Serial update

February 7th, 2020

President Chump has struck again.  At his orders, a CIA drone killed Al-Qaeda’s military leader in Yemen some time during the past week.  Although the periodicity is very roughly consistent with previous attacks, I’m not counting this one as support for my theory that Chump may be a nascent serial killer.  (Yes, I know what I sound like.)  For one thing, it appears from the New York Times’ reporting that the timing of the assassination of Qassim al-Rimi probably was dictated by circumstances.  Although a serial killer may take advantage of opportunities as they arise, this factor makes al-Rimi’s assassination look less purely discretionary than was the strike on Suleimani.  More to the point, the United States is at war with Al-Qaeda, which adds another layer of ambiguity to the evidence.  By contrast, in the case of Suleimani, whose assassination  sent me down this rabbit hole, the U.S. is not at war with Iran, so that justification was not available.  A serial killer may take advantage of participating in military operations to achieve his gratification.  However, the victim’s status as a wartime enemy is sufficient motivation for his assassination.  Thus, it is difficult to ascribe an additional, psychopathological motive.

GOP Delenda Est

February 3rd, 2020

I was moved to write to my senator last week. Here is what I wrote.

Dear Senator Leahy,

This afternoon I heard you on Vermont Edition and I was moved to gratitude for my good fortune to live in a state with the wisdom to select such sane and decent representatives as you, Peter Welch, and your junior colleague in the Senate. What I understood from your remarks is that a substantial number of Republicans are so gutless and unprincipled that, for fear of opposition in the primaries, they are throwing over the constitution, the basic principles of fairness and of democratic government, and their own oaths of office, and acquiescing in the effective coronation of King Donald I, even though there are sufficient numbers of them so that, in the unlikely event they were to do what they privately admit they know is right, the impeachment trial would be an actual trial with witnesses and evidence instead of the laborious farce they are allowing it to be, and the outcome would be very much in doubt, instead of the shameless whitewash that everyone expects. What makes it ironic is that, in order to preserve their Senate seats, they are surrendering their congressional powers to a psychopathic would-be dictator. My respect for you is heightened because I honestly do not know how you can go to work every day and be polite to these people. I do not think I could do it. I want you to know that even as our government teeters on the brink of a fundamental change towards authoritarianism and corruption, it is heartening to know that there are people such as you fighting to preserve its aspirations to democracy and justice, and that even if the cause may be, for the time being, lost due to the fecklessness, shamelessness, fearfulness, and corruption of the Republican party, who I firmly believe collectively will burn in hell for it, the spirit of community, responsibility, and liberty lives on in Vermont and was well represented by you.

Sincerely, with gratitude and in sadness for these times,
Seth Steinzor, Esq.

President Bundy?

January 10th, 2020

I have been arguing for a long time that Donald Trump is a psychopath, a creature of stunted humanity, incapable of empathetic understanding of other human beings, whom he regards as mere objects to be exploited and manipulated in the service of his dominant drive for self-aggrandizement.  He was damaged additionally by a traumatic childhood at the hands of emotionally distant and abusive parents.  Over the past few months, Trump’s behavior has raised chilling new questions about the extent of his pathology.

At the end of October 2018, Trump ordered a raid by United States forces in Syria, which resulted in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the erstwhile Islamic State. Trump watched a live video feed of the raid as it was occurring.  There was no audio, and the video did not show what was happening underground, in the tunnel where dogs cornered al-Baghdadi and three children he had dragged in with him, and where al-Baghdadi blew up himself and the children rather than be shot or captured.  The video showed only blobs of light moving around aboveground, tagged “friend” or “enemy”.  Nevertheless, almost as soon as the raid was over, before he had received any reports from the troops on the ground, Trump exultantly announced the death, reporting as fact his fantasies about the raid, including that al-Baghdadi died a “whimpering and crying” coward.  From his tweets and dramatic embellishment, one thing was clear: Trump enjoyed the experience.  It seems to have made him feel powerful and contemptuous towards his targeted victim. I may be wrong, but I do not recall Trump saying anything in particular about the dead children.  Whatever al-Baghdadi’s demeanor may have been during those final moments, it is fair to infer that his companions were whimpering and crying.  In a blog I posted a few days later, I wrote, “In his announcement of al-Baghdadi’s death, Trump showed us a psychopath enjoying his first violent gratification.  Let’s hope he doesn’t develop a taste for it.”

