Letter from Washington: The Grifter Economy

Jared is a spy

Why are Americans so unhappy?

We’re the richest, most powerful nation in history. Yet, individual Americans are staggeringly unhappy, according to a recent survey from the World Happiness Report:

Americans are unhappy, according to the report, an annual list ranking the overall happiness levels of 156 countries — and it’s only getting worse.

For the third year in a row, the U.S. has dropped in the ranking and now sits at No. 19, one spot lower than last year, according to the report produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative. The top three spots this year were occupied by Finland, Denmark and Norway. At the bottom were Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Researchers point to an “epidemic of addictions” as the cause. We’re a nation with an unhealthy relationship to food, booze, opioids and social media.

While we certainly should minimize the role of social media in our lives, our addictions are not a cause of unhappiness but a symptom a bigger disease: economic insecurity. We use drugs and social media to cope with dislocation for the same reason that the gin craze swept England in the 18th Century.

Americans of the right and left agree on one thing: the economy is rigged against them. And they’re right.

The college cheating scandal revealed how the rich have gamed the system for their benefit. It wasn’t enough for celebrities to be rich and famous, they had to pass on their elite benefits by bribing their way into top universities.

This isn’t an isolated incident, but a pattern across American life. Bankrupt a bank and you get a government bailout. But go broke due to a trip to the emergency room and you die on the street.

And it’s only going to get worse, with the Trump/Kushner crime family in the White House. They’ve worked the system for decades, using tax breaks and federal aid for personal enrichment. Watch the excellent A&E series on the family to learn how they’ve stiffed contractors, defaulted on loans and cheated their way to tax abatements and federal funds. They’re a family that grew rich by fleecing the American taxpayer.

The posters you see in DC are probably correct: Jared Kushner is a spy. Communicating by secret with the journalist-murdering Saudis, he’s pursuing his familial economic interests while flying on US government jets. Kushner knows that you use insider connections to scoop up ill-gotten wealth in the Grifter Economy.

Another emblematic figure of the Grifter Economy is Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos. She sold a beautiful lie to Baby Boomers who wanted to live forever, the promise of a device that could detect diseases with a single drop of blood. Everything about the story was a fraud, including her earthy voice. Hundreds of millions of dollars were lost in a fantasy, one that was only uncovered by the kind of dogged reporting of the kind that Trump, Kushner and the Saudis want to go away.

Before Trump became president, I wrote a novel about an American grifter: Don’t Mess Up My Block. I thought it was funny to imagine someone who took “fake it until you make it” as a guiding belief. In my book, Larry Christenson shaves his head, changes his name and reinvents himself as a management consultant, despite having no business experience. He then wreaks havoc across America in this parody of a self-help book.

Don’t Mess Up My Block was inspired by my experience seeing the destructive “solutions” that consultants sold organizations. A PowerPoint and some buzzwords and people got laid off, while the consultants went on to the next engagement, leaving the organization in tatters. It was a grift.

Little did I know that this kind of grift, and these kind of grifters, would take over America in 2016. Now we all must figure out a way to survive the Grifter Economy.

Do you want to make something or grift something? Making is hard; grifting is easy and far more profitable. Better to create a con (Make America Great Again) than to bring real value to the real world.

The Grifter Economy offers little for the hard-working and nothing for the honest. No wonder Americans are so unhappy.

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Tyrant

The name “Donald Trump” does not appear in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics.

But it’s impossible to read this examination of tyranny in Shakespeare’s plays without considering our own times and our own tyrant.

As author Stephen Greenblatt observes, Shakespeare, “deftly sketched the kind of person who surges up in troubled times to appeal to the basest of instincts and draw upon the deepest anxieties of his contemporaries.”

Richard III is perhaps the greatest villain in history. Shakespeare makes him a warped, pitiable creature that enacts horrors yet somehow gains our sympathy. Rudely stamped, Richard III rises to power through allies who think they can control him and followers who seek advantage in his power.

Yet, when obtaining the crown, he finds it an empty experience, the source of more troubles rather than less as his enemies gather to overthrow him. He dies, alone on a battlefield, abandoned by all.

