What’s Poland among us autocrats?

I promised myself I wouldn’t obsess over the insanity of the fringe characters our new madman has assembled.  Really, it’s not possible to keep it up. When the inmates are running the asylum, one could spend his entire time pointing out how insane they are. But the leaks are coming so fast and furious, and they reveal a mind-set that is so antithetical to those few bits of bipartisan axioms that we have left that I really have to remark on them to see if other people see what is going on or whether I’m just a lunatic screaming in the wilderness.

The latest outrage (or at least the latest outrage that I have had time to read and consider) comes from an AP report today entitled “On foreign policy, Trump still speaking campaign language.” It is about how the new “national security” team is settling in with the real professionals (the deep state, so to speak). And as you would expect, the Trump team, headed by Michael Flynn, a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, equally dangerous but not nearly as smart, is seen with their pants down, making fools of themselves and showing they are in over their heads. But one paragraph is astounding, even for this group, and even knowing how much Trump admires the one global leader who assisted him to salvage his flailing international real estate ventures, Vlad the Impaler. Here is the paragraph. And consider that AP says its report is sourced by “three U.S. officials and three others” (!):

“According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist. Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump’s friendlier tone on Russia.”

Consider this: Our president’s main security advisers are asking for evidence that Poland, a NATO ally, is making border incursions into a neighbor that is currently ruled by a Putin-styled autocrat. And no one has ever heard one credible shred of evidence about this. But it is precisely the kind of unfounded accusation that have “justified” Prussians, Austrians, Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union from repeatedly carving up the country since the last part of the 18th century through the last part of the twentieth. (Note that all the partitioners were cut from exactly the same kind of authoritarian stripe that our current Strong Man has been cut from.) Did Trump hear this from Putin? Or was it just the scuttle-butt passed between Russian and Trump campaign officials when they were cooperating during the election?  We now live in a world where “alternate facts” are becoming the basis of policy. Perhaps the only possible response is for “other facts” to become the basis of the resistance. I keep having to check when the Inauguration was, because clearly this level of surreal lunacy unmoored from our established worldview could not have happened in less than two weeks.

I keep wondering where Trump developed this Russian-authoritarian-mobocratic view of the world. It had to come from a deal. Deals are the only thing Donald Trump thinks exist in this world. It’s the only thing he has done in life. (Except calling New York tabloid reporters, claiming to be Trump’s press agent, to notify them of what models he was out with the night before.) So it had to come from some sort of “deal” involving his Russian business interests. But this could not have been one of his more successful negotiations. Because it looks like whatever he walked away with, Putin kept his balls, the organs which, for Donald Trump, perform the same function that brains do in other people.

Week 2: Benghazi #1

According to reporting by Reuters, our severely impulse-control-challenged President launched a covert military operation, resulting in the death of one Navy SEAL operative and an undetermined number of civilians including children, without adequate preparation or intelligence. The tragedy took place in Yemen amidst a three-way conflict that we were dragged into during the Obama administration when the U.S. blindly sided with Saudi Arabia in its religiously-driven strike aimed at severely hurting, if not eliminating, a Shi’a-oriented party regardless of civilian casualties. The dispute in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, is complex in itself, and it’s layered over with the Saud family’s need to placate the Wahabi faction that could topple it in its own country. So it has always made Iran (a Shi’a majority country) as the boogeyman. Yemen, however, practices a different form of Shi’a than Iran, and the evidence that the two countries were allies before the Saudi intervention is slim.

Given how complicated the situation in Yemen is, there is absolutely no possibility that Donald Trump has any idea of what is going on. Nor does he care. His contempt for understanding a situation was given its right title last week by Kelly Conway: “alternate facts.” Nor does he have much affection for America’s intelligence services. Why should he when he is, after all, “um, like a smart person”? When you think you are like a smart person, what need is there for intelligence?

Trump’s lack of interest in details (or even correct general points of view) is made lethally dangerous by his impulse to lash out rather than understand. And that is made chillingly clear in this part of the Reuters report:

“U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”

This sentence is remarkable for two reasons. First, it shows that the President ordered a military operation apparently knowing that it was poorly prepared and without the necessary assurance that it would succeed. This is not an indictment of his lack of policy knowledge (although it will also undoubtedly show that). It is an indictment of his judgment as an executive. Wasn’t this supposed to be his big selling point? Moreover, it shows that he is not even minimally responsible enough to be in charge of the largest armed forces in the world. This is something that requires Congressional investigation. What is the chance of that?

