Stephen Miller Is Punchable, Yes, But He Is Worthy Of Emulation Too

Martin Shkreli has good cause to be aggrieved. He spent considerable time, energy and financial resources aiming to attain the title of America’s Most Punchable Person, and succeeded spectacularly. Unfortunately, the incoming Trump administration has upended many American verities, and Shkreli has found himself similarly displaced from the hearts and minds of the American people. The first pretender to the throne was Richard Spencer, the sunglasses-wearing neo-Nazi who, demonstrating once again that half-baked racial political theories will have a long life in the warm glow of the Bannon rays emanating from the White House, earned himself a punch in the face on the day from one of the half a dozen or so spectators attending the Trump inauguration. Now, another contender is here, and I’m afraid that Shkreli’s pretensions must be put to bed: there is no way that even the smirking, obnoxious, ‘Pharma Bro’ can contend with Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s national policy adviser. (Duke University has a lot to answer for; both Spencer and Miller are Duke graduates. While Spencer does not seem to have distinguished himself with any overt racism during his college days, Miller set the groundwork early for his work in the Trump administration by earning a reputation as an unrepentant racist. An academic friend of mine–who teaches at Duke–noted that while he never had the (dis)pleasure of teaching Miller, Miller had already established himself as a “shithead” on campus.)

Miller’s appearance on the Sunday morning talk show circuit–to lay the groundwork for the voter suppression strategy that is destined to be the centerpiece of many state legislative initiatives this year and the next, as a prelude to the 2018 mid-term elections–will be memorable for many reasons. Foremost among them, of course, is that Americans now have confirmation–if they needed any after the excruciating 2015-2016 election season–that Goebbelsian propaganda techniques i.e., the endless repetition of lies over and over again to turn them into the unvarnished truth are the new normal in national politics. (The Republican Party and conservative talk show luminaries like Rush Limbaugh, Alan Jones, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and their ilk have paved the road, and the Bannon-Miller cavalcade can now merrily zip along on its many lanes.) Voter fraud in the 2016 election is the new ‘Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate’ and unlike that oddity, this one is going to cost many Americans their vote. Moreover, thanks to the effrontery of some Federal courts and their judges in deciding to hold the legal line against the reckless exercise of executive power, the rhetorical barrage to relentlessly undermine the judicial system has continued; as Miller infamously put it, the President’s ‘authority will not be questioned.’

Miller read his lines from a teleprompter; he was prepared to implement the next piece of the Bannon communication strategy and he was efficient, even if affectless, while doing so. Offering refutations of his many lies is going to be exhausting, and Bannon and Miller know it. The only possible counter strategy is to put out an opposing message–one that actually speaks to alternative policies and visions–and to relentlessly repeat it on every possible occasion. It is no shame to learn from one’s enemies; indeed, one must.

Jon Meacham On Misunderstanding Darwin And The George Bush ‘Legacy’

During the 1988 election season’s presidential debates, George H. W. Bush described his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as ‘a card-carrying member of the ACLU.’ This was supposed to be a zinger, a devastating put-down line that would show up his opponent as a radical, a wanna-be hippie, an out-of-touch member of the East Coast elite, an un-American, unrepentant, defender of–civil liberties. You know, those things enumerated in the Bill of Rights and enshrined in the American Constitution, which every patriot, suitably armed with his Second Amendment-protected guns, is sworn to protecting against the ravages of commies and pinkos and terrorists everywhere. The line worked; it went down famously with the Republican ‘faithful’ and the ‘base.’ The continued strategy of painting Dukakis as an effete pointyhead disconnected from broader American realities worked; Republican pollsters knew their party, and the folks who voted them in power.

We should keep this in mind every time we come across an instance of the ludicrous ‘Republicans were so much better, so much more moderate and balanced in the good old days’ line. The latest deposit of this bovine excreta may be found in Jon Meacham‘s ‘Nostalgia for The Grace of George H. W. Bush‘ the tagline for which reads: “The Journey from Bush to Trump disproves Darwin.”

That tagline gives the game away. The journey from Bush to Trump does not ‘disprove Darwin.’ Rather, it does the exact opposite. The journey from Bush to Trump shows that the American political environment furnished adaptive niches for political creatures like racists; their traits were suited for flourishing in it. That environment was set up by Republicans, their base and their party; it was sustained by the actions of supposedly genteel folks like the Bushes and the Reagans. They fostered racism and chauvinism and xenophobia and, surprise!, a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ view of society in which the poor and the unfortunate and the systematically oppressed and disenfranchised were to be kicked to the curb by those in power. And God help those who, like the ACLU, spoke up on their behalf.

