New Coke, Old Tribalism

New_Coke_Resized

In 1977, the government of India instituted new policies intended to reverse centuries of economic exploitation by foreign powers. Among these were mandatory profit-sharing arrangements that multinational corporations had to accept in order to do business in the country.

One of those companies was Coca-Cola.

Given the market that was at stake, Coke was perfectly willing to accede to the new rules. Its emissaries were meeting with representatives of the Indian government to finalize the terms when New Delhi mentioned one last detail: it wanted to know what was in the product. After all, they couldn’t very well allow a foreign vendor to sell a beverage to Indian consumers without knowing what was in it (even though they had been doing so since Coke’s introduction there in 1956).

In short, they wanted Coca-Cola to tell them what was in its famously secret formula, what Coke internally referred to as “Merchandise 7X.”

According to legend, Coke’s reps calmly thanked their hosts, packed up their briefcases, and walked out of the meeting.

Coca-Cola would be unavailable in India until 1993.

That’s how fanatically protective Coca-Cola was of its secret recipe: the one so valuable that it was kept in a vault (first at Sun Trust Bank in Atlanta, later in a specially built vault at Coke headquarters itself, having been transported there by armored convoy in a massive publicity stunt), the one that reportedly only three people at Coke even knew, and they weren’t allowed to fly on the same plane. Coke was willing to pull out of the second most populous country on Earth and give up almost a billion customers rather than reveal the jealously guarded formula that made it the best-known and most widely available product on the planet.

Which makes it even more shocking that eight years later, Coca-Cola suddenly announced that it was changing the formula altogether.

CHILDREN OF MARX AND COCA-COLA

Incredible as it now sounds, in the 1980s Americans drank more soda than any other beverage, including water, milk, and coffee. Such was the climate in which Coke decided in the spring of 1985 to change its iconic hundred-year-old formula, a move announced on the eve of that centennial and rolled out with enormous fanfare, sparking a furious consumer backlash that took everyone by surprise—Coca-Cola very much included. The change set off 77 madcap days in which uproar over a soft drink was the lead story on the national news, eventually resulting in the unprecedented spectacle of the biggest brand on Earth succumbing to public pressure and making the embarrassing decision to reverse itself.

The “New Coke” debacle has since gone down in history as the greatest unforced error in the history of American manufacturing, one that’s studied in business schools even today, rivaled only by the Edsel and Ishtar as synonymous with epic commercial failure.

Except that much of the conventional wisdom regarding New Coke is wrong.

(Shameless plug: a new two-hour special on the subject, COLA WARS, airs on History this Sunday August 18, at 9pm EDT, as part of its new “History 100” strand. My partner Ferne Pearlstein and I are among the executive producers, along with Christopher Cowen, Katie King, and Mark Herzog of Herzog & Co.)

For those too young to remember, the broad stroke are as follows:

For almost a century, Coca-Cola had been far and away the market leader in the soda pop industry and the most recognizable brand of any kind on the whole planet. It had been invented in Georgia in 1886 by a former Confederate colonel turned pharmacist looking for an alternative to the morphine to which he was addicted—one of many such quasi-medicinal elixirs in the country, all claiming to aid digestion and generate vim and vigor, among various other dubious health benefits. (And yes, like other such “miracle tonics” of the time, it did briefly contain traces of cocaine, which, admittedly, will certainly generate vim. That particular ingredient was phased out by 1929.)

Coke eventually came to dominate all its rivals. During World War II, a sweetheart deal with the US government enabled the company to build bottling plants all over the world, in keeping with Washington’s stated desire to have an ice cold Coke within arm’s reach of every American GI, no matter to what godforsaken corner of the earth he was posted. (To that end, Coke was also exempted from the wartime sugar rationing that hobbled its competitors.) After the war, that headstart gave Coke an insurmountable advantage both in terms of infrastructure and name recognition. Both home and abroad, Coke and its signature red can and curvy green “contour” bottle and Spencerian script logo soon became synonymous with America itself, a symbol of the USA every bit as much as the Stars and Stripes or Uncle Sam. Hence also the not-so-flattering term “Coca-Colonization.”

The distant number two in the soda market was Pepsi, which had been invented by a North Carolina druggist in 1893. The rivalry is long and intense, and the differences between the two companies stark. (I refer you to Thomas Oliver’s The Real Coke, the Real Story, and Mark Pendergrast’s For God, Country, and Coca-Cola.) As the reigning champ, Coke’s corporate culture was always very cautious and conservative; as the challenger, Pepsi’s more loose and freewheeling. Though both drinks grew out of the post-Reconstruction South, Coke has always been more tied up in the history of segregation, while Pepsi has always been more popular in African-American communities and actively marketed itself to those consumers. Similarly, Pepsi dominated in the Arab world, where there was an embargo on Coca-Cola until 1991, thanks to Coke’s strong presence in Israel, and its prominent advertising of the fact that it was kosher. (So is Pepsi, for that matter; they just didn’t stress it.)

This is not to say that Pepsi had a monopoly on progressivism. In 1962, Pepsi’s longtime CEO, a staunch Republican named Don Kendall, hired a down-on-his-luck Richard Nixon—fresh off defeats in the California gubernatorial race and the 1960 presidential campaign—to be the company’s general counsel. It was in that capacity that Nixon traveled the world and made many of the international contacts that helped propel him to the White House six years later, and served his foreign policy once there. When he moved in, he had all the Coke machines removed and replaced with Pepsi ones.

(When Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia took up residence there in 1977, he had the Pepsi machines removed and the Coke ones brought back.)

Kendall also oversaw a highly strategic move in 1965 when Pepsi bought Frito Lay, memorably remarking that he’d only ever had one truly great idea in his long career: “How do you get people to buy more drinks? Feed them salty snacks.” That merger created a company that was actually bigger than Coca-Cola and did more diverse things, but was and remains still very much second place when it comes to soda.

Yet second place is a choice spot for an insurgent.

ALL COKED UP

Beginning in the early 1960s, cheeky ad campaigns by Pepsi had created a crisis of confidence within Coke’s Atlanta headquarters, as the enormous demographic of the Baby Boomer generation offered a huge opportunity and a natural fit for the upstart soda manufacturer in its pursuit of the market leader. The “Pepsi Generation” ad campaign was one of the first examples of “lifestyle” advertising, the rather insidious technique of selling a product based on what it claims to say about the consumer, rather than on the merits of the product itself. That approach is now so ubiquitous—not just in the world of soda but in all of advertising full stop—that it’s hard to recall how revolutionary it once was.

Coke responded with the 1971 TV spot known in the trade as “Hilltop” (better known as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”), a feel-good pseudo-hippie anthem that remains one of the most memorable and successful TV commercials of all time. But Pepsi still owned the youth demographic, and continued to tweak Coke’s nose, presenting itself as the hipper, cooler brand—“the choice of a new generation” as one of its later slogans went. Chief among the Pepsi ads that got under Coke’s skin was a bold campaign called “the Pepsi Challenge,” begun in 1975, in which consumers were invited to take part in a blind side-by-side taste test, on camera, an audacious and norm-breaking gambit at a time when advertising rivalries were still relatively genteel.

In reality, the Pepsi Challenge never seriously dented Coke’s sales or threatened its brand dominance. The main thing it did was help Pepsi separate itself from even lesser rivals, like RC Cola and numerous now-forgotten others, by presenting it to the American public on an equal footing with Coke. Kind of like Kim Jong-un standing side by side with an American president.

Probably the best thing Coca-Cola’s executives could have done in response was ignore it altogether.

But they didn’t.

What ensued was a kind of crazed arms race for dominance of the soft drink market—a sort of funhouse analogue to the Cold War—featuring increasingly elaborate, expensive, and ever more star-studded ads, as both beverage giants rolled out ambitious thirty second mini-movies by directors like Ridley Scott and paid top dollar to celebrity spokesmen like Bill Cosby for Coke and Michael Jackson for Pepsi. (Insert jokes here.)

A global battle over colored sugar water might seem rather absurd, until one considers that billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs were at stake—which itself is absurd.

At times the cola wars played almost like farce; at other times like something from David Mamet, with brilliant and ruthless executives going at it hammer and tong. It says a lot that Pepsi would literally set Michael Jackson’s hair on fire, and that would not even be nearly the weirdest thing that happened. (Some believe that Michael’s obsession with plastic surgery and addiction to pain killers began with his recuperation from that incident.) Not just the companies but consumers on both sides were wildly passionate and partisan, though it wasn’t entirely clear why. But it was very clear that people took their loyalties to their chosen soft drinks very seriously, treating them with a fervor usually reserved for sports teams. Both Coke and Pepsi had succeeded in making people care deeply about soda pop, generating allegiances that were very strong and very personal, even if they were largely irrational.

Because at the end of the day, the difference between the two brands was utterly subjective—literally a matter of taste—and highly fungible, as the Pepsi Challenge showed. Which was kind of the point. When what separates the actual products is so marginal, advertising and marketing become everything.

It’s not well-known, but Coke and Pepsi don’t actually make the product. Rather, they each own a formula, which they license to individually-owned bottling companies all over the country. (Although some bottlers are owned by the corporation, most are franchisees.) Those bottlers have the infrastructure to make any carbonated beverage they want, and can switch on a dime. Coke and Pepsi have to constantly convince the bottlers that they have the superior product—if not necessarily in taste, which is inherently subjective, but in ad campaigns—or they’ll lose them to the competition. As Pepsi’s CEO Roger Enrico used to say, “We don’t sell concentrate; we sell confidence.” In that sense, Coke and Pepsi are really ad companies that sell soda on the side, the same way a movie theater is really a candy store that happens to show motion pictures, and both companies are very well aware of the triviality of their own product. As Enrico also said, “There’s not a single thing that PepsiCo makes that anybody needs.”

In other words, it’s all marketing.

IT’S THE REAL THING

In response to the Pepsi Challenge, Coke made the entirely correct argument that a sip test was scientifically irrelevant, as humans are well-known to prefer the sweeter option—such as Pepsi—under those conditions, but not when drinking twelve ounces, the way soda is actually consumed. (Even as it was people chose Pepsi only by a razor thin, statistically insignificant margin.)

It was all true, but it still sounded lame. Consumed with the “optics” of the Pepsi Challenge regardless of its minimal economic impact, Coke decided it had to make a bold move.

The company had recently hit a home run with the introduction of Diet Coke, the first diet soda that tasted good to a big chunk of the soft drink-swilling public, and thus broke out of the sexist ghetto in which diet beverages had heretofore been consigned……including Coke’s own abysmal brand Tab, in its pink can. (On the day it was introduced in 1982 Diet Coke immediately became the most popular diet soda in the world, and soon after, the third most popular soda of any kind, displacing 7Up.)

But there was more. In the process of creating the Diet Coke formula—which was not merely sugar-free Coke, but an entirely different recipe—the company’s mad scientists had also hit on an remarkable alteration to Merchandise 7X. The new formula was just a little bit sweeter—a little more like Pepsi, actually. And in top secret blind taste tests, conducted with Manhattan Project-style security, it beat Coke and Pepsi both.

Coke’s senior leadership at the time—CEO Roberto Goizeuta and COO Don Keough—had come in just a few years before with a mandate to shake up the hidebound company, trumpeting the motto “no sacred cows.” Now they felt had to make good on that ethos….and what better way to do that than with the boldest move imaginable? On Friday April 19, 1985 they issued a statement announcing a momentous press conference at New York’s Lincoln Center the following Tuesday, cryptically promising the biggest news ever in the history of soft drinks.

In a telling omen, before the change was made public, Goizueta went to the Atlanta nursing home where Coke’s 96-year-old retired CEO Robert Woodruff was on his deathbed. “Mr. Bob,” as he was known, was the son of the man who’d bought Coke from its founder in 1919, and had personally led the company from 1927 until he retired in the Fifties. Shouting so that the deaf old man could hear, Goizueta broke the news to Mr. Bob that they were going to change the formula.

He dropped dead soon after.

COKE STEPS IN IT

Now, the fact was, Coke had tinkered with the formula before over the years—several times, in fact. It had just never made a public fuss about it. And therein lay the rub.

Contrary to how it is commonly remembered, the new product was never officially called “New Coke.” It was called “Coca-Cola.” Which was sort of the whole point. The new drink was supplanting the Coke that America and the world had come to know and love. Surprising as it sounds now, Coke never seriously considered bringing it out as a separate product—a “flanker” as it was known in the trade. Until Diet Coke, Coca-Cola had never put the “Coke” name on anything but its flagship product, fearing that it would dilute the brand. There could only be one Coke, the thinking went.

Word of the change leaked out in the days before the press conference, setting off a panic at Pepsi headquarters in Purchase, New York. (Pepsi had spies inside Coke, just as Coke had spies inside Pepsi—one of them known as “Deep Palate.”) Having just had their ass kicked by Diet Coke, Pepsi’s execs were terrified that this “New Coke” was going to be a hit too. But what could they do?

After hunkering down in bunker mode and strategizing all weekend, finally Pepsi’s vice president of public relations, Joe McCann, hit on a brilliant solution:

“Let’s just declare victory.”

It was nothing but spin, but it was world-beating spin. Enrico, Pepsi’s savvy CEO, immediately saw the genius in it and put out an announcement even before Coke’s Lincoln Center event. The Cola Wars are over! Coke surrendered. It pulled its product off the shelves and replaced it with one that was sweeter…..one that tasted more like Pepsi!

By the time Coke held its disastrous press conference, Pepsi had succeeded in seizing control of the narrative, which took unshakable hold. The press pounded Goizueta and Keough, who looked shellshocked. There’s video; it’s hard to watch. (See the documentary, if you dare.)

As the rollout of the new formula began, it was like an atomic bomb hit the soft drink market. Coke drinkers were furious that their beloved drink was no longer available. People were emptying stores of old Coke before it disappeared for good, buying it by the truckload. Coke had a near-mutiny among its bottlers and had to put on extra phone operators to handle the customer complaints. Late night comics had a field day. Outraged Coke loyalists took to the streets in protests that looked like the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Enrico took out a gleeful full page ad in the New York Times crowing over his company’s triumph, erected a billboard to that effect outside Coke headquarters in Atlanta, and gave everyone in Pepsi a celebratory day off. Meanwhile Pepsi had its undercover operatives down in Atlanta buy a six-pack before “New Coke” was available in the rest of the country and fly the cans up to New York so their execs could sample it.

The whole world seemed caught off guard by the passion and anger of Coke drinkers—even Coke, which desperately went into damage control mode even as it swore it was sticking by the new formula. The company launched a huge PR counterattack and even conducted its own version of the “Pepsi Challenge,” blind taste tests between new and old Coke. Sure enough, even the leaders of the protests to bring back old Coke actually preferred the taste of New Coke.

But it didn’t matter in the slightest.

What nobody at Coca-Cola seemed to understand—at least not at first—was that it wasn’t about the taste at all. It was about the deep emotional attachment that Coke drinkers had to the brand that they had grown up with. This was the whole lesson of “lifestyle” advertising, as pioneered by the Pepsi Generation campaign way back in the early Sixties. Coke wasn’t stupid, although it may have looked that way that spring. They had tested “New Coke” seven ways to Sunday. They knew empirically that people would like the taste. But what they didn’t test—and couldn’t test, due to the secrecy involved—was how consumers would feel if this new product replaced their beloved Coke altogether.

The message that American consumers sent was blunt. Coke doesn’t belong to you guys in Atlanta; it belongs to us.

IRONY, THY NAME IS SODA

Seventy-seven chaotic days after the launch, on July 10, 1985, Coca-Cola raised the white flag. The amiable and folksy Don Keough led a press conference where he ate crow on behalf of the company, even reading some of the hate mail, as he announced that Coke was reversing itself. The thinking that “there could only be one Coke”—already weakened by the creation of Diet Coke—went out the window. Coke was bringing back the old formula—now renamed “Coca-Cola Classic”—while still trying to defend and promote its new product, which continued to bear the simple name brand “Coke.” (“Coke are it,” quipped the wags, playing on the company’s slogan of the time.) Pepsi continued to revel in competing against two products now: one it described as having been beaten in blind taste tests, the other one that the American public decidedly hated. Coke continued to be ridiculed as the narrative calcified about how badly it had shat the bed.

But here’s the final irony.

Bizarrely, Coca-Cola emerged from this epic fiasco in better shape than ever.

New Coke served to remind people how much they liked old Coke, and what a central place it occupied in their emotional lives. (Witness: we’re still talking about it today, 34 years later.) Coke got millions of dollars of free advertising on the news, proving that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Its stock price rose. Financially, the success of Diet Coke dwarfed the brief and minor damage of the New Coke debacle. All Coke’s executives got raises.

Above all, it definitively showed that Coke—as stodgy and sclerotic as companies come—was in fact willing to change, and in the biggest and riskiest way possible, and more importantly, that it was willing to listen to its customers. In so doing, Coke also denied Pepsi some of the “rebel” marketing battlespace that it had once had all to itself. No company of its size had ever admitted a mistake in that way, or so humbly bowed to the wishes of its customer base. The goodwill Coke earned was incalculable. As one Coke exec quipped, “It’s like we hit a hole-in-one, even though the ball bounced off a tree on the way.”

In fact, New Coke ultimately proved so good for the company that some people still wonder if the whole thing had been a giant hoax. Coke has always denied that—“We’re not that smart,” a good-natured Don Keough memorably quipped—and even a cursory study of how Coca-Cola misjudged the whole affair immediately disproves the theory. But like the idea that the moon landings were staged on a movie set in Utah, it is an urban myth that is now a permanent part of American folklore.

Eventually what the public had dubbed “New Coke” was slowly withdrawn. Briefly it was sold as Coke II, at the suggestion of the actress Miranda July, who had been part of a marketing focus group when she was just an unknown. By 2002 was discontinued altogether. (That’s longer than you thought, isn’t it?) In a fitting irony, this past May, Coca-Cola announced that it is bringing “New Coke” back for a limited run as a promotional tie-in with Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” whose new season takes place in 1985 and includes the soda pop fiasco in its plotline. What was once a public humiliation has become yet another branding opportunity.

SLIGHTLY BITTER AFTERTASTE

Soda pop is a uniquely American invention, one that took over the world. It’s deeply rooted in our country’s image of itself and our history and who we are, and as Coke learned, you fuck with that at your own peril.

The cola wars were the greatest marketing battle in history and the last one waged in prime time, in front of an audience of millions, between two great American companies that actually made a product. That the product in question is utterly ephemeral, and even actively damaging in terms of health, is beside the point: what could be more American? It will likely never be replicated, given the tectonic shifts in global economics since then, the transition to a service economy, the decline of American manufacturing, and the rise of high tech. Nor do we have a narrow, centralized pre-Internet mediascape that would lend itself to an advertising battle of that type.

The cola wars carried on into the Nineties, with more and more expensive ad campaigns and more and more celebrity spokespeople including Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Lionel Richie, Ray Charles, Michael J. Fox, Britney Spears, Bob Dole, and others. The course of that battle transformed the ad industry, and along with product placement, blurred the line between advertising and entertainment. Consumers now watch and judge commercials for their entertainment value, even as movies and TV increasingly integrate ads in the body of their content. In effect, both Coke and Pepsi went into showbiz—Coca-Cola literally, by its acquisition of Columbia Pictures. In essence, of course, both companies had been in show business all along.

Today there’s no denying that the cola wars are over: Coke completely dominates the market. But people still retain this incredible loyalty to their “teams,” and soda advertising can still cause a stir, as the disastrous Kendall Jenner ad for Pepsi of two years ago proved.

We are now accustomed to twenty-five different micro-brands of Coke. Soda consumption at large has steeply declined relative to other beverages; even most of the “cola war” veterans we interviewed for the History documentary confessed to having not having had a full-sugar soda in decades. Coca-Cola, which for a time waged all-out war against bottled water as a beverage option, eventually surrendered to the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and brought out its own bottled water, Dasani—which is filtered tap water tagged with a made-up exotic-sounding name, speaking of marketing.

To that end, the story of New Coke is instructive on two major fronts.

First, as a story of tribalism and why we are loyal to the things we are loyal to—often irrationally, in defiance of logic, and sometimes even in direct, self-destructive opposition to our own self-interest. Those loyalties can be to sodas, NFL franchises, or even political parties and politicians (cough cough).

Second, as a story of the power of spin. In the cola wars—as in politics, as in life at general—perception is more important than reality…..indeed, as the mystics and the quantum physicists will tell us, perception is reality. Once Pepsi successfully established control of the narrative—“Coke surrendered!”—it was impossible for Coca-Cola to combat it, even when it had the facts on its side. Such is the Orwellian power of propaganda, misinformation, and active disinformation. Like tribalism, it is a dynamic with which all sentient Americans ought to be painfully familiar these days.

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COLA WARS airs on History this Sunday August 18, at 9pm EDT. As they say, check local listings.

Oh, and also, there’s this new thing called DVR, which lets you skip the commercials.

 

 

A Century of “The King’s Necktie”

King of Spades (with outline J)

THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, HER LOVER, AND A BUNCH OF FILM CRITICS

In the late Nineties, I heard the British film director Peter Greenaway speak in San Francisco, where he was showing his latest arthouse feature. In the Q&A, an audience member asked about the oft-heard complaint that he seemed to make his famously hard-to-understand films only for himself.

Greenaway—who dressed like either a time traveler from the future or an emissary from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, and who spoke in complete paragraphs with nary an “um” or an “uh” to be heard—calmly replied that he thought it was the height of arrogance for any artist to believe they were making work for anyone but themselves.

Words to live by, my friends, words to live by.

ERIN GO BLAGH

This post marks the 100th entry on this blog, which is now just over two years old.

Following Mr. Greenaway’s advice, I began writing it largely for therapeutic reasons: that is to say, to vent, if only for my own mental health, at a time when the United States seemed to have entered a bizarre anti-reality show political nightmare of a kind not many people imagined possible, except for science fiction writers. If anyone else read it, I considered that pure gravy. I was (and remain) petrified to the very marrow about what is happening to our country, consumed with the question of how (and if) we can get out of it, and deeply concerned about how to repair the damage after the fact, if we are lucky enough even to get that opportunity.

But I will admit that I harbored some small hope that I could commune with like minds at a time when, it seemed to me, it was of the utmost importance that we stick together and share ideas and organize and offer each other the mutual reassurance that we have not, in fact, gone stark raving nuts. The huge amount of support I’ve gotten over the past two years has validated that hope, in spades, and for that I am deeply grateful.

In other words, I deliberately set out to do the very thing that we are told the Internet is terrible for: shout into the echo chamber, because when you’re in a fight with stakes this high, finding and commiserating with your allies is a crucial necessity. I meant to preach to the choir, because if you don’t, they stop singing.

I didn’t set out to change a lot of minds, and I’m quite sure I’ve succeeded in that non-goal; if anything, I’ve probably alienated some people. Those people can go fuck themselves. I have no interest in trying to reach across the aisle to racists, misogynists, fascists, hypocrites, and traitors. God bless the hardy souls who do have the stomach for that kind of outreach and deprogramming, but that was not my goal here.

But ironically, this blog has, for whatever reason, actually engendered quite a bit of engagement with people who hold very different opinions than mine. I’m grateful for that too. I have had spirited, intelligent, productive discussions with many people who disagree with the things I’ve written, and also highly distasteful exchanges with people whose critiques began and ended with the word “libtard.” Weirdly, I’ve even had some discussions that started with the latter and evolved into the former, which gives me hope for the future of our republic, despite the hyperpartisan rancor that defines us right now.

Whatever your political persuasion, if you have an open mind you are welcome here.

We are now entering a fifteen-month stretch where the battle for this country’s soul is going to become more intense than ever, leading up to what promises to be a critical decision point in November 2020. Let’s not let our spirits flag, let’s not become discouraged or disillusioned by setbacks, let’s not allow legitimate but non-essential differences on smaller issues lead to infighting that aids the other side and prevents us from working together toward the larger goal that we all share.

When this is all over, if the republic survives, and your as-yet-unborn grandchildren ask, “What did you do to save America from that miserable cretin and the movement he represented?” (these grandchildren are going to be very verbal), you won’t have to say, “I shoveled shit in Louisiana.”

You can say, “I read a blog.”

“And then I went out and worked to save an ideal I thought was worth fighting for.”

READ ON, MACDUFF

Thank you to everyone who has supported this blog, read it, pretended to read it, shared it, argued with me about it, agreed to be interviewed, contributed artwork, pointed out errors, or otherwise engaged. I appreciate it. Special thanks to my wife Ferne for indulging me in this endeavor.

Below I offer a sampling from The King’s Necktie’s sophomore year; I hope it lives up to the etymology of that word’s adjectival form. You won’t be shocked to see that it’s a hefty smorgasbord. I invite you to nibble and nosh as you wish.

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Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama) – June 13, 2018

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.

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.

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Funny Funny: A Conversation with Alan Zweibel – June 18, 2018

THE KING’S NECKTIE: 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.

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: 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.

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Dear Huddled Masses: Go F–k Yourselves – June 21, 2018

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.

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. 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.

MAGA indeed.

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.

But 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.

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Five Blind Mice – July 11, 2018

The sheer injustice of Trump’s ascent to the White House was galling even before we knew the extent of foreign interference, irrespective of the degree of his collaboration with it. The fact that as one of his first acts in office Trump would get to nominate a justice to fill the seat that rightly should have gone to a nominee of Barack Obama’s was a pill nearly as bitter, given the unconscionably anti-democratic, shamelessly dishonest obstructionism of Mitch McConnell in refusing even to consider Obama’s pick—an effort Mitch considers his proudest accomplishment in his long and disgusting political career.

And now Trump has been gifted a second seat to fill, and the terrifying possibility that with not just one but two octogenarians among the remaining justices, he might get a third or even a fourth before all is said and done. (RBG’s health is on everyone’s mind, but don’t forget that Breyer will turn 80 in August.) An America in which fully a third of the justices on the Supreme Court were put there by an illegitimate president—a sub-literate neo-fascist game show host who is very possibly the tool of a foreign power—is the stuff of bad dystopian science fiction, or at least it used to be.

Courtesy of the Washington Post, here is all you really need to know about why our fake president picked Brett Kavanaugh, a man who began his career as a GOP lawyer in the ridiculous hyperpartisan Vince Foster investigation that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton:

Kavanaugh has since argued that presidents should not be distracted by civil lawsuits, criminal investigations, or even questions from a prosecutor or defense lawyer while in office.

Wow. That’s right, hard as it is to believe, Kavanaugh goes even further than that demented vampire Rudy Giuliani in stating that a sitting president not only can’t be indicted, but shouldn’t even be investigated while in office. That is a shockingly imperial position—not to mention a violent and suspicious about-face—and one that I don’t think escaped the notice of Team Trump when they were considering Kennedy’s replacement.

But if at this point you’re still shocked by brazen Republican hypocrisy, I suggest you see a neurologist.

It’s no surprise that the John Birchers who currently have a chokehold on American governance are ecstatic right now. More disgraceful is the dodo-like endangered species of allegedly “moderate” conservatives—like the Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby—who have taken to pooh-poohing progessive fears about the Court, acting as if Trump is just another POTUS, and demonstrating the degree to which even “reasonable” Republicans are in denial about the right wing coup d’etat that is taking place….or less charitably, how they are unbothered by it.

In making his pick, Trump reportedly consulted closely with Sean Hannity. (I’ll pause now so you can stop gagging). That’s right: the two men with the most power to decide the future of the federal judiciary are Donald Trump and Sean Hannity. If that isn’t the very definition of kakistocracy, I don’t know what is.

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Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)? – July 23, 2018

If Bob Mueller hands down thunderous evidence that would justify a criminal indictment of Donald Trump, but DOJ policy precludes prosecution until after he is out of office—and Republican political opportunism precludes measures like impeachment that would put him out—what possible reason would Donald Trump ever have to leave office?

On the contrary: the notion of a massive indictment hanging over his head as soon as he surrenders power will incentivize Trump to stay in office at all costs, like the cornered rat he is.

The irony is rich. In a twist worthy of Roald Dahl or O. Henry, one of the most egregiously guilty sonsabitches in US criminal history will find himself in the only position in American life in which he is protected from prosecution. So you can bet your life that he will do everything within his power to stay there. And we have all seen that the spectrum of what Donald Trump is prepared to do in his own self-interest is, uh, rather wide.

