by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The mountain labored, and brought forth … a draw.
The much-ballyhooed first televised debate between Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald J. Trump, aired live Monday, September 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. Pacific time, was a close contest in which Clinton and Trump basically fought to a draw — though Clinton became stronger and Trump more unhinged as the debate wore on. It was moderated by NBC-TV news anchor Lester Holt — a bad sign for Hillary supporters, given how thoroughly biased against her and for Trump NBC Today show co-host Matt Lauer had been at the so-called “national security town-hall” he had moderated September 7. Lauer had been viciously inquisitorial towards Clinton — for more than half of her half-hour time slot he asked her about her e-mails in a way that made him sound like the prosecutor in the trial she isn’t going to have (unless Trump wins and directs his attorney general to indict her), while he sounded positively sycophantic around Trump.
Holt did a much better job than Lauer at keeping “objective,” though through much of the debate he seemed more like a rather befuddled lion-tamer trying to keep two particularly vicious lions under control than the moderator of a Presidential candidates’ debate. Though Clinton made a pass at cordiality by calling Trump “Donald” early on in the debate — as if she were trying to recall their former friendship when they were both part of New York’s 1 percent (one of the most devastating comments Ted Cruz made against Trump during the Republican primary debates was, “Hillary Clinton didn’t come to my wedding”) — it was evident throughout the whole spectacle that by now they really don’t like each other.
Well before the debate, it was pretty obvious to political observers what each candidate had to do. Americans see themselves and their country in desperate straits, threatened by social and demographic changes and an international terrorist threat from people who seem to have beamed in on a time machine from the Middle Ages. They’re also pissed off that the so-called “economic recovery” has benefited just the richest 1 percent of its people.
As Hillary Clinton put it, in a rare burst of eloquence, at that Human Rights Campaign fundraiser where she described half of Trump supporters as fitting into a “basket of deplorables,” “[P]eople … feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything [Trump] says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
It’s that desperation that drove so many Democratic primary voters to support Bernie Sanders over Clinton, and so many Republican primary voters to support Trump over the 16 other candidates in the GOP’s clown car — some of them, like Ohio Governor John Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, with genuine and effective track records getting Right-wing policies enacted in their states. And it’s that desperation that will make Donald Trump the next President — unless Clinton and the Democrats can make Trump appear so dangerously unhinged that voters are scared away from him and decide to go with an Establishment warhorse like Clinton instead.
Ironically, a few months ago my husband Charles and I watched a 2015 movie called Our Brand Is Crisis that, though it took place in Bolivia, eerily anticipated Hillary Clinton’s task in a general election against Donald Trump. What’s more, it was produced by George Clooney, one of Hillary Clinton’s most famous supporters and host of the modern-day “boodle banquet” at which you could get a seat at Bill and Hillary Clinton’s table for $353,000, though at the last minute Clooney dropped out of the project as actor and instead had Billy Bob Thornton play the role developed for him. Our Brand Is Crisis is about an American political consultant (Sandra Bullock) hired to manage the campaign of a former Bolivian President who’s trying to regain the office against a Left-wing populist insurgent whose campaign is being run by Thornton’s character, who’s also Bullock’s ex-lover.
Just as the people on the staff of the former president who’s trying to regain the office in Our Brand Is Crisis realize they have to scare Bolivian voters into rejecting the populist and embracing, or at least tolerating, the old-line Establishment guy, Hillary Clinton’s staff members no doubt realize their only way of winning her the election is to make Donald Trump seem so scary, so frightening, so borderline crazy, that the voters feel, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that they would “rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of.” Thus Clinton went into Monday night’s debate aware that her best shot at victory was to irritate Donald Trump, to get him off the “Presidential” pedestal his current campaign managers, Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, have tried to put up for him, and make Trump look mean, petty, vindictive and decidedly un-Presidential.
Sometimes Trump rose to the bait; sometimes he didn’t. Clinton got enough licks in to discomfit Trump and let the mask slip from his face. She didn’t discredit him enough to get his core supporters to question him and their support of him — but then, just about nothing could: as Trump himself has said, he could shoot someone in broad daylight in front of thousands of people on a New York City street and it would barely budge his poll numbers. But she did get under his skin, especially when he responded to her criticism of him for insulting women by saying that Rosie O’Donnell deserved it — Rosie O’Donnell, whose 15 minutes of fame expired quite a while ago and who’s remembered, if at all, for her running gag about having a crush on Tom Cruise and then coming out as a Lesbian as soon as Cruise divorced Nicole Kidman and therefore was at least theoretically available.
