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Love thy neighbor

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On March 10, the anniversary of my mother’s death, I did what she would have done. I went to church; I wore her favorite necklace; I took her prayer book with me; and I got there half an hour early so I could sit in the silence and remember her.

I opened her prayer book to one of her bookmarks. “I call to mind the people,” it read, “who I saw today, and thought of today, and will meet tomorrow. I surrender them to You. Please bless each one, and gladden each one, and heal each one.”

When I was 15, my mother remarried and we moved to her new husband’s farm, which means we also changed churches, and though my mother cleaned the church twice a week, organized hymnals and prayer books, and often cooked for funerals, she remained—for her entire 20 years there—shunned. She was not one of them. An outsider. And maybe, worst of all in that community, open with her opinions.

I think about my mother when I open email from strangers or scan the comments section.

I hate to disappoint you, I think while reading, but I am not “a government transplant to push the liberal agenda,” I am not “speaking false prophesies against truth,” I don’t need to “keep my legs together,” and I am certainly not what seems to be a favorite of late, “trash.”

Yes, I am pro-choice. The operative word here being “choice.” I am not, as some seem to imagine, out knocking on the doors of newly pregnant women to talk them into an abortion.

I believe that women and men are equal and should, therefore, have equal control over their bodies and their lives. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said so eloquently in her 1993 confirmation hearing, “It is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decision-maker…. If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex.”

No, liberals are not killing babies after they are born. This may be one of the most irresponsible, repugnant lies ever spread by a political party. Liberals are mothers, too. We are not encouraging the killing of newborns. This is absurd. And if this is one of the battles you are fighting, you are fighting something that does not exist.

There are 435 people in the House of Representatives, and I do not, for the life of me, understand the obsession with freshman congresswoman AOC.

I recently received the message, “Ma’am, are you a socialist?!” No, I am not a socialist. I don’t even know any socialists.

Democrats, like Republicans, favor border control. That said, it is legal to seek asylum, and it is cruel to take children from their parents with no plan for returning them.

Immigrants are not pouring over our southern border to murder us, no matter what the president says, and I am not, as one emailer wrote, waiting for “one of those immigrants you love so much to rape and murder you in your home.”

And last, no, I don’t want to take your guns. Though I certainly rethink this position when I hear about yet another mass shooting in a school or a house of worship, and when I receive hateful comments that close with, “I want my gun to protect me from people like you.”

And what saddens me is, when I look up the social media profiles of people who make such comments, their banners and news feeds are often littered with Bible verses.

This, I do not understand.

Sitting in church on March 10th, my mother’s prayer book in my hands, I recalled the powerlessness of being 15 years old and the speeches my mother’s new husband used to give at our breakfast table. One Sunday it went like this (which I wrote in my diary at the time): He went on and on about all of the neighbors he’d just seen at church, how all of the politicians and niggers and spics should be lined up and shot down with machine guns, and how those cock-sucking fags with AIDS got what they deserved. “Put ‘em on an island somewhere,” he said, “and set it on fire.”

I am no longer 15. I open my mother’s prayer book and read from Matthew 22: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.

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I’ve been thinking

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I’ve been thinking about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And my grandmother.

My grandmother raised 9 children. When she was pregnant with her second, she was out one sunny afternoon with girlfriends when their car ran up under a semi truck. They all lived, but my grandmother suffered severe facial damage: her nose was badly broken, her teeth were shoved up into her face, and her lower lip was all but ripped off.

Her pregnancy remained intact, but my grandfather would not allow a plastic surgeon to touch her. An intern crudely sewed her lip back on. They pulled all of her teeth and ordered cheap dentures. Then my grandfather took my once-stunningly beautiful grandmother home with an admonishment, “Maybe this will keep you from going out running around.”

My grandmother was 22 years old.

I’ve been thinking about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And Otto Warmbier.

