House of Cards and the Reign of Injustice

The most remarkable thing about House of Cards, at this point, is that it hasn’t ended yet.

The first season was great – the story of an ambitious, scheming, and profoundly immoral political couple, which afforded the audience an inside view of the workings of American politics. By the end of Season 2, it became apparent that we were dealing with a classic rise-and-fall tale, which I initially assumed would end in Season 3. Just as The Godfather trilogy is the story of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, and the George Lucas’ Star Wars hexology is the rise and fall and last-minute redemption of Anakin Skywalker, so did House of Cards set out to show the arc of Frank and Claire Underwood, whose Machiavellian misdeeds cry out for justice in almost every episode, like those of any other Hollywood villain we’ve ever seen on the screen.

Except that, as of the end of Season 5, they still haven’t gotten their comeuppance. We’re still waiting for the good guys to win – hell, we’re waiting for the good guys to show up. Why? Are the producers just stretching out a successful show because there’s more money to be made? Probably. But perhaps there is also a larger analogy to real life, and realpolitik, to be understood by this lack of resolution.

The Clintons

From the beginning, it was obvious that the Underwoods were modeled on the Clintons – a southern Democratic couple with a very unconventional marriage that seems cemented more by mutual lust for power than by love for each other, at least as most people understand love. Claire even looks like a more attractive version of Hillary, complete with a more attractive Huma Abedin played by Neve Campbell.

The kinds of scandals that House of Cards dramatizes are not terribly different from those that have surrounded the Clintons for decades, since Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. Aside from endless stories of rampant infidelity by both parties, there are the more serious allegations of murders and cover-ups. During the Clinton presidency, it was Vince Foster. Much more recently, it is Seth Rich, the Democratic staffer who is believed by some to be the source of the leaked Podesta emails, who was murdered in July of last year. The murder remains unsolved.

House of Cards first aired during Barack Obama’s second term, and it was easy to simply imagine it as an alternate reality in which the Clintons, or people like them, had merely been born twenty years later. But Season 5 marks the first time that House of Cards has aired during the Trump presidency, and the media has a very different attitude to the current Commander-in-Chief.

The mainstream media, and therefore most of the public, thought that Obama was more or less a decent guy, if not an outright saint. Everyone in left-leaning Hollywood just loved him and treated him as one of their own, and as for Republicans, even his opponent John McCain defended him as “a decent family man” to a woman who said that Obama was not to be trusted because “he’s an Arab.”

Can anyone imagine the media, or Democratic politicians, being even half as gracious to President Trump? Whereas “birtherism” and accusations of Obama being a closet Muslim were confined to the fringes of the right (which included, at the time, Donald Trump) and were never taken seriously by the media, the accusations that Trump is an evil nazi puppet of Vladimir Putin have been front-page headlines ever since the election. And whereas John McCain rushed to the defense of his establishment-favored opponent in 2008, he has repeatedly lashed out at Putin as “a murderer and a thug.” Ah, American diplomacy.

Conspiracy Theory

The Trump era has so far distinguished itself as the time when conspiracy theories went full mainstream. When Oliver Stone made JFK in the early 90s, he faced a YUGE media backlash for suggesting that the assassination had been the result of a conspiracy (even though that was exactly the conclusion of the last and most comprehensive government investigation of the crime). Now, the media still hates Stone, but it’s because he’s chummy with Putin, and dares to question the media’s conspiracy theory that Putin “hacked the election” and is in cahoots with Trump. (Bringing up the influence of the Israel lobby while being interviewed by Stephen Colbert probably didn’t help him much either.)

Season 5 of House of Cards is likewise the most conspiratorial yet. We see the Underwoods sinking to new lows, which I won’t recap here, except to say that it brings to mind James Gandolfini’s monologue about killing in True Romance: “The first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. But now? Now I do it just to watch their expression change.” The Chief Executive as mafia kingpin. President Underworld.

But it isn’t just the Underwoods who become more sinister in Season 5. The view of politics itself changes. One episode has Frank attending a secret conclave of wealthy movers and shakers, which is obviously based on the infamous Bohemian Grove. (I wonder, did they use Alex Jones’ clandestine footage to recreate the scene?) The “Deep State” also makes an entrance into the storyline, in the characters of Mark Usher and Jane Davis. Usher is the campaign manager for Frank’s opponent Will Conway, but it later becomes apparent that his true allegiance is to the unelected power structure, which is why he can seamlessly transition from Conway’s team to the Underwood administration. Davis is an even more interesting character, a kind of female James Bond, but with neither country nor morals. She seemingly allies herself with Claire Underwood, but we’re not really sure why, or for how long.

(Off topic, but whoever wrote the Jane Davis character is spot on with her statement that southeast Asia has the best instant coffee. Old Town White Coffee out of Malaysia is amazingly good.)

On the one hand, the increased conspiracy and intrigue on House of Cards makes perfect sense, as it merely reflects the new reality (or, at least, the new media reality) of the times. Art and life imitating each other again. But what are truly interesting are not the show’s similarities to real life, but the differences.

