Bottom of the 9th

In retrospect, I guess there was no other way for the 2016 election to end than in a giant, flaming ball of confusion and with a razor-thin final result.

A week ago—hell, less than 72 hours ago—this race was over by every conceivable metric:  Hillary Clinton led in one national poll after another—sometimes by double digits—as well as in enough state polls to clear 270 electoral votes and keep right on chugging.  What’s more, Donald Trump appeared to have abandoned any residual interest in taking this election seriously, spending most of his days plugging his tacky products and incoherently whining about how the entire democratic process is fixed.

Hence every sensible political pundit predicting that, unless something very weird happens between now and November 8, Hillary Clinton will easily be elected the 45th president of the United States, and we will all be able to return to our regularly scheduled lives.

And then on Friday afternoon, something very weird happened:  The director of the FBI, James Comey, publicly revealed the existence of a mysterious set of emails found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer—emails that may or may not involve Hillary Clinton and may or may not contain classified information.

In other words, the entire 2016 election was brought to a screeching halt by the sudden appearance of a shiny object.

Will the nature of this object—whatever it is—prove decisive next Tuesday?  Everyone has a theory, but the truth is that we have no effing idea.  Maybe the electorate has already decided how it feels about the damn emails and this won’t change a thing.  On the other hand, maybe there are just enough undecided voters for this new “scandal” to tip the election in Trump’s favor.

The only thing we know for sure—other than that we don’t know anything for sure—is that James Comey’s disclosure is precisely the deus ex machina that Trump needed to remain even slightly competitive in this bizarre race, and now that it’s happened, Hillary Clinton’s presumed victory is no longer a foregone conclusion.

To which I humbly ask:  Isn’t this what we secretly wanted all along?  Namely, a wild finish to an equally wild campaign?  A Super Bowl decided in the final moments of regulation?  A World Series that goes to seven games?  The nail-biter to end all nail-biters?

Perhaps your first instinct to that question is to spit your coffee onto your computer screen and then slam the computer against the wall.  Believe me, I know how you feel:  The morning after Comey’s announcement, I found myself in such an existential panic that I wandered into a screening of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden—two-and-a-half hours of psychological torture and hardcore lesbian sex—just to calm myself down.

But let’s not dance around the fact that we Americans have spent generations treating elections like sporting events, and that the worst thing a sporting event can possibly be is boring—particularly at the bitter end.

Ask any sports fan on Earth what he or she wants from a high-stakes competition and—to a person—they will all say the exact same thing:  “I just want the game to be close.”  Indeed, even if the contest involves the person’s home team and everything is on the line—cash, pride, emotional stability—raw excitement is on an equal plane with victory.  Winning may be the primary objective in the short run, but the thrill of losing in a memorable way is the stuff that dreams (albeit bad ones) are made of.  And while having your team win in a blowout is undeniably satisfying, it’s nothing—nothing!—compared to the satisfaction of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  (Here in Boston, for instance, 100 out of 100 Red Sox fans will affirm that beating the Yankees 4-3 in the 2004 ALCS was more gratifying than winning the World Series a week later in a clean, dull sweep.)

Does this same, slightly masochistic attitude apply to electoral politics?  Well, the media sure seem to think so, continually chasing whatever shocking plot twist comes down the pike in order to maximize ratings and keep anxious American hearts pounding.  Individual news networks may have a bias toward one political philosophy or the other, but when it comes to the news media writ large, the only bias that matters is the pursuit of sensationalism at all costs, and this requires that the race remain tight.

And yes:  Whether through the click of a remote or the click of a mouse, we, their dumb audience, eat up every last drop of it, breathlessly keeping up with every new “bombshell” development and working ourselves into a tizzy that—as Trump claimed on Friday—“This.  Changes.  Everything.”

In short:  Of course we are complicit in following politics the way we follow sports:  If we didn’t buy it, the media wouldn’t sell it.

The truth—the one we always know but rarely speak aloud—is that we will use almost any excuse not to talk about “the issues.”  For us, elections are primarily—if not entirely—about character, and in a race like this one—with two of the most distinctive characters we’ve ever had the misfortune to know—nothing is more compelling than the clash itself, and the thousand and one dynamics that are playing out at the exact same time on the largest stage in the history of the world.

Let’s face it:  The 2016 election has to go down to the wire, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been worth it.  It would’ve felt wrong—or at least anti-climactic—for this contest to have given us such a massive, continuous stream of material from the very beginning, only to end with a predictable and embarrassingly one-sided result.

Don’t get me wrong:  In a rational, moral universe, any presidential campaign that involved Donald Trump would’ve ceased being suspenseful the moment Trump became the Republican nominee.  Ideally, this race had no business being this interesting; by now, even a challenger as flawed as Clinton should’ve been ahead by at least 20 or 30 points.

