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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about that for a moment.

DANGEROUS, ILLEGAL, AND PREVALENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MR. KAVANAUGH GOES TO WASHINGTON

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

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

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

As Mark Joseph Stern writes in Slate:

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

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

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

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

Just kidding. We know the answer, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIDDLE ME THIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

But her emails…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Submission”: The American Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it quickly got a lot worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what ultimately brought the two groups together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Amish were big fans of the beards.

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

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

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

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

Then there was the, uh, Jewish question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inshallah. Praise the Lord.

**********

Dear Man Booker Prize selection committee:

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

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

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

Pete’s argument is simply this:

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

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

So far so rational.

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

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

CALL ME CRAZY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP, DONNY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his followers will obediently, enthusiastically sign on.

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

“Yep,” said I.

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

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

A NOUS LA LIBERTE

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COWARDS AND OPPORTUNISTS: A FIELD GUIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CASSANDRA VS CHICKEN LITTLE

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

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

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

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

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

I could go on.

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

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

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

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

But here’s a hint.

 

This Just In: Russia Wins Cold War

Putin Kissing Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath, everyone.

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

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

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT’S MY MOTIVATION? (WHITE HOUSE EDITION)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAGING MR. OCCAM

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

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

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

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

David Frum put it very well in The Atlantic:

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

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

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

Five Blind Mice

Five Blinds

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

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

JUDGE NOT

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

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

Now I’m not so sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah—not the best couple of weeks.

TONY TONY TONY

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

Thanks a lot, Tony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This part isn’t:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURT AND SPARK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MITCH’S LEGACY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALAS POOR MERRICK

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

Oh, but it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MUELLER CARD

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

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

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

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

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

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

 

 

 

 

Dear Huddled Masses: Go F— Yourselves

Der Spiegel beheading

Can you believe we’re having a national debate about whether the US government should rip children from their parents and keep them in cages? That’s how far we’ve fallen since November 8, 2016.

I began writing this essay several weeks ago as a general survey of the Trump administration’s deeply xenophobic anti-immigrant philosophy, which is at the very core of what Trumpism is all about. In the interval, the issue has been forced into the spotlight by the dystopian spectacle of armed agents of the US government literally taking small children away from their parents by force, warehousing them like animals, and holding their parents (sometimes indefinitely), with no mechanism for ensuring they’ll be reunited, while the Attorney General cites Bible verses as justification, the White House Chief of Staff nonchalantly tells us the kids will be “put in foster care or whatever,” and the President of the United States—who is of course at the center of this whole stomach-turning campaign—dishonestly claims it’s the Democrats’ fault and he can’t do anything about it, even as he defends the policy as a negotiating tactic on Capitol Hill.

Are you kidding me??????

Trump’s announcement yesterday that he would end the separation policy—after weeks of a blatantly dishonest, contradictory, and typically Trumpian defense of it—signalled a tacit admission that this policy was a loser for him. Not surprisingly, it’s a half-assed fake fix that presents dramatic new problems of its own. More to the point, the poisonous factors that led to this crisis in the first place are by no means neutralized by this hasty tactical withdrawal.

So let us dive into the mentality behind what will surely go down as one of the most indefensible, jawdroppingly cruel, and patently un-American programs pursued by any administration since the internment of Japanese-American US citizens during World War II.

AND THE WINNER IS

Even before the revelation of what was going on at the US-Mexico border, Trump’s stance on immigration was arguably the most purely atavistic and irredeemable aspect of his administration.

It’s a horserace, I know, to single out just one area as the worst in a presidency as gobsmackingly shitty from top to bottom as this one. But here’s my logic.

As bad as Trump’s policies are on defense, the economy, taxes, the justice system, the environment, and almost any other issue you care to name—and to the extent that these chaotic, transactional spasms of executive activity can even be called “policies”—most of them at least have some discernible logic behind them, venal though they may be. To wit:

Trump’s bellicose, drunk-uncle-shitting-on-the-dancefloor-at-the-wedding-reception approach to international affairs pleases the hawks (some of them anyway).

His blessing of the gang rape of our land and water and other natural resources is a gift-that-keeps-on-giving to the oil industry.

The shameless flim flam of his neo-trickle down economics delights the 1% and the Republican donor class, which is the very root of this entire monstrous kakistocracy and the ongoing, indefensible willingness of the GOP to stand by it.

And so forth.

I’m not arguing that any of these constituencies are justified in their positions. On the contrary. But I am conceding that at least Trump’s actions serve a pragmatic or political strategic goal in each case, even if that goal is wrongheaded in the extreme.

But what is underlying Team Trump’s relentless, unmitigated hatred for immigrants? Unlike these other areas, there is no practical benefit to this vicious, inhuman stance. Indeed, although illegal immigration is the hottest button, and one with the added benefit of a similarly reactionary-pleasing “law-and-order” component, Trump and his advisors have an undisguised animus toward even legal immigration, and “outsiders” full stop.

Why, and to what end?

It cannot be attributed to anything other than sheer, unadulterated racism and xenophobia…..which is to say, hate. 

99 PROBLEMS BUT IMMIGRATION AIN’T ONE

Notwithstanding the right wing’s hysterical and utterly unfounded claims (which Trump of course gleefully leads), there is no concrete problem that his ferocious demonization of newcomers and attendant policies are addressing. Beginning in the Obama years, illegal immigration into the United States hit its lowest level in over a decade. Many American industries, from farming to tech to the military, rely on a steady influx of immigrant labor—some of it illegal—from the humblest undocumented migrant worker in the lettuce fields of Watsonville to the most educated and technologically savvy coder on a H-1B visa in Silicon Valley.

Trump’s entire xenophobic demonization of immigrants and foreigners at large, and all that it entails—the Wall, the end of the visa lottery, the obliteration of DACA, the Muslim ban that claims to keep out terrorists but doesn’t correspond to the countries that are its main exporters—is a solution in search of a problem.

I hear you saying, “But Trump’s racism does serve a practical purpose for him: it riles up his base!” Undeniably true. But that is not the same thing as serving a practical policy goal.

All of the aforementioned policies in all those different areas excite his troglodyte followers, from pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, to making the Sierra Club’s collective head explode by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, to shredding post-2008 restrictions on the financial industry designed to avoid another crash, and on and on.

But his immigration policies do nothing else besides give his base a boner. They serve one purpose and one purpose only: hurting people who are not US citizens sheerly for hurt’s sake, and as a bonus, enthralling that racist minority of Americans who take sadistic pleasure in their suffering. It’s therefore hard to conclude that they are driven by anything other than irrational, reptile brain tribalism.

To state the blindingly obvious, the reason that immigration issues are the very heart of Trumpism is because that is what most purely and directly speaks to the racism and unmitigated ethnic hatred that is the core of this “movement,” such as it is.

Don’t talk to me about how globalism alienated the white American working class, the Democratic Party’s neglect of a demographic that was once solidly in its camp, and so forth. By now we know very well that while those were certainly a factor in the rise of Trump, they are far from the whole story…..and the continuing perpetration of that myth plays right into Trump’s tiny hands.

One only has to look to the issues on which Trump chose to launch his political career—and throughout it consistently animated his supporters—to grasp what excites them the most: hating on brown and black people. Indeed, studies have shown that this euphemistic, loosely defined “white nationalism” more than almost anything else, including economics, is the primary indicator of who does or does not support Trump.

In other words, Trump’s chief appeal to the majority of his followers is not in spite of his racism and bigotry, it is precisely because of it.

HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE (IF THEY’RE ASSHOLES)

Undisguised racism and xenophobia are the very wellspring of Trump’s political career, from the vile birtherism that first put him on the political map in 2011, to the Trump Tower speech four years later in which he announced his candidacy with the infamous lie characterizing Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.

He got the most rapturous cheers at his rallies when he railed about these “foreigners” and the “big beautiful wall” he was going to build to keep them out. (Save, perhaps, for the “lock-her-up” Hillary-demonizing, which is essentially about misogyny, racism’s beloved twin.)

He angrily insisted that a Mexican-American judge could not be impartial in a lawsuit against Trump University, attacked a Gold Star family because they were Muslims, and took office with an insane nativist rant (penned by Stephen Miller) that invoked “American carnage” at the hands of the foreign horde.

He made the Muslim ban—that’s what he repeatedly called it and that’s what it is—his first significant act in office, and subsequently refused to condemn white supremacists, even when one of them murdered a woman in cold blood at a pro-Trump rally, instead defending neo-Nazis as “very fine people.”

He gave the very first pardon of his presidency to Joe Arpaio, the poster child for criminal abuse of power and the institutionalization of racism in law enforcement.

He had delighted in pushing the buttons of liberals and whipping up his base by attacking African-American professional athletes, men whom he calls traitors who deserve to be fired and even deported for having the temerity to think the First Amendment applies to them. Even now he rails about MS-13 as the bogeyman du jour, and spins horror stories about caravans of bloodthirsty South American criminals heading toward our border.

He has directed his most juvenile temper tantrums—even worse than his repeated complaints about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—at his DHS secretary, Kirstjen “Dr. J” Nielsen, over her failure to “secure the border” (“We’re closed!”). Those tirades were reportedly so vicious that she considered resigning, before turning to bald-faced lies on his behalf. (Also: she’s had to give up Mexican restaurants.)

Little noticed among his other horrors but highly telling, he continues to insist that the Central Park Five—for whose execution he once called—are guilty and ought to be imprisoned even though DNA evidence has exonerated them.

But perhaps most galling—at least until the current border debacle—was Trump’s blasé non-response to the humanitarian disaster of Hurricane Maria, which killed some 4600 Puerto Ricans, devastated the island’s economy and infrastructure, and left it even now—almost a year later—a disaster area. It is impossible to avoid the obvious reason for Trump’s apathy: he doesn’t think of Puerto Rico as part of America, or its brown-hued citizens as fellow Americans.

I could go on.

We see the hoofprints of this same philistine mindset in other quixotic Trump policies, like his wanton use of tariffs and his eagerness to start trade wars—policies traditionally opposed by free trade Republicans—or his strange desire to break up NATO and insult our G7 allies—again, contrary to a longstanding GOP bent, at least on the former count. Apparently the Very Stable Genius subscribes to the paranoid presumption that all foreign relations by definition consist of the US being “taken advantage of” and “laughed at” (a persistent Trump bugbear). At the heart of both these impulses is the same pathology that underlies his stance on immigration: a reactionary fear and distrust of the Other.

