Using the Nineties

Those of us who were once English teachers like this sort of thing:

A group of more than 400 writers, including big names such as Stephen King, David Eggers, Amy Tan, Junot Díaz and Cheryl Strayed, released an online petition on Tuesday to express their opposition to Mr. Trump’s candidacy on the grounds that he is appealing to the darkest elements in American society.

“The rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response,” they wrote.

Organized on the literary website Lithub, signatures on the petition grew to more than 1,000 from 450 within hours as celebrity authors promoted their participation on social media.

In the open letter, the authors voiced concern that the United States was taking a step back toward a nativist past and warned that dictatorships tend to emerge in the wake of “manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies.”

This was the same sort of thing George Orwell had been saying all along – the language used to discuss political reality becomes the moment’s political reality – “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Now the same warning comes from today’s famous writers, but of course they are an odd lot:

Lyz Lenz, a writer from Iowa, wrote an essay on Lithub that was published on Tuesday making the case that Mr. Trump’s rise evokes images from the work of William Faulkner, particularly the corrupt character Flem Snopes.

“America is burning,” she writes. “You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man – Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern-era.”

That sort of thing doesn’t help much – no one reads Faulkner anymore, or much of anything – but these folks set up a petition site in case you want to sign on – and that might not be a bad idea. Things are getting strange out there. Slate’s Christina Cauterucci has the latest:

Donald Trump continued his attack on Hillary Clinton via Bill Clinton on Monday with a brief Instagram video featuring the voices of women who’ve accused the latter of rape and sexual assault.

One, Juanita Broaddrick, who alleged in 1999 that Bill raped her in 1978, speaks through tears in a clip from a 1999 NBC interview. “No woman should be subjected to it – it was an assault,” recounts Kathleen Willey, who alleged in 1998 that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted her in 1993, in a soundbite from a 2007 statement.

The video centers on an old photo of Bill sucking on a cigar, an image reminiscent of one of the most visceral scenes from Kenneth Starr’s report of the former president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. It ends with a photo of the Clintons and the text “Here we go again?” overlaid with audio of Clinton’s laugh, a favorite target of her detractors that Trump has leveraged in at least two previous ads.

That’s pretty much a scene from any of the movies made from Stephen King’s horror novels – the maniacal laugh of the totally evil woman – fade to black – but Cauterucci sees the point:

The Trump campaign’s caption – “Is Hillary really protecting women?” – gets at the gist of its strategy going into the general election. If he wants to win against the first viable female presidential candidate, Trump must give female voters a reason to support him over her, but his documented record of rampant misogyny has already given Clinton a head start.

That makes this a long shot:

Voters under 35, who make up nearly a third of the electorate, are either too young to care about Bill’s famous infidelities or too liberal to swing for Trump. Then again, harping on Bill’s sexual misdoings could be an effective means of galvanizing conservative voters behind an unlikely, unlovable candidate. The average Republican voter is far past old enough to remember the hubbub over Bill’s irresponsible, pervy behavior in the White House and subsequent lies about it; it’s one of the reasons they hate the Clintons in the first place. Since a lack of excitement among Republicans is one of Trump’s biggest weaknesses right now, Bill’s history could be exactly the motivator Trump needs.

So really, this wasn’t meant for the general public, even if that video was all over the news the day it was released, but Josh Marshall says it isn’t that simple:

The three big networks and in fact the major national dailies continue to blast out Donald Trump’s charges that Hillary Clinton’s husband raped or assaulted other women. And yet, CNN, MSNBC, let alone Fox refuse to discuss that at least twice Trump has himself been accused of sexual assault or rape in sworn statements – once by his wife and again a decade ago in a lawsuit brought by a woman named Jill Harth. But in discussing how to approach the issue of how to approach Trump’s history of accusations of sexual violence or harassment the question came up, what exactly is Trump trying to accomplish by using Bill Clinton’s past against Hillary?