True Confessions

The mainstream media loves House of Cards, because it’s a great show, with great actors, directors, and writers. The mainstream media hates Donald Trump, and threw the entirety of its weight behind Hillary Clinton in 2016, a loss from which they still have not recovered. So why do they love a show that skewers the Clintons far worse than anything Mike Cernovich has ever said about them? The media establishment, which consolidates its power through the major networks and publications, which wars against any outside perspectives by labeling them as “fake news” or “conspiracy theories” or worse, simultaneously praises House of Cards, which portrays a world in which conspiracy theories are usually true, though that truth is always suppressed. The same media which dismisses, without any investigation whatsoever, any claims of government or corporate malfeasance that fall outside of its preexisting narrative, will praise a show that portrays the halls of power as being just as corrupt and evil as Alex Jones claims they are. Why?

The answer that will immediately come back is: “Because it’s only fiction.” And indeed, conspiracy theories have always made for good stories, as both Oliver Stone and Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, can attest. But whereas The X-Files always occupied a kind of media safe space (a safe outer space, the realm of the paranormal and supernatural) that made it largely immune from any charge that it was trying to make a statement about the way things really are, House of Cards is fictional only in name. It’s not portraying real people and events the way JFK was, but it’s based on a real place – Washington D.C. – and its real socio-political culture and ethos.

House of Cards is not acknowledged and praised because it’s good fiction – it’s praised because it’s true.

I don’t mean that it’s literally true, that it’s an accurate though fictionalized account of real events, as was claimed of the anonymous book about the Clintons, Primary Colors. Rather, House of Cards conveys deep truths about the nature of American and world politics which are off-limits in conventional discourse, and which are therefore relegated to the world of fiction. House of Cards is what Oliver Stone said about JFK: a counter-myth, counter to the reigning myth of the American political system. And it strikes a chord with audiences for the same reason JFK did: because, at some level, people know that the reigning myth is a lie.

The film critic Nicole Brenez, in her book about director Abel Ferrara, wrote:

The treatment of historic evil requires the invention of filmic forms that express what is inadmissible in terms of behavior, morality, narrative, image, sound …. Provocative storylines (concerning murder, injury, apparent amorality, rape, and violence of every kind) are merely the currency of a structure of inadmissibility, the reign of injustice.”

This is what is happening in House of Cards. In a world in which truth is utterly subsumed by an endless barrage of fake news and simulacra, we are faced with what seems to be a paradox: fiction becomes a way of telling the truth.

This is actually nothing new. Stories, whether in new media like film and television, or older ones like books and songs, have always been a way for human beings to express things that somehow resist being expressed another way. This is especially true in Western civilization, in which our Holiest Book is literally a story, “the greatest story ever told.”

Of course, to the contemporary secular and cynical mind, a story by definition cannot be true, and so to refer back to our religious tradition is to merely peddle a different kind of fake news. The biblical story has been evaluated as history and found wanting. But the Christian tradition has long taught that there are layers of meaning and truth in a text, in a story, and the literal interpretation is the least important of these.

Christian tradition also provides us with another explanation for the existence of House of Cards: the need for confession, the heavy weight of sin on the soul, which in this case is our national soul, or even our global soul. Why does the Hollywood-Washington axis make a show that so obviously shows it for what it is in its essence, even if the details are fictionalized? For the same reason that Claire Underwood confesses her crimes to her lover Tom Yates. Because human beings are, at the end of the day, moral creatures, and cannot escape the cries of conscience, no matter how muted or mutilated they have become.

Underwood as Trump?

But there is another reason why it’s safe for the media to like House of Cards, besides the plausible deniability of “it’s only make believe.” Although the Underwoods began as Clintonesque, President Underwood has now become, for all intents and purposes, President Trump. In Season 5, Underwood implements a travel and immigration ban very similar to what Trump promised to do. Underwood steals the election – hacks it, actually – though without any help from Putin stand-in Viktor Petrov. Then there is President Underwood’s increasingly bombastic public speaking style, evident from the first episode of the season onward, which he explains to the camera (us) as pandering to the public’s desire for “action and slogans.”

Vanity Fair picked up on these Trump references and compiled their own handy list. I’m sure other publications have run with the Underwood-as-Trump meme as well. And who can deny that at least some of the comparisons are valid? Trump is outlandish. He grabs headlines, and makes his own. He swaggers and boasts and portrays himself as, in President Underwood’s words, “the strong man, the man of action.” But in doing all of this, can Trump not say, like Underwood in his resignation speech, that he is merely playing by the rules that already existed in politics and media, which everyone, including himself, helped to create?

What might happen is that House of Cards will end around the same time as the Trump presidency. If his opponents have their way, that will be through impeachment, or worse. At the same time, viewers will see President Underwood finally get his due for all the terrible things we’ve watched him do for the last five years. (And let’s concede Underwood’s point when he says to us: “Oh don’t deny it, you’ve loved it.”) Trump and Underwood will be largely equated in the public mind, and that public mind will quiet once again because, in both the real world and the reel world, the bad guy has been punished, and once again, all is well.