Accordingly, as Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post, Trump has undeniably emboldened the lunatic fringe of his party when it comes to immigration, race, and related matters, and in the process moved the GOP center-of-mass rightward. (I don’t recall any neo-Nazis in the Bush, Reagan, or even Nixon administrations.)

When it comes to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Trump has betrayed American principles in numerous other ways as well, such as slashing the number of refugees the US will accept. The fact, is, Trump (abetted by people like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller) don’t just want to stop illegal immigration: they want to severely limit any kind of immigration at all. Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post:

(I)t has become undeniable that Trump’s overriding goal on immigration is to reduce the number of immigrants in the United States to the greatest degree possible. As Eric Levitz notes, Trump moved to end temporary protected status for various groups with no credible rationale for doing so and even though U.S. diplomats have warned that it is dangerously bad policy. And as Trump’s “shithole countries” comment confirmed, his main driving impulse on immigration is white nationalism—rolling back the current racial and ethnic mix of the country at all costs—and this is shaping policy.

In short, Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist and is more than happy to let the world know it. And for all their protestations to the contrary, ultimately that is precisely what a frighteningly large segment of his followers like about him.

MAGA indeed.

CANCER VS. LEPROSY: YOU MAKE THE CALL

No one should be shocked to learn of the hypocrisy on Trump’s part on the topic of people coming to America. His own mother was a Scottish immigrant, and his paternal grandfather came to the US from Germany at the turn of the 19thcentury, although as late as the 1980s Trump was still pretending his family came from Sweden. (See my essay Herr Drumpf: A Thought Experiment).

In 2001 Trump’s Slovenian-born girlfriend mysteriously scored a coveted EB-1 “Einstein visa” for “individuals with extraordinary ability.” That visa eventually enabled Melania—now Mrs. Trump—to bring her parents to the US as legal permanent residents, a practice her husband would later attack on the campaign trail as “chain migration,” in the language of nativist screechers. (His first wife Ivana was also an immigrant, for what it’s worth, making him two-for-three in the foreign spouse department.)

So in fairness to Donald, he isn’t against immigration full stop. Per Sargent, he has recently proclaimed how much he likes the idea of more immigration from lilywhite countries like Norway; it’s just people coming from the “shithole” ones like Haiti and countries in Africa that he’s against. QED.

But in light of what a winner racism has been for Trump politically, and the almost entirely marketing-oriented role of his bigoted policies, might we begin to wonder if the animus behind it is even genuine? The question is a version—writ large—of the familiar debate over whether Trump himself is truly the godawful racist he regularly appears to be, or merely using racebaiting as a political strategy.

I guess my answer would be: does it fucking matter?

I suppose it does, academically speaking. It’s an intriguing philosophical query. Is it more immoral to hold despicable views, or only to pretend to hold them in order to energize the true scumbags out there so they’ll support you? I’m not sure. But I don’t want either kind of person as a dinner guest, let alone President.

So let’s leave that to the historians, and to Almighty God when Donald Trump stands before Her on Judgment Day. The net effect for us is the same….which is to say, toxic.

Would you rather die of cancer or leprosy?

I spoke about this issue of the practical function of xenophobia with the Cuban-American filmmaker Jose Nestor Marquez, formerly vice president ofproduction and development for Univision, and a strong critic of Trump’s immigration policies. New York City born and raised and now based in Los Angeles, Jose offered this textbook definition of how autocrats have scapegoated vulnerable populations throughout history:

There is a subtle but terribly important distinction here. When Trump starts his campaign, he shits on Hispanics in a very public way—the very first thing he does after getting off that escalator. But here’s the thing: I don’t think he cares about Hispanics, Mexicans, etc. He doesn’t think especially ill of them. He hates everyone. Hispanics are just a marker; they’re a stand-in. They let Republicans say to voters who feel they’re on the outside of the party: “YOU are now on the inside because we will push the Hispanics to the outside.We will humiliate them and terrorize them but not you, because you’re with us.” Literally, the Wall is in-group, out-group. 

 Maybe we all know this. Maybe it’s impossible to be a Hispanic and not respond with substantive claims. Absolutely Hispanics must express themselves, and the legal challenges to this horrible ethnic cleansing must be increased. But, on some level… it DOESN’T MATTER! Because the antipathy and the violence are not informed. It’s not specific. It’s precisely because Trump and his followers don’t know Hispanics and have no understanding of Hispanics that they use them as a marker. (And the data shows this; the least Hispanic areas in the country are the most xenophobic.) They’re using Hispanics because of a curious paradox. Hispanics are visible (there are taco trucks on every corner) and yet silent (no major law firms, no studio heads, no governors, hardly any national legislators, etc.) You can easily reach out and slap them and get away with it. And they use the most vulnerable Hispanics on the planet—families seeking refuge—for the cruelest theater of identity. 

So the cultural response has to be centered on the arbitrariness of this violence. We have to expose how lazy and shallow it is. The animus is not based on centuries of living together or on some religious identity. It’s a matter of convenience.

ENSEMBLE OF CRETINS

Unsurprisingly, the people with whom Trump has surrounded himself also offer a dead giveaway to this xenophobic bent.

The logical addition of former Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon in the late summer of 2016 supercharged the nativist element in Trump’s campaign, as Bannon’s entire political existence has been based on stoking white resentment and hate.

A Hobbesian immigration policy appears to be the lifelong dream of Jeff Sessions (along with his extreme hatred of weed), a passion so strong that some believe it the thing that has made him willing to endure insults and humiliation from his boss that long ago would have driven out any previous Attorney General.

And of course Sessions brought with him into Trumpworld one of the most consistently vicious voices on the topic, the odious little Stephen Miller, a callow, smirking collegiate provocateur whose face is just begging to be punched. Nativism is a lodestar for Miller, who by some accounts is the driving force behind the separation policy.

Even once highly respected retired generals Mike Flynn and John Kelly both made sharp right turns into Islamo- and xenophobia that made them attractive to Team Trump, to the point where numerous former colleagues have professed not even to recognize them anymore.

The onset of Flynn’s bitterness is usually ascribed to his dismissal as director of the DIA, although clearly that dismissal itself was driven by behavior that had already become erratic. Kelly’s transformation is usually chalked up to the death of his son in combat in Afghanistan, though what that has to do with bigotry toward Mexicans and black people is unclear. In any case, Kelly’s tenure at as head of the DHS was marked by Sessions-like hawkishness on immigration; he has also distinguished himself with a dishonest attack on an African-American congresswoman that he refused to recant even when he was definitely shown to have his facts dead wrong. (See Notes on the Niger Ambush.)

Kelly further betrays his bigotry with comments like these, which he made to NPR (and please don’t write and tell me that just talking to NPR proves he’s not a bigot):

The vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13….but they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing….They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws….The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

Kelly has his facts dead wrong: as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out, “The best evidence suggests that undocumented immigrants integrate well and commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.”

But the real irony is Kelly’s own family history, which—spoiler alert—does not involve passage on the Mayflower.

Seven of Kelly’s eight great-grandparents were immigrants (four from Italy, three from Ireland). All of them were working class and had little formal education, and at least two of them never learned English at all, even after decades in the US. As Kelly himself might say, none of that made them, ahem, “bad people.” Somehow they managed to assimilate, didn’t they? Hey, one of their descendants even became a four-star Marine general and the White House chief of staff. Pretty impressive for a bunch of uneducated foreigners.

If, as is widely reported, Kelly is miserable in his job as Trump’s major domo and designated punching bag, it’s nothing less than he deserves.

Speaking of the Auld Sod, let us not forget Mick Mulvaney, the current embodiment of “the grotesque and and stereotypical character of Irish identity in America,” in the words of Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, a title previously held by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. More floridly, O’Hehir calls Mulvaney “the dark-hearted leprechaun of the Trump White House, who single-handedly combines all the worst propensities of Irish America in one shamrock-festooned package.” To add to that, Mulvaney is also son of the Confederacy, a former GOP congressman from South Carolina and Tea Party firebrand—a lethal combination. O’Hehir:

Mick Mulvaney is like a stagnant pool collecting the long, swirling current of Irish-American doubt, shame and self-hatred, which has manifested all too often as bigotry, cruelty and a false or exaggerated sense of racial pride. The Irish came to America as miserable and despised immigrants, subjects of both a quasi-genocidal colonial conquest and a pseudo-Darwinian social experiment (during the Great Famine of the 1840s). As (Tom) Hayden wrote in 2002, they gradually “became white, became conservative, became superpatriotic,” and did everything possible to separate themselves from African-Americans, the one group clearly below them in social status.”

This is not to single out the Irish as somehow particularly racist (itself a hateful stereotype). It’s simply a predictable replication of the pattern of each generation of new arrivals attempting to gain some heightened social status by shitting on the one that follows.

That said, one would think that a hundred years after the great influx of Irish immigrants that Lord of the Flies mentality might have abated a bit. I guess not.

LAW & ORDER: A LA CARTE EDITION

Which brings us back to the atrocity currently taking place on the United States’ southern border.

Throughout this debacle, the right wing mantra has been, “These people are breaking the law! They deserve what they get!” No doubt these self-described hardliners see themselves flatteringly as “tough love” types—realists—as opposed to bleeding heart liberals and other snowflakes who would open the floodgates and let the wretched refuse flow in.

But of all the scummy arguments Trump and his true believers have mounted, this appeal to “law and order” is perhaps the most vomit-inducing. This from the most criminal presidency in modern history, and a man who relentlessly attacks his own DOJ, AG, FBI, the courts, and the rule of law at large? Gee, Team Trump sure is picky about whose crimes they demand be punished.

Above all, these craven hypocrites argue that a brutal policy like this one serves as a deterrent.

First of all, I’d like to see some empirical evidence that a policy like this has a deterrent effect at all. (The DHS’s own numbers suggest that it does not.) Absent that, we can’t even begin to have a rational discussion about the severity of the problem relative to the extremity of the countermeasures.

Except that we can.

Per above, we do know the numbers for the first part of that equation—how bad is the problem?—which is effectively nil. So why the fuck are we engaged in brutal, cruel, and draconian policy of taking children away from their families—indefinitely in some cases, and with criminally negligent lack of accountability—all to address an issue that is all but non-existent? What does it say about the United States that we would do this to children, and worse, to stop something that is not even really a problem?