Fast forward two and a half months.  Trump enjoys another remote-control killing, this time of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, accomplished by drone rather than by Special Forces.  Soleimani had been gadding about the Middle East for decades, traveling quite openly, organizing various murderous activities and organizations and, incidentally, recently helping the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS. He is generally considered to have instigated, caused, or inspired many American deaths.  Since the United States is not at war with Iran, however, none of this made him a legal target of military retribution, an important point reflected in the fact that both President Obama and President Bush, presented with the option to kill Soleimani, declined to do so, as it would have been an extreme provocation and arguably an act of war they were not authorized to commit.

Since Soleimani’s assassination, much lazy commentary has been devoted to making the obvious point that the POTUS, as commander-in-chief, has the constitutional authority to respond militarily to attacks and threats to national security, without prior congressional authorization.  What these bloviators neglect to say is that this does not allow the President to kill at his whim.  In order to distinguish a legitimate, legally justified act of self defense from bald-faced murder, the killing must be necessary to avoid an imminent threat to national security.  Although the White House has invoked the phrase “imminent threat” to justify the attack on Soleimani, it has thus far failed to present any evidence that his activities presented such a threat, or that killing him was necessary to avoid it. The failure to make this case is so glaring that Republican Senator Mike Lee, having attended a confidential briefing on the subject, called it the worst briefing he had attended on a military matter in his nine years as a senator.

Some time in advance of the assassination – we do not know yet whether it was hours, days, or weeks; POLITICO has reported that it was within the past two months, maybe while Trump was still on his al-Baghdadi high – Trump gave the thumbs up to kill Soleimani. Again, although Trump and his defenders claim that this was driven by intelligence indicating an imminent threat, no such intelligence has surfaced.  According to reports, striking Soleimani was included on a list the Pentagon presented Trump of options for responding to heightened Iranian aggressiveness.  They included it as an extreme, intended to drive discussion to the more reasonable measures on the list, and were reportedly “flabbergasted” when Trump went for it.

There being no obvious legal justification for the assassination, widespread suspicion has focused on the likelihood that Trump chose to do it now in order to divert attention from his impeachment.  I find this highly plausible.  It certainly is in line with everything we know about how Trump conducts himself, sacrificing every consideration – legality, truth, national interest, oath of office, loyalty – to whatever he thinks might advantage him in the moment. On the other hand, it seems a bit odd even for Trump that he would take such an extreme action, courting war in a manner that even Dubya had considered too risky.  Maybe there is another motivation, not instead of but in addition to electoral advantage, not a matter of rational deliberation but rather of emotional compulsion, driving Trump further than he otherwise might have gone.

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that what I am about to say does not represent any kind of a firm conclusion, which anyway I am not qualified to make.  This whole post is the product of a dark suspicion, which I cannot shake, and which I think might be worth sharing as part of our collective effort to understand the pickle we are in.  If you want to dismiss what I have to say as rampant crackpottery, be my guest.

Caveat issued, it is significant to me that serial killers tend to be psychopaths who suffered trauma in childhood.  What if Trump’s experience with al-Baghdadi awakened something within him even darker and more awful than his cruel narcissism?  Serial killers tend to observe a certain amount of periodicity in their crimes, depending on circumstances, opportunity, and the amount of time the itch takes to build into something that needs to be scratched.  It took about two and a half months to get from al-Baghdadi to Soleimani.   I wonder what may happen in March or April, and to whom, and with what consequences for the rest of us.

A fire opal in a plain gold band

December 11th, 2019

(review of Mary Fahl CD, Winter Songs and Carols)

This is an astonishing record.

