Wednesday, October 25, 2017

General Kelly? More Like General Kellyanne Conway

Yes, he is an honored General and we can feel great sorrow for his loss as a Gold Star parent. But there is absolutely no justification for General Kelly to commit deceitfully-based character assassination in an attempt to discredit a voice of opposition. Here is Steve’s take on one of the more despicable controversies Trump has triggered yet.

While addressing reporters in the Rose Garden at the White House last Monday, Donald Trump asserted -- with his customary air of casual certainty -- that Barack Obama did not place phone calls to the families of soldiers killed in action.

This was, of course, yet another soaring leap in this President’s epic struggle to free himself from the surly bonds of reality. We may rank it as even more egregiously ugly than Trump’s routine dishonest fare because it grossly disfigures the solemn rituals through which we, as a people united, honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Challenged with a question about the recent deaths of four Green Berets in Niger, Trump did the only thing he knows how to do: pivot on his inquisitor, and brazenly assert that his own actions were superior to those of Barack Obama, without pausing to reflect on whether his counter-attack had any factual support or, indeed, whether a comparison to Barack Obama in any way addressed the original question. It is the default setting in Trump’s rhetorical strategy: When in doubt, demean the African-American.  

Nothing, it appears, is so important, so essential, so fundamental, or so sacred to our common bonds and values – not even honoring our military dead -- that it can’t be skewed, spun, and spat on for political purposes by a man who, himself, evaded military service.

And yet, implausibly, this story managed to get far worse.

A Florida Congresswoman named Frederica Wilson listened on a speakerphone as Trump placed a call to the Gold Star mother of Sergeant La David Johnson, killed in Niger two weeks ago.  The Congresswoman delivered a scathing assessment of the President’s performance as consoler-in-chief. Wilson castigated Trump for not bothering to learn the Sergeant’s name, saying that Trump repeatedly referred to the deceased as “your guy.” Further, Wilson reported that Trump told the mother than her son “knew what she was signing up for,” which she interpreted in its tone and delivery as an indication of callous indifference.

Trump responded in the only way he knows, counter-punching savagely. He tried to strengthen his hand by dragging in White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly, a career military man and himself a Gold Star parent. Trump was eager to point out that General Kelly had confirmed that Obama had not placed a phone call after the death of Kelly’s son. Kelly, heretofore unwilling to speak publicly about his son’s death, then surprised one and all by making a personal appearance at the White House press room podium to address the grievances aired by Congresswoman Wilson.

Kelly has been widely viewed as a vitally important leavening force in Trump’s White House, a man of character and integrity who is believed to be working tirelessly to contain and discourage the President’s darkest and most ugly impulses. But in shilling for Trump on this issue, Kelly managed to bring himself down to the lowest common denominator of Trump spokespersons. Call him General Kellyanne Conway.

Kelly’s performance on the podium was cutthroat. He repeatedly spat out that he was “stunned” by the Congresswoman’s actions. He accused Wilson of politicizing the death of a serviceman, apparently failing to grasp what had already been widely conceded: Trump himself was the one who had first “politicized” the issue of presidential conduct with Gold Star families by claiming that his performance in this role was superior to Obama.

Kelly then proceeded to execute a rare and raw public character assassination. He emphatically recounted a speech that the Congresswoman had given years before in which she allegedly used the occasion of a dedication of a new facility honoring two murdered FBI agents to make self-aggrandizing claims about her role in the funding of the building. With his taut military bearing, searing anger, and reputation for rock solid integrity, Kelly threw himself fully into the task of discrediting the Congresswoman, concluding by disparaging her as an “empty barrel.”

The only problem was the Kelly’s allegations were wholly inaccurate. A videotape of the Congresswoman’s remarks rapidly surfaced, in which there was not a single word of damning allegations made by Kelly. She had not used the occasion to claim that she was responsible for the funding. Indeed, she had singled out others for credit, including a number of Republicans. 

At very best, Kelly had relied wholly on imperfect memory and had proceeded with his vicious assault without taking the time to investigate his facts.

At worst, John Kelly revealed himself to be no different, no better, no more accurate, and no more honest than Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, or Anthony Scaramucci. Sure, with his square jaw, straight-backed tough-guy intensity, we all wanted to believe that he was the voice of measured thought, pragmatic reason, cool judgment, and honest reckoning in Trump’s White House.

We were wrong.

