“She Worked for Me”

Aretha

In the three and a half years since he descended that golden staircase to begin his marathon defecation on American democracy, Donald Trump and his retinue have given us some memorable phrases.

“Fake news.” “Alternative facts.” “Bigly.” “Covfefe.” “I like people who weren’t captured.” “Little Rocket Man.” An attack on our country.” “Very fine people on both sides.” “A 400 pound guy sitting on his bed.” “Failing New York Times.” “You’re the puppet.” “The likes of which.” “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” “Shithole countries.”

And of course, “Lock her up.” Just to name a few.

But I’d like to focus on one particular phrase of recent vintage, even if it is unlikely to pass into posterity the way some of those others seem destined to.

It came in Trump’s statement on the passing of Aretha Franklin.

But first, a quick recap of the week that was….

WEED IS LEGAL NOW, RIGHT?

Trump had another bad week, which is getting to be a habit to say the least. Mueller’s noose continued to tighten, Nancy Pelosi made him cry, the National Enquirer flipped on him, a Russian spy confessed to infiltrating the NRA, and the incoming New York State AG announced she plans to carry his severed head around Manhattan on a pike. There were even signs of tiny fissures in the Republicans’ Great Big Dike of Denial (let’s not get our hopes up), and Trump himself was forced to utter the dreaded “i” word aloud to the press, while privately telling confidants that he is indeed worried about the possibility of being chucked out of office like yesterday’s fish. Hell, he couldn’t even get an ambitious young right wing shitbag like Nick Ayers to sign on for what would normally be considered one of the most desirable jobs in Washington (nor could he lure Chris Christie off his private beach). As of now, it looks like the job of White House Chief of Staff will have to go to Jared, as all jobs eventually must. On the bright side, young Mr. Kushner comes to the position already of the verge of being indicted, so that will save time.

Yeah, not the greatest week ever.

Most notably, of course, President Donald J. Trump is now an unindicted co-conspirator in felonies for which his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is going to federal prison for three years.

In any other era, with the normal rules were in effect, that alone would likely be game over for the administration. But as you may have noticed, the normal rules ain’t in effect. Not by a longshot.

Trump of course dismissed the Cohen payoffs as “peanut stuff,” gave himself another A+ for his performance thus far as president, and counter-factually announced (via Twitter, natch) that Cohen’s confession “Totally clears” the President. Thank you!”

I don’t know what they’re smocking in the West Wing, but it would make Jeff Sessions mighty mad if he were not back at work at the Keebler tree.

THE PARTY OF LAW AND ORDER

At any rate, I am delighted to report that Trump is, by almost any measure, weaker now than at any point in his presidency, except insofar as he is a cornered rat and therefore more dangerous than ever.

Responding to the floodwaters rising around their standard-bearer, Republican legislators were left to scoff—unconvincingly—that Trump’s implication as an unindicted co-conspirator isn’t really a big deal. (Who hasn’t paid off some mistresses to fix a presidential election?) Some who are on their way out the door—like Orrin Hatch—ceased even pretending to believe in the rule of law, brazenly announcing that even if Trump is indeed guilty of federal crimes, they just don’t care.

But the ability of Republicans to dismiss Trump’s crimes and defend him with a straight face (“He gave rich people a huge tax cut!”) is not likely to stand up to scrutiny for very long. At the risk of looking foolish if we are in the same place six months from now, it does feel like the sheer of momentum of criminal revelations is building and beginning to make Trump’s self-erected statue wobble perilously.

It goes without saying that there’s a world of difference between a clerical error in campaign bookkeeping—as some, like Rand Paul and Kevin McCarthy, have shamelessly tried to characterize Trump’s actions—and a deliberate, covert, coordinated effort to defraud the American electorate on the eve of a presidential election to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money to silence a parade of mistresses. Coming as they did hot on the heels of the Access Hollywood tape, the payoffs arguably suppressed information that might well have tipped the election (Michael Lewis and The Undoing Project notwithstanding). Former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal—a conservative, it’s worth noting—described them as the most significant campaign finance violations in American history, and it’s hard to disagree.

So no, this is not jaywalking we’re talking about, much as the GOP would like us to believe otherwise. Hey, some might even say it’s worse than using a private email server.

JUST THE TIP (GET IT?)

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

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

So we can dispense with the idiocy and dishonesty of Trump’s defenders with one simple question:

If the payoffs were neither illegal nor related to the election nor any big deal, why did Trump lie about his knowledge of them, on camera, on Air Force One no less?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANOTHER BRICK IN THE HEAD

I promise I’m going to get to Aretha. I do. But you think the Queen of Soul comes out onstage right away? Let’s have some more opening acts.

The best theater this past week was the rare sight of a public, face-to-face rebuke of the fake president right there in his own Oval Office, with the cameras rolling. Nancy Pelosi kept her cool and showed why she’s the boss—and likely secured her second Speakership—as a flustered Trump repeatedly interrupted and mansplained and basically behaved like a dick. (Stop the presses.)

Pelosi and Schumer also got Trump to go full Colonel Jessup and embrace the Code Red of the looming government shutdown. Generally, one doesn’t want to take credit for something that will leave millions of government employees without paychecks at Christmastime, but remarkably, Trump did.

I watched the whole thing, and while I enjoyed seeing a pair of senior Democrats take the ignoramus-in-chief to task on national television, I have no doubt that the xenophobes and nihilists who comprise Trump’s Twelfth Man came away thinking him the winner, and admiring him even more for his (insane) commitment to building their big, beautiful racist wall. Everything in America is a Rorschach test these days, and a case study in confirmation bias.

That said, it’s clear that even Trump thought he lost that round, based on reports that he left the meeting throwing file folders and yelling at his staff. (Also known around the White House as “Tuesday.”)

And hey, anyway, what happened to that promise that Mexico was gonna pay for the wall? Conveniently forgotten I suppose. In the words of Gomer Pyle, surprise surprise surprise. Since getting his ass handed to him (by—gasp!—a woman), the closest a humiliated Trump came to addressing that broken promise was a characteristically ridiculous tweet with some baffling math about how his new trade deal with Mexico equates to a check from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with “para el muro” in the memo line.

But the mere fact that he even tweeted that suggests he knows people are talking about that famous, fatuous claim, and he feels the need to defend it, however poorly.

The irony, of course, is that even if you think the lunatic, laws-of-physics-defying quest to build a wall to keep brown people out of America is worth shutting down the government over, it’s comical to believe that Trump will keep his promise to own that decision.

Donald Trump said live on national television that he would not blame Schumer and the Democrats if there is a shutdown.

Donald Trump will blame Schumer and the Democrats if there is a shutdown.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Which brings us back to Aretha.

I recently wrote about the death of another pop music icon, David Bowie, and the ways in which freshly deceased pop stars are typically met with a posthumous wave of adulation (fat lot of good that does them). The great Aretha Franklin was no exception.

Except in the aptly named White House.

“I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well,” Trump told his Cabinet in remarks widely circulated soon after her death. “She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific—Aretha Franklin—on her passing. She brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come.”

Let that sink in a moment.

“She worked for me.”

Really??? That’s the central point of Trump’s so-called tribute to Aretha?

It’s not even remotely true, of course, but the real significance is what the comment says about Trump, and by extension, the people who support and admire him.

Aretha Franklin played some concerts at Trump hotel/casinos. That is hardly “working for” Donald Trump. That’s like saying Picasso was an employee of the Prado, or Prince was in the NFL because he played at the Super Bowl. Or me claiming the Fire Department “works for me” because they came to check a gas leak in my building.

Trump’s insistence on that framing of his brief path-crossings with Aretha Franklin speaks to his infantile desire to be the boss of everybody…..even in their own obituary, which, as with all matters on heaven and earth, he somehow managed to make about himself.

As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, Trump cannot conceive of any higher compliment than being graced with his presence. In Trump’s mind, everyone lives only to serve him and bask in his wonderfulness…..and that goes double for women and people of color. (That same disrespect was reflected this week in his clash with Pelosi.)

To give it the most generous possible interpretation, if Trump was merely acknowledging that he had met Ms. Franklin in person (as he did when memorializing G.H.W. Bush) he could have stopped with “a person I knew well.” That was a lie itself, but at least it wasn’t also a despicable racist dig that placed himself in the superior position and Aretha in a servile one.

His disrespect for the Queen of Soul is of a piece with his well-documented contempt for African-Americans in general, and African-American women in particular. Would we expect any less from a rich, obscenely entitled 72-year-old right winger, raised in privilege by a father who played footsie with the Klan and was sued by the federal government for racial discrimination bad enough that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it?

NIL NISI BONUM

We know that Trump is very bad at the ceremonial aspects of his job, particularly when it comes to honoring other human beings or comforting his fellow man in times of grief, and the reason why is clear: because he lacks even the tiniest kernel of human empathy. He relates to others only as servants to his own mythical magnificence. His discomfort with sickness and death and inability to display—or even fake—normal human compassion as consoler-in-chief is yet another way he is manifestly unfit for the duties of the office he unaccountably holds.

Trump’s epoch-shattering pettiness and his astonishing unwillingness to set aside personal differences even when honoring the dead (see also John McCain) is a stark genetic marker of his malignant narcissism. The best he’s done—at George H.W. Bush’s recent funeral—is quietly sulk because he’s not the center of attention…..and in that case only because the Bush family cleverly managed to hem him in with some jiu-jitsu. If Trump fits the famous description of a person who wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral, all I can say is that there are millions of Americans who are with him on the latter count at least.

Even without the pointed barbs that characterized McCain’s funeral—the same weekend as Aretha’s, as it happened—Trump inevitably suffered by comparison at Bush’s memorial as he sat petulantly in the front row while the nation listened to tribute after tribute to the basic personal decency of “41.” (Though we ought not to forgive or forget the role the Bush dynasty played in giving us Trump in the first place, from Willie Horton to the invasion of Iraq.) I don’t exactly know how any of that fits in with Trump’s refusal to recite the Apostles’ Creed. I suspect he thinks Apostles Creed is Carl Weathers’ grandson.

GIFTED AF

Trump, of course, is not alone in his condescending attitude toward a group of people he is wont to call “the blacks.” Playing right into one of the worst and oldest stereotypes of dumbass white people, Fox infamously misidentified Aretha when it broadcast news of her passing, running a photo of Patti LaBelle.

I don’t have the column inches—or patience—to list all of Trump’s public displays of racism (for starters, see: NFL), but one of the worst and most telling of them remains his attacks on the so-called Central Park Five, the young black men convicted of assaulting, raping, and brutalizing a white female jogger in 1989. The five men variously spent from six to thirteen years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. (A serial rapist imprisoned for other crimes confessed and was proven to be the attacker.) Back in ’89, Trump, then just a private citizen and douchebag-about-town, took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York state, with the Central Park jogger case the obvious subtext. (Just in case you thought racism, birtherism, and sticking his big fat nose where it doesn’t belong were new things for Don.)

But much more shocking is the fact that as recently as 2016 Trump continued to insist that the Central Park Five were guilty and ought to be in prison, even though they’ve been indisputably proven innocent and another man confirmed as the perpetrator.

I don’t even know where to begin with that demonstration of unmitigated racism, barbarity, and wholesale contempt for justice and the rule of law. I can only say that it’s appalling that it hasn’t gotten more attention, even as I understand that “outrage fatigue” has never gotten an aerobic workout like the one the Trump era is giving it.

So compared to shit like that, Trump’s megalomania and racism in insulting Aretha Franklin is neither surprising nor near the top of the list of his worst moments. But it’s still galling, especially when deployed in reference to an artist of her gifts.

As a recording artist, live performer, and pure singer, Aretha looms over the soul, R&B, gospel, and rock landscapes so pervasively that it’s hard to imagine contemporary pop music without her influence. You hear it in every melisma and virtuoso multi-octave swoop, from Christina to Whitney to Alicia to anyone else you care to name. But it wasn’t just technical brilliance that set Aretha apart; it was something ineffably transporting. They didn’t call her “the Queen of Soul” just because of her genre.

I am now officially a character from a Steely Dan song:

Hey nineteen, that’s Aretha Franklin

She don’t remember the Queen of Soul

Hard times befallen the soul survivors

She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old….

(Things white people do: quote the most sterile, uptight, male Caucasian rock band of all time in paying tribute to one of the earthiest African-American female vocal goddesses ever to hit a high C.)

Clearly, Aretha’s gifts are beyond Trump’s ability to comprehend or comment upon. (Hell, Milli Vanilli’s gifts are beyond that.) I don’t think anyone expected soaring, poetic rhetoric from the Donald in memorializing one of the greatest and most influential singers of the past century, but what he did say was even worse than I anticipated. Once again, every time I think he’s hit rock bottom, Trump has managed to surprise me by beginning to dig.

That’s why “She worked for me” has stuck with me, amid all of Trump’s other appalling turns of phrase. It’s no news flash that Donald Trump is a racist, a misogynist, and a small, small man. But every once in a while we get a perfect little economic encapsulation of all those things.

So there you have it. Trumpism—your one-stop shop for racism, sexism, classism, and narcissism.

Rest in peace, Aretha. When comes such another?

*********

Español advisor: Odette Cabrera Duggan

Drinking the Flavor-Aid (and Yes, I Mean Flavor-Aid)

President-Trump-Touts-Foreign-Policy-Accomplishments-on-Asia-Trip-Washington-USA-15-Nov-2017 copy

Who says there’s a war on Christmas? This year it came early. Sing hallelujah!

These days every week brings what feels like a month’s worth of news by pre-2016 standards, but even within that this past week stood out. We had barely begun to absorb the horrific images of US law enforcement agents firing CS gas at barefoot refugee children when the bizarre tale of Paul Manafort’s deceit overtook it, accompanied by the intrigue surrounding Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, and Julian Assange, and then that was obliterated by Michael Cohen’s surprise court appearance where he dropped an atomic bomb with his confessions about Trump’s business dealings in Russia.

We also saw the putative leader of the free world continuing to refuse to hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accountable for the grisly murder of a US-based journalist, a grinning lynching enthusiast win a US Senate seat in Mississippi, GM make a mockery of Republicans’ fake concern for “ordinary working people,” and lest we forget, Trump turn in his take-home test to the special counsel, containing what promise to be numerous potentially presidency-ending lies. As Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith might say, give ‘em enough rope….

But Mike Cohen made them all footnotes.

Post-midterms, it is clear that the Mueller probe is accelerating—or perhaps more accurately, now playing some very big face cards Bob has been heretofore holding close to his chest. It can’t come soon enough.

IN TODAY’S PERFORMANCE, THE PART OF JOHN DEAN WILL BE PLAYED BY MICHAEL COHEN

The Cohen plea reveals that—surprise!—Trump baldly lied to the American people over and over again during the presidential campaign in insisting that he had ABSOLUTELY NO business connections, arrangements, or other interests in Russia, when in fact he was trying to negotiate a multi-hundred million dollar real estate deal to build a “Trump Tower” in Moscow. As the cherry on top, we also learned that, in hopes of currying favor and enticing other oligarchs to buy apartments there, he planned to give Vladimir Putin the tower’s $50 million penthouse as a goodwill gesture (sometimes known as a “bribe”).

Ever since Russiagate first began, a lot of people have joked that even if there were proof of Trump and Putin exchanging a bag of cash, the GOP and Trump’s base would not admit any conspiracy between the two.

Does this do it, guys?

We now understand why Trump has been so blatantly, bootlickingly solicitous of Moscow, an enduring mystery for the past three years. Though several journalists have been laying out the financial case for months now, plea documents with the special counsel’s signature on them really drive the point home. A huge piece of the puzzle has thus fallen into place. Now that we have this definitive answer, much of the rest of Russiagate is pretty easy to grasp.

We don’t yet know the extent or details of Trump’s collaboration with Russia in illegally trying to swing the election—collusion, as it is commonly known—but little of it promises to be good news for the Trump family. The bombshell Guardian report that Manafort visited to Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy during the 2016 campaign was especially stunning. If this were a spy movie and two of the key players met IN PERSON like that, you’d walk out of the theatre in disgust before the credits even rolled. But you don’t have to have read many le Carré novels to think that the “accidental” disclosure that Julian Assange has been indicted was no accident at all, and the German authorities’ raid of Deutsche Bank—Moscow’s go-to drycleaner for money-laundering and Trump’s personal ATM when no one else would loan him any more cash—on the same day as Cohen’s court appearance was no coincidence.

For those who have scoffed that there was no collusion—including a certain orange-hued lunatic in Washington—the Moscow Tower revelations suggest that the truth might be even more astonishing (and damning) than anyone imagined. If Trump would lie about his business dealings with Russia—and no one was remotely surprised that he would—would it be any surprise to learn that he would also secretly conspire with the Kremlin to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, hack into the DNC server (or at least obtain the fruit of that hacking), and otherwise utilize covert Russian help to help win the election?

We didn’t really need the Cohen plea to tell us that. Everyone knows Trump is not above such skullduggery. Even Trump supporters—even Trump himself—have not argued that he’s above it. The most they have argued is that he didn’t actually do it. But every day brings more evidence that he did, and why.

DOTS, CONNECTED

As Rachel Maddow reported in a widely admired segment last Friday, the secret Moscow Tower project and the case for collusion appear to be inherently connected. In short:

Trump was secretly trying to make a real estate deal with the Kremlin worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to be financed by the phenomenally shady state-controlled Russian bank VTB, while shamelessly claiming to the American people that he had no business dealings in Russia whatsoever. (Nota bene: That alone ought to be a presidency-ending revelation.)

In order for that to happen, however, sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to the annexation of Crimea had to be lifted. On the campaign trail, Trump was therefore actively advocating for the lifting of those sanctions without giving the real reason why.

Having thus compromised Trump and achieved that kind of control over him, Moscow then set about in earnest helping get their asset elected. In light of that, it’s all but impossible to believe that Trump and his campaign were not also actively involved in that effort as well.  (It is no coincidence that the first member of the Trump administration to get in hot water, his then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, did so for lying both to Congress and the FBI about secret contacts with the Kremlin surrounding that very issue.)

