Category Archives: politics

listening in

I have watched Anthony Scaramucci – his ‘taking the stage’ turn last week when he was announced as the new White House communications director – and I have read him, the New Yorker’s recounting of the profane and strange conversation Scaramucci had with staff writer Ryan Lizza.

But on balance, it seems clear the best way to get Scaramucci is to listen to him.  He talked to CNN’s Chris Cuomo Thursday. It was a phone call to CNN, not an on-camera interview. And this is the part that caught my ear:

“As you know from the Italian expression, the fish stinks from the head down. What I can tell you two fish that don’t stink, okay, and that’s me and the President. I don’t like the activity that’s going on in the White House. I don’t like what they’re doing to my friend. I don’t like what they’re doing to the President of the United States or their fellow colleagues in the West Wing. If you want to talk about the Chief of Staff, we have had odds. We have had differences.”

Read that. Does it conjure up any sound in your head? I heard it and one word popped into mine: wiretap. It’s the way some men talk when they don’t know they’re being recorded, when their guard is as down as it ever gets, not that it’s ever completely down. Scaramucci’s conversation with Chris Cuomo is a haphazard jumble of truth, hard feelings and dissembling, topped with menace. There is a chilling intimacy to it, as if he could reach through the telephone line and grab you by the neck if he doesn’t like what he’s getting from you.

But this was no surreptitious recording; it was done in pubic with Scaramucci’s full knowledge and participation. That it still succeeds in sounding like something you hear when you put a glass against a neighbor’s wall is no small wonder.

It’s unfortunate no recording of the Lizza conversation has surfaced; it would make a fine doppleganger to the Cuomo interview. And I hope someone is carefully archiving this audio, along with some of the sound from President Trump’s public utterances. When a future student of American history studies the Trump administration, scratches her head in bewilderment and says out loud to no one in particular, “What were they talking about?” you could do worse that to play them 29:48 of Anthony Scaramucci on CNN, grievances and arguments included.






sound & vision

The Trump administration has lately taken to doing something I like, and I hope they keep doing it.

For whatever reason, the public relations apparatchiks now insist that some of the press briefings be audio only. No cameras allowed. Presumably the point is to make the briefings – which cable news hypes incessantly and which rarely end well for the Trump side – less entertaining because, well, there’s nothing to watch.

I suppose it’s a loss that we can’t see Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking incoming, or get the sense of the press room as MMA ring. You can’t see them sweat, as we learned when studying the difference between the 1960 presidential debate on TV, (Kennedy won as Nixon sweated and scowled on camera) and radio (generally scored for Nixon on points or at worst a draw).

You do, however, get to concentrate on the words themselves, how they hang in the air. Today, former FBI director James Comey  repeatedly used the word “lie” in connection with President Trump. Asked about it at a briefing later, Huckabee Sanders responded “I can definitively say the President is not a liar.”

The “definitively say”caught me, because it’s the language spokespeople use to suggest they’ve gone and looked into something and are bringing the results back to the unwashed mass of journos. Maybe it’s just me, but the answer sounded a lot like “Yep, I went and checked it out, asked around, talked to my sources, and we’re now sure he’s not a liar.”

I might have missed it, had I been watching instead of listening.

By the way, the President himself is a great listen. He’s word salad, all the way down – I find watching him distracts from the doubling back/vamping/free association/fall back on patented riffs that is a Donald Trump speech. I love it when he does something  like ‘And we’re going to bring the jobs back for the coal miners, the miners who’ve been treated so badly, so badly. You know, I love coal miners. They gave me a great victory here…’ Sometimes he finds his way back to the text. Sometimes we’re off to the races. Regardless, for as long as it lasts, this is a great time to be listening to what’s coming out of the White House. What was once said about jazz applies here too; it’s the sound of surprise.


a hypothetical republican party

So, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump couldn’t undo Obamacare this week and replace it with something better.

