Sunday, September 13, 2020

Sunday Reading

Remembering Trump — Roger Cohen in the New York Times.

After two weeks of battling Covid-19 — thank you, dear readers, for all the good wishes — I can report that the droning discomfort has passed, some energy has returned, I can taste again, and, for better or worse, I am recovering my personality from whoever hijacked it. I can also certify that the virus is a devilish addition to life on earth. Do not mess with it.

My memory is also returning, a mixed blessing as it turns to familiar obsessions, like Trump’s ego.

You know that ego could not resist 18 interviews with Bob Woodward, just as you know that he spent some of those interviews detailing his lies to the American people about the virus (he preferred “to always play it down”), just as you know that he said in 2018 that the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in France he declined to visit was “filled with losers,” just as you know that in 2017 he said Haitians “all have AIDS” and Nigerian immigrants wouldn’t ever “go back to their huts.”

You know because the president’s personality is consistent: a mix of coward, racist, liar, con artist, narcissist, grifter, and blowhard, with uncanny antennae for the worst instincts of humanity, and for how to use the media to channel insecurity and hatred into a mass political movement galvanized by his fiendish energy.

Yes, you just know with Trump. You know he insisted that Sean Spicer say his inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness” the ceremony, and that the former senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway used the Trump playbook when she said the statement was not false but “just alternative facts,” and that when Trump started insisting (falsely) that there had been voter fraud in the election he had won, he was laying the groundwork for real voter suppression in November 2020, and that downplaying the virus was about getting the Dow to 30,000 so he would not suffer an impossible defeat in the coming election.

Alternative facts have been the diet of Americans for 44 months now. No democracy, built on accountability and law, can survive such an onslaught indefinitely. That is why Joe Biden’s most effective slogan is a simple one: “You deserve a president who tells you the truth.”

Biden has a fight on his hands. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Militarized police confront angry mobs. Insecurity is rampant, as is racial tension. A plague stalks the land. These are near perfect conditions for a proto-fascist like Trump who seeks a disoriented populace.

You just know, and the knowledge is that cloying glob of sludge that can never quite be washed off in the Trump era, however hard you scrub. It permeates existence.

You know he doesn’t believe climate change is a threat, that he has done his best to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency, that he does not believe in science, that he thought “disinfectant” might knock out the virus “in a minute,” that he has hobbled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that he couldn’t care less about transgender people, that he loathes immigrants he has described as “animals,” and that he authorized the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the border. You know that in textbook totalitarian fashion, he calls a free press “the enemy of the American people.”

Yes, you know, and you also know that Trump wants you to know all this so well, and so relentlessly, that you don’t care. He has always gotten away with it. He has no reason to believe he will not continue to bat 1.000.

“The fact is, we’re here, and they’re not,” he taunted his opponents at the White House last month. It is a fact, alterable only through an immense summoning of American character and will.

You know Trump thought there were “very fine people on both sides” at the 2017 neo-Nazi Charlottesville rally, and that he thinks any Jew who votes for a Democrat shows “great disloyalty,” and that he winks daily at millions of Americans who believe he is their savior from a takeover by Black and brown people, Jewish finance, cosmopolitans, and leftist radicals. You know Trump is “very much behind” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt because he has yet to meet a dictator he does not dream of emulating. You know Trump must be compromised with President Vladimir Putin to the point of ignoring Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

American deaths, as this year’s virus death toll has shown, are a matter of indifference to a president who believes empathy, like patriotic sacrifice, is for suckers.

It’s important not just to know, to be aware, but to remember. It’s hard to remember. It’s like looking for the way out of a labyrinth in the mist.

It’s important to remember that Trump believes he has done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln and that he claims he will preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions even as he is asking the Supreme Court to destroy Obamacare. Because Trump is delusional and a world already on the brink of an armed Chinese-American confrontation may not survive a second Trump term without disaster. Nor will the oldest democracy on earth.

To Tell The Truth — Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker on how Bob Woodward did it.

