Friday, May 06, 2016

The O Factor

The Trump has sounded, and with the sound of battle Republicans are scurrying in all kinds of different directions.  Probably the most significant recalcitrance comes from Speaker Paul Ryan, who said he isn't ready to endorse Trump.  Among others, I took this as an opening gambit, but a New York Times article argues that it isn't--that Ryan is (this time) unlikely to change his mind.

Theories abound on what might happen in November, with the conventional wisdom clustering around a crushing Trump defeat.  But conventional wisdom has been severely undermined by Trump's triumphs so far--without the conventional apparatus of the professional campaign cadres of pollsters, message-massagers etc.

The fears for November cluster around Hillary's weakness as a candidate (perhaps to be further tested by the ongoing investigation into her email account) and by Bernie's persistence leading to a lack of unity and especially a depressed turnout.

But there is one factor not so far added to the mix: the O Factor.  Today President Obama spoke from the press conference podium at the White House, calmly setting the stakes:

"But most importantly -- and I speak to all of you in this room as reporters, as well as the American public -- I just want to emphasize the degree to which we are in serious times and this is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States.

And what that means is that every candidate, every nominee needs to be subject to exacting standards and genuine scrutiny. It means that you got to make sure that their budgets add up. It means that if they say they got an answer to a problem that it is actually plausible and that they have details for how it would work. And if it's completely implausible and would not work, that needs to be reported on. The American people need to know that. If they take a position on international issues that could threaten war, or has the potential of upending our critical relationships with other countries, or would potentially break the financial system, that needs to be reported on."

The NY Times story on this added: "The comments were a preview of what aides say will be a vigorous presence by Mr. Obama in the general election campaign."

This only makes sense.  President Obama's favorables are high and likely to go higher.  He won the presidency twice.  He speaks with the authority of the office over the past eight years.  Hillary Clinton has already made continuing the Obama policies a mainstay of her campaign.

While Bill Clinton is a great speaker and campaigner, he also manages to get unfavorable headlines with uncomfortable regularity.  President Obama is a steady, calming force, who adds gravitas at the same time as he brings a disarming sense of humor to the campaign dialogue.  And as his past campaigns proved, he is a very good campaigner on the stump.

President Obama is likely to be Hillary's greatest asset, giving her a greater advantage in all the states that he won twice.  Which, by the way, is enough to make her President.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

It Can Happen Here

Update Tues. night: Trump trumpled, Cruz, crushed, abandoned ship.  Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President.

As Jonathan Chiat noted (in his column "Trump Has Won and the Republican Party is Broken") Earlier in the day Trump had accused Cruz's father of "having conspired to kill President Kennedy."  This is the guy whose father is pretty much documented as having been a sympathizer, if not member, of the Klan.  But according to the Guardian, Cruz had referred to Trump's "battles with venereal disease."

Chiat writes: "Most of America, including a significant minority of Republicans, have seen Trump’s candidacy exactly for the con it is. Trump for President is a category error. He is, as his rivals have described him, a charlatan, a con artist, a congenital liar, a man self-evidently unfit for office at any level, and especially the presidency. As George Will has argued, his unfitness is so manifest that it applies to anybody who considers him suitable for the office; a person is “unqualified for high office because he or she will think Trump is qualified.”

Yet, as if to support Andrew Sullivan's thesis below, Trump has been winning by larger and larger margins, virtually destroying his opponents, and had a growing lead of 30 polling points in California (where the GOP is quite small these days.)  Some of this is very probably a response to Cruz in the negative, big time.  But clearly the con is working with larger numbers of GOP primary voters.  Meanwhile, Bernie's win in Indiana--which doesn't mean much in his chances for more delegates--is preventing the Democratic unity necessary to face  Trump, who is now free to turn his entire attention on Hillary.

TUES. A.M.: It doesn't stop.  The (Republican) former Speaker of the House called Ted Cruz  "Lucifer in the flesh," and satanists who were interviewed renounced him.  His wife, Heidi Cruz, found herself denying that he was the Zodiac Killer--apparently one of those Internet conspiracies given prominence by Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore in his monologue at the White House Correspondents Dinner. (Some loved his jokes, some hated them; I thought they were poorly delivered--he seemed a bit overwhelmed-- and consequently just not very funny.)

Meanwhile, a few days after Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said that a Trump presidency would lead "to another 9-11, Donald Trump claimed to CNN that he has more foreign policy experience than anyone, certainly than a former Secretary of State and First Lady. And he made millions in the process (no joke, that's what he said.)

 But the question was in response to a joke at the Correspondents Dinner, this time by President Obama ("They say Donald lacks the foreign policy experience to be President. But, in fairness, he has spent years meeting with leaders from around the world: Miss Sweden, Miss Argentina, Miss Azerbaijan.")

But for those who relished the prospect of being entertained by the Trump shock jock campaign before they settle down to a boring Hillary presidency--maybe not so fast.  The voices have been few but notable--Thomas Franks, then the guy who writes the Dilbert cartoons, and now, at greater length and with elegant arguments, Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine.

Sullivan couches his warning about the power of Trump within a Platonic warning about democracies at their height quickly turning to dictatorships.  He cherrypicks enough characteristics familiar to us now to get your attention.  He continues with an analysis of the erosion of institutional protections against going off the deep end in any directed that the Founders established, and the end of that process (so far) is Trump.

