Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ian Smith

Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia, on a pistol range in Salisbury, 1976.

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

Regular readers of this blog—both of them—know that its usual tone is one of sputtering outrage. I used to exercise; now I just rely on the news to get my pulse above 150. But here at the end of summer, I had hoped to unwind and cool out a bit with the aid of heavy doses of medicinal marijuana and a 72 hour marathon of listening to England Dan & John Ford Coley’s Greatest Hits.

Alas and alack, it was not to be. The last two weeks have been packed with news that even the dulcet tones of early 70s soft rock and the best of Humboldt County cannot subdue…..

THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS (WASN’T IT?)

Where to begin?

+ Paul Manafort was convicted and Michael Cohen copped a plea, ratcheting up both the legal and political jeopardy for the Unindicted Co-Conspirator in the West Wing. A measure of how much the landscape has changed—literally overnight—is that Trump and his apologists now regularly talk about the possibility of impeachment, if only to dismiss it. (“I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job,” Trump told Fox News, maintaining his record both of ignorance of basic civics and of yogi-like contortions in order to pat himself on the back.)

As Nicole Wallace wrote, it is both pathetic and telling that the GOP is now reduced to bleating “You can’t indict a sitting president!” as its last and only line of defense.

More to come on this story, I am quite confident…..

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

Wile E. Coyote was never this stupid.

+ Also in response to the Cohen revelation, Trump and his supporters plumbed new depths of hypocrisy in pooh-poohing the seriousness of the federal crimes in which he is implicated, essentially saying, “Everyone does it.” This from the same folks who piously defended the administration’s policy of ripping infants and small children away from their mothers at the Mexican border because “the law is the law and these people are breaking it.” Gee, Team Trump sure is selective about when they care about lawbreaking….or more to the point, who does the breaking.

+ In the wake of Trump’s incredibly petty, vindictive, First Amendment-chilling, tinhorn despot decision to yank John Brennan’s security clearance, Admiral (Ret.) Bill McRaven—a career Navy SEAL officer and the JSOC commander during the raid that killed Bin Laden—delivered a Joe Welch moment with a scathing letter daring Trump to take away his security clearance too.

The entire Brennan affair is appalling. And the spectacle of Fox Nation arguing with a straight face that the President has the right to decide who does or does not get a security clearance (for example, Jared still has one…..I think Sergei Kisylak’s is still being reviewed) was rich. This shameless attempt to abuse the powers of the Presidency to stifle a critic is as un-American as it gets. But by now the question, “Imagine if Obama or Hillary had….” has become moot as thought experiments go.

+ White House counsel Don McGahn was revealed to have spoken with the special counsel for thirty hours, cooperating fully in testifying to internal White House discussions and Trump’s frame of mind during crucial incidents like the firing of Jim Comey (which prompted the appointment of a special counsel in the first place) and Trump’s impulsive attempt to fire Mr. Mueller in June 2017 only a month after his appointment (which was stopped only because McGahn threatened to resign over it).

All of which suggests to me that Trump & Co. are FUCKED…..and that’s not even counting the testimony of Cohen and longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, who knows where all the bodies are buried, and whose cooperation with the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York was also announced last week. It speaks to the incompetence of the Gang That Couldn’t Collude Straight (I don’t know who coined that phrase, but they deserve a prize) that they didn’t even know McGahn had talked to Mueller’s team at such length and in such detail, let alone the specifics of what he told them. McGahn’s willingness to cooperate may be a measure of his commitment to his civic and professional duties, or it may be a matter of mere self-preservation by a smart lawyer, or both. Trump, of course, no more understands that McGahn is the White House counsel and not his personal lawyer than he understands that the Attorney General is not Keith Schiller’s replacement.

No surprise, soon after that revelation, McGahn learned he was leaving the White House this fall, via a presidential tweet. (Stay classy, San Diego.)

