Could Be Worse

Is this the worst presidential election in history?  Only if you know nothing about history.

Would Donald Trump be the worst president of all time?  Maybe, but I certainly wouldn’t bet the house on it.

Over the last month or so—as the precise character of the 2016 election has taken form—there has been an endless parade of rhetoric in favor of one or both of the aforementioned claims.  An assumed general election match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we have been told, represents the most wretched choice the American public has faced in many moons—if not ever—and should the presumptive Republican nominee emerge victorious on November 8, it would likely portend the fall of Western civilization as we know it.

The latter, of course, is a matter of pure speculation until the unspeakable actually occurs.  As for the former:  Don’t be ridiculous.  The championship match of the 2016 campaign—uninspiring as it might be—hardly represents a nadir in the history of U.S. presidential elections.  That we have convinced ourselves otherwise is less a product of our increasingly lackluster candidates than of our unjustifiably heightened expectations thereof.

As with so much else, we in the present like to think we live in exceptional times when it comes to presidential politics—in this case, exceptionally bad—and that our generation of voters deserves a heap of pity that all previous generations managed to avoid.

What ignorant hogwash this is.

All the way back in 1905, in writing about politics in the 1870s, historian Henry Adams dryly observed, “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”  Ninety-nine years later, surveying the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, comedian Lewis Black similarly quipped, “If this is evolution in terms of leadership, I think in 12 years we’re gonna be voting for plants.”

Whether or not Black’s assessment has proved correct (those dozen years are now officially up), it is clear enough that the perception of having a lackluster roster of potential presidents is the oldest, stalest gripe in the book.  Contrary to popular belief, Americans have always been disappointed by the people who’ve run to lead them, viewing every election as a search for—well, if not the lesser evil, then at least the person with a fighting chance of not making life any more miserable than it already is.

We elect a commander-in-chief for all sorts of reasons and under many different circumstances, but it’s always with the subtext—spoken or unspoken—that the available options are hardly the best specimens America has to offer.

We often compare our present-day leaders (unfavorably) to those of the founding generation, viewing the latter as the high water mark for intellectual and political brilliance in the history of this or any country.  Indeed, that’s exactly what they were, and the sad truth is that the Founding Fathers were simply the exception to the rule:  George Washington, for his part, didn’t even want to be president except to avert a possible civil war, while his next five successors got the job on the strength of having directly contributed to the American Revolution—a prerequisite that, by definition, could not be reproduced in any other era.

Following the populist upheaval fostered by one Andrew Jackson—a man of extraordinary physical courage who, if he ran today, would be roundly dismissed as a raging psychopath—Americans elected a series of chief executives of such immense mediocrity—often against equally humdrum opponents—that few citizens today could even recite their names.  Much the same was the case in between the end of the Civil War and the rise of Teddy Roosevelt in 1901.  Indeed, one could argue that, except for Abraham Lincoln, the final two-thirds of the 19th century were one giant muddle of executive leadership to which no one would want to return.

And yet return we have, over and over again.  For all our insistence that only the best and the brightest seek and execute the most powerful post on planet Earth, we have spent most of American history dealing with the uncomfortable truth that, on the whole—and especially now—the most brilliant people in the country are not interested in running for elected office:  They’re busy curing diseases, inventing self-driving cars, building skyscrapers and writing Broadway musicals.

Even before presidential campaigns became the insane carnival acts they are today, the incentive for dedicating one’s talents to the public good has been in decline since practically the dawn of the republic, which means that the slack will inevitably be picked up by aspirants who are intellectually and morally inferior.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that the occasional prodigy hasn’t occasionally slipped through.  We have, after all, just enjoyed two terms with a president who—imperfections notwithstanding—is an exceptionally deep thinker, capable of speaking and writing elegantly, clearly and at length, and (to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald) adept at holding opposing ideas in his head without losing the ability to function.

