Suits

During my working life, I was not a suit. I wore them five days a week, but “the suits” are the executive class, the people who have the power to make the rules that make other people miserable. They also have the power to make ill-considered decisions that screw up the entire enterprise. I was, at my most exalted, only a kind of foreman, a cog in the machine, not someone pulling the levers.

The suits that “the suits” wear are semiotic signs, which is the new fancy way of saying clothes don’t just make the man but describe him. Suits represent the wearer’s clout, their place in the hierarchy but also the nature of their endeavors. As everyone has noticed, the tech billionaires don’t even bother to put on a sport coat, preferring faux egalitarianism. So, Steve Jobs opted for the beatnik chic of black turtlenecks, Zuckerberg wears dorm room T-shirts, and Gates, until he became a bridge-playing philanthropist and got a tailor, dressed in the engineer mode of tieless white shirts that looked lost without their pocket pen protectors.

Heavyweights in fashionable fields like fashion, media, movies and advertising wear expensive, stylish, designer suits. Bankers tend toward the other end of the spectrum with conservative, out-of-date models, and industrial CEOs may even stoop to proletariat off the rack numbers, at least when visiting the plant.

What got me thinking about this subject was seeing Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA) of the Intelligence Committee in a joint interview. At first, I thought someone had been messing with my TV’s settings and had chosen an odd aspect ratio for the picture or set it to ‘stretch,’ but the other people on screen looked normal.

Then I realized that both senators had simply adopted the political suit. As it happens, I have actually been in rooms with each of these men for interviews. In person, they are normal-shape, normal-size Americans. But you wouldn’t know it from their political suits. A day later I saw Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) on the tube wearing an even more extreme version of the suit.

He looked as if he were wearing the packing carton his refrigerator came in. That is to say, the political suit is really boxy. Also, in an era when a natural drape has become the norm, the political suit has hugely padded shoulders that make the wearer look as if he is about to kick a field goal rather than pass a bill. All this shoulder padding also has the unfortunate effect of making the wearer look pea-headed.

Such suits are an anachronistic throwback to an earlier era. They are reminiscent of the thug suits familiar from the gangster movies of 1930s and 1940s. Luca Brasi wore one to the wedding that opened “The Godfather.” I suppose they had to be roomy to accommodate the gat, the bulletproof vest and all that pasta. Edward Arnold, who played the corrupt rich guy in movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, also wore this ancestor of the political suit, as did J. Edgar Hoover, speaking of thugs.

The thug suit went out of style in the 1960s when youthful John F. Kennedy opted for chic, modern duds that made the thug suit look antique. But they came back with a vengeance when Ronald Reagan made everything new anathema and everything old ideal. Who can forget his foursquare suits, frequently in an unfortunate brown. They may have inspired David Byrne’s big suit, roughly the size of an untethered zeppelin, in “Stop Making Sense.” Check it out on YouTube.

You’d have thought this look would have been made unacceptable forever among gaudy patriots like Reagan and today’s pols since, for decades during the Cold War as Americans got more hip, it was the signature look of the Kremlin, encasing the square frames of communist brutes like Leonid Brezhnev. This bulky communist suit was strictly an assembly line number, so blocky and generic that the reviewing stand at the May Day parade often looked like the loading dock at an appliance factory.

Yet members of Congress now regularly sport this totalitarian look, despite the subliminal message it sends. Not, “I’m a humble servant of the people,” but “I’m a Humvee that will crush you like a bug if you get in my way.”

Interestingly, the president doesn’t quite wear the classic political suit, but a sort of variant. Perhaps because he is the fattest chief executive since Taft, his suits are big, too, with the kind of shoulders last seen on Joan Crawford. But rather than falling boxily to his thighs, Trump’s suits tend to billow with yards of extra fabric. If he keeps gaining weight, he may be forced to end his term in robes like a Saudi prince.

Luckily, neither Trump nor members of Congress are likely to start a fashion trend that will be emulated. John Lennon sang, “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” And the same rule applies if you go dressing like Chairman Burr or President Trump.

Potemkin Signings

Grigory Potemkin was a favorite lover of Catherine the Great. He was assigned the task of rebuilding the Crimea after it was devastated by war. According to legend, that was too much like hard work so he constructed stage set villages.

As the barge of the Empress progressed down the Dnieper River, paid extras dressed as phony peasants waved from the phony villages on the shore. Overnight the villages would be moved downstream and the entire charade reenacted the next day. Viola! The region is on the mend.

As befits a story about fraudulent villages, the story itself may not be true. But the Potemkin Village has become a metaphor for any fraudulent display meant to make viewers believe things are better than they actually are. For decades visitors to the Soviet Union or Mao’s China, for example, were carefully herded by their minders so they saw only those sights that would serve the aims of the regime.

Today, the Trump administration has gone the Potemkin Village one better. On the one hand, much of what is actually up is hidden from view, so the Senate is drafting a healthcare overhaul that even members of the Senate don’t get to see, military actions have been outsourced from the White House to Defense Secretary Mattis and occur without meddling from the President of the United States, revised regulations that favor special interests are instituted by stealth, and government actions that feather the Trump and Kushner nests are allegedly being put silently in place.

