Pretty Sh*#%y Monkeys: A Surprisingly Optimistic Conversation with Shalom Auslander

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I met Shalom Auslander in 2013 when my wife Ferne Pearlstein and I interviewed him for our film The Last Laugh. Born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York, Shalom documented his dramatic break with that world in scabrous, hilarious, poignant detail in his 2007 book Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir(Winner of The King’s Necktie Prize for Best Title.) His subsequent debut novel, Hope: A Tragedy (2012)—featuring a foul-mouthed Anne Frank still living in an attic in upstate New York—cemented his reputation as one of the darkest, funniest, and most lacerating literary voices in America today, drawing comparisons to Roth, Vonnegut, Heller, and even Twain.

Shalom’s unique background put him high on the list of people I wanted to interview for this site.

Click here for the rest of this week’s blog post. Facebook would not allow me to promote the title because of its profanity.

But they are OK with letting the Kremlin steal an election….

Pretty Shitty Monkeys: A Surprisingly Optimistic Conversation with Shalom Auslander

SA recent

I met Shalom Auslander in 2013 when my wife Ferne Pearlstein and I interviewed him for our film The Last Laugh. Born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York, Shalom documented his dramatic break with that world in scabrous, hilarious, poignant detail in his 2007 book Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir(Winner of The King’s Necktie Prize for Best Title.) His subsequent debut novel, Hope: A Tragedy (2012)—featuring a foul-mouthed Anne Frank still living in an attic in upstate New York—cemented his reputation as one of the darkest, funniest, and most lacerating literary voices in America today, drawing comparisons to Roth, Vonnegut, Heller, and even Twain.

Shalom’s unique background put him high on the list of people I wanted to interview for this site.

In the fifteen months that I’ve been writing this blog, one of the sub-strains that has emerged—to my surprise—is a discussion about religion, and in particular, the political and personal impact of its most extremist forms. Building on my conversations with the novelist and author James Carroll—a former Roman Catholic priest who writes frequently about the Church (“The Invention of Whiteness” and “The Disadvantages of Decency”)—and the legendary 92-year-old  documentary filmmaker Bill Jersey, who escaped a fundamentalist Baptist upbringing (“Jesus Wept: The End of Evangelicalism, Part 1” and “Truth or Consequences: The End of Evangelicalism, Part 2”), who better to represent the Jewish side than Shalom?

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THE KING’S NECKTIE: First of all I want to say, now that Philip Roth is dead, you are surely the preeminent purveyor of onanistic Judaica in American literature. So congratulations.  

SHALOM AUSLANDER: Thank you. Please let my mother know as soon as you can.

TKN: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your experience of having grown up in such an extreme religious environment and then breaking out of it. 

SA: Well, you come out of it physically, but the damage is still there for sure, but in ways that would be very surprising for people who know me or think they know me. It still has a certain amount of what Vonnegut called “hocus pocus” in your head that’s hard to get out. For example, my family and I recently moved to LA and we’re very happy, and that makes me very anxious. (laughs)

TKN: (laughs) Why?

SA: Because usually bad things happen after joyful things. I always found that with the Old Testament. “Oh, we’re going to get to Egypt? But oh….slavery. We’re gonna get out of slavery? Then oh, we’re stuck in the desert. We get out of the desert? Then, oh, every person in the world wants to kill you.” It just keeps going that way. And it’s always because you did something, you fucked up somehow, and God is always pissed off at you one way or another. It’s just this gnawing sense throughout your whole life that joy is punishable or suggests impending doom.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have had that even if I hadn’t been raised with God— it might just be a side effect of my father. But it’s this weird thing that you never totally get rid of. I always refer to it as “theological abuse.” It’s a lot like sexual abuse, where you can get past it and move on, but for people who’ve suffered from it—or some of them anyway—there is always that underlying discomfort with sexuality. So I have that underlying discomfort with existence. (laughs)

TKN: That’s a nice controllable, manageable thing.

SA: Yes.

TKN: But at the same time it seems to me that it’s part and parcel of your comedic sensibility and your literary sensibility. If you didn’t have that dark take, you would be far less interesting as a writer, yes?

SA: Yeah, I have had people suggest that. Not the way you’re saying it, but I’ve had people who dislike what I have to say suggest to me, “Well, shouldn’t you be thanking religion and your parents?” And it’s sort of like, “Yeah, and after that I’ll thank the priests who raped me and the neighbor who made me suck his dick when I was seven. I’ll just have a big party for everybody who fucked me up.” Because, trust me, I would rather have joy and no writing ability than a writing career and endless angst. Whether it’s good or bad, profitable or not, it’s a survival mechanism. And if you need a survival mechanism it’s because you’re constantly surviving.

The experience of growing up in that type of community left me feeling like an alien in the secular world. But at this point in my life, with more time now in the secular world then I had in the Orthodox world, I realize what a gift it was to be able to leave, to be able to go see something entirely new. So many people are locked into their communities—and it may not be religious, it could be political, racial, sexual, economic, whatever.

Seeing that probably colored my worldview more than anything about God or the specifics of my relationship with Him, which is not great. (laughs) You know, God and I fight a lot and we have keep a hundred feet away from each other by law.

NOT THE WORST ANIMALS

SA: I’d love to hear the explanation behind The King’s Necktie. I know that it’s primarily political.

TKN: Yeah, but occasionally I stray into something that’s just cultural or interests me for one reason or another, just to change the pace, because otherwise it‘s too grinding and relentless. And they’re all connected anyway. I know you said you don’t really follow politics, but obviously you wrote that very influential Washington Post piece right before the election, “Don’t Compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. It Belittles Hitler.”

SA: I actually feel a little bit ashamed of that piece.

TKN: Why do you say that?

SA: Because it proved that I had fallen for the game a little bit. I got caught up in it, as I always do with the election. It’s kind of like how I’m not really a basketball fan but around the finals I get ridiculously into it.

Politics is just a trap. It’s always been a toilet, it will always be a toilet. Even when you think it’s not a toilet it’s a toilet. Even when it’s your turd and you think this is our time, it’s still a load of bullshit. The worst people in the world.

I’m at the point now—and this may be a function of growing and moving out of the community that I was born into, completely leaving it behind and literally never going back—where I think the biggest issue isn’t Trump or war or taxes or whatever else. I think all of that comes out of these fictional differences that we have created between us that aren’t real.

To me, there is no such thing as a Jew or a Christian. Skin color is just an effect of biology. When we have nations and governments and leaders and hyphenates galore we’re just reaffirming these differences, and they aren’t real. They’re created. They may have served a purpose once, but so did a lot of things that early man did that we don’t anymore—like religion. There is no way to be engaged in it without there being Us and Them. Whether it’s left or right, Democrats or Republicans, Americans or Russians, these are all made up things. They don’t exist, and the more we kind of engage with them as if they do, we’re never going to get past the point where we want to kill each other.

If you look at the history of man, and migration, and where we came from, the story is one of us coming together despite ourselves. We have to stop fighting the process and just embrace that fact, because “I’m chosen” or “I’m white” or “I’m black or ‘I’m Asian” or “I’m this” or “I’m that” isn’t working. I feel like that is behind so much what is wrong with the planet right now. And maybe that’s a function of having left a place that is very insular and then finding out, “Wow, the stuff they told me about the outside world wasn’t true. It was make believe.” So there is a sense of, “Well, if everyone else is in that same make-believe world, no wonder we’re in the place we are.”

So, then you have politics and people like Trump or whoever might come along who are very very good at profiting off that. It’s negative and we don’t even have to play the game. That’s what kills me is that there is no need for the game at all, if we just stop with insisting that we are different of special or this or that. We suffer from all these differences that now have thousands of years of history behind them, of complaint, and wanting vengeance, of oppression and suffering, and there is no escaping it. We just keep running around in circles. When I realized that I was like, wow, this is so fucked up. We are all just people and we’ve allowed these fictions, these walls, to be built between us for somebody else’s profit.

TKN: That is such a humanistic, and idealistic, and almost sweet perspective….which is not what people expect from you.

SA: (laughs) It’s funny, because what I’m pissed about is the way we are. Not what we could be. I don’t think we are particularly special animals, but I don’t think we are the worst animals. The reality is that we evolved from some pretty shitty monkeys. (laughs) Monkeys are assholes. If you ever go to the zoo, they are the biggest fucking assholes in the zoo. They are the only ones with barbed wire, and signs that say, “Don’t stare at the monkey, don’t look at the monkey, don’t taunt the monkey, don’t feed the monkey.” That’s our grandfather. They don’t do that with squirrels, or rabbits, or giraffes. You can make faces at giraffes all day long.

So I don’t think we’re great, I don’t think we’re awful, but I think that there is just a lot of residual shit from when we were animals.

But that’s fine. I mean, my writing heroes and my comedy heroes were the same way. Vonnegut was a humanist and everything he wrote was about how shitty, dark, and funny the world is….what do they call him, the Laughing Prophet of Doom? That’s not a bad title. Twain was the same way, Bill Hicks, Pryor, Beckett: a lot of these guys laughed at the darkness. They all had high hopes. For me it’s the same way.

YOUR TRIBE IS MORE TRIBAL THAN MY TRIBE

TKN: Well, I was joking a little before, about how people don’t expect idealism from you. I think you are completely right, of course: the great black comedians and satirists that we think of, Swift and all the rest, their dark view isn’t nihilism. It all comes out of disappointment with humanity and the frustrated idealism that’s underneath that. And you’re the same way.

SA: Beckett had this great thing where he had been labeled a pessimist, and he said that to him the real pessimists were the optimists who are so afraid that the world can’t be fixed that they won’t even look to see what’s wrong with it. Whereas the pessimists believe things can be fixed and so they point out what’s wrong in the hope that it will get better. And that’s either Trump-level spin—but very funny spin—or really a great insight into the whole argument. But I think it’s a good argument.

TKN: It’s interesting about tribalism, because to me that’s the whole issue. When you look at Trump’s supporters—and also the other side, but particularly his supporters—it’s pure tribalism to such an extent that it defies reason. You can’t even argue with these people because they are in a kind of psychosis—like a cult—which is no different than a religious cult. They have abandoned all reason, and that’s a form of the divisiveness that you were talking about.

SA: Yeah, but I’m in Santa Monica now, and I was in Woodstock before, both famously left wing communities, my kids go to left wing schools, and that’s as tribalistic if not more. It’s fucking crazy, in fact, that they have taken my son—(laughs) who is the furthest thing from right wing ever—and made him go, “What the fuck is wrong with the left? I can’t say anything. Everything is a microaggression. I’m a white male so I have no point of view and I have no feelings and I’m nothing but a bad person.” And I’m like, “Dude, I fucking left God because they told me I was bad from the day I was born.”

I remember saying to him, “Listen, buddy. Do you own slaves? Because if you do we are going to have a big problem. We’re going to need to talk about that. But if you don’t, then they should shut the fuck up. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re twelve.”

TKN: Obviously, it’s not fair to put all that on a twelve-year-old, and it’s not the lesson kids ought to be learning anyway, in terms of the broader legacy of privilege. It’s a distortion of that—well-meaning maybe, but still a distortion. Not to mention the almost comic absurdity of certain kinds of left-wing gymnastics in trying to make amends. Though I would still argue that that’s preferable to the alternative that used to predominate, and still does in a lot of the country.

SA: All of my son’s friends, for school they have to write “My Autobiography,” and all they write about is how terrible they are because they are white males, or because they made a joke and someone was offended by it. I have friends who make a living writing funny things and they get into huge shit now from the left for making jokes.

Just the other day I pointed out to somebody the famous story of Bill Hicks, where he did a set on Letterman and they pulled it. Twenty years later, after Bill died, Letterman had Bill’s mother on to make amends. There’s a letter that my wife gave me as a gift in a book she found; it was like a 20-page letter Hicks sent to the head of CBS, arguing his side of the story. I got the chills reading it recently, where the letter said, “Is this what we have come to in this country? This is our big fear, jokes?”

TKN: Of course, that’s the topic of Ferne’s film, The Last Laugh: Where is the line for what’s acceptable versus what’s off limits for comedy? And it’s all about context, which includes time, and membership—or non-membership— in a given group and the presumption of good or ill intent. (NB: See also “The Last Laugh: Ferne Pearlstein on Humor and the Holocaust”).

SA: I think that anytime you tell people that there’s something to be gained by being a victim they’re going to go for it. And Trump’s supporters think they’re victims in the same way that left wingers think they’re victims. Everybody’s a victim. And politicians have played victim politics on both sides of the net for a very long time.

So to me it’s yet another function of this tribalism. We recognize that the other side is really tribalistic but we don’t realize that we are as well. The really funny thing is when one side says, ”Oh, they’re much more tribalistic than us. I wouldn’t be so tribal if they weren’t so tribal.”

TKN: (laughs)

SA: Again, we are monkeys and monkeys are very tribal. Monkeys are one of the few animals that rape just for vengeance. So you can see where we come from. But we are supposed to be working our way out of that. All this fucking shitstirring and throwing shit back and forth at each other over an arbitrary line in the sand—that’s what kills me.

The thing that has surprised me about all of this isn’t that there are some people who are hateful and would follow a leader who manipulates that. I know that. What always surprised me and scared me as a kid learning about the Holocaust—which they never stopped talking about in my community, and this was sort of what that Washington Post thing was about—is the question, “Are we the type of nation that can be driven apart like that?” Can we get to a level where we hate each other so much? And the answer is “Of course we can.” Because there is nothing special about this hemisphere or this soil or us at all. And the sooner everyone realizes that the better.

In my last novel, Hope: A Tragedy, I have Anne Frank still alive, and like 85 years old, having survived the Holocaust and still hiding in an attic in upstate New York. And she talks about how she prefers self-hating Jews and self-hating Germans and self-hating Americans and that if more people had the courage to be self-hating there would be less war in the world. That’s a version of this whole discussion of why do we let ourselves do this? We all want the same things, we all fear the same things, that should in and of itself be enough. If we could put away the monkey part of our brain for just one fucking minute it would be different.

I know it’s hard. I ride motorcycles, and one of the main things about learning how to ride a motorcycle at speed is to ignore what the brain wants to do because it’s going to get you killed. When you’re coming into a corner fast, your brain says, “Hit the brakes, hit the brakes, hit the brakes!” But if you listen to your brain, you’re going to die. But paradoxically, if you do the opposite, and roll on the gas a little bit, then you’re going to get through fine. Our brains are ancient and there is a part of them that doesn’t know what we need right now. So it’s getting past that. Because otherwise we are just kind of laughingstocks, we’re just silly, and whatever happens to us we kind of deserve.

TKN: Well, that’s the unfair question I was going to ask you. How do we get to that point? How do you overcome that monkey part of the brain, that divisiveness, which is so intense right now—certainly as intense as I have ever experienced in my lifetime, or at least giving 1968 a run for its money? How do you break it?

SA: It’s a very slow-moving boat. It’s hard to turn. I think if I had not left my world I’d be just as insular as they are right now. I was forced to climb out the window, scramble over the fence, and see that the people living next door were no different than me. That’s obviously not something that most people go through, but it should be something that people perhaps train their kids to do.