Unfortunately, we live instead in the Land of Deplorables, where nearly half the country is prepared to vote for a confessed sexual predator just to avoid voting for a woman.  Until we grow up as a nation—and cease being so inherently polarized—we are fated to never have a lopsided presidential election ever again.  And if that’s the case, we might as well savor the intense, if nauseating, excitement of a contest that may not be decided until very, very late into the night of November 8, hoping—as we’ve never hoped before—that it will come out right in the end.

How to Lose an Election

They say you learn more from defeat than from victory.  Now that Donald Trump is (probably) about to lose the biggest, loudest contest of his life—and has insinuated that he won’t accept unfavorable results—I would recommend two recent documentaries that show, respectively, how losing should and should not be done.

The movies are Mitt and Weiner.  Released just two years apart (both debuted at Sundance, funnily enough), they offer a splendid study in contrasts about how candidates for high office navigate the indignities and insanities of 21st century campaigning:  How they handle setbacks, how they react to criticism—fair and unfair—and, ultimately, how they reconcile their high opinions of themselves with total rejection by the American electorate.

Mitt, directed by Greg Whiteley and released in 2014, is a behind-the-scenes look at six years in the life of Mitt Romney, from the earliest days of the 2008 Republican primaries (Romney, you’ll recall, came in second to John McCain) all the way to Election Night 2012, when he lost the presidency to Barack Obama.

The first time I saw Whiteley’s film, I wrote about how much more engaging, likable and—God help us—authentic Romney turned out to be when he wasn’t surrounded by the hound dogs in the press.  How soberly—and accurately—he was able to identify and assess his own electoral weaknesses, even in the most high-pitched moments of both campaigns.  How, in the end, those very shortcomings—the stiffness, the flip-flopping, the “47 percent” video—prevented America from noticing the wholly decent and eminently qualified candidate who resided underneath.

Watching Mitt again recently—this time in the age of Trump—I found myself admiring this version of Mitt Romney even more than I did the first time.  Apart from the billions of other ways Romney is preferable to Donald Trump—both as a politician and a human being—in Mitt he presents as a man responding to adversity and disappointment about as well as someone in his position possibly could.  No matter how bad things get—say, when he loses the New Hampshire primary to John McCain in 2008, or when Obama gets the better of him in their second debate in 2012—he always seems to grasp exactly what the problem is and how he might—or might not—be able to fix it.

In other words, Romney never succumbs to self-pity, never throws a tantrum, never blames his troubles on everyone else, never loses touch with reality.  For all the cockeyed optimism he projects both on and offstage, at heart he is a steely-eyed realist whose sense of optics and the public mood are sharper, perhaps, than that of anyone else in his inner circle—including the members of his large and fiercely loyal family.

As the rest of his posse whines about the unfairness of it all—asking, incredulously, how voters could possibly prefer President Obama to him—Mitt retains the wherewithal and discipline to look inward—to understand why he is struggling and, in time, to recognize a lost cause when he sees one.  On Election Night—as the numbers trickle in and it becomes clear the evening is not going his way—he maintains a sad, stubborn smile, resolute that, through months of hard campaigning, he has arrived at some sort of inner peace.

Now consider Weiner, the doc from earlier this year by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, which follows Anthony Weiner through his ill-conceived, disastrous campaign for mayor of New York in the summer of 2013.

Weiner, as you know, is the feisty former congressman from Brooklyn who was forced to resign his House seat in 2011, after it was revealed he had texted pictures of…himself…to a series of strange young women.  From the shame and disgrace of that sordid affair, he decided the next logical step was to become chief executive of the largest city in the United States—a contest he would lose by a comically huge margin (he finished in fifth place, with 5 percent of the vote), hindered, in part, by a brand new sexting story that hit newsstands at the worst possible moment.

Like Romney with his project, Weiner allowed the crew of Weiner to follow him around everywhere—through the good times and the bad—and the most salient impression we get is that Anthony Weiner is possibly the only man in America more narcissistic than Donald Trump.

At no point in this film does Weiner consider the well-being of anyone but himself; at no point does he feel particularly responsible for the misfortunes that seem to follow him everywhere he goes; at no point does he understand how ridiculous his multiple sexting scandals have made him look, even to his own supporters; and at no point does he ponder whether running for mayor—or anything else, for that matter—was an act of pure hubris—and, as it turned out, the beginning of the end of his marriage.  (His wife, Huma Abedin, announced their separation earlier this year, following yet another round of sexting with yet another random lady.)

This is not to say that, during this ordeal, Weiner is entirely without self-awareness or introspection.  In fact, the filmmakers frequently cross-examine their subject about the wisdom of his many puzzling life decisions, and he does occasionally attempt to ascertain what might be going on in his brain.

