There Are People Who Know What The Russians Have Been Up To With Trump

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3I’m not so sure “no one knows” what’s going on with Trump and the Russians.

You hear something like that four or five times an hour as pundit-reporters compete to be the most flabbergasted by the latest tweet and revelation from TrumpWorld. But, if there is any credibility to Steve Bannon’s “deep state” paranoia, it strikes me as very-to-highly likely that within the gargantuan US intelligence apparatus there are people, and my guess is they would be senior career professionals, who have a real good idea of the games Trump has been playing with Russians, or to be more precise, games Russians have been playing with Trump.

Over just the past two weeks three separate pieces of reporting have etched a portrait of the Trump reality in clearer detail. None of them can be described as “sound bites.” You’ll need an hour to digest them all. Two have appeared in consecutive issues of the New Yorker and one is a series of posts by Josh Marshall for his site, Talking Points Memo.

“Trump, Putin and the New Cold War” by New Yorker editor David Remnick and two colleagues is a fascinating overview of the populist forces that first Putin and now Trump have very cynically exploited (and in Putin’s case sustained) to grab power. “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal” by the same magazine’s Adam Davidson uses a bizarre development deal in Baku, Azberbaijan to lay out a money-laundering operation involving comically corrupt Azerbaijani officials, Trump and … Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Over at Talking Points Memo, Marshall’s series, zeroing in on Trump’s long-standing, very close association with a strange fringe mob/wannabe spy character named Felix Sater and Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen. Begin, if you’re interested, with, “The Innocent Explanation, Part 1.”

To compress a very broad narrative to its essence, you have this: In the late ’90s and early ’00s Trump was effectively bankrupt and no American bank would do business with him. What he found were Russian oligarchs, newly and fabulously wealthy from mob-style “privatization” in the post-Soviet economy. That crowd needed ways to launder money, and a lot of it. They bought into Trump projects, often at absurdly inflated prices, enriching Trump as their cash got legitimized. As the pattern repeated itself, Trump and family become ever more beholden to their “business partners.”

Now, it is interesting from a media critic perspective to note how little anyone else in the press is playing with this Felix Sater keyhole to Trump’s empire. Sater, as Marshall reveals, not only served prison time for stabbing a guy, Joe Pesci-style, with the broken stem of a wine glass, but has established connections to New York mob families.

It is a long-standing fascination of mind at how the once enormously influential crime families of “Godfather” legend have all but entirely disappeared from media attention, as though they were never anything but a fiction. (Remember, until 1957 J. Edgar Hoover insisted organized crime did not exist in the United States.) The general explanation being that they all went “legitimate” at some point 25-30 years ago and there’s nothing more to see here.

I don’t think so. More likely is that the families figured ways to better launder their criminal earnings and are probably as wealthy today as they’ve ever been.

Whatever, this Felix Sater story is the extraordinarily rare instance when American organized crime reemerges in mainstream reporting. (The New York Times has reported on Sater, but to date has not pressed the connections Marshall has.) On the other hand Russian mobsters are a common subject of conversation. (It’s another form American exceptionalism, you see. We are the only culture in world history exempt from the scourge of organized criminality, and the corruption and violence that comes from it.)

Marshall acknowledges the normal viability of Occam’s Razor — (Definition: “Suppose there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case the simpler one is usually better. Another way of saying it is that the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.“)

Says Marshall, “The simplest explanation isn’t necessarily the right one. But in the spirit of Occam’s Razor, we should prefer it because it usually will be. To state the key point for clarity and emphasis, it is not the simplest explanation. It it is the simplest explanation which accounts for all the known facts. That distinction makes all the difference in the world.”

I could go on, but the reading list above lays all this out in compelling fashion.

My point, regarding the likelihood of senior people in the permanent government, (the part of the government Steve Bannon wants to “deconstruct”), knowing what all this Russia business is about also has a bit of Occam’s Razor to it.

Specifically, fabulously wealthy Russian oligarchs, essentially organized international criminals, many (but not all) aligned with Vladimir Putin (who is reputed to be one of the wealthiest people in the world thanks to his looting of the Russian economy), would be precisely the people enriching and enabling all sorts of nefarious activity all over the world, including here in the United States. They would therefore be primary targets for US (and allied) intelligence operations, intercepting their communications and monitoring their contacts and money flows.

If they weren’t/aren’t being regularly surveilled it would be an astonishing dereliction of duty on the part of our $80-$100 billion annual intelligence apparatus.

So … here’s the assumption. Senior intelligence people, knowing with very high confidence what Trump has been involved with for years, begin a series of strategic leaks to the media to prod judicial action. After all, enabling by ignoring quasi-to-overtly criminal association with foreign adversaries is diametrically opposed to what they signed up for.

And this is very serious stuff for whoever is leaking. They themselves are risking criminal prosecution. Which is why I find it hard to believe it’s just a few Bartleby the scrivener types buried in the bureaucracy. People like that have essentially no political cover. But further up the chain, where senior officials have personal relations with influential political leaders — from the likes of Diane Feinstein and John McCain and Lindsay Graham, etc. — such a risk becomes more tenable.

In summary, while the pundit press saying “we don’t know” is credible.

But that is not at all the same thing as saying, “No one knows.”

 

 

 

 

The Roiling Freak Show of Trump v. Media

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3Considering our woeful record in assessing the likely outcome of the November election, no one in American media should make predictions. But … I strongly suspect the tenor of President-elect Trump’s first press conference Wednesday will be amplified and aggravated … constantly … throughout his term in office. It’s the way he does business, and to date the way the press has done business.

Digesting the spectacle Thursday New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote, “There were two big lessons in the Wednesday morning melee.

  1. Mr. Trump remains a master media manipulator who used his first news briefing since July to expertly delegitimize the news media and make it the story rather than the chaotic swirl of ethical questions that engulf his transition.
  2. The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.”

These are not novel insights. But it remains interesting how regularly we’re hearing this kind of thing from the country’s acknowledged journalistic leaders. Trump the manipulator, delegitimizing the press and the press failing to adjust to a new reality. Or, as one observer put it, the press continuing to “apply balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon” to the extent that it “distorts reality.”

Missing from Rutenberg’s column and so many like it was a specific prescription of what to do. While he goes on to trill with the traditional news chorus indicting BuzzFeed for publishing the “extended version” of the U.S. intelligence briefing on Mr. Trump and his Russian activities, what he does in sum, is argue for yet more of the “balanced treatment” approach.

Whether you believe BuzzFeed, once a silly listicle-spewing engine, now given grudging credibility among traditional reporters, was right or wrong in publishing the unverified report in its full salaciousness no doubt depends on what you think of Trump. (Rutenberg lauds BuzzFeed’s work on the genesis of some of the past year’s “fake news” epidemic.) But it’s hard to see how the press adjusts itself and re-gathers its bearings over the near term future if it chooses to deny the right of an informed citizenry to know what the chattering classes of D.C. and New York have known and been talking about for months.

For the record, BuzzFeed presented the 35-page document with the clear disclaimer that information within was unverified. But the more important fact is that it published the thing. (Here’s a fiery takedown of the decision from Quillete.com.) Such a thing simply isn’t done! Or at least hasn’t been until now, in this starkly unbalanced, distorting moment. Comparisons of BuzzFeed to the now-defunct Gawker are being tossed around in the context of unjournalistic recklessness and shameless “clickbaiting.”

Such horror!

While the bonafides of the so-called dossier got something of a boost yesterday from a BBC story suggesting there at least four sources describing blackmail-quality material in Russian hands for possible use against Trump, for journalists of the traditional mindset, the line in the sand is “unverified”. Beyond that nothing matters.

The counter argument, which deserves more serious consideration than it is getting, is that having plainly asserted the material’s unverified nature, the credibility placed in it by U.S. intelligence agencies who briefed both the President, the President-elect and Senate leaders means the general public has a right to know what “the elites” are talking about.

As I say, the DC/media figures had been aware of this for eight months. (Here’s a timeline from businessinsider.com). If, as you can see in that timeline, influential people were making making strategic calculations based on its existence, who is the press protecting from what and why?

