Before last week, there was a reasonable defense against the accusation that Steve Bannon was personally an anti-Semite (as opposed to someone who merely trafficked in such things as a publisher) that basically ran like this: the main evidence for the proposition is that his ex-wife said “he doesn’t like Jews” in a divorce proceeding. Obviously, that’s pretty bad. But as a rule, horrible accusations said during divorce proceedings–particularly bitter ones where children or significant amounts of money are involved–have to be taken with a grain of salt, because there are strong incentives to exaggerate and even lie outright. Minor incidents can become major ones due to motivated reasoning and due to divorce lawyers trying to build the strongest possible case for their clients. I’d never say to discount such things but divorce proceedings are heightened, bitter, high-stakes affairs, and the awesome rationalizing powers of humanity cannot be denied. And that was the only piece of real evidence against Bannon. Plus, the dude loved Seinfeld!

At any rate, that reasonable defense is history now, and we can safely vindicate the ex-wife. The Holocaust Memorial message neglecting to mention Jews is circumstantial evidence as well, but given Bannon’s centrality to the current regime, he either wrote it or read and approved it, and there’s no confusion about incentives here. Downplaying the centrality of the Jews to Hitler’s murderous schemes is obvious Jew-hating. Ignorance would be unlikely even if the prior accusations (and his prior publishing record) weren’t taken into account. If anything, the incentives would be for Bannon to make it seem like he’s not an anti-Semite, so as to protect the image of our figurehead constitutional president and to avoid becoming “the story.” He clearly doesn’t care about those things. It was an act of let’s just call it courage (though then again, sliding it under the wire and hoping nobody would notice except the dogwhistle degenerates doesn’t exactly signal a lot of confidence in his views).

That does raise a tangential matter: for a top presidential aide, Bannon doesn’t seem to shirk much at making himself the focus of the media. David Axelrod and even Karl Rove never figured into the narrative quite so much: in fact, I think either one would take strong exception to stories and memes about “President Rove” or “President Axelrod” going into circulation. One has to wonder just how long Trump will tolerate that.

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I’m not a particularly huge fan of Theresa May, the current UK Prime Minister, for a number of reasons. That being said, she has the thankless job of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU, which is to say that her job is to shred the extremely favorable current arrangement her country has with the EU and figure out a new one in an environment where the remaining EU states have the ability and will to make the new deal as unfavorable to Britain as possible. Stupid as it is, it is the job she signed on for and it’s not going to be easy, so finding any possible source of leverage is going to be essential. Unfortunately, the one significant source of leverage seems to be throwing in with Team Trump and securing a UK-US trade deal right off the bat. And the corollary of that is that May is destined to become a Trump dignity wraith for as long as they’re both in office. Case in point: May was informed of the Trump de facto Muslim travel ban in advance. You can certainly argue that May’s hands are tied thanks to Brexit, that she desperately needs a deal from these folks, that she holds none of the cards, that speaking out publicly would hurt her country even more than it already will be, that as someone with Trump’s ear a private word might carry more weight. This may all be true. But the humiliation for May has merely begun: given that pertinent US cabinet departments reportedly figured out what was happening with the ban when it was happening, you have to wonder why May got this info in advance. We know how Trump treats people that he has leverage over. Was it done to implicate her or to force her silence on the issue? As a favor for being one of the few world leaders able to stomach being in the same room as Trump, or to embarrass her right after her literal embrace of him? Who knows. It’s not playing well for her is all I’m saying. As much as the Trump/Bannon geopolitical vision necessitates a US-UK trade deal as part of their vision to break up the EU, the UK needs it much more, and until it’s ratified she’s going to have to squirm to avoid being pinned down on every horrible thing Trump says and does, no doubt earning unflattering comparisons to Tony Blair in his courting of George W. Bush all the way. Admittedly, May has the excuse that she’s trying to secure a real benefit for her country, while Blair had no reason to do what he did. Regardless, it’s going to be excruciatingly hilarious, beginning with that upcoming state visit.

Incidentally, this would make excellent grist for another season of The Thick Of It is all I’m saying. Make it happen, please!

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Eliot Cohen:

In the end, however, [Trump] will fail. He will fail because however shrewd his tactics are, his strategy is terrible—The New York Times, the CIA, Mexican Americans, and all the others he has attacked are not going away. With every act he makes new enemies for himself and strengthens their commitment; he has his followers, but he gains no new friends. He will fail because he cannot corrupt the courts, and because even the most timid senator sooner or later will say “enough.” He will fail most of all because at the end of the day most Americans, including most of those who voted for him, are decent people who have no desire to live in an American version of Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

There was nothing unanticipated in this first disturbing week of the Trump administration. It will not get better. Americans should therefore steel themselves, and hold their representatives to account. Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day. There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.