President Donald Trump began the day on Wednesday engaged in a bout of self-promotion, dreaming of the Nobel Peace Prize he might soon win. Delighted with the news that a right-wing crank in the Norwegian parliament had nominated him for the honor, Trump had the White House press secretary put out an official statement that hailed the President’s “bold diplomacy and vision.” Before 10 A.M., Trump retweeted stories about the Nobel nomination—and congratulations to himself for it—nearly two dozen times. I would not be surprised if he took particular delight in the tweet he passed along from @RealMattCouch, a self-described journalist and patriot: “Can you imagine the riots and temper tantrums from the leftist mob when President Trump is re-elected and he wins the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year . . . This is going to be glorious :)”

But, of course, there will be no Nobel, nor will there be a Middle East peace deal to end all peace deals, with Trump’s name emblazoned on it in gold. Do his followers in the MAGA bubble know this? Does Trump? By lunchtime, the fantasy was forgotten, or at least temporarily set aside. Reality, in the form of the President’s own words, taped by the journalist Bob Woodward with Trump’s permission, had intruded. The coronavirus was “deadly,” he had told Woodward, on February 7th, “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” As we now all know, Trump then spent the next month publicly downplaying the danger, telling Americans the exact opposite of what he had privately confided to Woodward. By March 19th, after finally being forced to confront the reality of the escalating pandemic inside the United States, and having declared a national emergency, Trump admitted to Woodward the scale of his wintry deception. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, according to Woodward’s forthcoming new book, “Rage.” “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” This, too, is on tape, and as of Wednesday afternoon it was playing on a loop on CNN—the President, in his own words, confirming his calculatedly cynical approach to a public-health catastrophe that sometime in the next few days will have claimed two hundred thousand American lives.

This is one of those brutal weeks in the Trump Presidency—and there have been many—when the facts revealed about the President are so painful that it is not just his supporters in the Senate, perennially dodging reporters’ questions on their way to lunch, who might prefer to look away. Among Democrats and the liberal commentariat, there was the usual Woodward bashing: Why had he waited so long to publish this damaging information? But there was also another question: Will any of this new information matter, what with Trump voters so locked into their support of the President that no outrage, no matter how deadly, will sway them? For Trump’s defenders, it was just another time to dodge and deflect. On Fox News, the host Tucker Carlson opened his prime-time show with a long attack on Senator Lindsey Graham, the Presidential confidant whom Carlson blamed for convincing Trump to coöperate with Woodward. Carlson noted that Graham had sat in on the first interview, but did not offer his viewers any explanation for why Trump conducted seventeen subsequent interviews with Woodward.

I found a certain emptiness to the exercise, to the partisan vaporings and performative outrage of the political class. Everyone is suiting up for a fight, and they all think they know its resolution: Trump will deny and dissemble, and then some other thing will happen and the news cycle will move on. The strategy from Trump and his partisans was quickly apparent; this is a play they have run many times before. If the President can pretend the virus that he had called “deadly” is, in fact, not so bad, then he certainly can pretend that he never said those things to Woodward; that the book, like all the other books, is just a “political hit job”; and that it’s irrelevant, anyway, because he is doing such a terrific job and his enemies are terrible.

Sure enough, by Thursday morning, Trump was back to demanding that Democrats reopen schools, the coronavirus be damned. He was tweeting about his good friend Kim Jong Un, planning to hold a campaign rally in Michigan, and complaining about the “phony Russia, Russia, Russia HOAX.” A day after implausibly reacting to the Woodward book by claiming that, in lying, he was just acting responsibly, to avoid panicking the American public, Trump returned to scaring it. “If I don’t win,” the President tweeted, “America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters’.”

Soon after that tweet, I heard a thwack at the front door. My copy of the Woodward book had arrived. Should I even bother to read it? In Trump’s nihilistic world, nothing matters. There is no point, no truth that is not partisan. The election is just under two months away. To Trump, that is all that counts. How will the book, or any other book, for that matter, change its outcome? I thought about all of that. I decided to start reading.