This is a puzzle:

There’s no question that this is absolute red meat for a lot of Republican voters and almost a kind of messaging nirvana for a certain brand of Republican hater. But those people are already rabid Trump supporters. They’re not remotely within reach for Clinton under any circumstance. So what’s the point? …

The simple fact is that there’s no evidence or logic to the idea that anyone who doesn’t already hate Hillary Clinton with a passion will believe that she is culpable in some way for her husband’s acts of infidelity against her. Even if you think Clinton is not simply a chronic philanderer but some sort of sexual abuser – a claim for which there is really little or no evidence, that’s Bill Clinton, not Hillary Clinton. Holding her responsible for her husband’s acts, for which she is if anything a victim, is as logically ridiculous as it is morally sickening.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Consider the fact that Hillary Clinton enjoyed a wave of renewed popularity in the wake of the Lewinsky/Impeachment scandal. It was no trivial part of how she was able to win her first Senate run in New York. You may say this was sympathy for what she went through or admiration for the stoicism with which she persevered through the crisis. But they all come back to the obvious point: people don’t blame a guy’s wife for his infidelities. More recently, here’s Katie Packer Gage, a consultant who worked on the Romney 2012 effort: “This may play well with primary voters who want the candidates to attack Hillary over Bill’s peccadilloes, but it won’t work with women in a general election. We’ve done research and focus groups, and the people we’re trying to reach in the general election – women, soft Democrats and Republicans and independents – they recoil at this. It causes them to come to Hillary’s defense. They don’t blame Hillary for Bill’s indiscretions. It’s bad strategy and it hurts the party.”

By any reasonable measure – logic, past evidence, prospective studies – it just doesn’t add up.

And the rile-up-the-base argument doesn’t quite add up either:

Now, there are a few prosaic and straightforward reasons why this would make sense for Trump, albeit in indirect ways. The most straightforward is that this is a base election, especially for him. You have two campaigns fundamentally talking past each other, not trying to persuade but rather to pump up existing supporters into a maximal frenzy. Then there’s the goal of silencing Bill Clinton. Even if no one is convinced by Trump’s attacks and many are actually sickened by them, they could nonetheless have the effect of scaring Bill Clinton off from taking too high profile a role on the campaign trail as his wife’s chief surrogate.

That could be a major advantage.

Both of these strategies have some logic to them. I think they’re likely to be effective to a limited degree, if you don’t include the offsetting negative effect of how much this stuff turns a lot of people off. But since there is that offsetting effect why is he doing this?

Something else must be going on here, and as your English teacher told you about that odd poem that made no sense at all to you, look for the deep inner meaning, so to speak, which in this case seems to be this:

Trump is doing this for the simple reason of brutalizing Clinton and showing that he can do so. Whether it makes any sense as a literal argument is really beside the point. It is at the root of the “bitch slap” mentality that power is demonstrated by inflicting harm on others and showing they can’t fight back. Trump did something similar to his primary opponents – only with a woman it has a distinct edge because dominance politics is inherently gendered. To return to that ugly phrase, when a guy “bitch slaps” someone (usually another man) he makes them into a woman by dominating them with a demonstration of violence.

You could see some of this emerge in what happened again and again toward the end of the GOP primary cycle. When Trump’s opponents pointed out that polls showed him losing to Clinton in a general election, Trump each time responded that when Clinton came after him he ‘hit her hard’ and then she went silent. On several occasions he referred her having a “rough weekend” with her husband. The ‘rough weekend’ line gets at another point to this whole line of attack. On the surface, the idea is supposed to be that Hillary Clinton is a sort of Munchausen by-proxy sexual predator. The real message is that she’s a victim, walked over by her husband. And victims are weak and contemptible by definition.

That poem wasn’t about what you thought it was about, and this stuff from Trump isn’t really about the nineties:

Listen to Trump’s words and you hear repeated lines about hurting Clinton, warning her to back off and not forcing him to hurt her again. Cut and paste them out of the context of a campaign article and they read like dialog from a made for TV movie about a wife-beater.

In a sense, how galling it is for Clinton to be attacked for her husband’s infidelities or transgressions is, to use the tech phrasing, a feature not a bug. It makes his demonstration of power all the more vibrant and bracing. It kind of takes your breath away. That’s the point.