The one thing to remember about Trump is that he’s a weak man: weak in intellect and weak in character. This doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry, of course: weak men are often very dangerous, especially ones dead set on trying to prove they’re strong. But we should know who we’re dealing with: that weakness has become harder and harder to ignore since January 20. The multiple days of obsessing over comparative crowd sizes. The generally counterproductive jabs at critics. And now the hasty, panicky travel ban, which in its form and execution are proving almost impossible for his staff and party to defend. It’s united Democrats and divided Republicans, while shifting the terms of debate in real ways. Today, Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein sound more like Markos Moulitsas than they did a week ago. Conservative Democrats are not wedging away like they did during the Bush era. The wanton cruelty and arbitrary restrictions of the ban present the GOP’s generational project of advancing xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism in its most unpalatable configuration. Coming so soon after the women’s marches, it’s given the liberal opposition a channel to keep the opposition going, and to expand. Like a lot of internet progressives, I’ve noticed previously apolitical people becoming active thanks to Trump. For all the concern about Trump becoming “normalized,” it is Trump that is the biggest obstacle to that process. This is the first impression of his leadership, for lack of a better term. This will set the stage. And the judges are not impressed.

Trump’s arrogance in believing that he speaks for the people recalls failed presidents like Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson, but while those men were ultimately undone by that arrogance, they at least managed some victories and stretches of popularity in office because they also had some offsetting strengths as well. Trump has no apparent strengths at all. His mind is a mass of defense mechanisms and fuzzy associations, one not up to the task of making sound, complicated decisions. And his character is desperate and needy, one not equipped to handle the crushing blows to the ego that the presidency so regularly delivers. He will ultimately be crushed by the job, I think. Regardless of when that happens, though, he can be beaten, and given what we’re already seeing, I believe he will be.

 

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Bernstein makes some decent points but it all seems too clever by half. Voting no on nominees that are unqualified, have bizarre views, or have a history of corruption should be the default. There’s therefore no reason any Democrats should be voting for Ben Carson’s HUD nomination, as he manifests all three (the first by self-admission). Reading Sen. Warren’s painfully unconvincing excuses for supporting Carson recalls so much of the early years of Dubya, when Congressional Democrats voted how consultants told them to and then had to engage in these painful contortions when some of them ran for president later and got grilled. Everyone remembers John Kerry’s famous evasions to try to turn his votes on the Iraq War into some sort of coherent position when in fact he was just voting the way he thought (and was told) would win him the presidency. A major part of the appeal of Howard Dean–who wasn’t much of a leftist–was that he could deliver straightforward attacks like this, which the field of mostly sitting congresspeople could not. They’d all been listening to the same consultants, after all. They all sounded the same.

A major part of the problem of Democratic Party culture is the need to be always seen as reasonable, moderate, responsible, ready to compromise. Obviously these are not bad traits, but the major problem here is the “always” part. This is why the Daschle/Gephardt era was such a fiasco: Democrats spent all their time worrying about perception and ignored what their constituents actually wanted. The Reid/Pelosi era was a drastic improvement because the tactics and goals they pursued matched up better with the rank and file. Privatize Social Security? No. Just no. I hate to say it, but Chuck Schumer is basically Tom Daschle Mark II. This is bad news. The good news is that now isn’t 2002, and now we have the tools to create the opposition that we need. Find yourself a local indivisible group is all I’m saying.

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Here I was going to write this post about how Democrats should tell Trump to put up or shut up on his bogus fraudulent votes argument–the possible outcomes include his backing down, which would be humiliating, producing an accurate report finding nothing, which would also be humiliating, or producing a phony report, which would compound the original problem. But then he called for it himself. But he must know that this was just a bit of face-saving nonsense, or could he possibly actually believe it? His mind does seem to be a foggy stew of partly remembered factoids, so perhaps he forgot it was just face-saving nonsense.

Having such a weak individual in charge is just going to be awesome.

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I just listened to Josh Marshall’s interviews of the two top DNC Chair candidates, Tom Perez and Keith Ellison. I’d recommend that y’all do so as well. They both come off as dynamic, smart people, either of whom would probably do a pretty solid job, and who seem to have similar, correct priorities. Admittedly, the Chair of the DNC isn’t going to fix the massive problems with the internal culture of the Democratic Party singlehandedly. It is damning that the two great political talents who emerged during the Obama Era–Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders–were neither products of the Democratic machine, but respectively a career academic and bureaucrat and a guy who developed his own base as an independent. Hard to believe that this is the same party that thought that a person whose only elective experience was a fourth-place primary finish for governor would be a great candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate race. Anyway, either Perez or Ellison would send a signal that there need to be changes in how the party does business and, frankly, having one of the party’s top leaders not be a white guy currently eligible for Social Security is…exciting, though having said that I’d take back Harry Reid in a heartbeat.

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Sickness over. Nothing much to say except that I saw I, Daniel Blake and didn’t love it as much as I thought I might. On some level it is a defense of the concept of the welfare state and a social democratic commentary on contemporary life, but much of it comes off as what conservatives point to when they want to abolish the whole thing–you know, unfeeling bureaucracy grinding people down, etc. It’s doing this from a lefty perspective (Atrios often makes the point that accessing benefits should be easier than it is) but maybe it’s just how it was presented that left me a little cold. Pretty powerful just as 21st-century social realism, though, at a time when film doesn’t have much interest in the lives of working people (or, indeed, reality at all). Definitely check it out and form your own opinions.

