Paint a Vulgar Picture

Did I think about calling this post “Bigmouth Strikes Again”? 

You bet your ass I did. 

Too easy.

THAT JOKE ISN’T FUNNY ANY MORE

I was a huge Smiths fan, beginning in the late Eighties, which admittedly made me a little late to the party. My initiation—courtesy of my friends Martere and Frazer—was the song “Panic,” released in 1986. The first time I heard it, it already sounded like a classic that had been burned into my memory, the lyrics at once surprising and yet inevitable, as if they were something I’d known my whole life:

So burn down the disco 
And hang the blessed DJ 
Because the music that they constantly play 
Says nothing to me about my life

I instantly went batty on the band, the same way millions of others did. Over the next several years I devoured everything they ever recorded. Soon tired of pestering DJs at crowded clubs (and I’m sure they feeling was mutual), my friends and I had business cards made up that said, simply, PLEASE PLAY THE SMITHS.

I remained a fanatic as the band broke up and Morrissey embarked on a solo career that has now lasted about seven times longer than the group’s. (It takes nothing away from him as a lyricist, singer, and frontman to note that fair credit for the Smiths’ glory also goes to guitarist Johnny Marr, who wrote most of the music, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce.)

On his own, Moz roared out of the gate with a string of great solo albums in the late Eighties and early Nineties (Viva HateKill UncleYour ArsenalVauxhall and I), went into a bit of decline, then emerged with at least one powerhouse comeback, 2004’s You Are the QuarryIf his output since then has been a bit uninspired, that of course is not at all unusual over a career of that length, and I held out hope that at least one more fertile period—and likely more—awaited. 

Sadly, that was not the turn that his career took. 

Morrissey had made his name on controversy. To say he was opinionated and outspoken was like saying Keith Richards liked a drink now and then. Still, few were prepared when, in May 2019, he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” with its audience of millions, wearing a button with the emblem of For Britain, an openly racist, white power political party that Fiona Sturges, writing in The Independent, called “so far to the right that even Nigel Farage has distanced himself from them.” 

No one who has paying attention could have been totally off guard. Morrissey had first expressed support for the party back in April 2018. More to the point, there had always been worrying racist undertones (and overtones) in his work. Still, it was a stark escalation of his willingness to promote an open racist organization, and a brazen provocation, even for him.

Loads of Smiths and Morrissey fans were crushed, to say the least…..and this is not a group given to Gary Cooper-like stoicism in the face of disappointment. 

Immediately lambasted for the gesture (uh, it didn’t escape public notice), the famously combative Mancunian characteristically doubled and tripled down on his new politics, writing, “There is only one British political party that can safeguard our security.”

Since then the backlash has been rightly severe, and only grown. The world’s oldest record store, Spillers, in Cardiff, Wales, stopped carrying his records. The Council on American-Islamic Relations called for a boycott of his concerts. The Merseyrail train service in Liverpool removed ads for his latest album, prompting Moz to compare them to Nazis. Gallons of metaphorical ink has been spilled on the topic, becoming almost a cottage industry for rock critics.Morrissey is now effectively a pariah in pop music, even as he retains significant base of fans who aren’t bothered by his newfound right wing politics, or worse, like him even more because of it.

It’s a sorry tale, and one that leaves us still trying to unspool how this once-heroic artist came to this pretty pass, as well as how we are to grapple with it. 

That is a question that becomes much more disturbing when we begin to explore the ways that it did not come out of thin air, but rather, was part of an ugly pattern we had long ignored or wished away. 

IT’S HARD TO WALK TALL WHEN YOU’RE SMALL

Morrissey was the finest lyricist of his generation. His work was dark and sardonic and literary, full of witticisms, and of scathing and original turns of phrase, and of his trademark blunt assertions that were almost prose-like, which I mean as a compliment. (At one point I contemplated crafting this essay entirely out of repurposed Morrissey song titles, which is actually easier than it sounds. He used to be a sweet boy, and he was good in his time, but he’s maladjusted and still ill, and will never be anybody’s hero now. I know it’s over. That’s entertainment.)

Of course, his lyrics could and often did veer into wanton narcissism, self-pity, spite, sanctimony, hyperbole, and high HIGH drama. Both in his music and in his public pronouncements, Morrissey could really get on his high horse: about vegetarianism, about the monarchy, about the musical abilities of former bandmates, about schoolmasters and lovers and Cromwell. But that was part of the fun, and it all felt slightly knowing and ironic. 

Morrissey’s politics, too, were always reliably left of center: after all, this is the man who wrote of Thatcher, “The kind people have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine.” His entire oeuvre reflected identification with life’s downtrodden, its iconoclasts, its shat-upon, its abused and rejected. Lots of rockers speak to outsiders and misfits—it’s practically the heart of (any decent) rock & roll—but Morrissey did it with a directness, a depth, a poignancy, and a sense of humor that few could match. His fans, accordingly, responded with a passion that is rare to find, and I was one of them.

So the transformation into a racist, right wing shitbag is hard to understand, and to take. 

Was this just some sort of weird John Lydon-brand contrarianism? (No one is surprised, or saddened, by the erstwhile Sex Pistols frontman’s pathetic shock jock-style ploys for attention.) That would be in character, for sure. But it felt like more than that. Was it just another pedantic case of somebody growing old and conservative, even to the point of embracing neo-fascism—an old white Englishman, in this case, a demographic highly susceptible to that phenomenon? Maybe. But if so, it really hurt. 

On the British anarchist website Freedom, the writer Darya Rustamova asked: 

Is he just committed to an out-dated Punk trend of being as outrageous and offensive as possible? Or is this just a blundering error by a 60-year-old man who still cuts the top four buttons off his shirts?

Rustamova telegraphs the answer to her own questions with the title of her piece, which is “Morrissey Isn’t Senile, He’s Always Been a Racist”:

This isn’t just an ageing old man sliding into the simmering bitterness and racism typical of many elderly Brits. Since the start of his career, Morrissey has been outspoken against multiculturalism and immigration, citing his fears of a threatened English identity. He has a historic hatred for foreigners and his fans need to do more to recognise his views and fight these messages.

“Bengali in Platforms,” “England for the English,” “Asian Rut,” and “This is Not Your Country” are quotes you’d expect from the mouth of Boris Johnson; but they are song titles by the king of alternative playlists, the heart of British indie, or the “second-greatest living British cultural icon” (according to the BBC in 2006).

Rustamova reminds us that as far back as 1992 Morrissey told Q Magazine “that he didn’t ‘really think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other.’” That same year he released “National Front Disco,” a song automatically presumed to be a tongue-in-cheek critique of British neo-fascism, but which becomes very slippery when he performs it draped in the Union Jack, and when skinheads adopt it as an anthem. (And you thought American conservatives’ co-opting of “Born in the USA” was bad.) 

In 1984 Morrissey famously said “all reggae is vile” in what may seem an innocent comment in isolation, yet it takes a more sinister form when considered amongst his consistent diatribe of bigotry. For example, a biography of the early formation of The Nosebleeds points out that around the same time Morrissey declared, “I don’t hate Pakistanis, but I dislike them immensely.”

Cherry-picking? Maybe, but when there are so many cherries to pick from, the defense starts to lose its credibility. 

As some wag recently noted, perhaps the best way to understand the New Morrissey is to read all of the Smiths’ lyrics as if they were written with no irony. I guess they weren’t.

I DON’T MIND IF YOU FORGET ME

In The Independent, my fellow aggrieved former Smiths fan Fiona Sturges takes us back to 1988, noting Morrissey’s “grim pronouncements on music by black artists—including the assertion in a Melody Maker interview that “a black pop conspiracy” was preventing the Smiths from fulfilling their potential.”

As the years have passed, he has become ever more brazen in his anti-immigration stance, telling NME in 2007 that England had been “thrown away,” that “the gates were flooded” and complaining that in London’s Knightsbridge “you’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.” 

Here’s Morrissey in his own words in that 2007 NME interview:

England is a memory now….Although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. Travel to England and you have no idea where you are. It matters because the British identity is very attractive. I grew up into it and I find it very quaint and amusing… You can’t say, ‘Everybody come into my house, sit on the bed, have what you like, do what you like.’ It wouldn’t work.

(Writing recently in the Guardian, Tim Jonze, who did that interview, reports how NME initially tried to excise Morrissey’s offending remarks. When they ultimately didn’t, he sued for libel, and won, without denying the accuracy of the quotes.) 

It must be noted that for a man with such a xenophobic bent, Morrissey is the son of Irish immigrants to the UK and himself moved to LA in the Nineties, where—weirdly—he has a fanatical fan base in the city’s Mexican-American community. (Check out the cover band Mexrissey.) 

Even Morrissey’s adamant vegetarianism has caused him to traffic in xenophobic tropes about various foreign cultures, calling the Chinese “a subspecies” and railing against halal food in the UK), and comparing the meat industry to Auschwitz (and pedophilia to boot). For good measure, he’s also dismissed mass shootings like that in Norway in 2011 as nothing compared to everyday business in an abattoir.

Fiona Hughes goes on to run down some other recent lowlights:

There was an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel in which, discussing allegations of sexual abuse related to Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, Morrissey said there were times “when the person who is called the victim is merely disappointed.” There was last year’s comically mad interview on his own website where he mocked shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and claimed Hitler was left-wing.

Morrissey’s remarks on Mayor Khan are worth reading verbatim to fully appreciate his venom:

London is debased. The Mayor of London tells us about ”Neighborhood policin” What is “policin”? He tells us London is an “amazin” city. What is “amazin”? This is the Mayor of London! And he cannot talk properly! I saw an interview where he was discussing mental health, and he repeatedly said ”men’el ”…He could not say the words “mental health.” The Mayor of London! Civilisation is over!”

I could go on. (You can find a tidy list of Moz’s outrages here.) 

YES I AM BLIND

You won’t be surprised that the former Steven Patrick Morrissey has not exactly turned the other cheek over the criticism leveled at him. In a 2018 interview posted on his website, he said:

It’s just a way of changing the subject. When someone calls you racist, what they are saying is “Hmm, you actually have a point, and I don’t know how to answer it, so perhaps if I distract you by calling you a bigot we’ll both forget how enlightened your comment was.”

Defending himself for the Tonight Show episode in a June 2019 interview, also on his website, Morrissey said, “The word (racist) is meaningless now. Everyone ultimately prefers their own race—does this make everyone racist?” He went on to say, “Diversity can’t possibly be a strength if everyone has ideas that will never correspond. If borders are such terrible things then why did they ever exist in the first place?” 

In that same interview he further defended For Britain, calling its leader Anne Marie Waters “extremely intelligent, ferociously dedicated to this country….(and) very engaging.” 

Right. Waters was filmed in the ITV documentary Undercover–Inside Britain’s New Far Right, saying the following: 

The idea that these fuckers can just come along and take it all. Stop all Muslim immigration now…..My thinking is we need to reduce their birthrates now. You cannot dismiss the idea, that there are, that most kids are called Mohammed, most kids born in … boys born in Britain now are named called Mohammed, and you cannot discuss that as meaningless without being as thick as shit. I’m sorry, it’s stupid, it’s dangerous.

That’s not just a one-off caught on hot mike. For Britain began as an even more right wing offshoot of Nigel Farage’s already far right, Trump-aligned UKIP. It is a white nationalist party linked to various neo-Nazi movements, one that advocates a de facto ban on Muslim immigration to the UK, traffics in COVID-19 conspiracy theory, and has associated itself with Holocaust deniers. (For Britain’s ostentatious pro-animal rights stance is surely part of the appeal to Morrissey, even as it’s part of the party’s general Islamophobia.) 

And if you don’t know, now you know.

But since so many of Morrissey’s offenses preceded the For Britain bullshit, by decades in some cases, why did we forgive it—or ignore it—until now? Speaking only for myself, and not that it’s any excuse, but I suppose I wrote it off as mere theater. Morrissey’s entire brand was self-absorption and outrage, so were we supposed to be surprised? 

Until recently there was also some calculated ambiguity in his work and his public statements, or at least we wanted to believe that there was. But now it has become impossible to maintain that self-delusion. The accumulated weight of his offenses has become too much, especially when he stakes out an even more outrageous stance during the volatile era of Trump and Brexit. I will cop to having been willfully blind. But I can’t do it anymore.

SHAME IS THE NAME

Artists operating in troubled times frequently have to make hard decisions about collaboration, accommodation, and resistance as regards the tyranny du jour. (For a lovely portrait of that dilemma—to name just one—see István Szabó’s 1981 film Mephisto.) But part of the mystery here is that Morrissey does not really stand to gain much, practically speaking, by his fascist-friendly stance. (What idiosyncratic psychological benefits he accrues is another matter). He is not a citizen of an autocracy where the ruling authority demands obeisance from its artists and dishes out rewards for collaborators and punishment for rebels. If anything, his racist right wing stand is costing him fans, and squandering decades of critical approbation, and doing lasting damage to his legacy. 

In that sense then, we can at least say that he is not acting opportunistically, but rather, expressing his genuine beliefs. Unfortunately, that is not a compliment. 

Indeed, the fact that he has embraced the fasces voluntarily, without being under any kind of duress, makes his actions even more contemptible. 

But this is as much farce as it is tragedy.

“The Simpsons” recently satirized Moz’s rightward turn in an episode called “Panic on the Streets of Springfield,” guest starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and including a note-perfect song parody called “Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (and Possibly You)” co-written by staff writer Tim Long, who penned the episode, and the brilliant, Oscar-winning, diminutive half of Flight of the Conchords Bret McKenzie. Hilariously, the episode prompted an equally note-perfect, megalomaniacal response from Morrissey, who seemed less infuriated that he was portrayed as a racist hypocrite than that he was portrayed as fat. 

(A statement from his manager, posted on Facebook within hours of the show’s broadcast, complained with No Discernible Irony: “Poking fun at subjects is one thing … but when a show stoops so low to use harshly hateful tactics like showing the Morrissey character with his belly hanging out of his shirt [when he has never looked like that at any point in his career] makes you wonder who the real hurtful, racist group is here.”)

Continuing the war of words with a family of beloved yellow-skinned cartoon characters (racist!), and reminiscent of Eminem attacking Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Morrissey himself wrote on his website:

You are especially despised if your music affects people in a strong and beautiful way, since music is no longer required to. In fact, the worst thing you can do in 2021 is to lend a bit of strength to the lives of others. There is no place in modern music for anyone with strong emotions….

I’ve had enough horror thrown at me that would kill off a herd of bison. Accusations usually come from someone with a crazed desire for importance; they don’t operate at a very high level. Writing for the Simpsons, for example, evidently requires only complete ignorance. But all of these things are too easy for me to say. In a world obsessed with Hate Laws, there are none that protect me….free speech no longer exists.

The response is classically self-pitying—almost Trumpian, in fact—in its insistence that he is the real victim. But how the neo-fascist, For Britain-supporting, 2021 version of Morrissey is lending “a bit of strength to the lives of others” eludes me. 

THERE IS A PLACE IN HELL FOR ME AND MY FRIENDS

So what to do with all this? How bad do an artist’s politics have to be before we say fuck off?

It’s the old question of how—or if—we can separate the artist from the art, and more to the point, whether we ought to do so. Over the years it’s been asked of a numbingly long list of geniuses with problematic personal views, behavior, and other baggage: Celine, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Wagner, Polanski….the list goes on and on. 

It’s an especially pertinent question in the era of #Metoo and the Age of Trump. In the past five years, it’s one we’ve all had to ask not only of our musical heroes and other public figures, but of our friends and acquaintances as well. In some cases it has meant ending friendships and abandoning artists and entertainers who have taken a side that is unconscionable. 

But I can live very easily without the artistic contributions of Scott BaioPat Boone, and Ted Nugent. I will miss listening to The Queen Is Dead a lot more. 

Lots of artists are shitty people. What consequences they ought to pay for that is highly subjective, a matter of degree and timing and context, and perhaps best handled on a case by case basis. Are we judging a long deceased historical figure who lived and worked under the standards of a very different era, or a contemporary individual who is still alive and active and operating under the current rules of engagement? How bad was their offensive behavior, and was it isolated or part of a longstanding pattern? And how integral is their person to their work?

With some of these folks, the art and the artist are fairly distinct and don’t overlap much, making bifurcation easier. I will always love watching Dennis Quaid in Breaking Away, or The Right Stuff, or Postcards from the Edge, even if it saddens and disgusts me to know that he’s now a Trump supporter. I don’t want to watch anything new he does, but I can appreciate his performances from the distant past, because they are so distinct from his politics. (His brother Randy is a slightly different matter, mental illness wise.) It’s a bit like the way I can appreciate the skill of the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin while ignoring his open admiration for Vladimir Putin. But it doesn’t make me want to root for him. 

The issue becomes thornier, however, when the individual’s work is directly connected to his or her vile views. 

In “Pretend It’s a City,” her new Netflix collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz describes how she once refused an invitation to attend a private dinner for Leni Riefenstahl. (In fact, she says she was livid that anyone thought she would ever accept.) In that case, the empirical aesthetic beauty of Riefenstahl’s film work is impossible to separate from the hateful ideology it celebrated and served. 

Would it be different when it comes to, say, Leni’s still photography of Nuba people in Sudan in the 1970s? Ask Fran. 

Sometimes the issue is positively byzantine. Wagner is permanently stained by his posthumous association with the Third Reich, even though he’d been dead for fifty years before Hitler came to power. That certainly makes him harder to listen to, but he would have a better case for absolution if not for his own virulent anti-Semitism, such that it makes him feel like a willing co-conspirator before the fact. Yet none of that has stopped contemporary orchestras and opera companies from performing his work. (Not often in Israel though.)

Indeed, if anti-Semitism was a dealbreaker, whole centuries of artists would be canceled. I love Roald Dahl’s stories, but I read them now with the knowledge that he was a vicious Jew hater. Even Shakespeare has taken his lumps for Shylock. Is it fair to judge these people by the standards of the present day? Sometimes it is. From there it is not a big leap to questions about Thomas Jefferson and some other Founding Fathers, who, contrary to the rationalizations of some folks in the current moment, knew very well that owning other human beings was deeply wrong, even way back in the 18th century.

Jumping ahead two hundred years, I’m a fan of NWA, but how do we reckon with the abhorrent anti-Semitism—and even more so, homophobia—of a song like Ice Cube’s solo hit “No Vaseline” (1991)? And I choose that at near-random from the hip hop canon, which is rife with that stuff—as is rock & roll—to say nothing of misogyny. Hell, if we start scrutinizing dodgy lyrics and bad behavior in pop music, not many musicians would be left standing except Cliff Richard

Lately we have seen the once-great Van Morrison, another of my adolescent musical heroes, trashing his legacy with a series of bitter new songs railing against the COVID-19 lockdownTeaming with him on some of those tracks was Eric Clapton, a former junkie who now blames the vaccine, rather than years of heroin use, for his health problems. Clapton, of course, is lugging around some even more rancid albatrosses, going back to his praise for Enoch Powell and an eyepopping racist outburst at a concert in Birmingham in 1976, and repeated equivocation about those remarks in the decades since. 

LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?

Which brings us back to Morrissey.

Answering a question posed on Twitter about whether it is possible to divorce the man from the music, Billy Braggtweeted, “No. There was a light but it has now gone out.” Nick Cave, like Bragg, a man well-known for his humanity and integrity, was slightly more philosophical in answer to a similar question posed by a fan, defending Morrissey’s right to his political views even as he expressed staunch opposition to the views themselves.

But no one is disputing Morrissey’s right to his opinion, nor his right to state it publicly (except Morrissey himself, with specious Fox News-style screeching about “censorship”). By the same token, we are under no obligation to endorse his views by giving him our dollars or attention. That is not “censorship”: it is our right to freedom of expression ourselves, as fans and as consumers.

Per above, Cave argues that an artist’s “views and behavior are separate issues”:

Whatever inanities (Morrissey) may postulate, we cannot overlook the fact that he has written a vast and extraordinary catalogue, which has enhanced the lives of his many fans beyond recognition. This is no small thing. He has created original and distinctive works of unparalleled beauty, that will long outlast his offending political alliances.

Perhaps it is better to simply let Morrissey have his views, challenge them when and wherever possible, but allow his music to live on, bearing in mind we are all conflicted individuals—messy, flawed and prone to lunacies. We should thank God that there are some among us that create works of beauty beyond anything most of us can barely imagine, even as some of those same people fall prey to regressive and dangerous belief systems.

But this is not a matter of Ovechkin’s puckhandling, which is wholly separate from his politics. Given that his songs frequently function as social commentary, Morrissey’s views are inextricably tied up with his words and music. This isn’t Thin White Duke-era Bowie making a stupid, outlier comment admiring of British fascism and calling Hitler “one of the first rock stars.” This is a relentless and ongoing pattern that is impossible to ignore or compartmentalize from the music itself, which it increasingly overshadows.

As Rustamova writes, “We need to vote with our ears and call Morrissey out. We can’t separate art from the artist when the art sings ‘England for the English.’”

Whether he is displaying some mid-to-late life reactionary transformation, or expressing long held beliefs, or merely playing the provocateur, Morrissey’s perverse turn to the right is—to put it mildly—both odious and sad for all parties. In overlooking and excusing his actions over the years, we have all been complicit: the fans, the record labels, the music press. Everyone. 

But while we don’t have to have a debate about free will here, in the end Moz has no one but himself to answer for it. As for the responsibility of pop stars for their actions, let me throw his words back at him:

You could have said no 
If you’d wanted to 
You could have walked away 
Couldn’t you?