And it’s a simple formula. Show dominance. Humiliate the other. Win. That’s this guy’s approach to everything:

As Frank Foer explained in March, denigrating attacks on women are the one consistent theme throughout Trump’s entire public life. They’re not tactical or opportunistic. They’re part of his essence. What makes the general election contest more volatile and febrile is that not only is Trump basically the embodiment of ‘dominance politics’ and assertive violence – but Clinton, for all the toll the last two years has taken on her public popularity, is still seen as strong and a strong leader by a majority of the public. As I’ve written in similar contexts, when we look at the messaging of a national political campaign we should be listening to the score, not the libretto, which is, like in opera, often no more than a superficial gloss on the real story, mere wave action on the surface of a deep sea.

You’re missing the point in trying to make out the logic of Trump’s attacks on Clinton. The attacks are the logic. He is trying to beat her by dominating her in the public sphere, brutalizing her, demonstrating that he can hurt her with impunity.

That’s the plan, and this was the second phase of the plan:

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump resurrected a conspiracy theory from Bill Clinton’s presidency that his wife, Democrat Hillary Clinton, was involved in the death of Vince Foster, deputy White House counsel in the Clinton administration.

Foster was diagnosed with depression and multiple investigations have ruled his 1993 death a suicide, but Trump called the circumstances surrounding his death “very fishy” and the lasting allegations of foul play in some circles “very serious” in a Washington Post story published Monday night.

“He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump told the Post about Foster’s relationship with the Clintons before his death. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”

Trump also said about Hillary Clinton: “It’s the one thing with her, whether it’s Whitewater or whether it’s Vince or whether it’s Benghazi. It’s always a mess with Hillary.”

But in his typical fashion, the billionaire mogul claimed he didn’t know enough about Foster’s death to bring it up in the first place.

“I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it,” Trump said. “I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”

So he won’t talk about it at all, but he’ll talk endlessly about how he is such an upright person that he won’t talk about it, or about this or that detail of the thing, or this other thing other folks have said.

That’s awfully white of him (multiple ironies there, as any English teacher would tell you) and the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker has a bit of fun with that:

Lots of people have also said that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. And who led that long march toward Looney Town? None other than Trump.

Reality check: If Obama were born in Kenya, and if the Clintons could so handily orchestrate a murder with impunity, couldn’t they have been able to pull off something as simple as a rigged birth certificate? Eh?

Trump is just clever enough to deflect responsibility for these long-ago defanged conspiracy theories by shifting blame to others. He’s done the same in rallies. If someone in the crowd shouts an untoward remark about a political opponent, Trump looks amazed and says something like:

Did you hear what he just said? I would never say that Ted Cruz eats puppies for breakfast because I don’t know that for a fact, but this guy just did.

The template has served him well. Fans go wild, and Trump has cover. And importantly, the sentiment has been released into the atmosphere and absorbed into the limbic systems of the masses.

And so it goes:

Now that Trump has cracked the lid on Foster’s coffin, Clinton-haters can luxuriate in gossip, insinuation and lies while entertaining the fantasy that they’re only interested in “the truth.” And who shall be the arbiter of that truth?

Usually, we rely upon objective third parties, the media or the courts. And though few people are naive enough to believe that investigators, judges, reporters and editors can’t be corrupted, the reality is that Foster died by his own hand. This was the conclusion of the U.S. Park Police, the Justice Department, the FBI, Congress, special counsel Robert Fiske and independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Ah, but can anyone really trust the Park Police, the Justice Department, the FBI, Congress, special counsel Robert Fiske and independent counsel Kenneth Starr? This is why those four hundred famous writers are so upset. Language itself has floated far away from anything like truth, and Parker adds this:

If Trump were so concerned about the Clintons’ alleged role in Foster’s death, why, then, did Trump continue contributing to Clinton campaigns and causes? And why did he invite them to his third wedding? Would it be because he consorts with murderers and thieves? I would never say such a thing because that would be unfair, but I hear a lot of people saying this. A lot.

She didn’t “say” that Trump consorts with murderers and thieves. Did she? No. Two can play at this game, but Salon’s Sean Illing is just puzzled:

I’m no great defender of Bill Clinton. He was a competent president and did a lot of things well, but he’s also received a pass from Democrats on a number of fronts. The triangulating, the serial lying, the capitulations to white Southerners – it was all transparent and nauseating. But here’s the thing: Bill Clinton isn’t running for president, and what he did with his penis thirty years ago is irrelevant.