The deterrence defense is utterly dishonest in any event, as in some cases ICE is keeping children separated from their parents even after those parents are released from custody. Likewise, it is also breaking up families who have come here legally, seeking asylum and following the rules to the letter. As The Washington Post’s Salvador Rizzo explains: “Undocumented immigrant families seeking asylum previously were released and went into the civil court system, but now the parents are being detained and sent to criminal courts while their kids are resettled in the United States as though they were unaccompanied minors.”

But let’s set that aside for the moment. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that there is a problem and that deterrence is called for.

Does that justify cruel and sadistic countermeasures disproportionate to the crime (that “crime” being—need I remind you—fleeing poverty and political oppression for a better life)?

As Nick Kristoff writes in The New York Times, if separating children from their mothers and fathers is a good deterrent, why not do even better and have ICE shoot them dead on sight, East German border guard style?

By that logic, let’s not stop there. (Channelling Jonathan Swift now.) Just shooting them dead? Don’t be soft. Why not slowly torture them to death in front of their parents? that ought to deter their folks from crossing the border. Why not minefields? Why not bomb Mexico and wipe out the whole root of the problem?

May I submit the obvious reason we don’t do that sort of thing? Because, in theory, we are not sadistic, soulless barbarians.

(I say again: in theory.)

The point, it goes without saying, is proportionality. And in this case, we are watching one of the most savage and unforgivable practices imaginable, utterly disproportionate to the situation, and all to stop an essentially non-existent problem. As WaPo columnist Catherine Rampell explains, “The Trump administration’s goal is to inflict pain upon these families. Cruelty is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of White House immigration policy; it is the objective.”

Given the lack of a practical goal beyond mindless atavism, another way of looking at this situation is to ask whether securing the border is really the goal here at all. What we are seeing, as Masha Gessen writes, are the actions of a police state (and she should know). “Hostage-taking is an instrument of terror. Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror.”

Should we not be in the streets right now demanding an end to this practice? You’re damned right we should.

PARADE OF RATIONALIZATIONS

The standard argument in the right wing media is that this policy of taking children away from their parents isn’t new. (“Thanks, Obama!”) But as usual when it comes those journalist manqués, the truth is rather different.

While it’s true that children were sometimes separated from their parents in immigration detention under previous administrations, what’s new in the last six weeks is the no-quarter-given scope and inflexibility of the enforcement.

In the past, few border crossers were detained and prosecuted; mostly they were just sent home. Under Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy, however, the intent is to arrest, incaracerate, and prosecute everyone, which at last count has necessitated the separation of over 2300 children from their parents, with insufficient facilities, personnel, childcare resources, medical capability, and even simple bureaucratic systems in place to do so. Hence the arbeit macht frei scene at a Texas Wal-Mart.

In response, the administration has vacillated between defending what’s happening and—insanely—claiming it isn’t happening at all. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg reports, DHS Secretary Nielsen—embattled from both sides—lies through her teeth when she stands in front of a microphone and says with a straight face that ICE is not separating familes. (Does she think we’re blind, or just idiots?) Meanwhile White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway contradicts Nielsen with a different lie when she says, “The president wants this to end,” thereby admitting that it is in fact happening, while echoing the falsehood that it’s somehow beyond his control.

In other words, the Trump administration can’t decide if it wants to own this policy proudly or disavow it and blame it on someone else. Predictably, the Insane Clown President himself does both, depending on how his morning cheeseburger is sitting in his bowels.

This past week I watched a few minutes—about all I could stomach—of Trump’s speech to the NFIB, one of the most despicable spectacles yet in a presidency rife with strong candidates for that honor. It was like listening to the scummiest right wing radio shock jock spewing racist bile and unadulterated lies. Trump loves children, he hates this gosh darn policy, he wishes it could end but his hands are tied, the Democrats forced it on us, but it’s good because it’s keeping those brown-skinned rapists and murderers from killing your own kids. Oh, also, he can use it as leverage in Congress to get his great big beautiful border wall.

So let’s be clear about this lie.

There is no law that mandates these separations.

Speaking to CNN’s Kate Bolduan, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) blew up that lie (even as he perpetuated the bullshit of the alleged deterrent effect): “President Trump could stop this policy with a phone call. I’ll go tell him: If you don’t like families being separated, you can tell DHS, ‘Stop doing it.'”

Orrin Hatch and a dying John McCain are among the other GOP senators who have seconded the point, as did Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who wrote on Facebook: “The administration’s decision to separate families is a new, discretionary choice. Anyone saying that their hands are tied or that the only conceivable way to fix the problem of catch-and-release is to rip families apart is flat wrong.”

But by now we should hardly be shocked that Trump spouts lies as naturally as he breathes. His recent announcement that he is caving to pressure and ending the policy serves as a humiliating confession that he could have done so all along, and was full of horseshit in pleading otherwise.

The senators cited above represent a minor groundswell of Republicans—including some evangelical leaders, in a rare break with Trump—who spoke out against the policy, which is itself remarkable, given their cowardly deferrence to the White House on almost every issue heretofore. Whether it was out of genuine principle or mere recognition that this policy is a disaster with voters is beside the point, even though I think we know the answer. As John Cassidy writes, “Even usually gutless pro-Trump Republicans weren’t willing to enter a campaign season defending a policy of tearing infants from their parents and keeping them detained in tents and metal cages.”

All four living former First Ladies also spoke up in opposition, as did the current one—albeit repeating her husband’s lie about who is to blame. But grading on a curve, having half a heart in the Trump family puts you at the front of the class.

But writing in The Atlantic, McKay Coppins has posited that the aforementioned Stephen Miller sees even the backlash over what’s going on at the border as helpful to Trump, rather than a fiasco that hurts him. This belief depends on the assumption that sufficient numbers of Americans are so coldhearted and venal that they actually like seeing children suffer, so long as they are brown in color of course. Miller is so cocksure of that assumption that he puts it at 90-10 in favor of this horrific policy.

Even by the most damning assessment of the sadism of the American people, that figure seems off. Despite his impressive record as an alt-right troll going back to high school, Herr Miller may have miscalculated Americans’ appetite for images of wailing children ripped from their mother’s breast and thrown in cages by armed ICE agents. Indeed, the current hue and cry exposes the fallacy at the center of his formulation: if this uproar is good for Trump because 90% of Americans support his immigration policies, why is there such uproar in the first place?

But this approach is not new for the White House. Allegedly, Miller (and Bannon) had the same view of the shitshow that was the implementation of the Muslim ban in the early days of the Trump presidency: an act of theatrical provocation the very outrageousness of which was deliberately designed to delight a certain segment of Trump’s base. And it may have succeeded on that count. The question is whether solidifying the support of a group of people who already worship Trump is a winning strategy if it alienates and likewise energizes an overwhelmingly larger group of decent human beings who are also registered to vote.

Next November will begin to tell the tale.

RIGHT THIS WAY UP THESE STEPS, MISS ANTOINETTE

Last December, Ivanka Trump, speaking about Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore and his history of sexual relationships with underage girls—a man for whom her father campaigned—famously remarked, “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.”

It was already ironic then, and it’s even more ironic now.

You know who else there’s a special place in hell for, Ivanka? Smug faux Marie Antoinettes who stand by while their fathers and their fathers’ minions prey on children in similarly unconscionable ways. (I’m an atheist, so when I say “hell,” I’m being purely figurative. But I know some legitimate Christians who will back me up on this.)

Ivanka’s verbiage seems to be contagious in Trumpworld: just last week, Trump economic advisor Peter Navarro hyperbolically announced that there was “a special place in hell” for Justin Trudeau, for the mortal sin of having politely opposed US tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, eh? (The VIP section of hell is getting kind of crowded.)

Why am I singling out Ivanka when there are many others in the administration much more culpable for this particular (and particularly abhorrent) policy? Because she has made a point of positioning herself as a great defender of women’s rights, absurd as that is. It’s one thing for a retired Marine general like John Kelly to be callous about this policy; it’s another for a supercilious little fake princess who fancies herself a champion of American motherhood—whom Rudy Giuliani inexplicably thinks is a beloved figure to Americans—to be complicit in that way.

Some might even call her feckless.

We are now told that Ivanka and Melania helped convince Donald to end the policy with an executive order. If so, two cheers for them. Given their collaborationism in the current regime, it’s the least they can do.

EMMA LAZARUS, WELFARE QUEEN

In closing, it behooves us to remember that Donald Trump didn’t create this xenophobic fever in the American metabolism: he merely fed a sickness that was already there, with roots that go back to the earliest days of our country. But it is a shameful indictment of all of us as a people that he was so handsomely rewarded for this strategy.

With this new order ending the separation policy, Trump will surely portray himself as a great humanitarian for solving a crisis that he himself created (after weeks of dishonestly claiming he didn’t have the authority). Moreover, this “solution” still maintains the zero tolerance policy on border crossings, and merely provides for the imprisonment of children with their parents rather than apart from them. Nor does it include any plan to deal with the 2300 children already taken from their parents, let alone reunite them. The picture of caged families—children and all—will continue to be a horrific one, making it clear that we have not yet reckoned with the real problems: this brute force approach to border crossings, an unworkable approach to immigration at large, and the ugly strain of nativism that runs through the American soul and that gave us this nightmare in the first place.

There is a meme on the Internet that asks about those countries throughout history that wantonly arrested and imprisoned large numbers of their residents without any kind of due process and sent them to prisons and concentration camps, sometimes indefinitely. The meme asks: “Did you ever wonder what the hell the other people in that country were doing while that was happening?

The answer is: “Whatever you’re doing right now.”

