Trump then, Tump now.

Back in the hallucinatory Republican primary season Donald Trump appeared indestructible. Nothing he said damaged his standing with a mob of angry, ill-informed, anti-institutional voters. He won over some regular folks, too, people who thought it might be a good idea to run the country like a business, or who just liked him on The Apprentice. But it was a small, core group of haters who armored him. He pandered to their nihilism and their prejudices. And they embraced a candidate who eschewed political correctness while giving voice to the racist sentiments that always simmer just below the surface of American public discourse.

Nobody else in the Republican Party had to stand by what he trumpsaid then, and few, if any, did. Now they do. Except, of course, when they don’t…as is the case with Trump’s hysterical denunciation of a federal judge named Gonzalo P. Curiel, a midwesterner who is overseeing a lawsuit against the shuttered scam that was Trump U. Trump says Curiel is a “Mexican” and therefore biased because Trump plans to “build a wall.” Expanding on this thesis, Trump has also said that he probably could not get a fair trial with a Muslim judge either. Presumably women judges fall into the same category, unless they are unusually attractive and thus exempt from Mr. Trump’s general disdain for women.

Republican office holders and party regulars have rushed to the TV cameras to denounce Trump’s position. Awkward. Even Newt Gingrich, a rumored running mate, has blasted Trump and suggested that he shut up about Curiel. Meanwhile, Republicans have been mum about the fact that they’re blocking President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court so their guy can make the pick after the election. Word from “their guy” is that minorities and women need not apply.

The Curiel fiasco shows how ambivalent Republicans are about their nominee. It also hints at how deeply he might hurt down-ballot Republicans this fall if they stay with his candidacy and it flames out in bigotry and ignorance. They’re hoping he’ll change. He won’t. They’re hoping he’ll “pivot” now that the primary is done. He won’t. They’re hoping he’ll somehow see that running for President is about something more important than his own ego. He won’t. They’re counting on him to surround himself with wise, temperate advisers who will keep him (and the country) on the rails. He hasn’t yet. And, most of all, they’re hoping he’ll stop saying stupid, offensive things.

Good luck with that.

Former Congressman and longtime GOP consultant Vin Weber has invoked the parable of the scorpion and the frog, in which the scorpion delivers a sting after promising not to because it’s “in his nature.” Weber says Trump is what Trump is, period. What we see is what is in his nature. Not a pretty picture.

What surely gives the Republicans the most heartburn over the Curiel flap is that Trump, when cornered in some outrage, invariably responds by launching a new outrage as a way of changing the subject. His candidacy lurches from one controversy to the next. And now each instance will require Republicans who want to cling to office (and maybe to a few shreds of dignity) to disavow what he says.

Well, they can do that. They just can’t do it with straight faces. And they can’t hide the disconnect from voters. How do you “endorse” a candidate you have to distance yourself from every other day? Donald Trump entered the race as a joke. He stands a good chance of going out the same way.

 

 

 

The Long Hot Summer

Our lesson for today:

1. demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than through rational argument

2. fascist: a political leader who believes in authoritarian nationalism

3. moron: a person who is okay with either or both of the above, which, according to recent polling, includes nearly half the American population

4. conventional wisdom: a banal, soul-crushing substitute for actually knowing something

5. pundit: idiot (Not to be confused with moron, as pundits do not care about what the government does, only who will get to be in it.)

6. eternity: the time remaining between now and November 8

 

Hollywood Needs to Go Hollywood

In another life–that is to say, back in the day–I wrote about the movies. As a critic, I had my fans and detractors. But one thing you couldn’t take away from me is that I was one hell of an Oscar picker, with a lifetime batting average way over .900. You can look it up.

I haven’t seen all of this year’s nominated pictures and performances, so I can’t speculate on who or what will win tonight. But I do have a single, dead-certain, lock of a prediction for tonight’s Oscars: The program won’t be nearly as good as it could be. And it’s for the same reason it always turns out that way: The show needs more movies in it.