All the same, Weiner’s quest is fundamentally a lonely and selfish one—a way to prove and redeem himself after an embarrassing and tawdry fall from grace (not that he was ever particularly graceful in the first place)—and his response to repeated humiliations is to step right back into the flogging machine that the press is all-too-willing to fire up.

Witness, for instance, his confrontation in a Jewish bakery with a customer who berates him for his immature behavior—a charge Weiner rebuts by (you guessed it!) behaving immaturely.  Seeing Weiner take the bait and escalate the situation into a pointless shouting match—later breathlessly reported on the evening news, naturally—we cannot help but agree with a smirking bystander who turns to the camera and says, “He could’ve just walked away.”

But Anthony Weiner is not the sort of person who can just walk away from anything.  He is too proud, too petulant—too insecure in his own skin—to let even the mildest criticism slide.  He is a political street fighter who can trash talk others until the cows come home but turns into a sputtering nincompoop whenever the insults ricochet back in his direction.

Remind you of anyone else we know?

If Donald Trump insists on losing the 2016 presidential election—surely, no one can still believe he’s trying to win—and if he wants America to extend even a modicum of respect for how he does so, Mitt Romney’s is the ideal model for him to emulate:  Calm, cool, collected and classy.

It is to Romney’s credit—as a candidate and a person—that Trump can’t even pretend to exhibit the graciousness in defeat that Romney essayed so well in 2012, both in public and in private.  While there is still time for Trump to completely transform his personality and accept his personal failings like a man, the smart money remains where it has always been:  As far as political temperaments go, Donald Trump is nothing more than a giant stinking Weiner.

A Nation of Deplorables

On Monday, I will be casting the third presidential ballot of my life.  (Hurray for early voting!)  Incidentally—and I don’t mean to brag—this will be the third consecutive time that I will not be voting for an alleged sexual predator for the highest office in the land.

True:  In an enlightened, democratic society, you’d think that not having a possible rapist on the ballot would go more or less without saying.  On our better days, we Americans possess a sufficient level of moral outrage not to let that kind of crap occur.

But 2016 has just been one of those years, so instead we’re stuck with a man—and I use that word loosely—who feels so entitled to the bodies of American women (by his own tape-recorded admission) that his only response to multiple allegations of sexual misconduct is to ridicule the looks of his alleged victims.  Say what you will about Bill Clinton (and I will), but he at least had the courtesy to refer to his most famous accuser by name.

With this year’s standards for electability and decency being what they are, I can take a modicum of pride in having resisted the would-be allure of a vulgar, sexist thug as leader of the free world.  Personally, I intend to continue my trend of voting for non-rapists—and, for that matter, non-misogynists—for the remainder of my life as a citizen.  As John Oliver might say, it is literally the least I can do.

And yet, historically, this has not necessarily been the case for many American voters.

In 1996, for instance, some 47 million of my countrymen opted to keep Bill Clinton in the White House, which is to say that 47 million Americans voted for a man who, apart from being a confessed adulterer, has long been accused of sexual assault—a charge to which he has yet to speak a single word in his defense.  To be fair, the rape allegation didn’t become widely known until Clinton’s second term in office, but I can’t help but notice that—nearly two decades after the fact—the 42nd president remains among the most beloved men in public life, particularly within the political party that claims to be the protector of vulnerable and mistreated women.

Am I really the only person experiencing cognitive dissonance over this rather glaring moral contradiction?

Look:  We all know that Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes are merely a half-assed attempt to divert attention from Trump’s own horrifying attitudes (and actions) toward women.  But this does not mean that Clinton’s transgressions didn’t occur and that he should not be held to the same standards as every other alleged abuser.

If you believe—as I do—that women who level rape charges tend to be telling the truth, and if you agree that what we know we know about Clinton would suggest that such charges could be true in his case, then you must conclude that continuing to hold up this man, uncritically, as a Democratic Party icon is problematic at best and despicable at worst.

So why do we do it?  Because—as Orwell famously said—it takes a great struggle to see what is directly in front of our own eyes.  Because human beings are exceptionally good at convincing themselves of what should be true, rather than what is true.  Because we prefer myth to reality, particularly when facing the latter head-on would completely undermine the power of the former.

Just as most historians refused to accept that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, until a DNA test proved it once and for all, admirers of Bill Clinton will continue to reassure themselves that he didn’t rape Juanita Broaddrick in 1978, because, well, that’s just not the sort of thing he would do.  Indeed, he couldn’t have done it, because what would that say about all the good people who’ve unconditionally supported and admired him all through the years?

