In recent weeks, we’ve seen Rudolph Giuliani—President Trump’s top personal lawyer, for reasons unknown to me and probably to Trump—address the press in the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping. We’ve watched him expostulating on live TV with what appeared to be brown dye dripping down his face. We’ve read about his rambling incoherence in courts of law, and his getting shot down by snappish judges while explosively farting. The election crisis, caused by President Trump and ongoing as I write this, in December, was only in its first bloom at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, and since then Giuliani has run with it, the leading actor in a loony, ineffectual effort to persuade courts, and maybe a more effective effort to persuade segments of the public, that the election was stolen by President-elect Biden. Reactions to his inane public presence have ranged from gut-busting laughter to astonished recoil.
And now he has COVID 19.
Given his and the rest of the administration’s reckless behavior during the pandemic, this COVID development would be poetic and comic justice if it weren’t so dangerous, such a nasty reflection of larger dangers. That’s long been the tension involved in observing and reacting to Giuliani. I mean, the Four Seasons Total Landscaping thing was just flat-out funny. The Ukraine thing just wasn’t.
Even before he almost inevitably caught the virus, the creepily entertaining clownishness of the whole Giuliani show was playing into a raging debate—raging on Twitter, anyway—over whether the Trump effort can be seen as a credible attempt at a coup, with a clear and present danger of fascist takeover of America. Bumbling incompetence by Trump lowlifes like Giuliani, especially as carried out in the courts, suggests to some that fears of fascist coup have been overblown and fantastical. Others note that incompetent bozos have often carried out coups: the supposed icy effectiveness of dictatorial regimes is a myth; just because they’re idiots doesn’t mean they’re harmless. It’s a serious question. I’ll link below to some competing points of view on it that I find worthwhile.
But something that’s bugged me, this past four years, about all the Hitler parallels to Trump, is that they help us avoid looking at homegrown antecedents and themes. It’s not as if some outside force, alien to our democratic republican spirit—un-American, really—invaded our politics four years ago. (It’s worth remembering that Nazi racial policy was explicitly influenced by U.S. racial policy, but maybe that’s a theme for another time.) If we do look at our homegrown history, as I like to do in this newsletter, one thing that’s definitely not unique about the Trump administration is the rise and sway of Giuliani types. The types who seem funny until they’re not. The types who seem anything but funny until you find yourself busting a gut laughing. I wonder if that’s a peculiarly American mood-swing.
I don’t know enough about half-crazy lowlife fools around Hitler to rule them out as models, but when I watch Giuliani’s relationship to Trump, I think of characters around President Warren G. Harding, a one-term Republican from Ohio, elected 100 years ago. For one thing, I do find the people around Harding funny. Partly it’s because they lived a century ago: tragedy plus time and all that. But they too are only funny up to a point, which we’ll soon crash into below.
I don’t mean that Harding was anything like Trump, or that the lowlife sleazeballs around Harding recall those around Trump in some direct, sleazeball-to-sleazeball way. This is about a whole way of doing sleaze, via the presidency of the United States. Trump’s so genuinely novel in so many ways that he’s made such operations seem novel. They’re not.
One of the great characters in the Harding White House was Jess Smith. You may know him from the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (a lot of Harding people are portrayed there); I haven’t watched it, but he’s the kind of person you read about and think “this stuff should be on TV.” Too tall, pigeon-toed, red-faced, fat cheeks, double chin, bulbous nose, huge head, tiny ears, and a thick, black mustache, all suited out in lavender, with big diamond and ruby rings. When he talked, he sprayed, and he talked all the time, sidling up to you with a “whaddayaknow” and then suggestively singing “My father makes books on the corner, My mother makes second-hand gin, My sister makes love for a dollar, My God, how the money rolls in” while you dodged the spittle.
Underneath all that lavender suiting, and whatever else was under there, an abdominal surgery incision had never healed, thanks to adult-onset diabetes. His gut was belted together with some kind of drawstring.
OK—no! Too far. One detail too many. Strains credulity. Anyway, wrong to pile on with unfortunate physical issues that have nothing to do with character. As story editor, I’m nixing that last item.
