Saturday, December 12, 2015

Six degrees of Trump

It's not hard to understand how, and why, Donald Trump has captured the imagination of certain conservatives within the United States of America.

He tells us it's OK to get angry and to lash out at things we don't understand, and with which we do not necessarily agree. He tell us it OK to talk tough ... that it's acceptable to heap ridicule on people we have deemed to be beneath us ... to make fun of whose with physical issues they cannot mask ... and even to demean women for the biological functions their bodies perform.

For every one of these insults Trump has hurled into this allegedly dignified presidential campaign, there is a group of Americans listening to pound their fists on the table and say something like, "damned straight." That is why he resonates. That is the cumulative effect of his daily doses of demagoguery.

The smart money says Trump will not be around for the final countdown. Either something will slow him down -- perhaps his latest pronouncement that the US shouldn't allow Muslims into the country -- or he himself will just lose interest and go back to counting his money and being a reality TV bully.

Others say that regardless of what ultimately happens with him, he's already hijacked the campaign beyond repair, and that he may have irrecoverably harmed his own party's chances of getting the White House back in 2016.

At this point, No. 2 seems more likely than No. 1. He's still made of Teflon. No matter what he does, or says, the same base of people who see him as the living personification of Howard Beale -- you remember Howard Beale? -- keeps going to the window and screaming "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."

This is the way I see Trump.

I don't take Trump seriously, though I do take what he represents seriously. He is a dangerous man, not because he may become president (because I don't think he will), but because he legitimizes irrational anger. And irrational anger can often have dire consequences, as history has repeatedly shown.

I kind of felt the same way toward Ronald Reagan way back in 1980. It wasn't that he was conservative. Lots of good people are conservative; and -- conversely -- some liberals simply are not good people.

But Reagan made it legitimate to look down on poor people, with his apocryphal stories about welfare queens, and his other pronouncements that made it seem as if the have-nots were in the business of holding up the haves every day. If that were ever the case, wouldn't the paradigm have eventually shifted?

Trump is pretty easy to figure out. He's a megalomaniac. The closest thing to Donald Trump in classic American literature is Captain Ahab, a supremely self-obsessed man who is willing to bring the world down around him if there's something in it for him. There is nothing Donald Trump won't do to keep his name up in lights.

And that apparently includes running for president.

One would have hoped that simple respect would have kept Trump from making a mockery out of the one constant that has kept this country unique for almost 250 years -- the peaceful, scheduled transfer of power. Some campaigns over the years may have been a bit livelier than others, but there was always a baseline of dignity to the proceedings that kept presidential politics from going completely off the rails.

Until now.

This may be the result of a canyon-sized split in in the Republican party, where it seems as if the mainstream Grand Old Party is in danger of being usurped by the upstarts who would rather shut down government than listen to reason and work to find common ground.

It could be the result of an incumbent who, while certainly not the reckless George W. Bush who ushered in the 2st century, can be maddeningly deliberate and obtuse on visceral issues that genuinely make people's blood boil. Barack Obama may be absolutely right that there's no quick, easy fix when it comes to eradicating terrorist organizations such as ISIS. But he could do a better job at least speaking to the legitimate apprehension in this country about the presence of cells operating out of major U.S. population centers and acknowledging it.

Obama allowed himself to be upstaged internationally by Benjamin Netanyahu, and is in danger of being identified as on the wrong side of history on the whole Palestinian-Israeli issue (though, to his credit, he seems to be getting a little bit of the last laugh on Vladimir Putin on Syria).

Megalomaniacs such as Trump cannot thrive without some vacuum in which to step. And he has two pretty good one. First, there is no one currently running as president among the Republicans who can unify the divisive elements. And second, there's a lame-duck Democrat in the White House who bears the lashes of seven years of ups, downs, ins and outs. Disapproval ratings always seem to be a major issue with lame-ducks toward the end of their second terms. By then, they've angered enough people that it becomes harder and harder to find a base of people willing to say they're supporters.

Trump, being a megalomaniac, has no shame. I don't recall any other time -- at least in my life -- where someone who purports to be a serious political figure has so willingly resorted to demagoguery and pander. Even people I've historically barely been able to stand have at least paid lip service to maintaining some sense of decorum on the stump. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush -- all people of whom I was not a fan -- maintained dignity on the stump, and did not allow themselves to be seen as willing to incite people for their personal gain. This also goes for Democrats a little too far to the left, too. Either way, they've respected the process enough not to turn it into a sideshow.

