The Hell of Other People

The Nazis were still in Paris, and at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, in May 1944, a new play by Jean-Paul Sartre opened – No Exit – where three characters find themselves waiting in a mysterious room. They’re dead. This is the afterlife. They’re being punished for the lives they’ve led – or for no particular reason – by being locked in a room together for eternity. The one line from the play that everyone remembers is “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – “Hell is other people” – and that’s that.

Jean-Paul Sartre was not a cheery fellow – existentialists are like that – and the play is seldom performed. People talk about it. No one wants to watch three characters ragging on each other for a few hours, until they finally realize that’s all there is to life – or death this case – or in Sartre’s view, both. Insults and ridicule are exchanged, and nothing changes. Nothing can change. There’s no exit from that – the end.

We’re stuck in this play of course. Maybe it was Fox News. Matt Taibbi blames Roger Ailes:

We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we’re that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he discovered.

Ailes was the Christopher Columbus of hate. When the former daytime TV executive and political strategist looked across the American continent, he saw money lying around in giant piles. He knew all that was needed to pick it up was a) the total abandonment of any sense of decency or civic duty in the news business, and b) the factory-like production of news stories that spoke to Americans’ worst fantasies about each other.

Like many con artists, he reflexively targeted the elderly – “I created a TV network for people from 55 to dead,” he told Joan Walsh – where he saw billions could be made mining terrifying storylines about the collapse of the simpler America such viewers remembered, correctly or (more often) incorrectly, from their childhoods.

The damage was done, and one thing leads to another:

Ailes picked at all these scabs, and then when he ran out of real storylines to mine he invented some that didn’t even exist. His Fox was instrumental in helping Donald Trump push the birther phenomenon into being, and elevated the practically nonexistent New Black Panthers to ISIS status, warning Republicans that these would-be multitudinous urban troublemakers were planning on bringing guns to the GOP convention.

The presidency of Donald Trump wouldn’t have been possible had not Ailes raised a generation of viewers on these paranoid storylines.

And that makes for an odd obituary from Taibbi:

When Ailes died this morning, he left behind an America perfectly in his image, frightened out of its mind and pouring its money hand over fist into television companies, who are gleefully selling the unraveling of our political system as an entertainment product.

The extent to which we hate and fear each other now – that’s not any one person’s fault. But no one person was more at fault than Roger Ailes. He never had a soul to sell, so he sold ours. It may take 50 years or a century for us to recover. Even dictators rarely have that kind of impact. Enjoy the next life, you monster.

Taibbi sees the villain here. Maybe Ailes will end up spending eternity in Sartre’s room with no exit, ridiculing everyone in sight and being ridiculed right back, meaninglessly of course. That would be fitting. Hell is other people, but then so is life. Donald Trump’s single talent seems to be ridiculing everyone in sight, until they submit, but he is finding out that hell is other people. There’s James Comey and now Robert Mueller. Trump’s affection for all things Putin, and for Michael Flynn, keeps coming up, because the Russians did mess with our election, his election – and Trump has done all he can to shut down anyone looking into that. He fired James Comey, who was looking into that. That didn’t work. The assistant attorney general, subbing for Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from these matters because of his chats with the Russians during the Trump campaign, appointed Robert Mueller, who had headed the FBI for thirteen years, to look into this. There’s the matter of obstruction of justice. There’s talk of impeachment in the air. There may be no exit now.

There’s only a temporary exit – getting out of town for nine days. That trip just started and the first stop in Saudi Arabia, where Trump will give a major speech that will unify all Muslims against ISIS – with the United States in the lead. Saudi Arabia is fine with that, as long as Trump commits to wiping out Iran – those damned Shiites. ISIS is Sunni, but Saudi Arabia is willing to write off those brothers, if that makes Trump happy. It’s complicated, and complicated by Trump’s anti-Muslim talk for the last year and a half. They’ll write that off too – but the word is that Trump’s major speech is being written by Steve Miller, the young fellow who wrote Trump’s end-of-the-world “American carnage” inaugural address and wrote the first travel ban, which was shot down in the courts, because it was a Muslim ban. This could be problematic. H. R. McMaster, the brilliant general who somehow ended up a Trump’s national security advisor, will ask for final edits, but everyone remembers Trump saying, over and over “I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me!”