The best parts of every Academy Award telecast are always the clips–scenes from the nominated performances and pictures, historical montages, tribute pieces to the great, the near-great, the camp and the cultured, and, inevitably, the recently deceased. This is a show about movies, and it’s movies that we most want to see.

Why the producers of the program get this wrong year after year is a puzzle. Think how much better it would be if a dozen or so lesser categories were dispensed with for the live program. Let the Oscars for sound mixing, make-up, set design, costuming and the like move to the off-prime-time venue where various technical awards are handed out. Ditto those categories for films that virtually no one has seen or ever will. Let’s concede that nobody knows or cares about the Documentary Short that’s going to get an Oscar tonight, other than the people who made it and their dozen or so friends who saw it. Give it the Oscar, just don’t do it on the air this evening.ImageTake the time saved on these important, but less-than-compelling pieces of business and use them to give us a couple of minutes from each of the best film nominees. The same for the performance awards. Personally, I can always stand a little less of Daniel Day-Lewis than most people can–but it would be more captivating TV to see him go on a bit as Lincoln in Lincoln.

I’m sure none of this will happen tonight, or probably ever. We’ll wake up groggy tomorrow morning, sweep up the popcorn bits and wash out the wine glasses thinking about somebody’s barely-there dress or how Adele nailed it with “Skyfall.” And these things are intrinsic to the Oscar experience. I only wish the movies that inspire the evening were given a little more space to do just that.

Murder on Sundays

“The Killing,” AMC’s brilliant and stylish whodunnit, wraps up its second season on Sunday with an answer to the question that has animated the most absorbing plot line on TV for two years: Who killed Rosie Larsen?

Inspired by a popular Danish series, “The Killing” is set in Seattle and is actually less a conventional police procedural than it is a group psychological study played out in a gray-on-gray world in which the main character…and it’s not even close…is the rain that falls ceaselessly, leaving the urban landscape streaked and glistening, and everyone it looking cold and slightly smeared. If this sounds like a visual dead zone, it isn’t. “The Killing” might be the handsomest television show ever, from the stunning aerial tracking shots that make Seattle achingly beautiful to the quiet closeups that linger on the faces of a sensational cast.

As with David Lynch’s seminal “Twin Peaks,” to which “The Killing” has been compared, the story opens with the gruesome discovery of a dead teenager. And just as it was with Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks,” no corpse ever looked deader than Rosie Larsen’s when she was found lying on her side in a fetal position under a foot of water in the trunk of a car recovered from the bottom of a lake

That scene…it was at night and it was raining…signaled that “The Killing” was going to be special, and apart from the vague and perplexing cliffhanger ending that concluded Season One, it has been every step of the way. Unlike the disturbing “Twin Peaks,” which veered between unsettling and wacky, “The Killing” has hit its mark week in and week out, pulling you deeper inside as the complexities of the story multiply.

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Detectives Holder and Linden

At the center of the case is an unlikely crime-fighting duo, two damaged Seattle police detectives who, combined, form a single functioning person. Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) is the lead investigator. Perpetually bundled in a huge sweater and carrying a gun that looks about five times too big for her hand, Linden looks bruised and blue, a post-hypothermic case with an attitude who never smiles and never takes shit from anybody. Her partner, meanwhile, is the best thing about the show…and maybe the most intriguing character ever created for television. Detective Steven Holder (Joel Kinnaman), a sketchy, streetwise former narc and recovering addict, entered the story as a problem child and quickly became its moral center. For Holder, the case is everything…and the rules of proper investigation are, at best, mere suggestions.

Holder and Linden are good together because they have to be…everyone either hates them or is out to destroy their careers while steering the investigation off course. The hardest friction to bear is the one between the detectives and Rosie’s grieving parents, Mitch and Stan Larsen. Mitch (Michelle Forbes), at first paralyzed by her daughter’s murder and then unhinged by it, wants answers from the police. Stan (the terrific Brent Sexton), is a masssive and intimidating former enforcer for the mob who just wants the police out of his ruined life. Somehow, the Larsens and the detectives have to deal with one another: They’re just about the only people in this large ensemble who aren’t potential suspects.

