GOP launches counteroffensive against the media — to distract America from its massive failure

Republicans promised real accomplishments in Trump’s first 200 days. Now they must fall back on propaganda

Donald Trump’s base is shrinking, no matter what he tweets to the contrary. Two hundred days into his term, he has few legislative accomplishments to tout — despite Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade — and nobody to blame.

The president is increasingly frustrated that his raucous campaign-like crowds in friendly red states have not drowned out the Russia investigation or poll numbers that have him sinking to below 35 percent approval — and those poll numbers are starting to make congressional Republicans nervous.

Now Republicans have launched a counteroffensive.

It’s still 15 months until the midterm election, but in some ways the campaign is in full swing. House Republicans unveiled a new website on Monday meant to provide counterprogramming that depicts an alternative 200-day timeline highlighting GOP accomplishments and building up a favorite Republican boogeyman: the media.

“House Republicans aren’t distracted by the newest countdown clock on cable news or partisan sniping in Washington, D.C.,” the website, “Did You Know,“ reads. Republicans hope to blame the press for not writing more about their legislative achievements. Trump even took a break from his vacation to send off a barrage of tweets early Monday morning blasting the “Fake News” media.

But unlike the propaganda “real news” videos posted to Trump’s Facebook page in recent months — made to appear as “real” news segments hosted by Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara — House Republicans’ new venture more closely resembles the commercials put out by previous re-election campaigns.

“You don’t care about those things. You care about finding a good job, taking care of your family, and achieving the American Dream, and so do we,” the House GOP’s new ad announces.

Of course, some may recall that House Speaker Paul Ryan promised that “this will be the most productive presidency and Congress in our lifetimes” and initially pledgedto repeal and replace portions of Obamacare by spring and tackle tax reform before the August recess.

Ryan’s gamble on a glossy new campaign meant to distract from his failed policies is likely to pay off. Republican voters have long been primed to distrust the mainstream media. A poll released late last month found that nearly half of all Republicans are in favor of courts shutting down media outlets that publish biased information. A majority of Republicans also said they support fines for media outlets that put out biased or inaccurate news reports.

As mentioned earlier, Trump’s personal Facebook page — not the White House’s Facebook page — has recently taken to producing what it calls “real news” video clips that highlight positive stories ignored by the media as controversy further engulfs the administration. Last week, Lara Trump, the wife of Trump’s youngest adult son, Eric, informed more than 2 million viewers that Trump donated his presidential salary to the Department of Education.

A nearly identical video was posted Sunday by Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany, a former CNN contributor who announced her departure from the network only hours before appearing in the pro-Trump propaganda video. On Monday, it was announced that McEnany would become the next spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

“Thank you for joining us, everybody. I’m Kayleigh McEnany, and that is the real news,” the conservative television commentator said to end her “News of the Week” segment for Trump’s Facebook page.

McEnany’s seamless transition from CNN to “Trump TV” to the RNC is such a transparent circumvention of the fourth estate that even conservative commentator Erick Erickson complained on Twitter: “How very Soviet.”

In fairness, Republicans aren’t trying to hide their propaganda push. The Trump campaign said it plans to use its fledgling Facebook show to “continue to promote real news” and to “talk to Americans directly.”

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon’s Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

Trump is the ultimate fulfillment of consumer capitalism

Trump embodies the triumph of spectacle over reality more than any previous president, but he’s no anomaly

As Donald Trump’s inability to govern has become increasingly evident over the past six months, the White House has essentially transitioned into a full-blown reality TV show, with enough melodrama and petty infighting to fill several seasons worth of primetime network television.

The president, it seems, has given up all pretense of sanity as his administration has spiraled out of control. He now appears to approach his current job of running the United States government in the same way that he approached his career as a reality TV star. Top officials in the Trump administration have become virtual contestants, vying for the affection of their capricious boss and hoping he won’t mention their names in his next unhinged Twitter rant.

