Screaming at the Sky

There’s a precedent for everything. In 1976 there was Network – written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet – about a fictional television network that’s taken a dive in the ratings. Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, the anchor of the network’s Evening News about to be fired. He announces on live television that he will commit suicide on the next Tuesday’s broadcast, so they fire him immediately, but they give him a chance to say farewell on air. That’s a mistake. Once on the air, he launches into a rant about how life is “bullshit” – and so is the news business of course – and the ratings spike – so they keep him on. Then he regularly galvanizes the nation, persuading his viewers to shout out of their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

That works. That’s the new hot thing. Beale ends up hosting a new program where he’s “the mad prophet of the airwaves” – and that becomes the highest rated program on television. Beale becomes the ultimate celebrity preaching his message in front of a live studio audience that, on cue, chants, en masse: “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!” But then the network is bought out by a conglomerate with lots of Saudi money and they get him to tone it down. His rating plummet – and he’s still an embarrassment. The new executives decide to hire the Ecumenical Liberation Army to assassinate Beale on the air. The assassination succeeds. And that’s that – but for one brief shining moment, all of America was shouting – “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!”

Large corporations can put an end to that sort of thing, at least in a rather heavy-handed satire now mostly forgotten. The only thing people remember from all of this is Peter Finch, in suicidal depression, for good reason, shouting out that he’s mad as hell – and he’s not going to take this anymore.

That’s enough. That’s the precedent, and Stephanie Eckardt explains the current application:

Back in 1961, Yoko Ono created a so-called “instruction painting” – one of her artworks that engages its viewers – named “Voice Piece for Soprano” which included only three general commands, all of which began with “scream.” Decades later, however, Ono found a much more specific direction to aim her wailing at: The weekend following last year’s Election Day, she shared a 19-second audio clip of her wailing to her nearly five million followers as her “response” to the election of Donald Trump.

Eckardt sees that as appropriate, as do others:

The past year has since repeatedly proven itself to be equally scream-worthy, from the president’s plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts before he was even inaugurated, to his press secretary’s statement last week that it is the “official White House position” that every single one of the notably large number of women who have accused Trump of sexual assault is lying.

And so nearly a year later, when the artist and musician Laurie Anderson set about to honor Ono at a dinner last week for the performance art biennial Performa by recreating “Voice Piece,” she decided at the last minute to make a similar adaptation. Before kicking things off with a giant gong, Anderson informed the night’s guests that the performance would also double as a trial run for what she hoped would be a nationwide wail on the anniversary of last year’s Election Day, November 8.

And one thing leads to another:

“I told her, my god, if we could get the whole country to do it, it would humiliate the shit out of him,” the artist and activist Marilyn Minter, who gave Anderson the idea, said of why she was determined to bring plans for collective screams across the country – a Boston version of which she’d happened upon on Facebook – to New York.

“New Yorkers are good at making big noises outside our windows,” Minter elaborated on Tuesday after a trip to this year’s polls, which she was pleasantly surprised to discover were quite crowded. “Everyone screamed outside the window when Obama won.”

There are also of course more official plans to “scream helplessly at the sky on the anniversary of the election,” too, including a gathering at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday at Washington Square Park in New York…

“Just yell out your window – I’m going to just yell out my window,” she said simply. “Just scream your frustration about having this toxic, narcissistic monster as our president. What’s the big deal? What’s so hard about that?”

Paddy Chayefsky started this and there was Texas’ Scream Helplessly at the Sky on the Anniversary of the Election:

“What we all have in common is an incredible frustration with what’s going on in the White House,” said Soraya Colli, a Dallas community activist who’s helping to organize the local event at the Continental Avenue Pedestrian Bridge. “It’s incredibly disheartening and infuriating.”

“If we yell loud enough, perhaps we can open up a rift in the space-time continuum and hop onto a better timeline,” reads the page for Austin’s Scream Helplessly event.

