A Nation of Fakery

The grandparents were Czech on one side and Slovak on the other, but the parents were born here, so they knew they were really Americans, and they made sure that the kids would be even more American. In the early fifties the family moved from the Slovak enclave on the north side of Pittsburgh to the new and raw white-bread WASP suburbs a bit further north and settled in – and did the American thing, sort of. In the late fifties, every Saturday night, it was potato pancakes and sausage and hot applesauce in front of the big console television, to watch “professional” wrestling at six – which was gloriously fake but somehow also gloriously American.

The potato pancakes were latkes of course – the word is Yiddish, derived from Russian – or the Czech name – bramborák – but the wrestling was pure Americana. Those were the days of Gorgeous George and Bruno Sammartino and assorted minor villains who always lost – but Gorgeous George was a joke too. Bob Hope made fun of him on national television. He was the first of those guys to use entrance music. He was a narcissistic jerk.

He was also very American. Maybe he was Donald Trump – but this stuff was easy to understand, with drama and comedy and colorful characters, and amazingly inexpensive to produce. From 1948 to 1955 each of the three major television networks broadcast wrestling shows. They made a lot of money. So did the wrestlers, who were more character actors than they were athletes. Everyone won. This was America.

To a ten-year-old kid in Pittsburgh in 1957 this made perfect sense. To an eleven-year-old kid in Queens in 1957 this probably made perfect sense too. That might explain this:

President Trump posted a short video to his Twitter account on Sunday in which he is portrayed wrestling and punching a figure whose head has been replaced by the logo for CNN.

The video, about 28 seconds long, appears to be an edited clip from a years-old appearance by Mr. Trump in WrestleMania, an annual professional wrestling event. The clip ends with an onscreen restyling of the CNN logo as “FNN: Fraud News Network.”

It was more of the same:

Cartoonish in quality, the video is an unorthodox way for a sitting president to express himself. But Mr. Trump has ratcheted up his attacks on the news media in recent days – assailing CNN and crudely insulting the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” – while defending his use of social media as “modern day presidential.”

In a speech on Saturday at a faith rally in Washington, Mr. Trump was met with cheers when he referred to CNN as “garbage journalism” and said: “The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House. But I’m president, and they’re not.”

He is Gorgeous George, and Chris Cillizza, now a CNN editor-at-large, offers a bit of perspective:

In a statement, CNN called it a “sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters.”

“Clearly, Sarah Huckabee Sanders lied when she said the President had never done so,” CNN’s statement continued. “Instead of preparing for his overseas trip, his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, ‎dealing with North Korea and working on his health care bill, he is instead involved in juvenile behavior far below the dignity of his office. We will keep doing our jobs. He should start doing his.”

That was the official word from CNN but there’s more to this:

The video Trump used for the tweet came from an appearance Trump made in 2007 on the pro-wresting juggernaut World Wrestling Entertainment. In the original footage, Trump clotheslines WWE CEO Vince McMahon, who is taunting “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.

The appearance was part of a short-lived “feud” between McMahon and Trump, which was billed as the “battle of the billionaires.” (In real life, the two men are very friendly. McMahon’s wife, Linda, is now a member of Trump’s Cabinet as the Small Business Administrator.)

Cillizza’s a fan and knows these things, and knows a bit more:

I have long believed that one of the best ways to understand the Trump campaign and now the Trump presidency is through the lens of professional wrestling and, in particular, the Vince McMahon-era WWE. Let me explain.

At the heart of pro wrestling sits this basic fact: It is fake. It is a scripted television show. Yes, it requires physical ability – no one who is not in excellent shape could perform some of the falls and bumps these wrestlers do daily. But it is, at heart, a soap opera. Scriptwriters plot character arcs and narrative building. The outcomes are known before the matches begin. The wrestlers are as much actors as they are athletes. (Look to the acting successes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena for proof of that fact.)

But, and this is the really important part, not everyone who is a fan of pro wrestling knows this. Lots and lots of people who go to the shows, who buy the t-shirts and who subscribe to the WWE Network believe that this is all real – that the feuds are real expressions of dislike between the wrestlers – that “Mr. McMahon” is an evil, money-grubbing CEO.

