The Shape of Things to Come

The year ends in twenty-four hours. Down the block, the Sunset Strip is oddly quiet for a Friday night – waiting. The New Year’s Eve madness at all the clubs, and spilling out on the sidewalks, comes on Saturday night this year, and those of us who gave up on most of that stuff decades ago will hide. Old men do not celebrate the start of a new year. They note it. They sit quietly and read. That ball will drop in Times Square again. It always does. There’s no need to watch it on television, and there never was a good reason to show up in Manhattan and be part of that scrum – and it’s raining here in Hollywood. Stay home. Let the old year pass. Let the new one begin. What will happen will happen.

There’s no real reason to celebrate anyway. It was a bad year. Out here, at the end of 2016, Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies, died. No one expected that. Her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the perky ingénue in Singing in the Rain, died the next day. No one expected that either – but lots of wonderful people die each year. Hollywood isn’t all that special. There are year-end retrospectives of all the various deaths, in all kinds of different worlds, on television and in the newspapers and on line, for those who like to feel that all the good is draining from the world. It isn’t.

Or maybe it is. The media is filled with all sorts of thoughtful chatter about the new year and what’s to come, and that all centers around Donald Trump. Everyone seems to agree that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about almost all the time, if ever. Some find that refreshing – those who do know what they’re talking about have made a mess of the world. Let a brash and cocky amateur take a whack at things – he couldn’t do any worse. Of course he could, but enough people were angry enough at those who had been running things that he won the presidency.

He starts on January 20 – the day some think that all the good actually will drain out of the world. It won’t be a good year. He’s said vile things about Hispanics, about Muslims, about the Black Live Matter folks, and especially vile things about women. He mocked a disabled reporter – seemingly because he only respects strong people. That’s why he openly admires Vladimir Putin, and Erdogan in Turkey, and that murderous thug in the Philippines, and the short guy with the bad hair in North Korea. They’re strong – they don’t care what the hell people think. He’s strong – he doesn’t care what the hell people think. They understand him and he understands them.

That makes him perfect for the presidency. Only he can deal with them. The world belongs to the bold. Obama only knew stuff. He only knew what he was talking about. Obama wasn’t bold. And Hillary Clinton was a woman. Women aren’t bold. They cannot be. They don’t have it in them. That was always implicit. Donald Trump kept saying that she didn’t have the “stamina” for the job. Everyone kind of knew what that meant. Just enough voters in just the right places knew what he was talking about. America needed a strong man, if not a strongman. The days of wimps who know stuff and worry about consequences were over.

That may be the shape of things to come. H. G. Wells had it wrong in 1933 – there will be no world state established as the solution to humanity’s problems. There will be a few strong men working things out as they see fit – and they’ll swap manly stories or something, stories about grabbing pussy perhaps. That’s the shape of things to come.

That’s already playing out. Putin and Trump are working things out:

On a day when everyone expected him to go low, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the high road, bowing out of a growing diplomatic showdown with the administration of President Obama in a gambit to woo his successor, Donald Trump.

In a rare, and calculated, break from the diplomatic tradition of reciprocal punishment, Putin opted to do nothing after the United States said it would expel 35 Russian diplomats and close a pair of Russian-owned properties in retaliation for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Putin said he would wait to see how U.S.-Russian relations develop under the new Trump administration before planning “any further steps” on the issue.

It seems the two strong men strongmen will work things out:

Until Putin’s surprise decision Friday, all signs pointed toward the familiar, hard-nosed Kremlin response of years past. In 2012, when Russia was slapped with U.S. sanctions over the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, Putin shot back by signing a ban on all foreign adoptions of Russian children, just days after Christmas, sparking outrage.

But this time, with the Kremlin bidding farewell to Obama and betting that a friendly Trump administration will bring fresh opportunities to escape sanctions and make a grab for greater power status, Putin waxed magnanimous.

“We will not create any problems for U.S. diplomats,” Putin said in a statement late Friday afternoon. “We will not expel anyone. We will not prevent their families and children from using their traditional leisure sites during the New Year’s holidays.”

Then he rubbed it in:

Instead of sending the U.S. diplomats home, Putin invited their kids over for “the New Year and Christmas children’s parties in the Kremlin.”

Then he wished the Obamas a Happy New Year and bid season’s greetings to “Donald Trump and the American people.”

Putin made a distinction between the Obamas on one hand and Donald Trump and the American people on the other, which Trump seemed to appreciate:

“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” Trump wrote in a tweet Friday afternoon, his latest public expression of admiration for the Russian leader.

That’s because Putin hates wimps:

Russia has denied and ridiculed accusations by Obama and the U.S. intelligence community that it sponsored hackers to steal and then leak sensitive information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to sway the election in favor of Trump. Putin on Friday accused the United States of engaging in “irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy” and said Russia would retain its “right to retaliate.”