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Illustration: Edel Rodriguez for Der Spiegel

 

Funny Funny: A Conversation with Alan Zweibel

17309602_1887217528179769_4452677798800802579_nLegendary comedy writer Alan Zweibel began his career penning jokes for Catskills comics while he was still in college. In 1975 Lorne Michaels hired him as one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live, where Alan developed a special partnership with Gilda Radner, helping create iconic characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, and John Belushi’s stable of easily irritated samurai. Since then Alan co-created and produced It’s Garry Shandling’s Showwon a Tony for co-writing Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, co-wrote the Broadway shows Gilda Live and Martin Short’s Fame Becomes Me, as well as writing his own Off Broadway plays Happy, Comic Dialogue, Between Cars, Pine Cone Moment, and Bunny Bunny (adapted from his bestselling book). His other books include Clothing Optional and Other Ways to Read These Stories; the novels The Other Shulman (which won the Thurber Prize for American Humor) and Lunatics (with Dave Barry ); the children’s books North and Our Tree Named Steve; and most recently For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them, co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach, for which he recently completed a 17-city book tour. Alan has two new books that are soon to be published: A Guide to Judaism from Feh to Oy again with Barry and Mansbach, and the cultural memoir Laugh Lines: Forty Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier, in which he serves as a tour guide through American comedy from the Catskills to the present.

Among Alan’s other awards are five Emmys, a Tony, two Writers Guild of America Awards, and a WGA Lifetime Achievement Award. As a performer he has appeared on SNL, Curb Your Enthusiasm (where he was a consulting producer), and is a frequent guest on late night talk shows including many appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman (for which he also wrote) and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He can often be seen on stage at New York’s Triad Theater in the long-running revue Celebrity Autobiography!.

In 2012 Ferne Pearlstein and I interviewed Alan for our documentary The Last Laugh, out on Netflix June 24th. For this conversation, we spoke at the legendary Friars Club in midtown Manhattan, where Alan was recently named Friar of the Year for 2018.

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THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thanks for sitting down with me, Alan. It feels like there’s a weird thing in comedy right now where it’s going in two opposing directions at once. On the one hand, there’s the PC movement, which is restricting things, but on the other hand, because of the current political situation, it feels like comedy has been energized as a means for social commentary.

ALAN ZWEIBEL: Absolutely. Comedy is supposed to give us a look at ourselves, it’s supposed to be reflective, it’s supposed to a commentary on us as individuals and on society as a whole, politically speaking, religiously speaking, in terms of the sexes, and so on. So there is a dichotomy.

If you look at late night shows, every night you’ve got Kimmel, you’ve got Colbert, you’ve got Fallon, Seth Meyers, and then Bill Maher on Friday nights, you’ve got SNL on Saturday nights, you’ve got Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah. It used to be I’d come home at night and (my wife) Robin would say, “Hi honey.” Now her first words are, “Did you hear what that asshole did today?” Meaning Trump, of course.

TKN: It’s exhausting.

AZ: One of the things that was so cool about this book tour I just did was that I was in all these different hotels, and I didn’t know which channel was which, so I ended up watching a lot of Law & Order and no MSNBC and no CNN. I can’t take it anymore. If you turn on Morning Joe or New Day with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota, it’s like, “What did he tweet already this morning when I was still sleeping?” So I think that humor is necessary, that acknowledgement of it, letting us all know that we’re not individually crazy.

TKN: You said before that comedians have always been kind of truth-tellers, and it’s never felt more so than now, when the news has lost so much credibility. Because there’s the fake news, by which I mean Fox—which is just ridiculous and not even worth discussing—but as a result people don’t trust the legitimate news either. They think everything is politicized and therefore relative and all equally suspect.

Arguably the legitimate media has had a lot of trouble figuring out how to cover a liar like Trump, because they’re simply not used to someone that brazenly dishonest, they’re not equipped to handle a demagogue like that, and they wind up enabling him. So people look to comedians. They look to those people you just named.

AZ: Absolutely. They look to them for the truth. It’s a reality check, in a way. Sometimes just out of curiosity I’ll watch CNN and then I’ll turn to Fox to see what their slant is on the same thing. And I wonder, “How is it possible that they see it so differently?”

TKN: You’re tougher than I am. I totally believe in the idea of not just indulging your own point of view, but when I jump over to Fox or one of those channels, I can’t take it for very long.

AZ: No no no. I just do it for maybe a minute, if that, because I’m just going “No….No….No….”

There’s such a divide right now. I don’t do anything political; I don’t write political comedy. I leave that to people that are smarter or more bent that way than I am. But how about laughing at ourselves? That doesn’t exist right now.

On the book tour, five of the cites were in Florida on the Atlantic coast, and they all went swimmingly. But the last night before we went off to Washington was in Naples. I thought South Florida was South Florida; I didn’t know that Naples, being on the Gulf Coast, was different. And there were four of five hundred people, which is a lot for a book like this, and I just made an innocuous comment about Fox News, and I got hissed. And this was in a temple!

And then we were in Nashville and Robin went into a store and some kid in there—sixteen or seventeen—made some derogatory reference to Jews. Robin identified herself as a Jew and the blood drained from this kid’s face, and then he said something about her being an exception. And you go, “Whoa, what year is this?” My grandmother and grandfather, who were immigrants, used to tell me these kind of stories when I was growing up. I just figured, naively so, “Oh, that’s in the past.” But it’s come back in droves.

GUY WALKS INTO A BAR

TKN: Even beyond politics, it feels like there are changes being forced on comedy by technology. Which is not something you often think about as an influence, the way it is on music or film or other arts.  

Ferne and I and some friends saw Chris Rock do his stand-up act in Atlantic City last Thanksgiving, and you had to surrender your cellphone before you went into the venue. They put it in a neoprene pouch and sealed it with a shoplifting-proof plastic ring. I knew he had stopped doing colleges, but I’d never seen that before. But I totally get it. I heard Chris say in an interview how in the old days he’d go into clubs and work out his material, but he can’t do that now because it’s immediately recorded and goes straight to the Internet.

AZ: I get that. It started a while ago, even before cellphones. There used to be a respect for process. I had a deal with Castle Rock in the early ‘90s, I did a couple of movies with them and Rob Reiner, and they would show a cut to some audience fifty miles away in the middle of the desert, a focus group that would rate it and you would see what people liked and what they didn’t like, what edits you had to make, and maybe you would adjust. And then all of the sudden critics started going to those screenings and reviewing movies that weren’t released yet, or even finished yet.

TKN: I think Chris’s comparison was, “When Prince makes a demo, it doesn’t wind up on the radio.”

AZ: Yeah. I don’t blame Chris at all, especially if he is trying stuff out. We saw his Netflix special, Tambourine. It’s really good, and it’s really reflective, funny but in a different kind of way, he talks about the breakup of his marriage in a really insightful way.

Someone else I saw recently at Radio City who I think is just amazing is John Mulaney.

TKN: I love John Mulaney. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t go to that run at Radio City. It was like seven shows and I couldn’t make it to any of them.

AZ: We went the first night, took our daughter Sari, who’s 28. The craftsmanship, the writing…..He did this wonderful thing where he was talking about Trump but never said Trump’s name. He used the analogy of a horse running through a hospital. “A horse doesn’t belong in a hospital; we’re trying to get the horse out of the hospital.” And it was really, really funny.

TKN: I did see the Netflix special that was taped from those Radio City shows, Kid Gorgeous. The robot bit, the gazebo, Mick Jagger hosting SNL….it was fantastic. For my money he’s one of the best stand-ups out there today.

Who were the comedians that inspired you when you were growing up? You mentioned George Carlin; he was one of my favorites.

AZ: Yeah, Carlin’s genius for me was his love of words, the wordplay. “Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?” Jumbo shrimp. All that stuff. I love words so that’s what attracted me there. But I also loved Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Woody Allen’s early movies and albums, Jack Benny—you know, the usual gang. I grew up watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, so there was Carl Reiner’s imprimatur, and it was the kind of life I wanted to lead. You’ve got this guy Dick Van Dyke, who’s married to a very pretty Mary Tyler Moore, they have a kid, they have a nice house in New Rochelle, and he spends his days at the office lying on a couch joking around with Buddy and Sally. I thought, “I want to do that!” So those were my influences.

And then a little bit later it was Mad Magazine, which not as biting satire as the Lampoon, which came along later, which I also discovered. Marx Brothers movies—I discovered them through Groucho’s TV show You Bet Your Life. I said to my mom and dad, “Who’s that old guy?” and they said, “You don’t understand.” And then I learned about Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera.

TKN: So when did it first occur to you that you could that for a living?

AZ: That wasn’t until later. There’s a penchant that you have for writing, and for making your friends and family laugh, or writing something funny in class—that’s just an instinct that you have. But I didn’t know I could make a living at it until I started selling stuff. Because that means strangers like you. After I graduated college I started writing for stand-up comedians in the Catskill Mountains, and the fact that they would buy jokes from me led me to think, “Oh, maybe I have something to offer.”

Even before that, when I was still in college in Buffalo, I used to write jokes for Dick Cavett. He had a show, and I’d mail the jokes in on a Monday and they’d arrive at their offices on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and then I would watch his monologue and hear my jokes, or some version of them. So after I graduated college, I thought, “OK, maybe I can do this.”

TKN: But how did you crack that business the first time? Did you go up to Dick Cavett’s producer and say, “Guy walks into a bar….”?

AZ: No, no. My mom and dad had gone to see Engelbert Humperdinck in Lake Tahoe and there was a Borscht Belt comic named Morty Gunty who opened for him, and my mother ran into him in a coffee shop the next morning and told him she had a son who wants to be a writer. So I started writing for him, and then other comics up there started asking for material, because the word got out, “Hey, who wrote that joke?” “Oh, there’s this kid, Alan.” I wrote for the Friars’ Roast. I wrote for special occasions. I wrote for a stripper….

TKN: She told jokes?

AZ: I don’t know. I never went to see her. It was Fanne Foxe, if you remember her…

TKN: Oh, she was in the paper yesterday!

AZ: What did she do?

TKN: It was the story of her and Wilbur Mills and the Tidal Basin incident.

AZ: I got a phone call from an agent, saying “Do you want to write for Fanne Foxe?” I just basically wanted to see her breasts.

LIVE FROM FT. LEE, NEW JERSEY

TKN: So how did you go from there to getting on SNL?

AZ: I got tired of writing for those guys. They were twice my age. So I took the jokes they wouldn’t buy from me and went and did them myself at clubs in New York. And Lorne came looking for writers for this new show of his, and then he asked to see more jokes, and I had all these jokes that I had written for these guys, so that became my audition.

TKN: Did you know Lorne before?

AZ: No, he saw me and approached me.

TKN: I’m sure you’re tired of telling these stories, but what was it like in those early years at SNL?

