This Is Not Normal. Donald Trump Is Not Normal.

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Keep repeating it to yourself: “This is not normal.” (Image retrieved from loser-city.com.)

In Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers and the HBO program on which it is based, millions of people suddenly vanish from the Earth in a Rapture-like event. Spoiler alert? No, this is the very premise of the book and the show. Besides, you probably weren’t going to read the novel or watch the program anyway, right? OK, now that that’s behind us. In the universe of The Leftovers, a cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant forms in the wake of people’s search for answers and established religion’s immediate failure to explain this mysterious phenomenon. Its members dress all in white, smoke constantly and say nothing. They are agitators, and get into silent confrontations with non-members, but with a purpose: to remind people that they are the leftovers, that this “Sudden Departure” did indeed happen, and that they couldn’t just pretend as if it did not, like it was just another day. If the Guilty Remnant were to be the world’s conscience, as frustrating and inconvenient as they were, so be it.

On Friday, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, with Mike Pence assuming the office of Vice President. No, some 2% of the world’s population did not spontaneously disappear, and yes, as has been the custom, there was an Inauguration Ceremony as with other presidents who have come before Trump. But Donald Trump and his campaign were quite unlike anything we have seen in modern history—and this is not a celebration of that idea. The way Trump conducted his campaign, and the way he conducts his affairs in general, are not normal. The sense of empowerment and entitlement he has given to those who ascribe to an exclusionary, prejudicial and xenophobic worldview, and the acceptance of this element in our society, is not normal. And while the proceedings of Inauguration Day occurred in accordance with tradition, as with the reaction of people to the Sudden Departure, to behave like this ceremony as a culmination of what occurred in this nation over the election cycle is just another day is to engage in serious self-defeating, self-deception. This all is not normal, and we can’t pretend like it is.

Let’s start with what was said during President Trump’s Inauguration speech. A lot of the ideas within it are by now familiar to us, but the tone and a key phrase within it are important to note. Trump, as is his custom, painted a picture that speaks to the United States in a bleak state, and to average American men and women as forgotten. Here is a notable passage from his address:

From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body—and I will never, ever let you down.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.  We will bring back our wealth.  And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work—rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.

We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world—but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones—and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

It would be a good speech, if only it weren’t so terrifying and disturbing. In this critical juncture of President Trump’s address, he establishes the theme of his comments and likely of his domestic and foreign policy at large: “America First.” More on that slogan, if you will, in a moment. Trump vows his utmost efforts on behalf of the American people and promises the U.S. will start “winning” like never before, apparently ascribing to Red Sanders’ oft-quoted (and misattributed) view that “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”

The question a lot of us conscientious objectors would have, though, is at what cost, and that’s where the sentiments within Pres. Trump’s speech get so frightening. As usual, stressing the “Islamic” aspect of terrorism risks conflation of jihadism with Islam at large, thereby increasing the danger to Muslims around the world sympathetic to America’s cause and morally opposed to ISIS. As I’ve heard the analogy before and have used it in my writing, peace-loving law-abiding Muslims are to organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as the Ku Klux Klan is to white Americans who disavow its agenda. Jihadists pervert Islamic principles to suit their own destructive purposes, and though this criticism is nothing new as regards use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” that solidarity with Muslims who live in and love America isn’t made clearer by Trump is nonetheless disappointing.

What’s more, Donald Trump speaks to a “total allegiance” to the United States as a bedrock of our politics, as if plain old regular allegiance is insufficient. As with the insertion of Islam into the abstract concept of radical terrorism, the vagueness of this phrase allows for more sinister interpretations of the language. If everyday Americans seem less committed to patriotism and the U.S. as rabid Trump supporters and jingoists do, do the more fervent believers among them have the President’s blessing to admonish and harass the dissenters? I, in expressing my contempt for Donald Trump shortly after being sworn in, was told by someone on Facebook to “show some f**king respect” and to “move to Canada” if I couldn’t show my American pride—and I feel like I got off light. Moreover, if we talk about allegiance as a bedrock of our nation’s politics, do those who would subvert Trump’s will or stand in opposition to conservative values and Republican ideals become somehow less American? It’s a worrisome inference, to say the least.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the unfortunate legacy of that phrase “America First.” Christopher Brennan, writing for the New York Daily News, outlines how the America First Committee was an organization formed in 1940 by Gen. Robert E. Wood and Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Charles Lindbergh) which resisted the United States’ intervention to aid Great Britain when it was under attack by Hitler’s forces. As Brennan details, a significant portion of the Committee were Nazi sympathizers, and if we know our history, Lindbergh traveled to Nazi Germany numerous times and even received a medal from the Third Reich. Wait, you’re thinking, Trump is stupid—he has no idea of the historical implications of what he’s saying. Except for the idea the Anti-Defamation League has already asked Trump not to use the phrase owing to its associations with fascism and anti-Semitism. Regardless, President Trump’s ignorance on this count would be dubious at best. In all likelihood, Trump is speaking in coded language, appealing to those who bleed red, white and blue at the superficial level, and giving a nod to alt-righters, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in any form. Our President or Mein Führer? With a hint of sadness, I’ll note the allusion is not as crazy as it might seem.


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This is the face of a woman who has no idea what she is talking about. (Photo Credit: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press).

If Donald Trump’s swearing in as the 45th President of the United States was the culmination of a brutal election season, the confirmation hearings for various Trump Cabinet appointees leading up to the Inauguration could presage a likewise unbearable agenda for his administration. It is one thing that a number of them seem to espouse positions that run contrary to what a majority of Americans believe, and certainly speak to views which fly in the face of what more liberal Democrats and progressives hope to achieve. It is another, however, that they appear to be woefully unqualified for their intended office if not wholly incompetent, or otherwise seem to possess a rather cavalier attitude given they are representing the American public and are supposed to be acting in its interest. Here are the nominees for whom hearings have been held so far (not listed are Gens. James Mattis and John F. Kelly, who represent the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively, and who already were confirmed prior to this writing):

Jan. 11

Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson

January 11’s scheduled hearings for Cabinet picks saw two heavy-hitters tested on their qualifications fairly early in the confirmation process. Jeff Sessions, Pres. Trump’s pick for Attorney General, to his credit, said he would oppose the use of torture by military personnel, as well as a ban on Muslims entering the country and a registry for Muslim Americans, three things that Trump insisted on throughout his campaign. On the other hand, though, Sessions harped on the criticism that police forces have received for doing their jobs in the wake of high-profile shooting incidents—without much apparent credence to civilian deaths—did little to nothing to allay concerns that he respects civil rights, specifically voting rights, and seems to have intentions for his would-be department, the Department of Justice, to more vigorously enforce immigration law. As someone who has been met with allegations of racism in the past concerning his record during his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, despite his insistence he will uphold and enforce existing laws, seems only somewhat committed to issues affecting blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, and women, among other groups. Not entirely surprising coming from a moneyed white male (Sessions’ estimated worth is about $6 million), but surely not altogether encouraging at the start of a presidency of a man with historically-low approval ratings.

