their own movement would ever carry out.

Kaczynski soon left Berkeley and eventually retreated into a hermetic existence in a cabin in the hills of Montana, embracing an anarcho-primitivist philosophy that held industrialization and technology to blame for mankind’s ills. In 1978 he mailed the first of sixteen pipe bombs, sent to a somewhat arbitrary target list of academics, business executives, and lobbyists, among others. Over the next 17 years he killed three people (you thought it was more, didn’t you?) and wounded another 23.

Toward the end of his bombing campaign, Kaczynski used the threat of further murders to blackmail the New York Times and Washington Post into publishing his 35,000 word “manifesto” (as the press inevitably dubbed it), more formally known as Industrial Society and Its Future. In a Shakespearean twist, Kaczynski was caught only because his younger brother David recognized Ted’s verbiage and ideology, and—though tormented at the thought of betraying his brother—reached out to the FBI.

But what is really germane to our discussion is what happened after Ted Kaczynski was arrested.

BELITTLING THE CRITIC AND DEFUSING THE THREAT

After Kaczynski’s capture, a vision of him quickly took hold in the public imagination: the wild-haired, wild-eyed “hermit” holed up in a ramshackle cabin in the wilderness, scrawling his lunatic “manifesto,” and mailing bombs to his imagined enemies. (Memorably parodied by Will Ferrell on SNL.)

It was a pretty easy trope to spread.

The reality was actually quite different, right down to the nature of his cabin, the meticulousness of his methods, and the cogency of his writing. But as recent events ought to have demonstrated (beginning, say, in July 2015), reality is never as important as perception.

The fact was, the powers that be had a vested interest not just in prosecuting Kaczynski, but in discrediting and ridiculing him. The most important thing was not to punish the man, but to make sure that no one took him seriously. Kaczynski himself understood this very well.

I read the so-called manifesto several times for a project I worked on some years ago with the director Mark Romanek, a longtime student of the story. It is anything but the raving nonsense that it has been painted as. While I certainly don’t agree with all of it, or even most of it, Kaczynski undeniably makes a well-articulated, thought-provoking case for the negative effects of industrialization and technology, one that is worthy of serious consideration.

Accordingly, he represented a real threat to the status quo and Them That Has. True, he wasn’t likely to lead a revolution, but it was dangerous to let anyone plant doubt in the public mind about the wisdom and beneficence of the current system. (Kind of like the way ASCAP went after the Girl Scouts to send a message that nobody better cross them.)

To that end, it was essential that Ted Kaczynski be seen as a “nut”—a clearly insane person whose feverish ramblings were not worthy of dignifying with attention or scholarship. And indeed, this is the image of the “Unabomber” (so acronymed by the FBI for his targeting of universities and airlines) that most people have today. The last thing the ruling class wanted was for anyone to think critically about whether or not anything Ted Kaczynski said or wrote made sense.

In one telling side story, there was at least one smartass website that snidely offered selections from the manifesto cheek by jowl with excepts from Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance, the predecessor to An Inconvenient Truth, and dared readers to guess which was which. The idea, of course, was to suggest that Gore was a Kaczynski-like cuckoo. (“Climate change? Don’t make me laugh!”) In reality, the exercise proves precisely the opposite: that Ted Kaczynski, despite the best efforts to beclown him, actually had a lot of valuable things to say…..things the prevailing power structure REALLY does not want you to think about.

(Interestingly, Kaczynski shares with conservatives a scorching disdain for the left-of-center liberalism prevalent at the places he was educated and worked, like Harvard and Berkeley. But liberals get off easy. By contrast, in the manifesto he barely wastes any time at all on conservatism, which he dismisses as so intellectually bankrupt and beneath contempt that it doesn’t even merit discussion. Ouch.)

I’m not saying the manifesto was “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine.  (“Some men say that I’m intense or I’m insane.”) Ted frequently goes off on tears and tangents driven by his own unique idiosyncracies, and some of it is, I’m told, reductive of more accomplished anarcho-primitivist academics. (Everyone’s a critic.) But much of it is a very savvy, on-point critique of the problems engendered by the Industrial Revolution and its legacy and is a persuasive read…..at least right up to the point where he writes, “And that’s why I had to kill people.”

