Robert Redford

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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:


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.


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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A secondary problem of pathological liars is that occasionally they are telling the truth, but who would know? Believing them will usually get you into trouble, and every now and then so will not believing them. If the President, the person entrusted with our security, is that incessant fabricator, the confusion and peril can become lethal.

The current Administration’s brazen dishonesty and fumbling attempts at cover-ups would not be an existential threat to our democracy were it healthy, but the vital signs have been worrying for over two decades. Trump’s ascension feels more like the other shoe dropping than the first swift kick.

Our populace and politicians are sharply divided along partisan lines, the GOP so deeply dysfunctional, that the Republican-led legislature is now endeavoring to obfuscate in his favor despite seemingly traitorous behaviors, perhaps even treasonous ones, while a good percentage of Americans wouldn’t care if it was proven his campaign conspired with the Kremlin to steal the White House. And the truth only matters if it’s valued.

In a Huffington Post essay about transparency, that quaint, hoary thing, philosopher Daniel Dennett is confident that Trump will eventually choke on his lies. Robert Redford, who has, of course, a strong link to Nixon’s waterloo, isn’t so sure our system today is quite that fail-safe, as he writes in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Deep Throats can talk all day but it won’t matter if too many people aren’t listening.

Two excerpts follow.

From Dennett:

Leaders, democratic just as much as autocratic, need to keep secrets if they are going to be effective. There is an obvious reason why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps its new employment rate statistics and other economic indicators secret until a precise moment when everybody gets to learn them at the same time.  

But leaders also need to be trusted when they make statements, promises and denials. They can’t divulge too much and they can’t lie too much. Very often saying nothing is the best policy, for obvious reasons, but they must also communicate often with both their people and their opponents. So as far as I know, nobody has ever devised a formula or recipe for how much to communicate and when. We want leaders we can trust, but we also want to trust them to keep secrets when it is in our interest to do so. The problem is, not all leaders understand the nuance.

U.S. President Donald Trump is one of them. The leader of the free world apparently has no concern for his credibility. He is constantly caught in demonstrable falsehoods, which he never acknowledges and for which he never apologizes. And his supporters seem all too willing to say they believe his whoppers, or just forgive him, or even applaud his disruption of ambient trust. But what will happen when he gets caught telling them whoppers about what he is doing for them? He will be tempted, of course, to pile on more lies in order to get out of his tight spot, but a rich vein of wisdom running through all the lore and literature of the world is that such lying cannot be shored up indefinitely with more lying.

Eventually, the truth overpowers the lies and the result is ruin. Trump seems to be unaware of this. He seems to be like the gambler who thinks that by just doubling his bets he’s bound to regain his losses eventually. We know that this is a fallacy; sooner or later he will run out of allies, time or money. We just don’t want to be victims along with Trump when his house of cards collapses, as it will.•

From Robert Redford in the Washington Post:

When President Trump speaks of being in a “running war” with the media, calls them “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” and tweets that they’re the “enemy of the American people,” his language takes the Nixon administration’s false accusations of shoddy” and “shabby” journalism to new and dangerous heights.

Sound and accurate journalism defends our democracy. It’s one of the most effective weapons we have to restrain the power-hungry. I always said that All the President’s Men was a violent movie. No shots were fired, but words were used as weapons.

In fact, I had a hard time getting producers interested in All the President’s Men. “Newspapers, typing, journalism — there’s no drama here” — so the critique went. I didn’t see it that way. To me it was a story about two journalists hell-bent on getting to the truth. That’s the movie, but the real-life Watergate scandal didn’t have just two people searching for the truth. It had an entire cast of characters in minor and major roles who followed their consciences: President Richard Nixon’s counsel John Dean, whose testimony blew open the congressional hearings; Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s demand to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox; and, most of all, congressional Democrats and Republicans.

Nixon resigned from office because the Senate Watergate Committee — its Democratic and Republican members — did its job. It’s easy now to think of Watergate as a single event. It wasn’t; it was a story that unfolded over 26 months and demanded many acts of bravery and honesty by Americans across the political spectrum.

The system worked. The checks and balances the Constitution was designed to create functioned when put to their biggest test. Would they still? Which brings me to the other half of the question: What’s different now?


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As the Washington Post enters its Jeff Bezos era, which hopefully will be better and can’t be much worse than what preceded it, here’s a 1976 making-of featurette for Alan J.Pakula’s excellent adaptation of All the President’s Men, which recalls a whole different eon in American journalism. It’s not a media infrastructure that should be artificially preserved–nor could it–but its contributions were vital.

In the short film, Bob Woodward guesses that eventually the identity of Deep Throat would become known. Surprisingly, even though this was the nation’s burning question for years, its 2005 reveal had almost no traction. Ask people walking down any U.S. street to come up with the name W. Mark Felt, and they probably wouldn’t be able to. It’s like that part of our history has mysteriously returned to the shadows. 

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