You got me working boss man, a workin’ around the clock,
I want a little drink of whiskey, you sure won’t let me stop.
Big boss man, can’t you hear me when I call?
Well, you ain’t so big, you just tall, that’s all.
— Jimmy Reed, Big Boss Man
When Trump speaks these days it’s usually in a strictly-controlled environment, before a self-selected (if not always compensated) crowd that bows, laughs and applauds on cue, like the “live studio audience” of a sit-com.
This week Trump cloaked himself in a pack of gung-ho sheriffs summoned from Trump-devoted counties across the country. The mutual backslapping and banal banter between the President and the cops took an ominous turn when Harold Eavenson, Sheriff of Rockwell County, Texas, complained to Trump that soft-on crime politicians were threatening the financial firepower of the war on drugs by trying to enact minor reforms in asset seizure laws, which allow police departments to confiscate the property of suspects in drug crimes, sell it off and keep the money to fund their own operations.
Eavenson griped to Trump: “There’s a state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”
“Do you believe that?” Trump responded, mugging for the cameras.
“And I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed,” Eavenson growled.
Trump’s hackles rose to the occasion: “Who is that state senator? I want to hear his name,” he boasted. “We’ll destroy his career!”
Even the sheriff seemed stunned by Trump’s political bloodlust. Eavenson chuckled nervously, but refused to name the senator.
This is a portrait of Trump in full law-and-order mode, where all of the emphasis is on order and none on law. Any real conservative would object to asset seizure as a “taking” of property without compensation or judicial review, a constitutional crime by the state.
That’s not the way Trump thinks, naturally. But let’s face it, his eagerness to demolish the career of a state senator from Texas is hardly the political equivalent of big game hunting. A small town politician is scarcely a threat to the Republic on the order of refugee-coddling Angela Merkel, currency-manipulating Xi Jinping or even the impertinent John Bercow, speaker of the British House of Commons who has vowed to bar Trump from addressing Parliament. But Trump doesn’t discriminate. Blood will have blood.
In the perverse logic of the bully, Trump seems to believe that the smaller the victim, the bigger it makes him look. But it’s the casual brutality that really matters. That’s the selling point of his administration. As flies are to wanton boys, so are his enemies, great or small, to Trump. He crushes them for sport, live in prime time.
During more sedate political times, enemies lists were kept as tightly guarded secrets, the names known only to an inner circle of henchmen. Trump broadcasts his targets to anyone who will listen, as if he were a post-modern Henry II, begging his most credulous acolytes to rid him of meddlesome troublemakers. Ironically, Trump campaigned by saying that it would be foolish to publicly reveal his strategy for dealing with opponents. (Of course, many took this to indicate that Trump really had not the faintest idea what he was going to do in Iraq, Syria or the Straits of Hormuz.)
We now know that this stealthy stricture only applies to Trump’s overseas targets. Here in the homeland, the looming domestic crackdown will be fully marketed and previewed by Trump as a coming attraction, whetting the appetite of the far right for the final destruction of what remains of the Left. In that sense, we can count our blessings that Trump never fully digested Machiavelli, never learned the dark arts of political misdirection. The red laser point fixed on our foreheads is flashing for all to see. Ignore it at your peril.
This directness of purpose explains, of course, much of Trump’s appeal to the white working class. He’s all text, no subtext: a man who Tweets what means and means what he Tweets. Even though Trump made most of his billions (if billions are, in fact, what he made) ruthlessly exploiting the legalistic fine print in contracts, he remains, for much of America, the man without qualities, the qualities of subtlety and nuance. And for that, at least, we must be thankful.
Even by the standards of the Chaos Theory of Politics, Trump is an inept politician, who only holds power because he proved to be marginally less inept than Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most uninspiring candidate since Bob Dole. We have entered a time of the politics of personal pique, where incitement to public violence seems to have become a new presidential prerogative. Everyone is fair game for Trump: federals judges and senators, state legislators and department store executives, actors, Mexican grandmothers, Syrian children and journalists. He sees enemies everywhere and doesn’t hesitate to name and GPS-locate them.
