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Donald Trump Is Saving Our Democracy -- NYMag

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Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.

As the summer of Donald Trump came to its end — and the prospect of a springtime for Trump no longer seemed like a gag — the quest to explain the billionaire’s runaway clown car went into overdrive. How could a crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic-personality disorder and policy views bordering on gibberish “defy political gravity,” dominate the national stage, make monkeys out of pundits and pollsters, and pose an existential threat to one of America’s two major parties?

Of course, it was the news media’s fault: The Washington Post charted the correlation between Trump’s national polling numbers and his disproportionate press coverage. Or maybe the public was to blame: Op-ed writers dusted off their sermons about Americans’ childish infatuation with celebrities and reality television. Or perhaps Trump was just the GOP’s answer to the “outsider” Bernie Sanders — even though Sanders, unlike Trump, has a coherent ideology and has spent nearly a quarter-century of his so-called outsider’s career in Congress. Still others riffled through historical precedents, from the third-party run of the cranky billionaire Ross Perot back to Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, the radio-savvy populist demagogues of the Great Depression. Or might Trump be the reincarnation of Joseph McCarthy (per the Times’ Thomas Friedman), Hugo Chávez (the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens), or that avatar of white-racist resentment, George Wallace (George Will)? The historian Richard Hofstadter’s Goldwater-era essay on “the paranoid style” in American politics was once again in vogue.

In the midst of all the hand-wringing from conservatives and liberals alike, Politico convened a panel of historians to adjudicate. Two authoritative chroniclers of 20th-century American populism and race, Alan Brinkley of Columbia and David Blight of Yale, dismissed the parallels. Brinkley, the author of the definitive book on Long and Coughlin (Voices of Protest), said Trump was a first in American politics, a presidential candidate with no “belief system other than the certainty that anything he says is right.” Blight said Trump’s “real antecedents are in Mark Twain” — in other words, fictional characters, and funny ones.

There is indeed a lighter way to look at Trump’s rise and his impact on the country. Far from being an apocalyptic harbinger of the end-times, it’s possible that his buffoonery poses no lasting danger. Quite the contrary: His unexpected monopoly of center stage may well be the best thing to happen to our politics since the arrival of Barack Obama.

In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share. He is, as many say, making a mockery of the entire political process with his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. But the mockery in this case may be overdue, highly warranted, and ultimately a spur to reform rather than the crime against civic order that has scandalized those who see him, in the words of the former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, as “dangerous to democracy.”

Trump may be injecting American democracy with steroids. No one, after all, is arguing that the debates among the GOP presidential contenders would be drawing remotely their Game of Thrones-scale audiences if the marquee stars were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. When most of the field — minus Trump — appeared ahead of the first debate at a New Hampshire forum broadcast on C-SPAN, it caused little more stir than a soporific pageant of congressional backbenchers addressing the empty floor of the House. Without Trump, even a relatively tame Trump, would anyone have sat through even a third of the three-hour-plus trainwreck that CNN passed off as the second debate?

 What has made him more entertaining than his peers is not his superficial similarities to any historical analogues or his shopworn celebrity. His passport to political stardom has been his uncanny resemblance to a provocative fictional comic archetype that has been an invigorating staple of American movies since Vietnam and Watergate ushered in wholesale disillusionment with Washington four decades ago. That character is a direct descendant of Twain’s 19th-century confidence men: the unhinged charlatan who decides to blow up the system by running for office — often the presidency — on a platform of outrageous pronouncements and boorish behavior. Trump has taken that role, the antithesis of the idealist politicians enshrined by Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin, and run with it. He bestrides our current political landscape like the reincarnation not of Joe McCarthy (that would be Ted Cruz) but of Jay Billington Bulworth.

Trump’s shenanigans sometimes seem to be lifted directly from the eponymous 1998 movie, in which Warren Beatty plays a senator from California who abandons his scripted bromides to take up harsh truth-telling in rap: “Wells Fargo and Citibank, you’re really very dear / Loan billions to Mexico and never have to fear / ’Cause taxpayers take it in the rear.” Bulworth insults the moderators of a television debate, addresses his Hollywood donors as “big Jews,” and infuriates a black constituent by telling her he’ll ignore her unless she shells out to his campaign. Larry King, cast as himself, books him on his show because “people are sick and tired of all this baloney” and crave an unplugged politician who calls Washington “a disaster.”

Trump also sounds like Hal Phillip Walker, the unseen candidate of the “Replacement Party” whose campaign aphorisms percolate throughout Robert Altman’s post-Watergate state-of-the-union comic epic, Nashville (1975). His platform includes eliminating farm subsides, taxing churches, banning lawyers from government, and jettisoning the national anthem because “nobody knows the words, nobody can sing it, nobody understands it.” (Francis Scott Key was a lawyer.) In résumé and beliefs, Trump is even closer to the insurgent candidate played by Tim Robbins and reviled as “a crypto-fascist clown” in the mockumentary Bob Roberts (1992) — a self-congratulatory right-wing Wall Street success story, beauty-pageant aficionado, and folksinging star whose emblematic song is titled “Retake America.” Give Trump time, and we may yet find him quoting the accidental president played by Chris Rock in Head of State (2003): “If America was a woman, she would be a big-tittied woman. Everybody loves a big-tittied woman!”

Thanks to Trump, this character has leaped off the screen into real life, like the Hollywood leading man in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. As a human torpedo blasting through the 2016 campaign, Trump can inflict more damage, satirical and otherwise, than any fictional prototype ever could. In his great comic novel of 1959, The Magic Christian, Terry Southern anticipated just the kind of ruckus a Trump could make. Southern’s protagonist is a billionaire named Guy Grand who spends his fortune on elaborate pranks to disrupt almost every sector of American life — law enforcement, advertising, newspapers, movies, television, sports, the space program. Like Trump, he operates on the premise that everyone can be bought. In one typical venture, he pays the actor playing “an amiable old physician” on a live network medical drama a million bucks to stop in mid-surgery and tell the audience that if he speaks “one more line of this drivel,” he’ll “vomit right into that incision I’ve made.” The network, FCC, and press go into a tizzy until viewers, hoping to see more such outrages, start rewarding the show with record ratings.

There have already been some modest precedents for Trump’s real-life prank — most recently, Stephen Colbert, who staged a brief stunt run for president in 2007. The comic Pat Paulsen, a Smothers Brothers acolyte, ran for president intermittently from 1968 into the ’90s, aiming to call attention to the absurdity of politics. His first run was under the banner of the STAG (Straight Talking American Government) Party; later, he ran consecutively as a Republican and a Democrat. (“I like to mix it up,” he explained.) Paulsen came in a (very) distant second to Bill Clinton in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, one of four primaries where he qualified for the ballot that year. But a judge threw him off the ballot in California, declaring, “I do not want to reduce the campaign for an important office like president of the United States to some kind of farce.”

Some kind of farce, nonetheless, is just what the modern presidential campaign has devolved into. By calling attention to that sorry state of affairs 24/7, Trump’s impersonation of a crypto-fascist clown is delivering the most persuasively bipartisan message of 2016.

Trump lacks the comic chops of a Colbert or Paulsen, and, unlike the screenwriters of movies like Bulworth and Nashville, he is witless. His instrument of humor is the bitch-slap, blunt and cruel — Don Rickles dumbed down to the schoolyard. But when he hits a worthy target and exerts himself beyond his usual repertoire of lazy epithets (Loser! Dope! Slob!), he is funny, in part because his one-liners have the ring of truth. When Eric Cantor endorsed Jeb Bush, Trump asked, “Who wants the endorsement of a guy who lost in perhaps the greatest upset in the history of Congress?” When Trump’s presidential rivals attended a David and Charles Koch retreat, he tweeted: “I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch brothers. Puppets?” Twitter inspires his best material, as does Bush. Among Trump’s many Bush put-downs is this classic: “Why would you pay a man $1.3 million a year for a no-show job at Lehman Brothers — which, when it folded, almost took the world with it?” The exclamation point in Bush’s sad campaign logo, JEB!, has effectively been downsized to a semicolon by Trump’s insistence on affixing the modifier “low-energy” to his name every chance he gets.

The most significant Trump insult thus far is the one that heralded his hostile takeover of the GOP. The target was Reince Priebus, the overmatched Republican National Committee chairman. Following the debacle of 2012, Priebus had vowed that his party would reach out to minorities and curb the xenophobic and misogynist invective that drives away the voters without whom it cannot win national elections. When Trump lampooned John McCain’s sacred record as a POW as gleefully as Republicans had Swift Boated John Kerry, the chairman saw his best-laid plans for a “big tent” GOP imperiled by an unauthorized sideshow. “Party donors,” no doubt with his blessing, let it be known to the Washington Post that, in a lengthy phone conversation, he had persuaded Trump to “tone it down.” Hardly had the story surfaced when Trump shot it down: He said Priebus’s call had been brief and flattering, and that he hadn’t agreed to change a thing. As Priebus beat a hasty retreat, Trump joked that manipulating him wasn’t exactly like “dealing with a five-star Army general.” Soon the chastened chairman was proclaiming Trump a “net positive” for his party. When Trump deigned to sign a faux legal document pledging not to run as a third-party candidate, Priebus had to show up at Trump Tower to bear witness, like a lackey summoned to an audience with the boss. That “pledge” served Trump’s immediate goal of securing his spot on primary ballots, but come next year it will carry no more weight than a certificate from the now-defunct Trump University.

Trump’s ability to reduce the head of his adopted party to a comic functionary out of a Gilbert-and-Sullivan operetta is typical of his remarkable success in exposing Republican weakness and hypocrisy. The party Establishment has been trying to erect a firewall against the onslaught by claiming, as George Will has it, that Trump is a “counterfeit” Republican and that even “the assumption that today’s Trumpites are Republicans is unsubstantiated and implausible.” Thus voters should discount Trump’s “bimbo” tweets, anti-immigration fulminations, and rants about Mexican “rapists” as a wild man’s ravings that don’t represent a party that reveres women, welcomes immigrants, and loves Hispanics. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, in its own effort to inoculate the GOP from Trump, disparages him as a “casino magnate” — an epithet it doesn’t hurl at Sheldon Adelson, the still-bigger casino magnate who serves as sugar daddy to the neocon hawks the Journal favors.

Trump does take heretical economic positions for a Republican — “The hedge-fund guys are getting away with murder!” — but on the matters of race, women, and immigration that threaten the GOP’s future viability in nonwhite, non-male America, he is at one with his party’s base. What he does so rudely is call the GOP’s bluff by saying loudly, unambiguously, and repeatedly the ugly things that other Republican politicians try to camouflage in innuendo, focus-group-tested euphemisms, and consultantspeak.