AZ: It was fabulous. There’s a documentary that just came out that Robin and I are executive producers on, called Love, Gilda, that covers a lot of those early years.

Those days were really fun. We were all mid-20s, it was our first job in TV, and the only rule we had was to make each other laugh. And we put it on TV! Lorne’s feeling was that people out there are like us, so they might tell their friends about it.

TKN: As a fan, it was such a watershed, because it was a younger generation—people your age—doing a kind of humor that just wasn’t on TV before that.

AZ: Right. The logo for SNL very early on was “Saturday Night Live” spray-painted as if it was graffiti on the marble wall of what was then called the RCA Building. And that was emblematic of who we were.

TKN: And that’s how it felt to the viewers. For me as a teenager, it was like a rock & roll kind of thing.

AZ: Yeah, it was Off Broadway. Whereas if you look at all the other variety shows that were on in those days, whether it was Sonny and Cher or Flip Wilson or whoever, they came out in tuxedos and Bob Mackie gowns. We threw Belushi out there in his fucking tie-dye thing with his stomach sticking out.

TKN: I will confess to some fan-boyism here, because when you and I first met for The Last Laugh, I knew that you had created Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella with Gilda, and “Mister Richard Feder of Ft. Lee, New Jersey,” and I knew your face because every so often on Weekend Update they would show your picture playing some character.

AZ: Yeah, whenever they needed a big Jew to look dead or drunk or have electroshock therapy, they’d push me out there. I used to get so nervous….now I do all the talk shows and everything and it’s not a problem, but back then I got really nervous. There was a sketch—I think it was when Hugh Hefner hosted the show—where I was a corpse in a casket and I was so nervous that if you look closely, the corpse’s hands are shaking. (laughs) But Gilda used to just give me a flask and I was like, “OK, fine, I’ll go out there.”

TKN: Did you and Gilda immediately spark to each other? Because that partnership was so special.

AZ: Yeah, from the beginning we hit it off. She was from Detroit by way of Second City in Toronto, and I’m from Long Island so I knew New York, my dad always worked here, so the city was easier for me. So she was like this—I wouldn’t say scared girl in a big city, but she needed a tour guide in a way. So we started hanging out together and we just made each other laugh.

We wrote together a lot. I wrote for everybody—jokewriting was my craft, so I was drawn to Weekend Update and Chevy and everybody else that succeeded him there, and I wrote the samurais for John Belushi and things like that. But those guys taught me another kind of comedy. I hadn’t even heard of Second City before I got to SNL, so to see them make something up right in front of me, something that didn’t exist before and now it did, was really cool. It was writing, but on your feet and acting it out all at the same time. I was agog.

TKN: There was something about the combination of your sensibility and Gilda’s innocence—or the innocence that she projected, this lovable quality but with incredible comedic chops—that was magic.

AZ: We were silly. She would come up with an idea and ask me to write it—something I would probably never think of—and if I came up with something I would mention it to her and she’d just start doing it across the dinner table or in my office. We probably pushed each more than we would have pushed ourselves working alone.

Gilda once said that I brought out the guy in her and that she brought out the girl in me. The sad thing is that Shandling said the same thing to me. (laughs) When Garry and I were writing together we used to fight who was the girl.

THIS IS THE PART ABOUT GARRY SHANDLING

TKN: I wanted to talk to you about Shandling, because he’s another touchstone.

AZ: When I started writing with Garry it was like lightning striking a second time, the way it had been with Gilda. We knew each other’s moves, and it was like alchemy, the synergy, or like 1 and 1 equaling 3.

The first night after Garry and I met for the first time, he called me up, late at night—out of the blue—and he said, “Alan, my dog’s penis tastes bitter. Do you think it’s because of his diet or what?” When he said that joke to me, I just went, “Wow. There’s a mind at work over here.”

TKN: (laughs) That’s the first night you knew each other, he called you up and said that?

AZ: Yeah. He and I hit it off immediately.

We were very similar in a lot of ways, although I had whatever component one needs to have a wife and children. But Garry was smarter than me, he was very analytical. Judd Apatow just did a great two-part documentary about him, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. We’re all in it, if you haven’t seen it.

TKN: I saw it; I thought it was great. I was skeptical when I heard it was four hours—I was a Shandling fanatic from the first time I saw him do stand-up, in the ‘80s, so I could watch a ten-hour doc about him. But I wasn’t sure it could sustain that length for a general audience. But it did, in spades.

And it wasn’t just a case of a great subject carrying the movie; the filmmaking was superb. Although Garry is a fascinating character, obviously, and there was a wealth of material with all the archival footage and the diaries especially, even with all those advantages the wrong filmmaker could still screw it up. But I thought it was just superbly done purely as a piece of cinema. 

AZ: It’s really good. David Itzkoff had a piece in the New York Times about it. After Judd sent it to me, I likened it to George Harrison documentary that Scorsese did for HBO, Living in the Material World. This is not dissimilar. It’s about comedy, obviously, but the spirituality of part two: that’s who Garry was.

His memorial was really funny. I spoke, Sarah Silverman spoke, Kevin Nealon was hilarious, Tambor was hilarious. You had people telling Garry jokes and Garry stories, but there were also Buddhist monks there, and they showed footage of Garry in robes, chanting. When we left there was a feeling that I think you’re supposed to have after you go to temple.

TKN: (laughs) But you don’t.

AZ: (laughs) But you don’t.

If there is something else after this life, Garry was ready for it. After we did our show Garry and I didn’t speak for years and then we found each other again. I guess we were a little older and maybe a little bit more mature, and Garry was on a different plane. He had more trouble with this world: manners, other people…..But the next world, I think he was just ready for it.

TKN: He kind of defies the stereotype of the tortured comic, because he was certainly tortured, but instead of being self-destructive and channeling into the usual self-abuse, he went in that more spiritual direction.   

AZ: On our show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he played a guy named “Garry Shandling” so there was an autobiographical element thematically, despite the innovative ways that we presented it. Which was fun. But when he did Larry Sanders something else happened. Just a changing of the G to an L, from Garry to Larry: there was a different kind of comedy there, less cartoony and more substantial when it came to the human psyche.

TKN: But both of those shows were so towering and so influential. I remember when I first saw It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, it was so stylistically bold and clever with the form—even just starting with the title. I know that Jack Benny talked to the audience and broke the fourth wall, but building on that the way you and Garry did was so innovative.

AZ: We knew who the roots were, Benny and George Burns. But they didn’t take a little golf cart and drive from one set to another on camera.

TKN: (laughs) Right. It was the meta aspect. I remember so many things, but one that sticks in my mind is when Garry had to fly somewhere on the show and instead of the usual transition—like stock footage of an airliner—you just had a balsa wood airplane. (laughs)

AZ: I remember that episode vividly. And we’d have the audience partake in things. In some ways it was more theatrical, because instead of dissolving from one scene to another, I would have Garry say, “All right, here’s where we are in the story: it’s two weeks later and now I got to deal with this guy.” So we had fun with the form.

Whereas the material that he did on Larry Sanders was more conventional in that there was no trickery, but it was so real. And it was hilarious. Rip Torn was hilarious, Tambor was hilarious, Garry of course. Garry’s weaknesses, Garry’s megalomania, Garry’s character, Garry’s ego—Larry’s I should really say. It was an exaggeration of what Garry had inside of him, through this fictional guy. So whereas my friend Larry David calls himself “Larry David” on Curb Your Enthusiasm, with “Larry Sanders” there was a little bit of removal there. Just a little bit.

TKN: When I was watching Larry Sanders—not knowing Garry personally, of course—I felt like he was putting all of his demons into that character. That was the guy he could have become—insecure, megalomaniacal, and so on—instead of the guy he was. 

AZ: Yeah, I think so. I remember after our show ended, Fox offered Garry his own talk show, for a lot of money, and he and I went to dinner and he asked me what I thought. He was one of these people that would ask a thousand people the same question, and I’m sure many others answered the same way I did, which was, “That’s the kind of show you would make fun of. You would satirize that; you would satirize that guy. Do you really want to sit and ask some celebrity about their 9-month-old kid and how they behaved on the plane on their way here?” I’m sure I’m not the only one that said that to him.

TKN: He’d done it already. Even though it was fake, it was satire, why would he want to do it again, even “for real”? Especially after satirizing it.

AZ: I used to go with him when we were on hiatus from our show and he would guest host for Carson—I would help with the monologue and just lend support—and he always did a wonderful job and all that, but Jay (Leno) got the gig. And I understood why.

TKN: The Larry Sanders Show was so influential. It was the beginning of that single-camera, no laugh track style that influenced Ricky Gervais and The Office, that established the template for what’s become the norm in contemporary sitcom…..it just influenced everything in TV comedy as we now know it.

AZ: Yeah, prior to that, the general concern that networks had was that people at home were not going to know that it’s a comedy unless they hear someone laughing. We all said, “Are you serious?” With It’s Garry Shandling’s Show we had an audience, so there was laughter, but on Larry Sanders it was a hybrid. He had a talk show-within-a-show that had a live audience that laughed at the stuff that was happening on the talk show, but they didn’t laugh at the stuff happening in the offices because there was no audience. It was backstage. So Garry straddled both worlds and I think he did it brilliantly.

MULTIMEDIA MAN

TKN: Was 700 Sundays (Billy Crystal’s one-man show on Broadway that Alan co-wrote, and for which they won a Tony) after that?

AZ: Yeah. 700 Sundays opened on Broadway in either November or December of ’04, if I’m not mistaken. That was such a thrill. Yeah, SNL was probably the biggest thrill in my career because it was my first job, and all of sudden there’s Emmy awards and, hey we’re on television, and hey I can pay the phone bill every month without interruption of service. But what was so rewarding about 700 Sundays was that my good friend had trusted me with his life. These are characters I hadn’t met. I think I might have met his mom once or twice, I certainly didn’t know his dad because his dad died when he was 15—hence the title. I didn’t know any of the aunts and uncles or cousins or whoever else he spoke about. But the fact that Billy trusted me with those characters and with putting words into their mouths meant a lot to me. Look: he’s a Jew from Long Island, I’m a Jew from Long Island, we all have the same family. I even gave him the joke, “We all have the same families, they just jump from album to album.” 

To put words into my best friend’s mouth and to have that emotional satisfaction every single night. I’d be in the theatre, and even when the show was sort of locked, I would go every night because it was like listening to my favorite song.