Trump has not. And the hell of it is that Trump has to see what this is doing, not only to his own party, but to the country. Ted Kennedy once called politics a contact sport, and he was not wrong, of course, The pursuit of power can be pretty rough, and those who take part have to have exceptionally thick skin. We've all come to expect a sharp elbow or two to the ribs during political campaigns, and I think all but the most hopelessly naive among us accept it -- though grudgingly sometimes.

But what Trump is doing is more than just a sharp elbow to the ribs. His is a hay maker to the solar plexus. If your average political campaign can seem like a boxing match sometimes, at least it's being fought with something approaching Marquees de Queensberry rules. Trump has turned this into mud wrestling. No holds barred. The show is the thing.

If we understand Trump's motivation here, what are we to think of his followers? The ones who keep showing up in the polls helping him maintain his status as a frontrunner?

Answer: Not much.

In the beginning, all of this was understandable. We've reached a point in politics where nobody will say anything without having a focus group meet on it first. Hillary Clinton, whom -- I think -- will be your next president, is notorious for saying absolutely nothing spontaneously. Unless a gaggle of advisers told her to, she wouldn't tell you if you were on fire.

Along comes Trump who just wings it half the time. He says anything, and doesn't care how people react. Disregarding how inflammatory much of what he says is, it's still rather refreshing in the minds of many that he's willing to put himself on the line like that.

But that should have lasted a month, tops. It's now been almost a year. And Trump still says inflammatory, misanthropic things, and people still support him. Why?

Could it be because people are just so fed up with political pablum that they'll accept anything if it sounds different than the usual mush? Is that an indictment against Trump, or should we be complimenting him for recognizing yet another vacuum in U.S. politics: genuine human beings instead of programmed robots.

At the very least Trump is a real, live, human being with a heart and a pulse, whose face gets red, and changes expression, and whose blood seems to boil over that which makes him angry. We may not have to agree with him, but damn, we can appreciate his passion. Right?

Not so fast. Again, shouldn't we be able to be able to tell the difference between a person who is legitimately moved and angered over issues versus one whose continued rants about just about everything that plays well to the cheap seats smack of calculation? We should ... but we can't seem to. And this is the conundrum of Donald Trump. What makes him seem so real to people is actually quite phony. He's willing to incite anyone to keep the attention on himself.

The Republicans deserve to get banished to Aldebaran for the way they've handled the whole Trump thing. From the first debate, any serious candidate should have simply refused to take the stage with him. You can't ban him, but you can refuse to play. How much fun would it have been had Trump been reduced to debating himself?

I guarantee you, had the likes of Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio, just to name three, simply said, "No! We value this system too much to see it treated like a sideshow, and until he's gone, we're not taking part in this sideshow." You're not telling me their numbers wouldn't have soared?

There have been rumblings of late by Republicans that it's time for this charade to end, and now that Trump has come out and said something truly nutty (about Muslims) the heavy hitters are fighting back. Too little, too late. That should have happened long ago.

Which leads one to conjure up another "what-if:" What if the Republicans actually want Trump out there saying ridiculous, idiotic things? What if they figure the dumber he looks, it'll take a little bit of the focus off the truly scary things they're all saying? Every one of these candidates is flawed, but they all (well maybe not Ted Cruz and Ben Carson) look pretty tame in comparison to Trump. Still, at this point, it looks as if someone like Willard Romney is going to have to step in and do what Nixon did in 1968: pick up the fragmented remains of a disastrous early primary season and restore order. The comparison ends there, though. In '68, the Democrats were just as divided as the Republicans were. This year they're not. Even with the unexpected insurgency of Bernie Sanders, does anyone expect Clinton to lose the nomination?

I do think Trump will not be around next November, but I couldn't tell you who will be. It could be Romney -- again -- for all anyone knows. My personal opinion is that Trump has been allowed to hang around much too long, and do too much damage in the name of Republicans. And that's because none of the others who have chosen to run have enough cachet to fight him.

I believe it all spells defeat for the GOP next year. The only question that remains to be answered is whether Hillary's coat tails are long enough to sweep them out of power altogether. Rampant and excessive gerrymandering have made it hard for Democrats to win in some Congressional districts. But this disaster could transcend even those efforts.

