On the Bus with Tom Wolfe

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 11.46.19 PM

Around 1980, when I was in high school, a progressive-minded English teacher came upon me reading a book about hallucinogens in the library during study hall. Instead of reporting me to the DEA, he kindly gave me a copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (That, Betsy DeVos, is what we call an educator.)

KA-POW, ZOWIE! Heeeeewack!!! as someone once wrote.

I became an immediate acolyte of Tom Wolfe, and over the next five or six years devoured almost everything he had written to that point:  The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Pump House GangThe Right StuffRadical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Painted Word, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, In Our Time, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Purple Decades.

Wolfe and Hunter Thompson (whom I had discovered a bit earlier, in junior high, thanks to “Doonesbury”) were my literary heroes, along with Kesey—although he carried an asterisk, as there was really only that one great book, plus his role as lead character in another—and Kerouac, who not coincidentally gave us Dean Moriarty, whose real life alter ego Neal Cassady was Kesey’s scene-stealing co-star in Electric Kool-Aid! (Synchronicity!!!!! Intersubjectivity!!!!!).

I know it all sounds a bit juvenile and clichéd now—particularly Kerouac, and Hunter, even as his great political and sociological reportage has been overshadowed by the legend of his personal excesses. (Would that he were alive today to eviscerate a certain orange-toned shitbag.) But to a provincial teenager with romantic visions, it was intoxicating to say the least. Apparently, millions of other boys of my generation agreed.

And I do mean “boys.” Hunter especially had massive appeal to a certain breed of literary-minded young men, but all of  the so-called New Journalism was a pretty male phenomenon—with apologies to Joan Didion—reflective of the endemic sexism of the day. I’m not sure much has changed.

But Tom Wolfe towered over them all. I loved his maximalist style, his joyous, unbridled indulgence, his sheer Americanness—the polar opposite of the painfully stilted, faux European style that characterized critically correct capital L Literature. It was like the New Wave kicking down the doors of the stodgy form the French called the “cinema of quality.”

For almost forty years he has been my favorite author.

As many before me have noted, Wolfe’s genius was that he married an unparalleled eye—and ear—for biting, incisive social commentary with the most pyrotechnically entertaining prose style seen in American letters in the 20thcentury.

It goes without saying that Wolfe was a virtuoso with words—like a Hendrix, a Coltrane, a Buddy Powell—a writer who practically reinvented the entire non-fiction form. But that was only the start. Compounding his brilliance, he deployed that gargantuan talent in the service of some of the most insightful sociological analysis and spot-on puncturing of American foibles ever put to paper. He had all the wit of Gore Vidal (and more) without the simpering self-regard and highfalutin pretensions, and the gimlet eye of H.L. Mencken but without the disturbing Teutonic sympathies. I know that his own avowed models were Balzac, Zola, and Dickens, whom he consciously emulated, but for my money, the best comparison is Mark Twain. As Frank Rich wrote (fittingly, in the pages of New York magazine, from which Wolfe sprung):

It is really hard to overestimate the revolution Wolfe brought to journalism. By marrying a glorious literary style and hard-driving narrative to meticulous, indefatigable reporting, he rehabilitated the very notion of print journalism in the 1960s when it was deadly gray and, like much of American culture, having difficulty fending off the behemoth of television. It’s impossible to imagine many of our best nonfiction writers, from Hunter S. Thompson to Michael Lewis, without his having paved the way.

BONFIRE OVER BAGHDAD

When I was in Iraq in 1991, my parachute infantry regiment had marched to an absolutely desolate, godforsaken swatch of enemy territory south of Jalibah airfield when the US advance was halted by the cease fire. We stopped in place and sat there for the next month while awaiting further orders—what we hoped would be redeployment back to the United States—while watching in frustration as what remained of the Republican Guard rolled back toward Baghdad, putting down the Iraqi resistance along the way, sowing the seeds for a second war that would commence a dozen years later.

This is not an argument that Desert Storm was prematurely halted, though it might be the beginning of an argument that Desert Storm was the start of the bloody, self-destructive crusade in which we are still engaged. But that’s a topic for another day.

During that month we sat near Jalibah, boredom was a far deadlier enemy than the Iraqis had been. We were all desperate for any kind of reading material at all, but in those pre-Internet days, when it took two weeks for a letter to arrive from the States, pickings were slim. We got a couple of “care packages” of books, most of which were junk. But in one of those boxes I managed to find a paperback copy of Bonfire of the Vanities.

O happy day!

I devoured it cover to cover, and as soon as I finished, started reading it all over again from page one.

I’d read it before, when it first came out in 1987, when I was stationed in Germany, and I loved it. Everything that was terrific about Wolfe’s non-fiction style had been seamlessly transferred to fiction, which is no mean feat. Like most readers, save New Yorkers (and among New Yorkers, that even more minuscule subset of a certain kind of Upper East Sider and Wall Streeter), it portrayed a world that was utterly alien to me….and even more so for having spent most of the late Eighties out of the country, in the decidedly un-Sherman McCoy-like world of a GI in the US Army Europe sitting astride the Fulda Gap. But that was the genius of Tom Wolfe: he could take you the reader into any world he wanted and make it come alive and feel absolutely real.

There was some symmetry in reading it again in the pitiless deserts of Iraq in ‘91, securing American access to Middle Eastern oil, a fitting capstone to the rapacious Eighties ethos of Gordon Geckoite “greed is good.”

INFORMATION COMPULSION

Five years later, in 1996, Wolfe would publish a little-remembered novella called “Ambush at Fort Bragg”— perhaps one of the few things he ever penned that can rightly be called “little-remembered.” It was his first piece of fiction after Bonfire, and like it, was serialized in Rolling Stone, albeit in two parts rather than 27. (To my knowledge it was never printed anywhere else, and survives only as an audiobook read by Edward Norton.)

Clearly showing the lingering preoccupations of the towering novel that preceded it, the novella is largely a screed about the media, but also co-mingles pieces of the ill-fated 1993 Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu—most memorably told in Mark Bowden’s classic Black Hawk Down—with a horrific 1995 peacetime incident at Ft. Bragg, NC in which a deranged, M16-wielding paratrooper opened fire on a physical training formation, killing one and wounding 18 others. (The shooting took place in the football stadium that my old office overlooked on Ardennes Street, though I had been gone from Bragg for four years by that time.) It was the first time Wolfe had written anything that touched on a world I knew personally and intimately, apart from his dead-on dissection of military family life in The Right Stuff. There were things I thought he got wrong, but also things he got quite right.

Wolfe talked often of his theory of “Information Compulsion,” which rightly held that people love to talk about their passions, and that a savvy journalist can accomplish most of his or her work simply by shutting up and listening. Seems obvious, but it’s easier said than done, as it requires the shedding of ego and the suppression of the powerful and very natural human urge to flaunt one’s knowledge, even when playing dumb is the smart move.

But Wolfe was a master of the technique, with his deliberate “Man from Mars” approach to reportage. Like many of his turns of phrase, Information Compulsion was—once one grasped it—forehead-smackingly obvious in its simplicity and patent correctness. Therein lies its genius.

Moreover, once the information was in hand, Wolfe had an uncanny ability to digest, assess, and crystalize it with unmatched precision and panache—a separate skillset from its mere collection. Time after time he stepped into one highly cloistered subculture after another—acid freaks, custom car enthusiasts, military pilots, surfers, architects—and emerged with blazing insights that immediately zeroed in on the most fundamental and emblematic aspects of that given world and brilliantly conveyed them to the reader.

In Electric Kool-Aid—in some quarters probably still his most important book—Wolfe memorably divided the characters into those who were “on the bus”’—that is, hip to the lysergic experience and the movement Kesey was leading—and those who were not. In discussing the book later, he made it very clear that he was never “on the bus”….that is, he never pretended to be cool, or hip, or locked into the Merry Prankster ethos, a calculation he believed would have been a serious misstep with a group of people collectively possessed of a finely honed, pharmaceutically-aided bullshit detector. Had he tried to blend in rather than being willing to standing out as the square reporter, he could never have written the book. (At least not that book.)

Wolfe of course lived the “Man from Mars” approach in his own life, with the famous white suits and dandyish style that instantly announced his deliberate secession from the dull mass of the rest of humanity. In an era—the Sixties—when outrageous fashion was the norm (to the point that it disappeared up its own ass), Wolfe once again outflanked the competition, noting that it was far more eye-catching to adopt an ordinary, bourgeois form like the suit and take in a just slightly eccentric direction, than to appear in, say, a feather boa, Viking helmet, and trousers made of pork chops.

GET ME BRUCE WILLIS

Aside from Bonfire, I was never that taken with his fiction, but Bonfire alone is enough to put him in the pantheon. No doubt that was what galled his “three stooges,” as he called his critics Updike, Mailer, and Irving, who were surely peeved to see a peer (and rival) leap effortlessly from a stellar career in non-fiction to such an eye-popping critical and commercial triumph on his first foray into long form fiction. (So much so that they had to complain about it in print—an unseemly look on a legend.) Who can really blame them, though? They would have been less than human if they were not envious. And again, even as he struck back (in an essay in included in his 2001 collection Hooking Up), the reliably amiable Mr. Wolfe retained the upper hand by cheerfully copping to his own investment in his reputation and legacy rather than pretending to be too cool for school.

Bonfire also holds the distinction of being a great book that inspired another great book, The Devil’s Candy, then-Wall Street Journal film critic Julie Salamon’s scabrous account of the (un)making of the 1990 film adaptation, an epic flop featuring wild miscasting of all three leads, including Bruce Willis (who still thought he was in “Moonlighting”) in a role written for an Englishman, and Tom Hanks (one of our greatest actors, but don’t ask Jimmy Stewart to play a jerk); the continuity nightmare of Melanie Griffith’s mid-production breast enlargement; some seriously ill-advised voiceover; and above all, the decision to discard Wolfe’s scalpel of in favor of a saccharine Hollywood sentimentality that demanded that the hero be “likable”—hence Mr. Hanks—in the process contaminating the entire DNA of the story. (Attention Hollywood: a remake is in order.)

More generally, the movie seemed doomed from the start by the mismatch of the material and director Brian DePalma. That film needed the touch of someone like Mike Nichols, with a script by Buck Henry, or Paddy Chayefsky, or Terry Southern. (Luckily, DePalma was at least talked out of his idea to drop a bucket of pig’s blood on Kim Cattrall.)

The Devil’s Candy captures that slow-motion trainwreck in all its inexorable glory. It is to DePalma’s credit that he allowed that book to be published at all. Thinking of it now, however, I am much more forgiving than I was back then, understanding how easy it is—with just a few missteps—to screw up a movie.

(If you really want to read a postmortem of a flop, and one concerning a director without DePalma’s self-awareness, read the unintentionally hilarious The Man Who Heard Voices.)

By contrast, Phil Kaufman’s The Right Stuff  (1983) is a terrific film, and all the more incredible for having tackled a book that might at first seem unfilmable. It’s somehow fitting that two of Tom Wolfe’s best-known books resulted in movies at opposite ends of the qualitative spectrum.

Wolfe, with characteristic wisdom, knew enough to stay away from adaptations of his work, the better to collect hosannas when they were triumphs and bask in sympathy when they were botched.

The other noteworthy cinematic appearance of Tom Wolfe—off screen, anyway—is in The Player (1992), when Tim Robbins’s anti-hero studio exec offers to bid a million dollars, sight unseen, on a new book by Wolfe. His deputy—and girlfriend—played by Cynthia Stevenson, asks Robbins’s character why he is willing pay so much, to which he replies, reverently, “It’s Tom Wolfe,” his voice dripping with contempt that anyone would not bow down at the very mention of the great author’s name.

I never could tell if Altman was taking a shot at Wolfe, or at the lemming-like mentality of Hollywood. (Maybe both.)

In any case, ironically, The Player bluntly dramatizes the dumbass studio mentality that led to a bomb like Bonfire, right down to the requisite happy ending and the casting of Bruce Willis as the hero of any American studio movie released between 1988 and 1994.

PAGING DR. HOWARD, DR. FINE, DR. HOWARD

I was lucky enough to see Tom Wolfe speak in person, only once, somewhere on the Upper West Side like Symphony Space, I think, in the ‘00s if I’m not mistaken. He was exactly as advertised and as I’d always imagined: razor sharp, funny, reflective, charming, eloquent, insightful, and somehow simultaneously pretentious and self-effacing. (Which either meant he was not pretentious at all, or that the self-effacing part was a very convincing act. But it didn’t seem that way. He seemed like a man fully at peace with who he was, both the good and the bad. A man in full, if you will.)

During the Q&A an audience member asked where he got his socks, and Wolfe genially declined to give away his secrets.

In some ways I am saddened that Tom Wolfe is not with us to chronicle the absurdities of the current political moment and lacerate those who have inflicted them upon us, but I am also weirdly glad that he is not forced to waste his time on a cretin like the current occupant of the Oval Office. Wolfe belongs too much to an earlier era of political nightmares, even if he never explicitly wrote about them himself.

In 1980, in the wake of Nixon’s downfall (but before the rise of Reagan), Wolfe told Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone that “the real lesson of Watergate was, what a stable country! Here you’ve got the president forced out of office, and yet the tanks don’t roll, the junta is never formed.” Others have made similar observations, but typically, few with Wolfe’s style. It was a remark characteristic of his genteel conservatism—may that extinct species also rest in peace.

Even though in that same interview he confessed to having no interest in politics as subject matter, I do wonder what he would make of our current situation, and whether that optimism of his still held in his twilight. Per above, I think Dr. Thompson would have been better suited to sink his chompers into Benito Cheetoh (even though it was Wolfe’s opinion that Thompson’s talents, too, were wasted on politics).

Alas, we will never know. One might also argue that in his final decades he lost a step, plugged into the zeitgeist-wise. But no matter. Grading on a curve, Wolfe’s B+ material would still be far and away almost any author’s masterpiece.

Who today can hold a candle to him for sheer linguistic brilliance? David Foster Wallace is the too-obvious candidate who immediately comes to mind, his indictment in the #MeToo movement notwithstanding. But I’ll confess that I could never get through any of his books. Tom Wolfe, by contrast, was the most eminently readable literary giant I can think of….every new piece, of any length, a fantastically gobble-able feast that I delighted in gorging myself upon. (With DFW disqualified for being a creepy stalker and not that much fun to read, my vote goes to Dave Eggers for style and to Fran Lebowitz for social commentary, with honorable mention to the late Christopher Hitchens for capacity to infuriate and poke eyes. Yes, it takes three writers to replace Tom Wolfe, and even then I don’t think the math adds up.)

So in summary, I’ll wager—and this does not require great courage—that when the history of postwar American literature is written, Tom Wolfe will loom large. It is already impossible to consider oneself a literate American without at least a passing knowledge of his most seminal books and essays, while his influence on our lexicon is so vast as to be taken for granted. (A nice survey of Wolfe’s astounding array of contributions to the English language, neologism-wise—from radical chic to the right stuff to the Me Decade, push the envelope, Master of the Universe, and beyond—can be found here). How many artists are at once groundbreaking sui generis innovators, yet also so absolutely pleasurable to partake of, without an iota of eat-your-vegetables critical insistence that you should like it? (For my taste: Wolfe, the Beatles, Seinfeld…..)

Everyone has their heroes whose passing leaves a hole in our collective being, and one of mine left a gaping chasm when he shuffled off this mortal coil this week.

Rest in peace, Tom. When comes such another?

***********

Photo: https://www.greatertalent.com/speaker/tomwolfe/

 

Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal

TrumpCrybaby

A very wise and kind friend of mine recently challenged me to write a blog post that was no more than 400 words—less than a tenth of my usual length. So I am tackling that challenge this week, and look, I’ve already wasted 51 words just telling you about it.

That short version of this essay can be found here. For those eager for the usual Russian novel-style treatment, read on….

THE TEMPER TANTRUM THAT SHOOK THE WORLD

As usual, this week offered any number of Trumpian horrors to behold, but the one that was surely most consequential was the Very Stable Genius’s moronic decision to pull out of the JCPOA.

There’s no need for me to rehash the particulars, as they have been thoroughly covered, and by more expert analysts than me.  What I would like to do instead is pull back a bit and take a broader look at the nightmarish majesty of what we have just witnessed, and the hostage situation in which the United States finds itself in terms of our commander-in-chief.

I have already written at length on the foolishness of thinking we can bully—or worse, physically force—aspiring nuclear powers into abandoning their quest for the Bomb. (See “An End to Nuclear Fairytales.”) When it comes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, I can’t say it any better than Suzanne Maloney (Deputy Director of Foreign Policy and Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security and Climate Initiative), writing for the Brookings Institution:

The premeditated American dismantling of an agreement that was the product of more than a decade of intense diplomacy and economic pressure marks a staggeringly counterproductive step. That it was undertaken over the vocal objections of Washington’s closest allies and without a clear strategy of mitigating the newly heightened risks of Iranian proliferation and conventional retaliation represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.

Such is the consensus not just of diplomats and policy wonks like John Kerry and Susan Rice and Wendy Sherman, and respected non-proliferation organizations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative, but hardnosed military and intelligence professionals like John Brennan and General (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, who are hardly doves by anyone’s measure. Even those—like McCaffrey—who are critical of the specifics of the deal itself believe that for the US to withdraw now would be a colossal strategic mistake.

So we can have an informed debate about the JCPOA. We can talk about how pulling out of it will actually hasten, not hinder, Iran’s capability to acquire nuclear weapons. We can point out how it drives a wedge between us and our allies,  destroys American credibility, diminishes American influence, and heightens the risk of war. We can argue over Iran’s ballistic missile program or its sponsorship of Hezbollah or the war in Syria, even though the plan deliberately didn’t address those issues. (It was hard enough to find a workable agreement on nukes, let alone a Persian Gulf panacea.)

So yes, we can have a substantive debate over the merits of the JCPOA.

But the decision to pull out of the deal was not driven by a substantive debate.

It was driven by the juvenile impulses of a willfully ignorant, wildly unqualified fourth-rate game show host…..a pathological liar with borderline dementia and a set of values and temperament that could not be more ill-suited to the presidency if they had been deliberately designed that way…..a vindictive, petty manchild who is by all accounts consumed with rage 24/7 and on a permanent hair trigger to lash out at anyone who displeases him (Gold Star parents, civil rights icons, war heroes, the Pope) and anxious to behave like a human wrecking ball just for the sheer nihilistic pleasure of breaking shit.

It was driven by an irrational, all-consuming hatred and envy of Barack Obama, and a damn-the-torpedoes desire to undo anything and everything he did simply because he did it. (See also Trump’s efforts to undo the TPP, the Paris climate accord, and Obamacare—the last of which at least failed.)

It was driven by a man who surely hasn’t read the agreement and doesn’t begin to understand even its broad strokes let alone its minute details. Remember Trump’s comment (made to AIPAC, not coincidentally) that “I’ve studied this issue in great detail—I would say actually greater by far than anybody else.” Even the audience at AIPAC guffawed. It’s beyond laughable in a man who is well known to lack both the literacy and attention span to read even a one-page briefing paper. But it’s also tragic. It’s a kind of sixth grade boyish boastfulness that suggests that the boaster is terrifyingly detached from reality in thinking that anyone would ever believe that (Donny: please at least learn to lie better), but even more terrifying because millions of Trump-loving Americans do believe it.

That we as a people saw fit to make this man our leader (to the extent that we did, notwithstanding Russian troll farms and the anti-democratic mechanism of the Electoral College) will never cease to amaze me. It will be left to future historians to parse how that came to be, and whatever you might think of Hillary Clinton or the extent of Trump’s mysterious fealty to the Kremlin, there is no version in which the American people come off looking good.

And now, with his petulant withdrawal from this landmark deal with Iran, we are seeing yet another result of that epically terrible decision—arguably the most destructive one so far. When I see headlines like “Trump Weighs Whether to Pull US Out of Iran Accord,” I sometime have a bolt-from-the blue hallucinatory moment in which I have to slap myself and reckon with the fact that that is not a joke on “The Simpsons” or something out of a “Twilight Zone” reboot, but actual reality. (Or is it? “There is no spoon.”)

In what sick joke of a world is DONALD J. TRUMP entrusted with a decision like that?

DTBM

I am well aware that with this essay I am fully engaging in what my friend Matt Bardin calls “DTBM journalism”—that is, reportage that boils down to nothing more than a primal scream of “Donald Trump Bad Man.”

Fair enough; I’ll cop to that. But every once in a while it’s cathartic and necessary. (And by “every once in a while,” I mean once a week.)

In case it’s not clear, I do not like Donald Trump. I do not like him, Sam I am.

It was the columnist Michelle Goldberg (then writing for Slate, now with the New York Times) who introduced me to the term “kakistorcracy:” government by the very worst. Until recently, it was a word not necessary in the lexicon of most American citizens. We are now seeing it in all its appalling glory.

On the campaign trail Trump promised that he would hire “the best people.” (He also promised Mexico would pay for the wall, everyone would have fantastic health insurance, and that he would release his tax returns when the magic pixies were done with the mythical audit.) Of course, as it turned out, the political hires working in the Trump administration—I’m not talking about the permanent, professional bureaucratic staff—are arguably the worst, most incompetent, venal, corrupt, and morally bankrupt people ever gathered in one administration. Should we be surprised? With hindsight, it’s obvious that only those people would be attracted to work for Trump. And the latest revelations about Michael Cohen—the week’s other big story—suggest that the depths of the corruption go even deeper than we have yet discovered. Like, Marianas Trench-deep.

In less than eighteen months, the parade of Trump appointees and hires who have been forced out in disgrace is comically long (maybe not so comically), to include his Secretary of State, two National Security Advisors, a Chief of Staff (with another on deck), a senior strategist, and countless lower ranking staffers.

Of those who remain, it’s a pretty serious horserace over who is the most despicable member of Team Trump. (I’m exempting the boss himself, in the interest of a fair fight.) I have a special vomit reflex for Stephen Miller, but that is based on a rather singular objection: his odious, smirking sonderkommando-like nativism. When it comes to sheer, old school Spiro Agnew-style graft, I think Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Mick Mulvaney, and Steve Mnuchin are in a pretty tight five-way race. (Not to take away from their terribleness of Betsy DeVos, but her incompetence seems to dwarf her greed. She was already an heiress so maybe that frees her up to concentrate on substituting  communion wafers for textbooks.)