This story promises to hit with even more force when it is delivered by the special counsel, which will likely begin this week as the Mueller team delivers documents related to both Flynn and Manafort.

But while we await that, let us ponder the significance of the fact that Donald Trump told the biggest and most profound lie in the history of American presidential politics. Difficult as it is to fathom, the question we are faced with is: does it matter? In other words, why don’t Trump supporters care abut something as indisputably wrong as this?

AS I LAY LYING

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

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

The same cannot be said of lying.

No one can credibly say that baldy lying to the American people—repeatedly, shamelessly, in ways that gravely endanger national security and compromise the legitimacy of a presidential election—is OK. So his supporters are left with two responses:

1) “It’s not a lie.” This option requires willful denial of reality, as it’s not just Cohen’s word that must be overcome, but the documentary evidence that the special counsel has assembled to support his plea.

2) “OK, it’s a lie, but it’s not a big deal.” Per above, that assertion is patently false in the worst possible way. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is a very big deal for the ostensible leader of the so-called free world to bluntly deny to the American people that he was in cahoots with a hostile foreign power, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

This disingenuous shrug of an argument is usually buttressed (cough cough) with the claim that “all politicians lie.” Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t, but not all lies are created equal, and this one is about the biggest lie imaginable. Careers, liberty, and indeed lives have been lost over far smaller falsehoods. Imagine if Hillary or Obama yada yada yada…..

Trump himself has essentially adopted option #2, dismissing the revelations as trivial while adding a twist that is the most dishonest of all, the kind in which he specializes: pretending he never lied in the first place.

I don’t think I’ve yet heard a journalist confront him with his untold previous claims that he had no business in Russia and ask him to defend them. If they did, I suspect he would continue to act as the newly revealed facts are so petty as to not be of any significance. He’s flagrantly wrong, of course, as shown by the glaring flaw inherent in that stance:

If these business relationships with the Russian government were no big deal, WHY DID HE GO TO SUCH EPIC LENGTHS TO HIDE THEM?

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

To say that now is not the same thing.

There’s a big, barreling answer to that “So what?” The conflict of interest baked into that sort of foreign entanglement is self-evident, and the emoluments clause (not to mention common sense) makes it explicit.

But even beyond that, business arrangements with a foreign power become a much bigger deal when you hide them……and you hide them because you know they’re wrong and damaging if not outright disqualifying. And—here comes the irony—hiding them and lying about them makes them even more disqualifying because of the potential for exploitation and extortion by those foreign powers, who now who have leverage over the President of the United States.

And that, in terms of compromise of national security, is a Grand Canyon-sized problem, no matter how much Trump’s craven defenders try to downplay it.

One of Trump’s most consistent defenders, Alan Dershowitz, did admit last week that Cohen’s confessions “could suggest that Trump wasn’t telling the public the whole truth about the Moscow deal.”

Ya think? That kind of laughable spin says it all about the sad twilight of Alan Dershowitz, but it says even more about the denial that Trump’s supporters are in. “Wasn’t telling the whole truth” suggests some slight shading of the facts, typically by omission. But what we’ve seen from Trump since the moment these Russian allegations first emerged have been full-throated, indignant, howls of denial and scorn for the very accusation.

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

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

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

D-FENCE

So unless one is willing to sign on for citizenship in cloud cuckoo land, we are left with the escapable conclusion that there is no real defense for Trump’s lies about his business dealings with Russia.

How, then, do his defenders shrug those lies off?

I have been asking myself questions like that for more than two years now. Only in the past week or two have I begun to have any semblance of understanding.

Chris Hedges recently published a piece in Truthdig called “The Cult of Trump.”

He didn’t mean it metaphorically.

Hedges outlines the dictionary definition of a cult and the ways in which Trump and his followers meet it:

Cult leaders arise from decayed communities and societies in which people have been shorn of political, social and economic power. The disempowered, infantilized by a world they cannot control, gravitate to cult leaders who appear omnipotent and promise a return to a mythical golden age. The cult leaders vow to crush the forces, embodied in demonized groups and individuals, that are blamed for their misery. The more outrageous the cult leaders become, the more they flout law and social conventions, the more they gain in popularity. Cult leaders are immune to the norms of established society. This is their appeal. Cult leaders demand a God-like power. Those who follow them grant them this power in the hope that the cult leaders will save them.

The cult leader grooms followers to speak in the language of hate and violence. The cult leader constantly paints a picture of an existential threat, often invented, that puts the cult followers in danger.

The cult leader does not take his or her statements seriously and often denies ever making them, even when they are documented. Lies and truth do not matter. The language of the cult leader is designed exclusively to appeal to the emotional needs of those in the cult.

Cult leaders are narcissists. They demand obsequious fawning and total obedience. They prize loyalty above competence. They wield absolute control. They do not tolerate criticism. They are deeply insecure, a trait they attempt to cover up with bombastic grandiosity. They are amoral and emotionally and physically abusive. They see those around them as objects to be manipulated for their own empowerment, enjoyment and often sadistic entertainment. All those outside the cult are branded as forces of evil, prompting an epic battle whose natural expression is violence.

In other words, Trumpism is a literal cult.

Once I began to think of it that way, I felt a little bit better.

Of course, this diagnosis doesn’t appreciably change the perilous situation in which we find ourselves. Indeed, in some ways it makes it much scarier. But it relieves me of the self-imposed duty to TALK SOME SENSE INTO THESE MOTHERFUCKERS! YOU BENIGHTED SUCKERS! DO YOU NOT SEE WHAT A SHAM, WHAT A HYPOCRITE, WHAT A MONSTER YOUR HERO IS?????

Trump supporters, I can hear you saying how self-righteous, sanctimonious, and holier-than-thou I am being, and you’re not wrong. It’s just that thou art so easier to be holier than.

Like many Americans, I have long been frustrated by the impossibility of having a rational argument with most Trump backers—a phenomenon I have written about several times in these pages (see The Death of Hypocrisy and Things Trump Supporters Have Taught Me). This impossibility, of course, is largely a function of Trump’s Orwellian campaign to obliterate objective reality as a metric universally agreed upon—what we used to quaintly call “the truth.”

Viewing Trumpism as a cult is the next logical step in that progression. I highly recommend it: it will save you a fortune in Zoloft.

That is why Trump playing exponentially more golf than Obama does not move his supporters. Nor his blowing up deficit, nor cozying up to dictators, nor trashing the Iran deal and making a ludicrously worse one with North Korea, nor Ivanka’s private email server—and Jared’s, and Reince’s, and Stephen Miller’s—and her claim that she had no idea that was a problem. None of it does. And neither will the revelation of his blatant lies about the Moscow Tower project.

KULTURKAMPF

Hedges quotes the famous psychoanalyst Joost A.M. Meerloo, in his acclaimed 1956 book The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing:

“Logic can be met with logic, while illogic cannot—it confuses those who think straight. The Big Lie and monotonously repeated nonsense have more emotional appeal in a cold war than logic and reason. While the enemy is still searching for a reasonable counter-argument to the first lie, the totalitarians can assault him with another.”

The cult leader, unlike a traditional politician, makes no effort to reach out to his opponents. The cult leader seeks to widen the divisions. The leader brands those outside the cult as irredeemable. The leader seeks the omnipotence to crush those who do not kneel in adoration. The followers, yearning to be protected and empowered by the cult leader, seek to give the cult leader omnipotence. Democratic norms, an impediment to the leader’s omnipotence, are attacked and abolished. Those in the cult seek to be surrounded by the cult leader’s magical aura. Reality is sacrificed for fantasy. Those who challenge the fantasy are not considered human. They are Satanic.

I admire Hedges’ work, although I’m not sure he would return the compliment. A scathing critic of mainstream liberalism, he decries the “smug, self-righteousness of this crusade against Trump,” one that he believes contributes to this cycle of madness. At least on that count, I am sure I fit squarely within the demographic he derides. For my money, the credibility of a critique like that is undermined by some of his other arguments, like his recent defense of Julian Assange, which portrayed the Wikileaks founder as a valiant defender of transparency and antagonist to oligarchy while conveniently ignoring the ways in which he has eagerly served as a bagman for Vladimir Putin.

But fair play: Hedges’ framing of Trumpism as a literal cult is the most accurate characterization of the current moment that I have yet read.

Hedges quotes Meerloo again:

“(The dictator) sees no value in any other person and feels no gratitude for any help he may have received. He is suspicious and dishonest and believes that his personal ends justify any means he may use to achieve them. Peculiarly enough, every tyrant still searches for some self-justification. Without such a soothing device for his own conscience, he cannot live. His attitude toward other people is manipulative; to him, they are merely tools for the advancement of his own interests.”

Behavior that ensures the destruction of a public figure’s career does not affect a cult leader. It does not matter how many lies uttered by Trump are meticulously documented by The New York Times or The Washington Post. It does not matter that Trump’s personal financial interests, as we see in his relationship with the Saudis, take precedence over the rule of law, diplomatic protocols and national security. It does not matter that he is credibly charged by numerous women with being a sexual predator, a common characteristic of cult leaders. It does not matter that he is inept, lazy and ignorant. The establishment, whose credibility has been destroyed because of its complicity in empowering the ruling oligarchy and the corporate state, might as well be blowing soap bubbles at Trump. Their vitriol, to his followers, only justifies the hatred radiating from the cult.

TRANSUBSTANTIATION, ANYONE?

On the subject of cults, we just passed the 40thanniversary of the Jonestown massacre, an episode that gave us the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But as numerous scolds have noted, the poisoned drink Jim Jones’ followers quaffed down in the Guyanese jungle was actually Kool-Aid’s cut-rate competitor Flavor-Aid (much to the consternation of Kraft Foods). In that regard, Kool-Aid is a victim of its own success, like other brand names that are so dominant that they have become “genericized,” like Thermos, Xerox, Band-Aid, and Velcro. (Fun fact: once upon a time, refrigerator, aspirin, and zipper were also brand names.)

For those who want to get into the weeds, Chris Higgins mounted a vigorous argument against the whole phrase in the pages of the Atlantic six years ago, taking in Ken Kesey, the science of neologisms, and the evidence that there were in fact some Kool-Aid packets mixed among the Flavor-Aid. (For completists only.)

Whatever the drink, the phrase has never been more apt for American life than right now, so it’s equally fitting for our Trumpian post-truth era that its genesis is grounded in inaccuracy.

What distinguishes a cult from a religion anyway? Only the size of its following and its seniority—a favorite point of Bill Maher. Neither Mormonism, with its magic underwear, nor—even newer—Scientology, with its souls of dead aliens, are arguably more wacko in their beliefs and more destructive in their histories of violence than numerous older, more established religions. (I’m looking at you, Catholicism.)

Notably, Hedges himself is a recently ordained Presbyterian minister.

A cult represents a kind of mass psychosis, typically affecting a small, self-selecting group, like the Branch Davidians, or the People’s Temple, or others who immediately come to mind when the term is invoked. But cults can also be large, and secular, like the thrall in which Nazism held the German people from 1933 to 1945. (For sheer visual display of blind obedience, nothing in human history approaches the images in Triumph of the Will.)

I don’t mean to suggest that every last German was a true believer. But enough of them were.

Likewise, from the start I have contended that should the republic—and the planet— survive, future generations will look back on Trump’s reign as a time of similar mass hysteria in the United States, the way we now look back on McCarthyism or the Salem witch trials. (Trump regularly cites both, but he has the protagonists completely backward.)

I am not saying that all Republicans or even all Trump supporters are in the grip of this cult any more than every German was, though many of them plainly are.

So what of these other “conservatives” (though the term no longer applies), those who retain enough rational thought to recognize what an abomination Trump is yet support him anyway, usually in some Faustian bargain to advance their partisan agenda: judicial appointments, deregulation, tax cuts, gun rights, take your pick. What of the Mitch McConnells, Paul Ryans, and—yes—Susan Collinses of the world? I don’t have the psychiatric qualifications to proclaim them completely cult-free, but they do strike me as driven primarily by pragmatism, opportunism, and—to be blunt—cynicism rather than by true faith in our Dear Leader, even if they keep their candid opinions about him behind closed doors.

I have addressed this in the past. We can dispense with the fiction that supporting Trump is justified by some utilitarian calculus, given that the “benefits” are—in direct contradiction to the conservative argument—empirically terrible. Ironically, the Faustian bargain contains no positive tradeoffs at all, but only a compounding of horrors: “Support this monster, because in exchange we get children tear gassed and caged, the rich further enriched at the expense of the poor, global impunity for dictators, and the planet destroyed!”

In some ways then, these people are worse than the cultists in that they cannot be excused by reason of mental incapacitation. They are quislings and collaborators who will one day face history’s harshest verdict.

IF THE GLOVE FITS

Yet another tributary of Trumpism are those public figures who may not exactly meet the definition of a cultist, but whose personal pathology makes for a toxic mix with the rule of our insane clown president. Giuliani is a prime example, as is Dershowitz.

Bill Maher coined the term “smart stupid person” in relation to Dr. Ben Carson, describing someone who is highly accomplished in one very exacting field—like neurosurgery—but a raging ignoramus in another—like politics, or where the pyramids come from. Dershowitz is a different animal, however, in that he is at once objectively intelligent and yet maddeningly obtuse even in his own métier. In that sense, his watercarrying for Trump is well in character: he has long lent his preening talents to the defense of the indefensible while trying to maintain a charade of principle. Ask the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.

By way of a timely reminder, this week Dershowitz also figured in a blockbuster story in the Miami Herald, detailing how in 2007 the Republican US Attorney in Miami at the time, Alexander Acosta, made an unconscionable plea deal to help Trump’s buddy Jeffrey Epstein avoid proper prosecution for serially raping and sex trafficking underage girls, as well as shielding his potential accomplices. (Ahem.) The sweetheart deal to which Acosta agreed—which also hid the deal from his victims, and provided laughably comfortable jail time—grew out of a vicious and well-funded campaign of pressure led by Epstein’s lawyers, among them Dershowitz and Ken Starr (!), with later help from another crypto-Trump protector, Manhattan DA Cy Vance. One of Epstein’s victims even alleges that she was made to have sex with Dershowitz himself.

Alex Acosta is now Trump’s Secretary of Transportation.

The author of the Herald piece, Julie K. Brown, writes that as such, Acosta currently “oversees a massive federal agency that provides oversight of the country’s labor laws, including human trafficking. Until he was reported to be eliminated on Thursday, a day after this story posted online, Acosta also had been included on lists of possible replacements for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned under pressure earlier this month.”

So much for the high ground, Alan.

THE PATH FORWARD

Understanding the pathology of Trumpism is critical to developing a strategy to defeat it. At the end of ”The Cult of Trump,” Hedges points out that the mere destruction of this man and breaking of the fever of his followers will not solve our long term problem.

We must lime the soil from which he sprung.

Hedges writes that it is folly “to reduce a social, economic and political crisis to the personality of Trump,” or refuse “to confront and name the corporate forces responsible for our failed democracy.” Even more than Trump and his cult, it is the aforementioned enablers who represent the deeper and more long-lasting threat, for it is they who created the conditions that allowed him to rise, and who even now excuse and protect him.

Our only hope is to organize the overthrow of the corporate state that vomited up Trump. Our democratic institutions, including the legislative bodies, the courts and the media, are hostage to corporate power. They are no longer democratic. We must, like liberation movements of the past, engage in acts of sustained mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation. By turning our ire on the corporate state, we name the true sources of power and abuse. We expose the absurdity of blaming our demise on demonized groups such as undocumented workers, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, liberals, feminists, gays and others.

Hedges believes the Democratic Party is irredeemably compromised and cannot be the conduit for this change. I don’t agree. But one thing is clear.

As there is no reasoning with Trump’s true believers, at least not unless or until their spell is broken, our focus ought to be not only on destroying his morally bankrupt cult of personality, but also discrediting the “mainstream” right wing criminality that abetted his rise, and leaving both on the ash heap of history.

**********

“Holier-than-thou” joke—courtesy of “Taxi.” 

Time May Change Me: David Bowie Gets Revisionized

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 10.59.53 PM

One evening not long after David Bowie died, my daughter—who was five at the time—looked at me across the dinner table and said absolutely guilelessly:

“Daddy, did you know David Bowie?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because you sure talk about him a lot.”

Ouch. The mouths of babes.

The departure of an icon always triggers a tsunami of nostalgia, regret, and kind feelings from the general public, with casual fans—and often even non-fans—suddenly realizing (or at least declaring) how much they loved the dearly departed. So it was, inevitably, with Bowie…..and more so than most, because he had successfully kept his liver cancer a secret from the public for the eighteen months since he was diagnosed. As a result, the collective shock at the announcement of his demise and the usual period of grief, mourning, and tribute were all intensified.

But even accounting for that, the outpouring of acclaim and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments speak to the outsized role Bowie played in Western pop culture for more than 40 years, and just how profoundly he affected the lives of his fans and society at large. For he truly did bestride this narrow world like a colossus, albeit one in platform boots and an orange mullet.

Almost as soon as Bowie’s death was announced, an ad hoc memorial—flowers and murals and offerings and the like—appeared outside the building where he lived on Lafayette Street, near Houston. I hadn’t even realized he lived there, a place I had walked past a bazillion times; in contrast to other downtown celebrities, I never saw him buying toothpaste at Duane Reade. (I did see Joe Jackson grocery shopping at the Dean & DeLuca on Broadway and Prince once. Only a rock star would do his everyday shopping at Dean & DeLuca.)

Bowie was also subjected to an especially severe case of what I call the Tito Puente Effect.

At the beginning of the movie Stripes there is a throwaway bit in which Bill Murray’s slacker character gets an earful from his irritated girlfriend over laying around the house all day doing nothing but playing Tito Puente records. In response, Murray deadpans: “Tito Puente is gonna be dead, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to him for years, and I think he’s fabulous.'”

This kind of emergence of bandwagon-jumping arrivistes claiming longtime allegiance to the deceased was especially egregious with an artist as groundbreaking and transgressive as the former Mr. David Jones.