That Sessions seemed to soften on certain hard-line stances meant his hearing was still uneven in light of his judicial and legislative record, but nonetheless, he made his bid for confirmation more plausible, if not highly likely. Rex Tillerson, um, did not fare as well in his confirmation hearing, as Tessa Stuart of Rolling Stone indicated in a feature article. Among the points during Tillerson’s confirmation hearing which merited criticism of Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State—which is, by the way, a natural stepping stone for a CEO of ExxonMobil, a role that does not require specific foreign policy experience:

  • He wouldn’t say if he supported sanctions against Russia if it turned out allegations that the Russians tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election were true, and claimed he has yet to have an in-depth conversation about Russia with Donald Trump.
  • He claimed to have no knowledge of ExxonMobil’s attempt to lobby against sanctions against Russia, when in fact, the company had and Tillerson was involved in conversations about these matters.
  • He deferred to the notion he would need to see more intelligence before labeling Vladimir Putin a war criminal despite allegations the Russians targeted and killed civilians alongside the Syrian government army, not to mention well-documented accounts of having political rivals and critics of Putin murdered.
  • He similarly dismissed the human rights violations of Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in the Philippines and the treatment of women in countries like Saudi Arabia.
  • He expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • He would not commit to the Paris climate accord.
  • He acknowledged that climate change exists, but wouldn’t comment on whether or not humans play a role in it, and when asked by Sen. Tim Kaine on whether or not he lacks the expertise to answer the question or the will, he quipped, “A little of both.”
  • He said that despite being with the company for some 40 years, he had no knowledge of whether not ExxonMobil has done business with Iran, Sudan or Syria.
  • When asked specifically by Tim Kaine regarding the evidence that Exxon knew about the role humans play in affecting climate change and funded efforts and research contrary to this science, Tillerson claimed he could not comment because he was no longer part of the company. Because apparently, when you resign from an executive post, your memory is wiped along with it.

Rex Tillerson’s experience with the oil industry and his ties to Russian interests and Putin in them of themselves made him a questionable pick for Secretary of State. Now with his testimony on record, the doubts are stronger and more numerous. Tillerson shouldn’t be confirmed for Secretary of State, even though he probably will be owing to the Republican majority in the Senate.

Jan. 12

Ben Carson, Elaine Chao, Michael Pompeo

Ben Carson, like Rex Tillerson, was nominated for a position in Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that his personal experience in no way prepares him to hold. As aloof as he often seemed during his presidential campaign despite, you know, possessing the acumen to be a freaking neurosurgeon, Carson largely managed to hold his own, although it should be noted that observers described efforts by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike to challenge him on his qualifications as fairly tepid. The tensest moments came from lines of inquiry from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown. Warren asked Carson point blank about whether or not he could assure the Senate and the American people that any HUD money would not be lining the pockets of Pres. Trump, a question he seemed ill prepared to answer. Brown, meanwhile, confronted Ben Carson on how his department could avoid conflicts of interest with Donald Trump given his family’s involvement in at least one subsidized housing project, and though he expressed his willingness to work with the committee, again, he didn’t seem to have much of an idea of his own. Ben Carson realistically won’t always be able to phone a friend, if you will. So, while he wasn’t Rex Tillerson bad, he wasn’t top-notch either.

Elaine Chao, in the running for Department of Transportation, like Carson, while not offering anything that raised any giant red flags, similarly didn’t offer a lot of specifics for the possible direction of her agency, especially as a subset of the Trump administration. All in all, though, most in attendance were in agreement that Chao seems highly qualified for her position, with the various reports covering Chao’s hearing describing it as a “love-fest” full of laughs and smiles, or otherwise referring to her “skating” through her confirmation process. So, yeah, Elaine Chao looks like she’s good as gold regarding her nomination, and I maintain her most questionable bit of judgment preceded her hearing: that of marrying Mitch McConnell. Sorry, I just can’t with that guy.

And then there’s Mike Pompeo. Despite positions expressed during his tenure as Senator from Kansas, Pompeo seemed to allay concerns that he was not a dogmatic follower of hardline conservative principles. He pledged to defy President Trump if asked to resume torture as a primary interrogation technique, expressed his belief that the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence leaders that Russia tried to intervene in our election, in part, to help Trump was a sound one, and vowed that he would “speak truth to power” if confirmed as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. So, basically, Mike Pompeo promised not to be Donald Trump. Atta boy, Mike! In the time I took to write this post, Pompeo has been confirmed, so that hurdle has been cleared, but as CIA Director, his greatest test may just be beginning, namely that of getting his agency and the President himself to work together. Because right now, quite frankly, they ain’t. Thus, while I wouldn’t have nominated Pompeo in the first place, I wish him the best of luck. Because I wouldn’t wish Trump on my worst enemy, let alone the head of the CIA. Best of luck, Mike—you’re gonna need it.

Jan. 17

Betsy DeVos, Ryan Zinke

We’ll get to Ms. DeVos in a moment. First, let’s skip ahead to Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Zinke, like other Cabinet picks of Pres. Trump’s, may acknowledge climate change exists in the abstract and therefore diverges from the belief that it is an outright hoax, but it is still dangerously reluctant to recognize the role we humans play in contributing to effects like global warming. This stance is significant, because Zinke, as head of the Department of the Interior, would oversee all federal lands as well as the resources on and below them. This means he could and likely would be instrumental in opening expanses up to coal mining and oil and gas drilling that were previously unavailable for these purposes under Barack Obama. Seeing as Trump has already signed executive orders to revive the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone Pipeline XL extension, Ryan Zinke is poised to be a partner in crime—that is, “crime” against the environment—and should be admonished as a nominee for his intended position.

Speaking of admonishment, the hearing for Betsy DeVos, tapped for Secretary of Education, rivaled if not surpassed Rex Tillerson’s review in terms of being, as the kids call it, a “hot mess.” DeVos, apparently, is to knowledge of the United States education system as Sarah Palin is to mastery of U.S. geography. Among the revelations from Betsy DeVos’s hearing:

  • She evidently believes guns should be in schools, or at least won’t commit to the idea schools should be gun-free zones.
  • She expressed the belief the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be left to the states to apply, despite this being a federal law.
  • She would not agree to the idea all schools which receive federal funding should be held equally accountable.
  • She would not commit to enforcing gainful employment regulations which prevent for-profit universities and other career training programs which bury students in debt with little ability to repay from receiving federal subsidies.
  • She did not appear to understand the accountability debate regarding whether testing should measure students and schools based on proficiency or growth.
  • She did not answer a direct question about the failure of charter schools and other “school choice” iterations to perform markedly better than public schools. Probably because she and her children have never spent a day enrolled in public school and, what’s more, she has a vested financial interest in K12, an online charter-school and home school curriculum resource. As usual, it helps to follow the money.

In short, Betsy DeVos doesn’t have a clue about the state of education in America at large, especially public education. She should be nowhere near a department as critical as the Department of Education, or any federal public office, for that matter.

Jan. 18

Nikki Haley, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, Wilbur Ross

Wilbur Ross, like Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire. Unlike DeVos, however, he, from nearly all accounts, acquitted himself quite nicely of his ability to serve in the capacity for which he was nominated: that of Secretary of Commerce. Certainly, his tone on important economic issues was appreciably more moderate (and sensible) than that of the President, and though this is not a particularly high bar to clear, he seemed better prepared and more readily forthcoming than either Betsy DeVos or Rex Tillerson. Wilbur Ross is not necessarily above criticism, as he, like so many within the Trump administration not to mention the man himself, comes with concern about potential conflicts of interest due to his shipping investments. This notwithstanding, his expertise and support from labor leaders makes Ross a likely confirmation, and quite possibly the best of the bunch (again, perhaps not a particularly high bar to clear).

Now then—let’s get to the other riff-raff, shall we? Nikki Haley, who, like Mike Pompeo, has been confirmed by the Senate since I began this post, will serve as the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations. This despite having any foreign policy experience. Welcome to Donald Trump’s Cabinet—actual qualifications need not apply. At the very least, Haley said she favored a tougher stance and the preservation of sanctions against Russia, condemned the extrajudicial killings of Rodrigo Duterte’s regime in the Philippines, cautioned a measured approach in deciding whether or not to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, and said she opposes the creation of a Muslim registry. On the other hand, she seems to echo Trump’s strongly pro-Israel stance on the Middle East, and even supports the controversial relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. As with Secy. Pompeo, Nikki Haley has my best wishes, and I similarly hope her appointment won’t be one we look back on with regret.