And daily we see just how much damage a kakistocracy like this can inflict, with the JCPOA debacle being merely the latest and worst example.

Hillary-haters who during the campaign bleated that “both choices are equally bad,” please take note.

PIVOT PLAY

The day after the 2016 election, David Remnick published a piece in The New Yorker titled “An American Tragedy.” I was very struck by that. I totally agreed, of course. But I also found it startling that a major American periodical of the stature of The New Yorker would take such an unapologetically partisan stance, and within hours of the winner being declared no less. I could not have imagined a similar headline after a victory by Jeb or Rubio or even Cruz. Even if one had legitimate problems with those very flawed candidates, they would never have prompted such an immediate and sweeping denunciation. Even a reprehensible weasel like Cruz was still more or less within the realm of political normalcy.

But Trump is well outside it. And his presidency has been precisely as we imagined it would be.

Speaking recently on Alec Baldwin’s podcast “Here’s the Thing,” Jeffrey Toobin opined that, far from “pivoting” to become presidential (as we were repeatedly assured he would do, any minute now, going back to 2015) Trump has proven to be just as bad a president as his harshest critics predicted. (I would say even worse, in some respects.)

Since taking office in January 2017—after giving that appallingly small and mean-spirited speech in front of an appropriately paltry crowd that he insisted was the largest gathering in human history—Trump has succeeded in wreaking untold havoc on this country and the world. Some of that harm is abstract and long term, such as the damage to American credibility and influence in the wider world. Some of it is immediate and very personal, such as the suffering inflicted on innocent people by his immigration policies, his indefensible Dickensian slashing of relief programs aimed at feeding hungry children, or his poisoning of our communal air and water and the wanton rape of our land.

But it is his actions in the realm of nuclear proliferation and global security policy that have the most potential for sheer destruction…to include possibility of ending life on this planet as we know it.

We gave that power to the guy who hosted “Celebrity Apprentice,” ran the Ponzi scheme that was Trump University, sold mail order steaks, and owned the New Jersey Generals.

Is America great again yet?

INTO THE WEEDS, FOR A MOMENT

When it comes to foreign policy, Trump is no doubt flush with what he prematurely sees as his epoch-shattering “triumph “in North Korea. As many have written—me among them—it’s a bit to early for the White House to be booking his flight to Oslo. (See “Only Nixon Could Go to China….But Nixon Was, Like, Smart.”) But there can be little question that the DPRK situation emboldened him on Iran—as if he needed emboldening.

The two are certainly connected, but not in the way he imagines. How Trump thinks that reneging on a landmark non-proliferation deal with one country is going to help him  negotiate an even more complicated one with another is beyond me. On the contrary, it is sure to have quite the opposite effect. As John Cassidy of The New Yorker wrote, Trump has in essence told Tehran: “Finish up your nukes, and then I’ll sit down and talk with you.”

The fact that the JCPOA was a “deal” was always a danger area, given that Trump prides himself on his dealmaking perhaps above all else. It’s a cruel joke of course. As a president, he’s proven to be perhaps the worst and most ineffective negotiator ever to occupy the Oval Office….unable even to get his party’s signature goal of the past decade done—the repeal of Obamacare—despite controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. (As a sidenote, I think the best solution there would have simply been to rename the ACA “Trumpcare” without changing even a comma, thus ensuring that Trump would immediately embrace it.)

In his business career, his allegedly “legendary” dealmaking acumen consisted only of stiffing partners, employees, vendors, contractors, and anyone else foolish enough to get in bed with him. That’s not “the art of the deal”—it’s the art of the con.

So in approaching the JCPOA Trump was sure to fan out his tailfeathers in an effort to show that is the cock of the walk. (Well, he’s half right.) Suzanne Maloney again:

For Trump, the decision is all ego; dismembering the Iran deal satisfies a multiplicity of petty personal interests—in undoing his predecessor’s legacy, making good on his own campaign promises, and stroking his inflated sense of his own negotiating prowess as manifestly superior to Obama, who he charged with conceding “maximum leverage” in exchange for a “giant fiction.”

What kind of “better deal” does Trump think he’s going to extract from Tehran? Presumably, he thinks he’s going to wave the flag of American military might, threaten “fire and fury,” and the Iranians will give away the store. Again, it is a measure of his willful dementia. We have even less military leverage in the Persian Gulf than we do on the Korean peninsula, and we are certainly not going to get a broader deal that also addresses Iran’s ballistic missiles and international adventurism in addition to its nuclear ambitions in exchange for less than we are offering in the JCPOA.

The Iran deal has legitimate flaws—most deals of this complexity and stakes do—but they can be addressed. Instead Trump has gone full on baby with-the-bathwater. And he not only threw the baby out, he threw it out into a molten pool of lava full of lava-resistant sharks with laser beams on their heads.

The truth is that those flaws have been wildly overstated by the hysterical right wing in this country, with its usual combination of self-deluding jingoism twinned with disinformation cynically deployed for partisan purposes. The great military affairs website War on the Rocks offered one of the most thorough and clear-eyed views of just what we are stupidly giving up. Aaron Stein of WOTR and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East writes:

The Islamic Republic of Iran made a political decision to forego work on nuclear weapons and agreed to extraordinary and unprecedented inspections to verify the non-diversion of fissile material for military use. In return, the United States eased sanctions on Iran and recognized its right to enrichment, but within the strict and verifiable limits the JCPOA imposes for 25 years on the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. This simple concession allowed the United States to realize its national security interests, without the use of force, and with the consent of its allies and major competitors alike. And it did so in a way that achieved its main objective: placing verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Or, at least until shortly before 2 pm yesterday.

The United States, not Iran, is now in breach of the JCPOA. We have ceded the moral high ground and made the medieval mullahs of Tehran the good guys in the eyes of the world. They will now be justified in breaking the agreement and pursuing the Bomb, and in refusing outside weapons inspectors access to their facilities. That in turn may precipitate military conflict (which, of course, is precisely what John Bolton and his ilk want, and for which they will blame Tehran even though we’re the ones who didn’t keep our word.) We have also further alienated ourselves from our allies and partners, who were already rightly skittish about the reliability of the United States, and who—sorry to tell you, isolationists—actually are important. Iran has signaled that it might stay in the pact even as the US has withdrawn, which would allow it to trade with Europe, Russia, and China, and isolate the US and neuter the power of American sanctions in which Bolton and his ilk put so much stock…..but really only as a prelude to actual war.

The reckless nihilism behind Trump’s decision is almost unfathomable, as are the lies in which he couched it….again, a thin veneer over his true motive. As the Los Angeles Times editorialized:

But as alarming as the action itself was the deceitful and demagogic speech in which he attempted to justify it. It was virtually indistinguishable from the sort of rant Trump delivered on the campaign trail—utterly uninformed by the sort of appreciation for complexity that experience confers on most occupants of the Oval Office. And much as we would like to think the president was motivated by a belief, however wrongheaded, that tearing up this agreement would lead to a better one, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that he was more influenced by a compulsion to besmirch the legacy of his predecessor.

TRUST BUT VERIFY (AS SOMEONE ONCE SAID)

The crux of the hawks’ argument for pulling out of the JCPOA is that it doesn’t permanently prevent Iran from ever getting the Bomb. (What would, by the by, short of the right wing fantasy of making Iran a de facto American colony, as it once was?) With great rending of garments and gnashing of teeth they howl that Iran might still get the Bomb in fifteen or twenty years. But ironically, pulling out means Iran is more likely to get the Bomb right now.

Chief among the problems of breaking the agreement is that it removes the very mechanism that gives us the best insurance against Iranian nuclear ambitions: inspections and monitoring. I know that the denizens of Fox Nation like to act as if this is fairy dust naiveté, but in so doing they only betray their ignorance.

I refer you to a memoir titled The Bomb in My Garden by the Iraqi nuclear scientist Dr. Mahdi Obeidi and the American journalist Kurt Pitzer, which thoroughly details Iraq’s quest for the Bomb. Specifically, it addresses Iraq’s clandestine effort to enrich uranium to weapons grade, a program overseen by Dr. Obeidi using precisely the same centrifuge technology that Iran is now using. Obeidi describes in great detail how IAEA and UN weapons inspectors—much-derided by neo-cons and other hawks—actually had a crushing effect on Iraq’s ability restart its nuclear weapons program after the 1991 war. In fact, as a result of that inspection regimen, Saddam was never able to restart that program: the great lie at the heart of Bush’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Former UN weapons inspector David Albright—who assisted Pitzer in brokering Dr. Obeidi’s nailbiting escape from Iraq—called Iraq’s covert enrichment program the most sophisticated he had ever seen. Yet under the scrutiny of the weapons inspectors, even that could not carry on as it had before March 1991.

In fact, there is some reason to believe that some of Obeidi’s underlings—forced to flee Iraq because of the US invasion in 2003—sought refuge and employment in Iran, and are now working in their former foe’s nuclear weapons program…..another example of how hamhanded US military interventionism hastened the exact outcome it promised to forestall.

BOMB BOMB BOMB BOMB BOMB IRAN

To the extent that the hawks have a coherent position on Iran beyond the Strangeloveian fantasy that we can bomb it into submission, theirs was naturally the one that had the greatest appeal to Spanky, as he is congenitally attracted to the most idiotically macho, simplistic, arrogant stance on any given topic. Was there ever any chance that he was going to lean toward the more informed, nuanced, thoughtful approach, one that took into account realistic assessments of US ability to project power and influence international events, the complexities of internal Iranian politics, and the long term implications of our actions in a region as complicated as the Persian Gulf?

There was not even a million-to-one, Jim Carrey-style “you’re telling me there’s a chance” chance of that.

The notion that the Saudis are our great ally in confronting Tehran is another terrible hoax. Lest we forget, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is from whence fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers sprang: a deeply fundamentalist Islamic country openly hostile to modernism and Western democracy that incubates some of the worst anti-American insurgency around the world. Yes, Iran sponsors terrorism and makes trouble in the region, but so do our alleged friends in the House of Saud. We are their suckers in dismantling the JCPOA, largely to help them gain advantage over their greatest regional rival, a form of brinksmanship that serves them much more than us.

The hawkish Israeli government, too, has very very partisan reasons for trying to undermine the JCPOA, even though one could credibly argue that those reasons are wildly misguided and actually counterproductive to Israel’s security, just as they are to American security. But Bibi is very adept at manipulating the Donald, in case you didn’t get that from the PowerPoint presentation he transparently gave for Trump’s benefit last week.

Tel Aviv of course already has the Bomb and Riyadh would like an excuse to get one too. We are now a giant step closer to that possibility. As Roger Cohen writes in the Times:

Nothing in Trump’s speech was more scurrilous than this very Orwellian inversion of the truth: “If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Everyone would want their weapons ready by the time Iran had theirs.” In fact, Trump has single-handedly fast-forwarded that race by removing the constraints the deal imposed on Iran.

The hardliners in both Saudi and Israel would love to draw the US into a war with Iran; . indeed, Iran and Israel are already at war, and even as I write this are exchanging rocket fire and airstrikes in Syria and the Golan Heights. Such a thing might be appealing to Trump too, wag the dog-wise, as a welcome distraction from the domestic scandals engulfing him and the ever-tightening vise of the Mueller probe.

I know that people like Bret Stephens and John Bolton—neither of whom, ahem, ever spent a day in uniform fighting for this country—think it would actually be a great idea to go to war in Iran, that it’s preferable to diplomacy and an agreement with which Iran was complying, and that was keeping it from getting a nuclear weapon. (If it ain’t broke, by all means, fire a Tomahawk missile at it.)

But the complaints of these armchair field marshals ring hollow, and their ostensible solutions—which boil down to overthrowing the Iranian regime, either covertly or via invasion—ought to send a chill down the spine of every American. With the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan not even in our rear view mirror but still ongoing, are we really so stupid as to buy that same old argument that the best path forward for us is to launch another hard-slogging ground war in the Middle East, because, hey, it worked so well in last time. What could go wrong?

Then again, just six years after the denouement of Watergate the American people saw fit to put another hardline Republican—one of Nixon’s staunchest defenders—in the White House. So America’s collective memory, and wisdom, are very much in question.

ATOMKRIEG? NEIN, DANKE

Which brings us back to the stupidity of our fearless leader, and our stupidity in putting him in power.

Suzanne Maloney once again:

Notably, (the abrogation of the JCPOA) was precipitated by a president who could not even respond to a single, simple question, shouted by a reporter as Trump signed the order to re-impose sanctions with a flourish of his pen, about how his decision might make the country safer. That is the only question that matters: How is America safer now that the United States is unraveling its end of a bargain that curbed Iran’s nuclear activities?

Gee, who could have foreseen that putting a demented, boastfully uninformed, narcissistic cretin in charge of US nuclear policy would take us down this deadly road?

**********

Illustration: http://blogforarizona.net/the-art-of-the-tantrum-trump-gives-do-or-die-ultimatum-to-house-tea-publicans-for-obamacare-repeal/

 

 

 

Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal (short)

TrumpCrybaby

A very wise and kind friend of mine recently challenged me to write a blog post that was no more than 400 words—less than a tenth of my usual length. So I am tackling that challenge this week, and look, I’ve already wasted 51 words just telling you about it.

For those who’d like the usual Russian novel-style treatment of this week’s topic, the long form version of this essay can be found here.

********

There’s no need for me to rehash the particulars of the Very Stable Genius’s moronic decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as they have been thoroughly covered, and by more expert analysts than me.

I have already written at length on the foolishness of thinking we can bully aspiring nuclear powers into abandoning their quest for the Bomb. That the JCPOA was our best bet for constraining Iran’s ambitions was the consensus not just of diplomats and policy wonks, but hardnosed military and intelligence professionals like John Brennan and General (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey. Even those—like McCaffrey—who are critical of the specifics of the deal itself believe that for the US to withdraw now would be a colossal strategic mistake.

We can have a substantive debate over the merits of the JCPOA. We can talk about how pulling out of it will actually hasten, not hinder, Iran’s capability to acquire nuclear weapons. We can point out how it drives a wedge between us and our allies, destroys American credibility, diminishes American influence, and heightens the risk of war.

But the decision to pull out of the deal was not driven by a substantive debate.

It was driven by the juvenile impulses of a willfully ignorant fourth-rate game show host…..a pathological liar with a temperament that could not be more ill-suited to the presidency if it had been deliberately designed that way…..a vindictive, petty manchild who is by all accounts consumed with rage 24/7.

It was driven by an irrational, all-consuming hatred and envy of Barack Obama, a damn-the-torpedoes desire to undo everything he did simply because he did it, and ordered by a man who surely hasn’t read the agreement and doesn’t begin to understand even its broad strokes let alone its minute details.

That we as a people saw fit to make this man our leader (to the extent that we did so) will never cease to amaze me. When I see headlines like “Trump Weighs Whether to Pull US Out of Iran Accord,” I sometime have a hallucinatory moment in which I have to slap myself and reckon with the fact that that is not something out of a “Twilight Zone” reboot, but actual reality.

Gee, who could have foreseen that putting a demented, boastfully uninformed, narcissistic cretin in charge of US nuclear policy would take us down this deadly road?

**********

OK, that’s exactly 399 words, not counting the intro and the outro. Again, the long form version is here if you want it.

Illustration: http://blogforarizona.net/the-art-of-the-tantrum-trump-gives-do-or-die-ultimatum-to-house-tea-publicans-for-obamacare-repeal/

 

A Conversation with Joe McGinty (in C)

Joe-McGinty

For more than 30 years Joe McGinty has been a fixture on the New York rock & roll scene. Born in Atlantic City, NJ, he cut his teeth with Philadelphia’s Robert Hazard and the Heroes before spending five years as the keyboardist for the Psychedelic Furs. Since then he has played with everyone from Nada Surf to the Ramones, Ryan Adams, Debbie Harry, Stew, Moby, Jewel, Jill Sobule, Conor Oberst, Devandra Banhart, La La Brooks, Space Hog, Justin Vivian Bond, and many others. Twenty-five years ago Joe founded the fabled revue the Losers Lounge, featuring the Joe McGinty Seven, a New York City institution currently in residence bimonthly at Joe’s Pub.

The hardest working man in the East Village, Joe also plays with the Duchess and the Fox (with Andrea Diaz), Polyvox (with Alyson Greenfield), McGinty and White (with Ward White), and is the longtime touring keyboardist for the legendary Ronnie Spector. He is also the co-owner with Paul Devitt and main attraction of Sid Gold’s Request Room, a piano karaoke bar on West 26th Street where you are apt to see everyone from Tony winners to Bill Murray to people who have no business singing in public ever, but have a damned good time doing it anyway.

Joe has also worked as musical director for a variety of New York theaters, including the Vineyard Theatre and the New York Theater Workshop, and composed music for independent films and TV shows, including the 2016 Christopher Walken/Amber Heard film When I Live My Life Over Again (aka One More Time). His musical “Upping My Numbers,” co-written with Hally McGehean, will be at Pangea on May 16.

**********

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Joe, I want this to be like that Quincy Jones interview in Vulture recently. Did you read that?

JOE McGINTY: (laughs) Yeah yeah, everybody’s been talking about that. The Beatles couldn’t play and Marlon Brando would fuck a mailbox…..

TKN: So that’s our benchmark.

JM: OK, I’ll try to rise to that occasion.

TKN: When did you start playing piano?

JM: I started pretty late; my freshman year in high school. I loved music and it was just a lucky coincidence that one of my best friends was taking up drums and another was playing bass, and we knew some guitar players. My family moved into a bigger house and the people selling it said they could include this upright piano, so I started learning and a year later played my first gig. (laughs)

TKN: Wow. Just a year later?

JM: I just wanted to do it so bad. It’s funny, because a lot of pop culture references to TV shows and stuff like that I am not as up on as people would think, because I would just be in the living room, practicing every night, and the family TV was in a different room. Because when you’re a freshman in high school and you’re playing nursery rhymes, you want to get good quickly.

TKN: What kind of music were you guys playing?

JM: We were prog rock fans—Yes, ELP, Genesis, and we got a little deeper into it, like Gentle Giant and stuff like that. We couldn’t quite pull that off, but we basically just played at the local rec center and high school dances and things like that, so we were playing whatever was on the radio, because we knew we had to play what was popular. We’d play KC and Sunshine Band, or “I Shot the Sheriff,” and some heavier stuff like “Smoke on the Water” which I guess every teenager probably played around that time.

TKN: It’s funny: in the mid ‘90s I saw Patti Smith at the Warfield in San Francisco, and she had Tom Verlaine on guitar, and at one point she brought out her son Jackson, who was 14 at the time, and he played “Smoke On the Water.” Which, as you say, every 14-year-old can play….it’s just that most don’t get to play it with Tom Verlaine at the Warfield. So what happened with that first band?

JM: We pretty much did that throughout high school and college. Then there was a plan to move to LA that fell apart, but at that time the Jersey shore bar scene appeared to be very lucrative. We’d heard tales of bands just raking it in playing in Wildwood or places like that. So that was our plan. But it was hard to break in because the bands that had those gigs didn’t give them up.

TKN: What was the name of that band?

JM: A couple different things. We were called Legacy at one point, which was a very typical Jersey shore bar band sounding name.

What sort of made us professional musicians is that after a couple years of doing that and not really getting anywhere, we got an offer to go on the road with this casino act called Franco and Mary Jane, which was exciting because it was like running away and joining the circus. The casinos were trying to be more hip. We were playing stuff the younger crowd would like: Pointer Sisters, Lionel Richie, Journey, some Police, whatever was on the radio and popular in the clubs. We have some video from back then.

Originally we were playing in West Palm Beach for the winter and then coming back to play in Atlantic City for the summer, and we were like, “We’ll just do it up until the Atlantic City gig and then we’ll get back to our own stuff.” But then we ended up doing it for a little over two years: Vegas, Tahoe, Reno. It was pretty easy because even though we were playing four sets a night our days were free, we could go to the beach or ski during the day, just as long as you showed up for the first set at 8 o’clock. It was a lot of partying. We started out being very serious and drinking club soda, and then a beer before every set, and by the end we were doing shots.

TKN: Classic rock & roll debauchery story.

JM: (laughs) Right. We were under the mistaken impression that you could play covers for a living and also work on original music. But really, those two worlds very rarely overlap. The Police were never a cover band. Bands that did original music….I mean, some of them did, but they weren’t like six nights a week on the Jersey shore playing covers.

So it’s funny, Losers Lounge in a way sort of combined my Atlantic City experience with my New York experience. In a weird way it’s sort of how those worlds have come together.

WE COULD BE HEROES

TKN: Interesting transition to go from prog rock to punk. A 180, almost.

JM: We were all a little bit late to punk rock. It took me a while to appreciate it. I think what kind of helped turn me around inspirationally was the artier stuff out of New York, like “Remain in Light” and Laurie Anderson, even Phillip Glass and Steve Reich—that kind of led me back into that kind of stuff when I eventually moved to New York.

Part of that transition was playing in Robert Hazard’s band, which was the next step after the casino bands. That scene in Philly around that time still had that kind of punk rock energy.

TKN: How did you end up with Hazard? Because he was a big local hero—so to speak—when I was in college outside Philly.

(NB: Robert Hazard’s band was called the Heroes. He was best known for the regional hits “Escalator of Life” and “Change Reaction,” and for having written “Girls Just Want to Have Fun, which became Cyndi Lauper’s signature mega-hit.)

JM: Well, I have to say, it’s that thing of one or two events that change your whole life, and for me, both of them were just overheard conversations. I’d moved back to New Jersey and was living with my parents and was hanging out at a bar with a a friend of mine who told me, “Robert Hazard is looking for a keyboard player.” And I auditioned and got the gig.

Not to speak ill of the dead—Robert passed away a few years ago, sadly—but he was a very temperamental bandleader. (Hazard died of pancreatic cancer at age 59.) We went through several guitar players in the year that I was with them, we went through several drummers. He was always chewing us out: we weren’t good enough, you know, like that. He was really manic depressive.

TKN: When you say he chewed you guys out, do you mean like Buddy Rich level?

JM: Kind of. Yeah.

TKN: He’d already sold “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by then? So he had a lot of money?