That means that even if he loses the 2020 election, he will contest the results with every fiber of his being, try to delegitimize his opponent’s victory, and mobilize his mouthbreathing hordes and his shameless accomplices in the right wing media to help him. (For that matter, he and the GOP will try to rig the election in the first place. But that’s a topic for another day.)

If he fears he might lose, he will gin up a faux national security emergency Reichstag fire-style to try to justify postponing the elections. Failing that, he will create some transparently false excuse for claiming that the election was rigged and declare the results null and void. (Hell, he was pre-emptively saying precisely that on the campaign trail in 2016. Turns out he was right, though in exactly the opposite way he claimed.).

And his followers will obediently, enthusiastically sign on.

Do you doubt it? Before the election in 2016, when almost everyone—even Trump—assumed he would lose, he was asked if he would honor the results or contest them. He equivocated. “I’ll let you know,” he said, coyly, already causing damage to the fabric of American democracy. Little did we know that that scenario would soon look enviable compared to what would really transpire. And that was when he had far far less at stake. Do we really think he will be more accommodating and respectful of the bedrock of American democracy if he is facing what amounts to life in prison, the obliteration of his family fortune, and the destruction of everything he cares about…..which is to say, himself?

In case you’ve been in a coma, we are living in extreme times. Over and over again the unthinkable has happened, each time moving the Overton window of what we believe possible in this country.

As for respect for the sanctity of the electoral process and peaceful transition of power, Republican leaders uttered barely a mouse-squeak when Trump deliberately undermined those principles on the campaign trail. Since he took office, they have condoned and even abetted his attacks on the rule of law, the law enforcement and intelligence communities, a free press, and the patriotism of the loyal opposition (not to mention reliable conservative bogeymen like immigrants, minorities, and poor people). Should he be defeated, what makes anyone think that Trump questioning or even physically opposing the results of the 2020 election would be a red line for them?

Perhaps most tellingly, with their unconscionable obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination, Republicans ruthlessly subverted one of the fundamental norms of American democracy in order to keep control of the Supreme Court. Do you think they will do any less to maintain control of the Presidency?

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“Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court – August 13, 2018

The fate of abortion in America will be decided by five Catholic men.

Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, and—very likely—Kavanaugh: five male Roman Catholics, all put on the Supreme Court by Republican presidents (and two of those by Donald Trump). These guys will have the power to decide the future of reproductive rights in this country and to dictate what an American woman can or cannot do with her own body, to include the authority to make abortion illegal if they so wish.

And those five men very likely will do exactly that, even though roughly 70% of Americans oppose the idea.

The end state will be that the United States of America will likely soon have abortion laws far more restrictive than Ireland, which this past May held a referendum in which the Irish people overwhelmingly voted to end their longtime ban on the practice, reversing centuries of repressive tradition in that deeply Catholic country.

Think about that for a moment.

How far away are we from the Supreme Court considering the case of a shop owner who claims it is against his religion to serve black people? (Spoiler alert: not very far. Did we not settle this in the Sixties?)

And how ironic if the chief executive who presides over the reversal of Roe v. Wade turns out to be Donald Trump, a man who has likely impregnated more mistresses and paid for more hushed-up abortions than all of his 44 predecessors combined? (Or more precisely, as Samantha Bee says, promised to pay for them and then reneged.) Just hearing him promise to appoint anti-abortion judges was one of the most egregious examples of demagoguery in a campaign chock full of it. Would his evangelical base at last admit this hypocrisy and turn on him if they were made to acknowledge his history on that count? Or would they just find more tortured rationalizations by which to excuse it?

Just kidding. We know the answer, of course.

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Rudy Giuliani: Post-Modern Philosopher – August 20, 2018

This week, making another stop on his “Dementia: Race for the Cure” consciousness-raising tour, former New York City mayor and failed GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani did something few people thought possible: he topped himself. (Not in the British way, sadly.) Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press to discuss why Trump is reluctant to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller, Giuliani told host Chuck Todd that “Truth isn’t truth!”

This is a level of post-modernism well beyond even Kellyanne’s “alternative facts,” or Jay Sekulow’s assertion that “over time, facts develop,” not to mention a previous champ, Nixon press secretary and doublespeak master Ron Ziegler’s infamous excusal of one of his boss’s lies about Watergate: “That statement is no longer operative.” These days that looks kind of cute.

But the bald-faced denial that there is such a thing as objective truth full stop is uncharted territory, even for Rudy and Donny.

In the past four months Giuliani has said lots of outrageous things, most of them blatant falsehoods operating as wishful thinking, in hopes that the electorate will eventually succumb like a brainwashed POW or a hypnosis subject instructed to squawk like a chicken. In keeping with this apparent policy of suicidal candor, Giuliani has openly admitted (bragged even) that the overall purpose of this propaganda blitz is not to make a cogent legal argument but simply to sway public opinion. Given that qualifier, the resort to blatant falsehoods makes perfect sense…..especially for a side that has no legitimate arguments in its quiver. To that end, his twin deployment of a blizzard of lies and an avalanche of self-incriminating truths is a headspinning strategy that does indeed leave one wondering what’s real and what ain’t, which seems to be the intent.

It is often remarked upon that the uncontrollable and infantile Donald J. Trump is a nightmare client for a lawyer, so it is fitting that he should wind up with a nightmare lawyer who regularly seems to do him more harm than good. It is almost amusing to picture these two septuagenarian New Yorkers huddling together inside their right wing fantasy world, plotting their strategy, two arguably deranged, combative, egomaniacal fame whores , the mad leading the mad, as Rudy gives his client possibly the worst legal advice this side of Oscar Zeta Acosta.

I have written in the past that this Orwellian obliteration of truth is perhaps the single most disturbing aspect of the unlikely rise of our Insane Clown President. (See The Nature of the Person and the Nature of the Threat, September 20, 2017.) Short of the concomitant destruction of the planet, it is also likely to be the aspect that is doing the most long term damage.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – September 5, 2018

This week Trump had another Lester Holt moment when he volunteered on national television—this time to Fox reporter Ainsley Earhardt—that he paid the hush money to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal out of his own pocket, apparently laboring under the delusion that because campaign funds were not used it wasn’t a campaign finance violation. This of course is a complete 180 from his previous straight-faced denials that any hush money was paid at all, and if there was he didn’t know anything about it. But by now we are used to such brazen flip-flopping from this pathological liar. Yet as is often the case, the Dunning-Kruger Effect again dropkicked Donald Trump in the testicles. Operating on his usual assumption that he knows everything, he made an unsolicited confession to a crime because he’s not smart enough to know he’s dumb.

Wile E. Coyote was never this stupid.

What the United States is currently undergoing is a soap opera of such pace, scope, complexity, and flatout weirdness that it’s hard to grasp in the moment. (I’d compare it to a Russian novel, but that’s both too complimentary for this tawdriness, and of course too on the nose.)

The President himself has built his entire political career (and a lot of his business career before that) on wooing racists, bigots, and xenophobes with tactics right out of the fascist playbook, infamously refusing to disavow the endorsement of the Klan during his campaign, and arguing that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville, where the counterprotestor Heather Heyer was murdered.  (As The Atlantic reported, white nationalist leader and Charlottesville organizer Richard Spencer told the press he was “really proud” of Trump’s response.)

A case like that of Ian Smith just drives home once again, and in unusually pointed fashion, how unbothered Trump and his people are that someone in their employ traffics in white supremacist ideology. Indeed, a white supremacist pedigree is obviously a plus for the Trump camp. These are the people they like, and more to the point, whom their supporters like.

What are we to do when the President of the United States is a blatant racist and crypto-white nationalist, surrounds himself with fellow travelers, and is protected and abetted in that effort by the leaders of his party, which controls two of the three branches of American government and is engaged in a ferocious campaign to establish a chokehold on the third?

In a sad and terrible revelation about our country, the past three years have exposed a dark underbelly of American society that a lot of us naively imagined had ceased to exist, or had at least been thoroughly suppressed and reduced to a tiny subterranean minority of troglodytes who knew better than to show their faces. But they’ve shown them now.

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Pretty Shitty Monkeys: A Surprisingly Optimistic Conversation with Shalom Auslander – September 10, 2018

THE KING’S NECKTIE: First of all I want to say, now that Philip Roth is dead, you are surely the preeminent purveyor of onanistic Judaica in American literature. So congratulations.  

SHALOM AUSLANDER: Thank you. Please let my mother know as soon as you can.

TKN: I know you said you don’t really follow politics, but obviously you wrote that very influential Washington Post piece right before the election, “Don’t Compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. It Belittles Hitler.”

SA: I actually feel a little bit ashamed of that piece because it proved that I had fallen for the game a little bit. I got caught up in it, as I always do with the election. It’s kind of like how I’m not really a basketball fan but around the finals I get ridiculously into it.

I’m at the point now—and this may be a function of growing and moving out of the community that I was born into, completely leaving it behind and literally never going back—where I think the biggest issue isn’t Trump or war or taxes or whatever else. I think all of that comes out of these fictional differences that we have created between us that aren’t real.

TKN: That is such a humanistic, and idealistic, and almost sweet perspective….which is not what people expect from you.

SA: (laughs) I don’t think we are particularly special animals, but I don’t think we are the worst animals. The reality is that we evolved from some pretty shitty monkeys. (laughs) Monkeys are assholes. If you ever go to the zoo, they are the biggest fucking assholes in the zoo. They are the only ones with barbed wire, and signs that say, “Don’t stare at the monkey, don’t look at the monkey, don’t taunt the monkey, don’t feed the monkey.” That’s our grandfather. They don’t do that with squirrels, or rabbits, or giraffes. You can make faces at giraffes all day long.

TKN: To me tribalism is the whole issue. When you look at Trump’s supporters—and also the other side, but particularly his supporters—you can’t even argue with these people because they are in a kind of psychosis—like a cult—which is no different than a religious cult. They have abandoned all reason, and that’s a form of the divisiveness that you were talking about.

SA: We recognize that the other side is really tribalistic but we don’t realize that we are as well. The really funny thing is when one side says, ”Oh, they’re much more tribalistic than us. I wouldn’t be so tribal if they weren’t so tribal.”

The thing that has surprised me about all of this isn’t that there are some people who are hateful and would follow a leader who manipulates that. I know that. What always surprised me and scared me as a kid learning about the Holocaust—which they never stopped talking about in my community, and this was sort of what that Washington Post thing was about—is the question, “Are we the type of nation that can be driven apart like that?” Can we get to a level where we hate each other so much? And the answer is “Of course we can.”

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On Losing a Rifle – September 17, 2018

Short of actively committing a crime, in the peacetime US military the worst thing a soldier can do is lose a weapon. Why is that such a big deal? I guess it’s because the Pentagon understands that it’s a bad idea for private citizens to have military-grade rifles that were designed for just one purpose: to kill human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible in a combat environment.

In the wake of Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, or any other mass shooting you care to name, not to mention the “routine” everyday carnage on the streets of various American cities, somehow it is not a pragmatic discussion of how to stop this madness that dominates the national conversation, but rather, an idiotic hairsplitting debate about terminology.

But the US military does not need to bother with how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin-style pissing contests about whether the Founding Fathers intended the American public to own AK-47s and AR-15s. An institution of profound practicality, the military is concerned only with the patently obvious dangers thereof, and its own desire not to be complicit in that homicidal/suicidal dynamic.

So we can talk about the definition of “semi-automatic,” about trigger pull speed, muzzle velocity, cyclic rate, magazine capacity, bump stocks, three-round burst suppressors, and anything else you want. Who cares? The pointless obsession with these meaningless distinctions is all camouflage designed to obfuscate the truth rather than illuminate it—either dishonestly for the general audience, or as a form of self-delusion, or some combination of both.

Personally, I  don’t give a shit. I know a battlefield weapon when I see one.

Like art or pornography, it’s hard to define but easy to understand intuitively. The US Army seems able to grasp it, and why civilians have no business owning such weapons. Maybe someday the rest of the country will catch up.

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The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II – October 10, 2018

Neil warned me that this happened to him.

He didn’t want to sound crazy, and I understood why. Hell, I didn’t believe it myself, not being big into the supernatural (our mutual Catholicism notwithstanding). But I believe it now.

The ghost appeared to me in the early morning hours, the very day after I had been sworn in by a very somber John Roberts. I was passed out on the couch, just in my boxers. The ghost had to shake me awake, because I had blacked out after an epic night pounding celebratory brewskis with Judge, Tobin, PJ, and Squi.

“Brett. Brett—wake up. It’s me, Merrick.”

I rubbed my eyes and collected myself, then looked up. There he was in all his occult, ectoplasmic glory: the ghost of Merrick Garland. Just like Gorsuch had warned me.

My head was pounding like Keith Moon had taken up residence in my cerebellum and my mouth felt like Death Valley. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Someone had drawn an erect penis on my forehead with a Sharpie. (I’m sure it was Squi—what a card!)

“Merrick, what the hell are you doing here?” I asked.

“Why, haunting you, of course. Did you not get the memo?”

“Is there really any need for that? I mean, we work together in the DC Circuit. Can’t you just accost me in the cafeteria?”

“Not since you’re moving on up. Anyway, this is much more dramatic.”

“But how can you be a ghost if you’re not dead?”

“I went over this with Neil last year. Let’s just call it poetic license. Or maybe taking a liberty is a better way to put it. You’re good with taking liberties, right, Brett?“

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with the utmost sincerity I could muster. “I spent my whole youth focused on sports, school, and my service projects.”

Garland’s ghost was having none of it. “How’s it feel to be one of the most hated men in America? To have singlehandedly destroyed the credibility of the United States Supreme Court? To be a pariah everywhere except among the Kool-Aid drinkers at Fox, Breitbart, and InfoWars? To have 2400 law professors, the American Bar Association, your old classmates, John Paul Stevens, and even the Jesuits all question if you’re fit to sit on the bench?”

I shrugged. “I’m OK with it.”

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The Death of Hypocrisy – October 22, 2018

Time was when a politician of either party or any ideological bent who was caught applying a blatant double standard could expect to be called to account. No more—at least for Republicans.

Several observers have dissected Trump’s own preternatural ability to blithely engage in this indefensibly scummy behavior. The best that can be said is that he doesn’t seem to even recognize the hypocrisy. Vomit-inducing though he is, he is not, to all appearances, a mustache-twirling villain privately cackling to himself late at night over what he’s getting away with. (That’s Mitch McConnell.)

That would actually be somewhat comforting, as an acknowledgment that we are operating in the same moral universe.

No, Donald is something far worse: a megalomaniac so deep in his own entitlement that he doesn’t even recognize that he is applying a head-spinning double standard. It’s a kind of pathological narcissism that obliterates his ability even to see the hypocrisy. Perhaps Trump’s supporters are the same way in terms of how they view their tangerine-tinged hero.

As I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, it always astounds me when people ponder why the Republicans won’t stand up to Trump. The entire question is absurd. Plainly, they don’t want to stand up to him, as they’ve never had better cover for their hateful agenda. Cynics like McConnell are happy to profit from Trump’s hypocrisy while denying it exits. But Machiavellian intriguers on the order of Crooked Mitch are actually few and far between. The jeering, Kool-Aid drunk mobs at Trump’s never-ending traveling medicine show—the ones chanting “Lock her up!” moments after he complained about a lack of due process for Brett Kavanaugh, or for the Saudi assassins who butchered Jamal Khashoggi—aren’t engaging in cynicism. They have internalized the twisted Trumpian version of amorality.

If the 2016 election taught us anything—besides never to use Facebook—it should have taught us that there is little in the world that is more lethal than false equivalence. Anyone who during the campaign waved the back of their hand dismissively and said, “Eh, Trump and Hillary are both just as bad” ought to be lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Even now we routinely continue to see that kind of namby pamby stab at objectivity in the press….the ongoing reign of Paul Krugman’s famous “Parties Differ on Shape of Planet” (which long pre-dated Trump), finding its most toxic expression in our insane clown president’s contention that “there were very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.

The press has collectively gotten a hair better than it was in 2016, but it still clings to a misguided and misbegotten ethos of an impossible evenhandedness when dealing with dishonest actors…..one that dangerously benefits those liars and criminals. That is why we see headlines that say “Trump Claims Without Evidence That Such-and Such,” instead of the more accurate “Trump Lies About (You Name It).”

It’s not good enough.

The fact remains that one side of the American ideological spectrum insists that the sky is not blue and two plus two equals five in a way that the other side simply does not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that behaving hypocritically and then shrugging it off is part and parcel of the reactionary mindset—almost as a point of pride, a demonstration of strength and of ubermensch exemption from ordinary morality.

It is simply false to say that the Democratic Party, liberals, and progressives have carried out a methodical, diabolical campaign to subvert democracy the way that the Republican Party and the right has. To suggest otherwise is simply more deceit. That is the Orwellian dynamic they are using to carry out the ongoing coup d’etat.

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Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System – October 26, 2018

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

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

What does this mean? It means that the ruling power in the United States—that is to say, the Trump regime—has successfully motivated and mobilized thuggish elements within the general public to carry out acts of political violence against Trump’s enemies. This is Fascism 101.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Politics of Insanity – November 4, 2018

Where is the line between homicidal acts driven by mental illness and political terrorism as carried out by admittedly violent but nonetheless rational actors? There is no better case study than that of Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber.

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

History is lousy with demented kings, inbred monarchs, and power-mad despots whose atrocities live in infamy, from Caligula to George III to Pol Pot to idi Amin. Closer to home, it’s hard to argue that the paranoid, erratic Richard Nixon was in good mental health. By these metrics, the Unabomber was a piker. Ted Kaczynski was arguably no crazier than Nixon, and undeniably a much less prolific killer.

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

This is not a binary choice. Even if they are crackpots that does not remove the possibility that their mental illness was set off—and supercharged—by toxic partisan ideology, or vice versa if you prefer. And it certainly does not exculpate our fake president or the party he leads of any shred of responsibility for what these men have done. Indeed, the presumptive mental illness of these killers made them even more, not less, susceptible to inflammatory rhetoric that would encourage their psychopathic impulses.

I already hear the counter-argument, that no public figure can be held accountable for how a deranged individual misinterprets or distorts his or her words. Tru(ish), but it’s a question of how much—or little—misinterpretation is involved. Do we blame the Beatles for Charles Manson? No. But I might, if instead of ”Helter skelter/I’m coming down fast,” the lyrics had said, “Go up in the hills and find a pregnant actress to massacre.”

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Omar Comin’ – November 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nobody has played this con game better than Trump.

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

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

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

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

True true. But some gave none.

Maybe his bone spurs are acting up.

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Time May Change Me: David Bowie Gets Revisionized – November 26, 2018

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

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

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

It’s easy to lionize people in retrospect. In the present tense, it’s harder to recognize heroes and trailblazers when we see them, and harder still to laud them for their boldness and courage and vision. Luckily, posterity is a lot wiser than we are. Consciously or otherwise, the mainstream society to which Bowie gave two fingers up (he was English, you know) would now like us all to believe that it embraced him from the start. But don’t believe the hype.

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

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

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

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Drinking the Flavor-Aid (And Yes, I Mean Flavor-Aid) – December 4, 2018

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

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

The same cannot be said of lying.

I don’t think I’ve yet heard a journalist confront him with his untold previous claims that he had no business in Russia and ask him to defend them. If they did, I suspect he would continue to act as the newly revealed facts are so petty as to not be of any significance. He’s flagrantly wrong, of course, as shown by the glaring flaw inherent in that stance: If these business relationships with the Russian government were no big deal, WHY DID HE GO TO SUCH EPIC LENGTHS TO HIDE THEM?

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

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

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

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

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“She Worked for Me” – December 15, 2018

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

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

So we can dispense with the idiocy and dishonesty of Trump’s defenders with one simple question: If the payoffs were neither illegal nor related to the election nor any big deal, why did Trump lie about his knowledge of them, on camera, on Air Force One no less?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Requiem: Is This America?  – December 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorrow at the divisiveness roiling our nation, though I continue to reject the wildly disingenuous false equivalence that “both sides are equally to blame.” (Fine people on both sides, you know.)

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

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

Is this America?

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The Enduring Appeal of Walls (for Troglodytes) – December 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rise of the Espiocracy – January 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fittingly, it was Russia that gave the world its first modern intelligence service, the Cheka, not to mention a rich history of poisoning and other forms of political assassination that goes back to the tsars. So it is only natural that it should be the first modern espiocracy. And with the installation of Donald Trump as President of the United States, they may well have pulled off the greatest coup in the history of the spy game.

Felix Dzerzhinsky would be proud.

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Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen – February 11, 2019

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

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

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

Yet he never did.

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

And what he is is a troglodyte.

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

But after watching him in office for two years, even Republicans who support the agenda that Trump is carrying out on their behalf—tax cuts, deregulation, and all that rot—cannot possibly contend that this man isn’t a willfully ignorant cretin, however useful he has been to them. (Again leaving out the Kool-Aid drunk, criminally insane, and neo-fascist white supremacists, which I realize excuses the majority of the GOP.)

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

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

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

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

But a lot of people already realized that in 2016.

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In Case of Non-Emergency, Break Glass….or What If They Burned Down the Reichstag and Nobody Cared? – February 17, 2019

Many have also scoffed at the idea of an “emergency” that was preceded by weeks and weeks of foreplay. Fair enough. But at the risk of jeopardizing my Platinum Club status in the Trump Derangement Syndrome Club, here I’ll demur slightly.

Per above, ain’t no emergency. Instead, what we have is sheer demagoguery, wholly contradicted by the facts, from a man who launched his political career on the lie of birtherism, who began his presidential campaign by declaring that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals, rapists, and who has governed by stoking racism and hate among a panicked segment of white America. The wall is simply the biggest and most concrete (or is it steel slats?) manifestation of that. And guess what? A lot of people know it.

I don’t generally torture myself by listening to Trump speak at length; the legitimate media is very good at distilling what we need to know, saving us the pain of enduring the full force of the garbage that issues from his piehole. But actually exposing yourself to it can occasionally be instructive. So it was that I happened to hear much of his Rose Garden announcement, which—brace yourselves—was absolute gibberish. (Death penalty for drug dealers? Railing against “chain migration” when your own wife and her family made use of it? In that sense it was all vintage Trump.)

Even if one supports Trump’s agenda, no rational person could listen to that rambling, incoherent mélange of braggadocio, outright lies, non sequiturs, and fascist free association and come away arguing that this man is fit to lead a pre-kindergarten playdate, let alone the government of the United States.

Yet here we are.

From the very beginning of the Trump presidency there have been widespread fears that he would eventually reach a point of such pressure, and of such panic at the threat of being exposed as the criminal he is, that he would precipitate some kind of fake international crisis to distract the public and justify seizing imperial-like powers. A Reichstag fire is the usual metaphor, although the Gulf of Tonkin or sinking of the Maine would also suffice.

In many ways, the “national emergency” over the border wall is that long awaited, all-but-inevitable Reichstag fire.

But does Trump really need to bother with misdirection? His followers don’t need anything to distract them, as they readily swallow his lies whole. The sentient majority of the American public knows he’s full of shit and isn’t fooled by any of this. I suppose there is a small slice of the electorate that remains susceptible to his bullshit, but they are statistically insignificant.

For as we’ve seen, neither the facts nor the will of the majority seem to matter anymore in these United States. And if the Supreme Court permits this blatantly unjustified usurpation of authority, they will be handing Trump—of all people—a serious escalation of imperial powers, regardless of whether the American people know it’s a scam or not.

Chancellor Schicklgruber never had it so good.

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The Right Wing Loop of Malicious Ignorance – March 1, 2019

When confronted with facts that they cannot logically refute, right wingers habitually adopt a strategy of murdering the messenger. In the Republican world, even the most legitimate news organizations are all lower than supermarket tabloids, controlled as they are by George Soros, the Clintons, and Barbra Streisand. Not a word in them can be taken seriously, or even merits the energy to move one’s lips to read.

It’s a perpetual motion disinformation machine which no critical data can penetrate, because such data is heresy by definition.

Needless to say, this dynamic is toxic for a functioning democracy, as it makes intelligent debate impossible. It is an insidious, deliberately Orwellian subversion of truth as a common metric and a serious danger to the health of the republic. And Donald Trump, an inveterate, pathological liar and con man par excellence, is both the ultimate product of this mentality and its perfect standard bearer, the drum major marching at the head of the parade of proud Know Nothings that the modern GOP has become.

The GOP’s embrace of what the vampiric Kellyanne Conway memorably called “alternative facts” long pre-dates the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but it has reached its apotheosis with a Republican president* who blithely ignores the truth and spews falsehoods as naturally as he breathes. Anti-intellectualism is an old strain in reactionary politics. But reverse snobbery at eggheaded academics is one thing; denying that the sky is blue is quite another.

It’s pointless to make any kind of logical argument with people in the grip of this kind of fanatic resistance to facts. In another political argument I had online—ironically, one of the more calm and reasonable ones—a woman cited an apocryphal, derogatory story about Obama. (I can’t recall which one, as they are legion.) In response, I sent her a Snopes link debunking the tale. She replied, without rancor, that she wasn’t going to read what Snopes had to say “because I like to make up my own mind.”

That’s like saying, “I don’t need a scale—I like to decide for myself what I weigh.”

And of course, as we all know, these people are led by public figures who gleefully exploit that gullibility with the most shameless dishonesty imaginable. Last week, in a contentious interview with Chris Wallace of Fox, Stephen Miller made the circular, Kafkaesque argument that the border wall was necessary to protect the US Army troops that Trump deployed to the border in order to build the wall. (Then he unhinged his jaw and swallowed a live rat.)

Blind allegiance. Denial of irrefutable reality. Fanatical loyalty in defiance of the plain truth. What all this boils down to, as Chris Hedges recently wrote, is that the Republican Party has become a cult. Not like a cult, not cult-as-metaphor, but a literal cult in which the word of the leader is to be believed over what one can see with one’s own eyes.

Is there any reason to think that these same people are ever going to wake up and smell the bongwater about this fake president and the vast criminal enterprise over which he presides, no matter what evidence eventually emerges?

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Trump as OJ – March 29, 2019

The US intelligence community has stated unequivocally that Russian interference in our elections is continuing and will only increase as 2020 approaches…..yet Trump and the GOP have lifted not a finger to stop it, as they know it benefits them. Indeed, they have actively refused to take the measures that freaked-out cyberwar experts have pleaded with them to put in place to hinder these foreign attacks, nor spent any of the money allocated to harden our defenses against hostile penetration and manipulation. These sins of omission cannot properly be described as anything other than collaboration with a foreign power by means of negligence, all in the interest of skewing elections and retaining power, not to mention a violation of Trump’s oath to protect and defend the Constitution. That is a flat-out treasonous outrage that goes far beyond hanky panky with Putin, WikiLeaks, and Cambridge Analytica. It is an act that ought to infuriate patriotic Americans of every ideological persuasion.

We already know that the past two years have uncovered dozens of contacts between Russian assets and members of Trump’s circle, to include immediate family members, despite their denials to high heaven that there were any contacts whatsoever. And why did Trump and his associates relentlessly lie through their bonded teeth about that? The answer—as provided by the special counsel, as well as other investigators (and, important to note, journalists)—is because he is in massive debt to Russian money (see Eric Trump, and Deutsche Bank)…..because he is likely complicit in extensive moneylaundering for Russian oligarchs who are by definition connected to the Kremlin….and, most gobsmacking of all amid his howling insistence that he had no business interests in Russia of any kind, because he was trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow well into the 2016 campaign, even going so far as to offer Putin himself a $50 million dollar bribe in the process. That lie—uncovered by the Mueller probe through its interrogation of Michael Cohen, in a case now referred to the SDNY—is one that left him stunningly vulnerable to Russian blackmail, which ought to be a world-rocking crisis all by itself. And we don’t even know what other counterintelligence implications the special counsel found because, obviously, we haven’t yet seen his report.

