The Sound of Sirens

Ambulance Speeding in New York, Blurred Motion

Last week I was talking online with one of my oldest friends, who lives in California. Inquiring about how things are in New York, he asked, “Have you heard a lot more sirens lately?”

“Funny you should ask,” I said. “I have. At least I think I have. But I wasn’t sure if it’s just my imagination, or paranoia, or maybe that they just stand out more because the streets are so quiet.”

“It’s not your imagination,” he said, and I listened, because he is on the faculty of the Homeland Security program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “The FDNY’S EMS department got more 911 calls yesterday than any day in its history.”

PRETTY VACANT

We are told that New York City is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than half of the United States’ confirmed cases in New York state as the US passes China for the most worldwide. (“We’re number 1! We’re number 1!”) After taking about a month to hit 1000, the national death toll doubled to more than 2000 in two days and only promises to get worse in the next month, or so we are told by reliable authorities. The countervailing misinformation from unreliable authorities only adds to the anxiety and confusion.

Here in Brooklyn, the streets are eerily silent and empty.

People in surgical masks scurry away from you.

Supermarkets have guards posted outside to regulate the number of customers who can go in at any one time.

Most businesses are shuttered, and the ones that aren’t—like the car wash on my corner here in Gowanus—astonish me even more.

Runners still traverse the streets, more than ever, it seems, with all the gyms closed. Being able to go outside for a brief daily walk is a godsend. But now we are hearing word that even that is unsafe. What limited human interaction remains is fraught with anxiety that has accelerated even from last week. Even in the stairwells and laundry rooms of apartment buildings, neighbors keep their distance (as they should, of course).

Friends in the service industry—waiters, bartenders, cooks, musicians, actors, barbers, shop employees, and many others—are all out of work and face dire and immediate financial repercussions. The ripple effect will eventually hit us all, while the impact on the homeless and most vulnerable is beyond imagination.

But as surreal and sinister as life is hunkered down in our apartments, it would be easy to miss just how bad things really are……unless you need medical care.

The stories coming out of New York’s already overwhelmed emergency rooms and ICUs are chilling: of patients “hotcotting” ventilators like submarine crewmen, of doctors and nurses using trashbags as makeshift surgical gowns and plastic takeout lids as facemasks, of reefer vans called in to accommodate the bodies. The Javits Center is being turned into a giant hospital ward, the USHS Comfort is pulling into the harbor, and Army field hospitals are going up in Central Park.

Even while living in the middle of it, like most New Yorkers, I see these nightmarish images primarily on the news (and I pray it stays that way). Worrying numbers of FDNY and NYPD personnel are already out sick, further debilitating the capacity of the system. The infection rate among medical staff is even more alarming, with the peak of the pandemic still two to three weeks away, by the best estimates. And as Italy foreshadowed the US, New York is foreshadowing the rest of the country, with New Orleans close behind. (Worse, in fact, in terms of the impact per capita.)

To quote Fannie Lou Hamer, from another context, is this America? These are the problems of an impoverished Third World country, not one of the richest and most developed, one that flatters itself to be “exceptional,” and the leader of what we used to call the Free World. The pandemic is a natural disaster, but our unpreparedness to handle it is the bitter fruit of the deliberate choices we as a nation have made: to allow our healthcare system to atrophy and rot, to embrace Gilded Age levels of inequality, to value profits over humanity.

Because the most galling part of all is that it didn’t have to be so.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

In an epic piece for The Guardian, Ed Pilkington and Tom McCarthy report on the diametrically different responses of South Korea and the US, which both saw their first case of the coronavirus manifest on January 20:

One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.

Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed. A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease.

Some 357,896 tests later, the country has more or less won the coronavirus war. On Friday only 91 new cases were reported in a country of more than 50 million.

The US response tells a different story. Two days after the first diagnosis in Washington state, Donald Trump went on air on CNBC and bragged: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.”

In terms of total deaths, the US will soon surpass China, where the virus first appeared, despite being just a quarter of its size. And China’s toll has essentially flattened out at around 3300 thus far, while the American curve continues to rise on the way to what Dr. Anthony Fauci now projects to be 100,000 to 200,000 nationwide before this is all over. (The worst case scenario posited by Dr. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London that finally caught the Trump administration’s attention projected 2.2 million dead in the US if there were to be no government intervention at all.)

Despite the dishonest claims of Trump’s followers that he is being unfairly blamed for an unforeseeable natural disaster, the numbers above bespeak precisely what he can be held blamed for: how criminally poorly he handled a crisis that was in fact very much foreseen and could have been prepared for, and was by other nations.

In a piece for Foreign Affairs titled “The Coronavirus Is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History,” Micah Zenko writes:

(T)he Trump administration forced a catastrophic strategic surprise onto the American people. But unlike past strategic surprises—Pearl Harbor, the Iranian revolution of 1979, or especially 9/11—the current one was brought about by unprecedented indifference, even willful negligence….

The White House detachment and nonchalance during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak will be among the most costly decisions of any modern presidency. These officials were presented with a clear progression of warnings and crucial decision points far enough in advance that the country could have been far better prepared. But the way that they squandered the gifts of foresight and time should never be forgotten, nor should the reason they were squandered: Trump was initially wrong, so his inner circle promoted that wrongness rhetorically and with inadequate policies for far too long, and even today. Americans will now pay the price for decades.

Pilkington and McCarthy’s piece is called “The Missing Six Weeks: How Trump Failed the Biggest Test of his Life,” and it is aptly titled:

Those missing four to six weeks are likely to go down in the definitive history as a cautionary tale of the potentially devastating consequences of failed political leadership…..

Most worryingly, the curve of cases continues to rise precipitously, with no sign of the plateau that has spared South Korea.

“The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel recently. “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017, frames the past six weeks in strikingly similar terms. He told the Guardian: “We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times.”

Trump is dancing as fast as he can to convince America that he is our savior and not the man who led us into a historic but avoidable catastrophe. And some believe him, and always will, even as the corpses pile up. But the majority of Americans, being sentient creatures, see the awful truth. And history damn sure will.

LOVE THE ONE(S) YOU’RE WITH

Twenty years ago I edited a documentary for Showtime called Yesterday’s Tomorrows, about how people in the past imagined the future. (It was the brainchild of Barry Levinson, who directed it, produced by Richard Berge, with associate producer Kenn Rabin.) Most of it was lighthearted—the 1939 World’s Fair, Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion car and the Monsanto home of the future, jet packs and video phones and colonies on Mars. But the climax of the film dealt with dystopias, and featured a new interview Richard conducted with Charlton Heston, commenting on the trio of dark-hued sci-fi movies he made between 1968 and 1973: Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green. Notwithstanding Heston’s odious politics, particularly his shilling for the NRA, he was a gracious interviewee, and even gamely repeated for us Soylent Green’s famous climactic line. (Spoiler alert: don’t watch at dinnertime.)

I keep thinking back to those not especially good films, especially Omega Man, when I look out at the desolate streets of New York. It’s a case of life imitating art, at least in how we process it. Since no one is left alive who remembers the Spanish flu, we have no first person experience of a pandemic on this scale. In terms of verisimilitude, science fiction offers our only points of comparison. (And there’s no lack of them. See also 28 Days Later, The Leftovers, The Walking Dead, The Road, et al.) It’s the same dynamic at play with war movies, where “realism” is an accolade that usually means “measured up to Saving Private Ryan,” not “reminded me of Khe Sanh.”

The empty streets are more surreal in their way than the rubblized remains of German or Japanese cities after the Allied firebombing of World War II, which represent a more conventional kind of destruction. I think also of the “neutron bomb” and the headscratching that greeted the concept when it was first explained to the American people in the 1970s and ‘80s. A bomb that kills people but leaves buildings standing?

The images it conjured are very much like the lifeless streets of the five boroughs right now.

I am sure that my experience of lockdown and shelter-in-place is not remarkably different from most New Yorkers’. Ironically, it is proving a boon to Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix, three giant corporations that were already in the process of taking over the world.

Perhaps the only solace is this rare and unexpected time of forced togetherness with loved ones. Presuming we survive it, we may look back on this time as a strangely sweet one, in terms of closeness with our families. (Of course, that presents its challenges too, which in turn has generated plenty of comedy on the web.) A friend with college-age children remarked to me that he and his wife would probably never have had three—or more—months of this kind of uninterrupted communion with their two sons ever again, were it not for this lockdown. (Not for nothing, his wife is a doctor treating patients with COVID-19.) For those of us with young children, it’s equally poignant.

Like any life-threatening event, the coronavirus has tended to strip away the quotidian bullshit and forced our attention onto the things that really matter in the human condition.

Of course, we could just as easily have done that with a weekend meditation retreat.

As NYC has emerged as the pandemic’s global epicenter, the term “Ground Zero” is being tossed about, which is a bitter irony for all of us who lived through 9/11. There are similarities of course, but also vast differences. Both nightmares spurred camaraderie and a sense of collective resilience and community among New Yorkers….but in this case it’s all done from a distance. 9/11 of course also set in motion a chain of events that would reshape the modern world, most dramatically with the Iraq war and a new evolution of the national security state and permanent state of endless war. The long term effects of COVID promise to be similarly extensive, though in what form we can only speculate.

But unlike 9/11, which was very much a communal experience, it is the particular cruelty of this contagion that the sick must suffer in solitude without loved ones to comfort them, and go to their graves in funerals without mourners. Hey, I read Sartre and Kierkegaard and Camus and that lot in school, like everyone; I know we all die alone. But this puts a particularly fine point on it.

A QUICK CHECK-IN WITH NERO

As this blog is usually a go-to, one-stop-shop for vitriol against our tangerine-tinted tyrant, I would be remiss if I did not include a quick recap of all the latest things to make your blood boil. And there were plenty of them this week, like last week, and I’ll wager next week too. (Vegas is giving long odds on Don suddenly becoming an empathetic, competent, Rooseveltian leader.)

Charlie Sykes made the analogy that “Trump is an arsonist who wants to be given credit for being a fireman,” but the metaphor falls apart at the “fireman” part. He’s more like an arsonist who continues to flick matches onto the blaze.

There was his demand for praise from governors before he would release desperately needed emergency supplies to them. (In addition to the everpresent demands of his insatiable ego, Trump also wants bites he can use in campaign ads, from Democratic governors in particular.)

There was his press conference of March 23rd that put me in mind of Churchill—you remember, his famous “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” speech of 1940, when he told the British people: “This is all gonna be over very soon, I promise you, believe me.”

There was his petty, petty signing ceremony for the bipartisan stimulus bill, which passed the Senate 100-0, but to which he invited zero Democrats. (Bonus: Trump, Mnuchin, Kudlow, Pence, McConnell, Chao, McCarthy, et al stood shoulder to shoulder and Don handed out pens without a Purell bottle in sight.)

Immediately after that signing, there was his shameless push to gut the oversight provisions to keep this from being a slush fund/slash/personal ATM for the GOP and the Trump family that Democrats fought so hard to stop. (“I’ll be the oversight,” said Dracula, volunteering to watch the bloodbank.)

There was his reported insistence that the relief checks that are to go out to almost every individual American taxpayer bear his serial killer-like signature, not that of a Treasury Department functionary as would be routine.

There was his insane suggestion that he might disregard the advice of every public health expert and try to “re-open America” for business as usual as early as Easter. (This notion was driven, we learned, by Jared Kushner, the poster boy for arrogant entitlement and unearned self-confidence, who apparently has been whispering in his father-in-law’s ear that the Dr. Faucis of the world are a bunch of Chicken Littles. Kush-Kush should stick to his areas of expertise, like bringing peace to the Middle East.) Fortunately, reckless as Trump’s suggestion was, he does not have the kind of unilateral power to do that that he imagines. We are lucky to have the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Jay Inslee, Phil Murphy, and the like looking out for us.

There was his unconscionable scoffing at New York’s need for upwards of 40,000 ventilators, and his delay in invoking the full force of the Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to make them and other urgently needed personal protective equipment.

There was his implication that hospital workers are stealing masks and selling them on the black market, a vile lie doubly dishonest because it’s delivered with his trademark qualifying shrug. (“A lot of people are saying….I dunno, someone should look into it.”) Here he betrayed his usual grifter’s instincts, for as Scott Sinkler writes, “There are two things you can absolutely rely on Trump for: 1) To always say the thing that’s the exact opposite of the truth, and 2) To always accuse people of doing the exact thing he’s doing, or would do if given the chance.”

There were his sociopathic tweets about the great ratings his daily press briefings are getting, even as thousands of Americans are dying, which may be a new low even for him. Truly, fiction bends the knee at the sheer monstrousness of this real life ogre. (And yet Trump supporters I know continue to praise and support him, and what’s more, insist that he is a great altruist and humanitarian. Jim Jones never had a flock so suicidally devoted.)

There were his continuing, jawdroppingly irresponsible musings about possible cures and snake oil remedies—misinformation that is not merely inaccurate, but represents a genuine threat to people who unaccountably rely on Donald Trump as their main source of medical information, which a majority of Republicans do. (Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight reports that, “Nine of the ten states that have seen the most rapid increase in coronavirus from Monday to Thursday are states that voted for Trump in 2016.”)

There was his macabre, goalpost-moving self-congratulation at Dr. Fauci’s estimate of hundreds of thousands of dead. As Heather Digby Parton wrote in Salon, “Last month Trump was assuring us that the U.S. only had 15 cases and they would be down to zero in no time—and now pretty much any number below 2.2 million is proof that his genius leadership saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

In short, Trump remains possibly the worst imaginable person to have in charge during a crisis of this sort and scope, one focused almost exclusively on how he looks, on how he can dodge responsibility, how he can downplay it with gaslighting and magical thinking and even use it for his own financial and electoral gain.

As Peter Wehner writes in The Atlantic:

The qualities we most need in a president during this crisis are calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; and the capacity to think about the medium and long term while carefully weighing competing options and conflicting needs. We need a leader who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than he does. We need a president who can draw the nation together rather than drive it apart, who excels at the intricate work of governing, and who works well with elected officials at every level. We need a chief executive whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.

There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities than Donald Trump.

THE TIMES THAT TRY

We are living through a surreal moment that beggars everything that has come before in the previous four years, and that—ICYMI—was already pretty surreal. Even the battle over Trump, who himself represents an unprecedented threat to the republic, has been dwarfed by the coronavirus and the unforeseeable ways it promises to reshape almost every aspect of American life. It remains to be seen just how epochal this crisis will be, but it is not inconceivable that it will mark a sea change on the order of the Great Depression or the Second World War. The coming weeks will begin to tell the tale.

We are up against a force of nature and can’t yet know the outcome. But already we have seen acts of tremendous courage and selflessness from many of our countrymen, with healthcare providers and first responders leading the way. Despite our worse-than-leaderlessness at the top, no matter how bad this pandemic gets, I retain my faith in my fellow Americans and in humanity full stop to rise to the occasion and help one another to endure and prevail. We can’t control anything else—only how we acquit ourselves in this crucible.

Outside I can still hear the sirens.

*********

Photo: Getty Images

 

The Lethal Cost of Leaderlessness

Leaderlessness

“Leaderlessness” is kinda generous, isn’t it?

The word implies a rudderless ship drifting without any positive control. What we are faced with is actually much, much worse. We do have someone at the helm…..but that someone is a malicious ignoramus who is actively doing us harm, and what’s more, trying to profit of it in the process.

I am writing this from lockdown in Brooklyn, where the streets are as eerily quiet and empty as in a bad science fiction movie, where—if you dare venture outside at all—the occasional pedestrian you meet will scurry out of the way as your paths cross, where half the supermarket shelves are stripped from panic buying, and where the hospitals are already straining at the seams, running out of resources, and pleading for masks and protective equipment for their harried staffs. Everyone we know is hunkered in their crummy apartments, washing their hands raw and disinfecting every doorknob they touch, drinking booze and wondering how long we should expect this to last, and what damage will ensue while it does. How much worse it will get we don’t yet know, but I don’t know anyone in either the medical or homeland security communities who is bullish.

We turn on the TV and are comforted by the calm leadership of Andrew Cuomo (and across the country, Gavin Newsom, among others leading by example). But he is not the president and does not have the full power of the federal government at his disposal. It is telling that these authorities are forced to improvise and work without the assistance of Washington. I guess this is what Steve Bannon was after with his adolescent, self-flattering Leninist bullshit about “destroying the administrative state.” Donald Trump of course doesn’t know V.I. Lenin from a Liverpudlian guitar player, nor gives a toss about any ideology beyond that of lining his pockets and collecting handjobs from his staff. Yet he has accidentally fulfilled Steve-O’s dream through what Ben Wittes and Quinta Jurecic have memorably called “incompetence exacerbated by malevolence.”

THE PREDICTABILITY OF HIS AWFULNESS

Many have written how Trump’s usual version of “statecraft”—lying, bullying, juvenile namecalling—is all but useless against a pandemic. That, of course, has not stopped him from trying. (Principally, with characteristically xenophobic attempts to portray the virus as a “foreign” invasion, attacks on state and local officials who have stepped in the leadership vacuum he created even as he risibly called for “non-partisanship,” and the usual projection over who’s politicizing the crisis.)

Should we be surprised?

In the Eighties, Howard Cosell privately called the young Donald Trump “the luckiest, dumbest SOB I ever met.” Every thinking person has known from the start that this inveterate con man, tax cheat, sexual predator, draft dodger, malignant narcissist, sociopath, racist, and deeply deeply insecure man-baby—a spoiled brat born into obscene wealth who has enjoyed every advantage his whole life, who is possessed of the worst imaginable values (if they can be called that), who never served anyone or anything other then himself a day in his life, and who has no qualifications whatsoever for political office—would be a disaster as lunchroom monitor, let alone as President of the United States.

But truly, nothing yet has so nakedly exposed his sheer unfitness to lead the country like this crisis. That unfitness contains multitudes, from his utter lack of human empathy; to his unconscionable refusal to take any responsibility whatsoever the way even a Boy Scout knows a leader should; to his gleeful scorn for science, expertise, and truth itself; to his juvenile insistence that he knows more about (fill in the blank) than anyone; to his aforementioned nihilistic dismemberment of the bureaucracy; to his pathological antipathy to anything Barack Obama did. (See his recent attack on PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor over that very issue, complete with trademark misogynistic adjective, “nasty.”)

And in the current crisis these traits have all come together in a perfect storm that now threatens to decimate us all.

Last week in the Never Trump conservative website The Bulwark, Barry Rubin wrote:

Confronted with a looming pandemic, the Trump administration wasted its most valuable asset—time. From the moment the outbreak took hold in China, Trump should have made the ramp up of a testing regime his top priority, because the single most effective—and cost effective—weapon against pandemics is aggressive testing.

Instead, Trump spent the interregnum between the outbreak in China and COVID-19’s arrival in America lying to the public about what was happening.

And now that he can no longer deny the existence of the pandemic, he’s lying to us about the availability of the tests he didn’t procure in order to keep America safe.

I’m heavy on The Bulwark this week because it has been among the most incisive in its skewering of Trump’s criminally negligent behavior in the coronavirus crisis. (Malpractice would be an appropriate word, don’t you think?) A full accounting is available elsewhere, but to cite merely the latest outrage, it emerged this week that the US intelligence community has since January been warning of a coming pandemic, only to be ignored and shut down both by craven Trump toadies within the administration (is there any other kind?), and by Trump himself. As if to further prove the point, hand in glove, we also saw an unprecedented letter from nine (nine!) high-ranking former officials in the US Intelligence Community lambasting Trump as a threat to national security.

Another Never Trump conservative, the Washington Post’s Max Boot, is the first pundit I’ve read to say what many of us are thinking:

I weep in anger and frustration imagining what might have been if Hillary Clinton—a sane, sensible adult—had won. We couldn’t have avoided the coronavirus, but we could have ameliorated its effects. We could be South Korea (102 deaths) rather than Italy (4,825 deaths and counting).

Brace yourself, Max, for the hypocrites who will now accuse you of “politicizing” the pandemic and reveling in human suffering, when of course it is their boy who has amplified that suffering, and exponentially so. It is not politicizing the crisis to point out that the President made it far worse than it needed to be, and continues to fail us and be derelict in his duty in the most egregious ways imaginable.

“What if” is a game far too painful to play right now. But November 8, 2016 looms ever larger in my memory as a tragic error for which we continue to pay dearly.

AMBULANCE CHASING FOR AMATEURS

This past week there was rightful outrage over US Senators like Richard Burr (R-N.C.) who was publicly toeing the Trump party line that “all is well!” while privately telling his wealthiest constituents just how bad this was going to be, and to top it off, engaging in insider trading to dump stock ahead of the coming stock market plummet.

But as Jennifer Rubin (yet another conservative) of the WaPo writes, did these Senators have that information and Trump didn’t? Or as she fittingly puts it, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Are we to believe that senators were receiving hair-raising briefings on the magnitude of the impending pandemic but that Trump was not? That’s not a rhetorical question. Trump is so averse to negative information he might have been kept in the dark by his own advisers. As frightening and irresponsible as it might be, he might be getting all his information from Fox News, which is nothing more than state TV reflecting his own biases and conspiracy theories.

If Trump got no briefings telling him otherwise and believed the gibberish spouted by Fox News, he is the most negligent and incompetent president in history. However, if he knew otherwise — if he knew that the pandemic was coming and would have devastating consequences — then he betrayed his country in some futile attempt to keep the stock market pumped up for as long as possible. (Yes, this would be illogical because eventually the market would crash, but remember that Trump’s thinking is extremely short-term, focusing on whatever gets him through today’s news cycle.)

And the world record for venality continues to be lowered.

As I write this, Trump, Mnuchin, and McConnell are trying to ram through a $500 million slush fund masquerading as a “stimulus package” ostensibly to stanch the economic damage caused by the pandemic. They are as shameless as price gougers selling hundred-dollar bags of ice to hurricane victims. Their plan provides for no oversight, and amounts to a Brinks truck full of unmarked bills that Trump and the GOP can dole out to their friends and cronies and corporate patrons without any accountability or sense of responsibility for millions of economically vulnerable ordinary Americans. (This on the back of a deficit-busting trillion dollar giveaway to the richest Americans and corporations in 2017.)

Similarly, Trump and his mob consigliere Bill Barr are trying to use the crisis to usurp even more unchecked power, calling for chilling permission to suspend civil liberties and other constitutional rights.