JM: Oh yeah, he definitely had money. He had bought a farm in Mount Holly and had antiques and a new wife. He’d had a record deal but got dropped, “Escalator of Life” didn’t take off the way they had hoped, so he was trying to get back into the game and prove himself. He was a good songwriter, but just very hard to work for.

It’s a another similarly random thing about me ending up with the Furs. The image when I started with Hazard was kind of like this punk rockabilly look—black jeans and cowboy shirts. And we’d been doing this for a while and one day Hazard said, “You’ve got to check out the Psychedelic Furs: their sound, their look.” So we had a complete image makeover where he sent us to a stylist and we went shopping for stage clothes because he was like, “You guys suck! You’ve got to listen to this Furs record!“

I spent a year with Hazard’s band, not really getting anywhere, and to be honest, I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll go back to school,” you know? I really didn’t know what I was going to do next. And then we played this almost Spinal Tap-level gig at Dorney Park, which is an amusement park in Pennsylvania. It was raining, and Robert just chewed us out afterwards. So we’re in this van in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country and Charlie Hanson, who was running sound for us, had a band called the Vels that had an MTV hit at the time and had opened for the Furs, and he said to me, “You know, I saw the Furs a couple nights ago, they’re looking for a keyboard player.” And I was like, “Yeah, right. How am I gonna get that gig?” And he said, “The only thing I know is their tour manager is named Martin and they’re staying at the Mayflower Hotel.” So I call the Mayflower Hotel and say, “Can you put me through to Martin who works with the Psychedelic Furs?” And they put me through and he picked up the phone!

If that hadn’t happened, who knows? I wouldn’t be here. I don’t know where I’d be.

TKN: Very ironic that Robert Hazard’s bad behavior and insistence that you check out the Furs made him lose you.

JM: Yeah. It was really great to call him up and say, “I’m leaving the band. I got a gig with the Psychedelic Furs.”

TKN: Did he flip out?

JM: Yeah, he tried to prevent it, because he was just an egomaniac. He was like, “You can’t do that!” I think eventually he did mellow out a little bit, but it was certainly satisfying to quit and join the Furs.

QUE PASA NEW YORK

JM: The first record I made with the Furs I spent a lot of time in England working on that, and that was great, to go from playing rock & roll bars and clubs to a nice tour bus, nice hotel rooms, and pretty big venues like the Beacon Theatre. We had a road crew, everything would be set up, that kind of stuff. So it was great. I spent five years with them, and basically moved to New York after my first Furs tour.

TKN: Since then you’ve worked with some of the cream of New York’s rock & roll scene.

JM: In a sense I’ve just been lucky. There’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time and being accessible and available. The music community in New York can be a small world. And there are some people that it was just such a thrill….like, you’ve seen their names on records and you get to work with them. Joey Ramone was super sweet; I wish I had saved the answering machine message when he called to ask me to play with him.

TKN: How did you end up working with Justin Vivian Bond?

JM: Justin had just moved to New York and had a falling out with Herb, and somehow I was recommended by a mutual friend. So basically for about a summer we were Kiki and the Man, instead of Kiki and Herb. And then Herb came back. This would have been like ‘96, ’97. We did shows at 88’s, which is a cabaret that’s not around anymore. We did Cowgirl Hall of Fame, Meow Mix, places like that, and it was great, it was super fun.

TKN: What about Ronnie Spector?

JM: That was actually through Joey Ramone. He was working with her at the time, he had produced one of her EPs. That was obviously a thrill. With the Ramones, there’s a whole world of people that I met by being associated with them. It sort of opened the door to people in their universe. It’s like a family.

TKN: Is there anybody you almost worked with and wish you had?

JM: I’ve had a few near misses. I’ve worked with Debbie Harry, not in a while but before Blondie got back together I did some shows with her. They had actually called to see if I would go on tour to Russia and Eastern Europe, but I had to say no because it was one of our first Losers Lounge disco shows at Lincoln Center and I couldn’t cancel that. There’s always cool people that you want to work with.

TKN: Did you work with Yoko Ono, or you almost worked with her?

JM: I did rehearsals with her. Obviously that was great. Her regular keyboard player was on tour and could do the gig but not the rehearsals. So in that sense, while I wish I was on the gig, it was still great to be able to do the rehearsals and be in her presence. She definitely has a vibe about her. You know, she was married to a Beatle.

TKN: I heard.

JM: (laughs) Again, I feel I’ve just lucky in some ways. I had to have a day job for a lot of years, and you have to take all that with a grain of salt and be persistent. I liked when Conan O’Brien signed off after he basically got canned, and he said if you’re good at what you do and you’re nice, good things will come to you. So that’s kind of been my MO. Because there are a lot of musicians in this town, there are a lot of great keyboard players, and if you’re somebody that people like to work with, and you’re good, you’ll get work.

TKN: I couldn’t agree more. First of all, I think being a decent person is its own reward. But I also think, like we used to say in the Army, “You can be incompetent or you can be an asshole but you can’t be both.” If you’re an asshole you better be such a genius at whatever it is you do that people will tolerate that. And that’s rare. But for the most part, it doesn’t pay to work with shitty human beings in any field.

JM: Yeah, and you know the longer you’re in this business you kind of weed them out. There have been some people that I have worked with that have been difficult and it’s just kind of unbelievable…..like, how do you get away with this? But you eventually figure it out.

BORN TO LOUNGE

TKN: How did the Losers Lounge start?

(NB: The Losers Lounge is a tribute revue held every other month at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street, part of the Public Theater. Each show is devoted to a single artist, chosen by Joe, with the Joe McGinty Seven performing two hours plus of material—hits, rarities, deep cuts, radical rearrangements, and eveything in between—with each song featuring a different guest singer. All of whom blow the house down.)

JM: It really started in a pretty informal way. It actually goes back to Nick Danger, in the early ‘90s. We had mutual friends, and I had seen Nick play with a piano player at a benefit for Cucaracha Theatre. He was standing on a milk crate doing “Do You Feel Like We Do” by Peter Frampton with the voicebox thing, and I was like, “I have to work with this guy!”

I also have to give my friend Lisa Petrucci credit; she’s an artist who runs Something Weird Video. She had an art opening and there was a piano at this little East Village bar called the ST Bar, which isn’t around anymore, but she asked me if I would be up for singing something. So Nick and I did something. It was the same summer that the Pink Pony opened, so we did a series of Wednesdays there, and started asking other people to sing. It was just piano and vocal. And it was definitely guilty pleasures.

Around that same time my friends and I had been going to thrift stores and the cheap record bins and finding Mancini records and Burt Bacharach records for 99 cents. We were like, “Oh, this Richard Harris record is actually cool, and this Mancini record is actually really cool.” You have to put it in the context of 1992, ’93, when grunge was really popular, Sonic Youth, the New York scene was kind of all about noise rock, but there was a small contingent of people that appreciated melodic stuff. So we just started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a night of this kind of stuff, like Bacharach and Jimmy Webb and Scott Walker?” So after we’d done the Pink Pony, I thought well, this could work in a bigger venue, maybe with a band, so I approached Ellen Cavalina who was booking Fez at the time. She was great. Basically she said, “We’ll give you a Monday night.”

At first it wasn’t even gonna be a series, and it wasn’t a specific theme for that first show either. But then people started picking Burt Bacharach songs, and we said, “Let’s just make it a Burt Bacharach night.” And it was just my small circle of musician friends. But then singers I didn’t know were calling up and saying, “Hey, I hear there’s this Burt Bacharach thing. I’d really like to be a part of it.” And it almost sold out and it got a pick in the New York Press, and we were like, “Really?” (laughs) So we did another one, devoted to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, and we just kept doing them. It just seemed like there was this underbelly of appreciation for this kind of stuff. Johan Kugelberg had a WFMU show called Space Age Bachelor Pad, so that scene kind of started to happen too, with Combustible Edison and that kind of Bachelor Pad thing.

TKN: And was it the same format as now, of a different singer on each song?

JM: Actually, at the first couple of Losers shows Nick Danger and I would do a whole 15-20 minute set just by ourselves. It was really unorganized. There was no stage manager. I’d call people up and they wouldn’t be there. The first four or five shows had a pickup band: in fact, for the Bacharach show we didn’t even have a guitarist, it was just me and a bass player and drummer, just xeroxing sheet music. So it was pretty loose.

TKN: So how did the current band come together?

JM: Around that time I had been playing Farfisa organ in David Terhune’s band the Kustard Kings, which focused on ’60s R&B instrumentals and surf music.  Clem Waldmann was a member along with David. Kris Woolsey of the Kustard Kings was a long time guitarist for Losers Lounge until he moved out of town in the early ’00s. When we did the Henry Mancini show back in 1994, I asked David if the Kustard Kings could be the house band, and they’ve been the core of it ever since. It’s sort of evolved into the Joe McGinty Seven over the years, since the lineup sometimes varies a bit.

TKN: Was Burt Bacharach and that kind of music something you began to appreciate then, or had you always liked it going way back?

JM: I sort of had been rediscovering it. I guess it was intriguing because it was different than what was out there. I grew up with it, my parents listened to a lot of Bacharach and Glen Campbell, and all that. Of course when I was a teenager I rebelled against it, with prog and hard rock and stuff. So it was kind of like appreciating it in an adult way, or as a musician, and hearing the complexity of the arrangements and things like that.

TKN: That is a twisty journey, from ELP to punk and New Wave and then all the way around again to Jimmy Webb.

JM: Yeah. I still like ELP. You definitely couldn’t admit to liking ELP in the punk era. What I find encouraging these days is that people are open to everything. It’s OK to like both the Ramones and ELP and Miles Davis.

What the Quincy Jones interview reminded me is how sharply divided it was between jazz and rock back then. When I was in high school and college, all the jazz musicians looked down their nose at rock, like, “That’s not real music. It’s not complex.” And of course, the rock musicians were like, “All you need is three chords.”

Buddy Rich famously hated country music and he was on the Mike Douglas Show and he was asked, “What about somebody like Chet Atkins? He’s a masterful guitar player.” And Buddy said, “Oh no. He only plays three or four chords. You’ve got to listen to Django Reinhardt.” So there was definitely this divide between the serious jazz musicians and rock musicians. It was beneath them. Now it seems like people are more open to everything, at least in my experience.

TKN: Of all the Losers Lounge shows that you’ve done, which were the shows you’ve enjoyed the most?

JM: Well, Bacharach, because that’s like the spiritual reason for Losers Lounge. And recently the Philly Soul one was a favorite, maybe it’s from growing up in sort of the suburbs of Philly, but that was refreshing because it was new, we had never done anything like that before. Abba’s always really fun. Nilsson always. The John Barry James Bond show was a really fun one. We did Mancini many years ago—that was a fun one, though I don’t know when or how we could do it again, because you need to sell six shows’ worth of tickets for it.

Which is the other thing that’s a little bit of a tradeoff these days: we can’t really go as obscure as we used to because we need to pay a lot of people. So you want to do the shows that will sell a lot of tickets, but it’s harder to do the Lee Hazelwood or XTC or things like that.

TKN: XTC, that’d be a good one.

JM: I know. Years ago we did Randy Newman, but some of those are a little bit harder to pull off now. I mean, I’d love to do Paul Williams again. So we’ll see.

Sometimes when you do a show it is a little bit about the discovery. Like Barbra Streisand: I didn’t really know a lot of Streisand material and I didn’t know if we could actually pull it off, because there were so many songs I listened to and thought, “This is impossible.” Every song seemed like a showstopper, like a big vocal extravaganza, until I started finding songs that I knew we could do well.

TKN: Well, to me as a fan of Losers Lounge, and having been to a lot of them, that’s one of the things that’s so fantastic: the reinterpretation of the material. I mean, there are always deep cuts I never heard before, at least a couple in every show. And then each singer brings something to it, and the arrangements are interesting and not carbon copies of the records, so all that is fresh and exciting to me.

JM: Right, that’s part of the fun of it. There’s a website called Second Hand Songs— it’s not really a secret—but you can put in any song and it’ll list every cover version and it’s often surprising. Sometimes they’ll be like eighty different covers and you can click through and check them out. That’s how we found the swinging version of “People” that Vic Damone did in the ‘70s. So I always like dig around try to find different things like that.

TKN: So what is your process for compiling a set list? Do you put 200 songs on your iPod on shuffle and walk around town?

JM: Yeah. Then people make suggestions or they have requests. It’s a combination of trying to have people sing they song they want to sing, and me trying to convince somebody that they should sing a song. Sometimes I’ll suggest a song and the person will be like, “Oh, that’s not for me.” And I’ll say, “Really? You’d be perfect for this song.” So it’s definitely a logistical puzzle that gradually starts to come together.

Then sometimes you hold a song because you’re waiting to hear from this person, but this person asked for it too, and if the first person can’t do it then the second person can do it…..Sometimes it’s a week before the show and it’s still coming together.

TKN: Wow. I can imagine the politics and the diplomacy of that. And you’re a victim of your own success, because the more popular it gets, the more people want to sing. The veterans want to do it, and then you get new people to keep it fresh…..I can imagine it’s a real challenge.

JM: Yeah, I like getting new people in, but there only so many slots and you want to make sure the regulars are in there. What’s funny is, the first time ever did two nights, which is going back a long time now, I thought, “Geez, nobody’s gonna want to sing the second night.” And people were like, “I’m offended you didn’t ask me for the second night!” I don’t know why. I just didn’t realize how much people appreciate doing the show.

TKN: Ferne and I always try to come to the last show, the Saturday late show. Over the course of those three days of each show, it must feel like there’s an arc.

JM: Yeah, we’re definitely tightest by the last show. It’s about maybe 75% the same, from show to show. So if you’re somebody like Tom Hall (head of Montclair Film, who frequently partners with Losers Lounge) and you come multiple nights, you’ll see some different singers. That’s the advantage too of having multiple nights is you can slot more people in. It’s similar for the singers, because they feel like they can nail it better the more shows they do. If you do one night that’s your one shot. You want to keep everybody happy. It’s hard.

TKN: Well, audience wise, nobody I know ever comes out of the show unhappy. To me it’s one of the most pure, joyous things in New York. I really look forward to it every other month because it’s just pure joy to hear this music and shut out the world for two hours.

SYNTHESIZE ME

TKN: It’s funny you said the piano was your first and only instrument, because actually it’s a pretty versatile thing to be a keyboard player. How many vintage or exotic keyboards do you think you have?

JM: I’ve probably lost track. At a very early age I was fascinated with synthesizers. My friends and I were nerds and we would hang out at our local library, which had a small record collection, most of which was classical and show tunes. But they had “Switched on Bach” and I took it home and was like, “What’s this instrument with all the patch cables and dials?”

There was also the Franklin Institute in Philly that had an electronic music exhibit, with one of those like synthesizers that takes up a whole wall and theremins you could play, and that stuck in my brain. And then of course I got interested in Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman and Moog synthesizers. So I’ve always been interested in electronic music and had accumulated synthesizers, organs, electric pianos, and things like that over the years, when I had the money for them. Luckily they went out of fashion for a long time so I got a lot of them when they were cheap, but now all that stuff is very expensive, like any antique.

Now I basically have all the keyboards together in my space in Greenpoint, Carousel Vintage Recording Studios, which I share with a couple other people. That’s been a great experience. Will from Okkervil River recorded tracks for his record there, I’ve done a lot of stuff for Nada Surf there. People come in and just really appreciate the vintage instruments.

TKN: It’s funny, because back in the day that sort of stuff was scorned as not being “natural”—it was “electronic,” which was a dirty word. And now it feels very warm and analog compared to everything that’s sampled and digital.

JM: That’s true. Miles Davis was criticized for using the Fender Rhodes in his band, which is an electric piano but it has actual hammers hitting tines. The digital world has created these recreations that are just not as satisfying. You can buy virtual versions of all these instruments, but there’s still nothing like the energy of physically playing and getting a physical response.

TKN: I’ve been reading David Byrne’s book How Music Works….

JM: Oh, you know, somebody gave me that but I haven’t read it yet….

TKN: I’m just in the beginning but he talks about that—which many others have written about, too, of course—how everything is so clockwork perfect ever since Pro Tools, and really even before that. The human factor of mistakes—like, maybe your time is a little off, but it feels real—is gone in a lot of contemporary pop.

JM: Yeah. If you were to put Beatles records through Pro Tools they would not sound anywhere near as exciting, if you re-tuned stuff or made the timing exact, and all that. So it’s a mixed blessing, because I could not have a studio if I had to actually have a big tape machine, and a big mixing board. So the fact that I have a computer that can be a recording studio has been great.

It’s funny, with keyboards, in the early ‘90s, when synthesizers were sort of out of fashion, a friend of mine had a band that was playing at CB’s and he said, “Why don’t you sit in with us?” So I went to rehearsal and the bass player was like, “No keyboards in this band!” (laughs) So I was like, “OK, then I won’t do the gig.”

TKN: It’s so weird, that reverse snobbery. But all the bands that you went through were pretty keyboard heavy, right? Prog rock is super keyboard heavy, of course. Even the Furs are more keyboard-prominent than a lot of other bands of that ilk.

JM: Yeah. There was definitely a little bit of the punk rock attitude still around. But the Ramones had me play (laughs), so it’s not this thing in all punk rock that you can’t have keyboards. There nothing I like more than running a keyboard through a fuzzbox and being all distorted.

WALKEN IN RHYTHM

JM: I know Woody Allen’s maybe not the best person to bring up right now, but he was talking about directing and he said, “You get people that are good at what they do and let them be good at it.” What’s best is when I’ve worked with producers or musicians that bring me in to do what I do. And it seems like it’s the same in any kind of creative field. When you’re restricted, you don’t really do your best work. But if people just say, “Do your thing,” and then maybe there’s some tweaks or some refinements, that’s the best. And that’s kind of how I run Losers Lounge. I bring in good singers, and I say, “Just do what you do.”

TKN: It makes perfect sense. Why would you hire somebody who’s good at a certain thing and then not to let them do it? It’s different if they’re crazy, of course.

When you and I worked with Walken is the perfect example. He came in and changed some of his dialogue in that movie, and sometimes he took stuff out that I was attached to, and I couldn’t stop him, because he was nuts. But he also brought new stuff that I really never thought of. So as the director, what am I gonna do? Tell Walken not to be Walken? That would be stupid.

JM: (laughs) Right.

(In 2014-15 Joe composed the music for a film I wrote and directed called When I Live My Life Over Again, also known as One More Time, in which Christopher Walken played an aging crooner—a kind of poor man’s Sinatra. The film also stars Amber Heard as his punk rock daughter, along with Kelli Garner, Hamish Linklater, Oliver Platt, Henry Keleman, and the great Ann Magnuson, another of Joe’s old friends and collaborators.

Joe wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics for the title track and for a song called “You Temptress You,” sung by Sean Altman, and he arranged and recorded my song “Montreal,” sung by Amber Heard. We also collaborated on a pair of fake radio jingles that are in the movie.)

TKN: It must have been an interesting thing for you as a musician to see this guy doing the material when we recorded him for that movie .

JM: He actually did fine, even though he was very critical of himself. He was good. He has a style. He’s not Sinatra, but he has a vibe, you know.

TKN: Yeah, he was so hard on himself: he just would refuse to acknowledge when something was good. It’s the same thing with his acting, but especially the singing. When I was first wooing him he told me, “You need a real singer and I can’t sing.” I said, “Are you kidding me? You’ve been on Broadway, you’ve been in all these musicals….This character is supposed to be a little bit past his prime, so you don’t have to be Sinatra. But you’re being way too hard on yourself.”

With the acting he was a little more objective. He would look at a take on playback occasionally, and even though he kept a pokerface, you could tell when he knew he’d nailed it. But with the musical performances, he was much more self-critical and found it harder to see when he’d been great.

JM: It was definitely surreal to be in a recording studio with “Bruce Dickinson.” Not Iron Maiden’s lead singer….the “more cowbell” Bruce Dickinson.

TKN (laughs): Yeah, he’s a very cagey guy, Walken. Super smart, but so eccentric that sometimes you don’t know if he’s sandbagging you or genuinely out of it. For instance, people make “cowbell” jokes to him all the time and he’s just totally blank…..not because he’s sick of them—at least I don’t think that’s why—but because he truly doesn’t seem to know what they’re talking about.

There’s a random reference in the movie to “Behind the Music,” having nothing to do with “SNL,” and at one point in filming he asked me, “What’s ‘Behind the Music?’” I was floored. Along with “The Deer Hunter” and that Fatboy Slim video (“Weapon of Choice”) that sketch is probably one of the most famous things he’s done, and he’s kind of unaware of it.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: JOE McGINTY

TKN: It was fun for me to watch you do multiple versions of the title song for When I Live My Life. There was the solo one where Walken sings with just your piano. And then there’s the big band one you and the great sax player Mike McGinnis arranged….

JM: Right. And then there’s the sad, jazzy piano version that Amber Heard sings. It was fun; I love doing that kind of stuff. it doesn’t come up that often and I would certainly like to do more. It was great to have lyrics to work to, because I’m a reluctant lyricist.

TKN: Well, you shouldn’t be. I love your lyrics. For example in When I Live, we have your song “Vice President of Love,” which has great lyrics, and is a play on Fela. And we have you actually on camera performing a live version of your song, “This Song Is Three Days Old,” which lyrically is very witty and inventive and fun and smart.

JM: Yeah, I’ve had projects where I was the singer and lyricist, but I kind of like having other people do that job in a way.

TKN: Let’s talk about some of those solo projects, because we had some of them in that movie also. We have Circuit Parade, we have Baby Steps. And it wasn’t in the movie but your collaboration with Ward White is also interesting, and the Duchess and the Fox with Andrea Diaz and Polyvox with Alyson Greenfield. You clearly are a collaborator—somebody who feeds off working with fellow artists.

JM: Yeah, that’s helpful for me, collaborating, because left to my own devices things might not get finished, or it’s easy to get distracted, or other things take priority. So I appreciate that. I need deadlines, so if somebody said, “I need this by this day,” I would certainly make it happen.

TKN: What I would love is a new Joe McGinty solo album: original songs, music and lyrics by Joe McGinty, and you playing and singing. So maybe—if collaboration is the key for you—what you need is a producer. Because normally you’re the producer. You’re the taskmaster….