But Ted Kaczynski is far from the first would-be revolutionary to come to that conclusion.

JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE PARANOID

After being captured, Ted’s greatest fear was being portrayed as a mere lunatic. To that end, against the advice of his lawyers, he refused to pursue an insanity defense. Those lawyers secretly mounted one anyway, without informing him. When Kaczynski learned of this he tried to fire them, but was prevented by the presiding judge. Overwrought, he attempted suicide. (A poor choice, as it lent credence —at least to the general public—to the very diagnosis of mental illness that he so opposed.)

Think about that for a moment. Kaczynski’s attorneys were attempting to portray him as a delusional paranoid who imagined that people were scheming behind his back. Meanwhile, they were scheming behind his back.

Kafka couldn’t have written it any better.

From Kafka back to Shakespeare, David Kaczynski’s agony continued. He had agreed to turn in his brother on the condition that the federal authorities wouldn’t seek the death penalty. The Justice Department agreed, then reneged once Ted was in custody. After David expressed his outrage, the DOJ eventually settled for life in prison in a plea bargain, sparing his brother the insanity defense he abhorred.

So was Ted Kaczynski mentally ill or not?

Mental illness is not a yes-or-no, one-size-fits-all proposition; there are of course degrees and infinite variations. The very terms themselves are subject to unresolvable debate. For our purposes it doesn’t really matter. It is enough to say that for whatever reason, as evidenced by his journals, his behavior, his personal history, and the expert assessment of various doctors, Ted Kaczynski suffered at least to some degree from mental illness as it is commonly understood. It’s simply incorrect to say that he was completely rational. But neither is it correct to dismiss him—as some were eager to do—as a raving madman living in a world of delusions who did not understand the consequences of his actions.

Very much the contrary.

TERRORISM BEGINS AT HOME

 As we all know, “insanity” is a legal concept, not a medical one. As a defense in horrific crimes like a mass shooting or serial killing it has become almost a tautology: the sheer terribleness of the crime is itself held up as evidence that only a madman could have committed it. Mental illness has come to be routinely assumed in crimes of that magnitude, even if it doesn’t result in a ruling of incompetence to stand trial or acquittal by reason of insanity.

But Ted Kaczynski mailing pipe bombs to people he believed represented destructive forces in Western society does not make him insane. You can argue that it was immoral, or not an advisable way to earn credibility, or to bring about the desired political change. But the mere use of violence can’t be held up as evidence of madness.

The use of force to achieve a political end is far from rare, or the province only of the deranged. Many of the same people who were outraged by Ted Kaczynski’s acts gladly supported the atomic bombing of Japan, the Vietnam war, and the invasion of Iraq. The hypocrisy of the state in condemning political violence even as it carries out similar—and often far worse—acts of its own, claiming the sole authority to do so, is self-evident. But that is a debate about the nature of governance, and the source of political authority, and of agency and dissent. For that very reason, non-state actors like guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists lay claim to those same tactics, arguing that the monopoly on force held by an oppressive or tyrannical state leaves them no other recourse. Which is precisely the argument—agree with it or not—that Professor Theodore J. Kaczynski, PhD made.

Whatever his psychological demons, Kaczynski—in his goals, his reasoning, his methods, his communications with the press, indeed in everything he did—had far more in common with political terrorists like the Weathermen or the IRA than he did with garden variety serial killers on the order of a Dahmer, a Zodiac, or a Son of Sam.

The proof is partially in his success: his tradecraft and operational security was so good that he eluded US law enforcement for decades, prompting the longest and costliest manhunt in FBI history, and even then was caught only because of his brother.

To my knowledge no one has ever made a serious claim that the Weather Underground were just a bunch of mentally ill people. Even those who vehemently disagreed with their politics and/or their methods concede that they were a political organization—albeit an outlaw one—driven by concrete policy goals, not delusion and fantasy. (Except perhaps in their belief that they could triumph. Not to belittle them: just acknowledging the standard conservative critique.)

