Trump Shoots Man on Fifth Avenue

GQ-Trump-100319

It’s become very simple now.

We used to ask if Trump had conspired with a foreign power for his own gain—first as a candidate for president, then more recently, while in office—violating his oath, committing high crimes and misdemeanors, and betraying the national security of the country he is sworn to defend.

Then he voluntarily released a transcript of a phone call that made it clear that he did exactly that, while inexplicably believing it proved the opposite. (Or perhaps not so inexplicably; we’ll let the forensic psychiatrists deal with that.)

Then, while we were still grappling with that headspinning turn of events, Donald Trump stood on the south lawn of the White House in front of a dozen TV cameras and did it again, live, in front of the whole world, calling on both Ukraine and China to investigate the man he sees as his chief political rival, and alluding to the leverage he has incentivizing them to do so.

So that happened.

As Tim O’Brien writes in Bloomberg, “After the Mueller investigation, there’s no way Trump was unaware this violates the law.” Ignorance was never an excuse and is even less so now. But what that leaves us with is one of two equally appalling explanations:

1) Trump genuinely doesn’t understand the law, which means that he is mentally incompetent and the 25th Amendment ought to be invoked. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Or…

2) He simply believes he is above the law.

Either ought to be grounds for removal from office.

An insanity defense notwithstanding, at this point there is no longer any question about Trump’s guilt, or that the House of Representatives is going to impeach him for it. That debate is over. The only question is whether the Republican Party that has long since prostrated itself before this demagogue and human wrecking ball of all that we hold near and dear is going to do its duty, or act as his accomplice.

SHITBIRDS OF A FEATHER

At the same time that this scandal has become simpler, thanks to Trump’s own self-incrimination, it has also revealed itself to be far broader and more far reaching than almost anyone first realized—a neat trick.

Far from being just one phone call in which the notoriously impulsive Donald Trump characteristically went off script, we now understand that the Zelensky call was just one small episode in a wide and deep global campaign by Trump and his team—including the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Vice President, and various US ambassadors, among others—to enlist the aid of foreign powers to attempt to discredit the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election and smear his political opponents in 2020. As the always excellent David Graham writes: “This is no longer a controversy about a whistle-blower complaint, an American ally in eastern Europe, and the president. It is now an all-encompassing  scandal, involving many of the top officials in the Trump administration pressuring countries around the world, from Australia to Ukraine and China to Great Britain.”

But is anyone really surprised that Donald Trump would do this, or that the kind of people willing to work for Donald Trump would eagerly go along? The real shock is that it took this long for a scandal like this to come out.

We know that Trump believes he can do anything he wants, both by virtue of his office and simply because he’s a rich, white, obscenely entitled mofo who has gotten away with everything his entire life. (“When you’re a star they let you do it.”)

So far the Grand Old Party has agreed.

But now Trump’s sheer brazenness and world-beating narcissism have put Republicans in a tough spot, one that tests even their already well-established capacity for bootlicking, cowardice, and Orwellian disinformation.

Remember when rumors of the whistleblower allegations first broke and Republicans kept saying, “Whoa, whoa, you rabid Democrats! Let’s not rush to judgment. Let’s hear what Trump really did first, OK?” Well, now we’ve heard it, and what more, we’ve heard the President* himself cop to it multiple times—even brag about it. In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes:

Republicans had spent days denying what Trump had more or less just admitted to…..It was as though Richard Nixon in 1972 had gone out on the White House lawn and said, Yes, I authorized the Watergate break-in, and I’d do it again. It was as though Bill Clinton in 1998 had said, Yes, I lied under oath about my affair with Monica Lewinsky, and I’d do it again.

Even now, after it blew up in his face and prompted an impeachment inquiry, Trump still keeps pointing to the Zelensky readout as exoneration, which is truly disturbing regardless of whether you believe it’s deliberate disinformation or evidence of dementia. The live solicitation of interference from China was just another step down that road, albeit an unprecedented, jawdropping one.

So now the GOP is reduced to complaining about process…..a technique they excoriated in the Bush and Clinton years.

Or, alternatively, they can go todo loco.

Witness the epic “Meet the Press” meltdown of Senator Ron Johnson R-WI, who, like some of his colleagues, had initially expressed some tepid “discomfort” with Trump’s actions, only to face fury from the White House (we presume), driving him to go on national TV and behave like a rabid muskrat, spewing misdirection about Peter Strzok and conspiracy theories that came right out of Sean Hannity’s butthole, culminating in a furious, red-faced tirade that he doesn’t trust our own FBI and CIA. I suspect it will haunt Johnson forever.

It was one of the most incredible performances by a national politician that I can recall seeing, ending only when Chuck Todd motioned for Animal Control to come out and shoot the Senator with a tranquilizer dart.

This is what the Republican Party is reduced to in its desperate attempts to defend the indefensible.

GASLIGHTING FOR BEGINNERS

The standard GOP gaslighting on Ukrainegate is beautifully exemplified by the columnist Marc Thiessen, a regular contributor to the Washington Post and a living rebuttal to the canard that the media leans left. Thiessen writes: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking foreign heads of state or intelligence officials to cooperate with an official Justice Department investigation.”

True. If this were a legitimate investigation aimed at advancing US national interests, rather than an illegal personal crusade to benefit Donald J. Trump. The attempt to spin it as the former is at the heart of the Republican counter-strategy, but it doesn’t hold a thimbleful of water.

It’s hardly worth the figurative ink required to dismantle all the dishonesty in his statement, but just as an exercise:

The DOJ “investigation” that Bill Barr is heading—aimed at undermining the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russian aided Trump in the 2016 election—is itself a partisan sham and abuse of power. Citing it as justification for Trump strongarming Kiev is a circular argument and master class in graft. Team Trump’s contention that its interest in Ukraine was and is an altruistic campaign against generic “corruption” is laughable, especially coming from the most corrupt presidency in modern US history. The only “corruption” Trump referred to in the Zelensky call was the fairy tale of Biden’s wrongdoing. (Even if one believes Hunter Biden was unethically trading on his father’s position, Joe Biden was in no way complicit in that…..and by the by, that is the entire stock-in-trade of the Trump children.) Only the willfully blind could fail to recognize Trump’s true motive as regards Ukraine—damaging a political rival, and using the full might of the US presidency to do so, which is the very epitome of the corruption in its own right.

Of course, it has grown tedious to point out that if Barack Obama had phoned a foreign leader and demanded an investigation of Tagg Romney while holding US military aid for ransom, he would already be the GOP poster child for a new version of “Strange Fruit,” covered by Kid Rock and Ted Nugent.

But Thiessen’s disgraceful apologia represents mainstream conservative thought in the age of Donald, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Never, in fact.

To that end, I was admittedly shocked to see some Republicans, including those twin pillars of hypocrisy Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham (to the extent that a pillar can be spineless and flaccid) push back over Trump’s unconscionable betrayal of our Kurdish allies this week. Why the GOP is willing to risk incurring Trump’s wrath over that and not, say, over selling our country out to the highest bidder, remains a mystery. But no elected Republican, not even Mitt Romney, who is what passes for a GOP profile in courage these days (we’re grading on a sliding scale), has really stood up to the president in the way that his actions call for. And I am not confident that sufficient numbers will do so should it come down to an impeachment trial in the Senate.

(On the subject of Syria, and adding to the madness, at a time when Trump desperately needs the fealty of Senate Republicans, why did he choose this moment to piss off even Moscow Mitch and Leningrad Lindsey? More proof that he doesn’t think strategically at all, only impulsively, despite repeated efforts to credit him for such.)

But even this rare sighting of the elusive Republican vertebrate in the wild has a dark side, as noted by the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie in what may have been the most incisive observation of the week. In addressing this question of why Republicans stick with Trump so submissively, the conventional wisdom is that it’s a Faustian bargain. But Bouie argues convincingly that it’s really something much simpler and uglier: they agree with him.

Trump has taken an ax to domestic spending programs for the poor—his Agriculture Department just proposed new cuts to food stamps; he signed a tax cut that funnels trillions to the highest earners; and he stacked the federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome for a conservative politician.

Bouie points to the pushback on Syria as evidence that this narrative that the GOP fears the wrath of Trump and his base is wrong. They will in fact stand up to him when they wish….and not only on foreign policy but on tariffs and economic issues as well. So perhaps we should take those Republicans at their word when they say they don’t think blackmailing foreign powers for personal gain with US tax dollars is a problem.

As long as it’s a Republican who does it.

IN OTHER NEWS

There were so many other significant developments this week that if you went into a dentist appointment, five new scandals might have erupted while you were in the chair. (Now spit.)

  • More whistleblowers came forward, both from the Intelligence Community and—tantalizingly—the IRS.
  • Texts among US diplomats revealed the explicit quid pro quo the White House was seeking from Kiev, yet continues to deny. Trump’s assertions of innocence notwithstanding, he clearly knew—or at least his staff did—that what he was doing was not kosher. We know that not only because of the frantic reaction of his aides (who immediately hid the Zelensky transcript on a classified server) but also because of a text exchange made public week between career diplomat Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, and US Ambassador to the EU, a Trump political appointee (and million dollar donor) named Gordon Sondland. After an aghast Taylor expressed his strong opposition to the idea of withholding military aid for partisan political reasons, Sondland—during a Rose Mary Woods-like five-hour gap—conferred personally with Donald Trump and was directed to reply with a laughably legalistic text falsely denying that any such quid pro quo was in play. (Why the Ambassador to the EU was involved in this at all is a separate question. But notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was copied on this texts, according to the assessment of Joel Rubin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Obama administration, speaking on MSNBC.
  • As if on cue, this week Ukraine also helpfully provided more evidence of that quid pro quo by opening an “audit” of Hunter Biden’s business transactions—precisely the sort of cooperation Trump had asked for.
  • And then just today the White House prevented Gordon Sondland from testifying before three House committees, which was probably not because they were worried he was going to exonerate Trump so much that it would make him blush.

Sounds like the actions of a perfectly innocent White House to me.

Capping all that, the White House sent the Speaker of the House a peevish letter saying it will not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry at all, citing nothing to support that outlandish position (but with paragraphs about how great the economy is doing, which sounded suspiciously like they were dictated by a certain someone).

The chief takeaway from all this is that we should not wait for the White House to comply with subpoenas and requests for documents as a prerequisite for moving forward with impeachment. We all know that the administration will never cooperate with the House no matter what the Speaker does to appease it. It’s Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Luckily, Nancy Pelosi is a lot smarter than good ol’ Charlie. The administration has made it very clear that it intends to flout the law, and stall, and try to run out the proverbial clock in hopes that the American people will get bored and distracted by something shiny, and Trump can move on to his next atrocity.

Let’s not play their game.

We already have enough evidence to bring articles of impeachment against Donald Trump on multiple counts. By all means we ought to aggressively continue to gather more evidence, and make our case to the American people, and rightly depict Trump’s obstruction of justice as more proof of his guilt and unfitness to serve. But we do not need Donald Trump to give us permission to move forward and prosecute him. He already stood on the south lawn and pulled out the murder weapon and waved it around for all to see.

LIMBO LOWER NOW

Trump may yet survive this scandal as he has survived untold previous scandals that would have been presidency-ending in any sane era. Then again he may not. Having sufficiently covered my bases, let me just say that right now it ain’t looking good for him. In a tenure riven with non-stop greasefires, he has never looked this panicked or terrified or erratic, which is saying something. So much for the pre-Ukrainegate theory that he wanted to be impeached, for the alleged political advantage that would supposedly accrue to him.

Susan Glasser notes that the number and hysteria-level of our mad king’s tweets have recently risen, suggesting he knows he’s in what Bush 41 once called, “deep doo-doo.” Upping the ante on his claim of being an “extremely stable genius” (itself a self-promotion from the earlier “very stable genius”), he last week referred to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.” We have also seen an uptick in the frequency of random capitalization, schoolyard namecalling, frantic calls for senators to be impeached (NB: they can’t be), references to witchhunts, fake news, and the rest of his greatest hits. With her typically Antarctic élan, Nancy Pelosi quipped, “Sometimes I think he is having a limbo contest with himself, to see how low he can go in his rhetoric. I think he was surprised that this happened, because he thinks he can do whatever he wants.”

In that regard the Barr-led campaign to discredit the Russia narrative is another own goal, like the release of the rough Zelensky transcript: a self-inflicted wound caused by this administration’s unfailing impulse for skullduggery. Did they really need to discredit Russian interference? Miraculously, Trump had already managed to dodge justice once, in the special counsel investigation. But greedhead that he is, he couldn’t be content with that. He simply could not live with the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin had interfered, nor accept the taint on his electoral victory, even though MAGA Nation really didn’t care at all and still doesn’t. It was all about Trump’s ego, which in this case, has severely damaged his political position when it didn’t have to.

Glasser again, on the ways in which this latest scandal has its roots in Russiagate:

The Mueller investigation, and Trump’s festering grievance about it, appears to have shaped his public persona more than any other event of his tenure. Trump publicly proclaimed victory with the report’s release, portraying it as “complete and total exoneration.” “I won,” he said, but Trump did not take the win. Instead, he launched his Attorney General, William Barr, on what we know now was an international quest to investigate the origins of the Mueller investigation, pressuring U.S. allies from Britain to Italy to Australia, and also Ukraine, to unearth information that undermined the Mueller probe’s credibility. Who knows what will come out next. The impeachment investigation has just begun, and although it is starting out as tightly focused on Ukraine, we have no real idea where it might end up. What we do know about Trump, though, is unlikely to change: the restraints on him are gone, and they are not coming back.

(Jeffrey Toobin has also written eloquently on how the two scandals are really one.)

POLICE ON MY BACK

On that count, let me close by addressing the notion that Trump is playing some sort of twelve-dimensional chess here.

As noted last week, many have suggested that Trump is trying to slip out of this latest noose by attempting to normalize his behavior: brazenly bragging about his crime, Nathan Jessup-like, as a way of tricking into the public into thinking he did nothing wrong. If he had, would he openly admit it like that? That would be crazy!!!

