Trump on Twitter: I am being investigated

Three-dimensional chess

I’ve spent the last several hours writing blurbs for the Indy’s upcoming Best of Missoula issue, and boy are my arms…glib. Remember yesterday, when I said there would be Friday links? I’ve got some bad news, champ. Fortunately for us, the president is refreshing the news cycle so rapidly there’s no time to look back on the week that was. This morning, he took to Twitter for this quasi-official statement:

I worry that the bizarre content of this tweet will distract from the bizarre punctuation. The president who has spent the last few weeks trying to get various members of the Department of Justice to say that he is not being investigated is, apparently, being investigated. While attempting to defend himself, he became the first person to reveal that publicly. He also thinks Witch Hunt is a title, like Duck Hunt.

This behavior is very much like that of a character in comedy. First he becomes monomaniacally dedicated to a goal—in this case, getting the word out that he is not under investigation. Then his efforts to pursue that goal bring about the opposite result—in this case, telling the world that he is under investigation. It’s times like this I’m glad there’s nothing funny about his speech patterns, or the president would seem ridiculous.

Or perhaps this is a genius gambit! Maybe, at the moment when it most appears that Trump doesn’t want people to think he is being investigated, he tells everyone he is being investigated to deprive his enemies of the opportunity to tell us themselves. It is a plan fiendish in its intricacies. Surely it is the work of a mastermind—the kind of mastermind who uses his inherited wealth to rise to the presidency and then, like a phoenix, fails at literally everything else he attempts. You’ve fooled us again, President Trump. We almost thought you were incompetent, for a second.

Friday links! Get confident, stupid edition

You know what the problem is with this country? No one has the courage of their convictions anymore. We’ve suffered a nationwide crisis of confidence, and now Americans are afraid to go their own way and live as devil-may-care visionaries. People are so concerned with fair play and rules of decorum that they aren’t willing to stand up for what they believe is right. We have all become hobbled by our sense of ethics and the way things ought to be done, afraid to act because we might be wrong. Also, the sun makes us colder each morning, and birds crawl silently along the ground. Today is Friday, and everyone in America is extraordinarily confident. Won’t you explore that classic mark of genius with me?

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Kathy Griffin’s head photo is wrong aesthetically, not morally

A photo of Kathy Griffin taken by Tyler Shields for TMZ

The thing about performatively threatening the president is that you want to make it symbolic. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do that. You can threaten a person who symbolizes the president, as Snoop did when he expressed his frustration with powerful clowns. Or you can make the threat itself symbolic. If I sent you a drawing of me stabbing you in the chest with a knife, you would probably go to the cops. But if I sent you a drawing of one stick figure urinating on another, with the figures labeled “me” and “you” respectively, you would probably take it as less a literal threat than a gesture of contempt. Introducing symbolism lets you perform violence against the president and expect it to be taken as an artistic expression rather than a threat.

That’s where Kathy Griffin messed up. This picture of her holding a severed head is not symbolic enough. With its big stupid hair, the head looks too much like Trump. And campy though it may be from a special-effects perspective, we are clearly looking at a murder scene. The violence is not symbolic, and neither is its target. It’s a photo illustration of Griffin holding up the severed head of the president.

A lot of people have condemned it as a threat. Threatening the president is illegal, even in a joking context, and the AV Club reports that the Secret Service is investigating. I bet their investigation finds that Kathy Griffin ain’t gonna do shit. This photo was obviously a stunt. K-Griff herself said it was all a jape, once it turned out no one thought the picture was cool. I quote Twitter:

2/ OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans or others to anyone, ever! I’m merely mocking the Mocker in Chief.

— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) May 30, 2017

Welp, there goes your plausible deniability re: that could have been anybody’s head. But more importantly, why didn’t anyone think that picture was cool? I submit that the moral condemnations are a dodge, and a reasonable person would not take this photograph as a threat. The problem with it is not moral but aesthetic. All it achieves is to neatly convey the pitfalls of political art.

What does this picture make us think? It tells us that Griffin is very displeased with President Trump. After that comes a howling silence. There is no nuance to any of it, no source of additional meaning. Her face is expressionless, suggesting neither knowingness nor innocence, irony nor sincerity. She makes no comment on her own attitude toward the president. She makes no substantive comment on the man himself, like if the head were smoking a cigarette or wearing Gaddafi glasses or something. Unless you want to argue that her blue blouse symbolizes support for the Democratic Party, the only idea this picture conveys is “Kathy hate Trump” in capital letters. But a piece of paper with that printed on it wouldn’t be audacious enough to go viral.

This audacity introduces the defense that it’s not the photo that matters but the act of releasing it. In the same way the art wasn’t in Warhol’s soup cans so much as in the act of painting them, “Trump Head” is not a photo but a concept piece. Publishing this picture is like putting a shark in a lucite tank or submitting a urinal to the Grand Central Palace exhibition. What happens when Griffin issues a blunt, potentially illegal expression of hatred for the president? You could argue that’s the artistic question examined here, and it’s not a photo but rather a piece of performance art.

Except what happens is utterly safe and predictable, so it fails as performance, too. It’s not as though this picture will cost Griffin her gig in Branson. With the possible exception of Log Cabin Republicans, the overlap between her audience and people who will be offended by this photograph is small. Here lies the natural sin of political art. Where good art asks questions or introduces unfamiliar sensations, political art is tempted to tell people what they already know.

