OUR MAN IN AMERICA

(This article first appeared in Jackal magazine in London.)

The longer I live, the more mystified I become. You’d think it would be the other way around. The more times you’ve circled the sun, the hipper you would be. That ‘s not how it’s working out.

When I was young, I was a veritable Pangloss, living in the best of all possible worlds. I was factory worker’s boy, the grandson of immigrants. We had a house, a lawn, a car. The land I lived in was free and powerful, and best of all, good. My parents said so, and my teachers and priests agreed. I was a little boy, but I knew my place in the cosmos.

Later came the larger story. The failings of the men we admired. The lies they told us. The entrenched racism that undergirded the whole society. The exploitation of workers and resources.

And yet somehow, I never lost faith. Things would work out. And maybe Pangloss was right—what did work out was the best that could have been worked out. We needed to stop whining, and get on with things.

But every week, President Trump comes out and rubs our faces in the worst of America.

The most recent example was that of Mr. Rob Porter, a staff secretary in the White House, and by all accounts, an effective manager who made a significant contribution to whatever good order was maintained in this famously chaotic administration. Unfortunately for Porter, it was revealed that he had beaten not one but two of his now ex-wives, and that the FBI knew about it, and had informed the White House. Ordinarily this type of behavior would prohibit an applicant from serving in the White House, and someone should have stopped it. Instead, he served for about a year, and the administration was embarrassed.

Big deal, right? A mistake was made. People get embarrassed every day. You swallow your medicine and move on. Except in this administration. Instead, President Trump made a public statement about this staff error.

“We wish him well,” Mr. Trump said of Porter. “He also, as you probably know, says he is innocent. . . .He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career.’
It’s not the worst thing for a president to give the benefit of the doubt to someone in trouble. In Trump’s case, a pattern has emerged: the doubt has been offered to the wife beater, a child molester, neo Nazis and Vladimir Putin, and withheld from immigrants, protesting football players,, residents of Haiti and El Salvador, American intelligence agencies, and the officials of the FBI. President Trump is quite selective about who benefits from his open mind.

But far more dismaying than Trump’s lack of integrity is that displayed by his party in Congress. For nearly all my life, the Republican Party was the scowling, serious, adult party. We Democrats were the optimistic party, the ones who thought money could solve everything, and we relied upon Republicans to be the grown ups about spending (just as they relied on us to have some heart.) But under their new tax plan enacted by the Republican Congress, , the United States is shouldering a $1.5 trillion deficit. It’s an astonishing wager, unnecessarily dumping debt onto future generations in an effort to stimulate growth in an economy that was already chugging along at close to three percent a year.

But even more than deficits, Republicans were hostile to Russia. Even Nixon, who pushed a policy of Détente, threatened to use nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union intervened in the Yom Kippur War on behalf of Egypt and Syria. Suddenly today’s Republicans have accepted the news of Russian interference in our elections with lassitude usually reserved for a rainy day. “Oh, well, too bad. I guess I’ll pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow.’ ‘ And they’re greeting the ever-mounting indications that the Trump campaign was complicit as an excuse to level mindbending accusations against the FBI.

For three quarters of a century, it was easy to be proud of being an American. We helped beat the Nazis, and then engaged in a long Cold War with a totalitarian power, and managed to steer that conflict to a peaceful end. We helped rebuild Europe after the war, and perhaps chastened by what we saw of hate run amok in Germany, we went home and struggled to address our own racial problems.

But now I see my country as though in a funhouse mirror, with up turned down and in turned out, and with every scar and blemish and wart and wattle magnified a thousand times, eclipsing all that we remembered. It is a heartsickening time to be alive.

FANTASTICON

“I really believe I would have run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon. I would have run in there, and when I saw him, the first thing I would have done is create a diversion. I would have looked for maybe a science geek, you know, a kid with thick glasses and pimples who looks like a loser but who knows, might come up with one of those apps that, you know, chews your food or something, and suddenly he’s unbelievably rich, and I’m wondering why the hell Don Jr. isn’t trying to sell him a coop. I would have said “Quick, kid, run over to the lab and grab a test tube and make an explosion or a stinky gas or something.” But if he started taking too long, I’d look for a hot teacher, like in Van Halen‘s `Hot for Teacher’ video, and I’d get her to flash come cleavage and distract the guy until I could come up and disable him with this Krav Maga technique I learned from this Israeli Special Forces operative who used to be a troubleshooter in my steak business. And then everybody would have said “Hooray for President Trump, he is our hero.’

