A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
By David Corn January 10, 2023
President Joe Biden presenting a medal posthumously to Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, as his mother, Gladys Sicknick, accepts it at a White House ceremony on January 6, 2023. Patrick Semansky/AP
This past Friday, the second anniversary of January 6, offered us a telling split screen. President Joe Biden hosted a moving ceremony at the White House in which he awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal to a group of Americans who, on January 6, 2021—or during the runup to the riot incited by Donald Trump’s lies—took steps to protect democracy. This band included law enforcement officers who confronted Trump’s seditious brownshirts; election workers falsely accused by Trump and others of rigging the vote count; and Republican and Democratic state officials who preserved the integrity of the election and were assailed by Trumpists. It remains stunning and sad that there needed to be such an event at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As with so much of the extremism of the Trump era, we can become inured to the singularity of the January 6 riot. It’s worth watching the White House event, if only as a reminder.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say America owes you, owes you all—I really mean this—a debt of gratitude, one we can never fully repay unless we live up to what you did,” Biden told the recipients and the relatives of those honorees who died following the riot. He also told a poignant story about his visit to the G7 meeting shortly after his inauguration: “I sat next to the president of France, across from the chancellor from Germany, etc. And I said, ‘America is back.’” One of the G7 leaders replied, “For how long?”
Though political sanity had been restored in the United States, this particular G7 leader was wondering whether it would last. Indeed, as Biden was handing out these awards, Republicans who had encouraged the falsehoods that had fueled the violent raid on the US Capitol were striving in the House to elect one of their own, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, to the speakership. McCarthy had echoed Trump’s false narrative of a stolen election. And he had joined 146 other GOP representatives and senators who voted to block certification of the election due to baseless allegations of election fraud. Though he subsequently blamed Trump for the January 6 attack, McCarthy opposed his impeachment and soon after embraced the out-of-office Trump as the GOP’s paramount leader.
McCarthy has stuck with the former guy, even as Trump has amplified QAnon nonsense, posted an antisemitic message on social media, and vowed to pardon January 6 criminals should he return to the White House. During the chaotic speakership battle, McCarthy’s chief lieutenants were election deniers and conspiracy-mongers, including Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). This was not unusual. Of the 222 current GOP House members, 119 were among those who tried to stop the certification of Biden’s victory on January 6.
As cable news showed Biden honoring the defenders of democracy, it also broadcast the action on the House floor, as Republicans scurried about to install McCarthy, who had been a prompter of insurrection, to a position that is second in the line of presidential succession. This illustrated how absurd our political culture has become. It would take another 11 hours for McCarthy to seal the deal—which he did by caving to the demands of prominent election deniers, including Reps. Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, Andy Biggs, and Scott Perry. Here was the nation in a nutshell: a bipartisan group of respecters of democracy on one side of your television screen, and a band of democracy-undermining Trump cultists on the other. This divide is not ideological. It is not a split driven by policy differences. The two camps are not morally equivalent. If not enough Americans recognize and comprehend this dynamic, American democracy will remain in peril.
In recent weeks, pundits have guffawed over what appeared to be Trump’s declining sway in Republican politics. (His handpicked candidates lost key elections in the midterms.) Yet he used his influence to place McCarthy in the speaker’s chair. In toadyish fashion, McCarthy acknowledged this shortly after his victory Saturday. He said, “I do want to especially thank President Trump. I don’t think anybody should doubt his influence.”
After the January 6 riot, McCarthy proclaimed that Trump bore “responsibility” for the “criminal” attack on Congress and that Trump “should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.” He also called for a fact-finding commission and a censure of Trump. He soon came to oppose an independent, bipartisan commission, and he never pursued censure. Two years later, he was thanking Trump, the instigator of that criminal riot that aimed to subvert the republic, for helping him reach the speakership. McCarthy should be laughed out of decent political society for this. But, alas, there is no decent political society with such rules.