And wherever I was, if I was on a book tour and I thought of something, I would email him some jokes from my hotel room because I just loved that world, I loved the characters. I didn’t know anything about jazz, but I learned it from Billy because of that show. He is such a consummate showman, whether he’s doing a mime piece or singing or acting out all the characters at a dinner table. It was almost like writing a variety show, but with one guy.

TKN: You’ve done so many different things in so many different fields: stand-up, live television, theater, feature films, books. Do you have a favorite?

AZ: There’s a pamphlet I want to write…(laughs). No, I would say live TV, which I haven’t done in so long, is the thing that gets the adrenaline going. There’s nothing better than SNL where you write something on Monday and it’s on television Saturday. And even if it’s not live, when it’s taped: every time I was a guest on the Letterman show, the running around…”OK, the audience is coming in,” all that.

That being said, I like the theater a lot. I like the long form, I like the audience, I like standing in the back to see what works and what doesn’t, I like seeing the people’s reactions, both comedically and emotionally. If you are going to do a longer form, theater is much more fun than movies, which are shot out of order and at best you’re trying to make the crew laugh. And certainly more fun than books, where you feel like a rabbi hunched over a Torah.

TV is a collaborative medium, there’s a lot of people around a table with a script saying, “Oh, you have a better joke? OK what’s your joke? That’s great—let’s put that in.” There is a synergy there. But when you’re alone, it’s all the clichés of being alone.

That’s why the last couple of books I’ve written I’ve had collaborators. I’ve had Dave Barry and I’ve had another guy named Adam Mansbach, who wrote Go the Fuck to Sleep. We’ve never been in same room writing, but it breaks up the day when you write something and you email it to each other or put it in a Dropbox and it just builds and it becomes a book.

I did that with Dave Barry where we wrote a novel together called Lunatics where it was two suburban soccer dads who have a feud. It starts off in this little New Jersey town and maybe peace will be brought to the Middle East as a result of what happens, maybe there’s a new pope, let’s see how we can escalate it. Dave wrote one guy and I wrote the other guy, and he had no idea what I was going to write and I had no idea what he was going to write, so it was like having a deranged pen pal. Something would come into the inbox and you’d go “Whoa!”

TKN: So you would write in character?

AZ: Yeah, as the character speaking. My character was low-key and demure and a good citizen—

TKN: Like yourself.

AZ: Like myself. And Dave picked his guy to be bawdy and slovenly. Think of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I was Steve Martin’s character and he was John Candy’s. And so I would send him something which was a little bit more controlled, it was funny but in its anality. And he would send me something like Blutarsky from Animal House, and I would just fucking laugh and then go, “OK, now I got to not only react, but move the story forward.” So we kept on going like that.

TKN: Like that game, exquisite corpse. 

AZ: Yeah that’s exactly right. But it was a collaboration that we both got off on. So I like anything that’s either collaborative or offers a little bit more feedback. There are certain things that you write that are just so internal you can only do it by yourself, you go so deep into yourself. But the other stuff is a diversion away from the dedication and the solitude of writing that single thing.

TKN: That would make a great movie, Lunatics.

AZ: It was optioned by Universal, but by the time we handed the script in there was already a new administration who put it into turnaround. But it was very prescient, that book, because we wrote it in 2012 and where it ends with this chapter Dave wrote where we’re at the Republican National Convention and Trump is nominated to run for president which was far-fetched at the time.

TKN: God, back then that was absurdism.

AZ: Now we’d have to change it. People are still threatening to make it into a movie.

TKN: When you wrote Bunny Bunny (Alan’s play about his friendship with Gilda), that was a more solitary endeavor, I presume?

AZ: It was totally solitary. It was influenced by my wife Robin. This was about ’93. Gilda had died in ’89 and Robin said “You should write something about you and Gilda.” And I resisted. I didn’t want to capitalize on that relationship. And Robin said, “To hell with that! Your best friend died and you haven’t even cried yet!” So it was a way of mourning, it was a catharsis where I reconstructed the relationship as I remembered it. Where did we meet? Oh behind a potted plant in Lorne’s office, and all the scenes. It’s not like I was wearing a wire for 14 years, so they were these touchstone kind of events.

It was written mostly at red lights. I was living in LA and working on movies and shit, and I had a legal pad that I kept next to me on the passenger’s seat and I would just write. And when I was done I had 220 handwritten pages and I thought, “Catharsis over.” I showed it to a few people who suggested that I get it published. Gene Wilder gave me his blessing, as did Gilda’s mom and brother. That was by myself, but mentally I felt like I was collaborating with Gilda because I was reliving that stuff. She co-wrote it even though she was dead.

MAN OF THE YEAR

TKN: Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re doing next? Or is that unfair to ask a guy who just came off a 17-city book tour?

AZ: I’ve got a couple of things. I just wrote a movie with Billy Crystal, and I’m looking at my phone every five minutes to see whether or not it’s going to be greenlit. I’m writing two books. One with Adam and Dave again, because the haggadah did so well, that’s called A Guide to Judaism from Feh to Oy. (laughs) But I’m also writing a cultural memoir called Laugh Lines: Forty Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier. It starts off with me in the Catskills, but contextualized, not just me…..I’m like a tour guide through comedy, and the process, and the state of the art if you will as I passed through it and had my say.

TKN: So how does Barry participate in this? He’s as goyische as they come.

AZ: He’s Episcopalian, he’s the son of a pastor, but he is married to a Jew. Michelle Kaufman is a wonderful wonderful sports writer for the Miami Herald, she’s from Cuba, which makes her a Jewban. So Dave’s got both the outsider’s view and enough of the insider’s, so he brings a different perspective than I can, being steeped in it.

TKN: I’m in that same boat, being married to a Jewish woman. We were at a party once with like ten other couples and at one point the hostess stands up and says, “I want to make a toast to all the beautiful Jewish men here and their shiksa wives.” And everyone laughed, but we looked around and everybody there was in that kind of marriage except Ferne and me, who were the opposite. It’s getting less rare, but it used to be that we could count on one hand the couples we knew who were like us….and one of those fingers was Barbra Streisand and James Brolin. Who we don’t really know. So when we meet a couple like Dave and Michelle we feel like, “Yes! Those are our people.”

AZ: I understand. I get that totally.

People are also threatening to bring Bunny Bunny to Broadway next year for the 30thanniversary of Gilda’s death, with someone playing Alan and someone playing Gilda and then someone playing everyone else in the world. It’s playing in Chicago right now at the Mercury Theater, although that doesn’t have anything to do with a potential Broadway run, that’s another company.

It’s funny, I never saw it produced again after it ran in New York, downtown at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, although it’s always playing somewhere, local places, even colleges. But there was a production of it about five years ago at the Falcon Theatre, Garry Marshall’s theatre in Burbank, and I happened to be in LA and I went to see the show. It was the first time I had seen it in something like 15 or 17 years. And I’m sitting there, and there are two Alans watching it. One was nostalgic because I lived it, but there was also the writer in me going, “Wow, that was a good joke. I wonder if I’m still capable.” (laughs) Or, “Wow, that was smart.” So the duality was funny. If there is another incarnation of it we’ll see what happens. But if you’re going to deal with Broadway it becomes a different animal.

TKN: In closing I want to congratulate you being named Friar of the Year, since we’re at the Friars Club. 

AZ: This is a weird month because not only did they name me Friar of the Year, the Chabad named me their Man of the Year. It makes no fucking sense. I was speaking here at the Friars Club one night at the induction for new members, and as I’m leaving a man comes up to me, introduces himself, and says “Are you going to be in town February 27th”? I said, “Yeah, I think so.” And he says, “A rabbi is going to call you.”

TKN: (laughs) This sounds like a joke. “A rabbi is going to call you…”

AZ (laughs): So I go home, and the next morning the phone rings, and it’s a rabbi. And the rabbi says, “I don’t know who you are, I’ve never heard of you, but I hear you are going to be in town February 27th.”  I’m thinking, “What the fuck is this with February 27th?” So I said, “I think so,” and he says, “You want to be our Man of the Year?” I knew nothing about Chabad except they had these telethons or whatever. So I learned about them, they have schools all over, they’re building a new school on Thompson Street downtown, and they had a big reception at Cipriani’s for like 1100 people.

So I gave a speech at the end accepting my Man of the Year thing, and I had my friends Billy Crystal, Larry David, Rob Reiner, Marty Short, and David Steinberg go on tape and say shit about me. And then the rabbi surprised me onstage by announcing that they’re naming the library in the new school after me. And I got very emotional. I said, “Wow, for a writer to have a library named after him….” And the rabbi says, “It’s a children’s library.” (laughs) And I said, “Oh, you mean it’s not the one on 42ndand Fifth Avenue?

TKN: (laughs) No lions….

AZ: I was like, “To hell with you, what do I need that for?” (laughs)

So, yeah, it’s been quite a month. Friar of the Year and the Chabad Man of the Year. It’s so absurd, I know. But it’s very cool to have the library named after me.

*********

Alan Zweibel can currently be seen in no less than four feature documentaries: Ferne Pearlstein’s THE LAST LAUGH, streaming on Netflix beginning June 24th (ahem, my personal favorite, as she’s my aforementioned wife); Judd Apatow’s THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING currently on HBO; Neil Berkeley’s GILBERT; and Lisa D’Apolito’s LOVE, GILDA, coming soon to CNN.

@lastlaughfilm / #lastlaughfilm

 

Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama)

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Last March, when Trump first impulsively agreed to what became the Singapore summit, I wrote at length about the pertinent issues (Only Nixon Could Go to China….But Nixon Was, Like, Smart). Since then, many others far more qualified than me have weighed in about the meeting’s specifics and its unpredictable but worrying implications.

Now that it has come to pass, I’ll leave the after-action review to them, for the most part. Instead, I’d like to focus on what the domestic reaction says about the current state of play in American politics.

In short:

After years of assailing previous US presidents as weak for even floating the idea of talking to the brutal dictatorship that is North Korea, Trump handed Pyongyang an enormous propaganda coup simply by agreeing to meet as equals with Kim Jong Un. He entered the meeting boasting of his unwillignness to prepare for it or educate himself on the issues. Then he gifted Kim a concession the North Koreans have long sought, trading away US military exericses in the region in exchange for nothing, blindsiding both our allies in the ROK and his own Department of Defense for good measure.