That eleven-year-old kid in Queens in 1957 is still with us:

Anyone who has followed his career in business or politics knows that there isn’t a more attentive media consumer than Donald Trump. He watches cable TV constantly – as evidenced by the installation of a 60-plus-inch TV in his dining room near the Oval Office. (Ask yourself: If he doesn’t watch TV, as he claims, then what does he watch on that TV?) He loves this stuff. Always has. Always will. And, if and when Trump ever reaches out to you as a reporter, he is tremendously solicitous; he praises your work and says you are one of the good ones. (Trump did this to me during the campaign.)

That’s where this gets strange:

Most people – particularly in the media – know this fact. But lots of other people, including many of Trump’s supporters, truly believe that he hates the media. That he is the fighter against “fake news” they have been waiting for their entire lives. They don’t get that Trump is playing a role… he is doing a shtick, because he knows there is political gain to be had there.

Then there is the fact that pro wrestling has long – and successfully – played to peoples’ stereotypes for eyeballs and audience intensity. When I was growing up in the 1980s, a character named the “Iron Sheik” was the biggest “heel” (a bad guy) in the wrestling world. His character was created following the Iranian hostage crisis of the early 1980s. He would enter the ring carrying an Iranian flag and bow to it before the matches. Nikolai Volkoff, who would sing the Russian national anthem in the middle of the ring, was another of the top heels of that era.

McMahon grasped early on that playing on peoples’ fears and anger was a ratings goldmine. Booing is a powerful thing. Uniting behind a common enemy has real resonance. That McMahon created cartoon villains – broad-brush sketches of what made people afraid or upset – was beside the point. That it worked was the whole point.

That’s America, but Trump may be out of villains:

In the 2016 campaign, that was easy; he had “Crooked” Hillary. But, as president, Trump has struggled to find an enemy. The Republican-controlled Congress? Meh. The leaderless Democratic Party? Not so much.

What he has turned to then is the media. And he has worked aggressively to paint journalists as not only biased and “fake” but also as a stand-in for the so-called “elites” Trump supporters detest. If Trump was running the WWE, he would create a wrestler who was a reporter. That character – call him Clark Can’t – would have gone to Harvard, would work for CNN or The New York Times, would wear glasses and would spend the time before each match lecturing the crowd about how they need to be more politically correct.

It would be Saturday night in 1957 in front of the big console television again, or not:

There’s one crucial difference between what Vince McMahon does and what Donald Trump does, however. McMahon is the CEO of an entertainment company whose lone goal is to make money for that company. Donald Trump is the president of the United States, whose salary is paid by taxpayers and whose job is to represent a nation of 300 million people stateside and in the world community.

Cillizza argues that Trump seems not to know or care about that distinction, but others do:

“I think it is unseemly that the president would attack journalists for doing their jobs, and encourage such anger at the media,” said Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times.

The administration did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Trump’s homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, defended the video when he viewed it for the first time during a broadcast interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News. “No one would perceive that as a threat,” Mr. Bossert said. “I hope they don’t.”

“He’s a genuine president expressing himself genuinely,” Mr. Bossert added.

No one would perceive that as a threat? If Cillizza is right about a whole lot of pro-wrestling fans, well, don’t count on it:

A version of Mr. Trump’s video appeared last week on a Trump-dedicated page on the message board site Reddit, a popular meeting ground for some of the president’s most fervent supporters…

Mr. Trump’s fans on Reddit were exuberant about what they viewed as validation from the country’s most powerful man. “I love this,” wrote a user identified as American Crusader. “You know he saw it, chuckled, and knew he could control the media narrative for days by hitting the ‘post’ button. So he did.”

The president’s allies say that his attacks on the news media are justified, arguing that the president is merely defending himself from coverage that his supporters view as biased. Mr. Trump’s war of words with CNN is especially popular with his voter base.

There’s no fakery in their America, but others worry:

News media advocates have raised alarms about a recent spate of arrests and assaults on working journalists, including a high-profile episode in which a Montana congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, assaulted a reporter for The Guardian, breaking his glasses. (Mr. Gianforte, a Republican, went on to win a House seat the next day. He later apologized to the reporter.)

Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, which usually focuses on countries where reporters’ freedoms are curtailed, say they are concerned that Mr. Trump’s campaign-trail rebukes of news organizations are now being issued from the pulpit of the White House.

“Targeting individual journalists or media outlets, on- or off-line, creates a chilling effect and fosters an environment where further harassment, or even physical attack, is deemed acceptable,” Courtney Radsch, the advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in a statement on Sunday, adding that Mr. Trump’s comments may embolden “autocratic leaders around the world.”

