Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sunday Reading

We Can See Clearly Now — Charles P. Pierce on the waking up of America to what it did to itself.

Optimism may be illusory, but it’s all we have at this point, so, when it stirs, anywhere, it’s worthy of nurture and support. Over the past week, ever since the administration*’s crimes against humanity along the southern border were revealed, there became an edge to the political opposition that has not been there through all the marches and the rhetoric that have attended this government since the president* was inaugurated. Up until now, all of the #Resistance has contained a barely acknowledged undercurrent of futility. It was not that the opposition was empty. It was that it generally broke like a wave on a seawall when it collided with the immutable fact that the president*’s party controlled every lever of political power at the federal level, as well as a great number of them out in the states, too.

The week just passed has changed the calculations. The images from the border, and the White House’s fatheaded trolling of the situation, seems to have shaken up everyone in Washington to the point at which alliances are more fluid than they have been since January of 2017. There seems little doubt that the Republicans in the House of Representatives are riven with ideological chaos, struck numb by the basic conundrum of modern conservatism: When your whole political identity is defined by the proposition that government is not the solution, but, rather, the problem, you don’t know how to operate it when fortune and gerrymandering hand you the wheel.

You can fake it pretty convincingly, doing the bidding of your donor class and knuckling the powerless and making a nice living for yourself, as long as events pursue a fairly predictable course for which there are familiar precedents in your experience. You can even see the setbacks coming from around the corner. Even your defeats are predictable and, thus, explainable—or, at least, spinnable. Can’t repeal Obamacare? RINOs like John McCain!

The problem arises when something unpredictable happens, and the government you control has to be fast on its feet, and you don’t know how that really works. A hurricane and a flood drowns New Orleans, and the luxury horse-show official you put in charge of the country’s emergency management system—because who cares, right?—finds that he’s really not up to the job. Or, suddenly, you find that, no matter how hot the emotions run at your rallies or how brightly your favorite TV network polishes your apple, or how hard you pitch the snake oil that got you elected, the country will not stand for being complicit in the kidnapping and caging of children. The pictures begin to pile up. The mirror in which the country prefers to see itself cracks into a million sharp shards that begin to cut your political life away.

You can feel the difference in the air. The members of the governing party, uneasy about the prospects for this year’s midterms anyway, are fairly trembling at the moment, seeing in their mind’s eyes a hundred 30-second spots of weeping toddlers behind chain-link walls. The president* has gone completely incoherent, standing firm until he doesn’t, looking for help in the Congress that he’ll never get, and reversing himself so swiftly on his one signature issue that he’s probably screwed himself up to the ankles in the floor of the Oval Office. By Friday afternoon, he was back on the electric Twitter machine, yapping about the Democrats and “their phony stories of sadness and grief.” And a hundred Republican candidates dive back behind the couch.

The country’s head is clearing. The country’s vision is coming back into focus and it can see for the first time the length and breadth of the damage it has done to itself. The country is hearing the voices that the cacophony of fear and anger had drowned out for almost three years. The spell, such as it was, and in most places, may be wearing off at last. The hallucinatory effect of a reality-show presidency* is dispersing like a foul, smoky mist over a muddy battlefield.

The migrant crisis is going to go down through history as one of the most destructive series of own-goals in the history of American politics. The establishment of the “zero-tolerance” policy made the child-nabbing inevitable. The president*’s own rhetoric—indeed, the raison d’etre of his entire campaign—trapped him into at first defending the indefensible and then abandoning what was perhaps the only consistent policy idea he ever had—outside of enriching himself and his family, that is. Then the cameras began to roll, and the nation’s gorge began to rise, and the president* couldn’t stand the pressure that was mounting around him. Of course, because he knows nothing about anything, including how to actually be president*, he bungled even his own abject surrender. He’s spent the days since signing his executive order railing against what he felt compelled to do and arguing against himself and losing anyway.

That’s the optimism, and it may, in fact, be illusory, but the power balance in our politics seemed to shift this week. Terrible policies are still coming from the various agencies. Scott Pruitt remains a grifter of nearly inhuman proportions, and a vandal besides. Neil Gorsuch continues to prove himself to be the reliable conservative hack for whom the Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat. But the crisis at the border is a leg-hold trap for all of them. There’s no way for them to keep faith with themselves and get out from under the humanitarian disaster they concocted. One day, maybe, brave Guatemalan mothers and their very brave children may be said to have saved the American Republic from slow-motion and giddy suicide. Some even may be our fellow citizens by then, and we should remember to thank them.

Vamos Á Comer — Helen Rosner in The New Yorker on the absurdity of Kristjen Nielsen dining in a Mexican restaurant.

In September of 2016, in the run-up to the Presidential election, Marco Gutierrez, a founder of the online activist group Latinos for Trump, appeared on MSNBC to discuss what he saw as a looming immigration threat at America’s southern border. “My culture is a very dominant culture,” Gutierrez, who was born in Mexico, said. “And it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.” Gutierrez meant this as a warning, a dire vision of what the future would look like were Donald Trump to fail in his Presidential bid. But Hillary Clinton’s supporters quickly reclaimed the idea as a welcome, and appetizing, possibility. At a campaign stop, Clinton said, “I personally think a taco truck on every corner sounds absolutely delicious.”