As we brace for the flurry of Republican praise for Trump’s alleged “statesmanship,” consider what the right wing press would have said if Barack Obama had agreed to this summit and made this deal.

Craven submission to the nuclear blackmail of a tinpot dictator is the sort of thing that would usually prompt the Republican Party and its amen corner in the right wing media to howl “Munich!”, the red-breasted American hawk’s lazy, go-to comparison for any and every geopolitical decision point. Trump’s insane post-Singapore declaration that North Korea is “no longer” a nuclear threat even eerily echoes Chamberlain’s infamous “peace in our time,” except for being even more delusional.

I am not arguing that the current state of affairs with North Korea is perfectly (or even imperfectly) analogous to that of Nazi Germany in 1938. I am not suggesting that the DPRK is the existential threat to the US that the Third Reich was, or that the situation calls for the sort of steel-willed resolve that Neville Chamberlain could not muster. And I am certainly not arguing that it has reached the point where diplomacy is no longer advisable. On the contrary, in fact.

What I am saying is that the right wing in America is usually very quick to label every international crisis another Munich, as the analogy lends itself all too easily to the most bellicose available position in any given situation. (Who wants to be compared to those who tragically underestimated and therefore softsoaped Hitler?) Yet somehow, with this summit, which readily lends itself to comparisons to Munich……crickets. Instead, Fox Nation is already making plans to cover the Very Stable Genius’s inevitable trip to Oslo.

The long term impact of Singapore will take years, if not decades to reveal itself. But what is immediately evident is the utter hypocrisy of the right wing’s uncritical, fawning approval of it.

SUCKERED IN SINGAPORE

I hear you saying, “But isn’t this just business as usual? Ordinary partisan spin?”

Yes and no.

It’s true that we should not be surprised, as the right wing and its media handmaidens long ago ceased to operate in the reality-based world. “Bias” does not even begin to describe it, in the ordinary journalistic sense. The right wing press is effectively nothing more than an Orwellian disinformation machine.

But if we yawn and chalk up the right wing spin to more of the same, we are complicit in the continuing debasement of objective reality as a common metric for legitimate political discourse. In assessing Singapore, it behooves us to keep it contextualized in historical and political fact, and not submit to the distorted GOP fantasy. The price for our failure to do so will be steep.

I am not dismissing the unprecedented nature of what happened this past Tuesday, although I remain appalled by the recklessness of it on this administration’s part, critical of the tradeoff Trump made, and very leery of what will come next. But the reaction to it within Fox Nation says a lot about the hyper-partisan, post-truth, Bizarro World in which we now live.

The joint statement that came out of the Singapore meeting was predictably vague and short on details, let alone concrete and enforceable provisions. Kim’s pledge to work toward denuclearization is hollow and meaningless and one that no serious student of Korean affairs expects him to keep. His father and grandfather engaged in similar Lucy-holding-the-football maneuvers for decades. Indeed, the very meaning of “denuclearization” is in dispute. Historically, when the DPRK uses that word they append the phrase “of the Korean peninsula,” meaning they are including the withdrawal of US forces from the region, including the American nuclear umbrella. The same is true of the Singapore statement.

More to the point, Kim’s possession of such weapons—long sought and painfully acquired—is the very source of his power and the leverage that brought a gullible and vain US president to the bargaining table. The odds of him giving them up for any reason are less than zero.

The vaccuousness of the “deal” bears repeating.

Trump, who has long sneered at the JCPOA as a “terrible deal,” with its strict regimen of weapons inspections, controls on fissile material, detailed timeline, and severe and wide-ranging concessions by Iran, now considers Kim’s vague promise that he might someday give up the Bomb (maybe) a superior piece of negotiation on his part? (Of course he does.) It would be laughable, were it not for the 30% of Americans who believe any bullshit Trump tells them, to include the wall down south that he assures us Mexico is paying for, or that bridge in Brooklyn he wants them to buy.

The only person who made any concrete concessions in Singapore was—surprise!—Trump, who traded away longstanding US military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for a handful of magic beans. (In fact, in doing so, Manchurian Candidate-like, he parroted the DPRK’s own preferred language, calling the exercises “provocative.” Jesus Christ.)

The summit itself was already a major win for Kim; this was icing on the cake, and he got it for nothing. Ironically, for Trump and his paranoid, neo-isolationist “America First” mentality, the one that views any cooperation with a foreign country—even longtime allies—as the United States “being taken advantage of,“ it was no concession at all but a two-fer. That fact only further confirms his idiocy.

THE VIEW FROM THE NORTH

For a callow prince with a comically bad haircut given that he has access to North Korea’s best barbers, Kim Jong Un has executed a remarkable feat of gamesmanship. First, he presided over the culmination of decades of work by his father and grandfather in the pursuit of battle-ready nuclear weapons. But much more impressively, in the wake of that indisputably belligerent campaign, he has transformed his image from that of a crazy and brutal loose cannon dictator to that of a reasonable statesman actively seeking peace. That may well be a ludicrous ruse, but it is one that he has pulled off nonetheless, thanks in no small part to the gullibility of Donald Trump.

In so doing, Kim has largely defanged American hawks like John Bolton who threaten the use of force. How can the US attack someone who is being so reasonable? (Not that that would stop Trump should he get a wild hair up his ass, but it would certainly make it harder to defend in the court of global public opinion.) He has made the case for the lifting of economic sanctions, enhanced relations with Seoul, and cemented the goodwill of his friends in Beijing and Moscow. And now, to top it all off, he has maneuvered the US President into a face to face, one on one meeting as equals, affirming North Korea’s status as a great power, something both his father and grandfather long sought but never achieved. And he did it without offering anything in return beyond the same empty promises that Pyongyang has been repeating for more than twenty years.

In other words, he has played Donald Trump like a fiddle.

So much for the Art of the Deal.

Former Obama foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes noted that the DPRK’s state-run media will now be able to splice together the footage of the President of the United States smiling and reaching out to shake the Dear Leader’s hand—which he did no less than three times that I saw—and saying what an honor it was to meet him. (Whereas, as Rachel Maddow reminded us, Justin Trudeau belongs in “a special place in hell.”)

Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof described in greater detail how the summit will be portrayed in North Korea, where Kim of course has even more total control of the media than Trump does in the US:

Kim forced the American president, through his nuclear and missile tests, to accept North Korea as a nuclear equal, to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and to cancel war games with South Korea that the North has protested for decades. In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little. In a joint statement, Kim merely “reaffirmed” the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.

In other words, Singapore will only further entrench Kim’s standing at home, and allow him to press his boot down even harder on the collective neck of his beleaguered people. Trump will likewise try to spin the deal for his domestic audience, but unlike Kim, without benefit of the facts to back him up.

Kristof goes on:

The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didn’t contain. There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and it’s scary that Trump doesn’t seem to realize this. For now Trump has much less to show than past negotiators who hammered out deals with North Korea like the 1994 Agreed Framework, which completely froze the country’s plutonium program with a rigorous monitoring system.

By the way, speaking of being out-negotiated, who wound up paying for Kim’s hotel room, which was reputed to cost $8000 a night? (Obviously, Scott Pruitt didn’t help him find it.) There was talk that the US was looking for a discreet way to pick up the tab, which was beyond the means of the impoverished DPRK. Again, imagine if Obama….

I’m told that Singapore stepped up to foot the bill, saving the Trump administration having that awkward detail thrown back in its face in 2020. Not that any of its voters would be bothered.

FALSE EQUIVALENCE

When Trump first accepted Kim’s invitation to meet last spring, a widely-circulated supercut by Now This News appeared online showing Fox News reporters viciously attacking Barack Obama over the years any time he even floated the possibility of a dialogue—not even a face to face meeting—with the leaders of North Korea or other dictatorships

Needless to say, now that Trump is in the Oval Office, Fox has changed its tune. (To be specific, they have changed it to the Russian national anthem.)

A Trump supporter might counter that liberals are engaged in the same hypocrisy: to wit, if Obama made these overtures to Kim, we would heap praise upon him. It’s an allegation that merits rebuttal, as it makes a fair point, but ultimately doesn’t hold water.

First of all, there is no analogous hypocrisy because the liberal community has not issued a wholesale rejection of the very idea of diplomacy, only held the Singapore summit up to legitimate scrutiny and expressed appropriate concerns about how this particular form of improvisational diplomacy has been ginned up.

Secondly, if these moves were made by an Obama, a Clinton, or even a George W. Bush, they would have had behind them the credibility of a coherent foregin policy team and a leader who had demonstrated some grasp of statecraft—however imperfect—as opposed to one who has presided over eighteen months of transactional foreign policy anarchy.

In both of our ongoing showdowns with aspiring nuclear powers—that is, with North Korea and Iran—I would feel much more confident in the administration’s moves and much more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt if I thought for a moment that those moves were informed by careful study and understanding of the history and dynamics of the situation, or were in any way coherent, and not driven by mere narcissistic impulsiveness.

Trump quite simply hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

Speaking to MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle before Singapore took place, former CIA officer Ned Price succinctly summarized the danger at the heart of the White House’s “rush to summit.”

Price opined that Trump has a “diplomatic conflict of interest.” The US is seeking verifiable denuclearization by Pyongyang—a tall order under any circumstances. By contrast, Trump is seeking only a short term “win,” and was therefore likely to sign any piece of paper at all that he could subsequently wave around at a rally and get his fans to chant “Nobel!” That is indeed what has come to pass. Trump’s interests and those of the American people are at odds when it comes to North Korea, creating a situation in which he is likely to sell his country out for personal self-aggrandizement (hmmm).

Who doubts for a New York minute that he would do that?

HAVE I GOT A DEAL FOR YOU

Per above, the shadow of the shattered Iran deal looms over North Korea, and not only in the rampant dispartity in detail and rigor. As many have noted (me included, in a recent essay called Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal), how did Trump expect to shitcan the JCPOA and then turn around and negotiate a better deal in the infinitely more complicated Korean situation? More to the point, why would North Korea ever believe anything the US said in such negotiations after Trump petulantly pulled out of the Iran deal, largely just because he hates and envies Barack Obama? Why would Pyongyang ever think we would keep our word?