Leave it to this criminal administration to find a way to further entrench the autocracy (and fill its wallets) on the back of a crisis that it fomented with its Keystone Kop ineptitude.

Meanwhile, at his increasingly frequent press conferences, which have taken the place of campaign rallies as a way for Trump to indulge his ego and obtain free column inches, our idiot-king demands the ritual of lavish bootlicking praise from his minions, with Mike Pence taking the lead. The pathetic neediness of this monstrous infant has always been appalling, but in the middle of a global public health emergency is it especially blood-boiling.

On that front, Shay Khatiri, also of The Bulwark, described Trump’s vicious and asinine attack on NBC’s Peter Alexander, who had the temerity to politely ask, “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”

“I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say….I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism, and the same with NBC and “Con-cast.” I don’t call it—I don’t call it “Comcast,” I call it “Con-cast”…..Let me just tell you something: that’s really bad reporting, and you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows. I’ve been right a lot. Let’s see what happens…..You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Khatiri continued:

This is the very definition of a softball question, and any ordinary, competent politician could have handled it with ease. In fact, not much later, the same reporter asked a similar question to Vice President Mike Pence, who gave a fine answer, saying that his message to the American people is “Don’t be afraid. Be vigilant.” Clear, concise, with some reassurance but no false promises—a good response….

The fact that Trump responded the way he did suggests either that he was lashing out angrily because he felt attacked by the question, or that he continues to calculate some benefit with his base in bashing the press.

I’m encouraged to see several articles recently arguing that the press has a responsibility to stop playing Leni Riefenstahl at these partisan campaign events disguised as governmental functions, which serve only to spread disinformation that will actively kill people. But I am not hopeful that the entire Fourth Estate will resist the urge for sensationalism.

JOE STRUMMER WAS RIGHT

We may look back on this period, grimly, as the moment when Trump’s lifelong run of incredibly undeserved good luck finally ran out—and we all paid the price. In time, his profile may recede in the face of this truly epoch-changing event, as the ravages of the coronavirus dwarf him and he takes his ignominious place in presidential history as a footnote, not even a Herbert Hoover.

Or Trump may yet survive it, as he has survived all the previous crises and scandals and crimes that rightly ought to have brought him crashing down. His approval rating for how he has handled the pandemic (not general approval, but specific to this crisis) stands at 55%, which is astonishing. How anyone can think—let alone five and a half out of ten Americans—that he’s done a good job is jawdropping, and can be explained only by hyperpartisanship, self-delusion, failure to pay attention, or simple stupidity. But it’s also hard to imagine that those numbers will hold as the death toll rises and life continues to be profoundly disrupted and the attendant economic catastrophe worsens.

Is it petty or small to focus on culpability and politics and poll numbers when the impact of this crisis is so much larger? Maybe. Trump sure doesn’t think so, though I hate to descend to his level. But I can’t yet get my head around the broader consequences of this epic emergency, and the focus of this blog has from the start been on the unfitness of this president to lead, an unfitness that is at the very heart of this crisis, and never on starker and more dangerous display.

Trump wants to cast himself as a wartime president, but the analogy doesn’t hold. The coronavirus isn’t an enemy he can demonize; it’s an unstoppable force of nature that is impervious to his bullshit. Moreover, he’s imagining a wartime president who wins the war, not one who ignored all the warnings from his generals that an enemy army was massing on the border, then pretended they hadn’t invaded for the first four weeks before he mobilized any soldiers to fight back.

Let us also remember that of our four most recent wartime presidents, LBJ, Nixon, and Bush 41 all failed to serve second terms, as did Carter, who was done in by a war-like foreign policy crisis. And the one wartime POTUS who did serve two full terms—Bush 43—went out with historic disapproval as a result.

If we’re going to have a wartime leader, can it be someone other than Captain Queeg?

The truth is, despite the many predictions careening around the Internet, both optimistic and pessimistic, of course no one can say with certainty how this pandemic will play out, not in terms of casualties, nor Trump’s fate, nor the long-range reshaping of American (and global) life. The one thing we can know for sure is that it is likely to unfold over a longer period and with greater repercussions than many of us currently assume.

Two weeks ago in these pages I quoted at length from Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security and currently chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This week, again in The Atlantic, she writes:

From a public-health standard, the pandemic will not end for another 18 months. The only complete resolution—a vaccine—could be at least that far away. The development of a successful vaccine is both difficult and not sufficient. It must also be manufactured, distributed, and administered to a nation’s citizens. Until that happens, as recent reports from the U.S. government and from scientists at London’s Imperial College point out, we will be vulnerable to subsequent waves of the new coronavirus even if the current wave happens to ebb.

None of which means that people now hunkered down at home will keep doing so through late 2021. The economic consequences of an indefinite lockdown are unsustainable. And at a certain point, the emotional tensions that staying home imposes upon families, as spouses grate upon each other and children get bored and fall behind on their schoolwork, become a danger to domestic harmony, and maybe even to everyone’s sanity.

It is too late to prevent tragedy entirely; our goal is to manage it within the limits of scientific progress and public tolerance.

THE GOVERNMENT THAT DROWNED IN THE BATHTUB

In the words of Charlie Sykes, also of The Bulwark, “The temptation is to say we are all in this dystopic nightmare together, but the reality is that we are all in our separate world of worry.”

In closing, as the pandemic begins to roll across the United States like a tsunami, I would be remiss if I didn’t note at least one irony, that of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who just yesterday tested positive. I wish the Senator the same thing I wish for all of our unfortunate countrymen and citizens of the whole world who have been afflicted with this virus, and that is to get well and have a speedy and full recovery.

But I also feel compelled to note that mere days ago Sen. Paul was petulantly blocking a Senate bill to provide coronavirus aid, and scoffing that the pandemic was overblown. His father, the libertarian hero and former Senator Ron Paul (R-Tex.), posted a piece on his blog called “The Coronavirus Hoax.” I also hasten to note that both these men who are irresponsibly spreading disinformation that will cost untold lives are fucking medical doctors. Do no harm indeed.

So guess what’s not closed due to the pandemic? Karma.

Fortunately, Rand has free government-provided medical care, which his libertarianism evidently does not require him to refuse.

Don’t look for the Trumps and Pauls and of the world to come to our rescue any time soon. The federal government has failed us, in keeping with the anti-governmental fetish of men like these. We are on our own at the state level at best. If there was ever a time for the slogan, “think globally, act locally,” it’s now.

Shay Khatiri gets the last word:

This is a moment of great national uncertainty—a public health crisis, an economic crisis, a financial crisis. There is hardly any precedent for this moment: Stores and schools and churches have slammed shut their doors. Streets that once would be bustling are empty. Millions of Americans, after having emptied grocery-store shelves, have bunkered down at home. As Peter Alexander pointed out on Friday, many Americans are scared—and with good reason. They want information and guidance, comfort and hope. In a word, they want leadership.

But Donald Trump cannot provide it. He is on his regular Twitter schedule, tweeting his typical nonsense. He lacks the capacity to empathize, that necessary prerequisite for leadership. Consider the rhetorical record of his entire presidency: his “American carnage” inaugural address, his rallies bashing the press and immigrants, his juvenile tweets, his crowing about every minor victory and bitching about every last grievance. It is a sorry litany of gracelessness and pique, and it has left him utterly unprepared to bear a message of resilience, hope, unity, or sacrifice in the face of hardship.

**********

Illustration: Adapted from an ad by Republicans for the Rule of Law

Pandemic and the Case for Community

ount

In a piece for The New Yorker last week Susan Glasser wrote that “Crises clarify.”

No doubt about that.

She notes that “the incompetence, dishonesty, and sheer callousness of the Trump Presidency have been clearer in recent days than ever before.” Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes of the Lawfare blog go even further, noting Trump’s “incompetence exacerbated by malevolence” in dealing with the coronavirus, a reversal of the previous dynamic on matters like the Muslim ban, where malevolence was tempered by incompetence.

When your administration has only two gears, and one is being clueless assholes and the other is being evil morons, you’re not in great shape.

PANIC IN DETROIT (ALSO: EVERYWHERE)

Where to begin? Let’s start with Trump’s Oval Office speech, which has been widely, and rightly, panned as a disaster.

Sweating, stilted, stumbling over the words on the TelePrompTer, and of course unconscionably spewing lies and misinformation, it was no shock that Trump had the exact opposite of his intended effect in terms of assuring us that there was a steady hand at the helm. Even some of the right wing was appalled. The day before, America seemed relatively calm. The day after, Brooklyn (where I live) was visibly panicked, with the by-now ubiquitous runs on toilet paper. I saw and heard the same thing from towns across the country.

I haven’t yet seen a meme of a sickly and gaunt Tom Hanks from Philadelphia, but I know it’s coming.

Our fearless leader characteristically patted himself on the back and tried to frame this epidemiological crisis as a “foreign invasion.” (No shock, the speech was reportedly penned in large part by Stephen Miller.) He uttered not a word about the most important thing we as a nation can do—social distancing—and instead focused on his go-to move, a travel ban…..which is fine as far as it goes (notwithstanding the folly of at first exempting the UK and Ireland), but also like spending your time ordering new locks instead of stopping the ax murderer who is already in the house. As Chris Hayes noted on MSNBC, when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But even that travel ban seemed to cause as much damage as it stanched, as evidenced by images that soon emerged of US air travelers crushed together for hours at Customs , in veritable petri dishes that could not be better designed to spread disease if we tried.

Meanwhile Devin Nunes, continuing his strong bid for the title of worst human whose surname doesn’t rhyme with “chump,” incredibly suggested that Americans go out for dinner in restaurants, since they’re likely to be able to get a table these days.

In the fallout from the speech we also see the high price of being a congenital liar. Most of the time that trait has served Trump very very well, affirming the maxim about a lie going around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. But now, in this crisis, when he really needs credibility, Trump has none. Even the White House announcement that he tested negative for the virus—after finally agreeing to be tested at all—is greeted with justifiable skepticism.

Here’s Peter Wehner writing in The Atlantic:

(T)his is a massive failure in leadership that stems from a massive defect in character. Trump is such a habitual liar that he is incapable of being honest, even when being honest would serve his interests. He is so impulsive, shortsighted, and undisciplined that he is unable to plan or even think beyond the moment. He is such a divisive and polarizing figure that he long ago lost the ability to unite the nation under any circumstances and for any cause. And he is so narcissistic and unreflective that he is completely incapable of learning from his mistakes. The president’s disordered personality makes him as ill-equipped to deal with a crisis as any president has ever been.

But her emails….

HE DIDN’T START THE FIRE (JUST ASK HIM)

Following the Oval office speech debacle, Trump then held a Rose Garden press conference that was essentially an infomercial for Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreen’s, Quest Diagnostics, and the like—a horrific example of a mindset that thinks capitalism and the private sector are the solution to any problem. (Bonus: All the CEOs were old white men.)

Asked if he accepted some responsibility for the lack of available testing, Trump blithely replied, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all.”

Twitter quickly pounced, noting that that is Trump’s motto in life. (Harry Truman, call your service.)

Ever the world-beating sycophant, Mike Pence then took the mic to praise Trump’s wisdom and decisiveness. (“Throughout this process you put the health of America first.”) For a homophobe, he sure excels at fellatio.

The Rose Garden fiasco baldly demonstrated the misplaced priorities of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, priorities which seem limited to the conjoined concerns of protecting the well-being of the 1% and of Donald Trump’s prospects for re-election. As Alex Pareene writes in The New Republic:

It has become apparent that Trump and his staff view a pandemic as a messaging problem that threatens to become a liquidity crisis. The idea that they should have stepped in to contain the virus is as foreign to them as the idea that they now bear the primary responsibility for mitigating it….

These are all the predictable consequences of giving power to people whose only understanding of the role of government is to protect investment portfolios.”

There is no little irony in the fact that Trump, the GOP, Fox News, and its ilk have with great success convinced much of the conservative sector of the American population to disregard the necessary safety precautions. As a result, that population, which skews elderly, is likely to be hit harder than anyone. (Not unlike the way those same forces have for years successfully convinced those same folks to vote against their own economic self-interest.)

In diametrical opposition to Trump’s despicably self-serving behavior, we also saw the noble actions of the truly Honorable Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who browbeat the mealy-mouthed head of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, into committing to making COVID-19 testing available for free to all Americans.

No surprise, Trump also continued to fail to lead by example in his personal behavior.

He was revealed to have been exposed to the virus in meetings with the likes of Bolsonaro, among others, yet balked at being tested, continued shaking hands with everyone he met (ironic, given his lifelong germaphobic antipathy to it), and continued to insist that his administration was doing a heckuva job, Brownie, and that everything would be fine if we all just pretend nothing is wrong and wish upon a star.

But history will not fail to notice his sins both of commission and omission.

We already know that in May 2018 Trump capriciously and vindictively disbanded the pandemic working group that Barack Obama had established within the National Security Council. Now we learn that as recently as two weeks ago he threw a fit and tried to stifle attempts even to warn the American people about what was coming. Politico reports:

After senior CDC official Nancy Messonnier correctly warned on Feb. 25 that a U.S. coronavirus outbreak was inevitable, a statement that spooked the stock market and broke from the president’s own message that the situation was under control, Trump himself grew angry and administration officials discussed muzzling Messonnier for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, said two individuals close to the administration.

Let’s all stop and consider that for a moment.

How many American lives will be lost because of the precious prep time we as a nation squandered due to that unconscionable behavior?

For any lawyers out there: can someone email me an explanation of the difference between manslaughter and criminal negligence, and which one beats four-of-a-kind?

In the Bulwark, Never Trump conservative Jonathan V. Last wrote:

I don’t often get angry about politics—like truly, viscerally, angry. But watching Donald Trump and his supporters talk-down the danger of COVID-19 pretty much pushed me to 11. And the reason is this: I have a number of people in my life who are dear to me and who are super-duper Trump supporters. All of them are over the age of 60. Several of them have compromised immune systems. These are the people most at-risk for the worst of what COVID-19 can do and Trump has been gambling with their lives.

It is the single most irresponsible action I have ever seen from a politician, full stop.

BOOMER REMOVER

This kind of behavior—a politician covering up information and putting public health at risk—is the kind of thing that a mustache-twirling villain does in a bad disaster movie. (“You switched the samples! And the pathology reports! So RDU-90 could be approved and Devlin McGregor could give you Provasic!”)

But the state in which we find ourselves is no accident. It is the result of the choices we as a nation have deliberately made.

We’ve spent a decade arguing about Obamacare, and decades longer arguing about healthcare full stop, only to find that our failure on that front is the precise problem threatening us. Robert Reich sagely notes:

The dirty little secret, which will soon become apparent to all, is that there is no real public health system in the United States….

Instead of a public health system, we have a private for-profit system for individuals lucky enough to afford it and a rickety social insurance system for people fortunate enough to have a full-time job.

At their best, both systems respond to the needs of individuals rather than the needs of the public as a whole. In America, the word “public”–as in public health, public education or public welfare–means a sum total of individual needs, not the common good.

We are about to have that bitter lesson hammered home.

To cite just one example: since we have no mandated paid sick leave, many Americans who should stay home because they are in danger of infecting others will instead choose to go to work—which is to say, be forced to go to work—because they can’t afford not to, thus spreading illness and putting more people at risk. So we all suffer because of a system that operates on the venal premise of “I got mine, fuck you.”

Why we alone among the world’s industrialized nations are unable to provide decent, affordable healthcare for our citizens is an enduring mystery, much like the way we alone let our citizens shoot each other up with firearms like they’re in a Sam Peckinpah western. Something in the water, I guess.

Might this crisis at last prompt some long overdue changes to those systemic healthcare issues? Hope springs eternal.

Meanwhile, in the short term, the pandemic may yet prove to be Trump’s undoing, or, if we manage to control the damage, he may—yet again—be the lucky but undeserving beneficiary of the actions of others, and take credit for it of course. We shall see. At the very least, his selfishness has never been on more stark display. If that does indeed contribute to his downfall, it will be at a horrific price in human suffering. There is no question in any case that it will go down as some of the blackest and most shameful behavior in American presidential “leadership,” if it can be called that. The only question that remains is just how black.

SHALL WE THIS DAY GENTLE OUR CONDITION?

But let’s talk about another way in which this crisis has been clarifying.

Public health experts have told us that the best way to fight the coronavirus pandemic is by “flattening the curve”—that is, slowing its spread so that the number of cases does not explode and overwhelm the ability of the healthcare system to respond to it. We have seen—in China, in Iran, in Italy—the dire consequences of not doing so:

That is the most welcome news I’ve heard all week. It means that much of the ability of mitigate the impact of this pandemic is within our control.

So how do we flatten the curve? Primarily by “social distancing,” per above: by radically reducing our face-to-face interactions with others. Closing schools. Postponing or cancelling large public events to include concerts, sporting events, festivals, conferences, and other gatherings. Shuttering restaurants, bars, museums, theaters, and other non-essential businesses. Staying home except when absolutely necessary. We all know the drill by now.

The economic impact of these measures is sure to be devastating, but this is a case of paying attention to the crocodile closest to your canoe (or if you wanna be fancy, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). As bad as a recession would be, it’s preferable to a real-life remake of The Omega Man.

The call for social distancing also provides a pointed case study in something that many Americans, especially those with money and power and means, would very much like us to forget: the fact that we are, all of us, unavoidably part of a community where our interests are intertwined.

As a writer, I like nothing more than to be left alone to do my own thing. I say this not because the regimen of self-quarantine is relatively undisruptive to my lifestyle, but because I understand the impulse against communitarianism.

I have always been sympathetic to the appeal of libertarianism, at least in principle (or shall we say, in the abstract). Live and let live and all that. But modern libertarianism of the Ayn Rand variety as manifested in right wing American politics is less a cogent ideology than just a shady veneer for Darwinian oligarchy where might makes right, and Them That Has run roughshod over Them That Has Not, while preaching a fake gospel of freedom and liberty that is really just a con.

Conservatives often try to portray the political divide in this country as a choice between bootstraps-style Horatio Alger-brand rugged individualism on the one hand, and nanny state Big Government socialism (gasp!) on the other. It’s total horseshit, of course, and the last forty years of post-Reagan Revolution golden shower trickle-down economics have shown it. But we need not go into a book-length dissertation here about plutocracy, corporate welfare, capitalist propaganda, and backlash to “you didn’t build that” to understand what a fraud this has been.

For that, all we have to do is look COVID-I9.

The coronavirus has cast a spotlight on an irrefutable fact that libertarianism blithely ignores: that we are all in this together.

Social distancing will work only if we all do it. The young and healthy who are less at risk (but not as less as they think) and the wealthy and well-resourced who have access to top-flight private healthcare and can flee to country homes still have a responsibility to help contain the spread of this pandemic. One could hardly ask for a more perfect and elegant demonstration of the interconnectivity of society.

To that end, social distancing is at once a matter of altruism and of pure, pragmatic self-aggrandizement. I don’t want others to die, and I also don’t want a Malthusian plague to spread that will threaten my loved ones and me. Social distancing, conveniently, helps stop both outcomes simultaneously. Win-win, no?

There is a rich irony in play here. Despite the malevolent incompetence of the executive branch that Jurecic and Wittes tagged above, we the American people have it within our power to manage this unprecedented public health crisis. The extent to which succeed will depend on the extent to which we rise to the occasion, prove that we are a nation of caring, socially engaged citizens, that we really do live by the principles that we espouse, and that we take care of our own.

If we do so, we will have dramatically demonstrated what should be obvious to all, that society by definition is an interconnected proposition, and will have obliterated the lie that “greed is good” and that venality and selfishness is a workable operating principle for a civilized nation.

Now is the time for us to show our mettle, or have our centuries of self-flattery proved a shameful fraud.

*********

Illustration: “The Sermon on the Mount,” Carl Bloch, 1877.

Painting depicts an obscure left-wing revolutionary called Jesus of Nazareth (with arm raised, in umber-colored robe), suggesting that we all treat each other the way we would like to be treated. He was later arrested and executed by the state.

 

 

 

Trump’s Katrina, and Class War

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.05.17 AM

Every day in the Trump administration is a demonstration of what happens when unbridled arrogance meets jawdropping incompetence (meets wanton corruption). But every so often an event comes along that REALLY brings into stark relief what a bad idea it is to turn your government over to a defiantly ignorant, pathologically narcissistic, D-list celebrity wannabe, serial sexual predator, and lifelong con artist.

A pandemic is one of them. Whoda thunk it?

THE CON MAN AND THE CRISIS

Let’s be clear about what’s going on.

The President of the United States, in an effort to guard his massive but fragile ego and protect his chances for re-election, is going around deliberately misrepresenting the extent and status of a major health threat the likes of which this country has not seen in a hundred years. He is spreading disinformation—lies, as they are sometimes known—that will make the pandemic worse, pouring figurative fuel on the fire, and in so doing possibly costing people their lives.

This is criminal malpractice by an (alleged) head of state.

At a time when the nation needs calm, serious, thoughtful leadership, this malignant buffoon is concerned only with his own personal gain, no matter who gets hurt. He is denying the facts, contradicting his own public health experts, and engaging in magical thinking about the prospects for a benign outcome.

Of course, no one should be surprised. Donald Trump is not going to change 73 years of consistently terrible and self-centered behavior overnight (or ever). But the sheer extent of his lies and self-aggrandizement, set against the life-and-death stakes of the situation, is especially stark, even for a country used to three years of this beclowning.

But just for a moment, let’s set aside the appalling immorality of this. Just on a purely practical, self-serving level, this strategy is short-sighted in the extreme, and—hmmm, what’s the clinical term?—insane.

Surely Trump knows that all his lies will be exposed. The virus will spread, the numbers of those infected will rise—exponentially—as will hospitalizations and deaths, our woeful unpreparedness will be laid bare, as will the inadequacy of the American health care system. Trump will look like the fool he is and be blamed for it all, and rightly so.

But this is Trump to a tee. He is in juvenile denial of reality, believing he can bluff and bullshit and bluster his way out of this.

But this is a foe that doesn’t respond to bullying or nicknames or allegations that it is “fake news.” As Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes write in a piece for The Atlantic, “The new pandemic is a challenge for which his playbook seems uniquely unsuited.”

Or as Charles Blow puts it, “You can’t gaslight a virus.”

(N)one of the tricks that Trump has learned and deployed will work against this virus. Only science, honesty, prudence and genuine concern for public safety will work now. And precisely for those reasons, this virus exposes Trump’s enormous weaknesses as the chief executive officer of this country.

