America has been here before. The year was 1980 and the wildly popular television show was Dallas – ruthless rather pretty, or handsome, absurdly rich people, who love to flaunt their wealth in absurdly ostentatious ways, scheme against each other to have it all to themselves, whatever it us. There’s a lot of backstabbing. There are betrayals. These people are ruthless even if they seem a bit dimwitted at times – but that didn’t matter. They’re so damned rich. They’re so damned pretty. They’re also completely amoral – which didn’t matter either. All of America wanted to be like them – but of course the whole thing was an obvious tongue-in-cheek parody of the oblivious rich – which didn’t matter either. Dallas was the first of the primetime soap operas. Soap operas are supposed to be over the top. That’s what makes them fun. This was an early version of the Trump White House. Look at those ruthless but rather dimwitted absurdly rich people, with questionable taste – everything had to be gold-plated – bluster and scheme against each other! Cool!
CBS had a hit, and in the final scene of the 1979–80 season, J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) hears a noise outside his office, walks out to the corridor to look, and is shot twice by an unseen assailant. That was broadcast on March 21, 1980, and the nation had to wait all summer to learn whether J. R. would survive, and to learn who shot J. R.
That was the question that was the only thing people seemed to be talking about that summer. Who shot J. R.?
That was the ultimate tease, and production for the 1980–81 shows began in June 1980, but Hagman refused to film anything without a big raise. He returned to work ten days later with a new contract – one hundred grand an episode and royalties from all J. R. Ewing merchandise. But the nation had to wait another two months to find out who shot the big guy – the Writers Guild of America went on strike in July, but finally, on November 21, 1980, the nation found out. Kristin Shepard (Mary Crosby) had shot J. R. She was his scheming sister-in-law and mistress. She was angry but J. R. didn’t press charges. Kristin claimed she was pregnant with his child – and so on and so forth. These were just sleazy people after all. Things went downhill from there. The nation moved on. These were actually ugly people. There were other things to watch – but for that one summer CBS controlled the nation’s conversation. There was only one question. Who shot J. R.?
That was ratings gold. Donald Trump knows this:
President Donald Trump on Friday urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to help find the author of the anonymous New York Times op-ed that depicted a “resistance” inside his administration, with staffers trying to thwart an impulsive president.
“I would say Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was because I really believe it’s national security,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to North Dakota, according to a pool report.
The president has fumed publicly about the column since it was published on Wednesday, calling the writer “gutless” and declaring the anonymous essay amounted to “treason.”
The writer may be “gutless” – or sly – but it’s hard to see how saying that the president is a jerk and not fit for office is treason. Trump said that about Obama often enough, but this is ratings gold. This will be the nation’s conversation:
White House officials are actively trying to determine the identity of the “senior administration official” who wrote the piece, who Trump said he believes is probably not someone “very high up.” A number of top Cabinet officials, Vice President Mike Pence and other high-level appointees have all denied being the author.
“It doesn’t seem to be anybody very high up because everybody very high up has already said, ‘It wasn’t me,'” Trump said on Friday. “It would be very hard if it was, if they got caught.”
That sets up the terms of the mystery. Each of Trump’s high-level appointees says it wasn’t him, or her. Trump believes each and every one of them, but one or more of them could be lying. Rand Paul has urged Trump to order lie-detector tests all around. Everyone thinks they know who wrote that thing. There are “inside” stories of backstabbing, of Trump’s people pulling him aside and pointing fingers at those they wanted gone long ago anyway, settling scores. There’s endless speculation of all sorts. Who did this? Who “shot” the big guy? Was it an angry mistress – Stormy Daniels or that McDougal woman?
This is 1980 again – the summer of Dallas. Who shot the nastiest of the ruthless oblivious rich sleaze-balls? Don’t think about that Supreme Court nominee. Don’t think of the new tariffs that just scared the crap out of the markets, again. Don’t think about the Mueller investigation closing in on this president. Don’t think of Russia warning us that they’re planning to wipe out our troops in Syria. Who shot J. R.?
And think about this:
Trump also slammed the Times for publishing the op-ed, calling their decision a “disgrace” and repeating his past claims that America’s libel laws are too weak.
“Our libel laws should be toughened up so that if somebody writes things that are fraudulent and false, they get sued and they lose,” Trump said.
The Times said in a statement that the paper is confident the Justice Department “understands the First Amendment protects all Americans.”
