Intimations of Instability

Justice Ginsburg’s passing seems to have made everyone a little crazy. Wild speculation about the Supreme Court succession is all over the internet. Along with advice for Biden and the Democrats. And much vituperation of the Republicans and their tactics. God bless her, we didn’t need for her to die at this juncture.

Her death has permeated how people think and feel. It has diffused itself into the American Crisis that has been looming and is now exacerbating everything. Her passing also seems to have penetrated into our dreams, at least mine.

Last night I slept the sleep of the dead, though punctuated with dreams, the last one this morning a real doozy. Something I ate? I don’t know. I was lost in the wilds of Upper Manhattan, trying to get home to Greenwich Village, asking people the way to the subway in a snowstorm, through an obscure park, in dank restaurants, in caverns and offices underground. Ginsburg was helpful, giving directions which led nowhere. I kept up my spirits by singing songs from old Broadway shows, like “The Lullaby of Broadway.”

Finally a limousine stopped and the driver offered me a ride. I sat way in the back as we set off but suddenly the rear of the car detached, with me in it, and proceeded on its own down a steep road to a rocky beach, looking out to the ocean. Workers on a house far above peered down and cheered. That was enough to wake me up.

So now we will play Dr. Freud and hazard an interpretation. Lost in New York is a rather familiar theme in my dreams. They are usually more intimidating, but this one was shocking in its vividness. New York here is America, of course, and we are all pretty lost right now. The limousine ride starts out to be a rescue but turns into a weird fiasco, ending up in what could be another country (e.g., Mexico).

Ginsburg tried to be helpful, but ended up impotent. She, we know in real life, was a New York woman par excellence, surprisingly good friends with Antonin Scalia, another New Yorker. Her grand achievements in this life may have come to naught in this dream—and in the disorder the dream portends—but they are historically real nonetheless.

Since her death, the paeans of praise have been pouring in. As always happens, the tributes have come after fate has cheated us of her presence. Eventually they too will evaporate like a dream.

Stalking the Independent Voter

KFF Health Tracking Poll—September 2020

The 2020 Battleground States: Updates on the Swing Voters

Does Biden Need a Higher Gear? Some Democrats Think So

My first thought was, are there any Independents left? The polls say there are plenty, even at a time when the media plays up the extremes of partisanship. Gallup most recently found (July 30-August 12) that 26% of voters identified as Republicans, 31% as Democrats, and 41% as Independents. This would lead one to think the election might be much more unsettled than we are led to believe.

Where do they fall on the issues? The Kaiser Family Foundation has the most recent data (September 10). It found, unsurprisingly, that Independents were right in the middle on most questions. And, of course, “There is a strong partisan divide, with Republican voters prioritizing the economy followed by criminal justice and policing, and Democratic voters prioritizing coronavirus followed by race relations.”

According to this, the economy has displaced the virus as the most important issue. And yet the swing voters remain uncertain and unfocused. As everyone knows, the election will depend on a few battleground states: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. There may be others, like Minnesota.

My take, for what it’s worth, is that the Biden campaign needs rapidly to get off its fixation on online media and ads and do more in-person events, sign-planting and door-knocking. They need to undertake an old style campaign even with the limitations the virus imposes. As dumb as they are, Trump’s rallies get media coverage. Biden does press conferences and small meetings. Kamala Harris and her speeches go mostly unnoticed. The Latino vote for Biden is precarious.

Trump’s hats and signs and posters get noticed. Where are Biden’s? To some, he seems to be hiding behind a mask. His demeanor and speech have improved, but to many he remains largely unknown. He doesn’t have much time to make up that deficit.

The Forgotten Zucchini

Going to the supermarket is still an adventure though not always a welcome one. Hunting for the foods you want to make a certain recipe takes a kind of focus, distracting you from the nauseating news of the day and the perils of COVID. It can give your unsettled life a temporary sense of purpose.

So you have an idea that you want to make zucchini with onions and tomatoes to go with the fish you bought. The recipe was a simple holdover from your childhood that never failed to bring back good memories. Maybe you’ll add in a poblano and some spices.

Your first stop was to pick up a can of good Italian tomatoes and then maneuver on to collect other, unrelated things. That was a mistake because it got you distracted from finding the remaining ingredients. Your first mistake was not making a list. At the store one needs to keep a sharp focus because there are so many other distracting items. In fact, a supermarket purposely distracts you so you’ll make impulse purchases.