“But then I would have noticed that a lot of people still looked sad, and I really believe I would have asked why. And they would tell me that the kid who was going to play the lead in the school musical was too upset to go on, and now they had to cancel. So I would have said, `What show?’ And then they would have said `West Side story.’ And I would have said, `I’ll do it.’ And they would have said, `Really? No way!’ And I would have said, `Aw come on–`Boy, Boy, Crazy Boy’? `When You’re a Jet You’re a Jet’? `Hey Officer Krupke, Krup You?’ Take me to my dressing room!”’ In the end, the show would have been fantastic, even though the girl who played Maria tightened up when I guess it hit her that she was singing opposite the President of the United States. I told her, “Listen, sweetheart, I understand completely. Have a seat. I’ll take it from here.’ And so I started doing both parts, Tony and Maria, and I tell you, that was tough, particularly the duets. Tough to harmonize. But the show was great. That’s not just my opinion. You could ask a lot of people. I heard a lot of people say that they’d never seen anything like it.

“Still, at the cast party, I saw a lot of long faces. So I asked this one girl, “Hey what are you into?” Now she was a cute girl, so I expected her to say cheerleading or something, but lo and behold, she says `Model UN.’ I never heard of that, so she starts explaining, and after two minutes I say, `Hey, the hell with that, I can get us into the real UN.” So we all piled onto the plane, and while we flew up, I called Nicki Haley on the phone and I said, “Nicki, sweetie, do me a favor. Go over to McDonald’s — I’m guessing you’re closest to the one on 47th Street, or maybe the one at Third and 50th. Buy out the joint. I’m bringing like 500 people with me, and we’re starving.

“So we get to the UN, and we eat, and Nicki starts showing us around. And it’s Humanitarian this and Hunger that, very interesting, but I guess we’re taking our time, because we get overtaken by this other group.And I noticed this one dude had a Pyeong Chang tote bag. And I thought, “Hey, maybe he knows Ivanka.” So I went over to chat, and suddenly I recognize him. It’s Kim Jon-un! And he reaches into his tote bag and pulls out a rocket launcher. Rocket Man has a rocket launcher! And he points it at me and snarls `Say your prayers, dotard.’ Because that ‘s what he calls me–dotard. I mean, cut me a break. I call him Rocket Man, and he calls me dotard? It means “an old person, especially one who has become weak or senile.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think an insult is very effective if you have to look it up in a dictionary. Anyway, while he’s telling me to say my prayers, I give the high sign to this hot UN interpreter that it’s time to flash a little cleavage, which provides just enough of an opening for me to pounce. And even though I still don’t have a weapon, I render him unconscious with the Vulcan Death Grip I learned from watching Star Trek. And he collapses, and everybody starts clapping and cheering. But not so fast–I’m still not celebrating, because I notice something funny on Rocket Man’s neck. And I reach down and start pulling it. It turns out to be a mask, and underneath, he’s really Crooked Hillary! And everybody starts cheering all over again, and Robert Mueller comes up and says, “Wow, there’s the real collusion. How did I miss that?” And all my generals huddle in a corner and come back and say “For saving the world, we are making you an honorary general, and will have a big parade, and you can watch it, or march in it, or both, whatever you decide.” And now the cheering gets so loud I can hardly hear a thing, and suddenly, I’m standing next to Kate Winslet, who I grab around the wait and hoist above my head. “Say it,” she says. “Say `I’m king of the world.’ So I did.”

“And I think most people in this room would have done that too.”

OUR MAN IN AMERICA II: ‘BABIES, INNOCENT BABIES”

“`Written in late April, published in The Jackal this week.

Many years ago, in diffident preparation for an unenvisioned future, I drifted through graduate school. I took a course in Middle Eastern Politics with an accomplished professor who had recently helped President Carter pull off the Camp David accords. One day he gave us an project; several of us were assigned roles as nations, and we told to return the next week and conduct peace negotiations. I was cast as the Soviet Union, a plum role in what was still the Brezhnev era, and I might have done well, had I not completely forgotten about the task. Instead, I arrived at class on the day of the summit, blithely unprepared to represent the interests and designs of a nuclear superpower.

Fortunately, a classmate reminded me of what was about to happen, and in three minutes I scribbled down everything I could remember about Soviet policy. When the professor called on me to gave my introductory remarks, I took the podium and brazenly delivered a firm but small set of demands with what I hoped would be read as imperious disdain. That took about a minute, and then I sat down. The professor seemed shocked that a major diplomat could be so succinct, but in the end, he noted only that in real life, the USSR probably would have spent some time chatting with tis allies about what it was going to say.

I often remember this embarrassing experience as I watch President Trump vamp his way through the early months of his administration. He, too, seems to be making up his policies as he goes along. The Chinese are currency manipulators; the Chinese are not currency manipulators; maybe the United States should pull out of NATO; no, NATO is a force for good. It’s like watching President Bill Murray in Groundhog Day II: The Oval Office Years, where what happened yesterday just doesn’t matter. Need somebody to handle North Korea? Trump says make China do it, at least until he talks to Xi Jinping. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over North Korea]. But it’s not what you would think.” It never is.

