‘Round Midnight

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Remember when Gary Johnson didn’t know what Aleppo was and that was hilarious and disqualified him to be President?

Good times.

DONNY’S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT KOREAN BARBECUE

Um, lots of interesting news this week. Where to begin? Oh—how about with Armageddon?

Speaking off the cuff, Donald Trump recklessly promised to start a nuclear war if the DPRK threatened us any further. Not attacked us, mind you, but merely threatened to attack us….a standard far lower than any previous US president had ever laid down (perhaps because they thought about what they were going to say before opening their traps).

Later that day, an unimpressed Pyongyang explicitly threatened to bomb the US territory of Guam. Trump did nothing in response, except presumably play more golf. This from a guy who loudly excoriated Obama over the red line in Syria. While I’m glad he didn’t follow through with his bluff of initiating a global apocalypse, he also proved himself—again—a blowhard whose boasts and threats (evidently, his only two modes of speech) can be disregarded by our friends and enemies alike.

So much for the world’s greatest negotiator and make-believe tough guy.

It was the most terrifying example yet of the dangers of having an ignorant loose cannon narcissist in possession of the nuclear codes, one that ought to have sent the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists scrambling to move the hands of its clock.

(But her emails!)

Of course, some people have a high tolerance for ad hoc faux macho bullshit that could result in the deaths of millions of people. One of those, and among the very few public voices to support Trump on this, was a former CIA director of operations named Chad Sweet, who applauded the “madman” approach as the only thing the North Koreans would respect. Later, polls would reveal a significant amount of fist-pumping agreement with Sweet’s position in certain right-wing American quarters, the kind of quarters where you’re likely to hear Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and jokes about date rape.

But that argument would be more convincing if there was even an iota of evidence that this was a coordinated strategy. But there isn’t, and it isn’t. It’s very clear Trump is winging it, without even the pretense of consultation with his military and diplomatic advisors. Instead, those advisors are repeatedly taken by surprise, whipsawed, and left to send out contradictory messages as they try to clean up the feces the President leaves behind him, like frantic shovel-wielding elephant tenders at the circus. That is not a strategy, and certainly not one that projects strength and respect as some would have us believe. Contrary to Mr. Sweet’s confident assertions, such recklessness and imprecision of speech undercuts the very bedrock of nuclear deterrence theory, and is as likely to trigger a North Korean nuclear launch as it is to impress them all the way to the bargaining table.

A perfect example was Trump’s warning to Pyongyang—via Twitter, of course—that the US military was “locked and loaded” when in fact no real measures had been taken in terms of positioning our forces for war. (Trump clearly doesn’t have any idea what “locked and loaded” means, having missed out on Vietnam—goshdarned bone spurs!) Such bellicose but empty rhetoric not only increases the risk of catastrophe, but undermines American credibility (not to mention Trump’s own) by announcing very clearly to our enemies that he is ignorant and not to be taken seriously.

Even Mr. Sweet himself admitted that tensions with North Korea are higher than he has ever seen, which is not good by any standard.

But again, some Americans loved hearing our insane clown president match Kim Jong-un tit for tat in florid verbal posturing. Most of these people also believe they need AK-47s to protect themselves from black helicopters (and black people). From a purely aesthetic point of view, Trump’s imagery falls short of anything as apocalyptically eloquent as Saddam Hussein’s promise of “the mother of all battles.” Saddam was at least a writer of poetry and romance novels. Donald’s literary career, on the other hand, has relied on ghostwriters for anything beyond 140 characters. Past that limit, Trump has a tendency to fall back on certain stock phrases, the likes of which the world has never seen, believe me.

But as Trump’s fans and other Neanderthals cheer his insanely reckless, improvised “tough talk” on the DPRK, consider that the other side thinks he is just as crazy as we think Kim is, and mirrors the notion that he will only respond to brute strength. “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason,” the head of North Korea’s strategic forces said in a statement. “Only absolute force can work on him.”

