Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Life Imitating Art, Badly

“Paul Ryan on Shithole Remarks: ‘My Family Came From Ireland’ ”
—Headline on, January 12
I am confused, but what else is new?

I thought we were all worldly wise now. I thought that instantaneous, universal access to all media outlets had made us all experts on everything, including politics. I thought that, because nothing gets held back anymore, nothing shocks us anymore. I thought we all laughed at the cable series Veep—with its profane-laden, unprincipled portrayals of government offices and back rooms—and we applauded it, as it racked up tons of Emmy awards, because we understood that this is what politics is really like. We are not naive innocents anymore, right?

The exhilarating thing about the six seasons of Veep, which debuted a half-year before President Obama’s re-election in 2012, was how it seemed to cut through all the bull about politics and media coverage. It showed us what we had always suspected went on behind the scenes, and then took it to another, more shocking level. The depth and breadth of the hypocrisy, cynicism and total disdain for ordinary citizens was bracing and strangely liberating. Please, God, let its brilliant star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, make a quick recovery from cancer treatment so she can soon begin filming a seventh season.

One of the genius strokes of Veep was that it never identified the political party of any of its politician characters. Sure, you could presume that the feckless administration of which Vice-President Selena Meyer was a member was Republican if that suited you, but there was nothing to stop others from assuming it was Democrat. That was the mesmerizing thing. The political fighting, jockeying and competition was all about the colors of the players’ jerseys, not at all about the content of their hearts. They all shared the same slavishness to political correctness—and hedges against outliers in their various constituencies—in front of the cameras, while showing nothing but contempt for everyone and everything in private. It was the kind of celebrated television series—fifty-nine nominations and seventeen wins from the Emmys to date—that seemed to be culture-changing. How could anyone look at politics and political press coverage the same way again?

Yet here we are.

Most people agree that it is wrong to deport non-citizens who were brought into the United States years ago as children. Yes, President Trump rescinded President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, but he made clear that he was doing so with a grace period so that Congress would legislate on the matter. In this instance, he is actually correct on the merits. DACA was never likely to survive to the end of the judicial review process because immigration policy is the constitutional province of Congress, not the White House. People who keep saying that they fear Donald Trump will become a dictator need to explain why they are so comfortable with the previous administration’s penchant for legislating by decree rather than doing the hard work with Congress.

Last week on Tuesday everything seemed hunky-dory for the “dreamers,” as their advocates like to call them. In the televised portion of a Roosevelt Room meeting with two dozen House and Senate members, the president suggested he would sign any immigration bill Congress sent him: “I’m not saying I want this or I want that. I will sign it.” Two days later he met with a bi-partisan group of Senators, who apparently took him at his word and who included in their proposal a few things guaranteed to provoke the hard-line elements that provide the president with his most entrenched support. Suddenly, the public debate switched from policy to moral outrage.

We do not know for sure what exactly was said in Thursday’s meeting. Different participants have had varying recollections, but it is clear the president made disparaging comments about African countries and Haiti. For days that is all anyone has been talking about. The political tactics are not hard to discern. This bolsters support among the president’s more xenophobic supporters, who were getting nervous about his happy talk on immigration compromise. Likewise, there is an ample constituency among Democratic supporters who get moral gratification at hearing the chief Republican repeatedly called a racist. The problem is that, while all this indignation may energize voters and donors, it does not solve the DACA problem. It is particularly rich to see Democrats, who have long characterized Republicans as moral scolds, now being the ones to swoon dramatically over the president’s impropriety and coarse language—which we only even know about, remember, because Dick Durbin made sure we know about it. The cable news networks are even better. Their offended-ness was so great that they were compelled to repeat the word “shithole” on air for days.

Presumably, away from all the media theater, the politicians know what they are doing and are making the necessary calculations to get the best deal they can. At least we hope that is true. But what if all these people are actually what they seem—a bunch of egomaniacs and preeners who do not care what happens to the country as long as they have job security and the donations keep flowing to their party coffers?

On Veep seeing these sorts of shenanigans exposed was funny and entertaining. In real life, not so much.