If today’s voters—particularly those under 30—feel short-changed by this year’s options, it’s largely a consequence of having been spoiled by arguably the hippest man who has ever held this job.  Indeed, for every voting American born after 1986, this will be the first presidential election in which Barack Obama’s name will not be on the ballot.  (Were it not for the 22nd Amendment, one suspects 2016 would’ve gone very differently, indeed.)

And yet, for those very voters, it would be difficult—on paper, at least—to craft a more agreeable and logical successor than someone who spent eight years in the White House, eight years in the Senate and four years in the State Department and who, by the way, is openly campaigning for Obama’s third term and possesses a mastery of policy nuance light years ahead of Obama’s at this point in his 2008 campaign.

This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is perfect or that someone who is qualified on paper is also qualified in real life.  Having been a nationally-known figure for nearly a quarter-century, Clinton carries clear shortcomings and asterisks, and her ascendancy would be a calculated risk on all of our parts.

In other words, Hillary is flawed.  But you know which other presidential candidates have been flawed?  All of them.

In truth, every person who has ever sought the Oval Office has been ill-qualified to one degree or another.  That’s the nature of the gig.  The fantastical notion of an Ideal Candidate—someone with the right skills at the right time—has rarely been borne out by history, and we have little reason to expect such a thing in the near future.

Contra Trump, Clinton is as solid a candidate as you would expect our system to produce:  Wily, intelligent, hardworking, compassionate, compromising, gritty and ruthless.  If you expect more than that in a modern-day commander-in-chief, you just may expect too much.

The One-Dollar Founding Father

America’s Founding Fathers have interested me for as long as I can remember, but over the past few months my fascination has evolved into a full-fledged obsession.  There’s no real mystery to this:  In light of the prospective political leaders we are faced with today, it’s only natural to want to retreat into the 18th century until the 2016 election draws to a close.

As I make my way through Ron Chernow’s epic 2010 biography of George Washington—this after having (finally) gotten around to Chernow’s improbably chic bestseller Alexander Hamilton—I am reminded, with startling clarity, that the men who created this great country were at once infinitely better and infinitely worse than we tend to give them credit for—intellectually superior to their 21st century counterparts, yet cursed with the same crippling moral and temperamental deficiencies.  Human beings in every sense of the word.

From Chernow’s Washington: A Life, we find that perhaps the most salient personal quality of our first commander-in-chief was his self-restraint.  As it turns out—based on multiple firsthand accounts—George Washington possessed an explosive temper throughout his adult life that, if left unchecked, was liable to alienate friends and enemies alike and—given Washington’s unique position in society—imperil the very existence of the United States of America.

As such, Washington’s great psychological achievement—particularly during the Revolutionary War—was to suppress the urge to act out and inflict his wrath upon others.  To conduct himself with an equanimity and gravitas befitting a man whom virtually all Americans viewed as a role model, if not a savior.  To act—dare I say?—presidential.

To be sure, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington had every cause to let his anger and frustration run rampant, from drunk and disorderly troops to disloyal officers to a feckless Congress to an overpowering British adversary.  Indeed, acute aggravation would’ve been the natural, rational response to all of those setbacks and more, and few would’ve begrudged Washington for flying into a rage and saying what he really thought (in his private correspondence, he did exactly that).

And yet, because he understood that the fate of a nation depended upon a unified army held together by a strong, courageous leader, Washington somehow rose above the fray, mastering his emotions and willing himself into the unflappable icon that he is today.

To marinate in the details of Washington’s exploits is to understand why he is considered the greatest and most indispensable American who ever lived:  Because he always put the public good ahead of any personal considerations.  Rather than indulging his own interests—there were many to choose from—he forwarded the interests of a country that, through eight-plus years of war, didn’t even technically exist.  Although he had every incentive and desire to hang back and tend to his family and plantation—a property that encompassed 6,500 acres and 317 slaves—when duty called, he chose to risk everything in service to a noble cause.

