Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Life in the gates of hell

I am watching President Trump on television this morning, delivering a speech at a ceremony in remembrance of 9/11.

The terror attacks that 18 years ago changed our lives. But not in ways that make any sense.

I’m watching Trump, and I’m aghast. He’s telling stories of the heroes who died on that day. And there were many heroes. September 11, 2001, was a day when Americans – who likely never imagined they would find themselves in the midst of such a tragedy – stepped up and did what had to be done.

But strewn throughout this tribute, filled with florid language about heroes who “tore through the gates of hell,” were words that revealed how far we’ve strayed from truth, and reality.

As always, Trump used the moment to talk about himself. Where he was when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. Not surprisingly, he was watching television. And he said something about how he got involved in the rescue efforts, which I guess is a reference to his radio interview that day where he claimed that, with the Twin Towers gone, he now owned the tallest building in New York City.

A lie, of course.

Trump’s words today, this day of remembrance, should have been inspiring. Instead they felt empty, coming from such a self-absorbed grifter using heroes as props for his faltering presidency.

His mood darted from somber to bellicose. He did not reflect on how we should work for peace. He only promised more war. Anyone who threatens the American way of life, he said, will face retaliation beyond the imagination, something more devastating than a nuclear bomb.

What could that be?

Trump repeated his claims that immigration is a threat to America. He spoke of his much-criticized invitation to the Taliban to come to Camp David for peace talks, and once again claimed he’d rescinded the offer because they had killed an American soldier days earlier. As if this was some kind of new and outrageous Taliban strategy, as if American soldiers haven’t been dying for 18 years in Afghanistan.

Trump’s response this morning to the death of an American soldier, and the cancellation of his invitation to the Taliban leaders was, “The last four days we hit our enemy harder than we have ever hit them before.”

What? When? How?

Eighteen years after 9/11, we’ve learned nothing. A lying, mentally-ill leader is flailing away at immigrants who are not our enemy, but are innocent people fleeing war and poverty. He wanted to host terrorists at Camp David, just days before the anniversary of 9/11, but refuses to face the home-grown terrorists who are shooting people at country-music concerts and garlic festivals.

We are overwhelmed by new scandals every day.

I turned off the television. This is not reality. We’re not living with the truth.

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We believe lies because we want to

Jesus Christ, seen here as an orange blob, visits Notre Dame.

Can you see it? The image of Jesus Christ in the midst of the fire raging at Notre Dame cathedral?

Jesus also made an appearance earlier this year in some clouds over Italy during a sunset. All over the world, people are seeing Jesus in their food. The scientific name for this phenomena is pareidolia: The mind’s willingness to make something familiar out of random stimuli, such as colors or shadows. It’s all very subjective, of course. In the case of Jesus sightings, no one knows what Jesus actually looked like. In fact, there isn’t any historical evidence that someone named Jesus Christ actually existed.

I look at those flames exploding from the belly of Notre Dame and I see… well, to me it looks like Victor Hugo, whose “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is set in the cathedral. His words celebrated the centuries-long, organic growth of that beautiful building:

Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.

We damn near lost it in a single afternoon. Perhaps because of a cigarette carelessly tossed aside by one of the contractors working on the building. Even civilization’s massive edifices of stone can be gone in a few moments. What chance is there for something elusive, easily malleable?

Like thought?

Pareidolia is the new normal. Seeing things that are not there. In today’s new Orwellian era, in which truth does not matter, random stimuli is rudely dumped at our feet and re-configured by the renowned conspiracy theorist Donald Trump.

Reading through just this week’s disaster buffet of chaos, I see that Trump’s nominee as the nation’s new director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, has withdrawn his name from consideration. Trump blamed pressure from the “LameStream Media.” Hours later, when asked why his administration hadn’t uncovered what appears to a serious lack of credentials, as well as some résumé padding on Ratcliffe’s part, Trump told reporters, “You vet for me. When I give a name, I give it out to the press, and you vet for me.”

So, the serious responsibility of picking a serious person for a serious position is shared with the “LameStream Media.”

Or how about this: Trump is claiming that the tariffs he’s directing on imported goods from China are being paid for by the Chinese government. You’d be hard pressed to find an economist who won’t agree that those tariffs aren’t actually being paid for by the American people through higher price tags on Chinese imports when they arrive here.

Or how about this: Trump continued his attack on an American city, Baltimore, which he has called a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Yes, like all aging, major cities that are struggling with a shifting economic base, Baltimore has many issues. Here in Rochester, we share those troubles. And Trump is the president of the country where you’ll find these cities. He bears some responsibility.