There was also little doubt that a commercial rush to capitalize on Bowienalia would ensue: exploiting the recently deceased is of course de rigueur in all the arts, and pop music especially (and especially crassly). Morrissey— one of Bowie’s many descendants—said it well in the Smiths’ “Paint a Vulgar Picture’:

At the record company meeting
On their hands a dead star
And oh, the plans they weave
And oh, the sickening greed

Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs
Double-pack with a photograph
Extra track and a tacky badge

Best of! Most of! Satiate the need!
Slip them into different sleeves
Buy both, and feel deceived

More honorable—and highbrow—was the recent exhibition “David Bowie Is, a brilliant survey of all things Bowie that opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2013—three years before Bowie died—and subsequently toured the world, drawing wall-to-wall crowds and wrapping up with a month-long run at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year. My wife and I went on a Tuesday morning (we don’t have jobs) and it was packed.

But all this posthumous love obscures an important aspect of David Bowie’s life and career. The fact is, Bowie was a disruptive figure who—in his early years especially—inspired as much confusion, anger, and backlash as he did praise. Sic semper with the great innovators. We would do well to remember that, and the lessons that oft-repeated phenomenon carries for us…..

PEOPLE STARED AT THE MAKEUP ON HIS FACE

From the start Bowie was impossible to miss: musically, visually, culturally. I think I first became aware of him when “Young Americans” was a number one hit in the US in 1974, when I was eleven. He was one of the only stars to emerge in the hippie era who retained his cred after 1976 and the arrival of punk, because of course, he was one of its progenitors, and he continued to evolve and innovate long after punk burned out. I distinctly remember seeing him on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979, playing “The Man Who Sold the World,”“TVC-15,”and “Boys Keep Swinging,” with the eye-popping duo of Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias singing backup. For an American teenager not well-versed in the avant garde, it was suitably mind-blowing. On the first song, Bowie had to be carried to the microphone because he was wearing a costume that looked like a tuxedoed nesting doll; on the second, all three singers were wearing skirts; on the third, Bowie’s head was superimposed on a marionette.

But I didn’t really become a Bowie fanatic until I was a college freshman, thanks to my roommate, who introduced me to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That LP came out in 1972; when I started listening to it in 1981 it was still in essence a contemporary record. (To give you some of idea, that’s the same interval between now and the xx’s first album in 2009.) I wore my copy out, soon followed by “Aladdin Sane,” and maybe the best of them all, “Hunky Dory.”

I would also like to put a plug in for “David Live,” a 1974 double LP recorded at the Tower Theater in Philly, and in my humble opinion unjustly disparaged, even by Bowie himself. (Special mention to the 1990 Rykodisc CD reissue, which included Bowie’s great cover of the Ohio Players’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.”)

By my sophomore year “Let’s Dance” came out—the most musically accessible album of his career—marking the apotheosis of Bowie’s commercial success through a perfect storm of catchy, chart-topping hits, his most mainstream reinvention of himself, and the inescapable advent of MTV, for which a performer with his visual and theatrical sense was tailor-made. For me it marked the moment when I began to act all snooty about johnny-come-lately Bowie fans. (I was nineteen, with all of two years of serious Bowie-listening under my belt.)

Bowie would do some astonishing work in the 33 years that followed, but typical of most rock & rollers, that commercial pinnacle largely marked the end of his (uh) golden years. But no matter. By 1983 his place in the pantheon was long secure.

Looking back now, it’s simply inadequate to say that he led the way in glam rock, prefigured punk, and pioneered ambient music in collaboration with Eno. Bowie’s influence as a songwriter, recording artist, and performer is so pervasive and wide-ranging that it is almost impossible to pin down, threaded as it is into so much of the pop music landscape. Along the way he also delved into not only film and theater, but costume and set design, video art, painting, dance, mime, graphics, fashion, you name it. It’s almost impossible to catalogue the always-innovative, ceaselessly searching work Bowie did over the course of six decades, or to reiterate the unparalleled range of his work in so many different fields, or attest to his towering influence. I can’t do justice here to the sheer range of his artistic exploration, but just as a sampling, he played John Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway and the title role in Brecht’s play Baal; narrated “Peter and the Wolf”; starred in a one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time (Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth), and kissed Ann Magnuson, Susan Sarandon, and Catherine Deneuve in the vampire movie The Hunger, while featuring in other films ranging from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, to the Bridge Over the River Kwai-esque Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, to Zoolander.

His dance card was full.

And it takes nothing away from Bowie’s vast body of work to say that in his long, protean career, one of the best things he ever did was “Little Fat Man Who Sold His Soul” on Ricky Gervais’s “Extras.” Name me another mega-famous avant garde rock star who has such a light comic touch and good sense of humor about himself.

But in light of all this—the stellar career; the posthumous adoration and tributes; the sold-out memorial museum show that gave Bowie the same treatment as Picasso or Manet or King Tut (I think he would have appreciated that one) —it’s easy to forget that David Bowie was not always a beloved figure embraced across Western society. What self-respecting rock star was?

DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR PRESIDENT NIXON?

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

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

But there were other examples of Bowie as the target of anger and abuse.

Also in ’74, some aging Beatles fans were put out that John Lennon collaborated with Bowie on “Fame” (and also Bowie’s cover of “Across the Universe”), revealing a generation gap even within the baby boomers. Conveniently, they seemed to forget how the Fab Four themselves were scorned and ridiculed when they first appeared—both by the older generation and by some retrograde youngsters too—specifically for their “girly” long hair.

Three years later, Bowie’s baroque appearance on a 1977 Bing Crosby Christmas special, dueting with Der Bingle on a mashup of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth”—still one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on American network television—caused legions of Crosby’s fans to freak the fuck out. (Crosby himself had nothing but praise for Bowie.)

The next year, when Bowie appeared alongside an septuagenarian Marlene Dietrich in the film The Last Gigolo (1978)—her last screen performance—there was a similar outcry from the movie star’s fans, asking how she could possibly appear with “that freak.” Highly ironic, to say the least, given that Dietrich was herself a famously rule-breaking, cross-dressing bisexual, albeit from an earlier era that was duly scandalized by her behavior, but remained largely in willful denial about it. (Making it both more and less transgressive.) Like Bing, Dietrich—if I recall correctly—laconically dismissed the objection, praising Bowie for his daring and originality. As he had already transmogrified into the Thin White Duke and begun the famously inventive “Berlin period,” it’s hard not to see Bowie’s collaboration with Dietrich as part of that process. (Even if, as the story goes, they filmed their scenes separately and never met.)

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

And it’s not limited to homophobia, though it’s certainly virulent in that arena. Accordingly, bear with me as I venture far afield to talk about a few other public figures who would seem to have little or nothing in common with Bowie, but actually represent similar—and similarly instructive—manifestations of this phenomenon.

THE SCREEN DOOR SLAMS

Strange as it may seem, when I consider Bowie’s legacy, one of the artists who I think most about is Springsteen.

I’ll admit it’s a leap. One could hardly name two more different rockers, in almost every way. But it’s not such a strange comparison as it seems.

At their core, both are about a yearning for freedom…..whether it’s the personal, sexual, artistic, space alien glam rock freak flag freedom of Bowie, or the wings for wheels, lonely cool before dawn, spot out ‘neath Abram’s bridge freedom of Bruce, where everything that dies someday comes back. In that regard, both embody very different but unmistakably allied visions of the very beating heart of rock & roll.

(For a rare intersection of the two, check out the obscure cover of “Growin’ Up,” included as a bonus track on the CD re-release of “Pin-Ups,” part of that same 1990 Rykodisc initiative.)

Bruce may be the most misunderstood and misappropriated artist in all of rock—far worse than Bowie. Homophobes and squares and general philistines may have rejected Bowie, but at least they knew what they were rejecting: it was there front and center in eyeshadow and skintight neon-hued bodysuits for all the world to see. But with Bruce, the message was easier to miss, coming as it did wrapped in a masculine, all-American, cars-and-chicks Jersey boy package. Trojan Horse style. (If the horse had a 396, fuelie heads, and a Hurst on the floor.) To attend a Springsteen concert is to be smacked in the face with this fact. The humanism was always there in Bruce’s work from the very beginning, but as it became more overtly and unmistakably political—channeling Woody Guthrie—a significant number of his fans, cultural commentators, and political figures who wanted to align themselves with him clearly missed the point. (Or if they got it, were annoyed by it.)

The ultimate example of course is  “Born in the USA,” a heartbreaking song of betrayal and despair written from the perspective of a Vietnam vet that got usurped and turned into a fist-pumping jingoistic anthem. That’s an essay in itself. It didn’t help that it was the title track of the album that would be his big commercial breakthrough—Springtsteen’s “Let’s Dance.” But that was 1984, when Bruce was not yet a household, no-surname-necessary name (“Born to Run” and the twin covers of Time and Newsweek notwithstanding), and the general public didn’t really have a firm grasp of who this artist was. I think now, 34 years later, everybody knows where Bruce stands, and even “Born in the USA” is better understood. Which doesn’t stop idiots and assholes from appropriating it.

But while Bruce lost some of his right wing fans as his progressive politics became more apparent, weirdly, a much larger swath of them remained loyal to him as a musician while denigrating his activism, often in sneering terms (along the lines of, “Shut the fuck up and play ‘Rosalita’”). Personally, I don’t get that—it’s a strange kind of S&M Misery-style fan/artist relationship…..kind of like the George R.R. Martin fans who send him death threats for not writing fast enough.

There are other politically conservative Bruce fans who are less openly hostile, and somehow just ignore the disconnect, or have some rationalization for it. But that can get pretty weird too. How Chris Christie can square his undeniably genuine passion for Bruce’s music with a political bent that is diametrically opposed to everything his hero stands for is a mystery of cognitive dissonance for the ages.

But Bruce’s arc is unusual in that it represents the reverse of the usual path, going as it does from love to anger (in some quarters). For most public figures in the arts or entertainment who find themselves embroiled in controversy, it’s the other way around.

FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY

Today, Muhammad Ali is venerated as a national hero; not so much in 1966 when he refused to be drafted and go fight in Vietnam. Many people have conveniently forgotten—and young people may have no idea—that back then Ali (still called Cassius Clay by many, who sneered at the name he took when he converted to Islam) was widely, widely attacked for that stance. I can tell you that in my Army family he was certainly not beloved.

It took many years for the wounds of that war to scar over (I won’t say heal) before Ali’s actions came to be seen as a brave stance of civil disobedience. In retrospect, when he quipped “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” Ali succinctly encapsulated multiple tragedies of the 1960s, and the hypocrisy of sending a disproportionate number of African-American young men (along with a lot of poor whites, immigrants, and others) to kill for the government of the United States that was actively oppressing that same community.

When I look around today, not much has changed.

(As with much history, however, the actual facts are tediously at odds with the myth. Evidence suggests that Ali never actually said those famous words any more than Cary Grant ever said “Judy Judy Judy.” He is reported to have said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” but even that is in question. But screenplay-ready quip or no, his refusal to be drafted and the reason why is the point. We are in “print-the-legend” terrain here.)

The inescapable contemporary comparison is Colin Kaepernick.

A president* who cynically pardoned Jack Johnson (two cheers) intermittently continues to carry on an equally cynical, demagogic campaign of racist attacks on NFL players who respectfully kneel during the national anthem to protest the epidemic of police killing of young black men. (Kaep himself, I’ll remind you, has been blacklisted by the league and hasn’t played a down in two years, despite certainly being among the 64 best quarterbacks available, if only as a backup. His civil suit against the NFL is pending.)

I’ve written elsewhere about the disgusting anti-Americanism of Trump’s racist attack on these NFL players’ protest, as have many others, so no need to rehash it here. (The same goes for the NFL owners’ own craven, shortsighted, greed-driven submission to the ogre-in-chief.) But I will say that as a veteran, I am appalled and insulted at the dishonest, shamelessly partisan Republican argument that this protest by NFL players somehow “disrespects” the troops, or is in any way un-patriotic. It is anything but. The people who are most upset about this issue typically are more motivated by their animus toward wealthy African-American professional athletes than by any sort of twisted patriotism, although the two are historically intertwined, as Ali’s story shows.

The point is that—agree with them or not—Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Malcolm Jenkins, and the other leaders of this protest have taken a brave and bold stand, and for their courage and integrity are enduring widespread abuse, unfounded attacks on their loyalty to country, death threats, and the like.

Someday they will all be as venerated as Muhammad Ali is today.

WE CAN BE HEROES

So wtf does that have to do with David Bowie, who was never a particularly political artist, at least not in the conventional sense?

A lot.

It’s easy to lionize people in retrospect. In the present tense, it’s harder to recognize heroes and trailblazers when we see them, and harder still to laud them for their boldness and courage and vision. Luckily, posterity is a lot wiser than we are.

Let’s go back to Morrissey one more time:

At the record company meeting
On their hands—at last—a dead star
But they can never taint you in my eyes
No, they can never touch you now

Actually, they can. More than ever, in fact. Consciously or otherwise, the mainstream society to which Bowie gave two fingers up (he was English, you know) would now like us all to believe that it embraced him from the start.

But don’t believe the hype.

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

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

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

Rest in peace, David Bowie, and thank you.

 

Omar Comin’

BAD TWEETY BIRD-final3

Yikes! So much news to digest in the past week or so, I don’t know where to begin.

Oh wait—yes I do. Let’s begin with how the American people told Donald Trump to go fuck himself.

I BELIEVE IN YESTERDAY

Any surfer will tell you that among the most tedious and eyeroll-inducing conversations in the sport is how big the surf was when you weren’t there. (“You shoulda been here yesterday.”) So it was with the Blue Wave, which Republicans wanted us to believe hadn’t materialized, but only got bigger and bluer as the week rolled on. It is now clear that Democratic gains in the midterms were the party’s biggest since 1974 in the immediate aftermath of Watergate….and this in the face of odds badly stacked against them, to include active voter suppression by other side. The GOP, meanwhile, which was clinging to the consolation prize of increasing its slim majority in the Senate, now looks like it will have gained a paltry one to two additional seats, with Mississippi still awaiting a runoff. This with the most advantageous electoral map in a generation.

The implications of the Blue Wave are myriad, but let’s focus on how this beatdown has affected the man on whom it was, by his own admission/braggadocio, a de facto referendum (at least until he lost and decided it wasn’t).

After the midterm embarrassment, an impulsive Trump wasted no time in firing Jeff Sessions, as he’s wanted to do for months, a blatant step toward shutting down the Mueller inquiry which is inexorably closing in on him.

Of course, firing Sessions and installing a shameless, pre-compromised toady might itself be considered part of a pattern of obstruction of justice, one of the very things that Mueller is investigating. In that regard, it is yet another in a series of unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds that began in May 2017 with another firing, when Trump impulsively shitcanned Jim Comey.

Some people never learn.

One thing we can’t say about new acting AG Matt Whitaker is that he didn’t warn us. Even before he became Sessions’ chief of staff, Whitaker spoke enthusiastically about how the Mueller probe could stopped by starving it of funds. It is now evident that he was actively auditioning for a job in the Department of Justice with comments like that in a series of rabid, Mueller-attacking appearances on Fox News. But even Whitaker himself didn’t imagine Trump would making him acting AG. Reportedly, he was hoping for a job as a mere DOJ staff lawyer. As Trevor Noah said, that’s like applying for a job as a cashier at Ross Dress for Less only to be told, “Forget cashier; you’re Ross!”

Even without his should-be-disqualifying remarks about Mueller, Whitaker is an almost laughable choice as an interim AG, a guy who makes Ronny Jackson or Harriet Miers look overqualified by comparison. He is a Bigfoot-believing religious zealot who hawked toilets for guys with extra big dicks, thinks only Christians should be judges, and was on the board of a fly-by-night Florida-based company dedicated to bilking would-be inventors, currently under investigation by the FBI (an agency that now reports to him). Generally speaking, it’s a bad sign when you see headlines that read, “Acting AG under fire for alleged Bigfoot, toilet, time travel scams.

That said, Whitaker is undeniably in keeping with Trump’s pattern of putting people in charge of organizations that they have sworn to destroy: see also Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, et al.

Whitaker is such a demonstrably unqualified, blatantly partisan pick that it has prompted a surprisingly strong backlash against the White House, which gives you some idea of just how terrible and clumsy this choice was, considering the rogues gallery I just mentioned. (Andy Borowitz, predictably, had the best take, writing ”Trump Fires Don Jr., Names Stephen Miller New Son.”) With a straight face, Trump subsequently told Fox’s Chris Wallace that when he chose Whitaker he didn’t know about his virulent criticism of Mueller—when it is plain that is his chief qualification—and that he “wouldn’t intervene” if Whitaker chose to curtail the Mueller probe.

Such a relief.

Next up, Geppetto insists he won’t interfere with Pinocchio’s autonomy.

QUISLINGS, AMERICAN STYLE

Conservative legal scholars ranging from Neal Katyal to George Conway (as in, Kelly’s hubby) to Bush administration torture enthusiast John Yoo have all weighed in on the improperness—if not outright unconstitutionality—of Whitaker’s appointment.

When you’ve lost John Yoo, you know you’re in trouble.

It’s true that Whitaker’s appointment may be not just ill-advised but actively illegal, but so what? We all know that the GOP-controlled Senate will rubber stamp him if necessary. Regardless, he should by all rights recuse himself due to the prejudicial comments he is on record having made, but the odds of that are an Elvis Costello-like less than zero. On the contrary, Whitaker’s whole appointment is predicated on the notion that he would never recuse himself, but rather, act as Trump’s eyes and ears on the Russiagate inquiry (to the extent he can) and, ultimately, stop it at all costs.

But as transparently hamhanded and shamelessly jackbooted as Whitaker’s appointment was, the question of how much damage he can do remains an open one.

Numerous legal experts such as Ben Wittes have opined that it’s probably too late for Whitaker—or anyone else—to stop the freight train that is the Mueller probe. What the GOP-controlled Senate and Fox Nation do about the results Mueller eventually returns is a separate matter, and an entirely political one. Others—like former US Attorney Harry Litman—are less sanguine, noting that only his own conscience (gag) can stop Whitaker from illegally providing Trump intel about what is going on inside the investigation, to include grand jury activities.

