Vegetable Soup

It takes a lot to get me off the news. Constant stewing about Trump and the upcoming election, however, gets all the wrong juices flowing. Following the latest Senate follies can bring on dyspepsia or worse. Case in point: the recent Amy Cony Barrett hearings in which the Democrats, with a few exceptions, rolled over and played dead.

As the proceedings concluded, senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Judiciary Committee Democrat, gave Chairman Lindsey Graham a big hug and complimented him for leading “one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in.”

After a dose of antacid to calm things down, it was time to change the channel. Cut to the Michigan Trump rally where El Cheeto was leading a chorus of “Lock ‘em up!” for Gretchen Whitmer and Hillary Clinton. Hmm, inciting violence against a sitting governor and a presidential opponent? When is too much enough?

It was time to eat some lunch and cool down. I made vegetable soup out of some old but still good stuff in the hydrator of my fridge. It was comforting to the stomach and tasted great. Here are five reasons why soup is good and good for you. No. 5 is the boost to your immune system that soup provides, helping to stave off colds and flu.

So in the age of coronavirus (another of the gifts Trump has brought you), soup can be a protector. It also relieves stress and increases bone and muscle strength. Take off your mask to eat it.

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.

Major Trump Fatigue

4 Funny Feelings About 2020

 The Tedium of Trump

 is it immoral if you feel schadenfreude about trump’s covid-19?

Many are thoroughly exhausted with the Trump show. That is one factor that could cause him to lose the election. Yet I don’t hear people in the commentariat talking much about this. One who does is Tim Alberta of Politico:

It’s impossible to quantify how tired Americans are of this presidency. But it’s a constant theme in the conversations I have with voters, including die-hard Trump supporters. They feel trapped inside a reality TV show and are powerless to change the channel.

With all the high drama of the past few days, many of us are totally sick of the presidential spectacle. Voters, says Alberta, “weary of their social media feeds and kitchen table conversations being dominated by Trump, may resent that he turned a sympathetic situation into yet another showcase of administrative incompetence and self-celebrating bravado.”

More than “may resent,” some of us emphatically resent it. This pig of a man sucks all the air out of the room and displaces it with viral particles. He joyrides in front of Walter Reed, fraudulently downplays the virus, insults the dead (“Don’t be afraid of Covid.”), and preens maskless on the White House balcony. How much more of this show can one take?

At the same time he is like a flat character in a bad novel. So suggests Quinta Jurecic in The Atlantic: “Trump isn’t boring in the way a dull, empty afternoon is boring. Trump is boring in the way that the seventh season of a reality-television show is boring: A lot is happening, but there’s nothing [new] to say about it.” We are tired of him playing the role of tinpot dictator.

So when Trump caught the virus, instead of invoking thoughts and prayers, many wished him ill. I did too, not that he should die (which would make him a martyr to his people) but that he should get good and sick. Some wished he would die. Some celebrated with abandon. It was a perfect, understandable instance of what the Germans called schadenfreude, taking pleasure in another person’s bad luck or misfortune.

Schadenfreude has a long history and diverse interpretations. My reaction to Trump’s affliction was simply that he got his just deserts. Justice was served. Yet my satisfaction was thwarted as he then tried to turn things to his own twisted purposes by exploiting and politicizing the virus. “I wake up some mornings feeling we are in the grips of a madman,” said David Gergen.

I finally came to realize that there was no way ever to bring him to justice. Contending with Trump is a zero sum game. The game will not even end with his election defeat, which he promises to protest. Trump will continue to intrude on our lives until he makes his final exit.

Fixing the “Shitshow”

NOTE: This post was ready for publication when the news came in this morning about Trump’s viral infection. When the cheering stopped, I realized the election was potentially upended and there would likely be no more presidential debates. Still, I hope you’ll find this worth reading.

Response to the first presidential debate was, you may have noticed, almost universally negative. The debate was so unnerving to so many people that the Commission of Presidential Debates (which controls how these performances are set up) has offered to fix things for the next two scheduled debates. This is a little like Ford trying to resuscitate the Edsel.

The debates have become a corrupted game show. The Commission could make them more entertaining by acknowledging this: signaling interruptions with a loud buzzer, for instance, and opening a trap door beneath his feet if the offender continues talking.

Really, the debates ought to be canceled. The Commission can have no sensible way to fix them. And people are not going to tune into another shitshow. Muting the mic of the offending interrupter, which has been widely suggested, would never be accepted by the Trump campaign.

One presidential debate historian said: “Muting a speaker on live TV is awkward, and could go wrong. Do they start shouting? Does Trump walk over to Biden’s lectern and talk into his mic? All bets are off with this particular debater.”

Trump is never going to change his tactics, which are something like the following:

Any American who has caught a glimpse of the 2016 presidential debates, a White House press conference, or even a recent Trump interview with [moderator Chris] Wallace himself knows that the president’s sole tactic when engaging with anyone calling him to task is to deflect, interrupt, and lean on ad hoc jabs.

That’s a nice way of putting it.

If the Commission and the campaigns don’t agree to cancel the debates, then Biden is in a trap. Really, he should simply withdraw if he has any self-respect. He will get heavy criticism from the Trumpers for chickening out but could always buy (or be given) a half hour’s TV time to explain why he’s canceling the debates, show clips of Trump’s behavior and explain his programs. There is no way you can look presidential while Trump is dumping shit on your head.

When asked on CNN about a possible Biden withdrawal, Kamala Harris said he must keep going because he needs every chance to address the American people. He is crazy to do that unless the debate form is radically changed. Even then, he will necessarily be put on the defensive.

The debates have finally outlived their usefulness, and Trump will never change his tune. There is no common ground with this man.

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.

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.