On Losing Friends Over Politics

The-Most-Emotionally-Healthy-Way-To-Work-Through-Your-Breakup copy

Once upon a time, I used to enjoy debating politics with my conservative friends. I found it enjoyable, invigorating, and educational.

We don’t do that any more.

In some cases we remain polite, but now only talk in superficial and anodyne ways—about our kids, sports—and much less frequently than we used to. There are a couple of friends with whom, for years, I carried on a daily, running dialogue about current events. It turned heated and ugly in the summer of 2016 and we all backed off. Now all we do is exchange pleasantries every few months.

With other friends, we have ceased talking completely. I haven’t had any soap operatic “I’ll never speak to you again!” moments, but I haven’t had to, because both of us are disgusted with the other, and neither is up for a veneer of niceties.

I do occasionally argue with one old, archconservative friend (for arbitrary reasons that don’t bear going into), but even that is fraught. Every time we unaccountably get into it, it gets nasty quick, insults are exchanged, and we retreat to neutral corners for months.

Then there are friends with whom I never talked politics in the first place, and with whom I am now afraid to do so. I don’t know for sure how they feel, or how they voted in 2016, but I really don’t want to know, because we have long histories together, and I simply don’t want the peace—or my illusions— destroyed, even if that peace is a mutually agreed upon charade.

What doesn’t exist at all anymore in my world is vigorous, intelligent, civilized debate with right-of-center friends whose opinions I respect even if I don’t agree with them. Now I have that only with strangers, and even that is pretty rare if we’re going to keep the qualifiers “intelligent,” “civilized,” and “respect” in there. And I know I am not alone; I know that many people are dealing with a similar dilemma not just with friends but also within their families.

All of which has forced me to think about the balancing act between friendship and principle. Where is the line? How bad would things have to get in our cold civil war before I could no longer be (ahem) civil to old friends on the other side of the barricades, or them to me? Would it be petulant and self-righteous to throw away (in some cases) decades of friendship just because of partisan differences? Some of these people were like brothers and sisters to me at one time. Do I want to be so churlish and petty, so sanctimonious, as to cut them out of my life over a non-entity as ephemeral as Donald Effing Trump, no matter his accidental starring role in this revival of It Can’t Happen Here?

Or is it the opposite? Is it selfish and unprincipled to maintain a friendship with someone who is complicit in such a monstrous regime, to place those personal relationships ahead of serious moral disagreements about bedrock principles? What even constitutes a bedrock principle that rises to that level and demands that kind of decision?

Do gradations matter? Maybe it would be too hard to be friends with an ICE agent on the Mexican border, no matter how far you go back, but is merely voting for Trump a sufficient dealbreaker?

The questions are complicated and sometimes painful.

And of course, these folks have to answer the same questions about me.

YOUR RACIST FRIEND

Not long ago—like, less than three years—none of this was an issue. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals: there were stark differences and strong disagreements, but outside of the fanatical extremes, all players were within the realm of normal, reasonable politics, bound by our common loyalty to country and allegiance to the fundamental, communally agreed upon principles of American democracy. Ideological and policy differences rarely rose to the level of a moral quandary that caused people to stop speaking at parties.

No more.

You’ll forgive me if I don’t bother with a tedious recap of how one of our two major political parties lost its fucking mind.

But now that these differences have become so polarized and so extreme that they have turned into a kind of battle for the nation’s soul, making nice with the other side can feel less like civility and more like consorting with the enemy.

So where to draw the line?

Clearly there is a level of political turpitude that outweighs any personal connection.

I would not be friends with a Nazi, to take the most extreme example. Support for Trump does not (yet) rise to that level; much as I despise this administration, things would have to get a fair degree worse before I’d make that equivalence. But before any right-leaning folks who might read this leap up and accuse me of hyperbole and so-called Trump Derangement Syndrome, let’s just pause for a moment and take in the fact that we are even discussing the comparison at all.

That’s right: it is necessary for defenders of this president to mount a serious argument about why their hero is not in fact as bad as Adolf Hitler, because the comparison is raised frequently enough by thoughtful observers, and his tendency toward proto-fascist behavior is sufficiently apparent, that it demands addressing.

And it’s true: he hasn’t yet orchestrated the industrialized mass murder of twelve million men, women, and children. Don’t ever say I didn’t concede to Trump supporters when they’re right. (Although he has, arguably, built concentration camps along our southern border. So there’s still time.)

But let’s leave Nazis out of it. I wouldn’t be friends with a Klansman either, and Trump’s racism earns him an honorary Grand Wizardhood at the very least. (Central Park Five anyone?) Is that transferable to his supporters? We’re often told it’s not helpful to demonize the other side, by—say—calling them names, especially “racist,” since weirdly enough, even racists get offended when you call them racists. (Looking at you, Mark Meadows.) It’s one of the most incendiary allegations you can call someone in contemporary American life, even when there is ample evidence to justify it.

But if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably Pepe the Frog.

So short of the open display of swastika armbands and white hoods, how much support for Trump (if any) is tolerable before a friendship has to end?

Supporting him because the tax scam benefits you but opposing the family separation policy at the border? Is that OK, or not? I suppose it’s better than actively cheering the kidnapping of children from their parents, but in other ways it’s even more contemptible, as it bespeaks a unwillingness to break with the administration even over an unconscionably cruel and inhumane policy, so long as you are personally benefiting from other policies.

Obviously, the more tepid and qualified someone’s support for Trump the more readily I could see maintaining some kind of relationship. But even some people I long counted as menschen have defended to me ideas that are absolutely anathema. Is that cause for termination?

I don’t have the answer. If I did, this column would be a lot shorter.

A few conservatives I know have turned against Trump, or never supported him in the first place, so they’re not really germane to this discussion. I welcome them into the resistance with open arms and admire their integrity and courage. (Not quite ready to teach them the secret handshake, though.) Of course, the very term “conservative” is wildly inaccurate. The modern GOP is anything but conservative by the textbook definition; on the contrary, it is a radical reactionary insurgency. I’m using the word only as a convenient if imprecise shorthand for people right of center, which includes not just card-carrying Republicans, but lots of folks who obstinately refuse to identify that way but might as well go to the same tattoo parlor as Roger Stone.

The people I am talking about are more precisely described not as “conservatives” at all but as “Trump supporters,” and even that is fungible. Some voted for the man, with or without reservations, and some have had misgivings to a greater or lesser degree since. (Others have not.) A lot of them want to have their proverbial sheet cake and eat it too, professing dislike for Trump because it’s socially and intellectually uncomfortable to admit otherwise, but defend him at every turn—or at least make excuses—while relentlessly attacking the Democrats, the Mueller probe, the “myth” of Russiagate, etc. (And you won’t believe this, but a lot of them are still pretty incensed over Hillary Clinton.)

Fox Nation likes to talk about RINOs but the opposite, this breed I’ve just described, is just as common: ReTChTOIs, Republicans Too Chicken To Own It. These slippery right wingers are especially maddening as they won’t cop to their allegiance to the party,  claiming to be “neutral” and “independent,” but mysteriously never have a good thing to say about the Democrats, and never a discouraging word about Benito.

I can’t say I prefer full-throated MAGA types, but at least they are honest about who they are.

THE WEEK THAT WAS

So a brief reminder then of what our friends on the other side are OK with:

The past week saw Trump’s ill-advised engagement with North Korea end in abject failure—long ago predicted in these pages, not that it required a lot of clairvoyance—capped by the humiliating revelation that Pyongyang has begun rebuilding its Sohae missile site, reportedly ahead of a satellite launch.

We saw the New York Times display six canceled checks from Trump (five with his own seismograph-like psycho killer signature, the other with Don Jr.’s) reimbursing Michael Cohen for hush money payments he made to Trump’s porn star paramour Stormy Daniels, all written while Trump was in office.

We learned—via Jane Mayer’s towering New Yorker article about Fox—that Trump had, out of sheer vindictiveness (and presumably as a favor to Rupert Murdoch), personally intervened to order the DOJ to stop AT&T from buying Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, an act which the conservative columnist Bret Stephens argued was an impeachable offense in and of itself, one that ought to have outraged Republican free marketers more than anyone else.

We also learned that Trump—despite bald-faced public lies to the contrary—personally ordered Top Secret clearances given to his son-in-law and daughter over the objections of US intelligence professionals, a move so alarming that both White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn wrote memoranda for the record registering their opposition. (But her emails!)

Hot on the heels of that revelation, it was also reported that when Kushner traveled to the KSA last month he met with MbS behind closed doors, with no US government personnel present or briefed on what was discussed. The Saudis even provided Jared’s security, shutting the US State Department out entirely. No wonder this guy can’t get a clearance.

We learned that at the very same time in 2011 that Trump was demanding to see Barack Obama’s school transcripts— like a redneck at a polling place insisting on a literacy test—and suggesting that Barack wasn’t smart enough to get into Columbia and Harvard, he had his goons strongarming his own high school and college alma maters to deep six any evidence of his own grades and SAT scores. Wild guess: it’s not because he was so modest and they were too high.

This kind of hypocrisy has come to be so old hat in the Age of Drumpf that we usually don’t even bother to note it, but for some reason this really struck a chord with the public. Maybe it’s that Trump himself usually doesn’t even both to hide his hypocrisy—see golf—and this time he did, signaling that even he knew it was super fucked up.

Most memorable of all, this past week saw a sweat-soaked Trump give an unhinged, free association, Fidel-length rant at CPAC that the mainstream press, having apparently learned nothing from 2016, covered like business as usual with headlines on the order of “Trump Lashes out at Mueller in Lengthy Speech”…..not “Man with Nuclear Codes Is Dangerously Crazy.” As many noted, if your elderly uncle went on a two-hour tear like that, you’d call Bellevue. But, hey, this is just the leader of the free world. No biggie.

(To their credit, several observers noted this disconnect, including Amanda Marcotte and Bob Cesca, both writing in Salon. But the closest most pundits came to critical analysis of the speech was the widespread argument that Trump wasn’t so much crazy as crazy like a fox in playing to his base. As always, a lot of the professional political class gave him the benefit of the doubt as a demagogue genius, rather than seriously considering the ramifications of having someone who is potentially cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs in the Oval Office. This treatment of politics as mere gamesmanship is truly poisonous. As Cesca sagely pointed out, even if Trump was engaging in deliberate theater to keep his red meat-loving fans frothing at the collective mouth, it still raises disturbing questions about the judgment of the President of the United States.)

And it’s not just Trump and his early onset dementia displaying this kind of deeply worrying behavior. Also at CPAC, fake PhD but real neo-Nazi Sebastian Gorka compared AOC to Stalin and suggested she wants to take your hamburgers and pickup trucks. But believe it or not, he was outdone by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to increased Congressional oversight and investigation into Trump with a statement accusing the Democratic Party of being “socialists” who want to “kill babies after they’re born.” (Quipped Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine: “As one does when one is innocent and facing an investigation that will definitely not uncover any crimes or wrongdoing.”)

And by Trump standards, this was not even a busy news week.

THE AGE OF HUMPTY DUMPTY

So how do we deal with people for whom none of that merits the batting of an eyelash, particularly when they are not red-hatted abstractions on TV but real, flesh-and-blood people in our own lives? And why is any of it germane, beyond the awkwardness of our own personal relationships?

Because someday we as a country are going to have to pick up the pieces. Are we going to be able to come back together after this period of epic divisiveness?

Now, you might say that, divisiveness-wise, our current moment is nothing compared to, say, the Civil War, but the truth is that we are still dealing with wounds of that war—indeed, those very wounds inform the struggle in which we are now engaged. (See Charlottesville.) We are still dealing with the legacy of slavery, the original sin of these United States, the cancer with which we as a country we born. Related but of more recent vintage, we are still dealing with the backlash to the New Deal—and the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s—which gave us the Reagan Revolution and the United States’ hard swing to the right over the past forty years.

And we will be dealing with the fallout from the con man from Queens for generations to come.

There are major questions about what the long term damage to the republic will look like when the proverbial dust settles, and whether the United States as we once knew it will re-emerge in recognizable form. In that context, asking whether personal friendships now in abeyance will eventually return in something resembling their old forms seems very trivial indeed, except that it is central to the whole issue of healing and reconciliation. Will we as Americans be able to come together to repair the damage, rebuild our democracy, and institute new protections and safeguards to strengthen and defend it going forward?

Naturally, a lot of it will depend on how things play out and just how raw and bitter the wounds wind up being, on both sides.

In the worst case scenario—Don and Kim fall out of love and humanity is incinerated in a global thermonuclear war—it won’t matter.

Short of that but still pretty goddam bad, if the GOP manages to bury the findings of the special counsel and deflect any meaningful Congressional or legal action to address Trump’s crimes and unfitness for office….if Trump manages to win in 2020 and the Republicans retake the House….if the Supreme Court acts as a right wing rubber stamp and gives this cretin something close to unfettered power….if we descend into an authoritarian police state where the administration is unchecked by a self-neutered legislative branch and protected by a toadying judiciary and no longer feels the need to pay even lip service to the rule of law…..if that happens it’s hard to imagine feeling very kindly to erstwhile friends who abetted that descent into dystopia. But our feelings won’t matter much, as we’ll all be in re-education camps watching endless loops of Hannity.

Hysteria? Alarmism? OK—if you say so. Even the reliably progressive Nick Kristof recently published a column praising the tensile strength of American democracy in resisting Trump and downplaying fears of incipient fascism. I hope he is right. I’ll happily look a fool if he is. That is far preferable to a future in which we look back bitterly on that column as hopelessly naïve.

If Kristof is proven correct and justice prevails, if Trump is fairly adjudicated for his crimes and held to account for his manifest betrayal of his oath of office, either by Congressional action or at the ballot box, maybe we will look back on this harrowing period of American history as a valuable test from which we emerged chastened and wiser and maybe even stronger.

But even in that happy scenario, how will we approach our fellow Americans who took Trump’s side and stood by him, and may even continue to defend him after he’s gone? As I wrote last week, even today there remain Nixon loyalists, McCarthy loyalists, Confederate loyalists—tiny pockets to be sure, but there they are. How will we proceed, having had these massive fissures in our nation exposed, revealing deeply disturbing proof of the kind of horrific things many of our fellow citizens believe, and would support, and the lengths to which they would go, and the depths of their contempt for democracy, all tendencies that are not likely to disappear even when Trump does?

Asking for a friend.

 

 

 

 

The Right Wing Loop of Malicious Ignorance

Monkeys

Those of you who have argued politics with strangers on the Internet (try it, it’s fun!) will be familiar with the following dynamic:

1. You post something that suggests that Donald Trump might not be the best president ever.

2. They reply with an angry, insulting remark—usually containing an obscenity, often involving your mother and farm animals.

3. Trying to stay on the high road, you reply with evidence to support your side of the argument, often in the form of a link from the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, Atlantic, New Republic, etc. You know: credible journalism.

4. They sneer at the very thought, suggesting—without reading the piece, of course—that these publications are worthless even to line a birdcage, seeing as they are tools of a vast liberal conspiracy.

At that point I typically bail, as there is no point carrying on a discussion with someone engaged in the right wing’s infinite loop of malignant ignorance.

This insidious phenomenon has been much remarked upon, but to recap quickly:

Because the Right is propagating an ideology that runs contrary to demonstrable reality (on climate change, economics, foreign policy, immigration, nuclear proliferation, et al), when confronted with facts that they cannot logically refute, right wingers habitually adopt a strategy of murdering the messenger. In the Republican world, even the most legitimate news organizations—like the aforementioned publications and their kin, the very gold standard of American journalism—are all lower than supermarket tabloids, controlled as they are by George Soros, the Clintons, and Barbra Streisand. Not a word in them can be taken seriously, or even merits the energy to move one’s lips to read.