The reviewers at the Times and the Washington Post have already had their shots at Woodward’s book. His latest work has prompted as much fury on their part at the cowardly group of sycophants and enablers surrounding the President as at Trump himself. All of us already know that Trump is a charlatan, a con man, a fool. But isn’t it infuriating that these decorated generals and self-professed Christians have spoken privately with Woodward but have refused to level with the American people? Perhaps it’s “a tale not of character but of complicity,” as Jennifer Szalai wrote in the Times. “What makes the book noteworthy is Woodward’s sad and subtle documentation of the ego, cowardice and self-delusion that, over and over, lead intelligent people to remain silent in the face of Trumpian outrages,” Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, concluded, in a review for the Post.

It is hard to disagree with their assessment. At times, you may slam the book down in frustration as you read, yet again, about Trump’s enablers telling a journalist how paranoid and narcissistic, foul-mouthed and foolish, the President is. These are people who have worked closely with him, and who apparently believe that Trump is a mortal danger to the nation, but they never say anything about him to the public. Still, the problem is this: as enraging and perplexing as their self-imposed silences and self-serving leaks appear to be, Jim Mattis and Dan Coats and all the rest are not running for President. They are, in the end, not responsible for the follies of the Trump Presidency, any more than Bob Woodward is responsible for the outrageous things that Trump told him. Does anyone seriously believe that, had Woodward published an article based on his February phone call with the President, Trump would have chosen any different course of action toward the pandemic? At every step along the way, the President has been called on his public misstatements and untruths about the virus. It did not make one bit of difference. Trump is unrepentant, now and forever.

By late Thursday afternoon, the Woodward news cycle had made its inevitable way to a Trump press conference, the ritual moment wherein the President would denounce the book, deny wrongdoing, and say a whole lot of other words.

“Why did you lie to the American people?” the ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl asked, when Trump gave him the first question.

“There’s no lie,” Trump responded. “And the way you asked that question is very disgraceful.”

Perhaps even more to the point, Trump repeated, over and over, that what he told Woodward essentially does not matter. Because America’s response to the coronavirus has been right, terrific, amazing. Better than Europe. Better than anywhere. “I think we did a great job,” he told Karl. And also, “We’re rounding the final turn.” The pandemic, to hear Trump tell it, is practically over.

This is the same mix of fantasy and lies that Trump was spreading publicly in February, while privately telling Woodward the truth about the coronavirus’s deadliness. The difference is that nearly two hundred thousand Americans are dead now, and few of them had any inkling that their lives would soon be in danger because the President chose neither to tell the country the truth nor take actions that would empower the government to properly respond to a pandemic of this scale and lethality.

Will it make any difference in the election? I doubt it. But the awfulness of the latest Trump revelations is no less awful for having been both anticipated and completely consistent with what we already suspected. In fact, it might be even worse than a surprise bolt from nowhere. Through sheer repetition, Trump has defeated the idea of the game-changing disclosure. Just in the past few days, weeks, and months, we’ve learned that his former national-security adviser considered him “unfit” for office; that his first defense secretary called him “dangerous”; that his first director of National Intelligence thought Vladimir Putin must have had damaging kompromat on him; and that his own sister was secretly taped saying that he was a “cruel” man “with no principles.” None of these disclosures significantly altered the landscape of American politics in this election year. Why would it change anything to know how cynical Trump has been with American lives—to have the confirmation of what you already knew and believed? By now, that’s the thing about these disclosures: the awfulness is not only in the knowing but in the instantaneous awareness that the knowing probably doesn’t much matter. It just makes it a bit more awful.

Are We Ready for Football? — Jerry Brewer in the Washington Post.

An NFL season doesn’t usually slide into consciousness. You hear its thundering footsteps months in advance. But somehow, after what felt like the longest offseason, this 2020 debut managed to sneak up on us.

In a roundabout way, it’s a pleasant surprise the league is playing on schedule. When the novel coronavirus forced sports to go dark in March, many assumed six months would be plenty of time for football to resume. As the challenges to contain the pandemic continued deep into summer, pessimism took over. However, the NFL was undeterred, arrogant as usual and, most of all, sedulous in its planning.