The fact that he wants to spin media coverage of the virus as politically motivated, the fact that he keeps lowballing the number of people infected, and the fact that he has said that the virus may miraculously disappear, all show that Trump is as much a public health threat as the virus itself.

A deadly virus could emerge on the watch of any president. I don’t blame Trump for that. (Who says I’m hard on the guy?) But this president has engaged in a specific campaign of Know Nothing anti-intellectualism that has purged the federal government of the very professionals and subject matter experts it needs to manage a crisis like this. He has gutted the institutions that are built to handle an emergency of this magnitude. On a broader scale, he has disparaged and attacked scientific fact and even truth itself in favor of an Orwellian fantasy world that better suits his desire for an autocracy. Once the crisis appeared, he reportedly shut down attempts to take prophylactic action in its early stages, when it would have been most useful. Aides fearful of angering him were unable or unwilling to press the matter.

The consequences of these actions and Trump’s entire nihilistic style of governance (if it can be called that) are now becoming painfully apparent.

Here’s Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for homeland security and faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in The Atlantic:

China’s aggressive containment of the new virus in the early weeks of this year gave other nations time to ready themselves for what was inevitably going to come: a shortage of test kits and personal protective equipment for a virus that spreads as quickly and causes as many deaths and hospitalizations as COVID-19 does.

The United States wasted that opportunity. Trump’s initial impulse to downplay the risk, at least until the stock market took note, wasn’t just fanciful; it was dangerous. He has consistently minimized the number of sick, blamed Barack Obama’s administration for a shortage of test kits, and publicly mused about the potential of a vaccine being found quickly. The American response to the new disease should be based on something more than hunches and magical thinking.

PAGING DR. TRUMP, DR. FINE, DR. TRUMP

There is even more, of course.

Trump fired Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates, who tried to warn him of the national security implications of a pandemic. (That’s not the specific reason he fired him, but it’s emblematic.)

He disbanded the global health security unit of the National Security Council.

Perhaps most galling of all, he tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the federal response to the crisis, a man who takes the Bible literally, who as recently as 2001 rejected the idea that smoking is bad for you, and who infamously botched Indiana’s HIV prevention program when he was governor. To his credit—or at least in contrast to Trump—Pence has at least looked serious about his job and the severity of the crisis, even as he has left press conferences while ignoring pertinent questions from reporters like, “Will people without health insurance be able to get tested?”

Juliette Kayyem again:

President Donald Trump and his administration have vacillated between ignoring the threat and making wildly unrealistic promises about it. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence promised 1.5 million coronavirus tests, but The Atlantic reported Friday that, according to all available evidence, fewer than 2000 had been conducted in the United States. Trump himself is simply lying about basic facts about the COVID-19 response; despite the testing kit shortfall, he has publicly stated that everyone who wants to get tested can get tested.

The video where Trump makes that last claim about universal testing is especially likely to haunt him in the election. There he is on a visit to the CDC, looking morbidly obese, by the by, in a weird jacket and a red KAG cap that’s a shameless merging of his official duties with his re-election campaign (not to mention merchandising and data mining), bragging like a seventh grader about how much he knows about virology. (“Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”) It was a moment that inevitably recalled similar boasts about knowing more about ISIS than the generals, more about drones than anyone, more about campaign finance, consulting, construction, the press, windmills, the environment, polls, Scranton, banks, trade, nuclear weapons, and on and on.

He then made his case by giving out horrifically wrong advice, like saying that people infected with COVID-19 should still go to work.

Insert Edvard Munch emoji here.

It was bad enough when he used a Sharpie to loop Alabama into the path of a hurricane. This is infinitely worse.

He also, for no apparent reason except his own pathology, issued some word-vomit comparing the “perfect” tests to his “perfect” phone call with Zelinskyy. But above all, he also gave the game away—again, with characteristic Trumpiness, saying the quiet part out loud—by explaining that he doesn’t want the infected passengers aboard the Diamond Princess to debark because it will make the numbers of coronavirus cases in the US look bad. Which he thinks—l’etat c’est him—makes him look bad.

Guy: you are LITERALLY BROADCASTING YOUR HORRIBLENESS OUT LOUD TO THE WHOLE WORLD. And I know that quiet flows the Kool-Aid, but I have to believe that even some semi-sentient Trump supporters had to hear that and be given pause.

Similarly, details of a White House meeting with a group of Big Pharma CEOs as reported in the Washington Post are downright terrifying, as Trump was unable to grasp basic facts, repeatedly pressing the execs for rosy scenarios that they repeatedly told him were impossible. Forget Russia and Ukraine: he ought to have been impeached just for that performance alone. Or perhaps we could save time and just have Animal Control fire a tranquilizer dart into his neck via crossbow through an Oval Office window.

And then, in the middle of this whole crisis, last week he spent two days playing golf.

Nero’s fiddle never got a workout like this.

We are in a major crisis and we need a real president. Instead we have this malicious sociopathic troglodyte.

(But her emails, amirite?)

WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOAT

To my knowledge, Jonathan Chait was the first to compare Trump to the mayor in Jaws who doesn’t want anyone to know about that bigass shark because it will hurt the town in tourist season. (And as many have pointed out, that mayor was still the mayor in Jaws 2. So elections do matter.)

So what is the truth that Trump is trying desperately not to tell us? Right now, the best estimates from doctors and other public health experts are grim. 

Here’s Dr. Martin Makary MD, MPH, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

If the virus stays on its current trajectory, what happened in Wuhan will happen in the US. There is no strong scientific argument to suggest otherwise…..

Further hindering public health efforts, the concept of American exceptionalism has morphed into a societal arrogance that somehow the immune systems of Americans are stronger than those of the Chinese. And even though other countries have enacted very strict quarantine practices, including martial law and a shutdown of schools, there is a misleading perception that the US would have less community transmission because of a better health care system and better hygiene…..

Italy has now quarantined approximately 60 million people, and closed all nightclubs, gyms, and sporting events…..Based on the current trajectory of the pandemic, all U.S. schools are at risk and may need to be closed, public gatherings like NCAA tournament games may need to be postponed, businesses should have their employees work from home whenever possible, and hospitals should staff up.

Juliette Kayyem:

If Americans conclude that life will continue mostly as normal, they may be wrong. The United States is far less prepared than other democratic nations experiencing outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. Low case counts so far may reflect not an absence of the pathogen but a woeful lack of testing….

As Dr. Margaret Bordeaux, my colleague at the Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told me, “None of us want to be Chicken Little, but there is too much consistent data to not begin to rattle the cage pretty loudly.”

A HECKUVA JOB, BROWNIE

The coronavirus is already shaking up the American political landscape. If—or should I say, when—it develops into a full-blown national emergency on the scale just described, it might do what no other politician or scandal has been able to do: topple Trump from his perch.

Indeed, Trump’s political epitaph is already being prematurely written. Jonathan Chait even went so far as to say that we are “watching the probable demise of Trump’s re-election in real time.”

But haven’t we learned our lesson with all the other crimes, scandals, and would-be presidency-enders that were supposed to bring him back down to his rightful place hawking clip-on ties on QVC? Chait insists this one is different:

The obvious factor distinguishing the coronavirus and the probable recession from the Access Hollywood tape, firing James Comey, and all the rest is that they have a tangible impact on the lives of Americans. (Or, to put it more precisely, Americans who have voting representation, unlike Puerto Ricans.) Trump’s continuous din of scandals and gaffes is unintelligible to many Americans who either do not follow the news closely, or follow Trump-controlled news organs, and who have instead judged his presidency by the direct experience of peace and prosperity….

But….Trump has finally made his unfitness for office so blatant that even his own supporters will notice. The American economy, its health infrastructure, and perhaps more are plunging into foreseeable crisis. And every step Trump has taken along the way seems almost calculated to expose him to maximal blame. Trump is now quite likely to lose his reelection, and we will look back at the last few weeks as the time when he sealed his own fate.

From your lips to God’s ears, Jon.

The specter of Katrina has already been raised, and it’s an apt comparison: a criminally inept response to a natural disaster that dealt a deadly blow to a president’s political viability. But this is even worse. The photo of a dull-eyed George W. Bush staring down at the devastated city of New Orleans through the window of Air Force One will live in infamy, but at least he didn’t go on Fox News and say, “Flooding? What flooding? There’s no flood!”

Others, like University College London professor Brian Klaas, have gone further and suggested that this could be Trump’s Chernobyl.

How ugly is it looking for Don the Con? I can’t believe I am agreeing with Ross Douhat, who I can’t believe is agreeing with Jonathan Chait:

Combine this scenario’s inevitable economic consequences with the optics of the president’s blundering and solipsistic response, and the coronavirus seems very likely to doom Trump’s re-election effort, no matter where he casts the blame.

And how ironic that would be. In 2016 we elected a China hawk who promised a “complete shutdown” in response to foreign threats, a germaphobic critic of globalization who promised to privilege the national interest above all. Now he is in danger of losing his presidency because when the great test came, in the form of a virus carried by global trade routes from Communist China, he didn’t take the danger seriously enough.

There is a tweet for everything, so Trump’s old Twitter attacks on Obama over his handling of ebola and his ostensible responsibility for the fluctuating stock market are especially rich. I certainly don’t want the economy to crater, but it sure would be ironic if a bear market brought down Donald.

Trump of course is also a famous germaphobe, so it’s equally fitting that an epidemiological crisis may be his undoing. It’s apparent as we watch him on television, covered in flopsweat, dancing as fast as he can, spewing lie after lie. For all his ego and braggadocio, to me he always has an Imposter Syndrome thought bubble over his head reading, “I’m a fraud! Everyone can see it!” The coronavirus crisis has brought that to a new level.

Fox News and its ilk have followed Trump’s lead in portraying this crisis as a Deep State/DNC conspiracy, “fake news,” or at best an overreaction. (Remember Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Rush Limbaugh saying coronavirus is just a common cold? Yeah, and lung cancer is just a bad cough.) Just a few days ago shitbag Florida Congressman and SCIF-crasher Matt Gaetz was wearing a gas mask on the floor of the House to “own the libs.” Soon after, he had a constituent die (hilarious!) and was then informed he himself had been exposed to the virus at CPAC, as had Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Louie Gohmert (R-La.), who unconscionably has refused to self-quarantine.

In another irony, even Trump’s new pick for Punching Bag, er, I mean, Chief of Staff, the sycophantic Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, has had to be quarantined. (Meadows is replacing Mick Mulvaney, who will resume his role as Golum in the stage adaptation of Lord of the Rings at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, FL.)

It’s not been widely discussed in the press, but is there any reason to think Trump himself has not been exposed? Dr. Makary, again:

At the current rate of spread, we can expect members of Congress, and even presidential candidates, to be infected with the virus within 6-8 weeks. In fact, President Xi Jinping of China has not been seen in public for weeks, and many of Iran’s leaders have the infection……Many more (US congressmembers) are likely infected but we have been using a false pretense that confirmed cases are the only cases out there, despite that fact that testing has been extremely limited at best. It’s time we dispel the notion that this virus is somehow contained. It is at large.

YOU’RE A RICH GIRL, BUT YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR

But all of the above is readily apparent and has been commented upon at length. What I’d like to address in closing is what this crisis tells us about our country, and another kind of lie: the one we tell ourselves about how wonderful we are.

Last week there was a widely circulated piece in the New York Times about how, F. Scott Fitzgerald-like, the very rich are preparing for the plague differently than you and I. Featured in it was a description of everyone’s favorite whipping girl—rightly or wrongly—for tone deaf entitlement, Gwyneth Paltrow, posing for Instagram in a Swedish-made Airinum mask, in stylish black, with five layers of filtration and an “ultrasmooth and skin-friendly finish.”

File under Fruit, Low-Hanging. Because it is not just the ultra rich who are affected differently.

It’s true that a virus doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, but people with means—that is to say, middle class people and above—are able to prepare for and respond to this emergency with a vastly different toolkit than our less fortunate and more vulnerable fellow Americans.

In short, COVID-19 is a Klieg light shining on our own privilege.

Forget concierge medical services, stockpiling oxygen, and hiding out on your yacht until the crisis passes. The most vulnerable among us cannot do even some of the basic things many of us are doing, like stockpiling groceries, or avoiding public transit, or making plans to work from home.

It’s a bit like the fantasy within the Resistance—in which I confess I have dabbled—of fleeing the country if Trump wins a second term. I couldn’t be more sympathetic, but the average American does not have the flexibility or freedom to do that.

Many private schools have already preemptively closed. But for public schools to close is a much bigger deal, and with much bigger implications—for childcare, for nutrition, for public safety. Juliette Kayyem again:

(I)magine that a school district closed for even three weeks. Take just one child, raised by a single parent who is a police officer. The child is home, so the parent must stay home. Other officers in the same patrol will be affected even if they don’t have kids in school. Shifts will change, nonessential functions will be put off, and the department will have less flexibility to respond to problems unrelated to the epidemic—even as, with more teens unsupervised, rates of car accidents and certain crimes could well increase.

I can feel the eyerolling from Fox Nation. “Come on, King’s Necktie—stop being a starry-eyed naïf. There will ALWAYS be differences between rich and poor!” (That’s not really how they talk, of course, but you get the idea.)

Yes, but where is the line? Do we want to throw our hands up and surrender to this Darwinian way of life? I know Elon Musk will always have a nicer car than me, and I’m happy for him. But do we really want to have a society where some of our fellow citizens die because there aren’t enough hospital beds, where they don’t have access to the most basic level of health care, clean air or water, sanitation, or edible food?

Kayyem one last time, channeling Donald Rumsfeld’s “you go to war with the army you have”:

A threat as dire as the new coronavirus exposes the weaknesses in our society and our politics. If Americans could seek testing and care without worrying about co-pays or surprise bills, and if everyone who showed symptoms had paid sick leave, the United States could more easily slow the spread of COVID-19. But a crisis finds a nation as it is, not as its citizens wish it to be.

Suddenly “affordable care for all” isn’t just a slogan, or a political wedge issue; it’s a matter of life and death. And to our great shame, we virtually alone among the major industrialized nations of the world have been unable to get our shit together to provide it. And we may be about to pay a hefty price.

LORD, I GOT THE FEVER

So as we get ready to face a crisis like none of us has ever seen on US soil, I am reminded of Springsteen’s song “We Take Care of Our Own,” from 2012.

This is a great song, but not one of Bruce’s classics. It’s never gonna keep “Thunder Road” or “Kitty’s Back” or even “Sherry Darling” up at night worrying about their place in the pantheon. But it keeps bubbling up in my mind as I consider America in the early 21st century.

The song’s eponymous chorus recalls “Born in the USA” as a critique that is easily mistaken for an anthem. With just a nudge, its seeming triumphalism might even be pushed into a threat to those who would harm us: “We take care of our own, so watch out.” But of course, this is the precise opposite of what Bruce is up to. In fact, he announces it in the very first verse of the song:

I been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone

In explicitly calling out Katrina (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome”), he makes the point that we in America clearly do NOT take care of our own. We talk a good game, but at the end of the day, more often than not, we look out for number one.

And this song pre-dates the cruelty and divisiveness of the Trump era by four years. It’s more apropos now than ever. (Notwithstanding that fact, or precisely because of it, the song was regularly played at Obama rallies in 2012.) Maybe its title is aspirational.

Reliably, Bruce brings it home in the final verse:

Where are the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where are the hearts that run over with mercy
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me
Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign over me
Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?

I believe in a promised land indeed.

********

Photo by unknown photographer; pointed out to me by Justin Schein

 

 

 

 

Smash the Patriarchy, 2020 Edition

jeannie

Last week in my two-part interview with “Mr. X,” a veteran Democratic consultant, we saw how centrist panic among opponents of Trump led to a brief, not-so-shining moment for Mike Bloomberg as the only man who could save us (he’s rich!), which was quickly dispelled in favor of the premature coronation of Bernie Sanders as the unlikely but “inevitable” nominee (everyone says so!), which was quickly dispelled by a resurrection of a sort not seen since 33 A.D. (holy shit!).

Now the conventional wisdom has it that the nomination is Joe Biden’s to lose, which was sort of where we started last summer, innit?

But last week also saw the heartbreaking end of the road for the most inspiring and best qualified candidate from either party, and with it, the latest affirmation that Margaret Atwood knows what the fuck she’s talking about.

THE FIREGLASS CEILING

The last 72 hours have seen so many eloquent elegies for the campaign of Elizabeth Warren that I’m not sure what I can add. But this was such a special campaign, and its end such a frustrating and depressing statement about America, that it deserves every requiem it can get.

Let’s start with the patently obvious. Elizabeth Warren is a brilliant and accomplished woman with an inspiring personal story, up from poverty in Oklahoma to become a Harvard law professor and one of the most admired Americans alive today. (Not coincidentally, also one of the most vilified—an equal honor.) At once a Washington outsider and an experienced United States Senator, she offered not just a vague, platitude-heavy vision for a more progressive America, but one backed up with detailed plans for every goddam thing. She is a champion of the people who scares the moneyed class witless, a passionate orator and scorching debater whose intellectual firepower is astonishing, and a charismatic leader who put together the most impressive campaign of all the Democratic hopefuls. In the words of Stacey Abrams, she gave “form to brainy, compassionate, determined, indefatigable leadership.”

From smarts to empathy to competence, one can hardly imagine a candidate more opposite to Donald Trump in every conceivable way. The only way Elizabeth Warren could be a more perfect “anti-Trump” is if she had served with distinction in Vietnam. (Are we sure she didn’t?)

Yet now she is out of the race.

I am aware that not everyone shares my opinion that Warren was a great candidate. I know many conservatives are snickering and eyerolling over the melodramatic eulogizing taking place along the Brooklyn-Berkeley axis. But with their frat boy behavior these folks only demonstrate the exact phenomenon in question. They are like people trapped in a burning building cheering for the fire.

I also know that for many right of center on the ideological spectrum, Warren’s progressivism was problematic. “She’s too liberal,” is the usual complaint. Many of those people feel the same way about Bernie Sanders, yet somehow it’s not accompanied by the same impassioned Salem-in-1692 level of anathema.

To that end, I would argue that much of this opposition is not really on substantive grounds, nor supported by facts, and would wither under point-by-point scrutiny. That is to say, it is not really policy driven at all.

We know that the vast majority of American voters choose their presidential candidates not on policy, or hardnosed assessment of qualifications, or even campaign promises (blue sky or otherwise), but on pure emotion. Which candidate makes us feel good, and hopeful, and proud; which one seems strong and smart (but not too smart!) and “presidential,” whatever that means. Which one feels like the right head-of-state for the given moment? And that is true not just for low information voters: for all the wonks who backed her because of policy positions, a great many of Warren’s supporters—like all candidates’—were undeniably motivated by those same abstractions. And so were a great many of her detractors.

De gustibus non disputandum est, as the Romans would say. (But what have they ever done for us?) Still, it feels like there is something uglier at play here with the opposition to the senior Senator from Massachusetts.

The usual complaints were that Warren sounded like a know-it-all, that she was prone to lecturing, that she’s shrill, or “schoolmarmish.” (“Professorial” is the kinder way it was sometimes put…..which, like lecturing, should not comes as a surprise, given that she was in fact a professor. As for being a know-it-all, is that not refreshing after three-plus years of a know-nothing?) And I’m not talking about just the response of red-hatted MAGA types, or even more mainstream right-of-center Republicans. I heard this stuff from centrist (or “moderate,” if you prefer) Democrats, and even some decidedly left-of-center progressives—some of them women.

I personally didn’t feel any of that, though again, I understand it’s all very subjective. But it’s worth noting, as Mr. X said last week, that “Shrill and schoolmarmish are criticisms applied exclusively to women.”

Meanwhile, Bernie’s whole brand is Angry Old Man Yelling At You.

Frankly, the pushback against Warren reminded me of all those conservatives who expressed disdain for Barack Obama, but couldn’t coherently articulate any legitimate policy disagreements, at least not without massive hypocrisy, or ever quite tell me what it was about him that bugged them so much.

Gee, I wonder what it could have been.

ELECT THIS, MFer

In case anyone doubted it, 2016 made it painfully clear that a vicious, almost-medieval loathing of the female of the species remains a strong strain in the United States of America, no matter how much we kid ourselves otherwise.

2020 is making the point again.

Please don’t besiege me with stories of Hillary’s shortcomings. Some are valid, others anything but. But even if all the things people say about her were true, short of Comet Ping Pong, I dare you to disagree with this statement: If that exact same candidate had a penis and not a vagina, Donald Trump would be hawking his vodka, steaks, and Chinese-made ties on QVC for a living instead of being followed around by a military aide carrying the nuclear codes.

Elizabeth Warren proves the point. Warren had none of the baggage that—allegedly—sunk Hillary. And yet, she is gone from contention even before the Democratic convention, as is every other female candidate (and candidate of color, too, for that matter).

Here’s a Warren supporter named Jeff Yang, a 52-year-old journalist for CNN Opinion and co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” quoted in Salon:

“(A)ll the excuses we heard about not electing Hillary—that she was a mainstay of the establishment….that we need somebody who’s not a career politician….that she was too middle-of-the-road centrist…..that we need somebody who’s progressive….that she’s somebody whose ideas are old……that we need something disruptive. 

We had all that this time, right? And it looks like America is not going to elect her, which really comes down to me, to a recognition that whatever we want to claim, gender is at the core of this. It may not be deliberate. It may not be that people outright say they cannot imagine supporting a woman or having a woman president. But when the going gets tough, when there’s concern about electability, when there is a push-comes-to-shove around priority, things still seem to line up the same way. And that soft bigotry, that soft filtering, that consistently I think serves as the toughest of glass ceilings for women to raise.

I have always liked Elizabeth Warren, but even before she announced her candidacy just over a year ago, I was skeptical that she had a prayer. I’d heard far too many people—mostly men, but not all—launch into angry diatribes over how much they loathed her.

I was far from alone in that concern, even among others who actively liked her. As I listened to friends and family and colleagues express their intense negative reaction to her, it both depressed and disturbed me. “Depressed” because even now I am surprised (though I shouldn’t be) by how much irrational fervor is stirred up by the mere thought of this brilliant, principled woman irrespective of her policies. “Disturbed” because it made me worry that, no matter how terrific her ideas, how detailed her plans, how persuasive her speeches and debate performances, she wouldn’t be able to win because a crucial segment of voters simply would not vote for her.

