Trump and the Trinity of Blood, Money, and Sex

The Israeli author Amos Oz has noted the wicked irony of the Jewish people being forever condemned to rehash in conversations an unlikely pair of men they’ve suffered because of: Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler. So it is with America and Donald Trump, who seemingly lives to have his name on everybody’s lips. Day after day there’s another incident.  It’s amazing how Trump keeps reducing the dignity of being our President by violating basic standards of decency faster than anyone could have ever anticipated. All of which brings me to the subject of this particular blog: Stormy Daniels.

Bill Clinton had his infidelities exposed, from Jennifer Flowers to taking advantage of a still very young and impressionable Monica Lewinsky. But there’s never been quite anything like having a sitting President under scrutiny after his lawyer, Michael Cohen, admits to having paid $130,000 in 2016 to keep a porn star silent about the intimate details of her alleged relationship with the President a decade ago.

What kind of person is Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, aka Peggy Peterson in the legal agreement in which Trump is referred to as David Dennison? Should she get to tell her whole story to the media, including “60 Minutes,” the person on screen will show us smiles of varying intensities, accompanied by an upper lip raised in disgust, anger, and contempt. Now the smiles aren’t something for which Trump has any emotional affinity. He’s sadder than any President we’ve had since Richard Nixon. But disgust is the other emotion Trump specializes in. Everything stinks, is gross, causing a famous germophobe like Trump to also have problems with true intimacy, as disgust is an emotion all about creating boundaries between yourself and what’s around you.


031218-01 Daniels & Lewinsky (resize)

Trump doesn’t drink or smoke or do drugs. His “loveable loser” of a brother did, and Freddy died of alcoholism.  But Trump will have sex, lots of sex, with wives and prostitutes alike. In Fire & Furry, Steve Bannon gets quoted as saying there have been “a hundred” instances like Stormy Daniels,  and Abe Wallach, the former head of acquisitions for the Trump Organization, has said that “Donald is actually the most insecure man I’ve ever met,” somebody who needs to “fill a void inside. He used to do it with deals and sex. Now he does it with publicity.”

Well, actually it seems like Wallach got it half-right: insecurity, a void, a whirl of activity, yes. Trump moving on from sex? Not so much. Cohen’s pay off (supposedly from his own pocket, without being reimbursed by Trump personally or at least his campaign) remains to be investigated.  Will that detail become another clue scrutinized by Robert Mueller’s team? As a journalist I once heard being interviewed on the radio said: after a few years in this profession, you learn that if the story doesn’t include at least one of these three elements—blood, money or sex—then it isn’t a story with any real legs to it.

Trump’s got the blood part down pat. My tribe, not yours. What is “Make America Great Again” if not in some measure a dog’s whistle plea to make America white again (as many a commentator has noted)? Ditto when it comes to money and sex, and the intersection of the two. The New Yorker has reported that when Trump offered a former Playmate of the Year (Karen McDougal) money after sex, she declined, to which Trump replied: “You are special.” What photographs, video, or other kinds of evidence the Russians might own and could be using to blackmail Trump given his sexcapades, who knows. But I can say that the nature of Stormy Daniels, as evident from her photos, isn’t of somebody likely to be cowed by any of Trump’s legal shenanigans. Monica Lewinsky responded to all of the publicity that came her way with a mixture of bittersweet smiles and eyes-unfocused sadness, but Daniels will, indeed, be stormy not subdued.

To me, Bill Clinton’s ugly penchant for cheating on Hillary is rooted in a comment he allegedly made to his friend Vernon Jordan on a golf course one day: “I used to be a fat, poor kid and now I can have any woman I want.” Bill’s dalliances have always struck me as mostly a matter of that former leader wanting to see who he could woo and seduce next, as a testament to his personal powers of persuasion.  Money never much interested Bill, I believe, except as re-election funds. With Trump, however, cash and sex are more closely married than Donald is to Melania. Our current president’s idea of pillow talk? That apparently consisted of asking Daniels how much she makes in royalties from her various pornographic movies.

Trump’s State of Suffering

Comparisons are always tricky: reach too far afield, and you risk looking preposterous. But despite his surname being German (Trumpf), as I watched Donald Trump deliver his first State of the Union speech, I found my mind drifting further south in Europe, to Italy, and in specific to a pair of Italian leaders: Silvio Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini. Comparing Trump to Berlusconi is inevitable enough, two businessmen turned politicians with sexual misdeeds part of their legacy. But due to Trump’s vainglorious nature and related poses, comparing Trump to the man who boasted of having conquered Ethiopia in an earlier era is inevitable, too.