Clearly recognizing this kinship—though also as a means of camouflage—Kaczynski created the persona of a mythical insurgent group called “Freedom Club” in whose name he penned the manifesto. (Later, in the Florence supermax prison, he also reportedly befriended two other high profile terrorist inmates, the Al Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef, who was part of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Timothy McVeigh, one of the Oklahoma City bombers, who was later executed.)

To be clear: I am not defending Kaczynski’s use of violence. He is a murderer. I am merely saying that, whatever his mental health issues and to whatever extent they influenced his thinking, in embracing a military strategy he was engaged in a very traditional political act, not mere nihilism or a manifestation of derangement.

So we are left with the challenging conclusion that Kaczynski is a complex example of a killer who at once displays some hallmarks of a psychopath but also some of a rational—albeit violent—political terrorist. What that ought to tell us is that “mental illness” does not in and of itself preclude other factors and motivations. Indeed, the two often go hand in hand.

IN THE COMPANY OF KILLERS

History is lousy with demented kings, inbred monarchs, and power-mad despots whose atrocities live in infamy, from Caligula to George III to Pol Pot to idi Amin.

Closer to home, it’s hard to argue that the paranoid, erratic Richard Nixon was in good mental health. The same can be said of Hitler’s irrational obsession with Jewry, which—genocidal and unfounded as it was—nevertheless appears to have been no act. Per the aforementioned tautology, Hitler’s willingness to order the industrialized massacre of 12 million innocent civilians also speaks to a certain, uh, no-so-healthiness.

By these metrics, the Unabomber was a piker. Ted Kaczynski was arguably no crazier than Nixon, and undeniably a much less prolific killer.

But we rarely speak of these men or their actions in terms of mental illness. We talk of them as rational actors, their psychological wellness or lack thereof notwithstanding, even though they committed the kinds of acts that rightly belong in the realm of psychopathy.

For that matter, there is plenty of evidence—and plenty of discussion, both among the general public and mental health professionals—that Trump himself is mentally ill. The Goldwater Rule notwithstanding, more than a few experts have suggested he is, at the very least, a malignant narcissist and clinically paranoid, as well as demonstrating signs of early onset dementia (the slurred speech, the goldfish-level attention span, the rambling and nonsensical speech).

None of which excuses his crimes or makes the damage he’s done any more palatable, any more than they excuse Kaczynski’s.

With his characteristic instinct for saying and doing the very worst possible thing in every single situation, Trump’s first reaction to the Tree of Life massacre was to suggest that synagogues ought to be more like armed camps. As it happens, synagogues in Britain, Germany, and France (to name just a few) are in fact often heavily protected by armed guards. That sight is a sad one, but understandable in light of the dark shadow of European history. But you know what else those countries have that helps protect Jews—and others—from mass murderers? A citizenry that is not armed with AR-15s and a head of state that doesn’t make a practice of whipping his thuggish followers into a racist frenzy.

Regrettable though it is, the idea of hardening targets is not the offensive part. The offensive part is that that was Trump’s first reaction: not to express sympathy, or even pay the usual lip service to grief and unity, but to blame the victims for not protecting themselves better. It’s a vomit-inducing response, but not a surprising one.

Speaking of which, the stubborn insistence that mental illness excludes any other contributor to violence is similar to an argument often raised in the debate over mass shootings themselves.

Every time there is a gun-related mass murder in the United States (which appear to be regularly scheduled events), pro-gun advocates cite mental illness as the real problem, not the ready availability of battlefield weaponry intended for military combat. It goes without saying that this is a disingenuous argument deployed chiefly as an excuse for opposing even the most basic and common sense regulations on firearms. Tellingly, the GOP—a group that overlaps heavily with pro-gun activists in the Venn diagram of American culture—has taken no action on mental health either, and indeed has legislated for easier access to firearms for the mentally ill.

Of course, there is no reason that we can’t address both mental health issues and gun control by way of stopping the killing. The willful ignorance of that possibility by the NRA and GOP speaks to the bad faith of their argument. I’m not expecting anything different in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre.

