Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Billboard Top Ten Alternative Songs November 27, 1993

I enjoyed doing alternative rock songs for my last top ten, so here it goes again. In November of 1993 I was a senior in high school. After years of being a mocked dork I was starting to figure things out. I had some fake Doc Martens boots from Payless Shoes and lots of flannel. A girl I had a crush on always told me she loved the boots. Was I too chickenshit to respond to this now in hindsight obvious expression of interest? Yes, yes I was. Now on with the countdown!

10. Smashing Pumpkins, "Today"

This was by far the poppiest, catchiest tune that the Pumpkins had managed to craft up to this point. This vaguely proggy grunge band had finally come up with something made for the charts. When I first brought Siamese Dream home from the local Musicland it stuck out to me as far less ambitious musically that the other songs on the album. Billy Corgan's guitar playing was far more reminiscent of classic rock than Cobain's, but the feebleness of his voice helped mask the throwback nature of the music.

9. The Breeders, "Cannonball"

A cassette tape of Last Splash lived in my car in the winter of 1993-1994. It's such a great album, bridging the indie-mainstream divide with some catchy songs and far out sounds. "Cannonball" had a catchy bass riff but was still pretty damn weird. That the video got major MTV airplay was a minor miracle. Back in those days I thought a renaissance of rock music was upon the land, unaware of the Bush-Silverchair-Creed onslaught about to happen.

8. Belly, "Gepetto"

"Feed The Tree" was one of the truly great alternative rock songs of the era, and "Gepetto" was the follow up. (Ironically, Tanya Donnelly had once been in The Breeders.) This song is not as good (few songs are), but its sound is so perfectly, ineffably 1993. I hear the bouncy rhythm and folky guitar with the languid vocals over it and a little tear comes to my eye. Back in 1993 I thought things were changing for the better in the world. The Reagan-Bush years were over, much more interesting music was hitting the mainstream, and the winds of change seemed to be blowing. It's hard for me to say when that feeling of optimism ended for me, but the Republican sweep of the election the next year was probably it.

7. Gin Blossoms, "Found Out About You"

The Gin Blossoms were one of those weird first wave of alternative bands. They came out of a local scene, and were not derivative of alternarock trends like the coming Bushes and Creeds. They sound much more influenced by REM. Of their hits, this minor key song with ringing guitars (both catnip to my ears) is my favorite. The band's story also contains a tragedy worthy of a downbeat 90s alternative song. Original guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins penned this song, along with other Gin Blossoms hits. He was kicked out of the band before they hit it big, and signed over his royalties for a pittance. He killed himself about a month after this countdown. Life is cruel.

6. Cracker, "Low"

I loved Cracker's first album, which is a sassy combination of alternative rock and rootsy, country-inflected songs. Bandleader Dave Lowery had pioneered this sound with Camper Van Beethoven, but now in the 1990s it was a sound that could actually hit the airwaves. This song, from their second album, had those great Southwestern guitars, but with a heavy dose of the kind of doom we couldn't get enough of in '93. Cracker was also one of the first acts to have a radio song with a hidden CD trick (remember those?) with "Eurotrash Girl."

5. James, "Laid"

James first came on my radar a year before this, when I heard "Born of Frustration," which sounded pretty unique. This song is another unlikely hit, full of pretty unambiguous sexual references. The band also wore dresses in the video and on the album cover, the kind of cheeky gender-bending common in the alternative rock world before the testosteronal Fred Durst types came in and ruined it. For a teenage boy who was failed at the traditional markers of masculinity of the Nebraska town he lived in, it seemed pretty liberating.

4. The Cranberries, "Linger"

Oh boy. You might find this song cheesy, but it usually makes me cry. It's such a beautiful confection, and the dearly departed Dolores O'Riordan's voice never sounded better. The chorus and her background voices on it is one of the most truly sublime moments in pop music. It's not just the song, either. When I was a senior in high school I would either go to Wendy's for lunch (yeah, I know) or go home and eat. I'd have a lunch of leftovers while watching MTV, and that year I kept seeing the video for this song. At this point I could taste the freedom and possibility of college that lay ahead for me, and "Linger" seemed to hit all of my desperately yearning emotions. I hear it today and I am transformed into that emotional teenager, so full of longing and naivete. RIP Dolores

3. Nirvana, "Heart Shaped Box"

In Utero is my favorite Nirvana album, the band firing on all cylinders with a gritty and more suitable production behind them than on their breakthrough. "Heart Shaped Box" is great for all kinds of reasons, but perhaps most for being a knock against Boomers and their "priceless advice." It's a generational anthem in the form of a dirge.