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Nevertheless, forget the repetition of Trump’s chin stuck out in anger and his chin raised in a sign of anger, disgust and sadness. Trump surveying his “troops” from the podium, namely, the Republican members of Congress seated before him, wasn’t the most emotionally memorable part of the speech. That would be all the attendees honored by name among those sitting in the chamber’s balcony. Like Trump, some of them were proud. Like Trump, almost all of them were given to sadness –many profoundly so. I’m thinking now especially of that pair of parents, each of them having lost a daughter killed by MS-13 gang members, as well as the parents of Otto Warmbier, the young man let free by the North Koreans at the point where he was already practically a corpse.

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You have to hand it to Trump: he’s as egocentric as anybody who’s ever walked the earth, and yet his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” had more of a memorable “we” to it than anything Hillary Clinton summoned during the 2016 campaign. Tuesday evening in giving his State of the Union speech, Trump invoked the personal stories of fellow Americans far more than the single time Ronald Reagan did so in initiating the practice of naming guests during his 1982 State of the Union speech.

Was Trump being Reaganesque, however, or still Trump? For my money, I’d say still Trump. Both Republican presidents might be known for signaling resolve, but Reagan is also associated with hope, whereas for my money Trump will forever be associated with grievances and, in a word, suffering. Those parents were clearly still grieving as they sat there in the balcony, the women dabbing away tears, the men likewise with faces contorted by sorrow.

Meanwhile, nearby sat Melania Trump, a fellow sufferer given the recent Wall Street Journal revelation that her husband likely paid $130,000 for Stormy Daniels to remain silent during the 2016 campaign. Why the alleged pay-off? Apparently, Daniels “slept” with Trump back in 2006, four months after Melina gave birth to the couple’s only child: their son Barron. There Melania sat mostly close to stone-faced in the chamber’s balcony last evening, as if playing den mother for all of the suffering on display around her.

It’s enough to make you wonder how both Barron and the country alike will turn out over the long run. Just ask his White House staff. When Donald Trump is involved, happiness is a rare bird. An old joke is that the shortest book in the world is Italian War Heroes. The second shortest book might be Donald Trump Happy. Instead, being satisfied with a state of being endlessly dissatisfied is often about as good as it gets with our current president.

Senator Perdue Denies the Undeniable, Trump’s “Shithole” Comment

There’s no sure-fire way in which a person’s face reveals lying, but one can look for patterns. Consider three patterns from Sunday’s interview of Senator David Perdue (R-GA) by ABC’s “This Week” host, George Stephanopoulos:

  • First, count up all the nervous blinks by Senator Perdue when the interview starts and he knows he’s about to deny the undeniable: a minimum of 28 blinks within the first 50 seconds, or nearly two blinks per second.

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  • Next, when Senator Perdue calls the reported use of the term “shithole countries” by Donald Trump a “gross misrepresentation” of what the president said in a White House meeting on immigration reform in reference to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, what does he do? Why, the guy closes his eyes—a look that often conveys sadness in cases of dishonesty because people are disappointed in themselves for not telling the truth. Senator Perdue’s eyes also partially close when he insists later in the interview that Trump “did not use that word.”

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  • Finally, when confronted with the reminder that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had basically affirmed the incident at the White House, Senator Perdue’s mouth pulls wide with fear. That give-away happens not once, but actually four times during Senator Perdue’s interview, including when Stephanopolous asks: so “what did the President say?”

How bad were Senator Perdue’s odds in denying the undeniable? Pretty steep. Consider, all of the other disparaging comments President Trump has made about other places, from “Paris is no longer Paris” to calling Germany “a total mess” and of course his infamous remark suggesting Mexico is full of rapists. As to President Trump, he vaguely denied making the comment but admitted to using “tough language.” Coming from a germaphobe who won’t shake hands with people and seems to have a thing about orifices (remember his comment about Megyn Kelly and “blood coming out of her whatever”), hey, Senator Perdue you did the best you could. It’s tough first failing to recall what President Trump uttered in that meeting, only to then remember that it wasn’t supposedly memorable.

