Dear Huddled Masses: Go F— Yourselves

Der Spiegel beheading

Can you believe we’re having a national debate about whether the US government should rip children from their parents and keep them in cages? That’s how far we’ve fallen since November 8, 2016.

I began writing this essay several weeks ago as a general survey of the Trump administration’s deeply xenophobic anti-immigrant philosophy, which is at the very core of what Trumpism is all about. In the interval, the issue has been forced into the spotlight by the dystopian spectacle of armed agents of the US government literally taking small children away from their parents by force, warehousing them like animals, and holding their parents (sometimes indefinitely), with no mechanism for ensuring they’ll be reunited, while the Attorney General cites Bible verses as justification, the White House Chief of Staff nonchalantly tells us the kids will be “put in foster care or whatever,” and the President of the United States—who is of course at the center of this whole stomach-turning campaign—dishonestly claims it’s the Democrats’ fault and he can’t do anything about it, even as he defends the policy as a negotiating tactic on Capitol Hill.

Are you kidding me??????

Trump’s announcement yesterday that he would end the separation policy—after weeks of a blatantly dishonest, contradictory, and typically Trumpian defense of it—signalled a tacit admission that this policy was a loser for him. Not surprisingly, it’s a half-assed fake fix that presents dramatic new problems of its own. More to the point, the poisonous factors that led to this crisis in the first place are by no means neutralized by this hasty tactical withdrawal.

So let us dive into the mentality behind what will surely go down as one of the most indefensible, jawdroppingly cruel, and patently un-American programs pursued by any administration since the internment of Japanese-American US citizens during World War II.

AND THE WINNER IS

Even before the revelation of what was going on at the US-Mexico border, Trump’s stance on immigration was arguably the most purely atavistic and irredeemable aspect of his administration.

It’s a horserace, I know, to single out just one area as the worst in a presidency as gobsmackingly shitty from top to bottom as this one. But here’s my logic.

As bad as Trump’s policies are on defense, the economy, taxes, the justice system, the environment, and almost any other issue you care to name—and to the extent that these chaotic, transactional spasms of executive activity can even be called “policies”—most of them at least have some discernible logic behind them, venal though they may be. To wit:

Trump’s bellicose, drunk-uncle-shitting-on-the-dancefloor-at-the-wedding-reception approach to international affairs pleases the hawks (some of them anyway).

His blessing of the gang rape of our land and water and other natural resources is a gift-that-keeps-on-giving to the oil industry.

The shameless flim flam of his neo-trickle down economics delights the 1% and the Republican donor class, which is the very root of this entire monstrous kakistocracy and the ongoing, indefensible willingness of the GOP to stand by it.

And so forth.

I’m not arguing that any of these constituencies are justified in their positions. On the contrary. But I am conceding that at least Trump’s actions serve a pragmatic or political strategic goal in each case, even if that goal is wrongheaded in the extreme.

But what is underlying Team Trump’s relentless, unmitigated hatred for immigrants? Unlike these other areas, there is no practical benefit to this vicious, inhuman stance. Indeed, although illegal immigration is the hottest button, and one with the added benefit of a similarly reactionary-pleasing “law-and-order” component, Trump and his advisors have an undisguised animus toward even legal immigration, and “outsiders” full stop.

Why, and to what end?

It cannot be attributed to anything other than sheer, unadulterated racism and xenophobia…..which is to say, hate. 

99 PROBLEMS BUT IMMIGRATION AIN’T ONE

Notwithstanding the right wing’s hysterical and utterly unfounded claims (which Trump of course gleefully leads), there is no concrete problem that his ferocious demonization of newcomers and attendant policies are addressing. Beginning in the Obama years, illegal immigration into the United States hit its lowest level in over a decade. Many American industries, from farming to tech to the military, rely on a steady influx of immigrant labor—some of it illegal—from the humblest undocumented migrant worker in the lettuce fields of Watsonville to the most educated and technologically savvy coder on a H-1B visa in Silicon Valley.

Trump’s entire xenophobic demonization of immigrants and foreigners at large, and all that it entails—the Wall, the end of the visa lottery, the obliteration of DACA, the Muslim ban that claims to keep out terrorists but doesn’t correspond to the countries that are its main exporters—is a solution in search of a problem.

I hear you saying, “But Trump’s racism does serve a practical purpose for him: it riles up his base!” Undeniably true. But that is not the same thing as serving a practical policy goal.

All of the aforementioned policies in all those different areas excite his troglodyte followers, from pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, to making the Sierra Club’s collective head explode by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, to shredding post-2008 restrictions on the financial industry designed to avoid another crash, and on and on.

But his immigration policies do nothing else besides give his base a boner. They serve one purpose and one purpose only: hurting people who are not US citizens sheerly for hurt’s sake, and as a bonus, enthralling that racist minority of Americans who take sadistic pleasure in their suffering. It’s therefore hard to conclude that they are driven by anything other than irrational, reptile brain tribalism.

To state the blindingly obvious, the reason that immigration issues are the very heart of Trumpism is because that is what most purely and directly speaks to the racism and unmitigated ethnic hatred that is the core of this “movement,” such as it is.

Don’t talk to me about how globalism alienated the white American working class, the Democratic Party’s neglect of a demographic that was once solidly in its camp, and so forth. By now we know very well that while those were certainly a factor in the rise of Trump, they are far from the whole story…..and the continuing perpetration of that myth plays right into Trump’s tiny hands.

One only has to look to the issues on which Trump chose to launch his political career—and throughout it consistently animated his supporters—to grasp what excites them the most: hating on brown and black people. Indeed, studies have shown that this euphemistic, loosely defined “white nationalism” more than almost anything else, including economics, is the primary indicator of who does or does not support Trump.

In other words, Trump’s chief appeal to the majority of his followers is not in spite of his racism and bigotry, it is precisely because of it.

HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE (IF THEY’RE ASSHOLES)

Undisguised racism and xenophobia are the very wellspring of Trump’s political career, from the vile birtherism that first put him on the political map in 2011, to the Trump Tower speech four years later in which he announced his candidacy with the infamous lie characterizing Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.

He got the most rapturous cheers at his rallies when he railed about these “foreigners” and the “big beautiful wall” he was going to build to keep them out. (Save, perhaps, for the “lock-her-up” Hillary-demonizing, which is essentially about misogyny, racism’s beloved twin.)

He angrily insisted that a Mexican-American judge could not be impartial in a lawsuit against Trump University, attacked a Gold Star family because they were Muslims, and took office with an insane nativist rant (penned by Stephen Miller) that invoked “American carnage” at the hands of the foreign horde.

He made the Muslim ban—that’s what he repeatedly called it and that’s what it is—his first significant act in office, and subsequently refused to condemn white supremacists, even when one of them murdered a woman in cold blood at a pro-Trump rally, instead defending neo-Nazis as “very fine people.”

He gave the very first pardon of his presidency to Joe Arpaio, the poster child for criminal abuse of power and the institutionalization of racism in law enforcement.

He had delighted in pushing the buttons of liberals and whipping up his base by attacking African-American professional athletes, men whom he calls traitors who deserve to be fired and even deported for having the temerity to think the First Amendment applies to them. Even now he rails about MS-13 as the bogeyman du jour, and spins horror stories about caravans of bloodthirsty South American criminals heading toward our border.

He has directed his most juvenile temper tantrums—even worse than his repeated complaints about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—at his DHS secretary, Kirstjen “Dr. J” Nielsen, over her failure to “secure the border” (“We’re closed!”). Those tirades were reportedly so vicious that she considered resigning, before turning to bald-faced lies on his behalf. (Also: she’s had to give up Mexican restaurants.)

Little noticed among his other horrors but highly telling, he continues to insist that the Central Park Five—for whose execution he once called—are guilty and ought to be imprisoned even though DNA evidence has exonerated them.

But perhaps most galling—at least until the current border debacle—was Trump’s blasé non-response to the humanitarian disaster of Hurricane Maria, which killed some 4600 Puerto Ricans, devastated the island’s economy and infrastructure, and left it even now—almost a year later—a disaster area. It is impossible to avoid the obvious reason for Trump’s apathy: he doesn’t think of Puerto Rico as part of America, or its brown-hued citizens as fellow Americans.

I could go on.

We see the hoofprints of this same philistine mindset in other quixotic Trump policies, like his wanton use of tariffs and his eagerness to start trade wars—policies traditionally opposed by free trade Republicans—or his strange desire to break up NATO and insult our G7 allies—again, contrary to a longstanding GOP bent, at least on the former count. Apparently the Very Stable Genius subscribes to the paranoid presumption that all foreign relations by definition consist of the US being “taken advantage of” and “laughed at” (a persistent Trump bugbear). At the heart of both these impulses is the same pathology that underlies his stance on immigration: a reactionary fear and distrust of the Other.

Accordingly, as Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post, Trump has undeniably emboldened the lunatic fringe of his party when it comes to immigration, race, and related matters, and in the process moved the GOP center-of-mass rightward. (I don’t recall any neo-Nazis in the Bush, Reagan, or even Nixon administrations.)

When it comes to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Trump has betrayed American principles in numerous other ways as well, such as slashing the number of refugees the US will accept. The fact, is, Trump (abetted by people like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller) don’t just want to stop illegal immigration: they want to severely limit any kind of immigration at all. Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post:

(I)t has become undeniable that Trump’s overriding goal on immigration is to reduce the number of immigrants in the United States to the greatest degree possible. As Eric Levitz notes, Trump moved to end temporary protected status for various groups with no credible rationale for doing so and even though U.S. diplomats have warned that it is dangerously bad policy. And as Trump’s “shithole countries” comment confirmed, his main driving impulse on immigration is white nationalism—rolling back the current racial and ethnic mix of the country at all costs—and this is shaping policy.

In short, Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist and is more than happy to let the world know it. And for all their protestations to the contrary, ultimately that is precisely what a frighteningly large segment of his followers like about him.

MAGA indeed.

CANCER VS. LEPROSY: YOU MAKE THE CALL

No one should be shocked to learn of the hypocrisy on Trump’s part on the topic of people coming to America. His own mother was a Scottish immigrant, and his paternal grandfather came to the US from Germany at the turn of the 19thcentury, although as late as the 1980s Trump was still pretending his family came from Sweden. (See my essay Herr Drumpf: A Thought Experiment).

In 2001 Trump’s Slovenian-born girlfriend mysteriously scored a coveted EB-1 “Einstein visa” for “individuals with extraordinary ability.” That visa eventually enabled Melania—now Mrs. Trump—to bring her parents to the US as legal permanent residents, a practice her husband would later attack on the campaign trail as “chain migration,” in the language of nativist screechers. (His first wife Ivana was also an immigrant, for what it’s worth, making him two-for-three in the foreign spouse department.)

So in fairness to Donald, he isn’t against immigration full stop. Per Sargent, he has recently proclaimed how much he likes the idea of more immigration from lilywhite countries like Norway; it’s just people coming from the “shithole” ones like Haiti and countries in Africa that he’s against. QED.

But in light of what a winner racism has been for Trump politically, and the almost entirely marketing-oriented role of his bigoted policies, might we begin to wonder if the animus behind it is even genuine? The question is a version—writ large—of the familiar debate over whether Trump himself is truly the godawful racist he regularly appears to be, or merely using racebaiting as a political strategy.

I guess my answer would be: does it fucking matter?

I suppose it does, academically speaking. It’s an intriguing philosophical query. Is it more immoral to hold despicable views, or only to pretend to hold them in order to energize the true scumbags out there so they’ll support you? I’m not sure. But I don’t want either kind of person as a dinner guest, let alone President.

So let’s leave that to the historians, and to Almighty God when Donald Trump stands before Her on Judgment Day. The net effect for us is the same….which is to say, toxic.

Would you rather die of cancer or leprosy?

I spoke about this issue of the practical function of xenophobia with the Cuban-American filmmaker Jose Nestor Marquez, formerly vice president ofproduction and development for Univision, and a strong critic of Trump’s immigration policies. New York City born and raised and now based in Los Angeles, Jose offered this textbook definition of how autocrats have scapegoated vulnerable populations throughout history:

There is a subtle but terribly important distinction here. When Trump starts his campaign, he shits on Hispanics in a very public way—the very first thing he does after getting off that escalator. But here’s the thing: I don’t think he cares about Hispanics, Mexicans, etc. He doesn’t think especially ill of them. He hates everyone. Hispanics are just a marker; they’re a stand-in. They let Republicans say to voters who feel they’re on the outside of the party: “YOU are now on the inside because we will push the Hispanics to the outside.We will humiliate them and terrorize them but not you, because you’re with us.” Literally, the Wall is in-group, out-group. 

 Maybe we all know this. Maybe it’s impossible to be a Hispanic and not respond with substantive claims. Absolutely Hispanics must express themselves, and the legal challenges to this horrible ethnic cleansing must be increased. But, on some level… it DOESN’T MATTER! Because the antipathy and the violence are not informed. It’s not specific. It’s precisely because Trump and his followers don’t know Hispanics and have no understanding of Hispanics that they use them as a marker. (And the data shows this; the least Hispanic areas in the country are the most xenophobic.) They’re using Hispanics because of a curious paradox. Hispanics are visible (there are taco trucks on every corner) and yet silent (no major law firms, no studio heads, no governors, hardly any national legislators, etc.) You can easily reach out and slap them and get away with it. And they use the most vulnerable Hispanics on the planet—families seeking refuge—for the cruelest theater of identity. 

So the cultural response has to be centered on the arbitrariness of this violence. We have to expose how lazy and shallow it is. The animus is not based on centuries of living together or on some religious identity. It’s a matter of convenience.

ENSEMBLE OF CRETINS

Unsurprisingly, the people with whom Trump has surrounded himself also offer a dead giveaway to this xenophobic bent.

The logical addition of former Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon in the late summer of 2016 supercharged the nativist element in Trump’s campaign, as Bannon’s entire political existence has been based on stoking white resentment and hate.

A Hobbesian immigration policy appears to be the lifelong dream of Jeff Sessions (along with his extreme hatred of weed), a passion so strong that some believe it the thing that has made him willing to endure insults and humiliation from his boss that long ago would have driven out any previous Attorney General.

And of course Sessions brought with him into Trumpworld one of the most consistently vicious voices on the topic, the odious little Stephen Miller, a callow, smirking collegiate provocateur whose face is just begging to be punched. Nativism is a lodestar for Miller, who by some accounts is the driving force behind the separation policy.

Even once highly respected retired generals Mike Flynn and John Kelly both made sharp right turns into Islamo- and xenophobia that made them attractive to Team Trump, to the point where numerous former colleagues have professed not even to recognize them anymore.

