Kurt Andersen

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Donald Trump will end in disgrace, not primarily because he’s an ignorant con artist wholly unfit to be President, but because he has stashed in his closet a mausoleum full of skeletons pertaining to his personal life, business career and Russia. His family’s laundry is dirty despite all the laundering he’s done. Trump ultimately falls, as do his cohort of disgraceful henchmen, half-wits and horseshitters. This sordid episode doesn’t conclude in book deals all around but in most of the players being booked.

That won’t, however, save America. Our problems run deeper and wider than Trump, who’s the culmination of our social collapse, not the source. Russia’s machinations and James Comey’s boneheaded move may have put the QVC quisling over the top, but there’s really no rationalizing nearly 63 million citizens pulling the lever for a completely unqualified and indecent anti-politician. We’ve been heading for this disaster for generations, our break from reality a long time coming.

In an excellent Atlantic essay, Kurt Andersen, who has a history with Trump, writes that he began to notice our ugly divorce from reality during the Dubya Era “truthiness,” precisely in 2004. It’s interesting the writer chose the year he did, because that was when The Apprentice debuted, and a deeply immoral and largely failed businessman was awarded the role of Manhattan’s greatest builder despite not being able to get a loan of clean money to open a tent in Central Park.

But our fall from grace has more distant origins. Our drift started with Reagan unwinding the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of cable news, the emergence of Reality TV and the decentralization of the media, when the gatekeepers of legacy journalism were obliterated, when anyone could suddenly pose as an expert on vaccinations or trade pacts. The Internet made it possible to legitimize our most dubious fears and worst impulses.

We have more information than ever before, and it’s been put to worrisome use, as “lone gunmen” and multi-billion dollar corporations alike began to commodify conspiracy theories, from Ancient Aliens to Pizzagate to Seth Rich. The sideshow that has always existed in the U.S. was relocated to the center ring, as Chuck Barris’ suspicion about America’s dark side proved truer than even he could have predicted. 

As much as anything, performance became essential to success, convincingly playing a Doctor, Survivor or a populist Presidential candidate was more important than truth. Life became neither quite real nor fake, just a sort of purgatory. It’s a variation of who we actually are–a vulgarization.

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It’s a new abnormal that’s been creeping over this relatively wealthy though often dissatisfied nation for decades. Here’s the transcript of a scene from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss how performance had become introduced in a significant way into quotidian life, and that was way before Facebook gave the word “friends” scare quotes and prior to Kardashians, online identities and selfies:

Andre Gregory:

That was one of the reasons why Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well, that performing in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way, obscene. Isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? You see a terrorist on television and he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, single people or artists kind of live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father or single person or an artist should look and behave. They all act like that know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment, and they all seem totally self-confident. But privately people are very mixed up about themselves. They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives. They’re reading all these self-help books.

Wallace Shawn:

God, I mean those books are so touching because they show how desperately curious we all are to know how all the others of us are really getting on in life, even though by performing all these roles in life we’re just hiding the reality of ourselves from everybody else. I mean, we live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends. I mean, I mean, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things, but we just don’t dare to ask each other. 

Andre Gregory:

No, it would be like asking your friend to drop his role.

Wallace Shawn:

I mean, we just put no value at all on perceiving reality. On the contrary, this incredible emphasis we now put on our careers automatically makes perceiving reality a very low priority, because if your life is organized around trying to be successful in a career, well, it just doesn’t matter what you perceive or what you experience. You can really sort of shut your mind off for years ahead in a way. You can turn on the automatic pilot.•

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The opening of Andersen’s article, in which he argues that Sixties individualism and Digital Age fantasy conspired to lay us low:

When did America become untethered from reality?

I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”

Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes. For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.

Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.•

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Somewhere prominent in the annals of great insults is “short-fingered vulgarian,” an enduring epithet spit in the face of the hideous hotelier Donald Trump from the wonderfully poisonous pages of Spy. The aggrieved party wiped the saliva from his cheek with his wee baby hands, but he couldn’t forgive or forget this taunt for all times.

The description may not possess the extreme brevity of the Beckett curse “critic” or the Reagan Era diminution of “liberal,” but it’s a gift that keeps on giving, long after the end of the Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen publication or the heyday of the Magazine Age itself. The lacerating line reemerged in major way earlier this year when a variant of it was employed by Presidential aspirant Marco Rubio, a rare moment of momentum for the Little Marco that couldn’t.

The slight had its genesis in a 1983 GQ feature about the orange supremacist penned by Carter. It was then a simple observation which surprisingly began a war of words between the men, and though the editor was pretty much forced occasionally to accept the status of bemused frenemy, most of the time Trump wanted to wrap his hands around the journalist’s neck, if only it were anatomically possible.

In an excellent Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Carter analyzes this Baba Booey of a campaign season, while revealing that an unintended consequence of the profile he penned 33 years ago may have been that it abetted the political ascent of Bull Connor as a condo salesman. The opening:

In 1987, Michael Kelly, later a celebrated editor but at the time a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, took Fawn Hall, a secretary to Oliver North, as his guest to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Hall had been caught up in the whole Iran-contra scandal, and her arrival shocked the swells of Washington, who were used to seeing business, political, sports, and movie grandees on the arms of major news organizations. Thus began a tradition of media companies prowling the nether regions of their coverage to come up with the tabloid oddity of the moment for their novelty guest.