I have to believe that the famously smart and strategic Bob Mueller has anticipated this moment and made the necessary twelve-dimensional chess moves to protect his investigation, especially given the despicable unwillingness of Mitch McConnell and the GOP-controlled (for now) Congress to do so. Mueller and his team of “killers,” as Bannon called them—a compliment, in Bannonspeak—are infinitely smarter and more experienced than Trump and his legal team, whose few rational voices—Emmett Flood, presumably—are likely drowned out by their boss’s bombast. John Dean, who ought to know, is among the many observers who thinks that Mr. Mueller might already have sealed indictments ready to go, just in case. We know that he has made the strategic move of passing off cases and sharing information with the SDNY and state AGs, the latter of which will help outflank any attempt at self-pardon by our lawless ruler.

For let us not delude ourselves. The Republican Party will not stand up and challenge Trump over this slow motion Saturday Night Massacre, nor over the installation of an obvious puppet with a mandate to obstruct justice and protect Donald Trump. Last year’s tough guy posturing by the likes of Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley warning Trump not to fire Sessions (“There will be holy hell to pay”) is nothing but a bitter joke.

If it wasn’t clear already, the Republican Party will not ever do anything to stop Trump, either now or in the future, no matter what conclusions or evidence Robert Mueller returns, the rule of law be damned. He could uncover a video of Trump signing a blood oath of loyalty to Vladimir Putin in exchange and the GOP would still do nothing but shrug.

See the world-beating cynicism of Mitch McConnell. See the McCarthyite fearmongering and servile bootlicking of Ted Cruz. See the empty rhetoric and desire to have it both ways of Jeff Flake. (Time will tell if Flake sticks to this new claim that he will join Senate Democrats in blocking all of Trump’s forthcoming judicial nominations until legislation is passed protecting Mueller.) And anyone who expects the newly elected junior senator from Utah, a fresh face named Mitt Romney, to be a bulwark against Trumpism is living in a fantasy world.

As I’ve said, the Republicans don’t WANT to stop Trump. Why should they? He has provided them unprecedented cover to foist their hateful agenda on the nation and entrench themselves in power in defiance of the will of the majority. The midterms represented an incensed electorate beginning to reassert itself, which naturally alarms the GOP greatly. We can expect Republicans to continue to do everything in their power to try to suppress a properly functioning democracy. The lesson the GOP took away from the midterms wasn’t that Trump is a drag on their party—though he is—but that he is the ONLY thing they have left.

Paging Dr. Faust, Dr. Faust, white courtesy phone…

PANIC IN THE WEST WING

The Whitaker appointment is merely the most glaring evidence that, in the wake of the midterms, Trump is melting down over the imminent threat that Democratic control of the House represents—a threat not only to his presidency, but to the vast criminality at the heart of all things Trump. That is a road that ultimately leads to prosecution, the destruction of his business empire and family fortune, and even imprisonment. Disgrace and ignominy go without saying. Among the rot and skullduggery waiting to be exposed are not only felony campaign finance violations and conspiracy with hostile foreign powers to gain control of the presidency, but decades of tax fraud, money laundering, graft, corruption, bribery, extortion, and other malfeasance, much of which has already been uncovered, but has yet to sink in with the general public.

Trump clearly hears Robert Mueller’s footsteps approaching…..and for all you fans of The Wire, Bob’s whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.”

In light of that, the slavish obedience of his base and the willingness of the morally bankrupt and thoroughly compliant GOP leadership to protect him is about all Trump has going for him right now. Any crack in that seawall, no matter how small, is rightly terrifying to him.

We’ve all been beaten over the head with the reminder that it is DOJ policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted, that impeachment is the proper mechanism to remove a chief executive involved in serious wrongdoing. That policy has never been tested, but no matter. Robert Mueller may well respect it, or he may not. But even if he does, massive criminal indictments await Trump when he leaves office, which he eventually will one way or another. (Unless it’s feet first. Twelve Diet Cokes a day take their toll.) Barring a Trump-triggered Armageddon—which I’m not ruling out, once the endgame begins—or the announcement of Year Zero and the establishment of a police state under our newly decalred president-for-life, which is also not off the table IMHO, Trump will return to private life with a Wile E. Coyote-style sixteen ton weight of criminal charges ready to come crashing down on him.

It is very ironic that a man who rode into the White House to chants of “Lock her up!” will himself likely become the first American president to go to prison.

MILITARY INTELLIGENCE

Numerous reports have detailed Trump’s foul post-election mood (even by Trump standards). But behind-the-scenes reportage wasn’t really necessary, as anyone could see how bad things were just by following what he did and said publicly, beginning with the aforementioned firing of his Attorney General and installation of a ridiculous replacement.

A brief review:

Trump got in a pissing contest with CNN and banned Jim Acosta from White House press briefings; tried to pass off a doctored video to support that move; claimed the midterms were “close to complete victory” for him; variously called female African-American reporters Yamiche Alcindor of PBS and Abby Phillip and April Ryan of CNN “racist,” “stupid,” and a “loser;” blamed California for being on fire; spun an imaginary Finnish tradition of forest raking (førstrakken, as they call it); and took the word of his Saudi business partners over our own CIA when it comes to Jamal Khashoggi’s horrific murder, plus the usual daily barrage of batshit crazy tweets of course. (He did pause to give himself an A+ for his performance as president thus far.)

Oh, and also, Ivanka used a private email server to do government business, because, you know, there hadn’t been any real publicity indicating to her that that would be problematic.

But for whatever reason, several of Trump’s most prominent missteps following the midterms had to do with his fraught relationship with the armed services, which remains one of the most puzzling aspects of his brief political career.  (For a thorough survey, see this piece in the Washington Post by James Hohmann).

The trouble began when he didn’t realize it would look bad to let a light rain deter him from joining every other major world leader on a visit to a World War I cemetery full of fallen US Marines who died in the battle of Belleau Wood. Then, after pouting like a petulant child among the rest of the world leaders (except when he lit up at the sight of Vladimir Putin), he compounded the error upon his return to the US by choosing to skip the regular presidential visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day.

But Trump was just getting started.

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.

I say this as someone with the military in my marrow. (I won’t bore you with my CV or pedigree; you can read about it here, if you’re interested.) But that is precisely why I am disgusted by Trump’s self-aggrandizing politicization of the military, and contemptuous of the mindless, dangerously uncritical valorization of the professional of arms that he both traffics in (when convenient) and foments among his jingoistic disciples.

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.

I don’t begrudge those who tried to avoid going to Vietnam, but I have no truck with those who, like Trump, dodged the draft while vocally supporting that war (see also: George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rove, Giuliani, Gingrich, et al), and have beaten the drums for other wars since then, let alone made a practice of maligning their fellow Americans who did serve. Ask John Kerry about that.

Some pundits have theorized that the deeply insecure and glory-hungry Trump can’t stand the sight of genuine giants and feels the need to try to bring them down. To that point, it’s also worth remembering that another regular target of Trump’s infantile ire, Robert S. Mueller III, is himself a Marine officer and combat veteran of Vietnam, Bronze Star and Purple Heart and all.

Curiouser and curiouser.

SOME GAVE NONE

As absurd as it was, Trump’s attack on Bill McRaven was not the thing that stunned me the most this past week, military affairs-wise. No, that honor goes to this quote from unnamed White House aides, attempting to explain why their boss—who has managed to visit his golf courses on 150 different days, or about 25% of his presidency—has not yet visited US forces deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere overseas for that matter, something that was routine for every one of his predecessors of both parties in the modern era.

Here’s their explanation:

“One reason he has not visited troops in war zones, according to his aides, is that he does not really want American troops there in the first place. To visit, they said, would validate missions he does not truly believe in.”

This might be the worst, most transparently dishonest and irrational statement to emanate from the White House since the midterms, which is saying something. Talk about an absolute inability to grasp the role of Commander-in-Chief!

I know this trope has become hackneyed, but imagine if Obama had…..

Never mind. Not worth it.

Trump himself told Chris Wallace that he’s just been “unbelievably busy,” which I guess is true if you consider getting to work at 11 a.m. and having nine hours of TV time a day “busy.” Incredibly, he also—again—blamed Robert Mueller for the time-consuming “phony witchhunts.” Meanwhile, insiders report that Trump is simply afraid for his life, saying that people in those war zones “want to kill him.” (Why he is not afraid at home is another question.)

In any case, 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.

********

“Bad Tweety Bird,” Illustration by Steve Bernstein

 

 

 

Potemkin Democracy

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Well, that didn’t last long.

We had less than 24 hours to absorb the epic import of the Democratic Party regaining control of the US House of Representatives before the raging id with a combover that pretends to be President of the United States threw the country into chaos again by firing Jeff Sessions.

The two events are, of course, inextricably connected.

It didn’t take a psychic to understand that Trump’s inflammatory / batshit rhetoric in the run-up to the midterms—the caravan of ISIS-infiltrated bloodthirsty barefoot children, the evil gun-grabbing Democratic mob, the press as the “enemy of the people,” etc—was a sign of panic and desperation at the thought of losing his Congressional firewall. Once that happened, the almost immediate firing of Sessions laid his strategy bare, and his fears as well.

It’s very simple. Trump is rightly terrified of the Mueller probe and is acting hastily to shut it down. (Indeed, it’s very possible that he has already been subpoenaed and indictments are on the way, including one for Don Jr., a backstage drama to which we the people are not yet privy but is secretly motivating our mad king’s frantic actions.) With the Democrats in control of the House and able to ramp up the investigative pressure, he is now beginning to be cornered, and like the rat he is, more dangerous than ever.

So once again this week we were smacked in the face with a reminder that we are not living in normal times. Even as the punditocracy opined on the significance of the Democratic takeover and how the chess match would proceed from here, Trump quickly reminded us that he is playing rugby, not chess. (And the dirty kind of rugby, too, where you step on a guy’s balls with your cleats while he’s down.)

To wit:

The election returns were barely in when, with his characteristic Roy Cohn-protégé manner, Trump threatened “a warlike posture” if the Democrats dared do their job and exercise oversight over him. For anyone who’s spent even five minutes in grade school, it was the transparently desperate act of a craven bully trying to bluff his foes into not hitting him where he knew it would hurt him the most.

You don’t scare us, Cadet Bone Spurs.

But at the same time, Trump was anything but bluffing in reminding just how nasty he could be. Indeed, he preemptively went full Pearl Harbor even before the day was out.

Thus the ongoing constitutional crisis in which we have been living for the past two years has dramatically escalated. It’s about to be D-Day for the Democratic Party and the resistance and the rule of law full stop.

LET’S GO SURFING NOW

But first and by way of prologue, it is only right and proper that we take a moment to acknowledge the blue wave.

We waited two long years for this past Tuesday.

Despite whiny arguments from wounded Republicans that it wasn’t a “blue wave”—and similar lamentations from disappointed Democrats who had unrealistic expectations—the midterms were by any measure a stark repudiation of Trump. That is especially so given the structural disadvantages the left faced, including a daunting electoral map and a no-holds-barred, Orwellian opposition that controlled the presidential bully pulpit and had no compunction about lies, voter suppression, and outright fraud. Also, it didn’t hurt the GOP to have a televised ministry of propaganda that doesn’t even pretend to be “fair and balanced” anymore.

Up against all that we still managed to take back the House and win several crucial governorships which are essential for long term Democratic gains. Let us not underestimate the significance thereof.

Like many progressives, I have been hoping for just such a development ever since the encouraging results of special elections in Virginia and elsewhere almost exactly a year ago. (See Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons (and Limits) of Virginiain these pages last November 10, 2017.)

Which is as it should be: for all their fanaticism, hardcore Trumpers are outnumbered by reasonable Americans something like 7 to 3.

To restate what everyone ought to already fully understand, Trump now faces a whole new ballgame of legislative opposition and oversight to which he is woefully unaccustomed and unsuited—as opposed to the supine and slavish obedience of the last two years. (I am particularly pleased to see Devin Nunes go.)

Predictably, Mitch McConnell’s blatantly self-serving warning to Democrats not to be too aggressive in investigating Trump because it will hurt them in the next election smacks of Brer Rabbit. Mitch also needs some remedial vocabulary training on the difference between “harassment” and “oversight,” which PS, is Congress’s goddam job.

But above all the midterms were a reassuring sign that some sanity still prevails in parts of the United States, and that the system of checks and balances and a mechanism for the expression of the will of the people continues to function, more or less. There is still a long battle ahead, but this was a major victory. Which is precisely what drove Donald crazy.

THE LESSONS OF Y2K

Another welcome sign was the rise of a whole new generation of fresh progressive candidates, including unprecedented numbers of women and people of color, and strong showings—and even some outright wins—in places Democrats had no business even making a contest of it. A gay governor in Colorado? A hijab-wearing Muslim woman in Florida? A Democrat almost winning a statewide race in Texas? A black lesbian with a Yale law degree in Georgia (three things that are anathema to the Confederacy)? And here in New York City, Max Rose—a young, combat wounded former US Army infantry officer and proud Democrat—who flipped a Congressional seat in bright red Staten Island. (Hoo-ah.)

On CNN, Van Jones called the new Democratic Party “younger, browner, cooler.”

Sounds like a sitcom on the CW.

Yes, there were places that continue to be retrograde—most prominently Iowa, which inexplicably is OK with the human skidmark that is Steve King; Florida, which maintained its spot as a strong contender for the most fucked up state in America (step up your game, Maine); and Georgia, where I spent a significant chunk of my first 22 years and therefore for me is close to the bone.

Brian Kemp might be the most appalling figure in this election cycle, not counting King, Seth Grossman, and that Holocaust denier in Illinois. If in in any other country we saw the official in charge of overseeing the election running in it, we would fully understand the corruption in play and snicker at the sight. Yet here it is right in our faces and much of America either can’t see it, or worse, is totally fine with it.

More power to Stacey Abrams for refusing to concede and insisting on a fair accounting, given the outright criminal behavior of her opponent. At least someone learned the lessons of Florida 2000 (and Merrick Garland, and Russiagate.) No more playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules when the other guys have gone full Gillooly.

That said, we are about to witness what the GOP would have said and done had the Gore campaign contested the vote count in Florida in 2000. In retrospect it is now painfully clear that Team Gore should have done so, but spilled milk: few people understood eighteen years ago that a slow motion coup was beginning in which the old rules of decorum and even democracy itself would no longer be in effect.

(Note to right wing 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 and distraction. Also, the dictionary definition of “republic” is a representative democracy, so piss off.)

I support the Abrams campaign’s stand-and-fight strategy 100% . But for those who criticize Al Gore for not doing likewise almost two decades ago, we’re about to see just how bitterly the Right would have fought back, with every dirty name and dirty trick in the book. But Kemp—who belatedly resigned as Georgia’s Secretary of State (bit late, dude), and then only in order to begin the transition process—better hope the recount goes his way or he will be out of both jobs. Boo hoo.

Regardless of how it shakes out, Kemp is destined to join a long line of Peach State abominations like JB Stoner, Lester Maddox, and Newt Gingrich in the Georgia Hall of Shame (which shares office space with the Confederate Preservation Society).

IT TAKES A POTEMKIN VILLAGE

In my 2006 film Land of the Blind, a political revolutionary played by Donald Sutherland scoffs at the democratic process, saying, “If voting could really change anything it would be illegal.”

It’s an old line and I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I put it in that character’s mouth for a reason. In that storyline, he is living in an unnamed autocracy where that may be true. In the real world United States of 2018, we’re not quite there yet, although we’re getting closer all the time.

In the Western world, modern authoritarians have largely abandoned the jackbooted techniques of a Pinochet or a Marcos or a Franco, or at least learned how to hide them better. What they have constructed instead is even more sinister: a sham “democracy” with the illusion of freedom. The classic absurdist example is the dictatorship in which a Saddam, Idi Amin, or Kim Jong-un gets 99.99% of the vote. Savvier autocrats are able to achieve the same results with a process that looks superficially more legit still ensuring that your vote is just a charade.

In contrast to an overt police state where the cowed public knows it has no rights and no say, in this kind of sham democracy the state manufactures consent and maintains control by making the public think they have a voice when they really don’t.

Sound familiar?

The prime example of this sort of Potemkin democracy is Vladimir Putin’s Russia (which his protégé and designated bum boy Donald Trump is eagerly seeking to emulate). It’s a far more sophisticated but no less oppressive kind of autocracy than a clumsy old school one….indeed it is more insidious precisely because of that very sophistication. And make no mistake: beneath that veneer it is no less brutal or violent.

Other key elements include the illusion of a free press when it is in fact state-controlled (see Russia Today) or at least allied (see Fox News), and the token tolerance of genuine dissent, but laughably marginalized. Like the fake vote, the effect is actually worse than total abolition of free expression in that it contributes to the state’s grip on power by serving as cover and camouflage. (I don’t want to look sophomoric and quote Zizek, but it’s an example of when “resistance is surrender.”)

The United States is not quite in that league yet, but it’s not for lack of trying by the Republican Party.

MOUTHS OF BABES DEPARTMENT

In the US, autocracy already has a leg up thanks to the antiquated and anti-democratic Electoral College, which the GOP is using to maximum advantage. How anachronistic and destructive is it? An anecdote:

On the eve of the elections my wife and I were talking to our seven-year-old daughter about the midterms, because she is still traumatized by 2016, when she was only five. (At least in our part of the USA, her entire generation of kids—girls especially—is super politicized. Watch out, patriarchy.)

In the course of our conversation she casually said something about “more people voting for Trump than Hillary two years ago.” I clarified that, actually, more people voted for Hillary.

She got an extremely confused look on her face and asked how that could be. I gave her a rough explanation of the Electoral College and she was HORRIFIED.

“How can THAT be how we choose our president?” she asked, wrenched.

Good question.

From the anti-democratic chokehold of the Electoral College, to the absurd degree of gerrymandering of Congressional districts, to the shameless effort to gin up hysteria over the myth of voter fraud, to the manipulation and distortion of the census, to the dysfunction of the Supreme Court confirmation process, American governance is profoundly broken. Worse, this is not an accident but deliberate sabotage by the Republican Party.