To last week’s demonic trilogy of pipebombs, Pittsburgh, and Jeffersontown, one could also add the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime, whose leaders clearly had been emboldened by their coziness with Trump, his autocrat-friendly mentality, his business relations with Riyadh, and his open disregard for the rule of law. (Not that the House of Saud needs much encouragement to behave this way.) Yet as far as I know, no one has inquired about the mental health of the Saudi assassins in what was plainly an act of purely venal statecraft at its most brazen and brutal.

THE INSANITY OF POLITICS

As with the Unabomber, the current administration will have a vested interest in convincing us that Cesar Sayoc is—to use the technical term—just a kook. Same with Bowers, same with Gregory Bush.

They all may be. Do I look like a psychiatrist?

I’m certainly not qualified to take a stance on the mental competence of any of these men. But we ought to be suspicious of the impulse to dismiss them as “mere” crackpots, and of the dishonest partisan motive behind that impulse.

This is not a binary choice. Even if they are crackpots that does not remove the possibility that their mental illness was set off—and supercharged—by toxic partisan ideology, or vice versa if you prefer. And it certainly does not exculpate our fake president or the party he leads of any shred of responsibility for what these men have done. (And not for nothing, but it merits mention that they are all middle-aged white men, or at least whitish in the case of the partially Native American Mr. Sayoc. Strangely, Trump hasn’t subjected him to the same racist ridicule as Elizabeth Warren.)

Indeed, the presumptive mental illness of these killers made them even more, not less, susceptible to inflammatory rhetoric that would encourage their psychopathic impulses.

I already hear the counter-argument, that no public figure can be held accountable for how a deranged individual misinterprets or distorts his or her words. Tru(ish), but it’s a question of how much—or little—misinterpretation is involved.

Do we blame the Beatles for Charles Manson? No. But I might, if instead of ”Helter skelter/I’m coming down fast,” the lyrics had said, “Go up in the hills and find a pregnant actress to massacre.”

Even given the unpredictability of the mentally ill, is it helpful for the President of the United States to engage in the kind of hatemongering that he does? As I wrote last week, Trump’s irresponsible, unprecedented demonization of his foes and his active encouragement of a climate of violence cannot plausibly be dismissed when considering the murders and attempted murders we have just witnessed.

From jump, Trump’s defenders have mounted the predictable campaign to portray Sayoc, Bower, Bush et al as lunatics whose actions were self-evidently batshit, and couldn’t possibly be traced back to any encouragement by a demagogic president, let alone anticipated or prevented. Who else but a madman would mail pipe bombs to more than a dozen prominent Trump opponents, or open fire in a synagogue, or kill a pair of innocent people in a supermarket? (Not that the GOP has really even deigned to address the Jeffersontown killings.) As I mentioned earlier, that is the standard misdirection in many an insanity plea.

But I would be very leery of too readily accepting the presumption that is being  presented to us as a fait accompli: that these men are “obviously” mentally ill, and therefore the hateful, wildly irresponsible rhetoric of Donald Trump—and the scorched earth strategy of the Republican Party itself, going back at least to the early 1990s—bears no blame.

Crazy is as crazy does.

 

 

Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System

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We are just now beginning to digest the news that at least twelve deadly pipe bombs were mailed to prominent members of the Democratic Party (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Eric Holder, Cory Booker, and Maxine Waters among them), at least one major media outlet (CNN), and other outspoken critics and foes of Donald Trump, ranging from George Soros to Robert DeNiro to former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

There has been lots of grave condemnation of these acts, justifiable anger at Trump’s culpability for inciting such violence, and—naturally—despicable demagoguery about the matter from Trump himself and his defenders.

What I have not heard, however, is an acknowledgement of what is, to me, the most striking aspect of the incident:

That it was terrorism perpetrated not against the ruling government, but on its behalf.

GOLIATH, THE REAL VICTIM

This makes no military sense.

Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare, which is to say, combat between two forces that are not evenly matched in conventional metrics like numbers or firepower. Accordingly, its goal is not military victory as it is usually defined—not to destroy or overpower the enemy—but to inflict such pain (often by aiming at the most vulnerable civilian targets) that the ostensibly more powerful foe will concede for political reasons. It is a strategy typically adopted by small insurgent groups that do not have the personnel, materiel, or firepower of the opponents they are fighting: that is, the uniformed armed forces of a sovereign state.

