My Father Played the Piano

My father played the piano. Enthusiastically, if not very well. His right hand would pick out a melody in the key of B, say, but his left hand would pound away at C, G or sometimes, F major chords – no matter how jarring the sound, since those were the only ones he had memorized. His go-to was the C chord. Something about its simplicity appealed to him. Occasionally, he would throw in a G, for no particular reason other than it felt right for him at the time. And if he was being creative, an F. No matter the song, tempo or key, he randomly alternated the same three major chords with abandon, all in the same ¾ waltz signature. No fancy black key sharps or flats for him. No dwelling on the melancholy of a minor chord, or searching for the wistfulness of a 7th, or God forbid, the complexity of an augmented 5th. No reason to stray into 4/4 common time – that way lay rock or blues. He grew up in the era of the big band – Glen Miller and Benny Goodman, the king of swing. And later, he had a special affinity for the romantic balladeer Matt Monro, the bus driver with the golden voice. Something about a regular bloke from a blue collar background becoming a star mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra, allowed Dad to dream about transcending class and circumstance.

His all time favorite song was Nat King Cole’s Fascination, to which he and my mother would have had their first waltz at their wedding in 1956, if they could have afforded a band. He enjoyed the simple boom cha-cha rhythm. 1-2-3. 1-2-3. The consistent simplicity of the left hand, with its reliable triple time, left him free to concentrate on the melody and occasionally, to croon along:

It was fascination, I know

And it may have ended right then at the start

Just a passing glance

Just a brief romance

And I might have gone on my way empty hearted…

My mother, the object of his eternal adoration, and as industrious as a beaver, would barely pause as she dusted, or straightened the furniture. But she would listen indulgently as he doggedly butchered his way through the classic, blithely skipping over the sour notes and mismatched chords. For him the show always went on, and he did it with a smile; because Dad always smiled when he played, lost in the pleasure of making that sweet, discordant music, happy to create even a poor facsimile of the tunes he loved so well.

 

He bought the piano when he was just eighteen and working as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in the Orange Grove Hotel. Like many of his generation, he left school after the 6th grade to work in the family’s general store—if you could call a small room with a few shelves of dry goods a general store. Sometimes he went on delivery runs with his father on a horse drawn cart, dropping off Chinese herbal remedies and home made lap cheong sausage. His family had bounced around from one ghetto township (known in the local vernacular as a “location”) to another – from Prospect Township to George Goch, Newclare to Martindale and finally Sophiatown. Each time the black populace was evicted to make way for white suburbs, the Chinese and Indian shopkeepers followed their customer base, like egrets trailing great migratory herds.

He came of age in Sophiatown during the halcyon days of the 1930’s and 40’s, when it was known as the Harlem of Johannesburg. He and his friends formed a band called the Marigolds, in which he played the drums and his younger brother Raymond, played the clarinet; not only to emulate the orchestras of Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie, but like teenage boys of any era, as a way to impress the ladies. But while his friends talked about the latest Chevy Bel-Air Convertible, he dreamed of owning a Steinway, which everyone knew, was the best piano in the world. Why not a guitar, or saxophone? I once asked him. Something more portable and easy to store? Because Mal, he said in an earnest “this is a life lesson, you should write it down” tone of voice, if you can play the piano, you can play any instrument. Even the guitar? Yes even the guitar. It may only have six strings while the piano has eighty eight keys, but the notes are exactly the same. That’s the beauty of it. Now go and practice.

He found a second hand upright in reasonable condition, and paid eight pounds a month for two years – a substantial financial investment when you consider that the family was paying about ten pounds per month to rent their shop and living quarters. But his musical aspirations were no match for the realities of a hardscrabble life in the townships, and he never found the time or money for lessons. In his early twenties, he moved to Lady Selborne – a mixed race location in Pretoria, ahead of the government mandated destruction of Sophiatown, its inner city proximity deemed too great a threat to White suburbia. The Steinway, his most valuable possession, went with him.

