The Elephant's Graveyard

If Democrats can’t beat the survivor of the Republican primaries, it might be ‘Lights Out in America.’


Douglas Slocombe, the 103-year-old British cinematographer who died Feb. 22 in London, was one of the motion picture industry’s most gifted and versatile artists. His credits over a 50-year career include so many unforgettable pictures that a list of titles brings nostalgic tears to the eyes of a mothballed film critic like me, who last functioned during his heyday. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Lion in Winter, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are just a few of the Slocombe creations that are permanently embedded in popular culture—-not to mention classic comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets that he shot in London before Hollywood discovered him.

But Slocombe’s role in the history of commercial cinema wasn’t his principal claim to fame, as his obituary in the New York Times reminded us. If he was not the last living witness to the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was the certainly the last one who witnessed it through the lens of a newsreel camera. The footage he captured in 1939 was a key element in Herbert Kline’s famous documentary — narrated by the film star Fredric March — about the German blitzkrieg that ignited World War II.

The documentary was titled Lights Out in Europe. It’s that apocalyptic title, even more than the terrifying events Kline and Slocombe recorded, that jumps out at those of us who saw the film and remember it. For 70 years there has been no war in Europe outside the Balkans, which are a special case. The wars are all in the Middle East and Africa now, and the hordes of desperate refugees they’ve uprooted are all pounding on Europe’s door. In the United States we have no war either, except the ones between “law-abiding” citizens who annually inflict tens of thousands of firearm casualties on each other. Yet this is the winter when some documentarian may begin filming Lights Out in America.

I may have a weakness for dramatic hyperbole, in moments of extreme indignation. Years ago the TV newsman Harry Reasoner, in an avuncular moment, warned me that the best journalism is rarely produced “with trembling fingers,” whatever the provocation. The prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, a low point in the catastrophic Iraq war, brought on my last previous attack of trembling fingers. But that right index finger has begun to twitch a little, and I’ve yet to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

I thought nothing political could still astonish me, but this latest wave of Republicans has left me agape. This festival of embarrassment, this pitiful attempt to choose a president from a lineup of losers so defective and grotesque that the comedy dries up and leaves us stunned and shuddering, unable to believe our ears and eyes — has America’s public business ever before descended to anything approaching such depths? Small-penis jokes (and denials), grown, even aging men who taunt each other about sweating and wetting their pants — on national TV? Auditioning for the Oval Office?

Some Republicans, even some rejected candidates, are also experiencing trembling fingers. Ben Carson, the ever-puzzling political surgeon, sees America “heading off the abyss of destruction,” though it wasn’t quite clear what Dr. Carson meant (it was never clear what he meant, though he always behaved like a gentleman set down in a cage of baboons). Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was much more direct: “My party has gone batsh*t crazy.”

To put it mildly. “Off the deep end,” is the way Times columnist Paul Krugman put it, rejecting the usual “evenhanded” twaddle about both parties falling into the hands of extremists. When every relatively sane, relatively dignified Republican had been weeded out in the early primaries, the GOP was reduced to a trio of sophomoric rightwingers so diminished by their recent behavior, so undersized and underqualified to be president that it’s impossible to choose among them. Analogies? Suppose every promising three-year-old in thoroughbred racing came up lame in May, and they ran the Kentucky Derby with a dozen nags who used to pull carriages in Central Park. Suppose both team planes crashed on the way to the World Series, and the Mets and the Red Sox decided to play with makeshift lineups of winos and junkies from the county jail. Would you buy a ticket?

At this juncture, indignant pundits who keep flogging Donald Trump are missing the point entirely. He’s dreadful and ridiculous and his success is infuriating. Racist punks beat up protesters at his rallies. A Trump presidency would be catastrophic, something like the reign of Caligula as Roman Emperor. But the unspeakable alternative is Ted Cruz, arguably the most unpleasant and unpopular man who ever served in the US Congress, a sneering friendless ideologue of the neo-fascist Far Right whose strategy is to convince millions of simpleminded Christians that he’s closer to God than Donald Trump.