In short, it’s how David takes on Goliath.

For obvious reasons, terrorism is usually employed by revolutionary non-state actors seeking to overthrow the ruling order. The ruling order doesn’t need to resort to these methods, as it has armies, navies, and air forces that can carry out conventional applications of force in order to maintain and project power and advance its goals.

This is not say that state actors and conventional armed forces can’t and don’t engage in “terrorism.” Carpet bombing, chemical attacks, mass murder of noncombatants and other such tactics all qualify in terms of sheer infliction of punishment on innocent civilians in order to force political submission. But the kind of acts that we generally associate with “terrorism” in its colloquial definition—assassinations,  bombings, hijackings, and the like—are almost exclusively the province of small bands of guerrillas (or lone wolves) seeking low cost, high return ways to defeat better armed and numerically superior foes. That is why almost every infamous terrorist group or lone wolf you can think of, from far left to far right— the Weathermen, Red Army Faction, IRA, UDA, ANC, Sendero Luminoso, Red Brigades, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Lee Harvey Oswald—is outside the power structure and trying to change it or bring it down.

But the terrorist attacks we saw this week were not carried out to undermine or overthrow or otherwise inflict damage on the US government. They were carried out to protect and help that government by murdering and intimidating dissidents and other critics of the regime.

What does this mean?

It means that the ruling power in the United States—that is to say, the Trump regime—has successfully motivated and mobilized thuggish elements within the general public to carry out acts of political violence against Trump’s enemies.

This is Fascism 101.

INSERT FROG IN WATER HERE

From the moment of Trump’s election there have been fears that the United States could slip into actual, jackbooted autocracy….even before his election, in fact, when it came to him hinting he might not accept the results.

Initially these fears were snottily dismissed as liberal hysteria…and not just by the right, but by the majority of mainstream pundits, all of whom fancied themselves sober realists.

But with each passing day and each new Trumpian atrocity, the Overton window has moved. The radicalization of ICE, the kidnapping of children, the construction of concentration camps, the rampant banana republic-style corruption, the normalization of Stalinist rhetoric, the further empowerment of the right wing propaganda machine, the tolerance and even tacit encouragement of right wing hate groups, the abuse of the pardon, the relentless attacks on a free press and the rule of law itself—all routine now.

Did Trump’s election tself not convince you that anything is possible, even the unimaginable? In other words, that it can indeed “happen here?”

Now we are seeing yet another milestone in that grim process, an escalation of the  polticial violence on behalf of and inspired by the government. Will this prove to be just an aberration, or are we witnessing the beginning of a terrifying new phase in this nightmare? I don’t know, but as has been widely noted on social media, let’s stop and think for a moment about precisely what we are watching:

Someone just tried to murder all of President Trump’s chief critics.

That is the sort of thing that happens in a cult-of-personality police state, which the United States increasingly resembles. The rise of state-condoned (and encouraged) vigilante violence is a bright red marker on the dark road to authoritarianism.

Terrorism mounted on behalf of the state, rather than against it, serves the purpose of repressing (or obliterating) dissent and further entrenching the status quo. As such, it’s a rather useful thing for a ruling power that condones it, in terms of a force multiplier and plausible deniability. That is especially true in a modern autocracy—of which Putin’s Russia is the prime example, and which Trump’s America is rapidly emulating—that operates under the pretense of a sham democracy.

If we are collectively the proverbial frog in boiling water, someone just turned the heat way up.

THE GHOST OF HENRY II

Trump initially managed to issue a cursory, pro forma denunciation of the attempted bombings, but was soon winking at his base, and not long after, back to his usual poisonous form, blaming the abortive attacks on the climate of “incivility” created by—wait for it—the media. (As Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times wrote yesterday, “We don’t know who is behind these bombs, but we do know that Trump can’t even fake concern for their intended targets.”)

