The Puzzling Mr. Kwong

November 13, 2019

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David Kwong is in love with both magic and puzzles, and his stage show THE ENIGMATIST combines the two in a thoroughly entertaining way. Besides being a professional magician (his day job), he’s also a professional cruciverbalist, or crossword constructor, so good at it that he’s sold plenty of puzzles to the New York Times, the gold standard of crosswording. 

His show is part magic, part puzzle…but then, isn’t a piece of “magic” really nothing more than an unsolved puzzle? Mr. Kwong’s through-narrative is about coders and code-breakers of history, and as he regales the audience, he also astonishes them with jaw-dropping feats. Among his film credits, he was the head magic consultant on NOW YOU SEE ME; if you’ve caught that movie, you’ll recognize the same kind of cheerful wrong-footing behind these live effects.

Some of them you will see nowhere else. For example, Mr. Kwong illustrates the principles of the crossword form and constructs a puzzle before your very eyes, all in a manner that seems spontaneous but — spoiler alert — isn’t, as we discover in the startling finale. He invites several audience members to pull random Scrabble tiles from a bag and drop them into a cup. Before an overhead Scrabblecam, he sets himself a time of 2:30 in which to use all these letters, then fails, then later reveals that every single move was deliberate. We’re beyond typical stage magic here — this is a good sleight artist and a good Scrabble player. Most importantly, he can really sell “impromptu.”

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Part of the beauty of this show is that it slices and dices traditional magic methods into something more meaningful and truly amazing. The old how-did-that-signed-dollar-bill-get-inside-the-kiwi-fruit gag electrifies when it’s joined with another major effect that proves the magician has been totally in control all along.

The audience gathers in a puzzle room at New York’s High Line Hotel before the show to try its hand at four conundrums, which wind up figuring into the show’s climax in a way we couldn’t possibly anticipate. Then into the cozy showroom, where nobody is more than thirty feet away from the artist. That doesn’t mean the closer folks get a better look at Mr. Kwong’s methods, only that he’s able to perform without over-projecting. That intimacy makes you feel you know him after ninety minutes. Many magicians greet their audience after the show; the people I saw reacted to Mr. Kwong as if greeting a friend. 

THE ENIGMATIST runs through January at the High Line, then for six weeks beginning next May at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. After that, who knows? It’s an enigma. But if you ever find yourself anywhere near a David Kwong performance, I’ll be puzzled if you let it slip by.

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A locked box holds a big surprise at the end, but you have to be a very good puzzle solver to open it.


It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

October 2, 2019

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In the space of a week recently, I heard two professional actors mispronounce “Biloxi,” the city in Mississippi. Each one said “buh-LOCK-see,” which is how it looks, instead of the correct “buh-LUCK-see.” The first was the would-be romantic lead in THE ROSE TATTOO, a Tennessee Williams play set on the Gulf Coast, where Biloxi is. Even a heavily accented Sicilian, which the actor was playing, would have known that word. He also flubbed “Pass Christian,” another coastal town, by pronouncing it like the religious devotee instead of the proper “kriss-tee-ANNE.” (Let me assure you that the playwright, a New Orleans habitué, expected to hear the genuine, er, patois.) The second was Danny DeVito in Tim Burton’s live-action DUMBO. Buh-LOCK-see again. His character also should have known better because his circus had just traveled through the region, and he’s telling someone that he made a purchase there. If you would like to hear the word pronounced correctly and enjoy yourself at the same time, just listen to my favorite cover of Jesse Winchester’s beautiful song.

Back to real life. Maybe you remember the joke in SHOWGIRLS in which the Elizabeth Berkley character feigns sophistication by bragging that she’s wearing “ver-SAYSS.” (If you don’t remember, count yourself lucky: it’s one of the worst movies ever made.) Tee-hee, the other characters and we in the audience know it’s really “ver-SAHCH-ee.” Well, it turns out the joke is on us sophisticates, because Donatella Versace says that her last name is actually pronounced “Versach-eh,” not “Versach-ee.” That’s gotta be irritating.