Nixon was a paranoid politician, but he largely operated in the dark, using surrogates and cut-outs to do his dirtiest work. Nixon was also a cynical political hedge fund artist. Bomb Cambodia, create the EPA; break into the Watergate, visit Mao’s China. He always sought to build alliances that would limit his political liability. Even Reagan shielded himself behind a curtain of plausible deniability, discreetly keeping the blood off of his own hands. Reagan could rip your heart out, as his mouth cracked into an enigmatic smile. The enigma being: was the smile sadistic or merely a sign that he had lost his marbles? Or both.
Trump has quickly shed any pretense of deniability, plausible or otherwise. His most malign ideas, and the intentions behind them, stream forth on his Twitter feed in his own words, keyed by his own stubby fingers. It’s like reading the darkest exchanges of the Nixon tapes in real time. This refreshing forthrightness in the pursuit of malevolent policies has already self-sabotaged Trump’s own plans, as in the Muslim Travel Ban case, where the judges had no problem divining the true intent of the executive order. But the boy can’t help it, he is a prisoner of his own corrosive insecurities.
Even weeks after the inauguration, Trump remains so insecure in his own position that he feels compelled to prove that he is the big boss man every day through increasingly outrageous pronouncements delivered in the bombastic style of Anastasio Somoza or John Gotti, the Dapper Don. Of course, Trump’s mouth occasionally ejects pearls of wisdom. It’s particularly entertaining when Trump ejects these pearls in the face of Bill O’Reilly as he did on Super Bowl Sunday in the following exchange:
O’REILLY: Do you respect Putin?
TRUMP: I do respect him.
O’REILLY: Do you? Why?
TRUMP: Well, I respect a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean I am going to get along with him. He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. Will I get along with them? I have no idea.
O’REILLY: He is a killer though. Putin is a killer.
TRUMP: There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent? Do you think our country is so innocent?
O’REILLY: I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers in America.
TRUMP: Take a look at what we have done too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.
O’REILLY: Yes. Mistakes are different then —
TRUMP: A lot of mistakes, okay? But a lot of people were killed. So, a lot of killers around, believe me.
During the campaign, Trump railed against the dangers of military intervention, then proved his own point in the first few days of his presidency after his favorite squadron of super-heroes, SEAL Team 6, botched a night raid in Yemen, missing their Al Qaeda-Arabian Peninsula target and killing a bunch of civilians, including an 8-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen blown to bits by one of Obama’s drones in 2011. Of course, when I heard Trump say, twice, “Do you think our country is so innocent?” it sounded more like a threat than an apologia.
Trump’s unbridled bellicosity is testimony to his psychological frailty and an enervating personal insecurity. The bigger the bully, the weaker his own sense of self and that internal, pathological weakness, as Wilhelm Reich warned, is a lethally dangerous trait in a political leader. Henry Kissinger once said that “Bill Clinton lacked the moral fibre to be called a war criminal.” This statement betrays Kissinger’s unrivaled hubris, but it also exposes why the Hitler/Trump comparisons falter. Trump is no Hitler. The comparison demeans Hitler’s millions of victims. Trump is not even a Goebbels. The psyche of our president more closely resembles that of a cowardly guard at one of the slave labor camps on the eastern front, a man whose self-esteem derives from kicking the frail bodies of the starving, the infirm and the condemned. Trump is, in fact, exactly the kind of petty warlord who sent others to kill and die in the jungles of Vietnam in his place and then cheered on the carnage, as American as it gets, from the sanctuary of distant sidelines.
Most of Trump’s supporters never experienced the pre-lapsarian America the president sold them a return ticket to, because that American Eden, unsullied by the free agency of blacks and Hispanics, never existed. Trump sold a WestWorld-like illusion, a political mirage, where one is induced to see the past one desires: for some an image of the 1950s, for others, many others apparently, an image of the 1850s. Trump is betting on the fact that his supporters won’t notice the shantytown they’ve been deposited in when his boxcars hit their final destination.
