Jeet Heer

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The alleged QVC quisling Donald Trump didn’t single-handedly make himself into the American nightmare nor is he haunting our sleep primarily because of the Kremlin, though both parties must be held accountable for any lawless acts committed. The larger and more confounding problem is the many failings that allowed the country to slide down a mud-covered slope decades in the making. 

Robert Redford speaks to this point in a new Esquire Q&A with Michael Hainey:

Esquire:

Trump is a businessman, but he is such a creature of the entertainment world. It feels that the entertainment industry is more entwined with politics than ever before.

Robert Redford:

I just think he is who he is. You can’t blame him for being who he is. He’s always been like that. He’s our fault—that’s how I see it. We let him come to where he is. I’m not so interested in blaming him; that’s being done enough by others. I’m more interested in: How did this happen? We’ve lost our moral foundation, which allows us to go this far over. So I don’t blame him. I just think he is what he is. We’re the ones who let that happen. We should be looking at ourselves.•

Three tests face us now in preserving democracy and repairing the country, and each task is more difficult than the last. First, the potential crimes (domestic and foreign) that helped enable our fall from basic decency must be sorted and analyzed. Thanks to a series of accidents and incidents, we have Robert Mueller and his Murderers’ Row managing that job, which is a best-case scenario. The extreme dysfunction and ineptitude of the Administration made Mueller possible. When I’m asked how things could be worse in the U.S. than they are currently, I say that next time the Mussolini won’t be so mediocre.

Secondly, as Edward Luce warned in the Financial Times in 2015 and Jeet Heer reminds us now in the New Republic post-Charlottesville, Trump may be caged or slither away, but the white nationalism he was uniquely positioned to activate isn’t following him out the door. We must restore the DHS focus on domestic terrorism and white supremacist organizations, which has been severely weakened by Katherine Gorka, and there needs to be a strengthening of norms that inhibit those who carry inside them burning crosses and swastikas. Societal pressure can limit the reach of the hatemongers, even if it can’t make them disappear.

Finally, the welter of media and religion and politics and money and bigotry and entertainment and technology and education that brought us to the brink must be untangled and addressed. A country subsisting on bread and Kardashians was headed for a crash, and it’s not clear that one so deeply partisan and besotted with billionaires, gadgets and celebrity is prepared to do the hard work before us.

Two excerpts follow, one from Heer’s piece and another from Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.

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From Heer’s “#AlwaysTrump“:

It’s understandable, and perhaps even necessary, that we have devoted ourselves so thoroughly to the question of how to remove Trump from office as quickly as possible. He poses, after all, an existential threat to—well, existence itself. But the dream of bringing about an end to Trump’s era in Washington is tinged with something darker and more worrisome. If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that we don’t just want Trump gone from the White House—we want to return to a time when Trump did not dominate our every waking moment. We want it all to go away: the endless Twitter rants; the bellicose threats against perceived enemies, foreign and domestic; the toxic brew of narcissism and incompetence and greed that has come to permeate the national discourse. The desire to oust Trump, at a deeper level, represents a liberal fantasy in which we can somehow magically, instantly turn back the clock and live once more in the comforting world of our pre-Trump assumptions. In this fetching version of harmony restored, not only will Trump no longer be president, he’ll no longer have been president. He will vanish from public life, and the hobgoblins he has unleashed in our national psyche will disappear along with him.
 
Yet even as the prospect of his removal becomes ever more palpable, we must awaken from this blue-state reverie we have constructed for ourselves. The truth is, no matter how he winds up leaving office, Donald Trump will always be with us. We may, unless there is nuclear Armageddon, outlast his presidency. Robert Mueller’s investigation may even shorten it. But we can’t repeal or replace it. Long after his presidency ends—indeed, long after he has departed this vale of tweets for that gloriously appointed Mar-a-Lago in the sky—Trump will continue to dominate and disrupt our lives at every turn. Because he’s Trump, being a former president will do nothing to diminish his desperate need for attention or his willingness to hurt whomever it takes to get it. He’ll still have his gifts as a showman, his wealth, his mastery of social media, and the unshakable devotion of his followers. And the media will remain just as eager to report and dissect and amplify his every untruth and slander. Indeed, freed from the shackles of the Constitution, Trump could end up provoking even more havoc out of office than he has as president.

