Every Thursday for the last 20+ years a group of artists, scientists, writers and one bail bondsman have gotten together in the Mission District of San Francisco to talk … and have lunch.
The Lunch Guys are: L to R, Randy Alfred (editor & writer), Dan Hubig (artist), Jeffrey Klein (former editor of Mother Jones & West magazines), Jerry Barrish (artist & bail bondsman), Larry Gonick (cartoonist), Michael Castleman (writer), Phil Ryan (lawyer & former Freedom Summer participant), Andrew Moss (epidemiologist & writer) and Enrico Deaglio (writer).
Not pictured - Michael Nolan, (activist & promoter),Bernard Ohanian (editor & writer), Dean Rindy (political media consultant),
Michael Singsen (lawyer), Tom DeVries (investigative journalist), Dave Moriaty (former publisher of Rip Off Press) and Frank Viviano (writer).
Sometimes the conversation happens via email rather than at lunch. This is an email conversation from several days in February, 2017
Michael Singsen - This from Pulitzer Award winning journalist, Bret Stephens, delivering the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture
"... the question of what Mr. Trump might yet do by political methods against the media matters a great deal less than what he is attempting to do by ideological and philosophical methods. Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute propaganda for news, boosterism for information.”
Frank Viviano - Brilliant, and absolutely on the mark. And another reminder that Trump's critics are also his enablers whenever they begin to view him as the genuine leader of a mass movement, rather than what he is: a serial liar, an empty fabulist who speaks directly only to what Hillary correctly described as a deplorable minority.
As Stephens notes, those who go out of their way (and beyond any reasonable logic) to "explain" Trump's views wind up giving them a cogency they entirely lack, and a far larger constituency than they would otherwise command.
Larry Gonick - What he doesn't have yet is a (para)military force loyal to himself. If he can build such a thing, then there will be real trouble. There can be no fascism without force.
Dan Hubig - No ... but they are trying.
Dean Rindy - These (armed) fools (at Trump rallies) are cut from the same psychological cloth as the Antifa Black Bloc that rioted in Berkeley, only there’s a lot more of them and they are better armed. If these two groups of yahoos ever wind up at the same event, God knows what will happen. We are slipping into social chaos, with the bonds of unity being dissolved on both sides.
Dave Moriaty - We’ve gotten the people in the Middle East to kill each other in amazing numbers; maybe they’re about to do the same to us.
Frank Browning - Most interesting of all, (in this article "The Kremlin Is Starting to Worry About Trump", by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, from Foreign Policy Magazine)
"...they readily compare Trump to an early Boris Yeltsin — impulsive, charismatic, trusting only his family, and ready to bomb the parliament if that works to cement his hold on power. The problem for the Kremlin is that Yeltsin was a revolutionary leader and Putin has decided to make 2017 a year for deploring, not celebrating, revolutions.
Vladimir Putin's entourage cheered the outcome of the U.S. election – until they saw exactly what they were dealing with.
Trump’s presidency has also complicated Moscow’s relations with China and Iran. Moscow is interested in normalization with the West but not at the cost of joining a Washington-led anti-China coalition, which Trump seems insistent on creating. Moreover, Putin’s Russia hosts up to 20 million Muslims and therefore cannot indulge in the radical anti-Islam rhetoric adopted by Trump.
What is especially dangerous from the Kremlin’s perspective is that certain nationalistic circles in Russia are falling in love with Trump’s insurrectionary approach. In January, for the first time since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin was not the most frequently cited name in the Russian media; Trump was. And although most of Trump’s Russian admirers, such as Alexander Dugin, are loyal to Putin personally, they also dream of purging the globalist elites who occupy the rooms adjoining their president’s.
Anyone who spends any time in Moscow will quickly discover that ordinary Russians, in contrast with a majority of Europeans, feel surprisingly positive about Trump. One reason is that they are exhausted at Russia’s confrontation with the West. Another is that they share Trump’s cynical, borderline apocalyptic view of international politics. Like Trump, they never believed in win-win politics in the first place.