Who will remember that the Underwoods were not Donald Trump, but Bill and Hillary Clinton? Who will care that what will have taken place was in no way a rectification of the system, but merely another scapegoating, a political sleight of hand as old as human civilization itself?

Only an inconsequential few. And Washington will go on being, in the words of President Underwood, “a bunch of self-serving, money-hungry, boot-licking, power-seeking politicians who can be seduced, or sucker-punched, or blackmailed into submission.”

 

Requiem for Corner Drugstores

Reading a book of interviews with the Beat writer William S. Burroughs. While I find his novels largely unreadable, especially his cut-up experiments of the 1960s, his interviews are often full of interesting observations and insights. For example, this passage from a 1979-1980 New Years Eve discussion in New York City:William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart

I’m well known in the drug store…. They always have anything I want. I wanted to buy a special kind of glue. You wouldn’t think you’d buy it in a drugstore, but they had it: Duco cement. They have a special kind of ball-point pen that only costs 59 cents, the only kind I use; they have stationery; it’s one of those drug-stores that does everything. And his wife is very much of a theatrical Spanish Dolores type, fairly good looking, a middle-aged woman who’s had a lot of sorrow but has dignity and a great presence. She says, ‘Oh, why didn’t you say the usual, Mr. Burroughs?’ Her husband was much older than she was…. He died shortly after that and I never saw him again…. A new pharmacist appeared and what the relation between him and her is at this point I don’t know. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. For example he’ll advise someone: ‘You need glasses. You’re entitled to them on your social security.’ He’s always instructing someone, telling them to do this or that…. It’s also a news exchange. There’d been a mugging and there was a report. Some woman got beaten up and she’s at the counter and they’re all commiserating and saying ‘two black boys.’ And the Patrone, grandiose and sad in a Latin way, experienced woman said, ‘Yes, those are the ones, those are the ones …’

I could easily envision this little pharmacy, because America used to be full of them. In the introduction to my book Paradise Theater, I mentioned Van’s Grocery in West Allis, which also had Van’s Pharmacy located on the other side of the parking lot. They had everything. Whenever we had to go there to fill a prescription, say for Amoxicillin – which I always loved the taste of, and my mom would have to stop me from consuming more than the regular dose – I would try to finagle an extra treat from among the aisles.

There was the toy aisle, with its assortment of toy guns, action figures, and other goodies for backyard playtime. The best thing I ever got from there was a slingshot – yes, those used to be in the toy department, not the adults-only, handle-with-extreme-caution sporting goods store – which mysteriously disappeared from my toy box after I had taken some pot shots at birds and squirrels, which thankfully missed.

Then there were the non-obvious treats, like the eye patch, which was sold for people who really needed one because of eye surgery or whatnot, but which I wanted because, of course, eye patches are just cool and make you look like a pirate or a criminal or something.

Van’s Pharmacy also had a small selection of VHS movie rentals, as many local drug stores and other small businesses did in those days. I can still remember the frightening cover images from 80s horror classics like Silent Night Deadly Night, Basket Case, and the Friday the 13th series, facing out on the shelves, looking out at the stationery aisle across from them.

Van’s closed down for good sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. First the grocery store gave way to the mega Pick N Save store down the road, and then the pharmacy closed a few years later.

At the same time I was going to Van’s as a kid, people in Milwaukee – the BIG CITY compared to Stallis – were going to Oriental Drugs on Farwell Avenue. The Oriental had a large lunch counter that stretched around the front of the building, and was a favorite hangout spot for all different types of people at all different times of day and night. The Violent Femmes supposedly were discovered while busking outside the place. I went there a few times in the late 80s when my father was dating an East Side girl who lived on Prospect Avenue.

Oriental Drugs closed in 1995. But fear not, there is a big Walgreens not far from there now. And another one further up the road. And more of them scattered all over town, and in virtually every other American town. Nowadays when I go home to visit my family, no matter where we are, we can always find a Walgreens nearby. They don’t have videos, but have those red dvd box rental things, at least for now, while some people still aren’t streaming absolutely everything. They probably have eye patches somewhere. But they don’t have a lunch counter like the Oriental had, and they sure as hell don’t have slingshots in the toy aisle.

The dull homogeneity of every single Walgreens I’ve ever been to makes me weep for the old days, when neighborhoods had unique corner drugstores, because they had unique characteristics … because they were real neighborhoods.

McAllister’s Pharmacy. Downtown West Allis, 1971. Photo credit: Milwaukee Public Library

HyperNormalisation and Hyperreality

Continuing our Baudrillardian theme this month, we here present the newest documentary by the BBC’s Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation. If there’s a better documentary filmmaker than Curtis working these days, I don’t know who it is.

HyperNormalisation was released in the fall of 2016, just before the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Curtis weaves a complex narrative showing the interconnectedness of, among other things, the rise of cyberspace and suicide bombing, alongside the politics of persuasion that Trump used to such great effectiveness in his campaign.

The Master Persuader

One of the most important commentators on the election has been Scott Adams, who analyzed Trump’s campaign style in terms of what Robert Cialdini calls persuasion. Cialdini literally wrote the book on persuasion back in the 1980s, and it has become a must-read classic among businesspeople and politicians. More recently, he published a kind of sequel, Pre-suasion.

Adams says that Donald Trump is quite simply “the best master persuader I have ever seen.” Adams also noted that Hillary Clinton’s “persuasion game” mysteriously went from nothing to high-grade in a short amount of time, when she suddenly stopped criticizing Trump’s policies in concrete terms and began instead to talk about him as “scary.” In other words, she stopped trying to appeal to the electorate’s rationality (always a questionable approach) and started to appeal to their raw, even subconscious, emotions. Adams wondered whether she hadn’t hired Cialdini as a consultant at this time.

Another author who, like Adams, both predicted Trump’s ascendancy and analyzed his approach in terms of psychology, is Mike Cernovich. His short book MAGA Mindset utilizes Carol Dweck’s concept of “mindset” and deduces Trump’s inner game based Trump’s own writings, as well as those of his early mentor and pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, who pioneered the concept of “positive thinking” in the 1950s.

Few people realize that Trump was raised attending Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, and is thus a product of New Thought, that peculiarly American religion which seems to be always available for repackaging into a new bestselling book every decade or so, from William Walker Atkinson to Peale and on to Rhonda Byrne in more recent times. The gist of the sales pitch – for, as I previously wrote, New Thought seems to be above all else a pyramid scheme – is that people can create their own reality.

Both Adams and Cernovich noted many times that Donald Trump is a master of “reframing” events to make them seem more favorable to himself. There’s no question that this is true, and that one has to understand this in order to understand how Trump succeeded against the combined efforts of the media, Hollywood, the entire Democratic Party, and even much of the Republican Party. However, what allows both Adams and Cernovich to admire Trump as much as they do is that both authors seem to have embraced postmodernism as their way of seeing the world.

The Logic of Simulation and the Vertigo of Interpretation

Scott Adams lays out his worldview in his How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s an excellent book, filled with a lot of practical and useful advice about business and life in general. Adams says, echoing William Burroughs, that human beings are basically “moist robots.” We think we have free will and autonomous personalities, but really, we are just programmed by our surroundings. The upside, if it can be called that, is that we can take some of this programming upon ourselves, with psycho-cybernetic tools like affirmations, and biochemical tools like nutritional supplements and controlled diets, and thus, we can control some of our reality.

Mike Cernovich also advocates self-programming in his best-selling Gorilla Mindset, another worthwhile book filled with a lot of good advice about self-improvement and what the ancient Greeks called σωφροσύνη. But whereas Greek philosophy culminated in the Aristotelian view of the real world and the distinction between truth and falsehood, Cernovich, in a profile piece for The New Yorker, said:

“Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” He smiled. “I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”

It would seem that Nietzsche was right, and the future belongs to those who embrace the esoteric message of the legendary Hassan i Sabbah that “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

That is certainly one of the accusations being leveled at Donald Trump, with his history of making questionable and sensational claims, such as that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.A., or that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. But if nothing is true anyway, then why would it not be permissible to make such claims, especially when his opponents operate according to the same principle, using all manner of lies and innuendo to discredit the President? What is the morality of fighting lies with lies? Or, if reality is just a narrative, a mental construct, then are they still lies, or are they just impositions of will upon life, like affirmations?

In 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard noted that the ambiguity of events like the terrorist bombings in Italy – which were unsolved crimes, of unknown origin, and thus simultaneously blamed on both the left and the right – allowed them to be interpreted in multiple ways at once.

“Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation. That is, we are in the logic of simulation, which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason.”

As Mike Cernovich said in the aforementioned article, “Logic is pointless.” And indeed, who would argue that he is wrong, when our whole political system demonstrates, each and every day, that logic is powerless against the rising tide of irrational emotion?

I remember watching the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly a man with a superior command of facts. Yet Bush was able to get the better of him, not by superior argumentation, but by being more human, more likable. It was like the argument between Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.

Bender, did you know that without trigonometry, there’d be no engineering?

Without lamps, there’d be no light.

It’s not about who’s right, it’s about who’s cool and who’s just a nerd. A man with too many facts appears “wooden,” as they all said about Gore (lest anyone think that Trump invented the art of the one-word deadly epithet). In earlier times, they might have said “robotic,” when that word still brought to mind the stilted, boxy, metallic beings of old science fiction films. But today, with the advent of artificial intelligence and cyborg chic, it is the new man who is the “moist robot,” the enlightened self-programmer who isn’t concerned with facts but rather with creating his own reality, while those who still cling to notions of truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, right and wrong, reveal themselves to be merely human, all-too-human, antiquated relics of a dead age.

A longtime friend back in the U.S. wrote to me, exasperated, and said, “What does one believe/adhere to anymore?!!? I can’t remember a time when ‘truth’ was so subjective. Have ‘facts’ as we knew them become extinct?”

I wrote back to him with some links to Scott Adams’ articles about Trump’s powers of persuasion and the view of reality that they entail. But it was merely an offering of explanation, and not consolation. While I recognize the value and importance of the insights offered by the persuasionists, I remain skeptical of the greater worldview that they seem to present. My feeling – and perhaps that’s all it is – is that reality, however elusive it may be, is not quite as unreal as adherents of New Thought or psycho-cybernetics would have us believe. And perhaps reality, rather than having “disappeared” as Baudrillard claimed, is merely hiding in wait, plotting its return, or its revenge.

Total Screen: How Baudrillard Anticipated Trump

The wacky ideas of Jean Baudrillard get less wacky every day. I previously wondered how the eccentric Frenchman would have found 21st century China. Here, Pepe Escobar shows that Baudrillard’s theories of simulation and hyperreality are the keys to understanding what passes for politics and culture in our world.

It was, indeed, a Trumpquake. And the sequel was a given; the whole world, transfixed, in real time, 24/7, hanging on every word, tirade, feeding frenzy oozing from the swamp and its various flesh-eating monsters and manmade pathogens, deep state-related or otherwise.

The Trump presidency is the ultimate larger-than-life – for many the only – show on earth. It’s open to debate whether the vicious civil war currently in effect between Team Trump and powerful deep state factions enmeshed with the neocon/neoliberalcon galaxy is just shadowplay; or whether this is the real deal underlining the eventual crash and burn of the American Empire.

That’s all too predictable, when a reality TV star becomes president. When “post-truth” pseudo and/or non-events on screen 24/7 make a mockery of “reality.” When the screen determines the perception of truth; if an “event” is not on show, it never happened.

Read the whole thing: Total Screen: How Baudrillard Anticipated Trump

Trump, JFK, and the Deep State

deep_politics

There’s a lot of talk these days about the “Deep State,” especially among supporters of President Trump, some of whom believe that this Deep State is working hard to destroy anyone loyal to Trump, both inside and outside of the government, and ultimately, Trump himself. General Flynn was forced to resign after a media scandal surrounding his contacts with Russian ambassadors – a scandal which, by most accounts, was highly exaggerated. After Flynn’s resignation, prominent neoconservative and NeverTrumper Bill Kristol tweeted:

“Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.”

More recently, Trump supporter Mike Cernovich was on InfoWars with Alex Jones claiming that the recent Milo Yiannopolis scandal was also a “Deep State operation.”

The “Deep State” is aptly summed up by journalist Jefferson Morley in a recent article at Alternet:

“The Deep State is shorthand for the nexus of secretive intelligence agencies whose leaders and policies are not much affected by changes in the White House or the Congress. While definitions vary, the Deep State includes the CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and components of the State Department, Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the armed forces.”

Morley is well-qualified to write about the Deep State, as he is a veteran researcher on the JFK assassination, whose work on CIA agent George Joannides is one of the most important developments in that case in the last twenty years, as I previously wrote. The very term “deep state” was coined by Peter Dale Scott, a veteran researcher of the underbelly of American and world politics, and someone who, like Morley, has done important work on the JFK case.

The Playboy Presidents

Although liberals and leftists hate to admit it, there are incredible parallels between Trump and Kennedy. First, both men were independently wealthy when they ran for office, which meant that they were not as reliant upon special interest donations to fund their campaigns. Second, both men are known to have been quite fond of the ladies, their marriages to beautiful women notwithstanding. Trump was surreptitiously recorded by the media making lewd statements. JFK was recorded by J. Edgar Hoover in flagrante delicto on multiple occasions, and was reported to have once remarked to a visiting dignitary: “If I don’t have a woman every three days or so I get a terrible headache.”

When JFK assumed office, he appointed his younger brother Robert as Attorney General, a move that was widely criticized as nepotism. Trump works closely with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and is criticized in the same way. But more important than any of this trivia, which is on the level of the Kennedy-Lincoln coincidences, is both men’s opposition to the will of the Deep State, specifically in regards to Russia.

JFK vs. the Deep State

Although Kennedy was elected in 1960 as a Cold Warrior, he moved away from a hardline stance almost immediately after being elected. In 1961, he refused to provide U.S. military support to the CIA’s bungling Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, something that many in the CIA never forgave him for.

In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy negotiated peace with Russian leader Nikita Kruschev. This was against much of the advice coming from the Deep State, who estimated that, although the United States would lose 80% of its population in a thermonuclear war, the Russians would lose 100% of theirs. So, we would “win.” Kennedy rightfully recognized this as sheer insanity.

At the same time that JFK was talking to Kruschev, CIA agent Bill Harvey was ordering raids on Cuba, in direct violation of Presidential directive, with the goal of provoking a missile launch by the Russians so as to start a war. When the crisis ended, Robert Kennedy had Harvey transferred out of the Western hemisphere so that he couldn’t cause any more such trouble. Harvey never forgave the Kennedy brothers, and retained a bitter hatred of them for the rest of his life.