The answer is simple. They don’t. But the DPRK is more than willing to pretend to negotiate—as they long have, in bad faith—knowing that they are never going to denuclearize, that the US government with whom they are negotiating (or at least its head of state) can be played for a fool, and that by doing so they can burnish their own newfound image as a reasonable member of the international community—a member of the elite nuclear club, no less—rather than a nightmarish dystopian police state, and all at the United States’ expense. Pyongyang is already telling its citizens that the US is lifting economic sanctions, which is as untrue as Trump’s absurd claim that the DPRK is no longer a nuclear threat. Will Trump risk his newfound bromance with Kim to correct the record an call him a liar? More importantly, will the US media discover its long-lost balls and call Trump a liar?

This entire goatscrew can be laid at the feet of Trump’s delusional belief in his own superhuman powers as a dealmaker.

When questioned about his preparation for the summit, our famously lazy and intellectually incurious so-called leader engaged in a fascinating demonstration of what in quantum physics is known as superposition, saying: “I think I’m very well prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done, but I think I’ve been preparing for this summit for a long time.“

Everything in that statement is incredibly juvenile, of course, but the remarkable thing is that it is also completely contradictory. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Trump claimed to be simultaneously both supremely prepared and above the need to be prepared. That’s a mind-blowing post-Einsteinian paradox, and one I’m not sure I’m willing to buy into.

I do, however, support the idea of putting him in a steel box with a flask of poison acid.

Trump’s unearned overconfidence—his insistence that he would size up Kim in the first minute, for example—goes to the very heart of his self-image, which is his arrogant belief in his own allegedly masterly skills as a negotiator. It was a canard that convinced many a credulous voter in 2016, people who naively believed his claim that he would bring to politics the same acumen he had displayed in his business career. That might have been more plausible if Trump was in fact a good businessman. So far it is a promise he has kept only in the sense that he has brought to governance (cough, cough) the same chaos and dishonesty with which he operated in the private sector.

The truth is that Trump is possibly the worst dealmaker ever to sit in the Oval Office, and was no better in his previous career as heir to a real estate empire. What he lauds as “dealmaking” in his business career is more accurately descibed as “stiffing people,” which I hasten to point out, is not really “dealmaking” at all. When Trump had to negotiate for real, with partners he couldn’t wantonly cheat the way he did hordes of Atlantic City construction contractors, he typically got fleeced.

The early returns suggest the same thing just happened to him in Singapore.

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED

As I watched Trump and Kim disappear behind closed doors with only a pair of translators to bear witness to what was about to transpire, I marveled at what we were witnessing. I marveled that we the American people—with a little help from our Russian friends—empowered Donald J. Trump, a lifelong pathological liar and con man-cum-game show host, to go into a room with Kim Jong Un, all alone, on behalf of the American people and the Western world, to haggle over the fate of millions of human lives. What could go wrong?

Writing in the Atlantic before the summit, Uri Friedman articulated the most optimistic view of all this (not counting the absurd aforementioned world of Fox, Breitbart, et al), which is that Trump is blazing a bold new means of attacking a heretofore intractable problem. You won’t be shocked that I don’t subscribe to this incredibly generous perspective.

It’s impossible to argue seriously that Trump is some kind of foreign policy mastermind who has—instinctively or otherwise, but probably instinctively, as it’s certainly not as a result of study or experience—figured out how to solve a problem that stumped every president before him. (Writing after the summit, Friedman tempered his earlier optimism a bit, concluding that “Trump got nearly nothing from Kim Jong Un.”)

But that said, I am williing to accept the possibility that Singapore could have positive consequences, if only accidentally. Call it the “idiot savant” scenario. As I wrote in Only Nixon, there is a chance—however slight—that something good will come out of this summit, despite its reckless, ad hoc genesis; despite Pyongyang’s well-established untrustworthiness; and despite Trump’s complete ignorance, lack of preparation, and dangerous and megalomaniacal overestimation of his own, ahem, skills. The mere opening of quasi-normalish diplomatic relations between the US and the DPRK by definition presents new possibilities—and new risks. Geopolitics is by its nature fickle and unpredictable. All human dynamics are, not to put too fine a point on it.

We may get lucky, butterfly effect style. Or, despite its shoddy, self-serving origins, Singapore may provide an opening for actual diplomacy by professionals. That, however, will likely require years of diligent, thoughtful, tireless follow-on efforts by US officials…..not exactly the sort of thing Team Trump is known for, particularly after systematically dismantling the US State Department and Foreign Service over the past year and a half. Perhaps a post-Trump administration can pick up the baton and carry out that work. In that case, Donald may deserve at least some credit for the inciting incident, whatever its motivation. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.

Or it could lead nowhere, apart from a historic propaganda coup for Pyongyang, strategic neutralization of US interests in East Asia, a more dangerous situation for Tokyo and Seoul, and the further entrenchment of the Kim cult of personality at the expense of the long-suffering North Korean people. Arguably it has cost the United States and its allies on several of those counts already. Given historical precedent in dealing with the DPRK, and the nature of the people currently manning the American side, it’s hard to argue that the positive outcome is the more likely one.

On MSNBC, Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, offered a variation on the only-Nixon argument, saying that Trump’s greatest contribution here may have simply been to have opened the collective mind of the American right to the idea of talking to Pyongyang…..to have convinced them that a diplomatic approach to nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, as opposed to a Curt LeMay-like bombgasm, is acceptable.

But what makes anyone think that the right’s newfound willingness to talk rather than bomb will outlast Trump? Given the right’s propensity to excuse the most jawdropping hypocrisy—from Trump’s use of nonsecure email, to his penchant for golfing ten times more than Obama, to his shameless use of the presidency to enrich himself, to name just a couple examples—do we really expect them to extend this same logical consistency to any future president, especially a Democratic one? As soon Trump is out of the White House, any willingness to talk to the DPRK will be likely greeted with chants of “Munich ! Munich! Munich!” It is naïve to think otherwise.

HISTORY’S HARSH EYE

The long term effects of the Singapore debacle will take generations to play out. But in the short term, it offers a pointed case study in the hypocrisy and denial rife within the contemporary Republican Party and right wing America. Never a particularly clear-minded demographic, they are currently in the grip of an epic mass psychosis that is starting to resemble nothing so much as a religious hysteria, defying all reason, rationality, or common sense.

Needless to say, as Ned Price predicted, Trump is portraying Singapore as a great coup, his myrmidons are eager to believe it, and the GOP leadership is all too happy to advance that narrative, even though many of them surely realize it’s a farce. No doubt within Fox Nation this summit will go down as one or two of his greatest triumphs, neck and neck with Neil Gorsuch, which is precisely what Trump wanted.

But history will likely record it quite differently.

For in truth, it has been a cheap, cruel, and shameless charade, the sort of con that the man has long been known for, and the sort of snakeoil that only his least critical and most adoring minions would ever purchase.

Trump seized on the low-hanging public relations fruit of a photo op with the leader of North Korea, squandered invaluable diplomatic capital to do so, and came away with less than nothing in return. (Certainly far less than the JCPOA that he has long maligned, or the complex and hard-fought 1994 Agreed Framework, flawed though it was.) The only thing that distinguishes Singapore from previous “deals” with North Korea in any signficant way is the presence of a US president meeting face to face with the leader of the DPRK. But that is not a feather in Trump’s red baseball cap; on the contrary, it was a terrible concession that Donald made as he clumsily walked into Pyongyang’s trap out of sheer ego and overweening desire to make a splash.

So strike that: Trump did get something out of Singapore, something selfish and cynical, and at the expense of the American people whom he ostensibly serves. He traded away a commodity of great value to the US and the world—the opportunity to contain a dangerous pariah state and defuse nuclear tensions in East Asia—for the sake of his own glory and political advantage. That too is in character.

So I ask again, at risk of tedium, imagine what the right wing media would have said—and rightly so—if Barack Obama had engaged in this kind of empty, self-serving gesture.

In the shorthand of epic failures, there are only a few words that stand out in the pantheon of shame: Edsel, Ishtar, New Coke, and of course grimmest of all, that Bavarian capital. I would not be surprised if someday, when this mass psychosis is behind us and history looks back on the Trump era, “Singapore” too enters the lexicon, as a synonym not only for epically amateurish foreign policy blundering, but for shamelessly self-aggrandizing posturing at the expense of the common good, and over the highest stakes imaginable.

Res ipsa loquitur.

Memorial

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As a lifelong Army brat and a veteran myself, may I offer a thought on patriotism this Memorial Day?

I don’t mean the shameless fake patriotism of NFL owners, who care only about their bottom line, and even then clumsily make a wrongheaded mess of it.

Nor the strange, distorted mockery of “patriotism” espoused by John Kelly—whose service I honor and whose son paid the ultimate price—but whose twisted vision of militarist superiority-cum-victimhood I can’t abide (to say nothing of his wanton xenophobia and refusal to admit when he’s flat-out wrong).

Nor the patriotism-on-the-cheap of yellow ribbons and “thank you for your service” and “support the troops.”

And certainly not the transparently hypocritical, authoritarian-in-patriot’s-clothing demagoguery of a rich draft dodger who never served anyone other than himself a day in his life, yet now demands a military parade in his honor, threatens nuclear war, and presumes to decide who’s a “real American,” all the while conspiring with our enemies to further enrich himself and attacking the most fundamental American institutions, principles, and core beliefs—from the rule of law to a free press to equal justice for all to the military itself—thereby weakening our country in every way.

No. I’m talking about the genuine patriotism of citizens (and a goodly number of immigrant non-citizens) who gave their lives for the ideals that our country aims to represent. I’m talking about the patriotism of all those—in uniform and out—who even now, every day, are fighting to defend those ideals in the face of some of the most venal, corrupt, un-American, and truly unpatriotic leaders this country has ever seen.

True patriotism, of course, is not blind allegiance to one’s country—not, in George Jean Nathan’s memorable phrase, an arbitrary veneration of real estate over principles. It is certainly not willful complicity when our country is in the wrong, or when its course has been hijacked by illegitimate usurpers betraying everything it is supposed to stand for. (There’s a good reason why a dishonest appeal to patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.)

On this Memorial Day, we see genuine patriotism under siege more savagely than at any time since the days of McCarthy. So let’s remember what this country is supposed to stand for, and honor those who died for it, by standing up and fighting for it now.