It might have held pride of place at one point in its existence, but had succumbed to the fate of all horizontal surfaces in a cluttered home and become just another shelf . By the time I was born, I had been relegated to the far wall wall of our sitting room, an ignominious repository for knick knacks, mail, empty cups of tea and old newspapers. The gold lettering proudly proclaiming “Steinway and Sons” had faded into the rich darkness of the cherry wood. The A three octaves below Middle C was dead, which might explain dad’s avoidance of it. The ivory keys, yellow with age, were chipped and broken, as if a spiteful child had taken a hammer to them. If you weren’t careful, you could easily cut a finger playing an arpeggio. And then there was the hazard of the hinged wooden cover that seemed simple enough to open, but was in reality a diabolical trap for a toddler’s unwary fingers.

 

My Ah Ma used to tell me that the keys looked that way because they had been gnawed on by rats, who came looking for food and found the jam residue from my sticky fingers. See, she would say, that’s why you have to wash your hands before playing, I keep telling you but you don’t listen. I’m not sure I believed her – she also told me that for every grain of rice I left behind on my plate, that would mean another pimple, not on my own teenage face, but on that of my future girlfriend. Chinese Ah Mas have a way of elevating guilt to an art form – Are you defying me? Don’t care about yourself? Then how about we put a hex on your future wife.

As a young child, I would bang on the piano whenever I was bored, playing a version of “chopsticks” on the black keys using only my knuckles and a closed fist. Sometimes, entranced by the harmonics, I experimented by playing the two notes with similar intervals within each octave, up and down the piano, over and over again, searching for consonance and dissonance until my grandmother begged me to stop. I’m trying to nap, she told me from her reclining hammock chair. Hush now.

When I went to boarding school at the age of five, my parents enrolled me in extra mural piano lessons. I was supposed to attend every Thursday at 4 pm in the school’s assembly hall. Unfortunately no one had thought to provide this first grader with a watch or any way to tell the time, and I would sometimes wander the school grounds blissfully unaware of the time or even day of my lesson, until the piano teacher dispatched some older boy to track me down and drag me to my appointment. She was an old school martinet, rapping knuckles with a wooden ruler for failing to maintain a proper bridge, insisting on endless scales, impatiently tapping on the music sheet and occasionally my head with her pencil. Playing the piano became as joyless as a visit to the dentist, and I “missed” more and more lessons, hiding out in the library or the farthest reaches of the school grounds, until eventually, she stopped sending out the search parties.

My father next decided, once my boarding school days had ended, that he and I would attend lessons together. We drove to Pretoria North every Monday night, some 10 miles away. The teacher was a stout Afrikaner lady called Mrs. Van Rensburg, who reminded me of another of my dad’s favorite musicians – Mrs. Mills, the 1960’s Pub sing-along pianist who looked like a jovial lunch lady, but gave the Beatles a run for their money in terms of record sales. She banged out nearly forty albums, many of which contained the word “party” (As in “Mrs. Mills’ party!” , “It’s Party Time!” and “Let’s have another party!”)

Both my dad and I started off learning middle of the road popular music of the time, as well as simple classics, like Edelweiss (me) and Love is Blue (Dad). Later, when I moved on to Beethoven, Dad stuck with Nat King Cole. I was an indifferent student. Mrs. Van Rensburg would turn the pages of the music sheet with her plump fingers and admonish me to “Look on the book!” I dutifully made a show of reading the music while my fingers wandered over the keyboard, but it was no use – I could read the music (slowly) or I could play the tune (from memory), but I couldn’t do them at the same time.   I had long since learned to play by ear, and my brain resisted making that connection between the musical note on the page and the finger placement on the keyboard. My father suffered from the same mental block. But he relied even more on memorized play, hence the affinity for his triumvirate of favorite chords. Mrs. Van Rensburg would sigh with exasperation. Mr. Chang that’s a Bb minor! she exclaimed. When she tut-tutted, he just smiled like an abashed schoolboy as if to say, well you got me, and maneuvered his fingers into the correct, though uncomfortable position. But he never did play a minor chord outside of Monday nights in Pretoria North.