We saw that the following day, as Republicans who had tried to assist Trump’s 2020 coup attempt were respectfully treated as guests on the Sunday shows. On Fox News, Jordan, who is expected to chair the Judiciary Committee, hyped the House Republican’s forthcoming investigation of the FBI: "We're gonna get into what's going on at the FBI. We've had 14 whistleblowers come talk to us about the weaponization of government there.” This phrase—“weaponization of government”—is how GOP extremists describe the Justice Department’s investigations of various Trump matters, including his alleged theft of sensitive government documents and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Regarding the latter, Jordan was a key co-conspirator, consulting with Trump about how Trump could prevent the transfer of power to Biden. Fox was providing a coup plotter a platform to undermine the investigations of the attempted coup. This would be like putting on an arsonist to complain about the fire department.
That’s Fox—and no surprise. More egregious perhaps was ABC's This Week. George Stephanopoulos hosted Rep. Scott Perry, who played a key role in Trump’s (arguably illegal) effort to force the Justice Department to falsely declare that the election was fraudulent. (I detailed that scheme here.) He assailed Rep. Nancy Pelosi for having run the House “like a prison camp.” A proper response would have been: You’ve been credibly accused of trying to corruptly use the Justice Department to overturn an election, so where the hell do you get off grousing about House rules? There was no such retort. To be fair, Stephanopoulos did press Perry on whether he would pledge not to serve on a new House committee investigating the January 6 probes, given that he has been part of the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump’s DOJ plot. Perry replied, “Why should I be limited...just because someone has made an accusation?” And Perry bobbed and weaved when Stephanopoulos asked him if he would plead the Fifth if called before the grand jury investigating January 6.
These queries, though, were mere inconveniences for Perry. His critical role in Trump’s coup efforts have not branded him out of bounds for political talk shows. Stephanopoulos did not grill him on what Perry had done to assist Trump’s crusade to subvert democracy and retain power. The questions he posed to Perry were easily batted away, and this fellow who tried to sabotage the constitutional order was presented to the public as a valuable participant in the national discourse. Next up: Benedict Arnold and his thoughts on George Washington’s military failure in New York. This normalizing and legitimizing of Trump’s coup-sters is dangerous. If they are not sanctioned—either in the criminal courts or the court of public opinion—they or others will try again.
Biden hinted at this during that White House ceremony. “I was a senator for a long time,” he said. “I was vice president, then president. I’d have to tell you: I began to think, looking back on it, that it was just permanent, the United States. It just was eternal. Nothing would happen.” His point: We are wrong to assume that. Eternal vigilance is required. And that vigilance demands tagging foes of democracy as such and not accepting their misdeeds as normal politics.
Recalling that conversation at the G7 meeting, Biden recounted that one of the leaders said, “And what would you think, Mr. President, if tomorrow you woke up and you had a headline in the press saying that in the British Parliament, a mob had come down the hall, broken down the doors of the House of Commons, police officers were killed or died, the place was vandalized in order to overthrow...a prime minister’s election?” Biden paused and continued, “Think about it. Think about it. What would we think if we heard that news today that any other leading democracy in the world went through this?”
On Sunday, this was no longer a theoretical exercise, as hundreds of pro-Bolsonaro thugs in Brazil, protesting his loss in the recent presidential election, attacked the Supreme Court, the presidential palace, and the country’s Congress. It looked just like January 6. Of course, Steve Bannon, who helped create the climate for our 1/6 nightmare, cheered on this political violence, calling the marauders “Freedom Fighters.”
Ali Alexander, a Stop the Steal organizer who shares responsibility for the January 6 riot, also hailed the Brazilian criminals. This reaction on the Trump right was another sign that the great divide in American politics is over the honoring of democratic norms—and that the enemies of democracy remain within our midst. Hell, they are literally running half of Congress now.
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The Watch, Read, and Listen List
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Babylon. Big budgets. Big ideas. Big films. There’s not much better in the movie business than when this combo pays off. A few examples: Lawrence of Arabia, the first Jurassic Park, and The Dark Knight. Glorious popcorn movies that depict other worlds (real or not) and deliver adventure and dramatic dilemmas that define characters. These are spectacles with damn good storytelling. But too often these days, it seems especially hard for Hollywood to hit such home runs. Comic book movies are frequently insipid. Franchise films rely on brand identity more than plot. The most recent James Bond film had great set pieces, but it felt as if the movie’s brain trust devoted little attention to the villain and his motivation for destroying a large piece of the world. I continue to be puzzled by how movies that cost more than $100 million to produce can end up so disappointing. Which brings me to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever ($250 million) and Babylon ($100 million).