2. Pearl Jam, "Daughter/Yellow Ledbetter"

I must admit, at this point I thought I was too cool for Pearl Jam. Like a lot of dumb teenagers into indie music, I sneered at anything I considered "corporate." I'd actually bought their first album before it went big, but turned my back once the cool kids who wrote for the music magazines told me I should. Today I can see that "Daughter" is, as the kids say these days, a banger. In one of those weird happenings back when singles were things pressed on wax and sent to radio stations, the live B-side of "Yellow Ledbetter" ended up getting played all over alternative radio. They totally lift the guitar sound from Hendrix's "Little Wing," but you should always steal from the best.

1. The Lemonheads, "Into Your Arms"

The Lemonheads don't have the recognition of the other bands on this chart, but this was their big shining moment. They were part of the indie scene playing punk way back in the 1980s, but in the 90s took on a folkier, more pleasant sound. It was tailor made for the alternative explosion of the early to mid 1990s. Like "Gepetto" the sound of this song is pure 1993, those guitars just jangling all over the place. The mark of Big Star is all over this, as it was of so much music circa 1993-1994. Nostalgia is a disease, and this kind of music gives me the sickness like nothing else.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Twitter Killed The Blogosphere Star

I often wonder why I still maintain a blog. Blogging is a practice that is very much of the oughts, like burning CDs or talking on cell phones. If you want to get into political conversations with the big wigs Twitter makes it much easier. You do not have to write long essays and can merely throw the main ideas out there for others to see. Tweetstorms are much likely to be read than blog essays are. There's a Twitter meme now where people use a photo and label one element "video" and the other "the radio star." It's all kind of silly, but to get meta, Twitter was the video to the radio star of blogs.

Now we all know there are still radio stars, as much as there are blogs. It's just that blogs are a fairly minor corner of the public sphere these days. I find that to be shame, since while Twitter is awfully convenient and I have gained a lot from it, it is not an ideal place to carry on discourse. Ideas get distilled down to their most basic elements, with nuance eliminated. It's a format that ensures lots of fights and disagreement, driving the clicks that Twitter so craves.

It is a format that discourages deep thought and reflection. People who are successful on it tend to trade in snark and bon mots and knowing the most recent memes, but rarely have anything much to say of substance. I felt differently back in the oughties where I had a whole list of blogs I would read on a daily basis that would energize me and give me ideas. The personas of those bloggers also seemed much more measured and so much less fake and performative.

I have recently drastically cut down my Facebook usage, which has had the side effect of upping my Twitter usage. That hasn't been such a good thing, since I get sucked into the most ridiculous petty arguments on a regular basis. As with Facebook, I find myself continually outraged and angry, which is exactly how these platforms want to make us feel. I have been thinking back to what my mental state was like before I engaged in social media, and remembered being a much more reflective person. Ideas would come into my mind, but I would give them serious thought before writing about them. Nowadays like a junky I crave the instant gratification that social media affords me. I see an article about something Trump did that made me angry? I immediately post that sucker with an indignant statement attached to it.

That IS more satisfying that blogging, but far less meaningful. After having let this blog take a back seat I have resolved to focus my writing here, rather than on Facebook or Twitter. Fewer people will read what I have to say here, but what I do have to say will be a helluva lot more profound.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Joy Division, "Novelty"

In these stark times I find myself turning to the kind of dark, mysterious music that can speak to the unease I carry around with me every day. No band has ever topped Joy Division when it comes to articulating daily dread of life under late capitalism.

It makes sense that they emerged from Manchester on the eve of Thatcher's ascendance. In the nineteenth century Manchester was the first industrial city, the test case for a new way of life. In the 1970s it and many cities like it were hitting decline. The "modern" world was becoming postmodern. Out of the ruins of the industrial revolution Manchester bands like Joy Division created postmodern music, deeper and more challenging that the scream and spittle of punk rock.

"Transmission," a non-album single, is my favorite of the band by far. As I wrote about it a couple of years ago, it is enthralling, from its telegraph-operator bass to the unorthodox beat to the searing guitar lines to Ian Curtis' voice sounding like a man crushed by the wheels of life. However, if you flip that single over, you hear a B-side that's much more than a cast-off: "Novelty."

