January 19, 2017

The Obama Years

What the “Yes I Can” president wanted most of all was to bring together a robust democracy in spirit if not every line of substance. What he ran into was a rockslide of revolt and ...

What the “Yes I Can” president wanted most of all was to bring together a robust democracy in spirit if not every line of substance. What he ran into was a rockslide of revolt and a singular embodiment of it: a three-ring circus of a successor, Donald Trump, who seems to be the very opposite in tone and temperament of Barack Obama. 

Of course, many of us, like Marilynne Robinson, beloved novelist and personal friend of the president, will miss a lot from Mr. Obama. Robinson says the transnational aspects of Obama embody the very best in us, and, she tells us, “Our refusal to acknowledge him as he was really is a refusal to acknowledge ourselves as we are.” Robinson speaks of Obama as a “saintly man” with an impossible job:

This idea of the transformative leader, I think that that Obama is smarter than that. He knows that change is incremental and that it is collective. But what liberals tend to do–and I call myself a liberal under every possible circumstance, I’d put it on my headstone–but what they tend to do is create some ideal that nobody could live up to and then diminish what is good, what is accomplished by comparison with this almost childlike, supposed expectation. It’s no way to run anything.

Bromwich, Sterling professor of English at Yale, sees Obama differently. Bromwich was a supporter in 2008, but in 2009 became a skeptic who saw serious limits to the man’s gracious style:

…you can’t keep giving that reconciliatory post-war speech with a euphemistic and gentle rhetoric appropriate to a magnanimous victor in a war. Obama wanted to be the magnanimous victor and conciliator before he even fought a contest… and that’s a temperamental quirk so strange…. a fixed, false idea that he could be the unifier.

Nathan Robinson and Randall Kennedy join us to hash out the meaning of the Obama years in the context of the inauguration.

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Podcast • January 12, 2017

Silvio Berlusconi: The Godfather of Trumpismo

According to Henry Kissinger, “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen.” Don’t tell that to the Italians. The parallels between Donald Trump and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi are as striking as ...

According to Henry Kissinger, “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen.” Don’t tell that to the Italians. The parallels between Donald Trump and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi are as striking as they are frightening. Both men catapulted their way to power by running against the establishment as outsiders, billionaire “every men,” freed by money and power to be as lewd as anyone.

Mixing show business with politics, Trump and Berlusconi, both tireless salesmen, promoted their own personal brands as solutions to political gridlock and national malaise. Despite their notable conflicts-of-interest, these strongmen present themselves as a panacea for all their countries’ woes without offering any comprehensive political programs for relief. The cult-of-personality surrounding both men gives them both a sort of Teflon defense against personal scandals: attacks on the cruder aspects of their personalities—their raunchy rants and sex scandals—don’t stick and do little to derail their quests for political power. And what does it tell you that both men have also developed close relationships with another vainglorious world leader, Vladimir Putin? 

To get the Italian perspective on Trumpismo—what might be called the Berlusconi Doctrine, American-style—we turned first to our favorite public radio paisan, Sylvia Poggioli. Poggioli gives us a broad reportorial take on the havoc wrought by Italy’s own vulgar, business-minded, anti-professional TV mogul.

Alexander Stille—the Italian-American journalist who articulated his own connections between bunga bunga banter and Trumpian masculinity for The Intercept in March—adds a more theoretical interpretation. Stille helps contextualize Berlusconi as “the first post-modern politician”—a master of visual media and entertainment politics who can effortlessly spin truths to his advantage.

Also joining us is Sabina Guzzanti, the satirist and filmmaker who emerged as one of the prominent Italian gadflies in the Berlusconi era. Guzzanti mercilessly provoked the thin-skinned prime minister and his Mediaset broadcasting empire with ruthless critiques and satirical jabs on her late-night TV show Raiot. After the program was muted by censorship and lawsuits, Guzzanti crystallized her critique of Berluscanismo in the 2005 documentary Viva Zapatero!

