Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s many, many conflicts of interest, the future of the Democratic opposition, and some Oscar-worthy movies to take your mind off all of it.
After the press revealed that a hastily assembled “Opening Day Foundation,” with Donald Jr. and Eric Trump on its board, was selling access to the president-elect and his family the day after his inauguration, for $500,000 to $1 million, the Trump family abruptly distanced itself. Simultaneously, Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich floated the idea of using the presidential pardon to help advisers get around conflict rules. What happens if Trump doesn’t work out a consistent conflicts-of-interest policy before his inauguration?
I hate to break it to anyone at this time of year, but (a) there is no Santa Claus, and (b) there will be no conflicts-of-interest policy in the Trump administration. What there will be are rampant conflicts of interest, more than you can count, as the Trump family and his appointees rip off anything they can — from taxpayers, from consumers, from shareholders — in a spree of deregulation, special dealing, lax white-collar-law enforcement, and corporate welfare. Just in the past day we’ve learned that the billionaire investor Carl Icahn will be Trump’s adviser on deregulation and do so under a legal dodge (he won’t collect a government salary) that will allow him to hold on to his own investments in the industries he’ll be enriching. Only hours before the Icahn announcement we had learned that Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager and ever-loyal wingman, was opening a “consulting” firm “just a block from the White House” (this was the language in the press release) to facilitate access to the White House for corporations, trade associations, and heaven knows what other favor seekers. As I’ve said before, the Trump kleptocracy is going to make the Harding administration’s pay-for-play Teapot Dome scandal look like a Sunday-school picnic.
Many have noted the hypocrisy: Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Gingrich explained the seeming discrepancy in that same NPR interview in which he proposed that the new president evade ethics laws by granting mass pardons to any administration hands that get caught in the till. “I’m told he now just disclaims that,” Gingrich said of Trump’s current attitude toward his former catchphrase. “He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore.” (Gingrich has since disowned his own phraseology in a subsequent tweet.) Instead of draining the swamp, Trump is going to build a bigger and better swamp smack in the middle of the Rose Garden — and, don’t worry, it will be fantastic. Meanwhile, it says all you need to know that Gingrich, the first Speaker of the House ever to be punished for ethics violations, is stepping into the vacuum to serve as moral arbiter of this new regime.
The one mystery is why the Trump children even bother to retreat when caught exploiting their new First Family status to sell access to their father, or, at the more prosaic level, a $10,000 Ivanka-branded bracelet. After all, the president-elect never backs down from a scam or a lie, even after they’re exposed. The answer is simple. If his children know anything, it’s that, unlike their 70-year-old father, they are likely to have long lives ahead of them once the Trump administration is history. They seem to be reckoning with the risk that if they aren’t careful they could be spending many of those post–White House years to come in court — or worse — if Daddy’s no longer around to grant them a pardon.
Though more “faithless electors” defected from their pledged vote than in any other election in U.S. history, they mostly came from states that went for Hillary Clinton, and any hopes for the Electoral College to hold off a Trump administration fell flat. Where should the Democratic opposition focus next?
Perhaps we should not use “Democratic opposition” and “focus” in the same sentence. The party is a rudderless mess, arguably not even rising to the status of hot mess. Its only vision of the future was the vision of the Hillary Clinton campaign, a focus-group-tested basket of appealing homilies that remained inchoate to the bitter end.
What we’ve seen since Election Day is a playing out of the stages of grief, understandably enough. The bargaining phase — the pipe dreams that Trump’s victory might be undone by Jill Stein–masterminded recounts or an Electoral College revolt — has been a waste of time and energy. The selection of a new DNC chief, while important, is not going to be a panacea either, even if, say, Barack Obama were to take the job. And Obama is the only compelling national leader the party has right now, in the wake of the demise of the Clinton machine. Or at least the only compelling national leader the party has who is younger than Social Security age.
It is going to take some time for the Democrats to get their act together. Meanwhile, there’s Chuck Schumer. As one friend of mine put it a few years ago, Schumer “says everything a liberal Democratic senator from New York is supposed to say while believing none of it.” That may be harsh, but in any case, it’s not ideological purity we need from him (or anyone else) who is in place to do combat with Trump after January 20. We need someone who will fight every outrage tooth-and-nail, and I, for one, much respect Schumer’s abilities as a legislative pugilist. Democrats actually believe in government, and understand how it works (or fails to). If they want to toss sand in the gears to slow up the Trump onslaught, they are more knowledgeable about the ways to do so than, say, the shutdown brigade of tea party Republicans. This must be Schumer’s mission.
The other effective counter to the Trump administration may be Trump himself. He may talk about “extreme vetting” for Muslim immigrants, but there has been at most cursory vetting by his transition of the many federal appointees he will have to put in place to have a functioning government. It’s very possible that the legal trip wires in place at the Office of Government Ethics — not to mention protracted hearings, journalistic revelations, and litigation from Democratic attorneys general — will keep the executive branch in limbo for some time.
That will not stop the Congress and new president from, say, repealing Obamacare — a move that could end health insurance for some 20 million Americans, disproportionate numbers of them in states that went for Trump (including Pennsylvania). Any havoc that ensues will be owned by the party that controls both houses of Congress and the White House, no matter what the GOP’s efforts may be to blame the Democrats in general or Trump’s predecessor in particular.
Politico reported this week that one thing congressional Republicans won’t do is “say anything remotely critical” of Trump out of fear that they will be viciously trolled by Steve Bannon’s Breitbart minions — and by the same Trump base that most so-called Republican leaders were terrified of crossing during primary season. That could change if their constituents are lining up at hospital emergency rooms in the dead of winter.
The end of the year also means the height of the Hollywood push for Oscar-worthy movies. Are there any surprises in the bunch?I’ve been surprised by the high quality of what I’ve seen so far: There are actually some movies out there that are as good as television. Like seemingly everyone else, I was moved by Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, an unsparing account of the kind of familial loss that can’t have a happy Hollywood ending, and by Moonlight, which sounds like it could be agitprop, given its tale of a black child who grows up with little hope or family in drug-infested Miami poverty. But the film’s director and screenwriter, Barry Jenkins, eschews moralizing and preaching to plug us directly into the heart and mind of his protagonist, played by three different actors as he moves from boyhood to manhood. This movie is as beautiful as it is sad, and like Manchester, refuses to leave us or its characters at peace in the end.
But I also want to put a pitch in for La La Land, which is the most controversial of the season’s well-reviewed films, among my friends at least. A surprising number of them — particularly musical-theater fans and practitioners — loathe this movie musical, a romantic fable that unfolds in a dreamlike Los Angeles. True, its charming leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, can’t much sing or dance. True, the story has no redeeming social value. But this film, too, subverts Hollywood sentimentality even as it transports us into a hermetically sealed movie-musical bubble redolent not just of the vintage Hollywood Technicolor delights of the Singin’ in the Rain–The Band Wagon era, but of the French director Jacques Demy’s borderline-surreal variations on the genre (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort) in the 1960s. There’s a lot of skill and wisdom in La La Land, a prodigious work by a 31-year-old director, Damien Chazelle, and also a rueful measure of sadness. If his movie offers an escape into a fantasy world at a time we desperately need any escape we can find before plunging into a tough new year, it also recognizes that no dream lasts forever. Sooner rather than later we must wake up and reckon with the reality that we’re not in la-la land anymore.