This transition into an dysfunctional reality TV show came to a head two weeks ago, when the president hired Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, the cartoonish and vainglorious Wall Street investor, as his communications director. Like a fame-hungry contestant on “The Apprentice,” the foul-mouthed financier wasted no time in marking his territory and attacking his fellow sycophants, calling then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus a “paranoid schizophrenic,” while threatening to fire his entire staff.

By the end of his first week, Priebus had been forced out, Scaramucci’s wife had filed for divorce, and then, on Monday, “The Mooch” himself was eliminated from the Trumpian Thunderdome also known as the White House.

As all this drama unfolded, Trump’s agenda took yet another blow with the implosion of the Republican health care bill in the Senate, leaving the president with no major policy achievement to speak of in his first six months in office. Though Trump has repeatedly claimed to have accomplished more than any of his predecessors in his first months in office, the truth is that he has overseen the most incompetent and amateurish administration in modern history. As Ryan Cooper recently put it in The Week, “the hapless incompetence of this administration is virtually impossible to exaggerate.”

The president’s first six months have confirmed what many people already knew: Trump’s image as a savvy and smart businessman with an extraordinary deal-making ability is a complete sham: the president didn’t know the first thing about running a government when he ran for office. The New York billionaire (if he is indeed a billionaire) has spent his entire adult life carefully cultivating his image as a masterful deal-maker and builder, plastering his name onto anything and everything (including many properties that he does not own) and greatly exaggerating his net worth. Trump has always been more spectacle than substance, and like a used car salesman rolling back the odometers, he made countless promises during his campaign (he would repeal and replace Obamacare “on day one,” for instance) without any real plan on how to fulfill these promises. Just like his career, Trump’s campaign was all spectacle, no substance.

Not surprisingly, then, as Trump’s true nature has become more apparent and his incompetence on full display, the spectacle surrounding his White House has only grown more outrageous. Like a Ponzi-scheme operator whose promised returns become more ridiculously bullish as investors flee and the coffers drain, the president’s rhetoric has become more grandiose and detached from reality as his presidency has gone off the rails. One can expect the circus to grow more preposterous still as the Trump administration continues to implode.

For many Americans, the spectacle will always be enough; whether or not Trump is ever successful in terms of policy, the image he projects on television screens will continue to convince millions. It is comforting to think of our reality TV president and his political rise as some kind of anomaly, but that’s not true. Donald Trump is a product of late capitalism, and the spectacle will continue to dominate in a world where all aspects of life have been commodified and each person has become just another customer.

In his classic work “The Society of the Spectacle,” published 50 years ago, French theorist Guy Debord expounded on what he called the “spectacular society,” in which the modern capitalist mode of production “presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.” The society of the spectacle, postulated the founder of the political-artistic collective known as the Situationist International, had developed over the 20th century with the rise of mass media and the commodity’s “colonization of social life.”

“Understood on its own terms,” wrote Debord in his aphoristic style, “the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance . . . In all its specific manifestations — news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment — the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life.”

Half a century after Debord published his influential treatise, the society of the spectacle has given rise to a president who epitomizes the prevailing model of social life, where appearances often predominate over reality.

“In a world that really has been turned on its head,” observed Debord, “truth is a moment of falsehood.” One could be forgiven for assuming that he was describing our world today.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

Are Democrats turning to an alliance between neocons and neoliberals?

 If so, it’s a terrible strategy

An alliance with Bush-era neocons on the Russia scandal is pushing Democrats hard right on foreign policy. Sad!

Last week, former Republican congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough made headlines when he announced on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” that he was leaving the Republican Party. A week later the conservative pundit wrote a column for the Washington Post elaborating on his decision.

“I did not leave the Republican Party. The Republican Party left its senses,” explained Scarborough. “President Trump’s Republicans have devolved into a party without a cause, dominated by a leader hopelessly ill-informed about the basics of conservatism, U.S. history and the Constitution.”

“Neither Lincoln, William Buckley nor Ronald Reagan would recognize this movement,” the former congressman continued. “It is a dying party that I can no longer defend.”

Scarborough’s criticism of his former party is more than a little ironic, considering he was a frequent apologist for Trump throughout the campaign season, but the host has nevertheless been praised by many Democrats for his “principled” decision to “put his country first.” Though it has already been a year since the Republican Party officially embraced Trump by nominating him as their candidate, it is, as they say, better late than never.

