The Penultimate Day of a Dreary Eight Years

Today is President Barack Obama’s last full day in office, and it’s been a long wait. We were loudly grousing about the man back when he was first elected on a waft of hope that he was some sort of messiah, we groused again when he ran re-election on the argument that his opponent was some sort of devil, we’ve been grousing ever since, and we feel obliged to grouse once again as he leaves office with unaccountably high approval ratings.
Obama’s more die-hard admirers have already unleashed newspaper serials and hour-long video tributes and full-length hardcover books explaining how great he was, almost as great as promised back in the days when he was talking about how sea levels would fall and the national debt would decline and all that unpleasantness with Islam and the rest of the world would surely be worked out, but the case is hard to make at the moment when Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated as president.
All the testimonials point out how very bad the economy was when Obama took office, and how not -so-bad it is upon his departure, but we’ve paid enough attention that we’re not impressed. The economy was indeed in a deep recession starting some four or five months before Obama was inaugurated, but recessions always end and this was officially over before Obama could get his literally more-than-a-trillion-dollar “stimulus package” passed, and despite all the spending that had been added on top of the literally-more-than-a-trillion dollar Troubled Asset Relief Program that Obama and pretty much everyone else from both parties voted for the recovery has been the weakest on post-war record, and although the headline unemployment rate looks pretty good the broader measure that includes part-timers and the unemployed and those out of the workforce and is buried deep in story hasn’t fully yet fully recovered. Massive new regulations for the financial industry and a major government power grab of the health care sector almost certainly had something to do with the sluggishness, and what growth did occur can largely be attributed to an oil boom that Obama tried to thwart. There was also a stock market boom, but that was because the Federal Reserve kept pumping money that had nowhere to go but the stock market, where it naturally wound up exacerbating all that economic inequality that Obama had vowed to end with his tax hikes, and although he has Bill Clinton’s luck that the bubble won’t burst until the next administration we’re not counting it as a major accomplishment.
Accomplishments are even harder to find in Obama’s foreign policy, although that doesn’t stop his admirers from trying. No one dares say that Obama’s Libyan adventure or that “red line” he in drew in the Syrian sand have worked out at all, and his past “reset” appeasement of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is suddenly unfashionable in liberal circles, but they do try to cast the deal with Iran where we give them billions of dollars and they sort of pretend not to be building a nuclear bomb as a breakthrough victory. The decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq helped win Obama re-election, and after four years it gets occasional mention, although even his most ardent admirers must admit there have been unhappy consequences. Obama’s efforts on behalf of the European Union and Israel’s more liberal political parties and Latin America’s more Marxist types have not proved fruitful, China and Russia and Iran and all the usual troublemakers are more troublesome than they were eight years, and we can’t think of any of international relationships that have been improved. His most ardent admirers point to his good intentions, which we’ll conceded for the sake of argument, but the only thing that good intentions wins is a Nobel Peace Prize.
All the promises of a post-racial and post-partisan and altogether more tolerant society have also proved hollow. The past eight years of attempts to impose racial quotas on law enforcement and school discipline have made life more dangerous for many black Americans and understandably annoyed a lot of the white ones, Obama’s declared belief that politics is a knife fight and the Democrats should bring a gun and the Republicans can come along for the ride so long as they sit in the back of the bus because “I won” has heightened partisan acrimony, and although we’ve got the same sex marriages that Obama claimed to oppose in both of his runs he’s fueling the intolerance for anyone who doesn’t want to bake a cake for the ceremonies.
Although it’s good to at long last see it all come to an end after today, we expect the effects to linger for a while. The next president has already promised a more-than-a-trillion-dollars stimulus package, plenty more market interventions, health insurance for everybody that’s going to be cheaper and better than what was promised in Obamacare, and no messing around with those Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid entitlements that are the main drivers of the national debt. So far Trump’s Russian policies make Obama’s seem downright Truman-esque, and our erstwhile allies in Europe are as alarmed as ourselves, and although Trump also seems a friend of Israel we have no idea what he has in mind for the rest of the Middle East. As far as that hyper-partisan atmosphere of guns and knives and relegating enemies to the back of the bus and the might of an electoral victory making right, we see little improvement ahead.
We’ve already been grousing about Trump for more than a year now, and expect to do so for another four years or more, but we’ll always attribute some share of the blame to Obama. Those who cheered on Obama’s racialist and partisan and intolerant rhetoric should have known what they were bound to provoke, and those who cheered on the executive actions and bureaucratic harassment of political enemies are about to find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and despite all promises about making America great again none of us are likely to find out it works out any better than the Obama administration’s blather about hope and change.