+ Also flipping in addition to Cohen and Weisselberg, Trump’s old buddy David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, which has been loyally promoting and protecting Donald for years, to include burying potentially damaging stories with “catch-and-kill” tactics like the ones used with Trump mistress Karen McDougal, a scheme which Cohen plead to. Pecker has long been a dutiful Trump ally and all-purpose piece of shit, but now his entire business empire is at risk—not to mention criminal exposure—which is the sort of thing that really motivates a person to cooperate with Johnny Law.

+ Mitch McConnell continued to try to ram Brett Kavanaugh down the throats of the American people, with Trump’s increased legal jeopardy and the death of John McCain (and the risk of the GOP losing the Senate) providing fresh urgency to this already epically ironic crusade. Kavanaugh may yet be seated, even as he tells a credulous Susan Collins that Roe v. Wade is “settled law” (with his fingers crossed behind his back), and the GOP refuses to released hundreds of thousands of pages of pertinent documents relating to Kavanaugh’s judicial history, while speed-reading 42,000 others. One more step in the slow motion Republican coup d’etat.

The aforementioned Don McGahn reportedly has been heading up the administration’s low-key but highly disciplined crusade to pack the federal judiciary with right wing jurists, perhaps the sole aspect of this presidency that has been efficient and effective (if you don’t count “general destruction of American democracy” as a category). His departure is ostensibly timed to occur after he shepherds Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court. For this effort and its longlasting impact on American governance McGahn will have to answer to posterity, even if his testimony helps bring down his old boss.

Of course, on that count there are others who have even more to answer for. Lest we forget, in 2016 Mitch McConnell infamously argued that President Barack Obama should be disqualified from nominating a Supreme Court justice because he had only eleven months left in office. That was the sum total of Mitch’s rationale, and utterly specious it was. Now that same Mitch McConnell is rushing to confirm a justice nominated by an unindicted co-conspirator implicated in felony campaign finance violations and under investigation for crimes including conspiring with a hostile foreign power to defraud the United States, obstruction of justice, money laundering, tax fraud, violation of the emoluments clause, and numerous others, investigations that might well wind up before the Supreme Court where this very nominee will be the swing vote.

In no sane world would a responsible Senate allow that president to name a justice to the Supreme Court. But in case you haven’t noticed, we don’t live in a sane world, nor have a responsible Senate.

+ John McCain gave the American public one final gift, a funeral that seemed from another era (wasn’t it?), calculated to deliver a powerful message about bipartisanship, patriotism over party, and what real public service—not to mention heroism—looks like. Just surveying the depth and breadth of American politicians and other public figures gathered to pay their respects was astounding.

Special kudos to the TV director for having the self-discipline not to cut to Ivanka and Jared when Joe Lieberman repeated one of Johnny Mac’s favorite jokes, about how bad prison food is, and the inmate who replies, “It was better when I was governor.” I’m sure it was tempting.

But for me, and many others I suspect, the highlight was Meghan McCain’s wrenching, emotional tribute to her father, which brilliantly included a scathing excoriation of Trump without ever mentioning him by name. (Obama, Bush, and others let loose discreet but pointed barbs as well.)

That said, I don’t know which friendship of McCain’s was more mindboggling: the one with Henry Kissinger, co-architect of a deceitful and morally indefensible strategy that needlessly sent 41,000 American servicemen (and perhaps a million Vietnamese) to their deaths—and PS prolonged McCain’s own captivity—or the one with Lindsey Graham, who has lately abandoned his never-more-than-tepid resistance to Trump in favor of full-bore bootlicking.

McCain, of course, got the last laugh by explicitly excluding Trump from the proceedings, which clearly drove Donny crazy. Unable to tolerate anyone else being the center of attention, let alone one of his harshest critics, Trump played the petulant child, nixing even the standard statement of posthumous praise and prematurely ordering the American flag back to the top of the White House flagpole.

What a small, small man.

