Trumpthink Doubleplusungood

August 4, 2017

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I’ve just re-read George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, partly because I recently saw a stage adaptation on Broadway (by way of the U.K.), and partly because I can’t shake the feeling that we may be nuzzling closer to this famous dystopia.

OK, I may be overstating a tad, but the shape of reality sure feels funny right now. And that intense British stage production wouldn’t be in New York today had Donald Trump not won the 2016 election. Shortly after the inauguration and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” the novel became a national bestseller once again, and one of the show’s writer-directors sent a simple text to a producer: “84 NY?” The reply was evidently “!”

Even on my first reading as a kid, I had an unusual reaction to this provocative novel. I was most fascinated not by the “bare, hungry, dilapidated” world inhabited by Winston Smith and his fellow citizens of Oceania, or his savage climactic retro-indoctrination at the hands of senior Party member O’Brien. What really knocked me out was a device that appears about two-thirds in, when Winston opens and begins reading a secret book — with us reading over his shoulder — called THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM, written by Emmanuel Goldstein. (Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t.)

The passages we are allowed to see lay out, with cold detachment, the purpose and method of creating a topsy-turvy society in which WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The hardscrabble life of nearly all citizens isn’t some crisis caused by natural or even economic calamity. It has nothing to do with forces that can’t be controlled. Winston’s torpor and misery are visited on him deliberately, planned and sustained by the very few who are actually in charge.

We can’t see “Goldstein”’s entire book, but we get enough to divine that in a venal, bloodless way, the real oligarchs of Winston’s country — and of Eurasia and Eastasia, the two other superstates which share the planet with Oceania — have created a society of stasis, of brutal rationing in service to perpetual war (the exact enemy changes at will), of narcotized subservients who are unable to grasp that life could be better because they are not allowed to have such a thought.

What a weird, science-fictional concept, right? Except you can’t read this stuff these days without thinking of Trump and his pals.

Now I am not seriously suggesting that anyone in the Trump orbit — not Steve Bannon, certainly not the boss himself — is smart enough or even shrewd enough to manage perception the way “Goldstein” and O’Brien do in Orwell. They’re not that calculating, not that sophisticated. Their choices are instinctive. They rule from the gut. Trump can sense unease and capitalize on it — he’s probably the most naturally gifted American politician since Bill Clinton. He has a huge swath of people convinced that he’s looking out for them, even though they have absolutely nothing in common besides mutual loathing for Barack Obama. And what looks like ridiculousness to most people reads as pioneering boldness to an unshakable base whose information is carefully managed — not by Trump personally, but by a right-wing echo chamber which pronounces that his was the largest inaugural crowd ever, Obamacare is destroying America, legitimate journalists can’t be trusted and should be ignored, etc. And that’s way before we get to the Sandy-Hook-was-faked and 9/11-was-an-inside-job rants.

These hamhanded clowns couldn’t possibly create Big Brother. It’s far beyond their skill set. But whether they know it or not, they are quoting from “Goldstein”’s playbook.

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Big Brother (top) and Goldstein (above) in Michael Radford’s film whose title is also its release date, played by, respectively, actors Bob Flag and John Boswall.

The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim— for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives— is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. — Emmanuel Goldstein

This is the standard socialist spiel, far from original to Orwell, but it does heretically acknowledge middle-class aspiration. “Goldstein”’s secret is that the middle class in Oceania has been effectively managed out of existence. It’s vanishing in our real world too, through forces which are largely economic, but Trump says he knows a more nefarious secret: Others — Eastasians, Eurasians? — are sneaking into the homeland and stealing our jobs. In Oceania (its governing system is called Ingsoc, or “English Socialism” expressed in the official language, Newspeak), the notion of a happier life has been quashed. Trump’s America is no less wounded. It doesn’t look upward but backward, to a time when hard-working (ok, white) families could look at the rich and say, one day that’ll be us. What prevents them from living the dream is the enemy: Mexican workers, effete academics, “fake news,” coastal elites, the term “Happy Holidays,” take it from there. Only a drumbeat of constant cultural battle can deflect the base’s attention away from the lack of real progress. In that frail sense, war actually is peace, because…

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. [N]o change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. — Goldstein

Gosh, which political party does that remind you of? This week as I write, there’s a tentative movement toward a bipartisan sitdown in the House to try and thrash out some fixes to the Affordable Care Act — which everybody agrees is flawed. But we’re already hearing whelped, primary-scared Representatives oppose any such powwow on principle: you mean you want to meet with the ENEMY?

Fear and hatred are and always have been the animating forces that stoke the roiling conservative base. Sometimes it’s out in the open, as when Mike Flynn led the crowd in that “LOCK HER UP!” chant at the Republican National Convention. Weeks before I ever conceded the possibility of an actual Trump presidency, that moment reminded me of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”: Hillary Clinton as Goldstein. (Oceanians regularly assemble to boo and curse at a projected image of Goldstein — somehow officially deemed an enemy of the people — until it mercifully dissolves into the likeness of their hero and protector, Big Brother. All Flynn lacked was a Hillary headshot for the Jumbotron.)

Trumpkins are sometimes tagged as rebels against the 21st century GOP, which they view as soft and ineffectual. They keep any “moderate” elected officials dishonest with the constant underlying threat of being “primaried” by somebody even more crazed. But the Pubs have depended on social “wedge issues” to motivate their base since the days of Ronald Reagan, and one strays from official orthodoxy at one’s peril. Republican, Freedom or Tea, the “Party” demands utter fealty no matter what you call it.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The Two Minutes Hate in the 2017 Broadway production.

If leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. — Goldstein

Many observers look at Trump and see an crude, ignorant, incurious child-man who has no idea how to do the job to which he’s amazingly been elected. Remember, he’s really nothing more than a frickin game-show host. But to his most devoted fans that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. It’s so satisfying to think, he’s no smarter than I am, no better than I am, and look where he is. Trump’s business history is studded with failure. No US bank will lend him money, which is why he depends on Russian oligarchs who love to park their dough in real estate. But that’s all superseded by the fact that he’s been on our telescreens — oops, I mean TV sets — playing a tycoon for the better part of a decade. How can you blame people for confusing the actor and his role? TV Trump likes to growl, “You’re fired!” Real Trump desperately avoids conflict: he’s afraid of firing people in person, so instead he makes their lives so miserable that they quit in disgust. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are just the latest heads to auto-roll; at this writing, Trump is working on Jeff Sessions.