— Bud Norman

Begging His or Her Pardon

One of President Barack Obama’s final official acts was commuting the sentence of the former Army Private Bradley Manning, who was convicted of providing classified information to Wikileaks and is now known as prisoner Chelsea Manning, and it seems an appropriately complicated story to end one presidency and begin another.
Having harbored a slight fear that Obama would let his freak flag fly and go full-blown leftist crazy with his final pardons and commutations to unleash an army of angry convicts into the coming street wars, we’ve been somewhat relieved by his relative restraint. Some rather unsavory offenders have somehow been granted his mercy, but not in any numbers that are remarkable even by the standards of past Republican administrations, and we can easily see why Manning would be irresistibly sympathetic to someone of Obama’s liberal instincts. Obama has been even more aggressive in plugging leaks than Nixon and his infamous “plumbers,” but what Manning leaked was considered embarrassing to the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush, and since then he’s become a she, which is quite the fashion these days, and there’s an opportunistically recurring enthusiasm among for liberals for bold truth tellers.
There’s always an opportunistically recurring enthusiasm among conservatives for guarding state secrets by force of law, too, and all the Republicans were in one of those moods back when Manning caught, convicted, and sent off to prison. We cheered on the process along with the rest, and wondered aloud why a mere private with such obvious mental health issues had access to such sensitive information in the first place, and nothing that has since transpired has changed our minds about it. Even Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan refers to Manning as Chelsea when denouncing the pardon, and although we have our quibbles about we are adamant that has nothing to do with Manning’s culpability, and we hope it has nothing to do with his commutation. We are still steadfastly against the illegal public dissemination of classified information, except perhaps in one of those far-fetched dystopian nightmare scenarios that have occasionally occurred in some places from time to time, and hopefully will be able to remain so during the next administration.
The next administration seems to have a more opportunistic opposition to such leaks, though, along with most of its many supporters. By now even president-elect Donald Trump admits that he thinks the Russians probably hacked all those WikiLeak-ed Democratic e-mails that he gleefully admitted gleefully pointed to during the past campaign, at one point telling one of his raucous rallies “Boy, do I love Wikileaks,” and we also his recall his jocular remarks about how great it would be if the Russians or the that possible 400 pound fat guy in New Jersey would also hack the e-mails his Democratic rival sent while Secretary of State, and there is by now a widespread agreement on the right and in the Republican party that some hacking and leaking and violation of the law is acceptable so long as it embarrasses the left and the Democratic party. This double standard always offended us when it came from the left, as it so often did and still does during the latest controversies, and we find it no less offensive when coming from the right.
All those leaks will no doubt go unplugged for at least another four years, and we’ll continue to call for locking the leakers up and eagerly poring through whatever they leaked, and keep an eye out, as always, for that dystopian nightmare scenario that might justify it all. At this point Bradley or Chelsea Manning or whatever you want to call him or her has done all the damage that he or she is likely do, so we’ll not make any big deal out of his her or commutation and wish him or her the very best for the rest of his or her life, but we’ll be holding the next administration to the same grumpy standards as the past one.

— Bud Norman

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Overselling Obamacare and Trumpcare

From our birth up until the Indiana primary of last year or so we were as steadfastly Republican a soul as you’re likely to find even here in deep-red Kansas, so of course we’ve been anxiously awaiting the repeal of Obamacare for coming up on eight long years now, but president-elect Donald Trump’s latest statements to The Washington Post on the subject are not reassuring. He’s long promised repeal, and by now we don’t doubt him a bit about that, but he’s also promising a replacement that would provide “lower numbers, much lower deductibles” and “insurance for everybody.” Which sounds great, especially when he insists we believe him, because that he can tell us, OK?, but we can’t help suspecting it sounds a bit too great.
Being street-savvy and wised-up sorts of erstwhile Republicans we were never fooled by President Barack Obama’s assurances that his eponymous Obamacare would save the average American family $2,500 a year and insure everybody and not add a single dime to the national debt, or any of that blather about how if you like your plan you can keep your plan and if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor, and along with every last Republican Senator and Representative in Congress, even the ones from those wimpy northeastern states and districts, we were against it all along. It sounded so convincing, what with those well-crafted phrases delivered in that smooth baritone voice, but the numbers never did add up. Given all the same ongoing laws of probability and supply and demand and the rest of darned reality, we’re doubtful that Trump will be any more able to deliver on a promise of both lower deductibles and universal coverage. Liberals more honest than Obama have always acknowledged that universal coverage will entail greater universal costs, more honest conservatives than Trump have always countered that leaving free people to pursue their self-interests will results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people even if there are some costs entailed, but the more demagogic types on both ends of the spectrum will always promise that no such hard choices need be made.
Feel free to disagree, as there are arguments aplenty to be made, but our prairie Republican instincts incline us to side with free people pursuing their own self-interests and the government having as little to do with it as possible. We don’t want people dying in the street, and are quite willing to limp along with a health care system that pays for indigent emergency care through whatever convoluted and no doubt costly means the pre- and post-Obamacare systems provided, bit if you’re claiming to have come up with something so ingenious that it can simultaneously cover everyone and lower everyone’s costs we’re going to be skeptical no matter what party you’re claiming to represent.
As usual with Trump’s triumphant claims, there was a follow-up interview with a more well-spoken spokesman who reassured all us conservatives, as the term was formerly defined, that Trump was actually talking about such free-market reforms as eliminating interstate competition in the insurance market. That does seem a good idea to us, as do some other of those free-market reforms he mentioned, but even that more well-spoken spokesman didn’t attempt to explain how they’d wind up with both lower deductibles and universal coverage. Presumably he meant to imply that such free-market reforms would lower health insurance premiums and other costs to point there was “universal access,” which is what the the Republicans have always called their best effort at the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but we wish he’d just gone with that persuasively honest term, which at least won’t wind up seeming so ridiculous as all that nonsense about Obamacare’s big savings and debt-neutrality and keeping your plan and doctor.
Hating Obamacare is such a longstanding habit by now that almost any other national health care policy will seem a welcome relief, however, and we’ll hold out hope that the mostly pre-Trumpian Republicans in Congress will continue hating it for the some doctrinaire reasons and be suspicious of any newly peddled snake oil claims about everything working out well for everyone.

