GoT’s political science lesson

The finale of Game of Thrones moved at a snail’s pace and was mostly anticlimactic, but it featured an amusing scene in which VIPs from the Seven Kingdoms gathered to choose a new ruler. The bookish Samwell Tarly argued that the people should decide — the common people, that is — but the others merely chuckled at his suggestion.

“I don’t blame ’em for laughing,” Swamp Rabbit said as we watched the show. “You never know who might come to power if you leave it up to the peeps.”

I told the rabbit to hush, the show was supposed to be an escape from real-world politics and other depressing subjects.

But he the right, I added. We live in a country where the people decide who rules, and this time the people — with the help of the antiquated electoral college system — chose an orange hog monster who’s working hard to become our first dictator.

The rabbit clucked at me. “Sounds like you ain’t got no faith in them institutional norms I keep hearing about.”

I asked him what the norms were, just to see if he knew. In so many words, he told me that norms in politics were rules and conventions that ensure a basic level of civility and functionality in government. Norms are essential to the checks-and-balances system. Norms help keep the three branches of government co-equal.

I scowled at him. “Norms do nothing but hide the flaws in the Constitution. It took a lowlife like Trump to prove once and for all that norms are no substitute for laws, not when it comes to the presidency.”

He clucked again. “You’re agreeing with me, Odd Man. Who woulda thunk it.”

I told him I was just stating the obvious. Norms can’t compel a president to disclose his tax returns, or divest himself of businesses that he owned prior to being elected, or refrain from firing important federal officials who might reveal something damning about his conduct in office.

And so on. Trump wants to establish his own norms. He wants to make it normal for a president to appoint a crooked attorney general and to prevent staffers from obeying congressional subpoenas and to threaten nuclear war.

The rabbit said, “The scary thing is that the peeps who elected Trump, and half of the peeps in Congress, are cool with him becoming a dictator, or a tyrant. Whatever you want to call it.”

“The people make big mistakes sometimes,” I countered. “Can you think of a better way to choose a leader?”

We watched the part of the TV show where the VIPs decided their next ruler should be a paraplegic who hardly ever speaks and spends much of his time in a dreamworld.

“There you go,” the rabbit said. “Them VIPs figure Bran Stark is the safe bet.”

I scowled again. “A small group of royals settle on a lame, kooky teenager to be their chief. This is your idea of a good system for choosing a leader?”

The rabbit shrugged. “He’s a kook, but at least he ain’t likely to turn into a tyrant.”

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Books? There is no time!

Swamp Rabbit told me he was going home, he was tired of my grumbling about Donald Trump, I should finish writing my new “fiction book” instead of following politics.

“Or read books by other peeps,” he said.

I told him there’s no avoiding Trump, he’s even crept into contemporary fiction. I’d read Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success a few months ago and encountered about a dozen mentions of the grabber-in-chief. Trump is like an expanding cloud of smog, polluting the whole culture.

The rabbit asked, so I explained that Shteyngart is an A-list novelist and that Lake Success is about a guy named Barry whose life is falling apart even though he’s an enormously wealthy hedge fund manager with a beautiful wife named Seema and a zillion-dollar condo in Manhattan.

Self-absorbed Barry feels unloved by Seema and their autistic son, and is in trouble for insider trading. He leaves town to search for an old girlfriend, and he ends up searching for the real America or the meaning of life or something. He’s like Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road crossed with Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, except that Barry is a bit older than Sal and a thousand times more prosperous and jaded.

“Wait a minute, who’s this Sal guy?” Swamp Rabbit said. “And where’s this bonfire you’re talking about?”

I told him never mind, I should know better than to make literary allusions to someone who gets his information from talking heads on TV and gossipy Internet news sites.

“That ain’t fair,” Swamp Rabbit said. “You get your news from the same crappy sources as me.”

He was right. I spend more spare time scrolling Internet news sites than reading books, fiction or nonfiction. I realize that news venues impart only superficial knowledge of what’s happening in the world, but I excuse myself by saying “Who has time to read books these days?”

“And who has the energy?” I added, challenging the rabbit. “I’m worn out from working my traveling salesman job. It’s easier to watch cable news or Game of Thrones.”

“Quit whining,” he said. “Tell me about Lake Success.”