When it comes to choosing my pop stars according to their decency as human beings and the admirability of their politics, I think I’ll listen to some Billy Bragg.

*********

Photo: Morrissey wearing “For Britain” badge on “The Tonight Show,” May 2019. NBC/Getty Images.

The Tyranny of the Minority

Where does Joe Manchin go to pick up his Man of the Year award from the Klan?

Unfair, you say! A cheap shot, you say! A vast and snide over-simplification that elides the nuances of the situation.

Maybe. 

But here’s the fact:

In opposing the sweeping package of voter protections known as the For the People Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is all but singlehandedly blocking urgently needed legislative action—action that is overwhelmingly popular with a majority of Americans, even in his home state, by the by—that would protect voting rights at a time when they are under a degree of vicious attack not seen since the days of Jim Crow. In so doing, he is all but singlehandedly providing Republicans cover as they try to disenfranchise tens of millions of American voters—disproportionately people of colorwomen, and the working poor—in order to install their white nationalist party in power permanently, in countermajoritarian violation of the most basic principles of a representative democracy. 

Call that what you will, but I assure you that the Klan is applauding. 

(And the tradition of Manchin’s homeboy Robert Byrd lives on.)

But Manchin has good reasons, you say! 

OK, what are they?

Here they are in his own words, from his recent op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

(P)rotecting (the right to vote), which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner. 

Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized. Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage. Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy—it will destroy it.

Senator Manchin is correct that partisan policymaking will destroy our democracy, but his absurd bothsidesism is wildly at odds with reality, suggesting that he is either jaw-droppingly naïve (hard to believe in a professional politician of his experience) or despicably dishonest and self-serving. His reference to “the need to secure our elections,” a healingly cynical sop to the batshit right, strongly suggests the latter. 

(C)ongressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.

Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?

Hell no: and the party that’s doing that is the GOP. To even imply that Democrats—of which he is one—are engaged in anything even remotely similar is beneath contempt. As voting rights expert Ari Berman tweeted: “I don’t recall Republicans asking for bipartisan support before they introduced 400 voter suppression bills & enacted 22 new voter suppression laws in 14 states so far this year.” 

Shame on you, Senator.

Manchin goes on to speak of the need for “compromise.” Give me a break. Compromise? From a Republican Party whose Senate Minority Leader has stated that 100% of his energy is devoted to blocking everything Biden wants to do? (Echoing his priorities during the Obama administration.) From a Republican Party that refused even to back an investigation into a violent attempt to overthrow the government? (Naturally, since it was complicit in that effort.)

Manchin goes on:

I have always said, “If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.” And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party’s agenda.

It’s actually very easy to explain, and it’s not “one party’s agenda.” It’s a defense of democracy against an opposing party that has made it very clear it has no interest in that. 

Or as Heather Cox Richardson writes, “Essentially, Manchin appears to be blaming the person calling the fire department, rather than the arsonist, and then saying the firefighters need to work with the guys holding the gasoline cans and matches.” 

FANTASY AND DECEIT

In the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson writes:

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has the right to live in a make-believe wonderland if he so chooses. But his party and his nation will pay a terrible price for his hallucinations about the nature of today’s Republican Party. And even this sacrifice might not guarantee that Manchin can hold on to support back home.There’s no way to spin this as anything other than awful. Manchin’s decision is a catastrophe not just for this particular bill, though he has almost certainly doomed the legislation…..thanks to Manchin’s decision, Biden doesn’t even have a 50-vote Senate for what many Democrats see as an existential fight against the GOP’s attempt to gain and keep power through voter suppression. 

Worse, Manchin is asking Democrats to respond to ruthlessness with delusion. 

On Twitter, A.R. Moxon writes: 

Manchin’s politics boil down to “no matter what the results of any election, no matter the mandate, no matter the clear and present danger, for Democrats to govern, Republicans must first be asked permission.”

“Not one member of the opposing team has agreed to help us win this football game, therefore our strategy must be flawed.” “Not one hijacker has agreed to work with us to regain control of this airplane. We simply need to be more convincing, or the strife may increase.”

Because please note: Manchin is not just opposing an end to the filibuster, as expected, which would be necessary to overcome Republican opposition to the For the People Act…..he is the lone Democratic Senator voting with the GOP against the act itself.

On that count, the WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin offered perhaps the most thorough obliteration of Manchin’s stance, noting that the senator has not cited anything objectionable in the content of the bill itself, only lack of GOP support. 

He does not state what provisions he likes or doesn’t, nor does he suggest what compromise bill might reach 60 votes. So his objection is that Republicans object? Many bills that he supported came without Republican support—the American Rescue Plan, most recently, and of course, the Affordable Care Act. The notion that Republicans win simply by refusing to agree to any of the majority’s legislative proposals makes a mockery of democracy, and specifically of the Senate. Indeed, Republicans’ filibuster of the Jan. 6 commission legislation showed that we lack 10 Republicans willing to operate in good faith.

To that end, Manchin’s protection of the filibuster makes even less sense. Rubin again:

Elevating the filibuster to the sine qua non of our constitutional system is absurd. It is not in the Constitution. It protects no constitutional principle. It does not constitute a check or balance on the other branches as, for example, a veto override or the Senate’s advise and consent power on nominees. It does not protect minority rights when it is used to thwart voting rights protection for disfavored minorities….

Manchin argues that renewing the lapsed 1965 Voting Rights Act (in its new incarnation as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) would be a better solution, writing, “Since its original passage, it has been reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan votes five separate times.” Yeah, but that was then and this is now. Since Joe’s op-ed went to press, Mitch McConnell has already said he won’t support reviving the 1965 law, because there’s no threat to voting rights: “The Supreme Court concluded that conditions that existed in 1965 no longer existed,” McConnell told reporters. “So there’s no threat to the voting rights law. It’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already. And so I think it’s unnecessary.” 

Note: He said that with a straight face. 

That means Manchin, again, would need ten Republicans to cross the aisle. Does he really think there are ten Republicans who will do so? As Eugene Robinson notes, “So far, there is one—Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The other nine must be in some parallel dimension, visible only to Manchin, where all the leprechauns, tooth fairies and unicorns are hiding.”

So much for Manchin’s fantasies and his laughable counter-proposals. But fantasy is the wrong word, because surely he already knew all this. So let’s just call it shameless deceit.

Rubin astutely asks what Manchin will do “when 10 Republicans do not emerge for cloture on (H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) either—just as we saw on the Jan. 6 commission bill—does Manchin simply give up?” She then suggests, per the title of her piece, that we “call Manchin’s bluff”:

It’s time for Manchin to put up or share blame for Republicans’ subversion of democracy. 

Let him come up with 10 Republicans for H.R. 4 and for a slimmed down H.R. 1. Let him find four more Republicans to support the Jan. 6 commission. If he cannot, then his thesis that the filibuster promotes debate and makes way for compromise collapses and his role in promoting the tyranny of the minority is laid bare.

Manchin insisted that he will not “weaken or eliminate” the filibuster. He should be compelled to spell out what reforms he would accept. Is requiring Republicans to hold the floor (i.e., demanding a talking filibuster) “weakening” the rule? It is well past the time to start pressuring Manchin to answer some basic questions: If the filibuster is simply a means of thwarting any reasonable legislation, why is it worth preserving? What if the integrity of our democracy is at stake?

Manchin’s bland platitudes suggest he prefers stalemate to taking hard votes. The status quo leaves him with latitude to make holier-than-thou pronouncements to decry both sides.

THE MYTH OF BLAMING THE BASE

The defense of Manchin goes like this: 

He’s a rare Democrat from a deep red state, which means has to walk a fine line in order not to offend his constituents and hang onto his seat. That means staying on the conservative side of the Democratic caucus, and not backing ideas that are perceived as “too progressive,” like this bill. Blue state liberals may howl self-righteously, but that’s the pragmatic state of play. 

Maybe so. But undermining democracy just to hold onto your seat is not exactly a defensible position. The favor he’s doing for the GOP is so huge that Trump himself went out of his way to praise him for it.

Say no more.

In short, for the sake of retaining his seat in the Senate, Manchin is poised to go down in history as a self-serving hypocrite who crossed party lines for the sole purpose of standing on the battlements of white supremacy…..or at least the key actor who enabled others to do so, for the sake of his own self-interest, which might be even worse. If the GOP manages to successfully eviscerate voting rights and establish a chokehold on American democracy in the early 21st century, that crime will look even worse to posterity.   

Moreover, setting aside principle (easy to do for Joe!) it’s not at all clear that this utilitarian, self-aggrandizing description of the circumstances is even correct.

In reality, the For the People Act is very popular in West Virginia. A recent poll had 79% of West Virginians in favor of it. Puppies don’t even poll that well. It’s polling at 76% even among Republicans alone. Nationwide, the political consulting firm Lake Research Partners reports that 68% of Americans support the act, including a majority of Republicans. In fact, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reports that the GOP high command is outright terrified of how popular it is. (This goes to Joe Biden’s preferred definition of “bipartisan,” based on what a broad cross-section of the American people support, as opposed to what a tiny cabal of Republican mandarins in Washington DC will allow.)

And there are other outliers too. West Virginian support for Biden’s jobs and infrastructure bill is at 68%, but Manchin has said he won’t vote for that either unless Mitch McConnell says he can.

So Manchin’s whole “pragmatism” case falls apart—unspoken though it is, since his spoken rationale is even less coherent.   

It’s true that over a long career at both the state and federal levels, Manchin has proven himself a canny political operator: as a Democrat, you don’t get to be both the governor of West Virginia and one of its US Senators without knowing your voters, so I won’t second guess him. Still, there’s reason to doubt his calculation and his tactics.

Robinson again: 

(I)nsisting on bipartisanship in all things might not be a magical talisman against defeat. 

The self-identified non-conservative Democrats who provide Manchin’s strongest base of support, with 59 percent viewing him favorably, are also the most skeptical of the filibuster Manchin has pledged himself to protect. Twenty percent of them say the filibuster should be eliminated, and another 45 percent say it should be reformed. 

That is just one poll, and Manchin’s history of winning suggests he knows his state. But even Manchin has to hold on to his strongest supporters. Blocking Biden’s agenda and allowing GOP voter suppression are not stances that will help him win his next election or change Washington’s increasingly twisted laws of politics. 

In this fairy tale, Manchin is setting himself up to be the villain.

I’M JUST A BILL, YEAH I’M ONLY A BILL

Even though Manchin himself hasn’t bothered to argue the merits of the For the People Act before rejecting it over this mythical quest for Republican good faith, it’s worth taking a moment to consider criticisms of the legislation itself. 

The knock on the bill—outlined by Charlies Sykes at The Bulwark, among others—is that it constitutes federal overreach. Perhaps…..and I generally agree with Charlie and The Bulwark, one of the last bastions of sane conservatism in America. But in this case I think a little federal overreach is called for, don’t you, when Republicans in 43 states are trying to undermine democracy at its very core? 

Once the party of spurious “states’ rights,” a phrase forever tied to the Confederacy, the GOP invokes it only when convenient. The rest of the time it’s the party that does things like letting Texas—led by its AG, Ken Paxton, currently under indictment for securities fraudgo to federal court to interfere with how Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin conduct their elections. 

States’ rights? What states’ rights?

Meanwhile, The New York Times Editorial Board, while sharing Sykes’s sentiment that the House version of the bill, H.R. 1, is “poorly drawn,” also notes that it fails to go far enough in preventing partisan control of the vote count at the state level, and the ability of Republican state legislatures to overturn results at will. But that is a reason to revise the bill, not reject it outright.

Of course, Manchin isn’t the first lone wolf to break with his party and doom a piece of legislation with a single vote. (As recently as 2017 McCain did it to the GOP over the repeal of Obamacare, and Republicans were just as furious with him as Democrats are with Manchin now.

Of course, John did it to preserve affordable health care for tens millions of Americans; Joe did it to deny voting rights to a similar number. 

EXTREMISM IN THE DEFENSE OF LIBERTY

Washington insiders expected this: apparently, behind closed doors, Manchin had long made his position clear well before he codified it for public consumption in that op-ed. Still, it is infuriating.

So what can be done? Well, the DNC can give Traitor Joe the Liz Cheney treatment: strip him of his seniority and his power, starve West Virginia of any money he could direct to it, and make him largely ineffective as a senator, hitting him where it hurst most in terms of his re-election prospects. 

But what then? He gets primaried, or beaten in the general election, and West Virginia sends some

But what then? He gets primaried, or beaten in the general election, and West Virginia sends some Republican shitbag to Washington who’s even worse? Manchin might even switch parties right now, at the start of his current six-year term. (The horrid WaPo columnist and Trump fanboy Marc Thiessen has already suggested that Donald call Manchin and try to persuade him to do so, in order to oppose the Democrats’ “radical agenda.” You know, like the radical idea that Black people should be allowed to vote.) 

Yes, Manchin may as well be a Republican as it is, but that “may as well” matters. He votes with his caucus enough to make a difference, even if the times he doesn’t are maddening beyond belief.

So even as I take issue with Charlie Sykes on this particular point, his Bulwark colleague Jonathan V. Last has some excellent advice:

A lot of people are upset. I get this. But I want to concentrate your mind on what does, and does not, matter. And let’s start with the mission statement: 

“The best version of HR 1 is the version that (1) has the key protections and (2) can pass.”

That’s it. Everything else is a nice-to-have.

So let’s start with the things that do not matter and which no one should spend even five minutes thinking about:

+ Manchin’s motivations.

+ How to get rid of Manchin.

+ Why Provision X from the bill was really great and would have made life better.

JVL goes on to suggest that Democrats strip the bill down to its most essential provisions needed to protect voting rights (what he calls “the minimum viable product”). This may be the onbly way to bring the necessary majority along, which will include both Manchin, and progressives, and ideally a couple of Republicans too. (Not ten.) 

Oh, and also:

Passing any sort of voting rights act will almost certainly require changing/reforming/ killing the filibuster. So you have to create the conditions that will put so much pressure on Manchin the next time around that he’ll cave. 

What does that pressure look like? It probably starts with infrastructure. Give Manchin a big say in infrastructure and see how he feels when he can’t get 10 R votes for something he’s driving and cares about. 

It also probably requires reframing the filibuster change as “reform” and not nuking. Come up with some fenced-in version of the reform that gets you to voting rights, while keeping it in place for other stuff. Call it whatever you have to so that Manchin can say he isn’t changing his mind, but that he’s been presented with a different option.

It’s sad, I know, that these are the workarounds required, but like the man said, politics is the art of the possible. (The man being Otto von Bismarck, who knew a thing or two about reactionaries.)

Last again: 

If it turns out that there is no world in which voting rights legislation of any sort is achievable with the current fact set, then Biden needs to move on to other strategies. And if you can’t strengthen democratic institutions, then maybe you can create conditions on the ground that might forestall the next authoritarian attempt.

What does that look like? In our post-Truth world, it has to be more than just doing such a good job that MAGA Nation sees the light. Accordingly, I would heartily support aggressive, FDR-like use of executive orders, even if they get challenged in the (largely Republican-controlled) courts. Republicans have shown us that they are willing to do far more outrageous things to promote their agenda, both legal and illegal, with and without precedent….and our efforts will have the added advantage of actually being good for democracy, and for a majority of the American people, and not just for a plutocratic elite. 

I would also suggest a massive PR campaign that hammers the GOP relentlessly over its hypocrisy, anti-democratism, racism, misogyny, refusal to send relief dollars to hurting Americans, epically botched response to the pandemic, and oh yeah, complicity in a violent coup attempt. No Trumpist minds will be changed, of course, but we’re not aiming at them. We’re speaking to the sentient segment of rational Americans who will listen to common sense and are capable of being swayed. A small group, but a vital one nonetheless.  

To be clear, I am not advocating anything untoward. Only that we stop bringing a strongly worded letter of complaint to a gunfight. 

ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST 2022

So per JVL, I am trying to focus on the future, and how we get things done despite Joe Manchin. And one of those scenarios involves a future in which the man from West Virginia is infinitely less relevant. 

Like many progressives, I am hoping that we can not only hold onto the Senate in 2022, but increase our majority by a couple of seats, severely slashing Manchin’s power. (And you, too, Kristen Sinema.) It will require an electoral campaign and get-out-the-vote effort to dwarf 2020, and in a climate that promises to be even more logistically challenging, thanks to Republican ratfucking. Which is the whole crux of this crisis.

We need to hold onto Warnock in Georgia and Bennet in Colorado and Kelly in Arizona and Cortez Masto in Nevada and Hassan in New Hampshire; flip the seats of retirees-to-be Toomey in Pennsylvania and Burr in North Carolina and Portman in Ohio; and oust Johnson in Wisconsin and Rubio in Florida. 

I know it’s a tall order. But it’s a battle we have no choice but to fight, and what’s more, it’s one we stand a chance of winning. 

Yes, the president’s party routinely loses seats in the midterms, but these are not routine times. The GOP is doubling down on Trumpism—you know, the ideology that cost them the White House and the Senate in the last election?—on the presumption (or delusion) that it’s the route back to power. It may be, and that would be a grim statement about our nation, and about how deep the QAnon Kool-Aid runs. But it may just as likely prove Jonestown-level suicidal for the Republican Party. 

This will be the latest acid test for the soul of America. 

We can reflect till the cows come home over just how much damage one intransigent, self-serving hack can do if placed in just the right position. But our problem is no more limited to Joe Manchin than it was limited to Donald Trump. Neither Manchin, nor Trump, nor McConnell, Cruz, Hawley, nor Marjorie Taylor Greene for that matter could get away with what they are doing were there not millions (or in some cases tens of millions) of Americans who are totally onboard with this malicious degradation of democracy. That is almost to be expected from a country born to a strange marriage of Enlightenment ideals and brutal human bondage, one that fought a bloody civil war over that very paradox 150 years ago, the repercussions of which we are still reckoning with.

We must never forget that this group is a minority and we are the majority. But due to a series of flawed 18th century mechanisms built into our political system, that minority has managed to grab our republic by the throat and hold it hostage. We must both address those systemic issues that allowed this state of affairs to arise, and simultaneously face down the racist, anti-democratic, authoritarian-friendly John Bircher mindset that infects a significant subset of our fellow Americans. 

Until we do, Joe Manchin will be just a symptom, not the disease, and the least of our problems.  

**********

Photo: Reuters

Fran and Spalding

The recent success of Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix documentary series about Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City, put me in mind of another project from twenty years ago that featured Fran, the late Spalding Gray, and dozens of others. As it is now out of print, I thought it was worth revisiting, given the renewed interest in the intrepid Ms. L., and the poignancy of what Spalding had to say in light of his tragic end five years later. 

These are interviews that have barely been seen by the general public, and never in their entirety, until now.

The film is a feature documentary called Yesterday’s Tomorrows (1999), directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Richard Berge. It was part of an initiative by Sandra Itkoff and Showtime/Disney, which commissioned a group of famous narrative filmmakers to make a series of documentaries collected under the title The 20th Century: A Moving History, to commemorate the upcoming turn of the Millennium. Each director was given an identical budget and free rein to tackle the topic of his or her choice. Levinson’s documentary is about how people in the past imagined the future, loosely based on the book of the same name by Stanford professor Joseph Corn, who appears in the film. (The other topics included comedy, marriage, sex, drugs, and the American Dream.)

In addition to Fran, Spalding, and Joe Corn, the other interviewees included John Waters, Martin Mull, Walter Mosley, Richard Belzer, Carrie Fisher, Ada Louise Huxtable, Philip Johnson (age 93 at the time of filming), Octavia Butler, Robert Klein, Ralph Nader, E.L. Doctorow, Matt Groening, Robert Heilbroner, Isaac Mizrahi, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller, Andy Rooney, Victor Navasky, Charlton Heston, Alvin and Heidi Toffler (authors of Future Shock), Ford Motors auto designer James Powers, and Syd Mead and Hampton Fancher (the “visual futurist” and screenwriter, respectively, of Blade Runner). “One of Barry’s ideas was to have serious people be funny and funny people be serious,” Berge recalls. “And that kind of happened.”

The film was shot—on 16mm—by Michael Chin and associate produced by Kenn Rabin. Richard and Kenn wrote it; I was the editor, and the production coordinator and assistant editor was Megan Mylan (who went on to become an Oscar-winning documentary director in her own right). I cut it partially in San Francisco and then on an Avid that we set up in the kitchen of Barry’s guest house in Marin County, while his longtime narrative editor, Stu Linder, was cutting his feature Liberty Heights (on Lightworks!) in the main editing room. 

You can see the full film here, as well as a supercut of just Fran and Spalding’s parts.

For the sake of posterity, I’m also posting their raw, unedited interviews; see links at end of post. (These rushes are transfers from VHS window dubs with burned-in time code, and therefore lower resolution than the finished film.)

WE WERE PROMISED JET PACKS

Yesterday’s Tomorrows traces popular visions of the future from the turn of the 19th century, through the optimism of the pre-war period when technological “Progress” with a capital P was widely seen as an unquestioned good, to the pinnacle of that belief at the 1939 World’s Fair, through the darkness that followed, and into the postwar, commercial-driven American love affair with “all mod cons” that even the shadow of the Bomb—the ultimate, sinister manifestation of the dark side of technology—could not completely douse. 

The film touches on architecture and urban planning, telecommunications, computers, robots, flying cars, cloning, genetically modified food, and that enduring symbol of a future that never arrives, jet packs. (Sections we wanted to include about the Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was stranded in the Mir space station while his country ceased to exist back on Earth, and the Disney-created town of Celebration, Florida as a sterile, contemporary vision of the future, didn’t make it into production.) 

