Elena Ferrante isn't on Twitter but she totally should be.

A new Twitter account claiming to be that of the Italian novelist is fake, according to her English language publisher Europa Editions. But it gives us occasion to ponder whether Twitter would be an appropriate venue for the pseudonymous author, who has famously defended her reputation as an international woman of mystery as a matter of putting the work above the writer’s identity. As she told The Paris Review:

It’s not the book that counts, but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is very happy to welcome you. If it’s not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image.

That would suggest Ferrante—whoever she (he?) is—is unlikely to join the hordes of contemporary authors who regularly use social media to hawk their books and, more accurately, themselves. Then again, Ferrante undoubtedly has benefited from her aura of mystery, from the mask she puts on for her audience, from the constant performance all this entails—which suggests she would be right at home in the Twitterverse.

February 19, 2017

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When it wasn’t terrifying, Donald Trump’s “campaign-style” rally was stale.

Trump needed this. His first month in office has been an unmitigated disaster. There are not only daily—practically hourly—reports from the West Wing of extreme incompetence, but Trump’s fourth week in office was defined by a major scandal: the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Things are not going well and Trump is clearly over-matched—when he isn’t bored—by the responsibilities of being president.

His “campaign-style” rally—ominously pitched as the start of the 2020 campaign—existed primarily to make Trump feel good about himself. Getting back on the campaign trail was a way to regain his mojo. Trump needs crowds to tell him that he is good and is doing a good job, because every other available metric—polls, reporting, basic cognitive functions—say that he is, in fact, doing a very bad job and that he is historically unpopular. He got that on Saturday—in many ways, Trump’s rally most resembled his rallies from mid-August 2016, when it seemed like his campaign was crashing to earth. The biggest takeaway from the rally was that Trump seemed genuinely happy in a way that he hasn’t since he took office.

It was, in effect, a greatest hits rally. Like going to see Boston or .38 Special in 2017, Trump did tired versions of old favorites: He talked about the border wall (now, hilariously, the “great border wall”) and companies moving overseas and the terrible Democrats and how the federal government is getting screwed by private companies. At one point, resembling late-period Lenny Bruce, he read the travel ban executive order to the crowd to point out ... something. He brought out a rabid fan to say a few words, which was probably the silliest thing I’ve ever seen a president do. Melania kicked things off by reading the Lord’s Prayer. It was a weird rally, in other words, but only because Trump was president—in most ways, it seemed like the kind of rally Trump did over and over again in the long summer of 2016.

One thing that was missing—perhaps the reason why the rally felt so unfocused and unmoored—was a foil. In 2016, Trump had Hillary Clinton, a career politician with ties to the corrupt establishment he was railing against. In 2017, Trump has nothing. He tried to hit two abstractions: the Democrats, who don’t have the power to really oppose his agenda, and the media. Trump’s attacks on the media and the First Amendment are genuinely ominous—on Saturday Trump quoted Thomas Jefferson to decry the “fake news” media. “I want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news,” Trump said at the beginning of his speech. It’s clear that Trump’s attacks on the media are meant to delegitimize one of the few American institutions capable of holding him to account. But Trump’s attacks on the media, though more pointed—he is now claiming that the news media is making up entire stories, which is insane—have always been at the center of his speeches to large crowds.

Trump’s rally will be held up by his surrogates on the Sunday shows and by press secretary/unwanted household pet Sean Spicer as proof that the polls that suggest that a clear majority of Americans disapprove of his presidency are “fake news.” That Trump is still leading a movement and that thousands of people at a rally somehow equal or negate the millions who are concerned about his ability to lead the country. But what was most notable about the rally was that Trump retreated to the safety of the stump speech—it may have been the least newsworthy event of his calamitous young presidency.

February 17, 2017

Donald Trump is so petty.

Trump is currently a man without enemies. His attempts at elevating Head Clown Chuck Schumer have failed; his jabs at Hillary Clinton are like the Rolling Stones playing “Jumping Jack Flash” in 2017—the diehards may cheer but everyone else just rolls their eyes. On Friday afternoon, Donald Trump took to Twitter to throw a left jab at the only enemy he has left: The media.

