An Imaginary Win

This street is odd. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the last years of his life in Hollywood, in a little apartment just down the street here on North Laurel Avenue, editing others’ screenplays and typing away at “The Last Tycoon” – the novel he never finished. Paris with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and that crowd was long ago. Zelda was locked up in an asylum back east, in the North Carolina mountains. It had all gone wrong, and he was still writing about rich people.

He always did. The last tycoon was a Hollywood producer. The first tycoon was Jay Gatsby, and the narrator of Fitzgerald’s first novel wasn’t too happy with two of those rich people:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Fitzgerald was impressed and disgusted with these people, a love-hate thing, or a disgust-envy thing, and a decade after the Gatsby novel he opened a short story with this:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.

That’s what he wrote about. It was all very American. The rich are cool. The rich are awful. Jay Gatsby was absurdly rich but a good guy, the hero of that tale. Gatsby had dreams and ideals – stupid dreams and stupid ideals – but that was enough to make him oddly admirable. Tom and Daisy smashed up things and let other people clean up the mess they had made. That’s all they had. That wasn’t enough. And that was the late twenties in American culture.

That’s today too:

The 400 richest Americans – the top 0.00025 percent of the population – have tripled their share of the nation’s wealth since the early 1980s, according to a new working paper on wealth inequality by University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman.

Those 400 Americans own more of the country’s riches than the 150 million adults in the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution, who saw their share of the nation’s wealth fall from 5.7 percent in 1987 to 2.1 percent in 2014, according to the World Inequality Database maintained by Zucman and others.

Overall, Zucman finds that “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties.”

Fitzgerald would understand:

That shift is eroding security from families in the lower and middle classes, who rely on their small stores of wealth to finance their retirement and to smooth over economic shocks like the loss of a job. And it’s consolidating power in the hands of the nation’s billionaires, who are increasingly using their riches to purchase political influence.

This is the world of Jay Gatsby again, the world of careless people who smash things and let someone else clean up the mess. It’s the world of people who are soft where everyone else is hard, and cynical where everyone else is trustful. Everyone else has to discover the compensations and refuges of life – because they lose all the time in all sorts of ways. The rich are wholly unacquainted with losing, ever. Their wealth has insulated them from loss. There’s no pain. There is no loss.

Donald Trump knows this. There was always a way out of each of his four bankruptcies – his father’s money, or the Saudi’s money, or someone’s. The rich cover for each other. And they don’t lose, really.

That presents Donald Trump with an interesting problem. He just lost. He would not sign any legislation to keep the government open unless he got at least five billion dollars to start building his wall. He held out for thirty-five days. Millions got clobbered – they weren’t rich and they needed the work – but Trump is one of those careless people. Others could clean that up. He wanted his wall. And he didn’t get it. He didn’t get anything. He always wins. He says so. He always says so. But he faced a House controlled by the Democrats, finally, and he faced Nancy Pelosi, who knows how things work. And he faced two-thirds of the nation thinking that he was even more of a total jerk than they already suspected. The man who always won lost this one.

Now the issue is coping with loss, and the New York Times’ Peter Baker and Glenn Thrush cover how Trump is coping:

President Trump appeared poised on Tuesday to end two months of scorched-earth confrontation without the money he demanded for a border wall as Republicans pressured him to accept a bipartisan spending deal rather than close the government again on Friday.

Mr. Trump pronounced himself unsatisfied with the agreement brokered by House and Senate negotiators, and he refused to publicly commit to signing it. But he all but ruled out another government shutdown and emphasized that he would find “other methods” to finance a border barrier, leading aides and allies to predict he would grudgingly go along with the deal.

“Am I happy at first glance?” the president said, speaking with reporters at the beginning of a cabinet meeting. “I just got to see it. The answer is no, I’m not. I’m not happy.”

But he’ll probably sign the damned thing, not that it matters, because he can still win:

He said he was “moving things around” in the budget from “far less important areas” to finance a wall even without explicit congressional approval, and he expressed no desire to repeat the standoff that shuttered many federal agencies for 35 days. “I don’t think you’re going to see a shutdown,” he said.

Hours later, after a further briefing, Mr. Trump seemed to signal acceptance of the agreement, saying that it “will be hooked up with lots of money from other sources” and provide plenty of resources for border security even if not for the wall itself. “Regardless of Wall money,” he wrote on Twitter on Tuesday evening, “it is being built as we speak!”

He was reframing everything. He didn’t need Congress to appropriate any money at all because he’ll get the money from other government programs and operations. He could should down a military base or use all the FEMA money – every cent of it – or something. Congress could sue, and they’d surely win – Congress gets to say how and where and when government funds are spent – but “the people” would love him for being bold.

That seems unlikely and there was that embarrassing hole:

The compromise measure, assembled by senior members of both parties on Monday night, includes just $1.375 billion for new fencing along the border with Mexico, far short of the $5.7 billion Mr. Trump sought for a steel or concrete wall – and less even than the deal that he rejected in December, prompting the longest government shutdown in American history.

That must anger him, and then there was the betrayal:

While some conservatives denounced it as a sellout, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, spoke with Mr. Trump by telephone on Tuesday and urged him to accept the compromise. “I hope he’ll sign it,” Mr. McConnell told reporters afterward. “I think he got a pretty good deal.”