I never progressed beyond Beethoven’s simplest melodies – the “Moonlight” Sonata and Für Elise, or Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. Dad would have loved me to continue, perhaps someday to play pieces he considered the apex of virtuosity – Chopin’s Minute Waltz, or the Flight of the Bumblebee, my hands a blur, flying up and down the keyboard. But it was not to be. The complex hyper speed fingering of Rimsky-Korsakov (Rachmaninov version) would remain an impossible dream. I came to realize that all of us have a little bit of Mozart in us, but a lot of Salieri: Blessed with the ability to recognize genius, but cursed with the inability to create great art ourselves.

When I played a Mrs. Mills song that he asked me to learn, I was puzzled that even though I was playing the exact notes as they appeared on the page, the music lacked a certain something. It doesn’t sound the same, I told him. That’s because she doesn’t only play the notes on the sheet music, he replied. It’s the “filling in” that gives it life. By that he meant the little trills and flourishes that Mrs. Mills added to the melody. There was music in the space between the notes, like unnamed colors that existed within the spectrum. How do I do that? I asked. How can I learn to play something that isn’t even there? Don’t worry, you’ll get it one day, he said. Just keep playing.

One summer we took a break from lessons and never went back. Still, he loved to hear me fool around on the piano at home, reproducing something I had heard on the radio, or found in one of those pirated music sheet collections from Hong Kong, bound in a paperback sized bundle that required squinting to read. Sometimes, I would remove the wooden boards in the front of the piano to make it louder or to strum the strings directly with my fingers, to make the creepy music I had heard in The Exorcist.

My younger brother Dion, when he reached the appropriate age, also took lessons, but his formal musical journey was even shorter than mine, and he abandoned the piano early to do what he loved – draw and sketch. He became a fashion designer, won a nation wide competition and went to Paris on a scholarship, so I think that was the right decision for him. I don’t think Dad was disappointed. In fact, he was inordinately proud of us; that we had achieved so much of what he had been denied. As long as we gave expression to some kind of right brain endeavor, he was happy. He himself, notwithstanding his limited prowess on the piano, had the soul of an artist.

As a minimally educated blue collar worker, dad worked pedestrian jobs all his life to put food on the table. He had been a waiter, a delivery boy, a travelling salesman and a shopkeeper. It was a fate he and my mother were determined would not befall their children, and they recognized that music and art were accoutrements of middle class and therefore indispensible to our education and our journey of upward mobility.

Though his own musical aspirations were thwarted, he found other outlets for artistic expression. He became a photographer of some note, having prints accepted for exhibition in international salons. He was a self taught painter, working mainly in oils in an impressionist style. His favorite piece was a picture of my mother, which he named, in his incurably romantic way, “A Portrait of My Love”, after the title of a Matt Monro ballad. Later in life, he tried his hand at calligraphy and flower pressing. Jack of all trades, he used to say about himself, and master of none. But he considered this an accomplishment to be proud of, rather than a dilettantish slight.

When I got married and moved away, Dad insisted that I take the piano. For Talisa, (my daughter), he said. None of his children had become virtuosos, but the love and appreciation of music should live on. Perhaps the next generation? When I emigrated to Canada, there was no question but that the Steinway would make the journey as well. The movers came a week before and created a special crate on site. It endured a journey first to Toronto, then Chicago and finally Irvine, a city south of Los Angeles. It emerged slightly battered, with a pair of broken wheels and another dead key, but mostly intact, cursed at by several teams of movers in three different countries. Both of my children learned to play. Neither one was a prodigy, nor did they continue piano instruction beyond elementary school, although they both also played various instruments – viola, clarinet, saxophone and guitar. Perhaps it was true – if you can play the piano, you can play any instrument. Dad visited us in California and heard my son Brandon play on the Steinway he had bought almost fifty years earlier with his hard earned money. He didn’t play the Rach III, or even an etude by Chopin. In fact, as I recall, it was a simplified rendition of “Turkey in the Straw”. Dad smiled through the entire performance, missed notes and all, with barely contained glee, and tears in his eyes. He didn’t have to say a word.