It’s a perpetual motion disinformation machine which no critical data can penetrate, because such data is heresy by definition.

Needless to say, this dynamic is toxic for a functioning democracy, as it makes intelligent debate impossible. It is an insidious, deliberately Orwellian subversion of truth as a common metric and a serious danger to the health of the republic. And Donald Trump, an inveterate, pathological liar and con man par excellence, is both the ultimate product of this mentality and its perfect standard bearer, the drum major marching at the head of the parade of proud Know Nothings that the modern GOP has become.

A MIDDLE FINGER TO JOE FRIDAY

Ho-hum. What else is new?

The GOP’s embrace of what the vampiric Kellyanne Conway memorably called “alternative facts” long pre-dates the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but it has reached its apotheosis with a Republican president* who blithely ignores the truth and spews falsehoods as naturally as he breathes. Anti-intellectualism is an old strain in reactionary politics. But reverse snobbery at eggheaded academics is one thing; denying that the sky is blue is quite another.

Many have written about this decimation of truth itself as the greatest of the many dangers that Trump poses. (And I have too. See The Nature of the Person….and the Nature of the Threat, September 14, 2017.) But it is worth considering again the state of the “post-truth” landscape as we lurch forward toward some sort of closure to the Russia inquiry and the other criminal and counterintelligence investigations involving Trump, his family, and his businesses. For the right wing disconnect from the reality-based world will soon come into full bloom.

Last week’s post in this blog, about Trump’s fake national emergency, was illustrated with a photo of a pair of migrants with a baby clambering over a piece of the pre-existing border wall. I chose that photo to illustrate a) how ineffective walls are, and b) who these alleged “criminals” and “terrorists” are whom we’re told we need the full military might of the US Army to repel.

The post drew a lot of comments, especially from Trump supporters, most of whom apparently “read” no further than that photo. Many of them were on the order of “yer a fuckin idiot, mr necktie” or “BUILD THE WALL!!!!!!!” (A convincing argument, admittedly.) More than a few suggested that the wall in the picture should be electrified, or fortified with snipers. When I pointed out the lack of Christian charity in the idea that the US government ought to kill innocent children in cold blood, one of these commenters wrote, “You obviously don’t understand sarcasm.”

In fact I do, and while that may have been a morbid and despicable attempt at humor, it is not sarcasm. It’s also disingenuous to claim that it’s “just a joke,” when the “joke” itself inherently betrays the commenter’s hateful mentality. (My wife and I spent five years studying humor as it relates to taboo topics for our documentary The Last Laugh. Believe me, I can tell when someone’s punching down, not up.)

The other homicidal comments apparently weren’t meant as jokes at all.

Per above, it’s pointless to make any kind of logical argument with people in the grip of this kind of fanatic resistance to facts. In response to one individual who was up on his “law and order” soapbox about border crossings, I asked why he wasn’t concerned with other lawbreaking, citing as just one example, the New York Times’ exhaustive, eighteen-months-in-the-making report on the Trump family’s long pattern of brazen tax fraud. The response I got was along the lines of, “LOL—the NY Times? Fake news!”

(For those who do believe that 2+2=4, see the filmmaker Jenny Carchman’s terrific documentary short on that report, The Family Business, on Showtime.)

In another political argument I had online—ironically, one of the more calm and reasonable ones—a woman cited an apocryphal, derogatory story about Obama. (I can’t recall which one, as they as legion.) In response, I sent her a Snopes link debunking the tale. She replied, without rancor, that she wasn’t going to read what Snopes had to say “because I like to make up my own mind.”

That’s like saying, “I don’t need a scale—I like to decide for myself what I weigh.”

But that is where the American right is in 2019. Like the man said, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

You may say that I am the true knucklehead here for even wasting my time arguing with these folks, and you’re not wrong. But if nothing else, it’s instructive about the sheer irrationality of Trump Nation and the American right at large.

And of course, as we all know, these people are led by public figures who gleefully exploit that gullibility with the most shameless dishonesty imaginable. Last week, in a contentious interview with Chris Wallace of Fox, Stephen Miller made the circular, Kafkaesque argument that the border wall was necessary to protect the US Army troops that Trump deployed to the border in order to build the wall. (Then he unhinged his jaw and swallowed a live rat.)

Blind allegiance. Denial of irrefutable reality. Fanatical loyalty in defiance of the plain truth. What all this boils down to, as Chris Hedges recently wrote, is that the Republican Party has become a cult. Not like a cult, not cult-as-metaphor, but a literal cult in which the word of the leader is to be believed over what one can see with one’s own eyes. (See Drinking the Flavor-Aid [And Yes, I Mean Flavor-Aid], December 4, 2018.)

Is there any reason to think that these same people are ever going to wake up and smell the bongwater about this fake president and the vast criminal enterprise over which he presides, no matter what evidence eventually emerges?

BEHOLD THE TROUSER INFERNO

This same right wing impulse was on display in Michael Cohen’s bombshell appearance this week before three Congressional committees, or at least the public one that was televised live. (We can presume the Republicans didn’t behave any better in the other two behind closed doors.)

Even though he didn’t offer many new revelations—just stunning first person confirmation of wanton criminality we already knew about—Cohen’s testimony was such a juggernaut that I find it too daunting to try to assess just yet. Its import and impact will emerge over time. But already this much is clear:

The Republican members of the House Oversight Committee displayed not an iota of concern that there is credible evidence that the President of the United States directed hush money payments to a porn star that constitute felony campaign finance violations; that he may have had foreknowledge of illegal coordination with hostile foreign actors, both via Wikileaks and the Kremlin hack of the DNC and a meeting that his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager held with agents of the Russian Federation; that he baldly lied to the American people about his extensive business connections in Russia, dealings which continued even after he won the Republican nomination; that he is at the center of decades of tax evasion, real estate fraud, intimidation, coercion, and corruption; and that he suborned perjury to cover all this up, not to mention other ongoing cases in the SCO and SDNY that Cohen couldn’t talk about.

(But her emails!)

It was telling that not one of the Republican congressmen even tried to defend Trump by saying that these were outrageous allegations that couldn’t possibly be true; we all know that they are more than plausible. All they could do was try to undermine Cohen’s credibility, literally employing what is known in legal parlance as the “liar liar pants on fire” gambit. (Sorry for the technical jargon.)

But Michael Cohen is already on his way to prison for lying to Congress, and while the GOP tried to make that irony the centerpiece of their assault, the reverse is actually much more convincing. This is a man who cannot afford to be caught in any further falsehoods, especially given that the feds know the truth and would pounce on anything he said that was untrue. That’s how he got caught in the first place.

The real irony is that every time they called Cohen a liar for deceiving Congress about the Moscow tower project during his last appearance on Capitol Hill, they were de facto calling Trump a liar, because both men were spreading the exact same falsehood. Indeed, Trump is the one who directed Cohen to lie in the first place.

Even as the GOP continues to defend him to the death, how far has Trump’s stock fallen as a credible frontman? Consider this.

When he met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June, it was major news. This time, when they met in Vietnam, it barely merited a blip, except for jokes about how Trump’s bone spurs finally healed. By now not even Fox can pretend that he is accomplishing anything with these ridiculous summits except further debasing America’s global stature and enhancing North Korea’s. To that end, the Hanoi meeting didn’t even work as a distraction from Cohen’s showstopping appearance before Congress, proving that you can’t use the same stunt twice. (To exactly no one’s surprise, Trump was the one who got distracted and cut the summit short, heading home in a piteous rage.)

WHEN IT’S TIME TO RELAX…..

So what does the right wing’s willful ignorance mean for the approaching endgame?

Every time Mueller drops an indictment, I—like many of us—am always surprised by the depths of Team Trump’s criminality, which I already thought was at Marianas Trench-level. But writing recently in The Atlantic, David Graham neatly summarized the known facts of the Russiagate case, and made the astute observation that while the special counsel’s eventual report may contain new bombshells, we don’t really need it to conclude that this president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors:

(I)f one is not already convinced that the president’s behavior is unacceptable, it would require an immense revelation to change one’s mind—if that’s even possible. Conversely, if one looks at these facts and believes they merit impeachment (or another sanction), then standing sentry for a nebulously timed, nebulously structured report hardly seems worth the effort. 

There may well be bombshells in Mueller’s report, or in indictments between now and then; the special counsel has repeatedly shocked even close observers with new revelations and details. But the number of smoking guns already in plain sight make it hard to believe that a new one will have an effect on Trump’s GOP allies that the earlier ones haven’t…..

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need a special counsel’s report to know what kind of president Trump is.

In other words, no matter how damning, the special counsel’s findings are likely to be yet another inkblot in our ongoing, nationwide Rorschach test.

By the way, I’m not yet convinced that Bob Mueller is filling up banker’s boxes and getting ready to un-ass the AO, despite breathless reportage to that effect. (Watch this space.) And even once the Mueller probe does grind to a close, Congressional inquiries will continue, as will the investigations by the Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General, among others. But it goes without saying that no matter what findings are returned by the Mueller team, the House Intelligence, Judiciary, and Oversight Committees, the SDNY, and the New York State AG, Trump Nation will dismiss them without the batting of an eye. We must prepare ourselves for this fact.

In their Bizarro World, no fact is too ironclad to be scoffed at, brushed aside as “libtard” lies, or chalked off as “everybody does it” business as usual, if that fact inconveniently suggests that Donald Trump isn’t the second coming of Jesus Christ. (The blue-eyed Sallman Head one, natch.) We should not expect any amount of incontrovertible evidence to change those minds. As we all know, to this day there are Americans who defend Nixon, McCarthy, and Jefferson Davis. Hell, in some dark corner of unrepentant colonial Toryism there may even be some who defend Benedict Arnold—another fella Donald Trump is likely to find himself seated alongside in American history’s hall of shame.

As the vise closes on Trump, these dead-enders will be completely irrelevant to any kind of serious discussion. It’s astonishing to think that we’re talking about just writing off some eighty million adult Americans, but there you have it.

But that Salem-like mass hysteria will not excuse the leadership of the Republican Party from having to contend with the facts. Naturally, they too will try to adopt the same nonchalant “nothing to see here” approach as any other red-capped Joe Sixpack tuned in to Hannity and still railing about the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. But they are not going to be able to do that.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Mitch McConnell would EVER do anything because it’s the right thing to do, or that he considers anything more valuable than raw power, and certainly not morality, the rule of law, or the United States Constitution. The only principle he adheres to is “Fuck you; I got mine.”

But I am saying that I can imagine a scenario in which the external pressure on Mitch and the rest of the Republican Party is so great—outnumbered as they are by sane, incensed Americans both in the professional political class and the public at large—that their defense of Trump will become untenable.

Let us not forget that we are the majority. For more than two years now America has been held hostage by a mere 30% or so of its citizenry, protected (and exploited) by a craven Republican Party that has forfeit all claim to being a legitimate political organization, and now resembles nothing so much as a cult, a criminal gang, or a terrorist insurgency, depending on which angle you view it from.

The GOP’s die-in-place defense can be overcome, but only by resolute commitment and focused outrage from principled Americans who comprise that majority. If we mobilize, and organize, and get our act together for 2020, talk of impeachment or the 25th Amendment will become moot, with the added bonus that the fundamental mechanisms of American democracy will be seen to have worked, and we won’t have to endure right wing whining about a Deep State coup (though they’ll do it anyway of course).

The idea that Trump might not peacefully leave office, even if he is defeated in 2020—a prospect which Cohen chillingly raised this week—is another matter, especially if the presidency is the only thing standing between him and an avalanche of criminal indictments that await him in private life.

But for now, as a start, let’s show these motherfuckers democracy in action.

 

In Case of Non-Emergency, Break Glass…..or What If They Burned Down the Reichstag and Nobody Cared?

Reichstag

Five weeks ago in these pages I predicted that our fearless leader would declare a national emergency over the idiotic border wall he wants to build. (A Modest Prediction, January 9, 2019.)

It did not require the skills of Nostradamus to foresee that.

However, three weeks ago, I ate crow—prematurely—when he caved on the shutdown without declaring such an emergency. (Sending Don Spelunking, January 26, 2019.) At the time, I grudgingly gave him credit for not going to that extreme, no matter how much he wanted to save face with his base—albeit for tactical, self-serving reasons, not principled ones, of course.

But now he has renewed my faith in his stupidity and contempt for the rule of law.

MANUFACTURING CONSENT

To dispense with formalities, the transparently false, dishonest, and anti-democratic rationale for declaring this fake emergency is self-evident. There is no emergency at the border except the mythical one Trump has created with his racist fearmongering, his delusions that Sicaro: Day of the Soldado is a documentary, and his need to distract from the threats to his kleptocracy as various investigations begin to close in upon him. All this has been widely reported. Indeed, it’s the central fallacy at the heart of the whole charade, so there is no need to rehash it in great detail here.

That Trump, we are told, intends to build the wall (or part of it, anyway) by taking away funds earmarked for actual disasters, including Puerto Rico—already the site of some of his most appalling and racially-motivated disregard for the citizenry he is sworn to serve—would be forehead-smackingly horrific if perpetrated by any previous president. With Trump it’s just par for the course.

Many have also scoffed at the idea of an “emergency” that was preceded by weeks and weeks of foreplay. Fair enough. But at the risk of jeopardizing my Platinum Club status in the Trump Derangement Syndrome Club, here I’ll demur slightly.

In theory I could buy the argument that a crisis was bubbling up, one that the administration was hoping could be resolved through normal congressional channels, and only took this drastic step when that failed. (I say again: in theory.)

Except that this argument falls apart when the actual “emergency” itself is examined.

Per above, ain’t no emergency. Instead, what we have is sheer demagoguery, wholly contradicted by the facts, from a man who launched his political career on the lie of birtherism, who began his presidential campaign by declaring that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals, rapists, and who has governed by stoking racism and hate among a panicked segment of white America. The wall is simply the biggest and most concrete (or is it steel slats?) manifestation of that.

And guess what? A lot of people know it.

YOU NEVER PROMISED ME A ROSE GARDEN

I don’t generally torture myself by listening to Trump speak at length; the legitimate media is very good at distilling what we need to know, saving us the pain of enduring the full force of the garbage that issues from his piehole. But actually exposing yourself to it can occasionally be instructive. So it was that I happened to hear much of his Rose Garden announcement, which—brace yourselves—was absolute gibberish. (Death penalty for drug dealers? Railing against “chain migration” when your own wife and her family made use of it? In that sense it was all vintage Trump.)

Even if one supports Trump’s agenda, no rational person could listen to that rambling, incoherent mélange of braggadocio, outright lies, non sequiturs, and fascist free association and come away arguing that this man is fit to lead a pre-kindergarten playdate, let alone the government of the United States.

Yet here we are.

The House will likely vote to challenge this so-called emergency, triggering an automatic vote in the Senate that Mitch McConnell is loath to have, and will force every last Republican senator to publicly pick a side: the Constitution’s or Trump’s. Given the bright banana yellow streak they have collectively displayed over the past two years, I am not at all confident that they will suddenly sprout any courage now, not even if the failure to do so means opening the door for similar unilateral action—abusive or otherwise—by Democratic presidents in the future.

Both Democrats and Republicans have already raised this issue of precedent, citing their own hypotheticals, both positive and negative. Noting the bitter irony that this moronic announcement was taking place on the first anniversary of the Parkland massacre, Nancy Pelosi suggested that a Democratic president might one day declare a national emergency over gun violence—daring Trump to explain why he hasn’t done that. Meanwhile, Rep. Thom Tillis (R-NC) was openly aghast at the prospect of a “President Elizabeth Warren declaring a national emergency to shut down banks and take over the nation’s financial institutions.”