The documentary ends with the dystopian visions that were prevalent in the cinema of the late Sixties and early Seventies—Planet of the ApesOmega Man, and Soylent Green. We even got Charlton Heston, the star of all three of those movies, to repeat his famous, climactic line of dialogue from that last movie. (Spoiler alert: if you don’t know what it is, don’t watch it over dinner.) 

Maybe the most enjoyable part was the vast trove of rollicking archival material, especially the corporate promotional films of the Fifties and Sixties, as curated by Archive Producer Kenn Rabin, who was also the chief archival consultant for the entire 20th Century series. (Kenn also pieced together the raw, unedited rushes included here, which until recently I presumed were long lost.)

One of the fascinating things we learned in making the film was that even when prognosticators were correct in predicting future developments, their vision of them was still laughable. We have clips from industrial films by the likes of Ford, GM, IBM, Bell, et al that accurately predicted the Internet, Skype, online shopping, routine air travel, and multiple other things that actually came to pass……and yet their depictions of each are still “Jetsons”-level ludicrous. (Exception: Blade Runner, which may have influenced the look of what is now the present more than any other piece of contemporary cinema, and still looks cutting edge even today.)

For that reason, I lobbied hard to call the film People Were Stupid…..and felt sure I was going to prevail after we interviewed Martin Mull, who quipped that all the great prophets of progress and futurism who promised us a bright new tomorrow “didn’t take into account how stupid people were going to be. America’s greatest natural resource, still to this day, is the moron.” 

He didn’t know how right he was. 

GUNSLINGERS IN GRAMERCY PARK

Fran and Spalding were interviewed on the same day in October 1998, back to back, at the Players Club in Gramercy Park. For that reason, the two interviews look twinned, in their earth tone palette. (“We just turned the camera around,” says Berge.) 

Richard recalls that the two wits eyed each other like gunslingers across the room in an Old West saloon. “My memory is that we finished up Spalding and he was getting ready to leave, and Fran shows up and they sort of crossed paths as she was coming in, and they did this odd head nod.” The mutual respect-cum-rivalry is understandable, as the two shared a sensibility as cultural commentators, albeit from two distinct worlds, one New York City Jewish and the other New England Yankee.

Speaking to that, and how he was viewed in the entertainment industry, Gray told the critic Edward Vilga this in 1997:

I would say that my major problem with Hollywood is this—I sometimes paraphrase Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan says “I may look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James.” I say, “I may look like a gynecologist, an American ambassador’s aide, or a lawyer, but I feel like Woody Allen….I appear to be a WASP Brahmin, but I’m really a sort of neurotic, perverse New York Jew. 

When I was performing one year ago at this time in Israel, a review came out in Hebrew about Monster in a Box, and it read, “Spalding Gray is funny, sometimes hilarious, wonderfully neurotic for a non-Jew.” Only the Jews can say something like “wonderfully neurotic.”

FRAN WAS ON FIRE THAT DAY

Fran Lebowitz probably has more air time in the film than any other single interviewee in the documentary, and even so we left loads of footage on the metaphorical cutting room floor, simply in the interest of balance. Almost every word that came out of her mouth could have been used, unedited. It has always baffled me that some find her an acquired taste, and even polarizing, as I myself would be very happy to have a tape loop of Fran playing in my head 24/7. 

Berge recalls that for a famous curmudgeon, Fran was amiable and friendly and even stuck around chatting with the crew while they were breaking down after the interview. “She has an outgoing attitude, and she’s opinionated and talkative,” he says. “She clearly loves life, and she has good energy, even if the words are coming out are sort of downbeat.” 

“You could tell she had joy in telling stories and getting people’s reactions and hearing laughter. She was in the middle of the room and everybody was working around her, and she was just sort of turning around, talking to everybody, like theater-in-the-round. It was so delightful. And I remember at the time thinking, ‘I can’t believe she hasn’t left yet. She actually enjoyed this and she doesn’t want to go.’” 

You can see that joie de vivre in her interview, particularly when she gets off an especially good bon mot—which is often—and for a split second amid her trademark deadpan delivery, allows us to see a twinkle in her eye, because she knows that was a good one. 

In fact, when it comes to her infamous writer’s block, it could be that, as great a writer as Fran Lebowitz is, hearing her say the words is part of what is so pleasurable, and the written page can’t match. Whether the interlocutor sitting across from her is Scorsese, Spike Lee, Frank Rich, Richard Berge, or Ziwe, her real art form is probably “interview subject.” 

Fran wanted to smoke during the interview, but Berge feared the wrath of Disney: “I didn’t want to come back to San Francisco only to find out I had an interview I couldn’t use because there was a cigarette in it.” So—out of abundance of caution—he asked her to keep it out of the frame. The problem was, throughout the interview we see smoke wafting up, but never its source, so it looks like Fran is on fire. 

On re-viewing the rushes, I saw that Richard and Mike Chin realized the problem at the time, because at one point they tell her exactly that, and—reversing themselves—specifically ask her to bring the cigarette up so we can see it, which she does. (No complaints were heard from the Mouse.)

In the interview itself, Fran speaks nostalgically of a time when the government was separate from soda companies, how wanting to go to the 1964 World’s Fair was like wanting to own a horse, the racist subtext of the Westerns of the ‘60s and the science fiction movies of the ‘70s, of John Glenn being straight from Central Casting (“No one else could have been John Glenn”), and how the protagonist of Peggy Sue Got Married should have bought an apartment in Manhattan. 

On the topic of the World’s Fair, she recalls how it marked her transformation from an innocent and unquestioning child into the dyspeptic Fran we know and love when she saw how Michelangelo’s “Pieta” was displayed:

I was quite a little art buff at that age, and it was my first encounter with kitsch. I was flabbergasted. It was on a revolving platform, lit like something from Star Wars. I remember green light and music playing and I was horrified. I instantly went from being this character almost from a Mark Twain novel, this corny, patriotic child, to being this haughty condescending snob. It was a tremendous change in me. “How could they do this?!”

She talks of the terror of nuclear war that shrouded her childhood, and the makeshift bomb shelter she secretly constructed in the crawlspace of her family’s New Jersey home. Describing herself as an “immensely patriotic child,” she explains that she thought of the Bomb “as a manifestation of communism, not as a manifestation of science.”

Of women and the future, she says:

All the things that were proposed that were going to be this kind of utopia were things that were meant always to aid the housewife. There would never be a notion that they would aid a man, because men didn’t do this kind of work. 

I never saw in my whole childhood a man wash a dish. I would have been absolutely shocked to see such a thing. It would have been flabbergasting to me. So all things were invented with the idea that the housewife’s lot would be an easier one. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that she was very hard on television (apparently not anticipating the success of her own Netflix series twenty years hence): 

Television turned out to be far worse than even the greatest and most cornball prediction of a kind of standard Fifties intellectual. People kept talking about the effects of TV, and how would it act on us? I don’t think anyone imagined that we would go live inside that box and that there would be no “us” anymore. 

On one of her trademark topics, New York City, she called its 1999 incarnation “a puritanical environment” with “all the disadvantages of that kind of tiny suburban sensibility and all the disadvantages of a big, noisy, expensive city.” Way ahead of her time, she describes then-mayor Rudy Giuliani as “Mussolini without the charm.” 

By contrast, the New York she favored “was close to lawless—which is good, not because I favor crime, but because I favor debauchery.”

I moved to New York when I was 18 years old. I didn’t come here because I heard how clean it was. So things like cleanliness, which are American obsessions, and the notion that the future will be cleaner and cleaner and cleaner, more and more germ-free in every respect, both literal germs and symbolic germs: now we seem to have achieved that. So now (New York) is an incredibly dull but very expensive place.

This surprisingly touching notion of lost innocence runs throughout her interview:

Children had a lot of time (in the Fifties), which they don’t have now, I notice. Children laid around a lot. No one was constantly forcing children to get ready to become investment bankers or whatever they’re trying to make them do now. Children were kind of scattered all over the lawns of America, just lying around, looking up at the sky. That was a big thing you did: you lay on your back, you looked up at the sky. 

Hearing of Fran’s youthful idealism, and the extent to which she felt betrayed by the Eisenhower-era con job that had been perpetrated on her, explains a lot about the person she became, and lends her gimlet-eyed adult persona a real poignancy. 

Lastly, and a bit more on brand, here is Fran on progress and human nature:

You can’t think about the future if you take human nature into account, because human nature doesn’t change. Human nature has no future—the future of human nature is the past. So as bad as people are, we will always be, and we have demonstrated that consistently. There has been no change for the better in human nature at all, and there never will be. 

So yes, it would, it would certainly behoove the people who think about the future or who invent these things to keep in mind human nature. But of course it is human nature not to do that.

Words to live by, my friends, words to live by.

TWO THOUSAND ZERO ZERO—PARTY OVER

“Of course, storytelling has been around since humanity began, but Spalding basically resurrected the monologue singlehandedly with Swimming to CambodiaMonster in a Box, and the rest,” says Berge. “And it took off; now it’s a thing that everybody does. Arguably even TED Talks are based on it. That was him.” I would add that the art form that Spalding invented, or re-invented, has now mated with a certain breed of standup comedy from the likes of Eddie Izzard, Mike Birbiglia, and Hannah Gadsby, whose long form stage performances are structured more like Spalding Gray’s pieces than like conventional comedy acts….not to mention the renaissance of audio storytelling on radio and pdocast, The Moth, and a million other monologists who came in his wake. 

That genius is fully on display in his Yesterday’s Tomorrows interview

Spalding describes his upbringing in the “very beautiful, upper middle-class Republican” town of Barrington, Rhode Island, and similar to Fran (born nine years later), refers to the future that was presented to him as “a dustless fantasy—a Sears & Roebuck Studebaker dream.” But the dark side, also as for Fran, was the dread of nuclear war, as depicted in the films of atomic testing on mannequins and uninhabited “towns” in the Nevada desert. 

But at the tender age of 14, young Master Gray already demonstrated his keen grasp of the absurd: 

I can remember my mother driving me up to this particular boarding school in Maine, and we didn’t talk about much, it was a long drive—three, four hours—and we got there, and the principal said, “I see from your report card that you’re failing almost everything in school. What’s the problem?” And I hadn’t even thinking about this, just out of me came this statement. I said, “Well, since they invented the hydrogen bomb, there is no future. Not only will all Beethoven’s symphonies disappear forever, but anything I might do will have little effect. It wouldn’t exist in the face of that.” 

And the principal took a long pause and he said, “Well, that’s what they said when they invented the crossbow.” 

And I knew that there was a difference between a hydrogen bomb and a crossbow. But I was too intimidated to tell him. 

He goes on to describe the sexual opportunities afforded by the Cuban Missile Crisis while he was at Emerson College in 1962….how hard it was to get a hamburger in the 18th Century….taking the controls of small plane in the company of Timothy Leary, even though he didn’t know how to fly…..the car as a symbol of anti-communism…..and fleeing to the easternmost end of Long Island to seek the sort of pastoral life he had as a child, only to find Sag Harbor threatened by chemical pollution and nuclear waste. Also like Fran, he is hard on TV, even as he is filmed for a documentary to be shown on it. 

He speaks at length of his search for the “eternal present” via psychedelics and Zen Buddhism among other pathways, noting that “thinking too much about the future or the past is escaping from the only thing we have, which is the present. So it’s a devilish thing.”

Of the increasing depersonalization of human experience, he relates this ur-Spalding Grayian anecdote:

All I can think of when I’m getting cash out of a cash machine now is (singing) “Where have all the tellers gone? Long time passing…” (laughs) You know, I hear this song. Where have all the telephone operators gone? I know the little florist shop in Sag Harbor—it’s the only one on Main Street—and I’m out of town and I want to send Kathie flowers, so I’m just calling information and I say, “You know, the shop on Main Street, the florist shop, I just need the number.” And she goes, “I’m in Phoenix.”

Eerily, he even seemed to anticipate the pandemic:

I think of the new resistant bacteria. When polio went down, that was a big thing for me as a kid, particularly as a Christian Scientist because I had to go out and get my own shots, because my mother wouldn’t condone them. I had to take it on myself; it was a big responsibility. We now have enormous bacteria. I mean, microbes and bacteria and viruses don’t have a moral system, they’re just completely out to get us and they’re going to figure out a way, and we have to think of another way to stop them. 

This is happening already with the deer tick up where I live in the summer in north of New York. I never thought that in the future I couldn’t walk in the grass in the summer. It’s like we’re living in some weird country where there’s this hostile microscopic bug the size of a grain of pepper that ruins your entire summer. 

And the virus is evolving and will kill you. And it can’t be one shot just like with AIDS: it’s a multi-headed death force, one shot to cure the deer tick. And all of this of course is going to be overcome by science, or it isn’t.

The darkness of which he speaks is evident as he tracks his own view of coming to maturity and the increasing complexity of modern life: not romanticizing the past, but rather, noting how its true nature was hidden from his generation:

When I was growing up in the Fifties, Ike was a rosy guy. President Eisenhower was this like great androgynous, sexless father figure, just a sweet old uncle that beat the bad guys in the war. And it was a very relatively simple time. And I can see the complexity in my stepdaughter and two sons now at a very early age. They’re already very complicated people. My stepdaughter is 12 and she’s more complicated than my mother ever was at 50, or that I am at 57. (laughs) 

So I’m not…. (pauses) Hey, I’m almost ready to go. (smiles) I’m almost ready to lay it all down. Not yet because of my family.

He ends with the words that haunted me, and made me think of this lost interview. Even at the time, even without the foreknowledge of his terrible fate, they were powerful enough that we gave them the penultimate spot in the movie, right before the closing words of Philip Johnson, a man born in 1906 who had lived through almost the entire 20thCentury.

Spalding looks into the camera with his sad smile and says: 

I think of us, the human race, as a glorious accident. And I’m ultimately pessimistic, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a realistic way, because this glorious accident is ultimately doomed, because the sun in time will go out, and the earth will collapse on itself and just be a briquette, a charred briquette floating in space, and there will be no one to remember us and therefore we might as well not have existed. 

Now, within that, there’s a lot of joy to be had. (laughs)  I mean, I’m not about to kill myself. 

GRAY MATTERS

In 2001 Spalding suffered a terrible car accident while traveling in Ireland, resulting in what we now call a traumatic brain injury, akin to what soldiers suffer in battle, along with severe damage to his hip and leg. Brain surgery was necessary to remove bone fragments pressing on his right frontal lobe and to replace part of his skull with titanium plates. The neurological damage and attendant depression necessitated further hospitalizations, anti-psychotic drugs, and electro-convulsive therapy in the years that followed. (Oliver Sacks recounts the sorrowful tale masterfully in a 2015 piece for The New Yorker. See also Steven Soderbegh’s 2010 documentary about Spalding, And Everything Is Going Fine.)

Gray’s wife Kathie, children, and friends reported that he no longer resembled his old, vital, endlessly creative self. He became irrationally tortured with regret over selling their house in Sag Harbor, as well as with the idea of suicide, including elaborate, macabre planning for it and several harrowing attempts. 

His own mother—who had suffered psychotic episodes on and off since his childhood—had committed suicide in 1967 when Spalding was 26, after a lengthy obsession over selling the family home in Rhode Island. He had fictionalized those events poignantly in his 1992 novel Impossible Vacation, and told Sacks and others that he now felt he was reliving them.

After almost three years of suffering,  Spalding Gray took his own life in 2004, jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. 

The October 1998 interview for Yesterday’s Tomorrows was the old Spalding, pre-Ireland at his finest: brilliant, incisive, witty, inquisitive, playful, hilarious, human. I am glad to be able to bring it to a wider audience. 

The glorious accident that is humankind is much the lesser without him. 

**********

Fran Lebowitz and Spalding Gray — stringout from Yesterday’s Tomorrows, 12 min

Yesterday’s Tomorrows (1999)— full film, 100 min

Based on the book by Joseph Corn; Directed by Barry Levinson; Produced by Richard Berge; Executive Producers – Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, and Sandra Itkoff; Associate Producer/ Archive Producer – Kenn Rabin; Written by Richard Berge and Kenn Rabin; Cinematographer – Michael Chin; Editor – Robert Edwards; Production Coordinator/Assistant Editor – Megan Mylan

**********

Fran Lebowitz — full interview, 41:51 min

Subcuts:

A Child’s View of the Future

The Bomb

World’s Fair

Computers

The Future Is Female (Sort Of)

Pretending It’s a City

The Disadvantages of Human Nature

The Up Side of Little Boyness

Racism, from the Old West to Outer Space

“No One Else Could Have Been John Glenn”

A Mall on Mars

**********

Spalding Gray — full interview, 47:44 min

Subcuts:

Growing Up

The Bomb

The Environment

The Eternal Present

The Sterility of the Future

Space Travel

Reality and Virtual Reality

Human Scale and American Individualism

Dystopias

Television Steals Your Imagination

Capitalism and Utopia

Optimism, Pessimism, and Entropy

A Glorious Accident

Thank you Richard, Kenn, and Megan 

Stills of Fran and Spalding by Michael Chin

Both Sides Now

As expected, Senate Republicans yesterday blocked a House proposal for a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of January 6th

They did so even though Democrats had agreed to every Republican demand regarding the makeup and operating procedures of that commission (i.e., called the GOP’s bluff). They did so even as members of the Capitol Police who lived through the Insurrection and the surviving family members of one of their number who was killed in it, Officer Brian Sicknick, stood outside their offices and pleaded with them to investigate the matter. (So much for “Back the Blue.”) They did so even though they represent the same party that bypassed even the pretense of bipartisanship in standing up a House committee that spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars investigating Benghazi, for what Rep. Kevin McCarthy openly admitted—bragged, in fact—was a partisan attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton

The Republicans’ reasons for this refusal are laughable and can find purchase only among the most tribal and already Kool-Aid besotted. Only six of 50 GOP Senators voted yes (Romney, Murkowski, Cassidy, Portman, Sasse, and Collins), one less than voted to impeach Trump over that same atrocity last February. The others, even those who briefly broke with Trump in the immediate aftermath of the Insurrection, have apparently come to believe that it’s in the Party’s best interests to pretend it never happened. 

What about the country’s best interests, you ask? 

Don’t make me laugh.

But of course, this was all to be expected, given that the GOP is complicit in the events of January 6th. Obviously the last thing Republicans want—on orders from the Florida Retiree-in-Chief—is for it to be investigated. As MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan quipped, “Al Qaeda was against the 9/11 commission too.”

It may yet come back to haunt the GOP: at the polls in 2022, and in behind closed doors discussions between Joe Biden and Joe Manchin, as the latter clings to absurd fantasies that the Party of Trump will ever act in good faith. Currently Manchin is sticking to his refusal to eliminate the filibuster, and his enviable position as veto-holder for the Democratic Party, continuing to mouth empty platitudes about “bipartisanship” at a time when the word has become nothing more than a loaded gun that Mitch McConnell is holding at head of American democracy. Manchin even said in advance of Friday’s vote that a GOP kibosh would not change his mind. But we shall see, now that Republicans have shown how far they are willing to go to block even the most basic functions of government. 

It may prove a strategic error in the court of public opinion as well, when the GOP instead could have allowed the commission to proceed, hamstrung its efforts, and then—a la the Mueller probe—proclaimed exoneration when its incomplete results were turned in. 

But they weren’t willing to risk even that. Perhaps that is how deeply in thrall Republicans are to the batshit faction of their seditionist, neo-Confederate base….or how scared they are of the facts that might come out even in an investigation that they could partially control. 

For now, this much is clear, as The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser writes: 

“A country that cannot even agree to investigate an assault on its Capitol is in big trouble, indeed.”

HEALTH UPDATE ON  GENERALISSIMO FRANCISCO FRANCO

Glasser’s recent New Yorker piece is titled “American Democracy Isn’t Dead Yet, But It’s Getting There.” She quotes Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard, one of the authors of the 2018 book How Democracies Die, as saying that post-Trump, “things are much worse than we expected,” and that “he had never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played itself out among Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past few months.” 

How could he have? It’s hard to imagine anyone in America, even when How Democracies Die was published, a year into Trump’s term, seriously contemplating an American President who would unleash an insurrection in order to steal an election that he clearly lost—and then still commanding the support of his party after doing so.

Yet here we are, four months after Trump left DC like a WWE heel who got beat in a “Loser Leaves Town” match, and Republican craziness is worse than ever. 

Glasser goes on to note one recent survey which reported that “nearly thirty percent of Republicans endorsed the idea that the country is so far ‘off track’ that ‘American patriots may have to resort to violence’ against their political opponents.”

You don’t need two Harvard professors to tell you that sort of reasoning is just what could lead to the death of a democracy. 

Damn straight. This is a truly terrifying state of affairs, and the people who perpetrated it have a lot to answer for. But they could never have succeeded to the extent they have were there not a ready and willing market for it. 

I don’t care how much brainwashing you do: when millions of people buy into an utterly insane argument that justifies both the wanton abrogation of basic democratic norms, and even violence against their fellow countrymen in the interest of spurious fever dream of racial purity and the defense of their Precious Bodily Fluids, it’s time to stop blaming the con men and start blaming the marks. 

You may recall that Biden began his term amid risibly dishonest Republican calls for “healing” and unity,” calls that were, of course, really aimed at shielding their party and its exiled leader from accountability for their sins. Ironically, as president, Biden has given Republicans precisely what they asked for in terms of the former, while cleverly letting others pursue the latter. 

This is not by coincidence. Glasser notes that some political scientists, like Ziblatt and his co-author Steven Levitsky, have advocated precisely this kind of “dialing down the rhetoric.”