I first heard it on a box set I bought year ago and was amazed that such an arresting song was left off Joy Division's regular albums. The intro is long and mysterious, Bernard Sumner's guitar building up into a killer riff. Like "Transmission" the rhythm sounds like a desperate telegram sent at night from a doomed city. It creates a feeling of claustrophobic desperation, with Curtis intoning "Whatchya gonna do when the novelty wears off" and "Whatchya gonna do when it's over." While it may not be the official meaning of the song, I've always thought of it as questioning the consumer novelties of modern life. Once they are seen to be as empty as they are, what's then to be done?

The novelty has worn off, to be sure. However, the answer to Ian Curtis' question remains unanswered.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner"

This Thanksgiving season I have been thinking a lot about a Thomas Nast cartoon from 1869, "Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner." He drew it as the 15th Amendment, banning racial discrimination in voting, was being ratified. That Amendment represented the high point of Reconstruction and its revolutionary ambitions. 

Most Americans know very little about Reconstruction. Those that do possess a rudimentary understanding of American history (probably a minority), know that Jim Crow followed slavery, but are generally unaware of the time in between when black men represented Southern states in Congress. Most people, regardless of their level of historical knowledge, tend to assume that "back then" racial attitudes were unenlightened and bigoted, unlike "nowadays."

Well, the recent news certainly gives plenty of evidence that "nowadays" plenty of white people are super racist. The past, however, also gives us clues that plenty of white people "back then" had progressive ideas about race. In this cartoon Nast presents us with a vision of America as a diverse and welcoming place. There are African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and various immigrant groups sitting at the same table. The centerpiece reads "Universal Suffrage" and Nast frames the picture with the phrases "Come One, Come All" and "Free and Equal." 

The revolution of Reconstruction, bolstered by people like Nast, would be destroyed by the Klan, "Redeemers," and other white vigilantes as the federal government looked on and did nothing. It is an event that should remind us, more than any other, that history does not move in a straight line. Progress does not simply "happen." It is not inevitable or the natural arc of history. Every time there has been an advance for equality, its opponents have come back harder. I am reminded of Ibram X. Kendi's brilliant formulation in Stamped From The Beginning, where he reminds us that "racial progress" has always been met with "racist progress" in American history. 

When Barack Obama was elected, many people saw it as a sign that the image of American society presented by Nast in this cartoon was finally a reality. Instead it was the catalyst for a reorganization of American politics around issues of white nationalism. If we truly want a "free and equal" society, we have to fight for it, not simply expect it to happen naturally through the tides of history. This Thanksgiving I want to give thanks to the fighters, and to pray for others to get the fighting spirit.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Trumpism And The Enchanted World Of Christian Conservatives

My confirmation saint kicking demon butt

When I was first grappling with history on a more serious level as a grad student, one concept that fascinated me was supposed "disenchantment of the world" that followed the Enlightenment in Europe. While most people still believed in God and had some nominal connection with religion, they were far less apt to see supernatural forces at work in the world. For example, French churches stopped ringing bells during thunderstorms as a way to call down God's protection on farmers' crops. Unfortunate events were no longer blamed on demons or witches.

Part of the reason this fascinated me is that I knew a lot of people who still believed in an enchanted world. My family's home Catholic parish is St. Michael's, and at some point in my youth it became a tradition to say this rather shockingly superstitious prayer at the end of each mass:

"St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen"

This vision of angels and demons fighting over the world in a time post-space travel might seem insanely anachronistic to most people, but this is the mental frame of a great many Christian conservatives, both Protestant and Catholic. Just yesterday, for instance, there was a minor Twitter kerfuffle over conservative commentator Rod Dreher discussing a friend's exorcism. Plenty of folks were shocked that a person could believe in such things and still be taken seriously as a thinker, but I was not surprised. I grew up hearing stories of being helped by Good Samaritans after having been stranded on the road, and the story-teller assuming it was actually angels in disguise doing the good work. I once heard Hurricane Katrina described as God's punishment on a sinful city.

Those who believe in an enchanted world take that mentality with them into politics. It tends to mean a much greater willingness to accept outlandish interpretations of reality, since they are already well-practiced in it. Someone who thinks demons stalk the earth is much more likely to see the "caravan" as a horrifying threat. Supernatural and irrational forces explain everything to them, and if you combine that mentality with a generally bigoted and racist mindset it's like dumping bleach into a bucket of ammonia. This is especially evident in the Soros conspiracy theories, which feed on an anti-Semitism so rooted in the mentalities of certain devout Christians that they are not even really aware that they are anti-Semitic (i.e. seeing wishes for Jews to be converted to be a wholly benevolent thing and not understanding when it upsets people.) Take that prejudice and combine it with the notion that demons are prowling the earth and you will have a highly effective propaganda tool, as Republicans have discovered.

