Et Tu, Delta?

June 18, 2017

tn-500_juliuscaesar0037rr.jpgOutre settings for otherwise respectfully mounted Shakespeare productions are nothing new, and not just since the Royal Shakespeare Company started dressing Montagues and Capulets in biker leather. The very presence of female actors is a departure from any performance the Bard saw in his own lifetime — so much so that it took some getting used to when Shakespeare’s Globe brought its all-male TWELFTH NIGHT/RICHARD III company to Broadway four years ago. Nazis, cowboys, wartime grunts — they’ve all served as exotic backdrops to Shakespeare, the intention being to make the words shine at different angles as we twist the prism. Some inevitable day Romeo and Juliet will both be robots, if it hasn’t happened already.

The seeking and wielding of power hasn’t changed all that much in the four centuries since JULIUS CAESAR (1599) was written. It shows us authority stretched to the point of monomania, then an affronted, violent reaction to this perceived threat to the republic, and finally the utter disaster that befalls the polity after the ultimate defacing of democracy, the replacement of discourse with murder. There’s nothing particularly historical about these forces. They’re with us today and will be here long after we’re gone.

So JULIUS CAESAR’s examination of power and ill-advised redress is particularly suited to a contemporary setting. Hell, any setting. The latest effort finishes its outdoor run on schedule tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare In The Park program. It’s a great production, but it leaves a wake of unwanted notoriety. For this Caesar, as played by Gregg Henry, looks and acts a lot like Donald Trump.

caesar.jpgThere’s nothing coy about the portrayal. Absurd blond wig, blue suit a tad too small, necktie a tad too long, relentlessly working the real audience as he enters. (Off mike, he bragged near us, “Biggest crowd in the history of the theater!”) There’s no question who this Caesar is supposed to suggest. Tina Benko’s slinky Calpurnia even speaks with a Slavic accent.

It’s remarkable how time can actually transmute Shakespeare’s lines. For example, when Caesar first appears amid an adoring throng and senses the presence of the Soothsayer, he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” “The press” as written meant “the crowd,” but the Trumpworld audience hears, “the failing MSM.” When Brutus’s boy Lucius brings news of a “post,” he hands his master a smartphone and we understand instantly. These are all Shakespeare’s words (edited way down to an intermissionless 2:02 by Oskar Eustis, the play’s director and the Public’s artistic director) but three new ones come at a critical point. When Casca marvels at the blind loyalty of the Great Man’s fans, the line reads, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” Eustis adds, just before the comma, “on Fifth Avenue.” Screams.

90.jpegOf course, anyone who has ever seen, read or heard JULIUS CAESAR, or knows the slightest thing about the historical personage, is well aware that his enemies in the Senate were so devoted to the Roman republic and its traditions that the threat of imperium drove them to assassination. Caesar was offered a crown and made to refuse it thrice, but we and they can tell it’d feel good on his head: it’s only a matter of time. On the Ides of March they strike, stabbing the triumphant warrior to death before our eyes.

Screen-Shot-2017-06-13-at-12.27.16-PM.pngHere is where America’s deep polarization rears its ugly head. Again, anyone familiar with the material is keenly aware that seeking change by doing violence becomes the downfall of each and every conspirator — in fact, that is the very point of the play. But pause for a second to consider Trump’s devoted base of supporters. They are greatly rural, greatly uneducated (“I love the uneducated!” Trump gushed on the campaign trail), and distrustful of “elites” in cities and college towns. Most of them have never seen, read, or heard JULIUS CAESAR. All they have to go on comes from professional shit disturbers who tell them that up in fancy-schmantzy New York, some guy dresses up like Trump, then a bunch of senators stab him to death onstage while the audience just sits there and watches. And that’s all true. The real shame should fall on the cynical pitchfork salesmen who deliberately withhold any context from the infomasses and not only ought to, but in fact do know better.