Mr. McConnell had initially sought to avoid the confrontation that has consumed the nation’s capital by pressing Mr. Trump to accept the previous measure in December, only to be surprised when the president changed his mind.

McConnell knows better now:

Mr. McConnell made clear that he was ready to put the new spending package to a vote even though the president had not endorsed it and, notably, did not rule out overriding a veto if Mr. Trump turned against the compromise as he did two months ago.

And maybe this could be a win after all:

In an attempt to appease Mr. Trump, Republicans repeatedly referred to the deal as a “big down payment” on his wall and indicated that they were open to him transferring funds within the government to build more barriers. Mr. McConnell said he had no objection to the president using whatever “tools” were available. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee suggested using $800 million in drug interdiction funding to shore up border security in areas used by narcotic traffickers.

That’s desperation, and the only issue that remained was how the rich guy who never loses was going to react:

Current and former administration officials said on Tuesday that Mr. Trump seemed to be preparing to sign the bill and then reprogram as much money as he can on his own, although they cautioned that the president is unpredictable and his decision would depend on details still to be examined.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who joined Mr. Trump on Monday at a rally in El Paso, told attendees at a Senate Republican lunch on Tuesday that his conversations with the president left him with the impression that Mr. Trump was preparing to “pivot” to a “yes” on the deal, according to a person in the room.

Even Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who denounced the deal on Monday night as a “garbage compromise” that Republicans would have to answer for, said on Tuesday that he expected Mr. Trump to sign it to keep the government open and get his down payment. “He’s telegraphing what he’s going to do,” Mr. Hannity said on his radio program.

They think they know what will happen, but there was that other voice:

Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator whose criticism helped push Mr. Trump into taking a tougher stand in December, agreed but castigated the president for it. “Trump talks a good game on the border wall but it’s increasingly clear he’s afraid to fight for it,” she wrote on Twitter. “Call this his ‘Yellow New Deal.'”

She said he was yellow. She called him a coward. That could get him to change his mind, but the alternative is to reframe everything:

Mr. Trump told reporters that he was still thinking about declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress and finance wall construction on his own authority, but aides increasingly doubt he will, given opposition by Mr. McConnell and other Republicans.

Instead, Mr. Trump seemed to be trying to frame the outcome on his own terms by insisting he would still be able to protect the border. “Right now, we’re building a lot of wall,” he said.

No, not quite:

In fact, no new walls have been built or financed by Congress based on the prototypes that the Trump administration unveiled in October 2017. Projects to replace or repair about 40 miles of existing barriers have been started or completed since 2017.

Construction of the first extension of the current barriers, 14 miles of a levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley, is scheduled to begin this month, but a butterfly center has asked a judge to block construction because the barrier would bisect its property.

He was talking nonsense, and speaking of the compromise bill there was this:

“Am I happy at first glance? The answer is no, I’m not, I’m not happy,” Trump told reporters around midday at the White House, as he met with Cabinet members.

“It’s not going to do the trick, but I’m adding things to it, and when you add whatever I have to add, it’s all going to happen where we’re going to build a beautiful, big, strong wall,” Trump said.

Donald Trump has no experience in government, so he was saying, here, that he gets to mark-up the bill – to add whatever he wants and to delete whatever he wants – to rewrite every word of the whole thing – and then sign it into law. Isn’t that how things are done?

Someone needs to talk to him about the real world, as Greg Sargent notes here:

At President Trump’s big rally in El Paso on Monday night, you could see signs everywhere that proclaimed: “Finish the wall.”

That’s some amusingly dishonest sleight of hand – it’s meant to create the impression that the wall is already being built, which is a lie Trump tells regularly. Thus, it substitutes an imaginary Trump win for a real one, since apparently support for Trump among his voters on such an important symbolic matter is too delicate to withstand the unbearable prospect of him losing without withering or shattering.

Now that negotiators have reached an agreement in principle for six months of spending on the border, however, it’s once again clear that Trump’s win on the wall will remain firmly in the category of the imaginary.

The compromise proposal assures that:

It includes only $1.375 billion for new bollard fencing in targeted areas. That’s nothing like Trump’s wall – it’s limited to the kind of fencing that has already been built for years – and it’s substantially short of the $5.7 billion Trump wants. It’s nothing remotely close to the wall that haunts the imagination of the president and his rally crowds. The $1.375 billion is slightly less than what Democrats had previously offered him. It can’t even be credibly sold as a down payment on the wall.

It is, in fact, a loss, so the rich man who never losses, who cannot lose, given his circumstances, has lost:

Trump and Republicans suffered an electoral wipeout in an election that Trump turned into a referendum on his xenophobic nativist nationalism. He then used a shutdown to try to force the new Democratic House to accept both his wall and radical legal changes that would have made our immigration system far more inhumane. He isn’t getting his wall or those changes, and it looks as though a lot of humanitarian money will be channeled to the border to address the actual crisis there.

In other words, the fake crisis that Trump invented – and with it, his broader immigration vision – is getting repudiated. The only question is whether Trump will agree to the surrender Republicans are trying to negotiate for him.

No. The only question is whether Trump can even imagine that he has actually lost. Tom and Daisy smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made – and Donald Trump is one of those careless people too. He’ll simply imagine he’s winning. The rich are different. They’re dangerous.

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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