Always Ending in Farce

No one knows what Donald Trump will do next. He may plant a big sloppy wet kiss on the Kim fellow, or one on Vladimir Putin – a real one this time. To save our coal industry he may issue an executive order that all ships in our navy, including the submarines, run on coal now – lump coal – like in the good old days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet that awed the world. He will get his giant military parade too – scaled back a bit. The rows and rows of big tanks would rip up the streets in Washington – but he will have his “salute to the strongman” parade – and no one knows what one of his supporters will do next. One of them paid off a porn star to keep her quiet. Others explain that he doesn’t really mean what he says in all those unhinged tweets – and then he says he did mean just what he said, and they again say no, he doesn’t mean that at all. They have to manage his angry outbursts. The man does watch four to eight hours of cable news and gossip each day – his executive time – and that sets him off. He sees insults where there are none, or minor insults that anyone else would shrug off with a confident laugh. He shrugs nothing off – he hits back ten times harder – leaving him little time to conduct the nation’s business.

That’s a problem. No one knows quite where he stands on any issue. Outrage turns to enthusiastic support. Enthusiastic support turns to outrage. That’s a matter of who talked to him last – the high school kids who survived the recent mass shooting or the NRA – people with sad stories of those “dreamers” or Stephen Miller – and Robert Mueller is closing in. He lashes out. Stormy Daniels is closing in. He lashes out. He can’t help himself. He has one response. This has become a farce.

That word fits. That’s a word from theater. There’s the classic farce – full of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, and disguises and mistaken identities, and lots of clever and sophisticated word play, and a bit of sexual innuendo – and a fast-paced plot that only gets faster, usually ending in some sort of elaborate chase around a parlor or bedroom. There is no deep inner meaning. There are stock characters – the miser, the prig, the blowhard, the clueless husband and the oversexed and far too willing wife. They all get what’s coming to them – played for laughs. Farce is all about the joy of language and the silliness of people.

Georges Feydeau wrote the ultimate farce – A Flea in Her Ear – but that’s best in French. The ultimate farce in English is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – old, but cool. Modern farces are too dark and nasty – Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is one of those. Stick with Wilde. Algernon gets off some good lines – “And really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”

That might have stung, but farces are not political, and there’s a bit of history to that:

The Walpole administration initiated the infamous Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 heavily censuring British stages. After the Act had been passed, all plays were censured and adapted before they could be staged in one of the only two ‘licensed’ playhouses, Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Theatre.

Robert Walpole – who had been mercilessly mocked by Jonathan Swift and others for decades – was no fool. He wasn’t going to be mocked on stage too. All governments can be farcical at times, but keep that out of the theater – and it was kept out. There are few political farces. No one objected. There was enough other silliness. There was plenty to go around – and then Donald Trump came along. He brought farce back to government.

Who needs the stage? Now it’s this:

Even as the special counsel expands his inquiry and pursues criminal charges against at least four Trump associates, House Intelligence Committee Republicans said on Monday that their investigation had found no evidence of collusion between Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia to sway the 2016 election.

Representative K. Michael Conaway, the Texas Republican who is leading the investigation, said committee Republicans agreed with the conclusions of American intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered with the election, but they broke with the agencies on one crucial point: that the Russians had favored Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

“The bottom line: The Russians did commit active measures against our election in ’16, and we think they will do that in the future,” Mr. Conaway said. But, he added, “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”

In short, they were just messing with us. They didn’t care who won or lost, and they were bad at it – changing nothing. Michael Conaway is the clueless husband in the farce – nothing happened – his wife isn’t messing around on the side – and of course sent out an all caps tweet. See! No collusion! Told ya so!

Others disagreed:

The announcement brought an abrupt end to one of two remaining investigations into the topic on Capitol Hill and quickly provoked sharp objections from committee Democrats, who have warned Republicans not to close the matter before the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is done with his work.

In a statement on Monday evening, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, lamented the decision, saying that the committee had put partisan politics over fulsome fact-finding and had failed to serve American voters at a key moment in history.

“By ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the majority has placed the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country,” he said. “And history will judge its actions harshly.”

He was not alone:

American intelligence officials concluded in January 2017 that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” and pivoted from trying to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton to developing “a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the agencies stood by their work and would review the committee’s findings.

The House Intelligence Committee Republicans believe the Russians, not our guys:

“We found no evidence of collusion. We found perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings,” Mr. Conaway said during a briefing with reporters on Monday afternoon. “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take this series of inadvertent contacts with each other, or meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of fictional page-turner spy thriller.”

There was bad judgment. There were inappropriate meetings. There was nothing else, but there was:

Several witnesses thought to be central to the investigation never came before the panel, including Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; Mr. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates; Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; and Mr. Trump’s former campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, all of whom are under indictment by the special counsel.