In reality, Trump’s most noxious views have not only been defended by conservative stars like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and late summer’s No. 1 best-selling nonfiction author, the radio host Mark Levin, but also by the ostensibly more “mainstream” Republican candidates. Trump is picking up where his vocal fan Sarah Palin left off and is for that reason by far the favored candidate of tea-party Republicans, according to a Labor Day CNN-ORC poll. Take Trump’s peddling of “birtherism,” for instance. It’s been a right-wing cause since well before he took it up; even Mitt Romney dipped into that racist well in 2012. It took a village of birthers to get Republicans to the point where only 29 percent of them now believe that Obama was born in America (and 54 percent identify him as a Muslim), according to an August survey by Public Policy Polling. Far from being a fake Republican, Trump speaks for the party’s overwhelming majority.

Charles Krauthammer, another conservative apoplectic about Trump’s potential to sabotage the GOP’s 2016 chances, is arguing that Trump’s incendiary immigration stand is also counterfeit Republicanism — an aberrational “policy innovation.” The only problem is that Cruz, Walker, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson have all supported Trump’s “policy innovation” calling for an end to the “birthright citizenship” guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. In Pew’s latest survey on the issue — taken in May, before Trump was in the race — 47 percent of Republicans agreed as well. Even more Republicans (62 percent) support building a wall along the Mexican border (as does Krauthammer), much as they did in 2012 when Herman Cain did Trump one better by proposing an “electrified fence.” Trump’s draconian call for deporting illegal immigrants en masse is also genuine, not counterfeit, Republicanism. Romney had not only argued for “self-deportation” in his last presidential campaign but in 2008 had called for newly arrived illegal immigrants to be deported immediately and for the rest to be given just enough time “to organize their affairs and go home.”

With women, too, Trump embarrasses the GOP by saying in public what “real” Republicans keep private. The telling moment in the Fox News debate was not when Megyn Kelly called him out for slurring women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” but the cheers from the audience at Trump’s retort, in which he directed those same epithets at Rosie O’Donnell. (No one onstage protested.) When Trump attacked Kelly the next day in language that seemed to refer to menstruation, most of his GOP rivals made a show of rallying around Kelly. But the party’s real stand on the sanctity of female biology had been encapsulated in the debate by Walker’s and Marco Rubio’s endorsement of a ban on abortions for women who have been raped or risk dying in childbirth. No wonder Trump’s bloodying of Kelly gave him another uptick in polls of Republican voters. 

Republican potentates can’t fight back against him because the party’s base has his back. He’s ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe. Poor Bush, once the Establishment’s great legacy hope, is so ill-equipped to pander to the base that he outdid Trump in defending the nativist term anchor babies by applying it to Asians as well as Mexicans. (Bush also started mimicking Trump’s vilification of hedge-fund managers.) The candidates who have gone after Trump with the greatest gusto — Graham, Paul, Carly Fiorina, Jindal, George Pataki — have been so low in the polls they had nothing to lose. (Even so, all except Fiorina have fallen farther after doing so — or, in Rick Perry’s case, fallen out of the race altogether.) The others were painfully slow to challenge him. That cowardice was foretold in June when most of the presidential field waited days to take a stand against the Confederate flag following the Charleston massacre. If they’re afraid to come out against slavery a century after Appomattox, it only follows that they’d cower before a billionaire who insults his male adversaries’ manhood as reflexively as he attacks women’s looks. As Steve Schmidt, the 2008 McCain campaign manager, has said, Trump had all but emasculated Bush by the time Bush belatedly started fighting back. In the second debate, Fiorina finished the job by counterpunching Trump with more vigor than Bush could muster.

In this excerpt from the 1959 novel The Magic Christian, the eccentric billionaire employs his fortune to prank American media and show business from the inside, exposing its inanity.

August Guy Grand himself was a billionaire. He had 180 millions cash deposit in New York banks, and this ready capital was of course but a part of his gross holdings.

In the beginning, Grand’s associates, wealthy men themselves, saw nothing extraordinary about him; a reticent man of simple tastes, they thought, a man who had inherited most of his money and had preserved it through large safe investments in steel, rubber, and oil. What his associates managed to see in Grand was usually a reflection of their own dullness: a club member, a dinner guest, a possibility, a threat — a man whose holdings represented a prospect and a danger. But this was to do injustice to Grand’s private life, because his private life was atypical … he had a very unusual attitude towards people — he spent about ten million a year in, as he expressed it himself, “making it hot for them.”

“There’s no biz like show biz,” he liked to quip to the other troupers, “ … oh, we have our ups and downs, heck yes — but I wouldn’t trade one whiff of grease paint on opening night, by gosh, for all the darned chateaux in France!”

Thus did he enter the field, not nominally of course, but in effect. There was at this time a rather successful drama hour on Sunday evening. “Our Town Playhouse” it was called and was devoted to serious fare; at least the viewers were told it was serious fare — truth to tell though, it was by any civilized standard, the crassest sort of sham, cant, and weak-kneed pornography imaginable. Grand set about to interfere with it.

His arrival was fairly propitious; the production in dress rehearsal at that moment was called All Our Yesterdays, a drama which, according to the sponsors, was to be, concerning certain emotions and viewpoints, more or less definitive.

Beginning with this production, Grand made it a point that he or his representative contact the hero or heroine of each play, while it was still in rehearsal, and reach some sort of understanding about final production. A million was generally sufficient.

The arrangement between Grand and the leading actress of All Our Yesterdays was simplicity itself. During final production, that is to say, the Sunday-night nation-wide presentation of the play, and at the top of her big end-of-the-second-act scene, the heroine suddenly turned away from the other players, approached the camera, and addressed the viewers, point-blank:

“Anyone who would allow this slobbering pomp and drivel in his home has less sense and taste than the beasts of the field!”

Then she pranced off the set.

Half the remaining actors turned to stare after her in amazement, while the others sat frozen in their last attitudes. There was a frenzy of muffled whispers coming from off-stage … Then there was a bit of commotion before it was actually faded — one of the supporting actors had been trained in Russian methods and thought he could improvise the rest of the play, about twelve minutes, so there were one or two odd lines spoken by him in this attempt before the scene jerkily faded to blackness. …

The third time something like this happened, the producer and sponsor were very nearly out of their minds. Of course they suspected that a rival company was tampering with the productions, bribing the actors and so on. Security measures were taken. Directors were fired right and left. Rehearsals were held behind locked doors, and there was an attempt to keep the actors under constant surveillance, but … Grand always seemed to get in there somehow, with the old convincer.

In the aftermath, some of the actors paid the breach-of-contract fine of twenty-five or fifty thousand; others pleaded temporary insanity; still others gained a lot of publicity by taking a philosophic stand, saying that it was true, they had been overcome with nausea at that drivel, and that they themselves were too sensitive and serious for it, and had too much integrity, moral fiber, etc. …

Meanwhile the show went on. People started tuning in to see what new outrage would happen; it even appeared to have a sort of elusive comic appeal. It became the talk of the industry; the rating soared — but somehow it looked bad. Finally the producer and the sponsor of the show were put on the carpet before Mr. Harlan, the tall and distinguished head of the network.

“Listen,” he said to the sponsor as he paced the office, “we want your business, Mr. Levet, don’t get me wrong — but if you guys can’t control that show of yours … well, I mean goddamn it, what’s going on over there?” He turned to the producer now, who was a personal friend of his: “For Christ’s sake, Max, can’t you get together a show, and put it on the way it’s supposed to be without any somersaults? … is that so hard to do? … I mean we can’t have this sort of thing going on, you know that, Max, we simply cannot have …”

“Listen, Al,” said the producer, a short fat man who rose up and down on his toes, smiling, as he spoke, “we got the highest Trendex in the books right now.” …

The critics for the most part, after lambasting the first couple of shows as “terrific boners,” sat tight for a while, just to see which way the wind was going to blow, so to speak — then, with the rating at skyrocket level, they began to suggest that the show might be worth a peek.

“An off-beat sleeper,” one of them said, “don’t miss it.” “New comedy,” said a second, “a sophisticated take-off on the sentimental.” And another: “Here’s humor at its highest.” Almost all agreed in the end that it was a healthy satire.

After interfering with six or seven shows, Grand grew restive. “I’m pulling out,” he said to himself, “it may have been good money after bad all along.”

It was just as well perhaps, because at the point when the producer and sponsor became aware of what was responsible for their vast audience, they began consciously trying to choose and shape each drama towards that moment of anomaly which had made the show famous. And somehow this seemed to spoil it. At any rate it very soon degenerated — back to the same old tripe. And of course it was soon back to the old rating as well — which, as in the early, pre-Grand days, was all right, but nothing, really, to be too proud of.

All of this should make Democrats feel pretty confident about 2016. A couple of conspiracy theorists on the right have speculated that Trump is a Hillary Clinton plant. But Trump has hurt Clinton too. Her penchant for dodging controversial questions — fracking, the Keystone pipeline, the Trans-Pacific trade pact — looks still worse when contrasted with Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decisiveness. Even when asked to name her favorite ice-cream flavor during a July appearance at a New Hampshire Dairy Twirl, she could do no better than “I like nearly everything.”

It’s not a coincidence that the Joe Biden buzz heated up just as Trump started taking off. The difference between Clinton’s and Biden’s views is negligible, but some Democrats may be in the market for a candidate of their own who will wander off the reservation and say anything in the echt Trump manner. Yesterday’s “gaffes” are today’s authenticity. Whatever happens with Biden, the Clinton campaign seems oblivious to the possibility that Trump is a double-edged sword, exposing her weaknesses even as he undermines the GOP. When he boasted in the Fox News debate that the Clintons had no choice but to attend his last wedding because he had given them money, he reduced the cloudy questions about transactions between the Clinton Foundation and its donors to a primal quid pro quo that any voter can understand.

As the Trump fallout has rained down on Clinton, so it has on the news media and political pros who keep writing his premature obituary. He has been dismissed as a lackluster also-ran in both debates — compared to the “impressive” Fiorina, Rubio, John Kasich, whoever. No one seems to have considered that more Republican primary voters may have cared about Tom Brady’s endorsement of Trump hours before the CNN debate than the substance of the event itself. Throughout, Trump’s rise has been accompanied by a veritable “Dewey Defeats Truman” festival. After the McCain smackdown in July, political analysts at the Times, the Washington Post, and CNN all declared that he had reached a “turning point” presaging his demise. The Times version of this consensus ran as a column in “The Upshot,” the paper’s rubric for data-driven reporting. It argued that because Republican “elites” had been outraged by the incident, it would “probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.” This conclusion ultimately proved no more predictive than the ostensibly data-driven Literary Digest poll proclaiming Alf Landon the certain victor over FDR in 1936. Given the hostility of the GOP base to elites in general and McCain in particular (unless he’s on a ticket with Palin), it was a better-than-even bet that Trump’s numbers would go up, as they did.

