By Penny Smith

David Cay Johnston, It’s Even Worse than You Think: What the Trump Administration is Doing to America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

 David Cay Johnson is a prolific writer of books, essays and newspaper articles. Recently, he has become one of the pundits of choice on networks like MSNBC on two sets of issues: the economy and Donald Trump. He almost inevitably came to that second topic, our President, through the first. His economic investigative reporting focuses on inequality, tax policy, and corporate socialism. In 2003 he won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Book of the Year Award with Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich and Cheat Everybody Else.

His attention turned to Trump specifically (he makes an appearance in some of the earlier books) in 2016, when he authored The Making of Donald Trump. That tome and It’s Even Worse Than You Think benefits from Wayne Barrett’s Trump files, which he inherited. Barrett, a Village Voice reporter, had been following Trump’s economic escapades since the 1970s.

Divided into eight parts, the book focuses tightly and with a mountain of facts on the following specific topics: the character of the President himself; jobs; taxes; climate change and science denial; global affairs; education; and miscellaneous (law and order, guns, race, veterans, and immigration). That seventh section is a catchall, almost as though the author had a little bit to say about a number of left-over things and the book was already getting lengthy. So, he just poured everything else into that seventh section. It ends with a conclusion that suggests the Trump Presidency is “a challenge for America.” We now have the choice of slowly sliding toward autocracy (remember this is the week when Trump admitted, in a reference to China, he liked the idea of being leader for life) or reclaiming our traditions as a freedom loving country.

The book isn’t a coherent whole; it’s a debate primer. The man is admittedly good at marshaling support for arguments that demonstrate that Trump is a pompous, albeit insecure and possibly dangerous, blowhard. He even has a sense of humor, including on the back of the book cover blurbs one from Trump himself: “I know the reporter is a weird dude who’s been following me for 25 years so obviously he hasn’t done so well. He’s been following me in a negative way for 25 years, always a hit. And I’m president, so he hasn’t done a very good job.”

If you dislike Trump or if you are looking for fodder for a pointed letter to the editor or a conversation with your Fox-loving uncle at the next family get-together, this is definitely a book for you. The pace is fast, the arguments sometimes tight, the breadth admirable, and, if you want to take a weekend to let your bile boil, here’s what you might want on the menu.

I have two quibbles with It’s Worse Than You Think. This is a Simon & Schuster book, the product of one of the older and more respected publishing houses in New York. Yet in their effort to get to press quickly and take advantage of the timeliness of their product, they seem to have slighted copy-editing. I know this is the quibble of an ex-English teacher, but there are repeated sentences, misplaced words, and some missing coherence in a few sentences.

Like other folks I know, the late Nancy Coward of Jackson English teacher fame, for example, one or two such errors (by the way, never found back in the day, when publishing houses employed dozens of proofreaders) are tolerable, but there is a critical mass above which you want to start screaming for the return of the grammar police. Johnston reaches that point.

The second is a plea for an undergirding explanation. He suggests our current danger is due to something called “the Trump Factor,” and I get that. His riff of political termites is excellent. However, I continue to search for a satisfying something that explains a general willingness to place our entire national enterprise and our global position to any claim to moral strength in jeopardy. That’s not here, but there is still a lot to enjoy with a glass or two of wine over a couple of evening hours.

 

Mike Spies, “The Arms Dealer,” New Yorker (March 5, 2018): 24-31.

 Why does the NRA win legislative battles? Mike Spies has one of the answers in a recent article in The New Yorker. It’s because of true believers like Marion Hammer, a 78 year-old dynamo Florida lobbyist and one time President (first female) of the National Rifle Association.

Here are the things she knows: (a) how to play tough, LBJ-style politics; (b) how to use social media; (c) how to gather a social media contact list that’s large, responsive, and “fired up and ready to go;” (d) how to deal with the mainstream media and ways in which earned media can be turned to her advantage; and (e) how to threaten anyone – there is no shame here.

My take-away for local Democrats is that we need to emulate at least two things: the social media activism and an active audience for that media. We need an expanded twitter presence and presence on other modes of social media. We could use a rapid response team that can contact a bunch of folks quickly about inaccurate reporting, contentions, and claims.

The rapidity with which we message is one key to modern electoral success. The size of the audience matters, as does what the audience is willing to do in response. Note Trump and his twitter account – we may hate it, but his base is stirred daily and that’s good for him politically.