But Trump deleted this tweet after only one minute. Why? Did he believe that he had crossed a line? That labeling the media as treasonous did little to repair America’s fraying social bonds? That it’s unfair to call people who are just doing their jobs FAKE NEWS or SICK? Or that the entire structure of this tweet was weirdly messianic, transferring his personal enemy—in this case, an abstraction—onto the “people” (which in Trump’s case strictly refers to citizens)?

No. Twenty minutes later Trump re-upped.

Trump deleted a tweet just because he wanted to label some other media organizations as “fake news”—in this case the three major non-FOX networks.

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John Bolton might become national security adviser because nobody competent wants to work for Trump anymore.

Shortly after Donald Trump won the presidency, an important debate ensued over whether experienced Republicans and civil servants of integrity should agree to work for him. Having adults in his administration would reduce the risk of calamity, but it might also tempt them into complicity with his crimes, while lending his team the competency he would need to carry them out. Or so the argument went.

When Bob Harward declined Trump’s offer to be his one-month-old presidency’s second national security adviser, it marked the moment when that debate ended, for all intents and purposes.

Through malice and incompetence, Trump has shambled into a paradox, whereby anyone who agrees to work for him will have exhibited a disqualifying error of judgment, guaranteeing him an administration filled with knaves, hacks, and vandals. John Bolton may be an incrementally less horrifying national security adviser than General Michael Flynn was, but it’s hard to say. The Trump White House withdrew Bolton from consideration for multiple Senate-confirmable positions because even Republicans wouldn’t willingly consent to allowing him into the government.

The other people Trump is considering, while less alarming than Bolton, also speak to the thinning pool of talent he has available to him.

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Some bombshells might drop on Scott Pruitt next week. The Senate confirmed him anyway.

Democrats and environmentalists have put up a stink over thousands of unreleased emails between newly-confirmed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and fossil fuel interests. Pruitt was ordered by a judge on Thursday to release those emails, which were requested two years ago by a progressive watchdog group under a Public Records Act request.

Those emails could show any number of things—including nothing. But they were requested in the first place because Pruitt has a history of sketchy emails. In 2014, the New York Times found what they called “an unprecedented, secretive alliance” between Pruitt’s office (he was previously the attorney general for Oklahoma) and Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies. Pruitt had apparently allowed lawyers for Devon to write a letter to the EPA and put it on Oklahoma attorney general letterhead. What’s more, Pruitt regularly accepted political contributions from fossil fuel companies “within days of taking official actions that support those companies,” ABC News found.

The Center for Media and Democracy, which filed the records request, suspects the emails could contain more evidence of collusion between Pruitt and oil and gas interests. But Pruitt does not have to release those emails until Tuesday. That’s why on Friday morning, Democrats said they would attempt to delay Pruitt’s confirmation hearing until next week. In a press conference, they noted that it might even be good for Republicans to hold off, just in case there is something particularly scandalous in those emails. And they chastised Republicans for ignoring Pruitt’s emails while spending the presidential campaign focused on Hillary Clinton’s private email server. “It is the absolute height of hypocrisy,” Chuck Schumer said.

Mitch McConnell, however, said he would not allow a delay. Asked by a reporter to explain, he answered succinctly: “Because I choose not to.”

Pruitt was confirmed 52-46, with two Democrats voting in favor, and one Republican voting against.

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The killing of Kim Jong-un’s half brother is the most bizarre story in a week of bizarre stories.

The assassination in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of the North Korean dictator, just took a very unusual turn. Malaysian police now say that one of the two alleged assailants was an unwitting dupe who was fooled into thinking she was carrying out a comedic prank. The Guardian reports:

An Indonesian woman arrested for suspected involvement in the killing of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia was duped into thinking she was part of a comedy show prank, Indonesia’s national police chief has said, citing information received from Malaysian authorities.

Tito Karnavian told reporters in Indonesia’s Aceh province that Siti Aisyah, 25, was paid to be involved in pranks.

