No one who was paying any attention to the presidential campaign can say that they are surprised now that Trump is following through on his boasts and threats about what he would do when he became president. The border wall, the Muslim ban, the reinstatement of the Keystone XL and DAPL pipelines, the backing out of TPP, the actions against Obamacare; it was all shouted from the rostrums across the country, and anyone who thought he would change his way of doing things — fast and without thinking about the consequences — just wasn’t paying attention.
He bragged that things would be different now, that he would shake things up so that even the rituals that every president goes through that require little thought, such as signing a proclamation for Holocaust Remembrance Day, were going to be done his way, not the old way. So there was no mention of Jews dying in the camps because, as the White House noted, “everybody suffered.”
So it’s also no surprise that there has been a backlash to each of these actions and to the Trump regime in general. We knew that it would spark dissent. What we didn’t know and what seems to have caught the Trump minions by surprise is the volume, the mass, and the intensity of the rebellion and resistance. The marches in the cities on the day after the inauguration were off the charts, and the immediate reaction by protestors at the airports when the ban on travelers from Muslim countries was announced was breathtaking in both scale and intensity.
One other thing that is not a surprise is the craven complicity of the Republican leadership.
Facing intense criticism and dramatic news coverage of chaos and protests at airports worldwide, several congressional Republicans on Saturday questioned President Trump’s order to halt admission to the United States by refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were not among them.
Ryan was among the first lawmakers on Friday to back Trump’s order, and his office reiterated his support on Saturday.
“This is not a religious test and it is not a ban on people of any religion,” said spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
No, it’s just a ban on people from countries with a lot of Muslims, which as everyone knows, isn’t really a religion like, say, Christianity, right? (By the way, someone prominent in the Christian faith once said something about welcoming the stranger, but hey, that was a long time ago.)
It’s also no surprise that the Republicans would demonstrate such complicity towards these actions against immigrants; it’s not like they haven’t shown that hand at every opportunity, along with the rank hypocrisy of complaining about President Obama’s use of executive orders to save some wilderness acreage as “unconstitutional overreach” and stand by in silence as Trump basically stomps his way through the Bill of Rights. But as long as they get their tax cuts and free rein on regulation reform, who cares about a bunch of brown non-Christians stuck at an airport in Europe. It’s not like they matter, right?
It’s within living memory that the United States took such an attitude about refugees and immigrants from a continent where war was brewing and people were fleeing, trying to get to our shores and safety. We shut them out then, sending many of them back to where they came from, their fates sealed. Eighty years later we remember — at least some of us remember — what happened to them. But today we have a White House that won’t even mention them by name.
Those who remained silent then were just as complicit in the destruction that followed, and those who remain silent today are no different.
David Brooks was so disappointed with the marches last Saturday:
Sometimes social change happens through grass-roots movements — the civil rights movement. But most of the time change happens through political parties: The New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution. Change happens when people run for office, amass coalitions of interest groups, engage in the messy practice of politics.
Without the discipline of party politics, social movements devolve into mere feeling, especially in our age of expressive individualism. People march and feel good and think they have accomplished something. They have a social experience with a lot of people and fool themselves into thinking they are members of a coherent and demanding community. Such movements descend to the language of mass therapy.
So, ladies, the only way to get what you want is to turn it over to your local political party so you can go back to whatever it is you do while the menfolk are doing the real work.
It’s also apparent that he doesn’t like it when people talk about things he doesn’t want to talk about. Reproductive rights? Health care? Climate change? No, no, you have to march for important things like… well, I don’t know, but not about those things. Those things are not your business.
As Aaron Sorkin once noted, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business.
In the middle of the National Mall, on the same spot that had, the day before, hosted the revelers who had come out for the inauguration of Donald Trump, a crowd of people protesting the new presidency spontaneously formed themselves into a circle. They grasped hands. They invited others in. “Join our circle!” one woman shouted, merrily, to a small group of passersby. They obliged. The expanse—a small spot of emptiness in a space otherwise teeming with people—got steadily larger, until it spanned nearly 100 feet across. If you happened to be flying directly above the Mall during the early afternoon of January 21, as the Women’s March on Washington was in full swing, you would have seen a throng of people—about half a million of them, according to the most recent estimates—punctuated, in the middle, by an ad-hoc little bullseye.
“What is this circle about?” a woman asked one of the circle-standers.
“Nobody knows!” the circle-stander replied, cheerfully.
