Secrets in the Cellar

Secrets in the Cellar
John Glatt

Is there any point in ranking the evildoers found in the annals of true crime? If there is (and some exercise in moral judgment does seem to be part of the genre’s purpose) then surely Josef Fritzl stands as one of the worst of the worst. Even when compared to the other captive narratives that came out around the same time, Fritzl’s imprisonment and rape of his daughter and begetting of a family that he maintained in a miserable basement dungeon for over twenty years ranks as shocking.

John Glatt’s little book didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but still left me impressed by how the full story was even worse than I imagined. One point I hadn’t been aware of showed how thoroughly wicked a person Fritzl was. Not only was he selfish and cruel, he was also cheap: not tipping at the bordellos he frequented, trying to nickel-and-dime the tenants in his apartment building, and even fostering his own children instead of adopting them because it got him a bigger government cheque. Despite this streak of vicious mean-spiritedness he was a lousy businessman and was deep in debt at the time of his arrest. Of course being a miser was far from his worst personal failing, but it just goes to show how some people are bad all the way through.

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Listen, Liberal

Listen, Liberal
Thomas Frank

I think I’ve read most of the books explaining the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and while there have been several excellent ones (Matt Taibi’s Insane Clown President for dispatches from the campaign trail, Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes on Hillary Clinton’s story, and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism for a global view are the titles that stand out), Thomas Frank’s critical examination of the twenty-first century Democratic Party, Listen, Liberal, may be the best, and makes an essential companion piece to The Wrecking Crew, his searing anatomy of current Republican ideology. That Listen, Liberal was first published before Trump’s election (with an afterword added to the paperback edition) only underlines the authority of its analysis.

The subtitle asks “What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” Frank’s answer is that the Democrats saw their future in waging class war against their working-class base (who would be left with nowhere else to turn) in order to curry favour with a social-economic elite of well-educated professionals (the top 10%). Theirs was to be a “liberalism of the rich” that would increase inequality in the name of heaping more rewards on society’s biggest winners. This was a dangerous game, since the way the playing field is tilted today there are always going to be a lot more losers than winners. Trump, perversely, could appeal to the losers — albeit not to their sense of injustice but their impotence and rage. Clinton was left wondering what happened, and in the end could only go on insisting that she had somehow really won.

Only the Devil Is Here

Only the Devil Is Here
Stephen Michell

A blighted natural landscape being traversed by a man and boy has become a popular motif in contemporary fiction, informing such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Jantunen’s A Desolate Splendour. Stephen Michell enters this same terrain with his debut novel, and once again we have the stoic, mysterious father figure (here named Rook) protecting the boy (Evan) from the many dangers of the road. It’s all very archetypal as well as apocalyptic, but Michell shows that he’s a capable writer with this kind of material in several cinematic sequences. The theological message, however, left me a bit confused with its inversion of the traditional hierarchies of darkness of light. I’ve nothing against radical re-imaginings of Christian mythology, but think in this case it might have been better to leave the more familiar religious elements out of the mix. One gets the sense that this is a world the Father has ceased to take much of an interest in.

Censored 2018

Censored 2018
Ed. by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff with Project Censored

The subtitle for this yearbook of the top censored stories and media analysis of 2016-2017 refers to a “post-truth” world, making apt use of Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year. Post-truth was a popular coinage in the dawning Age of Trump, along with “alternative facts” and “fake news,” giving some idea of the evolving nature of the media landscape surveyed in this, the first Censored volume since Trump’s election. And if, as is suggested, “the real threat to a civilized society is stupidity,” then another word to keep in mind may be “agnotology” (the study of the deliberate creation of ignorance by the merchants of doubt).

Of course, the news media have always had difficulties with truth and reporting facts, but with Trump there has been a more open embrace of the disinformation-and-propaganda model by power elites. Nevertheless, important if inconvenient truths are still out there, beginning with this year’s top underreported story on widespread lead contamination of the water supply in the U.S. Apparently the disaster in Flint was just the tip of an infrastructure iceberg.