Scarborough is just one of many conservative pundits who have garnered liberal adulation for rejecting the unhinged Republican president. Since Trump was elected president last year a who’s-who of top conservative figures have been embraced by Democrats and the “liberal media” for their opposition to Trump and his reactionary brand of populism.

Indeed, though he has divided the country, President Trump has been a great unifier of neoliberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans, who have come to see Russian plots against America at every turn. Neocons like Max Boot, David Frum, Bret Stephens and Bill Kristol are among the top Republican hawks who have become liberal darlings in the Trump era. Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and coiner of the infamous phrase “axis of evil,” has become many liberals’ favorite neocon pundit on social media, while Stephens — a prominent climate-change denier — was hired earlier this year as a full-time columnist for the ostensibly liberal New York Times editorial page (not surprisingly, the Times was forced to issue a correction for his debut column defending climate-change skepticism).

At the center of this alliance is not just a mutual antipathy for President Trump but a hostility towards Russia that recalls the paranoid years of the Cold War. Last week this hawkish alliance was made official when a new “bipartisan” group called Alliance for Securing Democracy was formed. This new advocacy group will be led by Laura Rosenberger, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, and Jamie Fly, a former national security adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio. Top Obama-era officials and Bush-era neocons will sit on the board of directors, including Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan, former ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, Bush-era Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff and none other than Bill Kristol, America’s leading chicken-hawk (who is known best for how wrong he has been in nearly all of his predictions).

Glenn Greenwald summed up this new Trump era alliance in a recent article on The Intercept, noting that “on the key foreign policy controversies, there is now little to no daylight between leading Democratic Party foreign policy gurus and the Bush-era neocons who had wallowed in disgrace following the debacle of Iraq and the broader abuses of the war on terror.”

The Democratic establishment’s apparent shift to the right on foreign policy, along with its newly formed alliance with Republican hawks, is part of an overall trend that reveals how out of touch the party elite have become with the base. Indeed, while leading Democrats have adopted a Cold Warrior mentality, the party’s base has actually shifted further to the left. A majority of Democrats today, for example, have a favorable opinion of “socialism” and support  progressive policies like universal health care. This makes it all the more ironic — and maddening — that senior figures in the Democratic Party have started to sound more like heirs of Joseph McCarthy than Franklin D. Roosevelt, as displayed by a recent tweet from former DNC chair Donna Brazile declaring that “the Communists [i.e. Russians] are now dictating the terms of the debate.”

In a Bloomberg poll released last week, it was revealed that Hillary Clinton is even more unpopular today than the historically unpopular President Trump. According to Bloomberg, many Clinton voters said they “wished Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had won the Democratic nomination, or that they never liked Clinton and only voted for her because she was the lesser of two bad choices.” The survey had another interesting find: of the many issues facing America, 35 percent of people consider health care to be the most important, followed by issues like immigration, terrorism, and climate change. Only 6 percent of respondents said that the United States’ “relationship with Russia” is the most important issue facing the country.

These findings indicate two things: First, that most Americans care much less about the Russia scandal than the political establishment does; and second, that Clinton’s brand of neoliberalism is politically toxic. In that light, the Democratic establishment’s current strategy of embracing the center and aligning with neoconservatives to “secure democracy” against Russia is reckless and extremely shortsighted. ​​​​​​​The Republican Party “left its senses” long before Trump came around, and in uniting with Republican chicken-hawks, leading Democrats seem to be leaving their senses too.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

How to sell single payer health care: It’s a great policy, but has a huge political drawback

Workers are not going to want to see employer-provided benefits disappear right as their taxes go up

The very public battle over Trumpcare — which seems like it may, fingers crossed, be collapsing due to the public rejecting the ejection of millions of people from the health care system — seems to have had the side benefit of increasing public interest in the idea of a single payer government-run health insurance system. Polling shows that anywhere from 33 percent to 44 percent to 58 percent of voters back the idea of single payer, and in blue states that theoretically have the tax base to pull off statewide system — such as New York or California — single payer likely could garner more support.