The onset of Flynn’s bitterness is usually ascribed to his dismissal as director of the DIA, although clearly that dismissal itself was driven by behavior that had already become erratic. Kelly’s transformation is usually chalked up to the death of his son in combat in Afghanistan, though what that has to do with bigotry toward Mexicans and black people is unclear. In any case, Kelly’s tenure at as head of the DHS was marked by Sessions-like hawkishness on immigration; he has also distinguished himself with a dishonest attack on an African-American congresswoman that he refused to recant even when he was definitely shown to have his facts dead wrong. (See Notes on the Niger Ambush.)

Kelly further betrays his bigotry with comments like these, which he made to NPR (and please don’t write and tell me that just talking to NPR proves he’s not a bigot):

The vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13….but they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing….They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws….The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

Kelly has his facts dead wrong: as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out, “The best evidence suggests that undocumented immigrants integrate well and commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.”

But the real irony is Kelly’s own family history, which—spoiler alert—does not involve passage on the Mayflower.

Seven of Kelly’s eight great-grandparents were immigrants (four from Italy, three from Ireland). All of them were working class and had little formal education, and at least two of them never learned English at all, even after decades in the US. As Kelly himself might say, none of that made them, ahem, “bad people.” Somehow they managed to assimilate, didn’t they? Hey, one of their descendants even became a four-star Marine general and the White House chief of staff. Pretty impressive for a bunch of uneducated foreigners.

If, as is widely reported, Kelly is miserable in his job as Trump’s major domo and designated punching bag, it’s nothing less than he deserves.

Speaking of the Auld Sod, let us not forget Mick Mulvaney, the current embodiment of “the grotesque and and stereotypical character of Irish identity in America,” in the words of Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, a title previously held by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. More floridly, O’Hehir calls Mulvaney “the dark-hearted leprechaun of the Trump White House, who single-handedly combines all the worst propensities of Irish America in one shamrock-festooned package.” To add to that, Mulvaney is also son of the Confederacy, a former GOP congressman from South Carolina and Tea Party firebrand—a lethal combination. O’Hehir:

Mick Mulvaney is like a stagnant pool collecting the long, swirling current of Irish-American doubt, shame and self-hatred, which has manifested all too often as bigotry, cruelty and a false or exaggerated sense of racial pride. The Irish came to America as miserable and despised immigrants, subjects of both a quasi-genocidal colonial conquest and a pseudo-Darwinian social experiment (during the Great Famine of the 1840s). As (Tom) Hayden wrote in 2002, they gradually “became white, became conservative, became superpatriotic,” and did everything possible to separate themselves from African-Americans, the one group clearly below them in social status.”

This is not to single out the Irish as somehow particularly racist (itself a hateful stereotype). It’s simply a predictable replication of the pattern of each generation of new arrivals attempting to gain some heightened social status by shitting on the one that follows.

That said, one would think that a hundred years after the great influx of Irish immigrants that Lord of the Flies mentality might have abated a bit. I guess not.

LAW & ORDER: A LA CARTE EDITION

Which brings us back to the atrocity currently taking place on the United States’ southern border.

Throughout this debacle, the right wing mantra has been, “These people are breaking the law! They deserve what they get!” No doubt these self-described hardliners see themselves flatteringly as “tough love” types—realists—as opposed to bleeding heart liberals and other snowflakes who would open the floodgates and let the wretched refuse flow in.

But of all the scummy arguments Trump and his true believers have mounted, this appeal to “law and order” is perhaps the most vomit-inducing. This from the most criminal presidency in modern history, and a man who relentlessly attacks his own DOJ, AG, FBI, the courts, and the rule of law at large? Gee, Team Trump sure is picky about whose crimes they demand be punished.

Above all, these craven hypocrites argue that a brutal policy like this one serves as a deterrent.

First of all, I’d like to see some empirical evidence that a policy like this has a deterrent effect at all. (The DHS’s own numbers suggest that it does not.) Absent that, we can’t even begin to have a rational discussion about the severity of the problem relative to the extremity of the countermeasures.

Except that we can.

Per above, we do know the numbers for the first part of that equation—how bad is the problem?—which is effectively nil. So why the fuck are we engaged in brutal, cruel, and draconian policy of taking children away from their families—indefinitely in some cases, and with criminally negligent lack of accountability—all to address an issue that is all but non-existent? What does it say about the United States that we would do this to children, and worse, to stop something that is not even really a problem?

The deterrence defense is utterly dishonest in any event, as in some cases ICE is keeping children separated from their parents even after those parents are released from custody. Likewise, it is also breaking up families who have come here legally, seeking asylum and following the rules to the letter. As The Washington Post’s Salvador Rizzo explains: “Undocumented immigrant families seeking asylum previously were released and went into the civil court system, but now the parents are being detained and sent to criminal courts while their kids are resettled in the United States as though they were unaccompanied minors.”

But let’s set that aside for the moment. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that there is a problem and that deterrence is called for.

Does that justify cruel and sadistic countermeasures disproportionate to the crime (that “crime” being—need I remind you—fleeing poverty and political oppression for a better life)?

As Nick Kristoff writes in The New York Times, if separating children from their mothers and fathers is a good deterrent, why not do even better and have ICE shoot them dead on sight, East German border guard style?

By that logic, let’s not stop there. (Channelling Jonathan Swift now.) Just shooting them dead? Don’t be soft. Why not slowly torture them to death in front of their parents? that ought to deter their folks from crossing the border. Why not minefields? Why not bomb Mexico and wipe out the whole root of the problem?

May I submit the obvious reason we don’t do that sort of thing? Because, in theory, we are not sadistic, soulless barbarians.

(I say again: in theory.)

The point, it goes without saying, is proportionality. And in this case, we are watching one of the most savage and unforgivable practices imaginable, utterly disproportionate to the situation, and all to stop an essentially non-existent problem. As WaPo columnist Catherine Rampell explains, “The Trump administration’s goal is to inflict pain upon these families. Cruelty is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of White House immigration policy; it is the objective.”

Given the lack of a practical goal beyond mindless atavism, another way of looking at this situation is to ask whether securing the border is really the goal here at all. What we are seeing, as Masha Gessen writes, are the actions of a police state (and she should know). “Hostage-taking is an instrument of terror. Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror.”

Should we not be in the streets right now demanding an end to this practice? You’re damned right we should.

PARADE OF RATIONALIZATIONS

The standard argument in the right wing media is that this policy of taking children away from their parents isn’t new. (“Thanks, Obama!”) But as usual when it comes those journalist manqués, the truth is rather different.

While it’s true that children were sometimes separated from their parents in immigration detention under previous administrations, what’s new in the last six weeks is the no-quarter-given scope and inflexibility of the enforcement.

In the past, few border crossers were detained and prosecuted; mostly they were just sent home. Under Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy, however, the intent is to arrest, incaracerate, and prosecute everyone, which at last count has necessitated the separation of over 2300 children from their parents, with insufficient facilities, personnel, childcare resources, medical capability, and even simple bureaucratic systems in place to do so. Hence the arbeit macht frei scene at a Texas Wal-Mart.

In response, the administration has vacillated between defending what’s happening and—insanely—claiming it isn’t happening at all. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg reports, DHS Secretary Nielsen—embattled from both sides—lies through her teeth when she stands in front of a microphone and says with a straight face that ICE is not separating familes. (Does she think we’re blind, or just idiots?) Meanwhile White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway contradicts Nielsen with a different lie when she says, “The president wants this to end,” thereby admitting that it is in fact happening, while echoing the falsehood that it’s somehow beyond his control.

In other words, the Trump administration can’t decide if it wants to own this policy proudly or disavow it and blame it on someone else. Predictably, the Insane Clown President himself does both, depending on how his morning cheeseburger is sitting in his bowels.

This past week I watched a few minutes—about all I could stomach—of Trump’s speech to the NFIB, one of the most despicable spectacles yet in a presidency rife with strong candidates for that honor. It was like listening to the scummiest right wing radio shock jock spewing racist bile and unadulterated lies. Trump loves children, he hates this gosh darn policy, he wishes it could end but his hands are tied, the Democrats forced it on us, but it’s good because it’s keeping those brown-skinned rapists and murderers from killing your own kids. Oh, also, he can use it as leverage in Congress to get his great big beautiful border wall.

So let’s be clear about this lie.

There is no law that mandates these separations.

Speaking to CNN’s Kate Bolduan, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) blew up that lie (even as he perpetuated the bullshit of the alleged deterrent effect): “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call. I’ll go tell him: If you don’t like families being separated, you can tell DHS, ‘Stop doing it.'”

Orrin Hatch and a dying John McCain are among the other GOP senators who have seconded the point, as did Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who wrote on Facebook: “The administration’s decision to separate families is a new, discretionary choice. Anyone saying that their hands are tied or that the only conceivable way to fix the problem of catch-and-release is to rip families apart is flat wrong.”

But by now we should hardly be shocked that Trump spouts lies as naturally as he breathes. His recent announcement that he is caving to pressure and ending the policy serves as a humiliating confession that he could have done so all along, and was full of horseshit in pleading otherwise.

The senators cited above represent a minor groundswell of Republicans—including some evangelical leaders, in a rare break with Trump—who spoke out against the policy, which is itself remarkable, given their cowardly deferrence to the White House on almost every issue heretofore. Whether it was out of genuine principle or mere recognition that this policy is a disaster with voters is beside the point, even though I think we know the answer. As John Cassidy writes, “Even usually gutless pro-Trump Republicans weren’t willing to enter a campaign season defending a policy of tearing infants from their parents and keeping them detained in tents and metal cages.”

All four living former First Ladies also spoke up in opposition, as did the current one—albeit repeating her husband’s lie about who is to blame. But grading on a curve, having half a heart in the Trump family puts you at the front of the class.

But writing in The Atlantic, McKay Coppins has posited that the aforementioned Stephen Miller sees even the backlash over what’s going on at the border as helpful to Trump, rather than a fiasco that hurts him. This belief depends on the assumption that sufficient numbers of Americans are so coldhearted and venal that they actually like seeing children suffer, so long as they are brown in color of course. Miller is so cocksure of that assumption that he puts it at 90-10 in favor of this horrific policy.

Even by the most damning assessment of the sadism of the American people, that figure seems off. Despite his impressive record as an alt-right troll going back to high school, Herr Miller may have miscalculated Americans’ appetite for images of wailing children ripped from their mother’s breast and thrown in cages by armed ICE agents. Indeed, the current hue and cry exposes the fallacy at the center of his formulation: if this uproar is good for Trump because 90% of Americans support his immigration policies, why is there such uproar in the first place?

But this approach is not new for the White House. Allegedly, Miller (and Bannon) had the same view of the shitshow that was the implementation of the Muslim ban in the early days of the Trump presidency: an act of theatrical provocation the very outrageousness of which was deliberately designed to delight a certain segment of Trump’s base. And it may have succeeded on that count. The question is whether solidifying the support of a group of people who already worship Trump is a winning strategy if it alienates and likewise energizes an overwhelmingly larger group of decent human beings who are also registered to vote.

Next November will begin to tell the tale.

RIGHT THIS WAY UP THESE STEPS, MISS ANTOINETTE

Last December, Ivanka Trump, speaking about Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore and his history of sexual relationships with underage girls—a man for whom her father campaigned—famously remarked, “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.”

It was already ironic then, and it’s even more ironic now.

You know who else there’s a special place in hell for, Ivanka? Smug faux Marie Antoinettes who stand by while their fathers and their fathers’ minions prey on children in similarly unconscionable ways. (I’m an atheist, so when I say “hell,” I’m being purely figurative. But I know some legitimate Christians who will back me up on this.)

Ivanka’s verbiage seems to be contagious in Trumpworld: just last week, Trump economic advisor Peter Navarro hyperbolically announced that there was “a special place in hell” for Justin Trudeau, for the mortal sin of having politely opposed US tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, eh? (The VIP section of hell is getting kind of crowded.)

Why am I singling out Ivanka when there are many others in the administration much more culpable for this particular (and particularly abhorrent) policy? Because she has made a point of positioning herself as a great defender of women’s rights, absurd as that is. It’s one thing for a retired Marine general like John Kelly to be callous about this policy; it’s another for a supercilious little fake princess who fancies herself a champion of American motherhood—whom Rudy Giuliani inexplicably thinks is a beloved figure to Americans—to be complicit in that way.

Some might even call her feckless.

We are now told that Ivanka and Melania helped convince Donald to end the policy with an executive order. If so, two cheers for them. Given their collaborationism in the current regime, it’s the least they can do.

EMMA LAZARUS, WELFARE QUEEN

In closing, it behooves us to remember that Donald Trump didn’t create this xenophobic fever in the American metabolism: he merely fed a sickness that was already there, with roots that go back to the earliest days of our country. But it is a shameful indictment of all of us as a people that he was so handsomely rewarded for this strategy.

With this new order ending the separation policy, Trump will surely portray himself as a great humanitarian for solving a crisis that he himself created (after weeks of dishonestly claiming he didn’t have the authority). Moreover, this “solution” still maintains the zero tolerance policy on border crossings, and merely provides for the imprisonment of children with their parents rather than apart from them. Nor does it include any plan to deal with the 2300 children already taken from their parents, let alone reunite them. The picture of caged families—children and all—will continue to be a horrific one, making it clear that we have not yet reckoned with the real problems: this brute force approach to border crossings, an unworkable approach to immigration at large, and the ugly strain of nativism that runs through the American soul and that gave us this nightmare in the first place.

There is a meme on the Internet that asks about those countries throughout history that wantonly arrested and imprisoned large numbers of their residents without any kind of due process and sent them to prisons and concentration camps, sometimes indefinitely. The meme asks: “Did you ever wonder what the hell the other people in that country were doing while that was happening?

The answer is: “Whatever you’re doing right now.”

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Illustration: Edel Rodriguez for Der Spiegel

 

Funny Funny: A Conversation with Alan Zweibel

17309602_1887217528179769_4452677798800802579_nLegendary comedy writer Alan Zweibel began his career penning jokes for Catskills comics while he was still in college. In 1975 Lorne Michaels hired him as one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live, where Alan developed a special partnership with Gilda Radner, helping create iconic characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, and John Belushi’s stable of easily irritated samurai. Since then Alan co-created and produced It’s Garry Shandling’s Showwon a Tony for co-writing Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, co-wrote the Broadway shows Gilda Live and Martin Short’s Fame Becomes Me, as well as writing his own Off Broadway plays Happy, Comic Dialogue, Between Cars, Pine Cone Moment, and Bunny Bunny (adapted from his bestselling book). His other books include Clothing Optional and Other Ways to Read These Stories; the novels The Other Shulman (which won the Thurber Prize for American Humor) and Lunatics (with Dave Barry ); the children’s books North and Our Tree Named Steve; and most recently For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them, co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach, for which he recently completed a 17-city book tour. Alan has two new books that are soon to be published: A Guide to Judaism from Feh to Oy again with Barry and Mansbach, and the cultural memoir Laugh Lines: Forty Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier, in which he serves as a tour guide through American comedy from the Catskills to the present.

