Perhaps a Madman

Hollywood is always looking for that big meaningful film, all evidence to the contrary. It’s a prestige thing – Tom Hanks saves Private Ryan and Schindler has his list – and in 1940 it was The Great Dictator from Charlie Chaplin. It was pretty cool. Chaplin plays both leading roles – the ruthless fascist dictator, pretty much Hitler, and the plucky oppressed little Jewish barber. It was also pretty obvious – Chaplin never was subtle – but it was nominated for five Academy Awards and made a lot of money.

Then it kind of disappeared. We took care of Hitler. That wasn’t going to happen again and Chaplin’s 1917 studio complex where it was filmed – just down the street here on La Brea at Sunset – is now the Jim Henson Company Lot. There’s a big fiberglass Kermit-the-Frog on the roof, dressed as Chaplin’s Little Tramp. There’s a strip club across the street. It’s all Muppets and strippers now. No one remembers that “great dictator” – that unhinged madman who was taking over the world.

We don’t have those anymore. Charles de Gaulle was an eccentric pain in the ass. Silvio Berlusconi was a buffoon. Putin is a nasty piece of work. And here, Nixon was paranoid, Reagan lost it to Alzheimer’s in his final year or two, the second George Bush was a bit dimwitted – but none of them was batshit crazy. No unhinged madman was taking over the world, but maybe our luck is running out.

No one will ever know what Chaplin would make of Donald Trump – Chaplin died in 1977 in glorious neutral Switzerland – but this could be a scene if he remade his most successful movie:

On Thursday, during a meeting with 10 senators that was billed as a listening session about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the president went off on a familiar tangent, suggesting again that he was a victim of widespread voter fraud, despite the fact that he won the presidential election.

This is three months after he won that election:

As soon as the door closed and the reporters allowed to observe for a few minutes had been ushered out, Trump began to talk about the election, participants said, triggered by the presence of former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost her reelection bid in November and is now working for Trump as a Capitol Hill liaison, or “Sherpa,” on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

The president claimed that he and Ayotte both would have been victorious in the Granite State if not for the “thousands” of people who were “brought in on buses” from neighboring Massachusetts to “illegally” vote in New Hampshire.

According to one participant who described the meeting, “an uncomfortable silence” momentarily overtook the room.

The screenplay practically writes itself, and then there was this:

During the meeting, Trump also reacted to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren being silenced on the Senate floor while trying to read a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King and in objection to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions before he was confirmed as attorney general. According to participants in Thursday’s meeting, Trump referred to Warren several times as “Pocahontas,” the moniker he gave her during his campaign, and told the Democrats he was glad Warren is becoming the face of “your party.”

Thursday’s meeting was an attempt to foster bipartisan support for Gorsuch.

Something was amiss, and two weeks earlier it was New York Times’ Glenn Thrush reporting the same thing – Trump saying he secretly came in first in November, after the votes from undocumented immigrants are tossed out. Democrats at this meeting balked, but Trump had his proof – a second-hand story he heard from Bernhard Langer, a professional golfer that Trump said was a good friend:

The witnesses described the story this way: Mr. Langer, a 59-year-old native of Bavaria, Germany – a winner of the Masters twice and of more than 100 events on major professional golf tours around the world – was standing in line at a polling place near his home in Florida on Election Day, the president explained, when an official informed Mr. Langer he would not be able to vote.

Ahead of and behind Mr. Langer were voters who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote, Mr. Trump said, according to the staff members – but they were nonetheless permitted to cast provisional ballots. The president threw out the names of Latin American countries that the voters might have come from.

That too “was greeted with silence” – something was amiss – and Steve Benen puts two and two together:

Trump isn’t great at picking up on social cues, so let’s make this plain: when Trump shares these delusional conspiracy theories, adopted because they make him feel better about the fact that he came in second, it makes those around him uncomfortable and worried about the president’s stability.

He doesn’t understand the silence, so he keeps raising ridiculous assertions, which he appears to sincerely believe, despite the growing gap between his ideas and our reality.

It’s an uncomfortable subject, but the need for an awkward national conversation is growing more apparent.

Something is amiss, and Josh Dawsey at Politico, taking advantage of all the leaks from the White House from panicked staffers, adds detail to the script Chaplin would have written:

Being president is harder than Donald Trump thought, according to aides and allies who say that he’s growing increasingly frustrated with the challenges of running the massive federal bureaucracy.

In interviews, nearly two dozen people who’ve spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he’s faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks.

The administration’s rocky opening days have been a setback for a president who, as a billionaire businessman, sold himself to voters as being uniquely qualified to fix what ailed the nation. Yet it has become apparent, say those close to the president, most of whom requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of the White House, that the transition from overseeing a family business to running the country has been tough on him.

It’s the Chaplin madness-at-the-top thing:

Trump often asks simple questions about policies, proposals and personnel. And, when discussions get bogged down in details, the president has been known to quickly change the subject – to “seem in control at all times,” one senior government official said – or direct questions about details to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay – or even stop – him from filling positions and implementing policies.

After Trump grew infuriated by disclosures of his confrontational phone calls with foreign leaders, an investigation was launched into the source of the leaks, according to one White House aide. National Security Council staffers have been instructed to cooperate with inquiries, including requests to inspect their electronic communications, said two sources familiar with the situation. It’s not clear whether the investigation is a formal proceeding, how far along it is or who is conducting it.

The administration is considering limiting the universe of aides with access to the calls or their transcripts, said one administration official, adding that the leaks – and Trump’s anger over them – had created a climate where people are “very careful who they talk to.”