Biden, almost certainly for this reason, does not talk much about either January 6th or Republican obstructionism. The words “Donald Trump” rarely, if ever, cross his lips. “He’s deëscalating,” Ziblatt told me, and trying to take some of the “anger and animosity,” heat and rage, out of American politics. 

This is more or less the course recommended by How Democracies Die, although it’s infuriating to Democrats who wish for stronger pushback to daily outrages generated by a Republican Party that has gone all in on outrage as a strategy.

During the battles over the January 6th commission, Biden has continued to maintain this diplomatic silence, but Glasser notes “a shift—a noticeable one—from the Biden of previous months.” Referencing a recent speech he gave in Cleveland, she writes:

He no longer talked of unity. There were no gauzy paeans to bipartisanship. Instead, there was a list that Biden pulled out from his papers and waved in the middle of his speech, an early salvo, perhaps, in the years-long blame game to come. The list, Biden said, was of congressional Republicans who have bragged about the benefits to their constituents from Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-relief bill, which passed without a single Republican vote. 

“Some people have no shame,” Biden said.

ALTERNATIVE FÜR AMERIKA

Yet still conservatives with a platform in the respectable mainstream media (like the Washington Post’s despicable Marc Thiessen) complain that Joe is not being bipartisan enough. 

This from a party, a strong majority of whose members, led by its undisputed leader, will not even acknowledge that Joe Biden won the election and is the legitimate President of the United States. 

Also in the WaPo, conservative columnist Gary Abernathy recently published a piece called “The Simple Fix to Our Polarization: Befriend Someone You Disagree With.” Masquerading as an innocuous plea for understanding those across the aisle, it casts (you guessed it) both sides as blameworthy in the hyperpolarization of America, and sanctimoniously—and disingenuously—calls for everyone to try to see the other guy’s point of view. 

Sounds nice….except that Abernathy’s plea is based on the premise that both sides are equally valid, rational, and acting in good faith. 

News flash, folks: they ain’t. Only one party facilitated a violent attempt to overthrow the government and is now engaged in both denial that it really happened and a shameless coverup; only one is still (still!) trying to re-litigate an election that was settled seven months ago and is not in dispute by any rational human; only one is trying to undermine free and fair elections in the future and disenfranchise millions to secure permanent political power for itself; only one is actively trying to thwart a mass vaccination program in the midst of a pandemic; only one is at war with objective reality itself in favor of whatever the leader of its cult of personality says and trying to gaslight the rest of us.

Abernathy writes:

With all the fun stuff to watch on Netflix and other services, I seldom watch cable news in the evenings. But if I do choose to focus on politics, I try to watch something other than Fox News to be presented with a point of view I don’t already share. I also enjoy occasional lunchtime conversations with people who disagree with me.

A person whose primary news source is Fox has no standing to talk about seeking “occasional lunchtime conversations with people who disagree with me” as a remedy for relentless, weapons-grade propaganda. And I’ll remind you that this kindergarten-level political discourse—naïve at best, openly deceitful at worst—is being published by a contributing columnist to one of the two most important newspapers in America.

(Big shock: in 2016 Abernathy was publisher and editor of the Hillsboro Ohio Times-Gazette, one of the few US newspapers to endorse Trump.)

Ah, but you say, this is just one faction—the crazies. There are extremists on the left too! But I’m here to tell you, ICYMI, the crazies are the Republican party these days. The “moderates” have all departed, or been made pariahs, like Romney, Cheney, and Kinzinger. (That Liz Cheney is now considered a moderate should give you some idea of the shift.) This is now indisputably the party of Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Josh “Closed Fist” Hawley, who may soon be joined in the US Senate representing Missouri by the guy in the pink shirt who pointed an AR-15 at BLM protestors, whose entire claim to qualification for the office is that he did so.

The same phenomenon is not remotely true of the left. The DNC is not falling all over itself to please the remaining members of the Weather Underground. 

The GOP has become an American equivalent of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a far right party of shock jocks, hecklers, and provocateurs whose unabashed objective is to make a mockery of any attempt at governance. In fact, it might be even worse than the AfD. As Ziblatt told Glasser: 

In contemporary Germany….an incitement to violence of the kind deployed by Trump and some of his backers might be enough to get a political party banned. But, in America’s two-party system, you can’t just ban one of the two parties, even if it takes a terrifying detour into anti-democratic extremism.

FLAT IS THE NEW ROUND

With apologies to Mr. Abernathy, opening one’s mind to opposing points of views is one thing, but appeasing insurrectionists, autocrats, and domestic terrorists will only encourage them. (Paging SNL’s Dr. Wenowdis.) All these “Can’t we all just get along” pleas for so-called unity and reaching-across-the-aisle-ism are just another form of gaslighting.

At the risk of being accused of the very malady at issue here (that’s one of the right’s neatest tricks), both sides are not equally to blame, and the impulse to pretend they are—both in the media and in the national conversation at large—is truly destructive. It’s yet another example of Krugman’s “parties differ on shape of planet.” 

This is the evil genius of authoritarian politics. 

Try these three easy steps:

  1. Behave in a manner that is beyond the pale and threatens the very foundations of democracy.
  2. Falsely accuse your opponents of that very behavior. 
  3. Denounce those opponents as hypocrites when they try to point that out. 

Works every time.

It is an insidious trap, not unlike the way that Trump howled for months that the upcoming election was rigged, which was a lie, and now Republicans are doing their damnedest to rig future elections, which is true, but makes it hard for us to call that out without appearing to legitimize ex post facto what Trump did in the first place. But that does not mean he was right or we are wrong.

Per Krugman’s famous metaphor, two people arguing about whether the earth is flat or round are not automatically deserving of equal credibility or consideration, not even by journalists covering the food fight and trying to maintain objectivity. It is part of what got Trump elected in 2016, and—incredibly—it continues even now, when we have all seen how dangerous it is.

In a piece for The American Prospect called “Why Journalism Isn’t Really Covering the Threat of Fascism,” Eric Alterman writes:

Two phenomena are occurring at once that make it difficult to see what’s actually happening in real time. The first is that the Republican Party has committed itself to an orthodoxy made up of bald-faced lies, racism, the encouragement of political violence, and the purposeful undermining of democracy. The second is that the ongoing existential crisis of journalism is making it impossible to report the above clearly.

Alterman writes of the devastating impact of the contraction of the print journalism industry in America, and of course the rise of the Fox News juggernaut, and “the age-old problem of journalistic objectivity.” 

The idea has a lot to recommend it, and it worked reasonably well in the past, but again, there’s a fundamental problem: Objectivity has no bias in favor of truth. If one side pays attention to facts and tries to do a reasonable job of respecting all people regardless of race, creed, color, etc., and the other lies all the time, promotes racist lies, and incites its followers to violence, then journalistic objectivity has a lot of trouble telling one from the other…. 

Beginning with Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, then going into overdrive with Donald Trump, Republicans realized that, owing to the unwillingness of mainstream reporters to tell their readers, listeners, and viewers when they are passing along a politician’s lies, they could game the system to their advantage by creating a imaginary version of reality to which sensible politicians and pundits would have no choice but to respond.

In the cruelest of twists, even pointing out that one side is consistently lying also undermines public confidence in the neutrality of the news source. Lose lose, as they say.

So here we are, four years on from Donald Trump’s Bizarro World Joni Mitchell “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville (though only one side runs people over with cars), in a place where Republicans want us to believe that they are still just a respectable, garden variety political party no different than their opposite number, and not at all engaged in an overt campaign to destroy the fundamental precepts of American democracy. 

So take a page from the Ari Melber playbook and jump from Laurel Canyon to Queens, I’ll quote Public Enemy

Don’t believe the hype.

*******

Illustration: Shutterstock

Spring Awakening (or, Insurrection 2.0)

Last September, I published a piece in this blog called “Summer’s End,” in which I lamented the end of that season—weird though it was in 2020—and expressed my anxiety and dread about what loomed ahead: the election, the resumption of remote schooling and all its difficulties, the imminent descent of a (second) dark, cold COVID winter with its isolation, claustrophobia, a potential lockdown, and all the attendant psychological ills, not to mention a possible spike in cases and deaths. It was a feeling I think a lot of Americans shared. 

But we weathered it. 

We beat Trump at the polls, despite his worst efforts to cheat. We survived an attempt at a violent coup d’etat, shocking as it was. We saw the resumption of sane, competent governance that slowly began to reverse the damage of the previous four years. We faced the much-feared rise in coronavirus cases and deaths, but we rode it out, and subsequently experienced a speedy and effective vaccine rollout that exceeded even our most optimistic hopes, thanks to that new adminsitration. On the back of that success, we saw the economy rebound—boom, in fact. We even saw some small measure of accountability in the George Floyd case, which one hopes will be the beginning of a broader and long-overdue reckoning. 

In short, we made it through the winter and into the glorious spring, as the country begins to emerge from this multi-pronged nightmare. (Our failure to achieve herd immunity, thanks to Know Nothingism rife in MAGA Land, is a matter we’ll save for another day.)

It’s obvious, but worth reiterating, that none of this good stuff would have happened without a Biden victory last November—all the other successes flow from that one. I shudder to think what the state of the nation would be if Trump were still in power. It’s an important question, because there are powerful forces—and a substantial, passionate minority of our fellow Americans—who would like nothing better than to put Trump back in power, not least Trump himself. 

In other words, we won a battle but the war goes on. 

(You didn’t think this post was going to be all sunshine and unicorns, did you?) 

NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED

Biden’s first 100 days have been remarkable. In the same way that, if only accidentally, he turned out to be the exact perfect candidate to beat Trump, he has advanced an astonishing New New Deal, in an only-Nixon-could go-to-China way. Can you imagine if a President Warren or a President Sanders had tried the sort of things Biden has done? (Much as I would have liked it, can you even imagine a President Warren or a President Sanders?)

Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said that Biden has exceeded the expectations of progressives. Of course, praise from AOC is exactly the sort of thing that Fox Nation will seize on to advance its false narrative that Uncle Joe is a communist stooge (because that makes a lot of sense). But never mind. We’ll never win over the people who are susceptible to that sort of hogwash, so let’s not distract ourselves with worrying about it. It’s worth it to have AOC speaking to her base and telling them to back the President.

So all that is very encouraging, both on its own merits, and as a harbinger for Democrats at the polls in 2022 and, if trends continue, 2024. (At the moment, Biden’s approval ratings—and even more so, the approval ratings for his policies—are remarkably high, given our hyper-polarized political climate.) 

But if there’s one thing that the recent past ought to have taught us, it’s that we shouldn’t underestimate our own counterintuitive stupidity and self-destructiveness, especially in that aforementioned poisonous political environment.

For my fear is that, despite this administration stopping COVID, rescuing the economy, restoring the rule of law, giving people their jobs back, rejuvenating American infrastructure (if we can pull it off), resurrecting our global reputation, pushing forward a reckoning with racial injustice, and generally re-opening life as we know it, the American people may well give GOP control of the House and Senate in ’22, like some cruel short story by Roald Dahl or O. Henry. Because that’s just the way things go. 

(And yes, I know that the racial justice piece is precisely part of what will make some Americans do that.)

We all know that the party not in control of the White House usually gains Congressional seats in the midterms, and that’s even without GOP ratfucking, the new census, and everything else. I’m bracing for that insane but very possible outcome in 2022. In the wake of national disasters, Americans have a habit of blaming the people who pull us out of a ditch and rewarding the ones who drove us into it. Remember, only six years after Watergate the American electorate put the Republicans back in the White House, and kept them there for the next twelve. We’re still dealing with the damage from that. 

But in our current circumstances, the stakes of opposition gains are even higher. 

ON THE INTERNET, NOBODY KNOWS YOU’RE A DOUCHEBAG (SORRY, STRIKE THAT—EVERYONE DOES)

There’s a saying that, on one’s deathbed, no one wishes they’d spent more time arguing with strangers on the Internet. I try my best to live by that. But occasionally I do get into it with someone online. 

I recently found myself in a lengthy back-and-forth—with another progressive—about the number of articles in the mainstream media (The Atlantic in particular) on the ongoing implosion of the Republican Party. It was a kind of pointless, angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument, because we were on the same side of the aisle, and what we were disagreeing about was so arcane. 

There is no doubt that the GOP is in the midst of an epic self-abasement, one that has been going on since at least 1994 (if not 1954), but has been accelerating at an exponential rate in the past years. My antagonist’s point was that these articles continued to report this story in almost gleeful tones, as if the GOP was about to disappear, which is a foolish and dangerously misleading approach. He’s got a point, of course. But to me, those pieces merely documented the appalling events going on within the GOP, which is a public service in itself, by way of raising the alarm without suggesting that we can let our guard down. 

So let’s be clear: the Republican descent (deeper) into the sewer by no means indicates that the danger is past. On the contrary: it is growing. 

Hopes that the post-Trump GOP would revert to some semblance of rationality have proved woefully misplaced. If anything, it’s become even more batshit, and even more dangerous. Donald Trump continues to insist that he still is the rightful president, and continues to spread the Big Lie that the election was stolen from him. (He has even tried to steal the phrase “Big Lie” itself and invert it to mean that Biden’s election is the falsehood.) He continues to rail against his own former vice president for not decertifying the Electoral College vote, even though he didn’t have the ability to do so even if he wanted to (and he probably wanted to). He continues to call for the punishment of Republicans who refuse to sign on to this Orwellian deception. 

That Big Lie (the real one) has been enthusiastically embraced and internalized by his millions of followers, many of whom have convinced themselves that it is acceptable to use violence to achieve their ends. And the failure of our larger political system to punish the January 6th insurrectionists—not just the Q-believing  Capitol stormers in their buffalo headdresses and Kevlar and Blue Lives Matter flags, but the Trumps and Cruzes and Hawleys who riled them up—has been a flashing green “go” signal to them that they can engage in this kind of behavior in the future with impunity. 

In tandem, Republican officials in states all across the country are busy re-engineering voting regulations, control of elections, and other levers of political power to ensure their control of future contests—which is to say, his control—while purging the GOP of anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to him and whatever the fuck nonsense he spews.

As Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall notes, it should be abundantly clear all these things—the Big Lie, the Arizona recount, the censuring of Republicans who voted to impeach the Trump, the vendetta against apostates within the party, the failure of repercussions against seditionists—aren’t really about 2020 at all. They’re about 2024. 

In short, as I wrote last week, the Insurrection is not over. Far from it. It has only moved into a new and more stealthful, low intensity phase (in military parlance), in which Republican efforts to seize permanent, anti-democratic control of the government in defiance of the will of the people are camouflaged as legitimate politician maneuvers. For that very reason, it is more insidious—and dangerous—than ever. Also, more likely to succeed.

The GOP’s efforts are now focused on a soft spot much earlier in the political process. Instead of waiting to see who wins an election and then trying to overturn it, the Republicans are now trying to hijack the vote even before it takes place. (Points for ruthlessness. Someone read Sun Tzu’s Art of War; Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, not so much.) In the service of the Big Lie, the Republican Party has undertaken a scorched earth campaign to disenfranchise the American people, suppress the vote, and rig future elections so that only their candidates can win. 

And they are not even hiding what they’re doing—on the contrary, they’re practically bragging about it. This is the nihilistic, “own the libs” world in which we now live. 

THE MADNESS OF EX-KING DONALD

Regardless of your political orientation, conservative or liberal or anything else, how can anyone support and justify measures that are blatantly anti-democratic?

You can’t. All you can do is admit that you are anti-democratic, and don’t believe in majority rule, or free and fair elections. 

The other option, which Republicans naturally favor, is to claim that this campaign isn’t anti-democratic at all, or if it is, it’s not their fault, that it’s somehow Democrats who are so evil, so authoritarian, so threatening to the American Idea that neo-fascism is necessary to defeat them and defend the flag. Which in the end is just a dishonest variation on the first option: an admission that you are in favor of autocracy, as long as your side is in control. 

We won’t even dignify that with a response. 

Heather Cox Richardson writes: 

Democrats have proposed the For the People Act (H.R. 1 and S. 1), which would start to restore a level playing field between the parties. The For the People Act would sideline the new voter suppression bills and make it easier to vote. It would end partisan gerrymandering and stop the flow of big money into elections permitted after the 2010 Citizens United decision. But Republicans are determined to stop this measure. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is especially engaged in its obstruction. He has called it a “partisan takeover” that would “give Washington Democrats unprecedented control over 50 states’ election laws.” 

This is Projection 101, given that the GOP is engaged in that exact effort, and in defiance of the will of the majority to boot. HCR continues:

The Republicans are consolidating their control over the machinery of government in a way that indicates they intend to control the country regardless of what Americans actually want, putting Trump and his organization back in charge.

Ironically, by shifting even further right, by excommunicating anyone who dares point out God-Emperor Trump’s nudity, by booing the Mitt Romneys at Republican gatherings in his own home state, and by generally making the party even Trumpier than it was, the GOP has actually reduced its chances of winning national elections. Therefore, its only path to power is through anti-democratic skullduggery. Luckily for them, they are cool with that. 

The alternative would be to purge the Trumpists instead, enlarge the tent, return to rationality, and pursue policies that voters actually like. 

In other words, to become Democrats. 

The reasons why the GOP refuses to do that are manifold and complex. In short, it’s because they are beholden to plutocratic economic policies that are inherently oppositional to the best interests of the majority of Americans. Thus, in order to hold onto those policies and still win, they have disguise them, engage in wanton deception, and embrace the worst forms of demagoguery and deceit available. 

That has long been the road down which the modern GOP has been treading, and Trump is its natural evolution. Once wedded to him, there is really no turning back. 

Reports are that Trump genuinely believes that the outrageous Maricopa County recount is the beginning of a wave that will return him to office before the next presidential election in three and a half years’ time. There has long been speculation that Trump is not just a raging asshole but genuinely mentally ill. This report ought to settle that debate. And slavish Roman emperor-style obedience to this dude is now the sole “principle” of the GOP. 

LIZ AND DICK(S)

So just how bad are things in the Grand Old Party? 

Let us turn now to the strange and terrible saga of Liz Cheney and observe what it tells us. 

First, in case there was any doubt, absolute fealty to the Big Lie is the non-waivable loyalty test for membership in the GOP going forward. One woman quoted in the link above, an organizer in the Michigan Republican Party no less, says she believes the election was stolen purely because Trump says so. “I think I speak for many people in that Trump has never actually been wrong, and so we’ve learned to trust when he says something, that he’s not just going to spew something out there that’s wrong and not verified.”

(Pause for headslapping.)

Second, by going after Liz Cheney of all people, the third highest ranking Republican in the House and archconservative daughter of former Vice President Voldemort “I’ll Shoot You in the Face and Make You Say Thank You For It” Cheney, Trump and the GOP leadership are laying down a marker that it doesn’t matter who you are, or how right-of-Genghis Khan your credentials, there are no exceptions to Rule #1. It’s kind of like when ASCAP went after the Girl Scouts

I do respect Cheney for having some integrity and refusing to participate in the GOP’s gaslighting about November 3rdand January 6th. But it’s hard to be sympathetic about her losing her leadership position and the rest of the humiliation. She and her father were at the heart of building a party that embraced this kind of unprincipled pursuit of raw power at all costs. Trump and the Big Lie are its natural result. 

On that point, Cheney’s recent, much discussed op-ed in the WaPo is a truly remarkable document. On the one hand, she speaks the truth forcefully and bluntly:

In public statements again this week, former president Donald Trump has repeated his claims that the 2020 election was a fraud and was stolen. His message: I am still the rightful president, and President Biden is illegitimate. Trump repeats these words now with full knowledge that exactly this type of language provoked violence on Jan. 6. And, as the Justice Department and multiple federal judges have suggested, there is good reason to believe that Trump’s language can provoke violence again. 

Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work—confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this.

Right on, Lizzie. But on the other hand, she remains utterly tone deaf to how her own party and its divisive, race-baiting, bare knuckles neo-autocratic ideology led us to this:

There is much at stake now, including the ridiculous wokeness of our political rivals, the irrational policies at the border and runaway spending that threatens a return to the catastrophic inflation of the 1970s. Reagan formed a broad coalition from across the political spectrum to return America to sanity, and we need to do the same now.

(She also refers to how “The Black Lives Matter and antifa violence of last summer was illegal and reprehensible.”)

Wow. Citing Reaganism as a model of unity and sanity, deploying fake concern about deficits (gee, what did her dad say about that?), trafficking in racist falsehoods, and dogwhistling about “wokeness” and an immigrant invasion?

And people wonder where Trump came from. You made your bed, Liz. Too bad you don’t realize that.

It’s incredible that we are praising Liz Cheney simply because she does not support the theft of an election and the violent overthrow of the government. Talk about a low bar! But that is the state of the modern GOP: where it takes near-suicidal, possibly career-ending courage just to take that most modest of stands.

Adam Serwer—the man who summed up the entire previous administration with his savvy assessment that “The Cruelty Is the Point”—brings it once again, in a piece titled, with similar bluntness, “Liz Cheney Only Has Herself to Blame”:

Cheney’s courageous stand against the party of Trump is a stand against a party she helped build, a monster she helped create. The tragedy is not that she might suffer for her folly, but that American democracy will. Her latter-day epiphany is welcome, but it also comes far too late.

(Note to my Internet bête noire: Both those articles were in The Atlantic.)

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

What will happen if the GOP succeeds in regaining power?

Bad things, my friends. Very bad things. 

First, of course, if Republicans manage to re-take the House, they will halt the Biden agenda in its tracks. Gridlock? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Then, as former Republican strategist-turned-Lincoln Projector Stuart Stephens told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, they will impeach Biden and (Kamala too). Over what, you ask? “Whaddaya got?” as Brando would say. That effort will almost certainly fail in the Senate; even if they re-take the upper house as well, it’s all but impossible that the GOP will have the necessary supermajority to convict. But they will just impeach him again. And again. And again. 