None of these counterintelligence matters are crimes per se, but they are very definitely scathing reflections on Trump and severe threats to national security. Which may be the understatement of the year. Frum again:

For all its many dark secrets, there have never been any real mysteries about the Trump-Russia story. The president of the United States was helped into his job by clandestine Russian attacks on the American political process. That core truth is surrounded by other disturbing probabilities, such as the likelihood that Putin even now is exerting leverage over Trump in some way.

That the President of the United States is in thrall to a foreign power is far more damning than even electoral conspiracy. Indeed, as I and many others have written ad nauseam, it is a jawdropping scandal (or would be in any previous era). More to the point, it is a national security emergency that Congress is duty bound to address. That the current political climate precludes the obvious remedy—impeachment—should not prevent us from daily shouting from the rooftops to remind the American public of this absolutely shocking and unacceptable state of affairs.

And the front lines of that fight, now more than ever, is the 2020 election.

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Cover Me: Bill Barr’s Moment of Truth – April 4, 2019

Bill Barr is the Attorney General that Donald Trump always dreamed of.

We’ve heard a lot—even from progressive pundits on MSNBC—about how Barr is an honorable public servant, with integrity and respect for the rule of law, an eminence grise from the days of the “old school GOP.” Yeah, that’s the old school GOP that gave us Iran/contra and secret sales of WMD to Saddam Hussein, which Barr actively covered up during his first tour as AG under Bush 41. Bush pardoned six underlings implicated in Iran/contra, including his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, with Barr providing legal cover and help in shutting down an investigation by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. It was behavior so egregious that William Safire—the former Nixon speechwriter turned conservative columnist (!)—nicknamed him the “Coverup General,” and called him that in print.

So I am unmoved by the hosannas attesting to what a fine and honorable man Bill Barr is. It strikes me as a farce, and a measure of how low the sliding scale had slid when it comes to “public service.” On the contrary, he seems to be a veteran of exactly this kind of unethical bullshit, which is surely why he got the job with Trump in the first place. As Thom Hartmann wrote in reporting Barr’s ugly backstory for Salon, “History shows that when a Republican president is in serious legal trouble, Bill Barr is the go-to guy.”

It’s an open secret that Barr auditioned for an encore in the Trump administration with an unsolicited 19-page attack on the very legitimacy of the special counsel (almost five times the length of his summary/non-summary of Mueller’s report), which he sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel and even discussed personally with Trump (double !!). In it, he called the SCO’s whole obstruction inquiry “fatally misconceived,” in keeping with his well-known, expansive view of executive power (in a word: unfettered), including the eye-popping, anti-democratic belief that a President by definition cannot obstruct justice.

Neal Katyal, the former acting US Solicitor General who helped draft the current special counsel rules (and like the late Mr. Safire, another self-identified conservative), wrote that Barr’s unsolicited memo reflected “bizarre legal views,” and “should be understood for what it is, a badly argued attempt to put presidents above the law.”

In other words, Barr seems to have been hired specifically because he offered the implicit (if not explicit) promise that he would support an imperial presidency, ensure that Trump would never be charged with obstruction, and would bury the results of the Mueller probe.

Now he appears to be doing precisely that, in plain sight.

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Der Furor – April 10, 2019

Over the last few weeks, all the focus on the fallout of the still-under-wraps Mueller report has obscured the central and ongoing reality of the Trump administration: its fundamental sadism, greed, corruption, and inhumanity as it marches into history as far and away the worst presidency of modern times by any metric you care to apply. Untoward footsie with Russia (and the Saudis, and the Azerbaijanis, and the Israelis, zzzzz) is but one aspect of it, and—as many critics on the left have pointed out—the attention paid to that sucks the oxygen away from a raging forest fire of other sins.

We were reminded of that this week with the abrupt firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirrstjjen Nielssenn (did I spell that right?), apparently ahead of the impending departure of a half dozen other senior DHS officials in a purge orchestrated by the reptilian Stephen Miller, with Trump’s eager endorsement, but without any sign of succession by competent replacements. “Decapitation,” one anonymous insider called this Sunday Night Massacre…..and this at the agency responsible for addressing what Trump claims is a “national emergency.”

No tears will be shed for Kirsten, of course—screw her and the broom she rode in on. But that purge, we’re told, in turn precedes Trump’s fuming desire to “get tougher” on the situation at the southern border, to halt all asylum seekers in defiance of federal law, and to ratchet up his xenophobic immigration policy full stop.

“Get tougher”? Are they kidding?

Let’s not concede them their preferred terms. Ain’t no “tougher” about it. What they’re talking about is better described as raising the already appalling level of institutional cruelty to an even more stomach-churning level, which is saying something. That would include an attempt—again, in defiance of the courts—to reinstate the unconscionable policy of “family separation,” a euphemism for ripping children away from their parents and caging them, as a deliberately brutal ploy to deter future asylum seekers. (Suck on that, Emma Lazarus!) It is a policy that some mental health professionals have described—and not metaphorically—as torture.

In this effort Trump, Miller, and rest of their odious crew seem motivated in equal measure by their own innate sadism and by a tactical desire to appeal to that same quality in their salivating base. There is no discernible plan or policy beyond that, at least not one rooted in anything resembling reality. Some have speculated that mere cruelty is itself the goal, with some vague, nihilistic notion of “disrupting” the entire body politic. If that is so, they have succeeded in spades. But how is that any kind of coherent objective?

Small children have died of negligence in ICE custody. At least one infant was stillborn as a result of the policy of detaining even pregnant women and the lack of suitable medical care. Children already detained during the previous stint of the “family separation policy” have shown signs of PTSD and permanent neurological injury that will require years of psychiatric treatment. The Trump administration recently admitted that it estimates it will take two years just to identify all the thousands of separated children, let alone reunite them, which in some cases will prove impossible.

These are correctly described as crimes against humanity; if we were watching them unfold in some Third World country we would all recognize the horror and decry the barbarism of the government administering it.

So why are the American people not out in the streets in outrage? Why am I sitting at my computer writing this instead of doing that? In terms of federal policy, what’s going on right now—let alone what will happen next when Trump gets “tougher”— ranks as one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history, recalling the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Will we remember this as a low point in modern American history? You bet your ass we will.

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Reading Mr. Mueller – May 2, 2019

The Mueller report laid out a damning portrait of a presidential campaign that eagerly accepted the help of a hostile foreign power in order to win the White House; that was well aware of Russian efforts to interfere on its behalf and welcomed those efforts; that enthusiastically entertained meetings with foreign nationals offering such assistance (“If it’s what you say I love it”), openly encouraged this attack on our electoral system (“Russia, if you’re listening…”), and then gleefully exploited and capitalized on the poisonous fruits thereof (the WikiLeaks dump of stolen DNC emails).

Everybody over there in once-Russophobic Fox Nation cool with all that?

Moreover, Team Trump vehemently denied over and over that it had ANY contacts with Russians whatsoever, only later to be shown to have had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals, WikiLeaks, or their associates. That alone ought to have made any American citizen think twice about the honesty of this team and its claim of unquestioned loyalty to the United States….although per Rudy Giuliani, Republicans have recently decided that accepting the help of the Kremlin is totally fine, when their side does it.

But of course the public didn’t have the opportunity to think twice about that, because in September 2016 Mitch McConnell blocked the proposal to make that pertinent information public in a bipartisan manner.

The parade of guys in furry hats meeting with Team Trump was so long that Mueller spends 198 pages in Volume One of his report documenting it, as noted by Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In a key passage, Mueller writes: “The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” That, by any reasonable political definition, is collaboration with a hostile foreign power, passive or otherwise—a sin of omission that ought to be disqualifying for any presidential aspirant, to say the least.

The proof, for any doubter, is that the Trump campaign failed to inform ANYONE in the US law enforcement or intelligence communities that it had been contacted by foreign nationals offering this kind of illegal assistance. So we are not talking about a presidential campaign that was appalled by the actions of Vladimir Putin’s agents, regardless of its own cooperation with them or lack thereof.

The Mueller report also catalogued other clandestine connections between Trump and Russia that in any previous administration would, in and of themselves, been presidency-ending. Chief among these was the fact that Donald Trump had a multimillion dollar real estate deal in the works in Russia—a proposed Trump Tower Moscow—that came with a $50 million in-kind bribe he offered to Putin personally in the form of a penthouse apartment designed to lure other oligarch into the building.

And just to remind you: like the claims that there had been no campaign coordination with the Russians, Trump howled with righteous outrage—both throughout the election and after he was in office—at the very suggestion that he had ANY business contacts with Russia. Now we know that that was perhaps the most bald-faced lie any politician ever tried to perpetrate on the American people.

As if all that is not enough, Trump’s lies about the Moscow venture created another historic scandal in the form of a counterintelligence nightmare: a presidential candidate (and then sitting president) vulnerable to Russian blackmail and other political pressure because the Kremlin held explosive information about him that he was hiding from the American people. That is the very definition of how extortion works, folks. In light of that, Trump’s bizarre, previously inexplicable pattern of pro-Russian statements and actions—even in defiance of his own intelligence chiefs and the US military and diplomatic communities—suddenly makes sense, and stands as stark evidence of just how much he was in Moscow’s thrall.

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A Plague Among Us – May 7, 2019

The litany of Trump’s sins is too long and mind-numbing to repeat. Yet still—and this is the part that makes me feel like a stroke is coming on—the Republican Party stands by him.

That’s right: a party that wanted the drag out the guillotine when Barack Obama wore a khaki colored suit is now perfectly fine with a president hiding his tax returns, paying hush money to a porn star, wantonly profiting from the presidency, defying Congress, obstructing federal investigations, and playing footsie (at the very least) with the Kremlin and kowtowing to them at every turn. They are fine with a president who routinely orders his subordinates to lie to Congress and to create fake paper trails to cover their tracks, who sees the Department of Justice as his personal Cosa Nostra and pictures Roy Cohn as the perfect Attorney General. And I’m confining myself here to bipartisan outrages, leaving aside the numerous policy-based crimes against humanity—like caging babies or undermining our NATO allies or destroying the planet—that many on the right actually agree with.

The steady parade of conservatives cravenly selling their souls to Trump has been underway for more than three years, but it is reaching a critical mass now that the special counsel’s report is complete and the country is faced with the question of how to respond.

This abdication of civic duty goes beyond simple partisanship. Trump’s actions are not trivial matters that can be ignored or recast as something benign, at least not without a massive deployment of epic hypocrisy and deceit…..a task at which, admittedly, the GOP excels.

So what do we do when a third of the American people—either because they willfully deny it or hypocritically condone it—simply do not care about behavior that by any reasonable measure demands, at the very least, consideration of impeachment?

What do we do when they are willing to tolerate behavior that makes Nixon look like a piker: massive corruption, shameless attacks on a free press, undermining of the rule of law, and open consorting with our enemies for personal gain, not to mention brazen racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and general contempt for democracy and even the very concept of truth itself?

What do we do when some of them turn not just a blind eye to this behavior but actively applaud it, while far more minor transgressions by members the other party—and sometimes things that aren’t even offenses at all, or aren’t even true—rouse those same people to start fashioning nooses?

What do we do when they will defend the president in defiance in violation of anything even remotely resembling principle, simply because he’s their boy? What do we do when they are fine with a gangsterocracy?

I don’t know. But I do that it leads down a very very dark path.

As many have noted, Donald Trump is the symptom, not the cause of our ills. Per Mr. Mencken, a malevolent ignoramus of this sort is the logical end result of the modern Republican Party’s slow slide into John Bircherism, beginning in 1964 (to be generous; really one can trace it to Tailgunner Joe circa 1950). Therefore, his removal, when it comes and by whatever manner, will not be the end of the struggle.

Let me quote—gasp!—AOC, despite her being, ya know, a girl, and brown, and young, and smart, and willing to speak her mind (quelle horreur!). On March 24, a day that will live in infamy (to coin a phrase), she tweeted:

He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020. But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified+reanimated.

Preach.

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How to Tell Elections Matter – May 22, 2019

Is it really be necessary to state that elections matter? Really—you needed that reminder? After November 8, 2016?

We need not reiterate (nor debate) how or why a washed-up game show host and degenerate grifter wound up in the White House. Historians will mull it for generations to come, while satirists will bow down before its tragicomic majesty and their own abject inability to match it with fiction. We can talk about the antiquated, anti-democratic institution of the Electoral College. We can talk about Russian interference (yes, Virginia, it’s real), or the far less discussed and never properly investigated issue of actual vote tampering. We can talk about economic discontent and about the roles of racism and misogyny. We can talk about how Hillary didn’t visit Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ohio enough, or how WikiLeaks dumped a ton of stolen emails the day the Access Hollywood “pussygrabber” tape dropped, or how Comey decided, gee whiz, I’m gonna come out with a statement announcing the re-opening of the investigation into Hillary’s email server just days before Americans go to the polls.

That’s about a thousand doctoral dissertations right there.

But at the end of the day, Donald J. Trump did get in, to almost everyone’s surprise (his included) and everyone who voted for Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or thought Hillary was a shoo-in and stayed home played a part in putting him there, not to mention those who went ahead and actually voted for the Con Man from Queens.

But there was another national election since then, the 2018 midterms, and that one was just as instructive.

Without a Democratic majority in the House, the delivery of the Mueller report would have been exactly what Mitch McConnell wants to pretend it is—“Case closed”—notwithstanding its underlying damnations that Bill Barr tried to spin away. There would be no ongoing Congressional investigations of Trump, no subpoenas, no court fight over his tax returns, no possibility of Barr being held in contempt of Congress, or of Don McGahn or Robert Mueller testifying on national television, no chance of us seeing any of the unredacted report.

I can think of no more powerful positive example in modern American politics of how much elections matter.

I say all this not just to vent about the crime syndicate that the GOP has become (not just), but to make the point that fair elections are one of the things autocrats fear most. Therefore, they are also one of the most powerful weapons we have, if we can maintain their integrity.

Short of Russo-Republican ratfucking, Trump is eminently beatable in 2020. Hell, he lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost three million votes, and only won the Electoral College because of some 10,000 votes in Michigan (out of 4.5 million cast) that could very easily have gone the other way, to cite just one scenario. And he is far less popular now than he was then. His approval ratings have been historically abysmal and never broken 50%……and this with a soaring economy. (Which he rightly gets no credit for, not matter how much he tries to grab it, as the boom began under Obama. If anything, Trump has done his level best to wreck it with things like trade wars, a ballooning deficit, and general global panic-making.)

Whoever emerges from that process, can we all please pledge to put aside our intramural differences and support whomever the blue team nominee proves to be? Let us remember that “Perfect is the enemy of the good”…….that ANY ONE of the approximately 2,457 current Democratic candidates would be infinitely better than Trump….that a rotten, two-week-old hardboiled egg would be better.

As I’ve said before, in order to beat Hitler the US had to ally itself with Stalin. So I think all of us in the so-called resistance ought to be able to find common ground.

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The End of Outrage – June 20, 2019

Uh, didn’t we just spend two excruciating years trying to determine whether Donald Trump, wittingly or otherwise, conspired with a foreign government to help vault him into the White House?

And didn’t Donald Trump over the course of those two years swear up and down nearly every waking minute that he never did any such thing, that the mere allegation was a dirty lie by sore losers trying to delegitimize his presidency? And even now does he not continue to howl that there was “No collusion! no collusion! no collusion!”?

That happened, right? I didn’t dream it, did I?

All that only for Trump to go on national television with George Stephanopolous last week and volunteer that, sure, he’d do that, and what’s more, he didn’t see anything wrong with it.

It’s no wonder Emmet Flood wouldn’t let this guy sit down with Bob Mueller.

This of course is the classic evolution of a Trumpian self-defense:

1) I didn’t do it, and how dare you even ask!

2) Well, maybe I did do it, but I never said I didn’t, and anyway it’s not a crime,

And finally,

3) Hell yes, I ordered the Code Red!

The Stephanopolous interview was a near reprise of Trump’s on-camera admission to NBC’s Lester Holt in May 2017—a boast, really—that he fired Jim Comey specifically to halt the Russia investigation. At the time I thought that alone made for an open-and-shut case on obstruction of justice. I still think that. (Particularly, buttressed as it was, by his blunt comments to Lavrov and Kislyak that same week as to why he fired the FBI director: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”)

Trump truly should stick to talking only to Fox & Friends, because any time he talks to a proper journalist he immediately confesses to the Black Dahlia murder, snatching Jon Benet Ramsey, and sinking the Andrea Doria.

Regardless of the uproar or lack thereof that Trump’s latest gaffe prompted (and I hesitate even to call it a gaffe, because he’s proud of it), there is no reason to believe that it will deal him lethal political (or criminal) damage, or even mark a tipping point, death-of-a-thousand-cuts-style, that leads to his downfall. Which brings us to the crux of the issue, one that we have been continually returning to over and over in these pages:

A disturbingly large number of Americans—enough to put a chokehold on our representative democracy—simply do not care.

We’ve already established that, for diehard members of MAGA Nation, Trump could wipe his ass with the American flag on live TV and they would still cheer and chant “lock her up!” It’s deeply disturbing that some 30-40% of our countrymen are fine with this shameless con man and all his behavior so long as it promotes their own retrograde belief system and agenda. But what would it take for a critical mass of the sane portion of the American people to rise up and say “Enough!” What would to take to ratchet up their anger at Trump from, say, writing-an-angry-blog level to taking-to-the-barricades level?

Of at least equal importance, what would it take for the Republican establishment to turn on him?

We know that caging babies, conspiring with the Kremlin, defending neo-Nazis, and protecting murderers like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman won’t do it, to name just a few lowlights. Trump himself infamously mused aloud that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any support. (He might gain some, especially if the person he shot were black. The NRA would certainly cheer.) The bootlicking behavior of the GOP leadership has certainly lent credence to that boast.

But what if Trump did something truly batshit crazy, so crazy that even Mitch McConnell, the king of pokerfaced hypocrisy, could not excuse or defend it? Perhaps not something policy-based, but indicative of his all-but-undeniable creeping dementia. What if he stood up during a nationally televised speech and began singing and dancing “The Banana Boat Song”?

Would McConnell, Thune, McCarthy, and Scalise then go on TV and say, “Sadly, it appears that the President is ill. Someone call Mike Pence.”

I doubt it. I think they’d shake their hips and sing “day-o.”

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Semantics and Sadism – June 25, 2019

Rule of thumb: if you’re having a national debate about whether or not your country has concentration camps, it probably does.

The very idea that Americans would ever even think of building concentration camps is enough to make many conservatives furious. The chauvinism runs so deep that it creates a feedback loop in which we excuse ourselves from even the possibility that we could behave in such a manner by definition, a kind of get-out-of-Auschwitz-free card that itself ought to expose the dangerous hubris of its adherents.

In other words, the angry Republican pushback against the use of the term is a failure of imagination: a refusal to accept the possibility that the United States could engage in such behavior, using a tautology to explain it away. “The US doesn’t build concentration camps, therefore the camps the US has built aren’t that.”

The most spectacular and attention-grabbing of the recent stories that returned this crisis to the forefront of the national conversation was the image of a US Justice Department attorney named Sarah Fabian arguing in federal court that these children do not require such basic necessities as soap or toothbrushes, and can be made to sleep on cold concrete floors in low temperatures under bright lights, while still meeting the standard for being held in “safe and sanitary” conditions.

Feel free to read that again, in case the cognitive dissonance was too great on the first pass.

Incredibly, the DOJ thought it was a winning strategy to make that argument even knowing that one of the judges on that court, Judge A. Wallace Tashima, was as a child himself held in an internment camp along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II.

You can’t make this shit up.

Now, it may be that Trump and his advisors like the human colostomy bag that is Stephen Miller genuinely believe that these policies will achieve the intended effect of keeping brown people out of America, and keeping those who are already here beaten down. Such barbaric magical thinking has always been characteristic of nativism. (Wow, could there be a less apt term for a movement full of people who stole their land from its actual native inhabitants?) Likewise, they surely understand very very well that there is a political benefit to them in thrilling their red-hatted white nationalist base.

But to the previous point, those goals do feel very much like a side effect. Regardless of any practical result, it seems very clear that the administration quite simply disdains (if not openly loathes) non-whites, and therefore at every available opportunity intends to treat them as badly as possible purely because it can. Even if there is no “practical” payoff, the White House isn’t really bothered in the slightest. So the cruelty is indeed very much an end in itself.

Might I also add how absolutely head-spinning it is that we as Americans have arranged it so that a wantonly unfit, proudly ignorant, D-list celebrity game show host is the man with the authority to inflict this sort of sadistic treatment on hundreds and possibly thousands of children? I guess elections do have consequences.

If we as a people are not stirred to action by the image of an attorney for the Department of Justice standing in front of federal judges and arguing that migrant children ripped from their parents by US border police can be justifiably housed—indefinitely, and with no plan for reuniting them—in makeshift camps behind razor wire, in conditions that would violate the Geneva Convention, then the American soul is truly dead.

Maybe we’re not quite there yet, but someone needs to check for a pulse.

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Authoritarianism Adjacent – July 3, 2019

So what to make of this rise of incipient authoritarianism within the GOP, a rise that has been radically accelerated by Trump, even if the broader trend long predates him? An ocean of ink has been spilled on the topic—little of it by conservatives of course, after eight years of hyperventilating allegations that Barack Obama had claimed for himself the powers of an emperor.

As if to drive the neo-authoritarian point home, Trump is about to get his wish of a Red Square-style May Day—er, I mean Fourth of July—parade, complete with generals standing beside him and fighter plane flyovers and M-1 Abrams tanks rolling down the Mall and marching troops passing in review. (Also: a VIP section, because as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes, “nothing says Fourth of July like preferential treatment for rich toadies.”)

Donny has been after this sort of garish, wildly un-American royalist spectacle ever since he saw the Bastille Day parade in Paris in 2017, and it’s now coming to pass, despite the best efforts of many (even in the Pentagon) to explain why it’s an absolutely terrible idea in every possible way from top to bottom. I’d love to see the press ignore it altogether, but of course, they can’t turn away from a trainwreck.

It hardly bears noting the absurdity of spending millions of taxpayer dollars so an ignorant, draft-dodging egomaniac and borderline traitor can indulge his Napoleonic fantasies and hold a publicly funded campaign rally. Subverting the entire point of a day meant to celebrate our liberation from monarchy does not require any further elucidation here. This at a time when our government is keeping children in squalid conditions in cages, and DOJ lawyers are pleading before federal judges that we can’t afford to provide them soap.

Maybe Trump got both parade and concentration camp advice from his boyfriend Kim Jong Un on his recent trip to North Korea, the latest in a series of shameful diplomatic blunders and unforced Christmas gifts to the DPRK that were once jawdropping, but have now become so routine that I can barely muster the strength to bitch.

And that fatigue is precisely what we have to fear.

Slowly (I turned), step by step, inch by inch, the modern Republican Party—led by its cretinous dotard-king—is dragging us into a sanguine acceptance of what was once unthinkable in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Pick your metaphor of choice: the Overton window is moving even as we speak; we are the frog in boiling water; it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Any way you want to frame it, the bottom line is that Donald Trump thinks Kim, Putin, Erdogan, and Duterte are all swell guys, and the Grand Old Party is just fine with that.

Yes, tanks on the Mall tomorrow are ridiculous. But it’s the tanks on the Mall in November 2020 that I’m more worried about.

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Truth Laces Up Its Boots – July 26, 2019

The case for Trump’s impeachment—far more damning than Richard Nixon’s—has already been laid out in spades. That the Donald is not already back at Mar-a-Lago strategizing with Giuliani, Dershowitz, and his other lawyers ahead of his impending criminal trials (and waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days at Epstein’s) is a testament only to the toxic state of partisan politics in the USA of the late Teens…..and the overwhelming focus on the “optics” of Mueller’s testimony rather than its substance only further proves the point.

I am reminded of the 1992 vice presidential debate, when third party candidate Ross Perot’s running mate, retired US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale, became a national punchline for his unorthodox, slightly doddering performance against Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Stockdale was a Medal of Honor winner, fighter pilot, prisoner of the North Vietnamese for more than seven years, three-star flag officer, and a classics scholar and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Yet this brilliant, accomplished, heroic patriot was mocked by comparison with two professional mannequins for committing what the comedian Dennis Miller said was “the worst sin in American life: he was bad on television.” (This was back when Miller was still funny, and had not yet turned into a right wing troll himself. These days, as a Trump superfan, he would be more likely to be among those snickering at Stockdale, or Mueller.)

We have not come very far in 27 years. In fact, we may have lost ground. My DVR identified the broadcast of the hearings, all seven hours of it, as “Mueller Testifies,” like it was a new Netflix show. The snide reviews are what passes for serious political dialogue in Trump’s America, where ratings are everything, Cabinet officers get chosen because they look the part, and life has become nothing but a nightmare reality show with a sociopathic ignoramus as host. It’s no surprise that this is not a world in which a man like Robert Swan Mueller III thrives.

The good news is that, just 24 hours after Mueller’s testimony, there is already a backlash about this obsession with style over substance. (That’s how fast the news cycle moves today.) On Twitter, former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett slapped down NBC’s Chuck Todd by saying: “When you say ‘on optics, this was a disaster’ it is you saying so that helps make it true. The disaster of the optics is the elevation of optics and the claim by pundits that it was a disaster.”

Somewhere, the late Jim Stockdale—may he rest in peace—is smiling.

In that sense, the Mueller testimony was a microcosm of our entire national dilemma: quiet, principled, almost agonizingly dry recitation of the facts gets shouted down by angry, dishonest hysterics in the service of lies and demagoguery. It was the perfect example of the old saw that a lie goes round the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots. That axiom has gotten a hellacious workout in the Trump era.

Meanwhile, the battle for the soul of this nation continues.

We must carry on with the effort to remove this toxic pretender to the presidential throne by every legal means possible. We must not let our ardor flag with the inevitable twists and turns of the fight. We must never let the American people forget about his unfitness for office, his appallingly immoral, destructive, un-American—and in many cases illegal—acts, or the damage he is doing to our country and the world. Our effort is made harder by the complexity of the issues, and the sinister disinformation effort by the GOP to obscure Trump’s guilt, but we can’t let that deter us. On the contrary: those challenges demand even more determination and tenacity.

We are now in the early stages of what is already a brutal and divisive presidential election that promises only to get much much worse before it’s done. It may get so ugly that we look back fondly on the 2016 campaign as kinder and gentler times. November 2020 may mark the final nail in the coffin of American democracy, or it may see the overdue ejection of a man who never had any business sitting in the Oval Office to begin with, a crippling blow to the reprehensible party that birthed him, and the beginning of a long, slow rebuilding. But this much is for sure:

We stand no chance of winning if we don’t go into it fighting with every fiber of our being.

Truth Laces Up Its Boots

613px-LT_Robert_S._Mueller,_USMC

This could be a very short blog entry this week, because I can summarize Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated Congressional testimony succinctly:

The former special counsel delivered exactly the kind of circumspect performance he had promised, the Republicans set their hair on fire trying to discredit him, the Democrats didn’t really get the viral moment they wanted, and the media obsessed over superficialities like a bunch of teenagers on Snapchat.

None of which changes an iota of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors or his manifest unfitness for office, as scrupulously detailed in the SCO’s 448-page report.

OK, see you next week…..

Just kidding. As regular readers of The King’s Necktie know, neither “very short” nor “succinctly” are in my vocabulary. So let’s get into it.

BEST BEACH READING FOR SUMMER 2019

Let’s start with the most sidesplittingly hilarious thing I read all week. It comes from a Mr. Donald J. Trump, 73, of Washington DC, who writes (on Twitter):

“I completely read the entire Mueller Report, and do you know what I concluded after reading both Volume 1 and Volume 2? There is no there there. NO THERE THERE! We completely wasted everybody’s time and taxpayer’s money.”

I am more ready to believe that Sharon Stone was on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour in 1975 than I am to believe that Donald Trump read ANY of the Mueller report, let alone the entire thing.

(Oh wait, maybe he did, as he wrote that he “completely read” it, “both Volume 1 and Volume 2.” Because when you really did something you always need to stress it with defensive qualifiers.)

But Donald Trump is not alone, as most Americans—including most members of Congress—have not read the report.