Mispronunciation, especially of such proper names, is frequently used in pop culture to depict naivete, a lack of or disdain for wisdom and knowledge. But as we have just learned from Signora Versace and the two Bilocksians, naivete is not exclusive to the Jed Clampett family. There was a perfectly fine dialect coach on ROSE TATTOO, but I’m sure she was hired to work on the Sicilian part, not the Southern part. Besides, that same coastal town also tripped up one of my boyhood idols.

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As a grade schooler, I really enjoyed the early-morning kids’ television show CAPTAIN KANGAROO, the SESAME STREET of its day, which aired on CBS for 29 years. The warm, gentle host was played by Bob Keeshan, and over the years he became like a kindly uncle — in hindsight, one of the first indications of how affecting tv can be on impressionable minds, though the Captain was careful to use his powers only for good. But one day it happened. He flubbed “Biloxi” the same way DeVito did last week. It was a tiny little error, but it stopped the younger me cold. In an instant it sunk into my naive brain that adults were indeed fallible. That day, Captain Kangaroo taught me more than he’d intended. You may laugh, but I didn’t. 

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When you flub a proper name, it says one more thing: you ain’t from around here, whether it’s rural Oregon (“it’s Willamette, dammit!”) or a fishing village in Maine. General Tadeusz Kościuszko was a Polish-Lithuanian war hero who fought not only for his native country, but also in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. So he’s revered both in Europe and here in America, where there’s a bridge named after him in New York state, and a town named after him in Mississippi (minus the “z”). How you pronounce that name depends on where you are. Up north it’s “kuh-SHOOS-ko,” but in Oprah Winfrey’s hometown it’s “koz-ee-US-ko.” (You’d expect the more elaborate one to be for Yankees, wouldn’t you?) There used to be a practice called “four-walling” of B-movies, cheap flicks like THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. Rather than use an expensive major distributor, the producer would simply rent out individual theaters for a week or so, all over a televised region’s reach on the same week, and blast out tv spots listing all the towns which would get the attraction. We could always tell an announcer was from the Northeast when he got to “kuh-SHOOS-ko.” Ain’t no such place down here. 

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Believe me, I sympathize. For example, I have to stop and think whenever I want to utter the name of that distinguished Napa Valley appellation, St. Helena, because I’m tempted to pronounce it like the Montana capital. That’s always been what I’ve heard while reading the word, and it’s hard to shake. I finally came up with a mnemonic, “Catalina,” because the proper pronunciation rhymes with that. But I still have to go offline for a second before I open my mouth.

Sometimes a little thing like this can even cause marital discord, as with the couple who were driving down a Southern California highway and passed an exit sign reading, “La Jolla Parkway, 1 mile.” “Ah, we’re at La Jolla,” said the driver. “La HOY-a,” replied his wife. “But the sign says ‘La JOLLA’!” “Yeah, but it’s Spanish: La HOY-a!” “No way!” said he. “Let’s TAKE that exit, pull into the first place we see, go inside, and ask somebody!” So they take the exit, stop at the nearest place, go inside, and tap a guy on the shoulder. “Sir, could you please help us settle a little argument? Please tell us where we are, and say it VERY SLOWLY.”

The guy stares and says, “BURR…GERR…KING.”

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I Saw This In Brussels (It’s Scatological)

September 3, 2019

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Satan Defends The Constitution

August 12, 2019

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I missed HAIL SATAN? at Sundance last winter — you can’t see ‘em all. But I’ve just spun the DVD, and man, is it something. It’s one of those documentaries that opens your eyes and changes your perspective. It’s more than entertainment, it’s enlightenment.

Hold up, there. I didn’t become a Satanist after simply watching a movie. (See the “Satanic Panic” below.) But what did happen was that my prejudices regarding The Satanic Temple — the subject of this beauty — were completely upended, redefining my inner regard of “Satanism.” Which was exactly, precisely, the point, both of the filmmakers and the Satanists.