At the same time, the party will carry on further suppressing the vote and entrenching their countermajoritarian control at all levels—local, state, and federal—in an effort to make that control permanent. They will ensure that a voter in a red state like Wyoming continues to have 70 times the power in the Senate of a voter in a blue state like California, that congressional districts are drawn to skew likewise, and that the people’s vote makes little difference in what will be no more than Potemkin elections. This is the Putin model, and we know how much Republicans like and admire Vlad. 

Speaking of which, they will also accept and even solicit the assistance of foreign powers to assist them—since the Senate decided that’s OK (NB: applies to Republicans only)—and in exchange will indebted to those powers in opposition to the interests of the US. 

If a Democratic presidential candidate does manage to win the White House in any future election, they will refuse to seat electors from blue states and refuse to certify his  or her victory. They will insist that the Republican candidate actually won, and back his or her spurious claims to that effect. They will encourage their supporters to take to the streets and engage in political violence, and they will stand by while it happens (apart from cheering it on, right, Josh Hawley?). They will do nothing to punish them, and in fact will reward their loyalty. Do you doubt it? They have already done all of this before.

AUTOCRACY IS THE NEW BLACK

So will 2020 prove to be our last free and fair election? Will the Biden administration be just an interlude of sanity before right wing autocracy manages to gain power again, perhaps in a chokehold that it will never let go?

That will be partially up to us. 

We have to push back against the Republicans’ anti-democratic efforts in every possible way. We have to constantly call out their treachery, and the specifics of what they are doing, and what its impact will be. We have to apply pressure by mean of boycotts, by stopping the flow of corporate money to the GOP, by every lever at our disposal. We have to make the American people see what the Biden/Harris team is doing for them, break through the fake news and the tribalism, and fight (metaphorically) with everything we’ve got on behalf of the truth, and decency, and reason.

When and where we cannot stop our foe, we will overcome him. We will mount voter registration drives. We will drive people to the polls. We will stand in lines until midnight to vote if we have to. We will prevail despite the opposition’s best efforts to stop us.

And when we win the next election anyway, you can be sure that the Republicans will come back with even worse measures to try to regain and hang onto power, even to the point of bloodshed. As I say, do you doubt it, when they’ve already tried it on January 6 and even now refuse to repudiate that atrocity, or even acknowledge what really happened? As they become increasingly desperate they will become increasingly dangerous, increasingly lawless, and increasingly violent. It won’t be the first time in American history that we have had to deal with an openly violent major political party, and you don’t have to go back to Reconstruction to find it either. I refer you to Eyes on the Prize.

I hate to say it, but we may look back on the election of 2020 as the easy part. 

Ultimately, almost every autocracy or would-be autocracy falls because they are fundamentally in opposition to human nature. But they can certainly last a long time, and do a lot of damage and hurt a lot of people in the process. And they can only be defeated through principled, unyielding, determined communal effort. 

We are fighting a movement of millions that is engaging us on multiple fronts—political legal, informational, psychological, and even physical—led by a deranged maniac who commands their absolute loyalty, even in defiance of objective reality. Even as Joe Biden has led us back in to sanity and embarked on a program so progressive and forward thinking that even AOC had to give him props, we remain in a time of extreme peril. We lower our guard at our own risk, and a deadly risk it is too. We are in a counterguerrilla war against a fanatical right wing insurgency, and unless we wake up to that fact and begin acting accordingly, and soon, the reactionary forces of incipient autocracy are going to win. 

Let that be our spring awakening.

***********

Illustration: Concept design for Act 1, part of Nicholas Roerich‘s designs for Diaghilev‘s 1913 production of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) by Igor Stravinsky.

The Passive Path to Democracy’s Death

Is it off-key to write alarmingly of the imminent danger of “democracy’s death” when, for the first time in five years, the United States is once again under competent adult supervision?

Joe Biden’s first hundred days have been startlingly aggressive (in a good way) in restoring the fundamentals of decent, Constitutionally sound governance. Not only has he re-established the rule of law, but the forward-thinking elements of his “New New Deal” have surprised and exceeded the expectations even of many progressives. I am cheered to say the least, and optimistic. Has he been perfect? Of course not. Damned impressive? For sure.  

Joe’s poll numbers reflect it. In an era of hyperpartisanship, when the question “Are puppies cute?” would return a razor thin 50.1-to-49.9 result depending on which party proposed it, it’s clear that the vast majority of Americans—even many reasonable conservatives, if that has not become an oxymoron—support Biden’s agenda.

But while pulling us back from the brink, putting us on the path to national rejuvenation,  and bolstering the chances that those repairs will endure by sheer virtue of their popularity, Biden’s success has also spurred the domestic enemies of representative democracy—which is to say, the Republican Party—to redouble their efforts to establish an autocracy under their control. That vile campaign has many facets to it, some of which we will touch on shortly. But at its heart is the fallout from one singular event that remains dangerously under-addressed. 

You know the one I mean. 

PUNISH THE MONKEY

On the night of January 6th, after watching thousands of violent pro-Trump rioters storm the US Capitol building in an attempt to murder Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and others, brutalizing Capitol Police officers in the process, screaming “Nigger!” at Black members of that force, and beating other officers with Blue Lives Matter flags for extra irony, all in an effort to stop the Electoral College vote count and keep Donald Trump in office, did you think that four months later there would be no repercussions for those who fomented that insurrection?

Neither did I. 

No responsible democracy—no sane government of any kind—would allow such events to go unaddressed, unless it was suicidal. (I made that very point in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, on January 9, in a piece titled “Will There Be a Reckoning….or a Repeat?”)

Yet here we are almost 120 days later, and some of the most prominent leaders of an unprecedented attempt to overthrow the government of the United States by force continue to walk around as free men, and in fact, to hold prominent positions of power in that same government. 

I know, I know: more than 400 Capitol insurrectionists have been arrested and charged thus far, and last week saw the first conviction (albeit of a fellow traveler, not one of the January 6th rioters), a man who had threatened to kill Pelosi, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But this is a severe case of punishing the monkey while letting the organ grinder go. Any of those hundreds of arrestees high-ranking national politicians from Texas who like to vacation in Cancun?

As usual, the low-level people on the chain of blame are talking the fall when the higher ups are thus far managing to skate. It happened with Abu Ghraib (“Just a few bad apples!”), it happens with systemic police brutality (see: Abu Ghraib), it is human nature and the dynamics of power that it happens all the time. But that is the very problem.  

The powerful people who actively fomented the violence on January 6th, who ginned up the Big Lie and spread it for months ahead of the election, who continued to spread that insidious and destructive lie in the two months that followed November 3rd leading up to that terrible day in January, who even now continue to spread it, some overtly and some obliquely, have yet to be called to account. 

Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley still sit in the US Senate. They have not apologized nor expressed regret for undermining the integrity of the election, to include spuriously challenging the electoral vote count, and still carrying on with that indefensible challenge on the night of January 6 even after the attack earlier that day. (Josh-o even infamously gave the insurrectionists a raised fist power salute before they stormed the building.) On the contrary, since then they have doubled down on their support for the Trumpist cause and their winking contention that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president. (A position that, not coincidentally, a strong majority of Republicans continue to believe.) 

Despite scattered and largely ineffective calls for their removal from the alleged “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the worst Cruz and Hawley have been subjected to so far is a secretive and molasses-paced ethics investigation by that august, self-flattering organization. I’ll remind you that less than four years ago Al Franken, a Democrat, was forced to resign from the Senate over some sketchy #MeToo photos and allegations (rather mild on the Ansari-Weinstein spectrum) pushed by a pro-Trump talk radio personality, allegations whose veracity is not at all certain in the first place.

Meanwhile these guys tried to overthrow the government and roll merrily along.

And Cruz and Hawley aren’t alone. Capitol security camera footage from January 5th reportedly shows Republican US Representatives Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Louie Gohmert, Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz (!) all giving private tours of the otherwise closed-to-the-public US Capitol to people who the very next day were among the mob that stormed it. (The matter is under investigation.) In retrospect, it seems clear that those tours functioned, wittingly or not, as reconnaissance, given the suspiciously good intel on the building’s layout that some of those insurrectionists had on the day. 

Yes, Gaetz is now under investigation for crimes including sex trafficking, prostituting an underage girl, and public corruption, but nothing to do with the insurrection. 

Likewise, Rudy Giuliani—who stood before the crowd on the Ellipse on the morning of January 6th and called for “trial by combat“—is in legal trouble but it’s not related to the insurrection per se, but rather to some of his other skullduggery, in Ukraine. (Rudy has lots of sins to choose from.) The legal woes of Gaetz and Giuliani, like many scandal-plagued right wingers, are an indication of the general moral turpitude and degradation of people of that political bent; it’s no surprise that sooner or later the law catches up with them for one thing or another. But you’d think that something like, oh, I dunno, trying to overthrow the government, would be high among the things they get nailed for. 

And of course there is the biggest fish of all, Donald Trump himself, whose responsibility for the Capitol attack has been thoroughly detailed. Now, from Elba-a-Lago, Trump continues to insist he was robbed and is still the rightful president, for the audience that cares to listen. That audience may be far smaller than when he really was president (and on Twitter) but it is heavily armed, and has already shown that its willingness to use lethal force to achieve its aims.  

Why are we allowing the Republican Party to pretend it’s a legitimate, law-abiding organization at all after what it did…..and even now refuses to renounce? What kind of country lets a defeated head of state and a bunch of his allies, many of them senior elected officials, conspire to violently seize power at the head of an armed mob, then suffer no consequences?

A country in a lot of trouble, that’s what.

THE FOOLISHNESS OF OUR MERCY

Mercy is not really the right word, of course. Call it timidity, denial, procrastination, laziness, unwillingness to face the horror or what happened or the trauma required to address it….call it what you will. Many factors are in play. 

The most generous interpretation—and I think it is too generous—is that it is taking time for us to figure out how to address this unprecedented state of affairs and get the gears of justice to begin grinding. I recognize that dealing with the insurrection is a challenge for our political and legal system, but that does not excuse us from the task. And justice delayed is justice denied. 

In the mean time, at least in terms of the senior seditionists behind this atrocity, we are sending a signal to the Insurrectionist Caucus and all of America that you can get away with this shit. As the saying goes, a failed coup that meets with no consequences is just a dry run.

For rest assured: the insurrectionists will come again. In fact, they are already coming, and not necessarily the way they did on January 6th, which is the insidious part of it. The Insurrectionists are currently attacking down a different avenue of approach, to use the military term of art, and in a manner we may not so readily recognize or be so alert to repel.

Chief among these attacks is a sustained, coordinated, multi-pronged attempt to suppress the vote in dozens of the states that the GOP controls. 

Now, you may say to me, “But King’s Necktie: unacceptable as it is, it isn’t Insurrectionists carrying out the voter suppression. That’s a separate issue.” 

And I would say to you: “Are you sure?”

Let us not be so shortsighted as to limit the definition “insurrectionists” to only those who stormed the Capitol. In truth, it is an entire movement, whose membership includes all those who core belief is that the election was stolen from Donald Trump and the Joe Biden is not a legitimate president. The broader belief system of this cult is that Democrats, progressives, feminists, people of color, and assorted other fellow travelers are somehow anti-American monsters and therefore an active threat to the very foundations of American life that merits aggressive opposition by any means necessary, to include both violent domestic terrorism and hair-raising violations of fundamental tenets of democratic rule. 

These folks are so drunk on Fox News-brand Kool-Aid that they have inverted reality, seeing themselves as great patriotic defenders of democracy, and their enemies as so evil, that their destruction justifies even the most extreme measures, including bloodshed and the establishment of autocracy. I know it’s crazy. But so-called “conservative” media is rife with the circular argument that left-wingers have become so dangerous to democracy that they have forced (forced!) right-wingers to resort to authoritarianism, to protect us from….you know…..authoritarianism.

We are in serious Vietnam-era “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” terrain, folks.

DESERT STORM FRONT

Some parties that lost as resoundingly as the Republicans did on the national level in 2020 might conduct a rigorous and reflective post-mortem that asks, “Hmmm, what did we do wrong? What is it about our platform that so many people dislike?” Instead, the GOP is asking: “How can we stop people from voting at all?” For it knows that is the only way it can regain and retain power going forward.

The whole point of the insurrection, lest we forget, was to seize control of electoral votes. All autocracies seek the fig leaf of political legitimacy, modern ones above all, though they are prepared to do without if necessary. The Trumpists’ post-January 6th campaign is targeted at the same goal; they are merely attacking at an earlier point in the electoral process. 

As part of that campaign, in Georgia, Republicans have not only instituted new, Jim Crow 2.0-style restrictions that make it harder for traditionally Democratic constituencies to vote, but they are even devouring their own, stripping Republican officials like Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of their power to oversee elections after he courageously took a stand against Trump’s attempts to steal back the Peach State

And then there’s Florida, the reigning champ in American lunacy and (appropriately) Trump’s adoptive home, where the Republican-controlled state government recently passed new “anti-rioting”  laws that allow it to crack down on dissent and peaceful protest. As laws were already on the books outlawing such violence, and long have been, these new measures can only be seen as what they are: an attempt to broaden the scope of Florida’s ability to stifle righteous, constitutionally protected freedom of expression, to the benefit of the Trumpist GOP. 

How ironic that the people who supported an actual riot now have the gall to pass laws punishing their peaceful opponents under the rubric of “anti-riot” legislation. 

Gerrymandering also remains key to the GOP strategy, and we now see how the Republican investment in the battle over the Census has paid off as well, as the new apportioning of seats has gifted red states a net gain of four new seats in Congress, and therefore four more electoral votes, further widening the gap between the popular and EC vote. 

As I say: multi-pronged. 

Among the scariest of Republican efforts is an attempt to exert partisan control over the vote counting process. 

Right now we are witnessing yet another recount in Maricopa County, Arizona, home to Phoenix and the vast majority of that state’s population, even after two bipartisan recounts already resoundingly reaffirmed Biden’s victory there. For this one, jawdroppingly, the Republican-controlled state government handed the process over to a fly-by-night company based in (wait for it) Florida called “Cyber Ninjas” that has no experience in these matters, is refusing to fully comply with court orders to reveal its mysterious sources and methods, is denying the press access to observe the process (except for OAN), and ejecting those few reporters who have managed to gain entry.  

Outrageous does not begin to describe it. Even some Republican officials in the Arizona state government have expressed their disapproval.

Cyber Ninjas is owned and run by an overt Trump conspiracy theorist, Doug Logan, an active member of the “Stop the Steal” movement. A not-small number of the people he has doing the recount inside a Phoenix-area facility—an “audit,” as they innocuously call it—arrive in cars festooned with Trump bumper stickers. One of them, former Arizona state representative Anthony Kern, is an actual insurrectionist who was part of the January 6th attack. (You won’t be surprised to learn that he is also a vocal defender of Gaetz and Giuliani, tweeting on the matter as recently as this past week.)

And how is the GOP justifying this transparently dishonest and hyperpartisan perversion of electoral integrity? The Washington Post reports:

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R), who spearheaded efforts to conduct the audit, has said that it is not about challenging President Biden’s win in Arizona, but is rather aimed at identifying possible weaknesses in state election laws that could be improved.

“When you’ve got half of the people who do not trust the electoral system anymore, rightly or wrongly, and they have questions, who is responsible for answering these questions?” Fann said Tuesday on KTAR News in Arizona. “This has been the sole thing, to get answers, so that if we have any problems, we can fix them.”

So to be clear, Republicans went all out to instill doubt about the integrity of our elections, and are now using that very doubt to justify looking into the integrity of our elections. And, oh yeah, the capper: their efforts are themselves destroying that very integrity, but for real this time. 

We are fast approaching a moment when Republicans will declare that any election they lose is illegitimate, while assuring us that any election they win is completely legit, because they say so. It’s an infinite loop of malicious disinformation, wielded by a power-mad party that has utterly abandoned the most basic precepts of democracy, except as Orwellian windowdressing. 

EXTREMISM IN THE DEFENSE OF AUTOCRACY

As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I lived in Arizona for a while and have great affection for the state. But that does not negate its long history as a loony tunes hotbed of quasi-libertarian, Old West-worshipping contrarianism and right wing insanity, from Goldwater to Arpaio. (It’s changing though, with two Democratic senators in Kelly and Sinema, even if Kristin is a bit of a DINO.)

Watch your back, Florida, there’s a new challenger on the rise. 

Trump is said to be thrilled by the Arizona recount, pestering aides for updates multiple times a day. His hope, reportedly, is that similar events will now take place in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. So, in case there was any doubt, Donald apparently is just as batshit as some of his most extreme supporters, many of who genuinely expect him to be imminently returned to office in a kind of “La-La-Land, oops, no, it’s Moonlight” mixup. 

(Meanwhile, the really far out wing of MAGA Nation—and I do realize that’s a sliding scale—is spreading a rumor that Biden is actually dead and Trump is still in the White House. I shit you not.)

So I am bracing for Cyber Ninjas to return a ridiculous claim that Trump actually won Arizona, which will trigger all sorts of hell. I don’t remotely think Joe Biden is going to be ejected from the Oval Office and Trump reinstalled, arriving in a sedan chair borne by the now-enslaved members of the Squad and escorted by members of the Proud Boys who think The Handmaid’s Tale is a how-to manual. But the whole process is blood-boiling and—more to the point—a terrifying omen

This is why I say that the voter suppression effort by the “mainstream” Republican leadership is merely another face of the Insurrectionist agenda. The GOP is clearly angling to create a system by which it can procedurally overturn the results of elections that don’t go its way; no storming of the US Capitol necessary. 

It would be beyond naïve to presume that they won’t succeed. 

CONFEDERACY 2.0

This past weekend I was in New Orleans. (My first air travel in fifteen months, as it happens. In case you’re wondering, time has not improved the experience of traversing the friendly skies.) 

New Orleans is a magnificent and enthralling city, but like much of America, it also has a dark and disturbing history….and in that Faulknerian way, the past ain’t even past. To that end, it offered a reminder of just widespread the Insurrectionist movement is.

I don’t mean the old school Confederacy in the form of Stars and Bars on display, and other open totems of Trumpism. Yeah, there was some of that, like the guy with the kiosk on Decatur Street with his lifesized cutout of Joe Biden dressed in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. (Pose for a photo with it, $6.) But was much more worrying were the number of doughy, middle-aged, suburban white guys in black-and-white t-shirts with reasonable-seeming quotes from the Constitution and Stuff Like That. (And I can say that, because I’m a doughy middle aged white guy.) These people represent a mainstream-ish bloc of “conservatives” who have internalized that aforementioned wildly ass-backward interpretation of American democracy, and they are all the more dangerous for their quasi-normalcy, as opposed to a bunch of Ducks Dynasty cosplaying militiamen and Lowe’s tiki torch-carrying neo-Nazi frat boys. (Though there’s likely some overlap.) Per above, it’s the height of irony that these dumbass motherfuckers flatter themselves to think that they’re somehow defending the Constitution with their support of a criminal presidency and a gangsterocracy of a political party, and not eviscerating that same document. 

Pro tip, fellas: maybe read the thing, and then re-consider the wisdom (or folly) of what you’re doing.  

But it’s a reminder that about 30% of the country, in my super-scientific anecdotal estimation, is totally down with a fascist takeover of this country, so long as their side is the one wearing the figurative boot and not the one on whose collective neck it’s pressed. 

So how to fight back? We have to put the pressure on for swift, thorough, and honest investigations, and if so indicated, criminal prosecutions, Congressional censure, and other repercussions. 

We also have to keep the pressure on in the media and the national conversation, even as Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are trying to gaslight us into the thinking January 6th never happened, or if it did, it was a church picnic….even as Kevin McCarthy—who was nearly killed by rioters—cravenly walks back his initial criticism of Trump….even as Republicans try to squash efforts to stand up a 9/11 style commission to look into the matter, despite the cries of esteemed senior national security officials from both parties. 

The reason for this Republican gaslighting is obvious: they’re accomplices. As Chauncey DeVega writes in Salon:

Elected Republicans, by and large, were co-conspirators in the coup attempt. It is in their obvious self-interest to stop any and all investigations into their role in the Jan. 6 attack. The Republican propaganda machine continues to amplify the “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. As part of that lie, the right-wing propaganda machine has also crafted a narrative in which Trump’s followers who attacked the Capitol are “victims” and “patriots,” innocent of any malicious intent or serious wrongdoing. Such lies will only encourage more right-wing terrorism and other political violence.

It’s up to us to keep up the volume and not let these assholes get away with it.

While we’re in Louisiana, let’s turn to the Ragin’ Cajun, who nailed it recently while speaking to Vox, in his inimitable way. Over to you, James Carville:

(Democrats) have to make the Republicans own that insurrection every day. They have to pound it. They have to call bookers on cable news shows. They have to get people to write op-eds. There will be all kinds of investigations and stories dripping out for god knows how long, and the Democrats should spend every day tying all of it to the Republican Party. They can’t sit back and wait for it to happen. 

Hell, just imagine if it was a bunch of nonwhite people who stormed the Capitol. Imagine how Republicans would exploit that and make every news cycle about how the Dems are responsible for it. Every political debate would be about that. The Republicans would bludgeon the Democrats with it forever.

So whatever you think Republicans would do to us in that scenario, that’s exactly what the hell we need to do them.