Last week, in his final press conference before returning home from his summit with North Korea, the president absolved Chairman Kim of any wrongdoing in Otto’s death. “Some really bad things happened to Otto,” he said. “Some really, really bad things. But he tells me he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”

I never thought I’d hear a president of the United States—an allegedly pro-life president, no less—defend a dictator for the torture and death of an American citizen. And yet, here we are.

Does the term “pro-life” not extend beyond birth, to a kid like Otto?

A college student, Otto had just finished a guided tour of North Korea when he was arrested at the airport and sentenced to 15 years hard labor … for taking a poster from his hotel. Nothing like this happens without Chairman Kim not only knowing about it, but sanctioning it, and our president knows it.

And yet, when speaking with Sean Hannity of Fox News, the president said about Kim, “He likes me. I like him. Some people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t like him.’ I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I like him?’”

Why? Because he tortures, starves, and imprisons his own citizens; because he lies to you and continues to develop nuclear weapons; and because when he released Otto Warmbier into U.S. custody, Otto’s father described his son’s injuries like this: “bottom teeth that appeared ‘rearranged,’ a large scar running the length of Otto’s right foot, and hands and legs best described as totally deformed.”

Otto died 6 days later. He was 22 years old.

I’ve been thinking about the words pro-life a lot lately, and about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because I often see these phrases commingled on social media. “The Constitution says life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the first of these is life for a reason!” Facebook posts read, followed with a screaming, “I am proudly pro-life!”

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother’s life, how my grandfather—highly respected in his church community, vocally pro-life, rarely home—would not allow her to drive a car or sign checks. Is this liberty?

How my grandfather would come home drunk, screaming for his children and all the neighbors to hear that his wife was a whore, and how he would throw her out the back door in the middle of the night, no matter the weather, and sit inside with a shotgun aimed her direction, daring “the whore that she was” to try, just try, to come inside. Is this happiness?

When she was pregnant for the sixth time, my grandfather pushed her down the basement stairs and she delivered too early. The baby survived, but he was blind, deaf, and nonverbal, and though he grew to be the size of a man he remained at home in a hospital bed, with a feeding tube, diapered and curled into a fetal position, for two decades.

My grandmother had 9 children; she was rarely able to leave her house; she had no life.

I’ve been thinking about Otto and my grandmother at 22, about teeth and torture and forms of imprisonment, about who gets life, liberty, and happiness, and who doesn’t.

And I’ve been thinking about what “pro-life” means, if anything, beyond birth.

If you have an answer that doesn’t involve screaming or a Facebook meme, I’m listening.

Dear Kentucky: This is what an abortion ban looks like

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Salvador Dali “Liberation”

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While she runs my credit card, the clerk makes polite conversation. “Is this rain ever going to stop?” she sighs, describing how there is no way to get her toddler in and out of a carseat without getting soaked.

“Well, now I’ll need to see pictures of your toddler,” I say, and like all proud mothers she gets out her phone and starts scrolling. She almost slips past a photo of her 11 year-old daughter with a friend, saying “And that’s Jaycee who stays with us,” when I stop her and ask what “stays with us” means.

Jaycee, she explains, came for a sleepover about a year ago and never really went home. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “Her mom is only 26, she also has six younger children but won’t give up the kids because she gets a check. And Jaycee feels safe with us, so she stays.”

I wonder if our state legislature consider cases like Jaycee’s, children whom they insist must be born yet fall outside the safety nets they think they are building with bills like HB158 (a foster care bill of rights) and HB1 (adoption and foster care reforms).

In a 1997 interview with The New Yorker, writer Jeanette Winterson said about human nature, “Most of us spend a lot of time censoring everything that we see and hear. Does it fit with our world picture? And if it doesn’t, how can we shut it out, how can we ignore it?”

It seems Jaycee, her mother, the additional six children, and even the clerk whose family has taken Jaycee in, all fall into the “shut it out and ignore it” category while the pro-life, mostly male, contingent of our legislature pat themselves on the back for a job well-done.

