Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t ready for “Real Time” and it shows

Bill Maher’s public service:

Most people have no idea who Milo is, except that he claims to be “Dangerous.” Friday night, Bill Maher showed them

Bill Maher's public service: Milo Yiannopoulos isn't ready for "Real Time" and it shows
(Credit: Getty/Drew Angerer/HBO/Salon)

When it was announced that this week’s episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” would feature so-called “right-wing provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos, some people freaked out. Many seemed to believe that bringing Yiannopoulos on the show would legitimize a noxious professional troll, as if that horse hadn’t already escaped the barn when America elected one president.

Journalist Jeremy Scahill, co-founding editor of The Intercept, canceled his own booking in protest. In his one-on-one segment with Maher at the top of the show, Yiannopoulos called that approach out: “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.” On one hand, not every debate is worth sitting in the makeup chair for. (I’ve seen the Milo show; I’ve seen better.) But Yiannopoulos isn’t leading a political movement; he’s an attention-seeking troll. They don’t feed on legitimacy, but rather scandal and outrage, which Scahill helped deliver. For my part, I was irritated that I’d have to sit through an interview with this guy before getting to Leah Remini’s Scientology Dirt Bag, so it’s not like I had a high horse to climb off of.

It’s easy to forget, if you don’t live on the Internet, that most people in America — and quite possibly most “Real Time” home viewers — likely have no idea who Milo is or if they should care about him at all. (Third *NSync alum from the right?) If their first up-close exposure to Milo Yiannopoulos, C-Lister Famous for Something or Other, was last night’s “Real Time,” I can’t imagine they now understand what all the fuss is about.

Yiannopoulos came out quite saucy and self-satisfied — ain’t I a stinker? — so Maher, ever the comedy veteran, heckled him right out of the gate: “You look like Bruno.” Milo pouted, and then turned his exaggerated frown into a smirk after a beat. “You know I told [the make-up artist] to dial down the contouring.”

Despite their flirty greetings, Maher didn’t let Milo off easy. They agreed on a few things, like how liberals are too easily offended, but throughout the interview, Milo seemed squirmy, a bit flustered and obviously outmatched by his host. Maher wasn’t interested in gossiping about Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman, whom Milo lamely joked were funny before they “contracted feminism.” In fact, he dismissed most of Milo’s low-hanging outrage-bait as just kind of stupid.

Maher’s challenge here was not being cast as Principal Skinner arguing with Bart Simpson, and for the most part, he succeeded. “You’re wrong about certain things,” Maher tells him flatly, giving examples from Milo’s own spiels: “Black Lives Matter is a hate group. There’s no such thing as white privilege.”

Maher, a consistent atheist, also dinged Yiannopoulos for “bullshit stupid thinking” when Milo gave Catholicism a pass he doesn’t extend to other religions.

Yiannopoulos insisted that he’s funny and that his jokes “build bridges.” All he cares about, he claimed, is free speech and free expression, which he described as “now a conservative position.”

“I’m the guy who always defends jokes, right up to the point where they pointlessly hurt people,” Maher said, bringing up the campaign of vicious harassment against “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones that got Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter.

Milo’s defense was a mess of facile talking points. “I like to think of myself as a virtuous troll,” he said. He also claimed, “What actually hurts people is murder, violence. Mean words don’t hurt people.”

“Which some people would say you’ve incited,” countered Maher, though he didn’t give any concrete examples.

“They would be idiots,” said Yiannopoulos.

For a couple of years in the 1980s, my family lived in Germany, where Nazi symbols were, for very understandable reasons, forbidden. As an earnest 7-year-old who read a lot of children’s literature set during World War II, it freaked me out to see swastikas scratched and inked into naughty graffiti, presented with as much gravity and political intent as butts-and-boobs doodles were back home. Little kids test social boundaries all the time. They’re drawn to the illicit — like giggling over Nazi symbols, which they know are bad but don’t quite understand — because that which is frightening for abstract reasons can also be thrilling, even titillating. Part of growing up — as I hope the kid at my Catholic school who was responsible for that graffiti did, eventually — is learning how one kid’s abstract illicit thrills can be another person’s concrete and dangerous threats, and adjusting your behavior accordingly.

Yiannopoulos is an intriguing conundrum because even though he’s an out gay man in his 30s, not a doodling child, he refuses to connect his own flippant denigration of gay people as hyper-sexed, druggy and untrustworthy — abstract jokes he’s in on — to the concrete threat of discrimination or even violence that LGBT people face from those who may feel emboldened or justified by those attitudes. Maybe he feels those fears are idiotic. Most of his fans are likely in it for the dark thrill of an illicit giggle alone: the permission to laugh at a gay joke because a gay man made it. But how grotesque of a spotlight-chaser does one have to be to ignore the possibility of the fan that isn’t? And how narcissistic is it to forcibly extend that “in on the joke” intimacy to those who haven’t issued an invitation first, like women, black people or Muslims?

On one hand, it’s a pity Maher didn’t have time to delve that deep into a discussion of the philosophy of “j/k lol” with Yiannopoulos. On the other hand, it’s not like Milo said anything on “Real Time” that indicated he’d be up for a challenging intellectual discussion about where the line is, and what it’s used for.

