Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the ongoing political fallout from the Parkland mass shooting, Jared Kushner’s precarious position in the White House, and the new film The Death of Stalin.
As Marjory Stoneman Douglas High reopens its doors, national support for gun control has reached its highest level in at least 25 years, the campaign to boycott the NRA’s business partners continues to widen, and even President Trump has made a show of defying NRA dogma. Why has the response to Parkland been able to break through where others were not?
Let’s not get too carried away: This will be a breakthrough only if the laws governing (or failing to govern) guns are toughened. Trump’s change of heart before the television cameras yesterday, so reminiscent of the similar head fake he did when promising Democrats a humane compromise on DACA, means nothing if he about-faces again or if he fails to win votes from Republicans on the Hill for the reform measures he now purports to champion.
But even if nothing happens right away, it’s hard not to feel that we are on a hopeful new path for gun politics in America. There are several reasons for this breakthrough. The first, obviously, is the leadership shown by the Parkland students, who have catalyzed a grassroots uprising that is likely to produce a huge outpouring at the March for Our Lives rallies in Washington and beyond on March 24. Though Trump has no fixed position on guns or anything else, he (or those around him) may have figured out that it’s good politics for him to get ahead of that march and try in some crude way to co-opt it. The accelerating movement for gun control is mobilizing two voting groups in particular — young people and suburban women — who are key to a potential Democratic wave in November.
The clout of American business is also crucial. Big money talks. As we’ve seen most recently in North Carolina and Indiana, when corporations, sports leagues, and touring pop stars threaten to boycott states that pass anti-LGBT laws, the states start to backpedal. An equivalent retreat will surely happen in Georgia, where a Republican lieutenant governor running for governor has threatened to penalize Delta financially because of the airline’s admirable decision to stop giving discounts to NRA members. Delta employs more than 33,000 Georgians. Does Georgia really value guns more than jobs? I suspect we’ll soon find out that the answer is no.
Customer boycotts of businesses that support the gun lobby will also be a useful tool for applying further pressure. Take FedEx, which is retaining the discount it offers NRA members and yet claims that “FedEx has never provided any donation or sponsorship to the NRA.” A discount is a donation, fellas. Those who don’t want to subsidize the NRA should boycott FedEx and any other business that rewards either the NRA or the members whose dues underwrite such NRA expenditures as the $30 million it lavished on the Trump campaign. Every dollar that goes directly or indirectly to the NRA is a dollar that helps keep assault rifles in easy reach of America’s schools.
Jared Kushner has lost his interim top-secret security clearance amid a wave of news targeting his vulnerabilities: His application for permanent clearance been stalled by the Mueller investigation, “officials in at least four countries” had plotted to take advantage of his financial troubles, and his family business received large loans from companies shortly after their executives had met with him. Are forces aligning to push Kushner out of the White House?
You bet. As always, reading The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is a good way to read the White House’s tea leaves. The page is in the tank for Trump, and its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, is close to Kushner besides. So when the Journal opined this morning, however gingerly, that the continued presence of both Kushner and Ivanka Trump in the White House is a political burden for Trump, it’s safe to bet that they are goners. Please forgive me for breaking this heartbreaking news if you are among the several dozen people in America who thought Kushner would bring peace to the Middle East.
In truth, as becomes clearer with each new revelation, Kushner is in the Trump Administration for the same reason Paul Manafort was in the Trump campaign. Reeling in debt, Kushner saw his father-in-law’s ascent as a way to gain access to foreign powers and bankers, sanctioned Russian bankers included, who would come to his fiscal rescue in exchange for White House favors. Along the way it’s likely that Kushner lied to federal investigators about his dealings much as he lied about his foreign contacts on those security clearance forms that he repeatedly had to “revise” in his unsuccessful effort to wangle more than an interim security clearance. I am no shrink, but I remain convinced that at least an unconscious motive here is Jared’s desire to repeat his father Charles’s history as a convicted felon.
One of the lesser-noted aspects of Jared Kushner’s White House career is that in addition to engaging in foreign policy, he also has a domestic brief that includes, most prominently, running the administration’s push for prison reform. He’d be wise to get cracking on that one fast.
In his upcoming The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci satirizes the Kremlin in a way that might be familiar to viewers of Veep and In the Loop. Did the film help you see any surprising similarities in the failures of American and Russian politics?
Full disclosure: I am a producer of Veep and worked with Iannucci over its first four seasons, when he was its showrunner. But neither Veep nor In the Loop (arguably the best movie about the Iraq War, though it never mentions the word Iraq) fully prepared me as either a fan or colleague for what he achieves in The Death of Stalin.
This film, an adaptation of graphic novels about the brief interregnum between Stalin’s stroke and death in 1953, was conceived well before Brexit and the rise of Trump. (Though it opens in the U.S. March 9, it premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival.) Yet in an almost insanely prescient way it plays like Fire and Fury — though it is both much funnier and far more chilling.
Trump is not Stalin, one of the monsters of human history. (Though one can’t dismiss the possibility that Trump would express admiration for Stalin much as he does for Putin — if he actually knew who Stalin was.) But Stalin per se is not what this movie is about. What Iannucci has done is to dramatize in comedy and farce the terror that a Stalin injects like a cancer in an entire society. For most of the action, the title character is in a coma and we are tossed into the frenzies of the toadying Soviet officials hoping to succeed him. They remain so fearful of even a comatose Stalin that they delay calling a doctor lest he awake and disapprove of their choice. After years of telling the boss only what he wants to hear and executing his orders and policies no matter how grotesque, they are bereft of any moral anchor or any human impulse beyond an animalistic craving for power.
To appreciate how Iannucci makes this craven spectacle hilarious — while never downplaying the mass murders and incarcerations of Stalin’s tyranny — would require many spoilers. But the comic wattage of his cast — led by Steve Buscemi (Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russell Beale (Beria), Jeffrey Tambor (Malenkov), and Michael Palin (Molotov) — will at least give you a rough idea. They are far more amusing than, say, Steve Bannon, John Kelly, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Steve Mnuchin. In some ways the characters in The Death of Stalin are logical successors to the government bureaucrats of Veep, In the Loop, and The Thick of It, Iannucci’s satirical assault on politics in his British homeland. But by bringing his themes and talent to the arena of a state in the hands of a despot inflicting a reign of terror, he has delivered the blackest and most cautionary of black comedies, the Dr. Strangelove for our time.