How Trump (Mis)Manages

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

What comes through loud and clear in Bob Woodward’s Oz-like curtain reveal is that Donald Trump is out of his depth; that he cannot grasp how government functions, let alone how international relations work; that he cannot seem to budge from his own preconceived notions on authority, trade, and any number of other subjects; that he’s not capable of learning; that he can’t take advice and dislikes anybody tagged as an expert; that he enjoys winning, only winning by his definition, at any cost; that something is good when it benefits him; that he yearns for total control, like he exercised in his business; that he seems to have no long or short term memory; and that he lies about everything to everybody. His incompetency shines through on nearly every page.

Woodward writes simply. He threads through the major topics well known to anybody who follows the news by whatever method they choose. These are trade, international relations, the DPRK challenge, being personally liked, reliance on personal relations with authoritarian leaders, lambasting of the free press, and, of course, Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation. We see how Trump manages, or more correctly, mismanages. Much of this has to do with insistence on his immutable ideas, his method of end running pretty much everybody who works for him, his knack for taking advice from exactly the wrong people (e.g., the likes of Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross), his penchant for undermining his staff (from Kelley to Porter to Priebus to McMaster, most history now), and perhaps what will be most fatal to him, not listening to his competent lawyers, particularly John Dowd.

As for his demagoguery, what’s more distressing than what he spouts on his ongoing, ceaseless campaign rallies is how calculated and cynical these pronouncements are. Does Trump believe in anything, that is other than his brand, his sable genius, and profit? Apparently not.

Part of the enjoyment of reading Fear is seeing that what his better advisors warned about are coming to pass. At the very moment of this writing, the economy is top of mind. Trump inherited a strengthening economy and seems intent on reversing all that’s good about it. This passage, then, is very telling, not only about how Trump operates, but how he defers to his worst advisors and how he introduces his reckless business practices (recall he declared bankruptcy six times) into national affairs:

“[Gary] Cohn knew the real battle was going to be over tariffs, where Trump had the most rigid views and where he could do the most damage to the U.S. and world economies. He shoveled all the data he could to the president about how tariffs on imported steel would be a disaster and hurt the economy.

“A 17-page document that Cohn sent contained a chart showing the minuscule revenue earned in 2002-03 when President Bush had imposed steel tariffs for similar reasons. It showed that the revenue that came in was $650 million. That was .04 percent of the total federal revenue of $1.78 trillion ….

“Tens of thousands of U.S. jobs had been lost in industries that consumed steel, Cohn said, and produced a chart to prove it.

“Trump had three allies who agreed with him that trade deficits mattered: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Peter Navarro and Bob Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative.

“Navarro said that the data did not include the jobs created in the steel mills under the Bush tariffs of 2002-03.

“‘You’re right,’ Cohn said. ‘We created 6,000 jobs in steel mills.’”

“‘Your data is just wrong,’ Navarro said.

“Trump was determined to impose steel tariffs. ‘Look,’ Trumps aid, ‘we’ll try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll undo it.’

“‘Mr. President,’ Cohn said. ‘that’s not what you do with the U.S. economy.’ Because the stakes were so high, it was crucial to be conservative. ‘You do something when you’re 100 percent certain it will work, and then you pray like hell that you’re right. You don’t do 50/50 with the U.S. economy.’

“‘If we’re not right,’ Trump repeated, ‘we roll them back.’”

And there you have it, the Trump presidency in a nutshell. So, if you’re worried, you have good cause to be. If you’re not, perhaps you should read Fear as soon as you can. w/c

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In Time, Another Anne Frank Emerges from Poland

Hear, O Israel, Save Us (Smithsonian, November 2018)

By Renia Spiegel (translated from Polish by Smithsonian)

A young Jewish girl named Renia Spiegel lived in Poland in the 1930s. When the Germans invaded, setting off World War II, Renia and her younger sister Ariana were visiting their grandparents in Przemysl. The Soviets bombed and invaded Przemysl. The girls were able to escape to the countryside and avoid the fighting. They returned to the city, where they remained until the Germans turned on the Soviets and invaded in June 1941.

About this time, Renia fell in love with a young man, Zygmunt Schwarzer, experienced her first kiss, and by 1942 saying she understood ecstasy with Zygmunt. The Germans herded the Jews, among them Renia and Ariana, into a ghetto. A resistance fighter, Zygmunt was able to remove the girls to the attic of a tenement house where his uncle lived before a German Aktion, which would have meant deportation and death. The next day, he took Ariana to stay with the father of a Christian friend of hers. Unfortunately, the Germans discovered the attic hiding place and executed Zygmunt’s parents, who were sheltering there, and Renia. Zygmunt heard the shots, recovered Renia diary and made the last entries, which include these lines: “Three shots! Three lives lost! All I can hear are shots, shots.”