There’s always that hope that maybe it’s the next generation—and I do feel that way—until we fuck it up. So when my son comes home and on the one hand he’s like, “What the fuck? Nazis are marching in America? What is this?” And then two weeks later he’s like, “I made a joke about homework and now I’m in trouble because the girl I made the joke to said it was threatening to her.” I don’t know the answer to either of those things, so all I can tell him is maybe it’s somewhere in the middle. And I think that we are in the middle more than we know.

WHO WILL ANSWER FOR THE CRAWL?

SA: I wish everybody would turn the fucking news off, right now, because it’s absolutely poisonous. I don’t even care what the intention is. I have friends who are journalists and news reporters; I don’t even give a shit that they think they are helping. It’s not helping. It’s a terrible, terrible influence. I think social media drives people apart. I think the name “social media” is hilarious because it’s so divisive.

I feel like there are things you can do, but you have to want to do them. It’s really comforting to sit at your desk and look at the same three news sites that you look at and feel validated in your beliefs and your suspicions and your paranoias and then go back to sleep, or try to sleep, and then go back the next morning and do the same thing all over again.

I don’t watch the news. I don’t need to. It’s been years since I have and every time I end up seeing it again—if I’m stuck in like an airport or something where they have endless TVs, or Los Angeles for example, where you can’t walk three feet without seeing a TV—the news hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed since I was in high school. The scumbag president is doing a scumbaggy thing and manipulating scumbaggy people. They’re killing each other in the Middle East. Someone famous did something horrible. Someone powerful took advantage of someone weak. Nothing has changed. But if you watch it and get involved in the game you’re just letting it win. The only way to play the game is to not play the game. That’s the only way win, to turn your back on it and just go through life trying to be human being.

TKN: But to be the devil’s advocate, if there is a clear and present threat, which arguably there is right now, do you not think people should organize and resist it?

SA: Clear and present threat to what?

TKN: Well, there are various versions of it. Let’s say, immigrants are being detained at the border, or….

SA: Right, but did you need to watch the news for the past five years to know that was going on? I don’t watch the news and I knew.

TKN: Well, I didn’t know it was going on in that particular fashion. In fact, it wasn’t going on in that particular fashion….

SA: But that’s what I’m saying. I don’t watch the news and I know about it. I’ve gone to the marches and I know about the school shootings and I take my kids to the anti-gun rallies. I don’t need to be poisoned day in and day out.

That’s part of the trick, right? They want you to think that if you don’t watch it then you’re not going to know anything. Bullshit. You can’t walk a fucking block in this city or anywhere in this world without knowing just about everything that’s going on one way or the other. You’ll overhear it, you’ll see it. If it rises to the level of that, you’re going to know about it.

Back in Woodstock there’s a group of old, cranky, funny Jews that used to go to the coffee shop where I would write every morning, and it was great because someone would come in bitching about Trump, and the end of the world, and Kim Jong-un,and they would laugh about it. Because they were like 80 years old and they were there through the Cuban Missile Crisis and they were there when Kennedy got shot. They’d go, “Fuck you, this isn’t the worst by a long shot.” And that wasn’t the worst by a long shot.

But now the chyron goes all the time. You’re old enough to remember when news didn’t have that. The crawl at the bottom of the screen did not exist. It started on 9/11, and they will not let it go. Who’s going to answer for that? I think somebody should answer for that.

Do you know what the crawls are now? If I’m in a any cab in the city in America, the crawl is like, “Jennifer Aniston gets a new haircut.” It makes you tense, it makes you feel like something is going on right now and you have to know. So to me there’s got to be a movement of disconnecting.

I bought my son a t-shirt at H&M or something—I know, it’s horrible, I don’t even watch the news and I know they use slave children to make that shit. But again, you don’t need to watch the news to know that; I go in there and a shirt is $3.00 and I know it’s not made in America. I know someone got fucked for that. But anyway, the shirt said “Offline is the new black.” There was a life before this.

I’m not saying there is not good stuff about the Internet. We’re doing it with this blog right now: we can criticize the Internet in a medium that takes place on the Internet and I love that. So I understand there are some good things. But I think you really have to tilt yourself over like a lawyer for the defense to not be able to see that there is something incredibly dangerous and divisive about the kind of life we lead now.

GOD SAID TO ABRAHAM KILL ME A SON

TKN: I know you have written a lot about this, but for people who don’t necessarily know all the details, as somebody who escaped an incredibly tribal upbringing and community, how did you make that psychological break?

SA: Well, it wasn’t heroics. It wasn’t because I thought that people needed to get together more. I left because if I had stayed I would have killed myself. I would have died on the vine. I did not fit. I was lucky enough—this sounds like a joke, but it’s not—I was lucky enough to have such a severely dysfunctional family that I couldn’t just put up with it (laughs). I had to leave. If my family had been even 5% healthier I probably would have found a way to deal with it.

But it was intolerable. And I know lots of people who have severely fucked up families who will say, “Yeah, but it’s not that bad.” When, really, from my vantage point, it’s killing you. But they find a way to stay. It was so bad for me on every level—parents, siblings, community, school, friends—there was no choice but to go.

So to say that I jumped off the Titanic because I was against metal isn’t exactly true. I was going down; I had to do something. The silver lining to that storm was that, thirty years later, I’ve seen a version of the world that I don’t think everybody else has.

TKN: Other people that I have spoken with who have come out of similarly extreme backgrounds—whether it’s archconservative Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant, or whatever—describe that same damage, but they often have a kind of residual fondness for it too, or at least some aspects of it. Sometimes it’s just nostalgia or sentimentality, or just something in the marrow that they can’t escape, but it can also be something more substantive. Bill Jersey, who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community, told me that he still carries with him certain lessons that he thought were legitimate and valuable from that otherwise toxic environment. And Jim Carroll is still a practicing Catholic, even though he is a ferocious critic of the Church. Do you have any positive feelings at all for your upbringing?

SA: I think there are myths and legends and tales that could be useful and that have meaning. They’re hocus pocus, because they’re stories about God and things that didn’t really happen, but I don’t hate Cinderella because it wasn’t real. I’m less a fan of the Disney version to be honest, but there are philosophies and ideas in anything that have some benefit.

I think it would be a sign of an unhealthy separation if you couldn’t admit anything good. When it’s a really rancorous divorce, and the guy is like, “She was a complete bitch from top to bottom; there is nothing redeeming about her whatsoever,” that’s when you know, as a friend, “Oh, he’s not really over her.”

I have a dream of writing a commentary on some of the chapters in the Old Testament that I think tell a great story that isn’t told by the people we have entrusted to tell it to us. Rabbis and priests get to interpret those stories, but we can interpret them any way we want. Like the story of Abraham trying to sacrifice his kid: as it stands it’s a horrible story, particularly when they tell you he was doing a good thing because he showed his commitment to God. But I think there’s something in there that’s really fascinating to teach kids. Look, this guy Abraham really scarred his son, and of the three forefathers, Isaac grew up to be the most ineffectual because he was shattered. He was shell-shocked; it was PTSD. That’s not the story, they tell you; they don’t point that out. So I feel like you can take any of those tales and reconfigure them and they have worth, they have value. But that’s a far cry from saying you should stay in that camp.

TKN: As you know, my wife is Jewish and I’ve been to many many bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and it’s always fascinating to me to hear these poor kids and the Torah portions they get stuck with—because it’s the portion for that day, they have no choice—and invariably it’s some horrific tale of mass murder and slavery, and they’re told to relate that to their own life. And it’s always painfully comic to see them try to do it.

SA: Yeah, and they’re all 12, and they’re super innocent, and in beautiful clothing, and they’re reading, “And so he raped 3000 that day and 5000 died the next….”

SEVEN MILLION NINJA THROWING STARS

TKN: Speaking of that, I wanted to ask you about the “Attic Calls” that are on your website. (On his site, Shalom has clips of himself phoning friends like Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass, and John Hodgman, asking if they would hide him in case of another Holocaust.) Because Ferne and I have an English friend, who’s Jewish, and her perspective on the Holocaust is so different from the usual American perspective. When we walk around, she’s always looking at people and asking herself, “Would they hide me? Would they hide me?” It seems like in Europe they’re that much closer to the event and it feels more present in their lives….or at least it did until November 2016.

SA: Yeah, it’s always in the back of your head. I don’t think that’s different anywhere nationally. When you get raised being told you have a target on your back, more so than anybody else—which isn’t true even remotely, I don’t think; I’d rather be Jewish than African, given the whole history of the world—but when you’re raised to believe that they are coming after you, and this is what happens when they get their way, it’s piles of dead bodies, yeah of course you are going to be looking for a way out.

As a kid I slept with ninja throwing stars under my mattress. I thought I could “ninja throwing star” my way out of the Holocaust. (laughs) Seven million throwing stars to defeat the German army. I thought I could do it with that, and with homemade nunchucks that never lasted more than one or two swings without breaking. I had a whole plan.

TKN: So you are an optimist.

SA: (laughs) I’ll be honest with you: one of the nice things about being in Santa Monica and just ten blocks away from the water is I can just run. I’m going to keep one of those lifeboats where you pull the cord and it inflates. My “just in case” boat.

TKN: Like the end of Catch-22, like Yossarian, you’re going to paddle your way to Sweden. The long way around.

SA: Exactly. As it fades to black, just keep paddling. Keep paddling.

TKN: Not to go back to politics, but on the subject of rounding people up, what do you make of the Jewish support for Trump? It’s surprising, wouldn’t you say? 

SA: No. I’m surprised there wasn’t more.

TKN: Really? I mean, I get the Israeli thing and I also get the conservative right-wing thing, but it just strikes me as weird that a group of people who have been historically oppressed don’t recognize the pattern, even though they are not the ones being singled out this time. You know, “First they came for the socialists”….. 

SA: They are still being singled out, but there’s a greater benefit. It’s all about Israel. That whole thing is so disturbing. I spent like two and a half years there, and my wife is Middle Eastern, but I cannot stand Middle Eastern people. I don’t mean Muslims; I mean Jews and Christian too. Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians—all of them. They just want to fight all the time. I don’t know why that is. It’s like British people after a soccer match. All the time. I spent two years there, every day I nearly got my ass kicked. You ask how much is the boreka and you get into a fight. It’s horrible.

When I was a kid and even into my 20s everything I heard from every Jew was all about Israel. And Netanyahu plays that so well. I’ve said this before, Netanyahu can’t order breakfast without mentioning the Holocaust. Because it gets him votes. He’s keeping everybody afraid. Why is Trump saying that Mexicans are rapists? Because that tribalism works in his favor. Always. So it doesn’t surprise me at all.

Actually I was quite pleased that the number of Jews who supported Trump was as low as it was—I don’t know exactly what the numbers were—because I thought it was going to be the complete reverse. I thought it would have been a very high number for him, because the way Israel goes, American Jews go. I think it’s actually really great that there is this fracturing and I hope it’s true. I hope it lasts.

TKN: When Ferne interviewed you for The Last Laugh you talked about the reaction to Hope: A Tragedy as opposed to the reaction to Foreskin’s Lament….how Anne Frank is a kind of secular saint among Jews, to the point where you got more shit for satirizing her than you did for attacking God.

SA: Yeah, much more so. I think it’s that way in the Christian world too. You can talk about God, but don’t fuck with Jesus. (laughs)

But the thing that always makes laugh is that most people have not even read her diary. That’s one of the jokes in Hope: A Tragedy, that it drives her fucking crazy how no one has read her fucking book. Because if you do read it, she was a really…..I don’t know if “progressive” is the right term, but she certainly wasn’t a conservative thinker. And had she grown up, I always imagine that it would have been a similar story to Helen Keller. Everyone learns about Annie Sullivan and the poor little blind deaf girl who learned to sign. What they never want to hear about is when she learned to sign and speak she was a radical! She was pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, you name it. Helen Keller was fucking out there crazy….and no one reads it! No one wants to know! They want that little girl who suffered. “We don’t want your opinions, we don’t want you to think, we just want you to be the suffering girl we like so much.”

If you read her diary, Anne Frank gives her mother shit, she doesn’t follow her parents, she had crushes on boys, she told dirty jokes, she didn’t like religious kids in her class…… I imagine if Anne Frank had grown up, that kid was going to be a fucking handful, in the greatest possible way.

TKN: But the book got sanitized by her father.

SA: Well, understandably. Yeah, he didn’t want people reading about her bickering with his wife and mother. But there is plenty that shows you that, already at that age, this was not going to be a Jew that defends Israel at every turn. I imagine that if she had lived she would have driven everyone a little crazy and taken on the Palestinian cause. She’d be rejected. It’s that whole thing about when Jesus comes back it’ll be the Christians who are going to kill him.

TKN: Right. Like the Grand Inquisitor section in The Brothers Karamazov, or Woody Guthrie’s song “Jesus Christ,” where he imagines the Second Coming, and says, “If Jesus were to preach what he preached in Galilee, they would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.”

SA: And if Anne Frank were to come back, the Jews would kill her, because they are not going to like what she has to say. No way.

TKN: So what is your new book called?

SA: “Mother for Dinner.”

TKN: (laughs) I was going to ask if it’s going to be as controversial as Hope: A Tragedy, but I guess that answers the question.

SA: (laughs) It’s funny and dark, but it is very much about this issue that is very close to my heart: this issue of tribalism, and who are we, and what has it gotten us, and how different is it from what our ancestors may have dreamt about themselves.

TKN: I find that very inspiring. This whole conversation to me has been very inspiring and optimistic.

SA: (laughs) I know. But that’s the problem.

**********

Shalom Auslander’s first collection of short stories, Beware of God, was published in 2006, followed by his breakthrough memoir Foreskin’s Lament in 2012. His first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, won the 2013 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize and was a finalist for the 2013 Thurber Prize for American Humor.

Shalom is also the creator of the Showtime series Happyish, which starred Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn, and a frequent contributor to This American Life, The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times, among others. His soon-to-be-published new novel is Mother for Dinner.

He now lives in Santa Monica, and is prepared to paddle to Sweden in a life raft, if necessary.

Transcription: Izzy Hackett

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ian Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Where to begin?

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

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

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

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

Wile E. Coyote was never this stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a small, small man.

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

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

MISTAH KURTZ HE DEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KLAN OF THE KAVA BEAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHOOSE A SIDE

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

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

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

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

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

But as I say, that is a false choice.

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

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

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

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

Rudy Giuliani: Post-Modern Philosopher

Rudy

This week, making another stop on his “Dementia: Race for the Cure” consciousness-raising tour, former New York City mayor and failed GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani did something few people thought possible: he topped himself. (Not in the British way, sadly.) Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press to discuss why Trump is reluctant to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller, Giuliani told host Chuck Todd that “Truth isn’t truth!”

This is a level of post-modernism well beyond even Kellyanne’s “alternative facts,” or Jay Sekulow’s assertion that “over time, facts develop,” not to mention a previous champ, Nixon press secretary and doublespeak master Ron Ziegler’s infamous excusal of one of his boss’s lies about Watergate: “That statement is no longer operative.” These days that looks kind of cute.