Week 1, 2018: Trump and Bannon Feud, Saban and Smart Prepare to Do Battle, and Thiel Gets Even Richer

Grumpy Old Men

010518-01 Steve Bannon

While North and South Korea try talking out their differences, war has broken out elsewhere here at the start of 2018. Don’t expect Donald Trump and former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to be talking again anytime soon (except through lawyers). In Michael Wolff’s newest  book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Bannon gets quoted calling Donald Trump Jr. “treasonous,” Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick,” and the president himself likely to be in legal trouble for money laundering.  For his part, Donald Trump is suggesting that Bannon has “lost his mind” and is “simply seeking to burn it all down.” Despite the verbal warfare, it’s not just the nationalist-populist, alt-right movement the two men brought to the White House that links them, however. They also remain strikingly similar in emotional terms: precious little happiness, above-average disgust and—most of all—a wealth of sadness, all the better by which to instinctively appeal to those who want America to be made “great again.” With a now backtracking Bannon reminding folks that Trump is “a great man,” Bannon looks to be the likelier of the two feuding men to be adding soon to his natural store of regrets, disappointments and all-around woe.

Close Quarters?

010518-02 Kirby Smart & Nick Saban

Some scores get settled in courtrooms, other scores emerge on a football field. With the national college championship getting decided this year by a game between Alabama and Georgia, the official word is that there’s “nothing personal” about a contest that pits Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban against his long-time assistant Kirby Smart. Eleven is the key number here. For 11 seasons, Smart helped Saban amass victories; and 11 times, Saban’s former assistants have come up against him and lost. Will this time be different? It could be. Already, Smart’s won one battle: Just two seasons after Smart left Alabama, Georgia finds itself now atop the 2018 recruiting class rankings, with Alabama in fifth place. So if Smart can’t win this year, maybe next. What might be helping Smart lure the best players? It could in part be as simple as the fact that emotions are contagious, a principle that carries over into happiness. Smart shows a third more happiness than Saban does over the course of patrolling sidelines and sitting in press conferences. Smart also smirks less. Are those kinds of emotional tendencies just plain, well, smart? Do they not only possibly help win over high school players and their parents, but also help settle a team down and lead to victory? We’ll find out after the kick-off if the underdog Bulldogs of Georgia can keep the game close. (Saban’s 11 victories against former assistants have all involved wins by a margin of at least 14 points.)

Serious Money, After All

010518-03 Peter Thiel

Back in my junior high days, a friend and I printed our own currency, Krump Notes, all the better by which to bet on poker games at lunchtime in the cafeteria. We didn’t want anybody’s nose getting bent out of shape by losing a pile of real cash on a losing hand. Now comes word that PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel is sort of all in when it comes to Bitcoin. Thiel’s Founders Fund has amassed holdings of between $15 and $20 million (chump change for Thiel, actually) in Bitcoin during 2017, causing the newly disclosed holdings to inspire a 13.5% climb in the virtual currency’s value after some recent volatility in its outlook. Thiel could yet take a bath on Bitcoin, but don’t bet against him. From bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s suit against Gawker to seeing his candidate take the White House, Thiel’s on a roll. What kind of person can be so successfully opportunistic again and again? To me, with Thiel it’s all in the eyes. Some years ago, I decided to investigate what might help make somebody a great lead-off hitter in baseball. The strongest statistical pattern in terms of facial expressions was a tendency to come to the plate with eyes open wide, seemingly looking for gaps into which to poke the ball. Think of hunters. Think of Derek Jeter. Think of Peter Thiel. Think about Cooperstown’s heroes or Silicon Valley’s serious money entrepreneurs, or me with my former stash of Krump Notes: same stratosphere, not really.

Trump’s Trump Tower Press Conference Tirade

Tuesday’s press conference was meant to be relatively mundane, a matter of talking about the President’s infrastructure re-development initiatives. In the greater scheme of things, important but a yawn all the same. What we got, instead, as citizens of America was a look into Donald Trump’s soul and maybe, just maybe the effective end of his young presidency.

The administrative figures flanking Trump or in the vicinity within Trump Tower weren’t having a good time. Look at this still image of National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, on Trump’s left. And back by a blue curtain set up for the event, there was White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly: the guy brought in to restore some discipline to a radically dysfunctional White House. Reports are that the staffers in attendance and those watching the live footage back in Washington, D.C. reacted with dismay and worry. They were left stunned and numb by what they were witnessing. Some of them apparently doubt that Trump’s presidency can recover. Even more striking, some of them apparently doubt Trump’s capacity to handle his Oval Office duties—an assessment now shared by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) in questioning the President’s “stability.”

