Letter from Washington: World Series Edition

final pitches

How does history change?

Something went wrong in mid-2016, an unexpected shift in the cosmic equilibrium that sent us barreling down the wrong timeline, like a train that had jumped the tracks.

You could feel it, a kind of nervousness in the air that culminated in electoral disaster on November 8, 2016. All the pundits said she couldn’t lose and yet…

I wrote about that night in Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. For me, the story was therapy as much as it was literature, my attempt to explain the unexplainable. My main character supported Trump but with the realization that the new president would not help people like him. In Victory Party, he recognizes the truth, which at least provides some hope.

Of course, Trump supporters are not like my clear-eyed protagonist but people who have willfully blinded themselves, shutting out reality in favor of the comfortable hate of Fox News. They are the people who have driven dark comedy of our times, even as it grows steadily more absurd.

Rudy Giuliani butt-dialing reporters. Mick Mulvaney admitting to a quid pro quo and then taking it back the next day. Republican members of Congress storming into a security facility with their cellphones.

The other day, a friend asked if I was working on a sequel to The Swamp, my satirical novel about the Obama years in DC.

How do you satirize an age that is beyond belief? What I could possibly write that’s stranger than our current reality?

And then the Nationals made an improbable run to the World Series. After winning the first two games in Houston, they lost all three at home. All the pundits said it was over – no way could they do it now.

And then they started winning again. Game 7 and I was in a bar, expecting the Nats to lose. I was with a friend from Boston who mocked my cynicism. She believed.

But I did not. How could you during this timeline of disaster?

Down 2-0 for most of the game, the Nats suddenly started hitting in the 7th. 2-1, 4-2 and then 6-2 with just three outs remaining! Staring at the box score, something like hope filtered into my heart. We’re going to win the World Series! An expectant buzz filled the bar.

And then it happened. The final out and everyone erupted in cheers, hugging and high-fives. Outside, on the street, people honked and yelled. Fireworks thudded over downtown as an entire city celebrated.

There were so many glorious bits of time, like the shirtless guy sliding across the dugout. I watched the local news late into the night as they interviewed drunk people. But my favorite viral moment was this:

Yes! Washington needed this, with some asshole in the fucking White House. Truer words have not been spoken – and on Fox too! You could feel the timeline starting to return to true, turning on an axis from Washington, DC.

A city that had also roundly booed the president during Game 5 and chanted, “Lock him up.”

The day after the World Series victory, while the rest of us were hungover, Nancy Pelosi started the impeachment process of Donald Trump. The wily Speaker had waited until she had the evidence and, more importantly, the votes in the Democratic caucus.

How does history change? It’s done by people. A stadium of them booing the  president, revealing his weakness. A Speaker of the House patiently marshaling her supporters. A drunk person yelling obscenities on TV. And a baseball team who ignores the pundits and just keeps on fighting.

American Chernobyl

American runner

There’s a great speech in the first episode of Chernobyl, HBO’s series about the Russian nuclear disaster. A group of Communist party officials gather in a command center as the scope of the catastrophe begins to emerge. They debate whether to inform the people of the danger, their voices verging on panic and coming dangerously close to honesty about the Soviet system.

Invoking the ghost of Lenin, an elderly apparatchik rises and tells them to have faith. If the people ask questions, they should be told to keep their minds on their labor and leave matters of the state to the state. He orders that the city be sealed off and the phone lines cut. “This is our moment to shine!” he exclaims.

Chernobyl is about more than just  the meltdown of a nuclear reactor; it is about the meltdown of an entire political system. Soviet officials deny the truth – the reactor cannot have exploded! – even as firefighters stumble into the hospital, their faces peeling off from radiation exposure. Those valiantly trying to contain the damage have to fight the Politburo and a bureaucracy intent on its own self-preservation.

The world finds out about Chernobyl only when radioactivity leaks outside the borders of the USSR. The damage to Soviet prestige was incalculable. The Soviet Union was not a Communist paradise. Suddenly, ordinary citizens began to question their leaders. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, argued that it was a bigger blow to the country than his policy of perestroika.

The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.

Watching the series, I wondered if we would do any better if faced with a similar disaster.

But it’s not a reactor that’s melting down here in America: it’s democracy.

The Chernobyl disaster exposed all the flaws of the Soviet state – the secrecy, the suppression and the hollow core of a superpower.

The Trump disaster is peeling away the comforting myths that we believe about our country – our fairness, our institutions and the belief that we’re the good guys.

Friends of mine who come from other countries cannot believe that this is happening to America. We’re supposed to be better than this. We’re not supposed to be vulnerable to the kinds of xenophobia and dictatorship that plague other parts of the world.

History does not always move forward. Sometimes it slides backward. Karl Marx believed that Communism was inevitable, in the same way that we believe that democracy will naturally win out.

As the plant at Chernobyl burned, pouring radioactive debris into the atmosphere, Soviet officials denied the facts on the ground, lied to each other, issued misleading reports and tried to cover up the scope of the disaster, working to ensure the illusion of state infallibility rather than confronting the truth.

As our Chernobyl burns, pouring toxic politics across the American landscape, we busy ourselves with reality TV, the churn of social media and news reporting that ignores a dictatorship slouching towards its birth.

American Chernobyl has exposed the weaknesses of the American system – our media addiction, unrelenting greed and the pursuit of fame, to the detriment of every other value that we once held dear.

In face of disaster, we’ve not done any better than the Soviet Union. And we’re destined to share their fate unless we confront the truth about ourselves.

Letter from Washington: After the Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle Flyby from the Reeves Center

Seven years ago today, I stood on a roof as the Space Shuttle said goodbye.

As I watched it circle Washington, DC on the back of a 747, it seemed like the end of an era – because it was. No longer would we be a people who went to space.

Why?

The Space Shuttle was too old. Too expensive. Too dangerous.

Rather than fix it, we got rid it. Rather than replace it, we chose to do nothing. It was too hard so we, a nation that had sent a man to the Moon, let the Space Shuttle fly off into the sunset, our space program reduced to a museum exhibit, just a memory for people old enough to remember the age of exploration.

People like me. Going to high school in Florida, we were let out of class to see every Space Shuttle launch. Even in Orlando it was visible, a towering cloud of smoke ascending into the atmosphere as the shuttle escaped the bonds of Earth.

No more. All gone, Democrats and Republicans agreeing that the time of manned space exploration had passed, as if Columbus was forced into retirement when he returned from his discoveries.

We, as a people, would no longer do great things. Grown cynical, we no longer believed that government could accomplish much.

I worked in government. I knew government waste. But the Space Shuttle was a tiny program compared to the billions wasted on endless war or shoveled to greedy seniors.

If we could not keep the Space Shuttle flying, what could we do?

Nothing. I saw it where I worked at NOAA, as Congress chipped away at the agency’s budget, refusing to maintain a weather forecasting system that was the envy of the world. Rather than replace meteorologists who retired, remaining staff were forced to work long hours. In my office, the computers were ancient and to get office supplies, you had to know someone.

Lawmakers didn’t care, knowing that their constituents had lost faith in government, despite the evidence all around them, such as tornado warnings and disability checks. Government was not something we did together, but something we took for granted.

Sometimes I wonder, how did we get to Trump? We lost confidence in our ability to do great things as a people, setting us up for charlatans like the current President.

But we can do great things, because we’ve done great things before. The proof is in the society that we’ve built together. Frayed and under pressure, but still there.

It is time that we, as a people, have faith again. Americans were meant for the stars. It is time we renounced con artists and took up our destiny. The candidate who wins in 2020 will be the one with a vision for the future as bold as the Space Shuttle.

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.