A Faustian Bargain…

I’m both fascinated and repulsed by Donald Trump, and since 2016 I’ve been looking for a character in literature to use as a metaphor for his rise and fall. 

In the beginning I thought his affection for golden toilets and chandeliers made Jay Gatsby a comparable figure, and I wrote an essay making the case. Both are criminal pretenders, but Jay Gatsby operated behind a quiet, tasteful, polished persona. Trump could never pull that off. 

Then, his penchant for lying brought Pinocchio to mind. Imagine the image of that nose based on the number of lies told during his term? Enticing as that is it’s not a fair comparison. Pinocchio was kinda cute, but Donald is anything but cute. Still, the little puppet being manipulated is tempting.

Closer still are the major crime figures – Corleone and Soprano – but Freddo is the only Corleone or Soprano that’s as dumb and weak as Trump. We know the Don cozies up to real life Mafiosi, but neither Tony nor Michael were cowards which don’t stand up as comps.

Recently, though, someone mentioned The Art of the Deal and the Faust legend popped to mind. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s retelling of the ancient German legend, Faust, like Trump, is the quintessential wannabe willing to sell his soul to be someone important. The Faust story is the prototype for “the art of the deal.” 

In Goethe’s tale, Dr. Faustus is the striver. He wants to learn everything that can be known and when he fails to achieve it he turns to magic. Enter the devil…Mephistopheles.

Mephistopheles sees an easy mark and bets God he can turn his favorite human by promising him everything he wants while he is here on Earth. In exchange Faust will give up his soul and serve the Devil in Hell when his life on earth is over. Except for the “ambitious for knowledge” part it’s all very Trumpian. Still, when it comes time to deliver, I can see Trump trying to weasel out of the deal. It won’t happen; this guy Mephistopheles is all about “Promises made, promises kept.”

The American version of the story has several interchangeable characters, but the basic version is this: Donald Trump is no seeker of knowledge. He’s a greedy insecure swampish wannabe who squandered $433 million of his father’s money seeking Manhattan society’s acceptance – something he could never achieve.

So, after a litany of business failures including five bankruptcies, he turns to reality television and a low class portfolio of beauty pageants. Enter the devil… 

In Moscow, Mr. Trump meets his Mephistopheles, Vladimir Putin, someone he’s admired and tried to meet for years. And, there in the Miss Universe contestants’ dressing room, he thinks up a deal. He will run for President of the United States while initiating a plan to build his dream – a luxury hotel – in Moscow. He thinks the presidential run will impress Putin, though he doesn’t expect to win. It’s another sleazy art of the deal deal; he will gift the penthouse of the Moscow Trump Tower Hotel to his idol in exchange for permission to build. 

The Devil sees a pigeon fluttering on his windowsill. The former KGB officer has just the tool he needs to rebuild the Russian Federation. Executed properly his tool could disrupt America’s hegemony in the world. Promise the tool anything. Introduce him to oligarchs and money launderers. Buy his condos. Give him cash to buy the golf courses he loves. Send hookers up to his hotel suite. Flatter him. Make him feel important. 

The hook is set and his soul, if he ever had one, has been sold for a building permit. It’s a fanciful bargain if Trump thinks he can outsmart a KGB officer who’s been running agents and turning asset for 40 years. 

So far the Devil’s return on investment has been astonishing. It has yielded a deafening silence to Russian bounties for US military scalps, US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, withdrawal from the JCPOA (Iran nuclear treaty), removal of 11,000 American troops from Germany, compromising our Kurdish allies by pulling back US Special Forces in Syria, alienation of NATO and European Union partners, calling American servicemen and women “losers” and “suckers,” greenlighting white supremacists, and refusing to call out Russian election interference or the murder/poisoning of Russian dissidents. Quite a list.

Mephistopheles is no fool. He has Trump by the balls and when Don the Builder goes to collect on his art of the deal, my guess is Putin will smile and show him the “golden showers” pictures from the Ritz Carlton Moscow. You were in way over your head when you made this deal with the Devil, Don. 

Of course there are other versions of the Faust story rising from these swampy waters, and often Trump plays the role of Mephistopheles. There’s Jared Kushner and Mohammed Bin Salman, Evangelical Christians and Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, Melania and Donald Trump, Ivanka and Donald Trump. As the former Republican Rick Wilson says in the title to his book, Everything Trump Touches Dies.

“Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio/A lonely nation turns its eyes to you…” Paul Simon (Mrs. Robinson)

Supreme Hypocrisy…

I went to law school during the era of the Earl Warren Supreme Court (1953 to 1969). So did Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She graduated from Columbia in 1959. I graduated from Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley in 1965. That’s about as close as I ever came to being on the same playing field as RBG.

Her death last week brought both grief and controversy. Her passing was not unexpected but it was politically untimely and has inflamed passions on both sides. Someone will be appointed to succeed her, but no one can replace her. She was one of a kind, and when she lies in state in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol on Friday, she will notch another first… the first woman ever to be accorded the honor.

I’m passing quickly through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Every morning this week I’ve begun my day listening to Gregorian chants and every evening given myself over to a goyish version of sitting shiva (the week long mourning period observed by a Jewish family).

I’m trying not to get caught up in the successor controversy. Senate Republicans have the votes to confirm whomever the president nominates in the foreshortened time frame of the upcoming election and presidential inauguration. As Mr. Trump says, “It is what it is.”

On the other hand, there is the supreme hypocrisy of a process that denied Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing with ten months to go in the presidential term and this rush to confirm in 43 days. Regardless, it looks like Trump’s nominee will be a sitting member of the Supreme Court on January 20, 2021 and with 200 federal judges already confirmed by the Senate since 2016, American jurisprudence will be changed for generations.

But America itself has already changed… In four short years we have seen the nation transformed from a democracy courageous enough to elect an African American president to a backward-looking country ignorant enough to elect a white supremacist.

RBG saw it coming and called Mr. Trump a “faker” during the 2016 campaign. She said she could not imagine what it would be like if he became president. She realized the remark was inappropriate and almost immediately acknowledged her error by saying, “Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office.”

On a higher note, I’m sure she would agree with Adam Cohen’s analysis of the court in Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America. With precision and perspective, Mr. Cohen, a member of the New York Times editorial board and editor in chief/president of Volume 100 of the Harvard Law Review, details the court’s rightward march in favor of corporations and wealthy individuals to the detriment of the middle class and poor. 

“Cohen’s ambitious, well-written book makes a convincing case that the court has contributed to growing inequality through its rulings on everything from election law and education to corporate law and crime.” —Christian Science Monitor

Mr. Cohen shows us case by case how the court has changed since liberals dominated the Warren court of the 60s and 70s. The pendulum swing is dramatic but not surprising. One can only hope with Martin Luther King that “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.”

The more immediate concern as we wait for that arc to bend is Attorney General William Barr’s relentless efforts on behalf of a more powerful executive. Those efforts are undermining the concept of three co-equal branches of government. If successful and the Supreme Court becomes unbalanced 6-3 in favor of conservatives, it could take decades to rebalance our judicial system. The loss of RBG at this time is particularly upsetting.

She was a tiny giant whose work on behalf of equal pay, equal protection, and equal opportunity changed the landscape for all of us but American women in particular. Her blistering dissents on behalf of equality are legendary. Her law clerks idolized her, and her opinions are renowned for their clarity and carefully crafted prose. As an undergraduate at Cornell,, she studied comparative literature with Vladimir Nabokov, the famous prose stylist, whom she credits with making her a better writer.

She had always been admired by her peers on the court, but became a celebrity to others when she became the subject of two films recognizing her importance on the court, her singular achievements, and the distinctive lace collars she wore when the court was in session – some during oral argument, some for reading majority opinions and others to signal her dissent (photograph at the top of this essay).

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, September 18, 2020 and will be buried next to her husband, Marty, at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday, September 26th following two days in repose under the portico at the Supreme Court and one day in Statuary Hall in the Capitol rotunda.

RIP RBG

Vaccines…a Cautionary Tale

Health officials are beginning to wonder whether it will be possible to contain a spreading killer if society does not take more aggressive, intrusive measures. ‘Right now, we are paralyzed,’ said [the] director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta leading the Federal Government’s epidemiologists tracking the disease. ‘We don’t have the data to fight this epidemic,’ he said yesterday.  