By the time you get to the produce aisle, you pick up other items but fail to recognize those nice bulbous green zucchinis waiting in their bin. You are by then thinking about the latest Trump revelations to Woodward, the fires in the West, the disastrous election looming. You are totally distracted and pass by the zukes.

Of course you don’t realize the omission until you get home, cursing and flailing your poor memory. Thus a welcome distraction (going to the store) becomes a little tarnished because you were too distracted to buy what you came for.

Trump Disparages the Military

Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’

Did Trump call US war dead “losers” and “suckers”? The controversy, explained.

Trump Faces Uproar Over Reported Remarks Disparaging Fallen Soldiers

The story, all over the media for the last four days, pits Trump’s denials against the comments of several anonymous but respected (even by Fox News) sources. Vox comments:

Four reputable news outlets, all citing anonymous sources, report President Donald Trump disparaged US troops, veterans, and missing service members, with several outlets reporting he has called military members “losers.” Yet the president, along with current and former staff on the record, continues to dispute those stories.

The reporting is explosive. The denials are emphatic. And the consequences are potentially enormous.

This is proving to be a Big Story because the last thing you want to do as president is insult the U.S. military. It’s the third rail of presidential politics. It has been pro forma for every president to praise, if not worship, the military. Trump’s gaffe may end up costing him the election since the millions of active duty, reserve, retired and disabled service members are not going to take his comments lightly.

I think the perpetual praise of the military has often verged on idolatry, causing bloated budgets and sometimes reckless decisions. How did you like Teddy Roosevelt’s blustering adventures? Reagan’s invasion of Grenada?

I’d always had a kind of left-wing reaction to the military until I went to work for the Navy. I spent three years doing PR and communications for NAVAIR, the Naval Air Systems Command (which develops, procures, repairs and tests all U.S. Naval aircraft and weapons systems). It was a rewarding and sometimes trying experience.

The military bureaucracy is frequently a fearsome thing. The glut of money over time has produced not only a daunting military-industrial complex but a lot of technocratic operational inefficiencies: a special office for this, a unique procedure for that, a command structure that doesn’t always reward competence.

The people who worked in my office, civilians and contractors like me plus the military staff, were decent, hardworking folks. There was an unwritten rule not to discuss politics, though nearly everyone was conservative. We did get into amicable political discussions over after-work beers. I learned how conservatives think.

In short, I discovered firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of our military. It has taken on all the virtues and failings of our government, but few recognize how hard and effectively its members work. They are anything but suckers and losers. For the bone spurs dropout to denigrate these people is one more demonstration of his depravity—and his political stupidity.

What Should Biden Do?

Joe Biden Had Better Watch It

As the election approaches Joe is getting advice from some rather unlikely sources. This comes from folks like Andrew Sullivan and Bret Stephens, whom I want to call liberalized (i.e., wimpy) conservatives. Each enjoys taking on the follies of the far right while advancing the cause of what might be called liberal centrism. Which forces them to take shots both from liberals and conservatives.

Stephens in particular caused a mighty flap when he was hired by the New York Times. The first occasion was his skepticism about climate change. Recently he’s been writing a weekly column with Gail Collins and calling himself a pro-Biden conservative. The guy writes well (he won a Pulitzer Prize) and has a disarming way of glossing over some of his more conservative views.

We can learn from people like this. In his most recent column, he and Gail discuss ways in which Biden should frame the campaign issues going forward. Stephens has a pretty good prescription (though he avoids mention of the pandemic, issue number one). Here is some of it. Biden, he says, should focus on “the Supreme Court, for starters.”

A second Trump term almost certainly means a third (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), fourth (Stephen Breyer) and possibly fifth (Clarence Thomas) Trump pick. Roe v. Wade doesn’t survive on that court. If I were Biden, I’d ask Kamala Harris to go on a swing through Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin to explain that if Trump wins, legal abortion will become a thing of the past for every woman living in a red state.

 . . . A second [issue] is ethics. Has the swamp ever been swampier than under Trump? Who elected Ivanka to rule over us? How did Jared get to lord it over us? Who turned the White House into a stage prop? Since when does the president use his office to blackmail foreign leaders into doing him political favors? Why is it that nearly everyone who has ever worked for Trump, people like John Bolton and John Kelly, finds him despicable? And did he get somebody to take his S.A.T.s for him? Biden should run a five-minute online spot titled “A Cheater From the Beginning.” Highlights would include bone spurs, (alleged!) cheating on the S.A.T.s and Marla Maples.