Others, including George Nader, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates with links to current and former Trump aides, only recently came to the committee’s attention.

They’d have none of that:

The investigation had made little forward progress since December, committee members said. Only three witnesses have been brought in for questioning this year – a drastic reduction in pace compared to earlier months.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats on the committee spent a month locked in an extraordinary dispute over a secret Republican memorandum that accused top FBI and Justice Department officials of abusing their powers to spy on one of Mr. Trump’s former campaign advisers.

Republicans released the document over the objections of the Justice Department and the FBI, which warned in a rare public statement that it was dangerously misleading, and many used the document to argue that the entire Russia inquiry had been tainted by anti-Trump bias from the start.

Democrats eventually wrote and released their own counter-memo, drawn from the same underlying material, to rebut the Republican document. They are likely to write their own final report, as well, outlining questions that remain unanswered.

This has all the elements of a farce, in one door and out the other, and there’s this:

In a sign of how badly relations between the two sides have broken down, Republicans on the committee briefed reporters on their initial findings on Monday before notifying their Democratic partners what was coming.

Some Democrats have signaled they would like to reopen the investigation under a Schiff chairmanship if the party wins control of the House in November’s midterm elections.

Meanwhile the Senate Intelligence Committee is chugging along, with everyone getting along just fine, and Mueller is chugging along too, closing in. This was a panic-move. The guys decided to shout – “There’s nothing going on!” That’s always the funniest line in any farce. The audience sees exactly what is going on.

Others saw that too:

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Monday that “there is evidence” showing the Russians attempted to help Trump during the 2016 presidential election, contradicting a draft report from the panel…

[CNN interviewer Erin] Burnett pointed out that “the intelligence community had said” Moscow’s intention “was to hurt Hillary Clinton,” and that the Kremlin “wanted to explicitly help Donald Trump.” Rooney responded: “Yes, I believe there’s evidence of everything that you just said.”

Still, the farce had to end:

Rooney argued that the investigation needed to end because the committee was losing its credibility. “We’ve gone completely off the rails and now we are just basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day’s news,” Rooney said. “We’ve lost all credibility and we are going to issue probably two different reports, unfortunately.”

Kevin Drum adds this:

Do I even need to tell you that Rooney is retiring this year? It’s pretty amazing what Republicans are willing to say once they decide not to run for reelection.

And that’s that. No more need be said, because there was another farce to consider:

White House officials were alarmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ struggle to answer basic questions about the nation’s schools and failure to defend the administration’s newly proposed school safety measures during a tour of television interviews Sunday and Monday, according to two sources familiar with their reaction.

Though DeVos was sworn in to her Cabinet position 13 months ago, she stumbled her way through a pointed “60 Minutes” interview with CBS’ Lesley Stahl Sunday night and was unable to defend her belief that public schools can perform better when funding is diverted to the expansion of public charter schools and private school vouchers. At one point, she admitted she hasn’t “intentionally” visited underperforming schools.

Lesley Stahl asked if she didn’t think she really should visit those schools. DeVos said maybe she could. It seems she hadn’t thought about that, but that wasn’t all:

Things worsened as DeVos continued her cable television tour Monday morning. The White House released its proposals for school safety measures after a shooting in Florida killed 17 people. Part of the proposal includes a task force to examine ways to prevent future mass shootings, headed by DeVos. Although the proposals don’t include raising the age limit to purchase firearms from 18 to 21 – as President Donald Trump once suggested – DeVos told Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “Today” show that “everything is on the table.”

“The plan is a first step in a more lengthy process,” DeVos said, adding that she does not think that arming teachers with assault weapons would be “an appropriate thing.”

This won’t be a fast and decisive thing, as Trump had promised, and she went the other way on guns:

“I don’t think assault weapons carried in schools carried by any school personnel is the appropriate thing,” DeVos said. “But again, I think this is an issue that is best decided at the local level by communities and by states.”

“The point is that schools should have this tool if they choose to use the tool. Communities should have the tools, states should have the tool, but nobody should be mandated to do it,” she said.

By that time Trump was tearing his orange hair out, and he might be bald soon:

DeVos is just the latest member of Trump’s Cabinet to come under scrutiny. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt were all scolded by officials from the White House counsel’s office and the Cabinet liaison after a series of embarrassing and questionable ethical behavior at their respective agencies.

Things aren’t going well, but this woman is special:

This isn’t the first time DeVos has made headlines. She also struggled to answer education questions during her contentious confirmation hearing before the Senate last January. At one point, she told Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy that some schools may require guns to fight off grizzly bears.

“I will refer back to Sen. (Mike) Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies,” she had said.