Novelty guests don’t know they’re novelty guests. They just think they’re guests. That evening in May 1993, Vanity Fair had two tables and we filled them with the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Bob Shrum, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, Peggy Noonan, Tipper Gore, and Vendela Kirsebom, a Swedish model who professionally went by her first name and who was then at or near the top of the catwalk heap. I sat Trump beside Vendela, thinking that she would get a kick out of him. This was not the case. After 45 minutes she came over to my table, almost in tears, and pleaded with me to move her. It seems that Trump had spent his entire time with her assaying the “tits” and legs of the other female guests and asking how they measured up to those of other women, including his wife. “He is,” she told me, in words that seemed familiar, “the most vulgar man I have ever met.”

The next time I saw Trump in that giant ballroom of the Washington Hilton was in 2011. This time he had come as the guest of Washington Post heiress Lally Weymouth. It was at the beginning of Trump’s lunatic “birther” rampage, and he was probably quite pleased with himself at being in the midst of all this sequined ersatz Washington glamour. Much as Trump loves to be the center of attention, the attention he got that night didn’t go according to plan. First, President Obama ridiculed him mercilessly from the dais. The fact that the president’s birther tormentor was in the room appeared to give him a lift—he was seriously funny and his timing was flawless. Then the evening’s headliner, Seth Meyers, stood up and really went to town on Trump. Weymouth’s table was right beside us, so I got a ringside view of the poor fellow as he just sat there, stony-faced and steaming—and of course unaware, like everyone else, that while Obama was launching his jokes he was also launching the attack that would kill Osama bin Laden. To think that next spring Trump could be attending the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner as the commander in chief renders one almost speechless.

My relationship with Trump, if you could call it a relationship, goes back more than three decades. I first met him in 1983, when I was reporting a story I was doing on him for GQ magazine. Trump was eager for the national attention that a big article in a national magazine could bring, and so we spent a good deal of time together. There were a number of aspects of the resulting story that he hated, including, but not limited to, an observation that he had remarkably small (if neatly groomed) hands.

This summer, The New Yorker published a story by Jane Mayer about Tony Schwartz, the co-author of Trump’s book Trump: The Art of the Deal. Mayer wrote that that issue of GQ, with Trump on the cover, was a huge best-seller. She reported that this sale encouraged S. I. Newhouse Jr., the proprietor of this magazine (as well as of The New Yorker), to urge the editors of Random House (which he also owned) to sign Trump up for a book. Which they did. The trouble with this narrative is that the Trump issue of GQ sold hardly at all. At least in the traditional way. Word was, the copies had been bought by him—Trump had sent a contingent out to buy up as many as they could get their hands on. The apparent intention, in those pre-Internet days, was to keep the story away from prying eyes.•

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Hillary Clinton gets the Marilyn Monroe treatment. (Image by "Spy.")

The entire run of satirical magazine Spy, which was to the ’80s and early ’90s as the Daily Show is to this dumb day, is now on Google Books. You can read any of its issues here. From the Google Books introduction of the magazine that Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen made and which made them:

“Smart. Funny. Fearless. ‘It’s pretty safe to say that Spy was the most influential magazine of the 1980s. It might have remade New York’s cultural landscape; it definitely changed the whole tone of magazine journalism. It was cruel, brilliant, beautifully written and perfectly designed, and feared by all. There’s no magazine I know of that’s so continually referenced, held up as a benchmark, and whose demise is so lamented.’ –Dave Eggers. ‘It’s a piece of garbage’ —Donald Trump.”

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Spy magazine existed during the ’80s mostly to ensure that Tama Janowitz didn’t get away with too much. You see, Tama Janowitz wrote novels that were more successful than their merit suggested they should be, so she needed to be put in her place. Thankfully, a bunch of jackasses with fancy educations who wished they were writing crappy books that sold a lot of copies were there to ridicule her. Take that, Tama Janowitz!

Seriously, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter chose just the right moment to publish Spy. New York was in the midst of a decade of greed that rivaled the Roaring Twenties for excess but with none of the earlier era’s panache. The publication was there to take the piss out of the whole stupid thing–the Milkens, the Helmsleys, the Trumps. (I will always feel indebted to Spy for dubbing Donald Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.”) I can’t say I ever read the magazine much at the time, but the only things that came out of that decade that ended up influencing comedy more were Letterman and the Simpsons.

I got my grimy, grubby fingers on a copy of the October 1989 issue that is built around the “Spy 100,” the snarky mag’s annual takedown of insider traders, political advisors and all manner of irksome cretins that made NYC break out in hives. It features a fairly famous cover that shows President Bush (the sleepy one, not his son who gave the entire planet a vigorous rogering from behind) with words carved into his hair, as was the idiotic custom of some kids of the time. (The idea was later borrowed for this Newsweek cover.) The list skewers the expected (political hit-man Lee Atwater was number one), the unexpected (people excessively grieving the late Lucille Ball) and, yes, Tama Janowitz. An excerpt from the passage about hotelier horror Leona Helmsley:

“Caught billing more than $4 million in personal expenses to the real estate empire she gold-dug out of her now-enfeebled husband. Convicted of tax evasion (conspiracy and mail fraud; acquitted on charges of extortion of kickbacks from cowering business vendors). Continued running self-reverential ads. Anticipating the horror stories about her routine terorization of employees, Leona’s lawyer admitted in opening remarks–boasted even–that she was a ‘tough bitch.’ Trump called her a ‘disgrace to humanity in general.'”

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