“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).
Yes, that’s from Lewis Carroll, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass – and yes, “curiouser” is not a word at all – but she can be forgiven. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was a serious mathematician – a master at logic – and the whole thing was an ironic play on logic. Alice was overwhelmed. Sometimes logic fails, and then it’s down the rabbit hole – “Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
Get used to it. Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, says that sort of thing at those daily briefings, in response to this question or that from this reporter or that –”If what you say were true, that might be so, but it isn’t and it ain’t, and proof doesn’t matter, logically speaking.” Donald Trump was totally respectful in his conversation with the mother of that dead soldier, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. All those people must be lying – that’s only logical. Don’t you get it?
The reporters don’t get it. They’re as overwhelmed as Alice, even if none of them forget how to speak good English – with a few exceptions here and there. America has gone down the rabbit hole. Puerto Rico will not have electricity until next year, maybe, and people down there are drinking water from toxic waste sites – because there’s no real drinking water – but this was the most awesome and wonderful relief effort the world has ever seem – and the crowds at Trump’s inauguration were the largest that the world has ever seen – Sean Spicer was doing this before Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Don’t look at the evidence. Apply “logic.”
Lewis Carroll had fun with this sort of thing, even if there is the undying tone of a serious mathematician’s bitter irony to his tale. He created a funny and clever nightmare world where all real logic disappears. Still, he had fun, messing with his readers, and others can play that game, like this clever and ironic man:
Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Americans to show more respect for their president in response to a question posed to him at the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday.
In his remarks, Putin called Americans’ disrespect for President Trump a “negative” feature of the American democratic system.
Vladimir Putin is messing with us:
The Russian leader told his audience that those who ascend to the highest office in the U.S. possess a “certain talent” that allows them to survive America’s bruising political process.
“I believe that the president of the United States does not need any advice because one has to possess certain talent and go through this trial to be elected, even without having the experience of such big administrative work. He [Trump] has done this,” the Russian leader said. “He won honestly.”
Vladimir Putin said Trump won honestly, probably with a big ironic grin on his face. Putin is the last person on earth that Donald Trump would want to say such a thing. There’s stuff like this:
Republicans are waiting to pass their tax-reform bill before they move to impeach Donald Trump, a former Republican member of Congress reportedly told a former US labor secretary.
In a Facebook post, Robert Reich said the former senator, an old friend of his, told him Republicans are “just praying Trump doesn’t do something really, really stupid before the tax bill.”
Speaking over the phone, Mr Reich said he asked his friend whether other Republican senators were preparing to follow Senator Bob Corker and “call it quits with Trump”.
His source told him: “Others are thinking about doing what Bob did – sounding the alarm. They think Trump’s nuts. Unfit. Dangerous.”
That makes Putin’s compliment the kiss of death, and Putin must know that, but irony is wonderful. Trump was so successful at business (cough, cough) that he must be good at everything (smirk) – all said in ironic deadpan, like the best stand-up comic might say such things. All those distraught Republicans now may be asked if they agree with Putin. Putin trapped them. Putin is a clever man.
On the other hand, there was this:
Putin’s comments about Trump came the same day that U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley accused the Russian government of committing “warfare” against the United States.
“When a country can come interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare,” Haley said Thursday at the George W. Bush Institute.
“It really is, because you’re making sure that the democracy shifts from what the people want, to giving out that misinformation,” she added.
Putin continues to deny any claims that Russia interfered in the election, of course, so who are you going to believe? This further isolates Trump’s base. They’re fine with Vladimir Putin. Putin is a religious man – a good Christian, even of the Russian Orthodox Church is a bit odd – a man who winks at those roaming bands of thugs who beat gay men and women to death in Russian cities. He did drive Pussy Riot out of the country after all – and he knows how to handle “fake news” like a real man. Reporters disappear. Reporters die. Donald Trump only hinted that might not be a big deal. Trump is a wimp. Katy Tur is still alive – at the moment. Putin would have taken care of her long ago – and now Trump says that Americans should “respect” Donald Trump.
This will inspire Trump’s base, no matter what Nikki Haley says. Everyone else will be disgusted. Donald Trump won’t know what to do. What can he say – “See, Putin likes me!” His base will love that. No one else will. He’s trapped. Putin is a clever man. He pushed us a bit further down that rabbit hole.
These are curious times, and that Sanders woman isn’t helping matters:
The White House on Friday told a journalist who asked about errors chief of staff John Kelly made Thursday that it would be “highly inappropriate” to “get into a debate with a four-star Marine general.”
The militaristic language, used to refer to the civilian position in the White House occupied by the retired Marine general, came when the reporter pointed out that Kelly had inaccurately accused a congresswoman of claiming credit for securing funding for an FBI building in Miramar, Florida in 2015.
As video published Friday by the Sun Sentinel showed, the congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), never claimed to have secured funding for the building. She did mention during her speech that she had led a congressional effort to name the building after two fallen FBI officials.
