One Queasy Spectacle after Another

The Stupor Bowl

Witnesses Could Prevent a Foregone Conclusion in Second Impeachment Trial

Guy Debord, Donald Trump, and the Politics of the Spectacle

Americans are infatuated with spectacle, most obviously with the Super Bowl, the yearly nod to institutionalized violence and kitsch. I do like football, notwithstanding. I watched the game this year, appalled by how badly the Chiefs performed and how effective the android Tom Brady was. The laying on of schmaltz that is the halftime show was the topper, as usual.

How is it possible to enjoy football in the face of all the evidence of its “blatant brutality” and ubiquitous presence in the culture? Bill Harrison writes a strong indictment in Medium, calling it the Stupor Bowl, a term I’ve also used for years. The reality is that we’re all sucked into the business of football and become eager customers.

We are also eager customers for political spectacle, one reason for Trump’s popularity. The proper audience for the impeachment trial beginning today is not Republicans in the Senate chamber but the American public. One hopes the Democrats managing the trial recognize this. Let them call a few witnesses and make it a show trial; it’s clear they aren’t going to get a conviction anyway. The jury has already declared its intentions.

It will be interesting to see what the impeachment managers decide about calling witnesses—and how far they are prepared to indict not just Trump but the GOP for its anti-democratic tactics. The Post’s Greg Sargent put it this way:

If anything, Democrats need to make it as politically uncomfortable for Republicans as possible to acquit—and to extract a political price for it among the suburban moderates whom the GOP continues to alienate with its ongoing QAnon-ification.

It’s clear that all kinds of arresting spectacles inform much of the breaking news of our time—from floods and coups to terrorist attacks. Presidents from Reagan to Obama have made political spectacle both respected and expected. Yet Trump has turned a political party into a cult of such displays. Douglas Kellner documents his mastery of political and media spectacle.

The events of Jan. 6 are rendered still more horrifying by the Republicans who have chucked out any notion of Trump’s responsibility. One may hope that his (and the GOP’s) impeachment will offer the public a chance to wake to the reality behind this debased spectacle. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

Four Dreadful Years, and a Merry Christmas

What Trump Showed Us About America

For many, the past four years were like purgatory as they revealed some appalling realities in American life. A lot of long-term assumptions went out the window. A lot of happy presumptions held by the elites had to be flushed down the toilet. And naturally, we’re still in the grip of some of these illusions.

Politico ran a good piece last month with quotes from 35 “political and cultural observers” [read “elites”] on what they learned about America over the past four years. I found their responses both predictable and surprising.

Many were alarmed to discover that our political institutions and norms are more fragile than they thought. Others pointed out the blind spots that members of the political and cultural elite have for the deep sense of dislocation and injustice that their fellow citizens feel. . . .

Others questioned whether the disruptions of the past four years have really shaken us out of old patterns, and whether the political establishment has really been diminished. “The house always wins,” one wrote. And then there was this conclusion from another contributor: “At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Yeah, well, who does? When the four-year curtain rings down, the actors take their bows for an empty performance.

In the Politico piece, Nicholas Carr, who writes on technology, economics and culture, targeted the most obvious fruit of these years—that lies now trump truths. In the digital world, “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” and “social media has allowed propaganda to be crowdsourced; it has democratized George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.”

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor emeritus, shouted out the legacy of the elites.

Ordinary Americans looked at the elite zones of academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington itself, and saw a bunch of self-serving, not very competent individuals sitting pretty, who had enriched themselves and let the rest of America slide. . . . It wasn’t Trump’s politics that disgusted the college presidents, celebrity actors, Google VPs, D.C. operatives and the rest. It was because he pinpointed them as the problem—the reason factories and small stores had closed, unemployment was bad, and PC culture had cast them as human debris. And millions cheered. This was unforgivable to the elites.

John Austin, an economist, told us that

unless we address the root economic causes of many American voters’ anger and social alienation, we will remain a divided nation, with many remaining susceptible to the message of demagogues like Donald Trump. In much of left-behind rural America, and still struggling communities that dot the industrial Midwest around my home, anxieties about the economic future interact with a perceived loss of identity, status and control in a changing society. These dynamics generate a toxic brew of resentments of “others,” whether coastal elites or immigrants, and cravings for a return to a simpler and ordered time.

For me, the starkest element the four years have exposed is the blatant ignorance of so much of the populace. We would like to think that this stems from Trump, a man of limited intelligence and unlimited bile. In fact, it’s the susceptibility of 70 million people, sneering at truth, sneering at the virus. The Flat Earth Society persists despite all evidence that it should not.

Exit the Mad King

We have two more months of this nightmare farce to play out. Expect more surprises and insanity—and more endless news coverage. But will he run again in 2024? His niece Mary Trump says, “He will never put himself in a position where he can lose like this again.”