 

smallch,  “Defining the Working Class by Education Level is Bad, And Nat Silver Should Feel Bad!” You can find this on the March 4, 2018, list of blogs at Daily Kos. I suspect Googling the title will get it.

 One of the commonplace axioms of school administration is that the educational level of a mother will tell you a whole lot about the relative poverty in which the child lives. If you are, like me, searching for a satisfying explanation for our recent return to nativist politics, this should go on your reading list, if only for its wealth of information and its reminder that all categories are made of exceptions with a theme. It indirectly challenges tying education level and working class too tightly.

 

Kevin Baker, “The Myth of Normal America: There are no good old days to return to in U.S. politics. The truth about a post-Trump era.” The New Republic (March 2018): 14-23.

 When I started reading this article, the title led me to believe it would be another one of many recent essays noting that we’ve always had political controversies in the past, that the current crisis replicates with variation those pervious ones, and we survived them all – even a Civil War.

However, we veered into a discussion of politics as war and an argument that even were the Democrats to once again control the government, they would be forced to play by war, and not political, rules. “The probable future for America is not some antidote to Trump but a smarter, more ruthless and effective, version of him.”

We arose in an era of nasty partisanship, played on both sides by founding fathers. Then, in the late nineteenth-century, the emergence of populists and progressives disrupted that partisanship. Whereas once we were a nation of four parties, we are now, once again, a country of two. During the era of four, each of the major parties had two sets of folks: conservatives and liberals. The internal interplay between them and with the other side led to moderation: “[G]reater comity was forced onto the system. Every bill, every appointment was no longer a fight to the death.”

However, that accommodation began to decline in the 1970s and we have returned to tribal splits, incivility, and an abandonment of the rules that served us so well during that period of economic, social and international rise. Our democracy has coarsened. “To believe that any of today’s generation of politicians is likely to uphold any impartial standards is naïve to the point of absurdity.”

We are at internal political war. Judicial appointments are simply one, very influential and important, set of battles. Baker has a villain in the piece and the villainy resides on the GOP side of the aisle. As a result of abandoning “the way things are done” norms, escalating the conflict with the refusal to consider a Supreme Court nomination by a sitting President, and a willingness to do anything to prevent the other side from a legislative win (remember Mitch McConnell’s goal of holding Obama to one term by denying him any legislative victories – announced on the eve of Obama’s first inauguration), the GOP may have abandoned the very idea of a commonweal labeled the United States of America.

I found the entire argument both persuasive and depressing. Its conclusion is:

In one fell swoop, the president has inflicted on Americans a vulgarity that we have never before seen in our daily newspapers or heard on our newscasts and followed it up with his usual tsunami of lies, coerced perjury, and lethal smears. The sad truth of the matter is that it was years ago that one political movement in this country obliterated the “rules” … and its adherents enable Donald Trump to pull the country down daily to any level of unacceptable behavior that he – and they – desire, What the United States is immersed in now is not politics as usual but something much worse, with as venal, as vicious and as openly racist a group of individuals as ever has controlled its government.

 

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. New York: Alfred J. Knopf, 2013. (This is for those novel lovers out there.)

OK, now that you’ve become depressed, move to the kinds of things that keep me thinking that human beings are the folks with whom I wish to share the planet. I will admit, when depressed, I sometimes reserve that honor for only two or three people and dogs.

There are lots of reasons I keep reading novels. They take me, a la Emily Dickinson, to places I’ve never been without having to leave the comfort of my preferred reading chair. They tell me about social and cultural issues, often from perspectives I haven’t considered and in ways that make those perspectives palpable. Sometimes the sheer beauty of words is transporting; a lot of contemporary novelists write remarkable sentences. And sometimes I simply want to be reminded of decency.

Living in a small town in a rural county, admittedly, gives you an opportunity to witness decency on a daily level. The Community Table, the Friends of the Library, and homegrown services like Clean Slate bring you into contact with people whose time is often spent doing good. Rarely, however, do I get to know the insides of those people the way a good novelist reveals the character of his or her characters. So, when I want to bask in everyday goodness at a deep level, there’s not much better than a novel that lets me do that.

In The Lowland you learn about politics in India, about Indian cultural norms, about two very different brothers with two very different life stories, but who share, serially, a wife. You are confronted with betrayal (children and their parents, a wife and her child), a woman who makes a Nora from A Doll’s House decision that had one of my book clubs grousing for hours, and a good daughter and an even better father. Read away.

 Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which came out in 2000. I recommend it also.