PUTSCH AND SUNDANCE

By way of closing, let me just say that Godwin’s Law remains in abeyance in the post-Trump era (to the extent that it is “post” at all), not because we in America are facing something on a par with Nazism, but—as I have noted many times in these pages—because the Nazis remain the most instructive template for the rise of a modern authoritarian state. 

In Ascent, the first volume of his massive new two-part biography of Hitler, the author Volker Ullrich describes the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, which landed the führer-to-be in prison for nine months (of a five year sentence). At the time, many otherwise savvy observers thought Adolf was done for, his political career over, and his future prospects nil.  

But ten years after that failed coup, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through legal political means, appointed by President Paul von Hindenburg whose hand had been forced owing to Hitler’s popularity and the maneuvering of his surrogates. So when I say “legal political means,“ I mean that the Nazi Party had so corroded the German political system that it could essentially seize power without firing a shot. The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, went into operation two months later.

Ullrich writes:

If the Bavarian judicial system had enforced the letter of the law, Hitler would have spent many years in prison for his attempted coup d’état, making a political comeback almost inconceivable. Thus the leader of the NSDAP had every reason to be grateful to his judge for giving him the minimum sentence. Moreover, he was also allowed to use his trial as a stage for self-aggrandisement, during which he styled his dilettantish attempt at armed rebellion into a heroic defeat. 

The failed putsch was to become a central element in Nazi Party legend. The party comrades who died in it were glorified as “blood witnesses” to the movement’s struggle, and Hitler would dedicate the first volume of Mein Kampf to them. After 1933, 8 and 9 November 1923 would become the high point of the Nazi calendar. 

The lesson is clear. If we don’t want January 6th to become a national holiday under the auspices of a re-ascendant Trumpist ruling party, we best make sure that those responsible for it are met now with the full force of the law. Wasn’t it Goldwater himself who scolded us that “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”?

I know Biden wants to move on and focus on his forward-thinking agenda, and is walking a tightrope in terms of unsubstantiated (but still fraught) allegations of political vindictiveness. I know we’re all tired and want to move on. But there can be no moving on without accountability. I would not presume to equate the Insurrection with the events of August 1945, not by a mile, but it’s still worth recalling the haunting lines from Hiroshima Mon Amour: “It will happen again.” Indeed, it is happening even now, in slow-motion.

For make no mistake: democracy continues to be under assault in the United States in multiple chilling, insidious, and outrageous ways. And why shouldn’t it be, when we have clearly signaled to the assaulters that they will pay no price for their crimes? Inaction is a recipe for disaster. If we do not reckon with what occurred and force its authors to face the consequences of their actions, it will happen again, and we will have no one but ourselves to blame. 

**********

Photo: The defendants in the 1924 trial of the architects of the Beer Hall  Putsch of the preceding fall. Hitler fourth from right. (Did you need me to write that?)

The Boy from Berlin: Mark Harris on Mike Nichols

I recently interviewed the author Mark Harris about his terrific new biography Mike Nichols: A Life (Penguin) for a live Zoom event as part of the speaker series from the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. (You can see our full hour-long conversation here.)

I was a huge fan of Mark’s 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin again), which brilliantly uses the story of the five Best Picture nominees for the 1968 Oscars—The Graduate, Bonnie and ClydeIn the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and (believe it or not) Dr. Doolittle—to capture the moment when “Old Hollywood” gave way to “New Hollywood.” 

(Bonus points for anyone who knows which picture won. Hint: it’s not one of the ones now remembered as a turning point in American cinema.)

For me, reading that book was like digging into a huge piece of chocolate cake (and I have a sweet tooth like you wouldn’t believe). It includes quite a bit about Mike Nichols, for obvious reasons, so when I learned that Harris was writing a full-length biography, thanks to an excerpt in New York Magazine, I was very excited and ready for a second helping of cake and a possible diabetic coma. The end product did not disappoint, though fortunately no trip to the emergency room was necessary. 

But the cake metaphor does Harris and the book a disservice, as this is no mere confection. It’s a deeply considered portrait of an artist that is revelatory about cinema, theater, and a complex man who bestrode both worlds like a colossus.

(Note to self: Is “bestrode” a word? Check before publishing this.)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BECOMING MIKE NICHOLS

ROBERT EDWARDS: I want to start out by naming just four of the many things that I learned about Mike Nichols in your book. 

  • He was offered both The Jerk and Animal House, which is very hard to imagine as a Mike Nichols film…. 
  • He briefly dated Anne Bancroft before she married Mel Brooks, or he cast her in The Graduate….
  • At one point he was going to direct Melvin and Howard with Elvis in the part of Melvin….
  • He was originally set to direct Chinatown and Roman Polanski was going to do The Day of the Dolphin, and then they switched, which worked out great for Roman and not so great for Mike. 

So how did you happen to embark on this book?

MARK HARRIS: I didn’t think that I would ever write a biography of Mike Nichols or anyone else. In fact, I had spent some time encouraging Mike fruitlessly to write his autobiography. The other two books I did were both kind of multicharacter narratives, where I was able to take five or six people and intertwine their stories over a fairly compressed period of time, like six or eight years. With those books, I really felt kind of like an orchestra conductor. There were structural challenges in cutting between all the plotlines and figuring out where they came together, but I had a lot of instruments to play with, and always another storyline to cut to when one went dry. With a biography you’re locked to the particulars of someone’s life…..in this case one life for 83 years.

So I didn’t come to the idea until after Mike passed away, when my publisher approached me about it. And the more I thought about it, the more interested I was, because I think he had a truly unique life and career. As a 20th century artist, his story is both kind of typical in a way, in that he starts as an immigrant before World War II, which is the story of so many people, but then there’s the extraordinary set of two careers as a theater director and as a movie director, each for the same half-century period, and both proceeded by his career as a performer. I thought there was no one else like him, but I also knew that what I didn’t know was tremendously more than what I did know. 

RE: You alluded to the fact that you knew Mike personally, which is not always the case, with a biographer, and in fact pretty rare. I imagine that must have affected how you approached the process. (Mark is married to Tony Kushner, whose masterpiece Angels in America Nichols directed as a two-part film for HBO in 2003.)

MH: Yes, I knew Mike because in 2000 or 2001 he started working with my husband on the HBO version of Angels in America, and I knew him in another way, because a few years later I interviewed him really extensively about The Graduate when I started work on Pictures at a Revolution. And then we knew each other socially as well. 

So one of the things I worried about when I started researching the book was how much am I going to be able to push that out of the way. Because this is in no sense a personal memoir, and it’s not an authorized biography either. I wrote it with the permission of Mike’s family, but they had no say over the content and they did not ask to see the book or ask that anything be left out or anything like that. But as I started to work on it, I realized that it really wasn’t something that I had to worry about because, although I felt that I had known Mike for a long time, in this 35 chapter biography I come in at Chapter 32. The years when I didn’t know him are so much more tremendous, and the degree to which the person I knew had been shaped by those prior experiences that I didn’t know about was so great, that most of the time I was working on it I didn’t have the “Mike” that I knew in my head at all. It was only when we got to the later years.

RE: Did your impression of Mike or how you thought of him change as a result of writing the book and the research that you did?

MH: Oh, yeah, tremendously. I got to know him when he was about 70, and by then he was at a very settled, generous, happy place in his life. He used to say, “I started out as a prick, and then I changed.” But I didn’t have any idea of the depth of the struggles of his early childhood, I didn’t have any idea of what a factor depression had been in his life through the decades. The thing that surprised me the most was that so much of his life was a struggle against being pulled down by this darkness that he really seemed to have conquered or obliterated by the time I knew him.

RE: I think that that’s the experience that a lot of people had reading the book, myself included. He’s a public figure of course. We thought we knew him. But the public Mike Nichols—who’s almost the epitome of this suave and accomplished guy—is totally at odds with the tortured, depression-suffering individual that you’re describing.

MH: Well, many people have a public self and a private self. I think we are all different when we’re off the Zoom camera than when we’re on, and for famous people exponentially more so. But I think Mike had a very composed public persona, even more than most people, because he had to from early in his life. He grew up an immigrant. He came to the United States at seven, not speaking any English, he was bald from very early childhood as a result of a vaccination reaction, so he didn’t look like other kids and he really had to create a self that not only would be palatable and passably American and quote unquote “normal” to other people, but that would be everything that he wasn’t in real life, which was kind of invulnerable, impregnable, and a little bit remote.

(NB: Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky —or by some accounts, Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky—in Berlin in 1931 and sent to the US on a steamship just before World War II broke out, accompanied only by his younger brother, and famously knowing only two phrases in the language of his adoptive home: “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.”)

George Segal who died just recently, told me that Mike once said to him, “It takes me three hours to become Mike Nichols every day.” And when you’re doing research, certain quotes really stick with you and sort of become like distant beacons that you’re rowing toward, and that quote really stayed in my mind. What does it mean to feel that you can’t go out in the world until you create a self that’s acceptable to you and to other people? I think that was a big factor in Mike Nichols becoming “Mike Nichols.”

RE: When Segal talks about those three hours, it’s not just metaphorical: he literally puts on the wig and the whole process. To me, Nichols has this kind of Gatsby-like quality, where he has invented himself out of whole cloth. 

MH: I should also say that I hope that people who read the book will not come away with the impression that Mike’s exterior was false, because I think there’s a big difference between an invented self and a phony self. Mike wasn’t just creating a character that he could walk through the world being. In “becoming Mike Nichols every day,” to use his own phrase, he was creating the person that he wanted to be…..and with every year that passed, he actually got closer to being that person. There became less of a gap between his public self and his private self. So I don’t think that Mike was posturing or phony or anything like that. I just think that turning himself into someone who could do what he did took a great deal of effort and a great deal of thought on his part.

THE FILM FESTIVAL THAT WASN’T

RE: Another thing that struck me was how he was wounded by reviews. I look at Mike Nichols and I think, this guy’s on top of the world: all the acclaim, all the awards and everything else. But he really did deeply feel the criticism whenever it was leveled at him.

MH: Being successful doesn’t make you less vulnerable to criticism or less likely for your feelings to be hurt. He was certainly prone to that. 

RE: I’m thinking in particular of the story about the reaction to Regarding Henry (1991), which was pretty widely panned. You write:

There was a Nichols (the critics) liked and a Nichols they hated. The Nichols they liked was the acid anatomist of human behavior whose movies were extensions of his barbed, unsparing routines with Elaine May in which vanities and pretensions were laid bare almost prosecutorially. The Nichols they hated was a valorizer of the celebrated and well-to-do, a man who had become complacently attached to what Rolling Stone dismissed as “haute bourgeois marital dramedy” and unwilling to explore any personal sacrifice deeper than…..the trauma of downsizing from a sprawling suburban home to a large and well-appointed city apartment.

I mean, that must have been very frustrating for him as an artist, to have worked so hard to get to where he was and then find himself pigeonholed like that.

MH: I think so. Nowadays when we think of directors with kind of strong stylistic stamps, very often we’re thinking of directors who also write their own movies: Wes Anderson, or Paul Thomas Anderson, or the Coens, for instance. But because Mike worked with a bunch of different writers, and really loved writers and loved collaborating with them, I think it became harder for critics to decide who Mike was as a director. So they took a handful of his early movies—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Graduate (1967), Carnal Knowledge (1971)—and decided that he was this kind of cold, brittle, technically perfect filmmaker, and that what he was really interested in was this sort of icy take on human nature. 

I think drawing connections between those movies is legitimate. You can go to a much later movie of his, like Closer (2004), and see parallels to Virginia Woolf or Carnal Knowledge, but from pretty early in his career, he decided just to go toward material that interested him, or collaborators that interested him. What he thought about was, “Do I like this? Am I excited by it? Do I think I can do a good job with it?” And very importantly, “Am I excited by the people who I’ll be working with?” He did not think so much: “Is this movie the natural next chapter in this cohesive body of work that I’m trying to create?” I don’t think that’s the way his mind or his ego operated as a director. 

The flip side of that was that if he didn’t feel that, he would walk away. I joked that I could create a great Mike Nichols film festival, but I could also create a great “Could Have Been Directed by Mike Nichols Film Festival.” He turned down and dropped out of a lot of movies at the last minute.

RE: You have a great anecdote about his depression about making The Fortune (1975), which didn’t do well, and then seeing the lines down the block for The Exorcist, which he passed on. And he called Elaine May to get some solace, but he didn’t get it….

MH: (laughs) Elaine May said to him, “Oh Mike, don’t worry about The Exorcist. If you had directed it, it wouldn’t have made any money at all.” I think it’s very, very representative of Mike that he loved that story and loved to tell it. But I also think it’s kind of the way he thought. 

Mike really cared about how he cast his movies and his plays, and if he cast the wrong person, often he felt like he was totally at sea. And I think that extended to his view of himself. When he would drop out of something, it often wouldn’t be because he was saying “This isn’t right for me,” but “I’m not right for this.” He would see himself as miscast in the role of the director of that movie and he’d walk away. 

Famously, he even did it once as an actor, with The Sopranos. David Chase had asked him to play the psychiatrist in the third season who says to Carmella, “Tell your husband ‘I’m not taking your blood money anymore, and take the kids and go.’” It’s one of the great scenes in the series. And Mike worked on it for a couple of days, and then told Chase, “You’ve got the wrong Jew, I’m the wrong kind of Jew for this. You need someone else.” (laughs) And he dropped out….and then became friends with David Chase.

RE: Did they actually film that? Do you know if that footage exists?

MH: No, they didn’t get as far as filming it. I think they did maybe table reads and the rehearsal or something. That would be gold footage to have, but I don’t think it’s out there. 

RE: And then he quipped, “That should be the title of my biography: The Wrong Jew.” And at the end of your book, you even apologize—facetiously—for not calling it that.

MH: (laughs) Yes.

THE WRONG JEW

RE: Speaking of Elaine May, his relationship with her is pivotal to his story and his life and the book. Can you talk a little bit about their relationship?

MH: This is another one of those things that surprised me besides the depression. Before I went into the book, my impression was that Nichols & May was sort of an interesting first act to his life that did not really have any connection to what came later. But the more I worked on the book, and especially after talking to Elaine May, what I came to understand was that it informs everything that comes after it.

The way Mike viewed acting grew out of his work with Elaine. The way he viewed directing grew out of the fact that he felt that she was a greater inventor of character than he was, that she could come up with 12 lines for a character to say instantly and he couldn’t, so the skill he developed was knowing how to move a scene along, knowing when it was time to go from one beat to the next, knowing when the audience was quiet because it was interested and what it was quiet because it was bored. Those are all directing skills. He sort of developed a director’s ear in working with her. And maybe most importantly, you won’t find many other directors of Mike’s generation—he was born in 1931—whose first major creative collaboration was with a woman….and with a woman who really was at least his equal and maybe in many ways his better.

And I think when you go through the rest of his career and look at his collaborative work with Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson and Nora Ephron and the costume designer Ann Roth and the production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein, Mike worked with a lot of women and was very comfortable with that, all the way down to Natalie Portman toward the very end of his career. I think his years with Elaine May—who, by the way, he also worked with for decades as a writer after their performing partnership broke up—those years really set the tone for everything that was to come.

Even when they were not officially working together, Mike and Elaine were never really out of one another’s lives. All along the way he would give her advice. He would show her the scripts for anything that he was thinking of working on, and she would show him her scripts. The bad time when they were really not speaking to each other was actually a quite short period, like ‘63 to ‘65 or so, and by 1980 they were working together on stage again, and as actors in a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

RE: You can’t help but think about how large Elaine May loomed in his life—and many people have noted this—when at the end of The Graduate Dustin Hoffman is pounding on the glass of the church and screaming, “Elaine, Elaine, Elaine!”

MH: (laughs) So I did all of Pictures at a Revolution, which took me probably three, four years to research and write, and that never occurred to me. It just shows you how you can work on something forever and think you’ve considered it from every angle, and it’s right in front of your nose. This time it did occur to me, because Elaine was so much in my head. I had this moment, sitting in the library and thinking, “Oh my God: was the character in the novel named Elaine?” And she was. But then maybe that was one of the reasons Mike picked the novel to direct.

RE: Could talk a little bit about the contrasting arcs of their directing careers? Because Mike had many hits and made some classic films, but he had a lot of flops too, and yet he continued to work and be considered an A-lister—an A plus lister, in fact. Meanwhile, Elaine May famously had one big flop which effectively killed her career and to this day remains a punchline in the industry, even though it’s having a kind of a renaissance now. 

MH: Right. I don’t think you can look at their respective careers without considering gender and the different opportunities for men and women in their positions. 

I’m not sure how Elaine may would feel about me saying that, because I haven’t heard her talk about it. But as a director, she came out of the gate with two really good comedies, A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and then a really interesting change of pace, Mikey and Nicky (1976). These are all are streaming; you can see them. And then a few years later, Ishtar, which was her biggest budget movie and the one that kind of in one stroke ended her career as a director. 

What was interesting to me, and what I didn’t realize until I started doing the work on the book, is that when Nichols & May broke up as a performing team—which was 1962, 1963—the sort of prevailing notion in the press was, well, she will obviously be fine. No one imagined that she was going to be a director because people just didn’t think of women in those terms. But the consensus was that she was a brilliant performer who could go on to do anything, and they weren’t quite sure what was going to happen with Nichols. And that’s something he felt too. 

Careers are idiosyncratic and Elaine May didn’t necessarily want the exact career that Mike had. I’m just very pleased that, at this late stage of her life and career, she is getting recognized as the truly important artist that she is: not just as a director, but as a performer. I know that Mike would have been absolutely thrilled to see her win the Tony Award for The Waverly Gallery. His admiration for her and her work was really unbounded through the decades, and he described the Nineties, which is when they worked together as director and screenwriter on three movies in a row, as one of the happiest working times of his life. He just absolutely loved working with her and loved having her in his life.

COMEDY ISN’T PRETTY

RE: Speaking of Nichols & May, could talk a little bit  about their influence on comedy in general? In the book you describe them as “avatars of a generational shift from an old school of comedy to a new one.”

MH: A couple of things were really important to them that are now important to a whole generation of comedy performers, some of whom probably don’t even know that they were influenced by Nichols & May. 

One thing is they both really felt strongly that you should never chase a laugh, that the laughs should emerge out of real situations and you should come by them honestly. Another thing, if you look at Nichols & May’s regular repertoire of sketches, often the situations that are set up are really pretty ordinary—from teenagers in the front seat of a car, or a mother guilt-tripping her adult son for not calling more often, or a guy who’s down to his last dime and is desperately trying to place a phone call through an operator—and then they spiral into kind of insane exaggerated, amazing places. But in every case, what was really important to them is that as performers—and as writers in a way, because they effectively wrote their own sketches—was that they provide those moments of recognition….those moments when the audience could say, “Oh, that’s a little private thing that I thought only I did,” or “Oh, I thought only I noticed that,” or, “Oh, my voice does that when I get upset.” Just those little things that would make people say as, Mike put it, “I know that guy, I am that guy!” 

That was not the prevailing thing in the 1950s when they came up. That was a really new style of comedy that Mike later grabbed onto when he became a director, something that he encouraged in his performers, and that helped bring Broadway into a more modern era. And Elaine May very much had the same sensibility: that things should stay recognizable when they’re at their most absurd and seem absurd when they’re at their most recognizable.

RE: It’s interesting, talking about Mike’s ability to shift back and forth between theater and film: that sort of comedy rooted in the everyday is something he brought to the early Neil Simon plays, like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple.

MH: When The Odd Couple opened on Broadway in 1965, it was at a time when the Moscow Art Theater was also in New York performing on a sort of a semi- diplomatic mission, and some critics said, “The Moscow Art Theater should go see The Odd Couple and then they’ll know really what naturalistic acting is, because of what Mike Nichols did.”

The whole first act of that play is basically a poker game, and that is a stage director’s nightmare because it’s a bunch of people sitting around a table, which means that somebody’s back is to you, nobody’s moving, and you can’t see the cards that they’re holding. So it’s just like a sort of decathlon of challenges in terms of staging. And Mike turned it into this dynamic, active thing where everything—from the opening of a beer, to the passing of a sandwich, to the stubbing out of a cigar—told you something about those characters and their relationship to each other and their moods and what they cared about. 

RE: But it’s interesting how quickly what he did with those Neil Simon plays became the new normal, such that by the late Sixties, when he was perceived in cinema as this groundbreaking auteur making films like Carnal Knowledge and The Graduate and so forth, in the theater he was already perceived as kind of a protector of the mainstream.

MH: Yeah, it’s funny: you can go from being an innovator to being an establishment figure so quickly in the arts. It was a challenge for him, and I think it was one reason he wanted to move his theater-making experience beyond Neil Simon. Though Mike would not in a million years have referred to himself as an auteur. I don’t think that’s the way he thought of his career at all.

One person I was really interested to talk to about this was Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, because I thought that he would be of the generation that found those Neil Simon plays from the Sixties really old hat. Because by 1975, when Saturday Night Live came on, it was rebelling against that kind of comedy, much as the Neil Simon plays were rebelling against an earlier kind of comedy. But that wasn’t the case at all. Lorne Michaels had seen those productions and he, “Oh, no, no, no. They were revolutionary. And what was revolutionary about the was not the text: it was the way Mike staged them.

THE BEST CATCH THERE IS

MH: From very early on Mike had a really good bead on the things he could carry over from stage direction to film direction, which primarily was the way he worked with actors and texts. From his first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he did something that film directors almost never do, which was to say, “I want a three week rehearsal period.” Elizabeth Taylor, who had been a star for 20 years plus, told him that she had never been asked to rehearse before. But he knew how valuable that process was going to be, and the actors all really took to it.