The forces of autocracy, plutocracy, and nascent authoritarianism—which is to say, the Republican Party—undeniably want to minimize (if not totally obliterate) the value of your vote. For more than thirty years they have waged a relentless campaign to do so.  (Far longer, if you want to go back to the days of the poll tax, literacy tests, the anti-suffragette movement, and so forth. But let’s confine ourselves to the modern era.)

So the fact that this blue wave wasn’t Waimea-sized shouldn’t be surprising, and not merely because of anti-democratic deckstacking. The results reiterated what we all learned on November 8, 2016 and have been confronted with daily ever since: tens of millions of our fellow countrymen legitimately thrill to the poisonous racism, misogyny, and malignant cult of personality of Donald J. Trump.

Taken together, those two factors—the active GOP campaign of disenfranchisement and the neo-fascist impulse of 30% of the electorate—make any Democratic gains impressive.

And yet these midterms still managed to express some semblance of the public will, sort of, which is how democracy is supposed to work……and that is precisely the thing that presents an existential threat to Donald J. Trump.

LET YOUR FREAK FLAG FLY

Which brings us back to Trump’s morning-after freakout.

First of all, there was his marathon press conference. (For a guy who thinks the press is the enemy of the people, Donny sure likes to talk to them.) Trump lost his shit, behaving even more impulsively and erratically and dishonestly than usual, which is saying something, including hopelessly petty belittling Republicans who lost their races (to his mind, by not sufficiently embracing him, though the numbers debunk that) and an Alice in Wonderland attempt to spin the preivous night as an overall GOP win.

But the undeniable lowlight was his sputtering shitfit aimed at his frequent antagonist Jim Acosta of CNN, who tried to get a straight answer to a simple question (about whether Trump was demonizing immigrants) and for his trouble was screamed at and called “a rude, terrible person.” (Project much?) To say it was unpresidential is a laugh; it was unpresidential even by the abysmal standards—such as they are—of President Trump. 

Notwithstanding Trump’s pathetic spin, the midterm shellacking and the legal threat it represented were clearly eating at Donald’s black little coal-lump of a heart. And although we had just seen American democracy in working order a little bit the night before, it was also a reminder that millions of our countrymen love this guy for this very behavior, and would follow him right off a cliff. (And drag us all with them.)

Acosta wasn’t the only reporter that Trump went psycho on. Among others, the leader of the free world also told Yamiche Alcindor of PBS—who is African-American—three times that she was asking a “racist” and “insulting” question. (See previous note re projection.)

But the Acosta thing took the cake.

The administration subsequently pulled Acosta’s White House press pass—again, the sort of thing that happens in a banana republic—and then tried justify it with a lie about Acosta being physically aggressive with the female White House intern dispatched to take the mike away from him. (Yes, in the Trump era presidential press conferences have devolved into WWE events.) The official White House statement about the incident was full of huffy language about how Donald Trump would not tolerate such unchivalrous behavior!

First of all, the idea that Acosta did anything at all wrong—from asking a perfectly legitimate question to behaving in a perfectly civil manner as an intern tried to grab the mike right out of his hand—was a blatantly obvious smoke-and-mirrors attempt to obscure the real issue of the president’s abhorrent behavior. The truth is apparent to anyone who watched the actual event.

Secondly, the reason offered for his excommunication was knee-slappingly ridiculous.

Trump banning Acosta was already the mark of a fascist. Pretending it was to defend a woman’s honor—from the pussy grabber-in-chief, no less—tells you just how stupid he thinks his supporters are. About that much he is right. (Just for extra Stalinist fun, the White House also shared a doctored video purporting to show Acosta shoving the intern.)

So if I may, a modest proposal to the legitimate media:

Stop giving oxygen to this greasefire.

As long as Jim Acosta is banned, no self-respecting reporter should attend any further press activities held by this White House, no matter whether it’s Trump, Sanders, or any other official presiding. If Trump administration press briefings turn into kabuki plays in which only Fox, Breitbart, and InfoWars send reporters, they will cease to be newsworthy events. I am all for depriving this administration of the platform to spew its lies and propaganda.

Come on, Fourth Estate, this is your moment.

ALAS POOR JEFF (I KNEW HIM, HORATIO)

But the press conference proved to be just the appetizer to a main course of rotten fish that was already  on its way out of the kitchen.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, but whoever was in charge of resetting the clocks in the White House at the end of Daylight Savings Time really screwed up, because Trump thought it was Saturday night.

In finally firing his Attorney General and longtime whipping boy Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—the only Confederate monument he has been willing to take down, as one wag quipped—Trump really gave the game away.

In the general public we are not privy to everything that is going on behind the scenes with the Mueller inquiry, its negotiations with the White House, the secret orders issued to Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of the shitshow. But in retrospect, the fanatical push to get Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and the hysterical fearmongering ahead of the midterms can be seen for what they were: evidence of Trump’s terror at the vise that is closing on him.

Deranged and megalomaniacal though he is, Trump knows better than anyone the ocean-sized graveyard of skeletons in his many many closets, and the kind of legal jeopardy he is in if proper investigations into his misdeeds are allowed to advance, and if new ones begin. With the Democrats about to be in control of the House, he didn’t even bother to try to play it cool; instead, like the guiltiest looking criminal you ever saw on Law & Order, he hit the panic button, which also happened to be wired to Sessions’ ejector seat.

For a guy whose catchphrase is “You’re fired,” nothing has done more damage to Trump than firing Jim Comey, and firing Jeff Sessions may prove to be a close second or even the new champ.

In Part Two of this essay—coming soon—we will look at this treacherous new phase of the cold civil war in which we find ourselves engaged……

 

The Politics of Insanity

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The arrest last week of a fanatic pro-Trump Floridian named Cesar Sayoc for mailing fourteen pipe bombs to prominent critics of Our Fearless Leader prompted an immediate and predictably divisive reaction in the American body politic.

That debate had barely begun when a rabid, AR-15-wielding anti-Semite named Robert Bowers—enraged by Trump’s depiction of a “caravan” of allegedly dangerous migrants headed toward our southern border—slaughtered eleven Jews in the midst of worship in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the worst mass murder of Jews in American history. Bowers left messages on social media blaming Jews for abetting what Trump called the migrant “invasion,” and after a gunfight with police continued to spout anti-Semitic invective even as Jewish doctors treated his wounds.

In assessing these tragedies, the left called Trump out for the role played by his incendiary rhetoric, his hyperventilating demonization of his enemies, and—most pointedly—his open encouragement of violence by his supporters. The right blithely dismissed any connection, suggesting that both Sayoc and Bowers are mentally ill: “crackpots,” whose actions can’t be blamed on Trump.

In my essay last week, Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System, I staked out my position on the question. You can guess what it was.

And by the by, overshadowed by these two crimes was a third that completed the week’s appalling trifecta: the cold-blooded murder of two African-Americans by a white killer in a Kroger supermarket in Jeffersontown, KY, near Louisville. That’s what life in the US in 2018 has come to: a horrific, homicidal hate crime like that barely even makes the news. The Jeffersontown killer, a man named Gregory Bush, murdered those two people only because he had failed to gain entry to a predominantly black church shortly before. Had he succeeded, we might have had twin racially-motivated mass murders in a synagogue and a Christian church in the same week.

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

I don’t know the respective mental states of Mr. Sayoc, Mr. Bowers, and Mr. Bush; medical doctors will determine that, or at least offer informed opinions. But as these three men make their way through the criminal justice system over the coming months, we will wrestle with the issue that the GOP instantly gravitated to, one that could get a lot thornier still if more acts of right wing violence take place (which seem to me more likely than not, were I a betting man):

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.

MAKING A MURDERER

Ted Kaczynski was an academic prodigy who skipped two grades and entered Harvard at age 16. A shy, introverted boy from a provincial Polish-American family in a working class Chicago suburb, he was badly out of place at the Fair Harvard of the late 1950s, then still a bastion of East Coast wealth and privilege. But for Kaczysnki, the truly lethal turn came when he was plucked out of the student body to be part of a grossly unethical behavioral experiment conducted by Dr. Henry Murray, one of the most famous and accomplished psychologists of the time (and still—shockingly—esteemed by many in his field to this day).

During World War II Murray had been a lieutenant colonel in the OSS, conducting work on interrogation and torture/counter-torture techniques as part of agent assessment and training. After the war his research continued, secretly funded by the newly-founded CIA, which was looking for any possible edge in the Cold War, to include what is colloquially called “mind control” and “brainwashing.” As part of this particular Murray experiment, the still-teenaged Ted Kaczynski—along with 21 other young Harvard men likewise chosen for their “outcast” profiles—was subjected to inhumanly savage psychological abuse designed to destroy the individual’s sense of self.  There is also speculation that he was dosed with LSD without his knowledge in conjunction with the CIA’s infamous MK Ultra program.

It is undeniably true that of the 22 young men subjected to Dr. Murray’s Manchurian Candidate-style experiments, only Kaczynski went on to become a serial killer. So even as appalling and unethical as it was, that experience can’t be definitively tagged as the Rosetta Stone of his murderousness. But it damn sure didn’t help.

What was it in Kaczynski’s background, DNA, or life experience that triggered him and not the others? Books have been written on the matter. (I recommend Alston Chase’s Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber.) A gut-wrenching incident of months-long hospitalization and forced separation from his mother in his infancy, followed by a permanent change in his personality and demeanor, is considered another strong contributor.

We do know that after Dr. Murray french fried his brain, Kaczynski slipped slowly into homicidal obsession even as he graduated from Harvard, earned a PhD in mathematics at Michigan, and became one of the youngest professors ever at UC Berkeley. (His journals show his first recorded homicidal thoughts while he was still an undergrad.) Walking the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s, young Prof. Kaczynski was filled with contempt for the hippies and left-wing student radicals who surrounded him, and who likely viewed the laughably square young mathematician the same way. It’s doubtful any of them imagined that within his tortured mind plans were germinating for acts of violence far more memorable than anything their own movement would ever carry out.

Kaczynski soon left Berkeley and eventually retreated into a hermetic existence in a cabin in the hills of Montana, embracing an anarcho-primitivist philosophy that held industrialization and technology to blame for mankind’s ills. In 1978 he mailed the first of sixteen pipe bombs, sent to a somewhat arbitrary target list of academics, business executives, and lobbyists, among others. Over the next 17 years he killed three people (you thought it was more, didn’t you?) and wounded another 23.

Toward the end of his bombing campaign, Kaczynski used the threat of further murders to blackmail the New York Times and Washington Post into publishing his 35,000 word “manifesto” (as the press inevitably dubbed it), more formally known as Industrial Society and Its Future. In a Shakespearean twist, Kaczynski was caught only because his younger brother David recognized Ted’s verbiage and ideology, and—though tormented at the thought of betraying his brother—reached out to the FBI.

But what is really germane to our discussion is what happened after Ted Kaczynski was arrested.

BELITTLING THE CRITIC AND DEFUSING THE THREAT

After Kaczynski’s capture, a vision of him quickly took hold in the public imagination: the wild-haired, wild-eyed “hermit” holed up in a ramshackle cabin in the wilderness, scrawling his lunatic “manifesto,” and mailing bombs to his imagined enemies. (Memorably parodied by Will Ferrell on SNL.)

It was a pretty easy trope to spread.

The reality was actually quite different, right down to the nature of his cabin, the meticulousness of his methods, and the cogency of his writing. But as recent events ought to have demonstrated (beginning, say, in July 2015), reality is never as important as perception.

The fact was, the powers that be had a vested interest not just in prosecuting Kaczynski, but in discrediting and ridiculing him. The most important thing was not to punish the man, but to make sure that no one took him seriously. Kaczynski himself understood this very well.

I read the so-called manifesto several times for a project I worked on some years ago with the director Mark Romanek, a longtime student of the story. It is anything but the raving nonsense that it has been painted as. While I certainly don’t agree with all of it, or even most of it, Kaczynski undeniably makes a well-articulated, thought-provoking case for the negative effects of industrialization and technology, one that is worthy of serious consideration.

Accordingly, he represented a real threat to the status quo and Them That Has. True, he wasn’t likely to lead a revolution, but it was dangerous to let anyone plant doubt in the public mind about the wisdom and beneficence of the current system. (Kind of like the way ASCAP went after the Girl Scouts to send a message that nobody better cross them.)

To that end, it was essential that Ted Kaczynski be seen as a “nut”—a clearly insane person whose feverish ramblings were not worthy of dignifying with attention or scholarship. And indeed, this is the image of the “Unabomber” (so acronymed by the FBI for his targeting of universities and airlines) that most people have today. The last thing the ruling class wanted was for anyone to think critically about whether or not anything Ted Kaczynski said or wrote made sense.

In one telling side story, there was at least one smartass website that snidely offered selections from the manifesto cheek by jowl with excepts from Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance, the predecessor to An Inconvenient Truth, and dared readers to guess which was which. The idea, of course, was to suggest that Gore was a Kaczynski-like cuckoo. (“Climate change? Don’t make me laugh!”) In reality, the exercise proves precisely the opposite: that Ted Kaczynski, despite the best efforts to beclown him, actually had a lot of valuable things to say…..things the prevailing power structure REALLY does not want you to think about.

(Interestingly, Kaczynski shares with conservatives a scorching disdain for the left-of-center liberalism prevalent at the places he was educated and worked, like Harvard and Berkeley. But liberals get off easy. By contrast, in the manifesto he barely wastes any time at all on conservatism, which he dismisses as so intellectually bankrupt and beneath contempt that it doesn’t even merit discussion. Ouch.)

I’m not saying the manifesto was “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine.  (“Some men say that I’m intense or I’m insane.”) Ted frequently goes off on tears and tangents driven by his own unique idiosyncracies, and some of it is, I’m told, reductive of more accomplished anarcho-primitivist academics. (Everyone’s a critic.) But much of it is a very savvy, on-point critique of the problems engendered by the Industrial Revolution and its legacy and is a persuasive read…..at least right up to the point where he writes, “And that’s why I had to kill people.”

But Ted Kaczynski is far from the first would-be revolutionary to come to that conclusion.

JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE PARANOID

After being captured, Ted’s greatest fear was being portrayed as a mere lunatic. To that end, against the advice of his lawyers, he refused to pursue an insanity defense. Those lawyers secretly mounted one anyway, without informing him. When Kaczynski learned of this he tried to fire them, but was prevented by the presiding judge. Overwrought, he attempted suicide. (A poor choice, as it lent credence —at least to the general public—to the very diagnosis of mental illness that he so opposed.)

Think about that for a moment. Kaczynski’s attorneys were attempting to portray him as a delusional paranoid who imagined that people were scheming behind his back. Meanwhile, they were scheming behind his back.

Kafka couldn’t have written it any better.

From Kafka back to Shakespeare, David Kaczynski’s agony continued. He had agreed to turn in his brother on the condition that the federal authorities wouldn’t seek the death penalty. The Justice Department agreed, then reneged once Ted was in custody. After David expressed his outrage, the DOJ eventually settled for life in prison in a plea bargain, sparing his brother the insanity defense he abhorred.

So was Ted Kaczynski mentally ill or not?

Mental illness is not a yes-or-no, one-size-fits-all proposition; there are of course degrees and infinite variations. The very terms themselves are subject to unresolvable debate. For our purposes it doesn’t really matter. It is enough to say that for whatever reason, as evidenced by his journals, his behavior, his personal history, and the expert assessment of various doctors, Ted Kaczynski suffered at least to some degree from mental illness as it is commonly understood. It’s simply incorrect to say that he was completely rational. But neither is it correct to dismiss him—as some were eager to do—as a raving madman living in a world of delusions who did not understand the consequences of his actions.

Very much the contrary.

TERRORISM BEGINS AT HOME

 As we all know, “insanity” is a legal concept, not a medical one. As a defense in horrific crimes like a mass shooting or serial killing it has become almost a tautology: the sheer terribleness of the crime is itself held up as evidence that only a madman could have committed it. Mental illness has come to be routinely assumed in crimes of that magnitude, even if it doesn’t result in a ruling of incompetence to stand trial or acquittal by reason of insanity.

But Ted Kaczynski mailing pipe bombs to people he believed represented destructive forces in Western society does not make him insane. You can argue that it was immoral, or not an advisable way to earn credibility, or to bring about the desired political change. But the mere use of violence can’t be held up as evidence of madness.

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.

Whatever his psychological demons, Kaczynski—in his goals, his reasoning, his methods, his communications with the press, indeed in everything he did—had far more in common with political terrorists like the Weathermen or the IRA than he did with garden variety serial killers on the order of a Dahmer, a Zodiac, or a Son of Sam.

The proof is partially in his success: his tradecraft and operational security was so good that he eluded US law enforcement for decades, prompting the longest and costliest manhunt in FBI history, and even then was caught only because of his brother.

To my knowledge no one has ever made a serious claim that the Weather Underground were just a bunch of mentally ill people. Even those who vehemently disagreed with their politics and/or their methods concede that they were a political organization—albeit an outlaw one—driven by concrete policy goals, not delusion and fantasy. (Except perhaps in their belief that they could triumph. Not to belittle them: just acknowledging the standard conservative critique.)

Clearly recognizing this kinship—though also as a means of camouflage—Kaczynski created the persona of a mythical insurgent group called “Freedom Club” in whose name he penned the manifesto. (Later, in the Florence supermax prison, he also reportedly befriended two other high profile terrorist inmates, the Al Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef, who was part of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Timothy McVeigh, one of the Oklahoma City bombers, who was later executed.)

To be clear: I am not defending Kaczynski’s use of violence. He is a murderer. I am merely saying that, whatever his mental health issues and to whatever extent they influenced his thinking, in embracing a military strategy he was engaged in a very traditional political act, not mere nihilism or a manifestation of derangement.

So we are left with the challenging conclusion that Kaczynski is a complex example of a killer who at once displays some hallmarks of a psychopath but also some of a rational—albeit violent—political terrorist. What that ought to tell us is that “mental illness” does not in and of itself preclude other factors and motivations. Indeed, the two often go hand in hand.