+ Speaking of which, as we go to press comes the cherry on top: advance copies of Bob Woodward’s new book Fear came out today, portraying a White House so ridden with dysfunction and Machiavellian intrigue—and a president so infantile and ignorant—that it makes Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” look like a valentine. I eagerly await Trump’s rage, which will only serve to confirm the book’s portrait.

I am sure Donald is strapping on his mail order Acme brand rocket-propelled roller skates right now.

MISTAH KURTZ HE DEAD

So, in the words of David Mamet, “That happened.”

(Insert gurgling bong sound effect here. “I’m not talking ‘bout movin’ in / And I don’t wanna change your life…”)

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

But I’d like to set all that aside and just talk briefly about a story that broke last week but didn’t make much of an impact.

A Department of Homeland Security staffer named Ian Smith resigned when it was revealed that—at the very least—he moved in white nationalist circles.

Smith was described as a “policy analyst” on immigration issues whose background included work for the IRLI (Immigration Reform Law Institute)—the legal wing of the influential anti-immigration group FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform)—and writing anti-immigration pieces for National Review. In both capacities he endorsed hardline right wing policies on the matter. He was also part of a social scene that included several prominent figures in the white nationalist community, whose email correspondence—obtained by The Atlantic—was peppered with puerile neo-Nazi lingo and jokes.

Let’s be clear about that. Smith’s white nationalist connections and activism were exposed and his resignation forced only because of the reporting of Rosie Gray in The Atlantic. (I guess, as Trump says, the press really is “the enemy of the people,” if the people in question are fucking Nazis.) Absent that reportage, he would likely have gone on his merry way helping formulate US immigration policy. Which raises the pertinent question: How many other neo-Nazis and white supremacists are working in the Trump administration that we don’t yet know about?

To make this even weirder, Ian Smith shares his name with the prime minister of Rhodesia’s racist white minority regime from 1964 until its dissolution in 1979.

Are you kidding me? If this were a movie, naming a racist character “Ian Smith” would get you thrown out of the Writers Guild for hackiness. But then again, so would naming a character like David Pecker “Pecker” or one like Trump “Trump.”

(But it was a big comeback week for apartheid-era southern Africa. In addition to Mr. Smith, Trump decided to gin up his base by spreading a  false conspiracy theory about the alleged mass murder white South African farmers.)

The Washington Post subsequently revealed that Ian Smith—the still-living American shitbag one, not the now-deceased Rhodesian shitbag one—was not just some low-level staffer at DHS either. Sitting in for his supervisor Michael Dougherty, the DHS assistant secretary for border, immigration and trade policy, Smith had attended multiple policy meetings at the White House, chaired by—wait for it—Stephen Miller, Santa Monica’s very own Adolf Eichmann wannabe. Following up on the question of how deep into the alt-right Smith’s associations went, the WaPo also reported that he “was comfortable enough within the milieu of American white nationalism to refer to its leading figures on a first-name basis.”

So let’s pause to again note in what part of the US government the Nazi-curious Mr. Smith was working. He wasn’t just planning Easter egg rolls on the White House lawn or buying paper towels for Trump to throw at suffering hurricane victims. He was helping formulate and implement American immigration policy, to include the outrageous family separation policy at the Mexican border.

In other words, at least some of the people who are behind that policy are unabashed white nationalists and neo-Nazi sympathizers like Stephen Miller and Ian Smith. Does that maybe make you think that when it comes to things like immigration, all that allegedly high-minded GOP rhetoric about “law and order” is exactly what we thought it was: total bullshit attempting to mask a blatantly racist agenda?

And yet, in a fortnight like the one described above, the Ian Smith story barely made a ripple. It is a shocking measure of the depths to which this country has sunk when the exposure of (yet another) neo-Nazi within this presidency evokes mostly yawns.

I’m not sure my current medicinal/musical regimen will get me though this; I might have to switch to Thorazine and Seals & Crofts.