That this was hardly surprising does not make it any less despicable. But that, too, is Fascism 101: accuse your enemies of your own crimes.

Now that a suspect has been taken into custody, I can hear Republicans scoffing that the act of one (presumably) mentally unstable individual can hardly be blamed on the President, or the GOP, or right wing ideology at large. By way of comparison, they are already pointing to mentally disturbed anti-Trump individuals like James Hodgkinson, who shot up a Congressional baseball practice last year, wounding four. Even if this had turned out to be the act not of a mentally ill solo actor but of a rational but homicidal group of right wing terrorists, the GOP would point to times that left-leaning radicals carried out unspeakable acts that Democratic leaders insisted had no connection to their party.

Fair enough. But the difference is that, in this case, it cannot be argued that the actions of the accused pipe bomber are disconnected from the administration. On the contrary, in fact. Yes, James Hodgkinson shot four people, but Bernie Sanders never encouraged him to do so.

It’s not necessary for me to repeat the ways in which Trump has created a toxic climate of blind hatred and vicious partisanship beyond even what the Republican Party has long cultivated. Read the newspaper any day. Most appalling, however, are the ways in which he has openly and actively incited violence by his supporters against anyone with the temerity to oppose him—political rivals, protestors, the press—using the time-honored language of the worst autocrats. It goes without saying that that is the behavior of a tinhorn despot, and heretofore unheard of by a man occupying the Oval Office. But now we just call it “Tuesday.” Michelle Goldberg again:

(N)o one has done more to stoke political violence than Trump. During the presidential campaign, he encouraged his febrile supporters to beat up protesters, even offering to pay their legal fees. He said that if Hillary Clinton was elected, “Second Amendment people” might be able to stop her from picking judges. Last year, he tweeted a doctored video that showed him tackling a man with a CNN logo for a head. In a speech to law enforcement, he urged the police to rough up criminal suspects: “Please don’t be too nice.” Last week, he praised the Republican congressman Greg Gianforte for assaulting a journalist, a crime towhich Gianforte pleaded guilty. “Any guy who can do a body slam—he’s my kind of guy,” said Trump.

At the risk of trafficking in a thought experiment that has ceased to have any power, imagine if Hillary Clinton—or worse, a black guy like Barack Hussein Obama—had gone around saying those sorts of things Donald Trump says on a daily basis, and some left wing bomber had done what this pro-Trump would-be killer has done. Oh yes, I am sure Fox Nation would have given them a pass.

And now, when one of his supporters takes Trump’s words to heart and tries to murder a slew of his most high profile foes—including a former President and Vice President; a former Secretary of State, US Senator, and First Lady; a former Attorney General; a pair of senior intelligence officials, and two sitting members of Congress—Trump shrugs and says, “Don’t look at me.”

Nice leadership, guy.

One of the few advantages of a strongman, typically, is that they’re at least strong. Ours, on the other hand,  is anything but, and not even deserving of the name. A demagogue, bully, and provocateur, he is above all an utter coward.

DOES THIS SHIRT COME IN BROWN?

No one is suggesting that the Trump White House directed these attacks. (Although if it emerged that that were true, no one would really be surprised either, which tells you a lot.) Donald Trump did not mail these bombs nor overtly order their deployment. But when it comes to his enemies, he has certainly been crying, Henry II-like, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

And now, some would-be pipe bomber has taken him up on it.

Even if this bomber was acting wholly on his own initiative, can anyone plausibly say that he was not inspired and encouraged by Trump’s relentless, incendiary rhetoric? Only a human fountain of lies like Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) recalled the infamous 1963 firebombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black girls, noting how the words of Alabama officials Bull Connor and Governor George Wallace had empowered the bombers. And he should know: as a former federal attorney in the 2000s, Jones prosecuted two of the four KKK members responsible for that crime, some forty years after the fact.  (Here we have a mixed situation. The Birmingham bombers were acting in support of a segregationist state government, but against the higher authority of the federal government.)

Pursuant to catching the suspect, the police and FBI reportedly focused on south Florida because the packages bore the return address of former Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which is either a wry joke by the bomber, or the worst attempt at misdirection ever. Judging by the right wing decals plastered all over Cesar Sayoc’s (inevitably white) van, camouflage and concealment was not his strong suit.