If I were not cynical, I would point to four years of multiple Congressional investigations into the possible responsibility of Secretary Clinton into the deaths during the 2012 attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Repeated failure to find any evidence of culpability didn’t deter these Republican patriots. Over and over they plowed the same ground, looking for just one hint. Why wouldn’t these faithful watchdogs of the Executive branch not want to get to the bottom of these charges? After all, they are far more damning and more worrisome because they condemn as unfit the president himself.

But of course we know the answer. It all depends on whose ox is being gored. You might as well expect the Republican party to care about the public welfare rather than their plutocratic masters as expect an investigation into Trump’s handling of the military. Of course, to be fair to the Republicans, there are differences between Benghazi and the Yemen fiasco, most prominent of which is that the former was a scandal of their own making and the latter a cause of serious international concern over the fitness of their own party leader.

But the second thing that is remarkable about the quote is that “U.S. military officials” are already leaking their discontent with their new master only two weeks into the new term. And they are criticizing not the policy that put their men in harm’s way, but the competence of the Commander-in-Chief. When “U.S. military officials” believe the president is acting recklessly in deploying force, there is serious cause for worry. People have already died needlessly because of the impulsiveness of this man-child. And it’s going to get worse, because he has already signaled that he wants less intelligence and more covert actions. Something he has already shown he’s not good at. It’s as though Trump has decided that he is presiding over the end of the American Empire and wants to use everything in his power to cause as much damage as possible before he’s gone.

To catch a thief …

The Trump posse doesn’t have much to recommend itself, but it sure is loaded with irony.

Trump, who cannot otherwise explain how he could not achieve a plurality of the vote (he missed by about 3 million), has laid it to the feet of those who engaged in voter fraud.

And to prove it he has promoted one Gregg Phillips, who has been diligent in rooting out, as he said, “thousands of duplicate records and registrations of dead people.”

Today the AP reports that Mr. Phillips himself may have a unique insight into these “duplicate records” inasmuch as he himself is registered in 3 different states:

The AP found that Phillips was registered in Alabama and Texas under the name Gregg Allen Phillips, with the identical Social Security number. Mississippi records list him under the name Gregg A. Phillips, and that record includes the final four digits of Phillips’ Social Security number, his correct date of birth and a prior address matching one once attached to Gregg Allen Phillips.

I guess we should pay more attention when Trump starts braying about alleged illegalities. He’s likely to have a close advisor who is an expert.

Ten days in. Is anyone surprised?

Well, the new president has hardly had the time to finalize the security arrangements at Tromp Tower, but here we are. And it’s everything his supporters could have wished for. No messy policy wonkery, just policy bombs. Hurling monkey wrenches into the machinery of government is going to be the theme of this administration: The Screw You Deal.

The Executive Directive on the affordable Care Act (screw it up to the extent possible) didn’t generate enough Reality TV level outrage. So he had to fling excrement at the press (“the most dishonest human beings”); it’s what non-hominid primates do. Even that didn’t have enough WOW factor. (The Republicans have been repeating this lie for years, how does one more clown repeating it cause a general panic?) For pure brazen lying (probably the greatest of the great talents of this minimally talented president) the speech before the CIA should should get a lifetime acting award. (That would show Meryl!) Only a very practiced liar, one surrounded his whole life by yes-men, could tell the CIA that he didn’t call them liars and (get this) Nazis, something he did only the week before. He used the occasion once again again stress a fact that few if anyone else would: “Trust me. I;’m like a smart person.” In what respect he is “like” a smart person, he did not explain. Perhaps they are similar to him because they say things he doesn’t understand.