Most interesting of all, they readily compare Trump to an early Boris Yeltsin — impulsive, charismatic, trusting only his family, and ready to bomb the parliament if that works to cement his hold on power. The problem for the Kremlin is that Yeltsin was a revolutionary leader and Putin has decided to make 2017 a year for deploring, not celebrating, revolutions.
February 13, 2017 In 2016, a senior Russian official explained to a group of visiting foreigners why the government had decided not to celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yes, it was a turning point in Russian history, he argued, and, yes, President Vladimir Putin sees today’s Russia as a successor to both the tsars and the Bolsheviks. But celebrating a revolution would send the wrong message to society. The Kremlin today is staunchly opposed to “regime change,” the visitors were told, and thus skittish about eulogizing 1917. It plans to use the centenary, instead, to draw attention to the catastrophic consequences of resorting to revolution to solve social and political problems.
The last thing the Russian government expected was that 2017 would bring it face to face not with a revolution of the past but with a revolution of the present — the radical regime change taking place in the United States as a result of the electoral victory of Donald Trump. It is Trump’s electoral revolution that has captured the imagination, and fanned the fears, of Russian elites today.”
Larry Gonick -You will pardon my saying so, but well... duh.
Dean Rindy -There’s a lot of sense in this article, but the authors are frequently victims of our foreign policy establishment’s pathological inability to see things from the other guy’s point of view. Take this paragraph:
“Anyone who spends any time in Moscow will quickly discover that ordinary Russians, in contrast with a majority of Europeans, feel surprisingly positive about Trump. One reason is that they are exhausted at Russia’s confrontation with the West. Another is that they share Trump’s cynical, borderline apocalyptic view of international politics. Like Trump, they never believed in win-win politics in the first place.”
“Surprisingly positive about Trump?” Is this really so hard to figure out? There were two candidates. Hilary Clinton called the Russian President “Hitler” and promised more confrontation. Donald Trump said he respected him and hoped the two countries could work together. Who do you think the man in the street would prefer? Would Americans be any different? The authors also apparently have the ability to read the collective minds of ordinary Muscovites and thus report that Russians “share Trump’s cynical borderline apocalyptic view of international politics.” That may be. I don’t claim to know. Cynicism certainly seems to be in order these days. As for "apocalyptic views," no Russian has surpassed George Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us” trope on the Iraq invasion, or Senator McCain’s “bomb, bomb, bomb--bomb bomb Iran” campaign jingle, or Hilary’s famous smiling and laughing “We came, we saw, he died” CBS interview on our intervention in the Libyan civil war.
Of course the Russians are nervous about Trump. Everybody is. Establishment pundits continually bloviate about Trump as a Russian tool, when in reality the Russians obviously like some of his ideas but very strongly oppose others. If Trump is Putin’s puppet, he often doesn’t act like it. He and his appointees rage against Iran and he vowed to destroy Obama’s anti-nuke deal. Iran’s a Russian ally. The Russians helped broker the nuclear deal and believe it’s crucial to stability in the Middle East. Ditto China. The Russians support China’s position in the South China Sea, which Trump’s people have been fulminating against to the point of risking war. On the other hand, the Russians would love the U.S to accept Assad and cooperate against the Saudi-funded jihadis in Syria and Iraq. They would love for us to pull back in our support of the regime in Kiev, which is on their border. Like most things in international affairs, it’s a mixed bag, some good, some bad.
Tom DeVries - well, duh! It's like: Oh boy! I married Anna Nicole Smith.... Oh, shit!
Andrew Moss - Pretty much speculation though. And minimizing Putin's escalation in the Ukraine.
Dean Rindy - I am not defending Trump at all, but people may regret impeaching him, if it comes to that. Mike Pence is more consistently reactionary, but far smoother, and far more simpatico with the conservative Republican establishment. Amidst all the craziness Trump actually has a couple of good points. Pence has none. Never forget that the so called mainstream conservatives and neo-cons, including our spy agencies, are filled with crackpot zealots who have produced tragedy and failure. You are right, it is the revenge of the Deep State that we are witnessing. They’re not actually afraid of Russia. What they’re most afraid of is losing their grip on power to Trump’s rival crew of crackpots.
