Blow, Kristof, and Collins

In “Senators Save the Empire” Mr. Blow says the Senate may be our rampart against Trump.  Mr. Kristof, in “From Prisoner to Modern-Day Harriet Tubman,” tells us about how a woman who was once trapped in a cycle of drugs, crime and incarceration now helps others start healthy lives on the outside.  Ms. Collins says there are “Way Too Many Trumps,” and that out of the blue, the president suddenly showed new sides of himself.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In the movie “Gladiator,” the Roman emperor Commodus storms back to his palace after paying a visit to the senate. In the senate, he bemoaned his father’s time spent at study and was quickly chided about his inexperience as other senators laughed. He angrily laments to his sister:

“Who would deign to lecture me?”

His sister tries to impress upon him the importance of the senate, but Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is not moved. He continues:

“I will give the people a vision of Rome, and they will love me for it, and they’ll soon forget the tedious sermonizing of a few dry old men.”

Commodus realizes that the one thing standing between him and his authoritarian impulses is the senate, its rules and its traditions, and he is furious about its constraints on his power.

I have thought of this movie often since Donald Trump was elected, and this scene seems particularly relevant this week. The film is a work of fiction based on some historical figures, but it has some incredibly compelling parallels to what’s happening today in America.

First, Commodus was indeed a real person — cruel and slipping into insanity, self-indulgent and despised, impetuous and thinking he was greater than he was.

As historian Cassius Dio wrote, “This man was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.”

Sound like someone we know?

There has been no shortage of pieces written that use lessons from the ancient world to explain our current predicament.

In May, Andrew Sullivan summoned the teachings of Plato in a fascinating piece for New York magazine about how tyrants rise in “late-stage democracy”:

He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by ‘taking over a particularly obedient mob’ and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess — ‘too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery’ — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

Sound like someone we know?

My colleague Paul Krugman wrote in December about the fall of the Roman Empire under the headline “How Republics End,” explaining: “Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.”

But it is the film and not actual history that sprang to mind this week. In the same way that Commodus tussled with the senate in the film, Trump tussled with the U.S. Senate.

This week the filibuster rule in the Senate allowed the minority Democrats to truly flex their muscle, and the Senate approved a bipartisan budget deal that was a stunning rebuke of Trump’s agenda.

He was not pleased. As Carl Hulse wrote in The New York Times:

“Members of the House and Senate now have clear evidence they can successfully work together in certain cases and deliver a product they support even if it does not do all that the White House wants.”

Trump was unhappy. He began complaining about the filibuster rule, calling for its elimination or else threatening “a good ‘shutdown’” in September.

The Senate didn’t take this threat lightly. Hulse, again reporting for The Times, pointed out that Trump “single-handedly saved the Senate filibuster” by threatening it, as “Senators in both parties rushed on Tuesday to categorically embrace the filibuster and profess that it would remain untouched.”

And even if Republicans in the House of Representatives are able to squeak through their horrendous repeal of the Affordable Care Act, it is likely to die in the Senate.

The Senate may well be our rampart, as it is an institution that recognizes the severe threat Trump poses. It could be the Senate that saves America from this tyrant and his throngs of cheering supporters who have set this whole nightmare in motion.

One of the best lines in the film is delivered by one senator to another as he laments Commodus’s manipulation of the people:

“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death — and they will love him for it.”

Sound like someone’s supporters we know?

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Los Angeles:

She was 4 years old when her aunt’s boyfriend began to abuse her sexually. Then at 14, she had a baby girl, the result of a gang rape.

Soon she fell under the control of a violent pimp and began cycling through jails, prisons, addiction and crime for more than 20 years.

Yet today, Susan Burton is a national treasure. She leads a nonprofit helping people escape poverty and start over after prison, she’s a powerful advocate for providing drug treatment and ending mass incarceration — and her life story is testimony to the human capacity for resilience and recovery.

America’s greatest failure in the 21st century may be that far too many children grow up in a twilight zone of poverty, chaos, violence, drugs and failing schools. We can’t afford to help them, we say, and then we spend billions of dollars building prisons to house them.

Burton, now 65, has co-written a stunning memoir that will be published next week, detailing how after overcoming narcotics she eventually founded a nonprofit, called A New Way of Life Re-entry Project, to help women leaving prison. In a preface of the book, Michelle Alexander, a civil rights advocate, describes Burton as a 21st-century Harriet Tubman, and there’s something to that.

The memoir is called “Becoming Ms. Burton,” and that’s the journey it describes. As a black girl growing up in a dysfunctional family in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Burton was repeatedly raped, and then her child was run over and killed by a policeman. She self-medicated with alcohol, cocaine and crack.

“After six prison commitments, at the end of those, I was more broken than when I went into the system,” she told me. “Each time I was released, I would say I’m going to get it together, but each time it was more daunting.”

Her cycles in prison ended only after she chanced into a drug treatment program in Santa Monica that mostly served a more affluent clientele. A 100-day stint there helped her turn her life around — a reminder that America would be far better off if we treated addiction as less a criminal justice issue than a public health crisis. That’s particularly true now that some 52,000 Americans die annually from drug overdoses, more than 10 times the number who died in the entire Iraq war.

Starting in 1998, Burton began to help other women leaving prison, providing them with shelter and coaching them on staying sober and finding jobs. The effort was an immediate success, and philanthropists took note.

When Theodore Forstmann asked her to make a list of what she needed, Burton initially wrote down “toilet paper.” A friend explained that Forstmann was a billionaire, and Burton upped the ante to request a van, and Forstmann came through.

