Is Donald Trump a disruptor? Or: Do presidents ever “drain the swamp”?


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drain_the_swamp-crop-promo-xlarge2A colleague of mine, Adam Freeman, recently asked me and other anti-Trumpites on Facebook:

What if we are wrong [about Donald Trump]?
What if he is a patriot and a disruptor? What if what we need is someone to break the status quo and rebuild a more just system of government, or a stronger economy? What would it look like if that were the case? How is that different than what we’re seeing?

I don’t know if I want a president to disrupt the system. Presidents who do it usually do it by taking more power for themselves.

A disruption that helped to “drain the swamp” was the 1883 Pendleton Act. The law tore down the “spoils system” — as in “to the victor belong the spoils”; the system gave jobs to people who were loyal to people who won elections — and installed the Civil Service, which would (in theory) reward people for merit and seniority.

The Pendleton Act didn’t come from a president but from a senator, George Pendleton of Ohio.

(You could argue that we have a spoils system today. The federal government has grown so huge that after every presidential election, the government issues the “Plum Book,” a list of more than 9,000 federal jobs that the president can fill even if his appointees haven’t risen through the Civil Service. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Other disruptions came after the shocking revelations of Watergate: the Campaign Finance Law of 1974 and the Ethics in Government Law of 1978, which changed elections and government practices.

Yet another disruption came as a result of the disastrous Vietnam War: the War Powers Act, which limited the president’s power to make war.

None of these 1970s laws came from the White House. Members of Congress proposed and passed them, sometimes over presidential vetoes.

Another category of disruption has been letting a vastly increased number of people have voting power, generally by amending the Constitution. The 15th Amendment let African-Americans vote. The 17th Amendment allowed ordinary voters, not state legislatures, to elect senators. The 19th Amendment gave women the vote.

Again, though, these weren’t presidential initiatives.

I’ve heard conservatives say that Ronald Reagan’s reforms were disruptions that took power from the federal government. But as the Reagan administration was ending, the free-market Mises Institute’s Sheldon Richman tallied the results in government spending, taxes, regulation, bureaucracy, and trade. He concluded, “[Reagan] was to be the man who would turn things around. But he didn’t even try. . . . There has been no sea-change in thinking about the role of government.”

So if you expect Donald Trump or any other president to drain the swamp, forget it. He just drains the people from the previous administration and inserts his own loyalists, like every other president.

And if you expect him to be a disruptor — nope, that won’t happen, either. When a president disrupts Washington’s power centers, he usually does it to pull more power toward himself.

Is that what America wants?

“When you call me that, SMILE!”


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I just finished The Virginian, generally considered the first novel about the old West that wasn’t just a bang-bang dime-novel shoot-’em-up.

The book was a gigantic best-seller that has directly or indirectly influenced every Western in print or on screen. It established one Western trope after another:
• It takes place in a tiny town on the edge of the frontier and on the endless, wild prairie surrounding the town.
• The main character, a cowboy, is a Byronic hero on horseback — a strong, silent type. He has a strong moral code but doesn’t get all flowery about it. He’s a natural leader who stands up for justice and integrity — by fighting, when necessary.
• A pretty, young schoolmarm comes to town. She and the hero have a courtship that plays out the differences between her Eastern background (gentility, distinguished breeding, proper education) and his Western ways (informality, familiarity with nature, readiness to face violence).
• The villain, a cattle rustler who’s jealous of the hero, lures him into a climactic shootout.

The book also originated a classic scene between hero and villain during (of course) a poker game in a saloon:
The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table, holding it unaimed. . . . Drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: “When you call me that, SMILE!” . . . .
Silence, like a stroke, fell on the large room. All men present, as if by some magnetic current, had become aware of this crisis. . . .
Then, with equal suddenness and ease, the room came out of its strangeness. Voices and cards, the click of chips, the puff of tobacco, glasses lifted to drink,–this level of smooth relaxation hinted no more plainly of what lay beneath than does the surface tell the depth of the sea.
For Trampas had made his choice. And that choice was not to “draw his steel.”

By the way, the phrase that caused the Virginian to demand a smile was “You son-of-a—.”

The author, Owen Wister — a silver-spoon Philadelphia banker, musician, and lawyer — wrote the book in 1902. I started the book expecting it to be little more than a historical curio. But Wister tells his story well and presents characters who range from intriguing to genuinely moving.

I found certain elements especially interesting.

The style sometimes gets so plain and straightforward that it foreshadows Hemingway. For instance:
The murder had been done from behind. We closed the eyes.
 “There was no natural harm in him,” said the Virginian. “But you must do a thing well in this country.”
(A few decades later, Wister and Hemingway would become friends.)

