I apologize for a blog post that sounds like a feminine hygiene product. But lately I’ve had that not-so-fresh feeling.
TWO TICKETS ON THAT COAST CITY BUS
After the first three grim months of the quarantine, when the weather finally began to improve, and New York—where I live—succeeded in flattening the curve, summer came as a welcome relief.
Though many people we know had understandably already fled the city, my wife and daughter and I, like many others, had been riding it out at home out of necessity. That was a profound experience. But when the temperatures turned warm and school was out, we endeavored to get out of Brooklyn as much as we could, thanks to the kindness of family and friends.
(That alone speaks to White privilege. Even for people of modest means like us—freelancers who are always struggling financially, and whose livelihoods and professional future are in jeopardy—we were still able to avail ourselves of some luxuries that were otherwise beyond us, simply by virtue of the people we know.)
Mostly we went to the Jersey shore: Atlantic City, where Ferne, Philly girl that she is, had grown up spending her summers.
In the best of times AC is right out of the eponymous Springsteen song (“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact”), junkies and hookers and syringes strewn on the sidewalks outside casinos filled with broken hearts and empty pockets. And this ain’t the best of times.
Atlantic City is also the place where in the 1980s a brash young real estate developer from Queens arrived promising the moon, swindled and stiffed everybody he came in contact with, then fled town, leaving it in ruins.
But I digress.
We were down there with our friends Joe—an AC native—and Amy and Tom and Jess when the lockdown hit in March, and returned again for the first time in May. The weather was still raw, and the boardwalk was a ghost town, spooky and depopulated. A Cessna flew over towing a banner reading TRUMP PENCE 2020: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. Irony, thy name is Donald.
But by June the shore had made a miraculous comeback, and soon resembled its usual self, albeit with (mostly) good social distancing and mask-wearing. The best kept secret in the tri-state area is that Absecon Island, where Atlantic City sits, is actually very beautiful, and so is the carnival life surrounding it, if you embrace it. (For that, see The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.) The sheer intensity of everything else going on made us appreciate it—and summertime full stop—more than ever.
Rod Rosenstein has a house down there too, in Ventnor (check your Monopoly board)—I’ve seen him on the street—and so do Kellyanne and George Conway. In fact, the local community Facebook group recently felt compelled to issue a post begging folks to give the Conways their privacy while they try to work things out, as there are children involved. Fair enough. Though I notice Kellyanne didn’t give much of a shit when other people’s children were at risk.
Of course, in some ways this was a rough, hot summer that will surely rival the infamous ones of the recent past: 1976, and 1968, and 1964, to name just a few. (Election years all, by the by.) COVID-19 continued to kill thousands of Americans every week; the economy remained in a historic tailspin, Trump carried on with his wanton destruction of American democracy, and our streets were the scene of a dramatic and ongoing confrontation over the cancer of systemic racism and state-sponsored violence against people of color.
I don’t count that final item, painful as it is, as a negative, however: on the contrary, it is a necessary and long overdue reckoning with the legacy of slavery that is the original sin of these United States. In that regard, the Uprising—or what the filmmaker Pete Nicks calls the Awakening—was cheering, and part of what made this summer a period of rejuvenation.
But sure as God made little green apples, winter is coming.
ONE OF THESE MORNINGS, YOU’RE GONNA RISE UP SINGING
Even in normal times, summer’s end always fills me with melancholy.
As a boy I relished unstructured free time, and grew up in an America where kids had a lot of it, especially when school was out. Ironically, on that count, my nine-year-old daughter’s summer of 2020 resembled those of my own childhood more than in any previous year, far and away.
As an Army brat, I moved frequently and usually changed schools every fall, so the end of summer and the prospect of being the new kid (again) always filled me with dread, which even in adulthood lingers like a phantom limb. In my mind, Labor Day looms like a gallows.
So for the past three months I have been in a kind of willfully imposed mental bubble, enjoying the respite from a rough spring, and trying not to think about the fall…..all but unable to think about it, in fact, or realistically contemplate what it will look like. As we have all experienced, the uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of this public health crisis.
There are several specific things that worry me.
After New York worked so hard to make it through (what we hope was) the worst part of the pandemic, I fear a second wave, with outbreaks in other parts of the country inevitably blowing back on NYC, by mere virtue of the city being what it is. Even if New York avoids that, I am concerned that various other places are going to get slammed.
I worry about the resumption of school, even though I know many people are longing for it (if it’s in something resembling its regular form, which it almost certainly won’t be). Even though my wife and I have been fortunate in that our daughter’s school has navigated the current challenges superbly, and our kid has done well with remote learning, it’s still fraught.
