A Serious Man

If there is any single factor to explain the popularity of Bernie Sanders, it would probably be his utter lack of affect.

Here is a man, after all, who opened his official campaign announcement by saying, “I’m happy to take a few questions, but we don’t have an endless amount of time.”

A man who, for some reason, doesn’t ever seem in possession of a comb, or a campaign staffer who could spot him one.  (A trait he weirdly shares with the incorrigible mayor of London, Boris Johnson.)

A man who has apparently held the same core political views his entire adult life, and espouses them in the same manner whether he’s speaking to one person or to a crowd of thousands, and without any evident regard for how many—or how few—of his fellow citizens agree with him.

In short, Bernie Sanders is the real thing:  A presidential candidate who can be taken at face value, and whose entire political fortunes rest on the strength or weakness of his ideas.

He is an entirely substance-based candidate, containing nary a whiff of hot air.  In the present climate, how very fortunate we are to have him.

To be sure, we find candidates like this every election cycle—men we lionize for their “authenticity” and “straight talk.”

But Sanders’ authenticity exists on a level all its own, and his presence in the race demonstrates just how false the other would-be straight-shooters actually are.

Let us begin (as we must) with Donald Trump, the runaway favorite among likely GOP voters.  By now, it is generally agreed—by Republicans and the media alike—that the appeal of Trump, such as it is, owes to his penchant for saying exactly what he thinks in the bluntest way possible, without any filter or sense of political correctness.  In other words, people admire him for telling it like it is.

Horse feathers.  People admire Trump because he says racist, inflammatory things about immigrants and allows white people to think of themselves as victims.  Period.

His fan base cannot claim to care primarily about “issues” or “the truth,” since Trump has barely said a word about any issue, and whenever he has, his claims have shown to be greatly exaggerated, if not outright false.

If Trump proves anything, it’s that speaking directly from the gut is not an inherently welcome tack after all.  Sometimes it just means you’re an intemperate jerk, and I’m not sure how helpful that would be for someone with access to the nuclear codes.

Then there’s Chris Christie, who was the GOP’s reigning straight talker before Trump parachuted into the tent.  While not quite as crude or shameless, Christie’s image as an honest messenger of hard truths is exactly that:  An image.

Rather than speaking plainly for its own sake, Christie is forever in pursuit of reminding us how politically heroic he is behaving whenever he finds himself in some scuffle or other within New Jersey politics.  Whatever the issue, he cannot help making it about him rather than the principles involved.  He always frames the debate as “me vs. them,” rather than right vs. wrong.

In this way, Christie shares with Trump that most obnoxious, yet alluring, strategy of reducing everything to personalities.  Listen to both men long enough, and you’ll notice how often both resort to ad hominem—attacking the person instead of the idea.

(Recall the moment during “Bridgegate,” for instance, when Christie defended himself against former ally and schoolmate David Wildstein by saying, “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school.  You know, I was the class president and athlete.  I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”)

Compared to all this childishness, Bernie Sanders’ candor is a difference of kind, not degree.

Like Christie, et al, Sanders has rooted his candidacy in telling difficult truths that voters might not want to hear—namely, that the whole American economy is rigged to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.  Unlike those clowns, Sanders affects no particular ego in doing so.  Yes, he believes he’s right and believes it strongly, but you get no sense that his views are shaped or clouded by his ambition for high office, or by any outsized sense of his own awesomeness.

Indeed, if being elected president were all he was interested in, he wouldn’t dare ruffle the feathers of America’s ruling class, whom he may well need to adequately fund his campaign, and whose lack of support may well make his nomination impossible.

By ruffling away, Sanders is challenging the theory that money controls elections more than people.  That if your campaign is not supported by a super PAC and/or a few well-placed billionaires, then you don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning.  Should Sanders manage to secure the nomination in the teeth of such institutional hurdles, it would be a glorious day for democracy.

In the meantime, we would do well to ponder a related, and no less crucial, query:  Is America ready to elect a serious person for president?

When I say “serious,” I mean it in both senses of the word:  Serious in intent, but also in disposition.

By all means, Barack Obama was a serious candidate in 2008, insomuch as he ran on a credible platform of changing the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., and reversing several major Bush administration policies.

At the same time, Obama was utterly game to mix it up on late night TV—appearing on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live at key moments—and to indulge, however reluctantly, the media’s inevitable excesses all through his presidency.  He has always been willing to bask in his status as a cultural icon, and to milk his personal popularity for all it’s worth.  And he ain’t half-bad at doing it.

Sanders, meanwhile—with his laser-like focus on the plight of the working class—imparts very little in the way of a sense of humor.  While not entirely without wit or an engaging speaking style, Sanders doesn’t seem to care about the personality aspect of the campaigning process—what Obama has long referred to as “silly season.”

Case in point:  Sanders was asked recently in an interview, “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?”  His response:  “I don’t mean to be rude here.  I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK?  Do you have serious questions?”

In fact, the interviewer was raising the perfectly legitimate concern that female candidates are scrutinized for their looks in a way that male candidates are not—a point Sanders later conceded and called “absolutely wrong.”  But Sanders’ initial reaction to the question stands as an instructive window into his psyche.

Above all, it makes absolutely clear that he has no patience for side issues.  He entered this race because he wants to close the gap between America’s ruling rich and powerless poor, and he simply doesn’t have time for the media’s asinine detours into frivolous nonsense.

The real question is:  Are the rest of us grown up enough to follow his lead?

Every time a new election rolls around, we implore our candidates to be frank with us about everything that’s wrong with our country and what it’ll take to fix it.  “Give it to me straight, senator.”

But then, when we actually get those candidates, we panic and run away in horror—right into the arms of someone with a big, glittering smile and the assurance that everything is just fine.

In truth, as voters we are attracted to characters, not ideas.  In this way, finding a president is a bit like finding a lover:  We have all these abstract notions of what our perfect match will look like, but in the end we fall for an individual—someone who, more often than not, bares little resemblance to what we thought we were looking for in the first place.

For Democrats this year, Bernie Sanders would seem to be the best of both worlds:  He subscribes to Democratic Party orthodoxy on virtually (if not literally) every issue and he is willing to defend those principles without equivocation or fear.

The only concern, then, is this nebulous concept we call “electability.”

As Democratic voters would have it, Sanders represents everything they’d ever want in a nominee—not least a president—except they’re just not sure he’d be able to sell himself to enough non-Democrats to carry the election next November.

It makes sense enough, as far as political strategery goes.  But it nonetheless begs the question:  If Sanders is a near-perfect distillation of what your party stands for, yet you’re afraid to actually nominate him, what does that say about your party?

It’s easy enough to condemn the entire GOP on the basis of its disgusting infatuation with you-know-who.  But that doesn’t mean Democrats should let themselves off the hook, for they, too, must come to terms with what their team represents in the America of 2016.

The apparent fear within the Democratic ranks is that America is just never going to vote for a self-identified socialist for president.

You know, just like how America will never vote for a black person like Barack Obama.

Or a Catholic like John Kennedy.

Or a populist like Franklin Roosevelt, whose harebrained commie proposal known as “social security” would surely have proved ruinous to our very way of life.  What a great relief that we re-elected Herbert Hoover instead.

The truth is that, under the right circumstances, Americans are prepared to anoint pretty much anybody to the top job in the land.  There was even that time we went with a divorced former movie actor, because, hey, what’s the worst that could happen?

Either Bernie Sanders is right for the times or he’s not.  In the fullness of time, we’ll know for sure.

But what a shame it would be if—long before we reach that point—his own party writes him off as an impossible dream rather than a plausible reality.

The Reckoning

Last week, after more than a year of procrastinating, I finally brought myself to read “The Case for Reparations,” the epic feature story by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

I was aware of the piece almost from the moment it went to press—this provocative argument about what black Americans are owed by white Americans here in the second decade of the 21st century—but somehow I kept putting it off.

I’d like to think that this was merely an act of laziness.  I am a slow, easily-distracted reader, and Coates’ story runs 16,000 words—ten times longer than anything I’ve ever written here.  Even for someone with all the time in the world, that’s an awful lot to digest—especially for such a weighty, depressing subject.

In any case, I certainly didn’t think I was afraid of—or would be surprised by—what Coates (or anyone) might say on the matter of reparations.  As a reasonably-educated, mildly intelligent white liberal, I am in no immediate danger of overlooking the fact that what white Americans did to black Americans from the early 17th century until 1865 constituted one of the greatest injustices in all of human history—a crime that has yet to be fully rectified, either in word or in deed.

But of course I was wrong.  I was wrong, first, about the extent to which slavery’s tentacles extended beyond the institution’s formal cessation via the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  But most of all, I was wrong in my assumption—shared by virtually every white person in America—that the call for formal reparations is primarily, if not exclusively, about slavery itself.

Not in the least.  Among all of our country’s race-based crimes, the trade, ownership, exploitation and torture of some 10 million-plus human beings was certainly the worst of it, but it wasn’t all of it, and it wasn’t the end of it.

As Coates has exhaustively documented, black people, as a group, have been subject to offenses by their government—in our lifetimes—that can concretely and incontrovertibly be defined as theft—that is, the malicious and deliberate taking of money and property, done through a system that simply did not view African-Americans as equal citizens and, as such, offered them no meaningful legal protection or means of redress.  If any would-be victim tried to fight back, the state’s weapon of choice was terrorism.

In no area of life were these practices more rampant than in housing.  Following the travails of a handful of individuals—some of them still alive today—Coates shows how the practice of “redlining” created a society after World War II in which black people were segregated from white people by design.  Even in major northern cities—Chicago being the most notorious—black people were systemically denied the low-rate mortgages and lines of credit that white Americans would come to regard as a birthright and a ticket to the American dream in the second half of the 20th century.  That’s to say nothing of the outright lying and thievery that real estate sharks would exercise against their black customers who, by circumstance, had no other option.  The consequences of this system remain with us to this day, most strikingly in the country’s wealth gap.  (A 2011 study estimated that the average white family has nearly 16 times as much total wealth as the average black family.)

Housing discrimination is probably the least-known, least-understood component of America’s history of institutional racism, and that is what makes Coates’ illumination of it so valuable.  Up to now, I’m sure I had some vague notion that, with housing—as with everything else—black people have been given a raw deal by their government.  With Coates’ narrative, I now have a much clearer idea of exactly what that raw deal entailed, how deliberate and unjust it was, and—here we approach the main point—how it left white America with a debt that it has every obligation to pay.

Having digested “The Case for Reparations,” paired with everything I thought I already knew on this subject, I now find it impossible not to take the idea seriously.  In point of fact, America has not squared itself with its past.  Slavery and Jim Crow were not just something that happened a long time ago that we can forget all about.  White Americans and black Americans today are not operating on a level playing field, and each of us is not blameless for the perpetuation of an inequitable society.

Certainly, many Americans feel just the opposite about some, if not all, of these points.  They think institutional racism is a relic of a bygone era, that blacks and whites have long been treated as equal under the law and that no further action is needed to rectify the sins of the past.

My hunch is that none of these people has read Coates’ article—or any other piece that has made similar arguments—and that if they did, they would be far less cavalier in their claim that everything is just fine.

It is seductive to think that white people absolved themselves of any guilt about racism with the 13th Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s and the election of Barack Obama.  In reality, it is absurd.

Imagine, if you will, that some bully stole your lunch money every day from kindergarten through 12th grade—beating the living daylights out of you whenever you resisted—and that you went hungry as a result.  Then, the day after graduating high school, the bully approaches you, says he feels bad about being such a jerk and asks, “Now we’re even, right?”  Then, when you lodge a complaint to the superintendent about those 12 years of abuse and exploitation, the superintendent says, “Yeah, we told him to do that, ‘cause we needed the cash.  But no hard feelings.”  Finally, you appeal to the full school board for a refund of all the money that was stolen from you, and they respond, “Let’s not get carried away.  Shouldn’t you just be happy the beatings have stopped?”

Multiply that by several million, and you begin to understand just how hollow it sounds to say that the United States owes nothing further to its black citizens and that slavery and racial inequality ended on the same day in 1865.

It’s a cruel paradox:  The crimes that whites have committed against blacks are so all-encompassing, so long-lasting—so evil—that they could not possibly be rectified in full, and this has somehow led us to conclude that we needn’t rectify them at all.

(To be clear:  There is a massive difference between atoning for a sin and merely resolving not to commit it anymore.)

It may seem a stretch to assert that each of us is personally culpable for this national moral failure.  That is, until we reflect—for instance—on the gazillion times we’ve called ourselves “proud to be American.”  Or on the myriad ways we lionize people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who each owned hundreds of slaves and didn’t lift a finger to give them a better life.  Or the fact that we nominate presidential candidates who make a point of “not apologizing for America,” insisting that there is nothing to apologize for.

Oh, really?

We all know Edmund Burke’s observation, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  In that spirit, it stands to reason that every time any of us fails to notice the crimes that have been committed by our government, in our name, we are indeed guilty of doing nothing to stop evil from ruling the day.

To say you are “proud” to live in a country with our dismal record on civil rights means you are either a) spectacularly ignorant, or b) extraordinarily selective about which aspects of America you choose to recognize.

To say the United States doesn’t owe anyone an apology—well, that just makes you an idiot.

I say this as someone who regularly harps on about how incredibly awesome the United States is, as far as world superpowers go.  We are the country that popularized such revolutionary ideas as self-government, free expression, trial by jury and the all-you-can-eat buffet.  At its best, the United States represents the highest ideals of human achievement, and I am as thrilled as ever that I wasn’t born anywhere else.

At the same time, however, I am not a naïve, jingoistic nincompoop.  I know unconscionable hypocrisy when I see it, and I can hold two opposing ideas in my head at the same time—as, apparently, can the nation as a whole.

Our country’s greatness does not make up for our country’s crimes—not any more than Bill Cosby’s comedy makes up for his apparently bottomless capacity to drug and rape young women.

The white population of America cannot systemically rob and murder the black population of America for 350 years and then expect absolution by saying, “Sorry about that—won’t happen again.”

Something more needs to be done.  Sooner or later, it will.

It’s anybody’s guess what form this “something” will ultimately take.  In his article, Coates alerts us to a House bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, which would create a commission to study the issue and sort all of this out.  That would surely be better than nothing.

Over the years, numerous calculations have been done to estimate the total monetary amount that black people have been deprived—directly and indirectly—as a result of slavery and other forms of white supremacy.  Adjusted for inflation, some of these estimates are roughly equal to our country’s annual GDP.  To be honest, I’m not sure whether such a figure is too much or too little, but it’s certainly high enough to give us a moment’s pause.

Many say that any real discussion about reparations would be pointlessly divisive, perhaps only exasperating racial tensions at a time when that particular hornet’s nest needn’t be poked any more than it already has.  That may well be true, although we certainly have no evidence for it, seeing as the discussion has never truly been attempted.

Considering how racial tensions tend to occur whether we invite them or not—or, to be specific, whenever certain white people behave terribly—I wonder if such fears are overblown, and whether the result might be just the opposite.

Were the Congress to undertake an objective, honest accounting of the costs of white supremacy on black (and white) America, it would—for one thing—have the effect of informing our fair citizenry of just how bad the damage has been.  It would provide a context for our current racial unrest in a manner that no single event ever could.  It would force white people to confront their prejudices and assumptions about what black people are owed by their government and—dare I say—engender a modicum of empathy that might lead us to treat each other just a little bit better.

A Great Big Heart

If you regularly tune in to contemporary FM radio, you may soon come across a pretty little love song called “Hold Each Other” by the New York-based duo A Great Big World.  Keep an ear out:  If the melody doesn’t get your attention, the lyrics probably will.

It begins innocently enough:  The usual business about some girl who sets the singer’s heart aflutter.  “I was trapped inside a dream / I couldn’t see her next to me / I didn’t know she’d set me free.”  And so forth.

However, when we get to verse number two, something weird happens.  The voice on the record is different—but still clearly male—and the object of his affections is no longer a “she.”

“Something happens when I hold him / he keeps my heart from getting broken / when the days get short and the nights get a little bit frozen / we hold each other.”

Following a bridge containing no gender references either way, we return to the original vocalist and his initial female love interest:  “Something happens when I hold her / she keeps my heart from getting older.”  Fade out.

Happening upon this song for the first time, I assumed that whole middle part was just my imagination.  However, upon further investigation, I discovered that—lo and behold—my ears were working just fine.

The band behind the record, A Great Big World, is a pair of millennials named Ian Axel and Chad King.  They are known (if at all) for the heartfelt but slightly nauseating ballad “Say Something” featuring Christina Aguilera, but have otherwise kept themselves pretty well under wraps outside of their immediate fan base.

Accordingly, it had probably not been widely known that one of them, Chad, is gay.  (Ian is not.)  Although they divide singing and songwriting duties equally and their repertoire contains a fair share of love songs, Chad has opted not to draw attention to his homosexuality in his work because, well, that’s just how he is.

With “Hold Each Other”—the first single from the group’s forthcoming second album—he decided to do away with any such reservations and, perhaps for the first time, sing what he really feels.

Hence the song’s unusual linguistic structure, with Ian crooning about “her” and “she” at the beginning and end, while Chad waxes about “him” and “he” in between.

It’s a minor breakthrough in American popular music, and a triumph for humanity in so many different ways.

Certainly, this is nowhere near the first instance of a pop artist singing about his or her love for someone of the same sex.  Indeed, it was only this past February when Sam Smith won a bucketful of Grammys for a hit song, “Stay With Me,” that was based on a relationship with another man—a point Smith charmingly underlined in one of his many acceptance speeches that evening.

On the other hand, you wouldn’t necessarily know “Stay With Me” is about a same-sex encounter simply from listening to it.  The song contains no gender-specific pronouns and, if sung by a heterosexual about someone of the opposite sex, it would still make perfect sense.

Indeed, perform a sample survey of all the love songs written over, say, the last five or six decades, and you’ll find that a considerable chunk of them follow this same pattern, containing lyrics so general that they could—without changing a word—be sung by anyone, for anyone, irrespective or sex or orientation.

This leads us to an obvious yet critically important point, which is that love itself is universal.  Whatever form it takes, the need for an emotional and physical connection to another person is that rare trait that transcends every boundary across the human race.  The capacity to love and be loved in return is part of what makes us human in the first place.

Bearing this in mind, we might well ask if it even matters whether the pronouns and minutiae of a particular tune correspond to those of the person listening to it, or whether that’s irrelevant to how strongly the song resonates.  If love is love, then what’s the difference if the gender designations don’t completely match up?

It’s not such an easy question, especially when considered in a broader cultural context.  After all, the entire premise of the gay rights movement—and the central argument for legalizing same-sex marriage—is that gay love and straight love are fundamentally the same thing.  Once this fact was established once and for all, and marriage was seen as being rooted in love and commitment above all else, the case for restricting the institution to heterosexuals ceased to make any moral or legal sense.

Now that Team Gay has essentially won that argument—with a major assist by the U.S. Supreme Court—we have the breathing room to wonder if there is, in fact, something different about being gay and in love compared to the alternative.  Having convinced the world that our crazy emotional quirks are as deserving of respect as everyone else’s—no more, no less—are we now going to turn right around and claim that we are special?

To a degree, yes, we are.

Recent studies have concluded that, at best, maybe 3-5 percent of the world’s population is attracted exclusively to people of the same sex.  This is not going to change.  While the steadily growing acceptance of gay folks by straight folks has profoundly transformed and improved the day-to-day lives of the former (and the latter), the fact remains that same-sex attraction is a statistical oddity whose participants will always be severely outnumbered and, inevitably, feel a little off-kilter about their emotional inner wiring every now and again.

In other words, although the essence of gay relationships is identical to that of straight ones, the fact of being in this tiny minority—one whose very existence has never quite been explained or justified—means that the gay experience will never be taken for granted in artistic media the way the straight experience has.  There will only ever be so many openly gay musicians to tell this story, leaving those precious few who need to hear it with far less material in their iTunes libraries than they would like.

Which is all to say that, when a gay listener hears a gifted male vocalist croon matter-of-factly about the man who stole his heart—well, it’s kind of a big deal.

As it happens, “Hold Each Other” did not initially include the switch from female to male pronouns from one verse to the next.  It was only when Ian, the straight half of A Great Big World, asked Chad, “How are you going to sing this honestly?” that they decided to tweak the words as they did.  Chad himself was skeptical at first, saying in a recent interview, “My whole singing life, I’ve always wanted to sing about girls […] just because it’s what people do.  It’s what the pop world is like.”

However, once he realized that Ian had a point—that singing about loving a woman would ring false in an art form that’s supposed to be about honesty and truth—he knew that he didn’t have a choice.  If you’re not willing to come to terms with who you really are, then what’s the point of being an artist?

Indeed, what’s the use of living at all if you spend your time pretending to be someone else?

Reflecting on his 20-odd years of fighting for same-sex marriage in the United States, the blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2012, “The point of the gay rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay.  It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”

It’s a distinction that is narrow but deep.  You see, it’s not just about gays having the freedom to watch Glee and listen to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame.  It’s also about straight people watching Glee and listening to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame—or gay people playing football, joining the army or engaging in any other “straight” activity.  It’s about pursuing your own happiness and interests without concern for what other people—or you—might think.

Opponents of the gay rights movement often carp about how gay people should not be entitled to “special” rights and privileges.  They are absolutely correct.  Like black people, women and every other historically marginalized group, gay people ask nothing more than to be treated like everyone else.  Because, as it turns out, we are like everyone else.

A song like “Hold Each Other”—which allows both of its singer-songwriters to express themselves on their own terms—demonstrates both the hope for and the flowering of this radical idea that we call equality.  If a reserved male singer can summon the nerve to mention that the object of his affection is a guy—and if the rest of the world can accept that, yes, sometimes this does really happen—it means the efforts of the past half-century have not been in vain.

The truth is that, for the gay community, the pronouns do matter.  After a lifetime of listening to music about heterosexual relationships and having to do the gender conversions in our heads, to hear a song that does the work for us is both a relief and an affirmation:  A hopeful, understated validation that says, “You are not alone.”

The Entertainer

Quick question:  Is there is any meaningful difference between Sarah Palin and Donald Trump?

There are probably a few distinctions worth mentioning.  Several billion dollars in net worth, for one.  Palin is (or was) a career politician, while Trump has never been elected to anything.  Palin has held unyieldingly conservative views her entire adult life, while Trump has oscillated back and forth as it has suited him.  Palin stars in reality TV shows, while Trump only hosts them.

On the whole, however, I am increasingly finding the two Republican stars interchangeable.  The longer our present Trump hysteria persists, the more it conjures déjà vu for that period in 2008 when, thanks to John McCain, America was presented with a singular political phenomenon it could not ignore, however hard it tried.

Specifically, I have decided to approach the Trump question as comedian Lewis Black approached Palin.  Asked in 2010 about his estimation of the one-time Alaska governor, Black quipped, “What I believe is she’s actually not real.  That’s the only way my mind can deal with it, that she’s a fiction character come to life.”

Sounds about right to me.

Donald Trump may technically be a living, breathing human being—in possession of some semblance of a heart and brain—but to the tens of millions of us observing the presidential race from our respective couches, he is, for all intents and purposes, a cartoon character.  A TV-based caricature whose presence has no relationship to reality and who will never, ever, ever be elected president.

This has been true from the moment in 2011 when Trump, disposing of whatever dignity he had left, publicly converted to Birtherism by expressing doubt as to whether President Obama was born in the United States.  Then, none of us actually took his rantings seriously, but we happily imbibed them nonetheless, because, hey, we all need to indulge our guilty pleasures now and then.

Now, of course, the circumstances are slightly different, insomuch as Trump is running for president and is currently the highest-polling candidate in the Republican primary field.

But here’s the weird thing:  We still don’t take him seriously.

If I may be allowed a prediction:  Should he win the nomination, we won’t take him seriously then, either.

And if he is elected president?  To quote Basil Fawlty:  “We’ll worry about that when we come to it, shall we?”

Of course he won’t win the nomination, let alone the keys to Air Force One.  Up to now, his candidacy has been built on a foundation of sheer chutzpah, blissfully bereft of anything in the way of policy prescriptions, intellectual maturity or basic ideological coherence.  While plenty of candidates have succeeded with one or other of those characteristics, Trump would be the first to pull off the hat trick.

But he won’t, because sooner or later, the utter ridiculousness of his existence will cease being a mixture of hilarious and appalling and be merely appalling, and his whole act will just plain get old.  Sure, in the future he may experiment with actual legislative proposals—launching a drone war against China, perhaps?—but there is little evidence that this would have much effect on his core fans, who seem perfectly content with the substance-free specimen they have now.

A word about those supporters.

In most recent opinion polls, Trump is gobbling up endorsements from 20-25 percent of registered Republican voters—more than any of his competitors by far.

But let us realize how insignificant this data point actually is.  According to Gallop, 23 percent of Americans today identify as Republicans.  (Democrats are 28 percent and independents are 46 percent.)  While it is certainly impressive for anyone to carry 25 percent support in a 17-person field, when we talk about one-fourth of GOP voters, we are only talking about one-fourth of one-fourth of the total American electorate.

Which means—if my calculations are correct—that, for all our shock and awe at Trump’s supposedly amazing popularity, the enthusiasm in question is felt by little more than one-sixteenth of all American voters—an amount that would be negligible if it referred to any other subject about which pollsters might bother to inquire.

We might refer to Trump supporters as a fringe group.  Statistically-speaking, they are.  Indeed, their number is less than half the percentage of those who currently approve of the U.S. Congress.  (Presumably there is minimal overlap between the two.)

So when we—and especially our media—continue to treat this cretin as if he were a legitimate political figure, we are just being lazy, selfish hedonists.

We follow Trump’s antics for the same reason we eat junk food:  Because it provides a temporary rush of pure primal pleasure, followed by a crushing sense of shame, guilt and emptiness, which in turn can only be cured with…more junk food!

No one in the journalism profession genuinely thinks Trump is worth covering.  They cover him anyway—and we tune in—because of how morally superior it makes us feel.  We see a grown man behaving like a petulant child and we think, “Well, I may not be rich or famous, but at least I’m not a complete jerk.”

Trump’s campaign has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with distracting ourselves from the deadly serious matters that, sooner or later, we will have to confront for real.

For now, it’s all one giant freak show, and—you know what?—we might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

In a priceless new Rolling Stone  article titled, “Inside the GOP Clown Car,” Matt Taibbi argues that we probably shouldn’t be so flippant and blasé about Trump’s total media saturation, since its perpetuation could lead, in Taibbi’s words, to “the collapse of the United States as a global superpower.”  Not to mention the generally poisonous atmosphere that his comments about women and immigrants have unleashed.

I see very little to worry about.  The environment that Trump hath wrought is ugly now, but it will pass soon enough, and equilibrium will return to our system as it always does.

I began with a comparison to Sarah Palin because I think her own character arc is instructive here.

As you’ll recall, Palin totally shook up the 2008 race when she landed on the underside of the GOP ticket, galvanizing Republican voters with passionate speeches, snappy one-liners and her inspiring, wholesome family.

And then she lost the election by 8 ½ million votes, quit her job and was forever lampooned by Tina Fey and others because—oh, that’s right—she is a total flippin’ idiot.

Palin’s status as an unqualified clown is bleeding obvious to us now, but she made quite a mess before we finally, collectively, decided to treat her like the reality TV sideshow that she is.

With Trump, there are no ambiguities whatsoever.  We know exactly how absurd he is—it’s confirmed every time he opens his mouth—and if he remains a role model for a plurality of Republican voters then, well, that’s because they’re absurd, too.

The party will eventually snap out of it, if only out of self-preservation.  In our lifetimes, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have nominated a candidate so transparently unelectable who, all the while, held no particular political views and was openly detested by virtually every other official in his own party.

Naturally, Democrats are rooting for exactly that, and the liberal media have every reason to keep pretending that this man is a real story.

If I were a Republican voter, I would be horrified by this sordid state of affairs.  As it stands, I can’t imagine being more thankful that I’m not.

That is, unless the Donald somehow secures the nomination and selects a certain former Alaska governor as his running mate.

Not Just Cosby

What if Bill Clinton were a rapist?

It’s a thought that no liberal would ever want to consider, and I doubt many conservatives have spent much time with it, either.

We all know that America’s 42nd president is a serial philanderer—after all, we spent a full year forcing him to say so under oath—but we have always been able to console ourselves with the fact that, hey, at least it was consensual.  His relationships with Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, however tawdry, were each the work of two willing participants, even if one of them was president of the United States.

True, Paula Jones famously accused Clinton of making unwanted sexual advances toward her while he was governor of Arkansas, but a judge subsequently ruled that she had failed to prove her case, thereby allowing us to safely move on with our lives and go back to admiring Clinton as the political wunderkind and all-around good-old-boy that he is.  No harm, no foul.

Would that it were true.

Unfortunately, in the long, ridiculous saga of Bill Clinton’s sexual adventures with women who are not his wife, there is one woman in particular whose story, if true, would force us to reassess our whole perspective of this man who, 14 years removed from the presidency, is still arguably the most beloved living American politician, both here and abroad.

The woman’s name is Juanita Broaddrick.  In 1998, she asserted on Dateline NBC that in 1978—when she worked at a nursing home and Clinton was Arkansas’s attorney general—Clinton got her alone in a hotel room, held her down on the bed against her will and raped her.

This 1998 interview was the first time Broaddrick publicly accused Clinton of sexual assault, although several friends of hers knew about the alleged incident at the time.  The case never went to trial, and when Broaddrick attempted to sue the president for key documents, the case was thrown out by a judge.

While there was some coverage of this story when it first broke, Broaddrick was largely drowned out by the far juicier bombshell surrounding Monica Lewinsky, which was commanding the nation’s attention at roughly the same time.  As well, it certainly didn’t help that Broaddrick’s account contained inconsistencies that likely would have doomed her had she ever managed to drag the president into court.

And yet, to this day, Broaddrick has never recanted her story, Clinton hasn’t said a word in his defense except through his lawyers, and there is no conclusive evidence that Broaddrick’s allegation is false.  To the contrary, all available public records indicate that both she and Clinton were in the same town at the time of the alleged rape, and that Clinton had no official business on that day.  If there are any documents that would make Broaddrick’s story impossible, the Clinton camp hasn’t bothered to release them.

In summary:  A woman has accused Bill Clinton of rape and we have no definitive reason to doubt her.

The question, then, is why doesn’t anyone care?  Or, for that matter, why doesn’t anyone even know?

In this of all years, you’d think someone might be interested in the fact that one of the most powerful and adored men in politics might—just might—be a sexual predator.

After all, we are still smarting from the seemingly endless procession of women who claim—credibly—to have been sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, himself formerly the most revered of figures in the worlds of television and stand-up comedy.

As a culture, we have decided that it is no longer fashionable for a rich and powerful man to drug, assault or otherwise prey upon vulnerable women, and that when he is found to have done so, it is our duty to publicly shun him until the wheels of justice begin to churn or, failing that, until he’s dead.

And so I wonder:  Does this principle apply to all rich and powerful men, or just to Bill Cosby?

I understand that being accused of rape by 35 women is not the same as being accused by one.  There are only so many hours in the day for us to pillory America’s most serious sexual criminals, and priority must be given to those whose behavior is outright pathological.

On the other hand, if our underlying premises are that a) rape is bad, and b) rape by the powerful unto the weak is even worse, then by what possible rationale could we continue to pretend Juanita Broaddrick doesn’t exist and her accusation was never made?

Apart from their sheer size, what legitimacy do Cosby’s accusers possess that Clinton’s does not?  Why should we listen to the former but not the latter?  Do we only care about rape victims when they present as a group, rather than as individuals?  Or is it simply that we like Bill Clinton too much to entertain the notion that he might secretly be a monster?

On the whole, I suspect that most of us simply haven’t been aware of this story these past 17 years, just as most of us had no idea about the allegations against Cosby until a fellow comedian, Hannibal Buress, brought them to our attention.  While this fact is, itself, a major concern for anyone who wishes to protect victims of sexual assault, the far more troubling prospect is that a certain number of us were in the know about Clinton and have simply kept quiet.

You tell me:  What allows us to justify our silence in the face of compelling, if circumstantial, evidence?

Sure, we could simply assume that Broaddrick is lying.  That she is crazy, deluded or nursing some kind of grudge against Clinton for God knows what.

Historically, that’s what we’re accustomed to:  Blaming the victim, turning the accusation on its head, brushing off any rumors of impropriety against our political and cultural idols on the grounds that they couldn’t possibly be guilty, because what would that say about us?

We could ask why, if the rape really happened, Broaddrick waited two decades to say so publicly.  Except that, in today’s culture, the question answers itself.  If and when an unsuspecting, private person is sexually mistreated by a respected public figure—someone who, in this case, was the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official—would she not be right to assume that no one would believe her story, and that her life might be irreparably harmed by the ensuing media ruckus?

In any case, that’s what Broaddrick claimed at the time.  In light of how the Clintons have treated women who we know were telling the truth—calling them liars, stalkers and publicity hounds—it’s hard to argue with her logic.

Really, though, our problem is that we just don’t want it to be true.

We like our heroes as virtuous, two-dimensional demigods.  We don’t want to reckon with the fact that the people we admire are just as complicated as the rest of us, and even though we know, deep down, that they are—of course they are!—we cling to our illusions of perfection for as long as we possibly can.  And when it is suggested that these kings and queens of American culture are not just flawed, but criminally flawed, that’s when we stick our fingers in our ears and sing, “La, la, la, la, la!”

With Clinton, we have just enough reasonable doubt to keep our uneasiness at bay, plodding along as if everything is just fine.  Because, hey, maybe it is.

We had better hope so, for the sake of him, Broaddrick and the country at large.

But should we wake up one day and find that a certified liar and adulterer is also a sexual assailant—nearly two decades after the possibility was first floated—we would have no right to be surprised.

We have turned on backs on Cosby.  Are we prepared to do the same for Clinton?  Or do we need 34 more women to come forward before it dawns on us that something might be wrong?

The Gospel of Jon

Probably the biggest misconception about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is that it’s a satire of the daily news.

It’s not.  It’s a satire of news outlets and the comically inept ways in which they operate.

This has always and forever been the case with Stewart’s program, as it was for his predecessor, Craig Kilborn.  From the first, the whole idea of The Daily Show was to lampoon and exaggerate how America’s supposedly legitimate news sources—be they newspapers, TV networks or Internet sites—tend to neglect or abuse their most basic and sacred obligation of keeping American citizens informed about what’s going on in the world, all the while distinguishing what’s important from what’s not.

As for the news itself—local, national or global—well, that’s but a secondary concern in this scheme.  It’s the grist in Comedy Central’s mill of silliness.  While it has certainly helped that current events have managed to be so utterly ridiculous over the past 16 years, keeping our leaders honest is not The Daily Show’s core competence.  As Stewart himself has said, that particular responsibility lies solely with the American media that presumes to take this stuff seriously.  Stewart’s job is merely to illustrate how depressingly often they fail.

Of course, as everyone knows, this arrangement is all strictly theoretical.  From the moment in 2004 when Stewart turned up on CNN’s Crossfire and called its hosts “partisan hacks” who are “hurting America,”  The Daily Show has increasingly—if unintentionally—assumed the status of a news program in its own right.  Poll after poll has shown that, as a TV personality, Stewart is as trusted as the likes of Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper and every other talking head who fancies himself a newsman.  Sometimes he even tops the list.

What is more, Stewart’s would-be counterparts have long bought in to this topsy-turvy reality, treating him as their moral equal or, in the case of Fox News, attacking him as if he were any other member of their small-screen political scrum.

It’s a shame, in a way, that Stewart’s program has amassed such a wealth of respectability among its viewers—particularly those within the journalism profession—since it more-or-less proves that Stewart has been right all along about our national news-reporting apparatus being a giant blithering travesty.

Indeed, even apart from the implications about American journalism, it’s always dangerous for a decidedly countercultural figure to become mainstream.  If the whole premise of being a vulgar, tomato-throwing court jester is that you are a shunned, powerless outsider, how do you retain your identity and street cred once you get accepted into polite society?  How do you avoid selling out or becoming neutered?

In fact, Jon Stewart has avoided this horrid fate, and I would attribute it to two critical factors.  First, as a writer and producer, he understands the mind of his audience enough to know when his shtick is no longer working and has the wherewithal to self-correct, if necessary.

Second, and most importantly:  He was never that edgy in the first place.

We may have this vision of Stewart as some kind of subversive, Earth-scorching renegade.  In fact, he is exactly what he’s always been:  an old-fashioned Jewish vaudevillian with a rubber face and a bottomless supply of 1980s pop culture references.  A sharp, amiable failed movie actor who happens to possess a supersized interest in current affairs and a ferocious desire for social justice.

As a comedian, he does not have the raw, angry bite of Lewis Black.  He isn’t a natural improv like Stephen Colbert.  He doesn’t express his views as bluntly as Larry Wilmore.  His nebbish sense of cultural inferiority is not as pronounced as John Oliver’s.  (OK, that last one is a close call.)

Nor, for that matter, are his political and cultural observations as pointed as those of his successor, Trevor Noah—the 31-year-old South African who nearly got burned alive on Twitter after daring to say a negative word about Israel (among other things).

I’ve seen Stewart perform stand-up twice.  On the stage, he is pretty much the same quirky, endearing fellow he is at his anchor desk—indeed, a good chunk of his material was lifted from old Daily Show scripts—but there is precious little in his act that rises to the level of brilliance.  He might be among the most purely enjoyable comics working today, but he is hardly an innovator in the field.

So why, then—if all this is true—does he depart his post this Thursday as one of the most beloved and indispensable hosts in the history of American television?

There have been many theories these last many weeks—ruminations about how Stewart’s honesty and moral indignation reflect those of millions of others all across the world—but I think his X factor can be traced to a single word:  Gratitude.

Having tried his hand at all sorts of random, dead-end jobs after college, then finally diving into the New York stand-up circuit—an environment where success is inevitably preceded by many years of failure—Stewart understands how lucky he is to have had a long, steady job doing what he loves.  That he has surpassed all conceivable expectations makes his gig all the sweeter, but it has seemingly never given way to laziness or arrogance.  Notwithstanding how exhausting 16 years of hosting would be for anyone, Stewart still approaches every show with a glint in his eye that says, “I can’t believe they pay me for this.”

The Daily Show is an old-fashioned labor of love between Stewart and his team of writers and correspondents, many of whom have been around nearly as long as he has.  Once Stewart leaves, it’s not that the program “won’t be the same.”  It won’t exist at all, no matter what it says on the awning outside 733 11th Avenue in New York.  Jon hosted the show and, at this point, we can rightly say that Jon is the show.

Not that we have much cause to mope about this latest end-of-a-television-era.  Since January, Larry Wilmore has done terrific work with The Nightly Show, Stewart’s chaser on the same network.  John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has swiftly become appointment television over on HBO, where Oliver is able to deep-dive into obscure but critical news topics in a way that Stewart, on basic cable, never could.  On September 8, Stephen Colbert begins his tenure at The Late Show on CBS, which may well become more iconic and entertaining than any of us could possibly imagine.

And wouldn’t you know it:  Every one of those guys (and plenty more) got his big break on The Daily Show, where Stewart, channeling his inner Lorne Michaels, was able to spot nascent comedic talent and allow it to bloom.

In that way, Thursday’s finale won’t be a farewell to Jon Stewart on the airwaves, for his work is everywhere—namely, in the success of all his former underlings who will now carry on the legacy he created.  An entire generation of comics with a single common ancestor.

Not bad for a short, neurotic Jewish kid from New Jersey.