Burton now has 28 staff members, including six lawyers. She runs five homes for 32 women who have left prison, and has been recognized as a CNN Hero — and she burns with a passion to help other women find an exit ramp as well.

“We keep a woman in prison for decade after decade at a cost of $60,000 a year, and then give them $200 when they hit the gates for release,” she said, shaking her head. “And, adios. People have to get their IDs, Social Security cards. They have to get clothing, housing, apply for benefits and services, and it’s impossible to do with 200 bucks.”

The upshot, she said, is that people re-offend — and then get locked up once more, at a huge expense.

Burton showed me the homes she has set up, and the women in them are a reminder of how difficult it can be to start over after years in prison. One woman, Unique, confided that she hears voices in her head shouting at her, and Burton asked her why she didn’t keep a doctor’s appointment. “I’m afraid to go out,” Unique explained, so Burton worked out an escort so that Unique could see the doctor and get her medicines.

“If we don’t help her with those voices, she’ll be right back in prison,” Burton said when we were outside. Another former prisoner proudly gave her full name: Mary Mitchell. Now 53, she had been behind bars for her entire adult life and has never had an official ID card. With Burton’s help she is getting one and looking for a job. But Mitchell has forgotten how to walk in a city.

“I was so scared,” she said. “I didn’t know how to cross a crosswalk.”

Burton told me that a trigger in her own downward spiral was the gang rape that resulted in her pregnancy; if she had received counseling, she thinks, she might have avoided unraveling.

Too often, we miss these chances to help wounded young people, and we invest only in jailing them.

So I’m celebrating Burton’s new book and amazing second career — but with a bittersweet feeling that there are so many other Susan Burtons out there who never get the help or drug treatment they need, and are still incarcerated in ways that diminish them and all of America.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Oh gosh, we’ve got another Trump.

This has been very difficult, people. Every day concerned citizens put together their critique of the president’s policies, and before nighttime he’s a completely different dude.

You remember the Somewhat Normal Republican Trump, who answers to both SNORE and SNORT, depending on his energy level at the moment. He mainly likes to repeal federal regulations — free mentally ill people to buy guns; don’t let a little clean water stand between coal owners and their yen to dump trash. Last week SNORT issued a tax reform plan that was classic G.O.P. in its extreme vagueness on how to pay for its multitude of cuts. (“Eliminate tax breaks for special interests.”)

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, came Weirdly Liberal Trump (WELT). He mused about breaking up the big banks; special aide Ivanka plugged helping Syrian refugees. Liberal Trump even expressed interest in a gas tax hike to pay for infrastructure repairs.

“It’s something that I would certainly consider,” he told Bloomberg News. The idea of a Republican administration, bound at the hip to the energy industry, championing a gas tax hike is a little stunning. It would, of course, pay for a ton of construction jobs, repair crumbling roads and bridges and be great for the environment. But I guarantee you Mike Pence would never bring it up.

Perhaps we should rethink all that impeachment talk.

Lately Congress has been in an uproar over health care, and House Speaker Paul (My Life Is Ruined) Ryan is going crazy trying to placate both sides on the matter of insurance coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions. WELT wants to be the progressive hero. “Pre-existing conditions are in the bill. And I mandate it. I said, ‘Has to be,’” Trump told CBS’s John Dickerson.

That was shortly before Trump went off the handle when Dickerson asked about his claims of being wiretapped by Barack Obama. “I don’t stand by anything,” Trump said, unnecessarily, before he tossed Dickerson out of the Oval Office for pressing him on the matter.

Viewers got to witness a transformation from the new liberal presidential version to the very familiar Nearly Unhinged Trump (NUT). Actually, this one often seems more along the line of Totally Unhinged, but then we’d have to call him TUT.

It’s generally pretty easy to tell which president is talking. NUT was the one who thought Andrew Jackson could have stopped the Civil War. So, for sure, was the Trump who expressed astonishment that being president was harder work than his previous jobs. (“I thought it would be easier.”)

NUT tends to reside in the world of Twitter. And sometimes he fights with his other versions. Weirdly Liberal Trump was very happy when Congress came up with a spending deal that guarantees the government will continue operating through the summer. (“This is what winning looks like!”) Nearly Unhinged hated hated hated it.

“Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” twittered NUT. He had promised us he’d make history, but even his critics didn’t expect he’d do it by becoming the first American president to express a yearning for the government to come to a screeching halt.

The quick shift between Trumps is always a challenge to the minions in charge of interpreting him to the world. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who is getting to be one of our very favorite explainers, said that the president was calling for a shutdown because he became “frustrated” when Democrats expressed pleasure at the resolution of the spending standoff. (“They went out to try and spike the football and make him look bad.”) In reality, Mulvaney insisted, the Democrats were hoping for a collapse in negotiations because they wanted “to make this president look like he did not know what he was doing.”

And the whole world mused: not a hard lift.

Neither the liberal nor the normal-Republican Trump is very good at interesting new ideas that might actually, in the real world, happen. Unhinged Trump is obviously the attention-getter, and a lot of the excitement comes from the fact that his proposals are often exactly the opposite of whatever he was championing last week.

He’s also unfettered by the restrictions in imagination that would come from previous knowledge of how government operates. It appears, for instance, that NUT was surprised by the discovery that it took 60 votes to pass most legislation in the Senate. This came out in a tweet expressing shock, shock, shock that 41 senators could force the majority into compromise. “Either elect more Republican senators in 2018 or change the rule now to 51 percent,” he recommended.

Senate Republicans dismissed the idea instantly. “We are not going to do that,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Most of them had spent much of the Obama administration happily thwarting a Democratic president’s agenda with that very rule. Perhaps some of them were already anticipating that by 2021, it would come in handy again.

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