“The president’s threats both underscore why we must safeguard the identity of the writer of this Op-Ed and serve as a reminder of the importance of a free and independent press to American democracy,” the statement said.
Trump loves that kind of talk:
During a speech in South Dakota on Friday night, Trump repeated his claims about the current state of libel laws and urged Republican Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds to do something about it. Thune and Round’s offices did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Hey Mike and John, could you do me a favor? Create some libel laws, that when someone says stuff bad about you, you can sue them and if you’re right you win,” Trump said. “Then, you would see some books that be really like ‘hey, Trump has done a great job.'”
Trump is channeling the late Larry Hagman here, playing the ruthless but rather dimwitted absurdly rich guy, with questionable taste too, but without Hagman’s sly humor about the whole thing, which he saw as a camp joke. Hagman saw the irony.
Trump seems oblivious to irony, but he is who he is:
The top two Republicans in Congress arrived at the White House this week armed with props aimed at flattering and cajoling President Trump out of shutting down the government at the end of this month.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) showed the president glossy photos of a wall under construction along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) brought an article from the Washington Examiner that described Trump as brilliantly handling the current budget process, and portrayed the GOP as unified and breaking through years of dysfunction.
These two seem to have read that anonymous op-ed:
Their message, according to two people briefed on the meeting: The budget process is going smoothly, the wall is already being built, and there’s no need to shut down the government. Instead, they sought to persuade Trump to put off a fight for more border wall money until after the November midterm elections, promising to try then to get him the outcome he wants…
The visual aids were a subtle but deft attempt to win over a president known to prefer visual imagery over wonky typed handouts, and eager to absorb flattery at a time when the White House is enveloped in chaos.
That, however, might not work:
Since March 1, Trump has said he would happily lead the government into a partial shutdown if lawmakers don’t approve the money he wants for the wall.
Earlier this year, Trump grew furious on several mornings when he saw news coverage of a giant spending bill, which was heavily criticized by conservatives for being bloated and stuffed with liberal priorities.
“They are crushing me,” Trump told aides, referring to what conservatives on Fox News were saying about him.
So Marc Short, then the White House director of legislative affairs, brought the president a list of what the spending package did for Trump’s agenda, according to administration officials. Trump calmed down upon learning more about what was in the bill – but told aides that he wanted people to be backing him up on television.
It’s all about the ratings. Stir the pot. Leave them hanging. Anything could happen, as Jeet Heer notes here:
As talks to re-negotiate NAFTA have stalled, the president of the United States escalated his rhetoric against Canada, formerly a nation regarded as America’s closest ally. Speaking in North Dakota, Trump raised the specter of a tax on cars which he said could devastate the Canadian economy.
“Actually, on some countries, including Canada, a tax on cars would be the ruination of the country,” Trump warned. “That’s how big it is. It’d be the ruination of the country. Now, they’ve taken advantage of us for many decades. We can’t let this happen anymore. We have a country to run.”
Will Trump “ruin” Canada? He could destroy that country. He just might. No one could stop him. Stay tuned!
No, don’t stay tuned:
Trump’s threats have not been effective in getting Canada to cave in major points of contention on negotiations, such as the regulation of the dairy industry and protection of cultural autonomy. One reason Canada seems to discount the threats is that they are hard to implement without hurting the United States itself. The intensified trade war that Trump threatens could not occur without disrupting North America’s auto manufacturing supply chain. For that reason, the idea of a tax on Canadian cars is opposed by every major player in the American automotive industry, from carmakers to dealers.
Trump is trying to set up a cliffhanger here, something everyone will talk about all summer long, and nothing else, something that CBS did so well one summer long ago – but that show slyly mocked its cartoonish villains. Larry Hagman played his part tongue-in-check and most of the nation finally got the joke. J R. was kind of a joke.
The nation needs to figure that out again, and Barack Obama will help. Michael Scherer reports that:
Ending months of self-imposed restraint, former president Barack Obama delivered a blistering critique of President Trump and Republican politics Friday, one that prompted a back-handed dismissal by the man who now occupies the Oval Office.
Over the course of an hour-long address, Obama left little doubt about the severity of his concerns over Trump’s approach, which he referred to obliquely as “this political darkness.” He compared Trump to foreign demagogues who exploit “a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment,” appeal to racial nationalism and then plunder their countries while promising to fight corruption.
