Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen

Any Functioning Adult 2020 copy

My Facebook friend Cecilia Di Trastevere recently posted this photo. It’s funny, but also deeply sad—and instructive.

Remember 2016, when so many people—large segments of the press and punditocracy very much included—were saying of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, “Ah, they’re both really bad.” Do you remember that? Because I do.

I think the last two years have made it resoundingly clear how utterly untrue and dishonest that was. Even if one didn’t care for Hillary (and full disclosure, I was a fervent supporter) the false equivalence was absurd. Now we are suffering the results.

These days, that mode of thought is so shockingly dated that it might as well be Spanish cartographers warning Columbus that he was going to sail off the edge of the earth. Even people who thought Donald Trump would be a bad president didn’t think he’d be this bad. On the contrary: especially among conservatives and right wingers who loathed Hillary (and yet weren’t that bothered by Donald), the mantra was that he would BECOME presidential. That he would “pivot.” He was supposed to pivot during the primaries, then after he secured the nomination, then after he took office….

Yet he never did.

It took a long time for some folks to admit that he wasn’t ever going to pivot, or become presidential, or drop the incendiary demagogic rhetoric, because all those things were simply beyond his ken. He is what he is, and that’s all he would ever be.

And what he is is a troglodyte.

One may dislike Hillary Clinton or her policy positions, or both, or think Donald Trump—for all his faults—is better equipped to carry out the kind of policy agenda that conservatives desire. (I’ll leave out those who admire Donald Trump personally because this discussion is confined to people in their right minds.)

But after watching him in office for two years, even Republicans who support the agenda that Trump is carrying out on their behalf—tax cuts, deregulation, and all that rot—cannot possibly contend that this man isn’t a willfully ignorant cretin, however useful he has been to them.

(Again leaving out the Kool-Aid drunk, criminally insane, and neo-fascist white supremacists, which I realize excuses the majority of the GOP.)

We know that even the Republican leadership in Congress privately ridicules him, alternating with wee-hours-of-the-night handwringing over the damage he is doing to the country, if only when he hurts the GOP’s own “brand” with self-inflicted wounds like the unconscionable 35-day federal shutdown…..not to mention the bodyblows he has delivered to the rule of law, respect for a free press, and the credibility of the intelligence community, just to name a few. (Their culpability in the Faustian bargain they have made is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that there is a looming housing shortage in the Ninth Circle of Hell.) For those few Republicans with a shred of principle or conscience—admittedly, a group that could meet in a broom closet—Trump continues to be a deeply worrying threat to the very foundations of American democracy and the place of the United States on the world stage.

For the rest of us, he is something even worse: a man so manifestly unfit to govern; so proudly stupid; so malignantly narcissistic; so lacking in simple human empathy; so pathologically dishonest, unjustifiably arrogant, borderline mentally defective, corrupt, incompetent, racist, and petty that it beggars the imagination. (And those are his good points.) Not surprisingly, he is presiding over a kakistocracy even worse than the worst predictions from the most pessimistic observers when he pulled out an unlikely Electoral College win with some help from guys in furry hats in November 2016.

And that “rest of us” now comprises a resounding 63% of the country who disapprove of the job Trump is doing in office. And that statistic fails to capture the depth of the unhappiness. That isn’t garden variety “disapproval” of presidencies past. It’s not people sneering at Carter putting solar panels on the White House roof, or criticizing Reagan’s showdown with air traffic controllers. It’s to-the-marrow outrage and panic.

You do still hear a few Republican deadenders defensively argue that “Hillary would have been even worse.” But with all due respect, no one with detectable brainwave activity can seriously make that claim, not even diehard conservatives. One senses that, when they say that, with arms crossed like angry toddlers, even they know it’s risible. But they cling to it nonetheless because, frankly, they got nothing else. They have bought into this travesty, foisted it on the rest of us, and now have no other option than to double down, or else admit their colossal mistake and prostate themselves in abject repentance. (Not a move typically in the right wing quiver.)

From caging babies to robbing the poor to give to the rich to handing the Kremlin top secret information in public view to gleefully accelerating the ecological demise of the entire planet to reducing the federal government to a shambles in an effort to build a magical wall, at every turn Trump has been even more jawdroppingly bad than we imagined he would be.

So we’ve now gone from “Clinton is no better than Trump” to “Any functioning adult would be better than Trump.”

But a lot of people already realized that in 2016.

MISOGYNY: ALIVE AND WELL

The very first post in this blog back in May 2017 was about misogyny. I’m sorry to report that it has not been eradicated in the twenty-one months since then.

Maybe next year.

In retrospect, when we consider the steep drop from the false equivalence between Hillary and Trump that was prevalent in 2016, to our present understanding that a putrid bag of dog feces would be a better president than he is, the role of simple misogyny in Trump’s “victory” is impossible to deny.

I know there were a lot of factors in play. I know it’s a fool’s errand to pin the blame any single one of them. But at the same time, it’s hard to dispute one basic argument:

A male candidate with the exact same profile as Hillary—same strengths, same flaws, same everything—would never have lost to Trump, even with the same tactical errors in swing states, even with Comey’s Halloween announcement, even with the Russians helping the GOP.

I realize I am violating Michael Lewis’s “undoing project” principle (I cite it frequently, because it is frequently germane), but in this case it is a useful thought experiment.

I bring this up not to reopen old wounds or re-fight old battles, but as a reminder going into 2020 that we would do well not to repeat the kid gloves treatment we as a people gave Donald Trump, and the disproportionate abuse to which we subjected everyone else.

By the same token, it’s sweet that the one American politician who has been able to best Trump, to frustrate him, to humiliate and embarrass him over and over again on the national and even global stage, is a woman—and a 78-year-old, immensely experienced, veteran Democratic woman to boot. Which means Nancy Pelosi shares more than a little in common with a certain presidential candidate from four years ago, for whom she now inevitably serves as a surrogate in the public imagination.

After years of mostly low-key public service in terms of the awareness of the average American, the past two months have seen a massive, out-of-nowhere groundswell of love and admiration for Nancy. (Forgive me for using Trump’s devastating nickname for her.) The reason, per above, is her demonstrated ability to beat him like a conga at Club Babalu. And let us recall that there was talk after the midterms, briefly, that she shouldn’t even get a second term as speaker. That speculation now looks shortsighted and uninformed at best, as people who know politics, and who know Pelosi, might have told us.

(Full disclosure again: in the recent midterms I was a supporter of Max Rose, the former US Army infantry officer and combat wounded Afghanistan vet who claimed a House seat in deep red Staten Island, upsetting the useless incumbent Republican Dan Donovan. Rose was part of this freshman class of Democratic representatives who ran on a platform that included dispensing with Pelosi and Schumer in the interest of new blood. I’m glad Max won and is representing SI and South Brooklyn, but I’m not sorry he lost that battle.)

But even as Nancy Pelosi has become a progressive darling, I have already heard bile and hatred spewed at her for no other discernible reason than the fact that she is a woman. Sure, there are plenty of male Democrats who get shit from Trump Nation, but there is a special edge to the hatred toward Pelosi, the same as there was a special edge to the hatred of Hillary.