Former acting CIA Director Mike Morrell had a set of interesting comments on the matter to Christiane Amanpour.

If the crossing of the line, where news publications print unverified opposition research on powerful public figures is discomfiting to you, well, it should be. This is new ethical territory. Territory most polite people would prefer not to go into. But territory everyone in the press is reacting to whether they like it or not. Moreover, it is territory the press is being forced into, given the distortion of reality resulting from the head-on collision of “balanced” journalism and the “unbalanced phenomenon”, which in this case is an incoming President of the United States. Mr. Trump is after all someone who has steadfastly refused to disclose anything remotely like the normal financial information that could offer reassurance he is immune to foreign blackmail.

We may all wish we still lived in an era of two more-or-less respectful warring parties, where the press could play the comfortable, familiar role of bemused arbiter. But those days are gone, or certainly aren’t the ones we’re living today.

Another storyline in the roiling freak show that is the press in the Age of Trump is the offer by Penthouse magazine of a $1 million reward/bounty for anyone who delivers video of the dossier’s shall we say, “golden moment”. What does “the press” do if such a video ever appears? Beyond that, and something I think far more plausible, what happens if some wealthy liberal tycoon, a George Soros or Tom Steyer lets word get out that there’s a $5 million (or $10 or $20 million) bounty on Trump’s taxes? Drop them in a stall in an airport bathroom, no questions asked. What are ethics of running with that?

Our incoming President is a kind of ultimate disrupter. The press can accept that and adapt in order to assert the kind of oversight the public appears to want, or it can continue to wring hands over its relevance.

And Now the Knife Fight to Take Out Trump

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3The harsh fact that Donald Trump will take over the White House presents liberals with an interesting ethical dilemma. Remembering how most of us reacted to Mitch McConnell committing Republicans to one goal in 2008, limiting Barack Obama to a single term, and how we recoiled at Rush Limbaugh crowing to his radio listeners, “I hope he fails”, how do we respond to this … unmitigated disaster?

One facet we should agree to wipe off the table here at the get go is the notion that Trump is illegitimate. Republicans overused that line on Bill Clinton and Trump himself built his campaign on the insinuation that Obama wasn’t even a legitimate citizen. We don’t need to go that far. He won. There were ten million more white males over the age of 45 available to Trump than experts thought after the 2012 election, and 91% of white Republicans stuck with their tribe. He exploited to his advantage every impulse inflamed by Republicans for the last 25 years. He’s their new leader.

For purposes of the coming non-stop battle, the basic reality of who Trump is will serve our needs well enough.

(I am as gobsmacked by what went down last night as everyone else, from Nate Silver to the Clinton campaign. My only defense is this blog post from last year, titled, Why Trump Can Win It All, And I Mean “All”).

But today, post-election, after the crudest, ugliest, most boorish and low-brow campaign of my lifetime, the traditional high-minded, generous impulse to accept defeat with humility and graciousness is wildly inappropriate. Trump is who he is. There’s no point kidding ourselves. At best he’s a self-serving buffoon. At worst he’s a threat to … well, you name it.

While the people who voted for him preferred him, maybe in spite of his misogyny, racism, tax avoidance, man crush on Putin, indifference to facts yadda yadda, you and I were/are disgusted by it. And for very legitimate reasons. But that’s the reality of Trump. He may be hiding a lot of information about how he has done business. But he isn’t hiding the quality of his thought-processes or character. All of which is another way of saying we’re not talking a normal, polite transfer of power to someone like Mitt Romney or John McCain. Traditional courtesies are misplaced.

This is a looming nightmare of dysfunction and, I strongly suspect, non-stop scandal so fraught with social and economic danger there’s simply no way any responsible citizen can doing anything less than object to it constantly and obstruct it at every moment and every turn. That may be hypocritical given the rages we’ve been in over the the Republican/Tea Party gridlocking of government function since 2009, but if turn about is fair play that crowd hardly has any grounds for complaint do they?

One great irony that it is easy to forsee that for all of Trump’s talk about jailing the criminal Hillary Clinton, the leaking, the trading of secrets and the investigative machinery that is about to go to work overtime exposing every detail of his finances, every accusation of sexual misconduct, every conflict of interest with adversarial foreign governments and on and on will be like gargantuan strip mining operation.

The average liberal may be a passive and polite soul, but out on the margins are very well financed individuals and organizations appalled and soon to be fanatically obsessed with not just neutralizing Trump’s authority, (the Republican Congress will obviously block all official investigations), but destroying him as quickly and definitively as possible. Nothing about that is pretty. It’s hardly the sort of behavior we were taught in high school civics classes or admonished to avoid by beard-stroking moralists. But it’s well within the rules of the game as the Republicans have been playing it.

It slid off Obama because there was no criminal or sexually predatory there there. But I doubt there’s an investigative reporter, whistleblower or hacker anywhere on the planet who doubts Trump is every bit the fraud we’ve seen on the campaign trail. Legendary Woodward and Bernstein-like reputations stand to be made based on who comes up with the smoking gun that takes him down.

Trump may have read the mood of “the deplorables” well enough to get elected, but my guess is he has no idea or any defense against the kind of knife fight the elite kids are about to bring down on him.

It’s Time for the Press to Get Nefarious with Trump’s Taxes

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3Last week the editor of The New York Times said he’s willing to risk jail to publish Donald Trump’s tax returns. Because he’s regarded as a serious guy in a serious job we should regard that as a serious promise. But it is also a call to hackers, IRS bureaucrats, former accountants and anyone else with access, legal or (more likely) nefarious, to do business with the grand Grey Lady on the single biggest untold story of this election.

the editor, Dean Baquet was at Harvard with Bob Woodward of Watergate fame, who was at first a bit tremulous about the idea of publishing a private citizen’s most comprehensive and revealing financial disclosure. I mean, people could get arrested! But as the conversation went on Baquet said, “[Trump’s] whole campaign is built on his success as a businessman and his wealth.” To which Woodward, perhaps steeping up his bravado said, “Some things you have to do. . . . This defines Donald Trump. . . . There’s a big hole here.”

Do you think? Trump’s appeal may be more rooted in his exploitation of age-old white grievance and resentments, but the “fact” he’s as rich as Croesus, or so he says, adds tremendously to the enthusiasm his various baskets have for him. Were he not living in a penthouse decorated in a style best described as “early Saddam Hussein” and not (currently) married to a former achitecture student-turned-bikini model and not fly around in his own 757, he’d be just another duck-tailed doofus gassing on at the 19th hole. But roll all that into one gaudy picture and you’ve got something that screams “Success!” to America’s perennially self-pitying white middle and lower classes.

Here, here, here and here are some good Trump tax-related stories based on what little can be discerned.

The ethical nut of this promise, this vow, from Baquet is that Trump has so blatantly and egregiously gamed the standard politician-journalism game that the only way to crack him is with what on the face of it is Edward Snowden-like criminality … and let the lawyers sort it out later, a la Daniel Ellsburg during the Vietnam war. And I believe he’s right.

Last Friday’s fiasco at Trump’s new hotel in D.C., where he played the national media for chumps by exploiting their live national coverage for an infomercial for the building goosed with a bunch of campaign-rally hosannahs from grizzled war vets before finally A: Conceding that Barack Obama was born in the USA, and then, B: Accusing Hillary Clinton of starting the whole racist birther BS, sent the press into a remarkable fury. Even CNN, directed by former “Today Show” exec Jeff Zucker, a guy who would stick viewers’ heads in a stopped-up cruise ship toilet knowing his target demo would watch it 24/7, expressed outrage over the incident.

Why, exactly, you ask? Certainly not because Friday was the first time Trump has “rick rolled” an audience. That’s SOP for the guy. The critical difference Friday was this: Trump made the assembled reporters and their colleagues and bosses back at the office look like fools. Or, chumps, as I say. Now, having juuuust a bit of experience with Le Grande Journalist Ego, reporters and editors are pretty thick-skinned about being called names — like “fool” and “chump” — but get really upset when someone shows a whole country how indisputably easy it is to make them look … well, foolish and chumpy.