Opponents of widespread mandatory testing argue that it is unnecessary and could prove self-defeating by frightening possibly infected people away from the medical system.” February, 10, 1987 (NY Times)

This quote is from a yellowing article folded up in a book called Ethics and Other Liabilities. I hadn’t looked at the book in decades though the title is one of my favorites. It must have been fate that led me back to it. 

The article’s concern is obviously not the current Covid-19 pandemic but the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, though the language could have been taken from today’s paper.

In this ramped up election year, we have a pandemic laying waste to our citizens – and to populations worldwide. Last night, the death toll in America crossed the 200,000 mark. 200,000 innocent victims of an insidious, invisible, invasive, highly contagious virus.

Operation Warp Speed is the public-private partnership initiated by the Trump administration in March to fast track the development, manufacture and distribution of 300,000,000 doses of a Covid-19 vaccine to Americans. Trump has been telling us it will be ready “before a very important day. You know what I’m talking about…” Yes, election day.

No one – not Dr. Robert Redfield his CDC director, not Dr. Anthony Fauci his NIAID director, not Dr. Stephen Hahn his FDA commissioner, not Dr. Jerome Adams his Surgeon General – in the scientific community believes a vaccine will be vetted and ready for distribution by election day – nor should it be. But, that’s the golden ticket Trump is campaigning on.

Rarely have drugs been fast tracked without normal safety and effectiveness protocols, and then only when “it may be effective” and potential benefits outweigh its risks for emergency use. “But, for a vaccine, the agency has always demanded a higher level of assurance of safety, for a simple reason: The vaccine will be given to healthy people.” (William Schulz, deputy commissioner for policy at the FDA, 1994-1999).

After 40 years of research there is no vaccine for HIV/AIDS

Operation Warp Speed is the medical equivalent of the Manhattan Project that developed the nuclear bomb or the Apollo Project that put a man on the moon. Without a vaccine, Covid-19 could be as deadly as the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed 675,000 Americans and between 20-50 million worldwide.

What are the prospects? It’s hard to say. In response to a question by Nicolle Wallace today, Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness cited mumps as a the fastest developed vaccine in medical history. Four years. If a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 can be developed it is likely to come sooner than that, but there is no assurance that it can be found. Mumps might be the standard we should refer to for the creation, testing, certification and distribution of a viral vaccine. 

Something to think about: remember Ebola? It killed 11,310 people in three Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone before it was contained. There is no vaccine or cure.

  • Ebola, like Covid-19 is virus. There is no vaccine to combat it’s spread. There are only mitigating strategies to contain and limit the spread. 
  • HIV/AIDS is another virus without a vaccine. There are mitigating therapies but no cure. 
  • SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is the virus that appeared in February 2003 and mysteriously disappeared in July 2003. There is no vaccine for SARS.
  • Same with MRSA, the antibiotic resistant staph infection. 

Donald Trump is trying desperately to jawbone the coronavirus. His strategy keeps changing. “It’ll go away.” “Testing only creates more cases.” “The US is doing better than any other country.” “Kids are immune.” It’s a patchwork of wishful thinking.

As we enter the stretch toward the November 3rd election, he’s sidelined the country’s best infectious disease experts and brought on board Dr. Scott Adams, a radiologist with no infectious disease credentials to tout what Mr. Trump calls “herd mentality” (he means herd immunity) i.e. letting the virus run its course to see who survives, believing (without proof) that those who survive will develop immunity – at the cost of millions of dead Americans.

I sincerely hope Donald Trump pulls this rabbit out of somewhere. Maybe “a very important” part of his anatomy. I want a vaccine even more than he does, but I want it to be “safe and effective.” That’s the CDC standard, and it won’t come next month. Let’s be realistic. Coronavirus is among us and the guy that cheated on his SAT’s, claimed bone spurs to avoid military service, cheated subcontractors out of their pay, and paid off a porn star to avoid spoiling his presidential run is not the person I trust to vet anything – much less a vaccine. Let the CDC do its work (without interference). Let the FDA certify its safety and effectiveness (without political pressure), and let medical professionals distribute and deliver it. Then I’ll take my dose.