Among Alan’s other awards are five Emmys, a Tony, two Writers Guild of America Awards, and a WGA Lifetime Achievement Award. As a performer he has appeared on SNL, Curb Your Enthusiasm (where he was a consulting producer), and is a frequent guest on late night talk shows including many appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman (for which he also wrote) and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He can often be seen on stage at New York’s Triad Theater in the long-running revue Celebrity Autobiography!.

In 2012 Ferne Pearlstein and I interviewed Alan for our documentary The Last Laugh, out on Netflix June 24th. For this conversation, we spoke at the legendary Friars Club in midtown Manhattan, where Alan was recently named Friar of the Year for 2018.

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THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thanks for sitting down with me, Alan. It feels like there’s a weird thing in comedy right now where it’s going in two opposing directions at once. On the one hand, there’s the PC movement, which is restricting things, but on the other hand, because of the current political situation, it feels like comedy has been energized as a means for social commentary.

ALAN ZWEIBEL: Absolutely. Comedy is supposed to give us a look at ourselves, it’s supposed to be reflective, it’s supposed to a commentary on us as individuals and on society as a whole, politically speaking, religiously speaking, in terms of the sexes, and so on. So there is a dichotomy.

If you look at late night shows, every night you’ve got Kimmel, you’ve got Colbert, you’ve got Fallon, Seth Meyers, and then Bill Maher on Friday nights, you’ve got SNL on Saturday nights, you’ve got Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah. It used to be I’d come home at night and (my wife) Robin would say, “Hi honey.” Now her first words are, “Did you hear what that asshole did today?” Meaning Trump, of course.

TKN: It’s exhausting.

AZ: One of the things that was so cool about this book tour I just did was that I was in all these different hotels, and I didn’t know which channel was which, so I ended up watching a lot of Law & Order and no MSNBC and no CNN. I can’t take it anymore. If you turn on Morning Joe or New Day with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota, it’s like, “What did he tweet already this morning when I was still sleeping?” So I think that humor is necessary, that acknowledgement of it, letting us all know that we’re not individually crazy.

TKN: You said before that comedians have always been kind of truth-tellers, and it’s never felt more so than now, when the news has lost so much credibility. Because there’s the fake news, by which I mean Fox—which is just ridiculous and not even worth discussing—but as a result people don’t trust the legitimate news either. They think everything is politicized and therefore relative and all equally suspect.

Arguably the legitimate media has had a lot of trouble figuring out how to cover a liar like Trump, because they’re simply not used to someone that brazenly dishonest, they’re not equipped to handle a demagogue like that, and they wind up enabling him. So people look to comedians. They look to those people you just named.

AZ: Absolutely. They look to them for the truth. It’s a reality check, in a way. Sometimes just out of curiosity I’ll watch CNN and then I’ll turn to Fox to see what their slant is on the same thing. And I wonder, “How is it possible that they see it so differently?”

TKN: You’re tougher than I am. I totally believe in the idea of not just indulging your own point of view, but when I jump over to Fox or one of those channels, I can’t take it for very long.

AZ: No no no. I just do it for maybe a minute, if that, because I’m just going “No….No….No….”

There’s such a divide right now. I don’t do anything political; I don’t write political comedy. I leave that to people that are smarter or more bent that way than I am. But how about laughing at ourselves? That doesn’t exist right now.

On the book tour, five of the cites were in Florida on the Atlantic coast, and they all went swimmingly. But the last night before we went off to Washington was in Naples. I thought South Florida was South Florida; I didn’t know that Naples, being on the Gulf Coast, was different. And there were four of five hundred people, which is a lot for a book like this, and I just made an innocuous comment about Fox News, and I got hissed. And this was in a temple!

And then we were in Nashville and Robin went into a store and some kid in there—sixteen or seventeen—made some derogatory reference to Jews. Robin identified herself as a Jew and the blood drained from this kid’s face, and then he said something about her being an exception. And you go, “Whoa, what year is this?” My grandmother and grandfather, who were immigrants, used to tell me these kind of stories when I was growing up. I just figured, naively so, “Oh, that’s in the past.” But it’s come back in droves.

GUY WALKS INTO A BAR

TKN: Even beyond politics, it feels like there are changes being forced on comedy by technology. Which is not something you often think about as an influence, the way it is on music or film or other arts.  

Ferne and I and some friends saw Chris Rock do his stand-up act in Atlantic City last Thanksgiving, and you had to surrender your cellphone before you went into the venue. They put it in a neoprene pouch and sealed it with a shoplifting-proof plastic ring. I knew he had stopped doing colleges, but I’d never seen that before. But I totally get it. I heard Chris say in an interview how in the old days he’d go into clubs and work out his material, but he can’t do that now because it’s immediately recorded and goes straight to the Internet.

AZ: I get that. It started a while ago, even before cellphones. There used to be a respect for process. I had a deal with Castle Rock in the early ‘90s, I did a couple of movies with them and Rob Reiner, and they would show a cut to some audience fifty miles away in the middle of the desert, a focus group that would rate it and you would see what people liked and what they didn’t like, what edits you had to make, and maybe you would adjust. And then all of the sudden critics started going to those screenings and reviewing movies that weren’t released yet, or even finished yet.

TKN: I think Chris’s comparison was, “When Prince makes a demo, it doesn’t wind up on the radio.”

AZ: Yeah. I don’t blame Chris at all, especially if he is trying stuff out. We saw his Netflix special, Tambourine. It’s really good, and it’s really reflective, funny but in a different kind of way, he talks about the breakup of his marriage in a really insightful way.

Someone else I saw recently at Radio City who I think is just amazing is John Mulaney.

TKN: I love John Mulaney. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t go to that run at Radio City. It was like seven shows and I couldn’t make it to any of them.

AZ: We went the first night, took our daughter Sari, who’s 28. The craftsmanship, the writing…..He did this wonderful thing where he was talking about Trump but never said Trump’s name. He used the analogy of a horse running through a hospital. “A horse doesn’t belong in a hospital; we’re trying to get the horse out of the hospital.” And it was really, really funny.

TKN: I did see the Netflix special that was taped from those Radio City shows, Kid Gorgeous. The robot bit, the gazebo, Mick Jagger hosting SNL….it was fantastic. For my money he’s one of the best stand-ups out there today.

Who were the comedians that inspired you when you were growing up? You mentioned George Carlin; he was one of my favorites.

AZ: Yeah, Carlin’s genius for me was his love of words, the wordplay. “Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?” Jumbo shrimp. All that stuff. I love words so that’s what attracted me there. But I also loved Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Woody Allen’s early movies and albums, Jack Benny—you know, the usual gang. I grew up watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, so there was Carl Reiner’s imprimatur, and it was the kind of life I wanted to lead. You’ve got this guy Dick Van Dyke, who’s married to a very pretty Mary Tyler Moore, they have a kid, they have a nice house in New Rochelle, and he spends his days at the office lying on a couch joking around with Buddy and Sally. I thought, “I want to do that!” So those were my influences.

And then a little bit later it was Mad Magazine, which not as biting satire as the Lampoon, which came along later, which I also discovered. Marx Brothers movies—I discovered them through Groucho’s TV show You Bet Your Life. I said to my mom and dad, “Who’s that old guy?” and they said, “You don’t understand.” And then I learned about Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera.

TKN: So when did it first occur to you that you could that for a living?

AZ: That wasn’t until later. There’s a penchant that you have for writing, and for making your friends and family laugh, or writing something funny in class—that’s just an instinct that you have. But I didn’t know I could make a living at it until I started selling stuff. Because that means strangers like you. After I graduated college I started writing for stand-up comedians in the Catskill Mountains, and the fact that they would buy jokes from me led me to think, “Oh, maybe I have something to offer.”

Even before that, when I was still in college in Buffalo, I used to write jokes for Dick Cavett. He had a show, and I’d mail the jokes in on a Monday and they’d arrive at their offices on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and then I would watch his monologue and hear my jokes, or some version of them. So after I graduated college, I thought, “OK, maybe I can do this.”

TKN: But how did you crack that business the first time? Did you go up to Dick Cavett’s producer and say, “Guy walks into a bar….”?

AZ: No, no. My mom and dad had gone to see Engelbert Humperdinck in Lake Tahoe and there was a Borscht Belt comic named Morty Gunty who opened for him, and my mother ran into him in a coffee shop the next morning and told him she had a son who wants to be a writer. So I started writing for him, and then other comics up there started asking for material, because the word got out, “Hey, who wrote that joke?” “Oh, there’s this kid, Alan.” I wrote for the Friars’ Roast. I wrote for special occasions. I wrote for a stripper….

TKN: She told jokes?

AZ: I don’t know. I never went to see her. It was Fanne Foxe, if you remember her…

TKN: Oh, she was in the paper yesterday!

AZ: What did she do?

TKN: It was the story of her and Wilbur Mills and the Tidal Basin incident.

AZ: I got a phone call from an agent, saying “Do you want to write for Fanne Foxe?” I just basically wanted to see her breasts.

LIVE FROM FT. LEE, NEW JERSEY

TKN: So how did you go from there to getting on SNL?

AZ: I got tired of writing for those guys. They were twice my age. So I took the jokes they wouldn’t buy from me and went and did them myself at clubs in New York. And Lorne came looking for writers for this new show of his, and then he asked to see more jokes, and I had all these jokes that I had written for these guys, so that became my audition.

TKN: Did you know Lorne before?

AZ: No, he saw me and approached me.

TKN: I’m sure you’re tired of telling these stories, but what was it like in those early years at SNL?

AZ: It was fabulous. There’s a documentary that just came out that Robin and I are executive producers on, called Love, Gilda, that covers a lot of those early years.

Those days were really fun. We were all mid-20s, it was our first job in TV, and the only rule we had was to make each other laugh. And we put it on TV! Lorne’s feeling was that people out there are like us, so they might tell their friends about it.

TKN: As a fan, it was such a watershed, because it was a younger generation—people your age—doing a kind of humor that just wasn’t on TV before that.

AZ: Right. The logo for SNL very early on was “Saturday Night Live” spray-painted as if it was graffiti on the marble wall of what was then called the RCA Building. And that was emblematic of who we were.

TKN: And that’s how it felt to the viewers. For me as a teenager, it was like a rock & roll kind of thing.

AZ: Yeah, it was Off Broadway. Whereas if you look at all the other variety shows that were on in those days, whether it was Sonny and Cher or Flip Wilson or whoever, they came out in tuxedos and Bob Mackie gowns. We threw Belushi out there in his fucking tie-dye thing with his stomach sticking out.

TKN: I will confess to some fan-boyism here, because when you and I first met for The Last Laugh, I knew that you had created Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella with Gilda, and “Mister Richard Feder of Ft. Lee, New Jersey,” and I knew your face because every so often on Weekend Update they would show your picture playing some character.

AZ: Yeah, whenever they needed a big Jew to look dead or drunk or have electroshock therapy, they’d push me out there. I used to get so nervous….now I do all the talk shows and everything and it’s not a problem, but back then I got really nervous. There was a sketch—I think it was when Hugh Hefner hosted the show—where I was a corpse in a casket and I was so nervous that if you look closely, the corpse’s hands are shaking. (laughs) But Gilda used to just give me a flask and I was like, “OK, fine, I’ll go out there.”

TKN: Did you and Gilda immediately spark to each other? Because that partnership was so special.

AZ: Yeah, from the beginning we hit it off. She was from Detroit by way of Second City in Toronto, and I’m from Long Island so I knew New York, my dad always worked here, so the city was easier for me. So she was like this—I wouldn’t say scared girl in a big city, but she needed a tour guide in a way. So we started hanging out together and we just made each other laugh.

We wrote together a lot. I wrote for everybody—jokewriting was my craft, so I was drawn to Weekend Update and Chevy and everybody else that succeeded him there, and I wrote the samurais for John Belushi and things like that. But those guys taught me another kind of comedy. I hadn’t even heard of Second City before I got to SNL, so to see them make something up right in front of me, something that didn’t exist before and now it did, was really cool. It was writing, but on your feet and acting it out all at the same time. I was agog.

TKN: There was something about the combination of your sensibility and Gilda’s innocence—or the innocence that she projected, this lovable quality but with incredible comedic chops—that was magic.

AZ: We were silly. She would come up with an idea and ask me to write it—something I would probably never think of—and if I came up with something I would mention it to her and she’d just start doing it across the dinner table or in my office. We probably pushed each more than we would have pushed ourselves working alone.

Gilda once said that I brought out the guy in her and that she brought out the girl in me. The sad thing is that Shandling said the same thing to me. (laughs) When Garry and I were writing together we used to fight who was the girl.

THIS IS THE PART ABOUT GARRY SHANDLING

TKN: I wanted to talk to you about Shandling, because he’s another touchstone.

AZ: When I started writing with Garry it was like lightning striking a second time, the way it had been with Gilda. We knew each other’s moves, and it was like alchemy, the synergy, or like 1 and 1 equaling 3.

The first night after Garry and I met for the first time, he called me up, late at night—out of the blue—and he said, “Alan, my dog’s penis tastes bitter. Do you think it’s because of his diet or what?” When he said that joke to me, I just went, “Wow. There’s a mind at work over here.”

TKN: (laughs) That’s the first night you knew each other, he called you up and said that?

AZ: Yeah. He and I hit it off immediately.

We were very similar in a lot of ways, although I had whatever component one needs to have a wife and children. But Garry was smarter than me, he was very analytical. Judd Apatow just did a great two-part documentary about him, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. We’re all in it, if you haven’t seen it.

TKN: I saw it; I thought it was great. I was skeptical when I heard it was four hours—I was a Shandling fanatic from the first time I saw him do stand-up, in the ‘80s, so I could watch a ten-hour doc about him. But I wasn’t sure it could sustain that length for a general audience. But it did, in spades.

