The Death of Hypocrisy

Trump Golf

On October 10th of this year Donald J. Trump—who is, unaccountably, the President of the United States—held a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. (No need to call it a campaign “style” rally, as much of the media insists on doing.)

Why is this of significance?

Because that rally was held even as Hurricane Michael wreaked Biblical devastation on the Florida panhandle, a place which—like Puerto Rico, I’m told—is home to millions of American citizens.

And why is that of significance?

Because roughly six years ago, on November 6, 2012, in the final days of that year’s presidential  campaign, Trump—then a fading game show host, real estate con man, and professional tax cheat, all jobs to which he is far better suited—tweeted angry criticism of Barack Obama for supposedly campaigning while Hurricane Sandy victims were still suffering. (Mara Liasson of NPR has reported extensively on this.)

That was a lie—Obama and Romney had both suspended their campaigns because of the storm—but as we all know, Donald Trump is not known to be deterred by anything so flimsy as “the truth.”

By contrast, this month Trump was undeniably campaigning in Erie—both for Republicans in the midterms, and by extension, for himself—as Michael ravaged northern Florida.

That would seem to be a glaring example of shameless hypocrisy.

As such, it is just the latest float in the endless parade of jawdroppingly hypocritical behavior that has attended Trump’s entire life, and in particular his political career. A few examples:

  • Championing a Republican tax cut that added over trillion dollars to the deficit after years of outraged GOP claims of Democratic irresponsibility on the matter….
  • Making a less-than-worthless nuclear non-proliferation deal with North Korea after howling over the alleged weakness of the far more stringent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (and indeed pulling the US out of it)….
  • Railing against how “unfairly” Brett Kavanaugh was treated after the GOP denied Merrick Garland even a hearing….
  • Promising to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington, and then presiding over the most brazenly corrupt administration in modern American history….
  • Repeatedly excoriating Barack Obama for playing too much golf while in office, and promising that he wouldn’t have time to play golf at all if elected, and then playing roughly three times as much golf as Obama ever did….
  • Running virtually an entire presidential campaign on the demonization of Hillary Clinton for doing government business on a private email server, and then, once in office, allowing key aides including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and son-in-law-slash-multitasker extraordinaire Jared Kushner to do exact the same thing….

I say again: that is but a brief sampling, of which Trump’s Erie campaign was only the latest entry, and not even the most extreme by a longshot.

Not surprisingly, the Hurricane Michael hypocrisy merited barely a mention in the news, overwhelmed as it was by the President of the United States publicly calling a porn star with whom he’d cheated on his wife “Horseface”; nonchalantly welshing on a promise to pay a million dollars the charity of Elizabeth Warren’s choice (sound familiar, Atlantic City?); and above all, brushing aside the cold-blooded abduction, torture, murder, and dismemberment of an American-based journalist for the Washington Post by a putative US ally.

(By the by, I think we all know that in his heart of hearts, Trump secretly wishes he too could just order the decapitation of journalists who displease him. I understand he has Rudy Giuliani preparing a statement that “everyone agrees” he has the authority to do that.)

Memorably, Trump first questioned that Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered at all, before being grudgingly forced to admit, Francisco Franco-style, that he “seems to be dead.” He then defended the alleged killers against a rush to judgment (true, it could have been some 400 lb. guy sitting on his bed), and compared the treatment they received to that meted out to his recent nominee to the Supreme Court, an accused rapist and perjurer. Oh yes, and then, at that precise moment of demonstrably lethal malevolence toward journalists, Trump decided it would be a good time to praise a separate act of violence against a reporter—far lesser but still indefensible—by a Republican candidate for Congress who is now a sitting member of the House of Representatives.

But every news week is like that in our brave new world. There is no reason to think that had the Hurricane Michael/campaign rally moment happened at any other time in the past two years it would have generated a bigger media ripple. Outrage fatigue is inevitable in an era when Donald Trump is President of the United States. But that does not make the outrage any less appropriate, only harder to muster.

And I would submit to you that that is because, in these United States, hypocrisy is dead.


I don’t mean that hypocrisy itself has ceased to exist. On the contrary: per above, we are living in the Golden Age of Hypocrisy. No, I mean that hypocrisy has ceased to have any substantive impact on our body politic.

Time was when a politician of either party or any ideological bent who was caught applying a blatant double standard could expect to be called to account. No more—at least for Republicans.

Needless to say, this administration has brazenly done myriad things that call for to-the-barricades-style outrage: the Muslim ban, the forced removal of children from their parents; the continued stonewalling on Trump’s tax returns, the brazen violation of the emoluments clause; the relentless attacks on the rule of law and a free press; the gutting of Obamacare; the unconscionable tax cut for the wealthiest among us as a prelude to reneging on earned benefits for millions of the rest of us; the obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe; the telling refusal to harden the US electoral system against foreign attack despite the hue and cry from the US defense and intelligence communities….

I could go on.

But those things, or many of them at least, are a matter of partisan disagreement. Some people think it’s a good idea to kidnap children and hold them hostage for the ostensible purpose of “deterrence,” when the true goal is mere sadism toward foreigners in general and people of color especially. The people who hold that opinion are monstrous, of course, but at least their odious opinion is genuinely held.

Likewise, Trump daily engages in lies that would make Tommy Flanagan blanch, like the claim that he didn’t pay Stormy Daniels (or didn’t know about it—his answer kept changing), or that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11, or—the biggest of all—that no one in his circle had any contact with Russians during the presidential campaign, much less conspired with them. A kissing cousin of these lies is Trump’s cavalcade of broken promises, including “healthcare for everybody,” or the “big, beautiful wall” that Mexico was going to pay for, or how he was going to bring back the coal industry.

But these things too are a point of dispute along partisan lines. Trump’s defenders claim that they are not lies or broken promises at all. Which, of course, is itself a lie.