“This is not normal. These are extraordinary times, and they are dangerous times,” Obama said during the speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But here is the good news: In two months we have the chance – not the certainty, but the chance – to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”
In short, this isn’t some television show from the eighties, about ruthless rich people sticking it to each other. This is no time for nasty quips, but he got one anyway:
Minutes after his predecessor unleashed his strongest repudiation yet, Trump responded jocularly.
“I’m sorry I watched it, but I fell asleep,” he said. “I found he’s very good. Very good for sleeping.”
Trump missed this:
Obama, kicking off weeks of voter turnout efforts, argued that his aim was not to get into a presidential spitting match but to convince voters across the ideological spectrum that the conditions that gave rise to Trump’s election were a pressing threat and must be battled directly with increased citizen participation in politics. “It did not start with Donald Trump,” Obama said. “He is a symptom, not the cause.”
That did not stop him from denouncing actions that Trump has taken that Obama said undermine American progress, from the ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries to the failure to take action beyond sending “thoughts and prayers” after recent school mass shootings. He criticized Trump’s attacks on the media, his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, and his government’s response to the 2017 hurricane in Puerto Rico.
“I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane,” Obama said.
That was no more than saying this is real life, some old television show about roguish sometimes charming rich people, so stop being a cartoon:
He acidly rebuked Trump for his public equivocation about white supremacists involved in a violent confrontation last year in Charlottesville.
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?” Obama asked.
CNN’s Stephen Collinson has more:
Just as Barack Obama was warning that America is in the grip of a politics of fear that undermines norms and political accountability, President Donald Trump was unleashing his latest assault on traditions of governance that underpin the nation’s democracy.
Obama, ditching his self-imposed political exile, warned of a moment of unique national peril, in which demagogic forces – aka Trump – are undermining the structures of democratic government to build their own omnipotence.
“They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their own power,” Obama said in a major speech in Illinois.
“It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t pressure the attorney general or FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents – or to protect members of our own party from prosecution just because an election’s coming up,” he said.
At almost the same moment, aboard Air Force One, the current President told reporters he wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to hunt a senior official within his administration who sent the White House reeling with a devastating anonymous New York Times op-ed that branded him unfit for power.
The contrast was telling:
Obama, serene and intellectual, chose the conventional medium for a politician, a long, reasoned, multi-layered speech, to frame a political problem – the conditions that led to the rise of Trump – and to give Democrats a battle plan to restore America’s ailing democracy.
He bemoaned missing checks and balances in Washington, the indifference of Republicans to Trump’s power grabs, the predominance of bullies, and walls being put up around America, and he diagnosed a “backlash from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change.”
In signature style, he called on young people to vote, to campaign and fight for their democracy, and argued that despite everything there is a unifying American “common ground.”
In fact, there’s no reason to get caught up in this nonsense:
It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents. Or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up. I’m not making that up. That’s not hypothetical.
It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like… It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say we don’t target certain groups of people based on what they look like or how they pray. We are Americans.
We’re supposed to stand up to bullies. Not follow them.
In short, this is not an episode of Dallas:
The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many. That’s what this moment’s about. That has to be the answer.
You cannot sit back and wait for a savior. You can’t opt out because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate. This is not a rock concert. This is not Coachella. We don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hard-working people who are accountable and who have America’s best interests at heart. And they’ll step up and they’ll join our government, and they will make things better if they have support. One election will not fix everything that needs to be fixed. But it will be a start. And you have to start it. What is going to fix our democracy is you…
You’re the antidote. Your participation and your spirit and your determination, not just in this election, but in every subsequent election and in the days between elections. Because in the end, the threat to our democracy doesn’t just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of Republicans in Congress or the Koch brothers and their lobbyists or too much compromise from Democrats or Russian hacking.
The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism.
That was the general idea here, but there’s another way to put that. The biggest threat to our democracy might be our fascination with the ruthless but clueless rich. They’re awful, and they’re so dammed cool. They’re ridiculous and reprehensible, and fascinating. It’s easy enough to dream of one day being one of them and being able to laugh at all notions of common decency and just do stuff – which would be wrong – which would be so cool.
“Dallas” ran from 1978 to 1991 – it didn’t fade that fast. In fact, it never ended. The nation put J. R. Ewing in the White House – the bad-boy who is rich and ruthless and clueless. Trump knows what sells. Obama and the Democrats need a better product. There isn’t one at the moment.