On a purely visceral level, I dread the cold dark winter, when all the ad hoc outdoor cafes that have popped in my neighborhood and made it feel like a non-stop street fair will be forced to close and life will recede back into the chilly, depressing isolation that marked last March and April. I worry about the economic impact of that, and the psychological one as well. I have confidence in the fortitude of our country, and faith that we can handle that if we have to—previous generations have endured much worse, of course. But the prospect doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.
Perhaps more than anything else, I fear the coming election, the outcome of which is far from certain. Given the poll numbers and the general state of play right now, I would be very confident if this were a normal presidency, a normal time, and a fair fight. But it is none of those things.
The best case scenario—let’s not fool ourselves—is a protracted legal battle and constitutional crisis; the worst, a new civil war. Alarmism, you say? I invite your attention to the news. Increasingly frequent clashes between armed supporters of the two sides—the most recent just last weekend, in Louisville, on Kentucky Derby Day—has made that once absurd and unthinkable possibility feel more and more plausible.
And of course Trump might win, legitimately or not. But it will be a disaster of another kind even if he loses, because he has openly announced that he will view any Biden victory as fraudulent by definition.
Ejecting Donald Trump from office is the issue above all others that keeps me up nights. The pandemic is terrible, it goes without saying, but there is cause for optimism if we are under new and competent management come midday January 20, 2021. The battle for new national leadership is the decision point from which all else flows.
SUMMER KISSES WINTER TEARS
On that front, the big news last week was Jeffrey Goldberg’s blockbuster story in The Atlantic that Trump called American war dead “losers and suckers.” As someone with the military in my marrow, I was as appalled and offended as anyone, though hardly surprised. Trump’s history of denigrating and insulting the US military goes way back. For that reason, MAGA Nation’s predictable dismissal of the story—“Fake news!” “Hearsay!” “He would never do that!”—rings especially false. (The story has since been corroborated by all the major outlets, and even Fox News.)
As David Frum writes, also in The Atlantic, “Everyone Knows It’s True.”
You can tell how panicked the Trump campaign is over this by the carefully worded pushback that it initially deployed, as opposed to Trump’s usual knee jerk, flaming-bag-of-dogshit response. Of course, he soon came unshackled and returned to standard form. Even when he held a publicity stunt of a Labor Day presser to try to prove how much he loves and respects the armed forces, Trump insanely turned it into an attack on his own senior military leadership, and, remarkably, on John McCain. (Who’s dead, according to the best reportage.) The result, naturally, was that he only proved the point he was trying to rebut. The guy truly can’t help himself.
I’ll confess that I didn’t think this story would have legs. No previous scandal has stuck to Donald; why should this one? But it has, and I’m as delighted as I am surprised.
But did we really need this to break the camel’s back? Was stealing children from their parents and caging them in concentration camps not enough to outrage us? Wasn’t “grab ‘em by the pussy,” or Helsinki, or a hundred other atrocities? What does that say about us as a people? There is some irony that a military matter might finally be a bridge too far for an administration where faux patriotism and jingoism are second only to racism and misogyny in its DNA. But it’s also pathetic.
Remember in the early days of the Trump reign, when there was speculation that he’d said the “n-word” in outtakes from “The Apprentice,” the implication being that the publication of that audio would sink him? We know better now: the GOP leadership would find a way to dismiss it, and his red-hatted fans would actively applaud it. But if there’s one thing that’s sacrosanct in mainstream American life, it’s valorizing the troops. That deification is partially a function of collective guilt over the inequitable distribution of the burden of the defense of our nation, which is a matter for another day. But at least it’s now helping deliver some bodyblows to this monster. It’s a rare case of Trump getting the Trump Treatment, which he is usually on the doling-out end of: a simple, sticky, schoolyard-style allegation that the flummoxed victim can’t readily refute. When Trump does it, it’s usually a lie (“Biden is against God!”) In this case, it happens to be true.
Again, it won’t cost him any votes from the Kool-Aid brigade, but it might sway some wavering conservatives, especially in the military community, and every little bit helps. (The passionate denunciation by retired Major General Paul Eaton, a highly admirable officer with whom friends of mine served in Iraq, was especially powerful.) If nothing else, it has kept Trump on the defensive, which is a joy to watch and eats up precious time and space in the 55 days remaining before Election Day.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MENTAL ILLNESS
The best news for Trump this week was that Losers-and-Suckers-Gate did eventually recede. The bad news for him is what displaced it.
Bob Woodward’s new book Rage revealed that from the earliest days of the pandemic, Trump, by his own admission, deliberately misled the American public about how deadly the novel coronavirus would be.