For those who have, and who understand what it represents, the hope with Mr. Mueller’s testimony was that the movie would be a bigger splash than the book, as the tedious metaphor went. But even those hopeful folks went into the event with very very modest expectations, given the byzantine complexity of the facts that required elucidating, Mueller’s famous cautiousness, and his well-known aversion to partisan slugfests.

Those low expectations were met.

I say that with all due respect to all involved. Anyone still banking on Robert Mueller to step out of a phone booth wearing a red cape and save the republic is sadly deluded, as well as abdicating their own responsibility in that effort. He told us beforehand he was going to be painfully cautious and stick to what was already in the report, one that Never Trump conservative Charlie Sykes aptly called “a devastating indictment of the president’s mendacity and a challenge to the national conscience.” That’s not enough? Now you’re surprised that he turned out to be a buttoned-down “just-the-facts, ma’am” G-man?

Writing in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick noted that “dragging an unwilling witness into a polemical hearing was never going to go well.” If Democrats are unhappy with yesterday’s results, they have only themselves to blame for not mounting a more aggressive prosecution of the president’s crimes on their own thus far, and instead putting it all on Bob Mueller.

The case for Trump’s impeachment—far more damning than Richard Nixon’s—has already been laid out in spades. That the Donald is not already back at Mar-a-Lago strategizing with Giuliani, Dershowitz, and his other lawyers ahead of his impending criminal trials (and waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days at Epstein’s) is a testament only to the toxic state of partisan politics in the USA of the late Teens…..and the overwhelming focus on the “optics” of Mueller’s testimony rather than its substance only further proves the point.

I am reminded of the 1992 vice presidential debate, when third party candidate Ross Perot’s running mate, retired US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale, became a national punchline for his unorthodox, slightly doddering performance against Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Stockdale was a Medal of Honor winner, fighter pilot, prisoner of the North Vietnamese for more than seven years, three-star flag officer, and a classics scholar and fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Yet this brilliant, accomplished, heroic patriot was mocked by comparison with two professional mannequins for committing what the comedian Dennis Miller said was “the worst sin in American life: he was bad on television.” (This was back when Miller was still funny, and had not yet turned into a right wing troll himself. These days, as a Trump superfan, he would be more likely to be among those snickering at Stockdale, or Mueller.)

We have not come very far in 27 years. In fact, we may have lost ground. My DVR identified the broadcast of the hearings, all seven hours of it, as “Mueller Testifies,” like it was a new Netflix show. The snide reviews are what passes for serious political dialogue in Trump’s America, where ratings are everything, Cabinet officers get chosen because they look the part, and life has become nothing but a nightmare reality show with a sociopathic ignoramus as host. It’s no surprise that this is not a world in which a man like Robert Swan Mueller III thrives.

The good news is that, just 24 hours after Mueller’s testimony, there is already a backlash about this obsession with style over substance. (That’s how fast the news cycle moves today.) On Twitter, former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett slapped down NBC’s Chuck Todd by saying: “When you say ‘on optics, this was a disaster’ it is you saying so that helps make it true. The disaster of the optics is the elevation of optics and the claim by pundits that it was a disaster.”

Somewhere, the late Jim Stockdale—may he rest in peace—is smiling.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Short of an explosive moment that few expected, Mueller’s testimony was never going to be a massive gamechanger, and it wasn’t. Both sides played to played to their respective bases, reaffirming their own positions for their own audiences, which was not an exercise likely to result in tectonic shifts in calcified public opinion. If it didn’t give the Democrats a bloody shirt to wave as they march toward impeachment, neither did it give the GOP their desperately sought closure to proper investigation of Donald Trump’s life of crime. So merrily we roll along much as we did before.

This is not to say that both sides made an equally strong case. The Democrats may have tried to get Mueller to stand up and yell “J’accuse!,” but they did not traffic in falsehoods and fairy tales. By contrast, the Republicans put on a shameful display of theatrical character assassination, gaslighting, and outright lies, much of it specifically designed to please Donald J. Trump and excuse and defend his actions as he seeks re-election.

If the consensus of the mediarati is that the Republican effort carried the day, what does that say about America?

Of course, the right wing perspective is precisely the opposite in terms of who was spinning fairy tales. But that relativistic attempt to create a false equivalence is the very point here. The right would like us to believe that this is a “he said / she said” situation. But consider this analogy:

Two people are arguing about the shape of the earth. One says it’s round, the other that it’s flat. The second person claims that his argument deserves to be treated with equal seriousness, and that the first individual’s insistence otherwise is the height of arrogance.

The flat-earther’s argument is either ignorant or dishonest, but one thing it indisputably isn’t, is true.

For the Democrats, the point in calling Mueller to testify was not to try to influence MAGA Nation—we learned long ago that they are far too far gone (too far). The point was to put on live TV pertinent facts about Trump’s behavior (“I’m fucked”) that the US public largely does not know. That display might not sway anyone in a red hat, but it might at least explode the myth that the special counsel’s report “totally and completely” exonerated him. (Jerry Nadler got the ball rolling by getting Mr. Mueller to say that very bluntly and explicitly in answer to the very first question, one of three key queries former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal had suggested). And that was well worth doing, since we recently learned that some Trump supporters apparently thought the SCO report had not a discouraging word to say about our Dear Leader, based on what we saw at a Justin Amash rally in Michigan last May.

The point was to rob the GOP of its false talking points and undermine its ability to misrepresent the findings of the special counsel in the only court that matters right now, that of public opinion, both for the 2020 presidential campaign and possible impeachment. Of course, Trump and the Republicans will continue to lie about it regardless, but it helps to be able to definitively call out their dishonesty.

As the morning rolled on, “No one is above the law” was the Democrats’ obvious mantra. (Trump’s, meanwhile, is “I am.”) They also repeatedly said, “If any other person in America did this…..” The Democrats also stressed Mueller’s credentials again and again, especially his decorated service as a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, a trope designed to undercut Republican attempts to smear him to a military-adoring Fox audience.

And what of the GOP? Given the millions of eyeballs watching at home (and the two in the White House), many of the Republican congressmen appeared to be blatantly auditioning for jobs in the administration and/or right wing media, which is kind of the same thing.

With their usual world-beating hypocrisy, they insulted and scolded Mueller for not explicitly recommending impeachment if he thought it was indicated, even as we all know they would have crucified him if he had done so, as it was not within his remit.

They worked in a lot of their favorite verbiage, such as references to “socialists” and “spying” by the FBI. Rep. Ken Buck [R-CO] seemed to score an own goal by getting Mueller to reiterate on national television that Trump can be charged with obstruction once he is out of office.

Especially prominent among their myriad distortions, falsehoods, and outright lies were tales of how Trump allegedly “cooperated fully” with an investigation that he relentlessly attacked, refused to be interviewed for, and illegally tried to shut down. Indeed, several House Republicans actively praised Trump for not firing Mueller, which is like giving your dog a scooby snack for not eating your toddler.

But as my friend Justin Schein points out, the irony is that if Trump had fired Mueller—which he explicitly wanted to do, and tried mightily to do—he probably would have been impeached already. But his team knew that and stopped him (especially Don McGahn, who threatened to resign rather than carry out Trump’s orders), thus saving him from himself. But as we all know, attempts at obstruction do not have to be carried out in order to be illegal.

Oh, and not for nothing, but no Republican denied Trump had committed any of these acts: the best they could do was try to distract our attention from them, or pretend it was all fine.

Which leads us to the fundamental dilemma at the heart of Mueller’s appearance. Ultimately the Democrats were in a no-win situation, at least in terms of hoping this hearing would be a decisive turning point. Even if Mr. Mueller delivered a scathing indictment of Trump, the GOP would simply, sleazily claim it was part of a partisan witchhunt, the very tactic they have taken from the moment he was appointed. They did that even as it was, viciously so, with Mueller calmly sitting there delivering a dispassionate, painfully even-handed review of his investigation that in no possible way could be construed as biased toward the Democratic side. Yet the Republicans also claimed that his testimony vindicated them (much as Trump himself hailed the SCO report both as a baseless witchhunt and as “total and complete exoneration”).

Their willingness to slander a dedicated, lifelong public servant was astonishing. In the New Yorker John Cassidy writes:

In today’s GOP….decades of loyal public service count for nothing when the leader and his henchmen decide someone represents a threat and the apparatchiks have been ordered to take that person down. All that matters is carrying out the order and staying in the leader’s good graces. That isn’t congressional oversight. It is scorched-earth politics of a kind that is entirely antithetical to the notion of checks and balances enshrined in the US Constitution.

So let the GOP flog its alterative facts. History will render its judgment on what we witnessed yesterday, and when it does, I am confident the conduct of the Republican members of these committees will be remembered like that of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era—which is to say, as one of the most despicable episodes in modern US political history.

You heard it here first.

INTELLIGENCE, SUCH AS IT IS

Ironically, the Democrats may have gained more ground, public opinion-wise, in the second half of the day, with the Intelligence Committee, even though it dealt with events for which Trump faces no criminal exposure. They likely expected the opposite, which surely was why they had the committee hearings in that order, addressing Volume 2 of the Mueller report, which concerns the coverup, before Volume 1, which concerns the underlying crime of conspiracy with Russia. (Or it may have been mere scheduling; who knows?)

But that surprise speaks to how successfully the White House and GOP have muddied the waters on obstruction. When it comes to that question, millions of Fox-watching Americans now do nothing more than shrug over what they routinely dismiss—when they acknowledge them at all—as mere “process crimes.” (The way pulling the trigger is mere “process” in shooting someone dead, I guess.)

By contrast, and irrespective of criminal charges, the House Democrats made a strong impression by detailing the laundry list of Trump’s unconscionable acts in regard to Russia that he needed to hide in the first place, from his lies about Trump Tower Moscow, to his vulnerability to blackmail, to his habit of meeting with Putin in secret, kissing his butt cheeks, and then destroying any notes documenting their tryst.

As Neal Katyal noted, Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) led off strongly by getting Mueller to firmly agree on five successive points in a rapid fire sequence tailor-made for the evening news:

  1. That Russia interfered in the election
  2. That it did so to help Trump and defeat Clinton
  3. That the Trump campaign welcomed the help (and did not report it)
  4. That Don Jr expressed in writing that he “loved it”
  5. And—PS—that Trump Sr. was seeking to make money from Russia in the Trump Tower Moscow scheme

It is worth noting that all the House Republicans yesterday appeared to (at least tacitly) accept the reality of that Russian interference…..yet not one of them acknowledged that Trump himself does not—a rather glaring disconnect. But the Republicans don’t acknowledge it because the dirty little fact is that Russian efforts help not just Trump but all of them, by extension.

(Mitch sure understands that.)

As a final note on the intel side, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence Frank Figliuzzi, now often seen on MSNBC, caught something I haven’t heard anyone else mention. In answer to a question from Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-CA), Mueller seemed to reveal that the FBI is STILL investigating the extent to which Trump is compromised by Russia—as well it should be. If that is correct, that is a remarkable revelation. (On that point, it’s worth wondering if Mueller handed off the CI aspect of his inquiry in order to shield it from the kind of political interference and grandstanding that we witnessed regarding the criminal investigation piece.)

EAT A PEACH

Mueller had not even gotten up from is chair at 3:59pm Eastern time when the media—right, center, and even the left, for the most part—collectively concluded that the air has gone out of the impeachment effort as a result of the day’s events. (This one from the WaPo’s Dan Balz is typical.)

But making the case for impeachment was never Robert Mueller’s job: I think he made that abundantly clear in the 448 pages of his report, in his May 29 press conference, and all day yesterday. It was a fundamental error to cast him in that role and to bank so much on it. (Preet Bharara had already noted Mueller’s well-known distaste for partisan politics during his previous 89 trips to testify on the Hill, and his desire to be neither a “pawn nor a piñata.”)

As Andrew Egger writes in the Bulwark:

The Robert Mueller who showed up Wednesday was neither party’s caricature of him: Not the duplicitous, Trump-deranged witch-hunter bedeviled by much of the right, not the messianic, giant-slaying #Resistance hero adored by much of the left. Rather, he was just the dowdy old lawyer and public servant who was called on to do a crazily difficult and controversial task, and did it as best he could with the least possible amount of drama or fuss. That was the Robert Mueller we needed, and the Robert Mueller we got. Don’t blame him if we can’t handle the rest.

Predictably, late night comics had a field day, although they were also surprisingly sympathetic to his plight, more so than many so-called serious commentators, perhaps attesting to the comedian’s natural incisiveness. (Comics 1, Pundits 0.) Several of them laid the blame—as Dahlia Lithwick did—on those who wanted the former special counsel to be something he isn’t and do something he didn’t want to do. Trevor Noah joked that Mueller was “like the world’s least cooperative audio book”:

“Chapter One: You know what? You know how to read. Go get the book. Read it yourself”….

The guy spent two years writing up an incredibly thorough document and now people are badgering him with questions he’s already answered. It would be like if Jesus came back and then we spent hours asking him to explain stuff that was in the Bible.

Samantha Bee quipped:

You have everything you need to decide the question ‘Should Donald Trump be impeached?’ and the answer is, yes, yes, he should. We don’t need to force the world’s grumpiest law daddy to read between the lines of his report when you could just read the lines.

In the right wing media, the cackling was just as gleeful but less kind and far less funny, and again focused purely on the entertainment value—which is not surprising, since the substantive part of what the special counsel said (and wrote) makes the right wing look pretty goddam awful. Charlie Sykes again nailed it, saying: “The GOP chortling is distasteful precisely because it ignores the gravity of what Mueller told the nation yesterday.”

Even more than the general public’s or that of the mainstream media, the Republican fixation on the performative aspect of Mueller’s testimony has an insidious subtext, which is to undermine the content of his remarks, and to create the delusion that he found nothing amiss in Team Trump. But the idea that there is no longer any merit to impeachment is a Republican fantasy and con job they are trying to sell to their colleagues across the aisle, and to the American people.

I’m here to tell you: don’t believe the hype.

It may have been a tactical mistake for Democrats to pin so much on Mueller’s appearance, even as they tried to tamp down expectations, but that hardly means we ought to forget what Trump did or give him a pass. Russiagate and the subsequent coverup and obstruction of its investigation should have already been a presidency-ending scandal, but the GOP has managed to deflect it with wanton dishonesty, lack of principle, and tribalist contempt for the rule of law and democracy full stop. They have so clouded the issue that, tragically, it fails to register with a sufficient segment of the American people.

In that sense, the Mueller testimony was a microcosm of our entire national dilemma: quiet, principled, almost agonizingly dry recitation of the facts gets shouted down by angry, dishonest hysterics in the service of lies and demagoguery. It was the perfect example of the old saw that a lie goes round the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots.

That axiom has gotten a hellacious workout in the Trump era.

But I must say: wasn’t it nice not to have Russiagate on the front burner for the past few weeks? In the interval between the release of the redacted report and yesterday’s testimony, we had the focus on things like concentration camps on the border, and migrant children caged in squalor so Stephen Miller could get an erection: atrocities that genuinely seemed to galvanize many Americans to oppose this administration. It feels like a step backward to return into the morass of legalese that the GOP has succeeded in turning the Russia investigation into.

I am not of the Glenn Greenwald school that says the Russia investigation is a pointless distraction. It is anything but. Foreign interference in our elections is a grave national security threat (I know, I know: Allende etc), and Trump’s complicity in it—passive or otherwise—is an unprecedented horror. However, I do recognize that it is not really gaining a lot of traction in terms of shifting public opinion toward removing Trump from office. It should, of course, but it hasn’t. So going forward, can we walk and chew gum simultaneously and hammer this cretin both on his compromise by Putin AND his neo-fascism since taking office?

AVANTI

I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Mueller hearing; per above, its public perception and impact has already changed and will likely continue to do so.

Meanwhile, the battle for the soul of this nation continues.

In today’s lightning fast news cycle, the sheer anti-climax of Mueller’s testimony is precisely why it will be ancient history by the time I finish typing this. If the case against Donald Trump is going to be made, it will have to be made by Congressional committees and Democratic presidential candidates. (Anticipating dishonest Republican bleating that “the case is closed” and we ought to “move on,” Schiff ended the day by calmly explaining why—and what—Mueller has left for Congress to investigate.)

We must carry on with the effort to remove this toxic pretender to the presidential throne by every legal means possible. We must not let our ardor flag with the inevitable twists and turns of the fight. We must never let the American people forget about his unfitness for office, his appallingly immoral, destructive, un-American—and in many cases illegal—acts, or the damage he is doing to our country and the world. Our effort is made harder by the complexity of the issues, and the sinister disinformation effort by the GOP to obscure Trump’s guilt, but we can’t let that deter us. On the contrary: those challenges demand even more determination and tenacity.

We are now in the early stages of what is already a brutal and divisive presidential election that promises only to get much much worse before it’s done. It may get so ugly that we look back fondly on the 2016 campaign as kinder and gentler times. November 2020 may mark the final nail in the coffin of American democracy, or it may see the overdue ejection of a man who never had any business sitting in the Oval Office to begin with, a crippling blow to the reprehensible party that birthed him, and the beginning of a long, slow rebuilding. But this much is for sure:

We stand no chance of winning if we don’t go into it fighting with every fiber of our being.

*******

Photo: Robert S. Mueller III as a US Marine Corps lieutenant, ca 1969

Live From the Surface of the Moon

Hornet + 3

How ephemeral is memory?

Memory experts tells us that, counter-intuitively, the least reliable memories are the ones that we remember most vividly and think about most often. By contrast, the purest and most pristine memory—the one that is least contaminated by misremembrance, repetition, and inadvertent distortion—is the one that is never accessed, like an amnesiac’s. (For all the good that does you.)

I was born in 1963, just before John Kennedy was assassinated, and I spent my early years in the shadow of the space program that he famously promised would put an American on the moon before the end of the decade. Like many children of my generation—and adults, for that matter—I was enthralled by that effort. I thrilled to the sight of the Apollo missions, which we watched in school, moments so historic that our teachers actually wheeled in a mammoth “portable” black & white television for the occasion. (A TV in the classroom! Almost as astonishing as a man on the moon!) I followed the moonshots religiously, idolized those space travelers (imagine a little tiny Tom Hanks), and played astronaut in a pretend silver spacesuit that my grandmother sewed for me.

So naturally the Apollo 11 moon landing, which took place fifty years ago this Saturday, when I not quite six years old, is burned into my memory. I distinctly remember watching it in our basement apartment in Platte City, Missouri. I remember every detail, clear as day, as if it happened yesterday.

Except we didn’t move to that apartment until 1970.

My memory of the first moon landing is obviously conflated with my memory of a later Apollo mission. I must have watched Apollo 11 from our previous and equally crummy apartment in Columbus, Ohio where we were living in July 1969, though I have no memory of doing so. (My father wasn’t able to watch it at all from Nha Trang, Vietnam, and tells me now that he can’t even remember if he listened to it on Armed Forces Radio.)

How can I, a boy obsessed with the space program, not accurately remember watching its absolute apex, one of the most momentous events in human history?

I dunno. But I don’t.

But I guess that’s OK, considering that NASA itself can’t find the original high-res videotapes of the transmissions from the moon, and suspects that they were taped over and re-used. Because, you know, tape is expensive and you can’t just let it sit there doing nothing.

(Stay tuned for reports that the Beatles’ original masters were recycled for Badfinger demos in 1970.)

YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS

When I was in film school almost thirty years after the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility, I made a short student documentary called Live From the Surface of the Moon, featuring a local Santa Cruz man named Bill Kaysing, a retired technical writer for Rocketdyne who had come to believe that the moon landings were faked.

This urban myth is so seductive and durable that it is in some way the ur-conspiracy of all modern conspiracy theories, emerging as it did in the sordid twilight of Vietnam, when public confidence in the US government had taken a pounding, and pre-figuring Watergate to come, after which anything seemed possible. (Cut to November 2016.)

Whence comes this theory? The obvious assumption is that a moon landing is an achievement of such head-spinning magnitude, an idea out of science fiction so beyond the realm of normal human comprehension, that many people simply cannot fathom it, even now. Ironically, they find an almost comically elaborate hoax more believable.

(The missing NASA tapes don’t help. Pix or it didn’t happen.)

Of course, there is an inherent paradox and logical inconsistency at the core of the various lunar conspiracy theories, as Washington Post science and politics reporter Joe Achenbach writes:

For any of these conspiracies to be true, they would have to be vast in scale, ruthless in implementation and strikingly efficient—with no leaks from conspirators. Apollo sent 24 astronauts to the vicinity of the moon and 12 walked on it, and not one of them has revealed their big secret.

The moon-fakers are allegedly so competent they can fool the whole world (but not so competent that they can actually put humans on the moon)….

But conspiracy theory in general has an inherently beautiful, perfect circle-like symmetry to it: the less evidence there is to support a given theory, the more successful its advocates will claim the conspiracy is. Every argument used to refute it instead becomes inverted as more “proof” to support it.

Or as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “Absence of evidence is evidence.”

LUNA TUNES

Bill Kaysing was recommended to me by one of my instructors, the great and wise Kristine Samuelson. I later learned that he was not just a propagator of the moon landing conspiracy theory, but credited as its originator. That was especially ironic, since once we got to know each other, Bill admitted to me that he had gotten into the subject as a joke, and only later began to believe it.

To my knowledge that has never been reported—although he alludes to it in the film—but I’m here to tell you it now. Judge for yourself what that says about the theory (if in fact you think it requires further debunking). That is fodder for a PhD dissertation all by itself.

Although Bill had worked for Rocketdyne, maker of the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts into space, he was not a scientist or engineer and left the company in 1963, well before the Apollo program began. Still, his arguments can sound surprisingly convincing, especially when consumed without cross-examination: the angle of the shadows, the perfect lighting, the lack of stars, the absence of a crater. That is, until you hear NASA’s point-by-point rebuttals, which obliterate each one in turn.

Bill also believed that 2001: A Space Odyssey, released one year before Apollo 11, was a dress rehearsal for the hoax, which he claims NASA hired Stanley Kubrick to direct. I politely held my tongue when he told me that, which is where my tongue was lodged during most of production. Then, three years later, when Kubrick died, I was reading a piece in American Cinematographer in which his director of photography John Alcott described shooting Barry Lyndon (1975), which famously featured night scenes lit entirely by candlelight, an idea everyone thought was impossible until “Stanley finally discovered three 50mm t/0.7 Zeiss still-camera lenses which were left over from a batch made for use by NASA in their Apollo moon-landing program.”

I almost dropped my cappuccino.

Like many conspiracy theorists, Bill subscribed to a kind of unified field theory of the invisible hand. He even had a theory about how the OJ Simpson murders—which had only recently happened at the time of our filming—were tied into the moon hoax via OJ’s co-starring role in Capricorn One, a 1978 movie about a faked Mars landing. (In short, the idea was that the US government commissioned the film to cover its tracks on Apollo, and the Juice was framed for murder when he threatened to blow the whistle. This makes Bill Kaysing one of the few old white people who thought OJ was innocent.)

I read Bill’s famous self-published book, We Never Went to the Moon (bottom line upfront), as well as books by other prominent hoax theorists he recommended, including his acolytes Bart Sibrel and Ralph Rene. Bill’s was far and away the best, although it’s a sliding scale. One of them—I can’t remember which—repeatedly veered off topic while the author insisted he was definitely not gay. (I’m not! I’m not! I’m not!)

Bill himself was in a legal battle with former astronaut Jim Lovell, whom he unsuccessfully sued for slander after Lovell called him “wacky.” Lovell’s frustration was understandable, as the lunar hoax obsessives made a point of hectoring astronauts at public events. Buzz Aldrin actually punched another lunar conspiracy theorist—Bart Sibrel—in the face after Sibrel publicly called him a liar, a coward and a thief. (Bill, by contrast, praised Aldrin as a man of integrity, arguing merely that he had been brainwashed.) Buzz was much more patient in a filmed interview with Ali G, who inquired whether man would ever walk on the sun—perhaps in winter, when the sun is cold.

In making the film I spent a fair amount of time with Bill, who was a very gentle, grandfatherly man, making his radical, anti-corporatist conspiracy theorizing all the more cognitively dissonant. He was a polymath—I also read his book Great Hot Springs of the West—and had a real poignancy about him. His wife was suffering from Parkinson’s at the time I knew him, and in keeping with his iconoclasm, he was exploring alternative treatments—some of them very mystical—in hopes of treating her.

You won’t be surprised to know that he was eccentric. When I went to his home to show him the finished film, he watched the first few minutes—it’s only 12 minutes total—then got up from his chair, announcing, “Well, this is the best thing that’s ever been done on me,” and left the room while the film was still playing to go dig out some more of the articles he had collected over the years that he wanted to show me.

Normally the human ego is sufficiently large that if someone bothered to make an entire documentary about you, even a student film, you might want to watch it all the way to the end. I suppose the fact that Bill didn’t was a either a testament to his humility, or to his short attention span, or maybe just evidence that I was a shitty filmmaker.

But I glimpsed some darkness as well. Once we were discussing Jackie Onassis, who had recently died, and Bill was praising her elegance, when he suddenly went off on a matter-of-fact but highly racist jag about her marrying that “greasy, garlic-smelling Greek.”

Which brings us to the, uh, dark side of conspiracy theory, as it were.

THE CON’S PIRACY

These days, conspiracy theory doesn’t seem so amusing as it once did, what with a conspiracy-spouting racist crackpot sitting in the White House with his finger on the nuclear button. Achenbach again:

Long before he ran for president, Trump stoked the “birther” belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and was not constitutionally eligible to serve as president….Trump has repeatedly called global warming a “hoax.” He has hinted that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died of foul play. While running for president, he claimed that, before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the father of his leading rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), had met with Lee Harvey Oswald….. For years, Trump endorsed one of the most dangerous conspiracy theories: that vaccines cause autism….

Conspiracy theories may seem strange and fringe, but they are not harmless. They often transmit racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic beliefs. In their most toxic form, these theories have led to violence, including mass shootings. Behind many conspiracy theories lurks a pervasive rage. Many researchers and communicators who deal with fringe conspiracy theories endure venomous and misogynistic threats and harassment.

Of course, Trump has also trafficked in some other toxic lies, like the idea of a “Deep State” conspiracy to overthrow him, and even flirted with the QAnon (or at least QAnon adjacent) theories about Comet Pizza, Comey, Mueller, Soros, and all things Benghazi. On that count, Achenbach quotes Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami professor and co-author of the book American Conspiracy Theories: “I could say, with some degree of certainty, that he uses conspiracy theories to motivate his core supporters. Whether he believes them or not is a completely different question.”

For my money, it’s probably both.

Bill Kaysing has a fair amount to answer for with the insults he leveled at the good people at NASA, especially given his confession that it all began as a lark. But I am less willing to hold him responsible for his contribution to the conspiracy-soaked world that he didn’t live to see in full, poisonous flower, but in which the rest of us are now steeped.

His involvement in the lunar hoax theory was a shame, because his broader Chomskyite worldview was very cogent. At the end of the film, he says this:

In the context of government falsehoods, Apollo is just a very small part of it. The government lies to us about taxes, about Social Security, about food, about healthcare. There are so many things—dating back to, say, Pearl Harbor—where the government has lied to the people that Apollo becomes simply a lever to open up the Pandora’s box of government deceit and duplicity.

And when I say “government,” I really mean the corporate establishment. Because they’re in the business of getting people to work, and make things, and then buy them, and live their lives according to what I call the “corporate imperatives.” So Apollo is just one aspect of what had become a total unreality in America. We do things that we don’t like to do, for money that flies away almost instantly. What we’re living in is a sort of giant coast-to-coast Disneyland, and the Apollo hoax is just another film.

For all his other faults, he’s not wrong about the lies, or the corporate imperative, or the giant Disneyland. But it is a bitter irony that the kind of conspiracy theory that he helped pioneer—“truthtelling,” as he saw it, but what we would now call a false narrative, or more crudely, “fake news”—has become not a corrective to that unreality but an integral part of perpetuating it.

Bill Kaysing is deceased now: he died in 2005, nine years after the film was completed. I offer it here for what it’s worth. Please excuse the student-caliber filmmaking and low res technical quality, as the movie is itself now 23 years old—almost as far in the past as the lunar landing was when I made it.