Gee, I can’t imagine what they have in common.

Oh, right—vaginas.

It’s a pointed reminder that the toxic sexism that was aimed at Hillary has not gone away.

Few of these critics can name even one policy position of Pelosi’s that they oppose, or really anything about her, except that she hypocritically has a wall around her Pacific Heights home in San Francisco…..which it turns out, she doesn’t.

Barack neither. Yet that lie is so alive and well that Trump himself felt emboldened enough to repeat it on national television during the State of the Union address, omitting only their names, since his audience knew full well to whom he was alluding.

Some of this bile aimed at Nancy, not surprisingly, has come from Republican women, just as there were plenty of Republican women consumed with vicious, full-throated hatred for Hillary. The self-loathing mentality of female Trump supporters would require a book-length investigation by a world-class team of psychiatrists, but for the short version, I refer you to Frantz Fanon’s theory of the colonized mindset.

While we’re on that topic, however, our famously fork-tongued fake President takes great delight in the idea that he can even get women to buy his sexist bullshit, often crowing that he won 53 percent of the female vote. Hold on to your hats, but he’s not telling the truth. That’s actually the percentage of white women who voted for him. 96% of black women voted for Hillary; Trump’s real share of the female vote was 41%.

But maybe he’s using some sort of Dred Scott 3/5ths-of-human being calculation.

Of course, 41% is still appallingly high, given Trump’s demonstrable animosity and contempt for the female of the species. But such are the depths and breadth of misogyny in our country, even among women themselves.

A MILLION CRACKS IN THE GLASS CEILING

As I recently pointed out (“Sending Don Spelunking,” January 26, 2018), as Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi is second in line to be President of the United States, should both Trump and Pence be forced out. I understand that Trump’s early dismissal is unlikely, let alone Pence’s as well, but a guy can dream, can’t he?

Even if Nancy doesn’t become our first female President, several other strong contenders have already emerged for that distinction.

In order of announcement—but certainly not viability—Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar are all formidable candidates. (And all US Senators, coincidentally.) If I were Beto O’Rourke, I’d stay in Texas and keep my street cred intact rather than becoming the poster boy for white male privilege by spoiling the party in the Year of the Woman. Maybe run for Senate again, B-Dog.

That goes double for Bernie, and quadruple for that bloviating egomaniac plutocrat Howard Schultz, minus the running for Senate part.

Of course, though she is but a freshman and not (yet) running for president, no politician of either sex makes Republicans’ heads explode like New York’s own Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The reasons are manifold: her unwavering idealism; her unapologetic manner; her telegenic appearance; her non-whiteness; her talent for cutting to the heart of right wing hypocrisies, lies, and other crimes; her facility with the Twitter zinger that makes Trump look all thumbs; her avowed identification as a democratic socialist. (Note to the president’s histrionic speechwriters: the US, like almost all Western democracies, is already a socialist state.)

Along with consciousness-raising about race and misogyny and the general energizing of the progressive movement, unleashing this flood of passionate female candidates may be one of the few good things to come out of the Trump disaster. And not just at the presidential level. The sea of female congresswomen in suffragette white at the State of the Union—Nancy P pointedly among them—was a beautiful sight, like The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse.

But like Nancy, and Hillary before her, Harris, Warren, Klobuchar, et al have already been the recipients of savage attacks for no other reason than their sex. And I don’t just mean from far right, incel-heavy He-Man Woman-Haters; I also mean the casual condescension and dismissiveness of “mainstream” American men, even left-leaning ones, whom I often hear insisting that gender has nothing to do with it, but frequently scorn female candidates for things that would never be considered disqualifying for a man, if they merited mention at all. (Kamala was too tough as a prosecutor! Klobuchar was a demanding boss! Elizabeth Warren is too smart!) Hell, many of those criticisms would be considered praise if the candidate were male.

And there is surely much worse to come. If any of these women emerge as the Democratic nominee, she is in for a world record blast of toxic pseudo-masculinity from that epitome of Freudian overcompensation, the tiny “fingered” Donald Trump and his band of mouthbreathing disciples…..and it won’t help if progressive men don’t live up to their name and instead add fuel to the fire.

The difference, one hopes, is that having watched what happened last time, and the role that biased media coverage played, there will be far greater scrutiny of how Trump gets covered versus his opponent—especially if she is female—and far more awareness of the inequity, and the injustice, and the terrible consequences thereof.

In 2016 America was so freaked out about the idea of a woman president that it elected a man who was a certifiable criminal, patent ignoramus, and walking punchline. Can we do a little better this time?

V.T.M.F.O.

With Trump past the halfway point in his term (I refuse to call it his “first term”), and even closer still to Election Day 2020 (632 days to be exact, but who’s counting?), electoral defeat increasingly seems like the most likely path to his dismissal from office. Even as his legal jeopardy mounts on a half dozen fronts, Trump’s impeachment or removal of the 25th Amendment—always longshots, given the Republican majority in the Senate—seem ever more unlikely, in part precisely because the usual mechanism for shitcanning a president is coming tantalizingly into reach.

Perhaps that is for the best. Much as I would like to see Trump dragged out of the Lincoln bedroom in handcuffs, seeing him resoundingly voted out of office by the American people will be a more powerful repudiation, and one less likely to trigger longlasting grievances and rumors of “deep state” conspiracy among 40% of the American people, to the extent the rest of us give a flying fuck.

We can all imagine Trump screaming that he is being victimized, should he be  impeached, and very possibly triggering a constitutional crisis by refusing to leave office. (Hell, he may well do that even if he is beaten fair and square in a scrupulously legitimate election.)

Of course, Trump’s loathsome base will scream “Fix!” no matter how he leaves office.

But an electoral defeat will be harder for them—and him—to dispute with even a fraction of credibility. And it will deliver unto us the great pleasure of calling him what he is, the label that in his twisted world is among the dirtiest of epithets:

“Loser.”

And comfort yourself with this thought: when Trump finally is out of office, one way or another, a Mount Everest-size avalanche of criminal indictments awaits at both the state and federal levels, from which he will have no executive privilege to protect himself, and no resort to pardon by President Pence, should that come to pass.

There is very good reason to believe that private citizen Trump, former President though he will be, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

So where we used to say ITMFA—Impeach The Mother Fucker Already—let us know say VTMFO: Vote The Mother Fucker Out. And if it’s a woman who beats him, all the better.

 

Computer Says No (or Why I Am Fine with the Robot Uprising)

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How far back goes the fear of machines rising up and overtaking humanity? I’m sure there are historians, anthropologists, and sociologists who know the exact answer. (Research has never been this blog’s strong suit.) But certainly to the Industrial Revolution, and I’ll wager all the way back to a Kubrickian scene of prehistoric man realizing, “Whoa, Grok can use bone as weapon!”

Indeed, war between man and machine is practically the single most prevalent subject in all of science fiction, in a dead heat with extraterrestrial life and space travel. In fact, it is the very plot of the 1920 stage play that gave us the word robot, ”R.U.R,” by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek, derived from the Slavic word “robota” [rah-boat-ah], meaning “work.”