(Actually, it was New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. who used that formulation in a question to Ziegler over his repeated use of the term “operative statement.” Ron’s reply was even more tortured.)

But the bald-faced denial that there is such a thing as objective truth full stop is uncharted territory, even for Rudy and Donny.

Here’s the full exchange between Giuliani and Todd:

GIULIANI: When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth. He didn’t have a conversation—

TODD: (interrupting) Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like—

GIULIANI: (interrupting) No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth! The President of the United States says, “I didn’t”—

TODD: (interrupting) Truth isn’t truth? Mr. Mayor, do you realize what you….. (stammering, at a loss)….

GIULIANI: (over) No, no!

TODD: (over) This is going to become a bad meme.

Pretty astute, Chuck, for a sleepy-eyed sonofabitch.

RASHOMON ON THE POTOMAC

I will confess that I have an iota of sympathy for Rudy on this point. It’s almost as if he was trying to make a sophisticated, post-modern, deconstructionist point worthy of a critical theory professor…..something to do with the validity of competing perspectives, the malleability of “reality” itself, and the constructed narratives with which we delude ourselves and internalize as capital T “Truth.”

Except he wasn’t, of course.

He was engaging in the same jawdroppingly shameless, transparently dishonest defense of our Criminal-in-Chief that he has been perpetrating since he came onboard the Trump train last April. (The addition of Giuliani to the legal team was reportedly a key factor in the angry departure of John Dowd , leaving Rudy as Trump’s “lead lawyer.”)

That Giuliani is Trump’s lawyer, let alone his “lead lawyer,” is a joke, of course, every bit as much as the idea that Michael Cohen was. As John Heilemann has opined, Rudy Giuliani serves mostly as Trump’s media surrogate and emotional support rodent, who can go on Fox News to soothe the jittery nerves of his thin-skinned and TV-obsessed master and play to his credulous neo-fascist base, while Jay Sekulow and—especially—Emmett Flood quietly do the real lawyering. (Trump seems just now to be realizing, to his horror, that the official White House counsel Don McGahn is not one of his personal attorneys, and to his credit, is not behaving like one.)

In any event, it has been astonishing to watch this former federal prosecutor—once the US Attorney for the fabled Southern District, which is much in the news these days in l‘affairs Trump, Cohen, et al—attacking that very office, attempting to smear a man like Robert Mueller, actively undermining the rule of law, and saying things on national television that would sound about right coming from a Molotov cocktail-throwing Black Bloc anarchist, but are, uh, eyebrow-raising coming from a former US Attorney, big city mayor, and Republican presidential candidate.

In the past four months Giuliani has said lots of outrageous things, most of them blatant falsehoods operating as wishful thinking, in hopes that the electorate will eventually succumb like a brainwashed POW or a hypnosis subject instructed to squawk like a chicken.

Among Rudy’s howlers: that he would wrap up the Mueller investigation within two weeks (that was last April); that James Comey is “a deeply perverted man”; that the FBI agents who raided Michael Cohen’s offices were “stormtroopers”; that paying bribes and hush money is normal political practice; that the special counsel’s investigation is “illegitimate,” a “witch hunt” and a “hoax”; that it has gone on far too long and he should wrap it up (laughable in light of how long the Watergate, Whitewater, and Benghazi inquires lasted, to name just a few); that Mueller will be in violation of DOJ rules if he doesn’t do so by September (there is no rule to that effect), and that the White House will “unload on him like a ton of bricks.” And above all, that old chestnut, that there’s “no collusion.”

Giuliani has also repeatedly used the term “perjury trap” to describe a potential Trump interview with Mueller, a bizarre and unsolicited admission that his own client is a pathological liar who physically cannot restrain himself from lying. (Indeed, he used the phrase with Chuck Todd right before he uttered his Derridian denial of objective reality.) But what, exactly, is a “perjury trap” anyway? How can a person be trapped into not telling the truth, except of his or her own insidious and self-destructive accord? The term is destined to go into the lexicon the way “smoking gun” and “unindicted co-conspirator” did as a result of Watergate.

Yet sometimes Rudy does tell the truth (if one believes in that quaint concept). Unfortunately for Trump, that often does as much damage as the lies and the missteps, since the whole problem is that the truth does not help his cause.

For example, Giuliani blithely admitted that Trump paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money, that the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 2016 was indeed to get dirt on Hillary—an admission that Trump himself, guilelessly, later echoed on Twitter—and that Trump fired Comey over his refusal to shut down the Russiagate investigation, an admission Trump had already made to NBC’s Lester Holt, unbidden, on national television.

Maybe the most honest thing Rudy ever said was when he remarked that Jared Kushner was “disposable.”

In keeping with this apparent policy of suicidal candor, Giuliani has openly admitted (bragged even) that the overall purpose of this propaganda blitz is not to make a cogent legal argument but simply to sway public opinion. Given that qualifier, the resort to blatant falsehoods makes perfect sense…..especially for a side that has no legitimate arguments in its quiver. To that end, his twin deployment of a blizzard of lies and an avalanche of self-incriminating truths is a headspinning strategy that does indeed leave one wondering what’s real and what ain’t, which seems to be the intent.

No wonder he thinks “the truth isn’t the truth.”

RUDY CAN’T FAIL

Among New Yorkers like myself, Rudy had a very mixed reputation even before he threw his lot in with the most appalling presidency in US history: as a grandstanding US Attorney; as a mayor who—depending who you ask—either cleaned up the city (along with Bill Bratton) or turned it into a police state as run by the Disney corporation (ask Fran Lebowitz); as a serial philandering, cousin-marrying, annulment-getting Roman Catholic hypocrite (ah, that’s why he and Trump are kindred spirits) who used public funds for his mistress and informed his second wife that he was leaving her by means of a press conference.

His one shining moment, in case you hadn’t heard, was 9/11. I was living in lower Manhattan when it happened and for all his faults, I must say that Rudy undeniably served as a solid, reassuring presence in the city’s (and country’s) time of need. All praises due. I guess even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.

But since then he has squandered all that goodwill by dining out on 9/11 to the point where it has become a national joke. In 2007, when Rudy was contemplating his run for the presidency, Joe Biden dropped the mic when he told a crowd that there were only three things Giuliani needed to form a sentence: “a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”

Weirdly for a man with such proclivities, his memory of the day is rather selective. Famously, while stumping for Trump in August 2016, he told a crowd: “Under those eight years before Obama came along, we didn’t have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attack in the United States. They all started when Clinton and Obama got into office.”

That wasn’t his first or by far his worst attack on Obama, of course. Let us not forget Rudy’s sub-schoolboy-level snickering at Obama for having been a “community organizer,” and far worse, his dogwhistling speech at a 2015 Republican fundraiser in which he declared, “I do not believe that the President (Obama)  loves America…..He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”

I’ll leave it to history as to how Rudy and Barack will be respectively remembered.

But Giuliani reached his nadir when he took on his current role as a rabid weasel-for-hire on behalf of Team Trump.

Every reputable lawyer on both sides of the aisle who has been asked has expressed astonishment at the things Giuliani has been saying putatively on behalf of Trump (many of which seem to catch even the White House off guard). I say “putatively” because the value Rudy is bringing is highly debatable. “The world’s worst lawyer” is a phrase that keeps popping up.

It is often remarked upon that the uncontrollable and infantile Donald J. Trump is a nightmare client for a lawyer, so it is fitting that he should wind up with a nightmare lawyer who regularly seems to do him more harm than good. It is almost amusing to picture these two septuagenarian New Yorkers huddling together inside their right wing fantasy world, plotting their strategy, two arguably deranged, combative, egomaniacal fame whores , the mad leading the mad, as Rudy gives his client possibly the worst legal advice this side of Oscar Zeta Acosta.

Unless it turns out to the best.

This is my nightmare.

YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH

Rudy did subsequently try to walk back his Meet the Press remarks—or more charitably, clarify them—explaining that he was merely describing a “he said/she said” situation.

But even that is a farce. Facts are facts, and when facts are available—as they are in Russiagate—it is not simply a matter of one person’s word against the other’s. But Giuliani and Trump would dearly love for us to believe that it is. For ultimately Giuliani’s late life descent into a non-stop game of Knights and Knaves is only a reflection of his boss’s lifelong MO.

I have written in the past that this Orwellian obliteration of truth is perhaps the single most disturbing aspect of the unlikely rise of our Insane Clown President. (See The Nature of the Person and the Nature of the Threat, September 20, 2017.) Short of the concomitant destruction of the planet, it is also likely to be the aspect that is doing the most long term damage. Quoting myself:

Trump’s contempt for the truth not only goes above and beyond the garden variety dishonesty of ordinary politicians and their courtiers, but even beyond the deceitfulness of grand champions like Nixon, Lee Atwater, and (Lyin’) Ted Cruz. To call it mere “dishonesty” feels inadequate. It’s more like a wanton destruction of objective reality as a universally accepted metric….

This then is the ur-travesty of the Man from Queens. towering over (and encompassing) his many other horrors; it is the toxic well from which all these other tributaries spring. This president’s pathological dishonesty is so extreme it seems to exist in a realm of its own beyond ordinary deceit. In the Bush years, Karl Rove famously scorned the “reality-based community.” But that was child’s play compared to what we are facing now. (Pausing now for a deep, cleansing breath as I contemplate the fact that, not ten years after leaving public life, Karl Rove has already been made to seem not that bad.)

It’s one thing for Trump to be out of his tree. It’s quite another for that disease to spread to the body politic at large. This is the even greater danger of Trumpism: not only that he’s a lying sack of feces himself, but that he will do irreparable damage to the common standard of demonstrable reality to which we all theoretically subscribe. Trump may have already permanently poisoned American politics.

IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T?

As we consider Giuliani’s existentialist musings on the Sunday morning talk circuit, it’s important to remember that conservatives are of traditionally merciless in their snide ridicule of relativism, except when it benefits them. In this case they have been predictably quick to dismiss Giuliani’s gaffe as a mere grammatical stumble blown out of proportion by the typically hysterical press corps. (Notice how the right has taken Trump’s lead and ceased referring to the “liberal” media, or even the MSM? Now it is simply assumed that all media are left-leaning “enemies of the people.”)

But can you imagine what Fox Nation would have said if, in an effort to excuse something President Obama or Clinton had done, a Democratic apologist had tried to elide the facts the way Rudy did, particularly if the executive in question was under  potentially presidency-ending investigation?

But you don’t have to imagine: you can just think back to the contempt heaped upon Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair in 1998, after he told PBS’s Jim Lehrer that “There is no improper relationship,” then stated in a videotaped deposition that the veracity of the statement “depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

The line is far less absurd when you read what Clinton went on to explain:

“If ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

You may recall that Clinton submitted to being deposed before a grand jury because he was about to be subpoenaed to answer questions from a special prosecutor. He did so because the Supreme Court had already ruled unanimously that a sitting president could not use executive privilege to refuse to testify in a criminal matter. Ahem.

And it was perjuring himself before that grand jury that ultimately led to his impeachment. Just something to keep in mind for the future.

Clinton can be faulted for parsing his words in a disingenuous way—and worse in the eyes of many, for employing the sort of Ivy League/Rhodes Scholar smarty-pantsness that our anti-intellectualist culture abhors. Admittedly, it did smack of a kid trying to get away with having raided the cookie jar. But he can’t be accused of a lack of intellectual rigor. I’m not sure Rudy and Donny are being quite as semantically clever, but in the end, dishonesty is dishonesty.

That said, there is a massive chasm in scale and scope and gravity between the respective crimes that these two Presidents were covering up. We would do well to remember that in the coming months. Donald and Rudy can spin and lie and venture into epistemology all they want, but the truth will out, whether they believe in “truth” or not. Given Rudy’s newfound interest in philosophy, it’s fitting that Sartre has already chosen a title for this tragedy with his play, Huis Clos.

Or as we say in English, “No Exit.”

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Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters

https://anticorruptiondigest.com/anti-corruption-news/2017/05/04/judge-rips-disingenuous-rudy-giuliani-in-iran-sanctions-case/#axzz5OjPJfDwt

“Blessed Be the Fruit”— Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court

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The fate of abortion in America will be decided by five Catholic men.

Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, and—very likely—Kavanaugh: five male Roman Catholics, all put on the Supreme Court by Republican presidents (and two of those by Donald Trump). These guys will have the power to decide the future of reproductive rights in this country and to dictate what an American woman can or cannot do with her own body, to include the authority to make abortion illegal if they so wish.

And those five men very likely will do exactly that, even though roughly 70% of Americans oppose the idea.

Five Catholic men can outlaw abortion in defiance of the public will—yet another way in which the GOP has instituted an authoritarian state in the United States, a grip on power they show no indication of ceding, legally or otherwise. Blessed day.

(Anticipating the complaint, yes, I know Gorsuch has worshipped at Episcopalian churches since marrying an Englishwoman raised in the Church of England. But he was raised Catholic, attended a Jesuit prep school—Georgetown Prep in Washington—did his graduate dissertation at Oxford under the tutelage of a  famous Catholic theologian, raised his own children in the Catholic tradition at least in their early years, and has never renounced his Catholicism. So as we used to say in the Army, close enough for government work.)

By the way, Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic—as is Kennedy and was Scalia—while Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan are Jewish, meaning that there are no Protestants on the Court. (The last was John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010.) I mention these demographics not to suggest that religious denomination is the most important factor in a Supreme Court justice’s profile (Sotomayor is pro-choice, to state just one very basic example), but merely to note the unusual pattern in a country that remains predominantly Protestant.

The Catholic majority speaks to the political union between the GOP and right wing American Catholicism, which these days is itself at odds with the Vatican, or at least with Pope Francis. The number of Jewish justices—fully a third, way out of proportion with their representation in the general public, which is about 2.2%—might say something similar about liberalism, although there are plenty of right wing Jews in the US and one can readily imagine a Republican Jewish justice nominated by a GOP president. In any event, it clearly says something flattering about the outsize influence of Jewish culture in American intellectual life.

But the Court’s right wing Catholic bloc is no coincidence—no liberation theologists in that bunch—and the holy water it carries for the nationwide coalition of religious extremists (of all stripes) and Republican politicians is undeniable. It is also highly strategic. To that end, the Court’s Catholic majority won’t criminalize abortion by blatantly overturning Roe; in this day and age that’s too obvious, even for them. What they will do is cut the heart of that ruling without even having the courage to admit what they’re up to. (More on that in a bit.)

But the end state will be that the United States of America will likely soon have abortion laws far more restrictive than Ireland, which this past May held a referendum in which the Irish people overwhelmingly voted to end their longtime ban on the practice, reversing centuries of repressive tradition in that deeply Catholic country.

Think about that for a moment.

DANGEROUS, ILLEGAL, AND PREVALENT

Many years ago I read a quote from a famous author (but not so famous that I remember him; I want to say it was Roger Angell) to the effect that it baffled him that abortion had come to be the defining political issue of his lifetime.