Which didn’t stop right wing nuts like Limbaugh from proclaiming this all to be a false flag operation, natch. Professional hatemonger and tinfoil hat connoisseur Lou Dobbs went Rush one better, arguing that there were no bombs at all, that this was a moon landing-style hoax. (I guess because the Secret Service and USPS are all in on this deep state conspiracy too?) What passed for sanity on the right amounted to the lame, by-now-hackneyed apportioning of blame to all sides, as we immediately saw the requisite suggestion of a false equivalence. Goldberg one last time, dismantling that lie:

At this point, someone devoted to the proposition that “both sides” are responsible for our incendiary political environment might point to the black-clad anarchist street fighters of antifa who regularly brawl with the far right. But even if you believe that the antifa movement is as violent as its right-wing opponents—it’s not—it has no real connection to the Democratic Party, which by most accounts it despises….

(T)here is no serious comparison between left-wing and right-wing violence in this country, either in the scale of the phenomenon or the degree to which it is encouraged by political leaders….

To reiterate: this is not a bunch of revolutionary crazies trying to overthrow the government. This is the government itself waging gangster-style oppression, intimidation, attempted assassination, and other political violence by proxy. To that point, the group that this bomber, right wing goons like the Proud Boys, and the resurgent neo-Nazis of Charlottesville most resemble is the Brownshirts: street thugs loosely organized into a paramilitary gang to carry out violence on behalf of the regime. It is another step toward the full-blown authoritarian state that Trump has been inching us toward for almost two years now, notwithstanding the Republican Party’s condescending sneering at the very notion.

And in this lethal climate, does the President of the United States sincerely denounce these unforgivable attacks? Does he reflect on what is at the root of such hatred and violence and seek solutions? Does he exercise the kind of leadership that his office demands and act as a calming influence on a roiled nation? Or does he further fan the flames of hatred, abdicate all responsibility, and seek to use this incident for his own partisan advantage?

NB: Those were rhetorical questions.

DID YOU SEE HIM REPRESSING ME?

My title for this essay refers facetiously to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I don’t mean to be flip by any means. (Though Python is actually as incisive as anyone you care to name when it comes to social and political commentary. See also Life of Brian.)

It goes without saying that not only were the intended targets of these bombs at risk of death or severe injury, but also police officers, postal workers, Secret Service agents, and ordinary citizens and bystanders. My wife and I have friends at Tribeca Film, where the mail is not routinely opened by federal agents, like that of former presidents, but by regular folks like you and me—interns in some cases. (Look for a sharp downturn in young college grads willing to start out in the mailroom.) The bomb meant for DeNiro reportedly sat in that mailroom for TWO DAYS before one of the company’s security personnel—a sharp-eyed retired NYPD officer—saw a report about the other bombs and remembered seeing a similar-looking package, prompting him to race down to the office after hours, possibly saving untold lives.

Just a few days ago, before these attempted bombings became known (but after the recent, brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a close Trump ally, a crime that was met with similar presidential lip service), Susan Glasser wrote prophetically in The New Yorker about Trump’s incendiary verbiage:

What the President of the United States is actually saying is extraordinary, regardless of whether the television cameras are carrying it live. It’s not just the whoppers or the particular outrage riffs that do get covered, either. It’s the hate, and the sense of actual menace that the President is trying to convey to his supporters. Democrats aren’t just wrong in the manner of traditional partisan differences; they are scary, bad, evil, radical, dangerous. Trump and Trump alone stands between his audiences and disaster. I listen because I think we are making a mistake by dismissing him, by pretending the words of the most powerful man in the world are meaningless. They do have consequences. They are many, and they are worrisome. In what he says to the world, the President is, as Ed Luce wrote in the Financial Times this week, ‘creating the space to do things which were recently unthinkable.

Well, we better start thinking about the unthinkable, because this week what Bertolt Brecht called “Mahagonny”—a cynical, stupid, fascist state—took a giant leap closer to becoming a reality in these United States.