The Rules Of The Game

Trying to get over jet lag, I’ve been propped up in front of two absurdly difficult annual events, the Tour de France and the links golf of the British Open. One of these sporting events can break your body, and both can mess with your head.

The Tour expects humans on bicycles to cover around 2,200 miles in three weeks — up mountains and down, in rain, wind or sweltering heat. Just finishing is superhuman.The British Open is played on seaside courses where the rough looks like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, balls can vanish forever into dense three foot tall foliage, gales off the water come from a different angle on every hole, and and traps look more like sink holes into which your can lose a Land Rover. Are these games of skill, luck or endurance?

The designed-in impossibility of these tests is what makes them great. Robert Frost once said that writing free verse was “like playing tennis with the net down.” He meant that it’s the constricting rules of a sonnet or sestina that forces the writer to perform with concision, clarity, economy and creativity. It’s the difference between making art and making an idle observation.

Human endeavors without rules are random or anarchic. It’s the difference between balls and strikes, between fair and foul that makes a game out of random action and that separates the dabbler fooling around for fun and the professional who can perform with a high degree of consistency under the pressure of intense competition.

All of which leads, as does almost everything these days, to a thought about what’s wrong with Donald Trump. People keep wondering what explains his peculiar inability to understand the game he’s involved in — politics, also know as the art of the possible, why he undermines the achievement of his own goals at every turn, why he keeps behaving in ways designed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,.

I think it’s possible that he has never learned how to play with others. His father taught him you are either a loser or a killer. He taught him how to seize every chance at an edge, how to cheat and connive, cajole and charm, bully, sue and attack while flouting the rules everyone else has to observe.

But he never learned how to be a teammate or collaborator or member of a party. He didn’t have to. Like George H. W. Bush In the memorable gibe aimed at him by fellow Texan Jim Hightower, Trump was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

And since Trump thinks people who play by the rules are losers, he can’t understand James Comey and Robert Mueller whose lives have been spent preserving, protecting and defending the rule book, that is, The Constitution of the United States, even though he vowed to play exactly that game on January 20. Instead, since Comey and Mueller won’t behave the way he wants them to, but the way the rules demand, he thinks they must be enemies, plotting against him.

In Trump’s mind there is no higher duty than to cater to his self-interest. And since he’s the president — the boss, the CEO, the commander-in-chief, the star player — the role of every other government employee should be to unquestioningly do whatever he wants done. So, for example, he is stunned and outraged that his Attorney General in playing by the rules recused himself from decisions regarding the Russians meddling with the election.

In Trump’s world the purpose of an attorney is to screw his enemies, get him what he wants, and get him off the hook when he breaks the rules, not to investigate his behavior. In fact, other people exist only to gratify his needs — they are lackeys, toadies or concubines. And because Trump knows no rule but ‘me first,’ he is willing to transgress any rule that gets in his way.

So, he lies, floridly, constantly and transparently. He makes deals and promises he has no intention of living up to. He has a long history of violating building codes, fair housing laws, and social norms. He has cheated his customers, his suppliers, his partners. He declares bankruptcy to avoid paying his bills and stiffs those he owes. No wonder many banks will no longer lend to him and he allegedly may have fallen into the hands of shadier moneylenders.

Those who play golf with Trump, not surprisingly, say he cheats at that too– improving his lie, falsifying his stroke count. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine him colluding with Russian hackers to improve his odds of being elected, or that he would make a deal to pay them off once successful. Call it the art of the steal.

But Trump has found Washington a place unlike any other in his life. It plays by rules all its own. Party loyalty matters. The rule of law matters to people at the Justice Department. The Supreme Court takes precedent seriously. Members of the military and the intelligence community think of themselves as patriots, not as gofers or presidential stooges. They act live not to curry favor, but for honor, duty, country. The House and Senate play by complicated rulebooks compiled over a couple centuries and aren’t about to change their ways for a mere president. They come and go every four years, the rules, traditions and mores of institutions endure.

Men like Trump have arisen to undermine and overthrow every attempt at democratic, self-government since Greece and Rome. And often the autocratic “man on a horse” has been enabled by gullible, aggrieved, anxious, impatient people who fall for promises of a quick and painless fix for the troubles of the time. They soon find out they have traded away their birthright for a mess of potage, or for bread and circuses.

James Madison and the other founders knew the dangers well and designed a rule book that put obstacles in the way of such demagogues. Checks and balances, separation of powers, and so on. For this reason we are said to be a nation of laws, not of men.

But the rules only work if men and women insist they be honored — citizens, voters, their representatives, courts, and a free press. That is the rendezvous with destiny we are approaching. Will we, as a people, choose to live by the rules that have been our bulwark for 240 years or succumb to the siren song of a reality TV Caesar? We shall see.

The Play’s The Thing

I have just spent a couple weeks in England, in part for the pleasure of being far away from news of Trump and his works. But every time I spoke, people would hear the accent and say, “Oh, American?” They had that, ‘did you vote for that guy,’ look, so I began to consider claiming to be Canadian. But it was enough to deflect attention from the Donald to ask how Prime Minister May was doing with that Brexit thing.

You’d think the traveler would lose touch with the fast moving news of Washington, but not so. When I left, the Senate looked incapable of passing healthcare reform, and when I returned they’d proven incapable.There was smoke in regard to Trump and Russia, and now the pilot on the return trip could hardly see to land the plane..

Abroad, I tried to take my mind off the subject with stately homes, a look at where several distant ancestors began — in Swansea, Wales, in Gotherington, Gloucestershire, and in a Wiltshire church in Idmiston where a pair were married in 1630 before sailing to America. I also enjoyed a Shakespeare tour led by the wonderful scholar Charles Nicholl that included five plays in six days. Oddly, however, this immersion was as if I’d never torn myself away from CNN, FOX, and MSNBC.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The intrigues of Washington and of Jacobean drama aren’t that different. Washington Post publisher Kay Graham and her friend and editorial page editor, Meg Greenfield, used to play hooky from the Watergate scandal to attend movie matinees, but it may have been more of a busman’s holiday. They were just substituting one drama for another. Before becoming a journalist, Maureen Dowd, the Times columnist, was a literature major with a special interest in Shakespeare And she regards that as good training.

Why? Because Washington bears a family resemblance to a royal court with palace intrigue, figurative, if not literal, knifings in the corridors of power, dynastic feuds and other trappings familiar from plays like Lear and Richard III. So, following the capital city’s mix of lurid tragedy, absurd comedy and weird history is a lot like being a drama critic.

In “The Tempest” at the Barbican we saw Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, a man who has been dissed and has nursed a grudge for years. He gets a chance at vengeance on those who have wronged him, but he relents in the end and adjures the dark arts. Trump, like Nixon before him, feels himself surrounded by enemies, but don’t wait for a happy denouement in his case. Prospero acted rightly for the good of his sweetly innocent daughter Miranda, whereas Ivanka is a co-conspirator.

Two shows at the Globe displayed the sort of trendy, “transgressive” staging that has offended purists and gotten artistic director Emma Rice fired. Her “Romeo and Juliet” featured Clockwork Orange gang violence between Montague and Capulet droogs and two sulky teen leads who lacked only selfie sticks to be thoroughly up-to-date. Despite these distractions, one could hardly help escape the feeling that the warring factions resembled Democrats and Republicans whose inability to compromise may prove fatal to the body politic.

“Twelfth Night” already features a 17th century cross-dressing heroine, but it was further “enhanced” by the addition of a large, bearded male who performs under the name ‘Le Gateau Chocolate.’ He flounced around in a Donna Summers sequined diva dress belting out disco-era tunes as Feste. Also adding diversity was a petite female actress playing Malvolio as Jerry Lewis in “The Errand Boy.” In short, a timely reminder, perhaps, that just because you can do something, it isn’t necessarily a good idea. And refusing to be politically correct can go dramatically wrong.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford is mounting all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, and we got to see two, both of which bought us closer to the spirit of the age of Trump. In the first, “Antony and Cleopatra,” an over-reacher ditches his wife for a conniving exotic, but isn’t up to the challenge of dealing with the power of the establishment in the person of Octavian. Or, in Trump’s case, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, the intelligence community and the media. What Trump and Bannon might call “the deep state,” Rome called “The Empire.”

Closest of all to our debased time was “Titus Andronicus,” generally considered a contender for the worst play Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a very early effort aping the vogue for bloody revenge tragedy, but here it is given a stunningly effective reading which in a few modernizing touches seemed to nod in the direction of Trump, or perhaps Europe’s own populist demagogues.

Titus is a weary, battle-scarred general who has served nobly and is given a chance to become the emperor, but when he hesitates it is taken by an upstart striver complete with TV camera crews and a Sean Spicer-like communications director. He comes equipped with a Machiavellian supporter (Bannon) and an empress captured from a barbarian tribe (Ivana-Melania). They begin a bloody reign of terror, chopping political enemies into messes.

Titus (the Democrats?) appears to go mad with grief, but eventually manages to take his vengeance by catering a peace banquet at which he serves the children of the empress (Don Jr. And Eric) in a ragu.

This being drama, the endings may be grim or cheerful, but they are tidy and conclusive. Our own true life Senecan tragedy is only in its first Act, but the outcome is unlikely to be neat or order to be restored. This is another reason Shakespeare’s artistry is preferable to Trump’s bumbling reality. That and the language in which the drama is presented — powerfully poetic vs. puerile. And that’s how I spent my summer vacation.

The Other Ring Of The Circus

Much of the media seems to have embraced the notion that Donald Trump is one of those malign clowns of urban myth, dangerous but disorganized. In this scenario President Nero tweets while America declines.

But what if there’s another ring to the circus that no one notices because they are fixated on the clown show? What if our insult-comedian-in-chief won by playing a crude populist on TV, but is actually conniving behind the act, like Lonesome Rhodes in “A Face in the Crowd?’ What if he is actually intent on an agenda 180 degrees from the persona, plotting so to rob entitlements and security from the white working class he got to vote for him in order to give people like him what they want — less regulation and bigger tax breaks.

This would seem a bit byzantine and far-fetched, except the Trump administration seems to be doing just that while he distracts the press by insulting the press. He has installed foes of the social safety net and environmental protections as heads of the departments responsible for those duties. Enemies of the people, to use a Trump phrase, are now in charge at HHS, EPA, HUD, Justice and in other posts that give government help to the poor, working class, and minorities.

We may laugh at Trump’s self-serving fake news that millions voted illegally for Hillary, but the panel he has set up to investigate is no joke. It has set out to collect data on every vote cast in 2016 (Social Security numbers, addresses, voting history). Data which can be useful in designing ways to suppress the vote for the other party in 2020. Thus, his voter fraud investigation is a Trojan Horse concealing plans to disenfranchise voters. A fake scandal concealing a real scandal in the making.

It is also worth noting that Trump critics have sneered at his inability to staff government, but maybe he doesn’t want to — the better to gum up the works. He has had no trouble staffing the White House with anti-government zealots whose aim is to dismantle the services and protections we take for granted and minions who aid Trump in creating a smokescreen to hid it.

Your tax dollars are at work paying Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and many more top aides $179,000 a year to act as a wrecking crew of the average American’s future.

A few multimillionaire and billionaire appointees have taken only a token salary to avoid image problems. So, Goldman Sachs billionaire and head of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn is taking only $30,000, just enough, he says, to pay for his healthcare. But isn’t that an image problem in itself? How many people who will be on Trumpcare will be able to afford $30,000 a year to buy insurance? Zero?

And in another object lesson in how to favor the billionaire class over the hoi polloi, Steve Bannon’s personal assistant is being aid $40,000 while Jared Kushner’s is taking home a cool $115,000. All pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal.

Similarly, Obama had a body man, a fellow like Gary on “Veep” who constantly travels with the president to tend to his personal needs like phone, schedule, luggage and all the other daily requirements of a busy executive. Trump has a thuggish personal bodyguard! Apparent;y the Secret Service is inadequate to his needs. Your taxes are paying this muscle $60,000 more a year than Obama’s amanuensis got.

This sort of thing is small potatoes alongside the real action in the other ring. Quietly, well-paid Trump acolytes are contriving ways to cut government programs that help the average citizen while simultaneously gutting any government programs, regulations or oversight functions that impede efforts by the superwealthy to operate with impunity.

And the June 28 issue of “The Atlantic” offers “Donald Trump’s Conflicts of Interest: A Crib Sheet.” This is getting down to the real nitty gritty, as they used to say. It details 50 ways in the first 150 days the Trump family has used his position to enrich themselves — condo sales in exchange for visas, favorable treatment for Trump businesses by foreign governments (such as Russia, China, Argentina), and many more instances of self-dealing, emolument accepting and rule bending. All profitable.

We know far less about this than we should because both press and pubic are hypnotized by Trump’s attention-getting attacks on the press, politicians, critics and the public. Maybe he’s just a buffoon surrounded by other government hating rich boys, but on the other hand we may be witnessing (or failing to witness) the greatest feat of political sleight of hand on history.

While the clown amuses us with by CNN-wrestling and TV anchor face lift dissing tweets, ill-gotten gains are pouring into his pockets and his appointees are playing “Now you see it, now you don’t,” with our social safety net, homeland’s security and democracy. Poof, they’re gone!

Nice trick, unless you’re on the receiving end.