Good luck with that. On October 21, 1967, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam announced that antiwar protesters would march past the Lincoln Memorial, across the Memorial Bridge all the way to the front steps of the Pentagon, and then they would use their massive psychic energy to levitate it – and they didn’t levitate it. The Pentagon is very heavy. It just sat there. And Donald Trump, once a lithe young man, is now very heavy. He’s also not going anywhere – and when your nationwide event is billed as “screaming helplessly” you’ve given the game away. You’ve already given up. You’ve said you’re helpless.

That’s nonsense. As the Guardian’s David Smith explains, the eve of the anniversary of Trump’s big win showed the opposite:

Democrats were celebrating on Wednesday after winning big in governor, state legislative, county and mayors’ races across the country on a night full of symbolism, a year to the day from Donald Trump’s election as president.

Their victories included three major elections – Virginia governor, New Jersey governor and New York City mayor – and the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature.

It was the party’s most cheering night at the ballot box since Barack Obama’s re-election five years ago. They handed Republicans what Obama once memorably called a “shellacking” when on the receiving end. They now have the wind at their backs for the 2018 midterm elections and a decent shot at taking back the House of Representatives.

No one was helpless here:

It was a stinging rebuke to Trump as he arrives in China in an attempt to play global statesman. The so-called resistance had shown it could amass vast women’s marches and skewer the president with witty epigrams on Twitter. Now it heeded Obama’s plea to go beyond hashtags and memes by showing up. “This is what happens when the people vote,” Obama tweeted.

The results also represented a corrective, a restoration of some kind of equilibrium and a reminder that America as a whole did not make a sudden lurch to the populist right on 8 November 2016. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million that day and won the Oval Office because of the arcane Electoral College. Republican strategists warned at the time that this was hardly grounds for confidence in total dominance for all time, although Trump celebrated it again with a tweet on Wednesday – “Congratulations to all of the “DEPLORABLES” and the millions of people who gave us a MASSIVE (304-227) Electoral College landslide victory!”

Fine, but that was then and this was now:

Democratic joy was mixed with palpable relief. Defeat in Virginia and New Jersey, both of which backed Clinton over Trump last year, would have been catastrophic and prompted gloomy clichés of “being out of power for a generation”. Virginia’s comfy northern suburbs include commuters to Washington DC, where Trump supporters are harder to find than tickets to Hamilton. The newest local celebrity is Juli Briskman, a cyclist who gave the president’s motorcade the middle finger. Losing Virginia would have suggested that there was something very, very wrong, that a tectonic plate had shifted.

In the end, they did more than just not lose. The governor’s race wasn’t even close. Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by nine percentage points, a much wider margin than expected and significantly bigger than Clinton’s win over Trump. Steve Kornacki, a voting analyst on the MSNBC channel, dubbed it “the revenge of the suburbs” after a long 12 months of Trump.

This revenge of the suburbs had nothing to do with screaming helplessly, because now the Republicans, as Smith sees it, are the helpless ones:

The party succumbed to Trump’s divisive nativism and is still embroiled in a civil war. Despite controlling the White House, Senate and House, it has failed to pass major legislation. Now it has experienced the bitter taste of defeat at the ballot box and faces a terrible dilemma in the midterms. It can embrace the president, field Steve Bannon-backed candidates and complete its transformation from the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump, or it can ostracize him as Democrats did Obama in 2014, which did not work out well.

Or it can try to have it both ways, as Gillespie did in Virginia, playing the anti-immigration card in the south-west while seeking to appear moderate in the north. It was a perilous tightrope walk and he fell to the ground with a splat.

The Republicans should now scream helplessly at the sky, and McKay Coppins reports that Trump was curiously subdued:

The moment had all the makings of an epic presidential meltdown. It was the eve of Donald Trump’s election anniversary, and Republicans were getting pummeled in races across Virginia, New Jersey, and New York. Pundits on TV and Twitter were blaming the party’s struggles on Trump’s deep unpopularity, and some were predicting a cataclysmic wipeout in next year’s midterms.

Under normal circumstances, such a perfect storm of political defeat and perceived disrespect likely would have occasioned a Trumpian tantrum.