First, let’s anchor The Satanic Temple. You may have noticed the people who have peacefully and nonviolently opposed the placement of a giant replica of the Ten Commandments on public property in the Bible Belt. Their method is by legally applying to set alongside it an equally giant statue honoring Baphomet, the man-goat, bat-wings extended, the embodiment of Satan. (And, in one storied incident, they succeeded, at least for one day.) Before I saw this movie, I assumed they were political pranksters, like the Yes Men or the Yippies. But pranks these are not. These people are dead serious in their beliefs, yet those sincerely held beliefs are not what you may think. (They might indulge themselves in a little fun sometimes; note the question mark in the film’s title.)

Now, if you are a devout who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, some of what will follow may strike you as blasphemous. Fair warning. TST, as I’m going to call the group hence, doesn’t want to injure or restrict or delimit your faith in any way. Believe whatever you like, with their compliments. They just don’t want you to impose your own particular beliefs upon the rest of the country. 

You frequently run into the trope, “America is a Christian nation.” Um, no, actually it isn’t. Most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), but many of them were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. You will search in vain for the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, except for the Signatory section: “…the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” Let one of the Founders explain: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”

Yes, but what about “one nation under God,” and “In God We Trust”? As we learn in this film, both are artifacts of the Red-Scare era. The Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the phrase “under God” until 1954. “In God We Trust” became the national motto in 1956, not 1776, and first appeared on paper money the following year. Those who say America was founded as a Christian nation have it exactly backward: the Founders wanted to escape religious persecution and establish a pluralistic republic. Furthermore, those giant Ten Commandments stone blocks that to this day adorn small towns all over the country? Most of them came not from the hand of God but from the publicists of Paramount Pictures and Cecil B. DeMille, who distributed 4,000 six-foot granite tablets to municipalities around the country to promote their 1956 blockbuster movie. Their original partners, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, kept ’em coming for years afterward.

Okay, we may not be a Christian nation, but why worship the Evil One, and doesn’t that mean dancing naked around a fire and drinking blood? No, those are the fantasies conjured by Hollywood movies and the thousands of parents who thought playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to heavy metal music drew their little darlings to Satanism during the “Satanic Panic” of the Eighties and early Nineties. It proved to be as bogus as the Salem witch hunt or Joe McCarthy’s debunked commie counts during the similar Red Scare. Those imaginary covens and spooky chants are not what TST is about, not anything of the kind. 

TST members do not espouse evil. They do not endorse violence or physical harm of any kind. We see one leader of a local chapter basically get drummed out of the organization for giving a speech in which she advocates violent revolution, and there have been other internecine skirmishes off camera, but if you’re speaking for TST you toe the line. In fact, the Satanists don’t really “worship” anything. To them Satan is a mythical fallen angel who dares to question God, and if you were brought up in a religious household, you might have had some of the same questions. Satanists would put it this way. Considering Bible verse as literal truth for a moment, when the serpent persuades Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge while God prefers that she and Adam remain ignorant souls in Eden, is the snake really the bad guy? When God orders Abraham to sacrifice his own son and then relents, is that an act of charity? How about the bullying of Job? When Satan suggests to a starving Jesus that he take food and water, does that suggestion do harm? Yes, TST might be stretching points, but that is the point.

To put it clearly, these Satanists don’t even worship Satan. According to TST co-founder “Lucien Greaves” (who cheerfully admits this is not his given name), “Satanism is a non-theistic religion, meaning we don’t venerate a personal Satan or deity; we recognize it as a metaphorical, mythological construct. For us Satan is iconic of the ultimate rebel against tyranny. We also place the highest value on rational exploration and the pursuit of knowledge.” TST (based in Salem, Massachusetts, natch) is only a religion for tax purposes, just as is Scientology. Rather than dogmatic ritual, TST espouses seven tenets for interpersonal behavior that make at least as much sense to me as do the Ten Commandments. 