But what puts hypocrisy in a blood-boiling class of its own is that it is not, in theory, subject to tribal bias. Democrats and Republicans can disagree over whether it’s a good idea to pull out of the JCPOA (spoiler alert: it’s not), and they can debate whether or not the tax cut is going to benefit the middle class (see previous parenthetical thought). But no one can dispute that Trump lambasted Obama for playing too much golf while in office, then turned around and played an order of magnitude more golf himself, or held a campaign rally in the middle of a hurricane after accusing others of doing so (even though they didn’t).

That is a glaring double standard that no thinking person can deny.

The best a Trumpista can do is make the tortured claim that somehow the two are not the same thing. But that argument of course does not even remotely pass the so-called smell test. On the contrary: it stinks to high heaven.

(For example, one hears Republicans whine that, “Trump actually does government business on the golf course!” without offering any evidence to that effect, or evidence that Obama did not, or explanation why—if that is the case—Trump opened himself up to these allegations by making such a blanket statement, rather than saying, “When I play golf, it will be to do business.” The answer, of course, is because it’s not true, exposing these yogi-like Republicans contortions for the dishonest excuse-making that they are.)

Hypocrisy is in a class of its own as a special kind of bad faith because it represents an objective, empirical, indisputable example of dishonesty.


Several observers have dissected Trump’s own preternatural ability to blithely engage in this indefensibly scummy behavior. The best that can be said is that he doesn’t seem to even recognize the hypocrisy. Vomit-inducing though he is, he is not, to all appearances, a mustache-twirling villain privately cackling to himself late at night over what he’s getting away with. (That’s Mitch McConnell.)

That would actually be somewhat comforting, as an acknowledgment that we are operating in the same moral universe.

No, Donald is something far worse: a megalomaniac so deep in his own entitlement that he doesn’t even recognize that he is applying a head-spinning double standard. It’s a kind of pathological narcissism that obliterates his ability even to see the hypocrisy. Perhaps Trump’s supporters are the same way in terms of how they view their tangerine-tinged hero.

(NB: Not to give Mitch a pass. When it comes to what’s worse—Trump’s terrifying psychopathology or McConnell poisonous cynicism—it’s a pick ‘em.)

That said, there have been occasional hints that our fearless leader is more tethered to reality than he appears.  Thomas Friedman has reported in the New York Times that Trump is privately amazed that he hasn’t been forced to release his tax returns, marveling to friends and family, “Can you believe I got away with that?” So maybe he is more mustache-twirling than we are giving him credit—or blame—for.

As I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, it always astounds me when people ponder why the Republicans won’t stand up to Trump. The entire question is absurd. Plainly, they don’t want to stand up to him, as they’ve never had better cover for their hateful agenda. Cynics like McConnell are happy to profit from Trump’s hypocrisy while denying it exits. But Machiavellian intriguers on the order of Crooked Mitch are actually few and far between. The jeering, Kool-Aid drunk mobs at Trump’s never-ending traveling medicine show—the ones chanting “Lock her up!” moments after he complained about a lack of due process for Brett Kavanaugh, or for the Saudi assassins who butchered Jamal Khashoggi—aren’t engaging in cynicism. They have internalized the twisted Trumpian version of amorality. Even many of the mainstream Republican electorate—the suburban dads in their polo shirts—have convinced themselves of Trump’s purity and innocence…..or if they acknowledge the hypocrisy, immediately dismiss it on the utilitarian grounds that it was justified “to beat Hillary,” as if the moral value of that is self-evident. Which is itself a form of irrational pathology. Kind of like saying conspiring with the Kremlin to steal the election was fine too, if that’s what it took.


In my interview with Shalom Auslander last month, he made the salient point—with his usual lacerating, insightful wit—that the most ironic kind of tribalism is complaining that the other tribe is more tribal than your tribe. It’s funny, and it’s true, but it’s also an argument that can easily be perverted as a defense for even more tribalism.

If the 2016 election taught us anything—besides never to use Facebook—it should have taught us that there is little in the world that is more lethal than false equivalence. Anyone who during the campaign waved the back of their hand dismissively and said, “Eh, Trump and Hillary are both just as bad” ought to be lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Even now we routinely continue to see that kind of namby pamby stab at objectivity in the press….the ongoing reign of Paul Krugman’s famous “Parties Differ on Shape of Planet” (which long pre-dated Trump), finding its most toxic expression in our insane clown president’s contention that “there were very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.

The press has collectively gotten a hair better than it was in 2016, but it still clings to a misguided and misbegotten ethos of an impossible evenhandedness when dealing with dishonest actors… that dangerously benefits those liars and criminals. That is why we see headlines that say “Trump Claims Without Evidence That Such-and Such,” instead of the more accurate “Trump Lies About (You Name It).”

It’s not good enough.

Similarly, suggesting the “both sides are equally to blame” for our current problems sounds good around the campfire set to the tune of “Kum-ba-ya” (tuned to an open E…all together now), but it just ain’t the case.

In short, the right’s tribalism forgives anything and everything Trump does, no matter how blatantly wrong, dangerous, destructive, or hypocritical—even by its own metrics. In that regard, its tribalism is the functional equivalent of Trump’s own pathological narcissism.

Does the left do the same with its leaders? Sometimes, and somewhat, but never to that extent or degree. More often it holds its own to a higher standard than the rules demand, even when it entails short-term pain. (Ask Al Franken.) Even allowing for anecdotal cases of Democratic double standards (the defense of Bill Clinton comes to mind), the sheer accumulated volume of sins that the right ignores, excuses, or denies makes the comparison specious. Among Clinton’s greatest nemeses, you may recall, was Newt Gingrich, a man who in 1993 began an extramarital affair with a low-level GOP congressional staffer named Calista Bisek that continued even as he was wailing like an Old Testament prophet for Clinton to be crucified for his sins. (Newt eventually married Ms. Bisek, after his second wife rejected his request for an “open marriage.” Calista Bisek Gingrich is now Trump’s Ambassador to the Vatican.)