On the one hand, the reason is obvious: few other decisions are so intimate or literally life-altering for all parties involved. But on the other hand, it’s arbitrary and bizarre that this topic above all others would become the ultimate litmus test for American politicians in the modern era, except in terms of its power to motivate partisanship. And therein lies the rub.

The epistemological question of when human life begins, which is at the heart of the abortion debate, is almost never seriously discussed in the general media. Instead abortion has been turned into a wedge issue like guns and religion, the only other topics that inspire quite the same passion. Of course, it is intertwined with latter, and in some cases, tragically, with the former as well.

Quite clearly, an acorn is not oak tree and a sperm is not a human baby (for those “pro-life” radicals who would go even further and outlaw in vitro fertilization, birth control of any kind, and even masturbation). But few of the people massed outside Planned Parenthood shouting obscenities at terrified young women are interested in navel-gazing thought experiments about when on the spectrum that transition can convincingly be said to have taken place. That uncertainty speaks to the mystery of knowledge in general, with which we humans are typically uncomfortable.

Otherwise sober observers—and not just anti-abortion fanatics—have sometimes argued that pro-choice advocates have elided the harsh reality of what abortion does—and means—in their zeal to protect women’s rights. Maybe so in the abstract, but I am quite confident that no woman who has made the decision to undergo this wrenching procedure took it lightly. There is no Charlottesville-like false equivalence here: the pro-choice movement is not distinguished by gun-toting adherents going around killing doctors in the name of Jesus, any more than there were fine people on both sides when Southern sheriffs were turning firehoses and attack dogs on civil rights protestors. Women’s rights, as a wise woman once reminded us,  are nothing more than basic human rights.

Ideally, abortion would be, in the famous formulation, safe, legal, and rare. But it goes without saying that restriction of abortion rights is just a stalking horse for patriarchy in general. Roger Angell has slipped my mind, but I can’t help but recall Flo Kennedy’s famous quip (often misattributed to Gloria Steinem) that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. Does any thinking person doubt it for a second?

Thus we have the weaponization of the American judiciary and the myth of a post-sexist society.

MR. KAVANAUGH GOES TO WASHINGTON

This blog post is the belated companion I promised some weeks ago to a piece about Anthony Kennedy’s retirement called Five Blind Mice (July 11, 2018). In that essay, I bemoaned the mindbogglingly cruel proposition that a loathsome cretin like Trump—illegitimately installed to boot—would have the opportunity to put two or even more justices on the Supreme Court, opening the door to further reactionary rollback of the hard-won democratic gains of the past eight-five years. Now we are deep in it with the fight over Brett Kavanaugh—like Gorsuch, a former Kennedy clerk and not only yet another Catholic but another Jesuit no less. And this at a time when the Catholic Church is not in a position to be lecturing anyone on morality.

During his confirmation hearings (which McConnell, in a great irony, is trying to ram through before the midterms) Kavanaugh will surely put on a ferocious Apache dance in claiming how he can’t possibly speculate about how he might rule in some hypothetical future case such as, oh I don’t know, abortion. He will also go full Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in implying that he has the utmost reverence for legal precedent and is anything but an activist judge looking to overturn Roe v. Wade. Perish the thought! In fact, he already began that charm offensive with his remarks at his nomination, stressing his allegedly female-friendly bonafides. (He coached his daughters’ basketball teams! Rest easy, feminists!) All of this will be carefully calculated to reassure middle-of-the road voters and centrist(ish) GOP senators like Collins and Murkowski that he is not going to gut that landmark ruling.

Then, once on the bench, he will do precisely that.

As Mark Joseph Stern writes in Slate:

Kavanaugh is an obvious choice for Trump. A judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, he has maintained staunchly conservative credentials without earning a reputation for being a bomb-thrower. Unless Republican Sen. Susan Collins grows a spine, which she won’t, he has a clear path to Senate confirmation. During his hearings, Kavanaugh will claim he cannot reveal his true feelings about Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion access. But there is little doubt that Kavanaugh will gut Roe at the first opportunity. Indeed, he has already provided a road map that shows precisely how he’ll do it.

….A conservative state will pass a draconian anti-abortion restriction—one that shutters all abortion clinics, perhaps, or outlaws abortion after a fetal “heartbeat” is detected. With Kavanaugh providing the decisive fifth vote, the court will rule that the state law does not pose an “undue burden” to abortion access; after all, the government has an interest in “favoring fetal life,” and women who truly want an abortion can go to another state. The majority may not admit what it is doing. But in practice, it will be overturning Roe.

Kavanaugh is the ideal candidate to cast that fifth vote and even write the opinion. He has already proved that he can pretend to adhere to Roe while hollowing out its core holding. He has revealed a striking aptitude for intellectual dishonesty, pretending to follow precedent while enshrining anti-abortion dogma into law. His disingenuousness will be an asset on the Supreme Court. And within a few years, the United States will be a country of Jane Does.”       

How ironic if the chief executive who presides over the reversal of Roe v. Wade turns out to be Donald Trump, a man who has likely impregnated more mistresses and paid for more hushed-up abortions than all of his 44 predecessors combined? (Or more precisely, as Samantha Bee says, promised to pay for them and then reneged.) Just hearing him promise to appoint anti-abortion judges was one of the most egregious examples of demagoguery in a campaign chock full of it. Would his evangelical base at last admit this hypocrisy and turn on him if they were made to acknowledge his history on that count? Or would they just find more tortured rationalizations by which to excuse it?

Just kidding. We know the answer, of course.

Naturally, abortion is only one of many areas where Kavanaugh will reliably support the far right. In his judicial career he has already shown that he will eviscerate consumer protections, oppose reasonable restrictions on guns, undermine public education, and severely limit the power of unions. Given the chance—and the Court will be given it—he will surely vote to repeal marriage equality while finding some way to claim his religious beliefs played no part. In so doing he may well hide behind the newly fashionable Orwellian rubric of “religious liberty”—code for the anti-democratic practice of protecting bigotry and denying civil rights while pretending to be defending religious principle.

How far away are we from the Supreme Court considering the case of a shop owner who claims it is against his religion to serve black people? (Spoiler alert: not very far. Did we not settle this in the Sixties?)

But when it comes to the man who nominated him for the highest court in the land, Kavanaugh’s appeal is even more blatant. As has been widely reported, Judge Kavanaugh is on record as arguing not only that a sitting president can’t be indicted for crimes, but that he (or she) shouldn’t even be investigated for them or required to answer questions about them while in office. He has even opined that the president has the authority simply to ignore laws that he doesn’t like.That is a level of executive privilege that few constitutional scholars would stake out.

It is also a case of jawdropping hypocrisy, given that Kavanaugh was an attorney on the staff of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, helped draft the Starr Report, and was a key figure on the wildly aggressive, long-running, almost Javert-like pursuit of Bill Clinton that resulted in his impeachment. Whatever one thinks of Clinton, for one of his dogged pursuers to become a staunch advocate of the imperial presidency (conveniently, when it’s a Republican president under fire) is contemptible at best.

But by all means, let’s put this mofo on the Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh has even mused publicly that the Supreme Court was wrong in 1974—in a unanimous vote, with Rehnquist recusing himself— to order Richard Nixon to comply with a subpoena from special prosecutor Leon Jaworski and turn over his secret tapes in the Watergate case. Think about that: if it was up to Brett, Nixon would have gone on his merry way. No wonder Trump loves this guy.

To that end, the ascent of Kavanaugh is especially alarming as negotiations between the White House and special counsel Robert Mueller over an interview with the president appear to be going nowhere and may be headed toward a subpoena and a final decision from the Supreme Court. Where Kavanaugh will be the deciding vote.

If this happened in some Third World country we would all cackle with condescension at the obvious tyranny and corruption at play.

RIDDLE ME THIS

Of the various institutions in the three branches of American government, the Supreme Court has long enjoyed a public reputation as the most incorruptible and above the partisan fray, even if that reputation is not entirely earned. (See Bush v. Gore.) Both left and right triumphantly point to various Supreme Court decisions as vindication of their respective positions on various issues—“the final say,” as it were. But it hardly bears mentioning that the Supreme Court has a history of making some horrifically bad judgments alongside its sterling ones. I refer you to Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. United States, District of Columbia v. Heller, and Citizens United v. FEC, to name just a few in the hall of shame.

There is every reason to imagine that a Supreme Court dominated by doctrinaire right wing justices—two or more them foisted on us by Donald Trump and Sean Hannity—will produce some epic shitshows of its own that might soon join that infamous list.

Goodbye Roe v Wade. Goodbye Voting Rights Act. Goodbye marriage equality. Goodbye New Deal. Goodbye common sense restrictions on firearms, on dark money in political campaigns, on unfettered and reckless behavior in the financial sector, and on and on. And of course, that Court would also be in a position to provide the ultimate protection for Trump in a showdown with Robert Mueller.

Once again, those who during the election shrugged and said, “Trump and Clinton are both just as bad,” ought to hang their heads in shame, if they’re even familiar with the concept.

Of course, numerous observers have noted that Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, while the most high profile, actually represent only a small sliver of the damage Trump has done to the American judiciary. The pace at which Trump has named new, archconservative judges to the federal bench, and the sheer numbers thereof, will reshape the American judiciary for decades to come….and that’s not even counting the appallingly unqualified nominees that got kicked back.

Again, as we think about the extent of the destruction Trump has wreaked on the republic, and how long it will take to repair (if full repair is even possible), this is far and away one of the areas where the most long-term damage has been done.

But her emails…..

Returning to abortion by way of closure, the conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby patronizingly portrays the threat to Roe v. Wade as overblown (though he seems to shed no tears over its possible obliteration). But then again, he is also pretty snide about a return to segregated lunch counters at a time when we’ve already taken a giant step backwards toward World War II-style internment camps.

To that end, allegedly intelligent people like Mr. Jacoby are deeply deluded if they think we are not in politically uncharted territory where equally radical measures are indicated in order to defend American democracy. It is dishonest beyond belief to act like this administration and its Congressional and judicial enablers are not demonstrably bent on a radical transformation of this country, as they have already brazenly shown. Don’t be fooled by them.

Here’s a good thought experiment: if there was a way to block senatorial consideration of Trump’s judicial nominees like Kavanaugh and others in the lower federal courts, even if it meant engaging in scorched earth obstructionism of the McConnell variety, would you do it? In other words, would you support doing to Trump and Kavanaugh what McConnell did to Obama and Garland?

I’ll admit that I would. And I would justify it as fighting fire with fire—and not just out of spite, but as the only sensible, non-suicidal strategy when locked in a war with vicious, amoral swine like the GOP. I’d rationalize it by saying that, in this case, the end justifies the means. Of course, that is precisely how McConnell defended what he did: on the grounds that the “greater good” as he saw it—advancing the right wing agenda—excused the use of otherwise inexcusable tactics.

Setting aside issues of who started the arms race, the difference lies only in the specific principles for which one is willing to go to such lengths. McConnell, Trump, and the Republicans have made it clear what “principles” they believe in: greed, racism, xenophobia, contempt for the poor, shameless self-aggrandizement, wanton disregard to the stewardship of the planet, ruthless opposition to democracy and the rule of law, and general authoritarianism.

Let’s leave it to history to judge how that legacy is remembered.

 

“Submission”: The American Translation

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In 2015, the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq published a novel called Submission. “Controversial” is putting it mildly: Houellebecq is the bad boy of contemporary French letters—one of them anyway, in a country with a strong tradition thereof. He first gained notoriety for his 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, which was both lavishly praised by critics and widely attacked for its brutality and nihilism, especially its depictions of racism, pedophilia, and torture. His subsequent works did not exactly light up the IP department at Disney either.

On a personal level, Houellebecq himself is a living caricature of a grubby Gallic intellectual as Americans imagine the species, resembling—variously—a debauched Alfred E. Neuman or Roman Polanski’s evil twin (so you can imagine how evil that is). The British actor and theater director Simon McBurney must play him in the biopic.

Submission is set in the very near future, in which an Islamic political party has come to power in France. Cleverly positioning itself as the sane alternative to Le Pen and the National Front, and capitalizing on the lily-livered collaborationism of the left-leaning intelligentsia, the party slowly begins instituting sharia law. The novel is told from the point of view of a dissolute college professor—a Houellebecq surrogate— who makes a practice of sleeping with his female students. As he is slowly sucked into the new regime, his chief crisis is that any academic who wants to keep his job (and I do mean his; women are ejected from the workplace, Atwood-like) must become a Muslim.

As an indictment of various French vices it’s a pretty pointed piece of literature, and a sharp critique both of 20thcentury French history and of contemporary French society.

In the end—SPOILER ALERT—the sybaritic narrator follows the lead of most of his fellow faculty members and converts to Islam, at least nominally, which is all the new regime asks. Like many of his peers, he is swayed in large part by the new laws that provide him with multiple wives—some of them teenaged, and all of them subservient and chosen primarily for their sexual attractiveness—along with the promise of an endless parade of female students (albeit veiled) who are also eager to sleep with him. (In that regard it recalls the “mineshaft gap” ending of one of the greatest satires of all, Dr. Strangelove.)

As with some of Houellebecq’s previous works, there were vocal allegations of Islamophobia, but religion was not the novel’s main target. (Even before Submission the author had been tried in a French court—but acquitted—for allegedly inciting hatred toward Islam with some of his public statements.) Submission is not a sectarian—or even secular—attack on Islam, nor a xenophobic attack on France’s Arab population; it is a scathing portrait of the Vichy-like spinelessness and moral vacuousness of the French Left. (In Arabic, the word “Islam” means submission, presumably to God, although the novel’s title is an obvious double entendre about the capitulation of Western liberalism.)

Of course, in the process Houellebecq is indeed making a kind of implicit argument for reactionaryism, in which xenophobia and Islamophobia are inherent, especially in France.

To an American reader, Submission reads almost like a parody of a French novel, both in style and content. Half its pages are given over to the narrator’s discussion of meals, sex, and faculty politics. The strong stink of misogyny is undeniable, and all the more egregious for being disingenuously masked with the pretense of condemning it. The plot is thin—it might have made a good short story, had it not been padded out to book-length. Tonally, to say that it’s drenched in ennui would be an understatement. (Like how I am working some French in here? More to come.)

Despite all that, I admit to admiring it purely as a piece of art. The premise is smart and thought-provoking, and the denouement (!) is bitterly, blackly comic…..like French coffee you might say. Ahem.

Voila mon passport. Ou est le bibliotheque? Pamplemousse. Ananas. Jus d’orange. Gerard Depardieu.

Given the way contemporary France is roiled by tensions over immigration, assimilation, xenophobia, racism, religious freedom, and quite simply what it means “to be French” (see Trevor Noah’s recent post-World Cup dustup with the French ambassador to the US), not to mention Houellebecq’s own well-founded reputation as a provocateur and aging enfant terrible (ka-ching!), its not surprising that Submission was scandalous from the get-go.

But it quickly got a lot worse.