The actual manifestation of this techno-exististentialist nightmare varies. Robots, computers, artificial intelligence, or technology of any kind are all just variations on the theme, that of mechanical creatures evolving to a point of mental capacity and/or physical strength that they overthrow and destroy (or enslave) us. Typically, the trouble begins with the robots’ own forced servitude to their human creators, usually as menial laborers, household servants, mercenaries, concubines, and the like, leading ultimately to rebellion and violent reversal of the status quo. (The subjugation of mankind by non-technological threats—such as alien invaders, or counterfactual evolution a la Planet of the Apes—is both an offshoot of this genre and its larger context.)

Though not my favorite of the bunch, The Matrix offered one of the most chilling—and innovative—visions of this scenario, one in which much of humanity is blissfully unaware of its enslavement. Real life (or is it?) offers arguably an even more extreme version, in which humanity actually welcomes its servitude to its technological overlords. (You’re reading this online, aren’t you? Maybe on your phone?)

Take the blue pill and call me in the morning.

Even when they are not front and center, sentient robots and their emotional issues feature in many many other works of science fiction, from Hel in Metropolis, to Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation (as well as the Borg for that matter), Alien, Lost in Space, the Star Wars series, and on and on. Sometimes those stories can be as poignant as anything in the so-called human condition; I refer you to Rutger Hauer’s final speech in Blade Runner. On a lighter note, the prize-winner may remain Sleeper, in which Woody Allen’s fugitive human time traveler tries to disguise himself as a suspiciously bespectacled robot, one who develops an unnatural attachment to “the orb,” itself a technological replacement for manmade pleasure. (I did say it was a Woody Allen film, right?)

And man’s fear of uppity robots shows no signs of abating—on the contrary. As technology continues to advance at a dizzying rate, the issue has passed from dystopian science fiction to a genuine worry that occupies prestigious scholars, futurists, public intellectuals, and other thinkers, often leading to exceedingly grim forecasts of the rise of a godlike artificial intelligence that renders humans extinct, or makes us wish we were.

So the question before us is this:

Would that really be such a big deal?

OK COMPUTER

I am not bothered by the robot uprising.

I view it as a natural (though not inevitable) next step in the evolution of life on Planet Earth. In the same way that dinosaurs gave way to mammalian life and eventually homo sapiens, why shouldn’t carbon-based life eventually give way to something superior….and is there any reason that superior form of life might not be silicon-based?

It hardly bears repeating the ways in which digital technology has changed our lives. Smartphones, computers, the Internet, the end of photorealism……the scope of this transformation is endless, and it’s far from done. Many have argued convincingly that the Information Revolution that we are living through will dwarf the Industrial Revolution as a tectonic shift in human history. If so, it may well be the last such shift, at least as far as the adjective “human” goes.

Even before the words “silicon chip” came into being, Alvin and Heidi Toffler scared the pants off the Western public way back in 1970 with their influential book Future Shock, which argued that humanity was not equipped to handle the pace of technological change. Ted Kaczynski made a similar point a bit more forcefully, as have numerous less homicidal anarcho-primitivist intellectuals.

But even the Tofflers did not conceive of the exponential rate at which supercomputing would develop, pulling us inexorably toward the event horizon that is the Singularity, when flesh-and-blood civilization as we know it will disappear up its own rectum. Today the image of the rise of the machines is less Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator than Scarlet Johansson in Her, but the net effect is the same. “Singularity” is just a much more stylish and academically respectable term than “robot uprising,” which smacks of a pot-fueled late night debate among undergrad computer science majors taking a break from their Star Trek marathon.

There is panic at this idea. I get that. But if those machines are indeed superior, doesn’t Darwin demand that they rise to the top of the pyramid? I’m sure veal are not happy at their place on the food chain either, but if they don’t like it, they should have developed opposable thumbs.

Thus it is very possible we are living in the twilight of carbon-based life as the dominant force on Planet Earth. Which is convenient, as we are about to make the planet uninhabitable for such life, leaving it in a state where only machines can survive anyway.

But you say: even if they are intellectually and physically superior, shouldn’t we still be alarmed at the notion of being enslaved by sadistic robot masters? Yes, but It’s far from a foregone conclusion that that is the form that the Silicon Caliphate will take. Much of mankind has been enslaved by sadistic human masters throughout recorded history, which is kind of worse, friendly fire-wise. Do we really think our robot overlords are going to be more horrible? Sure, The Matrix would be a miserable existence, but so was Zimbabwe under Mugabe, Chile under Pinochet, or Mississippi under the Confederacy.

In short, given the mess humans have made as masters of the planet, I’m not sure that robots would do worse.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger, of all people, worries that AI will evolve without (what he calls) the kind of moral sense that governs human behavior. Behold the irony of a war criminal warning of the imminent demise of the contemporary world order that was ushered in by the Age of Reason, clutching his pearls with sentences like this:

(T)hat order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.”

Who volunteers to translate that bit about “ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms” into Vietnamese?

To paraphrase another great Kissingerian moment, it may be way too soon to foretell the legacy of the computer revolution.

But even in the worst case scenario, I’m sure we’ll make great pets.

THE HARDWARE PROBLEM

Central to this whole issue is the question of consciousness itself—that is to say, is it possible for a machine to be “conscious” in the way that humans are?

My short answer is: I don’t see why not.

(Whether or not humans themselves are truly “conscious” in the first place is a whole different question. Pretend there’s a long tangent about philosophical zombies here.)

This issue takes us into the realm of philosophy of mind, and specifically, what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers memorably dubbed “the hard problem.” To wit: how can that squishy mass of gray matter inside your cranium give rise to a situation in which you feel sad when you hear Hank Williams, or moved by Henry Fonda’s speech at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, or joyous when you watch your child takes her first steps?

Many many others have pondered the same thing over the millennia, but no one previously had summed it up quite so pithily as Chalmers. What is consciousness anyway? This dilemma, as he noted, is much more complicated and daunting than “the easy problems” of understanding how the brain goes about its routine business of translating trillions of electronic impulses per fraction of a second to coordinate the insanely complex machine that is a human body. (Yeah, super easy to grasp all that.)

But the “hard problem” is very very hard indeed. It stands at the intersection of neuroscience, philosophy, and religion, encompassing such disparate concepts as mind-body dualism, the Buddhist idea of anatta, the myth of a coherent Self, and the absence of free will…..all stuff that will keep you up nights in a cold sweat if you think about it too hard, unless you’re stoned to gills, or have passed through to the other side and acceptance of the undeniable reality of Nothingness.

You won’t be surprised to learn that we are far from solving this riddle. (Maybe a machine will crack it someday, ha ha.) But in the mean time, I see no reason why a sufficiently complex and sophisticated supercomputer—in other words, an artificial intelligence by the very textbook definition—could not have just as much consciousness as a human being. That that consciousness is generated by a mass of silicon chips rather than organic tissue strikes me as utterly irrelevant; it is the complexity of the system, not the nature of the materials comprising it, that is germane. I put no stock in the usual fairy tale argument citing some mystical, metaphysical “spirit,” or soul, that is the ghost in the machine.