The answer, I suppose, is that he has gotten away with everything else, so at this point, why even bother mounting a defense? But as Hillary Clinton, tweeted, “Someone should inform the president that impeachable offenses committed on national television still count.”

But behind the scenes, the administration and the GOP are certainly not behaving that way, but rather, pursuing the classic Nixonian strategy of stonewalling, defying subpoenas, ordering government officials not to testify before the House, making specious claims about executive privilege, propagating disinformation, bitch-squealing about Congressional bullying, and so forth. True commitment to Trump’s “say the quite part out loud” strategy would actually require the GOP to be even MORE brazen, which apparently it is reluctant to do. Because that is too batshit for everyone except Donald Trump.

Once again, I’m not saying Trump’s strategy won’t work. He may not be playing twelve-dimensional chess, or chess of any kind, or even Hungry Hungry Hippos; he seems to be simply reacting to questions shouted over the sound of Marine One in his usual manic, shoot-from-the-hip, transactional way. But the effect may be the same. If he does skate away yet again, it will be because his party has provided him cover and enabled that miscarriage of justice. In that case, as Uri Friedman wrote in The Atlantic: “Just like that, a democratic norm stretching back to the founding of the republic is collapsing before our eyes.”

In short, the President of the United States brazenly “colluded” with two foreign powers (to coin a term), publicly encouraging them to attack one of his domestic political opponents—the very thing the Founders most feared, and which they created the mechanism of impeachment to address. Yet the silence from the President’s party thus far has been deafening. Are we going to be a representative democracy ruled by law, or an autocracy led by a despot? Is the modern GOP really willing to burn the entire foundation of our republic to the ground in order to maintain its hold on power? (Rhetorical question. We know by now that they are.)

The modern Republican Party is about to decide just how savagely history will remember it. And if we as a nation allow them to get away with it, we deserve what we get.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump memorably bragged about the near-fanatic loyalty of his supporters, musing that could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes. Now we have a dead body on the corner of 5th Ave and 14th Street, and Trump standing over it with a smoking Smith & Wesson, bragging that he bagged the sonofabitch.

Anyone wanna call the cops?

*********

Photo: Getty Images

 

The Downside of Being a Sociopath

Screen Shot 2019-09-26 at 8.59.19 AM

Soon after last week’s edition of this blog went to press, Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives was opening an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump over the Ukraine affair. It was a moment many opponents of the Trump regime— myself included—had long been waiting for, and it came with shocking speed, over a scandal that had emerged seemingly out of nowhere almost overnight.

Since then we have watched events unfold at an even faster pace. Six House committees are moving with unusual (and appropriate) aggressiveness to fast track this investigation, inexorably heading for a full House vote on impeachment possibly as early as Thanksgiving. The (acting) Director of National Intelligence has already appeared before the House Intelligence Committee to try to explain his handling of the case; the US special envoy to Ukraine, who was named in the whistleblower complaint, resigned; depositions from numerous other implicated officials have been ordered; and the Secretary of State has tried to block those depositions with a pearl-clutching tweet about how the State Department Is being bullied by mean ol’ Congress. That Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has himself been subpoenaed, as he was revealed to have been on the Zelensky call despite pretending for all the world he wasn’t, part of what is emerging as much broader campaign of mafioso-like behavior by the White House to strongarm various foreign powers into helping Trump persecute his domestic political enemies.

Central to that effort, in addition to Pompeo, are two lawyers, both of whom Trump mentioned several times in his call to Zelensky, and both of whom were also named by the whistleblower. The first of course is professional loose cannon Rudy Giuliani, who is Trump’s actual personal lawyer, and who has now been subpoenaed to produce documents. The second is Attorney General Bill Barr, who is under the mistaken impression that he too is Trump’s personal lawyer, and is surely next to be served.

Barr has denied any involvement in the Ukraine mess, while Giuliani had bragged about it. (“When this is over, I will be the hero.”) But we have learned that Barr has been on a globetrotting world tour to seek foreign help for Trump, ostensibly as part of his risible attempt to disprove Russian interference in the 2016 election, but naturally with an eye to 2020. Indeed, even as this Pe’ahi-sized wave of scandal continued to break on top of him, Barr was in Rome for that purpose, in the company of Pompeo, Steve Bannon, Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev, and non-Dr. Sebastian v.R.J.Sp. Gorka (remember him, he of the Nazi medal, a la Charles Lindbergh?). Although the purpose of the Rome trip is, apparently, to gain Italian help in discrediting the US intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference four years ago, that hardly makes it better. Our tax dollars and the energy of the US Attorney General are being spent chasing the ghosts of elections past—still—all for the sake of Trump’s ego and to gain political advantage going forward. In that regard Barr’s efforts are very much of a piece with Ukrainegate, as Trump’s repeated references to him on the Zelensky call suggest.

We also learned that in addition to the high crime itself, the coverup of l’affair d’Ukraine was also pretty goddam bad. Apparently many people inside the White House (though, tellingly, not Trump himself) immediately knew that what had gone down with Zelensky constituted an epic fuckup and was likely impeachable, which is why they wasted no time in having the verbatim transcript improperly moved to a secure server intended for the most top secret “codeword” intelligence. It later emerged that similar steps had been taken with the transcripts of other phone calls between Trump and foreign leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

(And I know everyone says the White House as an institution is allergic to tape recording ever since Watergate, but are you seriously telling me that the NSA doesn’t have audio recordings of all those calls?)

We also learned that enough career officials privy to what happened were so alarmed that they spoke to the eventual whistleblower. But the DOJ shamelessly swept that whistleblower’s subsequent complaint under the rug after the DNI inexplicably went to the department headed by an official implicated in that complaint to ask whether it ought to be investigated. (Answer: “Nah. We cool, brah.”)

That official, of course, was Bill Barr.

Meanwhile, Trump and his defenders have been on a rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth counterattack in the media (and if history is any guide, up to even more nefarious deeds behind closed doors). Some might say the low point was Trump’s winking implication—at the UN of all places—that the whistleblower ought to be shot as a spy, or his furious suggestion that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff ought to be arrested for treason, or his re-tweet from an evangelical pastor warning that Trump’s supporters would launch a civil war if were to be impeached. (For those wondering how far the Donald will go to defend himself, it didn’t take long for him to head there, did it?)

But to me the most head-spinning development on that front was the administration re-opening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, in keeping with its partisan weaponization of the armature of the state—an attempt at misdirection so clumsy, hamhanded, and shameless that it could only find purchase among the most Kool Aid-besotted of Trump’s followers. Which, of course, is at whom it’s aimed. I can tell you from the furious reaction to my blog post of last week that they are greedily lapping up Trump’s agitprop and eagerly repeating it, even when it makes no sense and has been thoroughly discredited. What else is new?

In any case, it will be highly ironic if the improper use of an email server is part of what ultimately brings Trump down.

In short, it is the understatement of the year to say that the scope of this Ukrainian debacle is proving to be massive. The disgraceful and Orwellian reaction of the administration and the broader GOP, the politics of how impeachment will play out, and other aspects of this rapidly unfolding scandal will require many more column inches than can be devoted here. Stay tuned, if you dare.

But today I’d like to concentrate on one small but telling aspect of Ukrainegate, which is Trump’s decision to release the crude readout of the Zelensky call, as that speaks volumes, and in multiple ways, about the shitshow in which we find ourselves and the man who precipitated it all.

CALL ME MAYBE

This scandal has been breaking so fast and furious (yswidt?) that last Wednesday seems like a lifetime ago. But that was the day that Donald Trump released a rough “readout” of his July 25th call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (as opposed to a proper verbatim transcript that we were told at the time didn’t exist). According to Trump, this readout was supposed to exonerate him of any wrongdoing in the matter.

Never mind that the call itself was not the only piece in the whistleblower’s allegation of a pattern of repeated and urgent wrongdoing. Burned once by Bill Barr’s four-page misrepresentation of the Mueller report, Democrats and other foes of this administration braced for more disinformation and misdirection: another document that Trump would wave like a flag, falsely claiming proof of innocence. Obviously, whatever he was going to release was something that would help his case…..why else would he release it?

Ahead of its publication, progressive pundits were pre-emptively dismissing the readout as partisan spin (and were criticized for doing that), overtly invoking Barr’s shameful summary,/non-summary and warning the public not to be fooled by an innocuous document that would not represent anything close to exoneration, despite White House claims.

And then we saw the thing.

In it, Donald Trump brazenly solicits the help of the Ukrainian government in digging up dirt on Joe Biden, whom he has long seen (rightly or wrongly) as his greatest rival in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Scratch that—“solicits” is too kind. He bluntly pressures Zelensky to provide that help, and implicitly dangles the delivery or cancellation of US military aid as both carrot and stick. As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, it requires willful blindness to miss the quid pro quo re the $400 million in US military assistance that Kiev desperately needed to fight their Russian attackers, and which Trump began holding hostage just weeks before the call. (On the phone, Zelensky says, I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump immediately replies, “I would like you to do us a favor though,” and then launches into his terms.)

The President of the United States then directs Zelensky to be in contact with Giuliani and Barr—by name—in that effort. He repeats the “request” a total of EIGHT TIMES.

This was all in a document that Donald Trump himself released: evidence of a “perfect call,” as he described it, whatever the hell that is. (The man’s torturing of the English language continues to be one of his many crimes against humanity.) More mindboggling still, we can only assume it was the best possible spin on the call, as he saw it.

Given that Trump thought that was exculpatory for him, it’s fair to wonder what the hell is in the full transcript that we were first told did not exist, but soon learned did, having been immediately sequestered in the aforementioned classified computer system. And, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it was moved there because White House aides—likely including Mike Pompeo, who had listened in on the call—instantly knew that they had just heard Trump blatantly abuse the power of his office for personal political gain. Those officials are now complicit in a coverup and can expect intense pressure from Congress (and the public) to testify to that effect, Pompeo included. (The House has now subpoenaed the State Department for that full transcript.)

The readout IN AND OF ITSELF was a proverbial smoking gun: damning, incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing rising to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor, right there in black and white, as delivered and affirmed by White House itself.

And here’s the thing:

Donald J. Trump thought that readout was proof that he had done nothing wrong.

That is because Donald J. Trump does not understand the first thing about how representative democracy is supposed to work, or what his job as President of the United States is, or what is and is not ethical behavior, or even, at the most basic, the difference between right and wrong.

It was as jawdropping a public display of pathology as I can remember seeing in my half century and counting on this planet.

In the same way that Trump cannot distinguish between the Department of Justice and his own private law firm, or the Attorney General and his own personal lawyer, he cannot understand that the President of the United States is not supposed to leverage foreign powers for his own personal gain….and he cannot understand that because he cannot distinguish between the interests of the United States and his own personal interests (l’etat c’est moi), or grasp that they are not one in the same.

Before releasing the transcript, Trump teased it with this tweet, which I quoted last week but feel compelled to quote again, because it’s such a classic: “Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”


Turns out, not only was he dumb enough to do that, he was also dumb enough to release a quasi-transcript of that call, and believe it somehow exonerated him.
This is the most stark evidence yet that Trump is not only a wanton criminal, but also a genuine sociopath.

Both good reasons he should not be in the Oval Office.

ASTRAL PROJECTION

As Elizabeth Spiers pointed out in the Washington Post, Trump habitually accuses his enemies of criminal behavior—typically, of bribery and graft and corruption—because he knows that that is what he would do in that same situation. (Of course, when they do it, it’s cause for outrage; when he does it, “that makes me smart.”) Spiers:

Wanton corruption and pursuit of personal enrichment at the expense of Americans appear to be the two dominant modes of operation for the Trump family, so this should come as no surprise. No first family in modern history has so gleefully flouted the emoluments clause of the Constitution while cozying up to hostile foreign powers at the expense of American lives and for the benefit of their private businesses. It is easy to see why Trump thinks Biden must have been pulling a scam in Ukraine: It is exactly what Trump would have done.

So naturally, as a person who thinks that way, Trump saw nothing in the Zelensky call that was untoward. Hence his decision to release it (over, we are told, the objections of his saner advisers and terrified senior Republicans).

The Zelensky Transcript (which now joins the Steele Dossier and the Mueller Report as one of my favorite Robert Ludlum novels that weren’t) is reminiscent of May 2017, when Trump’s downfall really began, with his laughable justification for firing Jim Comey, to wit: that Comey had overstepped his remit as FBI director when he chose to excoriate Hillary Clinton in the course of announcing that the Bureau was declining to recommend prosecution for her use of a private email server. Trump seemed to genuinely believe that Democrats would cheer his move, and accept that fig leaf, and appeared shocked when they did not. It was absurd and everyone outside the Trump family knew it immediately. But Donald did not.

And once again with the Zelensky call, we see the pitfalls of being a pathological narcissist without a firm grasp on what everyone else implicitly understands as part of their shared, rational perspective on the world. True, 99 times out of 100 in Trump’s public life—and repeatedly throughout his brief political career—his sociopathic personality disorder has benefited him. But once in a while it works the other way around, and when that happens—as it did last week—it’s usually a doozy.

The irony is at a Shakespearean level. This sociopath is being undone by his own hubris and inability to see that what he thought was a lifeline was actually an anvil.

In short, the downside of being a sociopath is that you can’t tell when you’re fucking up.

PUCKER UP

It’s my uneducated guess that, in addition to his batshit belief that the call exonerated him, another reason Trump wanted the readout released was pure ego: because it was so full of obsequious praise from Zelensky, sounding like a man talking to kidnappers who were holding his child hostage. But as Lucian Truscott IV pointed out in Salon, that Kievan bootlicking bespeaks a far grimmer truth: it is evidence of how desperately Ukraine needs the military aid that Trump was withholding:

The tone of pleading and groveling by Zelensky in his conversation with Trump in July is palpable. Look at the position he is in…..A huge swath of Ukrainian territory along its eastern border is currently under occupation by Russian militias and Ukrainian sympathizers of Russia. More than 10,000 Ukrainian nationals have lost their lives in the fighting there since 2014. That is more than we have lost in 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than one million Ukrainians have been displaced by the war and are refugees within their own country….