I don’t know any fair observer who’s surprised by this, and right now the news cycle is consumed by whether and how President Trump and the party recover, whether they can pass tax cuts or infrastructure spending. There’s also good writing about how deeply divided the Republican party is among the extreme right, the used-to-be-far-right-but-lost-the-title right and the hand waving, sort of right. Of course, the Democratic and Republican parties are each coalitions, collections of interests who agree to get along with each other because they have enough in common to make it worth their while, but it’s hard to see how this particular coalition doesn’t come flying apart. There’s just a lot of daylight between the Freedom Caucus and the moderates.

So what would a coherent Republican party look like? A few thoughts. (I don’t endorse these positions neccessarily; this is a thought experiment.)

  • The most important words are “pragmatic” and “creative.” Republicans spend way too much time limiting their choices. Sure, if you’re a Republican you want to do things with private enterprise first. But if that doesn’t work, don’t cut off your options. This isn’t giving up; it’s acknowledging the way the world works. And once you stop saying everything outside a narrow range of options is off the table, you open up the door to creativity. The Republican Party should be the party of hackers – in the old, good sense of the word – and makers, in the not-Mitt-Romney way. The Ryan health care plan is exhibit A in the “failure of creativity” exhibit.
  • The other most important word starts with “r.” Not “rights.” A Republican party that works emphasizes individual rights and responsibilities in equal measure. Responsibilities without rights lead to a dismal, conformist state; rights without responsibilities turn feral, and lead to bizarre, impossible-to-settle standoffs.
  • The party honors religion, and believes in science. Full stop. You can’t have creative problem solving if you can’t use the tools we have. Science, both pure and applied, is the toolbox of modern life.
  • Markets first, but…. You’re a Republican, so you believe markets work. And they do, often. not always. And the answer can’t just be, “get government out of the way.” Much of the time, government’s already well out of the way. Sometimes markets are simply broken, and you need government to make things work. The underlying premise of Obamacare, the individual mandate, is common sense. If the auto insurance market was voluntary, only terrible drivers and old people (pending bad drivers) would get it. And premiums would skyrocket. Why would you expect health insurance to work any different? The market for home internet service doesn’t work because each market is effectively a monopoly so a.) there’s no price competition and b.) there’s no incentive to build out to sparsely settled areas, or into poor areas. Government could serve as a market maker, either directly or indirectly.
  • Support business. Big business, not so much. The overused expression about capitalism, that it’s a force of “creative destruction,” is applicable here. We have less innovation, less disruption of the good sort, because the large incumbents in the economy have too much sway. A healthy economy needs constant churn; we have something closer to a monoculture, with a few big retailers, giant drug companies, a lot of tech in very few hands.
  • Oppose discrimination of all sorts, but equally oppose identity politics. Democrats don’t do this; the two get conflated. If you’re a Republican, let differences just be…differences. Not there to be celebrated or condemned. Just acknowledged.
  • Let cultural issues lie. You may feel to the depths of your soul that abortion is wrong, but a majority of Americans disagree, though I’ve never met anyone on the pro-choice side of the argument who is enthusiastic about the procedure. Understand that there are good people on both sides, downsides however you look at it, decide that you’re going to speak your mind when you can, and move on.
  • Which brings me to my final point for the moment: the problem with what passes for conservatism now is that it has more in common with the radicalism of the 60s than it does with classical conservative thought. The radicals of the late 60s, early 70s believed the state (and drugs and music) would get them there, but they believed in the perfectibility of the human condition. At their core, they believed in utopia. Today’s conservatives have a hard time seeing the similarity,  but they believe in free markets and small government just as irrationally, just as religiously, as their counterparts of 40 years ago. True conservatives, I think, believe in the blues; they know life is short, options are limited and imperfect, and that you can only do the best you can, which is no guarantee of results. I see exactly zero sign the current crop in Washington understands that; until they do, you’ll get what we got this past week and worse.

(And read David Frum on the week’s events here, and Dave Winer’s take on Frum here. Both are excellent.)