— Bud Norman

The Gathering Storm, or Not

The devastating ice storm that was forecast for the weekend around here never materialized, just some much needed rain and slightly-above-freezing temperatures in a dreary gray mix, so maybe Inauguration Day won’t go so badly as predicted.
President-elect Donald Trump’s most fervent fans are fretting about everything from widespread rioting to an outright coup, and his most caustic critics are egging it on. Worried talk of a coup has accompanied every transfer of presidential power we can remember regardless of which party was departing the office, and seems as far-fetched as ever, but this time around the part about widespread rioting seems well within the realm of possibility. At the very least we anticipate a whole lot of mostly peaceable protestors and plenty acts of civil disobedience and much unpleasantness, and by now neither Trump’s most fervent fans nor his most caustic critics have much faith in the ability of the federal authorities to keep things under control.
The whole shindig will presumably be under the watchful eyes of all those intelligence agencies that the Trump critics used to hate but have lately started to adore since Trump and his fans started bad-mouthing them for leaking unverified by attention-grabbing allegations and such, but those intelligence agencies don’t seem to like Trump any more than he likes them, and there are conspiracy theories galore to be made of it by Trump’s fans and critics alike. Surely the District of Columbia’s police force will also be out in force, but neither Trump’s anti-cop critics nor his anti-D.C. fans will be reassured by that. Some 2,700 members of the District of Columbia’s National Guard and another 5,000 unarmed guardsman brought in from the around the country will also be on the job through the day and night, but their commanding general, who also oversees the military’s air support, will be off the job the moment Trump completes his oath of office.
There are conspiracy theories galore just in that detail, as out-going President Barack Obama had refused to accept the resignation of the general, who had originally been appointed to the post by previous President George W. Bush and by all accounts done a fine job through by administrations, but the in-coming president had decided to accept the resignation as his first official act, which was either a petty gesture by Obama or a rash decision by Trump depending on who you’re rooting for. From our perspective on the sidelines both seem well within the realm of possibility, but in any case it’s at least momentarily unclear on who will be commanding those troops when Trump lifts his hand of the Bible and whether that person is fully apprised of the situation.
Trump reportedly retains a sizable personal security detail, which his critics in the Secret Service are reportedly criticizing, but they won’t be of much use to anyone in a “Make America Great Again” ball cap who wanders into a crowd of especially agitated protesters, and of no use at all to anyone wearing the wrong t-shirt who wanders into some of the more revved-up revelers. The Bikers For Trump will be there, too, and we trust that they’re better behaved than the bikers The Rolling Stones hired for as event security for that ill-fated Altamont show. Plenty of good people on both sides will also presumably be present, and we hope that they’ll do what they can and we wish them all well.
We’ve been through enough storms and inaugurations to have noticed that the Republic has weathered them all, and expect that it will again. This past election year has been particularly crazy, and some storms are worse than others, but one can always hope for the best.

