Donald Trump, #MeToo, Facebook, And The Breakdown Of Institutional Power

January 28, 2018

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The phantom feeling that something should’ve happened, but didn’t or won’t, flows through each of the central stories of the moment: Trump’s presidency, the nightmare revelations of sexual abuse, and the accumulating problems of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. What institutional power looks like in 2018.
    Donald Trump has an unusual kind of power: He reveals weakness.
    This quality he extends to all things — people, traditions, movements — and while you know all this by now, the way he traffics in lingering doubts (e.g., Lyin’ Ted) and the malleable dignity of those around him, in all the small compromises people make with themselves toward an end, what all these individual shortfalls do in the aggregate is to expose the fragility of our modern national institutions.
    What exactly, for instance, is supposed to happen if the president wonders why we accept immigrants from “shithole” countries? Or says a group of white supremacists included “very fine” people? Backhandedly calls the North Korean dictator short and fat?
    Nothing, of course. There’s no institution to guard against any of that. And since there’s no way to quantify the harm in any of it, either (no laws broken, no physical destruction), all these things that President Trump says just land in a weird rhetorical DMZ, where there is no recourse. That unease defined the last year. And it’s this kind of phantom feeling that something should’ve happened, but didn’t or won’t, that flows through each of the central stories of the moment: Trump’s presidency, the nightmare revelations of sexual abuse, and the accumulating problems of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. What brings all these things together is the assault, from the White House and from journalists, for worse and for better, on core institutions.
    With Trump, it’s like constantly watching a fly ball fall between a shortstop and a left fielder — that kind of suspended anxiety free fall, where nobody really knows what to do, because there’s nothing to do. Morning in America is disorientingly open with possibility, because who knows where Trump will take things next?
    “It’s oddly riveting,” George Saunders wrote during the campaign, nearly two years ago, “watching someone take such pleasure in going so much farther out on thin ice than anyone else as famous would dare to go.” Nobody ever decided whether that dynamic drove or hindered Trump’s success, but what it definitely did was expose the extent to which the American political system was relying on shame to keep it in check.
    Trump constantly subverted the expectation of what a normal candidate would do (e.g., apologize for accusing Judge Curiel of bias based on his Mexican-American heritage) by never conceding any mistake. The idea generally is that campaigns, like corporations, are basically built to apologize, walk back, and/or preemptively manage expectations so that the minimum number of voters take offense at any given thing. Trump rejected that framework entirely, but stretched the understanding of what was normal so far that there was a sense (a flame that apparently burns eternal) that some objective, imagined hand of authority — the Republican Party or the RNC or the delegates at the convention — would step in. No one did, because the uneasy reality is that candidates and their own campaigns alone govern the candidate and campaign’s conduct. If you’re unafraid of the public’s distaste, there are a lot of places you can run with that. Basically: If a candidate says, well, listen, I’m doing this and you can’t stop me — maybe you actually can’t. Trump, then, is like some classical Greek, Shakespearean character sent to reveal that weakness in the system.
    That has produced some nostalgia from all different sides for back before, when a political party might change the rules on a candidate, or the media could more tightly control what viewers saw and heard. But these are also the same kinds of institutional controls that made all Harvey Weinstein’s accusers go away for so long, and that realization — the way institutions made bad things go away — links a lot of these kinds of stories.
    Smash the exterior of an institution and you may reveal catacombs of cruelty, shame, sickness, all the terrible things people with power can do to those without it in the corridor of a hotel suite, inside an office, inside a home, in small places you feel as though you are not meant to be. This past year dropped floodlights into the biblical depths of human behavior — the way an obsession with control or some sadness within a person can curdle and warp in the dark of a professional, civilized society. And for all the righteous strength witnessed in and derived from the crack-up of an open secret, each begins with long-suppressed anguish. “That’s the most horrible part of it,” Lucia Evans told the New Yorker of Harvey Weinstein. “People give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
    If you read all these stories and start writing down (or calculating out) the ages of the people in them, the interns and assistants and desk assistants and students, especially the women (and men) whose names you’ve never heard before, a pattern emerges. “We were so young at the time,” Karen Katz, who’d worked at Weinstein’s Miramax, told the Times. “We did not understand how wrong it was or how [she] should deal with it.” Many of these stories concern people too inexperienced to know who to tell, or how or when. “I still on some level thought I had been a tiny adult,” one man explained of how he did not appreciate, until he was an adult, the way he says Kevin Spacey abused him when he was 14. “I assumed I was the problem for thinking badly of you,” Aly Raisman said of Larry Nassar, the Olympic doctor who is accused of abusing more than a hundred girls. “I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that the problem was you.”
    A robust institution can be isolating in that way. You can’t identify patterns like those alone. You can suffer alone, questioning even your own story. You can also be the cool cynic wise to the harsh ways of the world (“I felt a weird sense of pride about being able to ‘handle’ the environment,” wrote a colleague) only to realize, in retrospect, years later, you were in over your head. “I was, like, ‘Look, man, I am no fucking fool,’” Asia Argento said of Weinstein. “But, looking back, I am a fucking fool. And I am still trying to come to grips with what happened.”