 . . . Third issue: Dictator suck-up. No president in history has ever had nicer things to say about America’s enemies than Trump, just as no president has ever had nastier things to say about America’s friends. I also can imagine the imagery for this: Trump at Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, Trump at Panmunjom with Kim Jong-un, Trump in Osaka with Xi Jinping, Trump in the White House with Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The big recent issue of course is Trump’s flagrant promotion of violence in the cities. Which means Biden needs to hit hard on Trump’s history of division, racism and alt-right sympathies—“when the looting starts the shooting starts.” This could be Biden’s sharpest weapon, particularly if he links it to the pandemic, Trump’s violence against his own citizens.

Why I’m Not Watching

”Only a masochistic brain-dead racist could bear to watch the Republican Convention.”

“But John, you need to watch in order to know thine enemy and understand how they think and what they are planning. Only then can you win the argument that constitutes the election.”

“The election is not an argument. It’s a contest as to whether the country will survive or not. Biden still thinks he can somehow accommodate to these people. I do not. The Republicans and I are singing from completely different musical scores. And it’s the 100th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth. I want the same kind of revolution in politics he brought about in music.”

“Well, it’s true there is a lot of flak and noise that keeps you hitting the mute button. Jennifer Rubin seems to endorse your idea: She says the convention has no agenda, no arguments worth hearing, just ‘screaming, dog whistles and bullhorn appeals to White supremacy and abjectly ridiculous accusations’ about Biden.”

“The perfect example of that is Kimberly Guilfoyle’s unhinged rant on the first night, building in decibels and discord as she proceeds. Born from a Puerto Rican mother, she calls herself an immigrant.”

“You still ought to watch the convention, John, to see how permeated their thinking is with appeals to race. It’s the dominant focus of Trump’s agenda.”

“The NY Times agrees with you. Politico magazine agrees with you. I agree with you. But I’d rather hear their reporting than the outsized race-baiting the convention seems fascinated with. Better some media outrage than hearing another speech from Patricia and Mark McCloskey.”

“Patricia said, ‘Make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.’”

“Let ‘em go back to their fortified St. Louis mansion. If I want to be depressed I’d rather read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, a book about how deeply immersed our country is in maintaining racial separation. She mixes stories about how caste is embedded in our everyday life with comparisons to India and Hitler’s Germany. We are throttled still and now by caste and its consequences. Do we really need to hear more praise of Trump and his fealty to the cause of caste, hate and fear?”

Boredom, Tedium and Ennui

What Does Boredom Do to Us—and for Us?

Why Boredom Is Anything but Boring

From what I hear, you’re all pandemically bored, right? I have no suggestions of what to do about that but Google uncovers 7,860,000 answers. My thoughts about boredom may or may not make you feel better. After all, it’s our common fate. We’re all in this together, as the Democrats continue to remind us.

Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.

With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.

It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”

Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:

David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.

The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

There’s an old saying that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.

A while back some researchers put together what’s been called the most boring video ever.

Other researchers have had study participants watch an instructional film about fish-farm management or copy down citations from a reference article about concrete.” Thanks, I’ll go on hanging up my laundry.

Frank Bruni on Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Showed Us Why These Democrats Are Our Last Best Hope

. . . I want to note that nowhere in Trump’s inner circle is there anyone with the gravitas and grace of Michelle Obama, because someone like her wouldn’t last a nanosecond there. Trump would find the example of her too threatening, the yardstick of her too diminishing. She’d find his ethical ecosystem uninhabitable: the cold, dark surface of the moon without a spacesuit.

I want to savor her every word on Monday night, when she so beautifully distilled what’s wrong with Trump — “He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us,” she said — and so hauntingly defined what it feels like to live in Trump’s America.

“Kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another,” she said. “They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we really are and what we truly value.”

“What’s going on in this country is just not right,” she added. “This is not who we want to be.” It was an excellent speech, gorgeously delivered, and that’s in large part because she recognized and maximized the fact that many Americans see her as someone less partisan and more practical than the conventional convention orator.

“You know I hate politics,” she said, making no apologies for that. “But you also know that I care about this nation. You know how much I care about all of our children.” From that perspective came this plea: “We have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”

That was the message of many of the speakers. Their words varied; their urgency didn’t. Usually when politicians adopt such epic, dire tones, I want to reach for some bleach to wash the purple from their prose. On Monday night I just nodded (and, in Obama’s case, got a little teary, too).

The Post Office Hustle

Trump Admits He’s Starving the Postal Service to Sabotage Voting by Mail

 How Trump’s Attack on the Post Office Could Backfire

 Is Trump Sabotaging the Postal Service?