One brief passage, in which the grieving Virginian grieves over having to kill his best friend, seems to hint at a gay subtext:
The tide of emotion was even now whirling him. . . . “Steve and me most always hunted in couples back in them gamesome years,” he explained. And he fell into the elemental talk of sex, such talk as would be an elk’s or tiger’s; and spoken so by him, simply and naturally, as we speak of the seasons, or of death, or of any actuality, it was without offense. It would be offense should I repeat it. Then, abruptly ending these memories of himself and Steve, he went out of the tent, and I heard him dragging a log to the fire. When it had blazed up, there on the tent wall was his shadow and that of the log where he sat with his half-broken heart.

And the book is light on the racism that would scar the Western genre. Wister was a racist in his personal views, but this book doesn’t ridicule Mexicans. It doesn’t include any comical Chinese who can’t speak English well. It doesn’t slur Indians, although the characters sometimes refer to some Indians as dangerous and ready to kill white men.

The book does include a couple of Jewish peddlers but plays them straight rather than as stereotypes. And when it mentions African-Americans, it does so in the context of condemning Southern lynch mobs:
“Judge Henry,” said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, “have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?”
He met her. “Of burning Southern Negroes in public, no. . . .
“I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous . . . . We [in Wyoming] do not tortur
e our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States.”

Unfortunately for matters of race, the book’s characters are almost all white. That may have been historically accurate for Wyoming; but today, having no non-white characters seems like an unfair exclusion and a blind spot on the author’s part.

In general, though, I think the book holds up well.

Weak-willed super-heroes


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Will power. In DC Comics, Hal Jordan and his comrades in the Green Lantern Corps focus it through a ring that can make or do nearly anything. Green Lantern stories imply that Green Lanterns have more, purer, and stronger will power than anyone.

Too bad that’s not true.

When we call people strong-willed, we mean that they obey no one’s will but their own. The most famous film about Adolf Hitler is titled Triumph of the Will, hinting that Hitler rose to conquer Germany by applying tenacity and determination; and the movie got that part right. In The Godfather, Mario Puzo described mafia bosses as men whose will was so strong that they refused to knuckle under to any authority, even the cops and the courts. A person with more will than anyone else — that is, more drive, desire, and ambition — isn’t going to take orders.

But the Green Lanterns have usually obeyed the orders of little blue men half a universe away, the self-appointed Guardians of the Universe.

If the Green Lanterns did have truly supreme will, then they wouldn’t work for the Guardians. Can you imagine Hitler or a mafia kingpin saying, “Yes, sir, right away, sir” if he didn’t have to?

When Green Lanterns do prove themselves supremely strong-willed, the Guardians don’t like it. All the way back in Green Lantern #7, by John Broome, Gil Kane, and Joe Giella, the Green Lantern Sinestro proved too willful for the Guardians to control. He says it himself: “I am Green Lantern — no one can tell me what to do!”

So the Guardians kicked him out of the Corps.


They’ve even punished Hal Jordan for being too willful. In Green Lantern #76, by Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and Frank Giacoia, an enraged Hal was about to slug a slumlord when the Guardians ordered him to leave, chewed him out, and told him to go away and cool off until they called him. When he defied them and returned to Earth — that is, when he asserted his own will — they got even madder.



You can do a lot of things in the Green Lantern Corps — but don’t demonstrate too much will.

(P.S. DC has shown at least one character with more will power than a Green Lantern.  In Justice League International #18, by Keith Giffen, J.M DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, and Al Gordon, the interstellar badass Lobo walked right through a barrier that the Green Lantern G’Nort constructed. G’Nort’s a comedy-relief character, so maybe he doesn’t represent the bulk of the Green Lantern Corps. But he’s still one of them.)

We elected the wrong Trump


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I think we elected the wrong Trump.

With his bankruptcies, failed marriages, and tendency to say impolitic things, Donald Trump reminds me not of past presidents but of the “exhibitionists, rogues, and ne’er-do-wells who have turned up in the exalted role of First Brother . . . people like Sam Houston Johnson, Donald Nixon, Billy Carter, and Roger Clinton,” to quote columnist Meg Greenfield’s wise book Washington.

By contrast, Trump’s brother Robert is “classy and dignified,” according to someone who knows them both. “Classy and dignified” — it sounds presidential.

So maybe we elected the wrong Trump brother.

The mystery of Raquel Welch


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58b1b96e29000020000c320eThe movie How To Be A Latin Lover has brought some attention back to Raquel Welch, one of its stars.