JM: That’s a good idea. I do have some unfinished songs that could work like that. Maybe it could be rearrangements of songs I’ve already done…..or some combination, like the Randy Newman songbook thing, where it’s just him and the piano. But it’s true: I should rope somebody in to do that. It’s definitely in the back of my mind and it would be kind of fun to work with somebody. You know, just pick ten songs and see what happens.

TKN: Right. And then do a residence at Joe’s Pub. I think there would be a lot of interest in that, because your profile in New York is so big and your reach is so huge. So I’m just putting in my vote that when you get some free time maybe….

JM: Well, that’s another thing. You’re a writer, so you know, but having the discipline to set aside the time to write is hard.

There’s a great John Cleese speech which is really inspirational, where he talks about some of his first experiences at college where suddenly he was in charge of having to write sketches, and he said, “I just sit myself in a room, with no idea at all, but maybe by the end of two hours I’d have something.” But nowadays you’ve got your phone, you’ve got to respond to emails, and to have the discipline to cut yourself off from that is hard.

I get so busy that when I finally get a free day sometimes I just want to rest. Or it’s hard to figure out what to do when you get unstructured time. I know I’ve got a lot of things I could be working on but what should I be working on?

TKN: I remember reading where Frank Zappa said that just because you’re an artist you can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. You have to go in every day like you’re a plumber and just do the job. It’s hard enough to focus and do the work, but when you’ve got other obligations and you’re so busy doing so many things, it becomes even harder. It’s not a matter putting in the time if you have no time. I can’t believe we even have an hour for this interview on your day off, so I apologize. I appreciate you doing it.

IT’S NINE O’CLOCK ON A SATURDAY

TKN: And then on top of it all you’ve got Sid’s. (Sid Gold’s Request Room, Joe’s piano karaoke bar, at 165 West 26th St, between 6th and 7th Avenues.)

JM: That was something that I’d always dreamed of. I’d always been a fan of piano bars, like Nye’s Polonaise, I’d try to seek them out. I’ve always enjoyed playing the piano for other people to sing songs that I like. I used to get fakebooks and invite people to sing, going all the way back to a night I did at Fez in the mid ‘90s, for J. Masics’s birthday. He and Evan Dando and Mike Watt were signing Carole King and James Taylor songs (laughs). And I was like, “This is really fun!”

I did it sporadically in these underground partes called Rubulad that would go on till six in the morning. Then this bar called the Lucky Cat opened in Williamsburg, and I was friends with the owner, and I asked, “Could I do a weekly thing here?“ And that grew, and then when they closed, I ended up at the Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint. Both of those happened at times when a lot of musicians were in those neighborhoods; at the Lucky Cat it was a lot of the Daptone people, and TV on the Radio; in Greenpoint it was Nicole Atkins and Sharon Van Etten and people like that.

Actually, I had pitched the idea to people that I knew that were in the bar business and nobody ever really took me up on it. And then finally Paul Devitt, who I had met when I used to DJ at Barmacy, which later became Otto’s Shrunken Head, came up to me one night at the Manhattan Inn and said, “I want to open a piano bar. Are you interested?” And I said, “Sure.” That was something I’ve always wanted to, and I never knew anybody in the business that would take me up on it. So we opened Sid’s.

TKN: Where did that name come from?

JM: Naming a bar is as hard as naming a band. We had a shared document with tons of names. I liked Request Room, but it seemed like it wasn’t enough, or it was too formal. We wanted a name that matched the decor and feel of the room; something that felt like it was from an earlier era, and Sid Gold’s Request Room felt right. Sid Gold is the father of one of the investors. People walk in and are surprised that we’ve only been open a few years, they think it’s some old school New York bar that has been rediscovered, and that’s exactly what we’re going for. And the real Sid Gold comes in from time to time to sing some show tunes. It’s always a hoot!

TKN: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you found some Losers Lounge singers doing karaoke at Sid Gold’s, didn’t you?

JM: Yeah, well going back further, Mike Fornatale did karaoke at the Lucky Cat. It’s a combination of talent and personality. Sid’s has fostered a community of kindred spirits, other piano players, other musicians. I’ve met other singers and musicians there, and again, I think that goes back to just being accessible and amenable to meeting and working with people: seeing somebody you want to work with, or you’re impressed by.

TKN: What’s amazing to me about Sid’s is you can go in and hear a Tony Award-winning Broadway singer like your friend Michael Cerveris or whoever happens to be there that night, followed by somebody who has absolutely no business singing even in the shower. But it’s all cool and fun. And the piano players—youself and the other regulars—are very generous in saving somebody who gets in over their head.

JM: Yeah, that’s part of the adventure. I used to say that I enjoyed accompanying bad singers as much as good singers. I don’t know if that’s still the case; it depends on how bad. (laughs) You could really do a psychological case study. You get people that are really shy and sweet and you really want to help them. Then you get people that are just obnoxious and you want to do the opposite, you want to sabotage them, because they won’t even care, you know? I probably shouldn’t say this for any potential customers out there. I love everybody. (laughs)

TKN: Sometimes just as a spectator, you’ll see somebody get up and you know right away they don’t know how hard that song is until they get into it.

JM: Oh yeah. And there songs where they get to the bridge, and they don’t know that there was a bridge, and they’re just looking at you like, you know….lost.

TKN: The bridge is out.

JM: (laughs) And there’s some songs that I don’t play that often, that I don’t really know that well, and I’m kind of thinking, “How’s this go?” as I’m doing it. But it always works out.

TKN: Oh, I’ve seen you do that for sure. Even at the Manhattan Inn, I remember being there one night and somebody wanted you to play some obscure song by the National and he was just humming it to you, like, “It goes like this, da da da da da.” And you played it. You vamped—it was great. And this guy could sing too.

JM: Some of the more recent songs, there are like three or four chords that just repeat over and over. So you can kind of fake your way through those.

TKN: As Quincy says, music today’s terrible.

JM: (laughs) Oh yeah, of course!

TKN: And you’ve taken Sid’s on the road and played some out of town shows?

JM: Yeah, we’ve done some pop-ups, which is fun and we’re looking at expanding. We’re looking at opening a place in Detroit. There’s a whole revitalization of the downtown area, there’s incentives and a lot of excitement there. So we’ll see. It’s a little too early to say for sure, but we feel like it’s a thing that will work anywhere. People love to sing. If there could be a Shake Shack everywhere why can’t there be a Sid Gold’s everywhere?

TKN: Lastly, let me give a shout-out to Chris Dell’Ollio, your manager, because he’s been so central to everything, and his terrific assistant Nicole Bonelli.

JM: Yeah, he kind of took over as manager in the early thousands, and that’s really helped things along. Having him take care of all that stuff has been great.

TKN: I go to see Chris and Connie (Petruk, his wife and one of the backup singers in the Joe McGinty Seven) play a lot as the Tall Pines. They’re awesome. Chris is a smoking hot guitar player in his own right.

I’m gonna have a word with Chris about finding a producer and putting you in the studio doing that solo album. Because I don’t want you to have any spare time.

**********

Mastermind Artist Management / Chris Dell’Ollio

The Losers Lounge
Featuring the Joe McGinty Seven, every other month at Joe’s Pub: Joe McGinty—keyboards / Julian Maile—guitar / David Terhune—guitar / Jeremy Chatzky—bass / Clem Waldmann—drums / Eddie Zweiback—percussion / Connie Petruk, Tricia Scotti, Katia Floreska, Sean Altman—backing vocals

Sid Gold’s Request Room  – 165 W26th St (b/w 6th and 7th Aves), New York, NY 10001 / (212) 229-1948

Carousel Vintage Recording Studios – Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Diving Horse Records

Transcription: Sherry Alwell

 

Truth or Consequences

Trump perp walk

This was a banner week in Trump legal news, one that included Ty Cobb’s surprise announcement that he was retiring in order to spend more time with his mustache.

That was quickly followed by the hiring of a former Clinton impeachment attorney to replace him (insert comedy sound effect here), and former US Attorney Rudy Giuliani going on national television to make Trump look even guiltier of obstruction than he already did, which is saying something.

But the big legal news this week was the report that the office of the special counsel had provided the White House a list of forty-nine questions that Robert Mueller wishes to ask Donald Trump. (Later, it was clarified that the leaked list was actually compiled by Trump’s own lawyers—Jay Sekulow, to be specific—summarizing information the Mueller team had provided, not verbatim from the special counsel.)

Soon after THAT, it was reported that a tense face-to-face meeting between Mueller himself and the president’s lawyers had taken place in March, in which the White House asserted that Trump had no obligation to answer any questions at all, and Mueller declared that he would subpoena him if necessary. 

When they make the movie about all this (Tom Hanks will play Mueller), that is going to be a hell of a scene.

Check out the gall of Trump’s lead lawyer (at the time) John Dowd, who is said to have angrily replied, “This isn’t some game. You are screwing with the work of the president of the United States!”

What irony. There are games being played here for sure, but Mueller is not the one playing them.

LAW AND ORDER, PRESIDENTIAL CRIMES UNIT

This is Nixon’s imperial presidency all over again. The White House is duplicitously standing on the stature of the office to deflect a criminal inquiry, in effect insisting that the President is above the law. But it didn’t work then and it won’t work now.

Note that Dowd quit soon after the March meeting, because he knows the danger his cretinous boss is in. Cobb surely knows that too. (Welcome Emmet Flood! Your clock is ticking.)

Nixon and Clinton both made similar and predictable “I’m too busy and important” arguments to try to derail the investigations against them. Neither worked. When Clinton’s lawyers briefly tried to advance that claim, Scalia himself openly ridiculed them. Not that there is any consistency on the right wing.

Dowd’s pathetic attempt at intimidation is especially laughable given the alleged “work” this President is doing. Are we really supposed to quake in awe at the mighty labors in which our herculean Great Leader is engaged, with which nothing can be allowed to interfere, not least piddling matters of treason? Please, motherfucker. Only the most Kool-Aid-besotted Trumpkin is giddy enough at the Insane Clown President’s important agenda of destroying our air and water, wrecking the educational system, robbing the poor to further enrich the rich, laying waste to seventy years of American power and influence abroad, spreading racist and misogynist bile, attacking the rule of law, and obliterating the cherished norms that bind us as a people, to buy that argument.

All this has turned the American public into armchair experts on constitutional law. The unhinged and suddenly civil libertarian Rudy Giuliani says one thing about whether a sitting president can be subpoeanedUnited States vs. Nixon suggests quite another. (Regardless, any time that question is in the news, it’s never a good sign for the country). Ken Starr, of course, issued a subpoena to Bill Clinton, who negotiated an interview as an alternative to testifying before a grand jury. Notwithstanding the shitty legal advice Trump routinely gets, he might likewise calculate that his best bet is to sit down and answer questions rather than fight, especially given his massive ego and overestimation of his ability to bullshit. Then again, he might figure he can defy Mueller—knowing that the GOP leadership will have his back—and take his chances in both the actual courts and that of public opinion. Here Trump’s impulse to always take the most combative path will be at war with his mistaken belief that he can outsmart whoever he’s talking to, even Bob Mueller. Either way, he has no good options.

So the bottom line we ought to take away from this remarkable meeting is plain:

One way or another, Trump is going to have to sit and answer questions, even if it’s under duress, or pay a steep political price that might be even worse. The White House can stall and delay and engage in its usual carnivalesque antics, but the precedent is well established. The POTUS may be exempt from being charged with ordinary crimes while in office (or maybe not; we might get the chance to find out), but contrary to John Dowd’s fulminating, he is not above the law and can be compelled—or at least politically forced—to answer for his actions.

THE LADY OR THE TIGER

So when judgment day finally comes, Trump will have two choices: he can tell the truth or he can lie.

The problem for him is that the answers to many of the special counsel’s questions are likely to be damning. If he tells the truth, he will incriminate himself. If he lies, which is his natural instinct, he will perjure himself, as the special counsel has already interviewed dozens (hundreds?) of people, flipped witnesses, read emails, phone logs, and possibly even listened to wiretaps, and surely knows the truth already.

So Trump can lie, and hope Mueller can’t prove it, or he can tell the truth, and hope he gets away with it.

The former seems unlikely, given the amount of proof the special counsel presumably has already in hand, per above. So the latter would seem advisable, both tactically and—cough, cough—morally. After all, Trump has gotten away with things unimaginable for any politician, let alone the president, from refusing to release his tax returns to attacking Gold Star families to mocking the disabled to bragging about being a sexual predator. Why shouldn’t he get away with this too?

The problem is, Trump seems congenitally incapable of telling the truth. As many have noted, he lies about things big (“no collusion!”) and small (the size of his inaugural crowds, or his penis). Ironically, the only time he tells the truth is when he shouldn’t, like bragging to Lester Holt on national television that he fired Jim Comey over Russiagate, or telling Kislyak and Lavrov that doing so had taken the pressure off him.

Might he take the Fifth? He might. What a pretty picture that would be, the President of the United States refusing to say whether or not he committed treason on the grounds that the answer would incriminate him. One would have to think that at last would make Republicans turn against him. But as we learned last week,  for some voters predisposed to fascism, it wouldn’t.

Trump himself has repeatedly—publicly—ridiculed anyone who takes the Fifth as essentially admitting their guilt, so it’s hard to imagine him reversing himself and going back on something he once said.

Ha, ha, just kidding.

PLAY IT AGAIN, DON

Might Trump just openly defy such a subpoena? Might he try—again—to fire Mueller?

He might, and he might get away with either or both—by which I mean the GOP would not do its goddam job and force him to obey the law, and/or that the judiciary would cravenly abdicate its role as a co-equal branch and compel his testimony, or worse, make a mockery of the Constitution and rule that he doesn’t have to. That would be such a gargantuan breech of justice that it would trigger a much bigger crisis than what we are experiencing now.

When Nixon refused to comply with a subpoena directing him to release the secret White House tapes, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox took to the TV airwaves on a Saturday afternoon—going up against NCAA college football, no less—to make his case directly to the American people. In Slate’s great Watergate podcast “Slow Burn,” host Leon Neyfakh describes how this tweedy, bow-tied Harvard Law professor didn’t dumb anything down for the public, but instead clearly and methodically laid out his reasons why Nixon’s proposed “Stennis compromise” was unacceptable. His performance worked, in terms of convincing a majority of the public. (So did a motion he filed in federal court rejecting Nixon’s shameless dodge.) Of course it also led—mere hours later—to his firing in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre. But that in turn led directly to Nixon’s eventual downfall. So on balance, I think we have to say that the special prosecutor won that one.

But that was 1973.

If Bob Mueller were to go on national television at some critical point in this investigation and lay out the facts in an equally calm and convincing manner—which is easy to imagine him doing—would the American people be equally reasonable and objective? It’s equally easy to imagine Trump’s rabid base and its shameful enablers in the GOP leadership shrugging their collective shoulders, muttering “fake news,” and standing by their man Tammy Wynette style.

Do you doubt it? Go online and sample some of the anti-Mueller vitriol in the Bizarro World right wing blogosphere. It’s chilling.

In “Slow Burn,” Neyfakh also describes in cinematic detail how, in the hours after firing Cox, Nixon sent FBI agents to occupy and shutter the special prosecutor’s office and seize all its files, as if it were a crime scene. (It was, but not the kind Nixon imagined.) It was an act unprecedented in American history, more the behavior of a mob boss or a police state despot. But can we not imagine Trump doing exactly the same? In fact, please don’t tell him about that, because it might give him ideas.

CLANG CLANG GO THE JAIL GUITAR DOORS

No one outside the Fox Nation bubble doubts that Spanky is in serious legal trouble. Speaking of which, we haven’t even talked about the epic legal news of the preceding week, the SDNY-directed raid on Michael Cohen’s home and office and hotel room, a raid that many feel puts Trump in even more legal jeopardy than the Mueller probe. (Trump among them, apparently.)

Even if Trump goes pardon crazy, he is not going to be able to stop the punishing scrutiny of his family crime syndicate that has inexorably begun. People will be going to jail. Even if he personally manages to limp through four (or even—gulp—eight) years without being impeached, forced to resign, or implicated in a historic criminal indictment of a sitting president, Trump very well may be prosecuted once he is out of office.

It is very likely that as the vise tightens, Trump himself will precipitate a climactic conflict that will mark the end of his chaotic reign, well before something like impeachment proceedings can play out. Needless to say, others in his inner circle don’t have the luxury of that same executive protection. Given that Trump is, um, not known for his grace under pressure, what will he do if and when Mueller (or Robert Khuzami, the Deputy US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or Eric Schneiderman, the New York State Attorney General) indicts Don Jr, Jared, or even Ivanka?

In the end, all these options—the truth, lies, the Fifth, refusal to testify at all—are really one. All of them ultimately are less questions of law than of political will, and all of them ultimately come down to whether or not the Republican Party and the American people in general care about the crimes Trump has committed.

(And I say “has committed” rather than “may have committed” because we can say with confidence—and a court of law will likely prove—that he has committed crimes: principally, the shameless and brazen obstruction of justice. Other crimes—such as his personal involvement in a conspiracy with foreign powers to defraud the United States—remain to be proven, even as it’s clear that his underlings and associates are guilty of them.)

Again, Watergate is an instructive lesson. In the end, Nixon resigned because he knew he was going to be impeached and probably convicted…..in other words, because—after almost two years of staunchly standing by him—his own party had finally seen the incontrovertible evidence of his appalling and illegal actions and was going to hold him accountable.

But what if they hadn’t? What if Nixon had been been blessed with a Republican Party that stood by him despite all the incriminating evidence that eventually came out, particularly the so-called “smoking gun” recording from just days after the break-in, on which he is heard directing H.R. Haldeman to shut down the FBI investigation into the matter, proving definitively that he was in on the coverup from the very start.

With a compliant Congress like that, he might well have survived.

Hmm.

In the final episode of “Slow Burn,” Neyfakh does a wonderful job of summarizing the combination of luck and systemic strength that brought Nixon down and rescued the republic. It might easily have gone the other way. One is left with a queasy feeling about how that would play out today.

If Trump lies under oath to Robert Mueller and Mueller proves it, even beyond the shadow of a doubt, will enough of the American people care? Will the GOP leadership hold the President to account?

If he tells the truth about his actions, but shrugs and says “So what?”, will we do anything about it?

If he takes the Fifth, or refuses to abide by a subpoena and submit to an interview at all, or asserts that he is lord of the Earth and the Heavens, master of all the beasts that fly and fish that swim and can blow us a raspberry and do whatever the hell he jolly well wants, including shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, will we give a shit?

This may be the ultimate test of our democracy, to say nothing of the character of the American people.

Stay tuned.

What They Will Say When He’s Gone

donaldtrump copy

Are the Winter Olympics still on? I ask because last week saw a sharp uptick in the use of the term “getting out over their skis.” Nikki Haley was out over her skis in talking about sanctions on Russia, reporters were out over their skis in speculating about what charges would be brought against Michael Cohen, Democrats were out over their skis in anticipating a midterm landslide….

It was enough to make Claudine Longet scrape the rust off her biathlon skills. (Look it up, youngsters.)

So in that spirit, I am going to risk getting out over my Rossignols in talking about how history will remember Donald John Trump.

Obviously, getting Trump into the past tense is yet a long way off, and I am by no means sanguine about how that is going to happen. But we don’t need to speculate about how the Insane Clown President will leave office. (I offered a few possibilities last week.) Someday leave he will.

But beyond sheer prematurity, there are two major ways in which this thought experiment risks a face-plant in the snow.

The first is that it presumes we will not all die in a thermonuclear holocaust because Donny and Kim Jong Un got into a Three Stooges-style slapfight over whose missiles are bigger. (Nyuk nyuk.) Even with unprecedented events unfolding on the Korean peninsula, that remains a pick’ em.

The second is that it presumes that what we call “history” will not be reduced to Fox News-meets-Josef Goebbels propaganda in a neo-fascist Amerika led by President-for-Life Trump, a possibility that an alarming—though not surprising—number of Republicans would be cool with. Also not an assumption we can safely make.

So let’s stipulate that we’re talking about a future in which America somehow survives this administration with the fundamentals of our quasi-democracy intact, and we begin the process of rebuilding. Barring the aforementioned nuclear omnicide, or descent into truth-obliterating totalitarianism, presumably someone will be left to make an honest assessment of his reign.

So what will they say about him when he’s gone? Let’s begin by looking at what precedent tells us.

NIXON’S THE ONE (AND TRUMP’S ANOTHER ONE)

Last week, I wrote about Slate’s terrific Watergate podcast “Slow Burn,”which got me thinking about how posterity remembers Richard Nixon.

While Nixon avoided prison, or worse, he was not able to avoid the verdict of history. Today he is a pariah, widely regarded by knowledgeable Americans—not to mention scholars and experts—as one of the most corrupt and terrible presidents in American history. Ironically, Trump has caused Nixon’s stock to rise a little bit by comparison, which is more a measure of just how awful Spanky is, as opposed to anything positive about Tricky Dick.

Of course, there is a small slice of the American public that still admires and even reveres Nixon; it is the same demographic that adores Trump, which says it all. Even now, when the subject comes up, these folks will parrot the chilling, authoritarian-friendly lines of defense that Nixon’s myrmidons deployed in 1972, ’73, and ’74:

Everyone does it; all Nixon did wrong was get caught!

He was a tough sonofabitch who knew how to handle the Russians!

At least he got us out of Vietnam!

Baseless canards all. But there will always be a small segment of such dissenters on every topic, just there will always be people who believe in Bigfoot.

(The phrase most associated with Nixon—“I am not a crook”— sits beside his description of his wife Pat’s “respectable Republican cloth coat,” from the 1952 Checkers speech, atop the pyramid of his most pathetic public lamentations. The analog, of course, is Trump’s Tourette’s-like compulsion to shout—and tweet—“No collusion!”, a habit so frequent that it is comically suspicious. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine that the Richie Rich cartoon who is our current president would ever brag that Melania doesn’t own a fur.)

Today, the people who cling to that admiration for the 37th president are almost uniformly regarded as cranks, ignoramuses, and neo-fascist knuckleheads—especially when taken to the extreme of getting, say, a huge tattoo of Nixon’s face on your back. Admiration for Trump will someday be seen in the same light, as it already is in much of the reality-based world.

