Banter M Issue 67

In this issue of Banter M:

American Sickness: The Stakes of the Election Include Our National Sanity – Bob Cesca argues that the stakes of this election are so serious, and so scary that it is making the country go insane. 

Trump Has Weaponized Right-Wing Rage Against the Media – Chez Pazienza argues that Trump has taken an undercurrent of distrust of the media by many in American and rendered it utterly, dangerously toxic. 

Why I Love America – Ben Cohen writes a love letter to his host country, and explains why he found the strict British class system so oppressive as a teenager.  “I felt layers of anxiety peel away,” writes Ben of his experience living in the States. “And over the years I became completely comfortable with the contradictions I had always felt about my identity.”

American Sickness: The Stakes of the Election Include Our National Sanity

by Bob Cesca

As I settled into my Tuesday evening with exactly one week to go before Election Day, it occurred to me that Hillary Clinton might be making history in more than just one way. Obviously she’s poised to become the first female president. She’ll also be the first First Lady to ascend to the Oval Office. And there’s more.

One thing you might not have noticed is the more trivial but still notably historic fact that Hillary is on deck to become the first Democratic president-elect to serve during the final days of a previous Democratic president since James Buchanan took over for Franklin Pierce in 1857. Furthermore, the last time a Democratic president-elect served during the end of a two-term president was Martin Van Buren in 1837, as Andrew Jackson’s presidency drew to a close.

This isn’t to downplay her chances of victory, given the more than 150 years since the last time this occurred, but instead it’s to highlight the historic speedbumps she’s hurdling on her way to the Oval Office. 

Simple, right? Of course. It’s nothing earth-shattering or particularly controversial. Just a fun little presidential factoid to break the tension of an otherwise hyper-intense presidential campaign season.

So, Tuesday evening, I tweeted both pieces of this observation — the part about the last time it happened, as well as the last time it happened in the context of an outgoing two-term Democrat. I thought it’d be mostly ignored as too wonky or too boring for the shovel-fighting atmosphere of Twitter. I thought it’d be retweeted a few times then ignored.

Goddammit was I wrong.

My mentions began to fill up with responses. What about LBJ? What about Truman? What about FDR and Truman? What about JFK and LBJ? What about FDR’s multiple terms? No, no, no, I thought. They’re not getting it. My responses were, at first, patient and clarifying: LBJ and Truman assumed office due to the deaths of their predecessors. Neither served as president-elect while outgoing presidents were still in office. I also wasn’t talking about individual presidents who served multiple terms. Duh.

Once again:

  • Democratic candidates who were elected, becoming presidents-elect while a previous Democratic president was still alive and wrapping up his term(s) in office. 
  • The last time it happened to the Democrats was the 1856-57 transition between Pierce and Buchanan. The last time it happened after a two-term Democratic president was further back: the 1836-37 transition between Democrats Jackson and Van Buren.
  • Therefore, during the Obama-Clinton transition, Hillary will be the first Democrat in at least 160 years to achieve this distinction, making it rare and notable.

It’s a very specific, very simple concept (I thought), and I was perfectly clear about what the parameters were. Yet everyone seemed to go indiscriminately bananas.

My patience evaporated quite rapidly as suggestions about LBJ and Truman kept rolling in, despite the fact that I blockquoted each response enabling my followers to easily see that I’m already fielding the LBJ question so they don’t have to repeat it. But they did anyway. There must’ve been more than a dozen responses along those lines. 

Even after I responded, however, some of my followers grew insistent that I didn’t know what I was talking about — that the factoid was either banal and should’ve allowed for the death of the president to be factored into it, or that I was insulting Hillary by comparing her to James Buchanan, or that I was making a point about how she’s unelectable. It felt as if I was being punked, but I wasn’t. I was specifically highlighting a phenomenon not unlike George H.W. Bush succeeding Ronald Reagan. Oh, I also received Bush/Reagan as a correction even though I was clear that I was discussing Democratic presidents, not Republicans.

Jesus, I’m getting pissed off just recounting the story.

The reason I’m mentioning this is to observe how batshit this election is making us — on both sides. Otherwise intelligent people were compelled to not only misinterpret my totally innocuous pair of tweets, but when corrected, they doubled-down and snarkily tried to tell me that the premise of what I was saying was flawed even though it wasn’t. A somewhat silly bit of trivia turned into a minor Twitter fracas, and it never should have. Fortunately this time I had the good sense to untether myself from the fight after no more than ten minutes, otherwise the fight might still be raging days later.

We’re losing our minds, I think.

