Big Brother is Watching, and Bored

The latest flood of Wikileaks is from the Central Intelligence Agency, and it’s scary stuff. Aside from the scariness of the apparent fact that even the CIA isn’t safe from hacking, the leaks describe some very high-tech snooping techniques right out of one those dystopian sic-fi movies where Big Brother is always watching.
Back when President Donald Trump was running for the office he often told his enthusiastic campaign rallies how much he loved Wikileaks, which was exclusively Wikileaking embarrassing information about Democratic rival Hillary Clinton at the time, but now he’s steadfastly opposed to leaks in general. Any old president would rightly object to having America’s intelligence-gathering capabilities exposed to the nation’s enemies, and we’re sure that’s Trump’s foremost concern, but he also has his own peculiar reasons for not wanting yet another story about electronic eavesdropping espionage intrigue and high-level leaks crowding his big and assuredly wonderful health care plan out of the news.
Trump is still sticking to his “tweeted” accusation that his campaign was wire-tapped by President Barack Obama, and still offering no proof and demanding that a congressional investigation come up with some, and that’s still taking up a lot of air time and column inches. That’s also part of an ongoing story about the Russian government’s meddling in the election and how everything that was coming out by Wikileaks seemed to be about Clinton and the contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russkies that have already caused the resignations of a campaign manager and National Security Advisor and the recusal of an Attorney General, along with all the popular conspiracy theories about how the intelligence community and the rest of the “deep state” are out to get Trump. The roll-out of that big and assuredly wonderful health care plan didn’t go at smoothly, with all the Democrats from left to far-left and many of the most right-ward Republicans finding plenty to criticize, and we expect quite a fuss about in the coming weeks, but we’re sure Trump still would have preferred the topic got more prominent headlines.
Better for any old president, too, if the public weren’t fully aware of the resources his government seems to have at its disposal. Pretty much every American home is now equipped with computers and smart phones and internet-connected televisions sets and other devices that can be used to monitor almost every movement a person takes, and according to Wikileaks the government has figured out how to do that. One can hope that the Constitution restrains the government from doing so, at least without damned good cause, but the past decades of scandals from the Watergate wire-tapping of the Nixon administration to the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of President Barack Obama’s political opponents suggests that the plan isn’t foolproof. Like most Americans we can take more comfort in the knowledge that their lives are too boring for Big Brother to bother with, and that there’s bound to be a sorority shower room somewhere of more compelling interest, but this Trump fellow doesn’t seem to take criticism any more lightly than that Obama fellow did, and the possibilities are slightly spooky.
We’d hate to wind up like the Gene Hackman character in that last scene of “The Conversation,” the you’ve-gotta-see classic Francis Ford Coppola flick from the ’70s, where the world’s top electronic surveillance expert has become so paranoid about who’s eavesdropping on him that he’s completely destroyed his apartment in search of the elusive bug that he just knows is there is somewhere, and sits in the rubble playing his saxophone, but it does give us pause. The technology has greatly improved since then, and even after we’d torn up the house we’d still have this computer running and connected to the internet, and suddenly all the technology in those dystopian sci-fi movies seems as dated as the two-way wristwatch radio and other gadgetry in the Dick Tracy cartoons. George Orwell’s you-gotta-read it classic novel “1984” is lately back on the best-seller lists, and between the people who didn’t trust Obama and don’t trust Trump, who together comprise about 95 percent of the country, there’s a good deal of healthy suspicion out there.
For now, though, we’ll continue to trust in the generally reliable Constitution and the unerring fallibility of all humankind and how very mundane our own lives are to ward off the watchful eye of Big Brother. We wouldn’t put it past Obama to want to tap Trump’s phone, but we don’t think he would have dared done so without a warrant, which requires a judge and a paper trail and a damned good reason, and we’d like to think the system will impose similar restraints on Trump. Both men had a strange knack for having all their misdeeds exposed, too, even if they did go largely unpunished, and it’s hard to imagine either man having the genius to manipulate all those levers needed to create the all-powerful system depicted in any of those dystopian sci-fi movies. All those high-tech gizmos that were created to dominate the masses are incomprehensible to ourselves, but among our fellow populace are some pretty smart people who seem to know that stuff just as well as the government experts, and apparently well enough to hack the CIA, and those ubiquitous cell phone cameras keep catching cops and professors and other public officials abusing their power, and for the moment technology seems as like to thwart a tyranny as to empower one.
All these fancy gizmos also allow the dissemination of a wide range of opinions, such as this estimable publication provides, and once people become more discerning that’s bound to help. For eight long years we had little good to say about Obama, so far we’ve offered little praise Trump and are prepared for at least another four years of it, but that’s all been made as public as possible and we’ll face whatever consequences our reading of the Constitution will allow. The rest of our lives, we’re quite confident, are too boring to merit Big Brother’s attention.