Where there’s good, though, there is frequently the bad and the ugly, and Scott Pruitt is where the January 18 hearings start to slide downward. Scott Pruitt has been nominated for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has sued (unsuccessfully, at that) some 14 times as Oklahoma Attorney General, and one which he has explicitly referenced as deserving of having its regulatory power diminished and has accused of an “activist agenda,” as if activism is an inherent force to be resisted. So it should be no surprise, though no less disheartening, that Pruitt professed that his feelings on climate change were immaterial and would not commit to the idea humans play a significant role in promoting it, nor would he give credence to the idea man-made air pollution could be behind the comparatively high rates of asthma in his state. And talk about ethical concerns—Scott Pruitt has received buku bucks from the energy industry, notably from fossil fuel companies. He is not only arguably highly incompetent, but a shameless shill for Big Oil as well, and in no way should be confirmed for the post of Secretary of the EPA, let alone being considered for it.

Tom Price, meanwhile, is no stud in his own right, as he possesses his own bevy of ethical concerns to weigh, including failure to disclose late tax payments which were discovered upon further investigation, improper valuation of shares he owns in an Australian pharmaceutical company, allegations of insider trading with respect to those shares, and proposing legislation which would benefit other investments of his. All this on top of concerns that Republicans’ desire to repeal ObamaCare comes without a credible and fair replacement and that the GOP appears to want to turn the current Medicaid system into a “block grant” format that conceivably would make access to health care more difficult for more disadvantaged Americans. Price, simply put, is a poor choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Or as Happy Gilmore once so eloquently put it, “The [P]rice is wrong, bitch.”

Jan. 19

Rick Perry, Steve Mnuchin

Last but not least—OK, well, possibly least—we have the likes of Rick Perry and Steve Mnuchin. Perry, as been oft referenced, once was responsible for a gaffe in which he forgot the name of a third agency he would get rid of as President during a Republican Party debate. That third department, as it turned out, was the Department of Energy—the very department he is now being asked to preside over. I see you starting to pour into that shot glass over there, and I’m with you, my friend. Perry, to his credit, seems to see value in renewable energy sources, but like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke and Rex Tillerson and God knows how many other Republicans, doesn’t place a great deal of weight on the human factor in climate change. Rick Perry’s intended “all-of-the-above” approach is indeed a bit problematic when considering that a major point of the DOE is trying to make energy more affordable for Americans. Also, concerning nuclear power, which falls under the Department of Energy’s banner, a critical issue is how to store nuclear weaponry and nuclear waste, and while Perry seems open to suggestions, he doesn’t seem to have many concrete ideas on his end. To put it bluntly, Rick Perry was a dumb choice in the first place for this post, and from what I’ve seen and heard of him, he seems like kind of a dick (see also his potshot at Sen. Al Franken during the review for being a former cast member of Saturday Night Live). Even if he didn’t flunk his hearing outright, I can’t seriously consider him for Secretary of the DOE.

Speaking of kind of a dick, it’s Steve Mnuchin, who, apropos of nothing, I have a persistent urge to want to call Steve Munchkin. Mnuchin, Pres. Trump’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, has a checkered past that raises serious doubts about his worthiness for his intended role. Most notable is his legacy as the “foreclosure king” during his time as OneWest Bank, and the committee had plenty of testimony at its disposal from OneWest customers with their horror stories from during Mnuchin’s tenure. Yet again, there were failures to disclose critical financial information regarding real estate and other assets totaling upwards of $95 million, as well as troubling ethical positions revealed in Steve Mnuchin’s past assistance of helping clients avoid taxes through tax havens. As with Rick Perry, even if he didn’t crash and burn, on principle, I can’t get behind Munchkin. Dammit, I mean, Mnuchin.


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Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Alternative Reality. (Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s blustering rhetoric is worrisome, especially, um, the whole allusion to anti-Semitism bit, but ironically, much as he chides lawmakers for being “all talk, no action,” we know some if not a lot of what he said in his Inauguration speech stands to be empty promises. Trump’s picks for key government positions, on the whole, are troubling, for when they are not flagrantly unqualified or engaging in activities that are borderline unethical/illegal, tend to be sparing on specifics regarding how they would achieve what they profess they and President Trump wish to accomplish. Still, there is the chance that some of these nominees won’t be confirmed, even if remote, and either way, we’ve survived idiots holding public office over the years. My, have we survived it. From my perspective, though, maybe the most frightening sign of what’s to come from a Donald Trump presidency, especially if left unchecked, is his administration’s relationship to the press and to objective facts. In what may be the example par excellence of the slippery slope Trump and his lackeys are greasing, both press secretary Sean Spicer and whatever-the-heck-she’s-technically-considered Kellyanne Conway tried to argue that Donald Trump’s crowds in attendance for the Inauguration were the biggest in U.S. history. This is objectively false, and there’s no getting around it either, for Trump didn’t even manage to surpass his predecessor in this regard, let alone all previous American presidents, or even the Women’s March throngs in protest of his presidency the day after.

Spicer, though, for his part, held a press conference with the apparent intention of dispelling the myth that President Trump’s ceremony wasn’t the biggest and best in our nation’s recorded history, in fact, his first press conference of the term. The Washington Post offers an excellent transcript of this moment annotated by political reporter Chris Cillizza. Within his annotations, Cillizza notes the following:

  • Sean Spicer cited numbers regarding how many people can physically fit in proscribed sections of the National Mall, saying “we know” this much, but these have the ring of guesses more than anything.
  • Spicer claimed Metro public transit numbers from Inauguration Day for Pres. Trump exceeded those of Obama’s two ceremonies, but this is simply inaccurate. Donald Trump managed just over 570,000 people, based on numbers from the Metro. Barack Obama, meanwhile, accrued 1.1 million in 2009, and 782,000 in 2013. The math doesn’t lie.
  • Spicer alleged Trump, in his recent visit with the CIA, was greeted by a raucous crowd of some 400-plus employees, but Cillizza characterizes this visit as mostly—surprise, surprise!—another attack on the media, and the 300 to 400 attendance were likely mostly Trump supporters.
  • Spicer attacked the media specifically for “sowing division about tweets and false narratives,” as if the press is supposed to cater to the whims of the White House.
  • Spicer uttered this: “This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging—that bringing about our nation together is making it more difficult.”

On that last count, Chris Cillizza was notably, for lack of a better word, defiant. And I quote:

The idea that the media “challenging” (Sean’s words) claims made by Trump and his team somehow undermines an effort to bring the country together is simply a false choice. The media’s job is to probe and prod to make sure that what is being sold as fact from the White House – ANY White House – checks out. A healthy democracy includes a free and independent press keeping those in power accountable to those who they govern. Period.

Sean Spicer, too, advanced the notion that the press should be held accountable, which Cillizza agrees with and you and I can get on board with as well. However, as Chris Cillizza points out and as is critical to stress, the press shouldn’t be threatened or intimidated for doing its job, which is the tone Spicer strikes here. And he also probably shouldn’t walk off without taking any questions. Which is what he did. So much for a “press conference” where you don’t actually talk to the namesake of the term. Not an encouraging start to this relationship, no, Sir or Madam.

If Sean Spicer’s first press conference was a serving of state-controlled ice cream, Kellyanne Conway’s interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press was the whipped cream and cherry on top. As with Spicer, the theme was the tally of Trump supporters and others in attendance at the inauguration proceedings, and the veracity of his administration’s claims. Chuck Todd, in fact, asked Conway about Spicer’s press conference in particular:

You make a very reasonable and rational case for why crowd sizes don’t matter. Then explain…why did the president send out his press secretary, who’s not just the spokesperson for Donald Trump? He could be—he also serves as the spokesperson for all of America at times. He speaks for all of the country at times. Why put him out there for the very first time in front of that podium to utter a provable falsehood? It’s a small thing. But the first time he confronts the public it’s a falsehood?

