Trump’s collapsing house of cards

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s quite ironic that one of Netflix’s best series House of Cards is playing out in real life in the White House. Donald Trump of course is no Frank Underwood. He has zero political experience and since getting into office has not acquired any either. Watching him bumble his way through the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany last week was painful. Emblematic of the outcome were the logistics leading up to the meeting. This doesn’t bode well I thought when I learned that Trump and his staff waited too long to book accommodations in Hamburg. Trump ended up at a German government guest residency. Trump’s staff apparently holed up with the U.S. Consulate General. Maybe they brought sleeping bags and camped out on the floor. Trump either couldn’t be bothered to absorb his briefings or more likely got them and promptly forgot the key points. He winged his way through the whole meeting looking weirder and more ostracized as it progressed.

Given his incurious and bumbling nature, I should not be too surprised that these traits seem to apply to his family and advisers as well. The Trump Empire, such as it is, seems to be all about show, but is little on substance. His hotels and resorts are sometimes profitable, but more often leave investors in the lurch. Just last week Trump’s shuttered Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City began a liquidation sale. The Trump façade is going. The new owners will try to turn it into something more mainstream and likely more profitable, and attaching the Trump brand to the property is like a millstone around the neck, so it had to go. Hard Rock International bought the property for a bargain basement $50M. Bear in mind its construction cost about $930M.

In any event, the Trumps operate mostly on instinct and not much on common sense. They seem to believe they are exempt from most rules and if not it’s just a matter of money to put their problems behind them. With a White House in chaos it’s not surprising that someone dropped the ball on hotel rooms at the G-20. Trump naturally blames it on the Obama Administration, as if it’s the job of previous administrations to handle logistics of current administrations. So it certainly didn’t surprise me that Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in June 2016 met with a woman with Russian connections and was lured to a meeting by a promise of dirty laundry on the Clinton campaign. Junior’s disappointment seemed to be that the Russian did not deliver the goods. However, the expectation that she would was enough to bring Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner to the meeting too. Like his father, Junior made the problem worse by admitting that’s why he agreed to meet. That looks like an unprofitable mistake, as Junior has since lawyered up.

When the New York Times article came out, I thought there goes the first domino. Finally there is evidence that ties a Trump to the Russian government, albeit somewhat indirectly. Bear in mind that for anyone with any political experience, even the suggestion of a meeting like this would have sent campaign officials running the other way, and probably calling the FBI to report the incident. Colluding with a foreign government to influence an election is a crime. Junior has pretty much admitted it, which means it’s just a matter of time before an indictment against him is issued. Junior’s only real hope is that his father remains president long enough so he can pardon him, which is the likely outcome. Trump will likely be issuing lots of pardons before he is removed from office. Meanwhile, Junior will be financing his attorney’s new yacht.

Usually when a domino falls it doesn’t take long for the next one to fall. This one came just a day later with another New York Times story, this one claiming that Junior knew in an email before the meeting that the Russian government was trying to influence the Trump campaign. The story behind both these stories though is the more interesting news: the information came from people in the White House. Multiple people inside the White House are now so alarmed by what they know that they are actively working to remove their boss. We’ll likely learn the names of these Deep Throats in time. Apparently job security is not a concern, or it’s less a concern than acting on what they feel is their patriotic duty.

That these first two dominoes fell is not a surprise. That more will fall won’t be a surprise either. Something will implicate Trump directly, likely sooner rather than later. During the campaign Trump said he hoped the Russians would provide Clinton’s missing emails, a curiously timed thing as it happened shortly after this meeting at Trump Tower. He campaigned on a friendlier relationship with Russia and seemed unconcerned that they had taken over Crimea and Russian paramilitary forces had captures much of eastern Ukraine.

Trump is clearly no Frank Underwood. He doesn’t know how to be devious. The fictional Underwood built his house of cards on something of a firm foundation: with safety checks and sycophants stupid enough to take the fall for him. It appears that Trump and the Trump campaign simply weren’t smart enough to worry about these exposures. Which means their house of cards is flimsy indeed. No surprise then that not quite six months into his administration it is collapsing under its own weight.

Here’s one edifice that deserves demolition, and the sooner the better. The irony is that Trump is likely to end up impaling himself. This would be a fitting end to the most brazenly crooked administration in history. Expect more and bigger dominoes to keep falling and to fall more quickly.

Review: Orange is the New Black (Seasons 1 and 2)

The Thinker by Rodin

Good news! Hollywood has finally produced a series that represents the full colors of America’s ethnic rainbow! And it’s done very well. The only downside: it depicts life at the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, run by the “Federal Department of Corrections”, supposedly somewhere in upstate New York. And except for some guards and a couple of administrators, there’s not a man in sight because it’s a women’s penitentiary.

I’ve been avoiding Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series, for a couple of years. It’s always hard to decide if I want to invest the time in a TV drama series. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services, there are an overwhelming amount of them out there. Even being retired, I couldn’t begin to watch them all. I did try a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, but the level of violence was more than I could stomach.

So it’s surprising that I could get into OITNB because it has plenty of violence, not to mention sex, nudity, cursing and more adult topics than I can enumerate. And truthfully, if these were scheduled for theatrical release, they would warrant somewhere between an R and an X rating. I’ve seen stuff in OITNB I’ve never seen elsewhere outside of X rated sites like xhamster.com, such as an explicit picture of a woman’s vagina.

If the goal of cinema is to take viewers into a whole new world, OITNB succeeds very well. What an interesting, fascinating and disgusting set of characters we get in this minimum-security women’s prison, sometimes all at the same time. You want both the inmates and the guards to be stereotypes but none of these are. The exception is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Piper is something of a lead character, at least at the beginning, a generally goody two shoes blonde white lady in her thirties. She happens to fall in lesbian love with Alex (Laura Prepon), a drug runner. Years afterward she gets ratted on by Alex, and ends up at Litchfield. This does not make her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) happy and he awkwardly tries to stay faithful to her while she sits behind bars.

Except there aren’t many iron bars at Litchfield: the “girls” sleep in dorms where they are regularly searched and humiliated. In their internet-free zone they mostly self-segregate by race or age (there is a fascinating group of older characters, including Kate Mulgrew as “Red”, who runs the kitchen). Most of them are pretty messed up (not a surprise), but these include many of the guards and administrators (perhaps a bit of a surprise). Proving that everything is relational, the guards abuse the inmates, some of them screw the inmates and some of them love the inmates. Litchfield is a tangled web of real life: a mixture of characters from the sweet Morella (Yael Stone), to the ultra-butch Big Boo (Carrie Black), to frequently insane Suzanne (Uzo Abuda) to the cold and steely killer Vee (Lorraine Toussant).

I was surprised by how easily I got sucked into this series. I was also surprised by how the characters grew on me, including some surprises like Suzanne, also known as Crazy-Eyes. The producers created a little universe inside a prison and accurately depicted life inside it. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman and her experiences at FCI Danbury (Connecticut), OITNB feels eerily authentic. It opens windows into the human soul and human experiences you won’t expect. Unlike Breaking Bad, which seems to revel in the worst of us, OITNB gives us a more accurate portrait of mostly good people gone bad, often due to factors outside of their control.

OITNB gives us a dose of real people coping (often badly) with what life has thrown at them. More importantly it gives us an opportunity to see women as people, instead of objects. It also allows seeing correctional officers as people, often flawed and profane, and with their own issues and foibles.

For me one mark of a good series is whether it follows me around. OITNB is like that: it will haunt you when you are not watching it, or follow you in your dreams. I found it hard not to binge on the show but sometimes I would succumb anyhow and watch three episodes in a row. It’s not really titillating; it’s more a grand exposition. While there is plenty of lesbian sex, much of it quite graphic, and shower scenes (pretty much everyone ends up at least partially naked) it’s not so much the individual characters that pulled me in as the exposition of this particular prison system in all its complexity and garishness.

So as long as you are up for a grownup adventure, it’s definitely worth your time. It helps if you are not homophobic, squeamish or racist. It’s a great reason to subscribe to Netflix if you don’t already. I have been watching Netflix’s House of Cards for years. In Season 4 though I find House of Cards is getting not so watchable. OITNB is much more so, perhaps because it feels more real and less Machiavellian.

Kudos to Netflix, creator Jenji Kohan, the series producers, directors and actors for giving us a compelling series worth watching that will take you to new places both inside the human soul and the worlds around it. Now I need to start watching Season 3.

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

The Thinker by Rodin

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.