The mad king’s reign is nearly over. Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, another narcissist raging on the heath, he’ll eventually be betrayed by the toadies who supported him. But not quite yet. As in the play, a potential civil war lurks in the background. Social insecurity is rampant. The king rages on.

But if we take Mary Trump’s words seriously, it’s only right to celebrate Joe Biden’s victory. Biden’s win was notable for its very cool minimizing of any threats from the opposition. Ignoring the constant noise was a good move. One hopes that attitude carries forward in his administration. The best defense against Trump is to ignore him.

And soon we may remember our mad king as a purveyor of farce as well as evil. A few things in this regard jumped out at me. One is last week’s Four Seasons press conference in which Rudy Giuliani’s feverish fantasies were on full display.

Apparently the event was to be held at one of the posh Four Seasons hotels but got ironically shifted to a Four Seasons Landscaping Service in Northeast Philadelphia (an area I once used to work in). It is located between a crematorium and a porn shop. As one commentator wrote, “No satirist has ever written anything this hilarious.” It was very much like something out of a Borat movie.

The mad king continues his ranting but fewer are listening. “’It’s like dealing with a lunatic on the subway. Everyone just kind of sits and stares ahead, pretends they can’t hear him, and waits for him to eventually get off,’ a GOP source close to the administration told The Daily Beast.” That tags it for me.

We would do well to remember George Carlin’s observation: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

Really, I Wouldn’t Have a Beer with Either of Them

Trump at the Debate Was Like America in 2020: Not Winning

 ‘The Debates, Like Everything Else in 2020, Were a Dumpster Fire’

 Malaika Jabali: ‘A frustrating debate that ignored big issues’

Trump would be insulting and contentious; Biden would bore you with policy and his accomplishments. That’s pretty much what they did last night at the last (thank God) presidential debate.

For many of us the race has become old and hackneyed, the participants frayed. I spent this morning looking for new insights on the internet and didn’t find many.

Of course I will vote for Biden, but that doesn’t mean he’s an appealing candidate. The man needs a shot of mezcal, not a beer. In the debate he was focused but often bland and wordy. He fumbled on answers regarding the 1994 crime bill and fracking. In his debate prep he could have done more work on sharp, memorable responses, though he did get off a few. Per Susan Glasser in The New Yorker:

“He’s a very confused guy,” Biden said of Trump when the President claimed, per usual, that Biden was some sort of radical socialist pawn. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden.”

Trump babbled incoherently about Hunter Biden’s emails, overriding the moderator, and frequently going off the deep end: “Who built the cages, Joe?” John Neffinger in Politico:

Having set the bar ridiculously low in his last few appearances, President Trump impressed just by not seeming out of control Thursday night. But if he was more conversational, it made it easier to hear him clearly when he declared himself the least racist person in the room, or criticized a public option, or talked about the great care the children he orphaned get, or made fun of Joe Biden talking to Americans about their own families, or declined to answer good questions from Kristen Welker about Covid or the Talk [that Black parents must have with their children about racism].

Malaika Jabali in The Guardian was angry about what she didn’t hear:

There was no discussion about potential domestic voter suppression, less than two weeks before the election. Nothing about far-right white supremacists, who pose the deadliest terror threat in the country. Nothing about policies to reduce racial disparities in unemployment, essential work, Covid-19 deaths and cases, or small business closures.

And not much about climate change except a lot of smoke. Anyhow, as to having a drink with either of these guys, Trump, who doesn’t drink, would be most likely to get in a bar fight and Joe would most likely put one to sleep. We all need better forms of entertainment, something like the new Borat movie which shows Rudy Giuliani in a delightfully compromising position. He too would be among the last guys to have a drink with.

Major CNN Fatigue: Blitzer v. Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi Blows Up at Wolf Blitzer Over Stimulus: You’re a Republican ‘Apologist’

Pelosi chafes at Wolf Blitzer’s questions on Covid talks

Second stimulus check updates: The differences between Democratic House and GOP Senate coronavirus relief bills

I watch a lot of news, and one reason I signed up for cable service was to get CNN International. I may have lived to regret it. Some of their news anchors (Jake Tapper and Jim Acosta excepted) leave a lot to be desired. Chris Cuomo’s frenetic blather is a case in point. How much hectoring can you take in an hour?

Wolf Blitzer is CNN’s chief political anchor, not notable for his penetrating insights but usually a dependable Democratic apologist. Yesterday for some reason he took out after Nancy Pelosi on the unconscionable delays in getting to a stimulus agreement. That’s all Pelosi needed. Watch some of the exchange.

This went on for close to fifteen minutes, Blitzer hammering away on the notion of a deal at all costs now, Pelosi fumbling through a defense of her position that there can be no deal without the Democrats’ spending priorities. Blitzer was pushy, Pelosi was angry. It was good TV and bad politics.