The fact remains that one side of the American ideological spectrum insists that the sky is not blue and two plus two equals five in a way that the other side simply does not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that behaving hypocritically and then shrugging it off is part and parcel of the reactionary mindset—almost as a point of pride, a demonstration of strength and of ubermensch exemption from ordinary morality.

I know that violates the Shalom Auslander Rule, but it is simply false to say that the Democratic Party, liberals, and progressives have carried out a methodical, diabolical campaign to subvert democracy the way that the Republican Party and the right has. To suggest otherwise is simply more deceit. That is the Orwellian dynamic they are using to carry out the ongoing coup d’etat.


So how do we deal with this state of affairs? I have written before about destruction of objective truth as a common barometer (The Nature of the Person and the Nature of the Threat, September 20, 2017), and it continues to be one of the most fundamental, intractable, and worrying aspects of a time rife with fucking scary things to worry about. How can we have a functional political system in this country when one side refuses to acknowledge empirical reality? We are witnessing Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment —”Thou shalt not criticize fellow Republicans”—taken to its most dangerous extreme. When a person or political party will not even acknowledge the blatant hypocrisy of Trump on something like Hurricane Michael—when they not only refuse to recognize it as a cynical matter of gamesmanship but deny it even to themselves—there is no possibility of rational dialogue.

That is how an autocracy prefers it.

The United States has no chance of returning to sanity until the fever of the present moment breaks, until we as a people wake from this reverie and return to an honest accounting of the facts that are plainly before us. That lemming-like thirty percent of the American public that would not turn on Trump even if he were videotaped feasting on the bones of infants and wiping his ass with the Stars & Stripes is never going to engage in rational thought. But for those of us who can do math, who know that two plus two doesn’t equal five and that seventy is greater than thirty, our only hope is a collective acknowledgement of deceit and hypocrisy when we see it, and the attendant political action.

If we can’t do that, if we let ourselves continue to be held hostage by the deluded and the dishonest, we deserve that fate, and will go down in history alongside other societies that did not have the moral courage to recognize and rise up against madness.



The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II

BK tweaked

Neil warned me that this happened to him.

He didn’t want to sound crazy, and I understood why. Hell, I didn’t believe it myself, not being big into the supernatural (our mutual Catholicism notwithstanding).

But I believe it now.

The ghost appeared to me in the early morning hours, the very day after I had been sworn in by a very somber John Roberts. I was passed out on the couch, just in my boxers. The ghost had to shake me awake, because I had blacked out after an epic night pounding celebratory brewskis with Judge, Tobin, PJ, and Squi.

“Brett. Brett—wake up. It’s me, Merrick.”

I rubbed my eyes and collected myself, then looked up. There he was in all his occult, ectoplasmic glory: the ghost of Merrick Garland. Just like Gorsuch had warned me.

My head was pounding like Keith Moon had taken up residence in my cerebellum and my mouth felt like Death Valley. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Someone had drawn an erect penis on my forehead with a Sharpie. (I’m sure it was Squi—what a card!)

“Merrick, what the hell are you doing here?” I asked.

“Why, haunting you, of course. Did you not get the memo?”

“Is there really any need for that? I mean, we work together in the DC Circuit. Can’t you just accost me in the cafeteria?”

“Not since you’re moving on up. Anyway, this is much more dramatic.”

“But how can you be a ghost if you’re not dead?”

“I went over this with Neil last year. Let’s just call it poetic license. Or maybe taking a liberty is a better way to put it. You’re good with taking liberties, right, Brett?“

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with the utmost sincerity I could muster. “I spent my whole youth focused on sports, school, and my service projects.”

Garland’s ghost was having none of it. “How’s it feel to be one of the most hated men in America? To have singlehandedly destroyed the credibility of the United States Supreme Court? To be a pariah everywhere except among the Kool-Aid drinkers at Fox, Breitbart, and InfoWars? To have 2400 law professors, the American Bar Association, your old classmates, John Paul Stevens, and even the Jesuits all question if you’re fit to sit on the bench?”

I shrugged. “I’m OK with it.”

I couldn’t resist adding: “How’s it feel to be oh-so respected but not on the Court?”

“I guess that’s kind of the point.”

I grabbed a t-shirt off the floor—Yale Law, my favorite—and pulled it over my head, feeling every one of the previous night’s Natty Bo’s in the process. The big houseplant by the door had been smashed, scattering soil everywhere; I didn’t remember how. The ghost watched me.

“You do realize that your life as you knew it is now over, right, Brett? You’re going to be haunted—and hounded—for the rest of your life……and not just by me, but by millions of Americans who will never forget the circus that attended your confirmation, or the allegations against you, or your unwillingness to endorse a proper investigation of them that an innocent man would have welcomed, or the appalling way you defended yourself.”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

“Worst of all, you’ll be haunted by your own conscience, to the extent you have one. Because you know what you did.”

I crossed my arms but didn’t answer. He pressed his case.

“Anybody and everybody who lived through the Eighties in your world of upper class white privilege…..anybody who went to college…..knows that every allegation against you rang absolutely true. There were things Christine Blasey Ford said—and things that were written in your yearbook, and things documented by your old drinking buddy Mark Judge in his sub-moronic memoir—that nobody, not even the best novelist, could ever have made up.”

I gave a snort of disgust. “That’s how desperate the Democrats were to stop me. They had to reach back and dissect my high school yearbook.”

“Ah, Brett, that’s a bad faith argument if there ever was one, and you know it. The issue isn’t that you were—in your own handwriting from 1983—a ‘loud, obnoxious drunk’ and ‘prolific puker,’ but that in 2018—under oath—you lied about it. All that nonsense about ‘boofing’ and the Devil’s Triangle and the Beach Week Ralph Club. How dumb do you think the American people are?”