The space stayed empty for a moment, as people clasped hands and looked around at each other with grins and “what-now?” expressions. And then: A woman ran through the circle, dancing, waving a sign that read “FREE MELANIA.” The crowd nodded approvingly. Another woman did the same with her sign. A group of three teenage boys danced with their “BAD HOMBRE” placards. The crowd whooped. Soon, several people were using the space as a stage. A woman dressed as a plush vulva shimmied around the circle’s perimeter. The circle-standers laughed and clapped and cheered. They held their phones in their air, taking pictures and videos. They cheered some more.
The Women’s March on Washington began in a similarly ad-hoc manner. The protest sprang to life as an errant idea posted to Facebook, right after Trump won the presidency. The notion weathered controversy to evolve into something that, on Saturday, was funereal in purpose but decidedly celebratory in tone. The march, in pretty much every way including the most literal, opposed the inaugural ceremony that had taken place the day before. On the one hand, it protested President Trump. Its participants wore not designer clothes, but jeans and sneakers and—the unofficial uniform of the event—pink knit caps with ears meant to evoke, and synonymize, cats. It had, in place of somber ritual, a festival-like atmosphere. It featured, instead of pomp and circumstance, people spontaneously breaking into dance on a spontaneously formed dance floor.
And yet in many ways, the march was also extremely similar to the inauguration whose infrastructure it had co-opted, symbolically and otherwise, for its own purposes. The Women’s March on Washington shared a setting—the Capitol, the Mall, the erstwhile inaugural parade route—with the ceremonies of January 20. And, following an election in which the victor lost the popular vote, the protest seems to have bested the inauguration itself in terms of (physical) public turnout. During a time of extreme partisanship and division—a time in which the One America the now-former president once spoke of can seem an ever-more-distant possibility—the Women’s March played out as a kind of alternate-reality inauguration: not necessarily of Hillary Clinton, but of the ideas and ideals her candidacy represented. The Women’s March was an installation ceremony of a sort—not of a new president, but of the political resistance to him.
“I DO NOT ACCEPT THIS FILTHY ROTTEN SYSTEM,” read one sign, carried by Lauren Grace, 35, of Philadelphia. She got the quote from Dorothy Day. And she intended it, Grace explained to me, to protest “a system that sort of left me out.”
“We’re told that voting is a sacred right in this country,” Grace said. “But even though Hillary won the popular vote, she still lost. I feel pretty conflicted about a country where that could happen.”
The Women’s March was, to be sure, also a protest march in an extremely traditional vein: It featured leaders—celebrities, activists, celebrity activists—who gave speeches and offered performances on a stage with the Capitol in its background; its participants held signs, and chanted (“This-is-what-a-feminist-looks-like!,” “No-person-is-illegal!”), and commiserated. It was also traditional in that its participants were marching not for one specific thing, but for many related aspirations. Women’s reproductive rights. LGBTQ rights. Immigration rights. Feminism in general (“FEMALES ARE STRONG AS HELL,” one sign went, riffing off a famous feminist’s Netflix show). The environment (“CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL,” “MAKE THE PLANET GREAT AGAIN”). Science (“Y’ALL NEED SCIENCE”). Facts (“MAKE AMERICA FACT-CHECK AGAIN”). Some signs argued for socialism. Some argued against plutocracy. Some argued for Kindness. Some pled for Peace. Some simply argued that America is Already Great.
This was a big-tent protest, in other words—a messy, joyful coalescence of many different movements. The Women’s March deftly employed, in its rhetoric, the biggest of the big-tent tautologies: The point of this protest wasn’t so much the specific things being protested as it was the very bigness of the crowds who were doing the protesting. This was another way the protest alternate-realitied the presidential inauguration: Just as the official ceremony is meant to celebrate not only the person occupying the presidency, but the presidency itself, the Women’s March was a protest that celebrated protest.
In doing that, it took direct aim at the things the new president has a record of valuing so highly—crowd sizes, ratings, large-scale approval—and countered them. Trump, after all, since the beginning of his presidential candidacy, has made a point of emphasizing the size of the crowds he has been able to attract by way of celebrity’s gravitational pull. He has boasted about the throngs attending his rallies. He has taunted his opponents about the relatively few people who turned out for their events. And Trump’s ascendance to the presidency seems to have done nothing to assuage that impulse: On Friday evening, at the Armed Services Ball, Trump again talked about the large size of the crowd that had come to witness his inauguration. And on Saturday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer used his first official White House briefing to blast the media who had mentioned the size of Trump’s inauguration crowds as compared to those of past presidents, dismissing their assessment as attempts to “minimize the enormous support” that had gotten Trump elected. (Though crowd sizes are notoriously difficult to determine with precision, Trump’s crowds were in fact decidedly smaller than the ones that came out for Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.)
