Stand Up, John!

Listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for maybe the 20th or 30th time—per the code duello, I stopped counting after 10—a question popped into my head that had not been there before:

What in the world ever happened to John Adams?

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical may be primarily the story of America’s first treasury secretary and his deadly rivalry with Aaron Burr, but it is also—by necessity—the entire saga of the founding of the United States, covering most major political events between 1776 and 1804 (the year of the fateful duel).

Accordingly, in addition to Hamilton and Burr, Hamilton grants considerable time (and tunes) to such essential revolutionaries as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the Marquis de Lafayette—not to mention lesser-known figures like John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan and various members of Hamilton’s immediate family.

And yet, for all this generosity of character, Hamilton somehow couldn’t find room at the table for our second commander-in-chief—a man without whom, it’s safe to say, the revolution probably would not have occurred.  Save a stray reference here and there, Adams has, in effect, been stricken from the record.

Story of his freakin’ life.

Really, at this point in history, you’d think John Adams would garner just a little bit more respect.  While long overlooked among America’s founding generation, Adams became slightly more of a household name after the release of 1776—the 1969 musical that underlined his role in passing the Declaration of Independence—before transforming into a full-blown headliner thanks to David McCullough’s 2001 biography and subsequent HBO miniseries, both of which made the case for Adams’ historical significance beyond 1776.  (As president, this included keeping the United States out of a pointless and potentially ruinous war with France at a moment when most Americans were practically begging for French blood.)

Why didn’t Miranda include any of this in his show?  Presumably because Hamilton hated Adams with the fire of a thousand suns—the feeling was most assuredly mutual—and there can only be so many antagonists in a single play.

However, there is at least one compelling reason an Adams subplot might have proved worthwhile:  Because he and Hamilton were so damned similar.

You see, the key to the main rivalries in this drama—Hamilton v. Burr, Hamilton v. Jefferson and, indirectly, Hamilton v. Madison—is that the characters in each match-up possessed fundamentally different worldviews and fundamentally different personalities.  Where Hamilton was loud and impulsive, the others were measured, crafty and cautious.  While Hamilton believed passionately in a strong federal government and a robustly capitalistic economy, the others believed just the opposite—that is, except for Burr, who believed in nothing at all.

With Adams, not so much.  At least on paper, he and Hamilton were peas in the same dysfunctional pod.  To wit:  Both men idolized George Washington.  Both favored England over France and North over South.  Both preferred a strong central government to a decentralized confederacy.  And, perhaps most salient of all, both were tireless (and oftentimes tactless) writers and orators who couldn’t help expressing themselves loudly and at length, regardless of how much trouble it might get them into with friends and enemies alike.

In the end, that last characteristic overrode all the others, leading Hamilton in the election of 1800 to pen a 54-page condemnation of Adams that ended—hilariously—with a formal endorsement over Adams’ competitors, Jefferson and Burr.  (Miranda included a rapped version of this pamphlet in an earlier draft of the script, but ended up cutting everything except its priceless final line.)  The latter two candidates ultimately prevailed—becoming president and vice president, respectively—and we all know how well that worked for Hamilton.

And so the feud between Hamilton and Adams—however brief—was, in many ways, the most symmetrical and the most tragic, insomuch as the two men had so much on which to agree, yet found themselves so very disagreeable indeed.  They should have been natural allies; instead, they were near-mortal enemies who each, in different ways, contributed to the other’s eventual demise.

What is particularly ironic about Adams being so shortchanged in Miranda’s magnificent play is that the play’s primary mission is to recover the reputation of a man who had, himself, been so shortchanged by history.  That’s why Ron Chernow wrote the biography on which Hamilton is based, and it’s also why David McCullough wrote his biography of Adams.  Hamilton’s closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” is about this exact problem:  No matter how virtuously you live your life, there is no guarantee that history will treat you fairly—that is, if it remembers you at all.

But then that’s why great art exists:  As a form of memory.  That’s why McCullough and HBO can resurrect the reputation of Adams in one corner while Chernow and Miranda sing the praises of Hamilton in another.  The number of unknown yet interesting historical people is greater than any of us will probably ever know.  Surely, the world is wide enough for them all.

Vote for Burr!

“I’ve never agreed with Jefferson once / we’ve fought on like 75 different fronts / but when all is said and all is done / Jefferson has beliefs / Burr has none.”

So raps America’s first treasury secretary at a critical moment toward the end of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sublime remix of U.S. history that has taken Broadway (and my iTunes library) by storm.  The moment occurs in the heat of the presidential election of 1800—a campaign that is still considered the ugliest and most over-the-top in history—which saw an Electoral College tie between the top two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, meaning the presidency would ultimately be decided by the House of Representatives.