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Is there a worse song than Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight? If so, I don’t know what it might be. Clapton’s place in the pantheon is undergoing a definite shift as Boomers as a demographic begin their long phase out, so perhaps this is a bit bandwagon jumping. Nevertheless, while Clapton is a skilled guitarist and riff-creator, his deficiencies as a songwriter and artist more generally (let alone as a man) make him a figure of hate among people who don’t necessarily go for punishingly long blues rock solos and sappy love songs, and deservedly so. And perhaps nowhere is all of that made more clear than on his 1977 hit Wonderful Tonight.

Wonderful Tonight is beyond redemption. From the opening riff it’s clear that Clapton has set his sights on country music for this tune, and the riff itself is fine, if a bit sleepy even for a ballad. The song follows the story-song style that defines the genre. It deals with thematically appropriate things like women and booze. On the surface it’s a perfectly serviceable entry. But it’s the lyrics that really drag it down, and expose the whole exercise for the fraud that it is. The song depicts a life of aimless comfort, meaningless parties and severe alcoholism, which the song’s speaker gets through with the help of an unnamed woman–as the material is both specific and not terribly interesting, it’s not surprising it’s autobiographical, and the woman is his then-wife Pattie Boyd. Her role seems more maternal than romantic–needless to say that the song’s speaker is in no position to respond romantically to her at the end of a song. Her only reward is to be told that she looks “wonderful tonight” at various intervals, her beauty being the only thing of any interest to the speaker/Clapton. (There’s also a line about how she draws attention at a party to reinforce this.) You can easily imagine what a true country artist would do with this material–with a couple of tweaks, this could be a Merle Haggard song. But Haggard’s songs like this always wind up being exercises in self-laceration, epics of a vicious cycle of moralism and transgression. A Haggard character knows damn well that he can’t live up to the high Christian morality he was instilled with, which leads to transgression, which leads to self-hatred. A Haggard song like Swinging Doors is all about the day after, when a guy has fucked up his life and takes stock, typically with caustic, sometimes hilarious irony. On the other hand, Clapton’s song is all about the day of, minus any real sort of drama. In spite of the sound it’s more like the rock of its era than the country of its era (though it is like the country of our era) in that it presents a fantasy of wealth, beautiful women, comfort and indulgence with no real price to be paid. Admittedly, the song focuses only one one babe rather than the numerous ones in a fantasy by, say, KISS. Perhaps that accounts for the repetition about her looks. Regardless, one gets the sense that the greatest difference between Haggard and Clapton as people was that the former looked at himself and saw his own failings and shortcomings quite clearly, while the latter looked at himself and saw nothing worth noting. Their art proceeds accordingly.

Which is to say, frankly, that the song fails because of Eric Clapton. I see him as the ultimate bullshitter, the guy who builds himself up as the ultimate romantic but, when he finally achieves the impossible and wins the girl, he loses her within just a few years. What to make of the aching sincerity of Layla (and Clapton is nothing if not sincere, if not always candid or honest) and his conducting of affairs within such a short time period of his marriage? It suggests that he doesn’t really know himself, fundamentally. Given his worldwide fame at an exceedingly young age, it’s plausible he never had the chance to. Nor is he particularly self-aware, as if he were, Wonderful Tonight would never have seen the light of day. That the writer himself doesn’t realize how empty and vapid the world depicted in this song is provides a fascinating look into how he thinks and what he values, but it makes the song utterly intolerable. Despite being a story song there’s no real story here, it’s more a sketch of aimless privilege than anything else. Not that I’m saying that Clapton should have used his country song to talk about being out of work on the steel mill or something like that. But what seems to be missing from this song is anything resembling a soul: the apparent acceptance of an empty, indulgent life, with no judgment or any apparent qualms about it, or any particular interest in what the woman depicted in the song has to think or say about it. Obviously, we know that the marriage didn’t work out IRL. But this song makes that seem a totally foregone conclusion: this supposed paean to domesticity doesn’t actually use words or concepts connected to love to show he values the relationship, merely words and concepts related to beauty, and that’s partly the beauty as reflected in the eyes of other men. There’s nothing in there that precludes rampant cheating with other women (who presumably would also be told they look Wonderful Tonight, and wouldn’t you know, I wrote a song about you). Sure it’s gentle and sweet-sounding, but that can be dismissed as window dressing. Narcissism is the fundamental concept here. And yes, admittedly, this is far from unheard of from rock musicians, even great ones. It is, however, very rare to see the proposition put to us so bluntly.

Frankly, this should have sunk Clapton’s career, this valentine to lazy excess and oppressive comfort is practically a neon sign blinking “I’M AN OUT OF TOUCH DINOSAUR!” Of course it didn’t. I do like that it came out in 1977, though: if ever something embodied everything punk rock was created to destroy, this was it.

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