There’s a lot to love in Eustis’s dynamic, immersive staging. The cast are all around you — it’s far and away the most exciting CAESAR I’ve ever seen. Marc Antony is searingly played by Elizabeth Marvel and is referred to as “she” throughout. Her feverish funeral oration, delivered with a slight Southern-senator twang, so rouses the 1800-member audience that we want to pick up weapons ourselves. The energy and drive is contagious: it becomes a spectacle when the dark consequences of the assassination roll in. At times there is a literal crowd on stage, all the stagehands and extras Eustis could find. The theater erupts with passion. By now the Trump references are basically subsumed: for an hour, he’s only been a stiff under a sheet, or a ghost with no snark or irony at all.

To know all this about the production, however, you have to have actually seen it.

julius_caesar_production_still.jpgI don’t get my news from cable tv channels, but from what Trump calls “failing” and “fake” media instead. The only time I normally see these shows is in clips on Colbert or THE DAILY SHOW. I’d never witnessed the full-time 24/7 cacophony until the James Comey testimony, but it’s almost too much to take in, whether you’re watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Rachel Maddow in particular goes so fast that I can’t parse everything she says and still receive the sliding, ticking Chyron information crammed onto the rest of the screen. On the right there’s remarkable teamwork and cooperation: interchangeable Fox News hosts tag out once an hour, but the story of the day (in this instance, “Comey is a liar and a traitor”) is so similar that through repetition it looks like Americans of all colors and genders agree! The barrage goes on afterburners once a partisan meme begins (“the War on Christmas”), and this is what happened to the Public.

The “murder” of “Trump” drove some people batshit. Not only do cable hosts matter but now individuals do too, because social media give them their own megaphones. Somebody recorded the assassination scene with a smartphone (you’re supposed to turn them off, lady!) and posted it. The usual suspects began howling, and before long censure of the Public and this production gained traction. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America both actually pulled their funding for the Free Shakespeare in The Park program (I can’t tell whether they removed all Public Theater donation). Oh, by the way: the word “public” usually means “funded by taxpayer dollars,” but not in this case. Humiliatingly, the National Endowment for the Arts felt obliged to disclaim that none of its money was used to subsidize JULIUS CAESAR.

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Outside the theater on Friday, before the show, Trumpies…

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…and the opposition.

The icing on the cake came last Friday, the night I saw the show. There were dueling groups of protesters outside the theater beforehand; that appeared to be a ho-hum everyday event. But during the show, just after the murder, a woman ran on stage and began ranting about normalizing attacks on the right while an accomplice stood in the audience to record her on video and shouted, “you’re all Goebbels!” (Huh? I still don’t get it.) The production paused for less than two minutes, actors still on stage, while the trolls were peaceably removed through a loud ovation. Then came a spot of serendipity. The stage manager announced “Actors, please pick it up at [Cinna’s line] ‘Liberty! Freedom!’” This was too much: the audience leapt to its feet with a roar as the players regrouped to carry on. The woman continued to shriek way off in the distance for ten minutes or so, but she was wasting her breath. (P.S.: Joyce Carol Oates knows. She was there too.) The pair turned out to be a pal of James O’Keefe, the little dweeb who tried and failed to sting Planned Parenthood, and a guy who enjoys spreading nutty conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate. So much for spontaneity.

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Onstage, pre-show, audience members pour out their hearts onto a “Roman bill.” A matching one is at stage right, reading I HOPE FOR.

Please don’t feign patriotic offense at this production. I know this has nothing to do with respect for the office of the president. The reason I know is simple: this same play was staged back in 2012 by the Acting Company, using an Obama-like Caesar. He was stabbed to death on stage too, and nobody said doodly. What we have here is pure Act I, scene ii Caesar worship.

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Oskar Eustis.

Backstage just before the show, Oskar Eustis addressed a group of Public Theater donors and told them the challenge was theirs and his: to find ways to reach out to another America that not only has divergent views, but often finds no reason to even acknowledge the necessity of art to a healthy public life. I agree that if the choices are mutually exclusive, feeding children is more important than funding playhouses, but they don’t have to negate each other. The answers aren’t simple, but the Public is taking some concrete steps. It has already funded a bare-bones mobile production of Lynn Nottage’s empathetic Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT which it will take into coal and factory country, where the play is set. Maybe someone who sees it will receive the warmth of recognition that great art can provide: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Now let’s make things better together. I believe that’s what many are really craving when they desperately cling to someone like Donald Trump.