This environment was fertile breeding ground for those possessed of the traits with which to exploit it. Enter Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. The line of progression is clear and visible; it is clear too which political creatures’ offspring flourished in the environment created and sustained by the Republican Party. Along the way, America committed mass murder in Iraq; it tortured; it refused to punish those who had committed those supposedly un-American crimes. It should not be surprised that Donald Trump has shown up on its doorsteps demanding to be let in; he’s been on the inside, and he’s seen what works.

Meacham’s invocation of Darwin here shows two things: 1) He does not understand Darwin and 2) He has not been paying attention the last twenty-eight years. The former might be forgivable; after all, many people don’t. The latter is not. Meacham thinks he is offering a diagnosis; unfortunately, he is part of the problem.

Ross Douthat Finds ‘Ascendant Social Liberalism’ Lurking Beneath His Bed

The New York Times’ Resident Sophist Laureate, Ross Douthat, has a long-running argumentative and rhetorical strategy of suggesting, through dark imprecations, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘godlessness’ are to blame for America’s social evils, for they they have produced them by provoking a reaction to their excesses. If only social and political movements didn’t engage in such vigorous protest, score legal victories in the Supreme Court, and influence the nation’s various discourses, they wouldn’t spark the reaction they do. There is no systemic social and political pathology to be combated; all is mere resentful pushing back, the rightful response of the righteous–and religious–to hectoring from the left. (This should sound familiar; remember David Brooks’ claim that anti-racism protests encourage racism?)

This highly remunerative schtick finds its latest expression in the following:

[T]he Democratic Party’s problem in the age of Trump isn’t really Jimmy Fallon. Its problem is Samantha Bee.

Not Bee alone, of course, but the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.

In such a domain:

[Late night show hosts] are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

As a result of which:

[O]utside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.

Douthat’s Op-Ed is sparked by the reaction to Jimmy Fallon’s recent I’ll-get-on-my-knees-if-you-say-so bootlicking reception of Donald Trump on his show recently. But his superficial understanding of ‘comics’ renders suspect the entire foundations of the sly ‘you asked for it’ screed that follows.

Comedy isn’t, and never has been, ‘apolitical.’ It either skewers the powerful or it reinforces existent patterns of power. To laugh at the powerful is a political act; so is laughing at the politically dispossessed.Comedians don’t get to stand out of the political fray. (Note that Douthat describes as an ‘apolitical shtick’ a show segment which normalized the behavior of a fascist; joking around with Bernie Sanders on the same show would have been considered further evidence of ‘the left’s cultural dominance.’)

Douthat correctly notes that his conjecture about national voting patterns is just that, in noting that this supposed cultural liberalism “may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.” He does so because presumably he does not want to make note of gerrymandering which locks in Republican power at the state level, or voter ID laws, which disenfranchise voters who might vote for the Democrats, or the continuance of neoliberal economic policies so beloved of national administrations, which have systematically immiserated large swathes of the American electorate.

Douthat also displays a remarkable cluelessness in his feverish ascriptions of cultural and political power to late-night comics. The dominance of the kind of humor that Douthant bemoans on television comes about because television executives determine, through marketing techniques, what brand works best with their audiences; comics don’t drive social change, social change drives comics’ lines. Moreover, late-night television is a small component of this nation’s cultural space where political contestation might take place; far more occurs in the twenty-three hours that precede those slots, in many other spaces: the streets, workplaces, classrooms. To be sure, those jokes may animate conversations outside the television studio, but despite the chuckles they engender on social media, there is little evidence that a single voter has had his or her mind changed by a comedian.

Lastly, Douthat conveniently ignores the presence of right-wing talk radio, which is remarkably humorless–except when it is cracking sexist and racist jokes, commands considerable time on the nation’s airwaves and which is committed to polemicizing and persuasion. They know something Douthat doesn’t want to acknowledge: if you want to effect political change, make sure folks know you are deadly serious.

The Republican Party Will Be Just Fine, Thanks Very Much

The supposed collapse of the Republican Party–in the face of an insurgent onslaught led by a motley crew of Tea Partiers, Donald Trump devotees, and Rush Limbaugh fans (which may indeed, be the same demographic)–during this election season is extremely wishful thinking on the part of election pundits and journalistic commentators. What animates these fantasies of an implosion in the Republican Party is, of course, yet another American political fantasy: that one day, there will be more choices on the political landscape besides the ones our current political parties offer. It also makes for entertaining speculation during a never-ending election season and offers more fuel for ‘discussion’ and ‘analysis’ on our twenty-four news channels.