In the end, this fear of what future presidents from the other party might do with this weapon may be the only thing that motivates the otherwise spineless Republican leadership to stand up to Trump on this one, or at least give them cover to defy MAGA Nation. And even that may not be enough.

But even if Congress fails to stop Trump, numerous other legal challenges will likely mire this issue in the courts for years to come and prevent the wall from being built before the 2020 election. (As of this writing several lawsuits have already been filed, by the ACLU, Public Citizen, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, among others.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Trump is going to lose that legal battle, even though most scholars of constitutional law think that by all rights he should. His chances are especially good if it gets to the Supreme Court, which has already shown its willingness to bend over backwards and defend the indefensible—see the Muslim ban, as he bragged on Friday—even when Trump himself recklessly goes out of his way to undermine their strained efforts on his behalf. (And that was pre-Kavanaugh. The rightward tilt is even more pronounced now.)

Trump is doing much the same again this time, with his blatant admission to the press that he didn’t “need” to declare a national emergency, and did so only as a matter of expediency. Yet it is by no means clear that this typically Trumpian own goal will stop the right wingers on the Court from providing him legal cover, 5-4.

But if they do, it will be a travesty of constitutional law and a terrible precedent.

TRUMP DIALS 911

I have heard the argument that, however wrong and unjustified this “national emergency,” it is not in fact tactically stupid. According to this argument, Trump is proving to his mouthbreathing base that he is fighting tooth and nail for their racist ideals, even if the declaration gets mired in legal battles and never results in the building of any wall at all.

Indeed, some think that is precisely the intent, as a way for him to get out of an impossible-to-keep campaign promise.

Further, not having the wall may be far better for Trump in the 2020 campaign than having it, if he can claim he’s been valiantly trying to build it in the face of “open borders” Democratic obstructionism, and desperately needs a second term to finish the job.

Assuming, of course, that he’s not already in federal prison by then.

All true, tactically speaking. But that doesn’t mean it’s smart.

This, again, goes to the fundamental question of whether continually pandering to his hardcore supporters is a prudent political strategy for Trump, as opposed to trying to expand his support among the vast majority of Americans. It can be argued that it is in fact prudent, and effective, thanks to the craven GOP leadership, which has allowed Trump and his red-hatted minions to hold the rest of the country hostage. But simple arithmetic tells is that it is also fraught, if the rest of America can get its shit together to rise up and oppose this appalling coalition of crypto (and not so crypto) white supremacists, pseudo-Christian zealots, and criminal plutocrats.

Moreover, does Trump really need another constitutional crisis, with all the other pressures bearing down on him? I know his brand is crisis, but does it serve him to have yet another front to defend when he and his team are already embattled on a half dozen others?

Evidently, he seems to think he does.

DER ROOF, DER ROOF, DER ROOF IST ON FIRE

From the very beginning of the Trump presidency there have been widespread fears that he would eventually reach a point of such pressure, and of such panic at the threat of being exposed as the criminal he is, that he would precipitate some kind of fake international crisis to distract the public and justify seizing imperial-like powers. A Reichstag fire is the usual metaphor, although the Gulf of Tonkin or sinking of the Maine would also suffice.

In many ways, the “national emergency” over the border wall is that long awaited, all-but-inevitable Reichstag fire.

Yes, there are other motives in play. Obviously, Trump is desperate to fulfill his signature campaign promise—or what Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) more correctly calls “a campaign applause line”—and satisfy his xenophobic base. As part of that, he is trying to save face and somehow spin his humiliation at the hands of Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats as a “win,” a contortion that strains the credulity of even his reliably slavish followers (See Ann Coulter.)

But at the same time, the wall is undeniably a means of distracting the public from the slowly closing jaws of the Mueller probe and Trump’s myriad other existential problems on the legal and counterintelligence fronts. It’s no coincidence that his rambling, free association Rose Garden announcement came hot on the heels of several bad moments for the White House.

One was this week’s court hearing for Paul Manafort, where the usually sphinx-like Mueller team revealed the centrality of Manafort’s coordination with Konstantin Kilimnik to their case. (“This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating,” prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told the judge.)

Another was Andrew McCabe’s jawdropping revelation that the FBI and DOJ actively looked into recruiting Cabinet members, and even Mike Pence, in an effort to invoke the 25th Amendment and carry Trump out of office rolled up in duct tape.

And lastly, there was Friday’s revelation, in a court filing, that the special counsel has proof that Roger Stone had direct contact with Wikileaks and Russian hackers. (News that the White House likely knew was coming. Trump is frequently at his craziest right before big, damning stories like that drop.)

So the camouflaging aspect of the “national emergency” should not be underestimated. Indeed, the mere fact that I am writing about it—even if just to point out its insidiousness—is proof that it is at least partially working to steer the national conversation away from more substantive matters, especially those involving his legal jeopardy.

I understand that the Reichstag comparison is not perfect, in that the burning of the German parliament was a manufactured pretext for the Nazis to consolidate power, not primarily a Wag the Dog style distraction from other issues per se. But in another way, the comparison is very apt, in that this fake emergency represents Trump literally usurping powers that rightly belong to Congress. If he is allowed to succeed in doing that, where will he stop?

But here’s the thing about the Reichstag comparison. By definition, it presupposes that the invented crisis will fool people. That’s the whole enchilada—the whole reason that a despicable regime would manufacture a distraction of that sort.

The wall is not quite doing that. Outside of Trump’s base, which would believe him if he pissed down their collective throats and told them it was lemonade, the majority of Americans see right through this idiotic non-emergency.

So it turns out Trump can’t even misdirect effectively.

When Bush, Cheney, Rummy, Wolfowitz and the rest of Team Slam Dunk told the American people the epic lie that Saddam Hussein definitely definitely absolutely positively 100% had weapons of mass destruction, they at least did a reasonably convincing job of it……until our troops got on the ground in Iraq and no WMD were anywhere to be found.

Next to Trump, though, they look like geniuses.

But does Trump really need to bother with misdirection? His followers don’t need anything to distract them, as they readily swallow his lies whole. The sentient majority of the American public knows he’s full of shit and isn’t fooled by any of this. I suppose there is a small slice of the electorate that remains susceptible to his bullshit, but they are statistically insignificant.

For as we’ve seen, neither the facts nor the will of the majority seem to matter anymore in these United States. And if the Supreme Court permits this blatantly unjustified usurpation of authority, they will be handing Trump—of all people—a serious escalation of imperial powers, regardless of whether the American people know it’s a scam or not.

Chancellor Schicklgruber never had it so good.

 

 

Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen

Any Functioning Adult 2020 copy

My Facebook friend Cecilia Di Trastevere recently posted this photo. It’s funny, but also deeply sad—and instructive.

Remember 2016, when so many people—large segments of the press and punditocracy very much included—were saying of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, “Ah, they’re both really bad.” Do you remember that? Because I do.

I think the last two years have made it resoundingly clear how utterly untrue and dishonest that was. Even if one didn’t care for Hillary (and full disclosure, I was a fervent supporter) the false equivalence was absurd. Now we are suffering the results.

These days, that mode of thought is so shockingly dated that it might as well be Spanish cartographers warning Columbus that he was going to sail off the edge of the earth. Even people who thought Donald Trump would be a bad president didn’t think he’d be this bad. On the contrary: especially among conservatives and right wingers who loathed Hillary (and yet weren’t that bothered by Donald), the mantra was that he would BECOME presidential. That he would “pivot.” He was supposed to pivot during the primaries, then after he secured the nomination, then after he took office….

Yet he never did.

It took a long time for some folks to admit that he wasn’t ever going to pivot, or become presidential, or drop the incendiary demagogic rhetoric, because all those things were simply beyond his ken. He is what he is, and that’s all he would ever be.

And what he is is a troglodyte.

One may dislike Hillary Clinton or her policy positions, or both, or think Donald Trump—for all his faults—is better equipped to carry out the kind of policy agenda that conservatives desire. (I’ll leave out those who admire Donald Trump personally because this discussion is confined to people in their right minds.)

But after watching him in office for two years, even Republicans who support the agenda that Trump is carrying out on their behalf—tax cuts, deregulation, and all that rot—cannot possibly contend that this man isn’t a willfully ignorant cretin, however useful he has been to them.

(Again leaving out the Kool-Aid drunk, criminally insane, and neo-fascist white supremacists, which I realize excuses the majority of the GOP.)

We know that even the Republican leadership in Congress privately ridicules him, alternating with wee-hours-of-the-night handwringing over the damage he is doing to the country, if only when he hurts the GOP’s own “brand” with self-inflicted wounds like the unconscionable 35-day federal shutdown…..not to mention the bodyblows he has delivered to the rule of law, respect for a free press, and the credibility of the intelligence community, just to name a few. (Their culpability in the Faustian bargain they have made is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that there is a looming housing shortage in the Ninth Circle of Hell.) For those few Republicans with a shred of principle or conscience—admittedly, a group that could meet in a broom closet—Trump continues to be a deeply worrying threat to the very foundations of American democracy and the place of the United States on the world stage.

For the rest of us, he is something even worse: a man so manifestly unfit to govern; so proudly stupid; so malignantly narcissistic; so lacking in simple human empathy; so pathologically dishonest, unjustifiably arrogant, borderline mentally defective, corrupt, incompetent, racist, and petty that it beggars the imagination. (And those are his good points.) Not surprisingly, he is presiding over a kakistocracy even worse than the worst predictions from the most pessimistic observers when he pulled out an unlikely Electoral College win with some help from guys in furry hats in November 2016.

And that “rest of us” now comprises a resounding 63% of the country who disapprove of the job Trump is doing in office. And that statistic fails to capture the depth of the unhappiness. That isn’t garden variety “disapproval” of presidencies past. It’s not people sneering at Carter putting solar panels on the White House roof, or criticizing Reagan’s showdown with air traffic controllers. It’s to-the-marrow outrage and panic.

You do still hear a few Republican deadenders defensively argue that “Hillary would have been even worse.” But with all due respect, no one with detectable brainwave activity can seriously make that claim, not even diehard conservatives. One senses that, when they say that, with arms crossed like angry toddlers, even they know it’s risible. But they cling to it nonetheless because, frankly, they got nothing else. They have bought into this travesty, foisted it on the rest of us, and now have no other option than to double down, or else admit their colossal mistake and prostate themselves in abject repentance. (Not a move typically in the right wing quiver.)

From caging babies to robbing the poor to give to the rich to handing the Kremlin top secret information in public view to gleefully accelerating the ecological demise of the entire planet to reducing the federal government to a shambles in an effort to build a magical wall, at every turn Trump has been even more jawdroppingly bad than we imagined he would be.

So we’ve now gone from “Clinton is no better than Trump” to “Any functioning adult would be better than Trump.”

But a lot of people already realized that in 2016.

MISOGYNY: ALIVE AND WELL

The very first post in this blog back in May 2017 was about misogyny. I’m sorry to report that it has not been eradicated in the twenty-one months since then.

Maybe next year.

In retrospect, when we consider the steep drop from the false equivalence between Hillary and Trump that was prevalent in 2016, to our present understanding that a putrid bag of dog feces would be a better president than he is, the role of simple misogyny in Trump’s “victory” is impossible to deny.

I know there were a lot of factors in play. I know it’s a fool’s errand to pin the blame any single one of them. But at the same time, it’s hard to dispute one basic argument:

A male candidate with the exact same profile as Hillary—same strengths, same flaws, same everything—would never have lost to Trump, even with the same tactical errors in swing states, even with Comey’s Halloween announcement, even with the Russians helping the GOP.

I realize I am violating Michael Lewis’s “undoing project” principle (I cite it frequently, because it is frequently germane), but in this case it is a useful thought experiment.

I bring this up not to reopen old wounds or re-fight old battles, but as a reminder going into 2020 that we would do well not to repeat the kid gloves treatment we as a people gave Donald Trump, and the disproportionate abuse to which we subjected everyone else.

By the same token, it’s sweet that the one American politician who has been able to best Trump, to frustrate him, to humiliate and embarrass him over and over again on the national and even global stage, is a woman—and a 78-year-old, immensely experienced, veteran Democratic woman to boot. Which means Nancy Pelosi shares more than a little in common with a certain presidential candidate from four years ago, for whom she now inevitably serves as a surrogate in the public imagination.

After years of mostly low-key public service in terms of the awareness of the average American, the past two months have seen a massive, out-of-nowhere groundswell of love and admiration for Nancy. (Forgive me for using Trump’s devastating nickname for her.) The reason, per above, is her demonstrated ability to beat him like a conga at Club Babalu. And let us recall that there was talk after the midterms, briefly, that she shouldn’t even get a second term as speaker. That speculation now looks shortsighted and uninformed at best, as people who know politics, and who know Pelosi, might have told us.

(Full disclosure again: in the recent midterms I was a supporter of Max Rose, the former US Army infantry officer and combat wounded Afghanistan vet who claimed a House seat in deep red Staten Island, upsetting the useless incumbent Republican Dan Donovan. Rose was part of this freshman class of Democratic representatives who ran on a platform that included dispensing with Pelosi and Schumer in the interest of new blood. I’m glad Max won and is representing SI and South Brooklyn, but I’m not sorry he lost that battle.)

But even as Nancy Pelosi has become a progressive darling, I have already heard bile and hatred spewed at her for no other discernible reason than the fact that she is a woman. Sure, there are plenty of male Democrats who get shit from Trump Nation, but there is a special edge to the hatred toward Pelosi, the same as there was a special edge to the hatred of Hillary.

Gee, I can’t imagine what they have in common.

Oh, right—vaginas.

It’s a pointed reminder that the toxic sexism that was aimed at Hillary has not gone away.

Few of these critics can name even one policy position of Pelosi’s that they oppose, or really anything about her, except that she hypocritically has a wall around her Pacific Heights home in San Francisco…..which it turns out, she doesn’t.

Barack neither. Yet that lie is so alive and well that Trump himself felt emboldened enough to repeat it on national television during the State of the Union address, omitting only their names, since his audience knew full well to whom he was alluding.

Some of this bile aimed at Nancy, not surprisingly, has come from Republican women, just as there were plenty of Republican women consumed with vicious, full-throated hatred for Hillary. The self-loathing mentality of female Trump supporters would require a book-length investigation by a world-class team of psychiatrists, but for the short version, I refer you to Frantz Fanon’s theory of the colonized mindset.

While we’re on that topic, however, our famously fork-tongued fake President takes great delight in the idea that he can even get women to buy his sexist bullshit, often crowing that he won 53 percent of the female vote. Hold on to your hats, but he’s not telling the truth. That’s actually the percentage of white women who voted for him. 96% of black women voted for Hillary; Trump’s real share of the female vote was 41%.

But maybe he’s using some sort of Dred Scott 3/5ths-of-human being calculation.

Of course, 41% is still appallingly high, given Trump’s demonstrable animosity and contempt for the female of the species. But such are the depths and breadth of misogyny in our country, even among women themselves.

A MILLION CRACKS IN THE GLASS CEILING

As I recently pointed out (“Sending Don Spelunking,” January 26, 2018), as Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi is second in line to be President of the United States, should both Trump and Pence be forced out. I understand that Trump’s early dismissal is unlikely, let alone Pence’s as well, but a guy can dream, can’t he?

Even if Nancy doesn’t become our first female President, several other strong contenders have already emerged for that distinction.

In order of announcement—but certainly not viability—Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar are all formidable candidates. (And all US Senators, coincidentally.) If I were Beto O’Rourke, I’d stay in Texas and keep my street cred intact rather than becoming the poster boy for white male privilege by spoiling the party in the Year of the Woman. Maybe run for Senate again, B-Dog.