There is a war going on between our ally Ukraine and our enemy Russia, and Donald Trump has taken Russia’s side. Way down in the whistleblower complaint you will find the answer to why Trump ordered the withholding of military aid to Ukraine. The whistleblower describes Trump engaging in some artful mob-boss hint dropping when he “told reporters ‘I think [Zelensky] is going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House, and we look forward to seeing him.’” Two weeks after his phone call with Zelensky, Trump was still waiting for the dirt on Biden he had asked for. Zelensky was still waiting for the military aid he had been promised, but which he knew had been withheld on Trump’s orders.    

Speaking of world class ass-kissing, Mike Pompeo has behaved as despicably in this scandal as the worst of Trump’s circle, including Barr and Giuliani. When the Ukraine story first broke, Pompeo hid the fact that he had listened in on the call with Zelensky, pretending otherwise until the facts were forced out. Even since then he has deployed the same smoke-and-mirrors as the rest of the administration and its surrogates in trying to contain the damage and deflect the truth. For example, when Martha Raddatz bluntly asked Pompeo on ABC’s “This Week” if he thought it was appropriate for a President of the United States to ask a foreign ally to dig up dirt on a political opponent, Pompeo dodged the question with a classic piece of Trumpian misdirection, criticizing the previous administration (you know, the one led by that black guy) for not providing sufficient military aid to Ukraine…..this even as he knew that the current administration (you know, the one in which he is Secretary of State) had deliberately withheld precisely such aid and for the sole purpose of Trump’s personal gain.

Why do I bother to single out Mike Pompeo when so many—indeed, nearly all—of Trump’s minions behave in such a loathsome manner? Personal reasons, I confess.

Pompeo is a 1986 graduate of West Point, putting him just one year group behind me. (My own commission was via an ROTC scholarship.) He and I both served as junior officers in combat arms units in US Army Europe at the tail end of the Cold War—he in the Armor branch, me in Infantry—and both of us left active duty as captains in 1991. None of those credentials inherently make Pompeo good or bad, but they do make him someone I can understand and relate to, and whose mindset I can understand much better than that of, say, Bill Barr or Rudy Giuliani, and of whom I therefore feel comfortable demanding a higher standard. That is why his actions gall me more than those of the rest of Trump’s crew.

The motto of the US Military Academy is “Duty, honor, country.”

I guess Cadet Pompeo was on sick call the day they went over that.

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL

Susan Glasser summarized the effect of the Zelensky readout, and all of last week’s events, very nicely in the New Yorker:

As of Monday morning, the political world was pretty sure that Donald Trump would not be impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives, and that he would enter the 2020 campaign and race to win reëlection, before the economy betrayed him with a recession that forecasters increasingly see as inevitable. Instead, over a remarkable day and a half, a new reality emerged: Donald Trump appears to have got himself impeached. Trump now seems all but certain not only to face an impeachment investigation but an actual impeachment vote in the House. And, whenever it happens, and whatever the specifics of the indictment turn out to be, the impeachment vote will have been triggered by a new scandal very much of his own making.

The own goal of the Zelensky transcript is already being felt in the polls.

Two-thirds of Americans think the Ukraine scandal is a serious problem, and more than half (55% according to a CBS News poll) support an impeachment inquiry, an enormous jump from previous queries.

Even more tellingly, only 17% of Americans—both pro- and anti-Trump—reported being surprised at what he did regarding Ukraine, suggesting a rare point of unanimity in our otherwise divided nation:

We all understand what a shitbag Donald Trump is. We only disagree on how much it matters.

Thus far Republicans have focused on discrediting the charges. But as Trump has bluntly confessed to them, they will eventually be left with only one defense, which is to claim that it’s not wrong to do what he did. That will require a tectonic re-definition of the very basis of our republican form of government (as a monarchy, basically), but I don’t put that past them. Trump himself, per above, has claimed exactly that all along—that is the whole gobsmacking point of this blog post. But it will be a tough sell, given the lengths to which his own White House went to hide the evidence on a top secret/SCI server, before the big man himself saw fit to release it to the American people.

I eagerly await the angry Republican claim that the Democrats entrapped Trump into the Ukraine fiasco by letting him skate on Russiagate. (Only half-joking here.)

It’s true that he may survive this scandal nevertheless, as he survived grab-em-by-the-pussy, Stormygate, Russiagate, and everything else. Let us not underestimate the fanatical, cultlike loyalty of MAGA Nation, or the venality and cowardice of the so-called leaders of the Republican Party. But this one does feel different in so many ways, from the simplicity of the crime and the ease with which it can be understood, to Trump’s own clumsy confession, to the cracks in the red wall which we have never before seen in previous would-be presidency-ending scandals. Fingers crossed.

Similarly, Trump himself seems to be in a dead panic unlike anything we have seen previously. His calls for violence and other abuses of state power certainly ought to make any sane American sit up and take notice, if you haven’t already been prompted do so by the parade of other outrages over the proceeding three years. (Caged children anyone?) Are we really in a world in which an American president is calling for the arrest of his political enemies on charges of treason…. in which he nudges his followers toward armed insurrection in his defense…..in which he questions the patriotism of a whistleblower, demands to confront him, and suggests the person ought to be shot? Apparently we are, and yet quiet flows the Potomac.

Some constitutional scholars have pointed out that these provocations are themselves impeachable offenses; one can hardly imagine behavior more imperial and antithetical to the Founders’ intent. At a bare minimum they can be used to bolster the case that Trump is unfit for offense and a threat to the republic who must be removed for the common good. WaPo columnist Greg Sargent suggested that Trump’s statements could not only build public support for impeachment (and persuade some Republicans to jump off a rapidly sinking ship), but actually become part of the articles of impeachment against him.

Are we supposed to take him literally but not seriously, or seriously but not literally? I can never remember.

EL POLLO LOCO

At the top of this piece I mentioned the longstanding desire of many progressives like myself to see Donald Trump impeached. That longing is not, as MAGA Nation would have you believe, driven by a blind partisan hatred of the man. (“They’ve been trying to impeach him since Election Day!”) Rather, it emanates from a clear understanding of his many high crimes and misdemeanors, and his manifest unfitness for office, and from grief at the damage he is doing from the Oval Office, all aggravated by the galling injustice of his oleaginous ability to have dodged accountability thus far, and in fact only gotten worse and worse.

As Lucian Truscott and Masha Gessen have both pointed out, it’s almost arbitrary that this, of all Trump’s many impeachable offenses, is the one that appears to be sticking at last. Gessen’s theory is that it is cumulative, in a camel’s back sort of way.

(In any case, the right wing has got a lot of nerve alleging blind hatred toward anyone, given the racist and misogynistic bile directed at Barack and Hillary untethered from any policy disagreements.)

We all know that Trump may yet escape conviction in the Senate, thanks to the craven collaborationism of the Vichy Republicans. But impeachment itself, even without a conviction, will be a permanent black mark on his toxic legacy, and a well-deserved and long overdue rebuke of this cretinous pretender to the throne, one that—we can only hope—will also do him lethal damage come Election Day. In short, to one degree or another, Trump’s misdeeds are finally beginning to catch up with him.

That clucking sound you hear is the chickens coming home to roost at last.

 

 

 

Ukrainegate: A High Crime in Plain Sight

Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 8.19.27 PM.png

I had a couple of things I intended to write about this week, but then—as has happened repeatedly during the End Times that are the Trump presidency—something absolutely mindboggling happened that blew it all away and could not be ignored.

BLAST FROM THE VERY RECENT PAST

This past June I published an essay here titled The End of Outrage in which I wrote the following:

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.

So to recap: after two years of work, Bob Mueller and the Angry Democrats (one of my favorite rockabilly bands) declined to indict Trump for conspiring with a foreign power, not because he didn’t or there was no evidence—he did and there was—but only because of legal technicalities and the special counsel’s meticulous and narrow interpretation of his remit. It all ended with a whimper not a bang.

Then Trump volunteered to ABC News that, irrespective of the outcome of the Russia investigation, he saw no problem with that sort of behavior. As I also wrote in June:

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!

And now, this past week, an even more explosive story broke exposing precisely that same behavior in plain sight.

If Mueller was looking for a smoking gun and failed to find it, Donald Trump just showed up holding a .38 special with a glowing orange muzzle spewing smoke like a Bob Marley joint.

ONE CHICKEN KIEV TO GO

The outlines of this new scandal are by now well known.

Let me be the millionth person to note that it would be hard to imagine a more outrageous abuse of presidential power than blackmailing an ally by withholding taxpayer dollars specifically allocated by Congress in an effort to force that ally to provide (or manufacture, if necessary) kompromat on a political opponent.

And it just got worse from there.

The administration inexplicably involved Attorney General Bill Barr and the Department Formerly Known as Justice, now more correctly described as Trump’s personal law firm and private police force. I say “inexplicably,” but the explanation was self-evident: with cover from the AG and the DFKNAJ, the acting DNI Joseph Maguire declined to obey the whistleblower law and forward the IG complaint to the House Intelligence Committee. At the time of this writing, the White House has yet to comply, or release tapes or transcripts of the phone call in question, thus openly flouting the law.

Which is weird, because they’re really not denying what happened.

Unlike Russiagate, there has been no need to dig for evidence in this case, because it’s all out there in the open. The White House has not denied the basic facts, only—incredibly—that they amount to any wrongdoing. In other words, they have leapfrogged forward to what, in the Russiagate scandal, proved to be a winning strategy: a Nixonian claim that, in effect, it’s not illegal when the president does it. No big whoop, nothing to see here folks, move along.

But Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, gave the lie to this shameless spin and summarized the situation very neatly:

If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning. Trump’s grubby commandeering of the presidency’s fearsome and nearly uncheckable powers in foreign policy for his own ends is a gross abuse of power and an affront both to our constitutional order and to the integrity of our elections.

There is no spin, no deflection, no alternative theory of the case that can get around the central fact that President Trump reportedly attempted to use his office for his own gain, and that he put the foreign policy and the national security of the United States at risk while doing so. He ignored his duty as the commander in chief by intentionally trying to place an American citizen in jeopardy with a foreign government. He abandoned his obligations to the Constitution by elevating his own interests over the national interest. By comparison, Watergate was a complicated judgment call.

So what we have witnessed over the past few days is the revelation of an absolutely astonishing abuse of power—an undeniably impeachable offense by any definition—all laid out for us on a silver platter. Wow.

The big question now is: will Congress do jackshit about it?

SEE NO EVIL

Let’s start with the Republican reaction.

For now, the GOP leadership is reflexively bleating, “Let’s see what was actually in the transcript of the phone call before we jump to any conclusions.” Fair enough—but also highly ironic, since it’s their leader blocking the release of those transcripts. (Trump himself said, he’d “love to” release them, which is a sure sign that he never will.)

More to the point, no matter what is revealed in those tapes or transcripts, the Republican Party will find a way to excuse it. For a preview, see the reaction of the GOP’s hardcore Kool-Aid brigade—Gaetz, Jordan, Hawley, et al—who are already blathering about a Deep State conspiracy, Democratic sour grapes over 2016, and how Trump was undoubtedly acting on behalf of national interests and not for his own personal gain (sorry—just threw up in my mouth a little). And the mainstream media, with predictable gullibility, is aiding them by treating the thoroughly discredited aspersions about Biden & Son with the same seriousness as Trump’s wrongdoing, presumably in the interest of some faux sense of objectivity, or just because they can’t resist gossip. They ought to be ashamed.

Meanwhile the DNI (sorry—acting DNI) made the absurd argument that the President of the United States is not subject to the whistleblower law because he is not part of the US Intelligence Community…..even though in May 2017, when Trump impulsively and unilaterally handed Top Secret/SCI intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, the White House claimed it was all fine because Trump was the head of that same Intelligence Community.

Then, of course, there is Rudy Giuliani, who has been scarce of late, but is always reliably trotted out when the White House needs someone to go on television and make the most insane argument humanly imaginable. They just send up the Batshit Signal and Rudy pulls on his cape and tights. So it was that America’s Erstwhile Mayor talked to CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and in the space of fifteen seconds first denied talking to the Ukrainians about Biden, then bragged about it. This in an interview in which he also spread a crazy and long-ago-debunked conspiracy theory about Biden’s corruption involving the Ukraine, and denied that Trump had any knowledge of his communications with Kiev while simultaneously claiming the President was fully looped in. The only thing that didn’t come up were Godfather-based anti-Italian-American slurs.

This is not to say that the White House and its GOP amen corner are keen to have evidence of the Ukraine affair made public. The latter (at least) understands the scope of the transgression, and the stakes, even if they pretend otherwise. But it is much easier to carry on that charade in the absence of transcripts and tape recordings that make the wrongdoing crystal clear and truly undeniable.

The Republican leadership knows full well that Trump has—again—crossed the reddest of red lines, and would in any other era already be on his way out of the Oval Office. Their refusal to admit that and do the right thing bespeaks their shameful (and shameless) and by now well-established valuation of their own power over the principles they claim to hold dear, to say nothing of the well-being of the country. Of this Republican hypocrisy, Tom Nichols writes:

Imagine, for example, if Bill Clinton had called his friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in 1996, and asked him to investigate Bob Dole. Or if George W. Bush had called, say, President Vicente Fox of Mexico in 2004 and asked him—indeed, asked him eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal—to open a case against John Kerry……Is there any doubt that either man would have been put on trial in the Senate, and likely chased from office?

Or as anti-Trump conservative Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post:

I do not expect enough Republicans will vote to remove Trump under any circumstances. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and others have proved time and again that their fear of Trump and his base outweighs any assault on our democracy no matter how devastating. These are hollow little men who find it impossible to put country above partisan loyalty and ambition. They will come up with whatever justification is necessary to avoid crossing Trump, even at the expense of allowing the most egregious “High Crime and Misdemeanor” in our history to go unpunished.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO MOSCOW

Trump himself, of course, is not even that conniving, as he truly does not think there are any lines that he is rightfully bound by. In line with last week’s post, it’s important to remember that at its core this scandal was driven by Trump’s effort to win re-election, a perfect example of the out-of-bounds and even illegal measures I predicted that he would take to achieve that goal.