So a guy the vast majority of the press regards as a fraud on one level or another plays them for a free commercial and makes them look ridiculous. What are they, can they do about it? The Times followed Friday’s fiasco with a “tough” analysis piece, saying, “He nurtured the conspiracy like a poisonous flower, watering and feeding it with an ardor that still baffles and embarrasses many around him. Mr. Trump called up like-minded sowers of the same corrosive rumor, asking them for advice on how to take a falsehood and make it mainstream in 2011, as he weighed his own run for the White House.”

But as most of the gamed-and-ridiculed press has come to understand, “tough” analyses, “strongly-worded” editorials and hour after hour of gob-smacked, incredulous talking heads are all gnat-bites on the hide of a creature long accustomed to nefarious behavior. None of it means anything, because none of it has any significant effect.

The only topic, the only single subject matter that carries any weight, that would pull down the (gold metallic micro-fibre) curtain and allow voters to see and assess Trump for what he really is are his tax returns. That is where The Story is, and pretty much everyone in the press, including FoxNews and Bretibart, knows it.

Which brings people like the editor of the New York Times and Bob Woodward — who’s colleague David Farenthold has fast-tracked himself to a Pulitzer for the most dogged and aggressive coverage of Trump’s finances — to say out loud 50 days before the election that the time is nigh for two wrongs to make a right. We are talking the Presidency of the United State here, not doping in pro sports or the machinations behind some gas pipeline.

If you’re going to break the rules you traditionally operate under — by soliciting, maybe even paying for Trump’s tax returns — you do it to properly, fully dissect a “non-traditional” (i.e. quite possibly criminal) candidate for the most influential office on the planet … and let the lawyers argue it out later.

And you do it now.

From O.J. to the Deplorable Appeal of Donald T.

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3A couple weeks ago I hit Maximum Trump Wall. Too much stupidity too much of the time. So I took a break and caught up on some good TV. Bad mistake.

Tuning down the wall of Trump noise I filled late summer evenings binge-watching stuff I had heard was “must see” TV. (The Emmys are this Sunday.) On the list was, “The Night Manager”, an adaptation of a John LeCarre novel. Then “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” a dramatization of the case with John Travolta, Nathan Lane, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding Jr., followed by HBO’s “The Night of” with John Turturro, but most importantly, written by the great Richard Price. Finally, the major investment, 479 minutes of ESPN’s documentary, “O.J. Simpson: Made in America”.

The last one was where my strategy of Trump avoidance went completely to hell. “Made in America”, I’ve been telling (boring) people in the days since may be the single best thing I’ve seen on TV in years … “Breaking Bad”, “The Sopranos”, “Game of Thrones”, Frontline documentaries, you name it. Directed by Ezra Edelman, ( the son of children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman and Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman) the film is the thickest, richest slice of modern America culture I can recall ever. As with all great filmmaking/storytelling it is Edelman’s perceptive sequencing of the mostly familiar story of Simpson, the murders and the court case into the context of the culture surrounding it all.

Re-visiting the Simpson story night after night, it all came back. The indemnified status of celebrities in modern America, a culture cynical of authority while simultaneously delusional about fame. The noxious racist police culture of Los Angeles, not significantly different than every other large American city, and the indifference of white America to it. The intense resentment and sense of grievance of blacks toward law enforcement and the judicial system. The appalling cynicism of lawyers supplied with enough money to tell a wholly implausible story that exploits grievance to maximum effect, and a media culture first and foremost committed to trading in the elements of any story that sustains the story viewers and readers want to hear, thereby enhancing the value of the media itself.

Trump avoidance was an impossibility.

With what is it now, 56 days until the election we have pretty well swept aside every issue other than grievance, resentment, racial animosity, celebrity and media self-service to explain Trump’s appeal. There is nothing more to it. There’s no “small government conservatism”. No “libertarian notion” ersatz or otherwise. There’s no economic incentive particularly. It’s not even so much a distaste for Hillary Clinton specifically, as it is a resentment of and grievance against anything that smacks of a culture/a class of people easily blamed for what are in fact personal failures.

About as I was wrapping up “Made in America” I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s feature in Mother Jones, “I Spent Five Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans. Here’s What They Won’t Tell You.”

In a nutshell, Hochschild spends time shadowing a woman selling Aflac insurance to the desperately poor whites of rural Louisiana. The grand takeaway of the piece is this: After growing up in a culture that had long accepted sneering at shiftless blacks, people forever gaming the system for (fraudulent) welfare disability benefits, food stamps, public housing, whatever, these sad crackers have been slapped in the face with a new reality. Lacking necessary 21st century skills, family after family is unemployed, living by welfare threads and being hammered by opioid and other drug addictions. They have come to realize, even if they don’t want to say so out loud, that they are the new shiftless, hopeless-loser blacks. They are the people “respectable” society — skilled workers, white collar professionals, liberals and most of the media — has written off as lazy drags on society. Needless to say, they’re all in for Trump, who promises them they’ll be “great again.”

So yeah, these people are “the deplorables” Hillary Clinton was talking about in such an impolitic way the other day. And their grievances and misplaced resentments are among the long, long list of highly relevant questions Matt Lauer didn’t bother to ask Trump on that aircraft carrier last week.

I think I’ve said this before, but a saving irony of the Trump disaster (whether he wins or loses) is that it has fully dispensed and blown away the illusion that the United States is living in some kind of post-racial era. The virulent racism roiling just under the keel of Trump’s garbage barge is a startling reminder that very nearly half the country today, your work colleagues and neighbors, are comfortable with hostilities a lot of us thought subsided in the ’60s. Moreover, today’s “blacks”, in the form of under-educated, substantially unemployable, perpetually aggrieved whites have been convinced by their media of choice of something no real black of old ever thought, namely that they are entitled to more and better just because of the color of their skin.

 

 

 

How Would “House of Cards” Handle The Donald Problem?

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3Not that any Hollywood screenwriter since Terry Southern could imagine a spectacle as bizarre and farcical as this. But I’m watching this week’s Trump meltdown, which is an extra melt you didn’t think possible after last week’s meltdown, and the sight of the ever loyal Republican herd trampling itself to avoid even mentioning (on camera) their party’s “presumptive nominee’s” name and thinking, “What would ‘House of Cards’ do with a toxic liability like The Donald?”

Amid chatter that Trump’s poll numbers are intolerable and predictions of a god almighty November gut punch to the conservative agenda, (you know, more guns, not so many gays and social service cuts for Hispanics), there are whispers of rules changes at the Ultimate Warcraft Nutzapalooza in Cleveland next month. One idea would free all of the delegates 17 candidates brawled over all winter and spring and allow them to vote for whoever they damned well please. The problem with that is besides setting off a civil war with Trump’s (not exactly rational and stable) people, a.k.a. every other Republican’s base, the Grand Old Party has no one to offer as a replacement. Well ok, maybe Ted Cruz, who would certainly leap at the opportunity and very likely send the party to an even worse defeat than Trump.

So … what to do?

Clearly something fully above board and traditional and proper is out of the question. No GOP wiseman is going to step up and say, “This guy is a [bleeping] disaster. I’m not going to support him.” Not even John McCain, who needs Trump’s pitchfork crowd to win reelection in Arizona. One reason is that there aren’t any “Republican wisemen”. Or there are they’re as rare as coelecanths and never expose themselves to sunlight. These are modern Republicans after all, i.e. salesmen and huckstersl.

But if life were to imitate Hollywood, the plotting would go something like this:  An envelope would be handed to one of Trump’s bouncers. Either Corey Lewandowski or Paul Manafort. Maybe by someone who bumps against them in a crowded elevator, slipping the envelope into their pocket and vanishing away when the doors open.

After first inspecting it for anthrax spores, the envelope would be opened. The message inside would be specific and blunt. It would lay out in unequivocal detail not just Trump’s  personal tax information, but incident after incident of his long history of financial fraud, leaving no doubt of that all such information will be disclosed, exposing him to not just reputational ruin, (I know, far too late for that) but full, bankruptcy-inducing criminal and civil prosecution as well. In short, catastrophic blackmail. His only option? Concede to demands freeing his delegates. Accept the inevitable defeat that follows on the convention floor and the nomination of someone else, Cruz or some other skin crawling replacement, and walk away.