An “Upshot” entry almost two weeks after the Fox News debate dug in further: “The Most Important Story in the G.O.P. Race Isn’t About Donald Trump.” The more important story, it turned out, was the relative “boomlets” for the not-Trump candidates. But Trump continued to be the most important story, not least because of how he kept drowning out the supposed boomlets of the other candidates. Trump, we’ve been told, is sucking the oxygen out of a GOP contest whose other contenders constitute a “deep bench of talent” (the Times) and “an embarrassment of riches” (Peggy Noonan). But Trump is the oxygen of the GOP race, and that deep bench’s embarrassing inability to compete with him is another important story. Even so, guardians of journalistic propriety (and some readers) have implored the upscale press to resist emulating cable news and stop paying Trump so much attention. Some journalists who condescended to write about him have asked forgiveness for momentarily forsaking sober policy debate and stooping so low. The Huffington Post announced it was relegating Trump coverage to the Entertainment section.

That summer of denial is now kaput, but many of the press’s usual empirical tools are impotent against Trump. Columnists and editorial writers across the political spectrum can keep preaching to their own choirs about how vile he is, but they are not likely being read, let alone heeded, by Trump fans. Diligent analyses of his policy inconsistencies are built on a false premise because Trump has almost no policies, just ad hoc opinions that by his own account he forms mainly by reading newspapers or watching Sunday talk shows. When writers for both the Times and Journal op-ed pages analyzed Trumponomics, they produced the same verdict: Nothing Trump said added up. Kimberley Strassel, a conservative columnist at the Journal who regards the Republican field as “teeming with serious candidates,” has complained that Trump is “not policy knowledgeable.” That’s for sure. You won’t catch him following the example of “serious” candidates like Fiorina, Rubio, and Walker, who regurgitate the boilerplate drilled into them by foreign-policy tutors. Why bother, Trump explains, since “one of the problems with foreign policy is it changes on a daily basis.” Such thinking, or anti-thinking, may not win over anyone at the Aspen Institute or the American Enterprise Institute, but does anyone seriously doubt that it plays to much of the Republican-primary electorate? That’s precisely what is spooking conservatives like Strassel.

What’s exhilarating, even joyous, about Trump has nothing to do with his alternately rancid and nonsensical positions on policy. It’s that he’s exposing the phoniness of our politicians and the corruption of our political process by defying the protocols of the whole game. He skips small-scale meet-and-greets in primary-state living rooms and diners. He turned down an invitation to appear at the influential freshman senator Joni Ernst’s hog roast in Iowa. He routinely denigrates sacred GOP cows like Karl Rove and the Club for Growth. He has blown off the most powerful newspapers in the crucial early states of Iowa (the Des Moines Register) and New Hampshire (the Union-Leader) and paid no political price for it. Yet he is overall far more accessible to the press than most candidates — most conspicuously Clinton — which in turn saves him from having to buy television ad time.

It’s as if Trump were performing a running burlesque of the absurd but intractable conventions of presidential campaigns in real time. His impact on our politics post-2016 could be as serious as he is not. Unsurprisingly, the shrewdest description of the Trump show’s appeal has come from an actor, Owen Wilson. “You can’t help but get a kick out of him,” he told the Daily Beast, “and I think part of it is we’re so used to politicians on both sides sounding like actors at press junkets — it’s sort of by rote, and they say all the right things. So here’s somebody who’s not following that script. It’s like when Charlie Sheen was doing that stuff.” As Wilson says, for all the efforts to dismiss Trump as an entertainer, in truth it’s his opponents who are more likely to be playacting, reciting their politically correct and cautious lines by rote. The political market for improvisational candor is as large as it was after Vietnam and Watergate, and right now Trump pretty much has a monopoly on it.

He also makes a sport of humiliating high-end campaign gurus. When Sam Clovis, a powerful Evangelical conservative activist in Iowa, jumped from the cratering Perry to Trump in August, it seemed weird. Despite saying things like “I’m strongly into the Bible,” Trump barely pretends to practice any religion. The Des Moines Register soon published excerpts from emails written just five weeks earlier (supplied by Perry allies) in which Clovis had questioned Trump’s “moral center” and lack of “foundation in Christ” and praised Perry for calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism.” But, like Guy Grand in The Magic Christian, Trump figured correctly that money spoke louder than Christ to Clovis. He was no less shrewd in bringing the focus-group entrepreneur Frank Luntz to heel. After Luntz convened a negative post-debate panel on Fox News that, in Luntz’s view, signaled “the destruction” of Trump’s campaign, Trump showered him with ridicule. Luntz soon did a Priebus-style about-face and convened a new panel that amounted to a Trump lovefest. One participant praised Trump for not mouthing “that crap” that’s been “pushed to us for the past 40 years.” It’s unclear if Luntz was aware of the irony of his having been a major (and highly compensated) pusher of “that crap,” starting with his role in contriving the poll-shaped pablum of Newt Gingrich’s bogus “Contract With America.”

A perfect paradigm of how lame old-school, top-heavy campaigns can be was crystallized by a single story on the front page of the Times the day after Labor Day. Its headline said it all: “Clinton Aides Set New Focus for Campaign — A More Personal Tone of Humor and Heart.” By announcing this “new focus” to the Times, which included “new efforts to bring spontaneity” to a candidacy that “sometimes seems wooden,” these strategists were at once boasting of their own (supposed) political smarts and denigrating their candidate, who implicitly was presented as incapable of being human without their direction and scripts. Hilariously enough, the article straight-facedly cited as expert opinion the former Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom — whose stewardship of the most wooden candidate in modern memory has apparently vanished into a memory hole — to hammer home the moral that “what matters is you appear genuine.”

We also learned from this piece that Clinton would soon offer “a more contrite tone” when discussing her email woes, because a focus group “revealed that voters wanted to hear directly from Mrs. Clinton” about it. The aides, who gave the Times “extensive interviews,” clearly thought that this story was a plus for their candidate, and maybe the candidate did, too, since she didn’t fire them on the spot. They all seemed unaware of the downside of portraying Clinton as someone who delegated her “heart” to political operatives and her calibration of contrition to a focus group. By offering a stark contrast to such artifice, the spontaneous, unscripted Trump is challenging the validity and value of the high-priced campaign strategists, consultants, and pollsters who dominate our politics, shape journalistic coverage, and persuade even substantial candidates to outsource their souls to focus groups and image doctors. That brand of politics has had a winning run ever since the young television producer Roger Ailes used his media wiles to create a “new Nixon” in 1968. But in the wake of Trump’s “unprofessional” candidacy, many of the late-20th-century accoutrements of presidential campaigns, often tone-deaf and counter­productive in a new era where social media breeds insurgencies like Obama’s, Trump’s and Sanders’s, could be swept away — particularly if Clinton’s campaign collapses.

Another change Trump may bring about is a GOP rethinking of its embrace of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing unlimited campaign contributions. Citizens United was supposed to be a weapon wielded mainly against Democrats, but Trump is using it as a club to bludgeon Republicans. “I’m using my own money,” he said when announcing his candidacy. “I’m not using lobbyists, I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.” By Washington etiquette, it’s a no-no for a presidential candidate to gloat about his wealth. Especially if you’re a wealthy Republican, it’s axiomatic that you follow the George H.W. Bush template of pretending to savor pork rinds. But Trump has made a virtue of flaunting his fortune and glitzy lifestyle — and not just because that’s the authentic Trump. His self-funding campaign may make him more effective than any Democrat in turning Citizens United into a political albatross for those who are enslaved to it.

Having no Citizens United–enabled political-action committee frees him to remind voters daily that his Republican adversaries are bought and paid for by anonymous wealthy donors. The notion of a billionaire playing this populist card may seem counterintuitive, but paradoxically Trump’s populism is enhanced by the source of his own billions. His signature business, real-estate development, is concrete, literally so: He builds big things, thus visibly creating jobs, and stamps his name on them in uppercase gold lest anyone forget (even when he hasn’t actually built them and doesn’t actually own them). This instantly separates him from the “hedge-fund guys” and all the other unpopular one percenters who trade in intangible and suspect financial “products,” facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs, and underwrite much of the Republican presidential field and party infrastructure, to some of the Republican-primary electorate’s dismay. The simplicity and transparency of Trump’s campaign funding are going to make it harder for his rivals — and perhaps future presidential candidates — to defend their dependence on shadowy, plutocratic, and politically toxic PAC donors. 

The best news about Trump is that he is wreaking this havoc on the status quo while having no chance of ascending to the presidency. You can’t win the Electoral College in 2016 by driving away women, Hispanics, blacks, and Asian-Americans, no matter how large the margins you pile up in deep-red states. Republicans who have started fretting that he’d perform as Barry Goldwater did on Election Day in 1964 have good reason to worry.

But Goldwater won the nomination in the first place by rallying a disaffected hard-right base that caught the GOP Establishment by surprise, much as the remnants of that Establishment were blindsided by Ronald Reagan’s insurgency that almost denied the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976. Trump’s ascent, like the Goldwater and Reagan rebellions, makes it less likely that the divide between the GOP’s angriest grassroots and the party elites who write the checks will be papered over in 2016, as it was by the time the 2008 and 2012 Republican conventions came to order.

Probable as it may be that Trump’s poll numbers will fade and that he will flame out before the Republicans convene in Cleveland in July, it’s not a sure thing. If the best his intraparty adversaries can come up with as dragon slayers are his fellow outsiders — the joyless scold Fiorina, who presided over the firing of 30,000 Hewlett-Packard workers (a bounteous gift to Democratic attack ads), or the low-low-energy Carson, who has never run anything except an operating room — that means they have no plan. And thanks to another unintended consequence of the GOP’s Citizens United “victory,” the PACs it enables will keep hopeless presidential candidates financially afloat no matter how poorly they are faring in polls and primaries, thereby crippling the party’s ability to unite early behind a single anti-Trump alternative. In a worst-case scenario, the GOP could reach the spring stretch with the party’s one somebody still ahead of a splintered field of nobodies.

By then, Trump’s Establishment nemeses, those who march to the beat of the Journal editorial page and Krauthammer and Will, will be manning the backroom battle stations and writing big checks to bring him down. The specter of a brokered Republican convention loomed briefly in 2012, when Romney was slow to lock up the nomination. Should such a scenario rear up again in 2016, the Koch brothers, no fans of Trump, could be at the center of the action. Whatever happens, there will be blood. The one thing Trump never does is go quietly, and neither will his followers. As Ross Douthat, a reform conservative, wrote in August, Trump has tapped into the populist resentments of middle-class voters who view the GOP and the elites who run it as tools of “moneyed interests.” If the Republicans “find a way to crush Trump without adapting to his message,” he added, the pressure of that resentment will keep building within the party, and “when it bursts, the GOP as we know it may go with it.”

Even if this drama does not play out to the convention, the Trump campaign has already made a difference. Far from being a threat to democracy or a freak show unworthy of serious coverage, it matters because it’s taking a much-needed wrecking ball to some of what has made our sterile politics and dysfunctional government as bankrupt as Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. If that’s entertainment, so be it. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign or the Republican Party is reduced to rubble along the way, we can live with it. Trump will not make America great again, but there’s at least a chance that the chaos he sows will clear the way for those who can.

*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

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17 days ago
Knockout piece. Trump's political theater has really fascinating roots in pop culture.
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11 things you learn in the first season of your TV show

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FX's wickedly funny romantic comedy You're the Worst launched with a promising pilot, and over the course of its first season became one of the best new shows of the year, blessed with both boozy brains and an acrid black heart.