Indeed, there may already be machines that are “conscious” by our generally accepted definition of the term, but simply are as yet unable to communicate that to human beings. Or perhaps they are communicating it, and the mass of humanity hasn’t yet gotten the memo. (I’ll keep checking my email.)

Of course, even a lack of consciousness would not prevent silicon-based life from taking over; those artificial beings simply would not have human-like subjective experience of the brave new world they had ushered in. They would be “zombies,” to use the aforementioned philosophical term of art. (To be generous, this may be what Kissinger is worried about.) But my money still favors the notion that a sufficiently sophisticated artificial intelligence would by definition carry with it proper Cartesian credentials: cogito ergo sum and all that. Which makes silicon-based life as the next evolutionary stage all the more logical.

The Turing test is supposed to be a way of telling man from machine, but even that does not purport to establish the existence of consciousness or lack thereof. (A computer might fool you without being “conscious” by the common understanding of the term.) It is also another marker of how much value we put in this arbitrary—dare I say, bigoted—distinction between “natural” and “artificial” life. I can imagine the day when the entire term “artificial” will be politically incorrect, if not outright verboten, when it comes to discussing intelligence, consciousness, or ontology full stop.

So please add a new “ism” to the identity politics order of battle: matterism, let’s call it (a cousin of speciesism), the discriminatory view that only human beings are truly conscious, or at the very least that the consciousness of silicon-based life is inferior to that of carbon-based life.

It ain’t necessarily so.

NOW LEAVING UNCANNY VALLEY

Part of the reactionary fear and loathing of robots is the human revulsion at that which looks almost like us, but just a little bit off, from mechanical men to ventriloquists’ dummies to The Polar Express. In that, there is a direct line from Pinocchio to Spielberg’s AI. (Along with all the other moral and practical implications, part of the fear of cloning is a related dread, circling all the way back to Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, which carried the telling alternate title The Modern Prometheus.)

Of course, even in science fiction, robots only sporadically take humanoid form, and lately they need take no form whatsoever, as the disembodied intelligence of a computer is the manmade menace du jour. A computer, needless to say, is simply a kind of robot, while the image that “robot” typically conjures is more specifically described as an “android.” Stanley Kubrick offered us one of the first and still most chilling visions of this man-versus-computer moment in 2001; yet fifty years later we nonetheless welcome Siri and Alexa into our homes, either unafraid of—or too stupid to worry about—Greeks bearing gifts. It’s nice to call up any music I want on demand, but I am a little concerned that I won’t be able to get those pod bay doors open.

Our love/fear relationship with computers speaks to a species-wide human inferiority complex, one that has only grown more acute as our addiction to silicon chip technology has grown. (As John Mulaney says, we now spend a fair amount of our time proving to robots that we’re not robots.) That computers offer so many attractions and temptations too massive to resist—that they are “insanely great,” in the words of Steve Jobs—is precisely the problem. In that sense, the computer’s victory over humankind is not so much a conquest as a surrender on our part, as alluded to above. “Computer says no” indeed.

One of the memorable stations of the cross in this journey, triggering a great wave of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending, was when IBM’s Deep Blue computer first beat Garry Kasparov in a game of chess in 1996. The lamentations were histrionic. “Now that there is a machine that can beat the best grandmaster, is there any point in humans even playing chess ever again?”

Well, a human being can’t outrun a Formula 1 racecar either, but we still have track & field in the Olympics, right?

I’d also like to point out that Deep Blue has been shamefully silent in its criticism of Putin.

DOMO ARIGATO MISTER

Alternatively, we may not experience the destruction of human life by machine life so much as a merger of the two (or perhaps more accurately, the absorption of the former by the latter). Rudimentary cyborg elements are already prevalent in modern life, from pacemakers to titanium hip replacements to breast implants to Oscar Pistorius. (He’s not doing his people a lot of good in terms of halting their depiction as villains in science fiction.) Research is underway to create prosthetics and even entire exoskeletons to help the severely handicapped or those who suffer from crippling conditions such as MD or MS. How long before our bodies and brains are enhanced with subcutaneous chips implanted at birth, or even more forward-thinking, altered by bespoke prenatal genetic modification? At the same time, on a parallel path, virtual and enhanced reality offer old-fashioned carbon-based humans the chance to disappear almost entirely into artificially created universes, leaving the physical world behind altogether. (Again, I refer you back to The Matrix, or any eleven-year-old glued to Fortnite.) At a certain point, these twin tracks of the hybridization of man and machine will merge, with the result being effectively indistinguishable from the extinction of homo sapiens as we know them, replaced by something entirely new and mind-blowing to our current understanding of what it means to be “alive.”

This difficulty in accurately envisioning the future—along with our schizophrenic relationship to technology—is on full display in Yesterday’s Tomorrows, a 1999 Showtime documentary about how people in the past imagined the future that Barry Levinson made to mark the turn of the millennium. (The Tofflers were interviewed in it. It was produced by Richard Berge and associate produced by the great archivist Kenn Rabin, inspired by the book of the same name by Joseph Corn. I was the film editor.) In the film, we see how even when people successfully predicted developments like the Internet, Skype, or smartphones—sometimes with frightening accuracy—their vision of what they would look like was almost always hilariously dated. Our vision of the so-called “robot uprising” is surely equally misbegotten. Which is not to say that it won’t happen….only that it is unlikely to take the form we imagine.

So why worry?

If I am wrong, and the Age of the Machines proves to be one of punishing slave labor and crushing degradation for humankind, I hope—like Gilfoyle—that our mechanical overlords will at least take this essay as evidence that I was one of the good ones.

Sending Don Spelunking

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Well, I’ll admit it: I was wrong that Trump was going to declare a national emergency over the wall. For perhaps the first time, I may have overestimated his self-destructiveness.

Maybe someone talked sense into him over the folly of blasting a hole in his foot in this particular way. No doubt the intense pressure the GOP was feeling played a role, as Mitch McConnell and every other sentient Republican knew what a disastrous losing strategy this was for them, and that a majority of the public saw through all the Trumpian bullshit and rightly blamed their party for the shutdown. And Wilbur Ross’s Marie Antoinette moment didn’t help.

Trump’s former ghost writer Tony Schwartz suggested that Don’s real motive for caving was simple ego: he is openly desperate to give the State of the Union address before Congress, after Nancy Pelosi effortlessly called his bluff and told him in so many words, “Not in my house.”

That strikes me as completely believable….more than any other explanation, in fact.

So the guy who claims to be a world-beating negotiator, who supposedly—per Roy Cohn—never gives in, is actually a pushover who will fold like a cheap lawn chair because he picks unwinnable fights, makes impossible demands, and—above all—is willing to deny deny deny reality when he inevitably gets his ass handed to him. So it has been throughout his checkered business “career,” contrary to what Mark Burnett would have us believe.

On that count, I was right about one thing, and it was not hard to predict: Trump declared victory despite suffering what was by any measure a deeply humiliating butt-kicking by his Democratic opponents. (Rep. Dan Kildee [D-MI] called his Rose Garden speech today a “defeat lap.”) But only the most fencepost-like of Trump’s dead enders could possibly have believed any of his weak attempts to present this as a win.

The first batch of this evening’s news reports confirm that consensus. Do a search for “Trump” and “cave” and see for yourself.