Throughout the segment, Milo demonstrated that as far as provocateurs go, he’s nowhere near Maher’s level. You can disagree with Maher’s positions on politics and religion, but he’s a pro who can back a gag or a flat statement up with reason and consistency. Milo’s a snarky brunch friend on a second round of Bloodies for people who don’t have snarky brunch friends. (Get off Gab once in a while and buy a round, fanboys! You can get your fill of Lena Dunham jokes in person.) He’s managed to build a public speaking and publishing career on little more than being shameless, disgusting and reasonably attractive at the same time. America, land of opportunity!

Maher closed the segment by scolding his audience. “Stop taking the bait, liberals!” he cried. “You’re all freaking out about this fucking impish British fag! You schoolgirls!”

Maher’s using his words as a blunt instrument here, but the sentiment’s not wrong. Exposing Yiannopoulos as a lightweight “famous for doing nothing” vacuous Twitter celeb on TV — as Maher just did — is likely going to be more effective at limiting his cachet and influence than inadvertently building up his illicit, underground cred through outrage. Pushing a malignant thing like Milo Yiannopoulos out into the spotlight isn’t necessarily normalizing it. Sometimes the cliché is true, and sunlight really is the best disinfectant.

The Trump press conference: A ferocious conflict within the ruling elite

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17 February 2017

The news conference given by Donald Trump Thursday afternoon was extraordinary and unprecedented. The event took on a surreal character as, for more than 75 minutes, the US president traded insults with journalists and otherwise engaged in a bitter battle with his nemeses in the media. It is not comparable to anything seen before in modern American history, even at the height of the Watergate crisis.

In witnessing such a spectacle, it is always necessary to uncover the rational content, the underlying political dynamic. In this case, the press conference gave expression to a vicious conflict within the American ruling class over foreign policy as the United States hurtles toward war.

The news conference was initially called to announce Trump’s new pick for labor secretary, but this took up only one minute of the event. Trump began with a litany of achievements and actions he has taken since his inauguration, which was largely directed at the ruling elite in an appeal for support. The stock market has “hit record numbers,” corporate regulations are being eliminated, immigrants are being targeted for deportation, and Trump has ordered a “massive rebuilding” of the US military, among other right-wing measures.

However, from the media, channeling the US intelligence apparatus, questions focused almost exclusively on the ties of the Trump administration to Russia and the circumstances behind the forced resignation earlier this week of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, over his pre-inauguration telephone conversation with the Russian ambassador.

Trump responded with a diatribe in which the media served as a stand-in for his real opponents in the US ruling elite, comprising the bulk of the permanent military-intelligence apparatus that really runs the government, regardless of which party controls the White House or majorities in Congress. He repeatedly denounced what he called “illegal leaks” to the media from sources within the intelligence agencies.

It was remarkable that when Trump directly denounced the media as a mouthpiece for the intelligence agencies, there was no attempt to rebut him. Everyone knows it is true. Likewise, when he flatly denied any contact between his campaign and Russian intelligence agencies, not a single reporter could cite evidence to the contrary.

In the course of the press conference, Trump blurted out a number of astonishing comments that point to the extreme dangers facing the entire world.

Responding to questions about what he would do about a Russian ship conducting surveillance operations in international waters off the coast of Connecticut—the same type of operations US warships conduct on a much larger scale off the coasts of Russia and China—Trump said, “The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles off shore right out of the water. Everyone in this country’s going to say ‘oh, it’s so great.’” He continued, “If I was just brutal on Russia right now, just brutal, people would say, you would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful.’”

Trump pointed out the implications of such a clash, given that Russia and the United States have the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. “We’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they,” he said. “I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it: a nuclear holocaust would be like no other.” In other words, there are ongoing discussions, at the highest levels of the American government, about a potential nuclear war with Russia, for which preparations are well advanced.

When challenged by one reporter on why there was no response by the US government to a series of what he called “provocations” by Russia—largely consisting of incidents provoked by US and NATO war maneuvers along Russia’s borders—Trump replied, “I’m not going to tell you anything about what response I do. I don’t talk about military response.”

He expanded on this theme, declaring that he would not talk about military operations in Iraq, North Korea, Iran or anywhere else. “You know why? Because they shouldn’t know. And eventually, you guys are going to get tired of asking that question.”

Such conflicts within the ruling elite over foreign policy are usually fought out behind the scenes, as with discontent within the military-intelligence apparatus over Obama’s retreat from a direct military intervention in Syria in 2013, when he failed to enforce his so-called “red line” against the government of Bashar al-Assad.

This time, however, the conflict has exploded into the open. Aside from the specific form that the debate within the US state apparatus has taken, it is an expression of an underlying crisis of the entire capitalist order. Twenty-five years of unending war are metastasizing, with extreme rapidity, into a major conflict involving large nation-states. National security journals are full of articles in which there is open discussion about war with Russia, in which the question is not if, but when and how. Trump, on the other hand, has focused his attention on China. In either case, the consequences are incalculable.

What was perhaps most striking is how remote the entire press conference was from the sentiments and concerns of the vast majority of the American population. There was virtually no questioning at the press conference about Trump’s war against immigrant workers or the nationwide day of protest by immigrants and their supporters that was taking place at the same time.

Those participating in the mass protests that have erupted since Trump’s inauguration are not motivated by a desire to launch a war with Russia, but by hatred of Trump’s authoritarian, anti-democratic policies and the oligarchic government that he has set up.