You can’t think too hard about all this, though, or else the show-biz veneer will dissipate. In fact, one of the most serious potential threats to both Big Brother and Trump is — thinking at all. One side of the cultural divide is more educated, the other less so. I’ll bet the larger cities and college towns where you live voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the rest of your state belonged to Trump. “I love the uneducated!” he crowed during the campaign. Pointy-headed intellectuals who never did a day’s honest work, ridiculous “safe spaces” for coddled crybaby students, angry protests silencing right-wing lecturers — in a Pew Research poll released in July, 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they believed colleges and universities had a negative effect on the country. In other words, most of them. (Almost three fourths of Democrats and like-minded independents thought the effect was positive.)

Trump has made a fetish out of ignorance. Behind the hollow bluster, he’s actually proud that he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. It’s easy to say, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” (By the way, whenever Donald Trump says “believe me,” don’t.) His ingrained narcissism may even actually convince him; delusion seems to be his copilot. But the tiniest bit of independent thought — “as a moment’s reflection will reveal,” as a friend used to say — can show Cloud Cuckoo-Land for what it truly is. Therefore independent thought is just as much an enemy to Trump as it is to Ingsoc. Most decent undergraduate programs have the same underlying goal: to teach students not what to think, but how to think. I can’t say the same for many schools founded and supported by fundamentalist Christians, or for Fox News, Breitbart and the other reactionary megaphones. Many people have their opinions handed to them because they are unwilling or unable to verify truth independently. In Trumpland, ignorance is strength.

…the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies— all this is indispensably necessary. — Goldstein

This is the principle behind “doublethink,” Orwell’s evil-Zen state that allows dutiful citizens to hold and believe in two contradictory arguments simultaneously, or to accept as truth something that can be easily disproven. Like the old joke about the husband whose wife catches him cheating: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

I know we’ve heard presidential fabrications before, even from men I admire. But has there ever been a more brazen bullshitter than this bird? Donald Trump is a pathological liar. I don’t think he can stop himself. He lost the election by three million votes, and his electoral-college margin turned on about 80,000 votes in three states, yet he calls it a historic landslide. “I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.” Um, nope, that didn’t happen at all. “Even the president of Mexico called me,” Trump lied to his Cabinet. “They said…very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.” ¡Mentiroso hijo de puta, señor!

My favorite Trump lie, out of hundreds spewed out over the past six months, concerned his inaugural speech: “It was almost raining — the rain should have scared them away — but God looked down and he said ‘we are not going to let it rain on your speech’… and then it poured right after I left.” As anybody who was there or watching on tv knows, it rained through the first few minutes of Trump’s speech — you could see people behind him wearing ponchos — and it most definitely did not pour afterward. You’re left with a kind of reluctant awe: why would you even bother to lie about something as trivial as the weather?

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Radford film.

At least part of the answer may be the heady ability to alter history. While researching that last quote, I stumbled on a Christian website that reported the sun “shone” for Trump’s inauguration as a sign of God’s blessing. There’s a kernel of truth in that: the sun did peek out through overcast skies for an instant during the ceremony. But evidently God didn’t dig Trump’s speech, because moments later she made it rain again. However, to the readers of that website, the rain stopped and the sun shone as Trump took office, and that’s that.

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. — Ingsoc party slogan

Winston Smith, you’ll recall, works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue. His job is to repair and replace the historical record. For example, he alters a past promise to maintain rations at the current level. He scrubs all references to a purged Party member, or “unperson,” rendering him nonexistent. But a fissure appears in his capacity for doublethink when he is told Oceania is at war with Eurasia — yet he knows that the enemy has been Eastasia for the last four years. No matter. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Doublethink is maddening and terrifying at the same time.

Of course retroactive reality is impossible to concoct in our hip, wired age. Just ask the Secretary of War. Oh, wait, that’s his old title: now he’s Secretary of Defense, or “SecDef,” a term that sounds a hell of a lot like Newspeak. Or read yesterday’s Congressional Record to find speeches that were never uttered: there isn’t one veteran member of Congress who hasn’t inserted something after the fact. Or sit with the Texas State Board of Education as it sifts through history and science texts for orthodoxy that, because of the practicalities of educational publishing, will have to be replicated nationwide.

The most effective and “Orwellian” stroke of the current regime is the concept of “fake news.” Unlike anal-probing space aliens or government gun confiscation, we know “fake news” is really a thing. Eastern Europeans were actually making money by inventing outrageous clickbait all through the last election cycle. One whopper really gained some traction: that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were operating a child sex ring from the basement of an innocent DC pizza parlor. It went viral, and in December a 28-year-old North Carolina man fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. He told police he was there to “self-investigate” the conspiracy that came to be known as “Pizzagate.” (As you may have expected, the restaurant doesn’t even have a basement.)

Fake news isn’t some kooky fear: it’s definitely out there. In fact Breitbart, the “alt-right” website run until recently by presidential advisor Steve Bannon, absolutely dotes on the stuff. Still it was shocking to hear Trump, at his first news conference as president, pass over CNN’s Jake Tapper and growl, “you’re fake news.” Whaaaat? Within days, Trump was using the term to describe any news organization he didn’t like, and it was an unwitting masterstroke. The eight letters of “fake news” are short-attention-span-friendly, instantly graspable. This is why the “liberal media” are constantly after Trump: all their stories are as bogus as Bigfoot, he’s actually doing a great job but nobody’s giving him a chance. But the most insidious effect is that, for his most ardent fans, Trump is slowly delegitimatizing all genuine sources of objective coverage. The truth is whatever he tells them it is. No lie is too outrageous. Even pollsters are “fake” if he doesn’t like their numbers: remember how they underestimated him last year? He recently attacked as unfair the Congressional Budget Office, which is damn near the last nonpartisan entity left in DC. When you can’t turn anywhere else for validation, you’re as psychologically dependent as Winston Smith. After all, these are people who actually believe crime and unemployment both spiked under President Obama, because that’s what the Party told them.

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. — Goldstein

With “fake news” as a cudgel to tamp down any contradiction or stray heretical thought, Trumpism becomes almost inevitable among true believers. The same antics which embarrass some people excite others. To them Trump is a human Molotov cocktail, and the more damage he does to the system the better. Yes, it’s sad-making — the 2016 election was probably moderates’ low point for a good long while, and many of us still feel apprehensive opening our morning papers — but it doesn’t have to be debilitating, for several good reasons.

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O’Brien (Reed Birney) with Winston (Tom Sturridge) and Julia (Olivia Wilde) on Broadway.