It’s real, though. So is the ex-wife named Roxy. It’s occurred to me that as a lowlife hustler around a president, Jess Smith might be a little on the nose. Then I remembered Giuliani and thought: No.
For a few years, Jess Smith was a man about town in Washington, D.C., where he worked as the top bagman for the Attorney General of the United States, Harry Micajah Daugherty. (Micajah: “who is like God,” a surprisingly common name in 19th century America.) People call Bill Barr the most corrupt Attorney General in our history, and it may be true, but that bar (ha!) is high. Nixon’s John Mitchell springs to mind. JFK gave his own brother the job, for God’s sake: it doesn’t get more corrupt than that.
Harding’s guy Daugherty has to be in the running too. Though investigated and tried more than once, he was never convicted of anything. As an Ohio political boss, he maneuvered Harding to the presidential nomination at the 1920 Republican convention in Chicago, working from the famous “smoke-filled room”—the original of the cliche—at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. Daugherty and the fabulous grotesque Jess Smith were in each other’s company so constantly that it surprised their contemporaries. Daugherty had met the much younger man in Ohio, picked him out of the crowd—why?—and when Harding won the election, Mr. Smith went to Washington, where he and Daugherty lived together, in a house on H street. When traveling, they shared hotel suites. Some say they were a closeted couple. I’ve always wondered if that was a homophobic slur perpetrated by their enemies, of whom, not surprisingly, there were many. Who knows.
In any case, Harry Daugherty and Jess Smith, so unusually inseparable, were at the center of a crowd from Ohio and elsewhere who came to Washington to do organized crime and peddle influence on the back of the Harding presidency. As Attorney General, Daugherty of course worked in the White House. Remarkably, so did Smith; though never on the books, he had an office next to Daugherty’s on the sixth floor. The rest of the gang operated out of a house on K Street part-owned by Edward McLean, banker, owner of The Washington Post and a special agent—whatever that meant—appointed to the Justice Department by Daugherty. McLean even had his own badge, and a number, like James Bond. The house, known to observers as “the love nest” for all the women who came and went, became a center for vice: suitcases full of whiskey and champagne (the District was dry); cash buried in the yard; a seemingly never-ending poker game that often floated over to the White House, though the President liked hanging out at the K Street house too. Business conducted there involved gambling, bootlegging, bribery, fixing prize fights, and extortion.
Fun stuff! For a history-related newsletter, anyway.
I mean it—I like reading about that sort of thing.
Not so fun, of course, in real life. You can read up on the famous Teapot Dome scandal, where the gang got busted organizing the corruption of U.S. energy policy, with oilfield-leasing deals, kickbacks, and skims. I remember that when the Watergate scandal was unfolding, the only parallel my parents could come up with was Teapot Dome, fiftyish years earlier, before their times yet remembered as the worst Cabinet then on record. Chronologically, Teapot Dome stands in relation to Watergate roughly as Watergate stands in relation to the current Trump Cabinet scandals.
Teapot Dome was bad, of course. But some of the activities at the K Street den where Harding hung out with his friends really bring the bad home. One night, for instance, some traveling New York chorus girls—at least that’s how they were later described—were brought over to meet the President of the United States. Around 3:00 A.M., the drunken crew got the women to dance on the table and started hurling and smashing stuff: plates, glasses, bottes. Something hit one of the women on the head. Harding was hustled away. The woman died, and Attorney General Daugherty covered the incident up with the assistance of William Burns, another criminal, the head of Harding’s Bureau of Investigation, predecessor to the FBI. I said “for instance”— that’s the coverup we know about. I admit it’s not impossible that it was the only one.
Comparing Harding and his people with Trump and his people gets tricky in part because Harding, though a weak leader, like Trump, had a pretty courageous commitment to ending the violence against black people that had been worked into government in the South—and this was when the Democratic Party’s 1920 convention in New York City was dominated by the KKK. Nor was Harding a caricature of a chest-beating big-dog boss, as Trump is: he didn’t like being president; he longed to be one of the boys in the back room. Too, the Trump people don’t strike me as such a rollicking, colorful bunch. I don’t know, but I can’t see Rudy and Mick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland drunkenly playing poker all night and whooping it up. Maybe I’m wrong about that. I really don’t want to look into it. What really makes me think of the Harding gang when I watch Giuliani is the stubborn persistence of a certain weirdo all-American lowlife personality type.