There will never be, in short, a world without Trump. As we work to remove him from office, we must also grapple with a harsh truth: that his influence, and the broader forces he represents, will not end with his presidency. When Trump leaves the Oval Office, our long national nightmare will not be over. It will have just begun.•

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From Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Autocratic Element“:

On matters concerning the possible disintegration of democratic norms, I turn to the most urgent and acute text on the subject, “How to Build an Autocracy,” an Atlantic cover story by David Frum published earlier this year. Frum, a senior writer for the magazine (and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush), made the argument in this groundbreaking article that if autocracy came to America, it would be not in the form of a coup but in the steady, gradual erosion of democratic norms. Frum’s eloquent writing and ruthlessly sharp analysis for The Atlantic has made him an indispensably important—perhaps even the leading—conservative critic of President Trump.

I recently asked Frum about the attempt by many Republicans to pursue criminal charges against the losing candidate in last year’s presidential contest. He called this pursuit “sinister,” but then pointed me to something he considered even more pernicious: the quest to punish former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice for “unmasking” people associated with Trump’s campaign whose communications with foreign officials were captured during U.S. intelligence collection.

“Rice was protecting the country from possible subversion, and they’re pursuing her for this,” Frum said. “It is not merely that they are trying to use the mechanisms of the law to attack political opponents; it is that they are trying to use the power of the state to conceal through diversion an attempt by an autocratic government to steal an American election.

“The autocratic element here is the abuse of power, but not only the abuse of power. This represents the reversal of truth.”

I asked Frum to analyze his March cover story. Did he overplay or understate any of the threats? “The thing I got most wrong is that I did not anticipate the sheer chaos and dysfunction and slovenliness of the Trump operation,” he said. “I didn’t sufficiently anticipate how distracted Trump could be by things that are not essential. My model was that he was greedy first and authoritarian second. What I did not see is that he is needy first, greedy second, and authoritarian third. We’d be in a lot worse shape if he were a more meticulous, serious-minded person.”•

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Just after Y2K fears subsided, America was struck by another disaster that shook the nation to its core, the Fox TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? The program was a gross two-hour spectacle in which a woman was chosen by a supposedly rich man to become his insta-wife even though they barely knew one another. The broadcast provoked outrage for making a mockery of marriage, a traditional value (and financial arrangement) that had long been credited for holding together the fabric of our society. Despite a gigantic audience, the rerun was cancelled, apologies offered and an annulment hastily arranged.

In 2016, U.S. television is littered with thirsty aspiring brides and bachelors with no body hair nor brain cells. Nobody worries about such things anymore, the flood of programs washing away any resistance to a sideshow of emotionally destroyed civilians and celebrities providing cheap content for endless channels, a perhaps inevitable shift after a decentralized media had devastated legacy broadcasters. The platforms without any gatekeepers went even further, with flesh-and-blood chaos agents and Nazi bots roaming the landscape like so many Joy Divisions. 

In some ways, the loosening of traditional mores is good. Back in 2000, when the Fox pseudo-nuptials took place, no state in the country was close to allowing gay people to marry, and now those unions are legal across the land. How amazing. The flip side is that the constant shocks of our culture have numbed us to any sense of civility, even in a Presidential race. It was acceptable to a surprising number of citizens that the country be in the hands of a Reality TV star who’s a vicious racist and xenophobe and likely a traitor, an insomniac tweeter who knows nothing more than simple catchphrases and how to reflexively point fingers. 

That’s our strange, new abnormal. It’s unreal.

In “America’s First Postmodern President,” a New Republic piece by Jeet Heer, the journalist writes of society in a time of simulacra, citing the work of philosopher Jean Baudrillard. An excerpt:

For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.

In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him. This propagation of fictions makes it difficult to build a convincing case against him.•

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We’re doomed, Bill Kristol writes on Twitter, if Trump and Pence are all we have to offer. He was talking about the GOP, but the same might be said of the whole of America. This Administration has done permanent damage to the office of the Presidency, moving it into aberrant territory no matter how much we try to not allow its kleptocratic, sociopathic and autocratic nature be normalized. The power of the position allows it to define an awful lot. 