The only one in trouble here is Trump:

Trump’s unorthodox views on Putin have sent shock waves through his own party, and the sanctions against Russia imposed by Obama on Thursday will present him with a new challenge. Should the Republican choose to remove some or all of the sanctions after his inauguration next month, he would be acting in opposition to public statements made by congressional GOP leaders – and forcing them to decide whether to accept or resist his efforts to remake U.S.-Russian relations.

Some might resist. Putin’s parliament isn’t that uppity. Trump has some work to do over here, but unlike Putin, he can’t send the uppity Republicans to jail. Perhaps he should work on figuring out how he could.

Karen DeYoung and David Filipov tell the story a different way:

For much of this year, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have been engaged in a long-distance courtship. They have said kind things about each other in public and separately expressed visions of a mutually agreeable future.

Since Trump’s election, the anticipation has become more explicit. It culminated this week in the U.S. president-elect’s call for America to “move on” from allegations of Russian electoral hacking, and the Russian president’s blithe pronouncement Friday that he would rather plan for a new relationship with Trump than retaliate in kind to sanctions and expulsions ordered by outgoing President Obama…

But as with all such arms-length pairings, the looming question is whether Trump and Putin will find fulfillment or disappointment once face-to-face reality strikes.

Yes, distance helps, but put two strongmen in a room together, or one proven strongman and one amateur wannabe strongman in a room together, and all bets are off:

Some see Moscow playing Trump like a fiddle. The Kremlin “sees Trump’s presidency as a net loss for the U.S. strategic position that Russia should take advantage of,” said Vladi­mir Frolov, a Moscow-based analyst.

Others depict the Russians as genuinely willing to deal and cautiously optimistic about improved relations under a U.S. president who has none of the prejudices they see in the Obama administration.

While some fear that Trump has no firm understanding of the policy complications ahead and the threats posed by Russia, others say Trump the dealmaker may be just the right person to set relations back on a road to cooperation that will benefit U.S. national security.

Should Trump have a firm understanding of the policy complications ahead and the threats posed by Russia, or is being bold and cutthroat aggressive in negotiations enough? American voters disagreed on that, but this is serious stuff:

Trump has identified areas of shared U.S.-Russia interests, including counterterrorism in general – and rolling back the Islamic State in particular – as well as countering nuclear weapons proliferation. He has suggested that there are deals to be struck with Moscow on Syria and Ukraine, indicated that NATO’s strong defensive posture on Russia’s western border may be negotiable, expressed skepticism about sanctions – unless applied to Iran or North Korea – and implied that the fuss over Russian electoral hacking is overblown.

Some of his pronouncements have huge policy gaps and contradictions. In Syria, for example, how would counterterrorism cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State influence Trump’s plans to crack down on Russian ally Iran, which has its own interests in both Syria and Iraq?

Damn. Do we fight alongside Iran in Syria, against ISIS, and also bomb them back to the Stone Age over their efforts to get nukes? Iran just helped Iraq take back Mosel and we were okay with that. Someone should explain these things to Trump. Putin won’t. Russia is fine with Trump:

Putin and his advisers have spoken about a desire to improve relations, although there is no Kremlin expectation that Inauguration Day will bring an overnight change. While pleased by the direction in which Trump appears to be moving, Moscow sees “policy incoherence” so far from the president-elect, said Thomas Graham, who served as senior Russia director on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff and is now managing director at Kissinger Associates.

“If I read what the Russians have been saying, they don’t expect relations to turn around quickly,” Graham said in an interview. “They’re surprised that on the Western side it’s seen as if President Trump is going to hand over the keys to the barn to Russians.”

But however disjointed and contradictory his shorthand policy prescriptions have seemed so far, “the vision in the Kremlin is that even though Trump is a novice in foreign policy, he has a record of striking deals that benefit him, as well as a team of experienced advisers,” said Maxim A. Suchkov, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow think tank.

They can deal with a dealer:

Some Russian experts said the Kremlin realizes that if Trump moves too fast – especially in the wake of the hacking scandal – it would probably cause strong pushback from Congress and elsewhere. Instead, they see Putin’s most recent actions as part of the pre-inauguration theater, preparing the ground for a hoped-for, but still uncertain, future.

“Putin will play this as Obama acting like a deranged and spiteful madman, while Trump is a real gentleman who needs to be treated like a gent by Russia,” Frolov said of Putin’s low-key response to the sanctions and expulsions. The Russian president “does not want to do anything that would make it even harder for Trump to move positively on Russia,” he said.

Others detected a more nefarious strategy at work in Putin’s gambit. “I think it’s brilliant,” said Steve Hall, who ran Russia operations for the CIA before his retirement in 2015. “It solidifies the relationship and plays straight to Trump’s ego. It allows Trump to say, ‘See, the Obama administration is behaving childishly, and we need to act much more professionally.’ ”

Putin, Hall said, is also probably maneuvering to gain maximum leverage over an incoming president whose constant touting of himself as a dealmaker makes him need a deal more than Moscow does. Now, he said, Putin can greet the new president by saying: “You still owe me one. I can pull that back and make you look like you’re not the great negotiator you say you are.”