— Bud Norman

Taking In-Coming From the Out-Going

In the long stretch between Election Day and Inauguration Day the Obama years have overlapped with the Trump years, and of course that is not going well. Two such oversized egos as President Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump, both with such undersized regard for the longstanding norms of the American republic, were never going to amicably share such a drawn-out moment in our recently rancorous history.
The pair had a somewhat promising photo-opportunity together when they met in the White House just after the election, although most of the shots showed them both looking a clearly stunned and unsettled by the results, and they both described the long conversation as cordial and said all the reassuring things that outgoing and incoming presidents always say. Since then, however, things have predictably deteriorated. Obama gave a widely publicized interview with an old friend in which he speculated that he could have a won a third if only the Constitution had allowed, which is the kind of thing that two-term presidents have traditionally said only in chats with old friends that aren’t so widely publicized, and Trump responded with a petulant “tweet” saying “I SAY NO WAY!,” which is entirely unprecedented in presidential history.
Obama was then at Pearl Harbor for a somber World War II memorial ceremony with the Japanese Prime Minister, where his speech included that “It is here we remember that even when hatred burns the hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is the most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward; we must we much resist the urge to demonize others,” which can arguably be interpreted as a criticism of the incoming president, which is indeed a departure from tradition for out-going presidents. Trump certainly seemed to take those arguably anodyne phrases personally, as he quickly “tweeted” in response that “Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks. Thought it was going to be a smooth transition — NOT!,” which is also well outside the usual norms of presidential rhetoric.
So far both sides are claiming all the re-hiring and re-painting and re-assignments of parking spaces that go with any old presidential transition are nonetheless proceeding smoothly, along with the gold-plating of the toilets and the skimpier uniforms for the household staff and whatever else is required for this particular presidential transition, but the rift has already had consequences more significant than hurt feelings. Obama has unleashed such a last-month torrent of regulations that Trump will be hard-pressed and much-hassled to un-do them all, and Trump is already talking deals with the long line of companies that have threatened to move jobs out of the United States. One can only imagine what sorts of presidential pardons will be issued between now and the still-distant Inauguration Day by the out-going president, and what the president-elect will have to “tweet” about it, but one of the in-coming president’s most trusted advisors is already advising an entirely unprecedented and vastly more pervasive use of the president’s pardon powers. Obama has ordered retaliation for Russia’s internet hackings and other meddling in the election, which the Central Intelligence Agency and other officials confirm, but Trump continues to deny it ever happens and told the press that “I think we should get on with our lives” in any case.
The two are also clashing over the very serious matters of Israel’s security and the rest of that thorny Middle Eastern situation. After nearly eight years of diplomatic and rhetorical slights against Israel, and a long effort to negotiate a very accommodating deal with with the Iranian apocalyptic suicide cult that has vowed to build nuclear missiles to wipe out the Jewish state, Obama has concluded his time in office by allowing the United Nations to pass a resolution condemning the building of housing for Jewish Israelis in some disputed territories. The disputes regarding those territories are complicated, and to be fair Obama has also added $34 billion worth of state-of-the-art American weaponry to Israel’s arsenal during his administration, but there’s a lengthy case to be made that Obama’s legacy is a disgraceful backstabbing of our only modern and democratic and mostly sane friend in one of the world’s worst but most unavoidable neighborhoods.
Trump tried to fit his argument against the move into a “tweet,” and came up with “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” Although poorly punctuated and otherwise quite unprecedented in the history of presidential rhetoric, we’ll concede it does contain a certain kernel of truth. There is a lengthy case to be against the United Nations in general and its treatment of Israel in particular, and we’ve made it at length here over the years, but when you try to boil it compress it into 140 characters concluding with “So sad!” you wind up calling into question every international agreement that the United States has ever negotiated through the United Nations, which is not something an in-coming president should be doing. The past many millennia of human history show that successful diplomacy requires a certain precision of language, and that punctuation is also important, and the sooner the president-elect realizes this the better.
Neither man has proved himself worthy of the high office they momentarily seem to share, and their clash of oversized egos has been a tawdry spectacle. We’re supposed to take sides, so we’ll stick with the old norms of the American republic.

— Bud Norman

Handicapping the Hypothetical

There’s always a lull in the news between Christmas and New Year’s Day, even in such a crazy election year as this, so the papers have fill to space with what might have been. President Barack Obama helped out on Monday by confidently speculating, in a widely quoted interview, that he would have won a third term if he’d run for re-re-election. The 22nd amendment to the Constitution prevented it, so he didn’t, but it nonetheless makes for interesting speculation on a slow news day. Donald Trump, who did wind up winning the race, of course helped out further by responding with one of his typically eloquent “Tweets”: “President Obama says that he thinks he would have won against me. He should say that but I say NO WAY! — jobs leaving, ISIS, OCare, etc.”
Although we’re loathe to say any such thing about either of these loathsome men, we think that both can make a plausible case for their boasts.
Obama’s approval ratings are inexplicably high at the moment, despite his party’s loss, and far higher than Trump’s, despite the honeymoon bump a president-elect always gets in the fresh aftermath of a victory. Many of the economic numbers are also better than last time around when Obama beat a Republican who didn’t go out of his way to offend women and minorities, and the awfulness of his foreign policy was just as apparent back then. Trump did wind up losing the popular vote by a whopping 2.8 million to a charmless old white woman with 30 years of scandals the press could not ignore, so it’s not hard to believe that Obama could have used his teflon-coated charm and undeniable political savvy to muster just enough young folks and black people in those three rust-belt states he won twice but where Trump’s razor-thin pluralities swung the electoral vote.
On the other hand, we suspect that Obama’s approval ratings can be explained by the fact that he’s mostly been out of the news lately, what with Trump’s illiterate “tweets” and other embarrassing antics taking up all the space. Given all the vastly more qualified candidates he thrashed on his way to that electoral victory, it seems quite plausible Trump could have dragged Obama down to the same unfavorable muck. Trump and all the rest of the Republican party ran on various platforms that were mostly defined by their opposition to the past eight years of Obama, and most of them did pretty well with it, so we can see how even Obama himself might have faced difficulties. At this point it’s hard to put much in the faith in the polls, too, and some of those seemingly rosy economic numbers are also fishy to a whole lot of people.
So there’s no telling how that hypothetical Obama versus Trump cage match might have turned out, and whose head would have been shaved at the end, but as long as we’re speculating about what might have been we will wistfully wonder how it might have been decided on the merits.
The headline employment rate is in undeniably better shape than when Obama took office just as one of the worst recessions ever was beginning a recovery, but the rebound has been historically weak and the less-mentioned U-6 rate of unemployment that includes the under-employed and part-timers and those who have given up on finding work still hasn’t fully recovered. Obama’s massive “stimulus package” of budget-busting infrastructure spending and other market interventions clearly didn’t do any good, but the combination of Trump’s promised tax cuts and even bigger infrastructure spending and meddlesome decisions about the hiring policies at Indiana furnace factories don’t appear any more promising over the long run. The stock market is still sky-high, but that has more to do with the Federal Reserve Board than either Obama or Trump, and we’ll have to wait to see how that might turn out. That Obamacare law is so horrible it should have run its eponym out office eight years when he was running against that Republican who didn’t go out of his way to offend women and minorities, but Trump said too many things about universal coverage and pre-existing conditions and how great things are in Scotland to make us confident things will get better.
The Islamic State turned out to be far worse than the jayvee team that Obama thought it was, and his ridicule of his final Republican opponent’s warnings about Russia looks ridiculous to the Ukrainians and every other country threatened by the rapidly re-organizing Soviet Union, and his deal with Iran seems destined to provide that apocalyptic suicide cult with a nuclear bomb. On the other hand Trump is promising to join forces with Russia to defeat the Islamic State while re-negotiating with the Russian’s good friends in Iran, meanwhile “tweeting” up a renewed arms race with the Russians, and he’s also “tweeted” his disdain for whatever the Central Intelligence Agency or the United Nations or Boeing or Lockheed have to say about it, so there’s no telling how that will end up.
In any case the Obama years are about to come to a decisive end, which will surely bring some good, and the Trump years are about to commence, which might not be all bad, and the both of them are apparently the boastful and thin-skinned sorts we would never trust with such a high office. Once you start to speculating the possibilities are infinite, but in all of them we find ourselves for voting that same quixotic third-party write-in candidate who never had a chance.