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Two sheets tipped into the program after the shitstorm erupted.

Though the controversy may have affected the Public, rest assured it’s only a flesh wound. America’s greatest nonprofit theater will replace the lost private-sector donations and steam forward at full speed, but they’ll have to put forth some extra effort to do it. Meanwhile, off go my letters of censure to Delta (reminding them that, as they always say, they realize I have a choice when I travel) and BOA, just so they’ll know not all protesters think they did the right thing. And let’s at least thank goodness for an unusual and welcome side effect: for a few moments in the late spring of 2017, Shakespeare and the theater itself were as relevant as anything can possibly be.


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.


Tomorrow Is Another Day

April 1, 2017

donaldtrump_aap_030814.jpgAfter a great deal of anguished thought, I have a confession, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that resistance won’t work. I’m sitting the rest of this presidency out.

President Trump — appalling that I even have to write that — is nevertheless ensconced in the office, and he has his pals all around him. They’re every bit as inexperienced and incompetent as he is, but it’s still the @realWhiteHouse, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Remember that at this moment he and his minions have their thumbs on the scale everywhere. All three branches are his: executive, legislative and soon judicial, once he can get off his ass and pack a few district courts.

In case you’re gloating over the Trumpcare flameout, don’t. This repeal-and-replace business isn’t over. Tea Partiers hate Obama and anything he ever touched more than they love their constituents, even the sick ones. Especially the sick ones.

Legislators are already salivating over the tax code that they’ll soon be able to rewrite any way they want to. Guess who’ll get their taxes cut. You got it! But you can’t do diddly squat to stop it!

Foreign policy? Who needs it? The most powerful guy in the world is the only one who can’t get his “mind” around the fact that we’re interconnected. It’s not just World War III you should be freaked about. It’s the slow erosion of the US’s position as leader of the free world. There’s no more moral high ground. Soon there’ll be no more economic high ground as the world’s brightest minds, the keys to our future, gradually choose to base their careers in a place where they feel welcome. Sad!

Other countries are not quaking with fear over Donald Trump. They’re laughing at us, and enjoying a big bad bit of schadenfreude as Prissy Prom Queen America finally gets what’s coming to it. Their sainted Constitution has finally bit Yanks in the ass. They got screwed by their own rules and regulations. How can you lose by three million votes in public and still take power? Inquiring dictators want to know this clown’s secret.

Once it all sinks in, you too may come to understand that the cards are stacked, the dice are loaded, the game is rigged. Resistance is futile: the frickin Borg are more empathetic. So there’s only one logical course of action. Regroup for the next election, sure, because tomorrow is indeed another day, absolutely. But for now, don’t squander your energy. Just give up and wait it out. I feel so much better now. Think about it, man. You can too.

Look anywhere, up and down the political spectrum, for another solution. Read anything you like and see if you can find any variance from my grim prognosis. I myself am tired of deception, hidden messages to the political base, inappropriate cheerfulness on a golf course or any other kind of levity while the world is going to hell. I’m throwing up the towel and I won’t waste another second worrying about Donald Trump. No, sir. Not today.

4/2/17: Though I stand by nearly everything expressed in this post, the notion that you should capitulate to the Trump catastrophe was written in jest. I don’t want anyone else to “take it the wrong way.” I tried my best to make the piece appear plausible, but I may have gone too far, and for that I apologize. I thought I’d left enough breadcrumbs (“look anywhere, up and down,” “hidden messages to the political base,” “levity while the world is going to hell,” “throwing up the towel,” categorizing the post as Humor), but I was wrong. The ultimate “tell” is this: anybody who knows me knows I would never ever ever advocate giving up or even shutting up. There is one more blatant indication that the post was intended as a prank which I’ll leave for you to find.


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.


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