Trump’s critics in the Democratic Party and media, however, are responding to powerful sections of the US ruling elite who welcome Trump’s ultra-reactionary domestic policies—tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation of corporations, attacks on democratic rights, persecution of immigrants—but regard his posture of seeking better relations with Russia as intolerable.

The Democrats have responded with passive handwringing while Trump has assembled his cabinet of billionaires, ex-generals and right-wing fanatics, and issued a series of reactionary and unconstitutional executive orders. But when given the opportunity to attack Trump as soft on Russia, they engage in savage witch-hunting that recalls nothing so much as McCarthyism.

There is no faction with the American ruling class that is opposed to imperialist war. In the struggle to prevent war, it is up to the working class to intervene independently, opposing both factions in the US ruling elite, both Trump and the line-up of the CIA, the media and the Democratic Party.

Patrick Martin

WSWS

How to Build an Autocracy

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The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.

It’s 2021, and president Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.

Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.

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The president’s critics, meanwhile, have found little hearing for their protests and complaints. A Senate investigation of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign sputtered into inconclusive partisan wrangling. Concerns about Trump’s purported conflicts of interest excited debate in Washington but never drew much attention from the wider American public.

Allegations of fraud and self-dealing in the TrumpWorks program, and elsewhere, have likewise been shrugged off. The president regularly tweets out news of factory openings and big hiring announcements: “I’m bringing back your jobs,” he has said over and over. Voters seem to have believed him—and are grateful.

Anyway, doesn’t everybody do it? On the eve of the 2018 congressional elections, WikiLeaks released years of investment statements by prominent congressional Democrats indicating that they had long earned above-market returns. As the air filled with allegations of insider trading and crony capitalism, the public subsided into weary cynicism. The Republicans held both houses of Congress that November, and Trump loyalists shouldered aside the pre-Trump leadership.

The business community learned its lesson early. “You work for me, you don’t criticize me,” the president was reported to have told one major federal contractor, after knocking billions off his company’s stock-market valuation with an angry tweet. Wise business leaders take care to credit Trump’s personal leadership for any good news, and to avoid saying anything that might displease the president or his family.

The media have grown noticeably more friendly to Trump as well. The proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner was delayed for more than a year, during which Time Warner’s CNN unit worked ever harder to meet Trump’s definition of fairness. Under the agreement that settled the Department of Justice’s antitrust complaint against Amazon, the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has divested himself of The Washington Post. The paper’s new owner—an investor group based in Slovakia—has closed the printed edition and refocused the paper on municipal politics and lifestyle coverage.

 

CONTINUED:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-autocracy/513872/

Week three of the Trump presidency: A crisis of bourgeois rule and turn toward dictatorship

inauguralspeechtrump

9 February 2017

Three extraordinary developments over the past several days have exposed the breakdown of democratic forms of rule in the United States.

On Monday, Trump delivered a political speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida in which he attacked the press and implied that it was aiding the enemy by not reporting terrorist attacks. “They have their reasons and you understand that,” Trump told the military, appealing for its support. Defending his anti-Muslim travel ban, he said, “We need strong programs” to keep out “people that want to destroy us and destroy our country.”

Two days later, on Wednesday, Trump gave a speech before a police organization, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, bitterly attacking the judiciary. The appearance came on the eve of a decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals on his travel ban.

“We need security in our country,” Trump told the police. “And we have to give you the weapons that you need. And this [the order on immigration] is a weapon that you need. And they [the courts] are trying to take it away from you, maybe because of politics or maybe because of political views. We can’t let that happen.”

This was nothing less than a call from the US president for the police to oppose or defy an unfavorable court ruling. He underscored the point by adding, “One of the reasons I was elected was because of law and order and security… And they’re taking away our weapons one by one, that’s what they’re doing.”

In between these two speeches, on Tuesday night, Republicans in the US Senate took the extraordinary step of halting a speech by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, the nation’s chief law enforcement official.

Warren was reading from a letter sent by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing the nomination of Sessions for a federal judgeship. Republican Senators interrupted Warren, invoking an obscure rule barring senators from imputing to other senators “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” Warren was ordered to stop talking and return to her seat.

The invocation of this gag rule recalls in its own way the pre-Civil War rule established in Congress to prevent members of either house from talking about slavery on the floor of the legislative chambers. The ban on discussion of slavery was imposed because the issue was so explosive.

Each one of these events is an indication of a violent break with the most basic forms of bourgeois democracy. The first targeted the press, which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution; the second was an attack on the judiciary, one of the three “coequal,” according to the Constitution, branches of government; the third was an attempt to muzzle debate in Congress.

Within this context, the response of the Democratic Party is significant. When Warren was told to sit down, she complied, and no Democrat took any serious action to block the gag order. The debate continued throughout the day Wednesday, culminating in a 52–47 vote to confirm Sessions as the next attorney general.

As for Trump’s speeches before the military and police, they have been downplayed or ignored and their ominous implications covered up.

There are significant political divisions within the ruling class, but these are centered on issues of foreign policy. While Democrats, including Warren, have engaged in empty posturing over Trump’s various far-right cabinet appointments, they have done nothing to prevent the nominations from going through.

What they have relentlessly pursued, however, is a campaign to demonize Russia and denounce Trump for being too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This has been their main point of attack against the new president.

They speak for those factions of the military-intelligence apparatus that backed the Hillary Clinton campaign in large part out of concern that Trump will shift away from an aggressive anti-Russia policy. The new administration is for the present focusing its war-mongering on China and Iran.