In a much discussed article in the New Yorker, Adam Davidson beautifully outlines how the narrative that Trump voters bought into—the hardnosed billionaire businessman who would fight for them and “drain the swamp”—is already giving way to a more realistic and very different consensus—that of a shady, pathologically dishonest two-bit con man who screwed over everybody who ever got near him. That is the one that is likely to last, in the same way that new conclusions eventually emerged on other issues where the opposite view once held sway, like the wisdom of the Iraq war or the sturdiness of the housing market pre-September 2008.

Barring some sort of Damascus experience (insert Syria joke here), alien abduction, or near-death encounter that miraculously turns the Cretin-in-Chief into the second coming of Abe Lincoln, I have absolutely no doubt that that is how the Very Stable Genius will go down in our collective memory. If the American experiment—and the human race—survive his presidency, history will likely remember Donald Trump with a gimlet, unforgiving eye, and it won’t be pretty. But it will be accurate.

History has a knack for that.

WHO TELLS YOUR STORY

It is of some comfort to know that, while the arc of history may not bend toward justice (contrary to Dr. King’s optimism), it has a pretty good track of accurately assessing gods and monsters in retrospect.

I was recently with my family in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where we visited the collection of official presidential portraits. It was heartwarming to see the huge line of visitors waiting to view—and take selfies with—Barack Obama’s bold, newly unveiled portrait by Kehinde Wiley. (In a separate section of the museum, a similarly large, similarly enthusiastic snapshot-taking crowd thronged around Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald—maybe an even more encouraging sign.)

But as we entered the hall of presidential portraits, a terrible and depressing thought stabbed at my heart: someday Trump’s picture will be hanging here? At first—instinctively—I comforted myself with the irrational thought that “Of course it won’t!” One way or another Trump will be exposed as the criminal charlatan he is and run out of office on a rail. He will be an asterisk, not deserving of inclusion in this hall. Right?

But then again, Nixon’s portrait is hanging in there. (And it’s one of the most bizarre: an uncharacteristically smiling, unjustifiably flattering depiction by Norman Rockwell—of all people—at once fitting in its aspiration to a mythically idyllic, white-dominated America that never existed but was much mourned by Nixon supporters, and at the same time deeply ironic.)

Accordingly, I adjusted my perspective to face reality. Appalling as it is to imagine, of course Trump will take his place here someday! Even if his administration is rightly remembered as a disaster, it is an undeniable part of American history. How depressing.

But as I wandered the gallery and read the descriptions accompanying each portrait, I was heartened to realize that they were pretty clear-eyed, and therefore often quite harsh. (Sorry John Tyler, Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, James Buchanan, et al.) Brief as they were, the descriptions did occasionally gloss over some nuances, a trend that was much more obvious to me with recent presidents, with whose history I am more familiar. Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Dubya, for example, all got off pretty easy for my taste, so I presume that proper historians might have some quibbles with a lot of others as well. But none were outright hagiographies. (I’d like to know the procedure by which these descriptions are written, and who makes those decisions. I suspect the politics are intense.)

So what will Trump’s portrait and caption look like? First of all, I think we can assume it will be painted on black velvet, and maybe accompanied by something like this:

Donald Trump pulled off the most improbable upset in American presidential history when he defeated the far more experienced and qualified Hillary Clinton in 2016, after running a chaotic, scandal-ridden campaign that did its damnedest to lose in a landslide. Trump was later revealed to have secretly conspired with the Russian government to help win the election, a charge he vehemently denied for years before it was conclusively proven by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump’s was by all accounts the most incompetent, anarchic administration the United States had ever seen. Ultimately his Kremlin connections were shown to stem from deep financial entanglements with Russian organized crime—principally money-laundering, fraud, and other malfeasance—stretching over decades. Ironically, Trump’s run for the presidency, which began as a lark, wound up destroying him, his family, his business empire, and the Trump name. It didn’t do the USA much good either.  

OF ELEPHANTS AND OSTRICHES

But in the same way that even now there remains a small subset of Americans who think Nixon was a great man, it’s clear that for Trump’s most extreme dead-enders, nothing that their hero is eventually revealed to have done will make them turn on him.

Not evidence that he conspired with Russia to steal the election.

Not evidence that he stiffed every blue collar contractor who ever worked for him.

Not evidence that he has been cheating on his taxes for decades at the expense of those same honest, hard-working people.

Not conclusive proof that he had physically assaulted and even raped numerous women, some of them underage.

Not revelations that he eagerly laundered money for the Russian mob, or handed top secret intel over to the Kremlin on a silver platter.

Not a decision to start kneeling during the National Anthem along with Colin Kaepernick. (Oh, if the NFL’s ownership wasn’t conspiring to keep Kaep out of the league, that is.)

Not video of him slapping on knee pads and a French maid’s outfit and pleasuring Vladimir Putin.

Not a photograph of him wiping his ass with the American flag.

Not even the admission that he regularly dines with Hillary Clinton and seeks her advice. (Though of all those hypotheticals, this is the one with the best chance of alienating his fans.)

No no no no no no no no no. If the events of the past two years proven anything, they have proven that Trump’s staunchest supporters will rationalize anything and everything he does….and the GOP leadership will provide them cover.

(Sidebar: Why don’t liberals ever demonstrate that sort of reason-defying fealty to their leaders? There is certainly partisanship on the left, but never on this scale or of this scope. I would venture that it’s because the very nature of the progressive mindset is incompatible with the sort of blind loyalty and ostrich-like capacity for the denial that characterizes the right wing way of thought. The authoritarian impulse is by definition immoral, based on an unjust denial of the rights of others, and varying degrees of sadism. From there it is not a big leap to justifying anything and everything the cult of personality demands.)

RETURN OF THE DEAD END KIDS

This past week, a video by the Guardian —filmed in Northampton County, PA, where I went to college—was widely re-circulated, showing Trump supporters defending their man. (It was actually produced last summer, shortly after revelations that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner met with Russian nationals at Trump Tower in July 2016.) Its predictability does not make it any less jawdropping. The Trump supporters cite the usual Fox News lies that there’s no evidence of any conspiring with Russia and argue that the scandals swirling around the president* are all just sour grapes from Democrats. “He is the president of the United States,” says one man, with great disgust for Trump’s critics. “Where is the respect for the presidency?” We didn’t hear much of that sentiment from these folks when the Tea Party was holding rallies where they lynched President Barack Obama in effigy.

But these people are at least basing their arguments on the position—mistaken though it may be— that Trump did nothing wrong. To their credit, some of them do say that if Trump is eventually shown to have done “underhanded” things, they would want him held to account. (What acts reach that standard, and what proof would be required, and what punishment they would merit, are all separate questions. In the roughly nine months since that video was filmed, all the hard evidence of misdeeds by Trump and his team have failed to appreciably sway his base. Per above, it’s hard to imagine what would.)

Much much scarier are those who admit that our fearless leader might have done questionable and even illegal things, but simply don’t find it troubling. As one interviewee tells the Guardian reporter: “If Trump had to cheat to get in, I’m OK with that.” Again, needless to say, it’s impossible to imagine similar generosity being extended to Hillary Clinton had she been shown to have engaged in conspiracy with the Kremlin. Or even just jaywalked.

So we should be under no delusions of what these Trump supporters will say when their hero is gone—even if he run out of office, impeached, forced to resign, or frogmarched off to prison in chains.

They will say he is a martyr. They will say he was the victim of “the liberal media” which propagated “fake news” designed to destroy him, and of “out-of-touch East Coast elites” who are not real Americans and conspired to use their wealth and power against him.  They will say that the so-called “Deep State” marshaled all its secretive might to undermine him, that the CIA and the FBI and Department of Justice were all out to get him, notorious hotbeds of liberalism that they are. They will say that the Mueller probe was a kangaroo court riven with corruption. They will say that the evidence against him—no matter how incontrovertible or convincing to sane observers—was manufactured. They will say that Rod Rosenstein is a secret Muslim, that Jim Comey is actually only five nine and walks on stilts, that Hillary orchestrated it all from her secret lair inside a fake South Pacific volcano.

In short, the far right will wallow in the warm, comforting bath of victimhood, which they will use to deny objective reality, an honest assessment of the facts, and the truth about the morally bankrupt, utterly disgusting meatsack of Kentucky Fired Chicken and Diet Coke that was the 45thPresident of the United States. He will join Nixon, Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy, and a few others in the pantheon of indisputable villains who are somehow lionized in right wing Bizarro World. Theirs will be a minority view, but it will be resilient within certain circles, like the contention that Pete Rose should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, or that Aerosmith should have made any records after 1977.

Most chilling of all, they will largely acknowledge Trump’s crimes, but shrug and say, “So what?” And that is the most telling fact of all, as it reveals the fundamental truth at the core of right wing politics, and the American right wing in particular: at the end of the day, they simply do not care about any of this, because they do not truly believe in liberty and justice for all.

I am not sympathetic to the argument that these folks have merely been misled or deluded, that their vision has been skewed by economic hardship or feelings of alienation as a result of the globalist revolution. Bullshit. THAT is East Coast elitist condescension. THAT is the soft snobbery of lowered expectations. These are intelligent adults. While some are working class, many of them are very comfortable and even well-to-do, not to mention the plutocrats who went for Trump in droves. (The evidence that white suburbia elected Trump, and not for economic reasons, is strong, belying the bluff claim that arithmetic and not the reptile brain was the driving factor.)

Did some good salt-of-the-earth people simply get conned? Hell yes, and I know that is hard for anyone to admit. But as any grifter will tell you, you can’t con a person who isn’t willing to be conned.

Whatever the mitigating factors, if Republicans and other Trump supporters cannot open their eyes and recognize the lies and the deceit and the pandering and the demagoguery…..if they shut their minds to the distortion of the values that they claim to hold dear…..if they are willing to throw out the rule of law and ignore or explain away the transgressions of their own tribe and its would-be leaders while depriving others of equal, fair, and just treatment…..if they give in to humanity’s worst impulses out of willful blindness, denial, and shameless rationalization…..if they cannot recognize neo-fascism, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny when they see it, then they are culpable. And so are we all.

AVANTI!

Speaking to Salon columnist Chauncey Devega, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Cay Johnston recently described how he thinks Trump will continue to undermine our democracy once he is out of office (presuming it is not feet first):

America will survive this, we’ll get past it, but whenever Trump leaves, there’s no good ending. If Trump is removed by impeachment or by the voters, whether in a Republican primary or a general election, I know what he will do. He’s already told us what he will do by his actions. Trump will spend the rest of his days fomenting violence and revolution in this country. He’s careful not to directly say “revolution,” but he will call the government illegitimate. He might even call it criminal, since he called Democrats who didn’t stand up during his State of the Union speech treasonous. If they’re going to impeach Trump, I believe they have to have a plan to indict, try, convict and imprison him…..and there may well be violence over it.

That prediction is remarkably similar to what we once feared the Very Stable Genius would do after his “inevitable” loss to Hillary, when he refused to say definitively whether he would accept the results of the election, a scenario that now looks pretty good compared to what happened instead.

In order to avoid a collective stroke, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of Americans do oppose Trump. (What that says about our so-called “democracy” and how he got in office in the first place is a different matter.) It’s easy to forget that amid all his daily horrors, and the amount of undue attention his base gets. We should always remember that we have numbers and passion on our side.

At the risk of being ridiculed, I hasten to remind us all that Hillary won the popular vote, a fact I cite not to complain about the anti-democratic and deleterious impact of the Electoral College (a topic for another day), but merely as a reminder that Trump did not come in with any kind of mandate, let alone the support of anything close to a majority of the American people. He “won”—to the extent that he genuinely won at all, given what continue to learn—by virtue of a severely screwed up system that the Republicans were able to game in defiance of the national will, not in reflection of it. Since taking office his support has waned even more…..which means that the numbers and the zeitgeist remain on our side, not his.

Writing in the Washington Post, Greg Sargent clearly outlines the lay of land:

Because Trump has blown through so many norms, the question of whether the American public is rejecting him is a momentous one. Trump has embraced overt racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism, in the form of regular racial provocations, assaults on our institutions and the rule of law, and an unprecedented level of self-dealing that basically constitutes a big middle finger to the country. He has married all this to orthodox GOP economic priorities—indeed, as Brian Beutler says, the three pillars of Trump-era conservatism are self-enriching plutocracy, racism and authoritarianism.

If that is so, then it is notable that majorities are rejecting all of those things. Obamacare repeal crashed and burned. The tax law passed, but it remains deeply unpopular. Majorities disapproved of Trump’s response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Majorities sided with the “dreamers” against Trump and majorities reject Trump’s border wall and many of his demagogic arguments about immigration (though in fairness the polling is mixed on the thinly veiled Muslim ban). Majorities trust the news media, not Trump, to tell them the truth. Big majorities still want Trump to release his tax returns. Large majorities support special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of both potential collusion with Russia, dismissing Trump’s claims of a “witch hunt,” and of Trump’s finances. The public has sided with the investigation and the rule of law, and against Trump.

 Liberals and Dems across the country are responding to Trumpism with politics and organizing. It’s plausible that Trump’s racism and assaults on the rule of law are being widely understood as threats to the country, prompting high turnout and electoral organizing, even among normally less active voters and swing voters, that may be driven by a desire to reinvigorate our democracyagainst Trump’s degradation of it. We don’t talk enough about the deep and widespread public rejection of Trumpism and what it means for the country and its future.

Preach.

In that same Salon interview noted above, David Cay Johnston called the upcoming midterms “the most important American elections since the Civil War, and I’m including 1932,” and it’s hard to disagree. Per Sargent, I am optimistic that by virtue of sheer numbers and passion—and despite the GOP’s best efforts at voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the like—the better angels of Americanism will carry the day. How much damage is done in the mean time and what it will take to repair it is another question.

WRAPPED IN THE FLAG AND CARRYING A CROSS

So, as I feel my nose leaning dangerously out over the tips of my skis, I return to the question of what post-Trumpian America will look like.

Much as I look forward to that day, we must reckon with the fact that the neo-fascist strain that put him in power—even if beaten down and once again suppressed—will, in one form or another and to a greater or lesser degree, still be here for us to contend with. Indeed, the greatest lesson of the Age of the Insane Clown President may well be that we should never delude ourselves that it won’t be.

As the author James Carroll said in these pages last October, Trump is the evidence of the crime, not the crime itself. He didn’t invent the poison that is currently sickening America; he merely exploited a disease that was already in the American bloodstream, mostly hidden if not actually dormant, waiting only for someone like him to come along and activate it.

In that regard, many observers have noted that the rise of Trump has, at least, done an inadvertent public service by exposing this ugly undercurrent that many of us kidded ourselves had long ago been eradicated (or at least driven underground in shame, where it posed no real threat). Remember talk of a “post-racial America” after Obama’s election in 2008? Good times.

The last two years ought to have thoroughly disabused us of that tragic naivete.

If we survive Trump, maybe we can find a way to isolate and control this repulsive strain like smallpox. Or maybe we will all wind up buying Trump™-brand blankets laced with the disease and find American democracy wiped out like the Human Beings at Fort Pitt in 1763.

America is far from alone in that phenomenon: every nation on Earth has its share of quislings, lemmings, cretins, and others who are eager to march along to the sound of jackboots. Indeed, the US has—thus far—never succumbed to outright totalitarianism in the way that others have, including the great civilizations of Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and Russia, to name just a few. Some of that is dumb luck, some of it a testament to the strength of the system the Founders bequeathed us and the values on which it was based. I’ll stop short of trafficking in American exceptionalism and giving credit to any special pixie dust in the American soul. On the contrary: there are numerous strains in our collective DNA that render this nation especially susceptible to authoritarianism, from the religious fanaticism of the Puritans who first settled here, to the “rugged individualism” of our pioneer tradition (whose bastard child lives on in Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style”), to the long history of right wing demagoguery and Orwellian distortion of truth, from Father Coughlin to Fox News. Numerous observers, from Tocqueville to Sinclair Lewis to Noam Chomsky, have speculated about fascism taking root in the United States, and there have been repeated instances in our history that attest to that threat, from Andy Jackson to Charles Lindbergh to Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon. I don’t know if Trump will prove to be the worst, but he is certainly in the running…. and the game ain’t close to over yet.

Johnston’s take on where we are headed is scary and sobering: “If Republicans retain control (of Congress), then I believe what will happen over time is that someone who shares Trump’s dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies but doesn’t have his baggage—someone who is a competent manager and just as charismatic—will eventually arise and you can kiss your individual liberties goodbye. That will take time, but it’s the trend we are heading towards.”

Sound outlandish? Hyperbolic? Alarmist? Maybe. But bear in mind that nobody thought Donald Trump could get elected President of the United States either, not even Donald Trump.

So how do we stop that?

Well, we start by organizing, mobilizing, keeping the passion high, and getting out the vote in November. We do it by holding Trump and his enablers to account every day and in every way, by calling out their hypocrisies, their lies, their sins, and the ways that they daily abuse and exploit the country they are supposed to be serving.

On the macro level, we do it by remembering the principles upon which this nation was founded, warts and all…..By not letting the troglodytes  and the con men co-opt the mantle of patriotism (as they are perennially wont to do), tarring all others as “un-American” and even “traitors” when they are the ones who have betrayed our ideals and even actively consorted with our enemies….and by remembering that we are one people, and—hard as it it is, and I am certainly guilty of it myself, even in this essay—by not demonizing our countrymen, even those who have fallen under this monster’s sway.

To that end, I’ll give the final say to the late cartoonist Walt Kelly, who in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, wrote: “Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly.”

Or as he more famously put it: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

 

“Slow Burn” Is the Greatest Takedown of the Trump Presidency Yet

gty-nixon-1-er-170608_16x9_992

In retrospect, it was inevitable that in the age of the most corrupt, venal, petty, and un-American president in our history, a look back at the previous champion would emerge. But that inevitabilty does not in the slightest diminish the accomplishment of the guy who got their first and actually did it, Leon Neyfakh of Slate, creator of “Slow Burn,” an eight-part podcast (what used to be called a “radio documentary”) about Watergate.

This impeccably made, compulsively listenable series takes us back to that roughly two-year period from the botched break-in at the DNC headquarters in July 1972 to Nixon’s roof-of-the-US Embassy-in-Saigon-like departure from the White House lawn in August 1974. Cleverly, the show recounts that tectonic but already heavily documented period by focusing on little-known or never-fully told stories, like those of the doomed Martha Mitchell, little-remembered Texas Congressman Wright Patman, Watergate committee staffers Marc Lackritz and Mary Diorio, conspiracy theorist Mae Brussell, and others.

But, not surprisingly, what makes “Slow Burn” so special, and so germane to the present moment, is how it illuminates the current crisis with an eerie precision that will send a chill down your spine.

Or is it up your spine?

Either way, it’s fucking spooky.

MIRROR MIRROR

I was a boy during the Watergate scandal (Nixon resigned just before I turned 11) so my perspective on it was that of a child. Revisiting it now, forty plus years later, was bracing.

Neyfakh has done a phenomenal public service with this podcast, not merely in offering an incisive survey of this seminal piece of American history—particularly for younger generations that didn’t experience it firsthand, including Neyfakh himself, as he frequently notes—but in giving us a prism through which to view the present political crisis. Though the series occasionally makes overt reference to Trump, mostly it just tells the Watergate story in all its gory glory and lets the audience connect those dots itself…. which is asburdly easy to do. At virtually every step the story of Watergate offers echoes of the present day. (Yes, I know  have the chronology of an echo backward.)

Listening to Nixon’s press secretaries sneer at the very idea the White House had anything to do with what it called a “third rate burglary” (they were shocked, shocked!) is EXACTLY like listening to an outraged Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mike Pence, and Trump himself insist that his campaign and administration had NO contacts with Russia whatsoever…assurances that, like those about the break-in at DNC headquarters, quickly fell apart.

Listening to Nixon’s defenders in Congress and elsewhere—from George H.W. Bush to Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan—angrily insist that the scandal was overblown, that it was a “witchhunt,” that the “liberal press” was out to get the president, that the country ought to “move on and let the man do the job he was elected to do” is EXACTLY like listening to the tedious Trumpian refrain of his minions and apologists today.

Reagan— governor of California at the time, and Mr. Law and Order, a man who had once urged a “bloodbath” against antiwar protestors—comes off as a particularly noteworthy jackass when he tries to explain how the Watergate burglars were “well-meaning individuals” committed to Nixon’s re-election (as if those two are compatible), and shouldn’t be considered criminals because they weren’t “criminals at heart.”

Even as the evidence against Nixon mounted, the excuses Republicans used to defend him—hilariously parodied by Art Buchwald—continued, astonishingly reminiscent of a certain present day phenomenon. (Chief among it, the “whataboutism” of Chappaquiddick, a near-perfect analog to the cries about Vince Foster, Benghazi, the Fast and the Furious, Uranium One, and child porn rings run out of pizza parlors. Chappaquiddick was at least a legitimate crime for which Kennedy bore blame, not a John Birch fever dream of the tinfoil hat crowd.)

Listening to Republicans calculate that Democrats wouldn’t impeach Nixon because they loathed his VP even more made me smile, and listening to Nixon make the ridiculous claim that he wasn’t concerned about himself, only about protecting the prerogatives of ”future presidents,” made me laugh out loud. Apparently it didn’t fool many people at the time either: like Trump’s taxes or his obstinance on Russiagate, a stubborn refusal to let the evidence come out has a funny way of making people think you’re guilty. But like his “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam—which did fool a lot of people—Dick had a real penchant for these howlers, again presaging another Republican congenital liar 44 years later.

It is telling, however, that in attempting to thwart the special prosecutor’s investigation against him, not even the reliably vicious Richard Milhous Nixon dared engage in the kind of overt, hyperbolic attacks that Trump has mounted against Jim Comey, Bob Mueller, and even his own Attorney General. Cox was a tweedy Harvard Law professor who had worked for JFK and invited Teddy to his swearing-in (!)…..as Neyfakh says, a veritable cartoon of a Nixon foe. Yet Nixon never publicly assailed him as a partisan whose objectivity was in question (though he did so privately). Contrast that with Trump’s relentless, wildly dishonest, almost daily public attacks on Mueller—a lifelong Republican—attempting to paint him as some sort of Hillary-loving liberal.