Ariana survived. She is 87 and lives in New York. Zygmunt also survived and went on to become a pediatrician practicing in Queens and on Long Island before passing away. There’s more, of course, to their stories, recounted in the introductory article to Renia’s diary, titled “Rescuing History,” by Robin Shulman.

Renia’s diary numbers 700 pages, of which selections appear in Smithsonian. Here is the first paragraph of the opening entry, January 31, 1939,  followed by the last, July 25, 1942.

“Why did I decide to start a diary today? Has something important happened? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. Somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys. Somebody who will feel what I feel, believe what I say and never reveal my secrets. No human being could ever be that kind of friend.

“Today, my dear diary, is the beginning of our deep friendship. Who knows how long it will last? It might even continue until the end of our lives.”

“My dear diary, my good, beloved friend! We’ve gone through such terrible times together and now the worst moment is upon us. I could be afraid now. But the One who didn’t leave us then will help us today too. He’ll save us. Hear, O, Israel, save us, help us. You’ve kept me safe from bullets and bombs, from grenades. Help me survive! And you, my dear mamma, pray for us today, pray hard. Think about us and may your thoughts be blessed. Mamma! My dearest, one and only, such terrible times are coming. I love you with all my heart. I love you; we will be together again. God, protect us all and Zygmunt and my grandparents and Ariana. God, into Your hands I commit myself. You will help me, Bulus and God.”

In these times, when anti-semitism again rears up as a tangible threat, especially here in our own United States, it’s worthwhile remembering the Holocaust, the destruction of the European Jews, and that these were real human beings, just like you, with the same hopes and feelings as you have. Against this understanding, anti-semitism and racism can’t survive. w/c

Warning Before Your Next Spa Vacation

Nine Perfect Strangers

By Liane Moriarty

Afraid to report that about the best thing here is Liane Moriarty’s clever title, that the characters are perfectly unknown to each other before gathering at Tranquillum House and that they are, like all of us, imperfect people. Actually, though, the portion of the novel preceding the group being locked in the meditation room is at times engrossing. Moriarty does a good job of teasing the dynamics among the various guests and the staff at Tranquillum. It’s the long, slow, very slow revelation in that room that, sorry to say, kills the story. Or it might be the end, where Moriarty feels compelled to fill us in the characters’ lives post Tranquillum years.

Of the nine strangers, Frances proves the most interesting and most fully developed. She’s a romance novelist, and quite a successful one, until her long-time publisher rejects her newest. And she receives a bad review for her previous work, over which she agonizes for several pages several times in the novel. While we don’t know Liane Moriarty, it’s probably safe to say Frances reflects some of her experiences in the publishing business, and some of her fears concerning her work and authorial longevity. Readers, there’s a lesson here for you who aspire to authorship, or might even have gotten a novel published. Publishing once, twice, thrice, none of that means your latest effort will see the light of day.

Also of interest, Nicole Kidman receives a thanks in the Acknowledgments. And well she should. Kidman’s Blossom Films picked up the film and TV rights. Moriarty is the author who brought us Big Little Lies that proved so successful on HBO. In the hands of the right people, Nine Perfect Strangers might transform into something better, something elevated, something millions will want to watch, as they did Big Little Lies. The one wrinkle here has to do with Kidman herself. She plans to play Frances. Now readers of the novel will know instantly that quite a transformation will have to take place, for Frances is shortish and thickish and Kidman is tallish and thinish. Either prosthetics will be working overtime or the adapters in the writers’ room will.    Time will tell.

Unless you absolutely must read the next Moriarty book, you might do yourself a favor by waiting for the TV series. And you also might hope that Nicole Kidman decides Masha, the loony Tranquillum proprietor, is the best role for her. That’s a part made for her. w/c

A Great Musical about Mental Illness

Next to Normal

By Brian Yorkey (lyrics and book) and Tom Kitt (music)

Next to Normal is among the most electric, compelling, and moving musical dramas you’ll ever experience. It evokes strong emotional reactions in audiences not only because of the terrific music and book, but because it dramatizes real-life experiences many people share: loss of a child, mental illness, and a troubled family life. If you have seen the play, then you yourself can attest to its power, for there’s hardly a performance in which sobbing doesn’t break out, when some audience members don’t gasp as they identify with what the characters on stage are experiencing, in which some audience members find it so overwhelming that it causes some to leave either in tears or anger. If you attend live theater, you’ve probably not felt such strong emotions as Next to Normal arouses.