Last year, C.H.D. Expert, a hospitality-industry analysis firm, identified Mexican restaurants as the second most popular kind of dining establishment in the nation, and estimated that they make up about nine per cent of the half million or so restaurants in the United States—more than the total number of pizzerias. Countless additional restaurants bear signs of Mexico’s culinary influence: you can find fajitas at Chili’s, guacamole and chips at the Cheesecake Factory, churros at Disney World, quesadillas repurposed into burger buns at Applebee’s, margaritas at LongHorn Steakhouse, Baja-style fish tacos at hipster brunch spots, and nachos at every sports arena in America. Even the ubiquitous Caesar salad is Mexican—it was invented at a restaurant in Tijuana. In many respects, you might say, Mexican food is American food.

So it may have been pure statistical inevitability that caused Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, to eat at a Mexican restaurant this week, in the midst of the nightmarish crisis at the border caused by the Trump Administration’s family-separation policy. On Wednesday evening, Nielsen arrived at MXDC Cocina Mexicana, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that promises “classic Mexican cuisine with a modern touch.” It seemed almost unbelievable, on the day we heard a wrenching audio recording of migrant children crying out for their parents, that Nielsen, the chief enforcer of the Administration’s immigration policy, could be out in the world having dinner in a neighborhood restaurant like a normal person, let alone enjoying food from the very region the policy targets. As Nielsen and a dining companion sat in the restaurant for what a D.H.S. spokesperson later described as a “work dinner,” she was recognized by a patron at a nearby table, who covertly snapped a photograph, and sent it to friends in the hopes of inspiring a protest.

In short order, a cadre of demonstrators from the D.C. branch of the Democratic Socialists of America filed into the restaurant and stood between the tables adjacent to Nielsen’s. “How can you enjoy a Mexican dinner as you’re deporting and imprisoning tens of thousands of people who come here seeking asylum?” one shouted, before leading the crowd in a rumbling chant of “Shame! Shame!” “In a Mexican restaurant, of all places,” another cried. “The fucking gall!” In the blurry darkness of a video from inside the restaurant, posted to Facebook Live, Nielsen and her dining companion appear to be sharing an order of guacamole. The protest went on for more than twenty minutes, while Nielsen—shielded by two Secret Service agents—kept her head ducked low.

Some observers suggested that Nielsen’s decision to dine at a Mexican restaurant seemed like an intentional provocation, a trollish act consistent with the ethos of spite and petulance that guides much of what happens inside the Trump Administration. (See, too: Melania Trump’s Zara jacket, or Ivanka Trump’s smiling Instagram of her son.) This suspicion was compounded when, the day after Nielsen’s meal, it was revealed that Stephen Miller—the senior White House adviser responsible for the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy—had dined on Sunday night at Espita Mezcaleria, a buzzy Mexican spot in Washington’s hip Shaw neighborhood that, according to The Washingtonian, serves the best chips and salsa in town. (The New York Post reported that a customer at the restaurant, spotting Miller, cried out, “Whoever thought we’d be in a restaurant with a real-life fascist begging [for] money for new cages?”) In the midst of the Presidential campaign, which he kicked off by asserting that Mexican immigrants are rapists, Donald Trump celebrated Cinco de Mayo by tweeting a photo that showed him grinning and giving the thumbs-up in front of a tortilla bowl, with the caption “I love Hispanics!” Perhaps Miller, known for his smug embrace of xenophobic politics, was making a similarly sneering gesture.

MXDC is a slick, anodyne restaurant, one of a half-dozen or so East Coast establishments affiliated with the celebrity chef Todd English, who rose to fame in the nineties making Italian food in Boston. Neither English nor the restaurant’s owner, nor the bulk of its clientele, is Latino, but—as in so many restaurants in America—most of the staff is. Indeed, Nielsen and Miller would have been hard-pressed to find any restaurant, serving any kind of food, that didn’t rely on the labor of the same individuals their immigration policies seek to expel at all costs. Latino workers are the backbone of the restaurant world, at bistros, pizzerias, sushi counters, and rotisseries across the country—many of them are Central American, like the majority of the migrant families being torn apart in recent weeks. (And, it’s worth noting, many of those workers are undocumented: the hospitality sector is one of the largest employers of undocumented labor in the country.)

To many people—the protesters and hecklers, the demonstrators gathered in front of ICE and D.H.S. offices across the country during the past week, the horrified parents watching the news and holding their children close—it seems impossible that Nielsen and Miller could miss the through line that connects this Administration’s cruel, dehumanizing policies toward Latino migrants and the real lives of Latino people who already live and work in this country. It seems as if it would require high-wire moral acrobatics, Jedi-level compartmentalization, to enjoy the fruits of Latin American culture, and labor, at this time. But for many other Americans, including those leading our government, there is a simple, reflexive disconnect between cultural product and cultural producer, between policy and people. “Everyone hates Mexicans, but everyone at the same time loves Mexican food,” the Mexican-American writer Gustavo Arellano told the Huffington Post, in 2016. “When they’re eating it, they’re able to disassociate it from the people who made it, or who picked it or slaughtered those cows.” Shortly after Marco Gutierrez issued his taco-truck warning, a Bay Area online magazine asked him what sort of food establishment he would be happy to see on every American corner. “Uhh . . . Probably taco trucks,” he said. “What?!” the interviewer responded. “Yeah,” he said. “Taco trucks are fine with me.”

Doonesbury — Cruel Shot.