Kelly used the power of his office to walk out in front of a national television audience and maul a female African-American Democratic Congresswoman’s reputation in broad daylight without pausing to check his facts. The only thing he proved is that he, too, is just one more sycophant for Trump, one more officer of our government who thinks that the criteria for determining if something is true is whether or not he thinks it is.

Acknowledge an error? Offer an apology? Not in Donald Trump's reality. And the good General is now marching to Donald Trump's tune.

If there was a week to be cautious about waging a full-on unjustified assault on a woman whose government position is junior to one’s own, the week that Harvey Weinstein exploded in the public consciousness might be it.

If there was an issue for this White House to be cautious about, it might be an unjustified and unsubstantiated attack on an African American serving in the U.S. Congress.  Ah, but we must recall the default setting in Trump’s rhetorical strategy: When in doubt, demean the African-American.  

Most of the reporters who covered this story bent over backwards to talk in hushed reverie about Kelly’s military glory, and about the very sad fact that his own son died in battle. Most wanted to cut him an enormous amount of slack, choosing to admire the passion of his speech, and the pain he must have endured to speak publicly about his personal tragedy. Indeed, it appeared that many analysts were walking on tippy-toes in terror of appearing to in any way show disrespect for the most honorable General Kelly. 

Then again, when Kelly made up bogus charges to defame a political opponent, it would be equally fair to say that Kelly cynically leveraged his untouchable status as a Gold Star parent, using it as a shield to protect him as he lied about the Congresswoman. Thank heaven for videotape. There is no question that he would have gotten away with it. Yes, one more guy who might have gotten away with it, smugly relying on his senior position and his casual acquaintance with the truth.

And yet, once again, in this incident, we must see the part as simply a part of an ever-uglier whole.

We desperately need to believe Kelly is a good guy, because it is terrifying to think that the last line of defense between Trump and the launch codes is himself merely another Trump hack flack who simply dresses the part of a serious leader. But lying is the core competency of the Trump White House, and General Kelly took his moment in the limelight to establish that he is a team player.

Donald Trump may have an anemic approval rating, may not have a single piece of legislation to his name, and may indeed be losing a battle for his office to a special prosecutor. But it is time to acknowledge that Donald Trump is winning one thing. He is waging a war on reality, and he is gaining ground.

Long ago, back in college, many of us took one of those Philosophy 101 survey courses that caused us to reflect on the nature of being, existence, and reality. Then we graduated and reality smacked us in the face, and growing up meant learning to deal with it. Reality was the thing that prevented us from pretending that our fantasies, self-delusions, and fanciful imaginings would buy dinner, take out the garbage, or pay for college. Reality was not optional, and it did not offer a menu of choices.  Some people hid from it, some navigated it, and some brave souls tried to change it, but the only truly lost souls were the ones who acted like it wasn’t there.

Reality.  I am not an illusion in your dream, and you are not a figment of my imagination. One plus one equals two. The planet is warming up. Harvey Weinstein is one of the biggest assholes in the universe. Reality exists, and comes furnished with objectively observable facts that are not subject to dispute. Reality really exists, right?

Not anymore. Not in Donald Trump’s America.

Now, we must navigate a world in which we must deal with both reality, and the separate reality of what a substantial percentage of the population chooses to believe is real.

Don’t misunderstand: just because Trump and his adherents believe something is true does not make it true.

But just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean we can act like their mangled, unsubstantiated, imagined, and conjured beliefs don’t matter.  They sure do.

They empower the weak-minded and the easily subjugated to reinforce their erroneous beliefs, their bigotry, and their bias.

This week, far from Hollywood, an African-American woman who is a member of Congress was bludgeoned by a senior White House official who used lies to violate his victim.

It is all part of Donald Trump’s fundamental belief that excellent lies, plausible in their content, and delivered with conviction, are not only more convenient but also more effective than the hard work of supporting an argument with the truth. 

Whether it be Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or Anthony Scaramucci, your tax dollars are paying these people to lie to your face. 

Welcome to Donald Trump's team, General Kelly.

We now have to face the fact that it is not just the flimsy and transparent communications hacks who advocate so unflinchingly for a worldview that exists only in Donald Trump's imagination. 

There's a word for it when reality is perverted to serve a political agenda. It is called propaganda.

And the good General Kelly is proving himself a bit too adept at the practice.

Call him General Kellyanne Conway.

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