I also understood very well that these fears could constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have written before about the canard of “electability.” In short, electability is as electability does. The myth that Warren is not electable is just that—a myth, one that could be proven definitively wrong. But misogyny is no myth, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about underestimating the meatheaded woman-hating quotient of this country. After all, we’ve seen it in action before.

I am deliberating use the word “misogyny” to describe this state of affairs, and not mere “sexism,” as sexism is far too tame and forgiving and fails to capture the depth of the hate.

Giving up on Warren even before she got started also would have meant voluntarily forfeiting perhaps the most formidable candidate we had. We can argue about what constitutes “formidable” (which is another way of saying “electable”), though the irrational hatred of Warren certainly couldn’t be discounted in that calculation, no matter how unfair it was. But succumbing to those fears meant surrendering to the lowest common denominator as defined by our foe and fighting on his terms (male possessive pronoun very much intentional), which is both strategically worrisome and just plain galling. In short, I was worried we could not win.

What changed my mind was watching Warren conduct her campaign.

THE ARC OF HERSTORY

Last September two (male) friends and I attended the Warren rally that drew 20,000 people into Washington Square Park. It had the electricity of a rock concert crossed with a tent revival, and for anyone who cared to listen, obliterated a lot of the false assumptions about Elizabeth (see above). I began to believe that she could win, and to have faith that substance could overcome spin and gender bias. I became an unabashed supporter, ready to fight our corner. Apparently many others agreed, as she surged in the polls on the strength of her demonstrable excellence.

Over the months that followed, Warren showed that she could silence the doubters and the naysayers, overturn the conventional wisdom, and (wait for it) persist and even prevail. From the start of her presidential campaign, when the self-described experts scoffed and predicted that she’d been out by Christmas, she slowly but surely solidified herself, continuing to defy expectations and prove her toughness and viability.

In fact, she was so strong and did so well, that then came that moment early this winter when that optimism suddenly—bizarrely—lurched into its opposite. There seemed to be a palpable panic among the Democratic electorate that she would actually be the nominee.

The other Democratic hopefuls began attacking her, as the presumptive frontrunner. She made some missteps—principally, a clumsy explanation of how she would pay for her Medicare-for-all. But, again, as Mr. X noted last week, only Warren was even asked that question; it has been Bernie’s signature proposal for years, and yet no one dared ask him for details. Whether that was sexism, or fear of backlash from Bernie bros (as Mr. X argues), or what have you, it damn sure wasn’t fair. Warren got no points for having an actual answer, complex and pragmatic as it was. (Who knew healthcare was so complicated, as a very stable genius once said?)

Of course, even the question is skewed, reflecting the baked-in bias of the allegedly liberal media. As Colonel (Ret.) Andrew Bacevich, now a Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University, has said:

We live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost, even though the costs almost inevitably end up being orders of magnitude larger than anybody projected at the outcome. But when you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we come very cost-conscious.

But Elizabeth’s demise was never really about unhappiness with her policy proposals.

When a Warren candidacy moved from beautiful fantasy to plausible reality, even people who really liked her seemed to have a PTSD-like freakout. The idea of running a brainy female candidate against Trump a second time was too much for many voters to contemplate—especially if that candidate has superficial similarities to Hillary Clinton, notwithstanding enormous, possibly gamechanging differences, and could be readily demonized, however unfairly, as a hectoring smarty pants. The Democratic electorate suffered a collective anxiety attack.

After that, it was stick-a-fork-in-her time. My original fear proved to be correct, even if it was that very fear and doubt that brought on her defeat.

AND THEN THERE WERE TWO

The case against Elizabeth Warren cannot be made on the merits.

Oh, she was too liberal? Bernie is the currently the co-front runner, I would remind you. Too angry? I refer you again to the senator from Vermont.

The best her foes could do was the issue of her Native American heritage or minuscule presence thereof. Trump, of course, with his preternatural schoolyard bully’s mentality, tagged her with the nickname “Pocahontas,” a dig both juvenile and racist. (A Trump twofer. Check your bingo card.)

But even in its least generous interpretation—that she repeated family lore for personal advantage without factchecking it—that’s pretty weak beer, especially if that’s the worst they can say about her, and enough for right wingers to reject her. (Did a brainiac like Elizabeth Warren really need the affirmative action of Native American ancestry to get ahead?) It goes without saying that Donald J. Trump lies as easily as he breathes, yet all is forgiven and even applauded. (The god-emperor creates his own reality!) Even Biden regularly demonstrates a less sinister but still worrying Reaganaesque tendency to conflate fact with fiction.

Here’s the real thing that did her in:

As recently as last November, Forbes reported that almost half of American men said they would be uncomfortable with a female president. And that number is likely higher, as some men who feel that way were surely embarrassed to admit it to a pollster.

I was reminded of that when Hillary began appearing in the press recently to promote Nanette Burstein’s mesmerizing new four-part documentary series on Hulu “Hillary.” The bile being spewed on social media was scalding, to included frequent (I was gonna say “liberal”) use of the “b” and “c” words, and wishes for her to crawl away and die. (And that was from the left. I didn’t even bother to read what MAGA Nation was saying.) I have read similar vitriol aimed at Warren, especially attacks for being not supportive enough of Bernie and/or insufficiently anti-corporate or progressive. (Memo to the haters: what planet are you on?)

So misogyny is not solely the province of the far right, although they definitely have a timeshare there.

In a snide piece for Commentary called “Stop Blaming Sexism for Warren’s Failure,” Christine Rosen paints Warren as a darling of educated elites, and blames her for failing to connect with outside the chattering classes. She’s not wrong about that, though her contemptuous tone detracts from her credibility. (The same point was made minus the venom by Matthew Iglesias in Vox.)

In the rest of her piece, Rosen—author of an affectionate memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family—betrays her real agenda, which is her general scorn for progressivism, leaning on one lonely psychology paper to make the giant leap that sexism isn’t a factor in American politics.

Yes—and coronavirus is all a hoax.

When history looks back on American politics in the early 21st century, and in particular, the HRC and Warren campaigns of ’16 and ’20 respectively, the claim that sexism was not in play is going to have aged about as well as OJ’s quest for the real killers.

PRAISE BE

I hope that I have sufficiently mansplained the fate of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.  There’s some sort of irony in there, but it’s too complicated for me to figure out.

Feminism (and sexism, and misogyny) have been a frequent topic of this blog, from its very first post in May 2017, Bette and Joan and Mary and Offred (and Hillary). See also Nevertheless They Persist, an interview with the founders of Persisticon, Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen, on the lingering effects of hating on Hillary, Sending Don Spelunking, about Nancy Pelosi, “She Worked for Me,” about Aretha Franklin, “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court, about Kavanaugh on the Court, and a two-part interview with Second Wave feminist icon Alix Kates Shulman, Feminism in the Age of Monsters and A Spark Is Lit.

That was not by design, but reflects the turbulent times in which we live, times in which we are being made to reckon with an oppression of the female of the species that is as old as humanity.

There’s a reason that The Handmaid’s Tale is freshly relevant and having “a moment,” as they say in showbiz. Margaret Atwood herself has noted that every horror in her book, from the obliteration of one’s name to ritualized rape and forced childbearing, is taken from a real world example. (Even as sometimes these ideas are played for laughs, as in Dr. Strangelove’s “mineshaft gap.”) As Laura Miller wrote in Slate, the misogyny of the novel—and its newly released sequel, The Testaments (I’m still in the middle of it)—is not science fiction: in fact, its world is the world that most women have known in most cultures throughout human history, more so than the relatively egalitarian one we know in Western democracy. And ours is still super fucked up.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I salute Senator Warren and her campaign for lighting a path for the future, and in the process, illuminating some of the darkness in which we continue to dwell.

I am deeply ashamed that I live in a country that would make Donald Trump president. But I’m nearly as ashamed that I live in a country that’s afraid to give Elizabeth Warren that job.

*******

Painting: “Golden Silence” (2002) by the genius Isabel Samaras.

(Parody of Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” circa 1537, by Lucas Cranach the Elder.)

Inside the Democratic Race (Part 2)

B&B side by side 3

In part two of my interview with a veteran Democratic operative, currently a consultant for one of the remaining presidential hopefuls, Mr. X discusses what the party has to do to energize the American people, the chances Trump won’t yield power, and whether the republic will still be standing in 2021. (See part one here if you missed it.)

WHAT IF THEY THREW A PARTY AND IT TURNED INTO A CULT?

THE KING’S NECKTIE: It’s become a truism, but it bears repeating: when it comes to Trump, what at first looked like a bug is really a feature. For me, it started long before he was the presumptive nominee, or even taken it seriously as a candidate, when he said, “I like guys who don’t get captured.” And I thought (wipes hands): “Done. Done!” I remember thinking it’s a shame he’s done, because his candidacy was entertaining, right?

It took me a long time to realize what we all understand now all too painfully now: that that kind of horrific behavior is precisely what his fans like about him.

MR. X: Yeah, when he was in the GOP primaries, I remember thinking to myself, I want Trump to stay in long enough to derail this person or that person. But he tapped into something that is beyond politics and goes into culture. These people who are turning out for him with their Trump flags and the like: as you well know, that swastika flag was not the flag of Germany at the time. That was the party flag. This is a cult of personality that’s all him.

He’s gotta be loving this. He literally is right about standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shooting someone.

TKN: He is absolutely right about that. And the Senate just told him he can do it.

MR. X: And they said “Go further, man.”

TKN: And he immediately began doing it. Everything that’s happened in the couple of weeks since the acquittal has born it out and it’s all been even worse than we predicted it would be. Comma, Susan Collins.

MR. X: Yes, she was going to rein him in with her vote to let him off. Jesus. I mean, the guy is shameless. And so is she.

TKN: And why shouldn’t he be? They be told him he can be!

MR. X: After the 2016 election and before his inauguration, I thought these powerful Republican leaders were going to walk into his office and say, “Clever. You’ve got yourself elected. Now here’s what you’re gonna do….” That has not happened. I mean, they’ve certainly gotten everything on the Republican wishlist from him because he has no values, but that’s not them running the show.

TKN: You often hear, and I say it myself all the time, “Oh, these cowardly Republicans! These supine Republicans!” Yeah, that’s true in a way, in that they sold out all their alleged values. But really it’s the opposite. I think Chauncey Devega in Salon was the first person I read who pointed that out. As you say, the Republicans have gotten everything they ever wanted. People say, “Why don’t the Republicans stand up to Trump?” It’s the wrong question. They don’t want to stand up to him! He is the best thing that ever happened to them!

MR. X: We’ve also been also horrible about election security—and we know why—and we’ve basically overturned the Civil Rights Act with Shelby County v. Holder, and been horrible with civil rights and voting rights, and lastly, we’ve been horrible with our education system.

TKN: A trifecta.

MR. X: A trifecta. Forty years of underfunding education leads to people who can’t get good jobs, who are uneducated about government and have no clue about civics, and who think that the president is the king for four years.

TKN: And do you know who else thinks that? The president does.

MR. X: He’s the chief law enforcement officer.

TKN: He loves the poorly educated.

MR. X: So the system that we’ve created and the choices that we’ve made over time have left us in this horrible lurch. If you were to plan it out, this would be exactly what you do if you wanted to destroy your democracy from within.

TKN: That is grim.

THE BLACK MAN’S BURDEN

TKN: This gets back to those low information voters you talked about last week, the people who just want a nihilist who will blow up the system, whether it’s Trump or Bernie or whoever.  

And I don’t want to give the guy credit for anything, even accidentally, but It may end up that that has been accomplished. The system has been irretrievably altered. So if we survive, Trump’s success has opened up this new world of possibilities. It’s arguably opened up the possibility that a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn who’s not even a member of one of the two major parties might win the presidency. That’s a big deal.

MR. X: It is a big deal. People are talking about how Bernie’s winning these primary elections. But he’s winning these elections with a limited set of people, people who are self-selecting as left of center and, oh look, the most leftist person is winning those races! He’s not going to win the general election without building a coalition that’s much, much bigger and vaster than I’ve seen so far. I’m working with people who are trying to build these coalitions and he may be the beneficiary of them.

We’ve only seen four states, but given the opportunity to show up for him, it hasn’t been this incredible turnout. He’s won pluralities in places that are surprising, and got more of a wider range of Democrats, but in order to win in November, you’ve got to bring all the Democrats home—and Democrats typically come home when it comes to the general election, I’ll give you that. But then you also have to expand so you can win more than Hillary did. Hillary had three million more votes than Trump, it’s true. But those were on the West Coast, where she ran up numbers in places that she won anyway. Democrats do have a tendency to win “wasted votes,” as we call them. If you win New York by an extra 200,000 votes it doesn’t give you any more electoral votes than winning it by seven.

TKN: That’s where we get to my feeling that if we lose, we only have ourselves to blame. Because first of all, if we couldn’t get it together to nominate a slam dunk candidate…..I don’t know that there’s one out there, but this would be a good time for us to have a young Bill Clinton, or an Obama—some sort of transformational rock star nominee. This would be a good time for that.

MR. X: You’re right. We don’t have that. Elizabeth Warren could have been that.

TKN: To you and me and others, she is that, yes. But unfortunately, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this too, the level of irrational hatred toward Warren is astounding….and not just from Republicans and centrist Democrats, but even from smart people on the left who I know and respect.

MR. X: What do they hate about her? I’m just curious.

TKN: She “bugs” them. They think she’s shrill. They think she’s schoolmarmish. I’m like, “Shrill??? Bernie’s whole brand is ‘Angry Old Man!’ He has one gear!”

MR. X: Take note: shrill and schoolmarmish are labels only used for women. And that’s horrendous.

But if you’re looking for that rock star candidate, it’s amazing Cory Booker couldn’t get to a primary. Kamala Harris was supposed to be this political athlete of the highest order. Couldn’t make it to a primary. Julian Castro couldn’t make it to a primary.

TKN: But he did very well in the debates, Castro, and I know they say debates don’t matter, but every time I heard him open his mouth, except the one time when he attacked Biden, which was a cheap shot, I thought to myself, “That guy is pretty fucking smart.”

MR. X: Well, the only way to be a member of Congress or a Cabinet officer is to be fairly smart—

TKN: In the old days, yes, but now you could be Ben Carson. Or Rick Perry. Or Betsy DeVos. Or absolutely anyone else in this Cabinet.

MR. X: And this is the richest Cabinet in history….

TKN: Wilbur Ross. I could go on.

MR. X: Proving that really being rich and being smart are not necessarily the same thing. I do wish that we had a deeper bench. It was amazing that the black candidates fell out well before the first caucus. And those are US senators from two huge money-churning states, New Jersey and California. I couldn’t believe that Cory Booker couldn’t raise any money.

TKN: Why couldn’t they? Besides the obvious legacy-of-the-Confederacy reasons.

MR. X: Well, I think Kamala could. I think they were blowing through it, and her team was horrible, which is tragic because I really loved her. Just on a demographic level, I thought she would be the perfect candidate in 2020, and instead she was out of it before it even got started. Having said that, she picked that horrible team. And if you can’t manage the 3000 people in your campaign, you can’t manage the 300,000 people who are in the executive branch.

TKN: But why couldn’t Cory mount a stronger campaign? 

MR. X: I think at one point there were 26 of them in the race, and when you have 26 candidates to choose from, or even if you have only eight, you get to pick and choose amongst them. I think people were like, “Oh, Joe’s in your lane.” But they weren’t giving to Joe Biden either.

TKN: And the result is, now we have a lilywhite field. What does it say that all the candidates of color were forced out of the race as early as they were?

MR. X: Well, every candidate isn’t just an amalgam of their traits or else Kamala Harris would be running at like 45% and everyone would be in her dust.

Yang went much farther than one would expect—another person of color we don’t usually talk about that way. Booker I think didn’t want to be embarrassed because he had no traction, and dropped out. Why did you have no traction? Was he talking about the right things? His “conspiracy of love” and bringing people together may not have been the argument to be making in 2020. Castro was coming from being Housing Secretary, which isn’t exactly where you jump right to the presidency or anything like that.

TKN: You mean like being Mayor of South Bend?

MR. X: Right. They all had issues. They all needed to run good races and Kamala did not run a good race. Obama had a team that was like him; David Axelrod is really smart and Dave Plouffe can make the trains run on time. They were terrific. When I was working for Hillary, she had people who screamed a lot because that’s where she comes from. It wasn’t fun.

It’s obviously easier to raise money as a white guy… certainly as someone who has run for president before, as both Biden and Bernie have, Bernie much more successfully for what it’s worth. If you’re a billionaire you don’t have to worry about it, and billionaires tend to be white guys more often than not, unless you’re Oprah, who bowed out of this race.

But it is a problem, because the engine for this party is African-American women. They’re the most reliable base for the Democratic Party. So to not have someone who represents that huge swath of the demographic is an issue. By the way, also very important are Jews who vote about 70/30 for Democrats, and there are three of them still up there, until recently. Well, two and a half—Steyer is half Jewish.

TKN: Somebody said to me that you don’t have to worry about African-American women voting. They vote. You gotta get African-American men to the polls. So who on this slate does that?

MR. X: You’ve got to give people something that they care about. If people are not turning out, it’s because they feel like what you’re offering them is bullshit. You’ve got to offer people something that’s real.

The truth is that there are huge swaths of this country that are totally, totally underserved. It doesn’t matter what party’s in power, nobody’s serving them and haven’t for a long time. The tragedy perhaps of the Obama years is that we could have had a War on Poverty slash New Deal coming out of the economic crisis of ’08-’09 and re-thought what it means to be connected to your government and how we can rebuild. Instead of saving the banks.

There’s been poverty and no route out for a long time in huge chunks of America, and that’s what politics was supposed to do to some degree—to address that. And if the Democratic Party is not doing that, because Bill Clinton said we’re all about the middle class and we’re not going to be the party of the poor anymore, then those people aren’t gonna turn out for you. They don’t owe the party anything. The party, and the country, owe them something—to pull them out of this morass that we’ve forced them into through 400 years of slavery, racism, economic injustice, environmental injustice, and educational disparity. So how do you make folks who’ve suffered through that turn out to vote? In a world where they don’t matter, don’t ask them to pull white folk out of the fire. Create a world where they matter.

TKN: Very good answer.

BATTLE OF THE BERNIE BROS

TKN: I had this argument last week online with some Bernie supporters when somebody posted something about superdelegates, and I said, “Irrespective of the merits or demerits of the issue, criticizing the party’s process is a weak battlefield for Bernie to fight on because he ain’t a member of the party.”

MR. X: And also, he wrote those rules! The Bernie people wrote these rules in 2016. They were like, we got screwed, and the party said, “Anything you want, Bernie,” and these rules are his rules, so he can shut up.

TKN: Well, that’s really why I bring up this issue, not to argue about superdelegates, which I didn’t want to argue about with the people on the web either. All I’m saying, and it’s a fact, is that Bernie is not a member of the party whose nomination he is trying to win and whose rules he is complaining about. It’d be like me complaining to the Vatican that it won’t make me Pope, even though I’m not Catholic. And in response to that very simple point I got that crazy Bernie bro assault.

MR. X: It’s ridiculous. This is where they’re like Trump people. They’re victims of everything. 

They were lamenting Hillary and her angles to shut them out in ways and in places where she got shut out in 2008, first of all. That’s called politics. You use your strength to knock people out of the race or cut them off or beat them in whatever way you can, and you should give her a lot of credit for that kind of power politics, for packing the DNC with people who were supportive of her, and also for being a party member for 40 years, for being a First Lady, being a Senator, being Secretary of State, etc., paying her dues, doing everything she possibly could. That benefit is what comes to you from doing the legwork of being part of this political game. It’s the soft primary that’s attached to the hard primary. You can get as many people as you can to vote for you, but then there’s also this DC circuit that you also have to win over.

There are people who just don’t understand that, while idealism is great, politics is the art of the possible. And Bernie Sanders is not operating in the realm of what’s possible because no one is attacking him at all. He gets to operate in the incense and peppermints zone.

TKN: For now.

THE PRE-2016 MINDSET

TKN: So we’ve been talking very inside baseball here. And when we do that, I always have this fear that we’re in a pre-2016 mindset where we’re discussing electability and vote-counting and that sort of thing, while the other side has told us very clearly they’re not even going to pretend to conduct a fair election, and they have no intention of surrendering power.

MR. X: Yes. So what is your question? (laughs)

TKN: Do you think that fear is justified? Or is it alarmist?

MR. X: I do think that it’s justified, and I think that this is when the rule of law, hopefully, has some power.

I will say this about the Republicans, although I have no insight into them whatsoever, but to be de-yoked from Trump would actually be of value to them because right now they have to speak out of two sides of their face, often changing their line every 25 minutes. Lindsey Graham has basically eaten his own testicles a way that can’t be pleasant for Lindsey Graham.

TKN: I don’t think those are the first testicles he’s had in his mouth. Not there’s not anything wrong with it.

MR. X: (laughs) It’s fine, unless you’re a self-hater.

We have a military that has been shamed and insulted by this president, and while some of them may be wackos like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove who want to ride a nuclear bomb straight to Moscow, I think that they love this country and have a feeling that, before and after Trump, there is some value to living by the rule of law. And so I have to believe that things will work out. I’m an optimist. That’s why I work in politics. (laughter)

Yes, there is every expectation that the GOP will run the most ratfucking, gloves-off, ass-ripping, face-biting race of all time. But should the votes be counted and they not have a majority in the Electoral College, I do think they’ll leave, because of those pressures.

TKN: What about a situation like you’ve just described, but where the result is not so definitive and where Donald Trump—who we can count on to do this—will call the legitimacy of the vote into question. What does Mitch McConnell do then?

MR. X: We’ve already seen that in 2000. They will have another Brooks Brothers riot and that’s when we will become a banana republic and there’ll be different factions marching in the street.

TKN: That’s what really worries me. I’m not worried about a fair election where Trump’s soundly beaten and then the Secret Service and US Marshals have to pull him off a door jamb in the West Wing by his fingernails. I agree with you about the unlikeliness of that. But I am worried about a more sophisticated way of stealing the election where it’s close enough, and they try to ratfuck it and change votes and do whatever they have to do, or just sow doubt as a pretext for nullifying the whole thing.

Because I think the election is going to be close no matter who we run. And if it’s close, there is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump is going to say either “I won,” regardless of what the vote count says, or “It wasn’t a fair election—I’m not leaving,” or some variation on that. And I don’t think Mitch McConnell will march into the Oval Office and tell him, “You’ve got to go.”