Nothing like a game of nuclear chicken with two madmen at the respective wheels.

But on the strength of Lee Greenwood’s America, Trump’s historically abysmal approval rating did go up slightly after the North Korea debacle, offering three clear takeaways:

  1. Many of our countrymen are fools easily taken in by dumbass posturing. (Did we need further evidence of that?)
  2. Our praise-craving fake president will now be encouraged to engage in even more ill-advised saber-rattling with the DPRK and others (hi there, Venezuela), and damn the consequences.
  3. We can expect more Gulf of Tonkin-style distractions as the Russiagate probes ratchets up, now that the White House has seen how well that works.

THE BABYSITTERS CLUB, MARINE CORPS EDITION

Amid all this legitimate criticism of Trump, the criminality and brutality of the DPRK regime should not be underestimated. One need only look as far back as this past June and the horrific murder of Otto Warmbier to see that. But Trump would have been on more solid ground threatening war over the treatment of Mr. Warmbier—civis americanus sum—than over a missile test that every East Asia specialist and nuclear proliferation expert knew was coming sooner or later, accompanied by the usual nutjob juche rhetoric.

But Kim, murderous megalomaniacal tyrant though he is, is at least a rational actor with understandable goals. (Having watched the downfall of despots like Saddam and Khaddafi who had no nuclear weapons, he clearly understands that it pays to have the Bomb if you want to keep the US Army out of your capital.) Trump, by contrast, is like a rabid badger that Animal Control cannot get a bead on with their dart guns.

The smart money continues to be on the intertwined notions that the US is going to have to accept a nuclear-capable North Korea, and that the North Koreans are not suicidal enough to use their new capabilities. But the potential for error or accident remains sky high….especially with an ignorant cretin like Donald J. Trump in control of the football.

Thus, as I wrote a few weeks ago, we are now in the reverse Strangelove position (check your Kama Sutra) of relying on a handful of level-headed generals to restrain a petulant, overgrown seventh-grader from blowing up the planet. To that end, it has been widely reported that Mattis and Kelly have a private agreement that one of them will always be in the US at all times to make sure Trump doesn’t kill us all…..another bit of news that ought to make us all soil our unmentionables. That’s right, folks: we now require a pair of retired Marine generals to babysit the President. Alternatively, we are counting on Kim Jong-un to be the calming, predictable influence in this episode of lethal brinksmanship. Think about that for a moment.

Meanwhile, I’m glad Trump was addressing the opiod crisis when he veered off and made his idle threat, because I’m gonna need enough oxy to sedate a horse in order to follow Rex Tillerson’s advice to “sleep soundly.”

TO AND FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

Speaking of John Kelly, he had a hell of a first week. So much for the notion that he could bring military discipline to a White House run by the toddler-in-chief. Trump gave two ad hoc press conferences where he sounded like an incoherent mental patient, further raising alarms about his manifest unfitness for office, and launched an inexplicably self-destructive Twitter attack on Mitch McConnell—the last person on earth he should alienate. Oh, and the laziest president ever also saw fit to take a 17-day golfing vacation just seven months into his administration, after relentlessly attacking his predecessor for his own far fewer vacation days. Somehow Trump’s base saw nothing amiss in this, which might suggest something about the differing feelings they have for white guys and black guys on the links.

John Daly yes, Tiger Woods no.

Russian Ambassador to the United States Donald J. Trump also thanked Vladimir Putin for expelling 755 US diplomatic personnel from Russia, further bootlicking behavior toward the Kremlin—and Putin personally—that fed deeply troubling questions about this American president’s bizarre fealty to Russia. (“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”) The natural assumption was that Trump’s nonsense about helping cut the State Department payroll (which the expulsions didn’t, of course) was tongue-in-cheek, and Trump later insisted it was, but it sure didn’t seem that way. Trump’s sense of humor, such as it is, is broad and bullying in tone, not at all dry, and he didn’t crack a smile when he made those jawdropping remarks. As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, claiming sarcasm after the fact is a favorite Trump tactic when he’s under fire for having said something moronic. Even if it was a joke, it would have been an appallingly flip and inadequate response to such a hostile act by a foreign power.