But come on. That’s way too bureaucratic and not all that much fun. Worse, Trump’s still around. God knows who the guy’ll take down with him out of pure spite?

So, then there’s the option of him claiming to have experienced a severe health incident. Perhaps a heart attack from all those McDonalds lunches. The blackmailers would agree to support this fiction, under certain conditions. A tweet would go out that the presumptive nominee collapsed in the royal boudoir, leaving it to fervid imaginations that he clenched up while having world class sex with the super sexy Melania. He would be private jetted off to Mar a Lago, given “the greatest” cardiac care the world has ever known and remain essentially under house arrest recuperating until the day after the election.

Of course, were this a “House of Cards” script and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) orchestrating the plot, Trump would simply be a dead man.

The Donald would be slipped a toxic hamburger patty, go into cardiac arrest, maybe midway through one of his feverish apocalyptic fantasies about blood-sucking Muslims, and croak right there on “Fox and Friends”, before the nation’s startled but mostly relieved eyes. Because, as Frank (a Democrat, you know), would explain in one of his distinctive, fourth-wall breaking asides, the only way to truly escape the hell of someone like Trump, is to inflict upon him a total, indisputably final, (un)timely demise.

Only with the deathly bolus of The Donald irrevocably removed from the party body, could the Republican  leadership apparatus — the Koch brothers, Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, and heavyweight donors like John Menard Jr. — be free to replace him with their anointed champion, which, given the way those guys operate could be anyone from Ted Cruz to the Sham Wow guy.

Now, if you, playing script doctor, want to replace the super sexy Melania with Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) locked in a deeply connived love nest with The Donald, I could buy that. I just can’t picture Claire touching a greasy hamburger patty.

 

 

What Does “The Press” Know About Trump’s People, Really?

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3It appears “the media” has decided we’ve achieved “Peak Trump”. Over the past week coverage of the most fascinating politico-cultural phenomenon of the last generation — at minimum — has turned resoundingly sour and nasty. Conventional wisdom is that this has everything to do with the most recent run of Trump loutishness, beginning with the, uh, unflattering photo of Ted Cruz’ wife, followed by the campaign manager’s “arrest” for yanking the arm of a female reporter and then the business about punishing women who have abortions.

God knows the guy deserves everything he’s getting. But since Trump’s been at this kind of stuff since last summer (and let’s not forget his birther phase), the sudden turn of the NY/DC press establishment is kind of startling. The operative journalist group think explanation is that they are of course merely reporting “what’s out there”, and at the root of what’s out there is Team Trump’s cloddish attitude toward women. I mean, the guy’s a pig! A misogynist! And apparently … We just noticed!

Another (very) possible explanation, because it coincides so neatly with the turn in tone you hear in everything from the evening news, to cable pundits, including FoxNews, is that the press establishment is reacting New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s recent “mea culpa” for the way he and the rest of his journalistic peer group have played “lapdog” for Trump’s ratings-goosing, ad revenue-spiking carnival act.

Said Kristof in his Sunday March 26 column:

“An analysis by The Times found that we in the news media gave Trump $1.9 billion in free publicity in this presidential cycle. That’s 190 times as much as he paid for in advertising, and it’s far more than any other candidate received. As my colleague Jim Rutenberg put it, some complain that ‘CNN has handed its schedule over to Mr. Trump’, and CNN had lots of company.”

It may be pure coincidence that the very week following Kristof’s self and peer flagellation the tide of coverage turned so resoundingly negative. But I suspect otherwise. It was the Times. It was a Sunday, and what Kristiof said was dead-on. Trump has been great for business. Full stop.

The counter to Kristof’s argument largely centered around the amount of Trump coverage that was “unfavorable”. The fistfights at rallies, the “mine’s bigger than yours” quality of GOP debates. All the crap. “We reported that bad stuff, too!” The problem with that defense is that a show biz creation like Trump truly does flourish in a world where all publicity is good publicity. (Shorthand: “All pub is good pub.”)

By another coincidence, last Tuesday I was talking with Chris Worthington, now the head of Minnesota Public Radio’s soon-to-premiere investigative unit. He of course had read Kristof’s piece and his takeaway was the part where Kristof says:

“We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. … Media elites rightly talk about our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.”

Fundamentally, says Worthington, the story of Trump is the story of his voters. Who they are and why they believe what they believe. There is something to that, if only that were the essence of the coverage.

But on the subject of guilt, Kristof was also guilty of being too polite. (He works at The Times, y’know.)

It’s true “middle class” journalists, and people like Kristof and the celebrity anchors on CNN, MSNBC and Fox are comfortably beyond “middle-class”, and don’t spend a lot of time interacting with the country’s economically distressed. But I’m not convinced economics are a primary motivating factor of Trump’s appeal. Oh sure, he rails on about “terrible trade deals” and jobs some U.S. company has shifted off to Mexico. But I suspect it’s much more his “us against them” theme that grabs and sustains enthusiasm for his cause, and that doesn’t have all that much to do with anyone’s cash on hand, really.

More to the point, besides being busy and operating in a competitive business environment where group think powerfully influences editorial decision making, it’s the rare professional journalist who has a lot of spare time to listen to and dig deeper into the resentments of people who, as I’ve said before, don’t have reason to be complaining as much as they do. A single mom living on welfare? Sure. A laid off coal miner with black lung? Of course. A 40 year-old, high-school educated white guy driving a two year-old pickup, regularly hunting and drinking with his buddies? Not so much.

Traditional media makes regular, good faith effort to report on and demonstrate sympathy for the travails of people living under obvious social and economic oppression. What they have a harder time explaining — much less implicitly sympathizing with — is the plight of a fairly large chunk of the American population that believes it is entitled to more than it has ever made an effort to earn.

Very ironically, two of the best and most lacerating takes on this population have come from the conservative end of the spectrum.

Here’s Kevin Williamson in The National Review. Sample quote: “Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget [conservative hero Edmund] Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.” Or, put another way, Trump’s blame-placing people are their own worst enemy.

Then, over at The Weekly Standard, in a piece on GOP insider’s insider Mike Murphy, writer Matt LaBash says, “I’d like secure borders, more tightly controlled immigration, and would love to see manufacturing jobs come back as much as the next guy. But what about our own culpability in the nation’s decline? The technologies we so ravenously consume as our jobs get automated or algorithmed out of existence. We pretend as though character doesn’t count, then wonder why we get so many characters. We buy cut-rate Chinese goods at Walmart, or better still, on Amazon Prime, so we don’t have to put down the Doritos bag and budge from our easy-chair rage-stations as our passions get serially inflamed by Sean Hannity telling us how great we are and how hard we have it. Our consumption of everything seems to be increasing — of carbs, meth, anger-stoking shoutfests — even as our producers seem to be disappearing. Maybe we have unimpressive politicians because they’re our representatives, and we’ve become grossly unimpressive ourselves.”

Republican insiders specialize in sleight-of-hand class strategies that rarely if ever benefit the Doritos-munching rubes who never the less vote for their candidates. But “the media” which is now portending Trump’s demise is generally too polite to explore the reality these guys have been dealing with.

There’s Only One Connection Between Bernie’s People and Trump’s People

Brian_LambertNew Hampshire is now in the past and if we agree on nothing else, let’s settle this: Bernie Sanders’ people and Donald Trump’s people have nothing in common … nothing that is other than the realization that we’re all chumps in an epic con game.

Beyond that, in terms of what they really understand about The Big Con and what actually has to be done to pull the plug on it, we’re talking a gulf as vast as, oh I don’t know, the difference between an episode of “Duck Dynasty” and a “Frontline” documentary.

I’ve watched way too much punditry over the past week, yesterday and last night in particular. And amid the flood of exit-polling data and the sage analyses of anchor desks groaning with marvelously well-remunerated players of the DC-media establishment, I was amazed at how little discussion there was of a key statistic that keeps leaping out at me. Namely, the education level of Trump’s core supporters and how he dominates the field among people with a high school diploma or less.

