Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Trumpian Trilogy

Here are prospectuses for three novels that, given more time, I would love to write.

The Trumputin Test

This one is modeled after Richard Condon’s novel, The Manchurian Candidate. In brief:

Major Bennett Marco, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, and the rest of their infantry platoon are captured during the Korean War in 1952. They are taken to Manchuria, and brainwashed into believing Shaw saved their lives in combat – for which Shaw is subsequently awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

It is revealed that the Communists have been using Shaw as a sleeper agent who, activated by a posthypnotic trigger, immediately forgets the assignments he carries out and therefore can never betray himself either purposely or inadvertently. In Shaw’s case the suggestion that he play solitaire is the trigger. Seeing the “Queen of Diamonds” playing card transforms him into an assassin who will kill anyone at whom he is directed. Shaw’s KGB handler is his domineering mother, Eleanor. Married to McCarthy-esque Senator Johnny Iselin, Eleanor has convinced the Communist powers to help her install her husband as president and allow them to control the American government through him.

In The Manchurian Candidate, Shaw is periodically tested by his Communist programmers to make sure that his trigger is working. The ultimate test is to have Shaw kill someone close to him - the father of his girl friend.

In my proposed story Trump is summoned to Finland to meet with his handler, Vlad. The suspense builds. What test will assure Vlad that Trump’s trigger is still working? Pull out of NATO? Resign from the WTO? Anger our traditional allies? Attack the press? Discredit our law enforcement agencies? Separate Hispanic kids from their mothers?

Here’s more of the motivation for my story from The Guardian. Putin will run rings round Trump in Helsinki. Bad news for the rest of us writes Natalie Nougayrède. Trump’s ‘America first’ rhetoric is a gift to the Russian president, who wants to use it to break up the existing European order.

… US’s European allies are bracing themselves for another assault on the postwar settlement they are desperately trying to salvage: the continent’s security architecture, the European Union and liberal democracy. Trump will meet Putin just days after a Nato summit that everyone expects to be acrimonious, and a visit to Britain where large street protests will almost certainly have taken place. The visit to Helsinki allows him to seek some solace in the Kremlin with a like-minded “strong” leader.

If the extremist political forces Putin likes to promote in Europe do take over, with Trump helping to embolden them, the Russian president can begin to envision a new brand of transatlanticism, anchored in authoritarianism and white, Christian nationalism – a world view that would suit Putin down to the ground. The presence in the White House of a US leader who disparages allies, questions Nato, lashes out at Angela Merkel and says the “EU is possibly as bad as China, only smaller” when it comes to dealing with the US is quite simply a godsend.

The biggest question remains: WHY? What hold does Putin have on the Moscovian President?

The Gal from Gilead

This story is inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale by prize-winning author Margaret Atwood (and now a popular TV series). Here is the background from Wiki.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a theonomic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America.

Beginning with a staged attack that kills the President and most of Congress, a fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionist movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They quickly remove women’s rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by sex. The new regime, the Republic of Gilead, moves quickly to consolidate its power, including overtaking all pre-existing religious groups, including Christianity, and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical model of Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. In this society, human rights are severely limited and women’s rights are strictly curtailed. For example, women are forbidden to read, and anyone caught in homosexual acts would be hanged for “gender treachery”.

You might think it could not happen here. (Sinclair Lewis anyone?) One of Trump’s picks for the Supreme Court might disagree with you.

Aaron Blake at the Washington Post reports on The one Trump Supreme Court pick who makes too much sense.

There are 25 people on President Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court justices and five on his shortlist. One of them makes an exceeding amount of sense — both for him personally and for this moment in politics.

Amy Coney Barrett is thought to be one of the leading contenders and is almost surely one of the two women Trump has now said is on his shortlist ahead of the announcement of the pick July 9. She’s the one female candidate who was on pretty much everybody’s shortlist, in fact.

… she’s young (46), good on her feet, telegenic, unmistakably conservative and, with seven children, has the kind of family you want sitting behind you during tense confirmation hearings. …

As far as reinventing the court for decades to come, she’s everything Trump’s base could want. But she also gives something Trump something less tangible: The opportunity to stoke a culture war.

Barrett has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for just eight months, and it took a while to confirm her last year in what wound up being a mostly party-line vote. …

… if you’re Trump, you might actually consider how that played out as a positive. The main knock on Barrett, after all, was that she was supposedly too religious. As [Blake] detailed at the time:

Opponents have pointed to a couple of comments Barrett has made over the years, including telling Notre Dame graduates in 2006 that “your legal career is but a means to an end, and … that end is building the kingdom of God.” In 1998, Barrett said, “Judges cannot — nor should they try to — align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge. They should, however, conform their own behavior to the Church’s standard.”

