Trump stands in for Blaine in his 2012 Drowned Alive stunt in New York
Jeff Israely

-Essay-

PARIS — I do my best not to get pulled into the rabbit hole of U.S. election coverage. It's hard to imagine, at this point, how any poll or tweet or scandal could possibly affect the outcome. Can our global news site really find a new angle to help explain Donald Trump? Can anyone? Still, as an American citizen living abroad, I do feel the obligation a few times a day — often late at night — to peek on my phone to see if something truly unpleasant has happened to our president.

No luck again last Wednesday night, but I did stumble on news from another blast from New York's past: David Blaine was at it again. For those not familiar, the Brooklyn-born star burst on the scene in the late 1990s as a sort-of-intriguing latter-day Harry Houdini, mixing old fashioned magic and escape artist suspense with modern-media showmanship.

Among the stunts he performed were surviving six feet underground for seven days, enclosing himself in a block of ice for 63 hours, standing on top of a 100-foot-high pillar for 35 hours. The challenges tended to always include severe deprivation of food and water and sleep, and often oxygen; and Blaine would inevitably emerge staggering before a mob of flashing cameras and offer some vaguely cultish words of enlightenment. "I saw something very prophetic," he said in 1999 just after the Buried Alive casket was pried open, "a vision of every race, every religion, every age group banding together, and that made all this worthwhile." As we say in New York: quite a numbah.

So two decades later, with the rest of my family sound asleep, I could go on YouTube, to watch the now 47-year-old floating up, up and above the Arizona desert, pulled by a giant colorful bunch of helium balloons toward a record altitude. I could have fast-forwarded but didn't want to miss the beautiful panorama shots and close-up details, the rising tension of Blaine going higher and higher, the temperature dropping, exchanges with mission control (and his 9-year-old daughter) as he fumbled to attach the parachute … and whoosh: He'd cut himself loose and safely sky-dived safely back to earth. It was gorgeous, it was pointless, it was inspiring, it was 1:37 A.M.

Blaine rises above the Arizona desert Sep. 3 in "Ascension"

But this internet rabbit hole was bound to go deeper. I had to dig up footage of his stunts from the past, discover details of his biography I'd otherwise never care to know, including one that has landed me right here.

Popping up at several points over the years was an on-again, off-again business relationship with that other overexposed New York illusionist: Donald Trump. The two products of late 20th-century television hype were destined to find each other … and are really two sides of the same coin. One in a suit, the other in t-shirt or turtleneck; one mean-spirited and opinionated, the other obtuse and whispering one-world aphorisms. Money and luxury v. self abnegation and suffering. Still they're united by the same single driving quest: to fill an unquenchable thirst for attention.

That was what brought Blaine dangling into the stratosphere and onto my smartphone. It's of course also what drove Trump to run for president.

They're united by the same single driving quest.

So four years later, we've been left haunted not only by what he's wrought, but also by our inability to find satisfactory explanations for the damage done and time wasted. Those of us in the news business have had our own struggle reporting on this horse-loose-in-a-hospital story, unable to "construct a narrative" that can offer either solace or respite. And that leaves us imagining alternative universes...

What if instead it had been Blaine? If Trump could pull off the ultimate reality show where the world is forced to watch him bully and spout opinions from the White House, why couldn't the American presidency be turned into one long extreme stunt? It might look something like this:

It's late 2015 when DT steps aside, leaving the stage to DB, who announces his "greatest trick of all." In early 2016, DB begins to dominate the Republican primary, standing on his head throughout each debate and promising that the power of collective positive thinking will make all that's wrong in America disappear. Opponents and pundits laugh him off, and the votes keep pouring in. Autumn 2016, and there will be no debates with his Democratic opponent because DB is wrapped in an American flag and hanging from a crane over the Grand Canyon until one week after election day. It's 2017 and President Blaine travels alone to his first NATO summit in Brussels in a one-man pedal-powered submarine — arriving on the Belgian coast two days after the summit had ended, exhausted and muttering: Alliances are all we have, alliances are all we are. A deadly pandemic hits and POTUS infects himself on live TV. Police violence sets off protests around the country, but the president is incommunicado, on the 27th day of his quest to break the Guinness record for most days locked inside the White House refrigerator ...

You may see where I'm going, but it's not there. This last-ditch attempt at narrative constructing will not try to calculate the relative damage of a vanishing commander-in-chief mumbling for four years in a thermic body suit compared to one in business attire barking non-stop awfulness. I turn back instead to one final vision that's come to me as I write: It's DT in dark suit and red tie, attached to those same beautiful colored balloons above the Arizona desert, floating higher and higher … slowly fading from camera range.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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