I started to answer but he cut me off.

“But the low point had to be that stuff about that poor girl, the one you and your buddies humiliated in print. Shame on you, you bully. You coward.”

“Sticks and stones, Merrick.”

“Why didn’t you just say, ‘Yeah, I was a foolish kid and I drank too much, but that’s long behind me now.’ But you couldn’t do that, could you? You had to portray yourself as a choirboy. You overreached, and that’s what pissed off so many of your old classmates, even the ones who’d been willing to vouch for you before that. I mean, Jesus: you got in a barfight in 1985 and there was a POLICE REPORT about it. Not a rumor or an allegation—an actual report in black and white. If Sonia Sotomayor had been in a barfight in the Bronx when she was in college, do you think she’d be on the Court today? But with you it didn’t move the needle at all.”

“Why should it?” I snapped. “None of that youthful mischief—to the extent that it’s even true—is relevant to my fitness as a judge 36 years later. A little adolescent indiscretion should erase a lifetime of public service?”

“First of all, I don’t know if lawyering up the Bush administration’s torture program constitutes a ‘public service.’ But even for people who think it does, you wildly misrepresented your past. In and of itself that wouldn’t be a disqualifier, but in the current context it‘s yet another piece of evidence that you blatantly lied to Congress. And if you lied about that, how can we believe your already dubious denials of committing sexual assault? As Senator Blumenthal said, “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.”

“That’s rich, coming from a fake Vietnam vet.”

“And even richer that the Draft-Dodger-in-Chief thought he has the cred to call Dick out on it. The administration stonewalled hundreds of thousands of pages about your role in Bush’s warrantless wiretapping, and about the stolen Democratic memos, and you lied about it all—under oath.”

“I did no such thing!”

“Then you won’t mind if we see all those withheld documents, will you?”

I bit my lip.

“Didn’t you also lie about when you knew of Deborah Ramirez’s allegations? You claimed it was only when the article came out in the New Yorker. But you’d been texting friends to organize a campaign to discredit her as far back as last July. That is a stark and troubling moment of dishonesty before a Senate committee —perjury some might say—that ought to disqualify you all on its own.”

A snarl curled across my face. “I’m not here to be interrogated. I’ve had quite enough of that already.”

“So in other words, you’re not denying it—not this time anyway—just acting offended as a form of misdirection? Blumenthal was right. All this is relevant to the fitness of a person who wants to sit on the Supreme Court. Heck, I’m beginning to wonder if you even lifted weights with Tobin and Squi.”

I flexed my delts. “Here’s the proof, bro. You don’t get ripped like this without putting in the work.”


The ghost didn’t look impressed. He continued:

“It goes without saying that this was a railroad job from jump street and they weren’t about to let anything stop it. McConnell claimed Obama shouldn’t be allowed to nominate a justice in his final year, before the election. Then he turned around and insisted it was a matter of life and death that Trump’s nominee be confirmed before the election. Beginning to smell the rotten fish here?”

“I don’t see how the situations are comparable, frankly.”

“You went to law school, right, Brett?”

“Yes, Yale Law.”

“I know. I was being facetious. But since you went to law school….“

“Yale Law.”

“…but since you went to Yale Law, I’m sure you were as puzzled as I was to hear the GOP going on and on about ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ They weren’t so concerned about that when Al Franken was hit with far milder allegations that yours. But I’m sure you know—even if Fox News doesn’t—that this wasn’t a criminal trial; it was a job interview, as many sane people pointed out. For kind of a big job. So the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ doesn’t obtain. The Republicans framed this whole thing as if the burden was on the Democrats to prove you were unfit, not on you to prove why you deserved the best job in America. But in the same way that the Senate had the authority to disregard anything in your past and go ahead and confirm you, it also had the authority to reject you for any reason at all—even just the whiff of impropriety, or simply because they didn’t like the cut of your jib. Plenty of would-be justices have met that fate. Hell, Doug Ginsburg lost a seat on the Court because he smoked a joint! Meanwhile you had a whole raft of serious questions floating around you, and yet through you sailed.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘sailed.’ It was a nail biter.”

“So what was with that epic hissy fit anyway? Kinda had blood coming out of your wherever, didn’t you?”

I gave him a sarcastic smile.

“You were playing for an audience of one, I presume. I’ve heard old colleagues of yours like Nicole Wallace say they didn’t even recognize that guy. So was it an act? Did you go full gonzo because Trump had already hinted he might throw you under the bus, and you knew you had to do something he would eat up? Or because you thought you were already sunk and had nothing to lose?”

“I was reacting honestly to a horrific, untrue allegation. Wouldn’t you have been just as angry in my shoes?”

“But that’s not where you aimed your anger. You went off on a batshit crazy tear about liberal conspiracies and people seeking revenge on behalf of the Clintons and the rest of your tamper tantrum. That display of hyperpartisan rage should have been enough to tank your nomination all by itself. It was literally injudicious. ‘What goes around comes around!’ Think about that. You bluntly threatened your enemies that you would spend your years on the Court getting your revenge on them, and you still got confirmed. If that isn’t evidence of a Republican coup d’etat, I don’t know what is. But I guess that’s where we are in the Age of Trump. The days when Supreme Court nominees presented themselves as calm, nonpartisan, and sober—no pun intended—is long gone. Maybe you remember that—it was only about two weeks ago. Now we’re in an age when they have to emulate the President and behave like obnoxious, china-breaking oafs.”

For the first time I sensed an opening. He seemed genuinely offended. I aimed for the jugular.

“In the words of the late great Antonin Scalia: ‘Get over it.’

Merrick’s lip curled into a sneer. “Yes, sage advice from a party that never bore any grudges or spent decades plotting the obstructionism of the Democatic Party…..and the democratic process full stop, for that matter.”