Or how about this: This week alone, we’ve seen mass shootings at a garlic festival (three dead, 16 injured), a Texas Walmart (20 dead, 26 injured) and a trendy bar district in Ohio (nine dead, 26 injured). Before going to work, the Texas killer posted an online comment about “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Perhaps he thought he had the approval of a racist president who has been warning us for two years of this “invasion,” as he also calls it, of our southern border.

Once again, no good guy with a gun was available to stop these bad guys with guns. But that lie will go on. In addition to arming school teachers, we must now issue guns to bartenders, farmers and check-out clerks.

Also this week, at a ceremony honoring 9/11 first responders, Trump claimed to have had some kind of role in the heroics that emerged from that day, although he was vague about what it was that he might have done to help out. No one saw him digging through rubble, searching for survivors. What we do know is that, during a radio interview shortly after the attack, Trump made the claim that, with the World Trade Center reduced to rubble, he now owned the tallest building in New York City.

And even that claim, grotesquely self serving, was a lie.

These lies are brazen, and often easy to verify as false or nonsensical. So why do so many people believe them?

Perhaps Trump’s supporters choose to ignore facts because he says what they want to hear, even if he fails to deliver on his promises.

Some of Trump’s supporters are racists. They understand he’s a white nationalist who calls for people of color who disagree with him to “go back to where they came from.”

Some of Trump’s supporters recognize that he supports their insistence that they be well armed, even as our televisions announce BREAKING NEWS of mass shooting after mass shooting, breaking news which rarely occur in countries with tougher gun laws.

Some of Trump’s supporters approve of his southern-border policies, whipping up fear to justify separating families, caging children and turning back Central American refugees who are fleeing crime and poverty. They believe his lies that the refugees are disease-ridden criminals when, in actuality, this country built of immigrants benefits economically and socially from their presence.

To Trump, those detention-center cages crowded with immigrants are perfectly acceptable, but Baltimore is not.

Some of Trump’s supporters deny the existence of climate change, even as scientists tell us that the planet’s weather is evolving even more quickly than anticipated due to human activities. Climate-change denial is led, of course, by the fossil-fuel industry, which fears the job-producing, clean energy of the wind turbines mocked by Trump. It’s a lie that energy-efficient technology costs jobs; the coal industry has been on the decline for decades, and today employs less than 75,000 people. It is being replaced by cheaper energy sources, such as natural gas and wind turbines. In fact, environment-safe technology now employs twice as many workers as all U.S. fossil fuel sectors combined.

As temperatures driven by climate change rise, millions of people will face floods, forest fires, extreme weather, food and water shortages, and displacement from their homes.

What a real White House looks like.

And on, and on, and on go the lies. You would hope that time would be the architect of greater things. But we continue to flee back, to our dark caves. Rather than inspiration – the Obama White House lit up in rainbow colors in celebration of the Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry – we’re seeing a dark political pareidolia of exclusion and hate.

The truth is, our belief in lies is a longtime mechanism, employed for the convenience of our conscience. The genocide of the native people living here, and the reliance of slaves to build this country, was eased by the lie that those people were less than human. For all of Trump’s flailing about on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and his breaking the treaties that hold this Armageddon in check, the United States remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in war, when we unnecessarily dropped two bombs on Japan, which was already beaten, killing thousands of innocent people.

Hiroshima. Just because we could do it.

So we allow a prolific liar, an admitted sex offender, a man who cheated business partners, a common grifter, a gleeful tax evader, a man whose words undermine our legal system and democracy, a man who insults the disabled and war heroes, a man whose trips to the golf course have so far cost the nation $110 million, and a mentally unstable leader, to live in our White House, and represent us. This ugly American.

This man is dead inside. He has no soul.

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A conspiracy of dunces

Donald Trump, by Jim Carrey.

Decades ago, I worked at a small daily newspaper in northern Idaho. Small, but respected, run by people who took their jobs seriously. And while it is true that the area has been home to socially-twisted groups such as The Aryan Nations and The John Birch Society, it’s also true that the Idaho panhandle responds to such ideological bottom feeders with a highly educated base, thanks to Washington State University, the University of Idaho and a community college, all a few minutes’ drive away.

Those odd fellows who lived out in the woods, canning squirrel meat and taking target practice against helpless trees in anticipation of the arrival of imagined enemies, would send letters to the editorial department of The Lewiston Morning Journal. Pages of tiny, cramped hand printing, conspiracy theories filling every space, even running sideways up the margins of the legal-sized pages. Odd documents, demonstrably crazy rantings that were passed around the newsroom, as much for entertainment, I suppose, as a warning about the people who we sometimes had to deal with.