Oops. But wait. Don’t look at the evidence. Apply logic:
Sanders repeated a misleading statement regarding Kelly’s remarks in the press briefing Friday.
“As we say in the South, all hat, no cattle,” she added, a statement that could allude to the fact that Rep. Wilson is known to wear colorful hats.
The reporter pointed out that Kelly’s statement Thursday was misleading: Wilson didn’t discuss the building’s funding in her speech in 2015.
“She also had quite a few comments that day that weren’t part of that speech and weren’t part of that video that were also witnessed by many people that were there,” Sanders said, referring to “what Gen. Kelly referenced yesterday.”
That was a non-answer:
The reporter pressed: Would Kelly respond to reporting on his inaccurate statement?
“I think he’s addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday,” Sanders said.
“He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money,” the reporter countered.
“If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that’s up to you,” Sanders said. “But I think that, if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
That was curious, at least to one guy:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Friday pushed back against a statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that it would be “highly inappropriate” for a reporter to “get into a debate with a four-star Marine general.”
The general to whom she was referring is retired: White House chief of staff John Kelly. But generals and chiefs of staff alike are routinely subject to journalists’ questions in the United States.
After the briefing, a reporter asked Graham about Sanders’ comment.
“The White House press secretary today said it was highly inappropriate to get in a debate with a four-star general, do you agree with that?”
“No, not in America,” Graham said.
Lindsey Graham hasn’t gone down the rabbit hole, yet, and the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen explains that particular rabbit hole:
Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination – all you had to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like, for it was in the logic of such a coup that Kelly advanced his four arguments.
One of those arguments is this:
Those who criticize the President don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t served in the military. To demonstrate how little lay people know, Kelly provided a long, detailed explanation of what happens when a soldier is killed in battle: the body is wrapped in whatever is handy, flown by helicopter, then packed in ice, then flown again, then repacked, then flown, then embalmed and dressed in uniform with medals, and then flown home. Kelly provided a similar amount of detail about how family members are notified of the death, when, and by whom. He even recommended a film that dramatized the process of transporting the body of a real-life marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps. This was a Trumpian moment, from the phrasing – “a very, very good movie” – to the message. Kelly stressed that Phelps “was killed under my command, right next to me” – in other words, Kelly’s real-life experience was recreated for television, and that, he seemed to think, bolstered his authority.
Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”
The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans – specifically, fallen soldiers.
So it’s time to abandon logic:
The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”
Maria Alexandrovna “Masha” Gessen is the exiled Russian journalist who’s not a fan of Putin or Trump – “Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist” who was “probably the only publicly out gay person in the whole country” – so she has issues here, and she was not impressed with Kelly saying that the President did the right thing because he did exactly what his general told him to do:
Kelly went on a rambling explication of speaking to the President not once but twice about how to make the call to Myeshia Johnson. After Kelly’s son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, the chief of staff recalled, his own best friend had consoled him by saying that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one per cent.” Trump apparently tried to replicate this message when he told Johnson that her husband, La David, had known what he was signing up for. The negative reaction to this comment, Kelly said, had “stunned” him.
A week earlier, Kelly had taken over the White House press briefing in an attempt to quash another scandal and ended up using the phrase “I was sent in,” twice, in reference to his job in the White House. Now he seemed to be saying that, since he was sent in to control the President and the President had, this time, more or less carried out his instructions, the President should not be criticized.
That sort of thing worries her, as does the idea that communication between the president and a military widow is no one’s business but theirs:
A day earlier, the Washington Post had quoted a White House official saying, “The president’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private.” The statement contained a classic Trumpian reversal: the President was claiming for himself the right to privacy that belonged to his interlocutor. But Myeshia Johnson had apparently voluntarily shared her conversation with her mother-in-law and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson by putting the President on speakerphone.
Now Kelly took it up a notch. Not only was he claiming that the President, communicating with a citizen in his official capacity, had a right to confidentiality – he was claiming that this right was “sacred.” Indeed, Kelly seemed to say, it was the last sacred thing in this country. He rattled off a litany of things that had lost their sanctity: women, life, religion, Gold Star families. The last of which had been profaned “in the convention over the summer,” said Kelly, although the debacle with a Gold Star family had been Trump’s doing. Now, Kelly seemed to say, we had descended into utter profanity, because the secrecy of the President’s phone call had been violated.
And there’s this:
Kelly’s last argument was his most striking. At the end of the briefing, he said that he would take questions only from those members of the press who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier, followed by those who knew a Gold Star family. Considering that, a few minutes earlier, Kelly had said most Americans didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who belonged to the “one per cent,” he was now explicitly denying a majority of Americans – or the journalists representing them – the right to ask questions. This was a new twist on the Trump Administration’s technique of shunning and shaming unfriendly members of the news media, except this time, it was framed explicitly in terms of national loyalty. As if on cue, the first reporter allowed to speak inserted the phrase “Semper Fi” – a literal loyalty oath – into his question.