Censored 2018 is one of the slimmer entries in this series, but punches above its weight with a solid line-up of top censored stories, many of which alert us to significant threats to health, democracy, and the environment. Also included is a selection of interesting commmentary, including an essay by Edward Herman on the media model put forward in Manufacturing Consent at thirty (spoiler alert: things are actually getting worse). If you’re a regular reader of these volumes then you’re likely not going to be surprised by any of this. You can, however, always be better informed.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew
Thomas Frank

There’s an understandable tendency to view books on current political affairs as having a short shelf date. Once this expires, these matters leave the field of reportage and enter the domain of the historian. You can be sure all the current bestsellers on Donald Trump will soon disappear and leave not a wrack behind.

It would be a mistake to so neglect Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew. His analysis of the conservative campaign to ruin government is as vital today as it was ten years ago, writing at the moment of the subprime mortgage crisis. Looking around the shattered landscape of 2008 Frank saw that conservatism’s “economic theories had been badly discredited and its political fortunes lay in ruins.” That wasn’t the case, not by a long shot, but this makes an understanding of the ideology of the wreckers (or “wingers,” as they’re also labeled here) all the more relevant to the current situation. In 2018 the right is riding high, with even more extreme plans for dismantling the so-called “deep state” and dragging the United States back to the nineteenth century (or the neoliberal paradises of Saipan and post-war Iraq). So it’s a book that’s not only as timely as ever but, given all that’s happening, even more depressing.

The Truth About Trump

The Truth About Trump
Michael D’Antonio

Does Donald Trump really care that much about having people talking about him, all the time? Yes. And, according to Michael D’Antonio, there is nothing new in this. Trump’s craving for attention, as well as his manner and method in attracting it, have been consistent for years. Indeed Trump claims to be “basically the same” person now as he was when he was eight years old. It’s that consistency that is the remarkable thing. By 2016, our familiarity with his particular brand of celebrity should have bred a greater contempt.

This isn’t to say his shtick hasn’t worn thin. Trump was widely despised even before running for office. But he was possessed of money and fame, which made him, by all our current standards of reckoning, a success. In addition, his media-fueled narcissism, viciously cynical world view, and post-truth attitude toward reality made him, D’Antonio concludes, a representative figure: “truly a man of our time, the ultimate expression of certain aspects of the American spirit in the twenty-first century.”

Fame, Trump has affirmed, is a drug. And what we are witnessing now are the degenerate years of a lifelong addict who has been handed an unlimited supply of the purest junk. In this respect, at least, his consistency of character may take on a darker meaning. Like anyone under the influence, Trump won’t change but will only become a more exaggerated version of what he already is. Buckle up.

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump
Ed. by Bandy Lee

Psychology is not an exact science, and diagnosis at a distance or as filtered through the media might be expected to make for an even fuzzier picture. Nevertheless the “27 psychiatrists and mental health experts” who contributed to this collection of essays on Donald Trump and the “Trump effect” do their best, working with and interpreting the same small set of data points.

I doubt anyone will find the results all that surprising. Narcissism is a label that gets used a lot, sometimes with “malignant” attached to it. The basic idea is that Trump has delusions of grandeur and a lack of empathy. Underlying this is a nasty and narrow world view that sees everyone categorized as either winner or loser, con-man or sucker. In layman’s terms, he’s a selfish, paranoid, mean-spirited bully.

Given his wealth and power he has been able to construct an alternate reality or bubble to live in, surrounded by enablers and flattering courtiers. This is the dark side of the much-ballyhooed priority such people place on loyalty. The sad, or Sad!, thing is that there is nothing exceptional about Trump but perhaps the intensity of his anger and the degree of his delusions. In his essay “Pathological Narcissism and Politics,” Craig Malkin harkens back to the gold standard of bad presidents to tell us that “Nixon displayed a combination of intense ambition, authority, grandiosity, arrogance, entitlement, subterfuge, and self-importance that appears to have been common in the Oval Office throughout history.”

It all works until it doesn’t. By which time any warnings or second thoughts come much too late.