A cartoon depicting Houellebecq was on the cover of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015—the very day Submission was published—when two fundamentalist Muslims (brothers, as it happened) entered the magazine’s offices with machine guns, killing twelve and wounding eleven. The attack wasn’t specifically about the new book—Charlie Hebdo had long been a target for its lampooning of the Prophet—but neither was it the first time Houellebecq’s work had prefigured violence. A previous novel, Platform, in part about sex tourism, included a portrayal of an Islamist terrorist attack that presciently foreshadowed the Bali attack of 2002 that killed more than two hundred people.

So, yeah, Submission is a rather radioactive bit of writing when it comes to the clash of civilizations.

It’s also a very specifically French one. An Americanization of the novel—say, a Hollywood film adaptation—is hard to imagine. (Though not inconceivable.)

In America, however, the scenario Houellebecq portrays is much less likely to happen with the left than with the right.

And sadly, that is all too easy to imagine….

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In the end, the triumph of the American Islamist Party was shockingly easy.

At first, no one thought the Islamists had a prayer (so to speak). It was a joke! Then again, America had encountered political movements before that were widely derided as a “joke,” only to see them triumph in truly un-funny ways. And so it proceeded, step by step, evolving from an absurdity to a possibility to an inevitability.

Sure, it took getting past some old, ingrained prejudices, but that proved surprisingly simple. And it spoke to the open-mindedness of the American people, didn’t it?

Like previous fascists, they came—as the old maxim goes—wrapped in the flag and carrying a Bible….or in their case, a Quran. (Close enough.) The American people were angry at the status quo, and hungry for change, and change was what the American Islamist Party was offering. Oh yes.

The AIP emphasized their all-Americanness, starting with their name. They shed the trappings of the Arab world and presented a star-spangled Norman Rockwell version of Americanized Islam. They stressed that Muslims—like Christians and Jews—were “People of the Book,” descended from their common forefather Abraham. They ostentatiously flaunted their patriotism, their commitment to family, and their championing of good old-fashioned values like law and order, obedience to authority, and returning women to the rightful place that God intended for them. In the wake of #MeToo, the idea of the hijab, the abaya, and even the full-blown burqa seemed like a great way to protect the weaker sex from the inherently predatory male of the species, who—God bless ‘em—just can’t help themselves, as we all know! (So who really was the “weaker” sex, the imams asked patronizingly, thinking the point flattering to women.)

But, of course, the AIP was not really promoting Americanized Islam; it was seeking an Islamicized America. For these were not milquetoast, middle of the road, casually religious folk, the equivalent of twice-a-year Presbyterians who only went to church on Christmas and Easter. No. Their strategic embrace of mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet aside, these were very much Islamists, as opposed to the more benign and tolerant mainstream defined by the adjective Islamic. The AIP were radical fundamentalists, zealots who believed in the supremacy of their faith to the violent exclusion and subjugation of all others, the same way radical Christian supremacists did.

That’s what ultimately brought the two groups together.

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Indeed, many wondered—at first—how conservative American Christians could embrace a foe that they’d demonized for so long?

Well, they did it with Russia. This was no different.

The Republican Party soon saw the wisdom of partnering with the AIP. After all, their values and worldviews were very much aligned, notwithstanding the names they gave their respective gods, and what difference did that really make anyway? It was a matter of realpolitik. Of pragmatism. Of recognizing a kindred spirit. Partnering with the AIP also gave the GOP some handy cover on the tolerance front, where it had taken a bit of a drubbing over the years.

Truth be told, many fundamentalist Christians—including a healthy swath of evangelicals and born-against (the distinctions were hazy) as well as hardline right wing Catholics—had always harbored a secret admiration for the discipline, rigor, and severity of radical Islam. Talk about a group who could stay on message!

The Mormons welcomed another faith that practiced polygamy and made it look less creepy, if only by sheer numbers.

The Amish were big fans of the beards.

Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam were cool with it, of course.

Americans of more mainstream religious persuasions—traditional Christians and Muslims alike, along with Sikhs and Buddhists and Hindus, to say nothing of agnostics and atheists—were certainly alarmed by the alliance between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, and even more so by the Republican Party’s willingness to go along. But they were—by their nature—willing to give the AIP the benefit of the doubt, cloaked as it was in the language of reasonableness, centrism, and other gift wrapping that felt in line with what we thought of as American democracy. They looked past the AIP’s more inflammatory rhetoric, choosing not to take it literally, chalking it up to campaign trail exaggeration and hyperbole. Right?

Thus the AIP slowly gained ground in the polls, impressing conservative voters with its passion and commitment and family values. They won vast support on the right as the best possible opponent of socialism, political correctness, identity politics, and elitism—all the things that had robbed America of what once made it great, in the eyes of many traditionalists.

And while the right embraced the AIP, the secular left rubbed its collective hands and wrote thoughtful pieces in The Atlantic and made the usual accommodationist noises about inclusion and diversity and tolerance. You might be able to find some of those pieces in old library archives, if you look hard enough…..in our universities where all the humanists were eventually fired—or worse—and where departments ranging from critical theory to political science to women’s studies (are you kidding me???) and even art and literature themselves were all abolished, or else rolled into Religious Studies.

Then there was the, uh, Jewish question.

Conventional wisdom had long held that messianic Christians were strong supporters of Israel only because scripture supposedly insisted that the Israelites had to reign in Jerusalem again before Christ would return. But the AIP cleverly contended that “Israelites” and even “Jews” could be translated as “Semites,” and the Arabs were Semites too (which also re-defined the common usage of the term “anti-Semitism”). And with that, the decades-long Zionist/evangelical alliance began to crumble.

Initially, most American Jews (or was it Jewish-Americans?) shared the general belief that the AIP stood not a snowball’s chance in Mecca of having any impact on US politics. When it became clear that that assumption was sadly mistaken, the Jewish community split into two distinct camps—er, I mean, factions. (Geez, all this language is fraught, n’est- ce pas?)

The first group had, apparently, read both history and the writing on the wall and di di-maued out of the Islamic Republic of the United States as fast as they could go, making aliyah to Israel, or scattering to other Jew-friendly countries with all due speed: a new diaspora.

The second group clung to the conviction that all would be well, and stayed put.

What happened to them is something we need not talk about here.

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

The new Islamist regime didn’t demand mass conversion—that would have been barbaric and un-American. That was the stuff of the Crusades, and the AIP was better than that (it was keen to let you know). No, the AIP was content to let Christians live as dhimmis so long as they practiced their religion quietly and discreetly.

Within those surviving Christian enclaves—and this was the really brilliant part—followers of Jesus were now authorized to incorporate elements of sharia law, like polygamy, or institutionalized domestic abuse, or even the taking of slaves. Born again types were already onboard with “an eye for an eye,” so stonings and beheadings came back into style, and man, did the crime rate decline once we started cutting off the hands of thieves! What we did to rapists…..well, you can figure that one out yourself. But then again, the very concept of “rape” was redefined. Abortion, needless to say, became strictement interdit, and divorce became all but unheard of, unless of course it was the husband who wanted one.

By that time, America’s aforementioned “mainstream” Christians found themselves in a position not much better than that of their Hebrew brothers, faced with a choice between getting considerably more devout—fast—or getting the fuck out. By contrast, Christian conservatives thrilled at these developments, once they got over their antiquated Islamophobia. In fact, even ardent Islamists recoiled in shock at the zeal with which converts from fundamentalist Christianity embraced some of the newly legal measures the Islamist theocracy brought with it.

And this was where the Islamists wound up hoisted by their own petard.

Ecumenism, which the AIP perverted to advance its cause, had opened the door not just to Christianity co-existing with Islam, but consuming it: a twin that ate its counterpart in the womb. As Christians embraced Islam and infused it with their own traditions and beliefs, it ceased to be clear where the distinction between one faith ended and the next began. Eventually, it was no longer even clear whether Islam had conquered Christian America or the other way around.

Christian conservatives—a group that used to call itself “the Moral Majority”—made the salient argument that the tenets and dogma of Islam were not the point. Not at all. There was really nothing special about Islam that distinguished it from Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or any other belief system. The names of the prayers and the sacred texts and the rituals and even the gods themselves were interchangeable as widgets.

What mattered was that the new regime stood for God and family and faith, for law and order, and for people knowing their place and obeying the rules that were laid down for them. The right finally had the patriarchal theocracy it had always wanted, its very own Gilead, and all it had to do to get it was change the windowdressing a little.

Inshallah. Praise the Lord.

**********

Dear Man Booker Prize selection committee:

You can reach me at thekingsnecktie@gmail.com. Will also accept the Prix Goncourt.

Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)?

QxrvUkjjSKii9uBXZ68l_Mao Ze Trump

This past weekend I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a lawyer. Let’s call him Pete. Pete is as opposed to the reign of Donald Trump as any other sentient American, but rolled his eyes at the non-stop discussion of constitutional crisis that has replaced sports, the weather, and the Kardashians as Conversational Topic Number 1 among the chattering classes, of which he and I are both card-carrying members.

Pete’s argument is simply this:

Trump is not going to be impeached, indicted, or thrown out of office under the 25th Amendment. Barring an unforeseen turn of events—like the revenge of a lifetime of Big Macs and Diet Cokes— the only way we get rid of him is by voting him out in 2020.

I don’t know that Pete’s wrong. I am hopeful that extraordinary events might take place in the interim (not the Big Macs; that would be wholly unsatisfying), and I place great faith in the public servants involved in uncovering the truth that might lead to Trump’s well-deserved ejection from power. But I agree that, for most of us in the general public, our primary focus should be on an electoral solution, which is to say, the midterms and the presidential race in 2020.

So far so rational.

But in the back of mind, late at night, when I lie awake fearing for the future of the republic, I do wonder about this:

Will Donald Trump willingly leave office even if he is defeated in November 2020? And if he balks at doing so, or worse, refuses outright, will the Republican Party do anything about it?

CALL ME CRAZY

Speaking of eye-rolling, I can feel a wave of it going on right now in response to my question. Pete did the same when I posed it to him. I’ll concede that the very idea smacks of hysteria and overreaction.

But I put it to you that we are living in an era when the absolutely unthinkable has already happened over and over again. Accordingly, far from trafficking in alarmism, it would be foolish and naïve not to consider a scenario like this, however extreme or remote it might be.

So let’s begin by digging into Pete’s original theory in a little more detail.

We all expect Robert Mueller’s inquiry to—eventually—return a scathing report on Donald Trump and his associates. Even completely setting aside the issue of conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice, just lifting the lid off the Trump Organization will almost certainly expose a vast, decades-long trail of malfeasance, corruption, and rampant lawbreaking. Does anyone expect a deep dive into the Trumpian cesspool to come up squeaky clean? Just from the facts that are already public knowledge, we already know that is not the case; the only question is just how bad it will be.

So we can expect serious criminal exposure for Donald J. Trump, enough to doom any previous president dozens of times over.

But Pete’s argument—which a number of informed observers have made, repeatedly—is that it won’t really matter.

It is unlikely that Mueller will try to bring a criminal indictment against a sitting president. (Not impossible—Mueller may uncover skullduggery of such profound implications that he feels compelled to break with DOJ norms—but it is unlikely.) That means that any criminal prosecution of Trump will have to wait until he is out of office. And no matter how powerful or airtight the case Mueller presents, it is equally unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office because of it. The numbers and the politics simply militate against it.

Even if Democrats flip the House in the midterms—enabling them to impeach Trump by simple majority—they’re not likely to gain control of the Senate, let alone obtain the supermajority necessary to convict him and chuck him out of the White House.  Short of those sixty-one partisan votes, it is equally implausible that they will be able to woo enough Republican Senators to vote for conviction, judging by the yellow-bellied stain of opportunism and cowardice that the GOP leadership has spread across Washington DC thus far.

So I understand the calculus underlying Pete’s contention. It’s hard to dispute.

Even so, many Americans—not just liberals and progressives but true conservatives and patriotic thinking people of all ideological stripes—are holding out hope that the evidence Mueller delivers will be so powerful that the GOP will have to act. And it might be, if we lived in a sane world. But in case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t. Not anymore.

We know that Trump’s Kool Aid-drunk based will shrug off anything and everything that Mueller delivers. They have not been bothered by Trump hiding his tax returns, or insulting Gold Star families, or making fun of the handicapped, or the vast evidence we already have of his financial crimes, wanton corruption, and collaboration with our enemies. They were not bothered by Access Hollywood, or Charlottesville, or taking babies from their mothers, or most recently, the appalling bootlicking and borderline treason of Helsinki. What could possible change their minds now?

(About all I can imagine might possibly do the trick is the emergence of something that offends their own bigoted mindset and paints Trump in an unavoidably un-macho light, such as a video of him treating Vladimir Putin to some oral attention. But he damn near did that in Finland and they were cool with it.)

We also know that the GOP “leadership” takes its lead from the base, not the other way around. (Maybe most politicians behave that way, but rarely in such a brazenly craven and conspicuous way.) Those profiles in courage Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have shown absolutely no integrity or sense of principle and no willingness to defend the rule of law against even Trump’s worst offenses, given that they and their party are benefitting from his rule—at least in the short term—beyond their wildest wet dreams. The most they ever offer by way of censure is mealy-mouthed statements of discomfort when Trump really pushes the limits—mere lip service to the principles of democracy—which is almost worse. At least Trump and his hardcore followers own their awfulness; they are monsters, but not hypocrites (except when it comes to Obama). The same can’t be said for Mitch, Paul, and the rest of the gang—and I do mean gang.

So the GOP leadership is not going to lift a finger over anything Mueller delivers, no matter how damning it is…..at least not without tens of millions of angry Americans taking to the streets. (More on that in a bit.)

COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP, DONNY

So thus far, Pete’s pessimistic theory (PPT) looks pretty solid.

But here’s where it begins to get really scary.

If Bob Mueller hands down thunderous evidence that would justify a criminal indictment of Donald Trump, but DOJ policy precludes prosecution until after he is out of office—and Republican political opportunism precludes measures like impeachment that would put him out—what possible reason would Donald Trump ever have to leave office?

On the contrary: the notion of a massive indictment hanging over his head as soon as he surrenders power will incentivize Trump to stay in office at all costs, like the cornered rat he is.

The irony is rich. In a twist worthy of Roald Dahl or O. Henry, one of the most egregiously guilty sonsabitches in US criminal history will find himself in the only position in American life in which he is protected from prosecution. So you can bet your life that he will do everything within his power to stay there. And we have all seen that the spectrum of what Donald Trump is prepared to do in his own self-interest is, uh, rather wide.

That means that even if he loses the 2020 election, he will contest the results with every fiber of his being, try to delegitimize his opponent’s victory, and mobilize his mouthbreathing hordes and his shameless accomplices in the right wing media to help him. (For that matter, he and the GOP will try to rig the election in the first place. But that’s a topic for another day.)

If he fears he might lose, he will gin up a faux national security emergency Reichstag fire-style to try to justify postponing the elections. Failing that, he will create some transparently false excuse for claiming that the election was rigged and declare the results null and void. (Hell, he was pre-emptively saying precisely that on the campaign trail in 2016. Turns out he was right, though in exactly the opposite way he claimed.).

