Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Casting Couch


Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There’s a quite remarkable scene in an otherwise entertaining but mediocre movie made in 1935, The Nitwits, starring the long-forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey. Mary Roberts (Betty Grable), office assistant to music publishing CEO Winfield Lake (Hale Hamilton), suffers an unwanted sexual advance from her married boss when he puts his hand on her wrist. Mary calmly lifts his hand off her wrist and says, “I’d rather you not do that again” — a rare moment of women’s empowerment in a 1935 film about office work.
It was far more common in the 1930’s for Hollywood to tell women that if they wanted a career in business, being sexually harassed was just part of the dues they had to pay. A typical movie in that genre was a 1932 Warner Bros. production bluntly called She Had to Say Yes, which starred Loretta Young as a secretary to an executive at a fashion company. She’s given what at first appears to be a promotion to sales representative — a “customer’s girl,” she’s called in the script — but she soon learns that the people she has to say yes to are the buyers for major department stores, who expect to have sex with her in exchange for ordering her company’s clothes to sell in their stores.
So, to paraphrase a line from a classic Hollywood film far better known than either of these two, it’s bizarre to watch people in the movie industry today act shocked, shocked! by the revelation that Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Studio and the Weinstein Company, not only relentlessly harassed and made unwanted advances to women seeking work both behind and in front of the cameras, but essentially organized his studios as pimping machines for him.
The simple fact is that much of the history of show business in general and the movie industry in particular consists of middle-aged rich guys with power dangling the prospects of fame and fortune in front of nubile young women, and saying, “All these can be yours, if only … ” Occasionally, as with William Randolph Hearst and his long-time mistress Marion Davies, there was genuine love, affection and a long-term commitment involved. Usually, though, the grandees of Hollywood treated their fuck objects de jour as disposable commodities: use once (or a few times) and then throw away because there’ll be plenty more where they came from.
It’s been an open secret in Hollywood for decades, admitted to in the phrase “the casting couch” and jokes like the one about the actress, caught in the middle of a troubled production that’s run way over budget and schedule, lamenting, “Just who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?” All the legendary names of Hollywood history — Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and the rest — had legends surrounding them of the (metaphorical) revolving doors in their offices that whirled their latest victims in and out, each one with stars in their eyes hoping that for the sake of this indignity there would be untold riches and worldwide fame coming to them later on.
The secret made its way into American literature in a number of novels about Hollywood, most blatantly Norman Mailer’s 1955 book The Deer Park. Mailer made his point obvious by his title, a reference to the French King Louis XV and his conversion of one of the private gardens at Versailles into what he called his “deer park,” where he could stroll around his naked mistresses and pick the one (or more) he wanted to cavort with just them. In the novel’s most chilling scene, studio executive Herman Teppis — a character obviously based on real-life Columbia studio head Harry Cohn — is receiving a blow job from a woman crouched under his desk. While he’s being “pleasured” he makes a mental note to make sure she never gets a job in Hollywood again.
In her 1988 memoir Child Star, Shirley Temple Black recounted being pursued by Hollywood producers David O. Selznick and Arthur Freed, both of whom chased her around their desks while, no longer a child but not yet at the age of consent, she signed with them to make a comeback as a teenager. No one really cared, probably because by the time she made the accusations both Selznick and Freed were long dead. People are still watching the works of these two men, among the most tasteful, intelligent and both commercially and artistically successful producers in Hollywood history, and we’d be poorer as a culture without their films.
Other Hollywood stars fought off unwanted attentions from their producers with the same sort of wit that was their stock in trade on screen. In his biography of Judy Holliday, Gary Carey recounts one day in which a lecherous producer was chasing her around his desk, continually lunging at her breasts with his hands. Holliday reached down into her chest, pulled out the falsies she was wearing, and threw them at the producer, saying, “You want ’em so bad — you can have ’em!” It’s a line one can readily imagine coming from a Judy Holliday movie.
So Harvey Weinstein was right, in a way, when he said as an excuse for his behavior that he came up in an era (the 1950’s and 1960’s) when sexual harassment was taken far less seriously than it is now — indeed, when it was regarded as one of the legitimate perks of being a boss. Of course, that was no excuse: it was wrong when David O. Selznick and Arthur Freed chased an underage Shirley Temple around their office desks in the early 1940’s, and it was wrong when Harvey Weinstein used his physical bulk to corner women and force his tongue (or more) down their throats. But it adds to the sense I have, as a fan of old movies and a student of Hollywood’s politically Byzantine and sexually sordid history, that Weinstein is being punished for the sins of a lot of his colleagues, past and present.

Weinstein a Throwback

The myth surrounding Harvey Weinstein was that he was a major figure in the rise of independent film in the 1990’s and 2000’s, and that despite his personal boorishness he made “classy,” high-quality film that elevated the caliber of American moviemaking and gave opportunities to visionary directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. The reality of Harvey Weinstein is that he was a chip off the block of Old Hollywood, similar to the moguls of the classic era not only in his tendency to treat the women in his employ as his own private “deer park” but his egomania and his bullying tactics against quality filmmakers pursuing an artistic vision.
Miramax and the Weinstein Company weren’t the first U.S. film studios founded by a pair of feuding brothers, one of whom worked directly with filmmakers as a creative producer while the other hung back from the limelight and ran the business end of the company. That was also the division of labor between studio head Jack Warner and financial manager Harry Warner at Warner Bros.; between studio head Harry Cohn and financial manager Jack Cohn at Columbia; and between studio head Walt Disney and financial manager Roy Disney at Disney.
Indeed, the tensions in this sort of relationship between people who are both biological siblings and business partners can get even nastier than many professional breakups between people who aren’t related. In the world of rock music, we’ve seen spectacular fallings-out between Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, and Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis. The dynamics in this sort of relationship are to me summed up by a famous anecdote of the argument Walt and Roy Disney over Walt’s decision to shoot the three half-hour episodes of his Davy Crockett TV mini-series in color. Roy, the how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-pay-the-bills finance guy, said, “Why did you waste all that money shooting Davy Crockett in color? TV isn’t in color!” Walt, the artistic visionary, smiled his gnomic smile and said, “It will be.”
The Weinstein brothers were throwbacks to the Warner, Cohn and Disney brothers temperamentally as well. Harvey was notorious for losing his temper at story conferences and business meetings, and though it clashed with his reputation as a protector of independent films and their creative talent, stories abound of Harvey treating major directors, writers and stars in the same high-handed ways Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Harry Cohn were notorious for in the classic era. Actress Molly Ringwald published an article on The New Yorker Web site on October 17 ( in which she discussed her experience of sexual harassment from producers other than Harvey Weinstein, but also mentioned her own non-sexual but still unpleasant and artistically frustrating experience with him.
It happened in 1990, when Ringwald, then 20 years old and a star in John Hughes’ comedies about teen life (especially teen sex life), wanted to prove that she could do more adult roles in more sophisticated stories. She took a role as the female lead in a Weinstein production based on a Graham Greene novel called Loser Take All. “When we began filming, in France, I was warned about the producer, but I had never heard of him and had no reason to fear him,” Ringwald recalled. “The feeling on the set was that he and his brother Bob were becoming powerful and were difficult to work with, and that it was inadvisable to cross them. During a dinner at the Chèvre d’Or, in a tiny medieval village, there was a tense, awkward moment when Harvey became testy toward our British co-workers and accused them of thinking of us Americans as just the ‘little guys in the colonies.’ It was sort of meant as a joke, I suppose, but it made everyone cringe, and all I could think was that the guy was volatile.
While Ringwald didn’t have to deal with Harvey Weinstein hitting on her, she did suffer an indignity that’s been just as common in the filmmaking world as unwanted sexual advances: arbitrary and unwelcome interference in the actual creation of a film. She and her co-star, Robert Lindsay, found themselves “performing new pages that Harvey had someone else write, which were not in the script,” Ringwald said. She and Lindsay “had signed off to do a film adapted and directed by one person [James Scott], and then were essentially asked to turn our backs on him and film scenes that were not what we had agreed to. We hadn’t even finished filming, and the movie was already being taken away from the director.
“After that, the film was completely taken away, recut, and retitled. Weinstein named it Strike It Rich, because he insisted that Americans couldn’t stand to have the word ‘loser’ in a title. He also changed the poster: he had my head stuck onto another body, dressed in a form-fitting, nineteen-fifties-pinup-style dress, with a hand reaching out to accept a diamond, like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I wouldn’t have posed for a picture like that, since it had nothing to do with the character I portrayed; it struck me as ridiculous false advertising.” Not surprisingly, the film bombed at the box office. What’s more, Harvey Weinstein tried to stiff Ringwald on the percentage of its gross receipts she was supposed to be paid, and she had to sue him to get her money.
More recently, Kate Winslet gave an interview to Los Angeles Times reporter Glenn Whipp ( in which she recounted her similar experiences with Harvey Weinstein nearly 20 years later on a 2008 film called The Reader, set in 1950’s Germany, in which Winslet plays a woman trying to conceal the fact that a decade earlier she’d worked at a Nazi extermination camp. When The Reader’s director, Stephen Daldry, told Weinstein he couldn’t deliver the film in time to qualify for the 2008 awards season, Weinstein badgered the film’s producers, Sydney Pollack, Scott Rudin and Carolyn Choa. (Pollack was on his deathbed at the time and Choa was involved because she’d inherited a share of the film from her late husband, Anthony Minghella.)
“I can’t even begin to describe the disgraceful behavior that went on — and I’m actually not going to because it’s a can of worms that I’m not prepared to publicly open — nothing to do with sexual harassment, thankfully, lucky me. My god. I somehow dodged that bullet,” Winslet told Whipp. When the filming was drawing to a close, Winslet explained, “We still had a full four days of shooting of very key scenes that for me — as a person playing that part — were absolutely crucial to the story and to Stephen Daldry, they were as well,” Winslet says. “And Harvey just decided, ‘O.K., we’re done. No more money. I’m pulling the plug.’ We had to stop and were sent home. That was it. And again, this is just on the business side of things, but he was always, always very, very, very unpleasant to deal with. Very.
Thanks in part to Weinstein’s promotional activities on her behalf, Kate Winslet actually won an Academy Award for her truncated performance in The Reader. But she refused to thank Harvey Weinstein for it in her acceptance speech. “That was deliberate. That was absolutely deliberate,” Winslet told Whipp in the Los Angeles Times. “I remember being told. ‘Make sure you thank Harvey if you win.’ And I remember turning around and saying, ‘No I won’t. No I won’t.’ And it was nothing to do with not being grateful. If people aren’t well-behaved, why would I thank him? … The fact that I’m never going to have to deal with Harvey Weinstein again as long as I live is one of the best things that’s ever happened, and I'm sure the feeling is universal,”
Screwing with the artistic intentions of the directors, writers and actors actually making a film may seem like a lesser sin than screwing, metaphorically or literally, with the nubile young female bodies of the cast, crew and office staff. But it belies Harvey Weinstein’s carefully cultivated image as an avatar of quality filmmaking just as his sexual antics belie all the donations he made to women’s groups and political candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And Weinstein did it again to the French director Olivier Dahan when he filmed Grace of Monaco, about actress Grace Kelly, her abandonment of a Hollywood career to marry Prince Rainier Grimaldi of Monaco, and her successful involvement in Monegasque politics that kept the tiny principality from being taken over by France in the 1960’s.
Olivier Dahan was just coming off his star-making movie La Vie en Rose, a biopic of legendary French singer Édith Piaf, when he made Grace of Monaco. To play Grace Kelly he landed Nicole Kidman — “ironically, a far better and more sophisticated actress than the real one she was playing,” as I wrote in my blog post on the film. Only when the movie was finished, Weinstein pulled rank on Dahan and insisted that he re-edit the film according to Harvey Weinstein’s idea of what an American audience would want. Dahan refused, the two were unable to agree on a version of the film that satisfied both, so Weinstein took the film off his theatrical release list and dumped it on the Lifetime cable-TV network, where it sat oddly next to Lifetime’s cheap productions with unheard-of actors playing clichéd damsel-in-distress stories.
In short, Harvey Weinstein was an old-style producer who successfully merchandised himself as a friend of visionary directors and edgy independent films. He convinced people that he was a man of taste and culture, just as he convinced people that he supported equal rights for women, while treating them like meat in his personal life. “I was always a little mystified that Harvey had a reputation as a great tastemaker when he seemed so noticeably lacking in taste himself,” Molly Ringwald wrote in The New Yorker. “But he did have a knack for hiring people who had it, and I figured that’s what passes for taste in Hollywood.”

The Political Implications

The spectacular fall of Harvey Weinstein proved an unexpected political boon for the radical Right. Progressives both in and out of the entertainment industry had been making great hay out of the abrupt downfalls of Fox News founding president Roger Ailes and his biggest on-air star, commentator Bill O’Reilly, over similar accusations that they’d used their positions to force women to have sex with them. Both lost their jobs over the issue, and Ailes subsequently died. Weinstein has been a convenient cudgel for Rightists to beat Leftists who tried to make a facile — and wrong — link between Ailes’ and O’Reilly’s anti-feminist politics and their sexual behavior. Here was a guy, Harvey Weinstein, who said all the right things about women’s equality, gave to all the candidates and causes that promoted feminist issues like equal pay and reproductive choice, and treated women as shabbily in his workplace as Ailes and O’Reilly did in theirs.
The Weinstein incident proved a lesson we San Diego progressives had already learned the hard way from the spectacular crash and burn of our city’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years, Bob Filner. As a multi-term Congressmember he had consistently scored a 100 percent voting record on women’s issues from feminist organizations. As Mayor of San Diego, he engaged in a bizarre series of sexual harassments that seemed aimed less at actually getting women to go to bed with him than exorcising some weird demons in his mind, heart or maybe a lower part of his anatomy.
Like disgraced former Democratic Congressmember Anthony Weiner — whose “sexting” unwanted photos of his private parts to women he didn’t otherwise know made him one of the few politicians driven from office by a sex scandal that didn’t involve any actual sex — Filner’s conduct seemed more diseased than depraved. But that didn’t stop San Diego’s Democrats from leading the charge to get him out of office, even though that meant he would likely be replaced by a business-friendly, pro-developer, anti-labor Republican — as he was.
In one recent show, MS-NBC host Rachel Maddow read off a list of people who’d lost hugely important and influential careers overnight as a result of sexual harassment allegations, including Ailes, O’Reilly, Bill Cosby (who counts on both sides of the political fence: in the 1960’s he was a major activist in the civil rights movement but more recently he’d become a hero on the Right for his calls to African-Americans to stay in school, avold the “gangsta” life and not listen to rap music) and Weinstein. Then she mentioned one name that was conspicuously absent from her list: Donald “Grab ’em by the pussy … If you’re a star, they’ll let you get away with it” Trump, who not only got away with it but got to be President of the United States.
One of the ironies is that Trump’s election proved that, though Republicans proclaim themselves the party of “family values,” Republicans actually vote more ideologically than Democrats. Democratic politicians like Filner, Weiner and Elliot Spitzer fell from grace due to sexual allegations because Democratic voters seem more concerned than Republicans with what kind of person their candidates are, and whether they live up to their proclaimed values in their personal lives. (There are exceptions, though; when Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton in 1999 over his inept attempts to lie about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, Democrats rallied around him and he escaped Senate conviction and removal from office.)
But the main moral of the virtually simultaneous downfalls of Weinstein, Cosby, Ailes and O’Reilly is that sexual harassment in the workplace has nothing to do with political, ideological or even moral values. As one Hollywood executive said to the Los Angeles Times, it’s all about power — and it’s revealing that, like Cosby, Weinstein was exposed when his career was on the downgrade. It’s been a long time since the Weinstein Company released any movies on the level of success, either criminal or commercial, of The English Patient, Pulp Fiction, Chicago, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech. By the time he was exposed as a serial harasser, Harvey Weinstein was a far less Mcinfluential figure in Hollywood than he’d been at his peak — and that meant he had far less capacity to threaten anyone who exposed him than he’d had at the heyday of his career.
And, as Molly Ringwald wrote in her New Yorker piece, there are far more lecherous males in Hollywood than Harvey Weinstein. “When I was thirteen, a fifty-year-old crew member told me that he would teach me to dance, and then proceeded to push against me with an erection.” she recalled. “When I was fourteen, a married film director stuck his tongue in my mouth on set. At a time when I was trying to figure out what it meant to become a sexually viable young woman, at every turn some older guy tried to help speed up the process. And all this went on despite my having very protective parents who did their best to shield me. I shudder to think of what would have happened had I not had them.”
Ringwald’s most horrifying memory was of an audition she underwent in her 20’s. “I was blindsided … when I was asked by the director, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, to let the lead actor put a dog collar around my neck,” she wrote. “This was not remotely in the pages I had studied; I could not even fathom how it made sense in the story. The actor was a friend of mine, and I looked in his eyes with panic. He looked back at me with an ‘I’m really sorry’ expression on his face as his hands reached out toward my neck.
“I don’t know if the collar ever made it on me, because that’s the closest I’ve had to an out-of-body experience. I’d like to think that I just walked out, but, more than likely, there’s an old VHS tape, disintegrating in a drawer somewhere, of me trying to remember lines with a dog collar around my neck in front of a young man I once had a crush on. I sobbed in the parking lot and, when I got home and called my agent to tell him what happened, he laughed and said, ‘Well, I guess that’s one for the memoirs. … ‘ I fired him and moved to Paris not long after.”
And it’s not just a Hollywood thing, either. U.S. Olympic-medal winning gymnast McKayla Maroney just reported to the New York Times ( that she is one of at least 150 young women sexually abused by the U.S.A. Gymnastics team’s doctor, Lawrence Nassar. The story actually broke over a year ago (, but has got a new lease on life from Maroney’s public statement as well as the hyper-awareness of sexual abuse allegations following those against Weinstein.
Maroney told Twitter that Dr. Nassar would sexually assault her and other U.S. women gymnasts under the guise of giving them “medical treatments.” ““It seemed whenever and wherever this man could find the chance, I was ‘treated,’” Maroney told the New York Times. “It happened in London before my team and I won the gold medal, and it happened before I won my silver. For me, the scariest night of my life happened when I was 15 years old. I had flown all day and night with the team to get to Tokyo. He’d given me a sleeping pill for the flight, and the next thing I know, I was all alone with him in his hotel room getting a ‘treatment.’ I thought I was going to die that night.”
Another gymnast, Rachael Denhollander, told IndyStar media a similar story over a year ago. “I was terrified,” she remembered. “I was ashamed. I was very embarrassed. And I was very confused, trying to reconcile what was happening with the person he was supposed to be. He’s this famous doctor. He’s trusted by my friends. He’s trusted by these other gymnasts. How could he reach this position in the medical profession, how could he reach this kind of prominence and stature if this is who he is?”
Sexual harassment in the workplace happens, and it happens in every setting where one person has the power to inflict economic or physical harm on another by virtue of their working for him — or her, I suspect. It happens at the empyrean heights of Harvey Weinstein’s (former) position in the movie business, where he opened his arms and promised young women stardom if they’d open their bodies to his dick. It happens in the lowliest office to people who go along with it just for the sake of keeping their minimum-wage jobs and keeping food on their tables for their kids.
And it doesn’t just happen to women, either; there’ve been plenty of reports of Gay male bosses (including former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey) demanding sex from other men in exchange for jobs, promotions or just continued employment. Indeed, I remember reading a series of stories in the San Francisco Queer press in the 1980’s revealing that the founder of San Francisco’s Shanti organization, the group that created the model for support agencies for people with AIDS and HIV, was an equal-opportunity harasser. A Bisexual man, he was hitting on both the men and women in his employ.
I don’t doubt for one minute, human nature (not just male nature!) being what it is, that as women get more power in the workplace and more women rise to important executive positions that give them sweeping powers to hire, promote and fire, we’ll hear more stories about women abusing their positions to force men to have sex with them the way Harvey Weinstein did with women. The problem isn’t one industry, one political tendency or even one gender: it’s with the inequality of power, authority and autonomy inherent in the whole concept of employment: “You do what I say — or else!” Mostly the “you do what I say” has something to do with the actual work, but all too often it doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean we’re helpless to stop it. We can build social awareness of the problem. We can attempt to educate shareholders and managers of corporations that this type of behavior will not be tolerated, and that the short-term profits the efforts of a sexually abusive boss can be giving their bottom line are not worth the long-term discredit and opprobrium that will attach to a company that tolerates such abuse. We can launch boycotts against companies who keep on sexual harassers, and use the power of social media as well as traditional news outlets to explain why.
Harvey Weinstein fell farther and faster than most in Hollywood, partly because he was already on the downgrade, but also because he was taken on by an angry but thoughtful group of women who were willing to hold the industry to account to live up to its stated values. If there’s a heroine in this, it’s probably actress Rose McGowan, who not only has gone public with her own accusation that Harvey Weinstein out-and-out raped her but has mobilized many of his other accusers to step forward.

But Weinstein was able to get away with it for decades because he built enough power to threaten to punish anyone who moved against him — and it’s the power imbalance between employer and employee, more than anything else, that keeps sexual harassment happening. It takes a rare degree of courage and a willingness to risk one’s livelihood for one’s integrity to do what Betty Grable’s character did in the 1935 film The Nitwits — to lift her harassing boss’s hand off her wrist and say, “I’d rather you not do that again” — but that’s what it’s going to take until we figure out a way to run our economy and get our work done without giving people like Harvey Weinstein that kind of authority in the first place.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Vegas Shooting


Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

I really don’t want to write anymore about mass shootings. Hey, I really don’t want to think anymore about mass shootings. I think I would have had a nice, lovely life if I could have lived to the end of it without ever having heard of “bump stocks,” those devices you stick at the end of a semi-automatic rifle (one which reloads itself, but you have to let go of the trigger and then pull it again to fire your next shot) to convert it to a fully automatic machine gun-style weapon (one that keeps firing round after round as long as you hold down the trigger and doesn’t stop until you let go).
But a man just a few months older than me, Stephen Paddock, forced the issue on the night of Sunday, October 2, when he allegedly took up a vantage point from a suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas and brought 23 rifles, at least 12 equipped with bump stocks. He was there to assume a sort of god-like position over the final night’s concert of the Route 91 country-music festival and, while the event’s headliner, Jason Aldean, performed, pick off as many people as possible in a random hail of automatically fired bullets that would make it pure happenstance who lived unscathed, who was wounded and who would die. (Paddock has been mistakenly referred to in some of the news coverage as a “sniper,” which he wasn’t. A sniper shoots from a long distance from the target with a telescopic sight to kill a specific person. Paddock was 1,000 feet from his targets but he was shooting randomly.)
In the week or so since the Vegas shootings happened, we’ve heard all the old, familiar and by now tiresome arguments. We’ve heard that the U.S. is inherently a violent country that mythologizes the role of firearms in building this country — which is true. A majority-white population occupies the present United States of America because our forebears brought guns with which to commit genocide against the Native population that was here before we were. Not only did we shoot the Native people, we also used guns to wipe out the great herds of buffalo on whom the Natives depended for food, clothing and shelter.
Our national mythology says that the way you solve your problems is with guns. Our entertainment industry rushes out film after TV show after book after magazine article carefully indoctrinating young people that the way to deal with someone in your way is to shoot them — or stab them, burn them, beat them or otherwise, in the CIA’s macabre euphemism, “terminate them with extreme prejudice” (in plain English, kill them). It’s long been known that U.S. movie censors are considerably tougher on sex scenes than their European counterparts but considerably looser about violence. As the late Lenny Bruce grimly joked, “It’s O.K. for your kids to watch killing, but if they watch schtupping [Yiddish for ‘fucking’], they might want to do it someday.”
It’s also become a truism that the U.S. has basically outsourced its public policy on guns to the National Rifle Association (NRA). It says a lot about the mores of this society that firearms are the only consumer product in the entire economy the Constitution gives you a right to own. And the NRA has been able to convince the American people — maybe not all the American people, but enough to make sure that politicians live or die in public office based on the NRA’s ratings — that any law restricting the availability of guns in any way is just the first step down the slippery slope to a Big Brother-ish federal government swooping down and “taking your guns away.”
Since 2000, there have been five Presidential elections, in two of which — 2000 and 2016 — the ultimate winner carried the Electoral College despite coming in second in the popular vote. In both those elections, the NRA played a crucial role in the outcome. In 2000, the NRA mounted independent campaigns for George W. Bush in Tennessee and West Virginia, thus enabling Bush to carry both states. In an otherwise razor-thin election, Democratic nominee Al Gore became the first major-party Presidential candidate since George McGovern’s landslide defeat in 1972 to lose his home state. This is relevant because had Gore carried his home state, Tennessee, he would have won the election and all that fooforaw about Florida wouldn’t have mattered one bit.
The Democratic Party got the message loud and clear. Instead of the big push for new gun regulations they’d made after the Columbine shooting in 1999, they reacted quietly, offering bills that just nibbled around the issue with minor ideas like broader background checks on gun purchasers. That didn’t stop the NRA from exploiting the paranoia they’d carefully built up among their members and gun owners in general that any laws restricting access to guns, no matter how minor or ineffectual, was just the prelude to the mass confiscation of everyone’s guns, which would leave ordinary Americans helpless in the face of what NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre called “jack-booted government thugs.”
The NRA once again helped install the minority vote-getter as President of the United States in 2016. Exactly one year ago to the date I’m writing this (October 7), the NRA stood behind its enthusiastic endorsement of Donald Trump even as other Republicans were backing away from him following release of the so-called “Access Hollywood tape” in which Trump made clear his view that women were meat, ripe for the sexual exploitation of any macho male within their vicinity, especially if he were a “star” and could therefore kiss and grope them with impunity.
While some Republicans even thought the party might have to dump Trump and find another nominee, the NRA stood solidly behind him — and so did their voter base. Along with his opposition to the de-industrialization of America brought about in part by the succession of ghastly “free trade” treaties, which had started under Bill Clinton’s administration with the passage of the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trump’s open embrace of gun culture in general and the NRA in particular helped him win traditionally Democratic voters in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio — which gave him the election.
In addition to its control of gun policy from Washington, D.C. the NRA has so totally dictated gun policy in state legislatures that the rising series of mass shootings since 2007 has actually been accompanied by an increase in the legal options available for individuals to buy, carry and use guns. Under pressure from NRA-backed legislators, state after state has passed laws allowing virtually anyone to carry a weapon anywhere, at any time. At first the NRA and its political supporters sought “concealed-carry” laws, which allowed you to bring guns into public places if they weren’t visible on your person. Then, once “concealed-carry” laws were passed in most states, the NRA further demanded “open-carry,” which allowed you not only to walk around with your gun wherever you pleased but have it fully visible — and readily accessible if you decided you needed to use it immediately.
The NRA has also pushed “stand-your-ground” laws, which make it easier for homeowners and other individuals who shoot someone to claim self-defense and get away with it legally. As Rachel Maddow pointed out on her MS-NBC program October 5, the very first thing President Trump and the Republican Congress did once they took office in January 2017 was pass a law removing restrictions on the ability of mentally ill individuals to buy firearms — a bill Maddow chillingly counterpointed to Trump’s public statements calling Stephen Paddock “sick” and “deranged.” And, amazingly, while Paddock was doing his gun thing in Las Vegas, the U.S. Congress was debating laws that would make life even easier for people who want to own guns — and, inevitably, for people who want to kill other people with them.
According to Doyle McManus in the October 3 Los Angeles Times (, “The House is preparing to take up the Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, which not only loosens restrictions on hunting and shooting on public lands, but also includes two provisions that don’t exactly seem essential to sport shooters. One would legalize the sale of armor-piercing bullets as long as the manufacturer declares that the ammunition is intended for sporting purposes. The other would loosen longstanding federal regulations on silencers. There is little question that the bill, strongly supported by the National Rifle Association, will pass in the Republican-majority House. After that, the House will take up a separate bill that would allow people whose states permit them to carry concealed weapons to take their guns into other states, regardless of local regulations.”
In other words, tough luck for states like California who have tried to restrict people’s ability to own, carry and use guns. All you’d have to do, if these NRA-backed laws are passed and you want to bring a lot of guns into California to commit mass murder, is buy them in a “red state” where concealed-carry, open-carry, stand-your-ground and the other wet dreams of the NRA and the gun manufacturers they represent (most of the NRA’s income comes not from membership dues but from the big ads gun makers buy in their publications) are the law — and state authorities couldn’t do anything to stop them.
The October 5 edition of the PBS news show Washington Week offered two sobering statistics that define just how awash the U.S. is in guns. The U.S., with just 5 percent of the world’s population, has 50 percent of the world’s guns owned by civilians. And those guns are concentrated among a surprisingly small portion of the U.S.’s population: just 3 percent of Americans own 50 percent of the U.S.’s total supply of civilian guns.
What’s more, rising gun ownership brings with it an overall militarization of society. June 27, 2016 New Yorker article (, reporter Evan Osnos quoted Jeff Cooper, firearms instructor and ex-Marine, as saying, “Before World War II, one could stroll in the parks and streets of the city after dark with hardly any risk. … [But in] today’s world of permissive atrocity,” Cooper argued, one had to live one’s whole life essentially as if you were in a war zone at all times — and act accordingly. He mentioned famous mass killers, including Charles Manson, and argued that their victims’ “appalling ineptitude and timidity virtually assisted in their own murders.” Adapting a concept from the Marines, Cooper called on civilian gun owners to assume a constant state of alertness called “Condition Yellow.” In his 1972 book Principles of Personal Defense, Cooper wrote, “The one who fights back retains his dignity and his self-respect.”
In 2014 a Daily Kos contributor signed only as “Hunter” infiltrated a gun-rights group that was planning a mass protest against Target in Texas, apparently demanding that Target stores start selling weapons that could be used by Texans interested in exercising their new-found open-carry rights under state law. It wasn’t easy to figure out from Hunter’s dispatch ( just what the aims of the group, which called itself “Open Carry Texas,” were, but Hunter could barely conceal (pardon the pun) his horror at what sort of society we would become if they had their way.
These guys want a nation that looks like Somalia with more strip malls and higher brand penetration,” Hunter wrote. “They literally think that everyone should be wandering around with rifles explicitly designed to kill the people around them, and that everyone should be fine with that except when someone pulls a trigger on purpose or by accident and then, well, all the other patriots nearby will just sort things out as it happens. You’re not supposed to see a group of guys march into a bank loaded for bear and think I should duck out of here, you’re not supposed to think anything of it until the bullets start flying. ‘Oh, I see. They were here to rob the bank after all. I wish there had been some obvious tell that I could have used to gain valuable run-like-hell time.’ Can’t judge them based on how they’re holding their weapons, either, because apparently you should also be able to put your finger right up to the trigger and we’re still supposed to figure that you’re the Good Guy With a Gun.”
I must say I totally miss the whole appeal of gun culture. As a kid I played with cap pistols and fired BB guns on occasion — and felt the recoil that was the way my grade-school science teachers explained Newton’s Third Law and demonstrated how rockets flew. But I have never so much as held an actual firearm in my life, much less fired one. I didn’t grow up in the Midwest or the South. I didn’t have a dad who took me out to the country, handed me a gun and taught me to shoot. I’ve eaten meat all my life but I’ve never had any active role in the process of killing it first (which my vegan friends tell me makes me a hypocrite, but that’s another topic). And, if anything, I saw the movie Bambi (which, according to one overenthusiastic NRA spokesperson I saw on TV in the Bay Area in the 1970’s, was the worst film ever made) too often to regard hunters as something other than villains.
Apparently, the Las Vegas massacre, and in particular the shooter’s use of bump stocks to turn the semi-automatic rifles the NRA has fought to keep legal into the sorts of fully automatic machine guns that have been against the law in the U.S. for decades, has led to an ever-so-slight softening of the NRA’s no-way, no-how attitude towards gun regulation. The NRA has sent signals to politicians in Washington, D.C. that they wouldn’t oppose a change in gun regulations to ban bump stocks — but they want it to come administratively from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms rather than through an actual law passed by Congress.
Apparently the NRA fears that if there’s an actual Congressional bill to ban bump stocks, Congressmembers who aren’t total pawns of the NRA will use it to sneak in background checks, closing the gun-show loophole by which you can avoid background checks, maybe even reviving the assault weapons ban Congress passed in the 1990’s and let expire in 2004. But there’s a problem with relying on ATF to ban bump stocks: according to a report on Rachel Maddow’s MS-NBC program, in 2010, when Barack Obama was in the second year of his presidency and the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, ATF reviewed their powers under existing gun legislation … and decided it didn’t give them the authority to ban bump stocks.
So the likely result of Las Vegas will be the same as it was after Columbine, Sandy Hook, Newtown, Aurora, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Charleston, Orlando and all the other mass killings by sick individuals with the firepower they acquired under the Second Amendment: a lot of crocodile tears of grief, a lot of solemn statements that “this isn’t the time” to talk about gun control (just as officials of the Trump administration said that it would be “an insult to Floridians” to talk about how human-caused climate change just might have made Hurricane Irma more devastating, and more costly to lives and property, than previous ones); a quick forgetting and then the Congress getting back to business and pre-empting state laws against concealed-carry, removing restrictions on silencers and granting the NRA the rest of its legislative wish list.
Mass shootings, it seems, are just part of the price Americans are supposed to pay for “freedom” — just like we get the “freedom” from being “burdened” by having universal access to health care, and just like previous generations of Republicans say we needed the “freedom” to work for less than the minimum wage and current Republicans say we need the “freedom” from being represented at the workplace by labor unions able to bargain collectively with our employers. The Republican concept of “freedom” means the freedom of the strong to exploit the weak; the well to exploit the sick; the male to exploit the female; the white to exploit the person of color; and above all, again and again, the rich to exploit the poor and to make themselves even richer off the surplus value working people produce for them.
Gun culture is just another one of the mechanisms by which the ruling elite in the U.S. play divide-and-conquer among the 99 percent. As long as people on the short end of the economic stick can be persuaded that the real enemies are white liberals, Mexican murderers and rapists, Muslim terrorists, women who want to control their own bodies, Queers seeking equal rights, and jack-booted government thugs who want to take their guns away, they’ll keep voting for Republican thugs like Donald Trump and pro-corporate Democratic sellouts like Hillary Clinton. And the rich will take their tax cuts they’ve been given at the expense of everyone else and laugh all the way to their secret accounts in Swiss banks they keep just in case there’s ever a real revolution and they have to get out of the country in a hurry.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Puerto Rican Chaos


Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

NOTE: The title of this article comes from “Porto Rican Chaos,” a song written by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol and recorded by Ellington in 1934. Link:

“President Donald Trump is a racist and a white supremacist,” I wrote at the beginning of my last major commentary on this blog about the Trump administration after the bloody events in Charlottesville, Virginia in mid-August. The Trump administration’s bizarre reaction to the devastation wreaked on Puerto Rico, an island territory that is home to between 3.4 and 3.7 million U.S. citizens, is just one more demonstration that racism and white supremacism are basic elements of Trump’s character. In fact, I would argue that it’s become apparent that, contrary to Trump critics who’ve said things like “Donald Trump doesn’t believe in anything but Donald Trump,” the idea that people with lighter skin colors are innately superior to people with darker skin colors is about the only thing outside himself in which Trump does believe.
What’s more, other people besides me are finally willing to say that about Trump, too. I practically had an orgasm in my living room when New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, discussing Trump’s failure to respond to Puerto Rico’s plight — especially compared to the speed with which he came to the aid of Texas, Louisiana and Florida when they were hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma — said, “I mean, this is incredible, It is racist, I truly believe it.” (The fact that Mark-Viverito is Puerto Rican-born and still has family on the island only made it more poignant.)
Later, Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Post-Inquirer also used the R-word in relation to Trump in ways most of the mainstream media have been dancing around for at least the 2 ½ years since he emerged as a major figure, announcing for President and denouncing Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals ( And more recently Dule University assistant professor Jay A. Pearson published an article in the October 4 Los Angeles Times ( that noted that of the seven types of racism scholars have identified — structural, symbolic, institutional, interpersonal, insidious, internalized and systemic — Trump exhibits them all.
After a weekend in which he ignored the devastating impact of Maria on Puerto Rico and instead spent it at his New Jersey golf course tweeting attacks on African-American football players who dare not to stand for the national anthem of a country that still treats them like second-class citizens, Bunch wrote, Trump issued further threats against the leader of North Korea (another person of color!) and “even dropped by a gathering of local BMW dealers, the kind of guys that The Donald feels comfortable around.”
But, Bunch added, “Trump has also made it clear,  during his White House stint, whom he is not comfortable with: Anyone who criticizes him who happens to be Black, Brown, or female — or some combination thereof. … So when San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz appeared on cable TV news — the only reality that matters in Trump World — after wading through sewage-laden floodwaters with her bullhorn looking for survivors, to state what has become painfully obvious in recent days, that the federal response has been both inadequate and poorly managed and that more help was needed to ‘save us from dying,’ the president’s response — condescending, bitter, narcissistic and larded with racism — managed to be both outrageous and tragically inevitable.”
I saw Carmen Yulin Cruz’s response on MS-NBC the day she gave it, September 29, and I was so profoundly moved by it I found myself wishing she’d run for the Democratic Presidential nomination to run against Trump in 2020. (I’d love to see the poetic justice of Trump, who’s made it much of his White House mission to wipe out as much as possible any hint of the legacy of his African-American predecessor, replaced by someone who as a person of color, a Latina and a woman, he considers a lower order of life than himself.) The British newspaper The Guardian published a full transcript of her remarks at, and if you haven’t seen the entire clip on TV I strongly urge you to download and read her whole statement.
“We are dying here,” Yulín Cruz began, in an emotional but closely reasoned statement that skewered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for imposing bizarre bureaucratic requirements on her and other Puerto Rican mayors in order to request aid. Holding two large binders filled with forms and procedures FEMA agents were asking her to follow before they would even consider providing aid, she said, “I have been very respectful of the FEMA employees. I have been patient but we have no time for patience any more. So, I am asking the president of the United States to make sure somebody is in charge that is up to the task of saving lives. They were up the task in Africa when Ebola came over. They were up to the task in Haiti [after the earthquake of 2010]. As they should be. Because when it comes to saving lives we are all part of one community of shared values.”
Maybe Yulín Cruz didn’t realize it, but she was not appealing to a President who has any idea that he and she are “part of one community of shared values.” From the day he came out of his mother’s overprivileged womb, Donald John Trump, Sr. has been a spoiled brat, used to getting his own way and regarding both his family’s money and his own (he began with a fortune but managed through his own efforts to grow it) as incontrovertible evidence that he is part of a higher order of humanity than the peons who clean his apartment buildings, cut the lawns on his golf courses, and serve meals and drinks at his casinos.
He’s the product not only of a lucky accident at birth — what I said of Mitt Romney in 2012 is true of Trump as well: “He became rich the way most people do it, by coming out of the right womb” — but also of a hate-filled upbringing by his father, Fred Trump, who was sued for discriminating against African-American tenants in his buildings and called out as a racist in 1950 by none other than the great folksinger Woody Guthrie. (Fred Trump had been active in racist politics since 1927, when he was one of seven people arrested at an upstate New York demonstration in support of the Ku Klux Klan.)
Discriminating against Black tenants was a part of the family business Donald Trump inherited from his father — only by the time Donald did it it was the 1970’s and a Democratic Congress and President, Lyndon Johnson, had made that sort of thing a federal crime. The Trump Organization had to settle a lawsuit brought by the federal government over their housing policies, though the terms of the settlement were kept confidential. But Trump went right on being a racist, and in 1989 when five young African-Americans were arrested for assault, rape and sodomy against a 23-year-old white female investment banker in Central Park, Trump took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News headlined, “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!”
The ad, framed as a slashing attack on moderate Democratic New York Mayor Ed Koch, read in part, “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer ... Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. ... How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
There was just one problem: the five arrestees Trump had targeted in his ad turned out to be innocent. After they had been convicted and given 8- to 15-year sentences, they were finally exonerated in 2002 when another person confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence bore him out. But, since being Donald Trump means (among other things) never having to say you’re sorry, Trump opened his big mouth about the case again when the New York city government authorized a $40 million settlement of the lawsuit the unjustly convicted “Central Park Five” had brought against the city. “Settling doesn’t mean innocence,” Trump wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
Trump has often been criticized during his Presidency as lacking “empathy.” What these critics don’t understand is that in Trump’s vicious, bullying, dog-eat-dog vision of the world, “empathy” is not a virtue but a vice. The man who called his (ghost-written) autobiography The Art of the Deal has never seen a deal as an agreement two parties reach because its results would be mutually beneficial to both sides — which is why he’s so upset with the agreement his predecessor cut with Iran. Trump sees a “deal” as a weapon with which he crushes his adversary and forces him to submit to the greater power and glory of Trump. He has also used whatever power he possessed — as a businessman, a celebrity, a politician and now as President — not only to impose his will on others but force them to flatter him and feed his overweening ego.
That dynamic was at work over the last few days, when Trump’s words for Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, couldn’t have been nicer. Because Rosselló had said that FEMA had “executed quickly” on everything he’d asked them for — even though he also said the aid would be more effective if the feds sent more people to distribute it — he got the celebratory pat on the head and a Milk-Bone treat from Trump. “I tell you, the governor of Puerto Rico has been unbelievably generous with his praise,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn September 29. “I mean, he’s been praising our efforts.”
Of course, Carmen Yelín Cruz got a very different response. Just hours after her statement aired on TV, Trump tweeted, “The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.” It got even worse later when, in a two-part tweet, Trump seemed to criticize not only Yelín Cruz but just about everyone on Puerto Rico — or at least everyone who wasn’t groveling to him the way Governor Rosselló was. It read, “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
“In his harsh words, Trump managed to both embrace a tradition of white supremacist tropes in American politics — remember Reagan’s ‘welfare queens’ and ‘young bucks’? — and take that to a nauseating new level, denigrating people of color as a dodge to excuse his own not-so-benign neglect of Puerto Rico’s plight in the most pivotal moment,” Will Bunch wrote in his October 1 Philadelphia Post-Inquirer column. “On Sunday morning, the president doubled down with a new swipe, clearly aimed at the mayor and her supporters, as ‘ingrates.’ Let that sink in. This is the apotheosis of a trend … in which … prominent Blacks or Hispanics who use their platform to advocate for social justice are now ‘ingrates’ after all the riches that a white patriarchy has bestowed upon them. This is the toxic underpinning behind Trump’s tweets, as our president has sunk so low as to try to hold his political base together with increasingly overt racism.”

The Austerity Program

But there’s something even more insidious about the backhanded treatment Trump has given to Puerto Rico — especially contrasted with his willingness to do whatever it will take to rebuild Texas and Florida (two U.S. states he carried in his 2016 Presidential election and which are key to his re-election chances in 2020) — than out-front racism. It’s the factor that guides Trump in virtually every decision he’s ever made in his life: “What’s in it for me?”
To understand, you have to look at the whole sorry history of Puerto Rico and especially what the island has been through in 2008, when it was hit especially hard by the giant recession that gripped the country and helped spark the election of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. In order to keep services going to its people while income, mostly from tourism, plummeted, the Puerto Rican government ran up between $68 million and $75 million in debt.
The U.S. Congress, which since Puerto Rico is a territory rather than a state has veto power over anything the Puerto Rican government does (much like the power it has over Washington, D.C.), passed something called the PROMESA Act in 2016 that basically treated Puerto Rico like a Third World country being forced into economy-crippling “austerity” measures by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The PROMESA Act put all Puerto Rican spending under the control of a five-member Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), only two of whose members are actually Puerto Rican.
According to Ed Morales’ September 27 article from The Nation Web site (, the PROMESA Act empowered FOMB (which Puerto Ricans call La Junta) “to restructure the island’s $68 billion debt, address an additional $49 billion in pension obligations, and promote economic development.” Morales gave FOMB kudos for releasing $1 billion of Puerto Rico’s own money to Governor Rosselló for hurricane relief, but, he added, this is “the proverbial drop in the bucket for a weary populace ravaged not only by today’s bankruptcy and storms worsened by climate change, but by decades of colonial neglect.”
The “solution” to Puerto Rico’s economic woes imposed by the PROMESA Act has been tried before. In the European Union, similar measures were imposed on Greece, tanking its economy and sending it into a death spiral by which every new demand for “austerity” took money out of the pockets of ordinary Greeks and made economic recovery less, not more, likely. The IMF and World Bank had been imposing similar conditions on other countries for decades, with identical results.
The austerity recipe was first tried in the U.S. in 1975 when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy. The huge financial institutions like Chase and First National City (now Citibank) that held New York’s debt imposed what New York labor leader Victor Gotbaum called “a junta of bankers” that would have veto power over all the city government’s economic decisions, including — most importantly from Gotbaum’s point of view — how much its workers would be paid and under what conditions they would work. New York eventually recovered, but the city’s progressives said this was in spite of, not because of, the controls the “junta of bankers” imposed on the city government.
The American Right seized on this as a nationwide model, arguing that when local governments overspent the problem was due to irresponsible electorates, swayed by union involvement in campaigns, that had elected politicians who had overspent their available resources. The Right’s solution was to end democracy in local government and put cities under state-appointed overseers with virtually dictatorial powers. The most spectacular example was the state overseer appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to run Flint, who in 2014 decided that one way to save the state and city money was to stop buying water from Detroit and instead get it from the polluted, lead-contaminated Flint River. The result was that tens of thousands of Flint residents were exposed to lead pollution and it took millions of dollars and three years of work to get the lead content of Flint’s water down to safe levels.
One of the big things overseers and boards like FOMB usually insist on is that as many city services as possible be privatized. This is in line with the Right-wing Libertarian idea that because private corporations are subject to the discipline of “The Market” and the need to turn a profit, they are supposedly more efficient and effective than government agencies. The reality is that there are only two ways a private company can take over a service from a government agency, run it at lower cost and still make a profit. One is to lower the pay of the workers actually providing the services, and the other is to lower the quality of the service — and in real-world privatizations, they usually do both.
According to Morales, even before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico its water and sewer services had already been partially privatized, “which resulted in increased rates and poorer service.” Puerto Rico’s electric utility, which was $9 billion in debt when Maria struck, had already been marked for privatization when the hurricane cut power to 95 percent of the island and basically wiped out its electrical grid. What’s more, the hurricane damage was so extensive the Puerto Rican grid is likely to be down for months even if the money is found to repair it — and, as Morales noted, a private investor would have even less incentive to modernize the system, including putting the power lines underground (one of the reasons Maria was so devastating to Puerto Rico’s electricity was the overhead lines and the poles supporting them blew down in the storm), than a government agency would.
“What Puerto Rico needs is the kind of massive public investment that Washington provided in the days of Franklin Roosevelt,” Morales wrote. “Reacting to the deadly hurricanes that struck the island in 1928 and 1932, Roosevelt established the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, which created jobs, built schools and medical facilities, expanded the university, and enhanced the electrical infrastructure. Today’s monumental debt, an outgrowth of neoliberal excess, should be resolved with some version of the plan proposed by Bernie Sanders in his 2016 campaign: The Federal Reserve should buy back the debt from bondholders and deny the vulture funds a profit, imposing the kind of severe ‘haircuts’ that the current Title III bankruptcy proceedings are unlikely to require.”
Of course, that ain’t going to happen — not with a Libertarian Republican Congress determined to wipe out any vestige of the New Deal and return the U.S. to the 1880’s, when corporations were absolute rulers, rich people routinely bought their way into public office and used it to make themselves even richer, racial segregation became the law of the land and organizing labor unions was illegal. Instead the Trump administration has been dropping hints all over the place that the interests of owners of Puerto Rican debt — many of them the people Morales called “vultures,” who bought it for pennies on the dollar and now are insisting on payment in full — are going to be more important to its plans for Puerto Rico than the needs of the Puerto Rican people.
On September 25 President Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that Tom Bossert of the Department of Homeland Security and Brock Long of FEMA needed time to conduct “a more thorough and deeper assessment of what needs there are,” to make sure “we’re actually funding the correct things.” A senior congressional aide suggested that “more thorough and deeper assessment” would take until “the first or second week of October.” That night, Trump himself sent word through Twitter that while “much of the island was destroyed,” Puerto Rico’s billions of dollars of debt “owed to Wall Street … sadly, must be dealt with.”
At least part of that $68 to $75 billion debt — $33 million or so — is owed to Donald Trump himself and his business. In 2008 the Trump Organization took over management of a Puerto Rican golf resort, the Coco Beach Golf and Country Club, rebranding it and putting Trump’s name on it. The resort had been built with $25.5 million in bonds guaranteed by the Puerto Rican government as part of an overall plan to boost high-end tourism to the island. By 2008 the golf resort was already facing bankruptcy when Trump stepped in and offered to license the Trump name and manage it in exchange for a share of its revenue. In 2011 the Puerto Rican government issued $28 million in new bonds to refinance the original ones from 2001 and 2004 that had built the course in the first place. But Trump was unable to turn the property around, and in 2015 the resort declared bankruptcy and the land was sold to a private investment firm for about $2 million.
The Washington Post’s fact-checker column reviewed this history on October 1 (, and argued that the claim made on some Left-wing Web sites that Trump had personally added $33 million to Puerto Rico’s debt burden was wrong. But even if Trump’s comparatively measly $33 million didn’t add enough to Puerto Rico’s debt burden to sink its economy, it certainly looks like all Trump’s warnings to Puerto Rico that the debt the island “owe[s] to Wall Street … sadly, must be dealt with” mean he intends to use the power of the Presidency to make sure that he and all other holders of Puerto Rican debt are made whole, no matter how devastating the consequences to the people of Puerto Rico.
[On October 4, Trump hinted that he would let Puerto Ricans “wave goodbye” to their $68 to $75 million in state debt — see But, faced with an uproar from his good buddies on Wall Street, Trump, through his budget director Mick Mulvaney, quickly backed away from any hope the islanders may have had for debt forgiveness. Puerto Rico, Mulvaney said, “is going to have to figure out how to fix the errors that it’s made.”]