GIANT STEPS ARE WHAT YOU TAKE

There are only four human beings left alive who have set foot on the moon (Aldrin, Scott, Duke, and Schmitt) and they are all over 80 years old. As Ross Anderson writes in The Atlantic, “In their waning years, the Apollo astronauts now face a new kind of loneliness, as the last of a peculiar tribe formed by a truly rarefied set of experiences. We’ll ask what it will mean if and when the Earth is once again without moonwalkers.”

A film about the lunar landing conspiracy might seem a weird tribute to these men and the Apollo project, but I present it to you with anything but disrespect. Very much the contrary. Even now, fifty years later, the effort to put men on the moon still stirs awe in me (Gil Scott-Heron’s valid critique notwithstanding). The technological contributions to modern life that it directly made or indirectly set in motion are nearly infinite. But much more than that, it stands as one of the most inspirational accomplishments in human history, literally celestial and nearly religious in terms of what mankind can achieve—one giant leap, as someone once said. Perhaps that is why some people even now cannot get their heads around it.

The space program as a whole, and Apollo specifically, represent the very best of America, which—even with the unreliability of memory—is worth remembering at a time when, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on down, we are witness to some of America at its very worst.

Click below to watch:

Live from the Surface of the Moon (1996)

LFTSOTM

Featuring Bill Kaysing

Running time: 12 min

Produced in the Stanford University Masters Program in Documentary Film and Video

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Photo: NASA

President Richard Nixon visiting Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in quarantine on the USS Hornet in the South Pacific after their return from the moon.

 

 

 

Authoritarianism Adjacent

Gerrymander

As far back as the very earliest weeks of this blog, back in the summer of 2017, I wrote about what strikes me as the greatest and most insidious threat to our representative democracy: the slow, steady Republican attempt to undermine its fundamental institutions and entrench permanent right wing control in defiance of the public will.

At the time, I described this effort as a slow motion coup d’etat. (The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup – July 12, 2017.) Since then, Trump has taken to using the word “coup” frequently (I don’t want to say “liberally”) to describe what he says is a sore loser effort by “angry Democrats” to undermine and even end his presidency—principally, through the “witchhunt” of the Mueller probe, oversight by Congress, scrutiny by the free press, and other mechanisms that the rest of us without delusions of imperial grandeur understand are the normal functions of a working democracy. As a result, the term “coup” has lost its currency; I certainly don’t want to lower my argument to a false equivalence by laying claim to the same terminology.

But the point remains.

Of course, the GOP scoffs at the very idea. Perish the thought! Do you expect them to do any less? But the evidence speaks for itself, and has been well-catalogued in these pages, among numerous other places. It was well summarized this week by New York Times columnist Michael Tomasky:

(T)he Republican Party is no longer simply trying to compete with and defeat the Democratic Party on a level playing field. Today, rather than simply playing the game, the Republicans are simultaneously trying to rig the game’s rules so that they never lose.

The aggressive gerrymandering, which the Supreme Court just declared to be a matter beyond its purview; the voter suppression schemes; the dubious proposals that haven’t gone anywhere—yet—like trying to award presidential electoral votes by congressional district rather than by state, a scheme that Republicans in five states considered after the 2012 election and that is still discussed: These are not ideas aimed at invigorating democracy. They are hatched and executed for the express purpose of essentially fixing elections.

We might add to Tomasky’s list the Merrick Garland travesty, the shameless attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, the obstructionism toward numerous Congressional investigations (to include defiance of subpoenas), the attempt to turn the DOJ into Trump’s personal police force and law firm, the disinformation/propaganda machine that is right wing media, and oh yes, the willingness to accept and even solicit illegal assistance by foreign powers.

It is important to stress that Trump himself is merely one aspect of this broad and far-ranging campaign, not its apotheosis or even its primary instigator. For all the air time he gets, he is but a symptom and not the underlying disease, as many have noted. That dubious distinction belongs to the broader GOP, with its long descent into no-holds-barred proto-authoritarianism, a descent that has its roots in early 20th Century nativism, runs through McCarthyism and the John Birch movement, showed its true colors under the criminal reign of Dick Nixon, rebounded with the ascent of Newt Gingrich in the ’90s, grew to maturity (as it were) with the rise of Fox News, the Tea Party, and Mitch McConnell, and has now come to full, toxic flower with the con man from Queens.

Still I hear Republicans snorting in derision. So let’s review what we have at the moment:

  • A Republican president who lost the popular vote, yet still ascended to office. (True of both of our last two GOP presidents, as it happens. In fact, the Republican candidate has won the popular vote in only one of the last five elections)….
  • A Senate that similarly remains in Republican control because of anti-democratic measures built into the Constitution, and is willing to protect that President from political and criminal jeopardy come hell or high water…..
  • A right wing majority on the Supreme Court—achieved by the outright theft of a seat rightfully belonging to the nominee of the last President—moving in almost lockstep to defend the interests of the Republican Party….
  • And a judiciary increasingly packed with hardline right wing ideologues, part of a concerted, overt decades-long project toward that end.

Sound like what the Founders had in mind, or not?

Oh, and by the by, that aforementioned countermajoritarian Republican POTUS got into office with the demonstrable help of a hostile foreign power that held damaging information on him that he was desperate to hide from the American people, having repeatedly lied about it.

Yeah, that sounds like a perfectly healthy Western democracy to me.

DON’T LOOK AT US

Which brings us to last week’s disgraceful 5-4 Supreme Court decision—along party lines, of course—to abdicate any responsibility of the judiciary to address hyperpartisan gerrymandering.

The SCOTUS is a pretty regular topic of this blog. (See The Ghost of Merrick Garland – November 25, 2017, The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II – October 10, 2018, Five Blind Mice – July 11, 2018, and “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court – August 13, 2018.) And once again, with this decision, the Court has shown itself willing to be a pretty brazen arm of the Republican machine, despite highfalutin pretense of being above the partisan fray.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes of last week’s decision:

(T)he five members of the Supreme Court’s Republican Machine (two of them named by Trump) shoved aside mounds of evidence, threw up their hands and declared themselves powerless to contain the radical gerrymandering of legislative seats. They did so even while effectively conceding the obvious, well-described in Justice Elena Kagan’s history-will-remember dissent: that gerrymanders “enabled politicians to entrench themselves . . . against voters’ preferences” and “promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will”….

Please read Kagan’s scathing and at times wickedly mocking dissent. She shows how (Chief Justice John) Roberts and his allies are willfully blind to how much the world of political mapmaking has changed because of “big data and modern technology.” These tools not only allow very precise election-fixing (creating the “voter-proof map”) but also provide courts with easy ways of detecting in a “politically neutral” way “the worst-of-the-worst cases of democratic subversion.

“These are not your grandfather’s—let alone the Framers’—gerrymanders,” Kagan writes. “For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation because it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply”….

And not only does the Court’s right wing junta take this helpless stance, pleading an aversion to judicial activism, but it does so selectively, usually when it benefits the GOP. Dionne again:

Conservatives who were happy to override decades of precedent to throw out laws limiting money’s influence in politics and to gut the Voting Rights Act suddenly discovered judicial modesty on gerrymanders. I was reminded of former congressman Barney Frank’s quip skewering the GOP’s “Reverse Houdinis” who tie themselves up in knots and then say they cannot act — because they are all tied up in knots.

Notice: When judicial intervention helps Republicans, expands the power of the wealthy or undercuts the ability of minorities to vote, the court’s conservatives are activist. When restraint helps the GOP, they are overcome by humility.

Anticipating the complaint from my conservative readers (both of them):

It’s true that that same Court narrowly struck down the White House’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, an action that would have significantly skewed the GOP’s electoral advantage going forward. It did so only because Roberts sided with his progressive colleagues this time, as he occasionally does in his role as the closest thing the current Court has to a swing vote. That in itself is telling, given that the Chief Justice is a solid conservative.

Roberts has a reputation as an honest broker, and is said to be very invested in the legacy of the Court that bears his name. I don’t deny that he periodically lives up to that rep, as he did in upholding the constitutionality of the ACA in June 2012. Other times—such as his convoluted opinion defending the Muslim ban as not religiously based, even as Trump himself crowed to his cheering followers that it was—he seems to function as a reliable GOP team player, even when it requires yogi-like contortions to explain his position.

Moreover, as Thomas Wolf and Brianna Cea of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice write in The Atlantic, the entire Court—and not just its right wingers—still accepted at face value the administration’s false contention that there is a historical argument to be made on behalf of the citizenship question. Even if Roberts voted against adding the question to the 2020 census, rejecting the administration’s brazenly laughable claim that it would help it protect minorities, it’s worth remembering that his four conservative colleagues were perfectly fine with it.

Trump, of course, immediately tried to go around the decision, which he predictably railed against as “totally ridiculous,” asking if the census could be delayed until the GOP can find a way to win. He has even implied he might just ignore the Court’s ruling.

Of course, never in American history has the Supreme Court been truly impartial or above partisan considerations. (See: Bush v. Gore). But some eras and some moments are worse than others, and right now, its stock is at a nearly all-time low. The FiveThirtyEight points out that other non-judicial solutions remain to address gerrymandering, but the cause just got infinitely harder. The unwillingness of Court to step in, and its weak-kneed claim that it has no business (or capability of) doing so, even as it takes on other electoral matters like the evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is a shameful display that smacks of the pure politics that it claims to be above.

WHO’S COMPETITIVE?

So what to make of this rise of incipient authoritarianism within the GOP, a rise that has been radically accelerated by Trump, even if the broader trend long predates him? An ocean of ink has been spilled on the topic—little of it by conservatives of course, after eight years of hyperventilating allegations that Barack Obama had claimed for himself the powers of an emperor.

To be fair, Tomasky does not believe that the GOP has become authoritarian. But he comes close:

It doesn’t have a name, this thing the Republicans are trying to do. It’s not true democracy that they want. But it’s also a bit much to call them outright authoritarians. And there’s nothing in between.

I admire his discretion and cautiousness, but I see no reason to call “this thing Republicans are trying to do” anything but the Big A. At the very least it is damn sure “authoritarian adjacent,” as the real estate brokers would say. Or perhaps a better metaphor is “authoritarian curious.”

Indeed, for my money, in its demagoguery, anti-intellectualism, merger of church and state, hypervalorization of the military, nativism, cult of personality, attacks on the press, and (selective) obsession with “law and order,” at times it veers dangerously to the Big F.

Tomasky makes the case for the term “competitive authoritarianism,” coined by the authors Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way in their 2010 book Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. (Levitsky is also the co-author of last year’s much-discussed How Democracies Die, with Daniel Ziblatt.) They define such systems as “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents.”

Even now, almost ten years later, Levitsky—like Tomasky—does not believe that we are quite there yet, arguing that, “The playing field between Democrats and Republicans remains reasonably level.”

I guess the operative word there is “reasonably.” The trend is worrying, however, and certainly runs the risk of getting worse. Levitsky himself raises that alarm, echoing the view that Trump is only a symptom—not the cause—of this GOP turn toward the dark side. Tomasky quotes him:

“Recent Republican behavior—from the 2016 stolen Supreme Court seat to the legislative shenanigans that followed gubernatorial defeats in North Carolina and Wisconsin to voter suppression efforts across numerous states—suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened. The fact that the Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian poses a greater threat to American democracy than Donald Trump.”

Again, “suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened” is an almost comically generous description of the modern GOP. But I guess that’s why he is the esteemed political scientist, while I am a guy who walks around Times Square in an Elmo suit.

Tomasky concurs, noting how, thanks to gerrymandering, the GOP managed to maintain a House majority under Obama even when Democratic Congressional candidates won more votes. And Trump has taken it to a new level:

Think of his efforts to do things like politicize the institutions of the executive branch, to try to turn the Department of Justice into his personal law firm. Think of his threat in 2016 that he would honor the results of the election “if I win,” and his recent musings about staying beyond two terms. Think of his commerce secretary’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census, which would benefit the Republicans electorally.

He goes on:

Who doubts that Mr. Trump, with quiescent and tremulous congressional Republicans watching, will keep up his assault on them, intensifying in a second term? And what are the odds that after years of Mr. Trump, the Republican Party will return to what used to pass as normal? After all the Republican lurch in this direction predated Mr. Trump.

In other words, is there any reason to believe that the Republican creep into authoritarianism—turbocharged by the discovery that they can do pretty much anything they goddam want as long as Donald Trump is in the White House—is going to stop, let alone reverse itself?

TANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

As if to drive the neo-authoritarian point home, Trump is about to get his wish of a Red Square-style May Day—er, I mean Fourth of July—parade, complete with generals standing beside him and fighter plane flyovers and M-1 Abrams tanks rolling down the Mall and marching troops passing in review. (Also: a VIP section, because as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes, “nothing says Fourth of July like preferential treatment for rich toadies.”)

Donny has been after this sort of garish, wildly un-American royalist spectacle ever since he saw the Bastille Day parade in Paris in 2017, and it’s now coming to pass, despite the best efforts of many (even in the Pentagon) to explain why it’s an absolutely terrible idea in every possible way from top to bottom. I’d love to see the press ignore it altogether, but of course, they can’t turn away from a trainwreck.

It hardly bears noting the absurdity of spending millions of taxpayer dollars so an ignorant, draft-dodging egomaniac and borderline traitor can indulge his Napoleonic fantasies and hold a publicly funded campaign rally. Subverting the entire point of a day meant to celebrate our liberation from monarchy does not require any further elucidation here. This at a time when our government is keeping children in squalid conditions in cages, and DOJ lawyers are pleading before federal judges that we can’t afford to provide them soap.

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

Maybe Trump got both parade and concentration camp advice from his boyfriend Kim Jong Un on his recent trip to North Korea, the latest in a series of shameful diplomatic blunders and unforced Christmas gifts to the DPRK that were once jawdropping, but have now become so routine that I can barely muster the strength to bitch. (See Only Nixon Could Go to China…But Nixon Was, Like, Smart – March 16, 2018, and Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama) – June 13, 2018.)

And that fatigue is precisely what we have to fear.

Slowly (I turned), step by step, inch by inch, the modern Republican Party—led by its cretinous dotard-king—is dragging us into a sanguine acceptance of what was once unthinkable in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Pick your metaphor of choice: the Overton window is moving even as we speak; we are the frog in boiling water; it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Any way you want to frame it, the bottom line is that Donald Trump thinks Kim, Putin, Erdogan, and Duterte are all swell guys, and the Grand Old Party is just fine with that.

Yes, tanks on the Mall tomorrow are ridiculous. But it’s the tanks on the Mall in November 2020 that I’m more worried about.

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Illustration: US map altered to reflect voting power of the individual states, as of 2016

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_United_States_presidential_election

 

 

 

 

Semantics and Sadism

96 Semantics and Sadism

Rule of thumb: if you’re having a national debate about whether or not your country has concentration camps, it probably does.

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER

Last week the right wing’s new favorite bogeywoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, used that term to refer to what the United States government is doing to migrants on our southern border, especially children whom that government has stolen from their parents. In our name, I hasten to note.

She was clearly aware of how those comments would be received and the backlash they would prompt because she couched her statement in pre-emptive explanation of that exact thing, and offered her reasoning for using that incendiary phrase. Obviously, that sort of careful contextualizing should have defused any knee-jerk outrage and prompted a thoughtful, vigorous, but civil discussion with the GOP opposition.

Just kidding!

To no one’s surprise, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s due diligence didn’t prevent Fox Nation from having a collective shit fit and renewing its apoplectic howling that she is (take your pick): a) an anti-Semitic idiot, b) a scourge to all that is good and right on God’s green earth, c) coming to take away your hamburgers and SUVs, d) the second coming of Angela Davis (NB: they don’t mean it as a compliment), or e) all of the above.

In other news, water is wet. The right would freak out on AOC even if she came out in favor of puppies and rainbows.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY)—think Dick, but with a vagina—offered a typical comment, sneering that AOC needs a history lesson about the Holocaust. (Tellingly, conservatives like Cheney were much more upset about the analogy than about the actual condition of these children.) That in turn prompted MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to slap Liz down with the suggestion that she needs a lesson on the difference between a death camp and the Nazis’ other Konzentrationslager.

Then ensued a flood of commentary—some partisan, some clear-eyed—by scholars of the Shoah and experts on concentration camps in general, many of whom made the salient point that such camps aren’t unique to the Third Reich, and that just using the term—accurately—is not the same as equating a given facility to a Nazi concentration camp, or implying that it’s part of anything comparable to the Final Solution. (Though it’s damn sure not a good look on anyone.)

But such nuances, and indeed the entire semantic debate, miss the point, as the reliably intrepid Masha Gessen pointed out in the New Yorker:

(T)he argument is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.

A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it.

In other words, the angry Republican pushback against the use of the term is a failure of imagination: a refusal to accept the possibility that the United States could engage in such behavior, using a tautology to explain it away. “The US doesn’t build concentration camps, therefore the camps the US has built aren’t that.”

THE MAN ON HIS HIGH HORSE

Gessen makes a convincing argument that we engage in a kind of dishonest deflection of responsibility with the convenient portrayal of Hitler (or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot) as an “inhuman” monster whose actions are an aberration outside of history. That is a fraught escape hatch, morally speaking, and one that poses dire risks, politically.

The grim truth, not to be pedantic, is that Hitler was very much human, and his capacity —and that of his followers—for unthinkable cruelty, while extreme to say the least, is not something outside human experience but potentially within all of us. (I refer you to the Stanford prison experiment, or any gradeschool playground.) Ironically, pretending otherwise makes an encore more, not less, likely, by making us less vigilant and self-scrutinizing.

Couple that with the juvenile American belief in our “exceptionalism” and you have a toxic recipe for national blindness that creates the exact conditions in which such crimes against humanity can be committed with impunity, and even with eager public defense and endorsement. (Looking at you, Laura Ingraham.)

The very idea that Americans would ever even think of building concentration camps is enough to make many conservatives furious. The chauvinism runs so deep that it creates a feedback loop in which we excuse ourselves from even the possibility that we could behave in such a manner by definition, a kind of get-out-of-Auschwitz-free card that itself ought to expose the dangerous hubris of its adherents.

(Worth noting, while the radical right sanctimoniously insists that the American character inherently precludes the establishment of a gulag archipelago in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it is also an article of faith in those circles that the left—led by people precisely like AOC—has secret plans to put all conservatives in “re-education camps.” But whatever.)

So per Gessen, while some might say that AOC has distracted from the urgent issue of the atrocities going on at the border, I’m on the side of those who say quite the opposite: that she has done a public service by highlighting it in the most dramatic possible way. The debate over verbiage is only a problem if we fixate on it—which the right is eager to do—instead of addressing the underlying reality that it indicts.

OUR SHAME

So why are we having this linguistic debate in the first place? Well, it’s because AOC’s remarks came in conjunction with new revelations of the horrors at the border, exposed by credible, non-partisan humanitarian organizations whose members—many of them human rights lawyers—have physically inspected the facilities and the affected children. Among their revelations:

That the innocuously-titled “family separation policy” has not really ended. That the federal government has no real plan for reuniting thousands of children forcibly taken from their parents, and not much interest in it either. That we as a people now have a network of ad hoc tent cities and other warehouse-like facilities in which migrant children are being held, some in shocking, unsanitary conditions that you would not tolerate for a dog, where they are deprived of basic necessities and lack adequate adult supervision by qualified personnel. The Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn described it about as well as anyone:

The image kept replaying in attorney W. Warren Binford’s mind after she left a migrant detention facility last week in Clint, Tex., where hundreds of children were held: The 15-year-old mother, her baby covered in mucus. It seemed no matter how many times she washed the sick baby’s clothes in the sink she couldn’t get them clean. There was no soap. And when she tried to find baby food, there was none of that, either. All they had was instant oatmeal for breakfast, instant soup for lunch and a frozen burrito for dinner, “every single day,” Binford said.

Child care was not the forte of US Customs and Border Protection, Binford could see. Here, in a warehouse filled with filthy kids who had not bathed in days, some with lice and influenza, it was kids taking care of kids. “We were just horrified,” Binford, director of the clinical law program at Willamette University, told The Washington Post…

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes:

Antar Davidson, a former youth-care worker at an Arizona shelter, described to the Los Angeles Times children “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” because they believed that their parents were dead. Natalia Cornelio, an attorney with the Texas Human Rights Project, told CNN about a Honduran mother whose child had been ripped away from her while she was breastfeeding. “Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing,” the Associated Press reported. “One cage had 20 children inside.”

In short, we are being awakened to the fact that the border crisis of a year ago precipitated by the Trump administration’s deliberately sadistic policies is anything but resolved, and indeed is getting worse.

Fueling the fire, of course, is Trump’s own angry, Orwellian insistence that he is the one who reunited the families, not the one who separated them, which might be the most brazenly ass-backwards, vile, and vomit-inducing of the many many lies he has told in his public life, which is saying something.

Along similar lines, Mike Pence naturally defended the administration, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd, “We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.” He even had the, er, chutzpah to blame Democrats for the conditions in the detention centers (can I call them camps?), arguing that the administration can’t provide basic standards of humanitarian care while in the middle of blackmail to get funding for its idiotic “border wall.”

What would Jesus do indeed.

But the most spectacular and attention-grabbing of the recent stories that returned this crisis to the forefront of the national conversation was the image of a US Justice Department attorney named Sarah Fabian arguing in federal court that these children do not require such basic necessities as soap or toothbrushes, and can be made to sleep on cold concrete floors in low temperatures under bright lights, while still meeting the standard for being held in “safe and sanitary” conditions.

Feel free to read that again, in case the cognitive dissonance was too great on the first pass.

In a welcome burst of common human decency, the three judges on that federal court (all Bill Clinton appointees, it must be noted), reacted in shock and disgust:

“You’re really going to stand up and tell us that being able to sleep isn’t a question of safe and sanitary conditions?” US Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon asked Fabian. “Are you arguing seriously that you do not read the agreement as requiring you to do anything other than what I just described: cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket?” US Circuit Judge William Fletcher asked Fabian. “I find that inconceivable that the government would say that that is safe and sanitary.”

Incredibly, the DOJ thought it was a winning strategy to make that argument even knowing that the third judge on that court, Judge A. Wallace Tashima, was as a child himself held in an internment camp along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II. You can’t make this shit up.

You can watch the entire proceeding here, and see the actual face of Sarah Fabian, who has Sarah Huckabee Sanders resting easy in the knowledge that, for the moment, she is no longer the front-runner in the World’s Worst Sarah contest.

SADISM IS AS SADISM DOES

It goes without saying that what the federal government is doing in our name ought to make every American hang their head in shame, especially while we repeatedly, laughably, flatter ourselves to believe we are better than every other nation.

But it has often been noted that when it comes to the xenophobia that drives Trump’s policy on immigration (the Muslim ban, the “family separation policy”, restriction of visas, etc), the cruelty is the very point.

Now, it may be that Trump and his advisors like the human colostomy bag that is Stephen Miller genuinely believe that these policies will achieve the intended effect of keeping brown people out of America, and keeping those who are already here beaten down. Such barbaric magical thinking has always been characteristic of nativism. (Wow, could there be a less apt term for a movement full of people who stole their land from its actual native inhabitants?) Likewise, they surely understand very very well that there is a political benefit to them in thrilling their red-hatted white nationalist base.

But to the previous point, those goals do feel very much like a side effect. Regardless of any practical result, it seems very clear that the administration quite simply disdains (if not openly loathes) non-whites, and therefore at every available opportunity intends to treat them as badly as possible purely because it can. Even if there is no “practical” payoff, the White House isn’t really bothered in the slightest. So the cruelty is indeed very much an end in itself.

Team Trump also knows that these actions will prompt furor from the left, which is another thing that to them is a feature and not a bug. For many in MAGA Nation, infuriating centrists and progressives (and even moderate Republicans)—“owning the libs,” in their own self-flattering terminology—is their greatest pleasure, even more than achieving any concrete policy goal, which also speaks to the adolescent hatefulness at the core of their movement. Identity politics is integral to Trump’s followers, even as they hypocritically decry it in others. But as we have seen with all things from Trump’s golfing to engagement with North Korea to the use of unclassified electronics, hypocrisy is the poisonous mother’s milk of Trumpism.

What they really mean is, only they are allowed to traffic in the politics of self-pity and resentment.

Might I also add how absolutely head-spinning it is that we as Americans have arranged it so that a wantonly unfit, proudly ignorant, D-list celebrity game show host is the man with the authority to inflict this sort of sadistic treatment on hundreds and possibly thousands of children? I guess elections do have consequences.

Serwer’s epic, aforementioned piece in the Atlantic goes on to contextualize the separation policy and show how it is inextricably tied to the hateful white nationalism that is the core of Trumpism:

Americans should have fathomed the depth of the crisis Trump would cause in 2016, but many chose denial, ridiculing those who spoke the plain meaning of Trumpism as oversensitive…. The separation of children from their families at the border in order to punish children for their parents’ decision to seek a better life in America, as the forebears of millions of Americans once did, has now clarified for many what should have been obvious before.

Also note, please, that this story is breaking even as Trump is flirting with war with Iran—more red meat for the base, and with its own racist overtones, in three-part harmony with the main motif of jingoism. (Don’t be misled by his typically Trumpian boast that he is the one who stopped the outbreak of war. Dude: you’re the commander-in-chief. If planes were in the air, or even being readied, it’s only because you gave the order. The idea that at the last minute he heroically stepped in to prevent bloodshed and the beginning of a giant, horrific Middle Eastern shitstorm is like a kidnapper asking to be praised for freeing your child.)

But that too is a classic Trump tactic: create a crisis, then claim to be a hero for addressing it (sort of). It is exactly like him taking credit for re-opening the government after he shut it down, or more on point, stopping the family separation policy that he instituted. Except he didn’t even really stop it.

I only mention Iran to call attention to the outrage fatigue, and our limited capacity to comprehend and react to multiple domestic and international goatscrews simultaneously. Needless to say, it serves Trump’s ends to have us distracted with the possibility of yet another Persian Gulf war instead of protesting in the streets over American concentration camps on our own land, or pressing him on Russiagate.

The administration uses the sheer relentlessness of its steady parade of self-created emergencies and stomach-churning behavior to wear down resistance and foment exhaustion. That, too, is page one of the fascist handbook. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg writes:

I understand why, bombarded with stories about the Trump administration’s sadism, people can just shut down. One some level, I think Trump understands this as well. “I do think there’s some emotional burnout,” (ACLU lawyer Lee) Gelernt said. ‘People just don’t want to hear anymore about another baby who’s sitting in a shelter all by himself without his parents, crying: ‘Where’s my mommy? Where’s my daddy?’ But we need the kind of public outcry that we had last summer. Otherwise we could be looking at thousands more children separated.’

The question is whether, over the course of this numbing year, we’ve learned to tolerate what just last June seemed intolerable.

THE RETURN OF OUTRAGE

Ironically, last week’s essay, The End of Outrage, bemoaned the fact that we have become so inured to atrocity and scandal—and a segment of our countrymen so in denial about it, and some of them actually in favor of it—that even the most appalling acts and events fail to have an appreciable effect on the national conversation.

That remains so.

I am not prepared to say that the renewed attention to what is going on at the border will reverse that trend. But if damn sure oughta, wouldn’t you say?

If we as a people are not stirred to action by the image of an attorney for the Department of Justice standing in front of federal judges and arguing that migrant children ripped from their parents by US border police can be justifiably housed—indefinitely, and with no plan for reuniting them—in makeshift camps behind razor wire, in conditions that would violate the Geneva Convention, then the American soul is truly dead.

Maybe we’re not quite there yet, but someone needs to check for a pulse.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, when future historians and political scientists look back and posterity renders its verdict, this latest horror will prove to be an important tipping point. After all, there was the rise of sufficient public outcry a year ago, when the family separation policy first came to light, that forced Trump to reverse himself, or at least pretend to. (His usual MO, as Max Boot noted at the time.)

Or maybe not. Either way, there is every reason to believe that we will look back on this moment as one of the darkest hours in modern American history, akin to the Japanese internment camps in which Judge Tashima was held, the sort of thing that until very recently we tut-tutted about self-righteously, implicitly condemning our forefathers for tolerating such blatantly immoral and—ahem—un-American behavior. The critical issue is how we will now respond to it.