Next to Normal presents what at first, at least in the opening five minutes, appears to be a fairly typical upper middle class suburban family. Mother Diana rises early and prepares lunches for the children. Husband Dan finds his wife missing from bed but gets excited when she yells to him that she will be up to have sex with him. Daughter Natalie is up early plowing through her AP homework in a mad dash to get into Yale. Son Gabe dashes about preparing for school, invisible to all but Diana. Then, in a flash, Diana becomes unhinged, making sandwich after sandwich on the kitchen counter and finishing on the floor. All the while the cast sings about their various situations: Diana her love of family and frustrations with them and her life; Dan his delight that everything seems to be going great as a result of Diana’s new meds; Natalie her feelings of neglect and resentment of her brother; Gabe of living yet another day.

As the play progresses, we learn of how Diana suffers with her bipolar disorder and her periods of delusion, as well as with her frustrations regarding the constant medical attention and the alphabetical array of drugs that serve to dull her senses, remove her from life, and diminish her as a wife, mother, and woman. She expresses this powerfully, evocatively, and poignantly in a truly stunning number, “I Miss the Mountains.” Later, the crux of the issue presents itself, that causing Dan tremendous anguish, Diana sensations of isolation and anger but also comfort, and Gabe his tenuous hold on life, in a dueling number that brings on the sweats in viewers, “You Don’t Know” followed immediately by “I Am the One.” Directly after these, Natalie sings about her own anger over how she thinks Diana has neglected her, paid more attention to an invisible son than her own flesh and blood, alive daughter in”Superboy and the Invisible Girl.”

Through the conclusion of Act I and the end of Act II, we witness Dan and Diana’s attempts to get her mental illness under control and the disruptive and debilitating effect it has had on the family. It’s here, at the end, that we finally comprehend just how painful the past several years have been for Dan, when Diana leaves, when the burden of her care lifts from his shoulders, and when he can at last acknowledge his son and begin his long put off grieving.

Bipolar disorder, psychiatric treatment methods, family dynamics, the effect of mental illness on all family members, Next to Normal examines and dramatizes all these in two and a half hours that combine drama, brilliant music, and painful reality that both traumatizes and entertains audiences. When the opportunity to see it presents itself in your community, preferably by a troupe of skilled actors, you should not pass up seeing it. It’s an experience you probably will never forget. w/c

How to Find Yourself on a Greyhound Bus

Lake Success

By Gary Shteyngart

Barry Cohen is the kind of guy we love to hate, a hedge fund gunslinger living by his own rules, way up in the stratosphere of privilege, so removed that he’s completely disconnected from reality. But he is a bit different in various ways from how we imagine his contemporaries, and how Shteyngart portrays his set.

He has a wife, Seema, Indian, intelligent, independent, who doesn’t fit the mold of trophy wife. He has an autistic son. And he has multi-million dollar watch collection that obsesses him because it brings worth and order to his life.

Then he has a major mid-life crisis fueled by all these events: the government on his tail for insider trading, a disintegrating fund due to horrid trades, a wife who comes to regard him as unimaginative and distant, and a son he claims to love but can’t bear to be around. He snaps and goes in search of a grail of sorts, his better youth, his idolized old love Layla, who lives and teaches in El Paso. To get to her, to escape his life, he sheds everything, his money, his Amex black card, all except the best of his watches, and embarks on a Greyhound plunge into the real America during the run-up to the 2016 election.

Barry thinks of it as On the Road, and maybe his trek is a search for something meaningful. Maybe it’s like Sullivan’s Travels, a quest for relevance that proves circular. Or maybe it’s simply an attempt to escape a world spinning out of his control, replacing it with something more manageable and fulfilling.

Readers can decide for themselves what’s what here. What readers get to see is the lifestyles of the rich in contrast to regular folks in Barry’s landing zones: desperation in Baltimore, quiet refinement in Richmond, laid back riches in Atlanta, generosity in Jackson, MS, equanimity in El Paso, kindness in Phoenix, resolution in La Jolla, and acceptance back in New York.