Why, indeed? Conway, who by the way handily won the contest for “Worst Dressed” at the inauguration ceremony, had this to say in response:

Chuck, I mean, if we’re going to keep referring to our press secretary in those types of terms I think that we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here. I want to have a great open relationship with our press. But look what happened the day before talking about falsehoods. We allowed the press…to come into the Oval Office and witness President Trump signing executive orders. And of course, you know, the Senate had just confirmed General Mattis and General Kelly to their two posts. And we allowed the press in. And what happens almost immediately? A falsehood is told about removing the bust of Martin Luther King Junior from the Oval Office.

This is what my father and I refer to as a “yeah-but.” Yeah, Ms. Conway, TIME Magazine Zeke Miller initially reported he thought a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office, but he was mistaken, and moved to correct himself in the minutes and hours after the fact, issuing multiple mea culpas in the process. This was just one detail, and Conway was rather obviously dodging the question, which is why Chuck Todd pressed her on the issue of the crowd size:

You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time and utter a falsehood. Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on Day One.

And this is how Kellyanne Conway replied, and I am not making this up:

Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. What—you’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.

Todd did not let Conway off the hook, telling her, “Alternative facts are not facts—they’re falsehoods,” but I must stress this attitude, above all else, goes to the point I made in the opening to this piece. Conway’s thinly-veiled threat about having to “rethink” her and the White House’s relationship with Chuck Todd, as well as the sheer notion something like “alternative facts” could exist, speaks to the dangerous state of affairs we are in regarding the perceived role of news media, the perceived power of the President and his surrogates, and the perceived value of observable facts over strongly-held opinions. The press is not beholden to the Trump administration. President Trump should not be allowed to think he can do whatever he wants in violation of ethics and international law just because he won the electoral vote this past November. Furthermore, the veracity of factual information should not be determined by who yells loudest, interrupts the most or acts the most threatening. For anyone believing Donald Trump’s presidency is some sort of “new normal,” it is not and should not be treated as such.

So, after 5,000+ words, what am I trying to say? We of the Resistance should develop a smoking habit, dress all in white, and become mute? No, the Guilty Remnant as a creation of fiction is enough in it of itself. Rather, any way we can question the legitimacy of Donald Trump and his Cabinet where this scrutiny is due, or to reject the authoritarian and prejudicial aspects of his presidency, is encouraged. I try to inject humor into these entries when I can, and I applaud acts like the Dallas Stars jokingly displaying the night’s attendance as 1.5 million on the Jumbotron in an homage to Trump and Company’s wayward estimations of the Inauguration ceremony’s attendance, or Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account defining the word “fact” for Kellyanne Conway’s sake. By and large, however, these are not laughing matters and, indeed, these are troubling times. For those of us who haven’t fallen for Trump hook, line and sinker, we are the Leftovers who have to try to make sense of the apparent Sudden Departure of many here in the United States from the realm of sanity.

Bring on the Apocalypse?

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Slate’s Trump Apocalypse Watch, at full Four Horsemen. (Illustration Credit: Slate; Photo Credits: Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of people worried about the eventual outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election—and by proxy, the fate of the country and of the free world—have contemplated all sorts of doom-and-gloom scenarios should Donald Trump, despite his best efforts, actually win this damn thing. The publication Slate has even taken to measuring Trump’s likelihood of winning amid their tracking of his more reprehensible moments, gauging this probability in the form of zero to four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as part of a daily Trump Apocalypse Watch. This is a joking allusion to the end of the world as we know it, but some folks are legitimately concerned that Donald Trump in a position of immense power could lead to World War III, a nuclear holocaust, or some other Earth-shattering event.

It’s not an entirely unreasonable prediction either, given Trump’s apparent nonchalance in, say, arming Japan with nuclear weapons, a country devastated in World War II from the dropping of two atomic bombs, to scare a nearby threat like North Korea. Or the revelation during the Republican presidential debates that Trump had no idea what the nuclear triad is, which was a pretty disturbing revelation for a man who might be given the proverbial keys to the castle if all goes poorly. Then again, there are warnings from outside America that nuclear war is a threat should Donald Trump not win, specifically from the person of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian lawmaker, nationalist, and ally of Vladimir Putin. Of course, both he and Donald Trump are known to be blowhards, but in a weird way, some might find comfort in the notion we’re f**ked no matter how we might slice it.

Speaking of the apocalypse and taking solace in our imminent destruction, the end-of-the-world motif seems to be a prevalent one in today’s popular media. The Walking Dead, a show so successful its spin-off is set to air its third season in 2017, is nearing its Season 7 premiere. Earlier this year, Independence Day: Resurgence threatened the Earth once more with alien invasion—and movie critics promptly alerted audiences with roundly negative reviews. Alternative rockers R.E.M., apparently, have long been predicting the apocalypse, and perhaps most disturbingly, seem to be perfectly accepting of such an outcome. I’m sure you can readily come up with any number of examples yourself, but suffice it to say there are plenty of ways in which creative types in and out of Hollywood have envisioned our demise at the hands of some awesome force. A listing of some of the theoretical means of humanity’s destruction:

Alien invasion

As movies like Independence Day and stories like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds have suggested, intelligent life exists elsewhere than just Earth, and upon reaching our skies, extraterrestrials have one idea in mind: enslaving the human race and taking over the planet. According to this theory, the invaders, undoubtedly possessing superior technology by which to get to our solar system in the first place, are able to use their ships and weapons to abduct, zap and otherwise put a hurting on humankind.

I personally have two problems with this kind of story. First of all, it’s perhaps a little cynical to assume that beings from another galaxy would necessarily want to colonize us and tear shit up. First contact, as envisioned in the Star Trek universe, depicts a far more diplomatic set of circumstances, and as a viewer of a number of episodes of The Next Generation, I appreciate how deep the writing is in creating a world that is a mirror of ours and yet distinct and rich with interpersonal and political relationships. In other words, it wouldn’t be a given that visitors from beyond would be hostile. In addition, and maybe here I’m being too cynical, but perhaps would-be usurpers of our planet, upon seeing what havoc we’ve wrought in an environmental sense, might just think twice about taking over our little blue orb. Um, no, that’s OK, Earthlings. You keep your world. The polar ice caps have already started melting. It’s damaged goods now.

Global pandemic

It’s all fun and games until some super-virus overruns the planet, leading to martial law, quarantine zones and the breakdown of the kind of order to which we are accustomed. Take your pick as to what kind of disease threatens to ravage the Earth’s population. There’s the sort faced in Outbreak, in which a deadly airborne virus brought into the States by a smuggled African monkey causes a panic to ensue. A variation of the theme is found in the world of 28 Days Later, where some sort of blood rage virus spreads like wildfire across the world’s regions and turns people into bloodthirsty savages. So, um, it’s sort of like the behavior observed at Trump rallies. Blindness, Contagion, Quarantine—if there’s a way to decimate our numbers via infection, movies and TV will find a way to do it.

That plots involving the threat of a bug powerful enough to bring Earth to its knees are relatively frequent suggests an underlying belief that such a scenario could unfold in the real world. Indeed, according to a 2006 TED Talk with Larry Brilliant, nine out of 10 epidemiologists (yes, apparently that’s a thing) believe a pandemic is “fairly likely” in their children’s or grandchildren’s time, owing to factors such as global population size, the centralization of life on much of our planet, and our increased interconnection and ability to travel considerable distances in a short amount of time (and spread germs all along the way). Add to this the notion that there are “superbugs” in parts of the world that are resistant to most, if not all, antibiotics, and you have a potentially worrisome situation on your hands. I’m not saying we should all be getting bomb shelters or bubbles ready preemptively, but it’s something to think about. Oh, and lighten up on the hand sanitizer, would you? There is such a thing as too much, especially when it might be contributing to anti-microbial resistance. I know—you just bought that family-size bottle of Purell, too.