For I say again, at the risk of re-stating the obvious: all this being done in our in our name. For the moment we still flatter ourselves to believe that we live in a representative democracy where our alleged leaders can’t just trample the rule of law and commit unspeakable atrocities without the assent of the majority.

So are we assenting or not?

If we turn our backs to what Trump is doing at the border, if we cover our ears and eyes, if we refuse to stand up and say, “Hell no—this is not what we are about and we will not tolerate it,” we have no grounds on which to claim that we are a “civilized” people, a nation of laws, or even a community of decent human beings, let alone continue to make this absurd assertion of some sort of ridiculous “exceptionalism.”

We are smack dab in the middle of a Niemöllerian first-they-came-for-the-socialists situation. Exactly a year ago, in an essay called Dear Huddled Masses: Go Fuck Yourselves (June 21, 2018), I wrote:

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.”

********

Related posts:

In Case of Non-Emergency, Break Glass….or What If They Burned Down the Reichstag and Nobody Cared? – February 17, 2019

The Enduring Appeal of Walls (for Troglodytes) – December 28, 2018

Requiem: Is This America? – December 21, 2018

Dear Huddled Masses: Go Fuck Yourselves – June 21, 2018

The End of Outrage

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Uh, didn’t we just spend two excruciating years trying to determine whether Donald Trump, wittingly or otherwise, conspired with a foreign government to help vault him into the White House?

And didn’t Donald Trump over the course of those two years swear up and down nearly every waking minute that he never did any such thing, that the mere allegation was a dirty lie by sore losers trying to delegitimize his presidency? And even now does he not continue to howl that there was “No collusion! no collusion! no collusion!”?

That happened, right? I didn’t dream it, did I?

All that only for Trump to go on national television with George Stephanopolous last week and volunteer that, sure, he’d do that, and what’s more, he didn’t see anything wrong with it.

It’s no wonder Emmet Flood wouldn’t let this guy sit down with Bob Mueller.

This of course is the classic evolution of a Trumpian self-defense:

1) I didn’t do it, and how dare you even ask!

2) Well, maybe I did do it, but I never said I didn’t, and anyway it’s not a crime,

And finally,

3) Hell yes, I ordered the Code Red!

The Stephanopolous interview was a near reprise of Trump’s on-camera admission to NBC’s Lester Holt in May 2017—a boast, really—that he fired Jim Comey specifically to halt the Russia investigation. At the time I thought that alone made for an open-and-shut case on obstruction of justice. I still think that.

(Particularly, buttressed as it was, by his blunt comments to Lavrov and Kislyak that same week as to why he fired the FBI director: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”)

Trump truly should stick to talking only to Fox & Friends, because any time he talks to a proper journalist he immediately confesses to the Black Dahlia murder, snatching Jon Benet Ramsey, and sinking the Andrea Doria.

As you might expect, his comment to Stephanopolous created a fairly big kerfuffle, largely among Democrats, progressives, law enforcement and intelligence officials, constitutional law scholars, historians, journalists, pundits, and the like. Not, notably, from Republicans.

I hesitate even to call it a gaffe, because he’s proud of it, but regardless of the uproar or lack thereof that Trump’s latest gaffe prompted, there is no reason to believe that it will deal him lethal political (or criminal) damage, or even mark a tipping point, death-of-a-thousand-cuts-style, that leads to his downfall. Which brings us to the crux of the issue, one that we have been continually returning to over and over in these pages:

A disturbingly large number of Americans—enough to put a chokehold on our representative democracy—simply do not care.

I BEG YOUR PARDON (I NEVER PROMISED YOU)

Even before the Stephanopoulos interview, there was a similar should-have-been bombshell story that caused barely a ripple.

In a May 22 press conference in the White House rose garden, Trump clumsily let slip that Don Jr had told him about the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives before it happened—a fact that is central to the conspiracy charge, and something both Dons Sr and Jr had, until then, denied to high heaven.

It’s a measure of our collective national PTSD that this revelation went almost noticed, or at least unremarked upon. Just a few months ago that would have been considered a giant development in the Russiagate story. Now we just yawn.

And even taking into account the conclusion of the special counsel investigation, there is no concrete reason for that change in reaction, no real change in the circumstances or the facts that makes it less significant than it would have been last winter. The apathy with which it was greeted was purely a matter of fatigue.

Of course, if we want to look at the entire Trump presidency (and campaign before that), we can find an almost infinite supply of moments and events that ought to have had the American people out in the streets with torches and pitchforks demanding the immediate ejection of this cretin from the White House. But for the sake of challenge, let’s just limit ourselves to the past couple weeks.

In that period, we’ve seen Trump go over Congress’s head to sell $8.1 billion worth of sophisticated military weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its allies like the UAE and Jordan. That’s the same Saudi Arabia that consistently pumps money into Trump’s own pockets via his hotels, and that recently murdered and dismembered a US-based journalist (notwithstanding Trump’s refusal to admit it, let alone do anything about it).

We’ve seen him float the possibility of Memorial Day pardons for both convicted and accused war criminals, a stomach-churning piece of pandering and contempt for the rule of law aimed straight at his aptly named base, and one that—apparently—he was dissuaded from carrying out only by ferocious opposition within the top ranks of the US military.

We’ve seen him traffic in Gulf of Tonkin-style sabre-rattling over Iran, a naked attempt to distract from the domestic troubles that threaten to end his presidency (and put him in jail), even at the risk of setting off a horrific and wholly unnecessary new war in the Persian Gulf.

We’ve seen him refuse to fire Kellyanne Conway even after a separate special counsel recommended that she be removed for violating the Hatch Act by engaging in partisan political attacks from her official governmental position.

We’ve seen him direct the prosecution of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, a chilling attack on free speech and a free press, and one drenched in irony. The idea of the Trump administration prosecuting anyone for canoodling with a hostile foreign power is mindboggling, but especially Assange, whose work as a Russian cutout helped Trump get elected. That Assange is a loathsome piece of pond scum is not the issue—or perhaps it’s more correct to say that that is exactly the issue. The administration is engaged in a concerted effort to muzzle dissent and freedom of expression in the most underhanded possible way, by focusing on a man whom very few can muster the enthusiasm to defend. (Paging Martin Niemöller.)

We’ve seen him kick off his 2020 re-election campaign with a greatest hits rally in Florida that spent more air time on Hillary Clinton than on anything else, suggesting that he intends to stick to the same racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, hate-mongering playbook that worked—with some foreign help—four years ago. Drink in this classic case of psychological projection-cum-fascist demagoguery (translated from the German):

Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country, as we know it…..They would shut down your free speech and use the power of the law to punish their opponents. They would strip Americans of their constitutional rights while flooding the country with illegal immigrants….Instead of bringing us together as one America, Democrats want to splinter us into factions and tribes, they want us divided….

And lastly and perhaps most egregiously, we’ve seen him give that odious toady Bill Barr free rein to muck about in the US intelligence community, to include the authority to override the intel agency chiefs and declassify cherrypicked material, all to further stymie proper investigation into Trump’s own wrongdoing and perpetuate their Orwellian false narrative about his relationship with the Kremlin. While that is already reprehensible on its own demerits, in the process Trump and Barr are potentially putting the lives of American agents in jeopardy and compromising the mysterious and oft-cited “sources and methods,” an effort that has the potential to make the outing of Valerie Plame look like small beer. This from the alleged party of strong defense, national security, and flag-waving patriotism.

The Barr matter, of course, is related to an ongoing pattern of obstruction, including refusal to comply with subpoenas, instructions to subordinates not to cooperate with Congressional investigations, and a general disinformation campaign, the details of which we won’t even get into here. But as I recently wrote in a piece called Garbo Speaks: Will Congress Listen?, this brazen distortion of the legitimate purpose of the Justice Department is among the most alarming developments in Trump’s already plenty alarming pattern of proto-authoritarianism since taking office. Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman turned Trump critic, has said that this is the realization of the dream that Trump and Bannon (remember him?) announced when they first arrived in Washington: the destruction of the administrative state. And as Steele as says, it is happening without consequences.

And that’s just May and June.

Yet quiet flows the Potomac.

COME MISTER TALLYMAN

Getting back to Trump’s recent comments to Stephanopolous, Lucian Truscott IV summarized them well in Salon:

Trump just put up a banner outside the White House telling autocrats around the world that he’s open for business. You want a few F-22’s over there in Poland or the Czech Republic? Bring me some crap on Biden, or Bernie, or Warren! You want to get that oil flowing out of the ground up there above the Arctic Circle, Putin my pal? Get those damn hackers clacking those keyboards! Hey, MBS! You want some more smart bombs to drop on goat herders over there in Yemen? How about putting some more bucks in my buildings!

It’s hard to overstate how outrageous Trump’s remarks were, except to note that they demonstrate how utterly this man fails to understand the most basic principles of our representative democracy, statesmanship, the rule of law, let alone his job as head of state. That is hardly news, but it’s still shocking and appalling to see it so baldly on display.

Yet the real shock and disgrace, per above, is that so few Republicans care. They either share Trump’s wanton ignorance, or if they do understand the implications of what he’s saying, are so unprincipled, hypocritical, and stone cold unpatriotic that they are willing to exploit his behavior for their own partisan gain.

We’ve already established that, for diehard members of MAGA Nation, Trump could wipe his ass with the American flag on live TV and they would still cheer and chant “lock her up!” It’s deeply disturbing that some 30-40% of our countrymen are fine with this shameless con man and all his behavior so long as it promotes their own retrograde belief system and agenda. But what would it take for a critical mass of the sane portion of the American people to rise up and say “Enough!” What would to take to ratchet up their anger at Trump from, say, writing-an-angry-blog level to taking-to-the-barricades level?

Of at least equal importance, what would it take for the Republican establishment to turn on him?

We know that caging babies, conspiring with the Kremlin, defending neo-Nazis, and protecting murderers like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman won’t do it, to name just a few lowlights. Trump himself infamously mused aloud that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any support. (He might gain some, especially if the person he shot were black. The NRA would certainly cheer.) The bootlicking behavior of the GOP leadership has certainly lent credence to that boast.

Back in January, in a piece called The Rise of the Espiocracy, I mused about what the GOP would do if the Mueller report—then very far off—delivered a damning indictment of Trump’s wrongdoing:

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

How dewy-eyed and innocent I was.

What I did not anticipate—what few did, to my knowledge—was that a new Attorney General would be in place who would spearhead a shameless distortion of that report; that Mueller’s conclusions would be so narrowly drawn in a legalistic sense, and so meticulously respectful of constitutional law in the most careful and cautious way; and that the White House and DOJ coverup would be so aggressive, that the administration would be able to declare victory when it should have been fending off calls for Trump’s immediate resignation. Nor did I anticipate that those circumstances would allow the already supine GOP to abet that strategy in a way even more despicable than usual.

But what if Trump did something truly batshit crazy, so crazy that even Mitch McConnell, the king of pokerfaced hypocrisy, could not excuse or defend it? Perhaps not something policy-based, but indicative of his all-but-undeniable creeping dementia. What if he stood up during a nationally televised speech and began singing and dancing “The Banana Boat Song”?

Would McConnell, Thune, McCarthy, and Scalise then go on TV and say, “Sadly, it appears that the President is ill. Someone call Mike Pence.”

I doubt it. I think they’d shake their hips and sing “day-o.”

For the Republican establishment, I believe the only thing that could possibly cause them to mutiny against the captain of the SS Pussygrabber would be if Trump ceased working for the further enrichment of the wealthiest Americans. That, after all, is the very thing—really the only thing—that causes them to support him in the first place. (One could argue that it is a subset of the GOP’s sheer lust for power, but I would argue that the equation goes the other way around: they want power primarily to enrich themselves and their cronies and patrons. All else is ancillary.)

If that were to come under threat, if Trump were to suddenly reverse course on massive tax cuts for the 1% (not that he has any reason to do so), or were to take his already reckless economic policies even further—say, with a truly destructive trade war that threatened the immediate financial well-being of the plutocracy—then and only then do I believe that the Republican poobahs would at last balk. (Indeed, the only time the GOP has shown ANY real willingness to stand up to Trump in even the smallest way was over tariffs.)

Luckily for Trump, his own financial interests are fully aligned with theirs.

SHEEP GET SHEARED

In another essay almost a year ago I wrote about what I called The Death of Hypocrisy. By that I meant that Trump and his supporters seem to operate outside and beyond the realm of rational recognition of behavior that is jawdroppingly hypocritical by any reasonable standard. (See: Golf.)

But the end of outrage is worse. It suggests that the emotion that ought to be caused by that hypocrisy and the other flagrant offenses committed by this “president”—righteous, justified outrage—is equally dead. It has passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. Its metabolic processes are now history. It’s a stiff, bereft of life, rests in peace, pushing up the daisies, off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.

In its place is a shameful complacency.

The Stephanopolous interview may yet prove a pivotal moment in his downfall, but I doubt it. It’s already fading from our consciousness as the next outrage/non-outrage takes its place. I suppose SOMETHING could yet be emerge that would shock us and move the proverbial needle, but probably not. At this point we are inured to scandals that would be presidency-ending in any previous administration, and to ostrich-like right wing tolerance of the same.

So where does that leave us?

It leaves us with the same task as before: holding this criminal administration to account, and maintaining the drumbeat that reminds the American people of Donald Trump’s manifest unfitness for office and pattern of behavior that demands his removal. It means not ceding control of the narrative, and pushing forward on the parallel fronts of Congressional investigation on the road to impeachment, and an aggressive electoral effort to unseat Trump in 2020. (And to keep the House and try to take the Senate as well.)

The age of waiting for a bombshell from Mueller or elsewhere is over. We know all we need to know. All that’s left now is the grim death march toward Trump’s constitutional removal one way or another.

In 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach, playing a Mexican bandit (gulp, in brownface), says of the hapless townspeople he and his comrades are about to rob: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” (In Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake, the line is uttered by Peter Sarsgaard, playing a white dude.)

So it is with the American people. If we don’t rise up and express our unwillingness to be ruled by a monstrous ignoramus who gleefully announces that he intends to rob us blind and trample everything we claim to hold dear, we deserve what we get.

So I respectfully suggest that we get off our collective ass and do that. We’re never going to change the minds of a certain Kool-Aid-guzzling 30-40% of the country. But if I remember my grade school arithmetic correctly, all we have to do is motivate the remaining 60-70% to get up and act.

Despite the conventional wisdom that partisanship has calcified, within that majority there remains a squishy segment who could tilt either way, including moderate conservatives who are uneasy with Trump but tribally resistant to the Democratic Party, and burn-the-system-down types who could go for Donald or go for Bernie, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. Regarding the latter, there were reports last week that a notable number of that tiny sliver of people who voted for Obama and then for Trump have been defecting back. All it would take is a slight move of those numbers to the Democratic side to make a huge difference in 2020. I say this to reinforce the idea that we can and should still make the case to those on Team MAGA who are willing to listen, as that segment could prove crucial in tight race.

And make no mistake: the other side will be fighting just as hard. If Trump’s 2016 campaign was ugly, his 2020 campaign kickoff in Florida this week suggests that this one will be exponentially worse. Four years ago Trump’s campaign began as a lark, a branding opportunity in which Trump basically had nothing to lose. Now he has everything to lose, including his freedom, his fortune (small though it is), and his criminal business empire. He is a cornered rat, and already behaving that way.

Or it may be that our political system is so broken that we cannot recover from this debacle. It took 240 years, but finally a monster emerged—enabled by a venal and anti-democratic political party and the people who support it—who is perfectly engineered to exploit the loopholes and vulnerabilities in the system that the Founders, for all their wisdom, accidentally left in place. They were visionaries, but not psychics, and they did not foresee a shameless charlatan like Trump rising to power and bulldozing through norms and morals and even explicit laws like the emoluments clause in the way that he has, and without sufficient check by the legislative branch. (Not to mention the emergence of technology and media that could not have been contemplated in the 18th century.) 2020 may prove that Republican skullduggery is enough to beat down the will of the majority—through ultra-gerrymandering, voter suppression, disinformation, collaboration with hostile foreign powers (passive or otherwise), and the anti-democratic anachronism of the right wing-favoring Electoral College—to say nothing of a White House gleefully thumbing its nose at proper oversight, Congressional subpoenas, and court orders,

And it may be that, even if he loses, Trump will refuse to leave office. Don’t believe it? He continues to float trial balloons to that effect. Or are we supposed to take him “seriously but no literally”?

Please. That may be American democracy’s epitaph.

Inside the Myth Machine

Myth Machine

Last December, The New Yorker ran an astonishing piece by Patrick Radden Keefe called “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success.”

In it, Keefe described in great and cringeworthy detail how, in 2001, in search of a “tycoon” character to topline his new unscripted series, the English reality TV impresario cast Donald Trump, ignoring his ignominious history of failure, bankruptcy, and general malfeasance. At the time, Trump’s reputation within the legitimate business community was a joke. But the fictional narrative created by Burnett’s show blew that well-deserved reputation away, creating in its place an enduring—if utterly false—image of Trump as self-made man and business mastermind.

Just how enduring no one knew at the time, least of all Burnett or Trump.

“The Apprentice” marked the creation of a stunning fiction about a man whose actual business acumen was, to be polite, rather less impressive.

Last month, in a blockbuster story by Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner, the New York Times reported that Trump lost over a billion dollars between 1985 and 1994, the biggest loss by any individual American over that period. Trump immediately tried to spin that colossal embarrassment as a triumph, much as he did during the debates when it was suggested that he paid no taxes—“That makes me smart”—which amounts to saying, “I’m not the worst businessman in America—I’m just a tax cheat!”

(He might be both. Craig and Buettner, along with David Barstow, also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of last October on the outrageous, long-running fraud engaged in by the entire Trump family, including the dodges—some illegal, some merely disgusting—they used to avoid paying taxes on the billion dollar inheritance Fred Trump passed on to his children, including not only Donald but also his sister Maryanne, who until very recently was a federal judge.)

But facts, shmacts. None of that was known to the general public in 2001. And as “The Apprentice” became a runaway hit, Trump was given a new lease on celebrity—the latest in the long string of undeserved lucky breaks that this miserable cretin has gotten since birth.

I think we all know what happened from there. It was like something out of A Face in the Crowd.

(Listen to Mr. Keefe discussing the piece with David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour.)

On the heels of that New Yorker piece, I reached out to three individuals with firsthand knowledge of how that particular rancid sausage got made: a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” a business owner whose company was featured in one of the show’s competitions, and a producer who has worked with Burnett over many years. As they all understandably wish to remain anonymous, I’ll gender-ambiguously call them Mx Red, Mx White, and Mx Blue….

THE CONTESTANT

THE KING’S NECKTIE: What did you think of The New Yorker piece about Burnett and the genesis of “The Apprentice”? Was it an accurate depiction?

MX RED: Oh, very much so. I wasn’t surprised by anything in there.

TKN: What struck me as truly amazing was how it pulled back the curtain on this charade. Trump was a punchline, a joke on Page Six, a guy that Spy Magazine used to take down regularly, and now that’s all been completely obliterated by this new vision of him that Mark Burnett created.

RED: Exactly. I remember having a quick conversation with Burnett during the filming. I don’t remember the specifics, but I must have been disputing something that Trump said, and Burnett was very quick to say, “Well, if Trump says it then it’s true.”

TKN: Yikes. Talk about a harbinger of things to come.

RED: Yeah. Sort of acknowledging that, well maybe it’s not actually true, but the reality is that this is “alternate reality.”

TKN: I mean, when the show first aired, nobody thought that this was gonna turn out to be such an insidious and destructive thing—I don’t know of anybody who thought that, anyway. It just seemed like television.

RED: I’m certain this has been written about, but in the past when Trump had entertained the possibility of a presidential run, by and large people didn’t take it seriously. They thought he was just going for publicity and trying to get in the news. I’m a deeply cynical person, so my guess is that his primary motivation for running for president was to enrich himself, or more accurately, to pay off his debts. That would be front and center and nothing else would even matter. But in retrospect, his time on NBC increased his visibility to such an extent that it was the set-up for a real presidential run. Many, if not most of us, associated with the show were shocked when he actually won.

TKN: I couldn’t agree more. To me as just an ordinary American watching this, it seemed like even he never thought it was a real possibility that he could win the presidency. I think he thought it was just a branding opportunity.  

RED: Right. But one thing that guy clearly knows is how to do, maybe better than anyone else, is how to get media coverage. The best charlatans do, going back to PT Barnum.

TKN: It’s kind of mind-blowing to think that Burnett was just looking for a frontman, a figurehead, and if he’d picked someone else, the entire course of American history would be different. I mean, that’s the “butterfly effect”—that could be said of anything—but in this case, it’s really remarkable to ponder.  

RED: Oh yeah. Trump and Burnett were mutual opportunists feeding off of each other. But one of the other important players, as I’m sure you know, is Jeff Zucker. He was at NBC then and had a major role in the success of the show. I don’t know that it would have been so successful without him. And now, of course, being at CNN, Zucker represents the very essence of “fake news” in the eyes of the president. So it’s kind of funny to see them as enemies now.

TKN: What was Trump like personally?

RED: Well, as one would expect, in individual or small group encounters he was very personable and outgoing and ostensibly interested and caring, but it was obvious that it was all in an effort to get something out of you. I didn’t detect anything genuine about the man. But again, I’m a cynical person.

TKN: One of the things I thought was fascinating in The New Yorker piece were the descriptions of how much the show’s editors had to craft his “character” to make him appear smarter than he was, and making more informed decisions than he did, and so forth. They needed to present him as a tycoon, even if that was at odds with his actual business history. Did that TV persona—the “character” he played on “The Apprentice”—jive with the person that you encountered in real life?

RED: Not very much. I mean, there was very little talk or thought of serious business or operational matters. Certainly he can command a room or a conversation in an absolutely domineering and attention-getting way—that’s without dispute. But he’s clearly not, and perhaps has never been, a serious or thoughtful man. He’s just a complete and utter charlatan and huckster which at least a third of the country doesn’t seem to understand or care about.

TKN: How does one deal on a face-to-face basis with somebody who’s so pathological?

RED: It’s extremely challenging. I don’t know if anybody’s getting it right. I did see a suggestion that the only way to deal with someone like Trump is what someone called a “truth sandwich,” where you point out the truth, then you point out what he has said and how it’s in conflict with the truth, and then you end by again restating the truth and forcing him to respond. But the way that news is constructed, in sound bites, nobody forces those conversations. So if conversations like that are happening, they don’t see the light of day.

TKN: Having had this firsthand encounter with him so many years ago and looking at him now, do you see any change in him?

RED: Oh, absolutely. If you look at CNN footage from thirty years ago, clearly he had a higher IQ back then. He’s probably well into dementia now. It’s quite clear, no question.

TKN: Yeah, I hate to give him any kind of “out,” but when you look at those old clips from the ‘80s or ‘90s he could at least put a coherent sentence together. I think he was still a vile human being, and a racist, and all that other stuff, but it does make you think that he’s now got some sort of age-related neurological problem, because today he just seems—on top of all those other things—also incoherent. (laughs) Not a great combination.

RED: (laughs) Definitely not.

TKN: Were his kids on the show when you were on it?

RED: That came a little bit later, so not while I was on it. But I was in Junior’s bedroom in Bedford, New York while he wasn’t there. (laughs) Part of what they did for the contestants to keep them happy during the quarantine time was to bring them around to various Trump properties and try to impress them. A little bit of wining and dining.

TKN: What was it like being in that quarantine situation?

RED: It wasn’t so bad. For the most part you’re left alone if you wanted to be. Most people on shows like that are in some sort of transition. That’s pretty much the common thread. So at the time I wasn’t missing work or school, so it was an extremely unusual opportunity to have unstructured time.

TKN: What about your relationships with the other contestants?

RED: We were actually quite friendly. The majority of us were in touch regularly for at least a year, and then for some of us longer than a year, although I’m not in regular contact with any of them today. I was even friendly with Omarosa; she actually called me right before the election and I just pressed “send to voicemail” because I suspect she was asking me to show up to some event and show some support, which I would not have done.

TKN: She’s been such an interesting figure, because she was completely villainous—both on the show and as a member of the White House—and then she had a falling-out with Trump as so many people do, and now she’s kind of on the side of the angels, but we’re still a little suspicious of her. But I saw her on TV recently and she was fantastic: just completely eloquent and clear-eyed in her commentary on the current situation. You know, you couldn’t make up that character.

Do you have any sense of what the cast’s thoughts are on Trump’s eventual rise to power?

RED: Certainly at least some of them were opposed. The African-American cast members banded together in protest, and actually asked me to join them in publicly denouncing the candidacy. And I politely declined not due to any views I might have but just because there’s downside to having publicity.

TKN: Did you watch the show after you were on it?

RED: Oh, of course. And a couple of additional seasons as well. I mean, it’s not particularly entertaining or well-done television, but I sort of felt compelled to watch it, having been involved with it.

TKN: How truthful were the storylines as edited and aired, compared to what really happened?

RED: Most if not all storylines are really crafted. They leave a hundred or a thousand or whatever number of hours of footage on the cutting room floor. The editors have full discretion and they can take any element of any discussion or any scene and come up with anything they want. So there’s very little that’s legitimate. As opposed to other shows like “Survivor” where at least you know there’s some transparency in the voting. Regardless of what else may be portrayed, the vote is the vote.

TKN: But as we know, actual vote counts don’t really apply in Trumpworld.

RED: Right. On “The Apprentice” everything occurs behind closed doors in terms of decisionmaking. And again, as you would expect, everything is ratings-driven anyway.

TKN: Did you have any kind of editorial input? Could you dispute anything that you thought had been displayed inaccurately?

RED: Not at all. Absolutely no opportunity for input whatsoever. I maintain even now that the application video which I submitted is far more entertaining than anything I did on that show. And that’s because of the editing choices that were made.

I was naive so I actually believed that there was some meritocratic element to this entire competition. For example, there was one member of our team who was completely abysmal, and everybody could see that, and any camera could see that as well, so I thought it was a given that this was gonna be the person eliminated from the team. But I didn’t count on this person actually being a bit of a ratings juggernaut because he was such a comical guy and could really play to the camera, and was such an oddball that he absolutely didn’t mind being the butt of the humor. And that was attractive to the network, so they wanted to hold him on as long as they could. But that didn’t even occur to me at the time.

TKN: I watched a few seasons of it too, and it seemed to me that, not just on that show but on a lot of reality shows, the casts got geometrically savvier and more strategic from watching previous seasons. It’s almost innocent the first season or two.

RED: I would agree with that. I was just very naive about the whole thing. Most people on shows like this ultimately just want to be on TV, perhaps even for a living if they’re not doing that already, but that hadn’t even occurred to me.

TKN: Needless to say, “reality TV,” as many people have pointed out, is an absolute misnomer. Because they’re really game shows, and mostly rigged ones at that.

RED: Yes. I genuinely believed going into that show, “Well, of course I’ll do well because I have experience developing real estate and that’s what this guy does, so how could that not give me an advantage?” But nothing could be further from the truth.

TKN: Right—because you think you’re in a legitimate competition, when in fact you’re a cast member on a television show that someone is puppeteering.

RED: Exactly. Whereas any show that had ballots cast out in the open would be far more real. So actually, the very essence of the competition itself on “The Apprentice” was not legitimate from the get-go, in my opinion.

TKN: You really see that on dating shows. There’s always a contestant who’s an obvious trainwreck and by all rights should be kicked off immediately, but they aren’t because those people make for good television. So the producers string the audience along for a while before they finally get rid of that person.

RED: I would add one more thing, and maybe this is just a quirk with my attention to language, but even the catch phrase or the tagline for the show, “You’re fired,” is factually incorrect. None of the cast members are “hired” in the first place. So it’s just a lie. You actually never were hired, so you can’t be “fired.”

TKN: Much worse tag line, though: “We’re not going to hire you.”

RED: And, of course, the job itself—as you can read in any number of articles—is not even a real job, it’s just basically to be a brand ambassador for one of his latest midlevel buildings.

TKN: What advice would you give people who have to deal with Trump today?