MR. X: It’s a place that I hope never to be in. It’s so scary. Being Democrats, we bring a petition to a gun fight. We have these guardrails that have allowed us to be a democracy for 240 years. This would no longer be a democracy and it wouldn’t be the America as we know it. And that’s unfathomable.

TKN: But so is having a guy in the Oval Office who’s a demonstrable asset of a foreign power. And yet he’s there.  

MR. X: Totally true. It keeps me up at night. I have no answers for what that would mean. And who does? Even marching in the streets, what would that bring us?

TKN: This country doesn’t have the stomach for that. I mean, last week you had the President of the United States shutting down the intelligence community for saying—correctly—that a foreign power is assisting him and trying to keep him in office. If the American people don’t get out in the streets over that, they’re not going to get in the streets over anything. If “American Idol” gets canceled again, then they’ll be out in the streets.

MR. X: Maybe it could move to CBS this time, which would be fitting….

TKN: (laughs) Yes: the graveyard of all television.

MR. X: But when the economy craters, then they’ll be out.

TKN: Well, that’s true. And we see the economy doing scary things right now, over the coronavirus, and fears that this administration is botching the response, which is no shock. So it could happen. Not that I’m wishing for it, of course, but it could change the game.

Plus you’ve got, whatever the number is, 65 million Americans who actively like this nightmare. Who think it’s great.

MR. X: And they have guns.

HOW TO KEEP A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY FROM SELF-FULFILLING

TKN: As we talk about the pitfalls of Bernie in the baggage department, I’m a little worried about a self-fulfilling prophecy. We just got done saying that if he’s going to be the nominee, we’re going to get behind him. So how do we speak truthfully about Bernie without creating the very problem that we’re worried about?

MR. X: Well, you know, we’re Democrats, so we are a big tent, right? Unlike the Republicans, who are an old white people’s party for white people, our party is one of dozens of interests that have come together because working together we can achieve something that benefits us all. The thing about Bernie is that his most strident supporters don’t see it that way. But it is true.

So this is about work. It’s about the blocking and tackling that will be politics. It’s about showing college students what he’s offering and the value there. It’s about showing environmentalists what he’s offering and the value there. It’s about showing young people who are looking for jobs how the Green New Deal does that, and showing people in unions how his pan-unionism will be beneficial to them, and showing people how they’ll save money on healthcare, or have better care. And then it’s also him having that weird charisma that I guess he has, to get people to believe in him.

TKN: The problem is, apart from the charisma piece, you’re describing a campaign of ideas and facts up against one of lies and libel.

What are the odds of a Corbynesque wipeout happening here?  

MR. X: I think there’s a strong chance, unfortunately. You could go back to other times in American history, not that long ago. You look at Mondale in ‘84, or McGovern in ‘72, and in both cases they were running against incumbents, which is hard anyway. So you’re asking for it if you nominate a socialist in an otherwise winnable election.

I don’t think Bernie’s democratic socialist parlance really speaks to people, or that there’s a class consciousness in America the way that Bernie thinks there is. His view is all about the “working class.” But nobody in America sees themselves like that. They all see themselves as middle class, so you’re not even talking to anybody. That said, if you’re working from paycheck to paycheck, it doesn’t matter what it’s calling you if his message speaks to you. Maybe it works. Will it be enough? I mean, if we could have Bill Clinton’s connectivity and Bernie’s politics, it’d be one thing.

It’s just a hard lift to be like, “Yeah, I’m a socialist— everything you’ve hated.”

Look at Lloyd Blankfein, who just recently said, “I don’t like Trump, but given the choice between Bernie and Trump, Trump’s gonna look awful good.” I don’t really care what people like Lloyd Blankfein believe, but those are votes. We do have this thing in America, this sort of Horatio Alger idea where we all believe that there’s this mobility and we shouldn’t demonize the rich, because I could be rich someday too. That kind of mobility has been proven to be a total lie, but the story still exists. There are these sort of like quasi-lotteries that we’ve set up to make it seem like there’s this mobility, which doesn’t exist in America anymore, sadly, but they make excoriating the rich problematic, politically speaking.

TKN: Without that democratic socialist label, I feel like you could peel off some of those Trump voters from 2016: those disaffected, nihilistic white people who just want to burn the system down. But with it, as you say, you’re fighting generations of knee-jerk conditioning, regardless of the facts.

MR. X: I mean, Bernie’s not Jeremy Corbyn. He doesn’t have this anti-Semitism problem that’s current in leftist politics in Britain and Europe, and which I think was a small part of what allowed people to not vote for Labour. But he unfortunately has this other thing, which is “Semitism,” which makes a large number of Americans not want to vote for him.

TKN: But we’re never going to get those people anyway. Aren’t they already baked into the other side? I don’t think we’re going to get the Nazi vote.

MR. X: (laughs) True. But you want to put your opponents on the defensive so they have to shore up their side. It’s all this game of states. If we’re like scraping by trying to get to that 270th electoral vote, we’re gonna be in trouble because they’re gonna have a lot of money and do a lot of ratfucking. But if we’re feeling comfortable about 300 electoral votes and are pushing them on 15 more—or they think we are—then they have to pour money into those states and we sort of bleed them that way.

That’s why it’s so scary. When you’re thinking we’re gonna be fighting in just three states, you know it’s a concern. You want to expand the map so that it makes them unsure where and how it all plays out. But the guy who is against fracking is going to be a tough sell in Pennsylvania. Wisconsin may be gone and we’re worried about other states. On the other hand, Arizona and Colorado, may be bluer now, and with a 1.8 million former felons voting in Florida, maybe that shades more purple. That’s enough to move an election. But just like we were saying about turnout, are they all gonna vote Democratic?

TKN: Some of them could be white supremacist neo-Nazis…..

MR. X: (laughs) Coming out of Florida prisons, I would assume a good chunk are. But then Georgia said they registered 225,000 new voters or something like that….

TKN: Georgia? With Brian Kemp? Come on! That’s the poster state for voter suppression!

MR. X: Well, North Carolina is up there, too. And, frankly, Wisconsin is pretty good at it….

But if you think abortion is killing babies, and women are secondary to men, then you’re probably not gonna vote Democrat anyway, right? If you feel that you’ve had a personal relationship with Jesus, you’re probably not to vote Democratic either. That’s probably 40% of America, unfortunately.

TKN: Which is a shame because Jesus is definitely a Democrat.

MR. X: Oh, a socialist.

TKN: God is a Republican.

MR. X: The great thing about Bernie frankly, is that he stays on message. That’s key. And Trump stays on message. His message, weirdly, always changes, but it all comes down to “You’re going to be so sick of winning.”

TKN: McLuhanesque, Trump is the message in his campaign.

MR. X: He is McLuhanesque…. from being created on television, to being a caricature of himself. He’s like, “I’m a billboard for myself, even though myself doesn’t exist.” He is the postmodern candidate.

My dream in ’16, and it remains this, is that someone will break their nondisclosure agreement and talk about the abortions that Trump paid for.

TKN: Right. Because you know he’s paid for—or as Samantha Bee says, promised to pay for—a bunch of them. There is no way he has not. Surely there’s some private eye out there, trying to find these people.  

But do you think that would do it? I think his cult is so deep in the Kool Aid that even if five women came out and said, “I got pregnant by Donald Trump and he paid for the abortion, or he encouraged me to have one, or knew I had one and he was relieved about it,” I don’t think would change things.

MR. X: I think that abortion is the Republicans’ Kryptonite, or their third rail, or whatever. They may not turn, but they would certainly stay home, and he needs an army of those people to do what he’s doing. It’s not about the South. He’ll win the South. It’s about the 100,000 of those voters in Wisconsin, and the 200,000 of them in Michigan, and the half a million of them in Pennsylvania.

TKN: Maybe. But I think they’d say, as they’ve said about all the terrible shit in his past, “Oh, he’s repented and God loves a penitent sinner.”

MR. X: Abortion, I believe, is unique. I think it would be a bridge too far for those people.

THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND

TKN: So notwithstanding Trump trying to steal the election and install a dictatorship….or more correctly, within the context of that, how do we proceed? How do we win with Bernie? I know his supporters are confident, and I hope they’re right, but for the rest of us who are concerned about it, regardless of how much we might personally like Bernie and/or his policies: How do we win?

MR. X: For Bernie to win, you have to build out those places where those non-voters are. July or whenever the convention is is too late to do that. My assumption is that over the last four years plus people have been doing this work. If they haven’t, I’d be surprised and that would be a disservice to the people they say they’re representing. I’m not talking about elected officials, although hopefully they play a part in it. I’m talking about groups that do this voter turnout stuff and engagement and mobilizing people and policy work and racial justice to get people involved in and caring about their electoral future. Those are people that should be actively involved in their future, and feel that they have agency in it, just as much as you and I do. Those people’s futures depend on this, as all of ours do, and if they feel like it’s all just the same and there’s no benefit in voting Democratic, then the party has not done its job.

There’s always been oppression in America. The question is, where the line? Thus far the line has been at the underclass: they are suppressed and the middle class isn’t. But then the line moved up and there were people who voted for Trump—even though it was against their interest—because they suddenly felt outside of the protected group. They were like, “Forget this, I’m not getting anywhere, not getting ahead. I’m going to go for someone who’s going to shake this up.”

Now with Trump, the line comes at the middle class people and intelligentsia. Are we going to say, “That’s a problem” and throw off the yoke? Or are we gonna be like, “Oh forget it. The system just doesn’t work for us. Goodbye. Good night.” If we do, then we don’t deserve a democracy, because a democracy demands people who are involved in a polis.

The other side of that is that our institutions have been denuded and stripped and proven themselves not worth our support. That is a huge problem. It’s what turns people off to civics. And it may be a political party, or the Boy Scouts, or the church, or your local Kiwanis Club or whatever, but that interconnectivity that we used to feel is missing from America today. And those people are isolated and the proof is, first, that they voted for Trump, and second, that they’re turning to opioids, and three, that the suicide and death rate for white Americans is skyrocketing. These people have no future.

(Beat. Funereal silence.)

Sorry, is that an analysis you haven’t heard before?

TKN: No. It’s just well put and completely accurate. That’s kind of the end of that story right there.

*******

Photos: Bernie—Sean Rayford/Getty Images; Biden— Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

 

Inside the Democratic Race (Part 1)

Print

For this week’s blog, I reached out to a friend who is a veteran Democratic operative with more than 20 years on national political campaigns, and currently a consultant for one of the remaining presidential hopefuls. In an anonymous interview, he offered an insider’s candid view of the race, billionaires, socialists, sexism, racism, and the relative odds of victory, wipeout, and the end of American democracy, among other things.

Here is part one of two….

DODGING THE PENDULUM

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Last week I had the exact same argument twice in a row. First—and I’m sure you experienced it even more heavily than I did—a huge chunk of the Democratic Party was suddenly shouting, “Bloomberg’s the great centrist hope!” And in response there was this kind of mass hysteria from the left wing of the party, and the Bernie folks were furious, saying things like, “I’d vote for most of these nominees, but I would never vote for Bloomberg!”

MR. X: That was a moment when Bloomberg had to prove himself. He put in all his chips—$350 million at that point, and now it’s about $500 million—and he looked strong and was polling well, and the Bernie people set their hair on fire because their view was that the nomination was being stolen by an oligarch. But we all know who Bloomberg is, which is a Republican in sheep’s clothing.

TKN: Right. But then, just as quickly, it was over—at least the delusion that he was going to be the hero who saved the party, for some—because he got clobbered in the debate.

MR. X: The idea that he actually went onto that debate stage struck me as the worst strategy of campaign thus far, period.

TKN: You think it was bad that he even went onstage, or just that he did poorly?

MR. X: I think you have to expect to do poorly. Basically he was called up from the minors in the middle of a pennant race and told, “It’s bottom of the ninth—hit a home run for us.” There was no way that debate stage was going to be his friend. If you remember, in 2016, Trump found ways to avoid debates he didn’t want to be in. Bloomberg absolutely could have skipped that one. And should have. He wasn’t even in the Nevada primary.

The other side of it is that the people he’s paying to prep him are never going to be as good as his actual adversaries. I mean, I’ve been in debate prep with senators and the like, and you’re just not as powerful as their opponent who has a vested interest in tearing them down. After all, as a staff member, your vested interest is making them pay you. I’m sure every time he wanted a break his staff said, “Sure, sir.” And when someone hit him too hard he could go, “Oh, that’s not fair.” And they’d say, “Oh, you’re right.” And no doubt that phenomenon is even more pronounced with a billionaire who isn’t accustomed to ever being told no.

TKN: I would like to think that if I were preparing for a debate, I would get my staff to crucify me.

MR. X: Yes, a murder board. I’m sure that Elizabeth Warren has gone through that time and time again. She’s also a law professor; she’s a phenomenal debater. Buttigieg also holds his own, I think. And while I don’t like the way she operates, Klobuchar has skills. Let’s leave Biden out of this for now. Even Bernie stays on message—deeply. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but his strength in the debate is that everything turns on that message and he never deviates from it. It’s a huge political strength to have that kind of discipline.

Bloomberg last debated in 2009 or something like that, and from an incumbent’s position of strength back then. He was like the Wizard of Oz, and they pulled back the curtain and there was this five foot six guy with an accent who rolls his eyes and huffs and puffs when he doesn’t get the fealty that one expects when you’re a billionaire.

TKN: So the very next day, the exact same mass hysteria and panic happened. It was like Groundhog Day…..except this time the roles were reversed. Now suddenly Bernie was the presumptive nominee, especially after the Nevada primary, and the centrists set their hair on fire.

MR. X: I don’t want to count out Bloomberg, who’s going on the attack against Bernie. I’m not sure if that will work or not—he’s certainly the wrong person to do it. When you hit someone in a multi-candidate race, you never win. But he could put $150 million in those Super Tuesday states against Bernie and rip his face off. If he wants to go down in flames with a scorched earth strategy, he will do his side of the Democratic Party a huge favor.

TKN: Let’s say he does that and it succeeds. He’s just thrown himself on the hand grenade that is Bernie Sanders to clear the way for who?

MR. X: Well, the only person would be Biden.

TKN: Bloomberg can’t do that and survive and be the candidate?

MR. X: No, he could. Because he’s got enough money, he could go two tracks and possibly run a huge amount of positive media at the same time he’s running a huge amount of anti-Bernie media. But that’s really hard. People love negative ads: it moves people, it changes people’s votes or keeps them at home. But they also hate the people who do them.

TKN: (laughs) What could be more American?

MR. X: In a dyad kind of race it works well because they’ve got nowhere to go but you. But in a multi-candidate race, the person who throws that punch ends up with a foot in their face.

THE DOUBLE STANDARD (TEXTBOOK EDITION)

TKN: Is that part of what happened with Warren? I know that all the candidates attacked Bloomberg in Las Vegas, but she really led the charge…..clearing the way for Bernie, not for herself!

MR. X: I don’t know what’s the story with her voters, because she reportedly had this terrific turnout engine, this amazing team in Iowa, and she came in nowhere. And then she’s in the state next to hers and she comes in effectively nowhere, given that she’s from Massachusetts. Dukakis was basically handed New Hampshire in ‘88, but of course he wasn’t running against someone from Vermont. I just don’t understand it. She’s terrific in the debates. She’s had enough money to do the job. She’s supposedly had this amazing field machine, and she’s done this really interesting stuff in her campaign, like the selfie cycle. So is it what Michelle Wolf said at the end of 2016, that what this proved in the end is, we’re far more sexist then racist?

TKN: But by the time Iowa happened her campaign had already faded. And as a layman, I can only ascribe it to misogyny.  

Initially when she announced I think there was a lot of skepticism….a sense of, “Oh, Warren is Hillary 2.0,” just because she’s a smart blond woman. Then she proved she had all those things you just described, proved she had this ground game, proved she was smart as a whip, proved she’s nothing like Hillary personality-wise. And last summer she was rising fast, as you know, and people were saying Bernie was toast, Warren had taken over his space. When Ukrainegate broke there were even headlines like, “Warren just secured the nomination.”

And then I felt like there was a moment of collective PTSD on the left, like, “Oh God, are we going to do this again? Is she going to be the nominee?” Both because she is superficially reminiscent of Hillary, and because she’s too progressive for lots of folks. And after that it she was done, for no good reason.

MR. X: I think it’s actually more complex than that, and it actually is policy-driven, shockingly enough. Everyone gave Bernie a total pass on Medicare for all. But they attacked her and they attacked her and they attacked her. “How are you gonna pay for all this?” Someone said at one point in one of these debates, “At least Bernie is honest, he’s not telling us anything!”

TKN: It’s the opposite though! Warren is answering the question that Bernie is evading, or not being asked at all. How is that more “honest” on his part?

MR. X: Exactly. So she said, “Wait, so here’s the deal. We’ll have to step this thing. Maybe we’ll have an interim,” which is basically Kamala Harris’s plan, to be fair. And the left went, “Oh, you’re not for us? I’m burning my Elizabeth Warren shirt and swag!”

Warren puts out an interim when she’d been pressed and pressed and pressed by every single other candidate—especially everyone’s favorite, Pete Buttigieg—to explain how she’d pay for this thing. By the way, Republicans never have to explain how they’d pay for anything. So she did that, and all of her support evaporated. The left no longer saw her as this pie-in-the-sky dream machine that they had in the summer of ‘19. It was the same thing that AOC did a week ago or so when she said, we’ll take what we can get from the Congress and call it a win and then move forward. But it took the air out of Warren’s balloon.

TKN: So are you saying that Bernie’s very lack of specificity, the kind of outrageousness of his proposals without any armature supporting it, is the very thing that’s appealing to people?

MR. X: Because no one is willing to attack Bernie Sanders, he doesn’t have to support or bracket his policies with the stuff that you have to churn out when people are attacking you.

TKN: But why don’t they attack him?

MR. X: Because they see his supporters like the Republicans saw Trump supporters in ’16. They’re all so scared of the Bernie bros not turning out for them if they’re the nominee that they’re unwilling to attack him. So they’ve given him a pass, which has allowed him to steamroll in the same way that Trump did in ‘16. And it’s going be disaster……

(laughs) Of course, I’m arguing it was a disaster for the Republican Party, but the Republican Party won, so I guess it’s doable. But to stop it, someone needs to do this Bloomberg thing, which is to be willing to jump on the hand grenade by going after Bernie, and be willing to die that day.

TRIUMPH OF THE EXTREMES

TKN: So what happens in the general election when Republicans are not afraid of alienating the Bernie bros, because they have no illusions about winning them over, and they will attack Bernie on all those specifics?

MR. X: You mean like he honeymooned in Moscow?

TKN: Yes, for sure. All that baggage. But also in a more substantive way of saying: defend your positions.

MR. X: When Bernie’s the candidate, he only has to respond to Trump, and Trump won’t do that, exactly. It’ll be in the water, though, like Bush and his minions did to Kerry.

But every Democratic Senate candidate will be attacked in this way, and that’s a concern downballot. Because if you’re running for Senate in Kansas, they’ll say, “Your party’s leader honeymooned in Moscow, and believes in democratic socialism, and wants to give everyone free college tuition: where do you stand on that?” And then they’re going to be up against a wall, which is going to be hellish.

TKN: I will say as an aside though, that I don’t think Donald Trump and his fans have any room to complain about the other guy cozying up to Russia. I know he’ll do it anyway, I know we’re in Bizarro World and doesn’t matter, but I just want to say that.

MR. X: But to be tarnished on that from the left is very different. Trump can sort of be Nixon in China. “I’m a Republican!” In fact, this week when the DNI said the Russians are busy infiltrating the Trump campaign, Republicans were like, “What? No! He’s tough on Russia!” So they’ve drunk the Kool Aid.

Although Bernie was on “60 Minutes” this weekend, and he makes this great point when he’s asked about it, saying that Castro did some fine things. He gave a spiel like, “I also said he did some bad things. You don’t see me writing to love letters to Kim Jong-un or cozying up to Putin.“ So he’s got his response to that issue.

As a strategist you have to say, most of Bernie’s positions—Medicare for all, free college, reparations— don’t get a majority of support. You can’t run on all minority support issues. To then add, “And I’m a socialist Jew” is a good way to put a pin in your candidacy. We’ve not seen a Jewish person run for president. We haven’t seen a socialist run for president since Eugene Debs. And he did it from jail.

TKN: But he wasn’t a major party candidate.

MR. X: He was not. But he got eight million votes, largest third party candidate support until Perot.

We’ve been conditioned as Americans, if you’re over the age of 42, to believe socialism and communism are the biggest anathema in the world. America is an engine to fight that. So to me, the idea of crossing that Rubicon, “Oh, I’ll vote for a socialist for president,” is maybe just a bridge a little too far and on a political strategy level, that’s scary.

TKN: Of course I share those same concerns. But then there’s a little part of me that thinks, well, the entire game has been changed. Nobody thought Trump could win. It’s absurd that he did win. But now we’re in a different world.

MR. X: But when it came to the tough issues that everyone hates Republicans for—the Paul Ryan issues, like gutting Medicare, Social Security and these things—Trump was like, “Oh, we won’t do that. Health care? I’m gonna give you the best healthcare in the world! How? Who knows?” But he made those promises during the race and then went full draconian Ryan/McConnell Republican after he was in office. This time we can pick apart Trump’s record, but before, he talked like Huey Long.

TKN: Recently a friend of mine was saying that the whole concept of electability has inverted. What we used to think of as a conventionally electable candidate is the exact thing that you cannot get elected with now……which is to say, a sort of reasonable person with actual policies, who speaks carefully and runs the risk of seeming inauthentic to the electorate. Whereas a radical, whether it’s Bernie or Trump—and I’m not equating them, but somebody who’s extreme—is perceived as authentic precisely because of their extremity.

MR. X: Authenticity is vitally important, but in these cases, it’s not their authenticity, but the moderation that I think is the story. Things are so bad and so disrupted that it’s not just the Trump voters who are like, “Things have to change,” but also part of the Democratic base. These Bernie people, if they’re young, are probably looking at a society where their parents had it better off than their parents did before them, and their parents’ parents’ before that. Even more so than in 2016, the rage now is huge. Whether you’re an angry white man, or a recent graduate drowning in college debt. It’s so bad that I don’t think Obama could be elected in 2020. Maybe he could as an African-American person, that kind of change. But he was a moderate.