But he also knew what he didn’t know. Two of the main jobs in movies that have no parallel in theater are cinematographer and editor, and it always struck me that those were two of Mike’s most important collaborations when he was making a movie. Particularly his editor, which is a job that most of us, even those of us who cover movies, don’t really understand. For most of his first movies his editor was a guy named Sam O’Steen, who was on the set every day, and often saying to him, “Get a shot from this angle,” or “We don’t have enough here.” Mike really valued that; it didn’t make him insecure at all. He knew that seeing the way a movie was going to cut together in your head while you were on the set shooting was not a skill that he possessed yet. I think after his first five or six movies, he probably felt that he started to get it, but it took him that long. So he really wanted an editor and a cinematographer by his side who would know how to achieve what he wanted to achieve.

RE: Well, it was clear he was a quick study, because, as you say, within a few movies, he was arguably a master of all those cinematic skills that have no analog in theater. I understand Catch-22 (1970) didn’t do well critically, but it was so technically difficult, maybe too technically difficult, in fact, that it began to interfere with the storytelling.

MH: That was the first movie Nichols made where the sky was the limit in terms of budget, in terms of casting, in terms of location, because it was his first movie made after the success of his first two movies. It was a movie he blew a little hot and cold on. I don’t think that he felt it ultimately worked, but there are things that he did in it that he really liked. Alan Arkin, who was the star of the movie, criticized him for spending more time with the airplanes than the actors, and Nichols did not ultimately reject that criticism. He said, it’s really possible that I got so involved in the technical challenges and the logistics that I didn’t give the performances the attention they deserved.

I think he also ultimately felt that maybe he had chosen the wrong material. Buck Henry said much later that he felt that the movie didn’t play to Mike’s strengths because it wasn’t about human behavior, it was about attitudes. I thought that was an interesting, very writerly observation from Buck Henry about why it might not have been Mike’s strongest work. But there are still fascinating things in it. It’s not a movie that Mike Nichols is absent from in any way. You can feel him all over it.

RE: Would you talk a little bit about Mike’s reaction when he was finishing Catch-22 and he and (studio exec) John Calley saw M*A*S*H?

MH: That is one of the great grisly movie stories of all time, because you can plan for everything, you can work on something for years, and then something completely out of your control can sideswipe you in a way you never would have anticipated. And with Mike that happened when they had finished Catch-22 and it was just months from coming out and then M*A*S*H opened. Mike said that that the minute he and John Calley saw it, they knew that they were doomed, because M*A*S*H had done what they wanted to do and didn’t do. Altman had developed this kind of loose, shaggy, improvisational style. Like Catch-22, it was a movie, not about the Vietnam war, but that was supposed to have Vietnam war resonance in it. 

Altman was always a figure that Nichols sort of looked over the fence at with a kind of curiosity. At one point he said, “I should be having the career that Robert Altman is having. He’s doing the kind of movies that I want to do. Why don’t I ever choose those movies? I think I’m going to do them. I try to do them. And then it always ends up being something much more tightly controlled than what I had in mind.” 

It’s one of the reasons I loved writing about him, and why I never got bored exploring his life, because he was so introspective and open about that stuff. He was always open to thinking about all of the things he could have done differently, and not embarrassed in any way when something he did didn’t work out the way he wanted it to do. Sometimes he was upset. Sometimes he was surprised. But he was never defensive about it.

NEVER NEVER ON A SONTAG

RE: Mike famously had many friends—famous friends and not-so-famous friends—and one of them was Susan Sontag. If I remember correctly, they met on their first day at the University of Chicago. Is that correct?

MH: Yes. She had just transferred and he was starting his freshman year and they met on the registration line. 

RE: That’s a “meet cute” that you would never believe if it was in a movie. Not even a Mike Nichols movie.

MH: He did have one of those unique lives that seemed to touch so many other lives. Part of it is that he got famous so early—when he was in his twenties, in the late 1950s—and stayed successful for so long, just in terms of who he directed. Surely there’s no one else who directed everyone from Lillian Gish to Natalie Portman. That’s like the entire history of American cinema in one career.

RE: Susan was hard on him creatively and critically, isn’t that so?

MH: I think Mike liked having some people in his life who were kind of….not the devil on his shoulder, but the stern conscience on his shoulder. He kind of liked having someone who would say to him, “What are you doing this garbage for? You should be doing something serious.” He didn’t always listen, but he didn’t resent her being there. Sontag was someone who in interviews would publicly say to him, “I don’t know why he’s wasting his time. He’s one of the few people in this country who could direct Bertolt Brecht, why isn’t he doing that?” And then also, apparently she borrowed a ton of money from him and never paid it back. It was a complicated relationship, I think.

RE: And he wasn’t averse to using his friends as leverage when it was useful. I’m thinking of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the problems he had with the Catholic Church.

MH: That’s a great moment of Mike sort of pulling all of the strings at his disposal. 

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf came out in 1966, it was absolutely unprecedented that a major studio would permit the kind of language that’s used in that movie. This was before the ratings system, and at the time, the national Catholic office of motion pictures, which was what used to be called the Legion of Decency, was still very powerful. If the Catholic office condemned a movie, that meant that a lot of theaters wouldn’t show it, some chains wouldn’t show it, some cities wouldn’t show it, some states wouldn’t show it. So it was very important that this movie get approved.

Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, had fired Mike off the movie while it was in the editing room, but he eventually agreed to let Mike finish it because Mike said, “I will get us an approval from the Catholic office. I’m going to ask my friend Jacqueline Kennedy to attend the screening with all of the priests and bishops on the board, and when it ends, I’m going to have her say very audibly, ‘Oh, what a wonderful movie! Jack would have loved it.’ And then Monsignor What’s-His-Name will have no choice but to approve it.” And that’s exactly what happened.

RE: (laughs) I wish all filmmakers had that kind of power. 

MH: Or inventiveness!

RE: And friends like Jackie Kennedy. 

Q&A

RE: We have a lot of questions; let me just start pretty much first come first served. We have a question that asks, “With two comedic powerhouses involved, Nichols and Buck Henry, how does one explain the calamitous Day of the Dolphin (1973) and why didn’t they make it a comedy?”

MH: (laughs) Well, it was based on a novel that was a very, very serious, and the dolphins talked a lot more, by the way, than they do in the movie, like in long complete paragraphs. I think Mike himself was really enchanted by dolphins, at least in theory, and thought there was something touching about this story. He had a little girl and maybe he wanted to make a movie that she could see. 

But collaborations between talented people are no guarantee of success. And this movie was made in some ways for a bad reason, which is that Mike owed one more movie to the financer Joe Levine, who had made The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge. So it’s conceivable that he just jumped at the wrong thing. Although The Day of the Dolphin does have some fun moments in it, and a few Mike touches, Mike himself was not a fan at all. Anytime he brought it up, he would dismiss it as “the fish movie.”

RE: You talked before about how important casting was to Mike. And he was not afraid to fire people—even big names. He fired Mandy Patinkin, he fired DeNiro, he fired Gene Hackman. So the question is “What were some of the casting mistakes he made and do you know the thoughts of those actors or have they made any public statements about having been axed?”

MH: I talked to Robert DeNiro who was fired from a movie that Mike ended up walking away from himself after he had started shooting, Bogart Slept Here. It was never completed, although it was kind of then rewritten from head to toe and became The Goodbye Girl (1977). DeNiro certainly did not talk about Mike with any great resentment. He said it was a very painful experience getting fired and a very painful experience feeling that he was not good enough. This was in the mid-Seventies, when he was just becoming really successful as an actor, and he sort of said that he might’ve approached that whole project differently from the beginning. 

Gene Hackman was fired from The Graduate in rehearsals. He was supposed to play Mr. Robinson, Anne Bancroft’s husband. Some people said it was because he was too young, or because he didn’t memorize his lines, or because Mike didn’t think he was funny. But Mike really liked him as an actor, and in fact they ended up working together three more times: in the play Death and the Maiden, and on film in Postcards from the Edge (1990) and The Birdcage (1996). So there was obviously no bad blood there. 

But I think the Mandy Patinkin firing on Heartburn (1986) was lastingly painful. I don’t know the degree to which that was ever healed or not, but I know that at the very end of his life, when the revival of Death of a Salesman that Mike directed with Phillip Seymour Hoffman was on Broadway in 2012, Mandy Patinkin came backstage to congratulate the cast and Mike sort of snuck out of the theater, he said, so that Mandy would just have his time with the actors and wouldn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable seeing him. So I think Mike was very aware of that. 

Firing someone is a painful thing. You’re levying a really harsh judgment in some ways, even if it’s a judgment about your own decision to cast them in the first place. You’re potentially depriving them of an opportunity. So it was rough. He certainly didn’t brag about firing them, but he did want to say, “I fired some of the best actors in the business.”

RE: One of the most difficult stories to read in the book is the experience that everyone had on What Planet Are You From? (2000), where Mike had gone in with a lot of respect for Garry Shandling comedically and then they found their styles didn’t mesh at all. Like many people, these are two of my favorite comedic figures, so it’s hard to read about how awful it was.

MH: That was just a really misbegotten project from the beginning. By everybody’s account, it was really not Mike at his best at all. He seemed to have a kind of personal animosity toward Shandling that he later said stemmed from the fact that something about Garry, his performance style and neediness and insecurity, reminded him of his earlier self in a way that just triggered something awful in him. Also, that was a movie that Mike arguably made for the wrong reasons. He got a huge paycheck for it, but that huge paycheck turned the whole film away from what the people involved thought it really should have been, which was a small, indie-style, offbeat comedy, something that someone like Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze might have directed. It became a big budget studio movie that was just kind of too large-scale for its own good and for its thin, silly, funny premise. 

RE: Apropos some of the questions here in the chat box, I wanted to ask you briefly a little bit about Mike’s personal life, which was famously lavish in terms of how he lived. There’s the great story in the book where he’s having a meeting in his apartment in Manhattan with a cinematographer or someone, and by way of demonstrating what he means, he says to his assistant, “Bring in the small Picasso.”

MH: (laughs) From the time he started making a lot of money, which was even before he started directing, in the Nichols & May era, he always liked to live to the edge of his financial capacity and that did get him in trouble at some points. One of the first things that Mike did when he had money was buy a triplex on Central Park West, in the Beresford. He had a big house in Connecticut with a fantastic horse farm on it, and a big ranch in Southern California. Mike grew up in a sort of middle-class household, but a household that after his father died—which happened when Mike was quite young—slid very quickly into poverty. So I think that really shaped his relationship with money…..the feeling that no matter how much you made it could all go away, and also that you’d better spend it while you have it, you’d better enjoy it. So he liked living well, for sure.

RE: I don’t begrudge him at all. He earned every penny and brought great joy to a great many people, and great insight into the human condition…..and so does your book.

*********

Photo: Nichols in 1966. Credit: Sam Falk/The New York Times

Thanks to Mark Harris, Juliana Kiyan, Kai Bird, Thad Ziolkowski, Ben Shenkman, Tom Hall, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

MARK HARRIS is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which was a New York Times notable book of the year, and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. He is currently a writer for New York, where he often covers the intersection of culture and politics. A graduate of Yale University, Harris lives in New York City with his husband, Tony Kushner.

Chauvinism on Trial

If this were fiction, except for Dickens or Runyon, no one would get away with giving this guy that surname.

The term “chauvinism” is derived from Nicolas Chauvin, a French soldier of the Napoleonic era (mythical, by some accounts) whose messianic allegiance to the little corporal and blind belief in the glory of France was so extreme that he became synonymous with cult-like fanaticism. 

By the dictionary definition, chauvinism has come to mean “the irrational belief in the superiority or dominance of one’s own group or people, who are seen as strong and virtuous, while others are considered weak or unworthy…..a form of extreme patriotism and nationalism, a fervent faith in national excellence and glory.”

The only name more fitting for the (former) Minneapolis police officer who calmly murdered George Floyd in public view, apparently unconcerned that he would face any consequences, would be if he were named Derek White-Supremacy. 

In the Sixties and Seventies, “chauvinism” came to be associated almost exclusively with what was then called “women’s liberation”—what we now generally call feminism. In the vernacular of the time, a “male chauvinist” (“pig” was usually appended to the phrase) was what we now, gender-neutrally, call a sexist, but it was usually bandied about sneeringly by those very sexists, deriding the plight of half the planet, and unintentionally proving the feminists’ point. Even their most legitimate complaints were not taken seriously, so second class was the female of the species.

But chauvinism in the true sense of the word is the perfect description of the mentality of the dead-ender White nationalists, neo-Know Nothing Trump disciples, and reactionary John Birchers who are desperately trying to pull back the arc of history and hang onto a racist, 18th century vision of America. 

And that is very much part of what was on trial in a Minneapolis courtroom over the past three weeks. 

PAGING BILLY WILDER

The case against Derek Chauvin seemed open and shut, no? The prosecution laid it out forcefully, including a parade of witnesses who on the face of it might seem like they would defend him, but in fact did very much the opposite, and by virtue of that very credibility: the city’s chief of police, the precinct sergeant in charge that fateful day, the MPD’s use-of-force instructor, a lieutenant with 36 years on the job who said it was “totally unnecessary” for Chauvin to kneel on Mr. Floyd’s neck. They were buttressed by numerous others—including the 911 dispatcher who handled the initial call, an off-duty firefighter who witnessed the killing, the EMTs who treated Mr. Floyd on the scene—who further made the state’s case.

As expected, the defense tried to portray George Floyd as big and scary (and Black), and to insist—despite all the evidence to the contrary—that he was uncooperative and threatening to the cops such that they had to take such measures. Chauvin’s lawyers also tried to suggest that Mr. Floyd had drugs in his system that contributed to his death, even though the medical examiner who conducted his autopsy declared it a homicide and clearly stated that Chauvin’s “restraint of (Floyd’s) body and compression of his neck were the primary causes” of his death.

In other words, whatever other medical issues George Floyd may have had, he managed to live with them quite well until 150 pounds of police officer was pressed down on his throat.

The defense’s closing argument also struck this civilian as…..what’s the technical term? Oh yeah: lame. Focusing on a generic reminder that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and that the standard for conviction is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is not the play of a defense attorney with a rock solid case. 

In short, I didn’t see how any reasonable person could look at the evidence and conclude that Derek Chauvin was not guilty……but I’ve been wrong before. 

RASHOMON IN MINNESOTA

As more than one legal expert has pointed out, this case was more challenging for the prosecutors than it looked in that—as the defense reminded us—they had to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and get all twelve jurors to agree. Chauvin’s lawyers only had to generate a sliver of doubt in the mind of one juror. 

More to the point, we know that White cops get off all the time when charged with criminal violence against Black citizens, even murder. It happened with Rodney King, it happened with Freddie Gray, it happened with Breonna Taylor….It’s happened over and over again

News flash: White people in general get judged by a different standard. When Mr. Floyd was murdered last year, I wrote in these pages that I too had accidentally passed a counterfeit bill—a $10, in my case—at my local bodega not long before. The clerk informed me, “Hey man, this bill is bad,” I was very surprised, we had a good laugh, and I paid with some actual legal tender and went on my merry way. 

No cops rolling up, no hands cuffed behind my back, no face down on the street, no knee on my neck, no murder.   

Right up until the verdict was announced yesterday there was the very real possibility that the self-apparent slam dunkness of the case might prove a mirage. A goodly number of White people watching the trial couldn’t conceive of any possible way that Chauvin would get off, while plenty of Black people will tell you that they have seen this movie before. SNL parodied that disconnect with uncomfortable precision a few weeks ago. 

As an acid test, this trial was OJ in reverse. 

If had Chauvin walked, there was sure to be nationwide outrage pouring into the streets. Not just Minneapolis but almost every major US city seemed to be bracing for it. In the same way that George Floyd’s murder galvanized the global Black Lives Matter movement last June, an acquittal—or a hung jury, or a mistrial, or anything but the catharsis of full-blown accountability—surely would have re-opened that deep wound, reminding us how criminally inequitable and racist the American justice system is (“justice” in quotes), and America full stop. 

Predictably, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.)’s remarks on that point ahead of the verdict were red meat for the right wing, which is as hyperalert to anything even vaguely implying violence from the left as it is somnolent over even overt calls for violence from the right. It has always been thus, but the right’s desperation to find an equivalence to Trump’s responsibility for January 6th only serves to highlight its hypocrisy. As The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes writes, “(Rep. Waters) makes a much more useful target than Biden, because it turns out that an old white man is far less scary than a black woman. The GOP is perfectly happy to make her the face of the opposition.”

But if a White cop can sadistically torture a non-violent and compliant Black citizen to death on the street in full view of multiple witnesses equipped with cameras and not be held accountable, how could anyone possibly say there isn’t wanton institutionalized racism in the American criminal justice system? 

But some would have. 

Now that Chauvin has been convicted on all three counts, including third degree murder, that same crowd of Republicans and others on the right will insist that that verdict itself is evidence that the system is fair and just, rather than a rarity. No doubt those same folks, in the privacy of their own homes, and within the safe circles of like-minded friends (and maybe even publicly, given how normalized open racism has become in the past five years) are even now shaking their heads and lamenting how this “good cop” got “railroaded” for “just doing his job,” a martyr to the “toxic spread” of “wokeness” in America.

And let’s not kid ourselves: the reactionary demographic that holds that view numbers in the millions. (I refer you to the popular vote count from last November.) They are watching TV right now and saying: “Chauvin is getting a bad rap. This Floyd motherfucker was a drug addict and he ‘looks like a criminal.’ Who are we to question the men and women of the Thin Blue Line who risk their lives to protect us and the life-and-death decisions they have to make?”

What they’re really saying, in their heart of hearts is: “N####r got what he deserved.”

That’s how far apart the two Americas are right now, and how far we have to go.

POLICE ON MY BACK

I have the utmost respect for law enforcement officers, for how dangerous their job is, for the cloistered world they inhabit, and for the special challenges they face. 

But that is not carte blanche, nor does it erase the effects of systemic racism within American law enforcement and the US criminal justice system. “Systemic racism” is a redundancy—like “tuna fish,” or “hot water heater”—but I’ll use it here for emphasis, and to stress that we’re talking about something beyond just personal prejudice.

This isn’t about individual officers. It’s about a system that is inarguably stacked against people of color, in lethal ways, from racial profiling on the streets, to traffic stops that routinely turn fatal, to arrest rates, plea bargains, prosecutorial decisions, sentencing, incarceration, parole, and all the rest. 

A few aspects of that: 

Generally speaking, a police officer’s word in court also counts more than an ordinary citizen by virtue of their specialized training and responsibilities.

OK. But by that same logic, the corollary is that police officers are supposed to be calmer, cooler, and more judicious under stress than us mere mortals. They’re supposed to know which hip their sidearm is on and which one their taser is, for example, even when they’re stressed, especially after 26 years on the force. 

Then there is the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which holds that police generally can’t be held responsible for acts of violence committed in the course of their duties, even those acts that might seem outrageously excessive to the average person, unless they have violated “clearly established” constitutional rights. It’s a doctrine that provides police massive latitude to do as they please. It would be a mindset much easier to accept were there not a centuries-old, ongoing epidemic of police violence against people of color by American law enforcement, much of it actively homicidal. (The ACLU reports that Chauvin’s conviction is the first time in Minnesota history that a White police officer has been held accountable for killing a Black man.)

In the controversial 1989 Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, then-Chief Justice Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee and infamous “law-and-order” conservative, laid out the theory that when assessing what might seem like police brutality, “the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

How convenient for those who are happy to have the cops—especially White ones—make their own rules about when and how they can feel free to brutalize mere citizens—especially Black ones. 

But even under that very lax standard, Derek Chauvin’s rationale for casually kneeling on a supine George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while he choked to death and pleaded that he could not breathe does not remotely fall in the category of a heat-of-battle kind of decision.

Of course we should be happy that the trial turned out this way, but is that not an incredibly low bar? Is it not tremendously sad that we had to hold our breath for accountability in such a clear-cut case of lethal police brutality? Not unlike last November‘s election, it is chilling that it was even this close. THIS is the evidence we intend to hold up to prove that we’re not a stone racist country?

HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?

It’s taken almost exactly a year from the time of George Floyd’s murder last Memorial Day—the same day that a dog-strangling Amy Cooper called the cops on a birdwatching Christian Cooper in Central Park—for this case to come to trial. Which is fitting, since one of the big questions after last year’s mass outpouring of rage in the wake of that murder—the Awakening, as the filmmaker Peter Nicks calls it—was: “Will White people still care a year from now?”

Seems like they (we) do. Apparently ratings were way up for the news channels carrying the trial, outpacing even their nighttime primetime numbers. (Fox, naturally, did not really carry it at all.) 

Chauvin’s guilty verdict is a start, but unless it is also the beginning of a broad and deep and substantive nationwide reform of policing and criminal justice, it will not be nearly enough. (The breach in the Blue Wall that we saw in the testimony of MPD officers is a huge step in the right direction.) To the extent that they acknowledge any wrongdoing at all by Derek Chauvin, reactionary forces in America will continue to claim that he is just one bad apple, when the evidence is clear that what we’re dealing with is an entire rotten orchard, poisoned at the root….the same way they wanted us to believe it was just one bad apple at Abu Ghraib (and not a institutionalized system of torture explicitly dictated from the highest possible level), or just a few bad apples storming the Capitol on January 6th (and not a pre-planned insurrection, also fomented at the highest possible level). Beginning to see a pattern? 

George Floyd’s death marked a turning point in America’s long, slow, painfully overdue reckoning with its racist….Did you think I was gonna say “past”? Sadly, that’s the wrong tense. Let us hope that Chauvin’s triple conviction is a bellwether that we’re making progress, even if only in baby steps, and that chauvinism’s days are numbered. 