Says ABC: “Voters who haven’t gone beyond high school were Trump’s best group by education; he won 45 percent of their votes. His support fell as education increased, to 21 percent among voters with a post-graduate education – still highly competitive even in that group.”

That single fact goes a long ways to explaining the much more frequently discussed 66% of Republicans who like The Donald’s idea of closing the borders to all Muslims, which is linked to other gob-smacking numbers like the 60% of Republicans who think Obama is a Muslim and not an actual citizen, not to mention Trumpists’ irrational level of fear of rampaging terrorists. For whatever the reason, the pundit class chooses not to make so much of that startling 45% number, much less dwell on it as they should.

No doubt they’re terrified at the thought of calling Trump’s people “stupid”. I mean what would The Donald say about that in his next live call-in interview … after his last call-in interview 15 minutes earlier? Moreover, The Donald’s people watch a lot of TV, and what TV performer dares call their viewers “stupid”.

The thing is there’s a more nuanced and interesting discussion to be had than just saying, “Trump’s voters are dolts”. To be sure they are unsophisticated and largely ignorant of critical facets of reality, but drooling morons? No. What they seem to me is a very large chunk of the American population that has never paid a lot of attention to why things are the way they are, much less who is responsible for making it that way, and — this is the part that Democrats are going to have understand and twist to their advantage if Trump makes it to November — this is a group of rare-to-never voters who mainly consume information that comes saturated with entertainment value. They need sugary frosting on everything.

I suspect these are the kids we all remember from high school, the ones who only perked up in class when something was funny, or easy. The stuff that was “boring”? Not so much. (I should know. That was me in Algebra.) Which of course goes a long ways to explaining their predicament in life today. Honest? Most likely. Hard-working? I don’t doubt it. Good neighbors? Yeah sure, friendly enough. But disciplined enough to exercise critical thinking in their own best interests? No way.

Everyone has noted that Trump’s people carry no white-hot ideological torches. All that standard Republican blather about religion and “Godliness” and “My Lord above”? It’s a big “whatever” to them. Having been “educated” primarily through pop culture, and by that I mean commercial radio and TV, they have developed an appetite, an addiction you might say, to the entertaining, politically incorrect ear candy spouted by celebrities and stars. People who are bona fide success stories, omnipresent larger than life characters who never fail to dominate their environment and enemies.

The fact that show biz acts like Rush Limbaugh and Trump “win” by a carefully calculated design that avoids genuine confrontation, isn’t something this audience notices particularly. The bigger point is that these guys talk like winners and live like winners. (They can buy all the cool stuff advertised on TV). Plus, they have mastered the art of using a vernacular this particular audience understands.

And this audience understand it because it is essentially the same language they use. And that’s because … to keep the perpetual wheel turning … they picked it up from pop culture.

So when Trump gets up in front of an auditorium of the faithful and calls Ted Cruz a “pussy”, the crowd howls with delight. Sheeeeeit! It’s like night out watching a stand-up comic at the nearest casino. And the guy’s a billionaire!

Weirdly, all this seems “authentic” to the Trump faithful. But I doubt the notion of authenticity is tied so much to Trump personally as it is that what he’s saying and the way he is saying it sounds so familiar to them. I mean, it’s their grievances and grudges blasting back at them … in their own words, from the mouth of a super rich, super-famous star. It’s a long-sought confirmation that while they’ve been dealt a shitty hand, they’ve been right all along.

In no way though does this describe the Sanders crowd. Yes, they too smell a grand, grotesque con. But they see, as the Trumpists don’t, the symbiotic connection between the conniving elite and the hapless chumps who routinely vote to keep them in power, sometimes by not voting at all.

Sanders’ authenticity on the other hand is, well, “authentic” and as much about him as a person as his message. In terms of critical thinking in pursuit of their best interests, Sanders’ people correctly assess The Bern as honorable. There is, as I’ve said before, a lot of misty-eyed idealism about what President Bernie could actually accomplish in a Quixotic fight against Wall St., UnitedHealth, Pfizer and on and on. But his appeal to his followers has nothing to do with pandering to chronically low levels of accurate information.

All that said, I repeat something from a few posts back. Roughly 48% of eligible voters never bother to show up on election day. That describes a big chunk of the crowd hooting and howling for Trump right now. If he gets 10% of them to vote in November we’ve got serious problems.

Why Trump Can Win it All, and I Mean “All”

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterI missed the Hillary and Bernie show last night, partly because I am still fighting off the depression of last Thursday’s “No, I Am More Apocalyptic Than Thou” Republican shoot out, in particular the moment when I realized that Donald Trump could win it all, as in become not just the anointed candidate of The Doomsayer Party, but POTUS 45.

The argument is this: After six months of doing presidential campaigning his way, traditional courtesies and decorum be damned, Trump is at worst as strong as he’s ever been, and all others, with the exception of Ted Cruz, are demonstrably weaker, to the point of irrelevance. Moreover, Trump continues to demonstrate a quality — a talent — none of the other Republicans possess, least of all Cruz, which is  … wait for it … likability.

In a pond of alternately flailing lost causes (Kasich, Christie, Bush) and panicking empty suits (Rubio), Trump has not only maintained his cool, but continued to flash an everyman sense of humor as well, or at least sustain a style of rebuttal the infamous, mythical “average voter” not only relates to but is familiar with, thanks to our pervasive pop culture. Sure, to prissy, wine-sipping elites like me his standard comeback of, “Who cares what you say? You’re a loser” seems beneath the dignity of a President of the United States. But I’m not the crowd that could put Trump up on the south steps of the Capitol Jan. 20 2017.

Trump’s game, and so far he’s succeeding at it, is to rally millions of your and my fellow ‘Muricans who haven’t voted in probably 25 years, and even then Ross Perot didn’t have anything like Trump’s pop personality appeal. The psycho/sociological specs on this large herd of regularly untapped voters are pretty well known. They’re not ideological. They’re not particularly religious. They’re certainly not evangelical unicorn people. But they are pissed off. Chronically, and pretty much about everything, certainly everything that reminds them that for one reason or another they’ll never be “great again”, never mind that they never were.

These people, fueled by a vast methane-like sea of resentments, are indisputably ill-informed. But so what? Their vote counts as much as yours and mine.

So, if the first choice comes down to Trump or Cruz, it’s, IMHO, a no-brainer. Cruz’ palpable vibe is that of a fer de lance, a truly dangerous untrustworthy snake with no redeeming personal qualities whatsoever, other than that he’s not Hillary Clinton or a pathetic, mumbling nob like Jeb Bush. If this heretofore untapped crowd slides off their bar stools and turns out to vote — and that’s the question Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will begin to answer — they go with Trump, a guy who cracks lines they laugh at instinctively, as he confirms that the whole country has gone to shit, 99 times out of 100 over Cruz.

Then … the great revolutionary dynamic becomes this: Does that same crowd — chronically angry and ill-informed — feel a mojo they’ve never before felt in their lifetimes, a pleasurable tingling sensation that says, “My time has finally come”?

A time to pull the damn rug out from all the self-serving, prevaricating, “smartest kids in the class” who have deprived them of their, well, self-respect to put a fancy phrase on it, and install someone totally different? Someone who sees, or at least describes a world exactly as they see it, full of thieves and killers, and with whom they feel entirely comfortable, in part because he’s already so familiar to them by virtue of having been on TV most of their adult lives?

The choice then is Trump, as the official Doomsayer Party nominee, still taunting, confident and funny or Hillary Clinton, yet another one of them, and who cares if she uses the other rest room? 99 out of 100 at that point becomes 100 out of 100.

A Trump coronation by the Doomsayers will energize Democrats like no other election I can think of, not even Bush in ’04, which we all thought was ours to lose, and we did. (Thank you, Ken Blackwell and Ohio.)

My theory is that Trump has the potential to tap a bloc of voters — this would be the “rarely-if-ever” vote crowd — far larger than Clinton, even with with the full Democratic coalition of liberals, minorities and every catalyzed woman. Trump after all, and let’s be honest about this, is this year’s “transformational candidate”. Hillary is nothing of the sort. Never mind the pantsuits.