So I told him Barry’s reunion with the girlfriend doesn’t work out (of course not) as he travels west by bus and meets minorities and suffers through a bunch of indignities and wises up to the obvious fact that daily life in America is much worse for the poor than it is for the rich.

And there’s a counter-narrative from the POV of Seema who, after their first meeting, had

…Googled Barry’s net worth and found it comforting. A man that rich couldn’t be stupid. Or, Seema thought now, was that the grand fallacy of twenty-first-century America?

Trump is in the story even when he isn’t directly mentioned. He’s the grotesque symbol of the emptiness at the heart of the American Dream — the emptiness that helps explain Barry and Seema’s inability to feel any contentment despite their opulent lifestyles. But Shteyngart is a naturally funny writer, so you don’t get hit over the head with that message.

“Blah blah, ” Swamp Rabbit said. “Cut to the chase, what happens in the end?”

I told him to read the book if he wants to know. He looked at me like I was loony and said, “Who has time to read books these days?”

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Biggest loser’s fan base remains rock-solid

Swamp Rabbit and his parole office, Victor C, were digesting the news that businessman Donald Trump, in what most people assumed were his most successful years, had actually lost more money than almost any other American taxpayer:

The numbers show that in 1985, Mr. Trump reported losses of $46.1 million from his core businesses — largely casinos, hotels and retail space in apartment buildings. They continued to lose money every year, totaling $1.17 billion in losses for the decade.

“I can’t imagine having that much dough, let alone losing it,” the rabbit said.

Victor C, quoting David Cay Johnston, put it this way: “Every time Donald Trump took a breath for 11 years, he lost more than $3.”

I chipped in with a newspaper factoid that put Trump’s 1985-1995 losses in perspective:

If you got the entire amount in $100 bills and lined them up end to end starting at the entrance of Trump Tower, the chain would stretch to New Orleans, assuming a flat surface the entire way.

And so on. The point is that Trump, even at the time The Art of the Deal was published (1987), was an artless fraud whose boat was kept afloat by his rich daddy and by bankers who loaned him huge sums he had no intention of repaying.

I reminded Swamp Rabbit that Trump’s worldview, such as it is, was forged during the era in which Tom Wolfe coined the term “masters of the universe” to describe those grandiose Wall Street denizens who used financial wizardry to compile great fortunes.

“But Trump ain’t no wizard,” the rabbit said. “He couldn’t even make a profit on them casinos in Atlantic City.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “He knew the bankers were in too deep to stop lending him money. He knew he could tie them up in court forever if they tried to force him to pay his existing debts. The more he lost, the more they forked over to him.”

He was also stiffing the small businesses that serviced his casinos, hotels and other failing enterprises. Not so long ago he bragged, ““I’ve borrowed knowing you can pay back with discounts. I’ve done well with debt.”

I told Swamp Rabbit that Trump will do the same thing with Congress that he did with his creditors — tie them up in court to delay and maybe avoid being held accountable for possible crimes. That he’s asserting “executive privilege” to block congressional access to documents and witnesses that might derail his efforts to destroy the system of checks and balances essential to the American notion of democracy.

“Enough with the speech-making,” the rabbit said. “Ain’t nobody gonna prop up that moron now that they know he lost a billion-and-some dollars doing business.”

I thought of all the Republicans in Congress who remain more than willing to let Trump shred the Constitution, and of the many millions of Americans who seem to admire the biggest loser because he rose to the top despite (because of?) his hatefulness, dishonesty and incompetence.

“That’s what you think,” I said.

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Apocalypse 2020!

The cable news header for the next presidential election should be “Apocalypse 2020.” So says Swamp Rabbit’s parole officer Victor C, who dropped by my shack today to make sure the rabbit was abstaining from the hard stuff.

“The army of the dead is coming,” said Victor, a Game of Thrones fan. “You can’t beat death.”

I told him to stop being such a pessimist, the Democrats sound like they’re ready to fight. Yesterday morning, word leaked that Nancy Pelosi had told colleagues that Attorney General William Barr committed a crime when he lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Elizabeth Warren and others have called for Donald Trump’s impeachment. Jerry Nadler threatened to hold Barr in contempt for punking out on his House Judiciary Committee appearance.