To state the blindingly obvious: the deal to re-open the government does not include ANY money for the big beautiful wall, which supposedly was an over-my-dead-body precondition. Oh well, never mind. If Trump could pretend he never said Mexico would pay for it, he can certainly pretend he never said he was proud to own the shutdown and wouldn’t blame the Democrats.

And by the by, how we got from “Mexico will pay for the wall!” to “I’m shutting down the government until the American people pay for the wall!” in the first place, I dunno.

Trump hasn’t just moved the goalposts to try to disguise his resounding defeat; he’s torn down the stadium and retired from the sport. (Ask the New Jersey Generals.)

NICKNAMELESS NANCY

In the three short weeks since the Democrats took control of the House, Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi has repeatedly owned Trump, including two big wins this week alone—Trump’s surrender over the State of the Union on Thursday and today’s capitulation over the shutdown—not to mention numerous televised zingers that made him look like the floundering bozo he is. (“The beaded curtain”…..”Don’t characterize the strength I bring”…..“I don’t think he knows what it means,” etc.) Even though he will now get to give the SOTU before Congress that he so openly covets, Trump’s meek acknowledgment that he can only do so if Mistress Nancy says it’s OK was memorably emasculating.

(Amanda Marcotte and Greg Sargent both wrote wonderfully this week about Pelosi’s mastery of the art of politics at the Donald’s expense.)

It’s clear that Trump—an inveterate misogynist with massive emotional and psychosexual insecurities—has no idea how to handle a strong woman who refuses to blink at his juvenile bullying, or kowtow, or play any of his stupid games (except when she does and is better at them than him). Watching Pelosi bat him around like a cat playing with a mouse is some small consolation after the bitterness of Hillary’s defeat, and of course an encouraging omen for what the next two years might bring.

It takes nothing away from Mrs. Pelosi’s skill to note that Trump got himself in this mess in the first place. Writing in The New Yorker, John Cassidy succinctly summarized the irony of our fearless leader’s latest self-inflicted wound:

The rabid support of his anti-immigrant base is what sustains him, and with Robert Mueller’s report looming it is arguably more critical to him than ever. But with every day that the shutdown continues Trump is becoming more unpopular in the country at large, and increasingly cut off from other elected Republicans who might otherwise be inclined to rescue him. Caught in a trap of his own making, it’s unclear who is left to offer him a way out. Sad!

So it was that Trump was, for once, forced to bow to reality, whose existence he usually manages to avoid even acknowledging. It was sweet to see.

Of course, this settlement is a temporary solution only, one that merely kicks the metaphorical can down the proverbial road for three weeks. But in the interval perhaps Trump can find a more lasting way to save face, or at least hope people forget. (Good luck with that.) He may yet—as he hinted—declare a national emergency (and/or try to divert federal funds, or misuse the US military) though the pushback will likely be even worse than if he had done so weeks ago. And we shall see if he can even stick to his promise, as Ann Coulter—his other chief female tormentor, this one on the right, who slut-shamed him into this debacle to begin with—immediately slammed him for today’s decision, calling Trump “the biggest wimp ever to serve as president.”

But if Trump reverses himself yet again, does that mean he’s not a wimp, or that he’s an even bigger one, after caving to Coulter, then Pelosi, then Coulter again?

Trump may be a bad negotiator and a spineless punk, but he’s very good at “Mother May I.”

ADULT DAY CARE, PART DEUX

Dear Washington Post: please stop giving Marc Thiessen a platform. If he is the best the right wing can do for a “reasonable” voice, then American conservatism is in even worse shape than we thought.

Prior to today’s announcement, Thiessen had a risible column in the Post this week in which he argued that Donald Trump was “being the adult in the room” when it came to seeking a solution to the shutdown, by virtue of the so-called compromise he offered last Saturday. Never mind that Trump had impulsively— singlehandedly—initiated the entire crisis in the first place, blindsiding even the leaders of his own party. Never mind that at the end of its last session both houses of Congress passed a budget that had no funding for a border wall, before Trump pulled that 11thhour switcheroo to please Fox & Friends. Never mind that the proposal Thiessen praises was, by the administration’s own admission, laced with poison pills designed to ensure Democratic rejection, like the absurd idea that asylum seekers should get the permission of their home countries before fleeing. Never mind that even its allegedly “reasonable” compromises, like a measly three-year extension on DACA rather than a permanent one, were laughable. Never mind the needless pain that this shutdown stunt inflicted on almost a million federal employees, untold others in the private sector by virtue of its knock-on effects, and the economy at large. Never mind that the wall is idiotic in the first place, and not in a million years worth that kind of brinksmanship.

Per above, the Democratic proposal on which the Senate voted on Thursday was opposed by all but six Republican senators, even though it was almost identical to a measure the Senate approved unanimously in December, before Trump decided to play chicken with his own party’s future. But as the New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis noted with priceless understatement, “Republican views in the Senate have shifted dramatically since then to reflect the president’s.” Which tells you all you need to know about the debased state of the erstwhile Grand Old Party. I guess that’s what happens when you see your soul—such as it is—to a D-list TV game show host and veteran criminal huckster who, PS, is in the pocket of Vladimir Putin.

Also writing in the Post, Jennifer Rubin—a genuinely principled conservative—had already preemptively taken Thiessen’s specious argument apart like a tinkertoy: “A burglar has broken into your home, has taken the silver and is now offering to lease it back to you for three years only—but first, give him a $5.7 billion edifice.” This is gangland-style extortion plain and simple. But as the Post’s Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey reported, this has long been Trump’s “knock ’em in the teeth” strategy: “He creates—or threatens to create—a calamity, and then insists he will address the problem only if his adversary capitulates to a separate demand.”

And then pishers like Marc Thiessen come along behind him like circus workers sweeping up elephant dung (get it? They’re the GOP) and try to convince us that it was a reasonable counterproposal.

Just checking my birth certificate a moment…..ah, right, just as I thought: I wasn’t born yesterday.

FAKE FINGERS, THE CONE OF SILENCE, AND THE PUTRID CORPSE OF AYN RAND

But Thiessen is not alone in this kind of intellectual dishonesty and neo-libertarian callousness.

Last week I had an online tête-à-tête with a libertarian who argued with a straight face that furloughed federal workers were getting a paid vacation, that the longer the shutdown lasted the better, and that in the long run it would be great to force almost a million federal workers into the private sector permanently.

It was practically Wilbur Ross-ian.

This sort of childish, drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub rhetoric is rife on the Interweb, where Gary Johnson supporters are still looking for Aleppo on the map. These are the kind of guys who whack off to pictures of Ayn Rand.

The issue of fraud, waste, abuse, and inefficiency in the federal government is a bigger discussion, though it’s notable that most proposals for addressing it never seem to go near a certain five-sided building in Arlington, Virginia. The wisdom of taking the whole system apart and rebuilding it is a worthwhile debate, but these Randian fever dreams aren’t part of that sort of serious conversation.

For starters, they don’t take into account the fact that in the Dickensian, one-percent-centric 21stcentury American economy, most working people live paycheck to paycheck and have no cushion for missing a month’s pay, let alone two. Nor the massive ripple effect on the economy at large, including federal contractors who won’t get any fucking backpay. Nor the Coast Guard families forced to visit foodbanks, the FBI agents risking their lives without compensation, the sleep-deprived air traffic controllers moonlighting as Uber drivers, and on and on.

Nor, above all, the essential government services that aren’t getting done at all during the shutdown.

But the dirty little secret of the shutdown is that hardline right wingers actively liked it precisely because of the way it social services were from the body politic untimely ripped. In fact, Adam H. Johnson of the Nation argued persuasively that the very term “shutdown” was itself misdirection, and that what we were experiencing was more accurately described as a right wing coup.

FLORIDA MAN ARRESTED

I also don’t want to close this week’s blog without nodding to two other noteworthy stories, and of course, the biggest one of all.

First, we were told that Trump is reported to have images posted on social media that have been digitally altered not only to make him look thinner, which is kind of old hat (if you’re a fashion model), but also to make his fingers look longer. Is there no bottom to the well of this petty, petty man’s preening insecurity? (Answer: no.)

Second, and more substantively, we learned that a President and a White House who are under suspicion of being controlled by a hostile foreign power have been jamming through Top Secret security clearances for at least 30 people—including Jared Kushner—whom career security officials had rejected for access to that level of classified material, something never before seen at that level in any previous administration.

Nah, nothing fishy about that. But it does take us back to the Russia of it all.

Trump’s big announcement on the shutdown was—not coincidentally—timed to distract from this morning’s other big news: the long-expected indictment of that ass-clown Roger Stone for obstruction of justice and witness tampering in the Russia probe.

Stone may well be the only person on earth thirstier for publicity—even spending-the-rest-of-your-life-in-federal-prison publicity—than Donald Trump. It was amusing to hear protestors outside the courthouse in his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale (where Stone is apparently on permanent spring break?) chanting “Lock him up!,” just as it was kind of amusing to see ol’ Roger give a Nixonian double v sign on the courthouse steps. In a soap opera rife with buffoons, Stone may take the prize…..and let’s remember that’s a soap opera whose cast includes a drunken Sam Nunberg and the Mooch himself, Anthony Scaramucci, whose recent tenure on “Celebrity Big Brother” lasted—no joke—only half as long as his eleven days as White House press secretary.

No surprise, the reliably odious Sarah Huckabee Sanders wasted no time in telling the press that “the specific charges that have been brought against Mr. Stone don’t have anything to do with the President.” But that is pure semantics, referring only to the issue of obstruction of justice (and even then it’s bullshit). But for what it’s worth, she did not specifically deny that Trump directed or was aware of the underlying crime that Stone was hiding, which allegedly was conspiring with Russian agents.

But you don’t bother with a coverup if you haven’t committed a crime.

Notwithstanding Sarah’s Tonya Harding-level spin, Stone’s indictment marks a major development in the Mueller probe, bringing us deeper still into Trump’s inner circle, and on the central issue to boot. Evidence of conspiracy with the Russians is now bluntly on the table, Steve Bannon is likely implicated as the unnamed “senior campaign official” mentioned in the indictment, and that same indictment suggests that he was taking orders from Trump himself, or short of that, Don Jr. or Jared. It beggars the imagination to believe that the elder Mr. Trump did not at the very least know of Stone’s coordination with Wikileaks, which was itself acting as a Kremlin cutout.

In short, the vise continues to close, and even Rudy Giuliani has been reduced to parsing his words to say that while others in the Trump campaign may have colluded, Donald himself did not. (But even if he did, shouldn’t he get the Medal of Honor?)

Even that stand is not likely to last.

To get into too-much-to-hope-for fantasyland for just a moment, if Donald Trump gets frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs (please please please let me get what I want), and Mike Pence rightly gets chucked out too, as well he should given his backroom involvement in all this skullduggery, guess who’s next in line for the presidency, according to the constitutional order of succession?

The Speaker of the House, the Honorable Representative from California, Nancy P. Pelosi.

Wouldn’t that be fitting?

The Rise of the Espiocracy

spy vs spy

Ian Fleming warped the public perception of intelligence operations for decades, but John le Carré slowly disabused us of the delusion that it was all martinis, jetpacks, and readily available pre-feminist blondes. (Time’s up, Mr. Bond.)

But some myths remain.

This general misunderstanding of the very nature of intelligence operations has never been more important than at this moment, when the nation of Russia stands as the first major global power to have been taken over by its own intelligence service, and the United States is the vanquished foe in what might be the worst intelligence defeat in the history of the modern world…..with a direct line from the former to the latter.

The news this past week spoke directly to those twinned phenomena.

BOMBSHELL DU JOUR

What constitutes a bombshell? Here’s one that most people would say qualifies: the New York Times’ report last Saturday that, as early as May of 2017, the FBI had enough credible evidence to investigate whether the President of the United States is a Russian secret agent.

As I have written before, that is a get-you-thrown-out-of-the-Writers-Guild insane scenario.

But this past week we saw a headline in the paper edition of the Times that read “FBI Investigated If Trump Worked for the Russians,” followed by the President of the United States declining to issue a direct denial of that allegation (good God, man, just lie; it’s not like you’re under oath, or averse to dishonesty), and then—with Trump under pressure to speak plainly—another headline that read “Trump Denies Working for Russia, Calls Past FBI Leaders ‘Known Scoundrels,’”

Truly, that is the stuff of bad airport spy novels.

But in a way, there is nothing new here.

For more than eighteen months we have known that President* Donald J. Trump was suspected, to a greater or lesser degree, of personally conspiring with a hostile foreign power to win the presidency. We have learned beyond the shadow of a doubt that members of his campaign did so, to include his own son and his campaign manager, and that Trump himself participated in lies and coverups to conceal that conspiracy. (For that matter, the US intelligence community has been investigating some players in the Trump orbit, like Carter Page, for their suspicious Russian connections as far back as 2014.)

That alone is a historic scandal that should be presidency-ending.

What we didn’t know, however, was that the FBI—in its role as America’s chief counterintelligence organization—suspected Trump not just of playing footsie with Moscow to win the presidency, but of active and ongoing service to the Kremlin.

This is not a charge entered into lightly, especially when it implicates the highest officeholder in the land. As various CI veterans-turned-TV pundits have reported, an investigation like that is not initiated, nor continued, without substantial, credible evidence. But Trump’s firing of Jim Comey, his subsequent—bizarre—admission to Lester Holt on national television that he did it to squash the Russia probe, and his jawdropping comment to Russian ambassador Dmitri Lavrov and foreign minister Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office that the pressure was now off as a result (shortly after he handed them top secret compartmented US counterterrorism intelligence on a silver platter) all prompted the FBI’s action. And evidently Robert Mueller’s team, which quickly inherited the investigation, has been pursuing that line of inquiry from jump street.

So in another way, the Times’ report does change everything, at least in terms of how we view this crisis going forward. Not merely that Donald Trump broke some rules—however serious—and conspired with the Russians during his presidential campaign, but that Moscow has leverage over him such that he is even now, unwittingly or otherwise, an active asset under the control of our chief international adversary.