— Bud Norman


On the President’s Weekly Winter Vacation

Except for howling winds and an extended dry spell the weather’s been nice and warm around here lately, the Wichita State University Wheatshockers are heading into collegiate basketball’s championship tournament on a 15-game blow-out streak, and so far it’s been a pretty good March in our patch of the prairie. Still, we can’t help noticing with a certain wistfulness all the references to Mar-a-Lago in the latest news.
Usually around this time of year in Kansas we’re chattering our teeth and wishing for a south Florida vacation, and fondly recalling that one especially bitter winter when we did escape to a week of driving around Miami in a rented convertible V-8 Mustang, which yielded lots of funny stories we still like to tell, but even our most fanciful late winter fantasies never included anything quite so fancy as Mar-a-Lago. A very Republican friend of ours said the other day that he’d never heard of Mar-a-Lago, so perhaps we should explain to a general readership that it’s a Great Gatsby-esque mansion and sprawling estate complete with golf courses and tennis courts and all sorts of amenities located on a prime stretch of Palm Beach real estate that Trump had turned into a $100,000-a-year resort before he became president, and now uses as the “Winter White House” while charging a recently raised $200,000-a-year fee for the rest of the guests, and by all accounts it’s very swank.
Trump has spent five weekends there since being sworn in as president just last January, and the taxpayers have spent an estimated $3.5 million per visit, which is also pretty damned swank, even by government standards, and we can’t help thinking that it would be a bigger story if he weren’t there “tweeting” unsubstantiated charges about his wires being tapped and thus dominating the next days’ news cycles.
We spent much of the past eight years grousing about how many vacations President Barack Obama took and how many rounds of golf he played, and sneering about how his Martha’s Vineyard getaways belied his man-of-the-people image, and how damned expensive it was for the actual people, and feeling sorry for partisan Democrats who had to make excuses for it after eight years of grousing about George W. Bush’s far cheaper recreation expenses and rounds of golf. So far Trump has gone out of town for non-business-related reasons and played and golf far more often than Obama did, and racked up monthly travel bills equal to what to Obama rang up in a year, and seems to think he proved his Jacksonian populism by pouring ketchup over the well done steaks he ordered at the Great Gatsby-esque resort where the government pays the tab even as he collects it, and because we were Republicans long before Trump ever was we’re not about to make any excuses for five straight weekends at Mar-a-Lago.
Should Trump ever bless the nation with a slow news day we’re sure his antagonists in the media will be able to fill it with some standby stories about Trump’s unusual buyer and seller arrangement with Mar-a-Lago, and the potential that a mere $200,000 a year membership could buy access to the president, and how top-secret negotiations were conducted there within earshot of waiters and busboys and other diners in the restaurant, and how it really doesn’t fit with the image of a champion of the black-lunged West Virginia coal miner and opioid-addicted former factory worker from the Rust Belt. Nor does it comport to our old-fashioned Republican fantasy of a Republican president working overtime at the actual White House on the weekend to get all those policies just right so that the damned Democrats couldn’t make such easy hash of them, and we can only imagine what the the Democratic media will make of it.
The press is already taking note of who isn’t going to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend with Trump, the latest reports have some of the famously feuding top White House staff left behind, and even over the work week it’s hard to find any evidence even in the friendliest meeting that the administration is humming along like the finely-tuned machine that Trump swears it is. Perhaps Trump will find some insight at Mar-a-Lago that repays the taxpayers’ expense, but until he does the resentment is likely to rise, even if Trump’s much boasted-about extravagance was one of his selling points. Trump used to grouse about Obama’s vacationing and golfing extravagance, too, and so long as we’re stuck here on the prairie we’ll fell free to grouse about them both. From what we hear, the weather’s been pretty mild in Washington, D.C., too.

— Bud Norman