In 1963, just months before his death, President Kennedy gave an historic speech at American University, outlining a vision for peaceful coexistence between the United States and Russia. It featured prominently in Oliver Stone’s film JFK, and is worth watching in its entirety.

Kennedy negotiated a peace with the Russians during the missile crisis, and at the time of his death, he was making overtures to Fidel Castro and also beginning to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. Historians disagree about whether Kennedy was serious about peace with Cuba, as there were also plans for an all-out invasion of the island happening at the same time. But regarding Vietnam, more and more support for the notion that JFK would not have escalated the conflict has emerged since this thesis was first developed by Peter Dale Scott in the 1970s and then more extensively by John Newman in his 1992 book JFK and Vietnam.

Kennedy was a user of “back channels” for sensitive communications. In negotiating with the Soviets, messages were passed back and forth between “Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin or other Soviet officials to other members of President Kennedy’s official family.” The overtures to Cuba were made through journalist Lisa Howard, and also through Ambassador William Attwood. Historian Michael Beschloss, in an article on the back channel talks in the New York Times, writes that “Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy worried that such talks would leak and embarrass his brother on the eve of his 1964 re-election campaign, but the president quietly encouraged Attwood to pursue the matter.” The leaks of General Flynn’s communications with the Russians, and their consequences, show that RFK’s worries were well-founded.

Meanwhile, while JFK was using back channels to negotiate peace with the Russians and possibly with the Cubans as well, Lyndon Johnson had his own back channel – to the Deep State. This is documented by John Newman in his aforementioned book, which has just been re-released in a second edition. Generals from the Joint Chiefs of Staff bypassed the President and communicated with the Vice-President instead, who was much more of a hawk on Vietnam than Kennedy was. It took Lyndon Johnson all of two days to reverse Kennedy’s plans to withdraw from Vietnam. He is alleged to have said to the Joint Chiefs, “Just get me elected, and I’ll give you your damn war.”

Perhaps Hillary Clinton should have made a similar deal with the powers that be. Or perhaps she tried. As Glenn Greenwald, who can hardly be accused of being a right-wing Trump shill, recently said:

“The CIA and the intelligence community were vehemently in support of Clinton and vehemently opposed to Trump, from the beginning. And the reason was, was because they liked Hillary Clinton’s policies better than they liked Donald Trump’s. One of the main priorities of the CIA for the last five years has been a proxy war in Syria, designed to achieve regime change with the Assad regime. Hillary Clinton was not only for that, she was critical of Obama for not allowing it to go further, and wanted to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and confront the Russians. Donald Trump took exactly the opposite view. He said we shouldn’t care who rules Syria; we should allow the Russians, and even help the Russians, kill ISIS and al-Qaeda and other people in Syria. So, Trump’s agenda that he ran on was completely antithetical to what the CIA wanted. Clinton’s was exactly what the CIA wanted, and so they were behind her. And so, they’ve been trying to undermine Trump for many months throughout the election. And now that he won, they are not just undermining him with leaks, but actively subverting him. There’s claims that they’re withholding information from him, on the grounds that they don’t think he should have it and can be trusted with it. They are empowering themselves to enact policy.”

As for Lyndon Johnson, he later came to have deep regrets about his decision to “give them their damn war.” The unpopularity of the war, which split American society in two much in the way that Trump’s election has, cost Johnson his reputation. He is reported to have said, in the White House, as anti-war protesters outside shouted, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today,” “Don’t they know that I’m with them?” But they didn’t know because, however much he may have been with them in spirit, in deed he had allied himself with the Deep State and the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned against. In 1968, Johnson declined to run for re-election, certain that he would have lost. He lived the rest of his life as a recluse on his Texas ranch, growing his hair long like the hippies who protested against him. He died only five years later, in 1973, a broken and forlorn man.

The Left vs. the Deep State

There has been a lot scholarship and investigative reporting about the Deep State over the past decades, and most of it has come from the left. In the 1980s, Bill Moyers hosted a documentary called The Secret Government, which was based on revelations about the Deep State that had emerged during the Iran-Contra scandal. At that time, John Kerry was a Senator and was in charge of the investigation into Contragate and its associated crimes.

One of the things that they uncovered was massive CIA involvement with drug trafficking, something which was later investigated further by journalist Gary Webb, the subject of the 2014 movie Kill the Messenger. The only people who took Webb’s allegations seriously at the time were people on the left, some of whom had known for years that certain people in the intelligence agencies were involved in the drug trade, because of works like Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and Peter Dale Scott’s Cocaine Politics. Scott once remarked that “When the U.S. was involved in covert operations in southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a heroin epidemic on this continent. In the 1980s, when some of the same people were involved in a covert operation in Central America, we had a cocaine epidemic. That’s not a coincidence.”