And then Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that it would be “highly inappropriate” to “get into a debate with a four-star Marine general” – so sit down and shut up. We have gone down that rabbit hole.
Slate’s William Saletan carries this further:
On Monday, Sen. John McCain denounced President Trump’s philosophy, agenda, and conduct. On Thursday, former President George W. Bush did the same thing. Neither mentioned Trump by name, but their target was clear. They echoed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who spoke out against Trump last year. These three indictments, issued by the men who represented the GOP in the four elections leading up to Trump’s, are more than ghosts of a dead party. They point toward an alternative vision of conservatism.
You don’t have to love Bush, McCain, or Romney to heed their words. You don’t even have to be Republican. Maybe you think that the Iraq war was worse than anything Trump has done, or that McCain is a blowhard, or that Romney is a hypocrite for sucking up after Trump was elected. But there’s going to be a conservative party in this country, and some kinds of conservatism are better than others. At its best, conservatism stands for morality and freedom. Trump stands for neither. We’ll be a better country if our conservative party listens to Bush, McCain, and Romney, not to Trump.
In short, we have gone down a rabbit hole here:
Trump speaks of Americans as a people who share a language, guard a border, and bleed the same blood. The white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, two months ago parroted him – and the Third Reich – by chanting “blood and soil.” McCain sees us differently. “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” the senator argued.
Without mentioning anyone by name, McCain called the empty nationalism of Trump and Steve Bannon “spurious” and “unpatriotic.” The United States “wouldn’t deserve” to “thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent,” he said. Victory for our country, at the expense of its values, would be worthless.
It would also be illogical, but logic has long gone now:
The fundamental difference between Trump and the previous three GOP nominees isn’t that they misjudged Iraq. It’s that they believe in moral constraints, and he does not. “We don’t covet other people’s land and wealth,” McCain said four months ago, alluding to Trump’s lust for Iraqi oil. In his speech last year, Romney said of Trump: “He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists.” That’s one reason why Bush, McCain, and Romney recoil from Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin. Russia and China are trying to undermine “the norms and rules of the global order,” Bush pointed out. Trump would help them do so.
That means that something has really changed now:
When you define America by its ideals, they affect how you think about immigration. Trump thinks his job is to protect the people already here. That’s a normal assumption, if you live in an ordinary country. But America isn’t ordinary. It’s “the land of the immigrant’s dream,” said McCain. Bush lamented that his countrymen, possessed by “nationalism distorted into nativism,” have “forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.” Even Romney, who once spoke of self-deportation, protested that Trump “scapegoats” Mexican immigrants.
The debate between blood, soil, and ideals doesn’t end with immigration. It colors how we view citizens who are already here. Understanding America as an idea “means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American,” said Bush. “It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.” To Romney, this is personal. While Mormons see themselves as Christian, they know what it’s like to be treated as a religious minority. Three times in his speech, Romney condemned Trump for slandering and vilifying Muslims.
And then there’s Trump:
To Trump, the idea of an American creed is foreign. He sees Americans as a team competing against “the Chinese,” “the Persians,” and other rivals. In speeches, he reads scripted words about how we’re all one people, regardless of color. But in unscripted moments, he has no compunction about casting suspicion on Muslims, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, and Seventh-day Adventists. He identifies with the “very fine people” who rally on behalf of Confederate statues, even when the rally ends in racist violence.
So we get this:
In the absence of ideals, conservatism simply defends old arrangements. It shields prejudice and injustice. That’s the peril of Trump’s pledge to “make America great again.” After the crisis in Charlottesville, he defended Confederate monuments by invoking “culture” and “heritage.” But heritage can mean more than slavery, states’ rights, or cotton. The Constitution is part of our heritage. So are the words of the Declaration of Independence, even if they were dishonored for another century. What makes America great is its struggle to be greater, and the job of a principled conservative party is to explain how our inherited values can guide us. In his speech, McCain praised the United States not just for winning World War II, but for what it has done since: “We made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on Dec. 7, 1941.”
So welcome to the curious upside-down nightmare we have now:
A country built on values can lose them. Trump “cheers assaults on protesters,” Romney warned in his address last year. “He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.”
The danger of Trump, and a ruling party that follows his path, isn’t that America will lose to China. It’s that we’ll win, but we’ll no longer be America.
At that point we will have gone down the rabbit hole to its dark bottom. Expect the Cheshire Cat – that mysterious ironic cat that slowly disappears until only that cat’s stupid grin is left. Maybe that’s Vladimir Putin. Or expect Tweedledum and Tweedledee – Trump and Pence – those odd twins saying the same nothings to each other all day long, and never really understanding what they’re saying. We live in curious times – but Lewis Carroll never imagined this.