And it wasn’t just a case of a great subject carrying the movie; the filmmaking was superb. Although Garry is a fascinating character, obviously, and there was a wealth of material with all the archival footage and the diaries especially, even with all those advantages the wrong filmmaker could still screw it up. But I thought it was just superbly done purely as a piece of cinema. 

AZ: It’s really good. David Itzkoff had a piece in the New York Times about it. After Judd sent it to me, I likened it to George Harrison documentary that Scorsese did for HBO, Living in the Material World. This is not dissimilar. It’s about comedy, obviously, but the spirituality of part two: that’s who Garry was.

His memorial was really funny. I spoke, Sarah Silverman spoke, Kevin Nealon was hilarious, Tambor was hilarious. You had people telling Garry jokes and Garry stories, but there were also Buddhist monks there, and they showed footage of Garry in robes, chanting. When we left there was a feeling that I think you’re supposed to have after you go to temple.

TKN: (laughs) But you don’t.

AZ: (laughs) But you don’t.

If there is something else after this life, Garry was ready for it. After we did our show Garry and I didn’t speak for years and then we found each other again. I guess we were a little older and maybe a little bit more mature, and Garry was on a different plane. He had more trouble with this world: manners, other people…..But the next world, I think he was just ready for it.

TKN: He kind of defies the stereotype of the tortured comic, because he was certainly tortured, but instead of being self-destructive and channeling into the usual self-abuse, he went in that more spiritual direction.   

AZ: On our show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he played a guy named “Garry Shandling” so there was an autobiographical element thematically, despite the innovative ways that we presented it. Which was fun. But when he did Larry Sanders something else happened. Just a changing of the G to an L, from Garry to Larry: there was a different kind of comedy there, less cartoony and more substantial when it came to the human psyche.

TKN: But both of those shows were so towering and so influential. I remember when I first saw It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, it was so stylistically bold and clever with the form—even just starting with the title. I know that Jack Benny talked to the audience and broke the fourth wall, but building on that the way you and Garry did was so innovative.

AZ: We knew who the roots were, Benny and George Burns. But they didn’t take a little golf cart and drive from one set to another on camera.

TKN: (laughs) Right. It was the meta aspect. I remember so many things, but one that sticks in my mind is when Garry had to fly somewhere on the show and instead of the usual transition—like stock footage of an airliner—you just had a balsa wood airplane. (laughs)

AZ: I remember that episode vividly. And we’d have the audience partake in things. In some ways it was more theatrical, because instead of dissolving from one scene to another, I would have Garry say, “All right, here’s where we are in the story: it’s two weeks later and now I got to deal with this guy.” So we had fun with the form.

Whereas the material that he did on Larry Sanders was more conventional in that there was no trickery, but it was so real. And it was hilarious. Rip Torn was hilarious, Tambor was hilarious, Garry of course. Garry’s weaknesses, Garry’s megalomania, Garry’s character, Garry’s ego—Larry’s I should really say. It was an exaggeration of what Garry had inside of him, through this fictional guy. So whereas my friend Larry David calls himself “Larry David” on Curb Your Enthusiasm, with “Larry Sanders” there was a little bit of removal there. Just a little bit.

TKN: When I was watching Larry Sanders—not knowing Garry personally, of course—I felt like he was putting all of his demons into that character. That was the guy he could have become—insecure, megalomaniacal, and so on—instead of the guy he was. 

AZ: Yeah, I think so. I remember after our show ended, Fox offered Garry his own talk show, for a lot of money, and he and I went to dinner and he asked me what I thought. He was one of these people that would ask a thousand people the same question, and I’m sure many others answered the same way I did, which was, “That’s the kind of show you would make fun of. You would satirize that; you would satirize that guy. Do you really want to sit and ask some celebrity about their 9-month-old kid and how they behaved on the plane on their way here?” I’m sure I’m not the only one that said that to him.

TKN: He’d done it already. Even though it was fake, it was satire, why would he want to do it again, even “for real”? Especially after satirizing it.

AZ: I used to go with him when we were on hiatus from our show and he would guest host for Carson—I would help with the monologue and just lend support—and he always did a wonderful job and all that, but Jay (Leno) got the gig. And I understood why.

TKN: The Larry Sanders Show was so influential. It was the beginning of that single-camera, no laugh track style that influenced Ricky Gervais and The Office, that established the template for what’s become the norm in contemporary sitcom…..it just influenced everything in TV comedy as we now know it.

AZ: Yeah, prior to that, the general concern that networks had was that people at home were not going to know that it’s a comedy unless they hear someone laughing. We all said, “Are you serious?” With It’s Garry Shandling’s Show we had an audience, so there was laughter, but on Larry Sanders it was a hybrid. He had a talk show-within-a-show that had a live audience that laughed at the stuff that was happening on the talk show, but they didn’t laugh at the stuff happening in the offices because there was no audience. It was backstage. So Garry straddled both worlds and I think he did it brilliantly.

MULTIMEDIA MAN

TKN: Was 700 Sundays (Billy Crystal’s one-man show on Broadway that Alan co-wrote, and for which they won a Tony) after that?

AZ: Yeah. 700 Sundays opened on Broadway in either November or December of ’04, if I’m not mistaken. That was such a thrill. Yeah, SNL was probably the biggest thrill in my career because it was my first job, and all of sudden there’s Emmy awards and, hey we’re on television, and hey I can pay the phone bill every month without interruption of service. But what was so rewarding about 700 Sundays was that my good friend had trusted me with his life. These are characters I hadn’t met. I think I might have met his mom once or twice, I certainly didn’t know his dad because his dad died when he was 15—hence the title. I didn’t know any of the aunts and uncles or cousins or whoever else he spoke about. But the fact that Billy trusted me with those characters and with putting words into their mouths meant a lot to me. Look: he’s a Jew from Long Island, I’m a Jew from Long Island, we all have the same family. I even gave him the joke, “We all have the same families, they just jump from album to album.” 

To put words into my best friend’s mouth and to have that emotional satisfaction every single night. I’d be in the theatre, and even when the show was sort of locked, I would go every night because it was like listening to my favorite song.

And wherever I was, if I was on a book tour and I thought of something, I would email him some jokes from my hotel room because I just loved that world, I loved the characters. I didn’t know anything about jazz, but I learned it from Billy because of that show. He is such a consummate showman, whether he’s doing a mime piece or singing or acting out all the characters at a dinner table. It was almost like writing a variety show, but with one guy.

TKN: You’ve done so many different things in so many different fields: stand-up, live television, theater, feature films, books. Do you have a favorite?

AZ: There’s a pamphlet I want to write…(laughs). No, I would say live TV, which I haven’t done in so long, is the thing that gets the adrenaline going. There’s nothing better than SNL where you write something on Monday and it’s on television Saturday. And even if it’s not live, when it’s taped: every time I was a guest on the Letterman show, the running around…”OK, the audience is coming in,” all that.

That being said, I like the theater a lot. I like the long form, I like the audience, I like standing in the back to see what works and what doesn’t, I like seeing the people’s reactions, both comedically and emotionally. If you are going to do a longer form, theater is much more fun than movies, which are shot out of order and at best you’re trying to make the crew laugh. And certainly more fun than books, where you feel like a rabbi hunched over a Torah.

TV is a collaborative medium, there’s a lot of people around a table with a script saying, “Oh, you have a better joke? OK what’s your joke? That’s great—let’s put that in.” There is a synergy there. But when you’re alone, it’s all the clichés of being alone.

That’s why the last couple of books I’ve written I’ve had collaborators. I’ve had Dave Barry and I’ve had another guy named Adam Mansbach, who wrote Go the Fuck to Sleep. We’ve never been in same room writing, but it breaks up the day when you write something and you email it to each other or put it in a Dropbox and it just builds and it becomes a book.

I did that with Dave Barry where we wrote a novel together called Lunatics where it was two suburban soccer dads who have a feud. It starts off in this little New Jersey town and maybe peace will be brought to the Middle East as a result of what happens, maybe there’s a new pope, let’s see how we can escalate it. Dave wrote one guy and I wrote the other guy, and he had no idea what I was going to write and I had no idea what he was going to write, so it was like having a deranged pen pal. Something would come into the inbox and you’d go “Whoa!”

TKN: So you would write in character?

AZ: Yeah, as the character speaking. My character was low-key and demure and a good citizen—

TKN: Like yourself.

AZ: Like myself. And Dave picked his guy to be bawdy and slovenly. Think of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I was Steve Martin’s character and he was John Candy’s. And so I would send him something which was a little bit more controlled, it was funny but in its anality. And he would send me something like Blutarsky from Animal House, and I would just fucking laugh and then go, “OK, now I got to not only react, but move the story forward.” So we kept on going like that.

TKN: Like that game, exquisite corpse. 

AZ: Yeah that’s exactly right. But it was a collaboration that we both got off on. So I like anything that’s either collaborative or offers a little bit more feedback. There are certain things that you write that are just so internal you can only do it by yourself, you go so deep into yourself. But the other stuff is a diversion away from the dedication and the solitude of writing that single thing.

TKN: That would make a great movie, Lunatics.

AZ: It was optioned by Universal, but by the time we handed the script in there was already a new administration who put it into turnaround. But it was very prescient, that book, because we wrote it in 2012 and where it ends with this chapter Dave wrote where we’re at the Republican National Convention and Trump is nominated to run for president which was far-fetched at the time.

TKN: God, back then that was absurdism.

AZ: Now we’d have to change it. People are still threatening to make it into a movie.

TKN: When you wrote Bunny Bunny (Alan’s play about his friendship with Gilda), that was a more solitary endeavor, I presume?

AZ: It was totally solitary. It was influenced by my wife Robin. This was about ’93. Gilda had died in ’89 and Robin said “You should write something about you and Gilda.” And I resisted. I didn’t want to capitalize on that relationship. And Robin said, “To hell with that! Your best friend died and you haven’t even cried yet!” So it was a way of mourning, it was a catharsis where I reconstructed the relationship as I remembered it. Where did we meet? Oh behind a potted plant in Lorne’s office, and all the scenes. It’s not like I was wearing a wire for 14 years, so they were these touchstone kind of events.

It was written mostly at red lights. I was living in LA and working on movies and shit, and I had a legal pad that I kept next to me on the passenger’s seat and I would just write. And when I was done I had 220 handwritten pages and I thought, “Catharsis over.” I showed it to a few people who suggested that I get it published. Gene Wilder gave me his blessing, as did Gilda’s mom and brother. That was by myself, but mentally I felt like I was collaborating with Gilda because I was reliving that stuff. She co-wrote it even though she was dead.

MAN OF THE YEAR

TKN: Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re doing next? Or is that unfair to ask a guy who just came off a 17-city book tour?

AZ: I’ve got a couple of things. I just wrote a movie with Billy Crystal, and I’m looking at my phone every five minutes to see whether or not it’s going to be greenlit. I’m writing two books. One with Adam and Dave again, because the haggadah did so well, that’s called A Guide to Judaism from Feh to Oy. (laughs) But I’m also writing a cultural memoir called Laugh Lines: Forty Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier. It starts off with me in the Catskills, but contextualized, not just me…..I’m like a tour guide through comedy, and the process, and the state of the art if you will as I passed through it and had my say.

TKN: So how does Barry participate in this? He’s as goyische as they come.

AZ: He’s Episcopalian, he’s the son of a pastor, but he is married to a Jew. Michelle Kaufman is a wonderful wonderful sports writer for the Miami Herald, she’s from Cuba, which makes her a Jewban. So Dave’s got both the outsider’s view and enough of the insider’s, so he brings a different perspective than I can, being steeped in it.

TKN: I’m in that same boat, being married to a Jewish woman. We were at a party once with like ten other couples and at one point the hostess stands up and says, “I want to make a toast to all the beautiful Jewish men here and their shiksa wives.” And everyone laughed, but we looked around and everybody there was in that kind of marriage except Ferne and me, who were the opposite. It’s getting less rare, but it used to be that we could count on one hand the couples we knew who were like us….and one of those fingers was Barbra Streisand and James Brolin. Who we don’t really know. So when we meet a couple like Dave and Michelle we feel like, “Yes! Those are our people.”

AZ: I understand. I get that totally.

People are also threatening to bring Bunny Bunny to Broadway next year for the 30thanniversary of Gilda’s death, with someone playing Alan and someone playing Gilda and then someone playing everyone else in the world. It’s playing in Chicago right now at the Mercury Theater, although that doesn’t have anything to do with a potential Broadway run, that’s another company.

It’s funny, I never saw it produced again after it ran in New York, downtown at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, although it’s always playing somewhere, local places, even colleges. But there was a production of it about five years ago at the Falcon Theatre, Garry Marshall’s theatre in Burbank, and I happened to be in LA and I went to see the show. It was the first time I had seen it in something like 15 or 17 years. And I’m sitting there, and there are two Alans watching it. One was nostalgic because I lived it, but there was also the writer in me going, “Wow, that was a good joke. I wonder if I’m still capable.” (laughs) Or, “Wow, that was smart.” So the duality was funny. If there is another incarnation of it we’ll see what happens. But if you’re going to deal with Broadway it becomes a different animal.

TKN: In closing I want to congratulate you being named Friar of the Year, since we’re at the Friars Club. 

AZ: This is a weird month because not only did they name me Friar of the Year, the Chabad named me their Man of the Year. It makes no fucking sense. I was speaking here at the Friars Club one night at the induction for new members, and as I’m leaving a man comes up to me, introduces himself, and says “Are you going to be in town February 27th”? I said, “Yeah, I think so.” And he says, “A rabbi is going to call you.”

TKN: (laughs) This sounds like a joke. “A rabbi is going to call you…”

AZ (laughs): So I go home, and the next morning the phone rings, and it’s a rabbi. And the rabbi says, “I don’t know who you are, I’ve never heard of you, but I hear you are going to be in town February 27th.”  I’m thinking, “What the fuck is this with February 27th?” So I said, “I think so,” and he says, “You want to be our Man of the Year?” I knew nothing about Chabad except they had these telethons or whatever. So I learned about them, they have schools all over, they’re building a new school on Thompson Street downtown, and they had a big reception at Cipriani’s for like 1100 people.

So I gave a speech at the end accepting my Man of the Year thing, and I had my friends Billy Crystal, Larry David, Rob Reiner, Marty Short, and David Steinberg go on tape and say shit about me. And then the rabbi surprised me onstage by announcing that they’re naming the library in the new school after me. And I got very emotional. I said, “Wow, for a writer to have a library named after him….” And the rabbi says, “It’s a children’s library.” (laughs) And I said, “Oh, you mean it’s not the one on 42ndand Fifth Avenue?

