The Fourth Horseman: Coup D’état by Chaos

The Fourth Horseman

This morning Alexa woke me up and informed me that it was time for another blog about Trump stealing the election.

I know I’ve become a broken record on that. (Kids: It’s an expression. Look it up.)

But events continue to conspire to make the likelihood of that attempted robbery higher and higher. For that matter, it’s already in motion. Increasingly we can even see the specifics of how it will unfold.

America is currently roiled by a trio of crises: a historic pandemic on a scale not seen in a hundred years, an economic depression not seen in more than ninety, and now an uprising in the streets over police brutality and systemic racism tied to the poisonous legacy of slavery, our country’s original sin. (We also had an impeachment in this calendar year, which is all but forgotten.)

But the really scary part is that a fourth horseman of the apocalypse may be yet to arrive, one that will make all this look like a church picnic, in the form of a constitutional crisis—if not violence in the streets—over Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the coming presidential election and remain in office regardless of the results. If so, that will be one of the most dangerous and consequential episodes in all of American history.

I can hear those hoofbeats galloping toward us even now.

CLANG CLANG CLANG WENT THE TROLLEY

The peaceful transition of power is the very hallmark of our representative democracy, one that even our worst presidents have always respected without question.

In 2016 Trump was the first presidential candidate in 227 years to whom it was necessary to ask if he would accept the will of the people on Election Day. That in itself was deeply disturbing. His answer—“I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”—was characteristically evasive and shit-stirring. It proved to be a harbinger of his entire presidency.

Since then, his vocal efforts to question and undermine the integrity of our elections have become routine, though no less terrifying. (Ironic, since his own election was probably the most compromised in US history. But that kind of projection is part and parcel of neo-fascism.)

His hints that he might dispute the results in 2020, or to defy or override the 22nd Amendment, or engage in other president-for-life brand maneuvers have become alarmingly frequent. Most recently, John Bolton revealed in his new book I’m a Spineless Piece of Shit (that was the working title, wasn’t it?) that Trump bragged to Xi Jinping that the American people are clamoring to change the US Constitution so he can serve more than two terms.

He might be right, if he meant two terms in prison.

The unthinkable of course—now very much thinkable—is that it might come down to tanks in the streets, a measure of how far we have fallen in just four years. Even during Watergate that was never a real concern.

In the wake of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, and in particular the St. John’s Church debacle, the chorus of retired generals and admirals pushing back against Trump’s outrageous threat to deploy the active duty US troops against the American people reassured many that the armed forces would not support any sort of coup d’état. By the transitive property, many also felt reassured that the military would actively move to eject him from office if he tried to hang on to power illegally.

But neither scenario is a sure thing. More to the point, Trump and the GOP are likely to use an approach that outflanks the whole question altogether.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, my surmise, as person steeped in US military culture, is that the Pentagon would likely follow a variation of the thought experiment known as the trolley problem…..which is not especially reassuring.

The good news is that the US military is so opposed to even the appearance of interfering in domestic politics that it is not likely to participate in anything that overturns a legal election.

The bad news is that, for the same reason, it is very likely to stand by and not intervene if there is no clear-cut winner and its involvement would give the impression of taking sides. That is especially true if one of the parties is the incumbent who convincingly insists that he has won, even if that impression is fake.

In other words, by not taking sides, the military will have taken a side. In that sense, inertia is very much Trump’s friend.

THE SOFT COUP

To that end, Trump doesn’t need to steal the election outright; all he has to do is create enough chaos and confusion that the outcome is in doubt.

And by “in doubt” I don’t even mean seriously in doubt. I mean just enough doubt—a frog hair’s worth, or whatever colorful phrase you desire—that he can plausibly claim victory and create a crisis. And we can be sure that if he does so, his followers—a minority of the electorate but still some sixty million Americans—will go along with a vengeance, precipitating a national nightmare and the real risk of civil war, or a de facto coup d’état, which ain’t better.

He and the GOP have been working on that for more than three years now.

The Republican Party has long been engaged in a despicably un-American campaign of voter suppression and subversion of democracy, from extreme gerrymandering, to the lie of voter fraud and the push for voter ID, to three card monte with polling locations, to mass disenfranchisement via the criminal justice system, and other abominations. That effort, while unconscionable and outrageous, has become almost blasé, which is itself grim, and the pandemic has only allowed the Republicans to accelerate it.

But Trump is taking it to a new and terrifying low with his current preparation of the electoral battlefield.

As Bill Kristol tweeted:

You look at the polls and think “he can’t win.” But Trump’s path to victory doesn’t depend on persuading Americans. It depends on voter suppression, mass disinformation, foreign interference, and unabashed use of executive branch power to shape events, and perceptions, this fall.

In the New York Times, Maggie Haberman, Nick Corasanti, and Linda Qui write:

Having yet to find an effective formula for undercutting Mr. Biden or to lure him into the kinds of culture war fights that the president prefers, Mr. Trump is training more of his fire on the political process in a way that appears intended to give him the option of raising doubts about the legitimacy of the outcome.

This effort to undermine public confidence in the election is precisely what the Kremlin seeks to do—yet another way in which Trump continues to serve as Putin’s stooge and advance the Russian agenda.

In his usual quiet-part-out-loud manner, Trump has said repeatedly that mail-in voting is the biggest risk to his re-election. Accordingly, he has invested great energy in shrieking that it is a scam, claims echoed by his hateful Richelieu, Bill Barr.

The WaPo reports:

“Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history — unless this stupidity is ended,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. In a separate tweet, he claimed that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”

It goes without saying there is no evidence of any such thing, as election officials across the country have testified. (Both Trump and Barr have voted by mail in the past.)

Back to Haberman, Corasanti, and Qui (whom, you will be forgiven for thinking, are neither a law firm nor a folk rock trio):

Promoting baseless questions about election fraud is nothing new for Mr. Trump. He has hopscotched from saying that President Barack Obama was elected with the help of dead voters to suggesting that undocumented immigrants were voting en masse to claiming that out-of-state voters were bused into New Hampshire in 2016.

He has inaccurately claimed that “anybody in California that’s breathing gets a ballot,” including people that aren’t citizens, illegals.” State officials will mail ballots to active registered voters only.

He wrongly claimed that Nevada and Michigan had “illegally” sent absentee ballots to voters, and threatened to withhold federal funding should they not rescind the policy, though he did not have the authority to do so.

Mr. Trump has made five dozen false claims about mail balloting since April, as officials in various states began contemplating the need for expanded use of the option amid the pandemic. About a third of the president’s falsehoods were general warnings about widespread fraud in mail-in voting. Another 11 were specific claims about held-up mail carriers, stolen and forged ballots and dead people voting….

The president has directly accused Democrats five times of “rigging” the election through mail-in voting, and has claimed four times that Republicans are at a disadvantage when mail-in ballots are used or are not sent mail-in ballots at all.

The focus on attacking voting-by-mail is not accidental. Even as Trump recognizes the threat that it poses to his re-election, it is also the most readily available means by which he and the GOP can create the aforementioned fog that will enable them to nullify the election and retain power.

SEND UP THE COUNT

The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner recently had a sobering article predicting that we will not know who won the White House on Election Night, and that “a close race between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a pivotal state could take days, even weeks, to resolve.”

Those are the very conditions Trump would criminally exploit.

Presidential elections are almost always called before counting is complete. Many news outlets, including The Washington Post, follow the predictions of the Associated Press, the wire service with a long track record of combining reported results with exit polling data to announce state-by-state results.

The surge in mail balloting this year has complicated those calls. In Georgia, the AP incorrectly declared runoffs in two Democratic House primaries where late returns of absentee ballots shifted the results.

After voters in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada went to the polls this month, some races hung in the balance for days as election officials waded through thousands of absentee ballots. On Tuesday, a similar scenario is expected to play out in Kentucky and New York, where officials have already announced that some results will not be available for as long as a week.

Gardner reports that last April Wisconsin processed a record number of absentee ballots—nearly 1.1 million. Pennsylvania had 1.5 million mail-in ballots, compared with 84,000 in its 2016 primary. Nevada, jumped from about 25,000 to 483,788. Ohio officials expect a full quarter of their electorate to vote by mail. Kentucky voters requested nearly a million absentee ballots as of last week, roughly twenty times the usual number, while New York saw roughly ten times the number from four years ago. Many of those states also saw long lines at the polls, counting delays, and malfunctioning voting machines.

Even worse, some states are stuck in an outdated paradigm in which the laws don’t allow the counting of mail-in votes to begin until the polls have closed on Election Day. With the crush of absentee ballots, Pennsylvania recently took ten days to count its primary votes. Two other swing states, Michigan and Wisconsin, have similar prohibitions. (And lest we forget, those three states are the ones who delivered Trump the presidency in 2016 by a razor-thin margin of around 90,000 votes.)

Jesus, this country is a mess. We can’t fight a virus, we can’t run a functioning election, and we have a game show host as our president. Backward Fourth World countries like Fredonia, Parador, Tijata, and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick are looking at us with pity.

Efforts to address these issues have been hampered by—you guessed it—Trump’s own attacks on the very concept of voting by mail, and the slavish hatred of it that his acolytes have predictably adopted. There have even been reports of Trump supporters burning the absentee ballot applications that were mailed to them by state officials.

By all means, burn them, idiots….and don’t show up to vote in November either.

In other words, it is more likely than not that we can expect a protracted legal battle much like Florida in 2000, a situation that presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says “is going to automatically create mayhem about a ‘rigged’ election.”

Of note, Republicans approached that episode like it was a prison knife fight, while Democrats politely cleared their throats and wrung their hands. The Florida recount and its attendant legal fight lasted 35 days before the Supreme Court (gulp) settled it.

One guess how Trump will behave during that interim, and how the Court’s conservative majority is apt to rule.

IF YOU SEE MY REFLECTION IN THE SNOW-COVERED HILLS

Election law experts like Professor Richard L. Hasen of UC Irvine worry that Trump will declare victory in key states on November 3rd before absentee ballots are counted.

Anyone here think Trump would calmly relinquish Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes if the absentee count comes in three weeks later and reverses the Electoral College tally? After he has spent months propagandizing millions of Americans that those absentee ballots are fraudulent in the first place?

One of the huge advantages Bush had in 2000 and that fiasco was that he claimed the mantle of victor and president-elect from the start, forcing Gore into the position where he had to challenge the results. As the incumbent, it will be even easier for Trump to do the exact same thing, regardless of the numbers. It’s impossible to overstate how huge an advantage that is. (See Leon Nayfakh’s great podcast on the subject.)

It could be even uglier than that. Some weeks ago Franklin Foer had a juggernaut of a piece in The Atlantic detailing how Russia can ratfuck the election on Trump’s behalf with chillingly simple measures. I’ve quoted this passage before but I’m going to do it again because it ought to scare the pants off all of us (at least all of us who aren’t rooting for the Klan guys in “Watchmen”):

On Election Night, the Russians could place a page on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website that falsely showed Trump with a sizable lead. Government officials would be forced to declare it a hoax. Imagine how Twitter demagogues, the president among them, would exploit the ensuing confusion….

Given the fragility of American democracy, even the tiniest interference, or hint of interference, could undermine faith in the tally of the vote.

Sure, by conventional metrics Biden may be headed for a landslide. Let’s hope so: it may be our best bet to avoid the nightmare scenario of a contested election and all the tumult, damage to the republic, and potential violence that entails.

How much of an obvious victory would Biden require to pre-empt an attempt by Trump to steal it? I don’t think a big enough margin exists. Trump is so shameless that no matter how badly he is beaten, he will still claim victory (or at least that the vote was “rigged” and therefore nullified), the same way that he habitually tells his followers that up is down, 2 + 2 = 5, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

As Brian Klaas wrote in the Washington Post several weeks ago, in a piece called “We Need to Prepare for the Possibility of Trump Rejecting Election Results”:

In 2016, when he narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by a historic margin, he claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally. That is a lie. But it raised an obvious question:

If Trump claimed that an election he won was rigged, what will he do with an election he loses?

For what it’s worth (which is less than nothing), Trump himself has said this time that he will accept the results of the vote, telling Fox News: “Certainly if I don’t win, I don’t win. I mean, you know, go on and do other things,”

Whew, that’s a relief. Because Donald Trump would never say one thing and then turn around and do a 180.

More to the point, it gives him his usual wiggle room, because he will simply say that he did win, no matter what. Unlike 2016, when he openly announced he might question the result, the false veneer of fair play inherent in his bluff assurance that he will accept the tally this time actually worries me more.

PAGING ALICE COOPER

So here’s the nightmare.

During this presidency, Trump has infuriatingly gotten the benefit of the doubt on every imaginable legal front: hiding his tax returns, felony campaign finance violations, the Muslim ban, firing the FBI director, playing footsy with the Kremlin, reallocating defense dollars to build his beaded border curtain, kidnapping and caging children in concentration camps, defying subpoenas, dodging removal by impeachment, the ongoing slow motion Saturday Night Massacre of the Inspectors General, last week’s removal of Geoff Berman, and on and on.

Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, none of these things individually or even collectively were enough to set off the “in case of autocracy, break glass” alarm. (Until St. John’s and the idea of ordering US soldiers to murder peaceful American protestors.)

Sowing sufficient doubt to create an electoral fog in which he somehow can abscond with a second term would be the ne plus ultra in this parade of crimes.

The GOP knows Trump would be a dead man walking in a fair election. It has also known for some time now that it is in a losing demographic battle in general. It would love an excuse to keep control of the presidency, no matter how shamelessly fraudulent or destructive to the republic that effort is.

Please don’t suggest to me that there is an atom of integrity left in the leadership of the Grand Old Party that would prevent it from participating in this travesty. That boat sailed sometime around the time Michael Jordan decided he preferred baseball. If Trump is able to engineer a constitutional crisis that results in his retention of the White House, even if it is flamingly corrupt, even if it provokes a constitutional crisis that does terrible damage to this country, Mitch McConnell & Company will be all in. Is that even a question?

If the decision ends up in the hands of the US Supreme Court again, as it did in 2000, we can expect a similar 5-4 partisan decision awarding the win to Trump. And then, in addition to all the other horrors a second Trump term will entail, the credibility of the SCOTUS will lie bleeding on the floor with a stake through its heart.

But that will be the least of our problems.

FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO

So what can we do?

We have to raise public awareness now, and put this scenario out there so people are prepared for it and Trump won’t be able to pull a fast one this November. Of course that won’t deter him from trying, but it will make it harder to get away with.

It is somewhat cheering that Biden himself has been raising the alarm, but that won’t be enough.

We have to make it clear what Trump and the GOP are trying to do and expose the perfidy so it won’t come as a surprise in November.

We have to insist on changes that minimize the chances of confusion and criminality, we have to come out in force, and we have to demand the vigorous exercise of the kind of democratic mechanisms we flatter ourselves to believe we live under.

And if the worst comes to pass, we have to be prepared to fight in a way that we did not fight when electoral irregularities emerged in 2000, or in 2016. We have to refuse to be robbed.

Let us prepare for this shit show now, because it is coming as sure as the armageddon that the Book Revelation foretells.

Can I get an amen?

***********

Illustration: Rose of God Fandom

Previous King’s Necktie posts on this goddam subject (newest to oldest):

“What They Do Next Is Steal an Election” – June 5, 2020

Will We Go Into the Darkness? – November 25, 2019

Knives to a Gunfight – September 19, 2019

The Fiasco to Come – September 4, 2019

Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)? – July 23, 2018

Who Says the Next Election Will Be OK? (or How We Lost a War We Didn’t Know We Were In) – September 27, 2017

The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup – July 12, 2017

 

 

Mask (and Non-Mask) as Totem

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It is not news that the mask has become a political totem at a time when our head of state has, through both malevolence and incompetence, led us into a public health catastrophe that has cost 120,000 American lives and counting, with no end in sight, and now wants us to believe it’s not his fault, the crisis is past, and everything is hunky dory.

Disregarding the grave advice of every reputable public health expert, and following the lead of their grotesque leader, the refusal of Trump’s supporters to wear masks is very much a banner of partisan allegiance. It is also a batshit crazy denial of objective reality, the kind of irrational devotion to the Dear Leader—even at the cost of one’s own physical well-being—normally found only in death cults.

To that end, the politicization of the mask-wearing become the perfect symbol of the madness in the time of Trump.

And what rationale do the denizens MAGA Nation offer for this decision?

For some, it’s mere denial and wishful thinking.

For others, it is a public demonstration of belief in the Trumpian claim that the virus is a hoax. (But you need to sign this waiver saying that your family won’t sue in case it kills you.)

For still others it’s an obstinate, self-destructive act of libertarianism, a defiant cutting-off-of-one’s-nose-to-spite-one’s-face by way of proving that the government can’t tell me what to do, dammit.

All three lines of argument are indefensible, but it’s the last one that is most disgusting.

Behold this statement from the proverbial Florida man, Max Parsell, whom the Washington Post reports “hasn’t been wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic and doesn’t intend to start,” on the grounds that it is “a matter of principle.”

“Making individual decisions is the American way,” Parsell, a 29-year-old lineman for a power company, said as he picked up his lunch at a barbecue joint at a rural crossroads south of Jacksonville. “I’ll social distance from you if you want, but I don’t want the government telling me I have to wear a mask.”

That’s like saying “It’s a violation of my rights that I have to be sober when I drive.”

To review, for those who failed civics in high school: There are lots of things that we as a society say you must do (have car insurance) or not do (chug a bottle of Jaegermeister before getting behind the wheel).

Like those things, it ought to go without saying that not wearing a mask is not merely a matter of your own personal liberty, Max: it affects the health and of everyone around you, and potentially puts their very lives at risk. In case you care.

But allegiance to Trump means you don’t have to give a shit about your fellow man if it inconveniences you, and if the facts of scientific reality say otherwise, well, what are facts anyway? Only what the Dear Leader says they are.

In the New York Times, Jennifer Senior writes:

Three years ago, a friend of mine shrewdly pointed out that Trump’s election would be like one long national Milgram experiment, the famous psychological study from the 1960s that revealed just how susceptible people are to authority, how depressingly willing they are to obey even the most horrifying commands.

Can nanny state paternalism go too far? Of course. So can Friedmanesque libertarianism, which is often just a cover for might-makes-right plutocracy. As a people, we are capable of making common sense decisions about where to draw the line, a line that shifts with time and circumstance and is every malleable.

At least we ought to be.

FISH ARE JUMPING AND THE COTTON IS HIGH

The politicization of mask-wearing has become an even more urgent matter as summer comes upon us and the country begins to open up—unwisely, in some places and cases.

We’re entering a scary new phase. Like many, I’m seeing it firsthand, in my case, as I’ve begun to travel outside of New York City, where I’ve spent the last hundred days.

People are tired of sheltering in place. I get that. So, because they’re antsy, because it’s summer, and yada yada yada, they’ve decided that the pandemic is over.

Hey, I understand it. I’m ready to get out and about too. But because I’m not two years old, I know that there are lots of things in life that I want but can’t have.

The anti-mask mindset is an infantile one that fails to understand the distinction between “freedom to” and “freedom from,” in Erich Fromm’s formulation. Masha Gessen explains it well in The New Yorker:

Negative freedom is the freedom from constraint, the sort of freedom that teen-agers demand when they want you to stop telling them what to do. This is also the sort of freedom Americans most often mean when we talk about freedom: individual liberty.

Positive freedom is the freedom not from others but with others; one might call it social and political freedom…..

(Isaiah Berlin, the twentieth-century British thinker) was not arguing that one concept of freedom is better than the other. A student of Russia, he was keenly aware that tyrannies can be built on ideologies of a greater good, and that extreme oppression can be propped up with rhetoric of freedom. But seeing freedom as merely the absence of coercion, he thought, was insufficient. His argument was that the two concepts of freedom have to coexist, even if sometimes they collide.

But this is America in a nutshell, much of it focused exclusively on I me me mine. Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” is alive and well here, as is the myth of rugged individualism, or at least the dangerous exaggeration thereof. It is the same philistine mentality that gave us Trump in the first place, and is now killing us by the tens of thousands.

Near the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about how the interdependent nature of the required response to this crisis makes the case for community, as opposed to Darwinian every-man-for-himselfism. It’s deeply disappointing—though not surprising—to see the way that selfishness and a lack of empathy have worked against that.

But empathy is not exactly the signature commodity in the Age of Trump.

Given how anxious people are to put covid-19 behind us, what’s especially infuriating, and ironic, is that we actually have it within our power to contain and control the virus to a large degree. According to a computer simulation led by De Kai, a computer scientist with joint appointments at UC Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as reported by Vanity Fair:

If 80% of a closed population were to don a mask, covid-19 infection rates would statistically drop to approximately one twelfth the number of infections—compared to a live-virus population in which no one wore masks.

In other words, we could beat this thing right now and resume some semblance of normalcy if we all behaved like responsible, mature adults.

How pathetic that we cannot.

THANK YOU MASKED MAN

There was no better demonstration of this Know Nothing mentality than Trump’s rally in Tulsa last Saturday night. Everything about it screamed nihilistic defiance of reason, public safety, and simple human decency, from the date (keyed to Juneteenth, the better to spit in the face of African-American community), to the petri dish nature of a densely packed indoor rally in a state where covid-19 cases are spiking, to the choice of a city that saw one of the worst homicidal massacres of black people in American history, and in close proximity to where that atrocity took place.

Very on brand, though, you have to give Trump that.

Ironically, Trump’s rally in Tulsa has made millions of Americans learn about the 1921 Greenwood massacre. He’s already taken credit for making Juneteenth famous…..stand by for him to take credit for this.