Bill Emmott, former editor-in-chief of The Economist, rounds out our program with the imperial view from the editorial board of the magazine that went to war with “the man who screwed an entire country.”

The lessons learned from Berlusconi present a rather grim view of America’s future under Trump. But we also shouldn’t forget that one of the key appeals for both Silvio and the Donald lies in their consummate skills as entertainers. The old joke about Mussolini’s fascist leadership of Italy was that “at least he made the trains run on time.” For Berlusconi, the best that can be said, maybe, is that at least he could sing in tune:

What might the tenor of the Trump administration, with its even crasser model of carnival-barker showmanship, sound like?

#TheResistance under Berlusconi

The feeling, over a 20-year Berlusconi era, is that the left in Italy was fiddling while Rome was burning. Nobody had (or has) an answer to the charming strong guy. “The left really doesn’t know what to say,” the political science professor Daniele Albertazzi says. (And international media pressure from the likes of The Economist didn’t amount to much, either.) For example, Romano Prodi (Goldman Sachs advisor, two-time PM, and founder of Italy’s Democratic Party) and Matteo Renzi (union basher who took up the Democratic Party mantle as PM from 2014 to 2016) offered few answers. The center did not hold. Albertazzi is a professor at the University of Birmingham in UK who studies European populist movements. Hear a short interview below:

lead illustration by Susan Coyne, post by Frank Horton and Zach Goldhammer

December 1, 2016

Trump in the World

Trump says he knows more than the generals, so this week we’re talking to the colonels about the future of U.S. foreign policy. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson joins us to try and sort through all the noise ...

Trump says he knows more than the generals, so this week we’re talking to the colonels about the future of U.S. foreign policy.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson joins us to try and sort through all the noise and speculation surrounding the president-elect’s amorphous international stance. Wilkerson has long been a consummate observer of institutional politics and power, first in the military ranks, later in White House as chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. Now a professor at William and Mary, he sees our country in a real battle with The Three Plagues of Apathy, Lethargy and Ignorance. He shares with us the perspective of his ‘awakened’ students, his professional assessment of Trump’s cabinet of generals, and what the foreign policy priorities of any US president should be in the 21st century.

Later, distinguished historian of international relations, retired Col. Andrew Bacevich tells us why there needs to be an institutional purge of the U.S. military’s senior leadership. All three- and four-star generals must go, he says. The reasoning is simple: they’ve failed to do their job , i.e. “bring America’s wars to a timely and successful conclusion.” Finally, the brilliant Stephen Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School conjures up best case/worst case scenarios of Trump’s foreign policy, as informed by his ever clear-eyed, realist perspective.

Can any of these astute observers of the international scene find some hope for the future under the Donald? Well, as the satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote: “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” If this is true, then President-elect Donald Trump just may be a foreign policy genius. In an open letter, published back in March of 2016, all the neocon masterminds of the Iraq War — everyone from Armitage to Wolfowitz — came out, en masse, against his presidential candidacy, on the grounds that he possessed the makings of an unmitigated foreign policy disaster.

Though there exists room for debate, Trump has staked out a few (surprisingly) reasonable policy positions: ‘spreading democracy’ through exercises in nation-building is not in our national interest; free-riding NATO allies should take on more of the collective burden; de-escalating tensions with Russia is to our benefit. Obviously, there are also numerous grounds for alarm, as well. So often, Trump’s more commonsensical foreign proposals came packaged in speeches that trafficked heavily in xenophobia and calls for civilizational war, threats of trade battles and reneging on diplomatic pacts, praises for the efficacy of torture and support for the widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons.

As we try to sort through these mixed messages of hatred and reform, we turn to our colonels for the longview: What is the Donald Doctrine overseas, and how it will change the image of our nation, at home and abroad?