It has taken the Republican’s Constitution-defying rejection of Merrick Garland (orchestrated by McConnell but also supported by that great patriot McCain) to the nth degree. And it may only get worse. Newt Gingrich is now questioning whether Robert Mueller can really be true and impartial, a hilarious statement from that famously immoral, profiteering gasbag. It seems a trial balloon aimed at the eventual firing of the Special Prosecutor (and one that was echoed by Trump’s spelling-challenged lawyer). If that occurs, there should be no faith that Congress will act to protect us. The party is a now a safe distance beyond complicit.

Taking things a few paces deeper into Twilight Zone territory was today’s bizarre meeting in which Trump assembled cabinet members to rain down praise upon him, like Billy Mumy’s evil child demanding people think only “good thoughts” or they’ll wind up jack-in-the-boxes in the cornfield. Reince Priebus, an ambitious man with no shame, said “we thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda.” Somebody better get a saddle ready because a horse may soon be joining the Senate.

It wasn’t too long ago–four years to be precise–when perfectly bright and well–intentioned person like Bill Gates was decrying that the American President didn’t have more sway over the country. “Some days I wish we had a system like the U.K.,” he said, “where the party in power could do a lot and you know, you’d see how it went and then fine you could un-elect them.” He was speaking of President Obama, of course, and the problem with having such a deeply decent person like 44 in the Oval Office is it can make it difficult to envision about worst-case scenarios.

Two excerpts follow: One from Kristol in the Weekly Standard about the tidal wave of youth that may wipe out the GOP in coming elections, which is hopeful in believing we’ll continue to be free and democratic and not a dictatorship or interrupted by Civil War 2.0. The other by Jeet Heer of the New Republic looks at Trump as a capo with nuclear capabilities trying to run Washington the way Gotti ran Queens.


From Kristol:

Lost in the back and forth—and especially in the efforts to be somewhat reassuring—was the most notable finding in the poll. It had to do with age. Donald Trump’s job approval/disapproval was 40 percent, 54 percent among Americans 65 and over; it was an almost identical 39 percent, 55 percent among 50-64 year olds; it was slightly worse at 35 percent, 55 percent among those 35 to 49 years old; and among Americans 18 to 34, Donald Trump’s job approval was 19 percent approve, 67 percent disapprove, an amazing -48 percent.

Now we are not knee-jerk respecters of youth. We give no greater weight to the opinions of the young than to those of the old. In fact, we’re inclined to give them less, as the young lack experience, and experience is a great teacher. We would even go so far as to say that the overvaluation of the sentiments of the young may be one of the curses of our age.

On the other hand, one would have to be blind not to see the political risk for Republicans and conservatives in these numbers. First impressions matter. Most people don’t change their political views radically from the ones they first hold. For young Americans today, Donald Trump is the face of Republicanism and conservatism.

They don’t like that face. And the danger, of course, is that they’ll decide their judgment of Trump should carry over to the Republican party that nominated him and the conservative movement that mostly supports him. If he is indeed permitted to embody the party and the movement without challenge, the fortunes of both will be at the mercy of President Trump’s own fortunes.•


From Heer:

The mafia analogies aren’t just casual gibes, but speak to something fundamental in Trump’s background and character. In his younger days, Trump was mentored by Roy Cohn, a mob lawyer, and he consorted with criminals, notably convicted felon Felix Sater. Trump’s record shows “repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks,” David Cay Johnston, who has extensively investigated Trump’s mafia tieswrote in Politico last year, and “Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Trump would run into conflict with the likes of Comey, Bharara, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (whom Trump also fired, after she refused to defend his executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries). Trump supporters might dismiss these figures as Washington insiders—inhabitants of “the swamp”—but they are more accurately seen as representatives of the legal and administrative state. They are all experts in the law and bureaucracy; they know the rules, understand why the rules exist, and enforce them. In other words, they are the polar opposite of Trump, an anti-professional to whom laws were meant to be broken.