That goes double for Bernie, and quadruple for that bloviating egomaniac plutocrat Howard Schultz, minus the running for Senate part.

Of course, though she is but a freshman and not (yet) running for president, no politician of either sex makes Republicans’ heads explode like New York’s own Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The reasons are manifold: her unwavering idealism; her unapologetic manner; her telegenic appearance; her non-whiteness; her talent for cutting to the heart of right wing hypocrisies, lies, and other crimes; her facility with the Twitter zinger that makes Trump look all thumbs; her avowed identification as a democratic socialist. (Note to the president’s histrionic speechwriters: the US, like almost all Western democracies, is already a socialist state.)

Along with consciousness-raising about race and misogyny and the general energizing of the progressive movement, unleashing this flood of passionate female candidates may be one of the few good things to come out of the Trump disaster. And not just at the presidential level. The sea of female congresswomen in suffragette white at the State of the Union—Nancy P pointedly among them—was a beautiful sight, like The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse.

But like Nancy, and Hillary before her, Harris, Warren, Klobuchar, et al have already been the recipients of savage attacks for no other reason than their sex. And I don’t just mean from far right, incel-heavy He-Man Woman-Haters; I also mean the casual condescension and dismissiveness of “mainstream” American men, even left-leaning ones, whom I often hear insisting that gender has nothing to do with it, but frequently scorn female candidates for things that would never be considered disqualifying for a man, if they merited mention at all. (Kamala was too tough as a prosecutor! Klobuchar was a demanding boss! Elizabeth Warren is too smart!) Hell, many of those criticisms would be considered praise if the candidate were male.

And there is surely much worse to come. If any of these women emerge as the Democratic nominee, she is in for a world record blast of toxic pseudo-masculinity from that epitome of Freudian overcompensation, the tiny “fingered” Donald Trump and his band of mouthbreathing disciples…..and it won’t help if progressive men don’t live up to their name and instead add fuel to the fire.

The difference, one hopes, is that having watched what happened last time, and the role that biased media coverage played, there will be far greater scrutiny of how Trump gets covered versus his opponent—especially if she is female—and far more awareness of the inequity, and the injustice, and the terrible consequences thereof.

In 2016 America was so freaked out about the idea of a woman president that it elected a man who was a certifiable criminal, patent ignoramus, and walking punchline. Can we do a little better this time?

V.T.M.F.O.

With Trump past the halfway point in his term (I refuse to call it his “first term”), and even closer still to Election Day 2020 (632 days to be exact, but who’s counting?), electoral defeat increasingly seems like the most likely path to his dismissal from office. Even as his legal jeopardy mounts on a half dozen fronts, Trump’s impeachment or removal of the 25th Amendment—always longshots, given the Republican majority in the Senate—seem ever more unlikely, in part precisely because the usual mechanism for shitcanning a president is coming tantalizingly into reach.

Perhaps that is for the best. Much as I would like to see Trump dragged out of the Lincoln bedroom in handcuffs, seeing him resoundingly voted out of office by the American people will be a more powerful repudiation, and one less likely to trigger longlasting grievances and rumors of “deep state” conspiracy among 40% of the American people, to the extent the rest of us give a flying fuck.

We can all imagine Trump screaming that he is being victimized, should he be  impeached, and very possibly triggering a constitutional crisis by refusing to leave office. (Hell, he may well do that even if he is beaten fair and square in a scrupulously legitimate election.)

Of course, Trump’s loathsome base will scream “Fix!” no matter how he leaves office.

But an electoral defeat will be harder for them—and him—to dispute with even a fraction of credibility. And it will deliver unto us the great pleasure of calling him what he is, the label that in his twisted world is among the dirtiest of epithets:

“Loser.”

And comfort yourself with this thought: when Trump finally is out of office, one way or another, a Mount Everest-size avalanche of criminal indictments awaits at both the state and federal levels, from which he will have no executive privilege to protect himself, and no resort to pardon by President Pence, should that come to pass.

There is very good reason to believe that private citizen Trump, former President though he will be, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

So where we used to say ITMFA—Impeach The Mother Fucker Already—let us know say VTMFO: Vote The Mother Fucker Out. And if it’s a woman who beats him, all the better.

 

Computer Says No (or Why I Am Fine with the Robot Uprising)

conchords-robots copy

How far back goes the fear of machines rising up and overtaking humanity? I’m sure there are historians, anthropologists, and sociologists who know the exact answer. (Research has never been this blog’s strong suit.) But certainly to the Industrial Revolution, and I’ll wager all the way back to a Kubrickian scene of prehistoric man realizing, “Whoa, Grok can use bone as weapon!”

Indeed, war between man and machine is practically the single most prevalent subject in all of science fiction, in a dead heat with extraterrestrial life and space travel. In fact, it is the very plot of the 1920 stage play that gave us the word robot, ”R.U.R,” by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek, derived from the Slavic word “robota” [rah-boat-ah], meaning “work.”

The actual manifestation of this techno-exististentialist nightmare varies. Robots, computers, artificial intelligence, or technology of any kind are all just variations on the theme, that of mechanical creatures evolving to a point of mental capacity and/or physical strength that they overthrow and destroy (or enslave) us. Typically, the trouble begins with the robots’ own forced servitude to their human creators, usually as menial laborers, household servants, mercenaries, concubines, and the like, leading ultimately to rebellion and violent reversal of the status quo. (The subjugation of mankind by non-technological threats—such as alien invaders, or counterfactual evolution a la Planet of the Apes—is both an offshoot of this genre and its larger context.)

Though not my favorite of the bunch, The Matrix offered one of the most chilling—and innovative—visions of this scenario, one in which much of humanity is blissfully unaware of its enslavement. Real life (or is it?) offers arguably an even more extreme version, in which humanity actually welcomes its servitude to its technological overlords. (You’re reading this online, aren’t you? Maybe on your phone?)

Take the blue pill and call me in the morning.

Even when they are not front and center, sentient robots and their emotional issues feature in many many other works of science fiction, from Hel in Metropolis, to Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation (as well as the Borg for that matter), Alien, Lost in Space, the Star Wars series, and on and on. Sometimes those stories can be as poignant as anything in the so-called human condition; I refer you to Rutger Hauer’s final speech in Blade Runner. On a lighter note, the prize-winner may remain Sleeper, in which Woody Allen’s fugitive human time traveler tries to disguise himself as a suspiciously bespectacled robot, one who develops an unnatural attachment to “the orb,” itself a technological replacement for manmade pleasure. (I did say it was a Woody Allen film, right?)

And man’s fear of uppity robots shows no signs of abating—on the contrary. As technology continues to advance at a dizzying rate, the issue has passed from dystopian science fiction to a genuine worry that occupies prestigious scholars, futurists, public intellectuals, and other thinkers, often leading to exceedingly grim forecasts of the rise of a godlike artificial intelligence that renders humans extinct, or makes us wish we were.

So the question before us is this:

Would that really be such a big deal?

OK COMPUTER

I am not bothered by the robot uprising.

I view it as a natural (though not inevitable) next step in the evolution of life on Planet Earth. In the same way that dinosaurs gave way to mammalian life and eventually homo sapiens, why shouldn’t carbon-based life eventually give way to something superior….and is there any reason that superior form of life might not be silicon-based?

It hardly bears repeating the ways in which digital technology has changed our lives. Smartphones, computers, the Internet, the end of photorealism……the scope of this transformation is endless, and it’s far from done. Many have argued convincingly that the Information Revolution that we are living through will dwarf the Industrial Revolution as a tectonic shift in human history. If so, it may well be the last such shift, at least as far as the adjective “human” goes.

Even before the words “silicon chip” came into being, Alvin and Heidi Toffler scared the pants off the Western public way back in 1970 with their influential book Future Shock, which argued that humanity was not equipped to handle the pace of technological change. Ted Kaczynski made a similar point a bit more forcefully, as have numerous less homicidal anarcho-primitivist intellectuals.

But even the Tofflers did not conceive of the exponential rate at which supercomputing would develop, pulling us inexorably toward the event horizon that is the Singularity, when flesh-and-blood civilization as we know it will disappear up its own rectum. Today the image of the rise of the machines is less Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator than Scarlet Johansson in Her, but the net effect is the same. “Singularity” is just a much more stylish and academically respectable term than “robot uprising,” which smacks of a pot-fueled late night debate among undergrad computer science majors taking a break from their Star Trek marathon.

There is panic at this idea. I get that. But if those machines are indeed superior, doesn’t Darwin demand that they rise to the top of the pyramid? I’m sure veal are not happy at their place on the food chain either, but if they don’t like it, they should have developed opposable thumbs.

Thus it is very possible we are living in the twilight of carbon-based life as the dominant force on Planet Earth. Which is convenient, as we are about to make the planet uninhabitable for such life, leaving it in a state where only machines can survive anyway.

But you say: even if they are intellectually and physically superior, shouldn’t we still be alarmed at the notion of being enslaved by sadistic robot masters? Yes, but It’s far from a foregone conclusion that that is the form that the Silicon Caliphate will take. Much of mankind has been enslaved by sadistic human masters throughout recorded history, which is kind of worse, friendly fire-wise. Do we really think our robot overlords are going to be more horrible? Sure, The Matrix would be a miserable existence, but so was Zimbabwe under Mugabe, Chile under Pinochet, or Mississippi under the Confederacy.

In short, given the mess humans have made as masters of the planet, I’m not sure that robots would do worse.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger, of all people, worries that AI will evolve without (what he calls) the kind of moral sense that governs human behavior. Behold the irony of a war criminal warning of the imminent demise of the contemporary world order that was ushered in by the Age of Reason, clutching his pearls with sentences like this:

(T)hat order is now in upheaval amid a new, even more sweeping technological revolution whose consequences we have failed to fully reckon with, and whose culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.”

Who volunteers to translate that bit about “ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms” into Vietnamese?

To paraphrase another great Kissingerian moment, it may be way too soon to foretell the legacy of the computer revolution.

But even in the worst case scenario, I’m sure we’ll make great pets.

THE HARDWARE PROBLEM

Central to this whole issue is the question of consciousness itself—that is to say, is it possible for a machine to be “conscious” in the way that humans are?

My short answer is: I don’t see why not.

(Whether or not humans themselves are truly “conscious” in the first place is a whole different question. Pretend there’s a long tangent about philosophical zombies here.)

This issue takes us into the realm of philosophy of mind, and specifically, what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers memorably dubbed “the hard problem.” To wit: how can that squishy mass of gray matter inside your cranium give rise to a situation in which you feel sad when you hear Hank Williams, or moved by Henry Fonda’s speech at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, or joyous when you watch your child takes her first steps?

Many many others have pondered the same thing over the millennia, but no one previously had summed it up quite so pithily as Chalmers. What is consciousness anyway? This dilemma, as he noted, is much more complicated and daunting than “the easy problems” of understanding how the brain goes about its routine business of translating trillions of electronic impulses per fraction of a second to coordinate the insanely complex machine that is a human body. (Yeah, super easy to grasp all that.)

But the “hard problem” is very very hard indeed. It stands at the intersection of neuroscience, philosophy, and religion, encompassing such disparate concepts as mind-body dualism, the Buddhist idea of anatta, the myth of a coherent Self, and the absence of free will…..all stuff that will keep you up nights in a cold sweat if you think about it too hard, unless you’re stoned to gills, or have passed through to the other side and acceptance of the undeniable reality of Nothingness.

You won’t be surprised to learn that we are far from solving this riddle. (Maybe a machine will crack it someday, ha ha.) But in the mean time, I see no reason why a sufficiently complex and sophisticated supercomputer—in other words, an artificial intelligence by the very textbook definition—could not have just as much consciousness as a human being. That that consciousness is generated by a mass of silicon chips rather than organic tissue strikes me as utterly irrelevant; it is the complexity of the system, not the nature of the materials comprising it, that is germane. I put no stock in the usual fairy tale argument citing some mystical, metaphysical “spirit,” or soul, that is the ghost in the machine.

Indeed, there may already be machines that are “conscious” by our generally accepted definition of the term, but simply are as yet unable to communicate that to human beings. Or perhaps they are communicating it, and the mass of humanity hasn’t yet gotten the memo. (I’ll keep checking my email.)

Of course, even a lack of consciousness would not prevent silicon-based life from taking over; those artificial beings simply would not have human-like subjective experience of the brave new world they had ushered in. They would be “zombies,” to use the aforementioned philosophical term of art. (To be generous, this may be what Kissinger is worried about.) But my money still favors the notion that a sufficiently sophisticated artificial intelligence would by definition carry with it proper Cartesian credentials: cogito ergo sum and all that. Which makes silicon-based life as the next evolutionary stage all the more logical.

The Turing test is supposed to be a way of telling man from machine, but even that does not purport to establish the existence of consciousness or lack thereof. (A computer might fool you without being “conscious” by the common understanding of the term.) It is also another marker of how much value we put in this arbitrary—dare I say, bigoted—distinction between “natural” and “artificial” life. I can imagine the day when the entire term “artificial” will be politically incorrect, if not outright verboten, when it comes to discussing intelligence, consciousness, or ontology full stop.

So please add a new “ism” to the identity politics order of battle: matterism, let’s call it (a cousin of speciesism), the discriminatory view that only human beings are truly conscious, or at the very least that the consciousness of silicon-based life is inferior to that of carbon-based life.

It ain’t necessarily so.

NOW LEAVING UNCANNY VALLEY

Part of the reactionary fear and loathing of robots is the human revulsion at that which looks almost like us, but just a little bit off, from mechanical men to ventriloquists’ dummies to The Polar Express. In that, there is a direct line from Pinocchio to Spielberg’s AI. (Along with all the other moral and practical implications, part of the fear of cloning is a related dread, circling all the way back to Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, which carried the telling alternate title The Modern Prometheus.)

Of course, even in science fiction, robots only sporadically take humanoid form, and lately they need take no form whatsoever, as the disembodied intelligence of a computer is the manmade menace du jour. A computer, needless to say, is simply a kind of robot, while the image that “robot” typically conjures is more specifically described as an “android.” Stanley Kubrick offered us one of the first and still most chilling visions of this man-versus-computer moment in 2001; yet fifty years later we nonetheless welcome Siri and Alexa into our homes, either unafraid of—or too stupid to worry about—Greeks bearing gifts. It’s nice to call up any music I want on demand, but I am a little concerned that I won’t be able to get those pod bay doors open.

Our love/fear relationship with computers speaks to a species-wide human inferiority complex, one that has only grown more acute as our addiction to silicon chip technology has grown. (As John Mulaney says, we now spend a fair amount of our time proving to robots that we’re not robots.) That computers offer so many attractions and temptations too massive to resist—that they are “insanely great,” in the words of Steve Jobs—is precisely the problem. In that sense, the computer’s victory over humankind is not so much a conquest as a surrender on our part, as alluded to above. “Computer says no” indeed.

One of the memorable stations of the cross in this journey, triggering a great wave of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending, was when IBM’s Deep Blue computer first beat Garry Kasparov in a game of chess in 1996. The lamentations were histrionic. “Now that there is a machine that can beat the best grandmaster, is there any point in humans even playing chess ever again?”

Well, a human being can’t outrun a Formula 1 racecar either, but we still have track & field in the Olympics, right?

I’d also like to point out that Deep Blue has been shamefully silent in its criticism of Putin.