I was hitting puberty (or, more accurately, puberty was hitting me) when Welch was the reigning sex goddess, so I ended up seeing a lot of her movies. Most of them, particularly her starring vehicles, are pretty bad.

Look at Welch’s record at Rotten Tomatoes. Her films at the height of her fame in the late ’60s and early ’70s earn scores as low as 40% for Fathom, 29% for Myra Breckinridge, and 20% for Bandolero!

Movies like Bedazzled (81%) and The Last of Sheila (92%) got better ratings, but Welch was just a minor player or ensemble member in those films. When she was a movie’s star or co-star, the movie was usually weak.

And that’s odd, because Welch is by all accounts an intelligent woman and can be an entertaining performer. You’d think she could have done better.

Maybe her sex-symbol image discouraged top directors from taking her seriously. She told People magazine that movie people considered her just “a cash register with glands.”

But other sex stars have gone on to earn Hollywood’s respect, including Oscar winners Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz, and Kim Basinger.

Maybe her own behavior got in the way. People’s story said, “At least one Hollywood executive called her ‘a ruthless bitch.’ ”

But Hollywood executives have slung that insult about ambitious, hard-driving actresses from Bette Davis to Reese Witherspoon. As actress Marlo Thomas has said, “A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.”

In any event, it’s strange to me that someone with Welch’s fame, shrewdness, and box-office power rarely has starred atop a movie as well-regarded as other movies starring sex symbols, like Some Like It Hot (Marilyn Monroe), Vertigo (Kim Novak), or Casino (Sharon Stone).

Maybe she just had bad taste in scripts.

Don’t screw, don’t bang


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Beware: obscene language ahead.

I’ve never liked the word screw for sex. It sounds mean. A screw is cold, metallic, and small, with a nasty little point that cracks a hard object and cuts a pit into it.

Bang bothers me, too. It’s a violent word. I suspect that guys who talk a lot about banging won’t give a woman (or a man) a long, slow evening of sensual pleasure.

But fuck, while obscene, is a good word.

It’s honest: it means what it says. Screw is a piece of hardware, bang is the sound of an explosion, but fuck means sex.

And it sounds right. The f — born from the coming together of two body parts, the hard teeth and soft lower lip — is hushed and velvety; to hear it clearly, you may have to lean in close. It’s a sound full of foreplay. The u is low, guttural, earthy. And the ck ends the word with decisive finality.

I’ve never much cared for screwing or banging — but fucking is great.

Liberals: fight, shun, or reach out to Trump voters?


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Nearly six months after Donald Trump’s election, Democrats (including me) and other anti-Trump forces are still arguing over how to deal with Trump voters: fight them, shun them, or reach out to them.

More than 60 million Americans voted for the guy. A group that large must contain different varieties of Trump voters. They deserve a variety of responses.

Some Trump voters support the man so loyally that they’d never vote against their hero no matter how you approach them. But others are less loyal and could respond to an outstretched hand, depending on why they cast their votes.

If they voted for Trump because they disliked Hillary Clinton, we can ask if they might vote for someone else in 2020, when Clinton is unlikely to run.

If they voted for Trump because they thought he’d replace the Affordable Care Act with something better, we can ask, “If he doesn’t do that job by 2020, would you re-elect him?”

If they voted for Trump because they thought he could run the government well, we can ask, “If he doesn’t run the government well — if, say, he racks up big deficits — would you re-elect him?”

By the way, I’m talking strictly about political outreach. Politics is everyone’s business, but your personal relations are a private matter. If you’re a liberal Democrat and an associate or colleague voted for Trump, it’s not for me to say whether you should fight, shun, or befriend him or her.

A liberal Donald Trump?


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A small sadness of Donald Trump’s political career is that I and other liberals might welcome parts of his style if a liberal had used them.

Liberals would love someone who wielded refreshingly honest, cut-the-crap jabs to cut through soft, wimpy-lipped, inside-the-Beltway euphemisms and carefully molded campaign phrases that sound like they’ve emerged from ten computer algorithms and twenty focus groups. We’d hail him as a new Harry Truman.

Bernie Sanders gave it a great try, but Trump was the more ruthless phrasemaker: Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Little Marco Rubio, Crooked Hillary Clinton, I will make Mexico pay for that wall, even Make America Great Again. I don’t know if Trump concocted those lines himself, but he chose to make them his slogans.

Even when Trump says something untrue, his admirers don’t appear to care much. Their attitude seems to be “So what if he’s not Professor Precise? At least he means what he says. Even if he’s wrong — and a lot of what he says feels right to me, even if some decimal-checking poindexter says it’s not perfectly correct — I’ll take a guy who sounds real and talks straight over some slippery politician who says stuff he can weasel out of or a so-called ‘expert’ who shades everything with lots of vague exceptions.”