Well, we know what it would say:  That they are either fools or co-conspirators—irretrievably naïve or irredeemably wicked.  And so the solution to this quandary—as unsatisfying as it is inevitable—is to either ignore the problem altogether or to rationalize it to within an inch of its life.  By and large, that is exactly what the Democratic Party has done.

With Trump, of course, it has become so gratingly obvious that sexual harassment (if not assault) is exactly the sort of thing he would do—not least because he’s said so himself—that all excuses or evasions on his behalf can (and largely have) been dismissed as sheer farce.  At this moment—with at least 10 different women having corroborated Trump’s boasts about placing his hands where they definitely don’t belong—to hear that “no one has more respect for women” than Trump has all the believability of Michael Palin insisting to John Cleese that his parrot is still alive.

Which brings us to what has—among liberals, at least—been a defining question of this whole ordeal:  What the hell is Natwrong with Donald Trump’s supporters?

By Nate Silver’s most recent estimate, Trump will end up garnering 43 percent of the vote, which translates to roughly 55 million people.  From what I can gather, this most bewitching chunk of Americans can be subdivided into three groups:

  1. So-called “traditional” conservatives who are disgusted by Trump’s antics and don’t really want him to win, but have nonetheless accepted him as an ideological bulwark against a President Hillary Clinton.
  2. Lifelong Republicans who have somehow managed to look past Trump’s defects and, being totally fed up with “the system,” are hopeful he can serve as a human Molotov cocktail who will magically—and single-handedly—change the way Washington works.
  3. The basket of deplorables.

Obviously that final group is wholly beyond repair, but can we really say the same about groups one and two?

Almost without exception, liberals have condemned all Trump voters as equally irrational and repulsive for daring to stand behind such an irrational and repulsive candidate.  While it may be easy and cathartic to dismiss half the country as a bunch of racist loony toons, it’s also a way of avoiding the uncomfortable fact that, had your life circumstances been just a little different—and your political opinions rotated just a few degrees to the right—you, too, may have spent the majority of 2016 engulfed in a painful existential dilemma as to what is the right thing to do—about how much nonsense you’re willing to endure to keep your favored political party in charge of the executive branch.

In light of recent history, we might want to think twice about being so sweepingly judgmental.

Again:  Some 20 years ago, 47 million liberals voted for commander-in-chief a man—Bill Clinton—whom they knew full well was a liar and a womanizer, and it was because they told themselves that, on balance, he nonetheless represented the majority of their interests and values.  And yet now, in 2016, most of those same liberals are berating conservatives for engaging in the exact same moral compromise for the exact same reasons.

Pot, meet kettle.

The truth—the whole truth—is that each and every one of us is susceptible, sooner or later, to vote for a morally repugnant presidential candidate, provided his or her election suits our own political purposes.  Whether they realize it or not, a majority of Americans have done—or soon will do—exactly that, and they (read: we) would be well-advised to check their righteous indignation at the door, or at least to temper it enough so as not to appear like such oblivious, whining hypocrites.

The American

Citizen Kane popped up on Turner Classic Movies the other night.  Having nothing better to do at 1:30 in the morning, I ended up watching the whole thing, just to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d missed the first 20 or 30 times I’d seen it.

As it happens, there was.  See, although I’ve returned to Citizen Kane on a regular basis throughout my adult life, this was my first interaction with Orson Welles’s magnum opus in the era of Donald Trump—a man, oddly enough, who has cited Kane as his all-time favorite movie.  Bearing those two facts in mind, I found myself viewing Welles’s 1941 film through a new lens—namely, a Trumpian lens—which resulted (improbably enough) in an altogether fresh and provocative experience of this great picture, which can roughly be summarized as, “Kane equals Trump.”

To be sure, I am hardly the first cinefile in 2016 to notice some glaring, eerie similarities between Charles Foster Kane—the movie’s fictional hero—and Donald J. Trump.  Indeed, it requires no great intellect to gaze upon Kane—an ambitious, wealthy, vulgar, narcissistic, philandering media tycoon—and recognize elements of the current Republican presidential nominee.

Just a few months ago in the Boston Globe, movie critic Ty Burr did exactly that, observing that Trump’s apparent affinity for this most highbrow of classic films clearly springs from an identification with its title character—a hypothesis more or less confirmed by Trump himself in a fascinating 2002 interview with Errol Morris, during which Trump describes Kane’s arc as comprising “a great rise and […] a modest fall,” adding, with surprising candor, “In real life, I believe that wealth does, in fact, isolate you from other people.  It’s a protective mechanism.”

That’s a startling admission from a man who seems to value the accumulation of wealth above all other things—a sign, perhaps, that Trump is not quite as thick as he appears.  But then, right at the end of the interview, Morris asks him, “If you could give Charles Foster Kane one piece of advice, what would you say to him?”  Trump’s response:  “Get yourself a different woman.”