But Trump never even goes that far when it comes to Putin. Remember during the debates when he said “everyone” knew he’d be much tougher on Russia than Hillary, who had historically been so tough on Russia that the Russians were desperate to keep her out of office? Trump’s obsequiousness and subservience to Moscow is so shameless that it’s almost hard to believe he’s in their pocket. (Almost.) No competent Russian agent or victim of their blackmail would be so blatant, or take so few pains to hide it….would they? But across the board Trump continues to do things that no rational human being would do, never mind the President. And that’s not a compliment.

At least he didn’t traumatize any more Boy Scouts this week.

In other domestic news, it was little noted but CNN reported that last summer the US intelligence community intercepted SIGINT communications among Russian intelligence operatives discussing efforts to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, prompted by his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Say what????

CNN has learned that investigators became more suspicious when they turned up intercepted communications that U.S. intelligence agencies collected among suspected Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, who served as campaign chairman for three months, to coordinate information that could damage Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, the US officials say. The suspected operatives relayed what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.

YIKES. Following news of Donald Jr.’s eagerness to meet with Russian officials offering dirt on Clinton last June, this is—if true—the second damning piece of evidence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Drip drip drip.

Then, one day after Manafort met with Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, the FBI carried out a pre-dawn raid of his Virginia home like he was Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, presumably on the theory that he can’t be relied upon to turn over all the documents that Robert Mueller’s team have asked for. It also means that a federal judge was sufficiently convinced that there was enough evidence of a crime to issue a warrant for that search. YIKES again.

The smart money, according to the pundits, is that Mueller is building a case against Manafort surrounding his long history of shady financial dealings on behalf of various foreign despots (not necessarily related to Russiagate) as leverage to get him to flip on Donald. Of course, Trump could pre-emptively pardon Manafort, but that would only strip him of his Fifth Amendment option and in effect ensure that he would have to tell the truth under oath about Trump and any collusion, or face imprisonment for either perjury or contempt. Ironic, no?

Evidently Manafort did not leave Trumpworld on good terms, either. In his book Devil’s Bargain, author Joshua Green reports that Trump went ballistic on Manafort over reports that the campaign was reduced to communicating with its ADD-addled candidate by slipping information to TV news shows he was known to watch:

“You think you’ve gotta go on TV to talk to me? You treat me like a baby!” Trump said. “Am I like a baby to you? I sit there like a little baby and watch TV and you talk to me? Am I a fucking baby, Paul?”

Trump fired Manafort that same day.

Given that, if Mueller puts the screws to Manafort, is there any reason Paul should feel any loyalty to Trump and go to prison to protect him?

WHITE PUNKS ON DOPE

Has your brain not yet exploded out of your skull? OK, then it’s a good thing the week ended with a violent neo-Nazi / white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia, temple of Jeffersonian democracy, including an act of terrorism that killed one counter-demonstrator and injured numerous others. That death was a premeditated murder using an automobile as a weapon—the exact technique recently employed by Islamists in Europe, where it drew immediate (even premature) designation by Trump as “terrorism,” and with it, the attendant wrathful condemnation. For that matter, it’s merely a Westernized version of vehicular suicide attacks that have long been a terrorist/insurgent tactic in the Middle East. But when employed by a white supremacist here in the USA, it drew crickets from the White House for the better part of Saturday.

J.K. Rowling nailed it on Twitter. “Hell of a day for the Hell of a day for the President to forget how to tweet.” I’m being to think she has a future as a writer.

It was unsurprising that Trump’s eventual, overdue response on Saturday not only failed to call out white supremacists by name, but went even further in the other direction by pointedly including the disgusting false equivalence that this sort of hatred and violence happens “on many sides.”