Of course, Nixon did do something worse: he fired Archibald Cox. Listening to “Slow Burn”’s account of the Saturday Night Massacre is especially chilling, though also thrilling in its portrayal of the integrity  of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. (Nixon’s allegation that Richardson was putting his “purely personal commitments ahead of the public public interest” is a perfect bookend to Trump’s beyond-outlandish claim that the FBI raid on Michael Cohen’s home and office was “an attack on our country.”) The Saturday Night Massacre functions simultaneously as a parallel to the firing of Comey—the single worst, most self-destructive decision of Trump’s presidency, and the one that has brought all this shit down upon him—and an ominous augury of what might befall Mr. Mueller, with a similar backfiring effect, one hopes. (Rod Rosenstein, take note: history has its eyes on you.)

Perhaps above all, listening to rank-and-file Republicans dismiss Nixon’s actions as no big deal is a disturbing parallel to today’s chorus from Trump supporters, whose typical MO is first to deny any wrongdoing by their boy, whatever the subject (Russia, taxes, Stormy), and then, when pressed, eventually blurt out Nathan Jessup style: “Even if he did, so what?”

Likewise, the right wing’s central defense during Watergate was, “Everybody does it; Nixon just got caught!”, and its corollary, “We don’t care!” This resort to cyncicism-as-justification is itself eminently cynical, as neither of those things are really true. Everybody does not subvert the Constitution, siphon off campaign money for an illegal slush fund, fire special prosecutors, engage in perjury, wanton deception of the American public, intimidation of the press, abuse of the FBI and CIA as a personal gestapo, dirty tricks, ratfucking, and on and on, and certainly not at the level Nixon did. And Republicans damn sure do care that that stuff happens—and indeed, infinitely less egregious transgressions—when it’s done by Democrats or anyone else. Ask the Clintons.

Hypocrisy, thy name is GOP.

Of course, even mainstream conservatives evenutally turned on Nixon when the sheer magnitude of his crimes became undeniable. I grew up in a garden variety middle class Republican family—an Army family, no less— and we lived just outside Washington when the scandal reached its denouement. I distinctly remember the day— it must have been in late 1973 or early ’74—that my mother shook her head sadly and said, “I’ve tried to believe the President. But now….” and trailed off.

I think her attitude reflected that of many honest conservatives, and foreshadowed a new political reality in America that would be much more jaded—ironically, one that facilitated the exact sort of scuzzy behavior in which Nixon specialized. This then was another tragic legacy that Tricky Dick bequeathed us, paving the way for the deeply Machiavellian, viciously immoral incarnation of the current Republican Party and its mean girl cheerleaders in the right wing media who have exploited that toxic mentality for their own ends….a doubly cruel irony.

MAY I QUIBBLE?

The listener reviews of “Slow Burn” on iTunes are overwhelmingly raves—Citizen Kane would be envious. But the cranky few mostly bitch about the comparisons to Trump, with some complaining that it’s unfair to him, and others that it’s unfair to Nixon. I am reminded of the commonality between opinions and assholes, to say nothing of the latter who have the former.

My one quibble with the otherwise brilliant series comes in Episode 5, “True Bellevers,” which might also be its best. That installment shines in its depiction of the blind loyalty  of Nixon’s supporters, both in the GOP leadership and the general public. But for my taste, in the course of that telling, Neyfakh gives too much credence to a man named Mike Madigan, a member of the Rebublican staff of the Senate Watergate Committee (and now a prominent archconservative Washington DC lawyer), who adamantly depicts his side as patriotic Americans dedicated to discovering the truth, and not a bunch of craven partisans trying only to protect the Nixon White House, as others have charged.

Yet this depiction comes hot on the heels of the show’s revelation that the Republican members of the committee were secretly coordinating with the White House, which was leaking to them info, advice, and even actual crib sheets with instructions on how to undermine witnesses like John Dean. (The prototype, quite clearly, for the behavior of Devin Nunes.) Madigan proudly identifies himself as an acolyte of his boss and friend Fred Thompson, the minority counsel for the GOP side of the Senate Watergate committee, and later a Republican US Senator himself and failed presidential candidate in 2008. Thompson personally wrote the crucial piece of evidence that accidentally broke the Watergate case wide open: notes on how to discredit Dean that incorporated direct quotes from conversations captured by the secret White House taping system. It was the mysteriousness of those quotes that caught the attention of a staff stenorgapher, who in turn alerted a Democratic staffer named Scott Armstrong, who in turn asked HR Haldeman’s deputy, retired Air Force Colonel Alexander Butterfield, where the quotes came from.

I understand that Neyfakh may have been letting Madigan to say his piece and allowing the audience to judge for itself, with the previously mentioned damning evidence to the contrary still lingering in its collective mind. But does it linger? Or is it obliterated by what follows, which feels very much like a “Now wait a minute” journalistic trope that purports to show “both sides of the story.” That is very much like the predelection for false equivalencies in contemporary American reportage that has led people to equate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as somehow equally corrupt—or equally qualified to be president.

To be fair, it was a GOP staffer named Don Sanders—Armstrong’s Republican counterpart in the tag team interview of Colonel Butterfield—who delivered the coup de grace by asking bluntly whether Nixon was secretly taping his conversations. To which Butterfield guilelessly replied—in a moment that would get you thrown out of the Writers Guild if this were a fictional screenplay—“I guess you guys must already know, the President has an automatic taping device in each of his offices.”

Madigan rather snidely disputes Armstrong’s account and is scornful of his role of cracking Butterfield. Neyfakh has him on tape calling Armstrong’s version “horseshit” and objecting to the portrayal of Fred Thompson as anything as honest and forthright, even though we have just learned that Thompson was conspiring with the White House to undermine witnesses against it, to include use of transcripts from the secret tapes.

Madigan’s claim is deeply unconvincing, and betrayed even by the verbiage he uses. In the same breath that he insists on the bipartisan nature of the Senate investigation, he refers to Sanders as “our guy” (meaning a Republican), thereby emphasizing the very tribalism he is denying.

But all you really need to know about Madigan’s credibility—or lack thereof—is that he recently defended Trump’s firing of James Comey and scoffed at the idea of any parallels to Watergate. ‘Nuff said.

It may be unfair to single out for criticism this one moment in a series that ripples with hundreds of countervailing examples of the very best journalism. But it speaks to an important point about the current state of play in America in 2018.

That Don Sanders did what he did speaks to his personal integrity. What it does not do is prove Madigan’s claim of general Republican altruism. The behavior of Madigan’s idols Thompson and Howard Baker (among others) in carrying water for the Nixon White House while maintaining the pretense of impartiality cannot be excused, and these days looks very familiar. The principled behavior of individual Republicans like Sanders flew in the face of the party leadership, not in line with it.

(Meanwhile, history best remembers Fred Thompson as a character actor in films and TV shows like “Law & Order,” where he routinely played the kind of guy he sort of had been, or aspired to be: district attorneys, CIA men, senators, and presidents. Occasionally he was cast as a villain: arguably, a role he played in real life too. In his golden years, as required by law for aging actors, he was a TV pitchman for reverse mortgages, which actually may have been a less despicable exploitation of his fellow senior citizens than being a Republican politician.)

Nil nisi bonum be damned: what we need right now is a lot more Republicans like Don Sanders and a lot fewer like Fred Thomspon.

THIS TAPE WILL SELF-OBSTRUCT

This issue of institutional corruption is a huge one.

During Watergate, the GOP fixated on the irrelevance of the taping system, arguing—with some merit—that previous 20th century presidents had also recorded White House conversations. What they ignored was the much more salient point that it wasn’t the existence of the tapes that was the issue, but what was on them. Nixon sure knew that, and so did Rose Mary Woods.

The tapes ultimately revealed Nixon’s guilt. But when Reagan, Bush, Ford, and others self-righteously defended Nixon in the early and even middle phases of Watergate, insisting that even the mere allegation of his involvement was outrageous, was it criminal perfidy on their parts, or did these men really believe in the president’s innocence?

Either way, they were at least willing to let an investigation go forward, if only in hopes that it would clear Nixon’s name. Despite the aforementioned obstructionism, the Republican Party seemed to understand that the rule of law demanded that much, or at least the pretense of such. Contrast that with today, when much of the modern GOP spends its time citing various flimsy, dishonest, and utterly hypocritical non-reasons for loudly insisting that the Mueller probe be shut down, and doing everything it can to achieve that.

In the end, the accumulated weight of evidence finally forced the Republican leadership to abandon Nixon and present him with an Corleone-like offer he couldn’t refuse: resign before you are impeached and convicted. Nixon wisely took the deal. Clearly, in appointing Gerry Ford to replace the disgraced Spiro “Nolo Contendere” Agnew (another story), he had anticipated this possible contingency and planned for it.

Whether the current GOP leadership will ever reach a similar inflection point, if only for strategic reasons of self-preservation (I’m not holding my breath for a sudden burst of principle) remains to be seen. They may instead go to the mattresses, believing—not without justification, based on recent events—that they can bully, bluster, and bullshit the American people into submission.

Likewise, it remains to be seen if there are any circumstances under which Trump would see the writing on the wall (or be able to read it) and cut his losses. Nixon was, if nothing else, a truly tough sonofabitch, as even his enemies would concede. Trump, by contrast, is simply a monster who can’t be reasoned with, even when it’s in his own best interest, as his own lawyers would attest. That may end up being his epitaph.

UNFORCED ERROR

As the Butterfield incident showed, it was the Nixon White House’s own clumsy attempts to obstruct the Watergate investigation that led to the president’s eventual downfall. Forget about a smoking gun: with the tapes, the White House handed the Senate committee the loaded gun with which it blew Nixon’s brains out.

OK, I’m mixing metaphors, detective versus assassin wise, but you get the idea.

The comparisons to Team Trump—the gang that couldn’t collude straight—are blatant. From the moment the Very Stable Genius fired James Comey, if not sooner, the wounds this administration has suffered have consistently been self-inflicted, from its hamhanded attempts to squash the investigation into Russiagate, to its relentless denigration of the intelligence and law enforcement communities and a free press, to its vicious attacks on the rule of law and the courts, to its general desperation to cover up….something (stay tuned). The Trump White House is its own worst enemy, which is saying something considering how many other enemies it has.

It was after all, three instances of obstruction of justice that were the first impeachment charges brought against Nixon—triggering his resignation eleven days later— not the inciting crime itself, though let us duly remember that he was implicated in both. That fact ought to be foremost in the minds of Trump and his Kool-Aid besotted followers.

When it comes to Russiagate, the central question still under consideration is the extent, if any, of Trump’s involvement in conspiring with Moscow to defraud the United States—a more precise description than the amorphous “collusion,” and the charge the Mueller team brought against 13 Russian nationals last February, the one to which Paul Gates pled guilty, and the one with which Don Jr. and others may eventually be charged as well.

In other words, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” 

But even if no such evidence is found, the issue of Trump’s obstruction of that inquiry is impossible to reputably dispute, and may well be the thing that brings him down. Contrary to the popular saying, the coverup isn’t always worse than the crime, especially when the crime is treason, but it’s often the thing that gets you busted.

THE BLOOD ON NIXON’S HANDS

Nixon, an absolutely horrible president and even worse human being (see Hunter Thompson’s obituary of him), was at least a proper villain. Just from a pragmatic point of view, he would blanch at Trump’s cloddishness and stupidity. Paranoid, cripplingly insecure, petty, vindictive, bullying, self-pitying, pathologically dishonest, and contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law (sound like anyone else you know?), Nixon was at least smart, politically savvy, and deeply experienced in public life…not some demented, borderline illiterate game show host and D-list celebrity wannabe untethered to objective reality who’d been born into obscene wealth and never did anything other than try to accumulate more of it. (And fuck porn stars.) On domestic policy Nixon actually oversaw some decent things, such as the institution of wage-and-price controls and the creation of the EPA. Today, some of his policies and positions would get him run out of the GOP as a flaming liberal. (Saint Reagan too, by the by.)

But to me, as a son of a Vietnam veteran and professional soldier in my own right, Nixon’s mysteriously enduring reptuation among hawks as a rockribbed champion of our national defense stands as one of the most stomach-churning swindles in American history.

This is a man who, after building an entire political career on rabid, borderline McCarthyite anti-communism, promised an end to the war in Vietnam during the 1968 presidential campaign. But subsequent research has shown that at the exact same time he was sabotaging the peace process through backchannel messages to the Saigon regime in order to keep the war going and help his prospects at the polls. (It worked.) Once in office, he continued to wage war for five more years, subverting negotiations to end the fighting, extending the war into Cambodia, and carrying out an unconscionable campaign of carpet bombing, among other travesties. We would do well to talk about the number of Vietnamese he slaughtered, but I’ll confine myself to a single emblematic indictment of his actions as they affected the American side:

Of the 58,000 US dead in Vietnam, 41,000 came on Richard Nixon’s watch….well after the national security apparatus had concluded that the war could not be won, as revealed in the Pentagon Papers. When it finally suited Nixon and Kissinger to make peace with Hanoi in 1973, they got the exact same terms LBJ had been offered in 1968.

For that I will never forgive Richard Nixon and neither should anyone else who ever wore the uniform  of the United States military, or lives under the flag for which it fights.

PARDON ME?

That same criminal megalomania is on ample display in “Slow Burn,” and nowhere more so than in the very first episode, which tells the story of Martha Mitchell. In the immediate aftermath of the break-in, the famously outspoken Mrs. Mitchell was held prisoner in a hotel room and drugged to prevent her from talking to the press—on orders from her own husband no less, the attorney general, who eventually went to prison for his role in the scandal. She managed to speak out anyway, for which she was subjected to a campaign of character assassination that would look very familiar to anyone who has watched Team Trump go after its enemies. (The goon whom John Mitchell employed to hold her hostage, a former FBI agent named Steve King, is now Trump’s ambassador to the Czech Republic.)

In that episode of “Slow Burn” there is a clip from the famous 1977 David Frost interviews in which a voluble Richard Nixon muses that if not for Martha Mitchell, Watergate would not have ever come to light, at least not as the presidency-ending scandal it became.

What’s eye-popping about this comment isn’t just Nixon’s incredible arrogance and continued disregard for the enormity of his own crimes, although that is certainly appalling. Only three years removed from his ignominious departure from the White House, there he sat—tan, rested, and ready—blithely talking about the worst political scandal in US history (to that time) as if it were a parking violation. Having barely dodged impeachment and perhaps prison, he was still acting as if he were the one who had been treated unfairly, as if Watergate were not his doing but some natural disaster, or some minor inconvenience rudely foisted on him by a pesky press.

What was really instructive about that remark, however, was what it says about his pardon.

There can be little doubt that a backroom deal was struck with Gerald Ford to pardon Nixon in exchange for the Vice Presidency, and eventually the Presidency itself. (Earlier in “Slow Burn,” Ford figures in the story as a leader in the Republican sabotage of Texas Congressman Wright Patman’s early attempts to “follow the money.”) Ford explained the pardon in terms of sparing the country further pain, which is not a rationale that many criminals have successfully used to dissuade the authorities from prosecuting them. (“Yes, Your Honor, I killed and ate all those door-to-door salesmen, but must the country suffer further by putting me on trial?”)

It was a transparently dishonest explanation. But for every American citizen who was outraged that this miserable bastard got away with his crimes, there was another who agreed that the pardon was “for the good of the country” in avoiding additional trauma and divisiveness,…..or more probably, had internalized those rationalizations out of partisanship. (Ford of course paid the price in November 1976, and rightly so.)

I bring that up with an eye toward the ultimate fate of Donald J. Trump. Assuming he does not annihilate all human life in a global nuclear holocaust, or extinguish the light of American democracy by suspending future elections and staying in power for life (which many Republicans would support), someday Spanky will be out of office. It may be in chains at the hands of Robert Mueller, it may be in a humiliating defeat in 2020, it may be in triumph (gulp) after two terms, or it may be feet first if the Big Macs and Diet Cokes kill him while he’s watching “Hannity” in the Lincoln Bedroom, but one way or another he’s going. And unless it’s that last scenario, his crimes will follow him into his post-presidential life, as will the possibility of prosecution for them.

There is a vague consensus—but not a settled matter of law—that a sitting president cannot be indicted for ordinary crimes, that impeachment is the proper constitutional mechanism for his or her removal, after which he or she may be prosecuted (or not). That assumption has never been challeneged in court, but it soon might be. Unfortunately for us, with a shameless crook like Trump, that incentivizes him to stay in office as long as possible, utilizing the power of the office and executive privilege to help him fight like the cornered rat he is.

But when Trump finally goes, however he goes, surely there will be people who will say, “Let’s put it behind us.” Right wingers will take that position for obvious reasons, like Nixon’s dead enders before them. But many progressives—breathing a sigh of relief—may simply be so glad just to have the Very Stable Genius gone that they will have no stomach for holding him to account in the way that justice demands.

But to listen to Tricky Dick casually speculate to David Frost about what a shame it was that Watergate ever came to light is to feel the full force of the injustice of Nixon’s escape. The man simply had no regret, no compunction, no sense of guilt, no recognition of how lucky he was that he didn’t end up hung by his heels Mussolini-style. (Oh, and three weeks after being pardoned, he sold the rights to his as-yet-unwritten memoirs for $2.5 million dollars. 1974 dollars, I hasten to add.)

Does anyone doubt for a New York second that Donald Trump, in similar circumstances, would be just as blithe and arrogant? Not to get out too far over my skis, as the cliche goes, but contrary to the claim that removal from office would be punishment enough, it’s my humble opinion that our country would be best served if Donald Trump is prosecuted to the full extent of the law for once in his absurdly entitled life. It is no less than he—and we—deserve.

As many have noted, in the end it was the willingness of Nixon’s own party to hold him accountable for his crimes that sealed his fate. Thus far, we have seem absolutely no sign of a similar integrity on the part of the contemporary GOP—very much the contrary, in fact. And that, more than anything else, appears to be the most relevant difference between the Nixon and Trump eras, and the one that is most worrying. It is unnerving to think that we might one day look back on Watergate as the more minor scandal, when some semblance of non-partisan principle and integrity carried the day—the Great War overshadowed by World War II—compared with what followed.

As I was fond of writing at the end of my lazily composed undergraduate term papers, only time will tell.

 

 

“The Modern World Starts Here”—The Birth of Silicon Valley

Narinder Singh

In case it’s not already clear to you from every single thing in modern life, the impact of microprocessor technology on human history is akin to that of the printing press, and is probably making the wheel and fire nervous. (If it’s not clear, you can get an app for your phone to remind you.)

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Michael Schwarz and Kiran Kapany of Kikim Media—headquartered in the heart of the tech industry, in Menlo Park, California—tackle this history in their new stellar three-part series for the Science Channel, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The tale is a very personal one for Kiran, whose father, the physicist Narinder Singh Kapany—pictured above—who emigrated to Northern California from India via England in 1960, is often called “the father of fiber optics.” (If you’ve ever had an endoscopy, you should thank Professor Kapany: it used to be a lot worse.)

As longtime residents of the Valley who labored over this sweeping and deeply thoughtful documentary series for many years, Schwarz and Kapany surely did not expect it to air in the midst of a massive public scandal involving the tech community. But the issues on the front pages today are informed by the story they tell in this documentary. It is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the DNA of the place at the very heart of modern innovation, not merely in tech but across the spectrum of human experience.

EARLY ADOPTERS

In Schwarz and Kapany’s series, Satjiv Chahil, formerly senior vice president of Apple, says that Silicon Valley is to our world today “what Florence was to the Renaissance—the epicenter of a global cultural change.” Denizens of the Valley are prone to such pronouncements, but they aren’t wrong.

The series places Silicon Valley in the context not just of the history of science and technology, but of all of American history, painting an eye-opening portrait for the tech world layman. Dipping back into the pre-history of modern tech, it contextualizes Silicon Valley amid the gold rush of California in the 1840s (prefiguring the gold rush redux of the dot com boom) which first attracted “dreamers, visionaries, and rebels,” setting a tone that lives on to this day. Similarly, it connects the Information Superhighway with its metaphorical forerunner, the railroads where Leland Stanford made his fortune, which fittingly led to the creation of the private university that bears his name, which in turn midwifed the late 20th and early 21st century revolutions in both hardware and software.

Schwarz and Kapany highlight the “ecosystem” of the Valley and the unique combination of factors that conspired to create ideal conditions for the incubation of modern computer technology. To tell that tale they touch on the stories of numerous iconic companies that sprung from this fertile ground, including Hewlett-Packard, Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple, Facebook, PayPal, What’s App, Atari, and Airbnb, this last of which owes its success in part to Barry Manilow’s drummer. (You’ll have to watch Episode 3 to understand why.)

Says Schwarz: “Scholars who study the region have long used that term to describe it, because much like an ecosystem in nature, Silicon Valley has evolved over a long period of time and has a number of interconnected elements that collectively help sustain it and enable it to thrive. Take any one away and the rest probably won’t do quite as well.” Among the diverse forces in play were the needs of the locally-based aerospace industry; the research going on at Stanford (which deliberately encouraged students to start companies outside the university); the fact that non-compete clauses are in illegal in California; even the generally freespirited ethos of the Bay Area and the legacy of the Haight-Ashbury era.

HP garage

The Hewlitt-Packard garage in Palo Alto, CA

Many of the values we now associate with the tech industry were first promoted by Hewlett-Packard, the Palo Alto-based company that arguably started it all in the 1930s. HP’s crewcut engineers in old black-and-white photos aren’t the image immediately conjured by the words “Silicon Valley,” but Bill Hewlitt and David Packard were visionaries responsible for much of the ethos that defines the Valley to this day, the most impactful of which was their sheer wisdom and generosity. Rejecting the usual paranoia, Hewlitt and Packard actively encouraged their underlings to strike out on their own, arguing that it’s OK to change jobs, it’s OK to fail, and that cross-pollination serves the greater good and benefits all—veritable mantras in Silicon Valley to this day.

Famously, HP was started in the garage of a house at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto—now a state and national landmark—creating the original prototype and ur-myth of all garage-birthed tech giants, as if they were rock & roll bands. As the author Michael Malone says in the series, “I really think the modern world starts right there.”

The stories of the misses are just as fascinating as the hits. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak loved working at HP so much that he begged them to buy the first Apple machine that he built. HP passed five times. Xerox had the vision to create the famed Palo Alto think tank Xerox PARC, from which emerged such innovations as the mouse and the Alto personal computer that was the forerunner of the Macintosh. But Xerox’s top leadership—fixated on its lucrative copier business—failed to see the full potential of computers and let the golden goose get away.