When Trump's approval is broken down by church attendance, Trump always comes out best among those who attend church on a weekly basis. (Here's just one example.) I think this is probably a better metric of understanding Trump's appeal than breaking it down by denomination, since the prevalence of white evangelicals in the South means (as far as I am concerned) that the religious connection there owes a good deal to a regional one. I do not have the data to prove this, but I can certainly surmise that the adherence to an enchanted worldview is most likely among those going to church more often. While the president's views on issues like abortion and transgender rights may appeal to these folks, his appeal also jives with a certain habit of mind. Those mental walls will not be broken down by fusillades of "facts" and "reason." Liberals who continue to think so will be disappointed.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Winter Isn't Coming, It's Here

This post is a throwback, since I am writing it in a coffee house. I'm here in the evening because the roads in my town are so impassable from a snowstorm that I can't drive home yet. The town was unprepared for this storm, which is much more severe than predicted. The plows have been absent and the roads left unsande.

This seems to be a metaphor for our current political moment. So many predicted only a light snow but now we are getting buried in snow and ice, and the response has been tepid and inadequate. And just as the roads in my town are full of desperate people running out of gas having realized their fate too late, a lot of folks in our country have only now understood that we are up against fascism. 

Winter isn't coming, it's here.

Trump's attempt to intervene in the Florida recount goes against any precedent I've seen in my lifetime, and the response is basically a shrug and bemused chuckle from the liberal sectors of the media. The conservative media, on the other hand, is giving Trump's baseless accusations full-throated approval.What we have here is a president trying to interrupt the Democratic process for his benefit, and there's hardly been a response.

The same goes for Trump installing a whackadoodle con artist as Attorney General just so that he can protect himself from prosecution. Again, the response has been inadequate. Some protests, to be sure, but nothing that has the ability to stop this. This is not Watergate. After this Saturday Night Massacre there will be no Supreme Court subpoenas of presidential documents because this Supreme Court has become the judicial arm of the conservative movement. 

I am sitting here in a Starbucks drinking mediocre coffee and listening to bland music because people weren't prepared for winter. I am living in a country on the brink of losing what little democracy it ever had because so few are prepared to fight the fight that needs to be fought. I am losing hope that by the time enough people see the light, it will have been too late. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Old Dad's Records (The Comebacks Episode)

Comebacks is the theme of the newest episode of my podcast. I start with one of the ultimate pop comeback songs, Tina Turner's "What's Love Gotta Do With It." The song certainly reflects the hard times Turner was emerging from, and its middle-aged world-weariness intrigued me as a young boy. From there I pull Elvis' double album From Vegas to Memphis/From Vegas to Memphis from my pile of old records. This is from Elvis' great and all too brief "comeback" period. I finish by discussing a new reissue of sessions from Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, his own "comeback album."

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Watching the Dark Waters of History Flow on the Armistice Centennial

A short lived celebration

November 11, 1918, is one of those few truly memorable dates in world history. The first global war of the post-industrial world had ended. It had taken the lives of millions, destroyed several empires, and helped bring about the world’s first communist state.

In our cultural memory, we tend to think of World War I as a catastrophic, horrible waste. That memory dates back to the 1920s and works of literature like All Quiet On The Western Front and films like The Big Parade. The narrative that World War I meant nothing other than death and suffering still lives on a century later. In the recent Wonder Woman film the titular heroine needed to fight a villain who personified the destructive horror of war itself, and thus had her origin placed in the Great War, rather than in World War II, where her character had actually been born.

It is very easy to forget that in the Allied nations, at least, the established narrative of the war was very different on the November day the guns fell silent. The full name for the Great War was “The Great War For Civilization.” “Civilization” was a loaded word. It had been weaponized during the imperialist expansion of the preceding decades, an excuse to violently subjugate peoples who preferred to be free. During the Great War the target of civilization’s march shifted from Africa and Asia to Germany. Both the American and British war efforts established formidable and successful propaganda machines that pitched the war as a fight for higher ideals against a wicked enemy.

This point of view was affectionately parodied in the great British film The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, made in the heat of World War II. The main character, an honor-obsessed aristocratic officer of the old school, hears of the armistice and beams with pride that the British had won the war with “fair play.” By 1943, in the midst of an even worse world war caused by the last one, the romantic view of a “Great War For Civilization” had become a joke. 