While the immediate object of Trump’s vitriol is his critics within the establishment, the more fundamental target is the working class, and the methods being prepared against working-class opposition are far more violent. His speech on Wednesday was a pledge to eliminate all restraints on the use of force by the police. “My message today is that you have a true, true friend in the White House,” he proclaimed. “I support our police. I support our sheriffs. And we support the men and women of law enforcement.”

The Trump administration expresses the dictatorship of the American oligarchy in its most ruthless form. His administration, packed with billionaires and generals, is determined to massively expand the military in preparation for a major war while escalating the social counterrevolution within the United States. This includes the slashing of health care, the destruction of public education and the elimination of all restraints on corporate profits. To implement this policy, the most basic democratic forms must be cast aside.

The Trump administration is not an aberration in an otherwise healthy society. It is the culmination of a longstanding crisis of American democracy. In 2000, when the Supreme Court intervened in the election to halt the recount of ballots in Florida and hand the presidency to George W. Bush, the World Socialist Web Site noted that the decision of the court and the absence of any serious opposition from the Democratic Party demonstrated the absence of any significant constituency for democratic rights within the ruling class.

The past sixteen years have confirmed this analysis. Under Bush, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were used to proclaim a “war on terror” and justify unending war abroad and the most far-reaching attacks on democratic rights within the United States. Far from reversing these processes, Obama extended them, including the assertion of the right of the president to order the extra-judicial assassination of US citizens.

Now, with the rise to power of Trump, openly dictatorial measures are being prepared.

Every revolutionary situation arises from a violent breakdown in traditional forms of rule. It is no longer possible for the ruling class to rule in the old way, and it is no longer possible for the working class to live in the old way. Both conditions are not only present, they are far advanced.

The central strategic question is the building of an independent revolutionary leadership in the working class, opposed to all of the political representatives of the ruling class, which connects the defense of democratic rights to the fight against war, inequality and the capitalist system.

Joseph Kishore

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/09/pers-f09.html

Republicans have invented a delusional storyline about protests around the country

The notion of paid protesters, activists from the far left is “an article of faith” among right wing commentators

Republicans have invented a delusional storyline about protests around the country
Protesters gather for the Women’s March on Philadelphia a day after Republican Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Philadelphia. The march is being held in solidarity with similar events taking place in Washington and around the nation. ()(Credit: AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet

If those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, those who conveniently forget recent history are just digging their own graves.

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the troubling parallel between Trump’s executive order banning refugees and visa applicants from seven Muslim-majority countries and the U.S.’s reluctance to admit Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, although it applies there too. At least, not directly. No, those forgetting recent history are congressional Republicans. Fresh off their recent electoral success, they seem to think the rise of the Tea Party eight years ago was a one-off event, rather than a portent of what is to come in an age of political polarization.

Two weeks ago saw one of the largest popular protests in history in the Women’s March, which drew over three million nationwide, according to some estimates. Last weekend, as Trump’s executive order went into effect, sowing chaos at airports from coast to coast, spontaneous protests erupted, eventually forcing the administration to scale back the ban on green-card holders. Activists, Democrats, progressive and many ordinary previously apolitical Americans, still reeling from the election of Donald Trump and the consolidation of Republican power at all levels of government, seems to have mobilized in a way not seen since Tea Party protests rippled across the country in 2009.

A reasonable Republican surveying all this might be convinced of the need to proceed with caution on a number of political fronts, like dismantling the Affordable Care Act, reproductive rights or immigration. Tea Party Congressman David Brat isn’t going that route. He’s dismissing it all as a liberal conspiracy.

During an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch Monday, Brat was asked about the voter backlash in his district against repealing the Affordable Care Act. He said, “There’s paid protestors, paid activists on the far left . . . They’re being paid to go around and raise havoc.”

This is far from a fringe view. It is an article of faith among many Republicans and conservative commentators that those speaking out against elements of Trump’s agenda are not concerned constituents but outside agitators with dubious funding sources. On Monday, Trump lapdog Sean Hannity asked on Twitter, “Who is bankrolling the protests taking place at airports across the country?”

It may be ideologically attractive for Republicans to pretend that the bulk of the dissent from the other side comes from a small, hyper-partisan group with limited electoral clout. But politically, it’s disastrous. The Tea Party’s showing in the 2010 midterms is a case in point. What began as a relatively small movement that seemed a little too enamored with the Constitution and Revolutionary War cosplay quickly delivered the largest House swing since Truman, giving Republicans a solid majority. Now, with a historically unpopular president in office seemingly hell-bent on alienating all segments of the electorate except loyal readers of Breitbart, liberals could be poised to strike back in 2018.

It’s not just those traditionally associated with the left, either. Republicans’ dismissal of the backlash against their policies has rankled some would-be supporters, too. A couple of weeks ago, Talking Points Memo ran a piece, “How the Obamacare Town Hall Script Flipped This Week,” which interviewed Darren Knowles, a special education teacher in Colorado and a two-time voter for George W. Bush, who showed up at Republican Congressman Mike Coffman’s event to voice his concerns about the ACA repeal. After meeting with a few constituents, Coffman slipped out of the event, blaming “partisan activists” for his early departure.