First, you need to know that I have always hated Christmas music.  Partly, this is the result of growing up Jewish in a dominantly Christian country. One can stand only so much of having one’s nose rubbed in outsider status.  More to the point, Christmas music is almost always fetishistic and false, by turns lugubriously sentimental, grandiose, or animated by a ghastly sprightliness, the aural equivalent of lipstick on a corpse.  To enter a retail establishment at this season and to be assaulted by its sound system is to be grateful for online shopping. How do store clerks stand it and not go mad?  Blaring nonstop for week after week in public places, it is a totentanz of the emotions, a symptom of the repetition compulsion that forces so many Americans to attempt to overcome the disappointments of their childhoods by constructing an idealized and inevitably disappointing revisitation of them.  Such emotion as seeps through is a strangulated cry for relief from self-loathing.

Now, Mary Fahl and Mark Doyle have given us an album that shows what Christmas music could be, if it were honest, direct, simple, heartfelt, free of irony and neurosis, unadorned by ego.  Listening to this, I said to myself, “At last, I get it.”

Winter Songs and Carols succeeds by paring away everything extraneous to the music’s message and by focusing clearly on that. I think it marks a new stage in Mary Fahl’s maturation as an artist.  She has sometimes been characterized as a belter, and it is true that she doesn’t hesitate to unleash her extraordinary power.  But here, the singing comes to us primarily from places of tenderness, imbued with passion that can swell into revelation or be ridden upon as a submerged energy source.  We’ve heard this before from her, though never, I think, so fully integrated.  What is newer, to my ears, is a simple dignity in Mary’s performances that I am used to associating with very great singers like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. There is no need to “sell the song” or “put it across”; the singer resides at the heart of the music and allows the song to speak to us directly.  Again, that may have been there before, but never so consistently.

Mark Doyle provides spare settings for the miracle of Mary’s voice, relying chiefly on acoustic guitars and a string chamber group. Pairing Mary with strings emphasizes her voice’s subtle textures and richness.  Unlike Mary’s producer on some previous projects, the somewhat heavy-handed and usually uninspired John Lissauer, Doyle sees no need to gild the lily.  He mixes her voice forward, keeps the rest of the production in the background where it belongs, and lets her shine.  The final song of the album starts a capella, and the rightness of this is immediately apparent.  Mary is a singer who needs no accompaniment.  For all its quietness, it is a climactic moment.

Lest I be thought besottedly uncritical, I’ll say that I have quibbles, if no more than that, regarding two aspects of the production. First, the arrangement for In the Bleak Midwinter contains a string ensemble instrumental break that is schmaltzy, clichéd, and over-the-top.  It is so out of keeping with the rest of the album that I suspect it may be intentionally so, a reference to the chintzy kitsch that this project so determinedly and successfully otherwise avoids.  Either way, I could have done without it.  If you’re going for unself-consciousness and lack of irony, it’s best to stick to that.

Second, there is some indulgence in reverb and echo effects on Mary’s voice.  For the most part, it is innocuous.  She’s well recorded and, as I said, mixed far forward, so not much is lost.  I’ve written about this elsewhere.  I think it’s the kind of blemish introduced by excessive perfectionism.  I think it becomes slightly more problematic on Ave Maria.  Here it sounds to me like a failure of confidence.  Lacking formal vocal training (!), Mary may be a bit intimidated by classical repertoire.  I wonder if she employs the mechanical device in an effort to achieve a kind of idealized smoothly flawless operatic tone, which indeed this airbrushing may approximate, but at the cost of some genuinity and humanity and, for that reason, diminished impact.

The record consists entirely of covers, ranging from Schubert to Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen by way of the Wexford Carol, What Child Is This, and the painfully lovely Walking In the Air (from the short film The Snowman), among others.  Restrainedly eclectic, you might call it, a collection of strong, simple tunes from a range of sources.  The album’s unembellished, unforced, straight-from-the-heart strategy relies heavily on the quality of the material.  There’s not a dud song in the lot.  Even the chestnuts are fresh, as if heard for the first time.  Case in point: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a song debuted by Judy Garland back in 1944.  Mary’s rendition hews very close to the simplicity (there’s that word again), directness (ditto), and conversational tone of the original, with a feeling of spontaneity – she could be saying this to you as it comes to her. Her vibrato is tighter than Garland’s, her tone and pitch if anything truer, but something in the richness of her vocal quality and her apparently artless, natural manner harkens back to Judy.  But it’s not mere impersonation.  The personality wishing you well is unmistakeably Mary’s.

All the singing is this impeccably wonderful, set like a fire opal in a plain gold band.  Buy this album, even if you hate Christmas music.  Think of it as just plain music, of the best kind, appropriate to the time of year.

His First Taste of the Hard Stuff

October 29th, 2019

The most essentially presidential act is to send people with guns to kill somebody.  Theoretically, in the United States no one but the president has authority to do that.  Thus, the mission against al-Baghdadi was Trump at his most presidential.  Characteristically, in the weeks leading up to the mission he grossly betrayed the Kurdish allies upon whom he would be relying for its success.  That Trump will betray anyone upon whom he relies has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Of course he lied about the mission, in the course of crowing about it.  As the New York Times has reported, when Trump described the scene in the tunnel where al-Baghdadi blew himself and three children up rather than be captured, Trump was making it up.  He cannot have seen what he claimed to have seen, because the only video he saw was aerial surveillance of the compound, showing blobs of heat sources moving around on the surface variously designated as friend or enemy.  The surveillance could not reach under the surface into the tunnel.  He cannot have heard what he claimed to have heard, because there was no audio.  He had not talked to any of the participants in the event before making his announcement.  Even the claim that al-Baghdadi was “immediately” identified with “100% certainty” by DNA testing on the scene was false.

It is no news that Trump would lie.  When he opens his mouth at any time on any subject, the only question is, in what way do his words diverge from the truth?  I am not indulging in mere hyperbole.   The phenomenon is demonstrated multiple times daily.  The Washington Post has counted thousands upon thousands of instances.  There is no substantive content to anything Trump says.  For some reason which escapes me, the media seem unwilling or incapable of incorporating this fact into their picture of the man.  Each time he lies, they come up with a situational explanation for it.  It is a matter of saying something that he conceives will be to his political advantage, they speculate, or “stoking his base,” or making a mistake, or something.  This time, I heard reporters opine that Trump was “embroidering,” a natural reaction in his moment of triumph.  No, he wasn’t.  He is a pathological liar.  He is incapable of telling the truth to anyone about anything at any time.  Is it some form of willful stupidity, the media’s failure to recognize this?

But truth has a way of leaking through.  Trump described the spectacle he had witnessed as “amazing” and compared it to “watching a movie.”  In his brutish fantasizing about what had occurred, in his exulting over a vanquished enemy, we see several things at work.  One is disassociation.  By contrast, when Obama announced the death of bin Laden, he was grave and solemn and sparing with facts.  This was not merely a matter of decorum, although it certainly was that.  More to the point, Obama had witnessed at length the process of hunting down and killing a human being on his own orders.  Trump showed no similar recognition of the gravity of the event.  As he said, he might as well have been watching a movie.  The characters weren’t real – Trump has many times and in many ways shown that other human beings are not fully real to him – and he was not in any human way connected to them or responsible for what was happening.  They were acting out his fantasy.  In his announcement of al-Baghdadi’s death, Trump showed us a psychopath enjoying his first violent gratification.  Let’s hope he doesn’t develop a taste for it.

Charles Dickens is Alive and Well

July 31st, 2019

Here are two headlines from today’s New York Times:


500,000 Children Could Lose Free School Meals Under Trump Administration Proposal

Trump Administration Is Divided Over Tax Cut For Investors


Unless you were Charles Dickens, you really couldn’t make this shit up.  Come to think of it, isn’t “Donald Trump” the kind of name that Dickens would have given to a character like Donald Trump?

Mary Fahl at Caffe Lena

June 24th, 2019

I saw Mary Fahl this past Saturday at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York.  I had bought the tickets as a birthday treat for myself. Never having been to Caffe Lena before, I was pleasantly surprised when my sister and I arrived about five minutes before the scheduled start of the show and were ushered to seats not more than fifteen feet from the singer, despite the small, informal space being fairly fully packed.