It is dangerous, however for us to ignore that initial postwar feeling of triumph, because it provides a lesson that we should learn from. It was another November day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. That event, symbolizing the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, infamously gave rise to rhetoric that would’ve been at home in a Great War propaganda speech.

There was a feeling in those heady days of release, that the fear of nuclear annihilation had passed. There was an assumption that we would all be living in a more peaceful, connected, and democratic world. The problems of the past could very well have been solved.

Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history” found many willing adherents. Civilization, in the form of neoliberalism, had won, and there was truly No Alternative. Like the viewers of The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, we today have the wisdom to know just how preposterous that idea was.

History does not end and it does not stop. Its dark waters flow and can break their banks and drown us in the flood. The world today is dominated by a wave of bigoted nationalism that our media mistakenly calls “populism.” The earth’s most powerful nation is led by a dangerously unhinged narcissist wannabe dictator who sows chaos with his every move. We are staring a near future of climate change dystopia straight in the face. A hundred years after the guns of the Great War went silent, we still stand at the river’s edge, uncertain of how long the ground under our feet will hold out.

Friday, November 9, 2018

What I Saw At The "No One Is Above The Law" Rally

 Months ago I signed up to get an alert for a snap protest in case the Trump administration moved to end the Justice Department’s investigation into its criminal behavior. As I expected, that day came after the midterm election, although I was not expecting it to be that very day.

I had a decision to make. Was I going to go to what would be a big protest in New York City where I work, or was I going to go to one in South Orange, New Jersey, sister city to my home base of Maplewood? While the NYC rally would have been more excited, I decided to stay local so my spouse and kids could join in.

The rally was right by the South Orange train station, with about fifty or sixty people attending. There was a mood of quiet determination in the air in the eeriness of the November dusk. I knew we would not be staying too long, since my six year olds were pretty exhausted and hungry.

I came to the protest in a fighting mood, but the event itself was deflating. The speeches by the organizers were tepid and illustrated a lingering concern of mine: most of those opposed to this regime aren’t prepared to take the necessary actions. After being told our democracy was under threat, the first speaker then urged us to contact our representatives.

Yup, that’s right. In the face of a wannabe despot shredding the rule of law the only action we were urged to take was the absolute bare minimum. In any case, our representatives were already with us on this, so even that small action was pretty worthless. If you truly believe American democracy is under threat, you need to be serving stronger tea than that.

The problem might be that the mostly white, affluent, suburban crowd there knows deep down that they will be fine no matter what the wannabe despot does to our political system. For that reason their responses lack the necessary urgency. These are people who proved capable of organizing local voters to get more Democrats elected in New Jersey, but taking on despotism requires a different approach.

We don’t need to call our representatives. We need to be able to bring the machine to a stop. Anything short of that will end in failure, and I have no confidence that the “Resistance” even has an idea of what is actually required in this moment. My only hope is the airport protests that happened after the Muslim Ban, which actually did force the government to make a retreat. More of that or it’s midnight, folks.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Regionalism And The Midterms

As always, there's been a lot of spin and punditry in the aftermath of the election. Much of it is full of sound and theory, signifying nothing more than the need to fill up blocks of time on television with idiot wind. 

One of the many things missed in all of this is the role of regions in the midterm elections. For example, the "urban versus rural" narrative ignores just how different many rural regions are from each other. You can see this in the election results. Iowa has long had a progressive rural block in its eastern counties, and this year the Democrats flipped two seats in that state. 

More broadly, the Midwest went hard for the Democrats. This region was mostly ignored in the pre-election coverage in favor of Georgia, Texas, and Florida, so reporters missed a huge story. No other region probably suffered more under the Tea Party policies and governors of the early to mid-2010s. This election was a huge rebuke, with Tea Party poster child Scott Walker sent packing in Wisconsin, Bruce Rauner canned in Illinois, Michigan brought back to the fold, and Kansas flipped after years of the Brownback disaster. I see a similar dynamic in New Jersey, which endured eight years of Chris Christie. This state will now be represented by Democrats in eleven of twelves of its districts. States that had been put under the yoke of activist conservative governors have proven to be receptive to the Democrats.

Trump and the Republicans put all their chips on an anti-immigrant, white nationalist appeal. While those arguments sadly appeal to white people nationwide, they appeal most to white people living in the South. You can see this in the election results. The South mostly held for Republicans, but pretty much all of the other regions did not. The current iteration of the Republican Party is such that it alienates a lot of "purple" suburbs, which is easy to see in the election results in New Jersey, California, and Virginia. Heck, the Republicans lost a seat that includes Cobb County, Georgia. That was once Gingrich country. 