None of this, however, could deliver what his most fervent supporters wanted: Some that really causes pain to people not only unlike them but also unable to fight back. This is the central core belief of Trumpism: Pull wings off flies and say you are studying biology. And so for the most dramatic step so far, he issued an “order” banning travel from seven countries. The action is called “temporary” because it only expressly lasts for four months for six of the countries. But there is no termination for travelers from Syria. By its terms it applied to persons with permanent residence status in the U.S. The blowback over that outreach has since caused the Secretary of Homeland Security (soon to be renamed Heimatschutzministerium) to deem green card holders not a threat to national security (at least not now). This maneuver has all the hallmarks of Trump as we learned during the campaign: brutal, lacking in human decency, pure right wing theater, and, above all, not attended with even a minimal of thought. As a result, confusion reigned at the nation’s airports, our closest allies are shocked, left holding the bag, spontaneous protests arise, and Trump announces how “beautiful” the plan is in its implementation.

If anyone believes that this “approach” to governing (it can’t actually be called governing) will be smoothed out when this presidents becomes more experienced, he is indulging in the practice of putting hope above experience. Donald J. Trump has not learned anything since his days on the Apprentice. He there discovered a secret to his peculiar form of “popularity”—a buffoonish ogre-like persona, unrestrained by any principles and unleashed without warning, brutally if at all possible. Given that at least the buffoonery is a comfortable mesh with his conduct for his entire adult life, he is unlikely 70s to give it up. Moreover, Trump has never been one for accumulating information. He doesn’t have the patience, desire or need (“I’m like a smart person”).

Before any successful opposition can arise, it’s necessary to confront this reality: Trump is interested in minimally planned theatrical effects. He really has no interest whatsoever in policy. He is now a right-winger because the reactionaries are the party that celebrates rudeness, cruelty, minimal thought and spectacular destruction. If there were the equivalent of the Khmer Rouge in this country, he would probably be equally comfortable there (provided he were in charge).

Not since the dangerous days of Watergate (played out against a potential U.S.-Soviet confrontation in the Middle East) has there been so much discussion about whether the president is psychologically fit for the office. And we are not even two weeks in.

The Liar in Winter

Last night I was finally able to see the new 4K restoration of The Lion in Winter on a large screen. What better time than now after the Inauguration, to watch a film with old actors in a drama of the dark ages in which all the characters are only interested in personal goals and are willing to break all civilized norms to achieve them (including making deals with avowed national rivals)? In the middle of things, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) even says, “God I love winning” (or something to that effect) and he is constantly telling other people how he has just won. Owing to the need to preserve the 12th century atmosphere, however, the King did not use twitter to express himself.

Henry’s family is also surprisingly contemporary. All of his children are unattractive schemers. I won’t involve our current ruler’s wife in comparisons, because my suspicion is that her own gold-digging would have been satisfied being the wife of the owner of the hideous tower on Fifth Avenue where she would happily live. (Like Eleanor in the London Tower?) But if anyone is like her in the film, it is the innocent pawn Alais (Jane Merrow), mistress of Henry, who by treaty with France is require to marry her off to one of his sons. That would make Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) who? Marla Maples?

The movie itself is quite entertaining, and you owe it to yourself to re-visit it. The acting is the kind of mid-twentieth century stage-for-screen type acting (as in Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that we see no more. Today’s substitute is the pretentious mannered dramas, usually period pieces, where acting is designed to garner awards and burnish a star’s seriousness cred. (Independent filmmakers, of course, don’t have the capital to purchase rights to plays, so the field is left to the majors,. who see these as prestige projects—Hollywood’s version of pro bono work.)

What separates the film (and the play it was based on) from our current tragico-farce is of course the language. The stage- and screen-play by James Goldman is witty and intelligent. There are just enough references to the age of Henry and before to anchor the play in the middle ages, but there are intentional anachronisms designed to advise the viewer not to become too concerned about the historicism of the work. Disregard of factual and historical accuracy is a hallmark of the current administration as well, but our present day actors on the national stage have no wit and are not playing to an intelligent audience. I could not bring myself to watch the inaugural address, but reading the text impressed on me how verbally stunted and rhetorically challenged our new president is. If the goal was to impress upon his followers that he was not among the elites of the country in terms of intellect, gracefulness, eloquence or knowledge, he surely accomplished that with his speech. Big ideas generally cannot be expressed by one simple declarative sentence after another. But even the small ideas which he had seemed uncomfortably confined.