So there you have it, folks.  Kane’s fatal flaw wasn’t his ruthless pursuit of money and power; it wasn’t his cold dismissal of friends and colleagues who ceased being useful to him; it wasn’t his patronizing attitude toward the public that he wished to serve; nor was it his loose and irresponsible attitude toward basic truth and facts.

Nope.  According to Trump, Kane’s only real problem was that tramp of a wife, Susan.  You know, the one who tried to kill herself because her husband forced her to pursue his interests rather than her own.  The woman who dared to seek her own happiness and be her own person.  Yessiree, if only she had understood her place as her husband’s dutiful slave, then everything would’ve worked out just fine for good old Charlie Kane.

No doubt this is how many men secretly (if not openly) think, and Trump would not be the first rank misogynist to totally misunderstand what Citizen Kane is really about.  However, because this particular misogynist has become such a culturally significant figure, it’s a wee bit scary how very wrong he is.

As Exhibit A, I present the famous speech where Kane, a populist newspaper publisher running for New York governor on an anti-corruption platform, pledges, “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys.”

Gettys, you’ll recall, is the sitting governor and Kane’s main opponent in the race, meaning that Kane is promising to literally jail his vanquished foe should he win the election later that week.

Does that possibly ring a bell for you?  It should, because that was—almost word for word—what Trump vowed to do to Hillary Clinton during their most recent debate, should he prevail on November 8—a promise, we might add, that no other real-life candidate has made in the entire history of presidential campaigns.

I wonder:  Did Trump re-watch Kane the night before the debate, taking copious notes in the hope of reenacting its most memorable bits?  And when that barn-burning speech occurred, did a light bulb illuminate above Trump’s head and a big, stupid grin materialize across his face?

I wouldn’t be too surprised if that were the case.  And if so, did Trump also notice how Kane’s campaign ultimately crashes and burns after Kane is found to have cheated on his wife and is too pig-headed to face it head-on?  Or how, the morning after he loses, the headline of his own newspaper defiantly reads, “FRAUD AT POLLS!”?  Or how, after the unwelcome results have filtered into Kane campaign headquarters, Jed Leland—Kane’s one and only friend—looks him in the eye and says, “You don’t care about anything except you.  You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back.  Only you want love on your own terms.  It’s something to be played your way according to your rules.”

They say that art imitates life, although I’ve often found it to be the other way around.  That Trump views Kane as a noble character who is worth emulating in real life just goes to show what a genius Welles was in evoking the timeless allure of acquiring great fame and becoming a great man—and, more brilliantly still, in demonstrating that one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.  No wonder the movie’s original working title was, simply, The American.

Trump, who has never been especially good at nuance, seems to view Kane strictly through rose (or rosebud)-colored glasses, not grasping the essential sadness of Kane’s life story, which—as any well-rounded person can see—is the result of having an ego several sizes too big and a heart several sizes too small.

That Trump doesn’t get this is to the benefit of no one, although it’s in perfect alignment with what we already know about his character.  Indeed, Trump’s very obliviousness to what makes Kane a tragic figure is, itself, proof that the two men are cut from the same genetic cloth:  Both are born into great wealth but also great insecurity, and as a result, they spend their entire lives trying to prove themselves to a public that ultimately dismisses them as petty, cruel and ridiculous.

The lesson of Citizen Kane may be that you can amass all the money in the world but you still can’t make people love you, and self-love can only get you so far in achieving inner peace.  By the time Kane figured this out, it was too late.  How much more will Trump need to humiliate himself before he comes to the same, sad end?

What Might Have Been

During the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “All year, I’ve told people who asked about an alternate history for 2016: ‘This IS the alternate history.’”

Yes, indeed.  And as this bizarro fever dream lurches toward its conclusion—likely in the form of a smashing Clinton victory—it’s hard not to fantasize about what might have been.  To mentally play out the 2016 election in a plane of reality devoid of Clinton and/or Trump.

To be sure, Americans have wistfully indulged in “What if?” scenarios for pretty much every election in history—if not every major news event, period—understanding, as we do, that one tiny hiccup in the space-time continuum can have a transformative effect on the course of human events.  Since reality itself is unknowable until it becomes known—and sometimes not even then—alternate reality has an otherworldly allure tailor-made for those who’ve had it up to here with the truth and would rather reside in the warm, reassuring embrace of pure fiction.

In 2016, that describes just about everybody, doesn’t it?

Let us begin, then, with Bernie Sanders and his vision for a more economically egalitarian way of life.  Had he somehow prevailed in the Democratic primaries—say, by attracting more African-American voters or by more aggressively attacking Hillary’s most vulnerable policy positions—would his general election campaign against Trump have been measurably different from Clinton’s?