Trump Press Conference Cohn & Kelly (resize)

As for Trump himself, however, he left this free-riffing press conference reportedly elated. What a relief, he felt, to be free of the shackles he wore earlier this week. To let his staff force him to give that earlier, teleprompter-chained account of his reaction to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia was by comparison such a drag. What does a freely emoting, raw Trump look like? Here’s his emotional profile, reflecting how often he felt these emotions while answering reporters’ questions after he finished his formal, initial infrastructure remarks at Trump Tower.

Trump Press Conference Emo Profile

What’s noteworthy here?  As I wrote about earlier, happiness hardly exists for the guy. Across the levels of happiness from joy down to mere acceptance, that upbeat emotion was in short supply on Tuesday. The difference is that on this occasion of extreme venting, frustration (anger) clearly won the day, with derisive skepticism and dislike (disgust) next most common. Sadness took a back seat this time around, relatively speaking—though there were plenty of moments when Trump closed his eyes in disappointment regarding how the press treats him.

More interesting still was how the President felt regarding the topics he touched on. Our emotions turn on when something matters to us. So notice which topics Trump was most engaged by, as well as the degree to which his emotions per topic were positive vs. negative (the appeal score). Is senior advisor Steve Bannon at risk of losing his job? You’d have to say so, when only a critic Trump detests, Senator John McCain, gets a bigger emotional thumbs-down from the President. More importantly, was the President, in fact, holding the so-called “alt left” as much to blame as the alt right for the events in Charlottesville? The results here show Trump more negative about the alt left’s role, though the “fake news” press, Trump’s CEO critics, and the prospect of Robert E. Lee’s statue and those of other Confederate leaders being removed are all topics that draw even more ire from this president. In positive terms, only the economy does better than Trump’s favorite topic—himself—which would have got the most positive score if not for Trump’s snorts about not being appreciated enough.

Trump Press Conference Cartesian

When I said a look into Trump’s soul in opening this piece, I meant it. Totally unvarnished Trump is something to behold. Let me wrap it up here with a mini photo album of Trump’s various looks during the Trump Tower press conference on Tuesday:

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  • There’s the “Cheerio look” as Trump refutes his CEO critics. Note how the President’s upper lip and lower lip simultaneously extend upward and downward in disgust, transforming his mouth into an O-shape.

Trump Press Conference screencap 02

  • There’s Trump feeling venomous anger as he insists he’s more perceptive than the media (“I watched … very closely, much more closely than you people”).

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  • There’s Trump wincing in sadness because he’s not being given enough credit for having “condemned many different groups.”

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  • There’s Trump happy to be discussing himself (“Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”

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  • And finally, while I’ve long hoped that Trump was no worse for our country than the former, scandal-plagued Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a businessman himself, there’s Trump aping that country’s former fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, given this smug expression.

Heaven help us all.

I’m Lovin’ It: Donald Trump Jr. & Russian Collusion

When your father often behaves like a child, the enfant terrible of the family, it’s got to do a number on your psyche. Then throw in for extra measure this same father all but publicly lusting after your striking sister (“If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father . . . .” being but one of many vulgar examples). Now you’re really in trouble. So it goes with Donald Trump Jr. in what has to be a fruitless attempt to secure the admiration and affection of a father mostly obsessed with himself. On a daily basis, Donald Trump Jr. shares with his father, Donald Trump, and his sister, Ivanka Trump, the family trait of scoring relatively high on disgust. (“It’s disgusting, it’s so phony” Donald Trump Jr. told CNN when asked about allegations that Russia was trying to help his father’s campaign.) But whereas the mostly confident, even cocky Ivanka also scores high on contempt, her older brother Donald Trump Jr. wavers instead in another direction emotionally speaking. Along with disgust, sadness is the other most distinct feeling he displays – though not to the extreme, endlessly-disappointed-in-failing-to-secure-universal-acclaim level of his dad, the president.

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Father and son often share the chin-raising version of disgust, but Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump are likewise prone to the flared upper lip version of that same emotion.

All of this brings us around to the overshadowed son trying to bring home some sizzling bacon two months before CNN asked him about the Russia allegations. I’m talking of course about the now disclosed email trail that shows Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in hopes of getting some compromising dirt on Hillary Clinton back in June 2016.