TKN: (laughs) No lions….

AZ: I was like, “To hell with you, what do I need that for?” (laughs)

So, yeah, it’s been quite a month. Friar of the Year and the Chabad Man of the Year. It’s so absurd, I know. But it’s very cool to have the library named after me.

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Alan Zweibel can currently be seen in no less than four feature documentaries: Ferne Pearlstein’s THE LAST LAUGH, streaming on Netflix beginning June 24th (ahem, my personal favorite, as she’s my aforementioned wife); Judd Apatow’s THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING currently on HBO; Neil Berkeley’s GILBERT; and Lisa D’Apolito’s LOVE, GILDA, coming soon to CNN.

@lastlaughfilm / #lastlaughfilm

 

Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama)

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Last March, when Trump first impulsively agreed to what became the Singapore summit, I wrote at length about the pertinent issues (Only Nixon Could Go to China….But Nixon Was, Like, Smart). Since then, many others far more qualified than me have weighed in about the meeting’s specifics and its unpredictable but worrying implications.

Now that it has come to pass, I’ll leave the after-action review to them, for the most part. Instead, I’d like to focus on what the domestic reaction says about the current state of play in American politics.

In short:

After years of assailing previous US presidents as weak for even floating the idea of talking to the brutal dictatorship that is North Korea, Trump handed Pyongyang an enormous propaganda coup simply by agreeing to meet as equals with Kim Jong Un. He entered the meeting boasting of his unwillignness to prepare for it or educate himself on the issues. Then he gifted Kim a concession the North Koreans have long sought, trading away US military exericses in the region in exchange for nothing, blindsiding both our allies in the ROK and his own Department of Defense for good measure.

As we brace for the flurry of Republican praise for Trump’s alleged “statesmanship,” consider what the right wing press would have said if Barack Obama had agreed to this summit and made this deal.

Craven submission to the nuclear blackmail of a tinpot dictator is the sort of thing that would usually prompt the Republican Party and its amen corner in the right wing media to howl “Munich!”, the red-breasted American hawk’s lazy, go-to comparison for any and every geopolitical decision point. Trump’s insane post-Singapore declaration that North Korea is “no longer” a nuclear threat even eerily echoes Chamberlain’s infamous “peace in our time,” except for being even more delusional.

I am not arguing that the current state of affairs with North Korea is perfectly (or even imperfectly) analogous to that of Nazi Germany in 1938. I am not suggesting that the DPRK is the existential threat to the US that the Third Reich was, or that the situation calls for the sort of steel-willed resolve that Neville Chamberlain could not muster. And I am certainly not arguing that it has reached the point where diplomacy is no longer advisable. On the contrary, in fact.

What I am saying is that the right wing in America is usually very quick to label every international crisis another Munich, as the analogy lends itself all too easily to the most bellicose available position in any given situation. (Who wants to be compared to those who tragically underestimated and therefore softsoaped Hitler?) Yet somehow, with this summit, which readily lends itself to comparisons to Munich……crickets. Instead, Fox Nation is already making plans to cover the Very Stable Genius’s inevitable trip to Oslo.

The long term impact of Singapore will take years, if not decades to reveal itself. But what is immediately evident is the utter hypocrisy of the right wing’s uncritical, fawning approval of it.

SUCKERED IN SINGAPORE

I hear you saying, “But isn’t this just business as usual? Ordinary partisan spin?”

Yes and no.

It’s true that we should not be surprised, as the right wing and its media handmaidens long ago ceased to operate in the reality-based world. “Bias” does not even begin to describe it, in the ordinary journalistic sense. The right wing press is effectively nothing more than an Orwellian disinformation machine.

But if we yawn and chalk up the right wing spin to more of the same, we are complicit in the continuing debasement of objective reality as a common metric for legitimate political discourse. In assessing Singapore, it behooves us to keep it contextualized in historical and political fact, and not submit to the distorted GOP fantasy. The price for our failure to do so will be steep.

I am not dismissing the unprecedented nature of what happened this past Tuesday, although I remain appalled by the recklessness of it on this administration’s part, critical of the tradeoff Trump made, and very leery of what will come next. But the reaction to it within Fox Nation says a lot about the hyper-partisan, post-truth, Bizarro World in which we now live.

The joint statement that came out of the Singapore meeting was predictably vague and short on details, let alone concrete and enforceable provisions. Kim’s pledge to work toward denuclearization is hollow and meaningless and one that no serious student of Korean affairs expects him to keep. His father and grandfather engaged in similar Lucy-holding-the-football maneuvers for decades. Indeed, the very meaning of “denuclearization” is in dispute. Historically, when the DPRK uses that word they append the phrase “of the Korean peninsula,” meaning they are including the withdrawal of US forces from the region, including the American nuclear umbrella. The same is true of the Singapore statement.

More to the point, Kim’s possession of such weapons—long sought and painfully acquired—is the very source of his power and the leverage that brought a gullible and vain US president to the bargaining table. The odds of him giving them up for any reason are less than zero.

The vaccuousness of the “deal” bears repeating.

Trump, who has long sneered at the JCPOA as a “terrible deal,” with its strict regimen of weapons inspections, controls on fissile material, detailed timeline, and severe and wide-ranging concessions by Iran, now considers Kim’s vague promise that he might someday give up the Bomb (maybe) a superior piece of negotiation on his part? (Of course he does.) It would be laughable, were it not for the 30% of Americans who believe any bullshit Trump tells them, to include the wall down south that he assures us Mexico is paying for, or that bridge in Brooklyn he wants them to buy.

The only person who made any concrete concessions in Singapore was—surprise!—Trump, who traded away longstanding US military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for a handful of magic beans. (In fact, in doing so, Manchurian Candidate-like, he parroted the DPRK’s own preferred language, calling the exercises “provocative.” Jesus Christ.)

The summit itself was already a major win for Kim; this was icing on the cake, and he got it for nothing. Ironically, for Trump and his paranoid, neo-isolationist “America First” mentality, the one that views any cooperation with a foreign country—even longtime allies—as the United States “being taken advantage of,“ it was no concession at all but a two-fer. That fact only further confirms his idiocy.

THE VIEW FROM THE NORTH

For a callow prince with a comically bad haircut given that he has access to North Korea’s best barbers, Kim Jong Un has executed a remarkable feat of gamesmanship. First, he presided over the culmination of decades of work by his father and grandfather in the pursuit of battle-ready nuclear weapons. But much more impressively, in the wake of that indisputably belligerent campaign, he has transformed his image from that of a crazy and brutal loose cannon dictator to that of a reasonable statesman actively seeking peace. That may well be a ludicrous ruse, but it is one that he has pulled off nonetheless, thanks in no small part to the gullibility of Donald Trump.

In so doing, Kim has largely defanged American hawks like John Bolton who threaten the use of force. How can the US attack someone who is being so reasonable? (Not that that would stop Trump should he get a wild hair up his ass, but it would certainly make it harder to defend in the court of global public opinion.) He has made the case for the lifting of economic sanctions, enhanced relations with Seoul, and cemented the goodwill of his friends in Beijing and Moscow. And now, to top it all off, he has maneuvered the US President into a face to face, one on one meeting as equals, affirming North Korea’s status as a great power, something both his father and grandfather long sought but never achieved. And he did it without offering anything in return beyond the same empty promises that Pyongyang has been repeating for more than twenty years.

In other words, he has played Donald Trump like a fiddle.

So much for the Art of the Deal.

Former Obama foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes noted that the DPRK’s state-run media will now be able to splice together the footage of the President of the United States smiling and reaching out to shake the Dear Leader’s hand—which he did no less than three times that I saw—and saying what an honor it was to meet him. (Whereas, as Rachel Maddow reminded us, Justin Trudeau belongs in “a special place in hell.”)

Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof described in greater detail how the summit will be portrayed in North Korea, where Kim of course has even more total control of the media than Trump does in the US:

Kim forced the American president, through his nuclear and missile tests, to accept North Korea as a nuclear equal, to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and to cancel war games with South Korea that the North has protested for decades. In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little. In a joint statement, Kim merely “reaffirmed” the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.

In other words, Singapore will only further entrench Kim’s standing at home, and allow him to press his boot down even harder on the collective neck of his beleaguered people. Trump will likewise try to spin the deal for his domestic audience, but unlike Kim, without benefit of the facts to back him up.

Kristof goes on:

The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didn’t contain. There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and it’s scary that Trump doesn’t seem to realize this. For now Trump has much less to show than past negotiators who hammered out deals with North Korea like the 1994 Agreed Framework, which completely froze the country’s plutonium program with a rigorous monitoring system.

By the way, speaking of being out-negotiated, who wound up paying for Kim’s hotel room, which was reputed to cost $8000 a night? (Obviously, Scott Pruitt didn’t help him find it.) There was talk that the US was looking for a discreet way to pick up the tab, which was beyond the means of the impoverished DPRK. Again, imagine if Obama….

I’m told that Singapore stepped up to foot the bill, saving the Trump administration having that awkward detail thrown back in its face in 2020. Not that any of its voters would be bothered.

FALSE EQUIVALENCE

When Trump first accepted Kim’s invitation to meet last spring, a widely-circulated supercut by Now This News appeared online showing Fox News reporters viciously attacking Barack Obama over the years any time he even floated the possibility of a dialogue—not even a face to face meeting—with the leaders of North Korea or other dictatorships

Needless to say, now that Trump is in the Oval Office, Fox has changed its tune. (To be specific, they have changed it to the Russian national anthem.)

A Trump supporter might counter that liberals are engaged in the same hypocrisy: to wit, if Obama made these overtures to Kim, we would heap praise upon him. It’s an allegation that merits rebuttal, as it makes a fair point, but ultimately doesn’t hold water.

First of all, there is no analogous hypocrisy because the liberal community has not issued a wholesale rejection of the very idea of diplomacy, only held the Singapore summit up to legitimate scrutiny and expressed appropriate concerns about how this particular form of improvisational diplomacy has been ginned up.

Secondly, if these moves were made by an Obama, a Clinton, or even a George W. Bush, they would have had behind them the credibility of a coherent foregin policy team and a leader who had demonstrated some grasp of statecraft—however imperfect—as opposed to one who has presided over eighteen months of transactional foreign policy anarchy.

In both of our ongoing showdowns with aspiring nuclear powers—that is, with North Korea and Iran—I would feel much more confident in the administration’s moves and much more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt if I thought for a moment that those moves were informed by careful study and understanding of the history and dynamics of the situation, or were in any way coherent, and not driven by mere narcissistic impulsiveness.

Trump quite simply hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

Speaking to MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle before Singapore took place, former CIA officer Ned Price succinctly summarized the danger at the heart of the White House’s “rush to summit.”

Price opined that Trump has a “diplomatic conflict of interest.” The US is seeking verifiable denuclearization by Pyongyang—a tall order under any circumstances. By contrast, Trump is seeking only a short term “win,” and was therefore likely to sign any piece of paper at all that he could subsequently wave around at a rally and get his fans to chant “Nobel!” That is indeed what has come to pass. Trump’s interests and those of the American people are at odds when it comes to North Korea, creating a situation in which he is likely to sell his country out for personal self-aggrandizement (hmmm).

Who doubts for a New York minute that he would do that?

HAVE I GOT A DEAL FOR YOU

Per above, the shadow of the shattered Iran deal looms over North Korea, and not only in the rampant dispartity in detail and rigor. As many have noted (me included, in a recent essay called Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal), how did Trump expect to shitcan the JCPOA and then turn around and negotiate a better deal in the infinitely more complicated Korean situation? More to the point, why would North Korea ever believe anything the US said in such negotiations after Trump petulantly pulled out of the Iran deal, largely just because he hates and envies Barack Obama? Why would Pyongyang ever think we would keep our word?

The answer is simple. They don’t. But the DPRK is more than willing to pretend to negotiate—as they long have, in bad faith—knowing that they are never going to denuclearize, that the US government with whom they are negotiating (or at least its head of state) can be played for a fool, and that by doing so they can burnish their own newfound image as a reasonable member of the international community—a member of the elite nuclear club, no less—rather than a nightmarish dystopian police state, and all at the United States’ expense. Pyongyang is already telling its citizens that the US is lifting economic sanctions, which is as untrue as Trump’s absurd claim that the DPRK is no longer a nuclear threat. Will Trump risk his newfound bromance with Kim to correct the record an call him a liar? More importantly, will the US media discover its long-lost balls and call Trump a liar?

This entire goatscrew can be laid at the feet of Trump’s delusional belief in his own superhuman powers as a dealmaker.

When questioned about his preparation for the summit, our famously lazy and intellectually incurious so-called leader engaged in a fascinating demonstration of what in quantum physics is known as superposition, saying: “I think I’m very well prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done, but I think I’ve been preparing for this summit for a long time.“

Everything in that statement is incredibly juvenile, of course, but the remarkable thing is that it is also completely contradictory. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Trump claimed to be simultaneously both supremely prepared and above the need to be prepared. That’s a mind-blowing post-Einsteinian paradox, and one I’m not sure I’m willing to buy into.

I do, however, support the idea of putting him in a steel box with a flask of poison acid.

Trump’s unearned overconfidence—his insistence that he would size up Kim in the first minute, for example—goes to the very heart of his self-image, which is his arrogant belief in his own allegedly masterly skills as a negotiator. It was a canard that convinced many a credulous voter in 2016, people who naively believed his claim that he would bring to politics the same acumen he had displayed in his business career. That might have been more plausible if Trump was in fact a good businessman. So far it is a promise he has kept only in the sense that he has brought to governance (cough, cough) the same chaos and dishonesty with which he operated in the private sector.

The truth is that Trump is possibly the worst dealmaker ever to sit in the Oval Office, and was no better in his previous career as heir to a real estate empire. What he lauds as “dealmaking” in his business career is more accurately descibed as “stiffing people,” which I hasten to point out, is not really “dealmaking” at all. When Trump had to negotiate for real, with partners he couldn’t wantonly cheat the way he did hordes of Atlantic City construction contractors, he typically got fleeced.

The early returns suggest the same thing just happened to him in Singapore.

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED

As I watched Trump and Kim disappear behind closed doors with only a pair of translators to bear witness to what was about to transpire, I marveled at what we were witnessing. I marveled that we the American people—with a little help from our Russian friends—empowered Donald J. Trump, a lifelong pathological liar and con man-cum-game show host, to go into a room with Kim Jong Un, all alone, on behalf of the American people and the Western world, to haggle over the fate of millions of human lives. What could go wrong?