Hillary Clinton is the nominee. To the extent that she’s aligned herself with her husband on policy issues, it’s fair game. But all the noise about Bill’s philandering is a ruse, and you can expect to hear more of it. …

This is a diversion. Worse still, we’ve been down this road already. As Rep. Peter King (R-NY) noted, “We’ve been here before, and for most it’s probably old news that people get a little squeamish about. Especially when Trump brings it up in the abstract, he risks making the same mistake that Republicans made in 1998 when we got caught up in this stuff.”

People are free to dig into Bill’s background all they want. But his sordid history has nothing to do with this election.

Sean needs to go back and read what Josh Marshall wrote. This isn’t about Bill Clinton and the nineties. This is using Bill Clinton and the nineties for another purpose, but at least Illing is right about this:

If Trump is talking about Monica Lewinsky instead of his ethno-nationalist rhetoric or his incoherent policy positions, he’s winning.

Guess what. He’s winning, but Joan Walsh argues that it doesn’t have to be that way:

There’s so much wrong with this scenario, starting with the misogyny that inspires the belief that the first female presidential nominee ought to both shamed by and held responsible for her husband’s real and fabricated misbehavior. Then there’s the problem that only one of the two likely nominees has been accused of rape – and that’s Trump himself, by his ex-wife Ivana in a sworn deposition during their ugly divorce (she later recanted the charge of rape, but did not deny the story that her husband brutally forced himself on her during a fight, which is, in fact, rape.) By the way, what is stopping interviewers, when Trump makes unfounded rape charges against Bill Clinton, from pointing out that fact?

Walsh thinks that the press really should take care of this:

Every day on cable news and elsewhere, I watch bewildered anchors, pundits, and reporters announce that Trump is going to continue to campaign on Bill Clinton’s real and fabricated misdeeds, as though they are confronting a force of nature, Hurricane Don, that they are powerless to stop. But there is plenty they can do. When he raises these charges, they can also remind him that the indefatigable “independent counsel” Kenneth Starr investigated the rape charges then and found no evidence to prosecute Clinton. I mean, really: Should the Sunday shows cover Trump’s Vince Foster lie as though there are “two sides”?

We’re told that Trump plans to throw these charges directly at Clinton’s face in the debates – again, as though moderators are powerless to adjudicate the terms of conflict. I’m not saying they should censor him from the start, but if he goes ad hominem, they ought to rein him in.

Even Bill Clinton’s old enemies know that:

Oddly enough, the Clintons recently got support from their old enemy Kenneth Starr, who lamented in a public forum that Clinton’s presidency has been overshadowed by what he called the “unpleasantness” of his investigation, and praised him for his post-presidency philanthropy.

“His genuine empathy for human beings is absolutely clear,” Starr said. “It is powerful, it is palpable and the folks of Arkansas really understood that about him – that he genuinely cared. The ‘I feel your pain’ is absolutely genuine.”

And then there’s the new guy:

Trump seems to feel no pain, or shame. But journalists do, or should. Vince Foster killed himself because of a crippling depression made worse by the anti-Clinton witch hunts of the media, particularly Travelgate, which he particularly lamented because an aide got reprimanded (he had asked his boss to put the blame on him instead.) Starr exonerated the Clintons of the trumped-up Travelgate charges, but that was four years after Foster died. We should all remember that Foster’s suicide note blamed “Wall Street Journal editors who lie without consequence.”

As for the press, try this:

I don’t believe the media “created” Trump or gave him “too much” coverage in the last year. He’s the political, social, and psychological story of our time. But they’ve given him too much uncritical coverage, and they’ve seemed flummoxed to deal with a man who lies without conscience and humiliates his political rivals – Liddle Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary – with glee. Rather than playing the helpless victims of Trump’s repeated con jobs, they need to up their game to do their jobs in the next six months.