What they object to is the rule of a theocratic society, particularly the stranglehold of the religious right. “Some people would think it ironic, but I’m probably most popular in the Bible Belt territories,” muses Greaves. “People there seem to understand our relevance more and more.” I always thought these folks were doing, you’ll pardon the expression, God’s work by acting to remove theocratic icons from public spaces using rational jujitsu: if you get yours, then we get ours. As TST well knows, most town councils would give the hook to their Commandments rather than have to stare at Baphomet every time they walk into the courthouse — but the attendant lawsuits are expensive and they move at glacial speed. 

I don’t want to make this flick sound too weighty. It’s hilarious to watch down-home folks try to find legal ways to stop TST from erecting something they obviously view as a monstrosity. And one can never be entirely sure how firmly TST tongues are placed within their cheeks. But these are very smart, very devoted people who will absolutely not countenance the establishment of any official state religion. The Satanic Temple is not the ACLU. But by visually showing the general public what their religious icons look like to nontheists — kinda how the man-goat looks to them — TST is coming after the same thing.

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A typical DeMille promo installation. The movie had already been released by now, but with the Fraternal Order of Eagles behind the project from the start, it took on a life of its own.

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TST’s response. For my money, it’s the children who make it hilarious. In real life they wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing.

8/13/19: Today the Church of Satan tweeted me: “That film has nothing to do with us or the religion of Satanism.” The first part is absolutely correct. Here is an amusing comparison between that group and the subjects of this film. And in the spirit of free speech, here is the Church of Satan’s official response.


Ten Years Ago (On A Cold Dark Night)

July 27, 2019

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One decade ago today, we (that is, I) published our (that is, my) first post. Ensuing entries have not arrived all that often, violating rule #1 of blogging, Keep ‘Em Coming. They’ve been freewheeling in the extreme, violating rule #2 of blogging, Stay In Your Lane. And they’ve varied in length and intention, violating rule #3, Keep It Simple, Stupid.

All that’s why this site is still nothing more than a little club for likeminded ponderers with no particular rules or requirements, even after having been “Freshly Pressed” (that’s a good thing) twice by our host, WordPress. Recently I began working on another blog for a different group of people and I’m trying my best, on their behalf, to observe all those pragmatic rules. It’s true: they really do have a salutary effect on activity. But the very personal legato dreamland right here is where I prefer to play. Though I really do want you to enjoy visiting my blog, frankly I’m doing this more for myself than for you. This exercise helps me remember exactly how I felt at the moment I was writing. Better even than a photo. This blog is a fantastic gonzo diary, especially since I strain to make every word in every post as true as my skill will allow. It really pays off when you re-read years later. Trust me.

My posts are erratically timed, sure. I only put one up whenever I feel like it. But then, I’ve managed to accumulate almost 300 of them — because I’ve never missed posting in any single calendar month over the last ten years. So that’s sort of a schedule, isn’t it? It’s an inner one that forces me to the keyboard, and for me, the starting is the hardest part. (RIP, Tom Petty.)

I was ten years younger when I began this, yet I’m still happily tapping the keys. Maybe I’ll still be doing that ten years hence; I sure hope so. I wonder what sort of culture we’ll have become by then. Hopefully not Eloi. Just kidding. No, I’m not.

Meanwhile, amidst all the pomp and celebration, I’d like to state for the record what should be obvious, but never gets articulated frequently enough:

Thanks.


How To Stick It To The Man

July 10, 2019

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Funniest book I’ve read in a long time wasn’t written by a humorist, not exactly. Most of it was written by legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. That makes it even funnier.

HOW TO BECOME A FEDERAL CRIMINAL is a guide to the craziest, most arcane federal laws that are still actually on the books. They’re either in the United States Code (“USC”) if they were statutes passed by Congress, or the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”) if they were rules set by executive branch departments and agencies, but they are the no-lie law and you can definitely be punished if you disobey. Author Mike Chase is a criminal defense lawyer who operates the @CrimeADay Twitter feed, and he’s never at a loss for material. This is essentially a greatest hits compilation, styled tongue-in-cheek as a handbook for potential lawbreakers.