Macbeth is a reluctant tyrant, goaded into murder by his wife, and then haunted by memories of the bloody deed. “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” he says of his anguish. Macbeth recognizes his sin and is driven mad by it, to the detriment of his country.

King Lear is another self-destructive monarch, divvying up his kingdom among ungrateful daughters while spurning those who speak truth to power. The consequence is internal exile and madness, the narcissism of the old king laid bare.

In Coriolanus, ancient Rome is beset with turmoil. The patricians have taken too much, leaving the plebeians to starve. In a speech reminiscent of Howard Schultz, an aristocrat claims that the patricians are the source of every good thing in the lives of the people:

you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds of comes from them to you
And now way from yourselves.

This goes over as well as Schultz at SXSW. After a series of conflicts, the war hero Coriolanus is on the verge of becoming dictator of Rome. All he needs to do is humble himself before the plebeians. Yet, he can’t even do this minor thing, unable to hide his hatred of commoners. His candidacy fails and he is banished.

Shakespeare was an optimist, believing that tyrants ultimately fall, undone by their character.

We have our own mad king now, a little bit of Lear and a lot of Richard III, a villain, a usurper, that has troubled domestic tranquility as he gnaws away at American democracy.

Yet, like the tyrants depicted in Tyrant: Shakespeare in Politics, he too will meet his end, undone by the flaws in his character.

 

Letter from Washington: The Cruelty is the Point

Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March
Nathan Phillips leads a dance at the Indigenous Peoples March before the MAGA teens showed up.

When video surfaced of Covington Catholic teens mocking a Native American at the Lincoln Memorial, I realized that I had missed the encounter by just a few minutes.

After work on Friday, I biked to the Lincoln Memorial desperate to see some sun after days of gloom.

At the memorial, I saw Native Americans (including Nathan Phillips) leading everyone in a giant dance with people holding hands in an ever-expanding circle. Pictured above, it was a beautiful moment seeing how everyone came together.

And a respectful one. Non-natives watched the dance from a few feet away. When invited to join, they did so, the dance expanding outward to accommodate newcomers on the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial. A drum played and Phillips sang as I watched this impromptu community demonstrate how we are all one people. Lincoln would be proud.

With all the museums closed due to the Trump Shutdown, there’s not a lot to do in Washington. The outdoor monuments and memorials are some of the few things that are open. The tourists who took part in the Native American dance circle were happy to have this unique experience of a different culture in an iconic setting.

After I left, the Covington Catholic kids came along. While there are innumerable videos and Rashoman-like confusion, one thing is clear: the MAGA teens mocked Phillips. You can see and hear them laughing at him and doing tomahawk chants while surrounding him on the steps of the Lincoln. He’s one elderly man faced off against a sea of youths in Trump gear.

Ironically, they were in Washington for the March for Life. But rather than showing respect for the lives of others, they mocked a Native American elder.

Where were the parents? Supporting them. In the video, you can see the chaperones on the sidelines enjoying the humiliation.

The cruelty is the point is the theme of a great essay by Adam Serwer on the Trump movement. A party that believed in limited government now operates a gulag system across the Southwest for immigrant children.

The Covington Catholic kids chose to wear Trump hats to the March for Life. The purpose of the march was secondary. If any of these callow youth got a girl pregnant, their beliefs would change pretty quickly.

Rather, the march was an opportunity to show the power of the Trump movement in the nation’s capital. With their uniforms and crowds, it was meant to intimidate.

But Nathan Phillips didn’t back down, even as he was jeered. He stood up to hate.

Their behavior exposed, the Covington kids face online humiliation. It won’t last. Like other wealthy men, they won’t suffer for their transgressions.

Ironic that this confrontation occurred under the watchful eyes of Abraham Lincoln. He did more than just free the slaves. He freed all of us from an evil system that poisoned this country, crushing an earlier version of Make America Great Again.

But he is just marble now, his faith and goodness forgotten by a Republican Party that has embraced cruelty.

Walking Away from Democracy

crazy stupid sign

The rain, sadly, ended in time for the Walk Away pro-Trump rally in Washington, DC.

Supposedly a group of ex-Democrats who had “walked away” from the party, they gathered, a couple hundred of them, on the concrete expanse of Freedom Plaza.

