"We often recognize an untruth when we hear one, coming from our own mouths or those of others, and most particularly coming from advertisers and political leaders. Many of these untruths are deliberate, understood as such by both speakers and listeners. They are put forth to manipulate, lull, or entice, to postpone action, to justify self-serving action, to gain or preserve power, or to deny an uncomfortable reality. Lies distort the information stream. A system cannot function, especially in time of peril, if its information stream is confused or distorted."
Having been outside the United States for most of the Northern winter I am returning to The Farm with fresh eyes.
Passing through the layers of phoney’d up Fatherland “security” designed primarily to chill a passive population and gull them into thinking they are protected less by oceans, deserts, and vigilance against tyranny and more by cordons of stalwart men and women in black bulletproof vests, one crosses a threshold into a different world, something perhaps resembling Germany in the early 1930s or Cambodia in 1975. There is a sense of dark foreboding. This is what collapse looks like.
In the 1980s there was this famous SNL sketch where Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman) is in the Oval Office talking to a Girl Scout and seeming like a doddering old man with early Alzheimer’s. As soon as his guest and the press leave, his aides rush in and he reveals himself to be a clever mastermind setting national policy in minute detail.
Watching the PBS NewsHour/Frontline special on the Mueller Report March 24 I had to wonder if I am not in the same situation with my opinion of Donald Trump.
Recently I have taken to calling the POTUS President Cobblepot because of an uncanny resemblance to Batman’s nemesis, Penguin, who manages to get himself popularly elected Mayor of Gotham and then uses the position to continue building his crime empire and eliminating rivals. Honestly, for the longest time, I have thought Trump was just the pathologically narcissistic buffoon he is often portrayed as being — a mentally-handicapped blowhard after the fashion of Saint Ronald.
We don’t yet have the Mueller Report, but we know a little about it, and watching the replay of the Frontline special opened for me another possible narrative, one not taken by the documentary’s narrators, but suggestive of another TV drama, the Showtime series, Billions.
In Billions, two powerful and driven adversaries square off in a no-holds-barred cage match. Paul Giamatti’s character, Chuck Rhoades, is US Attorney for the Southern District (loosely based on Preet Bharara) and would-be future Governor of New York. Damian Lewis plays billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, who stays ahead of rivals by cutting corners (loosely based on Steve Cohen of S.A.C. Capital Advisors). The series, begun in 2016, is a succession of traps and counter-traps, like two chess grandmasters dueling in a 48-game tournament.
That was the sense I had watching Frontline’s narrative — Mueller and Cobblepot, the duel of grandmasters. It is easy to think that the impulsive, unmanageable Trump vainly firing Comey and celebrating with Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov is a ‘tell’ that Cobblepot is colluding with the East Side gang. It is harder to visualize, but as good a Gotham or Billions plot, to see Cobblepot baiting the “Resistance” with Comey’s firing and then throwing more meat their way to make sure they are wedded to the Russiagate line. He makes it appear he is obstructing justice without actually obstructing anything. He has the press mesmerized. He controls every news cycle.
Another layer of the trap comes in POTUS’s statement, drafted on Air Force One, describing the Trump Tower meeting as “all about adoption,” making no mention of how his top aides and family had been lured to a meeting with a Russian lawyer for adoption agencies peeved with the Obama sanctions that are killing their businesses, on the (false) promise that the lawyer has dirt on Hillary Clinton. By leaving his family out and not immediately characterizing the meeting as opposition research — after all, the Clinton campaign spent $12 million (unreported to Federal Elections Commission as required by law) for Fusion GPS to commission the Steele Dossier — Trump habitually provided Russiagate addicts their next fix.
The result of these moves, whether by nefarious intention or sheer dumb luck, was that all the oxygen was sucked out of examination, criticism, and opposition to real-world problems being aggravated by the policies of the Trump Administration, to be spent instead running in circles like a chicken with its head cut off. Score a big win for Cobblepot.
I came back to the US from a world where heat waves, droughts, melting glaciers, wildfires, floods, bomb cyclones, and monsoonal superstorms are being taken seriously but now find myself in a perpetual loop of news cycle sausage-making. Of course, it is not much different over here than it is in London, where BREXIT is sucking just as much oxygen, or perhaps in North Korea, where the population only gets whatever news its government provides. Most people might also mention China and Cuba, but having spent time there recently, I know their censorship leaks like a sieve.