As congressmen remained deadlocked after 35 rounds of voting, it fell to Alexander Hamilton to act as unofficial kingmaker.  And what a nauseating choice it was:  Jefferson, as leader of the rival Democratic-Republicans, had long served as Hamilton’s singular political nemesis.  Burr, meanwhile, had once been a fellow Federalist but abruptly switched parties in 1790 to run—successfully—for the U.S. Senate against Philip Schuyler, a respected Federalist who also happened to be Hamilton’s father-in-law.

In short, the choice in 1800 was between a man who embodied everything Hamilton hated and a man who embodied nothing at all except sheer, naked ambition.  In the end, Hamilton sided with Jefferson, the House followed suit and the rest…well, you know the rest.

(Prior to the vote, Hamilton had effectively killed off incumbent President John Adams with a 54-page pamphlet attacking his administration.)

I recount this pivotal episode in American electoral history partly as a rebuttal to the longstanding myth that the Founding Fathers were essentially perfect.  That in addition to being uncommonly learned and intelligent, they were also uncommonly virtuous and civil and refreshingly devoid of any pettiness or ego.  That they sacrificed everything—their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor—for the noble cause of American independence, wholly unencumbered by personal agendas or other selfish interests.  That, in short, they were totally unlike the lowly political leaders we’re stuck with today.

Deep down, of course, we know that most of the above is complete nonsense.  We have read first-hand accounts of the founding era for eons and understand how personally and tragically flawed the authors of America truly were.

With Hamilton—arguably the richest and most historically accurate depiction of the founding ever created (in spirit, if not in verse)—we have been given a singularly visceral insight into how those flaws actually played themselves out.  How, for instance, a certain orphan immigrant had his life cut short—likely by several decades—because he dared to question the honor of another man and, when challenged, couldn’t summon the nerve to take it back.

The rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is the stuff of legend, although until recently the intrigue had been confined to their famous duel on July 11, 1804—a face-off that ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career.  In fact, their relationship ran more or less continuously from 1776 onward, and in Miranda’s play, Burr is both the narrator and co-protagonist.

In a show that aims to narrow the gulf between yesterday and today—and thus make the past more accessible to us in the present—the decision to grant Burr such narrative primacy has proved eerily prescient to our contemporary political climate.

After all, we are right now engaged in a sustained national debate about whether the likely Republican presidential nominee is—to quote Maureen Dowd—“more like Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin, George Wallace or a Marvel villain.”  Donald Trump, in any case, is widely recognized as a man with no core convictions except to become the most powerful man on Earth and, to that end, a man willing to alter his views at the drop of his dopey red hat.

In this way, Donald Trump is Aaron Burr.

What is more, should the GOP contest lead to an open convention in July—an increasingly plausible scenario—Republican delegates will be confronted with a strikingly similar prospect to that faced by Hamilton in 1800:  Should they allow the party—and possibly the country—to be ruled by someone whose only objective is the acquisition of unlimited power?

The party’s dilemma, of course, is that there is no Jeffersonian figure to save them from themselves.  There is, instead, Senator Ted Cruz—a candidate who is nominally an across-the-board conservative but is also, alas, a smarmy, cynical narcissist with no friends or accomplishments to speak of.  (Jefferson, however ambitious, was at least capable of feigning humility.)

In fact, it is America’s non-Republicans who now gaze upon the GOP primary with the same horror as when Hamilton was forced to choose between Jefferson and Burr.  It’s been a nagging question for us liberals:  Assuming no other alternatives, do you go for the guy who is decent enough to believe in something—albeit the opposite of everything you believe in—or is it preferable to roll the dice with someone who only believes in himself and, thus, could possibly be dealt with under certain conditions?

For a good long while, I leaned ever-so-slightly toward the latter, figuring that in a country whose major global enemies are apocalyptic religious fundamentalists, the last thing we need is to elect a fundamentalist of our own.  (Say what you will about Trump, but I find his rank indifference to religion among his more reassuring qualities.)

But now I’m not so sure.  While I foresee no universe in which the politics of Ted Cruz suddenly become tolerable—to say nothing of Cruz himself—there is an equally compelling argument that someone like Cruz would at least bring a certain predictability to the presidency that a reckless barbarian like Trump—by his own boastful admission—would not.

In 1800, Hamilton and others viewed Burr as not just unprincipled but as outright dangerous to the continued health of the nascent republic—not least because of his inherent unknowability and bottomless opportunism.  Indeed, isn’t it more or less tautological that men with no firm concept of good are the most liable to commit evil?  As Hamilton asks early in the play, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

That, in a sense, points to the arguments both for and against Donald Trump.  By standing for nothing in particular, he becomes capable of pretty much anything, good and bad.  By choreographing a willingness to hedge, hem and haw as circumstances require, he suggests a capacity to be all things to all people—or, conversely, nothing to no one.  By steadfastly refusing to box himself into a consistent and coherent set of political views, he conjures the image of a man existing outside the box entirely, for better and for worse.

Among those who are so exasperated by Washington, D.C., that they want to blow the whole damn place to smithereens, Trump’s pitch may well make perfect, if perverse, sense.  In this moment, maybe a human wrecking ball is just what the doctor ordered.

Or maybe—just maybe—Trump is exactly what he looks like:  A clueless, shameless charlatan who will be utterly in over his head in the Oval Office and will realize—however belatedly—that however much he wanted the job at first, he never really had a plan for following through.

And yet—as farcical as it seems now—it’s still possible that November’s election will see the final victory of Aaron Burr.  Wait for it:  History is happening in Manhattan, and the world will never be the same.

Whodunit?

There’s an old personality test—introduced to me in middle school and lovingly preserved on the interwebs—involving a woman who gets herself killed journeying between her husband and her lover.  The “test,” as it were, centers on the question of who is most to blame for the woman’s untimely death.  Is it the bored husband who neglected to take his wife along on his business trip?  Is it the greedy boatman who refused to ferry her across the river to safety?  Is it the heartless boyfriend who didn’t lift a finger in her defense?  Or is it the woman herself for being unfaithful and blundering into the wrong place at the wrong time?

It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the idea is that how you assign blame for the woman’s murder is determined by what you value most in life.  The options, in this case, include such things as “fun,” “sex,” “money” and, my personal favorite, “magic.”

Anyway, that story’s been on my mind for the last few days as I’ve seen Donald Trump campaign events descend into violence and mayhem whenever a gaggle of anti-Trump agitators has sneaked its way into the arena.

With regards to these unholy scuffles, everyone seems to have a firm opinion about who is most at fault.  Interestingly, however—and I think you know where I’m going with this—no one can quite agree on who, exactly, that is.

Obviously, then, what we need is to update that silly game about the two-timing wife so that it applies to our own time and our own values.  With Trump—a man who stands as America’s signal Rorschach test of 2016—we can learn a great deal about how each of us thinks just by how we interpret what is happening directly in front of our eyes.

From a sampling of reactions, we find that most people trace the cause of this campaign unrest to either a) the protesters, b) Trump supporters or c) Trump himself.  To an extent, one’s opinion of these incidents is merely an affectation of one’s politics:  If you find Donald Trump generally detestable, you generally attribute all detestable acts to the man himself.  Conversely, if you think Trump speaks truth to political correctness, you find fault only with those who are preventing him from speaking.  It’s confirmation bias in action:  You see what you want to see and filter out everything else.

But of course, all of that is but the tip of the bloody, bloody iceberg.  However illuminating it might be to debate which side threw the first punch, it’s not until folks start to blame those who weren’t even in the room that the real fun begins.

We might start with the Donald himself, who has fingered Bernie Sanders as the main culprit for the madness, saying that the party crashers at his gatherings are on direct marching orders from the socialist from Vermont.  It is noteworthy that Trump bases this claim on no evidence whatsoever, while he has simultaneously blamed other outbursts on ISIS—yes, that ISIS—due to a YouTube video that was swiftly exposed as a typical Internet hoax.  As Trump explained on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet,” reminding us that he is apparently the one person in America who believes, with all his heart, that if it’s online, it must be true.

Farce that this undeniably is, such behavior nonetheless offers real insights into Trump’s personality and that of his fellow travelers.  Strongest among these, perhaps, is the value of “truthiness,” a.k.a. believing something to be true simply because your gut tells you so.

In fact, Trump’s entire movement is dependent on truthiness, since at least 80 percent of his campaign’s major claims are demonstrably false and his promise of “restoring America’s greatness” is one big fatuous smoke-and-mirrors routine containing nary a whiff of substance or honest reporting.  If all presidential candidates engage in hyperbole, Trump is unique for engaging in absolutely nothing else.

The real problem, though, is how sinister that hyperbole has been for the last nine months and how deeply it has metastasized within the GOP.  While this week’s outright physical violence might be relatively new, the truth is that Trump and his flock have been blaming other people for America’s problems for his entire presidential run.  Like any seasoned demagogue, Trump has invented most of this blame from whole cloth, while at other times he has even managed to invent the problems themselves.  (Who would ever know, for instance, that net immigration from Mexico is actually negative over the last five years, or that U.S. military spending increased from 2014 to 2015?)

Which leads us, as it must, to the most disturbing personality quirk of all:  The one that blames all of this turmoil on African-Americans and views the entire American experience in terms of white supremacy.

While it would be irresponsible to peg every Trump voter as a white supremacist—or, specifically, a Nazi or a Klansman—the point is that Trump rallies have become a safe space—if not a veritable breeding ground—for white people who think that punching, kicking and spitting on black people is their God-given right as members of a privileged race.  For all Trump’s claims that the protesters are the true instigators of these melees, most video clips suggest otherwise:  Largely, we just keep seeing groups of young, mostly black people nonviolently holding up signs and chanting cheeky slogans while white guards and white attendees proceed to manhandle them with the greatest possible force—egged on, every single time, by the candidate himself.

You see pictures like these—paired with people like Mike Huckabee calling the protesters “thugs,” a word that Republicans only ever use to describe African-Americans—and you realize all that’s missing are the dogs and the fire hoses.

Among the many sick ironies of Donald Trump is his supposed fidelity to the First Amendment, which he claims the dissenters at his rallies are attempting to suppress (as if Trump has ever lacked an outlet for expressing himself on a moment’s notice).  Historical ignoramus that he is, he doesn’t seem to realize that, when it comes to muzzling free speech, few things are more effective than riling up a large gang of angry white people by telling them how to mistreat a small gang of dark-skinned antagonists.  (And then, of course, pleading ignorance when those same white people do exactly what you suggest.)

Even if there were nothing at all race-based in Trump and company’s behavior, we would still be left with this profoundly dangerous idea that all problems can, and should, be solved with physical violence.  To hear Trump talk, you’d think his were the first-ever campaign events to feature any sort of disruptors and that there is no rational response except to treat them like enemy combatants.  (How long before Trump recommends waterboarding?)

The relevant terms here are “escalate” and “de-escalate.”  As any honest police officer knows, whenever you are faced with a potentially explosive situation, it is your moral responsibility to try to de-escalate tensions and not make matters worse.  Indeed, for anyone who wields authority or influence over others—not least in politics—the obligation to lead by example and get your minions under control is absolute and non-negotiable.

Donald Trump has failed that charge over and over again.  In so doing, he has revealed which values he holds dear and which values he does not—if, that is, he can be said to possess any values at all.

It proved quite prescient that Trump opened his campaign while riding an escalator in Trump Tower in Manhattan:  As it turns out, he is an escalator.

Dignity, Always Dignity

“The only thing I’ve really learned from studying politics for 25 years in Washington is that the only thing that matters is character.”

So said Christopher Hitchens in the fall of 2006 upon being asked his thoughts on the presidential campaign that would begin a few months later.  Pressing on, Hitchens explained that while it seems noble and mature to value issues over personalities in the sanctity of a voting booth, the truth is that policy positions are only as good as the word of the person espousing them.  A candidate’s character, Hitch argued, is “the only thing a voter can make a really informed decision about.”

He wasn’t wrong, was he?

Indeed, take a closer look at the elections of the last three or four decades and you’ll find that the nominee perceived to be the most honest and dignified has almost always been the one with the most overall votes.  Coincidence?  I would hope not.

I bring this up as a form of good news, because if this tendency holds up—that is, if the American people err on the side of integrity when they cast their votes on November 8—it means Donald Trump could not possibly become the next leader of the free world.  Believe it or not, the majority of American voters have a limit to the amount of lunacy they are willing to accept in their commander-in-chief.  They understand that, in the words of Harvey Keitel’s Wolf, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character.”

The moral argument against a President Trump is the same as it’s always been:  He believes in nothing, he cares about no one but himself, he is obsessed with publicity and profit and he is playing Republican voters for saps.

All of this helps to suggest what makes Trump so unique among all presidential candidates in history:  It’s not just that he is utterly lacking in any moral fiber.  Rather, it’s that he is so completely unbothered by what a wretched little parasite he is.  To him, being an insufferable gasbag is not a defect—it’s the main attraction.  He says he isn’t interested in being “politically correct,” but what he means is that he isn’t interested in behaving like someone who graduated from the second grade.

For proof of this, we need look no further than the awe-inspiring one-two punch last week, when Marco Rubio made a crack about the diminutive size of Trump’s hands and what it must mean for the size of his, ahem, “something else.”

A clearer test of character there could never be.  Faced with this most infantile and un-presidential taunt, the obvious, dignified response would be either to ignore it completely or to shame Rubio for dragging the level of discourse even further into the toilet.

But Trump—unsurprisingly—opted instead to turn into George Costanza, who, following the famous “shrinkage” incident in “The Hamptons,” felt compelled to inform his would-be girlfriend, “I think you think a certain something is not all that it could be, when, in fact, it is all that it should be…and more!”

In his defense of his own “something else” during last week’s GOP debate, Trump might not have quoted George verbatim, but he came pretty gosh darned close, saying, “I guarantee there’s no problem.  I guarantee it.”

What is truly unnerving, in any case, is how Trump is so manifestly insecure about his masculinity that he felt Rubio’s sexual innuendos were worth addressing at all—as if jokingly questioning a man’s endowment were akin to questioning his patriotism or his honor.  As far as Trump is concerned, it is.  In his mind, all personal slights are created equal and every last one must be answered, no matter how petty or irrelevant.

There’s a common refrain among public officials, “I am not going to dignify that with a response.”  Per contra, Donald Trump dignifies everything with a response, and in so doing, he removes the dignity from everything, up to and including himself.

As he reminds us—albeit indirectly—there is a certain grace to individuals who do not feel the need to opine about everything that anyone has ever said or done.  Historically, the presidency has drawn precisely that sort of person—or, perhaps more accurately, the majesty of the office has induced its officeholders to temper their more trigger-happy instincts.  Sitting at the Resolute desk, even the thickest of chief executives realize that their words have consequences and that sometimes silence—or at least tact—is preferable to speaking one’s mind.

On the available evidence, Trump has no discretion whatsoever.  He says whatever pops into his head without any consideration for how other people might react to it.  He is so oblivious to the rest of humanity that he genuinely doesn’t understand why, for instance, saying “Islam hates America” is morally, strategically and of course factually insane.  He is so magnificently self-centered—so infatuated with the very fact of his existence—that it never really occurs to him that the Earth revolves around anything other than his own bloated head.

Dignity means not embarrassing yourself in public.  It means taking the high road and setting an example for others.  It means appealing to people’s best instincts instead of their worst.  It means treating people with courtesy and respect, even when you think they don’t deserve it.  It means being capable of feeling shame when you fail to accomplish any of the above and more.

Very few of this year’s presidential candidates satisfy all of those requirements, but Donald Trump has the singular distinction of not satisfying any of them and being damn proud of it.  He is the personification of shamelessness.

More recently, Trump has implied his whole shtick has largely been for show and that, should he win the election, he would magically tone down the more blustery, freewheeling side of his personality—i.e. his entire personality—and suddenly take world affairs and himself seriously.

Taking this claim at face value—believing, for instance, the recent diagnosis by Ben Carson that there is a secret thoughtful side to the Donald that has been carefully concealed from public view—somehow doesn’t make the idea of voting for him any more appetizing.  Yes, it’s reassuring to know that a President Trump might not be quite as absurd as Candidate Trump, but that reassurance is tempered by the unbelievable cynicism with which his entire public persona is imbued.

After all, one of two things must be true:  Either Trump really is as puerile as he appears, or he has made a concerted effort to appear that way to secure the votes of idiots.

Which of those scenarios would you prefer?  Personally, I don’t like either one.

Nor, I would say, do the majority of my fellow Americans, and that is why Trump will not be elected in the fall.  When the moment of truth arrives and voters decide which face they want to project to the rest of the world, they will take a final look at Trump’s and, like Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings, find themselves asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?  At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Yes We Cannabis

Is New England’s most trailblazing state about to get a little blazed itself?

Thanks to a forthcoming public referendum, the question of whether to fully legalize marijuana in Massachusetts will be among the loudest political battles in the Bay State throughout this summer and fall.  In Monday’s Boston Globe, a team of major political leaders fired the opening shot, and I would advise my fellow pot proponents to take their case with the care and seriousness it deserves.

In a joint op-ed (ahem), Mass. governor Charlie Baker, Boston mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey strongly argued against the proposition, known as the “Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act,” writing that fully legalizing cannabis would be a reckless and expensive act of public policy and should be rejected out of hand.

The essence of the piece, simply titled, “Do not legalize marijuana in Massachusetts,” is that should Mass. residents vote themselves permission to grow, buy, sell and smoke marijuana, the commonwealth would incur gargantuan costs—direct and indirect—that would probably not be balanced out by whatever new revenue this exciting new product might generate.

Those costs, the authors argue, cannot simply be written off as negligible, immaterial or alarmist.  If marijuana were made legal, that means a lot more people would use it, which in turn means a lot more people would abuse it, which further means that such institutions as schools, hospitals and police departments would be forced to deal with the consequences, and God knows if they’ll be ready.

To be clear:  When we talk about such extreme misuse of a drug like pot, we’re mostly talking about children and teenagers.  It is a matter of historical record—not least in my own experience—that high schoolers and college students are much more prone than grown-ups to do stupid, reckless, destructive things to and with their own selves—either in the name of rebellion, curiosity or sheer idleness—and that not all of those activities magically wear off before you graduate and move on to the so-called real world.

It is equally true—according to a towering pile of research—that a person is much more likely to get hooked on some drug or other—and, with it, risk a lifetime of hardship and misery—if he or she first experiences it as an adolescent.  We know beyond doubt, for instance, that a person who begins smoking cigarettes at age 15 is in serious danger of dependency, while someone who manages to avoid it through, say, age 21 is quite likely never to start smoking in the first place.  That’s just how our brains work and we can’t pretend otherwise.

As it happens, the proposed law in Massachusetts would only legalize marijuana for those 21 years and older—as well as capping, at one ounce, the amount an individual can carry out in the open—which in theory should render this whole issue moot.

Or it would, except that the world doesn’t run according to theory.  Regrettably, to say that a legal age restriction on pot would prevent teens from getting high is just as laughable as saying the legal drinking age has prevented 19-year-olds from shooting tequila and playing beer pong.  The latter sure didn’t stop me from indulging in youthful debauchery on a regular basis, and I wasn’t exactly a black marketeer.

And so, on this, the skeptics are right:  If marijuana is legal and widely available to the public, it will find its way into the wrong hands without a whole lot of trouble.  More kids will smoke it and some of them, while under the influence, will commit various offenses against the law, common sense and their own physical well-being—and Mass. taxpayers will be on the hook for a great deal of the ensuing damage.  That’s to say nothing of the possible long-term effects of regular marijuana use, which are certainly alarming but by no means settled science.

Which brings us to what is, for us libertarians, the most essential question of all:  Under what circumstances should we, as a people, prohibit an enjoyable recreational activity on the grounds that some of us will enjoy it just a little bit too much?

Amidst all the gloom and doom about the downside of pot legalization, we have nearly lost sight of a rather important fact:  Of all the people who have ever ingested the cannabis plant, the overwhelming majority have derived nothing but pleasure and merriment from the experience, with little to no aftereffects—except, perhaps, the distinction of having lived a slightly more interesting and fulfilling life.

Normal, responsible people smoke marijuana because they enjoy how it makes them feel.  In the right setting with the right people, pot smoking is an utterly benign and blissful pastime—a way to relax and commiserate and act all goofy and weird, and before you know it, the high wears off and you can safely return to the obligations of adulthood.

Consumed in moderation, marijuana is—or should be—a vice like any other:  Not healthy, per se, but part of a satisfying, well-balanced life for anyone who treats it properly.

Now then:  Is everyone in America as responsible with their drug use as you and I?  Nope.  Nopity nope nope.  But I wonder:  Should we really be designing our drug laws based on the assumption that there are no responsible people at all?

We sure don’t feel that way about guns.  Or booze.  Or gambling.  Or chocolate.  Commodities like those are as widely and freely available today as they’ve ever been, despite the spectacular social and economic costs that result from certain folks behaving stupidly.

And why is that, ladies and gentlemen?  It’s because we all instinctively understand, as Congressman Barney Frank so tartly put it, “If we were to outlaw for adults everything that college students abuse, we’d all just sit at home and do nothing.”

So what, may I ask, makes marijuana so goddamn special?  Why is a substance that is demonstrably less destructive than, say, alcohol, treated as seriously as a substance like heroin—a scourge that, as Baker, Walsh and Healey note, really does pose a clear and present danger to the good people of Massachusetts?

The short answer—depressing, but simple—is that because pot has been outlawed for so long, we can’t know for sure exactly how it would be regulated, especially with regards to so-called edibles, which Baker et al. cite as a big fat question mark and a particular danger to children.  (It’s not difficult to see why.)

But why—in Massachusetts of all places—should fear of the unknown prevent us from doing something that just might be worthwhile?

Not to brag, but on matters of large-scale public policy, my home state has a long and storied history of doing just about everything exactly right.  In a nation of faintheartedness, Massachusetts has a way of storming into the future with one innovation after another—be they social, medical, technological or political—inducing other states to sheepishly follow our lead.

Massachusetts started the Revolution.  We welcomed gay marriage before it was cool.  We introduced universal healthcare with a model that inspired the Affordable Care Act.  Our education system is the envy of the world.  And by way, in 2006 we decriminalized marijuana and six years later made it available for medicinal use.

Are we really suggesting that, having accomplished all of that, it is somehow beyond our ability to create a chocolate bar wrapper that says, “This product is not intended for children”?  What an odd concession that would be.

Yes, we need to be smart about this.  Of course we do.  As with any new “social experiment,” we need to anticipate unintended consequences and design ways to prevent or minimize them.  As written, the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act goes a certain distance; if passed, it will fall to the state legislature to fill in any remaining holes.

Why go to all the trouble, you ask?  Simply:  To enable free people in a free country to make free choices about how to live their lives.

As Americans, we have somehow managed to balance the safety of children with the liberty of adults many times in the past.  Why on Earth couldn’t we do it again?

Waiting For the Shots to Ring Out

Here’s an idle question for us all:  By the time the presidential election finally ends this November, what do you think the final body count will be?

When I say “body count,” I don’t mean all the failed candidates who will have stuck a fork in themselves before (or possibly during) the party conventions this summer.

No, I’m talking about the literal body count.  You know:  Dead ones.

Earlier this week, New York Daily News writer Shaun King laid out the ugly, ugly history of Donald Trump’s campaign rallies—specifically, the appalling ways that protesters (most of them black) have been treated whenever they’ve turned up—and he concluded that “it’s only a matter of time until someone is killed or critically injured” at one such event or other.

Indeed, it’s an utterly predictable tragedy.  Trump voters in large numbers—like men in large numbers—tend to behave through their basest, most savage instincts toward people they don’t view as being part of the clan (or should I say “klan”?).  When a gang of like-minded individuals—riled up by a bombastic, hateful demagogue—are confronted with a dark-skinned infidel wielding a grin and a sarcastically-worded placard, they have no choice but to attack, attack, attack.  Indeed, inflicting physical violence is evidently the only way they know how to behave in the face of an opinion (or person) of which they do not approve.

Should such an over-the-line atrocity occur, we will have every right to lay at least part of the blame on Donald Trump himself.

As precisely the man who could put a stop to hostile acts by his loyal minions, Trump has yet to lift a finger in defense of anyone who dares speak a word against him.  Thus far, the situation has been exactly the reverse:  Given the opportunity, Trump has clearly and consistently taken the side of those who have committed violence in his name, all the while denigrating those with the temerity to make themselves victims of the same.

We don’t need to imagine how this would unfold.  It already has.  Back in August, two brothers from South Boston were charged with beating an Hispanic homeless man to a pulp—for no apparent reason, I need hardly add—and then reportedly telling the police, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”  When Trump was informed of the incident, he said, “People who are following me are very passionate.  They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

More recently, Trump has mused that, in the case of one protester, “Maybe he should have been roughed up” and in the case of another, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”  In the latter instance, he added, with his characteristic charm, “I love the old days.  You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this?  They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

If statements like those aren’t a direct incitement to violence, then the term “incitement to violence” has no meaning.  If and when an anti-Trump activist really is carried out on a stretcher, what exactly will there be left for Trump to say?  Would he really expect to get away with, “I didn’t mean for people to take me seriously”?  (Don’t answer that.)

Anyway, that’s not even the violence we should be most concerned about, as concerning as it is.  Rather, our real curiosity should be for the moment—like in Trump’s beloved “old days”—when such brutality is directed at the candidate himself.

We haven’t thought about it much over the last generation and a half, but assassination attempts used to be a fairly common occurrence here in the Greatest Country on the Face of the Earth, particularly among presidents and presidential wannabees.  While most people know about the four American presidents who have actually been murdered in office, no fewer than 14 other chief executives have been the target of specific assassination plots that were ultimately thwarted—some by the Secret Service, others by the sheer grace of God.

The threat of violence is a job hazard for anyone seeking high office.  Perhaps that’s why we’re so nervous whenever members of the president’s security detail are found fooling around with hookers or drunkenly crashing state vehicles into large, immovable objects.

For Donald Trump—a figure every bit as reviled as he is beloved—perhaps the most instructive cautionary tale is that of George Wallace, the repugnant four-term governor of Alabama who ran for president on four separate occasions, often while touting his famous catchphrase, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Gifted as he was at riling up crowds and daring dissenters to try their worst—“If some anarchist lies down in front of my automobile,” he once mused, “it will be the last automobile he will ever lie down in front of”—Wallace saw his political career effectively ended on May 15, 1972, when a random lunatic fired five shots with a .38 revolver at close range, paralyzing Wallace from the waist down.  He would spend the final 26 years of his life in a wheelchair, during which time—interestingly enough—he came to regret his more stridently segregationist views and tried as best he could to make amends with the black community.  It is unclear whether there was any connection between one and the other.

While no one should wish such extreme misfortune on any presidential candidate—for Pete’s sake, do you really want Donald Trump made sympathetic?—there’s no point in pretending such a thing is impossible.  If nothing else, it might help us to realize that, as ridiculous as this campaign season has been thus far, there is still plenty of time for it to get much, much worse.