Of course, it would be completely unfair to condemn any of our current political figures for not living up to George Washington’s impossibly high standard of statesmanship.  In the 216 years since Washington’s death, only a handful of individuals have even come close.

Yet with someone like Donald Trump, it is both fair and imperative to notice how supremely un-Washington-like this particular presidential candidate is—how Trump seems to embody the exact opposite of everything that made Washington so essential to the life of our young republic.

Most obvious of all, perhaps, is how thoroughly Trump has dismissed the notion of quiet dignity as being a necessary and admirable quality in a modern-day commander-in-chief.

Banking his entire candidacy on being a boorish, foul-mouthed windbag—recklessly voicing every half-formed thought that passes through his brain—Trump has espoused an abject indifference toward acting in any way “presidential,” mocking virtues like silence and moderation as the refuge of weak-willed sissies.  When challenged by reporters as to whether he will ever start behaving like a grown-up, his response—“I can be presidential, but […] it would be boring as hell”—had all the credibility of a teenager staring at a Picasso and scoffing, “I could do that—if I felt like it.”

In fact, Trump has neither the interest nor the discipline to elevate his public persona into the realm of respectability.  Unlike Washington, he is constitutionally incapable of reining himself in—as demonstrated by his failure to do so for more than a few minutes at a time before reverting back to his true self.

If, instead, we are to entertain the odd theory that Trump’s entire life up to now has been an elaborate performance and that he will magically acquire maturity upon assuming high office, we should note that it took George Washington many years and much soul-searching to shed his rougher edges in public, and that when he was as old as Trump is now, he’d been dead for two years.

As if that weren’t enough, Trump has effected another direct negation of Washingtonian class through his breathtaking propensity for vanity and naked self-promotion.

Although George Washington was a deeply ambitious man—someone who saved all of his papers in the hope they would ensure his immortality—whenever he assumed a position of high authority, he took meticulous care in removing even the appearance of having done so in self-interest or for personal gain.  By declining large salaries and exhibiting profound reluctance in undertaking the monumental roles he was offered, Washington made it plain that public service was a wholly laudable and often thankless vocation—a means of attaining eternal glory, to be sure, but by no means an avenue to material rewards or even a decent pension.

Indeed, there were few things in life that Washington found more repulsive than people who openly boasted about their own abilities and character and expressed unbounded enthusiasm for securing personal and professional advancement.  To him, ambition of any sort was something to be kept carefully hidden from public view, lest one be thought to care only about oneself and not the fortunes of the country at large.

The operative term here is honor.  In an epoch when personal clashes would occasionally be resolved on the dueling ground (see: Hamilton v. Burr), public figures were quite scrupulous about what they said in public, knowing that a misplaced slight could result in death and disgrace.  It has been noted that, were we living in such a time now, Trump’s ridiculous tussle with Ted Cruz over their wives’ looks would’ve been textbook grounds for such a confrontation, but in truth, nearly every remark by the presumptive Republican nominee would fail the standard of chivalry established throughout the 18th century and beyond.  (Then again, why should we blame Trump for exploiting a culture that allows this sort of nonsense to occur?)

I mentioned that not all of our founders’ qualities were superior to our own—and not only those relating to the crime of owning and controlling fellow human beings.  As inspiring as George Washington’s bravery and rectitude surely are, it is equally compelling to learn, for instance, that when it came to matters of business and real estate, he was a cold, lustful, ruthless tyrant.

Hungry for land and provisions at the lowest possible price, Washington snatched up tens of thousands of acres across Western Pennsylvania as soon as they became available, enacting swift measures against any squatters who tried to occupy them without paying rent.  Indeed, Great Britain’s harsh restrictions and unfair prices on frontier real estate were just as much of a motivating factor in Washington’s revolutionary zeal as were the more lofty ideals of life, liberty and self-determination.