Damn straight, it would.  For all the substantive agreement between the two Democratic candidates, Sanders would’ve presented as an entirely different species of opponent for his Republican counterpart—a simpler target in some ways, while a considerably more vexing one in others.

Most conspicuously, perhaps—particularly in light of recent events—Trump could not credibly have attacked Sanders on issues of character.  Unlike Hillary, Bernie hasn’t a whiff of scandal or corruption about him; he has rarely, if ever, altered his views for political expedience; he has not engaged in “pay-to-play” shenanigans with lobbyists or big banks; and he has not, in any case, been a party to the so-called “rigged” system that both he and Trump have vowed to fix.

As well, for all his theatricality in front of a crowd, Sanders is an utterly decent and morally serious person who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a dirty primary fight against Hillary and presumably would’ve tried to comport himself similarly against Trump.  What’s more, even if he had chastised Trump for all the terrible things he’s said over the years—as he has been wont to do as Hillary’s loyal surrogate—what exactly would Trump have lobbed back in response?  We all know how much the Donald depends on projection to get his message across, but would anyone really have bought into the idea (if Trump floated it) that Bernie Sanders is a “liar” and a “bigot,” or that he has “tremendous hate in [his] heart”?

In other words, Trump’s attacks on Bernie would’ve come from an entirely different playbook from the ones he’s using on Hillary, and our imagination can only get us so far in picturing just how that might’ve panned out.  In all likelihood, as a 25-year far-left member of Congress, Sanders would’ve been painted as a feckless insider and/or an extremist loony toon—a line of attack that would surely be more effective from a messenger who is not, himself, a raging, unprincipled nut job.

In short:  If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that Trump would’ve found a way to disqualify himself regardless of his Democratic opponent.  He can’t help it:  He is just too good at being bad.

But what if we removed Trump from the equation altogether?  What if Republican primary voters hadn’t gone totally insane last spring and, instead, nominated a comparatively normal (i.e. electable) candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush?

In other words, what if this election made any sense at all?

For the answer to that, we would do well to consult history, beginning with this rather remarkable piece of data:  Since 1945, 11 different men have been elected commander-in-chief, and of those 11, only one was picked to succeed a member of his own political party.  Except for 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush took over for Republican Ronald Reagan, every presidential transition since the end of World War II that was not triggered by the president’s death or resignation involved a switch from a Democrat to a Republican, or vice versa.

If there is a central fact about the American electorate, it’s the desire to throw the bums out as soon as their natural term is up.  Although we have lately made a habit of re-electing the incumbent—itself something of a historical anomaly—we have shown an innate aversion to having a single party control the executive branch for more than eight years at a time—an inclination that explains why virtually every successful candidate in modern history has run on a platform of “change.”

Which is all to say that a Republican should’ve been elected president in 2016—or, barring that, that the race should’ve at least been quite close.  With 26 days until the polls close (thanks to early voting, many have already opened), it appears that neither of those things will happen, and the explanation for this really can be boiled down to two words:  Donald Trump.

In a Trump-less universe, could Rubio or Bush—or John Kasich or Chris Christie—have defeated Clinton?  Sure, why not?  All the anti-establishment momentum would’ve been in his favor, Clinton’s own shortcomings would’ve remained glaringly evident to all, and—most obviously—none of those other candidates (except perhaps Christie) would’ve been so completely crushed by the weight of his own ego.

As we learned in 2008, Hillary Clinton is hardly an infallible candidate.  For all her knowledge and experience, she can always be relied upon to get in her own proverbial way by being needlessly secretive, paranoid and/or outright dishonest.  It was her unbelievable good fortune to be pitted against the most cartoonishly unqualified opponent on planet Earth, and the fact that this election wasn’t over months ago is a testament to how much trouble she might’ve found herself in against a Republican foe who actually took this job seriously and wasn’t busy fighting off multiple accusations of sexual assault.

So if we are to write an alternate history of the 2016 campaign—or, as Jeff Greenfield would have it, the non-alternate history—we would require either a version of Donald Trump that was everything the current version is not, or a Republican electorate with the basic common sense not to tether itself to an unelectable thug.

Like I said:  Fantasy.

28 Days Later

Amidst all the sludge and dreck of the 2016 presidential campaign, over the weekend I was presented with a small but extremely welcome silver lining:  It will all be over much sooner than I thought.

To be precise, where I live in Massachusetts, it will be over on October 24.  In roughly a dozen other states it’s over already, and in any case, fully two-thirds of the country will be done with this wretched election sometime prior to November 8.

I’m referring here to so-called “early voting,” whereby you can essentially stop by your local precinct and cast your ballot whenever you damn well please, without or without a concrete reason.  As with absentee voting, the idea is that Americans lead busy, distracted lives and shouldn’t need to compromise their packed schedules in order to participate in the most important civic duty on planet Earth.  In short:  If voting is really as important as we claim, why limit it to a single calendar day?

More to the point—and in this of all years—voting early (if not often) carries the irresistible added benefit of hurling the memory of this election into oblivion as soon as humanly possible.

Yes, yes:  I understand the 2016 campaign will not literally end—and the winner will not officially be declared—until after the last vote is deposited on Election Day itself.  But I have followed the Clinton-Trump fracas day in and day out since (or, rather, before) the very beginning, and I am as convinced as I can be that the physical act of marking a ballot—no matter how prematurely—will produce such a profound catharsis for the person casting it that he or she will immediately tune out any and all further nonsense that occurs between that moment and the final results late on November 8.

And why is that, boys and girls?  Because over the last few days, this campaign has ceased being amusing and simply become sad.  Even for me—with my high tolerance for political tomfoolery and perverted sense of what constitutes entertainment—the sheer unpleasantness of recent events between our two major candidates has engendered real doubts as to whether this contest will endure for another four weeks without the entire electorate joining hands and leaping into the Grand Canyon.

Above all, of course, I’m thinking of Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis, where Clinton and Trump—but mostly just Trump—abandoned whatever semblance of high-mindedness they had left and proceeded to tear each other to shreds over the most tawdry subject matter that has ever made its way into a presidential forum.  Triggered by the recently-leaked audio tape in which Trump boasts of his proclivity for sexual assault (yup, that really happened), the candidates spent the first half-hour of their time arguing, more or less, about whether Hillary being married to a sexual predator is better or worse than Trump being a sexual predator himself.

On this question, we are once again compelled to accept that two seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time:  First, that Hillary’s role in smearing her husband’s alleged victims is among the most unattractive components of her career in public life; and second, that Trump’s own behavior toward women over the last several decades is infinitely worse, infinitely creepier and infinitely more disqualifying for someone seeking the highest office in the land.

For the zillionth time:  They’re both bad, but one of them is a whole lot worse, and we have a moral obligation to differentiate between different degrees of awfulness.  If our response to two imperfect options is to throw up our hands and say, “We’re doomed either way,” then our nihilism will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  In the end, you get the country you deserve.

And boy did we deserve that debate.  It was arguably the most depressing 90 minutes of this entire campaign, and every moment carried a subtext of chickens coming home to roost for everyone involved—the candidates, the media and the 65 million folks despondently watching at home.

Indeed, in an odd way, the debate served as a near-perfect encapsulation of exactly what Americans’ choices over the last 15 months have wrought, for it allowed us to see our candidates for exactly who they are:  A pair of shifty, desperate, unscrupulous cynics, one of whom at least has the decency to know how government works and to truly grasp all the responsibilities that the American presidency entails.

Entering Sunday’s match in the guise of a human Molotov cocktail, Trump succeeded in wounding Clinton every now and again—say, by underlining her highly-checkered record on Iraq and Syria, or by repeating Bernie Sanders’s classic tropes about her shady dealings with Wall Street—all the while confirming every worst impression we’ve ever had about him.  (In the interest of time, we will refrain from listing them here.)

It was a moment of truth for us all, and a suggestion—even more than Friday’s disgusting tape—that this election has essentially played itself out.  At this moment, we have nothing left to learn about either of these political standard-bearers except for supporting details about everything that we already knew.  All the true surprises have come and gone, and the next 28 days will be nothing more than variations on the same tired themes.

This is not to say that we should withdraw from this ongoing major news event altogether, or that we should take our eye off the dwindling (but still potent) number of idiots who have yet to make up their mind.

And yet—if the most recent polling is to be believed—yeah, actually, we sorta can.  Barring the most dramatic plot twist in modern political history, this election is fundamentally over and the only remaining tension concerns the color of Trump’s face when he discovers, once and for all, that he’s a big, fat, racist loser.

Meanwhile—as we wait for that priceless image to congeal—we have the enormous consolation of early voting to keep us sane.  Here in Massachusetts, I will be washing my hands of this ridiculousness the moment the polls open on October 24, and I invite every eligible early voter to join me in that happy civic expedition.

Pleading the 22nd

Let’s be honest:  Deep down, we all knew this election would eventually just be about sex.  And now that we’ve finally reached that point, the only question is why it took so damned long.

There certainly wasn’t any way around it.  In a race between a serial adulterer and the wife of an accused rapist, it was foolhardy to think we’d make it all the way to November without mentioning either one, especially when the first of those candidates has absolutely no filter between his brain and his mouth.