It’s a daunting task, even though Mr. Chase limits himself to the federal code and the overwhelming majority of convictions in the U.S. are for violations of state laws, of which we have fifty different sets. But we’re going to set those aside for now. (Although the “Assimilative Crimes Act” allows the government to adopt any state crime from the state where fed property is located and deem it federal.) The USC/CFR code alone has grown so vast that nobody really knows its scope: “Lawyers from the Department of Justice once tried to count all the federal crimes on the books and gave up. Since then, others have tried and failed.”

Mr. Chase begins with everybody’s favorite federal crime, the one I’ll bet you’ve considered committing at least once if you haven’t actually done so. You know, the mattress tag that says DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG UNDER PENALTY OF LAW. It’s a real law, and breaking it is punishable by fines and up to a year in prison. But it wasn’t intended for you: in fact, “ultimate consumers” like you are exempt. It’s intended instead to punish unscrupulous mattress dealers. Even the most risible laws on the books are there for some reason: as Mr. Chase writes, “we get many of our laws from people doing dumb, gross, and dangerous things.” And, “Sadly, time has shown that the crimes people will commit in the national parks are as limitless as human stupidity itself. Park visitors have been arrested for taunting bison, taking selfies with bears, and urinating into Old Faithful.”

The U.S. Code splits some interesting hairs. Although it is of course a federal crime to deface paper money, “purely recreational coin mutilation” is fine. So flatten a penny on the railroad tracks or in a penny press machine to your heart’s content; that’s for small-timers, chumps and fancy-pantses. This book is for people who affirmatively want to become actual federal criminals. 

The breadth of the long arm of the law is, well, breathtaking. Here are a few examples, out of context (where they are funniest). You may not use a falconry bird in a movie that isn’t about falconry (film crews actually use lookalike birds or CGI to avoid breaking this law). In 1979 McDonalds discontinued its popular miniature coffee-stirring spoon to avoid running afoul of 21 U.S.C. § 863(a)(2), which prohibits mailing “drug paraphernalia,” after an anti-drug crusader testified to Congress that the “McSpoon” would be just jake for snorting cocaine. If you sell shingle-packed bacon, you’re a criminal if customers can’t see at least 70% of a “representative slice” through the clear plastic on the package. You may not pledge or accept stolen explosives as collateral for a loan. (Stolen explosives, mind.) There are only three forms of pasta with federally mandated shapes and dimensions, “macaroni,” “spaghetti,” and “vermicelli”; ziti and rotini are in the ristorante equivalent of Sergio Leone’s Wild West. You may not hold a child over a moat at the National Zoo. (Remember: dumb, gross and dangerous.) “Knowingly and willingly” moving a table on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ground can make you a con. Piracy laws dating from the 18th century are still valid, even on the Great Lakes. 

Stupid laws can definitely wear thin quickly beyond one-a-day Twitter length, but two features save this book from drudgery. First is the author’s droll sense of humor. His offhand remarks liven up the most idiotic of statutes. Reporting that swine sexual odor, or “boar taint,” is prohibited, Mr. Chase notes, “Aside from being a great metal band name, boar taint is said to smell like a mix of sweat, urine, and feces. Again, not unlike a metal band.” You may not take a cat on a raft trip in the Grand Canyon, causing him to observe, “The sad part about this rule is that it bars cats from doing the thing they are known to love most: white-water rafting.”

The second is a series of deadpan illustrations, drawn by the author himself, that sell the satirical perspective of a how-to book. With the innocence of a Fifties educational film, they underline the mundanity of the United States Code and make you struggle to imagine what godforsaken real-life behavior it took to get these things codified into law. 

