March 03, 2019

Twilight Zone America

As I watched Michael Cohen's testimony before Congress last week, the thought forcibly struck me over and over again that we are truly blessed to live in a country with such a magnificent government. How remarkable, that this large assemblage of astonishingly gifted public servants should peacefully gather together despite their passionately held, often conflicting convictions. And how additionally remarkable that they were all so unfailingly civil to one another, again despite the fact that their aims and goals in this proceeding were often directly opposed. Why, there has never been such a government, and it is difficult if not impossible to imagine that another such might ever exist upon Earth. And these people! Such people! People so lofty, they sound as if they shit marble!

Yeah. Okay. Let's be serious. I would expect anyone over the age of six or seven (and I may thereby be insulting intelligent five-year-olds) to have been devastatingly appalled by the spectacle of the Cohen hearing. The fiction was that Cohen's testimony and questioning were for the purpose of determining certain matters of controversy concerning the President of the United States. The proceedings themselves made painfully clear that no one cared about gaining a fuller understanding of the matters in question. The Democrats already knew the truth, and nothing Cohen said (or didn't say) would alter their view. Ditto for the Republicans. I don't mind a little political theater, but I prefer that such theater be somewhat more literate than what was on offer. It would probably be too much to hope for a twist or two, but that certainly would have offered momentary relief from the unrelenting tedium of what transpired. As for the questioners ... well. I will endeavor to be polite (I can do that when pressed): with perhaps one or two exceptions (although no names suggest themselves to me at the moment), the Representatives made it impossible to avoid the conclusion that they simply aren't, well, terribly bright.

And then there is Michael Cohen himself, this pathetic, repellent wreck of a man who never was. The tiresome Sad Sack act -- this bumbling, inept creature who is so, so sorry about everything (except for the acts of repentance he's now being forced to perform, which are ennobled by his immense suffering, including the fact that he's so, so sorry about everything) -- was clearly designed to convince all of us that he couldn't actually cause anyone any harm. It reminds me of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) at the very end of Psycho: "I hope they are watching. They'll see. They'll see and they'll know, and they'll say, 'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly.'" What can be brilliant in art, can be deeply sickening in real life. So it is here: the person who slashes people to death, but who wouldn't even harm a fly.

I do give Cohen full credit for one aspect of his performance: his face. He provided strong evidence for the truth of Orwell's observation that, "At 50, everyone has the face he deserves." A puffy, bloated mound of flesh that can barely resolve itself into a recognizable shape, with the corners of his mouth drooping so low they practically reach the floor. For the most part, Cohen maintained his quiet, Sad Sack, droopy-mouthed demeanor, but there were a few moments when he became somewhat more animated. This occurred when he was annoyed or angered by a particular remark -- and at those moments, we got a small taste of the kind of fixer Cohen was in days gone by. At those moments, his face assumed shape and had purpose, and the purpose was to destroy you: "So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”

In one part of his prepared remarks, Cohen described various misdeeds and possibly criminal acts committed by Donald Trump, followed by the comment, "and yet, I continued to work for him." He repeated this several times. If you wanted to present the strongest possible case against Trump, and certainly the Democrats do, you would turn Cohen's rhetorical device on its head. Point the observation in the other direction: despite Cohen being a thug, a fixer, a profligate liar, a man devoured by greed for power and money, with a lust for commanding others to obey his orders or else -- despite all that, Trump continued to employ him. We can state the proposition more strongly still: it is precisely because of all those qualities that Trump continued to employ him. That is very damning indeed, and mounds of evidence support its truth. Why didn't the Democrats make this point? Ah, but you see the problem: they want us to believe Cohen and what he tells us about Trump. It's exceedingly difficult to ask us to credit Cohen's testimony while simultaneously telling us that Cohen is a loathsome human being, so obviously loathsome that his continued employment for over a decade reveals Trump to be a loathsome human being as well. It's a tricky business, and it's interesting to watch people try to walk that tightrope.