The pilot worked because it leaned heavily on romantic comedy tropes but inverted them. The meet-cute became the meet-nasty, and Jimmy and Gretchen, the show's central couple (played brilliantly by Chris Geere and Aya Cash), felt an obvious weight to their connection that was at once exhilarating and terrifying. Leaning on that gave the pilot its strength.

But what's been impressive since then is the way that the show has dug in even deeper. In tonight's season finale, the show finally bares completely its bleedingly romantic heart, and there are moments that are downright swoon-worthy. They work, however, because they're built out of the show's general world-weary attitude and realistic understanding of how relationships work.

Indeed, with a fall TV season arriving that's positively lousy with romantic comedies that don't seem to understand how human relationships work, it's good to pay heed to some of the things You're the Worst gets so very right. (And if you're so inclined, click over to my interview with creator and showrunner Stephen Falk to find out things he learned while making the first season.)

Finding the right person isn't just amazing — it's terrifying

Jimmy and Gretchen are just about perfect for each other. They laugh at each other's sick jokes, they both have a latent distrust of the rest of humanity, and they can't quite seem to get their lives going. Together, they're somehow better than they are apart, and even though their relationship starts as a casual fling, it becomes something real and serious far more quickly than either of them are prepared for. In a lot of romantic comedies, that would be where the story ends — two people who are perfect for each other finally realizing it and falling into each other's arms.

But on You're the Worst, that realization is the catalyst for things to blow up in Jimmy's and Gretchen's faces. The two of them are perfect for each other, but they're also ... well, look at the title of the show. Love is a wonderful thing, and finding someone who feels about you the way you do about them is even better. But it's also terrifying, because it means opening yourself up to someone who could very easily tear your heart out of your chest and stomp all over it. You're the Worst succeeds because it understands how scary it is to finally give in to that feeling.

Growing up is more than hitting a certain age

As Falk explains in his interview with me, he's tired of stories about man-children who find themselves married to thoroughly patient women who take care of everything in their lives and become pseudo-mothers to them, a critique You're the Worst makes particularly vivid. Gretchen isn't some patient mother hen waiting to swoop in and take care of her new boyfriend but, rather, a messy, disorganized person herself. The episode in which Jimmy finally visits Gretchen's apartment, only to find it a complete pit (and to be horrified by the notion that she watches TV on her computer, rather than a TV) was a season highlight.

But that episode also foregrounded the show's stealth storytelling structure. This is a show about falling in love, sure, but it's also a show about what it means to grow up, to finally accept that you're an adult now and have responsibilities both to yourself and to other people around you. Both Gretchen and Jimmy are depicted as people who attempt to keep their emotions as placid as possible, the better for anything bad to skip off of them like a stone. But that also reduces them to immature people, unable to care about anything all that deeply, much of the time. You're the Worst understands that adulthood is a slow progression of opening yourself up to the world around you.

Opening yourself up to one emotion opens you up to all of them

Jimmy's fling with Gretchen builds to a point where they're finally ready to call each other boyfriend and girlfriend (in one of the series' most winning moments), but very soon after, a package in the mail brings up memories of his father and sends him emotionally reeling. You're the Worst very slowly sketches in the deeper emotional lives of both Jimmy and Gretchen — as might happen with a person you were just starting to date — and it's here that the show reveals how hard it can be to realize the person you're falling for has deep hurt and pain, just like you.

But it's also indicative of the way that Jimmy's new relationship acts as a kind of gateway for these other emotions, even the unpleasant ones, to bubble up and resurface. It's impossible to only feel the good things and not the bad — just as it's impossible to only spend good moments with a person you love, and not the bad ones.

You are, at all times, part of a larger community

Jimmy and Gretchen meet at the wedding of one of Jimmy's exes, a woman whose ultimate rejection of him turned him into the misanthropic novelist he is when the series begins. (His pain allowed him to write, but it also turned him into an unpleasant person.) The idea of the writer as outside observer, wryly commenting on the things happening around him, is an old idea in our culture, but Falk and his writers eventually puncture this idea with the realization that Jimmy isn't just attached to Gretchen — he's attached to a whole community of friends and acquaintances, right down to the neighbor kid.

If You're the Worst's first season had a flaw, it was that some of these supporting characters could come across as broad types, rather than fully-realized figures in their own right. But by the end of tonight's finale, almost every single one of them — even a cat — is an important figure in their own right. It's an impressive feat of world-building and character construction.

There's still juice in the romantic comedy

Above all, You're the Worst works because it understands there's still something thrilling about two people admitting they love each other, even if they couch it in as many disavowals and sidebars as they can muster. Jimmy and Gretchen make each other better, somehow, and it's plain to most people who watch them. You're the Worst can play around like it's treating all of this nonchalantly, but when the two finally admit their feelings, it swoons just as much as we do.

You're the Worst hasn't exactly set the ratings world on fire, but Falk tells me he's "optimistic" for a renewal. Here's hoping FX realizes what a gem it has in this show and gives it another chance.

The first season finale of You're the Worst airs tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. Previous episodes are available for digital purchase or on FX Now.

Read the interview

Stephen Falk first became known to TV fans for his work on two of Jenji Kohan's series — Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, writing episodes for both. But those who get really into following the careers of TV writers might have known him for Next Caller, a sitcom he created that was to star Dane Cook. NBC picked that show up and produced four episodes, then declined to finish out its six-episode order or ever air said episodes. Falk wrote a semi-famous, blisteringly funny Tumblr post about the experience that made the TV fan rounds.

But this summer, he returned with his first "created by" credit to make it on the air, FX's brilliant You're the Worst. And to commemorate the end of the show's first season tonight, Falk talked with us about some of the things he learned over the course of making that first season. What follows is in his words, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

1) Trust the material, and trust your decisions

"What I mean by that is there's a point where we would start to film and maybe a scene wouldn't exactly work the way I thought it would, or maybe I'd get a note from the network about maybe the way an actor played this certain thing, and I would sort of get the yips. I'd go, 'Oh, maybe I'm wrong.'

"Because my last show that I created [Next Caller] didn't make it on the air, despite having shot four episodes and spent a lot of money doing so, I think there was a little bit of trepidation in me. Maybe I started to second guess. It didn't make me really change anything.

"But now, as the network starts seeing the cuts and as the audience is finally getting to see them, some of those things that, at first, were like, 'Is this too totally weird? Or is this actor maybe playing it a little big, or whatever?' those are the things that sometimes get the most reaction. Or some joke I wanted to cut. I thought maybe I should cut back with the dumb joke, or too silly, or whatever. Those are the things that people seem to really like.

"Not that I didn't make a single mistake in all the episodes — far from it — but I think I learned to just calm down and trust in my original decisions. Because even some of the casting decisions were not necessarily exactly what the network wanted. And in the end, they agreed that they were the right decisions, like casting our female lead."

2) Even a romantic comedy is about world-building

"There was some pressure, since it's a romantic comedy, to keep the focus almost all the time on Jimmy and Gretchen. I went through this battle with the last show, Next Caller, even more so. I was met with even more resistance [there].

"But I think what I stuck to was that we have to trust these side characters have to function as their own human beings and not just as sounding boards for the main characters, because that's a trope I hate in romantic comedies. I said, 'Look, I have to give these other characters more screen time and their own stories.' Even not just Edgar and Lindsay, but Becca, and Vernon, and Paul. I needed time to make them all full human beings and have their own little storylines, little arcs. Or Sam, or even the bookstore lady, or the shop cat.

"I wanted these elements to all be there because what I kept saying was, 'It's world building, you guys. It's world building.' And the more we actually build an inhabited fleshed-out world where people are real people and not just plot devices, it's going to only help the Jimmy and Gretchen storylines feel more impactful and real."

3) When fighting to cast an actor you like, it helps to have a network that knows what it's doing — and to give notes.

"To FX's credit, they're incredibly smart. They never said, 'Look, you cannot do this, or you cannot cast this person [Aya Cash]." They're not heavy-handed, but they have opinions. And I think they just didn't quite see it at first. And I said, 'Look, I think you're wrong. Let me bring her in again.'

"I gave her some notes that addressed their concerns, and she was phenomenal. So, they were just normal. They had a slightly different vision in mind. Nothing super specific. But I knew what a tremendous actress she was, and how she had both sides — the sort of harsher side of Gretchen, but also a deep well of emotion — and she's very, very vulnerable. And they saw that."

4) Learn how to better cede control on set to the director

"I had worked with tons of directors in previous shows, but [here] we had three different directors, and they each did three episodes, and then one of them also did the pilot. We shot them in blocks, meaning we sort of were shooting episodes two, three, and four all at the same time. One day we may shoot a scene from episode two, then we may jump right into episode four.

"I think I learned to trust directors more than sometimes I did, because it's a very strange relationship on TV between writers and directors, and it's very opposite in film. The writer is in charge [in television], basically, but it's the director's set, and you have to give them the space to deal with the actors and do that. But in the end, you can pull them aside and say, 'I don't like how this is going' or 'I don't like how you're shooting this. Let's do this differently.' It's a really fraught and weird relationship, and often, directors who come from features aren't used to that, and they have a big problem with it.

"Like, my pilot director, Jordan Roberts,  came from features. And it took us a little while during the pilot process to find that balance. But most of it involved me letting go of control. But also, I think it was very helpful for the show to let the directors really have the set and work with the actors. And I would address concerns directly to him. But for me not to feel like I had to be running around doing everything because I'm the only executive producer on the show, I created it, I wrote seven of the episodes. I have this very control freak nature, so it was great for me to find these wonderful collaborators and just let them fly."

5) Don't try to do it all yourself

"I hired a room of four writers. I'd written one, two, and, I think, three by the time the room started, so it was a thing that lived only in my head. I honestly considered just writing all of them, pulling like a True Detective or something and writing them all. But having that writers' room and having those guys to bounce ideas off, and for them to come up with stuff, it was incredible.

"And we functioned really well. They're all so funny. They really deepened a lot of the characters, and brought their own voices to it. I think the season is way, way better with their input and their hard work, than if I had just like sat in a room and did it all myself."

6) Be willing to change your mind on casting

"Right away, when I saw Chris Geere's tape from London, that fundamentally changed the character in massive ways. Not just the fact that he was tall, blond, and handsome rather than I had seen him as a little schlubbier and maybe not as traditionally handsome. But he is British, and I had not written him as being a Brit. But I was, I think, smart enough and flexible enough to realize that Chris was it. And I knew from the first sentence.

"And then, I realized, 'Oh, I've kind of written a British guy anyway,' because he's very verbal and eloquent. But he also says a lot of horrible shit, and British guys can just get away with it. It's completely unfair, but they get the bad teeth thing, so it evens out in the end. But they can sound charming. Hugh Grant goes on with his floppy hair after getting a blow job on Sunset, and America immediately forgives him. It's an unfair advantage, but it was a superpower they have that I immediately said, 'Oh, I can use this.'