How brazen is our Insane Clown President? This brazen: even as he denied any wrongdoing, Trump took the occasion of that denial to publicly pressure Ukraine AGAIN, knowing the Kiev was listening as he told the US press, ““It doesn’t matter what I discussed, but I will say this—somebody ought to look into Joe Biden.”

This technique is known as “saying the quiet part out loud.” As the WaPo’s Ashley Parker writes, “The president wears shamelessness as a badge of protection, under the implicit theory that any alleged offenses can’t be that serious if he commits them in full public view.” Not that MAGA Nation or the RNC needs much nudging to defend and excuse anything Trump does.

In fact, what Trump did in Ukrainegate is much much worse than what he did in Russiagate. In the latter case, Candidate Trump solicited and accepted illegal help from hostile foreign actors to help him win the White House, and failed to report offers of that help to the FBI and other authorities. (Oh, and also wantonly obstructed federal investigation into those matters.) In this one, President Trump actively extorted a foreign power to help him undermine a political opponent win an election….and used the massive power of the United States presidency to do so.

In the words of Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and Never Trump conservative Max Boot, “It is hard to imagine a more glaring example of a “high crime and misdemeanor.”

Of course, the two scandals are really one. Ukraine is at the very center of Russiagate and many of the dirty little episodes associated with it, centering as it does on Putin’s goal of removing US sanctions imposed after his 2014 invasion of Crimea. That in turn was behind the change to the GOP platform regarding Ukraine during the 2016 Republican convention, Junior’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya et al at Trump Tower, Kushner’s proposal of a backchannel with Moscow, and Flynn’s Logan Act-violating phone call, not to mention Paul Manafort’s long entanglement in Ukrainian politics and service to its former strongman Viktor Yanukovich, whose ouster led to the Russian invasion of Crimea in the first place.

NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN PEOPLE

And what of the Democrats? In that same Atlantic piece, Nichols writes:

Until now, there was room for reasonable disagreement over impeachment as both a matter of politics and a matter of tactics. The Mueller report revealed despicably unpatriotic behavior by Trump and his minions, but it did not trigger a political judgment with a majority of Americans that it warranted impeachment. The Democrats, for their part, remained unwilling to risk their new majority in Congress on a move destined to fail in a Republican-controlled Senate.

Now, however, we face an entirely new situation….

The Democratic candidates should now unite around a call for an impeachment investigation, not for Biden’s sake, but to protect the sanctity of our elections from a predatory president who has made it clear he will stop at nothing to stay in the White House.

Apparently a groundswell for impeachment is building among Democratic lawmakers, including many who have heretofore been reluctant on the matter. Of equal if not more significance, Nancy Pelosi has now signaled that we have entered a new stage in which she is open to impeachment proceedings, after months of stalling, presumably for fear of jeopardizing her House majority in 2020.

Ironically, the sheer blatantness of this latest scandal may make it easier for Democrats to do what they should have done long ago. Rubin again:

A single article of impeachment based on an incontrovertible abuse of power would make Democrats’ job much easier. The difficultly that at-risk Republicans face in explaining to voters why they countenance such conduct begins to outweigh any downside for Democrats in pursuing impeachment, even if the eventual outcome is acquittal in the Senate.

That is the practical side; there is, of course, also an angle here that concerns pure on principle, as Elizabeth Warren summarized well in a tweet:

After the Mueller report, Congress had a duty to begin impeachment. By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections. Do your constitutional duty and impeach the president.

Former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida seconded the point:

There’s no equivocating on this, no electoral math to calculate. The President held back foreign aid to a nation he was pressing to investigate his political opponent. Do your job and impeach him, or get out of the way.

In a subsequent tweet, Jolly went on to say:

It’s clear that, for many, this isn’t the breaking point for trust in the President. That’s long broken or never was. This is the breaking point for trust in Congress. Legacies are being forged around this moment.

In other words, a show of Democratic backbone is more essential than ever, because it is very clear that Trump pulled this Ukrainian bullshit because was emboldened by having gotten away with a similar, previous crime, thanks largely to the timidity of House Democrats in pursuing impeachment over the Russia scandal, based on Mueller’s plenty damning report. It’s no coincidence that the fateful July 25 call to newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came exactly one day after Mueller’s anticlimactic Congressional testimony put a definitive end to the fantasy that the Special Counsel was going to bring Trump down all by himself.

Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, and Rachael Bade write in the Post:

Trump’s sense of himself as above the law has been reinforced throughout his time in office. As detailed in the Mueller report, he received help from a foreign adversary in 2016 without legal consequence. He sought to thwart the Russia investigation and possibly obstruct justice without consequence. Through the government, he has earned profits for his businesses without consequence. He has blocked Congress’s ability to conduct oversight without consequence. Now he is alleged to have leveraged taxpayer dollars and U.S. military might to extort a foreign government for opposition research on a political opponent, and it is unclear what consequences, if any, he may face.

Greg Sargent, also writing in the Post, puts an even finer point of the negative impact of that precedent:

President Trump and his minions went to great lengths in 2016 to coordinate with a foreign power’s interference in our election on his behalf. Then Trump engaged in extensive corruption and lawlessness to try to prevent it from coming to light…….he basically got away with all of it, thanks to Justice Department regulations that protect a president from indictment, and to extensive help from a handpicked attorney general who subscribes to a theory of presidential power that in effect places presidents above the law.

So why wouldn’t Trump try something very similar a second time around?

Similarly, Charlie Sykes writes in The Bulwark:

Trump thinks that he skated on the Mueller probe and he has watched the fecklessness of congressional Democrats who have repeatedly failed to hold him accountable for much of anything. He also has figured out that he never—as in never—has to worry about his own party showing anything resembling a conscience. He does not belong to the Republican party. The Republican party belongs to him.

So let that be a lesson to us. If we fail to hold Trump accountable this time, and instead let him get away with it yet again on this even more blatant violation of his oath of office, imagine how brazenly he will act going forward! Especially if he manages to win re-election—legally or otherwise—and what few guardrails still remain are then removed.

As William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution noted, “(Trump) appears to be daring the rest of the political system to stop him—and if it doesn’t, he’ll go further.”

INEVITABILITY

In a September 19th tweet, Trump reacted to the Ukraine allegations by asking, “is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”

Jesus, Don, if you’re gonna put a shotgun in our hands and stand us in front of a barrel of fish, you gotta expect that we’re gonna shoot.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, it’s you whom we know are dumb enough to do exactly that, because you’ve done dumbass shit like that over and over again throughout your presidency. And gotten away with it. Which is precisely the problem.

Weirdly, since Special Counsel Mueller concluded his investigation and closed up shop, Trump has been more unhinged, inflicted more wounds on himself, and exposed himself to more existential jeopardy than ever. It’s almost as if the removal of that antagonist and the disappearance of the overarching threat of Russiagate has left him untethered. It will be very ironic if Trump is brought down by this scandal—not holding my breath, you understand—one in which he committed the exact crimes he miraculously dodged in the Mueller probe. Got a little greedy, I guess.

Way back in June 2017, in one of my earliest posts in this blog, I wrote about the “inevitability of Russiagate.” By that I meant that Donald Trump is such a pathological criminal, con man, and inveterate scumbag that it was inevitable he would eventually do something (or things) that would merit his removal from office. That partisan considerations have thus far precluded that removal does not change the veracity of the argument. And with the Ukraine fiasco, Trump has once again proved my point:

OF COURSE an administration as venal, immoral, self-aggrandizing, and contemptible as Trump’s would be involved in such crimes. It would be more surprising if they were not. This is an administration (and a campaign before that) whose stock-in-trade is lies, greed, xenophobia, racism, divisiveness, and wanton corruption on a scale never before seen in presidential politics, which is saying something. Are we surprised that such people might make secret deals with our enemies to gain power in exchange for favors and fealty to be named later?…..

Of course Trump would do such a shocking thing, and of course he would then try to squash the inquiry into it, and of course the venal and loathsome beast that is the modern Republican Party would stand by him and pretend it’s all OK. But the comeuppance that appears to be on the way (I’m not holding my breath) is, in the end, a matter of karma, if one believes in that sort of thing. Trump is a despicable, poisonous cretin with a long history of immoral, illegal, and unconscionable behavior in both his personal and professional lives. He is jawdroppingly unqualified for the presidency and should never have come within a mile of winning the Oval Office if there was anything resembling justice in this world. But he did. And as the cosmic scales now give signs of righting themselves, he may well get frogmarched out of that office in chains because of that very sort of behavior.

That said, I am not convinced that this scandal will be the one that finally brings Trump down, though of course it should. That would require a level of integrity, patriotism, and principle on the part of a critical mass of Republican politicians that they have consistently shown themselves incapable of mustering. On the contrary: I think the leadership of the contemporary GOP is so craven that it will once again close ranks and stand by Trump to the bitter end, no matter the gymnastics, yogi-like contortions, and general hypocrisy required to do so, to say nothing of disloyalty to the country they claim to serve.

Therefore I would argue that the real significance of this episode will be to take us into an even more fraught and dangerous new phase of our ongoing constitutional crisis, one in which blatant abuse of power and impeachable offenses have been committed in plain sight, abuses to which the White House cops (and even brags), and yet the president’s party refuses to do its duty and act in the national interest as the Constitution demands, and the opposition party refuses to stand up to it.

Max Boot again:

If there were any justice in the world, this would mark a turning point where Democrats find the courage to impeach and Republicans find the decency to stop defending the indefensible. Instead, so far we are getting a rerun of previous scandals characterized by Trump’s brazenness, Republicans’ servility and Democrats’ pusillanimity.

As long as Democrats do not proceed with impeachment—and perhaps even if they do—Trump has made clear that he will continue his all-out assault on the Constitution. And Republicans—who congratulate themselves on their alleged devotion to the Constitution—will not do anything about it except to cheer him on.

In short, we are at a severe crisis point for our republic—even more so than many of the numerous crisis points we have faced thus far. And it bears repeating yet again that, as absolutely stomach-turningly horrific as Donald John Trump is, the real villains here are his enablers and protectors in the Grand Old Party who are happy to simultaneously defend him and hide behind him, all in order to preserve their own anti-democratic chokehold on power.

Where is our Ellliot Richardson, our William Ruckelshaus, when we need them? Who is this new Deep Throat? Will he or she step forward and play the part of John Dean? And if not, what should we the people do about it?

Dithering over impeachment on the grounds of gamesmanship can no longer be condoned. We must demand that Congress acts, and if it does not, we must make our outrage deafening, even if it means getting out in the streets or launching a general strike that brings this country to a grinding halt. If we don’t, we will officially be an autocracy.

I return again to my June 2019 post, The End of Outrage:

I hesitate even to call (his comment to Stephanopolous) 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.

We know that MAGA Nation does not care, nor the GOP’s despicable leadership (if it can be called that). But for those of us who do care, now is the time to show it. The danger that we as a people have become numb to Trump’s daily assaults on the rule of law has never been greater than right now.

The sad reality is that, in the end, the checks and balances within our representative democracy only function properly when our elected officials act in good faith. When a sufficient number of well-placed people are acting in bad faith, the system breaks down. And right now it’s fucking broken.

I’ll give Professor Nichols the last word, because his words were very very good:

(I)f this kind of dangerous, unhinged hijacking of the powers of the presidency is not enough for either the citizens or their elected leaders to demand Trump’s removal, then we no longer have an accountable executive branch, and we might as well just admit that we have chosen to elect a monarch and be done with the illusion of constitutional order in the United States.

********

Photo: Ukrainian troops on parade, by Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Knives to a Gunfight

gunfight-at-the-corral-doing-the-walk1-640x335 copy

Two weeks ago in this blog I wrote about what surely must be the most obvious thing in the world to anyone paying even casual attention: that Donald Trump and the Republican Party intend to fight as dirty as dirty can be in the upcoming election, and use every means, legal and illegal, to win. (See The Fiasco to Come, September 4, 2019). Indeed, I stated bluntly that I do not believe they intend to surrender power in 2020 regardless of the outcome.

This week I’d like to explore that idea in more detail, as it increasingly strikes me as the most urgent danger presented by this toxic greasefire of a presidency.

O LOON OF ALABAMA

First a little context. Bear with me. If Rachel Maddow can spend twenty minutes winding up to her point every night, so can I, dammit.

Last week, in the midst of an epic hurricane threatening several southern states—but not Alabama—we saw Trump spend five days obsessively tweeting in an effort to defend his earlier off-the-cuff claim that it was. It was the worst case of the Streisand Effect I can think of.

The initial error was really no big deal. Once it became clear Alabama was not in the storm’s path, any rational person over the age of three would have known enough to say, “Oh. My bad,” and move on. Not Don. Instead, he characteristically made a circus out of what otherwise would have gone by in a blip.

We then saw the President of the United States take a black Sharpie and crudely, almost comically, alter an (outdated) National Weather Service map to include Alabama in the danger zone. The fact that he did that boggles the mind. The fact that he thought he could show that map to reporters on national television and no one would notice what he’d done is even more astonishing. That he would later respond to a reporter’s question about who wielded that Sharpie by putting on the most unconvincing pokerface ever and bleating “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know” was the stuff of an SNL sketch. (For a guy who lies as readily as he breathes, he sure is bad at it.) It was later revealed that Trump had also ordered Mick Mulvaney (who ordered Wilbur Ross, who ordered the senior leadership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on penalty of being fired) to have NOAA defend his error, which it did—anonymously—even publicly rebuking its own scientists.

Though the episode itself was kind of trivial (unless you live in Alabama and were needlessly afraid for your life), Trump’s insane reaction to it was anything but. The Swiftian spectacle of our Dear Leader at war with the weather and demanding that federal officials bend objective reality to project his eggshell-like ego ought to have sent a chill down the spine of every sentient American.