Even the great ones had their off days. Nolan Bushnell, the visionary founder of Atari and inventor of Pong, had in his employ a 19-year-old Steve Jobs (who taught Atari’s staff how to solder), but passed on a chance to own a third of Apple for $50,000.

(For fictional depictions of the tech world, both tragic and comic, see AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s Silicon Valley, for my money, the funniest comedy on television today.)

There are darker stories as well. One of the most fascinating subplots in the Science series is that of William Shockley, the Nobel prize-winning physicist and co-inventor of the transistor, whose scientific achievements are tarred by his racist belief in eugenics. It seems no coincidence that Shockley’s repulsive politics go hand in hand with his Captain Queeg-like management style— the polar opposite of HP’s progressive mindset—a style that drove out superstar employees who went on to start a half dozen landmark companies that made the Valley what it is today. (Shockley once subjected all his employees to lie detector tests over his fervent belief that a cut finger suffered by a secretary was deliberately arranged by a saboteur within the company.)

AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY

MS and KK

Kiran Kapany and Michael Schwarz, producers, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story

Silicon Valley: The Untold Story rejects hagiography as it dives headlong into the industry’s embarrassing record on diversity, one that has barely improved over the past twenty years. It bravely documents the overwhelming white male-ness of Silicon Valley and indeed the whole tech community—notwithstanding the strong presence of Asian and Asian-American engineers—even as that community ostentatiously prides itself on being a meritocracy. In that sense, the tech world makes for an apt avatar of a widespread delusion in America at large. The series likewise explores the endemic sexism of the industry, from the early role of female “computers”—see also Hidden Figures—to its own version of the Rosie the Riveter phenomenon, with comments from legendary female pioneers like Kim Polese of Marimba and Heidi Roizen of T/Maker and Apple (who describes how she cleverly jiu-jitsued that very sexism into a marketing ploy).

Belying another beloved myth, Schwarz and Kapany also show how decades of US government funding and tax dollars subsidized and nurtured the tech industry, disabusing us of Silicon Valley’s treasured self-image as a paragon of rugged individualism and a triumph of unfettered capitalism. The resistance of many of today’s tech companies to governmental regulation and their sanctimony on the alleged superiority of the free market betrays their ignorance of their own history. Neither the cheerleaders for Milton Friedman-brand laissez faire economics nor megalomaniacal tech entrepreneurs themselves—who prefer a narrative in which they are freestanding iconoclastic geniuses who went it alone—like to admit it, but Silicon Valley as we know it simply would have been an impossibility without massive public financing, principally via defense contracting.

Schwarz again:

World War II spurs a big increase in government funding of university research. After the war a much bigger chunk of that money goes to the engineering school at Stanford, largely thanks to the Cold War and the efforts of Fred Terman, its Dean of Engineering. But in 1957 the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union comes as a nasty shock. It’s no coincidence that the US government sets up NASA a year later—and NASA takes over a government aviation lab in the Santa Clara Valley that runs the world’s biggest collection of wind tunnels. NASA is intent on getting to the moon first, but you can’t build rocket ships with vacuum tubes. So it becomes what Paul Saffo describes in our film as an early adopter—“someone who is happy to pay way too much for something that doesn’t quite work”—and spurs improvements in the technology for integrated circuits made with silicon, which give the Valley the name we know it by today.

 The military industrial complex’s insatiable Cold War need for technological innovation is one of the great ironies in the genesis of Silicon Valley, and its impact was both large and small, institutional and coincidental. On the former count, of course, we owe the Internet itself to DARPA. (With a special shout-out to the Jesuit priest and polymath Teilhard de Chardin, who conceived of what he called the “noosphere” back in the 1920s.) On the latter, Schwarz and Kapany recount how Steve Wozniak’s father worked at the Santa Clara Valley-based Lockheed factory that made the Polaris missile, which is how Steve got four hundred “defective” transistors—rejected for cosmetic deficiencies—to use as switches in the development of the original Apple computer. And so, the production of weapons meant to deal death and destruction in a thermonuclear war accidentally gave birth to technology that transformed the world in a way that now seems an inevitable part of the march of “progress”….or at the very least, transformation.

That said, the ways in which tech and the Internet can themselves be weaponized and turned to nefarious ends have been recently quite evident. At the end of episode two, Silicon Valley: The Untold Story even presciently addresses the very privacy issues roiling us in the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandals.

BOB@STANFORD

Among the series’ most fascinating stories is that of inventor and engineer Doug Engelbart, who envisioned both modern computing and the Internet as far back as the mid 1960s. Ironically, Engelbart drew inspiration from the pioneering work in hypertext and analog computing done by Vannevar Bush, who during World War II had overseen the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb. Few at the time could really comprehend the tectonic implications of Engelbart’s work, which featured a new vision of the computer as not merely a number-crunching machine but something that could deal with text, images, audiovisual material, and could—and this is the crazy part—talk to other computers. As Paul Saffo puts it in the series, Engelbart was offering “ten-speeds for the mind at a time when we were building tricycles.”

As a longtime devotee of the IBM Selectric typewriter, I remember the first time I really grasped the concept of the “word processor” (in 1989—I was a bit late to the party). It was like taking acid, or the moment when The Wizard of Oz turns from black-and-white to color, or hearing the drum break in “In the Air Tonight” for the first time. Having been genetically attached to my word processor ever since, I’m not sure how anyone wrote anything before its invention, at least not beyond a first draft. If you think Dickens and Dostoevsky are longwinded as it is, imagine if they’d been able to cut and paste.

Five years after that, in 1994, I started grad school at Stanford— sadly for my net worth, in the documentary film program, not engineering. I was nonplussed that all of the university’s administrative actions—course selection, communication with professors, posting of grades, etc—were done electronically. I’d never even used email before; at that time relatively few people had. It was so new that my email address was Bob@stanford.edu. (Not even “Bob1.”)

In the summer of 1995 I actually took a graduate school course at Stanford in how to search the Internet.

I’ll repeat that:

I actually took a course, for graduate credit, on how to search the Internet.

That was in the days of Lexis/Nexis, when that task was tedious and complicated and unreliable. At that exact same time, across campus in the aforementioned engineering department, two grad students named Sergey Brin and Larry Page had just met and begun work on a project to improve that search process, which led to the creation of a private company that you might have heard of. It starts with a G, and is synonymous with a number containing 100 zeros, which coincidentally is roughly its current valuation in US dollars.

Like Apple, Brin and Page at first tried to license their innovative technology to others, and spent a year doing so with no luck, before they decided to start their own company. (I can only presume that the VCs who passed on what would become Google are now Facebook friends with the record executives at Decca who passed on the Beatles in 1962.) That same summer I worked at restaurant/bar in Palo Alto (the Blue Chalk Café, for those who care, or remember) and was at the door checking IDs the night Netscape went public. Its staff—all newly minted millionaires, on paper—rolled into the joint like drunken Vikings, Revenge of the Nerds-style, no doubt imagining that they would rule the Internet search world forever. Ah, good times.

Like Jobs and Wozniak, and Engelbart before them, Brin and Page had created something so far ahead of its time that it took the rest of the world a while to catch up. What they realized, in the words of author Michael Malone, was that “the ability to search for knowledge is the transformative event of our era.” It’s hard to argue.

HUDDLED MASSES 1, NATIVISTS 0

Another salient point Schwarz and Kapany make in their series is one that ought not need stressing, but in the current political climate, clearly does.

A third of Silicon Valley’s population is foreign born; more than half its engineers are. Even in a country built on and by immigrants, the tech world stands as a shining example of the value and vigor immigrants bring to this country, from Sergey Brin to Elon Musk, Jerry Yang, Andrew Grove, Jan Koum, Andy Bechtolsheim, Vinod Khosla, Narinder Kapany, and—going further back in their families’ histories—Jobs, Wozniak, and just about everyone else including even the odious Dr. Shockley himself (who as far as I know is not Native American). In addition to the other factors that made the Valley the perfect habitat for the tech explosion that occurred there, arguably no other country on Earth has the immigrant tradition that would allow for this welcome phenomenon.  Of course, the same is true of almost everything that’s happened in the United States of America full stop since about 1607, but that’s a topic for another day.

Says Kiran Kapany of her family’s experience:

When my father came here in 1960 to found his first company, Optics Technology Inc., there were few other immigrants. And here’s my father, a Sikh with a turban who didn’t cut his hair at all, and a full black beard and mustache. He was initially funded by Don Lucas of Draper, Gaither & Anderson and then later by the executives of Hewlett-Packard and Bank of America. Tom Perkins of Kleiner Perkins ran the business side of OTI. These folks were some of the greats of the Valley. No one saw my father as an “immigrant”: he was an inventor, a visionary making a huge contribution to the world.

I would like to propose legislation banning the likes of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the rest of the build-the-wall America Firsters from using any technology invented by immigrants. Guys: we’ll send some folks around to collect your cellphones and computers, and you can go back to mimeographing your neo-Nazi leaflets and passing them out in pawn shop parking lots. (Oh wait, the mimeograph was invented by foreigners too.)

THE DREAM OF PROGRESS

By its very nature, technological innovation always presents itself as beneficial to mankind—what we call “progress.” In the series, anthropology professor Jan English-Lueck calls Silicon Valley “almost the crystallization of this dream of progress.” Of course, many observers, from Thoreau to Ted Kaczynski, take issue with that notion.

Kaczynski—himself a product of the late Sixties techno-academic world of Berkeley, by way of Harvard, Michigan, and CIA experimentation—is no one’s idea of a hero, but his critique of technology in the so-called Unabomber Manifesto—properly known as “Industrial Society and Its Future”—is sobering and filled with cogent arguments…..at least right up to the part where he concludes, “And that’s why I had to kill people.”

One salient critique of much of current cutting edge tech is that it represents exactly what privileged, single young people in the industrialized world—that is to say, the chief demographic of developers—would create. Facebook, Tinder, and Uber are applications that benefit that community. (For me, the ATM, GPS, and Shazam alone represent earth-shattering advances that have transformed my life, making me guilty of the same selfishness.) By contrast, fewer resources  and brainpower are being applied to thinking up ways to provide clean water for the Fourth World.

But it has always been thus. How many billions of dollars were devoted to developing Viagra and Rogaine instead of curing any number of diseases that cause untold suffering for millions? There is certainly money to be made in a cure for cancer, but probably more in a cure for baldness. (Note: the patriarchy at work.)

Even so, should our species survive, future generations may look back on those of us who lived through this era as having been the lucky witnesses to an epochal change in human history. But of course that same history shows that the very same potential for transformative good can be turned to equally nefarious ends. We feel it every day as we navigate this brave new world: most recently, in the Orwellian issues of privacy, governmental surveillance, and authoritarian control that have been at the heart of science fiction—and science fact—as far back as the Industrial Revolution. As noted above, the very parentage of the Internet—the love child of the Pentagon and California hippies—speaks to that dichotomy.

As a child of the Valley,  Kiran muses:

 I look back at those more peaceful days….what the elder statesman of Silicon Valley were doing compared to the young innovators of today. We are certainly moving away from the stability we had in the advancement of technology. You look at founders of silly apps becoming billionaires overnight, the lack of privacy, hacking into this site and that site, the value of AI to our society, data mining and the risk to democracy thanks to companies like Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Palantir. Would that have happened had those early pioneers in the Valley had today’s technological tools? I’d like to think there were a stronger set of morals and ethics at that time, but who knows?

In closing, I would simply like to say that I wrote this on a computer, and if you’re reading it, you are surely online.

You can close the pod bay doors now, Hal.

Only Nixon Could Go to China….But Nixon Was, Like, Smart

Trump socialitst realism - flattened

When I first heard that Donald Trump had agreed to meet in person with Kim Jong-un, I assumed it was just to get parade advice.

I have been very hard in these pages on this administration’s North Korea policy. (See ‘Round Midnight and An End to Nuclear Fairytales.) In fact, I would put “policy” in quotes, as my chief criticism is that there ain’t no policy per se, just a seemingly random, often self-contradictory careening that baffles friends and foes alike. And this pattern shows no signs of being some calculated Nixonian “Madman Ploy” but rather, genuine madman-ness, featuring belligerence (“fire and fury”), juvenile namecalling (“Little Rocket Man”), and Freudian overcompensation (“My button is bigger than yours’) heretofore unheard of at the presidential level. Is America great again yet?

But now that Trump has accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the DPRK’s nuclear program, the question is: did it work after all?

It’s a fair inquiry. In a situation this fraught it’s hard for anyone, especially Democrats and other progressives, to reject dialogue and diplomacy, which after all is what we were asking for in lieu of Trump’s schoolyard bullying and game of nuclear chicken. If Obama had agreed to such talks we would have probably cheered. (And the right would have screamed “weakness!” and “treason!” But of course, they screamed that even when Obama tied his shoes.)

So I will be rooting for Trump to succeed.

Did I really need to write that? Should I be rooting for him to fail and for the situation to get worse? Of course not. Only the worst kind of partisan scum would hope for an outcome that hurts the United States (and indeed the whole human race) just out of spite for an opposition president. Know what I mean, Mitch McConnell?

So if this summit results in positive forward progress on defusing the crisis in Korea, I will happily eat crow and give Trump credit. (OK, not happily, but I will do it.)

But there are a lot of things to wonder and worry about before that happens, starting with the question of whether this summit will even take place, and if it does, whether it will be a feather in Trump’s red baseball cap or one of the biggest, most unfathomably stupid blunders in the history of American foreign policy, prompted by a certifiable moron who has no business running a popsicle stand, let alone the United States government.

For the moment, I’m leaning toward the latter. This latest development seems not so much a validation of Trump’s reckless style in relation to North Korea as it is another jawdropping example of it.

DOTARD TO THE RESCUE

To the casual observer, it looks like Trump got tough with North Korea and drove them to the bargaining table. That is certainly how the Donald sees it. True to adolescent form, he has bragged that he has managed to get this face-to-face meeting with the Dear Leader, something none of his predecessors could do. But that’s like Bush bragging that no previous president was able to bring the Twin Towers down.

Pyongyang has been trying to get an American president to meet with their head of state for years; the only thing Trump has done is become the only one stupid enough to take the bait. Is it possible that he did not realize that was the history and context of the DPRK offer?

Just kidding. Of course he didn’t.

The Very Stable Genius walked right into the North Koreans’ incredibly obvious trap, in what the conservative foreign policy writer Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called a “a head-snapping display of incoherence.” In so doing he demonstrated the patent disadvantages of a commander-in-chief who thinks he knows everything, boasts of ignoring the counsel of experts, and has no patience or attention span or intellectual curiosity (or sense of duty) that might motivate him to read the briefings that are carefully prepared for him on such matters. Trump is a stunning living embodiment of the Dunning–Kruger Effect, too dumb even to know he’s dumb.

As Robin Wright notes in the New Yorker, typically, when negotiating with a hostile foreign power, a summit meeting with the President of the United States would be the culmination of that process, not the beginning of it. It’s a reward, with obvious intrinsic value, not the sort of thing you want to carelessly give away at the very start of the dance in exchange for nothing in return. (See also: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.)

Now, you might say, “Trump is breaking the mold! He’s thinking outside the box!” Hmmmm, maybe. As nothing has really worked before, maybe the bold and unorthodox idea of a summit can jump-start the peace process. Maybe. But that line would be more convincing if there was any evidence that this was a calculated strategy and not merely trademark seat-of-the-pants transactional hip-shooting by the improviser-in-chief. (Wright’s piece provides a concise summary of the long and complicated history of American efforts to thwart North Korea’s nuclear program, the complexity of which contextualizes just how wanton Trump’s action was.)

If Trump meets with Kim, North Korea will get everything it has always wanted. It will be seen as a world power. Its head of state will stand side by side with the President of the United States, as equals, in photographs distributed around the globe that will live forever. And above all, the wisdom of its nuclear ambitions will be confirmed, sending a dangerous message to all other aspiring nuclear powers. Hard to see how any of that advantages the United States, or the cause of global stability, or in any way represents genius grade Kasparov-style maneuvering.

It’s true that in the short run, between now and when talks take place (if in fact they do), the promise of a summit reduces the risk of a nuclear exchange, which is always welcome. But in the long run, it could do more harm than good. The aforementioned Mr. Boot favors a hardline on the DPRK and opposes high level talks full stop, on grounds of the North’s bad faith in the past and repeated acts of provocation. He writes: “Trump has agreed to meet Kim, giving the worst human-rights abuser on the planet what he most wants: international legitimacy. Kim will be able to tell his people that the American president is kowtowing to him because he is scared of North Korea’s mighty nuclear arsenal.”

Ironically, by agreeing to this meeting, Trump has validated the very reason Pyongyang sought the Bomb so relentlessly. Saddam Hussein wanted it, didn’t get it, and instead got the US 3rd Armored Division rammed up his ass. By contrast, Kim Jong-un, in possession of nuclear weapons, gets treated with deference and respect and gets a state visit from the POTUS. In effect, Trump is rewarding North Korea for its efforts, signaling to other tinhorn despots that their atomic ambitions are similarly advisable.

Is it any wonder so-called “rogue nations” seek the Bomb?

BARRY, DICK, AND DONNY

I have argued strongly that diplomacy, not idle threats of fairy tale force, are the path forward on non-proliferation, so in theory these proposed talks should be welcome. Silly me for not stipulating that the diplomacy should be clever, not stupid.

With his characteristic loose cannonism, Trump accepted Kim’s initiation impulsively and without consulting any of his top foreign policy advisors, who were all caught flatfooted, as their subsequent Russell Wilson-like scrambling attests. Now their idiotic boss has put them and the entire United States in a box, squandering whatever leverage we held after decades of deliberate—if frustrating—gamesmanship with Pyongyang.

Bargaining with Kim may be realpolitik, and as I have argued before, preferable to the fantasy that we can use military force to stop nuclear proliferation, but it doesn’t really jive with Trump’s tough talk and his adolescent “I alone can fix it” mentality.  The decision speaks to Trump’s childish desire for grand, sweeping gestures that outdo his predecessors (especially Barack Obama), a trait that in this case threatens the global stability of the entire world and millions of human lives. In that sense, it’s less a reversal of his simpleminded “fire and fury” approach than another side of it.

Circling back to a point at the top of this essay, as Rachel Maddow and presidential historian Michael Beschloss mused on TV, imagine if Obama had announced he was meeting with the North Koreans. Fox Nation would—at best—be howling over America’s capitulation, if not openly making dark rumblings about where the President’s true loyalties lie. (See here for a tidy summary of Fox News’s shameless double standard on this issue in particular.)

OK, OK, this whole “imagine if Obama” trope is getting old—even though it’s undeniably true—and we should not be surprised at partisan hypocrisy, especially from the modern Republican Party. A more legitimate argument is the old maxim that “only Nixon could go to China.” That is, only a leader perceived as an unapologetic hawk would have the credibility to take such a initiative. (I was gonna say “unimpeachable hawk,” but reconsidered.)

Trump’s actual effectiveness as a hawk is highly questionable—see my post Surrender of the Hawks—but he certainly positions himself that way, and his followers and even some independents perceive him as such. (To a lesser extent, the same was true of Nixon, in terms of whether he was actually advancing American security or hurting it.)

But here’s the rub.

Nixon was, like, a smart person, as Donald himself might put it. His surprise visit to China was a strategic masterstroke, the culmination of months of careful diplomatic engagement, preparation, and planning, engineered by the reliably conniving team of Nixon & Kissinger—two horrific human beings, but formidable political thinkers. Every angle of the maneuver was cautiously considered and debated, And once set, Nixon went into those meetings thoroughly prepared and briefed, not to mention bringing with him decades of political and foreign policy experience. Like him or loathe him, Nixon was undeniably a smart (and tough) cookie.

Cadet Bone Spurs, not so much.

In fact, there is some question whether he even knows the difference between North and South Korea.

So a president without an iota of Nixon’s skillset and experience and also eschewing any kind of prep is gonna go in and face off with a ruthless foreign dictator, no matter how callow?

What could go wrong?

CARRYING A BIG STICK

The North Korea summit is the exact kind of situation that makes Trump supporters howl: “You liberals won’t give the President credit for anything, even when it’s something you support!”

Not so. It’s simply that this development is not what he claims it is, and in fact may be quite the opposite in terms of benefit to the United States. Even if the agreement to meet with Kim were not a mind-boggling concession by a US president, the question of how Trump will handle the meeting looms terrifyingly large.

After ridiculing the carefully crafted Iran deal throughout the presidential campaign and all the way into office, what makes Trump think he can strike a better bargain with North Korea? As David Sanger writes in The New York Times:

(I)f Mr. Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, Mr. Kim may well wonder why he should negotiate with the United States if a subsequent president can simply pull the plug on any agreement…

“The ironies abound,” said Robert S. Litwak, the director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and the author of “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout.” “The man who wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ has staked out a position that the Iran deal was the worst one in history,” he added. “And now he has to show that he can do much better, with a far harder case.”

While he will have to negotiate a deal with the North Koreans that is even stricter than the Iranian one that he has denounced as naïve, insufficient and dangerous, that task will be made all the harder by the fact that Pyongyang, unlike Tehran, actually possesses nuclear weapons.

“If the president gets the North Koreans just to stop what they are doing, and perhaps get a timetable for future action, that would be a huge step in slowing the North Koreans’ program,” said Christopher Hill, who negotiated the last major deal that the United States had with North Korea, under the George W. Bush administration. “But it still wouldn’t be close to what Iran agreed to do.”

It scarcely needs mentioning that Trump fancies himself a negotiator par excellence; indeed, that is a huge part of the wool he pulled over the American electorate’s eyes in November 2016. But as we have seen since, it is an utter joke. Trump might actually be the worst negotiator in US political history. He was unable to get his own party to agree on repealing Obamacare, its signature goal for the past nine years. He has mucked up every Congressional negotiation and other legislative action into which he has insinuated himself. Yes, a radical tax bill was passed on his watch, a massive Christmas gift to the 1%, but it passed largely in spite of—not because of—his efforts.

And this guy is gonna get Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons?