"It didn't change, fundamentally, who he was, but it certainly changed the package he came in, and then allowed me to write in a very, very specific voice, because Chris has such a, not only literal voice, but he just has a demeanor that shifted a little bit. I could write 'wanker' and I could write these Britishisms that come out of his mouth really well and that are really fun to write."

7) Stories about goofy man-children are getting stale

"I think that it is maybe not super interesting any more to see a show where you have this goofy lovable guy, who just hasn't quite grown up. And then, the patient woman at home, who cleans up the bathroom, but is angry about it and lets him know. And then they make up. But I think that's an archetype that we've seen over and over.

"I think it's very much a function of the fact that TV writers are generally 25- to 45-year-old men-children, who get to work in their underwear, unless they're on staff [on a show], and don't necessarily know how to clean up after themselves, and think it would be fantastic to have a beautiful, patient wife at home who put up with their constant video-game playing, and Googling of ex-girlfriends. That was a factor in creating this relationship where Gretchen is just as 'bad,' if not worse, sometimes, and has none of those 'patient shrew' qualities, I would call it. She's allowed to exhibit the same sort of sexual, and vehicular, and alcoholic tendencies as the guys. I got that permission, I would say, directly from watching British sitcoms over the last 20 years."

8) Love is scary and accepting and weirdly beautiful

"I think the show is very much about the terror of giving yourself over to someone. I guess a lesson I did learn in writing this, at least in the pilot, I got to the end, where they had this phone call, and earlier she had tried to bond with Ty, the guy she is stuck on, but it suddenly doesn't look so good after spending this fun night with Jimmy. She tries to bond [with Ty] by admitting something horrible she did in high school, which she thinks is funny, and he thinks it's terrible. She says she burned down her school to get out of a math test. He thinks it's horrible. And the look on her face is of embarrassment and shame, and she immediately goes down on him to avoid that moment. When I got to the end of the script, [Gretchen and Jimmy] were on the phone, and she blurts out that exact same admission, and he laughs and says, 'That's genius,' and then moves on. The look on her face [of surprised happiness] captured it perfectly.

"I think the ideal of love is to find someone who doesn't judge the bad things in you, the scary, or not so attractive, or embarrassing, or shameful things you might have done in the past or that you might do in the present, or even the bad hat you may put on one day, or the bad haircut you got that should not have judgments from the person you're with, I think, is sort of beautiful, and free use, free deal. And then, what I realized, I find that moment to be the most romantic moment in the show. And I consider the show very romantic. The look on her face of, 'Oh, this guy gives me permission to be me, warts and all.' I think that is beautiful."

9) Seasons should be structured in three acts, too. And copy Breaking Bad.

"We had 10 episodes, so we approached it very much like a three-act structure like you would of a script, or really any story really has that structure inherent. We had this opportunity to use three different directors and, as I said earlier, have them direct three in a row, so I thought that would be perfect.

"We really crafted the stories to make very specific acts. The pilot's a prologue. Two, three, four is the first act. Five, six, seven is the second. Two, three, four is them having fun, them getting to know each other and tip-toeing, and bumping into the rules of what it is to date this other person. Five, six, seven starts with the Sunday Fun Day episode, and that's the more visceral, 'Okay, we're going to kind of have fun.' And it's a little more fun, and it sings a little more. And then, eight, nine, 10, again, a different director, are sort of where that kind of fun comes to end a little bit and it's the more emotional [story], where they realize they've gotten way closer and way more entangled in each other's lives than they need to, and dealing with the fallout of that.

"I think, with the writers' help, I really learned to see a season as a whole, rather than just individual pieces, because indeed, this isn't a situation comedy in the way that you just drop these funny characters into a situation and watch what wacky stuff happens. We don't have a bar where they're all hanging out and, 'Look who walked in,' and watch them all have to deal with the fallout of that. We ironically got a lot of lessons from Breaking Bad of really how to structure. I think that show is sort of a master class in structure. And so, while the shows couldn't be more different, I think we kept that in mind.

"Also, I really learned to trust human behavior and stay focused on what someone would actually do — even someone who's weird, and odd, and narcissistic, or a slut, or whatever. If you stay true to the honesty of human behavior, I think you end up having to search a little bit more for comedy, but what comes out, I think, is a lot funnier and resonates as funnier because it rings more true. I learn lessons every day in the writer's room, every day on set, every day in the editing room, and indeed, now that I'm done with that process, every day watching people react to the show and find the show, which really had a small marketing budget and no stars and really not a lot of word of mouth at the beginning. To watch an audience embrace that has been fascinating."

10) Releasing one episode a week is preferable to all at once

"One thing that struck me this morning about that is having just worked on the Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black, I think this is better than dumping a show all at one time. Specifically, for the reason that, when it's once a week, you get to watch the audience find it. And it gives, in a very, very real-time way that I think happens a lot differently with, like, Orange season one, where you dump them all. You don't get the pleasure of everyone watching the same episode at once, which you don't get exactly the way you did 20 years ago before DVRs, but it's just a lot more fun. I think it actually has helped the show get strong word of mouth, and get the recent attention that it has in a very different way."

11) Feel optimistic about renewal

"I think FX is a smart network, and they'll make their own decision. And I don't think anything I'd do would ever influence that, except what I've done is come in, pitch a show that they get, write the show that I promised, make 10 episodes of the show that I promised, have people really like it, and watch the numbers slowly go up, which they have. And the press has been lovely. I feel like I've done my job, and beyond that, it's completely up to them. But I feel optimistic."

The first season of You're the Worst concludes tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. The show is also available for digital purchase and on FX Now.

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29 days ago
You're the Worst is pretty much one of my favorite things ever, and I highly recommend you watch it. (You can tell how great it is by how thoughtful the creator is, too.)
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It Was Easier to Give In Than Keep Running

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By Anonymous

In first grade, a boy named John— a notorious troublemaker—systematically chased every girl in our class during recess trying to kiss her on the lips. Most gave in eventually. It was easier to give in than keep running. When it was my turn, I turned and faced him, grabbed his glasses off his weasel face, and stomped on them on the hard blacktop. He ran to the principal’s office and cried.

In fifth grade, I was asked to be a boy’s girlfriend over email. It was the first email I ever received. He actually told me he wanted to send me an email, so I went home and made an AOL account. We went to a carnival and he won me a Garfield stuffed animal, and then he gave me a 3 Doors Down CD. A few days later, he broke up with me, and asked for Garfield and the CD back. I said no.

In sixth grade, a girl in my year gave head to an eighth grader in the back of the school bus while playing Truth or Dare.

In the summer after sixth grade, I kissed a boy for the first time at sleep away camp. He was my summer love. During the end-of-the-summer dining hall announcements, where kids usually announced lost sweatshirts and Walkmen, an older girl stepped up to the microphone, tossed her hair behind her shoulders, and proudly stated, “I lost something very precious to me last night. My virginity. If anyone finds it, please let me know.” The dining hall erupted into laughter and cheers. She was barred from ever coming back to the camp again, and wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to anyone.

In seventh grade, I told my brother I decided when I was older wanted a Hummer. What I really meant was I wanted a Jeep, but I didn’t know a lot about cars. My mother overheard and screamed at me for “wanting a Hummer.”

In the summer after freshman year of high school, I went to sleepaway field hockey camp with many of my close friends. One of them, named Megan, I had been friends with since kindergarten. One night when I was showering, she ripped open the curtain and snapped a photo of me on her disposable camera. I screamed. She laughed. We both laughed when I got out of the shower a few minutes later. After camp was over, her father took the camera to the convenience store to get it developed. When he gave the finished photos back to her, he said, “Your friend [Anonymous] has grown up.”

Sophomore year of high school, one of my best friends Hilary had a party in her basement while her mom was away. We invited some of the guys in our grade and someone’s older brother bought us a handle of vodka. One of the boys who came sat next to me in Spanish class. His name was Thomas. I remember playing a simple game, where we passed the bottle of vodka around in a circle and drank. I remember being happily tipsy and having fun, to suddenly being very drunk. Thomas and I started chanting numbers in Spanish, and he leaned towards me and kissed me. We kissed in the middle of the party, with all of our friends cheering. Then we went into Hilary’s bedroom.

Hilary’s bedroom was in the basement, on the ground floor, with a large window next to her bed. When someone went outside to smoke a cigarette, they realized it was a front row seat to what was happening in the bedroom. It was dark outside, and the light on was in the bedroom. They called everyone outside to watch. I don’t remember getting undressed, but apparently we were both completely naked in Hilary’s bed. A friend of mine told me later she tried to open the door and stop what was happening, but Thomas must have locked it. They said they pounded on the door. I don’t remember hearing them pounding. I don’t remember seeing everyone’s faces outside the window.  I remember Thomas holding my head down, and shoving his penis into my mouth. I remember trying to resist, pulling back, but he held his hands firmly on my head, pushing my face up and down. That’s all that I remember.

The next day, my friends and I went out to dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. I couldn’t eat anything, and it wasn’t because I was hung over. Every time I tried to put food in my mouth, I felt like I was choking. Anytime a flash of the night before appeared in my mind, I felt like vomiting. My friends sat with me in silence. Then they told me a girl named Lindsey, who had briefly dated Thomas freshman year, had stood outside and watched the entire time. Even after everyone else stopped watching. My friends said they didn’t watch.

On Monday, Thomas and I sat next to each other in Spanish. We didn’t speak. We didn’t make eye contact. I went to the girls bathroom and threw up. I hear Lindsey and Thomas live together, now, ten years later.

Junior year of high school, my teacher for Honors Spanish was named Señor Gonzales. Señor Gonzales had all of the girls sit in the front row. Señor Gonzales called on any girl who was wearing a skirt to write on the chalkboard. Señor Gonzales asked a friend of mine, who had broken her finger playing an after school sport, if she broke her finger because “she liked it rough.” Señor Gonzales was a tenured teacher.

Senior year of high school, I got my first real boyfriend. His name was Colin. He was on the lacrosse team with Thomas. He told me that sophomore year, Thomas told everyone on the team what happened that night at Hilary’s. Everyone cheered. Colin said that, even then, he had a crush on me. Even then, he wanted to punch Thomas.

Colin and I lost our virginities to each other. Colin said if I got pregnant, he would make me have the baby. He didn’t believe in abortion. Colin said if I got pregnant, he would make me have a C-section. Colin said that if I didn’t have a C-section, my vagina would be too loose for him to ever enjoy having sex with me again. Colin said that he wouldn’t let our child breastfeed. He said his mother gave him formula, and that he turned out just fine. I didn’t get pregnant.

Junior year of college, I lived in Denmark for the spring semester and studied at the University of Copenhagen. Copenhagen is one of the safest cities in the world. Guns are illegal there. Pepper spray is illegal there. One night, my friends and I went to a concert at a crowded club in a part of the city I didn’t know very well. I brought a tiny purse with money, my apartment key, and my international cell phone. For some reason it made sense at the time to put my purse inside my friend’s purse. Maybe I didn’t feel like carrying it. We were both drinking. My friend left the concert to go home with her boyfriend. One by one, everyone I was there with left the concert, until I was suddenly alone and I realized I didn’t have my purse, or any money for a cab ride home.

