The frailty of democracy

“Julius Caesar” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, New York

“Shakespeare in the Park” season opened last night with “Julius Caesar” a perfect match play for our times. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater Artistic Director and the director of this production made up his mind to open the summer season with this play on November 9, 2016. The play is about the fragility of democracy that can be twisted and veered off by bombastic speeches cloaked as a narrative that pretend to have at their heart the concern for the people, in this case, of Rome. Caesar is dressed in the suit with red tie, in full election campaign mode, looking sometimes identical with Trump, whimsical, with the same gestures, insecurities, and broken discourse, but using the Shakespearean text, a much more elevated language comparing with the one used by our 7th grade level president. The first part of the play is full of references; Calpurnia speaks with a heavy Slavic accent, one of the conspirators comes dressed in a #resist shawl, the intrigues of ancient Rome are oozing on the Senate floor populated by suits, adorned with the American flag and surrounded by huge portraits of Washington and Lincoln. Caesar is murdered and nobody knows if he were to be a dictator but for sure the victory of Marc Anthony, played by Elizabeth Marvel, propelled him and Octavian in this overpowering position. The republic ended, the portraits of the Founding Fathers were removed and the executions started.

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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in Blog, USA


“The Art of the Deal”

by Tony Schwarz

Why does President Trump behave in the dangerous and seemingly self-destructive ways he does?

Three decades ago, I spent nearly a year hanging around Trump to write his first book, “The Art of the Deal,” and got to know him very well. I spent hundreds of hours listening to him, watching him in action and interviewing him about his life. To me, none of what he has said or done over the past four months as president comes as a surprise. The way he has behaved over the past two weeks — firing FBI Director James B. Comey, undercutting his own aides as they tried to explain the decision, disclosing sensitive information to Russian officials and railing about it all on Twitter — is also entirely predictable.

Early on, I recognized that Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.

The Trump I first met in 1985 had lived nearly all his life in survival mode. By his own description, his father, Fred, was relentlessly demanding, difficult and driven. Here’s how I phrased it in “The Art of the Deal”: “My father is a wonderful man, but he is also very much a business guy and strong and tough as hell.” As Trump saw it, his older brother, Fred Jr., who became an alcoholic and died at age 42, was overwhelmed by his father. Or as I euphemized it in the book: “There were inevitably confrontations between the two of them. In most cases, Freddy came out on the short end.”

Trump’s worldview was profoundly and self-protectively shaped by his father. “I was drawn to business very early, and I was never intimidated by my father, the way most people were,” is the way I wrote it in the book. “I stood up to him, and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike.”

To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it — as he thought his older brother had. This narrow, defensive outlook took hold at a very early age, and it never evolved. “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now,” he told a recent biographer, “I’m basically the same.” His development essentially ended in early childhood.

Instead, Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration. Many of the deals in “The Art of the Deal” were massive failures — among them the casinos he owned and the launch of a league to rival the National Football League — but Trump had me describe each of them as a huge success.

With evident pride, Trump explained to me that he was “an assertive, aggressive” kid from an early age, and that he had once punched a music teacher in the eye and was nearly expelled from elementary school for his behavior.

Like so much about Trump, who knows whether that story is true? What’s clear is that he has spent his life seeking to dominate others, whatever that requires and whatever collateral damage it creates along the way. In “The Art of the Deal,” he speaks with street-fighting relish about competing in the world of New York real estate: They are “some of the sharpest, toughest, and most vicious people in the world. I happen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them.” I never sensed from Trump any guilt or contrition about anything he’d done, and he certainly never shared any misgivings publicly. From his perspective, he operated in a jungle full of predators who were forever out to get him, and he did what he must to survive.

Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time. Having never expanded his emotional, intellectual or moral universe, he has his story down, and he’s sticking to it.

A key part of that story is that facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day. When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down — even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt. In the same way, Trump would see no contradiction at all in changing his story about why he fired Comey and thereby undermining the statements of his aides, or in any other lie he tells. His aim is never accuracy; it’s domination.

The Trump I got to know had no deep ideological beliefs, nor any passionate feeling about anything but his immediate self-interest. He derives his sense of significance from conquests and accomplishments. “Can you believe it, Tony?” he would often say at the start of late-night conversations with me, going on to describe some new example of his brilliance. But the reassurance he got from even his biggest achievements was always ephemeral and unreliable — and that appears to include being elected president. Any addiction has a predictable pattern: The addict keeps chasing the high by upping the ante in an increasingly futile attempt to re-create the desired state. On the face of it, Trump has more opportunities now to feel significant and accomplished than almost any other human being on the planet. But that’s like saying a heroin addict has his problem licked once he has free and continuous access to the drug. Trump also now has a far bigger and more public stage on which to fail and to feel unworthy.

From the very first time I interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower in 1985, the image I had of Trump was that of a black hole. Whatever goes in quickly disappears without a trace. Nothing sustains. It’s forever uncertain when someone or something will throw Trump off his precarious perch — when his sense of equilibrium will be threatened and he’ll feel an overwhelming compulsion to restore it. Beneath his bluff exterior, I always sensed a hurt, incredibly vulnerable little boy who just wanted to be loved.