He said she and another woman performed stunts which involved convincing men to close their eyes and then spraying them with water.

“Such an action was done three or four times and they were given a few dollars for it, and with the last target, Kim Jong-nam, allegedly there were dangerous materials in the sprayer,” Karnavian said. “She was not aware that it was an assassination attempt by alleged foreign agents.”

Aisyah emerges from the story as not only a patsy but a figure of genuine pathos, a single mother who was trying to support her family and got caught up in an international murder plot, likely ordered by an insane despot.

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At least Donald Trump is still humiliating Chris Christie.

One of the few delights to be found in the Trump era is the way the president constantly humiliates Christie, one of his early Republican supporters. Most of these humiliations seem to revolve around food. A New Yorker article from last June reported a story (which the governor’s office denied) that Trump sent Christie on an errand to pick up Big Macs from McDonald’s. That same month Trump, at a rally, mocked Christie (who was on stage with him) by saying, “You’re not eating Oreos anymore. No more Oreos. For either of us, Chris. Don’t feel bad.”

Now Christie himself has an eyebrow-raising story about dining with Trump at the White House last Tuesday. ‘‘This is what it’s like to be with Trump,’’ Christie said in a radio interview. ‘‘He says, ‘There’s the menu, you guys order whatever you want.’ And then he says, ‘Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.’’’

Trump is a generally joyless figure, but he seems to take genuine pleasure in humbling his fellow politicians. And apparently no one has a greater appetite for being debased than Christie.

Is this Proust?

Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, a professor at Canada’s Laval University, has claimed to have found the only known film footage of the author, who died in 1922. Blink and you might miss him—a young man in a bowler hat descending the stairs, his head twitching from side to side like a small bird. The footage, from 1904, comes from the wedding of Élaine Greffulhe, daughter of Comtesse Élisabeth Greffulhe, whom Proust immortalized as Oriane de Guermantes in In Search of Lost Time. Proustians are ecstatic at the discovery. William Carter, a Proust biographer, told the Times, “It would be very important that we have this brief image of Proust in motion.” Luc Fraisse, director of the Review of Proustian Studies, told Le Point, “It’s moving to say to ourselves that we are the first to see Proust since his contemporaries ... even if it would be better if he was descending the steps a little less quickly!”

Proust at the time had not begun the monumental work that would establish his place in the literary firmament. A year earlier he had published a translation of Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens, an important step in developing his own writing style, but to the rest of the world he was a “frivolous social snob,” as William Gass once put it. He was a sickening flatterer when it came to the nobility, and his obsequiousness reached full fever in the rarefied company of the Comtesse Grefullhe, “every snob’s highest goal,” as Benjamin Taylor wrote in Proust: The Search. “Beyond Élisabeth Greffulhe there was simply nowhere to climb.” As Proust once gushed to Robert de Montesquiou, later immortalized as the Baron de Charlus, “I have never met such a beautiful woman.”

If the man in this grainy footage is indeed Proust, then what we are seeing isn’t the acknowledged genius famously captured on his deathbed by Man Ray in 1922. This is the ladder-climber, the hanger-on, the courtier, though he possessed a deeply felt ambition that would one day justify the intense superficiality of his existence as a young man. When his head flits to the side, is he seeking a famous face in the crowd? Or is he absorbing the scene and the people, reserving what he sees for his great purpose, part of that mysterious transformation that will elevate all this pettiness into something improbably noble? This could be Proust, yes, in the flesh; but what Proust teaches us is that life is like this footage—unremarkable, disorderly, finished in a flash—and that its essence is regained elsewhere.

Bob Jones University would probably like you to forget it once banned interracial dating.

GreenvilleOnline.com reports that the fundamentalist Christian college, has finally regained its non-profit status 34 years after losing it:

Bob Jones University lost its tax exemption after a 13-year battle with the IRS over whether the university’s policies against interracial dating precluded it as a non-taxable religious educational institution. The university didn’t admit any black students until 1971, 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education. It then wouldn’t admit any students who were in a mixed-race marriage and created rules to prohibit students from interracial dating.