The story behind the investigation…which unfolds over the course of only a few weeks…is a Seattle mayoral election in which routine political intrigues deepen when one of the candidates is implicated in Rosie’s murder. This corner of “The Killing” could easily fall into a conventional quicksand of dirty tricks and alliances for hire, but the heated election is repeatedly carved up in a way that keeps you happily off-balance.

Like everybody, I’ve enjoyed the beautiful people and the mansions and manicured lawns of “Downton Abbey,” and the sleek, alcohol-infused environs of midtown Manhattan on the fading “Mad Men.” But “The Killing” has been my main destination on Sunday television from its first chilly, sodden moments. Much as I look forward to finally learning who killed Rosie Larsen this weekend, this is one case I wish never had to be closed.

Thunder and Lightning

Last night’s stirring come-from-behind victory by the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder over the once-inevitable San Antonio Spurs in the NBA’s Western Conference finals was a thing of beauty. It was also further proof that a lockout-shortened and injury-riddled season has been saved in the end by the unexpectedly great match-ups among the last four teams standing. Tonight the Boston Celtics have a chance to finish off the formerly favored Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, an outcome that would not only produce an underdog sweep of both finals series, but would also thrill legions of LeBron James haters.

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Kevin Durant

James, who famously gave up on the Cleveland Cavaliers…and who even more famously earned the enmity of fans everywhere outside of South Beach with his splashy announcement that he was forming a Dream Team in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh two years ago…may be the best player in the NBA. But its brightest star is the Thunder’s Kevin Durant, a lanky 23-year-old whose exuberance and guile and killer instincts on the court contrast with James’s grimness and frequent unwillingness to take the shot at the end to win a game. That Durant has accomplished so much in a market even smaller than Cleveland only adds to his luminescence.

The Celtics, having found some youthful spring in their steps up and down the court would make an entertaining opponent for Durant and company. The kids from Oklahoma will arrive in the finals with lightning in a bottle, and seeing them against Boston’s silverbacks could be electrifying, especially with the knowledge that Mr. James has to watch it all on TV.  But if you like basketball more than schadenfreude…and maybe remember or have heard about the great match-ups of the past…we’re talking Larry vs. Magic in the Celtics/Lakers series of the mid-80s…then you might be pulling for the Heat to get past Boston.

Durant and James, mano-a-mano? Bring it.

Digital Hipsterism

Blogging is dead.

I know what you’re thinking…and it’s not did he fire six shots or only five. You’re thinking the irony of blogging about the demise of blogging is pretty rich. It is. But bear with me.

The death of blogging has been widely reported in the online world lately, on Twitter and Facebook, and by any number of prominent authorities, not the least of them being Virginia Heffernan, the high priestess of all things digital and lately uber-correspondent for Yahoo! News. In fact, in the wake of the recent calamitous Facebook IPO, Heffernan wondered if social media might also be headed for the dustbin of digital history.

Virginia Heffernan

As welcome as that prospect might be…wouldn’t it be great if we could all get back to doing real work…I suspect most of the social media and even blogging are not dying but are instead evolving. I think all of these forms, as they adapt and refine themselves to the conditions in the digital ecosystem, will not only survive but get better. Let’s face it: How could they not?

They’ll survive by getting smaller and smarter and much, much less democratic. Information does not want to be free and it doesn’t want to come from everywhere all at once. Information wants to have value. What the heap of words reduced to bits and bytes that is the blogosphere needs now is a little natural selection. Let the hacks and the poseurs and the self-indulgent and the wingnuts of every persuasion go extinct.

There is a kind of digital hipsterism in force in the online universe…a constant, lurching, desperate search for a ride on the Next Big Thing. This leaves behind a trail of semi-useful tools that got discovered, over-used, and that are being gradually abandoned by people who no longer find them worthwhile, or who hate the loss of privacy that comes with every new digital identity, or who simply never had anything meaningful to communicate in the first place.