He argued that the Democrats should accept the latest administration offer because the need was so immediate and pressing. She countered that the caucus couldn’t accept an offer which had such unacceptable spending priorities. She had the better argument but her emotions overcame her. To be charitable about it, they were talking past each other.

Blitzer set the tone by failing to acknowledge her somewhat muddied points. She lost her patience: “With all due respect, you really don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

To me, the interesting thing was why Wolf chose to pick the fight at all. He did sound like a Republican apologist. The parties have been bogged down for months on stimulus issues. The Democrats have moved some on money issues, but the Republicans in the Senate have promised no deal on whatever the Dems propose. Politico put it this way:

The two sides have gotten closer on some issues, such as small-business aid, a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks and testing money, but remain divided over issues like unemployment aid and state and local government funding. But Democrats also point out that they remain further apart on the bigger issues, such as lack of a strategic plan to defeat the virus nationwide.

Perhaps network powers pushed Wolf to hammer home his point of making a deal at all costs, the idea being to goad Pelosi into a response. CNN’s ratings must be down, and maybe they just want to cultivate a more polemical posture à la Chris Cuomo. Let’s hope that’s not true—and that CNN can promote some fresh faces.

Trump Is Inescapable

Trump is like a compulsion, something you can’t get away from. Dealing with him is like eating too much: you’re uncomfortable afterwards and feel somewhat guilty. At a really good dinner with friends last night (I did not eat too much), the conversation naturally turned to Trump and the U.S. political chaos.

Passing over less controversial topics like climate change and Amy Coney Barrett, we kept coming back to Trump and his perpetual coups d’état on America, his presence everywhere in the media and in our minds, like some kind of unholy ghost stalking us. We can’t get away from him, even as we try.

About a year ago, one writer put it this way:

The man is inescapable. It is hard not to think about him. Every new day brings a flood of belligerent tweets, grandiose lies, incompetent or destructive choices in governance and a general undermining of American institutions. Cable news, from Fox to MSNBC, is devoted to all things Trump nearly every minute of every day.

A consensus in our dinner group seemed to be building that this was the fault of the news media. That the desire to sell newspapers (or internet presence) overcame any sense of editorial balance. That important world news stories were being neglected. That journalists were blind in their pursuit of the most outrageous or titillating stories. And so on. The discussion threatened to ruin our dessert.

My heart wasn’t in it, but I defended journalism, saying that, like it or not, Trump was always the Big Story that the media were obliged to cover. I glossed over the fact that this coverage has made everyone depressed and distracted.

Trump’s chaotic behavior, like his attention span, is “genuinely scattershot” and “has proved a great de facto political strategy, precisely because we are neurologically incapable of handling it.” The real problems are “our split-screen consciousness,” the internet overload, and the insistent demands of too much information.

Brian Baird, an ex-congressman and clinical psychologist, has compared Trump to an abusive father. “Baird said we are like the kids who have to live in the same house with him and cope with his rants, his erratic behavior, his cruelty and his bullying day after day.”

The abusive Donald Trump is indeed like The Dead Father in Donald Barthelme’s 1975 novel of that name. His children can’t escape him, and he is ”a gargantuan half-dead, half-alive, part mechanical, wise, vain, powerful being who still has hopes for himself—even while he is being dragged by means of a cable toward a mysterious goal.” This fantastic and funny book is really a parable for our times.

If only Donald Trump were a fictional character.

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.