No one knows how this will go, and Trump often goes off-script. He might blurt out something about the real size of the crowd at his inauguration, as he sees it. He could bewilder the Saudis, but then it’s off to Israel. That’s easy. Benjamin Netanyahu hated Obama and Trump isn’t Obama. That minor incident of Trump bragging to the Russian about the great intelligence he got from what could only have been from an Israeli secret agent buried deep in ISIS – who may be dead now – will be papered over. Trump isn’t Obama. That’s enough – and then it’s off to Rome, to chat with the pope.

That could be awkward. Pope Francis has said Christians don’t build walls – and it was clear he was talking about the big wall Trump wants, that Mexico will pay for, somehow. Pope Francis shouldn’t have said that. Trump ripped the pope for questioning his faith. He was the Christian. The pope clearly wasn’t – but perhaps they’ll talk about the weather or something. That visit is ceremonial. The pope doesn’t have an army. How many divisions does the pope have? That’s what Stalin once asked. The answer is obvious.

Then it’s off to Brussels to meet with NATO – which Trump said was obsolete, and then said wasn’t obsolete, but then hedged on that. They’re not sure which Donald Trump will show up, and then it’s off to Sicily for the G7 meeting. That should be interesting. Trump will tell them that the old global economic order of trade agreements and cooperation is over. It’s “America First” now. He’s a nationalist, not an internationalist, so all previous trade agreements will be torn up. America will negotiate new trade agreement with other nations one by one – not with blocs like the EU or whatever – and no one will humiliate America ever again. Screw the rest of the world. America will never be screwed again.

Half of Trump’s cabinet is from Goldman Sachs and may try to talk him out of saying all that, but Trump has a bug up his ass about such things, or Steve Bannon does. And then it’s back home again.

This is the exit when there was no exit, but Mark Landler offers this perspective:

A cascade of damaging disclosures about the president and his relationship with Russia has shredded the White House’s narrative. Mr. Trump will go abroad on Friday less as an anti-Obama figure than as a latter-day Richard M. Nixon or Bill Clinton – a wounded president fleeing political storms at home for an uncertain welcome overseas…

“It’s a huge burden on the American psyche to have a president go abroad when a sword of Damocles is hanging over them at home,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University and an expert on the presidency. “It turns our president, instead of representing the best of America on the road, into a traveling can of worms.”

Mr. Brinkley likened the timing of Mr. Trump’s trip to a visit Mr. Nixon made to the Middle East in 1974 as the Watergate scandal was closing in on him, and Mr. Clinton’s trip to Russia, Britain and Northern Ireland in 1998 during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

For his part, Mr. Trump, a confirmed homebody, has expressed dread about the trip, asking aides whether it can be shortened to five days from nine. His advisers concede that the intense schedule – dozens of interactions with leaders from the Middle East and Europe, over a range of delicate issues – could produce unscripted, diplomatically perilous moments.

He could brag about the size of his penis again, to the pope – there’s no telling – and he is a traveling can of worms. Hell is other people, and as it was wheels-up for Air Force One there was this:

President Donald Trump is facing new pressure over his decision to abruptly fire FBI Director James Comey after The New York Times revealed on Friday that the president told Russian officials in the Oval Office last week that Comey’s ouster takes “great pressure” off him.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has tagged a current White House official as a “significant person of interest,” The Washington Post reported on Friday. It did not name the official.

The two stories come after a week of damning revelations about the Trump White House, which is now engulfed in scandal and facing a special prosecutor. Trump admitted last week that he fired Comey in part because of the Russia investigation, blowing up the White House message that the firing was based on a Department of Justice recommendation.