For months some public health experts like Greg Gonsalves have been saying that Trump’s handling of the pandemic approaches the level of a crime against humanity that ought to have him standing in the dock in the Hague. Not merely his bungling and incompetence, which were bad enough, but his willful decision not to fight the virus with the full might at his disposal, as it was disproportionately decimating communities of color whom he scorns and wants to hobble anyway, in the interest of his re-election prospects.
And that was before this public confession of willful criminal negligence on an even greater scale.
Predictably, Trump immediately claimed that he was just trying to suppress panic. (And Trump Nation of course believes him, the same way they believe him when he says he didn’t disparage fallen American soldiers, or that the economy is booming, or that 2+2=5.)
Except, as Scott Matthews notes, he didn’t try to avoid panic. He didn’t say, “Be cool—I got this.” He intentionally spread disinformation, called the whole thing a hoax, mocked mask wearing, refused to endorse social distancing, held super-spreader public events, and actively made it all worse….on purpose, when he knew better. And at the same time—to state the blindingly obvious—was DOING NOTHING behind the scenes to stop the virus.
I’m still trying to get my head around this.
In some ways, this is not news: we know Trump was repeatedly warned about COVID-19, well in advance, by every possible expert. But until now the portrait has been of a mental defective in infantile denial. Now we know, from Trump’s conversations with Woodward as far back as early February, at the very least, that he was very much aware of how bad it was, and that his public statements to the contrary were less self-denial than outright deception that cost tens of thousands of American lives, if not more.
What was he thinking?
Just from a venal and selfish point of view, it was a priceless opportunity to be a hero, to say, “This is dangerous, but I alone can fix it.” Why didn’t he do that?
Don’t hold your breath waiting for a coherent answer. Spoiler alert: there ain’t one, only more deceit, depravity, and avarice that is almost unfathomable in a person entrusted with the welfare of the republic and its citizens.
Even he really was trying to avoid panic—P.S., he wasn’t—why didn’t he simultaneously do anything to stem the coming tide of death? Because he couldn’t, not even in his own self-interest. Because he is a sociopath incapable of anything but short-term, shortsighted, transactional thinking.
Perhaps his willful blindness came into play in magically thinking that somehow it all really would just miraculously vanish without any effort on his part. Even now he continues to insist that the virus will disappear of its own free will, that the spread is contained, that all is well—all lies that make actually fighting the threat harder. I’m surprised we have not yet heard him say this latest revelation is proof of his claim, of March 17, that he knew this was a deadly pandemic before anybody. Maybe he’s losing a step, or off his game amid all his other problems. But I’m sure it’s coming.
So the extent of Trump’s sociopathy is unaltered by this new reporting. Bob Woodward has only affirmed that his monstrous Neroism is even worse than we knew.
Joe Biden—correctly—is already hammering Trump on this and ought to continue to do so, over and over, especially during the debates. Trump will say, “I banned travel from China!” Biden has to say, “Too late, not the main threat, and you otherwise fiddled.”
Fittingly, the damage Trump is suffering here stems almost entirely from his own egotism, in his eagerness to talk to Woodward. The WaPo reports:
Trump advisers said that the president reacted with fury after Woodward’s last book, blaming former counselor Kellyanne Conway and other advisers for not bringing Woodward in for interviews. “It would have been a better book if I talked to him,” Trump said in 2018, according to a former senior administration official. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions, said Trump complained for more than a week about Woodward’s last book, interrupting meetings with broadsides about the author.
For this latest book, Trump encouraged others to speak with Woodward and would often mention the journalist in conversations with other advisers, suggesting that he might call him again. Some of the conversations between the two men, a White House official said, were precipitated by Trump—who thought Woodward was more receptive to a favorable narrative about his presidency.
But not even a narcissist like Don can fail to notice how that has backfired. The Post reports that Trump and his advisors know that this story is really bad for him. Let’s seize on it.
DEAR KIM: I LIKE YOU, DO YOU LIKE ME?
Woodward’s new book is full of other revelations, less incendiary but no less headspinning, including Trump’s poutiness that Black people don’t like him enough, and his childish delight that Kim Jong-un called him “Your Excellency” but thinks Obama is “an asshole” (NB: Don’t you WANT the dictator of North Korea to think that of the US president?).
What else this week?
The metaphor police are working overtime. First a bunch of boats sank during a “Trump flotilla” in Texas, then reports came that the Republican Convention did thousands of dollars of damage to the South Lawn of the White House and the Rose Garden. Would that the other damage to the White House could be repaired as quickly.
As reported by Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, a Bible signed by Trump in his serial killer handwriting is being sold online for $37,500. Buy now before it bursts into flame.