The Politics of Lunacy

  • On the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday, President Donald Trump talked about dishwashers, dryers, shower heads, and faucets. . .[while] the U.S. shattered its single-day record for new coronavirus infections on Thursday, reporting more than 77,000 thousand cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. —David Gilbert
  • Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp urged residents Friday to wear a face mask when in public, two days after blocking local cities from enforcing their own rules to further prevent the spread of Covid-19. —CNBC
  • In Maine, Republican Senator Susan Collins is fighting for survival. You may remember Collins as the self-styled brave independent moderate, who spends most of her working days caving in. —Gail Collins
  • It’s a little weird contemplating Sessions now. Trump’s treatment of him was outrageous, but if anybody’s going to suffer a political stab in the back, you have to be glad it’s the guy whose policies as attorney general ranged from keeping more people in prison longer to “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” —Gail Collins
  • [Arizona Governor Doug] Ducey several times said the increase in cases correlated with the increase in testing. But over the past two weeks, cases increased by 76% and tests increased by just 52%. —azcentral
  • Hardly any leaders even floated mask-wearing advisories until they were themselves neck-deep in a local pandemic crisis. They could not learn from others, only taking actions like these in a sort of last-gasp panic state. —David Wallace-Wells
  • “When you’re in show business, you meet people like Trump, you meet people who literally don’t exist in the same dimension as you; they’re just gone. And that’s what he’s like. He’s like Cosby in a way, these people who are completely deluded and they’ve been famous and all of their wishes are attended to—they lose complete touch with reality,” Apatow adds, calling Trump the “abusive parent to the country.” —Judd Apatow
  • “I don’t want to spend my time doing things that I don’t think are valuable enough to me personally,” [CNN’s Chris] Cuomo said in audio heard by the New York Post and CBS News. “I don’t value indulging irrationality, hyperpartisanship.”
    “I don’t like what I do professionally,” he said. “I don’t think it’s worth my time.” —Julia Reinstein
  • “I’ve never been in a better position professionally, I’ve never been more grateful, I’ve never been on a better team,” Cuomo said Tuesday [the next day] on his SiriusXM show. “I love where I am. I love the position that I’ve been given.” —Mark Kennedy
  • No one in the campaign can control him. No one in the White House even wants to. As CNN’s Jim Acosta put it after this latest disaster [the Tuesday Rose Garden briefing], “We are down to Kool-Aid drinkers and next of kin” at the Trump White House. No one there will stop him, because Trump has worn down every competent, sane person who would possibly imagine working in his White House. It’s the most thankless job in D.C., and rats notoriously leave sinking ships rather than board them. —Rick Wilson
  • In Britain, as in the United States, hooligans have been pulling down statues. And in Britain, as in the U.S., the media have absurdly tried to frame their vandalism as some sort of civil rights protest, as if all they wanted were equal treatment. —Dan Hannon
  • Kanye West is officially on the ballot as a presidential candidate in the state of Oklahoma. —Ben Jacobs

The World According to George

I have always been a fan of the manic nuttiness of George Carlin. I loved him because of the pointed language which just flowed from him, a bubbling spring of praise and put-downs. He drew attention to the verbal tics of contemporary language—like the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” and euphemisms like “bathroom tissue” for “toilet paper.” More than that, he used common, often foul language to make us react and think.

George’s later years saw him become less of a stand-up comic and more of a hip philosopher—as this video (from 2007) demonstrates. He rails against our contemporary follies, but his words also project the long view of history and what the philosophers call quietism. As a friend of mine used to say, in the long run “it don’t mattah.”

With the present turmoil over social issues and commitment to causes, this may seem like heresy. Today we can’t be convinced that “the planet will heal.” But, finally, Carlin’s is an indictment of human society. He’s the man with the notebook, observing and commenting on the “freak show” we live in.

It’s not All Gloom and Doom

Five Radical Climate Policies That Most Americans Actually Like

To Fight Global Warming, Think More About Systems Than About What You Consume

Climate denial is reported more than science

“Don’t we deserve a little good news on the climate front, at least once in a while?”

That’s a bit like asking, “Didn’t Rudy Giuliani do some good as mayor of New York?” We keep trying to nullify the present by invoking the past, trying to find our way out of a difficult dilemma. And it’s the negative, immediate stories that always get the headlines.

Climate is invariably presented in the press as a contentious issue: “That is, according to a massive study by Californian scientists, the people who say climate change is not happening, or not a problem, get 49% more coverage than the scientists who have the evidence that it represents a serious and accelerating crisis.” The assumption is we’d rather hear about conflict than science.

Some new and reputable polling shows, however, that the public is getting behind the very ambitious programs proposed by Sanders and Warren.

At least five aggressive and left-wing climate policies are supported by most registered voters in the United States. Americans seem particularly fond of large spending packages, as Sanders has advanced, and climate policies with a populist bent, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed climate import fee and her “economic patriotism” plan.

Some of this approval reflects opposition to Trump, yet even conservative-leaning surveys report a liking for something as radical as the Green New Deal.

Shockingly, the idea was more popular than not, with 48 percent of respondents in support and 7 percent undecided. Only when pollsters told people that a Green New Deal could cost $93 trillion did support for the idea collapse. But according to the GOP group’s own math, a Green New Deal that focused only on climate change could cost only $13 trillion.

The five programs that garnered most support are:

    1. A national recycling program for commodities
    2. $1.3 trillion to weatherize every home and office building in the United States
    3. $1.5 trillion for a massive federal build-out of renewable energy
    4. A climate adjustment fee on environmentally destructive imports
    5. “Economic Nationalism for Climate Change” (meaning “aggressively encourage large American manufacturing firms to specialize in solar panels, wind turbines, and other climate-friendly technologies”).

Now, none of these projects tackle perhaps the thorniest aspect of the climate crisis: how to deal with the overwhelming effects of consumer choice and consumer demand around the world. Bill McKibben tries to confront this one in a recent book review. He does a commendable job of showing how collective action is the only effective response: “We aren’t going to solve our problems one consumer at a time. We’re going to need to do it as societies and civilizations, or not at all.” That is, we aren’t going to get there by simply renouncing plastic straws.