The Florida bomber wasn’t mentioned. Nor the Pittsburgh shooter. Instead, they complained that they were the victims, renounced by friends and family for “walking away” from liberalism.

Over and over, speakers claimed that they weren’t racist, to a very white and old crowd. I have never seen so much vaping in DC. One woman said that she couldn’t be racist because she had a black husband and a black baby.

“You won’t see this picture on the mainstream media!” she shouted in front of a collage of portraits of people in the movement, steps away from the Press tent, where the media could check in. Trumpkins desperately want coverage from the media that they scorn.

Political group demonstrates in DC isn’t news, especially if there’s only a couple hundred of them. This is a city which has seen anti-Trump demonstrators by the millions.

Q

Another speaker bragged of his ignorance. He only got the news from Twitter, as a couple circulated through the crowd holding a “Q” in red, white and blue. It’s the right’s favorite conspiracy theory, too complex and stupid to summarize. Basically, the government that Republicans have cursed as incompetent is secretly so competent that they can organize a deep state conspiracy against Trump.

The dangerous part is that these conspiracy theorists believe that Trump will strike back soon, with a military coup, that they cheer and encourage, as they work to make Trump a dictator.

It’s important to know your enemy. I went to see and record their anti-democratic beliefs and oddball notions. There is a temptation to ignore the madness of our fellow citizens.

But it’s better to know what they believe, for they are Trump’s base and provide cover for acts of violence like the Florida bomber. They are the sea in which terrorists swim.

For the Trump movement is a fascist movement. If the leader of another country called the media “enemies of the people” and winked at acts of violence against them, that’s how the American media would cover it. They’d call it fascism and refer to Trumpkins as right-wing militias or violent supporters of the regime.

But, since it’s here, we deny what occurs before our very eyes. We can’t be 1970s Argentina. Or Franco’s Spain. Yet, we have much in common with these fascist states, including a vast military, economic inequality and a leader’s cult of personality.

We should take seriously the words of Trump supporters. Calls for dictatorship and violent suppression of enemies (“lock her up”) are preparation for the real thing.

A couple hundred people rally in DC, walking away from reality and into the comfort of authoritarianism. It’s easy to mock them as old and stupid and sick. But we do so at our peril.

Letter from Washington: Occupy Lafayette Park

Mariachi band performs at Occupy Lafayette Park

We’ve reached the banana republic stage of resistance to Trump, in which the United States has come to resemble a South American caudillo with pot-banging protests outside the Presidential Palace.

It’s Occupy Lafayette Park, a nightly happening that mocks Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I was there at the beginning, when this home-grown event started up in the wake of the Treason Summit in Helsinki. The brainchild of Philippe Reines, a former Clinton staffer, the objective was a simple one: make some noise. Let Trump know that we object to whatever secret agreement he negotiated with his Russian masters.

Since then, I’ve taken photos and watched the protests grow and morph into a nightly celebration of opposition. There have been dinosaurs (Treason T-Rex), Pikachu, Michael Avenatti, Alyssa Milano, a Russian translator to speak Trump’s language, songs, chants, dancing, the woman who confronted Scott Pruitt at Teaism and a squad of folks carrying glowing letters that spell out TREASON and LIAR. It is Washington’s hottest party.

The most memorable night was when an 18-piece mariachi band showed up to serenade Trump as he tried to sleep. As the sky grew dark, the musicians launched into spirited versions of Cielito Lindo and Viva Mexico, the crowd singing along with them.

There is something incredibly moving to be with people united in song, a people that have been locked out of power, but united in a diverse and hopeful celebration of this country, an America that existed long before the Trumpkins, and will continue long after they’re gone. This country will endure the assaults on our liberty and ultimately emerge triumphant.

But it won’t be easy. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” to quote Thomas Paine.

Occupy Lafayette Park continues, night after night, through the steamy heat and tropical storms of summer in Washington. Every evening, around seven, they begin their vigil, filling the street outside the White House with signs, songs and chants, a reminder to the very temporary occupant of the presidency that his days are numbered.