Welcome to the Inferno…

“And he replied: You should already see

across the filthy waves what has been summoned,

unless the marsh’s vapors hide it from you.”

(The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto VIII)

The vapors have not hidden it. At this point in the Trump presidency filthy waves and catastrophic fires are devastating America. With only 50 days until the second reckoning on November 3, 2020 the swamp creatures have risen to the surface.

“Many in life esteem themselves great men

who then will wallow like pigs in mud,

leaving behind them their repulsive fame.”

(Canto VIII)

The writing is on the wall; Trump is going to lose if there is a fair election. 

But…will there be a fair election?

Not only did Mitch McConnell block the Senate from debating or voting on an election reform bill passed by the House, but the churning waters of the Deep Swamp are implementing a Two Pronged Plan that should scare the bejesus out of any American who holds the United States Constitution sacred.

Prong One, up to and including election day, involves disrupting and slowing processes at the US Postal Service through the removal of mailboxes and dismantling of high-speed sorting machines in parallel with discrediting mail-in balloting, reducing the number of polling places, suppressing voter registration, intimidating voters at the polls, and benefiting from a social media disinformation campaign fed by Russian, Chinese, and Iranian hackers.

Honest candidates who believe in fair elections engage in none of these practices, but Trump has shown us that he is not an honest candidate. He lies, cheats, vilifies, distorts and will do anything to gain a second term.

His supporters are pulling out all the stops and building a set of strategies based on the “Deep State” theory that “coastal elites” have corrupted the democratic process and installed a clandestine network inside the government bureaucracy, intelligence agencies, and other governmental entities to control state policy.

His campaign is fear-based, determined to scare the voters with deep state conspiracies, a black and brown takeover of the suburbs, a tanking economy, anarchy and chaos in the cities, and the return of a socialist/communist ideology.

Rational voters know it’s all bullshit, but today the campaign amped up the rhetoric when Michael Caputo, the deputy assistant for health and public affairs accused Center for Disease Control scientists of “sedition” in their handling of the pandemic and claimed left-wing “hit squads” were preparing for “armed insurrection after the election.” 

Caputo, a protégé of Roger Stone, is a minor figure with a big voice but today’s proclamation leads me to Prong Two of the playbook. For months, Trump has claimed the only way he can lose the election is if it’s “rigged.” He said the same thing in 2016, but eeked out an electoral college win while losing the popular vote. This time that is highly unlikely as he trails Joe Biden in almost every swing state. Nevertheless, he’s laying the groundwork for a post-election challenge.

Prong Two is not a George W. Bush/Al Gore hanging “chads” count the votes challenge. Prong Two threatens America with open rebellion. Caputo talks about “armed insurrection” and last week Roger Stone, the Trumpiest of Trump allies, suggested the president invoke the Insurrection Act, declare martial law, and arrest anyone who “can be proven to be involved in illegal activity” if he loses.

Caputo, Stone, Attorney General Barr, and the shrill voices of the Trump family (see the RNC convention tapes) are not rational actors, but David Brooks of the New York Times is and his column on September 3, 2020 should get your intention.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/03/opinion/trump-election-2020.html 

Entitled “What Will You Do if Trump Doesn’t Leave,” it begins with Trump declaring early victory on election night. He will capitalize on “day of” returns because they will probably favor him for an early lead. In truth, the election will likely be decided by mail-in ballots. For five years he has been laying the groundwork for a claim that election results based on mail-in balloting would be illegitimate. Get ready for the fight.

It’s not a pretty picture. Will it lead to armed conflict? Will it be decided by the courts? Will Brett Kavanaugh cast the deciding vote? Who will monitor the recount? What about states with no paper backups?

I already had my eyes fixed on his face,

and there he stood out tall, with his chest and  brow

proclaiming his disdain for all this Hell.

My guide, with a gentle push, encouraged me

to move among the sepulchers toward him: 

‘Be sure you choose your words with care,’ he said.

And when I reached the margin of his tomb

he looked at me, and half-contemptuously

he asked, ‘And who would your ancestors be?’

And I who wanted only to oblige him

held nothing back but told him everything. 

At this he lifted up his brows a little,

then said, ‘Bitter enemies of mine they were

and of my ancestors and of my party; 

I had to scatter them not once but twice.’