June 3, 2016, 10:35 a.m. email to Donald Trump Jr. from go-between Rob Goldstone

“[There’s an offer] to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary . . . . This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russian and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

June 3, 2016, 10:53 a.m., email reply from Donald Trump Jr.

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

I include the timing here for the simple reason that simple isn’t always better, despite McDonald’s augmenting its long-running slogan, I’m Lovin’ It, with the newer The Simpler the Better over the last two years. Sometimes simpler actually isn’t very smart, as is the case here. Being eager to meet with an emissary from a generally hostile foreign government eager to meddle in your country’s most important political contest? Then holding the meeting in your office, one floor below the office of your father in Trump Tower, no less? Neither move strikes me as well thought out. What ever happened to stopping to reflect? Nor is this rapid-fire decision-making either very ethical or patriotic in an old-fashioned, Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way.

First, the longing-to-matter son says the newly disclosed meeting was to discuss resuming the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Then by degrees the truth comes out, excluding of course an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox. There the emoting by Donald Trump Jr. was a blizzard of downward eye-castings suggestive of sad disappointment in himself for getting embroiled in such a mess, along with a mouth tightened and occasionally, fleetingly stretched in expressions of grimacing fear.

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As for the president, he’s applauding his “high-quality” son for his “transparency” in releasing the email trail just ahead of a New York Times deadline for soliciting Donald Trump Jr.’s input on the soon-to-be published, newly more complete story of the Trump Tower meeting. Remember candidate Trump boasting in Iowa in January 2016 that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Well, Trump Tower is on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump Jr. having in effect shot himself by holding an ill-advised, possibly illegal meeting, followed by a clumsy cover-up. What we won’t do in search of love.

Who’s the Real “Nut Job”: Comey or Trump?

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“The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.”

Mark Twain

If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie. How better to stun your rivals. It’s awfully rich irony to hear Donald Trump accuse the now-fired FBI Director, James B. Comey, of being “a grandstander” and a “showboat.” That anybody, anywhere on earth could qualify as more ego-centric and media-attention hungry than Donald Trump is, frankly, close to impossible to imagine.

But let’s leave those two audacious epitaphs alone in favor of one with more importance to the drama playing out in Washington, D.C.  Was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia? Has there now been some degree of obstruction of justice by the Trump administration in seeking to lift “the cloud” of doubt hanging over The White House? In the he-said, he-said battle of credibility between Trump’s and Comey’s  differing accounts of their private interactions, the epitaph of greatest relevancy is Trump calling Comey “crazy” and “a real nut job” (during a meeting with his Russian visitors to the White House, no less).

To those of us who seriously study personality traits, neuroticism equates most closely to being “crazy” and four emotions matter most. Being neurotic equates most readily to large, frequent displays of anger, fear and sadness, while the opposite of being neurotic (being emotionally stable) is aided by being happy instead. Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Let’s go emotion by emotion. Did Comey show anger last week during his testimony? A muted, purposeful degree of anger (mostly in how Comey’s lower eyelids stayed tight) was evident. Granted, Comey was a man on a mission to air his concerns. But the only three times where Comey’s mouth also tightened in anger involved, first, being asked to call the Hillary email server a “matter” by the former attorney general Loretta Lynch; second, in wondering  aloud “What am I going to do?” after the current attorney general Jeff Sessions, didn’t act on Comey’s request not to ever again be left alone with Trump; and third and very understandably, in trying to be patient during John McCain’s befuddled series of questions for Comey, all of which came down to basically why not keep pursuing the email scandal?

In comparison, Trump is angry every day, more often, and with more vehemence. Who’s the most crazy when it comes to frequent, strong displays of anger? Verdict: Trump.

Fear, yes, Comey showed a little of it in testifying before Congress.  When asked if he had been directly requested to go easy on former national security adviser Mike Flynn, Comey’s eyes went wide with alarm at the prospect that the Senators might not take seriously the import of the President telling Comey in the Oval Office that he hoped Comey might “let Flynn go.” But the strongest instance of fear came when Comey was recalling the moment that Trump was shooing both Sessions and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, out of the Oval Office so he could make his Flynn request in private. Then his mouth went wide in fear and his inner eyebrows shot upwards.

In comparison, Trump almost never shows fear. By his own admission, Comey didn’t manage to be “Captain Courageous” in confronting Trump’s wheedling. So who’s the most “crazy” when it comes to frequent, strong displays of fear? Verdict: Comey.