The new president, in his rhetoric, has emphasized the “pop” in “populism.” And so—counterpunch—the Women’s March has emphasized its own crowd size. The throngs on Saturday spilled over from the march’s stage, where celebrities (America Ferrera, Gloria Steinem, Janelle Monáe, Katy Perry, Ashley Judd, Alicia Keys, Madonna) and activists (Rise’s Amanda Nguyen, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Rhea Suh, Our Revolution’s Erika Andiola, and many others) spoke to the people watching them both in person and on TV; they marched down Independence Avenue, and milled down Pennsylvania Avenue; they piled onto the steps of the National Gallery of Art; they filled the Mall to capacity. They showed up to sister rallies around the country and the world—in Chicago, in Boston, in New York, in Los Angeles, in Barcelona, in Nairobi, in New Delhi. And according to the march’s organizers, CNN reported, “the crowds were exponentially larger than expected.”
According to organizers, too: That matters. If the Women’s March was trying to inaugurate a movement on January 21, 2017, the first thing it had to do was to prove that there was a movement to be inaugurated. As one sign read: “TRUMP, DO YOU REALLY WANT TO PISS OFF THIS MANY WOMEN?”
Or, as Raquel Willis, of the Transgender Law Center, told the audience before she began the rest of her speech on the march’s main stage: “I want us to take a second and look around. Look at all these people who are gathered here to take a stand. These are your partners in resistance and liberation.”
Monáe made a similar argument. “This is about all of us,” the actor and singer said, “fighting back against the abuse of power.”
“All of us.” “Us” is a tricky word in the America of 2017, the America that is coming off of an acrimonious campaign season—with all its offenses, on all sides, still fresh. But the Women’s March insisted that the “us” and the “we” are two other things to be reclaimed in the years ahead—two other things that will be at stake in every peaceful transition of power. As Ferrera told the crowd at the beginning of the protest, “The president is not America. His cabinet is not America. Congress is not America. We are America. And we are here to stay.”
It was the very bizarre translation of the Beatitudes that threw me off for good. In the two-hole of the Inauguration Preachers batting order, a fellow named the Reverend Dr. Samuel Rodriguez went to the familiar and iconic fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, but the text he read sounded like an Aramaic-English Google Translation read by Yoda.
For example, here’s the majesty of the King James version:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
And here’s the Reverend Doctor Rodriguez’s version:
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble for they will inherit the earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, the difference between the two renditions is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. The former is poetry, the latter is prose—and clumsy prose at that. The first resounds like a prayer; the second is something you’d see on a poster in somebody’s cubicle under the picture of a sunset, or a kitten hanging by its forepaws.
What was lacking from the second is what has brought the first version down through the years: majesty. And on the west front of the Capitol on Friday morning, during what we were relentlessly sold as the miracle of the Peaceful Transfer of Power—as though anyone really expected a storming of the barricades—there was no room for majesty. And while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir still has game, and the Marine Band can seriously play, majesty surrendered rather meekly to salesmanship, and branding, and the gilt-edged palaver of the midnight infomercial.
This was a sales gimmick, not an inauguration.
In theory, there’s something admirably American in taking the piss out of the system’s pretensions. When Jimmy Carter walked in his inauguration parade, it represented for the moment the final collapse of the imperial executive within which Richard Nixon had hidden his crimes for so long. Barack Obama’s embrace of popular culture let some of the stuffing out of the office as well. But this was different.
This was somebody selling something precious and important at a reduced rate of sloganeering. A pitchman’s ceremony, the inauguration of President* Donald Trump was a device for selling American democracy a hair-restoral nostrum, a cure for erectile dysfunction, and a full scholarship to his Potemkin University. This was an event in which even Scripture itself was sent through the gang down in marketing so as not to sound too “elitist” for its intended audience of marks and suckers.