As the noted philosopher Moses Horvitz once so eloquently said, "we shall see what we shall see."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Plausible deniability and the Patriots

We’ve all heard of plausible deniability, no doubt. That’s when you put about six layers of buffer between you and a questionable deed so that there’s no way it can be traced back to you.
Plausible deniability relies on a few givens. One of them is that nobody from the top of the chain down to the bottom talks. Whatever you do stays within the chain, and regardless of what happens, and that include unwanted discovery, the chain doesn’t break. Listen to Fleetwood Mac if you have any doubts.
If you want a good example of plausible deniability, you have two wonderful examples. One is the American Mafia, which shielded the big dogs at the expense of the grunt soldiers; and American government (and probably other governments too) where it happens pretty much all the time.
But here’s the rub: the practice of plausible deniability has always relied on the absence of a smoking gun. Richard Nixon got tripped up because he recorded Oval Office conversations that ended up incriminating him. And why do you think everyone’s so reluctant to turn over their cell phones to investigators? It’s not because of family pictures or semi-nude playmates. It’s because there could be incriminating emails and texts on them.
Of course, this leads us back to the Patriots, Tom Brady and “Deflategate” (this is the last time you’ll read this term here).
Do I think there was skullduggery involved in taking some air pressure out of footballs? Yes. Do I think it’s uncommon? No. Do I think it makes that much of a competitive difference? Yes, because otherwise why would you do it? It must make a difference, even if it’s nothing more than a mental binkie for Brady, or whoever else feels it necessary to doctor footballs.
So let’s cut to the chase. The Patriots doctored up the footballs. The question is to what extent is Brady at fault? Here’s where the whole plausible deniability aspect comes into play. I seriously doubt Brady went to two shlubs on the lowest end of the chain and taught them how to deflate footballs. I just think he’s way too smart to do anything that blatant.
However, I do see a scenario where Brady passes the word down the chain that he doesn’t like his footballs rock hard, especially in bad weather, where they can either be slippery in the rain or too difficult to grip in the freezing cold. The word is duly relayed to the proper people, through the usual layers of buffers, and voila. Tom Brady has a football that feels good in his hands.
Here’s the thing though. Brady is a superstar, perhaps the single most glamorous figure in pro football today. People who work with him and for him desperately want to make sure he’s happy, especially the lower minions within the organization – those who see it as a feather in their caps that they can accommodate Tom Terrific in this unique way.
So they take it too far. They don’t just deflate the football to the lowest allowable limit, they take it lower. They don’t get caught. So they take it even lower … as low as they can without it being obvious.
This goes on for who knows how long. Then, they get real sloppy.
What is Brady’s role in this? To be honest, if he’s such a fussbudget about his footballs, he should be able to tell that there’s some skullduggery going on. I cannot absolve him on this count. Sure, he probably didn’t tell these guys to under-inflate the footballs to the extent they did, but he had to know – and still let it go.
This, to Ted Wells, the private eye who investigated this thing constituted “general knowledge,” and I cannot disagree with him.

That much we can pretty much conclude. What's left, though, is comical -- partly due to the number of theories about what happened, and how (including, probably this one) because of the lengths to which the Patriots and their fans have gone to rationalize some of the Wells Report's findings.

The best, by far, is the one where Jim McNally, one of the two aforementioned shlubs at the bottom of the chain, claimed -- after he was found using the term "deflater" -- he only meant he was trying to lose weight.

Yeah, right. Where's that pin. I want to try that.

McNally and cohort John Jastrzemski (rhymes with Yastrzemski, as in Carl, as the Red Sox Hall of Famer) traded texts back and forth, ostensibly complaining about Brady and all they had to do to get his footballs ready. There were also references to Brady giving them autographed paraphernalia in the days after the story broke, and expressing concern about McNally's stress level in the face of all this. No direct communication with the Terrific One, but there were allusions.

 Apparently, McNally and Jastrzemski never watched CSI, because if they had, they'd have known that computer and cell phone records tell the tale on you. You may think you've deleted them, but they live in some vast cyber warehouse just waiting to incriminate you. Silly people. Don Corleone could have told them "if you want to do stuff like this, you leave no traces. None. Zip. Nada."

Those texts provided Wells with something he certainly wasn't going to get from Brady: evidence that this situation was not a coincidence, and that there was a conspiracy on the part of someone to doctor the footballs, and that if Brady didn't give the order, he certainly was complicit in it by his lack of action, not to mention his lack of cooperation with Wells.

 So now, at least according to me, we have our genus and we have our weak link in the deniability chain broken.

Now, all we need is our motive. Let's see. Who could have been motivated to wipe the smirk off Brady's, Bill Belichick's and the Patriots' faces?

The line forms to the right and goes around the corner.

The Patriots have always given the NFL the figurative finger. And once Roger Goodell became commissioner, in great part due to Bob Kraft's influence, Belichick et al felt even more empowered to flaunt NFL rules and taunt the league all at the same time. 

The 2007 spygate scandal certainly gave the league plenty of reasons to keep an eye on them thereafter, but skullduggerers (don't know if that's a word, but it ought to be) have been one or two steps ahead of the law since sports became organized. 

There are spitballs, excessively manicured infields, stick'um on hands, piped in noise, turning up the temperature in domed stadia ... in the NHL, if there's too much action around the net someone will surreptitiously knock net off its moorings ... which is supposed to result in a penalty but never does ... Michael Jordan took enough steps to participate in a walk-a-thon on his way to the basket, but never got called; whereas Kelly Olynyk can move his pivot foot a half-inch and get called for traveling.

When I was a kid, the Patriots never got a break. Whenever they played teams like the Dolphins or (especially) the Raiders, they couldn't buy a call that went their way (ironic, now, since Raiders' fans are the worst when it comes to bitching about how the NFL shows favoritism toward Kraft and the Pats).

Obviously, the worm has turned there. Now it's the Patriots who get every break ... every call. We in New England feel that's only right, considering all the times it went the other way. And those of us with exceptionally long memories recall 1976, when referee Ben Drieth took a playoff win away from them with a horrible roughing-the-passer call, moments after letting a blatant pass interference call against Oakland go. And we were giddy with happiness when we finally tasted revenge ... on a snowy Foxborough, Mass., night in 2001, when the officials -- at no proven behest of New England or the Krafts -- invoked the obscure "tuck rule" to rob the Raiders of a playoff win en route to the Patriots' first-ever Super Bowl win.

Anyway, this is the NFL in 2015. The Patriots, even after having been unmasked as cheaters eight years earlier, are the anointed ones. And nobody, except the Patriots and their fans, likes that very much.

 This isn't exactly the "they hate us 'cause they ain't us" chant. But it does provide some context for what happened prior to that Colts game -- again, only my theory but certainly not set in stone anywhere.

The week before that Patriots-Colts AFC championship game, the Patriots were about to go down to defeat to the Baltimore Ravens -- the one team that has consistently had their number, especially in marquee games -- in the divisional playoff round. Belichick came up with a slew of funky formations that confused everyone on the other side, including the referees. John Harbaugh -- who, as coaches go, doesn't seem to be all about himself, the way Don Shula was, and Rex Ryan is, and Belichick will always be -- squawked to the referees about it, to no avail.

When asked about it after the game, Brady offered that he knew what he was doing, and that if the Ravens didn't know, maybe they should read the rulebook better.

For a guy as smart as he is, that was pretty dumb. That was the equivalent of waving the red flag in front of a bull. 

It's a funny thing about people who play hard and fast with the rules. They think nobody notices, but they do. Supposedly, the Colts had their suspicions the last time the Patriots were in Indy that they were messing with the footballs. Coaches talk to each other. There's almost always a common link between teams ... an assistant coach, or GM, or a player who's been traded. These are not 32 totally separate and impregnable entities. 

There are certainly those bonds between the Ravens and the Colts, and I wouldn't be at all shocked if there was some communicating going on between the two teams, with the objective being to shove the rulebook up Brady's, well, you know.

Or, it could simply be a case of the Colts knowing they had a trump card and waiting for the right time to play it.

At any rate, it's "more probable than not" that general, overall disgust with the Patriots and their flaunting, tauntinig ways had as much to do with how this all played out. And those who think that if this were the Jacksonville Jaguars who did this, nobody would have cared are right. But since it was the Patriots, and since they're serial cheaters, and since they're not exactly humble in the way they flip off the NFL every chance they get, it's only natural that when the time came to get them in the vice grip, the NFL wasn't going to pass up the chance.

The rest is mundane. It probably was a sting, designed to catch the Patriots rather than warn them. Brady got too cocky at the end of the first half of the Colts game and thew a pick, which gave the Colts the perfect opportunity to put their plan in action (I'm certainly not alone in my thinking here). 

The sad thing is that Brady didn't have to do this. He torched the Colts for 28 points in the second half,, in miserable weather, which was after the bogus footballs were discovered and, presumably, properly inflated. Two weeks later, he led a fourth-quarter comeback to win the Super Bowl, again with balls that we can only hope, after all the hullabaloo that preceded the game, were properly inflated.

So you have to wonder what the advantage was? Or, at least, what he thought it would be. 

This is another in a long line of lessons we should learn: that the coverup is always worse than the crime. The Patriots might have ended up with a fine over this, but the penalty would be nowhere as severe as it ended up being (four-game suspension for Brady; $1 million fine; loss of first- and fourth-round draft picks over two years) had they not devoted most of their time to stonewalling the NFL, and going way over the top in denials.

The supreme loser is Brady, whose once-impeccable reputation is in shreds. He's unmasked as just one more guy who chose to evade the truth rather than face up to it, and, from all appearances, it doesn't look as if he's ready to change any of that.

Too bad. He's had one of the best careers a player could possibly have. He's going to have to work long and hard to rebuild his reputation now.