Trump’s shock jock politics will soon wear off for the simple reason that Trump’s imagination is as shrink-wrapped as his vocabulary. His horrorshow is unsustainable. There are only a few notes that he can play comfortably and, after a year on the stage, he’s already played them to death. Trump has said that his political base is “the uneducated,” but the under-educated aren’t necessarily dumb and they don’t like being conned. As art historian Robert Hughes noted, shock only works as an aesthetic device as long as it remains new. Consult the careers of Wes Craven or Dick Cheney about the dwindling ticket sales for their fright-night routines, once the audiences began to see all of their old tricks coming in advance. After a while, even the most gullible refuse to suspend their disbelief.
As a real estate shark, Trump has always been able to simply sell junk and move on, never looking back at the shattered illusions he’s peddled to his buyers without regrets. But now Trump is stuck in the spotlight, a con man whose snake oil has gone dry. There’s no escape hatch from the White House. His only real hope for political survival is to create more and more internal chaos, invent more enemies, pump up the toxicity of his invective.
The trouble is that having already fired all of his guns at once against a wide-spectrum of external targets, Trump might soon have to train his ire on figures inside his own administration, knocking them off one by one, as in the final bloody episode of “The Apprentice.” Sending Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway to a gold-plated guillotine on the lawn of the Ellipse might prove an amusing spectacle, but a frontal confrontation with an experienced street fighter like Mad Dog Mattis might not end so pleasantly for the bloated hulk of the draft-dodging president.
Sooner or later, the Trump possé will be reduced down to Trump and Trump alone. Then he will be forced to confront his most primal fear about himself, the one that has haunted him all of these years, the one he has fled from wife to wife and scam to scam: that he is a loser and has always been a loser. And now there’s no one left to bail him of the jam he has put himself and the country in, except, perhaps, for the chilly, death skull visage of Mitch McConnell.
With Melania ensconced in her Versailles-in-the-Sky penthouse in New York, Trump spends most of his evenings alone in DC, gorging on Big Macs served on silver plates and fuming at the latest libels against his name committed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, before creeping down the dark corridors of the White House to his nighttime quarantine in the East Wing, where he wraps himself in a gold lamé robe, fingers his Android, and launches into a fragmented soliloquy of Tweets, a figure as strange and isolated as his old friend Michael Jackson when he was tucked into that hyperbaric chamber at the Neverland palace. Three weeks into his presidency and Trump already seems like a pathetic and trembling man, trapped in a hall of mirrors reflecting his own sinister image, a warped simulacrum of his own design.
+ You can see why Mitch gagged Liz. If you allow the integrity of one sitting senator to be impugned for racism, who knows where it would stop? The reputation of that entire august body might be brought into question…
+ Oregon’s junior Senator Jeff Merkley picked up reading the same passages that got Warren gagged. Why didn’t every other Democrat do the same? Mitch didn’t pull the plug on Merkely. Why not? Sexism undoubtedly played a role. But Merkley tends to mumble when he talks and many people can’t understand what the hell he’s saying. Probably one reason why he got re-elected.
Even so, I like having Merkley as my senator. Unlike, Oregon’s other senator, Ron “the Weenie” Wyden, a West Coast version of Chuck Schumer, Merkley is a senator largely without pretense. I used to run into him occasionally at the same 7-11, where Tanya Harding used to make emergency runs for a six-pack and a cartoon of Marlboro Lights.
+ Can the corpse of Strom Thurmond be retroactively censured for secretly keeping the King letter out of the Congressional Record in 1986?
+ Has Jeff Sessions emerged from his Safe Space yet?
+ This just in from Sean Spicer: “I can only hope that if Coretta Scott King was still with us, that she would support Senator Sessions’s nomination.” Melissa, is that you?
+ As the debacle in Yemen unravels around Trump, Rand Paul has seized the moment and is pushing for a bi-partisan investigation to the bloodbath. Paul, 98-pound weakling that he is, will almost certainly prove to be a bigger pain in Trump’s ass than the Senator from Citibank and his crew of DNC-approved has-beens (and never-were’s)…..