Natural disaster

As Robert Frost wrote in his iconic poem “Fire and Ice”:

Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost’s poetic voice, speaking metaphorically, envisions the world ending by fire (desire) or ice (hate), but in terms of disaster movies, this could manifest more literally in cascades of fire and lava (e.g. Dante’s Peak, Volcano) or severe ice storms and freezing (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow). Then again, there are always those apocalyptic visions which recall popular diluvian myth (e.g. Waterworld) or, well, death by sharknado (hey, it could happen!). I’m not sure what to make of the apparent appeal of these types of films. Filmmakers, and by proxy, movie audiences, evidently have a hard-on for watching monuments like the Statue of Liberty get torn asunder, or quite simply, witnessing the raw power of nature, even when taken to absurd extremes.

In the case of a global “superstorm” or great flood, meanwhile, there is a subtext which invokes the ever-present threat of global warming—unless you are a member of the GOP. Should we regard these fictional cataclysmic events as a portent of what faces our planet should we fail to heed Mother Nature’s stern warnings? A call to action for the preservation of our natural resources and of what’s left of the Earth’s atmosphere? Hmm, this is Hollywood we’re talking about here. Perhaps I’ve overthought this. I’ll shut up and watch the destruction, slack-jawed, now.

Plant uprising

SPOILER ALERT: this was what was behind everyone killing themselves in The Happening. Now I’ve saved you the trouble of having to watch this terrible M. Night Shyamalan offering. (Side note: if you’re familiar with the premise of the film, which element requires the greater suspension of disbelief—the flora of the Earth releasing neurotoxins in an attempt to rid the planet of destructive human beings, or Mark Wahlberg playing a high school science teacher? Discuss.)

Robot uprising

Maximum Overdrive: chilling prelude to our future, or chillingly bad piece of cinema? Both, perhaps? Stephen King’s one and only directorial feature is not the only work of art (and I’m being generous here) that imagines a world in which the machines have become self-aware, have taken umbrage to being used as tools by humans, and have reversed the script to enslave our race and become our overlords. Battlestar Galactica, Dune, I, Robot, The Matrix, Terminator—take your pick as to which parable of the dangers of artificial intelligence gone awry you find most appealing. With Isaac Asimov’s work in particular, the Three Laws of Robotics are proposed to bring about a set of conditions whereby machines afforded some degree of artificial intelligence could disobey the orders given them by humans or even harm individual humans for the sake of the greater good. Of course, this presumes a robot would be able to discern what is good for humanity and what is not, a task that is made difficult by virtue of “humanity” being an abstract concept. If it’s hard for us as emotional beings to decide, it’s enough to make a robot explode.

Lest we think that this is all much ado about nothing, and that the architects of artificial intelligence would be keen enough to limit robots’ capabilities or otherwise install a failsafe so they could be stopped should they try to take over the world, numerous prominent figures in the science and technology communities have warned of the potential perils of an effective AI coup, including Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. (Pshaw! Like they know anything!) It’s a tricky topic indeed, for while the benefits of artificial intelligence are manifold, expansion without the requisite safeguards is risky. Sure, it sounds like a remote possibility now, but don’t come crying to me when you’re eating Tasty Wheat aboard the Nebuchadnezzar!

Rogue asteroid

With the all comings and goings of bodies and particles in our galaxy, it would seem a matter of time or a byproduct of the law of averages that some hunk of burning rock would find its way into Earth’s atmosphere—and not just your run-of-the-mill meteor either. We’re talking some Deep Impact or Armageddon shit here. It’s a scary notion, and one that is particularly frightening if we stop to consider just how bad the acting in Armageddon actually was. In theory, we have the technology to avoid an extinction-level event from a near-Earth object, be it using nuclear weaponry to divert a celestial body, a sizable enough spacecraft to draw away an astronomical threat through the force of gravity, or by some other means.

Still, much depends on scientists’ ability to spot an asteroid or meteor on a collision course with the planet. Recall the near-miss that occurred in 2013 when an asteroid blew up in the sky in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Siberia, Russia—and relatively speaking, that one was small. Even if we watch the skies constantly, there is the real possibility we could end up like the dinosaurs based on some hot rock the universe slingshots our way. And unless B.D. Wong and the rest of his staff can bring us back à la Jurassic Park, we’d be in a heaping help of trouble. Hold on to your butts, Planet Earth.

Zombie apocalypse

Ah, yes. The zombie apocalypse. This may be highly correlative with the occurrence of a global pandemic (how else to explain the zombification of the majority of the Earth’s population?), but here, we’re concerned with the end result that manifests in hordes of people—well, at least they were people—shuffling from place to place, looking for human or other flesh on which to feed. They have no emotion. They have no desire—other than, of course, their lust for your brains, and even that would appear to be mere impulse, mediated by whatever force is keeping them alive. So, yeah, like I said, just think of your average Trump rally. OK, OK, I’ll stop using that joke. Trump supporters have brains and emotions. It just so happens the candidate they support may not have a soul, but that’s another story.


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Zombies from “The Walking Dead,” or Trump rally? You be the judge. (Photo retrieved from srcdn.com.)

It helps that “zombie” starts with a Z, all but guaranteeing any discourse on the zombie apocalypse would come last in a compendium of the various ways human life on this planet may cease to be. This notwithstanding, I would be wont to talk about the zombie apocalypse as my ultimate entry anyway, owing to the massive popularity of this genre. As noted, there are a slew of movies that have been released and continue to be made, ensuring simulated blood, brains and guts will continue to be spilled for the foreseeable future, not to mention The Walking Dead and its spin-off series once more, as well as zombie fiction in the literary sense. Heck, there are even periodic “zombie walk” events throughout the country, including an annual walk of some prominence in my home state. And I’m sure the living dead will be a go-to costume choice this Halloween. The abstract concept of the zombie is a cultural icon in the United States.

But why exactly? After enumerating potential causes of human extinction, and outlining just some of the ways our apparent collective zombie fetish has been realized, this is my fundamental question. After all, zombies are not the sexiest of mythological creatures to be found in popular lore. Vampires, before or perhaps even after they drain you of blood, play a seduction game. If the True Blood series, based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries book series penned by Charlaine Harris, is any indication, when vampires are not primarily motivated by blood lust, they’re guided by, well, plain old lust. Zombies, meanwhile, don’t really have a sex drive. It’s all stagger, bite, rinse, repeat. Besides, even if there were to be a situation by which to be intimate with a representative of the undead, and not merely to be graphic, but there would be concerns about decomposition or failures of the zombie’s anatomical integrity during the act. Not to mention questions of what could qualify as “consent” in that case. Do zombies have rights as reanimated people? In the absence of courts, does this pondering about civil liberties even have merit? These are the kinds of things I think about. Late at night. By myself. All alone.