Moreover, Trump has the enormous advantage of not being tethered to anything more than a fleeting whiff of fact-based reality. Nothing he says has to be true, at least as you and I know it. It just has to feel right … to millions of people who have been waiting for an engaging character who sees the world exactly as they see it.

Trump does not have to lay out a single tedious position paper, demean himself with one “Hey look, I’m a manly dude out hunting in fresh-off-the-rack camo gear” photo op, or even really press all that much flesh with the people who want him so badly.

Ask yourself, what line of attack could Clinton or any institutional/Beltway/political lifer make on Trump that hasn’t already been leveled and that he can’t shrug off — to the utter delight of the crowd I’m talking about — with another variation of, “Well you say that because you’re a loser.”

For some reason, the potential in this reserve of until now disaffected, apathetic voters reminded me, as so much in ‘Murica today does, of this snippet from Richard “Boyhood”, “Dazed and Confused” Linklater’s under-appreciated film, “Waking Life”, a clever, dream-within-a-dream concept full of questions about the primary conflicts of life.

At one point our REM-drifting hero has a drink with University of Texas philosophy professor, Louis Mackey, who asks him, ” … which is most universal human characteristic? Fear … or laziness?”

Trump has the line on both.

 

 

Thank God for Rand Paul in Milwaukee

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterMy favorite moment in last night’s Republican debate/barnstorming reality TV show, was Rand Paul butting in after one of Donald Trump’s rants about how the Chinese are always winning … because Barack Obama has turned America into such a pathetic no-class loser. It was a question about the Trans Pacific Partnership that got him whipped up. Wiley damn Chinese vs. Loser Americans who can’t negotiate a good deal. A Trump staple.

But then Paul, who was once the average adult’s idea of a delusional whack-job, piped up and suggested the Fox Business News panel, which included Gerard Baker, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, (you know, every shrewd businessman’s first source for the complete story on money and the bastards beating them to it), that it might be useful to pint out that the Chinese aren’t even a part of this deal.

Oh.

But as much as I was hoping for an Emily Latella moment from Trump, it was not forthcoming. What we got was, be thankful for small favors, a little filler commentary from Paul on the fact that the Chinese actually aren’t all that wild about this TPP thing either, since it’s greasing the skids for more trading between us and other folks around the Pacific. (This would argue in favor of the TPP if you were a serious China hater.)

Now, not being an international trade expert, all I knew about the TPP was what I read in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And frankly, as Trump was ranting the best I could come up with was a niggling ring tone that something wasn’t right with his argument. But come on! After three and a half of these trips to Toon Town, I have something like an air raid siren going off in my head every three or four seconds over “things that don’t sound right”. Giant damned air horns howling that what I just heard is utter bullshit of a nuclear order. After that, “niggling” kind of gets lost in the reverb.

Here’s a small sampling of fact-checking on last night’s BS.

So yes, I was grateful when Sen. Paul reminded his opponents, the Fox Business panel, and everyone scoring at home about this teeny, tiny little Chinese detail.

Being in the news biz what immediately went through my head was why none of the Fox money mavens had butted in and corrected Trump? He had been ranting for a while. I mean, if I was vaguely aware of this critical detail just from reading Mr. Baker’s paper you’d think he’d be a little faster on the draw having, you know, published it.

Baker did follow up with a classic Wall Street Journal explainer about how even though the Chinese aren’t involved there are fears they’ll still exploit the deal to their advantage. But that’s only if the Senate passes it, which everyone in Milwaukee agreed would be, you know, yet another episode of liberal-induced Armageddon. Right after … Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, “amnesty” of illegal immigrants, ISIS, the gutting of our military, Hillary Clinton’s pant suits and every regulation ever authored by anyone under Barack Obama. In other words, a kind of serial Armageddon, you understand. (When you’re talking to the Republican base you can’t invoke too many Armageddon scenarios.)

Fox Business is being credited for a more composed debate than CNBC two weeks ago in Denver. And, frankly, some of the questions were pretty good. Like Maria Bartiromo, (aka “The Money Honey”) putting this one to Carly Fiorina.

 …in seven years under President Obama, the U.S. has added an average of 107,000 jobs a month. Under President Clinton, the economy added about 240,000 jobs a month. Under George W. Bush, it was only 13,000 a month. If you win the nomination, you’ll probably be facing a Democrat named Clinton. How are you going to respond to the claim that Democratic presidents are better at creating jobs than Republicans?

Heh.

Naturally, Fiorina, who previously urged everyone to watch a sickening abortion video … that doesn’t exist, completely ignored the question and hammered home instead her pet Road to Armageddon messages, most of which can be avoided by a three page tax form and a green room chat with Vladimir Putin.

(BTW, didn’t you love it when Trump said, “I’m the biggest militarist on this stage”?)

Point being, somewhere along with asking these fearsome socialist slayers if they’re a “comic book version of a presidential candidate” (glib, but not all that far off the point) and hitting them with actual facts on job creation, (implicitly proving that the U.S economy invariably performs better under the active governance of Democrats), there’s a place for aggressive follow-ups.

Bartiromo et al injected quite a few, “Too be clear, sir/madams” last night trying to pull an actual answer out of the bombardment of stump speech messaging. But they never got so rude as to, you know, demand an answer and/or correct a flagrant blast of bullshit.

Which is why Rand Paul, who has clearly decided, “What the hell, I’m letting it fly” was so valuable last night. Like his old man, Paul is 85% crackers and 15% rational. That lesser percentage covered a lot of the timidity of the Fox Business moderators. Like that shot at slippery little Marco Rubio — such an adorable weasel, you just want to pinch his cheeks — about adding another $2 trillion in tax credits and military spending (for hard-working ISIS-fearing American families, you isolationist bastard!) … without even trying to pay for it.

Since Paul’s chances of winning a million bucks on FanDuel are better than out-Armageddoning the likes of Ted Cruz, Rubio or Fiorina, I propose dropping him out as a candidate and in as a moderator for the next debate, which, damn it anyway, is a whole month from now.

What am I’m going to have to do until then? Switch back to “Naked Dating” for my reality fix?

FoxNews Debate: God Help Me, That Was Some Sick Fun

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterOk, I admit it. I was rooting for Donald Trump last night. Not because I think he has a clue about anything relevant to you and me. But simply, purely, because as long as he holds center stage he guarantees the belittling light of farce will remain fixed on the entire Republican field. Without him more people might be tempted to take the likes of Scott Walker seriously, to name only one prime example.

When the debate wrapped last night and the Dramamine began wearing off — no point risking stomach distress from the whiplashing motion sickness in the white caps of so much illogic and shameless bullshit — I clicked over to the liberal enclave, MSNBC, for their take on the circus.

First came Chris Matthews, wetting himself over the performance of … Marco Rubio (!?). Then came Chuck Todd with his focus on FoxNews’ opening salvo — asking for a show of hands on who would abide by the party’s eventual nominee and then Megyn Kelly’s long question/indictment of Trump’s catty shots against women over the years — both clearly designed to knock The Donald, no friend of Rupert Murdoch, back on his heels at the get-go.

Trump, a creature of show biz catfighting, gave as he got and I strongly suspect rose today at least as strong as he was before the curtain rose last night. Why? Because his “people” don’t give a damn about “political correctness”, as he argued. Nor do they care all that much about gay marriage or immigration or the Iran deal, or any of the other alleged hot button issues touted by the political class. Mainly, Trump’s people are just pissed off, pretty much at everyone, on the not exactly deeply-examined grounds that “those people” have been screwing them over and are responsible for the condition of their lives.

Of course there’s no logic to their embrace of a ravenous, self-serving billionaire who plainly doesn’t know a thing about foreign relations, national security or public policy. But logic has very little role this early in any election season and almost none at any time in the modern conservative freak show of vanity candidates.

I seriously doubt your average Trump supporter believes for a second he’ll win anything. ot thNe nomination, much less the presidency. All they want for the time being is an entertaining performer who makes the other guys (and gal) look like the scripted stiffs they are.