And his followers will obediently, enthusiastically sign on.

When I floated this possibility at Pete, he was beyond skeptical. “Are you really suggesting that Donald Trump would stand in the way of a peaceful transition of power?” said he.

“Yep,” said I.

Do you doubt t? Before the election in 2016, when almost everyone—even Trump—assumed he would lose, he was asked if he would honor the results or contest them. He equivocated. “I’ll let you know,” he said, coyly, already causing damage to the fabric of American democracy. Little did we know that that scenario would soon look enviable compared to what would really transpire.

And that was when he had far far less at stake. Do we really think he will be more accommodating and respectful of the bedrock of American democracy if he is facing what amounts to life in prison, the obliteration of his family fortune, and the destruction of everything he cares about…..which is to say, himself?

A NOUS LA LIBERTE

“OK,” I hear you saying, “that’s what Donald Trump would try to do. We know he’s a lunatic. But the American people would never stand for it.”

Really?

Famously,  a Washington Post poll taken last August showed that a majority of Republicans (52%) would support suspending the 2020 presidential election if Trump proposed it. A similar poll taken last October showed that that same Republican demographic wouldn’t be bothered even if collusion with the Russians were proven. (Although many media outlets reported this news, I’m referencing Newsmax here—believe it or not—because only they reported it proudly.)

And forget about “if.” We already have plenty of evidence of what is more properly described as “conspiracy with a foreign power to defraud the United States,” and Fox Nation just yawns. Thus the rationalizing of treason has evolved from “no collusion” to “it doesn”t matter if there was collusion” to, most recently, “collusion was a good thing!  because Hillary was the greater threat to America.

Per above, not even the egregious, jawdropping public display of subservience to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki gave the majority of Republicans pause. As former US diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford wrote in an LA Times op-ed, “As the dust settles after Helsinki, this too has become clear: There is no line Trump can cross that will spur meaningful Republican action against him.”

Indeed, Trump’s poll numbers among self-identified GOP voters actually rose after Helsinki, with 70% of Republican respondents giving him an approving grade for his performance there. (!) This can variously be described as doubling down, the sunk cost fallacy, or simple self-deluding batshit dumbassery. But whatever you call it, it stinks like yesterday’s fish.

In a piece for Salon called “How Low Will Trump Go?”, Lucian Truscott IV writes:

This man is not going to be driven from office by either Congress or the courts. He’s going to fight, and fight to the death of democracy if necessary, because he has no loyalty to the Constitution or love of democracy. All he has is love of Trump.

He’s preparing his base for the day he fires Sessions, Rosenstein and Mueller. He’ll pardon every single American who has been charged or pled guilty, and then he’ll order the entire work product of the Mueller investigation to be collected and burned. He’ll send his supporters into the streets to demonstrate in favor of firing Mueller and ending the investigation. When counter demonstrations hit the street, he’ll call them a threat to “national security” and start making arrests. He’ll begin with Antifa and Black Lives Matter, then he’ll move on to anyone found demonstrating on a street where violence or damage to property has taken place.

When the jails are loaded up, he’ll start putting arrestees in camps. They’re already practicing for this with the round-up, arrest and confinement of undocumented immigrants in concentration camps along the border. If you thought we’d never see another round-up of people alleged to be a “threat to national security” the way we did with Japanese Americans during World War II, you were wrong. Our government is doing it right now. If you thought that disgraceful chapter in our nation’s history was more than enough to stop Americans from building concentration camps again, you were wrong.

American citizens working for the government and for private companies are following orders. They’re building camps. They’re stringing barbed wire. They’re making children march in line down makeshift “streets” between tents in these camps. They’re denying access to the camps to the news media, even to members of Congress. They’re doing it willingly. They’re doing it so efficiently that major private penal corporations are making hundreds of millions of dollars building camps and imprisoning immigrants.

When demonstrations break out against the round-ups and the camps between anti-Trump protestors and Trump supporters, he’ll declare martial law. He’ll declare that the Democratic Party is the “enemy of the people” and issue an executive order to postpone elections. His base will support him all the way.

COWARDS AND OPPORTUNISTS: A FIELD GUIDE

So let’s forget about the GOP base for now. Its capacity for welcoming authoritarianism—as long as that authoritarianism is of the ideological stripe it admires—is well proven. Pete’s contention was that GOP lawmakers would not stand for Trump disrupting the peaceful transition of power; that regardless of right wing public opinion, Republican legislators would in effect be the last line of defense for democracy.

I respectfully disagree. That argument is predicated on the idea that the Republican leadership has more integrity than the party’s rank and file. I have seen no evidence that that is the case. As is none, nada, zero, zilch, bupkes. In fact, there may be a strong argument that they have shown a lot less.

I have written before that we are witnessing a slow motion coup d’etat by the Republican Party to secure permanent, anti-democratic control of the United States government. (The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup, July 12, 2017). They have suppressed the vote; engaged in outrageous gerrymandering far beyond even historical precedent; tried to skew the census; weaponized the infusion of dark money into campaign finance; spread the vile lies of voter fraud, birtherism, and beyond; marshaled a massive Orwellian propaganda machine that has done irreparable damage to public discourse; and turned a blind eye to ongoing foreign attacks on our electoral system that are tantamount to war.

As for respect for the sanctity of the electoral process and peaceful transition of power, Republican leaders uttered barely a mouse-squeak when Trump deliberately undermined those principles on the campaign trail. Since he took office, they have condoned and even abetted his attacks on the rule of law, the law enforcement and intelligence communities, a free press, and the patriotism of the loyal opposition (not to mention reliable conservative bogeymen like immigrants, minorities, and poor people). Should he be defeated, what makes anyone think that Trump questioning or even physically opposing the results of the 2020 election would be a red line for them?

Perhaps most tellingly, with their unconscionable obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination, Republicans ruthlessly subverted one of the fundamental norms of American democracy in order to keep control of the Supreme Court. Do you think they will do any less to maintain control of the Presidency?

Speaking to Rolling Stone, John Dean recently had this to say on the subject (and he should know):

Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News and the conservative media that exists today. I doubt Trump will be forced from office, even if Mueller has tapes of him talking with Putin about how to rig the election. While we might have a Democratic House after the 2018 elections, which could impeach Trump, I do not see the needed 67 votes in the Senate to find him guilty and remove him from office. And given the fact he is shameless, he will never resign….

(I)f Trump loses the 2020 election, his term will end, and the new president will be sworn in—and he will contest it, claim a rigged election, and make life miserable for the world. However Trump’s presidency ends, I expect it to be ugly. He has no respect for the rule of law, or historical norms, or standards of conduct. Because he is shameless, he will do it his way, which will be un-American and unprecedented.

CASSANDRA VS CHICKEN LITTLE

In closing, I realize that the right will scoff at this sort of speculation as “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” the hysterical ravings of hair-on-fire liberals who don’t know whether to shit or go blind over the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the ascent of Donald Trump. They openly delight in (what is to them) the comic spectacle of snowflakes who just can’t “get over it,” as the late, inexplicably venerated Justice Scalia flippantly said of the Supreme Court handing George W. Bush the presidency.

Of course, the right has no credibility on this point, given eight years of their own sky-is-falling rhetoric over Barack Obama on what were empirically far less persuasive grounds. (Infinitely so, in fact.) Moreover, from the moment of Trump’s rise in the GOP primaries, the right has pooh-poohed concerns of the damage he would do, how bad he would be, and how far he would go, only to be proven disastrously wrong at nearly every turn. So their scorn carries no weight.

But I know that even mainstream conservatives, independents, and even some liberals and progressives—like my friend Pete—find such scenarios alarmist and absurd. I do realize that all this talk of martial law and a president for life sounds extreme. It is.

But in case you’ve been in a coma, we are living in extreme times. Over and over again the unthinkable has happened, each time moving the Overton window of what we believe possible in this country.

No one thought Trump would get the GOP nomination or win. No one thought he would get away with not releasing his tax returns, or that he would continue to brazenly violate the emoluments clause once in office. No one—at first—thought collusion with Russia was credible, and no one foresaw that it would be revealed to be as bad as it has been (with more to come). No one thought he’d attack NATO, cozy up to dictators, insult Canada, start trade wars, risk nuclear armageddon with North Korea and then turn around and surrender to them. No one imagined we’d be building concertina-ringed camps along the southern border to hold migrants indefinitely, and no one thought we’d be ripping babies away from their mothers and marching one-year-olds before judges in immigration courts.

I could go on.

Vizzini-like,  Trump is fond of the word “inconceivable.” At this point, nothing is inconceivable in Trump’s America.

I truly hope I am wrong and Pete is right. Should Trump take things to the extremes that this essay contemplates, I fervently hope that both rank-and-file Republicans and the GOP leadership locate their principles—and their balls—and stand up and stop him for the greater good of everything this country is supposed to stand for.

Man, that would be a rather low bar, and I’m not sure they can clear even that. But I hope so.

Where does that leave our country if they don’t? Let’s save that question for another day.

But here’s a hint.

 

This Just In: Russia Wins Cold War

Putin Kissing Trump

This week I was going to continue our discussion of Brett Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court, but our regularly scheduled programming has been preempted by this astonishing sight:

The alleged President of the United States, standing side by side with the dictator of a hostile foreign power that attacked (and continues to attack) the very core of American democracy, taking that dictator’s side over that of his own country.

More than one informed observer has noted that what Donald Trump did in Helsinki yesterday fits the textbook definition of treason. Former CIA director John Brennan certainly thought so, using that very “T” word, and going on to call Trump’s comments “imbecilic” and proof that he is “wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

Even some Republicans, including reliably batshit Trump supporters like Newt Gingrich, were openly appalled and said so to the press. John McCain said in a written statement, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

This on the heels of a week in which Trump did his best to destroy the NATO alliance, viciously attacked the leaders of two of our closest and most important allies (both women, not coincidentally), blamed the US—not Russia—for bad relations between the two countries, and called the EU a “foe.”

And believe it or not, our fake president did all that knowing full well what was coming down from Robert Mueller right before his meeting with the Russian leader: the bombshell indictment of twelve Russian intelligence officers showing in meticulous, granular, and irrefutable detail how Vladimir Putin directed the intelligence agencies of his country to attack the heart of the American electoral system, with the admitted goal of electing Donald Trump. Indeed, Putin bragged about his preference for Trump on camera to the press in Finland.

(In what might prove to be equally significant, the Department of Justice also indicted a Russian national named Mariina Butina as an agent of the Kremlin, working through American organizations including the NRA, in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential campaign—and here’s the important part—with the assistance of as-yet-unnamed Americans. Stay tuned.)

These events themselves were the followup to several months of Trump-driven geopolitical madness. Here is Robin Wright in the The New Yorker:

 At the G-7 summit of the world’s most powerful economies, Trump flew out early, reneged on signing a joint communiqué outlining common goals, and insulted the host, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, on Twitter. At the historic summit with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, Trump engaged in great theatre but got only a vague promise, with no specifics, that Pyongyang will denuclearize. At the NATO summit last week, Trump insulted the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as a “captive of the Russians” and demanded, unrealistically, that the twenty-eight other nations double, or more, their contributions to the world’s largest military alliance, then left the room. In Britain, he embarrassed Prime Minister Theresa May by telling a British tabloid how she should conduct Brexit negotiations, clumsily violated protocol with Queen Elizabeth, and generated headlines by sitting smugly for a photograph in Winston Churchill’s old chair. On Sunday, Trump called the European Union “a foe.” Now Helsinki.

“The last three months have substantially weakened the US position in the world,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “We are in a trade war with our most important economic partners, have created doubts in the minds of the European allies (as a result of our harangues over defense spending and our withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA) as to U.S. reliability and our willingness to speak truth to Russian power, and have failed to move North Korea closer to denuclearization while weakening sanctions and raising doubts in Seoul as to U.S. dependability.”

Deep breath, everyone.

I wrote last month about Trump’s disastrous and disgraceful summit with Kim Jong Un (Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama), June 13, 2018). But Singapore now looks like a paper cut in comparison with the gaping chest wound of Helsinki.

As the capper to a long pattern of mystifyingly Russophilic behavior, Trump’s performance in Finland is all but impossible to explain any other way than the most obvious: that he is an outright stooge of the Kremlin.

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED

Not to state the obvious, but Trump’s insistence on meeting with Putin behind closed doors, with no other US officials present except his translator, was beyond outrageous—especially in light of the latest Mueller indictments—not to mention extremely suspicious.

Could Trump do anything more to signal that he is a Russian asset? I hope the CIA had a lavaliere mic in that translator’s lapel.

At the summit itself Putin showed up late and kept Trump waiting—as Trump did the Queen some days before—a blatant display of alpha male superiority by Vlad over his bootlicking American servant. In the meeting itself Putin’s bored affect and casual body language continued to signal his dominance over Trump to the global audience, and with almost sneering delight. (Let us remember that Putin is not only a veteran head of state with eighteen years of experience as an authoritarian strongman, but also a career intelligence officer who grew up in the not-so-nice KGB.)

By contrast, with the cameras rolling, Trump obediently parroted everything Putin said, pointlessly (but predictably) bragged about his “brilliant” victory over Hillary Clinton, spread tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, attacked his own FBI and Department of Justice, and continued to decry the Mueller probe as a witchhunt, citing that inquiry—not, say, Russian cyberwarfare—as the thing that is doing the most damage to the republic.

In short, he could not have served the Kremlin’s purposes any better if he had been reading from a script prepared for him by the GRU. (“Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”)

Even as the latest Mueller indictments provide damningly detailed evidence of Russian interference in our elections (if this is a witchhunt, it turns out there are a LOT of witches out there), onstage in Helsinki Trump again rejected such findings—as he has since the US intelligence community first announced that conclusion in December 2016—taking instead the word of the Russian dictator that he didn’t interfere. “He was incredibly strong and confident in his denial,” said Trump, guilelessly.

This is the stuff of bad farce. Representatives of the Russian government and state-controlled media certainly cackled with undisguised glee, and who could blame them?

Trump continued: “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me, some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, subsequently fired back, but Trump’s claim that he can’t imagine why Moscow would try to influence a US election beggars belief. I do not subscribe to the school of thought that we can chalk up Trump’s endless parade of idiocies to mental illness (at least not entirely), but it does sound like something a schizophrenic off his meds would say.

Perhaps—being VERY generous now—he merely meant that he can’t imagine why Moscow would prefer him to Hillary, given that, in his own mind, he is a Churchillian bulldog who is much harder on them than Mrs. Clinton or any other human being could possibly be. (“I alone can fix it.”) But even if that self-flattering masturbatory fantasy were so, such an assertion still requires him to reject the overwhelming assessment of the US IC (not to mention mere demonstrable reality) in favor of the word, hand to heart, of Vladimir Putin.

It is of course far more likely that Trump has something to hide, and Putin knows what it is.