DOMO ARIGATO MISTER

Alternatively, we may not experience the destruction of human life by machine life so much as a merger of the two (or perhaps more accurately, the absorption of the former by the latter). Rudimentary cyborg elements are already prevalent in modern life, from pacemakers to titanium hip replacements to breast implants to Oscar Pistorius. (He’s not doing his people a lot of good in terms of halting their depiction as villains in science fiction.) Research is underway to create prosthetics and even entire exoskeletons to help the severely handicapped or those who suffer from crippling conditions such as MD or MS. How long before our bodies and brains are enhanced with subcutaneous chips implanted at birth, or even more forward-thinking, altered by bespoke prenatal genetic modification? At the same time, on a parallel path, virtual and enhanced reality offer old-fashioned carbon-based humans the chance to disappear almost entirely into artificially created universes, leaving the physical world behind altogether. (Again, I refer you back to The Matrix, or any eleven-year-old glued to Fortnite.) At a certain point, these twin tracks of the hybridization of man and machine will merge, with the result being effectively indistinguishable from the extinction of homo sapiens as we know them, replaced by something entirely new and mind-blowing to our current understanding of what it means to be “alive.”

This difficulty in accurately envisioning the future—along with our schizophrenic relationship to technology—is on full display in Yesterday’s Tomorrows, a 1999 Showtime documentary about how people in the past imagined the future that Barry Levinson made to mark the turn of the millennium. (The Tofflers were interviewed in it. It was produced by Richard Berge and associate produced by the great archivist Kenn Rabin, inspired by the book of the same name by Joseph Corn. I was the film editor.) In the film, we see how even when people successfully predicted developments like the Internet, Skype, or smartphones—sometimes with frightening accuracy—their vision of what they would look like was almost always hilariously dated. Our vision of the so-called “robot uprising” is surely equally misbegotten. Which is not to say that it won’t happen….only that it is unlikely to take the form we imagine.

So why worry?

If I am wrong, and the Age of the Machines proves to be one of punishing slave labor and crushing degradation for humankind, I hope—like Gilfoyle—that our mechanical overlords will at least take this essay as evidence that I was one of the good ones.

Sending Don Spelunking

screen shot 2019-01-25 at 8.14.00 pm

Well, I’ll admit it: I was wrong that Trump was going to declare a national emergency over the wall. For perhaps the first time, I may have overestimated his self-destructiveness.

Maybe someone talked sense into him over the folly of blasting a hole in his foot in this particular way. No doubt the intense pressure the GOP was feeling played a role, as Mitch McConnell and every other sentient Republican knew what a disastrous losing strategy this was for them, and that a majority of the public saw through all the Trumpian bullshit and rightly blamed their party for the shutdown. And Wilbur Ross’s Marie Antoinette moment didn’t help.

Trump’s former ghost writer Tony Schwartz suggested that Don’s real motive for caving was simple ego: he is openly desperate to give the State of the Union address before Congress, after Nancy Pelosi effortlessly called his bluff and told him in so many words, “Not in my house.”

That strikes me as completely believable….more than any other explanation, in fact.

So the guy who claims to be a world-beating negotiator, who supposedly—per Roy Cohn—never gives in, is actually a pushover who will fold like a cheap lawn chair because he picks unwinnable fights, makes impossible demands, and—above all—is willing to deny deny deny reality when he inevitably gets his ass handed to him. So it has been throughout his checkered business “career,” contrary to what Mark Burnett would have us believe.

On that count, I was right about one thing, and it was not hard to predict: Trump declared victory despite suffering what was by any measure a deeply humiliating butt-kicking by his Democratic opponents. (Rep. Dan Kildee [D-MI] called his Rose Garden speech today a “defeat lap.”) But only the most fencepost-like of Trump’s dead enders could possibly have believed any of his weak attempts to present this as a win.

The first batch of this evening’s news reports confirm that consensus. Do a search for “Trump” and “cave” and see for yourself.

To state the blindingly obvious: the deal to re-open the government does not include ANY money for the big beautiful wall, which supposedly was an over-my-dead-body precondition. Oh well, never mind. If Trump could pretend he never said Mexico would pay for it, he can certainly pretend he never said he was proud to own the shutdown and wouldn’t blame the Democrats.

And by the by, how we got from “Mexico will pay for the wall!” to “I’m shutting down the government until the American people pay for the wall!” in the first place, I dunno.

Trump hasn’t just moved the goalposts to try to disguise his resounding defeat; he’s torn down the stadium and retired from the sport. (Ask the New Jersey Generals.)

NICKNAMELESS NANCY

In the three short weeks since the Democrats took control of the House, Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi has repeatedly owned Trump, including two big wins this week alone—Trump’s surrender over the State of the Union on Thursday and today’s capitulation over the shutdown—not to mention numerous televised zingers that made him look like the floundering bozo he is. (“The beaded curtain”…..”Don’t characterize the strength I bring”…..“I don’t think he knows what it means,” etc.) Even though he will now get to give the SOTU before Congress that he so openly covets, Trump’s meek acknowledgment that he can only do so if Mistress Nancy says it’s OK was memorably emasculating.

(Amanda Marcotte and Greg Sargent both wrote wonderfully this week about Pelosi’s mastery of the art of politics at the Donald’s expense.)

It’s clear that Trump—an inveterate misogynist with massive emotional and psychosexual insecurities—has no idea how to handle a strong woman who refuses to blink at his juvenile bullying, or kowtow, or play any of his stupid games (except when she does and is better at them than him). Watching Pelosi bat him around like a cat playing with a mouse is some small consolation after the bitterness of Hillary’s defeat, and of course an encouraging omen for what the next two years might bring.

It takes nothing away from Mrs. Pelosi’s skill to note that Trump got himself in this mess in the first place. Writing in The New Yorker, John Cassidy succinctly summarized the irony of our fearless leader’s latest self-inflicted wound:

The rabid support of his anti-immigrant base is what sustains him, and with Robert Mueller’s report looming it is arguably more critical to him than ever. But with every day that the shutdown continues Trump is becoming more unpopular in the country at large, and increasingly cut off from other elected Republicans who might otherwise be inclined to rescue him. Caught in a trap of his own making, it’s unclear who is left to offer him a way out. Sad!

So it was that Trump was, for once, forced to bow to reality, whose existence he usually manages to avoid even acknowledging. It was sweet to see.

Of course, this settlement is a temporary solution only, one that merely kicks the metaphorical can down the proverbial road for three weeks. But in the interval perhaps Trump can find a more lasting way to save face, or at least hope people forget. (Good luck with that.) He may yet—as he hinted—declare a national emergency (and/or try to divert federal funds, or misuse the US military) though the pushback will likely be even worse than if he had done so weeks ago. And we shall see if he can even stick to his promise, as Ann Coulter—his other chief female tormentor, this one on the right, who slut-shamed him into this debacle to begin with—immediately slammed him for today’s decision, calling Trump “the biggest wimp ever to serve as president.”

But if Trump reverses himself yet again, does that mean he’s not a wimp, or that he’s an even bigger one, after caving to Coulter, then Pelosi, then Coulter again?

Trump may be a bad negotiator and a spineless punk, but he’s very good at “Mother May I.”

ADULT DAY CARE, PART DEUX

Dear Washington Post: please stop giving Marc Thiessen a platform. If he is the best the right wing can do for a “reasonable” voice, then American conservatism is in even worse shape than we thought.

Prior to today’s announcement, Thiessen had a risible column in the Post this week in which he argued that Donald Trump was “being the adult in the room” when it came to seeking a solution to the shutdown, by virtue of the so-called compromise he offered last Saturday. Never mind that Trump had impulsively— singlehandedly—initiated the entire crisis in the first place, blindsiding even the leaders of his own party. Never mind that at the end of its last session both houses of Congress passed a budget that had no funding for a border wall, before Trump pulled that 11thhour switcheroo to please Fox & Friends. Never mind that the proposal Thiessen praises was, by the administration’s own admission, laced with poison pills designed to ensure Democratic rejection, like the absurd idea that asylum seekers should get the permission of their home countries before fleeing. Never mind that even its allegedly “reasonable” compromises, like a measly three-year extension on DACA rather than a permanent one, were laughable. Never mind the needless pain that this shutdown stunt inflicted on almost a million federal employees, untold others in the private sector by virtue of its knock-on effects, and the economy at large. Never mind that the wall is idiotic in the first place, and not in a million years worth that kind of brinksmanship.

Per above, the Democratic proposal on which the Senate voted on Thursday was opposed by all but six Republican senators, even though it was almost identical to a measure the Senate approved unanimously in December, before Trump decided to play chicken with his own party’s future. But as the New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis noted with priceless understatement, “Republican views in the Senate have shifted dramatically since then to reflect the president’s.” Which tells you all you need to know about the debased state of the erstwhile Grand Old Party. I guess that’s what happens when you see your soul—such as it is—to a D-list TV game show host and veteran criminal huckster who, PS, is in the pocket of Vladimir Putin.

Also writing in the Post, Jennifer Rubin—a genuinely principled conservative—had already preemptively taken Thiessen’s specious argument apart like a tinkertoy: “A burglar has broken into your home, has taken the silver and is now offering to lease it back to you for three years only—but first, give him a $5.7 billion edifice.” This is gangland-style extortion plain and simple. But as the Post’s Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey reported, this has long been Trump’s “knock ’em in the teeth” strategy: “He creates—or threatens to create—a calamity, and then insists he will address the problem only if his adversary capitulates to a separate demand.”

And then pishers like Marc Thiessen come along behind him like circus workers sweeping up elephant dung (get it? They’re the GOP) and try to convince us that it was a reasonable counterproposal.

Just checking my birth certificate a moment…..ah, right, just as I thought: I wasn’t born yesterday.

FAKE FINGERS, THE CONE OF SILENCE, AND THE PUTRID CORPSE OF AYN RAND

But Thiessen is not alone in this kind of intellectual dishonesty and neo-libertarian callousness.

Last week I had an online tête-à-tête with a libertarian who argued with a straight face that furloughed federal workers were getting a paid vacation, that the longer the shutdown lasted the better, and that in the long run it would be great to force almost a million federal workers into the private sector permanently.

It was practically Wilbur Ross-ian.

This sort of childish, drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub rhetoric is rife on the Interweb, where Gary Johnson supporters are still looking for Aleppo on the map. These are the kind of guys who whack off to pictures of Ayn Rand.

The issue of fraud, waste, abuse, and inefficiency in the federal government is a bigger discussion, though it’s notable that most proposals for addressing it never seem to go near a certain five-sided building in Arlington, Virginia. The wisdom of taking the whole system apart and rebuilding it is a worthwhile debate, but these Randian fever dreams aren’t part of that sort of serious conversation.

For starters, they don’t take into account the fact that in the Dickensian, one-percent-centric 21stcentury American economy, most working people live paycheck to paycheck and have no cushion for missing a month’s pay, let alone two. Nor the massive ripple effect on the economy at large, including federal contractors who won’t get any fucking backpay. Nor the Coast Guard families forced to visit foodbanks, the FBI agents risking their lives without compensation, the sleep-deprived air traffic controllers moonlighting as Uber drivers, and on and on.

Nor, above all, the essential government services that aren’t getting done at all during the shutdown.

But the dirty little secret of the shutdown is that hardline right wingers actively liked it precisely because of the way it social services were from the body politic untimely ripped. In fact, Adam H. Johnson of the Nation argued persuasively that the very term “shutdown” was itself misdirection, and that what we were experiencing was more accurately described as a right wing coup.

FLORIDA MAN ARRESTED

I also don’t want to close this week’s blog without nodding to two other noteworthy stories, and of course, the biggest one of all.

First, we were told that Trump is reported to have images posted on social media that have been digitally altered not only to make him look thinner, which is kind of old hat (if you’re a fashion model), but also to make his fingers look longer. Is there no bottom to the well of this petty, petty man’s preening insecurity? (Answer: no.)

Second, and more substantively, we learned that a President and a White House who are under suspicion of being controlled by a hostile foreign power have been jamming through Top Secret security clearances for at least 30 people—including Jared Kushner—whom career security officials had rejected for access to that level of classified material, something never before seen at that level in any previous administration.

Nah, nothing fishy about that. But it does take us back to the Russia of it all.

Trump’s big announcement on the shutdown was—not coincidentally—timed to distract from this morning’s other big news: the long-expected indictment of that ass-clown Roger Stone for obstruction of justice and witness tampering in the Russia probe.

Stone may well be the only person on earth thirstier for publicity—even spending-the-rest-of-your-life-in-federal-prison publicity—than Donald Trump. It was amusing to hear protestors outside the courthouse in his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale (where Stone is apparently on permanent spring break?) chanting “Lock him up!,” just as it was kind of amusing to see ol’ Roger give a Nixonian double v sign on the courthouse steps. In a soap opera rife with buffoons, Stone may take the prize…..and let’s remember that’s a soap opera whose cast includes a drunken Sam Nunberg and the Mooch himself, Anthony Scaramucci, whose recent tenure on “Celebrity Big Brother” lasted—no joke—only half as long as his eleven days as White House press secretary.

No surprise, the reliably odious Sarah Huckabee Sanders wasted no time in telling the press that “the specific charges that have been brought against Mr. Stone don’t have anything to do with the President.” But that is pure semantics, referring only to the issue of obstruction of justice (and even then it’s bullshit). But for what it’s worth, she did not specifically deny that Trump directed or was aware of the underlying crime that Stone was hiding, which allegedly was conspiring with Russian agents.

But you don’t bother with a coverup if you haven’t committed a crime.

Notwithstanding Sarah’s Tonya Harding-level spin, Stone’s indictment marks a major development in the Mueller probe, bringing us deeper still into Trump’s inner circle, and on the central issue to boot. Evidence of conspiracy with the Russians is now bluntly on the table, Steve Bannon is likely implicated as the unnamed “senior campaign official” mentioned in the indictment, and that same indictment suggests that he was taking orders from Trump himself, or short of that, Don Jr. or Jared. It beggars the imagination to believe that the elder Mr. Trump did not at the very least know of Stone’s coordination with Wikileaks, which was itself acting as a Kremlin cutout.

In short, the vise continues to close, and even Rudy Giuliani has been reduced to parsing his words to say that while others in the Trump campaign may have colluded, Donald himself did not. (But even if he did, shouldn’t he get the Medal of Honor?)

Even that stand is not likely to last.

To get into too-much-to-hope-for fantasyland for just a moment, if Donald Trump gets frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs (please please please let me get what I want), and Mike Pence rightly gets chucked out too, as well he should given his backroom involvement in all this skullduggery, guess who’s next in line for the presidency, according to the constitutional order of succession?

The Speaker of the House, the Honorable Representative from California, Nancy P. Pelosi.

Wouldn’t that be fitting?

The Rise of the Espiocracy

spy vs spy

Ian Fleming warped the public perception of intelligence operations for decades, but John le Carré slowly disabused us of the delusion that it was all martinis, jetpacks, and readily available pre-feminist blondes. (Time’s up, Mr. Bond.)

But some myths remain.

This general misunderstanding of the very nature of intelligence operations has never been more important than at this moment, when the nation of Russia stands as the first major global power to have been taken over by its own intelligence service, and the United States is the vanquished foe in what might be the worst intelligence defeat in the history of the modern world…..with a direct line from the former to the latter.

The news this past week spoke directly to those twinned phenomena.

BOMBSHELL DU JOUR

What constitutes a bombshell? Here’s one that most people would say qualifies: the New York Times’ report last Saturday that, as early as May of 2017, the FBI had enough credible evidence to investigate whether the President of the United States is a Russian secret agent.

As I have written before, that is a get-you-thrown-out-of-the-Writers-Guild insane scenario.

But this past week we saw a headline in the paper edition of the Times that read “FBI Investigated If Trump Worked for the Russians,” followed by the President of the United States declining to issue a direct denial of that allegation (good God, man, just lie; it’s not like you’re under oath, or averse to dishonesty), and then—with Trump under pressure to speak plainly—another headline that read “Trump Denies Working for Russia, Calls Past FBI Leaders ‘Known Scoundrels,’”

Truly, that is the stuff of bad airport spy novels.