Incredible. Even when it’s blatantly white supremacist violence, our pretender president wants to blame the left, Muslims, and brown people, at least in part. That phrasing had exactly the intended result, as the white right openly—gleefully—celebrated what they correctly saw as a nod and wink from the Oval Office, absolving them of blame and by extension tacitly endorsing their efforts.

Trump repeated that phrase “ on many sides” just to make sure no one missed the point. Well, the white power movement damn sure didn’t. The Daily Stormer wrote: “He didn’t attack us. (He) implied that there was hate … on both sides. So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us all.”

At the risk of employing a tired (but useful) trope, imagine if a deranged black power activist had deliberately driven into a crowd and killed a white counter-protestor at a Nation of Islam rally, and Obama’s response had been to say “there’s violence on all sides.” I’ll leave you to ponder how Trump and Fox News would have reacted, let alone Breitbart.

But of course, Barack Obama would never have said that, because he is a decent human being and was a proper President.

Finally, on Monday, two days after the incident and following a firestorm of criticism—some of it from his own party—Trump belatedly issued something like the kind of statement we expect from our presidents.

Well, two cheers. Looking like he was making a hostage video, Trump read a carefully worded statement from a teleprompter—a dead giveaway of his insincerity. (When he really wants to tell you what he thinks, he does it on Twitter, usually from the toilet, or in the kind of shoot-from-the-hip improv that gave us “fire and fury.”) And he began, bizarrely, by bragging about the economy, credit which rightly belongs for the most part to—gasp—Obama, and to natural economic cycles, and not in a statement condemning neo-Nazi violence at all. In contrast to that wan statement that practically had to pulled out of him like an impacted molar, earlier that morning he had wasted no time lashing out with classic Trumpian viciousness at Kenneth Frazier, the African-American CEO of Merck, for withdrawing from Trump’s economic advisory council in protest over his appalling response to Charlottesville. That is the real Trump, responding immediately, from his heart (such as it is) and showing his true nature and true instincts. The rest is kabuki.

Paul Krugman wrote:

(Trump is) so deeply alienated from the American idea that he can’t even bring himself to fake it. We all know that Trump feels comfortable with white supremacists, but it’s amazing that he won’t even give them a light tap on the wrist. We all know that Putin is Trump’s kind of guy, but it’s remarkable that Trump won’t even pretend to be outraged at Putin’s meddling with our election.

WHAT’D I MISS?

So is a belated statement made under duress better or worse than nothing?

Arguably it’s worse in that it’s so transparently insincere, grudging, and self-serving, motivated only by a desire to stanch a self-inflicted wound, not to mention the hypocrisy of it all. Trump and his team want it both ways: the seal of approval from sane America, but without sacrificing his white nationalist shock troops, who comprise a large part of the “base” that the GOP mainstream fears so much and give Trump his leverage. If he had simply stuck by the first statement issued on Saturday, it would have at least been an honest reflection of his feelings. Instead we got a scolded schoolboy writing on the blackboard a hundred times, “I will not be a racist asshole.”

This the part of our program where we are told, “You lefties never give Trump a break, even when he does what you ask!” Yes, I’m glad he did the right thing for the country—finally—and at least tried to be presidential, for once. But the fact that it had to be dragged out of him rendered it hollow at best. As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic: “Seldom has any officeholder received such breathless news coverage for having the bravery to declare that ‘racism is evil.’”

If it is shocking that such a rally could take place in the United States in 2017—and not in Bumfuck, Alabama either, but in an esteemed college town—it is no more shocking than the election of a overt racist like Donald Trump to the presidency, and of course connected to it. The irony that this happened in the shadow of a university founded by Thomas Jefferson, genius Founding Father and one of the architects of American democracy, is equaled only by the irony that Jefferson was himself a slaveholder.