It’s Nixon’s paranoia, early, in the first three weeks of his presidency, not at the bitter end:

The president and his allies believe career National Security Council staff assigned from other agencies are out to get them. In turn, some NSC staff believes Trump does not possess the capacity for detail and nuance required to handle the sensitive issues discussed on the calls, and that he has politicized their agency by appointing chief strategist Bannon to the council.

Last week, Trump told an associate he had become weary of in-fighting among – and leaks from – his White House staff “because it reflects on me,” and that he intended to sit down staffers to tell them “to cut this shit out.”

Trump likes that word:

He also became aggravated after learning about complications surrounding his appointment of one of his top fundraisers, Anthony Scaramucci, to a plum White House job, which Trump blamed on internal jockeying between aides, according to one person with knowledge of the situation.

Trump “was furious,” this person said. “He doesn’t like this shit.”

This is an angry and confused man lashing out – perhaps a madman. And add this scene to the hypothetical screenplay in development:

For all his frustrations, Trump has reveled in the trappings of the presidency. He has taken a liking to the Oval Office, where he spends much of his time working. Following a recent gathering of business leaders, he brought the group into the storied room and showed them around.

But he has also sought refuge from the pressures of the presidency, frequently calling up old friends and sounding them out about golf.

He’s seems to be a lonely man, but it’s the lonely men who are dangerous:

Most of those interviewed for this story requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of a White House where they say the tension has been intensified by the president’s propensity for knee-jerk micromanaging when faced with disappointment, and jockeying among aides to avoid blame or claim credit when possible.

The interviews paint a picture of a powder-keg of a workplace where job duties are unclear, morale among some is low, factionalism is rampant and exhaustion is running high. Two visitors to the White House last week said they were struck by how tired the staff looks.

Of course they’re tired, but the man at the top is lonely and frustrated and lashing out. Cut him some slack, or like Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog, show him no mercy:

The poor dear – he was supposed to make America great again single-handedly, and lesser mortals were just supposed to yield to him. He was supposed to face no congressional or popular resistance when he nominated the most radical cabinet in modern history; affected parties, the courts, and the public were just supposed to suck it up and give in when he issued extreme, hastily drawn-up executive orders. He’s the alpha male! Why isn’t everyone just acknowledging his obvious dominance?

Yes, he may be a madman:

Trump was raised to believe that life is war and the way to win is to be a lone wolf and the meanest SOB on the planet – and then, perhaps more important for the present circumstances, he was politicized by Fox News, a channel run for years by Roger Ailes, who also believes that life is war and America needs a strongman. The new Ailes in Trump’s life, Steve Bannon, also believes in strongmen and perpetual war.

This is the worldview of modern conservatism: cooperation is evil, and collective action even by allies isn’t as good as heroic individualism. And when heroes act, it’s all supposed to work the way it does in the movies: Their bullets always hit their targets, their enemies are always permanently vanquished, and only good things result from their actions.

Trump was supposed to just roll right over the rest of us. His fan base believed that. He believed that. Strongmen always win, you see, and conservatives who talk tough are always strongmen.

It’s not working out like a movie, or a Fox tribute to Ronald Reagan. No wonder Trump is confused.

Actually it is working out like a movie, that 1940 Chaplin movie with that unhinged madman taking over the world.

Andrew Sullivan calls this The Madness of King Donald:

I want to start with Trump’s lies. It’s now a commonplace that Trump and his underlings tell whoppers. Fact-checkers have never had it so good. But all politicians lie. Bill Clinton could barely go a day without some shading or parsing of the truth. Richard Nixon was famously tricky. But all the traditional political fibbers nonetheless paid some deference to the truth – even as they were dodging it. They acknowledged a shared reality and bowed to it. They acknowledged the need for a common set of facts in order for a liberal democracy to function at all. Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality – and their propagation and repetition is about enforcing his power rather than wriggling out of a political conundrum. They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse, the kind of bald-faced lies that authoritarians issue as a way to test loyalty and force their subjects into submission. That first press conference when Sean Spicer was sent out to lie and fulminate to the press about the inauguration crowd reminded me of some Soviet apparatchik having his loyalty tested to see if he could repeat in public what he knew to be false. It was comical, but also faintly chilling.

That’s what Charlie Chaplin, like Sullivan, another Brit who ended up in America was getting at – his Great Dictator was also comical, but also faintly chilling, or not so faintly chilling but right out there, which of course leads to the key question:

What are we supposed to do with this? How are we to respond to a president who in the same week declared that the “murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years,” when, of course, despite some recent troubling spikes in cities, it’s nationally near a low not seen since the late 1960s, and half what it was in 1980. What are we supposed to do when a president says that two people were shot dead in Chicago during President Obama’s farewell address – when this is directly contradicted by the Chicago police? None of this, moreover, is ever corrected. No error is ever admitted. Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie – along with an ad hominem attack.

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie.

Who has time for that? Who would listen? America has shrugged at the lies, but not because America accepts the lies. Only about forty-five percent of America accepts those lies as the truth about things. Everyone else is exhausted. There are too many of them, but Sullivan argues that in itself is the real problem:

There is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up – but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly – manically – that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

Sure, but that’s not possible these days, which are dismal days:

I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.

There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.

Where is Charlie Chaplin when you need him? Chaplin’s 1940 movie argued what Sullivan argues here:

With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements – each one shocking and destabilizing – round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.

There’s only one answer to that:

One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days – but he is not omnipresent – and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you – to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves – to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes.

Sullivan seems to think that we are living through an emergency. So did Charlie Chaplin, once. There’s an unhinged madman taking over the world. It happens – but it wasn’t supposed to happen again. And no clever movie will fix this.


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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