As Greg Sargent wrote in the WaPo: “Trump is currently in the process of repaying Putin for helping to deliver him the presidency,” meaning at the very least the hacking of the DNC, which Trump publicly called on Russia to do while speaking on national television, and possibly much more:

In blaming only previous U.S. leadership and the current Mueller probe for bad relations with Russia—and not Russia’s attack on our democracy, which is particularly galling, now that this attack has been described in great new detail—Trump is not merely spinning in a way that benefits himself. He’s also giving a gift to Putin, by signaling that he will continue to do all he can to delegitimize efforts to establish the full truth about Russian interference, which in turn telegraphs that Russia can continue such efforts in the future (which U.S. intelligence officials have warned will happen in the 2018 elections). In a sense, by doing this, Trump is colluding with such efforts right now.

Putin could not have asked for more than what Trump gave him on this European jaunt, capped by Helsinki, in terms of destabilizing the Western alliance, discrediting liberal democracy, damaging American credibility and influence, and sowing chaos within the United States at large. In a hundred years of Soviet and post-Soviet history, never has Moscow seen its aims so readily advanced by anyone, let alone a US president. If we are not in a genuine Manchurian Candidate situation, it damn sure quacks like one.

Indeed, the only way in which Trump is NOT behaving like a Russian intelligence asset is in the sheer clumsiness of his tradecraft.

WHAT’S MY MOTIVATION? (WHITE HOUSE EDITION)

Many have noted that Trump is often his own worst enemy in terms of self-inflicted wounds and unforced errors. But in Helsinki yesterday he may have topped himself. Who but the most Kool-Aid besotted Trump worshipper could witness what he did and not be gobsmacked at this man’s bizarre allegiance to Vladimir Putin?

For a guy who is pathologically obsessed with proving his own toughness and machismo— a 71-year-old man who repeatedly displays an adolescent refusal ever to back down even when he is undeniably proven wrong, one who has picked fights with the Pope, war heroes, and Gold Star Families—his willingness (eagerness, even) to kiss Vladimir Putin’s white Russian ass is beyond suspicious.

The New York Times’s White House correspondent Mark Landler called Helsinki “the foreign policy equivalent of Charlottesville” in shredding “all the accepted conventions…of how a president should conduct himself abroad”:

Rather than defend the United States against those who would threaten it, he attacked his own citizens and institutions. Rather than challenge Mr. Putin, an adversary with a well-documented record of wrongdoing against the United States, he praised him without reservation. His statements were so divorced from American policy goals, so at odds with the rest of his administration, so inexplicable on so many levels that they brought to the surface a question that has long shadowed Mr. Trump: Does Russia have something on him?

In fact, I would almost argue that Trump’s behavior in Helsinki (and consistently so on the subject of Russia) was so egregiously self-incriminating, so hamhandedly obvious, so flabbergastingly self-destructive that he could not possibly be in thrall to the Russians: no espionage asset or blackmail victim would behave in such a transparently guilty manner for all the world to see.

But Trump is not a man known for his subtlety or his concern for how ridiculously bad and self-damning his own behavior looks.

Writing in the Washington Post, the conservative historian and pundit Max Boot opined:

Even if Trump were thinking only in terms of his own political survival — his usual mode — he would be tougher on Putin, because he must realize that kowtowing to the Russian only strengthens suspicions of collusion. But Trump just cannot bring himself to do it. Is that because he hopes for more aid from Putin in the future — or because he is afraid of what Putin can reveal about him? Either way, he gives every impression of betraying his oath of office.

….(T)he question (of blackmail) came up at the news conference itself. The Associated Press’s Jonathan Lemire courageously asked “does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or his family?” Think of how extraordinary — how unprecedented — that moment was. Can you imagine a similar question being asked about any previous U.S. president? 

PAGING MR. OCCAM

As more and more indictments come down in the Mueller probe and more and more is revealed, might we someday look back on the Helsinki summit as the moment the worm turned for Donald Trump? Or more precisely, will it be the moment at which public opinion finally began to swing definitively against him, as no reasonable person can any longer question that, for one reason or another, he is Putin’s poodle?

Maybe that is wishful thinking. I have ceased believing that there is anything Trump could say or do, or be shown to have done in the past, that would pierce the armor of self-denial in which his staunchest supporters have cloaked themselves. It is a kind of mass psychosis that future historians (and psychiatrists) will study for generations.

But for anyone with enough brainwave activity to measure on an EEG, the truth about Trump is now undeniable. At what point will American conservatives—to the extent that the term still applies—finally open their eyes and acknowledge this brazen traitor’s obvious fealty to Moscow? We are in a bad spy movie and the American right is twenty steps behind the obvious plot twist.

Ultimately, the motive behind Trump’s behavior is secondary in terms of the immediate danger to national security and the well-being of the American experiment. In his aforementioned criticism, John Brennan said Trump’s behavior at Helsinki “rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’” To that end, Trump’s actions on this European tour, culminating in the appalling spectacle in Finland, arguably justify impeachment in and of themselves independent of their underlying cause, whatever it might be.

David Frum put it very well in The Atlantic:

The reasons for Trump’s striking behavior—whether he was bribed or blackmailed or something else—remain to be ascertained. That he has publicly refused to defend his country’s independent electoral process—and did so jointly with the foreign dictator who perverted that process—is video-recorded fact.

And it’s a fact that has to be seen in the larger context of his actions in office: denouncing the EU as a “foe,” threatening to break up NATO, wrecking the US-led world trading system, intervening in both UK and German politics in support of extremist and pro-Russian forces, and his continued refusal to act to protect the integrity of U.S. voting systems—it adds up to a political indictment whether or not it quite qualifies as a criminal one….

(C)onfronting the country in the wake of Helsinki is this question: Can it afford to wait to ascertain whyTrump has subordinated himself to Putin after the president has so abjectly demonstrated that he has subordinated himself? Robert Mueller is leading a legal process. The United States faces a national-security emergency.

Five Blind Mice

Five Blinds

Well, that was a hell of a week for the Supreme Court.

If you don’t think by now that we are in the midst of an authoritarian takeover of our country—a slow motion coup d’etat—then you’re just not paying attention.

JUDGE NOT

It was hard for me to work up the energy to write this week’s post. Like many people I know, I haven’t been this discouraged since election night 2016 itself.

Up until now I have maintained a optimistic outlook (possibly irrationally so) that Donald Trump will eventually be brought down one way or another, likely through some combination of prosecutorial diligence and his own manifest criminality, incompetence, hubris, and overeach.

Now I’m not so sure.

Two weeks ago the Supreme Court handed down the latest in a series of 5-4 decisions along purely partisan lines, all advancing the right wing agenda: rulings on antitrust law, the Voting Rights Act, the Muslim ban, public unions, and others. These latest rulings suggest that the right wing justices on the once-revered Supreme Court of the United States are just another group of quislings who will abet and defend Trump to the bitter end. Don’t believe me? Look at the track record of this Court’s conservative members (not that that term applies anymore) going back to the 2000 election and Bush v. Gore.

As if that were not depressing enough, hot on the heels of these decisions came the body blow that Trump would have the opportunity to further tilt the Court in his favor by choosing a second justice…..and there is no reason to think his eventual choice, Mr. Kavanaugh, will not follow that same pattern.

All this is a very grim omen if anything in the Mueller probe has to come before this GOP-dominated SCOTUS.

I don’t say that lightly. I don’t say it wth animus, but on the contrary, with sorrow for a group of public servants whom I once inherently respected (for the most part), despite my vast differences with some of them. In fact, I’ll confess to being a bit of a Supreme Court fanboy. Not an insane one, but an interested and generally admiring follower nonetheless. If the Supreme Court were the Grateful Dead, I’d be, like, a guy who’s been to a lot of shows and has a bunch of Dick’s Picks boots, but not, like, a guy who quit his job to live in a van and follow the band and sell grilled cheese sandwiches in the parking lot.

But I have not yet seen any evidence that these undeniably intelligent and allegedly impartial jurists have not become simple partisan hacks. Should push come to shove, I have no confidence that they would stand up and rule that President* Trump must comply with a subpoena, for instance, let alone that he could be indicted for crimes while in office, or for that matter, that he can’t institute martial law and suspend the 2020 elections on the grounds of “national security” (which was his argument in the Muslim ban that they just upheld).

Indeed, courtesy of the Washington Post, here is all you really need to know about why our fake president picked Brett Kavanaugh, a man who began his career as a GOP lawyer in the ridiculous hyperpartisan Vince Foster investigation that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton:

Kavanaugh has since argued that presidents should not be distracted by civil lawsuits, criminal investigations, or even questions from a prosecutor or defense lawyer while in office.

Wow. That’s right, hard as it is to believe, Kavanaugh goes even further than that demented vampire Rudy Giuliani in stating that a sitting president not only can’t be indicted, but shouldn’t even be investigated while in office. That is a shockingly imperial position—not to mention a violent and suspicious about-face—and one that I don’t think escaped the notice of Team Trump when they were considering Kennedy’s replacement.

But if at this point you’re still shocked by brazen Republican hypocrisy, I suggest you see a neurologist.

I am quite sure that if the tables were turned and a Democratic president were under that kind of fire, the Court would rule that he (or she) absolutely had to submit to the rule of law. They certainly ruled that way when Kenneth Starr—with the able assistance of a young Brett Kavanaugh—threatened Bill Clinton with a subpoena in 1997. (Four of the justices who joined in that ruling, including Clarence Thomas, are still on the Court today.) Until recently I thought they would show similar backbone and integrity with Trump, should it become necessary; that, after all is their job, and what they are revered for. But the past two weeks shook my faith on that count by a lot.

Let’s just review for a moment, as the current state of affairs bears repeating. Among a group of nine that is already predisposed to rule in his favor, Trump is about to have two (count ’em) justices on the Court who directly owe their impossibly enviable positions to him, as they prepare for the very likely possibility of making epochal decisions affecting his presidency and even his criminal prosecution. And regardless of Trump’s own fate, this heavily far right Court will of course wield enormous power for generations to come, an invaluable resource for a radical Republican party that for years now has been actively engaged in undermining our democracy, consolidating its own grip on power, and advancing its retrograde agenda—now extra super retrograde, if not openly neo-fascist, thanks to the orange-faced frontman they accidentally stumbled upon.

Yeah—not the best couple of weeks.

TONY TONY TONY

Seventeen months into Donald Trump’s, ahem, presidency*, Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist campaign to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland is looking more and more like one of the most important episodes in contemporary American history. (See The Ghost of Merrick Garland in these pages, November 25, 2017). And the saga continues with Anthony Kennedy’s horrendously-timed decision that this would be the perfect moment to let Donald Trump (Donald Trump!!!) put a second justice on the Court.

Thanks a lot, Tony.

I don’t care that he’s 81, or about his lifetime of “service,” or his allegedly well-deserved retirement. I’d say his record is mixed at best, especially lately. True, he has been the swing vote on a few key cases that advanced the progressive cause, including marriage equality and the defense of Roe v. Wade. But just as often—and recently, with depressing consistency—he has sided with the Court’s right wing bloc. The timing of his exit should disabuse us all of the enduring liberal fantasy that he is on the side of the angels.

Ironically, whatever good Kennedy did for this country—indeed, everything he has done in his long career—will be forever blotted out by his unfathomable decision to retire now, at this precise and precarious moment in our history, with the very rule of law itself hanging in the balance. Kennedy’s willingness to do so, and to gift Trump that much power at such a crucial time and with such potentially disastrous and longlasting consquences, speaks volumes about where his sympathies truly lie.

At the very least, it’s clear that he does not share the opinion of many thinking people that Trump is a monster who needs to be contained if not removed from power outright. And if he feels that generously toward Trump, imagine how his even more right-leaning colleagues on the Court feel. Let’s remember that when we’re counting on them to do the right thing should the case of Mueller v. Trump come before them.

In fact, in the wake of Kennedy’s retirement, the disturbing extent of his chumminess with Trump was quickly exposed.

Trump apparently has been engaged in a charm offensive dating back to his inauguration, aimed at cajoling Justice Kennedy into retiring. The weapons in that campaign included flattering him, sparing him the vitriol Trump leveled at other Supreme Court justices for being insufficiently conservative (even when Kennedy was far more culpable on that count from the GOP point of view), and on the contrary, lavishing him with a suspicious amount of undue praise. Congressional surrogates also pressured Kennedy, and not so subtly. To fill Merrick Garland’s seat Trump chose one of Kennedy’s former clerks to join him on the bench. (Kennedy swore in his former underling-turned-peer.) In fact, on both occasions Trump’s entire pool of SCOTUS candidates skewed heavily toward Kennedy’s former clerks (Kavanaugh was one too), as did many of the judges he has appointed to lower federal courts.

But that is all politics as usual, if a bit more naked than normal.

This part isn’t:

The New York Times reported that Kennedy’s son Justin was a longtime senior banker in the real estate development division of Deutsche Bank, mysteriously the only bank that would loan Donald Trump money when he was broke. As the Times reported in its usual deadpan style:

During Mr. Kennedy’s tenure, Deutsche Bank became Mr. Trump’s most important lender, dispensing well over $1 billion in loans to him for the renovation and construction of skyscrapers in New York and Chicago at a time other mainstream banks were wary of doing business with him because of his troubled business history.

As has also been widely reported, Deutsche Bank is also an institution deeply entangled with Russian money laundering, to the tune of $630 million in federal fines levied against it by the Obama administration in 2017 (in addition to a $7.2 billion dollar fine for irregularities in its mortgage-backed securities, and $2.5 billion for manipulating interest rates in 2015).

Trump, tellingly, has waived some of those fines, which would be an epic scandal in any other administration. In this one, it’s just another Tuesday.

As part of this Deutsche Bank connection, Trump was also caught on camera chatting amiably with Kennedy about how much their (adult) kids “love” each other and have been good to each other in business.

Are you effing kidding me? This is the kind of thing that goes on in banana republics, of which the US is now apparently one. It’s Scalia duckhunting with Cheney all over again. (Insert “shot-in-the-face” joke here.)

It’s too much—or too soon—to speculate that Kennedy has a vested interest in protecting his son, who is possibly mixed up in Trump’s filthy financial dealings with DB and its Russian patrons. (Oh gee, did I accidentally speculate about that? Sorry.) But it’s very clear that the Trumps and the Kennedys are chummy at the very least, and that stinks of corruption like yesterday’s fish. Kennedy’s announcement that he was retiring cited the usual hackneyed desire to “spend more time with his family. “ (In this case, meaning the family that lent Trump a billion dollars.) Take note also of how Kennedy broke the news of his decision to his friend Donald, as reported by the New York Times:

Justice Kennedy visited the White House on Wednesday to tell Mr. Trump of his retirement and to deliver a letter setting out the details. Its warm opening words — “My dear Mr. President” — acknowledged a cordial relationship between the two men, as well as the success of the White House’s strategy.

In light of these revelations, it’s a fair bet that posterity will remember Anthony Kennedy for one thing and one thing only: obediently handing off his seat on the Supreme Court to the worst president in American history for the express purpose of ensuring a hardline right wing majority, and the implied purpose of maintaining that president’s illegitimate grip on power. Future generations may well curse the Kennedy name (the current one already has a head start) and remember him only as a fellow traveler in this atrocity, or at best, a sucker.