The most hypocritical Republicans of all are the “establishment” hacks who conspired to save their party by rallying around Marco Rubio, an obsequious little twerp who’s never said anything that wasn’t trite, redundant and self-congratulatory. No more a moderate than Trump or Cruz, scarcely more experienced than Ben Carson, Rubio is a grinning, posturing nonentity who as president would remain at every mega-donor’s beck and call, which is of course why they prefer him to the bigger egos who have trounced him at the polls. “A focus-group concoction,” Maureen Dowd calls Rubio, and for once she’s got it right. The dumbest thing I read during the entire election cycle (amid fierce competition) was an essay by “a political theorist at Harvard University” calling on all the eliminated Republican candidates to join forces and save America from Trump — by endorsing Marco Rubio. [Rubio threw in the towel on March 15 after failing to win his home state of Florida. Ohio Gov. John Kasich survived by winning his own state.]

Experience? President of the United States may be the most difficult and critically important job on this planet, and here were one party's leading candidates---two freshman senators without a discernible achievement or creative idea between them, and a real-estate salesman from reality TV. Glancing back once more at the reign of Caligula, I think of the parade of young patricians, the flower of Rome, who traditionally marched down the Appian Way in their new purple-bordered togas to symbolize their coming of age. By the time Caligula came to the throne the patrician class was so decimated and disfigured, by syphilis and other gross diseases of the flesh, that the emperor replaced Rome’s bluebloods with a parade of handsome German slaves. (Robert Graves, I, Claudius)

That feels a lot like the situation in America, when we set out to find a leader.

I’d love to see a woman elected president — or a Jew, for that matter, as long as he doesn’t report to Sheldon Adelson. But I’m not excited about a Clinton restoration, and as much as I admire what Bernie Sanders is saying about income inequality and predatory capitalism, I can’t help noticing that he’s 74 years old. Hillary is 68. Is this all they’ve got, the Democrats? Where are the young lions of the Left? Or has the lethal combination of dark money, failing education and chaotic electronic distraction so thoroughly lobotomized this popular democracy of ours that its voters will never recognize or support a natural leader if one comes forward? We should look especially hard at these Democrats — I’ve never been one of them — because every responsible American will be obliged to vote for any candidate they nominate in 2016.

Are the Republican candidates honestly that awful? Much worse, I think — but not as bad as the rabble that waves and cheers and snaps selfies when they enter the room. For years the Republicans have won elections by courting dimwits and bigots of the Caucasian persuasion. Is it any surprise that this attractive constituency is demanding a presidential candidate of its very own? Trump is a calamity if he’s elected, a godsend if he merely succeeds in destroying the Republican Party, an increasingly likely result of the events of 2015-16.

This once-proud party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt is a sick old elephant, dying of acid reflux, of acute racist indigestion since it swallowed the Dixiecrat South in one gulp. In the wake of Trump, the only merciful thing is to euthanize it. The elephant graveyard is waiting, and somewhere, we can hope, a saner new party is gestating, waiting to be born. But what becomes of the millions of feral citizens who really want to ban all Muslims from the USA, and build a 1000-mile wall to keep out the Mexicans? If we can’t absorb them without permanently poisoning the body politic, where will they go? There’s a woman in Texas, a leading Republican candidate for the State Board of Education, who says in public (social media) that President Obama was a drug addict and a gay prostitute. What’s become of Texas, which also nurtures a thriving secession movement? Davy Crockett died for this?

The good news is that the percentage of registered voters who call themselves Republicans is down to 26% in the latest Gallup poll, close to an all-time low. Loyal Democrats register just a few points higher. My own party, the non-party identified by the capital “I,” is now the majority party in America, with over 40% of the Gallup sample. Yes, I harbor a cold fear that many of these “independents” camp even further out on the reactionary fringe, where the Tea Party caucuses and Aryan survivalists polish their AK-47s. But the GOP’s fragile coalition of evil plutocrats and sub-verbal yahoos will never survive a summer of Trump triumphant.

