A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 178

William Jennings Bryan, farmer advocate, anti-imperialist, and three-time Democratic nominee for president.

Wednesday, December 9

Historians will have a hard time explaining the Era of Trump. After all, he’s hardly William Jennings Bryan, able to hold a crowd spellbound with soaring rhetoric that addresses the crowd’s grievances. Hell, he’s a far cry from even being Huey Long.

So how did Trump, a New York City playboy and real estate swindler, win the fervent backing of so many rural and Midwestern working-class voters?  At this point, it only matters because there are sure to be many would-be Trumps vying to pull off the same act in the future.

Just ask MAGA crowd members why they like Trump, and you’ll hear something to the effect of: He tells it like it is. 

But in the face of so many Trump lies (20,000, according to a Washington Post tally), misrepresentations, and bits of disinformation, who could actually believe that? Only people who choose to avert their eyes from reality. Only people for whom things other than absolute accuracy are what really matters. Maybe people subjected to decades of talk-radio conspiracy-mongering.

[Ted Cruz’s father really was involved in the Kennedy assassination, you know.]

It seems like the phenomenon calls more than ever for psycho-historians.

For my part, I think Trump’s popularity boils down to three or four matters: his unvarying pissed-off attitude, his considerable notoriety thanks to his TV shows, and the clear disapproval of educated, somewhat privileged people. 

He is the victim-in-chief, addressing the legions of those who feel they’ve been swindled in the big three-card-monte game of life.

“We’re all victims,” he recently told the crowd at a Georgia rally. Everybody there should wallow in their victimization—with special emphasis on Trump’s loss of the RIGGED election.

Then he adds a side order of racism and sexism—something the white masses know they shouldn’t approve of but they secretly do. 

That friend who used to laugh at something racist that the likes of Andrew Dice Clay might say, or maybe a grotesquely vulgar comment about women— such a person might think: well, I could never say such things out loud…but you know, it’s true!

Get a half-dozen such people together and you’re on your way toward a MAGA rally.

To be honest, one strand of American comedy has contributed as well. Think about how, over the decades, comedians from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Chris Rock have pushed the boundaries about what may be said in public and laughed at. As a result, the very definition of what is vulgar or taboo has shifted. The American public, which once blushed at the mere mention of brassieres, divorce, or toilet paper, has been desensitized.

So when Trump mocks a disabled news reporter or says something profane about women…well it’s crude but, hey, he’s got a point….

Dinner: grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and parmesan, and a fresh mozzarella and tomatoes salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

Entertainment: Another episode of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 101

“Chinatown dance rock” group “The Slants.”

Wednesday, June 24

Emily has been taking online Continuing Legal Education courses. (All lawyers must accumulate 24 CLE credits per year, and she now has 14.) Most of these are dull, little videoed lectures delivered by lawyers who should, in many cases, avoid all microphones. I ask her if she chooses the lectures based on their potential for humor. No, she says, you generally cannot tell what the tone will be.

A case in point is the course she just took. “Government Regulation of Hate Speech” turns out to be a discussion of cases involving outrageous branding and trademark law. Could a San Francisco girl-biker group trademark its name, “Dykes On Bikes”? What about an Asian rock band, “The Slants”? Are these names invidious and thus undeserving of intellectual-property protection? What protection does trademark afford such groups, anyway?

This course was a bit like a George Carlin routine. There is something inherently funny about discussing an outrageous subject from a bureaucratic or legalistic perspective. That was the nature of Carlin’s classic monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The monologue gave him an excuse for saying the words—shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits—again and again, on television.

Carlin was arrested in 1972 for delivering the monologue. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether a radio broadcast of Carlin’s monologue merited an F.C.C. complaint that could have resulted in penalties against the station. 

According to The Atlantic, “The majority decision stated that the FCC was justified in deciding what’s ‘indecent,’ saying the Carlin act was ‘indecent but not obscene.’ The Court ruled that because Carlin’s routine was broadcast on the radio, during the day, it did not have as much First Amendment protection.”

Years later, you still couldn’t say the forbidden words on broadcast TV. But the rise of anything-goes cable TV along with the Internet has made the ruling pretty much moot.

Hate speech is another matter. Defamatory words are not allowed in trademarks, but violations of the First Amendment aren’t allowed either. In the case known as Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, ruled the Trademark Act’s clause regarding disparaging language was a violation of the First Amendment. Thus the group could register the racist slur “The Slants” as its name. (FYI, the group has a well-regarded album “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts.”)

I’m looking forward to seeing a YouTube video of these musical folks. Dykes On Bikes is inherently funny too. I said to Emily that of course they are based in San Francisco—had they been from Des Moines, they’d have felt compelled to move to the Bay Area.

Dinner: leftover balsamic chicken with mushrooms, couscous, and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: Episodes from season two of Broadchurch.