And yet one of the bluest of states, California, has once again failed to get a single payer bill off the ground, in no small part because it was, as David Dayen at the Intercept argued, “a shell bill that cannot become law without a ballot measure approved by voters.”

Dayen blames single payer proponents for not “committing to raising the millions of dollars that would be needed to overcome special interests and pass that initiative”and accuses them of “hiding the realities of California’s woeful political structure in favor of a morality play designed to advance careers and aggrandize power.”

When one looks at the players involved, it’s hard to deny Dayen’s accusation. But it’s also worth pointing out that single payer, as it’s currently constructed, faces a major political obstacle that even a lot of electoral hustle may not be able to overcome: People really do not want to see their taxes raised to pay for it. Proponents of single payer aren’t doing enough to address that objection.

The good news is that there are ways to address these voter concerns. The first step, however, is admitting that tax raises are a real problem.

Polling data shows this. The majority of California residents, 65 percent, say they want a single payer system, but that level of support drops to 42 percent if it will require a tax raise.

Proponents of single payer tend to counter this objection by pointing out that these taxes will replace spending on private health insurance and would reduce health care spending overall. That is true in a macroeconomic sense, but it fails to take into consideration that the majority of people below Medicare eligibility age get their health insurance through their employers.

The perception is going to be, like it or not, that single payer is shifting the responsibility for paying for health insurance off of employers and onto the shoulders of workers. People aren’t going to care about reduced health care costs if they think their bosses reap the bulk of the savings.

Why that gets so frequently overlooked, I have no idea. Otherwise, progressives seem to grasp that squeezing the workers while letting the bosses off the hook tends not to go down well with voters. The problem might be that there’s been a longing for single payer for so long in progressive circles that any objections are written off as neoliberal corporatist nonsense — a theory I suspect much of the response to this article will prove.

But if one accepts that this is a problem, then there’s all sorts of creative ways to address it. One way is to dispense with single payer bills and instead have states offer a Medicaid buy-in that employers can access, with the hopes that the lowered costs will allow Medicaid to eventually conquer the market. Or perhaps payroll taxes are structured so that employers pay a larger chunk, so workers don’t feel the pinch.

I say it’s time to get freaky with it. My proposal: Write the bill so that it requires employers to compensate their employees who lose their health care benefits with a raise in their paycheck. Then the plan could be marketed as “health care for all, plus a raise at work.” Higher taxes go down easier if you’re getting a raise to cover them.

The best part is that this could be a win/win situation. One of the bigger problems facing employers is that insurance premiums are rising while the value of what they get for it is not improving. Giving the money to employees directly in cash would actually be cheaper in the long run because employers would be escaping that inflation pressure. Employees see more money in their paychecks while the per-employee costs for the employer don’t rise as fast.

Ideally the raise would be one that’s equivalent to what the employer pays annually to the insurance company to cover that employee’s health care plan, but that could be negotiable depending on how much the employer will be on the hook for in higher payroll taxes. The details are less important here than sending the message to voters that single payer is not about shifting the health care burden away from employers to employees.

This is just one idea, of course. There may be — probably are! — other ways to deal with this political problem that make more sense economically. The main issue here is that the larger economic savings of single payer sound great in the abstract, but will be hard to sell if voters don’t feel that they personally are seeing those savings in their checking accounts. As long as single payer proponents fail to address that political problem, there’s very little chance of getting a single payer bill off the ground.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

What if all journalists wrote like tech journalists?

Hypnotized by Silicon Valley’s hype machine, too many tech writers are little more than fawning lackeys

What if all journalists wrote like tech journalists?

Apple CEO Tim Cook(Credit: AP/Richard Drew)

Ever since the ’90s tech boom, tech journalists have tended to cover their beat a little differently. More specifically, compared to other journalistic fields, tech journalism is more likely to be reverent, even fawning, toward the subjects it is supposed to critique.