TKN: Though a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama—even though he wasn’t a “rage” candidate—defies traditional ideas of “electability.” So that makes two norm-breaking presidents in a row.

The question is, is it possible that this rage that you’re describing—which is palpable, we all feel it—is it possible that that could translate into something that would propel Bernie to victory even with all his baggage?

MR. X: Yes. I’m not saying Bernie can’t win. But swing voters are not moderates. Moderates are moderates. Every moderate is really a secret Republican or a secret Democrat, but they’re not swing voters necessarily. True swing voters are people who are low information voters who are willing to go with whoever sells. Anyone who can swing from Obama in ‘12 to Trump in ‘16 doesn’t have a political agenda, OK?

So what that means is, to get those people to swing your direction is not about tacking to the center necessarily. On the contrary: these are people who apt to say, “Fuck this bullshit. I want to change this.” Does Bernie offer change when you’ve already got a change agent in the White House?

TKN: Maybe, if the thing you most urgently want to change is that guy in the White House.

MR. X: Yes. But typically you beat someone with their antithesis. So to replace angry, I’m-going-to-tear-everything-down Trump with angry, I’m-going-to-tear-everything-down Bernie traditionally hasn’t happened. But what’s traditional in politics today is dead.

TKN: I hear you in terms of, typically you’d go from Bush to Obama to Trump. But here the pendulum would be swinging in a different way if you went from a right wing demagogue like Trump to a socialist of a sort that we’ve never had ever, like Bernie. Ideologically that would be a radical reversal.

MR. X: But ideology is not what the presidency is about. Democrats run on ideology somewhat, but Republicans never run on ideology. There’s abortion and the religious right, and they will speak to that, but it’s not ideological per se. That’s why, to me, conservatism is so backward looking. It’s a cultural thing and Trump’s politics are certainly cultural politics, not one based on policies.

BERNIE’S PATH TO PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE

TKN: So let’s say Bernie is the candidate—

MR. X: The only way he can’t be is if Biden wins in South Carolina and somehow comes up with parity on Super Tuesday. Does he have the money to compete in those states? The money’s not gonna come in and make a difference in three days. There are Super Tuesday states that look a lot like South Carolina from a primary perspective, which can benefit Biden. There’s also California.

TKN: What about a brokered convention, or the Democratic powers-that-be saying, “We just can’t let Bernie be nominee”?

MR. X: The powers-that-be are not going to do that. They know that would be a net loss. They’d rather go down in flames with their guy. If we do end up with Bernie, or frankly whoever it is, my only hope is that the party says, “Let’s give it everything we’ve got.”

The good news is, Bernie has the opportunity to do what Trump did, which is turn out these people who weren’t voting before. The bad news is that old people are like, “Oh, I’m mad! I’m gonna vote.” Young people are like, “I’m mad. I’m gonna start an organic butcher shop!”

The people Bernie’s relying on are non-voters and young people….and those people don’t vote! It’s like saying, “I’ve got this great football team with me. I just don’t have any players.” It’s hard to win when they don’t show up on the field. And to count on them is a big, dangerous mistake. But that’s what it comes down to for him: getting those people to finally show up and vote.

I will say this: Bloomberg was never, ever gonna make those people say, “Yeah! I want to vote!” But Bernie might. He’s certainly doesn’t look like them, but he’s got a lot to offer to those people, and talking about stuff—the same stuff that Elizabeth Warren is talking about—that speaks to Latinx and black parts of the electorate. Democrats have spent every cycle courting these demographics, but they have to follow through. You know, Black Lives Matter—yeah, for the three hours when we are at the polls. Other than that, forget it.

Also, higher turnout doesn’t necessarily mean we win, by the way. Those people who never voted before 2016 and who are now standing in line overnight to see Trump at a rally are the scariest part of American politics in my opinion.

The interesting question is who will be Bernie’s running mate. Bernie’s been saying the same thing since 1985. Great. It’s working for him right now and that’s terrific. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of winning a national campaign, he needs to find the right partner. You’ve gotta balance the ticket.

TKN: So who is his ideal VP?

MR. X: Maybe it’s Kamala Harris. She’s quasi African-American and she’s from California, totally another part of the country. She speaks to a different demographic. Also Julian or Joaquin Castro would be an interesting choice; a Latino running mate would make a big difference for him. For Trump, Pence really shored up that wavering religious right. The religious right loves Trump now, but back then, a three time divorcee picking a guy who won’t eat lunch without his wife there certainly helped.

Because he himself is so unconventional, Bernie needs a Tim Kaine. It’s the opposite of what Hillary needed. If she’d picked someone a little more outside the box, she’d be president right now.

TKN: (laughs) Are you blaming Tim Kaine for 2016? Because, I have to tell you, I have not heard that before….

MR. X: (laughs) No, I’m not blaming Tim Kaine. But I’m saying if Hillary had done something that excited people, it would have been different. It was only 70,000 votes in three states—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—that decided the election. Trump had an inside straight that no one’s ever seen before. I mean, if the border of Illinois was, I think it’s like 400 yards farther north, then he would not have won. If she’d had someone who inspired African-American people in Milwaukee, she’d be president.

TKN: But this is Michael Lewis’s Undoing Project, where you ask those “if only” questions that are 11th hour things that come to mind, but we don’t go back and question bigger things, like “If Donald Trump had been born with a vagina, he wouldn’t be president.”

MR. X: I am with you all the way. I am just making the case that whoever the Democratic nominee is, they have to be very careful and pick someone who really adds to the ticket, because all of the Democrats have holes. Anyone who’s not Bernie can very easily pick Stacey Abrams and be done.

TKN: You don’t think Stacey would be a good running mate for Bernie?

MR. X: She’s too far left for Bernie. And he would be showing his willingness to compromise with who he picks as a running mate. He doesn’t have to compromise on any of his values; he just has to pick someone who is moderate. If you want to win, that is the easiest compromise to make, and the smartest one. You’re not compromising any of your values. You’re parking somebody, even though you’re giving them a leg up in the next election. The vice presidency means as much or as little as you want it to mean. In this current administration, I think it means very little. In the Bush years it was everything.

TKN: So for Bernie, Kamala certainly comes to mind right off the bat, as you say. It would help me, for sure, just on a visceral level. But do you think he would do that? Pick her?

MR. X: Yes.

TKN: Do you think Kamala would do it?

MR. X: In a heartbeat. God, it’s a step! And she’s a career politician, bless her heart. As John Nance Gardner said, the vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit, and it’s true… unless the president dies. Kamala and Gavin Newsom are competing to see who gets the presidency first. That would be a ladder, in “Chutes and Ladders.” She’d be the heir apparent and also have the chance to put some gravitas underneath her sails.

TKN: What about a really out-of-the-box VP choice? I would think—and this is just my bias—but if it was Bernie Sanders and Admiral Bill McRaven, an American military hero credentialed to the hilt and a staunch critic of Trump….

MR. X: That would be incredible. I also think that Steve Bullock would be another good one. But two white guys is problematic. I think that if you want to have this turnout thing, you need to show people that you get them, and that means someone of color.

TKN: How about Deval Patrick?

MR. X: Well, the problem is now you’re stuck in the Northeast.

TKN: What about—don’t laugh—Bernie/Bloomberg?

MR. X: Who would be at the top of that ticket?

TKN: I understand it would be a major ego come-down for Mike Bloomberg….

MR. X: Oh, Bloomberg is at the bottom of that ticket? Not in a million years is that going to happen.

TKN: Because Bloomberg wouldn’t do it, or because Bernie wouldn’t do it?

MR. X: Bloomberg wouldn’t do it AND Bernie wouldn’t do it.

TKN: And it’s still two white guys, and two Jewish guys to boot. But Bloomberg has said, and I take him at his word, that he’s going to put his fortune into this no matter who the nominee is. He can be the war chest that the Democrats need to fight the Republican war chest.

MR. X: But the difference is, if he’s the nominee, he’ll put $1 billion in on top of anything. And if it’s not him, he’ll put $100 million in, which is not nothing….

TKN: But now Bernie’s saying he won’t take the money, and Bloomberg’s saying, well then, I’m not gonna offer it. As if we haven’t voluntarily saddled ourselves with enough disadvantages.

JOE’S SLOW FAREWELL

TKN: You predicted Biden’s collapse months ago.

MR. X: I think the reason they kept him in this Rose Garden strategy for so long was because Biden isn’t Biden anymore. He used to be verbose but fast-talking, thought he was smarter than everybody else in the room, etc. Now he just seems superannuated in a way that Bernie doesn’t. Bernie’s that old guy that’s like, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” but he’s still making some good points. Joe can’t finish a sentence without it being a run-on, and then having three subordinate clauses that go nowhere.

The thing I would say, though, is that he’d still be a fine president! (laughs) Debate is a unique situation, both formal and improvisational, and it’s not something that happens often. If you’re worried about a president saying stupid things off-the-cuff to foreign leaders, we have one already, so it’d be a fair trade.

Biden’s just not raising money, which he could’ve done, his organization is obviously shoddy, and the ads are not that great. Put all those things together and you’ve got a problem.

Amy’s ads are terrible. Bennett’s ads were horrible. Buttigieg’s are like Hillary’s in ’08, him at a rally saying supposedly highfalutin things that make you want to salute the flag. But the only things that come out of Pete’s mouth are highfalutin things.

TKN: So you’re down on Pete? I don’t mean that in an attacking way. I’m just curious.

MR. X: I agree with everything Elizabeth Warren says about him. When she attacked Pete as being a McKinsey consultant, teleprompter reading, rehash-giving automaton, I think that was really right. He is great at slashing attacks with a smile on his face, like Alfred E. Neuman, or maybe Alfred E. Neuman crossed with Pee Wee. But I think that his positions are lackluster. He’s a moderate and he sounded really good in the spring of 2019 when we were looking for someone. I’d date him, but when it’s time to get married, when you really vote, that’s not what I’m looking for.

He’s also so young and he’s done so little. He’s a guy who’s led a town of 100,000 people. And I don’t have the facts, mind you, but firing the first black police commissioner and the black fire commissioner… there’s something horribly wrong going on in that town.

TKN: There are definitely people who feel like Pete embodies a certain kind of white male privilege.

MR. X: African-American people look at him and see a guy who’s literally gotten every privilege. If you’re a black person and you see a 37-year-old guy running for president from a tiny town, you say, “This is like every asshole who’s cut in front of me ‘cause they’re white, in every shape and every form,“ and you just hate that.

TKN: I suspect it’s a little like being a woman and watching the most qualified candidate for president in American history lose to the least qualified candidate in American history in large part because of her gender.

MR. X: Yes, but you were talking before about authenticity. I worked for her, and Hillary Clinton is, for all her great strengths, really the least authentic person to walk the earth.

TKN: Yeah. But she was beaten by a guy who’s only authentic in being an asshole.

MR. X: True. But if you’re saying, “Oh, all he had to offer was assholedom,” maybe that’s what America is more like than you realize.

TKN: Oh, I’m learning that.   

THE AFTERMATH OF UKRAINEGATE

TKN: Turning back to Joe Biden, David Frum had a tweet recently saying that Trump’s Ukraine scam paid off because it destroyed Biden’s campaign.

MR. X: You know, I was worried about that, but Biden’s candidacy wasn’t destroyed by that. If Biden had raised 40 million bucks he would have knocked people out and scared people away and the like. But he was a weak frontrunner to begin with. To run for president you gotta raise a lot of money and you gotta be out there stumping. If you watch those debates, afterward all the other candidates go and talk to Chris Matthews or CNN or whoever. When I fell in love with Warren was when she was on after the second debate, I think it was, and she was literally still debating with all five of them from the panel on CNN. And I thought, that is really impressive. Joe didn’t do any of those things. His campaign tried to play this sort of above the fray thing.

I think it was a wash. It didn’t help Joe Biden to be the center of this Ukraine thing, although it did give him some great lines at a couple debates, like, “Trump is scared of me. That’s why he’s trying to destroy me.” And, “If anyone has a right to be pissed at Republicans, it’s me.” I think that that’s a pretty sticky wicket for Trump: “Let me possibly lose my presidency trying to smear a rival.” In the end it strengthened his presidency, as we saw, but it certainly did not necessarily have to go that way—

TKN: You think impeachment strengthened his presidency?

MR. X: Well, look where his numbers are now.

TKN: But I don’t think it matters. This is a completely different interview by the way, but I think the downside of not holding him to account was much worse.

MR. X: Absolutely true. But his emboldened nature from being exonerated by the lackeys in his party is troubling.

TKN: Yes, I agree with you by that definition. It’s “strengthened” his presidency in the sense that now he is positive that no one in Congress—which is to say the GOP—is going to hold him accountable and he can behave in an even more unconscionable way, which is exactly what he has done since that day. But I think he was gonna go there anyway. There was no way that he was going to be a good boy, a la Susan Collins, no matter what. He was going to find something to gin up those crazies: if it wasn’t impeachment, it’d be something else. So I think impeachment was the right thing to do, and If there’s an America left in 2021, history will judge us kindly.

MR. X: Impeachment was absolutely the right thing to do. There is no doubt about that. And Nancy Pelosi was great, and she also sort of field tested it, saw that Jerry Nadler was not the guy to do it and turned to Adam Schiff, and he did a phenomenal job. It was certainly possible that Bolton could have testified and the roof would have blown off this thing and the Senate would have been forced to act. I don’t think he would have been voted out of office anyway, but I think that probably a group of twelve Republican Senators would have walked into the Oval Office and said, “Donald, it’s time for you to go.”

TKN: You mean like in 1974?

MR. X: Right.

TKN: But it didn’t happen. Barry Goldwater’s dead. Can you believe that Barry Goldwater now looks like the voice of reason?

********** 

In part two, Mr. X discusses what the Democratic Party has to do in order to turn out the African-American vote, the chances Trump won’t yield power, and whether the republic will still be standing in 2021.

Illustration: Steve Bernstein

Their Man in Washington

Putins-puppet-part-2-e1537127188980

Last Friday, news broke that the US Intelligence Community had, again, as it did in 2017, determined that the Russian government was interfering in an American presidential election with the goal of helping elect Donald Trump.

But unlike the 2017 assessment, which was a post-mortem, this one was an active red alert: the IC was warning that Russia was in the process of attacking our democracy as we speak. It was as if a radio message came in during the wee hours after midnight on December 7th, 1941 saying “Uh, Japanese planes are headed toward Pearl Harbor.” Or if on the morning of September 11th, 2001 an observant flight attendant walking out of an Au Bon Pain at Newark’s Terminal B had noted, “Hey, four guys are getting on this plane carrying boxcutters.”

But President Donald J. Trump, upon hearing about this assessment, which had been briefed to the House Intelligence Committee on February 13, did not raise the alarm, get on the red phone to Vladimir Putin and tell him to cut that shit out or else, or lift even one of his tiny little fingers to stop the Russian actions.

Nope.

Instead, he flew into a rage at the very suggestion that Russia was working to help him, denied it was true, and did everything he could to bury the news, to include firing his acting Director of National Intelligence for allowing the briefing in the first place, and replaced him with a former Internet troll.

So to be clear, here’s the situation, which would be eye-rollingly bad if it were the plot of an airport spy novel:

The President of the United States is a notoriously shady businessman with extensive financial connections in the land of one of our most vicious enemies, connections he lied about during his campaign for office, giving that enemy vast leverage over him. He openly accepted the help of that enemy in order to win the election, and since taking power he has repeatedly, brazenly served its ends at the expense of our own. (See the Oval Office meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak, Helsinki, the quashing of the Mueller probe, Syria, and more.) He has refused to harden our electoral system against future attacks of the sort that aided him, and for obvious reasons, as he is yet again accepting that enemy’s help, and using the full power of his presidency to cover it up, along with his complicity in it.

Do I really need to say that this state of affairs is a five alarm housefire of a crisis without precedent in American history?

It was a dazzling intelligence coup by a regional power (albeit a conniving and ruthless one) over a superpower—one in the grip of a self-destructive mass hysteria, aided by an often naive media, and beset by deep vulnerabilities in its democratic institutions. Every patriotic American ought to be infuriated by what’s going on. Yet it is the most ostentatiously flag-waving right wingers who have been most thoroughly hoodwinked by this effort, and most adamantly insist it is not happening.

In the Kremlin they must be howling with laughter.

WHAT, US WORRY?

We have known for more than three years that the Russians (and others) intended to attack our electoral system again. Numerous defense and intelligence officials and private sector experts have frantically rung the fire bell in an effort to rouse the government to action, only to be shut down by a livid White House and a shamelessly unbothered Mitch McConnell. Most pointedly, special counsel Robert Mueller, having already indicted a dozen Russian intelligence operatives for the 2016 attacks, warned Congress of this very thing on national television last July.

Now we see it happening before our eyes, and Trump and his Republican protectors actively abetting it.

The story was a bombshell, but not as big a bomb as it should have been. It should have obliterated all other news. It should have resulted in a national emergency, mass protests (and resignations) in the Departments of State and Defense and Homeland Security, a general strike in the CIA, DIA, FBI, and the rest of the Intelligence Community, angry rallies in the streets, barricades going up, Senators and Congressmen on the floor of the US Capitol building demanding the president’s resignation.

Did I miss that while watching Week 3 of the XFL?

Folks, we are allowing a demonstrable asset of a hostile foreign state to sit in the Oval Office, using the full range of presidential authority to maintain a chokehold on power, serving the interests those enemies at the expense of the United States, refusing to admit what he is doing, let alone put a stop (and why he should he when it helps him so?), and blocking every effort to expose the truth.

To be fair, plenty of profoundly outraged veterans of the national security and intelligence apparatus raised the alarm. Here’s a tweet from former CIA Director John Brennan (whom Trump vindictively stripped of his security clearance):

We are now in a full-blown national security crisis. By trying to prevent the flow of intelligence to Congress, Trump is abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow’s interests, not America’s.

And Sally Yates, former acting US Attorney General (whom Trump fired):

This is a screaming red siren, but in the daily barrage of crazy, can we hear it?Trump is not only trying to rewrite history of Russia’s intervention in 2016, he is now using the power of the presidency to conceal their 2020 scheme to re-elect him.

And Admiral (Ret.) Bill McRaven, the Navy SEAL who oversaw the 2011 Bin Laden raid as commander of US Special Operations Command (who Trump dismissed as a “Hillary lover”):

As Americans, we should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.

But these howls of indignation are not enough.

As an abuse of power, getting in bed with the enemy to maintain one’s position atop the government is about as abuse-of-powery as it gets. As Trump himself would say, we used to shoot people who did that sort of thing.

THE BEST PEOPLE

Trump learned of the February 13th House briefing because the greasy little excuse for a human being that is Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) went running to the White House to tattle about it. Apparently, during the briefing Nunes and other Republicans refused to accept what the intel experts were telling them, attacking it as Democratic Party disinformation, part of their tinfoil hat fantasy about a “Deep State” conspiracy against the President. A theory that conveniently disregards the fact that it was the President’s own appointees presenting the facts.

(Subsequent attempts by administration to downplay and discredit the contents of the briefing—credulously regurgitated by the likes of CNN—smack of transparently weak damage control.)

Of course, “tattle” is not really the right word, as there was nothing clandestine about the briefing, conducted by Shelby Pierson, the IC’s lead official on election interference. On the contrary: it is the job of the Intelligence Community to provide critical analysis to the US government, especially, uh, people like the House Intelligence Committee. But that is the very point: Trump is subverting the entire purpose of the IC to protect his own ass, and by extension, serving the ends of Vladimir Putin.

Donald’s typically rage-a-holic and hamhanded response was to throw a temper tantrum, and to fire acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who—and you’ll be shocked to hear this—has been on Trump’s shit list ever since he testified before the House in the Ukraine scandal last fall. (Prompting the angry op-ed from Maguire’s fellow SEAL and longtime comrade, Admiral McRaven.)

True to form, Trump’s choice for new DNI, Richard Grenell, currently the US Ambassador to Germany, has zero intelligence experience or any other qualifications that remotely recommend him for the job, save one: he is a vocal and fanatical devotee for Trump. Grenell—a man with a severe case of Resting Douchebag Face—is so hated by the German government and public in his present job (for which he is equally unqualified), that some in Berlin took the unprecedented step of demanding that he be recalled.

What could go wrong?

And so we see Donald Trump suppressing and destroying the very raison d’etre of an intelligence apparatus: to provide truthful, fact-based analysis to facilitate informed decision-making at the highest levels. By so doing, he is not only perverting his office, but doing untold damage to the security of the United States.

AUTOCRACY IS AS AUTOCRACY DOES

This latest scandal dwarfs even Ukrainegate, though it is related in terms of sheer corruption, international skullduggery, and connection to the original sin of the Trump administration, which is its fealty to Moscow. I reported last week that Trump, newly emboldened after the travesty of his “acquittal” by Senate Republicans, is on a deathquest to obliterate the 2017 conclusion of the IC regarding Russian ratfucking on his behalf……reflecting his even more fundamental obsession, the notion that such Russian aid delegitimizes his “victory.”

And so we see further evidence that Post-Impeachment Trump feels absolutely unshackled in his belief that he can break any rule he wants, and with absolute impunity. Lesson learned, right, Susan Collins?

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent:

When the Senate acquitted President Trump of the high crimes he committed against our country, Republicans and Democrats alike fell back on a convenient fiction: No, Trump has not really placed himself beyond the law and accountability entirely—for he can always be held accountable in the next election.

Republicans adopted this fiction to obscure Trump’s crimes—that his Ukraine shakedown was all about corrupting that same election. Democrats adopted it to diffuse pressure to sustain the investigative war footing that protecting the country demands.

The news that intelligence officials warned House lawmakers that Russia is again trying to sabotage our election for Trump, and that this disclosure angered him, shatters that fiction entirely.

These revelations are already getting shrouded in euphemism. One CNN analysis insists “America” is “blundering” into another crisis of electoral legitimacy, and that the “partisan divide” is hampering the US response to it. This notion that the country writ large is stumbling helplessly into this crisis, when in fact one party is inviting it in a manner the other simply is not, and its companion idea that “partisanship” will paralyze our response to it, will be ubiquitous.

So let’s not mince words: Trump and his GOP defenders appear to be actively abetting an attack on our country. By contrast, Democrats can be accused only of passivity—a serious abdication, but not remotely comparable to what Trump and his defenders are orchestrating.