Writing in the Atlantic before the summit, Uri Friedman articulated the most optimistic view of all this (not counting the absurd aforementioned world of Fox, Breitbart, et al), which is that Trump is blazing a bold new means of attacking a heretofore intractable problem. You won’t be shocked that I don’t subscribe to this incredibly generous perspective.

It’s impossible to argue seriously that Trump is some kind of foreign policy mastermind who has—instinctively or otherwise, but probably instinctively, as it’s certainly not as a result of study or experience—figured out how to solve a problem that stumped every president before him. (Writing after the summit, Friedman tempered his earlier optimism a bit, concluding that “Trump got nearly nothing from Kim Jong Un.”)

But that said, I am williing to accept the possibility that Singapore could have positive consequences, if only accidentally. Call it the “idiot savant” scenario. As I wrote in Only Nixon, there is a chance—however slight—that something good will come out of this summit, despite its reckless, ad hoc genesis; despite Pyongyang’s well-established untrustworthiness; and despite Trump’s complete ignorance, lack of preparation, and dangerous and megalomaniacal overestimation of his own, ahem, skills. The mere opening of quasi-normalish diplomatic relations between the US and the DPRK by definition presents new possibilities—and new risks. Geopolitics is by its nature fickle and unpredictable. All human dynamics are, not to put too fine a point on it.

We may get lucky, butterfly effect style. Or, despite its shoddy, self-serving origins, Singapore may provide an opening for actual diplomacy by professionals. That, however, will likely require years of diligent, thoughtful, tireless follow-on efforts by US officials…..not exactly the sort of thing Team Trump is known for, particularly after systematically dismantling the US State Department and Foreign Service over the past year and a half. Perhaps a post-Trump administration can pick up the baton and carry out that work. In that case, Donald may deserve at least some credit for the inciting incident, whatever its motivation. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.

Or it could lead nowhere, apart from a historic propaganda coup for Pyongyang, strategic neutralization of US interests in East Asia, a more dangerous situation for Tokyo and Seoul, and the further entrenchment of the Kim cult of personality at the expense of the long-suffering North Korean people. Arguably it has cost the United States and its allies on several of those counts already. Given historical precedent in dealing with the DPRK, and the nature of the people currently manning the American side, it’s hard to argue that the positive outcome is the more likely one.

On MSNBC, Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, offered a variation on the only-Nixon argument, saying that Trump’s greatest contribution here may have simply been to have opened the collective mind of the American right to the idea of talking to Pyongyang…..to have convinced them that a diplomatic approach to nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, as opposed to a Curt LeMay-like bombgasm, is acceptable.

But what makes anyone think that the right’s newfound willingness to talk rather than bomb will outlast Trump? Given the right’s propensity to excuse the most jawdropping hypocrisy—from Trump’s use of nonsecure email, to his penchant for golfing ten times more than Obama, to his shameless use of the presidency to enrich himself, to name just a couple examples—do we really expect them to extend this same logical consistency to any future president, especially a Democratic one? As soon Trump is out of the White House, any willingness to talk to the DPRK will be likely greeted with chants of “Munich ! Munich! Munich!” It is naïve to think otherwise.

HISTORY’S HARSH EYE

The long term effects of the Singapore debacle will take generations to play out. But in the short term, it offers a pointed case study in the hypocrisy and denial rife within the contemporary Republican Party and right wing America. Never a particularly clear-minded demographic, they are currently in the grip of an epic mass psychosis that is starting to resemble nothing so much as a religious hysteria, defying all reason, rationality, or common sense.

Needless to say, as Ned Price predicted, Trump is portraying Singapore as a great coup, his myrmidons are eager to believe it, and the GOP leadership is all too happy to advance that narrative, even though many of them surely realize it’s a farce. No doubt within Fox Nation this summit will go down as one or two of his greatest triumphs, neck and neck with Neil Gorsuch, which is precisely what Trump wanted.

But history will likely record it quite differently.

For in truth, it has been a cheap, cruel, and shameless charade, the sort of con that the man has long been known for, and the sort of snakeoil that only his least critical and most adoring minions would ever purchase.

Trump seized on the low-hanging public relations fruit of a photo op with the leader of North Korea, squandered invaluable diplomatic capital to do so, and came away with less than nothing in return. (Certainly far less than the JCPOA that he has long maligned, or the complex and hard-fought 1994 Agreed Framework, flawed though it was.) The only thing that distinguishes Singapore from previous “deals” with North Korea in any signficant way is the presence of a US president meeting face to face with the leader of the DPRK. But that is not a feather in Trump’s red baseball cap; on the contrary, it was a terrible concession that Donald made as he clumsily walked into Pyongyang’s trap out of sheer ego and overweening desire to make a splash.

So strike that: Trump did get something out of Singapore, something selfish and cynical, and at the expense of the American people whom he ostensibly serves. He traded away a commodity of great value to the US and the world—the opportunity to contain a dangerous pariah state and defuse nuclear tensions in East Asia—for the sake of his own glory and political advantage. That too is in character.

So I ask again, at risk of tedium, imagine what the right wing media would have said—and rightly so—if Barack Obama had engaged in this kind of empty, self-serving gesture.

In the shorthand of epic failures, there are only a few words that stand out in the pantheon of shame: Edsel, Ishtar, New Coke, and of course grimmest of all, that Bavarian capital. I would not be surprised if someday, when this mass psychosis is behind us and history looks back on the Trump era, “Singapore” too enters the lexicon, as a synonym not only for epically amateurish foreign policy blundering, but for shamelessly self-aggrandizing posturing at the expense of the common good, and over the highest stakes imaginable.

Res ipsa loquitur.

Memorial

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As a lifelong Army brat and a veteran myself, may I offer a thought on patriotism this Memorial Day?

I don’t mean the shameless fake patriotism of NFL owners, who care only about their bottom line, and even then clumsily make a wrongheaded mess of it.

Nor the strange, distorted mockery of “patriotism” espoused by John Kelly—whose service I honor and whose son paid the ultimate price—but whose twisted vision of militarist superiority-cum-victimhood I can’t abide (to say nothing of his wanton xenophobia and refusal to admit when he’s flat-out wrong).

Nor the patriotism-on-the-cheap of yellow ribbons and “thank you for your service” and “support the troops.”

And certainly not the transparently hypocritical, authoritarian-in-patriot’s-clothing demagoguery of a rich draft dodger who never served anyone other than himself a day in his life, yet now demands a military parade in his honor, threatens nuclear war, and presumes to decide who’s a “real American,” all the while conspiring with our enemies to further enrich himself and attacking the most fundamental American institutions, principles, and core beliefs—from the rule of law to a free press to equal justice for all to the military itself—thereby weakening our country in every way.

No. I’m talking about the genuine patriotism of citizens (and a goodly number of immigrant non-citizens) who gave their lives for the ideals that our country aims to represent. I’m talking about the patriotism of all those—in uniform and out—who even now, every day, are fighting to defend those ideals in the face of some of the most venal, corrupt, un-American, and truly unpatriotic leaders this country has ever seen.

True patriotism, of course, is not blind allegiance to one’s country—not, in George Jean Nathan’s memorable phrase, an arbitrary veneration of real estate over principles. It is certainly not willful complicity when our country is in the wrong, or when its course has been hijacked by illegitimate usurpers betraying everything it is supposed to stand for. (There’s a good reason why a dishonest appeal to patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.)

On this Memorial Day, we see genuine patriotism under siege more savagely than at any time since the days of McCarthy. So let’s remember what this country is supposed to stand for, and honor those who died for it, by standing up and fighting for it now.

Big Hits & Fazed Cookies: A Year of The King’s Necktie

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Donald and Melania, awaiting the return of the mothership.

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Today marks the first anniversary of this blog. Thank you all for reading, commenting, and forwarding.

In the tradition of summer reruns and greatest hits albums (two things no one under 30 has ever heard of), this week I offer a selection of material from this past year….

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Beware a Better Demagogue (Part 1) – May 31, 2017

No serious person can now argue that we are living in normal times, but some have tried. In a recent Washington Post column, the conservative pundit and psychiatrist-turned-person-in-need-of-such-care Charles Krauthammer described Trump’s first hundred days as “well within the bounds of normalcy.” I would like some of whatever psychotropic drug Dr. K is clearly prescribing for himself.

Like the majority of Americans—even most Republicans—I was confident that Hillary Clinton would win the election. My chief fear in those days was that once Hillary was in office, the GOP would continue to engage in unconscionable McConnell-style obstructionism, refusing for example even to consider her nominee(s) for the Supreme Court. How innocent and naïve such worries now look.

My other big fear was that Donald Trump, despite being defeated, would have laid out a worrisome blueprint for the next Republican candidate to follow. For years—since Nixon’s Southern Strategy at the very least—the GOP had been dog-whistling to racists for the sake of electoral advantage. Shockingly, Trump showed there was no need to dog-whistle; a bullhorn worked even better. Who’da thunk that the party of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms was actually being too timid in its cultivation of America’s racists and bigots?

But the way that Trump has most damaged American democracy, and the one that worries me most in terms of candidates to come, is by obliterating the common language that liberals and conservatives alike once used to carry out political discourse. That is to say, he has savagely devalued the currency of truth.

Sure, politics by its very nature is rife with falsehoods, half-truths, and distortions. But Trump has taken that routine kind of dishonesty to new and heretofore unthinkable levels. Let us not forget that Trump’s entire political career was launched on the back of one of the biggest lies of them all, birtherism.

The stream of self-serving nonsense that issues forth from his face bears no relationship to truth in any form. One might just as well argue that Trump is engaged in a post-modern Foucaultian deconstruction of the very concept of objective reality. He may be, but only in some future PhD thesis. I suspect Donny is as blissfully unaware of critical theory as he is of the components of the nuclear triad or the laws against sexual assault.

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Beware a Better Demagogue (Part 2) (In Which the Worst President Ever Gets a Little Help From the Worst Congressional Leaders You Can Imagine) –  June 7, 2017

In abetting Trump’s Orwellian war on demonstrable reality, the Republican Party has exhibited a level of hypocrisy, spinelessness, and opportunism that is gobsmacking even by the conventional standards of politics. In the past, a politician who engaged in the sort of relentless mendacity that Trump does would have been shitcanned in short order. But the GOP has shrugged and rubbed its neck and essentially said, “Lies? What lies?” If the Republican “leadership” (sorry—just threw up in my mouth a little) stood up and denounced Trump at any of the many opportunities he has given them over the past two years, he would have been finished. You may have noticed that that has not happened.

Please try to stifle your yawns. Everyone who knows anything at all about politics in America is well aware of this. Trump is a soulless monster, but one so deranged that he seems not even to recognize the horrors he perpetrates as instinctively as breathing. (Which hardly excuses him, but still.) By contrast, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the rest of the Vichy Republicans are in some ways more culpable than the buffoon-in-chief, because they know what a grotesque and dangerous pretender to the throne Trump is. But McConnell, Ryan, et al are willing to enable and defend him so long as he gives them cover to implement their own appalling agenda, which boils down to the simplest of goals: further enriching the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the poor and the middle class.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, failing to call Trump out is a gross abdication of their duty as elected officials, of their alleged patriotism—about which they are always so quick to crow— and ultimately of sheer morality. But did we really expect any better from people whose lifelong dream is to take food out of the mouths of hungry children to give billionaires a tax cut?

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Who’s Really to Blame for Donald Trump (Hint: They Don’t Eat Borscht) and the Path Forward June 28 2017

There have been endless predictions that when Trump voters begin to feel the pain of the GOP policies for which they inexplicably voted, they will mutiny. They will, we are told, wake up to the fact that they’ve been conned and turn on their orangutan-hued standard bearer, taking to the streets (or at least the polls) with torches and pitchforks.

Yeah, those people may eventually turn on Trump. But millions of Americans have been voting against their own economic self-interest for decades, at least since the Southern Strategy brought them into the GOP in droves. Generally speaking, human beings are loath to admit they’ve been conned, especially when a huge chunk of their core self-image is invested in the scam. These otherwise decent people have been sold so much snake oil over the past fifty years that they practically hiss. They have been voting for policies that hurt them and benefit millionaires and billionaires for so long—taking food out of the mouths of their children to further line the pockets of the already obscenely rich—that it no longer even registers. In that regard, Trump is nothing new, just the latest and most extreme example of supply side trickle down economics taken to its most immeasurably cruel extreme. And there is less reason than ever to believe that the victims of that Robin Hood-in-reverse scheme will suddenly wake up now and challenge it.

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“Strangelove” in Reverse: The Dangers of Mattis and McMaster as the Last Line of Defense  July 26, 2017

Anyone with brainwave activity ought to be shitting their pants that a man like Trump is in possession of the nuclear codes. We have a president (I’m using the term loosely) who, while running for office, recklessly advocated war crimes like torture, killing the family members of suspected terrorists, and wantonly stealing the resources of conquered enemies…..who openly pondered why we have nuclear weapons if we never get to use them….who suggested that it might be a good idea to have more, not less, nuclear proliferation, to include encouraging Saudi Arabia and Japan to acquire their own nuclear arsenals…..and who since taking office has done more damage to US security and global stability than most of our enemies could have hoped to cause themselves. So it is a rich irony that politically progressive Americans now find themselves thanking god for Mattis and McMaster as stabilizing influences on this monstrous head of state.

When a man whose nickname is “Mad Dog” is seen as the sanest dude in the administration, you know you’re in uncharted waters.

But a few events on the geopolitical front in the past six months have caused a cold chill to go down my spine, and I’m not even talking about when Trump gave top secret codeword intel to the Russians on a silver platter. One was when Donald Trump nonchalantly ordered a commando raid in Yemen that the Obama administration had deemed too risky, a raid that resulted in the deaths of a US Navy SEAL and numerous innocent children. Another was when he ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on Syria, the exact kind of largely symbolic, operationally ineffectual reaction for which he used to excoriate Barack Obama. A third was when Trump—by delegating the authority to the local ground commander—effectively assented to dropping a MOAB, the largest non-nuclear piece of ordnance in the US arsenal, on ISIS elements in Afghanistan. I don’t object to the use of that weapon in principle, or even to that delegation of authority. But in light of Trump’s overall jingoism, it speaks to his casualness with regard to the use of force, the slippery slope of escalation, and a worrying reinforcement of the dumbass mentality that all we need is bigger bombs. Not to mention the despicable glee of his supporters over its use.

All of these occasions made me stop in my tracks and remember that Donald J. Trump is now legally allowed to order the killing of human beings virtually at will, a privilege that he exercises on a regular basis, and apparently with no more introspection than he tweets. That is a stunning and deeply depressing reality of the Twilight Zone in which we now live.