+ Newly disclosed CIA documents prove conclusively what most of us have known for decades: Saddam Hussein was operating with the backing of the US government when he used poison gas during the Iran/Iraq war. Like the Shah of Iran and the Honduran butcher Gen. Rios Montt, Saddam was our flunky, doing the most malign shit while on our leash (including savagely suppressing Kurdish uprisings after the Gulf War), until he had finally outlived his usefulness.
+ Who needs Democrats? Shortly after the Army Corps of Engineers announced its intention to grant an easement allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to begin tunneling under the Missouri River, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat from North Dakota, said, “Today’s announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brings this issue one step closer to final resolution — and delivers the certainty and clarity I’ve been demanding.” Heitkamp’s “Final Re-solution” has a chillingly familiar ring to it..
+ This week Congressman Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, introduced a bill that would abolish the Department of Education. That’s one way to get rid of DeVos…
+ The Pentagon is looking to rent space in Trump Tower, attracted apparently the wonderful golden bidets and gilded chandeliers. Perhaps Melania can help redecorate. I’m sure she’ll give Mad Dog a reasonable price.
+ Finally found: the daily atrocities Trump accused the press of not reporting.
+ How to prepare Snail Water, a Renaissance treatment for syphilis, thought to have been ingested by DaVinci’s model for the Mona Lisa: “Take Garden-Snails cleansed and bruised 6 Gallons, Earth-Worms washed and bruised 3 Gallons, of common Wormwood, Ground-Ivy, and Carduus, each one Pound and half …” I don’t know about the syphilis part. It sounds like a recipe for an early form of Absinthe.
+ Nancy [Net Worth: $48 million] Pelosi snuffs out one more liberal campaign: “there are no grounds for impeaching Trump.”
+ If it seems like the Democrats are always at retreats it may be because they are always in retreat…
+ Last week, cops in Hernando County, Florida seized more than 5,000 packets of heroin, some featuring the name and image of Donald Trump. Under federal drug and RICO statutes couldn’t Trump be arrested as a co-conspirator & his assets seized (assuming he actually has any)? His business consists largely of leasing out his name and image, right? Let the burden of proof fall on him to demonstrate that he didn’t in this instance. People have gone to prison for much less…
+ I was invited to give a talk this week in Stumptown about the state of the Left in the early hours of the Trump Age. Most of the crowd were in their 70s or older and, as is so often the case, they were a very feisty bunch possessing deep knowledge about how to organize a resistance in times of political crisis.
One spry woman came up to me and said, “Honey, Trump, don’t scare me much. I’ve seen them all. I was around for Nixon’s first dance as vice-president. Now he was a nasty one.” Turns out she’d protested against the Korean War, when her husband had been a conscientious objector.
The talk was held at Grace Church in a working class neighborhood of northeast Portland. One attendee told me: “Don’t worry! Many of us are atheists. The Church is the only place that will have us!”
“How long should I talk?” I asked.
“Until they kick us out!”
That’s the real Portland for me, still alive and kicking, beneath all of the dispiriting hipster bullshit.
What I’m listening to this week…
The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble: Out on the Coast
Soweto Kinch: War in a Rack
Fantastic Negrito: The Last Days of Oakland
The Pleasure Seekers: What a Way to Die
What I’m reading this week…
Peter Orner and Evan Lyon (Eds.): Lavil: Live, Love and Death in Port-au-Prince
Alexander Bergman: Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist
Bettany Hughes: The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life
A World on Defense Against Strangers
Stefan Zweig: “Nationalism emerged to agitate the world only after the war, and the first visible phenomenon which this intellectual epidemic of our century brought about was xenophobia; morbid dislike of the foreigner, or at least fear of the foreigner. The world was on the defensive against strangers, everywhere they got short shrift. The humiliations which once had been devised with criminals alone in mind now were imposed upon the traveler, before and during every journey. There had to be photographs from right and left, in profile and full face, one’s hair had to be cropped sufficiently to make the ears visible; fingerprints were taken, at first only the thumb but later all ten fingers; furthermore, certificates of health, of vaccination, police certificates of good standing, had to be shown; letters of recommendation were required, invitations to visit a country had to be procured; they asked for the addresses of relatives, for moral and financial guarantees, questionnaires, and forms in triplicate and quadruplicate needed to be filled out.”