In a fashion, all of this enterprising and speculation was a product of simple greed—the same singular driving force behind the actions of one Donald Trump.  In his private affairs, Washington exhibited a single-mindedness toward enhancing his personal wealth that we have come to loathe in the business leaders of today.

For all Washington said and wrote about wanting to end slavery once and for all, he—like virtually every other southern planter—couldn’t figure out how to emancipate his own slaves without risking total financial ruin.  In the end, the latter was more important to him than the former, leading him to free his slaves, but only upon his death, i.e. the moment his own personal comfort ceased being a concern.

Here, at least, is an area in which Donald Trump emerges one step ahead of the Father of His Country:  Whatever Trump’s true net worth, at least a teeny, tiny fraction of it goes directly to his work force.

Greatest Expectations

Who could’ve known that Donald Trump isn’t always on the level?

While we can’t yet say for sure, this week we were provided the strongest evidence to date that the presumptive GOP nominee has something to hide.  Namely, his taxes.

During one of the many Republican debates earlier this year, Trump assured us that he will disclose his most recent tax returns just as soon as the IRS completes an audit.  Then, just a few days ago, he informed us that, on second thought, he might not release them at all—or at least not until after November’s election.  If he makes good on this non-promise, he would be the first presidential nominee in 40 years to keep his tax information to himself.

Ordinarily, our leaders’ income would not necessarily be an object of our immediate interest.  However, Donald Trump has made his apparently bottomless wealth the centerpiece of his candidacy—the centerpiece of himself, really—and so when he suddenly becomes squeamish about actually showing us the state of his finances, we are justified in assuming that something shady is afoot.

Is he not nearly as rich as he claims?  Has he been stowing his taxable income in a covert hideaway in Panama or the Cayman Islands?  Does he donate little or nothing to charity?  Does he count some secret love child among his dependents?

Unless and until Trump comes clean, we have no choice but to speculate.

In any case, it’s worth noting how brazenly and completely Trump brought this impending scandal upon himself—that is, by bragging about his income and then refusing to publish his 1099s.  His evasiveness on this issue—apart from being just one more demonstration of what a rotten president he would be—signals just how unprepared he is for the world of electoral politics—in particular, the art of managing expectations.

Up to now, Trump has built and sustained his shocking popularity among GOP primary voters largely through an endless stream of hyperbolic claims and impossible promises.  Whether in a debate, TV appearance or campaign rally, Trump only ever speaks in the vaguest and most extravagant terms when trying to sell or explain his policy platform, constantly employing words like “great,” “big,” “utterly,” “beautiful,” “wonderful” and “tremendous,” leaving himself precious little time for details, nuance or substance.  Unfailingly, when asked, “How will you solve issue X?” Trump responds with some version of, “By doing something terrific.”

On the one hand, this admixture of ignorance and cynicism is—like everything else about this man—almost too ridiculous to take seriously.  On the other hand, it indicates that Trump understands the same fundamental truth that Barack Obama understood in 2008 (and Ronald Reagan in 1980), which is that in a presidential campaign, hope conquers all.  That if you successfully conjure the image of America as a shining city on a hill on which the Lord’s blessings will never cease (with or without a big, beautiful wall around it), the public just may forget all the hard work that goes into making such a prosperous American Eden possible and will vote their dreams at the expense of reality.

However, what Trump apparently doesn’t grasp is that once the election is won and the burden of governing begins, the people will gradually regain their senses and expect at least a few of their dreams to come true.  And when none of those happy fantasies come to pass, they will begin to wonder just what they voted for in the first place.

Sure:  Every president in history has made pledges he was not able to fulfill—either because circumstances (read:  Congress) wouldn’t allow it or because—gasp!—he was an opportunist who never really meant it in the first place.  Sooner or later—whether by accident or design—the president is going to disappoint every last person in America.

The difference with Trump is that he genuinely believes he is invincible and that all checks on presidential power can be transcended through the sheer force of his libido.  From his various statements on immigration and foreign policy, he is either completely ignorant about the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions (among other things) or he simply considers them negotiable.  Why listen to Madison and Hamilton when you’re the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal?