Sharpiegate was so surreal that it obliterated the memory of the reigning bellylaugh-cum-freak show of the preceding week, which was a fuming Trump canceling a state visit to Denmark at the last minute because he was told he could not buy Greenland…..itself such an Onion-worthy moment that it took some time to fully grasp.

And of course, there were much greater horrors last week:

  • Trump torpedoing months of delicate diplomacy by clumsily inserting himself in the Afghan peace process, first by inviting the Taliban to Camp David on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, and then disinviting them and likely destroying our best chance for peace in the region…..all for the sake of his ego and a splashy Obama-beating moment in his quest for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • The revelation that, after Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak in May 2017, the CIA was so alarmed by his recklessness with classified material, and his possible larger compromise by the Kremlin, that it felt forced to extract from Russia the United States’ top spy inside Putin’s government, a grievous loss to US intelligence gathering capability there.
  • Trump unilaterally taking $3.6 billion from Pentagon construction projects and—in illegal defiance of Congressional authority—re-allocating to his idiotic border fence……and before you say that the Pentagon’s budget is bloated anyway, please note that among those were funds for the US Military Academy at West Point and the Department of Defense School Systems (the latter of which I am a proud graduate and my late mother a former teacher). Prominent among those DODDSS cuts was $62.2 million intended to build a badly needed middle school for children at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and 5th Special Forces Group, two of the key units in ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. So just to be clear, Trump took a school away from the children of deployed American soldiers, consigning them to remain thirty to a classroom instead, in order to keep putting other even less fortunate children in concentration camps.

Why do I bother to recap all this? Because as terrible as those things were, the Alabama hurricane-that-wasn’t dwarfed them all. Sharpiegate captured the imagination of the American public precisely because it was so blatantly stupid and so perfectly highlights Trump’s lunacy and dangerousness. People could get their heads around it in a way they couldn’t with any of those more substantive outrages noted, or, say, laundering money for Russian oligarchs as part of a broader entanglement with the Kremlin that included complicity in stealing a presidential election. Go figure.

I also submit to you that we ought to recognize it as a terrifying harbinger of what awaits.

Sharpiegate is the ultimate example of Trump’s malignant and infantile stubbornness, his refusal to admit error or defeat, and willingness to go to absurd and terrifying normbreaking lengths (and possibly lawbreaking ones) to achieve his ends. If he went that far over a weather forecast, how far do you think he will go to remain President of the United States, and by extension, avoid the criminal prosecution that awaits him as soon as he is not?

POCKET LININGS PLAYBOOK

Here is my fear. My fear is that while we sit here discussing electability, and which states are red or blue or purple, and whether Biden’s ‘record player” comment will hurt him in Iowa, and generally treating this like a normal election—a high stakes one, for sure, but still within the bounds of what we have always thought of as an orthodox American presidential contest—Donald Trump and the Republican Party are not approaching it that way at all. They are approaching it like a gang of armed robbers walking into a bank.

They will suppress the vote where it doesn’t favor them. They will create obstacles to voting among demographics they think will go against them, like young people and minorities and immigrant communities. They will interfere with registration efforts, spread disinformation, close polling places and create confusion. (In 2016, Republican efforts to suppress the vote through insidious “voter ID” laws are believed to have cost the Democrats around 200,000 votes Wisconsin alone. Trump won that crucial state by a paltry 22,000.)

They have already tried to manipulate the census, likely knowing it would fail, but still succeeding both in intimidating even legal immigrants from voting and likely in skewing the drawing of congressional districts for the next decade.

They will flood the campaign with dark money, whip up hatred and division, scapegoat and demonize their foes and vulnerable populations, spread lies and “fake news” (while accusing the other side of doing so), and generally put on a master class in demagoguery. With Trump’s shockingly racist behavior of the past few months (shocking even by the already shocking standards of his own racist history), it ought to be clear just how ugly it’s gonna get.

They will cultivate and exploit and surreptitiously cooperate with foreign efforts to interfere in the election on their behalf. Interference by the Russians and other foreign actors has already begun; why shouldn’t it, given the greenlight that the Republican Party has overtly been flashing, through McConnell’s unconscionable blockage of attempts to harden our cyber defenses, and Trump’s public invitation for foreign help?

Once Election Day itself is upon us they will contest vote counts and sow chaos. They will attempt to rig the actual vote when they can. They will try to falsify the numbers so it appears that Trump won in places where he didn’t, and in places where it’s clear that he lost, they will dispute the results. (For a sneak preview, see how Don’s role model Mr. Putin and his United Russia party behaved in the Russian elections earlier this month.)

Trump himself will refuse to accept results that do not declare him the victor. He will call on his supporters to rise up in his defense and reject the legitimacy of a victory by his opponent. He will say the fix was in and that he really won despite what the numbers show, possibly even to the point of precipitating violent insurrection. Hell, if it looks like he’s going to lose he might even try to gin up a national emergency or foreign policy crisis to justify postponing or even suspending the election even before it takes place.

Think he won’t? Think that’s a line even he wouldn’t cross? You have obviously not been paying attention.

And as I wrote last week, if and when he does any or all of these things, I do not for a second believe that Mitch McConnell or any of the other leaders of the Republican Party, or the 5-4 right wing majority on the Supreme Court, will stand up and try to stop him.

Maybe I’m wrong. But can anyone cite an example of even one time in the last three years when those institutions stood up to Donald Trump?

WHEN SOMEONE SHOWS YOU WHO THEY ARE

It’s incredible that we are even contemplating this possibility, one that was utterly unthinkable just a few years ago, the stuff of bad counterfactual science fiction. But here we are.

I have pondered this before. (See Will Trump Leave Office Even If He Loses in 2020?, July 23, 2018.) As far back as the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that he might not accept the legitimacy of the vote if he were to lose. It was a unprecedented moment in modern US politics and one that ought to have rattled the American public to its core. Indeed, his constant ranting about the election being “rigged”—in pre-emptive anticipation of defeat—was a regular feature of his campaign until it proved unnecessary and he suddenly decided all was perfectly fair. Since then he has repeated the trope again and again. He has mused about running for a third term and “joked’ about being president-for-life like so many of the foreign despots he openly admires. He “joked” about it again just last week at a rally in Fayetteville, NC (a place where I spent many years both as a military dependent and a military officer). He even tweeted out a sign reading TRUMP 2024, again using the fig leaf of “humor” to camouflage an obvious test run of an idea he is clearly keen on.

Ha ha—so hilarious! Incipient authoritarianism and the installation of a hereditary kleptocratic dynasty. LOL!

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think Trump will declare a Khmer Rouge-style Year Zero. But I do think he will concoct an excuse that allows him to mount a formidable crusade to stay in office—one that feels more or less justifiable and all-American, if you kinda squint and make your eyes fuzzy and don’t think about it too hard. (And are a fascist.) And I think the GOP will back him up.

For the first two plus years of the raging shitstorm that is the Trump presidency, there was the fantasy that Robert Mueller—or someone or something else—was going to swoop in with such explosive evidence of Trump’s wanton criminality that it would cause a national outcry and force him from office. Arguably such evidence has in fact been presented, almost daily, if not in so dramatic a fashion as we wished. But all these moments have come and gone, with a steady parade of crimes and scandals and the revelation of past sins and the commission of new ones right before our eyes, and none of it has really changed a thing. Because we are dealing with an opposition that is more like a religious cult than a rational political movement.

But all along—and especially now that the delusion of Mueller ex machina has been obliterated—there was always the comforting thought that we live in a representative democracy (sort of), and that another election was coming, painfully slowly perhaps, but inexorably coming nonetheless. If all else failed, we would suffer through four years of this nightmare and then vote the motherfucker out.

I am very worried that that hope to which we have clung, and continue to cling, is going to prove a mirage: not because we will lose the election (though we might, and that will be a bitter pill all its own), but because the Republican Party is going to break every rule in order to win it, or at least successfully claim that it won.

To believe otherwise would be to argue that the GOP is a principled organization dedicated to the integrity of our democracy.

THE TALE OF THE CORNERED RAT

Trump of course has an additional motivator to win a second term besides mere ego and lust for power. As Edward Luce of the Financial Times recently noted, “No other US president has faced the prospect of being re-elected or going to jail.” That exponentially raises the probability of him upending two and a half centuries of peaceful transitions of presidential power and simply refusing to leave office.

In a piece for Slate titled “What Happens If Trump Won’t Step Down?” Dahlia Lithwick notes that folks as diverse as Michael Cohen, Nancy Pelosi and Politico have raised this same disturbing possibility:

(F)or Trump, losing the 2020 election is an existential threat, and he has openly invited foreign interference, while Mitch McConnell refuses to even consider legislation to secure the vote. And even if Trump is truly joking when he tweets that he deserves to be credited two extra years in his existing term, years he believes were lost to the Mueller probe, or riffs on staying on the job long after he’d been term-limited out, the tweets send a dangerous message to his loyalists.

Lithwick goes on to interview one of the most prominent voices warning of this danger: Georgetown law professor Josh Geltzer, formerly Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, deputy legal adviser to the NSC, and counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security. Geltzer dates his concern to a July 24, 2018 tweet in which Trump claimed to be “very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election,” opining that the Kremlin “will be pushing very hard for the Democrats.”

Geltzer suggests that Trump was auditioning a new lie—outrageous and absurd though it was—to see how it would fly, which is something he often seems to do:

“This notion that there might be foreign election interference in favor of the Democrats seemed to test Trump’s ability to call into question election results he didn’t like. So, if the Dems won big in a way that embarrassed Trump, he might say the results were inflated—and, at least conceivably, even contest them.”

I’ve heard some say that we have to beat Trump in a landslide to preclude him challenging the results. But does anyone really think that any margin of defeat will prevent him from doing that? He’s going to dig in his heels and cry “foul!” no matter what. Let’s get used to that fact and prepare for it now.

This is especially so with Trump incentivized to the absolute max because he needs to stay in office in order to stay out of prison…..for a second term, and a third, and even beyond, until the Big Macs and Diet Cokes finally kill him, or he can pass the presidency off to Ivanka who will pardon him and figure out a way to avoid state charges as well.

Lest we forget, in 2000 Gore won the nationwide popular vote, as did Hillary in 2016, and for that matter Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In fact, of the last five presidential elections, the Republican candidate has won the popular vote in only one, 2004, when Bush was the incumbent in the midst of a war (that he had started). Yet the Republican candidate took office in three of those five elections, thanks to the antiquated anti-democratic chokehold of the Electoral College. The New York Times recently published a terrifying article explaining that, statistically, Trump may have an even easier path to an Electoral College victory in 2020 than in 2016, while losing the popular vote by an even greater margin.

In that way, Trump promises to make the popular vote even more irrelevant, and maybe the EC too.

Eyeroll all you want about Trump Derangement Syndrome, right wingers, but what evidence is there that Donald Trump is too principled for such behavior, or that it would cause McConnell, Graham, McCarthy, and the rest of the GOP leadership to rebel and rein him in? Go on: I dare you.

THE TALE OF THE GULLIBLE DONKEY

I am very concerned that the Democratic Party is not at all prepared for this fight. Sorry for the firearms imagery of the title of this essay at a time when we continue to be terrorized by mass shootings, chiefly by lonely white nationalist males. (But by all means, let’s deal with the dangers of vaping first!)

But the metaphor is apt.

Imagine we wake up on November 4, 2020 to find Trump declaring victory regardless of the vote. On that day, it will be a bitter pill to look back on how we bickered over debate stage theatrics, and whether Kamala was black enough, and which Democratic candidate was best positioned to peel away disaffected Republican voters in the Midwest. Remember when our main concern was the obstructionism President Hillary Clinton was going to face from a Republican Congress after she won in 2016, and how tough it was going to be to get her legislative agenda enacted, and to get the Senate to confirm her nominees to the Supreme Court? Good times.

As I wrote in this blog two weeks ago, we cannot afford a repeat of the too-polite-by-half Democratic response to the toss-up election in Florida in 2000, in contrast to the bare knuckles tactics that the GOP deployed. The same inappropriately deferential dynamic was in play in our reaction to the disgraceful Republican obstruction of the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016. Knowing what we know now, the Obama administration should have raised holy hell and found a way to ram him through regardless, even if it meant precipitating a constitutional crisis—which, in retrospect, McConnell had already initiated. I do not mean to Monday morning quarterback. Back then, few people—myself very much included—understood the implications of what was going on. I certainly did not, and not just because we assumed Hillary would win and hardball was not necessary. But I damn sure do now, and we pretend otherwise at our own peril. A slow motion coup has been underway for some time now, and the old rules of decorum and even democracy itself are no longer be in effect.

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

In other words, if you thought 2016 was grim, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The sooner we come to terms with this reality and begin making serious preparations for it, the better the odds that we an survive it and prevail. As some dude once said, “Fool me once…..shame on….can’t get fooled again.”

Here’s an idea. Instead of hoping that Mitch McConnell will turn from a poisonous frog into a prince, let’s take the initiative ourselves and make it clear right now that we can see what’s coming and we will not stand for it. No more playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules when the other guys have gone full Gillooly.

If we do not take these possibilities seriously, we will live to regret it. I am certainly not reassured by Geltzer’s suggestion that the best defense against a Trumpian coup is the integrity of GOP leaders:

“We need political leaders—especially Republicans—to make clear, both publicly and privately, that for Trump to contest the valid results of an election would be a redline, and that he’d have zero support from them—indeed, impassioned opposition from them—should he cross it. We need it sooner rather than later, too.” 

Don’t hold your breath.

*********

Photo: L to R, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Martin Milner, and DeForest Kelley in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)

 

 

“The Real Heroes Are Dead”

04HEART1-jumbo

On this, the 18th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, I’m re-posting a blog entry from two years ago regarding Rick Rescorla, whom I was privileged to know. It was originally published in The King’s Necktie on September 7, 2017 under the title The Voice of the Prophet.