RED: Well, in a business context, my advice would be “don’t.” Just walk away. At a minimum you’ll be unpaid or screwed in some manner. His real estate—the little of it that he actually owns—is so obscenely overpriced that it attracts only stupid money.

For people that might entertain the idea of working for him politically, I would just think about the long-term consequences of your career versus any short-term boost or notoriety it might give you. I’d be a little wary of this administration closing doors for you versus opening them.

TKN: Do you have a guess about how the rest of his tenure in office is going to play out?

RED: I have no particular insight into that other than the dominos keep falling and I just wonder how many more people can be taken down, indicted, or jailed. Sooner or later it’s got to come down to Trump himself, even if it’s not until his four years are done. Let’s hope it’s only four.

It’s an interesting and terrible time to be alive.

TKN: If you could talk to Trump now, what would you say to him? 

RED: I just wouldn’t even want to have the conversation.

THE BUSINESS OWNER

TKN: How did the producers of “The Apprentice” find you?

MX WHITE: Through a consultant who represented my business. They’d gotten a call from one of the “Apprentice” producers, and they told me about the idea, and I said, “OK, I’m interested—send them my way.” (laughs) I wasn’t in any position to say no..…why would I? And lo and behold, what door did it open?

TKN: How did you figure in the show?

WHITE: It was just one episode. The contestants are divided into two teams and my business was featured in one of the competitions between them. And the team that worked with me won.

TKN: So that exposure boosted your career?

WHITE: I don’t know about my career, but it did end up being very lucrative. A hundred million people saw it. People were buying all my stuff the very next day. Customers converged on my shop; I had people lining up. I mean, I was a big winner in the eyes of America, right? (laughs) I got 5000 emails the first week after the episode aired. In fact, my email crashed. I had people trying to reach me four times before they finally got through. I couldn’t believe the response. I was making like ten, twenty grand a week for a while.

TKN: And that wasn’t something that you expected?

WHITE: I didn’t know how it was going to turn out until the night before it aired. I was sitting with a bunch of friends, watching this thing, not knowing the outcome. I really didn’t. My mind was blown; I kept pinching myself every day after, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming all this. My business was doing fine before, I was making a living at it, but then I began making a much better living at it. Much much much better.

The whole experience led me to meet very interesting people from all over the world: England, Hong Kong, Sweden, you name it—people I’m still in touch with. Some of them were very famous or successful, but I didn’t really know who they were until I took the time to look. I was too busy working! But then these people come to my office…..coming from Los Angeles, Texas, Cincinnati—everywhere. People in nineteen piece suits waiting for me. And it was funny—I thought, “Wow, you’re groveling for me for a change.” It was a real turning of the tables; I never thought it would happen like that. And my stuff wasn’t even on the screen that long—maybe a minute or two in total. I was on camera too, maybe that helped. I don’t know. But it was a mind-boggling experience.

TKN: How long did that effect last? Or is it ongoing?

WHITE: It lasted longer than me or my friends or my family ever thought. I still don’t believe it, but the checks did clear so I guess I do! (laughs)

I would say it lasted for eight or nine years. For the first three or four years it was very strong and then it began to taper off. And then of course in ‘08 the crash happened, and people who would normally buy my products now were wondering if they had enough money to retire on. Their priorities shifted. Luckily, I’d saved enough for that kind of situation, so I wasn’t shaking a cup on the street.

TKN: Did you meet Trump in the course of being on the show?

WHITE: Yeah, he came by for a meet-and-greet. Nobody had any idea of where this thing was going to go, of course.

TKN: I don’t think even he did. So what did you think when, all these years later, this thing that started as a TV game show wound up shaking the whole world?

WHITE: I still don’t believe it’s real. It feels like this is all some kind of Truman Show. Are there words in the English language to express this kind of disbelief? I’ll use all of them for 50 points.

There are no words, really. The guy who should be separated from society, who should be put on an island all his own, in a cage, instead is in the most important job in the world—the exact opposite of where you want him.

I try not to think about it, to be honest….even though I subscribe to the Times online, and I keep one eye open just to see what he’s done next.

TKN: You have to, just in self-defense.

WHITE: Correcto. Everything he does is just to drive the price of his properties up, whatever they might be, to artificially inflate them so the value is raised and make it look worth more than it is.

TKN: No doubt. I’m not shocked he does that, but it’s still despicable.

WHITE: I’d be shocked if he didn’t do that! (laughs)

TKN: It’s an unfair question, but where do you see us going from here, politically?

WHITE: Well, I think the blue team has a chance if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. I’d like to think they’ll unite instead of divide, like always seems to happen. What do you think?

TKN: I agree with you 100%. I’d vote for a tree stump over Trump, because I genuinely believe the stump would make a better president. Some of the Democratic candidates that have announced so far I like better than others, but ANY of them would be fine with me, and preferable to Trump.

But it’s worrying that we might eat our own instead of coming together. Obama just warned about the dangers of this obsession with purity; like they say, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

WHITE: For sure. People like Bernie, they like Buttigieg….but it’s kind of early. Bottom line is, somebody’s got to beat his guy. If it’s someone we really like that’s even better, but we just need the most viable candidate to beat this sonofabitch. But it’s so early.

TKN: The Truman Show that you mentioned before is an apt analogy, because that’s what it feels like we’re in. It’s fitting that Trump got a second act on a so-called “reality” TV show—or a third, or a fourth, or whatever it was after all his bankruptcies—and of course he’s obsessed with TV and the entertainment industry, and ratings. And now we’re all living in this nightmare reality TV show.

WHITE: The Real World of Make-Believe.

THE PRODUCER

TKN: Trump gets all the attention, for obvious reasons, but in his own way Mark Burnett is the accidental Mephistopheles behind all this.

MX BLUE: I find it really interesting to think about Mark in terms of where he came from. He told me—and I have no reason to disbelieve him—that he came from a very working-class background. He went into the army. He was a paratrooper. And Trump of course evaded serving in the military, so there’s an irony there (laughs). But there’s a connection in that Trump never felt that he was part of the New York society either. Not really.

TKN: Except Trump was born into wealth and luxury. His “self-made man” narrative is total bullshit. It’s true that he’s always had a chip on his shoulder because he was from Queens and never felt accepted by the Manhattan elite he so desperately wanted to be part of, so I agree with you there. But he wasn’t an up-from-nothing bootstraps type like Burnett.

BLUE: Right. But both of these guys are outsiders that have that same sense of, “I’m a bit of a fake. I’m not really supposed to be here, but look: I’ve managed to pull it off.”

I think where Mark was at his best was when he came up with the idea for the Eco-Challenge. That was something that was truly authentic to his experience, because he’d done all that kind of survival training, and he knew all about the Raid Gauloises, and he realized there was an opportunity there. But the Raid Gauloises was such an inside-baseball race. His vision was for something bigger. Eco-Challenge may not have evolved into something that was so huge, but it spawned “Survivor,” which is his biggest success. And that really is to do with him being his authentic self. Can you tell me anything that Mark’s done since then that was such a big success?

TKN: Well, “The Voice,” but he didn’t invent “The Voice,” he just brought it over from Holland. And even “The Apprentice” I don’t think was ever as big as “Survivor.

BLUE: No. It’s kind of interesting, because I feel like when he was more true to himself and what he really knew how to do, he really did his best.

But look what Mark has achieved. He is a talented guy. He’s a bit of an “It Guy.” You know how you talk about an “It Girl”? He’s an “It Guy” because if you are with him he’s so charming. He really has these eyes that are just are so captivating. His enthusiasm really comes through. He has an ability to seduce people. He’s so convincing. You want to be in his orbit. And I think he’s obviously talented at recognizing things in people that he can exploit.

TKN: In a way Burnett himself would have been a better choice to be the tycoon on “The Apprentice” because he was all the things they were claiming Trump was: self-made man, a salesman who has that charisma, that ability to size you up, built an empire from nothing, really came from the working class, etc. Whereas Trump is a complete fraud in all those ways.

BLUE: It’s almost like Mark’s own lack of experience about the world of business that “The Apprentice” portrayed made him choose someone like Trump for it. It was Trump’s vanity and narcissism and deluded self-confidence that perhaps Mark saw as a hit. He recognized the appeal of the Barnum & Bailey persona. But really, how could he have thought that a show featuring this sort of vulgar, New York Post-obsessed, failed real estate guy, that’s gonna be a television hit?

TKN: But it did become a hit. Because Burnett created the illusion of Trump as a genuine tycoon and business genius, which was a complete crock. The truth was he was a spoiled little rich kid who had everything handed to him, and still managed to fuck it up. But Trump eagerly bought into that fake image because that was and is the exact image he wants to project.

BLUE: True. Mark told me how when he first came to the States, he worked as a nanny. He knew that that was very unconventional. You had a man being a nanny—but he brought so much more to it because he’s this ex-paratrooper, so your children were gonna be safe with him. But I feel like working as a nanny somehow informed him dealing with Trump on TV, because he behaved like a babysitter with him.

TKN: Apparently.

BLUE: Mark has great people skills. So in dealing with Trump and sort of letting him have the lead all the time, he had all of this in his background and part of that was his training in the British army.

TKN: But do you think Burnett had any inkling that “The Apprentice” would lead to anything other than a hit TV show? Nobody really thought Trump had any potential beyond that….if even that, as you say.

BLUE: No. I don’t think he had any vision of Trump being president. I probably think he’s a bit shocked by how things turned out.

I do have a soft spot for Mark, though. I admire what he did, coming from the kind of background he did. I just think he overcame so much that could have constrained him. From what I’ve seen he seems pretty mercurial, but you can’t change your core values.

From what I’ve read, he did become very religious, though. I never discussed religion with him, and I’m not an authority on Mark Burnett at all, but I’m assuming that coming from the UK he wouldn’t be that religious, so I wonder about that. I just find it a little bit strange.

TKN: Maybe it’s the wife. I’ve heard that. Though she’s British as well—for those of you who still consider Northern Ireland part of Britain.

BLUE: I read something from somebody who knows him better than me saying that he tends to adapt to who he’s with.

TKN: Like Zelig. If Zelig were a British paratrooper.

BLUE: Which again speaks to his great survival instincts. He adapts constantly to the situation.

TKN: You’ve interviewed Trump yourself, yes?

BLUE: I did. It was so easy to get an interview with Trump at that time: he’d do anything to be on TV. I’d been told he was a germaphobe, so the first thing I did of course was put out my hand just to see if he would shake it. He spent quite a lot of time checking how he looked. He was quite particular about that.

And then the interview was not long at all. By that time he was already quite a professional inteviewee and he understood how the game worked. He wouldn’t answer any questions he didn’t like; he had a script in his head for what his comments would be and he wasn’t going to change that. In the end he was like, “All right, are you done?” I wound up not using any of it.

TKN: Why’d he do the interview then, if he had no intention of answering?

BLUE: Because it got him in the paper. Anything that’s going to get him in the news, or on television…. you know, all publicity is good publicity.

TKN: I think that prior to Trump the average American had no problem with Mark Burnett. They admired all those things you said: came from nothing, immigrant story—which we’re supposed to be all about, right?—built this empire, very smart, etc. Regardless of whether you think “Survivor” is a highpoint of Western culture or not, it was a success. I don’t think people even blame him for Trump per se, because like you said, it was such a fluke.

But what I think people do blame him for, people on the left anyway, is how he’s dealt with it since then. He didn’t say, “Oh my God, I’m horrified at what I unleashed.” He didn’t even hint at that. He continued to be close with Trump. He helped with the inauguration. He’s kind of tried to have it both ways, and I think that really rubs people the wrong way.

BLUE: He hasn’t spoken out, that’s true. I remember seeing something where his wife Roma had said that Trump had always been very nice to them, and very polite. I think this was after the “pussy grab” tapes came out. They’ve defended the indefensible. But I think that Mark would say he’s not a political animal.

TKN: But that’s such an incredible cop-out. We’re all in this thing, and “Which side are you on?” is the question that he has to answer. Especially because he’s at least partially culpable.

BLUE: I know….

TKN: If you ask the man on the street, “What do you think of Trump?” and that guy says, “I’m not a political animal,” fair enough. But if you were in business with him, if you built him up into the thing that enabled him to launch his political career, you do have something to answer for. And by not saying anything negative, by trying to have it both ways, Mark appears to be endorsing it or condoning it.

BLUE: Part of that is his working class roots. “Serve the establishment.” Those kinds of political things are for those people “up there” who get to decide that stuff.

TKN: But let me play devil’s advocate. I think it’s the opposite. He is that guy “up there” now. Now he’s this super-successful, ultra-rich guy and it’s really hard for those people to throw a wrench into the system. He’s not gonna shit on the President of the United States, even if he doesn’t like him. Or maybe he does like him; we can’t tell. That’s the problem.

And then conversely, people are still doing business with Mark Burnett. This is like the old joke that Hollywood would do business with Hitler if there were money to be made. Not comparing Mark to Hitler by any stretch, of course, but just to take it to the extreme. As much as some people in showbiz don’t like Trump, or Burnett because of his association with Trump, they’re not turning down his shows. And they won’t until they stop making money.    

BLUE: Of course not.

TKN: And it’s also true that there are more Trump supporters in Hollywood than the general public realizes. Closeted maybe, but still.

BLUE: (groans with weltschmerz)

(long pause)

I do think maybe you’re saying that he is that guy. He is that really successful guy. But I wonder if, at some level, Mark doesn’t really see himself that way, even now, with all his success.

TKN: Yeah, I’m sure he doesn’t see himself that way. I’m sure he sees himself as this regular lad still. But he’s not.

BLUE: I’m a sentimental kind of person. I’m just finding him a sympathetic character. Many years later, I happened to be at a meeting and Mark saw my name on the list and came by to say hello. I have the impression he is tremendously loyal to friends and colleagues. So I respect that. He is a mensch in that sense.

TKN: Fair enough. I don’t know him at all, of course, but what makes him interesting to me is that he doesn’t appear to be a pure villain. There are plenty of pure villains in Trump’s orbit that are just so over-the-top evil you could never dream them up, even if you were writing a Disney cartoon. But Burnett has all these positive attributes that you’re talking about, and that’s what’s maddening and frustrating and sad.

I do think he must have some soul or he would just be a flatout Trump supporter, right? It would do him better with a certain segment. Or maybe he’s trying to play both sides. I don’t want to say he’s tortured, but I suspect in the dead of night, he feels some responsibility, and it appears that he’s wrestling with that.

BLUE: I don’t know. I don’t know how much he’s wrestling with it, but I think that he’s not all villain. Far from it. I think he has a lot of very good qualities. 

TKN: (surprised) Now I’m giving him more credit than you are, in terms of his introspectiveness. Why don’t you think he’s wrestling with it?

BLUE: I think he’s an incredibly disciplined person and that probably allows him to compartmentalize things in such a way that he might not be tossing and turning trying to go to sleep at night. And that discipline in so many other situations is a real asset.

TKN: But in this situation it’s a massive rationalization that allows him to let himself off the hook.

BLUE: It’s an amazing quality. Who knows what’s going on in his mind?

TKN: We’ll see how this all shakes out. I heard a podcast with the author of that New Yorker piece, Patrick Radden Keefe, who said that the first line of Burnett’s obituary is certainly gonna be, “This man helped get Donald Trump elected president.” And that’s a hard thing to live with, unless you like Donald Trump.

BLUE: True. I don’t think that’s what Mark would want as the first line of his obituary.

TKN: The irony is, if it wasn’t for that, he would be celebrated as this success story that we were talking about—this Horatio Alger figure. He might be blamed in part for the rise of reality TV and the toxic dumbing-down effect it’s had on Western society, but he wouldn’t be held significantly responsible for the total collapse of American democracy.

BLUE: Yeah, although again, if you put that question to Mark, “How responsible are you for Trump?”, I think he would say that he’s responsible for making Trump into this star of a reality show, but ultimately the people of America are responsible for having elected him.

TKN: Well I don’t disagree with that. It’s just like the Russian interference: the fact of that does not relieve the America people of our own responsibility. I’m not looking to lay it all on Mark Burnett or Vladimir Putin or anybody else except the American public. The only people we can really blame are ourselves.

But If Burnett had come out during the campaign and said, “This is a joke; this guy was a clown. We made him what he is, or what he wants you to think he is,” it might have had an effect. I’m not saying Mark would have ever done that, for many reasons; it would have been extraordinary for him to do that. I wouldn’t have expected that of anyone, really. But it would have had an effect.

BLUE: In some ways it’s sort of like working on a documentary, because you spend a lot of time with a given person, cultivating them, their family, you’re involved in that kind of way, and to then turn around and do that would sort of say, “Everything about me is fake.” It’s not just about betraying Trump and his family, it’s about betraying the whole illusion of what Mark makes his money from.

Maybe it’s going to be one of those end-of-life things, much later from now, when ol’ Mark Burnett’s time as a TV movie mogul is done and all he’ll have is his memoirs. 

TKN: But then it’s like McNamara, and then people really get angry when twenty years go by and there’s nothing at stake anymore, and you say, “Yeah, you know what? I kind of made a mistake.” That really pisses people off.

BLUE: But I also think that his intense sense of loyalty to people, as I mentioned, comes into play. He’s been in the trenches with Trump and I don’t think he’s gonna turn on him. Even if he thought he was an asshole, I think that would be overridden by his sense of their shared experience.

TKN: But at a certain point—and I’m not saying where that point is—but no matter how close you were with somebody or what you went through together, if that person became, say, a serial killer, I might say “Yeah, my friend Blue’s great, but I don’t support that ‘killing people’ thing they do.”

BLUE: Exactly. In the end that’s something only Mark Burnett can answer for himself.

**********

Photo: Allocca/StarPix/Rex Features/Shutterstock. ©2004

Transcription: Sherry Alwell, type916@gmail.com

 

Garbo Speaks: Will Congress Listen?

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 11.50.42 AM

OK, we clear now?

Bob Mueller just said that Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted left him and his team without even the option of charging Donald J. Trump with a crime.

In other words, he wouldn’t—and couldn’t, according to his interpretation of the law—charge Trump with anything, no matter what he found.

He pointedly said that, under the Constitution, a president’s misdeeds—both ordinary criminal behavior and “high crimes and misdemeanors” as defined politically, not legally—are a matter for Congress, if it so decides.

He also explicitly said that his office would have exonerated Trump if they thought he was guiltless, but they didn’t do that because they didn’t think he was. I believe his exact words were that “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” a sound bite that ought to ring in America’s ears for years to come. Indeed, his written report lists in granular detail ten different instances in which Trump arguably did obstruct justice in ways that rise to the level of a federal crime…..and close to a thousand former federal prosecutors have signed a letter stating that, in their collective professional opinion, Trump would have been indicted on that charge if not for the office he holds. (The written report also specifically notes that Trump can be indicted once he leaves office.)

And lastly, at the very beginning and end of his remarks—which PS, storytelling-wise, is where the bottom line usually goes—Mr. Mueller reminded us that arching over and above all this is the fact that the government of Russia engaged in “a concerted attack on our political system” consisting of “multiple systemic efforts to interfere in our election,” all designed to benefit Donald Trump and damage Hillary Clinton. Unspoken was the implication that Moscow—and perhaps others—will surely will continue to do so, which ought to be of grave concern to each and every American. (Unless you’re the folks Russia is interfering to help.)

So all in all, that was a pretty instructive nine minutes, wouldn’t you say?

INDICTMENT IS NOT AN OPTION

In my own solipsistic world, that the sphinx should speak at last this very week was fitting, on the heels of a four-part series in these pages on the impact of the special counsel report and the prospects for Trump’s removal from office, either by impeachment, resignation, or defeat at the polls in 2020.

Mueller’s unexpected silence-breaking made for a resounding coda, and did several things to alter the landscape going forward.

It destroyed Bill Barr’s brazen lie that the OLC opinion wasn’t the pivotal issue in Mueller’s decision not to indict on obstruction.

It exploded the notion that Russian interference was a hoax—an idea propagated most prominently by two world leaders, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Not a coincidence.

It obliterated Trump’s fiction that the SCO found “no collusion” between his campaign and Russian actors. Mueller very pointedly did NOT say there was no collusion. He did not even use the word “collusion,” as well he shouldn’t, as it is legally meaningless. What Mueller said, in fluent legalese, was that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy,” which is far from the same thing. We know very well that there were many many illicit contacts between Trump associates and various foreign players,  which the Trump team was desperate to keep hidden and about which it repeatedly lied. Whether those contacts rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy that is likely to lead to a conviction is a wholly different matter….but that in no way constitutes the clean bill of health that Trump ludicrously claims.

And lastly, it made it very clear that Mueller intended his report to be an impeachment referral, since he explicitly said that he did not believe that he and his team had the authority to indict NO MATTER WHAT THEY FOUND, and that under the Constitution, Congress is the proper venue to handle these issues.

As the British say, must I paint you a picture?

One can only hope that this press conference will encourage Congress to do its constitutional duty and hold this criminal president to account for his actions, or suffer the withering judgment of history for its unwillingness to do so. And I use the word “encourage” in its most literal sense:

To. Give. Courage.

THE VIEW FROM BIZARRO WORLD

To no one’s surprise, the White House immediately tried to spin Mueller’s remarks—like his report itself—as yet another demonstration of absolute exoneration. But by now we are hip to that game…..or at least 60 percent of us are.

The evidence that the White House really did not see Mueller’s statement as helpful to them was that within minutes Rudy Giuliani was attacking It on Fox News, and in his usual hysterical fashion, comparing Mueller’s press conference to something that would have occurred in the USSR. Mueller has “lost his notion of American fairness,” Giuliani added with no discernible irony, defending a president and administration who have been the greatest and most undeserving beneficiaries of the integrity and fairness of others since OJ.

And Team Trump is right to be unhappy, as even Fox anchor Bret Baier said that Mueller’s statement was the “exact opposite” of the spin Bill Barr put on the SCO report. Also on Fox, former judge Andrew Napolitano said it exposed Barr’s summary as a “whitewash.” Trump himself was reduced from crowing about “complete and total exoneration” two months ago to feebly mumbling about “insufficient evidence” today.

Some have said that Mueller did throw cold water on the left’s scathing attacks on Barr’s integrity, in which I have been a very eager participant. But the fact is, he did not really defend Barr. He did not, for instance, say “I don’t question the attorney general’s good faith,” as some have reported. Speaking very narrowly of Barr’s decision to release the redacted report rather than the summaries the SCO team had prepared, Mueller said, “I certainly do not question the attorney general’s good faith in that decision” (italics mine). It was that action and that action only that Mueller was referring to. Left open: whether the AG acted in good faith in his other actions. Mueller’s personal letter to Barr of March 27 complaining that Barr was misrepresenting the SCO’s conclusions to the public suggests otherwise.

In short, what we saw today, after two years of silence, was an astounding rebuke of how the president and his minions—including the man who is allegedly the country’s chief law enforcement officer—have tried to distort the results of the SCO investigation. It was a blunt explanation that the special counsel was never going to bring any charges of any kind, as he considered that beyond his purview, giving the lie to Trump’s bluff assertion that no charges meant no wrongdoing, and a stark clarification that the vast array of damning evidence in the 448 page report was intended as a roadmap for Congressional action.

If Mueller’s remarks did not go as far as some would have liked, or in sufficiently dramatic fashion, they were nonetheless a serious body blow to the administration, no matter how much it wants to deny it.

DARKNESS FALLING

I’d like to turn now to a related matter, which is the next phase of the campaign by Trump/Barr to obfuscate and cover up Donald’s misdeeds, because it’s ramping up, and in the most alarming way.

From the very beginning of Russiagate, and particularly since the release of the special counsel report put him out of immediate legal jeopardy, Trump has promised to “investigate the investigators,” and punish those who had the unmitigated gall to dare look into whether or not he had done anything wrong in the 2016 campaign. Because, ya know, he’s above the law……we all agree on that, right?

Trump has long been throwing around accusations of treason, promising prison terms, and generally behaving like the tinhorn despot of a Third World backwater banana republic. Now he is making good on his threats, and putting teeth in them by giving his shameless lackey Bill Barr the authority to declassify intelligence—including sources and methods—in order to cherrypick info that can be used to craft their disinformation narrative. Barr’s spin on the SCO report offered a preview of how he will do this; the coming effort promises to be infinitely greater in scope and utter dishonesty, and in the potential threat it poses to the republic.

Evidence of Trump’s crimes—obstruction, acts of conspiracy with Russia, financial misdeeds, fraud, etc etc—will be omitted. Random bits of information will be plucked out of context to bolster a mythical plotline in which the Deep State conspired to overthrow him. It is an article of faith in MAGA Nation that indictments are coming down any day now, and Hillary, Comey, Strzok, et al are all getting fitted for orange jumpsuits. Maybe Barack too!

In other words, Trump is weaponizing the DOJ and the investigative process as a cannon he can fire at his political enemies. That process is already underway, with the revocation of security clearances as a personal vendetta (against John Brennan, for example), and with Barr’s unconscionably blithe and dangerous use of the term “spying” to describe FISA-authorized government surveillance, which he has already pre-judged.

It should not surprise anyone that this is the very thing that he and Barr have howled in faux outrage that others are doing: politicizing the investigative apparatus to persecute and punish one’s foes. That, as we all know, is Fascism 101: accuse others of your own crimes.

Shall we discuss just how dangerous and alarming this development is?

There are of course grave national security considerations in this move to give Barr power over the intelligence community. As the Washington Post’s Max Boot pithily observed: “So Trump’s position is that his tax returns should remain private but the CIA’s ‘sources and methods’ should become public.” In terms of the venal, indefensible compromise and exposure of US intelligence officers and assets for partisan political gain—literally putting lives at risk in some cases—the outing of Valerie Plame pales in comparison.

Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff for both the DOD and CIA, has noted that such actions also make it harder for the US to recruit agents going forward and to get foreign intelligence services to share intel with us….and with good reason. Why should anyone trust us, knowing that at some unknown future date the American president might casually decide to betray their secrets for his own ends?

All true. But it is the domestic impact that is more chilling to me.

Boot again:

When Trump said Hillary Clinton should be locked up, he meant it; the Mueller report documents Trump’s repeated demands that the Justice Department investigate his 2016 opponent. Having paid no price for what should be an impeachable offense, Trump let it be known this week that former FBI director James B. Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe—along with “people probably higher than that”— deserved to be executed for treason. Is Trump insinuating that President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, to whom the FBI reported in 2016, were guilty of treason? Sure sounds like it.

I don’t expect Jim Comey to be clapped in irons. I’m not saying it COULDN’T happen—who knows how far Trump will go, and the GOP-controlled Senate will let him go? But for now the mere idea that a Roy Cohn-like AG has been let off the leash to pursue politically motivated prosecutions is worrying enough. It is precisely the sort of imperial behavior that the Founders feared and the system they constructed was designed to prevent. But that system only works when its players act in good faith.

Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman turned Trump critic, has said that this is the realization of the dream that Trump and Bannon announced when they arrived in Washington: the destruction of the administrative state. And as Steele as says, it is happening without consequences, and will continue to do so until Congress reaches down and discovers its testicles (to traffic in a sexist trope).

For Trump, of course, it’s a three-fer: he is at once indulging his innate sadism and desire for revenge, while creating a circus that assists him in the coming presidential campaign, and suppressing any meaningful further investigation of his crimes.

People wonder guilelessly how William Barr could become a bagman for this regime and active accomplice in this travesty. I have written about that at length, but it’s easy to understand, even without looking at his sordid history in Iran/contra. Like many plutocrats, Barr believes in the unitary executive theory, and he believes in that because an autocracy with no parliamentary or judicial or any other kind of oversight offers him and his kind the most freedom and impunity from justice as they pursue their hateful agenda.

For his part, Comey himself has pooh poohed these investigations, arguing that they are bad theater and will come up with nothing. He may be right on both counts, but the charade is still deeply worrying, as the investigations will form a false, toxic narrative that Trump and the GOP will relentlessly promote and many gullible Americans will accept. And the underlying danger of the precedent set by such a shameless perversion of the justice system of course remains.