— Bud Norman

The Death of a Dictator, and Perhaps His Dictatorship

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at long last died on Friday, and this time it seems to be for good. His death had been rumored and even reported numerous times over the years, but the Cuban government has now acknowledged the fact, and it’s now safe to raise a toast with a Cuba Libre.
Castro seized power in Cuba on New Year’s Day in the year of our birth, then almost immediately started the mass executions and police state tactics that turned his lovely island nation into a hellish gulag, and has been a persistent problem to us and the rest of the world ever since. Our first inkling of how very scary the world can be came when he nearly provoked a cataclysmic global war by inviting the Soviet Union to plant nuclear missiles in his country, and he helped continue that constant threat through a long Cold War by sending soldiers and saboteurs to foment communist revolutions throughout South America and Africa. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union he continued to impose a dictatorship on his country, and to exert an insidious influence on politics everywhere.
Of course he had his apologists and admirers on the left here, who long agitated for normalizing diplomatic and economics relations with Cuba and eventually elected a president who would pursue that course. They touted the high literacy rates and universal access to excellent health care supposedly found in Cuba, cheered the same anti-democratic “peoples movements” that Castro supported around the world, and made the usual excuses for the murderous brutality and totalitarian suppression of fundamental human rights that came along with it. We’ve long been skeptical about those literacy rates and pristine hospitals, and been convinced by better proof about the nastiness of Castro’s regime. Over the years we kept reading about Cubans tying inner tubes together or turning bicycles and styrofoam boxes into paddle-driven boats to try to get the 90 miles or so from Cuba to the United States, although we can’t ever reading about anyone taking such extreme measures to get Cuba, and we’ve known enough of the fine people who somehow escaped to productive lives in America to believe their corroborating stories.
Over our years of newspaper reading presidents and prime ministers and popes and pop stars have come and gone, but the Castro name has kept popping up. Fidel’s brother Raul still clings to dictatorial power in Cuba, so we suppose we’ll keep seeing it for a while, but there’s always a chance that cult of personality that has largely propped up the dictatorship will pass along with the personality. There’s a new president in the United States, too, and he’s talking admirably tough about how very bad Castro had been, but he was also talking deals back in the campaign days, so perhaps that’s just a negotiating tactic to get himself and Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth a good casino deal.
We’ll hope for the best. Cuba has a glorious musical and culinary and literary and religious tradition that speaks to something profoundly joyful at the heart of its culture, but it also has an almost unbroken history of bad government. At the moment America hardly seems in any condition to instruct them on the matter of good government, and the Cuban people are going to have to assert the best of themselves if their condition is to improve, but at least the task should be easier without Fidel Castro around.