November 10, 2016

Seeing Red in Trump’s America

So! It happened. Hillary Clinton failed. Donald J. Trump will become the 45th of the United States. His election marks an earthquake in American politics – one that the seismic monitors of Big Media political pundits, data ...

So! It happened. Hillary Clinton failed. Donald J. Trump will become the 45th of the United States. His election marks an earthquake in American politics – one that the seismic monitors of Big Media political pundits, data heads and op-ed waxers all failed to predict.

On January 20th, 2017, Trump will take the helm of a “broken system” and lead a scarred and divided nation—fractured along lines of race, gender, and education.

Feelings of disenfranchisement and neglect were the ruling sentiments for a majority of Americans on election day. 72% of the voting electorate reported in exit polls that “the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.” And 68% said that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”

Our guests this week provide us with a prismatic view of America standing at a precipice.

Noted Roman historian Mary Beard reminds us that democracy has always been “more than putting a piece of paper in a box.” That it’s a process, a way of thinking. “Democracy can’t function if people don’t have information.” Later, civil war historian Eric Foner locates the seeds of the economic and cultural discontent Trump has parlayed into his victory. He argues that the cultural resentment stems from the social changes in the 1960’s, the progressive movements of feminism, civil rights and immigration reform. Also joining us in the studio: Ron Suskind, Randall L. Kennedy, Kathy Cramer, and Nathan J. Robinson.

This Week's Show •

American Wreckage

Thomas Paine, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Hobbes all agreed: A house divided against itself cannot stand. In this election season, the massive fault lines of gender, race, and class—snaking deep underneath the ...

Thomas Paine, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Hobbes all agreed: A house divided against itself cannot stand. In this election season, the massive fault lines of gender, race, and class—snaking deep underneath the foundation of American democracy—have been revealed for all to see.

In many ways, Campaign 2016 has been one long series of seismic quakes, laying wreckage to any semblance of a shared national identity. And the Big One, Trump has teased/threatened, is possibly still to come — a contested election that spills out into the streets.

matta-clark

Gordon Matta Clark, Splitting (1974)

We’re joined by journalists Sarah Smarsh and Matt Taibbi. Smarsh’s recent article in the Guardian takes the media to task for their monolithic presentation of the white working-class, particularly in her own state of Kansas. Taibbi, Rolling Stone contributor and fierce Wall Street critic, envisions for us a scenario in which the specter of Trump continues to exert enormous influence long into foreseeable future of U.S. politics. He takes the long view ahead: how Trump might end up being the best thing to happen to Clinton (and her friends in finance and the pentagon) — acting as an instrument to suppress dissenting voices of any stripe. As Taibbi writes:

Trump ran as an outsider antidote to a corrupt two-party system, and instead will leave that system more entrenched than ever. If he goes on to lose, he will be our Bonaparte, the monster who will continue to terrify us even in exile, reinforcing the authority of kings. If you thought lesser-evilism was bad before, wait until the answer to every question you might have about your political leaders becomes, “Would you rather have Trump in office?”

More than Hitler or Mussolini, Bonaparte may be the most apt comparison for Trump. Even if he loses, he will continue to be an imminent danger (conveniently, for some in the Establishment) to democracy.

napoleon

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

July 6, 2016

The Tragedy of Tony Blair

The scathing Chilcot verdict on Tony Blair’s contribution to the war on Iraq brings to mind a more awful tragedy: that more politicians – notably of the American variety – have not suffered the public, ...

The scathing Chilcot verdict on Tony Blair’s contribution to the war on Iraq brings to mind a more awful tragedy: that more politicians – notably of the American variety – have not suffered the public, private and utter disgrace now falling on Perfidious Albion.