Toward the end of last Monday’s debate, Donald Trump triumphantly declared, “I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it.  I just can’t do it.  It’s inappropriate.  It’s not nice.’”

And then, on Friday, he did it.  That is, he accused Hillary Clinton of “enabling” her husband to abuse various women while he was president and for “attacking” the reputations of those women after the fact.  Media and the internet being what they are, Trump’s charges were immediately turned right around vis-à-vis his own history of sleeping with women who are not his wife and for generally being a pervy little creep his entire adult life.  To this obvious point, Trump responded the only way he knows how:  By making himself the exception to his own rule, saying, “I don’t talk about it.”

To recap, then:  According to the Donald, cheating on your spouse is politically irrelevant, but being that same spouse disqualifies you from being president.  And the mystery of Trump’s weak support among women continues.

Not to change the subject on you, but this seems like an opportune moment to rethink the 22nd Amendment, which prohibits any president from serving more than two terms.  Passed in 1947 by a Republican Congress annoyed with Franklin Roosevelt’s precedent-breaking four electoral victories, the amendment has scrambled history in ways far more consequential than we typically appreciate—more often than not, I suspect, for the worse.

Since the 22nd Amendment went into effect in 1951, five U.S. presidents have won (and served) two full terms in office, only to be denied a chance at a third.  Of those five, only George W. Bush entered his final year with an approval rating well below 50 percent, meaning that the remaining four—Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and Obama—had every reason to run again, if they so chose.  Considering how beloved that quartet of leaders were in their respective times—and how much each of them seemed to relish the gig while it lasted—who’s to say that at least one of them wouldn’t have taken his chances with the electorate in pursuit of Term Number Three?

Think of it:  Eisenhower vs. Kennedy in 1960.  Reagan vs. Dukakis in 1988.  Clinton vs. George W. Bush in 2000.  Obama vs. Trump in 2016.

That last matchup is almost too delicious to pass up, and one can’t help but wonder how different this year would’ve been if Democrats had gotten what they truly wanted:  Another four years of Barack Obama.  For all that Obama has done to annoy his liberal base over the last eight years—particularly on foreign policy, civil liberties and Wall Street—the American left is nonetheless in general agreement that Obama’s presidency has been a net-plus for humanity—not least in comparison to his immediate predecessor—and were he eligible to run for a third term, not even Hillary Clinton would stand in his way.

More to the point:  If the Democrats re-nominated Obama and the Republicans still nominated Trump, how could Obama possibly lose?

We know how savagely Obama can cut Trump down to size—and how much he thrills in doing so.  We know what a happy-go-lucky campaigner he is and how dazzlingly he can command a crowd.  On policy, he and Hillary are sufficiently interchangeable that their primary fight in 2008 essentially boiled down to character.  And speaking of character….well, regardless of whether the allegations about Clinton’s secrecy and paranoia are warranted, Obama has faced no such charges in any way, shape or form.  He may be controversial on policy, but on personal morality he is beyond reproach.

This doesn’t mean that Hillary can’t still pull this thing out, or that she wouldn’t make a perfectly decent commander-in-chief.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that an Obama-Trump race wouldn’t feature a thousand and one glittering distractions, yielding a much more competitive race than anyone could’ve thought possible.

All the same, there’s no way around the fact that Hillary’s proverbial “baggage” is the only thing preventing the 2016 election from being something close to a cakewalk.  Her penchant for concealing the truth has made Trump’s own dishonestly slightly more palatable, while her de facto tolerance for her husband’s philandering has—in the minds of our dumb electorate—all but neutralized the flagrant and appalling misogyny of her cynical, vacuous opponent.

It would be nice if a greater number of Americans could distinguish unscrupulousness from outright villainy, or could appreciate the difference between trashing your husband’s mistresses and trashing every woman you’ve ever met.

Then again, it would also be nice to live in a country that overwhelmingly recognized Donald Trump as the greedy, selfish, emotionally stunted man-child that he is, and thus never nominated him for president in the first place.

But apparently that country is unavailable this year, so instead we have to pretend that all sexual and ethical peccadilloes are created equal and that it makes total effing sense that the party of “family values” and “Christian conservatives” would ally with—and defend—a twice-divorced beauty pageant guru who cusses like a sailor and refers to the communion wafer as “my little cracker.”

As a non-Republican, I of course find this hilarious, just as I assume every true blue conservative finds it repulsive.  For all that is wrong with the Democratic Party as a political organization, it nonetheless always manages to nominate for president an intelligent, clever, empathetic, even-tempered public servant; never in my lifetime has it succumbed to someone like Donald Trump—a fact that will have to serve as silver lining for the dumb rule that prevents any party from simply nominating the same guy over and over again until we’re actually sick of him.