He passed away some years later while playing golf, an activity that he had discovered late in life and which had become his new passion. He had come to love it so much in such a short time, that he jokingly declared that if it were up to him, he would like to die on a golf course. The Gods, in their infinite mercy, granted him this final wish between the 9th and 10th holes at the Irene Country Club. He had just recorded the best 9 hole score of his life. The very fact that I can utter these words – “He died at the Irene Country Club while playing golf” – is a testament to how far the elementary school dropout and lap cheong delivery boy had come.

 

When we decided to move from California to New York, we knew, given the size of East Coast apartments, that this time, the piano would have to stay behind. We gave it to a family friend with young children and saw it one last time in the children’s playroom, kids jostling for their turn to play. It seemed to fit right in.

The Steinway’s long strange journey began in Germany, where it was handcrafted in Hamburg in 1938. It found its way to South Africa and traveled to Canada and then on to California. Had it made one last trip with us, it would have ended up in New York City, the home of Steinway and Sons, which was founded in 1853 in Manhattan. How perfect it would have been for the instrument to come ‘home’. It would have been a fitting end to a wonderful story. Unfortunately, life is messy like that. Our stories are not perfect arcs. My father would have understood. The memories that resided in its rich tone, in its warm dark wood with its faded lettering, in its imperfect condition, seemed too important to let it go. It could have been a family heirloom, passed on to generations yet unborn. But the Steinway piano, and my father, had left us the legacy of this lesson—that there is music in the space between the notes, and that we can find joy in playing enthusiastically, if not too well.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and Lessons of History Forgotten

 

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

You may have heard these words or heard of them, inscribed on the base of America’s most famous icon, a paean to liberty, freedom and compassion.

In 1885, The Statue of Liberty was erected in New York Harbor. 3 years earlier, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law in the history of America to bar an entire group from immigration and citizenship on the basis of race and class. This is how they whipped up sentiment – and tell me if this sounds familiar: worried voters were told that Chinese laborers would take their jobs and that they were a sexually lecherous threat to society. The Chinese were condemned as unassimilable, vile heathens. An editorial cartoon from 1881 depicted a Chinese man on a pedestal in New York Harbor his clothes tattered, his eyes squint. The words “diseases”, “filth”, “immorality”, and “ruin to white labor” float around his head.

Just as in the previous century, anti immigrant measures are driven both by the working class and the elites as well as those who have a vested interest in border walls and detention centers. The Chinese Exclusion Act set the groundwork for immigration detention facilities and the country’s first large scale deportation of a single immigrant group. If you don’t believe me, just look at the companies tripping over themselves to build the Mexico wall and salivating at the prospect of privately owned immigrant detention facilities under President Trump.

Trump claims that his proposed Muslim ban is temporary, until vetting laws are strengthened. Isn’t that always the case? “What are you getting so worked up about?” they say, “It’s just till we can get a handle on things.” But I’m here to remind you that the Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to last for a decade… but it stayed on the books for 61 years, and was only repealed because the United States wanted to foster an alliance with China in the war against Japan. And then of course, it was the turn of the Japanese to be incarcerated in internment camps.

Now there are new targets for exclusion. A wall for the Mexicans. A ban for the Muslims. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. It was simple racism then, and it is simple racism now.