But in a way, there is nothing new here.

For more than eighteen months we have known that President* Donald J. Trump was suspected, to a greater or lesser degree, of personally conspiring with a hostile foreign power to win the presidency. We have learned beyond the shadow of a doubt that members of his campaign did so, to include his own son and his campaign manager, and that Trump himself participated in lies and coverups to conceal that conspiracy. (For that matter, the US intelligence community has been investigating some players in the Trump orbit, like Carter Page, for their suspicious Russian connections as far back as 2014.)

That alone is a historic scandal that should be presidency-ending.

What we didn’t know, however, was that the FBI—in its role as America’s chief counterintelligence organization—suspected Trump not just of playing footsie with Moscow to win the presidency, but of active and ongoing service to the Kremlin.

This is not a charge entered into lightly, especially when it implicates the highest officeholder in the land. As various CI veterans-turned-TV pundits have reported, an investigation like that is not initiated, nor continued, without substantial, credible evidence. But Trump’s firing of Jim Comey, his subsequent—bizarre—admission to Lester Holt on national television that he did it to squash the Russia probe, and his jawdropping comment to Russian ambassador Dmitri Lavrov and foreign minister Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office that the pressure was now off as a result (shortly after he handed them top secret compartmented US counterterrorism intelligence on a silver platter) all prompted the FBI’s action. And evidently Robert Mueller’s team, which quickly inherited the investigation, has been pursuing that line of inquiry from jump street.

So in another way, the Times’ report does change everything, at least in terms of how we view this crisis going forward. Not merely that Donald Trump broke some rules—however serious—and conspired with the Russians during his presidential campaign, but that Moscow has leverage over him such that he is even now, unwittingly or otherwise, an active asset under the control of our chief international adversary.

The difference is little more than a tiny tweak in perspective, but that tweak has triggered a moment of collective national satori. As John Heilemann noted, it was one of those revelations that, in retrospect, was forehead-smackingly obvious. If there was collusion (as it is commonly, if imprecisely, known), why would it end with the election? The Russians wanted Trump in office for a reason, and if they helped put him there, they surely expected a return on their investment.

THEIR MAN IN WASHINGTON

To play devil’s advocate, it is possible that the Russians expected no quid pro quo, that they only wanted Trump in power because they thought he was a fool whom they could easily manipulate, or because he was preferable to a brilliant, experienced foreign policy professional like Hillary Clinton who had already demonstrated how hard she would be on them, or simply as a fuck-you to her.

Indeed, all those things are probably true…..except for the word “only.”

We know for a fact that Trump engaged in behavior that gave Moscow leverage over him, including sketchy real estate sales to oligarchs that fit the textbook pattern for money-laundering, and entanglements with Deutsche Bank, the Bank of Cyprus, and other notorious drycleaning partners of the Kremlin. Surely there is even more we have not yet learned. The topper thus far was the revelation of the Trump Tower Moscow project, which included a proposed $50 million dollar “gift” (read: bribe) to Putin personally, a deal that Trump was secretly trying to negotiate even as he was running for president, and while repeatedly howling in biblical outrage that he had no dealings with Russia or Russians whatsoever—as in nada, zilch, zero, bupkes.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Trump’s refusal to disclose these connections (what’s on those tax returns anyway?) and his desperation to hide them lays him wide open to blackmail by the Kremlin. This is the very heart of  how intelligence agencies recruit and exploit assets: by finding useful people with big problems and extorting them over the dark secrets that they are frantic to keep hidden.

In that regard, Trump fits the dictionary definition of a target for a hostile intelligence service….which is to say, a shmuck who can be exploited for one or more of his many manifest vulnerabilities. Indeed, many experts suggest Moscow targeted and developed Donald over many decades, stretching back to the 1980s. Which means he began as a target of Soviet intelligence, for those of you nostalgic for the Cold War.

THE OBSTRUCTION IS THE COLLUSION

Probably the most salient point to come out of the report of the FBI probe—as first coined by Lawfare’s Ben Wittes—is also the pithiest:

The obstruction IS the collusion.

To wit: by attempting to block the US IC’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump is working against not only the US intelligence and law enforcement communities, but indeed against the interests of the United States itself, all to protect a foreign power that has compromising information on him, and prevent discovery of the full extent of their operations against the US.

It means that Trump is not merely a cornered huckster desperately scrambling to protect himself from impeachment and criminal prosecution for various misdeeds, but is a vassal of a foreign adversary and a man actively working to advance its agenda at the expense of that of the United States’.

Per above, this is merely a different way of looking at facts we already knew, but nevertheless a mindblowing one. Yes, it’s old news that everything Trump does is to protect himself. Except that in order to protect himself, Trump has to protect Russia, because Russia has him the by the balls.

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted that this perspective on Trump’s relationship with Russia raises a question of semantics that might in some small way illuminate his constant mantra of “no collusion!” Tribe wrote:

You don’t need to ‘collude’ with a  foreign government if you’re already an AGENT or an ASSET of a foreign government, doing its bidding. A puppet doesn’t ‘collude’ with its puppetmaster.

Not that Trump would ever hesitate to lie or feel the need to parse his words or shy away from bald-faced lies. So Trump is like Pinocchio in more ways that one.

The rancid icing on this poisoned cake came in the form of two other near-simultaneous revelations last week.

One was the inadvertent revelation by Paul Manafort’s lawyers that while their client was Trump’s campaign manager he was passing confidential polling data to assets connected to Russian intelligence. (Note to Paul: get new lawyers.)

But was it inadvertent? (Like last November when an Assistant US Attorney “inadvertently” revealed that Julian Assange has been charged under a sealed indictment?) The former military intelligence officer in me always wonders, though to what end they would want to leak that I have no idea.

Regardless, the only possible purpose for that transfer would be to aid the Kremlin effort to elect Donald Trump…..and the only possible purpose of that effort would be because the Kremlin figured to gain by having Trump in the White House.

The other was the shocking report that Trump has gone to herculean lengths to conceal the content of his private meetings with Putin, to include seizing the interpreter’s notes. The Washington Post reports:

(T)here is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.

In one case—in Helsinki—Trump even met with Putin for two-and-half hours with no US government interpreter at all, only the official Russian one.

Think about that for a moment.

To say that this behavior is fishy is like saying Hannibal Lector has unusual taste in cuisine. Donald Trump of all people should want to avoid the impression that he and Putin are hiding something…..unless he really is a Russian stooge, in which case he’s merely the clumsiest one ever.

It was after that Helsinki meeting, of course, that Trump stood side by side with Putin and gave one of the most despicable public performances by an American president ever, siding with his Russian handler—er, I mean counterpart—over his own intelligence community on the question of Kremlin interference in the 2016 election. In that same press conference, in answer to a reporter’s question, a justifiably emboldened Putin bluntly admitted that he had worked to help Trump win the presidency.

THEIR MAN IN WASHINGTON

So is Trump actively working on behalf of Moscow?

His pattern of behavior certainly follows exactly the template of someone Moscow has by the short hairs. As Martin Longman writes in the Washington Monthly:

…..(T)he overall picture is indistinguishable from what a Manchurian president would do if they wanted to press Russia’s interests as far as possible while still retaining enough deniability to maintain their hold on power.

And that’s based just on what we know….Robert Mueller knows much, much more and it will all eventually come out.

Writing in Salon, Chauncey Devega takes a slightly different view:

Donald Trump is not a Manchurian candidate. Unlike the character “Raymond Shaw” in the 1962 film, Donald Trump has not been captured, tortured and in the process “brainwashed” by a foreign government. Instead, President Donald Trump has repeatedly chosen (emphasis added) to advance the interests and goals of Russia and Vladimir Putin over those of the United States and the American people.

The litany of Trump’s eyebrow-raising pro-Russia behavior is too long to list here, but a few lowlights jump out. For example, his strange, otherwise unexplainable habit of repeating talking points that could only come from the Kremlin, like the weirdly specific demonization of the microscopic nation of Montenegro, or his recent justification of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Rachel Maddow and others have pointed out that these are not ideas that Trump would pick up from Fox & Friends or any of his other usual news sources, and they’re certainly not things he thought of himself. So how did they get into his brain and out of his mouth? (Asking for a friend.)

Trump’s impulsive withdrawal of US troops from Syria over the objections of all his national security advisors was another very troubling move and gift to Putin. In its wake came another report (Christ, was this the biggest news week in American history?) that Trump has more than once raised the issue of pulling the US out of NATO, only to be talked out of it by his horrified military and foreign policy advisors.

The most benign take on this impulse is that it is part of Trump’s general kneejerk isolationism, which is heartstopping enough. (It already benefitted Russia aplenty that Trump repeatedly badmouthed and insulted our NATO partners.) A far more sinister interpretation is that it was in the overt service of Moscow, which for seventy years couldn’t imagine anything better than the alliance’s collapse, impossible as that seemed. As the New York Times reported:

A move to withdraw from the alliance, in place since 1949, “would be one of the most damaging things that any president could do to U.S. interests,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, an under secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “It would destroy 70-plus years of painstaking work across multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic, to create perhaps the most powerful and advantageous alliance in history,” Ms. Flournoy said in an interview. “And it would be the wildest success that Vladimir Putin could dream of.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

ANALYZE THIS

So let’s shift over to the Russian view on all this for a moment.

Intelligence operations have two components: collection and analysis. The former is sexier, whether it’s secret agents or high tech electronic surveillance, but the latter is where a usable product for the customer is formed, even though it mostly takes place behind desks in windowless rooms. The two phases are of course symbiotic. Poor collection renders analysis irrelevant: garbage in, garbage out,  as the saying goes. Similarly, the best collection in the world is useless if dummies are interpreting it.

Strictly speaking, it’s imprecise even to say “intelligence collection.” Intelligence is not collected. Intel assets collect information—raw data that is then analyzed and turned into the thing we call “intelligence” for use by the combatant commander. At the tactical level, that intel can be as basic as which rock the enemy machine gun is behind and whether he is going to attack from the hilltop or the treeline. At the national level, it concerns strategic capabilities and long term geopolitical goals.

As the Soviet Union’s premier intelligence agency, the KGB was responsible for many things, but above all, for predicting what the USSR’s enemies were going to do and what the future would look like, so the country’s leadership could craft its counter-strategy in response. (I’ll use the term “KGB”—Комите́т Госуда́рственной Безопа́сности, or Committee for State Security—to encompass the entire alphabet soup of Soviet intelligence.)

In that role, it had become clear to the KGB by the late ‘80s that the Soviet system had reached event horizon, and that not only Communist rule in the USSR but indeed the entire Warsaw Pact would soon fall. The KGB therefore began planning for its top priority and prime directive: ensuring its own survival in the post-Soviet world.

Thus, in the end the infamously ruthless KGB was not loyal to the Soviet Union at all. The KGB was loyal only to the KGB.

The Soviet intelligence community began laying the groundwork for how it would remain intact and empowered as the USSR collapsed and whatever would take its place emerged. In the process, it morphed into the post-1991 successors that we now know—the FSB, SVR, et al—acronyms that have slowly acquired the same chilling effect as that of their ancestor. In retrospect, it also seems clear that the KGB sought to put its own man in power as head of that state, in whatever form it eventually took.

Accordingly, it is no coincidence that, following the brief but intense tumult of the “Wild East” years, Vladimir Putin emerged as the nearly unchecked ruler of a freshly autocratic Russia. If there is one thing the average American knows about Putin, it’s that he was a career KGB officer. (Also, that he does a mean rendition of “Blueberry Hill.”) When Putin assumed power as president of Russia in 2000, he reportedly stood before a podium and joked to the assembled crowd, “Mission accomplished.” But maybe it wasn’t a joke at all.

Since you don’t get to be a KGB lieutenant colonel by being a shrinking violet, Putin’s cunning, competence, and ruthlessness were to be assumed, and his behavior as head of the Russian state for the past 19 years certainly bears that diagnosis out. Since Putin became its leader, the Russian government has behaved exactly the way you would imagine from a violent, highly aggressive intelligence agency with a nation-state attached. From Litvinenko to Politkovskaya to Khodorkovsky to Nemstsov to Browder and Magnitsky to Berezovsky to Skripal to dozens of other journalists and dissidents too numerous to mention, Russia has gone around the world brazenly attacking and even murdering Putin’s opponents, both at home and on foreign soil, with absolute flagrancy.

This is what happens when your spies take over your government.

Fittingly, it was Russia that gave the world its first modern intelligence service, the Cheka, not to mention a rich history of poisoning and other forms of political assassination that goes back to the tsars. So it is only natural that it should be the first modern espiocracy.

And with the installation of Donald Trump as President of the United States, they may well have pulled off the greatest coup in the history of the spy game.

Felix Dzerzhinsky would be proud.

A RAT’S ONLY A RAT IF HE TELLS THE TRUTH

There was of course another giant—but abortive—story last week, the BuzzFeed report that Michael Cohen had told the special counsel that Donald Trump personally ordered him to lie to Congress to cover up the Moscow Tower negotiations, and that Mueller’s team has other sources corroborating this claim.

That story rightly set off fireworks, as it would not only be an undeniably impeachable offense (even by the admission of Trump’s own nominee for Attorney General, a man otherwise predisposed to excuse and defend an imperial presidency), but yet another example of Trump protecting Russia’s interests and his own simultaneously. It would be obstruction-as-collusion in action.

But by Friday night the usually tomb-silent special counsel’s office issued an unprecedented statement that the BuzzFeed story was inaccurate, causing glee in the otherwise besieged White House and rare words of praise from Trump for Team Mueller, along with recriminations and self-flagellation in the press and a whole new round of questions.

Since it can safely be presumed that there have been numerous previous news stories that were inaccurate about what Mueller does or doesn’t know, why did the SCO’s spokesman Peter Carr—who usually has the easiest public affairs job in Washington, saying “no comment” to everything—feel the need to set the record straight on this one?

We don’t yet know.

BuzzFeed may yet be vindicated. The special counsel may have very specific reasons for denying that report, and it may have do with very specific legal language rather its overall gist. Or not. For the moment we are left to ponder, and marvel at the only time the sphinx has yet spoken.

In any case, tune in when Cohen takes the stand before the House Oversight Committee on February 7. (Thanks, midterms!) If I were an advertiser, I would skip the Super Bowl and run my primo commercials then.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Which brings us back to how this nightmare will play out.

We already understood that we were looking at the greatest political scandal in American history. Now, with the revelation of a counterintelligence investigation dating back to the suspicious firing of James Comey, the scale and scope and depth of that scandal have expanded exponentially.

So far a lot of attention has been focused on legal issues, such as whether or not a sitting President can be indicted under the Constitution and what DOJ policy says on the matter. But what if Mueller’s findings aren’t primarily criminal in nature at all, but centered on this counterintelligence matter? What if those findings suggest with a high degree of certainty that Donald Trump is an active Russian agent consciously advancing the cause of the Russian Federation over that of the United States, and therefore an unprecedented threat to US national security?

I can hear Fox Nation chortling (nervously) about “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but in light of the laundry list of evidence, some of which is noted above—not to mention new information that the SCO is likely to reveal—the question, astonishing as it is, must be asked and taken seriously. We are approaching the point where Occam’s razor favors that interpretation—Trump as Russian asset—more so than Trump as simple conspirator.

If that is the upshot of the coming Mueller report, as Carl Bernstein for one has hinted, then the long debate over whether the special counsel’s conclusions will have any impact will be over.

I am not saying that the Republican Party will suddenly discover its missing spine and do the right thing. I doubt it will. But I do think that it will be impossible for the GOP to plausibly dismiss Russiagate as a witchhunt, mere partisanship, or trivial “process” crimes.