I started walking in the direction that felt right. I walked for a long time. I had no idea where I was, and didn’t recognize the area. It was almost 4 am. I was on a residential street when a cab pulled up next to me. I asked the driver if he could drive me to an intersection down the street from my apartment.

I don’t have any money, I said.

I really need your help, I said.

I will do it for free, he said.

Sit in the front, he said.

I sat in the front. We drove in silence for some time, until he pulled over on the side of a dark street.

I don’t want to do it for free anymore, he said.

He locked the car doors and reached across the center console and slipped his hand up my skirt. He grabbed my vagina. Hard. I pushed his hand away and unlocked the door. I ran down the street and realized he had taken me a block away from the intersection I wanted. I walked to my apartment and threw rocks at my roommate’s window until she let me inside. She yelled at me for waking her up. I escaped. Nothing happened. I was fine.

The summer after I graduated college I helped Hilary find an internship. She was an art major and wanted something for her resume besides waitressing. We found a posting on Craigslist to be a studio assistant for a painter in the Bronx. It was listed as an unpaid internship. The toll for the George Washington Bridge was twelve dollars, plus gas, but she got the internship anyway. She wanted the experience.

The artist was a 38-year-old Canadian painter named Bradley. Hilary was 22.There was another intern there, an art student from Manhattan named Stella.  Bradley needed assistants to help him make bubble wrap paintings. Stella and Hilary would take a syringe and fill the tiny bubbles with different color paints until it formed a mosaic. Bradley always had Hilary stay after Stella left to clean the paintbrushes and syringes. He told Hilary she was beautiful. More beautiful than his wife, who he only married for citizenship. He told Hilary they had a loveless marriage. He told Hilary he wanted to have her beautiful children. They began an affair. He told Hilary has wife knew and didn’t care. He told Hilary he was going to leave his wife soon.

Everyday Hilary drove to the Bronx, cleaned Bradley’s paintbrushes, and had sex on the studio floor. Everyday she went home with no money, and everyday she paid the toll at the George Washington Bridge. She needed the internship for her resume, she said. It was too late to find a new job, she said.

I could go on. I could tell you a lot more. About the whistles on the sidewalk, the kids who sat at the bottom of the stairs in high school to look up our skirts, my friend who was a prostitute in South Carolina, the men who’ve cornered me in parking lots and bars calling me a tease, the unwanted grabbing on the subway, the many times my father has called me fat, the time I traveled to the Philippines and discovered Western men pay preteen locals to spend the week in their hotel, the messages on OKCupid asking to “fart in my mouth.” About how I wasn’t sure if I had been raped because I was drunk and kissed Thomas back. How he raped my mouth and not my vagina, so that must not be rape. How easy it was for me to escape the dark street in Copenhagen, and how that made it not matter since “it could’ve been worse.”

Men have no idea what it takes to be a woman. To grin and bear it and persevere. The constant state of war, navigating the relentless obstacle course of testosterone and misogyny, where they think we are property to be owned and plowed. But we’re not. We are people, just like them. Equals, in fact, or at least that’s the core of what feminism is still trying to achieve. The job is not over. We’ve made great progress. There are female CEOs, though not very many. There are females writing for the New York Times and winning Pulitzer prizes, though not very many.  There are female politicians, though not very many. But these advances are only on paper. The job won’t be over until equality permeates the air we breathe, the streets we walk and the homes we live in.

I think back to how easy it was for me, in first grade, to feel fearless and strong in my conviction to stomp on John’s glasses. I felt right in reacting how I did, because John’s behavior was wrong. But his was an elementary learning of the wide boundaries his gender would go on to afford him. For me, it would never again be so easy.

- Anonymous, age 25

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41 days ago
Heartbreaking and stunning.
San Francisco, CA
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What It Feels Like to Go Viral

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Let's get some definitional housekeeping out of the way: There is no pageviews threshold for what a piece of #content needs in order to, as they say, “go viral.” It's a moving target that shifts from person-to-person, organization-to-organization, on a monthly, even daily, basis. If you normally have 2,000 daily readers, then you get 20,000, that's viral. If you're the New York Times and you get 20,000, something has gone horribly wrong. Pageviews matter, but relativity matters more.

The speed at which the audience is accumulated is also important: The phrase “going viral” is obviously linked to the rapid spread of a disease. Someone posts a link to the right forum that galvanizes a group of fellow posters to do the same, and so the spread begins. It's uncontrollable, unpredictable, uncontainable, untrackable. It's a goddamned outbreak.

It's also an incredible rush for any content creator—I'm not using it as a pejorative here, so much as a short-cut for “all posts, videos, articles, GIFs, Vines, Tweets, what have you”—when social media and pageview counts are skyrocketing. What does the rush feel like? And what are some of its ramifications?

“If you're doing this long enough you can ballpark something you know will get read,” says A.J. Daulerio. He's had plenty of experience with stories taking off, as the former editor-in-chief of both Gawker and Deadspin, and in his latest venture at Ratter. [Full disclosure: I've written for various Daulerio-run enterprises.] But there's a point when the narrative of how that story's being disseminated shifts completely. “It gets picked up by the slipstream of the Internet, and, more importantly, by outside of the Internet.”

“Once the story reaches a level where people are talking about it and they have no clue where they read it, or where they came from, or the origins of it, that's when you really know you have something super-big.”

In the realm of publications, there are two basic ways stories can hit this sweet spot. The first is through an exclusive, where the site trots out unique content that gets “picked up” by other publications. During Daulerio's time at Deadspin, a 2009 story about the outspokenly sober Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton falling off the wagon qualified in this category. “Obviously, it's not Watergate,” Daulerio says. “But you're doing something that no one else has seen before.”

Another huge story for Daulerio's Deadspin was a scoop about longtime-Packers, then-Jets quarterback Brett Favre sending scandalous photographs to a female sports reporter. The post ended up doing huge numbers (the tracker currently shows nearly six million views), forcing its way into the mainstream press, and putting Deadspin on the map for a new audience. “Once the story reaches a level where people are talking about it and they have no clue where they read it, or where they came from, or the origins of it, that's when you really know you have something super-big,” Daulerio says. “I don't even know if there's a word for that. It's beyond viral.”

But, it's not always the hard reporting that worms into the slipstream. In fact: “What was fascinating during that month, was that it wasn't the Favre story that had the most traffic,” Daulerio says. “There was this dumb, tossed-off thing that [Deadspin writer] Barry [Petchesky] had, from some golf tournament, where some dude behind Tiger Woods had a turban on. Everybody was talking about the Favre thing, that we had this monster month. The reality is that actually it was that dumbass post.”

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This is the other standard scenario for content that goes viral: something completely unexpected and random. This isn't always a good thing. “For the ones that you didn't do on purpose, it's frustrating,” Daulerio says. “It's kind of demoralizing. You realize, OK, great, I basically somehow hit the slot machine and won against the robot that is the Internet.”

This kind of unforeseen virality also has more concrete ramifications if you're in the business: During Daulerio's Gawker tenure, if something hit huge, it skewed the numbers in a way that made subsequent normal traffic look terrible in comparison. If you're tracking audience numbers from pieces you've worked hard creating, that's legit. If you're tracking Ice Bucket Challenge re-posts that, for whatever reason, are being shared at disgusting rates on Facebook, that's a fool's errand. To counter numbers that had been skewed by viral's thumb-on-the-scale, Daulerio instituted “Tank Months,” encouraging writers to work on whatever stories they wanted to.

As a senior editor—and resident Minions expert—at BuzzFeed, Katie Notopoulos' job is, essentially, to go viral. As such, the rush of hitting big isn't as pronounced. “The emotional experience is akin to that feeling you get when you know you did a good job at work,” Notopoulos writes in an email. “It's like landing 'the big account' or whatever. You go home and kiss your wife and say, 'Guess what? I just landed the Jenkins account!'”

“I remember I wrote something mean on Gawker about breaking up with California when Schwarzenegger got elected and I knew it had 'gone viral' because I heard Ann Magnuson was emailing it to friends. I was like YESSSSSS.”

It wasn't always this way for Notopoulos, though. Pre-BuzzFeed, she wrote an anonymous humor blog that went viral. “That was really a different feeling,” she writes. “I had never made something that people who didn't actually know me liked or paid attention to before. It was just immensely gratifying in a way I hadn't ever felt before. The feeling was something that was most analogous to situations that hadn't really occurred since high school: scoring a goal in soccer, or finding out your crush likes you back.”

There's crossover of a more nefarious nature too. Last year, the University of Albany released a study concluding that excessive usage of social media can lead to the same impulse control disorders associated with substance addiction. Researchers pointed toward problematic design, particularly the various notifications that “alert” users when someone responds to a post. If the notifications that come in our everyday lives are like small hits of caffeine throughout the day, having something go viral is like mainlining heroin.

“I mean yes I have found the experience of something 'taking off' disgusting and horrifying and anxiety-provoking, also a little thrilling,” Choire Sicha, of the Awl and, formerly, Gawker, writes in an email. [Full disclosure: I've written for Sicha too.] “I remember I wrote something mean on Gawker about breaking up with California when Schwarzenegger got elected and I knew it had 'gone viral' because I heard Ann Magnuson was emailing it to friends. I was like YESSSSSS,” Sicha writes. “Nothing has really matched that thrill though so it's been a long dozen years.”

The chase to go viral, then, has a lot to do with trying to chase after that first glorious fix.

On May 22, 2013, a comedy short entitled “Dadholes” was uploaded onto YouTube. After a few months online, it had received about 4,000 views. Not bad, considering this was a completely independent production with no promotion behind it. But not viral.

“The feeling was something that was most analogous to situations that hadn't really occurred since high school: scoring a goal in soccer, or finding out your crush likes you back.”

Then, after the video was online for about eight months, director Adam Forstadt received a text from its writer and star Chris Wylde. “He said, 'I dunno what’s happening, but Dadholes jumped from 4k to 17k views,” Forstadt writes in an email. “I immediately opened my computer and it had already jumped to 25K in that fraction of a minute. I hit the refresh tab about 20 seconds later and we were at 35K. And so began the wildest night of my social media life.”

Every 20 minutes, the hit count jumped around 25,000. When Forstadt packed it in for the night, the video had received more than 300,000 views and was listed on the Reddit homepage. On Forstadt's Facebook page, people were already writing to congratulate him for making it big. “It was surreal,” Forstadt writes. “When I woke up the next morning we were at 500K views and on almost every major social media site.” It currently has 1.2 million views.

Unless you're used to that kind of response—or really, really busy—there's not much else one can do than monitor the ongoing wave of attention. Going viral is like the praise pellets of Twitter at-replies, Facebook notifications, tiny Instagram hearts, and all the other social media triggers blended together with a hearty helping of crushed caffeine pills. “I was on my computer scouring the Internet for articles about it, fan comments, watching the views multiply,” Forstadt writes. “This was the safest crack cocaine money can’t buy!”