We cannot rely on our vaunted system of government to protect us. The checks and balances promised to us are no shield against a president who does not even pay lip service to its ideals. Look at how easily this administration, aided and abetted by a spineless Congress, is running roughshod over freedoms we thought enshrined in our constitution. Words on a paper by themselves are not enough. As writers we know how powerful words can be as embodiments of ideas, but true power resides in the will of the people to uphold them.

In 1882 when the Chinese were excluded, the people were silent. In 1942 when the Japanese were interned, the people were silent. We cannot be silent again.

 

 

The Trump Kakistocracy

[kak-uh-stok-ruh-see] – Government under the control of a nation’s worst or least-qualified citizens.

Let us stipulate to the fact that Donald Trump has neither the discipline, stamina, intellect, or stomach to attend to the daily grind of the presidency. He will delegate the duties to his deputies, even more so than any other president in history, while he devotes himself to “Making America great again”, whatever that means.

He has said that he would hire “the best” people. By which he means not the most experienced, qualified, or skilled politicians, academics or soldiers, but the brown nosing, butt licking sycophants and hangers on who, like Chris Christie, sold their souls for a chance to carry Trump’s water in the White House, and none of whom are skilled, experienced or qualified.

Here is his rogue’s gallery of cabinet level and other strategic appointments:

Reince Priebus – Chief of Staff: former head of the Republican National Committee and chief Trump booster during the election.

Steve Bannon – Chief Strategist : former head of Breitbart, known for his White identity politics, ethno nationalism, and his ties to White supremacists, anti-Semites and foreign reactionaries in Europe and Russia.

Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn – National Security Adviser : He was removed from his position as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for fostering a “destructive climate”. He supports the renewed use of torture and the targeted killings of families of terrorists. He has also peddled fake news, conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish sentiments.

Senator Jeff Sessions (ALA) – Director Dept. Of Justice : This is a man whose nomination as a federal judge was dropped because of his racist views. He also perpetuates the myth of voter fraud. He once suggested that a white lawyer was a disgrace to his race because he represented black clients. He has referred to the ACLU and NAACP as “un-American” for “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people.”

Betsy DeVos – Secretary of Education: No education degree. No teaching experience. No experience working in a school environment. Never attended public school or university. Never put her own children in public school. Invested $200 million in Christian schools and organizations. Does not believe in or support public education. On the plus side, she donated $9.5 million to the Trump campaign. Also Trump first offered the job to Jerry Falwell Jr., who declined.

Dr. Ben Carson – was quoted as saying he felt he has no government experience or run a federal agency and that that the last thing he wanted to do was take a position that crippled the presidency. He is now being considered to head the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Extent of his expertise – he owns a house.

Gov. Nikki Haley (SC), Ambassador to the UN : foreign policy experience – zero.

Rudy Giuliani – Secretary of State : Mr “noun, verb and 9/11”

Jared Kushner – White House Adviser: experience – Trump’s son in law.

More to come. Get your popcorn and your worry beads.

Note: Trump ran as a champion of the working class. His administration’s combined net worth could be as much as $35 billion.

Welcome to the Shadow Presidency of Mike Pence

Donald Trump was notoriously loathe to buckle down and prepare for his debates with Hilary Clinton. It was evident in his garbled replies and stream of consciousness riffs in his replies to seemingly straightforward questions from moderators. Here’s a sample:

Trump on Social Security:

“If you listen to the Democrats, they want to do many things to Social Security and I want to do them on its own merit. You listen to them, what they want to do to Social Security, none of these folks are getting elected, OK, whether they can do it or not. I’m going to save Social Security. I’m going to bring jobs back from China.”

Trump on Aleppo:

“Well, Aleppo is a disaster. It’s a humanitarian nightmare. But it has fallen from the — from any standpoint. I mean, what do you need, a signed document? Take a look at Aleppo. It is so sad when you see what’s happened. And a lot of this is because of Hillary Clinton, because what’s happened is, by fighting Assad, who turned out to be a lot tougher than she thought, and now she’s going to say, oh, he loves Assad, she’s — he’s just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama.”