The original Black Panther was one of the better superhero movies and an important cultural event. At packed theaters in 2018 on opening weekend, the crowds were buzzing with anticipation: It would be fun and significant. The film, with its imaginative depiction of a secret high-tech society of Black people hidden in Africa, met expectations. The sequel falls flat. The movie sidesteps the most intriguing element of the Black Panther tale: how Wakanda can and should interact with the rest of world. Instead, it creates a conflict between this Black nation and another secret society that is made up of underwater people who also have access to vibranium, the miracle element that makes possible all Wakanda’s technological advances. (Flying cars!)
This Atlantis is led by a demigod named Namor, who is based on another Marvel hero, Sub-Mariner, though in this iteration he is a bad guy plotting war on the surface people. (That would be us.) And he delivers Wakanda an ultimatum: join him in this crusade or be crushed by him. Meanwhile, there is no more Black Panther. He, like actor Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed him in the first film, has tragically died, and his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) are left to figure out how to run Wakanda. It’s hard to tell if the far-from-charismatic Shuri is a central figure or not, though she may be on her way to becoming the next BP. More notable—at least more gripping on the screen—is Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, a onetime Wakanda warrior. Overall, the plot is not gripping. There’s action, fighting, and some interaction between Wakanda and the rest of the world. But Wakanda Forever is mainly a shoot-'em-up battle between two groups of vibranium-huggers. Fun, as far as that goes, but the original deserved a better sequel.
Babylon opens with a fantastically filmed, eye-popping, immense orgiastic party at a remote mansion outside Los Angeles. Lots of naked people coupling in various manners. A hot band. And an elephant. Oh yes, a party girl seems to have been killed by a silent film actor during rough sex. (It’s 1926.) But this crime—shades of Fatty Arbuckle!—doesn’t mean much for the movie, which goes on (and on for over three hours) to chronicle the tragic tales of movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), manic “it girl” Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a gofer who becomes a studio exec. Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash and La La Land) is giving us the epic story of Hollywood’s golden days, as the motion pictures biz shifted from silent films to talkies.
I love movies about LA—especially its dark side. (See Chinatown and True Confessions.) But Babylon is a mess. Nellie is hysterical for the whole running time, and you have to wonder why Manny can’t quit her. Jack is almost intriguing, but even when he’s trying to cope as a falling star in Glamour-land, there’s not much compelling about him. Chazelle provides us little reason to care about the characters. In this supposed love letter to Hollywood, he left out any passion for plot. His depiction of the early days of film—rounding up Skid Row denizens to be extras in a huge battle scene—is thrilling. But the scenery is more exciting than the leading men and women of Babylon. And the film ends with a bizarre montage meant to convey the history of movies that does little to elevate the sad story about successful but sad people. The movie demonstrates Chazelle’s deep knowledge about moviemaking, but it’s a pity that his affection for this history and the millions spent on Babylon weren’t put to better use.
The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time. Here are two autobiographical coming-of-age films, each about a nerdy Jewish boy who grew up to become a successful film director. One’s from Steven Spielberg, who needs no introduction; the other from James Gray, who’s created a diverse array of movies, including Little Odessa, The Lost City of Z, and Ad Astra. Both flicks succeed, but for entirely different reasons. Spielberg’s take is—guess what—Spielbergian. Young Sammy Fabelman is the product of a postwar suburban family. Father (Paul Dano) is an engineer devising breakthroughs in the new field of computer technology; mother (Michelle Williams) is a talented pianist who has put aside her musical passions to become a stay-at-home mom. Starting as a tyke, Sammy is obsessed with filmmaking. He enlists his Boy Scout troop for his earliest productions, during which he cooks up innovative ways to make filmed shootouts and battle scenes seem more real. (He pokes pinholes in individual frames of a movie to simulate the muzzle flash of a gun.) Sammy’s filmmaking is an escape from his family’s misery, as manic mom, who’s in love with dad’s best friend (Seth Rogen), creates an endless stream of conflict, while maintaining a loving connection to Sammy and his sisters. And there’s trouble in high school, as Sammy clashes with antisemitic bullies.