It’s been 17 months since Donald Trump awkwardly descended the escalator inside Trump Tower and announced his candidacy. Just 17 months, and it’s seemed like a thousand years, chiefly because Trump’s dysfunctional trolling, blurting, whining — his threats, his ignorance, his gaffes, his scandals, his stupid hair and tiny hands, his racism, his misogyny, as well as all of the above from his proudly uneducated copycat loyalists — has served to amplify the stress and the stakes of the election to a degree that none of us have ever anticipated or experienced here. And it’s killing us. It’s a socio-political sickness. It’s a pandemic that’s infecting most American participants in the debate. In just 17 months, our discourse went from aggravating and non-reality-based to almost completely necrotic. 

With just a few days to go before the election, American democracy looks a lot like E.T. toward the end of the movie: sprawled out, chalky white and near-death in that creek bed. We’re all withered and exhausted by the madness of Trump and the very real stakes of what a Trump presidency would involve. It’s even worse for those of us who were deeply ensconced in the day-to-day chaos of the George W. Bush presidency. Are we really prepared for another go-around, with this new Trump devilry far exceeding the conga-line of horrors from the Bush presidency? No way.

Just think about the last 17 months. Now think about what it’ll be like to deal with “President Trump” for at least the next four years.

There aren’t words to fully describe how nightmarish it’d be. Imagine carrying on the usual political debates on Twitter or Facebook, but with, say, a hundred days of a Trump presidency in the can. The level of insanity, both real and imagined, would be off the charts. The empowering of Trump’s fanboys through his successful election backed by a series of disastrous moves, both predictable and completely unpredictable, would further metastasize the sickness, rendering it unavoidable and irreparable.

Personally speaking, while my career would probably flourish with a Republican berzerker-in-chief in the White House and no lack of news to cover, it’d very likely take years off my life. My cortisol levels — my stress hormone levels — would act like broken glass, shredding my veins. Fully recollecting the precedent of my writing career during the Bush years, I can say with certainty that the hourly struggle to swat down all of the lies and misdeeds of Trump and his people would be emotionally overwhelming. You’ll probably endure a similar crisis on your social media platforms. And it’d be brutally and unrelentingly augmented by the reality that Trump’s flailingly catastrophic presidency would impact our private lives at deeply personal and fundamental levels. Many of us would lose our health insurance for starters, while many more would be sent to fight Trump’s wars, especially Millennials, many of whom scoffed at the dangers of a Trump administration. The destabilization of the economy and our overseas relationships would make us pariahs around the globe.

And we’d have to wade through yet another interminable presidential campaign featuring an incumbent candidate Donald Trump before we’d ever have a chance to jettison him from office. 

The stakes of this election include our very sanity as we attempt to remain vigilant in the name of the issues that are so important to us all, while Trump and his minion actively work to destroy it all… just to watch the world burn.

With just a few days to go, we still have an opportunity to stop it from ever happening; to suffocate it before it suffocates us. We have a chance to prevent this dystopian hellscape lurking on the other side of Election Day before it consumes us all. 

This Tuesday is one of those days that will define the next 100 years of the American experiment. And it’ll define our lives and the lives of our loved ones in ways we can’t even begin to forecast. For the better or for the tragically worse.

There’s only one rational choice. 

It’s either Hillary or the abyss. 

Let’s make some history. 

Next: Why I Love America – by Ben Cohen

Why I Love America

by Ben Cohen

Recently, I read an interesting column in the Guardian by a fellow British expat living in America on the complicated identity issues he deals with in his new home. The author, Eliot Bamford, was born into a working class family in Nottingham, and after moving to the US found that his deeply embedded assumptions about class did not translate over to American society.

“Jokes about football (or is it soccer?), drinking culture and Coronation Street were foreign,” writes Bamford. “But most New Englanders took my comments in good humor and annoyingly consigned them to “English humor” and quaint “ye olde” quirks. Yet my class identity, which I had previously elevated, had no place in the discourse.”

This sentiment struck a chord with me, as I too have had to navigate a culture that has a completely different understanding of social class, and virtually no awareness of the extremely entrenched hierarchical system in the UK I grew up with. For me, the experience has been almost entirely positive and one of the biggest reasons I continue living in America. I come from the different end of the class system in Britain, but like Bamford, find the anonymity and more merit based approach to be quite liberating. 

“The American Dream is real,” he writes. “I have come to fashion a new identity here based on the idea that anyone can become more educated and successful – and I do feel that. While there is a definite class structure in the US (often based around race, sadly), as a white American, the opportunities are not viewed as limited. Success and social mobility are valued and greater latitude is given here for workers to prove themselves by merit, not class.”

In the UK, I would be widely regarded as “middle-middle” class, bordering on “upper middle” class (and remember, this has little to do with the American concept of class). That categorization is based on a whole series of assessments about my family history, my pre and post university education, the amount of money I come from, my social circle, my awareness of culture, and my accent. Wikipedia helpfully defines this:

Members of the middle class are often politically and socially engaged and might be regular churchgoers, sit on local committees and governing boards or stand for political office. Education is greatly valued by the middle classes: they will make every effort to ensure their children get a university education; they may pay for private education, or go to great lengths to get their children into good state or selective grammar schools, such as moving house into the catchment area.

They also value culture and make up a significant proportion of the book-buying and theatre-going public. They typically read broadsheet newspapers rather than tabloids.

Growing up, I was acutely aware of this, as are all Brits. But rather than accept my position in society as an educated, cultured elite, I always felt drawn to other aspects of my family’s history, and other social and ethnic cultures I grew up around. Half of my family is Jewish and come from a long line of lower middle class small business owners and tradesmen. They were not educated or particularly culturally aware, but had their own traditions and values that were more akin to many of the Indian, Jamaican and African kids I grew up with. I did not want to be just like my parents, who were highly cultured and educated yet had little connection to parts of their own history or anything outside of educated middle class society.  I hung out with friends from state schools (the equivalent of public schools in America), spent a good deal of time with my Jewish family, and generally rejected much of what my parents were interested in. My teenage years were basically a crisis of identity, and I yearned for some sort of relief from what I felt to be an oppressive class system that I tried to reject on a daily basis. Of course I couldn’t really articulate any of this at the time, but I now see what I was raging against. 

When I first moved to America as a 16 year old, I remember feeling an enormous sense of relief when interacting with Americans. I was just British to them, and no one seemed to give a damn about my London accent, the clothes I wore, or whether I enjoyed the theater or not. I moved back to the UK at 18, and spent the next 4 years trying to make sense of the radical difference I had experienced. I moved back to the States at the age of 23, eager to validate the feeling of anonymity and freedom I had found as a teenager, and found quickly that my suspicions were right — America, for all its faults, really was different and Americans really didn’t judge you on the basis of your accent, your family history and your education. While America is extremely screwed up in many other ways — the guns, the obsession with money, the militarism, the history of appalling racism — it was different, and I finally felt a sense of true independence. I could do whatever I wanted without judgment, hang out with whoever I wanted without fear of being ostracized, and completely reinvent myself to be, well, whoever I wanted to be. 

While I didn’t invent a new persona for myself, I felt layers of anxiety peel away, and over the years I became completely comfortable with the contradictions I had always felt about my identity. I could see my history and culture from a completely different perspective, and it helped reinforce my long held suspicions that the British class system is completely ridiculous and should be laughed out of existence (and thankfully, over the years its grip on the public’s psyche has lessened). 

This isn’t to say that I am not proud to be British — I am, perhaps more so than I ever have been. Every time I go back home, I am amazed at the complexities of British culture. I notice our amazing contributions to the arts, the beauty of the British countryside, the dynamism of my home town of London, the extreme quick wit of your average pub inhabitant, and the ever improving food scene. I love our National Health Service, the sense of national pride over our sports stars, the incredible music scene, and our frankly far superior TV shows (please watch “The Inbetweeners” and “The Fall” on Netflix to see what I mean). 

But for now, America is my home, and I am happy here. Despite how crazy the country is, I can be a middle-middle class wannabe Jamaican working class Jewish agnostic, who doesn’t care about football (soccer), loves ridiculously Hipster coffee shops, eats organic food and spends most of the time practicing Martial Arts. Why? Because Americans just don’t give a flying fuck — and I love them for it. 

Next: Trump Has Weaponized Right-Wing Rage Against the Media – by Chez Pazienza


Trump Has Weaponized Right-Wing Rage Against the Media

by Chez Pazienza

It’s something I’ve thought about more than once over the past year: Were I still working in cable news, no manager in their right mind would send me into a Donald Trump rally. Despite my appreciation for and adherence to the necessity of journalistic professionalism, I wouldn’t last a half-hour before I was in a fist-fight with somebody (or, more likely, several people). It wouldn’t be because I happen to be utterly repulsed by everything Trump and his yokel zombies stand for, although the submersion deep into the belly of that ugly beast would lead to a lot of teeth-gritting and fist-clenching. No, it would be because the minute Trump bared his fangs against me and my fellow members of the press, my friends and colleagues, and his ignorant shock troops turned and at their master’s command began getting in our faces — well, that would be it.   

Yesterday, the man I’m legitimately fucking sick of writing about once again went after not only the political media at one of his Nuremberg-lite rallies but one reporter in particular — a woman of course. By now you probably know that NBC’s Katy Tur has been Trump’s favorite media punching bag throughout a good portion of his campaign. He’s singled her out on several occasions, calling her dishonest, a “third-rate reporter,” and of course giving her the predictably lazy nickname “Little Katy.” Tur’s crimes against Trump have been — well, nothing. She hasn’t done a fucking thing wrong, other than doing the job of reporting factual statements about Trump and quoting him directly. In Trump’s syphilitic brain, where anything not fawning or hagiographic is the product of corruption and bias, Tur’s terrific work is a personal insult. 

As usual, Trump’s attack on Katy Tur turned the crowd on-hand against her (as well as the rest of the press). She now has to have armed security escort her to and from the rallies she’s obligated to report on, an unthinkable situation for an American journalist covering American politics in America. Tur says she’s developed the “hide of a rhinoceros” to get through it — but it goes without saying that she shouldn’t have to. The whole thing is such an issue that Trump flack Kellyanne Conway cryptically admitted live on MSNBC that she’s talked to NBC News about the problem. But even if Trump stops bullying Tur, it’s not like he’ll ever stop directing his childish ire at the media he believes just doesn’t give him a fair shake because it tells the truth about him.

I’m obviously still good friends with quite a few people in the news business and I have to admit that it eats me alive to see them — men and women I love and respect — put not just through the wringer but actually put in danger by an asshole like Donald Trump. His relentless attacks on the media have turned the press pens at his rallies into public square stockades and the journalists unfortunate enough to cover him into targets. I read on Facebook or hear on the phone about what it’s like to have to be escorted by men with guns into giant rooms where everyone is booing and yelling obscenities at you, calling you the Lügenpresse — a Nazi-era word for “lying press” — and being threatened with actual violence. These are folks I know to be not just excellent journalists but awesome people — and this fucking demagogic monster is hurling invective at them and turning the sights of resentful, potentially well-armed idiot hayseeds against them.

Eventually, particularly if he’s elected and the rage and bigotry of his minions is legitimized, all of this outraged butthurt on Trump’s part is going to lead to actual violence. We’ve already seen it against other groups Trump has targeted as being the cause of white Middle-America’s problems: Muslims, Hispanics, etc. Like what’s happened in Britain in the wake of Brexit, a Trump victory would provide a psychic sanction for bullies of all kinds, people who will claim that because Trump won that means those on his highly publicized enemies list aren’t welcome anymore in his new America. Trump has already promised to “open up our libel laws” so that he can more easily sue those who dare to report on him in a way he disapproves of, and throughout his campaign he’s systemically blackballed so-called unfriendly outlets. 

If you think Trump’s troops are beyond possibly taking matters into their own hands at some point, you really don’t know who you’re dealing with.

For years political figures have cynically sought to demonize the press when it assumes an adversarial stance or just generally doesn’t report what these figures believe it should be reporting. The Republican persecution of the press in particular and the root it’s taken in the imagination of not just the public but newsrooms all across the country is especially pernicious. Even if the “liberal media” isn’t an actual thing — since members of the press are biased toward conflict more than political partisanship — the American right has so convinced its adherents that they’ve been victimized by it that many in the media will now self-censor, always cognizant of being called out for their alleged biases. Trump has taken all of that a step further. Now it’s not so much about the alleged organized hostility and “unfairness” toward a political idea as it is toward a single person: Trump.

To Trump, anyone who lauds him or at the very least doesn’t press him on uncomfortable truths is okay, and anyone who asks him difficult questions he’d rather not answer is mean and unfair. And the best part is his loyalties can change in a heartbeat, as they did with Lester Holt in the first presidential debate. Trump thought Holt did a fine job when, in the immediate aftermath of the debate, he thought he’d won. But once it became clear the public thought he got his ass handed to him, he flipped on Holt in a heartbeat. That’s how Trump thinks. That’s his relationship with the press and it would be amplified by a thousand and weaponized should he have the power of the United States government at his back. It’s a terrifying thought.

But as with all things Trump, even if he doesn’t win, the damage is already done. He’s taken an undercurrent of distrust of the media by many in American and rendered it utterly, dangerously toxic. He’s given voice to potential violence against the press. He’s called it names and mobilized his fanboys against it. And it’ll be a miracle if it all doesn’t come to some sort of physical confrontation. Or, should he be elected, something far, far worse.