“Visit any technology-focused media outlet, or the tech sections of many news organizations, and you’ll see that ‘gadget porn’ videos, hagiographic profiles of startup founders or the regurgitation of lofty growth expectations from Wall Street analysts vastly outnumber critical analyses of technological disruption,” wrote my Salon colleague Angelo Young, in his article about how Silicon Valley sells a side of ideology with its gadgets. “[C]riticisms that do exist tend to focus on ancillary issues, such as Silicon Valley’s dismal lack of workplace diversity, or how innovation is upsetting norms in the labor market, or the class-based digital divide; all are no doubt important topics, but they’re ones that don’t question the overall assumptions that innovation and disruption are at worst harmless if not benevolent.”

This is the dismal state of tech journalism in the digital era: Because of the tech industry’s success at branding itself as selling a sunny, progressive vision of the future, most (but not all) tech journalists don’t really cover it with a critical eye. Some publications and blogs read like advertisements for gadgets, and breathlessly cover minor, quotidian firmware updates as if they were front-page stories.

Which leads us to a thought experiment: What if all news stories were written the way tech journalists cover their beats? What if all journalism was infected with the same cultish CEO adulation, the fawning adoration, the puff pieces about how this week’s disposable gadget is the most amazing thing to have ever existed? How might the news look to us then?

Reader, here’s a take on a shiny new product — not in the tech industry, but the fast-food industry — written from just that perspective.

It’s here: McDonald’s Lobster Roll 7

McDonald’s adds a fresher crustacean and an improved crunch at a higher price point — but should you buy it?

Reviewing the new Lobster Roll 7 is a lot like reviewing the previous models, but different. The roll, which was announced last week at the annual Worldwide Food-Eater’s Conference (WFEC) at the futuristic McDonald’s campus in Oak Brook, outwardly resembles the last Lobster Roll — but inside, it’s totally new.

Until recently, the notoriously secretive fast-food company had been mum about the next generation of its ever-popular sandwich. For the past two years, journalists have had to rely on the slow trickle of supply-chain rumors and leaked photos of questionable veracity to guess at the nature of the next model. The hype machine is so overblown that there’s a cottage industry of excitable vloggers who make a living creating speculative computer mock-ups of the next Lobster Roll and posting them on YouTube.

But back to the WFEC reveal: Perhaps the most surprising announcement from the Wizards of Oak Brook was the changed naming scheme. No more McLobster. It’s just Lobster Roll 7 now.

More elegant, perhaps, and an intriguing shift in marketing strategy for the decidedly minimalist company. Indeed, since meticulously engineering the first McLobster, the company has opted to make subtle year-to-year changes in its sandwich design, a strategy that makes sense given its astonishing popularity. Many reviewers believed the second generation model was “near-perfect”; how can you improve on perfection? Tinkering is all that’s left. Yet as sandwich tech improves, we can surely expect to see some of the fruits of that innovation implicated in this model. McDonald’s certainly spends a pretty penny on R&D.

If you take a closer look, most of the outward changes to this Lobster Roll model are subtle. For example, the way the lobster is cut is more angular than before — an interesting design decision for a company that always had a fetish for bevels. And for the first time, the lettuce no longer comes from Korean-based Lettuce International; relations between the two companies have been frosty ever since LI began selling a competitor crustacean roll.

While anticipation was sky-high for the next iteration of the Lobster Roll line, questions linger about McDonald’s ability to continue to dominate the industry. Mickey D fanboys have reason to be suspicious of this release; ever since the first groundbreaking McLobster was released in 1993, the crustacean fast-food space has become way more crowded. Rival Panera has been innovating in the crustacean sandwich world for the past few years, and has built up an impressive condiment ecosystem to rival that of McDonald’s. Likewise, the new Lobster Roll 7 will be the first iteration of the McDonald’s line released under the aegis of new CEO Steve Easterbrook, who last year took the reins from his iconic, brilliant, industry-defining predecessor, the ever-reclusive wunderkind Don Thompson — whose leadership of the industry-defining company has been immortalized in five biopics over the past 10 years, including an eponymous 2016 film written by Aaron Sorkin.

But enough about expectations. What about the product?