COURT AND SPARK

Kennedy’s resignation is also a stark reminder of just how long term will be the damage to the United States of America wrought by Donald Trump. We already understood that in terms of destruction of the environment, acceleration of global warming, obliteration of America’s standing abroad, further polarization in domestic economic inequality, and so forth and so on. But this really brought it home in one neat little package.

The sheer injustice of Trump’s ascent to the White House was galling even before we knew the extent of foreign interference, irrespective of the degree of his collaboration with it. The fact that as one of his first acts in office Trump would get to nominate a justice to fill the seat that rightly should have gone to a nominee of Barack Obama’s was a pill nearly as bitter, given the unconscionably anti-democratic, shamelessly dishonest obstructionism of Mitch McConnell in refusing even to consider Obama’s pick—an effort Mitch considers his proudest accomplishment in his long and disgusting political career.

And now Trump has been gifted a second seat to fill, and the terrifying possibility that with not just one but two octogenarians among the remaining justices, he might get a third or even a fourth before all is said and done. (RBG’s health is on everyone’s mind, but don’t forget that Breyer will turn 80 in August.) An America in which fully a third of the justices on the Supreme Court were put there by an illegitimate president—a sub-literate neo-fascist game show host who is very possibly the tool of a foreign power—is the stuff of bad dystopian science fiction, or at least it used to be.

The irony and the injustice of it all is almost too much to bear.

I know that the preceding four paragraphs are the sort of thing guaranteed to make right wingers dance around the house with joy, as there is nothing that delights them more than liberal anguish. But I would submit that this very glee on their part—the base, sadistic lack of empathy and the venal worldview, emblematic of everything that undergirds the entire Trump regime and what has become the contemporary Republican Party—is the exact thing that we are mourning, in accompaniment to the appalling policies those people endorse.

It’s no surprise that the John Birchers who currently have a chokehold on American governance are ecstatic right now. More disgraceful is the dodo-like endangered species of allegedly “moderate” conservatives—like the Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby—who have taken to pooh-poohing progessive fears about the Court, acting as if Trump is just another POTUS, and demonstrating the degree to which even “reasonable” Republicans are in denial about the right wing coup d’etat that is taking place….or less charitably, how they are unbothered by it.

Had a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio won the Republican nomination in 2016 and gone on to triumph in the general election, we might still have found ourselves in this situation. But while the practical consequences would have be the same in terms of the Court, somehow it would not have been so bitter to watch. That, of course, to steal a phrase from Jim Comey, is because of “the nature of the person” who did win the GOP nomination, and how utterly horrific he is, and how utterly mind-boggling it is that we have entrusted him with putting even one justice on the Court, let alone two or more.

In making his pick, Trump reportedly consulted closely with Sean Hannity. (I’ll pause now so you can stop gagging). That’s right: the two men with the most power to decide the future of the federal judiciary are Donald Trump and Sean Hannity. If that isn’t the very definition of kakistocracy, I don’t know what is.

And the practical consquences are not the same, because a Bush or Rubio administration would not be engaged in the same wanton destruction of presidential and democratic norms and would not represent the same threat of full-blown neo-fascism. Hence the exponentially awful implications of a hard right leaning Supreme Court at precisely the time when we desperately need a strong judiciary to act as a brake on a would-be despot.

A Supreme Court that in its majority by and large reflects the worldview of Donald Trump and declines to rein him in is a terrifying thought, especially for anyone who was holding out hope that the American judicial system might be the means by which Trump is justifiably brought to heel.

MITCH’S LEGACY

Since Trump put Neil Gorsuch on the court in a spot that rightly belonged to the nominee of a Democratic president, the Court has handed down several crucial decisions setting back the progressive agenda, many of them—as noted above—by a razor-thin 5-4 vote along strict partisan lines. Among these was the ruling that a Colorado baker can discriminate against gay customers, even though it was by a vote of 7-2 on a narrow technicality, and did not actually greenlight discrimination, only overturned a lower court ruling because of “anti-religious animus” detected in the state law in question. But those subtleties were surely lost on the majority of the public. The net effect was the impression of endorsing discrimination.

Moreoever, in the same slate where the Court saw anti-religious animus by Colorado lawmakers, it somehow acrobatically managed not to see religious animus in Trump’s Muslim ban, despite the president’s repeated efforts to shout from the mountaintops that it was all about religious animus and nothing but (for the benefit of his followers who were worried that the semantic lengths to which the administration had gone in its revisions of the ban might have inched it away from the sectarian hatred they relished).

Such reasoning betrays a shamefully self-deluding (or is it cynical?) partisanship on the part of the Court’s conservatives justices, one that belies their cherished image as deep thinkers and honest brokers who are above the grimy business of legistlative and executive sausage-making. I think that image had long ago been irreparably tarnished (at least since Bush v. Gore), but absurdly biased decisions like this one really drive the ol’ nail in the coffin. It is deeply sad to watch the Supreme Court engaging in yogi-like contortions to defend otherwise indefensible policies that Trump and his advisors impulsively ginned up without much apparent forethought. This sort of judicial reverse engineering speaks to the politicization of the Court in the most unflattering way.

To wit: on the same day that it affirmed Trump’s Muslim ban, the Court—very belatedly—at last formally renounced Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 case that upheld the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Preemptively anticipating the squawks over this irony, Chief Justice Roberts condescendingly claimed that the two cases were really not alike at all, although he didn’t bother explain why not. (Please show your work, John.)

John Roberts is a smart guy. But history will remember him as a fool and a villain for this attempt to justify why this patently racist, unconstitutional executive order was not exactly what Donald Trump repeatedly insisted it was. And if the Court will tie itself in such knots to prop up the sloppily conceived and plainly discriminatory Muslim ban, will they have any trouble finding reasons to excuse other outrageous and even illegal behavior by this president*?

The injustice of Gorsuch usurping Garland’s rightful place is bad enough. But to watch this parade of reactionary decisions, each of them another milestone in the systematic dismantling of decades of hard-won liberal progress, and frequently by a single vote, is especially gutting.

Imagine if McConnell had been prevented from engaging in this despciable anti-democratic behavior. (Or, more fantastically, if he was an even marginally decent human being with a shred of integrity or principle, and hadn’t pursued it in the first place.) A 5-4 SCOTUS majority in favor of the progressive wing—Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Garland—would presumably have acted as a brake on some of Trump’s excesses, not to mention declining to take a wrecking ball to the New Deal. Instead the Supreme Court has become a feckless rubber stamp for the most incompetent, corrupt, and destructive presidency in modern American history.

But somehow it’s fitting that Donald Trump, an illegitimate president installed with the help of a foreign power, should give us Neil Gorsuch, an illegitimate justice installed with the help of a  proto-fascist political party. I hope Neil wears that reputation around his neck like an albatross down into posterity and in perpetuity. I think there’s a good chance he will. (Sorry Neil.)

And now he’ll have a buddy with a similar bird for a necklace, his fellow Georgetown Prep alumnus and former Kennedy clerk Mr. Kavanaugh. I hope they both lie awake at night in a cold sweat for the rest of their lives, knowing that more than half the country thinks they are impostors and pretenders and lowdown usurpers who have no business in their current jobs, were it not for a lowlife Russian puppet who has no business in his.

ALAS POOR MERRICK

What’s that you say? Bleeding heart liberal whining? That spot didn’t “rightly” belong to the nominee of a Democratic president?

Oh, but it did.

McConnell may not have broken any laws in refusing even to meet with President Obama’s nominee, but he most certainly violated their spirit and perverted the democratic process. And he did it while hiding behind utterly dishonest excuses about Obama having “only” eleven months left in office, and the alleged need to wait for the upcoming presidential election in order to learn “the will of the people” (despite zero constitutional basis for that argument—this from the party of slavish originalism—and indeed healthy precedent to the contrary).

You can bet your bottom dollar that if a Democratic Senate Majority Leader—say, one with a vagina—did this to a lame duck Republican president, the GOP and all of Fox Nation would be howling for blood and declaring the arrival of a fascisto-liberal coup d’etat.

In retropsect, it was an ominous preview of the SOP of the Trump administration, which is to say, wanton norm-breaking as the order of the day, with chaotic and often disastrous consequences.

Likewise, in hindsight, yes, Obama should have pushed back harder against McConnell’s outrageous obstructionism and bald-faced refusal to do his constitutional duty. The administration should have vocally made that argument, mobilized public opinion, and done everything in its power to outflank the despicable excuse for a public servant who occupied the position of majority leader. It still might have failed, but it would have been the old college try. Perhaps—like the misplaced confidence that caused the Obama administration and the US Intelligence Community to keep quiet about the investigation of Trump’s connection with the Russians—the presumption was that it wouldn’t matter. (Why make a problem when Hillary was gonna win anwyay?)

One extreme tactic that was floated would have been to have Merrick Garland simply take his seat—George Costanza style—without Senate confirmation, implicitly daring McConnell to do something about it. Would the other eight justices have refused to allow Merrick in the room? Doubtful. Would McConnell have called federal marshals frogmarch him out in handcuffs? Equally doubtful. On the contrary: Chinless Mitch might have been left sputtering to the press, “Hey, you can’t do that!”, which would have been the height of irony. In any case, it certainly would have forced the issue, instead of the usual Democratic water-pistol-to-a-gunfight approach.

But it’s easy for me to say that now. During the period that the Garland debacle was playing out, nobody on either side yet understood the brutal new world of neo-fascist politics that we were entering, or the stakes thereof, not even McConnell or Trump themselves. With Trump’s shocking and unexpected victory, McConnell got one of the luckiest breaks in the history of American politics…..and his luck has continued with Kennedy’s resignation, manipulated though it may have been.

THE MUELLER CARD

Now we are having a similar debate over the fight to block Trump’s second nominee. Michael Moore has suggested ringing the US Capitol with protestors to physically prevent the Senate from taking up Kavanaugh’s nomination, and what a beautiful piece of street theater-cum-Paris 1968 style democracy-in-action that would be. More conventionally, Cory Booker has made the very sensible argument that if Barack Obama should not be allowed a hearing on his nominee simply because he had, ahem, only a quarter of his second term remaining, we can damn sure argue that a president who is under criminal investigation and in danger of impeachment shouldn’t be allowed one either.

Obviously McConnell and the GOP are going to disagree and peg the hypocrisy meter in claiming none of that matters to the confirmation process. Mitch has already gotten on his high horse about Democratic obstructionism over Kavanaugh, rich as that is, and stated openly that he is going to try to rush his confirmation through before November for fear of losing the House or even the Senate as well in the midterms. But Booker’s logic is unassailable, and at least as persuasive—in fact, far more so—than McConnell’s was in late 2016.

One thing that would definitely change the equation would be if Robert Mueller drops a sufficiently big bombshell in the next couple months.

If Trump is implicated in deeply serious crimes—which I think we all expect he will be—we can flood the streets and justifiably press Booker’s point, demanding that a president under such allegations has no business naming anyone to the Supreme Court. (We could credibly claim that now, but a phonebook-thick charge sheet from Mueller sure would help.)

Of course Fox Nation will dismiss ANYTHING Mueller produces. But if there is sufficient outrage and public protest, we have a shot at derailing Kavanaugh’s nomination, or at least making an absolute mockery of the Republicans’ attempt to jam any Trump nominee down our throats. I doubt the Founding Fathers intended the Senate to consider the nominee of a president who stands accused of obstruction of justice, conspiring with a foreign power, campaign finance violations, money laundering, fraud, graft, corruption, bribery, and possibly treason, or one who is named as an unindicted co-conspirator when others in his inner circle are charged, let alone indicted himself. (That’s a long shot, of course, and would immediately head for a showdown in the Supreme Court—gee, what a coincidence.)

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

So let us leave for now the “inside baseball” view of the current Supreme Court battle and conclude by looking at the role of the Court in the broader context of contemporary American politics.

Almost a year ago today I wrote at length about what can only be described as a long term, systemic campaign of anti-democratic sabotage of the American political system by the Republican Party. (The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible CoupJuly 2, 2017). Some of the fronts in this guerrilla war are voter suppression (including a vicious disinformation campaign promoting the racist myth of voter fraud); outrageously brazen gerrymandering; a lockdown of permanent control of state legislatures and governorships in defiance of the public will; the fomenting of terrible divides along racial, ehtnic, religious, and sexual lines; an Alamo-like defense of the antiquated and deeply unjust Electoral College; the protection of dark money in campaign finance; the marshaling of lobbyists to promote wedge issues, again frequently involving the spreading of lies; a stealth campaign to pack the federal courts with right wing judges working in ideological lock step (an effort that has accelerated exponentially under Trump, and with very little fanfare or public outcry); and perhaps most worrying, the establishment of a deep, deep-pocketed alernative media to serve as a propaganda machine and destroy rational debate and even the very concept of truth itself.

And how well has this GOP effort fared? Pretty damned well. Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post:

(Republicans) lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. Electoral college models show Republicans could plausibly continue to win the White House without popular majorities. Because of partisan gerrymandering and other factors, Democrats could win by eight percentage points and still not gain control of the House, one study found. And the two-senators-per-state system (which awards people in Republican Wyoming 70 times more voting power than people in Democratic California) gives a big advantage to rural, Republican states. The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has protected Republican minority rule. It gave the wealthy freedom to spend unlimited dark money on elections, while crippling the finances of unions. It sustained gerrymandering and voter-suppression laws that reduce participation of minority voters. And, of course, it gave the presidency to George W. Bush.

Confronted with this evidence, right wingers will howl that everything the GOP has done is perfectly legal. That is debatable, and a sweeping generalization for what is actually a mixture of legal, extralegal, and blatantly illegal acts.

But even if it were all completely above board, does that make a difference?

Many many authoritarian regimes have come to power through legal means—as often as not. They then destroy from within the very democratic systems that allowed them to gain control.

The Republican Party seems to be engaged in precisely that process right now, and has been for several decades. The result is that it may well be able to maintain control of the United States government even in defiance of the will of the majority, and be able to institute policy after policy that the majority opposes, all with impunity. Unchallenged and total control of the Supreme Court is the crown jewel in that effort, with the possible exception of a permanent occupation of the White House.

This GOP-controlled SCOTUS has made it clear that it is just another arm of the Trump administration, bent on an authoritarian, white nationalist coup d’etat. The installation of Brett Kavanaugh will only further entrench it in that role. The right will of course scoff that this is a hysterical liberal overreaction…..which is more proof that it is happening.

Now more than ever, I fear that the Supreme Court will ape the Republican Congress in acting as nothing more than an amen corner for Trump, absolving him of any need to conform to the rule of law, providing him cover and camouflage and the illusion of checks and balances, and further abetting the brick by brick dismantling of the American republic as we once knew it.

Many observers have pondered how long it will take the United States to recover from the damage Trump is doing. But now we are forced to wonder if America will recover from it at all.

*********

Next week, we look in more detail at Brett Kavanaugh and the judicial revolution we are facing….