The Republican Party will be just fine. When the smoke clears, after or before its convention, it will have found a way to package this election season’s supposedly ‘new lunacy’ into its platforms and manifestos, which are not too different in content from most of the central positions Donald Trump has adopted in his stump speeches. The Republican Party likes its fascism in the crypto, not the overt, varietal. Very soon–once he has locked up the nomination, if not sooner–Trump will begin to sound like that mythical creature, a ‘moderate Republican,’ and the party will close ranks around him. Just as it did last night, when his opponents at the Republican debate, after spending two hours abusing him as a con man and a fake, said they would still support him in the general elections. Trump’s racism and outright flirtations with white supremacism have not exactly caused a dramatic distancing from him on the part of party operatives and leaders either. Indeed, as many political observers have pointed out, among the Terrible Trio of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, Trump is the least dangerous, precisely because he is the least ideologically committed, which is why he is anathema to Republican leadership, who would prefer someone crazier in the dimensions of their choice. They’d rather eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and polity in their own distinctive style.

Most importantly, as Corey Robin has deftly pointed out, nothing Trump has said–or promised to do–marks him out as a singularity in the pantheon of Republican leadership and political thought over the past half-century.  Lest we forget, the Republican Party has provided us a stolen election in 2000, a president that declared an illegal war and sanctioned torture, and let Sarah Palin run as their vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Let that sink in for a second. This is a political party that was willing to take the chance of letting a person with the intellectual nous of a daffodil take command of a nuclear arsenal had John McCain shuffled off this mortal coil during his presidential term.

A few more floating turds will not radically change the character of this cesspool. A foul bubble or two,  a few roiling waves, and then the sludge will roll back over to conceal the depths below.

Road-Tripping With Rush Limbaugh And Glenn Beck

Yesterday, I drove up to Albany to meet an old friend. After spending the night, I returned this afternoon to Brooklyn. While driving, I sought entertainment through radio. The usual fare of FM was hard to snare: reception was often spotty–for whatever reason, the selections were uninspiring–a little too much emphasis on the Eagles methinks, and as usual, there were way too many commercials. After entertaining myself for a little while with the Hudson Valley’s WPDH, as I got closer to Albany, I found WGY on FM 103.1, ” a radio station licensed to Schenectady, New York and owned by iHeartMedia, Inc., broadcasting a news and conservative talk radio format.” On it, I heard Rush Limbaugh yesterday afternoon, and Glenn Beck this morning. It was, as might be expected, an edifying experience.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Rush Limbaugh is most accurately analogized to an angry, blustering, bully, who imagines himself the leader of an insurrection; his broadcasting booth is the balcony of his palace. Glenn Beck imagines himself a deeply religious libertarian scholar of the constitution, one deeply steeped in the history of this nation, this “republic” (which might be his favorite word of all time), who also happens to be leading a folk movement to take back political power.
  2. Donald Trump is scared of no one but Rush Limbaugh. With great glee, Limbaugh played an “audio bite” of Trump responding to a reporter’s question about Limbaugh having described him as not being “a true conservative.” Trump’s response went roughly as follows: “I’ve heard that, and I just want to say that I respect Rush; he’s been great to me, and I have a lot of respect for him. I love him and I think he’s been great to me.” That’s all. Limbaugh played this clip at least four times, chortling on each occasion.
  3. Glenn Beck speaks with many, many, pauses for dramatic effect, all the better to let the portentousness of his pronouncements about “the republic,” the Constitution, “this nation’s founding fathers,” “self-evident truths,” and liberty sink in. This is a man who clearly thinks he is saying Very Important Things.
  4. Both Limbaugh and Beck agree, roughly, that this nation “is hanging by a thread,” that there is “a state of cultural decay,” that “we are headed for a dictatorship.” They also agree that the disdain of the Republican Party for the Trump candidacy is proof positive that the Trump is doing something right, that he, as Beck put it, might be “the one we’ve been waiting for.” (They both also breathe heavily into their microphones.)
  5. Limbaugh is definitely the more paranoid of the two: the Bernie Sanders candidacy is a conspiracy, stage managed by the Democrats to show that Hillary Clinton is a tough candidate, capable of riding out a tough primary challenge, and of dispelling any notions that she is merely placing the crown on her head. (Rush also thinks Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are bigots and racists for suggesting a boycott of this year’s Oscars.)

I did not just listen to a couple of radio shows; I traveled to distant lands. Sorry to sound like an anthropologist, but my sense of having encountered a distinct cultural formation was very acute.

 

Darren Wilson’s Post-Police Career

Darren Wilson has resigned from the Ferguson, MO, police force. His stated intentions are honorable, possibly even noble:

It was my hope to continue in police work, but the safety of other police officers and the community are of paramount importance to me. It is my hope that my resignation will allow the community to heal.

We should not, as some rather unkindly have, respond to this announcement with a chorus of “I got your healing right here.”  Yet, in the wake of his entirely unrepentant, six-figure earning, television appearance last week with ABC NewsGeorge Stephanopoulos, one in which Wilson made clear that he had no regrets for having shot Michael Brown dead, that he would do it all over again, and expressed no remorse at the loss of a young man’s life, and certainly no empathy with his grieving parents,  I am, how you say, somewhat skeptical.