That’s why Bill Maher sucks now. He’s not surprising me to make me laugh; he’s agreeing with me to make me clap. Griffin’s severed head photo does the same thing. It styles itself as defiant, but it’s a bid for applause. It seems dangerous to hold up the head of President Trump, but when you think about it, anyone else’s head would have been riskier. That’s what makes him so insidious.

The worst thing about having this man as president is the brutalization of the poor, sick, and brown. The second-worst thing is the terrible judgment his election laid upon our country’s soul. But way down the list, and perhaps too little remarked, is the problem of how his flat, stupid badness has flattened and stupefied art. So many of us feel so strongly against him that we are apt to mistake any mirror for a picture. The question of how to say something interesting about this man is getting increasingly hard to answer, and yet he is so terribly important.

Montana’s special election is not a bellwether

Ground-and-pound specialist Greg Gianforte

Montana votes today in the special election to fill our only seat in the House of Representatives, and Greg Gianforte has given us a lot to think about. Last night, the Republican candidate attacked a reporter for the Guardian, throwing him to the ground and punching him in response to a question about the Republican health care plan. The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department has charged Gianforte with assault. Lee newspapers have rescinded their endorsement. Chris Cillizza has pronounced today’s vote a lose-lose situation for Republicans, whereas Chuck Todd calls it a lose-lose for Democrats. The takes are flying fast, and the first salvo has necessarily consisted of first ideas.

Speaking of first ideas, the logical way to put a national news peg on a story about Montana’s special election is to call it a referendum on Trump. I can think of more than one reason to resist that interpretation, though. When Gianforte ran for governor in November, he underperformed Trump by ten points, losing a state that the Republican at the top of his ticket won easily. Since then, he has restyled himself as a full-throated supporter of the Trump agenda. But even if Gianforte is now running on the president’s message, today’s election won’t necessarily tell us what Montanans think of it, because the Democratic candidate is deeply flawed.

Like Gianforte, Rob Quist has never held elected office. He is best known as the former singer in a country-rock group called the Mission Mountain Wood Band. His party selected him in the hope that his name recognition would give him an advantage in the short election, but they seem not to have run a credit check. Weeks into the campaign, it was revealed that the IRS had filed liens against the Quists for unpaid property taxes in 2011, and that they stiffed a Kalispell excavation contractor in 2001. His campaign, staffed by old hands in the state party, has done a poor job managing the news cycle and allowed opposition researches to pound a steady beat of such embarrassing revelations, including last week’s speculation that the Quists have avoided paying taxes on rental income.

Thus far, the Quist candidacy has been a referendum on Montana Democrats’ willingness to take what their party offers them. Given his dismal performance and Gianforte’s proven ability to contradict national trends, I don’t think you can call today’s vote a referendum on President Trump. Oh yeah—there’s also this thing where one of the candidates assaulted a reporter twelve hours before the polls opened.

I don’t know how much impact that will have. As Cillizza points out, around 70% of the expected total ballots have already been cast by mail. The remaining 30 percent is more than enough to swing the outcome—but who knows how many people who vote today, in person, are getting the news within 18 hours of publication? Given the exceeding strangeness of last night and the many uncontrolled variables in the campaign up to this point, I don’t think what happens today will tell us anything for certain about the national mood. It’s a nice peg, but let us be careful not to hang too much on it.

Look what Trump wrote in the guest book at the Holocaust Memorial

Photo by Raoul Wootliff via Twitter

Times of Israel Knesset correspondent Raoul Wootliff took this picture of Trump’s entry in the guest book at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to victims of the Holocaust. The president visited that site today as part of his larger Middle East junket, a whirlwind tour that left little time to write in guest books and even less time to think about it. According to Wootliff’s Twitter, Trump wrote:

It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends—so amazing + will Never Forget!

I guess that didn’t need to be a block quote, but I wanted it to feel important. It’s the guest book at Yad Vashem, after all. Here’s a tip for writing in solemn guest books: Don’t use exclamation points. Refrain from all types of exclaiming at the Holocaust memorial, unless you are directly addressing the Hebrew God. Do be sure to include in your inscription the official motto of the State of Israel, Never Forget! Capitalize both words, as you learned at Wharton.

The Washington Post offers this comparison between Trump’s remembrance of his trip with his friends and Barack Obama’s genuinely moving entry from his own visit to Yad Vashem, in 2008. Click on the Post thing, read that, and take a deep breath. Then note that old Max Bearack has been a little unfair to the Trumpster in his lede, which describes his handwriting as “all-caps.” Those are drop caps, in which lower-case letters are clearly distinguishable from initial capitals by their half size. Drop caps are the choice of many of us whose cursive handwriting is straight fucking inscrutable to everyone but ourselves.

Now that I’ve lightened the mood and our minds have shifted from the millions who died in the Holocaust, can we talk about Melania’s signature? That’s a nice signature. Obviously it can’t be bigger than Trump’s. Nor can it be on the opposite page or in the corner or something. It has to relate to his signature. Perhaps it is only because we are thinking in this vein that it look like her signature is perched on his, right where the p’s intersect. Her cramped bubble letters sit perfectly on his giant swoop. It’s like she is the pleasant person who comes along with Trump the way certain birds will ride around on the back of a warthog, theoretically free but dependent on the dumb beast.