They are outnumbered and they know it. Eighty-five percent of Oceanians are lowly “proles” and therefore largely ignored. Well, a minority controls Congress and most statehouses in America too. Not only did the Pubs lose the popular vote for President, they also lost the popular vote for Senate races: more than 45 million Americans voted for a Democratic Senate candidate, while just under 40 million Americans voted for a Republican. In fairness, the Senate was specifically created to bolster the influence of smaller states: Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was re-elected with 111,000 votes and has the same Senate authority as Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who was re-elected with 4.8 million. But even the House, which is supposed to better represent actual voter proportions, is grossly skewed. In 2016, 63.1 million Republican voters claimed 247 House seats. The Democratic vote was nearly equal, 61.7 million, but it was only worth 188 seats. That’s way out of whack and eventually something has to give.

You can blame some of that inequity on gerrymandering: for example, Austin, the most progressive city in Texas, has been electorally neutered by splitting it up into tiny parts of five different Congressional districts, four of which are represented by Republicans. But a deeper cause of inertia is incumbency: in 2016 only twelve House seats changed hands, six for each party. And a third cause is voter apathy, which is something we can actually work on.

Republicans are more successful at winning state and local elections because they understand how to rile up the base and get them out to the polls. Trump’s staggering incompetence may be having that same visceral effect on the left. We’ll find out next year. The best indication that Pubs are nervously looking over their shoulders is their massive voter suppression effort. The crown jewel is Trump’s loony Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (I love that name, it’s so…Orwellian!). Just remember, it’s in Democrats’ interest that you vote; it’s in Pubs’ interest that you be prevented from voting. We could make elections fairer by adopting ranked voting or jolt turnout by moving Election Day to the weekend, but Pubs are protected by the status quo so it will not happen any time soon. Counting on changing demographics to affect electoral results — for example, wishing Texas purple — is foolish, but it’s also foolish to squander a natural advantage when you get one handed to you. It’s not a gimme; it’ll take work.

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In Room 101.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. —O’Brien

Trump is beginning to neglect his constituency as he shows his true colors. I don’t think the president is a fascist or an Ingsoc functionary; I don’t believe he has any deeply held principles beyond his own self-interest. Well, there may be one. Trump is petty and childish enough that he may still be smarting over the humiliating roasting President Obama gave him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. With the exception of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination (and that was mostly Mitch McConnell’s doing), nearly every move Trump has made as president has been a direct erasure of an Obama initiative, often without even thinking about it. He’s trying to rewrite history, to make Obama an unperson. But when he took on Obamacare — that blasted name again! — he didn’t count on his own voters understanding that they were about to lose their coverage. Even when McConnell cynically tacked on a two-year delay period so Pubs could “repeal Obamacare” with impunity, the shouting back home was just too great. And speaking of personal payback, was that why we saw John “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” McCain kill the repeal effort with the flourish of a Roman emperor? As mining jobs fail to come back to coal country, day laborers for construction and agriculture disappear, and opioids continue to decimate the heartland, some suffering citizens may finally break the spell and relearn how to put two and two together.

Trump’s legislative base is crumbling as his popular support dwindles. “The ratings machine, DJT” actually had coattails in 2016, but they are starting to fray. The near-unanimous votes in both houses on Russian sanctions were a veto-proof slap in the face that said, “we’re not afraid of you.” The disconnect is probably personal. I have no idea whether Trump did anything illegal, but he clearly has money tied up in Russia and that source of capital is key to any future expansion plans, so his instinct is to make nice to Putin. One problem, though. Pubs have been taught to hate Commies for literal generations. By now, asking them to coddle Russkies is like trying to divide by zero. Yes, the hypocrisy is acrid: if Hillary had invited a Russian spy into the Oval Office, much less spilled intel to his face, the Pubs would have her turning on a spit by now. But Trump — who was already in the hole the moment he took office — has been whittling away at his own approval ratings more effectively than any enemy ever could. To be impeached by this Congress, he’d probably have to bite the head off a live chicken at the Lincoln Memorial. (Nor do I fancy a President Pence.) But remember, this entire shitstorm has occurred in just six months. I don’t think Trump can last four whole years — especially with a Congress that is less than sycophantic.

After Winston Smith survives the horrors of Room 101, we can see that he has changed. As the Cap’n says in COOL HAND LUKE, he “got his mind right.” Two plus two equals anything O’Brien wants it to be. Everything is all right, the struggle is finished. Well, that is not going to happen to us. We are still capable of seeing clearly if we only concentrate. The outrage that spits out almost hourly from this administration must not, will not become normalcy. The world has not turned upside down. Our system builds political antibodies to negate such an aberration, and if we are still suffering from shock, that means we have the capacity to resist — in the streets, in the voting booths, in the offices of our representatives. That passion is precisely what saved the Affordable Care Act. And it is what is going to eliminate Big Bother [frickin sic] once and for all.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. — Winston Smith

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A Digital Guy In An Analog World

May 11, 2017

41-donald-trump-elena-kosvincheva.jpgThe Conmander in Chief seemed surprised the other day when Democrats not only failed to applaud his sacking of FBI director James Comey, but instead led a tsunami of howling blowback. The Trumpies were gobsmacked because the boss lives digitally — and that attitude has to trickle down if you want to appease him.

Donald Trump’s worldview is binary, like the basic one-or-zero building block of computing. You’re friend or foe, right or wrong, smart or stupid, rich or poor, safe or scared, strong or weak, winner or loser, Dem or Pub, toady or traitor, predator or prey, kin or stranger, Fox or fake, male or icky, white or threatening. His personality and character are not wired to coexist with nuance or subtlety, which are analog qualities with infinite gradations. Trump’s light switch is on-off. Most others use a rheostat.

Yet that messy imprecision dominates the environment he is forced to inhabit any time he steps outside his protective bubble. This is why foreign policy, for example, is beyond his grasp. He’s simply unable to perceive the shades of grey, the give-and-take required of statesmanship among sovereign nations. But somebody, if not Trump himself, better face it: despite our breathtaking advances in technology, we do not live in a digital world, but an analog one.

Trump evidently thought lefties held a digital view too: Hillary Good, Comey Bad. So getting rid of Comey — for whatever selfish reason — ought to make them cheer. It didn’t occur to him that you could both disapprove of what Comey did (even if unwittingly) to Hillary Clinton and take offense at his sudden dismissal just as he was revving up the FBI’s Russia hacking investigation.

Digital thinking is a temptation in our polarized society. The Comey firing became public just minutes before Stephen Colbert stepped onstage to deliver his monologue Tuesday afternoon. When his audience learned from the comedian that Comey was out, they reflexively applauded. That seemed to take Colbert aback. He and his staff, of course, had had time to think about it. The audience was responding digitally: serves him right for ruining Hillary! (Ludicrously, that was the White House’s official reason for the director’s firing!) But they quickly realized that Trump was really trying to stymie the Russia investigation, and when Jeff Sessions’s involvement was invoked a few minutes later, familiar boos rang out.