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President Carrot Top (or Why Donald Trump Is More Infuriating Than Vladimir Putin)  – June 21, 2017

Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Bashar al-Assad, and Robert Mugabe are at least proper villains: formidable, serious individuals who had earned their place as despots to be reckoned with. Trump, by contrast, is an unmitigated buffoon. The mere fact that this bozo is our head of state, commander-in-chief , and in control of the nuclear codes is gobsmacking. When I look into my heart, that is the thing about Trump that hits me on a very visceral level, in a way that far more capable and accomplished villains never have or ever could.

I am enraged that we have to devote so much time and energy to this blithering nincompoop. “What does Donald Trump think about the Paris Accord?….What does Donald Trump think about healthcare?…..What does Donald Trump’s latest tweet mean?” It makes me furious on a daily basis that I have to worry what Donald fucking Trump thinks about ANYTHING. And yet that is what the collective brainpower of the entire American punditocracy—indeed, the thinking class of much of the world—is forced to do. We have willingly saddled ourselves with a deranged toddler king, and thus spend much of our time desperately parsing and predicting and wringing our hands over what His Royal Fatuousness believes at any given moment.

I’d like to remind everyone that two short years ago, when Trump descended the royal escalator at his gold-plated castle on Fifth Avenue, he was an utter joke, and had been for three decades. He was a D-list reality TV celebrity, which was itself a surprising second act in a life of fraud, failure, and malfeasance.

He wasn’t a real estate mogul, but he played one on TV. His primary business was licensing his name to crap: apartment buildings, casinos, and golf courses, but also steaks, vodka, neckties made in China, second-rate pro football leagues, fake universities, and a string of ridiculous, ghostwritten autobiographies. He was a walking punchline for the New York press that rightly knew him as a pompous windbag and shameless wannabe desperate to be allowed into the club with the cool kids. He crowed endlessly about his financial acumen, but as many economic experts have pointed out, if Donald had merely taken the millions he inherited from his father and parked it in the S&P 500 he would have made more money than he did with his numerous, oft-disastrous business ventures. He was a Richie Rich cartoon come to life….a poor person’s comically distorted idea of a rich person. Late night talk show hosts openly praised the comedy gods for putting Trump in the presidential race, and pleaded with him on camera not to drop out, and deprive them of A-plus comedic material.

Who’s laughing now, as they say. Now we are all enrolled in Trump University.

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The Helicopter Parent from Hell August 7, 2017

Somehow I doubt Donald Trump spent a lot of time helping his kids with their homework when they were growing up. But he sure went full blown helicopter parent in ghostwriting Donny Jr.’s specious explanation of why he eagerly met with Russian agents offering allegedly compromising info on Hillary Clinton. (And by “specious explanation” I mean “bald-faced lie.”)

Since the first allegations of collusion with the Kremlin arose, the Trump camp has howled in sanctimonious outrage at the very thought. How dare anyone suggest such a thing! Yet every time we turn around there are new meetings and new phone calls and other contacts between Trump’s minions and Mother Russia that the Trumpkins mysteriously “forgot” until some intrepid journalist found proof and cornered them. Flynn, Page, Sessions, Kushner, Junior: all of them have been forced to confess to meetings with the Russians—multiple meetings, in some cases—that somehow slipped their minds.

The Trump Tower meeting was the most damning evidence yetof real skullduggery, and the first in which the Trump campaign’s eagerness to work with the Russian government to defeat Clinton has come out. It’s hard to imagine it will be the last. Time and time again on the subject of Russia, our so-called president and his administration have hidden the truth, dissembled, spread disinformation and distractions, and just flat out lied, doing everything they possibly can to stop any honest inquiry into their activities. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, if there is nothing to hide, why do they keep lying?????? What are they covering up????

Bob Mueller will damn sure ask that.

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An End to Nuclear Fairytales  – September 14, 2017

From the very dawn of the Atomic Age, American chauvinists—giddy at the idea of our possession of an all-powerful “Doomsday Weapon”—fantasized that somehow the US could maintain its nuclear monopoly forever. Drunk on the notion of this god-like power, they imagined that the Bomb was, in the scathing critique of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, like a pistol the United States could wave at the rest of the world and get whatever we wanted. The absurd conviction that no other nation had any right to such a weapon was twinned with the delusion that the United States could somehow prevent other nations from acquiring it. The appeal of this ”‘Doomsday Weapon” was so alluring that it overwhelmed reason.

Even today it is an irrational article of faith in much of America—to say nothing of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—that no other country has any right to nuclear weapons except those that already have it. Setting aside the issue of “rights,” this attitude is sometimes cogently framed as a moral or practical point about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. But more often it is presented in Biblical tones of outrage and sanctimony, flowing from the belief that Almighty God entrusted America and America alone with the stewardship of this terrifying weapon. (Exceptions are made for our British, French, and Israeli allies; Russian and Chinese possession of the Bomb is still viewed as a travesty we are forced to live with, while the Indian and Pakistani arsenals are treated as a regional problem at best.) Countries with nuclear ambitions are branded “rogue states” simply by virtue of those ambitions, raising the question: rogue by whose measure? To the citizens of Iran or North Korea, or Brazil or Costa Rica for that matter, why shouldn’t they too have the Bomb? For ambitious tyrants like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-un, the strategic value of a nuclear arsenal is self-evident, both for regional leverage against their enemies and for self-preservation against Western intervention. Indeed, it would almost be foolish not to seek it.

I am not arguing that it is desirable or wise for more nations to acquire the Bomb, let alone those two. Very much the contrary. The DPRK is particularly terrifying, for obvious reasons. But the self-righteous claim that no developing country has any “right” to the Bomb is patently irrational and hypocritical, and the fantasy that the US can permanently prevent such efforts by force is precisely that.

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The Hubris of the Lemmings – August 22, 2017

It ought to be clear to all by now that we have a deranged psychopath in the White House who is jawdroppingly unfit for the job and doing massive, possibly permanent damage to the United States of America. Right wingers (they have forfeited their claim to the term “conservatives”) may scoff and dismiss this assessment as partisan, or hysterical, but I suspect future historians will view it as objective reality, and those denying it now as either fools or accomplices or both.

Perhaps the most galling part of all this is the arrogance of those on the right who keep assuring us that they are clear-eyed and courageous enough to protect the country from the very leader they have foisted upon us. Acknowledging the dangers Trump poses with his hard-on for authoritarianism, contempt for the rule of law, and utter disregard for the truth, lots of Republicans have repeatedly said from the very earliest days of his rise: “If he goes too far, I’ll be the first to stand up and stop him.” They keep insisting that they will stand up if he crosses some imaginary line in the sand.

But if he hasn’t already done so, where could that line possibly be….and why should we believe them?

Needless to say, if Hillary Clinton had done even a fraction of the things Trump has done—even a fraction!—Fox Nation would be out in the streets with torches and pitchforks howling for her guts on a stick. Hell, they were practically doing that over made-up shit like Benghazi, and the mere possibilityof accidentalcompromise of classified information on an email server. It’s been said a lot, but please, just imagine if Hillary appointed wildly unqualified family members to top level advisory positions, refused to divest herself of businesses that were blatant conflicts of interest, shamelessly used the office of the presidency to enrich herself and her children, refused to release her tax returns, and then fired the FBI director to stop a criminal investigation of her actions. Which is only beginning to scratch the surface of the things Trump has done.

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The Nature of the Person….and the Nature of the Threat – September 20, 2017

This president’s pathological dishonesty is so extreme it seems to exist in a realm of its own beyond ordinary deceit. In the Bush years, Karl Rove famously scorned the “reality-based community.” But that was child’s play compared to what we are facing now.

(Pausing now for a deep, cleansing breath as I contemplate the fact that, not ten years after leaving public life, Karl Rove has already been made to seem not that bad.)

Trump seems to live in an eternal present, and I don’t mean in an admirable Zen-like way. He is transactional in the extreme, making ad hoc choices improvised on the spot regardless of any history, context, or consequences. No rational person could say one thing, often on camera, then turn around—sometimes in the same interview—and with a straight face deny he said any such thing and say the exact opposite. The same goes for his reversals on policy, like the Wall that Mexico was absolutely going to pay for (until they weren’t), or the war in Iraq that he was for before he was against, or even something as petty as blasting Obama for playing too much golf and then playing exponentially more himself.

If Trump were a venal, mustache-twirling villain who had the common decency to recognize the con job he is perpetrating on the American people, it would at least be understandable. But he genuinely does not ever seem to register that he is doing anything hypocritical. (His diehard dead-enders have this same affliction.) It’s a kind of malignant solipsism that is almost beyond human comprehension. Whether that absolves him of moral responsibility is a question for the philosophers and Almighty God, if one is inclined to believe in His existence. (After November 8th, I am not.)

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Seven Trump Outrages This Week (But Who’s Counting?) – October 5, 2017

Patriotism is not only the last refuge of a scoundrel but often an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles, and Trump’s shameless pandering betrays his moral bankruptcy. He never served his country in any way, or indeed anything other than himself; to hear him pontificate about patriotism and disrespecting the flag is the height of hypocrisy. The ways in which he personally disgraces our country are legion, from spewing racism and hate (as he did in that very speech), to denigrating a free press, to obstructing justice, to colluding with a foreign power. A man who pre-emptively pardons Joe Arpaio even before he is sentenced and calls him “a great American patriot” while labeling Colin Kaepernick a “son-of-a-bitch” is a man beneath contempt.

Still, it may be true that his appalling behavior does delight his base (and the more appalling the better). The question is: how long will the United States allow itself to be held hostage by this minority of mouth-breathing neo-fascists and the fatuous bully they worship? It’s a question that only the GOP can answer.

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Things Trump Supporters Have Taught Me – October 14, 2017

Far and away the thing that animates these folks the most is their absolute, unequivocal, white-hot hatred of Hillary Clinton. It comes up over and over, even now, long after the election is behind us and we ought to have moved on. She is a bête noireto whom they cling with almost suspicious fervor.

The other thing worth noting is that none of these people believe there is a whit of truth to the allegations that Russia interfered with the election.

Let me be clear about that. Not only don’t they believe that Trump or his associates colluded with Russia, they don’t even believe that the Russians on their owntried to influence the election. And let us remember that in order to maintain that position, they have to wantonly disregard the conclusion of all 17 US intelligence agencies, preferring instead the word of Vladimir Putin.

Needless to say—as I regularly point out to these folks—if Hillary had won the presidency and there was even a fraction as much evidence of Russian involvement—even unilaterally, let alone the proven hanky panky between her team and the Kremlin that we’ve seen from Team Trump—she would already be in shackles on her way up the steps to the guillotine.

More alarming, more than a few of these folks have said to me that even if there wasproof that Russia meddled with the election, they wouldn’t care. “If that’s what it took to keep Hillary out of the White House, that’s fine with me.”

This of course is a jawdropping admission—not only as evidence of the depths of their pathological hatred of Hillary, but as a proclamation that flies in the face of the traditional right wing claim that theirs is the party of patriotism, strong defense, and rock-ribbed national security. These people have irrevocably forfeited the high ground on that count—not that that claim was ever legitimate, but they have voluntarily exposed it for the cruel charade that it is.

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The Return of Voodoo Economics – October 19, 2017

The Republican tax plan is clearly a brazen betrayal of the patently fake populism and alleged concern for working people that were a chief part of Trump’s demagogic presidential campaign. No surprise there.

It should likewise shock no one that Trump has presented this tax cut with (spoiler alert) a blizzard of lies impressive even by his standards. In that regard, given that all of Republican tax policy is founded on deceit in the first place, McConnell and Ryan are fortunate to have on their team the greatest pathological liar of all time.

Trump is lying about the cut helping anyone but the rich, lying about what its impact will be on the economy and the deficit, and he is damn sure lying—above all—when he says that he and his family wouldn’t benefit. The New York Times estimates the Trump clan stands to save about a billion dollars over the next ten years thanks to this cut. Of course we can’t be entirely sure because—oh yeah—he won’t release his tax returns.

But as I wrote last week, what I have learned in my encounters with Trump fans is that they are fanatically resistant to facts like these. They are so in thrall to tribalism, and so convinced of the bias of the legitimate media, that none of these undeniable facts will penetrate their bubble. Therefore do not look for a large uprising of popular opposition to this almost unfathomably venal Republican plan. Much of our nation is comprised of marionettes who love their strings, and the plutocrat puppeteers who engineered it that way are about to reap the fruits of that long campaign.

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Notes on the Niger Ambush October 20, 2017

In my parents’ generation, when I was a boy, the notification of a combat death was not treated with the same delicacy as it is today. The military had not yet developed the “casualty assistance officer” program it now has. When my father was shot up in Vietnam in 1965, no one called my mother. In those days the Army just gave telegrams to anonymous taxi drivers to deliver to unsuspecting Gold Star wives and mothers. On Army posts like Ft. Benning, Georgia, the sight of a taxicab turning down your street and creeping along while its driver checked curbside address numbers was enough to make hearts drops into stomachs as families peered out anxiously from behind drawn curtains, waiting to see at whose quarters that yellow angel of death would stop.

As chance would have it, on those particular days in the fall of 1965, my mother had been painting the interior of my grandparents’ home in New Jersey where we were staying and had taken a respite from her usual grim ritual of watching the evening news. So she didn’t even know about the battle that my father’s unit had been in, or the terrible death toll on both sides, or that all the officers in his rifle company were reported casualties and the company effectively wiped out. Not until mourners and well-wishers turned up at our front door to offer their condolences.

For days my mother thought my father was dead until she got a call from the Red Cross telling her, “We have your husband here at McGuire Air Force Base.” She thought they meant the body. When my mother, numb, didn’t reply, the Red Cross woman said, “Well, do you want to talk to him?”

My father survived his wounds and went back to Vietnam a second time. Plenty of others weren’t so lucky.

Donald Trump of course didn’t serve in Vietnam—arggg, those pesky bones spurs!—or in uniform at all, or really serve his country or anything other than himself in any way his entire life, so perhaps it is unfair to expect him to have any empathy or understanding or even simple human compassion for people like the Johnsons. No, that would require what is usually called a “soul.” (He is on record, however, as suggesting that the posh military boarding school he attended was tougher than most actual military training, and musing that avoiding VD was his “personal Vietnam.”) But none of that has stopped Trump from proclaiming his genius as a field marshal or the supremacy of his own patriotism.

Little evidence of either was on display this week.