Note: the protests began with the Twitter hashtag #OccupyLafayettePark but have moved on to #KremlinAnnex. Follow them there. Or just show up outside the White House at 7 PM any night.

Photos: 500 Days of Trump

I intended to ignore the Trump administration. But, 500 days ago, during the Inauguration, I heard a helicopter hovering over my apartment, followed it into the street, and I’ve been taking photos ever since.

Inauguration Day riot, Muslim ban protest, Women’s March, Science March, Climate March, Women’s March (again), perp walks, protests, street art, paper mache, Juggalos, makeout sessions, security theater – I’ve documented the resistance in DC.

limo in flames on K St Continue reading “Photos: 500 Days of Trump”

The Power of Image: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

Last night, I took a photo: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner, pictured with Zion Kelly.

I’m a writer and a photographer. Living near the hotel, I thought I could get some photos of celebrities. But I arrived late and missed most of them.

With my Canon SL1 and a zoom lens, I captured this image of David and Zion posing on the red carpet. I was outside the glass doors of the hotel, standing in the driveway, near the spot where Reagan was shot in 1981. A small plaque marks the location.

Once home, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my followers would like it. I’m an admirer of the Parkland survivor. To be capable of speaking out after surviving a mass shooting – that is unimaginable to me. And that AR-15s should be banned is common sense.

The tweet took off, with hundreds of mentions occurring in my timeline, as my photo was retweeted, liked and shared.

And commented upon. 95% of those comments were positive, recognizing David as a powerful voice for common-sense gun control.

This same power terrifies Trump supporters. David is an “other” – a boy who doesn’t know his place. In response to my simple photo, they replied with hate, insults and conspiracy theories.

Because they’re weak. If the Trump movement was strong, then they wouldn’t need to attack David. Even an image of this teenager triggers them.

With their online hate, Trump supporters betray themselves, surrendering to their fear, hoping for a few moments of relief from self-loathing and the knowledge that the country is slipping away from them.

I didn’t respond to my critics. They’re beneath me.

My photo was enough, with more power than an army of online trolls. Let it go out into the world and inspire others to make their voices heard.

Letter from Washington: The Fascist Impulse

Kids protest gun violence in front of the White House

There they were, by the hundreds. Students from local high schools who had walked out of class to protest the Florida massacre. Streaming past the White House, they chanted, “Hey hey ho ho, the NRA has got to go!”

When I got home, Facebook told me this didn’t happen. They were paid actors, according to videos posted to the site, a vicious slur coming from the social network known for distributing disinformation during the last election.

Why not? their shareholders may ask. They can monetize the traffic, selling ads against the videos, the Republic be damned. A user is a user, whether they’re an American citizen, or Russian bot.

Twitter has at least done something, purging thousands of suspect accounts, as conservatives wail that they’ve lost followers, more concerned with social media fame than their role as unwitting (or perhaps witting) agents of a foreign power.

Unlike past tragedies, the nation is not moving on from Parkland. Trump held a listening session where he needed crib notes to remind himself to be human.

But the real fireworks came that night, at the CNN Town Hall, as students pilloried the politicians that had failed to protect them from assault rifles. Senator Marco Rubio appeared, thinking he could filibuster his way out of this mess. Instead, he was confronted with angry Floridians who demanded that he stop taking contributions from the NRA. He dodged, and the crowd roared in outrage.

Conservative commenters complained that the students were disrespectful. Days earlier, these kids watched their friends get slaughtered. That they had the composure to attend the town hall and ask questions is a tribute to their generation. Their strength and unity gives me hope for the future of this country.

But right-wing pundits online wouldn’t let go of the respect issue. The Trump movement is, at its core, a fascist impulse. Make America Great Again is about respecting your betters (old white people). Throwing aside American traditions, these so-called patriots forget that this country was founded by people with a healthy disrespect for authority. America is no place for kings, and the rowdy democracy demonstrated at the CNN Town Hall was restorative and inspiring.

The kids demonstrated how you deal with Trump and his ilk: you relentlessly attack. You stay focused on the core issue (banning assault weapons) and force opponents to fight on your terms. You don’t take any shit, in other words.