It took Donald Trump – in a rare moment of clarity – to shout the news into Jeb Bush’s face: that his brother George had lied his way into a $5-trillion blunder and crime, still bleeding all over the place. How prissily evasive is the near-silence in our country, to this day! George W. Bush and his team of Vulcans – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, Wolfowitz and Co, and all those career-driven Senators and camp followers in media – have escaped Sir John Chilcot’s overdue sentence: to fess up their individual guilt and abject sorrow, and please now get off the stage. How much of the defining rage of 2016 rises simply from the anomaly (absurdity, anyone?) that Hillary Clinton, who cast her Senate vote for George Bush’s war, is running on her ‘experience’?

Sidney_blumenthal_2006In both sorrow and anger, I’m chewing over the Tony Blair story here with my friend of four decades, Sidney Blumenthal, who had a hand in writing it. We met a few weeks ago to talk through his acute personal take on Abraham Lincoln in A Self-Made Man – and the fixation Sidney shares with Abe on politics as vast and intimate theater. But on the Chilcot news blockbuster, it’s the digressions on Tony Blair that leap out of our conversation. Sidney had been ahead of the reporters’ pack in 1991 in marking Bill Clinton’s schmoozing route to the Democratic nomination. Writing for The New Republic and then The New Yorker, Sid Blumenthal in effect presided at the conversational table around the Clintons—contributing, not least, “a vast right-wing conspiracy” as the catch-phrase explaining Bill’s setbacks in office.

Meantime, Sidney and his wife Jackie, on their 20th wedding anniversary in 1996, turned their Washington reception into a party for Tony Blair—and Hillary came! It was the beginning of a political alliance and adventure that isn’t over yet. With George Bush in the White House after 9/11, Tony Blair was eager still to be a “strong ally,” as Sidney puts it. He wound up enabling the war in Iraq, being used, deceived and finally “destroyed” by it.

Hear more of our conversation below:

June 22, 2016

Give ‘Em Hill?

When almost everyone you know is scared to death at the prospect of The Donald as The President, it can feel like we’re barely thinking about his opposite number. She’s become the default choice—the option that ...

When almost everyone you know is scared to death at the prospect of The Donald as The President, it can feel like we’re barely thinking about his opposite number. She’s become the default choice—the option that isn’t chaos.

So, after the year of Trump, at last a meditation on Presumptive Candidate #2—and she’s a Hill of a lot more difficult to get a handle on. As we stand at the altar, are there any objections to this marriage? Do we have a real picture of this woman after her 40 years in politics?

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been America’s most admired woman in the world for 20 years running. She’s also the most disliked candidate (other than Trump) since 1984, and the first Democrat more disliked than liked. Can the Hillary puzzle be solved?

The Clintons’ legacy is unclear, at best. The name conjures that strange period in the 1990s: peace and prosperity right alongside scandal, pettiness, and selling out. Our guest Doug Henwood wrote a whole book called My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency(the cover is the now-iconic painting by the visual artist Sarah Sole, above).

My Turn is a well-written laundry list of private complaints and public scandals that’s bound to make you think twice about the couple, and Hillary herself. From Honduras to Libya, “superpredators” to superdelegates, Hillary isn’t just historic in the good ways—she and Bill would bring a lot of our checkered past back into the White House with them.

Then again, Ellen Fitzpatrick reminds us that female presidential candidates tend to get a lot more than the usual scrutiny—and in her book The Highest Glass Ceiling, she has the history to back it up. If you didn’t know that more than 200 women have sought the highest office in the land, then you knew that before H.R.C., none of them even got close.

And Hillary has a further, post-feminine mystique. The critic Terry Castle—who wonderfully wrote up her meeting with Clinton at a fundraiser earlier this year in the London Review of Books—sees her, admiringly, as both woman and not-a-woman. Even as first lady, she left the familiar female identifiers in the kitchen with Tammy Wynette a very long time ago.