It had been some years since I last saw Mary perform, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Age can be cruel to singers.  Singing, particularly at the level that Mary does it, is physically very demanding.  The voice can lose its flexibility, the range can tighten, pitch can become iffy.  As Billie Holiday demonstrated in her later years, consummate artistry can compensate for almost anything, but, well…

I needn’t have worried. It was the same as all the other times I have seen her, since October Project (the band with which she came to public attention, in the early 1990’s) broke up after mysteriously losing its recording contract.  There is this slender, pretty, blonde woman standing center stage, holding a guitar. She talks for a little while, animated, vivacious.  Because she is charming, intelligent, and funny, it is entertaining, but not extraordinarily so.  She’s attractive and engaging, but there doesn’t really seem to be anything very extraordinary about her.  Then she strums the guitar and opens her mouth and this oceanic sound comes out.

I am not the only person to whom this particular metaphor has occurred.  At Caffe Lena, Mary talked about a concert in China at which a Chinese graduate student told her, “You have an ocean inside.”  It is an apt figure.  Her alto has all the rich coloration and shifting hues of the ocean. It can be calm, with brightness dancing over it.  It can be dark, huge, and furious.  She can express utter tenderness, like a mother kissing her baby’s forehead, and terrifying, destructive rage, and everything in between.  Her voice can be velvety quiet, or thunderous and vibrant as a pipe organ.  What was particularly nice to observe at this concert is that this magnificent instrument is still in fine condition, and that Mary has not lost a bit of her command of it, control as nearly perfect as makes no difference to the listener.

I say, “control as nearly perfect as makes no difference to the listener,” because I suspect that it is different for Mary.  I am drawing a bit on my own experience here.  I play a musical instrument.  I do it quite well, and people tell me they enjoy it.  I have been highly praised sometimes after playing a solo during which I was disconcerted by every tiny rhythmic imprecision, every missed opportunity to inflect a note or extend a phrase in a different direction, every slight lapse of eloquence.  The audience couldn’t hear it, but I could.  I also make furniture, and what I see when I look at a finished piece for the first time is every imperfection, even though they’re invisible to the person for whom I made it.   I wonder if Mary, on her vastly higher plane of musical accomplishment, experiences something of that sort.  I wonder this because of something she said at the concert.  She said that she loves reverb.  This reminded me that I have criticized her recordings, in the past, for their use of reverb on Mary’s voice.  If any voice ever could stand alone, without tinkering of any kind, it is Mary’s!  (The only voice I’ve heard that reminds me of her, allowing for differences in training, gender, and technique, was Jussi Bjorling’s.)  (Google him.  Listen to him singing Nessun Dorma, then listen to Mary.  Am I crazy?)   But her records, from the first October Project album on, almost unfailingly employ some level of electronic “enhancement.”  This is the kind of thing for which the expression “gilding the lily” was invented and it’s one reason, I think, why people tend to be struck by how substantially better she sounds at live shows than on her records.  But Mary, I think, may feel some discomfort at hearing her voice played back naked.  I wonder if that is the result of having ears that are tuned to the (tiny) gaps between what she achieves and what she feels she might have achieved. It is the price, I think, that one pays for artistry.  Paying that price, over and over, may be part of what it takes to continue to function at the highest level, as Mary does.  So perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much about her dependence on reverb as an analgesic for this discomfort, if that is what it is, so long as I still can go hear her live, without it.

The concert consisted of two sets, with a brief intermission and two encores.  There was a lot of patter between songs.  I didn’t mind, since, as I said, Mary is articulate and intelligent and tells funny stories well, and what she had to say about each song added to the pleasure of hearing it.  For example, she told how two lines of Dawning of the Day, a song she wrote in honor of the first responders who died on 9/11, came to her as if channeled from Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, by golly! When she sang these two lines they came through especially vividly for me.  During intermission, a man in the bathroom grumbled, “Too much talking.”  I suggested that maybe, as a singer gets older, she needs a bit more time to recover between numbers.