You may have noticed that Trump will try anything to achieve his ends, even if it means endorsing something that people will hate. So he tries to starve the post office of funds—the country’s most popular and historic agency—because he thinks vote-by-mail works to create fraud. The fact that it doesn’t makes no difference. He thinks like his followers who hate the policies that are actually in their own interest.

Trump’s buddy Louis DeJoy, the new postmaster general, has instituted operational changes in the Postal Service that make it much less efficient, less capable. He is in the process of removing hundreds of powerful sorting machines, for instance, plus curtailing overtime. Between Trump and DeJoy the intention is clear: hobble the post office so they can call in question the November vote, which will come in late and fragmented. The outcome will be simply to disenfranchise voters by slowing or disabling the count.

Here is a pretty fair summary of the problems these moves by DeJoy and the president have created. It’s a complicated story because the Postal Service has been shackled for years by Congress’ decision requiring it to prefund 75 years of its retiree health benefits in advance. No other organization does this. There is a deep Republican prejudice against the post office, which Trump continues to foster.

Yet, a record 76% of Americans can vote by mail in 2020. With the virus present, up to 50% are predicted to do so. My prediction is that the constant protests from Pelosi and Schumer about tampering with the franchise will have their effect. But the Republicans may also be whispering in Trump’s ear,

 Hey, you might be screwing us over, too, by doing this. And so maybe, just maybe, that provides an opening to actually try to take action to fix what’s wrong with the Postal Service right now. But I would not count on a big hand from Republicans on this. Let’s put it that way. There needs to be as much volume about this as possible as soon as possible. If I’m the Democrats right now, I’m just talking every single day about how Donald Trump is sabotaging the Postal Service.

Along with DeJoy’s “reforms” that slow down mail delivery enormously,

For the president to admit to deliberately trying to slow the mail process in order to curb mail-in voting is “stunning, because it is political sabotage,” says [Philip F.] Rubio, himself a former letter carrier who spent two decades working for USPS. “He’s using his power of the veto [to hold up funding and] to interfere with the democratic process.”

This is clearly a story that has legs, and it keeps unfolding. Nonetheless, we are watching a fundamental undercutting of the democratic right to vote. People will not take this lying down. Neither should you.

P.S. An update: more info on DeJoy and the USPS mess.

P.P.S.  House calls DeJoy and USPS Board of Governors chairman to emergency hearing, Aug. 24.

Trump Resignation Speech

Some misguided Democrats have said that we aren’t responding to the needs of our people. In fact, my administration already enacted $3 trillion in economic relief. It’s been very, very successful and you saw that by the numbers that were issued yesterday and the day before as to used car sales and auto production. They’ve been incredible numbers, actually. Our used car sales are way up.

This administration produces incredible numbers. But the Democrats have refused to negotiate so I took matters into my own hands and had this wonderful ceremony at Bedminster, celebrating the great sport of golf, and we’re going to take matters into our own hands now and sign into law another $400 a month for the unemployed, stop the evictions, cancel student loans and the payroll tax.

No president since Lincoln has done as much for this country. But the Democrats are primarily interested in a $1 trillion bailout of their poorly run states. You know what states I mean. We don’t have to go through names. But they’ve been very poorly run over the years and we can’t go along with the bailout money. We’re not going to go along with that, especially since it’s not COVID-related.

I am extremely tired of fighting with these Democrat losers who will never recognize the enormous progress we’ve made fighting COVID. Joe Biden and his crew of radical lefties have left God behind and can never recognize the progress we’ve made with outdoor dining, limited indoor dining and most of the other businesses in Arizona and Texas that have remained open and very vibrant. They’re doing just incredibly well. This is an approach and it’s an approach that’s been incredibly successful.

The Democrat losers don’t recognize the importance of getting kids back to school and how vigilant we are in shielding of the elderly and those with underlying conditions. They fight with us constantly and undermine our reelection efforts at every turn. You can’t negotiate with people like this.

I have brought peace and incredible prosperity to this country, only to endure constant sniping and criticism which is affecting my health and prevailing good humor. I aced the cognitive ability test, you know. But my doctors have told me that I have cerebral palsy and must avoid unnecessary stress. Stress kills, they tell me.

So it is with great reluctance that I must resign the office of the Presidency, effective tomorrow. Is it tomorrow, Kayleigh? My poll numbers have no bearing on this decision. Jared Kushner will assist Mr. Pence until the election. Then if he survives it you’ll have four years of Joe Biden. See how you like that.