As to sadness, that emotion was evident more commonly during Comey’s testimony than fear was. Comey visibly winced on being asked why he was fired. Raised inner eyebrows created a puddle of wrinkles across Comey’s forehead when discussing a range of topics, from the “salacious materials” alleging Trump cavorted with Russian prostitutes, to Session’s refusal to intervene to help him avoid Trump’s entreaties, to closing his eyes when asked if he might have also been fired if Hillary Clinton had won the election instead of Trump.

Nevertheless, the verdict here favors Comey over Trump because in Trump’s endless search for affirmation, the president shows more sadness than any major American politicians since Richard Nixon.  Verdict: Trump.

Finally, there’s the matter of happiness as a stabilizing emotion. Not only is Trump frequently sad, he’s also rarely ebullient and hardly ever smiles. From “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” to comparing reporters to “sea gulls at the beach,” Comey managed a wry version of happiness repeatedly amid the tough circumstances of testifying before Congress after being called a “nut job.” While “between opportunities,” as he said of his career, Comey firmly took the opportunity to affirm his own credibility while leaving the president’s credibility shred even more. Who’s more “crazy”? Why, it’s not even a close call.


Roger Ailes: The Maestro of Shock & Rage

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Who and what killed Roger Ailes? In a USA Today tribute to his long-time mentor, Bill O’Reilly writes that the “hatred” now “almost celebrated in some quarters” is what “killed him.” Loyal to the end, O’Reilly doesn’t name names. Instead, he writes of Ailes being “convicted of bad behavior in the court of public opinion” and “stunned” by a sudden exile from which Ailes “never really recovered.”

Meanwhile, detractors may vengefully rejoice over the death of Ailes. And in doing so, note the irony that Ailes’ fatal, head-banging fall at home in Palm Beach, Florida, followed on the heels of his fall from power at the Fox News channel he founded with Rupert Murdoch’s money. If so, those detractors will still have to come face-to-face with Ailes’ success and legacy.

The easy way out would be to regard Ailes as more or less the equivalent of Batman’s foe, The Penguin. Certainly, the aging, ever more corpulent Ailes looked the part.  Forget the top hat, the tuxedo, the white gloves, the cigarette holder, and even the umbrella. The key to the Penguin’s hold on our imaginations is that he’s wickedly smart and flush with belief in himself.

Might Ailes really be The Penguin, however? The answer is no, twice over. First, the Penguin is from an aristocratic family and Ailes hailed from blue-collar Warren, Ohio, and even when wealthy still saw himself as a working-class bruiser. Second, Ailes was no comic book character. His impact on America may be as profound as anybody in this country over the past half-century, and for many, many years to come.

The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours.

Let’s start with family values. Vice President Dan Quayle made the term famous in 1992, seeking votes. But leave it to Roger Ailes to make money from it by launching Fox in 1996. Now I for one have no issues with the term family values in theory. The support of a nurturing family while growing up is as emotionally healthy as enjoying a good, solid marriage or partnership in adulthood. The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours. When family values devolves into divisiveness – an issue of who is and isn’t worthy of respect and compassion – that’s when darkness descends.

Under Ailes, Fox was diabolically clever. While CNN aimed for the head, Fox went for the heart and the wallet and purse and cleaned up, big-time. In barely half a decade, the upstart Fox surpassed CNN, becoming the most-watched cable news network and staying No. 1 with a simple, grizzly emotional formula: anger compels. Once upon a time psychologists believed that venting enables the rage to pass. Now they know that stoking anger tends instead to keep it burning red hot. Ailes didn’t need professors and scientific research to uncover that fundamental truth about human nature.

Ailes was no fool. Yes, he displayed anger to a degree that exceeds what’s normal. Yes, he apparently once put his fist through a control room wall at Fox. (Somebody put a frame around the hole and wrote, “Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.”) But Ailes’ signature expression was crouched, lowering-the-boom eyebrows: a look of concentration and focus. In short, Ailes had the pulse of how TV can be exploited as a medium and was for the longest time a man on a mission.

In 1968, Ailes was at age 28 the executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” when Richard Nixon put in an appearance. In an off-camera conversation, Nixon mocked the medium as a “gimmick,” provoking Ailes to tell the candidate: “Television is not a gimmick and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”

Soon, Ailes was producing Nixon’s presidential campaign commercials, leading to The White House and Nixon’s own opportunity to invoke family values in an exchange with gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Told that Thompson’s mother, son and himself all hated Nixon, and that “this hatred has brought us together,” Nixon laughs and replies, “Don’t worry. I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege.