And if you’re looking for the definition of cruel irony, look no further than the votes on SB18 which would “make it unlawful for an employer to fail to accommodate an employee affected by pregnancy.” The same seven men who voted no—no special treatment for pregnant women in this state!—voted to ban abortion via the “heartbeat bill.”

So much for the compassionate-component of the compassionate conservative.

Rep. James Tipton wrote in the Feb. 20 issue of The Anderson News that “The House passed HB148 by a 69-20 vote last Friday. This measure seeks to prepare Kentucky for the possibility that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade by prohibiting abortion in all cases except when required to save the life of the mother or prevent serious harm to her. The Senate also passed SB9, a measure which bans abortion after the child’s heartbeat can be detected.”

A friend who is expecting texted: Is Kentucky really going to pass a six week ban? We didn’t even suspect we were pregnant until five or six weeks, then it took a month to get a doctor’s appointment. And we didn’t know the health/viabilty until 12 weeks.

Let’s be clear. It’s not a heartbeat bill. It’s a ban.

Pro-lifers would have us believe that Roe v. Wade created abortion, and that striking down the law will be the panacea, the final solution, the big win. But the facts say otherwise. Terminations of pregnancy date back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and so the pro-life obsession with banning a woman’s right to choose begs the obvious questions:

Is the goal of the pro-life movement—which began in 1980, not as a moral movement but as a Hail Mary pass to get Evangelicals to the polls—to significantly reduce the number of abortions?

If so, programs offering free birth control, pre-natal and well-baby care, and subsidized childcare so women can return to work might go a long way.

Or is the goal zero tolerance?

Gov. Matt Bevin and his caucus have been clear: they seek to outlaw abortion in Kentucky, even as thousands of years of history clearly tell us that outlawing abortion does not end abortion.

So in addition to women risking their lives by trying to self-abort, let’s consider what a Bevin Ban—what criminalization—looks like.

How do you suggest punishing a poor, scared, 16 year-old from Appalachia, Louisville, or Lawrenceburg?

Will there be a significant fine, a sliding scale, maybe, based on income or lack thereof? Or will public shaming, her mug shot, in the local paper do?

Will you put women in the county jail or state prison—“Lock her up! Lock her up!” comes to mind—and for how long? What happens when she loses her job and her health insurance for going to jail? Are you going to support her? Am I?

And what do you suppose happens to kids like Jaycee and her six siblings, born to a woman who does not want to be a mother?

Does this fit your world picture? Or will you simply ignore it?

The baby killers

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I am pro-choice, which leads many pro-lifers to call me a baby killer. Last week, a Kentucky lawmaker referred to abortion as a holocaust inside the womb. And on Feb. 6, the publisher’s editorial in this newspaper stated that “New York approved a measure that allows abortions right up until the time of birth, and for babies that survive the abortion, to be killed outside of the mother’s womb.”

According to the Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org, the New York law specifically states that “after 24 weeks, such decisions must be made with a determination that there is an ‘absence of fetal viability’ or that the procedure is ‘necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.’ That determination must be made by a ‘health care practitioner licensed, certified, or authorized’ under state law, ‘acting within his or her lawful scope of practice.’”

A far cry from killing a baby outside the mother’s womb.

If you believe healthy, pregnant women are casually waltzing into clinics in their last trimester, saying, “Everything is fine, I’m just tired of being pregnant,” then not only do you have a horrifyingly misogynistic view of women, but former Governor Chris Christie has a traffic-free bridge in New Jersey he would like to sell you.

Let’s talk facts. The Centers for Disease Control reports that only 1% of abortions take place in the final trimester. On Jan. 26, Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a board certified OB/GYN in both Canada and the U.S., sought to educate why in tweeting examples from her own practice:

“25 weeks, severe growth restriction and fetus not expected to survive. Pregnant person has severe pre-eclampsia, chooses abortion over c-section.”

“32 weeks, anencephalic fetus. Pregnant person just can’t take people touching her belly and asking about the baby. Chooses an early induction, which is technically an abortion.”