Trump on cyber warfare :

“I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly do-able. But I will say, we are not doing the job we should be doing, but that’s true throughout our whole governmental society. We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester and certainly cyber is one of them.”

Trump’s “Art of the Deal” ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, in his New Yorker interview, said that he had been startled by his client’s short attention span. During their first interview, Mr. Trump endured just a few minutes of Mr. Schwartz’s questions before leaping up from his chair and declaring the entire exercise a waste of his time.

“He couldn’t tolerate doing interviews,” he tells me. “He just couldn’t stay focused for more than a few minutes at a time. And think about this, Michael, it was when he was talking about himself, which is his favorite subject.”

Frank Bruni, of the New York Times, said “I think of Trump as a toddler sitting in a high chair. And his advisers are saying ‘Donald, you must get through the meal without throwing your spaghetti on the wall.’”

Trump has embarrassed himself repeatedly by displaying a stunning lack of knowledge, or even curiosity, about the nuts and bolts of the job of President. He did not know what Hugh Hewitt was talking about when asked about the Nuclear Triad. And after his first foreign policy briefing, it was revealed that he asked three times why if we had nuclear weapons, could we not use them (pre-emptively, presumably).

During the Republican primaries, it was reported that his camp approached an adviser to John Kasich with an offer to make him the most powerful Vice President in history. The adviser said that Donald Trump Jr. offered Kasich a place on the ticket, and noted that his father’s running mate would be in charge of both domestic and foreign policy, according to the Times. When the adviser asked what that would leave for President Trump, Donald Jr. reportedly replied, “Making America great again.”

Kasich declined the offer, but it seems that Mike Pence was more than willing to become the new Dick Cheney.

Trump has shown, repeatedly, that he is no policy wonk; nor is he interested, or even capable of putting in the work that is required of the position. He likes the idea of being called Mr. President far more than actually being the President, with all its responsibilities and the intellectual and moral weight that entails. To his own great surprise, he has succeeded in the ultimate con, and the reality of it must just now be dawning on him.

He will spend the next four years tweeting at 3am, making enemy lists, and basking in the world’s attention, positive or negative, while delegating the presidential responsibilities to a coterie of yes men headed by Pence and his Three Amigos – Gingrich, Giuliani and Christie (although given Christie’s fall from grace, he may just be relegated to midnight runs to Burger King.)

Nero had his fiddle. Trump has his twitter account. The results, for civilization, may well be the same.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Donald Trump, who initiated his political career by questioning the legitimacy of America’s first black president, now gets the chance to undo eight years of progress under Barack Obama, who created America’s first truly progressive, compassionate government after years of conservative dogma, all while pulling the country out of its worst economic crisis since the great depression.

Here is a partial roll call of policy and legislation on the chopping block:

  • The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare): Trump has said he would repeal it and replace it with…oh right, nobody knows, because he failed to provide details. But certainly, 22 million previously uninsured will once again be on their own. Trump has also said that he will turn Medicaid into a block grant program, which will leave millions more uninsured.
  • The EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Obama’s legacy of fighting climate change: Trump has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.
  • The Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms. Big Corporations will be free to run roughshod over the middle class and make policy that only benefits the financial overlords.
  • Trump has promised huge personal and corporate tax cuts for the rich, which will have to be paid for by cuts to social programs.
  • Immigration Policy : Trump’s signature stump speech featured a call and response about the Mexican wall. He also famously spoke of deporting 11 million immigrants and sealing the border to all Muslims.
  • Most distressingly, He will now get to pick at least one and up to three Supreme Court Justices. It is possible that by the end of his term, there will be 7 conservatives on SCOTUS, putting Roe v Wade at risk and perpetuating the iniquities of the Citizens United decision.
  • NATO and other international commitments: Trump has said he will “renegotiate” international treaties, including the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate accords. The world will have to learn how to deal with a capricious, unstable, incoherent president whose word is not worth the breath he expended in uttering it.
  • The First Amendment : he is openly hostile to journalists and has mused about making it easier to sue them (his weapon of choice – he is involved in about 3500 lawsuits)
  • Nuclear Treaties : Japan gets a nuke!  South Korea gets a nuke!  Saudi Arabia gets a nuke! Everybody gets a nuke!

