I put my head in a blender quite completely by accident on Thursday morning, and I’m still trying to get my legs back under me. It started just after 6:00 a.m. when I made the enormous unforced error of turning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Co-host Joe Scarborough and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart were discussing the ongoing debacle in Virginia, so I thought, “What the hell. Let’s see what the Hot TV Take is today.”
Scarborough, who has molted more times than a Screech Owl (right-wing lawyer to right-wing House Rep. to right-wing TV star to self-decreed martyred saint for “real” Republicans in the era of Trump), was attempting to wrap his mind around the phenomenon of blackface to the visible bemusement of Capehart, who is Black. “I’ve lived in the Florida panhandle, they call it the Redneck Riviera,” said Scarborough. “I’ve lived in Meridian, Mississippi. I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I never had a friend, I never had an acquaintance, I never knew anyone who wore blackface. Is this a Virginia thing, or was I sheltered?”
Capehart favored Scarborough with a long Pelosi Pity Clap Look before responding, “You were sheltered.”
There I was, first thing in the morning, listening to a man like Scarborough – who in his time has defended the assassin of abortion doctor David Gunn, sought to privatize the Departments of Education and HUD, voted to strip $270 billion from Medicare and voted to impeach President Clinton before changing careers in order to carry corporate water for a profoundly conflicted media outlet – sit there and whitesplain his ignorance of blackface and institutional Southern racism to an award-winning Black journalist. The experience is difficult to quantify, but it left me feeling a deep need to bathe.
This was merely the appetizer, however. The National Prayer Breakfast was taking place at 8:30 a.m. that morning, and Donald Trump was scheduled to speak. When he addressed this gathering in 2017, Trump vowed to “get rid and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” This amendment, a provision of the tax code that prohibits churches and other non-profit institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates, is probably the most oft-defied law in the country, but this was red meat for the audience. Thinking he might pull a similar number this year, I felt duty-bound to watch.
Bad mistake #2.
Trump did not run wild, gnaw on the podium or declare the Ten Commandments to be the new constitution. As there were rabbis and imams in attendance along with the cream of the right-wing evangelical crop, it is entirely likely that Stephen Miller warned the president not to let his true colors shine too brightly, and he seemed to heed that advice.
It was not, however, a great day in the annals of communication. Unlike the State of the Union address, Trump had no teleprompter during Thursday morning’s Prayer Breakfast to guide him through the briar patch of his own thoughts, and the result was a bewildering word cloud that left even God in a state of despairing confusion.
This, a small portion of Trump’s remarks I transcribed myself, is best read out loud:
On Tuesday, it was my profound honor to address the nation from the House chamber of the state of the union, and our union, as you heard me say, is very very strong. As I said in my address, there is no limit to what we can achieve if we follow the path of cooperation, compromise and common good. America’s potential is unlimited because our extraordinary people are just something that is number one, no matter where you go, we have people, they love our country, and they love their faith.
We are graced by those extraordinary heroes from Tuesday night, the SWAT officer, Timothy Matson, who graced and raced through a very very bullet-filled doorway, he was shot many many times, he’s been operated on many times and unfortunately he’s going back for more. But he was really stopped from having something as bad as it was, the Tree of Life Synagogue, was a horrible horrible (long pause) event, and he really did do a job, he made it so much better, it was so good to see him, I saw him at the hospital and he was suffering, and he is still suffering, but he told me the other night he is so proud to have been a part, he was just a great great gentleman, we introduced him the other night.
Not long after this linguistic adventure came another little gem: “Since the founding of our nation, many of our greatest strides — from gaining our independence to abolition of civil rights to extending the vote for women — have been led by people of faith.”
Not only would Trump and his party oppose two of those three actions today (and given their authoritarian bent, we can perhaps include their opposition to independence as well), but boy howdy, talk about a big chunk of truth offered by mistake. “Abolition of civil rights” indeed. Kris Kobach, your table is ready.
The hardest part is knowing where to put the commas and periods. Perhaps never in all of human history has anyone come so far in life while communicating entirely in sentence fragments. It’s like being trapped inside someone else’s headache, or listening to a record on a turntable with a busted needle. A friend noted that he used to have to stick a matchbook under the 8-track tape to make it play right in the deck. We have no such luxury here.
All this, of course, is nothing new. It wasn’t even unique to the week. On CNBC the day before, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on defending Donald Trump’s State of the Union message. “His economic program is working,” said Mnuchin. We’re not going back to socialism.”
Immediately, my mind split in two and began talking over itself. “Socialism?” the right side asked in astonishment. “How do we go back to socialism? Oh, wait, you guys think Obama was a socialist. That’s pretty funny.” The left side of my brain, however, rose in high dudgeon. “Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the interstate highway system, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, the G.I. Bill, the police, the fire department, public libraries, the post office, farm subsidies, WIC, SNAP, SSDI, student loans, public parks, and let’s not forget top-of-the-line health benefits for public servants like the Treasury Secretary, all paid for with public money!” it shouted. “Back to socialism? We’ve been wallowing in highly effective socialism for almost 100 years, you mortgage pirate.”
Someday, if we survive the mess we’ve made of the planet, someone will compile a detailed sociological examination of how this constant torrent of mind bombs came to affect the population. For many, I fear, the ultimate result is inaction due to confusion, consternation and livid frustration.
No, I do not believe it is an accident of mass media saturation. We are deliberately polluted by a sewage spigot of cognitive dissonance and rank nonsense pouring into our minds on a daily basis. It’s not “fake news,” because “fake news” is almost always real news the president doesn’t want you to know. This is bad noise aimed with purpose and intent. Half the country ingests this swill and then, for example, abandons their right to vote because the pursuit of finding the point to it all requires hip waders and a stronger stomach than most possess. It’s the Gish Gallop deployed nationally, and it has proven to be brutally effective.
So there I was, with the triple-threat of the Treasury Secretary, a widely watched television personality and the president of the United States banging around inside my head like maddened parakeets in a flaming cage… and then I remembered the television came with an “Off” button factory-installed. It worked exactly as it was supposed to, and I knew peace. Try it, and tell a friend.
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