Let’s just say that fanboys are likely to call this Lobster Roll “world changing” (many of them without even tasting it, if the long lines outside McDonald’s stores across the globe are any indication). You may roll your eyes at such an epithet, but they may indeed be right. Even the most crotchety reviewers will likely admit that the Lobster Roll 7 epitomizes a paradigm shift for the industry. And to those who say it’s barely an innovation on previous models, I say this: Why mess with perfection?

Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die

CNN delves into a decade of pat neoliberalism and hollow spectacle and, unsurprisingly, comes up with nothing

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die
The Nineties (Credit: CNN)

To anyone who came of age in the 1990s, the current cultural ascent of fidget spinners is likely to induce an acute pang of recognition — equal parts wistful nostalgia, anxiety and woozy terror. The ‘90s were, as any certified “Nineties Kid” can attest, a decade marked by a succession of asinine schoolyard fads.

One can imagine an alternative timeline of the decade that marks time not by year, but the chronology of crazes: the Year of the Beanie Baby, the Year of the Tamagotchi, the Years of the Snap-Bracelet, the Macarena, the Baggy Starter Jacket, the Painstakingly Layered “The Rachel” Hairdo, and so on. What’s most remarkable about our culture’s whirring fidget spinner fetish is that it didn’t happen sooner; that this peak fad didn’t emerge from among the long, rolling sierra of hollow amusements that defined the 1990s.

Surveying the current pop-culture landscape, one gets the sense that the ‘90s— with all its flash-in-the-pan fads and cooked-up crazes — never ended. On TV, “The Simpsons” endures into its 28th season, while David Lynch and Mark Frost’s oddball ABC drama “Twin Peaks” enjoys a highly successful, and artistically fruitful, premium-cable revival. The Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Treasure Trolls have graduated from small-screen Saturday morning silliness to blockbuster entertainments.

Elsewhere, the “normcore”/“dadcore”/“lazycore” fashion of singers like Mac DeMarco has made it OK (even haute) to dress up like a “Home Improvement”-era Jonathan Taylor Thomas. And Nintendo recently announced its latest money-printing scheme, in the form of the forthcoming SNES Classic Mini: a handheld throwback video game platform chock-full of nostalgia-baiting Console Wars standbys like “Donkey Kong Country,” “F-Zero” and “StarFox.” Content mills like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and their ilk bolster their bottom line churning out lists and quizzes reminding you that, yes, the show “Rugrats” existed.

To quote a nostalgic ’97-vintage hit single, which was itself a throwback to ‘60s jazz-pop, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

It’s natural to languish for the past: to trip down memory lane, get all dewy-eyed about the past, pine for the purity of the long-trampled gardens of innocence, and go full Proust on the bric-a-brac of youth that manages to impress itself on the soft, still-maturing amber of the adolescent mind, even if that stuff was total crap like Moon Shoes or a Street Shark or Totally Hair Barbie doll or a bucket of Nickelodeon-brand goo called “Gak.” The 1990s, however, offered a particularly potent nostalgia trap, something revealed watching CNN’s new TV documentary miniseries “event,” fittingly called “The Nineties.”

A follow-up to CNN’s previous history-of-a-decade events (“The Sixties,” “The Seventies” and “The Eighties”) and co-produced by Tom Hanks, the series provides some valuable insight into the nature of ’90s nostalgia. The two-part series opener, called “The One About TV,” threads the needle, examining the ways in which television of the era shifted the standards of cultural acceptability, be it in Andy Sipowicz’s expletive-laden racism, Homer Simpson’s casual stranglings of his misfit son or the highbrow, Noel Coward-in-primetime farces of “Frasier.”

To believe CNN’s procession of talking heads, damn near every TV show to debut after midnight on Jan. 1, 1990, was “revolutionary.” “The Simpsons” was revolutionary for the way it hated TV. “Twin Peaks” was revolutionary for the way it subverted it. “Seinfeld” ignored (or subtracted, into its famous “Show About Nothing” ethic) the conventions of the sitcom. “Frasier” elevated them. “Will & Grace,” “Ellen” and “The Real World” bravely depicted gay America. Ditto “Arsenio,” “Fresh Prince” and “In Living Color” in representing black America. “OZ” was revolutionary for its violence. “The Sopranos” was revolutionary in how it got you to root for the bad guy. “Friends” was revolutionary because it showed the day-to-day lives of, well, some friends. If the line of argumentation developed by “The Nineties” is to be believed, the TV game was being changed so frequently that it was becoming impossible to keep up with the rules.

Despite seeming argumentatively fallacious (if everything is subversive or game-changing, then, one might argue, nothing is), and further debasing the concept of revolution itself, such an argument cuts to the heart of ‘90s nostalgia. In pop culture, it was an era of seeming possibility, where it became OK to talk about masturbation (in one of “Seinfeld’s” more famous episodes) or even anal sex (as on “Sex & the City”), where “Twin Peaks” and “The Sopranos” spoke to the rot at the core of American life. “The Nineties” paints a flattering, borderline obsequious portrait of Gen-X ’90s kids as too hip, savvy and highly educated to be suckered in by the gleam and obvious propaganda that seemed to define “The Eighties.” (The ’90s kid finds a generational motto in the tagline offered by Fox’s conspiratorial cult sci-fi show “The X-Files”: trust no one.)

What “The Nineties” misses — very deliberately, one imagines — is the guiding cynicism of such revolutions in television. Far from being powered by a kind of radical politics of inclusivity, TV was (and remains) guided by its ability to deliver certain demographics to advertisers. In the 1990s, these demographics splintered, becoming more specialized. Likewise, entertainment streams split. The bully “mean girls” watched “90210,” the bullied watched “My So-Called Life,” and the kids bullied by the bullied watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then on Thursday night, everyone watched “Seinfeld.”

This parade of prime-time cultural revolutions betrayed the actual guiding political attitude of the decade: stasis. The second episode of “The Nineties” turns to the scandal-plagued political life of Bill Clinton. “A new season of American renewal has begun!” beams Clinton, thumb pressed characteristically over a loosely clenched fist, early in the episode. For the Democrats, Bill Clinton seemed like a new hope: charming, charismatic, hip, appearing in sunglasses on Arsenio to blow his saxophone. But like so many of TV’s mock-insurgencies, the Clinton presidency was a coup in terms of aesthetics, and little else.

Beyond his sundry accusations of impropriety  (Whitewater, the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky sex scandals, etc.), Clinton supported the death penalty, “three strikes” sentencing, NAFTA, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and countless other policies that alienated him from his party’s left-progressive wing. Clinton embodied the emerging neoliberal ethic: cozying up to big banks and supporting laissez-faire economic policies that further destabilized the American working and middle classes, while largely avoiding the jingoist militarism, nationalism and family values moralism of ‘80s Reaganomics. Clinton’s American renewal was little more than face-lift.

“The Simpsons,” naturally, nailed this devil-you-know distinction in a 1996 Halloween episode, which saw the bodies of Bill Clinton and then-presidential rival Bob Dole inhabited by slithering extraterrestrials. Indistinguishable in terms of tone and policy, the body snatching alien candidates beguiled the easily duped electorate with nonsensical stump speeches about moving “forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”

A 1992 book by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama summed up the ’90s’ neoliberal approach to politics. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Fukuyama posited that the collapse of the Soviet Union following the Cold War had resolved any grand ideological and historical conflicts in world politics. Liberal democracy and capitalism had won the day. Free market democracy was humanity’s final form. History — or at least the concept of history as a process of sociological evolution and conflict between competing political systems — had run its course.

Following the publication of “The End of History,” Fukuyama became an institutional poli-sci Svengali (John Gray at the New Statesman dubbed him the “court philosopher of global capitalism”), with his ideas holding significant major sway in political circles. The 1990s in America, and during the Clinton presidency, in particular, were a self-styled realization of the “end of history.” In the wake of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall, the president’s position was largely functionary: enable the smooth functioning of markets, and the free flow of capital. Such was the horizon of political thought.

Fukuyama’s book has been subjected to thorough criticism for its shortsightedness — not least of all for the way in which its central argument only serves to consolidate and naturalize the authority of the neoliberal elite. More concretely, 9/11 and its aftermath are often cited as signals of the “revenge of history,” which introduces new, complicated clashes of world-historical ideologies.

Though it’s often touted for its triumphalism, as a cheerleading handbook for the success of Westernized global capitalism, Fukuyama’s end of history theory is suffused with a certain melancholy. There’s one passage, often overlooked, which speaks to the general content and character of the ’90s (and “The Nineties”). “The end of history will be a very sad times,” he writes. “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.”

Our fresh new millennium has been marked, in political terms, by cultural clashes between decadent Western liberalism and militant Islamism (both sides bolstering their positions with the hollow rhetoric of religious zealotry), the abject failure of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the reappearance of white supremacist and ethno-nationalist thinking, the thorough criticism of neoliberalism, and the rise of a new progressive-left (signaled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders), alongside a similarly invigorated form of moderatism referred to as “the extreme centre.” Amid such wild vicissitudes, the placid neoliberal creep of Fukuyama’s “post-history” feels downright quaint.

This is the sort of modern nostalgia that CNN’s “The Nineties” taps into: a melancholy for the relative stability of a decade that was meant to mark the end of history itself. Not only did things seem even-keeled, but everything (a haircut, a GameBoy game about tiny Japanese cartoon monsters, a sitcom episode about waiting for a table) seemed radical, revolutionary and, somehow, deeply profound. We are, perhaps invariably, prone to feeling elegiac for even the hollowness of A Decade About Nothing. It’s particularly because the 1990s abide in our politicians, our ideologies, our prime-time entertainments, blockbusters movies and even, yes, in our faddish toys, designed to ease our fidgety anxiety about the muddled present, and keep us twirling, twirling back into memory of a simpler, stupider past.

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of “This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall” (ECW Press).

You may never hear anything from Prince’s vault of unreleased music

The fate of musical icon’s unreleased songs is less than clear

You may never hear anything from Prince's vault of unreleased music

Prince (Credit: AP/Liu Heung Shing)

Fans of the late musical icon Prince may never be able to admire the content stored inside two of the artist’s storage vaults due battles over rights to his estate, according to the New York Times.

When musician passed in April 2016, he left behind hundreds or even thousands of songs with no plan and no will. “But a conflict in Prince’s estate over a $31 million deal with Universal for music rights means that much of the vault may not see daylight for months or even years to come,” the Times reported.

Kevin W. Eide of Carver County District Court in Chaska, Minn., the judge overseeing Prince’s estate, described the conflict as “personal and corporate mayhem.”

At the beginning of the year things seemed to be on the right track, however, Universal decided it wanted to cancel its deal for Prince’s recorded music which would have included rights to most of the vault as well as those attached to later albums.

One of the most important things was “a timetable for obtaining American release rights for some of Prince’s early hits, after the expiration of existing deals with Warner Bros.,” the Times reported.

The Times explained:

Universal said that it had been “misled and likely defrauded” by representatives of Bremer Trust, the Minnesota bank charged with administering the estate, and demanded its money back. According to Universal, it learned after closing the deal that some of the rights it had paid for conflicted with those held by Warner, through a confidential deal that company signed with Prince in 2014.

Judge Eide has allowed Universal’s lawyers to finally view the Warner contract, and the company’s response is expected this week. Whatever happens, music executives say, the episode may harm the estate and complicate efforts to make another deal.

Some experts believe that no matter the ending, it will come with a price. “I don’t think there’s an outcome that is free of cost,” Lisa Alter, a copyright lawyer told the Times. Alter, however, is not involved with the case. But she also doesn’t believe there is an outcome “that is free of some damage to the estate in terms of throwing a cloud over what the rights really are.”

Music executives have said that it’s quite rare for a deal like Universal’s to be canceled. “And the story has become all the more riveting with allegations of mismanagement and deception on the part of estate representatives, including L. Londell McMillan, a lawyer who once represented Prince and was an adviser to Bremer,” the Times reported.

 

 

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay