AND the offering of Judah and Jerusalem shall be a delight unto the Lord, as in days of old, as…
And the offering of Judah and Jerusalem shall be a delight unto the Lord, as in days of old, as in ancient years.
With this ending of the great Standing-prayer, the congregation sat down.
It was Passover and a springtime thundershower was washing the windows of the synagogue, amid prolonged rumblings of thunder and many flashes of lightning. It was dark and all the electric lights had been turned on—by the Negro janitor (in accordance with the injunction, “On the first day shall be a holy convocation, ye [Jews] shall do no servile work”).
Moonfaced Rabbi Horn stood up in front of the closed curtain of the ark, adjusted his substantial sleeves, and said: “We come now to the most beautiful prayer of the day, Tefilas Tal, the Prayer for Dew. This prayer is said before the open ark; it comes from the heart of springtime longing. What could man do without the rain? The rain falls in order to fill the rivers, and the rivers flow into the seas and lakes in order to evaporate into clouds. Who will give me fifteen dollars for the honor of opening the ark for Tal, for P’shichas Tal, the opening of the ark for Tal? What am I bid? Do I hear anybody bid fifteen dollars?”
“Four dollars for my son, in memory of my husband Isaac Podolnik,” called down Mrs. Podolnik from the women’s gallery.
“Six dollars!” said Mr. Brody with a quiet smile.
The Rabbi and the President, who wore a silk hat, looked up at the widow Podolnik.
“Just what,” I turned round to my friend Leo, sitting behind me with his white-shawled father, “what is the mitzvah of a bid made in honor of somebody when it doesn’t win the auction?” I was at that time a member of the skeptical and mocking fraternity.
“Seven dollars!” called a voice in the rear.
“Seven dollars is bid back here,” said the beadle, hastening to the spot.
“What’s the name please?” asked the Rabbi tending his large ear, that was like a handle to the moon.
“Berman! Mr. Berman bids seven dollars.”
“Seven-fifty,” said Brody quietly.
“Seven-fifty is bid for the opening of the Holy Ark for the springtime prayer for Dew,” said Rabbi Horn.
Meantime the rain, not prayed for yet, thudded against the windows and on the skylight of green glass. The water could be heard busily flowing down the runnels and the drainpipes—a “pleasant noise of waters.” A burst of lightning sharply silhouetted the old men near the window, with their fringes over their heads, and brightly illuminated the fringes.
“Eight-fifty!” said Mr. Thumim.
“Mr. Berman bids eight-fifty,” said the Rabbi.
“Eight-seventy-five,” said Brody.
“Nine!” cried Thumim excitedly.
“Nine and a half,” said Brody.
There was a crack of thunder and one of the electric lights over the reading-table dimmed, and went dark.
“Nunny,” said the President to his little son, “go call the shfartse to bring a new bulb.”
Nunny ran down the aisle, bouncing a rubber ball on the red carpet.
Throughout the synagogue the conversation became general. Everywhere comments about the weather; and far in the rear a burst of laughter where some one had just told a new joke.
My friend Leo, the seminarian, at last gave an opinion on the status of the widow Podolnik’s offer that had been outbid. “She fulfilled a commandment in starting the bidding off,” he said in my ear. “It is a mitzvah to start something off. Sof ma’aseh mach-shava tehila: the end of the deed is the thought of the Beginning!—”
As if afire the Jewish joke progressed from bench to bench, greeted at each telling with a greater outburst of hilarity.
“B’reshith—in the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
“Shh! shh! this is a synagogue!” admonished the President pounding the palm of his hand loudly against his open prayer-book. The buzz fell an octave lower on the scale, as happens on a meadow in the month of August when the sun passes momentarily behind a cloud.
“Twelve dollars!” rang out the voice of Thumim in a last desperate raise.
“Twelve-fifty,” said Brody.
“For heaven’s sake, Marcus—” said Brody’s brother-in-law, tugging wildly at his sleeve.
“So?” Brody turned to him with a bland smile. “Did I say I want the bid? I’m just—raising a little.”
“Twelve-fifty is bid by Mr. Meyer Brody for the honor of opening the ark for Tal.”
“Fifteen dollars!” thundered a new voice on the left.
“Ah,” said the Rabbi, “now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Sixteen,” said Brody.
“Seventeen!” boomed the voice.
“Seventeen-seventy-five,” said Brody.
Preceded by Nunny now bouncing a different ball, a small red ball at the end of an elastic string, Aaron, the grizzled-haired Negro janitor, came down the aisle carrying a ladder and a frosted bulb. He climbed on the ladder stretching up his arm to unscrew the burnt-out light and the ladder began to wabble. The Reader lent his hand to hold it firm.
“The question is,” I said to Leo, “whether he should even lend his hand to hold the ladder—”
“The answer is Yes,” said Leo sharply. “This comes under the rubric of helping to preserve a man from injury.”
“Twenty dollars!” said the booming voice on the left.
“Twenty dollars is bid!” cried Rabbi Horn joyously. “What is the name please?”
“Ah, Mr. Samuelson!” exclaimed Rabbi Horn with joyous and flattering quaver that he mostly reserved for weddings. “Mr. Samuelson is not a member of our congregation,” he explained to everybody. “He is a visitor from Providence, the capital of Rhode Island. His uncle, however, is our dear President Mr. Sonnenschein; and I am sure that you will all join with me in telling Mr. Samuelson that he is just as much at home in this congregation as in Providence, Rhode Island.”
“I’ll give just one more hike,” said Brody quietly to us. “After such a build-up by the Rabbi, how can he get out of taking the bid? But why should I make him pay more than he can afford?”
“Twenty-three dollars,” he called out after judicious consideration.
“Twenty-five!” said Mr. Samuelson, on the left.
“Good—take it,” said Brody, and turned round to us triumphantly.
“I bid them up all the way from four dollars to twenty-five!—After all, why shouldn’t the money go to the synagogue? Have I been playing auction-pinochle for forty years for nothing? Always you can tell when you can bid them up and when there’s nothing doing! Seventeen-seventy-five: there was a bid! Who could refuse to go at least to eighteen? But in a game of pinochle, never three-forty; always force them into it; then just drop your cards and say Good! take it!
“Sometimes in a game,” said Brody, “they think that they‘re boosting me; but the fact is that I‘m boosting them.”
The pinochle-player of the Lord.
The Cantor and his choir of black-robed boys had begun to gather at the reading-table under the light that had been repaired (but it now shone dimly in the brightening space). Several of the young soprani were downstairs in the cellar playing punchball, and their piercing cries could be heard in the distance.
At last, after its triumphant progress from the rear of the room across the entire congregation to us in the front, the joke arrived at our bench; but it proved to be the antique story, that I have already set down elsewhere, about the little Jew in the crowded trolley-car who sings “Deedle-deedle-dee, it ain’t my setchel.”
“Look here, Brody,” I said, “supposing the Rabbi decided to knock it down to both of you, and have both of you grasp the cord to open the curtain. Ha, then what?”
“It shouldn’t happen on Pesach,” said Brody, turning pale.
The Cantor, who had a white hat with a pom-pom, now stood up on a stool to tower, with his pom-pom, above the boys. For unfortunately, though he was very broad-shouldered and had a powerful black beard and a bass voice, he was only five feet high. Like Ulysses, “when he was seated he looked imposing, but when he rose to his feet you saw that he was of small stature.” From the top of a stool he dominated the scene, and often, holding a long note, he would dart a sidewise and upwards glance at the women.
He smote the table with his little tuning-fork and held the sound to his ear, while the vibration welled out amongst us with the unpleasant ring of pure, colorless music. (At one time he had been accustomed to use a pitch-pipe, but this was considered by some of the orthodox as playing a musical instrument.) The choir, catching the note, sang an A-minor chord. And as if created out of nothing, the tranquillity of nature, the natural harmony, crowded into the comers of the space.
“Will the Congregation please rise,” said Rabbi Horn, “for the repetition of the Amidah and the singing of Tefilas Tal. Mr. Samuelson, will you please come up and stand alongside me on the platform.”
Barukh . . . Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God and God of our fathers—” began the Cantor in a deep voice, accompanied by a humming continuo of the boys.
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob; great, strong, and awful God, God most high, who grantest goodly favors and art the owner of all that is. Thou rememberest the piety of our fathers, and Thou wilt bring a redeemer to their children’s children, for Thy name’s sake, in love. King, Helper, Savior, and Shield: Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the Shield of Abraham.
“Strong to eternity, O Lord, who quickenest the dead and art mighty to save.”
The numerous and progressing chords of the choir, and the flowing line of the Cantor’s voice, now baritone, penetrated every corner and we were (for the most part) still.
While Brody looked on with an ecstatic smile, Mr. Samuelson smartly pulled the cord of the curtain over the ark and disclosed the ranks of a dozen scrolls of the Law, dressed in white silk, wearing silver crowns.
The Congregation of Jews rose.
“Our God and God of our fathers, grant Dew!” said all.
“Grant dew, to quench the thirst of Thy land—” sang the Cantor alone, for all.
“In holy joy, sprinkle on us Thy blessing—with quantity of wine and corn establish the City of Thy desire!”
“B’tal! . . . with Dew!” shouted all, while the choir gave voice to a loud paean.
Now the thunderstorm had moderated to a light steady rain, tapping on the skylight, flowing down all the drains. Meantime the space had become brighter, and the artificial lights shone dim and pale.
There were many stanzas to the poem, each comparing, in some trope or other, the state of the Jewish people in exile to that of a land thirsting and without water.
“With dew and contentment fill our barns—” sang the Singer of this agricultural people, accompanied by the continuo of the choir.
“Renew our days as of old—
Beloved, according to Thy valuation uplift
make us like a garden well-watered—”
“B’tal!” shouted all.
“. . .with Dew!”
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A Prayer for Dew
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?