Late Friday, came confirmation that Comey will also soon get to tell his side of the story: Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee announced Comey will testify in a public sessions at a hearing after Memorial Day.

The hits just keep coming, but there was a response:

The new Times story cited a document that summarized Trump’s meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered a statement that did not dispute Trump’s quotes and instead presented them as the president talking frankly about the “pressure” Comey had put on Trump’s diplomatic responsibilities. He also attacked the leaks coming out of the U.S. government.

“The President has always emphasized the importance of making deals with Russia as it relates to Syria, Ukraine, defeating ISIS and other key issues for the benefit and safety of the American people. By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said in the statement.

“The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations,” he added.

Trump said James Comey was a nut job. That’s highly classified information? David French at the National Review is willing to dismiss half of this:

Of course investigators are going to interview White House staff as part of their probe. It would be shocking if they didn’t. The Post story is written using carefully chosen language – language that looks far more ominous to those who aren’t familiar with legalese. The bottom line? We don’t know have any idea whether this story matters.

French, however, rips into Sean Spicer:

It’s hard to think of statements better calculated to build the case that Trump fired Comey to disrupt the FBI investigation into his administration’s ties with Russia. As I’ve said before, no single piece of evidence has thus far been conclusive (and each piece is vulnerable to its own rebuttals), but the evidence taken together is starting to build a case that looks an awful lot like this: First, Trump – frustrated at the FBI’s investigation – strongly hinted to James Comey that he should clear Michael Flynn. Second, Trump got angry when Comey not only ignored his suggestion but instead publicly confirmed the investigation’s existence. Third, Trump terminated Comey in the hope that it would ease the pressure on his administration. Moreover, there’s evidence that he knew his actions were suspect. He allegedly asked the vice president and attorney general to leave the room before talking to Comey about ending the Flynn investigation, and when he fired Comey, he justified it with a blatantly pre-textual and false cover story.

This is a damaging portrait. If Hillary Clinton was faced with the same facts and allegations, Republican talk of impeachment would be thick in the air. As it is, impeachment talk from either side of the aisle is premature and overblown, at least so far. When witnesses actually get under oath – and the public sees actual documents – a very different picture may emerge. For now, however, there’s more than enough smoke not only to justify further investigation but to reinforce the wisdom of selecting a special counsel to conduct a competent, thorough, and reasonably independent inquiry. The Times story does not help Trump.

Trump said James Comey was a nut job, to the Russians. That’s the point, and now James Comey is going to testify to Congress in open session. That could blow this wide open.

Hell really is other people, even those who are on your side:

Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser retired Gen. Michael Flynn and believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team, sources told CNN.

The conversations deeply concerned US intelligence officials, some of whom acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn, who was tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser, current and former governments officials said.

“This was a five-alarm fire from early on,” one former Obama administration official said, “the way the Russians were talking about him.” Another former administration official said Flynn was viewed as a potential national security problem.

The conversations picked up by US intelligence officials indicated the Russians regarded Flynn as an ally, sources said. That relationship developed throughout 2016, months before Flynn was caught on an intercepted call in December speaking with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak.

This might be called a leak in the national interest by a frustrated intelligence community. Everyone should know about Flynn and Russia now. They knew long again. Perhaps that’s public service.

There seems to be no exit for Donald Trump, and the Daily Beast reports this:

The administration officials and West Wing aides who were left grounded stateside on Friday late afternoon couldn’t do much more than dodge questions and vent inflamed frustrations at their boss. (Senior staffers who escaped aboard Air Force One included Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks, press secretary Sean Spicer, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.)

“I’m glad I’m not on the plane so I could be here to answer your Russia questions,” a senior Trump administration official said, sarcastically, before abruptly hanging up.

Trump’s remarks quickly elicited groans, and some harsh words, from senior officials who did speak with The Daily Beast.