These new lowlifes’ field of operations isn’t prize fights and gambling and smuggled alcohol. It’s global insecurity. That’s scary. Presidential racketeering in the 1920’s had horrible effects, but the stakes for the whole world are far higher now. Using the presidency as a machine for making illicit bank is always bad, but nowadays the bad can get so out of hand, so fast, so far beyond the lowlifes’ capacity for predicting or handling or fixing it, that the potential consequences are truly staggering. The modern field for grift involves weapons of mass destruction and 24/7 mass communication and miscommunication.
Yet there’s been no scaling up of personality type to match the scaling up of the United States’ role in the world. The people involved remain relentlessly cheapshit: unconvincing small-time con artists. Like the Harding men, Trump’s people run scams and extortion rackets and fix contests because that’s what people like that do. The setting matched to the personality is the parking lot at Four Seasons Total Landscaping: that’s why it was so funny. Yet these people have spent a lot of time grafting and extorting and bribing and smearing not judges, cops, local beat reporters, and fellow mobsters but Ukraine, Russia, U.S. ambassadors, and 24/7 TV news.
Fixing local elections, or even the presidential election of 1920—that’s relatively small potatoes. These people have been trying to fix, and then to overturn, the presidential election of 2020, a year when, like it or not, the United States has given itself a pivotal role—a leadership role, as President-elect Biden has said—in a series of diplomatic, military, and ecological emergencies that may affect the future of civilization itself. Sleaze may suggest that the role of the U.S. is unwarranted, even unfortunate. Follow the line of thought all the way to the end, and we’d have to consider, along with the clownish Giuliani type, the non-clownish Democratic appointee types who jump between in-administrations and big-time corporate America. Until we can prevent that kind of thing, maybe it’s all Harding, all the time.
The question Is fascism really coming to our great democratic republic? begins to seem a tad parochial. Thanks to the advance of the U.S. since Harding’s day, if the good old American-hustler clownshow gets ridden out of town on a rail, like Mark Twain’s Duke and Dauphin, the clowns can nevertheless set off events that have terrible consequences far beyond our life in these United States.
That’s not exactly big yucks. Nor is Giuliani getting COVID and giving it, no doubt, to many others.
What is funny, though—to me, I mean—is the chasm between the huge scale of global evil potentially ensuing from these people’s actions and the tiny scale of the people themselves. In the sci-fi comic-book future that was predicted when I was young, forces capable of threatening the whole world were hyper-advanced and fiendishly brilliant, exercising intellectual sophistication never known before. Here we are in the real future. It’s just the same old grift-y, comb-over-y, racetracky, nickel-and-dimey hustling and bullshit: Rudolph Giuliani blabbing nonsense and farting as streaks of something gross trickle down his face, sick with a deadly virus just because he won’t wear a mask.
(N.B. I cop “skim/swim/dive” from the digital museum world. I don’t know who first came up with it, but it’s not original with me. )
Harding’s civil rights speech. https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/warren-g-harding-address-at-birmingham-speech-text/
On Trump as the opposite of fascism, here’s an interview with Corey Robin, an important and compelling scholar of conservative movements. https://jewishcurrents.org/almost-the-complete-opposite-of-fascism/.
This video discussion includes Jeff Sharlet, a journalist and scholar whose work I admire, arguing that while Trump fascism isn’t European fascism, it’s an American fascism related to the Christian right. https://patch.com/district-columbia/washingtondc/calendar/event/20201124/938029/what-just-happened-trump-america-the-danger-of-fascism
Can’t link to these books. The Ohio Gang, by Charles L. Mee is a readable and highly informative on the Harding situation. The coverup of the death of the young woman at the K Street house is told by Gaston Means, a private detective and another criminal in the Ohio Gang, in his book The Strange Death of President Harding. Means’s veracity is by no means unimpeachable, but I find that story quite believable.