Let ’Em Eat Paper Towels

I wrote the two sections of the article above on the afternoon of October 1, hours before Stephen Paddock crashed out a window of his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay resort hotel in Las Vegas and fired many rounds at concertgoers at a country-music festival, killing 58 (along with himself, at the end of his shooting spree) and wounding over 500 more. I also wrote it before President Trump visited the sites of both tragedies — Hurricane María in Puerto Rico and the shooting in Las Vegas — and had profoundly different responses to them.
In Vegas, where most of the victims were white, he said the sorts of things you expect a President to say when something really tragic happens to a large number of Americans: “Our souls are stricken with grief for every American who lost a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a son or a daughter. We know that your sorrow feels endless. We stand together to help you carry your pain. You’re not alone. We will never leave your side.” You might question how sincere he is about that — as Toronto Star Washington correspondent Daniel Dale and former Republican Presidential speechwriter David Frum did on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MS-NBC program October 4, just hours after Trump made those remarks — but still, those are the sorts of things American Presidents are supposed to say when hundreds, thousands or millions of their constituents are hurting.
Trump’s appearance in Puerto Rico October 3 couldn’t have been more different. Before an invited audience of mayors and community leaders from across the island, he said, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. Because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous, hundreds and hundreds of people that died. And you look at what happened here with what was really a storm that was totally overpowering — nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”
He was giving his administration and its disaster-relief effort, such as it’s been, credit for holding down the death toll in Puerto Rico to 16. Later the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, raised it to 34, and with 95 percent of the island still without electrical power or reliable supplies of food and water it’s likely to climb even higher. Then, in a bizarre spectacle that reminded some people of Marie Antoinette’s famous remark when told that the people of France had no bread, “Then let them eat cake” (though Marie Antoinette probably never said that; it was an urban legend about clueless royals for at least 100 years before her time) and other people of the way zookeepers throw food to the animals at mealtime, he started tossing rolls of paper towels and other items at the crowd.
As he’d been in his public statements before he visited Puerto Rico, Trump seemed to assess the quality of any individual Puerto Rican leader on the basis of how much they were willing to flatter him and feed his insatiable ego. He essentially lined up the mayors and other island leaders and forced them to praise him. He’d done the same thing with his own Cabinet at that bizarre June 13 meeting (, where his secretaries had to prove their fealty to him in a round-robin praise-fest that sounded like someone Shakespeare would have written about a particularly corrupt royal court — except that Shakespeare would at least have come up with better-sounding dialogue.
Once again, Governor Rosselló came up with what Trump considered the “right” answer. “Your governor has been — who I didn’t know, I heard very good things about him,” Trump recalled. “He’s not even from my party, and he started right at the beginning, appreciating what we did. And, Governor, I just want to tell you that right from the beginning, this governor did not play politics. He didn’t play it at all. He was just saying it like it was, and he was giving us the highest praise.” As he’d done before he came to Puerto Rico, he was basically giving Governor Rosselló his pat on the head and his Milk-Bone treat for saying what a wonderful job Trump, his administration and his FEMA people were doing.
Every Trump story needs a villain, and in this case the villain was the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. He saw her in his receiving line and asked, “How are you?”
Yulín Cruz, clearly bristling at the implied criticism Trump was giving her for daring to question the competence of Trump’s relief effort compared to Governor Rosselló’s willingness to kiss Trump’s royal ring (or a somewhat lower part of his anatomy), challenged Trump’s implication that she, unlike Rosselló, was playing politics with the crisis. “Sir, it’s all about saving lives,” she said. “It’s not about politics.
“Thank you. Thank you, everybody,” Trump said to the assembled crowd of Puerto Rican leaders and journalists. That quick “thank you” and subsequent exit have become well known as the way Trump and his officials signal that the Royal Audience is over.
Yulín Cruz did an interview with Joy Reid during Rachel Maddow’s time slot on MS-NBC October 3 in which she clearly wanted to tell as positive a story as possible. She cited the tremendous outpouring of support she has received from people on the American mainland. “Ever since last Thursday, things started picking up, a lot because of private donations,” she said. “People have [been] overcome with solidarity, and [people, including mayors, in] Chicago, Illinois; Miami Beach; Los Angeles; New York; Boston [have supported and donated]. Private organizations and nongovernmental organizations like Operation Blessing have just been bringing loads and loads of food and water.”
She also praised the members of Trump’s White House staff, who not only haven’t brought the patronizing attitude of their boss but actually have helped. “I really felt that the second part of the meetings today, with the White House staff, were conducive to just sort of bridging the gap between the disconnect of what they say is happening — by the way, the Pentagon does not agree with their assessment — and what really is happening,” Yulín Cruz said. “And I think that disconnect is really, that gap got closed a lot more by talking to five mayors that were there, and we were able to also propose solutions to some of the logistical problems and issues that have been brought up.”
Yulín Cruz also said that as more donations of food, water and supplies have come in, she’s been able not only to help San Juan’s residents but send aid out to other, more far-flung municipalities in more remote parts of Puerto Rico. She also held up her smartphone and said that one of the biggest problems Puerto Rico faces from the hurricane is that the storm took out most of the island’s electrical power, making phones useless and giving authorities no way to let people know that help is available, or if they need to evacuate. “Even if [Puerto Ricans] have a phone in their pocket, it doesn’t work,” she explained. “So this lack of interconnectivity is one of the main and primary reasons things have not been able to be picked up. But by God, you go to Timbuktu, you put in a satellite dish and you make communications happen.”
But Joy Reid wouldn’t let her off the hook in terms of talking about Trump. Noting that he “didn’t respond” to her comment that her actions were about saving lives, not politics, Yulín Cruz called Trump’s appearance “a PR 17-minute meeting. There was no exchange with anybody, with none of the mayors, and in fact this terrible and abominable view of him throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people. It does not embody the spirit of the American nation, you know. That is not the home of the free, the land of the brave, the beacon of democracy that people have learned to look up to, you know, across the world.”
If nothing else, their profoundly different responses to Puerto Rico’s life-threatening crisis shows the difference in character between Mayor Yulín Cruz and President Trump — and the very different visions of America they represent. Yulín Cruz’s America is one in which people roll up their sleeves and help each other in need. “I lived in Boston. I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I gave birth there, and I know that the American people are brave people,” Yulín Cruz told Rachel Maddow on an earlier MS-NBC broadcast September 29. “They’re whole-hearted people, and they just charge. When something is not [working], they invent it. If you have to move it, you move it. If you have to go around it, you go around it.”
Trump’s world is a dog-eat-dog one in which all his actions have one and only one goal: the greater glory and enrichment (financial and psychological) of Donald J. Trump. I already noted above that whenever he’s criticized for lacking “empathy,” his critics don’t understand that he regards that as a compliment. For Trump, empathy and compassion are the so-called “virtues” of wimps. The lessons Trump learned from the two most important and powerful male influences on him in his life — his father and the unscrupulous super-attorney and former Senator Joseph McCarthy staff member Roy Cohn, who mentored Trump in his successful transition from small-time real-estate developer in the outer boroughs to baron in the empyrean heights of Manhattan — were to take whatever advantage you can of everybody and screw them before they can screw you.
That’s one reason that as I was writing the final parts of this article, Trump announced his intention to scrap the nuclear arms limitation deal with Iran so carefully negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, in association with the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, and virtually the whole rest of the world. Trump called the Iran deal “not in the best interest of the United States,” just as he denounced the Paris agreement on climate change by saying, “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.” (The mayor of Pittsburgh, whose voters broke 9 to 1 for Hillary Clinton over Trump, immediately denounced Trump and said his city had seen the light of the future, moved away from its “Steeltown” past and charted an economically viable strategy for a post-industrial age.)
The man who wrote — or at least had his name on — the book The Art of the Deal doesn’t view a deal as a mutually satisfactory agreement that benefits all parties to it. Trump defines the word “deal” as a business transaction in which he gets all the benefits and the other party or parties suffer abject and humiliating defeat. That’s why he’s so opposed to the Iran deal, because while the U.S. and the rest of the world might have got something desirable out of it (a delay of at least a decade in Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon), Iran got something out of it too (release of frozen Iranian funds held by the U.S. and a partial lifting of U.S. and U.N. sanctions against their country).
It’s been hard to pin down Donald Trump — is he a sleight-of-hand artist? A juggler with an uncommon ability to keep several balls in the air at once and confuse his audience about which one is “really” important? A narcissist? An egomaniac? A psychopath? A man who, like the Joker in the Batman series film The Dark Knight, “just wants to watch the world burn”? A small-time New York developer in way over his head in the most powerful — and most responsible — job in the world? A leader whose fierce loyalty to the people who put him in office deserves at least a twisted sort of admiration?
But one thing is clear: every day he wields the power of the presidency of the United States is a bad day for the world, a day where his overweening ego and continual need for fulsome praise brings the human race closer to military, economic or environmental disaster. When I saw Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a person I’d never heard of until about a week ago, step forward on TV and plead for help for her people while she was walking around in galoshes through flooded streets, getting her hands dirty both literally and figuratively in a way Donald Trump never has in his entire life, I thought, “That is what I want my country’s leader to be.”

I want to live in Carmen Yelín Cruz’s America. I’m stuck living in Donald Trump’s.