To Sargent’s point about false equivalence, the IC also concluded that the Kremlin is interfering to help Bernie Sanders. The difference was in Sanders’ response, even if he didn’t make it publicly until forced to comment: “I don’t care, frankly, who Putin wants to be president. My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.” (Bernie also suggested that some of the more virulent and divisive rhetoric attributed to some of his supporters might actually be coming from Russian trolls.)

DEAR GREAT GRANDCHILDREN: WE SUCKED

A word from the foggy past that deserves a lot more airplay these days is “quisling,” meaning a treasonous collaborator with an enemy invader or occupier, particularly one who participates in an puppet government. The name comes from Vidkun Quisling, the compliant leader of Norway under the Nazi occupation. (His family must be so proud.)

Henceforth, I suspect, American “quislings” will be rebranded as “trumps.” The guys in marketing are very excited about it.

When the history of this period in American life is written, our generation will be covered in shame for what we allowed to happen and just shrugged off as we went about our daily business. I have long wondered how far Trump would have to go to rouse the ire of a sufficient number of Americans to force his ouster.

It is to our great national humiliation that we ain’t found that limit yet.

**********

Illustration: Santa Monica Daily Press

Wake Up Little Susie

Wake Up Little Susie

Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

Trump had barely been acquitted by his bootlicking GOP minions in the US Senate before he began making fools of those very lickers, at least the ones who had told us with a straight face that he’d “learned his lesson” after being branded with the scarlet “I” of impeachment, and would be more careful going forward.

His (non)acquittal wasn’t even four hours old when he and his allies began weaponizing the power of the federal government to persecute his political opponents, just as they do in an authoritarian regime like the ones Trump so openly admires, and which we now arguably are. That very evening Senators Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced a Senate investigation into Hunter Biden, and the Treasury Department said that it would comply with requests to provide pertinent records, even as it continues to shield Trump’s own financial records from public view.

The next day, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) proposed a Constitutional amendment to make impeachment harder by requiring a three-fifths vote of the House rather than a simple majority. (Didn’t we just learn how fucking hard it already is?)

In fact, this purge began even before the final vote, as soon as the notion of, ya know, like, hearing testimony or evidence from witnesses was shot down and it was clear that the denouement was at hand. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News that Trump believed there should be retribution for the Democrats who spearheaded his impeachment, noting “how horribly he was treated, and maybe people should pay for that.” The WaPo reported that Lindsey Graham, speaking to Fox News on the Sunday after the vote on witnesses, stated that “a “sweeping GOP counterattack” was in the works, and “outlined a plan that would include an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden, who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and a pursuit of the whistleblower whose account triggered the probe into Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine.”

Once he was formally acquitted, Trump himself immediately began calling for criminal prosecution of those who had dared question his conduct. He fired Gordon Sondland, and had not just LTC Alexander Vindman but also his twin brother frogmarched out of the White House, then called for the Army to punish him. Of course, as George Conway pointed out (seconded by Adam Schiff), “punishing witnesses for complying with subpoenas and giving truthful testimony about presidential misconduct” are themselves high crimes and misdemeanors, leading to suggestions that “we may have to impeach him again.”

But Donald was just getting started. In the days that followed he successfully pressured the DOJ to reduce its sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a man who had been convicted of (wait for it) obstructing justice, witness tampering, and lying to Congress to protect Trump. He then threatened the federal judge hearing that case, Amy Berman Jackson (who previously gave Paul Manafort a very light sentence, lest we forget), called for Stone to get a new trial, and suggested that the federal prosecutors who won the conviction should apologize to this real-life Batman villain. (They all quit instead.)

Needless to say, this is brazen Mob-like intimidation of the judicial system more suited to the Sicily of legend, or a Third World banana republic. But Trump now feels completely free to engage in this wantonly imperial behavior, and why shouldn’t he? It was reported that Trump administration officials are “terrified that their careers will be ruined by a vindictive president if they report anything unethical.” And that is the exact intent. Autocracy functions by cowing resistance and rewarding toadies, all pegged to pleasing or displeasing the Dear Leader.

With his newly recharged sense of immunity, Trump is only going to get worse. “SNL” joked recently about Jeanine Pirro replacing RBG on the Supreme Court. Don’t laugh.

Folks, this is what an authoritarian one-party state looks like. Get used to it. (Or—and here’s a novel idea—get up on your feet and do something about it.)

In short, does anyone in America look more foolish right now than Susan Collins (Dishonorable mention: Lamar Alexander, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, and 48 others.)

Yeah, Trump learned a lesson from his impeachment all right: he learned he really can do whatever the fuck he wants.

THE NIGHTMARE OF KAKISTOCRACY

This entire presidency has been like a “Black Mirror” episode.

Trump wants to throw people like Colonel Vindman and Andrew McCabe and John Brennan in jail, but pardons the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, Joe Arpaio, and Rod Blagojevich? He makes a wanton ignoramus and avowed enemy of book learnin’ like Betsy DeVos the Secretary of Education, and Rick Perry the secretary of a department he can’t even name (and wants to dismantle), while purging the government of anyone who is actually competent in their job? He attacks NATO and praises the Kremlin, puts a man credibly accused of rape on the Supreme Court, and gives the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh?

Somewhere, Anthony Burgess is consumed with envy that he didn’t ever invent anything this sadistically baroque.

Meanwhile Uday and Qusay Trump remain on a tear, howling about nepotism, lack of qualifications, and trading on the family name by Hunter Biden, and with no shame or fear (or sense of irony) about doing so, because they—correctly—expect no pushback from the right wing cult that enables them, a cult includes not only red-hatted rank-and-file frothing at the mouth about Mexican rapists, but also the senior leadership of the RNC.

Kafka, Pirandello, Orwell, Ionesco—no absurdist or surrealist could top our current “reality.”

Their dad himself, with characteristically infantile fury and lust for revenge, recently raged that if he weren’t president, he’d be suing everyone all over the place.” (As if having the power of the presidency at your disposal is not rather more useful.) That was certainly his lifelong strategy as a private businessman and hyper-litigious wannabe celebrity. But the real bottom line is, if he weren’t president, he’d be in jail.

Susan Glasser in the New Yorker:

In his post-impeachment rage, Trump wanted vengeance, and he wanted us to know it. There was no one inside his Administration to stop him. A month ago, Congress had at least the theoretical power to do something about his overreaching. Today, thanks to the Senate’s very clear vote, it does not. So, although the President himself is unchanged, the context around him is very much altered. In the history of the Trump Presidency, there will be a before impeachment and an after. It’s too late for lessons learned, and it’s most definitely too late for Bill Barr to complain about the President’s tweets.

Next up, bet your bottom dollar: a pardon for Roger Stone, fittingly, the living connection between Tricky Dick-era Republican criminality and its Trumpist descendant. You know he’s gonna do it, right? In a tweet (of course), he literally told us he’s going to use his power to save Roger’s saggy white ass. And I literally mean literally, cryptic quotation marks, capitalization, and butt-covering question marks notwithstanding:

I have known Roger Stone (and his Very beautiful wife Nydia) for a very long time. A great patriot, Roger (and many others) will never ever “serve time” as long as I am in office (long time?). Time to change the laws?

Judge Jackson ultimately gave Stone a little over three years—less than the seven to nine that federal prosecutors asked for, but no doubt a bid that will still enrage Trump. Pardons or commutations for Manafort and Flynn wouldn’t surprise me either.

It’s no surprise that the crimes for which he pardoned this recent batch of rogues (Kerik and DeBartolo along with former “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Blagojevich)—bribery, graft, and the like—are Trump’s own specialty. (Shitbirds of a feather, amirite?) What Trump is after, as the WaPo’s Paul Waldman succinctly put it, “is the normalization of corruption.” He truly sees nothing wrong with the sort of thing all these men were imprisoned for, and which he himself does as naturally as he breathes or grabs pussy.

But more specifically, Trump is also laying the groundwork for shielding his accomplices in Russiagate, which along with a certain black guy from Hawaii, remains his chief obsession. Newly emboldened by a compliant US Senate, and more confident than ever in his absolute authority, Trump is trying to erase the fact of Russia’s interference on his behalf in 2016, which has long stuck in his craw as tainting his electoral “victory.” (And of course doing nothing to stop Russian interference again in 2020.)

And now we learn that Julian Assange will allege that Trump—via longtime Kremlin water-carrier Dana Rohrabacher—dangled a pardon if Assange would agree to clear Russia in that matter, the exact same form of bribery Trump employed with Kyiv. Assange is pond scum, but if true (and it sure rings true) that would be an atomic bomb….in any sane time.

And how is the press reporting this sort of thing? There are alarmed opinion pieces to be sure—many of them quite brilliant. But the straight news departments of our best newspapers continue to say things like, “Trump Takes On Judge Amy Berman Ahead of Stone Sentencing.”

Really? “Takes on” is a bit mild, if you ask me. More like “threatens in a mobster-like way.” (And for extra irony, the piece carries a photo of Judge Berman with her colleague Merrick Garland.) This would be an outrage, a scandal, and an impeachable offense if Donald Trump had not just been assured by Moscow Mitch and the Republican-controlled US Senate that he will never be impeached no matter what he does.

From now on, would it not be easier just to keep track of the things Trump does that are NOT an abuse of power?

The only thing that gives me any comfort is the fact that Donald Trump is the king of own goals.

Trump has always been his own worst enemy, needlessly committing unforced errors and bringing on trouble because he’s a sociopath who doesn’t understand right from wrong, or that you shouldn’t say the quiet part out loud. (See: publicly calling on Russia to hack the DNC server, firing Jim Comey, explicitly telling Lester Holt he did it to stop the Russia investigation, releasing the readout of the Zelenskyy call, etc.) And he repeatedly does himself the most harm when the external danger has, miraculously, passed. Recall that, although Ukrainegate was well underway by summer 2019, it reached its critical moment of self-incrimination with “The Hollow Men”-like whimper that marked the end of the Mueller probe and emboldened Trump to make his infamous July 25th call to Zelenskyy the very next day

So it is now, with the danger of impeachment past, that the unfettered (and unhinged) Trump, on a blood quest for vengeance, is apt to do something really insane and self-destructive. Not that anything he has yet done has been insane and self-destructive enough to hurt him. But we are surely now entering into new and even darker waters.

KNOW YOUR ENEMA

I want to stop a moment to offer an instructive example of that segment of our nation that, far from being put off by the rise of American fascism, thrills to Trump and his monstrousness.

Here’s Mollie Hemingway, from the right wing rag The Federalist, singing the praises of what she calls Trump’s “epic” State of the Union address, with special attention to a certain someone he chose to honor:

Smack dab in the middle of the speech, President Trump thanked conservative hero Rush Limbaugh for “decades of tireless devotion” to the country. In recognition of his work and the inspiration he has provided millions of Americans, Trump announced the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He had Melania Trump immediately present the honor in front of the assembled crowd.

While it is beyond common for liberal heroes and liberal celebrities to receive awards, Republican leaders acted over the course of decades almost as if it was okay for conservatives to be treated as second-class citizens in this regard. President Trump recognizes that the half of the country that is not liberal also likes to honor its celebrities and heroes.

Limbaugh has taught millions of Americans about conservative ideology, emphasizing the Constitution and the country’s founding ideals, and suffered attacks from the left as a result. He is a folk hero who is beloved in part because he defends tens of millions of Americans against attacks.

No other previous Republican president or nominee would have had the courage to bestow this award on such a deserving American.

I don’t know where to begin having a rational conversation with someone who thinks that a shock jock whose stock in trade is racism, misogyny, homophobia, and general hatemongering, who thought nothing of going on the air and advocating for harsh prison terms for drug addicts even as he was illegally scoring oxy, is a “deserving American,” a “beloved folk hero,” or a great educator and defender of “the country’s founding ideals.” (I guess that’s true if you count slavery.) Indeed, short of Trump himself, there may not be any living American who has done more in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to spew poison into the public conversation. But that is the mentality we are up against.

Please note that The Federalist fancies itself a legitimate journalistic organ, not a sewer-dweller like Breitbart or InfoWars (not that it’s easy to tell). For her part, Hemingway is a journalism fellow at the Washington DC campus of Hillsdale College, an evangelical Christian school in Michigan that is alma mater to Erik Prince, Betsy DeVos’s brother and the founder of Blackwater, who is himself implicated in Trumpian skullduggery and currently at risk of being charged with perjury for lying to Congress. So consider the source.

I mentioned “Black Mirror” already, right?

WILL THE SHEEPLE RISE?

Remember when the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted? In many parts of the world, the nakedly corrupt acquittal of the head of state by his political allies would have prompted a similar uprising.

Let me be clear: I’m not calling for us to burn the country down. (Trump is already on top of that.) But I am calling for us to do more than watch “The Masked Singer.”

Speaking to Business Insider, Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, said “the system is enabling Trump” as we watch behavior “straight from the literature on authoritarianism.”

“The Republican Party is betraying democracy, and these are historical times. Someone has got to push back”…. Stanley said there should have been mass protests in the streets after the vote against witnesses, warning that the absence of significant public outcry served as “a further sign to the party in power that they can go ahead and do what they want.”

So that boat has sailed.

With Trump’s trial behind us (the first one, at least—see Assange), progressive hopes are now pinned on the election, and rightly so. It would have been far better if we were going into that effort having publicly registered our collective unhappiness over the miscarriage of justice that was his acquittal, but here we are. So with that in mind, let’s try to look ahead and not make another big mistake. To wit:

We have to get out of the pre-2016 mindset and recognize what the GOP has been brazenly broadcasting for the past three years, and never louder than with Senate Republicans’ shameful excusal of Trump’s attempts to fix the election:

They do not intend to hold a fair vote.

The sooner we acknowledge that and find a way to fight back, instead of arguing amongst ourselves over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the better off we will be. It’s the only way.

But how? That is the $64,000 question, of course. (Dating myself.) I don’t pretend to have the answer. But step one is for us to recognize that Trump and his GOP enablers have blatantly announced that they are going to cheat, and therefore we ought to stop deluding ourselves that this is a routine election like those of the past. If a Democratic candidate would bluntly point that out on national television, it would immediately change the conversation. (Of course, they would immediately be accused of pre-emptively undermining the legitimacy of the election….which Trump himself did in 2016, and the GOP cheered.)

But watching the fractiousness of the Democratic presidential field, I am worried. Charlie Sykes described last night’s debate as “a murder-suicide worthy of an Agatha Christie novel. The one where everyone ends up dead.” Listening to the candidates rip into each other, I could see the Trump campaign ads practically writing themselves. Sykes:

Consider that Trump’s impeachment trial was just last month; that he has launched a revenge tour that includes daily attacks on the rule of law; is in open conflict with his attorney general; and that he had just handed out pardons to a bunch of sleazy cronies… and no one even mentioned it. None of seemed to register, or even seemed relevant. It was as if the Democratic debate took place in an alternative non-Trump universe.

We already squandered a crucial opportunity with our tepid reaction to Trump’s escape from impeachment. If we fail to come together now, to recognize that the perfect is the enemy of the good candidate-wise, and to set aside ultimately minor intramural differences in interest of our common goal of putting out the greasefire raging at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we’ll deserve what we get.

Even if we unite behind a strong candidate instead of self-harming like a pre-teen with body issues we still face an uphill battle, and right now we show no signs of getting to that stage of unity.

As Professor Stanley says, “The deeply worrying moment is when you start to become a one-party state,” a perilous point at which we are now perched, because “the Republican Party has shown that it has no interest in multi-party democracy.”

In an Atlantic piece bluntly titled “Trump Is Going to Cheat,” former Obama speechwriter Sarada Peri detailed the GOP’s plan terrifyingly well. Let me quote her at length:

How can Democrats run against a candidate who will simply deny his unpopular positions and make up nonexistent accomplishments? No amount of fact-checking can counter his constant stream of mendacity, which has become white noise in our political culture.

Lying, of course, is only one challenge. The Democratic nominee will also have to contend with cheating….(Trump) and the whole Republican Party seem intent on using the power of government to assist in the president’s reelection. Republican senators have already announced that they plan to look into the Biden family’s dealings in Ukraine, despite absolutely no evidence that Hunter Biden committed a crime or that the former vice president did anything but carry out U.S. foreign policy. Anyone who thinks these investigations are sincere should note that there is no comparable probe planned into the blatant corruption of sitting president Trump and his children.

Trump and members of the White House staff, meanwhile, are violating with impunity the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive-branch employees from using their position to influence an election. The president uses his personal Twitter account both for official business and as an arm of his political campaign; nobody bats an eye….

Trump’s reelection campaign, abetted by right-wing media and companies like Facebook that have absolved themselves of any democratic responsibility, is waging a disinformation war modeled on the efforts of dictators and unprecedented in its scale. As reported by this magazine, the campaign is prepared to spend $1 billion to harness digital media to the president’s advantage, including bot attacks, viral conspiracy theories, doctored videos, and microtargeted ads that distort reality.  

The Trump campaign’s efforts are also bolstered by foreign actors…..They could be as subtle as social-media accounts that stoke partisan differences or as blunt as software attacks on voter databases….

At the same time, his campaign is fomenting distrust in the very system he is undermining. Using guerrilla tactics, his supporters jammed up the Iowa Democratic Party hotline on caucus night to sow chaos. Then, when the results indeed yielded chaos, Republican trolls, including Don Jr., tweeted out conspiracy theories about a rigged election. Worst of all, congressional Republicans are shamelessly blocking election-security bills, including two that would specifically fight foreign interference in American elections.   

Should the lying and cheating fail—should the Democrat manage to win the 2020 election—Trump will have one more trick up his sleeve. Before the 2016 election, he suggested that he might not accept a defeat. So who’s to say that he will accept one in 2020? You don’t have to squint hard to see the clues: He retweeted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s suggestion that he ought to have two years added to his term and “joked” about staying in office longer than eight years. If he loses in November, the litigious showman might claim that the election was rigged against him and theatrically contest the results in court.

Goddam!

This electoral treachery by the right wing did not begin with Trump. Just as Donald did not turn the GOP into a party of racist authoritarian plutocrats but is merely its logical next step, neither did Republican ratfucking begin with Russiagate and Ukraine (though Trump has boosted it to new levels of audacity and shamelessness). Voter suppression and disenfranchisement, the lie of “voter fraud,” uber-gerrymandering, Putinist disinformation, racebaiting, xenophobic fearmongering, etc etc are all part and parcel of a longstanding effort to hang on to power by a party that knows it is in a demographic death spiral. But the rise of MAGA Nation and the Jonestown-like cult of personality that surrounds Trump and that forgives (indeed, applauds) everything he does, no matter how illegal or despicable, has given the GOP a once-in-a-generation chance to carry out this highway robbery.

So let there be no mistake. As I have written time and time again, the Republican Party has no intention of giving up power, and therefore no intention of participating in a fair election and risking that outcome. They have shamelessly announced their intention to cheat. If we let them do so, we’ll have no one but ourselves to blame.

It’s easy to see in retrospect where we made critical errors that changed the game. (The most gutting recent example: letting McConnell’s indefensible blockage of Merrick Garland slide because we thought Hillary was a lock to win.) This moment is another one….except that there is still time to play it smarter. Let us go into the election fighting tooth and nail to win, yes, but also raising the alarm that the other side is not even pretending to obey the law.

I don’t mean to de defeatist—on the contrary. Now is the call to arms. (NB: metaphor.) Unlike the impeachment, where we were at mercy of 52 careerist cowards—a pass to Mitt Romney—in the election the power to defeat this cretin is in our hands, even with the reality of Republican cheating, but only if we are smart and tough and bold, and above all, don’t sabotage ourselves.

Let’s end with Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare, writing in The Atlantic:

The country has a long slog ahead of it; how long, nobody knows. It is easy to be cynical. But surviving the slog, without stepping away from it and bowing to the idea that nothing matters, is the only way to live through the short term. The frustrations resulting from failed or incomplete efforts to prevent wrongdoing are also part of that task. This doesn’t mean they’re necessary hurdles to be surmounted on the way to an inevitable victory; there’s no such thing. It’s just that this labor is, as Weber put it, what it means to have “measured up to the world.”

 

 

Travesty Complete: Cowards Bend the Knee

Screen Shot 2020-02-07 at 10.33.05 PM

Remember when we used to ponder if and when a constitutional crisis might arrive?

Good times.

“Trump acquitted” read the matching headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post on Wednesday, and for once I agree with the cry of “fake news!” regarding our two leading newspapers. As Nancy Pelosi said even before the fait accompli of the sham verdict was announced, “There can be no acquittal without a trial, and there is no trial without witnesses, documents and evidence.”

I reported that quote last week but it bears repeating as we review the Bert Lahr-like behavior of Trump’s GOP allies in delivering unto us that travesty of justice.

It was stomach-churning to watch Senate Republicans cravenly abdicating their constitutional duty—their patriotic duty—in ignoring an avalanche of evidence and objective reality itself for the sake of partisan power and their own sorry asses. But as the comedian Michael Che said on “SNL”’s Weekend Update, “What better way to start Black History Month than by being failed by the justice system?”

It was a mockery of jurisprudence and the rule of law, of course, but worse, it promises to have terrible repercussions for presidential abuse of power and the further debasement of our represented democracy, opening the door to full-blown autocracy at a level never before see in the United States.

And so the first line of 52 obituaries got written this week, all of which will make a bunch of as-yet-unborn great-grandchildren go red-faced with shame someday. The sins of Nixon’s dead-enders look trifling by comparison.

Meanwhile, the implications of the catastrophe these bastards have wrought are just beginning to unfold.

“THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?”

Among the most howlingly ludicrous rationalizations for excusing Trump’s actions was Susan Collins’ assertion that she believed he had learned his lesson. (In that regard she was echoing Lamar Alexander, who had said a similarly idiotic thing.) That was either world-beating naiveté or contemptible dishonesty; in either case, there is not an iota of evidence from Trump’s 73 years on this Earth to support that hypothesis. True to form, Donald wasted no time in making a fool of Susie by announcing that he had learned no such thing. And STILL, even after the humiliation of his response, she voted for acquittal.

Since then, Collins has had the gall to go on Fox News (natch) and smile, saying, “Well, I may not be correct on that. It’s more aspirational on my part.”

Aspirational. Wow. You know, I have some aspirations too, and they are encapsulated by UCLA Law School professor Jonathan Zasloff, who wrote: “Pine Tree Staters: either your senior Senator is a blithering idiot, or she thinks you are. Either one is a reason to throw her out of office this November.”