Through much of the debate, especially its second half, Trump just couldn’t shut up. Some of his weirdest moments were his moans of “Wro-o-o-o-ong” whenever Clinton cited a part of his record and he was trying to challenge her factually. He stretched out the vowel of the word “wrong” so long he started to sound like a cow mooing. What’s more, a lot of the things on which he was mooing “wro-o-o-o-ong” were parts of his record on which Clinton was ri-i-i-i-ight, like when she said that she takes human-caused climate change seriously while Trump says it’s all a hoax engineered by the Chinese. “I never said that,” said Trump, leaving a lot of people (including me) befuddled about how he could say he never said that when we remember seeing and hearing him on previous TV appearances saying it.
Trump and Orwell
I don’t think you can understand Donald Trump without having read George Orwell’s 1984 — and especially without having read the book-within-the-book of 1984, “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by Emmanuel Goldstein,” which most people skip. The two Orwellian concepts you have to keep in mind when thinking about Trump are “doublethink” and “the mutability of the past.” In 1984, Orwell provides this explanation of “the mutability of the past” and its importance to maintaining the power of the Inner Party, the ruling elite of his dystopia:
Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it. It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance. For whenever it has been re-created in whatever shape is needed at the moment, then this new version is the past, and no other version of the past can ever have existed.
Donald Trump certainly provided ample examples during the September 26 debate of his belief in “the mutability of the past.” When challenged on his repeated claims that he opposed the George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq as a response to the 9/11 attacks, he flat-out denied the accuracy of the recorded interview he gave shock-TV host Howard Stern at the time that he supported the invasion. Instead he said he and Fox News personality Sean Hannity had had private conversations in which Trump told Hannity the Iraq invasion would be a disaster, and Hannity, a hard-line conservative supporter of Bush, had defended the war.
If Trump had the power of the ruling elite of 1984, which maintained an elaborate propaganda infrastructure called the “Ministry of Truth” to seek out and destroy all records of the past that didn’t agree with the Party’s current line — and to forge new records that did — he could just call in Sean Hannity and manufacture an interview in which he’d proclaim his opposition to the war, and back-date it to 2002. He doesn’t, but he has such an intense command over the memories of his followers that he can persuade them to believe that he was always against the Iraq war and ignore the documentary evidence that he was actually for it. What’s more, he can respond to mainstream media attempts to fact-check him by tapping into his followers’ long-conditioned hatred of the media and convincing them that “they’re just out to get me.”
Trump did it again during the debate when Clinton said that she took the threat of human-caused climate change seriously while “Trump thinks it’s all a hoax started by the Chinese.” “I never said that,” said Trump, flabbergasting those of us who remembered seeing previous clips of Trump on TV saying exactly that. But, like Orwell’s Inner Party, Trump thinks his power is so great he can remake people’s memories of reality and thereby erase any inconvenient parts of his past. As Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter on his book The Art of the Deal, told The New Yorker last July, “Lying is second nature to him. More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least to be true.”
George Orwell had a name for that: doublethink. As he defined it in 1984:
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it could not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity, and hence of guilt. Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc [“English Socialism,” the ideology of the ruling Inner Party of 1984], since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty.
To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
Over and over again, in Donald Trump’s political statements, one sees him exercising doublethink. Trump originally emerged as a political figure — following his previous incarnations as a real-estate developer, a casino owner and a “reality” TV-show host — when he discovered and seized on the “birther” movement, the assertion by several conspiracy nuts that President Obama was born in Kenya (or Indonesia, or Saudi Arabia, or Mars) and therefore didn’t meet the Constitutional requirement that the President be “a natural born Citizen” of the U.S. More recently he’s declared that he didn’t start the “birther” controversy — according to Trump, either Hillary Clinton herself or two people involved in her 2008 campaign against Obama for the Democratic nomination, did — and that “I ended it” when Obama finally produced a “long-form” birth certificate in 2011 indicating he was born when and where he always said he was — August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawai’i, U.S.A.
The fact that there are TV clips of Trump raising the “birther” issue even later than that and questioning the authenticity of the birth certificate Obama released doesn’t faze him in the least. To use another Orwell term, he’s mentally flushed them down the “memory hole” — the name in 1984 for the pipeline to the incinerator that physically destroyed records that no longer matched the Party’s current version of the past. Trump’s statement that “I ended” the “birther” controversy also goes to his bizarre belief that he, by the sheer force of his personality and his endless sagacity and wisdom, could will the controversy over just by saying so (though some Trump supporters I’ve met didn’t get the message and cling to the “birther” myth).
Other Trump examples of doublethink are the passage towards the end of the debate in which he said, as Hillary Clinton was attacking him for his lack of temperament (and he was raising his voice to an hysterical pitch and thereby proving her point), “My greatest asset is my temperament.” There’s also his statement that he wasn’t going to mention Bill Clinton’s infidelities during the debate — thereby, according to Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mcmanus-trump-apophasis-bill-clinton-sex-20161002-snap-story.html), engaging in a rhetorical device called “apophasis,” meaning talking about something by saying you’re not going to talk about it — and the bizarre campaign he’s gone on since then trying to convince the American people that somehow Bill Clinton’s affairs are Hillary Clinton’s fault.
No wonder at one point during the debate, an exasperated Hillary said that pretty soon Trump was going to blame her for everything bad that’s ever happened — and Trump flippantly fired back, “Why not?”
Clinton Wins the Aftermath
When I was watching the debate, during the candidates’ answer to Lester Holt’s first question — just how are you going to improve the lives of working Americans? — I joked to my husband that the real debate winner was Bernie Sanders because both Clinton and Trump were sounding so much like him. Clinton was talking about a raise in the minimum wage (though she didn’t say by how much) and making public colleges tuition-free, and Trump fired back by denouncing the one-sided, pro-corporate “free trade” agreements that have been pushed down Americans’ throats ever since the George H. W. Bush administration negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Bill Clinton pushed it through Congress.
Later on, as the punching and counter-punching got more and more inane, and Trump started making those moo-like “wro-o-o-o-ong” noises into the microphone in response to Clinton’s attacks on him (most of which, as I’ve noted above, were ri-i-i-i-ight), I joked that the real winner of the debate was the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson. So he can’t name a foreign leader he particularly likes, and he seems to think “Aleppo” is a cool new pet he could buy for his kids, but compared to what both Clinton and Trump were putting on display September 26, he was looking like a model of reality and decorum.
What’s been most amazing about the debate is that just about any other candidate who went through what Trump did on September 26 — particularly how he went from relative coherence and cogence in the early part to bizarre comments about former talk-show hosts and beauty-contest winners towards the end — would take stock and walk back from some of the more self-destructive patterns in his behavior. Not Donald Trump. In the week since the debate he’s doubled down on his attacks on Alicia Machado, who won the Miss Universe contest in 1996 (just after Trump took it over) and who, according to Trump, violated either an explicit or implicit contract with the contest organization by gaining between 20 to 40 pounds in the year after she won.
He’s also doubled down on his attacks on Bill Clinton and his allegations that Hillary is somehow responsible for her husband’s affairs, calling her an “enabler” because she said nasty things about Bill’s ex-paramours way back when. That one is so crazy even Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House when Bill Clinton was impeached over his affairs, thought it was a bad idea to bring it up. “It’s totally the wrong direction to go,” Gingrich told reporters Josh Lederman and Catherine Lucey (“Trump Invokes Bill Clinton’s Infidelities,” San Diego Union-Tribune, September 30, 2016). “He should not let them bait him into a swamp where they can revel in the mud.”
On the other hand, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani thinks it’s a great idea for Trump to bring up the Bill Clinton sex scandals. In the above article, he’s quoted as saying, “[H]e can point out all the questions around them, and one of these questions is how Bill Clinton lied under oath, was one of two Presidents ever impeached, and how Hillary didn’t stand up for an intern in the Oval Office. Instead, she condemned her and called her all kinds of names. She says she stands up for the victims of sexual predators, but she didn’t do it then. That was no victory for feminism.”
Remember who’s talking here. This is Donald Trump, thrice married and twice divorced, who used to boast of his own serial adulteries until it dawned on him that even for someone with as outsized an ego as he, it wouldn’t do to present himself as an out-and-proud cocksman to the self-proclaimed “family values” party. This is Newt Gingrich, who’s also on his third wife, who (like Trump) was screwing wife number two while still married to wife number one, and who asked wife number two if she’d consent to a three-way relationship between them and the woman who became wife number three. And this is Rudy Giuliani, who went through such a messy divorce in his last years as New York Mayor that his wife threw him out of the mayor’s official residence and he was forced to live as the houseguest of a Gay male couple.
But then there seems to be a Trumpworld, as distinct from the real world, in which it is the wife’s fault if her husband cheats on her because she’s supposed to remain sexually attractive and alluring to him — and if she doesn’t, he’s got a right to go elsewhere. In the Trumpworld, beauty contest winners are supposed to keep starving themselves indefinitely because they’re the indentured servants of the contest owners, and if they dare to start eating normally and put on a few pounds they’ve broken the contract and deserve to be punished. I don’t know what bothers Trump more about Rosie O’Donnell — that she’s big or that she’s a Lesbian — but he can’t stop insulting her even though she’s been out of the limelight long enough most people who heard that on the debate probably wondered, “Rosie who?”
Ironically, as the PBS-TV Frontline special on Clinton and Trump aired September 27, the day after the debate, mentioned, Trump actually stuck his neck out for women when he started doing developments in Manhattan in the early 1980’s. He hired Barbara Res to be his construction supervisor to deal with the contractors, and another woman, Louise Sunshine, to be in charge of sales. “Donald told me that he thought that men were better than woman, especially in this field,” Res recalled. “But he said a good woman is better than 10 good men. I think he believed that women had to prove themselves more than men, so a good woman would work harder.”
This pretty much seems to sum up the attitude towards women that applies in the Trumpworld. In 2015, when he was first attacked about his alleged sexism in the context of a Presidential campaign, his defense was that he had many women working in positions of influence and power in his organization. So if you’re Donald Trump, you like women either if they can help make you even richer than you already are or if you can envision wanting to have sex with them, and they with you. Otherwise, they must be fat slobs and pigs with blood coming out of their eyes … or their wherever.
Trump’s penchant for doublethink has been coming out again, big-time, on the issue of his tax returns. For over 40 years it’s been common practice for Presidential candidates to release their tax returns. Not Trump. He says he can’t release them because he’s being audited by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) — though IRS officials keep saying there’s no rule against releasing your tax returns while being audited. During the debate, Clinton suggested a number of reasons why Trump won’t release his returns — either he’s not as rich as he says he is, he doesn’t give as much money in charitable donations as he says he does, or maybe he doesn’t actually pay taxes at all
The last may be closest to the truth, as an October 1 New York Times report (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-taxes.html?_r=0) suggested. The Times received an anonymous mailing from a source purportedly inside the Trump Tower of state tax returns Trump allegedly filed in 1995 in New York and New Jersey. These indicated a “net operating loss” for that year of nearly one billion dollars — $915,729,293 — which, according to tax experts interviewed by the Times, meant that Trump could avoid paying federal and state income taxes for 15 years or more. Jack Mitnick, the attorney and accountant who prepared those returns for Trump and is now semi-retired in Florida, validated the documents as authentic and noted that the software he was then using couldn’t record an annual loss of more than seven digits, so he’d had to type in the “91” by hand.
As Times reporters David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner and Megan Twohey explained in their article, the “net operating loss” provision of the tax code “allows a dizzying array of deductions, business expenses, real estate depreciation, losses from the sale of business assets and even operating losses to flow from the balance sheets of those partnerships, limited liability companies and S corporations onto the personal tax returns of men like Mr. Trump. In turn, those losses can be used to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income from, say, book royalties or branding deals. Better still, if the losses are big enough, they can cancel out taxable income earned in other years. Under I.R.S. rules in 1995, net operating losses could be used to wipe out taxable income earned in the three years before and the 15 years after the loss. (The effect of net operating losses on state income taxes varies, depending on each state’s tax regime.)”
In other words, the man who’s based his whole campaign on the idea that he’s going to “make America great again,” especially for its working-class white people who didn’t finish (and mostly didn’t begin) college, is a typical 1-percenter grabbing every opportunity he can to reduce his tax liability so he can get out of paying the government for defense, social programs, schools and the myriad other things it does. And Trump has responded to criticism in his usual fashion; during the debate, when Clinton raised the possibility that Trump might not be paying taxes at all, he said, “That makes me smart.”
Later he said that as the CEO of a publicly traded corporation he has the responsibility to keep its taxes as low as possible — which doesn’t explain why he used the “net operating loss” provision not to reduce his company’s taxes, but to eliminate his personal tax obligation as Donald Trump, citizen. He also questioned whether he should be paying taxes at all since the government wouldn’t know what to do with them. “I hate the way our government spends our taxes because they are wasting our money,” Trump said in the “spin room” after the debate. “They don’t know what they are doing, they are running it so poorly.” And he responded to the New York Times article by claiming that he didn’t authorize the release of the information in it and threatening to sue the paper.
There can be no doubt, both watching the later stages of the September 26 debate and seeing how Donald Trump has behaved in the week after it, that Trump is a dangerous individual who’s using the classic authoritarian strategies George Orwell identified in 1984 (after having observed them in the dictatorships of his own time, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) to win the Presidency and no doubt would govern in the same authoritarian take-no-prisoners way. He’s a clear and present danger to American politics and American public life, and stopping him from becoming President is absolutely essential. And, given the limitations of America’s winner-take-all political system, the only way to stop Donald Trump from becoming President is to elect Hillary Clinton.
 — The original “boodle banquet” took place during the 1884 Presidential campaign and was a fundraiser for Republican nominee James G. Blaine, who was running against Democrat Grover Cleveland. Virtually all the fat-cat robber barons of the period who were enriching themselves at the expense of almost all other Americans attended. Cleveland’s campaign staff and his supporters in the media nicknamed it the “boodle banquet,” and the adverse publicity surrounding it helped make Cleveland the first Democrat to win a Presidential election since James Buchanan 28 years earlier.