The night before the debate I had a long happy hour with former right-wing talk show host Jason Lewis. (There’ll be a Q&A with him on MinnPost.com in the next couple weeks.) Over the course of three hours Lewis did say one interesting thing. (That’s a joke.) And that was that Trump’s immunity to criticism has everything to do with the fact that his demeanor powerfully conveys the attitude, “I don’t need this.” He may want it, like another gilded trophy (or wife). But “need it”? No. Certainly not in the sweaty, grasping, cringe-inducing way of a Rick Santorum, Chris Christie or Mike Huckabee? No way. Not even in the cynically calculating way of a life-long lapper at the taxpayer teat like Scott Walker. Lacking desperation, he exudes a scent of confidence the others can only fake.

The “I hate them all, because they’ve done nothing for me” crowd likes and admires and wishes they were a guy who could say, “Take this job and shove it” … and then fly their private jet back to their “classy” Palm Beach mansion. That crowd’s nihilistic fantasy is that Trump or the next guy/woman like him, will torch the system and, if nothing else, bring all the elitist douche bags down to their forced-to-shop-at-WalMart level. (And yes, do note the irony in that “elitist DB” business.)

But don’t take any of this from me. My assessment of winners and losers last night, Trump aside, was that … Rand Paul and John Kasich stood out, in a positive way.

Paul of course suffers from the same pathology as his father, Ron. Namely, the “Five Minute Rule” as the great Charles Pierce describes it. Both Pauls start in on some topic, usually military adventurism, and you’re thinking, “That makes sense. This guy isn’t quite the whack job I thought he was.” But then, almost exactly at the five-minute mark, just when you’re this close to buying into the hype that these guys are on to something they turn and take a headfirst dive into a 20-foot tub of Libertarian bat guano.

Like this one: ” ‘I think you don’t have a right to happiness — you have the right to the pursuit of happiness’, Paul, an ophthalmologist, said in a 2009 Kentucky town hall meeting. ‘[I]f you think you have the right to health care, you are saying basically that I am your slave. I provide health care. … My staff and technicians provide it. … If you have a right to health care, then you have a right to their labor’.”

WTF?

Kasich, despite the wooze-inducing claim that he was responsible for the Clinton economy of the 1990s, at least came across as a guy with touch of authentic empathy for the 47% crowd.

Ben Carson looked and sounded like a stand-in for a real candidate, like those seat-fillers they have at the Academy Awards show who zoom in when the stars have to take a potty break. Mike Huckabee, “a loser”, as Trump would say, with “no chance” seemed angrier than usual, and no more coherent. Ted Cruz was pretty much overlooked and typically tedious when he did speak, basically echoing the party line that his plan for America is to: A: Repeal everything Barack Obama has touched, and B: Head back over to the Middle East and really kick some towelhead ass this time. Because, you know, it worked out so well when Dick and W* did it.

Jeb Bush, the scion, brother-of and presumptive candidate once Trump flames out or goes independent rogue, came off like a sheet of taupe wallpaper. Like a bond salesman terrified he’ll say the one wrong thing that’ll scotch the deal, which in this case is his entitlement to the job. Beyond that, I’m sure there are millions of Floridians who had no idea Jebbie had transformed their pestilential wonderland of causeway McMansions and meth-head rednecks hiding under double-wides into a goddam Utopia of freedom and gummint service.

Chris Christie? Please. Rubio? Slick, telegenic as hell and as vacuous as a Fox & Friends host. And my boy Scott Walker? A guy who makes me worry because of the profound, visceral, rabid skunk-in-the-backyard repulsion I have for him? Even in this crowd he stands out if the contest is for the most smug and practiced liar. Hell, I’m still cleaning up the mess that shot out my nose when he declared he had balanced Wisconsin’s budget. You know, the one with the $2 billion deficit?

But as raw entertainment? As a combination of non-sequiturs, magical thinking, fear-mongering, denial and misdirection? Great stuff! Two thumbs, way up! Show biz gold, baby!

And really classy.

Whatever Happened to the GOP Extremists in Legislature?

carnival_sideshow_vingate_signThe antics of Republican members of the Minnesota State Legislature used to be a reliable source of gasps and guffaws. Over recent years, Republican legislators have been obsessed with regulating gay couple’s love lives and straight citizen’s sexual health. They continually attempted to have their narrow religious views dictate the governance of a pluralistic society. They compared poverty stricken families to wild animals who shouldn’t be fed, and backed up that ugly rhetoric with deep cuts in human services for those families.  They shut down of state government in an attempt to make services in Minnesota more Mississippi-ish

These were not Republicans in the mold of Elmer Anderson, Al Quie, Arne Carlson, Duane Benson or David Jennings. These were Republicans in the mold of Bradlee Dean, Michael Brodkorb, Wayne LaPierre, Cliven Bundy, Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh.

But in the 2015 legislative session, Republican legislators were an unusually controlled bunch. They did boring and constructive things, such as changing how nursing homes were reimbursed. They even proposed modest k-12 education funding increases, and ultimately accepted the much larger funding formula increases promoted by DFLers.

Yes, Republican legislators still did some things that don’t make any sense. For instance, they ran for election in 2014 on the need to fix a long list of deteriorating roads and bridges, then inexplicably opposed the revenue increases necessary to get the work done. They still want to weaken minimum wages, despite the most pronounced income disparity since the 1920s and the lack of any evidence that last year’s minimum wage hike is damaging the economy.

Michele_Bachmann_hiding_at_gay_rights_rallyBut to my knowledge, there were no legislators hiding in the shrubbery at gay rights rallies this year. There was no legislator-fueled politicizing of the morning prayer with hateful castigations of the President and gay people. There were no throwback campaigns to enact a state currency or Confederacy-style nullification laws.

At a time when Republicans at the national level could scarcely be more absurd, Minnesota’s Republican leaders seem to have at least temporarily kept the most extreme elements of their fragile coalition – religious fundamentalists, fiscal libertarians, paranoid gun enthusiasts, bedroom cops, and hyper-partisan jihadists – quietly mumbling to themselves instead of in the headlines.

For the sake of Minnesota’s collective future, let’s hope that’s a trend that continues. With a dangerous achievement gap,deteriorating infrastructure, and a lot of families finding upward mobility out of reach, we have a lot of work to do.   But for the sake of humor-dependent bloggers, hear’s hoping the silence of the extremists is short-lived.

Where Do I Get a Ticket to Kepler 452-b?

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterThere’s nothing like an American political campaign, especially one dominated by the rolling freak show of our “new conservative movement” to make you wonder if intelligent life exists anywhere in the universe, including here.

Thank God then for Stephen Hawking and the NASA teams responsible for the Pluto fly-by and the discovery of “Earth’s twin”, Kepler 452-b. They didn’t quite drown out the buffoonery and cynicism of Donald Trump-Scott Walker last week. But if you were so inclined it was quite pleasurable to ignore the clamor of their toxic grifting and let the mind wander, imagining truly advanced civilizations and what they might think of us.

Among the most interesting people I’ve ever and had the chance to talk with is Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science-fiction writer, best known for co-authoring the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which was drawn from his short story “The Sentinel”. in 1984 Clarke flew halfway around the planet from his home in Sri Lanka to do publicity for “2010: The Year We Make Contact”, an instantly-forgotten sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic. By no means a typical Hollywood type, Clarke arrived for interviews at some Beverly Hills hotel looking like an Iowa mortician. Black suit, white shirt, black tie, horn-rimmed glasses and the demeanor of the guy who makes certain the deceased is returned to the earth with due gravity.

One of Clarke’s many classic quotes is his response to being asked if we are alone in the universe? “Two possibilities exist,” he said, “either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” He also said when asked what we might expect from contact with an extraterrestrial society, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I had only 30 minutes or so with Clarke, and there didn’t seem to be much point in wasting it getting his reaction to the noisy, formulaic sequel to a truly audacious film that left no intelligent viewer with an option other than to contemplate our modest accomplishments — standing upright, conquering to survive and traveling beyond the pull of our own planet.