My rejoinder wasn’t entirely flippant.  Considered purely as a feat of athleticism, singing with Mary’s level of artistry and control is very demanding.  She sings with her whole body.  There can be a strong visual dimension to Mary’s performance.  Take, for example, Siren, her song about the mythological Greek bird-women whose voices were a danger for passing sailors.  The song has a vocalise chorus – “oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo”, like that – which, on the recorded version, I had never found very convincing. It seemed a bit hokey and decorative. Then I watched Mary sing it, her beautiful face uplifted, her lips pursed around the string of notes, her body assuming a perching bird-like posture, and the vocalise was revealed as not merely decorative foofaraw; it was lovely and expressive of the siren’s loneliness and longing and her helpless seductiveness.

The set list fell into two categories, for me.  First, there are songs that are notable statements in themselves, which Mary interprets with her combination of passion, sensitivity, and musicality. This includes songs she inherited from those “excellent songwriters” October Project.  Way back in the day, I saw Mary with that band.  Taking her bows at the end of the show, she said “Thank you to Emil Adler and Julie Flanders for writing these wonderful songs for me to sing.”  She should well be grateful.  Not only did Adler write compelling melodies for Flanders’ striking and meaningful lyrics, their compositions were crafted extremely well to suit Mary.  She included several of these in each set.  I hadn’t previously heard Mary do Ariel as a solo. This song imagines, at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magical creature Ariel taking her reluctant leave of the magician Prospero, whom she has served.  It is, among other things, a marvelous meditation on loves that must be escaped because, although genuine, they are too all-encompassing.  The October Project version deployed Emil Adler’s gift for devising sonic environments in which Mary shone like a well-set gem.  But at Caffe Lena she put the song across, strumming her guitar without losing any of the song’s complexity, beauty, drama, and power.

In addition to the OP numbers she included for us old fans, Mary displayed her proclivity for finding songs that are significant statements in a wide range of material, from the eleventh century mozarabic love song Ben Aindi Habibi to Nina Simone’s  Wild is the Wind to Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. I was tickled to hear her describe Ben Aindi Habibi as her favorite song.  Of Mary’s repertoire, it is mine.  Every time I hear it, I am utterly destroyed.  I think it is the way so many lines and phrases end with a long note, powerfully but tenderly projected in Mary’s middle and lower registers.  Ahem. Give me a minute.  Okay, I’m back again.  Both Sides Now was performed as a sixty year old’s perspective – that’s Mary’s age, she told us – on a twenty-something genius’s vision.  To each song, Mary brings a psychologically acute specificity. This is one of the many things that make her singing hard to describe.  There never is anything generic about it.  Each note expresses a discrete emotional reality, grounded in experience and particularity.

The second category consists of songs that perform less as noteworthy statements in themselves and more as platforms for Mary to express something.  Mostly, these are the songs she has written.  I hasten to add that Mary is capable of writing songs that are in the first category, also.  Johnny and June, which we didn’t hear on Saturday, for example.  Now that I’ve seen her sing it, I’d have to say, Sirens. Raging Child, another one that didn’t make Saturday’s set list.  But just because you can’t hit a home run every time, doesn’t mean your other times at bat are worthless.  Mary’s genius is, I think, predominantly interpretive.  Often, she writes for herself competent lyrics set to serviceable melodies that, together, provide a vehicle for saying what she has to say.  For example, there are several love songs to her husband, Richard.  I don’t think that any of them is likely to inspire many cover versions; the melodies are beautiful but not compelling, the words say what they have to say without being very memorable.  Now listen to Mary sing them, and you will think, Richard must be a very strong and secure person to be able to receive and accept a loving admiration of that intensity without crumbling, and bearing witness to that is something you won’t forget.

Thank you, Mary, for opening so many windows onto our shared humanity.  Joshua’s trumpet destroyed the walls of Jericho. Your voice, too tears down barriers.


UPDATE 6-24-19: By far the best representation on disc of how Mary sounds is her double CD, “Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House”.  It is overwhelming.  But go and see her, if you can – then, on the way out after the concert, stop at the table and buy the CD.

Fambly Valyas

May 17th, 2019

Q: Why Does Moloch Keep Eating Children?

May 12th, 2019

A:  Because that’s what he does.