From Nixon to Donald Trump, Ailes helped to orchestrate Republican campaigns with the knowledge that the twigs of the bonfire you’re stoking are the latest incidences in the daily news cycle. The logs come in two forms: personalities caught or showcased on camera, and the beliefs or value systems of news anchors and especially the audience at home viewing the show.

Ailes once described his audience as TV “for people from 55 to dead,” putting on its ear the conventional wisdom that you strive for a viewership between the ages of 18 and 49 or some such demographic slice of America. A recently deceased aunt of mine fit Ailes’ model perfectly. Everyday my retired aunt would turn on the TV to learn about the latest indignities heaped on her sense of how the world should be and, transfixed by smoldering resentment, she would keep the TV on Fox all the way from breakfast to bedtime. Ailes gave her sunset years structure and meaning: witness more enemies and threats to be indignant about.

Ailes had only a passing resemblance to The Penguin. How about instead Alfred Hitchcock? As the maestro of shock and anger, wasn’t Ailes Fox’s equivalent to the famous director known as the master of suspense? Perhaps, but I prefer to think of Ailes as the antithesis of Walt Disney. While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege. Think in terms of Main Street, U.S.A. with its storefronts figuratively lapped by flames.

O’Reilly was the perfect vehicle for Ailes’ version of current events. As angry as Ailes but more expressive of surprise than the sadness Ailes revealed when not angry, O’Reilly beat the drums for years and was equally, phenomenally successful. Ultimately, sex scandals involving Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and others would force out both the mentor and his signature on-air talent, exposing the reality that “fair and balanced” didn’t extend to gender issues within the newsroom. It’s a new era now at Fox, and in O’Reilly’s place is Tucker Carlson. He’s the stepson of an heiress and somebody given to the smiles and smirks that put him closer, temperamentally, to The Penguin than to Ailes.

Carlson O'Reilly Ailes Blog Photo (2)(resize)

A new era it may be, but Ailes’ legacy will linger for some time to come. Perhaps it’s because tomorrow I leave on vacation to visit parts of disembodied Yugoslavia that the Balkans, namely the Balkanization, the fragmentation of America into ever fiercer, nonstop partisan bickering, so worries me.

I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and re-reading Rebeccca West’s older classic travelogue, The Black Lamb and the Grey Falcon, with its take on the former Ottoman and Hapsburg dynasties: “I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else.” There, people write memoirs with titles like Land Without Justice. Here at home, those who cast opposing votes now see each new White House administration not as victor but conqueror, without merit. And for that hard-nosed viewpoint, we have to thank Ailes in no small part.

Obamacare Repeal: Callousness as a Pre-existing Condition

Paul Ryan Blog Photo (resize)

The numbers loom large, and so do the emotions involved.  The numbers first:  America’s annual national health care expenditures have reached $3.2 trillion or 17.8% of our gross domestic product. No wonder Warren Buffett is calling medical costs “the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.” At the same time, about 25% of Americans have a medical history that means they have a pre-existing condition that has previously and may now again make them vulnerable to higher costs or even potentially no insurance coverage whatsoever.  As for the emotions involved in whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with a Republican plan, they range from alarm, distress and despair to claims of “pride” and cries of “shame.”

What might cause such negative feelings should be obvious enough, even if not to the Idaho Congressman who told protesting constituents that “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” What stands out instead is Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, saying on ABC’s “This Week” program, “We’re proud of this effort.”

Pride is a combination of anger and happiness, and results from a feeling that you’ve taken control of circumstances (anger) and achieved success in doing so (happiness).  For Ryan, overturning Obamacare is a “rescue mission” to save a “collapsing” system. In a world full of half-truths or less, I’ll leave both those characterizations and the who-knew-it-could-be-so-complicated pros and cons of health care policy aside to focus here on one specific question: what if pride is really window dressing for callousness somehow justified?

Ryan is a long-time fan of the novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote: “Selfishness is a virtue.” Ryan has credited Rand as “the reason I got involved in public service” to weigh in on the “fight of individualism versus collectivism.” As both a devotee of Rand and a self-professed “devout, practicing Catholic,” Ryan is in a conflicted position as he helps to decide the fate of health care legislation in America. To go with Rand means self-interest defined as good when it leads to being productive (versus engaging in robbery).  To go with the writings of the apostle Paul in Philippians 2 means to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit.”

what if pride is really window dressing for callousness somehow justified?