From most reports Comey is a stand-up guy who wants to do the right thing and is mortified by what turned out to be his role in the 2016 election. Trump is a narcissistic buffoon who couldn’t care less about how he won (the Electoral College is basically affirmative action for white people) and has never acknowledged any form of error. But as Comey put it in a farewell email to the Bureau, POTUS has the power to fire the FBI director “for any reason, or for no reason at all.” It’s telling that when the action was “imminent,” according to the New York Times, Trump called Lindsey Graham. He called Chuck Schumer. But he didn’t call Jim Comey, who found out he’d been fired when somebody noticed a tv news feed behind his back as he was giving a speech. That’s not a strongman. That’s a pathetic, classless coward.

Each time I thought Trump was done when he dissed John McCain’s war record, insulted a Gold Star family, cheered on goons at that rally, and bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. Each time I was wrong. Maybe he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not disturb the diehards in his 36% approval base. But this time he may at last find himself outnumbered. Dumping Comey was lousy in timing, justification and execution, a trifecta of malice and ineptitude.

How any serious Christian could support Donald Trump — how Mike Pence looks himself in the mirror every morning — has always been beyond me; I just do not understand. Now I add the word “Republican.” No, this isn’t Watergate — Richard Nixon only fired a special prosecutor; this is potentially even worse — but if members of his own party won’t stand up to Trump the way they did to Nixon, it’s not just the FBI’s reputation that’s in jeopardy, but their own as well. Not to mention their jobs. Because the votes of their constituents can be digital too.


Making The Sale

March 9, 2017

h_51493177.jpgIn the early Fifties — the dawn of a Golden Age of advertising, when the new medium of television was jostling recently comfortable postwar, post-Depression families about most everything — a Mad Man named Rosser Reeves came up with a profound theory about how to make tv campaigns effective. He called it the Unique Selling Proposition, and it boils down to this: there is nothing else like our product, therefore you should switch brands to get it.

So, in ad terms, the hard shell of M&Ms “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” like other gooey chocolate candy does. FedEx delivers overnight “absolutely, positively,” unlike any other carrier. KFC uses a “secret” proprietary recipe; so does Coca-Cola. If your Domino’s ‘za isn’t there in 30 minutes, it’s free. Even staid old Smith Barney made money “the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” Unlike, I guess, those other shysters who only push paper around. These days Reeves’s principle is more commonly known as “positioning,” but that’s just nomenclature. The fact is, the ultimate position in commerce is still the USP: everybody wants it and only we have it.

As others have noted, a political campaign is nothing but an instant business startup that has to go from zero to sixty right away. Donald Trump brought his own USP to the 2016 presidential campaign, and I think it did most of his heavy lifting before he ever opened his mouth. It was a simple, even diabolical position: I am a rich, successful non-politician. That bare statement, plain enough for anyone to comprehend, does a whole lot of subliminal selling.

He’s rich. To be sure, there are other politicians who are also rich. (By a remarkable coincidence, many of them managed to become wealthy even while serving in office!) The subtext is, I’m so rich that I don’t have to worry about special interests, because big shots don’t have the money to push me around: I have a screw-you fortune. (“Special interests” are “powerful entities who don’t donate to me,” just as “outside agitators” are “people who oppose me, no matter where they come from.”) To Americans, great wealth also connotes great worth: that pile of dough has to represent someone’s sweat equity, even if Trump inherited his from Pop, whose initial loan set Young Master Donald on his corporate way. Monarchic subjects worldwide know money can represent nothing more significant than ancestry or blind luck, but we are a nation of rolled-up sleeves and tales of derring-do. To us, rich suggests brave and bold were once up in there too.

But what does “rich” mean? Is it the balance-sheet remainder of one’s assets minus one’s debts? Or is it just a lifestyle choice funded by kicking a gilded can ever farther down the road? There are two widely held harrumphs about Trump’s bottom line. (1) He isn’t as rich as he says he is. (2) It’s paper wealth anyhow, funded by bankruptcy relief, “brand equity” and Scroogelike stiffing of subcontractors and other underlings, and could come tumbling to earth at any time. We can’t evaluate (1) because we are not permitted to see the president’s tax returns, and (2) because the Trumpian empire consists of hundreds of dodgy LLCs (546 to be exact, per a disclosure form filed in May 2016), most of which are trading on a brand name instead of a tactile piece of physical property. The Trump Organization’s largest source of revenue is probably licensing, thus putting the word “Trump” on a par with the Playboy bunny logo. I use the word “probably” with faux Trumplike assurance because I don’t know for sure, and neither do you. The boss wants to keep it that way.

Trump has claimed a net worth of more than $10 billion. (At least his campaign office did, on July 15, 2015.) That number fluctuates over time, but as David Cay Johnston, author of the bio THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP, says, “there is not now and never has been any verifiable evidence that Donald Trump is or ever has been a billionaire.” Still, the guy does live in a big-ass tower on Fifth Avenue with his name on it (the White House has basically become his pied-à-terre), so for the sake of argument let’s concede nine-figure “rich.” However, using the president’s own logic, I will state here and now that Trump’s net worth is nowhere near a billion dollars and that’s an absolute true verifiable fact. Now it’s up to him to prove me wrong, and he can’t do it without unzipping his financial fly. So I think I’m on pretty solid ground here when I make my bold, unsubstantiated assertion.

Of course, as the bard of Asbury once observed, “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied / Till he rules everything.” Even if Trump didn’t need other people’s money to bankroll his campaign — he sure didn’t spend much, since he got most of his national exposure for free — homemade bread doesn’t inoculate him from “special interests,” who would very much like to become very much richer on his watch.

He’s successful. Well, at least he’s still around, and he has many possessions. But he’s gone bust often enough to have made “Donald Risk” — that’s what bankers actually call it: yes, the president of the United States has poor credit — unwelcome at U.S. lenders since the mid-Nineties. (Explain to me again how you can lose money running casinos.) This is why people seriously suspect him of having sizable Russian financial obligations. If he needs capital, he has to raise it from somewhere else, and the oligarchs who sacked the Russian state love to park money in real estate. Note that he’s never mentioned Ukraine, either as candidate or president.

But that’s reality. Instead, this guy deals in perception. For more than a decade Donald Trump has played a CEO on television, whose job it is to fire imaginary employees from an imaginary company. This is the image his fans have seen with their own eyes. Of course he’s successful: he’s the big boss! Just ask Gary Busey! One assumes that his “executive producer” position carries a financial piece of THE APPRENTICE along with it. If so, pretense could be more lucrative than actuality. This program, and not real-life business deals, may even have represented Trump’s major source of income these past few years; a hit tv show certainly enriched his boy Steve Bannon for life. But again, I don’t know, and neither do you.