But there was only a halfhearted tweet or two, and distance across many time zones, as Trump was elsewhere, a good thing:

This time whether by a happy accident of scheduling, or an impressive feat of handling by White House aides, the president is spending his one-year milestone in Asia. So far in Trump’s young presidency, overseas trips like this one have had a restraining effect on him. He is on a more tightly controlled schedule than usual, with less time to stew between speeches, ceremonial duties, and world-leader meetings. All the travel gives him less access to cable news, and the time difference means he is sleeping through much of the news cycle, unable to set the media agenda for the day with a morning tweetstorm.

That’s not to say Trump has been the perfect paragon of presidential decorum in Asia. There have been signs on this trip that he is eager to slip his leash. During a speech to the South Korean National Assembly, he made a strange and gratuitous reference to his election victory (“exactly one year ago today, I celebrate with you”) and also took the opportunity to hype his golf course in New Jersey.

But with Trump overseas, America and the many “haters” that reside on its shores have been spared the kind of high-profile spiral into presidential resentment that has become a national tradition in our politics over the past year.

That means that Donald Trump missed this:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s election with a series of tweets listing the reasons why he thinks Trump “is the worst president in modern history.”

“One year ago, @realDonaldTrump was elected President. Since then, he has repeatedly shown why he is the worst president in modern history. Here’s how,” Schiff tweeted.

Schiff raised Trump’s claims that he would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal immigrants hadn’t voted in the election and his executive order initially banning refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries.

He blasted Trump’s attacks against the media, his decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, his withdrawal from the Paris climate change deal and his attempts to undermine ObamaCare by ending subsidies for health insurance companies.

Schiff also slammed Trump’s comments that “many sides” shared blame for the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

“There were not ‘many sides,’ just right and wrong,” he said.

Schiff added that “Trump has repeatedly tried to intervene in our justice system, and denigrated judges who rule against him as illegitimate or ‘so-called’ judges.”

“Trump refuses to acknowledge Russia’s attack on our democracy, and fired FBI Director James Comey because of ‘this Russia thing,'” Schiff tweeted.

Schiff also went after Trump for announcing a ban on transgender people serving in the military and for “cozying up to dictators, threatening war via tweet, hollowing out our State Department.”

“There is absolutely no doubt: President Trump is the worst president in modern history,” Schiff tweeted. “And each day, he works on eliminating ‘modern’ from that description.”

Adam Schiff was screaming, but not helplessly. He’s the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, helping to oversee his committee’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, including ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow. He’s dangerous.

Many share his assessment too – the worst president in modern history – but Daniel Drezner, that professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, offers a more measured anniversary assessment, remembering that one year ago he wrote this:

What is noteworthy about the American system of government is not what it can do but what it cannot do. The president is not a tyrant. The separation of powers puts important legal constraints on the executive branch. Federalism puts important legal constraints on what the federal government can impose on the states. The Bill of Rights puts important legal constraints on what any level of government can do to the American people.

Layered on top of those legal constraints is a whole set of bureaucratic norms and procedures that can make it difficult for a president to manage even the executive branch. There are civil service protections for bureaucrats. There are standard operating procedures that officials are loath to contravene. For eight years Barack Obama and his White House staff have struggled with the “Blob” of the national security state, and sometimes lost.

When Trump is sworn into office, he will face all of these legal and bureaucratic constraints and more.

And now, Drezner writes this:

So far, the system is working.

This is, to be clear, no thanks to Trump himself. One way the system could have worked was if the president learned the norms and rules of the presidency and adapted to them. That hasn’t happened – if anything, the opposite has occurred. Trump’s behavior has gotten worse. He clearly views himself as a monarch more than a president, taking credit for anything good and claiming he has powers that he does not. He has tried to cajole the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate his political opponents.

This tweet sums up his personal theory of how the federal government should work: “Trump says he’s not worried about unfilled State Department roles b/c ‘the one that matters is me. I am the only one that matters.'”

Trump remains the most illiberal president since James Buchanan. There isn’t a political norm or protocol he has not flouted.