But lest we forget, five short months after that murder, Trump and his 74 million voters (I’ll repeat that: 74 million, even after four years of proving every day what a monster he is) made it painfully clear that the White nationalist threat is alive and well in this country. We beat it down last November, just barely, with a slim majority, but it’s far from defeated. 

Yesterday was another narrow victory in a campaign that still has a long, long way to go.

*******

Photo: Hennepin County Jail/AFP/Getty Images

Banging on a Window That Long Since Closed

Victory in warfare is like art or pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. 

What we have in Afghanistan is not victory by any definition, though it’s pornographic in that plenty of people got fucked. 

President Biden recently announced that he will honor the treaty his predecessor made with the Taliban to withdraw all US forces from that country by the end of 2021. In fact, he named the date of that withdrawal as September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that led to this long and brutal campaign of US involvement there. The announcement has rightly gotten a lot of airplay, but the reaction to it has defied standard partisanship and cut across the usual ideological lines. 

On the right, there are neo-isolationists who cheer the decision, given that—with a strong odor of xenophobia—they want the US to disengage from the world altogether and hunker down inside a mythical Fortress Amerika. But there are also plenty of more conventional conservatives who take the hawkish position that it’s a colossal mistake and portends disaster. 

On the left there are hardliners who—while generally down on Biden—are also applauding, as they think all American foreign policy is imperialist and evil and don’t ever want to apply US power abroad. But there are also staunch internationalists carrying the torch of JFK who lament the abandonment of our allies and the likely return of a hateful, medieval theocracy to that historically sorrowful land.

It’s complicated, man.

If this were an American version of Brexit, I would cop to being on the side of “Remain”—with a severe qualifier. I do fear that the Taliban will regain power….in fact, I would bet money on it. But I also don’t think our current strategy can or should be maintained. Call that a cop-out if you will, or call it a recognition that security policy rarely offers up clean, black-or-white situations or choices. 

The real lesson that the literal no-win situation in Afghanistan ought to teach us—again—is the limits of military power. 

A GOLDEN TICKET

As a politician, foreign policy is Joe Biden’s métier, and has been throughout his long career in public life. 

That doesn’t mean he’s always right. In fact, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates famously wrote in his 2014 memoir that Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” It was a quote Team Trump tried to wave like a red rag during the presidential campaign, except that most Americans realized that Trump’s own record on that front was a thousand times worse. Biden has made some mistakes over half a century of public service, but he never actively sided with our enemies.

Also, some of the errors Gates puts in Biden’s “L” column are errors Gates himself committed too, like supporting the invasion of Iraq. So let’s take his shade-throwing with that in mind.

That said, among Biden’s most notorious bad calls was his advice to Barack Obama not to proceed with the raid on Abbottabad that killed Bin Laden. So, as much as I like and admire Joe and think he’s doing a helluva good job as President of the United States thus far, I don’t think he’s infallible. 

I don’t know if the decision to carry through with Trump’s knee-jerk commitment of February 2020 to vacate Afghanistan will prove smart or not. But I do understand the politics of it, as the current circumstances offer Joe Biden a rare opportunity. By insisting the US credibility requires that we honor Trump’s impulsive, deeply flawed treaty, he can get us out of an unwinnable war while largely avoiding the responsibility for the collateral damage that will result. 

It does involve a certain amount of smoke-and-mirrors. Notwithstanding the fig leaf, US credibility is not really on the line here, in terms of keeping our word. The treaty mandates a US withdrawal on the agreed-upon timetable only if the Taliban abides by their end of the bargain. But they have not, which would be legitimate grounds for Biden to say, “The deal’s off.”

But keeping the deal offers Joe—and the US—some tempting benefits. 

Most of America, from our elected officials down to the average citizen who pays attention to such things, are eager to get out of Afghanistan, which at close to two decades and counting is already the longest war in American history, and one that seems increasingly pointless and unwinnable: what the great war correspondent Dexter Filkins has called “the forever war.” I won’t go so far as to say the President’s rationale is cynical, but it enables him to achieve that goal, and accrue the attendant credit, while laying the blame on the last dude for all the bad stuff that will surround it. That won’t have any effect on right wing America, of course, which never blames Trump for anything, even the things he is patently responsible for. But it will work with a significant segment of the mainstream, and perhaps with history as well. 

It would be almost political malpractice if Biden did not exploit this gift from gods.

Of course, when the Taliban regain power, which they almost inevitably will, there will be blame aplenty to go around, and it may be President Kamala Harris (or still Joe Biden, or maybe the odious Tom Cotton) who will have to deal with it. Then the fingerpointing and “who-shot-john” will really begin….what we in the Army used to call the desperate search for the low man on the chain of blame. 

But ugly as that will be, in and of itself, that fact does not justify staying a losing course. 

YOU WIN SOME, YOU LOSE SOME

The opposing view hinges on the idea that there must be some better solution than disengagement. 

I’ll wait for someone to explain to me what that is.

It’s true a flatout withdrawal risks squandering whatever progress we have made over the past twenty years, and all the American and Afghan blood and treasure already expended, as the odds are very very high that the Taliban will simply swoop back in and reinstall their vile regime.

But an open-ended combat commitment—which is to say, an active, never-ending counterinsurgency—is not a realistic option. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the US is propping up an unreliable regional partner that can’t stand on its own, while making no appreciable progress toward building a stable democracy that can. On balance, that argues for an end to the pursuit of a lost cause, even if it is only the lesser of two evils. 

Some, like the eminently reasonable former NATO SACEUR Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, have respectfully suggested that keeping even a battalion of US combat troops incountry might be a wise move, acting as a kind of tripwire to deter Taliban aggression, not unlike the role of the old Berlin Brigade (1961-94). Biden’s own Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines issued a similarly pessimistic dissent. (Isn’t it a pleasure to see the US IC speaking honestly and without fear of retribution from an enraged, sociopathic president?) Short of that, the US may be able to maintain a covert intelligence and special operations presence in the region, but that won’t forestall the return of the Taliban, only give us early warning and allow for limited clandestine activity and assistance to the Afghan government.

But a clean break has some advantages too, and not just the aforementioned political ones that will allow President Biden to justifiably claim he ended our country’s longest and most grindingly frustrating foreign war. To be freed from the drain of our commitments in Afghanistan—financial, logistical, and human—will be welcome, and benefit US foreign policy mightily in terms of opportunity cost. 

In the end, however, this whole debate really misses the point. An argument over whether we are prematurely pulling out of Afghanistan elides the bigger question of whether our current strategy there would ever work, no matter how long we stay, or if indeed any workable strategy even exists. If we had a such an approach, matters would be very different, but over twenty years of fighting we’ve never been able to develop one, suggesting that something is deeply wrong with the DNA of the entire endeavor.

SNATCHING DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY

From the very beginning the US has pursued a shortsighted vision in Afghanistan reminiscent of Vietnam, where battlefield success was the metric of choice untethered to its political ramifications. 

“In the eyes of America’s uniformed leadership the United States was ‘winning militarily’ in Afghanistan for the entirety of the conflict,” opined Professor Jason Dempsey of the Center for a New American Security in 2019, writing in the military affairs website War on the Rocks. “For nearly eighteen years, US military commanders declared solid progress as they rotated through Afghanistan,” wrote Dempsey, who served as a civilian adviser to the Afghans as well an active duty infantry officer both there and in Iraq, then drily went on to note that US gerbil wheel in Afghanistan had resulted in a headline worthy of the Onion: 

These positive assessments became so standard, and seemingly so out of line with reality, that in 2018 even the normally staid Military.com wrote (an article about) Gen. Mick Nicholson’s farewell remarks….titled “Outgoing US Commander Continues Tradition of Hailing Progress in Afghanistan.”

As with Nixon-era “Vietnamization,” the Pentagon of the early 21st century had been focused on standing up an Afghan national army capable of defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the battlefield without recognizing that that is but one part of a functioning, viable democracy, necessary but not sufficient. As Dempsey writes, the DOD’s plan betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of Afghan society and culture “in building a military for a nation that did not exist.”

Way back in September 2001, the idea presented to the American people was that the Taliban was a totalitarian junta with no appreciable public support, savagely oppressing the majority of Afghans, and that its forcible removal by the United States would therefore allow democracy to flower in that country, with the help of Western nationbuilding.

That remains an accurate assessment. (The United States’ culpability in creating the Taliban in the first place, during the 1979-89 Soviet war in Afghanistan, is a separate story.)

The problem is that we didn’t carry through on the second half of the equation. After evicting the Taliban with shocking speed and relative ease in just a few months in late 2001, we patted ourselves on the collective back and very quickly shifted our attention to invading Iraq for no apparent reason, at a time when we should have been pouring our energies into ensuring security, stability, and the slow establishment of nascent democracy in a place where the odds were stacked against all three. That postwar phase of the Afghan invasion was, in fact, the far more difficult and painstaking and time-consuming part of the job—never the United States’ strong suit. By bollocksing it up as we did, we ceded whatever victory we had won, and give the lie to notion that we were in the “postwar” phase at all. 

(In fact, subsequent events even tarnished the pride we took in the quick military victory in the first place. Some would say that the Taliban merely beat a strategic retreat, knowing that they could wait us out.)

Distracted with a separate, pointless, and totally avoidable quagmire in Iraq, we found ourselves allied with some of the most corrupt and incompetent elements in Afghan society, while fighting a slow, grueling war of attrition against a very very patient and experienced enemy, and without the resources or bandwidth to win it. 

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Pentagon was frequently criticized for its planning goal of being able to fight “two-and-half wars” simultaneously. It was a formulation that struck many lay critics as both warmongering and arbitrary, and absurd in its Catch-22-like clincality. But it turned out that was almost exactly what the US armed forces were asked to do in Southwest Asia, and it was just as hard as the military experts expected. 

Over the centuries, Afghanistan has successfully resisted invasion by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Persians, the British, the Soviets, and now us (among others). Not for nothing is it known as “the graveyard of empires.”  

We had a very small window in which we had a chance to secure our military foothold in Afghanistan and begin the difficult process of nationbuilding and creating democracy there. That window closed with a definitive slam when we irrationally invaded Iraq. And so the Iraq war continues to prove to be a foreign policy disaster almost without peer since the Second World War, much worse than Vietnam in the scope, impact, and duration of its negative consequences. Our ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is only the latest and most stark example, but it won’t be the last. 

RIGHT AGAIN, CARL

So how do we proceed? Notwithstanding our own culpability in creating this dilemma, is there any possible way to end the war in Afghanistan without the country again descending into crushing totalitarianism and once more becoming a base of operation for terrorists? 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Clausewitz (I have all his albums). So I will again cite—if slightly modify—his most famous aphorism: 

War is (only) the extension of politics by other means. 

In that regard, force alone is highly limited in what it can achieve in the interest of national objectives—a lesson the US, like many nation-states, seems to have a very hard time learning, even though it has been repeatedly, painfully demonstrated to us. (See Southeast Asian War Games, 1954-75, Second Place Trophy.) 

To that end, there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan. We cannot bomb and shoot our way to democracy in a land where the necessary conditions do not yet exist for it, and show no signs of appearing. Therefore, we are not ultimately dealing with a military question at all but a political one, of which military affairs are only a subset, and a highly subordinate one at that. 

The only way we can defeat the Taliban once and for all is by destroying their appeal to any significant number of Afghans. That is an effort that is not principally in the realm of trigger-pulling, but of so-called soft power. (Which, as I have written, is also the only way we can defeat the violent Trumpist insurgency here at home.) Having blown our best chance to do so in 2003, it will be infinitely harder now, if not impossible. Given that, Biden’s choice to withdraw, under cover of Trump’s folly, even with all its drawbacks, may prove to be the most prudent available course.  

And If there’s one lesson we take away from it, it’s that you can’t win a war by force alone, and you definitely can’t win it when you start a second war before you’ve finished the first. 

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Photo: US wounded in the Korengal Valley, eastern Afghanistan, October 2007. Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.

Portrait of a Party in Moral Bankruptcy

In case you’re misled by the relationship of the picture to the headline, let me be clear that I come to bury John Boehner, not praise him. 

Yeah, the retired Ohio Congressman and former Speaker of the House just published a kiss-and-tell that excoriates Donald Trump and the GOP that Boehner once led. In the book (On the House: A Washington Memoir) and the press he has done to promote it, Boehner has wailed on the likes of Hannity, Limbaugh, and Michele Bachmann (remember her?); called Trump’s Big Lie about a stolen election “bullshit” and lamented how Don hoodwinked his loyal followers; pulled no punches in calling the proto-Trumpian Tea Party that dislodged him from his position as Speaker “far-right knuckleheads” and “political terrorists” (“They weren’t conservatives. They were crazy”); dubbed Sarah Palin “one of the chief crazies”; and in general been withering in his contempt for what the Republican Party has become. 

USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page called it “an extraordinary rebuke of the current-day GOP, an excoriation without precedent in modern times.”  

Awesome. 

I love seeing Republicans rip into each other, especially when one of them is actually speaking the truth about the madness that has gripped that party over the past fill-in-the-blank number of years. (I’d go up as high as 100, but certainly accelerated since 1964.) I was delighted to see a prominent Republican, even a retired one—a former Speaker of House as recently as 2015, no less—go off on Trump and his allies like that. 

And yet Boehner reports that he still voted for Trump last November.

JOHN’S NON-CHANGING STRIPES

In some ways it’s not a shock.

Boehner’s 2015 ouster, humiliating as it was at the time, proved a blessing in disguise for him, as he was thrown blissfully clear of the shitstorm that hit his party that summer. Yet from comfy retirement, he was a reliable Trump supporter, even if he clearly relished not being enmeshed in the grinding, day-to-day nightmare of politics in the MAGA regime. 

In 2019, long after Trump had exhausted any “give him a chance” goodwill and proved worse than even his worst critics predicted, Boehner told the Caxambas Republican Club on Marco Island, FL where he and his wife live half the year, “Donald Trump, in my view, by and large, has done the right things.”

Among the “right things” he cited? The deficit-busting 2017 tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and the disastrous trade war with China. (You’re welcome, Ohio!) It’s true that the tax cut was a bullseye for traditional Republican priorities (NB: not a compliment), even if it was more shameless than usual, and Sinophobic xenophobia ticks a time-honored GOP box too. But whatever happened to “fiscal conservatism” and “free trade”? Like most Republicans, Boehner seemed fine with a wholesale rejection of some of the fundamental tenets that had long guided his party and its ideology, in a Faustian bargain for power with the Donald.

And now Boehner wants to come out of his Florida hidey-hole and act like an éminence grise, taking his old party to task?

Despite his support for Trump, Insurrectionist Nation is unsurprisingly not too pleased with Boehner. 

Ted Cruz—back from Cancun and ever the grandstander—theatrically posed a signed copy of Boehner’s book in his fireplace after “some smartass,” in Rafael’s words, gave him a copy. (At least his house has heat now.) It’s understandable, given that in the book Boehner calls Cruz a “reckless asshole” and a “lunatic,” but there’s never been any love lost between these two. Previously Boehner had called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh,” (a description he repeats in the memoir) and said that he’d “never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” For the cherry on top, The Insider reports that “Boehner added an unscripted, ‘PS, Ted Cruz, go fuck yourself’ in the audiobook recording of the memoir.”

(Insert catfight sound here.)

As I say, I welcome Boehner’s critique as part of the national conversation. It can’t hurt. I doubt it will sway many conservatives, given how deep the Kool-Aid runs over there and how solidly that community’s flat earth beliefs have calcified. If watching Trump try to foment the violent overthrow of the government didn’t sour them on their boy, I doubt a self-aggrandizing book by a has-been Congressman whom they already kicked to the curb once before will. But it can’t hurt. 

But how can you think your former party has gone batshit crazy, bemoan its descent into Know Nothing demagoguery, and blame Trump for mounting a coup d’etat, and then still vote for him? Mere partisanship is not sufficient to explain it. It speaks to the deeper disease within the GOP. 

It’s the same problem I have with my own conservative friends, some of whom voted for Trump twice, and now want to go on as if there was nothing alarming about the past five years, or their role in it. 

Sorry, fellas: we’re not gonna let you get away with that.

COME ON GUYS, DON’T OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT!

“I voted for Donald Trump. I thought that his policies, by and large, mirrored the policies that I believed in,” Boehner told Time Magazine

Gee, which ones? Blowing up the deficit? Kidnapping children? Soliciting the help of a foreign power to win an election? Spreading lies that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans? Inciting a violent insurrection that aimed to overturn a fair election and murder his own vice president? 

Or maybe it’s just their shared affinity for orange skin tone.

For the record, Boehner said he didn’t push back harder against the Capitol insurrection because he’s “retired.” From simple human decency, I gather.

“I try to stay out of the day-to-day rumble of politics. I really didn’t need to speak up,” he said.

As we learned from Rules of the Gameeveryone has their reasons, right?

Like many Republicans, Boehner cited Trump’s pell mell packing of the federal judiciary with right wing judges as a greater good that overrode almost everything else. (Even if one thinks having hardline reactionary jurists is a good thing and not monstrous in its own right, is that really a utilitarian calculation that justifies Trump’s other horrors?)

Boehner told Time, “I thought the choices for the Supreme Court were top notch. At the end of the day, who gets nominated to the federal courts is really the most important thing a president does.” 

As my pal Walter Sujansky writes, “Uh, yeah. Much more important than upholding the very concept of democracy as enshrined in a 230-year-old constitution that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to achieve and defend.”

Boehner also told Time, “If it were me, I would get the party back to the principles of the Republican Party: fiscal responsibilities, strong national defense. They need to reinvigorate the party based around our principles and our ideals, not around personalities.”

What a bunch of bullshit. Where was he when Trump was licking Putin’s boots or destroying 75 years of postwar American security policy or adding over a trillion dollars to the deficit, all of which happened while he was telling senior citizens in Florida that Trump was doing “the right things”?

He can’t even say that the insurrection changed his view. January 6th did not come out of nowhere, but was only the culmination. Election Day 2020 came after months of Trump pre-promoting the Big Lie and undermining confidence in the integrity of the vote for millions of Americans, a sickness that continues to fester. Was Boehner cool with that? I guess so, because he still pulled the lever marked “R.”

To wake up and clear his throat in polite objection only after the attack on a Congress he used to lead in the building where he used to work is utter dishonesty.

To be fair, Boehner was not entirely silent about the insurrection. On January 7th, he tweeted this: 

I once said the party of Lincoln and Reagan is off taking a nap. The nap has become a nightmare for our nation. The GOP must awaken. The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic.

But in the wake of the insurrection he has not expressed any regret about his November vote, suggesting that he thinks having Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court is a fair tradeoff for that too. 

A DAY AT THE BEACH

CNN’s Chris Cillizza brings us to the heart of the matter.

Rather than some sort of speak-truth-to-power hero, Boehner is typical of the broader Republican approach to Trump: Hold your nose and vote for him because, uh, judges. 

Boehner is not the exception to the Republican rule. He is the rule. He was willing to overlook Trump’s weaponizing of race and gender, his decidedly un-conservative approach to debt and deficit, his open disdain at the idea of being “presidential,” all because Trump nominated conservative judges to the Supreme Court. 

That’s the deal Republicans made with themselves way back when Trump won the nomination in 2016. Boehner was no different.

John Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership eagerly embraced the raw power politics that had come to define the GOP over the preceding decades, the racist dogwhistling, the McCarthyite demonization of their Democratic opposition—all the things that paved the way for Trump. They were willing to make the devil’s bargain to get what they wanted—whether it was tax cuts for the rich, or a federal judiciary packed with right wing zealots, or the chance to gerrymander Congressional districts for the next decade. They can’t now look at the shitshow that resulted and tut tut over it. And when they try, we ought to slap them like Sidney Poitier did in In the Heat of the Night.

Boehner wants to be seen as a good guy, but he ain’t. He wasn’t then and he isn’t now. He’s part of the goddam problem. 

He gave his recent phone interview to Time from his beachhouse in Florida, where he reported that he was sitting on his lanai looking out “at a nice, white beach” on the Gulf of Mexico.

How perfect. A man who was Mitch McConnell’s partner in crime in blind, hyperpartisan obstruction of the Obama administration (before he was forced out by an even more fanatical wing of his party) a man who backed Trump for four years when he no longer had any professional stakes on the line, is now enjoying well-feathered tropical retirement while trying to have it both ways, positioning himself as a unicorn-like “decent” Republican even as he continues to abet the indecent ones. (Which is a redundancy.)  

John Boehner is a living embodiment of the hard truth that Trump’s rise was not a hostile takeover of the GOP, as it is sometimes portrayed: it was the logical end result of a morally bankrupt party that had abandoned all principle in the pursuit of sheer power. And it was “mainstream” Republicans like Johnny Boy that allowed it to happen—facilitated it, in fact—and even now are complicit. 

Post-Trump, the GOP wants to be seen as a legitimate political party again, and is trying to gaslight us into thinking that is so, even as it continues to defend the Big Lie, downplay January 6th, and worship at the altar of Trump. But when the best it can offer as voices of reason are people like John Boehner who still enable and abet Donald with their actions, even if they offer all-but-meaningless criticism of him with their words, that posturing will continue to be a cruel joke. 

Dear RNC: Wake me when Adam Kinzinger is your nominee. I don’t like his Freedom Caucus ideology, but at least he has integrity and the courage of his convictions. Not holding my breath, by the way.

As for the former speaker, let me deploy his own words back at him:

“John Boehner, go fuck yourself.” 

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Photo: Politico