What you do know regarding “successful” is this. If he incurred a $916 million loss that allowed him, through the use of real-estate tax credits, to avoid federal income tax for nearly twenty years, that doesn’t make him smart. It makes him a businessman who lost a billion frickin dollars.

He’s not a politician. This is the crux of the matter. Trump’s pitch is, politicians got us into all these messes, but elect me and I’ll run the country like a business. (Like I do on tv, not like I did in Atlantic City!) But here’s the thing that escapes many patriots: the government isn’t a business.

One of the hoariest chestnuts regularly heard on the campaign trail is, “You balance your family’s budget, don’t you? Why can’t the government balance its budget?” Well, if you own a home or a car, you probably took out a loan to buy it. In other words, you engaged in deficit spending, you owe more than you have, and you haven’t balanced doodly squat. If you drive on a road, stop at a traffic light, call a cop or fireman, drink water that’s not filthy or flammable, or use the many other benefits we take for granted — we haven’t even touched upon soldiers — it takes money to put them there and keep them there. Government does have a purpose. We have to buy some things collectively if we want them at all. Yes, the national debt is onerous, but that’s why we should pay it down when we run a surplus rather than further cut the taxes of bigwigs.

If you equate America — or any nation — to a business, you’re getting some crucial things wrong. To Trump, our relationship to other countries is analogous to the way some CEOs view their competition. It’s a zero-sum conflict: if we win, you lose. That’s not entirely true for businesses like, say, books, which was my last trade. A bestseller lifts all boats. Everybody wants to have Harry Potter at the expense of the competition, sure, but if Potter explodes, that just brings more people into the real or virtual bookstore, and they don’t have to leave with only that. They might buy some books of yours as well.

Now, an auto purchase is a zero-sum game. If you buy a Nissan, you won’t be shopping at a competing dealer for a good little while. All other automakers have lost a sale. But even so, keeping one’s eye on pure profit can be shortsighted. That’s why Henry Ford’s doubling of the minimum wage while he was rolling out Model Ts was so brilliant. He reasoned: if I pay my people more, I’ll be making less on each car, but they can afford to buy cars themselves! We’ll keep making ever more Model Ts, and earn more money in the long run! “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same,” quoth Henry, “and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.”

We know that Trump’s worldview is of a shark tank where all nations compete for the chum. He based his whole campaign on that, beginning with Mexico. His travel ban is a piece of theater, since no terrorists from the affected countries have ever threatened the U.S. (Why not ban Saudis, who were the majority of the 9/11 hijackers? Oh yeah, I forgot.) It’s vital for Trump’s pitch to identify a nation-state as the enemy, even though there’s no official policy anywhere to “take American jobs” — capitalism is handling that for itself by buying labor as cheaply as it can, anywhere it can. Official job poaching was Rick Perry’s specialty when he was governor of Texas, but that’s interstate ball.

International relations is not a series of “deals.” It’s the result of centuries of finely hewn agreements and disputes and alliances, most of them based not on inward-looking nationalism but the recognition that we live in an intertwined global society. If we somehow can’t get along politically, at the very least we have to respect one another. For example, there’s one big issue that affects us all. The worst of enemies still share the same planet, and its ecosystem is quickly going nuts. Everybody’s on board except one country, and Trump will almost certainly make our shameful reticence and isolation on climate change even worse.

Any leader of the free world needs a Henry Ford moment. If you help others, that will make life better for you too. As departing longtime diplomat Daniel Fried put it, “We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood. The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox. We have, imperfectly, and despite detours and retreat along the way, sought to realize a better world for ourselves and for others, for we understood that our prosperity and our values at home depend on the prosperity and those values being secure as far as possible in a sometimes dark world.”

In contrast, the “America First” viewpoint is very close to Trump’s own personality: look out for Number One. Whip the competition by any means necessary. Renegotiate everything. Break stuff. But Newton’s Third Law applies to politics too. If you suggest abdicating or even reducing U.S. commitment to NATO — yes, everybody should pay their fair share — then Germany has to consider going nuclear for its own protection. If you start banning the immigration of putative “bad dudes,” then the next generation of technologists will locate elsewhere. If you make all undocumented aliens vanish, then your crops will rot in the field.

Trump’s “business experience” consists of overseeing a closely held private family firm, answerable to nobody: not directors, not shareholders. As he has already discovered, the powers of the president are great but not unlimited. Now he’s in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy that won’t necessarily do his bidding. He’s already picked fights with the intelligence community, the judiciary, and his predecessor. Wait till Congress puts its dukes up or Putin finally wipes the smile off his face. The best and worst thing about this amateur is the same: there’s no subtlety. He tweets out what he’s thinking, but at least you know what he’s thinking. Unfortunately, so do his many more businesslike counterparts around the world.

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The First 48 Hours

January 23, 2017

trump-inaugurationWell, that was one hell of a weekend. We have a new President and maybe, just maybe, we have a new counterculture as well. That’s probably the wrong word to use, since the Trump Administration’s #1 takeaway from its first few days in office ought to be: geez, there are more of them than there are of us. Maybe it’s the Trumpkins who are the counterculture.

It sure sounded that way during the first few moments of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. After acknowledging the four former Presidents in attendance, he essentially told them: by the way, all y’all suck. Trump’s America, on their watch, has devolved into a land of carnage and tombstones where vicious foreigners steal our jobs and try to con us into believing the climate is changing. In other words, he was talking to his base — which still believes crime and unemployment got worse under President Obama (they both declined, along with the uninsured rate). He wasn’t finished, of course, and the next morning took issue with estimates of the size of the crowd, thought to be about a third of the one Obama drew in 2009, and slagged the “dishonest” press for having the temerity to report it.

That yuge crowd and dishonest press stuff came during a visit to the CIA, where the spooks seemed puzzled at the lack of attention in their new boss’s remarks to, well, to the CIA. After all, he’d been slamming them for weeks. To make matters worse, while he was at Langley a crowd was gathering to protest his ascension and his disdain for women’s rights. Joined by quite a few men and boys, the marching assumed Obaman proportions, dwarfing the inauguration with three times as many people. And that was just in Washington. All over the country — all over the world — similar protests erupted, surprising officials everywhere with their numbers. Not just New York, L.A., and the other big cities, but all over. A thousand in Jackson, Mississippi, as red a place as you can find. Twenty thousand in Phoenix, not far behind it in redness. Forty thousand in Austin, twice what was expected, more than that in San Diego. Five thousand in Birmingham, Alabama (they expected 200). Healthy six figures in Boston and Seattle — even “several thousand” in Knoxville, Tennessee. Three hundred in Tel frickin Aviv!