What Trump craves most deeply is the adulation he has found so fleeting. This goes a long way toward explaining his need for control and why he simply couldn’t abide Comey, who reportedly refused to accede to Trump’s demand for loyalty and whose continuing investigation into Russian interference in the election campaign last year threatens to bring down his presidency. Trump’s need for unquestioning praise and flattery also helps to explain his hostility to democracy and to a free press — both of which thrive on open dissent.

As we have seen countless times during the campaign and since the election, Trump can devolve into survival mode on a moment’s notice. Look no further than the thousands of tweets he has written attacking his perceived enemies over the past year. In neurochemical terms, when he feels threatened or thwarted, Trump moves into a fight-or-flight state. His amygdala is triggered, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activates, and his prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that makes us capable of rationality and reflection — shuts down. He reacts rather than reflects, and damn the consequences. This is what makes his access to the nuclear codes so dangerous and frightening.

Over the past week, in the face of criticism from nearly every quarter, Trump’s distrust has almost palpably mushroomed. No importuning by his advisers stands a chance of constraining him when he is this deeply triggered. The more he feels at the mercy of forces he cannot control — and he is surely feeling that now — the more resentful, desperate and impulsive he becomes.

Even 30 years later, I vividly remember the ominous feeling when Trump got angry about some perceived slight. Everyone around him knew that you were best off keeping your distance at those times, or, if that wasn’t possible, that you should resist disagreeing with him in any way.

In the hundreds of Trump’s phone calls I listened in on with his consent, and the dozens of meetings I attended with him, I can never remember anyone disagreeing with him about anything. The same climate of fear and paranoia appears to have taken root in his White House.

The most recent time I spoke to Trump — and the first such occasion in nearly three decades — was July 14, 2016, shortly before the New Yorker published an article by Jane Mayer about my experience writing “The Art of the Deal.” Trump was just about to win the Republican nomination for president. I was driving in my car when my cellphone rang. It was Trump. He had just gotten off a call with a fact-checker for the New Yorker, and he didn’t mince words.

“I just want to tell you that I think you’re very disloyal,” he started in. Then he berated and threatened me for a few minutes. I pushed back, gently but firmly. And then suddenly, as abruptly as he began the call, he ended it. “Have a nice life,” he said, and hung up.

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Posted by on May 21, 2017 in Blog, News, USA



Hudson Promenade, New York

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Posted by on May 17, 2017 in Blog, USA


When the World Is Led by a Child

By David Brooks

At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist.

But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

At base, Trump is an infantalist. There are three tasks that most mature adults have sort of figured out by the time they hit 25. Trump has mastered none of them. Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif.

First, most adults have learned to sit still. But mentally, Trump is still a 7-year-old boy who is bouncing around the classroom. Trump’s answers in these interviews are not very long — 200 words at the high end — but he will typically flit through four or five topics before ending up with how unfair the press is to him.

His inability to focus his attention makes it hard for him to learn and master facts. He is ill informed about his own policies and tramples his own talking points. It makes it hard to control his mouth. On an impulse, he will promise a tax reform when his staff has done little of the actual work.

Second, most people of drinking age have achieved some accurate sense of themselves, some internal criteria to measure their own merits and demerits. But Trump seems to need perpetual outside approval to stabilize his sense of self, so he is perpetually desperate for approval, telling heroic fabulist tales about himself.

“In a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care,” he told Time. “A lot of the people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber,” he told The Associated Press, referring to his joint session speech.

By Trump’s own account, he knows more about aircraft carrier technology than the Navy. According to his interview with The Economist, he invented the phrase “priming the pump” (even though it was famous by 1933). Trump is not only trying to deceive others. His falsehoods are attempts to build a world in which he can feel good for an instant and comfortably deceive himself.

He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Trump thought he’d be celebrated for firing James Comey. He thought his press coverage would grow wildly positive once he won the nomination. He is perpetually surprised because reality does not comport with his fantasies.

Third, by adulthood most people can perceive how others are thinking. For example, they learn subtle arts such as false modesty so they won’t be perceived as obnoxious.
But Trump seems to have not yet developed a theory of mind. Other people are black boxes that supply either affirmation or disapproval. As a result, he is weirdly transparent. He wants people to love him, so he is constantly telling interviewers that he is widely loved. In Trump’s telling, every meeting was scheduled for 15 minutes but his guests stayed two hours because they liked him so much.

Which brings us to the reports that Trump betrayed an intelligence source and leaked secrets to his Russian visitors. From all we know so far, Trump didn’t do it because he is a Russian agent, or for any malevolent intent. He did it because he is sloppy, because he lacks all impulse control, and above all because he is a 7-year-old boy desperate for the approval of those he admires.

The Russian leak story reveals one other thing, the dangerousness of a hollow man.

Our institutions depend on people who have enough engraved character traits to fulfill their assigned duties. But there is perpetually less to Trump than it appears. When we analyze a president’s utterances we tend to assume that there is some substantive process behind the words, that it’s part of some strategic intent.