— Bud Norman

Pizzagate and the Rest of the Post-Reality Show

The real news always takes time off for the holidays, so after a hearty Thanksgiving feast we took the opportunity to catch up on the latest conspiracy theories. At the moment the hot topic is “Pizzagate,” which by now involves not only Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama and other political power brokers but also such entertainment celebrities as Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, and perhaps even president-elect Donald Trump.
For those of you new to the scandal, the plot thus far is hard to explain. It all began with those e-mails that were hacked from Clinton crony John Podesta’s computer and released to the public through Wikileaks during the late stages of the recent presidential election. The mainstream sorts of presses reported with various degrees of enthusiasm on the infighting and conniving and other campaign hijinks that were revealed by the purloined missives, all of which was quite bad enough to deal another blow to Clinton’s already scandal-ridden candidacy, but meanwhile the more suspicious denizens of the internet were noticing the mention of a fashionably weird modern artist, along with frequent references to pizza and hot dogs and ping pong, and thus concluded that all the top Democrats were ritualistically raping and murdering kidnapped young children in the back room of a trendy District of Columbia pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.
This may seem something of a leap of bad faith, but there are dozens of YouTube videos and internet postings out there to connect these seemingly unconnected dots. The fashionably weird artist is Marina Abramovic, who is little known to the general public but has won such reportedly prestigious art prizes as the Golden Lion at Venice with a performance art piece where she stares at random passersby as well as some rather crudely rendered and unmistakably morbid paintings, and one of the hacked e-mail has Podesta writing about his plans to attend of one of her “Spirit Cookings,” which the artist insists are just arty dinner parties but have elsewhere been rumored to be Luciferian rituals, so of course some concluded that the entire Clinton campaign was involved in a satanic conspiracy. Both the Clinton campaign and Obama had also held events at that trendy Comet Ping Pong pizzeria, too, and the e-mails had those frequent references to pizza and ping pong, so of course one would conclude that’s where all those satanic Democrats are ritualistically raping and murdering those kidnapped children.
As it turns out, “pizza” is apparently a code word in pedophile circles for sex with young girls, while “hot dog,” which is also mentioned in those Wikileaked e-mails, is code for sex with young boys, and “ping pong” also has some nefarious sexual connotation or another. We’re told that pedophiles also use a symbol with two intertwined hearts that vaguely resembles the crossed-ping-pong-paddles symbol that appears on the Comet Ping Pong menu, which also features the slogan “Play, Eat, Drink,” the capital letters of which spells “Ped,” as in pedophile, and what more proof does one need that Clinton and Obama and the rest of the cabal are raping and murdering children in the joint’s back room? Throw in the fact that the pizzeria’s owner is a professed homosexual who once had a relationship with David Brock, who was once part of the “vast right wing” conspiracy that tried to bring the Clinton family down way back in the Whitewater days but has long since been running pro-Clinton organizations such as MediaMatters, and that GQ magazine once flattered the owner as an influential Washingtonian, and that his name sounds vaguely like the French for “I love children,” along with some admittedly strange photographs of children on his social media sites, as well as some others than are more easily explained, and it’s no wonder that he and his chefs and waiters and busboys and an allegedly Jewish punk rock band that once played there have lately been receiving death threats from all sorts of places.
Since this shocking story first broke some astute internet sleuths have also noticed that former wholesome Disney star and current tongue-wagging and breast-baring pop provocateur Miley Cyrus has frequently employed pizza imagery in her “tweets” and “instragrams” and other public pronouncements, so she’s obviously in on it as well. The immensely yet unaccountably popular rapper and announced 2020 presidential candidate Kanye West recently had a nervous breakdown in front of a huge audience, which included a widely replayed-on-video rant about why he would have voted for Trump if he had bothered to vote, and none of the video seems to include the part where some people on the internet swear he also talked about all that raping and murdering going on at Comet Ping Pong, so that missing footage and the fact that West is now under psychiatric care just goes to show how very far-reaching the conspiracy has become. By the time this plays out any number of celebrities are likely to be implicated, perhaps even that seemingly-nice Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, because after all he’s from Canada, where they make Canadian bacon, which is often used on pizza and surely has some sinister meaning known only to the innermost circles of the pedophile ring.
As crazy as it all sounds, it’s to be expected in such a crazy election year as this. By now we’ve reached such a point of political polarization that far too many Americans are not only willing but eager to believe the very worst you might allege about their political opponents, they not only disbelieve the more mainstream media but take the official disbelief about such matters as “pizzagate” as proof that they’re in on it as well, and both modern art and modern politics have reached such a sorry state that almost anything does seem plausible. The president-elect has peddled the conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya, that President George W. Bush lied the country into a war with Iraq, intimated that a Republican primary rival’s father was involved in the assassination of President John Kennedy, heaped praise on the crazy-pants conspiracy-theorist InfoWars site, and predicted that a system “rigged” by unnamed bankers and globalists would deprive him of the presidency.
Such conspiracy-mongering helped Trump prevail in the election, but it’s not likely to help the former reality show star as he tries to cope with actual reality. Those unnamed bankers and globalists proved not quite powerful enough to deprive a boorish and oft-bankrupt casino-and-strip-club mogul of the presidency, he’s apparently mended fences with that Republican rival whose dad helped to kill Kennedy, is currently gushing over all the generals who helped Bush lie America into war in Iraq, he’s proudly put to rest all that nonsense he peddled about Obama being born in Kenya, and he’s now saying nice things about Clinton and promising to break his previous promise to have her locked up. He hasn’t yet been implicated in Pizzagate, although he probably has been photographed at some point eating pizza, but his recent reluctance to have Clinton locked up for all her satanic conspiracy shenanigans has already alarmed some of his erstwhile supporters, and his insistence that he can simultaneously run both a global business empire and the presidency seems likely to give rise to some relatively plausible conspiracy theories.
We once knew a fellow who was firmly convinced that George W. Bush had conspired to bring down the World Trade Center and blast a hole in the Pentagon and crash a jetliner into a Pennsylvania field in order to justify a war against an entirely peaceable Muslim world, along with any other satanic crime you might imagine, and seven years later he also believed that Obama was going to bring about hope and change and world peace and income equality and a constant climate on the earth, so when his ultimate hero failed to vanquish his ultimate villain it was quite confusing for him. When Trump fails to bring Obama and Clinton and all their modern art and modern politics friends to account for their satanic crimes it will be just as discombobulating to many of his fans, but the fact that the mainstream press is offering proof of his own conspiracies will probably convince them that he’s surely innocent.
The real news will probably be back by next Monday, and it should provide ample reason to hate all these people without resorting to satanic pedophile conspiracies. In the meantime, enjoy an extended weekend away from all of it.