“That really got my blood boiling,” Knowles told TPM. “He said he’d stand up to Trump and this is like Trump’s playbook right here: blame the people who stand up to you. I don’t know what representative Coffman wanted. If we’re concerned, are we not supposed to show up and voice our concerns?”

As congressional Republicans continue to cocoon themselves in a world where people like Mr. Knowles don’t exist, or are the exception rather than the rule, this type of anger and disaffection among their constituents will only intensify, perhaps even to the point that it could further jeopardize their chances of retaining their majorities in both chambers.

Perhaps the greatest irony about the “paid protester” line echoed by many in the GOP is that the Tea Party itself benefited from big-money backers, despite its self-styled image as a popular uprising against government overreach. As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported in 2010, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ political advocacy group, coordinated with the Tea Party in 2009, disseminating talking points, funding protests, and cultivating candidates. Meaning the people who participated in Tea Party protests were, knowingly or not, furthering the Kochs’ political agenda.

Despite Republicans’ insistence to the contrary, there is no compelling evidence that the marches and protests cropping up all over the country owe their success to shady funding sources, or a billionaire’s largesse. They have drawn their strength from the widely shared indignation over a president who is quickly confirming his detractors’ worst predictions and a congressional leadership too fearful of its base to stand in his way. Come 2018, Republicans may find they have more to fear from a resurgent activist left.

salon

“Saturday Night Live” reclaims its satirical mojo amid a national emergency

Thanks, Trump!

“SNL” has found a new satirical urgency in the age of Trump — partly because we know how much he hates it

Thanks, Trump! "Saturday Night Live" reclaims its satirical mojo amid a national emergency

Kyle Mooney and Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live,” February 4th, 2017. (Credit: NBC/Will Heath)

For the better part of a decade, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” seemed to be all about manufacturing viral videos for social media and pandering to an almost insufferable “both sides are equally evil” take on American politics. When “SNL” wasn’t churning out weird-for-weirdness-sake viral hits, it was carefully balancing its criticisms of the Republican Party — a longtime target of the legendary late-night sketch show — with obvious and self-conscious jabs at president Barack Obama and the left. Some of it was deserved, while, other times, “SNL’s” political satire felt soft-pedaled and awkward.

During that time, the impact of “SNL” on the American political scene was eclipsed by “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” as well as cult-classic films like “Idiocracy” and especially sketch shows like HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob & David.” As the George W. Bush years wore on, much of the greatest political satire was found online, beginning with Flash cartoons during the dot-com boom and exploding into a media phenomenon via YouTube in 2006. Even a basic cable network like VH1 unexpectedly tested the political satire waters with a short-lived animated sketch show I created and produced, circa 2003 through 2005, called “VH1’s Illustrated,” where we ripped everything from Guantánamo Bay and drug legalization to Dick Cheney’s raping of national parks for oil.

To be clear, when I talk about political satire, I’m specifically referencing short or long-form comedy that focuses its weapons on nefarious social and political elites — targeting powerful villains where it hurts them the most and, more important, owning the message. No apologies. No quarter.

“SNL” used to do this. The cast that emerged in the mid-1980s, for example, created political sketches that both defined and ridiculed the rightward shift in politics during the Reagan era. With its classic sketch about Reagan’s dual personalities, one affable and one brutal and calculating; or Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush — complete with Dan Quayle played by a 12-year-old boy; and Phil Hartman’s outstanding Bill Clinton, gregariously illustrating the interdiction of U.N. relief supplies by Somali warlords using menu items from McDonald’s, this period represents  a high-water mark for “SNL” as a whole and for two of its most legendary political minds, Al Franken and Tom Davis.

Fast-forward to the modern era, and while political comedy had flourished on many other platforms, “SNL” somehow had lost its satirical edge — until this year, that is, and the ascendancy of Donald Trump. It’s difficult to fully encapsulate the importance of the re-emergence of “SNL” as a force for unrelenting political satire. For the first time in at least a dozen years, Lorne Michaels, along with head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider and naturally this season’s cast, are producing political satire that’s both outrageously funny and totally merciless.

Clearly, Alec Baldwin’s Trump is the centerpiece of the season. And it’s what Baldwin and the crew do with Trump that makes these sketches so wonderful. Unlike in previous seasons, Baldwin’s Trump sketches aren’t simply about an amusingly accurate impersonation. On the contrary, this time around “SNL” is aiming these sketches directly at Trump’s fragile, delusional ego and the show is not pulling any punches. Everything is on the table, and no one in the White House is safe from the “SNL” juggernaut.

Whether the cast is hitting Trump’s erratic cluelessness or Kellyanne Conway’s frantic spin control, cleaning up her boss’s aforementioned erratic cluelessness with her intolerable knack for deflection, or whether it’s Steve Bannon as a Grim Reaper shadow president, there’s almost nothing about Trump’s circus sideshow that “SNL” won’t seize upon. Hell, even the small details make for big statements, like Baldwin’s wearing of a Russian-flag lapel pin during last weekend’s cold open.

What makes the Trump material on “SNL” so brilliant is that, perhaps for the first time, the cast and crew are more than aware that Trump is watching. Rather than being deferential, “SNL” is deliberately crawling up Trump’s ass, and the cast knows this is working, thanks to Twitter. With Trump as the target, there’s a heretofore nonexistent third dimension added to the comedy now. Namely, we know for a fact that Trump despises it and will absolutely obsess about it for days. We know it damages him.