‘They were expelled, but only to return

from everywhere,’ I said, ‘not once but twice—

an art your men, however, never mastered!  ‘

(Canto X)

Bon Courage, mes Amis…

“Lately one heard the expression ‘Je suis las’,” it meant I’m tired of the way I have to live my life, and this is what Mathieu saw in their faces, in the way they walked. But then, he would think that, he cared for the people of Paris, as though he were a guardian.” Alan Furst – A Hero of France

I’ve just finished two books about the French Resistance in World War II. Madame Fourcade’s Secret War and A Hero of France. Both are about spy networks. I thought they would provide some relief from the Trumpian news cycle but was surprised to find a number of parallels.

Alan Furst’s novel A Hero of France is the 15th of his 16 spy thriller’s centered on the origins and early years of WWII. Madame Fourcade’s Secret War is Lynne Olson’s non-fiction thriller about the woman who led France’s largest Resistance spy network from its formation in 1940 to the end of the war. Both are nail biters but that isn’t the only reason they held my attention.

During this 21st century pandemic, we hear versions of the Mathieu quote, I am tired of the way I have to live my life on a daily basis. American’s are divided, cranky, and undisciplined. Fine people on both sides, as the Commander in Chief is wont to say. We are all exhausted and tired of being locked down. We want to go to restaurants, movies and the gym as we did a year ago. 

In the run-up to the 2020 election we Americans are badly splintered – Republicans and Democrats, vaxers and anti-vaxers, “patriots” and Antifa, reactionaries and socialists, Trumpers and Never-Trumpers, Left Coast and Middle America, blue collars and elites, Red states and Blue states – it’s almost as if we were two different countries.

When the Germans invaded France in May of 1940 it was like a knife through soft butter. The French rolled over. In fact, many who feared the invasion celebrated the fact that they wouldn’t have to fight after all. In July of 1940, the country was divided into Occupied France in the north and Germany’s puppet Vichy government headed by the WWI French hero, Marshall Petain, in the south.

Madame Fourcade’s story is thrilling. She was a privileged young woman in her late 20s at the beginning of the war. She and a friend established Alliance in 1941 and for the next 4 years she managed a network of 3000 resistance fighters. Based in Vichy France, and constantly pursued by Germans and their French collaborators, she was captured, imprisoned and escaped twice (once by slipping naked through the bars of her cell), dying her hair and using prosthetic teeth to change her appearance, but always looking out for the people in her network. In interviews with Lynne Olson the question most often asked is “Do you think you would have had the courage to do what Madame Fourcade did if you were in her position?” Probably not was her answer.

These days, the question I most often hear from friends is “What can we do to make sure Donald J. Trump is denied a second term? This is not occupied WWII France, but neither is this a normal election. Trump is not a normal president. The Republicans in Congress have rolled over like the French did in 1940. The rule of law has been shredded and many of our democratic institutions dismembered and compromised. Republican leaders have either abandoned their principles or been bullied into submission. 

With a worldwide pandemic raging, Russia mounting another attack on our electoral system, independent leaders of the FBI, State Department, DOJ, DHS and HHS fired or replaced, a Trump loyalist with no intelligence experience serving as Director of National Intelligence, an Attorney General determined to support the president in every way, going so far as to represent him in a sexual defamation suit, a Homeland Security chief who tells his staff to withhold information about Russian interference and white supremacist activity, while directing the Post Office to slow or eliminate services just as mail-in balloting is beginning to be important, it feels like we are fighting a Vichy-style government determined to deliver for the boss at all costs. 

This is not Vichy France, but the story of Madame Fourcade is inspiring. She rose to the occasion. She took risks. She put France’s welfare above her own. She was willing to challenge dangerous political adversaries. I don’t know if I would have had her kind of courage under similar circumstances, but I hope to summon the courage to fight the current battle and honorably deprive Donald J. Trump of another term. 

Yes, ‘Je suis las’. I’m tired of the way we have to live too. But let’s rise to the occasion to defeat Trump and the pandemic. Let’s do it together. Stop the crankiness. Be disciplined. Suck it up. We don’t need to risk our lives, but we might be risking our lives and the lives of our countrymen and women if we don’t win in November. Courage, mes amis…

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade