Pivot Point

On December 10, TIME Magazine will announce its choice for 2020’s Person of the Year.  If history is any guide—as it often is—there is reason to believe the “winner” will be a toss-up between Joe Biden and COVID first responders.  On the one hand, since 1972, TIME has devoted its year-end issue to all but three winners of the U.S. presidential election; on the other hand, in recent years it has paid special heed to those in the public service sector, from journalists to whistleblowers to those who battled Ebola in 2014.

As must be said every year—and which our outgoing president famously does not understand—TIME’s pick for Person of the Year is not an honor, per se.  By the magazine’s own reckoning, the selection represents “the person or group of people who had the greatest influence on the events of the year—for better or worse.”  TIME has carried on this tradition since 1927, and while the majority of its choices have been highly honorable folk, the list has also included the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Donald J. Trump.

Such is the nature of history:  One need not be virtuous to profoundly shape and alter the lives of millions.  Indeed, the opposite is all-too-often the case.

In any event, this annual exercise is nothing if not a parlor game, and I would be remiss not to proffer my own view on this mildly important matter in this most tumultuous of years.

For my money—and without further ado—the most influential person in 2020 was Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old girl who videotaped the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

The argument is as follows:  Until Memorial Day, the coronavirus pandemic was the only news story of 2020.  From the moment in late February when it became clear that the mysterious pathogen that had rattled China in late 2019 would soon become an American problem, the United States was operating in a continued state of emergency, with most commercial activity ground to a halt and residents of countless cities and towns advised to shelter inside their homes until further notice, venturing out only for essential goods and services like food and medicine.

While the suspension of any semblance of normal life was not necessarily the relaxing vacation it felt like at the start—particularly for those whose only source of income had dried up as a direct consequence of the outbreak—by late spring we had more or less gotten the hang of it, grudgingly obeying the pleas of local and state officials to keep away from each other and wear face coverings as a means of keeping the infection and death rates as low as humanly possible—even at the cost of no longer seeing family and friends, going to the movies or even attending funerals.

And then Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and the whole country changed the subject.

In an ordinary year, news that a white Minneapolis police officer had fatally pinned a black man to the ground for 7 minutes and 46 seconds for the crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store would be treated merely as a horrific, racially-biased miscarriage of justice.  In the late spring of 2020, the killing of George Floyd proved cataclysmic, for several key reasons.

First and most obviously, the murder was filmed from beginning to end and broadcast almost immediately, thereby preventing the Minneapolis Police Department from downplaying and/or whitewashing the incident before it became something of a big deal.  What’s more, the sheer, sadistic brutality of an unarmed man being suffocated to death by the police in broad daylight while he cried out for his (dead) mother proved so indefensible that not even the president of the United States deigned to defend it.  In a notable break from tradition, all four officers involved were fired within 48 hours of Floyd’s death and charged with murder by the end of the week.

Of course, none of this quasi-accountability prevented the international outrage that followed, which saw millions of people take to the streets in protest, marching, demonstrating and demanding rectification, with the occasional looting and arson tossed in for good measure.

The effects of these “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations were manifold.  First, they got people out of the house for the first time in more than two months.  In principle, this was in direct violation of every advisory that had been issued by the nation’s health experts since the pandemic began.  However, because the protests occurred in the name of racial justice—ostensibly a noble and urgent cause—those same experts were forced to tie themselves in logistical knots, arguing that even though they had spent some 10 weeks explicitly condemning large gatherings as potential “superspreader” events, the BLM gatherings somehow didn’t count because…well, fighting racism is more important than fighting COVID, I guess.

The howling inconsistency of this messaging was not lost on those who had been forced to forego such foundational rituals as churchgoing and Memorial Day parades only to be suddenly told that massive get-togethers were OK after all, just so long as they were held for the right reasons.

So much for following the science.

In retrospect, the moment our political and public health leaders decided that loudly condemning police brutality was a worthy exception to the COVID-era rules was also the moment the coronavirus irreversibly became a political issue.  It was the inflection point when a large chunk of the populace stopped trusting that the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci knew what they were talking about and had our best interests at heart, and began to wonder if this whole shutdown business was just one big unnecessary charade.

From there, you can trace the increased hostility toward any and all manner of controlling the virus, which correlated ever-so-neatly with fidelity to Donald Trump, while support for aggressive measures such as school closings and mask mandates came to stand in for opposition to same. 

While one can’t prove a counterfactual, it is entirely plausible that, absent a gargantuan, coast-to-coast civil rights uprising that happened to commence on the unofficial first weekend of summer, there would not have been such a contentious, painful and ultimately ruinous ideological civil war between those who recognized COVID-19 as a once-in-a-century epidemiological menace and those who considered it a hoax, a conspiracy or simply not that big a deal.

The BLM protests also had a surprising—and somewhat ironic—secondary effect:  They showed that the coronavirus does not spread outdoors at the rate that it spreads indoors.  Against all our preconceived assumptions, the demonstrations were not the “superspreader” events we initially feared they would be.  Whether due to their open-air setting or to widespread mask-wearing among their participants—presumably it was some combination of the two—the marches did not collectively cause a meaningful spike in COVID infections, hospitalizations or deaths.

In a weird way, the revelation that safe-ish outdoor congregating was, in fact, possible may well have shaped our future collective behavior more drastically than any other single factor—for better and for worse.  On the one hand, it provided a blueprint for the responsible resumption of such activities as weddings, outdoor dining and the like.  On the other hand, it lent real (if misguided) credence to the argument that the initial lockdowns were a hysterical overreaction and their associated restrictions on freedom of movement a gross abuse of government power over its citizens.  Someday, with enough data, we’ll know for sure whether that view was correct.

Here’s what we know now:  The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement—with its inevitable excesses—provided Donald Trump with his most potent and lasting distraction from his own disgraceful mismanagement of COVID from Day 1, allowing him to stay competitive in his re-election campaign against Joe Biden and, in turn, ensure the continued viability of Trumpism beyond his own tenure, which will end on January 20.

Absent Trump’s “law and order” schtick throughout the summer, the 2020 election may well have been the Biden blowout we had been promised all along, complete with a Democratic Senate and all the legislative spoils that would follow.

Absent the BLM movement, that campaign strategy would not have gained its potency.  Absent the murder of George Floyd, the BLM movement would not have re-materialized when it did, if at all.  And absent the video footage of that murder, the name George Floyd would be completely unknown or, at most, a mere footnote alongside Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and the many other victims of apparent racist policing in 2020 whose stories, while outrageous and tragic, would not necessarily send millions into the streets all by themselves.

Long story short (too late?), the ultimate trajectory of 2020 would be unrecognizable had Darnella Frazier not been standing at the corner of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis on May 25, with her cell phone camera at the ready.  Her uninterrupted recording of the final moments of George Floyd’s life—a video that, to this day, I haven’t quite brought myself to watch—altered the course of human events in ways big and small, and stands as the pivot point of the most chaotic and consequential period in the life of the United States in a generation. 

For that reason—at least according to the metrics of TIME Magazine—she is 2020’s Person of the Year. Although we should note that, by the same definition, the Non-Person of the Year was most likely a bat.

Ten-Dollar Slaver

If you’re an American history buff—as every good citizen should be—what are you supposed to do when you find out your favorite founding father was considerably less perfect than the historical record had long led you to believe?

Luckily for me, my favorite founder is John Adams, whose own personal and political faults were so flamboyantly self-evident in his own time that no major surprises have surfaced in the intervening centuries.

The same could not be said for Adams’s compatriot and presidential successor, Thomas Jefferson, whose glowing, all-but-untouchable reputation took a seismic hit in 2000 upon publication of a DNA analysis that proved beyond doubt that Jefferson had fathered six or seven children with his slave Sally Hemings in a relationship that lasted nearly 40 years. 

While the howling hypocrisy of Jefferson proclaiming “all men are created equal” while owning more than 200 human beings was an established fact, the confirmation of a long-rumored, decades-spanning sexual relationship with a woman who was his personal property forced even seasoned historians to question everything they thought they knew about the character of one of the most iconic and pored-over public figures in all of Western civilization.  Jefferson’s stock in the Founding Fathers sweepstakes has been steadily declining ever since.

Which brings us to last week, when the New York Times reported on a little-noticed research paper published in October by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, which asserts—with considerable evidence—that Alexander Hamilton trafficked in the buying, selling and owning of enslaved people.

Employing a panoply of primary documents—including letters and Hamilton’s own account books—the paper’s author, Jessie Serfilippi, shows that the nation’s first treasury secretary did not merely marry into a prominent slave-owning family—something we more-or-less already knew—but also came to hold several people in bondage himself throughout his adult life, right up until his death-by-duel in 1804.

As recently as five years ago, the revelation that the man on the $10 bill owned slaves would hardly be Earth-shattering news.  After all, most Americans barely knew who Hamilton was, let alone why his face was printed on the currency in the first place.

However, ever since Lin-Manuel Miranda went to Mexico with a copy of Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography and emerged with one of the hottest Broadway musicals ever staged, the country has thunderously embraced Hamilton as a singular American hero—a self-made, Caribbean-born émigré who scrapped his way into the highest echelons of political power through sheer intelligence and force of will, and who—according to both Chernow and Miranda—was among his generation’s leading voices against slavery at a time when even the likes of Washington and Jefferson (but not Adams!) found themselves on the wrong side of that particular moral question.

To be clear, Chernow and others have previously floated the possibility that Hamilton owned at least one black person at some point in his life, as well as having served as a middle man in the trading of human flesh on behalf of his wealthy father-in-law, Philip Schuyler.  Notably, when asked for comment about Serfilippi’s research, Chernow didn’t challenge any of her basic findings, arguing only that her paper does not give sufficient weight to Hamilton’s many anti-slavery bona fides—not least his membership in the New-York Manumission Society—and is thus unfair and unbalanced.

Having not read the entire paper (Season 4 of The Crown just dropped on Netflix, after all), I feel safe in assuming that both Serfilippi and Chernow are right.  That is, that Hamilton was at once a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery and a personal beneficiary of the system he was condemning.  The available evidence supports both conclusions, and as we have learned from the lives of Jefferson and many of his contemporaries, America’s evil institution had a way of making hypocrites of nearly everyone it touched.

Long story short:  The men who created the United States were complicated.  Let’s accept it and move on.

Or not.  When it comes to Alexander Hamilton, after all, the play’s the thing.

While Miranda’s groundbreaking show rightly and admirably portrays its protagonist as a flawed and sometimes contemptible individual, it also goes out of its way to present him as an unabashed abolitionist whose sickest burn against Jefferson in one of their Cabinet rap battles includes the line, “A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor, your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor.”

Now that Serfilippi’s findings are out in the open, won’t future performances of that scene and others be a bit—awkward?

Certainly, the fact that Jefferson oversaw a plantation tended to by some 200 enslaved people is exponentially more troubling than anything Serfilippi has dug up on Hamilton.  Nonetheless, the simple reality that Hamilton was implicated in America’s original sin—however minimally—is in direct conflict with one of the play’s central conceits—namely, that Hamilton is the most contemporary and redeemable of the Founding Fathers on the strength of his supposedly enlightened attitude on slavery. 

Sooner or later, this contradiction will need to be addressed, however commercially inconvenient it might be.  On this issue, “It’s just a play” doesn’t quite cut it.

Revisions

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no profession in America has greater job security than political pundit.  You have exactly one job—explain What This All Means and what it bodes for the future—and no matter how mistaken your analysis proves to be, you will never, ever be fired so long as you continue speaking with confidence, gravitas and a smidgen of good humor.

By all means, we shouldn’t begrudge those who manage to pull off this clever feat of intellectual hackery.  After all, it takes real verve to be consistently wrong about everything while maintaining an aura of infallibility without the faintest glimmer of shame, guilt or introspection.

While not technically a pundit myself, I can claim a record of faulty prognostications and ill-conceived impressions of the American body politic that is every bit as embarrassing and pedestrian as that of those who do this sort of thing for a living.  And there’s nothing like a presidential election to provide clarity about where the nation truly stands at a given moment in time.

Most spectacular of all my wrong predictions in recent years was that Donald Trump was effectively invincible in his quest for a second term as president, and that one way or another he would ultimately pull off re-election.  To be sure, this fatalistic attitude arose as a direct consequence of his original victory in 2016, about which I was equally wrong, as I was, later on, about his never being impeached by the House.

While we’re at it, I should also note my utter incredulity in 2019 that Joe Biden could ever secure the Democratic Party nomination, particularly following the withering attack on his mixed record on race by fellow candidate Kamala Harris.  (Whatever happened to her?)

What’s more, I was wrong that Biden would be hamstrung—perhaps fatally—by the sexual assault allegation by Tara Reade last spring.  I was wrong that the sordid details about his son, Hunter, would resurface with far more force than they did.  I was wrong that Biden was toast after losing badly in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, and that he was simply too old, too feeble and too white to survive the most dynamic and diverse Democratic presidential field ever.

I could go on.  Lordy, how I could go on.

Surely, the central fact of the 2020 election results—articulated in various ways by various commentators—is that America has had quite enough of Donald Trump, but not necessarily with the views he represents, nor the party he leads.  By electing a Democratic president and a Republican Senate, we have affirmed that we are, indeed, a divided nation whose heterogenous worldviews cannot be reconciled merely through a shared antipathy toward an erratic commander-in-chief whose own supporters sometimes find a royal pain in the ass.

In retrospect, this dynamic perhaps should’ve been obvious to all—as should any number of other realities that are now staring us directly in the face.  While we will undoubtedly be spending much of the next weeks and months ruminating on the details of these complicated (and often inconvenient) truths, for now we would do well simply to acknowledge the limitations of our supposed knowledge about the country in which we live, and to accept the gulf between how we would like our fellow humans to behave and how they actually do.

What I’ve learned above all else during the Trump era is to lower my expectations when it comes to our leaders in Washington, D.C.

Case in point:  When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I really did believe his elevation to high office would bring about a new era of comity and collaboration within our governing institutions, with members of Congress treating each other with mutual respect and working together to pass meaningful legislation to make America great.

By contrast, throughout the 2020 election I was effectively a one-issue voter, and the issue was that I didn’t want Donald Trump to be president.  I voted for Joe Biden on the grounds that he wasn’t Donald Trump, and if we make it to 2024 and he still isn’t Donald Trump, I will be happy as a clam.

Sure, I have a legislative wish list that I hope soon-to-be-President Biden can somehow ram through an intransigent, adversarial Senate, if not through a series of executive orders.  It would certainly be gratifying to see some progress on such monumental challenges as healthcare, climate change and ending this damn pandemic.

But I won’t be holding my breath that the next four years will produce anything other than total gridlock and disfunction, culminating in a re-election campaign every bit as evenly split as the ones in 2020 and 2016.  I’ve lived too long and seen too much to expect that the polarization and cynicism that has steadily congealed through the halls of leadership in our nation’s capital will suddenly recede, that the better angels of our representatives’ natures will rise to the surface, and the moral arc of the universe will bend toward renewable energy and a $15 minimum wage.

Then again, I could be wrong.

The Fever Breaks

A few days after the 2016 election, I found myself sitting alone in my car, having a bit of an existential meltdown.

While I had initially handled the stunning victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton with relative stoicism and aplomb, as I inched my way through traffic and the Pentatonix cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” started wailing from my Mazda’s speaker system, I was suddenly bowled over by an overwhelming sadness and depression about the horrific bind my beloved country had willed itself into.  How we had just elected someone who campaigned explicitly against all the achievements of the past eight years and gleefully promised to burn everything to the ground.  How we were now staring directly into the abyss with no discernible end in sight.

The presence of “Hallelujah” was not incidental to my momentary disintegration into a despondent puddle of goo.  Cohen himself had died that very week, leading many on the left—including me, it turned out—to adopt his most lyrical and wrenching composition as their aching, mournful, Job-like cry to the heavens in the face of the presumed horrors that would be unleashed in the years to come—an embodiment of Michelle Obama’s striking comment, “We are feeling what not having hope feels like.”

In any case, my own emotional funk passed soon enough, giving way to a galvanizing sense of mission and righteous anger in defense of the values I hold dear—and which the incoming administration did not—which in turn evolved, in the long run, into my more natural, cynical disposition of being subtly, darkly amused by behavior that any normal person would find appalling.

Indeed, four years into the Trump era, I’m both impressed and disturbed by how serenely I have endured the most singularly absurd and destructive period of American governance in my lifetime.  By and large, I have depended for this on the wit and wisdom of the late George Carlin, who always made a point of blaming us, the people, for the corruptions and mediocrities of our representatives, correctly observing that every senator and congressperson in this country has been directly elected by his or her constituents, and is thus “representative” in both the literal and figurative sense.  “If you have selfish, ignorant citizens,” Carlin concluded, “You’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders.”

Accordingly, my line on Trump has always been that America gets the presidents it deserves, for better or for worse.  Russian hijinks notwithstanding, Trump was duly elected on November 8, 2016, in accordance with the rules and procedures that all participants understood and agreed to, and had every right under the Constitution to enact whatever agenda he saw fit—an agenda, I might add, that he did not exactly keep a secret on the campaign trail.

In short, Trump was a plague we brought upon ourselves.  He represents us—he is us—and his elevation to high office in 2016 was the chickens of our collective sins (such as they were) coming home to roost.

Deep down, I knew this cavalier, detached attitude was a coping mechanism—a means of rationalizing the irrational and excusing the inexcusable.  Unable to fully process that a transparently ill-equipped and dishonest buffoon had somehow become the most powerful person on planet Earth, I leaned on institutions and traditions as our national saving grace, believing that no matter how corrupt and dysfunctional the Trump regime might become, there would always be Congress and the courts—and, eventually, the electorate itself—to keep its abuses in check.  That, in the end, the legitimacy of the American experiment would endure.

At the same time, the experience of the 2016 race—specifically, the fact of how wrong the assumptions about it turned out to be—made me constitutionally incapable of optimism about 2020.  Month after month, year after year, I refused to acknowledge any positive news about the Democrats’ chances to make Trump the first one-term president since 1992.  No matter how low his approving rating dipped, no matter how many of his associates got arrested and jailed, no matter how many books were published detailing the horrifying, it’s-even-worse-than-you-think lunacy that was running roughshod inside his own house, it just felt inevitable that lightning would strike twice, that Trump would be an eight-year problem, and that everything would keep getting worse.

Maybe I was just steeling myself against being epically shocked and disappointed for the second time.  Maybe I was hoping to jinx the 2020 results into the Democratic column—as the entire nation managed to do in 2016, only in reverse.

Or maybe—just maybe—I had simply gaslit myself into believing Trump really was an unstoppable force, and that I lived in a much different—and darker—country than I thought during eight years under President Obama.

And who’s to say I was wrong?  Maybe 2016 wasn’t just some Electoral College fluke.  Maybe Trump, for all his flamboyant shortcomings, really was on course for re-election (albeit narrowly) on the strength of a consistently strong economy and a general, ongoing disgust with career politicians like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Maybe the one thing that could’ve prevented history from repeating itself (or at least rhyming) was a once-in-a-century virus that hit the United States at exactly the wrong moment and—thanks, in part, to abject incompetence and callous indifference on Trump’s part—went on to kill 235,000 across all 50 states, with a whole new wave of death yet to come.  Maybe someday we’ll ask ourselves if such a tradeoff was worth it.

In July 2016, during the Republican National Convention that officially crowned Donald Trump the party’s nominee, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wryly tweeted, “Let us acknowledge […] that history has become a fever dream from which we are struggling to awake.”

The fever began on an escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, tore its way through the Republican Party throughout the 2016 campaign, then metastasized from one end of the country to the other over these last forty-odd months.

And then today, just like that, it ended.

Against every public prediction I’ve ever made, by a frightfully thin margin, and with many lawsuits to come, Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Barring some final turn of the 2020 screw, less than 11 weeks from now, Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States and Trump will return to life as a private citizen.

To be sure, not all of our problems have been solved, and many new ones will materialize, as they always do.

But come January 20, the single most malignant human being of the 21st century will no longer have any formal power over the lives of 330 million of our fellow Americans. To that extent, our long national nightmare will be over.

Hallelujah.

The Road to Victory Not Taken

The polls close in five days, and in these waning moments of the 2020 presidential campaign, the question I keep asking myself is:  Why didn’t Donald Trump wear a mask?

I don’t mean for the sake of public health.  I mean for the sake of winning the damn election.

As we speak, Trump stands an 11 percent chance of emerging victorious in his bid for a second term as commander-in-chief, according to St. Nate.  While defeat is by no means foreordained—we all lived through 2016, if barely—it is a virtual certainty that any possible Electoral College win for the president would be even narrower than four years ago and entail an even larger deficit in the national popular vote.

In short, it would require an act of God to keep Trump in the White House for another four years, which is why he has adopted voter suppression as his main campaign strategy.

To which we should all wonder:  Did it need to be thus?

Was Trump destined to be a leader who would only ever garner the approval of the slimmest possible cross section of the electorate?  Is he truly incapable of expanding his appeal beyond the 40-odd percent who would follow him on a long walk off a short pier?  Is there an aspect of his psyche that needs to be hated by hundreds of millions of American citizens, or is there some alternate universe in which he cruises to re-election thanks to a modest, near-imperceptible change in his personal behavior?

Let’s run a counterfactual, shall we?

Sometime in April—as the coronavirus was rampaging without mercy across the Northeast—it became clear to the medical establishment (albeit far later than it should have) that the wearing of face masks was the simplest and most effective means of combating the greatest epidemiological menace since 1918.  Accordingly, every sensible state and local official recommended—if not mandated—the use of face coverings in most public places until the situation was brought under control.

As president—the man to whom all responsibility for the handling of this crisis would ultimately flow—Trump need not have said anything more radical than, “If the experts say mask-wearing will defeat the virus, that’s good enough for me!”  He could’ve taken the lead in encouraging face coverings as a painless, noncontroversial means of short-circuiting the metastasis of this deadly pathogen, claimed sole credit (as he is wont to do) for the hundreds of thousands of lives it would’ve spared and spent the entire summer boasting about his swift, muscular leadership in beating back a foreign invader that, if left unchecked, could’ve killed millions and crippled the global economy for years.

It was such an easy, obvious thing for him to have done.  Indeed, as a branding opportunity, it was pure gold:  Just imagine the prospect of 100 million red “MAGA” masks from one end of the continent to the other in a patriotic show of force against an enemy that knows no political affiliation nor any state or national borders.

It could’ve been the great marketing coup of the age:  A president harnessing his singular gift of unabashed showmanship in service of saving lives and sticking it to the Chinese, who were ostensibly responsible for this whole mess in the first place.

What’s more, since Trump is nothing if not the leader of a personality cult that hangs on his every word, there is no compelling reason to doubt that had he gone on TV every day and reminded his minions to don their MAGA face merch in public at all times, avoid large crowds and constantly wash their hands, they would’ve happily complied and the calamitous summer wave of infections would’ve been largely averted.  While the incoming fall/winter onslaught may well have come in any case, Trump could credibly claim to have taken it as seriously as the conditions required and to be doing everything in his power now to make the pandemic as survivable as humanly possible.

In this alternate universe, the Democrats would have had a much weaker argument against Trump on the COVID front, and would need to have depended for their team’s enthusiasm on the president’s mountain of preexisting personal flaws—a case that may well have been undercut or outright negated by a heroic handling of the single greatest challenge of his term.

By no means was this an entirely fanciful scenario.  As you’ll recall, there was a solid week or two in March when Trump really did seem to grasp the enormity of the coming crisis, holding daily press briefings headed by serious, learned people and even going so far as to say the spread of the virus was “nobody’s fault.”

And wouldn’t you know it, it was in this brief moment that the president’s approval ratings approached 50 percent for the first and only time in his tenure, only to slip back down to the low-40s once it became clear that he didn’t really give a damn, after all.

It makes you speculate about how popular he might’ve become—how high his polling ceiling truly is—had he performed even a single COVID-related task well. Had he executed the duties of his office with the gravity they require.  Had he expressed even a hint of concern for human life other than his own.  Had he worn a mask.

The Case for Trump

I’ve had a personal Twitter account since December 2009, and possibly the single finest tweet that has come across my feed in that time—by a user named “God,” no less—reads as follows:  “In an ideal scenario the President of the United States and the worst human being in the world would be two different people.”

True enough.  Unfortunately, since January 20, 2017, we have not been living in an ideal scenario.  Whether Donald Trump is, in fact, the single most execrable person on Earth is a matter of anyone’s opinion, but surely the fact that such a thing is arguable is not a terribly hopeful sign for the future of American democracy.

On the eve of a presidential election in which Trump is asking us to return him to office for another four-year term, the more pertinent question concerns not his character, but his actual record.  History has shown that one needn’t be a saint to be a great leader—and vice versa—and it is thus sometimes necessary to separate one from the other in order to make an objective assessment of a chief executive’s time in office.

While outfits like the New York Times have already followed the lead of millions of angry, disgusted citizens in proclaiming, “Mr. Trump stands without any real rivals as the worst American president in modern history,” I find myself in accord with historian Michael Beschloss, who has long cautioned that one should wait at least 20 years before making anything close to a final judgement of a president’s legacy.  As Beschloss points out, you can’t know the full impact of most executive actions until you give them enough space to play themselves out, which they often do in surprising and counterintuitive ways.  As another historian, Joseph Ellis, likes to say about the American Revolution, “No event […] which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect.”

Accordingly, while my current views on Donald Trump’s rule are both firm and strongly-held, I will resist the Times-like temptation for broad, sweeping declarations about the 45th president’s place in history, such as it is.  At this tentative and highly tenuous juncture in the space-time continuum, there’s just too much I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know:  In the course of even the most boring four years in the Oval Office, thousands upon thousands of decisions are made that directly affect the lives of millions (if not billions) of people.  And just as an infinite number of monkeys strapped to an infinite number of typewriters will eventually reproduce Henry V, even the worst American presidents manage to do something laudable every now and again.

In what may well be Trump’s final week as a non-lame duck, allow me to put in a brief word for plausibly the one aspect of his job that he has handled reasonably well:  foreign policy.

To be clear, I am not referring here to Trump’s alarming obsequiousness toward virtually every autocrat and would-be dictator on planet Earth, nor to his petulant, insane hostility toward America’s friends and allies, whose support he needs far more than he ever seems to realize.

What I mean is simply this:  Should he leave office on January 20, with no big surprises between now and then, Trump will be the first commander-in-chief in this century not to involve the United States in a major military intervention with a country that poses no particular threat to our national security interests.  He will, in effect, have been a peacetime president.

I’m no foreign policy savant, nor frankly do I much care what happens beyond our borders, if I can avoid it.  Nonetheless, having seen a parade of leaders in both Congress and the White House operating on the unspoken—and unchallenged—assumption that, on non-domestic matters, a show of overwhelming force is the solution to almost every problem, I cannot help but admire anyone in a position of authority who looks upon military interventionism with extreme skepticism, if not outright contempt.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump voiced unequivocal disapproval of George W. Bush’s bloody initiatives in the Middle East, calling them stupid and wasteful and vowing no such democracy-building exercises on his watch.  Thus far, he has been relatively true to his word, which is more than could be said of his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, who made roughly the same anti-war pledge in 2008 yet ended up expanding the American footprint in the Arab world—particularly in Libya—while failing to withdraw fully from either Afghanistan or Iraq, as he promised to do over and over again.

Say what you will about Trump’s unilateral orders to assassinate Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but they were certainly cheaper and less deadly than a Bush-like ground invasion would have been.  Jeer all you like about his seemingly futile courting of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un through a mixture of mine-is-bigger-than-yours tough talk and “love letter” diplomacy, but the overtures stand as a singularly bold and noble attempt at rapprochement with a rogue regime—one armed with nuclear weapons, mind you—that has vexed every American administration since its modern founding in 1948.

Even on the Russia question—about which our leader’s motivations will always and forever be suspect—I have no particular objection to the notion that two longtime adversaries can’t forge a working, semi-normalized relationship for the sake of regional stability in a chaotic world, whatever moral compromises might be required along the way.

Call me naïve.  Call me ill-informed.  But in a 21st century that has already seen the United States overextend itself in one misbegotten misadventure after another, there are things far more objectionable than an American president who is profoundly reluctant to commit both his nation’s troops and his own reputation toward yet another experiment in bringing democracy to a country that hasn’t even thought to ask for it.

Indeed, if we’ve learned anything truly unexpected about Donald Trump since January 2017, it’s that, for all his bluster at campaign rallies and on Twitter, he is, in fact, highly averse to direct confrontation and constitutionally incapable of assuming personal responsibility for anything.  Taken together, these truths add up to the most anti-war president we could possibly hope to have in this unstable, hawkish world, and we just might miss that small piece of him when he’s gone.

As I said, this is but one issue among many.  On balance, I would not wish four more years of Donald Trump on my worst enemy.

However, were a case to be made that Trump is not the worst American president of all time—nor, perhaps, of the last 20 years—it would posit that the most lasting damage he has wrought has been confined to our own borders—not the borders of other nations—and that the beauty of American carnage is that it can be repaired by other Americans, starting with the one who just might be elected the 46th president some nine days from now.

Life Imitates Art

Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is considered by some to be a bit of a slog nowadays, but one must admit that it does have its moments.

At this particular juncture in the space-time continuum, my personal favorite would have to be when Charles Foster Kane, newspaper tycoon extraordinaire, loses his bid for New York governor following a personal scandal, forcing his own paper, The Inquirer, to drop its planned headline—”KANE ELECTED”—in favor of the inevitable alternative:  “FRAUD AT POLLS!”

The parallel of that cheeky dénouement to the present day is almost too obvious to draw, but I’d recommend we do it anyway, particularly in light of the fact that Citizen Kane is supposedly Donald Trump’s all-time favorite film.

I say “supposedly” because the source of that piece of trivia is Trump himself, and we all know how truthful he can be.  Nonetheless, the mere fact that the 45th president wants us to think Kane—arguably the epitome of highbrow cinema—is his desert island movie has always intrigued me.  As a would-be populist with such vulgar, middle-of-the-road tastes in seemingly every other facet of American culture, Trump is an unlikely fan of Welles’s 1941 masterwork, to say the least.

The short answer to this riddle was provided with admirable concision four years ago by Ty Burr in the Boston Globe.  “Of course he loves ‘Citizen Kane,’” Burr wrote, “He thinks it’s about him.”

Fair enough, and Burr went on to note that, in creating a larger-than-life protagonist modelled on the media barons of the day, “Welles embedded his portrayal with criticism.  Most of us understand that the movie’s hero isn’t to be taken for a role model.  But most of us aren’t Donald Trump.”

Indeed we’re not, and that brings us to “Fraud at Polls!”  In the movie, the scene with the alternating newspaper headlines is heaving with sarcasm and irony, poking angry fun at the dishonest, hyper-partisan nature of big-city papers of the era, and how they derived much of their power and influence from essentially creating their own reality in an age when there were very few reliable sources of information available to the average consumer.

However, while Kane’s Inquirer does its part to defend the honor of its publisher, Kane himself is sober and cleareyed in defeat, acknowledging—if only in private—that the election was free and fair and that the people of New York simply preferred the other guy over him.  While this certainly doesn’t inoculate him from wallowing in self-pity—and not without justification, considering his opponent is shown to be a dirty trickster and a crook—Kane is finally able to face the truth of the matter and grudgingly move on with his life.

That leads to the question we’ve all been pondering lo these many months:  Should he suffer the same fate, will Donald Trump do the same?

Publicly, Trump has made no bones about blaming an Election Day defeat wholly on voting irregularities—i.e., fraud—effectively implying that the American electorate finds him so irresistible that only large-scale Democratic cheating could impede his quest for a second term as the nation’s commander-in-chief.

In reality, of course, Trump has consistently trailed Joe Biden by anywhere from 6 to 10 points in the polls, in keeping with his overall approval ratings, which have hovered in the low-to-mid-40s for virtually his entire tenure in office.

This being the case, one of three things must be true.  Either the president believes every opinion poll from the last four years is wrong and/or fake; he believes the polls are correct but that he can pull off an amazing upset for the second election in a row; or he knows full well that he’s a dead duck but is too insecure to admit it, either in public or in private.

Forced to choose, I tend to lean toward Door No. 3.  Having watched him closely for more than five years, I’ve come to view Trump more as a con man than a conspiracist—a man consumed by the need for personal validation and enrichment, but also cognizant enough to know when the jig is up.  Lest we forget that when Robert Mueller was first hired to investigate Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the president’s reaction was not to deny he had done anything wrong, but rather to say, “This is the end of my presidency.  I’m fucked.”

Does that sound like a man who’s drunk his own Kool-Aid?

Admittedly, that was more than three years ago and the president has consumed an awful lot of Fox News in the intervening time.  It is entirely possible that the alternate reality he presents at his rallies and on Twitter reflects his true sentiment, and that he really does believe himself to be the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy hellbent on extricating him from the White House by any means necessary, up to and including the falsification of millions of ballots.

More likely, however, is that he is following the playbook of Charlie Kane, pantomiming righteous indignation in an effort to conceal his shame over his personal shortcomings and general inadequacy as a politician and a human being.  Having devoted a lifetime to rhetorically dividing the world into “winners” and “losers,” yet now knowing he is very likely to lose on November 3, his concerted effort to preemptively tar the election as “rigged” and riddled with fraud is primarily his way of arguing that this particular loss won’t count—that his allegedly perfect record in life will remain intact.

That was the strategy in 2016, when he prospectively refused to accept an election result that saw Hillary Clinton as the victor.  Then, as now, he was apparently convinced he was toast, and seemed just as shocked as the rest of us when that assumption proved incorrect.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom among many of us is that Trump had no intention of being elected president in 2016; that his run was purely a negotiating tactic for some future TV deal; and that he frankly hates this job—or at least the parts that carry real responsibilities—and feels like he can’t get out of there fast enough.

In short, he’s trapped:  He wants desperately to be removed from the most burdensome office on planet Earth, but can’t bear the humiliation that such an eventuality would bring about. 

Hence “Fraud at Polls!”  In his mind, questioning the legitimacy of a presidential election is his only means of returning to private life without being branded a “loser” for the rest of his days, and if the legitimacy of American democracy itself needs to suffer for the sake of his Kilimanjaro-sized ego, so be it.

Four years ago, the punchline was that Trump’s lose-at-all-costs strategy turned into a remake of The Producers.  If Trump truly intends to model 2020 on Citizen Kane, he would do well to find himself a Jed Leland—that is, a trusted friend who isn’t afraid to tell him uncomfortable truths that he doesn’t want to hear.

Admittedly, that didn’t work out too well for Leland (Joseph Cotton) in the long run. Following a series of personal and professional differences, he and Kane go their separate ways. In their final interaction, you’ll recall, after Leland asks if they’re still on speaking terms, Kane responds with two words:

“You’re fired.”

Lying in Wait

“Lookin’ for what’s comin’.”

“Yeah, but no one ever sees that.”

That exchange comes late into “No Country For Old Men,” and pretty neatly sums up my general state of mind here in the waning days of the 2020 presidential campaign.

With barely two weeks until Election Day and more than 20 million ballots already cast—all while a once-in-a-century epidemiological plague shows every indication of going, yet again, from bad to catastrophic—we mere citizens are locked in a psychological holding pattern whereby we know that a series of extraordinarily consequential things are about to happen, but not what the nature of those events will be.

Ours is a moment pregnant with anticipation and dread, and all we can do—to quote the opening narration of “Casablanca”—is “wait…and wait…and wait.”

Regarding the election, the polls more-or-less speak for themselves.  Since the September 29 debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump (I didn’t watch it, but I understand it didn’t go terribly well for the president), Biden has established a near-double-digit lead over the incumbent nationally, with comfortable advantages in every swing state that matters (and in a handful that don’t).

By every rational metric, the former vice president is sitting pretty, and it would take a plot twist of monumental proportions to prevent Trump from being the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush.

Having lived through 2016, we would be derelict not to speculate on what that plot twist might be.  Having lived through 2017, 2018, 2019 and most of 2020, we would be foolhardy to presume that our speculations are correct.

Since history is nothing if not ironic, the most linear such development would be for Biden—despite all his precautions—to contract COVID-19 and die.  Since history is also tragic, there is equally the prospect of yet another explosion of racial violence in the streets of a major city—if not several of them—allowing Trump to roll out his “law and order” shtick one last time.  If all else fails, the FBI will simply uncover a secret trove of Biden e-mails—not unlike the ones Rudy Giuliani trotted out last week—that show the Democratic nominee to be either irredeemably corrupt…or not.

But of course, those are the sorts of October surprises that require no imagination whatsoever.  Should the final moments of the 2020 election truly mirror the postmodern absurdity of 2016—to say nothing of the bottomless well of miseries that have characterized the first 10 months of 2020 itself—we can only assume that a Trump victory on November 3, should it occur, will be the result of an incident so bizarre and ridiculous that gaming it out in advance would be an exercise in both futility and madness.  Sooner or later, one must acknowledge one’s powerlessness in the broad sweep of human events.

Then there’s the small matter of COVID-19—a virus that has killed 218,000 Americans since March and, according to some models, will kill roughly the same number between now and the end of the year.  As we speak, daily national infection rates are reaching levels as dire as at any point since the pandemic began, and with temperatures falling and opportunities for physically-distanced outdoor activities gradually drying up, it seems all but inevitable that we’re in for one hell of a winter—a season of sickness and death like we haven’t seen since 1918, and for which—either despite or because of what we went through last spring—we are not mentally prepared.

Nor, for that matter, are we necessarily prepared in any other respect. 

Case in point: My family spent Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day Weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, and while the overwhelming majority of our fellow vacationers were following the protocols on face masks—something that could not quite be said when we visited the island in June—we were taken slightly aback by the number of restaurants offering indoor dining service and—more to the point—the number of patrons who took advantage of it.  How, for instance, customers at the venerable Black Dog Tavern were forgoing the spacious, half-empty outdoor patio to instead wait 40 minutes for a cramped, stuffy table inside. 

While I am confident the Black Dog and others were in compliance with state regulations (such as they are), I am equally confident that congregating in confined indoor spaces with strangers during a plague—and at the start of flu season, no less—is precisely the wrong behavior for us Americans to be engaging in, however enjoyable it might be in the moment.

Should the long-dreaded second wave of COVID come—as few doubt it will—I expect those images of happy brunchers will linger in my mind in much the same way as the pictures of jam-packed South Boston bars on St. Patrick’s Day on the eve of Round 1.  Now, as then, we understand the risks of close physical contact in the presence of a contagious and potentially deadly disease, and we have decided—if only sparingly—that, for the sake of our own sanity, we’ll roll the dice for as long as we can get away with it.

What’s the worst that could happen?

We’ll find out soon enough.

Curtains

I remember exactly where I was when I knew that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election.

It was the evening of Friday, October 7.  I was sitting in my car in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, headed home after a long day of work.  At a red light, I checked the Huffington Post on my phone and saw the blaring headline, “Grab ‘Em By the Pussy.”

That phrase was, of course, a reference to the now-legendary “Access Hollywood” audio recording from 2005, in which then-TV personality Donald Trump boasted to Billy Bush that his celebrity allowed him to sexually molest women to his heart’s desire without consequence.  With the election one month away and Trump already trailing Clinton badly in the polls, the revelation that the famously promiscuous reality show host had casually and proudly admitted to committing sex crimes was the final nail in the coffin that was Trump’s flailing presidential campaign.  There was no way in hell he could recover from that.