Dan Hubig - Don’t forget what will happen if the Repug Party goes against their base and helps bring down their own president ... Pence is evil but might be pretty neutered by the resulting mess -- not to mention midterms, not to mention the huuuuuge amount of time that would be eaten up during the crises.
Tamim Ansary - Dan makes a good point. A Trump hobbled by his own personality disorders but still clinging to the White House could be so dysfunctional, he drags the right wing of the Republican party down with him. The mid-term elections would then matter. If Trump is impeached and dismissed, it will be the right-wing Republicans who have done it and they will then be preening in the glow of having risen above party as noble patriots who have saved the country from a monster. This imprimatur will strengthen their hand as they implement the program explicitly laid out by Ted Cruz when he was running for president. The best we can hope for right now, it seems, is a dysfunctional government so erratic it could at any moment start the war to end all wars. As Trump would say--sad.
Michael Singsen - Flynn’s departure is not likely to improve relations between Trump and the Deep State.
Tom DeVries - So, we've arrived at: a paralyzed U.S. government better than a functioning right-wing U.S. government. They're both really so threatening I'm pressed to choose. Many millions of people depend on the U.S. government getting up in the morning and going to work.
Would add that the Deep State is no more monolithic than any other large institution. The CIA is both a refuge of liberal internationalists and of reactionary thugs. NSA competes with FBI at the institutional level, and the turf battles within both agencies are epic. There are also large populations of nominal Deep Staters at Energy, Pentagon, and Homeland Security. Then there are non-US intelligence functionaries with which DC is awash.
Jeffrey Klein -The polls are bad news for (Trump) across the board -- 38% approval, 55% disapproval. The particulars (he's seen as dishonest, lacking leadership skills, divisive, not level-headed (duh!)). But there's one revealing exception: 64% believe that Trump is strong. We're living in a moment of Strongmen: Putin, Xi Jinping, Erdogan, Modi, Orban, Sisi, Duterte, et. al. What are many people (not necessarily a majority, not all willingly) flocking to diabolical shepherds? Trump can't survive without a populist base so these poll numbers (others are a bit kinder) must alarm him. What will his Strongman reflex be?
Unnamed - I can't make the odds -- who can? -- but as you know, I've thought for awhile that a Reichstag Fire-like event is thoroughly plausible.
Frank Viviano - Very good (and very alarming) point, Jeffrey. Almost all of the strongmen you name have risen to power through quasi-legal means (as were Hitler and Mussolini), then used the menace of "foreign-directed" violence, domestic "subversion" or "dangerous" immigration to assume dictatorial powers.
Putin's autocratic mandate rests on his deployment of Russian troops with shoot-kill orders in Muslim Chechnya; Hungary's Viktor Orban heads up the most vicious of Europe's assaults on Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq; Modi is the godfather of Hindu nationalism in an India with 240 million non-Hindu citizens, the vast majority of them Muslim; Xi Jinping made his political bones leading a merciless crackdown on Tibetan dissidents, and as China's president he has extended the de facto military state of siege to Muslim Xinjiang; Duterte's killing squads have two main targets: supposed Filipino drug peddlers and anyone alleged to support "Muslim terrorism" in the Philippine south; Sisi directed an army coup d'etat that overthrew Egypt's elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Most ironic is Erdogan, elected by Turks on the strength of his Islamic credentials, and now Putin's chief military partner in a Syrian campaign that principally targets moderate Muslim opponents of fellow dictator Bashar Assad.
The common thread in this sinister thread is the word "Muslim." What all of the strongmen named by Jeffrey have in common is an open season -- even in Muslim majority nations -- on Islam. The rest of the world might mumble a few cautionary pleas sotto voce against autocratic takeovers. But as long as the magic adjective "Islamic" is invoked by neo-despots, their tyranny is tacitly excused.
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon understand this point very well. But as Paul Solman suggests, it may take an American version of the Reichstag fire to implement the full transition from paranoid fears to fully enabled tyranny.