IN THE COMPANY OF KILLERS

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. The same can be said of Hitler’s irrational obsession with Jewry, which—genocidal and unfounded as it was—nevertheless appears to have been no act. Per the aforementioned tautology, Hitler’s willingness to order the industrialized massacre of 12 million innocent civilians also speaks to a certain, uh, no-so-healthiness.

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.

For that matter, there is plenty of evidence—and plenty of discussion, both among the general public and mental health professionals—that Trump himself is mentally ill. The Goldwater Rule notwithstanding, more than a few experts have suggested he is, at the very least, a malignant narcissist and clinically paranoid, as well as demonstrating signs of early onset dementia (the slurred speech, the goldfish-level attention span, the rambling and nonsensical speech).

None of which excuses his crimes or makes the damage he’s done any more palatable, any more than they excuse Kaczynski’s.

With his characteristic instinct for saying and doing the very worst possible thing in every single situation, Trump’s first reaction to the Tree of Life massacre was to suggest that synagogues ought to be more like armed camps. As it happens, synagogues in Britain, Germany, and France (to name just a few) are in fact often heavily protected by armed guards. That sight is a sad one, but understandable in light of the dark shadow of European history. But you know what else those countries have that helps protect Jews—and others—from mass murderers? A citizenry that is not armed with AR-15s and a head of state that doesn’t make a practice of whipping his thuggish followers into a racist frenzy.

Regrettable though it is, the idea of hardening targets is not the offensive part. The offensive part is that that was Trump’s first reaction: not to express sympathy, or even pay the usual lip service to grief and unity, but to blame the victims for not protecting themselves better. It’s a vomit-inducing response, but not a surprising one.

Speaking of which, the stubborn insistence that mental illness excludes any other contributor to violence is similar to an argument often raised in the debate over mass shootings themselves.

Every time there is a gun-related mass murder in the United States (which appear to be regularly scheduled events), pro-gun advocates cite mental illness as the real problem, not the ready availability of battlefield weaponry intended for military combat. It goes without saying that this is a disingenuous argument deployed chiefly as an excuse for opposing even the most basic and common sense regulations on firearms. Tellingly, the GOP—a group that overlaps heavily with pro-gun activists in the Venn diagram of American culture—has taken no action on mental health either, and indeed has legislated for easier access to firearms for the mentally ill.

Of course, there is no reason that we can’t address both mental health issues and gun control by way of stopping the killing. The willful ignorance of that possibility by the NRA and GOP speaks to the bad faith of their argument. I’m not expecting anything different in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre.

To last week’s demonic trilogy of pipebombs, Pittsburgh, and Jeffersontown, one could also add the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime, whose leaders clearly had been emboldened by their coziness with Trump, his autocrat-friendly mentality, his business relations with Riyadh, and his open disregard for the rule of law. (Not that the House of Saud needs much encouragement to behave this way.) Yet as far as I know, no one has inquired about the mental health of the Saudi assassins in what was plainly an act of purely venal statecraft at its most brazen and brutal.

THE INSANITY OF POLITICS

As with the Unabomber, the current administration will have a vested interest in convincing us that Cesar Sayoc is—to use the technical term—just a kook. Same with Bowers, same with Gregory Bush.

They all may be. Do I look like a psychiatrist?

I’m certainly not qualified to take a stance on the mental competence of any of these men. But we ought to be suspicious of the impulse to dismiss them as “mere” crackpots, and of the dishonest partisan motive behind that impulse.

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. (And not for nothing, but it merits mention that they are all middle-aged white men, or at least whitish in the case of the partially Native American Mr. Sayoc. Strangely, Trump hasn’t subjected him to the same racist ridicule as Elizabeth Warren.)

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.”

Even given the unpredictability of the mentally ill, is it helpful for the President of the United States to engage in the kind of hatemongering that he does? As I wrote last week, Trump’s irresponsible, unprecedented demonization of his foes and his active encouragement of a climate of violence cannot plausibly be dismissed when considering the murders and attempted murders we have just witnessed.

From jump, Trump’s defenders have mounted the predictable campaign to portray Sayoc, Bower, Bush et al as lunatics whose actions were self-evidently batshit, and couldn’t possibly be traced back to any encouragement by a demagogic president, let alone anticipated or prevented. Who else but a madman would mail pipe bombs to more than a dozen prominent Trump opponents, or open fire in a synagogue, or kill a pair of innocent people in a supermarket? (Not that the GOP has really even deigned to address the Jeffersontown killings.) As I mentioned earlier, that is the standard misdirection in many an insanity plea.

But I would be very leery of too readily accepting the presumption that is being  presented to us as a fait accompli: that these men are “obviously” mentally ill, and therefore the hateful, wildly irresponsible rhetoric of Donald Trump—and the scorched earth strategy of the Republican Party itself, going back at least to the early 1990s—bears no blame.

Crazy is as crazy does.

 

 

Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System

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We are just now beginning to digest the news that at least twelve deadly pipe bombs were mailed to prominent members of the Democratic Party (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Eric Holder, Cory Booker, and Maxine Waters among them), at least one major media outlet (CNN), and other outspoken critics and foes of Donald Trump, ranging from George Soros to Robert DeNiro to former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

There has been lots of grave condemnation of these acts, justifiable anger at Trump’s culpability for inciting such violence, and—naturally—despicable demagoguery about the matter from Trump himself and his defenders.

What I have not heard, however, is an acknowledgement of what is, to me, the most striking aspect of the incident:

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

GOLIATH, THE REAL VICTIM

This makes no military sense.

Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare, which is to say, combat between two forces that are not evenly matched in conventional metrics like numbers or firepower. Accordingly, its goal is not military victory as it is usually defined—not to destroy or overpower the enemy—but to inflict such pain (often by aiming at the most vulnerable civilian targets) that the ostensibly more powerful foe will concede for political reasons. It is a strategy typically adopted by small insurgent groups that do not have the personnel, materiel, or firepower of the opponents they are fighting: that is, the uniformed armed forces of a sovereign state.

In short, it’s how David takes on Goliath.

For obvious reasons, terrorism is usually employed by revolutionary non-state actors seeking to overthrow the ruling order. The ruling order doesn’t need to resort to these methods, as it has armies, navies, and air forces that can carry out conventional applications of force in order to maintain and project power and advance its goals.

This is not say that state actors and conventional armed forces can’t and don’t engage in “terrorism.” Carpet bombing, chemical attacks, mass murder of noncombatants and other such tactics all qualify in terms of sheer infliction of punishment on innocent civilians in order to force political submission. But the kind of acts that we generally associate with “terrorism” in its colloquial definition—assassinations,  bombings, hijackings, and the like—are almost exclusively the province of small bands of guerrillas (or lone wolves) seeking low cost, high return ways to defeat better armed and numerically superior foes. That is why almost every infamous terrorist group or lone wolf you can think of, from far left to far right— the Weathermen, Red Army Faction, IRA, UDA, ANC, Sendero Luminoso, Red Brigades, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Lee Harvey Oswald—is outside the power structure and trying to change it or bring it down.

But the terrorist attacks we saw this week 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.

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.

INSERT FROG IN WATER HERE

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  polticial 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.

Terrorism mounted on behalf of the state, rather than against it, serves the purpose of repressing (or obliterating) dissent and further entrenching the status quo. As such, it’s a rather useful thing for a ruling power that condones it, in terms of a force multiplier and plausible deniability. That is especially true in a modern autocracy—of which Putin’s Russia is the prime example, and which Trump’s America is rapidly emulating—that operates under the pretense of a sham democracy.

If we are collectively the proverbial frog in boiling water, someone just turned the heat way up.

THE GHOST OF HENRY II

Trump initially managed to issue a cursory, pro forma denunciation of the attempted bombings, but was soon winking at his base, and not long after, back to his usual poisonous form, blaming the abortive attacks on the climate of “incivility” created by—wait for it—the media. (As Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times wrote yesterday, “We don’t know who is behind these bombs, but we do know that Trump can’t even fake concern for their intended targets.”)

That this was hardly surprising does not make it any less despicable. But that, too, is Fascism 101: accuse your enemies of your own crimes.

Now that a suspect has been taken into custody, I can hear Republicans scoffing that the act of one (presumably) mentally unstable individual can hardly be blamed on the President, or the GOP, or right wing ideology at large. By way of comparison, they are already pointing to mentally disturbed anti-Trump individuals like James Hodgkinson, who shot up a Congressional baseball practice last year, wounding four. Even if this had turned out to be the act not of a mentally ill solo actor but of a rational but homicidal group of right wing terrorists, the GOP would point to times that left-leaning radicals carried out unspeakable acts that Democratic leaders insisted had no connection to their party.

Fair enough. But the difference is that, in this case, it cannot be argued that the actions of the accused pipe bomber are disconnected from the administration. On the contrary, in fact. Yes, James Hodgkinson shot four people, but Bernie Sanders never encouraged him to do so.

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.” Michelle Goldberg again:

(N)o one has done more to stoke political violence than Trump. During the presidential campaign, he encouraged his febrile supporters to beat up protesters, even offering to pay their legal fees. He said that if Hillary Clinton was elected, “Second Amendment people” might be able to stop her from picking judges. Last year, he tweeted a doctored video that showed him tackling a man with a CNN logo for a head. In a speech to law enforcement, he urged the police to rough up criminal suspects: “Please don’t be too nice.” Last week, he praised the Republican congressman Greg Gianforte for assaulting a journalist, a crime towhich Gianforte pleaded guilty. “Any guy who can do a body slam—he’s my kind of guy,” said Trump.

At the risk of trafficking in a thought experiment that has ceased to have any power, imagine if Hillary Clinton—or worse, a black guy like Barack Hussein Obama—had gone around saying those sorts of things Donald Trump says on a daily basis, and some left wing bomber had done what this pro-Trump would-be killer has done. Oh yes, I am sure Fox Nation would have given them a pass.

And now, when one of his supporters takes Trump’s words to heart and tries to murder a slew of his most high profile foes—including a former President and Vice President; a former Secretary of State, US Senator, and First Lady; a former Attorney General; a pair of senior intelligence officials, and two sitting members of Congress—Trump shrugs and says, “Don’t look at me.”

Nice leadership, guy.

One of the few advantages of a strongman, typically, is that they’re at least strong. Ours, on the other hand,  is anything but, and not even deserving of the name. A demagogue, bully, and provocateur, he is above all an utter coward.

DOES THIS SHIRT COME IN BROWN?

No one is suggesting that the Trump White House directed these attacks. (Although if it emerged that that were true, no one would really be surprised either, which tells you a lot.) Donald Trump did not mail these bombs nor overtly order their deployment. But when it comes to his enemies, he has certainly been crying, Henry II-like, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

And now, some would-be pipe bomber has taken him up on it.

Even if this bomber was acting wholly on his own initiative, can anyone plausibly say that he was not inspired and encouraged by Trump’s relentless, incendiary rhetoric? Only a human fountain of lies like Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) recalled the infamous 1963 firebombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black girls, noting how the words of Alabama officials Bull Connor and Governor George Wallace had empowered the bombers. And he should know: as a former federal attorney in the 2000s, Jones prosecuted two of the four KKK members responsible for that crime, some forty years after the fact.  (Here we have a mixed situation. The Birmingham bombers were acting in support of a segregationist state government, but against the higher authority of the federal government.)

Pursuant to catching the suspect, the police and FBI reportedly focused on south Florida because the packages bore the return address of former Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which is either a wry joke by the bomber, or the worst attempt at misdirection ever. Judging by the right wing decals plastered all over Cesar Sayoc’s (inevitably white) van, camouflage and concealment was not his strong suit.

Which didn’t stop right wing nuts like Limbaugh from proclaiming this all to be a false flag operation, natch. Professional hatemonger and tinfoil hat connoisseur Lou Dobbs went Rush one better, arguing that there were no bombs at all, that this was a moon landing-style hoax. (I guess because the Secret Service and USPS are all in on this deep state conspiracy too?) What passed for sanity on the right amounted to the lame, by-now-hackneyed apportioning of blame to all sides, as we immediately saw the requisite suggestion of a false equivalence. Goldberg one last time, dismantling that lie:

At this point, someone devoted to the proposition that “both sides” are responsible for our incendiary political environment might point to the black-clad anarchist street fighters of antifa who regularly brawl with the far right. But even if you believe that the antifa movement is as violent as its right-wing opponents—it’s not—it has no real connection to the Democratic Party, which by most accounts it despises….

(T)here is no serious comparison between left-wing and right-wing violence in this country, either in the scale of the phenomenon or the degree to which it is encouraged by political leaders….

To reiterate: this is not a bunch of revolutionary crazies trying to overthrow the government. This is the government itself waging gangster-style oppression, intimidation, attempted assassination, and other political violence by proxy. To that point, the group that this bomber, right wing goons like the Proud Boys, and the resurgent neo-Nazis of Charlottesville most resemble is the Brownshirts: street thugs loosely organized into a paramilitary gang to carry out violence on behalf of the regime. It is another step toward the full-blown authoritarian state that Trump has been inching us toward for almost two years now, notwithstanding the Republican Party’s condescending sneering at the very notion.

And in this lethal climate, does the President of the United States sincerely denounce these unforgivable attacks? Does he reflect on what is at the root of such hatred and violence and seek solutions? Does he exercise the kind of leadership that his office demands and act as a calming influence on a roiled nation? Or does he further fan the flames of hatred, abdicate all responsibility, and seek to use this incident for his own partisan advantage?

NB: Those were rhetorical questions.

DID YOU SEE HIM REPRESSING ME?

My title for this essay refers facetiously to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I don’t mean to be flip by any means. (Though Python is actually as incisive as anyone you care to name when it comes to social and political commentary. See also Life of Brian.)

It goes without saying that not only were the intended targets of these bombs at risk of death or severe injury, but also police officers, postal workers, Secret Service agents, and ordinary citizens and bystanders. My wife and I have friends at Tribeca Film, where the mail is not routinely opened by federal agents, like that of former presidents, but by regular folks like you and me—interns in some cases. (Look for a sharp downturn in young college grads willing to start out in the mailroom.) The bomb meant for DeNiro reportedly sat in that mailroom for TWO DAYS before one of the company’s security personnel—a sharp-eyed retired NYPD officer—saw a report about the other bombs and remembered seeing a similar-looking package, prompting him to race down to the office after hours, possibly saving untold lives.

Just a few days ago, before these attempted bombings became known (but after the recent, brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a close Trump ally, a crime that was met with similar presidential lip service), Susan Glasser wrote prophetically in The New Yorker about Trump’s incendiary verbiage:

What the President of the United States is actually saying is extraordinary, regardless of whether the television cameras are carrying it live. It’s not just the whoppers or the particular outrage riffs that do get covered, either. It’s the hate, and the sense of actual menace that the President is trying to convey to his supporters. Democrats aren’t just wrong in the manner of traditional partisan differences; they are scary, bad, evil, radical, dangerous. Trump and Trump alone stands between his audiences and disaster. I listen because I think we are making a mistake by dismissing him, by pretending the words of the most powerful man in the world are meaningless. They do have consequences. They are many, and they are worrisome. In what he says to the world, the President is, as Ed Luce wrote in the Financial Times this week, ‘creating the space to do things which were recently unthinkable.

Well, we better start thinking about the unthinkable, because this week what Bertolt Brecht called “Mahagonny”—a cynical, stupid, fascist state—took a giant leap closer to becoming a reality in these United States.

 

 

 

The Death of Hypocrisy

Trump Golf

On October 10th of this year Donald J. Trump—who is, unaccountably, the President of the United States—held a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. (No need to call it a campaign “style” rally, as much of the media insists on doing.)

Why is this of significance?

Because that rally was held even as Hurricane Michael wreaked Biblical devastation on the Florida panhandle, a place which—like Puerto Rico, I’m told—is home to millions of American citizens.

And why is that of significance?

Because roughly six years ago, on November 6, 2012, in the final days of that year’s presidential  campaign, Trump—then a fading game show host, real estate con man, and professional tax cheat, all jobs to which he is far better suited—tweeted angry criticism of Barack Obama for supposedly campaigning while Hurricane Sandy victims were still suffering. (Mara Liasson of NPR has reported extensively on this.)

That was a lie—Obama and Romney had both suspended their campaigns because of the storm—but as we all know, Donald Trump is not known to be deterred by anything so flimsy as “the truth.”

By contrast, this month Trump was undeniably campaigning in Erie—both for Republicans in the midterms, and by extension, for himself—as Michael ravaged northern Florida.

That would seem to be a glaring example of shameless hypocrisy.

As such, it is just the latest float in the endless parade of jawdroppingly hypocritical behavior that has attended Trump’s entire life, and in particular his political career. A few examples:

  • Championing a Republican tax cut that added over trillion dollars to the deficit after years of outraged GOP claims of Democratic irresponsibility on the matter….
  • Making a less-than-worthless nuclear non-proliferation deal with North Korea after howling over the alleged weakness of the far more stringent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (and indeed pulling the US out of it)….
  • Railing against how “unfairly” Brett Kavanaugh was treated after the GOP denied Merrick Garland even a hearing….
  • Promising to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington, and then presiding over the most brazenly corrupt administration in modern American history….
  • Repeatedly excoriating Barack Obama for playing too much golf while in office, and promising that he wouldn’t have time to play golf at all if elected, and then playing roughly three times as much golf as Obama ever did….
  • Running virtually an entire presidential campaign on the demonization of Hillary Clinton for doing government business on a private email server, and then, once in office, allowing key aides including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and son-in-law-slash-multitasker extraordinaire Jared Kushner to do exact the same thing….

I say again: that is but a brief sampling, of which Trump’s Erie campaign was only the latest entry, and not even the most extreme by a longshot.

Not surprisingly, the Hurricane Michael hypocrisy merited barely a mention in the news, overwhelmed as it was by the President of the United States publicly calling a porn star with whom he’d cheated on his wife “Horseface”; nonchalantly welshing on a promise to pay a million dollars the charity of Elizabeth Warren’s choice (sound familiar, Atlantic City?); and above all, brushing aside the cold-blooded abduction, torture, murder, and dismemberment of an American-based journalist for the Washington Post by a putative US ally.