As for Cohen's lying, it isn't simply that he lied a lot. He lied all the time. So how can we now believe him about anything? We can't. Despite that, I acknowledge that much of what he said about Trump is true. Trump is unquestionably a liar himself, a cheat, a fraud, a conman. But I don't believe that because Cohen says so; I believe it because huge amounts of other evidence attest to the accuracy of those characterizations. And it has been possible to make such judgments about Trump for many years. This is hardly a recent development, and these are not traits that Trump acquired in the last four or five years.

What is the significance of such judgments about Trump? It's intriguing that very few commentators have reflected on this question in any detail. Sure, they'll say it's terrible, it's awful, we can't have a President like that, and so on. But what does that mean exactly? One of the very few writers I've come across in the last several days who did address this issue is Peggy Noonan. Noonan is a conservative, of course, although never a Trump supporter to my knowledge. But I don't think she's a committed anti-Trumper, either, although I don't follow her closely enough to know for certain. (With only a few exceptions, I don't follow any commentators that closely; I don't have the patience any longer, and life is far too short.) And Noonan can often be odious. But she is an intelligent woman, and occasionally she is very perceptive on particular issues.

And to give credit where it's due -- hold onto your hats, because this is to give some credit to Reagan, too (on this one matter!) -- she did write the speech about the Challenger tragedy. You can watch the speech (it's short). The conclusion of the brief remarks is memorable, and very moving:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
(Here's an interesting article about how Noonan was selected to write the speech, and how the speech took shape.)

Here is the passage of interest from Noonan's column about the Cohen testimony:
Mr. Cohen implied the president’s Russian policies are not and never have been on the up-and-up: “Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump-Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign, and lied about it. He lied because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real-estate project.” Mr. Cohen said he came to see the president’s true character: “Since taking office he has become the worst version of himself. . . . Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead this nation—only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, the campaign is going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.’ He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign—for him—was always a marketing opportunity."

None of these charges were new, precisely. They have been made in books, investigations and interviews both on and off the record. What is amazing though is that such a rebuke—such an attack on the essential nature of a president, and by an intimate—has no equal in our history. I don’t think, as we talk about Mr. Cohen’s testimony, we fully appreciate this. John Dean said there was a cancer growing in the presidency. He didn’t say Richard Nixon was the cancer. He didn’t say the president was wicked and a fraud.

This is bigger than we think, and history won’t miss the import of this testimony.
I don't think Noonan's claim that "such a rebuke ... has no equal in our history" is accurate, unless she's relying on the fact that no such claim has been made "by an intimate" of the president. And her parsing of Dean's comment about "a cancer growing in the presidency" is a little too cute. But set that aside for the moment. What is interesting is her identification of the nature of Cohen's attack: that it is an attack "on the essential nature of a president." Cohen maintains that a racist, a liar, a cheat, a fraud, and a conman is president. In short, Cohen believes that a criminal is in the White House. And that, apparently, is what the Democrats (and anti-Trumpers generally) want us to believe.

If that's true, and if it represents a unique and fateful development in the history of the United States, shouldn't we be taking immediate action? Forget impeachment. How about massive civil disobedience? How about a crowd of a million or more Americans in the streets of Washington, D.C., a crowd that refuses to leave until Trump resigns? A criminal in the White House? Doesn't that require action right now?

Yet, in our culture, this story is merely another "hot" story of the moment. Interest in the Cohen appearance is already beginning to fade. We'll soon be consumed by some other "hot" story that will demand endless commentary and numerous columns, probably by the end of the coming week if recent behavior is any guide. So, once again, we witness a disconnect of mammoth proportions, an abyss between the words that are employed and the behavior that is considered appropriate by way of response. This is simply another political food fight. A criminal in the White House? Good copy, a good topic for talk-show guests to opine on. It's just words, after all.

There is yet another problem. Let's assume that Cohen's attack "on the essential nature" of Trump is entirely accurate. Would that mean that this development -- that a repellent criminal is president, and he continues to commit misdeeds and crimes to this day -- is unique in our history? No, it doesn't mean that at all. It is most definitely not unique, very far from it. But that is a truth most people refuse to acknowledge, because to do so would fundamentally threaten their entire belief system.

That requires some explanation. Next time! (Very soon, in the next day or so.)

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