Is it fair to blame this tragedy in part on Donald Trump? Hell yes it’s fair. This vomit-inducing fascist/racist strain has always been present in American life, but until recently it was forced to hide its head in shame, a pariah subculture that knew it would face near-universal condemnation should it air its hateful views in public. No more. Trump lifted the lid off the sewer and empowered these swine to come forth. They now feel—justifiably—that they have a champion in the White House who is sympathetic to their hateful ideology. And why shouldn’t they, having watched him install Bannon, Gorka, and the skin-crawling Stephen Miller in his innermost circle? Why shouldn’t they, after seeing him run a campaign founded on racism and xenophobia, from the birtherism that launched his political career, to his attacks on Judge Curiel, to his Islamophobia, to the mythical wave of Mexican rapists and the magical wall that’s going to keep them out. Trump didn’t bother to dogwhistle, like Republican nominees in the past; he used a bullhorn.

Do you doubt it? These punk-ass thugs openly admire him, chant “Heil Trump!,” even dress in honor of him, bearing citronella tiki torches from Lowe’s, a perfect embodiment of their suburban American pretenderism to a Triumph of the Will fantasy life. A survey of white power propaganda (I won’t use the bloodless euphemism “alt-right”), like the one at the International Center of Photography in New York last year, reveals how much they revere Trump as their “God-Emperor.” It says a lot about the gullibility and low intelligence of the neo-Nazi movement that they find a shamelessly obvious con man, of all people, a credible leader. They don’t even have the brains to hitch their swastika to a proper tyrant.

The ultimate proof is that David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, now feels free to issue orders to the President. In response to Trump’s belated and bland ‘can’t we all just get along’ tweet, the Klansman (who was present at Charlottesville) tweeted back:

So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?’I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but for once I (almost) agree with David Duke: it is these white supremacists who are Trump’s base, and to whom the mainstream GOP now openly kowtows. And Charlottesville is the result.

And we’re told not to call Trump supporters racists?

As John Oliver noted:“Nazis are a lot like cats: If they like you, it’s probably because you’re feeding them.”

Recall that Trump infamously had to be pressured to disavow Duke—grudgingly—during the presidential campaign. Recall also that during the campaign he actively encouraged his supporters to beat up anti-Trump protesters—another way in which Charlottesville is the harvest of the seeds he sowed—and was lightning quick to condemn any sort of violence when it was aimed toward his own fans. Not so much when the shoes changed feet.

But Charlottesville may open up a schism among Trump supporters, many of whom are older white people born in the shadow of World War II whose fathers fought the Nazis. Even if some of them carry traces of the endemic bigotry and anti-Semitism of that earlier time, how does the Second Greatest Generation feel about seeing young white Americans waving swastika flags and giving the Nazi salute?

Because our fake president’s response was so despicably tepid and equivocal, the more standard condemnations of other Republicans—and even their rebukes of Trump over the matter—have looked heroic by comparison. But let us not give them too much credit. No one ought to be surprised by what happened in Charlottesville. It is undeniably the fruit of the Trump campaign and presidency, and we all should have seen it coming. (Many did.) And that certainly includes the mainstream GOP and all its officials who saw Trump for who he was but made their Faustian bargain with him anyway. This is, after all, the party of the Southern Strategy, one that has courted bigots and racists for five decades (at least) in the interest of partisan gain.

Trump and the neo-Nazis and Klansmen of Charlottesville are not an aberration or a new phenomenon: they are the natural result of the deliberate choices of the Grand Old Party. So perhaps the GOP might now begin to take an active interest in fixing this problem.

UPDATE:

This afternoon, Tuesday August 15, while taking questions from reporters, Trump reversed himself and went back to his original statement blaming “both sides.” He defended the white power marchers’ (ostensible) goal of protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and blamed “very, very violent” “alt-left” counter-protestors for at least some of the debacle. He also denied the very fact that this was a white supremacist rally.

You could just see him seething at having been compelled to make the teleprompter statement on Monday, and chomping at the bit to insist he was never wrong. Never ever ever.

David Duke subsequently tweeted his thanks to Trump for his support.

Enough said.

 

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