Phil Ryan - I think Jeffrey has an important insight. As for the comments on impeachment and other remedies to the petite prick in the White House here's my take:
1. The notion that Comey's FBI will conduct an investigation that might bring down Trump is nonsense. At the same time that the FBI knew that Trump's campaign was communicating with Russian spies and Trump was requesting Russia to expose Hillary 33,000 emails, Comey was publicly breaching FBI ethics by discussing Hillary's aide's husband's emails.
2. The notion (more of a hope) that the Republicans will voluntarily surrender their complete control of our government is naive. Checks and balances were the real losers in this election. The faith that an independent judiciary can survive the soon 5th vote ignores this history of the Roberts Court.
3. In addition to the control of all three branches of government, Republicans (alt or otherwise) control a majority of state houses and state legislatures. Thus the federal Congress will remain theirs. As such economic powerhouses like California, New York, Illinois will continue to pay federal income taxes to support welfare dollars for Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama etc.
4. While Comey broadcasted his Hillary email bs without presenting the matter to his boss - the Attorney General - he presented the Acting Attorney General with his investigation of possible criminal law violations by Flynn and she in turn informed the President. The President did nothing until the press exposed in greater detail, based on wiretap recordings, the sweeping extent of Russian penetration of our democratic process and the White House. And what he did do was complain about criminal leaks from his own residence. My guess is his next step is to go after the reporters for their sources and when they refuse, put 'em in jail.
5. The notion that an independent counsel is in order, makes sense. But that Jeff Sessions would take that route is silly. He will be much too busy prosecuting 3-5 million voters who committed voter fraud.
Finally, we should remember that 62 million of our fellow citizens selected authoritarian rule. Absent something beyond our anguished prose, it may be time to kiss our Republic goodbye.
Frank Browning - There are lots of lovely inexpensive 18th century houses for sale in our village (in central France) for half the value of your apartment....
Frank Viviano - I’m no less pessimistic about the future than Phil much of the time. And I find the ominous points made by everyone else in this chain entirely too plausible. But there's part of me that sees things otherwise.
Trump is, above all, a man of extraordinary ignorance -- indeed, he's proud of knowing almost nothing about the institutions over which he is supposed to preside, or the national and global issues that should command his attention (which has a notoriously short span). He is absurdly childish, uncontrollably impulsive and prone to such wildly self-contradictory gyrations that his firmly declared views can shift 180 degrees in less than a day and then shift back again another 180 degrees overnight. His cabinet appointees treat any sign of experience in their respective fields of responsibility as inconvenient or traitorous. Under the psychotic influence of Bannon and Flynn (does anyone really believe he will no longer be providing advice?), Trump has alienated an astounding number of the nation's key allies abroad -- NATO, Germany, Australia, Mexico, the European Union, the most influential leaders in the Muslim world -- along with much of the U.S. intelligence establishment, the scientific community, huge swaths of the federal bureaucracy and what remains of a reliable press. I could go on and on.
The bottom line is a blueprint for staggering, monumental, unprecedented incompetence. That's not speculation. It's the daily reality just a month into the Age of Donald.
Heavy shit will be hitting the fan non-stop, 24/24-7/7, over the next 20 months, leading up to the 2018 mid-term elections. And despite every factor trotted out by conventional analysts -- the effects of gerrymandering, the respective number of party seats in play, the hideous tactics of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, the G.O.P. domination of state governments -- the Democrats stand a hell of a chance to regain control of both houses in the U.S. Congress. These are not conventional times, and Donald Trump is not a conventional president with a solid conventional following,
The 62 million Americans who endorsed a Trump presidency were not only significantly outnumbered nationwide by Clinton voters; they were also vastly outnumbered by those who chose not to vote for either candidate. At best, Trump's base amounts to less than 30 percent of the total electorate, and his numbers are highly unlikely to rise, in part because those who voted against him and those who did not vote absolutely detest him. There's no better word for it. Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. public approved of the massive demonstrations that followed the inauguration. The same total gave Obama the most favorable approval rating registered by an outgoing President in the past century. By contrast, Trump is the least popular new president in U.S. history.
It is worth observing, in this context, that Democrats faced the same negative odds in the 2008 Congressional elections, led by a presidential candidate who was black, a former organizer community with an African name -- and the son of a Muslim father, just seven years after 9/11. Obama won that election with a near-landslide majority, and he carried both the House and the Senate with him.
