This Week: The Fog of Trump

This week: More of the same, but worse — with Tim Snyder, Sally Quinn, Michael Glennon and Heather Cox Richardson. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

We’re three weeks in, and it’s getting harder to see through the fog in Trump’s La La Land. Where the media sees chaos, the president sees a “fine-tuned machine.” It’s a dizzying game of Opposite Day, where the leaks are real and the news is fake, and the show is live all day every day. The country is on edge.

We may have ramped things up to amber alert status with our show this week. Yale historian Tim Snyder gives democracy a year; Deep State specialist Michael Glennon says maybe less; beltway socialite Sally Quinn says the government is disintegrating and Washington is at a 12 on the Watergate impeachment scale of 1 to 10.

We don’t normally go in for the doomy story line, but the interview Tim Snyder gave to a German newspaper this week caught our attention. German journalists recognize centralized regime change when they see it, Snyder says, and there’s worrying symptoms of it here in Trump’s attacks on the courts and the media. The clock is ticking he says, and if we think authoritarianism looks like it does in the old movie reels with shiny boots and swastikas, we should get off our exceptional city on a hill and get woke.

Michael Glennon has helped us understand the inner workings of the Deep State before. What he’s seeing through the mist is the outline of Deep State revenge against the president who dissed the intelligence community during his campaign. The leaks are real, and they’re coming from the permanent government that doesn’t like the elected government. Which is worse, Chris asked, the Trump coup or the counter coup?

Heather Cox Richardson had the line on Steve Let’s-Party-Like-It’s-1933 Bannon before anyone. She wrote to me just days after the election about Bannon’s Vatican speech and his obsessive belief that the Christian West is in a holy war with Islam. “Think Pamela Geller conspiracy theories, but in the highest levels of government. That would explain a lot: Trump’s constant reversion to ISIS chopping off heads whenever he got backed into a corner; Kellyanne Conway’s velcro-like attachment to Trump’s craziness; evangelical support for Trump; the crazy Freedom Caucus attacks on the Iran deal; the willingness to work with Putin and praise for his involvement in Syria.There is a whole underground movement on this, it turns out.” To be honest, at the time we thought it sounded like a Dan Brown novel.

So how are we feeling now?

I for one am determined not to get swept up in the chaos narrative; I want to really understand what seems to have happened to our country, and not miss what David Foster Wallace called “the water” all around us that we might be missing. Sally Quinn has spent 60 years in Washington, and one suspects, hasn’t had a conversation in all that time with anyone remotely like a Trump voter. We know a few, and we’re tracking them carefully. The Guardian started a series called “Burst Your Bubble,” with “five conservative articles worth reading to expand your thinking each week.” It’s a start. If you have others, send them along.

COMING UP: James Baldwin

Chris Lydon: Out of the blue — out of the blues — in our Baldwin homework come the musical passions of the man. Who remembers that at Carnegie Hall in June, 1973 Baldwin collaborated with Ray Charles in a production of The Hallelujah Chorus: no ordinary adaptation of Handel’s Messiah but a modern testimony, as Baldwin wrote in the program notes:

“I have observed that not many of us can say, or sing: hallelujah. Perhaps it is because one first [must] descend into the valley, where one learns to say: Amen. If one can find in oneself the force to say, Amen, it is possible to come to Hallelujah. But Amen is the price. The black experience in the valley of America remains, my friends, America’s only affirmation. We have sung the Lord’s song for a very long time, in a very very strange land […] Perhaps that is why so many like to say that only black people can sing the blues.”

Ed Pavlic is no ordinary Baldwin scholar. In Who Can Afford to Improvise?, Pavlic has reimagined Baldwin, man and artist, and found music everywhere — in his consideration of black communion, language, gesture, pain, struggle and survival. On blues queen Bessie Smith, for example, Baldwin had written: “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very dep. I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I would not touch watermelon), but in Europe she helped to reconcile me to being a ‘nigger.’”

So we will have to hear some of his other friends and heroes in our Baldwin hour — Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and the pop-Gospel singers of the Edwin Hawkins Family. Who knew that Baldwin was near-addicted (as we all were) to the Hawkins’ greatest hit, “O Happy Day,” from 1970?

Chris Lydon and George Saunders at the Boston Public Library (photo by Zach Goldhammer)

MM: The week ended with a massive treat. We were lucky enough to spend an hour with George Saunders at the Boston Public Library. There might not be a sweeter, wiser, more charming man alive on the earth today. George talked with Chris about his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, about Chekhov, writing, and about his travels in America covering Trump.

Working on this Lincoln book really helped me understand that America has always been a work in progress. A mess, full of failures and blunders. Almost like a drunk. A very powerful drunk walking up the street who keeps knocking shit over or insulting people, but in his hands he’s got this very beautiful gift that he has to deliver to somebody. We aren’t the unerring champion of liberty and equality that I thought we were when I was young. But we do have something that I think the world needed and might still need. I don’t know if we know what it is yet. But I got a glimpse of it. In Flagstaff, I went to a Bernie rally and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more optimistic, egalitarian and inclusive vision of what the country could be. (from an interview with Mike Matesich at the Oxford Exchange)

We’ll post the conversation soon.

George Saunders talk at Harvard Book Store (Illustration by Susan Coyne)

Susan Coyne: I caught George Saunders’ talk on Friday night in Harvard Square. It was sold out, and people were crowded onto the balcony. In addition to being one of the best living writers in the English language (my unbiased opinion), Saunders also has an instinct for standup comedy that brought down the house again and again. Some things he said are not repeatable here, but he did speak, separately, about the “capacious artistic mindset” he enters while writing, the need for writers not to condescend to their readers, and what real empathy looks like. “Real empathy is fierce. You don’t see a baby crawling towards a light socket and say, ‘Oh honey, you can’t do that.’ You grab that f — -er by the diaper.” (He was, incidentally, talking about how to deal with Trump supporters).

When it comes to our current political situation, Saunders said it’s okay to feel like “We’re on a boat on a pitching sea on roller skates and also we’re drunk.” But he said that the act of making art, especially in these times, will save us: “Let’s trust it as the highest thing that human beings can do.”


Extra Credit: Stories for Troubled Times

MM: Many of my friends are looking for protection from the chaos and the Trump crazy. One sent along this from the poet Maria Howe:

…before and after political action, I want to remember to protect and preserve that space where moral action (and poetry) begins. To dwell within the space nourished by reading, by listening, by inner discourse, by music, by silence. To remember to sit still within that richness, and receptivity, and for a few minutes or more. To say and do nothing.

So we should collect and share such things. Chris and George Saunders traded some favorite short stories the other day. Chris likes a story called “Myself Upon the Earth” by William Saroyan; George says he loves teaching a Gina Berriault story called “The Stove Boy” as well as “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy. Chris’ Chekhov pick was “A Medical Case” (we read it aloud two winters ago). George’s was “Gooseberries.”

Chaz Freeman, one of our favorite world watchers has been watching movies. He recommends Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

About the farthest I’ve got off the Trump track is catching up on The Americans, which last week was hard to tell apart from CNN.

In other resistance news, check out Beyond Resistance by Alex Gourevitch. and Teen Vogue which Heather Cox Richardson reminds us is part of the resistance, too! Another friend passed along this twitter feed, which is tracking John McCain and the stirrings of a pushback by Republicans in Congress.

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