Ahem, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Nicholas Barber, writing for BBC News, in 2014 authored a piece on why zombies are so gosh darn marketable these days, and traced the origins of modern-day zombie lore and the spiritual genesis of works like Night of the Living Dead, the godfather, if you will, of the zombie flick, and World War Z, based on the book by Max Brooks, which had a big opening at the box office. As Brooks and George Romero would explain, there is a psychic and metaphorical dimension to the threat of a zombie apocalypse. Think about the context of each creative work. Romero remarked about his breakthrough film that its screenplay was crafted within the framework of “a good deal of anger, mostly that the Sixties didn’t work.” This is to say that conformity to societal norms, aspired to without reason and with a mind to utterly destroy those elements which do not fit neatly into overall puzzle, is a dangerous force. Flash forward to the 2010’s, and Max Brooks echoes many of the same sentiments. As he is quoted in Barber’s essay:

We’re living in very uncertain times. People have a lot of anxiety about the future. They’re constantly being battered with these very scary, very global catastrophes. I think a lot of people think the system is breaking down and just like the 1970s, people need a ‘safe place’ to explore their apocalyptic worries. They can’t read stories about real plagues or nuclear war. That’s too scary. That’ll make them turn away. Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional.

Indeed, the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse, logistically speaking, is fairly low, which lends itself to zombie stories being part of an escapist horror sub-genre. I do tend to sympathize with the notion that fear about an uncertain future and vague notions about humanity’s destructive capabilities do probably factor into the connection so many of us have with The Walking Dead et al. By the same token, though, I think a smaller but not insignificant cadre of followers of zombie fiction appreciate it not from a sense of overwhelming dread and having to watch like a rubbernecker looking at a car crash, but more as individuals secretly wishing for it to happen. You probably have one or more people you know convinced he or she could not only survive, but thrive, in the zombie apocalypse.

I tend to think this is easier said than done, and that a certain degree of underestimation of the danger zombies present is inherent in this line of thinking, and/or an overestimation of one’s personal abilities. In isolation, the living dead, because of their slow rate of motion, singularity of purpose leading to lack of nuance in strategy, and their corporeal instability, are theoretically easy to resist. When hordes of the undead rain down on you, however, the sheer mass of decaying flesh and gnashing teeth substantially increase the probability one stands to be bit and infected, or otherwise dismembered by the crowd. It’s as with bees or wasps. One bee? Barring a moderate to severe allergy, not a problem, even if you do happen to get stung. Should you upset the whole hive, however? Now it’s a bigger deal.

Besides this reality—if I may even use such a word—there is also the psychological and emotional realization that comes with most of who and what you love being gone, not to mention the bleakness of a post-apocalyptic world and the unending drone of swaths of zombies moaning and dragging along the Earth. I recently had a conversation with someone about whether or not we would survive the zombie apocalypse, and both of us were less than optimistic about our fates. I submitted that physically, my general awkwardness and state of being woefully out of shape would likely doom me, but the person with whom I shared this dialog opined that she wouldn’t be able to stand the grimness of it all, and would probably end things on her terms in that event. So, for all of you folks jazzed up about the end of the world, um, consider it might not end up as all that it’s cracked up to be.

Moreover, still concerning the mindset of those who invite the apocalypse, perhaps there is also some yearning for a simpler existence, and arguments about the virtues of a simpler existence versus the rewards of being able to live in a world replete with amenities are duly noted here. In the zombie apocalypse, there are no cell phones. There are no work deadlines. There is no waiting in line at the DMV. Your only obligations are to stay alive and to keep as many people in your camp alive as long as possible. Bleak? Sure. But there’s also a clarity and singularity of purpose in this scenario. Get the zombies before they get you. And who are you anyway in this new post-apocalyptic world? Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? Before the apocalypse, you were a mild-mannered retail worker. After the apocalypse? You’re one of the world’s foremost zombie killers! Shit, yeah! I can see the appeal. It’s a chance to start over again, in a world that itself is starting over in a strange way. It’s a chance to go back. A chance to make America great again.

Wait, what? We started with Donald Trump causing the apocalypse, and now we’ve come full circle in discussing why people might wish for the end of the world as a means of a rebirth of sorts? What’s the connection here? Among the Trump supporters who haven’t been duped by the real estate magnate into believing he can fix the economy because he has lied, cheated and stolen his way through his career and celebrity, there are those who are taken with his notion of bringing this country back to a “better” time. Looking back through the right glasses, things tend to appear that much rosier. Back then, life was simpler. As in the zombie apocalypse, there were no smart phones. There was no such thing as ISIS. There was no Black Lives Matter. No one talked about climate change. Men were men, women were women—there was none of this “transgender” nonsense. Life was, well, simpler. Wasn’t it?

See, that’s the thing about nostalgia. At the very heart of the word, it’s bittersweet. There is the return home—the nóst—represented by our desire to return to a happier time full of success and one that makes us feel at ease, but then also the algia, the pains of realization that we will never get back to that revered age. With Donald Trump and his supporters, there is a sense of nostalgia for a quieter time when people didn’t talk about their feelings, or have facts and figures at their fingertips. When political correctness wasn’t a necessity. When more people spoke English. When white folks didn’t feel like they had to apologize for that fact, and nobody railed about “institutional racism” and privilege. It was better then, right?

Better for whom, exactly? For everyone who waxes poetic about the “good old days,” consider that a lot of the problems we face in 2016 were there decades ago. We just talked about them less or hid them more. And the world we once knew? Like an Earth populated by the walking dead, it’s not coming back. It’s changing. People are changing. Their bodies, their faces, their minds. It’s scary. Change often is. But there’s a choice to be made. You can stubbornly stand against the tidal waves of change and hope not to be knocked over, or you can get on board the boat of togetherness and ride those waves to shore. Either way, it’s a rocky journey, but I believe there’s a right and a wrong “side” to be on, if you will. And I, for one, would rather be on the boat than rooted on the shore trying to push those waves back from where they came.

If Donald Trump does somehow become President of the United States, the world would, in all likelihood, not end, but it stands to put us on a dangerous track of mindless conformity for the sake of some vague nationalist agenda. Like the zombies of popular lore, we’d be ambling along, on a drive to consume everything in our path. AMERICA IS #1! F**K THEM FOREIGNERS! LET’S BLOW THE SHIT OUT OF THOSE AY-RABS! Sure, we might not be thirsting for literal human brains, but I’m sure George A. Romero, for one, has seen this movie before.

These Things Need Buzzers or Mute Buttons, and Other Observations from the First Presidential Debate

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Sure, they’re all smiles now, but belying their grins for the photo op is a shared unquenchable thirst for winning. And designer suits. They like expensive clothing. (Photo retrieved from foxnews.com.)

Well, the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has come and gone and the results are in—people are curled up in the fetal position because one of these two will become our next President and they don’t really like either of them! OK, so maybe I’m not speaking for everyone watching, but I tend to wonder how much what was said in the debate will actually change people’s opinions on whom they plan to vote for come November. As for who won the debate, I’m not here to try to pass judgment. After all, I’ve watched boxing fights after which I was pretty sure one participant should emerge victorious because he seemed to dominate the other boxer, but left to the judges’ decision, the actual results were completely the other way around. If you ask the candidates and their campaigns, each side would definitely say they were the winners. For what it’s worth, early polling suggests the American audience thought Hillary won, though I’m more loath as the days go by to trust the veracity of some of these surveys, if I may say so.

But like I said, I’m not here to crown a winner. I seek only to provide commentary where I think it warranted, as well as to offer suggestions for how future presidential debates may be improved. With this behind us, let’s take a narrower look at what went down in the first presidential debate—you know, if we can stand it. Might I suggest some unhealthy snacks or some liquor to sustain you as you read through?

UNITED STATES OF JOE’S ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY COMMENTS ON THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE

1. First of all, let me confess that I didn’t actually watch the debate, which was starting before I had even gotten home from class. To be fair, though, I probably would have been distracted by watching my Fantasy Football team’s hopes of a win go down in flames anyway. To the tandem of Devonta Freeman and Coby Fleener, who proved instrumental in my defeat, let me say that I hate you both with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system (not really), since I didn’t see the event live, I can’t really comment on what kind of job Lester Holt did as moderator. The general response of viewers and pundits, though, seemed to be a positive appraisal of Holt’s handling of the affair. Although let’s be fair—next to the dumpster fire that was Matt Lauer’s presiding over the Commander-in-Chief Forum, pretty much anything halfway decent would feel like a great success. Kudos, Lester! You’re better at taking Donald Trump to task than Jimmy Fallon!

Achieving Prosperity

2. As you might already know/remember from viewing the debate on television, the opening segment was devoted to “Achieving Prosperity.” Sounds like something in Trump’s wheelhouse, doesn’t it? The candidates were first asked about what they would do to stimulate job creation. Hillary Clinton gave her familiar lines: the wealthy need to pay their fair share, let’s invest in infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, affordable child care, debt-free college, close tax loopholes, was there anything on the Democratic Party platform I didn’t check off? Donald Trump, meanwhile, railed about China and Mexico and vowed to cut taxes, and also said he was going to renegotiate a lot of trade deals. Because it’s just that simple.

When pressed specifically on how we get companies to bring jobs back to America, Trump was, well, largely incoherent, and pivoted to the notion NAFTA was a bad trade deal. Which may be true, but that doesn’t answer the question. The best the man of the orange and thin skin could come up with was that he wouldn’t let corporations leave, but whether this involves the threat of taxes should they relocate, or literally stopping them at the airport and barring them from getting aboard their overseas flights, Trump’s remedy is woefully impractical.

3. The candidates, under Lester Holt, moved swiftly onto the next question. Well, at least the moderator tried to make that happen. Holt attempted to segue into a discussion about taxes, but first, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had to argue about taxes before they could, well, argue about taxes. To be fair to Clinton, Trump started it, talking about how Clinton would jack up taxes and he would slash them and how wonderful that would be for the US of A. Hillary then countered by saying Donald’s loose semblance of an economic plan would jack up the national debt, while hers would reduce it. Then Donald Trump was all, like, nuh-uh. And Hillary Clinton was all, like, yuh-huh. And then Trump was all, like, whatever! When the dust was allowed to settle, Trump tried to suggest that the wealthy were going to create tremendous jobs. (Except they don’t.) He also—and give El Diablo his due—mentioned eliminating the carried interest loophole, by which wealthy hedge fund managers are allowed to claim a more favorable tax rate by classifying their income as capital gains, even though there is no legal basis for this, and even though President Obama could apparently totally f**king end this practice with little more than a phone call but hasn’t. Then Clinton was alleged to have been given two minutes to respond, but her opponent wouldn’t shut his big yap.

Eventually, what passed for a conversation moved to the subject of Donald Trump’s tax returns, which, as I’m sure you know, he still hasn’t gone and released. Once more, Trump claimed he couldn’t comply with this request because he is under audit. If there’s one thing I have stressed in this blog, perhaps other than the logical fallacy of saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter,” it’s that THIS IS NOT A VIABLE EXCUSE FOR TRUMP NOT TO RELEASE HIS TAXES. THE IRS SAYS IT’S PERFECTLY OK. Trump’s stupid explanations and deflecting with mentions of private E-mail servers notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton brilliantly took the opportunity to insert possible reasons as to why Trump is dodging calls for his tax returns like he (allegedly) dodged the draft. Maybe he isn’t worth as much as he says he is. (Highly likely.) Maybe he isn’t as charitable as he would have us believe. (I can almost guarantee it.) Perhaps, quoth Hillary, it is his hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to Wall Street and foreign banks, or that he has paid little to nothing in taxes over the years.

Donald Trump spins this last notion as a virtue, that he’s a smart businessman. Not only isn’t it like he cleverly came up with the idea for any loopholes he exploits, however, but this also puts him at odds with average Americans who aren’t wealthy enough to be able to afford such preferential treatment. You’re not smart in this regard, Mr. Trump. You’re lucky you were born rich with a daddy who bailed you out when you made dumb decisions, and that you could file for bankruptcy (also not your invention) the rest of the time.

America’s Direction

4. The second of the first presidential debate’s triptych of topics was devoted to “America’s direction,” which, not for nothing, is a depressingly vague category. Not to mention it invites the retort from the peanut gallery at home that the country’s direction is headed straight to “the shitter.” But I digress. Lester Holt first confronted the candidates with the question of how the United States can heal its bitter racial divides. Hillary Clinton stuck to, ahem, her guns, by primarily calling for more comprehensive gun reform. She also spoke in broad strokes about the need to improve community relations between police and civilians, as well as the need to address systemic bias in the quality of education among different groups and to deal with glaring disparities in arrests and sentencing of people of color. Beyond the gun issue, I’m not so sure how convincing her answer was or should be, but as usual, it sounded good in a superficial way.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, spoke about how we need law and order—and he wasn’t talking about Special Victims Unit starring Mariska Hargitay. He also casually dropped the suggestion that stop-and-frisk is a good idea, even though it’s ineffective, unconstitutional, and unfairly targets African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos. Hillary responded with more of how she opened the segment—essentially pandering to the minority vote. Next, when prompted by Holt to comment on implicit racism, Clinton correctly asserted that we all suffer from it to a degree, but you could tell she was framing it in a way so as to drive home the notion she respects police and, at the same time, try not to further alienate potential undecided voters who possess a great deal of respect for officers of the law and, perhaps, are OK with, you know, the occasional murdering of unarmed black citizens.

Then, Donald Trump—ugh. Look, I could try to parse through the gobbledygook that was his response for a coherent message, but let me just pick out the highlights. Trump gave a shout-out to the NRA. He made a quick, offhand remark about no-fly and watch lists. He, apropos of nothing, invoked Clinton’s use of the term “super-predator.” He argued about how crime was going up in New York City without his beloved stop-and-frisk in place—even though this is patently false. And at the end of all this, Lester Holt actually reminded the Republican Party nominee the conversation was supposed to be about “race.” If this isn’t an indictment of Donald Trump’s inability to provide consistent, coherent answers on topics that make him uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.

5. And then came the part when Lester Holt asked Donald Trump about all the times he pushed the narrative that Barack Obama was born in Africa and demanded he produce his birth certificate just to prove him and other conspiracy theorists wrong. Now, before we get to Trump’s part in the whole “birther” controversy, let’s acknowledge that there is a more complicated truth to Hillary Clinton’s side of the story to which the GOP nominee was referring. Once upon a time, in 2008, when HRC was running against Obama for the Democratic Party nomination, her campaign did help to spread this myth. Much as the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton 2016 campaign were apt to latch on to the idea that, say, Bernie Sanders is an atheist to help her chances with more religious voters, it should be no great surprise that Hillary and her handlers would try to gain any advantage to win.

The notion that Hillary Clinton, anyone who has worked on her campaign, or anyone currently serving such a function came up with birtherism, however, is decidedly untrue. The origins are indeed murky as to who or what exactly devised this whole delegitimizing strategy, but regardless, if there was one person who took this awful baton and ran with it, it’s Donald J. Trump. As Holt even noted in his initial question, Trump persisted with the birther train of thinking—even when most Americans were satisfied that Barack Obama was, in fact, born on American soil. That he “succeeded” in getting Obama to produce formal proof of the circumstances behind his coming into this world is an achievement of dubious distinction. Donald Trump should be as proud of his role in the birther movement as he should be of Trump Steaks. And you can’t even eat birtherism. Believe me—I’ve tried.

Securing America

6. Last but not least, Lester Holt moderated a segment called “Securing America”—between one candidate who issued E-mails on classified matters from one or more unsecured private servers and unencrypted devices, and another who suggested the Russians hack his opponent to find missing/deleted messages. (I hear you banging your head against the desk in frustration through the screen over there, and I second that notion.) Things being what they are, Hillary Clinton uttered something vague about “making it clear” to other nations, especially China, Iran and Russia, that we’re not going to take their hacking BS. Donald Trump, as usual, didn’t really answer the question, and implied that maybe it wasn’t Russia who was behind the hacks—even though it’s entirely f**king likely that it was Russia, amirite?

Clinton, in her rebuttal, quickly pivoted to talk of more air strikes against ISIS, because if there’s one thing HRC likes, it’s blowing up parts of other countries. Trump, in his rebuttal to the rebuttal, um, blamed Hillary again for causing ISIS—which indirectly may be partially true, but she sure had a lot of help. Then Hillary Clinton pointed out her opponent supported the Iraq War. Donald Trump said he didn’t—but he’s a big f**king liar. Clinton said we’re working with NATO. Trump effectively said NATO can kiss his ass, and invoked, of all people Sean Hannity in his self-defense about support for the Iraq War. After that, they argued about who has the better temperament of the two for the job. I don’t know—this was probably the low point of the debate for me personally, because I think both of them have shitty temperaments. Go ahead—argue about how you’re both going to help perpetuate our country’s involvement in unending wars in the Middle East in elsewhere, while I curl up into a ball underneath my bed, sobbing gently to myself.

7. In the second half of the “Sky is Falling” segment, as I like to call it, Lester Holt began with Donald Trump about President Obama’s considerations of changing America’s policy on first use of nuclear weapons (as in not using nukes first), asking Humpty Trumpty what he thought about the current policy. “The Donald” rambled on about not “taking anything off the table” and invoking China to help deal with North Korea, before launching into a tirade against our deal with Iran and our cash giveaway which has been likened to a ransom payment for American hostages. Hillary Clinton responded by acknowledging that problems do exist within our relationship with Iran, but that they involve more than just our nuclear deal, and furthermore, that there are other more global concerns to contemplate. She also fired back at Trump’s criticisms of the deal, saying he talked an awful lot about how bad it was without providing a suitable alternative.

As it apparently inevitably had to, the conversation was then steered to who had the right “temperament” and “stamina” to be President of the United States given the gravity of these matters, not to mention Holt’s probing about Donald Trump’s earlier statement that he didn’t think Hillary Clinton has “the presidential look.” Le sigh. Maybe this was the low point in the debate, because after all, much of this is shenanigans. Hillary doesn’t know how to negotiate. Donald can’t be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Hillary is experienced, but it’s bad experience. Donald has repeatedly degraded women. Hillary has cooties. Donald not only smelt it, but dealt it as well. See what I mean? It’s disenfranchising hearing 60- and 70-year-olds talk like catty teenagers when they’re vying for the country’s top political office, but that’s really the vibe I, for one, get, at least.

The debate was brought to a close by Lester Holt asking both candidates if they would support their rival should he or she win. Hillary Clinton said she supports any democratic result—BUT PLEASE DON’T VOTE FOR THAT ASS-CLOWN TRUMP. Donald Trump said he would, sure, THOUGH THAT CLINTON BROAD DOESN’T HAVE THE CHOPS. Great. You don’t like each other, we don’t like you. Let’s bring on the shots of alcohol already, shall we?


2010 -- Randy Sager
If presidential debates were run like ESPN’s Around the Horn, Donald Trump would be muted ’til the cows come home. (Photo retrieved from espnmediazone.com.)

As noted earlier, I’m not going to get too caught up in who won or who lost, though I’m pretty sure you could tell from the tenor of my responses who had the better performance in the first presidential debate. Of course, all this focus on “winning” and “losing” only takes us so far anyway. First of all, while the winner may stand to get a bump in the polls, this effect may be temporary, not to mention polling data doesn’t always translate equivalently to votes (in fact, often enough, the actual results are significantly different from what even exit polls predict). More importantly, a large swath of the audience likely believes that no matter who wins the debates—or, for that matter, the election—America loses anyway. So, who won the debate? Who cares, that’s who.

From my point of view, aside from any morsels of substance I can find in all that has been said in these debates throughout the campaign season, my interest in this format for political discussions lies in how the whole process may be improved. The following suggestions are ones you and likely scores of others amateur political analysts have come up with, but nonetheless, bear stating or repeating for the sake of concreteness.

JOE IS STILL NOT DONE WRITING, AND HAS SOME IDEAS FOR MAKING PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES BETTER

If they won’t stop talking, mute ’em

The sports talk show Around the Horn on ESPN, in addition to using a subjective scoring system whereby host Tony Reali awards participants points based on the perceived strength of their arguments, is known for its inclusion of a mute button that cuts off a player’s mic for ten seconds when he or she says something disagreeable to Reali (self-promotion, in particular, tends to be rewarded with the silent treatment and a loss of points). I feel a similar sort of system could be employed with presidential debates. If one of the candidates, say, interrupts incessantly (cough, Donald Trump, cough), he or she can be zapped for 10-second increments, or even could be given a more prolonged time-out if he/she can’t behave in a more adult fashion. Not for nothing, but these presidential hopefuls are discussing topics that may affect millions, if not billions, of people, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars. They should be able to act with a certain amount of dignity if they’re going to be interacting with world leaders—and at the very least, make it easier for us average folks to watch on our televisions.

Throw the red flag

If there’s one thing that fans of different sports teams can agree upon, it’s that referees/umpires routinely blow calls. Some are more egregious than others, but to a certain extent, errors in judgment are understandable given the speed at which professional sports are played. Such is why sports like football have implemented a challenge system whereby coaches can throw a red challenge flag, request that the head referee examine video footage of the play in question of which the ruling is being challenged, and confirm, overturn or let the call stand accordingly.

As fast as human beings and spheroid objects move in sports contexts, lies and misleading statements are fast and furious in presidential debates. In light of this notion, I submit candidates should be afforded two or more fact-checking challenges to use at their discretion. If someone claims he or she never called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” in trade deals, or professes he or she never Tweeted that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, on-site fact-checkers can be consulted to catch candidates in obvious untruths. In fairness, this does run the risk of prolonging already laboriously-long presidential debates, but rather than rely on voters to do their own homework and sift through all of the garbage nominees speak, this could more easily bring the truth to light, as well as shame the prevaricator worse than Cersei Lannister being made to walk the streets of King’s Landing in her birthday suit while her subjects hurl epithets and vegetables at her. OK, maybe not that bad, but you get the point.

Wrap it up!

If you’ve seen any award show like the annual Oscars telecast, you know that when winners go up to accept their well-deserved tokens of appreciation, they tend to run long with their speeches. That’s when the orchestra hits them with the hurry-up music, signaling their allotted time has been spent and that they need to call it an acceptance speech. On a similar note, when candidates are about to go over their specified response time, they should first be given a visual warning like a red light, as stand-up comedians might get when performing in a comedy club, and then when they finally do exceed the given number of minutes, how about we hit ’em with a horn? At least some uptempo clarinet or something—the exact instrument can be negotiated. We should let these candidates for public office know when we say “two minutes,” we mean two minutes, gosh darn it! If you want to talk a bunch of nonsense to get around the fact you lack a strong intended policy, do it when millions of people aren’t watching.

PHYSICAL CHALLENGE!

Am I the only one who doesn’t think a Double Dare-esque physical challenge would be a welcome diversion during these debates? Let’s see Donald Trump talk about stamina when he tries to run through a 10-part obstacle course! Or Hillary Clinton wear designer suits when she knows she could get Slimed! Come on, fellow millennials—are you with me?


These are just some small tweaks that I, humbly speaking, believe would really make presidential debates more enjoyable to watch without making these events any less informative. Although judging by this first presidential debate, the proverbial bar to clear may be fairly low. And who knows—with the right changes and better candidates in the future, when we talk about winners of the debate, we can put the American audience in that category. Until then, we can all dream, right?