And there was this:

On CNN, Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican and frequent Trump critic, accused the president of “weaponizing distrust” toward the news media.

“There’s an important distinction to draw between bad stories or crappy coverage, and the right that citizens have to argue about that and complain about that,” Mr. Sasse said.

And then there’s the guy from that Watergate business:

Carl Bernstein had a dark and apocalyptic reaction on CNN’s Reliable Sources today. Notably, Bernstein said that the video goes to questions raised by “military leaders” about “the stability of the President of the United States.”

He was upset:

First, it’s not just anti-CNN. It’s anti-freedom of the press. It’s anti-freedom of speech. It is a definitive statement by the President of the United States. I think also, goes to the question that many military leaders in this question – questions raised by military leaders in this country now. By the intelligence community. By people in Congress. About the stability of the President of the United States. This is an index of his state of mind. Visually. It’s very disturbing. There’s nothing like light-hearted about it whatsoever. It is an incitement. It is definitive, as I say, in the way this president views a free press and its exercise under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

There’s that, but Dave Gershgorn reports on the other way of seeing this:

Minutes after the video was tweeted, commenters on pro-Trump subreddit The_Donald rejoiced, believing they had been the source of the President’s post. “This is just unbelievable. I am in love with our President,” wrote user Ace_Suburb.

The_Donald is well-known as a cesspool for unabashed racism. Frequent poster HanAssholeSolo, who created and posted the CNN wrestling video clip four days ago, often refers to African-Americans, women, and Muslims using slurs. He or she attacks Black Lives Matter, Islam, feminism, liberals, and, bizarrely, the state of Maryland, and references fake news outlet Infowars.

After Trump’s tweet Sunday morning, HanAssholeSolo wrote “Wow!! I never expected my meme to be retweeted by the God Emperor himself!!!”

The user also started editing the worst obscenities and slurs out of his or her post history, eliminating the n-word, for example, and deleting a remark about killing all Muslims.

Trump’s defenders say this was light-hearted fakery – like pro-wrestling, easy to understand, with drama and comedy and colorful characters, and amazingly inexpensive to produce – and kind of a joke. Others see the God Emperor himself. Some of us, old now, see Gorgeous George, the amusing caricature of American narcissism – but Gorgeous George was harmless.

This certainly made the Sunday talk shows more interesting:

Chuck Todd interviewed Tom Price today, and he asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services about why President Trump constantly derails conversations about policy by picking fights with the media.

On Meet the Press, Todd brought the conservative condemnation for Trump’s Twitter attacks against Mika Brzezinski last week. Todd repeatedly pressed Price when he tried to divert from the question, and Price began admonishing Todd for not asking him about the current efforts to reform health care.

This eventually caused Todd to ask: “you’re blaming me for what the President of the United States has spent his entire week focused on?” As Price continued to talk about what Americans want to see regarding health care, Todd kept on point by asking “why isn’t the president as devoted to this as you are?”

And elsewhere it was this:

CNN commentator and Republican strategist Ana Navarro on Sunday said President Donald Trump “is inciting violence against the free press” by railing against the media.

On ABC News’ “This Week,” Navarro said Trump’s Sunday morning tweet of a video of himself attacking a figure with CNN’s logo superimposed on their face was “unacceptable.”

“I think that is the President of the United States taking things way too far. It is an incitement to violence. He is going to get somebody killed in the media,” she said.

She too is a bit unhappy:

Navarro said she was “disappointed beyond belief” by White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert’s response to the tweet.

Asked earlier on the same show to respond to Trump’s post, Bossert said he was “proud of the President for developing a Twitter and a social media platform where he can talk directly to the American people.”

That won’t do:

“What a wuss. What a wuss,” Navarro said. “You could see that he is ceding his principles. You are the homeland security adviser and you can’t stand here and say the difference between right and wrong? That’s what is part of the problem.”

She said Trump “is surrounded by enablers that do nothing but shake their heads and nod their heads in agreement with everything that he says.”

“They have got to stop. They have got to stand for democracy, for freedom of the press. This is just going way too far. The President of the United States is inciting violence against the free press,” Navarro said. “In America, we cannot stand for it.”