It is perversely reassuring that even very intelligent and perceptive people are so baffled by Donald Trump’s mentality.  It means that he is an extreme outlier, so far outside the normal ken that he might as well be another species.  I was listening this morning to David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, and Bill McKibben, climate change activist, pronounce themselves stumped by the question whether Donald Trump believes in his climate change denialism.  By contrast, I do not find this puzzling at all. I think I possess a key to understanding Trump that these intellectual lions are searching for in vain.  What that says about me, is something I don’t want to think about too much, right now.

The key is to take really seriously the obvious fact that Trump does not believe anything, at least, not in the same sense that you and I believe things.  For him, facts and truth are entirely fungible.  The only point of reference in his universe is Donald Trump.  Sure, he has certain fixations, like the utter undesirability of any non-Nordic immigrant to the United States and the idea that the trade imbalance with China can be rectified to the United States’ advantage by making U.S. consumers pay more for Chinese goods; but a fixation, an orientation towards the world determined by involuntary psychological factors, is not a “belief” in the same sense that you and I mean by the word, that is, an interpretation of reality based on accepted authority and evidence.

I often say that Trump lies constantly about everything, but I am not being entirely accurate.  In order to lie, one must have some notion of truth, which he does not.  It would be a more precise description to say that no word comes out of his mouth that is neither false nor misleading, because no word of his bears any relation to a referent other than what he conceives to be the advantage to Donald Trump of pronouncing those sounds in that moment.  This is the one thing you never will hear him say.  Otherwise, he will say anything, including things that are directly contrary not only to easily verifiable facts but that directly contradict things he may have said only minutes before.

Another way of seeing it is that words, for Trump, are meaningless except as social currency. They buy attention.  They manipulate behavior.  These reasons alone are why he bothers with grammar and syntax. He displays no sense whatever of the aesthetics of speech, no indication that he uses it to achieve empathy or understanding.  His few attempts at expressing empathy, as when belatedly after a school shooting he will utter his “warmest condolences,” are the clumsy, studied actions of an alien imitating how has observed humans to behave in those circumstances. Language, for him, is purely a transactional medium.  If you want to study Trump, one place to go is the old television series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  One of the humanoid species populating that show was the Ferengi, a race of Trumps, preoccupied almost entirely with personal commercial advantage.  The main Ferengi character was named Quark.  When Trump speaks, I often hear Quark’s distinctive combination of ingratiating whine and bare-toothed snarl, except that Trump’s emotional range is somewhat different, lower and heavier.  There is the occasional ingratiating whine, to be sure, but more often in its place there is the triumphal roar, as when leading a crowd in chanting “Lock her up!  Lock her up!”  That descends through the cheerlessly smirking taunt to the dull, aggressive monotone.

What people like Mr. Remnick and Mr.McKibben canot seem to rid themselves of, despite all evidence to the contrary, is the notion – really, the hope – that Trump possesses some sort of ideology.  Nothing could be farther from the case.  The people Trump seeks to ingratiate himself with are not his fellow believers, of whom there are none, but those whom he can manipulate to his own ends.  (For a fascinating, terrifying closeup depiction of how he does this to the individuals he surrounds himself with, see James Comey’s op-ed in the May 1, 2019 New York Times.)  He goes after the most malleable and gullible, like a scam artist selling fake driveway asphalt services in a housing development full of elderly people.  Of course he espouses climate change denial.  The people who can be taken in by the climate change denial industry are Trump’s meat.  People who understand climate change, despite all the Koch brothers’ expensive efforts, are harder to dupe.  Like any predator, he expends his time and energy on the easier prey.  If Flat Earthers were sufficiently numerous, he’d be directing NASA funding to them.

Similarly, nearly all the head-scratching analysis of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign strategy, based on demographics and economics and careful consideration of whose interests he may be weighing against what, is misguided.  There is no strategy.  Likewise, the people who perceive Trump as engendering “chaos” also miss the point.  There is a polestar to everythinghe does.  It is him, now.  This may look chaotic, observed from the outside, or it may seem to result from the operation of some inscrutable purpose.  Doubtless the cosmic debris plummeting towards the event horizon of a black hole looks chaotic, yet subject to some mysterious direction.


April 26th, 2019

President Mondale.

President Dukakis.

President Gore.

President Kerry.

President Clinton.


Anybody see a pattern?