Trump couldn’t know the extent of the demonstrated fervor against him while he was still obsessing over the size of his, um, crowd, but as the reports poured in from everywhere — the numbers above came spontaneously from Facebook friends — it looked more and more like a massive repudiation that made the hoity-toity inauguration weekend its bitch. (I refer of course to the canine connotation, women’s rightists.) Trump was so embarrassed by photos proving that his audience was a mere fraction of Obama’s that he sent mouthpiece Sean Spicer down to the press scrum on Saturday night to spit out as many falsehoods as he could manage. The Times did a nifty summation, finally calling false even in its headline reporting on a one-way “press conference” during which Spicer took no questions from reporters. According to the Presidential press secretary, it was the largest inaugural audience ever, period (it wasn’t); the DC Metro had more riders than for Obama’s inauguration (it didn’t); special floor coverings initiated this year made the audience look smaller (they use them every time to protect the grass); and new fencing and magnetometers kept people from the Mall this year (nope, same security as before).

Kellyanne Conway, the most beleaguered spin doctor of our time, basically gave up the game Sunday on MEET THE PRESS when she called Trump’s own statements about the media ginning up a conflict between him and the intelligence community “alternative facts.” My absolute favorite one was, when I began my inaugural address it stopped raining and became sunny, then when I finished, it started pouring. Everybody there knows that it drizzled throughout and kept on drizzling after the horrific oratorial train wreck was over. It reminds me of that old punch line from the man whose wife catches him in bed with another woman: “Who you gonna believe: me or your lying eyes?” We are left to wonder, why even bother lying about something so insignificant as the weather? Is the President’s truth toggle stuck on OFF permanently? Or does he live in a fantasyland where the sun was indeed metaphorically shining during the eighteen minutes the entire world was focused on him? It’s only a matter of time before Kellyanne tells us those agita-making crowd shots were Photoshopped by the dishonest media.

Remember now, all this happened just in the first 48 hours. Trump intimated that he’ll start really signing stuff today, Monday, which he evidently considers to be his first full work day. Over time it may sink in that the Presidency is a 24/7 gig, but don’t tell him yet: the more Donald Trump is out of the office, the better.

So, people had some fun and Trump Hulked out, just as they’d hoped. What comes next now is: what comes next? The demonstrations on Saturday were as much a form of personal catharsis as they were a bold statement supporting what the Wonkette calls the “vagenda.” Trump & minions have been dramatically reminded that most voters disapprove of him (see: popular vote). But it falls to the opposition to keep the pressure on. The left couldn’t sustain Occupy or Black Lives Matter, but it is still possible to change things from the ground up. For proof, and to learn a few important things for the game plan, those who oppose the Conmander-in-Chief should carefully study, and then improve on, the most successful populist anti-POTUS movement of the 21st century:

The Tea Party.

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The Elephant In The Room

January 17, 2017

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump poses on the cover of Time Magazine after being named its person of the year

It’s sinking in. The New York Times front page no longer reminds us of an Onion parody. Well, maybe it still does, but we can no longer look at it that way. This is serious. On Friday, that boorish, petulant, childish, nuance-deprived, attention-span-lacking, sexist xenophobe charlatan bully Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. The mind can no longer boggle. Boggling time is over. Now we have to face reality, stand our ground, find some traction, and fight back. Pretending this crisis can be solved by demographics, adversarial competence or even basic common sense is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. No more bringing knives to gunfights. We need the political equivalent of the Magnificent Seven to help us, but they don’t exist. Any magnificence will have to come from within us, and the first thing to summon is the quality Pubs have displayed in abundance for forty solid years: determination. (A clear subtext, by the way, of the classic SEVEN SAMURAI tale.)

You’d almost feel sorry for Trump’s most rabid fans if they weren’t so mean and vicious in victory. Let them wallow in it for now. They think they found Moses, but it’s only Professor Harold Hill, and one day they may again recognize flimflam when they hear it, wiser but definitely sadder. Mitt Romney was right. The President-elect is a con man, a fraud, manifestly unfit for the high office he will begin to besmirch on Friday afternoon. I realize Presidents have lied before, even ones I admired. This will be the first President I assume to be lying.

You think that was prejudiced? I’m pre-judging the 45th President because I’m expecting no purifying magic to flow through his hands once he completes the oath of office. If there was ever a time to begin acting Presidential, it was the transition period which is now ending. It hasn’t happened, and now I don’t expect it to. If somehow I am surprised and proven wrong, I will be one of the happiest goddam Americans you have ever met. Instead, I’m ashamed and embarrassed, even before I arrive at anger. Should I give the newbie a chance? I’d rather he got the same treatment he visited upon his exemplary predecessor. I strongly doubt this salacious stuff about kinky Russian sexplay, but I’m delighted that it’s become a comedians’ meme. It couldn’t have happened to a not-nicer guy, because this is exactly what Trump pulled for seven long years with his absurd birth-certificate slop. So, in Fox News-speak, “some people are saying” that Trump hires hookers to perform “water sports” in private. Is it true? Hey, I don’t know. But some people are saying it…especially down in that pizza-parlor basement where Hillary Clinton and John Podesta run their child-sex ring. Repeat “Goldengate” often enough and some rubes might even start to believe it. They’ve already demonstrated that they wouldn’t be scandalized by anything Trumpian, so long as Hillary won’t be able to order them around.

The “man of the people” will actually be the most gilded POTUS ever, and, if confirmed, Trump’s cabinet may even render his own fortune below the median of the senior team’s personal wealth. (“Some people are saying” that Trump claims to be richer than he really is.) And make no mistake about that “unity” crap: if you didn’t vote for him, why then, as Vice President Dick Cheney once growled on the Senate floor, “go fuck yourself.” For example, why else would he threaten to tie up Fifth Avenue traffic at the “Northern White House” for years to come, at a cost to the city of literal millions? (Congressional Pubs won’t let go of more than a fraction of the money needed for extra security; NYC is just too blue.) It’s because four out of five Manhattanites voted for his opponent — and besides, whenever he wants to go in or out, he has a motorcade to help him plow through the thicket as if it were a Miss Universe contestant. So where’s the problem? By the way, I’m sick of hearing that Arkansans, “the people who know them best,” don’t care for the Clintons, but I get it. New Yorkers, the people who know him best, can’t stand Donald Trump.