In that non-gullible spirit therefore, I hereby offer some speculation about Darren Wilson’s post-police-career alternative means of employment. That  most of these involve speaking engagements should be entirely unsurprising: all too often, the clearest path to eventual riches in today’s US–now that seminars in real estate and finance have lost some of their former cachet–seems to be offering advice.

Darren Wilson could be:

1. A community speaker on neighborhood relations, offering talks such as “The Importance of Street Stops Done Right.”

2. A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, speaking on ‘This Might Be My Gun, But It Sure Ain’t For Fun.” Flyers for his talks might note Officer Wilson’s “extensive experience in using and discharging firearms till they are good and empty.” (As a side bonus, Wilson will offer dark warnings on “the dangers of unused ammunition.”)

3.  An adviser to Marvel Comics for a new super-villain series, starting with a yet-to-be-named dastardly entity, who, as a mash-up of “Hulk Hogan” and your garden-variety “demon,” gets “mad” if you “shoot at him.” Wilson will also be contracted to supply some artwork, especially for the villain’s highly emotive expressions.

4. A distinguished guest on Rush Limbaugh‘s radio show, speaking on “Model Majorities: The White Police Officer.”

5. An author, writing his memoir–titled My Life Drawing And Coloring The Thin Blue Line‘–one contracted to a major publisher with a hefty advance.

6. A commencement speaker, offering advice on how to navigate the grand jury process and emerge indictment-free. (Pro-tip: start white.)

7. A security director for the National Convenience Store Owners’ Association, describing and designing appropriate steps to secure small items from the depredations of large young black men. (Pro-tip: Start shooting.)

8. A  security consultant on anti-looting measures. (Pro-tip: See #7 above.)

9. A public relations consultants for the pharmaceutical industry, offering talks such as “What To Do When Accused of the Deaths of Innocents: Managing Public Relations’ Disasters.”

10. A special guest on  Fox News, speaking on, “Why They Hate Us And Our Freedoms (Especially Those Pertaining to Peaceful Assembly.”

The demand for Wilson’s resignation was grounded in one overriding principle: that Wilson not do more damage–especially to the communities he polices. As my only half-facetious list suggests, Wilson could yet do more damage and make a better living than he ever has before.

Against Political Speeches, For Political Speech

I’m not sure why I dislike political speeches. By ‘political speeches’ I do not mean ‘political speech’: I am in favor of the latter, the more the better, with some caveats having to do with–among others–Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin. Rather, by ‘political speeches,’ I mean, quite precisely, speeches given by a politician–a party animal, to be exactingly precise–at some political forum: a post-election rally (for victory or concession), a party convention, a campaign rally; these remain resolutely inaccessible to me, a movie show that I can’t sit through. (This definition, should, I hope, make clear that certain species of political speeches in public fora remain impervious to my criticism.)

Along with this dislike goes indifference to political speech hagiography, the admiring dissection of speeches, which elevates them to the level of rhetorical masterpieces. Consider, for instance, Robert Lehrman on Obama’s victory speech on the night of 6th November, comparing it to the 2008 post-election victory speech:

[T]he 2012 model showed all the strengths that Obama and his speechwriters consistently exhibit, producing the best drafts of any president. He used concrete details and repetition (“You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college … You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door…”); antithesis and echoes of John F. Kennedy (“America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together”) and stories that have the ring of truth (“And I saw it just the other day in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter…”). You also see flashes of wit (“one dog’s probably enough”), and the skillful use of pause, emphasis and variety of tone that makes public speaking teachers like me use him as a model for students. [link in original]

That last sentence reminds me that perhaps the best thing about a ‘good political speech’ these days is that it might serve as a model for those trying to become better public speakers: high-school or college students aspiring to debate club membership, teachers themselves, budding actors, Toastmasters clubs, interviewees, and so on. But I don’t think they shouldn’t copy or emulate everything they see and hear.

Most prominently, because, like almost anyone disillusioned by political speeches in electoral democracies, I see them as heralds of betrayal and disappointment to follow. They are all too often infected by too many promises, too much insincere wheedling. The political speech, now, in this landscape of relentless electioneering, has come to stand for misleading obfuscation, one that serves to obscure the truly political behind a veil of elegant wordsmithing.  This is not necessarily because the speaker–the party political animal, remember–is extraordinarily mendacious, rather it is because he or she is made to appear as a figurehead that misrepresents the forces that are all too often arrayed against those subjected to the speech.

The speech then, comes to serve as beguiling distraction, and not just rallying cry.