KLAN OF THE KAVA BEAR

Of course, Smith is not the first Trump staffer to be outed as a fucking KKK/neo-Nazi type.

White House speechwriter Darren Beattie was forced to resign last month after CNN revealed his involvement with the white nationalist movement. White House economic advisor and Justin Trudeau-hater Larry Kudlow professed surprise that Peter Brimelow, the publisher of the white nationalist website VDare, had been at a party at his house. (Hey, who hasn’t had professional racists at their house?)

And hell, why bother with bit players? Erstwhile chief White House strategist and former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon has made a career of cultivating the white nationalist movement at Breitbart.

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

So no, this is not news, and yes, there were bigger stories this past week. But a case like that of Ian Smith just drives home once again, and in unusually pointed fashion, how unbothered Trump and his people are that someone in their employ traffics in white supremacist ideology. Indeed, a white supremacist pedigree is obviously a plus for the Trump camp. These are the people they like, and more to the point, whom their supporters like.

Speaking about the Ian Smith brouhaha to Chris Hayes on MSNBC, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg quipped that she would wager the Trump White House includes more outright white nationalists than it does black people. (Particularly with the departure of Omarosa.)

Needless to say, Trump has emboldened what until very recently was widely considered a pariah community in American life: neo-fascists, Nazis, white supremacists, unreconstructed racists, bigots, Holocaust deniers, and the like. These people now feel warm and welcome in the GOP—perhaps the logical, inevitable endgame of the Southern Strategy. Numerous down-ballot political candidates have lately emerged, running on the Republican ticket, proudly espousing the views of the Klan, the American Nazi Party, and their fellow travelers.

Uh, didn’t we fight a civil war to defeat one of those causes, and a world war to defeat the other? (Asking for a friend.)

CHOOSE A SIDE

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

I was in a bar-and-grill in South Jersey last weekend, and as I looked around at all the white people watching college football and eating wings and drinking beer, I had a queasy feeling that I have never had in the scores of previous times I have been in that establishment. It’s the same feeling my wife had while walking through the Rochester airport just a few days after the 2016 election, or when we showed her most recent documentary to a room full of conservatives at a film festival in the suburbs of Miami, or frankly—call me a snob if you will—any time I leave the wire and go outside the friendly lines of, say, Brooklyn. (Sorry, Manhattan.)

It’s the feeling of looking around and asking of the people one sees: “What side are you on? Are you one of them, or one of us?”

This is one of the worst things that Trump has done to us as a nation: he has turned us against each other, turbocharged the partisanship that has been rising since the ‘90s—a partisanship carefully, deliberately, despicably nurtured by some—and further fueled it with his divisive rhetoric, his disregard for democracy and the rule of law, and his scapegoating of vulnerable populations, the media, and anyone who has the temerity to oppose him.

In so doing, fittingly, he has also served the strategic objectives of Vladimir Putin and a Russian government that he brays endlessly that he has nothing to do with. The Russian scheme of sowing discord is fiendishly clever in that it offers its foes a false choice between two equally self-destructive paths: oppose Trump and Trumpism and be accused of playing into that very divisiveness, or seek some namby pamby accommodationism and allow Trump’s monstrous “movement” the oxygen it needs to stay alive.

But as I say, that is a false choice.

I understand that one of the goals of the Kremlin is to foster divisiveness in America, but that is not a rationalization for making nice with fascists. I am not about to make common cause with Nazis for any reason, not even in the interest of “togetherness.” You start out singing “Kum-ba-ya,” but somehow it always ends up turning into “The Horst Wessel Song.”

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

Some 40% of Americans are OK with this presidency—a presidency that hires and protects and supports a man like Ian Smith.  When are we going to stand up and say, “This is not America”? When are we going to stand up and say, “Not no but hell no”?

Maybe it’s time for stone cold sobriety and Billy goddam Bragg.

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