Trump never seems to hold back his feelings, even when he lies. That’s his version of authenticity. And Americans love people who project authenticity: A rapper who sounds like a bone-hard survivor of dangerous streets, or a country star who sings like he’s never seen a city except Nashville.

I’m not saying that I want a liberal who lies as wildly as Trump, boasts as endlessly about himself, or is as quick to vilify anyone who doesn’t yessir-yessir him.

But someone full of genuinely held liberal principles that spray out in raw, direct, colorful rhetoric could give Trump quite a fight.

Opponents vs. enemies


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The fury that’s blazed since Donald Trump started running for president has lit up one of the big divides in politics: opponents vs. enemies.

Opponents vilify each other’s viewpoints, attack each other’s methods and practices, and fight publicly and secretly to ruin each other’s plans. But they can also acknowledge each other’s sincerity, respect each other’s abilities, agree on compromises, and even enjoy a drink or a party together.

Enemies find it disgusting to compromise with people on the other side, much less socialize with them. For enemies, playing politics in a gentlemanly or ladylike manner — as if issues like war, policing, health care, and environmental pollution, which literally kill people, matter only as much as a round of polo — is obscene. The other side isn’t just wrong but also evil, and our side must not merely defeat it but destroy it.

Ronald Reagan had opponents; Donald Trump has (and makes) enemies.

I prefer being an opponent, but that’s just me. I enjoy a good debate but shy away when matters get mean.

(Where credit is due: If memory serves, I’ve borrowed the opponents-vs.-enemies distinction from Marvin Olasky, a communist turned Christian conservative. My thanks to Mr. Olasky, whom I consider an opponent.)

Convention event publicity — part two: during the con


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So you’re at the con, surrounded by chaos. Getting there was a nightmare, you can’t hear over the noise of the crowd and the exhibits, and you’ve got to be in twelve different places at once.

It’s the best time to publicize your event.

Much of what follows is stuff that you should prepare before the con. But no matter how thoroughly you prepped your publicity beforehand, make sure that it reaches people during the con.

Make the event’s web page mobile-friendly. People at a con are more likely to use their phones than their laptop computers.
• Choose a responsive design (
• Simplify images and minimize text to make your pages load quickly.
• Use big text and big buttons on screen for easy visibility and interaction.
• Test, retest, and re-retest your mobile site before and during the con to ensure that it contains everything you want and is easily readable.

Make friends with the con’s staff. Ask them how you can make their lives easier. Here’s why:
• The press relations officer can aid you in reaching journalists.
• The editor of the program book can ensure that your listing or writeup appears in full and on the right page.
• If you’re planning an event at a booth, the people in charge of the exhibit hall and con security can help your event go smoothly.
• If you’re running a panel, the programming officer can make sure that you have enough chairs for your speakers and that their microphones work.
• Don’t neglect the lower-level staff, either. Showing them friendliness and respect can make them want to help you, while rudeness can make them care nothing about your needs.

Print flyers that display the event’s key information: when it begins, where it takes place (with a map, if necessary), who’s involved (with photos), and what the attendees can expect to happen. And then:
• Put a fat stack of flyers on the con’s freebie table. Go by the freebie table from time to time during the con and make sure that other giveaways haven’t buried the flyers.
• Hand flyers to people standing in line to get into events like yours.
• If the con has a press room, leave flyers there.
• If the con permits, leave flyers at the registration area, particularly press registration.
• If the con permits, hang copies of your flyers outside the event to help attendees find the event and to catch the eye of passers-by.
• If fan groups have exhibitor tables, leave flyers with any group that might be interested in attending your event.

Roam the convention center, especially the exhibit hall.
• Look for journalists (you can detect them by their press badges or professional camera equipment); invite them to your event.
• If you see someone wearing a T-shirt related to your event, invite him or her. For instance, if your event is related to gaming, and you see someone in an “I Can’t Adult Now I’m Gaming” shirt, offer that person a flyer and invite him or her to your event.
• When you talk with people about your event, ask them if they’d mind if you put them on the event’s contact list. Add their contact info to the list of people whom you’ve been telling about the event.

Send reminders of the event to your contact list and your social media outlets once a day during the con.

Keep publicizing even after the event begins. If someone at your event says or does anything interesting, write a note about it and shoot a photo or a video. Post them on social media and remind people that the excitement is going on right now. Include the event’s location and the time when the event ends.

Good luck!