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A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall (But on Whom?): Two and a Half Scenarios for Trump’s Endgame November 6, 2017

It’s hard to imagine that as Mueller tightens the vise there will not come a point at which Trump simply can’t stand it any more and lashes out by trying to fire him, or engaging in other efforts to neuter him. In fact it has already begun with the aforementioned propaganda campaign to discredit the special counsel, ludicrous as it is. If and when that happens, we will be squarely in the middle of the kind of constitutional crisis that many observers have been predicting from the very moment of Trump’s ascension to the White House. And if that happens, what will the citizens of the United States do?

Of course, no reasonable person expects Trump’s base—that 30% or so of the country that is in unforgivably blind thrall to him—to care. Hell, they’ll cheer it. But what about the rest of us, that 70% of relatively sane Americans who know a crook and a con man and a traitor when we see one? Will we take to the streets in outrage, demanding removal of this cretin who presumes to call himself our leader? Will the Democratic Party stand up and fight? And most germane of all, will the Republican leadership at long last discover its testicles (sorry for the sexist metaphor), put country above party, and exercise its constitutional duty?

These are men and women who undeniably know what a dangerously unfit troglodyte is in the White House and the extent of the damage he can do, whether it’s by starting a nuclear with the North Korea, or by wantonly laying waste to treasured norms of American democracy, or by recklessly undoing the meticulously built accomplishments of seventy years of US diplomacy. They hold the power to stop this madness in its tracks, right now, never mind if it comes to a constitutional crisis. But thus far from the GOP leadership, with a few outlier exceptions, we have heard nothing but crickets. If Trump moves against Mueller they will have their final chance to do so, or be forever damned as quislings and collaborators.

Republican cooperation will almost certainly be necessary to bring Trump down, whether it’s by legal procedure or sheer political pressure. That is not a fact that warms the cockles of my heart or makes me very optimistic about how this is going to end.

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Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons (and Limits) of Virginia – November 10, 2017

Both polling and election results from last week reveal that Trump’s base remains undiminished in its (blind) support for him and its willingness to turn out and vote. Predictions—which were profuse last November—that Trump voters would turn on him once he got in office and was unable to deliver on promises like the border wall, bringing back the dying coal industry, crushing ISIS with a snap of his tiny fingers proved woefully wrong. Proved correct were those psychology professors who wrote op-eds about how hard it is to get people to change their minds even when confronted with incontrovertible evidence. Human nature, apparently, is a motherfucker.

Should we really be surprised, though? After all, many Trump voters irrationally cast their ballots for him despite manifest evidence not only that he was a liar, a sexual predator, and a colossal ignoramus (on the contrary: many of them liked him for precisely those reasons), but even in the face of empirical proof that his presidency was likely to hurt rather than help them economically. In that sense it was just a more extreme version of a longstanding, paradoxical Republican/working class alignment. So it should come as no shock that those same people are equally irrational in their continued support for Benito Cheeto, fallacy of sunken costs wise, particularly given how angry and heated tribal loyalties are at the moment. Few of these people are likely to admit that they were suckers and cede victory to the “elitist” liberal community that they have been conditioned to despise.

Why does this matter? It matters because it means we should not spend our time and energy trying to convince these people that they made a mistake, or bank on the idea that we can point to the painfully self-evident failures, malfeasance, corruption, lies, and hypocrisy of the Trump administration to sway any of them into changing sides, or even just staying home. Reason will not work with Trump supporters. Facts will not convince them. Demonstrable reality has no effect on them. They are in the grip of a Jonestown-like mass hysteria that will surely occupy future historians, PhD candidates, and psychiatric experts for generations to come (if the human race survives that long).

The reason the GOP lost so badly in Virginia and elsewhere, despite the fanaticism of the Trump base, is because they were simply outnumbered. An energized progressive (or at least anti-Trump) electorate got out in force and flat-out swamped the right wing. As Bill Clinton memorably said in dismantling Mitt Romney’s tax policy at the 2008 Democratic Convention (the exact same plan Trump and the GOP are trying to shove down our throats again), it all boils down to one little word: “Arithmetic.”

Tuesday showed us the solution, and it couldn’t be simpler. Reasonable Americans do in fact outnumber Trump’s rabid base, so let’s get out to the polls and use that mathematical superiority to enforce the will of the majority, which by the by, is how democracy is supposed to work. If we can’t get our act together sufficiently to do so then we deserve to be ruled by this pustulent boil of a president and his troglodyte minority.

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Somewhere PT Barnum Is Laughing – December 8, 2017

Crimes usually happen in the wee hours, and what happened around 2 a.m. last Saturday night in the US Senate certainly qualifies. It was arguably the darkest day we have experienced since November 8, 2016 (and given the parade of horrors over the past thirteen months, the competition for that title is fierce). But there is no need for CSI, Colombo, or any other sleuths to determine the culprit, as the perpetrators committed the crime gleefully and proudly.

Both in its content and in the unconscionable way it was rammed through Congress, the Republican tax bill represents one of the worst examples of political corruption in modern American history. It is accurately described as corrupt in that its intent was sinister—to rob the Republic for the benefit of the very few, by means of paying back political donors—and its passage utterly dishonest.

In many ways, what happened in the dark of night last Saturday was the culmination of what the entire Trump campaign and presidency have been about, but not because Trump led it. What a laugh: Trump doesn’t even know what’s in the bill. A functional illiterate, he knows—at best—that it is an enormous Christmas present to the obscenely rich like him and his despicable clan, and that’s all he needs to know. So for once I am not laying the blame for this latest American tragedy at the feet of Donald John Trump, or focusing my anger and loathing on him, cancer on the American experiment though he is. In this case, he is but a bit player. The rot goes much, much deeper and wider.

As former GOP staffer-turned-sentient human being Mike Lofgren says, cutting taxes for the rich is the only thing the Republican Party really cares about. Even though other matters may get the headlines—guns, abortion, gay rights, Andres Serrano, defunding Big Bird, Islamophobia, hating on the NFL, and on and on—everything else the GOP does is just rube bait to advance its one true agenda. Yes, all that reactionary stuff is appealing to the right-wing mindset. But at the end of the day, for the 1% who are the Republicans’ most important demographic, it is mostly just about their fucking wallets.

And on Saturday night those folks achieved their goal.

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Herr Drumpf: A Thought Experiment – January 28, 2018

Let us imagine a Donald Trump born in Kallstadt in 1900. Bavaria, of course, was the deeply traditional and politically conservative part of Germany from which the Nazi Party sprung. Likely the youngster would have avoided service in the trenches of World War I with a quartet of student deferments and a fifth for mysterious bone spurs. After the war, his family’s fortune might well have insulated him from the privations of the Weimar years: no wheelbarrows full of worthless reichsmarks to buy a loaf of bread for der familie Drumpf! With the rise of the Nazis young Donald surely would have been among those in full-throated cheer of the hateful, divisive rhetoric of Herr Schickelgruber and his brownshirts. One can readily see him happily sieg heil-ing along at a rally right out of Riefenstahl. (Witness the thuggish tenor of Trump’s own campaign rallies.) Even without relocating his birthplace from Queens to Bavaria, it is easy to imagine Trump as part of the pro-Nazi sympathizers in the US led by Lindbergh, whose “America First” motto he has appropriated quite literally and with no discernible irony.

In fact, one can hardly imagine a more perfect candidate to fall eagerly in line with the goose-step. It is criminally easy to picture Donald von Trump as a successful German industrialist circa 1938, with a swastika pin in the lapel of his business suit, enthusiastically supporting the Nuremburg Laws, gleefully applauding Kristallnacht, being photographed with party leaders at important functions, and—given his oft-rumored predilections—even slipping into private clubs to enjoy a little black leather BDSM with the notoriously decadent machersof the NDSAP. (Ick.)

It isn’t hard to grasp how Trump became the appalling human being that he is. He was a classic poor little rich boy who got no love from his emotionally icy daddy, who—in a toxic combination of contradictory signals—also drummed into him the notion that he was a “king.”As a result, Donny was inculcated with the ruthless lack of empathy that is on display every goddamned day. We can leave it to the psychiatrists and the philosophers to debate how culpable that leaves him, or any of us, for our failings in adulthood. For all we know (and notwithstanding the Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test), when Trump finally shuffles off this mortal coil and is autopsied, the pathologists will find a Charles Whitman-like tumor the size of a lacrosse ball pressing on his medulla oblongata.

None of which really makes any difference to the damage he is doing from the Oval Office that he unaccountably occupies and the Resolute Desk behind which he unaccountably sits.

Volumes have been written about how the German people descended into madness. It’s become a cliché, but it remains true that at the turn of the 20thcentury and into the two decades that followed, Germany was arguably the most civilized nation in Europe. It was the land of Goethe, of Beethoven, of Gutenberg, of Wittgenstein. And it was far from the most anti-Semitic country in Europe (ne c’est pas, France?) There were many factors that contributed to that terrible fate—economics, the epochal trauma of the Great War, the stupidly vindictive Treaty of Versailles (see William Shirer for the full account)—but one thing is clear: it was not the result of some genetic abnormality unique to the German people. There was no lacrosse ball-sized tumor pressing on the collective Teutonic brain stem. Buffeted by the aforementioned factors and whipped up by a monstrous demagogue with a bad mustache, they fell prey to the worst impulses of human nature.

Can anyone plausibly say that the American people, subjected to similar conditions, would not go down the same black path? Current events do not provide much credence for that self-flattering view. Indeed, it is all too easy to imagine, for Trump’s rise has shown America at very near our worst.

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Surrender of the Hawks – February 22, 2018

For at least seventy years, from 1945 to 2016, no single issue united and inspired American conservatives more than unrelenting enmity toward Russia. (Longer in fact, if you start the clock from the Russian Revolution, suspended only temporarily—grudgingly—in order to join forces against the Nazis.) Even during that brief period of uncertainty from the fall of the USSR in 1991 to Putin’s assumption of power in 2000, the hawks repeatedly warned that Russia was not to be trusted. Hatred and suspicion towards Moscow are the north star of right wing American politics.

Somehow, however, that same right wing is now totally cool with Donald J. Trump subordinating the interests and security of the United States of America to the interests of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation.

At the center of all this, and most glaring of course, has been Trump’s refusal to acknowledge—let alone take action to punish and prevent—Russian meddling in the American electoral process. Trump has shown no interest in investigating this matter. None, nada, zero, zilch, bupkes. On the contrary, in fact: he has flagrantly done everything presidentially possible to thwart a proper inquiry into Russian actions, to the point of shameless, almost mind-blowingly overt obstruction of justice. From Flynn to Yates to Comey to Sessions to Mueller, that obstructionism needs no recitation here. (We can just want for the indictment.)

All this should outrage the hawks, particularly the wanton denigration of the US intelligence community and law enforcement, which the right normally fetishizes. (Denigration is putting it mildly—it’s more like an outright attack that would have made Nixon blanch.) Yet it doesn’t. What happened to the Torquemada-like tenacity that gave us the endless taxpayer-funded Benghazi hearings?

Pardon the tedious repetition, and at the risk of stating the obvious, imagine if Hillary had fired the head of the FBI looking into her collusion with a foreign power, tried to fire the special counsel doing the same, got caught repeatedly lying about contacts with the Russians, attacked the Attorney General and the DOJ for not “protecting” her in such deceit, pressured the heads of the CIA and NSA to publicly exonerate her, and on and on, all the while engaging in policy actions and pronouncements that benefited Moscow. (Not to mention refusing to release her tax returns even as evidence mounted of her shadowy financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs, mobsters, and their associated government contacts.)

Dear Republicans: Don’t ever preach to me about patriotism and national security again.

The hawkish right seems to be in a kind of mass denial about what Trump is doing to America’s security. Whatever the reason for that mysterious malady, these people have forfeited whatever claim they once had as hardnosed pragmatists and critical thinkers. And if Trump proves to be actively complicit in a covert Russian coup d’etat in the United States, they will be guilty of something far worse.

In the wake of this deeply ironic Presidents Day, let us stop and marvel at what a tragic distance we have come from leaders who deserve the name to this reprehensible cretin who serves only his own monstrous ego, and goddam the rest of us.

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Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank? – March 3, 2018

This past Halloween here in New York City, a lone wolf who self-identified with radical Islamism murdered eight people and injured eleven others on the West Side Highway using a rental truck as a weapon, mimicking a technique widely used by terrorists in the Middle East and Europe (and by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville). Following that attack, as if vindicated, gun nuts were quick to chortle, “See? If you take away their guns, they’ll find something else to kill with! Cars or knives or boxcutters!”

Exactly. Please note that the Halloween terrorist used a common rental truck, not an M-1 Abrams main battle tank. If he’d been driving a tank, he undoubtedly would have killed a lot more people. But he could not get a tank. Because that is illegal. Because it would be fucking nuts if we allowed private citizens to own tanks.

That is the precise analogy we are dealing with in terms of firearms. A mentally ill killer wielding a knife or even a pistol—let’s make it a semiautomatic 9mm Glock—would not be able to kill nearly as many human beings as Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, did with his NINETEEN long guns and assault rifles, some outfitted with bump stocks to turn them into fully automatic weapons, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. So, yeah, if we take guns out of the hands of potential killers it won’t stop every mass murder. But it would stop a lot of them and reduce the number and severity of causalities in most others.

No one is arguing that the common sense gun control laws currently being debated would put an absolute end to firearms deaths. But they would damn sure help, as they would undeniably make it harder for killers to kill. That should not even be a matter of discussion or disagreement, at least not among people with brainwave activity. Because to do nothing because we can’t do everything is not only stupid and self-destructive but actively dishonest and despicable.

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Blood On Their Hands: Guns in America (Part 2) – March 10, 2018

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?

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Only Nixon Could Go to China….But Nixon Was, Like, Smart  – March 16, 2018

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.

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.

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?

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“The Modern World Starts Here”—The Birth of Silicon Valley – March 30, 2018

By its very nature, technological innovation always presents itself as beneficial to mankind—what we call “progress.” In Schwarz and Kapany’s 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.

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.

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.

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“Slow Burn” Is the Greatest Takedown of the Trump Presidency Yet – April 21, 2018

It is telling 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. 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.)

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 notsubvert 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.

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.

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

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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 processthrough 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.

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What They Will Say When He’s Gone – April 27, 2018

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.

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.

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.

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Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal – May 11, 2018

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.

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Truth or Consequences – May 3, 2018

No one outside the Fox Nation bubble doubts that Spanky is in serious legal trouble. 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.

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.

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.

 

 

On the Bus with Tom Wolfe

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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 to 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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.