Combined with the jokes and the impressions, this third dimension — call it the Trump effect — gives us a near-perfect illustration of what political satire ought to do: trolling the powerful and despotic, while knowing for certain that it’s having the desired impact. Again, we know he’s watching and it’s destroying him. I’d give just about anything to have surveillance footage of Trump watching one of Baldwin’s performances. He has to be seething, face redder than his ridiculous tie, screaming at the television until hoarse, while internally dying a little more every second.

Now we have Kate McKinnon’s unbelievably accurate impression of Trump’s beleaguered spinbot Kellyanne Conway and, as of last weekend, Melissa McCarthy, too. McCarthy’s unexpected Sean Spicer sketch was perhaps the only Trump-related bit to overshadow Baldwin’s ingenious cold open. Once again, we’re treated to an endlessly hilarious “press briefing” sketch that’s made even better with the inclusion of the Trump effect — the knowledge that it was so unapologetic and so ruthless, there’s perhaps a wishful possibility Trump could fire Spicer because of it.

No, the impact wasn’t solely because Spicer was played by a woman. It was that McCarthy’s impression of Spicer was definitive. There won’t be a better Spicer impression; it’s hers now. McCarthy’s Spicer reminded me of Dana Carvey’s process for celebrity impersonations, in which it’s more about nailing the vibe of a character than sounding like a recording of the person. It’s the difference between a Carvey impression and, say, a Darrell Hammond sound-alike.

It’s important to note that during the Felicity Jones episode a few weeks ago, there were three feminist-leaning sketches in a row during the first 40 minutes of the show, including one that featured McKinnon as the ghost of Susan B. Anthony. On the same night as McCarthy’s Spicer sketch and Baldwin’s Grim Reaper sketch, there was a filmed satire of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban in which an overworked bureaucrat is tasked with awkwardly editing Trump’s new anti-Muslim travel rules into a customs video for passengers on an international flight. This is what political satire is all about.

At the risk of being overly effusive, it’s difficult to underscore how valuable “SNL” has become in the era of Trump. Baldwin, McCarthy, McKinnon and the rest of the troupe are giving America what we so desperately need right now. They’re saying exactly what has to be said and doing so with a direct line to Trump’s addled brain. In some cases, the “SNL” cast might even be risking its own safety. Despite this, they’re rolling on and there’s no sign of their letting up. “Saturday Night Live” has the power, now more than ever, to undermine an administration that transparently seeks to suppress objective reality and oppress the people. And the show has more than risen to the occasion.

Choosing the finest era in the 40-year history of “SNL”  is impossible, but I’d suggest this era is perhaps its most important. I’m relieved and confident to report that truly subversive and smart political satire has triumphantly returned to Studio 8H. Please keep it coming.

How Goldman Sachs Sacked Washington

THE RIGHT WING
Trump attacked Hillary for her finance ties, and then proceeded to stock his Cabinet with former executives at the nation’s largest banks.

Photo Credit: Screenshot / YouTube

Irony isn’t a concept with which President Donald J. Trump is familiar. In his Inaugural Address, having nominated the wealthiest Cabinet in American history, he proclaimed, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth.” Under Trump, an even smaller group will flourish—in particular, a cadre of former Goldman Sachs executives. To put the matter bluntly, two of them (along with the Federal Reserve) are likely to control our economy and financial system in the years to come.

Infusing Washington with Goldman alums isn’t exactly an original idea. Three of the last four presidents, including The Donald, have handed the wheel of the U.S. economy to ex-Goldmanites. But in true Trumpian style, after attacking Hillary Clinton for her Goldman ties, he wasn’t satisfied to do just that. He had to do it bigger and better. Unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, just a sole Goldman figure lording it over economic policy wasn’t enough for him. Only two would do.

The Great Vampire Squid Revisited

Whether you voted for or against Donald Trump, whether you’re gearing up for the revolution or waiting for his next tweet to drop, rest assured that, in the years to come, the ideology that matters most won’t be that of the “forgotten” Americans of his Inaugural Address. It will be that of Goldman Sachs and it will dominate the domestic economy and, by extension, the global one.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, when President Teddy Roosevelt governed the country on a platform of trust busting aimed at reducing corporate power, even he could not bring himself to bust up the banks. That was a mistake born of his collaboration with the financier J.P. Morgan to mitigate the effects of the Bank Panic of 1907. Roosevelt feared that if he didn’t enlist the influence of the country’s major banker, the crisis would be even longer and more disastrous. It’s an error he might not have made had he foreseen the effect that one particular investment bank would have on America’s economy and political system.

There have been hundreds of articles written about the “world’s most powerful investment bank,” or as journalist Matt Taibbi famously called it back in 2010, the “great vampire squid.” That squid is now about to wrap its tentacles around our world in a way previously not imagined by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

No less than six Trump administration appointments already hail from that single banking outfit. Of those, two will impact your life strikingly: former Goldman partner and soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and incoming top economic adviser and National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn, former president and “number two” at Goldman. (The Council he will head has been responsible for “policy-making for domestic and international economic issues.”)