— Bud Norman

Freedom and Its Dwindling Supply of Champions

This year’s winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom have been announced, and once again we have been overlooked. At this point in such a crazy election year we’re starting to suspect the system is rigged, but perhaps it’s just another sign of these desultory times.
The latest batch of honorees is the last to be chosen by the administration of Barack Obama, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from that bunch. An award created by President John Kennedy to recognize “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” is this year being conferred on a couple of basketball players, a quartet of movie stars, a rock star and a soul singer, one of those modern architects and one of those modern artists, a sportscaster and a comedy show producer, an educator and a bureaucrat and a political activist, two wealthy and generous people, along with some scientists you’ve probably never heard of who have both significant achievements and politically correct personal histories. Given the current state of the culture, though, we suppose that’s about as good as it gets.
We have to admit that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan were two of the very best to ever play the great American game of basketball, but we an’t think of any other especially meritorious contributions they’ve made to the national security or world peace or American culture. Abdul-Jabbar has long been an outspoken activist, going from angry black nationalist to soft-spoken garden variety white-guilt-mongering liberal, and Jordan is now most visible as a pitchman for the Hanes undergarment company and Nike’s over-priced sneakers. Ellen Degeneres is a witty and likable woman by afternoon talk show hostess standards, we’re told, but we suspect she’s being honored mainly because she’s openly lesbian, which we have nothing against but don’t see as especially meritorious.
Of that quartet of movie stars, Robert Redford is overrated as an actor and an utter bore as an activist, Tom Hanks is also overrated but a better actor and less obnoxiously political, Robert DeNiro has had brilliant performances in great movies in the past but probably won for his recent videos threatening to punch Republican president-elect Donald Trump in the nose, and the last memorable role of Cicely Tyson’s slight career was as a civil rights martyr in the melodramatic mini-series “Miss Jane Pittman,” which apparently is enough for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The rock star is Bruce Springsteen, an overrated self-styled workingman’s hero known as “The Boss,” and the soul singer is Diana Ross, who cut some nice records with the Supremes back in the Motown days but doesn’t quite crack our list of the 50 best women singers of recent decades.
The sportscaster is the venerable Vin Scully of longtime Los Angeles Dodgers fame, who was as good a sportscaster as you’re likely to ever hear but was otherwise not notable. Lorne Michaels is being honored as the longtime producer of “Saturday Night Live,” which provided a considerable in-kind contribution to Trump’s Republican primary campaign by inviting to be a guest host but has otherwise been impeccably liberal in its long and mostly undistinguished run. Frank Gehry, creator of curvy buildings that skateboarders will someday slide over in the post-apocalyptic world, is the modern architect, and Maya Lin, best know for that long slab of a Vietnam memorial on the Washington Mall, is the modern artist. The educator is Eduardo Peron, president of Miami Dade College, who is both widely respected by the other liberals in in his field and a Latino to boot. The bureaucrat is former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newt Minow, best remembered for declaring ’50s and ’60s television “a vast wasteland” and as the eponym for the S.S. Minnow that stranded those wacky castaways on “Gilligan’s Island.” A posthumous award is bestowed on Elouise Cobell, whose activism on behalf of traditional Native American tribes also imposed feminism on them, which earns double credits.
Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are also being honored, not for the pioneering role he played in the computer revolution that has transformed American culture but rather for their generosity in sharing the many billions of dollars he acquired along the way, which we think is well worth honoring. The mathematician and computer scientist is being honored for her work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper gets the nod for her role in bringing computer technology to the Navy, and although both were leaders in their fields we suspect the fact they were far away and the most of the prominent of the relatively few number of women involved also had something to do with it. Richard Garwin is being honored for such a wide body of work in physics that his whiteness and maleness and politically-incorrect role in developing America’s nuclear weaponry were apparently overlooked.
We’ll be expecting something completely different in the first batch of honorees chosen by a Trump administration, but not anything better. There’s a limited supply of Americans making especially meritorious contributions to the national security and world peace and American culture these days, and Trump seems as unlikely to discern them as Obama. Both the outgoing and incoming presidents are pure products of a popular culture that esteems celebrity over achievement, group identity over individual excellence, and the latest fads over the lasting truths. A former pro-wrestling performer and reality show star who seems unembarrassed to admit that he’s never been much of a reader is unlikely to recognize artistic greatness, and Trump’s long career as a real estate mogul has repeatedly proved his poor taste in architecture, while his campaign rhetoric suggests a convoluted notion about what’s good for America’s national security and world peace, and despite his reputation for political incorrectness we wouldn’t be surprised to see the same sort of demographic quotas being used.
In any case it should be at least another four years before we find ourselves on the roster of honorees, and in the meantime we’ll be reading old books and watching old movies and listening to old records to console ourselves.