Where it once seemed that someday everyone would have a blog that nobody read, it now appears that just the opposite may come to pass: We have begun to look for voices that matter, prose that tracks, judgments that are more than the idle head-scratching of the uninformed. The blogosphere isn’t dying…it’s just ready for a heavy winnowing out. In the future, not everyone will blog. Those who remain will be those are read.

The same thing is happening with self-published books. Until recently, it appeared that ebooks had thrown open the door to anyone wanting to call himself or herself an author. The reality is that the odds of success with a self-published book are vanishingly small and are a function not only of the vastness of the competition but also the fact that most of the people who give this a try are, however earnest, simply not any good. The door may be open, but rarely does the real thing walk through it.

For those of us suffering in the transition from the analogue past to the digital future…the very subject of Virginia Heffernan’s forthcoming book Magic and Loss…that new sound that can now be heard faintly amid the din on the Internet is the the sound of our analogue hearts still beating.

Loserville

Nearing the end of their second season in a shiny, publicly financed new ballpark that was said necessary to keep the franchise “competitive,” the dreadful Minnesota Twins are 27 1/2 games out of first place in a division that features exactly one team playing above .500. Catcher Joe Mauer, the newly-minted gazillionaire face of the franchise is slogging through a lost season and listening to mutterings about his lack of toughness and leadership. Whom he might lead anywhere at this point is a mystery, as the team has quite understandably given up and quit.

Target Field, meanwhile, continues to draw fans galore–proving what its detractors have always maintained, namely that fancy new stadiums are great for the owners’ bottom lines but have nothing to do with winning and losing.

This is a good thing to bear in mind as the perennially doomed Vikings continue their quest for a new pleasure palace in Arden Hills. Giving them one will change the fortunes of one Zigi Wilf–but not those of the team, which, to put it plainly, got off to an abysmal start last weekend. Among the team’s top problems on Sunday was two-time reject quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is on pace to match–on a cumulative basis– the Patriots’ Tom Brady’s passing yardage from his opening game by around Week 14.

The team lately hasn’t fared any better on the legislative front after being stymied during the most recent legislative session–though to be fair, that legislature didn’t do anything for anybody. The Vikes got left off the agenda of the Special Session over the summer, though why we still call these annual inevitabilities “special” is beyond me.

In happier times
As the Vikings and their various government partners–including a reluctant Ramsey County–try to resolve the “details” of a stadium plan, the price goes up, the deal gets hazier, and certain elements have emerged that make the prospect of actually doing the dirty deed seem more remote. One of my favorites was the discovery several weeks ago that the Wilf plan included a convention hotel as part of the associated development–a feature that would thus put public funding to use in competition with existing convention facilities in Minneapolis and St. Paul. When pretty much everyone howled about this the plan was quickly discarded–the Vikings said it was only a “preliminary” idea anyway–but it leaves a bad taste, as it seemed to confirm the suspicion that Wilf is a slick carpetbagger looking to skin us rubes of the tundra.

Then there was the sudden and quite unexpected announcement by leaders in both the House and Senate that an Arden Hills stadium would need a public referendum in Ramsey County. This is seen as a stadium killer, since everyone knows that the public does not support using public money to line the pockets of sports team owners. In other words, the stadium plan abruptly ran up against the reality that it is a public project the public does not, in fact, want.

Cynics see the referendum as a back-door effort to kill the Arden Hills option in order to re-open consideration of a new stadium in Minneapolis. I like a conspiracy theory, but will somebody explain to me how a Minneapolis stadium would not also require a referendum if that’s the mood we’re in? One wouldn’t pass there either, so if a vote on a Minneapolis site were somehow avoided it would look like the fix is in.

Meanwhile, a possible solution has presented itself. The Vikings now hint they might spend as much as $500 million of their own money on a stadium.  That’s moving close to the estimated cost of the open-air, football-only stadium the team says is all it really needs. So if Mr. Wilf will only come up a little more he can do the whole deal on his lonesome and us taxpayers can go back to wondering how to pay for schools and roads. If he’s a little short maybe Joe Mauer or Donovan McNabb could float him a loan. They’ve both got more money than they deserve.