Bob Jones, in Greenville, South Carolina, is a niche school. Indeed, you may have only heard of it if you’re from a Christian fundamentalist background or follow that subculture closely. But the story of how Bob Jones lost its non-profit status offers timely insight into the contemporary religious right.

Bob Jones didn’t lose non-profit status overnight. Nor was it an outlier at the time. Although its discriminatory policies preceded desegregation, historian Randall Balmer has noted that it lost its non-profit status due to President Nixon’s crackdown on so-called “segregation academies.” (Among those segregation academies: Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian School.) Bob Jones received numerous warnings from the federal government and ignored each of them, but when the IRS finally rescinded its status the religious right reacted with outrage, as Balmer recounts:

As Elmer L. Rumminger, longtime administrator at Bob Jones University, told me in an interview, the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”

Bob Jones ended its ban a mere 17 years ago—right before then-President George W. Bush visited campus. The Lord moves in not-so-mysterious ways.

Although Bob Jones’s ban is history, it left a significant imprimatur on the religious right. Evangelicals still fear secular interference with sacred affairs. It’s embedded deep into the movement’s rhetoric and political priorities. It motivates their opposition to anti-discrimination provisions and their ongoing fear-mongering about the First Amendment rights of Christian schools. Just yesterday, the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Casey Mattox urged the House Judiciary Committee to remove Christian colleges from a public Department of Education list of institutions that have received exemptions from Title IX. And who can forget that 80 percent of white evangelicals just voted for the openly racist Donald Trump?

Bob Jones’s crusade to discriminate still haunts the religious right, even if the movement’s contemporary leaders are unwilling to admit it.

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Is Trump’s reported plan to deploy troops to round up immigrants a trial balloon?

The Associated Press reports that the Trump administration is considering a radical militarization of immigration policy. The plan is to use the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants in 11 states:

The Trump administration is considering a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, including millions living nowhere near the Mexico border, according to a draft memo obtained by The Associated Press.

The 11-page document calls for the unprecedented militarization of immigration enforcement as far north as Portland, Oregon, and as far east as New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Trump administration immediately and categorically denied these reports. “This is 100 percent not true,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. Notably, Spicer has yet to deny the particulars of the story. Furthermore, the Associated Press has a draft memo authored by Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and received no answer from the White House or DHS when it requested comment.

What is going on here? It’s possible that this proposal was a trial balloon to test public opinion (reminiscent of a draft executive order rescinding certain LGBT rights in the workplace, which was never signed). It’s also possible that a government staffer leaked this alarming memo to the press to head off the White House, whose supposedly saner cabinet officials, like Kelly, billed themselves as moderating influences on the president. Or, as is always the case with this administration, this draft memo could just be the result of pure incompetence and stupidity.

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Betsy DeVos isn’t backing down from her grizzly bear gaffe.

President Donald Trump’s education secretary talked to Axios on Friday, attempting to do more damage control after her widely panned appearance before the Senate last month, in which she seemed to lack basic knowledge about America’s public education system and said that schools might need guns to fend off “potential grizzlies.” But in her latest comments, DeVos doubled down on that bizarre statement. “It was a valid illustration,” she told Axios. “It just probably wasn’t the best illustration I could have given.”

DeVos said she regretted not firmly agreeing that “K-12 schools receiving federal funding should be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” but then gave a muddled response on whether the federal government should have a role in schools. “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job,” she said, “but I’m not sure that—I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.”

The statement suggested she agrees with many conservatives who favor abolishing the Department of Education. But then DeVos walked it back:

She said that a lot of people are asking that question but that she hasn’t reached a conclusion. “I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play ... I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But are there any remaining issues like that where the federal government should intervene? “I can’t think of any now,” she replied.

Since her confirmation, DeVos has largely limited her media exposure to the cozy confines of the conservative press. Perhaps this interview explains why. After more than a week on the job, she’s still fumbling for coherent answers to basic questions.