In the end of the film we grow to respect, if not admire, both the ancient king and queen, even after we acknowledge Eleanor’s confession that “we are jungle creatures.” Henry discloses to his wife that he wants to control succession because he has learned that peace and honest government are preferable to war, something he spent his life pursuing. . And so even though the ambitions of both Henry and Eleanor seem checkmated in the end, we have some sort of sympathy for both of them. Having seen the nominees of our current leader, his advisors and confidants and watching him act the snarling bully and ungrateful recipient of nearly a plurality of the nation’s vote (short by 3 million or so), breaking tradition, however quaint, that requires the new president to at least act humbled by the responsibility, we have no similar admiration or sympathy for this vulgar egoist. So when the movie ended, the faint good feeling from watching professionals act in a polished and eloquent production, the dark reality of our current situation returns. This is the beginning, not the end, of a national nightmare. And it’s going to get much uglier and more tragic before it’s over. And it won’t be amusing or edifying to watch.

Beckett on how we got here and what to do now

Who better than Samuel Beckett to explain our current absurd situation and what to do about it? So as we are hurling toward the unthinkable, we can take stock with the lyrical analysis in The Unnamable, the last of his great trilogy of novels beginning with Malloy and Malone Dies.

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on. Can it be that one day, off it goes on, that one day I simply stayed in, in where, instead of going out, in the old way, out to spend day and night as far away as possible, it wasn’t far. Perhaps that is how it began. You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again. No matter how it happened. It, say it, not knowing what. Perhaps I simply assented at last to an old thing. But I did nothing. I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me. These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking. There must be other shifts. Otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless. I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares? I don’t know. With the yesses and noes it is different, they will come back to me as I go along and how, like a bird, to shit on them all without exception. The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter. And at the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.

From Three Novels by Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2009), pp. 286–87.

Nature is about to mock our stupidity


1. Antarctica’s major ice sheets. (Map by Ted Scambos, used by permission of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

A group of British scientists studying the effects of climate change on the Larsen C ice shelf in Western Antarctica (a research effort based at Swansea University and Aberystwyth University in Wales and known as Project Midas) observed that in the last two weeks of December the rift which is primed to dump more than 5,000 sq. km. into the ocean grew by a startling 18 km. (11 miles). Larsen C is a sheet on the eastern side of the long cape-like peninsula south of South America [#1]. The area of ice from the rift to the sea is a quarter larger than the area of Rhode Island.


2. Growth of the Larsen C rift as plotted by Project Midas.

The rift has been growing at an accelerated rate since 2011. The rift is now about 160 km. (100 miles) long, half the length of which has occurred since 2011.  Over that same time the rift has widen about 10 fold [#2]. In the first 11 months of 2016 it grew by 21 km. (13 miles), a length that was nearly achieved in the last part of December alone.

Glaciologist Professor David Vaughan, Director of Science at British Antarctic Survey, is quoted as saying in Science Daily“The calving of this large iceberg could be the first step of the collapse of Larsen C ice shelf, which would result in the disintegration of a huge area of ice into a number of icebergs and smaller fragments.” The instability of the area has caused Project Midas scientists to remove their camp.

When the ice sheet finally calves, it will expose additional parts of the ice sheet to erosion and the effects of the warmer waters. It will also “uncork” a large area, allowing additional flow of ice and glaciers into the sea to be melted. The long term effect, reported the Washington Post, could be the increase of ocean levels by 10 cm. (4 inches).

By my calculation, if the rift continues at the rate of the last two weeks of December, the calving might take place on Inauguration Day. That would be a perfect sign from Nature that we can elect willfully ignorant and arrogant fools, but their lies can only get them elected. It won’t solve any of the existential crises we face. In fact, given that the group that will soon hold executive and legislative power (and not much longer judicial as well) is the only governing body in all the world who claims climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by a cabal of scientists hoping to take a small amount of wealth from the plutocrats that now rule us, I can see no better performance for the Inaugural Ball.

They won’t notice it, of course, as they continue eating foie de bald eagle and powdered rhino horn, chuckling over their brilliant statesmanship.


Detail of rift in Larsen C photographed by NASA’s DC-8 research aircraft on November 10, 2016. The rift at this point is about 100 m (300 feet) wide. (NASA Earth Observatory.)