Now, let’s take a step into history to get the full Monty on why this matters more than you might imagine. In New York, circa 1932, then-Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his bid for the presidency. At the time, our nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. Goldman Sachs had, in fact, been one of the banks at the core of the infamous crash of 1929 that crippled the financial system and nearly destroyed the economy. It was then run by a dynamic figure, Sidney Weinberg, dubbed “the Politician” by Roosevelt because of his smooth tongue and “Mr. Wall Street” by the New York Times because of his range of connections there. Weinberg quickly grasped that, to have a chance of redeeming his firm’s reputation from the ashes of public opinion, he would need to aim high indeed. So he made himself indispensable to Roosevelt’s campaign for the presidency, soon embedding himself on the Democratic National Campaign Executive Committee.

After victory, he was not forgotten. FDR named him to the Business Advisory Council of the Department of Commerce, even as he continued to run Goldman Sachs. He would, in fact, go on to serve as an advisor to five more presidents, while Goldman would be transformed from a boutique banking operation into a global leviathan with a direct phone line to whichever president held office and a permanent seat at the table in political and financial Washington.

Now, let’s jump forward to the 1990s when Robert Rubin, co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, took a page from Weinberg’s playbook. He recognized the potential in a young, charismatic governor from Arkansas with a favorable attitude toward banks. Since Bill Clinton was far less well known than FDR had been, Rubin didn’t actually cozy up to him from the get-go. It was another Goldman Sachs executive, Ken Brody, who introduced them, but Rubin would eventually help Clinton gain Wall Street cred and the kind of funding that would make his successful 1992 run for the presidency possible. Those were favors that the new president wouldn’t forget. As a reward, and because he felt comfortable with Rubin’s economic philosophy, Clinton created a special post just for him: first chair of the new National Economic Council.

It was then only a matter of time until he was elevated to Treasury Secretary. In that position, he would accomplish something Ronald Reagan—the first president to appoint a Treasury Secretary directly from Wall Street (former CEO of Merrill Lynch Donald Regan)—and George H.W. Bush failed to do. He would get the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 repealed by hustling President Clinton into backing such a move. FDR had signed the act in order to separate investment banks from commercial banks, ensuring that risky and speculative banking practices would not be funded with the deposits of hard-working Americans. The act did what it was intended to do. It inoculated the nation against the previously reckless behavior of its biggest banks.

Rubin, who had left government service six months earlier, wasn’t even in Washington when, on November 12, 1999, Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed Glass-Steagall. He had, however, become a board member of Citigroup, one of the key beneficiaries of that repeal, about two weeks earlier.

As Treasury Secretary, Rubin also helped craft the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He subsequently convinced both President Clinton and Congress to raid U.S. taxpayer coffers to “help” Mexico when its banking system and peso crashed thanks to NAFTA. In reality, of course, he was lending a hand to American banks with exposure in Mexico. The subsequent $25 billion bailout would protect Goldman Sachs, as well as other big Wall Street banks, from losing boatloads of money. Think of it as a test run for the great bailout of 2008.

A World Made by and for Goldman Sachs

Moving on to more recent history, consider a moment when yet another Goldmanite was at the helm of the economy. From 1970 to 1973, Henry (“Hank”) Paulson had worked in various positions in the Nixon administration. In 1974, he joined Goldman Sachs, becoming its chairman and CEO in 1999. I was at Goldman at the time. (I left in 2002.) I remember the constant internal chatter about whether an investment bank like Goldman could continue to compete against the super banks that the Glass-Steagall repeal had created. The buzz was that if Goldman and similar investment banks were allowed to borrow more against their assets (“leverage themselves” in banking-speak), they wouldn’t need to use individual deposits as collateral for their riskier deals.

In 2004, Paulson helped convince the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to change its regulations so that investment banks could operate as if they had the kind of collateral or backing for their trades that goliaths like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase had. As a result, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns, to name three that would become notorious in the economic meltdown only four years later (and all ones for which I once worked) promptly leveraged themselves to the hilt. As they were doing so, George W. Bush made Paulson his third and final Treasury Secretary. In that capacity, Paulson managed to completely ignore the crisis brewing as a direct result of the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the one I predicted was coming in Other People’s Money, the book I wrote when I left Goldman.

In 2006, Paulson was questioned on his obvious conflicts of interest and responded, “Conflicts are a fact of life in many, if not most, institutions, ranging from the political arena and government to media and industry. The key is how we manage them.” At the time, I wrote, “The question isn’t how it’s a conflict of interest for Paulson to preside over our country’s economy but how it’s not?” For men like Paulson, after all, such conflicts don’t just involve their business holdings. They also involve the ideology associated with those holdings, which for him at that time came down to a deep belief in pursuing the full-scale deregulation of banking.

Paulson was, of course, Treasury Secretary for the period in which the 2008 financial crisis was brewing and then erupted. When it happened, he was the one who got to decide which banks survived and which died. Under his ministrations, Lehman Brothers died; Bear Stearns was given to JPMorgan Chase (along with plenty of government financial support); and you won’t be surprised to learn that Goldman Sachs thrived. While designing that outcome under the pressure of the moment, Paulson pled with Nancy Pelosi to press the Democrats in the House of Representatives to support a staggering $700 billion bailout. All those taxpayer dollars went with the 2008 Emergency Financial Stability Act that would save the banking system (under the auspices of saving the economy) and leave it resplendently triumphant, bonuses included), even as foreclosures rose by 21 percent the following year.

Once again, it was a world made by and for Goldman Sachs.

Goldman Back in the (White) House

Running for office as an outsider is one thing. Instantly inviting Wall Street into that office once you arrive is another. Now, it seems that Donald Trump is bringing us the newest chapter in the long-running White House-Goldman Sachs saga. And count on Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn to offer a few fresh wrinkles on that old alliance.