The new media environment unleashes emotion far more than reason, he writes.  And notes the historical pattern of mass movements arises not when things are at their worst but when things are starting to recover (he name-checks Eric Hoffer on this, but it's a known psychological as well as historical phenomenon.)

Sullivan stings every ideology, party, class, point of view and special interest group at least a little (including gay Americans, which Sullivan can get away with, as an outspoken gay man on gender equality and other relevant issues.)  But he is most eloquent interpreting the point of view of the white working class for the elites who read him.  The white working class has been hurt by technology and globalization, then again by the Great Recession and things haven't gotten better except for the elites in charge.

"This is an age in which a woman might succeed a black man as president, but also one in which a member of the white working class has declining options to make a decent living. This is a time when gay people can be married in 50 states, even as working-class families are hanging by a thread. It’s a period in which we have become far more aware of the historic injustices that still haunt African-Americans and yet we treat the desperate plight of today’s white working ­class as an afterthought. And so late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain — and has actually helped exacerbate."

Revolutionaries of the 60s haplessly but sincerely tried to make common cause with the working class, even when some of its members were beating them up at antiwar demonstrations.  But today's left, Sullivan writes, has only contempt for them, politically and culturally, considering them racists and sexists:

"A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”"

Of course racism in particular is endemic to Trump's appeal, but self-satisfied ignorance by elites is pretty good cover.  Sullivan sees that the realities cannot be glibly dismissed, even as he highlights the great danger of these emotions being shaped by the likes of Trump."... the most powerful engine for such a always the evocation of hatred."

Sullivan illustrates the Trump appeals to hatred and violence.  He notes as well the weakness of Hillary's candidacy--that despite Trump's terrible numbers for a general election, her popularity is lower at this point than recent Democratic candidates like Gore and Kerry, who did not become President.

Sullivan ends by addressing the elites who are most likely to be reading his words, to take control, to deny Trump the nomination.  I doubt that's the best prescription for what he sees ailing us, and anyway, after Trump's expected triumph in Indiana later today, it's not going to happen.

What is going to happen, however, will likely be a terrible test.  Without even considering institutional history and philosophies of government, at this time and place we're facing a crisis in the guise of a circus.

Sullivan notes the Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can't Happen Here, and resemblances of the fascist who becomes President in the Great Depression in that fiction, to Trump's basic message.  That story (as in the play version that was one of the Federal Theatre Project's great triumphs, which we commemorated a few years ago with a reading of the play at the Dell'Arte Theatre) is a template for a lot of what we've being seeing from the rabid right and the Republican party for awhile now.  And one feature of it is especially relevant to this campaign: violence on behalf of the candidate.

This is looking like it will be a violent campaign--violent words from candidate Trump and from partisans of both sides, and violence against persons. Just this week Trump supporters in Indiana and West Virginia, and anti-Trump protestors in California are harbingers.  I'm not trying to equate them, but a lot of people will.  Combined with the real threat of Bernie or Bust supporters to divide Democrats and suppress the vote, the danger is too many voters not voting in November.

For that's probably all that has to happen to avoid self-destruction this time, maybe long enough and in a way to throw a different light on all these changes.  And maybe soon enough to deal with the real crises, especially the climate crisis, that threatens not just this democracy, or this society, but human civilization and life as we know it on this planet.

After all the noise and the mud, and perhaps even the blood, people who know better do what is necessary to vote, and vote.  Battling fear, cynicism and despair, vote.  This is the means that's necessary.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Your Moment of Swing: In the Mood

A final Glenn Miller tune, possibly his most lasting: "In the Mood."  This is from the movie Sun Valley Serenade,  so that's actor John Payne at the piano, and lots of shots of co-star Sonia Henie in the audience.  But the rest is the Miller Orchestra of 1941.

Next to maybe Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller is the giant of Swing music, and probably even more of a representative of the Swing era.  I think a lot of the reason is that Glenn Miller crafted songs.  Most of the songs still remembered from the late 30s and early 40s--those with lyrics and especially those without--were introduced or made famous by the Glenn Miller band.

"In the Mood" is one of the classics, an almost perfect pop song as well as buoyant hit of Swing.  It was probably based on a blues riff that made its way into several songs.  In 1935, Joe Garland made his big band arrangement, calling it "There's Rhythm in Harlem."  When Swing took over he gave it to Artie Shaw under the title "In the Mood."  Shaw's band played this version but never recorded it.

It was left to Glenn Miller to edit it, taking out secondary themes and emphasizing the propulsive, happy sounding riff.  He made it a song.  It became one of his signature tunes, and has only increased in popularity.  Musicians from Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry admired it (Berry claimed that he based the famous guitar riff that starts "Johnny Be Good" on the opening of "In the Mood.")

There are so many versions of "In the Mood" around, including those made by various versions of the Glenn Miller Orchestra that has played for decades after Glenn Miller's death.  One of these later versions is matched to this movie footage on a different YouTube video. (There have to be fifty different versions of this song on YouTube.)

But this is the version recorded for this movie, and it has some tasty differences from the official version that the Miller Orchestra recorded in 1939. The movie also shows the song played in its natural habitat, facing dancers on the dance floor.  This had to be an ecstatic experience to hear and dance to live.

Swing was my mother's music, her rock & roll.  Glenn Miller's was her favorite band, and she was a good dancer.  When the Glenn Miller Orchestra got off the train at the Greensburg station and played at the Coliseum ballroom, she was there.  I love to think of this song making her happy.