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Mr. Chase winds up by swerving into bizarre but true corners of the U.S.C., by naming actual, genuine lawsuits that have been brought in federal court: United States v. Twenty-Five Packages of Panama Hats, United States v. Seventy-Five Boxes of Alleged Pepper, United States v. Thirty-Dozen Packages of Roach Food, and my personal favorite, United States v. 11 1/4 Dozen Packages of Article Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo Fly Powders for Drunkenness. He also details how cigarette lighter manufacturers are required by law to test the safety of their lighters on at least one hundred children between 3 1/2 and 4 1/4 years of age by deliberately letting the toddlers play with them.

But the pièce de résistance comes in 1971, when the USDA Forest Service introduces a cartoon character named Woodsy Owl. You may remember his slogan: “g-ve a h—t, d-n’t po—ute.” I didn’t print that because it’s against the law to use this slogan for profit without the prior approval of the Secretary of Agriculture, and no blog post (there are ads below) is worth facing federal hard time, Jack. The hilariously banal testimony before both houses of Congress, with Mr. Chase carefully redacting the protected phrase, is laugh-out-loud funny. Leave it to Rep. Gene Snyder (R-KY) to sum it up: “Angela Davis is loose. The Chicago Seven are loose. Ellsberg is loose after giving away the secrets of the country and so on. Now we want to send somebody to jail for saying, ‘G—- a h—-, d—- poll—-.’”

Sometimes stuff like this can make you irritated. But Mr. Chase is such a genial host that ineptitude is reduced to entertainment. Don’t take the government so seriously, he says. That’s not a bad message for these times.

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Making an unreasonable gesture to a passing horse is illegal too.

 

 


Fighting Ignorance With Ignoreance

June 24, 2019

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Last Tuesday night, Donald Trump “officially” launched his 2020 re-election campaign with a rally in a nearly full Orlando, Florida arena. Nothing new was said, because Trump has never really quit campaigning. By my count, before Orlando he had held at least 88 electioneering rallies — you know, the ones with the red hats and the yard signs and the group chants — since winning the 2016 election. 

But something new did happen Tuesday night. Almost all the cable networks cut away long before the speech was over (but not before CNN broadcast the crowd yelling, “CNN SUCKS!”). Only TASS, I mean Fox News Channel, showed its viewers the entire 76-minute campaign commercial. For that is what it was, and I hope the mass media have finally realized that they helped this mess happen by bestowing on Trump a fortune in “earned media.”

“Earned media” is basically free publicity. You get it when the media cover you on their dime rather than accepting your payment for advertising. In the 2016 election, Trump benefited from earned media in two ways. According to data from tracking firm mediaQuant, he received $5.6 billion worth during the 2016 campaign — more than the combined spending of every other candidate who ran for president that year and an order of magnitude greater than Trump’s likely actual net worth. This also allowed him to dominate news coverage while expending relatively little on advertising, or “paid media,” much less than other candidates were forced to spend. In other words, the media were complicit in Trump’s election, and it’s starting to dawn on some of them that they facilitated his rise.

In hindsight, handing Trump a huge, free megaphone seems awful, but it isn’t hard to understand how it happened. Trump is a walking, talking outrage, combining ego and bombast with staggering ignorance and amorality. He was vigorously covered because nearly everything he said was pure-dee batshit. You might not choose to broadcast a circus geek biting the head off a live chicken, but if he’s running for president, it’s great tv. During the campaign Trump lied repeatedly and merrily. He used profanity. He condoned violence. He cruelly made fun of people’s physical appearances, including a disabled man. He denigrated a war hero and the family of a veteran killed in the line of duty. Impromptu words spilled out of his mouth nonsensically, as if he was reading jumbled refrigerator magnets. He used crude grade-school nicknames for his opponents. A Donald Trump appearance was riveting: nobody could predict what crazy bile would vomit from his mouth, because he kept defining propriety down. So this was somebody you couldn’t look away from, like a teetering tightrope walker or a crashing NASCAR driver. How far can he go before he implodes? Will people swallow this too?

When Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes, he was probably literally correct. (“Well, he must have had a perfectly good reason…”) His base is anchored by viewers of his popular tv show THE APPRENTICE, in which the four-time-bankrupted star (technically it is his corporations which have declared bankruptcy, not Trump himself — but let’s face it, no U.S. bank will lend him money any more, which is where Russia comes in) played the carefully scripted role of a shrewd businessman. And since it was a “reality show,” his fans bought it as real. But in point of fact, Trump has faked his way through life just as he’s faking his way through the presidency, and what we elected was not a canny dealmaker, just a game-show host. He wasn’t Moses, only Professor Harold Hill. The media created Trump the tv star before Trump the candidate.

I’ll never forget the early press conference when Trump first bypassed a question from CNN by saying, “you’re fake news,” and then moved on to somebody else. It was just one of what turned out to be many head-spinning moments to come. Did he just say a legit journalistic organization was “fake”? Since then, “fake” has been redefined to mean anything Trump doesn’t like. The maddening thing is that “fake news” really does exist: the Russians used it masterfully to promote Trump’s election. But in two short years he has coaxed normal, well-meaning, low-info people into distrusting truth itself. We’re in Orwell territory (“Ignorance Is Strength,” to be precise), except that Trump and his people thankfully tend to be too dense to rule on purpose; the innate fecklessness and absurdity of Trumpworld are obvious, sometimes even humorously so. Yet real damage is still being done, and sometimes one feels powerless against the relentless tide of shock, shame and nausea that the Trump presidency induces in rational citizens. But he is not invulnerable. One of his key weaknesses is there for all to see.

Remember when he was stuck in the White House last Christmas during the 35-day government shutdown? He whined on Twitter that he was “all alone,” because even this dimwit managed to comprehend that it would make horrible optics to play golf at Mar-A-Lago while thousands of dedicated public servants scrambled for a paycheck to replace the one they normally earned. A source close to the White House told New York magazine that Trump dislikes the entire production surrounding Christmas, “because it’s not about him!” This person added, “If it were about him, he’d love it.” This same juvenile lust for attention is why Trump plans to hijack Independence Day with a self-aggrandizing speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Otherwise, the Fourth of July wouldn’t be about him either.

This is an important fact to remember. We all know Trump craves the spotlight. But the flip side of that is, he can’t stand being ignored. So that’s what we have to start doing. 

I’m not recommending that we quit reacting against his policies. Letting your voice be heard on substantive issues is one of the foundations of democracy, and if we want to save ours, we’d better be louder than ever. But we don’t have to make everything about Trump any more. So don’t put a Trump rally on the air at all; let Fox News serve red meat to those who actually believe he was exonerated by the Mueller report. Don’t repeat his answers when they are meaningless: take that airtime away from him. (“Are we going to war with Iran?” “You’ll find out.”) Find ways to talk about issues rather than personalities, science rather than science denial, fixing a broken immigration system rather than sneering and blowing it up, jobs for the middle class instead of tax cuts for the richest, affordable health care rather than ceremonial White House tables full of fast food. 

If you want to wallow in Trump’s boorishness, well, that’s what Colbert and OUR CARTOON PRESIDENT are for. Also, simply follow his Twitter feed for a heapin’ helpin’ of presidential lunacy. But don’t give him the media attention he so desperately needs, without which he’s nothing because there’s no there there: his image is the only thing he’s got. Lose the cameras and he loses oxygen.

Unlike Trump, I am self-aware enough to appreciate that I’ve just ignored my own advice by writing this very piece. Yet more ink about Trump. But there are two things he hates: being mocked (cf., his overheated responses to Alec Baldwin and his startled reaction when the entire world laughed in his face at the UN) and being ignored. So I’m going to take my own medicine. I’m going to try my best to ease back on social media posts about the man, comment less frequently on personal Trumpian idiocy, and concentrate on what really matters. Not just beating him, but beating back the shallow cult of personality that got him to Washington in the first place.

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New York magazine’s July 8-21 issue, featuring the same idea.


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