As such, I rested quite easy that weekend, including at a cousin’s birthday party on Sunday, where my uniformly left-wing extended family agreed that the election was effectively over and Trump was toast.  And of course, we all went to bed on November 8 in the knowledge of just how right we were.

Until last week, I’m not sure I had even once felt that sense of overwhelming relief again—that blissful feeling that Donald Trump will exit the national consciousness in relatively short order and everything will be just fine in the end.  Despite his consistently low approval ratings throughout his term in office and his seemingly pathological propensity for self-destruction, Trump has shown a freakish ability throughout his life to bounce back from even the most profound personal setbacks, and I had long presumed he would be re-elected in 2020, if for no other reason than to fulfill I.F. Stone’s theory that history is a tragedy, not a morality tale.

But then the president got infected with a virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans since March, and suddenly a world without him at the forefront became a live and imminent possibility for the first time in four years.  Hearing the news early on October 2 that Trump had tested positive for COVID-19—a disease he had spent the entire year downplaying, if not ignoring altogether—I was overcome with the very same sensation that hit me almost exactly four years prior:  Here, at long last, was the moment that his campaign for the presidency crashed and burned once and for all.

To be clear, this impression was predicated not on the virus literally killing him—a remote possibility, given his resources—so much as on the profound irony of a man whose success depends entirely on generating his own reality being forced to either confront reality as it actually exists…or to die.

Certainly, if the polls are to be believed—as perhaps they shouldn’t be—Trump’s prospects of victory in November were slim long before his alarming diagnosis.  However, so long as the president could consign COVID-19 to the political backburner—insisting, as he did, that it really wasn’t a big deal—there was every possibility he could seize on some other issue that might redound to his advantage—as he did with “law and order” throughout the summer—and allow him to squeeze out 270 electoral votes on November 3.

However, now that the president is at the mercy of a virus that doesn’t give a damn about the electoral calendar—and whose infiltration into his body was made all but inevitable by his irresponsible, cavalier behavior—it is simply inconceivable that the remaining weeks of the 2020 campaign will be defined by anything other than the plague that has ravaged the globe unceasingly since the waning days of 2019.  After all, even if Trump himself recovers from COVID in record time, basic epidemiological protocol demands he physically wall himself off from other people—including his throngs of screaming supporters—for at least another 10 days, at which point his tepid popularity among swing voters may well have eroded beyond the point of no return.

No question about it:  With less than four weeks until Election Day and millions already voting by mail, there is every indication that this race is effectively over, and that Donald Trump will go down in dramatic, ignominious defeat.

Just like in 2016.

Midnight Justice

The first thing to note about President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.  I know this because Abigail Adams told me so.

In a letter to President Thomas Jefferson on July 1, 1804, the former first lady wrote, “The Constitution empowers the president to fill up offices as they become vacant.  It was in the exercise of this power that appointments were made, and Characters selected whom Mr. Adams considered, as Men faithful to the Constitution and where he personally knew them, such as were capable of fulfilling their duty to their country.”

As with all matters pertaining to the relationship between Jefferson and the Adams family, the subtext of this letter is juicier than it has any right to be.

In the presidential election of 1800—arguably still the dirtiest ever fought—Jefferson resoundingly defeated the incumbent, John Adams, with whom he had formed an ironclad partnership in the summer of 1776 but had gradually drifted apart from ever since. 

In the four months between the election and Inauguration Day—at that time, presidents were sworn in on March 4—Adams, as a “lame duck,” continued his official duties, which included making numerous appointments to the federal judiciary—thenceforth known as the “midnight judges”—the most significant of which was the nomination of his secretary of state, John Marshall, as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Marshall was confirmed by the Senate in January—mere weeks before the new president took office—and went on to rule the nation’s highest court for the next 34 years.  Today, he is regarded by most historians and legal experts as the single most influential Supreme Court justice in the history of the United States, with a legacy that included regularly thwarting the agenda of political adversaries from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson.

As it happens, Abigail Adams’s 1804 letter was in response to a letter in which Jefferson wrote, “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure.  I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind. […] It seemed but common justice to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own choice.”

In effect, through this 216-year-old correspondence, Adams and Jefferson found themselves engaging in the exact same debate that we may well find ourselves in the coming months:  Is a lame duck president entitled to make whatever appointments he deems necessary, or does he owe a certain deference to the will of an electorate that has loudly and clearly opted not to grant him a second term?

On the matter of Amy Coney Barrett, there is no argument to be had that the Constitution empowers Donald Trump to fill a Supreme Court vacancy at this particular moment in the space-time continuum.  Having been duly elected to a four-year term in 2016 and not yet felled by his current opponent, Joe Biden, Trump is free to do whatever Congress allows, and can be counted upon to do so.

The question is what happens between November 3 and January 20, should Trump lose re-election—a period during which, like John Adams, he would retain maximal power while maintaining minimal legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Regarding Barrett, what happens if the Senate waits to confirm her until after the election, then proceeds to install her on the high court following a Joe Biden victory?  Will America view Barrett as an illegitimate justice, particularly if several of the Republican senators who vote for her lose their own re-elections, as well?  Will Barrett spend the next three or four decades of her life with an asterisk floating above her head at all times, and if so, will she herself be okay with that?

To that final question, the cynical answer is most definitely yes.  Just as every senator looks in the mirror each morning and sees a future president, so does every federal judge imagine herself one day sitting on the Supreme Court.  Whether those who ascend to that job in a cloud of controversy have any moral qualms is between them and their consciences, but the practical fact is that every justice’s vote counts equally, and once seated, a justice can be removed only through impeachment, retirement or death.

As we learned from John Marshall—America’s original midnight judge—history can be shaped quite dramatically by public officials whose very presence in the arena arose under constitutionally shaky circumstances. And as we know, history only moves in one direction.

Of course, there’s one way all of these questions could be resolved in one fell swoop: 

Trump could be re-elected.