But today, liberals and leftists who have historically been been opposed to the nefarious machinations of the Deep State find themselves in a strange situation, which seems to present itself as a choice between rooting for Trump, whom they loathe, and rooting for the cocaine-dealing, Kennedy-sniping CIA. Between a crack rock and a hard place, as it were. The left hates Trump because they think he’s a racist and a tyrant. But those in the Deep State who oppose Trump do so not because they are champions of peace and equality, but because they want war with Russia and Iran, which will become World War 3 and will cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

So, is the enemy of your enemy your friend, no matter how fiendish?

Trump vs. the Deep State?

Peter Dale Scott, in a recent article adapted from his book The American Deep State, takes a nuanced approach in which he distinguishes between two factions within the Deep State, which have co-existed for a long time. He writes of

“an old division within Big Money — roughly speaking, between those Trilateral Commission progressives, many flourishing from the new technologies of the global Internet, who wish the state to do more than at present about problems like wealth disparity, racial injustice and global warming, and those Heritage Foundation conservatives, many from finance and oil, who want it to do even less.”

It is “an enduring struggle between “America Firsters” and “New World Order” globalists, pitting, through nearly all of this [20th] century, the industry-oriented (e.g. the National Association of Manufacturers) against the financial-oriented (e.g. the Council on Foreign Relations), two different sources of wealth.”

This division within the wealthy elite also existed during the Kennedy years. At that time, right-wingers from the oil industry such as H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison were some of the main proponents of the America First philosophy, against globalist organizations like the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations, which they thought were too communistic. Since communism is, by definition, an internationalist ideology, the right has long opposed all forms of globalism.

Since American industry and manufacturing were more powerful in the early 1960s than they are now, it follows that this America First wing of Big Money was more powerful and influential then. It is perhaps an irony that, while capitalism ultimately prevailed against communism in the great ideological battle of the 20th century, nonetheless it was New World Order globalism and not America First nationalism which prevailed in American governance.

In Scott’s view, Trump is not an outsider or opponent of the Deep State, but rather a representative of this other wing of Big Money, which comes from manufacturing and, especially, from oil. Thus, the attacks on “the Party of Davos” – the globalist wing of the ruling elite – are not really populist in nature, but rather merely coming from the other wing of the same ruling elite.

When Russia Tried to Hack a U.S. Election with Fake News

Since JFK was a liberal whose views were more in line with the progressive wing of Big Money, he was most vigorously opposed by the America Firsters. Indeed, on the day of his assassination in Dallas, the son of H.L. Hunt had paid for a full page ad in the newspaper accusing Kennedy of treason. After the assassination, these same right-wing oilmen became prime suspects in the minds of many conspiracy theorists, because of their staunch opposition to Kennedy all throughout his presidency, and because of their close ties with the intelligence and defense industries.

The first book to accuse the entire Deep State of the crime (although that term did not yet exist) was a curious book called Farewell America. It was written pseudonymously under the name James Hepburn, and published in Europe in 1968 by a fake publishing company calling itself “Frontiers.” It alleged that the assassination had been orchestrated by a “committee” made up of interests from big oil, the intelligence agencies, and the defense department. (It even insinuated that Roy Cohn, who worked for right-wing senator Joseph McCarthy and who later became a mentor to Donald Trump, might have had a hand in it somehow.)

Supporters of Farewell America claim that the book has its origins in a private investigation conducted on behalf of Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy by RFK confidantes and by sources in French intelligence. As author Gus Russo tells the story:

“At that time, [Robert] Kennedy said, ‘I just can’t believe that guy [Oswald] acted alone. I’m going to contact someone independent of this government to get to the bottom of this.’ Bobby then contacted a lifelong friend of the Kennedy family, then working in Britain’s intelligence agency, known as MI6. The friendship dated back to the days when Papa Joe Kennedy was the US Ambassador to England. Undertaking this highly secretive mission, the MI6 agent contacted two French intelligence operatives who proceeded to conduct, over a three year period, a quiet investigation that involved hundreds of interviews in the United States. One agent was the head of the French Secret Service, Andre Ducret. The second was known only as “Philippe” — believed to be Philippe Vosjoly, who was a former French Intelligence Chief in the United States. Over the years, Ducret and Philippe hired men to infiltrate the Texas oil industry, the CIA, and Cuban mercenary groups in Florida. Their report, replete with innuendo about Lyndon Johnson and right-wing Texas oil barons, was delivered to Bobby Kennedy only months before his own assassination in June of 1968.”

But detractors of Farewell America say, au contraire, that the whole thing was a hoax by the KGB, designed to stoke fear and diminish trust in American institutions and the country’s elite.

In his memoir If You Have A Lemon, Make Lemonade, New Left publisher Warren Hinckle recounts how Farewell America may have had its origin in District Attorney Jim Garrison (the subject of Oliver Stone’s JFK) and his decision to approach the KGB for any information they might have on the CIA and its involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Garrison sent an envoy to the Soviets at their Mexico City embassy – the same one that Lee Oswald allegedly visited only months before the assassination – to see if the Russian spies would be interested in ratting out their American opponents. The Russians said that this might be possible, but if it were to happen, it would be in a way that was untraceable to them. A few months later, the manuscript of Farewell America showed up at Garrison’s office. When inquiries were made as to its sources, the trail led back to the French SDECE, which, in Hinckle’s words, “was so notoriously, and almost hilariously, riddled with KGB double agents that as a matter of course Frenchmen were offered vodka before wine at international spy gatherings.”