These letters never made it into print, of course. You wouldn’t expect a responsible news organization to give a voice to racist rants and easily disprovable falsehoods.

Yet Donald Trump is granted access to public media platforms every day. And that’s not pointing a finger at Trump’s private Pravda, Fox News. One of the most startling moments came this week, when the USA Today opinion pages ran a piece, supposedly written by Trump, filled with inaccuracies – let’s agree to call them lies, OK? – about health care. And something he calls the Democrats’ “open border socialism,” which bundles for their intellectual ease two things that Trump’s followers fear: Immigrants and socialism.

Trump, or someone writing for him, writes:

The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela.

Really? Have you ever heard a Democrat advocating for a Venezuela-style economy? What exactly is the Venezuela economy all about? I Googled it, just like any high-school kid writing a paper on the South American country might do. Do you know what the Venezuela economy is based on?

Oil. Isn’t the Democratic Party the one emphasizing alternative fuels and environmental safeguards? Isn’t it the Republicans who are clinging to fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and stripping away pollution controls?

Trump says what’s convenient, Google be damned. You’ve likely heard that news organizations have tallied more than 5,000 lies told by Trump since his campaign for the presidency began. And he’s now averaging more than eight lies a day.

As they close in on Trump’s collusion with Russia, he attacks our intelligence agencies and the FBI. He has ruined the world’s trust in America’s word, walking away from treaties that took years to negotiate. He has ruined our faith in the office of the presidency, loading his cabinet with grifters. He calls the media that is doing its job by trying to get to the truth “the enemy of the people.” He is destroying rules protecting our environment even as a U.N. study this week shows that the climate will be destroyed in the next century.

Truth and the moral high ground are not options in the Trump administration. This week, a Saudi Arabian dissident and Washington Post columnist walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was not seen again; according to Turkish officials, he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered within those walls. Not only was Trump’s reaction to the murder of a journalist muted, but the president said Saudi Arabia won’t face sanctions because, “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country.” In other words, the Saudis are buying our compliance in the murder of a journalist.

It’s been a busy week for the Silencing Majority. They don’t like protesters: Mitch McConnell has declared Americans speaking their minds to be “mob rule.” They always make it about themselves: Melania Trump says she is “the most bullied person on the world.” This week we also learned that Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly once called Sen. Elizabeth Warren “an impolite, arrogant woman” when what she was doing was representing the people of Massachusetts, as she was elected to do. In fact, after watching Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court hearing, we now know that men can be impolite and arrogant too. He also showed us that men can also be hysterical and cry. For Kavanaugh, the hearing was not about the women who accused him of sexual assault, and the classmates who accused him of being a belligerent drunk, it was all about what the hearing was doing to him.

Why do things keep happening that the majority of Americans don’t want to happen? Kavanaugh was a massively unpopular choice as a Supreme Court candidate. I can’t recall a nominee ever having to face people protesting in the streets.

The lesson is clear: If you are a Democratic president, the Republican majority will make up a rule to stop your admirable pick for the Supreme Court. When Barack Obama had an opportunity to name a Supreme Court justice in his final year as president, Republicans falsely claimed that presidents aren’t allowed to fill the position if it is a presidential-election year. Yet, if you are a Republican president, the Republicans have now asserted that they can ignore credible assault charges against your pick for the Supreme Court and ram that through, evidence be damned.

As in an autocracy, the rule of law no longer has any relevance in our democracy. It’s not mob rule, Mr. McConnell. It’s rule by mobsters.

Trump apologized to Kavanaugh “on behalf of the nation,” treating the swearing-in ceremony like a political rally and crowing about his “great victory.” Both the apology and the crowing further divide the nation. But Trump does not care, as he uses misdirection, insult, chaos, and the white man’s rage of himself, Kavanaugh and Lindsay Graham to distract from his personal and presidential corruptions. Sexual assault survivors have to listen to Trump proclaim that the allegations against Kavanaugh, including Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s compelling testimony, were “a hoax set up by the Democrats.”

This has a familiar tone. During his hearing, Kavanaugh declared resistance to him as being backed by the Clintons and millions in money from far-left groups. Last weekend, Trump told one of his pep-rally crowds that all Democrats have vowed to back Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s “Open Borders Bill.”

There is no such thing as an “Open Borders Bill.” Trump simply made it up.

Conspiracy theories. When facts aren’t on your side.

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