TUCSON – The torrent of head-spinning, heart-stopping news this week can be easily summarized: We are sooo screwed. It is not yet too late, but it will be soon if enough Americans cannot revive national integrity, sanity and basic common sense.
Before the storm, I talked with David Cay Johnston. His new book title has it right: “It’s Even Worse Than You Think.” He sees Donald Trump’s snow job swaying too many uninformed voters while too many others opt out. The America we’ve known for 229 years may be over.
Adding in the global context and repercussions of this week’s fresh lunacy, we need a sequel: “It’s Even (Much) Worse Than Johnston Thinks.”
Rex Tillerson shunned reporters and drove off half our seasoned diplomats. At Exxon-Mobil, he masked climate crises and hobnobbed with his good buddy, Vladimir Putin. Still, knowing the world, he kept shards of foreign policy intact.
He survived calling Donald Trump “a fucking moron.” But a day after he singled out Putin for poisoning a turned agent, he was fired publicly with an early-morning tweet. That triggered, and coincided with, the total collapse of Trump’s thin façade.
Most disturbing of all is how many people dismiss this as fevered exaggeration. We can thank have-it-your-way news and a flood of misleading babble disguised as news by corporate profiteers or others with nefarious motives.
In fact, people who cared could have seen this coming, step by step, from the first day Trump tossed that ridiculous red cap into the ring.
The irony is tragic. Good reporting has never been better, more easily available, or so crucial to us all. Yet despite wondrous new technology – really, because of it – Americans in the main are stupendously clueless about what we now face.
There is no “the media.” Finding solidly reported news around which the world turns is like sifting for nuggets in a manure heap. Each of us has to zero in on our own reliable sources, test their credibility, and add in missing background. This takes work.
When the New York Times came up with its hoary slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” editors sifted through firsthand reporting by seasoned pros, and they prioritized news according to what matters.
The Times at its best is better than ever. Yet it struggles to attract young readers who don’t read and older ones with selective interests. Subscribers risk hernia picking up the Sunday paper. No one can absorb it all, let alone its 24-hour updates, podcasts and the rest.
The Washington Post, flush with Jeff Bezos’ cash, faces the same challenge: to be more accessible without dumbing down. In any case, both papers still reach only a small fringe of Americans. Far more people feed at the bottom.
The Sinclair Broadcast Group, for instance, blankets the country with thinly veiled Trump propaganda. Newsweek, once a stalwart source, pays its people according to how many hits they can generate with often meaningless crap.
As a master snake oil salesman, Trump exploits this new reality to cast doubt on all reporting. His faithful remain unmoved by whatever real facts emerge. Too many others simply tune out. And our Loon Ranger charges ahead unchecked, stampeding us toward the unthinkable.
As Trump said with undisguised glee, he is now getting the Cabinet he wants: amateur sycophant ideologues who are swiftly dismantling America – its schools, courts, civil liberties, environment, natural wealth and its underlying morality.
Abroad, he alienates allies, heartens foes, speeds climate calamity, undermines human rights, and condones press censorship. He spurns millions of hapless refugees who could enrich our society but instead will end up loathing us.
I talked with Johnston at the Tucson Festival of Books in between panels of reporters who know Trump best. One was Katy Tur of NBC, who returned from London in 2015 expecting to cover his campaign for a few months until he flamed out. Now she covers the White House.
Trump, Tur said, is basically simple: a gifted huckster with no moral compass who seizes upon any emotional lever or big lie that stirs a crowd. He didn’t care about the Wall, or Mexico, until he saw those buzzwords resonate. He sees everything, including America’s fate, only in terms of how it affects him.
That explains North Korea. Trump sees a showy summit as his Nixon-in-China moment. He alone can sway the madman who has broken all past agreements and wants exactly what Trump has already given him: equal space in the spotlight.
The Loon Ranger charges on without consulting his foreign minister, now fired. His North Korea expert had quit in disgust. He has no ambassador in Seoul to consult blindsided South Koreans. He ignores warnings from those who understand groundwork essential to summitry.
To replace Tillerson, Trump picks Mike Pompeo, already over his head at CIA. If H.R. McMaster bails as national security advisor, a leading candidate is John Bolton, the hard-ass old warrior who bombed as George W. Bush’s ambassador to the U.N.
For CIA, he chose Gina Haspel, now under fire for overseeing torture. One victim was waterboarded 83 times in a month; his head was bashed into walls. That stopped when interrogators decided he had nothing to tell them. Trump also looked at Tom Cotton, the young senator-zealot who sidestepped Barack Obama to try to sabotage the Iran nuclear accord.
Beyond the big news, Trump’s trusted private secretary was ejected from the White House so fast he could barely scoop up his briefcase for unclear financial misdeed. Then he immediately resurfaced on Trump’s re-election campaign. There is so much else.
Those Florida high school kids offer hope: smart, aggressive response to screwed-up world they do not want to inherit. Gun violence is only one issue, but they might energize good people to run for office, with a wider turnout at the polls.
Still, two smart young women I know well reflect a daunting picture. One, a Portland, Oregon, high school senior, sees little interest in the Parkland phenomenon. Her friends are busy with their own lives. The other, at the University of Arizona, has spent summers in Europe and worked with refugees in Southeast Asia. But when we started talking about Syria, she asked, “What’s Aleppo?”
Right. Gary Johnson had the same question about the ancient city in which a brutal despot, his Russian backers, free-world governments, Islamists, and fragmented rebel forces fight to define a new world order. And he was a two-term governor of New Mexico, the Libertarian candidate for president in 2016.
At the Book Festival, David Cay Johnston detailed what he said were Trump’s ties to an international drug lord in the 1980s among other continuing mob ties. “I think I protected myself by sticking to the facts,” he said. “Listen, Donald, I just called you a criminal. If you think you’re not, I invite you to sue me.”
Johnston recalled that Trump, the evangelists’ champion, once described Christians as “fools, schmucks and idiots” and wrote that he took pleasure in ruining the lives of people who slighted him.
The most chilling Book Festival speaker was a Duke University historian. Nancy MacLean outlined her new book, “Democracy In Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan to America.” She called Trump a symptom of a potentially fatal malady.
She traced how the Koch brothers continued work by James Buchanan, who preached libertarian ideas in the 1950s before winning a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1986. This, she wrote, was “a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of mid-century Virginia, minus the segregation.”
The Kochs first shunned Trump but found his ability to promise populism and then do the exact opposite was a perfect vehicle to hoodwink an easily misled society. Charles, the elder brother, recently told followers he accomplished more in the last five years than in all the previous 50.
Then, MacLean electrified Gallagher Theater in a calm professorial tone. Already 28 of the necessary 34 states have agreed to for a constitutional convention that could rewrite anything, or everything, we once believed was set in stone. She concluded:
“If they are able to bring in the world they want, I believe as an historian and as a citizen that this is absolutely unsustainable, and for the rest of us – socially, economically, environmentally, and, frankly, psychically – it will be very difficult to live in this world.”