Unlike Nixon, Trump not only ginned up this whole kooky idea on a whim, but will almost surely go into the meetings basically winging it. God knows what he’ll say or do. Given his habit of talking tough and then bending over (see Xi Jingping), he might give away the store, a possibility enhanced by his overt and disturbing admiration for dictators, and his tendency to agree with the last person to whom he spoke. Boot again: “Kim may offer to give up his nukes if the United States will pull its forces out of South Korea and sign a peace treaty with the North. Trump, if confronted with such a scenario, may imagine it is a big ‘win’ for him, but that’s only because he knows nothing of North Korea and has no one at a senior level in his administration who does.” Conversely, Trump might lose his infamous temper and start a fight, as he did on the phone with the prime minister of Australia before he even took the oath of office. If he can’t get along with the fucking Australian PM, how do you think he’ll get along with Kim Jong-un? (Maybe great, birds of a nutsy cuckoo feather and all.)

Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine what the US could offer that would incentivize North Korea to truly give up its nuclear program. Yes, the country is literally starving and is in desperate need of aid. But as long as it can get patronage from China and Russia and play off them off the US, which they seem happy to do given the incompetence radiating out of Washington, that may not be enough. I am skeptical that anything will do the trick, as obtaining the Bomb is what brought the US to the bargaining table in the first place. For her New Yorker piece, Robin Wright spoke with Frank Aum, a former senior adviser on North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who makes that very point:

Given the history of diplomacy and North Korea’s current capabilities, there may be nothing that convinces the regime to give up its bombs or missiles. “We may get back to negotiations,” Aum told me. “The issue is how do we overcome the fundamental problem of whether North Korea really is willing to denuclearize, and, if so, at what cost? And is the U.S. willing to meet all its terms? The answer seems to be no. If we gave North Korea everything it wanted, it still wouldn’t denuclearize, because nothing guarantees your security more than a nuclear weapon.”

There is even debate over precisely what “denuclearization” means to each side. Even the supposed promise itself has only been relayed secondhand, by South Korea’s national security adviser, not formally offered to the US by the DPRK. And the US and the ROK have good reason to be leery of each other’s motives and honesty.

If Trump comes home with no real concessions from Pyongyang, all he will have done is look like a chump while giving Kim the photo op of a lifetime. He will also have destabilized the situation, leaving military conflict more, not less, likely—another reason not to jump to head-of-state level negotiations so quickly. As East Asia expert Victor Cha writes, “Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.” (Cha, of course, had been nominated by Trump to be the US ambassador to South Korea before withdrawing over policy differences—namely, his objection to Trump’s ill-advised threats of force.)

In fact, the odds that Trump will return with a serious non-proliferation agreement are rather long. There are many more plausible outcomes, like Trump and Kim getting into a slapfight, or as Michael Che says, realizing that they actually love each other, like in the movie Stepbrothers. Or maybe the Trump we get back will be an imposter (see the little-known “Nixon Substitution Scenario”). Or maybe Pyongyang will pull an Otto Warmbier on him, or entice him with prostitutes and golden showers and poach him away from the Kremlin to be their puppet from now on. We shall see.

Speaking of which, how does the Warmbier family—who have made a point of criticizing the Obama administration’s actions and of announcing their allegiance to Trump—react to this president making nice with the regime that brutalized and effectively murdered their son in the cruelest and most inhuman way imaginable? Perhaps they will rationalize it, as so many Trump supporters rationalize everything this cretinous fake president does. But that does not change the nature of what is being proposed. So much for Civis Americanus sum.

DEAL OR NO DEAL, END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT EDITION

Above all it’s important to bear in mind that the whole summit may never even happen. The Trump administration has already backed off the Fake POTUS’s impulsive RSVP, hastily and retroactively attaching preconditions that Pyongyang must meet, including “verifiable” steps to denuclearize including access by foreign weapons inspectors—all things the US has long demanded before any such meeting could occur and that DPRK has repeatedly refused to do. As there is little reason to think they will do them now, this face-saving ploy amounts to a total negation of Trump’s reckless gesture, which was surely the intent. I suspect that no sooner did word hit the wire of what their boss had done than McMaster and Mattis and Tillerson began madly looking for a way out, and this is what they came up with. It’s a modern day version of the Baruch Plan.

Later, with the consistency characteristic of this slapstick administration, deputy press secretary Raj Shah reversed course again, stating that all North Korea has to do is refrain from further atomic testing in the interim and not make its usual fuss over joint US/ROK military exercises. It’s not clear Pyongyang will do even that much, of course, though they might if they were smart, given the potential reward, and the fact that those measures can be easily reversed.

If it is indeed the case that those are the only requirements, it’s even dumber on the United States’ part. Not that he is ever averse to wantonly breaking a promise or telling a lie, but it is not hard to imagine that Trump’s ego—his desire to go through with what he sees as a triumph, at all costs—is trampling both strategic considerations and common sense.

But of course, ol’ Rex is off the hook now, which must come as a relief to him, with differences over North Korea reportedly one of the key reasons for his termination by the Fucking Moron-in-Chief. (As Morrissey wrote, “Rejection is one thing, but rejection by a fool is cruel.”) Tillerson’s dismissal is part of a wider shakeup at State and beyond; reports now are that McMaster will be next to go. No surprise there. Does it make sense to conduct such a large scale purge on the eve of a major diplomatic maneuver like this one? Perhaps, if the intent is to create a team with a communal vision and not one riven with infighting. But when that vision is a stupid one, that’s a different story.

If the summit fails to materialize, it will just be more smoke and mirrors from the most screwed up administration in modern US history. But like the jobs at the Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana that Trump “saved” but turned out not to have saved, it won’t matter to his slavish followers, because just saying he is going to do something is enough for them even when he later reneges. If the summit does happen, it might be even worse. Either way, Trump will spin it as a victory and his myrmidons will nod vigorously in agreement.

To reiterate, if the summit actually happens, I will be rooting for Trump to pull this rabbit out of the hat, despite its ad hoc genesis and the dangers of ceding ground to Pyongyang. I hope he actually comes away with real and enforceable steps toward the DPRK’s denuclearization, or at least additional safeguards to ratchet down the DEFCON on the Korean peninsula. I will happily feast on humble pie if this careening clown car of an East Asia policy manages to inch us toward a safer world, even accidentally. But—spoiler alert—I’m not holding my breath.

 

Blood On Their Hands: Guns in America (Part 2)

yosemite_sam_by_irishmanreynolds-d7gv41h

Not surprisingly, last week’s post about gun violence, “Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank?,” elicited a lot of, uh, passionate responses, particularly from people I will respectfully call gun enthusiasts. Some of them were reasonable and informed and ready to engage in a rational debate; we generally disagreed, but we had a civil dialogue. But many others were sneering and insulting and had counterarguments consisting of little more than one-word critiques like “libtard!”

Of course, that mentality is part and parcel of the whole problem. The prevailing feelings from those folks were anger and paranoia…..and in case you were in danger of getting a good night’s sleep, let’s remember that these same people have guns. But of course, their anger and paranoia are often the reason they got those guns in the first place.

A lot of these correspondents reflexively deployed their standard “you’re obviously ignorant about firearms” retort, automatically presuming that no one on the other side could be an experienced soldier or well-acquainted with the smell of cordite. Confronted with someone who takes issue with their dogma but doesn’t fit the stereotype of a chablis-sipping liberal elitist, their cognitive dissonance is extreme and the flimsiness of their arguments is exposed. More tellingly, their much-professed respect for the military miraculously vanishes in favor of partisanship and vitriol (much the way our fake president’s does when he attacks Gold Star families, his own generals, or the US intelligence community).

These folks usually proceed from a snotty condescension based on a claim to superior knowledge or experience; deprived of that, they resort to repeating NRA talking points that are deliberately deceptive and frequently wrong. On the Constitution, their commitment to the “individual right” interpretation borders on the fanatic, and brooks no intellectual curiosity or willingness to listen to other points of view or historical research. Hard to have an intelligent conversation on that basis.

A surprising number focused—with no discernible irony—on how the real problem with owning a tank is that it would tear up the streets, or that it’s hard to get ammo, or similar logistical concerns, which suggest (in case there was a lot of doubt) that this is a group that really has trouble locating that elusive forest because of all those goddam trees. (Don’t worry—Ryan Zinke will soon cut them all down.)

And so it goes in the debate over gun violence. So this week, at the risk of incurring more wrath from Yosemite Sam Nation, let’s look at one of the most important dynamics at the core of the issue, which is the relationship between the NRA and the GOP.

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS AND MORE THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

Parkland may finally have broken the tedious regularity of politicians offering “thoughts and prayers” in response to mass shootings, instead of concrete action. We may at last be witnessing the long overdue end of that banal mantra, forced into retirement by long simmering outrage, frustration, and contempt for the utter hypocrisy of that emptiest of gestures. The Florida state legislature recently voted—narrowly—to ban bump stocks, raise the legal age for all firearm purchases from 18 to 21, and institute a three-day waiting period for most gun sales. (Under the previous state law, Nickolas Cruz was too young to buy a handgun, but old enough to buy an AR-15.) But it declined even to take up a proposed ban on assault weapons, and then turned around and passed a motion declaring pornography a “public health risk.” Stay tuned for Florida’s upcoming vote on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

That our elected officials are daring to take even small steps in defiance of the NRA is both heartening (journey-of-a-thousand-miles-wise) but also a chilling reminder of the power of the gun lobby. The usual formulation is to blame the NRA for flooding our political system with obscene amounts of money, and to blame politicians—largely but not exclusively Republicans—for accepting it, making them beholden to the gun lobby. But that’s an oversimplification that lets politicians off the hook.

Yes, the NRA uses the GOP, but the GOP also uses the NRA.

Republican politicians know that guns are a wedge issue they can use to lock down a fanatically passionate chunk of single issue voters who will reliably turn out every Election Day without fail and vote the party line. Accordingly, “beholden” is not the right term for the GOP‘s relationship with the NRA, as it implies duress. Republicans like being in league with the NRA.

It was not always thus. Hard as it now is to believe, the NRA legitimately began as what it now speciously claims to be: an innocent association of sportsmen and hunters. Ironically, the modern American gun control debate began with white panic over the Black Panthers arming themselves in the late 1960s. Only a few years before, after Lee Oswald assassinated John Kennedy with a mail order bolt action Italian rifle, the executive vice president of the NRA testified before Congress in favor of banning that weapon, which in terms of rate of fire is a peashooter by the standards of a modern assault rifle. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the NRA began its current political activity and adopted the “individual right” interpretation of the Second Amendment, reversing 200 years of legal consensus on the matter. The GOP immediately recognized this a winner in terms of galvanizing its segment of the electorate. (Indeed, that may have been the motivation for the shift within the NRA in the first place.) But it was really in the 1980s that the Republican Party realized that it could leverage gun “rights”—like other hot button topics such as gay rights, abortion, and race—to drive reactionary voters into its arms.

The NRA’s CEO at the moment is the grotesque Wayne LaPierre, maybe the worst human being in American public life, which is saying something at a time when Donald Trump is in the White House. (The odious Stephen Miller is also a strong contender.) After Parkland, LaPierre gave an unhinged speech in which he portrayed efforts at gun control as the first step in a communist takeover of the United States. That, of course, is perfectly in line with the entire transformation of the NRA and its current function within the Republican Party.

Among the NRA leadership, LaPierre is continuing in a proud tradition. David Keene, the NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013, had a son who was sentenced to ten years in prison for brandishing a gun in a road rage incident. In 1981, the NRA’s executive vice president at the time, Harlon Carter, was revealed to have been convicted of murder as a teenager for shooting a another teenager in the chest with a shotgun.

Why almost all of the mass murderers in question are white males is far beyond the scope of this essay or my feeble expertise, but I’m hardly the first to suggest that if most of them were brown or black or Muslims, the GOP would be leading the charge for gun control in the US of A. (Ask the aforementioned Black Panthers.) But of course, an obsession with guns fits very well into the whole reactionary mindset, “the paranoid style” in Richard Hofstadter’s famous phrase, even as it co-exists in apparent dissonance with the law-and-order mentality. As Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times:

 (O)ur lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.

Is it any wonder, then, that the NRA and GOP have made common cause, even if it is not altogether clear who’s using whom?

TEACHER, LEAVE THEM KIDS ALONE

In the wake of Parkland, one particularly moronic proposal rose to the forefront of the national conversation on how to stop these mass murders, thanks to its championing by a particularly moronic president: that of arming schoolteachers.

This idea is so idiotic and ignorant—asinine is a word I’ve frequently seen used, and that seems about right—that the arguments against it don’t bear repeating in detail. (Why stop with the teachers, as Jimmy Kimmel noted; let’s arm the students too.) But as John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker, the issue “vividly illuminates the collective madness that beckons when you have an unprincipled man like Trump in the White House, the GOP in control of Congress and the majority of states, and a dogged refusal to do what practically every other civilized country does: introduce some meaningful restrictions on gun ownership.”

In a culture like ours where guns are so appallingly prevalent, it certainly—sadly—makes sense to have armed security guards at schools. But at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, there were FOUR (count ‘em, four) armed sheriff’s deputies were present, including one assigned to the school full time, and all of them cowered outside and the building and failed to do anything while Nikolas Cruz was on his killing spree. Yet Trump thinks paying bonuses and giving guns to “weapons talented” teachers is the answer? It’s an idea right out of the NRA playbook—the solution to gun violence is more guns. But it should hardly surprise us that the Very Stable Genius went right for it. How one man can reliably be on the wrong side of EVERY SINGLE ISSUE is pretty astounding.

The stupidity of this idea should have all been patently obvious even before a teacher in Georgia barricaded himself in a classroom and fired a shot from his privately own handgun just two weeks after Parkland. A popular Tweet by the comedian Tim Hanlon noted that the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most accomplished sniper in US military history and the subject of a hit movie by Clint Eastwood, was himself killed in a one-on-one confrontation with a handgun-toting mentally ill acquaintance. Hanlon tweeted: “So we just have to train the teachers a lil better than Chris Kyle.”

Of course, Trump characteristically boasted that, had he been on the scene, he wouldn’t even have needed no damn gun, as he would have gone in and disarmed that killer with his bare hands. It’s the kind of wolf ticket that would be met with ridicule even on a grammar school playground, let alone coming out of the Oval Office. But I’m glad to hear that his bone spurs have healed.

Yet, as idiotic as it is, the “arm the teachers” argument leads into a number of instructive points.

The notion that just having a gun makes you John Rambo is a consistent trope in the gun-loving community of armchair heroes and Wild West fantasists. But I can tell you as a former infantry officer, that the training, fortitude, and warrior mentality it takes to close with an armed enemy and destroy him by fire and maneuver is a skillset that infantry soldiers, special operators, and police officers take years to develop.

And given that Cruz had an ArmaLite, what does Trump suggest the teachers carry, an M-249 SAW? (Oh, and those teachers’ weapons are also supposed to be concealed somehow.) Numerous gun advocates argue that a semiautomatic pistol is just as effective as a semiautomatic rifle like the AR-15. If you’d like to get in a gunfight where you have a pistol—of any kind—and I have an AR, with its far greater accuracy, range, and muzzle velocity, not to mention a bottomless supply of 100 round Magpul magazines loaded with 5.56mm ball ammo, be my guest. It will literally be your funeral.

Another contention is that knowing that the teachers are armed would deter would-be school shooters. Of course, the presence of armed security guards does not seem to have deterred any of these guys, but whatever. The larger point is that a mentally disturbed individual like most of these mass murderers is not deterred by anything. They are by definition mentally disturbed, and most of them go into their killing sprees fully expecting to die. A trigonometry teacher with a Glock is not going to make them think twice.

Even more to the point, let’s posit for the sake of argument a school that is an armed camp, and a potential shooter who is therefore deterred from attacking. There are plenty of other softer targets to which he can turn. (And yes, the shooter is always a “he”). Are we going to harden every post office, every hospital, every office building, every McDonald’s, indeed every single public space in the country? Even if it were logistically possible, what kind of society would that be? A police state, essentially, which is the very thing that NRA / Tea Party / Trump types were highly vigilant about (to the point of hysteria) when a black guy was president. Now, not so much.

Which leads us to an even more disturbing aspect of this debate, circling back to its very origin.

AMENDMENT

In last week’s essay we discussed how the distorted “individual right” interpretation of the Second Amendment came to be, and to carry the day. But even under this radically wide interpretation of the Bill of Rights, there is plenty of reason to believe there can and should be limits on what weapons are allowed on the streets of the republic.

Many many observers have noted that when the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment, “firearms” meant black powder muskets that had a range of mere yards, laughable accuracy, and took minutes to reload—not an M-16 with a cyclic rate of 800 rounds per minute. It’s hard to imagine that they meant to give the citizenry the right to own something with the astonishing killing power of a modern battlefield assault rifle, especially not if they were alive today to see the bloodbath to which such ownership has led. (Alexander Hamilton, of course, was himself the victim of a senseless shooting. If Aaron Burr had been armed with an AR-15 instead of a black powder pistol, they would have had to scoop up Hamilton with a spatula.)

Writing in the New Yorker Jill Lepore reports that in an amicus curiae submitted to the Supreme Court in the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller (which affirmed the so-called “individual right” argument), fifteen eminent American history professors including two Pulitzer Prizes winners wrote:

Historians are often asked what the Founders would think about various aspects of contemporary life. Such questions can be tricky to answer. But as historians of the Revolutionary era we are confident at least of this: that the authors of the Second Amendment would be flabbergasted to learn that in endorsing the republican principle of a well-regulated militia, they were also precluding restrictions on such potentially dangerous property as firearms, which governments had always regulated when there was “real danger of public injury from individuals.”

At any rate, for those fixated on following the word of a group of 18th century Deists as if it were gospel, let us remember that the only people to whom the Bill of Rights applied when it was ratified in 1791 were white landowners, many of whom were slaveholders whose need for guns to maintain the captivity and servitude of their enslaved human beings was essential. Nine of our first eleven presidents—including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison— were slaveholders themselves. So perhaps we can dispense with the mystical “originalism” that seems to animate so many conservatives, including—dare I say—several members of the current Supreme Court.

(For more on the slavery issue, see the bottom of this essay.*)

In fact, in the current climate, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether we ought simply to dispense with all this legal debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment and just repeal it altogether.

Sacre bleu! I know we act like the Constitution is sacrosanct (sometimes), but there was a good reason that the Founders built in a mechanism by which to amend it. It is a living document, and that goes for the Bill of Rights too. I’m less worried about the people who want to repeal the Second Amendment than the ones who want to repeal the First.

If America was born in the original sin of slavery, then the Second Amendment is part of that, and there is no more reason to maintain it than there is to maintain—or restore—the “peculiar institution” that motivated it. (Don’t get any ideas, Stephen Miller.)

To take a less incendiary and more pragmatic tack, as I noted last week, many gun enthusiasts argue that banning AR-15s or similar rifles makes no sense as it still leaves lots of equally dangerous—or nearly as dangerous—rifles, pistols, and other firearms still on the market. That’s plenty debatable, but OK, fine: let’s concede that. All the more reason to repeal the Second Amendment full stop.

I realize that in saying this I am treading into dangerous territory that might hurt my own cause. The notion that gun control advocates all secretly want to get rid of the Second Amendment and “take away your guns” is the central motivating fear for many gun owners, and for that reason the hysterical fearmongering at the heart of much of the NRA’s propaganda.

Needless to say, repeal is a very hard row to hoe—if we can’t ban bump stocks nationwide, do really think we can shitcan the whole Second Amendment? But as laid out last week in the first part of this essay, there would be no need to repeal it if we would simply reject the twisted interpretation that now holds sway—that a “well regulated militia” formed to defend the country from invasion somehow equates to the right of private citizens to own assault rifles—and come to our senses.

But as long as the NRA and GOP distort that amendment and hide behind its shameless mischaracterization to prevent the implementation of common sense gun laws in this country, repealing it ought to be on the table, if only to provoke rational debate.

JUST A SHOT AWAY

In closing, may I just ask, what the hell is wrong with America? I don’t recognize it any more.

How long are we going to let our country be held hostage and repeatedly brutalized and bloodied just to indulge the juvenile fantasies of a bunch of pathetic, overgrown boys who can’t get over their inferiority complexes? How long are we going to let the right wing plutocracy exploit that demographic in order to maintain its chokehold on our republic?

The madness of the American obsession with guns has always been with us, but the proliferation in civilian life of battlefield weapons made for no other purpose than to kill human beings as fast as possible has lately brought that madness to new depths. It is especially soul-wrenching in the context of the election of the most monstrous and counter-qualified president in American history, and with him, the brazen re-emergence into daylight of intractable racism, the validation of misogyny (even as a backlash arises), the abdication of American leadership abroad; the outright deceit over taxes and wages and labor; the shameful turning of our backs on the poorest among us we lavish further gifts on the richest; the celebration of xenophobia and betrayal of America’s immigrant heritage as we deport Dreamers and talk of building pointless and impossible walls; and perhaps above all, the triumph of propaganda and an increasing lack of concern for objective reality and the simple truth.

These are difficult and complex problems. But gun violence, ironically, for all the passion it inspires, is not really one of them. It ought to be easy. There are common sense solutions about which reasonable people can agree. Will we at last do the right thing and fix this literally life-and-death problem? Or will history look back on us someday and, mystified at our stupidity, conclude: that country got what deserved?

*********

Yosemite Sam illustration: IrishManReynolds

#JillLepore, #JohnCassidy, #PaulKrugman, #PedroHenriquesdaSilva, #TimHanlon, #DahliaLithwick, #BillPilon, #Parkland, #gunviolence, #NRA, #BoycottNRA, #paranoidstyle

*Some dispute the claim of slavery being at the heart of the Second Amendment, though the Venn diagram overlap of the American South and gun fanaticism ought to settle the matter. But you care to dive into it, here are three articles with divergent opinions on the subject:

The Origins of Public Carry Jurisprudence in the Slave South

The Second Amendment Was Ratified to Preserve Slavery

The Second Amendment Was Not Ratified to Preserve Slavery

Further reading:

Battleground America by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

The Lost Amendment by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

To Keep and Bear Arms by Garry Wills, The New York Review of Books

The Second Amendment Hoax by Dahlia Lithwick, Slate

How the Gun Lobby Rewrote the Second Amendment by Cass Sunstein, Bloomberg