Thanks to Trump himself, to his sheer incompetence and his talent for making enemies, the enormous wave of resistance we see all over the country does stand a chance of bringing Congress back to something that approaches political sanity.
If it happens, there will be a new ball game in Washington. If it doesn't, the game is lost.
Andrew Moss - Trump is going to the mattresses. He's going to stir up base anger with his "campaign rallies." Watch for a mass organization to evolve...
Larry Gonick - Another way of looking at it is to consider what it means that Cheeto (Trump) caved to the pressure. Hardly the act of a dictator! So far, aside from his behavior, which has always been crass and disgraceful, he may be oozing into traditional policy positions.
Tom DeVries - NBC used the Watergate language tonight: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Now the thing will metastasize with investigations, political maneuvering, lots of leaks, journalism. DC has lots of power blocs and there are others outside -- other major governments, multinationals, the Dark States besides our own. They compete with each other and internally. Nobody will want to be left out of the loop. Even the fraction that we see of this is gonna be entertaining.
Dan Hubig - Even the Weasel (David) Brooks can't avoid the obvious. This will not stand, Trump cannot last 4 years, he's completely not up to the job. .. Unintelligent, untruthful, uninterested and unappealing (to an ever-growing majority of Americans). And supremely dangerous. Look for the White House Press Corp to turn on him big time (a la (Dan) Rather v Nixon), which in turn is going to create more incoherent belligerency and outrageous acts. The journalism establishment (which is regrowing its nascent balls thanks to this situation), with help from the deep state, needs to win this confrontation because if Trump wins ... the democracy will likely have been lost. Yes, I know, Pence is a huuuuuge danger as well, but by the time he gets into the Oval Office the Republicans are going to be in disarray and the Dems will be emboldened. The longer this goes on the stronger the Democrats get and the more at odds with itself and the world the Republicans become. Of course, getting Trump out doesn’t mean we somehow recapture our one-time functional government or even mean the democracy is saved … we are truly standing on the precipice of an unimaginable fall. First we must rid ourselves of the creature who is pushing us off, then hope the ledge holds … or ... the parachute opens.
Frank Browning - Very possibly, but the smart response is not simply to denounce “the stupid rednecks” but to hear carefully those who are too consumed by hate (probably half) and address the pain and loss that led them from Obama to Trump. Nancy Pelosi is not an ally or a solution.
Tamim Ansary - What to do now that Trump is president? After fulminating and ruminating (in the solitude of my basement office) here's my take: The Answer to Trump (Austin Sun, February 17, 2017)
Frank Viviano - Brilliantly written piece, Tamim, eloquent and persuasive -- except on one point. The Trump wall does not offer a vision -- a complete, idyllic portrait worth striving for -- in the sense that Reagan's "morning in America" did. It too is a simple, blunt program, with no chance of accomplishing its own stated goal much less framing a coherent destination. In this respect, the Republican platform (if there is one) is even emptier than the Democrats'. It has no content and goes nowhere at all. It is overwhelmingly negative -- against everything and for nothing.
The most chilling assertion to date from Trump … "The press is the enemy of the American people."
Tom DeVries - Seriously. Wow. If only the press had that kind of power. Why, we could have secret meetings and, you know, decide who to ruin and stuff. Like the old days.
Randy Alfred - Trump is correct that the press is his enemy (having made them so himself). To him, the press is thus the enemy of the American people, because he now apparently believes himself the incarnation and avatar of the American people.
Frank Browning - Not as smart as Caligula, but with luck he’ll meet the same fate.
Randy Alfred - Like Louis XIV, he believes he is the state. Beyond Louis, he also believes the state is the people.
Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!
(In his speech to both Houses of Congress) he promised a "new chapter" for America.
Uh-oh. The one he knows best is Chapter 11.
Stephen Vincent - For a man who neither writes nor reads, I suspect he can only imagine a blank chapter.
B. Ohanian - As usual, speech was better in the original Russian.
Randy Alfred -I have a new name for him: 'ill Douche!'