When the wave ebbed—all moments of Internet virality do—Forstadt and company felt justified in producing further videos. “My reaction was pretty simple,” Forstadt writes. “People like it, so let’s make more.” They've made four more “Dadholes” videos, which continue to receive decent view counts. “To be frank, I was super proud that we went viral on scripted content and not some random cat video or terrible accident caught on tape.”

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In January, writer Mark Lukach experienced a similar phenomenon with a piece published here in Pacific Standard. “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” is the story of Lukach and his wife, Guilia, who has been diagnosed with acute psychosis.

By the time it was published, Lukach had traversed the territory previously in a 2011 Modern Love column for the New York Times. “When [the Pacific Standard piece] was published it was like, OK, it's out there,” Lukach says. “I'll post it on Facebook, a couple friends will be like, wow, nice story.” But on the first day it was published, he logged onto Twitter and had 50 at-replies. He logged in an hour later, and there were 60 more. When he checked his inbox, there were more than 300 emails about the story. The story had been picked up by Digg, the New York Times, and just about every kind of aggregator or publisher on the Web.

“I'm not going to lie, it was a huge shot of adrenaline,” Lukach says. “It was very validating as a writer, that people are reading this, and people care, and they're talking the time to reach out to me. This is something I put a lot of effort into. My wife and I both had to suffer through the process.” He was also overwhelmed by how many responses were positive. “I only had a couple people who were critical, everyone else was really supportive. That was really cool, for the Internet kind of shocking, to not find some angle to be mean.”

“It was like a bomb went off. You never know who's going to call, email, how long you're going to be on the horn, so you have to be able to have that availability.”

Lukach still, on average, receives two emails a day about the piece. And this is what informs Lukach's advice about how to handle something that unexpectedly becomes a big hit. “I would say clear your schedule,” Lukach says. “It was like a bomb went off. You never know who's going to call, email, how long you're going to be on the horn, so you have to be able to have that availability.”

The result of “going viral” has been ideal for Lukach. The piece got him in contact with an agent, who got him in contact with a publisher, and he now has a book deal for a memoir. It's what any writer dreams about when working on a story they're passionate about.

But the experience is not always positive.

“Content going viral is overwhelming, intimidating, exciting, and downright scary,” Roxane Gay, an author and essayist whose credits are too numerous and varied to accurately give them proper due here, writes in an email. “Work going viral is certainly an ego boost but it also opens the door to a whole lot of crazy. People tend to write me without having read the entire piece in question or only the headline. They try to 'convert' me to this way of thinking or another. Rarely are they legitimately engaging with anything I have actually written. There's a reason we call it going viral. It's not really a compliment.”

A year ago, after some time off from writing, Elyse Anders re-started her blog. On July 7, she posted—as she later called it—“a quick rant in a moment of frustration” titled “Men: A List of Shit I am Tired of Because of You."

The piece received a few thousand hits Sunday night. But when she logged in Monday morning, the post had received 20,000 views. And it was climbing.

“As the numbers started increasing, my anxiety became super high,” Anders says. “In my history of writing feminist pieces, I know what's coming.”

“It's like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you're standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.”

What came was an onslaught of horrific harassment. “They storm your comments, they harass you on social media, I had one guy with a sort-of veiled death threat the other night,” Anders says. Some of it is vile, disgusting stuff you can imagine. Some of it is vile, disgusting stuff maybe you can't. “I have one site of gun enthusiasts who are posting my picture and telling me how ugly I am.” As she succinctly put it on Twitter:

“We have this idea that most people go through the Internet not experiencing [abuse], or get a mean tweet and you can just block it,” Anders says. “But when it comes at you when something goes viral, you can't make it go away that easily. It's like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you're standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.”

Anders has been through this before, so she's cultivated tools to handle the sudden wave of horror that comes when pieces hit big. She takes time off, purposefully not checking her email in the morning. Sometimes, she'll have volunteers scan her comments to see if there are threats that seem legitimate enough to look into. But Anders, at this point in her career, has built up enough scar tissue to see these attacks for what they are: A kind of defanged terrorism intended to get her to stop writing. “They're designed to scare you into complete and utter silence,” Anders says. “That's the idea.”

This, then, is the dark side of “going viral,” one that's more often than not reserved for women. As Anders further put it: “Men and women experience the Internet in very different ways.”

Going viral can be exhilarating, it can be exciting, it can lead to opportunities you've been working your whole life toward. But not always, and certainly not for all people. Sometimes “going viral” is as serious and horrific as the process it borrows its name from. Sometimes condolences are more in order than congratulations.

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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67 days ago
"This was the safest crack cocaine money can’t buy!"
San Francisco, CA
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Here's how this lion-killing dentist thing is going to play out

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Look, I know it seems pretty wide open right now, but this lion-killing dentist thing is sailing along just as it’s supposed to:

The killer of the lion was revealed. The social media accounts of the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion in Africa have been mined for information. His Yelp listing has been defamed, his Facebook page has been deleted, his website has been attacked. Some terrible things he did in the past have surfaced. Many clever tweets have been fired off. Basically everyone has agreed that this was a terrible thing to do.

Now the fun stuff starts. The backlash to the backlash begins. Benghazi will be invoked. A right-wing radio host with an active following will start a GoFundMe page; it will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few hours. Everyone will act surprised. Barack Obama’s birth certificate will be invoked. The Minnesota dentist will issue a formal apology through a lawyer. The Nuremberg trials will be invoked. Furious tweets will be fired off. The second amendment will be invoked, even though Zimbabwe doesn’t have a second amendment. Someone will ask Donald Trump for comment. Someone will ask Mitt Romney for comment. Someone will ask Dog the Bounty Hunter for comment. CNN will screw up a segment about the story, perhaps by mislabeling Zimbabwe on a map of Africa, or by mislabeling Minnesota on a map of America, or by mislabeling a lion as a baby hippopotamus.

It will be revealed that the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion is a supporter of a certain presidential candidate. This will prove embarrassing for the candidate, who will attempt to distance himself from the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion. Justine Sacco will be invoked. Neil Degrasse-Tyson will tweet something smart.

A brand will tweet something oblivious and atrocious. “You don’t have to be the Minnesota dentist who killed a lion to enjoy our sale on Crocs!” The tweet will be deleted. The brand will apologize. The intern will be fired. The brand will go back to tweeting to the void, to the vast nothingness it abuts.

Someone will suggest that we went too hard on the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion. The GoFundMe page will cross $1 million. Someone will set up a counter-fundraiser, for the lions. It will raise far less money. Someone will point out that there are far greater issues in Africa that we should be paying attention to. This person will be ignored. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will get a sympathetic interview with Sean Hannity. His wife will sit next to him, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex. The “liberal media” will be invoked. Twitter will be blamed. The Internet will be blamed. George Soros will be blamed. Ernest Hemingway will be invoked. A Republican presidential candidate who is lagging in the polls and struggling to gain media attention will tweet a photo of himself with an animal he has just killed. The candidate will gain media attention and surge up the polls. The GoFundMe page will cross $2 million in funds raised. Someone will point out what this money could have been put toward, instead of a Minnesota dentist who killed a lion.

Sarah Palin will be invoked.

The story will begin to lose steam. CNN will apologize for labeling Thailand as Zimbabwe. Donald Trump will say something outrageous about Iran. Mike Huckabee will say something outrageous about the Civil War. Joe Scarborough will say something outrageous about pastry strudels. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will appear on The Hugh Hewitt Show. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will appear on The 700 Club. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will appear on the upcoming season of Blue Bloods.

But eventually, ultimately, the Minnesota dentist will go back to practicing dentistry. He will be able to purchase all new dental tools, with the $3 million he raises from GoFundMe. An intern at a large media organization will be assigned a nostalgic listicle, about newsmakers from the past year you may have forgotten.

The intern will invoke the Minnesota dentist who killed a lion. You will definitely have forgotten.

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70 days ago
Nailed. It. (As someone who is a small part of the professional outrage industry, this is almost too real.)
San Francisco, CA
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Life at Sea: The Pleasures and Perils of Nautical Cooking



The sun slowly melts into the horizon in a riot of fluorescent streaks—pink and orange flame the sky, while the rippling water of the Bali Sea takes on a delicate lavender hue. The silhouette of a volcano rises gently from the water. And there we are, on a little sailboat from San Francisco called Saltbreaker, barely able to believe that this scene has become a nightly occurrence. We lean back against the mast and raise our drinks for a toast. "This," I say, "this is what sailing is all about."

Saltbreaker belongs to my boyfriend, Alex, and his brother, Nick. They purchased the 32-foot boat in 2011, with the aim of sailing from San Francisco to New Zealand, which they did via Mexico, Central America, French Polynesia, Tonga.* Last summer, Nick sailed her from New Zealand to Bali, where Alex and I got back on board to take our turn adventuring around Indonesian islands. Our destination: wherever the wind blows us (or something like that).

*You can read more about Saltbreaker's adventures here, and my take on dating a wandering sailor here.

When I tell people about our current travel plans and Saltbreaker's past adventures, I always get one of two reactions:

  1. "Oh wow, that is so magical and romantic and amazing!" or:
  2. " do you eat?"

On the one hand, the first group is right, it can be pretty magical. The sunsets barely seem real, and that's not even getting into the occasional dolphin escorts and the pristine beaches hidden in remote coves. But it can also be exhausting, dirty, smelly, and cramped, depending on sailing conditions and where we happen to be anchored. Like almost any travel that takes you outside of your comfort zone, it's worth it about 95% of the time.

As for answering the second group, the truth is that we eat pretty damn well. Sailing as a form of travel is pretty much like taking your house from place to place, kitchen (or galley, in sailor-speak) included. Your house just happens to be the size of a walk-in closet, and more often than not, it's rocking back and forth or hanging out at a 25-degree angle. And the average temperature is 90 degrees.


Still, while it's more difficult than your standard home-cooking experience, cooking on a boat is easier than you'd think. You're usually limited to the supplies you have onboard, with little or no ability to purchase more—that issue isn't much different from when you go camping. But you're generally better equipped and stocked than the average backpacker. And you're constantly inspired by the food cultures of the places you visit, as well as the crazy-fresh fish that, on good days, figures into your meal plan.

Stocking a boat for a multiple-month journey requires serious planning for the most culinarily apathetic of sailors. But for us, it's an even more involved process—we want to be excited about our meals as often as possible. We make eating well a priority, even if all we're doing is doctoring a packet of instant noodles or a jarred pasta sauce. And because we can't run to the grocery store to grab a missing ingredient or satisfy a craving, we do our best to anticipate what will enliven each meal.

Interested in plotting your own ocean-bound journey, or curious about how we fuel ours? Then check out how our boat is equipped for cooking, how we plot our provisions before a long trip, and the little luxuries that we can't live without (hint: Nutella is involved).