— Bud Norman

An Era of Bad Feelings

President Barack Obama met with President-elect Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday, and by all accounts it was quite cordial. Trump, who spent much of the past eight years arguing that Obama was ineligible to hold the office by virtue of his foreign birth until conceding just a few weeks ago that he wasn’t born outside the country after all, emerged with kinds words for the president and a promise to frequently seek his counsel. Obama, who spent most of the past several months arguing that Trump should be ineligible for the presidency for reasons of intelligence, temperament and character, promised to provide whatever help he could to make his successor a success.
Not everyone, though, was so civil. Riots have broken out in Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon, protests of various size and degrees of civility are happening all across the country, there’s been a nationwide outbreak of graffiti and vandalism, and activists are promising that it will increase in the coming days. The late night comics and the big time columnists are grousing about the election, “not my president” is the hot new “hashtag,” and all sorts of people are expressing their dissatisfaction in all sorts of ways. The front lawn of a house next door to our neighborhood coffee shop has sprouted a hand-lettered “not my president” sign, which we noticed as we sat outside and sipped some java on a warm fall afternoon with a couple of seemingly shell-shocked old friends and third old friend who was relieved that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had lost but not noticeably happy about Trump winning.
This sort of thing happens every four years, of course, but in this crazy election year the feelings are palpably more intense and seem likely to linger far longer than usual. Several cities around the country had already endured a year of riots in response to police shootings of civilians, even during a presidential administration reflexively biased against the officers involved, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement that has prompted the rioting surely won’t be any less belligerent with an administration that has promised to be reflexively biased in favor of law enforcement. Various sorts of left-wing thugs were assaulting Trump’s rally-goers and firebombing Republican Party headquarters and spray-painting everything in sight even before he won, and the results of an election are not likely to placate them. That segment of the self-described progressive movement prone to shutting down bridges and disrupting downtown traffic and scaring the tourists away from the shopping districts found plenty to do even during the progressive administration they had all campaigned for, and we expect that an administration they campaigned against will keep them even busier. Some people look for excuses to engage in their hobby of civil disobedience, and they’ll no doubt find a constant supply of them in the coming years.
Should the anti-Trump movement reach anywhere near the level of violence and mayhem of the anti-Vietnam War protests of the ’60s we expect that the president will be eager to deliver some of that ’60s style law and order he talked about during the campaign, and like all arson sprees it will eventually burn itself out, but a more peaceable anger will continue to smolder. Votes are still being counted somewhere, for some reason, but as of this writing Clinton still has a slight lead in the popular vote totals, with well more than half of the electorate voting for someone other than Trump, and if you add in the large number of people who didn’t vote at all it’s a landslide number of Americans who didn’t vote for him, and of those who did vote for him we estimate that about half are like our kaffeeklatsch pal who did so only because he thought Clinton would be even worse, so that’s a lot of dissatisfied people. Given Trump’s proudly pugnacious style of dealing with criticism, we don’t anticipate another Era of Good Feelings.
One must admit, though, that Trump has been on his best behavior since the election was called in his favor. His victory speech was conspicuously lacking in any of the chest-thumping that followed every primary win, and even included some kind words for the opponent he had repeatedly promised to put behind bars. The remarks after meeting the president he had so long claimed was illegitimately elected were uncharacteristically gracious, and apparently he was even civil during a meeting with Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who was also the subject of angry “tweets” and veiled threats during the campaign. He did send his first “Tweet” as President-elect to complain “professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very Unfair!,” but at least he didn’t promise some sort of nuclear retaliation against Oakland and Portland. One must also admit that both Clinton and Obama have been uncharacteristically classy about what must surely be a bitter loss, and some of the chattering classes are also chipping in some begrudging bi-partisan best wishes.
That sort of thing happens every four years, however, and it never lasts for very long. After this crazy election  year it should dissipate more quickly than usual. Trump can’t stay gracious any longer than Clinton or Obama can keep classy, and the most hard-core fans on both sides can be a most ungraciousness and classless bunch, and we’re certain it’s going to make for an ugly four years. Those of us who can’t stand any of them will continue to add our sneers and snark, too, but we’ll try our best to propose something as an alternative, and promise that at least we won’t be rioting or setting anything on fire or otherwise delaying your drive home from work.

— Bud Norman