(By the by, I think we all know that in his heart of hearts, Trump secretly wishes he too could just order the decapitation of journalists who displease him. I understand he has Rudy Giuliani preparing a statement that “everyone agrees” he has the authority to do that.)

Memorably, Trump first questioned that Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered at all, before being grudgingly forced to admit, Francisco Franco-style, that he “seems to be dead.” He then defended the alleged killers against a rush to judgment (true, it could have been some 400 lb. guy sitting on his bed), and compared the treatment they received to that meted out to his recent nominee to the Supreme Court, an accused rapist and perjurer. Oh yes, and then, at that precise moment of demonstrably lethal malevolence toward journalists, Trump decided it would be a good time to praise a separate act of violence against a reporter—far lesser but still indefensible—by a Republican candidate for Congress who is now a sitting member of the House of Representatives.

But every news week is like that in our brave new world. There is no reason to think that had the Hurricane Michael/campaign rally moment happened at any other time in the past two years it would have generated a bigger media ripple. Outrage fatigue is inevitable in an era when Donald Trump is President of the United States. But that does not make the outrage any less appropriate, only harder to muster.

And I would submit to you that that is because, in these United States, hypocrisy is dead.

LIES AND DAMNED LIES

I don’t mean that hypocrisy itself has ceased to exist. On the contrary: per above, we are living in the Golden Age of Hypocrisy. No, I mean that hypocrisy has ceased to have any substantive impact on our body politic.

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.

Needless to say, this administration has brazenly done myriad things that call for to-the-barricades-style outrage: the Muslim ban, the forced removal of children from their parents; the continued stonewalling on Trump’s tax returns, the brazen violation of the emoluments clause; the relentless attacks on the rule of law and a free press; the gutting of Obamacare; the unconscionable tax cut for the wealthiest among us as a prelude to reneging on earned benefits for millions of the rest of us; the obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe; the telling refusal to harden the US electoral system against foreign attack despite the hue and cry from the US defense and intelligence communities….

I could go on.

But those things, or many of them at least, are a matter of partisan disagreement. Some people think it’s a good idea to kidnap children and hold them hostage for the ostensible purpose of “deterrence,” when the true goal is mere sadism toward foreigners in general and people of color especially. The people who hold that opinion are monstrous, of course, but at least their odious opinion is genuinely held.

Likewise, Trump daily engages in lies that would make Tommy Flanagan blanch, like the claim that he didn’t pay Stormy Daniels (or didn’t know about it—his answer kept changing), or that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11, or—the biggest of all—that no one in his circle had any contact with Russians during the presidential campaign, much less conspired with them. A kissing cousin of these lies is Trump’s cavalcade of broken promises, including “healthcare for everybody,” or the “big, beautiful wall” that Mexico was going to pay for, or how he was going to bring back the coal industry.

But these things too are a point of dispute along partisan lines. Trump’s defenders claim that they are not lies or broken promises at all. Which, of course, is itself a lie.

But what puts hypocrisy in a blood-boiling class of its own is that it is not, in theory, subject to tribal bias. Democrats and Republicans can disagree over whether it’s a good idea to pull out of the JCPOA (spoiler alert: it’s not), and they can debate whether or not the tax cut is going to benefit the middle class (see previous parenthetical thought). But no one can dispute that Trump lambasted Obama for playing too much golf while in office, then turned around and played an order of magnitude more golf himself, or held a campaign rally in the middle of a hurricane after accusing others of doing so (even though they didn’t).

That is a glaring double standard that no thinking person can deny.

The best a Trumpista can do is make the tortured claim that somehow the two are not the same thing. But that argument of course does not even remotely pass the so-called smell test. On the contrary: it stinks to high heaven.

(For example, one hears Republicans whine that, “Trump actually does government business on the golf course!” without offering any evidence to that effect, or evidence that Obama did not, or explanation why—if that is the case—Trump opened himself up to these allegations by making such a blanket statement, rather than saying, “When I play golf, it will be to do business.” The answer, of course, is because it’s not true, exposing these yogi-like Republicans contortions for the dishonest excuse-making that they are.)

Hypocrisy is in a class of its own as a special kind of bad faith because it represents an objective, empirical, indisputable example of dishonesty.

HIP HIP HOORAY

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.

(NB: Not to give Mitch a pass. When it comes to what’s worse—Trump’s terrifying psychopathology or McConnell poisonous cynicism—it’s a pick ‘em.)

That said, there have been occasional hints that our fearless leader is more tethered to reality than he appears.  Thomas Friedman has reported in the New York Times that Trump is privately amazed that he hasn’t been forced to release his tax returns, marveling to friends and family, “Can you believe I got away with that?” So maybe he is more mustache-twirling than we are giving him credit—or blame—for.

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. Even many of the mainstream Republican electorate—the suburban dads in their polo shirts—have convinced themselves of Trump’s purity and innocence…..or if they acknowledge the hypocrisy, immediately dismiss it on the utilitarian grounds that it was justified “to beat Hillary,” as if the moral value of that is self-evident. Which is itself a form of irrational pathology. Kind of like saying conspiring with the Kremlin to steal the election was fine too, if that’s what it took.

TRIBE TRIBE AGAIN

In my interview with Shalom Auslander last month, he made the salient point—with his usual lacerating, insightful wit—that the most ironic kind of tribalism is complaining that the other tribe is more tribal than your tribe. It’s funny, and it’s true, but it’s also an argument that can easily be perverted as a defense for even more tribalism.

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.

Similarly, suggesting the “both sides are equally to blame” for our current problems sounds good around the campfire set to the tune of “Kum-ba-ya” (tuned to an open E…all together now), but it just ain’t the case.

In short, the right’s tribalism forgives anything and everything Trump does, no matter how blatantly wrong, dangerous, destructive, or hypocritical—even by its own metrics. In that regard, its tribalism is the functional equivalent of Trump’s own pathological narcissism.

Does the left do the same with its leaders? Sometimes, and somewhat, but never to that extent or degree. More often it holds its own to a higher standard than the rules demand, even when it entails short-term pain. (Ask Al Franken.) Even allowing for anecdotal cases of Democratic double standards (the defense of Bill Clinton comes to mind), the sheer accumulated volume of sins that the right ignores, excuses, or denies makes the comparison specious. Among Clinton’s greatest nemeses, you may recall, was Newt Gingrich, a man who in 1993 began an extramarital affair with a low-level GOP congressional staffer named Calista Bisek that continued even as he was wailing like an Old Testament prophet for Clinton to be crucified for his sins. (Newt eventually married Ms. Bisek, after his second wife rejected his request for an “open marriage.” Calista Bisek Gingrich is now Trump’s Ambassador to the Vatican.)

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.

I know that violates the Shalom Auslander Rule, but 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.

WE ARE ALL NORMAL AND WE WANT OUT FREEDOM

So how do we deal with this state of affairs? I have written before about destruction of objective truth as a common barometer (The Nature of the Person and the Nature of the Threat, September 20, 2017), and it continues to be one of the most fundamental, intractable, and worrying aspects of a time rife with fucking scary things to worry about. How can we have a functional political system in this country when one side refuses to acknowledge empirical reality? We are witnessing Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment —”Thou shalt not criticize fellow Republicans”—taken to its most dangerous extreme. When a person or political party will not even acknowledge the blatant hypocrisy of Trump on something like Hurricane Michael—when they not only refuse to recognize it as a cynical matter of gamesmanship but deny it even to themselves—there is no possibility of rational dialogue.

That is how an autocracy prefers it.

The United States has no chance of returning to sanity until the fever of the present moment breaks, until we as a people wake from this reverie and return to an honest accounting of the facts that are plainly before us. That lemming-like thirty percent of the American public that would not turn on Trump even if he were videotaped feasting on the bones of infants and wiping his ass with the Stars & Stripes is never going to engage in rational thought. But for those of us who can do math, who know that two plus two doesn’t equal five and that seventy is greater than thirty, our only hope is a collective acknowledgement of deceit and hypocrisy when we see it, and the attendant political action.

If we can’t do that, if we let ourselves continue to be held hostage by the deluded and the dishonest, we deserve that fate, and will go down in history alongside other societies that did not have the moral courage to recognize and rise up against madness.

 

 

The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II

BK tweaked

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.”

I couldn’t resist adding: “How’s it feel to be oh-so respected but not on the Court?”

“I guess that’s kind of the point.”

I grabbed a t-shirt off the floor—Yale Law, my favorite—and pulled it over my head, feeling every one of the previous night’s Natty Bo’s in the process. The big houseplant by the door had been smashed, scattering soil everywhere; I didn’t remember how. The ghost watched me.

“You do realize that your life as you knew it is now over, right, Brett? You’re going to be haunted—and hounded—for the rest of your life……and not just by me, but by millions of Americans who will never forget the circus that attended your confirmation, or the allegations against you, or your unwillingness to endorse a proper investigation of them that an innocent man would have welcomed, or the appalling way you defended yourself.”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

“Worst of all, you’ll be haunted by your own conscience, to the extent you have one. Because you know what you did.”

I crossed my arms but didn’t answer. He pressed his case.

“Anybody and everybody who lived through the Eighties in your world of upper class white privilege…..anybody who went to college…..knows that every allegation against you rang absolutely true. There were things Christine Blasey Ford said—and things that were written in your yearbook, and things documented by your old drinking buddy Mark Judge in his sub-moronic memoir—that nobody, not even the best novelist, could ever have made up.”

I gave a snort of disgust. “That’s how desperate the Democrats were to stop me. They had to reach back and dissect my high school yearbook.”

“Ah, Brett, that’s a bad faith argument if there ever was one, and you know it. The issue isn’t that you were—in your own handwriting from 1983—a ‘loud, obnoxious drunk’ and ‘prolific puker,’ but that in 2018—under oath—you lied about it. All that nonsense about ‘boofing’ and the Devil’s Triangle and the Beach Week Ralph Club. How dumb do you think the American people are?”

I started to answer but he cut me off.

“But the low point had to be that stuff about that poor girl, the one you and your buddies humiliated in print. Shame on you, you bully. You coward.”

“Sticks and stones, Merrick.”

“Why didn’t you just say, ‘Yeah, I was a foolish kid and I drank too much, but that’s long behind me now.’ But you couldn’t do that, could you? You had to portray yourself as a choirboy. You overreached, and that’s what pissed off so many of your old classmates, even the ones who’d been willing to vouch for you before that. I mean, Jesus: you got in a barfight in 1985 and there was a POLICE REPORT about it. Not a rumor or an allegation—an actual report in black and white. If Sonia Sotomayor had been in a barfight in the Bronx when she was in college, do you think she’d be on the Court today? But with you it didn’t move the needle at all.”

“Why should it?” I snapped. “None of that youthful mischief—to the extent that it’s even true—is relevant to my fitness as a judge 36 years later. A little adolescent indiscretion should erase a lifetime of public service?”

“First of all, I don’t know if lawyering up the Bush administration’s torture program constitutes a ‘public service.’ But even for people who think it does, you wildly misrepresented your past. In and of itself that wouldn’t be a disqualifier, but in the current context it‘s yet another piece of evidence that you blatantly lied to Congress. And if you lied about that, how can we believe your already dubious denials of committing sexual assault? As Senator Blumenthal said, “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.”

“That’s rich, coming from a fake Vietnam vet.”

“And even richer that the Draft-Dodger-in-Chief thought he has the cred to call Dick out on it. The administration stonewalled hundreds of thousands of pages about your role in Bush’s warrantless wiretapping, and about the stolen Democratic memos, and you lied about it all—under oath.”

“I did no such thing!”

“Then you won’t mind if we see all those withheld documents, will you?”

I bit my lip.

“Didn’t you also lie about when you knew of Deborah Ramirez’s allegations? You claimed it was only when the article came out in the New Yorker. But you’d been texting friends to organize a campaign to discredit her as far back as last July. That is a stark and troubling moment of dishonesty before a Senate committee —perjury some might say—that ought to disqualify you all on its own.”

A snarl curled across my face. “I’m not here to be interrogated. I’ve had quite enough of that already.”

“So in other words, you’re not denying it—not this time anyway—just acting offended as a form of misdirection? Blumenthal was right. All this is relevant to the fitness of a person who wants to sit on the Supreme Court. Heck, I’m beginning to wonder if you even lifted weights with Tobin and Squi.”

I flexed my delts. “Here’s the proof, bro. You don’t get ripped like this without putting in the work.”

ADDING INSULT TO PERJURY

The ghost didn’t look impressed. He continued:

“It goes without saying that this was a railroad job from jump street and they weren’t about to let anything stop it. McConnell claimed Obama shouldn’t be allowed to nominate a justice in his final year, before the election. Then he turned around and insisted it was a matter of life and death that Trump’s nominee be confirmed before the election. Beginning to smell the rotten fish here?”

“I don’t see how the situations are comparable, frankly.”

“You went to law school, right, Brett?”

“Yes, Yale Law.”

“I know. I was being facetious. But since you went to law school….“

“Yale Law.”

“…but since you went to Yale Law, I’m sure you were as puzzled as I was to hear the GOP going on and on about ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ They weren’t so concerned about that when Al Franken was hit with far milder allegations that yours. But I’m sure you know—even if Fox News doesn’t—that this wasn’t a criminal trial; it was a job interview, as many sane people pointed out. For kind of a big job. So the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ doesn’t obtain. The Republicans framed this whole thing as if the burden was on the Democrats to prove you were unfit, not on you to prove why you deserved the best job in America. But in the same way that the Senate had the authority to disregard anything in your past and go ahead and confirm you, it also had the authority to reject you for any reason at all—even just the whiff of impropriety, or simply because they didn’t like the cut of your jib. Plenty of would-be justices have met that fate. Hell, Doug Ginsburg lost a seat on the Court because he smoked a joint! Meanwhile you had a whole raft of serious questions floating around you, and yet through you sailed.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘sailed.’ It was a nail biter.”

“So what was with that epic hissy fit anyway? Kinda had blood coming out of your wherever, didn’t you?”

I gave him a sarcastic smile.

“You were playing for an audience of one, I presume. I’ve heard old colleagues of yours like Nicole Wallace say they didn’t even recognize that guy. So was it an act? Did you go full gonzo because Trump had already hinted he might throw you under the bus, and you knew you had to do something he would eat up? Or because you thought you were already sunk and had nothing to lose?”

“I was reacting honestly to a horrific, untrue allegation. Wouldn’t you have been just as angry in my shoes?”

“But that’s not where you aimed your anger. You went off on a batshit crazy tear about liberal conspiracies and people seeking revenge on behalf of the Clintons and the rest of your tamper tantrum. That display of hyperpartisan rage should have been enough to tank your nomination all by itself. It was literally injudicious. ‘What goes around comes around!’ Think about that. You bluntly threatened your enemies that you would spend your years on the Court getting your revenge on them, and you still got confirmed. If that isn’t evidence of a Republican coup d’etat, I don’t know what is. But I guess that’s where we are in the Age of Trump. The days when Supreme Court nominees presented themselves as calm, nonpartisan, and sober—no pun intended—is long gone. Maybe you remember that—it was only about two weeks ago. Now we’re in an age when they have to emulate the President and behave like obnoxious, china-breaking oafs.”

For the first time I sensed an opening. He seemed genuinely offended. I aimed for the jugular.

“In the words of the late great Antonin Scalia: ‘Get over it.’

Merrick’s lip curled into a sneer. “Yes, sage advice from a party that never bore any grudges or spent decades plotting the obstructionism of the Democatic Party…..and the democratic process full stop, for that matter.”

I got him there. It felt good. 

“Brett, the bottom line is you are the capstone to a decades-long campaign to pack the federal judiciary at every level with right wing ideologues, regardless of their qualifications or lack thereof. You’re a Republican hack plain and simple, one who can be counted on to do whatever the party requires, precedent, rule of law, and principle all be damned. Which is precisely why the GOP was so desperate to jam you onto the court at all costs.”

Ouch—that did hurt. Where did he get off calling me a hack just because it so happened that I thought the Republicans were always right and the Democrats were always wrong? So unfair.

IT MUST BE BE NICE, IT MUST BE NICE

The ghost watched as I chucked the crushed beer cans from last night into the trash. The smell was not helping my hangover, and I thought I might ralph. Not a good look on a new Supreme Court justice. Garland went on:

“I liked the way the Republican leadership clucked disapprovingly over Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford. The truth is, they were happy to have him do their dirty work, because nobody does it better. That’s sort of a microcosm of their whole relationship, isn’t it? People always talk about why the Republicans won’t stand up to Trump. Hell, they don’t want to stand up to him! They’ve never had a better frontman, one who’s equal parts attack dog and heat shield. Not to mix metaphors.”

“I think Sarah Sanders explained it well when she said he was just stating the facts.”

I didn’t think the ghost would go for that howler, but I gave it a shot anyway. He ignored me.

“I’ll admit I was surprised Trump had the self-discipline to play it cool at first, but eventually he made up for it, didn’t he? One of the greatest vulgarians in American history calling the protestors who cornered Jeff Flake‘very rude,’ or claiming that the thousands of demonstrators were paid, or saying what a scary time this is for men. Every time you think things are as low as they can go, Donny is always there with a posthole digger, isn’t he?”

“You’re talking about the President of the United States,” I said sternly.

“Exactly my point.”

“You’re out of line, Garland, and you know it.”

“I’m a ghost. Take it up with the union. To me, the only surprising thing about Trump’s reaction was that brief moment when he reportedly told aides that Dr. Ford sounded credible. But then apparently he flew off the handle, screaming that no one told him she would sound so good. I guess he’s not used to hearing people tell the truth. But of course, he has a vested personal interest in protecting sex offenders and discrediting their accusers.”

Again I started to defend myself, but he cut me off. (So rude!)