Good luck with that. They’ll continue to report that Donald Trump said, again, that he heard that some people think that Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered. Then they’ll report that some people do think that, because some people do. They might also report that the Park Police, the Justice Department, the FBI, Congress, special counsel Robert Fiske and independent counsel Kenneth Starr, didn’t think that, and then report that some people think they’re wrong, all of them – but they won’t do what Walsh wants. They’ll just report what people say.

Of course they’ll also report on what this woman is saying:

Elizabeth Warren is taking her war with Donald Trump to a new level, and it goes well beyond her usual 140-character Twitter attacks on the likely GOP presidential nominee.

The Massachusetts senator on Tuesday night dedicated a speech to rallying opposition against Trump – calling him a “small, insecure moneygrubber” who she said is “kissing the fannies of poor, misunderstood Wall Street bankers.”

“He inherited a fortune from his father, and kept it going by scamming people, declaring bankruptcy and skipping out on what he owed,” Warren said in prepared remarks, calling into question Trump’s bona fides as a populist champion.

The language used to discuss political reality can become the moment’s political reality, and that language doesn’t have to be Trump’s, and it doesn’t have to be about the nineties, but then this never was about the nineties. As those four hundred famous writers said, this is about a despicable man misusing language in a profoundly dangerous way – as has been done before, ending in ruin. English teachers, and former English teachers, know this too. But who listened to their English teacher, ever? That may be why Trump is winning.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Using the Nineties

  1. tmezpoetry says:

    I just can’t understand the Trump ignorance by the populous. But then again, it tells me something about the voters.

  2. Rick says:

    I know a lot of people would love to see someone shoot Donald Trump to death, but I’m not even going to bring that up because I just have too much integrity.

    Now I realize that, while some people (who shall remain nameless) may be just smarmy enough to introduce certain subjects into the conversation that they themselves won’t even discuss, such as the idea of somebody shooting somebody else, I’m not going to do that, simply because it would just be wrong!

    And seriously, except for the not-gonna-go-there part, I actually mean that!

    If Trump were to be assassinated, it would suggest that the only way democracy (or what passes for it in this country) can survive the misuse of it by a demagogue such as him is to step outside of itself and just shoot the bastard dead. Whatever damage Trump promises to do to our country if elected, not to even mention the damage he’s done already, would be multiplied by his meeting such a violent end. Just think of what happened to the Roman Republic after a bunch of otherwise well-intentioned senators took it upon themselves to use extra-legal measures to do away with their suspected tyrannical leader, Julius Caesar.

    Still, there’s no doubt the man is a thug. In fact, if there’s one thing both sides can agree on is that Donald Trump is a thug; where the two sides differ is on whether or not his being a thug is a good thing. I, for one, am of the opinion that the last thing this country needs is a thug for a chief executive, while others, who imagine the country is in much worse shape than it actually is, think a thuggish president is exactly what we need to get us going in another direction.

    Something I’ve always wondered about ISIS is, what do people see in them? Basically, wouldn’t you think most people would be turned off by the stuff ISIS does? Don’t people see that this group chops off heads and burns people alive, and that this sort of behavior makes them not look like the good guys?

    The explanation, of course, is the all-purpose explanation for our times: Beheading your enemy is a feature, not a bug!

    I guess when some people watch a video of a guy wearing a black hood, cutting the throat of some innocent, what they see is someone who has definite ideas on how to deal with problems, and also has the guts to put his theories into practice. Hey, if someone’s going to get into a disagreement with these head-chopping guys, you probably want to be on the side of the doers, not the talkers!

    Maybe it’s just part of the unspoken zeitgeist of our age, but it’s hard not to see the similarities here. Nobody thought much of Donald Trump until he humiliated everyone around him, and then, even people who had denounced him and called him every name in the book and said choosing between him and his major opponent was like choosing between dying by gun or by poison, have joined up with him, in theory because, as bad as he is for the country, the woman running against him — someone who may or may not have made an arguably bad choice in her use of her email system in some way that nobody can fully explain — could be even worse?

    But no, we all know that’s not the real reason to join up with Trump. The real reason is the same reason people join ISIS, and that is, when civilization seems to be losing ground to the bullies, the safest place to be is probably standing behind the toughest-looking thug on the battlefield.

    Rick

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