At a time when US policy regarding Afghanistan and global terrorism is in chaos, years of painstaking negations with the Taliban were blown to bits by the president’s ego, the US Air Force is being used to line his pockets, and his administration is trying to finance a “border wall” by taking appropriated funds from overcrowded schools serving children of US soldiers, I can’t think of anything new I can say that would commemorate today’s anniversary better than this.

*********

In November 1965, after what had thus far largely been a counterinsurgency against the guerrillas of the Viet Cong, US troops met North Vietnamese regulars in combat for the first time, amid the scrubby pines near a river in the Central Highlands of Pleiku Province. That place was the Ia Drang valley. In search of the enemy, an infantry battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) helicoptered into what turned out to be the basecamp of several regiments of the People’s Army of Vietnam, setting off a three day battle in which more than two hundred Americans and well over a thousand Vietnamese lost their lives. The high commands of both sides took away from this fight crucial lessons that guided their respective strategies for the remainder of the war. Sadly for the United States, Washington took away precisely the wrong lesson: that we could win a war of attrition. Ironically, Hanoi agreed and avoided exactly that kind of fight; recognizing that it could not go toe to toe with conventional US forces, for the remainder of the war they almost never did. Yet in April 1975 the North Vietnamese conquered Saigon.

None of which detracted from the bravery of the American soldiers who fought that battle (nor that of their PAVN foe, for that matter), as the valor of a fighting man is wholly distinct from the agenda of the politicians he serves.

WE WERE SOLDIERS

Twenty-seven years after the battle, Lieutenant General (Ret.) Harold Moore—who as a lieutenant colonel had been the American commander in the Ia Drang—and Joseph Galloway—who had been the only journalist present, celebrating his 24th birthday while on the battlefield—published We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, their meticulously researched, decades-in-the-making account of the fight. The book was released to great acclaim, including plaudits from the likes of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, David Hackworth, and Norman Schwarzkopf, and became an instant classic of American military history. The mesmerizing photo on the book jacket was of a rifle platoon leader taken on the second morning of the battle, leading his men through the ghostly trees of the river valley. This being so early in the war—1965—he looked more like a GI from World War II than what we would come to picture as Vietnam. Unshaven, haggard from combat, chinstrap dangling, bearing a rifle with bayonet affixed—he could easily have been a statue at front gates of Ft. Bragg, NC—Iron Mike—or the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, GA, embodying its motto, “Follow Me.”

That platoon leader was Lieutenant Rick Rescorla.

In 1998 I filmed interviews with Joe Galloway and Rick Rescorla for a documentary my collaborator Richard Berge and I intended to make about the battle. A true Renaissance man, Rick was a soldier, a lawyer, a security expert, a poet, playwright, wit, raconteur, and bon vivant. Born and raised in Cornwall, England, where he had been outstanding schoolboy rugby player, he joined the British Parachute Regiment at the age of 17 and soon found himself in Cyprus, fighting the separatist insurgency there. He eventually made his way into the colonial police in what was then Northern Rhodesia, then returned to Britain and joined Scotland Yard’s famed Flying Squad of detectives. Upon emigrating to the United States he enlisted in the US Army, where he was quickly chosen for Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning. After earning his commission he was deployed to Vietnam in 1965 as an infantry platoon leader in B Company, 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry, which was attached to Hal Moore’s 1/7th Cav for the insertion into Landing Zone X-Ray during the Ia Drang operation. He was not yet a US citizen.

In the Ia Drang Rick’s rifle company bore the brunt of the enemy attack on the second night of the battle, turning the tide for the Americans. It was here that he demonstrated the courage and bravado that were to make him a battlefield legend, belting out Cornish songs in the midst of combat to keep up the morale of his men, and rallying them against odds that rightly terrified lesser mortals. General Moore subsequently called Rick the finest platoon leader he ever saw.

After leaving active duty in 1968 Rick continued to serve in the Army Reserve, eventually retiring as a full colonel. In his civilian life he earned a master’s degree in literature, a law degree, and became a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. He authored a textbook on criminal justice as well as screenplays on subjects ranging from colonial warfare in Africa to the life of Audie Murphy. He later began working as a security expert, eventually signing on with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter as vice president for corporate security.

Some time in the early ‘90s I had heard Rescorla speak at a reunion of Ia Drang vets. (My father had been the commander of C Company, 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry during the fight.) Big and beefy now in contrast to the wiry lieutenant of 1965, he had the booming voice and charismatic manner of a natural orator and a warrior poet. It was easy to see why he had been such a well-respected troop leader. Contemplating a documentary about the battle, I mentally filed him away as a must-have interview subject. Around 1997 I contacted him and he agreed to be filmed. We arranged to shoot his interview in the MSDW offices in the World Trade Center.

THE LOOMING TOWER

Early on the morning of July 28, 1998, my team of Ferne Pearlstein, Justin Schein, and I pulled up to the WTC in a rented white van full of 16mm motion picture equipment. I was startled at how perfunctory the security was. In the underground garage beneath the towers, we were made to get out of the van and have our photographs taken for visitors’ badges, but that was about it. No one inspected our vehicle, which was packed to the gills with hard shipping crates. Those crates were full of camera gear, but might very well have been full of C4. If there were dogs or chemical sensors to detect explosives, I saw no evidence of them. Not five years before, the very building we were standing beneath had been bombed by terrorists. Yes, there was such a thing as closing the barn door after the cow had escaped….and then there was not even bothering to close the door at all.

We unloaded the van and hauled our gear up to the 44th floor of the South Tower, where Rick’s office was.

I knew that Rick would be a great interview and he did not disappoint. He discussed his background, his role in the Ia Drang, and his views on the nature of warfare in general. Speaking with the impeccable credentials of a bemedaled warrior whose patriotism was beyond reproach, he derided the 1991 Gulf war as an anomaly and a poor model for future conflicts, given the months we had to put forces in place, not to mention terrain tailor-made for big tank battles that played to American strengths. Turning to the broader geopolitical picture, he criticized the American reliance on high technology at the expense of old-fashioned infantry operations, and suggested that US foreign policy had been hampered by ill-considered actions by politicians with little understanding of military affairs or the limits of force as a tool of national interests. He also displayed a searing insight into how anti-American hatred incubates, and how the United States—with the chance to serve as a beacon of liberty and democracy for the rest of the world, or to squander the same—could pre-empt such opposition in the future. Of Vietnam, he said:

I don’t think we should have been deployed there. I don’t agree with the reason we were there, and if we went in, we probably should have gone in on Giap’s side. That’s the way I feel. That nation had no hope of being united under anybody but Vo Nguyen Giap. He was the man who lead the triumph over the French, he was the most honored man, and by us opposing him and thinking we could take puppet generals and back them up with our own American force was the utmost conceit, and it failed miserably. Although we won on the battlefield, (it) was not about the battlefield. It was about the national will. And Giap knew his national will, he was fighting for his homeland. We didn’t know our national will, and quite rightly, the American people—when they got to see for a long period of time that we weren’t going to win the war—said, “Get out.”

It was a remarkably critical, clear-eyed monologue bereft of even a trace of flag-waving. At the end of the interview Rick gave Ferne, our cinematographer, a framed black-and-white photo of the Twin Towers and autographed it on the back.

We packed up and I flew back home to California that same day. The night before, Ferne and I had had our first impromptu “date” and soon began a cross-country romance. A few months later I moved to New York and turned my attention to other projects. The Ia Drang documentary was never finished, as other outlets (including ABC’s “Day One” news magazine) told the story and beat me to the punch. The footage of Rick’s interview went on the shelf where it stayed for the next three years.

FALL IN NEW YORK

Ferne and I moved in together and got engaged, with the wedding set for the end of September 2001. Halfway across the world—in Hamburg and Riyadh—other people had other ideas.

On the morning of September 11th, Ferne and I sat in our Chinatown apartment, reeling at the collapse of the Twin Towers less than a mile away. Thinking of who we knew who might have been caught inside, our minds went to Rick. Over the next several days we learned what had happened, a tale which remains one of the most poignant stories in a day filled with them.

Morgan Stanley was the largest single tenant of the World Trade Center, with over 2700 employees on thirty floors of the South Tower and another thousand in an adjacent building across the plaza. Rick had been its head of security when Islamic militants bombed the WTC in 1993, and was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of employees that day by calmly leading them to safety. (Displaying the same unflappable cool as in Vietnam, he reportedly got the attention of the panicked crowd by jumping up on a desk and threatening to drop his pants.) Characteristically, he was the last man out of the building.

Afterward, he told his bosses that there would be similar attacks in the future, and insisted that the company institute an emergency plan. His superiors had reason to believe him: even before the 1993 bombing Rick had told them—and the Port Authority—that the Twin Towers were woefully lax in security and a ripe target for terrorist attack. He had even identified a truck bombing of the underground garage as the primary threat. So, with the blessing of the Morgan Stanley brass, for the next eight years Rick forced his co-workers to carry out regular evacuation drills. He even wrote to friends that he suspected that the next attack would be by air, probably a cargo plane loaded with chemical or biological weapons. Predictably, the brokers grumbled about their work being interrupted, about the money-making minutes lost, and about the indignity of being treated like schoolchildren. But on the morning of September 11th those drills arguably saved their lives.

Rick Rescorla was not even supposed to be at work that morning, but he had delayed a vacation in order to accommodate one of his deputies. That afternoon, in fact, he was scheduled to testify in a lawsuit that Morgan Stanley had filed against the Port Authority over inadequate security measures surrounding the ‘93 bombing. The following day he was supposed to fly to Italy for his stepdaughter’s wedding.

When the first plane hit the North Tower next door, Rick immediately began evacuating his company’s employees, exactly as they had practiced. He led by example, just as he had done in ’93, and in the Ia Drang valley before that, inspiring confidence with his booming voice and magnetic personality, singing Cornish folk songs to keep spirits up and distract his co-workers from the dangers at hand. When an announcement was made that their building was not at risk and that everyone should return to their offices, Rick prudently ignored the directive and insisted that they continue the evacuation. He then made his way as high as the 72nd floor, accosting dallying workers and other stragglers and hustling them out.

When the second plane hit the South Tower at approximately 9:07 am, most of Morgan Stanley’s employees were already on their way to safety thanks to Rick. He could easily have joined them, as his superiors at corporate headquarters pleaded. Instead he headed back into the building, believing that his job demanded that he continue to help rescue others. Realizing that this decision would likely cost him his life, he phoned his wife Susan to tell her that he loved her. He was last seen in a 10th floor stairwell, calmly but firmly directing the evacuation of those who remained. A photograph snapped by someone on the way out shows Rick wielding a bullhorn, exhorting the employees to keep moving toward the exits, assuring them that “Today is a day to be proud to be an American,” and “Tomorrow the whole world will be talking about you!” That photograph was the last picture of him ever taken, a bookend to the iconic photo of him in the Ia Drang.

It is impossible to know just how many survivors of the September 11th tragedy owe their survival to Rick’s selflessness, foresight, and leadership, but a simple statistic suffices. Of some 3700 Morgan Stanley employees who worked in the World Trade Center complex, all but six escaped the collapse of the buildings. Rick was one of those six. He and two of his deputies were still inside the building looking for stragglers when the tower collapsed. No remains of any of the three were ever located in the massive pulverization of casualties and debris that resulted.

CASSANDRA IN A BUSINESS SUIT

When we interviewed him three years earlier, we did not know that Rick had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which had gone into remission following treatment. Indeed, he was due to retire just three months after September 11, and planned to devote himself to writing full time. But believing that he might not be long for this earth, he had begun making preparations for his death, a mindset that served him well on that terrible morning. It was a bitter irony that a man who had survived three wars, cancer, and the 1993 bombing should meet his end in this way, but no one who knew Rick was surprised by the heroic actions of the last hours of his life.

When we learned about Rick’s death, I dug out the 16mm rushes of his interview and watched them again. I was astonished. He is dressed in a business suit and sits in someone’s borrowed office on the 44th floor of the South Tower, the better to give us a good background for the shot, facing uptown. Through the large plate glass window behind him we can see the Manhattan skyline, and prominent within it, the city’s second tallest skyscraper, the Empire State Building. He speaks into the camera with confidence and passion. While the first part of the interview covered his personal history and his experience in Vietnam, I had largely forgotten his comments in the second half, which concerned the future of warfare. They now sounded eerily prescient:

When you’re talking about the future wars, we’re talking about engaging in Los Angeles. We’re talking about terrorist actions. Combat in cities, hunting down terrorists—this will be the nature of war in the future, not great battlefields, not great tanks rolling.

Now, they may well be Americans, as we saw in the Oklahoma City bombing. We’re talking about no specific groups, no specific religions. For example, people have blamed the Muslims. The Muslims are honorable people. It’s just small segments of fanatics and terrorists….They can hit us at our weakest point because they choose the time and the place. Terrorist forces can tie up conventional forces; they can bring them to their knees. A good example was in Beirut, the Beirut bombing, and the more recent Saudi bombings. One individual, one fanatic, one man willing to give his life for what he believes….

Watching this interview in mid September 2001, with the smoking hole of Ground Zero still spewing noxious ash into the air of my neighborhood, a chill ran down my spine. Rick even mentioned the possibility of anthrax attacks.

He went on to describe the context in which such terrorism would arise, recalling Eisenhower’s indictment of the military-industrial complex and criticizing American foreign policy for being more about economic self-interest than the values of freedom, democracy, and self-determination to which the United States was supposed to be devoted. Again he indicted the Gulf war for being all about oil, and condemned US involvement in Nicaragua and other places where we were “backing the wrong people” and propping up dictators for the benefit of corporate interests. He further argued that if the US did live up to its professed values, the rest of the world would applaud and follow suit, eliminating much of the anti-Americanism that motivated problematic US military interventions overseas in the first place—a perfect (and perfectly elegant) solution.