It hasn’t just powered through the way the sport often does. It has shown great thought with its protocols and testing, an appreciation for the scientific challenges and the ability to learn from the successes and failures of other leagues. The work has led to a microscopic number of coronavirus cases; the NFL and its players’ association announced last week only eight positives out of 44,510 tests in the latest round of results. It leaves a sense the season is beginning as safely as possible.

It’s close to miraculous that the NFL figured out a way to start without interruption and without competing in a bubble environment that has worked so well for the NBA, WNBA and NHL. It didn’t seem as if any sport would be able to compete on its terms, not when the nation has struggled to avoid outbreaks and simply agree on an effective plan of action. Football did have to scrap its offseason program and preseason exhibitions, but we’re one game and 34 Kansas City Chiefs points into Week 1, and the country is free to obsess over a full slate of games Sunday.

Well, sort of.

Covid-19 still looms. Without a vaccine, the threat of another debilitating wave remains. An undisturbed NFL season should be considered wishful thinking, even as the players, coaches and staff teach a valuable lesson about discipline and teamwork. The initial success doesn’t minimize the long-term challenges. And there’s one other problem: How does the league recapture the attention of fans who have greater concerns this season?

The NFL once cowered before Trump. Now it has a chance to stand for something.

The NFL is used to announcing its arrival and watching every kind of fan — the die-hards, the casuals and the ones who have supposedly sworn off the game — come running. But before the defending champion Chiefs and Houston Texans kicked off the season Thursday night, the anticipation included an abnormal reaction appropriate for what people have been through: “Oh, for real?”

Sports aren’t an invincible distraction right now, and with so many athletes committed to social justice, they don’t want to be, either. But even if the players were adamant about only providing blind entertainment, it still wouldn’t be the same. The majority of major sports had to go away for four months. Children aren’t getting to compete as much. Adult beer leagues and regular pickup games have been canceled. Part of what makes athletics irresistible is their prevalence, dependability and timelessness. The games go on, always. They create more than a passion. They put you in an emotional trance, becoming intrinsic to your sense of community and need for human connection.

Disrupt this way of life for too long, and people learn to live another way. Some of that is happening here. For as desperate as people said they were for sports, the ratings and anecdotal evidence suggest they have yet to come back in full force. It’s more nuanced than blaming the stances that players are taking against systemic oppression. Since returning from hiatus, the audience hasn’t been there. This was true before people fully experienced this new wave of activism.

It’s a factor, sure, but it’s presumptuous to consider it the factor. Preliminary numbers for the NFL opener Thursday night indicate general sports fatigue or an abundance of competition more than some kind of public disgust. No one had any clarity on what the Chiefs and Texans were going to do before the game, so the notion of preemptive disillusionment makes little sense. I suppose you can argue the NFL is paying the price for other leagues failing to stick to sports, but that’s a thin assumption that ignores polling data suggesting the majority of fans are tolerant of athletes taking a stand.

There are other issues to consider. For one, these sports feel soulless right now, no matter how well the games are presented for television. There’s little atmosphere, nothing grand about the event. The quality of play has been impressive, and the athletes deserve immense credit for their mental and physical resolve. But compared with the normal spectacle, this version can be boring at times. And when there are thrills, something still seems off. Sports have become background noise. Watching them is something to do, not the premier thing to do. Struggling is what we all do, in some form, right now. There is no satisfying diversion from this pain.

In addition, the schedule is oversaturated currently, and everything is out of context. Everyone is used to the football season starting at this time, but it has had to compete with the NBA playoffs, the Stanley Cup playoffs, U.S. Open tennis and many other options. Everything is crammed into September, including the Kentucky Derby and Tour de France. Fans can be excited but also overwhelmed. They can be interested but also preoccupied with more important things. Signs of diminished enthusiasm magnify that fans are humans with healthy minds and broken hearts.

The NFL, the king of American sports, isn’t immune. The football-loving nation will appreciate its return, but it might not fixate on it.

So an anticipated return morphed into a sneak attack. The NFL is back in the game. This time, though, it doesn’t feel like the only game. There are more pressing matters, and this season, success depends on how well football blends into this fidgety new world.

Doonesbury — Survival of the twittest.