“And what the hell is wrong with Lindsey Graham? His transformation from Never Trumper to designated bootlicker already suggests there are photos of him in somebody’s safe deposit box. But that speech….Jesus. I guess that rabid Confederate garden gnome was playing to Trump just like you, but even so, that was bald-faced hypocrisy on a whole new level. ‘This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics!’???? He was there for my non-confirmation non-hearings, right? What a fraud.”

“I thought Lindsey was very passionate in his defense of me, which I appreciated.”

Garland’s ghost slipped into a pretty good impression of the senior senator from South Carolina: “’This is hell!'” he spat, then laughed. “William Shatner never chewed the scenery that bad!”

That was really low. “Don’t go after Shatner,” I said. “What did he ever do to you?”

“He really is Strom Thurmond’s worthy heir, isn’t he?” Garland went on. “The question is, was he acting, like he trial lawyer he once was, or does he really believe that stuff? And which is worse? Same question I have about you.”

RAM JAM

I was getting bored with this. I decided to go on the offensive. It worked in Congress, right?

“Merrick, I really appreciate you coming here and haunting me and everything, but the fact is, I was investigated twelve ways to Sunday and they came up with nothing actionable. Soooooo, it’s been real….”

Ghost Garland laughed out loud. “Right. I thought the White House and the GOP would at least try to make that fake FBI investigation look halfway credible. But I guess I was naive: we should know by now that the Republicans no longer even bother with such pretense.”

I shrugged. “The Democrats wanted an investigation and they got it. Yet still they bitch. There’s no satisfying some people.”

Garland laughed even harder. “Even you can’t believe that wasn’t a total joke, Brett. Or Bart. Or whatever you wanna go by these days.”

“How about Mr. Associate Justice?” I snapped. He didn’t seem stung.

“Some forty relevant people offered potentially important information and received no response from the FBI. The White House wouldn’t let the Bureau look into your drinking in high school, or whether you lied about it now? What they hell were they looking into? They didn’t even interview you or Dr. Ford! Of course, now we know that Don McGahn had to tell Trump to severely constrain the investigation or you’d be sunk. I think ‘disastrous’ is the word he used, which is a pretty big tell. You know you’re up to no good when Donald Trump wants more transparency than you do.”

“Zzzzzz.”

“Very funny. For Collins and Flake to vote yes after that farce sealed their places in ignominy. Flake especially, after his oh-so poignant display of torment and sham heroism the week before. Did you see him frantically pushing that ‘close doors’ button in that elevator? I know a lot of people are furious with Susie, too, but her vote made a lot more sense if you don’t think of her as some feminist champion—like so many delusional progressives did—and instead as what that appalling statement of hers revealed her to be: a doddering, privileged old white lady who is every inch a member of the travesty that calls itself the modern Republican Party. This, after all, is the same Sue Collins who demanded Al Franken resign without even an investigation….the one who ran on the promise that she’d leave Congress after two terms and has now been there for six.”

“That’s low, attacking a woman,” I said, and Merrick gave me the side eye. I backed off.

“Call me a cynic,” he said, “but I knew—regardless of the results—that Graham, Grassely, Collins, and the rest of the riders in the GOP clown car were going to confirm you no matter what. Hell, a majority of Republican voters said you should be confirmed EVEN IF you were revealed to be guilty of sexual assault. Kind of like the polls where those same folks say collusion with Russia was fine if that’s what it took to beat Hillary.”

I started to answer, but the ghost stopped me.

“Don’t.”

DUMPING ME, DUMPING YOU

“Face it, old pal,” I said. “This was a case of ‘he said/she said,’ and the Senate simply found me more believable. QED, RIP, end of story, period dot.”

“That’s certainly how you guys wanted it portrayed. I got sick to my stomach watching newscasters talking about how ‘credible’ both Ford and you were. They kept using the phrase ‘she told ‘her‘ truth.’ Not ‘the’ truth—‘her’ truth.”

“So?”

“So have these people never seen Law & Order? She was, by any standard, entirely credible. I’m not even saying she was right—though I’m sure she was—I’m just saying that her allegations were believable and merited further investigation, which the GOP—again, tellingly—had to be blackmailed into pursuing. And even then they gave us a whitewash. You, by contrast, fumed and howled and—most damning—got flummoxed when asked why you wouldn’t support a proper investigation. I’m sorry, but that is NOT two equally credible people. And much like the 2016 campaign, the false equivalence again favored the villains.”

“So, fake news—is that what you’re saying?”

“Ha ha. The big question is why Trump and McConnell didn’t just dump you once your nomination was imperiled. I mean, they must have a laundry list of right wing ideologues just dying to be on the Court—guys just as doctrinaire as you but who don’t have the awkward baggage of being rapists.”

“Attempted rapist,” I corrected him, then caught myself. “Alleged attempted rapist.”

“I know the answer, of course: too close to the midterms. They should have vetted you better beforehand. But maybe that was outweighed by your not-so-subtle signals that you’d shitcan Roe and protect Trump from Mueller and everything else.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response.

“Speaking of which, how exactly did you go from being a slobbering attack dog chewing on Bill Clinton’s leg to arguing that a sitting president doesn’t even have to answer questions, let alone be subject to a subpoena or a criminal indictment?”

“My views evolved.”

He went back to the topic at hand. “But there’s another angle on why they stuck with you, isn’t there? A reason they didn’t just cut their losses and find a more squeaky clean candidate.”

“Do tell,” I said. I was genuinely curious.

“Because it was important that they ram this candidate through. You. Precisely because you had that dirty laundry. Like I said, it used to be that Supreme Court nominees had to be damn near saintly. So the idea that the GOP could take the most partisan, vile, combative nominee in modern history—one burdened with credible allegations of being a sexual predator and all kinds of other questionable baggage—and jam him down our throats was the whole point. They were sending a message that they could put whoever they goddam please on the Supreme Court, and the rest of us just to have sit here and say “Thank you sir may I have another?” They needed to say ‘Fuck you, #MeToo’ and emphatically remind us that white male privilege was alive and well.”

I sighed. My tolerance for lectures on institutionalized privilege is pretty low. (Just so you know.) But he wasn’t done.

“And that belligerent diatribe you gave proved it. What an incredible example of entitlement in its most teeth-baring form. Here’s Professor Ford—the victim of a sexual assault—who behaves so respectfully, so solicitously, so humanely…so collegially as she put it. And then there’s you, with your wild-eyed, tear-filled, spittle-flying, self-pitying tantrum about how you were being robbed of your ‘rightful’ place on the Court, implying that you shouldn’t even have to address these allegations. Truly, it was an appalling display. There you were, with the help of the entire GOP, not to mention the President of the United States, appealing to white male grievance to gin up the idea that you were the real victim. You insulted the committee members, talked over them, badgered Senator Klobuchar—the daughter of a recovering alcoholic—over her own drinking habits, which if you ask me was the real giveaway about your misogyny. It was the most un-judgelike behavior anyone else in the business ever saw. And yet it turned the tide in your favor. Because that’s the kind of chest-beating neanderthal behavior that the right wing—and Trump especially—gobbles up. They were rock hard in Fox Nation when you were done.”

“Are you asking me to apologize for that?”

“I’ve yet to hear you apologize for anything. And I’m hardly the first to point out that a woman who behaved that way—Elena Kagan, let’s say—would have been ridiculed as a hysteric and carted off in a straitjacket. A woman would never behave that way because women know how they will be attacked and belittled if they do, and lack the sense of entitlement to think they can get away with it. Whereas men like you know very well that you can get away with it. I almost gagged when I heard you say afterward that you bore ‘no bitterness.’ Wow.”

“I meant it.”

“That’s like OJ getting acquited and saying he had no bitterness toward Nicole.”

“Comparing me to a murderer. Typical left wing hyperbole.”

“And there’s that non-partisanship you’re so proud of.”

RECUSE ME

I looked at my watch. I’d ceased being spooked by this ghost and begun to be merely annoyed. “Fox and Friends” was coming on soon.

“So now you’re on the Court. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“But this much of what Trump said is true, Brett. Your life is ruined. Funny thing to say about a guy who just became a justice on the Supreme Court, but it’s a fact. You’re a household name now, and not a good one. You’re radioactive. Oh, within a certain right wing bubble you’re a hero—a martyr, even though you got what you want, which is really the opposite of martyrdom. But for more than half the country, including virtually the entire chattering class from which you sprang, you’re in a league with Harvey Weinstein.”

I ground my teeth and offered a cold smile. “I think I’ll find a way to live with that just fine, thank you very much.”

“You don’t think colleagues on the bench are going to look down on you like a skeezy little interloper? I know RBG was famously friendly with Scalia, but I find it hard to believe she won’t punch you in the nards the first time she passes you in the hallway. Remember during the campaign when she made that very mild public criticism of Trump—for which she later apologized—yet Republicans have never stopped howling for her to recuse herself from any case involving him?”

“Yes. I thought it was disgracefully unprofessional of her.”

“Yeah, well, anyway. Now that they’ve managed to ram you onto the Court, do you think they’ll demand that you similarly recuse yourself, after your foaming-at-the-mouth rant attacking the entire Democratic Party?”

“As I said in my Journal op-ed, I have promised to be independent and impartial.”

Merrick laughed again. “You best look out if the Democrats take the House. They’re going to re-open all these investigations and crawl up your ass with a microscope. They’ll impeach you with a simple majority, and that could be as soon as January.”

I scoffed. “They’ll never get 60 votes in the Senate to throw me out. Shit, they couldn’t get 51 votes.”

“For now. But a reckoning is coming. In the mean time they’re going to attack your credibility every single day…..and they’ve got millions of Americans eagerly watching and cheering them on, scrutinizing everything you do or say, ready to pounce. They’re going to make your life miserable.”

“My life is already miserable,” I said. “For one thing, I have to contend with fucking ghosts.”

Merrick turned somber. Almost as if he’d turned his attention away from tormenting me and toward something more melancholy. Elegiac, even.

“And that’s the most disturbing aspect of this. I think we may someday look back on your confirmation as the pivotal turn in our ongoing constitutional crisis. The GOP has certainly dealt a grievous blow to the credibility of the Supreme Court, but they’ve also weaponized it for a very specific reason. This isn’t just about remaking the judiciary and undermining Roe, protecting the 1%, eviscerating public unions, etc etc, although it’s about all that too.”

“What’s about then?”

“The Republican Party has succeeded in pre-positioning the key vote on the Supreme Court that can protect Donald Trump from just about everything. Hence their willingness to endure all sorts of criticism, risk a blue wave in the midterms, and behave in a manner even more brazen and shameless than usual, which is saying something. And protecting Trump is really just a subtask in defending their larger chokehold on power. They are shamelessly engaged in an authoritarian takeover of the United States—hypocrisy, democracy, the rule of law, and even common decency be damned.”

“And they say I trafficked in conspiracy theory.”

“But your ascent to the Court may prove to be the bridge too far for their subversion of the public will. You’re going to be there on public display for decades to come, and people are never going to forget it. If and when you cast the deciding vote that allows Trump to shut down the Mueller probe, or immunizes him from indictment, or excuses him from having to comply with a subpoena, or allows him to pardon himself and all his associates, what do you think the American people are going to do?”

I smiled. “Sit quietly and politely take it, I presume.”

Merrick raised a brow. “Don’t be so sure.”

And with that he seemed to vanish, fading slowly away. Or more precisely, he seemed to be transmogrifying (did I mention I went to Yale?), morphing into a new form. I could still hear his voice as it happened.

“Anyway, Brett, I have to go now. I’ll be turning this haunting over to another figure from your past. I’m confident she’ll do a bang-up job……”

As he spoke, his new form came into shape. A blonde woman in her early 50s, with large round glasses.

“Hi Brett,” she said, pleasantly. “It’s me. The ghost of Christine Blasey Ford. I’m going to be taking up residence here in your guilty conscience for the rest of your life. You miserable motherfucker.”

**********

Thanks Kemala KarmenDoug GordonJim Bernfield

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Losing a Rifle

Vietnam pic

Short of actively committing a crime, in the peacetime US military the worst thing a soldier can do is lose a weapon.

In combat it’s different, for obvious reasons. Government property lost or damaged in a war zone—to include weapons—is routinely written off without many questions asked. But in peacetime, control and accountability of firearms is paramount, second in importance only to the safety of personnel, with which it is of course intertwined.

Is that a big surprise? Stay with me here…..

Weapons—in particular, firearms—fall under the rubric of “sensitive items,” the accountability of which is rigorously enforced. Other items in that category include communications codebooks—what we called a CEOI, in my day—which are typically kept lashed to the body. Losing a CEOI will get your ass in trouble in both war or peace. (I presume that modern digital encryption sytems have largely rendered that old school method of cryptology obsolete, much as GPS technology has transformed the art of map reading and land navigation beyond recognition….not necessarily for the better.)

Another “sensitive item” is night vision/observation devices—NODs—both because they are so expensive, and because their advanced technology isn’t something we want falling into the hands of just anybody. (US manufacturers do sell NODs to the general public, including foreign governments, but not top tier military grade ones.)

But when it comes to sensitive items there’s nothing worse than losing a firearm.

If you do, the world comes to a screeching halt. Training stops. Everything stops, and every swinging dick is put to work looking for the missing weapon, round the clock, under excruciating pressure, sometimes for weeks on end. It’s an offense so egregious that not only is the careless soldier himself subject to non-judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but his or her entire chain of command is held responsible. An NCO or officer who has a soldier lose a weapon is personally accountable for that loss as a failure of leadership and positive control. It can be a career-ender.

Why do you think that is?

*****************

I’ll tell you a war story. (Just an expression: it happened in peacetime, which per above, is the point.)

In the late 1980s I was in an infantry battalion in what was then called West Germany when one of my fellow lieutenants lost an M-16.

For an ordinary soldier to lose a rifle was bad enough, but for an officer to lose one was the end of the world.

Strike that: for an officer, the end of the world would have been better.

I’ll call him Derek. He was a good friend of mine, and this incident notwithstanding, one of the best young officers in that unit, or any unit on our kaserne, which was the largest in all of US Army Europe. In fact, Derek was our battalion’s scout platoon leader, the primo rock star slot for a young infantry officer.

The incident happened while we were on a wintertime training exercise in a bleak and remote Bavarian maneuver area called Hohenfels. (Been there? You’re not missing anything.) When the rifle went missing, Derek’s platoon was immediately ordered to cease training—to cease eating, to cease breathing—and plunged into a desperate search for it. Indeed, the entire battalion and much of the brigade went into crisis mode. Word of the lost weapon quickly spread through all of USAREUR; friends of mine stationed Stateside told me they heard about it.

For weeks the scout platoon walked on line across Hohenfels, armtip to armtip, traversing the training area, kicking snow from dawn to dusk, looking for the missing M-16.

They never found it.

At one point, a general helicoptered in to check on the situation and to speak with Derek, who was under incredible pressure and scrutiny. At the end of their conversation, the general said, almost pleadingly:

“Lieutenant, is there anything you can think of that we haven’t tried?”

To which Derek—presumably trying to break the tension— deadpanned:

“How about a psychic?”

No report on how the general responded, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t give Derek a hug.

After some weeks, the search was finally abandoned. Derek was relieved as scout platoon leader and transferred to a different battalion. In that regard, he was lucky; had he not been such a stellar officer, he might have been summarily put out of the Army right then and there.

I always had my suspicions that one of more of Derek’s soldiers swiped his weapon. I have no proof; just a feeling. Derek hadn’t been in charge of the recon platoon very long, he was a hardass, the scouts were rebels by nature and had been openly chafing under the new regime…..I don’t know. It’s possible. But if so, it backfired badly, as the entire platoon suffered while the search for the lost weapon went on. Morale went into the toilet, and even afterward the scouts took some time to shed the bad rap the incident had conferred on them and recover their old elan and esprit d’corps.

(Postscript: After fighting in Panama with another division and serving as a company commander, Derek was eventually pushed out of active duty in the ’90s. I don’t know what other factors might have played into that fate, but at a time when the Army was conducting a ruthless, euphemistic “reduction in force,” the lost rifle was an albatross around his neck that was impossible to overcome. After 9/11, with the advent of the “global war on terror” and the emergent need for experienced manpower, Derek came back on active duty, got promoted, and went on to fight in Afghanistan. I guess the Big Green Machine got a lot more understanding when it needed bodies to feed into the meat grinder.)

I was in that unit in Germany for three and a half years; in that time, lots of crazy shit happened. One of my soldiers got stabbed in the heart by his wife. (He lived, and they stayed married). The brigade commander was relieved for having a brazen extramarital affair with a female second lieutenant. I had a 42-year-old first sergeant decide to get a circumcision to see how the other half lived. We had several suicides. The Berlin Wall fell a month after I returned to the States, and eighteen months later, my old division deployed to the Persian Gulf and fought the Iraqi Republican Guard 3000 miles away from the Fulda Gap where for 45 years it had been preparing to fight the Red Army. All of it will be in my forthcoming memoir, How I Won the Cold War Without Really Trying.

But nothing ever created as much havoc and panic as that lost weapon.

*****************

But I digress.

The gravity with which US Army treats accountability of firearms is instructive, as is the reason why.

Unlike a night vision device, a rifle or pistol is not particularly expensive, and certainly not by the standards of military procurement. (Remember the Navy’s $435 hammer?) Nor are these items so technologically advanced that their specs need to be zealously safeguarded. Far from it.

No, the insistence on ironclad control of weapons has one rationale and one only:

The United States military doesn’t want battlefield weapons falling into civilian hands.

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.

Last spring, I wrote a pair of essays for this blog about gun violence in America, the need for common sense firearms regulation, and the battle over the Second Amendment. (Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank?, March 3, 2018 and Blood On Their Hands, March 8, 2018.) No topic that I have ever written about—not even abortion—has generated the level of vitriol that rained down on me in response to those essays. Not even close. (That in itself speaks to the bizarre American obsession with guns.)

Many of my, uh, let’s-be-generous-and-call-them critics seemed fixated on terminology, like what constitutes an “assault rifle.” They cling to their semantics like shipwreck victims hanging onto floating debris.

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.

*********

Photo: http://www.historicalfirearms.info/post/116333305624/m16-m16a1-the-xm16e1-was-first-adopted-in-1962