My hunch is that Spielberg is trimming the sails on the family trauma—and some critics have pointed out the gaps between the film and Spielberg’s real upbringing—but it makes sense that he is the product of one parent who was devoted to precision and technology and another who was a free spirit in search of artistry. The Fabelmans is a touching portrait of an imperfect family told from an adolescent’s perspective that provides a true Hollywood ending: Legendary director John Ford gives Sammy, now a young man scrounging for a job in the television and movie industry, a pointer about POV and then tells him to fuck off. And we all know what happens next.
Armageddon Time is grittier and gloomier. In 1980 in Queens, sixth grader Paul Graff (played superbly by Banks Repeta) is at odds with his strong-willed and occasionally abusive father (Jeremy Strong) and in trouble at school, in part because of his friendship with a rebellious Black classmate named Johnny, who is constantly picked on by their teacher. Paul’s mom (Anne Hathaway) is well-meaning, but she fails to provide Paul, who dreams of becoming an artist, sufficient support. His emotional sustenance comes from her father, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), who forges a true bond with Paul, and shares with him stories of the family fleeing antisemitic persecution in Ukraine. After getting caught smoking a joint with Johnny, Paul is bounced to a private prep school financially supported by—wait for it—Fred Trump. Kids there are racist and probably antisemitic. On the sly, he maintains his friendship with Johnny, who’s been expelled and who’s trying to escape foster care. Paul hatches a scheme that would allow them both to escape their plights, but, as you know it would, the plan goes astray, and he learns a tough lesson about class and race.
Gray’s cinematic remembrance is less glossy than Spielberg’s. It’s more political. The Jews are more Jew-ish. At the end, there’s no real indication that Paul is heading toward an impressive career in movies. But he has come to terms with life’s unfairness and matured, no doubt gaining insight that will shape his artistic sensibilities and storytelling skills. Like The Fabelmans, Armageddon Time finds adventure in the everyday dilemmas many of us face and shows that you don’t need a big budget to tell a big story.
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
January 7, 2023: The other GOP civil war; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Glenn Greenwald); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 4, 2023: The House GOP and a year of hope or horror; a noirish novel of the East Village in the 1990s; Brian Ray and the “coolest” song of 2022; and more.
December 23, 2022: The connection between Trump’s taxes and the January 6 report; the weirdest congressional scandal in a long time; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Sen. Josh Hawley)—and Year (Donald Trump); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
December 20, 2022: Have a merry (cracked) Christmas—a playlist; and more.
December 17, 2022: The GOP: still crazy after all these midterm elections; Mark Meadows’ lies; Elon Musk and the latest Big Lie of the right; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Shane Vaughn); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
December 13, 2022: Rachel Maddow and the rhymes of history; Amazon Prime’s The Peripheral does justice to William Gibson’s novel; twangy Americana from a new duo called Plains; and more.
December 10, 2022: Why the GOP establishment cannot save the GOP from Trump; Michael Pertschuk, thank you and RIP; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Rep. Paul Gosar); the Mailbag, MoxieCam™; and more.
December 6, 2022: How Trump-Russia denialism lead to Elon Musk’s dangerous #TwitterFiles failure; a Twitter exit strategy; Sonic Youth’s “Superstar”; and more.
December 3, 2022: The GOP and Nazis, nothing new; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Madison Cawthorn, for the last time?); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
November 30, 2022: What I learned during my Thanksgiving in Italy; why Andor may be the best Star Wars spinoff; and more.
November 17, 2022: Herschel Walker should release his medical records; giving thanks early; The Last Movie Stars reveals Paul Newman’s and Joanne Woodward’s most notable performances—their own lives; MoxieCam™; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at email@example.com.