    The wild and unsettling thing about the last six months is both the pervasiveness of abuse and harassment, and how what’s at the heart of an open secret often turns out to be much worse; there is a sudden realization that maybe something terrible has been lurking beside you all along. Because it’s apparently at the ballet, on the manufacturing floor, inside the massage parlor, in jail, at the Olympics, on the morning show, at the theater, on the radio, on the court, on Capitol Hill. This is where you can end up wondering what the point of a “civic institution” even is. And on the most basic level — in the most amateur-hour intro philosophy seminar way — isn’t the idea that any one of these institutions (the church, the military, the government, the media, any of them) is meant to give people place and purpose, and to judiciously amplify some virtue in men (strength or kindness or charity), or to bend our collective power toward some common benefit (safety or prosperity), and above all, isn’t the idea to blunt wickedness? But here you have the agents who kept taking women to Weinstein, the studios that didn’t look at his finances, parts of the tabloid machine under his control, the way everyone seemed to know, and it’s like a blood disease — everything an institution is supposed to do, but corroded, and turned in on itself.
    And then there’s all of us, consuming this weird year through our phones, living inside new institutions that are mind-blowing in scale and horribly ill-equipped for the task of handling us. Whatever it was that happened — the election? — something has shifted in the way the media, lawmakers, and even some people on them view the platforms.
    “Facebook has grown so big, and become so totalizing, that we can’t really grasp it all at once,” Max Read wrote last year, listing off a dozen different comparisons the platform has elicited, from the Catholic church to a railroad company. “Like a four-dimensional object, we catch slices of it when it passes through the three-dimensional world we recognize.” Twitter (in 34 languages and producing inconceivable numbers of words every second) and YouTube (in 88 countries with people watching 1 billion hours each day) operate in similar dimensions.
    Nobody can monitor that kind of volume — but algorithms can’t quite either, and so all kinds of bad behavior can only belatedly be contained, if at all.
    YouTube will soon employ more than 10,000 people to screen videos (and train algorithms) to detect child exploitation (e.g., kids “restrained with ropes or tape”) and extremism (e.g., jihadi videos); that news preceded the 48 hours a (now former) YouTuber’s video lived online featuring a dead man’s body inside Japan’s suicide forest. Twitter still, still struggles with harassment, especially in places like India, where women are on the receiving end of harassment in six different local languages. In realms where political news gets delivered and consumed, the platform can feel constantly combative, meta, and wearing — kind of like a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos where the hippos are outfitted with razors. Facebook has found itself the host body for live shootings, dystopian authoritarian propaganda, and a philosophical debate about the meaning of news and truth, in which a small move could result in shifting reality for someone. Kevin Roose compared an admission from Facebook leadership that they did not realize ad targeting would be used to reach anti-Semites to Victor Frankenstein’s lament: “I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.”
    Basically, the platforms are dealing with a) the loftiest, most existential of questions about information and speech, and b) every kind of domestic dispute in every small town across dozens of countries every hour of every day.
    And every response to these super-old problems — rumors, lies, abuse — tends to be thin and unsatisfying, almost alien, from the endless vow to improve transparency to Facebook’s intention to have 2 billion people decide the trustworthiness of news outlets. These are the products of a culture that sometimes “views nearly all content as agnostic, and everything else as a math problem.” The underlying principle to these platforms isn’t some huge mystery: Everything is keyed toward cascading reactions, an endless series of provocations, both good and bad. “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives,” wrote Facebook’s Samidh Chakrabarti last week, “but I can’t.”
    There’s been a lot of talk, over this first year of Trump, about an abstract sense that things are falling apart, or that it’s not the same country it used to be, or that this feels like the end of an era, even if what that era was cannot be so easily defined. This is, I think, partly a function of the way our phones intensify everything intellectually, in both good and bad ways, so that you can feel, within the space of minutes, a directionless jolt of anxiety at every Trump tweet about North Korea and the immersive warmth of texting with exactly who you hope most to hear from. It is disorienting to know so much and feel so much all the time. It is also a function of the reality where we get hit again, and again, and again, with reminders that fundamental assumptions about the society we live in (that you can’t say that, that you can’t do that, that you couldn’t have hid something like that) aren’t really true. It’s too difficult to keep a secret in 2018, especially about the bad things people can do to one another.
    So maybe it’s political insecurity that’s causing that static in the signal, or maybe it’s disillusionment with these old, sick systems that kept sending people to Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar, or maybe it’s the sense that the platforms are like big boxes that we’ve thrown the full crush of humanity into. Whatever it is, now we are free to tear apart every last institution until every last vestige of that kind of pain is gone, hurtling toward some new future where you can only hope the kindness in our hearts wins out.●

Lies, Deceptions, and Hypocrisy

Lies, Deceptions, and Hypocrisy
    In attempting to fulfill his campaign promises to the American people, President Trump has faced the obstructionism of liberals, Democrats, the Washington establishment, and all who replace truth with lies and deceptions. Left with nothing to advance any righteous cause, our enemies, foreign and domestic, dredge up past failures and accusations in targeting political opponents. Never mind the indisputable fact that as constituents of a constantly failing species, we all have those transgressions that should lead to repentance. Those seeking to destroy all that made America great neither repent or even acknowledge their failures and sins, many of which rise to the level of felonies and treason.
    Worse, those holding and espousing ideologies that the Framers and Founders would have challenged and defeated with truth and justice are tolerated in the unjust forum of political correctness. Moving supported only by lies and  deceptions, our enemies would ask for tolerance and acceptance of their intolerance and discrimination. Attempting character assassination to put up a smokescreen to hide real issues, positive accomplishments, years of exemplary behavior, historical record, and scientific truths, we are in a war of political ideologies. Often those attacking America are those who achieved success because of the freedoms and blessings found only in the American political tradition. Ungratefully, they seek to deny others those same “unalienable Rights”.
    Criticized for racially charged tweets and comments, such as blaming “both sides” for violence at a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the radical right had a permit to assemble, President Trump has also been critical of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence and racism. Charging the millionaire ingrates, he and Vice-President Pence have said our flag and our National Anthem stand for all that is good in America acknowledging the sacrifices of those who have paid for our freedom. With pressure from him, the RNC has moved to endorse Judge Moore despite the Establishment’s efforts to vilify him. When this President of sincerity and integrity moves with truth and justice, the litany of untruths, lies, deceptions arising from the liberals and progressives continue to foment division and discrimination.
Selwyn Duke
 Thursday, 30 November 2017
 A man who served in Vietnam with now-Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and who is now a lawyer, has some interesting things to say about the judge’s character. The question is, do we want to hear the truth?

    “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” writes columnist Paul Mulshine.

    “Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore walked into a brothel …  and then he walked right back out.”

    “That’s the account I got from Bill Staehle, a lawyer living in Asbury Park [N.J.] who served in Vietnam with Moore in the early 1970s,” Mulshine continued.

    Mulshine spoke to Staehle after the attorney wrote a recent open letter to Alabama voters relating his knowledge of Moore’s character. Staehle, now 70, knew Moore from a base just outside Da Nang. Both men were captains in the 504th Military Police Battalion at the time.

    Staehle considers Moore a man of sterling integrity, writing, “I served with Roy Moore in Vietnam in 1971-72, where I knew him to be an altogether honorable, decent, respectable, and patriotic commander and soldier.” One incident in particular, however, stands out in his mind. As he related in his open letter:

While in Vietnam, there came a time when another officer invited Roy and me to go with him into town after duty hours for a couple of beers. That officer had just returned from an assignment in Quang Tri Province north of Danang, and we were interested to learn of his experiences.

I had not met him before, and I don’t believe Roy had either. On other occasions with other officers, we would go to the officers’ club at the air force base, but on this occasion, he told us he knew of another place in town.

When we arrived at the place and went inside, it was clear to Roy and me that he had taken us to a brothel. That officer appeared to know people there, as he was greeted by one or two young women in provocative attire.

The place was plush. There were other American servicemen there. Alcohol was being served. There were plenty of very attractive young women clearly eager for an intimate time.

In less time than it took any of the women to approach us, Roy turned to me and said words to this effect, “We shouldn’t be here. I am leaving.”

    Moore and Staehle, just 24 years old at the time, did in fact leave.

    Staehle doesn’t believe the allegations against the Senate candidate. And while he hadn’t heard from his old buddy in years since Vietnam, his letter prompted a call from Moore. As Staehle related to Mulshine, “He said to me, ‘Bill, I’m telling you, these allegations are not true.’”

    This satisfied Staehle. As he put it, “You don’t lie to a guy you went to war with.”

    Nonetheless, Staehle has more informing his opinion than just a brother-in-arms bond. He has his experience, too, having been a lawyer for 42 years and currently supervising 44 attorneys in his position at a major insurance company. And this background causes him to wonder about one of Moore’s accusers, Leigh Corfman, who claimed Moore behaved inappropriately with her when she was 14. Referring to a recent televised interview with her on the Today Show, Staehle told Mulshine, “I know when somebody is meticulously prepared and when the witness is using words that don’t seem to suit where she’s coming from…. I prepare witnesses as well as depose witnesses. It was clear she was very well prepared.”

    Staehle said that this doesn’t mean Corfman is or isn’t lying. But with “‘the passage of time, the story changes,’ he said. ‘I see that in my litigation all the time. People exaggerate things. They add to the story,’” related Mulshine.

    In fact, it seems much has been “added” to the Moore allegations. Last week I reported on how the claims of Moore’s most damning accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, have apparently unraveled; most notably, Nelson and her attorney, Gloria Allred, have refused to allow the third-party analysis of a signed yearbook entry they claimed is Moore’s but that is now widely considered a forgery. In fact, Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, who lost to Moore in the GOP primary, thus asserts and says that Nelson is “clearly a liar.”

    Brooks isn’t the only one making this claim. Nelson’s stepson, Darrel Nelson, said that his stepmother’s allegations are “100 percent a lie.”

    Nelson is not the only accuser whose credibility has been called into question, or who may have an axe to grind. Tina Johnson, who claims the judge grabbed her buttocks in 1991, was unable to wrest custody of her 12-year-old son away from her mother, Mary Katherine Cofield, who had hired Moore to help her obtain permanent custody of the boy. Johnson has had drug problems and once pled guilty to felony fraud for check forgery.

    Then there’s ex-Gadsden, Alabama, police officer Faye Gary, who claimed she’d been told to watch Moore in the late ’70s and keep him away from “cheerleaders” but then admitted she was just relating “rumor.” Not only did my news-making conversation with her reveal that she’s a staunch anti-Moore ideologue, but she also reportedly has ties to the drug-dealing underworld. Her two sons, who have different last names, both were arrested for distributing illegal drugs; one was shot to death before he could go to trial while the other is currently in a federal penitentiary, reported One America News Network.

    Perhaps even more telling, Gary’s brother, Jimmy Wright, was arrested in 1981 for distributing controlled substances — and Roy Moore was the prosecutor in his case.

    In fact, with Moore’s senatorial opponent being far-left Democrat Doug Jones, who’s pro-prenatal infanticide, pro-“transgender” agenda and pro-amnesty, it just may be that the judge is one of the only people of integrity in this sorry saga. This would include the politicians, Democrat and Republican, who’ve condemned him. As Mulshine put it, “If elected, Moore will be the first senator in memory to have eyewitness evidence that he exited a brothel without having sex. That may not sound like much. But by Beltway standards, it’s a lot.”

    For sure. And the only question remaining is whether Alabamans will be stopped from electing a man who stands above the Beltway by a focus on matters originating below the belt.