But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.

“We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him,” David Roberts writes in Vox. “It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next. But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there is no there there?”

And out of that void comes a carelessness that quite possibly betrayed an intelligence source, and endangered a country.

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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in Blog, USA


The Whitney Biennial

Raúl de Nieves, “Somos Monstros 2” (2016)

Every two years the Whitney Museum of American Art, during its Biennial, is hosting a series of new works that most of the times are striking to the limit. I found most of the times the exhibits from arresting to electrifying even that some were so weird that you could not wrap your head around them. This year I found the show way more tamed with lots of works that were not screaming for attention. They were just good and maybe because the chosedn artists are many of them well established. The films were compelling, the paintings quite powerful and interesting and the feeling was that a message, not surprising political, was clearly getting articulated.

Downtown Manhattan and Jersey City seen from the Whitney’s terrace

However, the Biennial should have a more striking and sometime controversial tone so I picked out of all the exhibits two works that for sure were far of the subdued tone of the exhibits.

“Childermass”, an Ajay Kurian’s installation in the Whitney Museum stairwell

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Posted by on May 13, 2017 in Blog, USA


Vive la France!

I was chatting in February with some French friends in Bucharest about the prospects of the presidential elections in France and the chances of Front Nationale and its Marine Le Pen to win. For sure after our American election fiasco I was more concerned than them while they were decrying the ascent of Macron and the sinking of Francois Fillon, who would have made a good president. My friends considered Macron a straw man created by rich nonagenarians, some of which similar with the ones watching Fox in the US, who says always what is delivered on the menu. However when I chatted with them recently, in spite of their repulsion they still had for him, the spectrum of electing Marine was for sure  eclipsing their concern. Marine Le Pen was named in the US “The Trump woman” but the comparison does not make her justice, She may be filled up with the same hate and sidelined by the their elite as Trump is in the US, but she is not a fool. She is a seasoned politician with a pretty good sense of what should be done in France, unfortunately too much in Putin’s pocket, isolationist and with no sense of hope for the EU. But in the end the French, a better educated people than us, decided the right thing and elected not the fear monger but the other alternative, even if they disliked him. Simply because they did understand that fear is for the weak. At a party in New York in the night of the French election we were all French and celebrated. Vive la France!

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Posted by on May 8, 2017 in Blog, France, USA



A slab of the Berlin Wall in the Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, CA

About a year ago some good friends from California mentioned in a casual discussion the Reagan Library in Simi Valley: “It’s such a nice place and you guys should go there. And the drive down from there towards Malibu is spectacular” but in the same breath they said: “Oh, but probably you will not want to visit it because you voted for Obama”. It was so funny, at least for me, that one would exclude the other but I was not extremely surprised. We are as tribal as we can be, no matter that we consider ourselves way beyond that. This categorization reminded me several discussions I had in Las Vegas with a gentleman from Louisiana. A very polite and civil gentleman like many of his peers from the South, he was interested to have a chat because we were in the same industry, television, but also because I was from New York, a place where in the southerner conservative understanding live only rabid liberal, anarchist and maybe Communists. He never challenged me but he was always pointing to a different perspective in our visions that were never defined in the conversation whatsoever. But it should have been this way because I was from New York…He confessed at one point that he was part of the Tea Party, a flavor that myself I did not have a chance to encounter in New York so I started to ask him to explain various topics his group adhered to. My interest puzzled him and each and every time I asked him a question he stopped and asked if I was actually a closet Republican and I just wanted to jump the fence. The fact that I was not siding with neither of the parties, sitting comfortably on top of the fence, and I just wanted to understand each person’s perspective was unconceivable for him and he kept asking the same question each time when we met; I had to be part of a tribe, or not be at all.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech

For us who were born and grew up in Eastern Europe, Reagan represented a hero. I don’t know how I would have felt living here in regards to his social policies and I don’t want to speculate about it but his staunch approach toward our oppressive Soviet rulers was music to our ears. He was absolutely right chastising the Democrats’ weak position toward the Soviets and naming them “The Evil Empire”, with its popular culture connotation. I remember talking with my friends about his statement and being elated by his stance while living in Romania under the Communists. We thought that finally the US had a leader that was able to talk to the Soviets using their tone. But walking the library floors I was more impressed by listening to the speeches he made along his eight years of presidency, inspiring, hopeful and sometime joyful in spite of the dire situation the country was going through. After each and every speech I stopped and thought of its powerful message and its intricacies on the world stage. As Maureen Down was pointing in a recent piece in NY Times:…”…Reagan had one key quality that you [Trump] don’t have: He knew what he didn’t know…. President Reagan was confident enough to accept that he needed experts below, deftly maneuvering the strings…”. And you could tell from the way he spoke and was deftly communicated issues. What emanated in most of the speeches is cached in a statement that he made latter after he finished his presidency: “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears.”

What a great difference in speech, approach, attitude and mentality in comparison of what is going now in the White House.

Air Force One and Marine One, Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, CA

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Posted by on April 29, 2017 in Blog, USA