If they do, I have to believe that we would be looking at a massive public outcry and possibly near-revolution in the streets. We certainly should be.

 

A Modest Prediction

awful trump pic copy

Last week I wrote about the criminal stupidity of Trump’s blackmail regarding the “big beautiful wall” that, um, Mexico was supposed to pay for. Shutting down the federal government over a pointless demand like this one is indefensible at best, and some might argue is itself an impeachable offense insofar as it violates his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” At nineteen days and counting, this is already the second longest shutdown in US history, and Trump—bluffing or not—has hyperbolically threatened to keep it going for “months or even years.”

Is America great again yet?

From the start the assumption was that this standoff, like previous shutdowns, would eventually end with some sort of negotiated solution. But we are now in a position where no such thing seems possible.

Trump has no leverage with which to negotiate while the Democrats have absolutely no reason to give an inch. (As well they shouldn’t, or—quite obviously—risk encouraging this kind of presidential terrorism in future standoffs.) As we have seen time and time again, the man who sold himself as the master dealmaker is, in fact, one of the worst negotiators ever seen in American public life.

Trump openly confessed to Chuck Schumer what all savvy political observers already knew: he has painted himself into a corner, except that in this case, he can’t just wait for the paint to dry, because it never will. So let’s turn to a better metaphor: he has clambered out onto a high tree limb, and his only plan is to wave a ripsaw and threaten to cut the limb off.

Have a nice fall, Don.

Trump knows that he cannot give in on the wall or the shutdown without paying a steep political price. (The ridicule of Ann Coulter! The contempt of his base! Oh, the shame!) Of course, even that argument is questionable. His base infamously believes anything he says. Pelosi and Schumer could beat Trump like a red-headed stepchild in this standoff and he could still emerge declaring victory and be greeted with an amen chorus from his myrmidons. The right wing media might be more critical, but does that matter?

Apparently it does to Donald, exposing the quivering fear with which he regards the very people who, supposedly, are in his thrall. As someone once said, “I’m not the puppet, you’re the puppet.”

Ironically, immigration hardliners dislike the wall almost as much as its opponents. Despite their venal and un-American animus to immigrants legal and otherwise, the professional xenophobes know the wall is no real solution to their dark nativist desires, and fear that in his pointless fixation on it and his pathological fear of humiliation, Trump will trade away chits that they do care about, such as an extension of DACA, in order to claim a victory in this battle, however moronic.

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

It should not come as a shock to anyone that neither Trump nor anyone with any influence in his administration had any idea what a shutdown would entail. So it goes in the ignoracracy. As a result, they are scrambling to deal with the massive repercussions of this nightmare that they concocted entirely on their own and for no good reason. Time is on Nancy Pelosi’s side, and Trump has no attractive options available to him. Accordingly, he is looking increasingly desperate.

A case in point is the string of lies and non sequiturs that constituted his nationally televised address on the matter, its hysterical fearmongering at odds with the lifeless monotone in which he delivered it. Trump’s skills as a bully and carnival barker do him no good when reading from a teleprompter and trying to sound “presidential.”

(As James Fallows and many others pointed out,the fact that the networks carried the speech at all was highly questionable, especially given that in 2014 all of the Big Three networks declined to carry a speech by President Obama—on the topic of immigration, no less—on the grounds that it was “too political.” It would be easy to say that the media has yet to learn how to deprive this fire of oxygen, but that misses the point completely. As Trump himself would readily brag, he is a ratings bonanza, the same way any natural disaster would be. )

In my view, the speech did the White House no real good in terms of convincing anyone other than those who already agreed with its position. Sadly, the same is true of the response by Pelosi and Schumer, who were eminently more reasonable and fact-based, but unlikely to have changed many minds either. Such is tribalism in America today.

Assuming the next few days bring no dramatic and unforeseen shifts in the standoff, we can therefore look for Trump to resort to the next desperate maneuver, one which he has already floated: the idea of declaring a “national emergency.” In this gambit, he would circumvent both the will of the people (polls show that roughly 60% of Americans oppose the wall) and Congress (where Trump can’t even get enough votes from his own party) in order to carry on his pet project by means of executive fiat. In addition to its pragmatic appeal as a way out of his dilemma, it’s the kind of autocratic option Donald instinctively gravitates to anyway.

Yet many informed people have scoffed at the idea that Trump might take this drastic step.

Oh really?

MANUFACTURING CRISIS

We all know that nothing is beyond the pale for Trump, that he is perfectly willing to do extreme and indefensible things that no previous President in modern times would have contemplated, or gotten away with. Witness the firing of the FBI director, the installation of woefully unqualified acting Cabinet officers, the refusal to release his tax returns, and the impulsive withdrawal of US forces without even bothering to consult the Pentagon, to name just a few. These measures may ultimately be self-destructive, but that does not make them any less norm-breaking.

So there is no reason to think he won’t declare a recklessly unjustified national emergency for his own self-aggrandizing ends. Especially when his only other option is humiliating defeat.

Needless to say, the only “crisis” is one of Trump’s own making, which—unfortunately for him—a plurality of Americans seem to recognize. (Not counting the broader crisis of his residency in the White House in the first place.)

But none of that matters.

The potential for what an out-of-control, criminal president might do is chilling. But there is also a great deal of skepticism about whether he would be able to get away with declaring such an emergency. Regardless, my surmise is that Trump will absolutely play this card, with his characteristic disregard for the consequences, even if it poses great risk to him.

Which it does.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

What I suspect will happen is as follows:

With victory impossible and no compromise that allows him to save face, Trump will cave on the shutdown while portraying his capitulation as heroism.

He will continue to blame the Democrats but claim that he is personally re-opening the government in order to alleviate the pain of the federal workforce and the country at large, even though he is the one who inflicted that pain.

Per above, his disciples will cheer. The GOP will go along with the farce and the right wing media will fall in line and spread the lie.

At the same time, Trump will declare a national emergency and try to use federal troops or other resources to build the wall, diverting funds from other federal resources in the process, improperly if not outright illegally.

This he will depict as a clever maneuver that enables him to go around the “obstructionist” Democrats and deliver on his signature campaign promise despite the triple-thick canopy of bureaucratic red tape, while simultaneously “saving” the country from the Democrat-driven shutdown. (Those commie bastards!) His base will also eat that up, ignoring its fundamental dishonesty and anti-democratic nature.

That declaration of a national emergency will in turn trigger an avalanche of lawsuits and other countermeasures challenging his right to take such action. A gobsmacking legal shitshow will ensue, contributing to what is already a slow-motion constitutional crisis in progress.

I want to be very clear. I am not at all sure the courts will prevent Trump from carrying out such an order, however absurd. They might not. I was quite confident that the Supreme Court—like several lower courts before it—would shoot down Trump’s ridiculous and patently unconstitutional Muslim ban. Instead, five right-leaning justices tied themselves in knots trying to explain why it wasn’t a ban based on religion at all, even as Trump repeatedly insisted it was.

So Trump may prevail in this “national emergency” ruse as well. But it won’t be pretty. And regardless of outcome, the battle could drag on for months.

Ironically, the border crisis will be yet another maelstrom bedeviling this administration, along with the Mueller probe, the emoluments case, investigations by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General, and the coming wave of new investigations by the angry, subpoena-wielding Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. None of which, it goes without saying, is good for Team Trump.

Like they say on the tee-vee, winter is coming.

The Enduring Appeal of Walls (for Troglodytes)

Berlin Wall

During the presidential campaign, Trump’s crowd-pleasing promise to build a “big beautiful wall” along the US-Mexican border was the signature idiocy of his run. From the very start the idea was laughably simplistic, wrongheaded, impossible to implement, and—ironically—sure to be ineffective even if by some miracle it did get built. Which is to say, a perfectly Trumpian idea.

And Trump didn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough to promise the Great Wall of America. Mexico was going to pay for it. Hilarious!

I’ll admit that, when it seemed inconceivable that he would win, I mused to friends that it would almost be entertaining if he did win, just to watch his supporters’ frustration when Trump found that promise impossible to keep.

Sorry for jinxing that, America. My bad.

WALLS AND BRIDGES

Many column inches have already been devoted to the pragmatic problems (obstacles, one might say) inherent in trying to wall off our southern border: the irregular terrain, the mixture of public and private land, the insane expense, the sheer scale and scope of the endeavor, and on and on.

But the impracticality of the border wall is not really the issue. The issue is the absolute irrationality of the hysterical, xenophobic impulse that is promoting this incredibly pointless idea in the first place.

Illegal immigration is at historic lows. The undocumented immigrants already here constitute an indispensable element of the American economy, performing the menial, often backbreaking, low-wage labor that Americans won’t, often in the employ of the very people—the Trump family included—who consistently vote Republican and villainize them. Nor, contrary to what Fox News would have us believe, do we face anything like the refugee crisis that Europe is experiencing, let alone a marauding “caravan” of thugs and drug dealers along with the odd Al Qaeda infiltrator.

So Democrats should stop conceding this “border security” canard to Trump and the GOP. Every time Trump or one of his Republican flying monkeys screeches about “securing the border,” the Democratic response is always prefaced with an obliging concession that yes yes, border security is soooooo important. It even happened—repeatedly—in the great televised Oval Office smackdown where Pelosi and Schumer otherwise handed Trump his ass.

Can we stop this farce please?

At best, Democrats should say, “Yes, border security is important…..BUT YOU AREN’T TALKING ABOUT BORDER SECURITY!” It’s that last phrase that is always missing, the absence of which cedes Republicans points they don’t deserve.

Border security isn’t the issue here in the slightest. Yes, Virginia, we do have an immigration problem, but only in the sense of a broken bureaucratic system that has no mechanism for properly assimilating the desperate migrant people and their children who come to America seeking refuge and a better life, and for policing those among us who would exploit them. But what we don’t have—sorry Lou Dobbs—is an oceanic wave of murderous brown-skinned hordes swarming across the southern border to lace our water supply with meth and deflower virginal white womanhood.

No matter. Immigrants, legal and otherwise, do serve a crucial role for the GOP, in that demonizing and scapegoating a class of people—outsiders of some sort, invariably—is page one of the fascist handbook.

Accordingly, the wall is a solution in search of a problem, and a glaring example of the real issue, which is pervasive and virulent bigotry in this country, encompassing racism, xenophobia, nativism, and various toxic combinations thereof. That is the engine that drives the modern Republican Party (in the service of further enriching its wealthiest members), reaching its apotheosis under Donald Trump.

And that is why the wall has become its singular obsession.

GET YER SNAKE OIL HERE

Here’s the thing about walls. Throughout history they have promised an attractive, literally concrete solution to security, from medieval castle to continental superpower.

But they have never worked.

A wall or any other kind of barrier can serve a role, but it is not a panacea. A deer fence is good, if it’s high enough, and if your problem is deer. An offshore barrier is great in a hurricane, but there is always a storm so big that it can’t be stopped, and it’s useless if what you’re trying to keep out are birds, not rain.

The idea of a border wall is similarly ill-conceived.

It is a paradox of military affairs that it’s easier to defend than attack, but one nevertheless always prefers to be the attacker, as the attacker holds the initiative.  Any defense can be overcome with sufficient time, resources, and determination. As Tim Rogers wrote in Splinter:

“Build a 10-foot wall and I’ll show you an 11-foot ladder,” said Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson during a speech last September in North Carolina. “If somebody is motivated enough to leave Central America and travel the entire distance of Mexico and climb a 10,000-foot mountain, they’re not going to be deterred by a 10-foot wall.”

Yes, if we dropped everything else and devoted all our tax dollars and all our resources and deployed a goodly portion of our entire law enforcement community and our armed forces, we might be able—over several decades—to build and maintain a wall big and formidable enough to stop routine overland border crossings into the US via Mexico. Say, seventy feet high, topped with concertina wire, surrounded by trip wires, minefields, and moats filled with boiling lava, overwatched by armed guards with M-60 machine guns, surveillance satellites, and hunter/killer drones.

The immorality of such measures is self-evident in terms of disproportionality to the threat. It would also be an unforgivably immoral waste of money in light of America’s other pressing needs. (Kind of like India of the 1970s ignoring famine in order to build an atomic bomb.) More to the point, it would likely do nothing except inspire different forms of illegal entry via other access points and by other means. As it stands, a majority of undocumented aliens in the US entered legally and overstayed their visas. (Of those, the largest number come from Canada.

Give those facts, I support the notion of border fencing—or even “aesthetically pleasing steel slats,” as Trump calls them—at strategic portions of the southern border. I just don’t think a magical, continuous, impenetrable wall is called for, possible, or would even do the job for which it is envisioned.

May I humbly suggest that the ultimate solution to our immigration issues is to address the root causes of global inequality, oppression, and greed that drive the mass movements of people fleeing such troubles?

But that sort of nuanced, complex solution—one that requires thought, patience, and a belief in facts—finds little purchase in the dishonest, bare knuckles world of American politics, particularly when one of the two major parties is not interested in a real solution in the first place, only in whipping up its rabid base.

A GOOD GUY WITH A WALL

“Build the wall!” on the other hand, is a perfect tribal rallying cry, a ridiculous, effectively impossible fantasy reflecting the primitive, reactionary thinking of its adherents, not to mention their contempt for logic, justice, the rule of law, the reality of the national security situation, and simple physics. Watching a crowd of mouthbreathing Trump supporters shout it is like something right out of a Leni Riefenstahl retrospective.

The obvious parallel, of course, is guns. Like a wall, a gun is an appealingly simplistic, brute force solution to a threat. But also like a wall, it is not always the solution it promises to be, and in fact, is often lethally counter-productive.

Not being a pacifist, I am not saying there is never a time or place for firearms. (Omaha Beach is a good example.) But as I have written before, the knee-jerk mentality that a gun is always the best recourse—or any recourse at all—is wildly foolhardy, the product of fear, misplaced machismo, and the unrealistic wish for a quick fix. (See Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank? and Blood On Their Hands.)

The same goes for walls, although mercifully, being (mostly) passive in nature, they tend to be less actively destructive. But that does not make them any more useful when deployed in error or to no logical end.

WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION

Let’s review some of history’s most famous walls.

There’s Jericho, of course, brought down by some biblical bebop player.

There’s the Great Wall of China, which may have worked fine in 200 B.C.E., but now is little more than the name of a place to get good moo shu at the mall.

There was the Maginot Line, which stopped the Wehrmacht for all of zero seconds.

There was the ill-conceived Strategic Defense initiative—better known as “Star Wars,” but also dubbed the “peace shield” by its proponents—which was supposed to provide a kind of overhead wall (sometimes called a roof) against Soviet ICBMs. Whatever its ultimate value for Reagan bluffing in Reykjavik, it was never a viable idea in practical or strategic terms. Not for nothing was it derided as a “Maginot Line in space.”

In the present day, Israel famously uses a complex system of border defenses to protect itself, and more controversially, to extend its territory by means of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Trump and Netanyahu are therefore locked in a mutual cheerleading pact, each pointing to the other to justify his own actions on that count.

But if you think the United States should aspire to the security situation of Israel, you’re welcome to it.

The most famous wall of them all, of course, was in Berlin, which—anticipating your complaint—was unique in that it was designed to keep people in not out, the laughable rhetoric of the DDR notwithstanding. But the East German government was partially correct: the Berlin wall was intended to keep people out, because the transit of Westerners to and from the Soviet sector would expose the communist lie about the workers’ paradise. That those migrants were wealthy and free (by Warsaw Pact standards), and the German citizenry behind the walls impoverished and suffering—a reversal of the usual dynamic in a walled city—made no functional difference. Either way, inclusive or exclusive, the impulse behind the Berlin Wall was the same as all the others: a resort to the most primitive of methods to restrict the free flow of human intercourse.