But not all is lost:

Nonetheless, the system has still functioned pretty well. The best evidence for this so far is the Trump White House’s abysmal record of accomplishment. Congress has not done what Trump wants it to do, whether from repealing Obamacare to eliminating the filibuster to easing sanctions on Russia to rolling over on the 2016 campaign investigations. The judiciary has also refused to let Trump do what he wants on matters ranging from his attempted Muslim ban to his attempted transgender ban in the military to his attempted interference in the military court system.

Trump’s pressure on FBI and Justice reveals his weakness as president, not his strength.

Drezner cites the New York Times’ Peter Baker on that:

The repeated assaults on law enforcement cross lines that presidents have largely observed since the Watergate era, raising questions about the separation of politics and the law. But as extraordinary as Mr. Trump’s broadsides are, perhaps more striking is that investigators and prosecutors are so far ignoring the head of the executive branch in which they serve while military judges and juries are for the most part disregarding the opinions of their commander in chief.

There’s also the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale:

Trump does not have the power to revoke broadcast licenses to punish people for critical speech. Nobody at the Federal Communications Commission took any action to try. The story about Trump’s extraordinary breach of democratic norms vanished in 48 hours, replaced by other Trump stories.

The pattern has been repeated itself throughout Trump’s presidency.

Showing the instincts of an authoritarian, the president expresses a desire to do something profoundly contrary to the norms of democratic societies. Then he is constrained by democratic institutions.

He talks like a strongman. He is, in practice, a weak man.

There’s also the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein:

When Trump was elected, many of us feared what would happen when the power of the presidency was put into the hands of somebody with a lack of impulse control, thin grasp of the limits on executive power, praise for international strongmen, and a background as a CEO who typically got his way. The big question for many of us Trump critics was whether the United States’ institutions were strong enough to resist Trump’s authoritarian streak. So far, the answer has largely been yes, and the fact that Trump is left tweeting into the wind in frustration like the rest of us, because he can’t get law enforcement to behave in his preferred way, is evidence of that.

Sure, Trump fired the director of the FBI. And sure, he appointed a loyal ally who was a key part of his campaign and biggest early endorser, to run the Department of Justice. But even after taking those actions, he hasn’t been able to get those agencies to behave in his preferred manner.

Drezner adds this:

I would go even further than Klein. Trump’s most egregious move – firing James B. Comey – backfired badly. It led directly to Robert S. Mueller III being appointed to the special counsel position. Mueller is draining the swamp more effectively than Trump.

That’s fine, or maybe not:

The news is not all good for America’s checks and balances. There are areas where Trump has been able to push back against constraints. He has managed to secure the fealty of a lot of Republicans through his cabinet and judicial appointments. He has been more successful in altering how regulations are made. He has empowered some of the worst bureaucracies in the federal government, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His antipathy to career civil service officials has triggered an exodus of human capital from key agencies like the State Department.

And there’s this:

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of Trump has been the way he has caused honorable men to act dishonorably. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has had an atrocious two weeks, capped by his defamation of a Democratic member of Congress (and his refusal to apologize for his lie).

The list goes on and on, but Drezner says it comes down to this:

Going forward, Trump remains politically weak and unpopular, and last night’s election results will weaken him further. Because he is not learning at the job, he will not get any better at it. Other components of the federal government look poised to constrain him. While he has had some successes, they have been pretty meager relative to every other postwar president.

The good news is that the system is working under Trump. The bad news is that parts of it are showing signs of stress. And we have at least three more years to go.

That means that Yoko Ono is wrong. It’s not time to scream helplessly at the sky – “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Forget Howard Beale. Step back from the window. Vote.

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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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1 Response to Screaming at the Sky

  1. Simply expressing hopelessness is not constructive. Yesterday, I tried to express myself about this to the small and very motley crew who read my blog. http://www.outsidethewalls.org/blog/1310-dick-bernard-the-eagles-wings-the-first-day-of-the-second-year/. Basically a skeleton on which someone can begin a conversation, or at minimum perhaps give some thought. I think Tuesday was a “shot across the bow” to the “wingtips”, left and right. Replacing the right with the left is no solution, either.

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