At this moment, it appears the Republican nominating contest will unfold in one of two ways:  Either Trump will win outright, or there will be a contested convention for first time since 1976.  While liberals would find either of those scenarios hilarious, most conservatives are rightly horrified, having suddenly discovered that appealing solely to racists, nationalists and authoritarians isn’t all peaches and cream.

In either case, everything will boil down to “How do we get around Trump?”  If events continue as they have, the answer is, “We can’t.”  As a political figure, Trump has proved indestructible:  A plurality of GOP voters will support him as surely as the rope supports the hanging man, even if it leads to the whole damn party getting lynched.

At this point, if you truly want to take Trump out, the only person who could possibly help you—bear with me here—is Shonda Rhimes.

Surely, the Trump phenomenon is nothing if not a season of Scandal that has run ludicrously off the rails (otherwise known as a typical season of Scandal).  If this election were, in fact, the histrionic TV show it has more or less already become, you would certainly expect something cataclysmic to happen right about now—some deus ex machina that rids the GOP of its Trump problem once and for all.  Since the Republican Party is the group that believes all problems can be solved with guns, why shouldn’t Trump be gotten rid of in a way the GOP would unreservedly endorse?  Heck, Trump has boasted about occasionally packing heat himself; maybe the whole confrontation would turn into a good old-fashioned duel, sponsored by the NRA and the cast and crew of Hamilton.

In a campaign where absolutely everything is on the table—where every political convention has been defied and every expectation proved false—there is absolutely no basis in assuming that the worst of this race has somehow already occurred.  We ain’t seen nothing yet, folks.  The 2016 election may not end in violence and death, but we would have no cause to be shocked if it does.

The GOP Reaps What It Sows

Super Tuesday saw a veritable fruit salad of disingenuous comments from all parties involved—from Marco Rubio’s declaration of victory after losing 11 of 12 states to Donald Trump’s claim of being a “uniter” at the very moment when several leading members of his party announced they would rather suck on an exhaust pipe than allow Trump to become the face of the GOP.

However, if there was one assertion that rose above all the others for its sheer, jaw-dropping chutzpah, it was the following reaction to Trump’s continued success from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan:

If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games.  They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.  This party does not prey on people’s prejudices.  We appeal to their highest ideals.  This is the party of Lincoln.  We believe all people are equal in the eyes of God and our government.  This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this.

Between that statement and Chris Christie’s facial expressions during Trump’s victory speech, I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard following a presidential primary night.

Specifically, Ryan was addressing Trump’s initial reluctance to bat away the endorsement of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, although (let’s face it) he could’ve been referring to pretty much anything Trump has said or done over the last eight months.

While Ryan deserves heaping praise for taking such a clear, principled stand against everything Donald Trump represents, his characterization of the party he leads is so comically lacking in self-awareness that Trump himself could not have put it any better.

The Republican Party doesn’t prey on people’s prejudices?  It believes all people are created equal?  Speaker, please.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I could’ve sworn the GOP had built its entire brand—say, over the last three or four decades—on such “high ideals” as denying marriage rights to same-sex couples because God intoned that gays are no different from murderers and child molesters.  I do believe it was Republican leaders who defended the “liberty” of business owners to deny service to gay customers for the exact same reason.

Whenever an unarmed black teenager is senselessly murdered by a white police officer, Republicans are always the first to assume the kid must’ve done something to deserve it.  When it comes to elections, Republican officials never hesitate to make it as difficult as possible for African-Americans and Hispanics to be able to cast a vote.

Quick as GOP leaders are to evoke “religious liberty” as a cornerstone of American democracy, they somehow always find a loophole for anyone wearing a turban, hijab or some other manner of foreign-looking funny hat.  (Rarely, of course, do most Republicans take the time to understand which funny hat corresponds to which foreign-looking religion.)

Perhaps you saw the exit poll showing that 60 percent of Republican voters agree with Trump’s plan to prevent Muslims from entering the United States on the basis of their religion.  Even assuming that every single Trump voter is included in that 60 percent, we are still left with 40-50 percent of non-Trump GOP voters who apparently think that all Muslims are terrorists.  Or, at minimum, that Muslims are so inherently suspect that it’s worth discriminating against all of them on a federal level.  You know, just in case.

This is the party Paul Ryan would have as a paragon of liberty, equality and justice:  A party distrustful of Muslims, contemptuous of gays and utterly oblivious to the plight of Hispanics and blacks.  If Ryan is serious that any prospective nominee “must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” they would need to begin with the Republican Party itself.

Ryan calls it “the party of Lincoln.”  If I may rework a line from a classic Woody Allen movie:  If Lincoln came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.