Keep in mind that he is unfettered by a divided congress, since the Republicans retained both the house and senate. For the first time since 1928, Republicans control the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. If they retain their majorities into 2020, they will get to continue their gerrymandering to safeguard Republican districts in perpetuity. To see what happens in a State that has a Republican governor and house with no Democrat opposition, look no further than Sam Brownback’s Kansas.

Trump will enter the White House as the most powerful president in recent history. Together with his penchant for authoritarianism, his thin skin and his obsession with payback for slights no matter how venial, that also makes him the most dangerous individual to ever hold this office. His self esteem is both high and extremely fragile. Did we really want a big baby who asked why we shouldn’t use preemptive nuclear strikes in charge of the nuclear codes? Apparently yes.

Trump is more than a disaster for America. He is an existential danger for the entire planet. I guess there’s just one more thing to say.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

The Ugliest American

 

There is patriotism. And then there is jingoism. But beyond the bottom of the barrel of nativism, there is Trumpism. Although Donald Trump is less an ultra nationalist than an opportunistic narcissist, willing to traffic in the language of demagoguery to achieve his goal of total brand domination, that brand being Trump himself.

There are those of whom it is said they just like to watch the world burn. In Trump’s case, the bonfire he is creating is not of his vanities, but of the republic for which he would stand.

He first entered the race to be the most powerful leader in the world, not for any noble cause, but as a marketing tool; not really in it to win it, but as a way to enhance the Trump name and future business prospects. But then like a mythical prospector, he stumbled upon a hidden vein of anger in the tea party wing of the Republican party, which led him to a subterranean wellspring of malcontents who became famous as the Alt-right, a motley collection of frightened, angry white men (and not a few women). He unexpectedly, even to himself, wiped the floor with the Republican field in the primaries, and got it into his head that perhaps he could really spin this thing into something Yuge!

Lacking the temperament, self discipline or even basic knowledge for this most demanding job, he nevertheless allowed himself to dream of what ifs, and decided that this competition, which he took on as an expensive PR lark, might yield him an even bigger stage to sell his Trump branded real estate, water, faux university degrees and steaks.

He was able to win against a divided Republican field, as establishment conservatives were unable or unwilling to coalesce behind a conventional standard bearer, and their internecine infighting opened the way for this ultimate huckster to con his way into the nomination.

But the tactics that aided him in the primaries – elementary school insults, empty boasts, repeating catchy yet meaningless slogans – are not serving him as well in the general. He faces, in some current polls, an 11% deficit. His chances of winning are in the single figures and falling daily as he cannot resist putting his foot in his mouth with every pronouncement, or firing off tweets at 3am to lash out against any slight, no matter how inconsequential. It is not so much the fact that he might lose the election that burns him so much as losing at all. He never really cared to actually be the president, with all the responsibilities that the position entailed, he just wanted to be able to say that he won.

Now that he is about to be exposed as a loser (a word for which he reserves the ultimate contempt), he is making preemptive excuses for his inevitable humiliation, by claiming election rigging and voter fraud, even though he has no credible evidence to support his assertions. That he could do lasting damage to the Republic and undermine America’s democratic system with his outright lies, is of no concern to him. His ego is so fragile that he would rather burn down the house than to admit that he lost in a fair fight. He will slink away to fight another day, perhaps in an enterprise he has already initiated – The Trump News Network, to profit from the fury that he himself whipped up in his millions of duped followers. Just as he has done in his other enterprises, he will leave a trail of disgruntled would be partners, the bodies of those he has used and discarded, and the wreckage of once proud institutions in his wake.