As it turned out, “densely packed” turned out not to be a very accurate prediction: Trump only drew 6200 fans to an arena that seats 19,000. (Billie Eilish sold it out last October. Can she be president please? Al Franken informs us of other acts that drew bigger crowds to that same arena in 2019, including Sha Na Na, The Pips—sans Gladys Knight, Loverboy, John Tesh, and the West Virginia touring company of “La Traviata.”)

Even accounting for hacking by K-pop fans  (I love it), that was a dismal showing….. especially after Trump’s team bragged about receiving a million ticket requests—and no amount of spin from the Sean Spicer School of Crowd Estimation could hide that. Trump and Pence even had to cancel a planned outdoor address to the overflow crowd that didn’t materialize.

The New York Times reports:

President Trump and several staff members stood backstage and gazed at the empty Bank of Oklahoma Center in horror. The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium, according to four people familiar with what took place.

Whether that low turnout was the result of his diminishing popularity, or of fears of covid, really doesn’t matter. Either way, it was a welcome sign that his gaslighting on the matter of the pandemic is not living up to Trump’s usual Orwellian standards.

The rally itself was like watching pro wrestling, with Trump as face and heel rolled into one. He’s more extreme than ever, but you can also see him actively working these days, like an over-the-hill entertainer, trying to recapture—and outdo—the outrageousness that came so naturally to him in 2016.

Since Trump lives in Bizarro World where everything he says is the opposite of the truth, here’s what he said in Tulsa about the coronavirus, as reported by the Washington Post:

“We—I—have done a phenomenal job,” he said about the federal government’s response to the pandemic. “I saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

In another lowlight, Trump admitted—boasted, in fact—that he wanted coronavirus testing slowed to improve the numbers. Some have suggested that this is tantamount to confessing to a crime against humanity. Others, no less bitingly, have pointed out that it’s like saying “I haven’t gained a pound since I stopped weighing myself.”

His pathology was on particularly full display in the insane ten minutes he spent defending his widely-ridiculed performance at the US Military Academy commencement, in the process only reminding everyone of it. The performance ended with the crowd wildly cheering Trump’s ability to drink a glass of water with one hand.

Impressive indeed.

RAT, MEET CORNER

If one of the intentions of the Tulsa rally (aside from just giving Donald an erection after three months of quarantine) was to reassure the GOP leadership that his carnival barker powers are undiminished amid plummeting poll numbers and general chaos, it failed miserably, which ought to make Moscow Mitch & Co. nervous.

Here’s Greg Sargent, also writing in the Washington Post:

This rally was meant to “reset” a much larger story line: It was supposed to reinforce and embody the notion that Trump has defeated the coronavirus, that the country is roaring back to greatness and that Trump is soaring to reelection on the wings of those triumphs.

Trump has long operated from the premise that he can win reelection by creating the illusion that he has mastered (control of events)…. The Tulsa rally was supposed to be a big part of this manufactured illusion. Remember, it was justified by Pence’s false claim that the curve has been flattened in Oklahoma…..

Don’t look now, but President Trump may finally be realizing, with creeping dread, that there may be limits to his magical lying and reality-bending powers. He may be grasping that his capacity to mesmerize his supporters into disbelieving what their own eyes and ears are telling them is not absolute after all…

The wee hours photo of a defeated Trump returning from Tulsa (taken by Patrick Semansky of AP), walking from Marine One to the White House with the body language of a whipped dog, said it all. He looked like a dazed college boy making the Walk of Shame back to the dorm after a vigorous buggering by the boys at Theta Delt.

But if history is any guide, Don won’t stay depressed for long; his default setting Is rage, and that is sure to resume prominence shortly, probably before this ink is dry. If the embarrassing turnout in Tulsa will worry the GOP, it will certainly infuriate Trump and set his course going forward. The real danger, then, is how this humiliation will drive him to even more dangerous measures to save his sorry ass.

Jennifer Senior again:

(I)t’s precisely because Trump feels overwhelmed and outmatched that I fear we’ve reached a far scarier juncture: he seems to be attempting, however clumsily, to transition from president to autocrat, using any means necessary to mow down those who threaten his re-election.

Senior details a few of the ways this cornered rat is already lashing out:

For over three years, (Trump has) been dismembering the body politic, institution by institution, norm by norm. What has largely spared us from total evisceration were honorable civil servants and appointees. Trump has torn through almost all of them and replaced them with loyalists. He now has a clear runway. What we have left is an army of pliant flunkies and toadies at the agencies, combined with the always-enabling Mitch McConnell and an increasingly emboldened attorney general, William Barr.

Barr then tried to replace Geoffrey S. Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, with a Trump loyalist who had zero prosecutorial experience—at a time when Berman was actively investigating Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and a Turkish bank that Trump suggested to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he’d try to protect. (Berman stepped down, but Trump did not get the appointee he desired.)

That was all on Friday and Saturday. Just Friday and Saturday.

Whatever it is that the SDNY is close to uncovering (there are lots of candidates, per above), it must be something Trump REALLY doesn’t want to come out. (Berman, I will remind you, is not some “Obama holdover” as Fox would have it, but an appointee of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s own AG at the time.)

But if you will indulge me in a brief tangent, one other aspect of the Berman goatscrew that was fascinating was the scuzzy way the administration handled it.

First Barr told the press that Berman was stepping down, a report that took Berman himself by surprise; he reported that he learned of it when he saw the press release. When Berman boldly announced he would not leave his post unless properly removed, Barr then informed him—via message, not face to face or even with the courtesy of a phone call—that the president was indeed firing him. But then Trump, with his usual cowardice, claimed he “wasn’t involved” and that it was all Barr’s doing. Only then, no doubt when his handlers awkwardly explained the law to him, did he agree to fire Berman overtly.

For a guy whose tagline used to be “You’re fired,” Trump sure is a wuss about doing it for real.

Mr. Berman could have continued to fight, as the actual rules regarding who could properly remove him remain fuzzy, but he had already made his point and secured a partial retreat by Barr—at least for now—on his successor.

But the legal issue of who has the authority to fire Berman is not really the point. Regardless of the answer, it’s blatantly obvious that Trump is trying to squash an investigation that will implicate him and his cronies. That is the very definition of corruption, and in any normal time that in and of itself might be a presidency-ending scandal.

Instead, we have just taken another step on the road to full-blown authoritarianism.

HALF MAST

More from Senior:

What else this past week? Trump’s handpicked head of the US Agency for Global Media —an ally of Steve Bannon, by the way—purged the heads of Radio Free Europe and its three siblings, in what seemed like an unnerving bid to make his own version of state-run TV. Then Trump tweeted out a video he knew had been doctored by a meme-generating supporter, a supposed scare segment from CNN about a racist baby. (Twitter first stamped a “manipulated media” warning on it, then disappeared it entirely.)

That was all on Wednesday and Thursday. Just Wednesday and Thursday.

In April and May, he got rid of five inspectors general. He has replaced intelligence community veterans with partisan loyalists who’ve raised questions about the validity of the Russia probe. He’s threatened to use the military to quell civic unrest. He used pepper balls and smoke canisters on protesters for a campaign photo op.

But the true stuff of my nightmares—and the ultimate authoritarian ambush—would be a move by Trump to suppress the vote by a means I haven’t yet imagined. (Voting is left up to the states.) He’s already thrown his weight behind fund-raising efforts to aggressively “monitor” polling places, supposedly to weed out fraud, an almost nonexistent threat.

Jennifer and I share that same nightmare.

So as I go out and about in my summer travels amid a newly re-opening America—proudly wearing a mask—I see a lot of American flags flying at half mast, more than not, in fact. I know that this in tribute to the more than 120,000 of our countrymen who have been killed by covid-19, and our so-called leadership’s failure to act on it.

It’s a moving gesture.

But more and more as I look at those flags, I fear that they are lowered in mourning for something else, and this is for the American Idea itself.

*********

Photo: Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger. (Hi yo, Silver!)

 

 

Behind the Blue Wall (Redux)

BTBW

In January 2018 I spoke with the Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Pete Nicks about The Force, the second film in his acclaimed trilogy set in Oakland, California, exploring the interconnected narratives of health care, criminal justice, and education in America.

The Force focuses on Oakland’s deeply troubled police department and its history of violence. It won Nicks the Documentary Directing Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, was released theatrically by Kino Lorber, and aired nationwide on PBS’s Independent Lens. (The previous film in the series, The Waiting Room, was set in Oakland’s Highland Hospital, and won the Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit award in 2012. Pete is currently at work on the final segment, Homeroom, set in Oakland’s public schools.)

Our two-year-old conversation is more relevant than ever in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others.

To cite just one example,  consider this quote from the film, from an Oakland police captain speaking to a new class of police recruits, telling them:

One bad cop can destroy a department, can destroy a city, can destroy a country.”

That was certainly prescient in light of the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd—I won’t say his name. But it’s clear that that captain is not promoting the “one bad apple” theory. He’s talking about a whole poisoned orchard that is reflected not only in our criminal justice system, but also in health care, and education, and on down the line.

A new interview with Pete Nicks will appear in these pages in the coming weeks.

***********

January 22, 2018

If there is one city in the United States that embodies the current crisis in American law enforcement—and in particular, the outrage over the epidemic of racially-based, often lethal police brutality against people of color—it is Oakland, California.

It is the place from which the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was spawned in 1966 in response to the repeated police killings of young African-American citizens….a city whose police department has been under federal oversight for 13 years due to systemic abuses, longer than any other in the country….and one that five years ago saw two police chiefs resign in three days, then last year lost three more chiefs in the space of eight.

At this moment in the history of American policing—amid Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and Colin Kaepernick vs. Trump Nation, to name just a few in a grim parade of flashpoints—there is no more fraught place than Oakland.

For two years, Bay Area filmmaker Pete Nicks, producer Linda Davis, and editor/soundman Lawrence Lerew embedded themselves with the Oakland Police Department to document this story from the inside. Operating in a lean, unobtrusive style that has drawn favorable comparisons to the great cinema vérité pioneer Fred Wiseman, Nicks (who was also the film’s cinematographer) immerses the audience in intense environments that would otherwise be opaque to most of the public.

Nicks’s work at once offers us fly-on-the wall entrée to some of the most cloistered realms of our society without delivering easy, pat answers to complex questions or forcing an agenda on the audience. Of such thought-provoking, challenging stuff is a healthy, informed, and engaged democracy made.

ACCESS ANTI-HOLLYWOOD

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thanks for sitting down with me, Pete. Can you start by talking about how you got this kind of access to the OPD?

PETE NICKS: Well, The Waiting Room opened up the possibility of a trilogy, because we saw all these really fascinating intersections. In the hospital we’d meet all these cops, and a lot of the nurses dated teachers, and a lot of the teachers dated cops, and a lot of the cops dated nurses….so there was this really interesting lens onto a community through the perspective of public institutions that are often at the center of very divisive and caustic national conversations. Public institutions that are made up of (smiling) human beings….

It started with health care, and our goal there was to unpack that issue through the perspective of these people on the front lines of this public hospital and try to reframe how people engage the issue in human terms.

When we finished that film and were thinking about what’s next, obviously the relationship between the police and the community was resonating. Things were happening, and race was entering our discourse in a new way, and the police became sort of the face of that as a mechanism aligned with racism, or aspects of racism or bias that were driving injustice in our country and had been doing so for generations. So it was an intriguing challenge. How do you enter that institution and tell their story at this moment when people have a lot of very complicated views of the police…..or views of that aren’t very complicated at all, in other words, that they’re just straight up evil or corrupt full stop. So that was our challenge, to take this next step in what we wanted to be a trilogy.

And I say “we”—I collaborated on this with my producer Linda Davis and my editor Lawrence Lerew, who I had done The Waiting Room with. And then Jon Else came onboard to be the executive producer, and Jon actually was the one who pushed me towards examining the OPD. You know, he’s the guy, the legend, who’s been on the front lines of the civil rights movement and films about it from the beginning. So we took the challenge.

(NB: Legendary Bay Area documentary director and cinematographer Jon Else is head of the UC Berkeley graduate program in documentary film. A 1988 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow, Else’s social justice bonafides stretch back to his undergraduate days as a Freedom Rider, producer on Eyes on the Prize, and his Oscar-nominated 1980 documentary about Robert Oppenheimer, The Day After Trinity, among many other achievements and accolades.)

So then we began the process of trying to get access to the department, which was the first trick, and that took about a year. Then we found ourselves beginning filming right at a volatile moment, which was when the grand jury in St. Louis chose not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, which touched off weeks of protest. That’s actually when we began our film.

TKN: That was some fortuitous timing, to say the least. But especially in the wake of that volatile situation, how did you manage to convince the OPD that this would be in their best interest, or the community’s best interest?

PN: The Waiting Room really resonated with people in terms of how we were able to reframe what had become a very divisive dialogue around access to health care. So when we approached the city they had heard of the film, and had a sense of what sort of storyteller our team was and what kind of sensibility we bring, that it’s an observational approach. Our pitch was that we’re not going to promise you anything other than that we’re going to tell your story as we see it. Our process is to embed for multiple years so we can get to as deep an authenticity as possible, understanding that storytellers always carry bias with them and bring that bias into their telling.

We told that we were coming in with no judgments, and I felt for me that was true. And the only way I was really able to do that was because I hadn’t had some of the visceral, violent personal experiences that a lot of black people have had. I grew up in the black church, and I went to Howard, but I’m mixed race, I can navigate, I can live my life in ways where I’m not necessarily being profiled, or thrown on the hood of a car, or having epithets thrown at me. At the same time I understand the narratives and the stories of people who have, so I’m very uniquely positioned to both go in with an open mind toward the police, but also an understanding of the damage that has been done to our communities—particularly of color—and how those stories have been carried from generation to generation.

So the intent of the film was to try to reframe how each side saw each other. I intuitively felt that the police—the institution of the police, but also the individuals within the police—probably didn’t have a firm understanding of those narratives and the impact that those narratives had had, and likewise that the community didn’t really understand what it’s like to be a cop and what they’re facing on a day to day basis. People on both sides often perceive the other through two-dimensional narratives, and we wanted to try to upend that. I thought that was a pretty good starting point.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF POVERTY

TKN: Did you have any kind of structure in mind going in? Because the structure of the film is pretty bold.

PN: Initially we wanted to film in the dispatch center to replicate the device that we discovered in The Waiting Room, which was the waiting room as a fulcrum or a nexus, a place where you could discover so much about the diversity of the community, and about how the institution operated, about the challenges that the institution was facing. So we felt that the dispatch center would be a fascinating stage to understand how the police operated and the nature of the struggles that they face every day.

We had to shift focus once the protests started. From the point forward it slowly became clear that we were documenting two years in the life of a department attempting to reform, at this very specific moment in time, when these protests were erupting, and trust had degraded to almost nothing, and accountability was being demanded. What does it look like inside a department to navigate that? It was a department trying to respond to those calls for change, but also trying to keep the city safe at the same time, and we were asking how those two goals related to each other.

TKN: And in the movie, it seems that the department is doing a very good job—or an admirable job, anyway—of tackling that challenge and making real reforms, especially in light of its history. Is that how it felt on the ground?

PN: Initially we got the sense of what the challenges were. They’re underfunded, as many public institutions are. We got a sense of the dynamic nature of what departments face, not just in terms of crime but in terms of the consequences of poverty. And that’s a sort of underlying theme in all my work: what are the consequences of poverty in communities, in terms of access to health care, criminal justice, and education? And it was surprising the openness that we were received with.

But this was a department that was actively being forced to reform. A federal monitor was overseeing it. It wasn’t like the department woke up one morning and said, (cheery) “Let’s change!” People were putting pressure on it in a lot of ways. John Burris and Jim Chanin were the two civil rights attorneys locally that have really pushed this oversight of the department through legal action. And also the people. Oakland is an incredibly activist city, and has been all the way back to the Black Panthers. Very specific kind of DNA to it.

But we were surprised. They were actually making some progress, they were open, and we assumed it was because they felt that allowing us access would allow that story to be told. And that’s what you see at the beginning of the film: a lot of these changes taking root and making a difference and changing the culture, and leading to statistical improvements in certain areas, whether it was racial profiling, or officer-involved shootings, etc.

SHAKESPEARE IN THE EAST BAY

TKN: Considering where the film ends up, to what do you attribute that success—that limited success—that they had? Was it Chief Whent, was it the pressure from outside, was it a combination of things? Because just statistically, things got better, or at least they appeared to be getting better in the portrait that you painted.

PN: It’s an incredibly complex idea that we’re asking the audience to grapple with, and that we’re asking critics to grapple with, and I think a lot of the critique of the film kind of missed the mark. Critique kind of needs to understand the intent. What was the intent of the author and was that intent realized? And our intent was to ask the audience to go into a very complex environment at a moment when we’re all asking ourselves, “Which side are we on?” Where activists are asking—demanding—that we choose a side, where cops don’t have a choice but to choose the side that they’re on.

SPOILER ALERT: key plot points are given away below.

(While Pete and his team were filming THE FORCE, the Oakland Police Department was rocked by a massive sex scandal arising from an officer’s illicit relationship with an underage prostitute. The scandal ultimately forced the resignation of Chief Sean Whent for his part in allegedly covering it up, as well as a raft of other stunning setbacks for the department.)

PN: We’re asking the audience to try to hold multiple, conflicting truths simultaneously, and one of the most profound truths that the audience is left with—and some audiences aren’t willing to accept it—is that this was a department that made tremendous progress and is arguably one of the most progressive departments….but on the other hand, was also a department that suffered from a moral failure of profound proportions. It leaves you with a very troubling feeling of “Can change ever take root?”

I think there are different types of change, and I think the type of failure that you see at the end of this movie is more akin to what we’re seeing now in Hollywood, or that we saw in the Catholic church: a sort of human, moral failure that has a Shakespearean quality and speaks to the constant cycle of reform and failure that the human race has been engaging in forever.

TKN: I certainly had that reaction. At that point in the film, as a viewer and as a filmmaker, my heart went out to you, because it’s such a huge shift, both editorially, and in terms of what it says about what’s going on in the OPD. By then I’m so invested in the success of this department, and sympathetic to what they’re trying to do despite their problems, and then this thing comes seemingly out of left field and just changes everything.

I presume you were cutting as you went along, as you were shooting?

PN: Yeah. But even that process kind of got upended when the scandal happened. We actually were about to head off to the Sundance edit lab when the scandal was breaking out and we had to call them and say we can’t make it, because shit’s going down (laughs).

We had to recut the entire film after the scandal broke out. Originally we were much more examining the presence of implicit bias, the presence of racism, not just in the human heart but institutionally, how that had taken root and what was being done to change that. Ironically, that kind of got pushed aside.

The OPD had this researcher from Stanford, Jennifer Eberhardt, who is a MacArthur “Genius” grantee who had been working with them, and studying all their body-worn camera footage, and done a lot of work on implicit bias. So we had scenes of her, scenes in the academy…..all that material got pushed aside in the interest of sparing the audience a four-hour film. Maybe it will be in a sequel, I don’t know. But that made it very difficult for some audiences—and for some critics—to understand, “What is the takeaway?” Are we doomed, or are we hopeful? And I actually think there is quite a lot of hope, given some of the successes that they did have. The fact that the scandal happened amid that success is a paradox that I’m still trying to understand.

ORIGINAL SIN

TKN: There’s that powerful scene with the community organizers where one woman says, “There are no good cops.” She’s arguing that it’s not just the system that’s fucked up; all these cops are bad. And then there’s pushback immediately from other activists in the room. But the extent of that scandal lends her argument credence, not necessarily in terms of a blanket indictment of all cops, but in terms of the illness of that particular organization.

PN: Yeah, it’s not unlike the illness that affects a community that has few resources when you talk about crime, or about gun violence, or any of these things. That’s what’s so ironic. Some of the activists are what we call abolitionists: they’re advocating that we abolish the police. But that’s really an idea that’s rooted in the notion of finding new models for community safety, which is fundamentally what we’re trying to.

But we’re disconnected now from—whatever you want to call it—the “original sin.” We just celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday and this notion of “the arc of justice” and where we’ve been, not just going back to the civil rights movement but going back to the days of sharecropping and slavery. We’re so disconnected now from those origins. How do you reconcile that with the responsibility that a cop has, or that we have as a society, for restitution, or the notion of affirmative action? The young men and women who are committing crimes are also the victims of generational, institutional injustice that has left them with fewer options. So they then make these decisions that lead them to interactions with the police, some of which result in justified use of force and some of which result in unjustified use of force. But how do we distinguish between the two? Or is every shooting a modern day lynching? And there are a significant number of people who see it in very stark black and white terms, that these actions are never justified.

The film also was trying to sort through that. After a police shooting the community would come and protest, and they’d have their narrative and the police would have their narrative, and those narratives were in conflict with each other. So what does the “neutral observer” take away from that? That moment can only be understood in the context of the history that came before it. Some of the officers understand that history and some of the officers have no idea.

TKN: You see the department trying to inculcate the officers and the recruits with a sense of that history.

PN: Right, and that conversation is ongoing, and it’s also changed dramatically. You know, I was born in ‘68, and the conversation around race in the ‘80s, when I was growing up, was radically different than it is today. I think it’s summed up by this clash recently between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West.

TKN: And then there’s that incredible scene where the students in the academy are shown a video of a fatal shooting by a police officer and they debate it, and the question of what constitutes lethal force. “Do you really need to shoot somebody 25 times?”

To me it was fascinating to watch these recruits talk about that, because it’s one thing for a veteran police officer to say, “You don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know what that guy’s got in his hand when he comes at me.” But these recruits haven’t been in the field yet and they’re already bringing that attitude to that encounter. So where does that attitude come from? Do they get it from the movies or what?