But the mafia shouldn’t be seen as the antithesis of government, and rather as an alternative apparatus. The mafia tends to thrive when the administrative state is weak or corrupt, and thus unable to protect and provide for its citizens. Trump’s message as an outsider candidate was that normal politicians were unable to protect ordinary Americans, in part because they were too hamstrung by laws and regulations. Like a mafia don, Trump promised he’d deliver for the people, even if it meant breaking the rules (as when he boasted he’d break the Geneva convention to fight terrorism).•

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The opening of “Divine Inspiration,” Jeet Heer’s new article in The Walrus about the religious underpinnings of Marshall McLuhan’s vision:

“APPROPRIATELY ENOUGH, a century after his birth in 1911, Marshall McLuhan has found a second life on the Internet. YouTube and other sites are a rich repository of McLuhan interviews, revealing that the late media sage still has the power to provoke and infuriate. Connoisseurs of Canadian television should track down a 1968 episode of a CBC program called The Summer Way, a highbrow cultural and political show that once featured a half-hour debate about technology between McLuhan and the novelist Norman Mailer.

Both freewheeling public intellectuals with a penchant for making wild statements, Mailer and McLuhan were well matched mentally, yet they displayed an appropriate stylistic contrast. Earthy, squat, and pugnacious, Mailer possessed all the hot qualities McLuhan attributed to print culture. Meanwhile, McLuhan adopted the cerebral and cavalier cool approach he credited to successful television politicians like John F. Kennedy and Pierre Trudeau, who responded to attacks with insouciant indifference.

Early on in the program, McLuhan and Mailer tackle the largest possible issue, the fate of nature:

McLuhan: We live in a time when we have put a man-made satellite environment around the planet. The planet is no longer nature. It’s no longer the external world. It’s now the content of an artwork. Nature has ceased to exist.

Mailer: Well, I think you’re anticipating a century, perhaps.

McLuhan: But when you put a man-made environment around the planet, you have in a sense abolished nature. Nature from now on has to be programmed.

Mailer: Marshall, I think you’re begging a few tremendously serious questions. One of them is that we have not yet put a man-made environment around this planet, totally. We have not abolished nature yet. We may be in the process of abolishing nature forever.

McLuhan: The environment is not visible. It’s information. It’s electronic.

Mailer: Well, nonetheless, nature still exhibits manifestations which defy all methods of collecting information and data. For example, an earthquake may occur, or a tidal wave may come in, or a hurricane may strike. And the information will lag critically behind our ability to control it.

McLuhan: The experience of that event, that disaster, is felt everywhere at once, under a single dateline.

Mailer: But that’s not the same thing as controlling nature, dominating nature, or superseding nature. It’s far from that. Nature still does exist as a protagonist on this planet.

McLuhan: Oh, yes, but it’s like our Victorian mechanical environment. It’s a rear-view mirror image. Every age creates as a utopian image a nostalgic rear-view mirror image of itself, which puts it thoroughly out of touch with the present. The present is the enemy.”

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The full ’68 McLuhan-Mailer debate the article references:

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"The Cardboard Valise," by Ben Katchor.

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jeet Heer explores a new book by the excellent graphic-comics artist Ben Katchor. The first paragraph of the review sums up the lineage of Katchor’s work perfectly:

“Ben Katchor is the Joseph Mitchell of contemporary comics. Mitchell, along with his close friend A.J. Liebling, was a pivotal early New Yorker reporter who famously made a speciality of describing the peripheral rascals, layabouts, and oddballs of the Big Apple, ranging from the denizens of McSorley’s saloon to Joe Gould, the often homeless bohemian who claimed to be working on an ‘Oral History of the Contemporary World.’ With their cockeyed street-level view of New York and propensity for profiling loopy souls, Mitchell’s works were important precursors to the early Katchor who, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, meticulously chronicled the wanderings of ‘Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer’ in the pages of the New York Press (and, later, syndicated in alternative weeklies across the country). The Knipl strips were mournfully muted surveys of a New York where you could still feel the ghostly presence of the older city described by Mitchell in the 1930s and 1940s. “

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Ben Katchor’s 2002 TED Talk:

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