I got him there. It felt good. 

“Brett, the bottom line is you are the capstone to a decades-long campaign to pack the federal judiciary at every level with right wing ideologues, regardless of their qualifications or lack thereof. You’re a Republican hack plain and simple, one who can be counted on to do whatever the party requires, precedent, rule of law, and principle all be damned. Which is precisely why the GOP was so desperate to jam you onto the court at all costs.”

Ouch—that did hurt. Where did he get off calling me a hack just because it so happened that I thought the Republicans were always right and the Democrats were always wrong? So unfair.


The ghost watched as I chucked the crushed beer cans from last night into the trash. The smell was not helping my hangover, and I thought I might ralph. Not a good look on a new Supreme Court justice. Garland went on:

“I liked the way the Republican leadership clucked disapprovingly over Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford. The truth is, they were happy to have him do their dirty work, because nobody does it better. That’s sort of a microcosm of their whole relationship, isn’t it? People always talk about why the Republicans won’t stand up to Trump. Hell, they don’t want to stand up to him! They’ve never had a better frontman, one who’s equal parts attack dog and heat shield. Not to mix metaphors.”

“I think Sarah Sanders explained it well when she said he was just stating the facts.”

I didn’t think the ghost would go for that howler, but I gave it a shot anyway. He ignored me.

“I’ll admit I was surprised Trump had the self-discipline to play it cool at first, but eventually he made up for it, didn’t he? One of the greatest vulgarians in American history calling the protestors who cornered Jeff Flake‘very rude,’ or claiming that the thousands of demonstrators were paid, or saying what a scary time this is for men. Every time you think things are as low as they can go, Donny is always there with a posthole digger, isn’t he?”

“You’re talking about the President of the United States,” I said sternly.

“Exactly my point.”

“You’re out of line, Garland, and you know it.”

“I’m a ghost. Take it up with the union. To me, the only surprising thing about Trump’s reaction was that brief moment when he reportedly told aides that Dr. Ford sounded credible. But then apparently he flew off the handle, screaming that no one told him she would sound so good. I guess he’s not used to hearing people tell the truth. But of course, he has a vested personal interest in protecting sex offenders and discrediting their accusers.”

Again I started to defend myself, but he cut me off. (So rude!)

“And what the hell is wrong with Lindsey Graham? His transformation from Never Trumper to designated bootlicker already suggests there are photos of him in somebody’s safe deposit box. But that speech….Jesus. I guess that rabid Confederate garden gnome was playing to Trump just like you, but even so, that was bald-faced hypocrisy on a whole new level. ‘This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics!’???? He was there for my non-confirmation non-hearings, right? What a fraud.”

“I thought Lindsey was very passionate in his defense of me, which I appreciated.”

Garland’s ghost slipped into a pretty good impression of the senior senator from South Carolina: “’This is hell!'” he spat, then laughed. “William Shatner never chewed the scenery that bad!”

That was really low. “Don’t go after Shatner,” I said. “What did he ever do to you?”

“He really is Strom Thurmond’s worthy heir, isn’t he?” Garland went on. “The question is, was he acting, like he trial lawyer he once was, or does he really believe that stuff? And which is worse? Same question I have about you.”


I was getting bored with this. I decided to go on the offensive. It worked in Congress, right?

“Merrick, I really appreciate you coming here and haunting me and everything, but the fact is, I was investigated twelve ways to Sunday and they came up with nothing actionable. Soooooo, it’s been real….”

Ghost Garland laughed out loud. “Right. I thought the White House and the GOP would at least try to make that fake FBI investigation look halfway credible. But I guess I was naive: we should know by now that the Republicans no longer even bother with such pretense.”

I shrugged. “The Democrats wanted an investigation and they got it. Yet still they bitch. There’s no satisfying some people.”

Garland laughed even harder. “Even you can’t believe that wasn’t a total joke, Brett. Or Bart. Or whatever you wanna go by these days.”

“How about Mr. Associate Justice?” I snapped. He didn’t seem stung.

“Some forty relevant people offered potentially important information and received no response from the FBI. The White House wouldn’t let the Bureau look into your drinking in high school, or whether you lied about it now? What they hell were they looking into? They didn’t even interview you or Dr. Ford! Of course, now we know that Don McGahn had to tell Trump to severely constrain the investigation or you’d be sunk. I think ‘disastrous’ is the word he used, which is a pretty big tell. You know you’re up to no good when Donald Trump wants more transparency than you do.”


“Very funny. For Collins and Flake to vote yes after that farce sealed their places in ignominy. Flake especially, after his oh-so poignant display of torment and sham heroism the week before. Did you see him frantically pushing that ‘close doors’ button in that elevator? I know a lot of people are furious with Susie, too, but her vote made a lot more sense if you don’t think of her as some feminist champion—like so many delusional progressives did—and instead as what that appalling statement of hers revealed her to be: a doddering, privileged old white lady who is every inch a member of the travesty that calls itself the modern Republican Party. This, after all, is the same Sue Collins who demanded Al Franken resign without even an investigation….the one who ran on the promise that she’d leave Congress after two terms and has now been there for six.”

“That’s low, attacking a woman,” I said, and Merrick gave me the side eye. I backed off.

“Call me a cynic,” he said, “but I knew—regardless of the results—that Graham, Grassely, Collins, and the rest of the riders in the GOP clown car were going to confirm you no matter what. Hell, a majority of Republican voters said you should be confirmed EVEN IF you were revealed to be guilty of sexual assault. Kind of like the polls where those same folks say collusion with Russia was fine if that’s what it took to beat Hillary.”

I started to answer, but the ghost stopped me.



“Face it, old pal,” I said. “This was a case of ‘he said/she said,’ and the Senate simply found me more believable. QED, RIP, end of story, period dot.”