A DHS whistleblower asserted that he was instructed to suppress US intelligence reports about Russian interference in US elections because it “made President Trump look bad,” while newly released HHS emails showed how the White House tried to muzzle Dr. Anthony Fauci.
And lastly, the federal government is now the defendant in a rape charge that pre-dates Trump’s entire political career, never mind his assent to the presidency. (And our taxpayer dollars are paying for his defense.)
The gall of this regime continue to astonish me…..and I thought my astonishment meter was pegged. A cornered rat, Trump has abandoned even the pretense of the rule of law, distorting the most basic principles of our system of government in order to serve and protect him alone. L’etat c’est him. As we have witnessed for four years, he views the entire federal government as his personal fiefdom—and worse, so does his pathetic criminal excuse for an AG, Bill Barr.
Which brings us back to the shortening days of autumn, and the uncertainty that looms ahead.
WHICH BERGMAN MOVIE ARE WE IN?
Soon will be the winter of our discontent, with no sun to bring summer back to New York. Will it be as bad as the nightmares that wake me at 3 a.m., or will we get a few breaks, do the right thing, and be able to navigate it successfully?
As with all things, the answer is to be found in arthouse Swedish cinema.
When I was fourteen, every Friday night the local PBS station in Honolulu showed a Bergman movie, and I became obsessed with them. (This should give you some idea of my social life in high school.) I’m sure I didn’t really understand what I was watching, and I wouldn’t swear on a stack of Bibles—Trump-autographed or not—that I do now. But the stark black & white aesthetics, the existential Scandinavian angst, and the ponderous symbolism were all tailor-made for a certain kind of teenager….the arty, virginal kind. (Speaking of, that time also saw the beginning of my lifelong crush on Harriet Andersson. Not sure if the TRO is still in effect; I have to check with my lawyer.)
At the risk of sounding dull, the two Bergman films that had the biggest impact on me were the most obvious candidates, The Seventh Seal (1957) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955): the latter Ingmar’s lightest offering, the former his most iconic and famous allegory, almost to the point of parody.
The question is, which Bergman film are we in right now? The Seventh Seal—set in medieval Sweden as a plague ravages the land—is the natural favorite. But as I bathed in sunshine and denial of my own this summer, I felt like I was in Smiles. Now, with fall upon us, I can see that pale figure in the long black cloak standing on the rocky beach, beckoning me back into that other theater again.
(Another strong candidate: the little-seen The Serpent’s Egg, from 1977. Look it up.)
On the public health front, I’ve heard numerous calm, knowledgeable-sounding medical professionals and public health experts opine that we know a lot more than we did six months ago, and have more precise tools with which to fight the virus, so the prospect of a full-scale, draconian lockdown like last spring’s is unlikely.
That’s great. Just the limited normalcy and human interaction of the past months with protocols and precautions in place has been a tremendous boon mental health wise, and economically as well, even as so many businesses continue to suffer. With some heat lamps, maybe outdoor cafes can stay open into November (if we’re not in a civil war), and perhaps by the new year the situation will be good enough that there can be indoor dining and other commerce. Will the average restaurant be able to stay afloat at only 30% capacity? Different question.
But I’ve also heard estimates that we’ll be at 400,000 dead by the new year, which is the same number of Americans who died in World War II. We’re halfway there now, and as we all know, the official count is probably low.
THE DEAD OF WINTER
So is the future Harriet’s winning smile under the midnight sun, or Max von Sydow matching wits with the Grim Reaper?
(Anyone upset about that Harriet Andersson/TRO joke earlier, in the post #MeToo world? Fair enough. Although I will remind you that I was 14 at the time, and Harriet Andersson is now 88, so we are into Harold and Maude territory.)
Politically speaking, the recent flood of bad news for our faux president has me guardedly optimistic, which is as high as my optimism meter goes these days. (It broke in November 2016.) But I am still deeply worried that he will still manage to ratfuck his way to a second term, even if it means fighting in the streets.
Legitimate hopes for a COVID vaccine collide with concerns that Trump will try to rush an untested one out as an October surprise. More stories like Jeffrey Goldberg’s and Bob Woodward’s are likely to come out, but they may wind up having no more impact that Billy Bush and Access Hollywood. I don’t want to look back ruefully on this period of hope and optimism and bitterly recall how high our hopes were before they got cruelly dashed, again. The only way to avoid that fate is to keep working as hard as we can for an electoral blowout that minimizes Trump’s intention—the one that he has overtly been signaling—that he intends to remain in office regardless.
Only 258 days till next summer.
Illustration: Final scene of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, photographed by Sven Nykvist