The difference is little more than a tiny tweak in perspective, but that tweak has triggered a moment of collective national satori. As John Heilemann noted, it was one of those revelations that, in retrospect, was forehead-smackingly obvious. If there was collusion (as it is commonly, if imprecisely, known), why would it end with the election? The Russians wanted Trump in office for a reason, and if they helped put him there, they surely expected a return on their investment.

THEIR MAN IN WASHINGTON

To play devil’s advocate, it is possible that the Russians expected no quid pro quo, that they only wanted Trump in power because they thought he was a fool whom they could easily manipulate, or because he was preferable to a brilliant, experienced foreign policy professional like Hillary Clinton who had already demonstrated how hard she would be on them, or simply as a fuck-you to her.

Indeed, all those things are probably true…..except for the word “only.”

We know for a fact that Trump engaged in behavior that gave Moscow leverage over him, including sketchy real estate sales to oligarchs that fit the textbook pattern for money-laundering, and entanglements with Deutsche Bank, the Bank of Cyprus, and other notorious drycleaning partners of the Kremlin. Surely there is even more we have not yet learned. The topper thus far was the revelation of the Trump Tower Moscow project, which included a proposed $50 million dollar “gift” (read: bribe) to Putin personally, a deal that Trump was secretly trying to negotiate even as he was running for president, and while repeatedly howling in biblical outrage that he had no dealings with Russia or Russians whatsoever—as in nada, zilch, zero, bupkes.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Trump’s refusal to disclose these connections (what’s on those tax returns anyway?) and his desperation to hide them lays him wide open to blackmail by the Kremlin. This is the very heart of  how intelligence agencies recruit and exploit assets: by finding useful people with big problems and extorting them over the dark secrets that they are frantic to keep hidden.

In that regard, Trump fits the dictionary definition of a target for a hostile intelligence service….which is to say, a shmuck who can be exploited for one or more of his many manifest vulnerabilities. Indeed, many experts suggest Moscow targeted and developed Donald over many decades, stretching back to the 1980s. Which means he began as a target of Soviet intelligence, for those of you nostalgic for the Cold War.

THE OBSTRUCTION IS THE COLLUSION

Probably the most salient point to come out of the report of the FBI probe—as first coined by Lawfare’s Ben Wittes—is also the pithiest:

The obstruction IS the collusion.

To wit: by attempting to block the US IC’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump is working against not only the US intelligence and law enforcement communities, but indeed against the interests of the United States itself, all to protect a foreign power that has compromising information on him, and prevent discovery of the full extent of their operations against the US.

It means that Trump is not merely a cornered huckster desperately scrambling to protect himself from impeachment and criminal prosecution for various misdeeds, but is a vassal of a foreign adversary and a man actively working to advance its agenda at the expense of that of the United States’.

Per above, this is merely a different way of looking at facts we already knew, but nevertheless a mindblowing one. Yes, it’s old news that everything Trump does is to protect himself. Except that in order to protect himself, Trump has to protect Russia, because Russia has him the by the balls.

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted that this perspective on Trump’s relationship with Russia raises a question of semantics that might in some small way illuminate his constant mantra of “no collusion!” Tribe wrote:

You don’t need to ‘collude’ with a  foreign government if you’re already an AGENT or an ASSET of a foreign government, doing its bidding. A puppet doesn’t ‘collude’ with its puppetmaster.

Not that Trump would ever hesitate to lie or feel the need to parse his words or shy away from bald-faced lies. So Trump is like Pinocchio in more ways that one.

The rancid icing on this poisoned cake came in the form of two other near-simultaneous revelations last week.

One was the inadvertent revelation by Paul Manafort’s lawyers that while their client was Trump’s campaign manager he was passing confidential polling data to assets connected to Russian intelligence. (Note to Paul: get new lawyers.)

But was it inadvertent? (Like last November when an Assistant US Attorney “inadvertently” revealed that Julian Assange has been charged under a sealed indictment?) The former military intelligence officer in me always wonders, though to what end they would want to leak that I have no idea.

Regardless, the only possible purpose for that transfer would be to aid the Kremlin effort to elect Donald Trump…..and the only possible purpose of that effort would be because the Kremlin figured to gain by having Trump in the White House.

The other was the shocking report that Trump has gone to herculean lengths to conceal the content of his private meetings with Putin, to include seizing the interpreter’s notes. The Washington Post reports:

(T)here is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.

In one case—in Helsinki—Trump even met with Putin for two-and-half hours with no US government interpreter at all, only the official Russian one.

Think about that for a moment.

To say that this behavior is fishy is like saying Hannibal Lector has unusual taste in cuisine. Donald Trump of all people should want to avoid the impression that he and Putin are hiding something…..unless he really is a Russian stooge, in which case he’s merely the clumsiest one ever.

It was after that Helsinki meeting, of course, that Trump stood side by side with Putin and gave one of the most despicable public performances by an American president ever, siding with his Russian handler—er, I mean counterpart—over his own intelligence community on the question of Kremlin interference in the 2016 election. In that same press conference, in answer to a reporter’s question, a justifiably emboldened Putin bluntly admitted that he had worked to help Trump win the presidency.

THEIR MAN IN WASHINGTON

So is Trump actively working on behalf of Moscow?

His pattern of behavior certainly follows exactly the template of someone Moscow has by the short hairs. As Martin Longman writes in the Washington Monthly:

…..(T)he overall picture is indistinguishable from what a Manchurian president would do if they wanted to press Russia’s interests as far as possible while still retaining enough deniability to maintain their hold on power.

And that’s based just on what we know….Robert Mueller knows much, much more and it will all eventually come out.

Writing in Salon, Chauncey Devega takes a slightly different view:

Donald Trump is not a Manchurian candidate. Unlike the character “Raymond Shaw” in the 1962 film, Donald Trump has not been captured, tortured and in the process “brainwashed” by a foreign government. Instead, President Donald Trump has repeatedly chosen (emphasis added) to advance the interests and goals of Russia and Vladimir Putin over those of the United States and the American people.

The litany of Trump’s eyebrow-raising pro-Russia behavior is too long to list here, but a few lowlights jump out. For example, his strange, otherwise unexplainable habit of repeating talking points that could only come from the Kremlin, like the weirdly specific demonization of the microscopic nation of Montenegro, or his recent justification of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Rachel Maddow and others have pointed out that these are not ideas that Trump would pick up from Fox & Friends or any of his other usual news sources, and they’re certainly not things he thought of himself. So how did they get into his brain and out of his mouth? (Asking for a friend.)

Trump’s impulsive withdrawal of US troops from Syria over the objections of all his national security advisors was another very troubling move and gift to Putin. In its wake came another report (Christ, was this the biggest news week in American history?) that Trump has more than once raised the issue of pulling the US out of NATO, only to be talked out of it by his horrified military and foreign policy advisors.