“The dead are only 30 percent of the electorate, 35 at the most, and they don’t have a Night King to lead them,” I said. “All they have is an orange warthog.”

“Yes, but the living aren’t very lively,” Victor countered. “Democrats always talk a good game, but they get wimpy when push comes to shove.”

Swamp Rat weighed in on Victor’s side. “Every time the Democrats draw a line in the sand, the Republicans step over it. Them Dems are up against the scum of the earth, but they still don’t get it.”

They get it, I told him. Trump, in order to downplay evidence that he obstructed justice during the Mueller investigation, is trying to undermine congressional oversight of the executive to the point where Congress is no longer a co-equal branch of government. He and Barr, his mouthpiece, have the support of almost all congressional Republicans, who would rather see Trump become a de facto dictator than risk the possible election of a Democratic president.

I referred the rabbit to an op-ed by former FBI director James Comey, whose theory is that Trump’s lackeys start out as good people who gradually learn he is a fraud and much worse but stay with him because they think they can serve their country despite him. Comey wrote:

Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on [Trump’s] team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values. And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.

“That’s real poetic,” Swamp Rabbit said, “but most of them peeps ain’t got no soul to begin with. They’d rather join the army of the dead than miss out on a chance for a little money and power.”

“You’ve got no room to talk,” I said. “You’d sell your soul for a shot of Jack Daniels.”

We argued for another hour. The only thing we could agree on was that Victor is right, Apocalypse 2020 is coming to a voting booth near you.

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WAY worse than Watergate

Swamp Rabbit was trying to read the news to me but I was on the porch feeding the swamp cats and blasting Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch through my JBL speaker.

“I can’t hear you,” I shouted through the window. “Who is it that won’t testify?”

“That guy who looks like Fred Flintstone at Wilma’s funeral,” Swamp Rabbit said. “The attorney general.”

I went inside and read the story on my laptop screen:

[Attorney General William] Barr is expected to appear before the Senate and House Judiciary committees Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, to address questions about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. But according to senior aides for the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Justice Department officials have objected to Democrats’ plans to permit extended questioning, including by the committee’s lawyers, and threatened that Barr may withdraw.

Bottom line, the AG did what Trump hired him to do: sugarcoat the Mueller report’s findings to protect Trump. Barr is reluctant to answer questions about this because he, like his boss, believes in an imperial presidency.

“They should quit wasting time and subpoena the guy,” I said. “He’s just another Trump lackey.”

“But he’s the AG,” Swamp Rabbit replied. “This is some serious shit, Odd Man. It could turn into Watergate all over again.”

I said yes, the current crisis is another test of whether a president can get away with ignoring the popular notion that the Constitution calls for three distinct and co-equal branches of government.

“But this is bigger than Watergate,” I added. “Trump is hiding a hundred times as many crimes as Nixon hid. Anybody else would be impeached by now. In jail, maybe.”

Swamp Rabbit, beside himself with angst, wondered aloud if the rule of law can survive a profoundly corrupt and ignorant president who dismisses the concept of congressional oversight. A would-be dictator, in other words.

“Trump says he’s gonna tell all his lackeys to ignore subpoenas,” he said. “What can them Congress critters do if that happens?”

“They can hold the lackeys in contempt and have them locked up,” I replied. “They can start with Flintstone.”

But then there’s the question of what happens if the courts get involved. I’m glad the rabbit didn’t ask me that.

Footnote: Check out this piece, which cites Garry Wills’s A Necessary Evil in arguing that the so-called Founders meant for Congress to have more power than the executive or judicial branches.

Another: David Cay Johnston, who’s been tracking the Trump monster’s ups and downs for decades, is convinced the courts won’t save him.

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‘The fix is in’ — a cliche, but how true

No collusion… No collusion… No collusion.”

I could hear Donald Trump’s mantra through the window yesterday as I was hanging clothes on the porch at my shack. But it wasn’t Trump speaking; it was William Barr, the attorney general, who was holding a press conference an hour before the release of the redacted Mueller report.

My friend Swamp Rabbit was watching Barr’s speech on the TV. “The fix is in,” he said as I walked in from the porch.

I groaned. “Spare me the cliches, rabbit.”

“I ain’t the one said the fix is in,” Swamp Rabbit said. “It was Jeffrey Toobin.”