Writing recently in Salon, Chauncey DeVega gave a bravura survey of the state of authoritarianism in America today, all pegged to the events of a single day last week, May 23. It bears quoting at length:

During a press conference (that day), Trump was asked by NBC reporter Peter Alexander to name the people he believes are guilty of “treason.” Trump responded by mentioning former FBI director James Comey, former acting director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former Justice Department official Lisa Page. Treason is a high crime punishable by execution. In essence, President Trump publicly threatened to have those four former public servants executed.

What did the four do to warrant a potential death penalty? Comey, McCabe, Strzok and Page followed through on their professional responsibilities to hold a president and his inner circle accountable for their behavior in accordance with the nation’s laws. Their other “crime” in the eyes of Trump and his regime? Protecting the United States from a hostile foreign power that successfully subverted American democracy in 2016 (and continues to do so). It would seem that Donald Trump’s foreign patrons are not to be interfered with.

Also on May 23, Trump gave Attorney General William Barr, his handpicked insurance policy, the power to unilaterally declassify secret intelligence information in his search for evidence that the Mueller investigation was an attempted “coup” and an effort to overthrow his presidency…..

On Thursday evening, both the president and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, circulated a heavily edited video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, purporting to show that she was “drunk” or “not of her right mind”….

In total, Thursday’s events were a grand tour of the authoritarian’s playbook: The Leader is the State; the Leader is above the rule of law; the Leader is the law; reality is to be twisted and bent to serve the Leader; there is no accountability or transparency in government; fealty and loyalty to the Leader and his Party are all that matters; violence, threats and intimidation replace democratic norms, principles, consensus and accountability.

DeVega also notes that this trifecta comes atop an already appalling pattern: the threats not to respect the outcome of elections; the encouragement of politically and racially motivated violence; the concerted effort to usurp women’s rights to control their own bodies; the emboldening of foreign dictators; the disregard for democratic norms; and the denial of civil rights to those “who are not white, male, Christian, rich and heterosexual.”

The authoritarian’s playbook indeed.

Mr. Boot one more time:

I refrain from saying that Trump has hit a “new low” because the phrase is meaningless; next week he is practically guaranteed to bore even deeper into substrata of immorality and vileness that no previous president has ever penetrated. The only thing that can stop him before November 2020 is impeachment. But Pelosi’s caution is understandable: The House can impeach, but the Senate will never convict, allowing Trump to claim unearned exoneration. The result is that Trump’s abuses of power are practically guaranteed to get worse as he fights for his political survival.

LET MUELLER BE MUELLER

Here is the ultimate irony of the twinned events of Trump’s weaponization of the DOJ and Mueller’s startling press conference.

Trump’s willingness—eagerness even—to pervert the justice system and intelligence community for the most despicable, venal, anti-democratic, and self-aggrandizing ends stands in stark contrast to the meticulous, principled, painstaking-almost-to-a-fault integrity of Robert Swan Mueller III. Jesus, even a Marvel superhero movie doesn’t offer such a blunt dichotomy between good and evil. (DC maybe.)

Indeed, some have suggested that Mueller’s commitment to principle is actually hurting us in this steel cage match, that he should have spoken up sooner, or been more aggressive in his interpretation of his remit. On MSNBC, former DOJ spokesman Matt Miller mused how different things would be if this press conference, rather than Barr’s smoke-and-mirrors display, had been the way the American people were introduced to the SCO report. Many others noted that Mueller, for better or worse, appears to be a creature of a different media age, and did not think in those terms. Given how many people (even on the left) initially presumed that Bill Barr would behave in a principled manner, perhaps it was too much to expect that Mueller—his longtime friend and associate, and fellow Republican—could have anticipated his antics.

I am sympathetic to these arguments. But those who are frustrated with Bob Mueller for not being Tom Steyer have not been paying attention to who Bob Mueller is. I say this with love, because many of those people are my dear friends, and I could not feel their pain any more if I tried. But that is asking a bird to be a fish.

As with Nancy Pelosi, who gives the Democratic Party camouflage and cover by representing the slow-and–cautious approach on impeachment, even if it’s only tactical (see Who’s Afraid of the Big I?, May 15, 2019), Mueller has had an important role to play in this drama too…..a starring one, in fact. But it is not the role of Javert pointing his finger and shouting “J’accuse!”

Mueller is perfectly cast as a sober, by-the-book, honest broker. He provided a towering public service with the SCO inquiry and the report it produced. Only a non-partisan figure of immense credibility who commanded deep respect across the ideological divide could fill that role (at least until Fox News’s poison did its work—see the turnabouts by Graham, Gingrich, et al). For him to turn into a firebrand now would undo all that good.

Would I have liked to have see Bob Mueller stand up there and proclaim that Donald Trump is a lying sack of shit who ought to go to the Supermax federal pen in Florence, Colorado along with Ted Kaczynski, Robert Hanssen, and Zacarias Moussaoui? Sure. But I would also like it if I could get in a time machine and emerge in 1973 for a dream date with Pam Grier, and I don’t expect that either. (Don’t worry, it’s cool—Ferne is onboard, and might come along, although she also has her sights set on 1951-vintage Marlon Brando.)

Mueller likewise provided another valuable service with his nine-minute statement of May 29th. If it was not the mic drop that some would have liked, that expectation was always unrealistic. What Mueller did, very clearly, was say to the American people, “There was never going to be a criminal indictment no matter what I found, so stop buying Trump’s bullshit that no indictment equals exoneration,” and to Congress: “Hey dummies: Read the report. It is an impeachment referral. Now do your job.”

Mueller put the tennis ball squarely in Congress’s court. Far from “penning Democrats in,” as some pundits claim, he actually bolstered the case for impeachment. In direct contravention of the conventional wisdom, some have even begun to say that not impeaching will actually hurt the Democrats in 2020 and hand a second term to Donald J. Trump, to say nothing of the damage such inaction would do to the integrity of the republic. I suspect they are right. Ignoring Trump’s wrongdoing is the far greater danger than holding him to account for it, regardless of the political costs.

I do believe that if we survive this administration, Mueller’s commitment to fairness will be a great gift to America. If he had been more aggressive in his inquiry and his statement—much as I would have liked that on a visceral level—I fear the precedent for a less scrupulous special counsel working for the other side in the future. One has only to look at how Trump and Barr are abusing their power to see how that might play out. It is precisely this kind of integrity that we are fighting for, and that we can’t sacrifice.

Mueller’s presser provided yet another study in contrasts—perhaps the starkest yet—between this man and the one he was investigating. Bob Mueller earned his golden years well before he came out of retirement to become the special counsel: in Vietnam, as a US Attorney and acting US Deputy Attorney General, as a homicide prosecutor, and as director of the FBI during one of the most trying times in modern American history. When the smoke clears from the current battle, I suspect that posterity will look back and recall that, in the twilight of his lifetime of public service, he once again answered the call.

 

How to Tell Elections Matter

How to Tell Elections

Is it really be necessary to state that elections matter? Really—you needed that reminder? After November 8, 2016?

We need not reiterate (nor debate) how or why a washed-up game show host and degenerate grifter wound up in the White House. Historians will mull it for generations to come, while satirists will bow down before its tragicomic majesty and their own abject inability to match it with fiction. We can talk about the antiquated, anti-democratic institution of the Electoral College. We can talk about Russian interference (yes, Virginia, it’s real), or the far less discussed and never properly investigated issue of actual vote tampering. We can talk about economic discontent and about the roles of racism and misogyny. We can talk about how Hillary didn’t visit Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ohio enough, or how WikiLeaks dumped a ton of stolen emails the day the Access Hollywood “pussygrabber” tape dropped, or how Comey decided, gee whiz, I’m gonna come out with a statement announcing the re-opening of the investigation into Hillary’s email server just days before Americans go to the polls.

That’s about a thousand doctoral dissertations right there.

But at the end of the day, Donald J. Trump did get in, to almost everyone’s surprise (his included) and everyone who voted for Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or thought Hillary was a shoo-in and stayed home played a part in putting him there, not to mention those who went ahead and actually voted for the Con Man from Queens.

But there was another national election since then, the 2018 midterms, and that one was just as instructive.

So in the final essay in this four-part survey of the post-Mueller landscape, let us examine whether the coming presidential election can get us out of the fine mess that the last one got us into.

WILL THIS BE ON THE MIDTERM?

At the risk of sounding pedantic, let me recount what the midterms did for us. (Get it?)

Without a Democratic majority in the House, the delivery of the Mueller report would have been exactly what Mitch McConnell wants to pretend it is—“Case closed”—notwithstanding its underlying damnations that Bill Barr tried to spin away. There would be no ongoing Congressional investigations of Trump, no subpoenas, no court fight over his tax returns, no possibility of Barr being held in contempt of Congress, or of Don McGahn or Robert Mueller testifying on national television, no chance of us seeing any of the unredacted report.

We would still be in a constitutional crisis—and make no mistake, we’re in one—but it would be a one-sided fight with not much we could do about it.

But luckily, the resistance got its shit together sufficiently last November, which is the only reason that Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, Maxine Waters, Elijah Cummings, and the rest are able to do the things they’re doing. True, Trump is still running roughshod over the rule of law, but it would be much much worse if Nancy Pelosi didn’t own the gavel. As Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times:

The handling of the (Mueller) report underscored once again the consequences of the last election in delivering control of the House to the Democrats. Were Republicans in charge of both the House and the Senate, the findings could have been the end of the matter. But with Democrats holding House committee chairmanships, they do not seem at all willing to let the issue go. They were further motivated by what they saw as an egregious attempt by Attorney General William P. Barr to run political interference for the president.

I can think of no more powerful positive example in modern American politics of how much elections matter.

For negative examples, we have an embarrassment of riches.

For one especially inverted view we need only look to Georgia, which under Republican Governor Brian Kemp recently passed abortion laws straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale—laws which a Governor Stacey Abrams could have vetoed even if the state legislature was comprised of misogynistic monsters, which apparently it is.

Blessed be the fruit indeed, if the fruit is a fucking peach.

I cite Georgia rather than Alabama or Missouri or Ohio or any of the other states trying to take us back to the Age of Coat Hanger because, as you may recall, Kemp slid into office under the most outrageous of circumstances, to wit:

In the gubernatorial race last fall, he was not only the Republican candidate but also the state official IN CHARGE OF THE ELECTION, which would have already been howlingly outrageous even if he didn’t have a history of voter suppression and fraud, which he did. (And sure enough there was widespread evidence of voter suppression in that race, and even outright tampering with the vote.)

No self-respecting banana republic would dare try to get away with a shameless farce like that. But having spent a good hunk of my childhood there, I can tell you that the state of Georgia can only aspire to the status of a banana republic.

Prior to 2016 itself, surely the most infamous example of electoral consequences was 2000, when a razor thin margin and polling place chaos allowed the GOP to grab the White House via a party-line vote in the Supreme Court (dealing a blow to the Court’s credibility from which it has never quite recovered). It does not require a deep dive into counterfactual alternative history to wonder how different the modern world would be if Al Gore had taken the oath of office in January 2001 instead of George Dubya Bush.

There are myriad more examples of course; the value of the vote is painfully self-evident. Which is why perhaps the single most worrying threat to our democracy is the current right wing campaign to undermine the electoral process by multiple means: by hyper-gerrymandering at a level far worse than the routine map-fucking in which both parties traditionally engaged; by partisan-driven suppression of the vote; by fearmongering over nonexistent “voter fraud” and the concomitant cry for voter ID laws that are nothing but a smokescreen for mass disenfranchisement; even by the willful acceptance of foreign interference. (What??? No, you say!)

So to the point raised in the title of this essay, how do you tell that elections matter?

Because the bastards are doing everything they can to sabotage them.

NO MATTER WHO YOU VOTE FOR, THE GOVERNMENT ALWAYS GETS IN

In 2006 I made a feature film called Land of the Blind, a political satire starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland. At one point, their two characters contemplate the merits of democratic reform versus violent revolution, prompting Sutherland’s character to quip, “If voting could really change anything it would be illegal.”

It’s a cynical line, and an old one (I don’t know where I first heard it), but it reflects a justifiable pessimism about how much the powers-that-be are truly committed to democracy in almost any society that you care to name. And the modern GOP is doing its level best to be a living embodiment of that dynamic.

Faced with unresponsive, unacceptable, or even openly tyrannical leaders, the American people have two chief avenues of recourse: the courts and the ballot. It is therefore no coincidence that both are the targets of intense Republican efforts to lock down control, even in defiance of the public will. (The other avenues of public recourse—like peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and in the most extreme circumstances, revolution—exist outside the formal parameters of the law, rather than codified in the Constitution, except under the umbrella of freedom of expression. Which PS is also under attack.)

At least since the time of the Bork debacle, the Republican Party has been trying—pretty successfully— to pack the courts at every level with hardline right wing judges, an effort masterminded by people like Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. Under Trump (in a discreet under-the-radar campaign engineered by Don McGahn, for you fans of irony), it has ramped up that effort to a record pace. The GOP’s attempts to neuter the vote have been even more outrageous, and among the scariest of all its myriad crimes against the republic, which is saying something. The Republican Party has done lots of terrible things, but to screw with the ability of the electorate to express its will at the ballot box strikes at the very heart of representative democracy.

An out-and-out autocracy is one thing, but at least it’s honest about its tyranny; the illusion of free elections is worse in its way, and certainly more insidious. But that has become the fig leaf of choice for the modern police state. (Looking at you, Vlad.)

Are we in the good ol’ USA that far off from the transparent sham of a cult-of-personality regime where the despot in question is habitually reelected with 99.9% of the vote? You scoff, but the net effect is not really different when the loser of the popular vote somehow wins the race—which has happened twice in the past 16 years, not coincidentally, both times with Republican candidates.

The GOP hypocrisy on this issue is breathtaking. Don’t talk to me about how scrapping the Electoral College would be so unfair to the citizens of Wyoming (all seven of them). I’m sure Fox Nation would be totally cool with it if the EC continually put Democrats in the White House even though they lost the popular vote. Which may be why Barack Obama, in collaboration with Eric Holder, has made a piece of that issue—an anti-gerrymandering campaign—the centerpiece of his post-presidential mission.

But trying to undermine the vote makes perfect strategic sense for the Republicans, of course, as their electoral power is dwindling, demographically speaking, not to mention their fetish for authoritarianism and unfettered plutocracy, and the fact that they really have no interest in principle, or democracy, or equality, or justice in the first place.

A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY

I say all this not just to vent about the crime syndicate that the GOP has become (not just), but to make the point that fair elections are one of the things autocrats fear most. Therefore, they are also one of the most powerful weapons we have, if we can maintain their integrity.

Short of Russo-Republican ratfucking, Trump is eminently beatable in 2020. Hell, he lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost three million votes, and only won the Electoral College because of some 10,000 votes in Michigan (out of 4.5 million cast) that could very easily have gone the other way, to cite just one scenario. And he is far less popular now than he was then. His approval ratings have been historically abysmal and never broken 50%……and this with a soaring economy. (Which he rightly gets no credit for, not matter how much he tries to grab it, as the boom began under Obama. If anything, Trump has done his level best to wreck it with things like trade wars, a ballooning deficit, and general global panic-making.)

Even accounting for the usual statistical weirdness, head-to-head matchups show Trump losing to almost every Democratic nominee, which ought motivate everyone to get behind whoever the nominee is, even if it’s your not personal favorite (he said pointedly).

That fact also ought to help dissuade us from risky assumptions about who is or isn’t “electable,” a beartrap which several smart observers have recently addressed.

Writing in The New Republic, Alex Pareene had a thoughtful piece about that myth and the pitfalls it presents as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pareene points out that after Barry Goldwater got crushed by LBJ in 1964, the Republican Party didn’t run from right wing extremism, it doubled down on it, nominating Nixon four years later and eventually moving both the party and the whole country hard to starboard, going on to win not only with Tricky Dick but with Reagan, Dubya/Cheney, and Trump as well. They only lost when they played it safe with “mainstream” nominees who promised broader appeal, like Dole, McCain, or Romney.

By contrast, in Pareene’s view, the Democratic Party is still traumatized to this day by McGovern’s landslide defeat in ’72, which led to such timid and allegedly acceptable to the mainstream choices as Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and the not so-safe but supposedly inevitable Mrs. Clinton.

In the Times, Michelle Goldberg recently had a similar column about Joe Biden, and whether he would be a reprise of such previous “safe bets,” or if we might be better off with a less orthodox candidate who inspires more passion. On that front, Rebecca Solnit has a tour de force piece about the brilliant and brave Elizabeth Warren, and the way misogyny and anti-intellectualism have conspired to create the canard of her as “unlikable.” (Hey, she drank a beer, right? That was enough to get a dolt like George Bush elected. But he had a penis.)

In other words, electability is as electability does. Cravenly discounting candidates because we’re worried they’re too bold for the middle-of-the-road voter is a Christmas present to the other side, when we can just as easily create our own political reality, in the words of conservative writer David Priess, whom I quoted at length last week. Who initially thought a biracial center-left first term senator named Barack Hussein Obama was “electable”? Or a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy? Or an obscure, saxophone playing Arkansas hillbilly (smooth and fantastic though he was, in the words of John Mulaney). For that matter, who thought Donald fucking Trump was electable, marking perhaps the only thing 44 and 45 have in common, polar opposites that they are?

So who’s to say then that Elizabeth Warren, or Mayor Pete, or Kamala aren’t be “electable”?

I get the “comfort food” aspect of Biden, and I’m as susceptible to it as anyone. Sure, I’d like a more progressive candidate, and a fresher face—and how about a woman, and a person of color, to really put a knife in Trump’s heart, not to mention, oh yeah, making a statement about what this country stands for. But I will enthusiastically support Joe if at the end of the primaries he turns out to be the candidate best positioned to beat Trump like a conga. Like Ricky Ricardo pounding out “Babalú.” Like Keith Moon on Live at Leeds. Like Gene Krupa on crystal meth.

The same goes for the whole slate of Democratic presidential aspirants. A year ahead of the midterms, we saw a preview of our ability to motivate the progressive electorate and carry the day in the special elections in Virginia and Alabama, which were both inspirational and a roadmap to November 2018, where we did it again. (See Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons [and Limits] of Virginia, November 10, 2017). Let’s stay the course, to coin a phrase.

Let’s not give the GOP a gift by eating our young. Call me a pollyanna, but I believe the Democratic primaries can be a constructive and civilized process, not a self-destructive one, and reveal who is best equipped to take on Trump: in other words, where that aforementioned passion really lies…..and it may be Biden after all, or it may be Bernie, or Klobuchar, or whoever. (All we know is that it won’t be the Blaz.)

Whoever emerges from that process, can we all please pledge to put aside our intramural differences and support whomever the blue team nominee proves to be? As Diana Kane of Persisticon pointed out in these pages a few weeks ago, the differences in their policy positions are not even that extreme, and certainly not compared with what the current administration is pursuing. Let us remember that “Perfect is the enemy of the good”…….that ANY ONE of the approximately 2,457 current Democratic candidates would be infinitely better than Trump….that a rotten, two-week-old hardboiled egg would be better.

As I’ve said before, in order to beat Hitler the US had to ally itself with Stalin. So I think all of us in the so-called resistance ought to be able to find common ground.

(Note to Republicans: Yeah, that’s right, I made a casual comparison between Adolf and Donald. You got something to say about it? If so, put down your tiki torch and send me an email.)

Trump can absolutely be beaten in November 2020, but only if we all pull together and make it happen. The other side has shown that it will turn out in droves, and they fight dirty. So let’s put everything we have into stomping this mofo and leave it all on the field with nothing left to give, shall we?

PAGING SHONDA RIMES

All of which brings us back to the topic we discussed in this space last week: the Big I.

In case it wasn’t clear, I am of the opinion that the US Congress has a moral and constitutional responsibility to impeach Donald Trump or else torch its own credibility and open the door to even worse neo-authoritarianism, wanton criminality, and contempt for the rule of law. The potential damage to the republic by not doing so is terrifying to contemplate.

Commenting on last week’s blog post, a savvy reader with the handle of snowinla wrote:

One thing we have seen with Trump is that he continues to amp things up. If he gets away with something once, he is sure to do it many more times. If the Dems just let his infractions go and think that they will “let the voter decide,” they are assuming that he will not do something more egregious to ensure his win in 2020, even if it involves open fraud. If they don’t try to take action, they will have no one to blame but themselves, will have no moral standing or, arguably, no Constitutional standing since they abdicated their role….

While it seems like there is a choice, there really is not.

Well said. Our system is not built for someone who openly flouts the rule of law, especially when the courts refuse to enforce it and one of the two political parties abets him. Even Nixon wasn’t this brazen. Until the American people stand up and express outrage—or in some cases, even experience outrage—we’re not going to be able to get out of this nightmare.

But regardless of whether one thinks impeachment is a viable means of removing Trump or not, no sane person would pursue it at the exclusion of trying to defeat him at the polls. And there’s no reason even to contemplate such a strategy, as it’s not by any means a binary choice, as Bill Barr likes to say.

As I wrote last week, pursuing impeachment and mounting the most formidable possible electoral campaign for 2020 are not mutually exclusive paths to evicting Donald Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, right? Indeed, I believe that even beyond the reasons of pragmatism that militate for it, and the reasons of principle that demand it, impeachment will profoundly benefit the Democratic cause in the 2020 election. The mere fact that the GOP keeps insisting otherwise ought to clue you in that that is so.

As many pundits have noted, Nixon’s approval ratings were not bad (higher than Trump’s) and public support for his impeachment very low before the nationally televised Watergate hearings began. But when they were done, Dick’s goose was cooked. We Americans are a nation of anti-intellectual illiterates (I say that with love); the arcane 448 pages of the Mueller report will never have the same impact as the TV miniseries adaptation.

So bring it on—I need something new to binge now that “Veep” is over.

In terms of the looming legal battles over Trump’s stonewalling, we are told that an active impeachment will prompt the courts to look more kindly on Congress’s demands for testimony and documents. As Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post, Trump’s own flagrant obstructionism on these investigations is all but forcing an impeachment, which would compel him and his administration to cooperate, and load the Democratic nominee up with ammo going into the general election.

Seen in that light, far from being an either/or choice, impeachment and the election are inextricably intertwined.

Many have noted that an electoral defeat would be a more resounding and definitive rejection of Trump than impeachment, which would further divide the country and invite tinfoil hat grumbling about a Deep State conspiracy, and pedophile pizza parlors, and maybe even violent right wing insurgency. (Don’t we have that already?)

True enough. But it’s still the right thing to do. And does anyone doubt that MAGA Nation is going to go that route no matter when or how Trump leaves office, even if it’s in 2024 when he’s unable to repeal the 22nd Amendment and run for a third term?

To that end, several bright sparks have correctly noted that the real constitutional crisis still awaits us if Trump loses his bid for re-election and decides not to surrender power. And I am not of the school that thinks he will only make that stand if the count is close, or that a resounding loss would dissuade him from doing so. Not in a million years. Are you kidding? (See WIll Trump Ever Leave Office [Even If He Loses in 2020]?, July 23, 2018.)

We saw in 2016, when he expected to lose, that Trump is prepared to challenge any loss……and now he REALLY has a reason to do so, given that the presidency is the only thing keeping him out of jail. In his report, Mueller pointedly noted that Trump can absolutely be indicted for obstruction after he leaves office, not to mention a whole slew of other charges currently in the works in the SDNY and elsewhere, including bank, tax, and real estate fraud, and another one, felony campaign finance violations, for which his former lawyer just went to prison and in which Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator (“Individual 1”).

To avoid this kind of post-presidential prosecution, our insane clown president is therefore more incentivized than ever to stay in office at all costs. Already he is talking about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s call for injury time—“reparations” for the unconscionable pain and legislative inertia he suffered as a result of the special counsel probe. (“Two more years! Two more years!”) Wait till he is looking down the barrel of a couple dozen criminal and civil indictments that will eviscerate his phony business empire, leave him broke, disgraced, and possibly being fitted for matching orange jumpsuits alongside his children.

But just to get to the point of that particular bunker situation, we first have to vote him out, or impeach him, or both. I don’t really care which.

AMERICAN RUBICON

In announcing his campaign, Joe Biden framed the 2020 election as a historic decision point, with one fork leading to a narrative in which Trump is an aberration, the other to the end of the American experiment as we know it. Whether you think Uncle Joe ought to be the Democratic nominee or not, he’s slam on target about that. The institutions that distinguish American democracy are barely hanging on going into the back half of four years under Trump; we may not survive eight.

From the start of Trump’s rise some have ridiculed this kind of thinking as alarmism, a critique that has come both from the right and the left. In its first show after the 2016 election, “Saturday Night Live” memorably had Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock lampooning white people’s angst that this was the worst thing that ever happened in America. The most painful—and worrying—part of that sketch wasn’t being called out for white privilege, but the idea that anti-Trump resistance might be riven along racial or other lines, rather than focused on a common goal.

But times have changed. Trump has been a lot worse even than most people imagined back then. Chappelle has since recanted his call to give they guy a chance (which he made in the monologue immediately preceding that sketch), concluding that we did and he failed.

In this blog I have often cited the great Rev. William Barber II to the effect that, as bad as Trump is, his regime is not the worst thing the United States has ever suffered, that we can get through this, and emerge stronger. We don’t need to get into an atrocity competition; comparing Trump to Jim Crow, let alone slavery, is apples and carburetors. But no serious person can doubt the uniquely dangerous threat that this administration poses to the future of American representative democracy, one that requires a concerted, united effort to defeat.

The damage Trump & Co. can do in a second term will be exponentially worse and more longlasting than if he is one-and-done, and in every category—from the environment, to the economy, to foreign affairs, to the judiciary, to a free press, to the rule of law itself. Imagine a SCOTUS with three or four Trump appointees on it.

Why do I bother even saying this? Is an argument why we need to defeat Trump even necessary? Undoubtedly not, unless you think Tucker Carlson is the second coming of Edward R. Murrow. But I want to stress the stakes, and just how bad it would be.

Apart from the terrible practical consequences, re-election would also make a profound statement about who we are as a people, which is a big part of Biden’s point. Electing this monster not once but twice would make it impossible to say that it was a fluke, or the result of temporary insanity, or that the Russians made us do it. It would say that, even if a majority of Americans actually oppose Trump, our system is so broken and dysfunctional and fundamentally anti-democratic, and that the resistance so disorganized and the forces of white supremacy and neo-authoritarianism so strong even if they are a minority, that we are not sufficiently competent as a nation to chuck this jackass out of office.

It would say that Trump is not an aberration but the very soul of America.

(Many on the far left have been saying that for years, of course, and take issue with the whole Bidenist premise.)

Any way you look at it, I don’t think Americans traveling abroad will still be able to count on the goodwill and sympathy of the rest of the world, who so far seem to feel bad for us and largely assume that we got screwed. That will no longer be so if we give Trump a second term.

As if getting sneered at by taxi drivers in Spain is our biggest worry.

And as we have noted over and over in this blog, even the end of Trump will not mean the end of the scourge which has afflicted our body politic—not by a longshot, for he is but a symptom and not the cause. That scourge will only be eradicated when we address the toxic brew of white supremacy, misogyny, nativism, pluto-kleptocracy, and Orwellian contempt for truth that the contemporary Republican Party embodies.

Anyone with good ideas for how to do that, please feel free to speak up.

WITHER DEMOCRACY? (SIC)

Thus concludes our four-part opus on the state of play in the immediate post-Mueller world. To sum up: we have a demonstrably criminal president flouting every attempt to hold him accountable, a Republican Party shamelessly protecting him, an opposition party trying to use constitutional mechanisms that the president and his accomplices are working furiously to undermine, and a looming election that Trump and the Republicans are brazenly trying to fix via voter suppression and an open invitation to foreign meddling, and oh yes, show every sign of defying if it doesn’t go their way.

So there’s that.

The next seventeen months ought to be pretty interesting. We’re about to see whether the American people have the kind of integrity and backbone that we flatter ourselves to think we have, and whether or not we can stand up and—one way or another—rid ourselves of the worst and most destructive presidential administration since 1865.

Fire up your office pools, my friends.

********

The King’s Necktie will (probably) be on hiatus next week, letting the laptop keys cool off. Unless Trump pardons a bunch of accused war criminals on Memorial Day.

See you in June.

Photo from Politico.