“That’s certainly how you guys wanted it portrayed. I got sick to my stomach watching newscasters talking about how ‘credible’ both Ford and you were. They kept using the phrase ‘she told ‘her‘ truth.’ Not ‘the’ truth—‘her’ truth.”


“So have these people never seen Law & Order? She was, by any standard, entirely credible. I’m not even saying she was right—though I’m sure she was—I’m just saying that her allegations were believable and merited further investigation, which the GOP—again, tellingly—had to be blackmailed into pursuing. And even then they gave us a whitewash. You, by contrast, fumed and howled and—most damning—got flummoxed when asked why you wouldn’t support a proper investigation. I’m sorry, but that is NOT two equally credible people. And much like the 2016 campaign, the false equivalence again favored the villains.”

“So, fake news—is that what you’re saying?”

“Ha ha. The big question is why Trump and McConnell didn’t just dump you once your nomination was imperiled. I mean, they must have a laundry list of right wing ideologues just dying to be on the Court—guys just as doctrinaire as you but who don’t have the awkward baggage of being rapists.”

“Attempted rapist,” I corrected him, then caught myself. “Alleged attempted rapist.”

“I know the answer, of course: too close to the midterms. They should have vetted you better beforehand. But maybe that was outweighed by your not-so-subtle signals that you’d shitcan Roe and protect Trump from Mueller and everything else.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response.

“Speaking of which, how exactly did you go from being a slobbering attack dog chewing on Bill Clinton’s leg to arguing that a sitting president doesn’t even have to answer questions, let alone be subject to a subpoena or a criminal indictment?”

“My views evolved.”

He went back to the topic at hand. “But there’s another angle on why they stuck with you, isn’t there? A reason they didn’t just cut their losses and find a more squeaky clean candidate.”

“Do tell,” I said. I was genuinely curious.

“Because it was important that they ram this candidate through. You. Precisely because you had that dirty laundry. Like I said, it used to be that Supreme Court nominees had to be damn near saintly. So the idea that the GOP could take the most partisan, vile, combative nominee in modern history—one burdened with credible allegations of being a sexual predator and all kinds of other questionable baggage—and jam him down our throats was the whole point. They were sending a message that they could put whoever they goddam please on the Supreme Court, and the rest of us just to have sit here and say “Thank you sir may I have another?” They needed to say ‘Fuck you, #MeToo’ and emphatically remind us that white male privilege was alive and well.”

I sighed. My tolerance for lectures on institutionalized privilege is pretty low. (Just so you know.) But he wasn’t done.

“And that belligerent diatribe you gave proved it. What an incredible example of entitlement in its most teeth-baring form. Here’s Professor Ford—the victim of a sexual assault—who behaves so respectfully, so solicitously, so humanely…so collegially as she put it. And then there’s you, with your wild-eyed, tear-filled, spittle-flying, self-pitying tantrum about how you were being robbed of your ‘rightful’ place on the Court, implying that you shouldn’t even have to address these allegations. Truly, it was an appalling display. There you were, with the help of the entire GOP, not to mention the President of the United States, appealing to white male grievance to gin up the idea that you were the real victim. You insulted the committee members, talked over them, badgered Senator Klobuchar—the daughter of a recovering alcoholic—over her own drinking habits, which if you ask me was the real giveaway about your misogyny. It was the most un-judgelike behavior anyone else in the business ever saw. And yet it turned the tide in your favor. Because that’s the kind of chest-beating neanderthal behavior that the right wing—and Trump especially—gobbles up. They were rock hard in Fox Nation when you were done.”

“Are you asking me to apologize for that?”

“I’ve yet to hear you apologize for anything. And I’m hardly the first to point out that a woman who behaved that way—Elena Kagan, let’s say—would have been ridiculed as a hysteric and carted off in a straitjacket. A woman would never behave that way because women know how they will be attacked and belittled if they do, and lack the sense of entitlement to think they can get away with it. Whereas men like you know very well that you can get away with it. I almost gagged when I heard you say afterward that you bore ‘no bitterness.’ Wow.”

“I meant it.”

“That’s like OJ getting acquited and saying he had no bitterness toward Nicole.”

“Comparing me to a murderer. Typical left wing hyperbole.”

“And there’s that non-partisanship you’re so proud of.”


I looked at my watch. I’d ceased being spooked by this ghost and begun to be merely annoyed. “Fox and Friends” was coming on soon.

“So now you’re on the Court. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“But this much of what Trump said is true, Brett. Your life is ruined. Funny thing to say about a guy who just became a justice on the Supreme Court, but it’s a fact. You’re a household name now, and not a good one. You’re radioactive. Oh, within a certain right wing bubble you’re a hero—a martyr, even though you got what you want, which is really the opposite of martyrdom. But for more than half the country, including virtually the entire chattering class from which you sprang, you’re in a league with Harvey Weinstein.”

I ground my teeth and offered a cold smile. “I think I’ll find a way to live with that just fine, thank you very much.”

“You don’t think colleagues on the bench are going to look down on you like a skeezy little interloper? I know RBG was famously friendly with Scalia, but I find it hard to believe she won’t punch you in the nards the first time she passes you in the hallway. Remember during the campaign when she made that very mild public criticism of Trump—for which she later apologized—yet Republicans have never stopped howling for her to recuse herself from any case involving him?”

“Yes. I thought it was disgracefully unprofessional of her.”

“Yeah, well, anyway. Now that they’ve managed to ram you onto the Court, do you think they’ll demand that you similarly recuse yourself, after your foaming-at-the-mouth rant attacking the entire Democratic Party?”

“As I said in my Journal op-ed, I have promised to be independent and impartial.”

Merrick laughed again. “You best look out if the Democrats take the House. They’re going to re-open all these investigations and crawl up your ass with a microscope. They’ll impeach you with a simple majority, and that could be as soon as January.”

I scoffed. “They’ll never get 60 votes in the Senate to throw me out. Shit, they couldn’t get 51 votes.”