This American drama is a 4-year series, 8 if it gets renewed, and the duel between narratives is what keeps the audience. The tables turn for the President when Congress starts looking into his taxes and real estate dealings. These were not within the Special Counsel remit, as Cobblepot reminds his Deputy Attorney General. Nonetheless, the Special Council dutifully passes the findings down the line to the Second District AG’s office, where grand juries are convened. The three-generation Cobblepot empire is built upon clay foundations so the only real questions there are less about guilt and more about statutes of repose and presidential immunity while in office. Time will tell whether Cobblepot’s short game is as good as Mueller’s long game.
PBS NewsHour/Frontline exposed its own miserable reportage in the special. At 31 minutes in, the baritone voice of the narrator says with melodramatic gravity, “But there was a reason for the meeting that the president’s statement did not mention.”
Cut to video footage of Marine Helicopter One landing on the South Lawn and TV woman reporter’s voice, “Last night, The New York Times published details about a meeting during the campaign involving a Kremlin-linked lawyer…” overcut by the baritone again, “As the President returned to Washington, it didn’t take long for the truth to come out.”
Onto this logical gap from The New York Times are then strung two years of daily rants by Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and many others at CNN, MSNBC, Morning Joe and various left-centrist echo chambers, and their counter-rants at Fox News and beltway radio. Meanwhile, President Cobblepot goes merrily on his way disassembling the nuclear weapons treaties, the national parks, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, efficiency standards, climate policy and sane immigration strategies, all the while packing foreign lobbyists into every available suite in his luxury hotel domain, while everyone who might otherwise resist is tied up awaiting Mueller’s report so they can impeach him. By everyone agreeing to lease Professor Cobblepot’s marvelous purple fog news machine, Mueller’s report will carry into the 2020 election campaign and give the President a giant ratings boost and a serious shot at renewal of the series.
“[T]he Mueller Report failed to mention that the two Russians present in that August 2016 Trump Tower meeting, lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, were on the payroll of Hillary Clinton’s oppo research contractor Fusion GPS, and met with that company’s principal, Glenn Simpson, both before and after the meeting — just one example among many of the Mueller Team’s shifty tactics, but a move that speaks volumes about Mr. Mueller’s actual intent….”
Rather than consider the rather obvious alternative explanations, the republished Frontline documentary dives down another rabbit hole, exploring whether Cobblepot’s protestations of innocence were an attempt to obstruct justice. Whenever Cobblepot tweeted “no collusion, no obstruction #witchhunt” at this point, he could have been absolutely right, but it didn’t matter, he was just stoking the furnace, as he had done from the outset.
The Frontline redux and the bobbleheads that followed on the PBS special carried on with various convoluted permutations of collusion and obstruction, more moves within the fog machine to control the board, but in the end, there really was no there there.
Make no mistake, we are in a real-world crisis, one that demands the same level of alarm and rapid response as when the Allies mobilized to fight Hitler. The competing narratives are less about MAGA versus Resistance or BREXIT and no-BREXIT as between real-world extinction of the human race and party-like-its-1999. For the majority of citizens in the United States, the care seems to be whether the reckoning can be postponed past their own personal expiration date, a strategy that has worked for pretty much everyone who has died since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, except for those who perished in the cascading climate catastrophes and their human conflicts and tragedies.
I was fascinated to see two different versions of reality collide when Sunrise Movement youths paid an unwelcome call on Senator Diane Feinstein. The Senator rebuffed their appeal for the Green New Deal by trying to school them in her reality — political compromise, baby steps, scaffolding, the power of seniority, million-vote pluralities. “It's not going to get turned around in 10 years,” she pronounced.
They weren’t buying that. Their reality is dying polar bears, sinking coastlines, famine, war, a significant reduction in their own life expectancies. “Senator, if this does not get turned around in 10 years you’re looking at the faces of the people who are going to be living with these consequences.”
When you have two competing narratives, each hermetically sealed and intractable, about all you can do is live by your own best lights, keep educating yourself, and do as best you can to help the children prepare. The light of hard physical reality may eventually be discovered by those of Feinstein's fogginess, stumbling along, but if you can already see the light, you should be moving to high ground, building a fire perimeter, growing food and storing water. And vote out the fossils.
“All of humanity is in peril if each one of us does not dare, now and henceforth, always to tell only the truth and all the truth, and to do so promptly—right now.” – R. Buckminster Fuller