I doubt the news about our “twin”, Kepler 452-b, 1400-light years away, would have surprised Clarke much. Terrified or not, he found it it difficult to believe, based on the astonishing immensity of the universe that we were all that unique in terms of complex organisms or all that advanced, given the relative youth, 4.5 billion years, of Earth and the Milky Way. Organisms in other parts of the 14 billion year old universe could have hundreds of millions of years head start on us.

I do think Clarke, who died in 2008, would have been delighted to hear of Hawking’s collaboration with a Russian billionaire to re-start a long-term radar search for signals from another civilization, likely a “mega-civilization”, a culture likely generations, millennia or more advanced than ours. He was generally appalled at the priorities of so-called social leaders. (The fact that a single football stadium in one obscure Midwestern city cost more than we invested in the Pluto mission would have been to Clarke a prime example of barely post-amoebic thinking.)

One part of my conversation with Clarke centered on why any truly advanced culture would have an interest in us? And if they did how they would go about looking us over? This of course was the gist of “The Sentinel”, in which millions of years in our past a probing civilization, perhaps assessing Earth’s position in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone in relation to our sun, drops down a kind of cosmic tele-prompter, sparking the decisive leap one species makes toward sentient thought … and then a fire alarm (on the moon) to alert the civilization that one of the species it has incubated is one the move.

I was pleased that Clarke agreed with me that it made no sense at all that a “mega-civilization” (he didn’t use that term), would visit this planet in any kind of mortal form. No little grey men like in bad Hollywood or Japanese sci-fi. No bizarre, multi-tentacled deep space octopi like out of a comic book. Robotic probes alone, and most-likely the size of molecules rather than city-wide flying saucers could tell culturedeep space s capable of spanning  everything they needed to know about life on this rock. That is if at hundreds of thousands or millions of years of development beyond us they had any interest.

Clarke’s argument, in various books, in the script for “2001” and in conversation in Los Angeles is that immortality is probably a primary initiative for any self-aware species, and that following the logic we saw in HAL the computer and see today in any number of the artificial intelligence advances made since his death, the process of separating consciousness out of and away from the frail, mortal carbon container we evolved in would be Job One.

In the “acid trip” sequence of “2001” there’s a shot of seven shimmering crystalline objects, generally regarded as Kubrick and Clarke’s depiction of “mega civilization” life forms. When I asked him if that was in fact the point of that shot, he smiled and said, “I don’t want to say. It’s more fun to imagine.”

So what then? Having transferred consciousness from flesh and blood (or whatever chemical stew might work on other “goldilocks” planets) to a form immune to the ravages of wind, fire, war, radiation and time, what interest would such a form of being have in us? Why would we be of any particular interest at all? We’re probably flattering ourselves that we’re exceptional. Most likely we would be no more interesting than plankton in a tidal pool. Ours would be an existence to be acknowledged, at best. But nothing more.

More likely, Clarke thought (and wrote in several novels, although maybe most provocatively in “Childhood’s End”), such a culture would practice a form of dispassionate benevolence, offering cues to lower life forms (us) for sustaining evolution, but taking no active role. (They’re a bit more involved in “Childhood’s End”.)

One commentator writing about Hawking’s endeavor reminded readers to do the math on Moore’s Law, which says computing power, in terms of transistors on a CPU, doubles every two years. You can find people who say we’ve reached a limit and that that isn’t going to happen. But since the number of transistors in a CPU has increased from 37.5 million in 2000 to 904 million in 2009, we’re kind of in range. Point being, by 2050, at this rate, our own technology will seem like magic to us today.

And that’s 35 years. For the sake of this discussion, add six zeroes. 35,000,000 years. Then try and imagine what “life” looks like. Most likely we wouldn’t recognize if it was standing next to us.

Now back to the plankton we know as Trump, Walker and the others vying to lead our civilization.

 

 

 

 

Out on the Fringes: Bernie and The Donald

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterThe next time you hear someone blither on about how “both sides” are equally to blame for how colossally [bleeped] up government is, or how the “extremists on each side” have driven them to distraction with their hysterical gibberish, remember this moment in time, and remind them. The “fringes” of each wing, right and left, are currently in full display and it couldn’t be easier to judge the nature of wing-nut “extremism”, if making a reasoned judgment were actually ever the point.

Out there on the left fringe/extreme is Bernie Sanders, a sitting U.S. Senator chronically PO’d at the way his party and the political system in general is forever grabbing its ankles for any big money influence that knocks on their door. To listen to the nuance-free argument of the “both sides do it” crowd, most of whom give off the odor of dime deep apologizing for the status quo, Sanders is a dangerous if not senile radical, barely more coherent than the rumpled drunk railing at a parking meter. Again, that gives them credit for ever once listening to what Sanders is saying, which I sincerely doubt they’ve ever done.

Nonetheless, Sanders is the current face of the “left wing extremist”, replacing people like Michael Moore and, oh I don’t know, Bill Maher or anyone who writes for The Daily Kos.

Meanwhile … 180 degrees to the right, among a dense herd of loudly-braying like-thinkers, we have … Donald Trump, currently nudging up in the polls of likely Republican voters with his “really classy” rants about drug-dealing, raping Mexicans, Obama’s birth certificate, his torrent of law suits and absolutely anything else that will earn him free TV time.

Candidates like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee are just as silly, and Scott Walker is far more sinister, but Trump is the guy of the moment telling the modern conservative base exactly what it wants to hear. He’s the guy with mojo in the polls, to the point that his comrades-in-candidacy are attacking him, and (I sincerely believe) putting pressure on Republican National Chairman Reince Preibus to call Trump and tell him to “tone it down” … and then go on national TV and tell political junkies that he … told Trump to tone it down. (Sort of like The Doomsday Machine in “Dr. Strangelove”, you defeat the purpose of such a call if you keep it a secret.)

As far as I know, no Democratic leader has as yet called Bernie Sanders. Mainly because Bernie, as “extremist lefties” are wont to do, has not made genuinely screw-loose, racially-offensive charges against anyone, much less an ethnic group composing 15% of the population. Nor has old, frazzled-looking Bernie made a habit of absurdist fantasies about birth certificates or hired dozens of chumps off the street to wear campaign t-shirts and shriek his name as he glided down a gilded escalator. (I could get into hairstyles, but in fairness to Bernie I’m guessing he spends a lot less time getting his bouffe looking camera-ready.)

Now, I’m not saying either gentleman has even a remote chance of winning their party’s nomination. Trump is playing this summer’s version of The Loudest Fool, because every available metric tells conservative candidates that they can not sound too unhinged, hysterical or racist if they want to fire the imaginations of the GOP’s almost exclusively white, exurban-to-rural base. But as the real Big Lebowski tells The Dude, in the end, “The bums will always lose.” And Trump most certainly will, leaving the field to Jeb or, don’t think about this before you go to sleep, Scott Walker.

The (very obvious) point here is simply that the left extreme’s avatar, Bernie Sanders, is by the starkest of contrasts, making entirely reasonable complaints about the way we govern ourselves, if anyone can say “govern” without laughing. What is “appealing” to the “extreme left” bears no resemblance to that which excites the “extreme right”. Your classic lefty may be smug, sanctimonious and a simmering pot of righteous contention. But he/she isn’t willfully ignorant.

Personally, I don’t know where exactly I disagree with Sanders. (The exception would be leaving gun control to the states. A set of federal regulations is the only way to apply even a modest level of sanity.) His criticisms of the system and the Clinton’s coziness with the most cancerous elements of the system are entirely well-founded and fair. The crowds he’s drawing and his rise in the polls are a reflection of the large (but not large enough) appetite among liberals for, at the very least, a vigorous discussion — with Hillary Clinton — over what exactly she would do to re-align the distribution of wealth in this country and how, exactly, she would clamp down on our pay-to-play political game.

Bland, conventional thinkers, whose first order of business is truckling to customers pretty much like themselves, are simply too lazy to make qualitative assessments of “fringe” characters like Sanders and Trump. They certainly aren’t going to explore Trump’s appeal, beyond “telling it like it is”.

Characterization is so much easier. Even better: Counter-balancing characterization.