For a man with Rick’s history, from Cyprus to Rhodesia to Vietnam to Morgan Stanley, it was a remarkably left-of-center declaration, as well as a prophetic one.

He concluded with these words:

Finally I would say that the residue of hatred this is creating in these foreign countries where we’re doing these things and we don’t think there are any repercussions, those people should think about the World Trade Center bombing and things of this nature. Things will come home to roost—and they may be twenty years later—of cavalier actions that we’re taking now out there. And who is directing these cavalier actions? People in command and control who have never seen a shot fired in anger in their life.…

“THE REAL HEROES ARE DEAD”

As Rick’s story emerged over the days and weeks that followed, it became one of the most repeated tales of that tragic day. (Sometimes it was confused with the similar story of FBI agent John O’Neill, who also predicted a terrorist attack.) Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Stewart published a long profile of Rick in The New Yorker titled “The Real Heroes Are Dead,” taking its name from a remark Rick modestly made about his service in Vietnam. Stewart later expanded the article into a well-received full-length biography called Heart of a Soldier, which itself inspired an opera by the same name—a fittingly dramatic medium for a man whose life and death were so epic in scope. (Another detailed account of Rick’s actions on September 11th is to be found in Out of the Blue by Richard Bernstein of the New York Times.) Further tributes and honors were to follow over the  years, including a scholarship in Rick’s honor sponsored by Morgan Stanley, tributes in his Cornish homeland, and a full-length documentary on British television.

Not long after 9/11, I went to hear General Hal Moore honor Rick at a ceremony at an outdoor amphitheater in northern New Jersey. His speech was majestic, recounting Rick’s life, career, and his heroism in Vietnam as well as on 9/11. “Statues have been erected to lesser men,” Moore marveled, thundering like an Old Testament prophet himself.

From his mouth to God’s ears. Someone noticed that the iconic photograph of Rick on the cover of We Were Soldiers Once….and Young truly did look like a statue waiting to happen, and one modeled upon it was duly commissioned, and installed in front of the Office Candidate School at Ft. Benning, of which Rick now ranked among the foremost graduates.

My 1998 interview with Rick also became part of his legacy. The footage was so jaw-dropping that shortly after 9/11 I cut together an eight-minute short consisting simply of Rick addressing the camera, in jump cuts, with no B-roll or other footage and no editorial comment except a couple of simple cards at the beginning and end. The film, which I called The Voice of the Prophet, quickly found an audience and began a wide run on the film festival circuit, starting with Sundance, Toronto, DoubleTake, Human Rights Watch, and many others. It was shown at the Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of American History and excerpted on CNN, NBC, CBS, and international television around the world. In November 2001 Ferne and I went down to Virginia to attend another reunion of Ia Drang veterans, and showed The Voice of the Prophet at their annual dinner. For his fellow Skytroopers, many of whom hadn’t seen him in years, Rick’s image and voice must have been like a visitation from beyond the grave, to say nothing of his widow Susan, who was also in attendance, and whom we would get to know in the coming years.

Rick’s remarks were met with wide acclaim, although the comment about “things coming home to roost” raised a few hackles at the time. Of course, Rick had made those remarks three years before the attack; he might well have avoided such a loaded phrase in the immediate aftermath. I can safely say that he never would have blamed the United States for 9/11, any more than one would blame the US for Pearl Harbor, or Israel for the 1972 Munich massacre, or loyalist Spain for Guernica. In any case, Rick Rescorla’s patriotism could never ever be in question.

But his point remains valid. Almost two decades later, the “roosting” remark seems less inflammatory than undeniable. It is hardly “blaming the victim” to understand and acknowledge that misbegotten US foreign policy contributed in part to the rise of the violent anti-Americanism from which the 9/11 attackers sprung. That understanding in no way excuses or forgives or justifies their actions, nor eliminates other contributing factors. But it does help us understand those actions, which is crucial if we hope to prevent such enmity and such attacks in the future. To do otherwise is willful ignorance: stubborn, arrogant, head-in-the-sand self-destructiveness that is almost juvenile in nature. Sadly, it is that mentality, rather than Rick’s wiser one born of hard-earned first-person experience, that is currently ascendant. To me, the short film is at once a memorial to the man, a record of his startling foresight, and an eerie call to his countrymen from the beyond the grave, demanding sober self-examination and even-tempered statesmanship in place of arrogant chauvinism.

For those who seek a true understanding of September 11th in hopes of preventing such horrors in the future, few speak with the moral weight of a man whose ashes now lay at Ground Zero—an immigrant to this country, I hasten to note, who gave his very life for it. We throw the word “hero” around very loosely in our culture, but it does not rightly belong to professional athletes, entertainers, or hedge fund billionaires, let alone to draft dodging sociopathic reality TV con artists. It does belong to Rick Rescorla.

Hal Moore was right—statues have been erected to far lesser men.

And Rick was right too. The real heroes are dead.

*******

Photo: Peter Arnett

Rick Rescorla Memorial website: http://rickrescorla.com/

The Fiasco to Come

161021-bush_gore-0413_6a2cadb686e27862b813c37c3d63ac18.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

I am a great fan of the podcaster Leon Neyfakh, whose two seasons of “Slow Burn” for Slate—the first about Watergate, the second about the impeachment of Bill Clinton—were riveting, and even more than that, highly instructive about our present moment. (See Slow Burn Is the Greatest Takedown of the Trump Presidency Yet, April 21, 2018.)

Now podcasting on the new platform Luminary, young Mr. Neyfakh’s latest is called “Fiasco,” and tells the tale of the chaotic 2000 presidential election and its ultimate resolution in the US Supreme Court. Again, Leon has picked a topic that could not be more relevant to the current state of play, all without ever uttering the dreaded name of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Man, can that boy pick ‘em.

Like his Watergate opus, Neyfakh’s latest offers a dark omen of what might well be to come; I highly recommend a deep dive to savor its pleasures. But at the end of the proverbial day, the core of “Fiasco” comes down to two essential points:

First, that the entire narrative of the 2000 election—the idea that Bush won and Gore was trying to overturn that result—was a fraud. An immensely effective fraud, but a fraud nonetheless.

And second, in the battle to make that fraudulent narrative a reality, the Republican Party brought brass knuckles, machine guns, flamethrowers, and a ferocious determination to win at all costs.

The Democratic Party brought acoustic guitars and a naïve belief in the rule of law.

OK, that’s not quite fair. There were plenty of hardnosed political pros on the Gore side who fought tooth and nail—like the brilliant Ron Klain, a young Jeremy Bash, and the flamboyant David Boies (currently embroiled in a mano a mano battle with Alan Dershowitz in the Jeffrey Epstein case). But there is no denying that time and again, at almost every turn in fact, the Democratic side consistently chose the most moderate, discreet, respectful approach, while the Republican team went balls out, unconcerned about breaking norms or the long term consequences for the country, and with absolutely no shame about being stone cold hypocrites. We all saw how that worked out.

What we didn’t really know was that it was going to be the template for all Republican politics going forward, forever and ever amen. And will be again in 2020.

DOING THE NUMBERS

For those too young to remember, or so old enough that they have begun to forget, here are the broad strokes.

On Election Night 2000, it became clear that Florida’s 25 electoral votes would decide the next President of the United States. Neither candidate could win without them.

Around 8pm Eastern Time, all four of the major broadcast networks called Florida for Gore (including Fox, which was only four years old at the time). The Bush team was distraught—and furious, as the polls were still open in the state’s heavily conservative panhandle, which was in Central Time. Their argument was that this was a hasty and premature conclusion that would tend to influence those who had not yet voted and thus prejudice the true result—a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was also the issue of absentee ballots, which they figured would skew heavily their way.

In short, they wanted all the votes counted before a winner was declared.

The broadcast news unanimity gave the appearance of certitude: all four networks agreed! But that was an illusion. The networks had all made this call based on data from the same company, one they jointly owned (along with CNN) called Voter News Service. It’s true that each network had the freedom to interpret that data as it wished, but it wasn’t four different statistical models saying Gore was going to win: it was only one. And given the competition for eyeballs, there was intense pressure to be first to make a call, far more than there was to get it right.

In fact, Bush was actually slightly ahead at the time the first network called Florida for his rival, but VNS’s model predicted that Gore would overtake him, and the company was very confident in the numbers it was seeing.

But by 10pm the model had shifted, and now showed Bush and Gore neck and neck, prompting all four networks to put Florida back in the “too close to call” column. (Not coincidentally, in the interim, the Bush team had mounted an all-out PR offensive, including TV appearances by the likes of Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich and even an unusual public statement by the candidate himself. But the change was driven by VNS’s algorithm, even if the Republican outcry put on the pressure.)

Here’s where it gets sketchy.

At 2am ET, with 96% of all the votes counted in Florida, VNS showed Bush ahead by a scant 29,000 votes. VNS’s boss, a statistician named Murray Edelman, was advising all the networks that the state remained too close to call, in keeping with a pre-Election Day memo he had circulated cautioning against jumping the gun when the margin was razor thin. Now they were in that precise situation.

But at 2:16am, Fox called Florida for Bush, disregarding Edelman’s warning. Eager to keep up, NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN soon followed suit. The man in charge of the “decision desk” at Fox who made that call was named John Ellis, and he had been in regular contact with the Bush campaign—and family—all night.

Because he was George Bush’s first cousin.

(Ironically, it was later revealed that a data entry error by VNS had mistakenly inflated Bush’s lead by 22,000 votes just before Fox put the state in his column.)

FRAMING THE STORY

Once the networks called the state for Bush, the GOP understandably held onto that claim like a dog with its jaws clamped down on a postal carrier’s femur.

But notwithstanding Ellis’s brazen usurpation of the win on his cousin’s behalf, under Florida law a margin of victory of half of a percentage point or less triggered an automatic statewide recount. Bush’s lead—about which had shrunk to a mere 4600 votes as of 3am—was well within that red zone.

So by dawn’s early light it was clear that there was no definitive winner in Florida, despite what the networks were saying, and what Team Bush was saying, and no way for VNS’s statistical model to accurately project one. The state was a complete tossup, with its 25 winner-take-all electoral votes dangling like hanging chads (we’ll get to that in a moment) as the difference between hearing “Hail to the Chief” and looking for a ghostwriter to pen a bitter memoir of what-might-have-been.

But nonetheless, it became dogma that Bush was the winner and Gore the one disputing the result…..and that was because George Bush’s cousin had established that narrative, and everyone—initially—accepted it.

Even Gore himself bought in. Around 2:30am he had called Bush to concede, and was in his limo on the way to the War Memorial Arena in Nashville to make his concession speech, when frantic staffers called to tell him to stop, because a by-law recount would soon be underway.

Gore called Bush again and “un-conceded” around 3:30 am, but the damage was done and the narrative set. To the right, Gore was a “sore loser” trying to steal an election his opponent had legitimately won. Even the left accepted the premise that Gore was seeking to “overturn” the result. A more aggressive Democratic counterattack might have hammered the idea that Bush was not the winner just because Fox News said so, that that the race remained too close to call, and could be decided only by a full and proper recount.

But once those Republican terms were set and accepted by both sides—once Bush and his team were able to position him as the winner and saddle Gore with the unenviable burden of trying to change the results, in the public mind if not in actual fact—the battle was really over even as it was only beginning.

As far as framing an argument goes, that was a crucial and devastating failure that the Gore team was never able to overcome.

SUNSHINE STATE

The legally-mandated recount was conducted—by machine—within 72 hours, according to Katherine Harris, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State who was in charge of the election, and who would over the course of the affair be vilified for what her critics said was blatant favoritism toward Bush. That recount shrunk Bush’s lead from an already tiny 4600 votes to a microscopic 327 out of six million cast. That difference—5/1000ths of one percent—was so infinitesimal that it led to demands for a hand recount, and raised the very real possibility that a true winner could never be determined.

Bedlam ensued, and supremely weird bedlam at that, befitting the land of Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry.

Continuing with their savvy strategy, Bush’s team cleverly had him continue to act like he had already won. They asked the Clinton White House to allow them to set up a transition office, publicly mused about Cabinet picks, and deployed an army of media surrogates to tut tut on the evening news about what a shame it was that Al Gore wouldn’t just graciously step aside and respect the will of the people. They portrayed any recount or other attempt to question the result—the one that they had unilaterally declared—as at best a nuisance and at worst an affront to our democracy, a would-be coup d’état. In that effort, it didn’t hurt Bush to have Florida’s governor (his brother Jeb) and its Republican Secretary of State (their colleague Katherine) on his side, just as he’d had the head of Fox’s decision desk (his cousin John).

By contrast, concerned with honoring the peaceful transition of power, the Gore team was too cautious and deferential by half, beginning with its aforementioned acceptance of the very premise. Indeed, at nearly every inflection point, the Democrats chose not to fight or to challenge Republican assertions or decisions by state authorities or the courts that did not go their way.

Which was a tragically lost opportunity, because for once the Democratic Party had a simple, ready-for-prime-time message: let every vote count! Ironically, that was what the Republicans had been saying at 8pm on Election Night; now, when it served their purposes, the GOP had done a 180. Seeking to preserve the canard of a Bush win, the Republicans wanted the recount stopped—which is to say, they didn’t want to make sure every vote was properly counted.

When a limited hand recount was ordered nonetheless, the GOP argued for strict, absolute adherence to the rules, which meant discounting ballots that, for instance, were clearly intended for a given candidate but had failed to completely punch through the perforated box: the infamous “dimpled,” “pregnant,” and “hanging chads.” That rigorous standard would have been fine…..except that the Republicans again shamelessly reversed themselves when it helped their cause to do so. When a trove of absentee ballots arrived from US military personnel overseas—ballots that were likely to break heavily for Bush—the GOP furiously demanded that they be counted even though many of them were mismarked, unsigned, or submitted after the deadline: transgressions that they refused to allow in constituencies that were likely to go for Gore. When the Democrats timidly noted the hypocrisy in that stance, the GOP set its collective hair on fire, accusing Gore’s camp of “disrespecting the troops.” The Democrats meekly acquiesced.