She spoke of “potential grizzlies” in all seriousness. Oscar Wilde wrote this scene, but she got the job:

In the end, Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie to confirm her nomination, making her the first Cabinet nominee in history to require a tie-breaking vote by the vice president to be confirmed.

That assured this farce, and Dana Milbank has a bit of fun with this:

Her interview with Lesley Stahl of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” broadcast Sunday night, is being mocked as the most disastrous televised tête-à-tête since Palin met Couric.

But this unabashed ignorance is DeVos’ hidden genius – and precisely why she is a perfect choice to be Trump’s secretary of education.

Whenever DeVos speaks, it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished…

All this proves that it is sheer (if perhaps unintentional) genius to have DeVos, who married into the Amway fortune, in her role in the Trump administration. If this is the caliber of the top education official in the land, it hardly speaks well for getting an education. People could quite reasonably conclude that education isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and they wouldn’t go to all the trouble of attending school.

And that may be the whole point:

As it happens, this is exactly what Trump needs to secure the future of his political movement. For Trump, the fewer people who get an education, the better off he will be. Exit polls showed a huge education gap in the 2016 election. College graduates favored Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points, while those without college degrees favored Trump by eight points. That 17-point gap was “by far the widest” dating to 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.

The danger for Trump is more Americans are going to college. The National Center for Education Statistics, part of DeVos’ Education Department, predicts enrollment of full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, up 38 percent between 2000 and 2014, will climb an additional 15 percent by 2025.

Thankfully, DeVos is doing all she can to combat this noxious scourge of people going to school. DeVos, who once said traditional public education is a “dead end,” is proving by example as the nation’s top educator that education generally is a dead end.

Snark seems appropriate here – this is a farce after all – but Helaine Olen sees no farce:

It’s one of the marks of our Second Gilded Age that wealth is viewed in and of itself as an achievement, one so stupendous it grants the holder the right to opine on all sorts of topics about which they know very little or nothing. As a trend, this has been with us for some time, but it has become worse under the Trump administration, where the wealthiest man ever elected to the White House has appointed the wealthiest Cabinet in history.

And then there’s Betsy DeVos:

All in all, it was a wretched performance. But why would we expect it to be anything else? An heiress to one fortune and the wife to the heir of another, a product of private schools who chose to educate her children in a similar fashion, DeVos’ qualifications for the job of education secretary were never more than those of a wealthy (and not particularly well-informed) hobbyist whose pet cause was the promotion of charter schools as a solution to a problem she had limited personal experience with.

But DeVos is hardly alone, whether it comes to the Trump administration, educational policy circles or larger American culture. The idea that wealth and its companion, business success, in and of themselves bestow on their possessors greater wisdom and insight into all manner of social, political and economic problems is something that has assumed greater and greater prominence in popular culture and political circles, really since the 1980s, when CEOs and Wall Street titans were routinely profiled as all but heroes. Partly as a result, we’ve seen people such as Mark Cuban, Howard Schultz and Sheryl Sandberg held up as plausible candidates for president based on little more than their business track record.

This is particularly true in education. Nowhere has deference to billionaires operating far outside their area of expertise been more pronounced than in this field.

Olen has examples of that:

Everyone from Bill and Melinda Gates to Mark Zuckerberg to numerous hedge fund millionaires and billionaires have attempted to take on the project of improving American public schools, with mixed results at best. Zuckerberg, famously, blew through $100 million attempting to improve the schools in Newark, despite having known almost nothing about education.

But the Trump administration has taken this worship of wealth for wealth’s sake to a new level. Trump – again, the wealthiest man ever elected president, who appointed the wealthiest Cabinet and administration in American history – frequently cited his own wealth as a reason to vote for him, saying it would allow him to act in the best interest of voters because he didn’t need money.

Trump has also explicitly cited wealth as a key qualification for his Cabinet picks. “I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump explained in 2016. “It’s no different than a great baseball player or a great golfer.”

Actually, yes, it is. DeVos’ performance Sunday night is proof of that.

And that leaves only farce:

On policy, Trump often seems like a dilettante who thinks his pronouncements carry weight simply because he spent so many years giving orders in the private sector. He contradicts himself constantly and often seems, to put it gently, less-than-well-informed.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Trump didn’t realize – or perhaps didn’t care – that DeVos was manifestly unqualified to head up education policy for the United States. But if there were any doubt among anyone else, Sunday night’s performance should have finally put an end to the idea that wealth is a qualification for anyone to weigh in on – never mind have actual authority over – areas in which they have no expertise.

But there’s one silver lining:

Perhaps demonstrating this clearly for all to see will constitute one area in which the Trump administration performs a very valuable public service.

Don’t count on it. She stays. The farce continues, and there’s Karl Marx – “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

Things always end in farce. This had to happen.

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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