This was somebody selling something precious and important at a reduced rate of sloganeering
The speech itself was as dark and forbidding. It was Huey Long translated by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. (And, as Gizmodo‘s Gabrielle Bluestone pointed out, a famous Batman villain.) This is to say, it was Huey Long drained of his classical references, his summons to Scripture, and whatever was left of his authentic American economic populism. In 1934, for example, Long delivered his most famous speech. In it, he said:
It is necessary to save the government of the country, but is much more necessary to save the people of America. We love this country. We love this Government. It is a religion, I say. It is a kind of religion people have read of when women, in the name of religion, would take their infant babes and throw them into the burning flame, where they would be instantly devoured by the all-consuming fire, in days gone by; and there probably are some people of the world even today, who, in the name of religion, throw their own babes to destruction; but in the name of our good government, people today are seeing their own children hungry, tired, half-naked, lifting their tear-dimmed eyes into the sad faces of their fathers and mothers, who cannot give them food and clothing they both need, and which is necessary to sustain them, and that goes on day after day, and night after night, when day gets into darkness and blackness, knowing those children would arise in the morning without being fed, and probably go to bed at night without being fed.
If you take that passage and run it through the Trump Rosetta Stone program, you get:
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
There was a terrifying solipsism to Trump’s address, as there likely will be to his presidency. For all his protestations that he is merely the instrument of a great movement, he holds himself above that movement in the way he imagines all great leaders do. In every real sense, from his podium at the Capitol, he talked down to his audience sprawled over a good portion of the National Mall.
He talked to them about the blighted hellscape of a country that he inherited, the blighted hellscape that already existed in their own truncated imaginations. He coined their actual anxieties and displacement into one of the hoariest demagogue’s tropes: America First. And despite its dingy antecedents, Trump’s use of America First doesn’t necessarily mean what the anti-Semites of the 1930s meant when they said it. It’s more like one of those foam rubber fingers that fans wear at football games with “AMERICA” written in red across it.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes—starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
That is what had them buzzing on the way out of the event Friday. He really told them, did our Donald Trump. He’s got balls, doesn’t he? “You see ’em up there? They had to listen to him,” said the guy in front of me, waiting to cross Constitution Avenue. “Yeah, there’s a new sheriff in town.”
As he said it, we were passing a big tree under which I had sat in January of 1981 to listen to Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address. It was a barrel of banality, too. (“Government isn’t the solution. Government is the problem.” Thirty-five years of political mischief have flowed from that one line.) But there was a brightness to what Reagan said, and he seemed at least to have some sense of the moment, which proves that there is a great distance between even a mediocre actor and a great con-man.
On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of . . . . On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.” Well, I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children. And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.
Act worthy of me, Trump’s speech said. Act worthy of what you bought from me.
In his speech, and in draining the event of his inauguration of its majesty, the president* managed to turn the west front of the Capitol into a college auditorium in Iowa, or an airplane hangar in New Hampshire, or a stage in Cleveland, Ohio. Already, this is being praised by the dim and the craven as admirable—that Trump deserves credit for declaring that he will be the same person as president as he was in the campaign. I would remind those people, and the new president*, of Henry Gondorff warning to Johnny Hooker: “You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.”
There is a reckoning out there in the distant wind for everything and everybody who brought us to this day, when not even the Marine Corps Band and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir could neither elevate the inauguration of a president out of the language of mere commerce nor make of the event anything more than a banal transaction—a day on which even Jesus Christ on the Mount was warned to keep it simple, stupid.
In an astonishing comeback for the scandal-scarred educational institution, Trump University enrolled more than three hundred million new students at noon on Friday.
“Congratulations,” the President of Trump University told the new students. “For the next four years, you are all in Trump University.”
Some Americans who supported the President of Trump University in his long-shot bid to reopen the school made the journey to Washington, D.C., to hear his welcome address.
“He said we’re all going to be rich!” Harland Dorrinson, a new Trump University student, said. “I just know that this is going to end really well.”
But even as students like Dorrinson celebrated, there were complaints from other students, millions of whom said they had been enrolled in Trump University against their will.
“I never signed up for Trump University,” Carol Foyler, who is one of those students, said. “The President of this school is some kind of a con man. And why are so many members of the faculty Russian? The whole thing seems fishy.”
“Not my University,” she said.
While the original program offered by Trump University had a price tag as high as thirty-five thousand dollars, the next four years are expected to be far more costly, experts say.
Quoth Donald Trump: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place,” he continued. “The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
To quote Mr. Trump again: “Wrong.”
Theatre, in its long history and purpose, has never been a “safe place.” It has always been, since the days of Socrates and Aeschylus and William Shakespeare and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Aphra Behn and Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg and Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey and Elmer L. Rice and Clifford Odets and Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Miller and William Inge and Maria Irene Fornes and Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Anderson and Lanford Wilson and Edward Albee and Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick and August Wilson and Terrance McNalley and Marsha Norman and Paula Vogel and every playwright in the Official Playwrights of Facebook page, its duty to challenge, frighten, discomfort, tweak, bullyrag, provoke, infuriate, piss off; to make uncomfortable, to squirm and cringe, and at the same time force everyone inside the theatre and outside of it to think. We may do it with laughter and music and lights and sets and costumes, but a play that does not change the audience, that does not make it see the world and themselves in a different way when the lights come up and the curtain comes down, has fallen short.