The most benign take on this impulse is that it is part of Trump’s general kneejerk isolationism, which is heartstopping enough. (It already benefitted Russia aplenty that Trump repeatedly badmouthed and insulted our NATO partners.) A far more sinister interpretation is that it was in the overt service of Moscow, which for seventy years couldn’t imagine anything better than the alliance’s collapse, impossible as that seemed. As the New York Times reported:

A move to withdraw from the alliance, in place since 1949, “would be one of the most damaging things that any president could do to U.S. interests,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, an under secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “It would destroy 70-plus years of painstaking work across multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic, to create perhaps the most powerful and advantageous alliance in history,” Ms. Flournoy said in an interview. “And it would be the wildest success that Vladimir Putin could dream of.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

ANALYZE THIS

So let’s shift over to the Russian view on all this for a moment.

Intelligence operations have two components: collection and analysis. The former is sexier, whether it’s secret agents or high tech electronic surveillance, but the latter is where a usable product for the customer is formed, even though it mostly takes place behind desks in windowless rooms. The two phases are of course symbiotic. Poor collection renders analysis irrelevant: garbage in, garbage out,  as the saying goes. Similarly, the best collection in the world is useless if dummies are interpreting it.

Strictly speaking, it’s imprecise even to say “intelligence collection.” Intelligence is not collected. Intel assets collect information—raw data that is then analyzed and turned into the thing we call “intelligence” for use by the combatant commander. At the tactical level, that intel can be as basic as which rock the enemy machine gun is behind and whether he is going to attack from the hilltop or the treeline. At the national level, it concerns strategic capabilities and long term geopolitical goals.

As the Soviet Union’s premier intelligence agency, the KGB was responsible for many things, but above all, for predicting what the USSR’s enemies were going to do and what the future would look like, so the country’s leadership could craft its counter-strategy in response. (I’ll use the term “KGB”—Комите́т Госуда́рственной Безопа́сности, or Committee for State Security—to encompass the entire alphabet soup of Soviet intelligence.)

In that role, it had become clear to the KGB by the late ‘80s that the Soviet system had reached event horizon, and that not only Communist rule in the USSR but indeed the entire Warsaw Pact would soon fall. The KGB therefore began planning for its top priority and prime directive: ensuring its own survival in the post-Soviet world.

Thus, in the end the infamously ruthless KGB was not loyal to the Soviet Union at all. The KGB was loyal only to the KGB.

The Soviet intelligence community began laying the groundwork for how it would remain intact and empowered as the USSR collapsed and whatever would take its place emerged. In the process, it morphed into the post-1991 successors that we now know—the FSB, SVR, et al—acronyms that have slowly acquired the same chilling effect as that of their ancestor. In retrospect, it also seems clear that the KGB sought to put its own man in power as head of that state, in whatever form it eventually took.

Accordingly, it is no coincidence that, following the brief but intense tumult of the “Wild East” years, Vladimir Putin emerged as the nearly unchecked ruler of a freshly autocratic Russia. If there is one thing the average American knows about Putin, it’s that he was a career KGB officer. (Also, that he does a mean rendition of “Blueberry Hill.”) When Putin assumed power as president of Russia in 2000, he reportedly stood before a podium and joked to the assembled crowd, “Mission accomplished.” But maybe it wasn’t a joke at all.

Since you don’t get to be a KGB lieutenant colonel by being a shrinking violet, Putin’s cunning, competence, and ruthlessness were to be assumed, and his behavior as head of the Russian state for the past 19 years certainly bears that diagnosis out. Since Putin became its leader, the Russian government has behaved exactly the way you would imagine from a violent, highly aggressive intelligence agency with a nation-state attached. From Litvinenko to Politkovskaya to Khodorkovsky to Nemstsov to Browder and Magnitsky to Berezovsky to Skripal to dozens of other journalists and dissidents too numerous to mention, Russia has gone around the world brazenly attacking and even murdering Putin’s opponents, both at home and on foreign soil, with absolute flagrancy.

This is what happens when your spies take over your government.

Fittingly, it was Russia that gave the world its first modern intelligence service, the Cheka, not to mention a rich history of poisoning and other forms of political assassination that goes back to the tsars. So it is only natural that it should be the first modern espiocracy.

And with the installation of Donald Trump as President of the United States, they may well have pulled off the greatest coup in the history of the spy game.

Felix Dzerzhinsky would be proud.

A RAT’S ONLY A RAT IF HE TELLS THE TRUTH

There was of course another giant—but abortive—story last week, the BuzzFeed report that Michael Cohen had told the special counsel that Donald Trump personally ordered him to lie to Congress to cover up the Moscow Tower negotiations, and that Mueller’s team has other sources corroborating this claim.

That story rightly set off fireworks, as it would not only be an undeniably impeachable offense (even by the admission of Trump’s own nominee for Attorney General, a man otherwise predisposed to excuse and defend an imperial presidency), but yet another example of Trump protecting Russia’s interests and his own simultaneously. It would be obstruction-as-collusion in action.

But by Friday night the usually tomb-silent special counsel’s office issued an unprecedented statement that the BuzzFeed story was inaccurate, causing glee in the otherwise besieged White House and rare words of praise from Trump for Team Mueller, along with recriminations and self-flagellation in the press and a whole new round of questions.

Since it can safely be presumed that there have been numerous previous news stories that were inaccurate about what Mueller does or doesn’t know, why did the SCO’s spokesman Peter Carr—who usually has the easiest public affairs job in Washington, saying “no comment” to everything—feel the need to set the record straight on this one?

We don’t yet know.

BuzzFeed may yet be vindicated. The special counsel may have very specific reasons for denying that report, and it may have do with very specific legal language rather its overall gist. Or not. For the moment we are left to ponder, and marvel at the only time the sphinx has yet spoken.

In any case, tune in when Cohen takes the stand before the House Oversight Committee on February 7. (Thanks, midterms!) If I were an advertiser, I would skip the Super Bowl and run my primo commercials then.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Which brings us back to how this nightmare will play out.

We already understood that we were looking at the greatest political scandal in American history. Now, with the revelation of a counterintelligence investigation dating back to the suspicious firing of James Comey, the scale and scope and depth of that scandal have expanded exponentially.

So far a lot of attention has been focused on legal issues, such as whether or not a sitting President can be indicted under the Constitution and what DOJ policy says on the matter. But what if Mueller’s findings aren’t primarily criminal in nature at all, but centered on this counterintelligence matter? What if those findings suggest with a high degree of certainty that Donald Trump is an active Russian agent consciously advancing the cause of the Russian Federation over that of the United States, and therefore an unprecedented threat to US national security?

I can hear Fox Nation chortling (nervously) about “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but in light of the laundry list of evidence, some of which is noted above—not to mention new information that the SCO is likely to reveal—the question, astonishing as it is, must be asked and taken seriously. We are approaching the point where Occam’s razor favors that interpretation—Trump as Russian asset—more so than Trump as simple conspirator.

If that is the upshot of the coming Mueller report, as Carl Bernstein for one has hinted, then the long debate over whether the special counsel’s conclusions will have any impact will be over.

I am not saying that the Republican Party will suddenly discover its missing spine and do the right thing. I doubt it will. But I do think that it will be impossible for the GOP to plausibly dismiss Russiagate as a witchhunt, mere partisanship, or trivial “process” crimes.

If they do, I have to believe that we would be looking at a massive public outcry and possibly near-revolution in the streets. We certainly should be.

 

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.