PN: They get it from a lot of different places, And what’s really interesting is that the officer in that scene advocating for the use of force—advocating for what to a lot of people is extreme, undue use of force—is a guy who grew up in a poor community. We couldn’t include it in the film for a whole variety of reasons, but I think two of his brothers were killed by gun violence, and he became a cop because he wanted to make a difference. He’s a young guy who grew up surrounded by violence. So what may seem like a lot of force to some, to him the bar is different. And he’s a person of color. So I think we need to recognize that officers are coming to this job with all kinds of different experiences and things aren’t always what they seem.

And that’s really my frustration with all of it is that a lot of time these narratives get flattened out, all the nuance gets taken out of it, because people are trying to win an argument, or make a point. Not that the shooting in that video is justified, but it’s important to understand in greater depth who these officers are. A lot of the things that are happening are at the hands of officers of color. Freddie Gray. In Oakland, the whole thing that led to federal oversight was the Riders case, which was these officers violating the civil rights of people in the community. And those were largely officers of color. So part of that is trying to get people thinking differently about who are these officers are and what experiences they’re bringing to the job and how that’s impacting their actions.

TKN: You can definitely see tribalism at play in the film—not just racially but the tribe of police versus the tribe of civilians. When Chief Whent talks about the “blue wall of silence,” yeah, I get it. Same as in the military. It’s this closing of the ranks and this feeling of, “We do a dangerous, thankless job, you don’t know what it’s like, and then you come in here outraged and complain that we’re doing it wrong? Fuck you.”

PN: And that circles around to what I believe is one of the film’s sharper points, which is why you need accountability and oversight. You have to have mechanisms in place that the public trusts. I think right now that’s what the legal system is struggling with, because there’s a case, Graham v. Connor, that is the legal precedent that gives officers a very wide spectrum of opportunity to use force. Basically, all you have to do is say, “I felt my life was threatened.”

TKN: It’s like “stand your ground” for cops.

PN: It really is. I believe there’s more of a problem with the culture within police unions that the culture within police departments, actually. Because I think there’s a lot of cops and a lot of commanders—when you talk to them individually—who are reform-minded. Maybe they’re bullshitting and pulling the greatest wool over our eyes in history, but just from having gotten to know these officers and commanders over the years, I think there’s a genuine interest in reform. But the structures and mechanisms are designed to protect police regardless. You saw this play out in New York City with Mayor DeBlasio and the reaction that the union had.

TKN: I think it’s Chief Whent who says, very near the beginning of the, film, that this is a country that was founded on mistrust of the government, and to many people, the police are the most visible, everyday manifestation of the government. Which connects to Captain Armstrong telling a bunch of students in the police academy that one bad cop can destroy a department, can destroy a city, can destroy a country.

PN: I think we can change behaviors. But right now we’re much more focused on legal mechanism and accountability, and that’s when we get into civilian oversight, and federal oversight. These are mechanisms that can be brought to these complex institutions to give the public a greater degree of confidence that when something goes awry, or somebody’s rights are violated, or somebody’s life is taken, there can be some justice brought to that situation. There’s just no sense that historically that happened, or that in today’s landscape that is happening.

THE SLOW BULLET

TKN: In the film we learn that Oakland’s police department has been under federal oversight for thirteen years—longer than any other city in America—and that one of the solutions being contemplated is putting the department under the control of this sort of civilian commission you’re talking about. At the risk of betraying my ignorance of law enforcement, I was shocked to learn that city police departments aren’t already under that kind of control as a general rule. That seems like a natural fix for such a troubled organization.  

PN: Well, it’s complicated. It wasn’t a huge secret that Chief Whent was frustrated with the reform mechanism. And I think that feeling was shared by others: that it was going on too long, and the overseers are being paid quite a bit, and it’s costing the taxpayers money. There was an Our Brand Is Crisis kind of thing there, where the mechanisms were seen as taking advantage. And if you look at the data, and the changes that were taking place, there was quite a bit of change, so the question was at what point do you remove that oversight, having been in place for so long. But then you see what happened with the scandal, and you think, “Oh, of course they weren’t out from under federal oversight. They’re still damaged.”

Is it possible that it would have happened regardless? (shrugs) You could have a really tight ship over there, but the question was, why didn’t the chief bring that scandal to light earlier? Why didn’t he prosecute it in a more aggressive way? And ironically, it’s because they were so close to coming our from under federal oversight that they wanted to sweep it under the rug. They delayed and they obfuscated. If Chief Whent had come right out and shined a light on it, maybe he would have been fired anyway. Maybe it was a no-win situation.

The scandal was a complex story that had all kinds of angles and ins and outs, and we didn’t get into all of it in the film. It involved an officer who committed suicide, the one that was having the relationship with the girl; his wife had also committed suicide, some people thought that he had also murdered her….it was a rich story. But a duality was really in play there. There were a lot of positive things happening in the department, but there were a lot of underlying unresolved issues—not just moral failures, but the racial piece, and how we talk about race, and implicit bias. Those are not things that just police officers struggle with. It’s in all our institutions.

I call it the slow bullet. You look at teachers, doctors, nurses, and how they treat people of color, how they treat poor people of color, how they treat poor white people even. It affects people’s lives in profound, profound ways.

My mom was the only black guidance counselor in the inner city schools in Boston. She was a guidance counselor for many years, and she would tell me that a lot of these kids who were failing out—the Irish kid and the Italian kid—the guidance counselors would advocate for them. They’d say, “All right, you’re not going to Harvard, but maybe we can get you to graduate, maybe you can go to a state college.” They’d support them. But the black and Hispanic kids wouldn’t even graduate. The counselors wouldn’t talk them—they didn’t know how to talk to them, they didn’t have that shared cultural language. They saw them as hopeless.

And so for those kids, it was the slow bullet. Those kids never began a trajectory that would end positively for them. So that reality manifests across the spectrum in our public institutions with communities that have very few resources, and that’s a profound problem in our society and it has to be addressed.

TKN: Right. At the risk of stating the obvious, when you don’t feed the hierarchy of people who can help those kids, you perpetuate that cycle. Those kids don’t go to college, they don’t become guidance counselors themselves and help the next generation of kids, and the inequality continues.

PN: Yeah, the cycle continues and we still have the achievement gap, and we still have 80% of robberies in a city like Oakland being committed by African-Americans, and that continues the perception of who black people are—not just among cops but among the general populace. So that speaks to the underlying themes of our trilogy. The third film, presumably, is going to look at education, and that one is arguably more contentious than anything we’ve done.

NUANCE IN THE AGE OF TWITTER (AND TWITS)

TKN: Given the extent to which the rise of Trump turned on his exploitation of racism in America, do you feel like people view the film any differently since the election?

PN: It’s hard to know. I think the election has created a more divisive environment in terms of how we speak to each other.

One of the things that really moved me, but was also incredibly frustrating, was that individually I’d had profound and meaningful conversations with people on all sides of this issue: activists, cops, cops who hate activists, cops who are supportive of activists, community members who are supportive of cops, community members who hate the cops. I’ve had very meaningful conversations in small settings. It’s when you get into larger settings that things fall apart. I mean, there’s no way that you can carry the nuance of some of those exchanges into larger settings. You get that pack mentality. You see that on social media for sure.

A protest is another perfect example. You’re not going to see any nuanced interactions among people shouting at each other on the protest line (laughs). That makes a great Facebook video, but those two people who are shouting are also capable of having a meaningful conversation away from the glare of the lights and the crowds.

I think we have to find some way of allowing those conversations to happen and for experiences and stories to be shared. That’s the only way we’re going to make any progress. We tend to work harder at trying to understand people that we know something about. So the father who voted for Trump and the daughter who voted for Sanders, they can have different values, and they may be in conflict, and I’m sure some families have been broken over this thing. But I’m sure many more families try to understand each other, you know? They know each other, they love each other, they’ve grown up with each other.

Americans are diverse. We have different values, we’ve had different experiences, that’s what makes the country great. But particularly now, with the framing of race and power in this country, it has led to—whatever you want to call it—the Ta-Nehisi Coates era. There’s a new challenge to the status quo that has evolved beyond Martin Luther King’s call that I think we are now grappling with…..and a lot of people who voted for Trump, they’re just not hearing it. And vice versa. Some people don’t understand how anybody who voted for Trump could possibly be a good person. So that’s where we’re at and that’s why we need to tell stories.

More than anything, this film sparks really intense conversation and dialogue, and that was our intent. But it leaves you with some very complicated feelings. At the end of the day it makes you realize how far we have to go….not just with our institutions, but with our values.

What does it mean to be an American? We’re having that conversation right now. We have a president who seems to scoff at fundamental values of human decency. We have questions about how men treat women, how the powerful treat the powerless…..not that women are powerless, but in some situations they do feel powerless. The girl at the center of the OPD scandal who got involved with this cop, if you unpack her story, it’s tragic. Her power has been stripped away from her for a variety of reasons that are not her fault.

She’s made choices the same way that women trying to make it in Hollywood make choices. But we have to understand that these choices are not made in a vaccum. There are power dynamics, and that speaks to the title of the film, “the force.” There are people who abuse their positions of power and that’s why we have a press, that’s why we have checks and balances so that we can hold the powerful accountable when they violate those basic tenets. And that is a really fundamental piece of our democracy. If we start losing that, and the trust starts crumbling, it’s deeply troubling.

That’s why this conversation around the relationship between the police and the communities that they serve is really important, because the police represent the democracy, they’re the most visible form of the government. So we gotta get a handle on it. And that’s part of the reason we made the film.

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

PETER NICKS

Peter Nicks is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Oakland, California, and the director and cinematographer of The Waiting Room, The Force, and the forthcoming Homeroom. He received his BA from Howard University and his MA from UC Berkeley’s Documentary Film Program in its School of Journalism. He is a 2015 United States Artist Fellow and the founder of Open’hood. a non-profit storytelling entity dedicated to exploring complex social issues, in particular, the vital yet under-funded public institutions that serve us all.

THE FORCE

http://theforcefilm.com/

THE WAITING ROOM

http://www.whatruwaitingfor.com/

INDEPENDENT LENS / “THE FORCE”

http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/the-force/

OPEN’HOOD

http://openhood.org/about-us/

Photo: Peter Nicks, from The Force

 

 

Lawn Order: Special Victims Unit

Trump Golfing in Graveyard

In some ways, Trump’s announcement that he plans to resume his usual campaign rallies—on Juneteenth, a landmark anniversary in the abolition of slavery; in Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of one of the worst racist massacres in American history; and without any precautions against spreading the coronavirus, which is killing people of color in record numbers—is a classic Trumpian ploy.

It’s a calculated outrage designed to infuriate the “libs” and monopolize the news cycle, the better to distract us from literally graver matters. (The recent announcement that they’re moving it 24 hours, to June 20th, hardly makes it better, except to show that they’re feeling the heat.)

But in other ways, it is a grotesque offense all its own, deeply connected to all those issues.

Trump himself doesn’t know Juneteenth from June Cleaver. But I’ll bet Stephen Miller does, and his greasy little rat fingerprints are all over this. The White House is doing this not out of thoughtless insensitivity but as deliberate and provocative hatemongering, in hopes of further energizing its white nationalist base.

(Not for nothing, Team Trump is requiring attendees to sign an ur-Trumpian waiver promising they won’t sue if they get covid and fucking die.)

I don’t want to wish ill on other humans beings, but if an epidemiological bomb goes off in that arena in Tulsa in the middle of this re-enactment of Triumph of the Will and wipes out thousands of his voters, my tears will be occupied elsewhere.

But setting aside the immorality of it all, is this ploy even smart on a purely selfish, pragmatic level?

Why have a rally in Oklahoma, a deep red state he already has in the bag? Every political expert, even Republican ones, knows that Trump ought to be courting the middle right now…..that arithmetically speaking, he can’t win in November with his base alone, even if every single one of them turns out. Why then traffic in incendiary tropes that are viscerally alienating to everyone else?

I know Trump won in 2016, but is it really smart to appeal only to the people who lost in 1865?

Maybe he really does think this is the way to win. Maybe some of his advisors do too. (Miller is also rumored to be penning Trump’s speech to nation on unity. I look forward to it, and also to OJ’s TED talk on how to stop domestic abuse.)

On the other hand, could it be merely a matter of ego? Does Trump so crave the adoration of a crowd shrieking with Beatlemania-like intensity at his greatest hits—lock her up, no collusion, fake news, happiness is a warm gun—that he would choose it not only over something that would actually help him in the election, but even though it might actually hurt him?

He might. Especially if he is not concerned about a legitimate vote at all, and only about getting his rabid followers juiced up for a constitutional crisis.

The conventional “appeal to the middle” is only in play if this is a fair election. And it’s clear Trump and the GOP are gonna make sure it ain’t.

MULLIGAN MAN

As Jonathan V. Last recently wrote in The Bulwark, there’s a tedious regularity to many of these anti-Trump pieces, mine very much included, a subgenre that my friend Matt Bardin calls “Donald Trump Bad Man.” But as Last also points out, there’s a reason for that.

It’s because Trump is a very very very bad man, all the goddam time.

That’s part of Trump’s strategy, of course: to inure us to his terribleness and make us give up hope. Even if all we can do is be a collective voice crying in the wilderness to raise the alarm about his crimes and his unfitness for office, we have to keep doing that, among other more substantive efforts to evict him from office, like voting.

But we also have to recognize that this is not a normal election, not even like 2016, and just voting may not be enough when Trump and the GOP are openly trying to steal the race outright, with the help of their friends in Moscow.

The fabled sportswriter Rick Reilly has a book called Commander-in-Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, about Don’s legendary, shameless, lifetime of cheating at golf. His thesis, in short: if Trump would cheat at golf, on his wives, on his taxes, do you not think he would cheat to stay in the presidency? Especially when that is the only thing standing between him and criminal prosecution for a dozen different felonies?

(Arguably, he did it once to get in office in the first place.)

With his usual say-the-quiet-part-loud approach, Trump is not even trying to hide what he’s doing. A few weeks ago in The Atlantic, in a piece bluntly called “Trump Is Brazenly Interfering With the 2020 Election,” David Graham wrote:

Imagine that the White House chief of staff wrote a secret memo, at the behest of the president of the United States, to the Treasury secretary and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. In the carefully hidden memo, the chief of staff directs the two to secretly and illegally cut off all federal funding to two key swing states, both led by Democratic governors, with the goal of rigging turnout in favor of the president’s party in the 2020 election.

Now imagine that the memo leaked to The Wall Street Journal, which splashed the story across its front page. The other major papers would quickly follow. Cable news would cover it wall to wall. There would be congressional investigations.

If he did this privately, it would—rightly—be a massive scandal. Yet when he does it as part of a few dozen wildly varied tweets over the course of a morning, it’s written off as just another wacky missive from the wacky president.

Joe Biden himself recently told Trevor Noah that he expects Trump to try to steal the election, a remarkable escalation of that fear from the province of lunatic fringe tinfoil-hatted conspiracy-mongers (me: size 8 and half) to a nationally televised statement by the presumptive nominee of one of the two major parties—an unthinkable scene at any previous time in the modern era.

But I’m glad it’s being voiced, and well ahead of election day. It’s our best protection against Trump’s efforts to do it come autumn.

Fears of such authoritarianism by Trump have been raised since the earliest days of his administration, but covid-19 has recently provided the GOP with new and unique avenues by which to carry out this robbery.

The Republicans are eagerly seizing on the pandemic both to exacerbate and to camouflage the chaos and confusion that it wants to create on Election Day. They don’t need to outright steal the election if they can generate enough anarchy that they can mount a successful propaganda campaign and invalidate it, thereby stealing it by forfeit.

An example:

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd is among those who has pointed out that it takes time to count absentee ballots. If, for instance, Trump is ahead for several days after November 3rd, until the Democratic-heavy count from Philly and its suburbs comes in, how do you think he’s gonna portray that reversal?

Graciously, and as fair and square, I’m sure.

Witness also the goatscrew that was the Georgia primary last week and understand that this was malevolence, not incompetence. It’s no coincidence that chaos was brought to you by a governor who is one of our nation’s foremost, unabashed pros at voter suppression, and stole his way into office himself.

This is what the GOP will ensure happens nationwide in November.

In the broader scheme, it’s what the Republican Party has been doing since at least 2000, knowing that it can only win by gaming the system, given that it has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential campaigns, and this year doesn’t look to change that pattern.

The latest poll numbers are historically bad for Trump, worse than any incumbent president has ever faced at this stage of the race, with only 20 weeks to go. I know, I know—Hillary was prohibitively ahead in 2016 etc etc. But Jonathan V. Last explains very thoroughly here why that analogy doesn’t necessarily hold, why her lead was never really “prohibitive, ”and why there’s cause for optimism.

What’s worrying of course, aside from the ghosts of 2016 and other conventional political calculations, is the extent to which Trump and the GOP—realizing that they can’t win fairly—will be incentivized more than ever to rig the election, or at least to create conditions to dispute its results. How’s that for a paradox?

Here’s an idea: maybe show some respect for democracy, do your best, and then see how it shakes out, accepting the will of the American people whatever it proves to be.

Just kidding! The modern Republican Party has no more regard for democracy than there are tits on a bull.

THE FOG OF PEACE

Biden also opined that he believes that the Pentagon will take action to remove Trump should he try to stay in office illegally.

I would agree that it’s likely that our armed forces would do so (I say again: likely, not certain), having recently watched numerous retired general officers draw a line in the sand when Trump threatened to use the US military against peaceful protestors. Reportedly at least one active duty one, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, did so too, in an Oval Office shouting match.

Then again General Milley also let himself be used as a prop in the St. John’s Church stunt, accidentally or otherwise, an act for which he was roundly criticized by his retired peers, and for which he subsequently made an unusual televised apology.

Given his boss’s demonstrated attitude toward such displays of integrity, were I a headhunter, I’d be calling the general about his imminent entry into civilian life.

In any event, the once unthinkable notion that the American military might have to evict a power-mad US president from office has now become among the most urgent topics of the national conversation. In the Nation, Elie Mystal writes:

Trump has been told that he can’t be prosecuted and won’t be removed…..He’s convinced the opposition party to pin its hopes on a future election that might never happen—and, if it does, certainly won’t happen without foreign interference and industrial-strength voter suppression.

And nobody has stopped him. Nobody is even really trying to stop him anymore. Those who want him stopped are just kind of waiting and hoping he goes away. Maybe on January 20, 2021, he’ll just leave, and we can get back to having a society.

He won’t just leave. He won’t leave unless the men with guns—the armed agents of the federal government—make him leave.

But per above, if Trump can create ambiguity over whether he is in fact illegally clinging to power—that is, over who really won the election—the military’s willingness to evict him might not matter, and might even work to his advantage.

For the same reason that the armed services are rightly loath to intervene in domestic politics, they are unlikely to take active steps to remove a president if his (or her) electoral defeat is merely in doubt, rather than clearcut, a la the trolley problem. In effect, a tie would probably go to the incumbent, constitutional crisis wise.

In other words, Trump doesn’t even have to win in November: all he has to do is create doubt that Biden did. Since possession is nine-tenths of the law, like 2000 when Bush maneuvered himself into the position of the presumptive winner and dumped on Gore the burden of overturning that state of affairs, it will harder for Biden to take power when Trump already has his shoes under the bed in the West Wing and is arguing—deceitfully or not—that the numbers support keeping them there.

In that sense, it is not unlike the way that modern propaganda, as pioneered by (ahem) the Russians, seeks not to promote a specific point of view so much as merely create confusion that the truth is knowable at all, and therefore prompt a mass throwing-up of hands.

Of course, Trump has long had a love/hate relationship with the military in which he actively avoided serving, alternately attacking it and over-valorizing it in the time-honored fascist way.

Trump’s troubles on that front continued with his listless speech at the US Military Academy’s commencement yesterday, during he which he did a convincing impression of Marco Rubio drinking a glass of water, and needed his Trump Tower golden escalator to avoid a Chevy Chase-as-Gerald Ford tumble down the ramp when he was done.

True to form, Don took to Twitter to mount a strong defense:

The ramp that I descended after my West Point Commencement speech was very long & steep, had no handrail and, most importantly, was very slippery. The last thing I was going to do is “fall” for the Fake News to have fun with. Final ten feet I ran down to level ground. Momentum!

Sounds like something General “MacGarther” or “Grand” would have said.

(The vile order to recall 1000 cadets from all over the country to a place 50 miles form the epicenter of the global pandemic for this sop to the presidential ego is yet another matter.)

But the active duty military is not Trump’s only martial option when it comes to holding onto power by force. The DOD does not control the National Guard except when the president federalizes them—state governors do. What’s to stop Trump from prevailing upon the deeply loyal Republican governors of Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, et al to mobilize their state militias to do keep him in office? Would General Milley order federal troops to oppose them? Would we really see the active duty US military facing off against National Guard units? (No offense to the NG, but I know what odds Vegas would give.)

As I find myself saying with tedious regularity, can you believe we’re even discussing this?

MEMO TO MITCH

So are we on the verge of full-blown Trump-brand™ Fascism (now with extra whiteness!), as opposed to the Trump Fascism Lite version to which we’ve become accustomed? Numerous experts on authoritarianism—from academics to CIA analysts and field agents who’ve watched it over and over in foreign countries—are shitting their collective pants over that very possibility.

Paul Krugman writes in the Times:

At this point it’s alarmingly easy to see how the United States could follow the path already taken by Hungary, becoming a democracy on paper but an authoritarian one-party state in practice. And I’m not talking about the distant future: It could happen this year, if Trump wins re-election—or even, potentially, if he loses but refuses to accept the results.

We’ve already seen paramilitaries in unmarked uniforms deployed during the Uprising (let’s get that name trending, people), a violation of basic constitutional precepts and an ironic echo of Putin’s “little green men” in the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Don sure does like to ape Vlad.

But at least Crimea was a military operation in a foreign country, circumstances in which non-uniformed irregulars is commonplace, if deceitful when deployed by an invader trying to hide his hand. On the streets of DC, we’re talking about the ruling regime using anonymous goons to suppress and intimidate its own citizens.

To that end, there has been credible reportage by The Intercept of Republican plans to flood the streets in November with police, troops, and ex-military Blackwater-style contractors, the better to intimidate voters and tip a potentially contested election their way. Ironically, the Uprising has given them the chance to do that well ahead of time, and with a credible fig leaf (“Riots! “Law and order!”), so we will already be used to it by fall.

But the Uprising has also shown the Republican Party that—covid or no—if sufficiently outraged, the American people will themselves get out in the streets and burn the whole damn thing to the ground. I’m not so naïve as to think that will deter the GOP from trying to mount a coup d’etat, but it ought to sober them up about how hard it will be.

Can we scare the hell out of the GOP to the point that they won’t try to steal the election? Doubtful. But we can make them think twice about how difficult and bloody it will be. As Prof. Ruth Ben Ghiat of NYU has noted, mass protests in the streets are among the most powerful means to push back against an incipient autocracy, because they not only tell the despot that he’s unpopular and in trouble, but because they also show the despot’s allies the same thing.

Mitch McConnell is nothing if not a pragmatist (oh, and also a pox upon humanity). His alliance with Trump has been self-serving only, not one of any kind of shared ideology—except greed and power—or of any personal affinity. If Moscow Mitch sees that Trump is about to go the way of the Shah, or Marcos, or (gulp) Mussolini, he might decide discretion is the better part of valor and cut his losses.

THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN. AGAIN.

Speaking of Ulysses Grant, even as we’re talking about a new Civil War, Trump—over the objections of that same Pentagon—is petulantly defending keeping US military bases named after traitors and losers, and pronouncing himself the greatest presidential champion of the Black community ever. (Except, maybe, Lincoln, but his achievements were iffy.)

As Mike Jollet says, it’s a neat trick to claim to be the Party of Lincoln and fly the Stars and Bars at the same time.

But judging by its prevalence at heavily-armed “Liberate” rallies even up north, Trump campaign events, and the like, it’s clear now that the Confederate battle flag is no longer a banner of the South and has become one of racism, white nationalism, and treasonous anti-Americanism across the board, irrespective of geography. It’s no wonder Eugene Robinson called Trump the last president of the Confederacy.

And even as the Uprising shows that a majority of America simply aren’t having it any more, support for that vile cause is alive and well with millions of our countrymen.

We learned that the vigilante redneck who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia a few weeks ago stood over his dead body after gunning him down and spat out a racial epithet. (Gee, I wonder which one.) It took weeks for authorities to charge him and his accomplices, who had ties to the (so-called) law enforcement community.

We also watched the junior senator from Kentucky, the one named after Ayn Rand, singlehandedly block an anti-lynching bill, even as protests against racism and police brutality roil the streets. Talk about a no-brainer—who’s anti-anti-lynching? A guy who can win state-wide elections in Kentucky, I guess.

I was stunned to hear Nancy Pelosi call for the removal of the statues of twelve Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, from the US Capitol—stunned not that she called for it, but that they were there in the first place, in the year A.D. 2020. (I understand that the individual states can choose their own statues, but that hardly makes it better.)

Asked whether he supported ending the honoring of Confederate leaders, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) went back to the usual, dishonest argument that he didn’t think we should rewrite history.

Noted.

But how is it rewriting history to not honor its villains?

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Even as he stumps for the legacy of people who mounted a violent insurrection against the US government that took 750,000 American lives, Trump has declared himself “your president of law and order.”

The possessive actually irks me more than the risible claim to be a defender of the peace. (John Oliver recently ripped Tucker Carlson a new orifice on the topic.)

Trump is eager to gin up white panic about a race and class war, with his bull-horning on the former—a step up from dog-whistling—and his wild-eyed theories about 75-year-old antifa infiltrators on the latter, portraying himself as the man who can restore order (by shooting looters).

It’s funny how American conservatives used to be much more sanguine about civil unrest when it was happening in, oh, Baghdad, where Donald Rumsfeld argued that “looting is the transition to freedom.”

That must be one of the “known unknowns” that he used to talk about with his friends Dr. Seuss and Gertrude Stein. But everything worked out great in Iraq, so maybe we can get Paul Bremer to step in and fix things here in the United States.

David Frum zeroes in on the hypocrisy:

When pro-Trump protesters descended on state capitals to demand reopening, nobody shot at them, not even when they endangered police lives by screaming into their faces, unmasked, during a pandemic. Nobody shot at them when they carried weapons into state legislative buildings to intimidate state legislators and governors. And of course, those protesters received the full-throated endorsement of President Trump. “Liberate Minnesota!” Trump tweeted on April 17.

(N)o federalizing of the National Guard there, no threats of indiscriminate shooting, only gentle understanding of people who gridlocked state capitals in service of their abject lunatic theory that Bill Gates wanted to inject microchips into their bums.

Naturally, many of Trump’s opponents have with good reason raised the specter of 1968, when Nixon was able to ride a similar racially-based hobbyhorse into the White House, exploiting the fears of a nation roiled by assassination, war, and protest in the streets (accompanied by shocking, televised police brutality).

But as James Fallows notes, in 1968 our villainous politicians were at least competent.

In a different piece for the Atlantic, Frum recently dismantled the Nixon comparison. In ’68 the “silent majority” was much more upset about violence and disorder from the protestors than from the cops—wrongly, but nonetheless. Today the anger, except for the really Kool Aid-drunk, is reversed.

Likewise, in ’68 Nixon portrayed himself as a calming influence on the police as well as the demonstrators—wrongly, but nonetheless. Today Trump is encouraging even more state violence, and even calling for the participation of the 82nd Airborne.

In that regard, as Frum says, Trump may think he’s Nixon, but he’s really George Wallace. Or is he Nero? Or Deng Xiaoping? (Metaphor still under construction.)

Krugman inverts the issue, arguing that “Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon — he’s much, much worse,” and the GOP of 2020 is worse than the GOP of 1968, or perhaps any other year:

….(T)here are important differences between now and then—and the differences aren’t reassuring. In many ways we’re a better country than we used to be, but we’re in dire political straits, because one of our two major parties no longer believes in the American idea….

(T)he reason democracy is threatened in a way it never was under Nixon is not simply that Trump is a worse human being than Nixon ever was; it is the fact that he has so many enablers.

Trump’s authoritarian instincts, his admiration for and envy of foreign strongmen, his desire to militarize law enforcement have long been obvious. These things wouldn’t matter so much, however, if the Republican Party were still the institution it was in the 1970s—a big tent with room for a variety of views, represented in the Senate by many people with real principles. These were people willing to remove a president, even if he was a Republican, when he betrayed his oath of office.

The modern GOP, however, is nothing like that….

(T)oday’s Republican Party wouldn’t object to a Trumpian power grab, even if it amounted to a military coup. On the contrary, the party would cheer it on.

THE DEEP PURPLE RIVER OF CRUELTY

How did we get to this point, where one of our two major parties and its millions of supporters are down with neo-fascism? Let’s circle back to covid-19 for some answers.

When the pandemic first hit and it became clear how much Trump was to blame and how badly he was botching it, there was a lot of talk that finally, at last, this would be something so huge and so horrific that even the MAGA Nation faithful could not deny it.

Turns out they can.

Trump’s sins there are not those of mere negligence, which would be bad enough, but of active measures (to use the Russian term) to make matters worse. The myriad ways he is responsible for the scope of the coronavirus’s damage have already been well catalogued. Most recently, we learned that Trump’s people have been sabotaging efforts to track the virus, because the numbers makes him look bad, and cheating the stats to make him look as good as possible, which still ain’t very good.

The Trump administration has now stopped even trying to address the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci was last seen on the side of a milk carton. That is because the administration is completely outmatched and unable to address it, but also because they have succeeded in gaslighting their followers into not caring. (“Mission accomplished!”)

The few remaining Trump supporters with whom I am still on speaking terms have totally bought the White House’s spin that this is really no big deal, and if it is, it’s not his fault. This includes people whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by it. They’ve made their peace with 100,000 dead, as they surely will with 200,000 dead, or a million, especially if they are disproportionately people of color.

(The latest estimates have us headed to several hundred thousand casualties by Christmas, much higher than the administration’s initial estimates and starting to approach the worst case scenario original posited by researchers at Imperial College London.)

Theirs is an absurd position of course, so absurd that it can’t even be rationally argued against. But it’s hardly the first Big Lie that a demagogue has gotten away with.

Needless to say, I’m sure these folks would have been just as understanding if Hillary was in office. In fact, we don’t have to speculate, as many of them go so far as to blame the Democrats for those deaths even now, though I am still awaiting the explanation for that one.

Even some “moderate” Republicans whom I know have been retroactively questioning the need for the quarantine measures we’ve lived with for the past three months. Naturally, it’s an impossible request they are demanding, which is to say, that we defend precautions that prevented a disaster that didn’t come to pass thanks to those very precautions.

It’s like angrily saying, “Hey, that boiling hot saucepan didn’t burn me. Why did I need an oven mitt?”

I point all this out not to be defeatist, but merely to show how deep the Kool Aid River runs, and what we are still up against. As I’ve already written, people in death cults from Garmisch to Guyana have been known to follow their leaders right into the depths of hell.

I recently heard Eli Stokols of the LA Times say on MSNBC, with great understatement, that empathy is not the President’s strong suit. That’s like saying the Ayatollah Khomeini is not super good at literary criticism. Trump’s appalling, lifelong lack of empathy—the hallmark of a sociopath—is plain as day. But now he has infected millions of his followers with the same disease…..and not just over covid-19 but from the very start of his political career, with his hate-filled racebaiting, his birtherism, his demonization of everyone from immigrants to Democrats to the cast of “Hamilton.” And his base thrilled to it—it was a feature, not a bug.

That destruction of empathy laid the groundwork for the callous shoulder-shrugging by millions of American conservatives over the deaths of more than 117,000 of their countrymen and still counting, and it will be equally useful if it comes to him shitting on the Constitution and staging a coup d’etat come November.

That is the scope of what Trumpism has done to America (or less generously, revealed about its pre-existing condition): It has made us—or a good chunk of us at least—into a nation of soulless, lawless cretins.

ALL COME TO LOOK FOR AMERICA

Here’s the best case scenario:

Trump gets beaten in a landslide so big that even he and the GOP and the Russians can’t plausibly claim it was fixed.

They will try, of course, but cynics like Mitch McConnell will understand that the Republican Party stands a better chance of surviving to fight another day if it falls back, reassuming its traditional role as bomb-throwing “government is bad!” outsiders (to which Republicans are temperamentally suited anyway), and promoting a QAnon-style/birther-like that the election was stolen from them, as opposed to provoking a constitutional crisis that it might lose, suffering greater and longer-lasting damage in the process.

I realize that counting on the practical wisdom of Mitch McConnell is not a comforting thought.

In that case, all we will have to worry about (all!) will be a furious MAGA Nation insurgency of sixty some million heavily armed Americans who are livid that they were “robbed,” dining on a steady diet of ex-President Donald shrieking on his daily TV/radio/Internet show on the new Trump TV Network, to the right of Fox News on your TV dial.

Trump might actually love that even better than being president. Can we propose it to him now and see if he’ll cop a plea? Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with the executive immunity he so desperately needs. Maybe he’ll just pardon himself right before he resigns.

Barring that pipe dream, this election will be an acid test for America. If we let him steal it, we’ll have only ourselves to blame. If, even worse, we actually somehow re-elect this motherfucker, God help us…..though the Good Lord may just throw up Her hands because a people who would do that don’t deserve divine intervention. (Yswidt?)

Who could blame Her?

*********

Illustration by the brilliant Akiko Stehrenberger

https://www.instagram.com/doyrivative/?hl=en

The Man Who Saved America

George Floyd copy

A year or so ago I went into my local bodega to buy a pint of ice cream or something. At the register, I gave the guy a ten dollar bill. He looked at it a moment, then handed it back to me. I was puzzled. “It’s fake, man,” he explained.

I looked closely at the bill. Pretty goddam good fake, to my untrained eye. I’d never even seen a counterfeit bill before, to my knowledge, let alone tried to pass one. Someone obviously passed it to me and I didn’t know it.

The clerk pointed out a few telltale signs that only a person who worked with money all day would notice, including an imperfection in the type, and the feel of the paper. I did begin to see it then, but only because he pointed it out, even though I’d seen To Live and Die in LA like a gazillion times. (So people bother to make fake Hamiltons now, not just Benjamins? Have color printers changed the counterfeiting business that much? Discuss.)

While I stood there examining the bill, the clerk called the cops, four of whom promptly rolled up with blue lights flashing, put me in handcuffs, and frogmarched me over to their cruiser where they shoved me face down on the blacktop. I lay there for almost nine minutes while one of the cops knelt on my neck and I pleaded that I couldn’t breathe and onlookers yelled for the cops to stop and even a couple of the rookie cops apparently tried to get the one with his knee on my neck to stop because it was obvious I was being murdered but they were told to shut the fuck up and then I died.

No, wait—that didn’t happen. Because I’m a middle class white guy.

What happened was, I put the fake ten back in my wallet to keep as a souvenir, gave the clerk some proper legal tender, and took my ice cream and went on my merry way.

MINNEAPOLIS GODDAM

In a new piece for The New Yorker, David Remnick tells us that when George Floyd was a boy, he dreamed of becoming a Supreme Court Justice, and even wrote a school essay about it.

It is ironic that his historic intersection with the justice system turned out so tragically different. But it is doubly ironic that he is likely to have a far greater impact on that system, and the overall course of this country, and even the world, than most of the people who actually did sit on that bench.

Remnick offers that detail in a piece for The New Yorker called “An American Uprising.” Not coincidentally I’m sure, his piece published the day after Trump’s election in 2016 was titled “An American Tragedy.”

History’s starring roles aren’t always easy to predict. There are celebrities who live their entire lives in the fishbowl, and others whose fame is posthumous and entirely unknown to them.

Van Gogh died anonymous and penniless, and didn’t get one red cent from all the coffee mugs and museum gift shop prints and that fucking Don McLean song. Anne Frank went to her (mass) grave without any idea she’d become a household name, a bestselling author (with apologies to Shalom Auslander), or an inspiration to tens of millions. Leon Klinghofer met his violent, horrific end without ever knowing the impact he would have, one that would literally be operatic. Being an archduke and all, Frank Ferdinand presumably had a pretty good-sized ego, but I doubt even he knew the outsized role he would play in changing the course of history.

Grotesque as it was, we ought to be thankful that someone filmed Mr. Floyd’s murder. (Pix or it didn’t happen, as the kids say. Somebody exhume Marshall McLuhan.) Even with the video, the cops almost got away with it, which sadly is not unusual, and tells you something about the depths of systemic racism and the power of the visual image, and also of police unions.

How long before Apple runs an ad campaign with that video and the tagline, “Shot on iPhone 12”?

But now George Floyd threatens to upend not only the Trump presidency but also set off a far broader upheaval in American life. Those moving pictures have stirred our country to action in a way that the Muslim ban, Trump’s hidden taxes, Charlottesville, the kleptocracy, Russiagate, Ukrainegate, and even kidnapped and caged children did not…..in a way that even the unnecessary deaths of more than 110,000 Americans and counting through criminal negligence did not. Or maybe it was the accumulated weight of all those horrors, with George Floyd’s windpipe as the final straw.

In any case, we now find ourselves on the precipice of a pivotal moment in American history. And it’s all because of a 46-year-old man from Houston who moved to the north country.

SOMEBODY GOT MURDERED

The tone of this blog for the last several weeks has been very angry and vituperative. (OK, not just the last several weeks.) But this week I got my old Ovation roundback out and brushed up on the chords to “Kum-ba-ya.” (C-F-C, C-F-G, if you’re following along.)

For I have not come here today to indulge in my usual fulminating against Trump and his water carriers, richly though they deserve it. No. I’ve come to offer the hopeful idea that we’ve bottomed out at last, and may have finally reached a moment of national reckoning when we might begin to turn this thing around.

By that I don’t mean merely that the combined of weight of a pandemic, a depression, and a state-sponsored murder might—might—result in Donald Trump’s ejection from office. (Though you will be forgiven for assuming that of me, and there is no doubt that it would be a giant step toward that goal.)

No, I am asking whether this three-headed Cerberus of a national nightmare might in any way bring about some good by causing us to reflect, re-evaluate, and reform on a much broader scale.

For Trump, as many have noted, is merely a symptom, not the disease itself. A country that would put a monster like that in office, one where some 40% of the public consistently backs him no matter how people he shoots in cold blood in the middle of Fifth Avenue, is plainly not a healthy place. And the systemic problems that gave us this malevolent would-be despot and pathetic excuse for a human being will not vanish with him.

This piece was begun some weeks ago, originally titled “Can Covid Save America?” It is a question many of us have been asking that over the past three months, even before what happened literally on the streets of Minneapolis added a whole new and urgent dimension to a national emergency that we already thought had the danger meter pegged.

George Floyd intensified the gravity and the stakes of that question as a triple victim of all three of these major crises: of covid, which he had contracted but survived; of the economic depression, having lost his job; and of the violent legacy of 400 years of racist oppression.

Will this moment cause us at last to recognize the value of a decent public health care system, a workable social safety net, and a functioning federal government full stop? Will it make us no longer able to deny the inequities of a system that ponies up $2 trillion in bailout funds and somehow makes sure it goes to the richest among us and some of the wealthiest corporations even as they lay off workers? Will it force us to reckon not just with the atrocity of the repeated murder of black Americans by police, but with the deeper and more vile institutional oppression from which that violence springs, which is to say the legacy of slavery that is the original sin of this nation?

Good question.

With the massive, unprecedented, grassroots public protests of the last thirteen days, we may have begun that reckoning…..and what’s more, they have done so spontaneously, organically, and non-hierarchically.

Ever the innovator, only Prince thought the Revolution would start in Minneapolis.

If this does prove a turning point, and along the way proves to be the pivotal episode in what finally brings down Trump, it won’t be because of lawyers or judges or an impeachment inquiry or arcane points of campaign finance law or the institutions we’re so often told will protect us. (Although don’t get me wrong, all those people and efforts and institutions played a role and helped immensely; God bless ‘em). It will be because a groundswell of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Americans had at last had quite enough and got out in the streets and made that loud and clear.

Let that be a lesson to us all going forward.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

The Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in The New Yorker:

Riots are not only the voice of the unheard, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said; they are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm.

For once in their lives, many of the participants can be seen, heard, and felt in public. People are pulled from the margins into a powerful force that can no longer be ignored, beaten, or easily discarded. Offering the first tastes of real freedom, when the police are for once afraid of the crowd, the riot can be destructive, unruly, violent, and unpredictable. But within that contradictory tangle emerge demands and aspirations for a society different from the one we in which we live.

Clearly, this is not just—or even primarily—about police brutality. Addressing that alone without addressing the underlying sickness of racism, economic inequality, and the rest of the poisonous stew won’t solve the problem. In fact, without addressing the underlying sickness of racism, economic inequality, and the rest of the poisonous stew, addressing police brutality is not even possible.

The pandemic was the first thing to shake the foundations. In a piece for The Atlantic aptly titled “Underlying Conditions,” published way back in April, about 6000 years ago, George Packer observed:

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.

Covid-19 laid bare the con job at the heart of American conservatism, the relentless lie that “government is bad,” that no good comes from taxing people (especially rich people) to pay for public services, that regulation is an evil that hinders free enterprise as opposed to a shield that protects the public from rapacious exploitation.

Packer wrote of the bankruptcy of the “anti-politics” in which both the old and new incarnations of the Grand Old Party specialized, and of the faux populism that Trump represented. It turns out that everything has a cost, and years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives.”

The economic pain that came on the heels of the pandemic only further kindled the fire. And then came Minneapolis and set the whole pyre ablaze.

In a subsequent, Atlantic piece, “The Protest Are a Sign of Despair,” Packer connected the dots:

(T)hree years of the bigoted and cruel presidency of Donald Trump; three months of the worst pandemic in a century, with more than 100,000 Americans dead and 40 million unemployed. Trump’s utter failure to protect Americans from COVID-19 and his indifference to suffering that fell most heavily on poor, black, and brown people, and to the economic ravages that followed—injustice on this scale burned like smothered coals in millions of homes and hearts during the months of quarantine. The easing of the lockdown and the video of a man’s life being crushed out of him came at the same moment, and the anger received a tremendous burst of oxygen.

Perhaps it had to get this bad before there could be substantive change—the old AA notion of hitting rock bottom, as I was reminded this week by a friend. If so, we elected the right guy.

I never had any truck with those on the far left who thought Trump was better than Hillary because he would be so incredibly bad that he would bring on the revolution. I understand wanting to remodel your kitchen, but do you really want to do it with a hand grenade? Hey guys, you got your wish!

For me, the damage he did in the process was simply too great, and I refuse to believe this was the only way to get to dramatic, positive change (which, PS, is not yet a done deal). Was the only way to save America really by destroying it, Bến Trelike?

But it’s moot now. We are in it.

RISE UP

Over the past two weeks, it has been cheering to see the durability of the passionate, multiracial, multi-generational, and overwhelmingly peaceful protests from sea to shining sea and then some. Where they are headed is unclear, but one possibility is that they evolve into a permanent presence, like the Occupy movement, writ much much larger. There is welcome evidence that this ain’t gonna stop, and promises to become a formidable Arab Spring-meets- Solidarność force. (On second thought, let’s stick with Solidarność and let the Arab Spring comparison go.)

Professor Taylor writes that the word “’crisis’ does not begin to describe the political maelstrom that has been unleashed.”

On that topic, it’s unwieldy to keep referring to “the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd,” or “the civil unrest.” May I humbly suggest then, taking off from the title of Mr. Remnick’s piece, that we start referring to this simply as The Uprising, with a capital ‘U’? It would be a fitting evolution from the capital ‘R’ Resistance that has been used to describe the opposition to Donald Trump that has arisen equally organically over the past three years.

Some of the images have been astonishing. To cite just one jawdropper, we saw the statue of Philadelphia’s notoriously racist police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo pulled down like a statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, except that this toppling was legitimate. If you’re not from Philadelphia it’s hard to explain just how astonishing that is, but by way of comparison, imagine all the statues of Confederate generals across the South all coming down at once.

The scene we’ve seen in the streets—not just of the US but the whole world—is one that a lot of people have been longing for all the way back to 2017. The Uprising is the right and proper response to all the devastation Trump has wrought, with racism at its core, just as it is at the core of Trumpism itself, going back to his announcement of his presidential campaign in 2015 with the “Mexicans are criminals and rapists” comment, the origin of his political career with birtherism, and his first rancid toe-dipping into political commentary with the Central Park Five.

But, per above, it goes way beyond Trump to the broader, deeper, and far older institutional sins of our nation. On the count of racial oppression, we can take it back all the way to 1619.

I know that for the African-American community there have been so many moments over so many decades that felt like this was the breaking point at last, only to have those hopes crushed. Change has been criminally incremental, and painfully slow, and not by accident, given the entrenched forces violently opposed to it. And what we are talking about toppling here is not merely (merely!) the scaffolding of racism, but the whole edifice of American ills, including class and economic matters to which racism is conjoined.

But this sure feels like a pivotal moment at the very least, especially in conjunction with the other epic social forces currently in play.

There is a huge irony, of course, in the notion that an uprising originating in the African-American community may be the thing that quote unquote saves America. Much like the question of turning out the African-American vote to elect Joe Biden, as Democratic consultant I call “Mr. X” told me in my interview with him last winter, it is a bitter joke that America is asking its black people to save it.

But they might anyway, completing a trifecta consisting of our first black president, a black man murdered on the streets of Minneapolis, black leadership from the likes of the Rev. William Barber II and others during this Uprising, and with any luck, a black woman as our next vice president.

EXCEPTIONS AND RULES

Apropos of the title of this piece, conservatives will of course scoff at George Floyd as a hero of any kind, let alone America’s savior, even as a literary trope. In their eyes, he will always be defined only as a criminal— just like the desperate migrants fleeing violence and oppression for a better life in the US whom they can see only as “lawbreakers.” Of course, when it comes to overlooking a few broken laws, they’re a lot easier on Flynn, Manafort, Stone, and the Trumps themselves.

The title of this piece might also have referred to Jim Mattis. Funny how just temporarily averting the possibility of an American Tiananmen counts as a win these days.

Since the former Secretary of Defense’s powerful statement of June 3, even more retired generals and admirals have spoken up, including McRaven, Myers, and Powell. There has even been some debate over how much the CJCS General Milley was complicit or, conversely pushed back. I’d love to learn it was the latter, notwithstanding his appearance at Trump’s side—along with current SecDef Mark Esper—during the St. John’s atrocity.

But Mattis & Co. acted as a firemen. What we’re talking about now requires architects, contractors, construction workers, and above all, customers willing to invest in the rebuild. Can we now really use this moment to arrest America’s decades-long moral decline and take the necessary, concrete steps to regain the nobility of purpose with which flatter ourselves?

It’s not like we don’t know what to do. In The Bulwark, of all places, Richard North Paterson writes:

The needs are clear. We need to combat poverty and food insecurity; attack the underlying causes of illness; rebuild our public health agencies; and provide universal healthcare, paid family and sick leave, and safe and affordable childcare. We need to establish universal pre-k; fortify K-12 education; grant student debt relief and free college tuition for those truly in need; and educate and retrain workers for the new economy.

We need to combat racial and economic segregation in housing. We need to amend zoning laws that restrict access to the best jobs and schooling. We need to leverage federal funding to build new housing units for low- and middle-income families; assist communities historically denied fair mortgages; provide financial support for those whose housing equity was destroyed by the 2008 financial crisis; and help those pummeled by the pandemic to keep their homes.

That sounds like a nice America. Harder question: how do we get there?

Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes that “for African-Americans, it’s a question as old as the nation itself,” one about which “(t)here is a palpable poverty of intellect, a lack of imagination, and a banality of ideas pervading mainstream politics today. Old and failed propositions are recycled, but proclaimed as new, reviving cynicism and dismay.” In the end, those ideas inevitably wind up defending the status quo.

Her point seems aimed directly at conservatives whose optimism about the possibilities of the current crisis approach cheerleading naiveté, like Kori Schake’s flag-waving, rah-rah essay, also in The Atlantic, “The Pandemic Will Make America Stronger.” Prof. Schake writes that our unique amazingness (read: free markets) will allow the US to “emerge from this terrible pandemic in an even stronger position internationally—not just because other states are making their own mistakes, but also because of how our country and our society are organized.” (Dead giveaway: she is director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.)

But Kori must be a cockeyed optimist, having since published a similarly upbeat piece on the Uprising, again hinging on the notion that American exceptionalism is going to save us all.

Someone call Colin Kaepernick and let him know.

I know that sounds snotty, given that this essay reflects my own hopefulness that we are witnessing a sea change for the good. I would argue that the difference is that I’m basing my hopes on the system being radically reformed, rather than on that system suddenly rising to the occasion and rescuing us from its own flaws.

Pointedly, and in implicit rebuke of Prof. Schake, she calls for new voices in the debate, and empowering them:

If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it.

We….must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.

POLICE ON MY NECK

But, guys: Jared Kushner is bullish! In fact, he thinks that pesky racism problem is already fixed, and that he and his team fixed it. At a White House roundtable with law enforcement officials on June 9, he declared: “The law enforcement community heard the cries from the community, saw the injustices in the system that needed to be fixed, and they responded by coming together to fix it, and it’s been a great partnership to do that.”

As with his equally stellar response to the coronavirus, Kush has developed a foolproof strategy for handling any crisis: helicopter in armed with mindboggling hubris and world-class ignorance, do nothing except make it worse twelve ways to Sunday, then declare victory, award yourself a medal, and chopper off to bollocks up the Middle East or whatever the next emergency du jour is. (Optional: collect a fat payday thanks to your father-in-law’s position along the way.)

But Jared is hardly alone in his rose-colored view of race relations. I recently had an argument with a conservative friend whose son is a police officer, and who was clinging with white knuckles (ahem) to the usual few-bad-apples claim that there is no systemic racism in US law enforcement. (PS Systemic racism is a redundancy. Racism is systemic by definition.)

No amount of evidence or citation of the blatant pattern could convince him…..in part because he dismisses any reportage he dislikes as “fake news.” (If you offer him your own assessment he scoffs at it as mere opinion and demands sources. If you cite sources he dismisses them propaganda from the lamestream media and demands that you “think for yourself.” Rinse and repeat.)

But that was early in the Uprising. Now, a torrent of video showing appalling, unprovoked brutality by cops all over the country is making our case for us.

Of course, the stupidity of a violent police response to protests about police violence is self-evident. But luckily, it’s not like my buddy making the claim that there’s no systemic racism in law enforcement is the National Security Adviser or something.

Oh, wait—that’s the exact argument that the actual National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien made, in speaking to CNN.

NOCH EINE BRICK IM DIE MAUER

Meanwhile, in a blatantly symbolic gesture of weakness, Trump has had the White House bunkerized, to include the erection of a big ass fence around it—not a good look for a guy trying to project a Churchillian image of statesmanship.

Well, I guess he finally got his Wall.

But love and art trump Trump, as ordinary Americans quickly turned the newly installed chainlink fence around the White House into a living mural of anti-racist art and memoriam after less than a week. Authorities announced plans to remove the fence. (Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!)

No surprise, that has not stopped our president from continuing to serve as an aggregator and mouthpiece for whatever right wing craziness passes across his TV screen, making him not that different from a lot of white septuagenarian Republicans. (Is the word “white” unnecessary there?)

On Tuesday, via Twitter, he spread a story from One America News Network—a channel that makes Fox look like C-SPAN—to the effect that that the 75-year-old man shoved to the ground by Buffalo policemen and now hospitalized for head injuries was actually a covert antifa instigator. (For that matter, George Floyd was a grandfather himself. What does it say that among the most galvanizing acts in this Uprising have been violence against elders?)

Here’s Trump’s brain on drugs:

Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?

As Michelle Goldberg quipped, “Gearing up for the unity speech.”

That speech, we are told, is being written by his white nationalist QB1 Stephen Miller (as Dave Barry is wont so say, I swear I am not making this up), just the latest twist in this summer stock production of “Ubu Roi” we are living through.

Desperate for a lifeline as he stands on the bow of the garbage scow that is his presidency and felt it sinking fast, Trump also predictably seized on better than expected jobs numbers for May. Those numbers are themselves suspect. (Can we trust the Trump administration’s Labor Department not to cheat the stats? Forget I asked.) For one thing, although there may be some slight and welcome rebound as the economy slowly begins to reopen, people who have stopped looking for work altogether because things are so bad don’t get counted as “unemployed,” which is hardly a measure of a robust and recovering economy.

But just as predictably, Trump had to gild the lily (you’ve seen his apartment in Manhattan, right?), crowing about this allegedly “great success.” Only Donald Trump would claim that having 21 million people out of work—a U-6 unemployment rate of 21.20%—is a triumph.

But it gets even worse. Because at a Rose Garden event last Friday, Trump—of course!had to invoke George Floyd in bragging about the jobs report:

“Hopefully George is looking down and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. (It’s) a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality.”

Shamelessness, thy name is Donald.

So we’re still a long way from that rousing, nationwide, acoustic guitar rendition of “Kum-ba-ya” that I mentioned. In fact, I think I may have just broken a string.

SAY HIS NAME

In my guarded optimism that we are at a turning point, I don’t want to get out too far over the tips of my skis, as the white-people-problems metaphor goes. As we’ve seen, America is far from saved yet, by George Floyd or anyone else. As I wrote last week, it could most certainly go the other way.

Maybe the darkest view of all came from Chris Hedges, speaking to Salon’s Chauncey DeVega, who predicted that the US is about to descend into full-blown authoritarianism. Hedges evoked the scholar Fritz Stern, who fled the Nazis, in describing Germany before Hitler as a place yearning for fascism before the word “fascism” was even invented.

And Hedges felt that way before George Floyd.

Has the Uprising lessened our odds of going full “Man in the High Castle”/”Plot Against America,” or lengthened them?

Let’s come back to Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor:

We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.

Packer one last time:

We’re faced with a choice that the crisis makes inescapably clear. We can stay hunkered down in self-isolation, fearing and shunning one another, letting our common bond wear away to nothing. Or we can use this pause in our normal lives to pay attention to the hospital workers holding up cellphones so their patients can say goodbye to loved ones; the planeload of medical workers flying from Atlanta to help in New York; the aerospace workers in Massachusetts demanding that their factory be converted to ventilator production; the Floridians standing in long lines because they couldn’t get through by phone to the skeletal unemployment office; the residents of Milwaukee braving endless waits, hail, and contagion to vote in an election forced on them by partisan justices. We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death.

So which way will we as a nation turn at this critical decision point?

Are we going to go even deeper into the darkness, a darkness from which we may not be able to emerge?

Or will this be the moment we begin to save our own ass? Because if there’s one thing we ought to have learned by now, it’s that there ain’t no cavalry on the way. (Excuse the retrograde cowboys & Indians metaphor.) Mueller ain’t coming to the rescue, nor Adam Schiff, though he tried valiantly, nor Mattis for that matter.

We have to get out of this ourselves. What’s going on in the streets is a first step and an encouraging sign.

We may be one horseman short, but can the apocalyptic trio of a pandemic, a depression, and the Uprising collectively prove a cleansing fire that saves America?

If it does, it will be in part because of the what happened to a man named George Floyd.

**********

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Floyd family

“What They Do Next Is Steal an Election”

Win Mcnamee:Getty Images

Show of hands: in light of the events of the past week, who here thinks Trump intends to graciously hand over power should he lose on November 3rd?

It seems almost petty to talk about electoral politics right now while we are grappling with the brutal, state-sponsored murder of George Floyd and the shameful legacy of racism that it represents (and oh yeah, also a historic pandemic and an economic depression). Unfortunately, all three of those nightmares are connected to an impending one.

Because as bad as things are, they could get a whole lot worse come fall.

RETURN OF THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

A few weeks ago, Franklin Foer published a piece in The Atlantic that was so scary it made The Shining look like Goodnight Moon. It was titled “Putin Is Well on His Way to Stealing the Next Election,” an excellent demonstration of the bottom-line-upfront school of headline writing.

Its premise, in case you still aren’t tracking, is that the Kremlin surprised even itself by how successfully it ratfucked the 2016 US presidential election, and therefore is engaged in an even more ambitious effort to do the same again, especially since the ruling Republican Party has actively refused to do jackshit to stop them. The reason the GOP is not doing anything, equally obviously, is because it is benefiting from that interference.

This is not exactly news; it’s been painfully apparent—to the US Intelligence Community anyway—since the fall of ’16, before the last presidential election. Since then it has been made public in the loudest possible way. You may remember that for two years it was the centerpiece of a criminal and counterintelligence investigation surrounding the President of the United States, who for all practical purposes is a quisling, notwithstanding the efforts of his party to deny and obscure that fact. (Efforts that, in their hysteria and desperation, only further prove it).

It ought to be an ongoing national scandal. But to our great discredit, it ain’t.

And all that was before George Floyd’s murder plunged the United States into incipient revolution and Donald Trump went full bull goose Mussolini manqué.

I have never faulted the Russians for screwing with our elections; it’s not exactly admirable, but that is the game of nations. But I damn sure fault Americans for helping them in order to help themselves.

Now, with Trump in the position of a cornered rat, with his support crumbling and America on figurative fire on three major fronts and literal fire on one of them, he will surely clutch ever tighter to Moscow’s helping hand. In fact, I’m confident he will seek to use this crisis not only to cling to power, but to extend it. Recall that during the impeachment—an earlier episode where he was fighting for his political life—Trump and his surrogates like Alan Dershowitz had the gall not only to argue for his innocence, but to actually try to grasp even more monarchical power.

Many keen observers are raising this alarm. To cite just one, I refer you to Brian Klaas’s piece in the Washington Post, “We Need to Prepare for the Possibility of Trump Rejecting Election Results”:

I’ve studied genuinely rigged elections across the globe. The tactics, context and strategies vary enormously from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. But one trait they have in common is this: The winner doesn’t claim they were rigged.

Not so with Trump. In 2016, when he narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by a historic margin, he claimed that 3 million to 5 million people voted illegally. That is a lie. But it raised an obvious question:

If Trump claimed that an election he won was rigged, what will he do with an election he loses?

BANANA REPUBLICANS

For nearly four years now, Trump and the GOP have been turning up the boil on us frogs in this authoritarian soufflé. Attacks on the press, undermining the rule of law; rejection of the authority of Congress; demonization of the opposition party as traitors; weaponization of a state-sponsored propaganda machine; extortion of foreign states for personal political gain; transformation of the treasury into a personal ATM; installation of wildly unqualified family members at the highest levels of government; the obliteration even of truth itself….

There’s no need to recap the whole roadmap of rest stops on the road to fascism.

But we now appear to be at an especially terrifying turning point.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing public outcry, the Washington Post reported that, “Former intelligence officials said the unrest and the administration’s militaristic response are among many measures of decay they would flag if writing assessments about the United States for another country’s intelligence service.”

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” yesterday, Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst and expert on how regimes slide into autocracy, discussed that very issue with the authors Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic (Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of the Authoritarian State) and Masha Gessen of The New Yorker (Surviving Autocracy).

Ms. Applebaum talked about Trump’s efforts to take nonpartisan governmental institutions like the DOJ, the courts, the FBI, CIA, and the military and try to make them into entities that owe personal loyalty to him alone, not the state. That is what kings do, and dictators, and tyrants. (That’s cool, right Prof. Dershowitz?)

She then turned to the Republican Congressmen and other GOP leaders who have consistently failed to offer a peep of objection to that, and indeed applauded it:

(Sometimes they have used) a kind of Vichy-ite argument, which is that the other side is worse. In other words, we have to collaborate with Donald Trump no matter what he does, because the left is so dangerous and so negative and so damaging to American life. This is the kind of argument that has been used in occupied countries in the past. This is how the Nazi collaborators in France justified what they did.

I would quibble only in arguing that most Republicans don’t find Trump all that offensive in the first place, at least not to a degree that requires them to make any kind of Faustian bargain. (I’m not sure which is worse.) It’s like the oft-heard question, “Why don’t Republicans stand up to Trump?”

But the whole premise is wrong. Why should they stand up to him? They actively like him, and his policies, and his style.

Ms. Helt compared Trump’s stunt at St. John’s Episcopal Church to Kim Jong Un riding a white horse up North Korea’s Mount Paektu, which she said “really really unnerved me.”

That comes at the end of three years of him eroding our trust in our democratic institutions, and eroding the institutions themselves. We don’t believe our press anymore. We don’t believe in our intelligence community anymore. We don’t respect our civil servants anymore. Donald Trump doesn’t respect the Constitution anymore. I mean, honestly, I’m terrified.

Just to reiterate: a CIA expert on autocracy is terrified.

Masha Gessen, who knows from brutal authoritarianism, also used the “t” word:

Donald Trump is showing us what he thinks power looks like and sounds like. He thinks that power looks like unidentified troops on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or guarding the White House…..The fact that these troops are refusing to identify themselves, that they’re unmarked, is absolutely terrifying to me.

He thinks that power looks like helicopters and tear gas being used to clear protesters. He thinks it sounds like the word “dominate,” which he used over and over again.

She then talked about this “performance of fascism“ as a prelude to the real thing:

A power grab always begins as a performance. A claim is made, and then the aspiring autocrat sees whether the claim is accepted, whether the performance is believed.

We have seen strong voices from the military object to this claim to unitary power and to the right to use military force in the United States. But we have not seen an appropriate reaction from Congress. We have not seen an insurrection within the White House, which is what we should be seeing. We should be seeing this power plan being rejected.

VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL

We’ve seen the exact dynamic Masha describes in the Mueller probe and the impeachment, and many other aspects of this presidency. Trump asserted that the president can order his staff not to obey a subpoena from a special counsel, or even from Congress—a Republican president anyway—and no one with any real power pushed back, and now it’s the new normal. Same with hiding his taxes. Same with ripping migrant children from their parents and caging them.

As Masha notes, there is some cause for optimism in the pushback that Trump received for his astonishingly vile stunt at St. John’s, which of course was part of a broader swath of violent suppression of peaceful dissent all across the country, and cheerleading for even worse. (Go to hell, Tom Cotton.)

I am still baffled by what Trump thought he was doing, which speaks to the entire irrationality of the man. Brutally suppressing peaceful protestors so you can stand like an idiot holding a Bible upside down for the camera? (Not open it, not read it, not offer prayers for the suffering at this terrible time. Just grimace and wave it.)

Maybe his theocratic base thrills to that sort of spectacle, since their gullible belief that this walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins is an icon of piety already renders their judgment suspect. (Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said admiringly that it was “hard to imagine [any other president] having the guts to walk out of the White House like this.” Yeah—in a cloud of tear gas and a hail of rubber bullets. AYFKM?)

But for everyone else in America, it may prove to be the single most emblematic display of all that is wrong and wrongheaded about Trump, including the fact that he himself couldn’t understand what the problem was.

Even Pat Robertson criticized him. To repurpose LBJ speaking about Walter Cronkite, if you’ve lost Pat Robertson, you’ve lost the whole theocratic, Kool Aid drunk, batshit evangelical community. (Fingers crossed.)

If the St. John’s fiasco does prove to be a real turning point that marks the beginning of the end for Trump, I promise to disavow the atheism of my adulthood and return to the religiosity of my youth in recognition that it was a Bible that saved us.

NIGHT OF THE GENERALS

Even more than the clerical and popular outrage, I was heartened to see a number of retired four-star flag officers (Mullen, Dempsey, Thomas, Allen) speak up in righteous opposition to the appalling, immoral, and fundamentally un-American idea of using the US military against the American people. (I can’t believe we live in a world where that sentence even has to exist.)

In Foreign Affairs, retired Marine General John Allen was one of those firing a figurative warning shot, taking off from the episode at St. John’s. “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020,” he wrote. “Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”

I would argue that what happened on June 1 was hardly the beginning of that slide. But the general is quite correct that it is up to us to decide if it will be just another station of the cross on the death march of democracy, or a decisive point at which we begin to reclaim our national soul.

General Allen is also far too generous for my money, asking: “(D)id Esper and Barr know that hundreds of peaceful U.S. citizens had been attacked by riot police just minutes before, their civil rights massively violated just to set the stage for their picture?”

We now know that not only did Barr know, he ordered it. So the benefit of the doubt that has long been granted to Mr. Bill—the alleged insitutionalist, in spite of his participation in Iran/contra even before he became Trump’s consigliere—continues, notwithstanding his rampant criminality since.

Most welcome and satisfying of all, of course, was Jim Mattis’s scathing, deeply cathartic attack on Trump, published in The Atlantic. Such is Mattis’s stature that in the wake of his pronouncement, the threat of the 82nd Airborne opening fire on American civilians seems to have abated, for now, which raises the question:

Did Jim Mattis singlehandedly just stop an American Tianamen?

Much as I deeply respect him, I’ll cop to having been frustrated with General Mattis’s silence up until now. But the upside is that, by keeping his powder dry, he was able to have maximum impact once he finally did speak out. (The title of Admiral Mullen’s piece, “I Cannot Remain Silent,” could have been Mattis’s as well.) Score one for the tactics department at the USMC Command and Staff College.

It seems impossible that, within their very small fraternity, these men are not consulting with each other. Recalling Mattis and Kelly ’s reported “babysitting” pact, it’s tempting to think we are seeing a reverse military coup d’etat, in which sensible generals save us from a power-mad civilian leader. (The screenplay will write itself.)

One hopes that Mattis’s gravitas, together with the constellation of his many-starred comrades, will provide encouragement and cover for other conservatives to break with Trump, not to mention bolstering the backbone within the Pentagon, and even within the rank-and-file. (Disapproval of Trump within the US military was already at 50% even before this latest crisis.)

But it’s horrifying that it’s even come to this. And we are by no means out of the haunted wood.

As yet another four star, Army General (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, recently said, don’t look to the generals to lead the way here. They’re meant to be apolitical. Echoing both Applebaum and Gessen, the fact that they’ve had to speak up at all—with trepidation—is an indictment of the cowardice of our civilian leaders who have any leverage over this criminal president, which is to say, the Republican leadership.

So amid a historic pandemic, Great Depression-level economic collapse, and our cities aflame over violent system racism, what did Senate Republicans spend their time this week doing?

What else? Holding hearings into alleged DOJ/FBI misconduct in the origins of the Russia probe, or as they call it, “Obamagate.”

Unreal.

THE RETURN OF IVAN DRAGO

Given how successful its efforts were last time, and how happy Trump and GOP have been to let it continue, it’s no surprise that Moscow is already engaged in an even more aggressive effort to undermine this election cycle. Foer writes that “Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.”

And why not?

Events in the United States have unfolded more favorably than any operative in Moscow could have ever dreamed: Not only did Russia’s preferred candidate win, but he has spent his first term fulfilling the potential it saw in him, discrediting American institutions, rending the seams of American culture, and isolating a nation that had styled itself as indispensable to the free world. But instead of complacently enjoying its triumph, Russia almost immediately set about replicating it.

Foer reports that “Having probed state voting systems far more extensively than is generally understood by the public, the Russians are now surely more capable of mayhem on Election Day—and possibly without leaving a detectable trace of their handiwork.” On the menu: meddling with voter registration databases; making voter IDs mismatch with the rolls; creating long lines to discourage the impatient; purging voters altogether, and applying even more sophisticated disinformation techniques and “new ways to manipulate Americans and to poison the nation’s politics.”

They won’t even have to work very hard.

Given the fragility of American democracy, even the tiniest interference, or hint of interference, could undermine faith in the tally of the vote. On Election Night, the Russians could place a page on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website that falsely showed Trump with a sizable lead. Government officials would be forced to declare it a hoax. Imagine how Twitter demagogues, the president among them, would exploit the ensuing confusion.

Foer also writes of the deep and troubling paradox in play. The mere fear that the Russians have a robust capability to mess with our elections itself undermines the confidence of the American people in the legitimacy of those elections. Mission accomplished! The Kremlin doesn’t even need hackers—just PR guys.

The final irony is that Foer’s masterful piece of reportage, public service that it is, at the same time serves to advance precisely that Russian goal, that scaring the bejesus out of us of by trumpeting their terrifying omnipotence.

PUTIN’S POODLE REDUX

So why write about Russian election interference (sooooo last September) in the middle of a pandemic, a new Depression and a rising revolution?

Because we have a regime that has made it clear that it is keen to remain in power indefinitely. I’ve written on the topic at length. (See “Knives to a Gunfight” and “The Fiasco to Come,” both from last September, and “Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)?” from July 2018.)

And the current conditions, as Anne Applebaum says, create fertile ground for its efforts.

Jim Mattis notwithstanding, a massacre of and the imposition of martial law and the cancellation of the upcoming election remain possible. Doubt me? Brian Klaas again:

Since 2017, so many events in US politics that were previously unthinkable have come to pass. Don’t believe me? A few days ago, the president of the United States baselessly accused a cable television host of murder and it barely made a blip in the news cycle. The shocking has become unsurprising—almost routine— under Donald Trump’s unhinged presidency.

(That host, as it happens, was “Morning Joe”’s Joe Scarborough.)

But it’s more likely that, a la his hero Gospodin Putin, Trump and his GOP allies will stage a Potemkin election that provides the veneer of legitimacy. Foer again:

Vladimir Putin dreams of discrediting the American democratic system, and he will never have a more reliable ally than Donald Trump…

But the president hasn’t just undermined his own country’s defenses—he has actively abetted the adversary’s efforts. If Russia wants to tarnish the political process as hopelessly rigged, it has a bombastic amplifier standing behind the seal of the presidency, a man who reflexively depicts his opponents as frauds and any system that produces an outcome he doesn’t like as fixed. If Russia wants to spread disinformation, the president continually softens an audience for it, by instructing the public to disregard authoritative journalism as the prevarications of a traitorous elite and by spouting falsehoods on Twitter.

In 2020, Russia might not need to push the US for it to suffer a terrible election-year tumble. Even without interventions from abroad, it is shockingly easy to imagine how a pandemic might provide a pretext for indefinitely delaying an election or how this president, narrowly dispatched at the polls, might refuse to accept defeat.

It is a chilling paradox is that the more Trump is politically damaged by this trio of crises and the less likely he is to win 2020—cheering as that is—the more the risk that he will resort to cheating. So sadly, every gain we make also increases our risk.

At the end of the “Morning Joe” segment, Applebaum took up the baton again, speaking of the predictable pattern seen in what she called “illiberalizing countries that cease to be democracies.” The ruling regime first uses violence to suppress public dissent and opposition. Then it proclaims itself the defender of “law and order,” often invoking a divine mandate to do so. And then, what comes next?:

What comes next is the attempt to steal an election.

And what I hope all Americans will be focused on over the next several months is, will Trump and will the Republican party collaborate in an attempt to steal this election? Will they try to change the rules? Will they mess around with distance voting? Will they exacerbate the problems caused by the pandemic to prevent people from voting? That’s the thing that’s going to happen next.

Ah, but Anne, we already know that they will do all those things, because they are in the midst of doing them now, aggressively, even as we speak. The only question that remains is her final one:

(Does) the Republican Party….value democracy in America enough to allow a real election to go through and to allow themselves to lose?

Awkward silence.

The mere fact that we have to ask is deeply worrying.

LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL

Just a few hours after Ms. Applebaum asked that question on national television, those same airwaves carried George Floyd’s deeply moving memorial service live to the whole country, including a speech by the Rev. Al Sharpton that will surely go down in history.

The vast, righteous, long overdue public outrage sparked by Mr. Floyd’s killing might be a galvanizing moment that sets us on the road to redemption. But it’s clear that it also presents perilous dangers that could send down a much darker path….and that there are folks who are eager to lead us that way.

We can already look back ruefully on our self-congratulatory backpatting of November 2008, when even some conservatives (note: only some) felt proud that the United States had elected a black president. (And after only 219 years!) Will we look back even more ruefully on 2012, and the dawn of Obama’s second term, as we realize that it was our last real presidential election before the US became an autocracy, a one-party sham democracy conquered by the Russian Federation in the most successful intelligence operation in human history?

We can’t expect Jim Mattis to protect us forever. Masha Gessen issued the call to arms. Trump has floated a trial balloon concerning the kind of violent absolute power he would like to wield. Tom Cotton is all in. It’s up to the rest of us to howl back with a furious “Fuck no!”

That howl is echoing in the streets right now: in Minneapolis, in New York, in Washington, in Louisville. If we let the volume down, will we someday look back on 2020 and realize that was when let democracy’s enemies put their collective knee on its neck and kill it?

We might. The answer is within our power to decide, right now.

**********

Photo: Win Mcnamee/Getty Images. Members of the District of Columbia National Guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, June 1, 2020.  

Just kidding—it’s from a dystopian science fiction movie by Ridley Scott. 

Just kidding again—it’s America in 2020.

 

Gil Scott-Heron Could Not Have Been More Wrong

Screen Shot 2020-06-01 at 8.38.29 PM

I recently wrote about how the coronavirus obliterated the memory of the impeachment, which just three months ago seemed so epic and all-consuming. If someone had told you a week ago that something would soon happen that would—at least temporarily—completely knock the coronavirus out of the news, would you have believed them?

We are now in the midst of three historic crises, simultaneously: a once-in-a-century pandemic, an economic catastrophe approaching that of the Great Depression, and now, atop those two, damn near every major American city on fire in a mass uprising spawned by four hundred years of systemic racial oppression.

I know it’s almost too easy a shot, but I must ask:

Is America great again yet?

In fact, things are moving so fast that between the time I wrote my previous blog post last Saturday morning, and when I went to bed that night, the entire national zeitgeist had shifted dramatically. That morning we could still have a calm, if disturbing, conversation about Amy Cooper as she related to George Floyd. Ten hours later, the conversation could only be about what felt like an incipient civil war breaking out in America.

It’s all of a piece of course. The issues the impeachment raised regarding Trump’s lawlessness perfectly predicted his criminal mishandling of the pandemic, which included worsening the attendant economic catastrophe by making maintenance of the plutocracy the priority. Now we are contending with an even deeper and more vile cancer at the heart of our body politic, the legacy of slavery, which is also reflected, not coincidentally, in the disproportionate degree to which both the virus and the new Depression are affecting communities of color.

Let me be the millionth person to note that, “promises made, promises kept”-wise, Trump has finally made good on at least one thing, his inaugural evocation of American carnage.

And here’s the kicker: it’s all happening on live TV.

MANDATE, MY ASS

Gil Scott-Heron is one of a handful of musical artists vying for the title of Godfather of Hip Hop. We don’t have to have a debate—Ari Melber is not returning my calls. But what’s indisputable is that his spoken word grooves were a key influence, as was his ferocious social consciousness.

Far and away his most famous song, 1971’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” was a scathing indictment of the vast wasteland that was American TV at the time and its utter irrelevance to the political, racial, social, and cultural turmoil of the civil rights and Vietnam eras. It was the cri de cœur Newton Minow would have made, if he had been able to rap.

Point made, and then some, Gil. That the song has been overplayed to death (or at least over-referenced) is a testament to how perfectly it hit the bullseye.

Except that it turns out TV, insipid as it often is, also has the power to document and accelerate and even inspire dramatic political and social change, including revolution.

What we have seen in the half century since is that television, and telecommunications more broadly, to include the Internet, can be and have been a fantastic asset to democracy—a force multiplier, as we say in the Army. Of course, that same power can also be used for evil. (Looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg.) But the power itself is undeniable, and it is on bold display in our current moment.

There’s no need to detail here all the negative things about TV and related media in all their brain-sapping glory. (Five words: “Two and a Half Men.”) But telecommunications can also provide galvanizing experiences that can profoundly alter the course of human events. And those experiences can be singular or cumulative.

In Chicago, at the 1968 Democratic Convention, it was televised images of cops in baby blue helmets violently attacking anti-war protestors that became a watershed moment, along with the protestors’ battle cry speaking to that very memorialization: “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” They were proved right: those few days shook the world.

In the same era, broadcast news coverage of Vietnam—America’s first so-called “living room war”—over an extended period of years is often credited (or blamed, depending on your politics) with turning the American public against US involvement in Southeast Asia. There were lots of other factors, but if it contributed, good.

Now we are seeing the potential for video, whether broadcast or via cyberspace, to take this groundswell of outrage set off by the brutal murder of George Floyd and transform it into something even bigger, and of lasting political consequence.

Apart from whatever first person experience each of us may have of the protests, most of our experience of this nationwide cataclysm is delivered to us (and mediated by) television. It is a nationwide crisis because we can see it happening nationwide, not just in our own towns and outside our own windows. And we can see it happening because it’s on TV.

That offers the possibility for a critical mass that is much bigger than our narrow, individual perspectives. It’s inspiring. It presents a sense of a national and even global movement.

Like a great many other observers, I wrote last week about how Trump’s longstanding, unconscionable, Soviet-style attacks on the press (“the enemy of the people!”) helped create the environment in which broadcast journalists have been attacked by police with shocking frequency during this period of uprising. And that is because people like Trump and his allies know the power of the media, TV in particular, and fear it. In fact, he continued those attacks even as police were arresting reporters and firing rubber bullets and pepper ammo at them ON CAMERA, for no crime other than doing their jobs.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then the digital camera is mightier than a whole Staples store full of pens. Or swords. (You get the idea.)

As Gil says: “The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised….The revolution will be live.”

In this case, it is both.

THE SOUND OF SIRENS, PART 2

As big a hit as “Revolution: was, my personal favorite by GSH is his savage takedown of “Ronald Ray-gun” from ten years later, “B Movie,” which is also apropos at this moment, when we hear Trump echo Reagan’s call for a “bloodbath” in response to antiwar protests in 1970. There was also some nice symmetry to the SpaceX launch last weekend that coincided with the George Floyd protests, in light of what is surely Gil’s second most famous song, “Whitey on the Moon,” also perfectly timed to echo the debates of the Apollo age amid race riots.

Here’s some other stuff we saw on TV in the past week, and some we didn’t.

The good:

We saw police chiefs kneel in solidarity with protestors. Unarmed protestors bravely putting their bodies in front of hammer-wielding instigators to stop them senselessly smashing shop windows. Crowds silently raising their arms in the symbolic “Don’t shoot” gesture. George Floyd’s brother weeping and telling us how Donald Trump wouldn’t let him get a word in on the phone. A hooded infiltrator smashing up the curb to create rocks to throw at the cops before righteous, genuine protestors grabbed him and bodily handed his ass over to the police.

But also the bad:

We saw militarized police in gear more suited to the streets of Fallujah than the USA violently beating unarmed demonstrators without provocation. Cops in Atlanta pulling drivers out of their cars without cause and tasering them. NYPD and LAPD cruisers deliberately running over protestors. The National Guard (I presume) using helicopters marked with the Red Cross to intimidate and disperse protestors, which is a war crime under international law.

As I write this, tens of millions of Americans in twenty-some US cities are under curfew—a new twist on the stay-at-home order to which we’ve lately grown accustomed. This past March I wrote a piece called “The Sound of Sirens,” about the now-constant soundtrack of sirens here in New York City, the epicenter of the global pandemic. Those sirens have only grown louder and more frequent in the past week.

Except before they were ambulances. Now they are just as likely to be paddywagons and fire trucks.

So where was the President of the United States, the most powerful person on Earth, the so-called leader of the so-called Free World, during all this?

Fighting with Jack Dorsey, mostly.

As protests began to roil the country after George Floyd’s murder, including one in Lafayette Park, right cross from the White House, the Secret Service grew alarmed enough about Trump’s safety that they moved him to an underground bunker beneath the building, the kind of place George W. Bush was rushed to on 9/11 (after he was done with The Pet Goat).

For days Trump hunkered down like the quivering coward he is, issuing racist tweets that echoed George Wallace and Walter Headley, conjuring images of “vicious dogs” and “the most ominous weapons,” calling the protestors THUGS (all caps, AARP style), acting like the make-believe tough guy that he sees himself as, and ejaculating at the thought of bloodthirsty uniformed Secret Service officers eager to mix it up with protestors. Super helpful, Don.

Amid Trump’s repeated expansions of his bullfrog neck in an attempt to show dominance, many wondered if and when he would make the standard and expected presidential address to the nation, appealing for calm and offering thoughts-and-prayers-style bromides, yada yada yada. You know, the way a president is supposed to do. But even some of his own advisors worried that he would only make it worse. Dan Rather put it best:

I can imagine no other president in my lifetime failing to address the nation in a prime time speech during a crisis such as this. On the other hand, I cannot imagine another president whose words would be less welcome by so many of his fellow citizens.

Characteristically, when Trump finally did emerge, it was to do the most vile thing imaginable.

GET ME TO THE CHURCH ON TIME

The Washington Post reports:

(S)hortly before the president addressed the nation from the Rose Garden at 6:43 pm Monday and roughly a half-hour before the District’s 7pm curfew went into effect—authorities fired flash-bang shells, gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, clearing a path for Trump to visit the church immediately after his remarks.

In front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Trump then posed stiffly, as is his manner, and awkwardly held up a Bible. (Asked by a reporter if it was his Bible, Trump knew a trap when he saw one, and replied, “It’s a Bible.” So, no.)

I was surprised it didn’t burst into flames.

Like his weird habit of hugging (and sometimes kissing) the flag to sexually excite CPAC crowds, Trump was literally embodying the old saw about fascism coming to America wrapped in the flag and waving the Good Book. (Or in some variations, carrying a cross. Variously attributed to Huey Long and Sinclair Lewis, its true origins are lost in antiquity.)

Subtlety is not Trump’s strong suit. Donny: It’s an EXPRESSION. You don’t literally have to wear the flag like a cape and wave the Bible like Van Helsing wielding a crucifix.

I guess he and his sycophants thought this was gonna look great, or at least inspire his base. Maybe it did. For the rest of the country, however, the sheer shamelessness of the stunt, and its hamhandedness—the notion that a thrice-married serial adulterer, lifelong greedhead, and proud sexual predator who doesn’t know II Corinthians from Porky’s 2 is some sort of defender of the faith—fell flat at best. His brazen appropriation of sacred iconography and inhuman application of state violence to facilitate it was, uh, a bad look. As my friend Justin Schein succinctly put it, “The least pious man in America tear-gassed peaceful protesters for the sake of sick political theater.”

As with many of Trump’s actions—his decision to fire Jim Comey, his interview with Lester Holt, his release of the Zelinskyy readout, his admonition to inject disinfectant—it was the kind of self-harm his worst enemies couldn’t have dreamed of, an own goal that is sure to haunt him all the way to November, and itself a marker of his godawful instincts and general unfitness. The Washington Post wrote:

“We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime former Hill aide who is now a Republican operative. ‘The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.”

Religious leaders were livid. The WaPo reports:

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said she learned of the president’s visit by watching it on the news.

“I am outraged,” she said, with pauses emphasizing her anger as her voice slightly trembled. “I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to inflame violence.”

Father James Martin, editor of America, the Jesuits’ magazine, was even more blunt on Twitter, calling it “revolting. ” The next day, Trump staged a similar stunt at Washington DC’s Saint John Paul II Shrine, this time with the very pious and morally upstanding Melania by his side, but again without giving notice or asking permission, drawing swift condemnation from Catholic officials. Archbishop Gregory Wilton of the archdiocese of Washington said in a statement:

I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree….

(Saint Pope John Paul II was an) “ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.

We have since learned that noted archconservative Catholic and police state enthusiast Bill Barr himself gave the order to clear the protestors from near St. John’s using gas and cops on horseback. (They also forcibly ejected a priest to clear the set.) The administration later had the US Park Police deny that they used tear gas, claiming instead that it was only smoke, even though reputable reporters who were there, like NBC’s Garrett Hake, were very clear about what they were hit with.

Rev. Budde later expanded on her comments, speaking to the Religion News Service:

“Everything that he has said is antithetical to the teachings of our traditions and what we stand for as a church—I was horrified.

“He didn’t come to pray. He didn’t come to lament the death of George Floyd. He didn’t come to address the deep wounds that are being expressed through peaceful protest by the thousands upon thousands. He didn’t try to bring calm to situations that are exploding with pain.”

Whether this heartening reaction from mainstream Catholic and Protestant clergy will spread to the evangelical leaders who are Trump’s religious bedrock remains to be seen. Somewhere, a cock is crowing three times.

But as Rev. Buddie very sagely told MSNBC, bringing it all back home, as shameful as a PR stunt like this was, the real outrage is what is being done to peaceful protestors in the streets, and what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. That is what Trump was trying to distract us from with the Bible photo…..and while it may have backfired, he may yet succeed if we fail to keep in that context.

THE SOUNDS OF MARCHING CHARGING FEET, BOY

In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes of Trump’s habit of non-ironically playing the Village People’s hyper-ironic gay anthem “Macho Man” at his rallies and other public appearances, a trope that continued even amid the George Floyd protests:

(Trump’s) desire to be the omnipresent macho man of our public life obscures his very real impotence in the face of indisputable events, like the killing of an innocent black man—or the outbreak of a deadly once-in-a-century pandemic.

Now seems to be a rare instance when the hard cold unpleasant facts of what is happening in America have intruded in a most unwelcome way on the Trump Presidency.

In the same way that Trump can’t be blamed for COVID-19, only for the criminal way he screwed up the response, he can’t be blamed for the knee that was pressed down on George Floyd’s neck either, or the history of racism in America that led to it…..only for inflaming that hatred with his every utterance, a habit on hideous display in his despicable handling of the Floyd murder and the attendant outrage.

The St. John’s fiasco actually came after Trump had already tripled down on his incendiary rhetoric with his first public pronouncements after poking his head out of his gopher hole. Befitting his lifelong insecurity and fixation on cheap machismo, most of it advocated brutal, violent, sometimes illegal response to Constitutionally protected dissent.

Leaked audio from a phone call with governors revealed Trump needling them for being “weak,” “fools,” and “jerks” and urging them to “dominate” the protestors. Not widely noted was that, right before that call, Trump had a private phone call with Vladimir Putin. (Was anyone from our side listening for change?) No doubt his exhortation for US governors to behave like violent assholes was an attempt to impress his boyfriend. (Dear Vlad: I like you; do you like me? I mean, “like” like? Check one, yes or no.)

Putin must be grinning from ear to ear as America continues to destroy itself under the hand of his chosen puppet. Trump famously has a pathologically fear of being laughed at (ouch, Seth Meyers) and before he was elected often claimed that the world was doing just that at the US under his predecessor, I forget his name. Ironically, our enemies are now, openly, guffawing at our sorry state, for which Trump is largely to blame.

Among other wolf tickets for sale, Trump also threatened to supersede state authorities and invoke the Insurrection of Act of 1807 (we’re all familiar with that, right?), allowing him to deploy active duty US military forces to quell this “rebellion,” an executive act which no reputable expert in military law thinks is remotely defensible. But you may have noticed that Donald, him not care much what the fucking law says.

The odious Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) eagerly seconded that totally awesome idea, promising “no quarter.” Hey Tom, I know you were in the 101st, but you’re a disgrace to the division, the Army, and the country by suggesting sending the Screaming Eagles—as well as one of my old outfits, the 82nd Airborne; the 10th Mountain; 1st Cav; and 3ID—to apply lethal force against American citizens. Shame on you. Also, go back to law school and look up what “no quarter” means. You’ll find it in the War Crimes section of the law library.

But this is what the Republican Party has become: people who would have American soldiers shoot their fellow countrymen, in defense of Donald Trump.

THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON (OR IS THERE?)

If I may take a moment to detour into semantics, I don’t know how many of you have experienced it, but “tear gas” is an innocuous description of what is more properly known as CS. Like everyone who was ever in the military, I was given a generous taste of it in training. It’s like your head’s been doused with acid, and not the fun kind. Your eyes and skin burn, your nose opens up like a spigot, your throat constricts until you’re afraid you might choke, and your lungs feel like they’re on fire.

So next time we hear about the police or National Guard using it on peaceful protestors like Barr ordered in DC this week, let’s try to picture that. When it comes to tears, and when the time is right for them, I refer you to Bob Dylan’s “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

But a lot of the imagery and language that even the mainstream media uses is biased and loaded. Lingering on footage of opportunists smashing shop windows, thus implicitly tarring legitimate protestors as complicit. Talk of “riots” (not protests or demonstrations). Nonchalant use of the word “looters”. But as David Frum writes, “Trump Is the Looter.”

The Trump years have confronted all Americans with stark contrasts in the treatment of crime depending on the status of the criminal. The day before the police killing of Floyd, the president and his supporters were voicing passionate concerns for the alleged maltreatment of Michael Flynn by the justice system. Then a helpless man is choked to death on a public street in full public view and—well, he was no choirboy, the president’s supporters explain.

For the record, Trump’s designated bootlickers, er, I mean the leadership of the Republican Party, uniformly defended his actions (or scurried away like cockroaches when the kitchen light comes on) reserving all their outrage over the use of violence for—hold on to your hats—the protestors.

But unless you’re blind, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was not the protestors but the police—which is to say, the authorities who control them—who are responsible for escalating the violence by taking needlessly provocative and aggressive measures against demonstrations that have largely been peaceful. “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide” as a Slate headline wittily put it.

But these are not just isolated incidents sparked by the oft-cited bad apples. Numerous experts have noted that this seems to be a deliberate, calculated escalation of the law enforcement response, dictated from top officials in various cities, even apart from Trump’s cruder, borderline nihilistic admonition to bang heads and act like tough guys.

In his National Book Award-winning memoir An American Requiem, my friend James Carroll, the esteemed novelist, author, and former Roman Catholic priest, writes poignantly of being a seminarian in Washington DC in April 1968 and sorrowfully watching the city burn in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jim tells of his agony, but also his understanding of why those fires had been set.

When I watch the scenes in Minneapolis, or LA, or Houston, or here in New York, I recognize the feeling.

But I will confess that when I see the scene in Washington DC, even with its worrying incipient violence, I feel inspired. That sort of angry public uprising is what’s supposed to happen when you have a government like this. It should have begun long ago. I won’t lie; watching it now is gratifying, even as I’m not sure how it plays out from here.

If Trump wants to declare martial law, by name or merely de facto, he might just meet the same fate as another two-bit strongman, Ferdinand Marcos. The crowds are already laying siege outside the White House, the same way they did outside Malancanang Palace in 1986. Trump would do well to read up—if he can read—about how that ended for Ferdie.

The New York Times reports that Trump was “rattled” by the protests as he and his family were hustled into the underground bunker.

He should be.

TIANANMEN ON THE POTOMAC?

Trump now wants to flex and have US soldiers shoot American citizens in cold blood? Hey Republicans, hey MAGA Nation, hey self-proclaimed Constitution-loving “patriots”: you down with that?

(Kinda makes his hobbyhorse of last week—wanting to shut down Twitter—look pretty mild.)

Trump’s ostentatious belligerence is very on brand for the fat-assed bully he is. Unfortunately, as he threatens all manner of fascist bullshit to compensate for his obvious lifelong insecurity about his tiny penis, he has two things going for him, which are dangerous for us:

1) The full might of the federal government, including the US military, and

2) An utter disregard for laws that would prevent him from trying to deploy that might against American citizens.

Can you fucking believe we’re even talking about this????

Almost since he took office, some have been pondering what might happen if there is a disputed election in November 2020, with Trump questioning the results or claiming it was rigged or simply refusing to leave office. I’m one of them, and have written about it over and over. As we approach Election Day, that scenario—once scoffed at by many—looks more worrisome than ever.

Will we see armored personnel carriers in the streets? Protestors looking down gun barrels? American soldiers having to choose what side they are on?

Turns out, we might not have to wait until November.

Rachel Maddow noted this week that Trump has long craved a military parade in DC, with M-1 Abrams tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thus far the Pentagon has delicately thwarted him. But he seems dead set on getting it one way or another.

I am reassured to see eminent retired military figures like General (Ret.) Martin Dempsey and Admiral (Ret.) Mike Mullen—both four-star flag officers and former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—forcefully and publicly repudiating the very idea of using US soldiers to violently suppress lawful dissent by fellow Americans. In their op-eds, both men also tacitly encouraged those soldiers not to follow unlawful orders, even (or especially) from the Commander-in-Chief. Both expressed their confidence that American soldiers would never act like the fratricidal stormtroopers of a foreign police state.

But I am not so confident that Trump won’t cravenly put those young GIs in that position anyway.

Donald Trump is a liar and a braggart who flings threats as readily as he breathes; those threats therefore carry no weight whatsoever. On the other hand, I don’t put anything past him, so untethered from morality and simple human decency is he.

As Trump boasts about calling up the active duty military (which he has already begun, with the deployment of an MP battalion from Ft. Bragg to DC), please note that the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre is tomorrow. Here’s what Trump said about it at the time, speaking to Playboy in 1990:

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength…..That shows you the power of strength.”

It could only have been more perfect if he’d said it to Hustler. (Actually, that’s an insult to Larry Flynt.)

I’m here to tell you, I’m concerned about what is going to happen next. I fear it ain’t gonna be a repeat of Bernie Boston’s famous 1967 “Flower Power” photo of a daisies being planted in M-14 rifle barrels with bayonets fixed.

Susan Glasser again. She was writing before Trump emerged from his bunker, but her comments proved pretty goddam prescient:

We don’t know yet how the last few days will reshape Trump or his Presidency. Is this the beginning of a long, hot summer of discord in our cities that will cause a white American backlash of the sort that Trump has long encouraged and embraced?

In the past, Trump has shamelessly stoked racial discord and divisiveness for political gain. He is expert at blame-shifting and dog-whistling. In his tweets on Sunday afternoon, he was already conjuring the spirit of Richard Nixon in 1968 to call for “law and order” as another long night of mayhem looms.

He may briefly hunker down in his White House bunker, but he has never done so for long. If this crisis is like any of the many others in his life, Trump will talk and tweet and tweet and talk no matter how many Americans wish he would just shut up. Irrefutable events, however, are piling up on the Trump Presidency, and, although it is only May, 2020 has already given us an impeachment trial, a deadly plague, and the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. We can now add the worst riots in a generation to this election year’s grim bid for the history books. Will that finally be enough to silence Donald Trump?

BURY THE RAG DEEP IN YOUR FACE

I’ve asked myself, and heard many others asking, the obvious question of how this will end. The normal that some want to go back is not possible, and more to the point, not desirable. That sickening “normal” is what prompted these protests in the first place.

But it’s not a simple matter of what will quell the violence and restore the peace.

We can’t ask that without asking what we are going to do to address the underlying hatred, racism, and institutional brutality that has led to the outrage—justifiably—playing out on our streets right now.

Getting Trump out of office (and ideally, into handcuffs) will be but one step, essential but not sufficient. The work has to begin even before we do that, and as part of it, and will continue long after he’s gone. It is predicated first and foremost on we as a people simply recognizing, very belatedly, that we have a severe, soul-wrenching problem and beginning to reckon with it.

Can we do so?

Like they say on TV, stay tuned.

********

Photo: Donald Trump outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC. Doug Mills/The New York Times.

h/t Scott Sinkler for the Sinatra reference

 

 

Amy & George

Protests Continue Over Death Of George Floyd, Killed In Police Custody In Minneapolis

Two weeks ago in these pages I wrote about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man gunned down in cold blood by a trio of south Georgia rednecks in a town near my old high school. As I noted, the murder was horrific enough, though not surprising, as it was part of a long and vile history. But the real outrage was the blithe decision of the local authorities not to charge the killers until public outcry forced a reversal. (One of the accused was affiliated with the local DA’s office.)

As if by design, this week saw two other incidents that join Ahmaud’s murder in a damning triptych.

The first, improbably, was an encounter in Central Park between a woman walking her dog and a birdwatcher.

DOGS AND MASTERS

Here is Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, describing what happened:

A white woman named Amy Cooper called 911 and told the dispatcher that an African-American man was threatening her. The man she was talking about, Christian Cooper, who is no relation, filmed the call on his phone. They were in the Ramble, a part of the park favored by bird-watchers, including Christian Cooper, and he had simply requested that she leash her dog—something that is required in the area. In the video, before making the call, Ms. Cooper warns Mr. Cooper that she is “going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Her needless inclusion of the race of the man she fears serves only to summon the ancient impulse to protect white womanhood from the threats posed by black men. For anyone with a long enough memory or a recent enough viewing of the series “When They See Us,” the locale of this altercation becomes part of the story: we know what happened to five young black and brown men who were falsely accused of attacking a white woman in Central Park.

That last point is especially striking. For those who don’t recall, at the time—1989—a loudmouthed young real estate developer and running Spy Magazine punchline named Donald Trump was so incensed that he took out a full page ad in the Daily News calling for the “Central Park Five” to be given the death penalty. (Trial optional.) Even after the five men were belatedly exonerated by DNA evidence and the jailhouse confession of the real rapist, Trump to this day still insists they are guilty.

Oh, by the way: he is now President of the United States. That ought to give you a clue about the state of race relations in the USA.

If you watch the video, Ms. Cooper’s hysteria is absurd, given how calm and reasonable her alleged antagonist was, and how snotty and aggressive she is. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean. Even her mention of Central Park when speaking to the emergency operator seems calculated to summon the ghosts of the infamous 1989 crime.

In fact, her performance is so hackneyed that the video almost looks fake. (IT’S NOT FAKE. I WANT TO BE CLEAR THAT I AM NOT ALLEGING THAT. Her behavior is merely so clichéd, in that way that real life is often more artless than cinema.)

Christian Cooper is a Harvard grad, a former editor for Marvel Comics, and a birdwatcher; could he be any nerdier? Amy Cooper was this terrified by Urkel? Since when is “Please obey the rules, ma’am, and leash your cocker spaniel” equivalent to “I’m gonna kill you”?

But as Samuel Getachew points out in the Washington Post, a recitation of the victim’s resume ought not be necessary to excuse him from oppression:

It’s a cycle that repeats itself over and over: Often, when a black person is harassed, or worse, well-meaning people try to illustrate their humanity and harmlessness by highlighting a résumé, trying to draw out evidence of the black person’s innocence by noting their education and talent, rather than emphasizing that simply being human should be enough.

Cooper has been fired from her job as a VP for the investment firm Franklin Templeton, put under consideration for arrest on civil rights charges and/or making a false report to 911, accused of stalking, and subjected to a torrent of abuse and even death threats. (Shades of Justine Sacco, the woman whose texted joke about AIDS and race while on a flight to South Africa went viral.)

She even had to give up her dog to a shelter. Check out how in the course of all this she damn near chokes the thing.

But before we cry a river for Amy, consider what consequences her actions might have had for Christian. A little worse than some bigot-shaming. Mensch-like, he called the attacks on her abhorrent and begged that they stop.

Ms. Cooper has been dubbed “Central Park Karen,” which is funny yet frivolous, given the potentially lethal repercussions of a call like hers: there but for the grace of God, Christian Cooper could have wound up like Amadou Diallo, or Sean Bell, or Freddie Gray. More to the point, it trivializes the broader issue.

It didn’t help that her apologies have rung a bit hollow, shockingly trying to minimize what she had done, focusing on her own suffering, and reflecting the white fragility that likely got her in this position in the first place. “I’m not a racist,” she said in a statement to CNN. “I did not mean to harm that man in any way. (My) entire life is being destroyed right now.”

Speaking to WNBC in New York, she said, “It was unacceptable. And words are just words and I can’t undo what I did. But I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone, especially to that man and his family.”

Twice—“that man.” He has a name, Amy—YOUR OWN NAME, in fact. Wow.

And “words are just words”? Really? Some words have been known to get people killed. And she seems pretty upset abut the ones that are being leveled at her. Especially that “r-word.”

(According to WNBC’s reporting, she also stands by her allegation that Mr. Cooper was “screaming,” when the video evidence shows nothing of the sort—only her own raised voice and sharp-toned threats to call the cops.)

We’ll come back to Ms. Cooper and the incident in Central Park in a bit. But first, let us turn to its even more evil twin.

MINNESOTA NICE” TAKES A FALL

The second incident was far more gruesome, and violent, but every bit of a piece.

In case you’ve been in a media blackout along with your covid quarantine, four officers of the Minneapolis Police Department were captured on videotape brutally killing an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd after arresting him on suspicion of passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill.

There is no evidence of him resisting arrest, let alone doing anything that justified deadly force. One of those officers, Derek Chauvin, is seen pressing his knee down on Mr. Floyd’s neck for at least seven minutes, pinning him to the blacktop and cutting off his supply of air as Mr. Floyd pleads (in a bitter echo of Eric Garner) “I can’t breathe!” Numerous onlookers witnessed the killing and shouted for the cops to stop.

When Chauvin finally gets up, Floyd is dead.

Minneapolis has had more than its share of racially-based police homicides, most prominently the killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. No charges were brought against the cops in either case, replicating a longstanding pattern of non-prosecution or acquittal in cities across the country. (See also Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, among others.) In one of the few police shootings in Minneapolis in which the officer was convicted, the killing of Justine Damond, that officer was black and the victim white.

But this one has exploded on the national consciousness for several reasons, chief among them, the sheer, callous brutality of the murder, not to mention the accumulated weight of so many previous episodes of violence by police, many of them lethal, and the shameful lack of justice.

(In a bizarre twist, Mr. Floyd and the police officer who killed him knew each other for many years, having worked security at the same bar.)

Protests are now into their fourth day, and not limited to Minneapolis but all across the country, including a large one going on right now in Brooklyn, half a mile away from where I am writing this, that featured some sporadic violence. I passed through that protest earlier today and can attest that the crowd was both black and white and skewed heavily young. It has the feel of a watershed moment.

There is another big one going on in Louisville, Kentucky, where last March police conducting a drug raid burst into the home of an African-American EMT named Breonna Taylor and shot her eight times, killing her. Turned out they had the wrong address.

Thus are the Central Park and Minneapolis incidents joined at the hip. Andre Henry writes that “If (Amy Cooper) were a slaveholder, or wife of a slaveholder, she might have Christian whipped in public for ‘disrespect,’ but since we’ve ‘evolved’ since the 1800s, she called armed agents of the state, whose institutional roots are inseparable from the plantation, instead.”

His point is borne out by what happened when Minneapolis’s finest arrived to arrest George Floyd.

OVER TO YOU, DON

Now let’s check in with our Dear Leader, who will surely have some profound and inspiring words to help heal the nation at this terrible time.

Asked about the video of George Floyd’s death, Trump’s response was beyond lame: “I feel very, very badly. That’s a very shocking sight. That was a very, very bad thing that I saw. I saw it last night and I didn’t like it…what I saw was not good. Very bad.”

Way to go out on a limb, Gandhi. You could see him visibly struggling to say what he knew he had to say, striving for the bare minimum of acceptable disapproval. Obviously, he had to be careful not to alienate his white supremacist base, who openly admire killer cops who murder black people.

Even as the words left his cakehole, you knew they would have the lifespan of a gnat.

Predictably, less than 24 hours later, after the burning of the 3rd Precinct police station in Minneapolis, Trump took to Twitter (natch) to suggest that the protestors—“THUGS,” as he called them, in his trademark left-the-caps-lock-on style—should be shot. He even used the “looting/shooting” trope that dates back to Miami’s racist police chief Walter Headley in the late ‘60s. He also hinted that he would consider an (unlawful) military response, whatever that means, recalling another famous and repulsive quip, Reagan’s invitation to a “bloodbath” when he was governor of California during antiwar student unrest in 1970.

(Allegations of looting are already overstated, but as David Sirota writes on BillMoyers.com, “In this Orwellian era, working-class people pilfering convenience store goods is called ‘looting,’ while rich people stealing hundreds of billions of dollars is deemed good ‘public policy.’)

As Jelani Cobb pointed out on MSNBC on Thursday night, contrast the militarized cops in Minneapolis—in riot gear, firing tear gas—with the almost superhumanly calm and restrained behavior of the cops in Lansing, Michigan, in ordinary patrol uniforms, even when confronted nose to nose with heavily armed MAGA militiamen spitting in their faces.

IOKIYAW, amirite?

In Trump’s world, the angry white people in body armor, bearing AR-15s, waving Confederate flags, and screaming insults as they storm the governor’s office are “very responsible people” with whom Gretchen Whitmer should negotiate. The protestors in Minneapolis, meanwhile, deserve a bullet in the chest.

That would be bad enough if Trump’s vile view was solely his own, but he is president in large part because millions of American agree with him. Weaponizing that bigotry and hate is the backbone of his entire political career.

Meanwhile, polite society and the mainstream media continue to bring a feather duster to a nuclear war. Reporting his threatening tweet, the New York Times’ headline read, “Trump suggests protesters could be shot, and Twitter says the president violated its rules.” Gee, ya think?

Anyway, it was a big week for Karens, as Trump was labeled the Karen-in-Chief for demanding to speak to the manager of Twitter. (Please spare me your angry comments about how “Karen” is an epithet on a par with the n-word.) Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Trump’s increasingly aggressive attacks on the media seem to be having the chilling effect he no doubt intends. In addition to Twittergeddon, his lawyers this week threatened TV stations not to air an anti-Trump political ad or risk losing their FCC license. In Louisville, police brazenly fired pepper bullets directly at a local NBC news crew, also on camera, as they were filming. Live on MSNBC from Minneapolis, Ali Velshi was repeatedly followed and harassed by a man shouting at him, “You’re part of the problem!” (He might have easily been from the far left as the Trumpian right.) Also in Minneapolis, CNN’s Omar Jimenez and two colleagues were arrested on camera and briefly held, despite identifying themselves as press, or perhaps because they did. (The governor quickly expressed regret.) Not for nothing, Jimenez is black. A fellow CNN reporter, who is white, reported that he was similarly confronted by the police, but immediately allowed to go about his business as soon as he identified himself, the same way Jimenez and his crew had. Aberration or no, it’s impossible to disassociate an incident like that from a climate in which racism in law enforcement is the very issue, and the head of state routinely rails that the press is “the enemy of the state.”

As with the pandemic, this is a moment when we could really use some national leadership. Pity.

As many noted, when Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder went to Ferguson, MO in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder and the ensuing outrage, it was seen by the community as a sign that the federal government was taking the matter seriously. Trump and Bill Barr bring with them no such cred. Donald Trump did not put his own literal knee on George Floyd’s neck, but his administration has fanned the flames of hate in this country and put a metaphorical one on the Africa-American community. Lest we forget Trump’s numerous urgings that police be rougher with “criminals” and protestors? Even his craven abdication of the fight against the coronavirus seems predicated in part on the fact that it is disproportionately ravaging communities of color—a strategy that the public health activist (and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow) Greg Gonsalves suggests rises to the level of deliberate genocide.

So while black people get killed in cold blood by the cops, and the Grim Reaper of the pandemic claims its 100,000th victim in the US, and Minneapolis burns, Trump spends his time accusing Joe Scarborough of murder, trying to shut down Twitter, and playing fucking golf.

HANGIN’ WITH MR. COOPER

“I’m not a racist,” Amy Cooper told the press. I don’t know her from Adam (or Eve), but I’m sure she believes that. In fact, it would not surprise me if she prided herself on absolutely not being a racist. (“I don’t see color.” “Some of my best friends….”)

Therein lies the crucial misunderstanding of the term.

“Racism” is not anecdotal, personal prejudice: it is institutionalized oppression. Part of that is subconscious, deeply inculcated socialization that causes whitey (like me) not even to recognize our own privilege or bias.

On Medium, Andre Henry writes:

The first thing Amy Cooper seemed to know is that, as a white woman, she stands above Black people in the racial hierarchy. She knows she is the image of the slave master and he the image of the enslaved, the non-Human—which might explain why she seemed to exhibit offense that a Black man had the gall to hold her accountable to the leash policy of The Ramble. In her decision to call the police, she betrays that the Black man has made the true violation. It is, after all, her prerogative as a white person to police non-white people, not the other way around.

She also seemed to know that, in America’s imagination, she’s the image of the pure, innocent damsel in the distress and that the Black man is perpetually the image of the dangerous criminal….

It would be one thing if Amy Cooper were a red hat-wearing, Limbaugh-listening Trumpette. (One wag on Twitter suggested she will soon receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.) But all available evidence suggests that she is a blue state liberal, culturally at least. (Then again, she does work in investment banking.) Which is actually far more insidious and instructive when it comes to illuminating racism in America.

In The Independent, Nylah Burton writes:

White violence is not the sole domain of Trump supporters, or open white supremacists. White violence is pervasive, spreading everywhere and tainting everything. And when we overlook liberal white racism, we put ourselves in grave danger, because liberal white people often live closer in proximity to Black folks than their conservative peers….

Many believe that if we just get Donald Trump out of office and replace him with a white liberal or a white moderate, racialized violence will abate in this country. But that’s not necessarily the case. “Moderate” and “liberal” politicians have all aided in such violence becoming the norm as well. Martin Luther King Jr. himself warned of the particular danger of this type of racism. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he wrote in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

And that lukewarm acceptance can quickly turn into threats or actual violence, when white people that their supremacy and their spaces are being threatened. Assuming that Amy Cooper is a white conservative Trump supporter desensitizes us to the ways in which even “progressive” white people protect their spaces from Black people.

REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER

Alluding to the furor over Colin Kaepernick, a sign at the Minneapolis protests read, “Oh, it’s OK when you kneel?”

On that count, we are about to experience a wave of public tut-tutting—or worse—over the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, complete with pearl-clutching over lawlessness, violence, and anarchy. The hypocrisy is head-spinning.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi of The Antiracist Research & Policy Center writes:

Police violence begets violent resistance. If you want to end the violent resistance, then end the police violence. It is coldblooded to expect any group of people who are being constantly terrorized, brutalized, and killed by police officers to never react in violent rage. It is coldblooded to demonize violent protesters and not the violent source of their rage….

However, let’s not equate violence against property to violence against people. These demonstrators primarily engaged in violence against property. By contrast, officers around the country have been primarily engaged in violence against people.

And don’t call for non-violent demonstrations if you aren’t calling for non-violent police.

Burning down a police station is an extreme step and a jarring sight. But it damn sure got the attention of the nation in a way that a strongly worded letter to the editor (or an angry blog post) somehow fails to do.

I am not advocating burning anything down, and I am actively opposed to hurting any human being—which I hasten to note, is what the MPD did, not the protestors. But the protests in Minneapolis and across the country are an object lesson in the range of options available, if necessary, as we contemplate how to push back against Trump’s efforts (and those of others in the GOP) to rig the upcoming election, among other sins.

Until recently, I have been among those bemoaning the fact that the pandemic has robbed us of the ability to get out in the streets in mass protest, the traditional way to express popular discontent. But these protests show that we can still do so, with powerful results, if the outrage is sufficient.

Then again, this civil unrest, should it continue and even expand, also offers a perfect pretext for Trump and his (selectively) “law & order” proto-authoritarianist regime to take further steps into despotism. In a bitter irony, that will only make civil disobedience and public protest more necessary. At a minimum, Trump will use it to terrify the white electorate and try to drive them into his camp.

As Dr. Kendi says, even getting rid of Trump will not be the end of this virulent hate running through the American bloodstream—a pandemic, one might say—any more than that hate began with his arrival on Planet Earth in 1947.

As of this writing, Derek Chauvin—but only Chauvin—has been arrested and will be charged with third degree murder. It remains to be seen if he walks. It also remains to be seen if that measure causes tempers to cool, and if they should.

Because one thing I know for sure is that George Floyd is not the last black man who is going to be killed by the cops.

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

Photo: Minneapolis’s 3rd police precinct headquarters in flames. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Thanks to Thomas Teufel for referring to me the article from fourthreethree.org.

 

What Might Have Been

Running the World

This past weekend, for one of the first times since the quarantine began on March 13, my family and I ventured out of New York, down to the Atlantic City. AC is a grim place even in the best of times, and right now it is a pretty desolate and depressing wasteland. The hotels and casinos are closed and so are most other establishments, from chain stores to mom & pop shops to restaurants and bars that are heavily reliant on seasonal tourism, all of them anticipating a brutal summer that might drive many of them out of business.

While we were there, we went walking on the still-wintry boardwalk, amid a few other tentative beachcombers, most of them wearing masks and practicing social distancing. As we walked, a small plane flew over towing an advertising banner, not an uncommon sight in summertime. But instead of Budweiser or Coppertone or the Tropicana, the big red, white & blue banner read TRUMP 2020: KEEP AMERICA GREAT, buzzing slowly over the worst destruction this country has seen in over a hundred years, and with no discernible irony.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

At a time like this, there isn’t much point in indulging in alternative histories (or torturing ourselves with them), except when there is.

Imagining how the current crisis might have unfolded under a competent head of state, or any kind of functioning adult, can help cast a clarifying, if brutal, light on how our actual head of state has miserably failed us.

I have some conservative friends who, you will be unsurprised to learn, absolutely loathed Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady and a US Senator. But once Barack Obama became president, they had no more bandwidth for that. In fact, they temporarily became vocal admirers of Hillary, particularly when she was Secretary of State, praising her as strong and smart, tough on our enemies, experienced, yada yada yada…..all in implicit contrast to Barack, of course, their contempt for whom—intense as it was—they could never convincingly explain.

It didn’t take Nostradamus to figure out what was going to happen next. This was in Obama’s first term, when an eventual Hillary candidacy for the White House was already presumed but still very far off. I told these guys explicitly at the time, mark-my-words-style, that they would surely do a 180 and start hating on Hillary again as soon as she ran for president.

Of course, it came true in spades.

I bring this up merely to point out that even conservatives gave (and still give) Hillary credit for being smart, tenacious, ruthless, and supremely competent, even if it’s in the service of goals they abhor. Indeed, her formidability is one of their chief complaints about her, super-villain wise, although it is also inherently a compliment. (See Nanette Burstein’s great four-part documentary series “Hillary,” on Hulu….and also Curtis Sittenfield’s new counterfactual novel, Rodham.)

Unless you’re a Kool-Aid drunk Trump supporter, it is impossible to deny that a President Hillary Clinton would have handled this crisis more competently. Even if you hate her, you can’t seriously argue that she would have refused to acknowledge the danger when presented by the most knowledgeable people in the field, gutted the federal government of desperately needed expertise, held medical equipment hostage in demand for praise, ranted about her ratings on Facebook, advised the American public to take unproven drugs, ignored basic science and objective reality itself, and just generally made a dog’s breakfast of the US response.

We know this in part because we know how the administration in which she served as Secretary of State was preparing for precisely this sort of disaster, and because of how she conducted herself in five decades of public life.

Don’t think so? Believe that’s just liberal fantasy? OK. Enjoy your hydroxychloroquine-and-Lysol cocktail.

The Never Trump conservative Max Boot put it very well in a Washington Post article from March 21 called, bluntly, “This Wouldn’t Have Happened If Hillary Clinton Had Won.”

I weep in anger and frustration imagining what might have been if Hillary Clinton—a sane, sensible adult—had won. We couldn’t have avoided the coronavirus, but we could have ameliorated its effects.

Picturing how Clinton might have handled the pandemic is apt to make a liberal unbearably wistful. When one observes how other countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Finland and (all led by women, I must note) managed to anticipate, respond to, and otherwise minimize the effects of the virus, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the American death toll could have been kept under 10,000—a tenth of what we have suffered, so far. A per capita comparison is even more instructive. Taiwan currently has 0.3 deaths per million, New Zealand 4, Finland 55, and Germany 97.

The US has 287.

The economic damage might also have been greatly mitigated, belying the right wing screeching that we must choose between lives and dollars, and instead recognizing that they are inextricably connected. European countries that took swift action to prop up their economies, including protecting the paychecks of ordinary citizens, have suffered far less and are already beginning to rebuild. By contrast, using multi-trillion dollar stimulus legislation as a slush fund to funnel taxpayer dollars into the pockets of donors, cronies, and even one’s own businesses—while proposing cuts to unemployment benefits—has somehow been less helpful.

In the words of a certain US Marine: surprise surprise surprise.

HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

Here’s the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson:

Only a handful of nations on Earth have arguably done a worse job of handling the coronavirus pandemic than the United States. What has happened to us? How did we become so dysfunctional? When did we become so incompetent?

I’ll tell you when: when we inexplicably entrusted the stewardship of this nation to a mentally deficient con artist and malignant imbecile named Donald John Trump.

(Although one could make a more sophisticated argument that we crossed that line when we became a nation that was even capable of doing such a thing—an acknowledgment that Trump is merely a symptom, not these disease itself. Sadly, that does not make it any better, and actually worse.)

As I’ve said ad nauseam, when history looks back on the Trump presidency, it will be appended with the initials SMDH. He will go down making Herbert Hoover look like a genius. It’s couldn’t happen to a nicer guy of course, but that is cold comfort right now.

PoliticsUSA’s Jason Easley makes the salient point that Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic is not just a matter of negligence or incompetence, but approaches active homicide in blocking measures that would have slowed the spread and saved lives, including the establishment of a national strategy, implementation of a national lockdown, encouragement of social distancing and mask-wearing, and efforts to ensure availability of sufficient PPE and adequate testing. As Easley notes, “Trump has routinely acted in bad faith out of self-interest, and now millions are sick, tens of thousands are dead, and 40 million are unemployed,” which is why “the US leads the world in coronavirus cases.”

As Harvard Law school professor Laurence Tribe tweeted, “This is worse than dereliction of duty; it’s getting close to active killing. Not quite murder, maybe, but getting close.” Gregg Gonsalves of the Yale School of Public Health has suggested that by doing so in the knowledge that the pandemic is disproportionately ravaging communities of color, Trump’s actions amount to crimes against humanity punishable under international law.

Show of hands: who’s surprised?

Max Boot again:

It was precisely because we were afraid of how Trump would mishandle his weighty responsibilities that some “Never Trump” conservatives supported Clinton in 2016. On May 8, 2016, I wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “There has never been a major party nominee in US history as unqualified for the presidency. The risk of Trump winning, however remote, represents the biggest national security threat that the United States faces today.”

I do not cite my earlier article—one of dozens I wrote in 2015 and 2016 warning in ever-more-urgent tones of the danger of electing Trump—as a way of patting myself on the back for prescience. It took no foresight to predict that Trump would be a catastrophe in a crisis. It was close to the conventional wisdom. Yet nearly 63 million voters chose to disregard such warnings.

For three years we were lucky enough not to have a major international crisis of the sort Boot describes, until we were hit with one much bigger and of a different variety than we ever imagined. And Trump failed that test even worse than his worst critics predicted. The Cessna with the Trump banner flying over Atlantic City is fitting, given that he has now done to the whole country what he did to that city as a deadbeat casino owner.

For all the people who hated HRC and thought Trump would shake up the system, or blithely looked past his manifold flaws and for some reason thought he was the better alternative, or talked themselves into some crazy conspiracy theory, or suffered from deep primeval reptile brain misogyny, I say: now look at us. Look upon the havoc that has been wreaked on this country in just over three years, look at the death, the economic devastation, the destruction of the rule of law, the beclowning of the judiciary, the quisling submission to a foreign power, the obliteration of truth as a common metric, the death of civility, the stoking of divisiveness, the resurgence of racism, and on and on…..

But her emails, amirite people?

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT

Which bring us to the really bitter irony at the bottom of all this.

It wouldn’t have mattered how well a President Hillary Clinton handled a crisis like this. She would have been crucified regardless, and with a viciousness that Donald Trump has never had to contend, not even for a moment.

On Medium, Umair Haque writes:

Can you imagine Obama getting away with letting 90,000 Americans die? How about Hillary? How many Benghazis is that, exactly? They’d probably have ended up disgraced, if not imprisoned. But Trump? He’s not just getting away with it, as usual—he’s gotten away with it for so long that by now he knows he can count on America’s bottomless appetite to be mesmerized by his cheap conman’s tricks as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

But forget 90,000. Any deaths or economic pain at all would’ve been gleefully seized upon by the Republicans as reason to attack any Democratic president. And those attacks would’ve found some purchase, no doubt about it.

Obviously, there would not be the utter catastrophe of Trump’s handling as a point of comparison. A President H.R. Clinton couldn’t point to him and say, “Hey, at least I didn’t behave like a petulant child, spew lies, and line the pockets of my cronies while the country burned!” Because before Trump no one could imagine that the US would ever allow a president to do anything like that. Don’t be ridiculous!

So, continuing down this counterfactual road, we can presume that if Hillary had won in 2016 and been president when covid hit, she would have been absolutely crushed in the 2020 election, because that is typically what would happen to a chief executive who presided over the twin nightmares of a historic pandemic and the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, let alone one who demonstrably made both worse than they had to be. (But again, that doesn’t mean that that’s what will happen to Trump, because, as Haque points out…..Bizarro World.)

It’s a jarring thought. Much as it hurt to lose in 2016, might the Democrats have suffered even more had they won and been in power when this nightmare struck?

It’s almost as if this fascist sickness was bubbling up in the American body politic and going to come out sooner or later, one way or another, if not with Trump in 2016 then maybe with Trump in 2020, or with an even worse figure , if that’s possible to imagine. If Trumpism hadn’t triumphed when it did, it was likely to raise its hideous head at some point. In any case, it’s a grievous mistake to think that we’re going to eradicate it now, or ever, not without a major re-evaluation of who we are as a people.

Eugene Robinson again: 

The covid-19 pandemic has exposed the depth of America’s fall from greatness. Ridding ourselves of Trump and his cronies in November will be just the beginning of our work to restore it.

Indeed, the crisis has laid bare some of our greatest weaknesses, weaknesses that numerous observers have been howling about for quite a long time: virulent racism, raging inequality, a Darwinian economic system, and the general hoax of the American Dream. The optimistic view is that the covid crisis might serve as a slap in the face that causes us to take stock and change those things for the better. More pessimistically, it may lead us into even blacker times and an even more authoritarian response. The ugly scenes on the steps of state capitals like Lansing, Michigan offer a preview of that latter road, and just how dark it is.

It’s not a uniquely American sickness of course. At various times, fascism and its kissing cousins have taken root all over the world, and in much more horrible forms than this. But the United States of the 21st Century does seem to possess some unique tendencies that make it susceptible to that disease.

We alone among the major industrialized nations are unable to provide healthcare for our citizens, instead insisting upon the most inefficient, sadistic, and ineffective employment-based system imaginable. We alone are awash in firearms and on a regular basis shoot each other up like characters in a Sam Peckinpah western, resisting any common sense efforts to staunch that bleeding, instead hysterically screeching about the Biblical sanctity of the Second Amendment. Ironically, we alone see ourselves as “exceptional” (and by some accounts, divinely selected) and justified in doing whatever the fuck we want on the global stage. And we alone among the major powers are so deeply steeped in Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” making us highly prone to conspiracy theory, demagoguery, suspicion of authority, and Know Nothing anti-intellectualism.

It’s a perfect recipe for a Trumplike figure, as H.L. Mencken predicted lo those many years ago. The real wonder is it took so long to come to pass.

PROOF OF CONCEPT

Shortly after the inauguration in January 2017, I had a conversation with a friend—let’s call him Dustin. “How you doing?” he asked. “Not good,” I said. “Me either,” Dustin replied, “and the worst part is, I find myself hoping for bad things.” It was a brave admission, and something I felt too, though I wasn’t as courageous as him to volunteer it unbidden. But what we both wanted was for the rest of the country—the part that voted for Trump—to see just how bad the decision was that they had just made.

I guess we got our wish. It remains to be seen if even this crisis is enough to rouse some of our fellow Americans from their reverie.

Short of a nuclear war, this is about as bad a national nightmare as one could imagine, and I’m not sure we’ve seen the worst of it yet. Trump may or may not survive it, but it is certainly testing the limits of his shooting-someone-in-the-middle-of-Fifth-Avenue theory. A recent article in the Washington Post offered grim prediction of how bad the economic damage—never mind public health damage and loss of human life—will be, estimating it will take eight years for the economy to fully recover….and that is with competent leadership, which is by no means guaranteed. In fact quite the opposite, if the GOP remains in power in November.

Like many, I shudder to think what this country will look like if we have to endure four more years of this monstrous regime. In the words of the Lincoln Project’s much-praised “Mourning in America” spot, will there even be in America four years from now, at least as we once knew it?

If the Democrats do succeed in regaining power in November, you can bet that the Republicans will try to stymie them even at the cost of human life and further damage to the country, much as they did with their unconscionable obstructionism toward Obama after the 2008 crash. They will blame the Democrats for the economy not recovering fast enough, for every failure, for every death, eliding the fact that they were the ones who led us into that disaster and cravenly continue to make it worse.

Some think that process is already underway, with Moscow Mitch deliberately setting Biden up to take the blame. The Post’s Paul Waldman:

If you think Trump’s chances of reelection are dwindling, why would you try to save the economy now? Imagine if you passed measures that made the recovery easier but Trump lost anyway……Better to keep everyone miserable for a couple more years. McConnell can just confirm as many hard-right judges as possible between now and January, and consider his work done…..

Republicans are genuinely fearful that people will be too thankful if government helps them too much and that the crisis will make the passage of stronger safety-net programs more likely in the future. But if you thought Trump could still win, your best move would be to give the economy the biggest short-term boost possible with massive government spending, then worry about cutting it back later. Doing nothing now, even if you’re planning to promote cuts in a year or two, suggests only that you think the Trump presidency is all but a lost cause.

If we are lucky, Joe Biden and his successors may be able to pull us out of this. But like my fictional President Hillary, their reward, no doubt, will likely be ejection from office in 2028 by some firebreathing Republican challenger, or maybe even in 2024. (If Trump’s not too senile, or in prison, it might even be him. Or Ivanka. Or—shiver—Don Jr.) Recall that the Democrats held the White House for just four years after Watergate before the GOP took it back, making Carter’s term an island in a sea of twenty years of otherwise uninterrupted Republican rule, a period that included that historic scandal, the latter part of the Vietnam war, and Iran-contra, to name just a few highlights.

But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. Job number one right now is was getting Trump out and giving the Democrats that chance in the first place.

I MEME ME MINE

In looking for the iconic Hillary-in-sunglasses photo to accompany this piece, I found it in what I believe was its original incarnation, a New York Times article from 2015 headlined, “Voters Unlikely to Care Much About the Hillary Clinton Email Furor.”

I’ll give you a minute to drink that in before filing under #Ironic AF.

Yes, voters probably were unlikely to care……until the Republican Disinformation Machine got hold of it. Said machine is currently hard at work making you think more about Burisma, Tara Reade, and “Terry and the Pirates” visions of China than the collapse of the United States into a failed state that Pakistan pities.

(Double irony: the photo was taken in 2011, while Hillary was en route from Malta to—wait for it—Libya.)

The Hillary Clinton presidency-that-never-was is a bitter lesson. But the really terrifying thing is that we may not have learned that lesson. Even now both the hard left and the repulsive right are shrieking that Joe Biden is just as bad as Trump, or worse. Trump meanwhile benefits from precisely the opposite effect, proving either that there is no God, or there is, but He’s a sadist.

Can Trump get away with this greatest gaslighting of all? If so, it will not be a testament to his alleged PT Barnum-style “genius” but to the absolute gullibility of the American people. And we will deserve what we get.

 

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Photo by Kevin Lamarque of Reuters. A similar photo by Time’s Diana Walker is also associated with that meme.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori

This Memorial Day marks the third anniversary of the debut of this blog.

When I was growing up, my father, an Army infantry officer, used to tell me that if at all possible, I should always take some time on this holiday and visit the local military cemetery to honor the fallen and pay tribute to what they gave for their fellow countrymen.

In that spirit, this time of year I frequently post about the sacrifices of American veterans. I never expected that I would be writing about the needless deaths of almost 100,000 of our countrymen and still climbing, rapidly approaching the number who died in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

It is bitterly appropriate that we should reach that grim milestone on this particular weekend.

I will (mostly) restrain myself from my usual vitriol directed at those who, through their malevolence and incompetence and avarice, led us into this sorrowful state of affairs. Our regular programming will resume next week.

For now let us simply pause and reflect on those we’ve lost.

That general admonition to remember what this holiday is about, which one often reads in the editorial pages on the last Monday in May, is usually accompanied by gentle scolding about taking time out from barbecues and beachgoing and parties. I’ve trafficked in that sanctimony myself. It’s fair enough.

But there’s no need for hedonism-shaming. This Memorial Day, the idea of a barbecue, or going to the beach, or having a party, are all simple pleasures that we would be grateful to have. Forgoing them has, temporarily, become not just an act of spartanism at the beginning of summer, but of patriotic and humanitarian duty. Some among us are so eager to get those pleasures back that they would rush forward where thoughtful citizens (not necessarily angels) wisely choose not yet to tread.

Save a few centenarians who survived the Spanish flu, no living American has experienced this extent of sickness and death in this country. Nor have we seen such depths of economic hardship since the 1930s. The immediate future is disturbingly uncertain, creating profound psychological stress of its own. Accordingly, we are being—or ought to be—forced to re-examine almost every aspect of our lives and values and beliefs: that is to say, what kind of country we are and what kind we want to be. The answers are by no means certain and consensus even less so.

America is in the midst of a crisis that is testing our soul, or what’s left of it. So far we’ve seen incredible bravery, fortitude, and sacrifice—from first responders, health care workers, delivery people, mail carriers, store clerks, and others in all walks of life. We’ve also seen some of the most appalling greed, selfishness, dishonesty, criminal suppression of the facts, refusal to take responsibility, and even active efforts to make this crisis worse.

There is no need for us to pass judgment: God will take care of that…..and so will history, which traditionally is far harsher than the Lord.

Whether you believe in the deity or not, we don’t need to be literal when we say: God bless us every one on this Memorial Day like no other.

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Illustration of Florida attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, dressed as a certain famously somber figure.