Donald Trump is betting we can. That’s because we’re a nation of fakery. That’s America, and Donald Trump was just doing his Gorgeous George thing. It works. Gorgeous George got rich.

Still, the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg is worried:

Fox News host Sean Hannity has urged the Trump administration to force reporters to submit written requests in advance of the daily White House press briefing, which, he said, should be narrowly tailored to specific topics the administration wants to talk about.

Mr. Hannity’s good buddy Newt Gingrich went one better, suggesting that administration officials fully close the briefing room to the news media, which he has called “a danger to the country right now.”

What’s most extraordinary in all of this is how many people calling for curtailments on the free press are such professed “constitutionalists” and admirers of the founders.

There may be a misunderstanding here:

The founders didn’t view the press as particularly enlightened, and from the earliest days of the republic it certainly wasn’t. (To wit, a passage in The Aurora, an early publication, described George Washington as “the source of all the misfortunes of our country.”)

But they drafted the founding documents to enshrine press freedom for good reason. As the Stanford University history professor Jack Rakove said in an interview last week, James Madison was most concerned about a misinformed public’s acting on misplaced passions, and saw the press as an antidote. Were he alive now, Mr. Rakove said, “Madison would be worried by the idea of government whipping up or exploiting” what he called “badly formed passions.”

Misplaced passions are what professional wrestling is all about, and perhaps what is so very American about that fake sport. In 1957, that’s how many of us came to understand America – the land of misplaced passions – but of course most of us grew up. Gorgeous George really was joke, and he wasn’t gorgeous. He was a narcissistic jerk and a bit of a slob.

Others seem to be growing up now:

For months, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have privately counseled their more militant members to forswear talk of impeaching President Trump, telling them the political support for such a step simply doesn’t exist in the GOP-controlled Congress.

But 25 House Democrats, including the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, are now pushing an equally radical alternative: They are backing a bill that would create a congressional “oversight” commission that could declare the president incapacitated, leading to his removal from office under the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Donald Trump helped them with that:

At 12:56 p.m. Thursday, barely four hours after Trump tweeted attacks against MSNBC cable host Mika Brzezinski in crude, personal terms, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the chief sponsor of the bill, sent out an email to his colleagues, urging them to get behind the measure, writing it was of “enduring importance to the security of our nation.”

“In case of emergency, break glass,” Raskin told Yahoo News in an interview. “If you look at the record of things that have happened since January, it is truly a bizarre litany of events and outbursts.” Asked if Trump’s latest tweets attacking Brzezinski and her co-host Joe Scarborough – which were roundly condemned by members of both parties as beneath the dignity of his office – strengthened the grounds for invoking the 25th Amendment, Raskin replied: “I assume every human being is allowed one or two errant and seemingly deranged tweets. The question is whether you have a sustained pattern of behavior that indicates something is seriously wrong.” After Trump’s Thursday morning tweets, four more Democrats signed on to Raskin’s bill, his office said Friday.

That may be because this guy found a cool loophole:

Raskin, a former constitutional law professor, has seized on some largely overlooked language in Section 4 as the basis for his bill. It turns out it doesn’t have to be the Cabinet that makes a finding of presidential incapacity. The section also permits “such other body as Congress may by law provide” – along with the vice president – to reach the same conclusion.

Yet in the 50 years since the 25th Amendment took effect, Congress has never set up such a body. Raskin’s bill would do so. It calls for the creation of an “Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity.” The commission would be a nonpartisan panel appointed by congressional leaders composed of four physicians, four psychiatrists and three others – such as former presidents, vice presidents or other former senior U.S. government officials. The commission, if directed by Congress through a concurrent resolution, would be empowered to conduct an examination of the president “to determine whether the president is incapacitated, either mentally or physically.”

Our new Gorgeous George could be in trouble:

The 25th Amendment itself says nothing about the guidelines for making such a determination, much less what kinds of perceived mental illnesses would make a president unable to perform his duties. But Raskin, who first introduced his bill in April, said that he’s been getting increased interest in the legislation among colleagues, including Republicans who have privately approached him about it on the House floor.

Nothing may come of this, but Donald Trump has been faking this presidency thing all along. He should leave that to the “professional” wrestlers. Ten-year-old little boys find them fascinating, but everyone else knows that this is not a nation of fakery – unless it is. Again and again, Donald Trump sneers. He is the president!

He’s also Gorgeous George.

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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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