You don’t have to be Hitler or Kim Jong-Il to cause, or at least abet, great damage. Though he has instinctively borrowed from the fascist playbook — identify and vilify a threatening Other and smother any dissent — I don’t think Trump himself is a fascist, merely an opportunist. I don’t perceive any deeply held political beliefs beyond his own self-interest, which is why he’s always been able to flip-flop on any issue like a landed marlin. But indifference can be dangerous in itself. Trump will uniquely have to rely on a ill-equipped but suddenly super-powered cabinet not only for advice but for actual decisions — and remember, he believes the last person he talked to and says whatever a particular audience wants to hear. The howling zealot at the campaign rallies was vastly different from the meek pussycat who met Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto or the editorial board of the New York Times.

Bringing back outsourced American jobs? I’ll believe it when I see it. A trade war won’t solve anything because others can make stuff cheaper than any rich country can (some of it is made for us). They easily win any ill-advised race to the bottom, even after you’ve removed all bargaining leverage from your own work force by busting every union you can. It’s not politics, just math. The only people who still buy American products even though they cost more and perform worse own Harley-Davidsons. Those “open shop” auto workers down in Mississippi? They’re making Nissans, for crying out loud. Repairing our crumbling infrastructure would be a terrific temporary employment stimulus, but Pubs don’t seem to feel any urgency. Gated communities don’t have potholes, man. It’ll probably take a few bridge catastrophes or rolling blackouts to get their attention, but if reason ever does come up for air, those would be real jobs that could only be done in this country.

What about Trump’s new bestie, Vladimir Putin? First of all, don’t act so shocked, shocked over Putin’s (OK, “alleged”) interference. According to research from Carnegie-Mellon, we’ve tried to influence elections in at least 45 other countries since the end of World War II. But why did Putin take such a front-facing swing at this one? Simple. He’s not afraid of Trump. When the President-elect asked at his first news conference, “Do you honestly believe Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me?” I thought, damn right I do, pal, and so does Putin! (Trump: “Give me a break!” Me: “No!”) Manipulating Trump will be child’s play — literally.

His post-election “thank-you tour,” which accomplished nothing, was pathetic proof that he craves the adulation he enjoyed during the campaign, feeds off it, which is why he turned that press conference into MAGA-rally fodder, complete with applauding sycophants. I don’t believe Trump ever really wanted to win, just tend the brand. But incredibly, the yapping dog actually caught the car, and now it has to take responsibility. I think Trump likes the idea of being President over doing the President’s job. At any rate, he’s already won the victory that may be sweetest of all to him: as of January 20th, anyone possessing an ounce of the grace and probity he so baldly lacks will have to call Trump “Mister President” for the rest of his life. (My advice: don’t call him, period.) I hereby predict that once he can nail the spin that makes him look like a hero, he’ll pull a Palin and decline to serve out his entire term. Donald Trump bores easily.

This is all so bizarre that it defies rational thought. It’s like trying to divide by zero. As we wrap our minds around the concept of a narcissistic buffoon leading the free world, a natural coping mechanism will be to seek to adapt, deal with it somehow, shrug and say well, this is the new normal. Don’t. It’s not normal. Not at all.

It’s easy to assert — as I do — that Donald Trump is not an accurate reflection of the country at large, but there’s a lot of frustration out there and “professional” politicians have been talking past the vast middle class for decades. Hillary Clinton famously won the 2016 popular vote by three million, but remove California and New York and Trump wins the popular by three million. (As Meryl Streep alluded, most of the culture would now have to be imported.) This is the America from which newly cosmopolitan people emigrated to congregate on the coasts and in college towns and big cities. It’s an America that resents pointy-headed college towns and filthy big cities, it just elected a new President, and there’s only one thing we can do in response. Stand the frick up. Resist. Soon it’s once again gonna be “unpatriotic” to criticize the President, because it always is whenever a Pub’s in office. So we need a ton of unpatriots, stat.

March in protest if it makes you feel better, but that’s not what I’m talking about. (Did any rally on the Trump side ever change your mind about anything?) I mean resist the normalization of abnormal behavior. If President Trump doesn’t want you to read or hear something, don’t just ignore him: actively seek it out. When this silly fool slanders a brave civil-rights infantryman, a decorated war hero or a set of Gold Star parents, don’t be suckered by the torrent of misdirection that follows. Trump’s secret has always been to lay outrage upon outrage so the press will be fascinated by the latest shiny object and let the slowly rusting ones go. Remember Mexican rapists? When he maligns women, blacks, Hispanics, journalists — to succeed, he has to split us into warring camps, because a despot can only conquer if we’re divided — don’t let it stand. That may sometimes mean talking calmly to people who don’t agree with us, but we could all benefit by wandering out of our bubbles more often.

Most important, don’t keep quiet. There are many ways to register disgust, but the worst-kept secret in Washington is that letters, faxes, emails and even tweets are routinely ignored and trashed. What no member of Congress can ignore, however, is a telephone that won’t stop frickin ringing. That’s how the Pub scheme to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics got derailed, at least for now. So get your representative’s number and use it. Old-fashioned telephone call. It’s what works best when done en masse.

We have no idea whether POTUS-E is free from foreign investments or other entanglements, up to and including blackmail. (Still, what could he possibly have done in Russia that’s worse than the stuff we already know about?) Some transparency would be helpful but he simply refuses to come clean, a red flag in itself. We do know bits of his dodgy history, though, and it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. That means every interaction, especially with Russia, is now suspect. Every decision — including each executive or judicial nomination — needs to be sifted for a presumed selfish motive. Donald Trump gets the same honeymoon period the Pubs gave Obama: none. And standing guard means supporting a free, vibrant press corps. We can’t watch him conflate CNN with “fake news” websites and let him get away with it. We can’t dismiss the latest idiocy as “just another Trump tweet.” We cannot allow a new normal to seep in, but if we don’t pay attention, it will.

It’s only human to feel tense right now as we await the ascendancy. 2016 was one sucker-punch of a year. Lots of Americans — certainly most of those who voted — are demoralized. (When will the left learn that apathy makes Pubs salivate?) But as Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Joe Biden noted last month, 1968 was pretty damn traumatic too, and “America didn’t break.” This may be a low point, almost too painful to contemplate. But we can yet prevail, and if President Trump doesn’t kill us, his unseemly reign may wind up galvanizing the opposition and making us stronger. Together.

LATER ON 1/17/17: Thankfully, I may have gotten that no-honeymoon part right.


Notes On The Apocalypse

November 10, 2016

greatWow.

Today we feel much as we did on 9/11. Besides mourning the horrendous loss of life, we were weighted down with the sickening revelation that human beings could even be capable of such heedless obscenity. That existential despair was the miasma which took the longest time to shake. Nobody died on Tuesday, at least not as a direct result of the election. But now our sad incredulity is directed at what millions of our fellow citizens turned out to be capable of doing, and I can tell you from personal experience that this is the scar which will last the longest.