That the KGB did take an interest in promoting JFK conspiracy theories for this purpose was later confirmed by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin in his book The Sword and the Shield. 

It seemed that part of the purpose of Farewell America was to influence the 1968 election in favor of Robert Kennedy, who was praised alongside his late brother, while Lyndon Johnson and virtually the entire rest of the American establishment was vilified. The book likened the Kennedy brothers to the Roman Grachii and their fight against corruption in the Roman Republic. But when Bobby Kennedy was himself gunned down that year, the promotion of Farewell America was abandoned, and the English language version of the book was left to rot in a Canadian warehouse for decades. It is now a collector’s item, known for it’s notoriously poor binding, which splits apart as soon as one opens the book.

The More Things Change …

Of course, history doesn’t repeat so much as it rhymes, as Mark Twain supposedly observed. This time, it’s not the right-wing America First Deep State fighting the liberal President, but rather the globalist “progressive” Deep State fighting the right-wing America First President. But in both cases, the President’s desire to have peace with Russia is at the heart of the conflict.

To his supporters, Trump is a champion of the people, a Caesar fighting against a corrupt elite, and against the enemies of the Republic both at home and abroad. To his detractors, Trump is a fraud, a billionaire who only feigns allegiance to the working class, and who like Caesar has dictatorial ambitions. That such disparate views of the same man can co-exist within the populace is partly testament to the deep division within American society, and partly to the effect of a multiplicity of media, such that different ideologies can stay locked inside their echo chambers, never having any real contact outside of them.

Then again, even JFK, that relic of a simpler, greater time that Trump harks back to, has his different versions. To some, like Oliver Stone and Jim Douglass, he is a hero and a martyr for peace, murdered by the Deep State because he dared to stand up to them. To others, like Noam Chomsky, he was a warmonger and a mediocre President, as subservient to power and money as any other, who was lucky to be struck down by an assassin’s bullets before he could be struck down by scandal.

Trump’s recent clash with the CIA certainly brings to mind JFK’s confrontation with them after the Bay of Pigs. After privately accusing the CIA of lying to him and giving him false information, he fired Director Allen Dulles and Deputy Directors Charles Cabell and Richard Bissell. He said that he would like to “smash the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the winds.”

Trump almost certainly understands how his predecessor felt. In addition to the leaks of the Flynn communications, recent reports indicate that the agency is deliberately withholding information from him. In a visit to CIA headquarters in January, Trump said to the employees gathered there that maybe he would build them a new room, built “by someone who knows how to build. And we won’t have columns – do you understand that?” Though this was unsurprisingly ignored by the media, his meaning was clear to anyone who knows what a “fifth column” is.

It’s tough talk, but it remains to be seen what will come of it.


Addendum: One thing that hopefully will come of it is that President Trump will oversee the release of the last remaining secret government documents that pertain to the Kennedy assassination, which are scheduled to be released in October of this year – except in the event of a petition from the CIA to keep them secret, which is what everyone is expecting to happen. The classified documents consist of “1,100 files concerning the likes of CIA officials Bill Harvey, Howard Hunt, David Phillips, David Morales, Ann Goodpasture, and George Joannides, as well as the surveillance operations that picked up on Lee Harvey Oswald as he made his way from Moscow to Minsk to Fort Worth to New Orleans to Mexico City to Dallas.”

Explaining who these individuals are and why these files are important to history would require, at minimum, a separate and very long article. But what virtually everyone agrees on at this point, even those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin, is that the CIA and the federal government engaged in a massive cover-up after the event, and the murder was never properly investigated. Explanations as to why this happened vary, with some believing that the feds were merely trying to cover their asses and avoid exposure of some of their more unseemly activities, like wiretapping Kennedy’s mistresses, or partnering with the mafia and trying to kill Fidel Castro. Others, however, believe that the CIA in particular has long been hiding something more sinister. Their collective behavior in stonewalling and deceiving the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s certainly invites such a conclusion.

But regardless of what’s in those files, and regardless of who really killed JFK, Trump should make the CIA release those records. At this point, isn’t the mere fact that the agency doesn’t want to do it a good enough reason for the President to somehow force their hand?

However, it should go without saying that there will be no smoking gun, no master key that unlocks the great unknown. One of the problems inherent in the study of the JFK assassination is that looking into it opens a Pandora’s box of historical mysteries and uncertainties, all interconnected in shadowy, intriguing ways, which nonetheless never offer of themselves a definitive understanding. This lure of an ever-elusive truth, like a mirage receding into the distance, has been the death of more than one journalistic career, such that writers now are cautioned away from the case as if it were hard drugs, or the abyss that Nietzsche warned of – when you peer into it, the Deep State looks back at you.