The novel does satisfy in that Barry learns things about himself, that he is more like his son Shiva than he knew, that he could find a satisfaction of a sort inside himself, that he was more than just a prospector in the financial mines of the world. Years after the adventure, with his marriage dissolved, his relationship with his son more distant, himself more at peace with himself, he earns redemption, and we readers like him better than we did ten years previous. Barry’s a bit more connected to life. w/c

Evil Ways of Zealotry

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World

By Catherine Nixey

Catherine Nixey has written a useful cautionary on what happens when a group certain, unreasoning, and unmovable in its faith gains power. While the idea that dominance can lead to intolerance isn’t new, and that Christians aren’t the first to wield dominance and power indiscriminately and often brutally, it is rare that a group will hold sway as long as Christianity has managed. As Nixey illustrates, such  divine certitude when commingled with temporal authority can be costly in intangibles, such as stifling diverse intellectual life, and tangibles, including not only art but in the ability to lead a satisfying life that might diverge from the (restrictive) norm. While some reviewers more steeped in ancient history point to Nixey’s selective assembly of facts that portray early Christians as an intolerant and philistine bunch and polytheists as at least inclusive, her larger point of the destructive power and cost of willful ignorance is well taken, especially in the shadow of today’s eruptions of lunacy. And, it doesn’t hurt that her writing moves things at an electric pace. If a volume about religion and antiquities can ever be called a page turner, this is it.

When a belief system, pretty much anything based wholly on faith, gets stripped of it theological razzle-dazzle and then lampooned with wit, it can certainly appear foolish. And it’s here that some may object to Nixey’s style, for she does have lots of wit about her, and she knows how to rally the wit of the ancients to her cause. Where she does this most entertainingly is Chapter Three, “Wisdom is Foolishness.” If you ever thought the ancients a dry, dusty lot, you’ll not want to pass up this chapter, which you could probably take in leaning against the shelf in your local bookstore or library. Nixey discusses the influential physician and philosopher Galen (a goodly portion of his vast writings managed to survive and influence the West via the Arab world, another story) in the context of empirical knowledge versus Christian blind faith. But the chapter really entertains when she offers up Greek philosopher Celsus’ argument against Christianity. Theodosius II and Valentinian III (400s) banned Celsus’s The True Word (178), so no complete copy survives outside of what Origen of Alexandria quotes in Contra Celsum (248), his multivolume refutation of Celsus. A sample will give a measure on both Nixey and Celsus:

“The Creation story itself takes a particular bashing. Celsus disdains the idea of an omnipotent being needing to piece out his work like a builder, to make so much on one day, so much more on a second, third, fourth and so on—and particularly the idea that, after all this work, ‘God, exactly like a bad workman, was worn out and needed a holiday to have a rest.’”

How different would our world be today had Christians exercised a modicum of tolerance in their ascent to dominance? Well, that’s a question best answered by speculative fiction. Reality is that we live in a world missing a sizable portion of our past thanks to blind faith.

Nastiness in the Garden District

Suddenly Last Summer (Play, 1958)

By Tennessee Williams

Suddenly Last Summer Sebastian Venable died a violent death in Spain and afterwards his niece Catharine, who accompanied him instead of his mother Violet, just would not stop saying nasty things about his demise. The only solution was to call in the famous Portuguese psychiatric surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz, offer him a load of money in support of his research, and have him lobotomize Catherine. Or, as the always correct Mrs. Venable shouted in the final moments of the play, “cut this hideous story from her brain.”

And what was this story that so disturbed Mrs. Venable. Simply that the son she idolized as a poet was a homosexual. Bad enough back in the day of the play, 1936, and the place, the Garden District of New Orleans, but add to it Sebastian’s dilettantism, his predatory instinct, and his willful use of his mother (cast aside when she became too old), replaced by pretty Catherine, as a magnet to attract young men, well then, no wonder Mrs. Venable wanted to destroy her niece to protect her son’s, and thereby her own, reputation.

Everything in this play speaks to the baser aspects of human nature, most particularly our unrestrained urges to use and abuse each other. Here, Violet and Sebastian lord it over the people around them. Witness Mrs. Venable’s treatment of her servant and of sister, nephew, and niece; of Sebastian’s use of his own mother; of Sebastian’s sexual use of young, poor boys; of Catherine’s mother’s and brother’s efforts to silence her for the sake of money; and, finally, in the end, of the devouring of Sebastian’s flesh by the symbols of the abused seeking revenge, like meat in the maw of the Venus Flytrap featured in his own garish garden. 

If your only acquaintance with Suddenly Last Summer is the film, you will certainly want to read the play for yourself and, if available, a staged performance. There are significant differences between the two.

Finally, on the subject of lobotomy, readers will be interested to know that the procedure was quite popular from the time of its invention by António Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist, in the 1930s, for which he received a Nobel in 1949, through the 1950s. Additionally, Tennessee Williams had an older sister, Rose, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, then lobotomized. She spent the rest of her life in a mental institution. w/c