Word, as the kids say.

Parroting Collins and Alexander’s nonsensical position, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) defended her acquittal vote with an extra dollop of AYFKM by decrying “rank partisanship,” which was, to say the least, rich. (Bye Felicia.) A number of other weasely Republicans followed Lamar, Susie, and Lisa’s lead down the “wrong but not impeachable” road (like Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse, the GOP’s very own Eddie Haskell), even as Trump rejected that approach, instead demanding unqualified affirmation of his papal-ike infallibility. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia called their bluff with his motion for censure, which would have at least acknowledged Trump’s wrongdoing. Needless to say, that proposal died on the vine, with the GOP caucus shunning it like vampires faced with a crucifix, holy water, and an order of garlic knots from Olive Garden.

Of course, the whole notion that it isn’t a serious offense to pressure a foreign power to interfere in our elections is risible.

Then there was the utterly despicable and deceitful Rand Paul, who had a doozy of a followup to last week’s stunt of trying to get John Roberts to name the whistleblower (and then doing so himself at a press conference). This week Paul went a step further and named the man right on Senate floor. As Axios reports:

Paul defended his decision to CNN’s Manu Raju, arguing that he did not single out the alleged whistleblower with his floor speech: “I would say the chief justice did that. By not allowing the question, he’s sort of confirming to the public who it is. I have no idea who it is.”

Did I call Rand utterly despicable and deceitful already? (Just double checking.) I hope his neighbor comes over the beats the snot out of him again.

And that’s just a brief survey of the profiles in cowardice that define the modern GOP at its highest levels.

Writing in the Atlantic, Lawfare editors Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic laid out a blistering 23 point rebuttal to all those who think Trump did nothing wrong, or if he did, it was no big deal. Among their points:

It is not an impeachable offense for the president of the United States to condition aid to a foreign government on the delivery of personal favors to himself……(nor) to demand that a foreign head of state dish dirt on the president’s political opponents—or demand that he make dirt up if none is available to dish…..(nor) to push a foreign law-enforcement agency to investigate a US citizen for conduct no US law-enforcement agency has found to warrant an investigation. 

Abuse of power is not an impeachable offense. The oath he swears to “faithfully execute” his duties and “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” notwithstanding, the president is generally free to use his powers under Article II of the Constitution to benefit himself and harm those he disfavors.

None of this moved the Senate GOP caucus an whit, of course. Here’s Paul Krugman, in a piece called “How Zombies Are the GOP’s Soul,” on what he aptly calls the Walking Dead:

(E)veryone in Washington understands perfectly well that Donald Trump abused the powers of his office in an attempt to rig this year’s presidential election. But Senate Republicans are nonetheless about to acquit him without even pretending to look at the evidence, thereby encouraging further abuses of power…..

I guess you might have hoped that there would be some limits to what these apparatchiks would accept, that even they would draw the line at gross abuses of power and collusion with foreign autocrats. What we’ve learned, however—and perhaps more important, what Trump has learned—is that there is no line. If Trump wants to dismantle democracy and rule of law (which he does), his party will stand with him all the way.

Seconding that thought, Krugman’s Times colleague David Leonhardt wrote of the simple reason Trump does what he does: “Because he can.”

(T)he current Republican Party cares more about holding on to power than anything else. In service of this goal, the party has even fought democracy, be it preventing American citizens from voting, changing the rules for Supreme Court nominations, stripping authority from incoming governors or running an impeachment trial unconcerned with facts…..

The country is left with a president who has spent decades doing whatever he thinks is in his self-interest—and a political party willing to protect that president. Staying in power trumps all. That, of course, is the ideology of autocracy.

In his eloquent closing statement, lead House manager Adam Schiff plaintively asked of these zombie Republicans: “Every single vote, even a single vote by a single member, can change the course of history…..It is said that a single man or woman of courage makes a majority. Is there one among you, who will say, Enough?’”

There was one, and only one.

“BELIEVE IN AMERICA”

Here is Mitt Romney his speech on the Senate floor, explaining his courageous decision to buck Donald Trump, Moscow Mitch, and the entire flaming cesspool that is MAGA Nation in order to do the right goddam thing (sorry—Lord’s name in vain):

The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the President committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a “high crime and misdemeanor.”

Yes, he did.

The President asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival.

The President withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so.

The President delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders.

The President’s purpose was personal and political.

Accordingly, the President is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust.

What he did was not “perfect”—No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests, and our fundamental values. Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.

Impressive. I have long disagreed with many of Romney’s ideological positions, but his courage and integrity here are beyond a doubt, particularly given the vitriol that was immediately unleashed on him from his right flank.

Reportedly Mitt’s act of courage caught Trump off guard—as he’s unfamiliar with the concept—causing the White House to cancel a scheduled Rose Garden appearance with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. (Or maybe Juan just refused to go to a mike and announce an investigation into the Bidens.) Mitt also robbed Trump of his expected chance to crow about absolute party solidarity, just as the steadfastness of red state Democratic Senators Jones and Manchin robbed Trump of the chance to claim “bipartisan exoneration.”

That Mitt stands alone as a hero for recognizing that’s wrong to try to steal an election shows just how far and how low the GOP has fallen.

That is not to minimize his bravery. Romney is already paying the price in the vicious, vituperative verbal attacks from Trump himself, his spokespeople, children, other Republicans, as well as the larger corpus of mouthbreathing troglodytes who drink deep from the Kool Aid trough. Physical threats are sure to follow, if they have not already. Just yesterday that great Republican stalwart Donald Trump Jr. called from Mitt’s expulsion from the party, which is like Carrot Top calling for Richard Pryor’s expulsion from the Comedy Hall of Fame. Junior also re-posted a meme calling Romney a “pussy” (raising the question: did his dad try to grab him?), reflecting the sub-juvenile level of political discourse from the kakistocrats who are our ruling family.

(Can I get some props for being, I am quite sure, the first person ever to compare Mitt Romney to Richard Pryor?)

So everything you need to know about the descent of the Republican Party into the sewer is there in Mitt Romney’s fall from GOP standard bearer and presidential candidate in 2008 to pariah in 2020. Romney represents a kind of respectable, reasonable Republicanism that is pretty much dead, its other prominent practitioners (Kristol, Jolly, Boot, Rubin, Wilson, Steele, among others) having already fled the party. As one social media post succinctly put it, “I didn’t vote for him in 2012, but I didn’t fear a President Romney.”

This week he earned his proud place in history just as surely as every last one of his 52 colleagues earned theirs in infamy.

WELCOME TO THE AUTOCRACY

Back in the jaundiced land of yellow-bellied bootlickers, the folly of Collins’ absurd faith in Donald Trump’s inherent goodness was exposed immediately, not only with Trump’s sneering rebuke of her, but with statements that starting coming out of the White House and from senior GOP officials as soon as the “no witnesses” vote passed last Friday. Trump’s (non)acquittal hadn’t even happened yet when his allies began weaponizing the power of the federal government to persecute his political opponents—just like they do in an authoritarian regime like the ones Trump so openly admires. Which we now arguably are.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News that there should be retribution for Democrats and others who pursued impeachment (e.g., Schiff, Nadler, Romney, Pelosi, Bolton, et al,) and that in his upcoming speech to the nation Trump would speak about “how horribly he was treated, and maybe people should pay for that.” Chuck Grassley announced a Senate investigation into Hunter Biden. The loathsome Lindsey Graham announced that the Senate would investigate the whistleblower. (Ah, their obsession.) There were reports that Trump wants John Bolton criminally prosecuted for mishandling classified material—one of the greatest hits from Trump’s 2016 bag of tricks, even as it’s the height of irony.

Today the White House fired Gordon Sondland as US Ambassador to the EU and made a show of pushing out LTC Alexander Vindman, who was due for normal reassignment, but whose transfer is being showcased as part of Trump’s purge. Both Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny, also an Army lieutenant colonel assigned to the National Security Council staff, were escorted out of the White House by security officers—a spectacle as chilling and ironic as it was petty. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) proposed changing the Constitution to make impeachment harder by requiring require a three-fifth vote of the House rather than a simple majority. (Uh, didn’t we just learn how fucking hard it already is? Scott Matthews suggested the addendum that Democrats only count as three-fifths of a person.) That would track with newly converted presidential power fan Ken Starr’s pearl-clutching fear that impeachment is becoming a partisan tool. Perish the thought!

Of course, if anyone knows about being a partisan tool, it’s Ken Starr.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is precisely the kind of vindictive persecution of his enemies, unshackled from any worry of Congressional or judicial oversight, that critics feared and predicted would ensue were the Senate to excuse Trump’s behavior in Ukrainegate. Was there ever any doubt that it would happen? Or did Trump’s gentle, forgiving, Christ-like personality and lifelong devotion to humility and common decency make you think otherwise?

Remember, Trump made the infamous July 25, 2019 Zelenskyy call THE VERY NEXT DAY AFTER the special counsel probe was laid to rest with Mueller’s anti-climactic House testimony. Now, emboldened even further after skating away from this second existential threat, he and his surrogates have brazenly announced that he is out for revenge for those who challenged him, and will use the full power of the presidency—indeed the unfettered power of a despot—to obtain it. He has also made it clear that he will continue doing the exact thing that got him impeached.

Because the GOP just told him that he can.

And it’s only just beginning. This slippery slope to autocracy is likely the most alarming part of the whole Senate charade.

The editorial board of the New York Times:

Even before the acquittal, the State of the Union address made clear that Mr. Trump—enabled, as in his business life, by his exceptional shamelessness—intends to deploy every power available to a president in pursuit of his re-election. If there remained any doubts on that score, they were dispelled when Melania Trump hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Rush Limbaugh’s neck…..

He can do whatever it takes to win re-election, and the Republican Party will have his back.

I would add that “whatever it takes to win re-election” is not an anodyne sports cliché in this case, and certainly not confined to only what is legal. The shameful GOP ranks-closing in acquitting Trump of his illegal attempts to cheat in the 2020 election—atop its years of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and spreading of disinformation about voter fraud—is a blaring claxon announcing that the Republican Party actively intends to steal the election by any means necessary.

Don’t say we weren’t warned.

CALIGULA WITH THE BOMB

Republicans obviously don’t give a damn about the damage to the rule of law, to our system of government, or to anything else. As Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker, that may come back to bite them in the ass, if the republic survives at all and they are ever evicted from power. Then again, democracy may have died in darkness long before that can come to pass, as they clearly have no intention of surrendering power.

Former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt offered the grim observation that Donald Trump is now more powerful than any US president in history, including Washington, Lincoln, and FDR……and he ain’t exactly shy and retiring about using it. If he can order an investigation of the last Vice President (shades of Edge of Democracy, and Brazil’s Lula/Dilma/Bolsonaro nightmare), he can order it of any American, using the DOJ, FBI, IRS, CBP, and the rest of the federal alphabet soup.

Schmidt was referring to political power, given that Trump has a compliant Republican Party and GOP-controlled Senate behind him that will submissively bow to his every whim, no matter how illegal or simply batshit, as well as an increasingly right wing federal judiciary, including a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court (featuring two justices who owe him their seats). If he wins a second term he is likely to have a 7-2 right wing SCOTUS majority, four of whom he put there.

At the federal level, only the House is a brake on him, and as we saw this week, not a very powerful one. (And only as long as the Democrats can hold it.)

But Trump is also insanely—and I do mean insanely—powerful in sheer physical terms. Thanks to his control of the nuclear arsenal—which he can launch without any consultation with the other branches of government or the US military—he literally has more power than any human being who has ever lived, including all the Caesars, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, and Hitler. (Quibble: it’s a dead heat with his man-crush Vlad Putin, whose nuclear arsenal is smaller, but whose ironclad one-man rule is undeniably even more ironclady.)

That sounds right, doesn’t it? The most unqualified, proudly ignorant, morally bankrupt, dumbass lucky and undeserving motherfucker ever to sit behind the Resolute Desk is of course the one who has grabbed the most power. And now, at last, he has the go-ahead to use it with impunity.

To that end, Susan Glasser writing in the New Yorker is a helluva lot smarter than Susan Collins sitting in the US Senate.

From here on, there can be no more illusions.

Until the voters render their verdict in November, Trump will be the President he has always wanted to be: inescapable, all-powerful, and completely unaccountable.

LET US PREY

I just heard that Trump is going to give the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ivanka.

Not true, but for a moment you thought it might be, didn’t you? Because none of us would be shocked if it happened.

It was fitting that on the eve of his escape from justice, Trump staged the State of the Union address as gauche reality TV spectacle. As a Twitter user called A. Sharon wrote, “It just perfectly encapsulates the Trump administration’s massive and absolute incompetence when Rush Limbaugh and a 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman are in the same room and Rush Limbaugh is the one going home with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

That’s like giving Jeffrey Epstein an award for mentoring young girls.

The medal for Limbaugh is an obscenity all by itself, but consider this: This past fall Trump gave a lesser award to Rick Rescorla, whom I was privileged to know, a Vietnam War hero who saved the lives of 6000 Morgan Stanley Dean Witter employees on 9/11, before perishing himself when he went back into the towers to search for stragglers.

Res ipsa loquitur.

At the end of the SOTU Nancy Pelosi calmly tore her copy of Trump‘s speech in half after, causing Don Jr—again—to sink to the occasion and suggest she should be jailed. (Boys, these guys sure have a fetish for locking up powerful women, don’t they?) He’s half right: someone definitely belongs in jail, but it damn sure ain’t her. Meanwhile Matt Gaetzof course!—acted on the boy prince’s suggestion, filing an ethics complaint against the Speaker. I say again, an ethics complaint. From Matt Gaetz. On behalf of Donald Trump. And with No Discernible Irony.

Even so, many, even on the left, fell back on their fainting couches and scolded the Speaker for sinking to Senior’s level. (Many of them the same pundits who lament that the Democrats have not successfully figured out how to fight on the new political battlefield that Trump created.) But without the speech-tearing-up, the story the next morning would have been all about how he “owned” her with that handshake snub. Instead she deftly flipped the script when she ripped the script. (YSWIDT?)

But as we know, when a Republican (especially a man) does something aggressive he’s praised as an alpha. When a Democrat (especially a woman) does it, even just in self-defense, she’s attacked for being rude, if not worse. Much worse.

But as usual, Nancy cannily eviscerated the fake outrage over her gesture:

“I don’t need any lessons from anybody, especially the president of the United States, about dignity. It’s appalling the things that he says. And then you say to me: ‘Tearing up his falsehoods, isn’t that the wrong message?’ No, it isn’t,” she said, adding: “I feel very liberated. I feel that I’ve extended every possible courtesy. I’ve shown every level of respect.”

The next day came Don’s appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, where the existence of God was disproven when he didn’t burst into flame the moment he walked into the room. Trump’s speech there was a masterpiece of projection and dishonesty for the ages, worthy of the worst fascist despot you care to name. (The Onion headline read, “ Trump Spends National Prayer Breakfast Attacking God for Allowing Impeachment to Even Happen.” Distance between satire and reality: about one millimeter.)

But everything Trump does beggars the most outrageous satire. The prayer breakfast atrocity was just the logical extension of a vicious Republican perversion of truth that goes back at least to McCarthy. A prominent signpost: the Swift Boating of war hero John Kerry by draft dodger George W. Bush. Up is down, night is day, war is peace, freedom is slavery.

What’s really fascinating is that Trump’s speeches of the last few days, like his pronouncements after dodging the Russiagate scandal, are less triumphant than they are merely livid.

Before his (non)acquittal, I read the word “gloat” a lot in reference to how he was expected to act once McConnell gave him his get-out-of-jail-free card. He hasn’t disappointed. But truly, what does he have to gloat about? Not that he was cleared in a fair trial—only that he exerts such Simon Legree-like command of his servile minions that he demanded this unquestioning obedience and they meekly complied.

Trump himself seems to recognize this, if only subconsciously. Following the prayer breakfast, he gave a speech from the East Room of the White House that Charlie Sykes, writing in the Bulwark, called a “Festival of Grievances.” Here again he less crowed over his triumph than fulminated that he had to go through this ordeal at all. (Poor baby. A word of advice, in order to avoid this in the future: maybe don’t commit so many crimes.)

Sykes:

Trump described his enemies as evil, corrupt, leakers, liars, lowlifes, sleazebags, and dirty cops. “Adam Schiff is a vicious, horrible person,” Trump told his eager minions. “Nancy Pelosi is a horrible person.” It was a pure Trumpian stream of consciousness: self pity, bitterness, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, sniffs, anger, mockery, self pity, James Comey, sniffs, the dossier, Hillary, Obama, conspiracy theories, Russia, self pity, Mitt Romney, payback, Hunter Biden, sniffs, insults, Robert Mueller, the FBI, bullshit, self pity… 

Through it all ran the theme of Trump as Victim. No one had ever been treated as badly as he had been. He didn’t know “if other presidents would have been able to take it.”

But by all means, let’s excoriate Nancy Pelosi for tearing up a piece of paper.

What America saw….was Trump in full. There was no expression of regret, no grace notes, no appeals to the better angels of our nature. Instead we got a raw, bitter, unhinged rant of crazy. Two of them, in fact. And it was all perfectly on brand.

Trump is a man unconstrained by the demands of decency or conscience, logic or consistency, and he clearly revels in the license these freedoms afford him. However feckless some of his former aides may have been, it is clear that Trump now occupies a world in which no one tells him no, or cautions him against improprieties, or urges graciousness, or pleads with him to be presidential, or responsible, or even coherent.

As these eyepopping performances demonstrated, Donald Trump is not a happy boy. For a man who has enjoyed seven and a half decades of outrageous and undeserved good luck and privilege, who has been coddled and protected and shielded from consequence even as he engaged in the most despicable behavior his whole life long, who improbably rose to the highest office in the land without a shred of the necessary qualifications, he is nonetheless a roiling ball of rage and resentment 24/7. (Look at his signature, graphologists.) As I noted a week or so ago, that is one of the few things about his reign that gives me any solace. But of course it is really a tragedy for him and for us both.

We long ago learned that this infantile behavior, which would have sunk any previous American politician, let alone a presidential candidate, is exactly what his slavish disciples relish about him. They don’t love him in spite of it—they love him because of it. Sykes again:

Trump’s casual cruelty and off-the-cuff vindictiveness is no longer a bug; it is the product differentiator, the special sauce, the killer app of Trumpism. It is precisely what his admirers cling to most fervently. Many of them no longer even try to pretend that they are loyal to his policies, rather than his person.

Many a graduate dissertation will surely be written about how millions of Americans came to a point of nihilism that obsidian. But in the mean time, they are damn hard to reason with.

THE NIGHT THEY DROVE DEMOCRACY DOWN

So was the impeachment worth it? I have long argued that it would be regardless of the result, and I stand by that.

Yeah, I know Trump’s approval went up a little, due largely to increased fervor of his rabid base. But you don’t beat a bully by being too timid to fight back and too afraid of making him or his followers angry. Going into November Trump was gonna gyrate them into a mouth-foaming fury with one thing or another……if not with this, then with something else.

The Democratic Party stood up for the rule of law, laid down a marker for behavior that America (at least some of it) will not tolerate, and did it all knowing that they would not win in the Senate. Schiff’s aforementioned closing statement, which is already being called the “Midnight in Washington” speech, was profound and epic. For generations to come, when the name “Donald Trump” is nothing more than an obscenity whose origins are lost in time, schoolchildren will still be reading it. (Hopefully not in a textbook called “The Collapse of American Democracy.”) A close second to Schiff’s eloquence was Hakeem Jefferies’ “America is in the wilderness…..and the eyes of history are watching.”

In a New York Times op-ed, Neal Katyal and Joshua Geltzer write:

The Democrats were told constantly that impeachment would hurt them in November. Mr. Trump himself has boasted that it will, and what’s more he has relished the chance to claim exoneration and to take a victory lap at the same time as Democratic hopefuls began duking it out in earnest in the primaries. The Democrats knew all this, and what’s more, they knew they faced an uphill battle: That’s what the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds Senate majority to convict imposes from the beginning.

But they still did the right thing. They called out impropriety so glaring that it could not be suffered in silence. And they reminded all of us that a political party can pursue what’s right over what’s expedient.

Looping back to Michael Che’s joke, Trump’s (non)acquittal was very reminiscent of OJ’s, an analogy I made before when Bob Mueller declined to make a determination about Donny’s conduct in Russiagate. Truly, these two rich and privileged men—friends, I hasten to note—are the two least deserving beneficiaries of a broken justice system one can imagine. They even had the same disreputable lawyer.

But now that it’s over, where do we go from here?

We are constantly being told—especially by Republicans—that the election is the best remedy for addressing Trump’s unfitness, should one hold that view of him. But by excusing his actions—which concerned rigging an election—the GOP is bluntly announcing that it does not intend to hold a fair election at all.

As the author Michael Gruber argues, it is clear that the Republican Party not only condones foreign interference in US elections (on its behalf only), but actively desires it, as that is one of the few ways that the GOP can continue to win elections in this country with demographics that are increasingly trending against them, clinging to an ever-diminishing base of aging white people, Christian evangelicals, gun nuts, racists, and other John Birch-y fellow travelers.

And now they have codified that plan, and given it the stamp of Congressional approval.

If I were Bernie, I’d immediately call on Russia, China, Israel & Saudi Arabia to release any info they have about Donald Trump’s finances & to open investigations into Don Jr, Eric, Ivanka & Tiffany. After all, the Senate just affirmed that it’s totally OK to do that. Right?

We’re heading into some pitch black darkness, my friends, and I am not confident in the ability of the American people or our institutions to come out in any recognizable form on the other side. We best gird ourselves for a fight, on multiple fronts, and not underestimate the fervor, venality, or underhandedness of our foe.

Let’s give Mitt Romney the final word. He deserves it:

I acknowledge that my verdict will not remove the President from office. The results of this Senate Court will in fact be appealed to a higher court: the judgment of the American people. Voters will make the final decision, just as the President’s lawyers have implored. My vote will likely be in the minority in the Senate. But irrespective of these things, with my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me. I will only be one name among many, no more or less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial. They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the President did was wrong, grievously wrong.

We’re all footnotes at best in the annals of history. But in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that is distinction enough for any citizen.

**********

Hat tip to Guy Maddin.

Painting, Jacques-Louis David, 1808: “Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804.” Oil on canvas, the Louvre.