Meanwhile, what is on view is designed to distract attention from administrative incompetence, fecklessness or malfeasance, and from multiplying investigations by House, Senate, special counsel and investigative journalists into electoral meddling, possible collusion with Russia, financial chicanery and so on. This actual news is fake news, according to Trump. In its place, we are given a Trump innovation, the “Reality TV” of the Potemkin signing.

The president surrounds himself with administration and congressional extras, and a few selected members of the public who will supposedly benefit from some measure that the president signs with a flourish and proudly displays to the cameras. The standard photo op, in short.

Except the Trump version isn’t a bill signing creating a new program or appropriating money to help create jobs, make healthcare more affordable, protect our borders, or improve our infrastructure. The hapless, understaffed, disorganized administration and the bickering congressional Republicans are incapable of accomplishing any major task.

So, Trump is signing memos. Recently he hosted a lad who he extolled for turning around his life by finishing an apprenticeship program that made him gainfully employable. Good for him. But he was only there as a prop as Trump signed something he claimed would do the same for many more struggling Americans.

in fact, Trump’s memo suggested that the appropriate department study the idea and recommend how to make more of such programs available. And if they ever compete such a study, it might be sent to Congress which might deign to design such an endeavor, but probably won’t, and would be unlikely to appropriate any funds to finance it. Still, as far as the audience knows, this is just another day of Trump making Americans believe things will eventually be great again, or adequate, or won’t get too much worse.

Those who attended Trump University eventually discovered to their sorrow that it was a con, but outside observers may have believed it was for real. Trump may even have believed it was real. And today, he may even believe the Potemkin signings are accomplishing something. Or he may think they are serving the useful purposes of getting him his daily dose of airtime and distracting the attention of the public from the investigations his lawyers claim are not actually taking place or targeting him. Fake news of a nevertheless cruel Witch Hunt. Sad.

Secret Agent Man or Useful President?

Useful President

If you were an adversary of the United States (Vladimir Putin, say), what would you do to bring confusion to the enemy — short of an actual war? You could set out to outcompete us economically, of course, but that’s fairly far-fetched for a not very populous or prosperous country like Russia with only natural resources to leverage.

You could hope to ensnare us in costly foreign entanglements. You would constantly spy on us, of course, probing for weaknesses to exploit. And you would surreptitiously seek to undermine our institutions and turn Americans against each other.

We now know Russia did, in fact, contrive to meddle with our electoral processes, but wouldn’t they also attempt to recruit and use so-called agents of influence against us? What are those? According to our old friend Wikipedia, an agent of influence is a person of some stature who is able to “influence public opinion or decision-making to produce results beneficial to the country whose intelligence service operates the agent.”

Such agents may be cultural opinion makers or may be engaged in such fields as journalism, the arts, academia or, of course, government. Hiding in plain sight, they are often the agents of a foreign power who are the “most difficult to detect, as there is seldom material evidence that connects them to the foreign power.”

Agents of influence can be actual agents, in the spook sense of a witting tool of the enemy. But they can also be fellow travelers or collaborators who share the worldview, aims and intentions of the enemy and proselytize for them without being “directly recruited or controlled.” Or they can be what is described as a “useful idiot,” someone “completely unaware of how their actions further the actions of a foreign power.”

The question confronting America now is whether it has elected a president who is not just the beneficiary of the Russian hacking that elected him, but also a collaborator or useful idiot serving the interests of an enemy.

For certain, the Russians worked to defeat his opponent and elect Trump. And he has incessantly praised Putin and ignored his true nature. He has advocated lifting economic sanctions on Russia, forging closer economic ties with it, and collaborating in a war on ISIS with it.

Trump has further denied Russia influenced his election, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, has ignored Putin’s attempts to control Ukraine, failed to denounce Putin’s attempts to subvert elections in the countries of our Western allies, and his massing of armed forces capable of threatening the Balkan countries.Trump has also failed to criticize Russian support for Bashar al-Assad and has been almost as anti-NATO as Putin himself.

Trump may not be a collaborator or an idiot, but he has certainly been useful to our Russian foes. The question is why? Because he generally prefers tyrants like Putin, Duterte, Assad and Erdogan to democrats like Merkel and Macron? Or is he actually beholden to Putin and his minions for more than his election?

The Steele Dossier suggested the Russians have material with which Trump might be blackmailed into collaboration.There’s some evidence from other sources, including Trump’s son, that his business revenues are deeply reliant on Russia. And there’s also been speculation that Trump, when unable to secure loans through the usual domestic channels following his spectacular bankruptcies, may have turned to Russian banks who are under Putin’s thumb. Being beholden to them could make him pliant to the Godfather’s desires.

At the moment this is all largely guesswork and deduction, but there are an awful lot of strings that seem to lead back to Putin. Given this vast, tangled spider web, it is good that special investigator Robert Mueller is assembling a team to probe the Trump-Russia nexus with expertise in political scandals (Watergate), accounting irregularities (Enron), criminal fraud, organized crime and, of course, counter espionage. They may all be required to ferret out agents of influence who are working wittingly or unwittingly to undermine American interests and to advance the fortunes of America’s enemy.