In short, Putin has Trump over a barrel. He can destroy Trump’s carefully constructed public persona – the one core reason Americans voted for him. He’s a dealmaker. He wrote the book on it. He wrote “The Art of the Deal” after all – a massive bestseller. That’s who he is. Putin says “no” on this or that and Trump has no reason for living. Putin laughs. Don’t mess with a real strongman.

This may not be a good year coming up, but it’s not just Putin. Glenn Thrush, in a curious interview, shows what else we might expect:

Chuck Todd has interviewed Donald Trump many times, and he’s noticed something somewhat disquieting about the unquiet president-elect.

The man doesn’t laugh – not in a normal, spontaneous, regular-human kind of way.

“It drives me crazy. Do you know what? I’ve never seen him laugh,” the “Meet the Press” host told me during an interview for Politico’s “Off Message” podcast earlier this month. “I challenge somebody to find him laughing, and that person has yet to find an example, in my opinion. He’ll smile, but he smiles appropriately. Watch him at the Al Smith dinner [the roast in New York City in October] … He doesn’t really laugh. He looks for others to laugh. It is just weird.”

So we now have a president who just doesn’t get the joke – which may explain his weekly outrage a Saturday Night Live, when he really ought to have other things on his mind. He only pretends, appropriately, to get the joke at other times. He fakes it. He seems clueless. That’s worrisome. Understanding irony may be necessary to function in complex situations. An ironic comment from a foreign leader might set him off. He does have the nuclear codes. We may not make it to the end of the coming year.

But wait, there’s more from Chuck Todd:

After several of his Sunday appearances as a candidate, Trump would lean back in his chair and request that the control room replay his appearance on a monitor – sans sound.

“Then there’s the amount of time he spends after the interview is over, with the sound off. He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute,” Todd told me, sitting in his cluttered office in NBC’s nondescript, low-slung Washington headquarters on Nebraska Avenue.

“He’s a very visual guy,” says Todd. “He thinks this way, and look, it’s an important insight in just understanding him. The visual stuff is very real beyond just himself.” It’s a source of his political effectiveness, an understanding of the blunt force of imagery that Hillary Clinton, crushed by her briefing books, could never understand.

The coming year will be a year of image, not substance. We can all turn off the sound. Watch his amazing hair. That will have to do.

What, you wanted substance? Well, there’s a bit of hope for that:

In March, New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg reported on a phenomenon that many of us print types had been griping about since mid-2015: the decision by Todd and other Sunday TV hosts, to allow Trump to conduct “pajama interviews” – phone-in calls to the shows that flouted the tradition of an in-person sit-down format. “It’s why the programs were named ‘Face the Nation’ and ‘Meet the Press’ – not ‘Call the Nation’ or ‘Phone the Press,'” Rutenberg quipped.

Soon after, Todd, following the lead of Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, banned disembodied Donald from his show.

Todd sees his rejection of phone-ins as a small victory in the eternal Trump mind-checkers game vs. the media…

Ah, he may show up to talk in person! He may say strange stuff, but he’ll say something on camera – for now – but there’s also this:

Todd’s relationship with his late father is a theme he returned to often in our conversation, and it gives him insight into Trump – whose relationship to his own father, hard-driving Queens real estate titan Fred Trump, is a critical element in understanding the president-elect’s opaque personality.

“Look, he’s not the first president to have daddy issues,” Todd said with a laugh. “There’s nothing like a parental issue to add a chip… My name is Chuck Todd and I have a chip on my shoulder about my dad … Everybody has the chip. For Barack Obama, it was where is dad? For Bill Clinton, it was where is dad? For George W. Bush, it’s living up to dad. For George H. W. Bush, it’s living up to dad. It is fascinating, and there’s something about – look, I think one of the under-covered aspects of Hillary Clinton is her relationship with her father was very, very troubling.”

Todd knows about this:

Todd was raised in a cramped Miami apartment, the son of a hard-working and steady mother and a brilliant, erratic father who couldn’t seem to catch a break.

“So, my dad was – he had a lot of jobs,” Todd said. “He wasn’t successfully employed very often, but my dad, when I was really young, was a record company local promoter … So, that was my dad, and my mom was the one that always had two jobs.”

“The bottom line,” Todd told me, drumming his desk for emphasis, “is I feel like I am finishing the career my father always should have pursued. He would have been very good at this. He never got there.”

It’s the same with Trump, so we have another president with Daddy Issues. Fred Trump was once arrested for marching with the Klan. Now he’s president?

It’s still raining here. The coming year is now a bit less than twenty-four hours away.

There will be no celebration here.

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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