Cohn was one of the partners who ran the Fixed Income, Currency and Commodity (FICC) division of Goldman. It was the one that benefited the most from leverage, trading, and the complexity of Wall Street’s financial concoctions like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) stuffed with derivatives attached to subprime mortgages. You could say, it was leverage that helped propel Cohn up the Goldman food chain.

Steven Mnuchin has proven particularly adept at understanding such concoctions. He left Goldman in 2002. In 2004, with two other ex-Goldman partners, he formed the hedge fund Dune Capital Management. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Dune went shopping, as Wall Street likes to do, for cheap buys it could convert into big profits. Mnuchin and his pals found the perfect prey in a Pasadena-based bank, IndyMac, that had failed in July 2008 before the financial crisis kicked into high gear, and had been seized by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). They would pick up its assets on the cheap.

At his confirmation hearings, Mnuchin downplayed his role in throwing homeowners (including members of the military) out of their heavily mortgaged homes as a result of that purchase. He cast himself instead as a genuine hero, the guy who convened a cadre of financial sharks to help, not harm, the bank’s customers who, without their benevolence, would have fared so much worse. He looked deeply earnest as he spoke of his role as the savior of the common—or perhaps in the age of Trump “forgotten”—man and woman. Maybe he even believed it.

But the philosophy of swooping in, attacking an IndyMac-like target of opportunity and converting it into a fortune for himself (and problems for everyone else), has been a hallmark of his career. To transfer this version of over-amped 1 percent opportunism to the halls of political power is certainly a new definition of, in Trumpian terms, giving the government back to “the people.” Perhaps what our new president meant was “the people at Goldman Sachs.” Think of it, in any case, as the supercharging of a vulture mentality in a designer suit, the very attitude that once fueled the rise to power of Goldman Sachs.

Mnuchin repeatedly blamed the FDIC and other government agencies for not helping him help homeowners. “In the press it has been said that I ran a ‘foreclosure machine,’” he said, “On the contrary, I was committed to loan modifications intended to stop foreclosures. I ran a ‘Loan Modification Machine.’ Whenever we could do loan modifications we did them, but many times, the FDIC, FNMA, FHLMC, and bank trustees imposed strict rules governing the processing of these loans.” Nothing, that is, was or ever is his fault—reflecting his inability to take the slightest responsibility for his undeniable role in kicking people out of their homes when they could have remained. It’s undoubtedly the perfect trait for a Treasury secretary in a government of the 1 percent of the 1 percent.

Mnuchin also blamed the Federal Reserve for suggesting that the Volcker Rule—part of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 designed to limit risky trading activities—was harming bank liquidity and could be a problem. The way he did that was typically slick. He claimed to support the Volcker Rule, even as he underscored the Fed’s concern with it. In this way, he managed both to make himself look squeaky clean and very publicly open the door to a possible Trumpian “revision” of that rule that would be aimed at weakening its intent and once again deregulating bank trading activities.

Similarly, at those confirmation hearings he said (as Trump had previously) that we needed to help community banks compete against the bigger ones through less onerous regulations. Even though this may indeed be true, it is also guaranteed to be another bait-and-switch move likely to lead to the deregulation of the big banks, too, ultimately rendering them even bigger and more dangerous not just to those community banks but to all of us.

Indeed, any proposition to reduce the size of big banks was sidestepped. Although Mnuchin did say that four monster banks shouldn’t run the country, he didn’t say that they should be broken up. He won’t. Nor will Cohn. In response to a question from Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, he added, “No, I don’t support going back to Glass-Steagall as is. What we’ve talked about with the president-elect is that perhaps we need a twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall. But, no I don’t support taking a very old law and saying we should adhere to it as is.”

So, although the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall was part of the 2016 Republican election platform, it’s likely to prove just another of Trump’s many tactics to gain votes—in this case, from Bernie Sanders supporters and libertarians who see too-big-to-fail institutions and a big-bank bailout policy as wrong and dangerous. Rest assured, though, Mnuchin and his Goldman Sachs pals will allow the largest Wall Street players to remain as virulent and parasitic as they are now, if not more so.

Goldman itself just announced that it was the world’s top merger and acquisitions adviser for the sixth consecutive year. In other words, the real deal-maker isn’t the former ruler of The Celebrity Apprentice, but Goldman Sachs. The government might change, but Goldman stays the same. And the traffic pile up of Goldman personalities in Trump’s corner made their fortunes doing deals—and not the kind that benefited the public either.

A former Goldman colleague recently asked me whether it was just possible that Mnuchin was a good person. I can’t answer that. It’s something only he knows for sure. But no matter how earnest or sympathetic to the little guy he tried to be before that Senate confirmation committee, I do know one thing: he’s also a shark. And sharks do what they’re best at and what’s best for them. They smell blood in the water and go in for the kill. Think of it as the Goldman Sachs effect. In the waters of the Trump-Goldman era, don’t doubt for a second that the blood will be our own.

 

Nomi Prins, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of six books, a speaker, and a distinguished senior fellow at the non-partisan public policy institute Demos. Her most recent book is All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power (Nation Books). She is a former Wall Street executive.

http://www.alternet.org/right-wing/goldman-sachs-effect?akid=15164.265072.h9MZKP&rd=1&src=newsletter1071426&t=6