How can Ryan reconcile those two opposing perspectives? Rand’s invoking of “robbery” as a point of reference is no coincidence. For her as for Ryan, I believe, the dynamic is between those who are “makers” and those who are “takers” in society.  Barack Obama referred to some countries that benefit from America’s efforts as “free riders” and supported Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. So note that the maker/taker debate isn’t necessarily a partisan debate. But it’s true that Republicans invoke the debate as to who’s “deserving” of help more often than Democrats typically do.

In Ryan’s case, to hew too closely to Rand would mean endorsing her notion of “rational selfishness,” which rejects making sacrifices for others in favor of productivity, independence, integrity and pride. But what if pride is really contempt, an emotion that blends anger with disgust? The two emotions share anger but otherwise part ways. Pride also involves happiness, an emotion about embracing yourself as well as perhaps others who got you to the success. Disgust is in contrast an empathy-killing emotion about distancing yourself from that which you find poisonous.

What are the odds that Ryan considers himself to be a “maker,” not a “taker”? What are the odds that Ryan considers those who require health care assistance to a degree greater than their means to be “takers” and perhaps even “robbers”? Does seeing the “freeloaders” as robbers free him from the teachings of the apostle Paul to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”? To put it bluntly: does callousness become for Ryan philosophical bedrock, a pre-existing condition that he chooses to take pride in?

Who Really Is Ivanka Trump, Anyway?

Ivanka Trump Blog Photo (Resized)

Well, it’s out – not the latest, 140-character tweet from her dad, but a full-length book from Ivanka instead. In Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, we learn that after a year and a half spent on the campaign trail, the news from from Ivanka is that “I have grown tremendously as a person.”  Perhaps so, but what’s the personality, the emotional base, that Ivanka is starting from?

There are now photographs of Ivanka Trump sitting beside the Donald in the Oval Office, and of Ivanka as “first daughter” attending a women’s leadership conference in Berlin, to go along with photos stretching back to childhood and a first career as a teenage model. The person who emerges from the photos displays most of all a sense of superiority and distance. Contempt is Ivanka’s signature emotion, the one that distinguishes her from the other celebrities I’ve been studying lately. Contempt conveys a sense that others aren’t worthy of respect, which makes Women Who Work a dodgy exercise. How sincerely can you be empowering those you disdain? That leads to another question: who exactly are these women who work if they’re not to be condescended to, even if inadvertently? As it turns out, this book about self-actualization is first and foremost for the actualization of women like the one Ivanka sees in a mirror: wealthy and powerful, with “your team” at work to support their efforts.

How sincerely can you be empowering those you disdain?

Now, contempt actually isn’t an emotion the Donald shows very much. It’s too reflective an emotion for him. So there’s a father/daughter gap there. But alongside the Donald in emotional terms is the other emotion that most distinguishes Ivanka: disgust. Like contempt, it’s an aversive, rejection emotion – only more visceral than contempt. Something “stinks” or tastes bad. Like contempt, disgust is an intimacy and empathy-killing emotion. Women Who Work not surprisingly therefore works as a plug for glambition fully accessorized with Ivanka Trump jewelry.

In Berlin, the conference moderator served up a minor dizzy of a question for Ivanka: “I’d like to ask you, what is your role, and who are you representing: your father as president of the United States, the American people, or your business?” The poised answer: “Well, certainly not the latter.” Plenty of people are hoping Ivanka proves to be a moderating voice that might, if not advance women’s interests, then at least keep them from getting frayed by the Donald’s policies. Those people might take heart from Ivanka’s current reading of Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography and her reaching out to Mary Barra and Ginni Rometty, the CEO’s of General Motors and IBM respectively.

Roosevelt, however, exceeded the happiness Ivanka feels while feeling only half as much fear as the First Daughter does. Will Ivanka eagerly fight for what she feels is right? Does she have the guts to hang in there when a very grumpy dad won’t change his mind, readily if at all? His amount of anger shown is over one-third greater than her own.  Ivanka’s brand of feminism is less about any sweeping societal changes than individual self-realization. By her own account, Ivanka liked her life in New York City before the election as much as her dad is wistful about his his pre-administration life. What are the odds that if frustrated , she fires herself from her White House role?