“If Donald Trump gets impeached, he will have one person to blame: Donald Trump,” one of those administration officials said.

It’s not just the intelligence community that’s leaking:

Trump’s repeated media missteps have frustrated even longtime supporters. “Every day he looks more and more like a complete moron,” said one senior administration official who also worked on Trump’s campaign. “I can’t see Trump resigning or even being impeached, but at this point I wish he’d grow a brain and be the man that he sold himself as on the campaign.”

Asked whether an administration staff change-up would ameliorate this latest crisis, a Republican source formerly involved with a pro-Trump political group told The Daily Beast, “Yes, if it comes with a frontal lobotomy for Trump.”

That’s harsh, but this is more measured:

David C. Gomez, a former FBI assistant special agent in charge, said Trump’s comments demonstrated a profound inability to grasp the potential consequences of his words.

“In terms of potential criminal activity it’s amateur night at the White House,” Gomez told The Daily Beast. “These guys – and Trump especially- don’t know how to NOT implicate themselves.”

“On a big case like this, the ideal thing would be a wiretap on your number one subject,” Gomez added. “But in this case, you don’t need a wiretap. He just comes right out and says it.”

We may be in that Sartre play, if Ruth Marcus is right:

Trump himself is turning out to be the full-fledged disaster of our worst fears. He understands nothing and is uninterested in learning anything – not just the dreary substance of things such as tax reform but constitutional values, governing norms and the United States’ unique role in the world.

He sees things only through the distorting prism of an all-consuming ego. There is only one Trump instinct – “fight, fight, fight,” he said at the Coast Guard Academy – and one Trumpian dichotomy: friend or foe. He is impervious to embarrassment, no matter how blatant his falsehood. The stain of his behavior spreads to taint anyone within range.

The past few weeks have presented an alarming parade of proof. Authoritarianism? Trump summarily fired his FBI director over “this Russia thing” – after, according to reports, James B. Comey resisted Trump’s demand that he pledge loyalty and declined Trump’s importuning to drop the Flynn probe.

Trump met unapologetically with yet another dictatorial thug, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and remained shamefully silent as Erdogan’s security goons beat up protesters on U.S. soil. No surprise there, from the candidate who urged his crowds to “knock the crap out of” protesters and as president reportedly pressed Comey to jail reporters for obtaining leaks.

Overweening egotism laced with self-pity? Trump used the occasion of the Coast Guard graduation to lament his treatment – “No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

And on and on, spending eternity in Sartre’s room with no exit, with Donald Trump ridiculing everyone in sight and being ridiculed right back, meaninglessly of course, but the Sartre play did end:

It is impossible to know how this disastrous episode in our history will conclude, or how grave the damage will be. But an adage from conservative economist Herb Stein comes to mind: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. This situation does not feel sustainable for a full four years.

The audience was glad when the Sartre play ended too. Hell is other people, and now, one in particular.

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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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One Response to The Hell of Other People

  1. When DJT “won” on Nov. 8, it began a four year sentence at hard labor for him and we all joined him in the Hell of our electoral choice. He overshot the runway. So did his enablers.
    Your commentary on Sartre’s “No Exit” reminds me of a “Speaking of Faith” interview back in the 90s sometime. Krista Tippett was interviewing an African-American evangelical Bishop from somewhere who had built a megachurch someplace in the south; much of the flock white. His schtick was Hell, he preached -pardon the expression – one hell of a sermon about how people got there, and what it was like down there.
    He had a conversion experience one week during the Rwanda genocide in 1994. He was watching the tv news as refugees streamed out of Rwanda, a large percentage women and children.
    As he contemplated the scene, he said that the folks he saw were experiencing hell on earth, and the next Sunday he so spoke.
    His congregation began to evaporate.
    They thought, of course, that Hell was down there and, of course, that they would never experience the place so vividly described to them.
    When he talked on the radio, he’d lost his parish, and he was recovering somewhere else. I wish I could remember his name.

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