As Neyfakh says, the Republicans weren’t afraid of looking like hypocrites: they were afraid of losing.

That’s a scorched earth mentality that has become GOP gospel ever since.

THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON

Then there was the infamous “butterfly ballot.”

The heavily Jewish community of Palm Beach County inexplicably delivered a jawdropping number of votes for the openly anti-Semitic third party candidate (and former Nixon speechwriter) Pat Buchanan. The reason soon became clear. Palm Beach had arranged its ballot in a confusing fashion, with the candidates staggered on two pages, like the wings of a butterfly. It was obvious that many citizens intending to vote for Gore had accidentally voted for Buchanan, as even Buchanan himself acknowledged. In a race as close as Florida’s, that screwup alone might have been enough to tilt the election to Gore.

At one point, as the hand recount continued, Republican operatives organized a group of young conservatives to protest outside the offices where the Palm Beach recount was taking place. Those protestors got rowdy, shouting and banging on windows, badly rattling the three-person team of officials trying to conduct the recount on the other side of the door…. so much so that the next day the county announced that it was abandoning the effort: a huge victory for the GOP and for mob rule. Because of Young Republican / Oxford-shirt-and-khakis look of the mob, it was later dubbed “the Brooks Brothers riot.”

Later, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature suggested that, given the chaos, it ought to just step in and decide the winner, on the straight-faced grounds that if the election were not certified in time, the state’s electoral votes would not be counted at all and its six million voters would go unrepresented. So Florida’s Republican state legislators thought it would be better to throw those votes out themselves and just give the election to Bush.

Similarly, an arcane legal process was considered that might have resulted in Florida delivering two different electoral vote counts, forcing the election to be decided in the US Senate, where the President of the Senate (the sitting Vice President of the United States) would choose whether to award those 25 electoral votes—and thereby the White House—to the Democrat or the Republican.

Under the US Constitution, the man making that call would have been Vice President Al Gore.

Gore, institutionalist that he was, knew that such an action would precipitate national outrage and a cloud over his presidency. Accordingly, he directed his team to abandon the legal strategy that might have led to that situation.

But imagine if it had been Vice President Dick Cheney in that position. Does anyone really believe he would have exercised that same discretion, putting the long term well-being of the republic over personal power and partisan politics? Not in a million years would Heartless Dick have even considered forgoing the chance to seize power just because it would have looked bad.

MARGIN CALL

As noted before, because the margin of victory for either candidate was inevitably going to be smaller than the margin of error—a few hundred votes out of six million—we could not then (nor even now) ever truly know who “won” Florida. In that case, perhaps the best thing would have been to nullify all of its 25 winner-take-all electoral votes. True, that would have denied Floridians a voice in choosing the 43rd president of the United States, as the state legislature claimed to fear. But at least it would have avoided having that voice raised incorrectly (or at least arbitrarily) in favor of the wrong candidate.

That option would, however, have led down an even weirder path.

Discounting Florida would have left Bush with 246 electoral votes and Gore with 267, both shy of the 270 necessary to win. Per the 12th Amendment to the US Constitution, that would have thrown the contest into the US House of Representatives (much as the “double vote” would have thrown it into the Senate). There, the narrow Republican majority in the House would likely have still delivered the election to Bush, but it would have at least been a logical and consistent process.

But none of those surreal scenarios came to pass. Instead, inevitably, the case wound up in the courts, where the issue became whether or not to allow the hand recount to continue. Eventually the question made its way to the highest court on the land, where—surprise!—the five justices named by Republican presidents outvoted their four liberal colleagues and effectively awarded the Presidency of the United States to George W. Bush.

The 5-4 decision was a shameless partisan split, of course, and even worse than it looks.

With their votes, the conservative justices were handing the presidency to Bush, and they knew it. But the progressive justices were not trying to hand it to Gore: they were merely advocating for a full recount to continue (or perhaps restart, this time in a uniform manner). That might have still given Bush the win, or it might have given it to Gore—who knows? That was the whole point of counting.

But the conservative justices were in a rush to conclude the recount, even if that meant stopping it while still in progress. Gee, I wonder why?

This is standard practice for an authoritarian state putting on the charade of a free election: halting the vote count when it looks like the Dear Leader might lose. (For a master class, see Ferdinand Marcos.)

I am not arguing that the United States, or even just the Florida, was a police state in 2000. I am merely saying that the dynamics of one were blatantly in play. By stopping the recount for the most specious of reasons, the conservative justices were allowing the victory to go to the candidate who had simply arbitrarily claimed it, and who just happened to be their preferred man.

COURTING DISASTER

As Leon Neyfakh pointedly notes, notwithstanding the inevitable handful of cynics and dirty tricksters, almost everyone involved in the Florida recount believed then—and still maintains now—that they acted honorably and in the interest of the public good. A prime example is Katherine Harris’s insistence to Neyfakh in a contemporary interview that she actually gave the recount extra time above and beyond what the law required, until he politely confronted her with evidence that she had in fact done quite the opposite, and used the power of her office to curtail the recount when she didn’t have to. Harris was flummoxed, as the idealized false memory of her own partisan behavior was bluntly exposed. Such are the stories we tell ourselves in order to sleep at night.

We can assume that the members of the Rehnquist Court were subject to that same dynamic. For all their wisdom, the justices are human, and here—as in many Court decisions—we see a suspicious pattern of seeking rationalizations for outcomes that favor their respective ideological bents.

Few justices in recent memory have been so consistently culpable on that count as Antonin Scalia. Among the reasons that Scalia cited in blocking the recount—incredibly, but not surprisingly—was the fear that Bush’s win would be tainted as illegitimate even if he were ultimately declared the winner, no matter the importance of a fair reckoning of the vote. (I refer you back to the thought experiment involving Mr. Cheney, faced with those same circumstances.)

That logic presupposed that a recount was unnecessary in the first place. But even from a purely practical point of view it was absurd. How a man so ostensibly brilliant (we are constantly told) could not see that a victory delivered by a 5-4 party line vote in the Supreme Court would also look tainted remains a mystery that would stump Sherlock Holmes. Or perhaps Nino just did not care.

In the years after Bush v. Gore, Scalia was known to blithely respond to criticism of the decision with the words, “Get over it”—a kind of smug, cavalier attitude that bespeaks his contempt for genuine representative democracy. Yeah, get over it, crybaby liberals: it was just the leadership of the Free World being decided! Needless to say, one cannot imagine Scalia taking that laissez faire attitude if his vote had been in the minority and the Court’s decision had ultimately put Gore in the White House. He certainly didn’t meekly keep his trap shut on other issues he was famously passionate about, like the insinuation of religion in public life. (Spoiler alert: he was for it.)

In his dissent, John Paul Stevens wrote: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

Never were truer words. With Bush v. Gore, the Court’s reputation for being an impartial, honest broker and above politics—never fully deserved over the course of American history, despite the enduring myth and our best hopes—took a severe hit from which it has yet to rebound. Indeed, it has degraded even further since then.

And its biggest test may yet lay ahead, fourteen months from now.

CHRONICLE OF A SHITSHOW FORETOLD

On that point, It hardly needs mentioning the lessons that the 2000 election holds for 2020. Let’s start with the top two:

First, it shows the paramount importance of controlling the narrative—which is to say, spin. The modern Republican Party excels at that, given its inherent lack of principle, win-at-all-costs mentality, and penchant for simplistic but catchy sloganeering, even if the slogans are wantonly dishonest. We cannot again cede them the narrative or the terms of the fight.

Second, it suggests that Republicans will again do anything and everything to win in 2020, legal and illegal, and that we have to be prepared to fight back. I am not trying to engage in hindsight, or cast aspersions on decisions made twenty years ago in a different set of circumstances. But in the current political climate, if we adopt the overcautious, institutionalist approach of the Gore campaign, we will lose and deserve to. For as bad as 2000 was, 2020 is shaping up to be even worse.

Now we have not just a garden variety Republican candidate the way we did twenty years ago, but a brazen criminal pretender to the throne who is already in office and desperate to stay there: a man who ascended to the presidency 34 months ago with the assistance of a hostile foreign power (which he welcomed, and indicated that he will again); who has shown utter contempt for democracy and not only a willingness to trample the rule of law but a gleefulness in doing so; who has openly mused about a third term and even the appeal of being “president-for-life”; who has suggested he might not accept the results of the election if he loses; and who has hinted that his supporters may rise up in violent unrest should he be unseated—a none-too-subtle winking at them to do so.

In light of all that, to NOT anticipate an attempt by Trump to contest or even steal the upcoming election would be foolhardy.

What is to stop him? Let us not forget that the contemporary Republican Party is even more venal and extremist than its turn-of- the-millennium incarnation. Does anyone seriously think that if Donald Trump contests the 2020 vote, or worse, balks at refusing to leave the White House in January 2021, Mitch McConnell will man up, pull out a copy of the Constitution, and march into the Oval Office and tell him he has to do the right thing? (Pause here for hysterical laughter.)

Or will Mitch find some convoluted, transparently dishonest reason to defend that action, one that he will deliver with his usual straight, chinless face? Over the past three years McConnell has made it very clear that he will do everything he can, howlingly hypocritical or not, to maintain and maximize Republican power. I refer you to his recent remark that if a vacancy on the Supreme Court were to emerge in Trump’s last year in office, the Republican majority in the Senate would absolutely confirm and seat his nominee, the precedent of Merrick Garland be damned, exposed for the sham and the travesty we all knew it was from the jump.

So if you are counting on Mitch McConnell to come to the rescue of American democracy should Trump go full Mugabe, you’re living in a fantasy world.

Or perhaps you think the Supreme Court will step in and settle a contested election, force a defeated Trump out, or otherwise maintain order? We’re talking about a highly conservative, Republican-dominated Supreme Court with a 5-4 majority much more right wing than the one in 2000, including two justices named by Trump himself (so far), a Court that has almost always backed this president*, even when he’s done his level best to make it hard for them do so, as with the Muslim ban.

I am unconvinced that the right wing members of this Court will have a sudden attack of integrity.

And even if the Roberts & Co. somehow surprise us all, would Trump care? If he would try to defy the SCOTUS on a census question, do you doubt that the would defy it when his own criminal jeopardy is at stake?

THE BARRICADES ARE CALLING

So let us make no mistake: not only Donald Trump but the entire GOP has no intention of surrendering power in 2020, no matter what happens at the polls. (See Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)?July 23, 2018)

Alarmism? Hysteria? Trump Derangement Syndrome? OK, if you say so. But history suggests that alarmism is well advised here, as this administration has consistently proven to be much, much worse than even the most pessimistic predictions. Time and again Republicans have sneered at warnings of how dangerous and destructive Trump might be and how far he might go, repeatedly suggesting that his critics were overwrought Cassandras. But I would remind you that we now have concentration camps on our southern border.

In one sense, these Trump defenders are inadvertently correct, though not in the way they intend. The term “Cassandra” has gone into common usage in complete opposition to its actual meaning, often slung about as an insult to someone making a poor and reckless prediction. But in Greek mythology, the prophetess Cassandra was cursed to be right, but not believed.

So how should we prepare for this potential crisis, one that no living American has ever experienced, and that promises to dwarf the fiasco of 2000?

On that count, the “Brooks Brothers riot” of that election debacle is instructive. When I first heard that story, I was incensed. Could there be a more egregious example of anti-democratic thuggery? But there is another way to look at it. Those Young Republican protestors fully expected to be met by an equally large force of equally passionate Democratic counterprotestors. If they had been, the result might well have been very different. But they weren’t. Yes, their actions amounted to brazen intimidation, but only because no one stepped up to push back. A bevy of loud, adamant Young Democrats defending the Palm Beach recount and shouting down the GOP’s frat boy/Laura Ashley contingent might have encouraged the local officials to keep at it rather than surrendering. So the success of the Brooks Brothers riot is really on Team Gore. If Trump were to try to steal the 2020 election and a rowdy group of young anti-Trump partisans went down to loudly protest outside the place where a recount was taking place, I would applaud them.

I am not advocating that we become hypocrites or trample over the rule of law as the Republican Party of 2000 did……or the Republican Party of 2019 routinely does. But I am saying that we must expect the GOP to behave in that manner (and much worse) no matter what happens on November 3, 2020, and that we need to be prepared to fight back as ferociously as possible within the framework of the law. Where they go outside the law—and do you doubt that they will?—we must be prepared to counter that as well, with legal strategies, with political and public relations offensives, and if necessary, with civil disobedience. I stress the word “civil.”

If we can’t muster the kind of fervor and determination that we didn’t in 2000, we deserve to lose again, even if the other side cheats.

But first we have to beat Trump at the polls—by no means a sure thing. We can’t have a constitutional crisis in which Trump refuses to leave office unless and until he loses in the first place.

We may come to look back on this period of Democratic primaries and routine business-as-usual talk of electoral strategy as the calm before the proverbial storm, an interval of tragic naiveté in which we foolishly thought the customary mechanisms of American representative democracy would operate as we have come to expect (sort of), and that the Democratic candidate could oust Trump in a legitimate, fair election.

But if the events of the past three years have taught is anything—not to mention the twenty years of Gingrichian prologue prior to that—it is that the modern Republican Party is no longer interested in representative democracy, and no longer feels constrained by the rule of law.

I hope that, in retrospect, from the perspective of January 21, 2021, this essay looks absurd. (I’m sure many conservatives think it already does.) I would welcome that ridicule after the fact. But for now, the prudent course of action, to borrow a favorite word of the late George H.W. Bush, would be to assume the worst of the Grand Old Party, and to prepare for a battle that will make the Florida recount of 2000 look like a Fourth of July picnic.

You heard it here first.

Your friend, Cassandra

*********

Photo by Jeff Mitchell, Reuters

 

 

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.

*********

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.

**********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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?

*********

“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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.”

*********

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.

*********

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.”

*********

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.

*********

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.”

*********

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.”

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

“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.

*********

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?

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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?

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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.”

*********

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.

*********

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.

*********

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

*********

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.