He was right. Toobin is an attorney, a writer for the New Yorker, a talking head on CNN, and not exactly a flame-throwing radical. He usually avoids cliches, but what else can you say in light of the way the Mueller report has been handled by Barr who, not long before being chosen for AG by Trump, wrote a memo arguing there was no legal basis for bringing obstruction charges against the president?

Here is Barr at the press conference, kissing up to his boss:

The White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims… And at the same time, the President took no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation.

“Give me a break!” I shouted at the TV. “Trump fought Mueller tooth and nail, every step of the way. He refused to be questioned in person by Mueller. He would have fired Mueller if Don McGahn hadn’t threatened to quit.”

Swamp Rabbit put his feet up on a milk crate. “Calm down, Odd Man, we knew it would go down like this. Ain’t no use crying over spilt whiskey.”

But it was hard to move on. Robert Mueller, everybody’s great hope for justice, seems to have wimped out. He didn’t subpoena Trump, Trump Jr., Eric, Ivanka or Jared Kushner. He identified ten instances of possible criminal obstruction of justice by Trump but wrote no suggestions regarding what should be done with the evidence his team had gathered.

Mueller is no partisan hack like Barr, but one might argue that his apparent decision to protect the institution of the presidency by not charging Trump played directly into the hands of Barr and Trump.

“Then one would be wrong,” Swamp Rabbit said, mocking me. “Mueller was punting the ball to Congress and hoping they’d run with it. And he was counting on average Americans to do the right thing in 2020.”

Later on yesterday, I worked a sales job at the Iron Pigs game in Bethlehem. The ballpark’s loudspeakers cranked out advertisements and bad rock & roll. The noise was deafening but the average Americans in attendance didn’t seem to mind. It might be too late to count on them for anything.

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Even Nielsen wasn’t creepy enough for the chief

Swamp Rabbit and I pored over Rick Wilson’s 2018 book Everything Trump Touches Dies and wondered about the accuracy of the title.

“Interesting thesis,” I said. “The author is assuming Trump’s flunkies aren’t dead to begin with.”

Swamp Rabbit quibbled. “The title says everything, not everybody. Most of them peeps who got close to Trump are still alive.”

I demurred. “They may still have a pulse but their souls are dead. Look at Kirstjen Nielsen.”

Nielsen had just that day been forced out of her job as Homeland Security chief by Donald Trump, even though she’d been on board with his inhumane directives, including his decision to separate immigrant parents from their children at the Mexican border.

“Think about it,” I said to the rabbit. The middle-aged Nielsen could have finished her cybersecurity gig in comfortable obscurity but instead chose to work in Trump’s Cabinet, presumably because the proximity to greater power thrilled her. Like her predecessor John Kelly, she embraced Trump’s core values — bigotry, cruelty, dishonesty — but not ardently enough to keep Trump from turning on her.

“The question is, did her soul die after she took the job or was it dead all along,” I said.

The rabbit was silent, but I persisted. Are fascists born or are they made? Is it really possible to corrupt someone who isn’t corrupt to begin with? Were Stephen Miller, Betsy DeVos, Andrew Wheeler, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke and the other flunkies decent people before Trump touched them?

“I’m guessing they were scumbags from the get-go, but what’s your point?” the rabbit said. “A lot of peeps go through life without working for Trump.”

“Only because they don’t get the opportunity,” I replied. “There’s no end to the number of decent people who would sell their souls to that hog monster for the promise of money and power.”

“I ain’t into morality lectures, Odd Man,” the rabbit countered, reaching for his whisky bottle. “Everybody gotta serve somebody, including you.”

I asked him about the word “serve.” Did he mean serving or sucking up? Working for someone or selling one’s soul? The problem was not so much about morality as it was about digestion, I confessed. I’d never been able to stomach working for Trump types.

The rabbit looked around at my shack. “Dog gone it,” he said. “No wonder you’re such a high achiever.”

I asked him to pass the bottle, not knowing if I would drink or just hit him with it.

Footnote: Wilson was a pretty sick soul, a highly skilled propagandist who worked for right-wingers to undermine Barack Obama and other Democrats. I guess it took the nomination of Trump to make him see the light. Now he gets to be a talking head on MSNBC.

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