Donald J. Trump’s candidacy should have been stillborn. The litany of disqualifying facts, quotes and acts is too long, too familiar and too dispiriting to recount. He should have been laughed out of the race after his announcement speech, and anybody else would have been. But Donald Trump is a tv star, and he’s been in the living rooms of the reactionary faithful. They may not know him, but they recognize him.

Likewise, you can second-guess Trump’s opposition until the asteroid hits. Bernie Bros who stayed home. Hillary Clinton’s inability to excite the base like Barack Obama. Her old-car smell. The female lady thing. The vast right-wing media which have hammered out Hillary hate for thirty years. Pseudo-scandals like Benghazi and Emailgate that clouded airtime. Voter suppression. James Comey. Gary Johnson.

Nearly three million more people voted for Clinton over Trump on Tuesday, almost six times Al Gore’s popular vote margin in 2000. In fact, over the last seven Presidential elections spanning 28 years, the Pubs have won the popular vote exactly once: George W. Bush’s second term, when Dick Cheney’s fear-fanning campaign slogan was basically, vote for me or die. Of course, that’s not how we elect the POTUS. But if you think the overall tally is just an electoral trivium, imagine the situation reversed, if Trump had won the popular but been denied the White House by Electoral College math. Torch and pitchfork time, maybe even a Second Amendment solution or two. Democrats just tend to accept it instead, maybe to a fault. Yes, there are students holding up NOT MY PRESIDENT signs today, but they’re mistaken. The Constitution says he is your President-Elect. If you don’t accept it, you’re no better than a Birther, and man, you are way better than that.

Our disappointment, sorrow and even fear is not equivalent to any other election. If John McCain or Mitt Romney had beaten Obama, I would have been bummed, sure, but I wouldn’t have doubted the victor’s ability to lead the country. Even George W. Bush, whom I felt was in over his head the moment he was inaugurated, managed to keep things running (with those two exceptions in 2001 and 2008). Unlike those men, a President Trump doesn’t inspire a shred of confidence in me. I followed his shameful campaign. We all did. He’s going to have to purge that memory, along with our strong suspicion that he is so monumentally unfit for the office that the safety of our nation could be at stake.

It makes you miserable to imagine the next four years. Trump delivering the State of the Union. Newt Gingrich. Trump before the United Nations. Rudy Guiliani. Trump ignoring climate change. Chris Christie. Trump facing a natural disaster. Bobby Jindal. Trump versus Putin or Kim Jong-un. Roger Ailes. Trump explaining to the plebes why he won’t be building a wall on the Mexican border. First Lady Melania Trump!

Oh yeah. The courts. Mitch McConnell barely won his gamble of stonewalling the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for nearly a year, in violation of his Constitutional duty. (At the time he was sure he was saving it for Jeb or Rubio. Bullet frickin dodged!) If I were McConnell, I’d quickly junk the filibuster rule so I could seat any Neanderthal I wanted to replace Scalia, wait for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to finally give up, and pack the court red for another couple generations. I’d also pull the holds on all those other Obama judicial nominees, replace them with my own guys, and robe ‘em fast, thus taking effective control of the third branch of government to complete the trifecta.

The Republican id has made this decision and it’s been set loose. GOP worthies are in charge, and now there are no checks and balances preventing them from doing any goddam thing they want. It stays that way for at least two years and probably four, since the House is gerrymandered out of reach and Senate Democrats will be playing defense in 2018. So here we go. Full Republican control. Now let’s see if they can still remember how to govern, because continuing to say no to everything is no longer an option.

I have thought of a couple of silver linings in these ominous clouds. My favorite is that if you’re Ted Cruz, quit wringing your hands over whether to run in 2020 because now you can’t. Neither can any of those other tards. Trump is impeachment-proof (see Congress, and besides, what could he possibly do that he hasn’t already done?), and even if something should happen to the boss, Vice President Pence, that Christian soldier, is onward of you in line.

Another is that we might finally get some action on our second most important challenge behind climate change: repairing the national infrastructure. Everybody agrees we should do it: hell, they’ve known that for years. But remember, GOP big shots decided on Inauguration Day 2009 not to give Obama anything, no matter how vital. They love their party more than they love their country. Now that Republicans are running the show, they can take political credit for a massive project that will create millions of temporary jobs. It’s past time to quit whining about deficit spending, borrow some money at next to nothing, and begin a no-brainer jobs program.

There are three major drivers of our economy: consumers, business and government. When consumers slow down spending because they’re not making ends meet, business can’t grow because it doesn’t have enough customers to justify new factories and the like. Increased government spending (also known as “stimulus”) is our economic last resort, and thoughtful leaders have the guts to break that glass in an emergency. We’re going to have to repair the crumbling grid eventually. The process might have been started years ago, but, you know, the black guy. Watch how fast Paul Ryan forgets about “austerity.”

If Ryan’s even Speaker any more. The inmates haven’t just taken over the asylum, they’re burning it down, and some of them think the Ayn Rander isn’t conservative enough. (By now I guess you must have to bite the heads off chickens on the House floor or something.) And the Freedom Caucus may have one additional obstacle: the party leader. Trump is a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who has frequently flip-flopped on many issues that are very important to the base and there’s no indication that he’d be willing to toe any party line, making him an utter wild card. When I wrote earlier about his resemblance to a bad-guy professional wrestler, I figured he might pivot from a “heel” to a “babyface” for the general election. Now I hope to God it happens before he takes the oath of office.

These are dark days. So much so that the morning after the election, my wife and I were distraught enough to have a serious conversation about leaving the country, at least for retirement. We decided that we were in shock (I confess that I’m slowly pulling myself out of this stage — the front page of the New York Times still looks like an Onion parody or a terrible nightmare from which I pray I’ll wake up) and that we’d give the Trumpies one year, then pick up the conversation again when we’re more clearheaded. I fear the worst and hope for the best. Unlike El Rushbo (“I hope he fails”) or Mitch McConnell (“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”), I’m willing to give the guy a chance. He needs all the help he can get. One only hopes he can swallow his outsized pride long enough to accept it.


Stand-Up Tragedy

September 23, 2016

1458047088866It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation-creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by getting to the end of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

img_14609/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

11/23/16: Yes, the cast of the final play in the “Gabriel Family Trilogy” did a wonderful job, but DAMN! Even most of the audience in a little 200-seater upstairs at the Public felt the need to hit their feet. Fortunately we were sitting in the first row, and I think I caught a couple of curtain-call winks — thanks for giving us an enthusiastic response but not fucking standing up! — or maybe it was just my imagination. I mimed applause to Jay O. Russell in the lobby as we were filing out and he seemed to enjoy it. But the war’s over. Automatic standing Os and Trump have each won.


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