The Setup


Like any respectable New York-style shoebox apartment that happens to be a sailboat, Saltbreaker has a small galley. We've got a three-burner stove and a oven that both run on propane and, generally speaking, work quite well.

This whole setup is gimbaled, meaning the stove and oven can rock counter to the boat's movement, helping to prevent hot pans and spoons from going flying as the boat leans and rocks. There's also a safety strap that wraps behind the chef-of-the-moment, just in case balance is a challenge.

We have a sink that has two faucets, one of which connects to two 40-gallon tanks filled with freshwater. Back in the States, this was filled with tap water pumped at a marina. Now, we purchase gallon jugs of filtered water and pour them in by hand. We save as much as possible for drinking water, but will also use it for cooking soups and, more importantly, making coffee. The faucet is operated by a foot pump—an excellent way to stay aware of exactly how much water you're using. The sink's second faucet pumps saltwater directly from the ocean, which we use for washing dishes (save our knives and cast iron skillet).

Though the boat is relatively small, it has incredible built-in storage capabilities. Every bit of counter space visible in our little galley opens up to become storage for food, cooking supplies, spices, bottles of whiskey, and more. Food can be stored beyond the galley, too, in a large space under the starboard settee (bench on the righthand side), or in baskets in a port cubby. I quickly became accustomed to the fact that, on a boat, it makes perfect sense to have your clothes stored next to a basket of onions and garlic.

What about refrigeration? You might not be able to imagine cooking sans fridge, but we mostly do without. Saltbreaker does have a small mini-fridge, but we don't use it continuously. Many boats do have full-scale refrigeration systems; we've found that it takes more power than it's worth. (Saltbreaker's power runs off batteries, which are charged primarily by three solar panels.) We'll turn the fridge on for truly pressing concerns: say, if we catch a fish that we don't eat all at once, or if we want to drink a cold beer. Saltbreaker didn't have a fridge at all for close to two years; it made everyone get all the more creative with fish preparation (pickling, smoking, trading), and meant that cold beer on shore tasted even better.

The Provisions: Stocking Up and Strategizing


Some evenings, as the sun is getting low, Alex can be seen duck-diving a few feet off our boat, outfitted in a snorkel mask and freediving fins, as he plunges into the turquoise depths with a speargun in hand. I peer anxiously over the side, crossing my fingers that he's successful. He emerges once, twice, three times, pacing his breath and slowing his heartrate so he can inhale and dive 20-40 meters down again. Moments later, he pops up, triumphant—a gleaming silver fish flecked with gold cleanly pierced with the tip of his spear. "Sweetlips!" he calls, heaving the gun and fish on board as I ready a knife and a bucket of water for cleaning. "Dinner!" I say in response, watching as the fish's body shudders and is still.

It may sound primitive, but this dive for dinner is one of the biggest highlights of our eating life these days. Fishing excursions from San Francisco across the Pacific yielded tasty prizes like dorado, skipjack, tuna, sierra, and even a six-foot sailfish. Here in Bali, we've been eating a good amount of those gold-spotted sweetlips, and have our eyes on some tasty-looking schools of mackerel.


We'll eat a fish straight out of the water pan-fried whole; if it's a firm, meaty fish (like tuna), we might eat it raw as sashimi, on seasoned sushi rice, or as ceviche. We'll turn filets and heads into curry (making use of a solid store-bought green curry paste and boxes of coconut milk) or soup, laced with lemongrass, garlic, and peppercorns.

Fishing doesn't always pan out, though, despite Alex's prowess with a speargun. Sometimes, the surrounding reefs are packed with snorkelers, or the fish are too small. We'll often leave a fishing line behind our boat when we're underway (a practice known as trolling), only to stare at it wistfully for hours on end, resigning ourselves to eating canned tuna instead. Since we can't rely on catching fish every single day, we have to be well-stocked t o ensure that we remain well-fed.

Provisioning for a sailing trip requires that you anticipate what might taste good weeks or even months out, and to realistically consider what you'll be willing to cook when you're too tired to even think about food. On the other hand, it's also worth considering bigger cooking projects (say, making fresh bread or pasta) for when you find yourself with a lot of time to think about your daily meals, and can spend much of your day prepping for them.

Provisions can be divided into two major categories: long-lasting and fresh. The first category includes a whole mess of pantry staples—dried goods like rice, beans, lentils, pasta, and couscous; canned tomatoes, beans, vegetables, and condiments; and fun snack items that hit the spot when we're mid-sail, like chips, nuts, dried fruits, and chocolate (and at least three jars of Nutella). After a long, tiring sail, you'll crave the same sorts of foods you'd want as a tasty reward after a hike. Our quick-and-easy meals often draw heavily from this provisioning category: things like instant noodles and ready-made packs of curry sauce, which can be thrown together in minutes and eaten just as quickly.

I almost cried with happiness at the sight of a towering salad of freshly-grown leafy greens

Fresh food requires a little more strategy. I remember a strenuous, four-day journey down the coast of Nicaragua with no green vegetables and no trips to shore. When we finally made our way to land, I almost cried with happiness at the sight of a towering salad of freshly-grown leafy greens. These days, whenever we're on shore I'm eyeing the local stores and stands like a hawk—when I spy a pile of vegetables, it's all I can do not to start jumping up and down.

Part of the fun is experimenting with local goods that we don't necessarily recognize. Lately, we've had some great meals of kang kung, a type of earthy, spinach-like greens that are wonderful simply sautéed with garlic and coconut oil.


Our meal planning is based around what we have that's fresh and what's likely to go bad first. We make a point to stock up on long-lasting vegetables—onions, garlic, potatoes, and cabbage (which we've seen last for five to six weeks!) all fall under that umbrella—but we don't hesitate to get more fleeting goods like dark leafy greens, local fruit, tomatoes, and eggplants. We keep the produce that is most likely to turn in a basket hanging right over the galley as a reminder to use it up in good time.

Produce isn't the only fresh provision near and dear to my heart and stomach. When stored and sold unrefrigerated (as they are in most places outside of the U.S.) eggs last a long, long time—even multiple weeks—without going bad. They're an easy source of protein with rice, on pasta, or in soup, and I've yet to get sick of eggs simply scrambled or fried with some salt and spice.

traveling to delicious and exotic places has allowed us the opportunity to round out our pantry selection

A well-stocked spice stash is essential for our cooking purposes, too. Saltbreaker left the US with a healthy supply of all of the essentials (cumin, coriander, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and many more), but traveling to delicious and exotic places has allowed us the opportunity to round out our pantry selection with additions like flaky chili powder and vanilla from Mexico, and cardamom, star anise, and tingly peppercorns here in Bali. The other week, I was delighted to find a hidden bottle of Lizano's hot sauce from Nicaragua buried under a mess of cans—the vinegary, spicy sauce was one of my favorite flavor discoveries in Central America, and tastes just as good here in Indonesia.

If there's one truly essential tool in our galley, it's the pressure cooker, where we regularly prepare things like stews and sauces, not to mention dried beans and brown rice. Our stove runs on precious propane, and the pressure cooker allows us to regularly plan on slow-cooked favorites without completely depleting our fuel supply (or causing the cabin temperature to spike to 100 degrees). I've whipped up some seriously good lentil stew in around 15 minutes, and Alex threw together a pasta sauce using a batch of must-use tomatoes and chili peppers in 20 that tasted like they'd spent all day simmering on the stovetop.

The Inevitabilities: Things Will Go Bad (No Matter How Well You Plan)


When you're living on a boat, you may have food-supply surprises. A normally long-lasting cabbage may rot in two days, while a delicate-seeming eggplant will last for a week and a half. The only thing you can plan is that you need to check on your vegetables every day, and should probably be checking in on your canned and dried goods every couple of weeks, too. Our rule: if it smells okay, it probably is. If it's attracting bugs, get rid of it ASAP.

Because our living space is on the small end, it's usually quite evident when something has gone bad. The smell is inescapable; as are the fruit flies. Fortunately, our removal method is a lot more cathartic than your average refrigerator clean-out at home—we get to toss our bad veggies overboard.

One way to slow the rapid pace of vegetable rotting is to intentionally get underripe vegetables which will be ready to eat in a week or so. We expected the worst when we bought a bag of green tomatoes and two massive green avocados, but we kept them as wrapped up and protected as possible, and were rewarded with two magical days of guacamole.

Dried goods are much less likely to go bad, but it happens. Bugs will infest bags of rice and beans that have been opened and left for too long. Cans may rust, rendering their contents inedible. Keeping things as cool and dry as possible helps us avoid a lot, if not all spoilage.


A silver lining to this much-accelerated pace of food rotting is that you're forced to think of ways to preserve what you've got. I dried a huge bunch of Balinese peppers by threading them with fishing line and hanging them in the sun, while a hefty head of cauliflower made a fine jar of lemony, peppery pickles.

So... What Do We Cook?


We may be traveling with our home in tow, but that doesn't make us totally immune from homesickness. My favorite remedy: Recreating our favorite flavors from California. (Tacos, obviously.) Remember our massive, underripe Balinese avocados? The morning we discovered that they'd softened we had new plans for the day: a frenzy of fish taco preparations, which included making fresh flour tortillas, guacamole, and glaring at every and all snorkeler who came within twenty feet of our boat, delaying our ability to spearfish for taco fillings. Finally, we had an opening: Alex promptly speared a sweetlips, we slapped tortillas into shape, and we were gloriously rewarded in the form of two guacamole-laden fish tacos apiece.


And then there are the foods we often cook at home. Alex and I make a lot of fresh pasta in our San Francisco kitchen, and, thanks to a crank-operated pasta maker onboard, can do the same here. Alex is a skilled bread baker, and while baking in the tropics is definitely different from the cooler climes of San Francisco, the fresh bread might taste even better (particularly topped with a healthy smear of Nutella).

But we're not traveling to live on tacos and pasta alone—we draw inspiration from the foods and flavors we're finding on land. I've been making batch after batch of Balinese-style sambal—coconut oil laced with chilies, shallots, and fresh lemongrass—it's the perfect accompaniment to a whole fried or grilled fish, and a killer cooking base for eggs, fried rice, and quick-sautéed vegetables. Our soups are inspired by cap cay (pronounced chap-chay), a garlic-heavy soup loaded with vegetables and a fried egg. It's hard to get too bored when we're constantly trying foods that are so delicious that we pretty much have to recreate them... though beef rendang might have to wait until we get home (unless we find a reliable butcher onshore, that is).

Still, you can't have it all. I miss cheese like crazy, not to mention good wine, strong beer, and kale salads (yep, I'm one of those). There are days that we're eating fresh fish curry when I'd kill for a good cheeseburger topped with bacon.

But we make do. More than that—because every meal takes a little more thought and effort, it tastes a little better, too. Or maybe that's just the salty air talking.

Read the whole story
73 days ago
I quickly became accustomed to the fact that, on a boat, it makes perfect sense to have your clothes stored next to a basket of onions and garlic
99 days ago
My friend wrote this, and I'm crazy envious of her, even if life at sea has its hardships.
San Francisco, CA
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