That is the solemn promise we in theatre make when we take up the profession and the art, and while we may do it in as many different ways as there are plays, stages, playwrights, and places to hear and see our work, we will never accede, concede, or give up our obligation to challenge the status quo and make a difference. What other power have we? We are not politicians, we just pillory them. We cannot make laws, we just decry the bad ones. We cannot erase bigotry with the wave of our hand but we can make us aware of it and torture it into submission.
Theatre is a powerful weapon against tyranny and bullshit. It has always been a threat to the intolerant, which is why it is always the first to be suppressed by the dictators. Many writers and playwrights have been imprisoned, banished and executed because they proved the pen is more a threat to a tyrant than armed rebels in the streets. Nothing wounds more than mockery and ridicule. This is a lesson that must not be forgotten.
So no, Mr. Trump, the theatre must never be a safe place. That is what makes it special.
(PS: It’s a tad ironic that someone from the “Party of Lincoln” would think that being booed is the worst thing that could happen to a politician in a theatre.)
The House Democrats were still holding the floor — literally — at 3:00 a.m. Thursday, sixteen hours into their demand that Congress hold votes on gun control measures.
Revolt in the House of Representatives turned raucous early Thursday, with protesting Democrats shouting down Speaker Paul Ryan’s attempts to restore order after their nearly 15-hour gun-control protest.
Democrats took over the floor of the House at 11:25 a.m. Wednesday, demanding Republican leadership schedule votes on bills about universal background checks and blocking gun sales to those on no-fly lists.
The sit-in stretched through the night and was broadcast around the world largely thanks to Democrats’ cellphones streaming live feeds to Facebook and the Periscope app.
Democrats nearly drowned out Ryan’s words with chants when the House Speaker reconvened the House for a vote on a matter unrelated to the gun issue at around 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Some Democrats held placards with the faces of the victims of the Orlando nightclub attack — the deadliest shooting in U.S. history — in view of the cameras. The clerk could barely be heard.
The cable networks were airing live coverage and I just heard a Republican say that the Democrats are interfering with the “important business of Congress,” such as re-naming post offices.
Apparently the Republicans don’t have enough to do, either, because Speaker Ryan adjourned the House until July 5. So not only are they not doing anything about guns, they’re leaving funding for Zika virus control and the Puerto Rico debt crisis. Good going, guys.
I watched the first hour of Peter Pan Live last night, then switched over to Rachel Maddow where they had a whole different live TV show going on: feeds of demonstrations from Chicago, New York, and other places on behalf of Eric Garner and justice.
As for the attempt at theatre on TV on NBC, it was inoffensive. Allison Williams has a very nice singing voice and she was able to carry off the illusion of being a boy on the verge of puberty, carrying on the tradition of having a woman play the role that goes back to Maude Adams. She had the tough task of rising to the bar set by Mary Martin, but then the target audience for this performance had no idea who Mary Martin was. I’m pretty sure even their parents weren’t around when she flew in the window. From what I saw, Ms. Williams did a good job.
Casting Christopher Walken as Captain Hook was, as they say in the business, a bold move. It’s harking back to his early days as a hoofer on Broadway (he was in the chorus of the 1964 Noel Coward musical High Spirits), and I’m sure he approached it with his trademark intensity. But again he had to fill the pumps of the legendary Cyril Ritchard (who also played Mr. Darling in a bit of Freudian double-casting), and while Mr. Walken’s performance in the pirate production number was interesting to say the least, he came across as more menacing than flamboyantly vicious. Even Dustin Hoffman in Hook had more fun. Besides, what’s the point of playing Captain Hook if you can’t camp it up?
I guess I’m just a nostalgic curmudgeon, but I liked it better seeing it in grainy black and white on our old Magnavox TV-radio-phono console in the living room when I was eight. It was more theatrical. You knew you were watching theatre, and seeing the cables that made the kids fly added to the fun. Last night it was more a distraction knowing that they were staging it for TV.
Switching over to watch the marches on the streets of America had their own theatrical quality. This was real street theatre. There’s something karmic about changing channels from one show about fighting the forces of evil set to music to another show set to chants of “I can’t breathe.”