Barrett was eventually confirmed, but were Trump to pick her again, it’s not difficult to see liberal activists — who are spoiling for this fight — pushing their elected officials to press forward on this line of questioning. Indeed, it would be almost unavoidable, given the line of questioning is really all about Roe, and that’s the central issue right now with this vacancy. Democrats will be poking and prodding for any hints about how the nominee would rule on cases involving Roe, and with Barrett that means talking about her past commentary on the intersection of religion and the law.

Trump is going to get a fight over this pick, so he might as well choose the battle he wants. And this is exactly the kind of battle he generally relishes: One that invites his opponents to overreach.

The downside here is the possibility that Barrett’s nomination might be defeated – thereby leaving no time to confirm a new justice before the November election. But that seems pretty unlikely given she got even some Democratic votes just a few months ago.

Given that last point, once again the question is WHY? Why would any Democrat vote for Barrett thus putting Roe v. Wade at risk?

The President’s Dilemma

This one opens with the President’s closest confident, Mickey Con, arrested and charged with financial crimes - activities in which the President is suspected of playing a central role. Thus both the President and Con have much to lose.

If both the President and Con stay silent, chances are that consequences of their actions will be slight. But if either of them turns and cooperates with investigators in return for all charges dropped, the other will be subject to severe penalties. This is a version of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Additional inspiration for this story is provided by Adam Davidson (New Yorker) who asks Is Michael Cohen Turning on Donald Trump?. Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen appears to be playing out the Prisoner’s Dilemma with the President in the most public and consequential way possible.

The most famous game-theory formula was developed in 1950, by two mathematicians, Melvin Dresher and Merrill Flood. But it was only later that another mathematician gave it the catchy name that made it famous: the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The idea is simple: two accused criminals have been arrested and are being interrogated separately. If they both stay silent, they’ll both get a year in jail. But, if one rats out the other, he could get away scot-free while his accomplice would spend three years in jail. The optimal outcome, in terms of total time served, is for both to remain silent. But, as Drescher and Flood posited, there is enormous likelihood that each will rat out the other. There are endless variations of the formula, tweaking the costs and benefits of silence and confession, but the core insight remains: if two people whose interests are mutually dependent on the actions of the other don’t fully trust each other, and don’t have the opportunity to secretly coördinate, they will end up behaving in ways that hurt both of them.

… Many people assume that Cohen has an enormous amount of information that could shed light on Trump’s relationship with Russia, suspicious business activity, and, possibly, corruption in office. Cohen, after all, received millions of dollars from companies seeking his help in influencing Trump’s Administration. Cohen also held meetings with some of these new clients in Trump Tower. It would be a dramatic shift in Trump’s approach to business to allow his subordinate to profit from his name without some benefit to himself. It seems reasonable to imagine that Cohen may well have information that could damage, or even destroy, Trump’s Presidency. Yet what Cohen, in fact, knows remains a mystery.

Trump, for his part, has enormous power to punish or reward Cohen. As President, Trump can pardon him or use the full law-enforcement power of the federal government to punish him.

We are witnessing a grand, public Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which each man could, theoretically, destroy the other. Or, perhaps, they could work together to explain away any troubling information that comes out of the investigation of Cohen’s files. They can’t talk privately, because every interaction is likely to be scrutinized. Instead, they speak to each other through the media.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that minor shifts in incentives can have an outsized impact on the choices people make. It also shows that, when two players cannot openly communicate, even the slightest hint of information from one player can have an enormous effect on the other’s choices. In this, Cohen seems to have made what game theorists call a “binding commitment,” a sign that he will pursue the benefits of coöperating against Trump. He has removed options from himself and from the President. It will now be harder for Cohen to revert to his previous state of complete fealty to his former boss. And he has made it more difficult for Trump to pardon him without appearing to mount a cover-up. It seems fairly clear: Cohen is willing to turn against the President. The key question now is what does Cohen know and what can he prove?

Trump’s path is clear now, too. If coöperation is no longer an option, he must destroy Cohen. He must crush this man’s credibility and find some way to so raise the cost of Cohen’s coöperation with Mueller that Cohen will remain silent. What will Trump do if he is convinced that Cohen does have information that could end his Presidency and destroy his family? Trump’s actions against Cohen and Mueller in the weeks ahead will give us clues regarding the President’s guilt.

I guess if I can’t sell these to a major publishing house, self-publication is always an option.

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