Steve is back after a short hiatus in which he completed his first effort at fiction. He returns to non-fiction just as reality emerges from its own hiatus.
It was perfect that it happened the same week.
As of the 2010 census, there are 1,117 towns and cities in Russia. So when Vladimir Putin decided on a new conscription policy calling up 300,000 new recruits to his humiliated army, his message of urgently needed reinforcements must have jolted pretty much every nook and cranny of Russia.
Putin could well now be feeling strangely like Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. It’s one thing when infantry regulars struggle in combat, but when you start drafting ordinary people to fight and die in a far-off war with neither rational nor urgent purpose, their families, friends, co-workers, and local leaders start to ask questions. Start to get angry. Start to act.
Just as Lyndon Johnson watched young Americans race across the border to Canada, Putin watches Russians in caravans that stretch for miles, as citizens choose to leave rather than fight his war. In the streets, brave protesters emerge and are pummeled by cops. So far twenty-one deaths have been reported.
Immensely popular Russian singer Alla Pugacheva – who has 3.5 million Instagram followers -- spoke out openly against Putin’s war, posting a call for “the end of the deaths of our boys for illusory goals that make our country a pariah and weigh heavily on the lives of its citizens.” In Pugacheva’s cry, we hear the echo of Neil Young’s epic response to Kent State: four dead in Ohio.
Protesters gain strength as numbers swell. Once they reach a critical mass where there are so many that the police can no longer lock them up fast enough, the party’s over. The Communist Party.
Watch out, Vlad. It’s called groundhog déjà vu. Ukraine is your very own Vietnam. Spoiler alert: Vietnam did not end well for LBJ.
Like waves endlessly pounding on the shore, reality is a relentless, tireless, unyielding foe. For a while, you can put a blanket over it, try to stuff it into a ball gown, or issue orders to people to not see what they can see with their own eyes. You can focus on small portions of it and present them as the whole. Sure, perception can vary from reality… but you can’t make reality vary according to perception.
There have been times in the Trump era when it appeared that reality had folded its tent and came dangerously close to abdicating to Trump’s universe of “alternative facts,” an alternative election, an alternative form of government, and an alternative television network committed to communicating the façade as real.
But sooner or later, reality asserts its, ah, trump card. The moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but reality has no arc, no bend, no maybe. It’s not that reality wins. It’s that reality just is.
Yes, last week – the same week Putin bowed to reality and called up 300,000 troops -- the ongoing legal case of Donald Trump v. Reality suddenly took several wicked turns in favor of reality.
For a while there, it had seemed that Darth Evader would continue to dodge legal consequence for his actions, as a Federal Judge in Florida, Aileen Cannon, had approved Trump’s utterly baseless request for a “Special Master,” offering as rationale that “the investigation and treatment of a former president is of unique interest to the general public, and the country is served best by an orderly process that promotes the interest and perception of fairness.” (Italics all mine.)
Funny, one would have thought that the best way to promote the “interest and perception of fairness” would be to follow all rules and requirements of investigation and prosecution to a tee – not to suddenly invent new and different rules that apply only to one person. One wonders how George Floyd’s family looked upon Judge Cannon’s powderpuff treatment of Donald Trump and her alleged concern for the “perception of fairness” in our criminal justice system.
But then last week a blizzard of legal decisions came down on Donald Trump, once again raising the possibility that Orange Jesus is in super-serious legal hot water. Could it possibly be, lefties muttered through clenched teeth, that the bloviating blowhard is finally going down?
For most Democrats, this feeling is not a euphoric hope. It is more akin to PTSD. It is a queasy inkling akin to watching the New York Jets take a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter: sure, it looks good now, but I have a bad feeling about how this ends.
But reality reappeared in the form of a legal rulings that were grounded in the idea that no person is above the law. No one. Not even former presidents.
The more sensational legal action was New York Attorney General Letitia James’ comprehensive smackdown of Trump’s real estate company, which put Trump’s lifetime of business deceit under an electron microscope. James was able to identify a relentless pattern of real estate deceptions that could only be measured on a Richter scale… properties valued at ten times their appraised worth, all enabling Trump to enjoy lower cost loans and huge tax breaks.
What may be the more consequential ruling was that of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, which essentially disemboweled Judge Cannon’s universally derided decision to prevent the DoJ from proceeding with its investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents until a Special Master had reviewed the material. The effect of this ruling was to thwart Trump’s age-old tactic of delaying investigations by appealing rulings up through a court system populated with Trump appointees.
Virtually simultaneously, Judge Raymond Dearie, the Special Master in the Mar-a-Lago documents case, emphatically ruled that the emperor had no close: you can’t rest your case on the contention that the documents in question have been declassified, and then present absolutely no evidence of such declassification. Further, he contended, Trump’s lawyers were creating a “red herring:” the issue of whether the documents have or have not been declassified is of no relevance. They belong to the people of the United States of America, not to Donald Trump. Over and out.
All in all, a bad couple of days for the former President and Putin, peas in a pod, pathological propagandists.
And, finally, a good couple of days for reality.
Perhaps a couple of days, too, that helped us see just how similar Putin and Trump really are. They both follow a propagandist’s playbook worthy of Goebbels.
Both are attempting to systematically destroy a vibrant democracy… Putin in Ukraine, and Trump right here in the United States. The apparent reason? Those vibrant democracies rejected them. Vibrant democracies threaten them. Vibrant democracies do not repress, hide, or distort reality. They openly and vigorously debate what to do about it.
Both Trump and Putin center their political brands on myths of victimization. For Putin, it is a claim that his war in Ukraine is to fend off the aggression of western powers. For Trump, it is by selling the delusion that the America of white, entitled males is being overrun by minorities and immigrants.
Both project their own worst behaviors onto their opponent. Putin attempted to paint the Ukrainians as the aggressors as a justification for his own invasion. Trump attempts to say the election of 2020 was stolen from him, when he led an insurrection in an attempt to steal the election from Joe Biden.
Both demonize their opponents. Putin calls the leaders of Ukraine “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis,” labels the United States the “main threat to Russia,” and claims the United States that is contemplating using chemical weapons in Ukraine. Trump called Joe Biden “an enemy of the state,” and said Democrats who did not applaud during one of his State of the Union addresses “were un-American” and “treasonous.” He labeled the press as “the enemy of the people.”
Neither Putin nor Trump have much use for facts. It is so much easier to make stuff up. For quite some time Putin would claim that the war in Ukraine was going “according to plan.” Trump is such a pathological liar that he would make news if he actually ever told the truth. His lies manage to keep getting more and more spectacular. However, it will be hard for him to top his claim that he is innocent of wrongdoing in Mar-A-Lago-Gate because he is he able to declassify documents by mental telepathy.
Both know that a critical element to retaining power is to control the media. Russia television is the propaganda arm of the Kremlin. Criticism of Russian policy in Ukraine was punishable by ten years in prison. Fox Television is the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. Tucker Carlson openly posed the question of whether that the United States should have taken the side of Russia and not Ukraine.
Both Putin and Trump are self-styled “branding experts” who think problems can be solved with a label. That’s why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is still just a “special military operation,” and why Trump calls every legal action against him a “witch-hunt.”
Both men are shockingly insecure. Putin repeatedly has himself photographed shirtless, indicating a strange need to project an aura of manliness. Trump refers to himself as “a very stable genius,” and exhausts a thesaurus worth of superlatives to describe himself. He has the biggest crowds, all the best real estate, and even all the best words to describe his own greatness. His insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement suggests a bottomless well of doubt and self-loathing.
Both are in it for the money.
Putin has raped his country to become one of the richest men in the world. And can we all finally get serious and talk about why Trump stole all those top-secret documents and squirreled them away at Mar-a-Lago?
It is crazy that no one is speculating about why he took them and why he refused to give them back. When in doubt, bet on the most obvious answer: Trump was intending to monetize them. Trump looked at those “Top Secret” labels and saw gold. Perhaps he thought he could blackmail heads of state with embarrassing personal information gleaned by U.S. spies. Perhaps he thought that he could sell the nuclear secrets to the highest bidder. No President has ever attempted to profit from the Presidency like Donald Trump. Given Trump’s brazen disregard for the emoluments clause, it is fair to speculate that Trump, staring at the potential financial catastrophe in the investigation of his company, realized that trafficking in top secret documents could pay handsomely. Is there a better explanation?
Both Putin and Trump offload blame on everyone but themselves. Putin thinks his generals have failed in Ukraine. Trump tells his supporters that the reason he is no longer in the White House is because Mike Pence is a weakling.
And, finally, it gets ugly.
When feeling cornered, both men openly threaten mass violence. Putin makes thinly-veiled allusions to the possibility of using nuclear weapons in his war on Ukraine, brazenly risking global thermonuclear war rather than the humiliation of defeat. Trump proclaims that if he were to be indicted, “I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before. I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.” Read between the lines: hey Proud Boys, get ready for Insurrection, The Sequel: This Time it’s Not Just Washington, D.C.
Both live in bubbles that allow them to spin an alternative reality in which they command worship and are treated as omniscient. Give these demented men their due: both have managed to fight reality to a stalemate for a long time.
And yet last week, perhaps both discovered that you cannot bend, break, or bully reality in perpetuity.
Reality cornered Putin: he could either continue to pretend that the war in Ukraine was going well, or he could suck it in, implicitly admit that things in Ukraine were a catastrophe, and call up 300,000 conscripts to try to reverse the Russian Army’s retreat in Ukraine.
Reality is closing in on Trump in the form of a half-dozen investigations that all seem to have taken too long, but suddenly make it plausible that indictments are going to start hitting Donald Trump’s mailbox with the frequency of 20% discount coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond.
Last week was a good week for reality. Reality won some key battles, but – ever the realist -- reality knows that it remains in an epic war with the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and their vast infrastructures of sycophants, enablers, and soulless suck-ups whose power and wealth depend on permanent deceit. It is a war that will rage through the 2024 election, a war that will continue to devastate the proud people of Ukraine, a war that threatens our survival as a species.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have changed the nature of political debate. It is no longer communist vs. capitalist, Democrat vs. Republican, or conservative vs. liberal. It is about reality vs. deceit.
Welcome back, reality. In the coming months and years, we are going to need you more than ever.
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