In other words, for all his confidence tricks and bluster, Trump basically believes his own nonsense.  He promises his supporters the moon and the stars because, in some corner of his psyche, he thinks he can deliver both.

Well, he can’t—at least not without violating the Constitution and committing several war crimes along the way.

Which means that, should Trump become president, one of two things will happen:  Either he will succeed at rendering our founding documents moot and establishing himself as emperor, or he will discover that 229 years of institutional checks and balances are more powerful than one man’s ego.

Indeed, if there is a silver lining to Trump’s most reprehensible ideas, it’s the impossibility of them ever getting passed.  By setting the bar so very high, Trump has set himself up to fail.  Snake oil salesman that he is, he has planted ideas in the minds of his supporters that, by definition, will never come to pass.

Here, then, is the best argument yet that Trump is truly not a politician.  If he were, he would’ve caught on by now that campaign pledges are more than just words.  That once he’s in power, he just might be held to account for them and be judged accordingly.  That after four years of disappointment, those video clips of him saying, “We’ll have so much winning if I’m elected that you may get bored with winning,” will look even dumber than they look now.

It is my continued belief that Trump had no intention of doing this well in the primaries—let alone of becoming the nominee—and he therefore never saw any reason to calibrate his vision for America to how the government actually functions.  So long as his candidacy remained a manic pipe dream, he could swing for the fences without consequence.

However, now that he is effectively the face of the Republican Party, he is in the unenviable position of having to put up or shut up.  And we know full well that he is incapable of either one.

Laughing Into Oblivion

“In the last seven to eight years […] I sort of gave up on the human race, gave up on the American dream and culture and nation, and decided that I didn’t care about the outcome.  And that gave me a lot of freedom, from a kind of distant platform, to watch the whole thing with a combination of wonder and pity.”

That was George Carlin—probably the most intellectually sophisticated stand-up comic in history—reflecting in 1996 on an evolution of his onstage persona that would endure for the remaining dozen-odd years of his life.

Having begun his career as a clever, if slightly innocuous, presence on late night television before metamorphosing into the countercultural linguistic acrobat for which he is most famous, Carlin in the late 1980s underwent one final act of reinvention that saw his essentially cheerful disposition turn deeply, unabashedly cynical—if not outright nihilistic—as reflected in such onstage quips as “I enjoy chaos and disorder” and “No matter what kind of problems humans are facing, I always hope it gets worse.”  Was it mere coincidence that in his final seven HBO specials, he was always cloaked in black?

In Carlin’s hands, this dark, detached view of human nature proved a caustic, fragrant and often exhilarating form of comedic performance art.  In a culture of seemingly bottomless hope and optimism, there was a perverse, ironic joy to Carlin’s pessimistic snark.  Indeed, the very act of hearing it became a subtle form of rebellion against the system.

The challenge, then, is to resist applying this despairing philosophy to one’s day-to-day life.  It’s easy enough to throw up your hands and say, “The whole world is doomed, so the hell with everything,” but you still have to wake up in the morning and make the best of whatever the universe throws your way.  Rejecting society doesn’t exempt your existence within it, and there is finally something weak and lazy about proactively dismissing humanity as, in Carlin’s words, “Just another failed mutation.”

But then there are days like last Tuesday, when Donald Trump effectively became the Republican nominee for president, that make me wonder if Carlin wasn’t correct the whole time—that the great American experiment has played itself out and is now little more than an object of our collective morbid amusement.

What we should ask ourselves in this moment—as the gravity of the GOP’s nomination process begins to sink in—is whether the rest of the 2016 presidential election—and, potentially, the next decade of human events—is worth taking seriously at all.

More than anyone who has run for president in the television age, Donald Trump practically begs to be treated with the contempt, embarrassment and ridicule that his candidacy has thus far induced.  Here, after all, is a man with no principles, no expertise, no shame, no morality, no restraint, no taste and—by all outward appearances—no interest in behaving like a mature adult.

As of late, we have been informed that the American media utterly failed to anticipate Trump’s wide-ranging appeal among Republican voters while, at the same time, unwittingly enabling his rise to the top with a gazillion dollars’ worth of free 24/7 coverage.

This indictment sounds reasonable enough, but I’m not sure it’s true.  So far as I can tell, our mainstream press pretty much nailed its most important duty of all, which was to remove any doubt about Trump’s profound inappropriateness as a potential leader of the free world.  Thanks to the media’s stalker-like fixation with every horrible thing Trump has ever said or done, we are now armed with more concrete reasons not to vote for him than for any nominee since Aaron Burr.

If we believe—as we apparently do—that Trump’s total saturation on TV and online was the determining factor for his amazing electoral success—that we wouldn’t have one without the other—we must then follow this assumption to its logical conclusion, which is that admiration for Trump, such as it is, is based on a thorough understanding of his true character.  That’s to say, his supporters love him for precisely the same reasons the rest of us hate him, with very little lost in translation.

As it turns out, America is divided into two groups:  Those who think an emotionally unbalanced charlatan would make a terrific commander-in-chief, and those who don’t.  If Trump is indeed elected this November, it will not be the result of some mass misapprehension about what he represents; it will simply be from an honest disagreement over what a president ought to be.  In a democratic republic, what could be fairer than that?

As such, I don’t see why Team #NeverTrump should knock itself out trying to convince the rubes they are misguided and/or insane.  The latter have been presented with a year’s worth of evidence that their preferred candidate is a third-rate con man and they have decided to drink the Kool-Aid, anyway.  Maybe it’s time we accept their poor judgment and move on.

From the beginning, the real divide amongst Trump haters has been between those who find the prospect of a President Trump terrifying and those who find it hilarious.  (Admittedly, the two are not mutually exclusive.)

Call me naïve, but I don’t see where all the existential fear comes from.  Once you realize, for instance, that women comprise a majority of registered voters and that Hispanic Americans are the second fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, the notion of a boastfully xenophobic misogynist securing 270 electoral votes becomes pure fantasy, and most Republicans know it.

Which brings us back to George Carlin and his theory that all the world’s a stage and we, the audience, have every right to jeer.  We should be very concerned, indeed, about all the misery that Trump’s candidacy has already unleashed—the racial profiling, the fights, the sexism, the general thuggery and pervading sense of menace in the air—but the only way that Trumpism fully metastasizes into a global threat is if the majority of us who find Trump repulsive somehow forget to vote on November 8.

There has been speculation, of course, that a significant chunk of disgruntled Bernie Sanders enthusiasts could tip the scale toward Trump by withholding a vote for Hillary Clinton out of spite.  Should that occur, it would effectively signify that a majority of American voters—Trump supporters plus Sanders supporters—have embraced rank nihilism as a political philosophy and genuinely do not care if their country’s nuclear arsenal is placed in the custody of a hyperactive teenager who incites frantic Twitter wars at 4 o’clock in the morning.

If that’s the country we are—if that’s the message we will send to the world in six months’ time—then we have already surrendered any pretense of being a serious people who should be regarded by the rest of the world with a straight face.  And if the United States is to become one big fat international joke—if we are to purposefully shoot ourselves in the foot and drag every other country down with us—why shouldn’t we enjoy the show while it lasts?  If we are to elect Trump and thereby gamble away our lives and our liberty, we might as well retain our happiness.

It’s a shame George Carlin isn’t alive to experience the Trump circus for himself.  I have a feeling what he might say about it, and it would take a lot more than seven words to do so.

The Unwelcome Truth

Some years back, while promoting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers, historian Joseph Ellis offered this pithy comparison of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams:

“Jefferson tells us what we want to hear.  Adams tells us what we need to know.  [Adams] is the person who will always tell you the most unattractive truth that you know is true.”

Ellis went on to argue that Adams—quite unlike his successor to the presidency—is “the most unappreciated great man in American history.”

Could it be that those two statements are somehow related?  That Adams’ relative historical obscurity is a direct consequence of his refusal to sugarcoat his deepest, darkest intimations about the new American republic?

Of course this is the case, and there is more wisdom in that connection than any of us could fully appreciate—not least in an election year like this one.

While one simplifies the Founding Fathers at one’s peril, it seems clear enough that the enduring preeminence of Thomas Jefferson in the popular imagination owes to how Jefferson was, at his core, a romantic dreamer.  Writing that “all men are created equal” while holding some 200 human beings in bondage and singing the praises of the humble farmer while residing on a remote, lavish estate, Jefferson’s contribution to the American Revolution was to imagine a country and its citizenry as they perhaps should be, but not—by any stretch of the imagination—as they actually were.

Notwithstanding his timeless proclamations about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—words that we invoke on an almost daily basis—Jefferson was, in so many ways, a hopeless idealist with a highly tenuous grasp of reality.  Apart from the howling contradictions of his own existence, his vision for what might eventually turn the United States into a global superpower—a decentralized agrarian society removed from big cities and big banks—was curiously and profoundly out of touch with several key insights about economics and human nature.

We can admire Jefferson’s ideals all we want, but we should also realize how lucky we are not to have taken most of his policy prescriptions seriously.

In the end, America survived and prospered as a muscular, unified republic by heeding the advice of those who spoke in cold facts rather than warm fantasies—people who understood, for instance, that pure democracy could not be implemented without risking anarchy and mob rule, or that the surest means of establishing international credit was by incurring a national debt.

These are not terribly appealing thoughts—certainly no candidate could get far on them today—and yet they were, by and large, the secret to our success.  America may owe its poetry and lofty principles to Thomas Jefferson, but its unshakable foundations were the work of combative, hard-headed realists like John Adams, James Madison and, of course, that plucky immigrant currently running roughshod on Broadway.

It is certainly ironic—as innumerable experts have pointed out—that Alexander Hamilton has become America’s new favorite founder at precisely the moment when many of his deepest political convictions—big government, big banks, a big national debt—have fallen utterly out of favor among most American voters.

Indeed, prior to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play—and certainly prior to Ron Chernow’s book—Hamilton was every bit as overlooked as John Adams, and for many of the same reasons:  Like Adams, Hamilton built his legacy on telling unsexy truths about how a great country ought to be run, heedless of how unpopular such heresies might be and with an enormous skepticism for the intelligence and wisdom of the common man.  (A personality trait that the musical wisely suppresses.)

It goes without saying that such an openly dismissive and elitist attitude toward the public would make it impossible for men like Adams and Hamilton to be elected president today, and it’s equally worth noting that when Adams was elected, in 1796, a whopping 2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots before the all-powerful Electoral College took over.  (Hamilton, meanwhile, never held elected office in his life.)

And so we are brought to a most unwelcome, yet essential, conclusion:  Historically, the men and women best-equipped to lead this great nation have been—by virtue of their unromantic and clear-eyed dispositions—those least likely to secure enough votes to do so.

Put simply:  As a people, we will always opt for the candidate who tells us what we want to hear over the candidate who tells us what we need to know.  We bitch and moan about how cravenly our presidential candidates “pander,” but of course that’s exactly what we want them to do:  We want all of our dearest political convictions confirmed, not challenged, and we want to be reassured that we are on the right side of every issue.  Invariably, it is the panderers who ultimately triumph on Election Day while the so-called “straight talkers” are increasingly left in the dust.

To a degree, this truism helps explain the supposedly inexplicable success of Donald Trump.  For the plurality of GOP voters who adore him, Trump espouses all of their basest and most selfish suspicions about who is to “blame” for all the trouble in the world—principally, Mexicans, Muslims and the Chinese—while offering the most laughably vague and fantastical “solutions” to these (largely imaginary) problems:  For all that anyone can decipher, Trump’s official agenda entails little more than waving a magic wand and bringing America’s enemies to heel.

For all of his odd (and occasionally admirable) digressions from traditional Republican orthodoxy, Trump’s overall shtick is to assure his minions they have done nothing to deserve their dire economic status and that all of their troubles can be willed away if they would only make Trump their party’s nominee.

Among Democrats the situation is more complicated, as the candidate who is most guilty of pandering to liberals’ sacred ideals is also the one most commended for “telling it like it is.”  In point of fact, among all the major contenders on both sides, it has been Bernie Sanders whose essence as a potential president has warranted the most dramatic revision over the past year and change.

From the beginning, Sanders’ ace in the hole has been the notion that he—and not Hillary Clinton—is the one Democrat brave enough to identify the true sources of America’s glaring economic inequality (read: Wall Street and big banks) and to advocate for a “political revolution” to reverse the popular suffering those nefarious villains have caused.

Fair enough, but isn’t that a textbook case of telling voters what they want to hear?  When speaking to a gaggle of class-conscious liberal Democrats—aka Bernie’s natural constituency—isn’t blaming wealthy speculators for virtually all of America’s ills just another form of preaching to the converted?  Even if the charge itself is essentially true—and there is no doubt Sanders believes it to be true—what exactly is so courageous about pointing a finger at “them” in order to allow “us” to see ourselves as morally in the right?

In any case, Sanders’ real problem up to now has been his unwillingness and/or inability to square his wildest dreams about economic justice with the overwhelming arithmetical difficulty of enacting those ideals into law.

Bernie can bang on all he wants about how the greatest country on Earth should be able to provide health care and education for all of its citizens—a claim that, in effect, constitutes his entire stump speech—but so long as he continues to evade the obvious rejoinders—How much will it cost and why would Congress ever go along with it?—he is not telling us what we need to know.

If Sanders really wanted to make us uncomfortable—if he were to truly live up to his billing as the straight-talking-est candidate of them all—he would recognize the ways in which his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been correct all along.  He would acknowledge, for instance, that in order to change the system, you must work within (and with) the system, and that if you hope to get even half of what you want—in this case, some pretty enormous tax increases—you’d better be prepared to give something pretty sweet in return.

Here (to quote Joseph Ellis again) is where we find “the most unattractive truth that you know is true,” which is that when it comes to governing, compromise is not just a virtue, but a necessity.  Unless Sanders intends to rule by royal decree—a most peculiar form of socialism if ever I saw one—his administration will have to operate like every administration before it:  Through a series of bargains and quid pro quos, with a fair share of wheeling, dealing and needling to go along with it.

In what has become just about everyone’s favorite song from Hamilton—you know the one!—we are ominously and depressingly reminded:

“The art of the compromise / hold your nose and close your eyes / we want our leaders to save the day / but we don’t get a say in what they trade away / we dream of a brand new start / but we dream in the dark for the most part.”

That’s government, folks:  A long, painful stumble through the darkness in search of the tiniest, faintest glimmer of light.  An election is a choice between better and worse, not good and bad—as Bill Maher has said, “Perfect is not on the menu”—and we should be very wary, indeed, of any candidate who presumes to possess a magic bullet that can cure our imperfect system once and for all.

Hillary Clinton, for all her equivocations and unscrupulousness, seems to grasp the inherent intractability of the government she intends to lead, and her relatively modest expectations for success are—in their own way—a form of political courage.  She is the only major player in this year’s campaign who has told her own supporters they cannot have everything they want, so they might as well stop pretending otherwise.

Could it be that Hillary, and not Bernie, is the straight shooter we’ve been looking for this whole time?  Or would that be a truth that we simply could not handle?