Life Imitating Art: The Russiagate Floodgates

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Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That’s big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.

There’s another scene that succinctly summarizes the film’s central conflict, and how close Serpico is to snapping (also featuring an early and authentic example of Pacino’s peerless ability to explode and implode, simultaneously). He’s already on edge for understandable reasons, but when he discovers the scumbag he just busted (so infuriatingly calm and cocky) is, in fact, a cop killer.

Here he is, an honest cop in a room full of men who’d just as soon drop him off the Empire State Building, unable to elicit the slightest emotion from any of them. Of course, it’s because this slippery felon has bought off practically the entire precinct. They just stand there. Probably embarrassed, maybe even mortified but mostly culpable. They’re in too deep, the money’s too good and plus, this guy’s got the goods on them.

This is how it’s getting to be with the now daily drop of all-things Russia (as the invaluable Charles Pierce memorably puts it, “Right now, there are more Russians involved in this story than there are in War and Peace.”). We hear another unbelievable development, something that the key players?—?following the inexorable script?—?at first deny, then pretend to have forgotten and then, with the assistance of the usual suspects at Fox News, insist, indignantly, is, in any event, not illegal. And each day, the entire Republican party stands mute, impotent. Not because they can’t or don’t want to believe it (if their eyes or actual memories fail them, there’s a trusty paper trail that now resembles a relay race between moist slugs), but because they’re in. Deep. They made their deal and are now obliged to ride shotgun in this clown car.

And just like Serpico’s corrupt brethren, it’s all about money. But at least in the movie (based, by the way, on a true story), the money is coming from illicit activity, mostly drugs and gambling. What we have today is much worse. Republicans are colluding and covering and denying (and, probably at this point, sweating) not so they can merely get a slice of this contaminated pie. No, their motivation, at once more complicated and disgraceful, consists mainly of poaching funds designed for poor people to give to rich people. Oh, and take away millions of Americans’ health care.

You couldn’t make a movie about this. It’s too implausible. Too depressing.

And too real.

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Donald Trump and Participation Trophy Politics

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I’VE BEEN THINKING A lot?—?since the election and particularly during the past two weeks?—?about the cliché (typically, in personal experience, uttered by my right-leaning friends) involving our so-called “participation trophy” generation and how it’s making everyone so soft, and spoiled. You have to earn it, this complaint implies. You have to understand defeat to fully appreciate triumph. If you expect to get rewarded just for showing up, it cheapens it for everyone, et cetera.

There’s no shortage of context and counterarguments about how a win-at-all-costs mentality translates to society, or if emphasizing sportsmanship is the worst thing, or, finally, how in America we instinctively ignore the fact that all people don’t start from the same place, physically, mentally, economically. Marginalization has historically worked best when the people in positions of privilege don’t acknowledge or even imagine themselves as anything other than fair, objective and industrious folks.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

I find myself at once dismayed, yet not at all surprised to behold the increasingly sorry spectacle of a newly-elected president?—?who has benefitted from virtually every advantage?—?endorsed by those he’s spent his life ignoring, ostracizing, swindling. (Never mind how this pathology of Americans voting against their best interests is a phenomenon that, to an extent, has always existed, but super-sized itself in recent years.) Here’s a candidate who undeniably had outside assistance (Russia, voter fraud, James Comey) to squeeze out the narrowest of “wins”, who is obsessed with approval, not understanding it must be earned, and who inexorably makes every occasion about himself (etc.). None of this is especially perplexing for anyone who’s paid attention over the last several decades. He was never an especially confident or competent man, but he played one on TV.

(And despite the hysteria and hand-wringing that’s followed Hillary Clinton’s loss, the key takeaway seems clear: it’s not that she (or Democrats in general) don’t talk to working class Americans; it’s that she (and they) still don’t know how to. A lot more on that issue, here.)

As we enter a steadily surreal landscape of alternate facts, braindead braggadocio masquerading as foreign policy and daily dumpster fires that titillate social media but also provide cover for the shady shit going on behind the scenes, it’s painful to conclude that idiocy has found an unprecedented symbiosis: only the most eager to dissemble can consistently reach those most in need of being deceived. Donald Trump is not the president most of his voters actually need, but he’s the one a distressing number of them want.

Again, enough can never be said about the myriad ways Democrats (including, of course, Obama and his team) were either too haughty, impatient or sane to belabor how demonstrably beneficial the vast majority of their enacted policies have been. But have we reached a point where a black man providing affordable health care is literally less tolerable than a billion-dollar baby with a bad combover taking it away from them? Are we through the broken looking glass where a tenure without terror attacks on American soil (not counting our homegrown terrorists with unconstrained access to firearms, all of whom tend to skew fascist, I mean conservative) is less savory than an isolationist bellicosity cut with impetuousness and pig-ignorance? Are we, at long last, in an irony-free fantasy land where virtually all regulation (safe drinking water is such a liberal diversion), much of which has been a century or more in the making and inspired by avoidable calamities, is the real roadblock to collective prosperity?

I think, and fear, we are.

And that, more than fake news, bigotry and not-so-quiet desperation, may explain Trump’s atavistic appeal. The red hat brigade is definitely not safer, but they feel safer (they want to); their wages won’t increase but their Dear Leader promises we’ll get tired of winning so much; no immigrants are stealing their jobs, but finally they have a Bully-in-Chief who feels their perceived pain. It’s a new world order of rationalization instead of realization (emphasis on real); it’s participation trophy politics.

With the invaluable assistance of an alternately prurient and supine media, we’ve unleashed an orange genie who reinforces our most brutish instincts. In this less kind and gentle America, it’s those who talk toughest most in need of mollification (it begins at the top and tweets its way to the bottom), who require readymade villains and celebrate their victimhood, who need a Big Daddy to remind them they’re special, that no sacrifice is required on their part.

(Behold, with equal amounts of bemusement and disgust, the way our part-time custodians of culture are submitting themselves (spines and shame not required), excusing and/or overlooking this manifestly unqualified adolescent: a man who proudly declines to read books, or learn, or make efforts to be coached by anyone with insight and experience. A man born rich who refuses to play by any rules (where are those tax returns, genius?), a man whose callousness and incuriosity makes George W. Bush look like Ralph W. Emerson. Behold, with maximum disdain, the way these bought-and-sold bitches live to do the wet work for Big Business. These same frauds, who make themselves arbiters for morality and decency, are entirely enabling this ongoing disgrace, a man they loathe, a man they’d otherwise decry and avoid (#NeverTrump? The only problem with shaming people like this is that they require a sense of shame, and a soul, for it to matter). And make no mistake: it’s all in the name of lower taxes for the wealthiest percentile, as ever, as always.)

In The Donald’s America, everyone can live vicariously, eliminating doubt, self-discipline and consequences. All that’s required is the renunciation of cause-and-effect and Truth-with-a-Capital-T. The only losers are the saps who refuse to trust Trump’s lying eyes. The (White) House always wins, but everyone gets a trophy in this game.

*This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 2/3/17.

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