When it suits them — when the thought of President Trump hits them like a fit of vertigo — the GOP’s expired chieftains put on their masks of innocence and moderation. But it doesn’t wash. Mitt Romney humiliated himself working those Southern primaries in 2012, falling as low as a debate with Newt Gingrich over whether Fidel Castro’s soul was going to hell. John McCain put Sarah Palin on his ticket. There’s no place for innocence in this party any more, no place for “Rockefeller Republicans” like my father and grandfathers, who thought George Wallace and Strom Thurmond were the essence of evil.

In practical terms — starkest self-interest — this sick party is irrelevant to every voter, except a very rich one with no conscience. There are three issues that must be resolved before “Lights Out in America” is a reality. The most urgent is the defeat of the NRA gun lobby, and a return to sane or at least less insane gun laws in America. (Today’s massacre was a methodical assault-rifle annihilation of a family of six in Pennsylvania. For tomorrow’s, stay tuned.) No country worth saving would consent to this outrageous body count or the phony rhetoric that supports it. The second issue, also a matter of life and death, is human-triggered climate change. The Iditarod sled-dog race in Alaska was just run on imported snow, shoveled off trucks and trains. No respectable science now opposes global mobilization to reduce carbon emissions. The third urgent issue, championed by Sen. Sanders, is the appropriation of most of America’s wealth by the unapologetic One Percent, a rapid return to feudalism that’s reducing America’s masses to 21st century serfs.

Here is America’s survival manual, its absolute bottom line. Where do the three remaining Republican candidates stand on these issues? All three oppose gun control, having whored themselves to the NRA; all three deny climate change, having whored themselves to the Koch brothers and other generous titans of the energy industry; all three support a flat tax or regressive tax cuts, having whored themselves to Wall Street. They still peddle trickle-down economics in a pirate’s economy where everything — as the Nobel-winning economist Krugman never tires of reminding us — is trickling straight up.

If you think you have something to gain by voting for one of these charlatans, I’m sure you’re sadly mistaken. But if you merely want to show us who it is you hate, and protect your right to take your pistol to church, the Republican Party has a candidate for you. After eight years of mindless obstruction and relentless, often racist vilification of the president, we thought we’d seen the worst of them. Then Justice Scalia died — an event, let’s be honest, that American progressives were not exactly dreading — and Republican senators simply say screw precedent, screw the Constitution, screw any semblance of fair play, we won’t even consider a replacement nominated by Obama. In 1986, every Democratic senator voted to confirm the conservative ideologue Scalia.

If they can get away with this, it may be time to scrap the whole damaged system, from “We the People” on down, and start over. My hunch is that the Supreme Court showdown might be the GOP’s death warrant, in November. But the election of one of its presidential candidates would be a nightmare of unimaginably greater dimensions. Trump quotes Mussolini and sometimes sounds like him, but Cruz is Mussolini, or could be. (Rubio’s personal affect was more like, say, King Farouk?) The irony, as they clown and preen and rage, is that every pratfall makes the incumbent president look better and better. As they shrink, he grows. After two terms as president, Barack Obama would concede his share of mistakes, most of them magnified by tireless enemies. But who can deny that he’s sane, intelligent and dignified, and where does the party that hates him display any of these virtues? After six months of Trump or Cruz, Obama would look like an odds-on candidate for Mount Rushmore. But by then it would be “Lights Out in America” for real.

Hal Crowther is a longtime journalist whose essays have been awarded the H.L. Mencken, Lillian Smith and American Association of Newsweeklies prizes for commentary and the 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction. His latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L.Mencken (University of Iowa Press, 2014). Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2016

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