“Triploidy pregnancy. Had been planning to deliver at term and have hospice. At 36 weeks, transverse lie. Can’t be induced for this reason. Does not want a c-section. Chooses a dilation and extraction.”

Unfortunately, the medical underpinnings around this topic have been all but drowned out by pastors and politicians.

The term “pro-life” was devised in 1980 by political operatives. Ronald Reagan, who had long supported women’s reproductive rights as Governor of California, was suddenly faced with a failing presidential bid, and his strategists were desperate to rebrand their candidate and get a new block of voters, Evangelicals, to the polls.

It was political genius. It worked. And it continues to work today.

Women have been terminating pregnancies for thousands of years, as evidenced in writings dating to Hippocrates (circa 400 B.C.). In his June 2015 essay, J.R. Thorpe chronicled ancient remedies: crocodile feces inserted into the vagina, pennyroyal tea, stepping over a viper, sitting over a pot of hot onions, camel saliva with ants and deer hair, being shaken or beaten, and more.

Whenever I advocate for common sense gun laws, one argument I consistently hear is that making guns illegal or difficult to get won’t stop people who really want a gun. Okay, but wouldn’t that same logic, then, apply to abortion access?

The phrase “I’m pro-life” certainly sounds idyllic—the very definition of a moral compass pointed eternally north—but our laws did not create the ability nor the need to end a pregnancy. The laws simply made it legal, safe, and as accessible to the poor as to the rich who can afford air travel, the best doctors, and secrecy.

As for me, I love nothing more than a baby, and I am eagerly awaiting the birth of my first grandchild in June, so how about we hang such heinous titles as “baby killer” around the necks of those who have earned it.

Like the man who gunned down 20 first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as 6 adults.

Like the former student who shot and killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, injuring 17 others.

Like the 16 year-old boy who walked into his Albuquerque high school last Friday with a note in his pocket that read, “Find ex gf, kill ex gf, kill other people, and if you have a last bullet take your own life.”

Troubled young men are killing our babies. What, may I ask, is the pro-life movement doing about that?

Our real national emergency

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When my niece was a baby, my mother started avoiding town. “I’m so embarrassed when I take the baby to Walmart,” she would say, “because all the women, they think she’s black or a Mexican, and then I have to explain that the mother is Polynesian, and they’re looking at me like ‘what’s a Polynesian?’ and I just want to scream and get the hell out of there.”

I was reminded of this—of the shame my mother felt among the so-called friends she’d known her entire life—when I heard Tom Brokaw’s comments about immigration. Hispanics, he said, should work harder at assimilation, adding, “Also, I hear, when I push people a little harder, ‘Well, I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.’ I mean, that’s also a part of it. It’s the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other.”

Brokaw’s remarks about assimilation is a commonly repeated lie. Research shows that Latinos acquire English just as quickly as Asians and Europeans who arrive here. But it was the part about brown grandbabies that got me.

Is it really taxes and jobs and fiscal responsibility that drive your politics, or is the browning of America the real fire alarm going off in your heart?

As much as my mother adored her first grandbaby, her fears of being shunned and shamed at Walmart (and all over town, really) for the child not being pure-enough white are sickeningly common. What will people think? What will they say about me behind my back?

Shame, fear, and bigotry are extraordinarily powerful, and our president is a master craftsman in control of his favorite tools.

Illegal immigration is at a 45 year low. But instead of taking credit for this, the president sticks with story after story about thousands of brown people in caravans breaching our southern border. Terrorists, drugs, rape, crime! Why? Because it works; because he knows these stories, these images, are what keep his voters’ attention.

And yet, when his national security team testified last week before Congress about all of the dangers we face, guess what none of them mentioned: our southern border.

Where, then, lies his great national emergency?

In a Jan. 30 interview, the president’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, told the Christian Broadcasting Network she believes that God wanted Donald Trump to be president, which prompted musician Rosanne Cash to respond, “So he could separate mothers and babies, deny health care, kill people w/ previously banned pesticides, destroy the environment, redefine domestic violence in favor of the abuser, give voice and legitimacy to racists, bigots and dictators and bully the world? Maybe her God, not mine.”

The week before the November midterms, I was at our Senior Citizen Center setting up for a meeting when an elderly man I’d never met advised me there was no need to vote. “You know who’s going to fix all this? Not you. The man upstairs, that’s who. You ask me, we got to get rid of all the Mexicans and all the blacks—and you know that other thing we call ‘em, the blacks—we got to get every last one of ‘em out of this country, that’s what we got to do.”

Yeah. Maybe his God, not mine.

Democrats want border security as much as Republicans. To say otherwise is a lie.

But a wall? Even the president doesn’t want a wall. What he wants is a fight about the wall; a fight with your favorite new boogeyman, Nancy Pelosi; a fight about the brown people he has demonized from day one; a fight that feeds your bigotry and fuels your worst fears.

My mother died before her grandbaby got to Kindergarten. As my giggling niece regaled our family about having so many new friends, my brother (her father), put on his worried face and warned her not to befriend the black boy at her table of six year-olds. “You know what little black boys do to little white girls?” he ribbed.

Then she was afraid to go to school.

This—the fear and bigotry and shame we continue install in our children—is our real national emergency.

Shine, perishing republic

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It is official. The man who would “Make America Great Again” now owns the record for longest government shutdown in history.

As 800,000 federal workers head into 2019 without paychecks—in a fight over funding a border wall that Mexico was going to pay for—news breaks that the president has been the subject of a counterintelligence investigation to determine if he was working on behalf of Russia against American interests.

Incidents like these would cripple any other presidency. But Trump supporters never waiver, never question, holding stubbornly firm like someone who always does the Sunday crossword in ink and refuses, no matter how Gordian it gets, to consider a pencil.

This is not uncommon. As military historian Thomas E. Ricks wrote in his 2017 book on Winston Churchill and George Orwell, “We should remember that most of us, most of the time, do not welcome the voices of people like Orwell and Churchill appearing in our midst…. To refuse to run with the herd is generally harder than it looks. To break with with the most powerful among that herd requires unusual depth of character and clarity of mind.”

When Sen. Mitch McConnell came to little Lawrenceburg, Kentucky in February 2017 for a closed, ticketed town hall, I recall him snickering, “Elections have consequences. Winners make policy and losers go home.”

McConnell was right, which begs basic questions. Why did the president, whose party controlled Congress for two years, not obtain wall funding and start building? If McConnell believes the wall is the solution to border security, why has he been sotto voce? Why is the president, holed-up and tweeting from the White House for the last month, not out hosting town halls to garner support for the wall?

And then there’s Russia. On Jan. 12, Judge Jeannine Pirro of FOX News asked the president point blank if he has ever worked on behalf of the Russians. He blamed his usual list of suspects—the NY Times, Jeff Bezos, James Comey, the FBI—then said, “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked.”

How hard is it to simply say no, I am not a Russian agent?

Watching Pirro conduct this interview was like watching a wife waving a handful of hotel receipts, accusing her husband of having an affair, and his only response is, “You’re being ridiculous.”

Consider the opening stanza of “Shine, Perishing Republic” by poet Robinson Jeffers. “While this America settles into the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire, and protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens.”

No matter the constant, bubbling, molten mass of troubling news, Trump supporters remain dug in. Ask yourself: why was it easy to believe the absurd claim that President Obama was not born in the U.S. but hard to imagine Trump as the least bit compromised?

Ricks was right: to break with the herd is generally harder than it looks.

If the shutdown continues—and the president has warned it could go for weeks, or even months—how will federal workers pay rent, buy food, fill their gas tanks, afford medication?

A local woman wrote to me about the tertiary effects. “FHA loans have been suspended. Therefore, good friends who sold their home to a buyer who was FHA approved fear they will lose the home they are purchasing because closing dates aren’t met. Domino effect.”

Airport TSA employees are calling in sick. How long will air travel remain safe? If you were a terrorist, how vulnerable do we appear?