As “Val,” a salty old bartender on Saturday Night Live, Hillary is comic, charming, even “hot”—a glimpse of the private person that so many people have come to adore. But then the last time we elected the person we’d like “to have a beer with,” we wound up with George W. Bush—who is only now, eight years after his unhappy departure, more popular with voters than Hillary

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jh2n5ki0KE

Hillary Clinton—overexposed but uncomprehended—raises all kinds of questions for voters and citizens. Where does the personal end and the political begin? What can we learn about a potential presidency by everything that came before it? And how should we read her—by what standard? As woman or war-maker, private self or public persona, historical breakthrough—or more of the same?

August 13, 2015

Trump This!

If Jeb Bush were caught, on a secret recording, dissing John McCain for getting captured by the North Vietnamese, he’d be denounced by every Republican living, even his dad. If Ted Cruz told a female staffer she’d look ...

If Jeb Bush were caught, on a secret recording, dissing John McCain for getting captured by the North Vietnamese, he’d be denounced by every Republican living, even his dad. If Ted Cruz told a female staffer she’d look better on her knees, he’d be sent back to Canada.

So why is that from the billionaire candidate Donald Trump, wide-open narcissism, sexism, and anti-Mexican racism are accepted, even applauded? Maybe because Trump fits so comfortably into a mood of malcontent skepticism. Think George Wallace and Curtis LeMay before him: crazy or cynical, maybe, but in a familiar, American way.

So this week we’re looking for the many meanings in the Donald’s for-now popularity, and asking what his long candidacy might mean a new understanding of what America’s looking forward after Obama. So with historians Rick Perlstein and Heather Cox Richardson, and a chorus of voices, let us count the ways. 

1. Trump’s a TV brand.

Trump has brought a certain televisual atmosphere with him — the look of entertainment news, The Apprentice and advertising, roasts and resort vacations — into an otherwise stale and overcrowded horse race. Our guest Jeet Heer says the Trump candidacy works like professional wrestling — it becomes scripted battle, and spectacularly vulgar. (We shouldn’t forget Trump himself has thrown a few punches at Wrestlemania.)

2. He’s a high-school archetype.

The novelist of Election and screenwriter Tom Perrotta told us that Trump’s a kind of callback to high school: the entitled-and-he-knows-it prom king who has the car, the girl and the grades (despite not working). And all he sees around him are losers. Look at Trump’s first appearance in the New York Times: at age 27, already with a monogram license plate on his Cadillac.

3. He’s an aspirational figure.

Through it all, says Mark Singer of The New Yorker (who’s gone ten rounds with Trump), Trump represents a hypercharged version of the American dream that appeals to blue-collar voters, what Rick Perlstein called “a poor person’s version of a rich person”: he bet on himself, against the odds, damned the doubters, and built what they call a “personal brand” long before that was mainstream. Now he flies a jet with his name on it, and he’s willing to lie or go bankrupt to keep the show going.

4. He’s a truth-teller in a corrupt country.

 Trump is leveraging Citizens United the way Stephen Colbert did before him: slamming our “broken” system and at the same time proving it’s broken by his mere presence. Trump donated to the Clinton Foundation, so the Clintons came to his wedding (see above). Before they were adversaries, Gov. Scott Walker gave him a thank-you plaque for his support — now Trump won’t let him forget it. 

5. He’s a populist clown — and some clowns are scary.

Trump’s not alone: he’s part of a global class of outré anti-political politicians. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, once the Senate’s hippie scold, has preached socialism to a hundred thousand Americans on the trail.  Rob Ford, Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, remains a city councillorFor now Italy’s second-place pol is the ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, and Geert Wilders, a xenophobe with almost Trumpian hair, is way up in the Netherlands.

But Buruma conjures prior clowns with a caution: Hitler, Mussolini, and Putin were all laughingstocks before they won power — on an aura of emotional connection with their people and a promise of national resurrection. All this, Buruma’s clear, is not to call Trump Hitler, but to remind us that outrageous demagogues can turn serious in a hurry. The dynamics of The Great Dictator are in play:

https://youtu.be/yPQKFDf2BEM?t=17m53s