The Republican strategy of firing up the base and everyone else be damned appears to be running into trouble. The Bible-thumping part of the base is weak on the coasts. In fact, it alienates swing voters in those places. The low-tax Republican economic message used to appeal to suburban voters in places like New Jersey, but the abject failure of those policies on the state level has discredited them.

If the Democrats are able to maintain their new hold on the Midwest and their increased margin of victory on the coasts, 2020 will be in the bag. Here's hoping that this regional shift holds.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Ten Years On

Last night was the tenth anniversary of the 2008 election. I have been thinking a lot about that night.  I had recently moved to Nacogdoches, a small town in the piney woods of East Texas that was just about as conservative as you would expect. My friends and I went to the one local bar that wasn't student-oriented to have beers and watch the returns. On this historic night none of the many TVs were tuned in, except for a small TV in the corner with the sound turned off.

When Obama crossed the threshold for an electoral voter majority, we cheered. It quickly became obvious that the other people in the space were incredibly unhappy. At that moment we took the hint and left. There was an acrid stench of hateful anger in the air, like the smell of gunpowder after shooting off fireworks.

We watched the returns and Obama's speech at my friends' house. The next day at the university I noticed something odd. Many of my students were very happy about the election, but they carried on with their celebration very quietly. I soon realized why. That same smell of hateful resentment was in the air. I noticed it especially when I went to teach my afternoon upper-level class, and a normally mild-mannered older student was ranting to his peers about how horrible the election of Barack Obama was. He was complaining about the need to purge "Republicans in Name Only." I realized in that moment that Obama was not to get an inch of respect or cooperation from Republicans. Later in April this town of 30,000 would draw 10,000 to the first big Tea Party rally.

The anger I was seeing directly contradicted the dominant media narrative of the time of a "post-racial nation." Ten years on it's obvious that the election or Barack Obama saw the creation of a mainstream and very successful version of white identity politics. Trump in the White House is the logical end point. Nowadays the anger I saw after Obama's election is the driving force in American politics.

Ten years after the Obama win the new president is making fear-mongering about immigrants the centerpiece of his campaign. The old prohibitions against open racism have fallen away. This all feels like a second Redemption, similar to when southern white conservatives terrorized their opponents to bring about the end of Reconstruction. Powerful and deadly forces have been unleashed on our country, I have no clue when it will stop.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Desperate Despot

Paradoxically, Trump has had no greater ally in his political career than the media. His attacks on it as the "enemy of the people" energize his base as that same media keeps broadcasting Trump nonstop and allowing him to define the media narrative. All he has to do is to tweet something obnoxious and the entire news gathering apparatus will shift its focus.

Trump is best described in Brian Klaas's formulation as a wannabe despot. He has not yet completely bent the apparatus of the government to his will, but his behavior in the last two weeks shows that it is not for lack of trying. Trump has declared that he will end birthright citizenship, and is sending troops to the border to combat the threat of poor refugees that are 800 miles away. He has threatened these refugees with concentration camps and murder. After one of his supporters sent bombs to his opponents he has persisted in verbally attacking them, as well as CNN, who also received a bomb.

The media has been breathlessly reporting on all of this, implicitly burnishing Trump's image as a "tough" leader and man of action. I see something very different. I see the behavior of a man who is desperate and scared.

Because we keep chasing the shiny objects that flash before us on Twitter, we often miss the bigger perspective. Trump has not forgotten that with a Democratic Congress comes investigations into his finances and dealings, and potential impeachment. If you listen to the Trump Inc podcast (and you should) you'll know that any official lifting up of the rock of the Trump Organization is going to reveal all kinds of nastiness and crime. His own bag man, Michael Cohen, is cooperating with the Mueller investigation. Anything and everything Trump does is to protect himself. He really thinks that stoking anti-immigrant hate is going to save his skin. While his core beliefs are ethno-nationalist in nature, he being open about it at this moment because he thinks it will win the midterm.

One of the biggest myths about despotism is that it works hand in in hand with competence. Trump can't be a despot, we are told, because he is so chaotic and inept. Anyone who knows their history knows that these attributes describe a lot of autocrats. In fact, it's the norm rather than the exception for despots to be incompetent boobs. Trump is one of these boobs, flailing desperately in the face of his potential reckoning. Get out there this weekend and make sure it happens.