Sadly, the mass continues to harden. The new year begins with a paralyzed government. Our elected leaders are barely speaking. Almost a million Americans are either furloughed or working without pay. And the president (Mr. “I alone can fix it.”) storms out of meetings, refusing to negotiate, while also reportedly under investigation for working on behalf of Russia and against American interests.

It’s time to pick up a pencil.

Season Finale

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As we approach the end of Season 2: The Trump White House, our president—the man holding both the nuclear codes and 800,000 federal paychecks hostage—held a raucous, rambling, televised cabinet meeting while displaying a Game of Thrones-inspired poster. “November 4,” the poster read, though it was January. “Sanctions are coming.”

Wait, was this an episode I missed?

I hone in on the poster. President Trump emerging from a thick mist, his coat waving in an imagined wind, a throwback to the way TV producers once sold him to audiences of “The Apprentice” in the opening credits. The unmistakable vision of wealth. A towering, mysterious man walking away from a helicopter to the tune of, “Money money money money. MON-aayyy.”

And then it hits me. The poster, the entire cabinet meeting in fact, are teasers for his season finale. Will Trump get his wall? Will almost a million American workers receive paychecks? It’s must see TV!

To be fair, the show delivers. Consider some of the president’s most highly-rated episodes.

S1:E1—The Muslim Ban: A young man waits all day at the Los Angeles airport for the release of his 80-year-old Iranian grandmother who has already traveled 20 hours and is then locked in a small room with other detainees for nine hours. An Iranian couple with a four month-old baby scheduled for heart surgery is denied entry into the U.S., and even though the family is already in transit with their sick child, they have no choice but to return to Iran.

S1:E5—Russians in the Oval: After 17 U.S. intelligence agencies agree Russia interfered in the 2016 election, the president punishes them by firing his own FBI Director. He then invites Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak into the Oval office with only Russian media (no Americans) in the room. Afterward, the president sits down for an interview with ‘The Economist,’ after which the editors describe his grasp of economics as “unimaginative and incoherent.”

S1:E8—Charlottesville: Neo-nazis march in Virginia, carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” A woman is viciously murdered. The president declares good people on both sides, and the KKK’s David Duke tweets him a thank you.

S1:E9—Hurricanes and Dreamers: In Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath, as communities struggle to survive and recover, the president announces his intent to shut down DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) as the body of 31 year-old Alonso Guillen, a DACA recipient, washes ashore, four days after he drowned while voluntarily rescuing stranded Americans.

S2:E6—The Singapore Summit: Not long after announcing a meeting with Kim Jung Un, the president fires his National Security Advisor. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, retired Admiral James Stavridis, responds, “You look for the national security apparatus as guardrails around the presidency because of the immense power that’s invested in the executive branch. I feel like those guardrails are drifting. God help us if we lose Jim Mattis.”

S2:E7—The Helsinki Summit: After a two-hour, private meeting with Vladimir Putin, President Trump is asked who he believes regarding Russia’s interference in our elections, 17 American intelligence agencies or the Russian president? He chooses Russia. Sen. John McCain responds, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”

S2:E11—Kids in Cages: After Central American immigrants walk more than a thousand miles to reach the United States, border patrol agents confiscate their children and store them in cages and tents, after which Homeland Security loses track of many migrant children in their custody. Meanwhile, the president shuts down the government, demanding billions for a wall, citing “caravans.”

In the Jan. 7 issue of The New Yorker, in an article about the making of “The Apprentice,” Patrick Radden Keefe describes how “camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore….His entrances were choreographed for maximum impact.”

As we await President Trump’s Season 2 finale, a new, up-close, visage of the president with the words “The Wall is Coming,” have been emblazoned on a new poster. Will the government re-open? Will he get his wall or declare a state of emergency? Tune in!

The American presidency has been reduced to a reality TV show, the star with the nuclear codes is disgruntled, and co-star General Mattis has left the show. God help us.