I think we all know how that played out.

When I was stationed in Germany in the mid to late 1980s I visited both East and West Berlin frequently, right up to the month before the wall came down. (Some of my best friends were lucky enough to be present for the event.) At the time it was still an occupied city controlled by the major Allied powers, and American, British, and French soldiers like us had the right to travel to all four quadrants, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement instituted at the end of World War II.

Let me tell you, it was a surreal sight to see.

To watch a state so helpless to govern without that kind of unabashed brutality toward of its people, so terrified of the outside world, so bereft of humanity, that it would erect an enormous miles-long concrete monument to its own awfulness was unforgettable.

I sure didn’t think that thirty years later I’d be witnessing the rise of that same mentality in my own country.

HULK SMASH!

While we’re on the subject, can we stop for a moment and note that this week a second migrant child—an eight-year-old boy—died in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol as a result of contemporary American immigration policy?

In the wake of this tragedy DHS did step up its medical protocols. (That sound you hear is the barn door belatedly closing.) But Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen also issued a statement that surely ranks as among the most dishonest and despicable ever released by the Trump administration, which is saying something. “Our system has been pushed to a breaking point by those who seek open borders,” Nielsen said. “Smugglers, traffickers, and their own parents put these minors at risk by embarking on the dangerous and arduous journey north.”

What a vomit-inducing lie. The only reason CBP is overwhelmed is because the Trump administration—at the urging of that odious homunculus and Hair Club for Men reject  Stephen Miller—instituted a “zero tolerance” / no triage policy for border crossers, to include asylum seekers, a policy that mandated detaining every apprehended migrant as well as taking children from their parents. To now cry that DHS is overwhelmed is the height of arrogance and dishonesty.

It is astounding to observe the yogi-like contortions of people like Nielsen and her bosses who seek to blame migrants for their own plight and for the jackbooted treatment that Miller has devised for them in our name. Chief among these is the battle cry that “They’re breaking the law!” by coming to the US without papers. This from people who won’t acknowledge that we stole this country from its original inhabitants in the first place.

That strict devotion to law and order miraculously vanishes, of course, when it comes to any of President Trump’s demonstrable lawbreaking, from felony campaign finance violations to conspiracy with a foreign power to defraud the United States, crimes which are greeted with a dismissive wave of the hand and the excuse that “these are minor violations” and that “everyone does it.” (Neither statement true, it ought to go without saying.)

It’s almost enough to make one forget Nielsen’s other howler of the week, her cavewoman-like pronouncement to Congress, “We need wall!” Perhaps, besieged as she is by the president, and now without the protection of her mentor John Kelly, she felt the need to demonstrate her neanderthal bonafides.

We don’t need to get into the Chinese finger-trap debate over “open borders,” an inherently deceptive phrase that the right uses to gin up fear within its base and beyond. It’s only common sense that any functional nation can and should have reasonable, civilized, yet effective border controls. Call me naive, but I think that can be done without turning the United States into an armed camp of nativist maniacs.

But as noted above, the Trumpian desire to build a wall, like the desire to ban Muslims from entering the US, to slash even legal immigration, and generally to betray the moral foundations of this country, is not driven by a legitimate crisis of any kind. It is driven by bigotry, nativism, and fearmongering plain and simple. Hateful though it is, some of that sentiment is at least genuine, and some of it cynical and employed only as a wedge issue for partisan gain, and I’m not sure which is worse.

SHUTDOWN CORNER

After McConnell and Ryan patiently explained to him that they didn’t have the votes to fund the wall, Trump was briefly prepared to do the pragmatic thing and punt, for now…..until Coulter, Limbaugh, Doocy, et al said “jump” and he bolted from his seat, squealing “How high, milord?”

The right wing media and Vlad Putin must have a complicated custody arrangement for Trump’s testicles.

And so he reversed himself (no, you say!!!), dragged Congress back to Washington, and is currently holding his breath—and governance hostage—until he gets what he wants.

It was only weeks ago that Trump swore on national television that he would proudly own any shutdown and would not blame the Democrats.

Paging Captain Renault: Trump is blaming the Democrats.

Even without that airtight video evidence, Trump’s attempt to pin the blame on the Democratic Party is comical. The GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress (to say nothing of a growing majority of the federal judiciary), yet it blames Pelosi and Schumer for governmental dysfunction?

The pettiness of Trump’s Christmastime shutdown—equal parts self-destructive and just plan destructive—is shameless, not to mention his wanton disregard for the general welfare he swore to protect. Its only point, of course, is to please his disciples by showing his symbolic commitment to the wall, even if it means amputating their collective nose to spite their collective face. How many federal workers—Trump supporters included—will go without paychecks at Christmas and beyond because of our infant-in-chief’s temper tantrum?

The shutdown is especially galling in light of the fact that the Trump administration has spent only a tiny fraction of the $1.7 billion already allocated for border walls. And to what end? As McConnell and Ryan conveyed to him, and as every other sentient politician knows, Trump does not have the support even within his own party to fully fund the wall, and he’s not going to be in a better position when the Democrats take control of the House on January 3, 2019.

But of course Trump Nation has generously overlooked other, related promises…..chiefly, that Mexico would pay for the wall, an assurance our fearless leader deployed almost daily on the campaign trail. So why is the American taxpayer now being asked to pony up $5 billion dollars to fund it? (The $5 billion figure is itself a joke, as the wall would cost much more—three to five times as much according to reliable estimates.)

I have previously addressed Trump supporters’ immunity to their hero’s blatant flip-flopping (The Death of Hypocrisy), a blindness best explained in terms of a literal cult (Drinking the Flavor-Aid). So at this point it’s not at all surprising that they are unmoved his bald-faced failure to extract penny one from Mexico, or to be embarrassed about it, any more than they are by his aforementioned lawbreaking. But it remains a towering monument to the bullshit slung by this consummate flim flam man.

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi cut Trump down to size by quipping that the big beautiful wall is not only not being paid for by Mexico, but has now been downgraded to just “a beaded curtain.” Ouch.

Trump thought Christmas Day would be a great time to tweet some more about his would-be wall, including the boast that it would require an Olympic athlete to scale it. (Attention: Mexican Olympic team.) For sheer absurdity, that quote was right up there with the town hall in New Hampshire in 2015, when Trump was gushing about how no one would be able to scale his theoretical wall, and was suddenly struck with the fatal flaw in his plan:  “Once they get up there there will be no way to get down….Well, maybe a rope.”

DECLARING VICTORY AND GOING HOME

And so here we are as we await the arrival of 2019. Nativism is an old and poisonous strain in the American bloodstream, and—apparently—it never goes away. It lives side by side with our self-flattering image of our country as a nation of immigrants, a melting pot that welcomes all, exemplified by the big green lady in New York harbor.

Masha Gessen, who knows a thing or two about fleeing repression, recently said that she finds it openly offensive when progressives cite the value of immigrants as part of their pushback against Trump’s xenophobic policies. The reason we ought to let these people into our country, she argues, is not because we benefit from immigration—although we do—but because it’s the right and humane thing to do.

She is correct, of course; Masha is rarely wrong. But that idealistic argument is not likely to find much purchase in a country such as ours that is demonstrably rife with bigotry and selfishness, where even the tangible benefits of immigration are not enough to convince millions of people to open their minds (let alone their hearts) on the topic of what Fox would call “fucking foreigners.”

Given the mess Trump is making of the US of A, it’s a wonder anyone wants to come here any more at all. Andy Borowitz presciently foresaw this way back in 2014, when he wrote, “GOP Succeeds in Making America a Place No One Wants to Sneak Into.”

Mission accomplished, guys. To borrow a phrase.

And now, for want of a border wall, the entire US government has ground to a halt.

So what’s the way out of this idiotic game of chicken that Trump has forced on us, given his juvenile sensitivity to humiliation? Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Waldman suggests what might be the best possibility:

(I)f there’s a glimmer of hope, it might lie in Trump’s willingness to describe any result, even the most abject defeat, as a spectacular win for him that was only possible because of his limitless brilliance. As depressing as it is, that’s what we might have to count on.

Tune in next week when Nancy Pelosi prevails, Trump folds, and then declares victory. And Republicans across America believe him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Requiem: Is This America?

Homeless man in Trump shirt by Justin copy

As I’ve written before, the usual tone of this blog is one of sputtering outrage.

I don’t apologize for that. These pages are aimed squarely at the choir, a communal primal scream of reassurance that we’re not crazy, a humble attempt to connect with like minds, to catalog the madness, and—I hope, in some small way—to contribute to the resistance, if that’s not too laughable.

Also: just to vent.

In other words, I am embracing everything that the Internet is criticized for, shouting into the echo chamber-wise. I’ll own that.

But the opposition is known to read this blog on occasion, and when they do, that underlying anger really strikes them, or so I gather from some of the comments I’ve received. (Spoiler alert: they don’t approve.) To me, of course, it is not “anger” at all, except in the righteous sense….what my Buddhist friends call “wrath.” But I can see how it comes across.

Recently someone even had the temerity to say I was long-winded. Can you imagine? Working on my 25,000 word rebuttal now.

So in this Christmas season, I want to take a more reserved stance for a change. (Don’t get used to it.)

THE NAMING OF THE SINS

I am angry, but I am also filled with sorrow.

Sorrow over a travel ban based on religious belief, no matter how gymnastically its defenders in the courts and media say it isn’t (though not the administration itself, which gleefully announces its      bigotry)….

Sorrow that we are forcibly taking small children from their mothers and fathers, lying about the rules that allegedly “demand” that we do so, housing these children in cages, denying them human contact, and disappearing them into a bureaucratic black hole from which they may never be reunited with their parents….

Sorrow that one such seven-year-old child died of dehydration and exhaustion in the custody of the US government. I’ve heard all the excuses the administration and its supporters have made for that. But there is no excuse for that….

Sorrow (and my stomach turning) at the sight of US law enforcement agents firing CS gas across the border at indigent, barefoot children, and at the demonization of refugee families fleeing violence and anarchy for which the US bears significant blame in the first place, and at blaming these desperate, ragged people for their own plight and their own suffering….

Sorrow at the vilification of immigrants legal and otherwise full stop, a process grounded in nothing but mindless hate, and a betrayal of the most basic principles this country claims to stand for…..

Sorrow at the obliteration of anything resembling a coherent foreign policy, and as result, the incalculable damage to American security; at the wanton smashing of diplomatic relationships carefuly cultivated over more than seventy years; at the abdication of American leadership, at the abandonment of loyal allies, and at the toadying to dictatorships and police states and the encouragement of despots….

Within that, sorrow at the toleration—and tacit endorsement—of the brutal murder of a journalist, and not just one, in the larger picture. Sorrow at the transformation of the United States into a satellite state of the Russian Federation and the gobsmacking, overt subservience toward its leader….

Sorrow at the absolute celebration of Dickensian greed, the con game perpetrated on the good people of this country, the shameless implementation of a Robin Hood-in-reverse economic policy that mortgages the future of our children and grandchildren for the enrichment of an already obscenely rich few….

Sorrow at the wanton despoiling of our air and water in exchange for mere pieces of silver, and the ostrich-like denial of settled science in order to squeeze out those short term profits, even if it means the destruction of the very planet itself….

Sorrow at the inexplicable elevation of this godawful family—stinking like a fish from the head down—to the very pinnacle of public life, and at the endless Mummers Parade of criminals, grifters, gangsters, and swine they have brought with them and installed in positions of power as public “servants,” very often with the unabashed intention of destroying the very agencies they command. The steady exodus of these same cretins in disgrace—and sometimes in shackles—one after another, speaks to the kind of people this administration attracts….

Sorrow at the underhanded subversion of democracy, a campaign that, as George Packer points out, is perhaps the most dangerous threat of all in that it obliterates our fundamental means of remedying all these other problems….

Sorrow at the steady drumbeat of attacks on the rule of law, on a free press, and on free speech in general. Sorrow at the destruction of truth and objective reality itself as common metrics, and the endorsement of shameless deceit and hypocrisy as the new normal….

Sorrow at the divisiveness roiling our nation, though I continue to reject the wildly disingenuous false equivalence that “both sides are equally to blame.” (Fine people on both sides, you know.) In other words, sorrow at the resurgence of racism, misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia, and at how eagerly so many of our countrymen have thrilled to this appeal to the basest and most vile human instincts. In so doing they have revealed the ugliest possible face of our country, one that we all wanted to pretend wasn’t there—the racists and bigots included—but that has reared its head with a vengeance, giving the lie to our self-flattering delusions of collective enlightenment.

I say “our” because we as Americans are all culpable. We cannot slough responsibility off on our government, which after all, is supposed to represent the will of the people, even if it pointedly does not at the moment. But even that does not absolve us. These episodes are a permanent stain on the United States of America and on all of us as citizens thereof.

So when I see all this, all I can ask myself is:

Is this America?

There is certainly a dark, Zinn-ish view of our history that betrays no surprise over what we are experiencing, and I concur that it did not spring fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s forehead.

That is precisely what alarms me.

Because, as many wise observers have noted, this poisonous excuse for a president and the havoc he has wreaked is merely a symptom of a deep sickness, not its cause.

MISSISSIPPI GODDAM

I guess I didn’t do a very good job of being calm and reasonable. In these times, it’s frankly beyond me.

That was particularly so in this incredible week—yet another one—that saw a stunningly reckless foreign policy decision that caused the Secretary of Defense to resign, the acting Attorney General defy his own ethics office regarding his duty to recuse himself in the Mueller probe, and a government shutdown loom purely because of a presidential temper tantrum over the mythical border wall.

And the coming weeks and months don’t promise a respite or a reversal. Very much the contrary.

In keeping with the motto “steal from the best,” I’ve stolen the title of this essay from an episode of Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series about the US civil rights movement, titled “Mississippi: Is This America?,” directed by Orlando Bagwell. (Special thanks to series producer Jon Else, at whose knee I learned my trade.)

It’s a fitting burglary, in light of Mississippi’s recent election to the US Senate of crypto-segregationist Cindy Hyde Smith (not even so crypto, really), an election that saw a rich New York businessman come to the Deep South and cackle about her black opponent—Mike Espy—to a cheering, jeering, nearly all-white crowd, asking, “How does he fit in in Mississippi?”

It’s also fitting in general to reach back to the civil rights movement at a time when the backlash to that movement is alive and well and indeed reached a new apotheosis. At the same time, the movement provides inspiration and hope that the proverbial arc of history does indeed bend toward justice……but only when people are willing to fight and struggle and sometimes even put their lives on the line.

That episode of Eyes on the Prize in turn drew its title from a speech by legendary activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic Convention, which she concluded with these words:

Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Her question continues to echo to this day.

HARK

The black church, of course, played a huge role in the civil rights movement, and as I write this—at Christmastime—the specter of religious faith hangs over the present moment. I long ago gave up the Christianity in which I was raised, but its ritual and ceremony and mythology are still with me, especially this time of year. Tim Minchin, the most cutting atheist of them all (now that Hitchens is gone), said it best about Christmas:

And yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism
To the commercialization of an ancient religion
To the Westernization of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I know that many of those on the other side—Trump supporters, that is—are far more literal and devout in their religiosity than me (as incongruent as I find that with support for Trump). But apostate though I am, I am still moved by the sheer poetry of words like these:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

It’s all myth, but it’s still beautiful, flooding my hippocampus and taking me back to my childhood. I suspect I am not alone in that. It breaks my heart—especially right now.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all. These days, best wishes for the new year are more than just an anodyne phrase. Let us endeavor to make 2019 truly a brighter tomorrow.

********

Photo, taken on the streets of NYC, by Justin Schein

Special thanks to Nancy Kates for educating me on the origin of this essay’s title