After the election, liberal friends of mine tried to understand and empathize with the other side. That time is over. We all know what Trump and Republicans want now: a totalitarian state where dissent is suppressed in the name of authority. The party of Lincoln has become a fascist cult of personality enthralled by fake news. It must be destroyed if democracy is going to survive.

The kids have shown us how it’s done. Powerless, but speaking truth to power, from the streets of DC to a brightly lit town hall in Florida, enduring the endurable to build a better nation.

They’re coming to Washington next month to March for Our Lives. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice

Donald Trump may demonize refugees but it’s impossible to look at a suffering person and not feel compassion.

That’s why photography is so important and why the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies recently hosted a panel of photojournalists and an accompanying photo exhibit.

15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice examined the impact of photojournalism and creative storytelling on policy.

But when we say policy, what really mean is people. Immigration is a policy; seeing a photo of a child saying goodbye to a deported father is heartbreaking reality.

After the photographers presented the work, a large part of the discussion centered around how to share their photos with the wider world. The set of people willing to go to JHU on a weeknight for a talk on social justice and photography is self-limiting. It was an audience sympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed.

But in an era when people can select their own reality, how do you break through the Fox News bubble?  In his work, Salwan Georges depicts a view rarely seen on network news – the Arab community of Dearborn, Michigan. These are Americans who have given their children in service to this country but their stories are rarely told. Salwan had touching photos of imams at work, not just providing religious instruction, but visiting with their congregants and even arranging marriages, a portrayal of the Muslim faith that never reaches conservative media.

Bridging this gap requires reaching out. It means that photographers and advocates must invite not just the familiar universe of liberals but also other groups, such as churches and veterans. None could look at 15 Stories of Hope, Change & Justice and go away unmoved.

The Johns Hopkins photography panel was just the first of several to occur this year, leading up to Focus On the Story, a new photography festival, coming this summer.

Michael Wolff: The Biographer the President Deserves

Sold out of Fire and Fury at Kramerbooks

There’s a tendency to think that people at the top of large organizations are smarter than you. After all, they’ve made it to the top. They must brilliant people guided by devoted staff and working within a well-organized system.

The truth is more like the moment Dorothy peeks behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz – it’s all chaos, a sham of smoke and mirrors aimed at concealing the very human weakness of the person in charge, as Michael Wolff’s reveals in Fire and Fury, his takedown of the Trump administration.

I’ve worked in communications for major organizations in Washington, DC. Everywhere, it’s the same – you may have smart staffers, and a process designed to to prevent embarrassing mistakes, but the work is driven by the whims of The Boss. If he (and it’s almost always a he), wants to put out a press release announcing his birthday, then one is produced.

I read Michael Wolff’s book Burn Rate back in the 90s. This was the era of Silicon Alley, when New York dotcoms aspired to be the next Excite or Yahoo. Wolff, a journalist, founded a company and then proceeded to burn through VC cash before walking away from the wreckage. The book mocks Internet pioneers and the industry.

He’s a loathsome character, with the attitude of a con artist putting one over on the rubes. In this case, the marks are his employees, who he stiffs, and investors, who lose their money. There’s a scene at the end of the book (and it’s very novelistic) where he succeeds at unloading the remains of his business on someone else though his media company is little more than a Filemaker database, a feat that Wolff gleefully recounts.

Whenever I’d see his name in the media, I’d think, “Ugh, that guy.” After burning Internet bridges, he went on to excoriate Rupert Murdoch and other billionaire/tyrants, his villainous headshot atop gossipy columns in Vanity Fair and other publications.

A simple Google search would’ve revealed all this.

Inviting this devious miscreant into the White House is the greatest act of communications malpractice this century. Instead of warning staff not to talk to this unreliable scribe, Sarah Sanders allowed this New York creature to observe the Trumpian chaos from a comfy couch. He’s a journalist who specializes in ripping apart media figures – what did they think he was doing there?

As Drew Margary in GQ writes, it takes a rat to catch a rat. Promising a nice book, and then writing a nasty one, Wolff worked the long con to perfection. For a change, Trump was the one being tricked.

Unethical, self-absorbed and steeped in the values of the billionaire elite, Wolff is the biographer that Trump deserves.