“For now. But a reckoning is coming. In the mean time they’re going to attack your credibility every single day…..and they’ve got millions of Americans eagerly watching and cheering them on, scrutinizing everything you do or say, ready to pounce. They’re going to make your life miserable.”

“My life is already miserable,” I said. “For one thing, I have to contend with fucking ghosts.”

Merrick turned somber. Almost as if he’d turned his attention away from tormenting me and toward something more melancholy. Elegiac, even.

“And that’s the most disturbing aspect of this. I think we may someday look back on your confirmation as the pivotal turn in our ongoing constitutional crisis. The GOP has certainly dealt a grievous blow to the credibility of the Supreme Court, but they’ve also weaponized it for a very specific reason. This isn’t just about remaking the judiciary and undermining Roe, protecting the 1%, eviscerating public unions, etc etc, although it’s about all that too.”

“What’s about then?”

“The Republican Party has succeeded in pre-positioning the key vote on the Supreme Court that can protect Donald Trump from just about everything. Hence their willingness to endure all sorts of criticism, risk a blue wave in the midterms, and behave in a manner even more brazen and shameless than usual, which is saying something. And protecting Trump is really just a subtask in defending their larger chokehold on power. They are shamelessly engaged in an authoritarian takeover of the United States—hypocrisy, democracy, the rule of law, and even common decency be damned.”

“And they say I trafficked in conspiracy theory.”

“But your ascent to the Court may prove to be the bridge too far for their subversion of the public will. You’re going to be there on public display for decades to come, and people are never going to forget it. If and when you cast the deciding vote that allows Trump to shut down the Mueller probe, or immunizes him from indictment, or excuses him from having to comply with a subpoena, or allows him to pardon himself and all his associates, what do you think the American people are going to do?”

I smiled. “Sit quietly and politely take it, I presume.”

Merrick raised a brow. “Don’t be so sure.”

And with that he seemed to vanish, fading slowly away. Or more precisely, he seemed to be transmogrifying (did I mention I went to Yale?), morphing into a new form. I could still hear his voice as it happened.

“Anyway, Brett, I have to go now. I’ll be turning this haunting over to another figure from your past. I’m confident she’ll do a bang-up job……”

As he spoke, his new form came into shape. A blonde woman in her early 50s, with large round glasses.

“Hi Brett,” she said, pleasantly. “It’s me. The ghost of Christine Blasey Ford. I’m going to be taking up residence here in your guilty conscience for the rest of your life. You miserable motherfucker.”


Thanks Kemala KarmenDoug GordonJim Bernfield












On Losing a Rifle

Vietnam pic

Short of actively committing a crime, in the peacetime US military the worst thing a soldier can do is lose a weapon.

In combat it’s different, for obvious reasons. Government property lost or damaged in a war zone—to include weapons—is routinely written off without many questions asked. But in peacetime, control and accountability of firearms is paramount, second in importance only to the safety of personnel, with which it is of course intertwined.

Is that a big surprise? Stay with me here…..

Weapons—in particular, firearms—fall under the rubric of “sensitive items,” the accountability of which is rigorously enforced. Other items in that category include communications codebooks—what we called a CEOI, in my day—which are typically kept lashed to the body. Losing a CEOI will get your ass in trouble in both war or peace. (I presume that modern digital encryption sytems have largely rendered that old school method of cryptology obsolete, much as GPS technology has transformed the art of map reading and land navigation beyond recognition….not necessarily for the better.)

Another “sensitive item” is night vision/observation devices—NODs—both because they are so expensive, and because their advanced technology isn’t something we want falling into the hands of just anybody. (US manufacturers do sell NODs to the general public, including foreign governments, but not top tier military grade ones.)

But when it comes to sensitive items there’s nothing worse than losing a firearm.

If you do, the world comes to a screeching halt. Training stops. Everything stops, and every swinging dick is put to work looking for the missing weapon, round the clock, under excruciating pressure, sometimes for weeks on end. It’s an offense so egregious that not only is the careless soldier himself subject to non-judicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but his or her entire chain of command is held responsible. An NCO or officer who has a soldier lose a weapon is personally accountable for that loss as a failure of leadership and positive control. It can be a career-ender.

Why do you think that is?


I’ll tell you a war story. (Just an expression: it happened in peacetime, which per above, is the point.)

In the late 1980s I was in an infantry battalion in what was then called West Germany when one of my fellow lieutenants lost an M-16.

For an ordinary soldier to lose a rifle was bad enough, but for an officer to lose one was the end of the world.

Strike that: for an officer, the end of the world would have been better.

I’ll call him Derek. He was a good friend of mine, and this incident notwithstanding, one of the best young officers in that unit, or any unit on our kaserne, which was the largest in all of US Army Europe. In fact, Derek was our battalion’s scout platoon leader, the primo rock star slot for a young infantry officer.

The incident happened while we were on a wintertime training exercise in a bleak and remote Bavarian maneuver area called Hohenfels. (Been there? You’re not missing anything.) When the rifle went missing, Derek’s platoon was immediately ordered to cease training—to cease eating, to cease breathing—and plunged into a desperate search for it. Indeed, the entire battalion and much of the brigade went into crisis mode. Word of the lost weapon quickly spread through all of USAREUR; friends of mine stationed Stateside told me they heard about it.

For weeks the scout platoon walked on line across Hohenfels, armtip to armtip, traversing the training area, kicking snow from dawn to dusk, looking for the missing M-16.

They never found it.

At one point, a general helicoptered in to check on the situation and to speak with Derek, who was under incredible pressure and scrutiny. At the end of their conversation, the general said, almost pleadingly:

“Lieutenant, is there anything you can think of that we haven’t tried?”

To which Derek—presumably trying to break the tension— deadpanned:

“How about a psychic?”

No report on how the general responded, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t give Derek a hug.

After some weeks, the search was finally abandoned. Derek was relieved as scout platoon leader and transferred to a different battalion. In that regard, he was lucky; had he not been such a stellar officer, he might have been summarily put out of the Army right then and there.

I always had my suspicions that one of more of Derek’s soldiers swiped his weapon. I have no proof; just a feeling. Derek hadn’t been in charge of the recon platoon very long, he was a hardass, the scouts were rebels by nature and had been openly chafing under the new regime…..I don’t know. It’s possible. But if so, it backfired badly, as the entire platoon suffered while the search for the lost weapon went on. Morale went into the toilet, and even afterward the scouts took some time to shed the bad rap the incident had conferred on them and recover their old elan and esprit d’corps.

(Postscript: After fighting in Panama with another division and serving as a company commander, Derek was eventually pushed out of active duty in the ’90s. I don’t know what other factors might have played into that fate, but at a time when the Army was conducting a ruthless, euphemistic “reduction in force,” the lost rifle was an albatross around his neck that was impossible to overcome. After 9/11, with the advent of the “global war on terror” and the emergent need for experienced manpower, Derek came back on active duty, got promoted, and went on to fight in Afghanistan. I guess the Big Green Machine got a lot more understanding when it needed bodies to feed into the meat grinder.)

I was in that unit in Germany for three and a half years; in that time, lots of crazy shit happened. One of my soldiers got stabbed in the heart by his wife. (He lived, and they stayed married). The brigade commander was relieved for having a brazen extramarital affair with a female second lieutenant. I had a 42-year-old first sergeant decide to get a circumcision to see how the other half lived. We had several suicides. The Berlin Wall fell a month after I returned to the States, and eighteen months later, my old division deployed to the Persian Gulf and fought the Iraqi Republican Guard 3000 miles away from the Fulda Gap where for 45 years it had been preparing to fight the Red Army. All of it will be in my forthcoming memoir, How I Won the Cold War Without Really Trying.

But nothing ever created as much havoc and panic as that lost weapon.


But I digress.

The gravity with which US Army treats accountability of firearms is instructive, as is the reason why.

Unlike a night vision device, a rifle or pistol is not particularly expensive, and certainly not by the standards of military procurement. (Remember the Navy’s $435 hammer?) Nor are these items so technologically advanced that their specs need to be zealously safeguarded. Far from it.

No, the insistence on ironclad control of weapons has one rationale and one only:

The United States military doesn’t want battlefield weapons falling into civilian hands.

Why is that such a big deal? I guess it’s because the Pentagon understands that it’s a bad idea for private citizens to have military-grade rifles that were designed for just one purpose: to kill human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible in a combat environment.

Last spring, I wrote a pair of essays for this blog about gun violence in America, the need for common sense firearms regulation, and the battle over the Second Amendment. (Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank?, March 3, 2018 and Blood On Their Hands, March 8, 2018.) No topic that I have ever written about—not even abortion—has generated the level of vitriol that rained down on me in response to those essays. Not even close. (That in itself speaks to the bizarre American obsession with guns.)

Many of my, uh, let’s-be-generous-and-call-them critics seemed fixated on terminology, like what constitutes an “assault rifle.” They cling to their semantics like shipwreck victims hanging onto floating debris.

In the wake of Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, or any other mass shooting you care to name, not to mention the “routine” everyday carnage on the streets of various American cities, somehow it is not a pragmatic discussion of how to stop this madness that dominates the national conversation, but rather, an idiotic hairsplitting debate about terminology.

But the US military does not need to bother with how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin-style pissing contests about whether the Founding Fathers intended the American public to own AK-47s and AR-15s. An institution of profound practicality, the military is concerned only with the patently obvious dangers thereof, and its own desire not to be complicit in that homicidal/suicidal dynamic.

So we can talk about the definition of “semi-automatic,” about trigger pull speed, muzzle velocity, cyclic rate, magazine capacity, bump stocks, three-round burst suppressors, and anything else you want. Who cares? The pointless obsession with these meaningless distinctions is all camouflage designed to obfuscate the truth rather than illuminate it—either dishonestly for the general audience, or as a form of self-delusion, or some combination of both.

Personally, I  don’t give a shit. I know a battlefield weapon when I see one.

Like art or pornography, it’s hard to define but easy to understand intuitively. The US Army seems able to grasp it, and why civilians have no business owning such weapons.

Maybe someday the rest of the country will catch up.



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

SA recent

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

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

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

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

Pretty Shitty Monkeys: A Surprisingly Optimistic Conversation with Shalom Auslander

SA recent

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

TKN: (laughs) Why?

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

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

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

SA: Yes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

TKN: Why do you say that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TKN: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

SA: Clear and present threat to what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

TKN: So you are an optimist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TKN: But the book got sanitized by her father.

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

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

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

TKN: So what is your new book called?

SA: “Mother for Dinner.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Transcription: Izzy Hackett

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ian Smith

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


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

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


Where to begin?

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

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

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

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

Wile E. Coyote was never this stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a small, small man.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

But as I say, that is a false choice.

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

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

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

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

Rudy Giuliani: Post-Modern Philosopher


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

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

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

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

Here’s the full exchange between Giuliani and Todd:

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

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

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

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

GIULIANI: (over) No, no!

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

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


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

Except he wasn’t, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless it turns out to the best.

This is my nightmare.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as we say in English, “No Exit.”


Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about that for a moment.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

As Mark Joseph Stern writes in Slate:

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

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

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

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

Just kidding. We know the answer, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

But her emails…..

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Submission”: The American Translation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it quickly got a lot worse.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what ultimately brought the two groups together.


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

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

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

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

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

The Amish were big fans of the beards.

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

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

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

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

Then there was the, uh, Jewish question.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inshallah. Praise the Lord.


Dear Man Booker Prize selection committee:

You can reach me at Will also accept the Prix Goncourt.