 

 

The Stochastic Terrorism of Donald Trump

Eight years ago, John McCain was the Republican presidential nominee At a town hall session, a man said he was “scared” of an Obama presidency. McCain responded that Mr. Obama “is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

Later, a woman told Mr. McCain that she couldn’t trust Mr. Obama because “he’s an Arab.” “No ma’am,” Mr. McCain replied. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.”

When his supporters went low, John McCain went high.

Fast forward to 2016. A selection of statements from this year’s GOP nominee and his surrogates –

  • Trump suggested he would pay the legal fees of a man charged with hitting a protestor at one of his rallies.
  • “I’d like to punch him in the face” Trump said about a protestor being ejected.
  • “I love the old days,” Trump said about another protestor. “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
  • “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said at a campaign rally.
  • “Take the bitch down!” – A school aged child (who looked about ten) when Hillary Clinton was mentioned by Trump.
  • “Lock her up” – repeated refrain at the Republican National convention.
  • “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” – Al Baldasaro, Trump adviser on veteran affairs.

And his latest hit (as of 4:03pm 9 Aug, 2016) :

  • “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” Donald Trump, North Carolina

He and his surrogates have tried to spin it as appealing to 2nd Amendment supporters to vote to prevent a Clinton victory, and that is what many of his supporters will believe.  But to the rest of America and the world, Trump just slyly advocated the assassination of a political opponent and/or some federal judges.

Trump claims to know words – “ I know words, I have the best words…” – and that may be true (no, not really), but the question is whether he is an evil genius wordsmith, precisely calculating the effect his dog whistle will have on his frenzied supporters, while offering him plausible deniability; or just a loudmouth dick who doesn’t care about the consequences of his projectile alphabet vomit. It’s probably the latter, but it doesn’t really matter what his actual intent is, because what does matter is what some crazed supporter, hanging out in his mother’s basement will hear. In other words, Trump may not know which dog will hear his whistle, but by putting it out there, he should realize that some dog will hear it.

Valerie Tarico wrote about this form of stochastic terrorism following the Planned Parenthood murders in Colorado.

As Tarico wrote (with its application to Hillary Clinton in parentheses):

       1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons. (“Crooked Hillary”,    “unhinged”, “liar”, “an unbalanced person”)

  1. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust. (Clinton is a criminal who needs to be locked up – “Lock her up, Lock her up”)
  1. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past ‘purges’ against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms. (“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”)
  2. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it—claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the ‘tragedy.'” (I was joking!)

Trump knows how volatile his supporters are.  Unlike, John McCain, he does nothing to dispel their bloodthirsty fervour and even encourages mob mentality (he told a crowd in Iowa in February. “Seriously, okay, just knock the hell. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees; I promise, I promise.”)

He is also priming his supporters for a violent reaction to his inevitable loss in November. “ I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.” He followed up on Sean Hannity’s show “I’m telling you, November 8th, we’d better be careful because that election is going to be rigged. And I hope the Republicans are watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us.”

His longtime adviser, Roger Stone, dispensed with all pretense of metaphor, by stating outright “If you can’t have an honest election, nothing else counts. I think (Trump’s) gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”

How far the Grand Old Party has fallen – it has become a refuge for thugs and demagogues. The apotheosis of the Fox News fed Republican’s deliberate appeal to the basest instincts of its supporters has resulted in electing as its standard bearer, a man-baby with no filter between his febrile, narcissistic brain and his filth spewing mouth.

The best way to remove this malignant tumor from the body politic is to disavow it in no uncertain terms. Trump has to lose and lose big – all fifty states big. There should be no question as to where the American public stands. Yes, he will get some votes, perhaps millions of them, but his brand of identity politics must be decisively quashed, and reasonable Americans must repudiate him once and for all, so that the trolls who support his brand of politics can be banished to the dank bridge whence they came.

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