The policy that made it most seem like Trump was a quick-stepping contestant on Dancing with the Stars involved Syria. For months Trump had proclaimed “America First!’’, and had ridiculed policies of intervention in that terrible war.. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (the diplomatic virgin who had just told reporters “ I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job. … My wife told me I’m supposed to do this’’) suggested that it was likely that in the end, Bashar al-Assad could remain in power. The craven Assad took this as a nod and wink that he could act as he pleased, which in his case meant dropping nerve gas on a rebel-held town, killing 74.

Trump was outraged—completely appropriately, somewhat surprisingly, and entirely cringe-inducingly. Said Trump, “That crosses many, many lines – beyond a red line, many, many lines.” What other lines? The I’m Warning You line? The I’ll Tell Your Mother line? The Use Sarin Gas and There’ll Be No Dessert line?

Then he delivered the real shockeroo: he denounced the attack because the gas had killed “innocent children, innocent babies – babies, little babies.’’

In invoking the innocent baby standard, Trump reversed centuries of governmental policy. If history teaches us anything, it’s that the first job of any government is to preserve itself. It’s been that way since Herod the Great executed all young male children around Bethlehem to prevent losing his throne to a newborn King of the Jews. Innocent little babies are incidental. If governments were supposed to protect them, they wouldn’t have time for anything else. Moreover, how could they explain it when they had to go out and kill babies, or deny them health care, or a decent education? That’s why for centuries we have gone to war for God or king or country or freedom, but never for babies. Until now. Trump’s daughter Ivanka saw video of the carnage and tugged at dad’s heart strings.

In other words, it was a chick thing. But by the time it came to strike back, Trump switched again. He bombed one air base, a single blow to a single target, delivered after Assad’s Russian pals had skedaddled.

A slap on the wrist. Still, it might be enough to deter future baby massacres.

Assuming that continues to be the policy.

THE SUMMER OF TRUMP

DonaldMany people were surprised that Donald Trump shot to the top of the Republican presidential polls (in an NBC poll today, he has 19% percent, to Scott Walker‘s 15% and Jeb Bush‘s 14%), but that’s only because they allowed their own tastes to prevent them from getting an accurate view of this gargantuan personality. Trump is large and comical figure–vain, blustery, selfish, self-indulgent, a bully, a baby–but he is also smart, articulate, rich, very good at calling attention to himself, at grandstanding, at making more out of whatever little or much he has accomplished. And he has accomplished a great deal–longevity, for one thing. He has been a front page of the tabloids public figure since the eighties, which is no mean feat; what few peers he has, like Madonna and Al Sharpton, are mostly jogging in place while he is riding high. He has written a bestseller, been the star of a highly rated television show, and built big buildings and casinos and golf courses. He knows how to dish it out and how to take it, and he is not afraid to mix things up. He knows, as Warren Zevon said, “the name of the game is to get hit and hit back.” Among his media spectacles, he has made a number of blatantly fraudulent runs at public office that all seemed to evaporate whenever he had to get serious.

This one might still get evaporate, although it has gone on longer and gone deeper and created more furor than any of his previous stillborn efforts. He has owned the summer. His outrageous comments about Mexicans and his nasty, ignorant comments about John McCain have done nothing but catapult him to the crowded, splintered, directionless herd of Republican contenders. More than anyone in that field, he has a real constituency, a real claim to a body of voters.

And they are a potent group. They are the Tea Party group, an angry, aggrieved bunch of mostly working class white people who don’t like what progress is looking like in the mid-early 21st century. They have been a formidable group. They have won a lot of local races, and ousted a lot of middle of the road Republican officials. Because they are decentralized and committed, they can have a disproportionately large influence in primary elections and caucuses. I have already predicted that Trump will go deep into the primary season; the truth is, I see no reason to believe that he cannot win the nomination. The longer he sticks around, the more credibility he will develop. The more people vote for him, the more other people will find him acceptable. He will pass through the membrane of legitimacy.

One of the problems is that there is no one in the field who seems to match up well against Trump. Jeb Bush still seems like a reluctant candidate; I have never seen a presidential candidate with less passion. He never seems to be enjoying himself. One could see Trump having a bit of a rough time with people like Rick Perry and John Kasich, meat and potato governors whose in the trenches experience contrasts with Trump’s glamorous gunslingerism. But they have not broken through. One can see people like Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham, like sharp-tongued picadors scoring points against him, but they can only bloody Trump, not beat him. There is no august personage who can flatten him, no Ronald Reagan who could just chuckle at him and make him irrelevant. Nor is there a high road that can work, nor a low road. Trump is the product of belief–a focus group of New Hampshire Republicans done by Bloomberg found them echoing Trump’s own line on himself: his presidency would be `successful” and “classy”; he “speaks his mind;” he is “one of us.” They are responding to his style, and like all things involving style–clothes, music, decor–you can’t persuade someone who likes it that it’s wrong. You can only wait for them to like something else. You can only run as hard and as smart as you can, and hope to be there when tastes change.